Traditionally, Britain has operated under a two-party system whereby two fairly equally matched parties compete for power at elections leaving others with little realistic chance of breaking their duopoly. Since 1924, the two major parties in the UK have been the Conservatives and Labour. Whilst the UK has never witnessed a single-party system as seen in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it has certainly seen a change away from being dominated by just two parties. How many parties exist now?
One system that is argued for by political thinker Paul Fairclough is the regional party system. A system whereby many parties compete for power across the nation with party performance varying in different regions. The arguments for a RPS can be seen by looking at the differences in different regions. Firstly, Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect 18 different MPs, crucially however is the fact that these 18 are almost always either Sinn Fein or the DUP – parties that outside of Northern Ireland gain no seats. Secondly, evidence can also be seen with UKIP who have had success in the European parliament winning 24 seats in the 2014 election beating both Labour and the Conservatives – 20 and 19 respectively – whilst not maintaining that same results in the general election. Thirdly, regional differences are evident with Wales being dominated by Labour and Plaid Cymru compared to the South West of England being controlled by the Conservatives. There is also evidence in the fact that at the 2017 election, the Electoral Commission listed over 500 parties registered to contest including the Yorkshire Party and the Pirate Party, with a huge 28 of those parties securing over 1000 votes. And at the 2010 election, the 2 main parties couldn’t form a majority so a coalition between Cameron’s Conservatives and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats was formed. Can we really argue that just 2 parties control all power?
However, the two-party system can still be seen to exist for many reasons. Firstly, the 2017 General showed a display of dominance by the big two that hadn’t been seen since 1979 with just four parties gaining more than 10 seats. Also, the two main parties, Conservative and Labour won 82.5% of all votes which was an improvement from the 67.2% gained in the 2015 election. Secondly, the mere existence of the Conservative Liberal-Democrat coalition between 2010 and 2015 does little to challenge the two-party system as any coalition partner will inevitably be the minor partner. Thirdly, minor parties such as nationalist or single issue parties soon fall from grace e.g. UKIP who were the third-largest party in 2015 by number of votes, saw their share of the vote reduced from 12.6% to 1.8% and lost their only seat in 2017. The same was seen with the BNP, who had been reduced to a single local councillor and just 500 members by 2016. Finally, whilst parties may register on the Electoral Commission, they do not register on the ‘Electoral Geiger Counter’ and fail to convert votes to seats e.g. the Yorkshire Party in 2017 won 21,000 votes but 0 seats.
On the other hand, there is an argument that Britain has neither a regional party system nor a two-party system but instead a dominant-party system. This system involves a number of parties existing but only one holding government as has been the case in Japan with the Liberal Democratic Party in power nearly every election since 1955. Political scientist Jean Blondel argues this can be seen with 2 parties taking long continuous terms between 1979 and 2010: first the Conservatives and then Labour. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won 52.5% of votes with a majority of 19.8% giving her a dominant party. Then in the 1983 general election the Conservatives won a majority of 144 and had almost twice as many seats as Labour. Similarly in 1997, Labour had 2.5 times as many seats as the Conservatives. However, the vote share was 43% to 30% and the seat majority was largely due to tactical voting by Labour and Liberal Democrat voters to keep out the Tories. Therefore, it can be seen that it was only temporarily moving towards a dominant party system rather than being permanent. Equally the 2017, ‘confidence and supply’ deal between the Conservatives and the DUP proves that a dominant party system is certainly no longer in play in the UK.
Alternatively, it is possible to say that Britain now has a four party system with Labour and the Conservatives being split into two of their own. Labour is divided into a moderate Social Democratic Party and a more radical left-wing socialist Corbynite Party. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are an uneasy coalition of centrist Whigs and right-wing Tories. The Conservatives’ Whigs and Labour’s Social Democrats both have a more central middle ground e.g. Blair and Iain Duncan Smith who appear to have far more in common with each other than with either Jeremy Corbyn or Margaret Thatcher. For the Conservatives, the split is visible as Brexit negotiations currently take place with Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond pushing for a lenient Brexit whilst Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson is pushing for a hard Brexit. Whilst in the Labour party, the appointment of Tom Watson as deputy leader has caused some splits because he was once a strong anti-Corbyn campaigner. At the 2017, Labour conference in Brighton, 29 of the 30 senior speakers were strong Corbyn supporters which resulted in ‘Labour First’ – a moderate pressure group – complaining the centrists within the party had been silenced, including Sadiq Khan who didn’t get to speak despite holding a powerful position as the Mayor of London. Therefore, with splits emerging in the two dominant parties it is possible to argue that there is indeed a four party system.
Finally, the emergence in recent years of a catch-all party system has been shown with all parties aiming to attract people with diverse political viewpoints in the hope of greater success. This system contains a centre-left and a centre-right party. The entire system is generally centripetal with the two parties adjusting their policies to compete for ‘floating voters’ in the centre ground. Evidence for such a system can be seen with the failures of Labour in 1983 when they moved left, the failures of the Conservatives when they moved right in 1997-2005, the successes of Labour when they moved right and became more centrist in 1997-2010 and finally the success of Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010 when he made the party more centrist to change the party’s image. All of these changes show that parties in the middle generally do better. This is similar in the USA however both parties there moved to the right in the aftermath of the socio-political turmoil and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, and has yet to go back to the left. However, success of UKIP in the 2015 general election would dispel such a system and it cannot be denied that many extremist parties get votes which, thanks to FPTP, are simply not translated into seats. Therefore, we do have elements of catch-all party policy yet this doesn’t entirely define our system.
Ultimately, the UK has elements of both a regional party system and a two-party system. This is down to a mix of the disillusionment index and FPTP. Whilst people vote in a manner similar to a multiparty system with over 500 parties, the reality is that these votes are only transferred into seats in a manner representative of a two-party system. In order for the UK to truly be a regional party system the electoral system would need to be changed to proportional representation, until then, the UK will largely remain as it always has: a two-party system.