The United Kingdom (the UK) has a multi-party system of governance, since it is made up of four countries namely, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England with different political set-ups. By 2004, the number of parties present in the UK parliament was already standing at nine (Peele, 2004). All these countries have their own political parties; however, the main political body, also referred to as the House of Commons, is dominated by the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party representatives, and the Conservatives. The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, rules the UK after forming a coalition government between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, while the Labour Party is in the opposition. There is growing importance of shifting to multi-party system in the UK to replace the conventional two-party system, because of a number of reasons. There has been change in the voting system that by default produces a multi-party system. Under multi-party democracy, electorates have more bargaining power with regard to their making choices that reflect their views. Moreover, like the case of current political dispensation, coalition government allows parties to consult on key decision making, in order to come up with resolution that would satisfy both parties (Powell, 2006). This essay seeks to evaluate the ideal that the UK political scene is slowly embracing the multi-party system.
The two-party politics in Britain is fading away from its dominance in the 1950s and 1960s eras. According to Lynch (2007), “Support for the two main parties, the Conservative and Labour, is in retreat, falling to 67% of the popular vote at the 2005 general election, the lowest figure since 1918” (p. 323). On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats won the highest number of seats as a third party in over seven decades, which together with other minor parties constituted a 10% of counted votes. The rising significance of the multi-party politics has been consistence for the last three decades, and this is a demonstration that the two-party system in the UK no longer thrives in the nationwide politics and electioneering process (Lynch, 2007). The only impediment to the rising popularity of multi-party system is the plurality of the electoral process that supports the two-party system. According to Blau, (2008) “Pluralitarian norms deal with two-party competition for power: one party should control legislative and cabinet power at any one time, and two parties should alternate over time” (p. 169). The system favours the Labour Party, and to some extent, the Conservatives from the advancing multi-party politics.
The multi-party politics in the UK operate at different levels of political dispensations with different geographical reach. Some parties have well-established electoral processes, legislative mechanism, and an executive body, which run the parties from local to international levels. In Northern Ireland, multi-party system finds its roots in the national politics, unlike in other regions where two-party politics still dominate national level. According to Lynch (2007), “Two-party predominance is most obvious in the executive branch, where only the Conservatives and Labour have held office since 1945” (p. 324). Superiority of the two-party politics is also significant in the House of Commons, in which the two parties, the Labour and the Conservative Party, benefit from plurality electoral system, and dominate representation. Electoral plurality kills third party politics; for instance, the Liberal Democrats among other minority parties are impeded from getting higher level of representation. However, in the House of Lords, non-partisan crossbenchers have a higher representation than their Conservative counterparts in a Chamber that does not have any majority party command.
Multi-party system finds its strength in local, regional, and European levels. Lynch (2007) observes that, “The UK Independent Party (UKIP) pushed the Liberal Democrats into third place at the 2004 European Parliamentary elections and, like the Greens, won seats on the Greater London Assembly that year” (p. 324). It would then follow that the major stumbling block to multi-party politics in the UK is the plurality electoral process. This is because at levels where such process is not in use, in a fair electoral mechanism, minority parties seem to dominate. The 2007 Scotland elections saw the creation of minority government after the Scottish National Party was tamed politically. In addition, the Wales governance created a coalition between the Labour and the Plaid Cymru parties. However, in spite of the system being in use in the UK, the wave of multi-party system shows disproportional relationship with the plurality norms. Hence, adoption of more reflective electoral process would fasten the growth of multi-party politics in the UK.
Declining Popularity of the Two-Party System in the UK
In the 1929 election, the Labour Party was popular in the UK politics, and as noted by Redvaldsen (2010), “Labour party’s perceived base was wider than expected” (p. 395). The Labour Party did not have much expectations of winning, because Conservatives had more MPs than the Labour Party, 396 and 163 respectively. This victory was viewed as a major and an exceptional one since the 1923 elections when the Labour Party won. According to Williams (1998), “the Conservative Party is still perceived as the party of the middle class and the Labour Party as that of the working class” (p. 51). In addition, the Liberal Democrats Party was established under economic manifesto, seeking to address unemployment rate in the UK. Recent challenges, like climatic change, give opportunity to form parties that would address new challenges. The Green Party in the UK was formed with addressing environmental issues as its main objective. It is hard to resist formation of such parties, because of the need to address challenges facing modern world. According to Carter (2006), 66% of Britons are concerned about pollution, and environmental conservation mechanisms, and that they have one of the largest green lobby groups in the global context with an estimated 5 million followers (Rootes, 2003).
The new global challenge of adopting effective environmental policies is reshaping the multi-party politics in the UK. There is a belief that the Green Party’s manifesto is built of achieving green goals. The Liberal Democrats tried to politicise environmental issues in political competition, and the party’s image was dented in European elections, in which the Green Party garnered more votes than the Liberal Democrats in all constituencies except one. “As the third party has traditionally attracted the bulk of the protest vote, especially in second-order elections, the Liberal Democrats seemed directly threatened by the Greens” (Carter, 2006, p. 761). The Labour Party faced opposition after the fuel blockade in the autumn 2000, in which surveys showed that the party support was declining. The New Labour Party is keen in taking environmental initiatives to appear relevant in the system. The Green Party has emerged as a significant player in the second-order elections, which is a new wave in the polity of the UK’s multi-party system. The increasing popularity of the Green Party, at a time when the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party’s ideologies are fading, is a clear indication of the irresistible wave of multi-party democracy in the UK.
Another way of measuring the declining popularity of two party politics in UK is the measure of effective party numbers, which mainstream political parties share same number of votes. According to Webb, (2000), “Their formula for counting the effective number of parties takes account of both the number of parties in the system and their relative strengths,” (p. 5). In such a scenario, the two parties have an effective number of 2.0. Lynch (2007) notes that, “In the UK general elections between 1945 and 1970, the effective number of electoral parties averaged 2.39, but rose to 3.18 for the period 1974–2005” (p. 325). For the period between 1974 and 2005, the average effective number stands at 2.23, despite the plurality electoral system. Notwithstanding this impediment, the mainstream political parties failed to garner a parliamentary majority in more than one occasion. The first instant is in the 1996-1979 period, in which the Labour Party formed the government without majority, and this prompted the party to enter into the Lib-Lab agreement. Secondly, the John Major’s Conservative administration lost its majority parliamentary seats in the period of 1996-1997. The UK today has a multiplicity of electoral processes, in which both majority and minority political parties have free interaction with the intent of forming winning strategies. Mannin (2010) notes, “the ideological and territorial representation of parties, and thus the potential of polarisation, has increased” (p. 140). It is therefore possible that the plurality of the electoral process will fragment in several political arenas than was expected some years ago.
The shifting trend towards popularity of multi-party system in favour of two-party system in the UK is a reality that stretches beyond political perception. The case of European politics illustrates that mainstream political parties, like the Conservatives and the Labour Party, are losing grounds at European, regional, and local levels. In addition, the nationwide political arena is slowly shifting towards a multi-party system, following the failure of the Labour Party and the Conservatives to garner adequate number of seats in the Parliament, and the House of Commons. Second-order elections are becoming important in the formation of governments with outright majorities, where the Liberal Democrats and the Green Parties are playing critical roles. Multi-party politics are giving the electorates more opportunities to have their social concerns addressed in the wake of new global challenges. It is, therefore, justified that the wave of multi-party democracy in the UK is irresistible, and that two-party system would die if the plurality electoral process is faced out.