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Whatever happened to the two party system?

5689489675_9272fa186e_bThe British political system is based on two parties electing the Prime Minister, who has to command a majority in the House of Commons. The ruling assumption was that there will be only two parties, an alternating government party and an opposition. There has never been much call for proportional representation and a multi party system, and coalitions have been rare. The current Lib-Dem/Tory coalition is unusual: there have been very few coalitions and the first past the post voting system is popular. Yet looking at election results shows that since the 1870s, three parties have been the rule, sometimes four, and currently more than four parties in the House of Commons.

Trying to make sense of the situation for media purposes, the TV companies recently tried to arrange political debates in the election of 2015 on the basis of four leaders, the three main Westminster parties plus UKIP, which has made an electoral breakthrough this year. However other parties at Westminster objected and the Greens threatened legal action if they were excluded, as did Respect and the nationalist parties. While the result of media negotiations remain to be concluded, one thing is now clear. The UK no longer has a two party system, which creates an unstable future.

The electoral system has rarely produced a two party system after the mid Victorian period, with only the late 1930s through to the 1950s really showing signs of an effective two party system emerging – and then disappearing again. Though a formal coalition is rare, politics have not taken a binary form in the UK but there has normally been one major party that would decide the outcome of elections. For 2015 this is unlikely to be the case and the two major parties have a very uncertain future. Labour is threatened by the Scots Nats, who have wiped out the Tories north of the border, and UKIP threatens both the Tories and Labour in England.

The Victorian consensus breaks down

In the Victorian period, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote that “every child that is born alive, is either a Liberal or a Conservat-ive”. But almost as soon as they said this, the old two party system began to break down, with parties appearing to the left of the political spectrum. The Tories had split over free trade in 1846, but reunited under Disraeli. They would split again over protectionism again before the 1906 election, but only now are the Tories actually seeing a force to their right emerging able to win seats in UKIP. New parties have mainly been in the reformist left and centre, a pattern established in 1874 and allowing the Tories to win most elections until John Major’s leadership.

Tory dominance in elections started after the emergence of the Irish Home Rule Party at Westminster in 1874. This turned the system first into a three party system – the Irish nationalists remained at Westminster till Sinn Fein took them out in 1918 – and then a four party system after the Liberals split over Home Rule in 1886. The dissident Liberal Unionists voted with the Tories and after joining in coalitions in 1895 and 1900 merged to form the Conservative and Unionist Party. However the system remained a four party system before the First World War as Labour emerged, formed in 1900 and voting with the Liberals.

Labour but not the Irish joined the wartime coalition in 1915 – as they would join the Churchill coalition in 1940. Labour has only joined coalitions in wartime. The Irish nationalists leaving in 1918 meant that de facto the system was three party in the 1920. Though the Ulster Unionists remained after 1922 a separate party at Westminster they always voted with the Tory Party.WIth Unionists on the mainland merging into the Conservative Party, the system was three party in the 1920s with Tory, Liberal and Labour competing. However the collapse of the Liberals after 1929 led to a Liberal split three ways over the National government of 1931, though the Samuel and Simon Liberals joined the coalition nominally headed by ex Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, effectively destroying the Liberal presence in Westminster politics.

In reality the National government was a Tory government and from 1935 onward the Tory Party faced the Labour party in a de facto two party system. This lasted until a mini Liberal revival in the early 1960s, with the revived Liberals voting for Labour after the 1964 and 1974 elections. Labour split in the early 1980s to restore a brief four party system, the Social Democratic Party existing in alliance with the Liberals at the 1983 election, and merging with the Liberals to form the Lib Dem party afterwards.

The three party system led to the major parties appealing to the centre voter, and by the time Thatcher was ousted in 1990 John Major replaced her to win back centre votes alienated by her hard line right wing policies. He won the 1992 General Election on a moderate Thatcherite agenda. However he was dogged with his hard line Thatcherite Eurosceptic wing, which he referred to as the “Bastards”. This was the start what has now become UKIP. The sceptics remained inside the Tory party however, though UKIP began to win European seats.

Labour at Westminster won under Blair in 1997 with talk of a coalition government involving the Lib Dems, but the failure to involve the Lib Dems was the root cause of the Lib Dem move to the right and the coalition in 2010. The Lib Dems had no role in the post election politics of the elections won by New Labour, and when the chance to join the Tory led coalition of 2010 they took it. By then, the three party system, four if the Ulster Unionists are counted, had already begun to fragment with the rise of the national parties, notably in Scotland where the SNP took advantage of Labour’s shift to Thatcherism by offering a national social democratic agenda. The Greens and Respect have won seats at Westminster, but have nowhere near the electoral base of the other non governmental parties.

Neither Labour nor the Lib Dems offer the moderate reformism that both Labour and the Liberals (under the influence of Asquith and Lloyd George) had offered in most of the twentieth century. UKIP does not offer this either, being well to the right of the political spectrum, thus no major party represents the reformism in England that was the dominant consensus from 1945 to Margaret Thatcher. Politics has shifted to the right, while breaking into pieces.

The absence of any current similar to the New Deal Democrats in the USA or the welfare state consensus in Britain after the second World War is a common feature of both British and American politics. But unlike the USA, which remains firmly as a two party state, with right wing politics, Britain has long abandoned the two party system, despite First Past The Post being the election system designed to produce a two party system. The political agenda at Westminster remains right wing post Thatcherite politics despite Respect and the Greens, but with at least four major electoral players, as the TV companies have notice. However it is not only the British television companies which are nonplussed by the fragmentation of Westminster politics.

CC BY  Image credit: Photo by Martin Bamford at Flikr


  1. Mukkinese says:

    What happened to Labour?

    Now they are afraid of even pretending to represent ordinary workers against the vested interests of the establishment and appear to be some vague wishy-washy centrist party scared to speak up in case the media notices them…

  2. swatantra says:

    The Class War is over in case you hadn’t noticed. Its now a War between the Haves and Have Nots, and that is irrespective of ‘Class’

    1. James Martin says:

      Irrespective of class? Well put it this way, I can’t see many among the ruling class who I would remotely describe as ‘have nots’!

  3. Robert says:

    The worse bit is that three of those parties the main three are all to the right…

  4. Peter Rowlands says:

    I don’t agree with Trevor’s formulation.Since the late 19th century we have always had a system, determined by the first past the post electoral system, in which two parties have been dominant, the Conservatives throughout, and Labour replacing the Liberals as the second main party in the inter war period. However, the degree of dominance of the two main parties has varied and was only particularly strong in the period 1935 to 1974, since when nationalists and Liberals/Lib-Dems have been prominent, although that may have ended for the latter in favour of UKIP. The ability of either of the dominant parties to achieve a majority is now in question, and it is therefore quite likely that we will witness a further coalition next year , perhaps a Labour/SNP/Plaid one. Now that would be interesting.

  5. David Pavett says:

    The difference between Peter and Trevor may be at least partly linguistic. Where Peter ways “two parties have been dominant” Trevor says “Though a formal coalition is rare, politics have not taken a binary form in the UK”. That two parties are dominant allows for a significant presence of smaller parties and not taking a binary form allows for effective domination by two parties.

    But whatever the nuances between these positions surely we are all agreed that the domination of politics by the Labour and Conservative parties is now showing multiple signs of coming to an end. The Parties are shadows of their former selves. Membership has been falling for decades. Voter loyalty is disappearing and finally in their desperate efforts to hug the political “middle” it has become more and more difficult to see a fundamental difference between them. They are institutionally senile and only propped up now by an undemocratic voting system. It is quite possible that the many fissures of this system will come to the surface in 2015 and that the next general election will mark the beginning of the end of Tory-Labour domination of UK politics.

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