Using Duverger’s assertion that “first-past-the-post electoral systems will produce two major parties, eliminating smaller parties” (Orvis & Drogus, 2015: 705) as the premise for this response; alongside an examination of an examination of Hefferman’s (2003) claim about Britain’s two-party power holding in practice, this essay will assess the impact that minor parties have on the dynamics of power play in British politics. The first part of the essay will use the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and their subsequent alliance with the Liberal Party as an empirical case study. With a widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbent Conservative government and an official opposition in disarray, it will look at how the SDP/Liberal Alliance gained support in its early inception and its subsequent evolution and influence. This example of reshaping British politics is particularly pertinent to the Labour party and its policy once Tony Blair became the party leader in July 1994. There will also be an empirical examination of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and how they have reshaped the contemporary policy of both the Conservative Party and Labour Party, particularly with the commitment to leaving the European Union.
Whilst minor parties can and do influence direction British politics and electoral practice; they normally campaign on a single issue and once some of their stated ideology has influenced government policy, they normally lose their voter power base. In May 2017, La République En Marche, led by Emmanuel Macron, took control of the Assemblée Nationale in France. La République En Marche as a party was only founded in April 2016. This essay will argue that due to the penchant that the British electorate have for a traditional and structured party political system, small parties have and will influence their policy making but Duverger’s Law will continue to prevail. Thus, it will only be governments formed by the Conservative or Labour party that will be dominant in Parliament. Evidence from the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) will be presented to show that what happened in France in 2017 will not be replicated in the United Kingdom (UK) under the present pluralist electoral system.
Hefferman states that “while the two party system has clearly expanded to embrace additional parties, only the two major parties, Labour and Conservative, can form a single party government under Britain’s electoral system. That is why, at the same time as it can no longer be described as a classic two party system” (Hefferman, 2003)
Complying with Heffereman’s theory was the pact between the Labour and the Liberal Party (colloquially known as the Lib/Lab pact) that James Callaghan’s Labour government agreed to in 1977. The Liberal Democrat’s also coalesced with the Conservatives in 2010, enabling David Cameron to become Prime Minister, however, the Liberal’s or the Liberal Democrats have not come close to forming a government since David Lloyd George left office in 1922, to be succeeded by Andrew Bonar Law. In March 1981 and with the UK’s political landscape undergoing its most dramatic change since 1945, the SDP was formed by four senior Gaitskellite Labour figures, who with the election of Michael Foot as Labour leader, were disillusioned with the ideological direction the party was taking. In a huge wave of publicity, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Dr David Owen and Bill Rodgers were soon joined by twenty eight other Labour MPs. For a time, the SDP thrived, performing well in by-elections and opinion polls” (Leach, 2015: 120) and by June 1981, joined the Liberal party in an electoral alliance that would last until 1988. The newly created SDP/Liberal alliance “rose rapidly in the polls, and for a time in late 1981 and early 1982, it was clearly leading the old major parties” (Denver & Garnett, 2014: 73). Feeling that they had optimised the cleavage of moderate Labour voters and one nation Conservatives, optimism was abundant as Liberal leader, David Steel told delegates at the 1981 Liberal conference in Llandudno to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” (Cole & Deighan, 2012: 141).
For the 1983 General Election, Labour were electorally at their weakest position since 1945, fighting an election with a manifesto that Shadow Environment Secretary, Gerald Kaufman, called the “longest suicide note in history” (Bull, Landtsheer & Feldman, 2000: 3). Despite this mayhem within the Labour party, in parliamentary terms, the SDP/Liberal Alliance failed to capitalise on the turbulence within the main opposition, giving credence to Duverger’s and Heffereman’s theory. However, the voting figures indicated that “Labour polled 27.6 percent (8,456,934) of the vote, while the SDP/Liberal Alliance polled 25.4 percent (7,780,949) of the vote (Butler & Waller, 1983: pp 253-258). Whilst there was only a difference of 675,985 votes in favour of Labour over the SDP/Liberal Alliance nationally, the proportion of seats won by both parties was completely askew to the overall voting statistics for both parties. Labour won 209 to the 23 won by SDP/Liberal Alliance. The SDP/Liberal Alliance wanted to “breach the two party duopoly, then destroy it through proportional representation, and then inaugurate a new era in British politics” (Särlvik & Crewe, 1983: 339). With the combined amount of votes won by the SDP/Liberal Alliance in proportion to the Parliamentary seats gained compared to Labour, it is understandable that they were strongly in favour of the Proportional Representation (PR) model of parliamentary representation. The outcome of the 1983 General Election upheld Duverger’s theory that while “proportional representation tends to lead to the formation of many independent parties. The two party majority system to the formation of may parties that are allied with each other, the plurality rule tends to produce a two party system” (Duverger, 2000: 186). If PR was the parliamentary model, as opposed to the plurality one, the SDP/Liberal Alliance would have had many more than the 23 seats they won in 1983 and Labour far less than the 209 that they held.
The 1987 General Election provided an even more disappointing outcome for the SDP/Liberal Alliance, as they won 22 seats and accrued 7,341,651 votes. This was a loss of 1,115,283 votes since 1983 and “after that election the two party alliance split” (Carman et al, 2015: 50), eventually merging to form the Social and Liberal Democrats in March 1988.
With 5,999,606 votes and 20 seats won in the 1992 General Election, the Liberal Democrats electoral performance fell further in comparison to the SDP/Liberal Alliance five years prior. By 1997 the Liberal Democrat vote count declined even further, to 5,242,947, however with 46 seats won, the party gained 26 seats on their 1992 performance. Allowing for this statistical anomaly, the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, had been engaged in private negotiations with Labour Leader, Tony Blair, over how the two parties could co-operate in a common cause (Foley, 2002: 121). In some ways, party policy of Labour and Liberal Democrats interweaved between 1992 and 1997 to such a degree that “since the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994, the Liberal Democrats increasingly saw themselves as the most left wing of the mainstream parties” (King, 2011: 102). This is a classic example of how the proposed policies had influenced the newly pragmatically minded Labour leadership. Labour and Liberal Democrats demonstrated to voters that they were broadly connected. This led to voters of the respective parties extensively co-operating in 1997 to oust the Conservatives from office (Dunleavy, 2005: 515). Blair’s ideology was far more palatable to the Liberal Democrats that that of Michael Foot. With Foot’s anti EEC (forerunner of the EU) position being a significant factor in the formation of the SDP and with Blair being pro EU, it is unlikely that the SDP would have split from a Blair led Labour party, like they did when Foot was the leader. Blair’s success in the restructuring of Clause Four of the Labour party’s constitution, something that Hugh Gaitskell failed to do in 1959 (Cole & Deighan, 2012: 32) would also have been agreeable to the Gaitskellites that left Labour to form the SDP.
Hennessy asserts that “Blair is the best Liberal Prime Minister has had since Lloyd George, but he does not lead the Liberal Party. Blair is a younger version of Roy Jenkins and all of Roy’s agenda items are Liberal ones” (Hennessy, 2002: pp 20-23). While it could be argued that Hugh Gaitskell’s moderate ideology had an influence on Blair, particularly on Clause Four, the stronger influence on Blair was Roy Jenkins, a man who Blair chose as his intellectual mentor (Bartle & King, 2005: 198). With Jenkins influence on Blair stronger than almost any of his predecessor’s and with Blair’s polling success at three consecutive general elections, it could be argued that in this instance minor parties helped reshape politics. However, the extent of Labour’s victory in 1997, 418 seats won when the threshold required was 326, this meant that there was no need for Labour to coalesce at all with the Liberal Democrats. Considering Blair’s consultations with Ashdown as well as Roy Jenkins profound influence on Blair, this is an example of minority parties reshaping British politics. However, Duverger’s Law came into play and the minor party had no influence once the election was won. The SDP may never have come close to winning any elections, but there is little doubt that over the long run, they influenced Labour party policy and indeed the rebranding of the Labour Party to ‘New Labour’ and thus eventually, government policy.
Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party’s position on EEC/EU came into harmony with the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, as the previously Eurosceptic Labour leader had a Damascene conversion to the principle of the UK’s membership of the European Union (Leconte, 2010: 106). Thus, by 1993 there was no mainstream political party within the UK with a Eurosceptic ideology. Nature abhors a vacuum and this led to the formation of UKIP in 1993. “The original plan for UKIP had been to launch a pressure group that would influence other parties, not to build a disciplined fighting force that could take seats off the main parties” (Goodwin & Milazzo, 2015: 106).
Whilst UKIP may have begun as a fringe party with a single identifiable policy, by 1999 they had won three seats in the European Parliament. By the 2005 General election, they had become “a formal political party, rendering anti-establishment and working class voters a peaceful democratic means of expressing their frustration with the direction of British society” (Gest, 2016: 189). In tandem with UKIP was the British National Party (BNP), who like UKIP were also attracting the cleavage of the “attracted alienated, young, white working class voters” (Jones, 2016: 127). However, whilst both the BNP and UKIP had relatively successful campaigns in the European elections in 2009, their successes were the result of a protest vote courtesy of disillusioned Labour and Conservative voters. Less than a year later in the 2010 General Election, the BNP won no parliamentary seats and received a total of 564,331 votes. However, whilst the BNP lost momentum after 2009, UKIP’s agenda, “urging voters to use May 22nd 2014 as the EU referendum the other parties have denied you and vote UKIP to leave the EU” (Vasilopoulou, 2017: 66) resonated and in the 2014 European elections, they became the largest British party within the EU Parliament. As well as their stance on Britain’s membership of the EU, UKIP were also strongly in favour of reduced immigration to the UK. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage said “immigration was the number one issue for the electorate in all the opinion polls (Mason, 2015: 4th paragraph)
Ford and Goodwin indicate that “the unwritten law that angry insurgents rarely prosper in UK politics has been directly challenged. Since 2011, the UKIP’s revolt gathered serious momentum and was no longer confined to European elections” (Ford & Goodwin, 2014: 3). Recognising the popularity of UKIP’s rhetoric on immigration and Euroscepticism, David Cameron “introduced a pledge to reduce net migration In January 2010” (Boswell, 2018: 19) and for the 2015 General election campaign, promised an in/out referendum on EU membership should the Conservatives be returned to government. Under the leadership of Ed Milliband, the Labour Party also pledged a control on immigration in the 2015 campaign (Gaffney, 2017: 164). With both the Conservatives and Labour pledging controls on immigration, this was a clear sign of a minor party reshaping British politics by influencing the manifesto policy of the two main parties. This policy that would not have been introduced without the popular obvious support it had gained over the course of the minor party’s growth.
The CEO of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) said in the wake of the 2015 General Election that “Millions of voters are angry with a system that marginalises their views. Nearly half a million people signed petitions calling for electoral reform in the fortnight after the election” (Ghose, 2015: 1). Whilst there is little doubt that a significant amount of the demographic of traditional Conservative and Labour voters are disillusioned with their respective parties, there appears to be little appetite to change the voting system. As part of the deal which saw the Liberal Democrats coalesce with the Conservatives in May 2010, the Conservatives agreed to a Liberal Democrat demand for there to be a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which took place exactly a year after the coalition took office. With a turnout of 42.0%, the opposition to AV prevailed, winning 67.9% of those votes cast (McGuinness, 2011: 1). With a total of 6,152,607 votes cast in favour of AV in 2011 (McGuinness, 2011: 4), Ghose was right to say millions of voters wanted a reform in the voting system. However, whilst six million people voted in favour of AV, the low turnout as well as the emphasis of victory in favour of keeping the voting system in the UK as it was, means that plurality the voting system in the UK is highly unlikely to change within the foreseeable future.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats were in favour of PR, or its successor, the AV, it is perhaps ironic that the plurality voting system significantly benefited them in the 2015 General Election at the expense of UKIP. Overall, the Liberal Democrats held eight seats with a total vote count of 2,415,888, whilst UKIP won one seat with a total vote count of 3,881,129. With UKIP winning 1,465,241 more votes than the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 General Election, yet the Liberal Democrats winning eight parliamentary seats to UKIP’s one, it is obvious that UKIP would have returned more MP’s than the Liberal Democrats under a PR or AV voting system. In this instance, it is fair to argue that not only does plurality voting benefit the traditional duopoly of parties sharing power over a prolonged period, it also benefits the long standing third party as well.
In summary, this essay has shown that both the SDP/Liberal Alliance (1983) and UKIP (2015) have been the victims of the plurality voting system which disproportionately favours the UK’s main parties. While they may have not have got their proportion of parliamentary representation, both parties have certainly helped to reshape British political discourse since their respective formations. “New Labour under Tony Blair was, to all intents and purposes, the party Roy Jenkins wanted to create” (Assinder, 2003: 17th paragraph). The affect that Roy Jenkins, the original SDP leader, had on Tony Blair and his unprecedented electoral success is thus testament to the eventual impact that the SDP as a minor party had on reshaping British politics.
Whilst the SDP had a profound influence on the British Prime Minister between 1997/2007, UKIP have had and continue to enjoy an influence on the shaping of British politics. With the EU referendum of 2016, the Prime Minister allowed a vote that he would not have assigned without the influence of UKIP, the result of which would saw him announcing his resignation post haste once a suitable replacement had been found. With UKIP only receiving 594,068 votes in the 2017 General Election, a loss of 3,287,061 votes in two years and less than a year after satisfying their primary raison d’etre in the 2016 EU referendum, there is little doubt that their ideology survives in Westminster, even if their vote has declined dramatically. Even though the leaders of the two main pluralist parties were ostensibly against Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign, both are committed to honouring the result and this is attestation to UKIP’s influence on shaping British political discourse.
However, whilst both the SDP and UKIP have proved that minor parties can reshape British politics, the pluralist electoral system means that they and other minor political parties will never take power in the UK. The most popular policies of minor parties become adopted by the duopoly of the main political parties. The elections of 1983 and 2015 proved that the pluralist electoral system in the UK means that parliamentary seats are allocated predominantly between the two main parties, without any consideration for the proportion of votes cast for the respective parties contending the election. The elections of 1987 and 2017 demonstrated that once the minor parties had enjoyed a modicum of success or satisfied a main policy that they had originally formed over, they are ruthlessly forgotten about by voters. With the emphatic victory of the pluralist voting system over the AV system (as proposed by the Liberal Democrats) in the 2011 referendum, this is the way the voting system will stay in the UK for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, as the SDP and UKIP have proved, by either influencing an ambitious and pragmatic future leader of a main party or capturing the public’s imagination to a particular policy, minor parties can reshape British politics, they may occasionally hold the balance of power, but they never will be in power.
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