Historically Britain has been known for its highly dualistic style of politics which is exclusive, adversarial and competitive. The governing party is faced in hostile opposition by the challenging political party; even the layout of the House of Commons fits this notion. It is currently considered that the two main parties in Britain are the Conservative Party and the Labour Party after they supersceded the Liberals. However, the change in composition of the House of Commons over the past two decades has prompted a debate over whether this tradition of the two party system is still being upheld.
The Case Against the Two Party System:
The last 40 years has arguably seen a steady decrease in the existence of a two party system based on several arguments:
Decline in support for the two main parties: in 1951 nearly 97% of voters supprted either Labour or the Conservatives yet by 2001 this had dwindled to 72% – losing a quarter of the electorate to other parties. However, the effects of this shift have been limited as this support has been spread amongst many parties; although the Liberal Democrats benefited and were able to reinforce their position in parliament they still only received 18.3% of the vote in 2001 (1992 17.8%) and whilst small parties such as SNP trebled their vote it had little impact on the HC.
Liberal Democrats: Between 1945 and 1980s the Lib Dems were an insignificant minority party that were in no way a challenge for either the Conservatives or Labour, yet they now hold 52 seats in HC, a record number in the post war years (1992 20 MPs). Strategic positioning in Labour/Lib Dem relations – possible associated influence on policy – Ashdown was a very prominent figure and held many “secret” talks with Blair particularly over the issue of proportional representation. During early 1990s there was talk of a semi coalition in order to overthrow the Conservatives. However, now that Labour have such a huge majority the support of the Lib Dems is not needed – arguably not true power gained but tactical by Labour.
Class Dealignment: Traditionally the Labour Party have looked towards the working class for their votes whilst the Tories concentrated on the middle classes (1950 2/3 working class voted for Labour, 4/5 middle class supported the Conservatives). Recent years show a fall in the importance of the cleavages of class (elections of 1983, 1987 & 1992 – less than half of the elctorate voted with their “class” party), thus Labour and the Conservative can no longer rely on the “party faithful”. This has allowed other parties to increase electorate support through better campaigning methods.
Movements in attitudes, values and behaviour: Linked with class dealignment, to a certain extent political parties cannot guarantee votes (path dependency idea – less true in recent years). As party loyalties have been weakened, there is the possibility for the creation of a multi-party system in Britain eg. If people become more aware of the environment through campaign methods, the Green Party may increase its influence in HC, or the Lib Dems 10p tax increase may look more appealing if the electorate could see the benefits for the NHS and schools. The falling membership levels for the Labour Party and the Conservative Party (1950s 3million each plus additional 5million affiliated members-Labour, 1997 1million and decrease in their party activity) emphasise the increase in floating voters and the opportunity for smaller parties to gain seats.
Local Elections: Since 1979 voters have been prepared to support different parties at local elections from their choice in the general election. The main beneficiary of this has been the Lib Dems. However, this doesn’t really detract from the idea of the existence of two party system at national level as people are still supporting the Conservatives and Labour (wasted vote idea still applies to Lib Dems). But this does increase Lib Dems position and popularity in a more general sense and may go on to have an impact in general elections.
Dominant Party System: So far just seen the ways in which Britain has begun to deviate from the 2 party system in terms of increased power to the smaller parties. However, the fact that the Conservatives remained in government for 18 years with Labour as a very weak opposition party seems to indicate the existence of a dominant party system. Between 1945 and 1995 Conservatives had been in power for 2/3 of the time. Currently Labour have a huge majority in HC which looks unlikely to be defeated in the next election. – Still alternation in office ; only 10% difference in votes (2001), undermines true validity of this idea, merely Britain going through pollitical changes.
Proportional Representation: The idea of electoral reform has gained more support in recent years. If PR was to be adopted in Britain, this would undoubtedly change the face of British politics and the likely result would be the development of a multi-party system. The Liberal Democrats suffer under FPTP, receiving disproportionate amount of seats to their percentage of the vote, with 18.3% of the vote they could become a significant challenger to the Conservative Party.
The Case for the Existence of a Two Party System:
FPTP: This forms the main argument in the continued belief that the two party system still exists. This electoral system favours larger parties and discriminates against smaller ones. Only produces two party system, never be true multi-party system under FPTP. Support for smaller parties distributed across constituencies, so cannot compete on same level.
Political Centre: Conservatives and Labour have both adopted center ground policies – appeals to largest number of people. Natural opposition: center-right and center-left respectively (therefore divides electorate along socioeconomic principles – Lib Dems not viewed in this way)
Composition of HC: 1945 98% MPs Conservative or Labour; 2001 92% MPs – change in patterns of voting had little real impact in terms of political power, in HC two party system still appears to exist.
1915 Last Lib Dem Government – not currently in position to put up serious challenge for government under FPTP, but maybe things will change if support for the Conservatives continues to fall. However, this would not alter the nature of the party system in Britain as they would probably replace the Conservatives rather than become a strong third party.
Whilst Britain remains under FPTP it is unlikely that there will be a true and sustained move away from the historically two party system. However, with political ; constitutional change currently at the forefront of politics we could in the near future (but not likely for at least another 5-10 years) see the Lib Dems making a mark on cabinet. It is doubtful whether the smaller fringe parties would make it anything more than a three party system and in a democratic country such as Britain the dominant party system is not so much in existence but more a result of the changing trends; cracks are already beginning to appear in the popularity of the Labour Party.