“The era of two-party politics in the UK is over.” Do you agree? If you do, what is replacing it: multi-party politics or no-party politics?

In recent years the debate about party politics in the UK have been broadly discussed for several reasons, some argued that two-party politics in the UK is over and now it have been replaced by multi-party politics; in the other hand some argued that two party politics is not over and it may remain for the next years to come. This essay will discuss “The era of two-party politics in the UK is over.” Do you agree? If you do, what is replacing it: multi-party politics or no-party politics?

Political parties are now complex multilevel organizations, united by a common identity and, sometimes, shared objectives. ‘A party is not a community but a collection of communities, a union of small groups dispersed throughout the country and linked by co-ordinating institutions’ as Duverger described.[1] Now, the question for the twenty-first century is whether we are witnessing a crisis of parties or merely a change in their structure.

 Party politics in Britain date from the nineteenth century, and by 1900 systems of organization and electoral competition were well established. A dual system of Conservatives and Liberals was modified in the early twentieth century by the rise of the Labour party and a three-party system existed until about 1931 when the eclipse of the Liberals ushered in a new two-party system.[2] In addition, after 1945 the two parties, Conservative and Labour, totally dominated until the 1970s when the Liberals revived and, in Scotland and Wales, nationalist parties enjoyed a short-lived boom. By the 1980’s two-party politics appeared spent as the Liberals allied to a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and gained 25.9 per cent of the Great Britain vote in the 1983 election, only just behind Labour. [3] So is revealed by history and facts that even when two-party politics remains and they still are a pillar in UK politics they suffer “up and downs” and that basis makes many scholars to believe that the political system is changing into multi-party system. However it does not mean a loss of power by the main parties that rule Britain. Today most of British history over the last 200 years  has appeared to be a two-party duopoly Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives and more recently Labour and Conservatives. But still a two-party system that appears to sustain. And as a matter of fact most of the seats in the House of Commons (and sometimes nearly all of them) have belonged to the two major parties since 1945. It could be argued, however, that “Britain’s two-party system was in part a product of an electoral system which severely penalizes third parties, particularly those (like the Liberal Democrats) whose support is not concentrated in particular areas”. [4]

 In the other hand; it can be argued by the critics and the opposition that two-party politics in the UK is over because even when Britain is often presented as emblematic of the two-party pattern, its contemporary politics barely passes the two- party test. However third parties have gained ground; far more so, indeed than the United States for example.

As an historical illustration in 2005, the centre Liberal Democrats won 62 seats in a parliament of 646 members, the highest proportion for a third party in over 50 years. With six million votes, compared to 9.5  million for Labour and 8.8 million for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats can hardly be dismissed as also-rans. The Liberal Democrats have also progressed in local government and the new assemblies in Scotland and Wales.[5] For that reason Britain is today conceived as a two-and-a-half or even a multi-party system. As some people may agree, multi-party politics is already well established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is evident in General Elections and local elections, and more particularly in elections for new devolved assemblies involving proportional representation.[6] So in this aspect; UK is by the facts in recent years shown as a multi-system today and as a consequence duopolies politics appears to them to be over or in this case less strong. I disagree with this statement and the reason is: even when these multi parties seems to developed themselves lately as the facts illustrate; is not false to say that Labour and Conservative are and always have been in the political microscope; even when the names through history changed; the duopoly and the mutual need in main parties is a long-lasting relationship. Additionally until some point Britain has in the past often been portrayed as having a model two-party system. In reality, there have been periods when this was not the case, most notably in the interwar years and from the mid-1970s onwards. The years 1945-1970 saw a classic two-party confrontation. Each of the main parties won four elections and between them Labour and the Conservatives monopolized the votes cast and seats won in any election.

Now coming back to the question; the era two-party system in UK is not over yet, some of the reasons are: the requirements of the parliamentary system promote two-partyism. The nature of the House of Commons makes it necessary for elected members to decide whether they are on the government side or that of the Opposition. There is no in-between.[7] In a few words; ‘if you are not first, you re last’ Another fundamental reason for two-party dominance in Britain is the First Past the Post electoral system, under which whoever gets the most votes wins the elections. There are no prizes for coming a good second. Also, Britain has expanded a “two and a bit’ party system or a “two-party system and three-(or in Scotland and Wales, four) party politics”.[8]  And to a deeper level parties in Britain, as elsewhere, have experienced a significant decline in their active membership. Fewer than one in 40 voters is now a party member. It is questionable how far British parties can still be described as mass parties. In either case how can we talk about multi-systems when they are exposed as being in decline on the latest years?

 Party members are predominantly elderly, and in other respects unrepresentative of the wider population.[9] Therefore, the predominance of two-party systems give the impression to be “here to stay”. Moreover, in two party systems, only the two main parties have a meaningful chance of achieving political power. It has been argued that there are three main criteria of two party-systems: (1) although a number of ‘minor’ parties exist, only two parties enjoy sufficient electoral and legislative strength to have a realistic prospect of government power; (2) the largest party is able to rule alone, the other providing opposition; (3) power alternatives between these parties: both are ‘electable’, the opposition serving as a ‘government in the wings’.[10] Then to complement; the main parties are the most powerful and so long are those who maintain longer.

Recent argument about the nature of Britain’s party system represents a sharp contrast with the situation until 1970, when Britain was widely thought to host the classic example of a two-party model. Writing in 1962, Ivor Jennings suggested that the two-party system was a cornerstone of the British constitution.[11] To some extend Britain has traditionally been viewed as a two-party system, and some argued that still today – despite growing support for other parties at national election time, Britain will always be a two party system. And it can be argued that for the two main parties – The Conservative and Labour – have been, and still are, the only real contenders for power in British General Elections.  And for that basis even when is argued that two-party politics in the UK is over I do not agree because  two-party system in Britain have always been there, and I believe it will maintain that way for more several years. The two major parties compete to form single-party governments. Moreover, In a two party system like is today in UK, “two major parties of comparable size and expertise compete for electoral support, providing the framework for political competition”.[12] Nevertheless, two party system in Britain still uphold and govern; therefore is not over and that’s the reason that makes me disagree with the question. One is more progressive and one more conservative party. Although the Conservatives and Labour parties still largely dominate politics at Westminster and have monopolized control of the UK government since the Second World War, multi-party systems and coalition government are now a feature of devolved parliaments and assemblies and many local councils.

On top; United Kingdom has a large third party, the Liberal Democrats, and in Scotland and Wales nationalist parties are second only to Labour in size and impact. Since the 1970’s third parties have been of growing significance. “Whereas in 1945, third and minor parties combined managed to win only 12.4 per cent of the votes, in February 1974 the figure has reached 25 per cent, a performance bettered in 1997 and 2001”.[13] However in reality third parties exert little influence in parliament. No parties other than Labour or Conservatives have won an election since 1918. So in this scenario is clear that the two major parties have been the most powerful in the sense of dominance among the citizens.

 At a deep level there are individuals say that Britain is actually a one party system, and that the majority party in parliament holds all the power as an elected dictatorship through manufactured majorities. In addition, British party politics entered a new phase in the 1980s with the establishment and consolidation of three major national parties. Two-party system, but very significant third-party representation: four parties in Scotland and Wales.

 In opposition, evidence suggests that parties are becoming far less important not only to the electorate but to Parliament. In reality, at the same time as the party system continues to move away from bi-partisan structure, the two major parties still retain the vast majority of control. In the other hand; some scholar argued that Britain has developed a “two and a bit” party system or a ‘two-party system and three-(or in Scotland and Wales, four-) party politics’. Parties are centralized and highly disciplined, enabling the governing party to bed parliament to its will. So even when its clear the devolution between all the members in UK Labour and Conservative are the main parties that holds most of the population. Therefore, is undeniable the existence and remain for several years of two-party systems.

The expectative about party politics in Britain today seem more fluid and unpredictable. Some argued that today’s new parties are now attracting publicity and more support. Even the substantial Liberal democrats advance may ultimately share the fate the past Liberals revivals. A two-party system of some sort may be re-established. However some scholars argued that nowadays in Britain multi-party classification government is the current reality. And to some extend although smaller parties have made gains largely at the expense of the big two, Labour and Conservative, the prospects for a broader party realignment in British politics remain unclear. Because the first-past-the-post electoral system remains a significant obstacle to a major breakthrough by smaller parties at Westminster.[14] However, it is also possible that other minority parties, such as the BNP, might gain a stronger role in a more fragmented party system. But in either case is not believed that the may get at the same level at main parties. Still the question of is still a two-party system in Britain have been widely debated and discussed, since it was propounded by Finer[15] based on the reality that parliament was still dominated by two parties. The thought was reinforced by the steady decline of the third party’s popular vote at each of the three elections since 1983 and Labour’s current recovery as a governing party.  Until now, still continue prevailing upon the other parties but also the dominant-party system arises; this thought became fashionable in the aftermath of the 1992 general election. It was not just that the Tories won an unprecedented fourth term, nor was it due simply to another wide margin in votes (7.5%).[16] At this level, history has shown that in UK the dominant parties have always been bipolar, this means that there is a mutual need for the main parties; it is believed that this co-relation preserve them together for so many years and on. The struggling sometimes creates the uncertainty about the dominance of two-party systems; as a consequence it is questionable the new growing power and development of third parties.

 It is therefore tempting to conclude that the British party system today is best described as a volatile one. However, if the ‘systematic’ aspects of party competition have been replaced by trendless fluctuations, then a more accurate conclusion might be that the British party system has actually ceased to exist. Overall, however, parties have been responsive and mindful of the daily-pressures, which is why they have survived and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Besides, two-party systems in Britain and other democracies like the States for example; the feature of two parties dominance is almost traditional. Since the beginning have been there, sometimes struggling but at the end of the day two parties dominance maintain. To some extend it is also believed that the time these parties have been running in politics is a considerable disadvantage for the next generation parties as they are not as stronger and long-lasting. In this sense even when devolution may be a weakness to dual party systems history remain telling that the main contenders in politics are and possibly will continue lasting as the pillars of British politics.

 Now, considering the material and the research done in this essay I think of something: two party systems are far for over. The reason is the have been ruling and running politics in this state that is considered difficult to live without them or without a duopoly-partyism. Therefore, two party politics in the UK have gone thought a long history of facts and illustrations about the dominance and sometimes the struggling of power of parties. But at the end Labour and Conservative are always there. Nevertheless, there are and they will ever be people that be of the same opinion with the thought of “the days of two-party politics are numbered”. (Nick Clegg MP, January 2008)

 Bibliography:

-British Politics; Robert Leach; Bill Coxall; Palgrave Macmillan (2006); Chapter 7: Political parties.

-British Political Parties today; 2nd edition; Robert Garner and Richard Kelly; chapter 2: the party system.

– Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction; Rod Hague& Martin Harrop; 7th edition; Palgrave Macmillan.  Chapter 10 and 12: Political parties.

-Understanding Politics; US/UK government and politics; Duncan Watts; Manchester University press(2003). Chapter 8: Political parties.

The New British Politics; Ian Budge; David McKay; Pearson Longman (2007) 4th edition Chapter 16: Political parties and party factions and chapter 17: Party ideologies.

-Political Parties: Electoral change and Structural response; 2nd edition; Chapter 6: political parties.


[1] Comparative government and politics p.231

[2] Political Parties: Electoral change and Structural response p.205

[3] Idem p.206

[4]  British Politics p.111

[5] Comparative government and politics p.248

[6] British politics p.112

[7] Understanding US/UK government and politics p.186

[8] Idem p.215

[9] British politics p.130

[10] US/UK government and politics p.182.

[11] British political parties today p.39

[12] Comparative government and politics p.245

[13] Idem p.187

[14] British politics p.131

[15] British political parties today. p.52

[16] idem p.52

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