Will 2015 change UK Politics?

Since 1935 the United Kingdom has held its General Elections on a Thursday, unlike other European countries which tend to hold their elections on Sundays. This year, the Election is going to be held on the 7 May and the campaign is well under way. With fewer than three weeks before the election, it’s probably time that this blog’s UK correspondent chimes in!

From the time when the UK moved to being a ‘true’ democracy at the turn of the 20th Century, typically, the UK’s political landscape has been dominated by a succession of Conservative governments, punctuated by the occasional Labour government. This phenomenon can be attributed to, among other things, but probably most significantly, the use of the ‘first past the post’ system. Other than making psephology a relatively easy task in the UK, it has meant that a certain degree of stability can be more or less guaranteed.

Something which, if you’re invested in Labour or Conservative, is great!

However, if you read British newspapers, you may get a different impression: that the two-party structure is falling apart; Westminster’s membership may look something more like continental Europe. Despite the fact that trust in the Liberal Democrats has suffered, according to the polls, the appetite for a multiparty system is still strong.

In 1951, a whopping 96% of voters voted for one of the two main parties. Compare this with the last election in 2010, in which the two main parties received a record low of 65.1% of the vote.

(The above graph shows the percentage decrease in support since 1951 for the two main parties; the colours of the points represent the party which won the most seats: red for the Labour Party and blue for the Conservative Party (Source: House of Commons Research papers 08/12))

Some polls are predicting that support for the two main parties may drop even further to 63%!

There has been a sort of three-way pull from three very different sources for this ‘new movement’: On the right, we have the UKIP, who have been making gains for years. 2014 seems to be when they made their biggest breakthrough in the European Elections, gaining an intimidating 27.5% of the vote and securing the largest delegation of MEPs from the UK. The pressure on constituency MPs has been so great, that two Conservative MPs have ‘defected’ to the party. While UKIP support has halved since the Euro elections to between 13 and 15%, it is still relatively high for a breakthrough party.

Secondly, there has been a lot of shift in support towards the nationalist movements in the UK. The Scottish National Party and, to a lesser extent, Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales, have enjoyed a large increase in their support. This has grown, in part, due to the Scottish Referendum and the related spread of Scottish nationalist rhetoric, which has had a knock-on effect in Wales. These parties have been espousing a left-of-Labour position, which speaks to an audience who feel that Labour don’t truly represent an alternative to the string of Conservative governments which, since the 1980s, the Scots have never supported.

And thirdly, on the Left in England, the Greens have started to showcase some populist ideas and have also seen a surge in support, particularly among young voters. And while they haven’t had the same kind of attention that the populists of the right enjoyed during the European Election, the Green Party of England and Wales has since picked up in both membership (now the third largest party in the UK, by members) and in polling figures.

It is worth drawing attention to the fact that while support for the two main parties over the 60 years between 1951 and 2010 has decreased by about a third, the representation of the parties hasn’t changed that much. In terms of the amount of seats captured by the parties in the United Kingdom, the two main parties’ share has only come down by 10% in the same time period. (The graph below demonstrates the lag between the two main parties’ representation in seats versus their representation in votes(Source: House of Commons Research papers 08/12))
As mentioned earlier, a lot of this can be attributed to the ‘first past the post’ system. The UK, in essence, has 650 ‘independent’ elections, electing one Member of Parliament. This has led to many upsets for third parties, sometimes even for the main parties (see: 1951, where Labour won the most votes, but did not secure the most seats).

So, is the British media getting ahead of itself – will 2015 finally change Britain? Well, because of the quirks in the British political system, it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be too much of a shift in power away from the two main parties. However, it’s the overall trend that we’re interested in, and while 2015 is likely not to be that dramatic compared to the results of 2010, the United Kingdom has come a long way in terms of representation of third parties in the post-war period.

And, of course, the results on election night will confirm or contradict.

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