international analysis and commentary

Once upon a time there was the British two-party system


After the surprising success of UKIP in the 2014 European elections it has become a cliché to argue that the party led by Nigel Farage has changed the British political landscape. It is true, but it has to be interpreted as the latest phase in a broader political change. The numbers clearly reflect a radical shift, as the United Kingdom Independence Party came out far ahead of both traditional parties, with 31% of the vote against 24% for Conservatives and 23% for Labour.

Yet, a deeper understanding of the ongoing trends should start from two simultaneous events: on the one hand, the two-party system founded on the Conservative-Labour alternative underwent a crisis; on the other hand, the mediatization of politics brought about a new political language ​​and new political figures. These two distinct phenomena have had similar effects on the British political system. But first things first. If we look at the progress of the UK two-party system from the end of the Second World War, it turns out that its golden age can be identified from 1945 until the mid-1970s – when the trente glorieuses (1945-1973), the affluent phase of the post-war reconstruction, came to an end.  Then came the first energy crisis following the Yom Kippur War (1973) and there were new demands and new political values produced by the “postmodern” way of life. The most famous book to have recorded this moment in history is The Silent Revolution by Ronald Inglehart, published in 1977.

Source: Economist, February 21, 2015

The trend of election results from the last decades of the 19th century to the present shows how a two-party system has been widely prevalent in British history, first a Conservative-Liberal alternative, then a Conservative-Labour one.

If we look at the UK reality through Stein Rokkan’s theory – which, in the story of the modern state, recognized a number of cleavages (center-periphery, church-state, agriculture-industry, capital-labor) which tend to resurface periodically – we can see how the climate of the 1970s was inclined to weaken the capital-labor cleavage on which class politics was based until then. There was the re-emergence of the center-periphery cleavage, largely facilitated by the discovery, at that time, of oil and gas in the North Sea and the climate of détente in the international relations of the Cold War.

The strengthening of regionalism led obviously to an immediate increase of support for the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, which favored in particular the SNP. During this phase it should be remembered that in 1974 there were two elections in the same year (February and October), because Labour could not reach a majority in the House of Commons: the Scottish National Party, which won 11 seats in October, came to their aid. Not surprisingly, at the end of that legislature, in 1979, there was the first referendum on “devolution” in Scotland and Wales, in which Labour lost badly. The SNP at once withdrew its support from the Callaghan Cabinet and, as a result, it opened up the way for 18 years of Tory government. After the win by Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, there was immediately a new devolution referendum – the elections were held in May, the referendum in September – almost to signify that Labour was starting again from where it had left off before the Thatcher era. Devolution, supported by New Labour, was primarily aimed at ensuring a better electoral performance in the “Celtic fringes” for Blair’s party: a “zero-sum” game with the nationalist parties.

As everyone knows, the last chapter of this story is the Scottish referendum of September 19, 2014, in which the votes in favor of independence were almost double those of the SNP electorate.  UKIP is the pro-British nationalist reaction against the regionalism of the “Celtic fringe”, which is primarily in favor of Scotland, and whose political centrality, in recent years, has been deemed excessive by English public opinion. This is an understandable and, to some extent, founded perception, where the electoral geography has a certain role. We know that the Conservatives are very strong in the English countryside, while the Labour Party takes votes primarily in the working-class cities and in the Celtic fringes: in the Blair years, Labour carefully looked at these voting groups.

Then there is the issue of Europe, which in the case of the United Kingdom has special features. It was a national referendum, held in 1975, which decided the UK’s entry into the EEC, a referendum approved by the parties because they preferred not to make a decision of this kind – a classic case of petitioning to direct democracy as a result of withdrawing from political responsibility on the part of partisan actors. Indeed the British are more motivated by the Anglo-Saxon special relationship, which ties them more to the United States, than to a feeling of being European: they remained outside the Eurozone and did not skimp on attacks against austerity measures and Brussels bureaucracy. By putting together English nationalism and anti-EUism, Nigel Farage’s party aims to give representation to some feelings which in the past have always found a home mainly within the Conservative Party, although euroskepticism is widespread in British public opinion. There is also the mediatization of politics that tends to personalize the political struggle: a leadership like that of Farage, who speaks a new language, is strongly affected by communications concern and tailored to be media-friendly.

The sum of these elements seems to have produced a very deep crisis in the British two-party system: according to the latest polls, the two main parties would not be able to reach 70% of the votes.

Why is this a problem for UK politics? With the electoral system currently in place for the House of Commons – the so-called first-past-the-post or plurality formula – if there is a significant departure of votes from the center of gravity of the political system, consisting of the two main parties, it becomes likely that a simple majority of votes – even below 40% – for one of the two main parties might not set up an overall majority of seats in Parliament. This is a significant problem for the “Westminster model”, which is used to seeing one-party governments in office. The outgoing government – the Conservative-LibDem coalition led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg who have ruled the United Kingdom in the latest legislature (2010-2015) – has been the first and the only coalition government after the War Cabinet (1940-1945) chaired by Winston Churchill. Nonetheless it is reasonable to fear that the 2015 general elections will once again produce no winner.