In the UK, the Beginning of Five or Six Party Politics?

The British political system appears to be headed for a massive shakeup ahead of the coming parliamentary election in May.  For nearly the past century, Britain has been dominated by the Conservative and Labour parties, with only two incidents of a hung parliament.  The first in February 1974, which resulted in new elections later in October that gave Labour a slim majority.  The second was the most recent election in 2010, where the Liberal Democrats held the bargaining power and formed a coalition government with David Cameron and the Conservatives.

However, a massive political shift has taken place over the last three years.  Support for the Liberal Democrats has collapse from a high of 23% in the 2010 election to the point where the kingmaker party of five years ago is struggling to poll in double digits.  The erosion of support for the Liberal Democrats was drastic immediately after the 2010 election.  The sheer idea of the Lib Dems forming a coalition government with the Conservatives and making David Cameron prime minister led to the perception that they would abandon their principles for a power grab.  As Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of the new government, many who had flocked to the Liberal Democrats as a protest vote immediately left the party to seek an alternative.

So where did the support for the Liberal Democrats go?  From by-elections and polls since then, it appears that much of the support has drifted to the right-wing euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), or in Scotland to the Scottish National Party.  UKIP soon began to rise in popularity out of discontent with the austerity measures implemented by the Cameron government and the sluggish recovery of the EU economy as a whole.  As UKIP became the default protest vote and British support for EU policies declined, UKIP surged in popularity to overtake the Liberal Democrats to take third place in the 2013 local elections.  2014 then saw a stunning victory for UKIP in the European Parliament elections that May, which solidified them as a political force.  In Scotland, meanwhile, the capture of the devolved Scottish Parliament by the SNP and the promise of an independence referendum helped contribute to the plurality status of the SNP in current polls for Scotland.  While Scotland ultimately rejected independence, the SNP still retains 40 to 50 percent support in parliamentary polls for Scotland, and looks to gain a majority of Scottish seats in Parliament come May.

Even at this stage, a month ago it was a clear sign that the system of two and three party politics in the UK was coming to an end.  The rise of UKIP as a credible and formidable political party and the solidification of the SNP’s place in Scotland was already a blow to the prospects of a single-party government after the May elections even with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats.  However, the past month has also seen a remarkable surge in support for the UK Green Party.  This can be attributed in part to the proposed election debate format and the, well, debate over the debates.  On January 8, 2015, Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulatory authority, declared that UKIP were a “major party” and therefore entitled to be in the election debates in April, but that the Greens were not.  The decision was based on party performance in polls and by-elections.  Natalie Bennett, leader of the Greens, decried the exclusion, and over the next week membership in the Green Party more than doubled and surpassed membership of UKIP.  Polls showed a surge in support for the Green Party from an already impressive 5% to some showing them at 10% and polling higher than the Liberal Democrats.  This show of support only complicated the matter of the debates even more.

As the Green Party pushed for inclusion in the debates, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would not participate in the debates if the Green Party were not included as well.  This was clearly a bluff in order to not participate without making the Conservatives look bad.  The most likely outcome of the debate row were that the debates would be called off, or Cameron would relent to a debate with just him, Ed Milliband for Labour, Nick Clegg for the Lib Dems, and Nigel Farage for UKIP.  However, a strange turn of events may have forced Cameron’s hand and borders on ridiculous.  The BBC and ITV, two of the major broadcasters in the UK, have proposed a new format for the debates that would include not the original four, not even five with the Greens included, but seven parties debating.  Under the proposed format, the five major national parties would be invited, as well as the leaders of the SNP and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru.  While nothing has been set in stone yet, the sense from the BBC is that they will hold the debate in this seven-party format with whichever parties show up.

With everything that’s currently happening with the debates and the rise in smaller parties, any predictions for the makeup of Parliament after the May elections have to be largely revised.  Recent polls show Conservative and Labour support continuing a slow decline, with one Ashcroft poll showing both major parties at under 30% support.  UKIP has been polling as high as 25% in October 2014, but more recently have slipped to an average of about 15%.  Both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are hovering at around 8 to 10% on average.  Regionally, the SNP have polled between 41 and 55 percent in Scotland, anywhere from 10 to 30 points about Labour in the country.  In Wales, Plaid Cymru remains steady at around 12% in Wales, remaining fourth with only a slight bump from their 2010 election performance.

These numbers would radically shift the makeup of parliament after the May elections if they hold true, as many predictions have shown.  Both the Conservatives and Labour are currently looking at maybe 305 seats as the high point for their prospects, but there is a good chance that both parties could end up with under 300 seats.  With a parliamentary majority and government formation requiring 326 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, a hung parliament and another coalition government seems almost certain.

However, the more even distribution among the smaller parties could force an unprecedented outcome of a coalition government consisting of at least three parties.  If both the Lib Dems and the SNP end up with less than 25 seats or both major parties have less than 300, a two-party coalition still would not have a majority of seats in the Commons.  With this prospect, the idea of a majority coalition government would be very tenuous and unlikely to last long with the ideological range of all the possible parties.  However, early elections that have solved past failed coalitions may not be a foregone conclusion, as the Fixed-term Parliament Act of 2011 made calling a snap election more difficult.  Under the act, early elections can occur either if a motion is approved by Parliament with a two thirds majority, or if “a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.”  A motion of no confidence is likely to be the cause of an early election, especially in the case of a three party coalition.  The government formation period after the May elections is going to be a tense time, and it is very uncertain what coalitions might actually form.  So far, Clegg has stated that the Liberal Democrats will not join a government with UKIP in it.  The Green Party has also refused to take part in a coalition government, but they will most likely only have one or two Commons seats after the election so are not likely to be a power broker anyway.

However, there is a chance that a coalition government could form with only two parties, or that Labour or the Conservatives will get an outright majority of seats.  Of the two, Labour is the most likely to gain an outright majority, as the current estimation from Electoral Calculus shows.  Either the Liberal Democrats or the SNP could be part of a two party government, though as the polls stand, the SNP seem more capable of being part of a majority coalition.  The SNP being part of a Westminster government is somewhat scary.  They will definitely push for more devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament and want to scrap the renewal of the Trident missile program, but could also get another independence referendum out of the deal.

A two-party coalition also becomes more likely when another quirk of British politics is taken into account: Northern Ireland.  The Northern Irish seats in Westminster are contested by a completely separate set of political parties than the rest of the United Kingdom, largely divided on the issue of reunification with the Republic of Ireland.  As such, the Irish republican party Sinn Féin refuses to take their seats in Parliament.  In May, they are likely to retain their five seats and could possibly end up with six.  As such, Parliament would only have 644 or 645 members present.  In this case, a government would only need a working majority of 323 seats.  This makes a two-party coalition more feasible, but which parties form it is still wide open.

No matter what the result of the May election is, one thing will be clear: the current political system in the United Kingdom is over.  The solid hold that the Conservatives and Labour have had is waning, and the reliable position of the Liberal Democrats as the third party is over.  UKIP has entered national politics and looks here to stay, with two MP defections last year marking their entrance into Parliament.  Add in the SNP and the era of two or three party politics in the United Kingdom is decidedly gone.  Now begins the era of four, five, or, if the Greens continue their rise, even six parties.

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