thenextwave

The decline of the two-party system

Posted in politics, trends by Andrew Curry on 8 May, 2010

I published a post on the UK election at The Futures Company blog yesterday. Here’s an extract:

“Voting problems in some constituencies seemed symbolic of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose. Before the election, research by nef calculated that voters in the most marginal seats have one hundred times more influence on the outcome than those in the safest seats. Prior to the election, one of the striking features was the number of competing campaigns promoting electoral fairness. [Update: These seem to have coalesced into a single campaign, Take Back Parliament, as a result of the election.] Taking a long view, these are each a symptom of the decline of two-party politics since the 1970s. During the campaign, Election 10 published a compelling graph using twenty-five years of Guardian polling data showing the decline in overall support for the two main parties; it fluctuates, certainly, but trends only in one direction.

In turn this reflects a change in the sources of political identity, as Simon Szreter argued in History and Policy:

Whilst a generation ago, individual voters would identify their allegiance with a party’s ideology before enquiring about its policies, this has now been turned on its head. Voters think first about what policies they support and then seek to match this with a political party, often using web-based tools. Yet the electorate is unable to give proper expression to such sophisticated political judgments.

Or, as another historian, Simon Schama, put it on the BBC’s election programme on Friday morning, ‘the country has not just spoken, it’s holding it’s nose’.”

The full post is here.

Update, 12th May: I’ve updated this post in response to a question below (in the Comments) from Craig Ullman: Is the decline of the 2 party system in the UK really just a measure of Gordon Brown’s unpopularity?

I’m as sure as I can be that the trend away from the dominant two parties is deep and long, not just a hangover from New Labour and Thatcher.

At Open Democracy Gerry Hassan has some analysis of the share of the electorate (voters and non-voters)  commanded between them by Labour and Conservative. At its high-water mark, in 1951, when Labour and Conservative combined share of all votes cast was 96%, they also won 80% of the electorate. By February 1974, this had declined to 58.5%, and by 1997 it had fallen to 53%. The figure for the election just held – again for the share of the total electorate – was 42.4%. Now obviously, this figure combines two effects; both falling turnout and a drift away from the two largest parties.

An article by Andy Beckett this week quoted a couple of leading thinkers who suggest that this isn’t a temporary aberration:

The political philosopher John Gray sees years of turmoil ahead: “We are in a melting pot greater than that of the 70s. Politics is changing by the day. The Thatcher settlement, which produced hugely overblown financial services and house prices, is melting down. There are going to be huge cuts in public spending. I don’t think the scale or longevity of the change has sunk in, either for voters, or for the parties.” The constitutional reform campaigner Anthony Barnett says: “The system has broken down. The breakdown has been going on for 20 years. It is about much more than the electoral system. It’s about MPs’ expenses, devolution, Europe . . . about whether Britain is run by the City. It is a fantasy that after a few days’ uncertainty everything will be back to normal.”

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  1. Craig Ullman said, on 10 May, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Is the decline of the 2 party system in the UK really just a measure of Gordon Brown’s unpopularity? His many conservative positions have, I would assume, forced a lot of progressive voters to support the Lib Dems, while ordinary liberals might have moved to the Conservatives just to reboot the government. If all that’s true (and I wonder if it is), then does this election serve as a transition to get new leadership in the Labour Party?


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