Is Britain a two-party or a multi party system, or something else
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 Party and The Labour Party – have been, and still are, the only real contenders for power in British General Elections. Paul Webb in “The Modern British Party System” “…only two parties in the system really ‘count'”. He says that two parties “absorb most of the votes cast in elections and consequently able to dominate the business of government”.1
However, Andrew Heywood, in “Britain’s Dominant Party System” states that “…the conventional view that Britain possesses a two-party system had been under attack since February 1974″2. Webb and Fisher in “The Changing British Party System: Two-Party Equilibrium or the Emergence of Moderate Pluralism” agree, stating that “…the two major parties absorbed approximately 90 per cent of the vote until 1970…However, since the middle of the 1970s this system has been challenged by a…multi-dimensional debate”.3
In this essay therefore, I will identify the different arguments regarding Britain’s electoral and parliamentary systems that encourage differing party systems including the two aforementioned systems, “the two party systems” and “the multi party system”. I will also look at the idea behind a “dominant party system”, and why these arguments would be attributed to Britain including arguments of class, gender and religion.
In “The Modern British Party System” Paul Webb says that between 1945 and 1970 there is a ‘clear-cut…’two-partism”. He comes to this conclusion, he says, by a formula developed by Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepera (1979) in which you calculate ‘”on the basis of party share of the popular vote (the effective number of electoral parties [ENEP]…and the basis of shares of seats won in parliament (the effective number of parliamentary parties [ENPP]4.”‘ If the system is made up from two equally strong parties, the ‘effective number’ is 2.0, and similarly a system with three equally strong parties will generate an effective number of 3.0.
The results from this equation shows that between 1945 and 1970 the effective number turned out using ENPP were 2.05 between 1945 and 1970, but post-1970 this number increased to 2.18. Using ENEP, the 1945-1970 number was 2.36 to an increased number of 3.17 post-1970.5
The social reason why this formula illustrates a two-party system can be summarised in three main points according to Webb. Firstly he agrees a concept called ‘a centripetal pattern of competition’ as the major parties seek to win votes from the median voters. It is in parties’ interests to appeal to the widest demographic of the electorate, that way enabling them a chance in receiving the most votes. In contrast, if parties adopt a strong political ideology for either the left or right, you have only the option to be voted for by people on the political right or left extremes, rather than the majority in the middle and subsequently less chance of victory. Though Webb states that this doesn’t mean that post-1945 the main parties lack distinctive ideologies, and that centripetal patterns shift with time (a notable example during the mid-1980s), he asserts that “parties departing from the logic or centripetal competition are met with electoral disappointment and have eventually sought a return to the centre” the most notable example being New Labour in the 1990s.6
Secondly he argues, that competition in elections can only seriously contend between two parties because of the adoption of the “winner takes all” approach and the “refusal of majority parties to share executive office with rivals”. He says that “even on the rare occasions since 1945 when the largest single party has not been able to command an overall majority in the Commons, it has been the norm to continue in office as a minority administration rather than to seek to form a coalition”.7
Finally explained is that “two-partism is defined by a regular alternation in power of the major parties” and also makes the point that “in a stable majoritarian democracy, it is share concurrently in a consensus democracy”.8 He explains that parties take on popular policies from opposition and that to gain re-election, the party in power must still retain the ‘middle-ground’ ideology that lead to the election in the first place.
However, it’s a popular opinion that these arguments can only explain the political system up until the 1970s. Post-1970 there is a shared consensus that there is a shift toward a multi-party system. Webb and Fisher in “The Changing British Party System” puts this down to electoral change, to one of more instability “…characterised by the return of a minority Labour government, and the support of third parties.”. In the 1974 election, the Liberal party made significant gains since previous election, achieving 19.3 per cent of the vote, a substantial leap from the 7.5 per cent they won in the previous election, “a post-war high”. They argue that “In short, the party system started to take on a more fragmented appearance as the actual number of parties represented in parliament increased from four to nine”, also the effective number calculated also shifted from 2.5 during the late 1960s, to 3.1 twenty years later.9
This trend in the late 1960s which continued through the 1970s can be attributed to declining social class as an influence on electoral choice. In previous decades, social class was a much wider determinant of voting behaviour, occupation, education level private home ownership etc all determined to which social ‘class’ you belong, and those that fall into the same categories, tend to vote for the same party, or policies. However, there is a shift in the period between the early 1960s and the late 1970s. An indicator of this is the response of voters to assign themselves to a social class. Only 50 per cent of people would assign themselves to a particular class, declining to 43 per cent in 1974.10 However, despite the rise in class politics in this period, this number unwilling to be assigned to a ‘class’ increases throughout the twentieth century and can be attributed to a number of factors – the rise in further and higher educations and the rise in privately owned-housing.
The two main parties – The Labour Party, and The Conservative Party – had a very class based support traditionally. With the decline of affiliation with a particular class, it can be argued that people looked to other parties and particular pressure groups, instead of the ‘traditional working class party’ as an example. Stephen Ingle in “Britain’s Third Party” concurs, stating that “…the Liberals were benefiting from a new kind of voter who did not feel the need to justify his/her voting allegiance by reference to class”.11
However, despite this shift to a three, or ‘multiparty’ system, there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case. As a most obvious example, is that despite gains in particular elections for The Liberal Democrats and other third parties, all post-1945 elections have been won by either a Conservative or Labour government. This can be accounted for by the limits of a ‘First Past the Post System’ according to Ingle.12
In Britain, there is also the issue of regional party systems. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all have regional parties that though, are influential purely in a local context; these parties do have seats in Westminster’s Parliament. The SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and the Ulster Union Party hold 6 seats, 5 seats, 3 seats, and 1seat respectively. Though obviously limited in number, and influence they will have in the decision-making process, the sheer fact that in our First Past the Post system, there are still MPs of 12 different political parties means that people affiliated themselves outside of the two dominant parties.13
To add to arguments between both a two-party system, and a multi-party system, the “something else” referred to in the title I will concentrate on is one of a ‘dominant party system’. Andrew Heywood in Britain’s dominant-party system suggests that in a pluralist system, it is possible to have one party dominating the elections. Though the electorate have a chance to change this perception, they do not. This is obviously different to one-party systems typically found in now-collapsed states such as the Soviet Union.14
He argues that The Conservatives have dominated twentieth century politics. “In the seventy years leading up to 1992, the Conservatives had been in government, either alone or as the dominant member of a coalition, for fifty of them.”15 He continues that though the fact that Labour has been in office over this period of time, it doesn’t necessarily point to a two-party system. “…Labour has only twice, in 1945 and 1966, recorded decisive election victories, and at no time has the party managed to serve two consecutive full terms in office…[they] did not succeed in breaking the mould of twentieth-century politics”.
However, despite the fact that Labour has since won an unprecedented three elections, it could be argued that though a Conservative dominance theory can be discredited, an argument could be made for a Labour dominant 21st Century perhaps. Though Conservative support might appear to be increasing, maybe, as Labour had in the Twentieth Century, they will be unable to make such a large time in office as previously.
On the other hand, to agree with Heywood that there has been a dominant conservative consensus over the latter of the twentieth century, his argument can still be valid, despite the victories of Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections. ‘New Labour’ can be seen as a shift to the ‘right’ and a removal of old ideas of socialism within the twentieth century. The election of New Labour can perhaps only help Heywood’s dominant party system assertion.
In conclusion, Britain at varying times in history can be called a dominant party system, a two party system, a multi party system and others. There is much evidence to back up all of these claims, particularly post-1945. However, it can be argued that the simple fact that there are different arguments and that these systems change over time, that Britain is a multi-party system. Though there is evidence to suggest that Heywood’s dominant party theory was perhaps true at the time of publication, since then there has been a successful Labour government for 10 years. The slow increase of political party MPs in the House of Commons also proves that Britain is a multi-party system, and while these parties may be limited to one seat and little in any influence in parliament, this is due to Britain’s limited system of First Past the Post. The fact that there are more than two parties making up parliament, and that other parties have won constituencies, shows that the British Electorate are voting for more than the two main parties.
Therefore, I believe the steady increase of other parties, particularly of the Liberal Democrats, will continue into the twenty first century.
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