Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The final third party breakthrough?

This year could well be a fantastic year for third parties in Britain. The Lib Dems are surging the SNP are targeting twenty seats, the Greens could get their first seats and even UKIP may pick up a seat! Yet, in a sense, this may really be bringing to a head a process that begun long ago, and has really been in the ascendancy since 1974.

1945. A vitally important year in British history. Of course, it marks the end of the Second World War It also marks the 1945 election which swept in the Labour government of Clement Attlee. Attlee's government is famed for its introducing of the NHS, a large-scale welfare state, council housing, mass-nationalisation and more. Yet what is forgotten is it was also the first majority Labour government we ever had. Labour had been providing Prime Ministers since 1922, but they had never had a majority of seats in the Commons, they had always been sent to Downing Street only through the support of the Liberal Party. By the 1951 election 96.8% of ballots cast were cast for Labour, the Conservatives, or their allies. The Liberals were only able to win a meagre six seats. The electorate had essentially become divided down class lines. If you were working class you voted Labour, if you were middle class, you voted Conservative. The Liberals were the party you could fit in a taxi, their only seats were in Cornwall, central Wales and Northern Scotland where they won seats off the back of nonconformist religious sects and localist stances.

Then came the 1960s. The 60s heralded a cultural revolution. Old loyalties were broken, new cultural standards blossomed; cynicism of elites came to the fore. In the 1964 election the headline was that Labour's Harold Wilson had become Prime Minister, but in the quiet background was the fact that the Liberals had gone from 6 seats on 5.9% of the vote to 9 seats on 11.2%. More than 1/10th of the British public had voted Liberal and rejected the two party duopoly. More was to come. New national identities were found. Suddenly there was less talk of 'Britishness' and more talk of being Welsh, or Scottish. In 1966 Plaid Cymru won the Carmarthen by-election in a shock victory, winning their first ever MP. In 1967 the SNP won the Labour safe seat of Hamilton in a by-election as well. This followed high scores in by-elections and local elections for nationalists in both countries.

The moment for third parties was supposed to be 1974. Predictions suggested that the Liberals could get as many as 50-70 seats. In the end February 1974 heralded a hung parliament. In terms of popular vote both parties got less than 40%, a first. The Liberals more than doubled their vote and their seats, but this took them to only 14. The SNP reached a new high of 7, and Plaid went from 0 in 1970 to 2. Unfortunately the tiny liberals were too small to behave as a coalition partner to either party, and a new election was called. The October 1974 election gave Labour a tiny majority, but the Liberals lost only 1% of the vote, and 1 seat. The SNP and Plaid Cymru actually performed better than in February getting 11 seats (the SNP's best ever showing) and 3 seats respectively. The third parties were not going away. Labour's reducing majority resulted the need to seek Liberal, and then Nationalist support to remain in power, this combined with the trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, for the supposed attempted murder of his gay lover damaged the third parties performance in 1979, as Thatcher swept to party. Yet Labour's ensuing lurch to the left resulted in a split. The new Social Democratic Party allied with the Liberals, and the new SDP-Liberal Alliance polled incredibly, at times over 50%, but the economy improved, and the Fawklands boosted Thatcher's public image. Nonetheless the Alliance secured 25.4% of the vote and 23 seats, the best result ever for a third party. When they lost 2.8% of the vote and a seat in 1987 the two parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats quickly lost support. The 1989 European election was a particular low point, where they won only 6% of the vote. Nonetheless this did not represent the end of third parties as the Green Party won their best ever popular support, at 15%. Under Paddy Ashdown though, they recovered enough to lose only 2 seats on 17.8% of the vote in 1992. They actually lost votes in 1997, but the Lib Dems almost doubled their seats thanks to tactical voting by Labour supporters. They would continue to gain seats and votes until 2005, where they won the most seats of any third party since the 1920s, and along with other third parties, pushed Labour and the Conservatives down to less than 70% of the vote between them for the first time ever.

Much talk surrounds whether Liberal Democrat or other third party voters come from Labour or the Conservatives. In reality they don't come from anywhere. Since the 1960s there has been a large portion of the electorate that has been alienated from both parties. This portion has fluctuated up and down, but it exists and it is sizeable. What this election has done is to demonstrate just how big that portion of the electorate may be. Whatever happens on Thursday, nothing will the same ever again, and the reason is that these people can no longer be ignored. Third parties matter more than ever, they are increasingly seen as a legitimate place to vote. If the electoral system continues it will become increasingly difficult to secure majorities because there is an increasing bank of seats which will be secured by third parties. Parties therefore need to secure more seats than the main opposition AND the third parties, and the thing about the results of the Lib Dems and their predecessors the Liberals is that it is VERY difficult to unseat them when they get a seat. Even when the Liberals do worse than in a previous election, they have, at worst, lost 1 or 2 seats. Politics has fragmented, this is the reality now. An eventual change in the electoral system is now inevitable, not because the Lib Dems want it, but because First Past the Post has ceased to reflect the way the British people vote. In fact in many ways, it ceased to represent them decades ago.

Edit: This graph proves my point rather effectively I think.


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