Government and Politics


Britain’s Multiparty Systems

Philip Lynch

The United Kingdom is often described as having a ‘two-party system’ but the evidence no longer supports this. A more nuanced approach recognises that several party systems operate within the UK, most, if not all, of which are multiparty.

Britain’s two-party system is in failing health, but there remains a reluctance to sign the death certificate. Support for the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, has been in retreat for more than 30 years, falling to 67% of the vote at the 2005 general election, the lowest figure since 1918. The Liberal Democrats secured the highest number of seats won by a third party since 1923 and minor parties together polled over 10% of the vote. However, the simple plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral system acts as a life support machine, providing Labour and the Conservatives with some protection from the advance of multiparty politics. Beyond Westminster, multiparty politics is flourishing.

The two-party system

In the period 1945–70, the UK provided a textbook example of a two-party system. The Conservatives and Labour won a clear majority of votes cast in general elections and secured all but a handful of seats in the House of Commons. Together they averaged 91% of the vote in the eight general elections held in this period and 98% of seats. The two parties were closely matched in the popular vote, had nationwide support, and held office for equivalent periods.

The two-party system was under-pinned by a number of factors. The simple plurality electoral system favoured the Conservatives and Labour at the expense of smaller parties. There was strong party alignment: most electors voted for the party that represented the interests of their social class — the working class for Labour and the middle class for the Con- servatives — and most felt a positive attachment to ‘their’ party. Additionally, party competition was conducted in the centre ground, where most voters were located, in an era of ideological consensus.

Periods of flux in the British party system are not unusual. In the interwar years, for example, Labour overtook the Liberals, and coalition governments held office. A more complex picture has also been apparent since 1970. Class voting has declined, fewer voters feel a very strong attachment to a party and new issues have emerged — substate nationalism, European integration and immigration — that do not fit the traditional left–right pattern of party competition. In the nine general elections held from 1974 to 2005, the mean share of the vote won by the Conservatives and Labour fell to 74%. Support for the Liberal Democrats rose to 19%, and for ‘others’ reached 7%.



The number of parties

When Bob Spink MP joined UKIP in 2008, the total number of parties represented in the House of Commons reached 11. Another six MPs sat as independents, although four of them had been elected as either Conservative or Labour MPs. At that election, 47 parties contested more than one seat and a further 67 fielded a candidate in a single constituency (Webb 2005). The Electoral Commission’s register of parties recorded 353 ‘parties’ in Great Britain (and 56 in Northern Ireland), although few of these should be regarded as such, because they lack a developed organisation, broad policy platform and realistic prospect of office.

The ‘effective number of parties’ is a more sophisticated measure, because it reflects the number of parties in a system and their relative importance. Where two major parties take equal vote shares, the effective number of electoral parties is 2.0. In general elections between 1945 and 1970, the effective number of electoral parties averaged 2.39 but rose to 3.18 for the period 1974–2005 (see Table 1). The ‘effective number of parliamentary parties’ (i.e. those represented in the Commons) averaged 2.04 for 1945–70 and 2.23 for 1974–2005. The decline of two-party politics is confirmed, but so is the protection afforded the main parties by the simple plurality electoral system.



Types of party system

What, if anything, has replaced the two-party system? Three main alternatives have been suggested: a two-and-a-half party system, a dominant party system and a multiparty system.

Two-and-a-half party system

In a two-and-a-half party system, a smaller party exists alongside two major parties but is far from their equal. So, in West Germany, the Free Democrats were a near-permanent coalition partner. This has not happened to the same extent in Britain. Under the 1976/77 ‘Lib-Lab pact’, the Liberals backed Labour bills but did not take ministerial positions. It seemed in the 1990s that the Liberal Democrats might become ‘New’ Labour’s junior partner as the ideological gap between them narrowed and they cooperated on constitutional reform. But the prospect of party system realignment has since receded, with the Lib Dems at Westminster opposing key Labour policies.

Dominant party system

The term dominant party system has been applied to the UK during spells of dominance by the Conservatives (1979–97) and Labour (from 1997 on). The governing party dominates the legislative and executive arenas, using its majority to forge major economic, social and constitutional change. The Conservatives and then New Labour were catch-all parties with broad appeal. Some of the factionalism and ‘sleaze’ found in dominant party systems (e.g. Japan) entered British politics, but neither party secured a majority of popular support in general elections and both suffered heavy defeats in contests beyond Westminster during their supposed dominance.

Multiparty system

Patrick Dunleavy (2005) argues that Britain has a genuine multiparty system. The share of the vote and number of seats won by the two main parties has fallen. Furthermore, voters do not identify with a single party but form opinions about a range of parties, some of which they may vote for, some which they are neutral towards, and others which they will never support. A March 2007 YouGov poll reported that the Liberal Democrats were the second choice of 23% of respondents (Greens 13%, UKIP 10% and BNP 8%). Also evident is 'split-ticket’ voting, in which electors cast votes for different parties when elections to more than one body are held at the same time or when the electoral system gives them more than one vote.

Others are reluctant to write off the two-party system, noting that the Liberal Democrats have not made a decisive breakthrough at Westminster and minor party candidates lose their deposits in the vast majority of constituencies. Single-party UK government remains the norm.


Box 1 UK Party systems and arenas in 2008
Level of jurisdiction Electoral arena Legislative arena Executive arena

Multiparty competition in general elections (simple plurality electoral system)

10 parties and 2 independents elected to House of Commons in 2005

Single-party Labour government


Multiparty competition in elections to: Westminster (simple plurality), Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly (both additional member system), Northern Ireland Assembly (single transferable vote), Mayor of London (supplementary vote) and London Assembly (additional member system)

5 parties and 1 independent elected to Scottish Parliament in 2007


4 parties and 1 independent elected to Welsh Assembly in 2007


7 parties and 1 independent elected to Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007


5 parties elected to London Assembly in 2008

Minority SNP administration in Scotland


Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales


4 parties in Northern Ireland

Executive Conservative Mayor of London

Local government

Multiparty competition in England and Wales (simple plurality) and Scotland (single transferable vote)

Complex patterns of representation, varying from area to area

Conservatives control 213 councils


Labour controls 51 councils


Liberal Democrats control 26 councils


Others control 8 councils


No Overall Control in 128 councils


Multiparty competition in 11 regions in Great Britain (list system) and in Northern Ireland (single transferable vote)

10 parties elected to European Parliament in 2004



Party systems

The UK does not have a single party system; instead, a number of party systems can be identified. Distinctive party systems operate in different levels of jurisdiction within the UK — at national, regional, local and European levels — and within these, different political arenas exist: the electoral, legislative and executive (Webb 2000). Multiparty politics is the norm at supranational, subnational, local and European levels (see Box 1). Proportional representation and the greater salience of issues such as substate nationalism and European integration have boosted the fortunes of minor parties.

National party systems

Scotland and Wales

In the Scottish and Welsh systems, party competition is structured around two major axes, a left–right socioeconomic axis (with the median voter found to the left of centre) and a nationalism–unionism axis. Labour took more than 70% of the Westminster seats in these nations in 2005, but multiparty politics flourishes in the devolved bodies (see Table 2). These party systems are both competitive and cooperative, with parties prepared to work together in coalitions or informal partnerships. Labour was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Scotland from 1999 to 2007 and in Wales from 2000 to 2003, where the party now shares power with Plaid Cymru. The Scottish Nationalist Party formed a minority administration in Scotland in 2007 and has secured the support of the Scottish Greens and Scottish Conservatives on crucial parliamentary votes.


Northern Ireland

The major cleavage in the Northern Irish party system is between unionists and nationalists, and the dominant issue is the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Four parties are represented in the executive that took office in 2007: the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), republican Sinn Fein and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Three further parties — the Alliance Party, the Greens and the Progressive Unionist Party — and an independent have seats in the assembly.


Very few voters switch allegiance across the communal blocs, but significant change has occurred within them in the last decade. The DUP overtook the UUP to become the dominant unionist party, and Sinn Fein displaced the SDLP as the main representative of Catholic voters.


Regional party systems

No political party can claim convincingly to be strong across the whole of the country. The ‘North–South divide’ is a useful shorthand description of the geography of voting in Britain. Support for Labour is highest in Scotland, Wales and northern England, while the Conservatives perform best in southern England, but patterns of party competition vary more than this implies. In the North East, Labour was the lead party at the 2005 general election, with the Liberal Democrats second. Labour had significant leads over the second-placed Conservatives in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside, and smaller ones in the West Midlands and the East Midlands. The Conservatives were the lead party in the East, where Labour is second, as well as in the South East and South West, where the Liberal Democrats were their nearest challenger.


Regional differences are primarily a result of variation at constituency level (Johnston 2005). Different types of people, neighbourhoods and constituencies are concentrated in different parts of Britain. The Conservatives perform better in rural constituencies, predominantly white-collar constituencies and those with relatively high proportions of pensioners, many of which are located in the south. Labour is most successful in constituencies where social disadvantage is high and these are often found in inner cities in northern England.


Local party systems

A selection of local councils illustrates the variety of party systems in local government. Most have single-party rule. Manchester is an example of a dominant party system, with Labour in power since 1974 and the Conservatives gaining their first seat in a decade in 2008, thanks to the defection of a Liberal Democrat councillor. No one party had overall control of 128 councils in England, Scotland and Wales in 2008. This produced coalitions, power-sharing agreements and minority administrations. Labour and Liberal Democrat cooperation is common, but Liberal Democrat–Conservative agreements (e.g. Birmingham) and, rarely, Conservative–Labour cooperation are also found (e.g. Stockton-on-Tees). Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents share power in Lancaster.



Minor parties have performed better in elections to the European Parliament than in general elections. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1999, the Greens and UK Independence Party (UKIP) have won seats, the latter scoring 16% of the vote in 2004, which was in part due to the higher profile of European issues.



The two-party system is the ‘dead man walking’ of British politics. Multiparty systems are firmly embedded at local, regional and European levels, with parties other than the Conservatives and Labour enjoying popular support, representation in the legislature and executive power. Multiparty politics has also made significant inroads at national level, although important elements of the Labour–Conservative duopoly endure.


The 2007 Scottish Parliament elections and 2008 London mayoral elections saw Labour lose tight contests to its nearest rivals, the SNP and Conservatives respectively, as support for other parties fell. This pattern may be repeated at the next general election, but there is little prospect of a return to the classic two-party system. The Liberal Democrats could lose votes and seats, yet still be influential, should the Conservatives emerge with a small parliamentary majority or none at all. This would hasten further the demise of the two-party system, but perhaps only the introduction of proportional representation for general elections would produce an academic consensus on its definitive end.