A Return To Two-Party Politics, Don’t Believe It

21st June 2017 / United Kingdom
A Return To Two-Party Politics, Don't Believe It

By Democratic Audit: The snap election may have seen the biggest combined vote between the two main parties since 1970, but this is not the result of lost voters returning to their political homes, writes Darren Hughes. On the contrary, it is the outcome of 21st century voting patterns playing out within a broken 19th century voting system.


This unexpected outcome of the General Election has led some commentators to  claim breezily that the United Kingdom has returned to two-party politics. But it masks some big shifts. While it is true that it has been several decades since the two major parties achieved a combined vote share of over 80% as they did on Thursday, it is far from clear that this is the “new normal” of British politics.


This time, voters ‘learnt’ from the 2015 result – they decided to try and game the system. In 2015, 9% of voters said they’d be voting tactically. This time, the figure was double that – 20%, according to BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society. A common result of this second guessing – with one in five voters ‘holding their nose’ at the ballot box – is that the contest becomes reduced to a decision as to which of the major parties is likely to defeat the other major party. This in turn supports and increases the dominance of the two biggest political parties, polarising around one or two divides.


What lies behind all this is our antiquated voting system – literally designed for two parties. Yet even as more voters coalesced around the Conservatives and Labour than they have for years, still neither of them could win the election and form a majority government.


The fact that the two of them were taking their largest vote share in many years and we have still ended up with a hung parliament is not evidence of going back to “two party politics”, but of how the system is fundamentally bust when you have 21st century voting patterns and a broken 19th century voting system.


We’ve also seen voter volatility in the last few elections, heightened by two high-profile and contentious referendums. Votes on Scottish independence and membership of the European Union have had a disruptive effect on the patterns of partisan voting, and may continue to do so for some time.

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Complementing this theme has been the up-down nature in the fortunes of some parties. For example, UKIP and the Greens got five million votes between them in 2015, but this time only one million; the Scottish National Party won the seat of Glasgow North East in 2015 on a swing of over 39%, only to lose it again on a swing of nearly 10%. What were once considered ‘normal’ voting patterns are changing all the time, further undermining the notion that we are going back to two party politics.

The fact that this election has seen the biggest combined vote between the Conservative and Labour parties since 1970 is not then the result of lost voters returning to their respective political homes. It is a sign of almost the opposite: modern voters coming up against the brick wall of First Past the Post.


Darren Hughes is Deputy Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society.

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