BY CONRAD WHITCROFT
Third parties were almost as synonymous with British democracy as universal suffrage. Since 1974’s hung parliament they have provided an attractive alternative to the Conservative/Labour duopoly for voters and rebellious MPs alike. We have seen a plethora of different ideologies winning this political bronze medal: from Jeremy Thorpe’s free market Liberals to Roy Jenkins’ centrist SDP to Charles Kennedy’s left-of-Labour Lib Dems to Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic UKIP (or Sturgeon’s nationalist SNP depending if you care more about seats than votes.) Yet the 2017 General Election yielded a disaster for these institutions with every minor party decreasing in its vote share and only two gaining seats (excluding Northern Ireland.) This article will examine why and how third parties in Great Britain moved from being important features of our democracy to political irrelevance even in a hung parliament.
The ITV minor parties debate on May 18th had the lowest viewing figures since televised debates began and the credibility of third parties was undermined further by Farron’s arrogance, Lucas’ self-righteousness and Nutall’s inability to stop calling people “Natalie.” The entire debate was an exhibition of what minor parties could offer the public; an offer that was resoundingly refused by the public on polling day when the vote share of all participating smaller parties collapsed to bring about the first general election since 1970 that gave the Conservatives and Labour over 80% of the vote.
This destruction of third parties on the left and the right can be viewed as a result of what Harold Macmillan called the most influential thing in politics: “events.” Due to the ideological shift to the right that the Labour Party took in the 1990s the biggest political vacuum emerged on the left with the growing success of the Greens, SNP and to a lesser extent Plaid Cymru. Therefore, the only significant minor party on the right of the political spectrum (yet arguably the most successful) was UKIP.
The United Kingdom Independence Party’s epic plummet from first place in the 2014 EU elections and the third largest vote share in 2015 to barely 2% of the national vote can be explained in one word: Brexit. The referendum result proves that leaving the EU was a passionate dream for most of the electorate which translated into support for UKIP. Now that dream has, or at least very quickly will be, realised there is no need for a socially-conservative Eurosceptic party because that lightning has been stolen with relative ease by the Tories who now hold that same position with the added advantage of being in government. 50% of UKIP’s 2015 voters switched to the Tories this time round and are likely to stay put.
The demise of third parties of the left is a more complex affair, partly due to their more varied nature than their antagonists on the right. The Greens for example have long been to the left of Labour whereas the political position of the Liberal Democrats has fluctuated under different leaders. Socialist third parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru have a clear adversary in Jeremy Corbyn who has sharply pulled Labour back to an ideology that it hasn’t held since the 1980s. It is no coincidence that the absence of left-wing third parties in that decade coincides with their recent electoral demise in the face of Corbynism which owes some of its success to former fringe voters. Plaid Cymuru had the added disadvantage of opposing Brexit in a country which supported it although their failure to win votes was not reflected in their representation when they won the last Lib Dem seat in Wales to bring them up to four MPs.
However, this theory does not fully address the collapse of the centrist minor parties’ vote share. Even though the Liberal Democrats suffered a sizable decrease in their vote share, if the 2017 election was the Red Wedding for third parties then the Lib Dems are Brynden Tully. Escaping the worst of the slaughter but unlikely to pose any real threat to the status quo. It is reasonable to assume that a Liberal Democrat voter who remained loyal in 2015 would be unlikely to abandon them now; yet they lost nearly 100,000 votes in this election. It is likely that the accusations of homophobia against Tim Farron, a committed Christian, did not give many self-proclaimed liberals much enthusiasm to vote for him. Additionally, those who voted for the party because they identify as “democrats” would undoubtedly be irritated at the Liberal “Democrats” refusal to support the result of a democratic referendum. It would be unfair to claim that the Liberal Democrats have suffered as badly as other parties due to this election when we consider their net gain in seats, but an ironic combination of illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiments led to a notable deduction in their electoral support.
Finally, both the SNP’s vote share and parliamentary representation was noticeably scarred by the 2017 election. The SNP were all set to repeat their previous success and perhaps even build on it. They had been re-elected in the Scottish Parliament one year previously, Scotland had voted to stay in the EU whilst the UK voted leave and their centrist policies appeared to provide the perfect balance between the Tories and Labour. But no one can control the electorate.
There are two main reasons why the SNP’s failed to capitalise on these advantages. Firstly, their defining policy of “independence first” was unpopular in Scotland with 56% support for the union on election day. In addition, the European Commission’s refusal to guarantee that an independent Scotland would be re-admitted to EU made sticking with the UK more important for Scots, despite the fact that most of them voted to remain.
Secondly, the SNP’s time in government at the Scottish Parliament has been far from successful with critics of Sturgeon pointing out that its main priority is to secure independence rather than manage Scotland’s economy has as a result suffered a near constant decline in GDP since they were elected. These combined factors created dissatisfaction with the SNP and they were unable to unite many of their 2015 voters who instead fled to either the Scottish Conservatives led by a charismatic Ruth Davidson or to the now radically anti-austerity Labour Party. The SNP remain the third largest party in Westminster but lost 21 seats including that of their popular Depute Leader Angus Robertson and their former leader Alex Salmond.
The explanations for the collapse of each third party in British politics are as wide-ranging as the parties themselves but each one either had their primary issues addressed or failed to shape the political agenda to the same extent that their counterparts have done. These parties have become so politically impotent that they were virtually ignored in 2017’s hung parliament with the major parties looking to Northern Ireland for parliamentary support instead. Therefore, smaller political parties are for now irrelevant in British politics which will thus give rise to a revitalised political duopoly.