Rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is a sign of UK politics in flux
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on course, according to polls, to win Thursday’s European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom. This would be only the second time in over a century that an organization other than the Conservatives or Labor have won a nationwide UK ballot, piling the pressure on Theresa May and underlining the current flux in British politics.
Yet, it is not just the ruling Conservatives, but also potentially Labor, who may be nursing an electoral headache in the next week. Polls indicate that both major parties may lose seats relative to the last European Parliament elections in 2014.
And in this sense, like the local elections earlier this month, Thursday’s ballot will turn on its head the results of the 2017 general election. That election, almost exactly two years ago, to elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament, saw the Conservatives and Labor winning over 80 percent of all votes, their biggest combined share since 1970.
It remains to be seen what the long-term impact, if any, of the Brexit Party’s anticipated win will be. Here, it should be remembered that in 2014 the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), another populist, Euroskeptic organization, which was then led by Farage too, won the European Parliament elections but has since declined, markedly, as a UK political force.
However, even at this early stage, it is already clear that the at least temporary rise of the Brexit Party, which was only formed a few weeks ago, reflects a flux in UK politics. This is illustrated by the apparent decay of the traditional two-party system that may be giving way to a more unpredictable political landscape.
For much of the post-war period, UK politics has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labor. In the period from 1945 to 1970, for instance, these two parties collectively averaged in excess of 90 percent of the vote, and also the seats won, in the eight British general elections held in this period.
Yet, from 1974 to 2005, the average share of the vote won by the Conservatives and Labor fell significantly in the subsequent nine UK general elections in this period. This has brought about a significant political change that is, by and large, still unfolding to this day.
The conditions are potentially in place for another hung Parliament in which no one party wins a majority.
It is the Liberals, not the Brexit Party or UKIP, who have probably done most to date to break the hold of the two major parties on power. From 1974 to 2005, the average Liberal share of the vote in British general elections was just below 20 percent, although the party slumped in the polls after forming a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, from which this month’s local election results indicate it may now be recovering.
Beyond the Liberals, several other parties have come to prominence too, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), which governs in the Edinburgh Parliament; UKIP and the Brexit Party, whose strength is greatest in England; and the Greens too.
One reason the apparent decline of the two-party system makes for a more unpredictable outlook for British politics is that it is harder for any one organization to secure a majority government in UK general elections. This is despite the “first past the post” voting system, which tends to provide the leading party a significantly larger number of seats in the House of Commons than would be given by a more proportionate electoral system.
To be sure, coalitions and the sharing of power have long been a feature of UK local government and devolved parliaments and assemblies outside of Westminster. However, this same dynamic may now also be permeating the heart of the British government itself in London.
Until 2010, when the coalition government was formed between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, Labor and the Conservatives had won overall majority governments at every election since 1945. That is, except for the very brief interregnum between February and October 1974.
Yet, as in 2010, the Tories failed in 2017 to win an overall majority, and had to reach a co-called “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. This has led to a very weak government led by May, who is likely to be replaced as prime minister in the coming weeks.
Going forward, polls over the last two months have generally shown Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor with a national poll lead of between 1 to 10 percentage points over the Conservatives. On this basis, it is possible the party could yet win an overall majority at the next election.
However, the conditions are potentially in place for another hung Parliament in which no one party wins a majority. If so, this would provide yet more evidence that the UK’s longstanding two-party system appears to be giving way to a significantly more unpredictable and uncertain political landscape.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.