Second UKIP by‑election win underlines Britain’s political flux

By Andrew Hammond

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won on Thursday another seat in Parliament in what was billed as one of the most important British by-elections for years.  UKIP, a party built around a policy of British withdrawal from the European Union, claims its second consecutive by-election victory in as many months will shake the foundations of British politics, and there are already rumours of more defections of MPs from the governing Conservative Party.
 
Some continue to dismiss UKIP’s recent success as electoral ‘flashes in the pan’ that won’t be repeated outside of occasional by-elections.  However, this ignores UKIP’s earlier landmark success in May in winning the European Parliament vote in Britain, thus becoming the first party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a UK national election in over 100 years.
 
UKIP’s recent electoral success and September’s landmark Scottish referendum may seem unrelated.  However, they both reveal a flux in UK politics in which a dominant two party system is giving way, in the medium term at least, to a more unpredictable, and uncertain political landscape.
 
For much of the post-war period, UK politics has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour.  In the period from 1945 to 1970, for instance, these two parties collectively averaged in excess of 90% 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 Labour fell significantly in the subsequent nine UK general elections in this period.  This has brought about a significant political change that is still unfolding to this day.
 
It is the Liberal Democrats, not UKIP, which has done most to date to break the hold of the two major parties on power.  From 1974 to 2005, the average Liberal Democrat share of the vote in British general elections was just below 20%.  
 
However, several other parties have come to prominence too, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) which governs in the Edinburgh Parliament; UKIP whose strength lies largely in England; and the Greens too.  UK opinion polls in recent weeks indicate that collectively these parties, and the Liberal Democrats, enjoy the support of around 30% of the electorate.
 
One reason the decline of the two party system makes for a more unpredictable outlook for British politics it is that it is harder for any one organisation to secure a majority government in UK general elections.  This is despite ‘first past the post’ voting 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 current Coalition Government was formed between Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, Labour and the Conservatives had won overall majority governments at every election since 1945, except for the brief interregnum between February and October 1974.  
 
Yet, as in 2010, the precise result of the 2015 UK General Election is again unpredictable.  While Labour has enjoyed a poll lead in most surveys since 2010, a number of polls this Autumn have showed the Conservatives with a slight advantage.
 
To be sure, Labour or possibly the Conservatives could yet win an overall majority.  However, the conditions are again in place potentially for another ‘hung parliament’ in which no one party wins a majority of seats.  In part, this is because support for UKIP has averaged around 15% in surveys taken in recent weeks, double the current poll standing of the previously leading ‘third party’ in British politics, the Liberal Democrats.
 
Another hung parliament could, remarkably, mean a second successive Coalition Government.  A second possibility is the prospect of either Labour or the Conservatives seeking to run a minority Government, without a parliamentary majority, over a five year term of office with all the uncertainties this might bring.
 
Taken overall, the prominence of parties such as UKIP and the SNP underline that the two party system is giving way, in the medium term at least, to a more unpredictable, and uncertain British political landscape.  Indeed, barring a significant polling surge by Labour or the Conservatives, a second successive UK hung parliament looks increasingly possible in the 2015 general election.

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