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With smaller parties gaining ever more votes, political analysts have questioned whether the UK can still be labelled a two-party system. This research paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion, unfortunately I was unable to upload tables in the data section but nonetheless I hope this paper gives you an insight in both writing research papers and the UK's party system.
Is the UK a multi-party system? Exploring the causal link between partisan de-alignment and voter fragmentation.
With the 2015 General Elections swiftly approaching, there is a recurrent fear that votes may be taken away from the two mainstream political parties and given to parties such as UKIP and the Green Party which are gaining support at an incredulously rapid pace. It is therefore fundamental to review the common assumption of the UK being a two-party system when considering the possible outcome of the next elections. Whilst previous literature on the topic has tended to focus on a loss of votes for the mainstream parties and until recently has continued to depict the UK as a strong two-party stem, this research paper will focus on the transformation of the UK into a multi-party system. The prime question that shall be addressed therefore is whether there has been a shift in party system in recent elections. If this question can be answered positively, the next query this paper endeavours to investigate is whether the growth of partisan de-alignment is a causal variable which have contributed to the rise of a multi-party British system. Indeed it remains to-date an enigma whether partisan de-alignment – which refers to the process in which citizens constantly feel less attached to parties - is a cause or consequence of the widening of the party spectrum. The data used in this paper derives from an array of sources ranging from a comparative analysis of UK general elections and analysis of a 2014 ComsRes survey to results from studies of partisan de-alignment and volatility carried out by Russell J. Dalton (2000:31-36). The flaws with this methodology lie inherently in the strong reliance on secondary sources and the inability of carrying out innovative research in the field. Therefore it is essential to note that this paper serves as an encouragement to increase research on the British party system and accommodates a more open-mindedness about its changing structure.
Both the shift towards a multi-party British system and the effect of party de-alignment in relation to this phenomenon are two areas of political behaviour which have not been researched in full detail. Indeed academic analyses have tended to continuously neglect topics which political elites deem as secondary and have therefore skewed the assumption that the two party system may be changing in a system-biased manner (Dunleavy 2005: 505). Evidence to this bold statement is the inaccessibility to receive data regarding British voters’ multiple preferences and lack of explicit research in the widening of UK’s party system. The literature review will hence be centred on accessing the available academic research firstly on the recent fragmentation of votes and secondly on the ambiguous argument of partisan de-alignment.
French sociologist Maurice Duverger, one of the founding fathers of political behaviour, believed strongly that in politics the rules of the game define the players. He therefore elaborated a formula to predict electoral results based on the electoral system, stating that ‘the single-ballot majority vote favours the dualism of parties. Of all the hypotheses that have been posited in this book, the latter is without a doubt the closest to a true sociological law’ (Duverger, 1951 247). Duverger focused particularly on the two-party systems of American and British politics when drawing up this conclusion and his hypothesis proved successful when in 1951 Labour and Conservatives received over 95% of the vote shares in the general elections; in the next consecutive five elections the two main parties collected 91% of total votes (see Table 1.a). The prediction of a two-party system proved to be consistently accurate due to a number of variables. One of the main causes, argued by Lipset and Rokkan (1967), was that voters would identify with a party in accordance with their social class although today parties no longer have strong social divides. It can be argued that since the February 1974 General Election, the Liberal Democrats have typically taken between 15% and 25% of votes, forming what was coined the ‘third party’ and creating a three-party system (see Table 1.a). Instead, recent years have paved way to the rise of parties which were previously considered marginal. The new millennium has witnessed the rise in unconventional parties in the theatre of British politics, in particular it has seen a surge of support for previously marginalised parties like UKIP, SNP and the Green Party. Since January 15th 2014, the Green party has more members than both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats after gaining over 2,000 supporters in a single day which brought their total membership to 44,713 across their three UK parties (Mason 2015). The evidential importance of the rise of smaller parties is undeniable and many argue that the Green Party is now a UKIP on the left (The Economist 2014) as it poses itself as a convincingly active and engaging alternative to Labour and the Lib Dems, just as UKIP is a more hard-line alternative to the Conservative party. As Martin Kettle summarised the consequences of the phenomenon are that ‘the old majoritarian politics is dead and dying’ (Kettle 2014) and are being substituted by a more versatile party choice which has inevitable widened the political spectrum.
If there has been a change in the structure of the British party system, it would be wise to analyse forms of political behaviour which may have contributed to the phenomenon. A sense of partisan attachment will often help citizens manage the complexities of politics (Dalton 1984:264) and has been demonstrated to provide shortcut cues for the less sophisticated voter (Converse 1975:111). For decades, the study of partisan de-alignment – a process in which voters abandon their previous party affiliations - has gained prominence; nonetheless still to date research on the topic is highly limited. According to research carried out by Dunleavy, there has been a continuous process of party de-alignment across the UK as voter support for two-party politics unravels, however traditionalists would limit their acknowledgements to periphery areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – less populated areas of the UK (Dunleavy 2005: 507). Multiple scholars continue to refuse to acknowledge that there has been a change in partisan de-alignment (Dalton and Wattenberg 2000: 37) or deem it to be a passing phase of decay before a new, stronger partisan alignment is reaffirmed (Campbell 1979: 92-97; Crew 1980: 381). Academics Stefano Bartolini and Peter Mair argue that the phenomenon of de-alignment is an illusionary as by ‘notwithstanding the seductive imagery of transformation which permeates many of the prevailing interpretations of contemporary Western European politics, it is clear that, in the long term, the bounds which tie elections into a set of political identities and alignments have lost their resilience’ (Bartolini and Mair 1990:287). Bartolini even ventures beyond this statement and refers to partisan de-alignment as a myth (1983: 197). Pogunkte (1996: 338) states that his research does not support the evidence of general partisan decline and others have boldly held that even the very evidence that parties are becoming weaker is false (Keith et al. 1992; Widfeldt 1995).
Despite the abundant scholarly literature against partisan de-alignment, Russel J. Dalton and Martin P. Wattenberg, in their ground-breaking cross-national research on parties, prove that partisan de-alignment is an existing political variable, worthy of attention (Dalton and Wattenberg 2000: 14). By analysing eighteen modern democratic nations, the scholars set out to identify large-scale social and political alterations in industrialised states to then draw upon a wider, comparative conclusion. After extensive research, Dalton and Wattenberg realised that one of the consequences of party de-alignment is volatility, that is indecisiveness when casting a vote. Indeed, according to the theory, when an individual begins to identify less with a party it becomes more difficult to predict which party they will vote for in the next elections and their personal volatility thus contributes to the uncertainty of the outcome of the elections. In yet another influential research paper on partisan de-alignment, Dalton concludes that this volatility has led to the emergence of new parties which challenge the traditional partisanship. This paper intends on shifting the attention of scholars to what Dalton had implicitly discovered, that is that partisan de-alignment is not solely an issue that concerns mainstream parties in their scrabble for power, but rather it concerns the future of the entire British party system.
As noted previously, this research paper sets out to highlight the flaws in the traditional two-party British system whilst examining the validity of the link between partisan de-alignment and multi-party politics. The guiding hypothesis of this paper is that there has been a growth in significant British parties which have inevitably transformed the party system and widened the spectrum of party politics. A secondary hypothesis, if the first one proves to be verified, is that there is a causal correlation between partisan de-alignment (variable x) and the rise in new parties (variable y). More specifically, the findings of this paper will hopefully validate that the more citizens feel less attached to their initial party preference, the more they will turn to other rising parties. Accordingly, the data used in this paper will either acknowledge or discredit the hypothesis. In the case of accreditation, the hopeful outcome is that a larger emphasis is placed upon smaller parties which are gaining more votes. Also, if the second hypothesis proves valid, it would be wise for mainstream parties to not only accept but fully understand the changing party system. If partisan de-alignment is a controlling factor of the enlargement of the party spectrum, then there may be necessary measures that mainstream parties can take to hold their votes. For example, in order to increase their support traditional parties may consider opening up organisationally, electorally and legislatively (Garland and Brett 2014: 42-43). More specifically this could be obtained by abandoning top-down structures and welcoming citizen-led activities, changing the electoral structure of voting in the UK and openly discussing the legislation behind governmental affairs which are in the interest of citizens.
In the advent of discretitation, this research would redirect the attention of scholars to other areas of political behaviour. In the case of the first hypothesis it would entail that the UK has kept its two-party system. If the first hypothesis were to be true and the second were to remain false or unverifiable this would mean that the party system has been subject to change yet the causal mechanisms of this metamorphosis remain unknown. This paper would then call for increased research in this area of political behaviour.
The data utilised in this paper consists of adaptations of statistics extracted from various sources. The first two tables will serve to clearly identify the growth in the influence of smaller UK parties at both a national and European level. Perhaps the most important empirical examination made in this paper will be a critical review of the ComsRes survey in November 2014, a recent study carried out by the Electoral Reform Society which interviewed online a representative sample of 1,002 GB adults. The interviewees were chosen as they resided in one of the forty most marginal constituencies in which the two mainstream parties, the Conservatives and Labour, had received a vote share of either first or second place in the 2010 General Election. The limitation of this research is that we cannot generalise the findings too much as they weren’t taken from each British constituency, nonetheless the evidence provided has proven to enlighten the shift of voters’ perception of parties in a manner which had previously been unmonitored. Lastly, we shall extract data from Dalton’s findings (2000) to measure partisan de-alignment and volatility in voting procedures and whether these has been subject to any alterations.
This research paper set out to identify changes in the British party system in light of the upcoming 2015 UK General Elections. The findings of this paper confirm our first hypothesis, that is that there has been a surge in support for non-mainstream parties and this had, consequentially, led to the affirmation of more parties on the political spectrum. The consequences of this phenomenon entail a critical analysis of the assumption that the UK is a two-party system. This increase in modern parties which challenges the dominance of mainstream parties may indeed be reflective of a general public consensus to have a multi-party system, as noted by the ComsRes survey results. Therefore more importance should be placed on changes in the party system which now may need to accommodate multi-party elections. The second hypothesis assumed that there was a causal link between partisan de-alignment and vote fragmentation. This hypothesis remains unverified due to the lack of decisive data, however our studies draw attention to the simultaneous growth of smaller parties and a decline in party alignment. Hence, whilst we can be satisfied with evidential support to changes within the British party system, we raise awareness of the pressing relevance to convey innovative research in regards to the correlation between the variables of vote fragmentation and partisan de-alignment. This possible link is key to understanding an array of political issue ranging from how mainstream parties can maintain their votes to whether partisan de-alignment will lead to the formation of a UK government led by an unconventional party in the foreseeable future.