The nation that gave the world parliamentary democracy is confronting some of the system’s downside. After 70 years of stable, two-party rule that produced British leaders with the power to wage wars and set taxes, the growing appeal of smaller parties is upending British politics. The election May 7 produced a surprise majority for Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservative party, though it also brought unprecedented support for parties focused on targeted causes such as pulling Britain out of the European Union and winning independence for Scotland. Giving voice to disgruntled voters promises to expand political discourse. It has also renewed calls to change the U.K.’s electoral system to heal a splintered country.
Opinion polls before the election showed the Conservatives neck-and-neck with the opposition Labour Party, raising fears that the vote would have no decisive winner and leave Britain struggling to form a functioning government. The polls were wrong, but the parliamentary math was still upset. About a third of voters didn’t select one of the main parties. The Scottish National Party swept aside Labour to win 56 of 59 seats in Scotland after its loss in the September independence referendum fueled a surge of support. Because the party is concentrated in a single area, it became the third-biggest group in Westminster with just 4 percent of the U.K. popular vote. A similar share of the ballots were cast for the Green Party, though they were spread through the country, which gave it only a single seat in the 650-member House of Commons. The U.K. Independence Party, which has thrilled economically marginalized parts of England by pushing for Britain to leave the EU and stem the flow of immigrants, was the favorite of 13 percent of the electorate — 3.9 million voters — and secured only one member of Parliament. Its populist leader, Nigel Farage, failed to win a seat and resigned, promising the party would push for electoral reform to better reflect the popular vote.
The U.K.’s district-by-district winner-takes-all voting system makes it difficult for smaller parties to gain many slots in Parliament, though they can still upset the results. Each seat is awarded to the candidate with the most votes in the district, a system known as first-past-the-post. Several of the U.K.’s smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, have long advocated a shift to more proportional representation, where seats better reflect the share of the vote. That’s the approach in most European countries, while New Zealand has adopted a hybrid system. A U.K. referendum on changing to a so-called alternative vote system that ranks candidates in order of preference failed in May 2011. The two-party system dates back to a time when Britain was divided between working-class people who voted Labour and suit-wearing Conservative supporters known as Tories. As those distinctions disappeared, the main parties struggled to maintain allegiances. More power has also been devolved to regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The rise of smaller parties has stirred passions and revived interest in politics, which could help reverse a decade-long slide in party membership. The end of two-party politics has also added urgency to the debate about how to evolve the system to make it more democratic. Some politicians including London Mayor Boris Johnson say there is scope to consider a more federal system, which could help avoid another push toward independence in Scotland. Future elections still threaten to create a fractured, unruly Parliament that could hamper decision making in the world’s sixth-biggest economy, potentially destabilizing a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear power.
The Reference Shelf
- Interactive map of U.K. election results from 2015 and 2010.
- Bloomberg Magazine explained the appeal of UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
- The Economist’s briefing on Britain’s electoral system and why it could lead to a crisis of legitimacy.
- A report from Democratic Audit in 2012 examined the state of the U.K.’s democracy.
- QuickTakes on Scotland’s Independence and Will Britain Leave the EU?
- W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan poked fun at Parliament in their 1882 comic opera “Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri.”
First published March 10, 2015
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