What's Happened to Pluralism in Britain? By Stephen Barber

What's Happened to Pluralism in Britain? By Stephen Barber

Britain's politics has become more plural despite retaining a first past the post electoral system where winner takes all. The vote for parties other than the big two has grown exponentially, such that by the last couple of elections more than a third of the electorate gave its votes to third party candidates or independents.  

In 1951 when Britons went to the polls, a full 3 percent voted for candidates who did not represent the Conservative or Labour parties. It meant that by winning 48.8 percent of votes cast, Clement Attlee's losing Labour party achieved a higher share than any party which actually won at any election since 1959. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair's landslides were taken on around 43 percent while the last two majority governments of 2005 and 2015 were secured on only around 35 percent.

With a week to go before the 2017 general election is decided, a flurry of opinion polls suggests that prime minister Theresa May and the Conservative party has suffered a serious erosion to what was a commanding lead over Labour at the start of the campaign. There are several explanations. Brexit has inevitably been overtaken as the central campaign issue by a host of other concerns.

There was a rather incompetent Conservative u-turn on a policy to pay for social care which would take the value of older people's houses and dubbed the 'dementia tax'. Not only was this unpopular with a key voting demographic, but the policy, associated directly with May, led some to question the rhetoric around the PM's superior leadership qualities and decisiveness. There were also some half decent media performances from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, accompanied by one or two popular policy proposals such as free university tuition. But something else has happened.  

With a week to go, some polls suggest both Conservative and Labour have improved their electoral support when compared to the general election of two years ago. And a key explanation is a noticeable reversal in the trend for third party candidates. In part this is obvious. The UK Independence Party which polled nearly 4 million votes last time has suffered a collapse in support since the EU referendum as the Conservatives have all but adopted their platform. Theresa May has de facto become UKIP's leader.

2015 also appears to have been the high water mark for the Scottish Nationalists who won all but 3 of the Scottish seats on half of the votes cast. It remains to be seen if the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, in coalition government 2010-2015, can recover significantly enough to be a force in the new parliament or if the Greens can consolidate their support.

What does seem likely is that the combined percentage for Conservatives and Labour will be the highest for 25 years. This could be thought of as surprising given that the centre ground appears all but abandoned by the big two since the referendum. But perhaps it reflects the greater polarisation in politics and the country. 

Most commentators still confidently predict a Conservative victory next week; indeed the message from the polls that reelection is not a foregone conclusion might even increase turnout. But May has not been strengthened by a limited and uninspiring campaign which has not yet convincingly delivered the Brexit mandate she called for. Meanwhile, Corbyn and his brand of leftist populism has only gained from the ordeal. But despite the stark choice seemingly on offer, when the dust settles, will pluralism be the biggest casualty?

 

Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is Associate Professor of Public Policy at London South Bank University and a Senior Fellow of the Global Policy Institute.

 

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