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Is the UK still a two-party system? Essay

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Updated: Nov 27th, 2019


The United Kingdom is made up of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which form a constitutional monarchy with the Monarch being the head of state, and the prime minister being the head of government. Under this constitutional framework, the regional governments of Scotland and Wales, the executive of Northern Ireland, and the UK government exercise their respective executive powers.

On the other hand, the UK government exercises the legislative powers in collaboration with the two chambers of the legislature, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Furthermore, the Northern Ireland, the Scottish, and the Welsh assemblies do also exercise their respective legislative powers. Moreover, the judiciary is independent of the legislature and the executive, and the Supreme Court of the UK forms the highest court (Ingle 3).

Conversely, the UK political party system is made up of several political parties in which two major parties, the Conservative and the Liberal parties, control parliamentary politics and government business. In addition, the Labour party has since replaced the Liberal party as the second major party in the UK.

Therefore, over the past few years, the parliamentary politics in the UK show the dominance of the Labour and the Conservative parties in forming either coalition or minority governments. Here, the two major parties have been enlisting the support of other nationalist or third parties to form the working majority (Bartle and Allen 4).

As a result, the UK has other parties alongside the two major parties such as the Liberal Democrats, which was born out of the Liberal party joining forces with the Social Democratic Party in 1988. Other nationalist parties in the UK include Plaid Cymru in Wales (1925), the Scottish National Party (1934), the Democratic Unionist Party (1971) and the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland (Ingle 5).

Therefore, it is arguably correct to describe the British political party system as a two-party system because this has been the case scenario in Britain since the 18th Century through the post-war era (Webb 3). However, since the 1960s, several changes in the history of the British party system are notable, and therefore, the notion that the UK is made up of a two-party system is equally questionable.

For instance, in the recent past, most third parties in the UK have shown the willingness to take up more seats during elections, and in some occasions, there has been an obvious change in electoral behavior. Additionally, the regional support for the Labour and Conservative parties is also declining significantly (Webb 4). As a result, this essay presents discussions for and against the notion that the UK is still made up of a two-party system.

The classic two-party system in the UK

According to Webb (3), a party system is an integral part of the settlement involving the political and institutional aspects of parliamentary politics. Here, the party system is classified relative to the arithmetical criterion such as two-party or multi-party systems.

On the other hand, the party system can be classified according to the level of cooperation between different parties in the system. As a result, parties can interact at the legislative, electoral, regional, and executive arenas, and in so doing, the interactions between political parties create several political authorities and jurisdictions (Kelly 7).

As a result, the notion that the UK is made up of a two-party democracy depends on the level of political party interaction and the arena upon which the political interaction is based. That said, the original two parties, which constituted a two-party system in the UK were the Conservatives and the Liberals (Bassett 23). In the 19th Century, the Liberals appeared to be the major governing party in the UK before the party begun an extended period of decline especially after the victory of 1906.

As a result, the original two-party system underwent dramatic changes particularly through the rise of the Labour party to replace the Liberals as the second major party. Furthermore, the Liberals’ dominance weakened due to the partition of Ireland and the divided support of the Irish people who had to choose between supporting the Labour Party and the Liberals. Consequently, by 1929, the political party system in the UK was made up of three parties (Robins and Jones 34).

However, it is correct for one to argue that the political party system in the UK is a classic two-party democracy in the period from 1945 to 1970. During this period, the two major parties in the UK played a central role in the understanding of the political party system in the UK, which is a majoritarian democracy (Denver 588; Webb 8).

Here, the existence of other parties in parliamentary politics of the UK is overshadowed by the fact that the two major parties receive most of the votes during elections, and that these parties control the government business in parliament.

Additionally, the nature of electoral behavior can be described as disproportionate because the first-past-the-post system of voting that has been in place since 1945 encourages and sustains a two-party democracy in the UK, and thereby making it unlikely for other third parties to be recognized (Blau 431).

Furthermore, the first-past-the-post electoral system denies the third parties the chance to receive national support, and as a result, these parties enlist the support of regional political jurisdictions, which means that their chances of forming the working majority in parliament depend on other major parties (Clarke et al. 123).

Conversely, studies show that the Labour and the Conservative parties favor the first-past-the-post electoral system despite the efforts made by the Liberals to have the UK adopt a three-party system that gives all the three parties the opportunity to form the government relative to the number of seats held by a certain party (Johnston et al. 143).

As a result, the first-past-the-post system has given either of the two main parties an added advantage of receiving the majority votes except in 1974 when the Labour Party received a narrow victory. Despite receiving a small majority vote, the Labour Party continued to dominate the UK parliamentary politics through 1977 because the party enlisted the support of other third parties particularly through the Lib-Lab pact that saw the Labour and the Liberal parties forming a coalition government (Sanders 13).

Conversely, apart from the first-past-the-post electoral system, the likelihood of either the Liberal or the Welsh and Scottish Nationalist parties dismantling the two-party system in the early 1950s was challenged by the lack of enough resources and well known candidates (Field 196). However, in 2001, the Liberal democrats and the nationalists managed to produce candidates for most of the contested seats.

As a result, the move by the third parties to produce their own candidates against those of the Conservatives and the Labour Party has had a significant impact on the two-party system in the UK. Here, the supporters of third parties had a choice to make in terms of voting for either of the two main parties or none particularly when the party of their choice failed to produce the preferred candidate in a particular constituency.

As a result, the third parties almost doubled their support and votes against the two main parties in the period from 1950 to 1997. However, vote sharing between the third parties and the two main parties in the UK shows a little or no impact at all on the dynamics of the two-party system because the Conservative and Labour Parties still maintain unwavering dominance relative to the overall number of seats held by the two parties in the parliament to date (Whiteley et al. 354).

Furthermore, the two-party system in the UK has been linked to certain aspects of electoral behavior and class alignment. Here, the two main parties enjoy political dominance because they represent the working and the middle classes (Mughan 195). Conversely, the Liberal democrats and the nationalists do not enjoy any class representation, and thus they are said to be politically disadvantaged. This electoral phenomenon is known as class alignment.

As a result, to control more votes and political power, the Labour party and the Conservatives must enlist the support of the majority of the working class and a considerable percentage of the middle class (Whiteley 581). That said, most studies show that the period from 1950 to 1970 was an era of class alignment whereby the strong link between electoral behavior and class status appears to have denied other third parties the opportunity to make a significant impact in the parliamentary politics (Bassett 45).

During this period, the two main parties received the highest percentage of votes from the two main classes because the parties represented class interests and values. Furthermore, the Conservatives and the Labour Party had several strong-holds such as South-East England for the Conservative Party, and the North of Wale and England for the Labour Party (Denver 590).

As a result, other unrepresented constituencies played a central role in deciding the electoral outcomes because the degree of support for the two main parties was marginal or more balanced.

However, since the 1970s, the connection between the electoral behavior and class status has been weakening but very much intact because of another political phenomenon known as partisan de-alignment. Through partisan de-alignment, the Conservative Party managed to receive the highest support of the working class in the period from 1979 to 1992 especially after the government formed by the Labour Party became consistently incredible (Clarke et al. 126).

However, the extra support for the Conservatives begun to decline in 1992 after the Labour Party regained its credibility, and the victories of the Labour Party in 1997 and 2001 can be attributed to the shift of the middle-class support from the Conservatives to the Labour party. Therefore, it is probable that the dominance of the two main parties in the UK is still intact though weak.

The rise of the multi-party system in the UK

Despite that the two-party system is still intact in British politics to date, the electoral behaviors and voting tactics relative to the support for the two main parties have changed in different aspects. For instance, the notion that the two main parties will take the first or the second positions in most constituencies is no longer feasible.

Moreover, the Conservative Party’s popularity in some political jurisdictions such as Scotland is on the decline due to the emergence of the strong support for Liberals and nationalists. Additionally, considering that the Conservative Party was the most famous political party in Scotland, and the second best in Wales until the 1950s, it is probable that the Conservatives have lost the Welsh and Scottish support because the party has failed in many ways to represent the people of Scotland and Wales (Kelly 54).

Moreover, the intensified calls for devolution in some political jurisdictions further ruined the dominance of the Conservatives. However, during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as the Prime Minister, the Labour Party survived losing out on majority votes while the Conservatives lost almost all seats in Scotland and Wales.

Here, the Welsh and Scottish people supported the Labour Party because the party stood for the devolution agenda in the two regions, and therefore, through the combined support from the Liberal Democrats and other Nationalist Parties, the Labour Party survived the storm, and went ahead to regain power and political dominance at Westminster (Denver 596).

On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party enjoys the support from most regional political jurisdictions as the second best party in parliamentary politics. In some of these regions such as England, the existence of three competing parties makes it difficult for one to clearly define the political party system that is in place (Webb 15).

For instance, in the recent past, there has been evidence of a two-party system in England whereby the electorate chooses between either the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives or the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats instead of the usual trend of Labour and Conservatives (Sanders 15). Furthermore, in more balanced or marginal political jurisdictions, the battle for majority votes can either be three-way or four-way.

For example, in Scotland and Wales, which have their respective regional assemblies, there is evidence of proportional representation of four different parties in parliamentary elections (Johnston et al. 154). Therefore, proportional representation of political parties in some regions of the UK shows that third parties have almost regained the support of different social classes, and as a result, their influence in parliamentary politics cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, most Liberal Democrats propose that introducing electoral reforms in the UK will not only end the era of social class-oriented party representation, but it will also rid the UK of unpopular policies by single parties that pretend to represent the interests of the majority of voters (Field 200).

In addition, the popularity of a two-party system in the UK has declined significantly due to tactical voting. Here, tactical voting entails the various techniques used by most third parties to challenge the dominance and governance of the two major parties (Robins and Jones 56).

As a result, tactical voting has been used to replace unpopular governments and ineffective opposition parties in the UK for many decades now. However, the most spectacular show of tactical voting appears in 1997 whereby the Labour Party enjoyed a clean sweep of majority seats despite the Liberal Democrats claiming a reasonable number of parliamentary seats.

In addition, the Conservatives suffered a disastrous blow during the 1997 elections because the party lost almost all the seats in some regions where the tactical voting technique was successfully executed (Sanders 20). Subsequently, the Labour Party was also affected by tactical voting in 2005 whereby most voters failed to support the party because they felt that the Iraq war was unwarranted, and thus the voters were out to punish the political elite.

Consequently, other third parties gained from tactical voting with the Liberal Democrats obtaining a historical tally of 62 parliamentary seats in 2005 (Denver 604). Thus, it is probable that the majoritarian system of a two-party democracy is weakening, and it will soon come to an end.

Relative to the discussions above, it is arguably correct to state that the UK is still made up of a two-party system despite that the system’s popularity is weakening due to proportional representation of political parties, which threatens to replace the two-party system with a multi-party system.

However, in some regions such as Scotland and Wales, the two-party system has been completely replaced by a four-party voting system whereby the Labour Party is still the dominant party, and the Liberal Democrats together with other Nationalist parties assume the second place while the Conservatives are trail in the last position (Bartle and Allen 45).

Furthermore, the two main parties in the UK can no longer form the government on a minority vote, and thus, the two parties depend on the first-past-the-post system to form the working majority in parliament.

Through the first-past-the-post system, which manipulates the balance the seats held by a particular political party and the total votes cast to favor the dominance of the two main parties, the influence of other third parties in politics at the national level is still overshadowed (Blau 453).

Therefore, the first-past-the-post electoral system gives the impression of the existence of a two-party system in the UK to date. For instance, in the period from 2005 to 2010, there is evidence of a return to the traditional voting tactics despite the emergence of new and powerful party leaders. And in the 2010 elections, the Conservatives demonstrated their dominance in British politics despite the popularity of the Liberal Democratic leader increasing suddenly (Bartle and Allen 65).

Furthermore, Scotland shocked many by supporting the Labour Party as opposed to the Liberal Democrats, and in other regions, the support for the two main parties was almost the same as in the past years. Therefore, the probability that a two-party system is still intact in the UK is relatively high despite the electorate expressing concern over the credibility of the two main parties in delivering popular policies relative to the ever changing political and economic environments.


The essay presents the discussions for and against the notion that the UK is still made up of a two-party system. The foregoing discussions show that the Conservatives and the Labour party have been enjoying political dominance over the years with the period from 1945 to 1970 being characterized by a classic two-party system.

Furthermore, the two-party system has been in place parallel to the existence of other third parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists, which are at a political disadvantage because they lack enough resources and candidates who can make a national political impact. However, the period from 1970 to date has been marked by the emergence of strong support for third parties against the two main parties.

Therefore, despite that the third parties have failed to replace the two-party system with a multi-party system, the parties have made a significant impact in British politics in terms of encouraging proportional representation of most political parties in some political jurisdictions in the UK. However, the first-past-the-post electoral system is still intact and in full support of the two-party system, and thus more needs to be done in terms of encouraging electoral reforms to counter or replace the two-party system in the UK.

Works Cited

Bartle, John and Allen Nicholas. Britain at the polls 2010. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2010. Print.

Bassett, Reginald. Essentials of parliamentary democracy. 2nd ed. London: Charles Birchall & Sons Ltd, 1964. Print.

Blau, Adrian. “A quadruple whammy for first-past-the-post.” Electoral Studies 23.3 (2004): 431-453. Print.

Clarke, Harold, Stewart Marianne, and Zuk Gary. “Politics, economics and party popularity in Britain, 1979-83.” Electoral Studies 5.2 (1986): 123-141. Print.

Denver, David. “The results: how Britain voted.” Parliamentary Affairs 63.4 (2010): 588 606. Print.

Field, William. “Policy and the British voter: council housing, social change, and party preference in the 1980s.” Electoral Studies 16.2 (1997): 195-202. Print.

Ingle, Stephen. The British party system: an introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Johnston, Robert, Pattie Claire, and Johnston Lan. “The impact of constituency spending on the results of the 1987 British general elections.” Electoral Studies 8.2 (1989): 143-155. Print.

Kelly, Richard. Changing party policy in Britain: an introduction. UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999. Print.

Mughan, Anthony. “General election forecasting in Britain: a comparison of three simple models.” Electoral Studies 6.3 (1987): 195-207. Print.

Robins, Lynton and Jones, Bill. Half a century of British politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.

Sanders, David. “Pre-election polling in Britain, 1950-1997.” Electoral Studies 22.1 (2003): 1-20. Print.

Webb, Paul. The British party system. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2000. Print.

Whiteley, Paul, Sanders David, Stewart Marianne, and Clarke Harold. “Aggregate level forecasting of the 2010 general election in Britain: the seats-votes model.” Electoral Studies 3.1 (2010): 354-361. Print.

Whiteley, Paul. “Evaluating rival forecasting models of the 2005 general election in Britain-An encompassing experiment.” Electoral Studies 27.4 (2008): 581-588. Print.

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