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A Spanner in the Works: Britain’s Fractured Politics

The U.S. presidential race is officially underway, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz becoming the first official candidate to declare they are running for the White House in 2016. Across the Atlantic and far closer, and in many ways more interesting, election will be hosted next month, when Brits go to the polls on May 7th. While the latest polls put the Labour Party with a four-point lead over the Conservatives, much is still up in the air as British politics has become increasingly fractured over the past several years. Fringe parties such as the Greens and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have emerged as formidable competitors in large swaths of the country, the former in the Labour-dominated north of England and the latter in the more conservative south and southeast. These new players are set to shake up the game by positioning themselves as runners-up in a number of constituencies, setting their sights longer than most politicians as both parties attempt to break into the mainstream despite Britain’s unforgiving first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. Furthermore, the massive surge in the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) support following last year’s independence referendum has devastated the Labour Party, whose solid support base north of Hadrian’s Wall has begun to erode.

For much of the past century British elections have been a contest between the Conservative and Labour parties, with smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats (created in 1988 as a merger of Liberal and Social Democrat parties) often taking third place. The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, similar to that here in Canada, has largely facilitated the dominance of these two parties, between whom leadership has oscillated since the 1920s. Now, after decades of political back-and-forth, a spanner has been thrown into the works as the political field fractures, potentially spelling trouble for the major parties as well as Britain as a whole.

Firstly, and despite their recent polling numbers, Labour should be worried about the changing electoral dynamics. Their problems begin with Ed Miliband’s dismal approval rating of just 23%. They continue in Scotland, where support for Labour has begun to wane as the SNP’s support surges. Many prominent Labour strategists assumed that support for the SNP would fall following the “no” vote for independence and Alex Salmond’s subsequent resignation from the party’s leadership. Instead, SNP membership has near quadrupled in the past two years to 102,143 according to recent counts – making the SNP the third largest party in the UK and a formidable political force to be reckoned with. Despite the strain this is likely to put on the future of a unified United Kingdom, the current Tory government actually has plenty to gain from growing SNP support. Scotland has historically been a bastion of Labour supporters, but the SNP’s surge means that many of Scotland’s 59 seats could flip to favor the nationalists. This means that despite Labour’s broad support across the UK as a whole, they may need to look to the SNP as a coalition partner come May 8th, something the Tories have been grabbing on to in their attacks of Labour in England, where voters dislike the idea of significant Scottish influence in Westminster.

Though Conservatives are far from home-and-dry, as they face increasing competition from the right as UKIP challenges them on a range of issues from immigration to economic policy. UKIP, who did surprisingly well in the 2014 EU parliamentary elections, has at home stolen a handful of seats out from under the Tories in tightly fought by-elections; such as last November’s race in Rochester where Tory-defector Mark Reckless won by less than 3,000 votes. UKIP’s growth has put pressure on the Conservatives to prevent further defections, and is largely responsible for David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if his party is re-elected. Yet there are risks to shifting rightwards, where the Tories risk losing support from moderates in the southwest and in city-centers. Additionally, bending to pressure from UKIP not only legitimizes the far-right party, but also stands as poor policy, as even Mr. Cameron himself has advocated for remaining a part of the European Union.

Many argue that the growth of fringe parties puts pressure on the established parties to reform, as public disillusionment with parliament is manifesting itself in largely untested and anti-establishment political movements. However, fractured politics could in many ways hurt ordinary citizens across Britain. Firstly, distortions in the winner-takes-all model mean that the SNP, who are projected to come 6th in terms of overall votes, will likely come 3rd in terms of seats, and could thus be decisive in choosing the new government. This only emboldens those frustrated with Westminster, and could lead to pressure for reform or abolition of the FPTP system in favor of proportional representation. Five party politics will likely lead to more hung parliaments and coalitions, weakening party platforms as well as governing mandates. Though one may expect more choice for voters to lead to compromise, Britain has begun to see increased polarization, as both Labour and Conservatives try to court supporters from the leftist Greens and SNP or right-win UKIP. These are undoubtedly turbulent times for British politics, and with the general election looming both the outcome and the future of Britain’s party system remain up in the air.

Image License: Some rights reserved by UK Parliament

About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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