31 July 2019

The myth of two-party politics


Myths, when taken to express an essential truth, exercise a powerful influence on the human mind. One such myth is that two-party politics is the natural and normal arrangement of British politics. A long-established binary alignment of partisan opinion, it is supposed, crystalizes the political competition between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, government and opposition, those advocating change and those defending the status quo.  This alleged natural form of political contention has assumed a canonical status.

But the history of British politics over the last 200 years reveals a far more complex and rather different picture, masked by the continued dominance of the two-party model; a corrective all the more relevant today as we face the prospect of party fracture and political realignment. If two-party politics is currently fragmenting it is not an apocalyptic end. Rather, it is time to dispel the myth and reveal the actual historical dynamics that have shaped our party politics.

Where does the canonical status of the two-party system in British politics derive from? In the 1950s, Political Science was established as an academic discipline in the UK, with the Political Association founded in 1950 and the journal Political Studies launched in 1953. For British political scientists the two-party system became seen as an integral part of the ‘Westminster model’, alongside the unitary nature of the British state, the sovereignty of parliament, and collective cabinet responsibility.

The contemporary evidence appeared compelling. In the general election of 1951 96.8% of all votes cast were for either Conservative or Labour candidates. Both parties each had 1 million subscribing members, with an additional 5 million associated Trade Union members for the Labour party. The two major parties seemed huge monolithic blocs dominating electoral and parliamentary politics.

The benefits claimed for this two-party system were that it ensured strong and stable government, supported by parliamentary majorities endorsed by democratic electoral judgement. The shabby compromises of coalition government were avoided and ministries not enfeebled by reliance on minority support in the Commons as Britain enjoyed a system of alternating single-party government.

Explanations for the two-party system being the natural configuration of British politics have been many and varied. They include a proposed duality in the ‘national character’; the physical arrangement of the House of Commons; the Englishman’s love of sport and the contest between two teams; the polarities of Church and Chapel; and the adversarial character of the English legal system.

More influentially, political scientists have asserted it to be the logical outcome of our first-past-the-post electoral system operating in single-member constituencies.

All these aspects of the orthodox two-party model of British politics, however, are misleading. Clear binary two-party politics have been exceptional, rather than normal, episodes in the British politics of the last 200 years.

Crucially, voting for MPs in single-member constituencies on the first-past-the-post system was only established in 1885. It is not an ancient arrangement. Prior to 1885 the great majority of English constituencies, nearly 80%, each returned two or three MPs, with 96% of the English electorate possessing multiple votes.

Prior to 1885 it was just the period from 1859 to 1874 that exhibited a clear two-party alignment, a contest personified in the clash between Gladstone and Disraeli.  Before 1859 the nascent Liberal party was a loose, often fractious, coalition of Whigs, Liberals and radicals. Only in 1859 did these sections coalesce under a single Liberal party banner. After 1874, Irish Home Rule MPs disrupted a clear two-party alignment in the Commons: a prelude to the Liberal schism of 1886.

It was the Redistribution Act of 1885 that transformed the electoral system by making nearly all (92%) English constituencies single-member districts with electors possessing just one vote.  According to the current consensus, this electoral reform should have produced a clear two-party system, with governments ruling on the basis of a parliamentary majority.

Yet for only ten years of the subsequent sixty year period from 1885 to 1945 was a single party in office commanding a Commons majority. In 1886, the Liberal party split in two. In 1890, the Irish Nationalists also broke into two groups. Gladstone’s minority Liberal government of 1886 and Gladstone and Rosebery’s minority Liberal governments of 1892-5 were sustained by Irish Nationalist support. From 1886 to 1892, Salisbury’s minority Conservative ministry was maintained by Liberal Unionist support. From 1895 to 1905, Salisbury and Balfour’s governments were coalitions of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists.

By 1906 the Labour party had become a parliamentary presence, injecting a third party into the mix.  Irish Nationalist and Labour support sustained Asquith’s minority Liberal ministry of 1910-15. Asquith and Lloyd George’s governments from 1915 to 1922 were coalitions of Liberals, Conservatives and, until late 1918, Labour.

MacDonald’s minority Labour ministry of 1924 was maintained by Liberal support, although the Conservatives were the largest single party in the Commons. The ‘National Government’ of 1931-40 was a coalition increasingly dominated by the Conservatives, while Churchill’s wartime coalition of 1940-45 drew on all parties. Put simply, the creation of clear first-past-the-post system in 1885 did not produce two-party politics.

Indeed, the causes of coalition or minority government are extraneous to the nature of the voting system. They exist in wartime emergencies, economic crises, and party splits over major policy issues.

In the latter case, when existing party distinctions are misaligned with crucial divisions of interest and opinion outside parliament, party schisms prove acrimonious and debilitating. Divisions within parties are the significant prelude and aftermath of coalition and minority government.  The prime ministers Balfour, Baldwin, MacDonald, more recently Major and Cameron, and latterly May, all suffered more from members of their own party than from their opponents.

From 1945 to 1974, a clearer two-party politics did prevail in the UK, although during that period no government was elected by a majority of the popular vote. Since 1974 multiple parties have contested for power in parliament. Most significant have been the Liberal Democrats, formed by a merger in 1988 between the Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party (made up of 29 SDP MPs in 1981); the Scottish Nationalist Party; the Democratic Unionist Party founded in 1971; the Ulster Unionist Party; and Plaid Cymru.

In February 1974, the Conservative prime minister Heath sought, unsuccessfully, to form a coalition with the Liberals. The Labour government formed by Wilson in the same month was a minority ministry. At the election of October 1974, Wilson’s government gained a slender majority of three MPs. Following by-election defeats, in 1977 Callaghan’s Labour ministry lost its Commons majority and agreed to a voting arrangement in the Commons with the Liberals, the ‘Lib-Lab pact’. Prior to the scale of the 1997 Labour electoral victory becoming apparent, Blair was discussing a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

From 1979 to 2001 a clearer two-party dominance appeared to prevail. The Thatcher and Major governments enjoyed Commons majorities. In 1997 Blair secured a historic Labour victory with 88% of votes being cast for either Labour or Conservative candidates.

But, in 2001 this figure dropped to 72%, with Labour securing 41% of votes, the Conservatives 31%, and 18.3% going to the Liberal Democrats. From 2010 to 2015, Cameron headed a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in office, and after June 2017, Theresa May led a Commons minority of Conservative MPs supported by the DUP.

From the high point of the election of 1951, when 96.8% of votes cast were for either Labour or Conservative candidates, by the general elections of 1974 this figure had dropped to 75%. By 2010 the figure was as low as 65%.

So in the last 200 years of British politics, for only one-third of that time have we seen relatively clear two-party politics: from 1859 to 1874, from 1945 to 1974, and from 1979 to 2001. For two-thirds of the period multiple party politics, often accompanied by minority and coalition government, have prevailed: a dynamic driven by wartime emergencies, economic crises, and intense conflicts over policy leading to the fracture of parties.

Such events are evident in the party splits experienced by the Conservatives in 1846, the Liberals in 1886, the Conservatives in 1903, the Liberals again in 1918, Labour in 1931, and Labour again in 1981. While party leaders such as Asquith, Baldwin and MacDonald (with Lloyd George and Cameron as notable exceptions) were initially reluctant to engage in coalition government, political circumstances rendered it the lesser of the evils available to them. Such coalitions, moreover, have tended to be alliances between either sections of parties or, more commonly since 1918, alliances between the Conservatives and smaller parliamentary groups or sections of other parties.

The potent myth that the normal and natural form of British politics is a well-defined two-party system disguises a far more complex reality. Today, in the face of a Brexit crisis cutting across the grain of party alignments, British politics is again confronted by party splits – the rending of that delicate fabric of internal compromise that enables major parties to maintain unity. Yet, this is not an apocalyptic end to a hallowed, long-standing and historic two-party system descending into unfamiliar disarray. In fact, current political dynamics in British politics represent a reversion, not a collapse, towards the more complex and dynamic party system that has prevailed for much of our recent historical experience.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Angus Hawkins is a Professor of Modern British History and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford