Emerging & Minor UK Political Parties
Now that the UK has moved away from a two-party (and two-and-a-half-party) system, it is necessary to consider the policies and ideologies of other parties. These parties have achieved varying successes at local, devolved and national level in recent years. This has been due to:
- The movement of Labour and the Conservatives towards the centre-ground, in an attempt to win over ‘swing’ voters, has left the left and right wings respectively of these parties feeling less represented, meaning smaller parties have been able to appeal to them
- Emerging parties are often populist, directly appealing to the people and presenting themselves as ‘outsiders’, away from the ‘Westminster political elite’. This has proved popular amongst many voters.
- Support for the Lib Dems has declined significantly since 2010. They were often seen as the obvious choice for those not wishing to vote for either of the two main parties, however being part of government changed their statues as the ‘protest’ party. Voters therefore wished to look for alternatives to them.
The United Kingdom Independence Party was founded in 1993 by members of the Anti-Federalist League. The party’s main objectives were to secure the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The party is commonly known and referred to as UKIP.
The Eurosceptic, right-wing populist party first made its first significant breakthrough at the local elections in 2013, when it came third in the nationwide share of votes, and fourth in terms of the number of council seats the party won.
The most successful leader of UKIP was Nigel Farage, a founding member who held the position from 2010-16 (although he also held the leadership from 2006-2009), and had been an MEP since 1999.
In the 2014 European Elections the party received the most votes from the UK - the first time for more than a century that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour has won.
In October 2014 the party gained its first elected MP at Westminster by Douglas Carswell winning the Clacton seat by more than 12,000 votes - a swing of 44% from the Conservative party. Its second seat was achieved by Mark Reckless, a Tory defector who resigned and was re-elected for UKIP in Rochester and Strood.
The public’s perception of a ‘single issue’ party led to Farage performing a full policy review, with his goals of ‘the development of the party into broadly standing for traditional conservative and libertarian values’. Despite gaining 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 election, UKIP only won one seat (Carswell). Farage himself failed for a seventh time to become an MP. Nevertheless, it has been argued that Farage and UKIP were the catalysts for the 2016 EU membership referendum. Following the vote to leave the EU, Farage resigned and was eventually replaced by Diane James. James only lasted 18 days as leader before herself resigning. Another candidate, Steven Woolfe, resigned from the party in October 2016, claiming it was ‘ungovernable’. Paul Nuttall became leader in November 2016. In March 2017, Carswell resigned from UKIP, declaring himself an independent MP.
UKIP’s purpose having been fulfilled, the party has struggled to continue its success in the post-Farage, post-referendum era. Nuttall has pledged that UKIP will be the ‘guard dogs’ of Brexit, although the party fielded fewer candidates in the 2017 election. Support for the party in May 2017’s local elections declined significantly, with many Brexit voters opting to switch to the Conservatives.
Current UKIP policies include:
- Complete Brexit process by 2019
- Cut net migration levels to zero within five years by almost halving immigration into the UK
- Unskilled and low-skilled labour banned for five years, and skilled workers and students would need visas
- Slash the foreign aid budget and spend it on domestic priorities like the NHS
- Ban Sharia courts and the wearing of face coverings in public places
Despite UKIP’s recent decline in popularity, it has had a significant effect on party politics, by taking support from Eurosceptic Conservative voters, but also working-class Labour voters concerned about immigration.
In 1934 the centre-left National Party of Scotland and the centre-right Scottish Party formed to become the Scottish National Party.
The party is a Scottish Nationalist and social-democratic party, both supporting and campaigning for Scottish independence, and is the third largest political party in terms of membership in the UK, with more than 92,000 members.
In 2007, the SNP became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, and in 2011 became the institution’s first single-party majority government, paving the way for the 2014 independence referendum.
The current leader of the SNP is Nicola Sturgeon, who replaced Alex Salmond who stepped down after the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. Sturgeon was the only candidate confirmed (it was apparent that no other candidate would receive the required nominations), and by becoming the leader of the Scottish National party was the first woman to be both First Minister for Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party. Despite losing the referendum, the SNP retained large levels of support, and won over many former Labour voters disillusioned by that party’s anti-independence stance. 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster were won in 2015 by the SNP. They also have two MEPs in the European Parliament.
The party ideology aligns with mainstream European social democratic traditions, commitments to same-sex marriage, unilateral nuclear disarmament, progressive personal taxation, reducing the voting age to sixteen and investment in renewable energy.
Current SNP policies include:
- Hold a second independence referendum once the terms of Brexit are known
- Invest £118bn in UK public services
- Scotland to have control over immigration and to remain in the EU single market after Brexit
- Additional NHS spending across the UK that would, by 2021/22, increase the NHS Scotland budget by up to an extra £1bn
- Increase the minimum wage to over £10 per hour by the end of the parliament
- Lift the freeze on benefits and abolish the two-child cap and the so-called Rape Clause
- Protect the triple lock on pensions, protect the winter fuel allowance and support fair pensions for women
- No increase in taxation on the low paid, in National Insurance or in VAT.
- Support a UK-wide increase in the higher rate of taxation from 45p to 50p.
Support for the SNP has been significant, as it has taken away large areas of Labour support, making it much more difficult for Labour to win an overall majority at a UK election. The continuing electoral support for the party, combined with the fact that a majority of Scotland voted to remain in the EU, may make it difficult to resist pressure in the future to hold a second independence referendum.
Formed in 1990 after the former Green Party split into three parties (along with the Scottish Green Party and Green Party in Northern Ireland), the Green Party of England and Wales is co-led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley.
Although the Green Party has often been seen as a ‘single issue’ environmentalist party, it supports communitarian economic policies and proportional representation, taking a progressive approach to social policies that include drug policy reform, animal rights, LGBT rights etc.
Originally formed as the People Party in 1972, the party changed name to The Ecology Party in 1975, settling on the Green Party in 1985. Their first leadership election process was in September 2008 when Caroline Lucas became their leader until 2012, when Natalie Bennett became leader. Bennett stepped down in 2016.
At the 2010 general election Lucas retained her seat as MP for Brighton Pavilion, giving the party one MP in the Houses of Parliament, one member of the House of Lords, three MEPs in the European Parliament and two members of the London Assembly. In 2015, despite gaining over 1 million votes, Lucas was the only Green candidate to win a seat.
Current Green Party Policy includes:
- Hold a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, with the option of staying in the EU
- Pass an Environment Protection Act to safeguard and restore the environment
- Provide more money for public services
- Move towards a four-day working week and “universal basic income”
- Scrap tuition fees and fund full student grants
The Green Party has increased its membership and share of the vote in recent years, but have remained some way short of significant electoral success.
Formed in 1925 as Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (English: National Party of Wales) in order to attempt to establish a Welsh government, the party’s primary aim was to make the Welsh language the only official language of Wales.
At the 1929 general election Plaid Cymru contested Caernarvonshire, its first parliamentary constituency, where they won 1.6% of the vote (609 votes).
The following decades saw limited support, with many of the population seeing the party as an ‘intellectual and socially conservative Welsh language pressure group’. However, in the 1950’s president Gwynfor Evans turned the party’s fortunes around, increasing its share of the vote from 0.7% in the 1951 general election to 3.1% in 1955, and 5.2% by 1959, whereupon they contested a majority of the available Welsh seats for the first time.
Plaid Cymru contested every Welsh seat for the first time at the 1970 general election, and as a result the party saw their vote share increase substantially to 11.5% in 1966.
Leanne Wood is the current leader of Plaid Cymru. In the 2015 UK general election, the party won 3 seats. In the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, the party won 12 seats, making them the official opposition to the Labour government.
The party advocates an independent Wales within the European Union, with the goal of making Wales a EU member state, and aims to create a bilingual society that promotes the revival of the Welsh language.
Current Plaid Cymru policies include:
- Negotiate a Brexit deal that puts Wales first
- Demand all future free trade deals must be endorsed by Welsh Assembly
- Guarantee rights of all Europeans currently living and working in Wales
The party has seen a slight increase in its share of the vote in recent years in Wales.
Development of a Multi-Party System in the UK
Traditionally, the UK has had a two-party system, meaning that two parties have dominated (20th century- Conservative and Labour).
This was thought of as good, as voters had a clear choice between two programmes of government, and there would be a strong opposition. Both parties would also be drawn towards the centre ground, as they were fighting over the same voters, meaning that moderation was the order of the day) rather than extremism). However, there have been times where only one party has really dominated, with a weakened opposition.
The ‘two-party’ system started to break down in the 1970s, as support for a ‘third’ party grew- this party being the current Liberal Democrats. The two-party system therefore became a ‘two and a half’ party system. Voting behaviour started to change, as people felt less loyalty towards the Conservatives or Labour. Since 1997, things have become more complex. The UK Parliament has still had a mostly two-party system, due to the consequences of the electoral system, although the formation of a coalition government in 2010 demonstrated the effects of partisan dealignment.
Devolution has given the SNP in Scotland major support, which was translated into winning 56 seats in the 2015 general election, making them the ‘third’ party in Westminster. Parties such as UKIP and the Green Party have also seen their support rise in recent years. The popularity of these parties has been masked by the ongoing use of first past the post, meaning that at general elections they can only expect to win 1-2 seats, if any.
The 2017 general election saw a move back to more traditional two party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour securing 82% of the vote between them. Where different voting systems are used, for example in European Parliament elections, support for these parties can be more clearly seen. The use of proportional voting systems to devolved governments leads to multi-party systems in these regions of the UK.