UK Election 2017: the real winner is the two-party system

Despite coming first in both the popular vote and seats won, many commentators – and indeed many Conservative candidates – have described the 2017 UK general election as a defeat for the Conservative party, and especially for it’s leader Theresa May. By comparison, Labour’s second place finish has been hailed as a triumph for the party’s Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who going into the election had been described as “unelectable.”

The reality, however, is that both May and Corbyn deserve credit, with each improving their party’s vote share from the 2015 election: while Labour had the biggest gain from 30% to 40%, the Conservatives still rose from 37% to 42%.

uk vote share trend - 1970 - 2017

That both major parties could improve their vote share by a combined 15 points speaks to a broader trend from the 2017 election – the collapse of support for the smaller parties to the lowest level in more than 40 years. This decline was most notable for UK Independence Party, whose share of the vote fell from 13% in 2015 to just 2%, but could also be seen for the Greens, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cyrmu as well. Only in Northern Ireland, where the major parties do not compete, did the vote share for the small parties hold by default.

As shown in the chart above, one has to go all the way back to 1970 to find the last election where the small parties captured less of the vote. The rise of the smaller parties beginning in the 1970s was seen as part of an international trend that saw new political movements emerge around the world. In some jurisdictions, this increase was due to the emergence of new post-materialist issues, such the environment, or the resurgence of old claims to national self-determination. In other cases, it was due to a dissatisfaction with the major parties that were seen to be out of touch with voters.

The UK experienced a mixture of both trends. On one side there was a gradual growth in the popularity of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, as well as a slow expansion in support for the Green Party. At the same, time the Liberal Democrats emerged from the merger of the former Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, who had broken away from Labour in the 1980s.  In the 1990s, UKIP was formed by those disaffected over the support for Britain’s membership in the EU among the major parties.

It remains to be seen whether the decline in support for the smaller parties will continue. However, the resurgence in support for both Labour and the Conservatives suggests that British politics may be re-establishing itself around a clear cleavage between a more economically right-wing Conservative party and an economically left Labour party, with those parties focused on other issues getting squeezed out of competition.


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