There have always been two dominant parties in the UK political system. Between 1867 and 1922 this dominance was shared by the Liberals and Conservatives, and since 1922, it has been shared by the Conservatives and Labour. The source highlights a number of arguments relevant to the question, including the role of electoral systems, the policy positions of different parties and the shifts in recent years. Ultimately, the dominance of the major parties is accentuated by the First Past the Post voting system which has always benefitted two main parties. Although this factor is less important than it has been traditionally and there are other mechanisms through which parties can make an impact, nonetheless, to a large extent major parties remain dominant in UK Politics.
It is clear the First Past the Post system accentuates the power of the major parties in the UK political system. As the source states “the current electoral system favours few parties”. The First Past the Post system penalises parties who are nationally popular but lack concentrated support. For example, in the 2019 General Election the Green Party received 865,707 seats nationally but only secured one seat, Brighton Pavilion. In this same election, it took an average of 38,264 and 50,718 votes to elect a Conservative and Labour MP, respectively. In addition, the two main parties benefit from safe seats in which the minor parties cannot hope to be competitive. For example, in Liverpool Walton in 2019 the Labour MP won 84.7% of votes. The existence of these safe seats means that even people who support minor parties are dissuaded from voting for them and instead feel forced to vote tactically. This process in itself reinforces the dominance of the major parties and it is unlikely to change, as it benefits the two major parties. Famously, in 2011, both major parties campaigned against AV during the referendum. It is clear that under FPTP the two major parties remain dominant are likely to continue to do so. Contrastingly, it is clear that outside of Westminster elections minor parties have had significant success. As the source states people have been looking to minor parties like “the SNP and Plaid Cyrmu” who have achieved “success and recognition”. A number of more proportional voting systems are used across the UK including: STV for the Northern Irish Assembly and AMS for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Parliament. These elections do not see the clear dominance of Labour and the Conservatives. In fact, in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP has been dominant since 2011 and currently the Greens hold eight seats. In Wales, Plaid Cymru have been in government and also been the main party of opposition. Increasingly, since the devolution acts of 1998, policy decisions are being made outside of Westminster, including powers over taxation and are subsequently reducing the importance of Westminster Elections. Ultimately, the major parties remain dominant in the Westminster elections and that is unlikely to change. As the Westminster Parliament is sovereign in the UK, this accentuates their dominance. However, dominance in Westminster is not as important as it was prior to 1998 and it is clear that the two-party dominance is not replicated as clearly across the whole country, therefore suggesting that although remaining electorally dominant, this dominance is less clear that it once was.
In the last 20 years, despite a brief interlude from 2015-2020 under Corbynism, there has been depolarisation within British Politics. As the source states “the voter has little to choose between when looking to the major parties”. This depolarisation was entrenched by 13 years of New Labour where aspects of Neo-Liberalism, for example the importance of privatisation, were embraced by both parties. Evidence of this depolarisation can be seen though the make-up of the short-lived Change UK Party in 2019. This party saw members ‘cross the floor’ and join it from both the Conservatives (e.g. Sarah Wollaston), Labour (e.g. Chuka Umunna). Following its dissolution, most of these members then joined the Liberal Democrats. This cross-party amalgamation would have been unthinkable in the 1980s, for example. Arguably, the decreasing membership of political parties reflects this process, as people do not feel solely represented by any political party. Today, the biggest political party is Labour with 550,000 members whilst the Conservatives have 180,000. This can be compared with 2.8 million for the Conservatives in the early 1950s. Despite this, it is undoubtedly still the case in Britain’s adversarial system that “the major parties capture the main issues of the day and present choice”. Whilst policies on certain issues like COVID and Ukraine have seen cross-party support, this is still not the norm. The parties tend to take conflicting positions on major policy issues. They have to do this in order to create choice for the electorate through their manifesto promises. For example, in the 2019 General Election the three major parties took differing positions on the central issue of Brexit. The Conservatives promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Labour promised a renegotiation and second referendum, whilst the Liberal Democrats promised to simply scrap Brexit. Such differences are replicated across the range of policies that are campaigned on and help to maximise the power of voters by maximising choice. Ultimately, it is clear that despite depolarisation meaning the differences are not as ideologically stark as they once were, and general consensus existing on neo-liberal economics, the dominant parties still offer a choice to voters in an election and this clear choice, combined with FPTP, helps to accentuate their dominance.
Importantly, in recent years there have been a number of parties who have challenged the dominance of the major parties without necessarily being electorally successful. These parties have benefitted from people “questioning the establishment of Westminster”. The success of these parties can impact party policy of the major parties. The best example of this is UKIP, arguably the most significant political party of the last 15 years in Britain. Their clear popularity in winning 12.6% of the vote in 2015 (but only one seat) directly resulted in the Conservative decision to hold the EU Referendum in 2016. In addition, the popularity of the Green Party (both electorally and in membership) has made Labour embrace green policies faster than it may have otherwise done, including promising a £250 Billion Green Investment Fund. The impact of parties outside the mainstream has been accentuated by the mistrust that exists in the political class. Events within the last generation have led to people not trusting elected politicians, these include the Iraq War (2003), MPs Expenses Scandal (2009), Brexit Impasse (2016-2020) and, most recently, Partygate and Lobbying scandals. These events have made it more likely that voters will abandon the major parties. However, the source notes that “style over substance” is increasingly important in Politics. The major parties are at a distinct advantage in this battle because of their access to resources that the minor parties simply do not have. In the UK, party financing is regulated by the PPERA (2000). Although this has arguably increased the transparency of the party financing system, it has not stopped the major parties from a huge funding advantage, particularly at election time. For example, in the 2019 election the Conservatives were given £1 Million by a single individual, Peter Hargreaves. By comparison, the largest single Green Party contributor gave £100,000. In addition, Labour receives the financial backing of the major Trade Unions. Before the 2019 election the Unite Union alone gave Labour over £3 Million. This was significantly more than the total amount received by the Liberal Democrats and Greens combined. This significant financial advantage helps to consolidate the electoral advantage of the major parties and to win battles over style with targeted campaigning, particularly in the new battleground of social media. Ultimately, there have been minor parties that have challenged the status quo in British Politics in recent years and have had a significant impact. However, the structural advantages held by the major parties mean that they continue to remain dominant.
In conclusion, it remains the case that the major parties are dominant in the UK political system. The main political parties remain dominant in Westminster and their self-interest dictates that this is unlikely to change. Whilst minor parties have impacted policy and have secured electoral success outside of Westminster, the power of the Westminster Parliament makes this less important than it otherwise might be. Therefore, whilst less dominant than they used to be, major parties still remain dominant to a considerable extent.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- The answer starts with a clear introduction which shows knowledge of the topic, sets out the themes to be considered and, most importantly, sets out a clear argument.
- All the points of analysis originate from the source. They are not over-quoted – they are concisely highlighted to show the examiner the candidate is using the source (as required by the question).
- There are three sets of paired arguments originating from the source. (It is important to note that many students will not have time to do three sets and Level 5 can be achieved doing only two).
- There is detailed own knowledge (from outside the source) to help to analyse the points in the source.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.