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Brexit Party rises as Tory and Labour lose ground

NIGEL Farage's Brexit Party is on course, according to polls, to win Thursday's European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom. This would be only the second time in over a century that an organisation other than the Conservatives or Labour have won a nationwide UK ballot, piling the pressure on Theresa May, and underlining the current flux in British politics.

Yet, it is not just the ruling Conservatives, but also Labour that may be nursing an electoral headache this week. Polls indicate that both major parties will lose seats next week relative to the last European Parliament elections in 2014.

And in this sense, like the local elections earlier this month, Thursday's ballot will turn on its head the results of the 2017 General Election. That election almost exactly two years ago, to elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament, saw the Conservatives and Labour winning over 80 per cent of all votes, their biggest combined share since 1970.

It remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the Brexit Party's anticipated win this week will be. Here, it should be remembered that in 2014 the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), another populist, Eurosceptic organisation, which was then led by Mr Farage too, won the European Parliament elections but has since declined, as a UK political force.

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However, even at this early stage, it is already clear that the rise of the Brexit Party, which was formed only a few weeks ago, reflects a wider flux in UK politics. This is illustrated by the apparent decay of the traditional two-party post-war system which may be giving way to a more unpredictable, and uncertain, political landscape.

For much of the post-war period, UK politics has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. In the period from 1945 to 1970, for instance, these two parties collectively averaged in excess of 90 per cent of the vote, and also the seats won, in the eight British general elections held in this period.


Yet, from 1974 to 2005, the average share of the vote won by the Conservatives and Labour fell significantly in the subsequent nine UK general elections in this period. This has brought about a significant political change that is, by and large, still unfolding to this day.

It is the centrist Liberals, not the populist Brexit Party or UKIP, which has probably done most to date to break the hold of the two major parties on power. From 1974 to 2005, the average Liberal share of the vote in British general elections was just below 20 per cent, although the party slumped in the polls after forming a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 from which this month's local election results indicate it may only now be recovering.

Beyond the Liberals, several other parties have come to prominence too, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) which governs in the Edinburgh Parliament; UKIP and the Brexit Party whose strength is greatest in England; and the Greens.

One reason the apparent decline of the two-party system makes for a more unpredictable outlook for British politics is that it is harder for any one organisation to secure a majority government in UK general elections. This is despite the "first past the post" voting system which tends to provide the leading party a significantly larger number of seats in the House of Commons than would be given by a more proportionate electoral system.

To be sure, coalitions and the sharing of power have long been a feature of UK local government and devolved parliaments and assemblies outside of Westminster. However, this same dynamic may now also be permeating the heart of the British government itself in London.

Until 2010, when the coalition government was formed between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, Labour and the Conservatives had won overall majority governments at every election since 1945. That is, except for the very brief interregnum between February and October 1974.

Yet, as in 2010, the Tories failed in 2017 to win an overall majority, and had to reach a co-called "confidence and supply" agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. Under this arrangement, the DUP has agreed in principle to support the Conservatives on all motions of confidence, the Queen's Speech (which sets out the government's agenda for the forthcoming parliamentary session), the budget, finance bills, and supply and appropriation bills, whilst support on other matters - including Brexit - is agreed (or not) on a case-by-case basis.

Polls over the last two months have generally shown Jeremy Corbyn's Labour with a national poll lead of 1 to 10 percentage points over Mrs May's Conservatives. And it is possible the party could yet win an overall majority on this basis.

However, the conditions are again in place potentially for another "hung parliament" in which no one party wins a majority of seats. And in part, this is because of apparently growing support for other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, Brexit Party and Greens, that Thursday's ballot is expected to show.


Another factor to bear in mind here is the unpopularity of Mrs May who is very likely to be replaced this summer or early autumn by a new Conservative leader and prime minister who may enjoy a "honeymoon period" in office. Last Thursday, she met the influential "1922 Committee" of backbench Tory MPs and agreed, in principle, to set out in early June a timetable for her departure from office with the current favourite to replace her, former foreign secretary and London mayor Boris Johnson, confirming in recent days that he will definitely stand.

Taken overall, the prominence of organisations such as the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats underline that the UK's longstanding two-party system may be giving way to a more unpredictable, and uncertain political landscape. Barring a significant polling surge by Labour or the Conservatives, another hung parliament looks increasingly possible at the next general election which could come once Mrs May has left office.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.