Newly elected United Kingdom Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell arrives at Parliament, October 13, 2014.
Newly elected United Kingdom Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell arrives at Parliament, October 13, 2014.
Stefan Wermuth / Courtesy Reuters

It has been less than a month since the United Kingdom’s domestic politics captured world headlines with the landmark Scottish referendum on independence. However, yet another (somewhat smaller) political earthquake rippled through the British electoral landscape on Friday with the news that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has won its first seat in the House of Commons in Clacton, southern England. 

UKIP, a party built around a policy of British withdrawal from the European Union, claims that the victory signals a “shift in the tectonic plates of British politics.” And, indeed, it could be a precursor to another UKIP victory in the November 20 by-election in Strood and Rochester, which is also in southern England.

To be sure, some dismiss UKIP’s success last Friday as an electoral flash in the pan. But that ignores the party’s earlier success in May, when it won the European Parliament vote in the United Kingdom, thus becoming the first party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a national election in more than 100 years.

UKIP’s by-election victory and last month's Scottish referendum may seem unrelated. But they both reflect flux in British politics: a relatively stable two-party system is giving way to more unpredictability. For much of the postwar period, British politics has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. Between 1945 and 1970, for instance, the two parties collectively won an average of over 90 percent of the vote -- and seats -- in the eight British general elections held in that time.

Yet in the nine elections held between 1974 and 2005, that average fell significantly to below 75 percent. And that has brought about major political changes that are still unfolding to this day. The Liberals have done most in recent decades to break the hold of the two major parties on power. From 1974 to 2005, the average Liberal share of the vote (including an alliance between the Liberals and the United Kingdom’s Social Democratic Party [SDP] from 1983 to 1987) in British general elections was just below 20 percent. 

Although Liberals have long taken votes from both major parties, the Liberals’ overall political impact on Labour has probably been most pronounced. The Liberals kept the party in power from 1977 to 1978 under the Lib-Lab pact, and pro-EU elements of the Labour Party worked with Liberals during the 1975 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU.

However, in 1981, following Labour’s defeat to the Conservatives in the 1979 general election, the creation of the SDP (which would later that year form an alliance with the Liberals and ultimately become the Liberal Democrats we know today) shook the foundations of British politics. The SDP was founded by key Labour figures concerned by the growing power of the left within the party.

The Liberal-SDP alliance quickly won a number of by-elections and headed national polls for some time. Moreover, in the 1983 general election, the alliance won some 25 percent of the vote -- the best third party performance in the postwar era and only just behind the 27 percent recorded by Labour that year. 

The success of the alliance was one factor that helped contribute to Labour’s long period in opposition from 1979 to 1997, when it endured four consecutive general election defeats. Prior to 1997, Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Tony Blair, then leader of Labour, had discussed the possibility of a formal government coalition to reunite the center-left vote in British politics. However, Labour won a massive majority in 1997 that made this prospect unnecessary. 

Aside from the Liberals, several other parties have come to prominence in recent years, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), which governs in the Edinburgh Parliament; UKIP, whose strength lies largely in the United Kingdom; and the Greens. In recent weeks, opinion polls indicated that, collectively, these parties and the Liberal Democrats enjoy the support of around 30 percent of the electorate. 

Recently, it is UKIP that has seen its fortunes rise, and this has caused particular problems for the Conservative Party. Driven in part by UKIP’s appeal, which is disproportionately to Conservative rather than Labour voters, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that if he wins a majority in the 2015 general election, by 2017, he will hold an “in or out” referendum on the EU. As the recent European Parliament elections underlined, such a plebiscite could well see the United Kingdom vote to leave. 

As the two-party system has declined, British politics has become more uncertain, because it is harder for any one group to secure a majority in general elections. This is despite first-past-the-post voting, which tends to provide the leading party with a significantly larger number of seats in the House of Commons than would be given by a more proportionate electoral system.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the shift. Until 2010, when the current 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, except for a brief interregnum between February and October 1974.

Yet, as in 2010, the precise result of the May 2015 British general election is once more unpredictable. While Labour has enjoyed a poll lead in most surveys since 2010, a number of polls this month show the Conservatives with a slight advantage.

To be sure, Labour or possibly the Conservatives could yet win an overall majority. However, the conditions look good for another hung Parliament, in which no one party wins a majority of seats.

Another hung Parliament could mean a second successive coalition government, possibly this time among more than two parties. A second possibility is the prospect of either Labour or the Conservatives seeking to run a minority government without a parliamentary majority, over a five-year term of office, with all the uncertainties this might bring.

A minority government could potentially function through a “confidence and supply” arrangement, in which a party agrees to support the government in motions of confidence and potentially appropriation votes by voting in favor or abstaining. Last week, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that his political price for supporting the Conservatives in this way would be the early staging of an EU referendum in July 2015, before Parliament’s summer recess.

If there is a hung Parliament in next year’s election, it is likely that the precise parliamentary arithmetic would help decide whether there is a coalition or minority government. The closer any party gets to 326 of the total 650 seats, the more likely a minority administration may become.

In October 1974, for instance, Labour won the general election, but over time, its majority eroded. In 1977, with a now minority government, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, which secured the parliamentary support of Liberal parliamentarians on votes of no confidence. This sustained the government for nearly a year and a half, until the pact came to an end in 1978, during a period when Labour was facing significant opposition, including intraparty, to public spending reductions to help pay for the 1976 International Monetary Fund loan.

Taken as a whole, the rise of parties such as UKIP and the SNP underlines the United Kingdom’s postwar political system is giving way, in the medium term, at least, to a more unpredictable and uncertain British political landscape. Indeed, barring a significant polling surge by Labour or the Conservatives, a second successive British hung Parliament looks increasingly possible with the intensified political uncertainties this may bring. 

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  • ANDREW HAMMOND is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. He was formerly a UK Government Special Adviser.
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