How fringe parties have changed British politics

British politics is witnessing a surge in the relevance of minor political parties. UKIP have gained two elected MPs. The SNP are threatening to hold the balance of power in the 2015 Election. David Cameron has proposed a seven-way TV debate between the leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. It’s clear to see minor parties are playing an increasingly larger role in the political ecosystem.

Currently, minor political parties fall into three main categories. Besides the three major parties, there are minor parties with elected MPs, such as UKIP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the UK Unionist Party; there are “fringe” parties, who have no representation in Westminster; and there are independent candidates. Most polling organisations list all three types of minor parties as “other”.

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From left to right: Natalie Bennett (Greens), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Nick Clegg (Lib Dems), David Cameron (Conservatives), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Leanne Woods (Plaid Cymru).

The history of the myriad number of minor political parties is varied. Some have appeared as a joke or commentary on the current political system, such as the Monster Raving Loony party, which have been around for a long time yet have had little effect (not counting the Loonies’ 24 hour drinking policy – which later became law). Others, such as the SDP and UKIP have emerged with a desire to “break the mould” of British politics.

Minor parties are becoming an increasing threat to Britain’s political ecology. It may be that we are heading towards a government of permanent coalition.

The rising fringe

According to an Ipsos Mori poll, “other” political parties received 10 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election. While this may seem a small number, it’s an increase from eight per cent in 2005. Arguably, this is largely due to increased support for UKIP and the SNP. The poll also found support for “other” parties mainly comes from older generations of men, with 13 per cent of men age 35-54 and 14 per cent of men aged 54 and above voting for “others”. Greater London and the West Midlands had the most votes for minority parties.

Who

Who votes for the minor political parties?

Since 2010, the British National Party have been the most successful of the fringe parties during by-elections, gaining 8,212 votes. However, their fortunes have steadily declined over the past five years. Interestingly, the Monster Raving Loony Party has came out on top of the English Democrats, with the parties winning 2,230 and 2,215 votes respectively.

In the 2010 general election, UKIP emerged as the most successful fringe party winning 3.1 per cent of the vote, up from 2.2 per cent in 2005. Recent Tory-defections have seen UKIP gain two MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless. If this trend continues, UKIP may no longer be considered a fringe party after the 2015 election.

Fringe party performance at by-elections since 2010.

Fringe party performance at by-elections since 2010.

A threat to the system

In an essay for Parliamentary Affairs, John Curtis, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, argues that the rise of minor parties – such as the Lib Dems, the Greens and more recently UKIP – constitute a major threat to Britain’s traditional two-party system. This has coincided with a significant fall in voter support for Labour and the Conservatives: in 2010, the two main parties recorded their lowest combined share of the vote in post-war history at 65.1 per cent.

The 2010 general election produced Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974, leading to the formation of the UK’s first peacetime coalition since the 1930s. According to Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, the general election of 2015 could see the possibility of another multi-party coalition. In an article for The Guardian, he floated the prospect of Labour forming a coalition with the SNP, or the Conservatives joining up with UKIP.

Support for minor political parties has increased largely because their support is geographically concentrated: Northern Ireland mostly consists of Northern Irish parties, and Scotland and Wales have their own nationalist parties. This could make it harder for a single party to win a majority, increasing the likelihood of hung parliaments in future. If this were to happen, it’s likely that the winning party would have to enter a coalition with a minor political party.

Pointed policies

The success of minor political parties can be attributed to their policies. As they cannot rely on broad support, their policies tend to focus intently on certain issues.

For example, the Whig party – who want to revive the Whiggish tradition – is campaigning for a new Electoral Reform Act, which would engender a shift to online voting, votes for those aged 16 and above, and a four, rather than five-year fixed term parliament. The leader of the Whig party, Waleed Ghani, said:

People aren’t voting – not because they don’t care, not because they don’t understand what voting is, but because there’s no one to vote for. So the answer is to provide something to vote for.

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Waleed Ghani, leader of the revived Whig party.

Similarly focused policies can be seen coming from Pirate Party UK. Their leader, Loz Kaye, said he is campaigning so that “the advantages of the digital revolution are available to everyone.” The Something New party works from an OpenPolitics Manifesto, an online political manifesto open to contributions from anymore. Any independent party or politician can adopt the manifesto. A major policy for the Lib Dems when they entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 was a referendum on electoral reform.

It’s possible that these relatively modern proposals could be the reason behind minor parties gaining increased political traction. As younger voters become increasingly discontent with the major political parties, they could be mobilised to vote for minor parties instead. Indeed, as Kaye argues, “anytime anyone dares to vote outside the big three parties, that sends a massive message.”

Loz Kaye, leader of Pirate Party UK.

Loz Kaye, leader of Pirate Party UK.

An appropriation of ideas

As fringe parties become increasingly popular for their focused policies, they have begun to steal votes from the major parties. Seeking to regain lost votes, major parties have been forced to adopt fringe policies, or shift their own policies more closely to those of fringe parties. This can be seen most clearly in the effect UKIP has had on political debate in the UK. Weary of Tory voters and MPs defecting to UKIP, the Conservative party has had to offer an in/out European Referendum if they win the 2015 election. Likewise, both the Conservatives and Labour have had to step up their rhetoric over immigration.

The opposite effect can be seen in Scotland, where the SNP beat Labour in 2007. Analysis by the British Election Study found those who voted for independence in the 2014 referendum have likely become hardened SNP voters, who see Labour as the party of “No” voters. They concluded Labour is unlikely to win back the votes it ceded to the SNP in time for the May election.

Towards May 2015

Still suffering the fallout of the increase in tuition fees, alongside their perceived failure in government, it’s looking unlikely that the Lib Dems will win enough seats to be a viable partner for coalition. Because of this, some commentators have speculated that Labour will have to join with the SNP, or the Conservatives form a pact with UKIP. However, the leaders of the respective major parties have stated that they will not enter into coalition with either minor party.

Despite this, the increased popularity of minority parties has become a threat to the major political parties. While they may hold little sway in parliament, the issues they fight for are becoming ever more important in the eyes of the British public. Whatever the outcome of the 2015 election, it is difficult to deny that fringe parties have been changed by, and in turn have changed, Britain’s political climate.

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