A couple of days ago, the Brexit Party, a (surprise!) new Eurosceptic political party, was formally recognised by the Electoral Commission. To some extent, this makes sense – many former UKIP supporters have distanced themselves from the party after it sharply drifted to the right when Farage left.
Interestingly, on the 2nd February, The Guardian also reported that “[a] group of disaffected Labour MPs is preparing to quit the party and form a breakaway movement on the political centre ground”. Once again, this also makes sense – Corbyn’s refusal to oppose Brexit (among many other things) has been causing internal tensions within the Labour Party. In addition the Liberal Democrat’s current lack of credibility could also help this group of rebel Labour MPs.
Until very recently, my country of origin, Spain, was also a two-party system dominated by the People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). However, the economic crisis triggered a major political crisis that inevitably led to a serious of changes in the Spanish political landscape. The rise of new or existing but small political parties has been taking place in recent years. The bipartisan system is over in Spain, and the recent Andalusian regional election has further conveyed this.
I believe that a major political crisis is needed to make substantial changes to the party system of a democratic country. Whilst in Spain, the economic crisis was the catalyst, in the case of the UK, Brexit could play a major role. The uncertainty created by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the weak leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties have created not only a breeding ground for new political parties, but also an ideal opportunity for their rise.
However, even if the conditions are ideal, this doesn’t mean that newcomers will enter the political arena. Even if such parties grow, changing a party system takes many years (and many elections). The Cameron-Clegg coalition didn’t entail the end of the two-party system in the UK. In fact, it could be argued that the latter was reinforced after that.
To what extent could new political parties arise and change the current British party system?
There are reasons to believe that this could be possible.
- Supply-side factors: the two main parties are internally divided and cannot find a solution to the current political crisis. Clear plans of action have not been provided, as these are always changing in an attempt to satisfy the conflicting groups within the same party. Voters are disillusioned, and could start looking for alternatives.
- New cleavages: back in 1967, Lipset and Rokkan defined four basic cleavages for western democracies after the Industrial Revolution. Their ‘freezing hypothesis’ has become the subject of intense scholarly debate. Whilst I do think that their cleavages are still relevant, I also believe that some people do not simply locate themselves along a Left-Right spectrum; the new Leave-Remain spectrum is becoming more and more important. Many authors have indicated the emergence of a European cleavage, which would require new political parties if the existing ones are not able to integrate this into their agendas.
- European elections: if Article 50 is extended, and if UK citizens were to elect new MEPs (although this process would not be that straightforward, as this article explains), it’s not hard to see new parties not only arising, but also gaining substantial power. Why? There are various reasons, including:
- Proportional representation (PR) electoral system: since 1999, voters in Britain have elected MEPs under a proportional representation system. In England, Scotland and Wales the voting system for the European elections is the d’Hondt system of proportional representation (i.e. a regional closed list). In Northern Ireland the system is Single Transferable Vote. As we all know thanks to the wonderful Maurice Duverger, PR favours multipartism over bipartism.
- “Second-order” elections: European elections have been classically considered second-order elections, just as regional/local elections. They are regarded as less important than general elections. In turn, citizens are more prone to vote for protest parties. In addition, the fact that the UK is supposed to leave the EU could mean that people wouldn’t really care about the outcome of such an election.
However, the rise of new parties alone doesn’t mean that a party system has changed. Furthermore, is this rise even that likely? The situation is by far much more complex.
- First Past the Post System and first-order elections: let’s imagine that the UK extends Article 50, and participates in the next EU election. Let’s even imagine that the Brexit Party is voted by millions of UK citizens and becomes the largest UK party in the European Parliament (does this sound familiar?) Does this mean that it will also win the next general election? As First Past the Post is the electoral system used to elect MPs to Westminster, larger parties tend to be favoured. In addition, the fact that a general election would be a “first-order” election could potentially dissuade voters from supporting new parties.
- Single-issue parties: these parties don’t tend to make major gains. Whilst a party founded by rebel Labour MPs that goes beyond Brexit could potentially succeed, the popularity of the Brexit Party could be short-lived.
- Long-lasting cleavages? In addition to the fact that single-issue parties might not be too successful, voting along Remain and Leave lines might just be a short-term trend instead of a deeply engrained cleavage.
- Media loves juicy stories: to what extent is the rise of new parties a reality? Media companies need interesting stories, and let’s be honest – Brexit is starting to be a bit boring. However, the idea of new parties arising (and all the political drama that this would entail) is extremely attractive.
- Changing Conservative and Labour leadership: what will happen after Corbyn and May are replaced? If new leaders are stronger (which, to be fair, isn’t too hard), then parties could regain the trust and support of former and disenchanted voters.
I therefore believe that if (and only if) Article 50 was extended AND the UK participated in the upcoming EU election, we could then potentially witness the rise of new parties. However, as explained, this doesn’t mean that party systems would change.