05 Apr

Stephen Driver on the rise of multi-party politics in the UK

Posted By Politybooks

stephendriverLabour leader Ed Miliband called it ‘people power’. Hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of central London to protest against the coalition government’s programme of public sector cuts. Anti-capitalist and anarchist groups may have grabbed the headlines – much to the dismay of Miliband and the trade unions that organised the day of action – but was this a turning point for Labour in its fight to get back to power?

I doubt it. Putting aside whether voters support government cuts – they’re split – the real problem Labour and all British political parties face is the rise of the ‘undecideds’. These are voters who can’t makeup their minds which party to support – and sometimes switch their support between and across elections. This is a long-term trend. Voters have become less partisan in their politics, more willing to make political choices. This has fragmented the British party system, underpinning the rise of a more multi-party politics across the UK. Parties on the ideological edge (notably UKIP, BNP and the Greens) as well as mainstream nationalist parties (SNP, Plaid), are in the political running (and in some cases, in power). These smaller parties, it should be added, have also got their act together on the campaign trail.

This doesn’t make life easy for the traditional big beasts of British politics – Labour and the Conservatives. Not only do they have to fight the resurgent Liberal Democrats, but also watch their backs for the so-called minor parties. At the ballot box, British political parties have to reach those parts of the electorate other parties certainly can reach. And if first past the post is replaced by the alternative vote in elections for Westminster (the referendum is next month), what is called ‘catch-all’ politics will intensify as parties seek the second and third preferences of voters as they strain for the magic 50 per cent line.

For Labour, then, getting mainly hard core Labour supporters onto the streets of London against a Tory-led government is the easy bit. Getting ‘the people’ (read: voters with all kinds of different interests and views) on Labour’s side is much harder. Ask Tony Blair.

Stephen Driver is head of the Department of Social Sciences at Roehampton University and the author of Understanding British Party Politics.