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Expert Comment: The New Multi Party System

Houses of Parliament Thursday 30 April 2015

In the third part of his expert comment series on the election, Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former Professor of Politics, Professor Bill Jones, looks at The New Multi-Party System and the effect it is having on politics and the election.

The reason why this election is impossible to call is because the net effect of all these changes is the decline of the old two or two and a half party system and the emergence of a multi-party one. It's still the case that only Cameron or Miliband can become prime minister after 7th May but the big parties face hurdles they have never faced before.

Conservatives (302 seats):      The party's willingness to partner the Lib Dems soon lost its edge when members realised it had to compromise on key policies and allow a referendum on reforming the voting system. However Cameron has led the coalition with skill and aplomb:

i) after a long lead in period economic growth returned and employment reached record levels.

ii) tough decisions had been made, imposing cuts which reduced the government's deficit by a third.

iii) a 'long term economic plan' has been adduced which offers to end the deficit and produce a new era of prosperity by the end of the decade.

iv) his poll ratings have led Miliband by big margins on leadership and his party on economic competence: two crucial factors in determining electoral victories.


However critics complain:

i) he should have chosen to lead a minority government which would not have been so constrained on policy and left open more options for future elections.

ii) he bungled the 2010 campaign, eschewing traditional Tory themes and allowing Clegg to shine in the TV debates, thus denying the Tories the victory they deserved.

iii) after promising to reduce annual immigration figures to 'tens of thousands' he has presided over annual increases of over a quarter of a million.

iv) he has surrounded himself with people from similar privileged backgrounds to himself, thus increasing the perceived distance of the party from 'ordinary voters'.

v) he has run a negative, predictable, over-personalised campaign, devoid of vision which has failed to achieve the expected  'break through' in the polls.

vi) veteran Cabinet colleague Ken Clarke accused Cameron of: being 'too right wing'; having created an at best 'fragile' economy; and having made 'silly' uncosted promises to voters.[1]

The Times reported that Cameron is likely to resign if Tories fail to achieve overall majority.[2]


UKIP and the Tories: The growth of Nigel Farage's insurgent new anti-EU party from a negligible start in the 1990s  has been phenomenal, polling above expectations in 2013 and 2014 local elections, winning the euro-elections in 2014 outright, together with winning two by-elections in the autumn of 2014. The Conservatives have been transfixed by the threat UKIP poses and Cameron, under pressure, has produced a plan on the EU to secure his right flank: to renegotiate the UK relationship with the EU and hold a referendum on membership by the end of 2017.  He also has said he supports UK membership and will vote for it if negotiations prove successful. More specifically a large section of the Conservative Party are very sympathetic to UKIP's policies and in the autumn of 2014 two MPs resigned and re-fought their seats as UKIP members; rumours abounded more MPs were inclined to follow suit.

Critics point out that: the 26 other EU members seem unreceptive to rewriting its rules just to solve David Cameron's political problems; business leaders are mostly firmly in favour of UK EU membership; and the proposed  renegotiations would inflict two years of chaotic political deadlock.  Farage has emerged as a formidable politician and his party has maintained an impressive pre-campaign poll rating of around 15%. This is not enough to suggest UKIP will win more than a handful of seats but as most UKIP voters are former Tories, the party threatens to deny Cameron's party the marginal seats it needs to stay in power.  

However, the expected surge in UKIP support has not so far materialised during the campaign. In fact there has a been a small decline to 14.5%. Tory columnist Danny Finkelstein calculates that above 11% UKIP costs the Tories marginal seats - he predicts a sudden return of UKIP sympathisers to the Tory fold, as in 1992 when a swath of voters worried about Labour's tax proposals and Kinnock as PM. [3]


Labour Party (256 seats):        Labour did well to avoid a complete meltdown of seats in 2010 but subsequently:

i) The leadership election which followed Gordon Brown's departure took up much time and energy and allowed the Tories to win widespread acceptance for their narrative blaming Labour for the huge government annual deficit. In addition the contest between David and Ed Miliband divided not just their wider family but the Labour Party too.

ii) Ed won largely through votes from the trade unions, allowing Cameron to claim the Labour leader was merely doing the bidding of his party's union paymasters.

iii) In addition Ed suffered from a certain awkwardness, a slightly geeky appearance and a determined intellectualism which did not play especially well on the raucous stage of PMQs and Commons' politics as a whole.

iv) Ed's satisfaction ratings were consistently much lower than the highly skilled Cameron and he and Ed Balls' 'economic competence' ratings were even further behind. Critics opined that as Leader of the Opposition Ed was nowhere near as effective as Tony Blair had been or indeed David Cameron for the Tories, 2005-2010.      

In addition to these travails Labour has faced substantial threats from two relatively new political parties:


The Green Party (1 seat), with its  programme of saving the environment plus sharing wealth more equally, has proved attractive to voters who might in the past have voted Labour through sympathy with its more radical policies. The decline of the party's left has provided a niche into which the Greens have grown,  registering at 6-8% or above in national polls by February 2015 and a party membership of 70,000; Green supporters, rather like UKIP in relation to the Tories, threaten to deny Labour some key marginal seats.


Scottish National Party (SNP - 6 seats):          As mentioned above, this party has enjoyed huge popularity since the September referendum while the Labour Party in Scotland was cast into disarray in October 2014 when Johan Lamont, its leader, resigned. Given Labour holds 41 of Scotland's 59 MPs, this was a huge blow and Lamont's replacement by the competent Jim Murphy has not halted the SNP's formidable rise; indeed he will probably lose his seat ass will Douglas Alexander. According to polls in early April Labour stands to lose up to 35 seats: a body blow which  seems unavoidable.  Miliband has been careful to rule out a coalition with the SNP. At the 16th April  'Challengers' debate, Nicola Sturgeon asked him directly: 'Is it the case you would rather see David Cameron go back to Downing Street than work with the SNP? Surely that cannot be your position?' Miliband replied: 'I'm not going to put at risk the unity of the United Kingdom. It's a No, I'm afraid.'[4]


Liberal Democrat Party (56 seats):   The Lib Dems arguably took a brave step in joining a coalition in which they were the junior partner: always a disadvantage according to continental experience. They hoped they would gain credit for their 'responsible' actions and 'success' in government. Unfortunately for them this has not at all worked out as hoped. They were initially badly hit by the fact so many senior figures had publicly signed a pledge not to increase tuition fees for university students. When they supported a tripling of such fees they lost much credibility with both students and the general public; perhaps unfairly Nick Clegg attracted much of the blame. The referendum on the Alternative Vote was supposed to be their 'payback' from Cameron for supporting the coalition but soon after the campaigns started Cameron reversed his alleged promise to take a back seat and campaigned at the front of the anti AV cause: it won 2-1. Clegg won back a modicum of respect by refusing to endorse redrawing of constituency boundaries when Tory MPs refused to support his plans for reforming the Lords.

Clegg tried hard to claim his party had prevented many measures suggested by the Tories which were contrary to Lib Dem principles. The party's poll rating hovered around the low double figures -10 points down on its 2010 election performance - before plunging beneath to single figures. Traditionally the party does better in general elections than in the polls but after polling a miserable 0.8% in the Rochester and Strood by-election - since being in government the party has surrendered its 'protest' vote role in such contests - it looks like a long, long way back to defending anything like its 56 seats.  Most experts predict a haul of around 20 seats for the beleaguered Nick Clegg and if the election is as close as expected he might well play a part in 'king making', come the day and indeed stay in office of some kind. He has promised in such circumstances to add a 'heart' to any Tory government he supports and a 'head' to any Labour government. His allies have told Cameron that he would be likely to quit as leader if his party goes into opposition.[5]


The final part of Professor Jones’s expert comment will appear on election day.

Read the other parts of the series:

‘The Underlying Changes in Politics’

'The Changing Political Landscape'



[1] See Daily Mirror, 17th April 2015

[2] The Times, 16th April 2015, p9.

[3] Times 16th April 2015 p11.

[4] Guardian 17th April 2015

[5] Times 16th April, 2015, p8.

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