Here’s what a small Welsh election teaches us about the British party system.
In the Leave versus Remain fight, the Tories and Labour are both losing ground.
By Christopher Williams
On August 1st, the results of a UK Parliament by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire made international headlines. Why would a single by-election in Wales garner so much media attention? The media narrative treated this election as a referendum on the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative (Tory) Party, since it was the first election since Johnson came to power. By that interpretation, the Tories should worry. The Conservative Party lost a seat, reducing its majority (with Democratic Ulster Party support) to a single vote.
This media narrative, while interesting, ignores the larger implications. The fact that the Liberal Democratic candidate won may turn out to be more historically significant than the fact that the Tory candidate lost. The British party system is shifting.
European Integration and the Rise of the UKIP
The party system of Great Britain (not necessarily Northern Ireland) has been controlled since 1922 by the Tories and the Labour Party. Power has alternated in a markedly stable fashion between the Tories and Labour since 1945. The rise of the issue of the European Union and European integration, however, threw a wrench into the British party system.
When the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the European Union (EU), in 1973, the public didn’t really care much. Political leaders moved integration forward as they saw fit. But following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, in 1992, the “permissive consensus” gave way to what we called “constraining dissensus.”
Small and new Eurosceptic parties arose across EU member states. In Great Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was founded in 1993, and has engaged in a Eurosceptic issue entrepreneurial strategy ever since.
An issue entrepreneur is a party that adopts a previously non-politicized issue that usually cross-cuts existing party lines. The party bets that it can win votes by becoming the party that is most associated with that issue while also increasing the public salience of that issue.
But UKIP was only partially successful. UKIP argued that the UK was losing its sovereignty and that British culture was disappearing with the influx of continental Europeans who were allowed came to the UK without needing a visa because of the EU. While this issue entrepreneurship likely led to an increase in Euroscepticism, the party never became a dominant player in the House of Commons.
So why does UKIP matter in this story? The answer lies in the 2015 UK General Election.
Party Contagion, Inaccurate Prognostications, and Brexit
Leading up to the 2015 election, the Tory leadership worried that UKIP’s socially conservative discourse appealed to voters that normally supported the Tories. This fear was compounded by somewhat inaccurate polling showing a very tight race between Labour and the Tories.
Hoping to stem Tory losses to UKIP, incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron promised the now infamous Brexit Referendum if the Tories won. In political science, we call this party contagion. UKIP took a position on an issue, increased the salience of that issue, and this caused the Tories to address that issue, moving towards UKIP’s position.
As it turned out, the polls were well off the mark. The Tories won 330 seats in the House of Commons (an outright majority) and had a 98 seat lead over Labour. However, promises having been made, the Brexit Referendum was held on June 23rd, 2016. With about 72% of eligible voters casting a ballot, the Leave option received 51.9% of the vote. David Cameron eventually resigned and was replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May (also a Tory), who informed the EU on March 29, 2017 that the United Kingdom would be leaving the bloc.
The Party System Shift
The most salient issue in the UK quickly became the EU, European integration, and Brexit. In essence, the decision to leave the EU caused a new issue cleavage to surpass previously existing party divides.
There was no intrinsic reason this new issue must reshape the party system. To counter Tory support for Brexit, Labour could have taken a pro-EU position. If it had done so, the party system might have remained the same, but with Tory and Labour competing over new issues.
Why didn’t this happen? The problem lies in the nature of issue entrepreneurship: Euroscepticism cross-cut existing party divides. Many Tories oppose the EU because they feel it threatens their sovereignty and culture. Many Labour party members oppose the EU because they view it as a “neo-liberal experiment” benefiting businesses rather than workers. Thus, Labour is divided.
So, the UK’s two dominant parties took extremely similar positions on the most salient issue in the country. This provided space for a new party or parties to supplant one or both of them.
This story is straightforward, but is there evidence the party system is changing?
One can begin with the May 2019 European Parliament (EP) election. Between the 2014 and 2019 EP elections, Labour’s support dropped 11%, and the Tories dropped 15%. Conversely, in 2019, the newly formed Brexit Party received 32%, and support for the decidedly pro-EU Liberal Democrats jumped 13%. These results suggest that a large chunk of the British public voted for a new or minor party, based on the issue of European integration.
Polling suggests a similar pattern in vote intentions for House of Commons. As of July 2019, parties with clear positions on Brexit are now getting 35-40% support, up from 10% two years earlier. The pro-EU Liberal Democrats are regularly polling around 18-20% and the pro-EU Green Party sits at about 4-7%, while 13-15% of respondents prefer the Brexit Party.
Most recently, the August 1st by-election further evidenced this shift. Between 2017 and this by-election, Tory support dropped by about 9%, while Liberal Democratic support increased by nearly 14%. This is partly because the Tory incumbent was brought down by a scandal. Still, the fact that the Liberal Democrats benefited from the scandal instead of Labour is significant.
While the British party system is changing in the short-term, the party system will only shift if the new cleavage is sustained. That said, it does not appear that this new cleavage is going anywhere. If the UK leaves the EU, those who wish to remain will undoubtedly continue to fight to re-enter the bloc. If the UK eventually chooses to remain in the EU, those who wish to leave will likewise continue fighting.
British politics will likely be in a state of upheaval for the foreseeable future. But partisanship dies hard—it is unlikely that the Tories or Labour will die out altogether, or that the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party will be able to fully dominate the British party system.
Instead, moving forward we should expect a period in which no single party can control government, and general elections will be called more frequently as the parties have trouble forming and maintaining coalition government.
Christopher Williams is an assistant professor of Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His research focuses on the interaction between public opinion, public policy and party politics in advanced democracies. For more information, you can visit his website at www.christopherwilliamsphd.weebly.com.