chapter  14
20 Pages

UK party systems

In an ideal world of pluralist democracy, every state would include a wide range of political parties, all of which had a realistic chance of gaining at least token representation in the legislature. Such a situation would reflect the fact that people enjoying freedom of thought and expression are likely to hold divergent opinions on key issues, and to associate with others of like mind. Indeed, if everyone did think alike on the most important issues, some people would still feel inspired to compete for the right to represent their fellow citizens, and find some grounds for arguing among themselves. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that political parties will develop (see Chapter 15). Students hoping to gain an insight into the political culture of any society will be rewarded by a close study of the patterns of party competition. But they are well advised to do more than simply count the number of parties which contest elections with a chance of forming a government – which is the usual way of classifying a party

system (see Analysis 14.1). For example, the UK and the US are traditionally regarded as having two-party systems. But this does not necessarily mean that a large proportion of citizens are deprived of a meaningful choice. It could be the case that the main parties are coalitions in themselves, flexible enough to represent the opinions of a majority of voters. However, Western societies are becoming increasingly diverse, and voters seem to be more selective nowadays. In the case of the UK, the long-established idea of two-party competition has come under additional scrutiny since the introduction of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, elected by different varieties of proportional representation (PR). It is possible to argue that, at national level, the UK ceased to be a two-party system some years ago, so that the emergence of a coalition government in 2010 was merely a belated confirmation of something which had already happened. Furthermore, because of very different patterns of competition at sub-national level, it is now more appropriate to speak of a number of distinct party systems.