TV Debate Buries UK Two-Party System

Last night, the British electorate was treated to a seven-person “debate” on ITV that ran two hours. The participants were the leaders of seven different political parties. While the polling afterward suggests that there was no clear winner, it is quite certain that this joint press conference had a very clear outcome. The British two-party system of the last couple hundred years is well and truly dead. Last night was its burial.

The Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was happy to have “come out on top” in the post-debate polls. Labour leader Ed Miliband said he set out a “clear choice” between the two main parties. Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats said his party had a “great story” to tell. Joining them, however, and grabbing attention were: Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (who one poll has winning the debate by a plurality of 28%); Nigel Farrage of the UK Independence Party (whose performance was judged by the polls to have been on a par with Messrs. Cameron and Miliband); Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood (who scored well against Mr. Farrage’s anti-non-English stance and did well in the anti-austerity discussion); and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (who started the anti-austerity ball rolling).

Moreover, a case could be made that one significant party was excluded from the debate. The Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland currently have 8 MPs at Westminster. Plaid Cymru has 3, the Greens (whom Plaid support outside of Wales) have 1 and the UKIP has 2. On this basis, the DUP should have been at the debate, and of course, there would have been demands from other Ulster parties. So, the seven parties represented last night cannot be considered an exhaustive group.

As the world learned during the 2010 debate, including parties other than Labour and the Conservatives gives those other parties a significant boost in name recognition. Both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Miliband stated then, “I agree with Nick [Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.” As a result, the LibDems managed to secure sufficient seats to force the Tories into a coalition (or it could have been an unstable Tory minority government). This time around, the SNP and UKIP have certainly shored up their prospects for next month’s balloting. Indeed, UK Polling Report suggests that most models from most pollsters show a hung parliament, and in many, the SNP holds the balance of power.

Britain has had a two-party system, more or less, since at least the development of an independent Parliament. One could argue that the York-Lancaster divide was a two-party system, even. However, with the Reform Act of 1832, the modern parliamentary system was born. The Tories and Whigs pre-date this, but as the 19th century went on, the Whigs gave way to the Liberals, and the two-party system held for decades; although one must acknowledge the Irish Party of Charles Stewart Parnell as a significant third party for a time. After World War I, the Liberals crashed and burned to be replaced by Labour. After the replay of that war ended in 1945, Labour and Tory voters composed about 90% of the British electorate. That was the high-water mark of the two-party system. That system is gone.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, which last night’s debate will not affect much if at all, the reality is that the British voters no longer view their choices as a matter of either/or. While it is true that the next prime minister will either be Mr. Cameron again or Mr. Miliband, it is equally true that neither of those men will have a majority of British voters behind him. Indeed, it is quite reasonable to say neither will have a majority of MPs behind him.

The questions now become those familiar to nations with numerous political parties. For instance, does the UKIP have the appeal to bleed enough votes from the Conservatives to cost the Tories seats? And related to that, can UKIP win more than the odd seat here and there. Have the Liberal Democrats been so tied to the Conservatives that they no longer represent a decent protest vote, which would see their representation at Westminster collapse? And will the SNP decide who gets to be PM? How very ironic that the next leader of the UK might lead at the sufferance of a party that wants its nation to leave that union.

Britain 2015 is a very new country.