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‘A Plague over Both your Houses’: Changing Electoral Behaviour in Britain and the Rise of Third Parties

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 16:44

By Pete Dorey, Professor of British Politics, EUROP – Cardiff School of European Languages, Translation & Politics, Cardiff University

Since the 1970s, and especially since the early 1990s, Britain’s two largest political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservatives, have been experiencing a decline in electoral support, a trend which political scientists refer to as ‘de-alignment’. This has had several consequences, the most important of which have been: an increase in electoral volatility, as more voters ‘switch’ parties more frequently; a decline in electoral turnout, as fewer people bother voting at all; an increase in support for ‘third’ parties.

However, to understand these developments, it is necessary to examine briefly how and why the Conservatives and the Labour Party have both been affected by de-alignment in recent decades. Table 1 provides a snap-shot of the two parties’ share of the national vote in British general elections since 1979.

Table 1: Changes in Conservative and Labour support in Britain since 1970 (%)









































From 1970 until 1992, the Conservative Party’s share of the vote was in the 46-42% range, but from 1997 onwards, it has been 31-36%. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has experienced major fluctuations in its electoral support, from 43% in 1970 down to just 27% in 1983, then back up to 43% in 1997 before falling to 29% in 2010.

Also very noticeable is the overall decline in the two parties’ combined share of votes in general elections, for whereas the Labour Party and the Conservatives won 89% of all votes cast in 1970, their share had fallen 65% in 2010.

This ‘de-alignment’ actually has two major aspects; class de-alignment and partisan-de-alignment. Class de-alignment means that fewer people are voting for a political party on the basis of their social class (defined in terms of occupation or socio-economic rank); until the 1970s, most of the working class voted for the Labour Party and the majority of the middle class voted Conservative. This meant that Britain had, in effect, a two-party, class-based, political system – reinforced, of course, by the first-past-the-post electoral system which has often ‘under-represented’ other political parties in terms of seats in the House of Commons. However, the link between social class and support for a specific political party has declined considerably, to the extent that in 2010, only 33% of the working class voted Labour (58% had done so in 1970), and 39% of the middle class voted Conservative (in 1970, 64% had done so).

Along with the weakening link between social class and support for a particular political party, Britain has witnessed a process of ‘partisan de-alignment’, which means that fewer voters identify themselves with a specific political party. Although this is a partial consequence of class de-alignment, ‘partisan alignment’ is a more general trend, reflecting a declining allegiance and loyalty to a particular political party. In 1970, 40% of British voters identified ‘very strongly’ with either the Labour Party or the Conservatives; in the 2010 general election, only 11% did so.

There are several factors which have led to de-alignment among British voters during the last couple of decades or so:

  • A general loss of trust or faith in the ability of either the Labour Party or the Conservatives to solve Britain’s economic and social problems. A growing number of voters seem to assume that regardless of which party is in government, things continue to get worse all the time; ‘the country has gone to the dogs…we’re going to hell in a hand-cart’. Whether or not this is true does not matter; it is a common perception, and one which therefore underpins a growing cynicism about the ability of Britain’s main political parties to govern Britain competently and effectively. This perception also fosters a view that most politicians ‘are all the same…they’re as bad each other’.
  • This loss of trust has been compounded in the last 3-4 years by the MPs’ expenses scandal, whereby several MPs were discovered to have dishonestly claimed money in connection with their political roles and responsibilities. Although only a small minority of MPs were found to have obtained expenses and reimbursement fraudulently, the high-profile and media coverage which such cases attracted served to reinforce growing public cynicism about the honesty and integrity of Britain’s politicians. For some voters, the MPs’ expenses scandal seemed to prove that many MPs are ‘only in it for themselves’, and as such, are corrupt, self-serving and venal.
  • Arguably, Britain has either a more ‘educated’ or a less deferential electorate. Either way, this is believed to encourage more ‘rational’ behaviour by citizens in elections. Instead of voting for a political party on the basis of one’s social class or sense of allegiance, an increasing number of voters now make a judgement about which party (if any) has the most attractive or credible set of policies, or is judged to be the most competent in terms of its record and performance in government. Many voters now ‘shop around’ like consumers, in search of the best package of policies, rather than showing ‘brand loyalty’.
  • New issues have emerged, and some traditional issues have become more important (‘salient’), to the extent that they transcend or weaken traditional loyalties to a specific political party. It might be that a particular issue cannot be seen simply as a working class or middle class concern. Similarly, an issue of public concern might not fit traditional ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ ideological views. In either case, the prominence of particular issues will reinforce the trend towards ‘consumer voting’, as voters make judgements about which of the parties has the best policies to deal with key issues, rather than simply voting for the same party all the time.

The Electoral Consequences of De-alignment

De-alignment has had three particular consequences for electoral behaviour and voting patterns in Britain.

Fewer people voting in elections

As British voters have become less attached or loyal to what used to be ‘their’ political party, and more cynical about politicians generally, so the number of people voting in elections has steadily declined. Whereas in the 1950 general election, turn-out had been just over 83%, this figure fell to 76% in 1979. It fell further to 71% in 1997, before falling to just 59% in 2001, although it then recovered slightly to 65% in 2010. Even so, turnout in 2010 was still 18% less than it had been in 1950, and 11% down on 1979.

Similarly, there has been a clear decline in turnout in by-elections (elections in a constituency in between general elections, invariably caused by the death or resignation of the MP). Whereas in the 1983-87 period, average turnout in by-elections had been 63.5%, this fell to 57.4% between 1987 and 1992, and then to 52.7% in the 1992-1997 period. It has since continued to decline, to the extent that by 2001-2005, by-election turnout had fallen to 39.3%, although it recovered slightly by 2010, rising to 42.3%. This, though, was still very much lower than what it had been 25 years or so previously.

Greater volatility among those who do vote

While de-alignment has contributed enormously to diminishing turn-out in British elections, it has also promoted increased ‘volatility’ among those who do still vote. This means that more voters are now more likely to change the party they support from one election to another. In the era of alignment, most voters tended to vote for ‘their’ party in each election, and would not countenance voting for another party, and certainly not the main rival to ‘their’ party.

However, in the last two decades, an increasing number of British voters have ‘switched’ their support between different parties; they will vote for a particular party in one election, then vote for a different party in the next election. Fewer and fewer voters continue to vote habitually and loyally for the same party at each election.

Increased support for third parties

Probably the most obvious consequence of de-alignment, though, is the increasing support which ‘third’ parties have attracted in various elections, at the expense of the Labour Party and the Conservatives. Britain’s former two-party system has been characterised by increasing fragmentation as a range of ‘minor’ parties have recently attracted significantly more electoral support, Indeed, many of these so-called third parties have won seats in various elections in Britain.

Until the early 1990s, the most notable third party was the Liberal Democrats, who some voters considered as a genuine alternative to the two main parties, although some voters supported them occasionally merely as a ‘protest’ vote in between general elections. Since entering a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, however, much of the Liberal Democrats’ erstwhile support has evaporated.

Meanwhile, since the late 1990s, other third parties have flourished electorally in Britain. In post-devolution Scotland and Wales, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru respectively have seen their support increase enormously. Indeed, the SNP is currently the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, while Plaid Cymru formed a coalition with Welsh Labour, following the 2007 elections to the Welsh Assembly.

In England, three particular ‘third’ parties have attracted increased support since the late 1990s, each of them reflecting growing electoral concern over specific issues, while also benefitting from increased disillusionment with the competence or trustworthiness of the mainstream parties and the political ‘establishment’. Growing concern about the environment and climate change has seen the Green Party attract electoral support, to the extent that they had their first ever MP elected in the 2010 general election. The Greens also won two seats in the 2009 European Parliament elections, and two seats in the 2012 election for the London Assembly. Most recently, following the May 2013 local government elections in England, the Greens now have 141 local councillors.

Another ‘third’ party which has attracted increased electoral support since the late 1990s especially has been the far-Right British National Party (BNP). In the 2001 general election, for example, the BNP’s candidate came third in the Oldham West constituency, and thus pushed the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. Most of the BNP’s support seems to emanate from sections of the working class which used to vote Labour, but is now concerned about ‘excessive’ immigration – the BNP tends to blame many of Britain’s economic and social problems on immigrants and ethnic minorities. Some of these BNP supporters also viewed ‘New Labour’ as a middle class entity, leaving only the BNP as the apparently credible or authentic voice of the politically neglected urban working class.

However, the most successful ‘third’ party since the late 1990s has been the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has achieved some notable electoral successes in the last few years. In 2009, for example, UKIP won 13 of Britain’s seats in the European Parliament, the same number as the Labour Party. More recently, it has performed remarkably well in several by-elections; in November 2012, there were four parliamentary by-elections in England, and in two of these, UKIP came second, ahead of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the other two, UKP finished third, ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

UKIP also performed well in May 2013, when they both attained second place in another by-election, thereby pushing the Conservatives into third place, and also won more than 140 seats with 25% of votes cast in local government elections in England.

UKIP’s growing support can be attributed to three factors: total opposition to British membership of the European Union; its demands for much tougher curbs on immigration (much of which is blamed on the free movement of people within the EU, with many East Europeans especially accused of flocking to Britain and placing a massive strain on employment, housing and the welfare state); a more general cynicism and distrust towards Britain’s established political leaders and their parties.

Although UKIP leader Nigel Farage himself was educated at a public school before becoming a stock-broker, he has skilfully portrayed himself and his party as being ‘out there’ alongside ordinary hard-working, law-abiding, British people against the apparently corrupt, decadent and out-of-touch political establishment which comprises the three largest political parties. In this respect, UKIP is a classic populist party, articulating the anxieties and grievances of the ‘little man’ and ‘little woman’ who are apparently ignored or patronised by Britain’s political elites, and whose views are denigrated for not being ‘politically correct’. This imbues Farage with the image of a courageous outsider daring to speak truth unto power on behalf of the silent majority.


Electorally, Britain appears to have entered a new era. The days when the Labour Party and the Conservatives attracted more than 80% of the vote in general elections, and could alternate in Office as single-party governments without the need to form coalitions, appear to be over. The weakening link between social class and support for a particular political party, a more general decline in loyalty among voters to ‘their’ party and the consequent willingness to switch votes or abstain in elections, a growing distrust of mainstream political parties and their leaders and the emergence of new issues in British politics (most notably, the environment, the EU and immigration), have combined to enable ‘third’ parties to attract unprecedented electoral popularity. Consequently, beyond the House of Commons itself, the Green Party, the BNP and UKIP have all won seats in various elections in the last 15 years or so, whilst in Scotland and Wales, nationalist parties, namely the SNP and Plaid Cymru, have either been, or still are, in government.

Britain’s voters are now much more ‘volatile’ and British party politics is in an unprecedented state of flux. There has been a loss of faith and trust in established political leaders and their parties, and as a result, fewer people are bothering to vote, while those who do turn out to vote are increasingly supporting a wide range of ‘third’ parties. Previously, those voters who were dissatisfied with Labour and/or the Conservatives could vote for the Liberal Democrats, but they are now in government too. Hence disgruntled voters are casting their votes elsewhere, and in ways which would have been almost unimaginable just 15 or 20 years ago.