Welcome to the age of four-party politics

The Tories and Labour can't count on ever winning another majority. Elections will never be the same

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Two things will make the next general election campaign quite unlike any previous election in this country. The first is that we now have four-party politics right across Britain. In Scotland and Wales, the nationalist parties have been a political force for a generation. But the big change is in England, where Ukip is emerging as a fourth force. Second, the campaign will be haunted by the spectre of another hung parliament. The question of what happens if no party wins an overall majority will be asked time and time again by an impatient media.

Between them, the Tories and Labour commanded the support of 96.8 per cent of the electorate at the 1951 general election, the zenith of the two-party hegemony. From 1945 until 1974, these two parties always garnered at least four fifths of the vote at any general election. But that percentage has declined markedly in the last 40 years. In 2010, the Tories and Labour received less than two  thirds of the votes cast.

This decline led to neither the Tories nor Labour being able to win a majority. The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that followed, though, created the space for the emergence of Ukip as a fourth party. It has become the new ‘none of the above’ party and a repository for Tories alienated by the compromises of coalition. The polls suggest that about 8 per cent of voters now intend to back Ukip come what may.

Four-party politics makes campaigns more complex than before. For instance, Labour strategists are quite happy to see the prominence of immigration as an issue rise, despite its being a weak spot for their party. Why? Because their research shows that when concern about immigration is high, the Tories lose more votes to Ukip.

Equally, four-party politics creates a dynamic in which two parties can fight each other and both win. The Liberal Democrat attempt to turn this year’s European elections into a contest between them and Ukip with a debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage will probably benefit both sides. The two parties aren’t competing for the same voters and will, as a result of this tussle, receive more coverage than they otherwise would have done.

Another consequence of this new system is that a party can win with a far smaller share of the vote than before. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election co-ordinator, has told colleagues that four-party politics means it is wrong to expect Labour to have the kind of poll leads it did before previous election victories. Indeed, thanks to favourable constituency boundaries and Ukip eating into the Tory vote, it is possible that Labour could win a majority with even less than the 35 per cent of the vote it achieved in 2005.

The Tory desire, though, is to get elections back to being a two-party contest. Lynton Crosby, the party’s campaign manager, has little time for too-clever-by-half ideas about how to play one opponent off against another. Instead, he has drummed into senior Tories that they need the next election to be a choice between the Tories and Labour and between Cameron and Miliband as Prime Minister. The challenge for the Tories is how to write the Lib Dems and Ukip out of the script. At the moment, their plan is to describe a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives as a vote for Miliband. The Tory high command has already earmarked Boris Johnson as the man to squeeze the Ukip vote by warning of the dangers of Prime Minister Miliband.

But writing out Ukip and the Liberal Democrats will not be easy. The European elections this year, where Ukip are on course to beat the Tories, will give Nigel Farage and co. a massive publicity boost. And the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, have an easy way to write themselves back in.

The Liberal Democrats also benefit from the fact that a hung parliament is seen as the most likely outcome of the next election by the Westminster press corps. This means that anything Clegg says about what his party will do post-2015 is news.

The Lib Dem leader knows this and will use this media interest to try to show that he could do a deal with either Labour or the Tories. Neither of the two main parties is sure how to respond to Clegg’s musings. Labour is deeply divided over whether to prepare for another hung parliament. Some, notably deputy leader Harriet Harman, view this as defeatist. They think the party should simply say that it is going to win outright and leave it at that. Others believe that the failure to prepare for coalition talks in 2010 was what cost Labour office; they are determined not to repeat the same mistake again.

For their part, the Tories have no desire to look as though they are readying for a second coalition. This would go against their electoral strategy. Just as importantly, it would further strain relations between Cameron and his parliamentary party—many of whom suspect him of being keener on another coalition than governing with a small Tory majority. This charge was certainly true nine months ago, but it is not now. Cameron has become sufficiently narked by the Liberal Democrats and concerned enough about party management to believe now that a small Tory majority would be preferable to another coalition.

No. 10, though, is keen to avoid getting drawn into debates about what Cameron would do in the event of another hung parliament; ‘that way madness lies’, one Cameron confidant declares. But they are mustard keen to get the message across that their leader doesn’t want another coalition.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrat leadership’s worry is that so many red lines are drawn during the campaign that no coalition agreement is possible. They are acutely conscious that any deal will have to be approved both by their own party’s triple lock and by the side they are doing a deal with. How to sell any agreement to both groups simultaneously is a marketing problem that would challenge even Don Draper.

One thing is certain: it will be far harder to reach a coalition agreement in 2015 than it was in 2010. If Labour falls short of a majority, many in his team will urge Miliband to ‘do a Wilson’ and govern alone before going to the country again. On the Tory side, meanwhile, it will be hard to get a second coalition deal past the parliamentary party.

At the moment, though, it is hard to see either the Tories or Labour winning an overall majority. This means that if they want to govern, they are going to have to make some kind of deal. British politics isn’t just a two-party contest any more.

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  • Two Bob

    Winning an election with less than 35% of the electorate = broken britain

    • Terry Field

      FRACKtured Fatherland!!!

  • MikeF

    It will very likely be back to three parties after the next election given what is likely to happen to the LibDems.

    • rtj1211

      As the old Liberal Party once had only 6 seats and less than 20 in the days of the Lib-Lab pact, history does suggest that they will recover longer term, so long as they have a distinctive message.

      • Rillian

        Other than “I’m Sorry”? lol

      • crosscop

        The distinctive message, according to Simon Hughes, is that they want us to have a Muslim Prime Minister…

  • James Allen

    Nigel Farage’s language in his speech today was very interesting:

    “[Of the political class] … they have given away our country, surrendered control of our borders, left us at the mercies of foreign courts”.

    Reminiscent of the complaints against the Crown in James II’s time and other occasions throughout our history. UKIP = English patriots…

  • Robbydot1

    I think the Libdems have already written themselves out.

  • obiwan

    UKIP could improve their prospects massively if they ditch the new EU election slogan – who’s bright idea was it to ‘repurpose’ word-for-word an old BNP slogan..?



    • Pip

      Who cares, its not important, all that is relevant is the message it conveys which is very apt, considering.

  • rtj1211

    It is only in Britain that we believe you have to have majority rule for ‘effective’ and ‘strong’ Government. Governments which can use Whips to force legislation through Parliament, whether or not it is suitable for the country or not, are neither effective nor strong. They are merely efficient in the legislature whilst making the country weaker.

    Vigorous debate and argument, principled compromise and long-term strategic approaches are best way to make a country solvent prosperous and peaceful in the long-term. It is a measure of how anachronistic Britain still is that we are harking back to the Government suitable for Empire rather than the Government suitable for the people.

    There are no marriages which thrive on diktat. None. There are few companies which prosper for decades based on tyranny. They usually go tits up after super profits for 3-5 years followed by the best staff leaving due to abuse.

    Why Governments should be effective without an electoral mandate is quite the most ridiculous postulate the UK media has tried to maintain in the past 30 years.

    • Jeff77450

      Very well said.

  • Pip

    Welcome to the age of 3 Party Politics it should read as clearly the LibDems will be irrelevant after the EU and General Elections, and justly deserved I might add, if it were up to me, many of them would be jailed too.

    • global city

      Clegg made a massive blunder in thinking that Farage would refuse to debate just him in the planned EU face off.

      As we all know, nearly all of the Europhile case for our membership is based on lies and cover ups of their support of the true political nature of the EU. If Farage is made of the sort of stuff that I think he is he will ruthlessly expose these core points.

      The Lib Dems will thenceforth have to fight as the ‘party of IN’ on an honest plea for full merging, not ‘pooling’ but ceding power to a new and higher authority, not being in a trading bloc or intergovernmental sort of Jirga, but one that hands decision making wholly to a central authority, etc. Make them fight on their true ideals and not allow them to continue the strategy of deceit put in place by that arch traitor Heath.

  • global city

    Rather than being a warning about this coalition and any future one with the Lib Dems, I think that the planted stories that Cameron will promise to not make any coalition is a dog whistle to those few tories he thinks are voting UKIP in the hope that they will be in a position to form a coalition with the Tories.

    I think it has nothing to do with the Lib Dems.

    It will fail to dissuade UKIP voters from actually voting UKIP.

  • Roy

    Have we any faith in what the public will vote in? It is they who will decide who is relevant and who is not! With so much propaganda, I doubt the people are sufficiently knowledgeably to pick the ones who are going to fully work for them. We get what we deserve is perhaps correct.

  • Daniel Maris

    Is reality beginning to dawn in Speccieworld?

  • E Hart

    Four parties? No. Two shorts and two carbonated, fruit-infused mixers. The result is a sucker punch that pleases no-one. UKIP is going to do for the Tories; the Lib-Dems will do for themselves, and Labour, now a duplicitous One Nation Tory Party, has pushed a sizeable chunk of its supporters to abstain. Were the country using PR, there would be at least four real parties maybe even more. In the absence of all but cosmetic plurality, we’re going to get more classic rotten boroughism as only 30% of the seats have any chance of changing hands. There is true diffusion but no chance of this being reflected in seats won. As Two Bob says the winning party will carry 35% of the electorate. You might add to that that the turnout will be low and the response to the “popular mandate” (hilarity) will be resignation and further disaffection. The parties, apparently, are “worried” by the lack of participation. Are they hell – this abject fix keeps them in business. Were there genuine plurality, a sizeable chunk of the Tory Party vote would be redistributed to UKIP, Libertarians, Fascists and Liberals, while Labour would fragment into Conservatives, Liberals, Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists; even the Greens might feature.

    If any of the main political parties cared a fig about popular representation, democracy and plurality, they’d end this charade and give us a real choice. The fact that they won’t shows their utter contempt for the people of this country and the meaning of democracy.

    FPTP was supposed to offer strong government to a bunch of suckers who could be readily corralled like sheep (ever four or five years) behind their respective banners. Now this has failed – and it is clear these parties are unlikely to win outright – we are left with the problem that there is little representation available to the two-thirds who can be bothered to vote and none whatsoever to those who don’t. Now, here’s that “four-party politics” choice in full: Cameron, Milliband, Clegg and Farage. Attractive, isn’t it? What’s the effing difference? All four are preoccupied by issues of “sovereignty” when in reality, socially, politically and economically, they’ve sold out either to big business and/or the EU’s corporatist, one-size-fits-all, master plan. It’s ironic that the only stake the country has in its own economy lies in the bottomless pit created by RBS and co.

    UKIP’s obsession with sovereignty is of the faux variety (i.e. unreal) in a country which still has its own currency – and whether inside or outside the EU – we would still need to deal with matters of immigration and the ECHR with a degree of reciprocity. On matters of economics – despite its protestations – it is the same as the others. It’s a corporate stooge which would stand by the tiller but never act to control it. In essence, there is only one trajectory on offer. We’ve no electoral choice but to back the Four Arseholes of the Apocalypse in a race to the bottom.

    These parties are a true reflection of Britain: they are shallow proxies for something else. They are to a popular democracy what a call centre is to the principal – low level go-betweens which purport to be something they are not.

  • Terry Field

    Four parties??
    Ha Ha
    The Liberal Democrats are a spent force and will become – permanently – much reduced.
    UKIP will merge with the Tories in an electoral pact – a kind of optional bolt-on dailymailpartai – after 2017, and the socialists will sod off north and west when the West Lothian question has to be fully dealt with after either Scottish Shortbread Production is nationalised by Salmond and give an Appelation Controlee by a grateful Brussels (that is the real meaning of the referendum) or there is DevoMax (sounds like a celtic laxative)
    Either way, Conservative Britain will have the politics it wants.
    And then, no more Harman and Dromey.
    Whack-ho! (oo that sounds a touch naughty!)

  • drydamol1


    If ever there was an opportunist Blair is the King
    .Labour’s links to the Unions have taken on a different role and their
    contributions of £1 million pounds will cease .Blair with more front than
    Blackpool murmured that he felt that the British Public had turned their backs
    on him sometime ago so obviously he appreciates he had let us down .

    But ever the
    showman he is now in talks with the Labour Hierarchy to contribute a large
    donation out of his estimated ill-gotten gains of £70 million .So if Blair is a
    contributor to the coffers of the Labour Party we can be rest assured he has an
    influence on future Policy Decisions .

    It definitely seems that this Country is in retrograde
    motion ,we had Blair and Cameron colluding before the last Election ,both have
    been involved heavily with the Draconian Reforms ,Blair instigating them and
    Cameron putting them into practice ,now it seems the ‘prodigal’ Blair is
    returning .

    At present Labour are Pro Euro and with Blair’s influence
    and Cameron’s support don’t be surprised if we find ourselves more integrated
    and bailing out more EU Countries .Ukraine has Economical problems and is the
    latest Country wanting to Join . Not Britain but us hard pressed Taxpayers are
    not a charity for Economically failing Countries to jump on the Gravy Train and
    enjoy Benefits we are refused .


  • Honor Maughan

    Why are the Liberal Democrats so sure that they would be the party asked to form a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour in 2015? It seems that they may be counting their chickens rather too early.