The fast rise and fall of the two-party system

The headline vote shares in the last general election masked a fractious reality. Now that reality has kicked in—with dramatic consequences for both the Conservatives and Labour

July 08, 2019
Photo: Hannah McKay/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Hannah McKay/PA Archive/PA Images

One of the most remarkable features of the last general election was how the Conservatives and Labour between them managed to dominate the electoral scene. Over four in five (82 per cent) of all votes cast were given to one or other of those two parties, a higher proportion than at any election since 1970. After years of appearing to be under threat, it seemed that the country’s two-party system had suddenly been restored to rude health.

This development was all the more surprising given the backdrop against which the general election was being fought—the debate about Brexit. This is a subject on which opinion cuts across the distinction between “left” and “right” that typically divides Labour and Conservative supporters. Consequently, both parties found that their voters were divided in the EU referendum. Although on balance Conservative supporters backed Leave over Remain, still as many as two in five voted Remain. Similarly, although most Labour supporters backed Remain, a substantial minority of around one in three supported Leave.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Brexit was not a subject about which either party felt it possible to be dogmatic about during the 2017 election campaign, as they tried to keep their divided supporters together. This was in stark contrast to Ukip, nearly all of whose voters had backed Leave and which was clearly in favour of a “hard” Brexit, and indeed to the stance adopted by the traditionally pro-EU Liberal Democrats who were already in favour of a second EU referendum. Yet, even though the 2017 general election was meant to be about Brexit, Ukip’s vote collapsed while the Liberal Democrats barely registered any recovery at all from the slump in their fortunes that had occurred in 2015.

However, a look underneath the surface raised questions about the idea that the two-party system had returned. Despite the ambiguity in their positions on the subject, voters appeared to be using a vote for either the Conservatives or Labour to express their views about Brexit. This was particularly evident in the pattern of support for the Conservatives, who gained ground among those who had voted Leave, including not least many a voter who had backed Ukip in 2015, whereas they lost ground among those who had backed Remain. As a result, the party garnered an electorate whose views on running the economy were often at odds with those of the party’s traditional allies in big business, creating a potential tension in the Conservative coalition.

Labour, in contrast, did manage to increase its support both amongst those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. Even so, the increase was markedly greater among those who had backed Remain. That helped ensure that the party was highly popular among younger voters and the single most popular choice of university graduates. However, the party’s Leave-inclined voters were to be found disproportionately among its more working-class supporters, a group whose interests the party above all seeks to represent. Brexit therefore presented Labour with a difficult balancing act too—in its case on top of existing divisions and tensions generated by divergent attitudes towards Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Nevertheless, for more than a year after the general election the country’s two parties appeared to be maintaining the large coalitions they had assembled in 2017. On the eve of the unveiling in mid-November 2018 of the draft withdrawal treaty between the UK and the EU, the two parties stood in the polls at 39 per cent apiece in Great Britain, in both cases just down a little on their performance in 2017.

However, as parliament continued incessantly to debate Brexit but failed to reach a conclusion, so support for both the Conservatives and Labour began to fall away. By the time the original deadline for leaving the EU was approaching, support for the Conservatives had fallen by three points to 36 per cent, while Labour’s had dropped even further—by five points to just 34 per cent. In Labour’s case, it is debatable how far the party’s loss was occasioned by its stance on Brexit. The party’s support fell among both Remainers and Leavers, suggesting that either voters in both groups were unhappy with its handling of Brexit, or that the issue was less important than another development, that is, an intensification of the row about Corbyn’s handling of allegations of anti-semitism in the party. Indeed, this row contributed to the defection of eight Labour MPs to form a new Independent Group now known as “Change UK.”

In the case of the Conservatives, however, there was little doubt that the drop in support represented an early sign that the coalition it had gathered in 2017 was at risk of unravelling in the wake of the government’s inability to deliver Brexit. All of the fall in the party’s support between mid-November 2018 and March 2019 occurred among those who had voted Leave in 2016. Much of this loss was to Ukip whose support rose by two points to 7 per cent.

However, once the government had failed to meet its target of leaving the EU on 29th March, what might once be regarded as a trickle came to look more like a steady stream. Within less than a fortnight support for the Conservatives had fallen by another six points, with much (though not all) of this further loss occurring among those who voted Leave. Again, the principal beneficiaries were Ukip, together with the nascent Brexit Party, which enjoyed a further four-point increase in support to 11 per cent—not far short of what Ukip achieved in 2015.

Many Ukip supporters had switched to the Conservatives in 2017 because they thought that doing so was the best way of ensuring that Brexit would happen. Once the Conservative Party had failed to deliver, much of that vote was at risk of switching back again. Labour certainly did not profit from this first sign of a potential collapse in Tory support—the party’s vote simply remained at 36 per cent, and thus the combined tally of support for the two largest parties had now slipped below the two-thirds mark.

Thus, even before it became clear that the UK was going to have to hold European Parliament elections, there were clear warning signs of what might happen. Voters had already shown signs of melting away from both parties in the wake of the Brexit impasse. Meanwhile, the European election provided an environment in which voters were especially likely to express whatever concerns they had about the parties’ stances on—and handling of—Brexit. Such elections have long been occasions when voters are more willing to give the incumbent government a kicking and to vote for smaller parties, and especially those articulating a Eurosceptic point of view. Moreover, the man who had made Ukip such a formidable Eurosceptic force before the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage, had returned to the electoral fray as the head of the newly-formed Brexit Party.

In the event, what had hitherto been a stream of defections away from the Conservatives became a flood. Over a half of those who voted Conservative in 2017 switched to the Brexit Party, nearly all of them people who had voted Leave in 2016 and who felt the UK should have left the EU on 29thMarch come what may. However, now the party was also losing the confidence of many of those who voted Remain, with one in five of those who voted Conservative switching to one of the pro-second referendum parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, there was an intensification of Labour’s apparent difficulties in maintaining the coalition of Remain and Leave supporters that it had been trying to keep together through a stance that combined support for Brexit in principle with keeping open the possibility of a second referendum. Among its Leave voters, the party found itself challenged by the Brexit Party, and lost around one in eight of its 2017 voters in that direction. At the same time, it also lost a lot more ground—amounting to more than 40 per cent of its support in 2017—to those parties that were unambiguously arguing for a second referendum.

Thus, when the ballot boxes were opened the Conservatives found themselves with just 9 per cent of the vote, while Labour fared little better with 14 per cent. Between them the two parties now commanded the support of just 23 per cent of those who voted, a far cry from the 82 per cent two years earlier, and by far the lowest proportion recorded in any election since Labour first started fighting elections on a nationwide basis in 1918.

However, this result was obtained in the very particular circumstances of a European election when voters are more likely to support smaller parties. The key question is what the outcome of the European elections portends for Westminster.

Not as bad as in the European elections, but bad enough. That, at least, is the immediate message from the polls. The first ones taken in the immediate wake of the European election have on average put Labour on 24 per cent and the Conservatives on 20 per cent. Whereas once the Conservatives enjoyed the support of over half of those who voted Leave, now it is only around a quarter, and it is the Brexit Party that dominates among Eurosceptic voters. Similarly, where once the Labour Party was backed by a half of Remain voters, now it is only around a third, no more than are opting to back the Liberal Democrats.

Still, one might wonder how durable such figures might be. As the European election fades in voters’ memory, might not its impact simply wear off? Maybe. Except that the issue that exposed the fragility of the respective electoral coalitions two years ago­—Brexit—is unlikely to go away soon. Moreover, as we have seen, both Conservative and Labour support had been falling in the wake of the Brexit impasse well before the European elections (or Farage’s Brexit Party) had come anywhere close to the horizon. In short, while the immediate impact of the European election on the standing of the parties might well fade somewhat, there is little reason to anticipate that the status quo ante will be easily or readily restored.

The Conservatives and Labour both rode the Brexit tiger successfully in 2017. However, the failure to resolve Brexit has now made the ride a much more uncomfortable one. As a result, Britain’s two-party system now looks rather fragile once more.


This article is from the latest edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, Centre Write.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University, and Senior Research Fellow at the NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe