As Britain gears up for election, a lot more players on the stage

The two-party battle that used to dominate is fraying as political dynamics get more diverse and competitive. Parliamentary elections are May 7.

Alastair Grant/AP
British lawmaker Nigel Farage (c.) talks to the media as he launches a poster campaign for the general election for his UKIP party in London Monday.

Britain's general elections used to be straightforward: a predominantly two-horse race between Labour or Conservative governments, left vs. right, red against blue. But as electioneering gets under way for May 7 polls, it's clear the vote has implications for British politics that extend well beyond whoever comes out on top.

This time, the usual suspects have plenty of company, including the diminished but still important Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, Green Party, Scottish National Party, and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru. 

What's driving the decay of the two-party system is not only the increasing dissatisfaction with both Labour and the Conservatives, but the growing sophistication of smaller parties in local government and the greater competency of more nationalist parties in the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland

The proliferation of parties and diverse voting patterns have been factors in several recent elections. At the local level, voters were prepared to test independent candidates. On the international stage, elections for the European parliament made many yearn for a fresh voice – helped by proportional representation rather than Britain’s "first past the post" system, where the winner takes all.

With minority parties potentially holding the balance of power come May 8, Britain is likely entering a more permanent era of the coalition governments on the Continent that were once mocked by the establishment. Whereas Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Labour PM Tony Blair enjoyed large majorities that helped them push through legislation, the new reality may result in more consensus politics. 

“I think a lot of people associate the two main parties and the Liberal Democrats, who have all been in government over the past 10 years, with policy failures and want to give other parties a go," says Alistair Clark, a senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

“That’s seen the growth in UKIP, the demise of Labour in Scotland. We are very definitely seeing a new era in coalition governments or minority governments, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Like we saw in the referendum campaign in Scotland, it energizes elections and makes politicians talk to voters on their level to get their support.”

He also said the perceived growth in "professional politicians" with little experience of life outside politics had led to a drop in support.

Most polls still put Labour and Conservatives neck and neck, with around 30 to 35 percent of the vote each. However, national support doesn’t always translate to individual constituencies, with the remaining parties sharing differing amounts of support. 

Paul Webb, professor of politics at Sussex University, agrees that competent coalition and minority devolved governments in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have encouraged multiparty democracy. He said the "success" of the coalition government of the Conservatives and Lib Dems over the past five years has also proved that parties can work together despite tough economic times and ideological differences.

“This has been bubbling since February 1974, which was probably the beginning of the end of the two-party political duopoly. But since 2010, there’s been an upsurge, mainly down to two things: devolution and the success of governments there [Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland], and the impact of the Lib Dems going into coalition government.

“Traditionally [the Lib Dems] were seen as a pressure valve for voters, somewhere to register a protest vote against the two main parties.... Now there’s dissatisfaction with them, forcing some voters to go to the SNP in Scotland, the Greens, or UKIP.”

He added: “It is difficult to predict what’s going to happen for ‘political nerds’ like me, but it’s fascinating. It’s what Google calls ‘political realignment’ and what will happen in the election will endure for generations.”

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