- Alan Smith considers the state of the party system
The first-past-the-post system used for elections to the House of Commons and to most of our councils no doubt originated in a very simple approach: here is a list of candidates, vote for the candidate of your choice, and the candidate who receives the most votes will be the candidate elected.
One beneficial consequence of this voting system is the two-party system: this does not mean that only two parties can take part in elections, but that there tends to be a party in government and a leading party in opposition that offers itself as a potential party of government at a future election. At a local level, those who wish to defeat a sitting member find it easier to achieve their objective by concentrating their votes on one alternative candidate rather than scattering their votes among many candidates. Similarly, at national level, it is easier to replace a governing party if there is one clear alternative, rather than a multiplicity of small parties, none of which would be likely to form a government on its own and could only be likely to form a government in a coalition as a result of a post-election negotiation. In such a two-party system the role of third parties is to offer options to voters who are not satisfied with either of the two main parties.
From the middle of the seventeeth century to the end of the nineteenth century, the two main parties were the Tories and the Whigs, though towards the end of this period the official names had changed to the Conservatives and the Liberals. The name ‘Tory’ however remained a popular alternative among the Conservatives.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Labour Party began to emerge as a separate political force, aided by the failure of the Conservatives and Liberals to secure the support of the voters enfranchised by the 1867 Reform Act. In the 1920s Labour became one of the two major parties, in the wake of the split in the Liberals between the followers of Asquith and the followers of Lloyd George. After forming two minority governments in the 1920s, with Liberal support, they marked their coming of age by attaining a majority in the House of Commons in 1945.
My interest in politics developed in about 1951, when I went to a grammar school in the September and the Conservatives under Winston Churchill returned to office in the October (post hoc non ergo propter hoc). At that time it seemed that everyone was either Conservative or Labour. Of the third parties after the 1955 general election, the Liberals had six MPs: three in Wales, one in Scotland, and two in England. The two in England were in Bolton and Huddersfield: each town had two MPs and in each there was a local pact between the Conservatives and the Liberals to fight one seat each. Of nationalist parties in 1955, only Sinn Fein achieved electoral success and their two MPs were unable to take their seats because they were otherwise detained. Today there is a multiplicity of third parties: in addition to the Liberal Democrats, the heirs of the Liberal Party, there are the Green Party, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru.
Below the ‘third parties’ there are groups that we can categorize as ‘fourth parties’ of which the most famous is the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP). The pop star, David Sutch, known as ‘Screaming Lord Sutch’, fought a number of elections, particularly by-elections, under parties with a number of different names. Then, on 16 June 1982, Sutch, together with the present leader, Alan ‘Howling Laud’ Hope, formed the OMRLP which made its first appearance at the Bermondsey by-election in 1983. Hope can generally be spotted as the one who dresses like Colonel Sanders or Boss J.D. Hogg from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’
Their manifestos over the years have contained some apparently outlandish proposals, many of which have been subsequently introduced—the curse of satirists through the ages. Some that haven’t include the 99p coin to reduce the need for change when paying by cash and a ban on greyhound racing to stop the country going to the dogs.
Some may object to the OMRLP and their kind as frivolous, but they serve a purpose. Quite apart from providing a colourful diversion during the televising of election counts, the number of votes their candidates receive is an indication of the health of the body politic. As the vote they receive increases, the main two parties and the ‘third parties’ should seriously examine the state of their parties.