16 Nov 2012

Smaller parties thrive as voters desert the ‘big three’

I’m writing this with hardly any results so far, but today’s themes are clear. The big three parties have lost ground to smaller parties, notably UKIP. And the early figures show independent candidates have made bigger strides in one day than they have in the previous several hundred years.

Until 1970 Britain had a firm two-party system, and nobody else really had a look-in. Then came the Liberals, with their regular by-elections successes, from the seventies to the nineties. And Scotland and Wales saw advances for the nationalists too, while Northern Ireland saw new parties elected who had no links to the establishment forces in Britain.

General elections over the past 40 years have seen the growing willingness of voters to desert the big three (Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem). The numbers of voters who’ve been willing to vote for someone oither than the big three (or the nationalists in Scotland and Wales) has pretty much doubled at every election for the last 40 years.

And the advent of elected mayors in many cities, and now police commissioners, has given voters another chance to be promiscuous and back small parties and independents. We saw it first with Ken Livingstone (then not Labour) in London in 1999, then successful independents like Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and Stewart Drummond in Hartlepool. And Doncaster elected an English Democrat.

And in time some of these independents may start having an impact on the national political stage.

At the same time, UKIP seems to have performed extremely well yesterday, both in Corby and in the PCC elections. That’s a huge headache for David Cameron, but can’t be ignored by the other leaders either. In Corby many of the UKIP votes will have come from Labour supporters worried about immigration, and people fed up with the Lib Dems. And now that the Liberal Democrats are in government, and no longer the natural party of protest, it means rich pickings for smaller parties like UKIP.

We also saw that when George Galloway won Bradford for Respect earlier this year. And now Labour is hugely worried that in Rotherham UKIP, Repect or even the BNP could do very well.

The success of independents in today’s results is all the more remarkable, given the difficulty of mounting campaigns when you don’t have a long-established organisation, or army of helpers, or much money. And the broadcasting rules are heavily stacked against independents too.

The one things minor candidates did have in their favour was the supplementary vote system, which takes into account second preferences of people who initially vote for less popular contenders. Ironically, it’s a variation on the AV (alternative vote) system resoundingly defeated in last year’s referendum.

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