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June 24, 2004

Summary:  Peter Facey examines the impact of the smaller parties on the recent local, London and European elections.
UK Elections: Gains for Smaller Parties
By Peter Facey
June 24, 2004

"Super Thursday", this year's combined poll for the European, local and
London elections, saw advances for political outsiders at the expense of
the political establishment, but is this just a flash in the pan or will
it have a long term effect on our political landscape?

Britain has traditionally been described as having a two or two and half
party system, with Labour and the Conservatives fighting it out and the
Liberal Democrats nipping at their heals. In recent years local
elections have become a three party contest with all three parties
within 10 per cent of each other.

This set of elections are the most favourable to small parties as two of
them, the European and the Greater London Assembly elections are
conducted under proportional systems but even so they did surprisingly

In the European elections, a third of the vote went to parties with no
seats at Westminster and only half the electorate voted for Labour or
the Conservatives.


The big winner of the European Elections was the UK Independence Party,
which increased its share of the vote by nine per cent to 16 per cent
and 12 MEP's. The UKIP's vote was stronger in traditional Conservative
areas in the south of England, though it did manage to win a European
seat in every English region apart from the north east. UKIP also won
their first two seats on the Greater London Assembly taking eight per
cent of the vote. In the local elections conducted under first past the
post, the UKIP made significantly less progress only picking up two


In the European elections the Green Party managed to maintain their two
seats with good showings in London and the south east but overall their
national share of the vote did not increase. In the Greater London
Assembly they lost ground going down from three seats to two. However
they made progress in the local elections picking up eight seats taking
their total to 61. In Oxford City Council they have seven seats and now
hold the balance of power.


The BNP increased their share of the vote in the European elections
taking 4.9 per cent in Great Britain, but failed to win any seats. In
the GLA election they took 4.71 per cent of the vote only missing a seat
by 0.29 per cent. In the local elections the BNP picked up seven seats,
but lost four existing seats.


George Galloway's Respect - Unity Coalition polled 1.5 per cent in the
European and 4.57 per cent in the London Assembly elections failing to
get any individual elected. They improved on the London Socialist
Alliance showing last time, but failed to make a break through.

Local Elections

In the local elections, though minor parties picked up a significant
number of votes in the wards where they stood, they are still a minor
force in terms of the number of councillors they have in relation to the
three main parties. But parties such as the Greens and other small or
local parties have shown that where they have broken through they can
survive to become credible forces in their local areas. If the
traditional parties are prone to be complacent they should remember that
from small acorns large trees can grow.

PR and Small Parties

The elections with proportional voting systems are where the small
parties made the most headway. Britain now has proportional electoral
systems for Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, London and European
elections. This has helped the Greens, UKIP and the Scottish Socialists
break through. The Greater London Assembly elections saw for the first
time the five per cent threshold stopping parties from being elected, in
this case the BNP and Respect both of whom would have won a seat without
the threshold.

The evidence suggests that these parties would exist without PR and as
we can see in local elections are getting sizeable votes, because they
are tapping into dissatisfaction among the wider electorate. What is
true is that PR has given these parties to have a realistic chance of
converting their support into seats and thereby giving them credibility
and the opportunity to pursue their own policy agendas. Voters have now
experienced two sets of elections under proportional systems and know
that if they vote for small or new parties that they can win seats.

Impact on the traditional parties and the General Election

Unlike the last Scottish election where the challenge from minor parties
came mainly from the left these elections showed dissatisfaction on both
sides of the political spectrum with the UKIP and BNP on the right and
the Greens and Respect on the left. If the traditional parties continue
to fight for the centre ground then they risk loosing support to their
left or right.

In a general election conducted under first-past-the-post it is likely
that parties like the Greens and UKIP will slip back, but it only needs
a small number of voters to stick with these parties to have a impact on
the result of the election. Even If a minority of former Conservative
voters stay with the UKIP in marginal seats it may put back the
Conservatives hopes of a recovery. On the other hand if progressive
voters continue to be alienated with Labour and vote for small parties
or for the Liberal Democrats then many Labour MP's in marginal seats
could find themselves unemployed.

Whatever happens at the general election our traditional party system
seems to be fraying at the edges and small parties look to be here to

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