UK Elections: Gains for Smaller Parties

By Peter Facey
Published June 24th 2004 in
"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 well. 

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 seats. 


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 stay.