Is two party politics dead?

We’ve now had four opinion polls in a row which have put the Lib Dems in second place behind Brexit and in front of both Tory and Labour parties. This is not a flash in the pan! Real votes have been cast in real elections. Of course, in the Euro-Elections we came second and gained 15 seats. In local elections yesterday we made major advances in 9 out of 10 wards contested and a gained a seat from Labour for a mediocre third place.

Does this mean a real change in the way that the UK does business? I suspect it does. With one exception – the election in 2017 there has been a move away from two-party politics. In the 50s 95%+ of the population voted Tory or Labour. The Liberals were a Celtic fringe Party and the Welsh Nats Scots Nats and the Green Party did not even exist.

Lord Wade who had been a Liberal MP in the 50s and 60s conjectured that there were basically three political spheres in all societies. A right-wing sphere; a left-wing sphere; and a centrist sphere. In the UK those spheres were most populated by the Tory, Labour and Lib (Dem) Parties. Even the nationalist parties can be located within these spheres as their Parties in or out of government make decisions which can be judged and verified.

 The big secret is that for much of that time there has been a huge overlapping of those spheres in this Country and to some extent that cohesion between the spheres still exists although it is weakening. All three big spheres overlapped for 60% of policy making but any of those spheres could in part, as per a Venn diagram, have two spheres overlapping instead of three. Thus, on some issues there would be agreement between Tory and Labour; others between Labour and the Lib Dems and others between the Lib Dems and Tories. The fact that this worked in a binary system of government is largely because of the overlap reduced tensions and differences.

The past three years have seen much change. The spheres have pulled apart as the Parties that were in two of them have pulled their spheres further away from the Centre. The impetus for both the Parties in them is Brexit. In the case of the Tories a new Party is pushing the Tories outwards. In the case of Labour, the Leader of the Party is pushing the Labour Party outward. Both Parties by moving outwards are leaving behind a proportion of people in who now feel more comfortable in the relationship with the centrist sphere or Lib Dems as we are now known!

I think that this has two possible outcomes because people in the UK are reasonably comfortable in the broad central area where the three spheres overlap. We are not, by nature an extremist country. For most people ‘muddling through’ and ‘getting on’ are the way that we have done things.

Option one is that Tom Watson and Dominic Grieve will find a way of reasserting themselves and pull their Parties back. This is improbable but not impossible in the short term. If that is not done over time the Labour and Tory Parties will die and replaced by new, more moderate Parties on the left and right re-inhabiting the original core.

Option two is that multi Party politics is here to stay. After all, very few Countries have the binary political system which we have. Multi-Party politics is the norm and not the exception. This will mean that Parties and their members will have to become far more mature about their relationships with each other. A great example of this is Brexit. Around the specific issue of Brexit, the Lib Dems campaigned with Labour, Tory, SNP, PC and Green Parties. Similarly, and to a lesser extent a few Labour members are working with Tories on the opposite side of the campaign.

That’s grown up politics. ‘Partnerships’ emerging to deal with specific issues where the solution to a big problem is more important than the tribe you come from. I could see so many areas where this could happen starting with creating a cohesive response to the most vital issue of all – Climate.

Not only is that ‘grown up’ politics but is what most people want. I hope the Liberal Democrats will take the lead in making cooperation with others the norm and not exception.

* Cllr Richard Kemp CBE is the Leader of the Liverpool Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Marriott 23rd Jun '19 - 9:32am

    Welcome to the club, Cllr Kemp. As a doyen of local government, I’m sure you will agree that we’ve been doing this for years at this level. The trouble is that, come election time, the gloves come off and loyalty to the tribe returns.

    The public is used to politicians slagging each other off at all levels. Many appear still to like a binary choice. Coalitions in local government don’t seem to bother them; but, when you form one, either formal as between 2010 and 2015 or informal as from the last general election, they often get confused.

    I often used to hear said after the ‘love in ‘ in the Downing Street rose garden in 2010 ; “But we didn’t vote for this.”, to which I would reply with something like; “But no party got a majority. At least for once you have a ‘government’ that technically represents over 50% of those, who actually bothered to vote!”

    Perhaps it’s the public that needs to wake up as well as politicians. “You can’t always get what you want……sometimes you get what you need”. Where have we heard THAT before?

  • “We are not, by nature an extremist country. For most people ‘muddling through’ and ‘getting on’ are the way that we have done things.”

    Many countries could state this and it is even true while times are relative good, when times get harsher it’s amazing how fast extremism grows and tolerance dies. If we rely on tolerance getting us through difficult times, well don’t be surprised if it doesn’t. We have to fight to remain a tolerant society or the extremes will win.

  • Innocent Bystander 23rd Jun '19 - 12:28pm

    “I think that this has two possible outcomes because people in the UK are reasonably comfortable in the broad central area where the three spheres overlap. We are not, by nature an extremist country. For most people ‘muddling through’ and ‘getting on’ are the way that we have done things.”

    As frankie says, that works when things are going well. For millions they aren’t. I think Clinton said “it’s the economy, stupid” and the US and the UK economy are sliding downhill fast and are not delivering the American Dream (or its paler UK version) for ever growing numbers. The only two economic models are “reduce taxes and pray for a miracle” and “increase taxes and pray for an even bigger miracle”.

    Until the “centre” can devise and articulate economic policies that will deliver prosperity in the new global market place (forgive me if i repeat the word “global” because any number of responders will reply on the basis that the Britain is, somehow, immune to globalisation) then the following

    ” the Labour and Tory Parties will die and replaced by new, more moderate Parties on the left and right re-inhabiting the original core.”

    Is just a pipe dream and ever more extreme voices will claim the electorate’s attention.

    cue :- the usual dozen posts on various crackpot economic panaceas.

  • Thank you Richard for a very topically relevant article which prompted me to look up Donald Wade on Wikipedia and found his there linked Obituary by Michael Meadowcroft. Is there a published pamphlet expounding his ideas about political geography?
    My answer to your rhetorical question is let’s hope so but probably not.
    Two party politics is the near inevitable result of FPTP elections. We have a rare opportunity now to seek reform to STV and we should cooperate with all democrats to achieve it no matter what part of “Lord Wade’s Egg” they populate. If we don’t Farage may get his way to supplant representative democracy with rule by referendum.

  • “Is 2 Party Politics Dead ?”
    Its too soon to say but its certainly poorly.
    We have to remind ourselves that individual Polls dont tell us much. There have been 8 Polls in the last 4 Weeks, putting them together suggests :
    Brexit & Labour level on 22-3%
    Tories on 20-21%
    Libdems on 19-20%.
    We have been pretty stable for 4 Weeks but past experience suggests that this is entirely down to our Election successes & will slowly fade over time. Lets be prepared for that possibility & not get demoralised if it happens.

  • Joseph Bourke 23rd Jun '19 - 2:00pm


    I think the answer to your question is tha given by the Chineses Premier Zhou Enlai – It’s too soon to say.
    it is not so long ago that Tony Blair won the biggest post-war landslide in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative government and he won the 2nd biggest in 2001.
    Perhaps just as significant was Magaret Thatcher’s 1983 result that significantly boosted her majority, following success in the Falklands and a divided left, due to the rise of the SDP-Liberal Alliance.
    I would like to think that multi-Party politics is here to stay and that grown up politics becomes the new normal. As you write:”Partnerships’ emerging to deal with specific issues where the solution to a big problem is more important than the tribe you come from.” and it does appear to be what most people want.
    That does of course mean practising what we preach and allowing values based evidence to be the driving force begind policy development and scrutiny of the administration.
    The main dividing line in politics continues to be the extent of the role of the state in economic affairs. As long as Libdems don’t veer right towards small state laissez-faire or left towards state planning and control of industry, I think we will remain a prominent liberal and social democraric (and perhaps the dominant) force in British poliics for generations to come.
    The most important principle in Liberal philosophy remains the ‘harm principle. as esposed by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century when he wrote in On Liberty “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jun '19 - 2:41pm

    Richard Kemp: Labour worked closely with the Tories in the 2014 referendum

  • @ Richard Kemp “We’ve now had four opinion polls in a row which have put the Lib Dems in second place behind Brexit and in front of both Tory and Labour parties.”

    Like yourself, and John Marriott, I’ve been round the block a few times in local government as a Liberal/Lib Dem Councillor. It was also great to hear you mention Donald Wade, someone (together with his wife, Bobby) that I have a great affection for and many happy memories of, working for him in Huddersfield where he was our M.P.

    What I would say to caution too much euphoria about he current Lazarus like revival of the Lib Dems is that less than two years ago in August, 2017, my beloved Huddersfield Town were top of the Premier League after 45 years in the lower divisions. Those that don’t know should look at the current fixture lists for next season.

    Never mind the speculation of such as Paul Barker and Michael 1, ….. get the policies and the organisation right….. and it might just be more than a passing flash in the pan.

  • What would help would be a sustained period in which Conservatives find themselves treated unfairly by First Past The Post. Then they would either have to think about more PR in UK elections or stop trying to occupy the same ground as the ultra-right (whatever label the latter is trading under).

  • Neil Sandison 23rd Jun '19 - 7:37pm

    I am not so sure Richard is right those who manage party machines do not endlessly keep making the same mistakes repeatedly .Poor leaders do get replaced with more acceptable centralist faces for example Blair and Cameron so lets not count our chickens too quickly .Our mission should be to continue to build upon solid core policies and seats based around social liberal values so that even with a swing in their direction we do not face another 2015 wipe out .Use the principle of local government what we gain we hold by hard work and dedication.

  • Joseph Bourke 23rd Jun '19 - 8:48pm

    David Raw,

    “get the policies and the organisation right….. and it might just be more than a passing flash in the pan.” Important as these basics might be history tells us it is not policies and organisation that makes the differences but rather it is being in tune with the zeitgeist of the times that is crucial.

    The early years of the 19th century were period of anxiety. That was the background to the Liberal victory pf 1906: anxiety about Empire after the war in South Africa and the death of thousands of women and children in concentration camps in South Africa; anxiety about the economy, fear that Britain’s industrial supremacy was being overtaken by Germany and the United States; fear about national security, Britain being isolated in the world. Hence the “Entente Cordiale” with France in 1904. Within Britain itself, great anxiety about the problems of the city, about poverty, about unemployment and as an aspect of these problems, as they affected women. The issue of women was not only a question of the vote but a matter of women’s standard of living and quality of life. So all these factors made it a time of great concern, undermining self-confidence in Britain and all of them impinged on the Conservative Party.
    The Conservatives today are torn apart over Europe. The Conservative Party in the 1900s was torn apart about Empire. And thus it was that the Liberals won their great majority against the background of these accumulative anxieties, this tension about Empire and in particular defending the great Liberal cause, the one Holy Grail for which Liberals stood, free trade, free trade between the nations. All the Liberal values were embodied in free trade: cheap food for the working man, cheap raw materials for industrial producers, full employment, economic growth, a grand vision of prosperity and peace. This was what the Liberals were defending and this was what they claimed the Conservatives were threatening to destroy.
    It is in these kind of situatiions when all the transformative political upheavals occur – Attlee in 1945, Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997.

  • @ Joe Bourke Don’t over egg the pudding Joseph. Back in the 1960’s my first degree thesis was on a 1904 by-election defence of a Liberal seat in West Yorkshire.

    I can tell you there was very little clue about any positive policies in the Liberal campaign. It was mostly negative rather than positive….. against Empire preference trade, against the Education bill on religious grounds and paying for Church schools, against the brewers, against Chinese labour in South Africa. No hint of the positive social welfare reforms post 1906 – or any hint of a female franchise. Conservative with a small c.

  • Katharine Pindar 23rd Jun '19 - 9:10pm

    This is a dangerous time, I believe. It’s so reassuring to read another welcome, thought-provoking article from Richard, and the solidly sensible comments that follow from fellow Lib Dems. Yes, of course, let’s co-operate with progressive people in other parties, go on working hard, and if only we can get STV (after stopping Brexit, of course) all will be well. That was my first thought, too.

    But we have the horrific prospect of the unprincipled Boris Johnson becoming our PM. He is still likely to be voted in by Tory members, despite his lax morals, his untruthfulness and his unreliability. (I faintly remember olden days when any sort of cloud in a person’s history prevented them even being selected as a political candidate!) And why, basically, is he likely to be elected? Because he is the only answer the Tories can see to weaken Farage and his Brexit party, Reasonableness and moderation in the British people have given way to violent extremism in a minority, and the cowing and intimidating of many more by the extremists. Unreason and untruth have taken a hold. I think we have to stand together and be prepared to fight, for the right outcomes are not inevitable.

  • Sandra Hammett 24th Jun '19 - 8:18am

    If we wish to further the upheaval, we should be standing on a Remain AND Reform platform so that we can win over even Euro-sceptic Labour members and soon to be deselected Tory MPs who would have a chance to woo their constituents with changing the EU from within.
    Until we broaden our appeal rather chasing the fractured Remain vote we will continue to aid in the two party system on it’s road to recovery.

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Jun '19 - 8:58am

    I suggest this is not a time to rest on an old analysis of political parties, that they are of the right, or the left, or of the centre, and think that as a party of the centre our time has come again. We have a different and unprecedented situation of a new party of the extreme right leaping to electoral success in this country. How are we to deal with this? Perhaps it is actually the Tories who are confronting the problem now, by proposing to make Boris Johnson Prime Minister despite his character failings. They surely hope that his charisma will supersede that of Nigel Farage, draw people back from the Brexit party to the usual party of the right, the Conservatives, and wither the insurgents.

  • There is a reality behind the results of elections. That is the availability of resources. In other words money. The two party system is based upon resources coming to the Conservatives from people associated with business and two Labour from the Trade Union movement. It was Tony Blair who recognised that Labour needed to broaden its resource base and did so by getting more money at one stage from individual donations as from the Unions.
    The problem the Liberal Democrat’s have always had is that when things go badly there are no resources. For the large parties there are resources to carry on even when things go badly. Although recently the Tories seem to have been too preoccupied to attempt to keep up their organisation in cities where they disappeared.
    In fact there has been a steady rightward shift since the war. There was little difference between the parties in the 1950s – there is little difference now.
    On the issue of our membership of the European Union, whether there is a difference is hard to say. It appears that there is consensus about the need to maintain zero tariffs with Europe, or frictionless as our Prime Minister puts it. What there is disagreement about is that the majority object to being in a Union which doesn’t exist in reality. No one seems to object that our country’s rather original negotiating stance is to leave it to the rest of Europe to draw up a treaty refuse to accept it but refuse to say what should go in its place. Oh and then to accuse the rest of Europe of refusing to accept things that have never been suggested.
    In the meanwhile the money, mainly nowadays from private sources continues to flow and decide our future.

  • Martin: indeed some might. A majority might not, after all 16 million voted against and polling now identifies a significant shift to Remain.

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Jun '19 - 8:00pm

    Protecting and supporting the social and welfare services that people depend on, Michael Chandler, is I submit an insufficient aim for us Liberal Democrats. The fact is that those services have been drastically cut back, and that we need to demand their renewal. The failures of recent Governments to look after the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our country, the expectation placed on them to save themselves by finding sufficient paid work no matter how difficult that may be and how unsatisfactory – these failures have been comprehensively uncovered in the final, May, Report of UN Rapporteur Philip Alston. I have today written to both of our leadership candidates to urge them to declare support for the Alston findings and his recommendations. The Report can be read at, and I urge everyone to read it, and support the recommendations. They cover our existing party policies and would help us develop a further progressive and much needed programme to alleviate poverty, restore individual rights and reduce inequality in our country. In this we could lead progressives in the other parties which we are likely to find ourselves co-operating with in the not-very-distant future.

  • Katharine is right to demand that our Leadership candidates should campaign to respond to the Alston Report – as should our DWP spokesperson who seems to be preoccupied by a flood..

    It should also be a stated aim to more than restore the cuts in social care for the elderly and vulnerable. It should be remembered that social care is funded in a completely different way to the NHS, with spending set by each local authority using a mixture of a central government grant and revenue from local tax and user charges. NHS Trusts can transfer deficits – local government can’t.

    Back in 2015 the Kings Fund reported that In contrast to the NHS budget, which the coalition government pledged to protect from real-terms reductions in funding, financial support to local authorities from the government decreased by 40 per cent over the the Spending Review period. Adult social care is the largest controllable element of a local authority’s budget and is not ring-fenced as part of the allocation councils receive from local government. This makes it almost impossible for councils to completely protect social care from cuts. In summary, since 2009/10:

    Local authority spending on social care for older people fell in real terms by 17 per cent; over the same period, the number of older people aged 85 and over rose by almost 9 per cent. It has become much more difficult for people to get publicly funded social care; numbers have fallen by 25 per cent since 2009 (from 1.7 million to 1.3 million) and in 90 per cent of local authorities only those with ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ needs will get publicly funded services.

    The elderly and vulnerable usually can’t campaign. The Liberal Democrats ought to be their voice and to campaign for them. If we live long enough we’ll all probably need it. That is what the word ‘society’ is meant to mean.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Jun '19 - 12:31am

    David is so right about the urgent need for increased spending on social care. The cutbacks may even have contributed to a fall in life expectancy, a distressing new phenomenon discussed in a special report in Sunday’s Observer. Epidemiologists argue, I read there, that life expectancy started to decline in Britain as a direct result of the austerity measures imposed by the Tory-led government, which reduced welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services over the past eight years. ‘And once imposed’ (the article continues) ‘they triggered dramatic reductions in funding for social care, meals on wheels, rural bus services, NHS spending, numbers of health visitors and many other services. These in turn contributed to increased numbers of early deaths of vulnerable people.’ Life expectancy apparently started to stall just after the austerity cuts were introduced, and, ‘In the case of care for the elderly, the link looks especially persuasive.’

    Once again I am reminded of the Alston Report. Though I did not include these words from the Conclusion of the Report in my letters to our leadership candidates, Philip Alston does suggest there that the prediction of philosopher Thomas Hobbes of lives ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ risks becoming a new reality here in Britain today. This would be a disgrace which our party must declare we just will not allow to happen.

  • @ Katharine What puzzles me is the lack of response to the Alston Report by the Liberal Democrat leadership and its spokespersons. You would think an evidence based radical party – as this is supposed to be – would seize upon the report (as its predecessors seized on Seebohm Rowntree’s work over a century ago) – and take what Alston so accurately says in order to campaign for it with heart and voice.

    Is there some sort of negative hang up guilt complex about the 2010-15 period……. or is it just a lack of vision and an horizon limited to Brexit ? Disappointing.

    There seems to be some sort of intellectual and moral vacuum in modern British politics.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Jun '19 - 12:01pm

    Perhaps my beloved party has just become too ‘British’, David. We don’t allow ourselves to feel, much less to express, passion about wanting to improve the lives of our fellow citizens and other citizens of the world. Well, blow that for a game of soldiers! I’m in it for real.

  • If we can accept that two party politics is dead, perhaps we can devise a form of governance and an electoral chamber that reflects this. With the renovation of Westminster, this is an opportunity to construct a less adversarial debating chamber. I feat this is a chicken and egg situation and we will have to wait for the two other Parties to accept this though by then it will be too late to modernise our parliamentary infrastructure. Has parliament voted on the design of the renovated Westminster and if not why not?

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