For almost a decade now, the UK party system has been experiencing something of an identity crisis. Since the late 17th century and the emergence of the Whigs and the Tories, the major feature of the British party system has been its remarkable stability which has often been held up as an unproblematic example of a two-party duopoly. It is such stability that is often seen as the major cornerstone of the British political system writ large.
Yet, since the 2010 general election, which failed to produce a winning majority and resulted in the coalition government, this idea of a stable two party system has been increasingly questioned amidst growing speculation that periods of minority or coalition government may have become the norm in a context of declining support for the two major parties.
Indeed, the fall-out from Brexit has only served to heighten such speculation as both the Conservatives and Labour face ongoing challenges from insurgent parties, like the Brexit Party, and from threats of internal party splits.
Perhaps no other politician embodies this current identity crisis better than Chuka Umunna, who has, since the start of 2019, represented three different parties – Labour, ChangeUK and now currently, the Liberal Democrats – as well as two stints as an independent MP. Ummuna’s decision to defect from Corbyn’s Labour party was justified on his, and that of his fellow defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives, claim that British politics was in need of change.
Yet, the real problem for Ummuna was more that the British party system is changing all too rapidly with both major parties departing with some velocity from what was previously perceived to be the ‘centre ground’.
At the heart of this rapidly changing party environment has been the accelerated retreat from what was formerly a relatively stable consensus, which found expression in the overlapping ‘modernisation’ projects of Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives.
In the midst of this fracturing of party consensus, with the Conservatives drifting to the right and Labour to the left, real opportunities have emerged for so-called ‘third’ parties to take advantage of falling support for the two main behemoths.
Such opportunities have also been aided by the introduction of proportional representation voting systems for all UK electoral contests that fall outside of general elections.
This has enabled impressive electoral successes for Ukip, the SNP and more recently, the newly formed Brexit Party. The latter’s remarkable success in the recent European elections was accompanied by a historically poor performance for the Conservatives – the so-called ‘natural party of government’ – and in the midst of this level of unprecedented political turmoil, it is tempting to suggest that the UK party system is no longer recognisable.
Crisis, what crisis?
However, whilst this current period of political turmoil could be taken to reflect a wider disintegration of UK party politics, the extraordinarily rapid decline of Ummuna’s ChangeUK also throws into stark relief the difficulty of any third party to take a meaningful bite out of Britain’s centuries old two-party system.
On the plus side for Britain’s third parties is the fact that there has been a general trend of declining support for the two major parties since the 1970s: as a period of post-war stability in UK party politics came to an abrupt end with the February 1974 general election, which saw their support decline by almost 15%.
Yet, despite this, the decline in overall electoral vote share for the two main parties has not been mirrored by a decline in their relative parliamentary or executive dominance. For example, despite there being a dramatic rise in support for other parties at the February 1974 election, especially the Liberals, the period between 1974 and 2010 saw no effective challenge to the legislative or executive dominance of the two main parties. Here, the Brexit Party might want to take note.
Instead, a system of ‘alternating predominance’, which has seen one of the two main parties retain power over a series of consecutive general elections, appears to have come into existence. It wasn’t until 2010 and the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition government that this pattern was disrupted; yet despite this disruption, we are still in the ninth year of Conservative party government, in one form or another, and there is every reason to believe they might still be in position to lead a government beyond the next general election.
So, whilst the coalition government may have caused some to declare the beginning of the end of two-party politics, this is unlikely to be the case. At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives were able to return to power with a majority government, albeit with a slender majority, with the Liberal Democrats being severely punished for their part in the previous five years of austerity politics.
And whilst Ukip had achieved the third highest number of popular votes at that election at 12.6%, the first-past-the-post system did not allow this to translate into victory in terms of parliamentary representation.
The snap election of 2017 may have led to the Conservatives losing their majority and having to enter into the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the DUP, but the actual share of the votes for the two main parties dramatically increased during that election – with the Conservatives and Labour taking over 82 per cent of the popular vote and gaining nearly 90 per cent of parliamentary seats.
This result actually gave the two main parties their highest share of the vote since the 1970 general election. In contrast to this, smaller parties such as Ukip, the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats all saw their vote share decline.
Is the two party system likely to endure?
Thus, however politically fraught, anxious and antagonistic the Brexit era is proving to be for the two main parties, it is plausible to suggest that the two party-system could remain in relatively rude health.
Despite growing exasperation at the two main parties for their lack of unity and coherent visions for the future, the majority of voters still view the Conservatives and Labour as the only viable governing options.
Writing before Brexit, the late Peter Mair had cautioned that the British two-party system had ‘become both vulnerable and brittle, such that even a relatively small shock could lead to substantial change’; and yet, even after the substantial shockwaves of Brexit and the recent European parliamentary elections, there is still reason to believe that the two main parties are likely to remain as relevant as ever and that the two-party system will remain largely intact.
Whilst local and European elections offer the electorate a chance to vent their frustrations at the mainstream political parties, the balance of probability and the experience from history suggests that it is unlikely that we will see any significant long-term challenge to Britain’s two-party system any time soon, especially given the constraints of the first-past-the-post electoral system. And so, whilst the death of British two-party politics continues to be rumoured, we would caution that such a death might be being greatly exaggerated.
By Dr Alex Oaten, Teaching Fellow in Political Science and Dr Peter Kerr, Senior Lecturer in Politics, both at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.
She is a conservative politician newly elected as the president of the European Commission, taking over from outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker. Her term will begin on 1 November and will run for the EU’s five-year legislative period to 31 October 2024. Prior to taking up the post, she was the German defence minister from 2013, serving under German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Britain’s long-running drama of exiting the European Union has revealed stark generational differences. Among some of the explanations suggested for the 2016 referendum result was how people perceived the issue of immigration.
Our research, published in a new working paper, looked at how views on immigration change over time among different age groups. Our findings – that there are significant, persistent differences between generations when it comes to their attitudes to immigration – are particularly relevant in the context of the UK’s Brexit referendum.
Long before the Brexit referendum, we began investigating whether people in Western democracies that had experienced large-scale, post-war immigration might be growing more tolerant of living in a more diverse society. Some research suggests such a shift is unlikely, as people tend to respond to increases in diversity by feeling threatened and hostile. Others, however, predict that more diversity may lead to more contact between groups of people from different ethnic origins, which may eventually increase tolerance and acceptance.
So far, much of the existing research on attitudes to immigration has largely ignored the potential importance of generational differences. Yet other research has found these different generations have different views on various social issues, including valuing individual freedom over order and environmental protection.
Researchers have long contended that such generational differences are likely because the conditions when people “come of age” politically and socially – generally thought to be between the ages of 15 to 20 – are instrumental in shaping their opinions, attitudes, and behaviours later in life.
In our research, we used a public opinion dataset that spans 2002-17 to follow the attitudes of several generations of British citizens. We looked at how their attitudes to immigration shifted over this period and whether the views of some generations were persistently different from one another.
Our statistical analysis shows that those born between approximately 1920 and 1960 are generally among the most negative about immigration, with those born around 1940-5 holding the most negative attitudes to immigration of all. As the graph below also shows, for generations born after 1960, we found a small but steadily significant movement towards more positive attitudes to immigration among younger generations.
The solid line is the average immigration attitudes across birth cohorts, controlling for factors including education, gender, individual economic circumstances, and survey year. The dashed lines are the range of confidence surrounding these averages.
McLaren et al., Author provided
The Impact of diversity
This trend tracks post-war increases in levels of diversity in the UK. As the country has become more diverse, and more open to immigration, younger generations who’ve grown up with this increased diversity are the most positive about it. So something about the experiences of these younger generations appears to be leading them to different conclusions about immigration compared to their elders.
One possibility is that the younger groups are experiencing far more contact with immigrant minorities than their elders, and our research shows that this is indeed the case. It’s also possible that younger generations came of age at a time when public debates around immigration were changing and social norms along with them – and people were becoming more intolerant of intolerance.
Exposure to more affordable international travel and to friends and relatives who’ve worked abroad may allow these younger groups to empathise more with being a “foreigner” than their parents do, or maybe they feel more like “citizens of the world”. Other researchers are also finding major generational differences in other social attitudes over long periods of time, with younger generations having more socially liberal attitudes.
But society remains dominated by generations born before 1970, where anti-immigrant attitudes are most prevalent. These older generations still make up the bulk of the population, vote in the largest numbers and – whether in politics, media, business, or culture – dominate key positions in society.
Our findings highlight the possibility of growing tolerance of diversity in the UK as a result of “generational replacement”, as those born after 1970 become more central to society in the coming decades. This makes it more likely that continued diversity brought about by immigration could soon be met with more positive reactions.
This is clearly relevant in relation to the promise by Brexiteers to “take back control” of immigration in the context of the UK’s relationship with the EU – and one of the main drivers for the 2016 referendum in the first place. These findings therefore seem crucial to the UK’s impending departure from the EU. In the not-too-distant future, a key element which drove the vote to Leave – concerns over immigration – may carry far less importance.
-Lord Bew, Queen’s University Belfast
-Professor Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh and Centre for -Constitutional Change
-Professor Laura McAllister, Cardiff University
-Philip Rycroft, former Head of UK Governance Group, Cabinet Office
-Tony Travers, LSE (chair)
Our keynote speaker Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, discusses the constitutional issues that would need to be resolved post Brexit.
Although the UK’s financial services sector continues to suffer from a lack of public trust following the 2007-8 financial crisis, assessing the possible impacts of different Brexit scenarios on this sector is important because of its implications for the nature of economic development in the UK after Brexit. Such an assessment needs to go beyond evaluating how Brexit will impact on current business models.
Rather, Brexit highlights the crossroads that the UK’s financial services sector currently finds itself at. In order to move forward, important questions need to be asked about what sort of financial services sector the UK aspires to, and how finance is put to work to support economic development in the ‘real economy’ and the uneven regional outcomes of this.
To date, much of the public and political debate has focused on short and medium term assessments of the impacts of different Brexit scenarios on financial and related professional services as currently configured in the UK. This is clearly important given the significant contribution the sector makes to the UK’s GDP, the employment opportunities the sector provides (particularly in London and the south east), and the size of its tax revenues.
In this respect, issues that seem far removed from the everyday use of financial services by households and firms are rightly foregrounded. In technical terms, the future nature of the UK’s financial services sector will be determined to a significant extent by the regulatory relationship between the UK and the EU. Here the difference between ‘passporting’ and regulatory ‘equivalence’ is critical.
Initially, the UK’s financial services sector favoured the maintenance of the current passporting arrangements between the UK and the EU. Passporting allows financial firms registered in the UK to access the single market without the need to obtain additional regulatory clearance and licences in other countries. Indeed, passporting has been central to the development of London as a leading international financial centre since the 2007-8 crisis as it, in effect, acts as the financial centre for the whole of the EU rather than the UK alone.
However, in January 2017, the Prime Minister made it clear that continued membership of the single market was not an option in terms of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU after Brexit, thereby removing the possibility for passporting arrangements to continue.
Subsequently, there were hopes within the financial services community for a bespoke set of arrangements for the sector but the 2018 Chequers deal made clear that instead, financial services firms based in the UK would need to rely on third party equivalence regimes with the EU after Brexit.
Equivalence leads to continued uncertainty for the UK’s financial services sector. Under equivalence arrangements, the EU permits foreign financial firms market access if it believes that the regulatory arrangements in that third country are equivalent to, or closely aligned to, its own regulatory requirements. However, this leads to uncertainty in the UK because equivalence can be revoked by the EU.
Such a provision was exercised by the EU in June 2019 when the EU allowed the equivalence regime between the EU and Switzerland relating to stock exchange trading to expire. This collapse partly reflected challenges in wider talks between the two parties in relation to a Brussels-Bern trading agreement but clearly shows the risks associated with relying on equivalence.
However, in the case of UK-EU relations, a move to equivalence signals a more profound change in the position of the UK financial services sector internationally from that of a rule maker to a rule taker. Within the EU, whilst the UK has been central in leading several regulatory decisions between the 2007-8 financial crisis and Brexit, more recently there are signs that France is becoming increasingly powerful in shaping the EUK’s regulatory position. Meanwhile, globally emerging global financial actors such as China are increasingly shaping international regulatory decision making.
Whilst moving to become a global regulatory rule taker has been identified as a threat to the ongoing vitality of London’s financial services sector, it also opens up space to explore what kinds of financial services sector the UK wants to develop post Brexit. For example, the UK has recently developed a global reputation in rapidly emerging financial technology (‘fintech’) markets.
The future development of this activity depends not only on regulatory arrangements between the UK and the EU but also on the migration regime that is adopted because access to technically skilled international labour is a vital factor in the UK’s fintech success. Moreover, whilst financial services in London and the south east have boomed following the financial crisis, at least until Brexit uncertainty took hold, financial exclusion and lack of finance for investment remain persistent problems with highly uneven regional dimensions.
As the UK’s financial services sector addresses the Brexit crossroads it now finds itself at, a significant opportunity has arisen to explore how post Brexit financial services might be developed to facilitate economic livelihoods and economic growth both within, but crucially, beyond London and the south east.
By Sarah Hall, Professor of Economic Geography, University of Nottingham and Senior Fellow with the UK in a Changing Europe
Sir John Major recently pledged to bring a judicial review in the Courts should Boris Johnson, or presumably any other future Prime Minister, seek to prorogue Parliament to enable a no deal Brexit.
Is this a plausible legal challenge, or mere political bluster? As with much of the UK constitution involving Brexit, the answer is not crystal clear: there are a number of possible bases for this appeal, each of which has its problems.
What, exactly, would Sir John Major challenge?
Proroguing Parliament is a personal prerogative of the Monarch, exercised by the Queen on the advice of her ministers. The first question, then, is whether Sir John Major can challenge the decision of the Queen itself, or the advice of her ministers. Both may be problematic.
Most would argue that a direct challenge of the Queen’s decision to prorogue Parliament was impossible; all would see it as unwise. But cases like Miller – the original Article 50 challenge, right the way back in January 2017 – have contested an exercise, or proposed exercise of a prerogative power by a minister, not the Monarch. So on that basis, it would be possible, as Sir John Major appears to be proposing, to challenge the advice of ministers to prorogue Parliament.
Can prerogative power actually be challenged?
The Courts restrict their oversight of prerogative powers to those that are justiciable – those which are deemed to be subject to law. Although the scope of ‘justiciable’ prerogative powers is not fixed, since the GCHQ case in 1984 no challenge to the Monarch’s exercise of personal prerogative powers (e.g. granting of honours, appointment of a Prime Minister, or the prorogation of Parliament), or ministerial advice as to their exercise, has even been brought.
However, this does not rule out a challenge to ministerial advice to prorogue Parliament: it is theoretically possible that the Courts could find the prerogative power to prorogue to be justiciable. A better challenge, however, would be to sidestep the question of justiciability and challenge the very existence of the prerogative power to prorogue.
This may appear doomed to failure, as the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament clearly exists. However, so does the prerogative power to withdraw from treaties that was successfully challenged in Miller. There, t, because, it argued, doing so would have had the effect of modifying domestic law, which prerogative powers cannot do.
But the catch would be that the prorogation of Parliament to enable a no deal Brexit does not modify domestic law in the same way. That modification occurs through legislation: the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 which comes into force on exit day, and the myriad delegated legislation which was either tacitly or expressly approved by Parliament.
Furthermore, in the Miller case, the Court also asserted that ‘far-reaching change to the UK constitutional arrangements’ could not be brought about by ministerial decision alone. This could serve as another basis for an appeal to judicial review, on the argument that the move to prorogue Parliament was being used to prevent it from seeking a different Brexit outcome to that desired by the Prime Minister – which, in turn, would constitute a ‘far-reaching’ change. But whilst such a move has serious constitutional consequences for the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law, it is hard to see this as a ‘change’. Prorogation is nothing new.
The frustration of Parliament
Perhaps a more plausible option is based on preventing the will of Parliament being frustrated through prorogation. Here, there’s definitely precedent: in the Miller case, the Supreme Court concluded that withdrawing from the EU treaties would frustrate the will of Parliament by emptying the European Communities Act 1972 of its purpose. In the Fire Brigades Union case of 1995, it was found that using the prerogative power to implement a criminal injuries compensation scheme frustrated the will of Parliament to create a more generous scheme.
Is there any legislation that may be frustrated by the prorogation of Parliament? Potentially.
This Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill 2017-19 enables the continuation of executive government in Northern Ireland that would otherwise cease on 25 August. It currently contains a series of reporting requirements, running from 4 September to, potentially, 18 December.
Some of these require ministers to ‘make arrangements for a motion to the effect that the House of Commons has approved that report’ within a set timeframe after the report is laid before Parliament. If these provisions were to become law, there could be a valid argument that Parliament’s will in this matter would be frustrated by prorogation.
However, facts may overtake the Bill. The Bill’s provisions need to be made law for this challenge to stand; and, of course, the reporting requirements would come to an end if an executive were to be formed in Northern Ireland. There would be no frustration of legislative provisions if prorogation were to occur after this event.
Further problems arise. Is a duty to lay a motion approving a report before Parliament legally enforceable? The principle of parliamentary privilege suggests not: the Courts would be wary of intervening in the way Parliament runs its business. But would this also prevent them from ruling that Parliament cannot be prorogued in order to frustrate a duty – legally enforceable or otherwise – found in legislation?
On the other hand, the legal duty is only to ‘make arrangements’ for a motion; arguably the minister would have done her best to make these arrangements, as required by Parliament, even if Parliament were later prorogued.
A bigger frustration
Finally, a wider appeal could be made to the fact that the House of Commons has consistently voted against a no deal Brexit. Whilst this is not an expression of the will of Parliament in legislation, it is a clear account of its will.
The Courts may see the frustration argument as protecting deeper constitutional principles – the separation of powers and democracy. Both would be harmed were ministers to advise the Monarch to prorogue Parliament to achieve a no deal Brexit where the House of Commons has clearly voted against this option.
One thing is certain. Any such legal challenge would rival Miller for its title of ‘constitutional case of the century’.
By Alison Young, Professor of public law at the University of Cambridge.
The European Commission president is chosen by two bodies: the European Council, which brings together the political leaders of the member states; and the European Parliament, whose members are directly elected by EU citizens in national contests. The European Council makes its decision by reinforced qualified majority, while a majority of members is required in the European Parliament.
In the current Parliament, which has 751 members (although the status of three MEPs has yet to be confirmed), reports suggest that Ursula von der Leyen—the candidate nominated to be the next Commission president—will need 374 votes to be elected.
Should she fail, the European Council will have a month from Tuesday to propose another candidate.
The European Council versus the European Parliament
Historically, member state governments took the decision to appoint the Commission President alone. They decided who would lead the Commission, appointed the other commissioners and allocated portfolios among them. Since the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s, however, the European Parliament has become progressively more influential. Until, it appears, this year.
In 2014, the European Commission president was chosen by the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process. The process had been promoted by European political groups, particularly the European People’s Party (EPP), and the European Parliament on the grounds that it would enhance the democratic credentials of the European Union by creating a direct link between the votes of European citizens in European elections and the appointment of the leader of one of the EU’s main institutions.
With the European Parliament, they argued that Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty required the European Council to select as president the candidate of the political group that got the most votes in elections to the European Parliament. Four of the main European political groups—the EPP, the Party of European Socialists (PES), the Liberals (then ALDE, now Renew Europe) and the Greens—each duly selected a candidate prior to the elections.
The European Council did not share the European Parliament’s reading of the Lisbon Treaty. As well as the concern that the procedure would remove its right to decide on who should lead the European Commission, which member governments argued should remain in their hands, it offered no guarantee that the candidate emerging from the process would have the relevant experience. Political leaders consider that serving in executive office is a necessary qualification for this most demanding of positions.
In 2014, the European Council conceded after the political groups insisted that Jean-Claude Juncker, the Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, which had topped the polls, should become Commission president. German chancellor Angela Merkel in particular had come under protracted domestic pressure, with claims that she could not oppose a democratic process.
Moreover, Jean-Claude Juncker had been the Luxembourg prime minister for 19 years and was also a chair of the Eurogroup of EU finance ministers, so was hardly lacking in experience.
In 2019, most political groups again selected a candidate for the position of Commission president before the European elections. However, the heads of state and government made clear in advance that they did not consider themselves bound by the Spitzenkandidaten process. Commission presidents at least as far back as Gaston Thorn in the early 1980s have served as prime minister or finance minister in their national governments prior to taking up office.
Manfred Weber, the EPP candidate, which won the May elections, was not nominated by the European Council. Following lengthy discussions and negotiations among prime ministers of the EU28, but also consultation with leaders of political groups, the European Council proposed the following package:
President of the European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen — German defence minister (EPP)
President of the European Council: Charles Michel — Belgian prime minister (Renew Europe)
President of the European Central Bank (ECB): Christine Lagarde — French managing director and chair of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and former French finance minister
The slate was intended to balance at least three sets of demands: national (French-German-southern European-east European), political (centre-right and centre-left), and gender (two women, two men).
Will the dog bark?
The European Council’s actions can be regarded as a response to what political leaders saw five years ago as a power grab by the European Parliament. The power over nominations to top offices has been returned to the heads of state and government, who claim superior legitimacy among EU decision makers.
So far the reaction of supporters of the Spitzenkandidaten process has been muted, despite the refusal of the European Council not only to nominate Weber, but also to overlook the Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans and the Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, respectively the Spitzenkanditaten of the PES and Renew Europe.
However, in a parliament where the traditional dominance of the EPP and the social democrats has been eroded by an increased spread of the vote, and where the political groups are themselves internally divided along national lines, constructing a supportive majority is likely be more difficult than previously.
Consultations between Ms von der Leyen and at least two of the political groups, the Greens and the Socialists, have reportedly not gone well for the candidate Commission president.
Although there still appears to be confidence that Ms von der Leyen will secure a majority, she may have to rely on the votes from beyond the four centrist groups. Should she receive fewer than 400 votes, her mandate would be seen as less than compelling. It is also likely to prove more difficult than in 2014 for the Commission president to win support for the delivery of a tightly-defined programme, which the Spitzenkandidaten process made possible.