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UNITED KINGDOM: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Tulia G. Falleti*

From 1963 to the present, the United Kingdom (UK) party system has been characterized by (1) stability of the main political parties, (2) the creation of a new party and electoral coalition that at a certain extent challenged the bi-partisan system in the 1987 elections, and (3) the increasing importance of regional politics.

Electoral rules and procedures in Britain, specially the single-member constituency electoral system (or winner take all in each district), have created a party system with one of the main two parties in office (the Labor and Conservative Parties), and a third party (Liberals and/or Social Democrats) that may serve as a coalition broker in Parliament.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Parties, from 1950-1962, still continuing to 2000

011 British Labour Party. The Labour Party led British government on three occasions since 1963. In 1964, Harold Wilson became Prime Minister when Labour won the 1964 elections with a slim majority, but Labour lost to the Conservatives in 1970. The Labour Party won the 1974 elections again by a narrow margin, returning Harold Wilson as prime minister. But splits in the party over membership in the European Economic Community (which Wilson favored, but more radicals members of his party and powerful unions opposed) and a failing economy led to Wilson's resignation in March of 1976, to be succeeded by James Callaghan. During his term in office (April 1976 to May 1979), Callaghan had to negotiate agreements of support from the small Liberal Party (that by then had thirteen seats in Parliament) and even from the Welsh and Scottish separatist members of Parliament.

With regard to the European Community (EC), in 1980 a Labour party conference voted for the Government to pull Britain out of the EC once the party returned to power. On the issue of nuclear weapons, the British Labour Party took an antinuclear stand. Labour did very poorly in the elections of 1983. Although Labour's electoral support improved by 1987, with young and dynamic Neil Kinnock as party leader, it was not enough to defeat Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives.

After four successive electoral defeats (in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1990), the Labour Party started to refashioned itself in the early 1990s. "New [party] leader John Smith pulled his followers away from hard-line socialism. He also weakened the trade unions' influence by changing party voting rules that heretofore had granted the unions great voice" (Black et al, 2000: 377-8). After Smith's unexpected death, Tony Blair won the leadership of the Labour Party. He pushed forward Smith's agenda to make Labour electable again. Blair led the "modernizers" of the party, and gave ideological opponents the label of "traditionalists." Blair moved the Labour party toward the center and won deletion of the Clause Four of the party constitution that advocated "common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange" (Black et al, 2000: 378).

The Labour Party won the 1997 elections by an ample margin, obtaining 419 of the 649 seats of Parliament, while Conservatives won merely 165 (Black et al, 2000: 379). Tony Blair became prime minister (1997 to the present). His ideals and policy orientation have been labeled the "Third Way." This term, created by Blair's advisor British sociologist Anthony Giddens, has also been applied to characterize policy orientations of other left parties leaders in Europe--such as Gerard Schroeder of Germany and Lionel Jospin in France--and was compared with Bill Clinton's "New Democrats" in the United States. The "Third way" can be summarized as a political ideology that focuses on "social justice, opportunity, and community, with government acting as a partner with society to achieve these goals" (Black et al, 2000: 378). However, the "Third Way" authenticity as a project of the left, its contents, and policy implications have recently generated a heated debate (see for example Birnbaum, 1999 and Dahrendorf, 1999).

012 British Conservative Party. From 1963 to 2000, Conservatives led British government under four different prime ministers. From October of 1963 to October of 1964, Alec Douglas-Home headed the British government after Conservative Primer Minister Harold Mcmillan (1957 to 1963) resigned due to health reasons. The defeat of the Conservative Party in the elections of 1964 was attributed to splits within the Conservative party that Douglas-Home was not able to handle, ethics scandals involving War Minister John Profumo and mounting trade deficits, as well as social unrest.

But Conservatives swept swept the next election in 1970, and installed Edward Heath as prime minister. In February of 1974, a miner's strike caused Heath to call a general election in the hope of strengthening the government's mandate. But the Conservatives were split again and they lost.

Since the mid 1970s, under the leadership of John Powell and then Margaret Thatcher, the conservative party moved further towards the right. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher, the first woman who became leader of a major political party in Britain, ousted Heath followers from key party posts and declared that state involvement in social and economic matters had to be decreased. She constructed a new social base of support for her party that came less from the traditional conservatives' backers, the upper classes and landed gentry, than from the middle classes and skilled workers who felt increasingly discontent and unrepresented by the traditional policies and orientations of the two major political parties.

In 1979 under Thatcher, the Conservative Party won the elections and she became prime minister. Thatcher was reelected prime minister in 1983 (when she strategically timed the elections after the victory in the Falkland Islands war with Argentina), again in 1987 (during a period of economic growth), and stayed in power until 1990. Despite her initial popularity, her long term in office, her mastery to deal with internal conflicts within her party, and her capacity to reward followers and punish opponents, Thatcher failed at reelection as Conservative leader in 1990 and was replaced by John Major. Her defeat within the party was attributed to her reluctance to support European integration (a position that did not correspond with the general public attitude towards the European Community), and the popular unrest generated by her "poll tax," which taxed registered voters to replace property taxes collected by local councils and which was widely viewed as regressive,taxing the lower income strata more heavily than the upper classes). When the Conservatives won the 1990 election, John Major became prime minister. He followed Thatcher policies but in a less confrontational manner. Slowly, he pulled back from the poll tax.

013 Liberal / Liberal Democrats. Until the 1920s, the Liberals were one of Britain's two main parties, when they were displaced by Labour. In 1974 the Liberals won nearly a fifth of the vote. In 1983 and 1987 they arranged an electoral pact with the newly formed party Social Democratic Party (SDP, which had split from the Labour Party). In 1988 the two parties (the Liberals and the SDP) merged in one party called the Liberal and Social Democrats, led by Paddy Ashdown. However, the SDP leader, David Owen, opposed the merger and continued rallying with the SDP banner until 1992, when the SDP disappeared. The Liberal and Social Democrats contested the 1992 election as the Liberal Democrats and pushed their advocacy of governmental reform. "They seek to make government more effective and responsive by devolving many powers and functions to a new tier of regional governments … and by changing the electoral system to proportional representation" (Rasmussen and Moses, 1995: 136). Education was a major issue in their 1992 electoral campaign, advocating to reduce class size, buying more books and equipment and constructing new buildings.

New Party formed after 1962 and terminating before 2000

014 Social Democratic Party. In 1981 several former Labour ministers formed the Social Democrats to constitute a "responsible" Left (or center). They made an agreement with the Liberal Party for the 1983 elections and combined as the Social Democratic Alliance, winning 25% of the popular vote but (due to the first-past-the-post system) less than 5% of the seats in parliament.) Not surprisingly, the Social Democrats also advocated reform of the electoral system from single-member constituency to proportional representation. The alliance split in 1986 on the issue of nuclear weapons--the Social Democrats favored continued reliance upon nuclear weapons, and the Liberals a more antinuclear stand. The SDP disappeared in 1992 after the two remaining SDP legislators were defeated (Rasmussen and Moses, 1995: 135).


Birnbaum, Norman, 1999. "Is the Third Way authentic?" in New Political Economy 437-446 4, no.3. November.

Black, Cyril E.; English, Robert D.; Helmreich, Jonathan E.; Helmreich, Paul C. and Mc Adams, A. James, 2000. Rebirth: A Political History of Europe since World War II. (Colorado and London: Westview Press.)

Dahrendorf, Ralf, 1999. "The Third Way and liberty" in Foreign Affairs 78, no. 5 (September/October), 13-17.

Rasmussen, Jorgen S. and Moses, Joel C., 1995. Major European Governments. (Belmont: Wadsworth, Inc. Ninth Edition.)

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000