Minor political parties are unlikely to be successful in terms of elections in Britain, principally due to the First Past the Post electoral system. However, despite this lack of political power it is evident that given the right circumstances a minor party can influence the political agenda of the UK. This post will refer to three such occasions – the rise of the SNP, the influence of UKIP in the 2010s, and the growth in importance of the DUP during 2017-19 – all of which provide clear evidence that minor parties can influence British politics.
Firstly, the Scottish National Party (SNP) are an example of a minor party that has emerged to become dominant in one area of Britain. Two decades ago the SNP were insignificant in the larger affairs of British politics, however, the devolution referendums of the late 1990s established a Scottish Parliament that enabled the SNP to grow and develop. By 2007 the party gained control of the Scottish referendum, and in 2015 they became the dominant party in Scotland in terms of parliamentary representation. By 2020 the party had become the third largest political party in the UK in terms of membership, which highlights their rapid rise. In terms of specific influence, it was the rise of the SNP that led to the notion of Scottish independence being raised and campaigned on. Although independence was quashed in 2014 (with 55% voting “No”), the SNP have kept the independence issue running, particularly in the calls for a second referendum (“IndyRef2”). Furthermore, the knock-on impact of the 2014 referendum led to the provision of greater powers to the Scottish Parliament in the form of the 2016 Scotland Act. All of this highlights the vast influence that one – initially minor – party has played in UK politics.
Similarly, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) also played an incredibly influential role during the 2010s. The party have never been as electorally successful as the SNP, having only ever obtaining a handful of MPs in the British Parliament (despite achieving almost 4 million votes in the 2015 general election; again, another example of the electoral system stunting the rise of minor parties). However, despite this lack of success in general elections, the party enjoyed great success in the European elections of 2009 and 2014; in 2014 they became the most successful party in the UK in terms of winning EU seats. This great, rapid rise was based on growing Euro-scepticism in the country, and this put much fear and pressure onto the Cameron government and his Conservative Party. It was feared that unless Cameron provided an EU referendum then more Conservative voters would slip away and support UKIP, thereby leading to possible election failure in the future. Cameron’s decision to call a referendum (as noted in the 2015 manifesto) was a factor in his election success in the 2015 general election; having needed to form a coalition government with the Lib Dems in 2010, Cameron was able to win a majority. Of course, Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the EU was a gamble and it backfired, leading to his resignation. However, all of this strongly demonstrates the influence that UKIP were able to wield during this period; their rapid rise led – eventually – to Brexit.
The notable UKIP leader of the period – Nigel Farage – has been an incredibly influential politician, despite never actually holding a seat in Parliament or ever serving in government. His efforts with UKIP were continued with the formation of the Brexit Party later in the 2010s; this party sought to put pressure on May’s Conservative government in order to ensure that Brexit was carried out. As in 2014, Farage experienced success in the 2019 European elections with Brexit obtaining more votes than other party. This clearly influenced UK politics, as May felt unable to continue on as Prime Minister, and her stepping down led to the elevation of Boris Johnson, and eventually the settling of Brexit after the December 2019 general election.
Finally, another example which shows that minor parties can influence the political agenda is the importance of DUP during May’s government of 2017-19. The 2017 general election was mostly indecisive, thereby showing the split in the country after the EU referendum of 2016. The Conservatives were unable to win a majority, which led to them needing the support of the minor and regional DUP (a pro-Unionist Northern Ireland party) in the form of a confidence-and-supply agreement. Although the DUP only had 10 MPs, they were influential due to their high value to a desperate government; this was shown with the additional £1 billion funding provided to Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the agreement was another factor in the decline in popularity of May and her government, which eventually fell in the summer of 2019.
These three examples – SNP, UKIP, and the DUP – all demonstrate that minor parties are able to influence to the political agenda of UK politics, and that this has happened regularly over the past decade in British politics. However, as noted in the introduction, this influence is very much dependant on the circumstances of the period. The DUP could never have had a role in government if it was not for the indecisive 2017; whilst UKIP only were able to put pressure on the Cameron due to the long-standing and unresolved lingering problems within the Conservative Party over their place in Europe (which had stretched back to the 1990s).
The SNP have not required any special circumstance for their influence, however, they are notable in spending decades in forming a political party capable of campaigning for the interests of Scotland (something that is not present with other British nationalist parties, such as Plaid Cmyru and Mebyon Kernow). Furthermore, many minor parties that are single-issue (such as the National Health Action Party) or are comedic in design (the Monster Raving Looney Party) are unable to influence the agenda to the extent of the SNP or UKIP. Another prominent minor party of the past decade – the Greens – have retained 1 MP since 2010, and – despite the efforts of Caroline Lucas – it could be argued that their overall influence on the wider political agenda is limited.
However, despite the constraints of the FPTP electoral system and the dominance of the big two parties, the past decade has seen the opportunities that minor parties can have to exert pressure and to influence wider public opinion. This could be a longer term feature of British politics, which the country developing a quasi-federal multi-party system. Despite the destabilisation caused by Brexit over the past decade, this trend can only mean a positive thing in terms of political participation and engagement.