February 1974 – The election everything changed for the British party system

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 9th July 2012

“Power of the British Voter in Terminal Decline.”  So read the headline in Saturday’s Guardian, which gave us an exclusive first glimpse at the latest edition of the Democratic Audit.

The picture the report paints is stark. We live in a country where, the Guardian writes:

The power of corporations keeps growing, politicians become less representative of their constituencies and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs.”

For democratic reformers, the Audit features reams of information about the democratic failings of our political system. Because at the heart of this problem lies our failed First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system.

The Audit divides between two periods in post-war British electoral history – before 1974 and after 1974.

The importance of 1974 cannot be understated. The election in February 1974 was the last time Britain had a hung parliament, but that hung parliament was caused by massive changes to Britain’s party system. The Liberals went from 7.5% to 19.3% of the vote, going from 6 seats to 14. The SNP went from 1 seat to 7 and Plaid Cymru won their first ever seats in a general election, gaining 2.

In Northern Ireland, the party system had essentially split from the British parties at the beginning of The Troubles with the formation of the SDLP (who won 1 seat), the DUP (who won another), and the UUP taking its first steps towards independence from the Conservative Party as they refused to take the Conservative whip.

In 1970 12 MPs elected were not aligned with the main two parties but in the February 1974 election this increased to 37. This was not, a mere ‘deviating election’, a one-off, there had been a genuine re-alignment of the UK party system and voters no longer voted for just the main two parties but for a multitude of others.

The differences between the pre-1974 and post-1974 party systems can perhaps be best summarised by the following table using numbers from the Democratic Audit report.

1950-70 1979-2005
Number of elections 7 7
Average Conservative Vote 46% 38%
Average Labour Vote 46% 36%
Two Party Average 92% 73%
Average Government Majority 45 103

Democratic Audit refer to these two periods as the ‘Golden Age’ and the ‘Dysfunctional Age’ respectively. They describe how First Past the Post (FPTP) has become dysfunctional – failing to deliver what its defenders say it should. FPTP no longer delivers guaranteed single party governance and electoral bias has increased in the system while the number of marginals has markedly decreased to just 85.

Despite the drop in votes for the two larger parties FPTP perversely produced oversized majorities for parties, with Labour able to win a majority, in 2005, of 65 on just 35.2% of the vote. Political scientists have calculated that Labour requires a lead of about 3% to get a majority at the next election, whereas the Conservatives need a lead of about 11% creating a ‘hung parliament zone’ of 14%.

Democratic Audit speculates that 2010 could represent yet another ‘transitional year’.

The end of the old era of the party system was marked by a hung parliament in February 1974, perhaps the close of the ‘Dysfunctional Era’ was marked by yet another hung parliament – in 2010.

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