It seems a long time ago when serious people were discussing a split within Labour. Jeremy Corbyn was proving a disastrous leader, but MPs couldn’t convince him to resign or beat him in leadership contest. When a few parliamentarians peeled off to form the Independent Group it flopped hard.
Some still aspire to create a new viable major party, complementing or supplanting Labour or the Conservatives. Among them is the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary.
The SDP’s history is relatively complex. Spun off from Labour in 1981, the party formed a pact with the Liberals to secure 25.4% of the popular vote in the 1983 general election, only 2% less than Labour.
This proved the high-point for the SDP, which would later mostly merge with the Liberals to form today’s Liberal Democrats. A rump of the SDP rejected the merger, with activists keeping the party alive even after the departure of its leader David Owen.
Since then it has kept on, with its leader William Clouston popping up in the media and the party being endorsed by journalist like Rod Liddle and Giles Fraser. Arguably it fills what should be a popular niche in the political spectrum, combining leftish, interventionist economics with social conservatism.
As Clouston put it lately in UnHerd:
…it’s always baffled me why people calling themselves conservatives should imagine that neoliberal economics would do anything but weaken community attachment or harm family life. […] Labour would combine high immigration with a programme of council house building without realising that the former defeats the latter. The Tories seek lower immigration than Labour but, with typical indifference, have next to nothing to offer on public sector housing.
Not so long ago some pundits thought this a winning combination. Matthew Goodwin, an academic specialising in populism, has argued that voters’ concerns point to “a right-wing populist party that offers a combination of authoritarian positions on social issues, such as justice and immigration, and also interventionist positions on the economy, including opposing globalisation and advocating more protectionist policies.”
Yet even considering the policy cohesion of the SDP, and the apparent appetite among voters for such a party, the odds of a third party challenging the Labour-Conservative duopoly are slim. History suggests that this happens rarely.
In Britain a major party has only been supplanted once: when Labour overtook the Liberals as the leading leftwing party. Arguably this took place in 1918 when Labour earned more votes in the general election than the Liberals and Coalition Liberals individually, but it had certainly happened by 1922 when Labour took more votes than those parties combined.
As you might expect, views differ as to why this happened. The more hopeful might argue that the shifting structure of politics in those years – such as the impact of the First World War and the broader franchise – is similar to what has been experienced in Britain during the Brexit years.
But whatever the cause, such shifts are rare. It is a safe bet that in the next general election the two biggest parties will remain the Conservatives and Labour, which will probably also be true for the election after that.
The biggest barrier to challenging this duopoly is the first-past-the-post system for general elections, where the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins the seat, even if only a minority backed them. This incentivises tactical voting that puts third parties at a disadvantage.
On a more basic level, third parties lack the financial backing, volunteer support, and media profile that the major parties have. Labour opponents of Jeremy Corbyn understood this, which was why they were reluctant to yield the party to him.
Even without doing the maths, it is obvious that most of the 363 parties currently registered in Great Britain and Northern Ireland will never make an impact. Only a fraction will take seats, and even less than that will govern even a local area. Even fewer than that will run the country.
Perhaps the SDP will beat such odds, but it is unlikely. Even Nigel Farage’s achievement of scaring the Tories into certain policies is a rare event. The party may have “another chance” in absolute terms, as Clouston’s article put it, but so do those who play the lottery.