Path: ICPP > ICPP 1980 > List of Countries --> United Kingdom
Kenneth Janda
Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey
New York: The Free Press, 1980: pp. 195-196
UNITED KINGDOM: The Party System in 1950-1956 and 1957-1962
(Text as published in 1980 citation above)

The British version of two-party politics is thought by many to be the model form of responsible party government. The party that wins the majority of seats in Parliament following a general election forms a government vigorously but loyally opposed "on the issues" by the minority party. The loyal opposition bides its time until the next election, when it has another chance to capture a parliamentary majority and form a government to advance its own program under criticism of the new opposition party. This model assumes that elections will be decisive in giving control of Parliament to one party, and therefore it falters in operation when confronted by the existence of minor parties with sufficient strength to prevent the emergence of a clear majority.

From the late 1800s to World War I, the Conservative and Liberal parties alternated in control of the government, sometimes by sufferance of Irish Nationalists. The rise of the Labour Party and the split in the Liberals produced a type of multiparty politics from 1923 to 1934. Britain returned to the classical model of two-party politics in the 1930s, when Labour eclipsed the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives. During our time period, the Liberals always collected less than 2 percent of the seats and never prevented a majority from emerging in the House of Commons.

Labour captured some 60 percent of the seats in the 1945 elections and embarked on the enactment of its program of nationalization of basic industries and social welfare, under the leadership of Clement Attlee as prime minister. The party was returned with a narrow majority in the 1950 elections, and Attlee continued as prime minister. Another election was forced in 1951, when the Conservatives and Winston Churchill displaced Labour and Attlee in the government. The Conservatives won again in 1955, with Sir Anthony Eden replacing Winston Churchill as party leader and prime minister, while Hugh Gaitskell became the new leader of the opposition.

The Suez crisis prompted a change in leadership within the Conservative party in 1957, with Harold Macmillan becoming the new leader and prime minister. The Conservatives repeated their election victory in 1959 increasing their margin in Parliament. Thus our time period ends with the Conservatives in power continuously from 1951 through 1962, and the Labour Party, led by Attlee, then Gaitskell, fulfilling the role of loyal opposition.

Continuity and Change since 1962

The plot of party representation in the House of Commons befits the world's model of a two-party system. Although minor parties have accounted for increasing numbers of votes and seats since 1962, none has won 5 percent of the seats in two elections and thus qualified for study.

Original Parties, Continuing

011 Labour Party. The British Labour Party emerged from the role of Loyal Opposition in 1964, when electoral success brought a Labour government under Harold Wilson. Wilson's government increased its majority in the 1966 elections but was defeated in 1970. In February 1974, Labour won a bare plurality and Wilson formed a minority government until his party won a narrow majority of seats in the October elections later that year. In 1976, James Callaghan succeeded Wilson as party leader and thus became prime minister in a Labour government. Losses in by-elections reduced the Labour majority to one seat in October 1976, and early in 1977 Labour entered an agreement with the small Liberal Party for votes to remain in office. Dependent upon such tenuous support, Callaghan and Labour clung to government throughout 1978. Defeated on a vote of confidence in March 1979, Labour was forced to call an election and was defeated at the polls in May.

012 Conservative Party. Having dominated government from 1951 to 1964, the Conservatives entered protracted period in opposition broken by the Conservative government of Edward Heath from June 1970 to February 1974. Although actually winning a plurality of the vote in the February 1974 election, the Conservatives failed to win a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, and a Labour government emerged. Again, in May 1979, the Conservatives returned to office under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.


In recent years, British party politics have become increasingly competitive, but this is only partly due to the even division of votes between the Labour and Conservative parties. Of growing importance is the number o seats claimed by small regional parties in Scotland (Scottish National Party), Wales (Plaid Cymru or Welsh Nationalist Party), and Northern Ireland (United Ulster Unionist Council of Unionist parties). Primarily concerned with policies affecting their home areas, these small parties (with ten seats or fewer) have introduces an element of unpredictability in the British two-party system. Party government with a paper-thin margin of parliamentary support is very different from the classic model of party government with a secure majority. From 1974 through 1978, British politics deviated from the classic model, which, however, was reactivated in 1979 with the election of a Conservative government holding a majority in excess of 40 seats in the House of Commons.

[For party politics in the U.K. since 1962, go to the essay by Tulia Falleti]

1. The United Kingdom did not appear in the random sample of 50 countries that was drawn for study in the ICPP project. Therefore, no special information base was created on microfilm for British party politics. The Labour and Conservative parties were included in our study on the basis of codes and comments prepared by David Prysor-Jones, who employed conventional library research methods. His codes were compared with those produced earlier in a more impressionistic manner by Kenneth Janda in consultation with Val Herman and David Robertson at the University of Essex. The product moment correlation between the two sets of codes for the Labour Party on 72 variables was .93. The same coefficient of reliability between the two sets of codes for the Conservative Party on 69 variables was .91. Richard Rose subsequently advised us on aspects of our coding.