The rise (and fall) of 'issue-focused' politics in the UK
Illustration: Megan Jones

It’s no secret that  UK governments have operated under a two-party system for years. Labour and the Conservatives seem locked in a constant exchanging of power, with other parties having little influence. However, with the emergence of some pivotal issues such as Brexit, single-issue parties have become more relevant than ever and speak for those disillusioned from traditional party politics. Single-issue parties are created following dissatisfaction or animosity towards a social or political matter, which remains central to their beliefs as they evolve.

Alongside this trend, some third parties have also become more issue-orientated, distinguishing them from broad ideological politics. Parties such as the Greens and the SNP are recognised for having a defining focus, which in turn, impacts their overall party platform. Many people have withdrawn from historical party allegiances in favour of these minority parties, reflecting a change in their priorities. They also seem more inclined to place their faith in populist figures that make ambitious promises than status quo elites. With the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic already transpiring, its consequences will be at the forefront of the electorate’s mind.

Why have issue-orientated parties struggled in the past?

It is extremely difficult for non-mainstream parties to achieve political representation. This is largely due to the UK’s first -past- the- post electoral system which does not proportionally assign seats. In the 2015 general election, this disadvantage reached its peak. Several issue-orientated parties, such as UKIP and the Green Party, received millions of votes yet very little representation in Parliament. With no way to amplify their voices in Parliament, these parties have been unable to challenge the two-party system and have found the transition into a major party near impossible.

However, this has changed in recent years. Significantly, the devolved nations were invested with decentralised powers, carried out by an assembly or parliament. The crucial difference is that unlike Westminster, these use a more proportional form of voting which allows fringe parties to achieve representation. Successful parties include the Brexit Party, which currently has 4 seats in the Welsh Parliament and the Green Party which has 6 seats in Holyrood. It is expected that minor parties will become more prevalent as elections become more directly democratic, lessening their representative disadvantage in Westminster.

Reasons for their rise

Despite being a country dominated by two major parties, single-issue and issue-orientated parties have made breakthroughs in recent years. The universal reason is widespread disillusionment with partisan politics. This apathy is evident in both ends of the age spectrum for varying reasons. Certainly, the expansion of the older demographics who are averse to the increasing modernisation of the UK were the chief advocates of Brexit. Concerned about immigration and sceptical of the EU’s increasing influence, it is understandable that the over 60s were attracted to Farage’s nationalist and Eurosceptic rhetoric. 

By the same token, the increasing enfranchisement and mobilisation of 16 to 18-year-olds has contributed to the growth of these parties. Like older people, they are often influenced by key issues rather than partisan politics. For example, topics such as the environment and climate change are increasingly important and relevant to younger demographics, illustrated by the fact that 72% of the Green Party’s membership is under 60. Furthermore, the issue of Scottish independence appeared significant for the newly enfranchised 16-17-year-olds who voted 71% in favour of independence according to one analysis, with the age group of 16-24 seeing a relatively high turnout of 68%.

Evidently, many groups are feeling dissatisfied with the action of Westminster and wanting more radical changes to the administration of the UK. They have gained more power, ironically, in the attempts of mainstream parties to reduce their presence and return lost voters. For instance, to win back UKIP supporters and satisfy their Eurosceptic wing, the Conservatives promised a referendum on EU membership. As this action instigated Brexit, it reflects the influence and ability of single-issue parties to fundamentally change politics by pressuring the government both internally and externally.

What makes or breaks an issue-orientated party?

Four months after its conception, the Brexit Party won the greatest percentage of votes in the 2019 EU Parliament election.  Riding on the coattails of Farage and UKIP’s success, it carried over voters from 2016 and increased its scope in advocating electoral reform and promoting Britain’s sovereignty. Its success was down to Farage and the party’s ability to connect with voters fatigued with the lengthy and unstable negotiation process. Timing also enabled their rise, with the EU Parliament elections being the perfect opportunity to highlight the shortcomings of the Conservative government and the divided opposition at the time. 

From this example, it is clear that a combination of strong leadership and an astute reading of the electorate’s mindset can elevate any issue-orientated party. The SNP have yet to achieve their primary goal of Scottish independence yet under Sturgeon’s leadership, the party grew enormously in the 2015 general election, gaining 50 seats. Their success was especially notable considering they had lost the 2014 referendum a year before. Whilst support for the SNP has dipped in recent years, Sturgeon has maintained an interest in a second chance at independence whilst providing a stable government for Scotland, allowing what might have been a fringe party to remain relevant and important. 

Not all newly formed parties have the capability of securing long-term, national support. An infamously failed example was The Independent Group for Change. Comprised of defectors from three major parties, the group lacked political cohesion and was so ideologically centralised it had little appeal. Despite advocating for political reform similar to the Brexit Party, they lacked the latter’s ‘big-tent’ or ‘catch-all’ quality.  Again, it was arguably a lack of solid and charismatic leadership that broke TIG before any potential success. 

Some mainstream parties have recognised the effectiveness of issue-orientated campaigning and have attempted to integrate it into their platform. However, far too often this leads to the party becoming overbearing. In 2019, Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrat Party became the party of remain, advocating a People’s Vote and revoking Article 50 altogether. This single-mindedness and inability to connect with the people portrayed the party as out-of-touch and led to electoral failure, with the leader herself losing her seat. It is challenging for mainstream parties to emulate the short-lived but high levels of success of single-issue parties and often ends in failure.

Achieving their aims

The failure of these two parties to achieve these goals illustrates the obstacles mainstream parties face when becoming too issue-dominated. Namely, single-issue and issue-orientated parties lack the same partisan ties to both policies and people and thus are free to fully commit to a sole cause. This allows them to pursue their goal more effectively compared with mainstream parties that must divide their focus between many issues and policies. Moreover, the odds of a single-issue party becoming successful are increasing following the Brexit referendum.

Although achieving their aim is the purpose of these parties, it is simultaneously both their greatest moment and initiator of their downfall. After UKIP achieved its 25- year-long goal, its leader Nigel Farage immediately resigned, and they quickly lost relevance. In the following election, the party gained less than 600,000 votes (compared to the 4 million only two years prior) and lost all electoral representation. There has since been a leadership crisis with very little achievements since. This once again reflects the necessity of strong and charismatic leadership in ensuring the success of new parties, in addition to maintaining relevance after achieving their aims.

With Brexit achieved, many former members of Eurosceptic parties are turning to other single-issue parties in the hopes of achieving similar goals. This includes Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party,  which has welcomed several defectors in the past few months. Formed in 2015, the party espouses many sentiments similar to the Brexit Party, including protection of the Union and resistance to further devolution. A recent poll has suggested it could gain seats in the 2021 Senedd election, and with a Scottish equivalent launching recently, the abolishment movement looks likely to gain more traction.

Future Impact

Following recent tumultuous political events, the impact of issue-orientated parties has never been so great. More mainstream parties have adopted some of their policies. Calls for electoral reform have come from all sides of the political spectrum, who want to either minimise or maximise the political power and outreach of minor parties. Going forward, increased attention will have to be given to constituencies sympathetic to these parties such as the North of England, Wales, and Scotland if they are to wrestle votes back into the hands of the two mainstream parties.

Discontent with how the UK government is handling the current pandemic is sure to spread even more dissatisfaction with Westminster and the party elites. Will this draw people to change, as they notice that our current system is — and perhaps was never — fit for purpose in an increasingly modern world? Or will people crave stability that the traditional party system provides and return to their previous voting habits? Either way, the rise of single-issue and issue-orientated parties have changed the way we approach campaigning and party politics considerably.