Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Here's a question for all you poli-sci bloggers out there: how stable is a 3-party system? I ask, because that's what Britain now has, and has had for some time.
Once upon a time (say, 20 years ago), Britain had a three-party system in which the Tories were on the Right, Labor was on the Left, and the Lib Dems were goo-goos generally on the (American sense) Liberal end of things, but not Red. (Think of the Liberal Party of New York for a comparison.) The result, for a while, was Tory domination of the country, because the Lib Dems and Labor split the vote in enough locations to give the Tories a huge majority in seats on the back of a plurality of popular votes.
Now, with Tony Blair's New Labor claiming the Center under the banner of the New Class, the Lib Dems have morphed into the neo-Left party. Unlike the old-guard Left, their mantra is less about nationalization of industry and more about anti-globalization, anti-Americanism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, etc. The result has been clear electoral success for Labor, and the collapse of the Tories.
How stable is this system? In America, third parties have had a significant impact on Presidential politics in 1860, 1912, 1968 and 1992, and there are probably a few other, less-dramatic cases I'm not thinking of. In 1860, the third party became the new second party. In 1912 and 1992, the third party temporarily shifted dominance to the previously weaker major party, but there was no long-term realignment. In 1968, the third party heralded a permanent shift in the composition of the two major parties, a realignment in American politics. But overall, third parties have remained marginal because it is very hard, in a district system where victory goes to the individual candidate who wins a plurality, for a third party to gain a foothold in Congress, and the Electoral College similarly makes it difficult for third-parties to mount a credible Presidential challenge.
In a proportional-rep system, third- and fourth- and fifth-parties make a lot of sense, because a small party can win benefits for its constituents in coalition negotiations. But Britain has a first-past-the-post system, and the plurality winner gets the seat. I would think this would work against the presence of other-than-regional third parties. So why have the Lib Dems persisted - persisted to the point that their position on the political spectrum has moved significantly? I'm sure there's a simple poli-sci explanation; I'm just curious what it is.