LONDON (Reuters) - Rising support for nationalist and single-issue parties is threatening to plunge Britain into unaccustomed political instability after national elections five months from now.
Formerly fringe groups, they are now challenging the already declining power of the traditional two-party system, attracting Britons who feel betrayed and ignored by what they regard as a remote political class.
The driving forces for this reconfiguration of British politics are a clamour for less centralised power and anxiety about immigration. They are surfacing while the British economy is growing faster than most in the developed world, attracting large numbers of migrants from the troubled euro zone and poorer eastern EU states.
In England, the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) is siphoning off support from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives; in Scotland nationalists have turned defeat in an independence referendum into a comeback that threatens the centre-left opposition Labour party.
The rise of UKIP, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and others makes the outcome of next May’s parliamentary election hard to predict. One or even two smaller parties could find themselves kingmakers, wielding outsized influence as the Conservatives or Labour seek coalition partners or less formal support to prop up a minority government.
“Britain’s political system has metal fatigue,” said Peter Kellner, president of pollster YouGov. “At some point it is likely to crack under the strains it now faces. When it does, politicians from all parties will find the old ways of doing things will simply work no longer.”
This is likely to spell increased uncertainty over how the world’s sixth biggest economy is run, and over Britain’s future in the European Union as a possible membership referendum looms.
Publicly, the Conservatives and Labour insist the election is about getting back to majority governments after five years under Cameron’s coalition with the centre-left Liberal Democrats. Privately, they have put out feelers to understand what their options are if they fail.
“There is ... a real possibility that, for years to come, at least three parties will need to work together in some fashion to provide stable government. They will be steering Britain’s constitution through uncharted waters,” said Kellner.
Britain’s electoral system produced single-party Labour or Conservative governments for more than 60 years after World War Two; in 1955, for instance, over 96 percent of voters chose one party or the other. Since then, traditional social and ideological loyalties have waned; at the last election in 2010 their combined share of the vote was only 65.1 percent, the lowest in nearly a century.
Even then Cameron agreed with the Liberal Democrats on the first post-war coalition in just five days, compared with the months needed to form many continental European governments.
The combined Conservative and Labour vote has changed little since then - they are neck and neck in opinion polls with just over 30 percent support each. But backing for the Liberal Democrats has dived from 23 percent to 6 or 7 percent.
That means the major parties may have to turn to the likes of UKIP and the Scottish Nationalists who would make demands that are hard to satisfy. UKIP wants curbs on immigration from the EU, contradicting a legal right to free movement of labour in the bloc, while the SNP is seeking the removal of Britain’s base for nuclear-armed submarines from a Scottish loch.
The Greens, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party and Welsh nationalists could also be courted.
Cameron is promising a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in the EU or leave, while Labour under leader Ed Miliband says it would call one only if Britain handed more power to Brussels.
Some pundits say Britain could suffer turbulence similar to the 1970s when power changed hands three times via four national elections and four prime ministers.
In 1974 two elections were needed before Labour won a parliamentary majority. If the 2015 vote is inconclusive and no one can form a stable government, another might also soon follow.
Labour is hoping to hoover up disenchanted Liberal Democrat supporters, but is likely to lose many of its own seats in Scotland to the SNP. While the Nationalists lost the independence referendum in September by 10 percentage points, they have attracted many voters who feel Scottish Labour’s left-wing views have been diluted by the UK-wide party.
The SNP has also cast itself, with some success, as the only force capable of delivering the additional autonomy that Scots want from the UK.
In England, UKIP is causing similar problems for the Conservatives where it’s threatening to split the right-wing vote, making it harder for Cameron to get re-elected.
Cameron once dismissed the party led by Nigel Farage as “closet racists” but it won European elections in Britain in May, poached two of his lawmakers in the British parliament, and is now regularly polling 16 percent support.
Although UKIP has attracted some disenchanted Labour voters, it has inflicted more damage on the Conservatives, drawing those who feel the governing party has become too socially liberal and are angry it failed to keep a pledge to cut immigration.
Cameron promised to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Instead, it is currently running at 260,000 per year.
UKIP says Britain needs to leave the EU to regain border control powers to curb immigration, and Farage is revelling in the two-party system’s troubles. “It’s dying,” he said.
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by David Stamp