Small parties’ surge offers opportunity and risk for Labour as ‘big two’ vote share poised to fall

<span>Ed Davey campaigning for the Lib Dems in Yeovil last week. It is possible he may emerge as the leader of the opposition. </span><span>Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images</span>
Ed Davey campaigning for the Lib Dems in Yeovil last week. It is possible he may emerge as the leader of the opposition. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Labour’s advance and the Tories’ collapse look set to break records on 4 July, but so does the silent surge for “someone else”. The combined Labour and Conservative share of the vote looks set to be the lowest ever in a universal franchise election. And this unprecedented fracturing of the vote leaves the fate of all parties, big and small, more dependent than ever on electoral geography and a fickle first past the post electoral system.


The Liberal Democrats understand the vagaries of this system better than most. No party has won so many votes, so often, with so little to show for it. The cruel fate of the Lib Dems was to be everyone’s silver medallist in a system where second gets nothing. Over 40 years between the Liberal breakthrough of 1974 and the Lib Dem collapse of 2015, the third party averaged 17% of the vote but just 5% of the seats.

Yet the wheel of electoral fortune looks set to finally turn for the Lib Dems. Ed Davey could lead his party’s largest ever Commons cohort, despite a projected vote share well below that of several of his predecessors. Concentration is Davey’s secret weapon. In 2019, Boris Johnson quietly gifted the Lib Dems their one true desire: a heartland. A silent revolution swept though the home counties with huge swings to the Lib Dems as suburban remain-leaning Tories turned against the party of “get Brexit done”.

Big local election gains have consolidated this legacy and built a platform for election breakthrough. The coming harvest could be bountiful, with MRP statistical models projecting a possible record Lib Dem seat haul. If strong tactical voting combines with steep Tory decline, it is even possible that Ed Davey will emerge as the leader of the opposition, despite leading the party in fourth in the popular vote. The electoral system which has long hampered the Lib Dems may finally help them.


The electoral system also has a messy impact on the Scottish National party. The SNP only competes in Scotland, but its support is evenly spread. This means landslides for the nationalists when they are riding high, as was true in 2015 and 2019. But it can also mean oblivion if support falls below a tipping point, and the SNP begin to lose almost everywhere, as they did before 2014. Following a huge swing to Labour in the past 18 months, John Swinney’s party is teetering on the brink. Tiny local or national tremors in the final weeks will determine the fate of dozens of SNP MPs.


Reform UK may get more votes than the Lib Dems and SNP combined, but with no natural heartland they are likely to return fewer MPs than either. The radical right populists are riding high, overtaking the Tories in some polls, and Nigel Farage has stated his ambition is to become leader of the opposition. That is all but impossible: Reform’s support is too low, and too evenly spread. Like the Liberals before them, Reform look set for a mountain of silver medals (including in many Labour seats) but virtually no golds.

Yet as Farage knows all too well, Commons seats are only one route to influence. Reform will return few MPs directly but will have a huge impact on many outcomes. With the Conservatives weaker and more evenly spread than before, losses to Reform have the Tories drifting dangerously close to the “tipping point” where they, too, become runners-up almost everywhere. Farage is helping fuel a Labour landslide and a Lib Dem rebound, and pushing his Tory opponents to the edge of disaster.

This is quite a change from 2015, when a similar Farage-fuelled surge for Ukip proved nothing more than a minor irritant for David Cameron’s Conservatives, who won a majority regardless. Cameron’s Tories were riding high overall and able to squeeze back Ukip support in marginal seats. Nine years later, and losses on the right flank pose an existential threat. There is a lesson here for Labour – ignore these growing noises off at your peril. They can take centre stage faster than you think.

This brings us to the final piece of our electoral puzzle: the Greens. Squeezed by Corbyn, under co-leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay they are flourishing again after Starmer’s move to the centre, with several outstanding rounds of local election results, a record slate of candidates and a solid 5% in the polls, which if sustained would be easily their best general election performance. The Greens start too weak to compete in most places, let alone win outright, but they could become the main local opposition in many safe Labour areas. The Greens have come a long way since the last Labour government, when they were barely a rounding error in polls, and could mature into a formidable electoral force in the next parliament.


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This splintering electoral landscape offers opportunity and risk for Labour. Fragmentation will magnify the triumph of a party big enough and well spread enough to win against anyone, anywhere. But a more diverse opposition means future contests will be fought on multiple contradictory fronts. Labour will face challenges from the Greens and the SNP on the left, the Lib Dems in the centre, and from the Conservatives and Reform on the right. Competing on multiple fronts proved beyond the Tories in this parliament. It will be no easier for Labour in the next.

The record rejection of the “big two” also highlights a deeper issue. Next month a fractured and restive electorate will once again collide with an electoral system which magnifies volatility and stifles diversity. A desire is growing for deeper changes, not just in what government delivers, but in which voices are heard and who is represented. Labour must address that desire, or the tides it is riding to power could sweep it out again soon enough.

Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019