Minor Parties

The UK, unlike the USA, has a large number of significant minor parties as well as the three main national parties. While never likely to win Westminster elections, they are important in a number of ways and often play a part in setting the political agenda.

In one of the televised debates held in the course of the 2015 general election campaign,  seven parties took part. Two of these small parties, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Green Party, have derived their importance from campaigning to promote a particular issue or group of related issues. They do not expect to win enough seats to form a government. Instead their aim is to force the larger parties to accept their agenda, either in whole or in part. They have behaved more like pressure groups than traditional political parties. The other small parties are regionally based. The Welsh Nationalist Party (Plaid Cymru), established in 1925, is officially committed to independence for Wales within the EU, but in practice has been more concerned with the preservation of a distinctive Welsh language and culture. The party has never had more than four MPs at Westminster at any one time (at the 2015 general election it had a total of three) but it has been more successful in the National Assembly for Wales. In 2007 Plaid Cymru became the second largest party in the Assembly and was in coalition government with Labour until it dropped to third place after the 2011 election.

However in 2017 Theresa May refused to take part in TV debates and in 2019  Johnson would only debate with Jeremy Corbyn. So so far the 2015 all party debates is a one off

The Democratic Unionist Party DUP

Who are the DUP?

Founded by the late Ian Paisley in 1971, at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and now led by Arlene Foster, the DUP is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and is currently the fifth-largest party in the Commons - with ten MPs. The DUP nominally governs Northern Ireland with its republican rivals Sinn Fein as part of a power-sharing deal set out in the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

However, discord between the two parties means the Stormont Assembly led to a suspension of government in N Ireland form 2017 to 2020 .The DUP emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Westminster in the wake of the 2017 general election. The result left the then prime minister Theresa May politically weakened and unable to command a majority in Parliament, turning the DUP’s ten MPs into kingmakers in a “confidence and supply” agreement to prop up the Government. 

This is a position its members have leveraged to maximum effect, exercising their effective veto over the government’s Brexit negotiations to ensure there is no deal that could cut off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. They also secured 3 billion in extra spending for N Ireland.

Domestic issues: The DUP has long opposed and voted against introducing same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws to the province.

Its 2017 manifesto also included retaining the “triple lock” on pensions, cutting VAT for tourism businesses, abolishing air passenger duty and reviewing the price of ferries between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The DUP was also the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement – before finally entering into a power-sharing government in 2007.

Brexit: Although Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56% to 44%, the DUP campaigned  for Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum.

Above all, though, the party defines itself by its support for the UK. This insistence on keeping the union whole has set up a series of red lines on Brexit that both May and Johnson have found all but impossible to square with their own promises to take the UK out of the customs union while maintaining a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the south.

Foster has repeatedly stated her desire not have a hard border – but, for her and her party, continued economic and political alignment with the rest of the UK is key.

The party’s socially conservative and unionist policies have long made it a natural ally of the Tories, with the 2017 confidence and supply agreement formalizing this relationship. The election of December 2019 has reduced the importance of the DUP in Parliament and brought the agreement with the Conservatives to an end.

The Johnson government and the DUP have fallen out over the Brexit Deal which seem to offer the possibility of negotiating a separate arrangement for N Ireland- which the DUP is opposed to.Under Mr Johnson's deal, Northern Ireland will effectively stay in the EU's single market for goods but Stormont can vote to end that arrangement.

Mrs May's deal could have seen Northern Ireland enter a "backstop" arrangement which could only have been ended with the EU's approval. Whether the DUP use their veto will depend on the results of the final deal with the EU to be concluded by the end of 2020.

The significance of the Ulster parties was cast into the spotlight when the DUP ended up holding the balance of power in Westminster after the 2017 general election and struck a ‘supply and confidence’ deal with the Conservatives.

The Scottish National Party

The nationalist parties, especially the Scottish National Party (SNP), have strong concentrated regional followings. The SNP is the largest Scottish political party in terms of seats both at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament. In 2019, the party won 48 seats and 45% of the total vote in Scotland. Without pressure from the powerful SNP, Cameron would almost certainly not have entertained a referendum for Scottish independence in 2014.

The Scottish National Party, founded in 1934, is a centre-left party whose main purpose is to secure independence for Scotland from the UK. The growing strength of the SNP helped persuade the Labour Party to take up the cause of devolution ahead of the 1997 general election.

The Blair government believed that granting devolution would ensure that Labour would remain the dominant political force in Scotland. Its strategy was to give the Scottish people just enough self-governing power to ensure that they did not vote for the SNP. The strategy worked until 2007 when a talented nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, formed a minority SNP government, transforming this into a small majority in the 2011 election. This was undoubtedly a major reason why the Westminster government was prepared to support the extension of more powers to the

Edinburgh administration (for example, over taxation and borrowing). The fruits of this were the 2012 Scotland Act and the holding of a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014. Towards the end of the referendum campaign, all three major party leaders agreed to abandon Prime Minister's Questions at Westminster, in order to go to Scotland to present a united front for staying in the Union. Although the independence option was defeated, it was clear that the issue would not go away. A new SNP First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argued that as Scotland faced being taken out of the EU against its will, following the June 2016 'Brexit' referendum vote, the SNP was entitled to hold another vote on independence in the near future.

Another area of concern has been the SNP's capacity to influence legislation at Westminster, especially after the 2015 general election, when it won 56 of Scotland's 59 seats. The SNP's official position (unlike, for example, that of Scottish Labour MPs in the past) has been one of refraining from voting on purely English issues, in order to underscore the nationalist argument that the two countries should not interfere in each other's internal affairs.

Since October 2015, the passing of the English votes for English laws (EVEL) measure has placed limits on all Scottish MPs at Westminster, but with important exceptions. In March 2016, SNP MPs helped to defeat the Cameron government's proposal for an extension of Sunday trading laws in England and Wales. The party's argument was that the measure would affect Scottish workers because UK-wide employers would use it to set new, less advantageous rates of pay on both sides of the border. The SNP seems likely to continue to use its leverage at Westminster to keep the case for independence on the agenda.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

UKIP began as a fringe nationalist party in 1991, and by the 21st century was associated with one man — Nigel Farage — and one issue: opposition to Britain's membership of the EU. It owed its slowly growing national profile to a sense of dissatisfaction with the way in which the three

main parties seemed constantly to accommodate themselves to the quickening pace of European integration. In the 2014 European elections UKIP gained a total of 24 MEPs, making it the largest

UK party in the European Parliament. It won 3.9 million votes in the 2015 general election, although under the first-past-the-post voting system this total returned only one MP.

UKIP is a radical right-wing populist party, whose supporters tend to be older, more traditional people who feel left behind in a rapidly changing world. They are often people with lower levels of education and job security, anxious about what they see as challenges to their way of life. For many, immigration has been a major concern. UKIP supporters saw the arrival of large numbers of Eastern Europeans, following the expansion of the EU in 2004, as a threat to 'British jobs' and to the native British way of life. Unlike the older British National Party (BNP), which was associated with overt racial prejudice, UKIP seemed a more 'respectable' option. Its most prominent figure, Nigel Farage (party leader 2006-09 and 2010-16), was a charismatic individual whose chummy, outspoken persona was one to which many ordinary people could relate. By not conforming to the image of mainstream 'liberal establishment' figures such as Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, he appealed to voters who felt disillusioned with the three main parties.

The Green Party

The Green Party evolved from a party founded in 1973 as 'PEOPLE', later changing its name to the Ecology Party before assuming its present identity in 1985. The Green Party won its first seat at Westminster in 2010, when Caroline Lucas became MP for Brighton Pavilion. The party won more than one million votes across the UK in 2015, but failed to win any more seats.

The Green Party is a centre-left party that is not only concerned with environmental issues, but also with reducing social inequality

Reform UK (stylised as Reform UK: The Brexit Party from November 2023is a right-wing populist political party in the United Kingdom. It was founded with support from Nigel Farage in November 2018 as the Brexit Party, advocating hard Euroscepticism and a no-deal Brexit and was a significant political force in 2019. After Brexit, it was renamed to Reform UK in January 2021, and became primarily an anti-lockdown party during the COVID-19 pandemic.       in December 2022, it began campaigning on broader right-wing populist themes during the British cost-of-living crisis.