Party Agenda

While minor parties are never likely to win Westminster elections, they are important in a number of ways and often play a part in setting the political agenda.

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. In Wales, Plaid Cymru won four out of 40 Welsh seats and secured just over 10% of the vote.

Northern Ireland has its own party system based largely on the nationalist/ unionist divide. The three main British parties are almost entirely absent from Ulster politics. Only the Conservatives contested any seats (four) directly in 2019 and received a total vote share of just 0.7%. Therefore, Ulster politics is entirely dominated by ‘minor’ parties such as the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the nationalist Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the non-sectarian Alliance Party. 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.

‘Single issue’ parties such as the Green Party, UKIP and the Brexit Party are also far from insignificant. The latter two as Eurosceptic parties fared particularly well in European elections, winning those held in 2014 and 2019. In 2014, Farage’s UKIP won just over 26% of the vote, defeating the three main parties. His newly formed Brexit Party went on to win the 2019 European Parliament elections by an even bigger margin. It finished a clear first with over 31% of the vote, while the Green Party pushed the Conservatives into a humiliating fifth place.

The wider impact of these results is also important. Many would argue that the success of Eurosceptic parties pushed the Conservative Party into a more resolute position on Brexit, so that it would avoid losing votes and potentially seats. However, the Eurosceptic parties have only ever won one Westminster seat, Clacton, when the sitting Tory MP Douglas Carswell defected to UKIP and won a by-election after resigning, and then held the seat at the 2015 election.

UKIP is an example of a party with little hope of winning seats which was able to 'make the political weather'. The high public profile of Nigel Farage meant that the Conservatives were never able to ignore the debate over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. 

In a similar way the  Green Party,  has kept the issue of environmentalism on the [political agenda.

The political agenda can be set by political and policy elites, but can also be influenced by activist groups, private sector lobbyists, think tanks, courts,  and world events. Media coverage has also been linked to the success of the rise of political parties such the minor parties in the UK and their ability to get their ideas on the agenda  agenda-setting theory). 

Case study Mr Bates v The Post Office 

Media Bias 

Are Pressure Groups good for democracy? 

Lobbying the House 

Think Tanks