After reading this article, I got to wondering why the US has 2 viable political parties while the UK appears to have many, even though both use first-past-the-post voting.

Across England and Wales, voters turned away in anger from May's Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, which had sought a softer version of Brexit. The Brexit Party came first while explicitly pro-EU parties - the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK - were, combined, a few percentage points behind.

That paragraph alone lists six parties.

What are the differences between the UK and US that allow for a larger number of parties in the UK?

Are all of these UK parties independent of one another? Do they form coalitions?

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    As a french, i think the US is actually the outlier in this. Most countries i know (lets discount the most autocratic ones) have a lot of parties that must vie for power. You should take a look at the Belgian system, it's almost entirely proportionnal so there's an ungodly amount of groups that then must forms coalitions. Last time i looked they had more coalitions than France or the UK had relevant parties. Commented May 27, 2019 at 8:22
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    This is wrong question, right question is why USA have only 2 parties, but 90% of the world has more. Commented May 27, 2019 at 17:22
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    @user2120666 Being someone who lives in the States, and had just read that article, seems appropriate to me. Commented May 27, 2019 at 17:26
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    @user2120666 Wrong, it is absolutely the right question because it compares the USA with the UK, not with the rest of the world. The key difference is that those two countries have first-past-the-post voting, which strongly penalizes smaller parties, and most other countries have proportional representation, which doesn't. Commented May 28, 2019 at 7:58
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    N.B. that election was not FPTP. That was the EU parliament election, which in the UK uses party-list-based PR (except for Northern Ireland, which uses STV).
    – OrangeDog
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:45

8 Answers 8


One reason why the UK has more parties than the US is simply that it is cheaper to compete in the political game.

General election campaigning is effectively limited to four weeks before the election date in the UK, not two (or more) years. The maximum expenditure permitted by an individual candidate is either £10,000 or £16,000 depending on the number of voters in the constituency and whether it is rural or urban (obviously campaigning in a rural constituency will incur more miles of travel).

The maximum that a party can spend nationally on campaigning depends on the number of seats it contests, but if it contested all 650 parliamentary seats the limit is just under £20m.

The total campaigning expenditure in the 2017 UK general election by all parties and candidates, as monitored by the Electoral Commission, was £39.1m.

The total campaigning costs for European parliamentary elections in the UK are lower than for general elections - typically about half as much.

Note, these are the cost of campaigning only - the administrative costs, funded by general taxation, are higher than the campaigning costs, and estimated at £140m for the 2017 general election.

If US readers find those numbers incomprehensibly small compared with the total cost of a USA national election measured in $bn not $m, they are not typos!

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    wow, total UK campaign expenditure under GBP 40m? We had one party alone in Australia that spent AUD 60m on advertising in the last election. Commented May 28, 2019 at 7:12
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    @ZacFaragher It also must be stated that that was a minor party.
    – nick012000
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 12:30
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    @ZacFaragher The American 2016 presidential election cost about $6.5 billion USD. $2.4 billion for the presidential election, including primaries, and about $4 billion for the congressional elections. washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/04/14/…
    – John
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:24
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    The US also has 5 times as many people and 40 times the land mass: I'd expect the point would still stand after adjustment, but it is just a larger base to campaign against. Commented May 28, 2019 at 21:54
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    These costs are just what the current 2 parties spend. New parties face significantly higher costs than the established parties, since they have to compensate for not getting free national exposure through televised debates and other media events, not having their name included on the ballot without significant efforts, etc.
    – bta
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 2:44

Duverger's law says that for a given district in a plurality (first-past-the-post) system, the number of parties will tend towards two.

In the United States, there is an office with a national district, the presidency. As a result, the total number of parties tends toward two. If a third party becomes large enough, it takes over one of the other parties. This last happened in the 1850s when the Republican party replaced the Whig party over abolition/slavery. There have been two serious attempts at the formation of a significant third party, the Bull Moose party of the 1910s and the United We Stand party of the 1990s. Neither was able to get a president elected and both faded away.

The way that House and Senate districts overlap may help too.

In the United Kingdom, there is no national office and no overlapping legislative offices (members of the House of Lords are not elected). This makes it easier for a third party to dominate one or more districts. For example, the Scottish National Party dominates districts in Scotland. And Northern Ireland has two regional parties.

In France, there is a national office, but the national office is not elected by a FPTP system. They have a runoff election. So there isn't the same grouping requirement in the first election. A voter can vote for a preferred candidate then and still vote between the top two candidates in the runoff. This doesn't have the same forcing to two effect as a plurality system.

Germany's system also provides extra support for third parties with its compensatory seats for parties that are underrepresented from the geographic districts. This makes it act more like a proportional system under Duverger's law.

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    You are completely misrepresenting the American system. There are two dominant parties in the US because every district sends one representative, the one who won that district, so naturally this would be a member of one of the two biggest parties. This has nothing to do with senators, which are elected two per entire state, and the president, which is elected by electors, where all electors from a state belong to the one party which won the state, so again, must be one of the biggest parties. Commented May 27, 2019 at 13:39
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    @TsahiAsher: Please consider writing your own answer, as opposed to a long critique in a comment. Commented May 27, 2019 at 15:35
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    @TsahiAsher Not all states follow the winner take all rule for electors. Maine and Nebraska designate one elector per congressional district and two electors from the state-wide total. The method is described here along with its faults.
    – doneal24
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 17:29
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    @TsahiAsher If your point were true, then the UK would be the same (because here, too, each "district" sends some representative). So I find Brythan's answer -- the presence of the Presidency -- persuasive, because it's the one significance difference.
    – owjburnham
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 18:45
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    Actually, Germany's federal parliament has a proportional system with some geographic districts added in. Commented May 27, 2019 at 22:35

TL;DR: Its complicated

  • Most of the time England has Labour and Conservative as the two main parties, with the Liberal Democrats getting a few seats and hoping that they will hold the balance of power.

  • Wales and Scotland have these three parties plus their own separatist parties (Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party) which are broadly left and tend to vote along with Labour.

  • Northern Ireland has its own set of political parties based around its ethnic divisions. In practice the Unionist (i.e. protestant) parties vote alongside the Conservatives on most things (and right now the Democratic Unionist Party are the coalition partners propping up the current government). The Republican (i.e. catholic) Sinn Fein party refuses to take its seats in Westminster on the grounds that the British occupation of NI is illegitimate.

(Aside, in response to comments. The last time the Lib-Dems held the balance of power it didn't work out well for them. The Lib-Dems were closer to the Labour party ideologically, but the Conservatives had substantially beaten Labour in seat numbers and the popular vote. Hence the Lib-Dem leadership felt they had to give the Conservatives first refusal on a coalition. They got their longed-for referendum on replacing the First Past the Post electoral system (which subsequently failed), but in return they had to abandon a major campaign pledge about university tuition fees. Voters have punished them for this ever since, and they are hoping that the Brexit crisis will be their rehabilitation as a serious party).

And now for Brexit

However right now the UK is in a major political crisis. Neither of the two main parties has shown itself able to handle Brexit. The Conservatives have made a total hash of the last three years. Labour has avoided making a total hash merely by being out of power; they are just as divided over Brexit as the Conservatives and there is no reason to think that they would have done any better.

This is because the Brexit issue is orthogonal to the traditional left-right issues that normally divide the two main parties; the position of a person on the left-right axis says almost nothing about their position on Brexit. Hence new parties have sprung up with their primary positions being on the Brexit axis and saying as little as possible about their positions on the left-right axis (for instance the Brexit Party refused to issue a manifesto).

The Liberal Democrats have taken their traditional pro-EU center-left position, but now their campaigning is emphasising their EU policy rather than their center-left.

The Green party used to be far left and anti-EU. They have now become a green-tinted version of the Lib Dems.

It is starting to look like Brexit will be the defining issue of the next General Election. At the same time there is widespread distrust of both Labour and Conservatives. Hence it is possible that we will see a complete realignment of British politics in the next parliament, with no party holding anything close to a majority and lots of tricky negotiations to put together a coalition between parties with very different priorities.

Parliament so far has been unable to get a majority vote for any Brexit option. In this it seems to reflect the population as a whole; none of the three main options of "Leave (no deal)", "Leave (deal)" and "Remain" has a majority in opinion polls or the EU elections.

So it looks like being a fascinating show to watch. I just wish I could be watching it from a different country.

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    The US also has other parties: Libertarian, Green, Independent American, &c. They haven't had as much success as Britain's Liberal Democrats, and there haven't really been any orthogonal dividing issues like Brexit or Scottish independence in recent years.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 17:16
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    I disagree with describing the Liberal Democrats as centre-left. They are very much a pro-free market, neoliberal, pro-business, pro-austerity, small-government party. The fact that they have been in coalition with the Conservatives and not with Labour (not even back when Labour was Blairite) shows. At least economically, they're not centre-left by any reasonable definition of left.
    – gerrit
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 7:59
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    @gerrit: there was no need for Labour to seek a coalition partner when it was Blairite. Coalitions are treated in the UK as a last resort. Commented May 28, 2019 at 8:20
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    Describing the Green Party as "a green-tinted version of the Lib Dems" seems a bit off when they are well to the left of the Labour party on many issues, otherwise a good answer Commented May 28, 2019 at 10:46
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    @PeterTaylor I seem to recall them saying that they were willing to negotiate a coalition agreement with either Con or Lab, giving Con first refusal because of the seat count.
    – Caleth
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 9:27

This probably deserves a more complete answer, but what you have quoted is about the European Union parliamentary elections. Those use a different electoral system in the UK (more proportional) compared to their national elections (which use first past the post - FPTP). So smaller parties (like the Brexit party and formerly Ukip) can make inroads in the EU elections.

Outside of that EU elections context, there are more reasons why the UK has more parties, including devolution of power, with regional parties being more successful in Northern Ireland or Scotland. But you haven't mentioned those parties...

As for coalitions, they do get formed. The Conservatives presently run a coalition with a Northern Ireland party. In Cameron's time, they ran a coalition with the more centrist Lib Dems. Actually a really good question is how the libdems have survived in a FPTP system. There is actually a somewhat influential theory that the proportional representation came about in most of (continental) Europe because the "old left" liberal parties saw the writing on the wall with appearance of socialists, in the decades around the end of the XIX century.

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    I believe that technically that the agreement between the Conservatives and DUP isn't a coalition, but rather a confidence and supply agreement. The difference being that the DUP is not a part of government, and doesn't have ministers, but rather agrees to vote with the government on motions of confidence, and budget ('supply') Commented May 27, 2019 at 14:20
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    And vitally, the DUP has no obligation to vote in line with the Government on literally any other vote. They can vote against the the Government on every other vote, making it impossible for them to get anything done.
    – gsnedders
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 11:09

The UK has three major parties that have governed: The Conservatives, Labour and Liberals. Originally the UK had two major parties the Conservatives and the Liberal party. However during the 20th century, the Labour party eclipsed the Liberal party in popularity and relegated it to 3rd place.

The Liberal party subsequently merged with the Social Democratic party to become the Liberal Democrats.

So the UK has more political parties because the Labour party replaced the Liberal party as the opposite party to the Conservatives, but the Liberal party never truly died, it simply became less popular.

The other aspect is that the UK is a union of four countries. Both Scotland and Wales have nationalist parties (the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively) and Northern Ireland has a completely parallel set of parties to the rest of the UK.

This just leaves the Greens, UKIP/Brexit parties, but none of these parties do particularly well in general elections, the Greens have 1 seat and UKIP have held at most 2. This is due to the lack of proportional representation in general elections.

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    This is a very interesting perspective, in particular because in contemporary politics, the Democratic Party is probably closer to the Liberal Democrats than to Labour. US Labor simply never succeeded to organise as effectively as in Europe.
    – gerrit
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 8:01
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    An aspect you have also omitted, and which is - as much as people try to deny it - very important in the UK is class. In the US, political identity tends to be tied a lot less to class, and a lot more to the location where you live, whereas in the UK you have stereotypes around Upper / Upper-Middle class (Tory), Working / Lower-Middle class (Labour) and rebellious students (Lib-Dem). The same thing happens with accents: In the USA, someone's accent tells you where they live or were raised. In the UK, it tells you how they were raised. Commented May 28, 2019 at 8:23
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    @Chronocidal Yes, except that there is also a strong Tory (i.e. Conservative) strand in the lower-middle class. In the UK people often despise members of the adjacent classes, so to the extent that Labour is seen as the party of blue-collar workers the just-about white collar lower-middles will tend to vote against it. The Daily Mail is the newspaper of this group. Commented May 28, 2019 at 8:31
  • @Chronocidal Historically yes. However Brexit has confused any class distinction. The Conservatives have positioned themselves as the party of the 52% who voted Brexit, but people who support Brexit tend to be more in C2DE and less in ABC1. And Labour do very well in even the "posh" parts of London nowadays. Commented May 28, 2019 at 10:49
  • An important answer that provides historical context because the U.S. hasn't always had just the Democrats and Republicans. We've also had other dominant parties but unlike the U.K. Liberal party they did die out.
    – RWW
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:31

As others have noted, the difference between UK/USA and elsewhere is the First-Past-The-Post electoral system instead of PR. Which accounts for the dominance of two parties in the USA. So why is the UK different?

One difference may be that UK constituencies are smaller (around 70,000 people). This makes it possible for local factors to affect the result of an election. Occasionally, even independent candidates get elected as MPs, after campaigning on a local issue which both or all major parties are ignoring or taking the same opposite view. It also allows smaller parties to have a regional power base, most notably the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the Northern Irish parties.

The other is that the UK is in the middle of a political earthquake, and quite possibly headed for a complete constitutional crisis. This has two causes. One is Brexit, an issue which cuts across both major political parties roughly 50/50, and which must be resolved in some way on a short timescale. The other is a general perception that both major political parties have come to see themselves as a ruling class, that merely pays lip-service to democracy, accountability, and their constituents' views.

The last time anything like this happened saw the decline of the Liberal party and the rise of the Labour party in the early 1900s. The Liberal party never recovered and finally merged into the Liberal Democrats of today (who are gaining much support as a party which oughtright opposes Brexit, rather than being split). We also have the newly formed Brexit party, which unsurprisingly takes the opposite view on this issue.

I'm starting to appreciate the old not-Chinese so-polite curse "may you live in interesting times".


One thing I want to add as an answer that many people seem to miss when this kind of question comes up is that the other parties in the U.S. besides the Democrats and Republicans often don't show up until the Presidential Election every four years. In the U.S. Congressional District I live in during the last mid-term election last year there was a "third-party" candidate who based all of his campaigning on a few sign posted, and a Twitter feed that was almost completely about cartoons complaigning about the other parties, rather than explaining his positions, or how he would vote or why he would be a better choice. This was one of the "national" third-parties, but they spent no money on his campaign and provided little effort to engage the voters that wouldn't already be voting for him.

If you have a party that only shows up for high-profile elections, doesn't put in any effort between said elections, and doesn't bother trying to build their party up from the local level, why would any kind of majority support it?

  • How does this help explain the difference between the number of political parties in the U.S. and U.K.? Commented May 28, 2019 at 16:15
  • @indigochild the mentioned U.K. parties don't ignore the local elections and/or only campaign during big national elections, so they've built up an effective base of voters. In the U.S. if the Libertarian Party for example only shows up occaisionally and dosn't put in the work in between elections, voters don't move to them and vote for a relatively obscure party that they haven't heard from in two years or more.
    – RWW
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 17:58

I see a lot of answers here, focusing on small details that are interesting, yet not very relevant in my opinion.
The question you asked is a bit too restrictive, highlighting two systems only. The fact is, the UK is not the system with the most parties. Belgium is an example of a country that has numerous parties; so are Italy or Germany.
The explanation of these differences between them I could give is the weight of proportionality in the electoral systems.

Examples :

  • In Belgium, the elections are fully proportional, and coalitions between the numerous parties govern.
  • In Israel, the elections are proportional, but the winner of the election must be part of the coalition that will govern, which introduces some anti-proportionality in the system.
  • In France the elections are organized in two turns, without proportionality. The country is divided in zones, and each zone elects one deputy. It allows sometimes some new challengers emergence, but it is quiet rare if you look up for the past 60 years.
  • The UK electoral system is quiet bizarre, with parliaments for all nations except England (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and a UK parliament. Nonetheless, the electoral system is comparable to the french system with one turn only.
  • Independently, the European Union parliament has its own system of vote, which is kind of proportional, but with a high threshold to get one deputy which condemns the very small parties. Coalitions exist at European scale, but only serve as information hub for deputies, which allow them not to be required to know everything on any subjects. This is the system that allows so much parties, not the UK one.
  • In the USA, it is a non-proportional and one turn system that is implemented. It lets zero chance for challengers to pass through the electoral system.

I hope it helped you to understand the different shades of proportionality in electoral systems.

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    Downvoted because the question does not mention the UK having the most parties. It asks why it has more than the U.S.
    – RWW
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:17
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    -1. This doesn't answer the question. The question is specifically about a comparison of the U.S. and U.K.. Belgium, Israel, etc. are irrelevant. Commented May 28, 2019 at 16:14
  • have you two actually read the answer?
    – TUI lover
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:36
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    There is no English parliament. Commented May 28, 2019 at 20:02
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    There's no Ulster parliament either, Ulster is a region that includes parts of the Republic of Ireland. There is a Northern Ireland Assembly, which is essentially their equivalent of a parliament.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 22:28

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