Political divergence between the major parties in modern day Britain
“There are significant differences between the three main parties”
The British political system has seen significant fluctuations between policy convergence and divergence between between the three main parties since 1945. These can be categorised by eras of 'consensus' – the 'Post-war' consensus of the need for a government that has an active role in the lives of its citizens, the 'Post-Thatcher' consensus to 'roll back the frontiers of the state' & promote individualism, and some have theorised a 'Post-Blair' consensus (or 'Third Way') where public spending is encouraged but Thatcherite concepts of free market and privatisation are present.
In the 2005 general election, policy divergence was clearly evident. Policies in areas such as the economy, family international aid, terrorism, penisions and transport were strikingly similar. For example, all three parties proposed an increase in the state pension, a concept that could be considered Socialist in ideological terms but in reality is more likely to be based on public opinion – a decrease in public pensions would be certainly unpopular. The Liberal Democrats came across as the party with the most radical policies in 2005, such as their proposal to scrap tuition fees and impose a 50% income tax on those earning above £100,000.
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However, the 2010 election suggested a re-emerging trend of divergence. This was most significant in terms of the economy. While all three parties had previously agreed a need for an increase in spending on public services, Conservative proposals for defecit reduction measures saw a complete change in direction. Labour, on the other hand, campaigned for an increase in public spending for a period of two years before pursuing cuts in this election. Family, where party policies of the 'main three' had been very similar in the preceding election, also saw the Conservatives come out with ideas different to those of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with a tax cut for married couples being encouraged by the Tories but outspokenly opposed by Labour. The Liberal Democrats were yet again the most radical in approach, with plans for a written constitution and the replacement of Council Tax differing significantly from the policies of both Labout and the Conservative parties.
Such an increase divergence may suggest a change yet another change attitude for British politics, but the unpopularity of the Labour government at that time and a possible willingness for the opposition parties to appear as a significant alternative may also be a contributing factor.
It is possible to argue that this gap may continue to widen in the near future. Ed Miliband, the current leader of the Labour party, is more left leaning than his 'New Labour' predecessors, believing in the existence of the 50p tax band, removal of charitable status from Private schools and a return to a more regulated economy. On the other side of the fence, the Conservative backbenchers are increasingly frustrated by Cameron's compromises to the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition, believing his policies to not hold true to the Conservative mantra of traditionalism.
However, this is not to suggest the traditional ideologies of the three main parties appears to eb re-emerging. New Labour has long since abandoned its socialist roots in order to appeal to the wider electorate. This move, made by Tony Blair in 1994, made the party widely popular in the 1997 elections and had allowed him to win against the Conservatives by a landslide. This 'third way, articulated by the Leader Tony Blair, was seen as a refreshing change to the black and white times of old, and brought about the new age of pragmatism over ideology, which has continued through the 2000's and into the 2010's.
At the turn of the millennium, a reformed Conservative party began to emerge. This new Conservative party took a very similar route to new Labour, Cutting its ties with the ideologically driven past and also opting for compromise and pragmatism. An acceptance of things such as the Welfare state as a necessity and the need to protect the NHS bears some similarity to post-War consensus politics of the mid 20th century.
Therefore, it can be concluded at present that while there are areas in which party policies are noticeably different, policy convergence is in general much greater than it was during the 1970's & 1980's. The apparent re-emerging trend of divergence in the 2010 election may not mean that this is the direction in which British politics will be heading in the near future or even at the 2015 general election. With ideology being less of an influence on the policies of the three major UK parties then ever before, it is inevitable policies are likely to be similar in some areas.