Skip to content

Posted On



What If the Two-Party System Collapses in the UK and the US?

In both the United Kingdom and the United States, two political parties traditionally have competed for power. The system of two dominant parties, however, is coming under increasing strain in both the UK and US. Citizens complain that government has become too politicized and its leaders too focused on self-aggrandizement. As a result, basic concerns of the people are not addressed.

In addition, the governing political parties appear to be suffering greater internal disarray:

  • In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson “removed the whip” from 21 members of his party because they voted against Brexit, leaving the party without a majority in Parliament. His decision to prorogue the Parliament for five weeks was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.
  • In the US, the Republican Party has been criticized for evolving into a political movement that does not dare differ with the US President. The leader of the Senate, for example, said he will not bring a bill to a vote unless the President assures him it will not be vetoed. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans fear being “primaried out” of their party, and an unusually high number of Republican legislators may choose not to run for reelection.

This article speculates that change in the political systems in the UK and the US could be startling and not incremental. What if these trends turn out to be not aberrations, but signs of a dramatic shift away from the current two-party political system? A good analyst would ask: How can one anticipate such a political transformation?

A good technique for working through such an issue is What If? Analysis. With this technique, one posits a dramatic—and usually controversial—outcome and then works backwards to find a credible pathway showing how it came about. To demonstrate the technique here, start with the theory that both the Conservative Party and the Republican Party will cease to exist in their present form in the next five years.

Step 1: Define a hypothetical endpoint as each country evolves into a new system of multiple parties contesting for power. See Figure 1 for a portrayal of the current UK and US party lineup and how it might be transformed. In these speculative What If? Analysis scenarios:

  • The Conservative Party in the UK suffers serious erosion. Many members defect to the Brexit Party (or the Brexit and Conservative Parties forged a new coalition) and some Conservative “Remainers” help swell the ranks of the Liberal Democrats or migrate to one of the smaller parties.
  • The Republican Party in the US splits into three factions: (1) “America Firsters,” (2) “Classic Conservatives,” and (3) “Evangelicals.” Some Republican candidates run as Independents or shift their allegiance to a newly energized Libertarian Party or an increasingly popular Green Party.

Step 2: Suggest key drivers that spurred this dramatic shift in the political landscape:

  • Growing concern over the temperament and competence of the top Conservative and Republican Party leaders.
  • Swelling popular distaste for “politics as usual,” accompanied by the perception that radical change is necessary to make government work again.
  • The perception that the leaders of both parties only care about holding on to power rather than making the government work.
  • A groundswell of support for the environmental movement and the emergence of young, charismatic leaders with innovative policies in other parties.
  • A major shifting of political allegiances as some legislators move to the center and others to the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
  • Increased alarm about deficit spending, income inequality, and massive budget shortfalls.
  • Landslide defeats at the polls for the Conservative and Republican Parties in the next two years followed by irreversible leadership schisms.

Step 3: Identify potential consequences of the key drivers. One consequence of the changes proposed above is that future UK and US leaders will represent parties that command the support of a distinct minority of the voting population.

  • In the UK, Labour would not dominate because internal power struggles had prompted many members to shift allegiances and join other parties. To gain a majority, a party would have to ally with others of roughly similar size to form a winning coalition. Such a transition to a system where four to six parties compete for the right to lead the country would not require major systemic change.
  • In the US, the change would be more disruptive but could be accommodated without requiring legislation or amending the constitution. In this What If? Analysis scenario, the Republican Party would fracture, a more leftist party would split off from the Democratic Party, and a new Centrist Party would emerge that is fiscally conservative but socially liberal, attracting both Republicans and Democrats as well as many younger voters.

In the US presidential race, the Electoral College would function more like a parliamentary system with a handful of parties jockeying to build a winning majority.

A system might even emerge (as originally contemplated by the Founding Fathers) where the candidate of the party with the most Electoral College votes becomes President and the candidate of the party with the second highest number of votes becomes Vice President.

Figure 1

A description of the What If? Analysis technique can be found in the Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques, 5th ed. and the 3rd edition of Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, to be published in January 2020.