The return of two-party politics has been predicted almost as often, and just as badly, as the proletarian revolution, Sheffield Wednesday’s promotion, or the end of the world.
Numerous commentators think the day has finally arrived. Patrick Maguire in the New Statesman says the election is a “straight two-party fight”. James Ball of Buzzfeed has made a similar point. Philip Cowley, a political scientist, points out that Labour and the Conservatives have a combined vote share of 83% in a recent opinion poll – the highest since 1970.
However, it is facetious to regard the current polling figures as a symptom of two-party politics, when the figure is only so high because of the current level of one-party dominance. Labour and the Tories took 90% of the vote in Liverpool Walton in 2015, but since Labour’s score was 81% it could hardly be called a two-party election.
The case for a two-party duopoly is even harder to make in South Yorkshire.
Two-party control was still visible in 1992, when Labour and Conservative candidates took 85% of the vote in South Yorkshire, coming first and second in every seat except Sheffield Hallam.
Since then, however, the rise of the Liberal Democrats up to 2010 and then the emergence of Ukip have complicated South Yorkshire politics.
In the 2015 and 2017 elections, there have been five parties in contention in South Yorkshire. Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently hold seats. Ukip came second in ten out of 14 constituencies in 2015. The Conservatives may be represented in the county for the first time since 1992, with chances to gain a seat in Don Valley or Penistone and Stocksbridge. And the Green Party’s runner-up position in Sheffield Central lured Natalie Bennett into what the party calls a “national priority campaign” in 2017.
A true two-party system exists when all the supporters of the government (or incumbent politician) vote for one party, and all its opponents vote for another. The referendum last year has focused the political divide to some extent, allowing Theresa May to dominate among the 52% who voted Leave.
But as long as Remainers are so divided, opposition to the Tory government will be expressed through at least six different parties in the country. Labour have spent as much time fending off challengers such as Bennett in Sheffield Central, Liberal Democrats in Cambridge or Plaid Cymru in Wales as they have challenging Conservative incumbents. At best, that is a multi-party system. At worst, it is one-party politics.