Is Britain’s two-party system really about to crumble? This question was the title of an academic paper that was written back in 1982. Like many other observers at the time, the academic Ivor Crewe had been captivated by the sudden rise of a new challenger to the main parties: the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s surge was truly astonishing; it won a string of parliamentary by-elections, attracted more than two dozen defecting MPs and was soon polling ahead of all the other parties. At one point the SDP was on more than 50 per cent.
At first glance the scale of the SDP’s insurgency makes the contemporary rise of Ukip seem much less impressive. Ukip has only two seats in the House of Commons, continues to average only 16 per cent in the opinion polls and you would be hard pushed to find a serious commentator who thinks that Nigel Farage’s party will attract more than 20 per cent of the vote at the 2015 general election. Ukip also remains prone to public relations disasters and is a polarising force. A new poll by YouGov this week indicated that around one in four voters would struggle to remain friends with a Ukip supporter.