Landale Online: Disappointing year for smaller parties

By James Landale
Deputy Political Editor, BBC News

Image caption, Nationalist parties did not make the strides they were hoping for

For a brief moment this year, Britain's smaller political parties thought that finally their time had come.

An opportunity arose that, until then, had been the stuff of their dreams.

In the confusion following the indecisive general election, there was talk of a rainbow coalition taking office, a multi-coloured pantheon of political parties joining a government led by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Together they would make up the numbers to out-vote the Conservatives in the House of Commons.

Above all, the nationalist parties thought they could take power and protect Scotland and Wales from Tory spending cuts.

But in the end, it was not to be. The idea of a coalition of the election losers never got off the ground.

The complicated parliamentary arithmetic, the fear of an English backlash and the poor personal chemistry between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg made it simply impossible.

It was just one more disappointment felt by the smaller parties this summer.

Many commentators thought that they would do better in the general election, predicting that voters would abandon the larger parties in disgust over their MPs' expenses claims.

But the much-hoped-for breakthrough never happened. In the end, all the parties known as "the others" by the election experts raised their combined share of the vote by a paltry 1.7%.

Image caption, The Greens celebrated winning their first seat at Westminster

For the Scottish National Party, it has been a mixed year.

It failed to make much progress in the general election, winning just six seats, not the 20 looked for by First Minister Alex Salmond.

And it failed to make much progress towards its long-desired referendum on independence. Instead, it had to witness the coalition in Westminster offering to devolve greater taxation powers to Holyrood.

They also lost a minister who did not clear away enough snow.

And at next May's elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP faces a Scottish Labour party no longer bound by the disciplines of national government, another option for voters wishing to protest against the coalition in Westminster.

The Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru did little better.

In the general election, they won just three seats, and their share of the vote actually went down a touch.

They remain in coalition with Labour but to improve their position in the May elections, they are going to have to convince voters they can secure greater powers for the assembly in Cardiff.

As for the Green Party, it has been a big year.

Image caption, Nigel Farage was lucky to survive this plane crash on election day

They secured their first Member of Parliament in Westminster as Caroline Lucas, the party leader, won Brighton Pavilion in the general election.

But their share of the vote nationally actually fell and there is only so much that one MP can do to shape the agenda at Westminster.

Unlike the Greens, the UK Independence Party failed to win its first seat in Parliament. Nigel Farage took on Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham and almost lost more than the election.

On polling day, the light aircraft carrying him and a party banner crashed and he almost died.

But UKIP did increase its share of the vote, coming fourth behind the three largest parties. And when the party leader Lord Pearson stood down, Mr Farage was re-elected to his old job.

So the challenge for the smaller political parties next year is to get heard, above all to have a voice in the debate over the coalition's spending cuts. And yes, they have a few elections to fight in May.

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