For thirty years following the end of the Second World War, it was orthodox to regard the UK as having one of the most stable and party-oriented political systems in the Western world. Parties penetrated state and society so significantly that it was virtually impossible to conceive of political life in the country without thinking first and foremost of party political life. Since the middle of the 1970s, however, old certainties have been challenged by a continuing and multi-dimensional debate about the transformation of British party politics. This challenge is predicated on a number of interconnected developments, including the apparent growth of electoral volatility; the spread of partisan and class dealignment; the emergence of nationalist cleavages in Scotland and Wales, which have threatened to fragment the national political culture; the erosion of two-party electoral domination; and the growing chorus of criticism levelled at the damaging iniquities of the electoral system and the adversarial 'winner-takes-all' political mentality that is closely associated with it. Despite this, the single-member plurality (SMP) (first-past-the-post) electoral system continues to ensure that single-party majority governments remain the norm (see Tables 2.1 and 2.2).
What do such changes imply for the general status of parties in the country? Those on the left have been especially prone to see evidence of party failure or decline in some of the changes noted. For instance, Jacques (1993) has contrasted the erosion of party-society links with the burgeoning non-partisan associative life of the country. In this context, he argues that the established model of representative politics which focuses on the parties in Westminster constitutes something of an impasse for democracy and it should be supplanted by the development of new forms of political participation. In a similar vein, Mulgan (1994a : 16)—ironically