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A minor party is a political party that plays a smaller (in some cases much smaller, even insignificant in comparison) role than a major party in a country's politics and elections. The difference between minor and major parties can be so great that the membership total, donations, and the candidates that they are able to produce or attract are very distinct. Some of the minor parties play almost no role in a country's politics because of their low recognition, vote and donations. Minor parties often receive very small numbers of votes at an election (to the point of losing any candidate nomination deposit). The method of voting can also assist or hinder a minor party's chances. For example, in an election for more than one member, the proportional representation method of voting can be advantageous to a minor party as can preference allocation from one or both of the major parties.
Minor parties in Australia owe much of their success to the proportional representation method of voting. This allows minor parties to achieve at least one quota in the electorate or state and thus gain representation in a parliamentary chamber. Often minor parties have been so successful in gaining such representation that they are able to hold the balance of power in the particular house of the parliament (usually the Australian Senate). Some examples are the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Australian Democrats from the late 1970s until 2004, and more recently the Australian Greens.
The use of first past the post in the United Kingdom means that in the post-War era, only two parties have had a majority in parliament: the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. However, strong regionalist movements and the potential for parties to take votes in the centre or extreme fringes of the political spectrum mean that minor parties still play a significant and increasing role in British politics. The Liberal Democrats, and their predecessors the SDP–Liberal Alliance and the Liberal Party (the main opposition to the Conservative Party before the rise of Labour, forming governments six times between 1859 and 1918) have achieved significant numbers of seats and have occasionally been kingmakers (such as during the Lib-Lab pacts and the 2010–2015 coalition with the Conservatives) and are sometimes also classed as a major party. The nationalist Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru hold a significant number of seats in their Home Nations, with the SNP controlling 56 of 59 Scottish Westminster seats at the 2015 United Kingdom general election, and every single Northern Irish seat is held by a regional party – either the republican Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour Party, or the unionist Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party. As of 2019, the Green Party hold one seat and UKIP is the largest British party in the European Parliament, despite holding no seats in the House of Commons.
Other parties that have held seats in devolved assemblies, the House of Commons or the European Parliament in the 21st century include the non-sectarian Northern Irish Alliance Party, the far right British National Party, the healthcare-focused Independent Community and Health Concern, the cross-community Northern Irish NI21, the cross-community feminist Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, the anti-austerity People Before Profit Alliance, the left-wing Northern Irish unionist Progressive Unionist Party, the left wing Respect Party, the left wing nationalist Scottish Socialist Party, the elderly interest Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party and the unionist Northern Irish Traditional Unionist Voice and UK Unionist Party.
Whether or not a party counts as a major party is a sometimes heated argument, since "major parties" as defined by Ofcom are entitled to more party political broadcasts than minor ones. Because of the regionalist nature of many parties, it is possible to be a major party in one part of the country and not another: for example, UKIP is officially a major party in England and Wales, but a minor one in Scotland. No mainland British party is classed as a major party in Northern Ireland.
A minor party is also a special type of political party registered with the Electoral Commission in Great Britain that is able to contest only parish and community council elections in England and Wales and has fewer reporting, financial and administrative requirements than an ordinary registered political party.
In the United States they are often described as third parties. Minor parties in the U.S. include the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, Constitution Party, and others that have less influence than the major parties. Since the American Civil War (1861–1865), the major parties have been the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Since 1860, six presidential candidates other than Republicans and Democrats have received over 10% of the popular vote, although one of them was a former president, Theodore Roosevelt.
|Third-Party Presidential Candidates, 1832–1996|
|Third-party candidates who received more than the historical average of 5.6 percent of the popular vote or at least one electoral college vote are listed below, three of which were former presidents (follow links for more information on their time as president).|
|Year||Candidate||Popular Vote %||Electoral Votes||Outcome in Next Election|
|1996||Reform||H. Ross Perot||8.4||0||Did not run; endorsed Republican candidate George W. Bush|
|1992||Independent||H. Ross Perot||18.9||0||Ran as Reform Party candidate|
|1980||Independent||John B. Anderson||6.6||0||Did not run|
|1972||Libertarian||John Hospers||0.0||1 (faithless elector)||Did not run; his elector Roger MacBride was instead the Libertarian candidate.|
|1968||American Independent||George C. Wallace||13.5||46||1972 Candidate John Schmitz Won 1.4 percent of the popular vote (slightly over one million votes). Wallace was shot while running for the Democratic nomination that year.|
|1924||Progressive||Robert M. La Follette||16.6||13||Returned to Republican Party|
|1912||Progressive ("Bull Moose")||Theodore Roosevelt||27.4||88||Returned to Republican Party|
|1912||Socialist||Eugene V. Debs||6||0||Won 3.2 percent of the popular vote|
|1892||Populist||James B. Weaver||8.5||22||Endorsed Democratic candidate|
|1860||Constitutional Union||John Bell||12.6||39||Party dissolved|
|1860||Southern Democrats||John C. Breckinridge||18.1||72||Party dissolved|
|1856||American ("Know-Nothing")||Millard Fillmore||21.5||8||Party dissolved|
|1848||Free Soil||Martin Van Buren||10.1||0||Won 4.9 percent of the vote|
|1832||Anti-Masonic||William Wirt||7.7||7||Endorsed Whig candidate|
|Percentages in bold are those over 10% in elections.|
- Paul Webb (2005). "The Continuing Advance of the Minor Parties". Parliamentary Affairs. 58 (4): 757–775.
- "Ofcom Statement on Party Election Broadcasts". OFCOM. 16 March 2015. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
- "Guidance on registering and maintaining a party". The Electoral Commission. Retrieved 24 October 2018.
- Third-Party Candidates Can Influence U.S. Presidential Elections Archived 2008-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, America.gov, 20 August 2007. (Information derived from the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov Archived 2006-12-23 at the Wayback Machine)