- Created by: JM150601
- Created on: 20-09-18 06:51
In Simple Terms
In simple terms, political parties are organisations that:
- Have a set of policy goals, often based around an ideology. These policies are mainly proposals to change the law or the way that the government works in some area. The party may have an overarching set of beliefs about politics – an ideology (or world view) – that will help to decide which policies a party adopts.
- Seek to win elections so that they can enact their policies. Pressure groups often have policies and even ideologies as well; political parties are different from pressure groups because they actually try to win political office, instead of simply trying to influence the government.
The Key Functions Of Political Parties (1)
- Parties create and offer policy - Party members try to identify which are the most important and pressing problems facing a society; whether they are economic, social or international, and then consider the different options available for solving them.
- Parties provide the organisational structure and the individual politicians needed to form a government. Winning elections and forming stable governments require huge amounts of planning and organisation. Party organisations are geared up specifically to meet these tasks. When in government, a party will work hard to keep its MPs united and well-organised, for example, through the whipping system.
- Parties provide a link between Parliament and the people. The largest parties in the UK all have a local branch in each of the Westminster constituencies, with members drawn from the local area. These local activists meet regularly with their party’s candidate/MP for that seat and help to keep him or her in touch with the concerns, issues and problems affecting people in the area.
The Key Functions Of Political Parties (2)
- Parties give people a clear choice of PMs. The leader of the largest party following an election is invariably appointed PM, so voters can have decided who to vote for based on the character and beliefs of the party leaders.
- Parties also allow voters to make meaningful choices between candidates without having to do a lot of research into each of them. Most voters know very little about their local candidates except which party they are standing for, and they use this single piece of information to make some likely assumptions about what sort of policies they will support if they are elected.
- Parties also allow people to become active in their area’s politics, by joining the local party. Local parties regularly hold debates and discussions about all sorts of political matters and also campaign on issues of local and regional importance.
Aggregating Society’s Desires
One of the most important functions of political parties is to aggregate (bring together) society’s general desires. People want different things from their government; elderly people might be most concerned with healthcare and pension provision, for example. Wealthy people may feel low taxes should be the priority. Young people, families, farmers, factory workers, factory owners and so on will all have a sense of what is in their own best interest.
It is the parties’ task to bring together these competing interests and to create a policy programme that pleases as many people as possible. The party that can please the most people with its policies; or, in other words, most effectively aggregate society’s desires from the so-called ‘centre ground’ of politics, will win the election (provided that the voters trust that party to deliver on its promises). This is sometimes referred to as a ‘populist’ approach to politics.
Origin Of Parties
Parties have been a well-established part of most European politics, including the UK, for hundreds of years. Before the nineteenth century, parties were loose coalitions in Parliament with little or no formal outside organisation. They were simply groupings of MPs, often based on their relationship with the monarch and some generalised shared interests, rather than any great unifying ideology. This was to change in 1832.
After years of unrest and protest for change, in 1832 the government passed the Representation of the People Act (known as the ‘Great Reform Act’) which for the first time extended the right to vote to the middle classes.
After the 1867 and 1884 2nd and 3rd Representation of the People Acts, the electorate increased to approximately 6 million (although only men could still vote, and primarily to with some level of ownership/rental to a specific value). Parties needed good organisation in as many constituencies as possible to reach out to so many new voters (about 60% of the total male population).
The three largest parties in the UK, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, all seek power at every level. They stand candidates in elections for Westminster, the European Parliament, local councils and the devolved institutions (except Northern Ireland). Other parties that also campaign in every type of election include UKIP and the Green Party.
However, some people question whether national parties are useful in local government, and whether a greater number of ‘independent’ non-party candidates would be more appropriate. This is because local government elections tend to often be referendums on the performance of the higher-profile national party.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how good the local Conservative councillor is; if the Conservative party leader in London is unpopular, then the local councillor will often see his vote fall. This means that in local government, councillors often win and lose elections not on their own record, but on the popularity of their party in Westminster.
In theory, a party that has more than half of the seats in the Commons should find it easy to pass laws: if all the MPs in the party vote the same way, e.g. the Conservatives in power after 2015. However sometimes MPs do not want to vote in the way their party leaders want them to vote. For example, when the Labour leadership told its MPs to vote for cuts in disability benefits in 1997, some Labour MPs refused, and a total of 47 voted against while 100 abstained. Yet due to the government’s large parliamentary majority it still got the proposal passed.
When an MP fails to vote in the way the party leaders want him or her to, he or she is a ‘rebel’. Several MPs have a reputation for being ‘serial rebels’, consistently voting against the rest of their party.
However, the public often likes rebels: they admire the rebels for standing up for what they believe in. The rebels are much less popular within their own party though, and particularly with the party whips.
The Whipping System (1)
The whips are MPs (approximately 12-15 in number) whose job it is to make sure that all their party colleagues (or at least as many as possible of them) vote in the way that the party leadership wants. The whips work behind the scenes, in the corridors and tearooms of Westminster, away from the cameras. However, the Chief Whip, is a member of the Cabinet, and is viewed as being a significant political figure.
They have three main duties:
1) To keep their party’s MPs and peers informed about upcoming Parliamentary business. On a weekly basis, MPs are given printed guides to what votes, debates and select committee meetings lie ahead; the guides also make clear how the leadership expect MPs to vote. If a vote is considered important and attendance and support is essential, the information is traditionally underlined three times- and the phrase ‘three-line’ whip’ emphasise the importance of a particular vote. If an MP refuses to support any such measure they could find themselves in trouble with the party leadership, and repeat offenders could ultimately be ‘deselected’ by local parties and not allowed to stand at the next election.
The Whipping System (2)
2) To pass backbenchers’ views to the PM. The whips need to ensure that communication between the MPs and the party leadership is a two way street.
3) To create discipline. When MPs threaten to vote against the official party line, the whips must try to dissuade them. They have several powerful tools that help them do this:
- If the upcoming vote is on something that was contained in the manifesto, the whips can point out to the potential rebel that they have been elected on the basis of the manifesto (e.g. they have a mandate), and they would be arguably be betraying the trust of the voters.
- If the vote is not part of the manifesto, the whips can still warn MPs that the party will appear divided and weak if they do not support the leadership’s position. Divided parties are unattractive to voters, so MPs know that if they rebel, in the long run they may damage their own chances of being re-elected, especially if they are in a marginal seat.
The Whipping System (3)
- The whips can – and apparently do – make threats to MPs. In a sometimes forceful manner, whips remind MPs that they are unlikely to be appointed to ministerial office if they do not show loyalty. For ambitious MPs, this is an important consideration. There has long been a rumour that Conservative whips possess a ‘black book’ which lists the indiscretions (e.g. extra-marital affairs) of MPs and that threats are made to rebels, that the whips will expose them in the media unless they ‘toe the line’.
Problems With Political Parties (1)
Political parties provide the ideas, the organisation and the discipline needed to win and maintain power. However, there are many criticisms of parties in the UK.
These criticisms fall into three broad categories:
- The very centrality of parties to the way politics operates in the UK worries some people who feel that they have become too powerful and dominant. The stranglehold that the two largest parties have on government mean that if they both decide to ignore an issue, then it will never be solved. For example, at recent elections both Labour and the Conservatives have both been reluctant to talk about the social problems that can accompany immigration because they did not want to appear racist.
- Parties are sometimes accused of being elitist. This means that only the people at the top of the organisation (the leaders of the national party) have any real say in what policies are adopted and, thus, what laws are passed when the party wins an election.
Problems With Political Parties (2)
- There is a fairly widespread view among many people that parties behave in a self-serving and corrupt way. It is certainly true that parties will never deliberately do anything that would harm their electoral chances, but this is hardly surprising. Charges of corruption are more serious, and all of the major parties in the UK have had their scandals over donations.
The Role Of Ideologies In Political Parties (1)
We can describe ideology as a certain way of looking at the world. Individuals have their own ‘world view’ as do collective bodies such as political parties. While such parties will never be in total agreement among themselves (as evident in rival party factions), they can agree on some broad ideas and principles that bind them together. Political ideology therefore concentrates on:
- Human nature - Are human beings essentially good or bad, honest or dishonest? Are they born good or bad, or does their environment shape their personality? Should we see people as individuals and give them as much personal freedom as possible, or should we see them as members of society, dependent on each other? If so, then who should be prevented doing things that might harm the community?
- A concept of what the government should be. Apart from anarchists, who want to get rid of all forms of formal government, most political ideologists agree that a government needs to exist, but there is wide disagreement about what a government should be like. Should it have strong powers over its citizens, or not? Should it simply concern itself with maintaining law and order and defending the country from attack, or should it try to shape the way people live their lives?
The Role Of Ideologies In Political Parties (2)
- The purpose of the state. Is the state there to maintain society as it is, to restore older traditional values in society, or to create a new type of society?
Ideology can provide parties with a reason to exist, and members of the party will work together more easily if they know that they all share a similar outlook. Indeed, many people join a political party expressly because they believe in its ideology. Most parties have come into existence because at some time a group of people with a shared ideology have come together to seek political power.
However, ideology can at times be dangerous. Nazism and Communism were two ‘extreme’ ideologies that believed that the government existed to force people to live in new ways. As a result, people living under these systems, in and beyond, often found that they lost all their rights and freedoms, and sometimes even their lives, as a result of their government’s pursuing extreme ideologies.
The Linear Spectrum
Left-Wing: Traditional Labour, Green, Sinn Fein and SNP.
Centre: Liberal Democrat’s and New Labour.
Right-Wing: Conservatives, UKIP and DUP.
Conservative Ideologies (1)
Most Conservatives are inclined to have a negative view of human nature, and believe that human beings are fallible and will never be perfect. For this reason, there need to be rules to keep people in order; chaos would result otherwise. This outlook has influenced the fact that Conservatives traditionally take a strong and ‘tough’ position on law and order.
Conservatives, as the name suggests, believe in the value of ‘conserving’ traditions and are sceptical about making changes unless there is a very strong reason to.
For the most part, Conservatives believe that inequalities in society have always and will always exist, namely because people have different talents and abilities.
Private property has always been an important principle to Conservatives. They believe in a capitalist system that allows people the opportunity to accumulate possessions. On this premise, they also argue thatthey can never feel secure or happy with their property if the government is likely to use taxation or even confiscation to take their property away. In other words, Conservatives do not believe that government or state intervention should be restricted.
Conservative Ideologies (2)
Most Conservatives oppose redistributive taxation (this is a system where aims to decrease the gap between rich and poor by making rich people pay a much higher rate of tax than poorer people, so that money can be more equally shared out among citizens).
However, many one nation Conservatives readily accept that the rich should pay more in tax than the poor; not in order to create more equality, but simply because the rich have a duty to look after people who are poor through no fault of their own.
Even though they do not support equality of outcome, Conservatives have increasingly stressed their commitment to equality of opportunity. This means that it doesn’t matter if people end up with different amounts of money, as long as everyone has been given the same chances to succeed.
In terms of foreign policy, the Conservatives were traditionally viewed as ‘the party of Empire’ and are usually linked to patriotism and expanding British influence abroad.
One Nation Conservatism
One Nation’ Tories think that people who are badly off because of things they can’t control; someone who has a disabling accident or is genuinely unable to find a job, for example, should receive help from the state. They also often think that the rich should pay a higher rate of tax to help fund decent hospitals and free education for all.
Conservatives have been accused of being too friendly to rich people and businesses at the expense of the less well off. One-Nation Conservatism (which accepts that the poor must receive help from the state) has helped to balance out this pro-business image, although it accepts that there will always be social inequalities.
New Right (1)
In the 1970s, new ideas began to emerge about what the relationship between government and citizens should be. Some Conservatives felt that the welfare state encouraged people to be lazy and over-dependent on the state. They also criticised the economic policies of both Conservative and Labour governments in particular:
A focus on cutting unemployment. The New Right argued that the government should not try to cut employment by spending more money on things like state welfare. Instead, it should keep inflation low and encourage business; this would create jobs in the long run.
Nationalisation. The government owned several important industries including the electricity and phone companies and many of these industries were performing badly: The New Right argued that the government should sell (or privatise) these industries off to people that could do a better job of running them.
New Right (2)
The New Right have stressed the importance of competition and business, arguing that if the government simply allowed the markets to operate freely, without introducing too many taxes and regulations, then the economy would grow of its own accord. This is known as laissez-faire (‘leave alone’) economics. Like most Conservatives, the New Right believes in strong law and order, with limited focus on the reasons why people commit crime.
New Right (2)
The New Right have stressed the importance of competition and business, arguing that if the government simply allowed the markets to operate freely, without introducing too many taxes and regulations, then the economy would grow of its own accord. This is known as laissez-faire (‘leave alone’) economics. Like most Conservatives, the New Right believes in strong law and order, with limited focus on the reasons why people commit crime.
Reactionaries And Libertarians
On one hand, the ‘reactionaries’ want to preserve traditional ways of living, for example, by opposing the legalisation of homosexuality, women’s liberation and in more recent years, gay marriage. Reactionaries usually support very tough sentencing for criminals and oppose immigration.
On the other hand, the Conservative Party also has a ‘libertarian’ wing: MPs who believe in having as few rules as possible, and which I linked to their view of having a reduced or smaller state. Some even advocate the legalisation of drugs, because they believe people should be free to make their own choices. To libertarians, the main tasks for a government are to a) prevent and punish crimes and b) to protect the country against outside attack. Apart from that, libertarians argue that the government should stay out of people’s lives and has no right to take a lot of their money away in taxes.
Winston Churchill, 1940-45, 1951-55
Britain’s wartime leader is still widely revered for his inspiring leadership. He held some reactionary views: for example, he opposed allowing India to become independent from the British Empire. Immediately after the war, an election was held which Churchill’s party unexpectedly lost. He returned to power in 1951 but was troubled by ill health and stood down in 1955.
Anthony Eden, 1955-57
Eden had been a popular Foreign Secretary during the War. Shortly after becoming PM, a crisis occurred when Egypt demanded ownership of the British-controlled Suez Canal. Fighting ensued, but it became clear that Britain was not the military force it once was and Eden later resigned.
Harold MacMillan, 1957-63
A ‘One-Nation’ Conservative, Macmillan supported the welfare state and believed that the government had a right to intervene in the economy where necessary. He was known as ‘Supermac’, partly because of the rising prosperity that occurred while he was in Downing Street.
Alec Douglas-Home, 1963-4
Following Macmillan’s resignation due to ill health, Douglas-Home gave up his seat in the House of Lords so that he could become an MP (it is a Parliamentary convention that the PM should sit in the Commons). Another ‘One-Nation’ Conservative, Douglas-Home was not an inspiring leader and lost the 1964 election.
Edward Heath, 1970-74
Heath represented a new generation in the Conservative Party. Unlike previous Conservative leaders, Heath was not from an aristocratic background. During his premiership, trade unions led frequent strikes to demand better pay and sectarian trouble flared up in Northern Ireland. He also led Britain into the European Community in 1973.
Margaret Thatcher, 1979-90
Thatcher represented a break with the ‘One-Nation’ Conservative leaders of the past. Her government sold off state-owned industries (privatisation) and did not try to save failing industries, even though this created a lot of unemployment, particularly in the North of England and in South Wales where many coalmines were shut down. Thatcher aligned herself with the emerging ‘New Right’ version of Conservatism.
Despite this radically new approach to the economy, Margaret Thatcher was socially conservative and believed in the importance of strong families and law and order. Thatcher also believed that Britain needed to regain its reputation for strength abroad and when the British-owned Falkland Islands near South America were invaded by Argentina in 1982, Thatcher ordered a successful military operation to free the islanders. In 1988, Thatcher introduced the poll tax: a new way of collecting money for local government, which meant everybody had to pay the same rate, regardless of how much money they had. The unpopularity of this policy caused riots and Thatcher stood down (reluctantly due to pressure from her own MPs) in 1990, though she had never been defeated in a general election.
John Major, 1990-97
Whereas Thatcher had been very determined and forceful with her Cabinet colleagues, John Major tried to be consensual and involved as many people as possible in decision-making. However, his premiership seemed to lack a clear identity and direction after the ideology of the Thatcher years. It was also troubled by splits within the party about membership of the European Union and by a string of revelations in the press about sexual and financial scandals among Conservative MPs. These scandals became known as ‘sleaze’ and in 1997 they led to the party’s biggest electoral defeat (known as a ‘landslide’) in modern times. Following this defeat, the Conservatives were reduced to their lowest number of MPs since 1906.
David Cameron, 2010- 2016
David Cameron (above) became Prime Minister in 2010 after thirteen years of Labour in power, though he entered Parliament as the MP for Whitney in 2001 and during this time, he held a range of political positions on the opposition’s front bench. He came to power at the head of a historic Conservative and Liberal Democratic coalition, which was chiefly characterised by the (often uneasy) working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg. This seemed to indicate he would lead a more moderate version of Conservatism, although commentators have found it difficult to categorise his type of Conservatism. He seemed to support free-market economic principles but showed greater awareness of social issues.
He won a narrow parliamentary majority for the Conservatives at the 2015 General Election, which was the first time the Conservatives had won a majority since 1992. However, his premiership ended abruptly when he resigned following the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which resulted in narrow ‘leave’ vote despite Cameron campaigning for ‘remain’.
The Post War Consensus And Thatcherism
The ‘post-war consensus’ was a general agreement between the Conservative and Labour parties about how the country should be run. Both parties believed in:
- A mixed economy. This meant that the economy was a mixture of private businesses and publicly owned (nationalised) industries that the government controlled.
- Keynesian economics. Invented by a British economist called John Maynard Keynes, the Keynesian approach to economics states that when there is an economic downturn, the government should start to spend more money because this will stimulate the rest of the economy. This policy aimed to ensure that unemployment remained low, even during recessions.
- The Welfare State. This means the parts of the state that are there to help people; for example, the NHS and unemployment and sickness benefits. Most of the Welfare State was set up by the 1945-51 Labour government, although in 1947 the Conservatives published their ‘Industrial Charter’ that promised not to re-privatise the industries that Labour had nationalised.
Because both of the parties agreed with these policies, there were no sharp and sudden changes in UK economic policy when different parties formed governments.
1970s Erosion Of Consensus
However, by the 1970s, cracks were appearing in the post-war ‘years of consensus’. Trade unions were increasingly willing to go on strike. They demanded that the government paid workers in the nationalised industries more money. This started to place a strain on the economy.
Inflation began to rise sharply. This meant that prices rose and that money was worth less than it had been. Oil prices also rose in the 1970s, and the UK found itself in real financial difficulty. Eventually, the British government had to ask the International Monetary Fund (the IMF, a kind of bank for governments) for a loan in 976. The IMF opposed Keynesian economics and the government had to agree to cut public spending as a condition for receiving the loan. This development was viewed as national humiliation for Britain, and particularly for the Labour government of the day headed by James Callaghan.
Thatcher Policies (1)
Her policies included:
- Monetarism – this replaced Keynesian economics. Monetarism is the idea that if you restrict the supply or circulation of money, by printing fewer bank notes, then it will keep its value and prices will remain stable (and inflation will be lower). This will encourage the economy to grow of its own accord.
- Privatisation – this replaced nationalisation. Conservative MP Keith Joseph was instrumental in persuaded Thatcher that government-owned industries would provide people with a better service if they were sold off to private investors and businesses who knew more than the government did about running such industries. British Telecom, the electricity and water suppliers and the coalmines were all privatised. At the time this was a popular policy because many of the nationalised industries were poorly run and offered a poor service/value for customers. Few of them made a profit for the taxpayer and many were actually costing the government money. Privatisation gave many people the opportunity to buy shares in the industries that were sold and make a profit.
Thatcher Policies (2)
- Confrontation with Unions – Thatcher believed that trade unions were dangerously out of control. She believed that by holding strikes to demand more pay, the unions were holding the economy to ransom, damaging business and creating social unrest. Laws were therefore passed that restricted the right to strike.
- Reductions in welfare spending. In real terms, the decade for which Thatcher was PM saw a decrease in spending on benefits and the NHS, although not as much as she had hoped to due to the historically high numbers of unemployed, which peaked at over 3 million.
- Right-to-buy council houses. The government owned a large number of houses that it rented out to people, known as council houses. Thatcher wanted to let the tenants buy these houses from the government. For the first time, families on moderate incomes could buy their own homes via a generous ‘right to buy policy’ subsidised by the government. Thatcher believed that home-ownership gave people a real stake in society, helping to create a more ‘individualised’ ethos and approach across society.
Abroad, Thatcher believed that Britain needed to be strong. She increasingly became sceptical about the growing power of the European Community and successfully negotiated for Britain to receive a rebate on some of the money that it paid into EU.
Legacy Of Thatcherism
Later Prime Ministers all essentially agree with Thatcher that:
- The UK should be active and strong abroad.
- Market forces are more important than government spending for creating a strong economy.
- Labour politicians Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have also followed the Conservative Thatcher’s forceful style of leadership.
Before he became PM, Tony Blair made it clear that he would not seek to reverse the economic policy changes that had been introduced in the 1980s, and he spoke of his admiration for Thatcher, despite the fact that she was from the opposing party and had angered many Labour supporters with her policies. In return, Thatcher was recorded as saying that Blair “will not let this country down” if he was elected, and also that the emergence of ‘New Labour’ was her greatest achievement (suggesting that Labour had to make major policy compromises).
In 1923, Tory MPs who were not part of the party leadership, i.e. backbenchers, set up a group where they could discuss politics and pass their views on to the party Leader. This group was named the 1922 Committee and all backbench conservatives are members of it, and its name derives from the rebellion of Conservative MPs in 1922 which ended the coalition with the Liberal Party. The chairmanship of the committee is a coveted role for MPs and it has some influence, and party leaders are advised to stay on good terms with its key members. However, it has no official powers within the party and the Leader is not obliged to take on board its recommendations or attend its meetings.
The Conservative Party has a National Conservative Convention (NCC) to explore policy options. It is made up mainly of party members from the local associations. But the NCC has a low profile within the party and can only make recommendations. Real power to make policy lies with the leader.
At the party’s annual get together in the autumn(called ‘annual conference’) the party members who attend are not given an opportunity to help decide policies.
Although the leader has a free hand to decide policy, he or she must take into account the feelings of the party members and MPs. If the leader chooses a policy that the rest of the party cannot accept, then it may cause arguments and divisions within the part and perhaps eventually trigger a no-confidence vote.
Process Of Selecting Candidates To Be MPs
Ahead of every election, each constituency party must choose someone to be its Conservative candidate. CCHQ receives hundreds of applications from would-be MPs and produces a list of ‘approved candidates’. With their name on this list, candidates can apply to as many local parties as they wish. After interviewing the candidates, the local parties choose one person.
- The A list. People whose name is put on the ‘approved candidates list’ might also be added to the A list. These are the people who CCHQ would most like to see chosen for a winnable seat. However, local parties are under no obligation to choose someone from the A list and many have ignored it. This has partly been because local associations enjoy being able to choose who will have a chance to become an MP and do not wish CCHQ to take this power away from them. In fact, this sometimes leads to confrontation.
- Primaries. To generate local interest in the Conservatives, some local parties have held ‘open primaries’ to choose a candidate. This is a public meeting where anyone can come along, listen to speeches from the would-be candidates and then vote for whoever has most impressed.
Labour Ideology (1)
Labour’s ideology has always owed a lot to the political ideology known as socialism. Socialism is based on the following beliefs:
- Governments exist to make a fairer and better society.
- Human nature is positive and co-operative, bit it is distorted by the harsh conditions of capitalism which turn people against each other.
- The economic structure of society is the root of most of society’s problems because the ‘means of production’ (that is, the factories and specialist tools needed to manufacture goods) were all owned by a small wealthy group, whom socialists call ‘capitalists’. Owning the means of production made the capitalists too powerful. They could sack any employee who criticised them. Capitalists did not have to do the hard work in the factories but nevertheless had much more money than the workers.
Labour Ideology (2)
- In terms of foreign policy, Labour has traditionally had a strong pacifist streak that has opposed ‘capitalist’ wars and the development of nuclear weapons. This has seen the party often split over foreign affairs, with some Labour politicians resigning on the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Other such episodes included many of the party’s members supporting CND and campaigning against nuclear weapons after 1945, the Labour government of the 1960s refusing to support the USA in the Vietnam War, and 139 Labour MPs voting against Tony Blair’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
- Many within the Labour Party traditionally opposed Britain’s membership of the EU due to viewing it as a pro-capitalist business organisation (although this view changed and by the late 20th century most of the party was pro-EU due to the perceived social benefits involved).
The vast majority of Labour supporters have always held more moderate socialist views; they are known as social democrats. They believe that while the government should own some of the important industries, there is also a large place for private business. They also believe that some inequality is inevitable in society and, as long as people are not kept in poverty, this is acceptable.
As soon as the Second World War finished, preparations were made for an election. To the surprise of many, wartime hero Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party were badly defeated by Clement Attlee (above), and the Labour Party.
Attlee’s government reshaped Britain:
- Nationalisation. The Bank of England, coalmines, railways, gas and electricity supplies were all nationalised (i.e. taken under government control/ownership). Attlee’s government passed laws that compelled the owners to sell these to the government.
- The Welfare State was created. In civil servant called William Beveridge wrote a report (The Beveridge Report) that called for ‘cradle to grave’ healthcare for everyone, good quality free education for all and protection for the sick and unemployed. None of these things existed in a well-developed form up until then (although old age pensions were not new). The recommendations were put into place by the Attlee government with the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 and increased spending on education and welfare. Together, these services are known as the ‘welfare state’.
The Wilderness Years
The 1979 defeat was a disaster for Labour. They were convincingly defeated following trade union unrest that caused the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978/79, which Callaghan’s government was largely blamed for. Labour was not back in government for another 18 years; these are often called Labour’s ‘wilderness years’. They seemed to have lost touch with the aspirations and beliefs of ordinary voters. The worst moment came in 1983. Under a new leader, Michael Foot, the party’s election manifesto for the 1983 election was dubbed by one Labour MP as ‘the longest suicide note in history’: namely because the policies it contained were seen as too ideological, impractical and unrealistic.
Labour suffered another disaster during the 1980s. A group of very left-wing activists called Militant Tendency started secretly joining local Labour party branches with the intention of taking over the party from within and imposing its policies. Foot’s successor as leader, Neil Kinnock, had to struggle hard to prevent Militant Tendency and the left wing of his party from taking over and making the party essentially unelectable.
Labour’s Return To Power
After his second (if improved) general election defeat, Neil Kinnock was replaced by the experienced John Smith in 1992. However, Smith died suddenly in 1994 and was succeeded as party leader by Tony Blair (above). Blair was only 41 at the time and represented a ‘younger generation’ of Labour politicians and he appeared to be more ‘electable’ than previous leaders.
He marked a break with the past for the party; and he acted as a ’moderniser’ who updated the party’s image and brought Labour policy closer to the Conservatives in economic ideology and accepting Thatcher’s reforms. Blair persuaded the party to abandon Clause 4 from its rulebook, which stated that nationalisation was Labour policy. Desperate to win power again, Labour members accepted Blair’s claim that Clause 4 had to go and this was seen as a crucial moment in making Labour electable again.
Consequently, in 1997 the party won a ‘landslide’ election. It then went on to win two further general elections and spent a total of thirteen years in power until 2010- the party’s longest successive time in government
New Labour (1)
When Tony Blair became party leader in 1994, his priority was to get Labour elected again following our successive general election defeats. As we’ve seen, he abandoned many of the policies that the left-wingers believed in and accepted Thatcherite economic policies. He also rebranded the party as ‘New’ Labour to show the public that the party had changed since the dark days of the 1980s.
Officially, the Labour Party’s name did not change and New Labour came to refer to the relatively small group of younger MPs who agreed with the new direction Blair was taking the party in. New Labour ideology holds that:
- Market forces (i.e. the private sector) are a tool that can be used alongside the state to achieve better public services. For example, if parents are allowed to apply to whichever school they want, then schools will have to compete with each other for ‘business’. This competition will encourage schools to improve their standards.
- Keeping taxes low is just as important as redistributing wealth, because if taxes are low, then the economy will expand to the benefit of everyone.
- The private sector, with its expertise and the money it must invest, should be as involved as possible in all government projects.
New Labour (2)
- The need to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the cause of crime’- which emphasises the need to deal harshly with criminals while also tackling the social roots and factors that pull people into criminal activity.
- In foreign policy, a more interventionist approach than past Labour governments- seeking to expand liberal democracy against undemocratic dictatorships (e.g. Iraq), while also being far more pro-EU.
- New Labour aimed to reach out not just to the working class, but also to the middle class that was worried that Labour might be a high-tax government. This ‘even-handed’ approach which Blair claimed went beyond the old ‘left-right divides’ was referred to as ‘The Third Way’ (which was a term originally coined by the British academic/sociologist, Anthony Giddens).
Blair also spoke of representing the ‘radical centre’- a phrase which challenged conventional views of the political spectrum; and he continually sought to reassure thee middle-class (Middle England) voters. This sometimes annoyed his own party members and traditional Labour supporters, who felt he was abandoning them.
New Labour In Power (1)
During the 1997 general election, Labour activists distributed thousands of ‘pledge cards’ with five promises of what Labour would do if it won the election. Let’s look at them in turn:
- Reduce school class sizes, with no class to have more than 30 children by 2001.This was largely achieved and, by 2001, only 0.2% of classes were larger than this.
- Cut NHS waiting lists. This was also largely achieved. Typical waiting months were around 18 months when Blair took office. This time was reduced by more than a third, although many commentators believe the strict targets and huge number of rules that Labour introduced for hospitals have arguably made life harder for doctors and nurses.
- A quarter of a million young people trained for employment through the ‘New Deal’ programme. The aim of this was to reduce the cost of unemployment benefits by helping more people to find work. The New Deal did manage to reach a quarter of a million young people and many of them did find jobs afterwards, but whether rising employment was caused by the New Deal or the economic boom that Europe and America were enjoying at the time is a matter of opinion.
New labour in power (2)
- Tight government spending. Blair promised that the government would not allow national debt to equal more than 40% of government spending. This was achieved and became the cornerstone or ‘golden rule’ of Labour’s new reputation for economic competence; a reputation that no Labour government had really achieved before. Labour could no longer be characterised by its critics as a wasteful ‘tax and spend’ party. Middle class people who had mistrusted Labour were re-assured by Blair’s commitment to stick with Tory spending plans for the first two years of his government.
- Reducing youth offender remand time. Labour were concerned that young people accused of crimes were being locked up for far too long while they awaited trial. They succeeded in streamlining and speeding up the youth court system. This was particularly popular with left-wingers concerned that young people were being inhumanely treated by the justice system, and reflected Blair’s comments that Labour would be both “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.
Structure Of The Labour Party (1)
The main central administrative body is the National Executive Committee (NEC). Its members are drawn from trade unions, socialist societies like the Fabians, Labour councillors from local government and from the government (including the party’s leader and deputy leader).
Until the 1990s, the NEC had an important role in helping to formulate party policy, but tensions between it and the party leadership were frequent. For example, in 1960, the NEC called for nuclear disarmament (i.e., for the UK to get rid of its nuclear weapons). The leadership felt that this policy would harm the UK’s national defence and succeeded in reversing this NEC policy in 1964.To avoid such tensions and public intra-party disputes, Tony Blair weakened the powers of the NEC by changing the way it created policy.
Therefore, a National Policy Forum (NPF) was set up under his leadership. It has around 180 members, mainly drawn from the local party branch members and elected Labour officials. After considering policy options, it makes recommendations for the NEC to vote on. The whole process of recommending and voting on policy takes around two years; plenty of time for the leadership to try and intervene if they are unhappy.
Structure of the Labour Party (2)
The reality is that no Labour government, made up of MPs, is willing to allow policy decisions to be made by the NEC. If there is a clash between what the Leadership want and what the NEC vote for, then the government can effectively ignore NEC recommendations, as the Blair government did on several occasions.
As a result, the annual party conference, which used to be a place where decisions were genuinely made by the whole party, have now really become rallies where no decisions are taken. To some, this shows that the party has become less democratic and is ignoring its own members. Others point out that the NEC often used to make unrealistic policy decisions that hurt Labour’s standing with voters and prevented the party from winning elections.
Electing The Leader And Deputy Leader
When a vacancy arises for the leadership, party rules used to state that any MP who wanted to become leader must get at least 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (i.e., the Labour MPs) to support them. Under these old rules (pre-2015), if an MP wants to challenge the current leader, then they must secure the support of 20% of their fellow MPs whether or not the party is in government. This is to discourage ambitious MPs from causing unnecessary leadership crises. Under this previous system, the leader was then voted for by Labour Party members, all Labour MPs and MEPs and trade union members.
Before the 1990s, trade union leaders voted on behalf of their members, but this was seen as giving them too much power and a system called ‘One Member, One Vote’ was introduced in the early 1990s which gave individual trade union members the right to vote for themselves.
The Liberal Democrat Party
Until the 1930s, the Liberal Party was the main opposition to the Conservatives. However, as the Labour Party grew and Britain became a more class-based society, the Liberal vote collapsed and they became the ‘third party’ of UK politics. Throughout the years in between the Second World War and the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Liberals usually only got around 10% of votes in General Elections, and at times it was lower than that.
In 1988, this small and struggling party decided to join together with the SDP, a party formed in 1981 by disillusioned former Labour MPs. With the merger came a new name: the Liberal Democrats. Paddy Ashdown, a popular former SAS soldier, became the party’s first leader and enthusiastically set about improving the party’s electoral fortunes.
As we have seen in the topic on voting systems, the Liberal Democrats are unfairly penalized and treated by the UK’s FPTP voting system, because the share of seats they receive is much lower than the share of votes they win. For this reason, electoral reform and proportional representation have always been very important policies for the Liberal Democrats.
Liberals prioritise human freedom and liberty, believe that humans are essentially decent and can improve themselves, although they also tend to do whatever they think is in their own personal best interest.
Liberals believe that everyone must decide for themselves how to live their lives. As long as they are not harming other people, they should be left alone by the government as much as possible. It is a foundational principle of liberalism that everyone is equally important and valuable, and so no person’s opinion should be forced on anyone else. Tolerance of other people is therefore the one of the most important virtues for liberals; we must accept other people’s lifestyle choices (though not to the extent of condoning criminality) and in turn, they should accept ours.
For this reason, ‘classical liberals’ in particular believe that the government needs to be strictly limited. People should have rights and freedoms which the government should never interfere with for any reason. Most Liberals support a more federalised system where power is shared out between different layers of national and local government to prevent any one person becoming too powerful.
Liberals have also traditionally supported free trade, which means that they feel the government should not interfere with business unless necessary. Like most Conservatives, many liberals believe the economy will work best if is left largely alone by government. They are also internationalists, believing that nations should co-operate via various formal agreements as much as possible. On this basis, the Liberal Democrats have consistently been the most pro-European of all the main UK parties.
New Or Modern Liberalism
Traditional or classical liberalism emphasised that people should be left alone to get on with their lives, avoiding interference by the government and an ability to express individualism (‘freedom to’). However, by the end of the nineteenth century, some ‘Modern Liberals’ started to argue that people also needed ‘freedom from’ poverty and ignorance if they were to be truly happy and content.
Clearly then, there are two schools of thought in liberalism. One wishes to see very little government action, while the other believes that governments must get involved in the creation of a decent society for everyone.
Policies supported by liberals (1)
- Opposition to ID cards and other forms of government surveillance. Liberal Democrats believe that such measures are an infringement of civil liberties and give the government too much power to snoop into citizens’ lives.
- A written constitution with a bill of rights. The party believes that people’s rights would be better protected if they were written down. A written/codified constitution would also place limits on what the government could do.
- Reform of the electoral system. In keeping with their support of constitutional reform, they believe that the FPTP Westminster electoral system is disproportional and requires changing to make it fairer. They supported the unsuccessful 2011 referendum on electoral reform, and they have supported electoral reform as introduced in various UK devolved assemblies over recent years.
- Localism. The Liberal Democrats supported devolution because it took power away from the central government and shared it out to other institutions.
Policies supported by liberals (2)
- Targeted government help for the low paid- this was evident in their policies during the coalition government including the pupil premium for schoolchildren, and raising the level of tax-free earnings for those on low incomes.
- Support of the European Union (EU) and pacifism. As committed internationalists, the Liberal Democrats have supported British membership of the EU more enthusiastically and in a more united way than any other UK political party. Like Labour, they have an internationalist, pacifist streak in terms of foreign policy, and the party fiercely opposed the 2003 Iraq War.
Reflecting the liberal desire to avoid being concentrated in any one place, the Liberal Democrats have a decentralised, federal structure. As well as party HQ, there are Welsh, Scottish and English party organisations which decide on policies for their own areas. This means the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh and Scottish devolved institutions are free to decide their own plans.
Above these regional parties is the Federal Conference. This is a twice-yearly meeting to decide party policy. Suggestions for new policies are made by the local party organisations and a body called the Federal Policy Committee.
The FPC is fairly powerful: it is made up of the party leader (currently as of 2015 onwards, Tim Farron), MPs, MEPs and councillors, along with Welsh and Scottish politicians. A few members of the FPC are also elected directly by the local party groups. Its recommendations become official party policy. In reality, however, the party leader and MPs have a high degree of control of the FPC and it rarely makes policies that the leadership opposes.
Candidates to become party leader need to be nominated and seconded by two fellow MPs, and also need the signatures of 200 party members from at least 20 local parties.
To challenge a sitting leader, an MP must get the backing of 50% of MPs and from 75 local parties in order to trigger an election; this is quite an undertaking! Before his resignation in 2006, party leader Charles Kennedy was widely known to have an alcohol problem and many MPs wanted him to step down. However, the high hurdle to try and unseat a sitting leader meant that they had to wait for Kennedy to step down of his own accord, when journalists warned him that his drinking problem was about to be exposed on television.
The party also automatically holds a leadership election two years after a general election. But as long as the leader is fairly popular, no challenger usually emerges. In leadership elections, every Liberal Democrat member is given a vote and they use single transferable vote (the proportional system that the Liberal Democrats want for Commons elections).
Other Minor Parties
The three largest parties dominate the Houses of Parliament, but there are also a number of smaller parties represented. They are too small to realistically expect to form a government in Westminster. Indeed, many of them do not stand candidates in enough constituencies for it to be even possible for them to form a government.
Instead, they seek to increase their influence over the government. For example, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (which means ‘the Party of Wales’) want greater independence for Scotland and Wales respectively; UKIP would like the UK to pull out of the European Union; and the Christian People’s Alliance promotes what it sees as ‘Christian values’ in politics. For these parties, winning elections helps them to show the level of support they have for their policies, which encourages the government to pay attention to them.
Apart from in the devolved institutions, none of these parties have been a part of the government. It would be more accurate to say that these parties are seeking political office, and the legitimacy, publicity and influence that this gives, rather than actively hoping to join the Westminster government.
Scottish National Party (SNP)
The SNP’s members are united in their desire to see Scotland gain more, or total, independence from the rest of the UK. They do not wish important decisions affecting their lives to be made by a Parliament hundreds of miles away in southeast England.
The party ultimately wishes to reverse the 1707 Act of Union that joined Scotland to England, because it feels Scotland would be better off alone. Scotland had a long history as an independent nation before the Union and its legal and political traditions are still different from the rest of the UK – and this formed the ideological background to the 2014 referendum.
Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru (‘The Party of Wales’) did not have any MPs until the 1970 election. Plaid has never had more than 4 MPs in Westminster (out of around 40 seats in Wales) and their highest share of the vote in a general election was in 2001, when 14.3% of Welsh voters supported the party.
Plaid Cymru want Wales to have greater independence from the rest of the UK and to protect the strong linguistic and cultural traditions of Wales. In parallel to the SNP, devolution provided a new platform for the party to flourish and eventually join the government. Plaid has always been the second biggest party in the Welsh Assembly. This is partly because the Conservatives are very unpopular in large parts of Wales (particularly the industrial south), largely due to the effects of Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms during the 1980s. As a result, it has been Plaid that has become the main alternative to Labour in the Assembly, and not the Conservatives as the case is in Westminster.
The Green Party
As the name suggests, the Green Party campaign for policies that do not harm the environment. They are seen as a left-wing party, partly because many of their policies would involve much greater government regulation of business and industry. The Greens were formed in the 1970s due to the growing awareness of climate change and the degradation of the environment, but the party has never performed very strongly in UK elections, though as with all smaller parties, this is largely the fault of the FPTP electoral system at Westminster, which, as we know, strongly disfavours small parties which have broad national support without a strong regional allegiance or concentration of votes.
However, the Greens have both MEPs and number of local councillors. In the most recent General Election, in May 2015, Caroline Lucas, was re-elected as the party’s first and only MP. In 2010, she had made election history by becoming the first Green to be elected to the House of Commons in the constituency of Brighton Pavilion.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
The party has made steady progress however at recent General Elections in terms of national share of the vote. In 2005 it came fourth overall with 2.2% of the vote, but by 2010 this had increased to 3.1%. By 2015 however, this figure had quadrupled to 12.6%, with the party now in third place in share of the vote. However, the FPTP system punished UKIP as it does most smaller parties.
However, there are several UKIP MEPs and in the 2014 European Elections, UKIP gained a great deal in terms of voter popularity with 27.5% of the vote and 24 MEPs elected (winning the national vote, albeit on a lower that usual turnout). This has led to some commentators to comment on what is behind the rise and recent success of UKIP; to many, the reason lies in the fact that they seem to capture many people’s feelings of discontent about politics and disillusionment with the EU. They secured arguably their biggest ever political victory by driving the campaign to leave the EU; which culminated in the 2016 referendum vote for ‘Brexit’.
An independent MP is a person who is elected to Parliament without being a member of an established political party. In previous centuries, independent MPs were quite common: many of them were successful or prominent local men who relied on their good reputation in a constituency to win a seat. In Parliament, independent MPs do not have whips to worry about and can vote as they see fit on each issue as it arises; sometimes known as ‘voting with their conscience’. This is a luxury not available to MPs who belong to a party.
In the first election after World War Two, more than twenty independent MPs were elected, but this level steadily fell over the next few decades as the two largest parties in particular increased their dominance of the political system. However in the 2005 General Election, a significant three independents won seats:
- George Galloway
- Peter Law
- Richard Taylor
What Did These Three Independent MPs Have In Commo
Although none of the above three examples are still MPs as of the 2015 General Election, they were significant in that they reflected the revival of independent candidates being elected as MPs (after a long period when such candidates had struggled to be elected). Each was part of larger local movements: for Galloway, the anti-war movement; for Law, the dissatisfaction with the Labour government in working-class South Wales; and for Taylor, the Kidderminster Hospital campaign. All of these movements were a reaction against the Labour government of 1997-2010.
This suggests that these independent MPs owed at least some of their success to the tension and frustration felt by Labour voters who felt the government had let them down. So it would be difficult to argue that any of these independent MPs have been elected purely on the basis of their personal appeal and local popularity.
As of 2015 onwards, there is only one real independent MP in the House of Commons- Independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon. However, recent electoral patterns indicted they could certainly make a comeback at future elections.
The man in the white suit…
The British Nationalist Party (BNP)
The BNP, primarily an anti-immigration party, gained some significant support and publicity during the 1990s and early part of the 21st century. The party had links to the National Front (NF), an anti-immigration movement started in the 1970s that gained a reputation for violence against non-white people in Britain. The BNP opposes gay rights and has an extreme right wing view of law and order, calling for longer sentences for criminals.
Griffin the party leader also took advantage of a rising anxiety about Islam in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and indeed has been put on trial for spreading Islamophobia (he was found not guilty). While Labour was in power up to 2010, the BNP started winning seats in council elections and even saw a candidate elected for the London Assembly election 2008. At its peak, it had over 50 elected local councillors.
Membership Of Parties (1)
As we have seen, parties are more than just their MPs, MEPs, devolved representatives and councillors. There are also hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who pay a small yearly subscription to be a member of a political party. They will all become members of a particular branch, usually the branch corresponding to the constituency where they live.
Members are entitled to:
- Attend meetings of the local party and take part in discussions
- Take part in party leadership elections, as well as selecting candidates for standing for election to public office
- Attend the party’s annual conference
- While members are free to speak their minds on party policy, all of the three parties have procedures to throw out members who somehow bring the party into disrepute. A party member who in some way supported a candidate from another party, for example, would be fairly certain to be thrown out.
Membership Of Parties (2)
For many members, party membership is an important part of their lives. Many of their friends may be fellow party members, and local parties usually hold a lot of social events. Local meetings are also a good forum for those who enjoy discussing politics and current affairs.
As well as paying their subscription fees, party members provide vital help to the party around election time.
The tasks they will perform include:
- Delivering party leaflets through letterboxes
- Knocking on doors to ‘canvass’ voters, i.e., ask them to support their party
- Help to maintain the party’s database of supporters
- Drive elderly or housebound party supporters to the polling stations on Election Day, to ensure that they maximise their vote.
So why has party membership fallen? (1)
- More people than ever are not supporting the main parties at election time. In 1970, for example, 11% of voters choose a party other than Labour or the Conservatives. This proportion had risen to 32.5% by the 2005 election, although by 2015 it had fallen back slightly, but was still approximately quarter of all those that voted. If fewer people support the policies of the two biggest parties as demonstrated in their vote share, it should be no surprise that they have fewer members.
- Labour and Liberal Democrat members tend to feel that the party leadership has sidelined them in recent times. This was particularly so urging the Blair government under Labour between 1997- 2007, and the Liberal Democrat period in coalition (2010-15). Focus groups, where ordinary members of the public are questioned about their political views by professional market researchers paid for by the party and media consultants are now seen as more influential in shaping policy than the views of ordinary members.
So why has party membership fallen? (2)
- Both Tony Blair and David Cameron became leaders of parties that were generally mistrusted by the public. They found it useful to sometimes highlight the differences between their own views and their party members’ views as a way of proving that their leadership represented a change with the past. While effective at attracting support from the wider public, these disagreements left some party members unhappy
- Some academics have also argued that the decline in class-based politics (de-alignment) has also been a major factor in the fall in party membership. Parties no longer try to appeal to voters on the basis of their social class, mainly because people no longer tend to see class as important. Before the Second World War, people believed they would stay in the class they were born in until they died, and therefore felt a stronger affinity for their class as part of their identity.
- However increased wealth and job opportunities since the War meant that more people could rise and fall more easily and class labels became less important and traditional boundaries have become blurred. For example, by the 1990s, John Major, a PM from a relatively modest background, declared his belief in “a classless society”.
Consequences Of Declining Party Membership
When parties ‘aggregate’ desires into policies, they must consider everyone’s point of view and, in doing so, members come to understand that there are a wide range of demands being made on the government and that compromise is vital. By contrast, someone who is a member of a single-issue campaign doesn’t need to have contact with people with competing views and priorities. They will be likely to have a less developed understanding of the give-and-take that is a necessary part of politics, and ae often more single-minded in pursuit of on specific policy.
Declining membership also means that the parties are less and less able to rely on the traditional face-to-face methods of campaigning; there are simply less ‘people on the ground’ who will participate, e.g. canvassing, leafleting, etc. At the same time, the parties’ incomes have fallen as subscriptions decline.
In the 1950s and 1960s, parties would try to increase support in two ways.
1) Firstly, their leaders would try to reach the electorate through the media. They would make speeches in Parliament and around the country, publish leaflets and pamphlets and speak with journalists. The aim was to receive favourable coverage in the newspapers and on the television and radio news, in the hope that it would persuade people that their party had the right policies.
2) Secondly, on a local level, party members would knock on doors and hand out leaflets. They would try to persuade undecided voters to vote for their party and would make lists of the addresses of firm supporters, so that they could be reminded to vote on Election Day. This face-to-face type of campaigning, (‘canvassing’), has proved an effective way of getting people to vote for a party.
Marketing’ Politics (1)
This has made the media aspect of campaigning more important than ever. Parties have therefore attempted to counteract the decline of canvassing with new ways of reaching voters:
- Mail shots. Parties collect information about voters and can often buy information and databases from private companies. This information might tell them whether the voter has a family, how much they earn and whether they have been involved in any pressure group campaigns. With this information, the party can design different leaflets and letters to send to people with different priorities. This is a more effective and targeted approach than simply pushing the same leaflet through every single door in a neighbourhood. However, the postage and printing costs make mail shots fairly expensive.
- Telephone canvassing. Phoning voters instead of knocking on their doors is a far more time-efficient process; a phone canvasser may well be able to speak to twice as many people as someone canvassing on foot in the same time. Some have argued that telephone contact is less effective than speaking to a voter in person.
Marketing’ Politics (2)
- The internet. Blogs, gossip websites and viral campaigns have all been used by parties to increase their visibility on the internet. Emails can be sent to thousands of supporters as cheaply as to one, so the cost benefits of internet campaigning are considerable. In recent UK general elections, most notably 2015, social media such as Facebook his been used to great effect to precisely target voters.
Increasingly, the parties are employing professional media experts and advertising gurus to help them design their campaign posters and slogans and decide how to explain their policies in the way more likely to attract votes.
These advisors have often been criticised for making the parties think more about ‘style than substance’ and are nick-named ‘spin doctors’ for the way they try and ‘spin’ facts in a way that puts their party in a favourable light. Some have accused them of ‘dumbing down’ politics and treating it like a commercial product that must be ‘marketed’ like any other consumer purchase. On this premise, voters are viewed like customers who must be convinced to ‘buy’ the product (by voting for it).
Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs)
Unlike the USA, political parties in the UK are not permitted to buy advertising time on television (though advertising on bill boards and in newspapers are allowed). Instead, parties are given a limited amount of free airtime, calculated on the number of candidates they have fielded for an election. These ‘PPBs’, officially called Party Election Broadcasts during election times, are about 5 minutes long and are shown on each of the mainstream terrestrial channels.
A famous PEB was aired ahead of the 1992 election. The Labour opposition’s PEB highlighted the case of Jennifer, a five-year-old who had been waiting a year to have a simple ear operation. The Labour party claimed this showed the NHS was being badly run, but the Conservatives countered that Labour were exploiting the little girl to make a political point. This episode became known as the “Jennifer’s ear” PEB.
Party Funding (1)
The costs of running an election campaign are considerable, running into millions of pounds for a single general election. In between elections, parties need staff to look after party administration and to provide research and other services MPs and other elected officials.
As we’ve seen, subscription fees are in decline. In the 1970s, according to a study by the European Consortium for Political Research, Labour received half of its income directly from members, but by 2005, it was more like 10%. Party membership fees only account for 3.5% of the Conservative Party’s income, the same study found.
The Labour Party used to have an additional source of income: the trade unions. As the party most closely identified with the working classes, Labour had always been closely linked with the trade unions, indeed, trade unionists founded the party, and union leaders have called their Labour donations “the cleanest money in politics”. However, after 1997, Tony Blair’s pro-business policies marked a change in the relationship between the party and the unions. Union leaders were not as frequently invited to Downing Street as they had been under previous Labour PMs and their views were often ignored.
Party Funding (2)
Union donations to Labour have fallen by more than a half since 1999. As a result, this has prompted the parties to look for new sources of income. The Conservatives have always been helped by wealthy individuals who make large cash donations to the party, but more recently the other parties have followed this approach.
For others, however, there is a strong suspicion that they are hoping to get something in return for their money:
- Political favours. If a businessman is attempting to secure a contract from the government, he might feel that making a donation to the ruling party would help him win the contract.
- Honours. Many people would love to have a ‘Sir’ or even a ‘Lord’ in front of their name. These sorts of honours are within a PM’s gift, and although it has been illegal to ‘sell’ honours in this way since the 1920s, many political donors do still end up with a title.
- Power. Businessman Michael Ashcroft (now Lord Ashcroft) has been one of the Conservative Party’s biggest donors since the 1997 election. At his insistence, he was given an office in party Head Office and was in charge of election preparations for marginal seats in both 2005 and 2010.
Is it desirable for the parties to become more and more reliant on a handful of businesspeople that may or may not want something in return for their money?
Most people think not. One proposed solution is for the state to provide money to the parties to carry out their activities. To an extent, this already happens through a system called Short Money. There are also ‘Policy Development Grants’:
These were created by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and are intended to help parties to research policy options. They are only available to parties with two or more MPs.
Reforms To Party Funding
In many ways, the early and mid-1990s was a bad time for the reputation of politics. Newspapers seemed to find evidence of new wrongdoing by MPs every week. Tony Blair promised that these scandals would stop if Labour won power. He promised that New Labour would be “whiter than white” over its party finances.
But within months of the 1997 election, Blair was forced to admit that he had accepted a £1m donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One boss. Formula One was at that time being given exemption on new rules against tobacco advertising and there were naturally suspicions that Ecclestone had ‘bought’ the PM.
A new law was introduced in 2000 to try and prevent similar problems occurring in the future. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act stated that:
- All donations of £5000 must be publicly declared and the donor named (later increased to £7,500). The idea of this is that no secret favours can be done for people, because everyone must declare whether they have made a donation.
- Parties must produce proper accounts.
- Parties can only accept donations over £200 from UK nationals who are on the electoral register.
- Companies can only donate after proper consultation with their board of management.
- Caps are placed on spending in constituencies around election time: £30k per constituency with a total upper limit of £19m (although parties have used various creative ways to get around such rules and spend more).
Loans For Peerages
Just before the 2005 election, it came to light that a number of people who had been nominated for peerages had given the governing Labour Party large sums of money. However, their names did not appear on the register of donors. The reason for this was that the Labour leadership had quietly asked these people to make long-term ‘loans’, rather than donations, to the party, which they did not have to declare.
There was a suspicion that after these people had received their honours, they would have simply cancelled the debt and let the party keep the money; so that it would have been a donation in all but name. The police investigated what seemed to be very underhand way of soliciting cash and Tony Blair became the first sitting PM to be interviewed by the police, although he was never personally investigated for any crime. In the end, no charges were brought, but a great deal of damage had been done to Labour. In 2006, Labour rushed through the Electoral Administration Act that said that from now on all loans must be declared.
Party Systems (1)
The type of voting system is not simply a matter of being fair to smaller parties; proportionality has a major impact on how politics works in a country. In 1978, political analyst Georgio Sartori outlined four different ‘party systems’:
1. Single party system. This is when only one party is legally allowed to exist. There may be elections in such a country, but the contest is only between members of the same party. Such a system is not democratic, as people do not have the freedom to start their own parties. North Korea is an example of a one-party state, as was Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for the majority of its existence between 1917 and 1991.
2. Dominant Party system. This is a state where all parties are allowed to contest elections, so that voters are given a choice, but where only one party ever wins the election. This may be because this one party is genuinely the most popular, but it can also occur because of the voting system. In the UK, during the Conservative government that lasted between 1979 and 1997, commentators began to wonder whether the UK could be classified as a dominant party system; because FPTP meant that the party had enough votes to take more than half of the seats time after time.
Party Systems (2)
3. Two party system. The UK has traditionally been a two party system for most of the last century. In this system, there are a number of parties, but only two ever win a majority and form a government. Like a pendulum, power swings back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives at regular intervals and they are able to form majority, single-party governments. The purest two-party system in the world is the USA, where the Democrats and Republicans dominate elections at every level.
4. Multi-party systems. In multi-party systems, no single party is usually able to win a majority and form a government by itself, and therefore coalitions need to be formed. In multi-party systems, at least three parties will regularly be included in a government coalition. Proportional voting methods produce multi-party systems virtually everywhere where they are used.
Some political commentator has argued that the UK is moving in the direction of a multi-party system, as evident in the rise of smaller parties like UKIP (receiving over 12% of the vote in 2015), and the 2010-15 coalition government involving the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who received almost a quarter of the national vote in 2010).