Political parties in the UK system

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What is a Political Party

A Political party is a group of people that is organized for the purpose of winning government power. 

A faction is a group of like minded politicians, usually formed around a key leader or in support of a set of preferred policies. 

Political parties have three main features:

  • Parties aim to exercise government power by winning political office.
  • Parties typically adopt a broad issue focus, addressing each of the major areas of government policy.
  • Members of political parties are usually united by shared political preferences and a general ideological identity, although these are often loose and broadly defined.
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Functions of Parties

Parties carry out a wide range of functions within the political system. 

Parties have the following functions:

  • Representation
  • Policy formulation
  • Recruitment of leaders
  • Organization of government
  • Participation and mobilization of electorate


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Representation is often seen as the primary function of parties in liberal democracies. Parties link government to the people.

Most UK parties are 'Catch-all parties' as they give in to the masses and follow public opinion to gain support.

However, the effectiveness of parties is ensuring representation has also been questioned. 

  • The electorate is not always well-informed. This mean factors such as a party's image and the leader more prominent.
  • The 'First-Past-The-Post' electoral system means parties may only need 30-40% of the vote to win a general election.
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Policy Formulation

Political parties are one of the key means through which societies set collective goals and formulate public policy. 

Parties create manifestos in the build up to elections to show what they would do if they got into power. 

However, the effectiveness of parties in formulationg policies has also been questioned:

  • As the major parties have, in recent years, distanced themselves from the traditional ideologies, they have become less interested in formulating larger goals for society.
  • In a related development, parties have become more eager to follow public opinion rather than trying to shape it by adopting clear ideological stances.
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Recruitment of leaders

All senior political careers start with the decision to join a political party. As a party member, a budding politician can gain experience of canvassing, debating issues ad helping to run a constituency party.

Parties therefore both recruit and train political leaders of the future.

However, the effectiveness of parties in recruiting and training leaders has also been questioned:

  • As governments are appointed from the ranks of the majority party in the House of Commons, they rely on a relatively small pool of talent.
  • Electioneering and other party activities may be poor training for running a large government department.
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Organization of government

The operation of government relies on parties in many ways. 


  • Help to form governments, meaning that the UK effectively has a system of 'party government'.
  • Give governments a decree of stability and coherence.
  • Facilitate cooperation between the two major branches of governement: Parliament and executive.
  • Provide a source of opposition and criticism, helping to scrutinize governement policy and privide a 'government in waiting'

However, the effectiveness of parties in organizing government has also been questioned.

  • The decline in party unity since the 70s has tended to weaken the majority party's control of the Commons
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Participation and mobilization

Political parties foster participation in two ways.Parties:

  • Provide opportunities to join political parties and help shape party policy.
  • Help to educate and mobilize the electorate through a ranf of activites- meetings, broadcasting etc.

However, the effectiveness of parties in ensuring participation and mobilization has also been questioned.

  • Voters loyalty with a single party has declined. 44% had a strong attachment to a party in the 60s this has decreased to a mere 10% by 2005.
  • Turnout in general elections has fallen showing a lack of interest in politics. 59% in 2001 and 65% in 2010.
  • The membership of parties in the UK has fallen- from over 3 million in the 60s to around 800,000 in the early 2000s
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Who has power within parties

As parties are important channels of communications between government and the people, the location of power within them is of great significance.

The main actors within a political party are:

  • Party leaders
  • Parliamentry parties
  • Members and constituency parties
  • Party backers

Each contribute to the party in different ways with most having a degree of power but the power within a party still lies with the Party leader as it is he/she that pushes policy and is the 'face' of the party.

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The changing party system

Political parties are important not only because of the range of functions they carry out, but also because the relationships between and amongst them are crucial in structuring the way in which the political system works in practice. This is called the party system.

Two-party system: A system dominated by two 'major' parties that have a roughly equal prospect of winning government power. Power alternates reguarly. 

Multiparty system: A system in which more than two parties compete for power. No major parties can therefore create lots of coalitons and minority governments. 

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Parties: ideas and policies

The political spectrum is how parties are catergorized. This ranges from Communism on the far left to Fascism on the far right.

Political parties tend to lean one side or the other but some parties tend to sit in the middle such as the Liberal Democrats.

Labour sit on the left being traditonally socialist but have slowly moved centre-left to attract a wider range of voters.

The Conservatives have similarly shifted their party but from the right to centre-right , once again to attract more votes. 

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Socialism is an ideology that covers beliefs ranging from revolutionary communism to reformist social democracy. The central idea is that people are social creatures who are bound together by a common humanity. 

  • Fraternity- literally,brotherhood
  • Cooperation- a preference for people working together rather than competing with one another
  • Equality- the desire to abolish or reduce class divisions.

Social democracy is an ideological stance that supports a balance of capitalist or market economy with state intervention. 'Humanized' capitalism.

  • A mixed economy- nationalization of the key industries.
  • Economic management- An economy regulated by the Government through spending.
  • Comprehensive social welfare- 'Cradle-to-grave' support all your life.
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New Labour

New Labour is the shift from Labours traditional views by Tony Blair. 

The key differences are:

Old Labour                                                   New Labour

  • Ideological                                                                   Pragmatic
  • Working class                                                              'Big tent' politics
  • Managed economy                                                       Market economy
  • Social justice                                                               Social inclusion
  • Universal benefits                                                        Targeted benefits
  • Cradle-to-grave welfare                                                 Welfare-to-work
  • tradtional constitution                                                   Constitutional reform
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Conservatism is an ideology that is defined by a 'desire to conserve'.

  • Tradtition- Respect for ideas, practices and institutions that have been passed down.
  • Human imperfection- Humans are security-seeking creatures and also moraaly flawed.
  • Hierachy and authority- 'top-down' social organization is natural and beneficial.

One Nation Conservatism is a pragmatic and paternalistic form of conservatism. To avoid the social gap increasing the use of social reform is used to narrow the gap based on the principles of paternalism.

Thatcherism is an ideological agenda that was associated with the ideas and values of Margaret Thatcher. Neoliberalism, free market and self- reliant individualism, and neoconservatism, the call for restoration of order, authority and discipline in society, are the key aspects.

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One nation vs Thatcherism

One Nation Conservatism                          Thatcherism

  • Paternalism                                                                Self-Interest
  • Tradition                                                                      Radicalism
  • Organic society                                                          Rugged individualism
  • Social duty                                                                  Personal advancement
  • Pragmatic intervention                                              Roll back the state
  • 'Middle-way' economics                                           Free-market economics
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