Political Parties revision


2.1 Functions and features of the UK's parties

Political party: a group of people drawn together by an ideology, i.e. a similar set of beliefs. They aim to form governments, whereas pressure groups simply seek to influence governments. Political parties perform the following functions in a respresentative democracy:

  • Representation: parties represent the views of people with certain beliefs, and do so while bringing order to the political system.
  • Participation: to become powerful parties encourage participation, either by voting for them, joining them or funding them. Members can select candidates and leaders.
  • Recruiting office holders: for a few people, membership leads to a more active role in the party, for example they can 'deselect', or reject, MPs in an area if they have failed to live up to expectations.
  • Formulating policy: parties create policies that embody the ideas for which they stand in a manifesto before a general election, setting out their platform, or set of policies, for government.
  • Providing government: the winning party in a general election forms a government and controls the business of parliament. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in the commons.
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2.1 Funding of political parties

MPs' salaries and expenses come from taxes, but, unlike some other countries, parties are not funded by the state. Most of their funds come from subscriptions/membership and donations. Short money: a special state provision supporting the opposition party's activities.

Arguably, dontions often come from wealthy individuals or organisations in return for political influence, such as peerages in the Lords. For example, Tony Blair delayed a ban on tobacco advertising in Formula One after motor-racing boss Bernie Eccelstone donated £1m to Labour ahead of the 1997 GE - Blair returned the money after the scandal.
  To combat this criticism, Blair passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) in 2000. It regulates the funding and spending of political parties, candidates and certain others, and created the Electoral Commission to monitor this. Large donations had to be declared, and party spending was capped at £30,000 per constituency.

But despite this the 'cash-for-peerage' scandal occured in 2006, because several wealthy people who had donated to Labour were nominated for honours in the Lords, due to a loophole in the law that only regulated outright gifts. No charges were brought, but it was later decided that loans would be subject to the same rules as donations.

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2.1 Potential reforms to party funding

Former civil servant Sir Hayden Philips produced a report in 2007 saying that to solve the problem of private donations parties should be funded by the state. At the 2015 GE Labour and the Lib Dems wanted to impose a limit on individual party donations. The Tories in retaliation implemented the 2016 Trade Union Act, where union members had to choose whether to opt in to payments to political levies, targeting Labour.

Arguments for state funding of parties:

  • Parties play an important role in respresentative democracy, so deserve public funding.
  • Public funding would remove disparities in resources availiable to different sized parties.
  • It would curb the possible corrupt influence of private backers on party policy.
  • If the state matched donations by party members, it might encourage participation.

Arguments against state funding of parties:

  • Increased state funding could lead to calls for greater state regulation, possibly reducing parties' independence.
  • It is hard to decide how much support a party should have to qualify for funding.
  • Public funding could isolate parties from the wishes of the voters.
  • Taxpayers would resent compulsory contributions to parties of which they dissaprove.
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2.2 The Conservative Party

One-nation conservatism: Benjamin Disraeli took the party towards this idea in the late-1800s; a paternalistic social policy should be adopted to bridge the gap between rich and poor, with the 'natural leaders' of society acting generously towards the poor, in return for their acceptance of their right to rule.

Thatcherism or New Right: reducing state intervention by cutting taxes so businesses stimulate economic growth through the free market; privatisation to create competition; authoritarian approach to law and order; assertion of British interests abroad.

Cameron was a liberal conservative, aiming to win support beyond the traditional Tory voter core. His moderate views allowed him to come into government under a Lib Dem coalition. However, he was similar to Thatcher in in the following ways:

  • Economic policy - austerity, spending cuts up by 25% in some cases.
  • Welfare policy - Universal Credit was designed to encourage low-earners to find jobs.
  • Law and order - supported tough sentences for crimes, but also keen to have a good rehabilitation system.
  • Foreign policy - strong USA bonds and a pragmatic degree of Euroscepticism.
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2.2 The Labour Party

Labour was founded in 1900 by a group of socialists societies and trade unions, aiming to obtain better living and working conditions for the working class. Clause 4 of their constitution committed them to campaign for the common ownership of the means of productions, i.e. nationalisation, which Attlee's 1945-51 government achieved.
  Labour governments from 1945-79 were social democratic: they aimed not to abolish capitalism but to stop it exploiting the workforce, emphasising the importance of welfare policy to redistribute wealth. This is also known as Old Labour.

Under Tony Blair, New Labour compromised between socialism and free-market capitalism. He focused on: the creation of wealth rather than redistribution; influenced by liberalism, e.g. Human Rights Act 1998 and devolution; the idea that the community should be aware of their responsibilities as well as rights, e.g. ASBOs. His moderate views appealed to a wider range of the electorate.

Ed Miliband wanted to re-establish Labour's reputation as a competant manager of the economy after Gordon Brown's significant public spending during the 2008 financial crash. But he alienated moderates by appearing to be radical, and radicals by actually being moderate, just like Blair. Jeremy Corbyn was a radically left-wing socialist, which appealed to many because of Miliband's defeat as a moderate.

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2.2 The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems are descended from the 17th century opposition to the Tories, the Whigs. The 19th century Liberal Party was formed by middle and working class supporters of social change. The Social Democratic Party formed and alliance with the Liberal Party in 1983 and '87, before merging as one party in 1988, forming the Liberal Democrats. Their key themes are constitutional reform, civil liberties and internationalism.

Classical liberalism: committed to freedom of the indiviudal, believing this is best achieved through minimal state intervention. e.g. free trade, widening the franchise, extension of civil liberties, widening of educational opportunity.

Modern liberalism: believe individuals cannot be truly free because of the inequalities free-market capitalism creates. Freedom requires an active state to enable people to reach their full potential. e.g. National Insurance, old-age pensions.

Nick Clegg was an Orange Book liberal, who supported the free market and classical liberal ideas of how to achieve freedom of the individual, and was leader from 2007-2015. His aim was to position the party in a way as to be able to form a coalition with either of the main parties, which became a reality when they won 57 seats in 2010. The party went along with the Tory's austerity to show themselves as a responsible party of government after the financial crash. They had limited bargaining power, but are associated with policies contrary to its centre-left ideology, so it went from 57 seats to 8 in 2015. Tim Farron then became leader, who was more left-wing and had not been involved in the coalition. They aim to progressively raise the basic income tax threshold; eliminate the budget deficit; raise pensions and extend free childcare; personal freedoms should not be sacrificed to fight crime; emphasis on rehabilitation; very pro-EU.

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2.3 Minor parties - regional

Minor parties have no expectation of being able to form a government, but they influence larger parties into accepting their agenda.

Plaid Cymru is the Welsh Nationalist Party, establish in 1925, and committed to independence for Wales in the EU, and the preservation of the Welsh language and culture. The most seats they have had in Westminster is 4, but they have had large success in the Welsh Assembly.

Scottish National Party (SNP), founded in 1934, is centre-left and has the main purpose of independence from the UK. To keep nationalistic Scottish Labour voters from voting SNP Blair offered devolving powers in his manifesto in 1997, which he acted upon after he won. The SNP formed a minority government in Holyrood, Scottish parliament, in 2007, which became a majority in 2011, and they are still in power. The Westminister government again tried to limit their support with the Scotland Act 2012 which gave their assembly more powers and the Independence Referendum 2014.

They won a landslide victory in 2015, gaining 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the commons. They are anti-austerity, pro-nationalisation, want to reform Universal Credit, and committed to free tuition fees.

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2.3 Minor parties - UKIP, Green and Brexit Party

The UK Independence Party was founded in 1991 and is radically right-wing and populist. Its supporters, traditionally older people with lower educational levels, were attracted to the charismatic previous leader Nigel Farage.
  Main policies: taking back control from the EU; reducing immigration with a points-based skills system; support from grammar schools; scrap 'green taxes' which raise energy bills; increase NHS spending, but migrants and visitors must have private health insurance.

The Green Party started as 'PEOPLE' in 1973, changing to the Ecology Party, before becoming the Green Party in 1985. They won their first seat in 2010 (Caroline Lucas in Brighton), which remained their only seat in 2015 despite winning 1m votes. It is centre-left, pro-EU and wants to reduce social inequality as well as protect the environment.
  Main policies: phase out use of fossil fuel and nuclear power, using renewable solutions instead; end fracking; abolish tuition fees; a wealth tax to fund the creation of jobs; minimum wage should be £10; end gradual privatisation of NHS.

The Brexit Party was founded in January 2019, and rapidly gained popularity as Farage took many UKIP supporters with him when he became leader in March 2019. Its aim is to ensure the UK leaves the EU with no increase to the transition period, with or without a deal. Although it has no seats in Westminster (agreeing not to stand in most Tory seats in 2019), it won 30.5% of the UK's vote in the March 2019 EU parliament election, the most out of any UK party, just months after being formed.

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2.4 Development of a multi-party system

Party system: the way in which parties parties are grouped and structured in a political system. Differents systems found in a liberal democracy are:

  • One-party dominant system - several parties, but only one with a realistic chance of holding power.
  • Two-party system - two parties compete at elections, other have no real chance.
  • Two-and-a-half-party system - mainly two large parties, but they are challenged by the growth of a smaller third party.
  • Multi-party system - many parties compete; coalitions are common.

1945-74 was a period of a two-party system, with Labour and Tories recieving 91% of the vote and 98% of the seats combined on average. There were periods of single-party dominance, of Covservatives 1979-97, and Labour 1997-2010. The two main parties' combined vote share from 1979-2010 fell to 73% on average, and in 2015 35% of votes went to minor parties.

Devolved assemblies use Additional Member System, which is more proportional. There was a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland 1999-2007 and then SNP 2007 onwards, several coalitions in Wales, and Northern Ireland uses Single Transferable Vote.

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2.4 Factors affecting party success

Factors affecting party success:

  • Strength of a party's leadership. Leaders with a clear sense of direction, and those who handle a national crisis well, are more popular amoung voters. This is why Thatcher appealed in 1979 after Callaghan's Labour government had failed to control strikes which halted public services.
  • The extent to which parties are united or divided between different party factions. Divided parties to not perform well. For example, John Major's Tory government lost in 1997 because it was divided on the EU.
  • The role of the media in projecting a particular image of a party. Media comment plays an important role in modern politics. Nick Clegg came off well in TV debates in 2010, which contributed (if in a limited way) to his Lib Dem party's sucecess in denying the Tories enough seats to form a majority.

Reasons for the rising of minor parties: Class de-alignment; partisan de-alignment; rise of nationalism; new electoral systems; increasingly diverse electorate; TV debates; failiures of main parties to represent issues (with UKIP taking over immigration, and Greens the environment).

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