Political Parties


What is a political party

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, that will help to decide with policies a party adopts.

Political parties 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.

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Function of Political Parties

Parties create 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 consider the different options available for solving them. Whatever the party decides is the best course of action becomes 'party policy'.

At election time, parties publish manifestos. A manifesto is a document that outlines the party's policies on all the major issues of the day. Even when there's no election coming up, parties are always on the lookout for new and innovative policies to adopt. By performing this task of creating policy, parties help to keep the public informed about what problems are facing society and what the possible solutions might be. 

Parties provide the organisational structure 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.

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 local branch of a sitting MP's party plays an important role in maintaining the link between the voters and the elected official.

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Function of Political Parties

Parties give people a clear choice of PMs. The leader of the largest party following an election is invariably appointed PM, so voters can decide who to vote for on the basis of 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, the use this single piece of information to make some likely assumptions about what sort of policies they will support if they are elected.

Parties are also nurseries for future politicians. Many MPs have previously worked and volunteered for their local or national party organisations, where they'll have learned firsthand about campaigning, how Parliament works, how to interact with the public and many of the other skills needed in Politics. Most would be MPs are expected to put in plenty of hours delivering leaflets and knocking door before they'll be considered as a candidate. This way parties provide ambitious politicians with a route to possible power.

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 campaigning issues of local and regional importance. While party members cannot expect to have a decisive influence on policy making, their views are at least taken into account by the leadership. In this way, parties encourage people to get involved in the democratic process.

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Aggregating society's desires

Aggregating, bring together, people want different things from the government, it's a parties task to bring together these competing interests and to create a policy programme that please as many people as possible.

Aggregation can be a difficult process. If a party doesn't offer enough people something to vote for, then it will fair badly in an election. If it promises too much, opponents will warn the voters that taxes would rise if that party won. So parties must perform a balancing act, they must seem responsive to society's demands but also careful with taxpayers' money.

'tough on crime...' When labour was still in opposition in the 1990s party leader Tony Blair made a speech which he promised his party he would be tough on crime. Then as now, some people felt that stricter punishments for offenders was the answer to rising crime, while others felt that addressing things like poverty, illiteracy and unemployment would stop people turning to crime in the first place. By promising to use both approaches, Labour was able to appeal to people holding either view. 

All parties seek to have policies with the widest possible appeal. The electoral maths demands it: a party can't win a national election if it only appeals to a narrow section of society.

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Contesting Elections and Origin of parties

They stand candidates in election for Westminster, the European parliament, local councils and the devolved institutions. Many politicians find it useful to have colleagues from their party working other areas of government because it'll make co-operation and consultation smoother. Some people question whether national parties are useful in local government, local government elections tend to be seen as referendums on the higher profile national party.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. In local government, councillors often win and lose elections not on their own record, but on the popularity of their party in Westminster.

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 rather than any great unifying ideology. This was to 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 move to the middle classes.Under one of its greatest leaders, Sir Robert Peel, the Tory (conservative) party adapted to the increased number of voters by setting up local organisations. These local parties are still an essential feature of every major party in the UK today. Peel (conservative) wanted the local branches to help foster link between Tory MPs and their constituencies, as well as to provide help and support in elections. After the 1967 and 1884 Representation of the People Acts, the electorate increased to 5.5 million. Parties needed good organisation in as many constituencies as possible in order to reach to so many new voters. The vast increase in the electorate also made the task of aggregating demands more difficult, more demands to aggregate.

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Rebels and Whipping System

A party that has more than half of the seats in the commons should find it easy to pass laws, as long as all the MPs in the party vote the same way. But sometimes MPs don't want to vote in the way their party leaders want them to vote. When an MP fails to vote in the way the party leaders want him or her to, she is a 'rebel'. Several MPs have a reputation for being 'serial rebels' consistently voting against the rest of their party. Bob Marshall Andrews and Dianne Abbot in the labour party have both carved out the reputations for being rebellious. 1992-1997 during the last conservative government rebels who refused to back John Majors European policies helped to damage the credibility and unity of their party by voting against their party colleagues. The public often admire the rebels for standing up for what they believe in.The rebels are must less popular within their own party though, and particularly with the party whips. The whips are MPs whose job it's to make sure that all their party colleagues vote in the way that the party leadership wants. 

Party whips have three main duties:To keep their party's MPs and peers informed about upcoming Parliamentary business on a weekly basis, the guides make it clear how the leadership expect MPs to vote.To pass backbenchers views to the PM (a member of the house of commons who isn't a party leader) the whips need to ensure that communication between the MPs and the party leadership is a two way street.Whips must be particularly alert to any likely rebellions so that the leadership if formed of any likely problems. If the party has lose faith in the leader it often falls to the whips to suggest them to resign.To create discipline when MPs threaten to vote against the official party line,the whips must dissuade them.The whips can make threats,unlikely to be appointed to ministerial office if they don't show loyalty,black book list of mistakes, expose to media.

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Minor Parties

Apart from the devolved institution, none of the minor parties have been part of the government.

It'd be more accurate to say that these parties are seeking political office and the legitimacy, publicity and influences that this gives, rather than actively hoping to join the Westminster government. 

Some parties only really promote a single issue, this also changes the definition of a party because they don't attempt to creat policies on all major issues, raise awareness rather than get candidates elected.

So there's a distinction between parties, some of the smaller parties have no prospect or desire to form a government in Westminster, while others don't offer a complete party platform and are more concerned with a single issue.

This makes them different from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

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Independent MPs

An independent MP is a person who's 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 mean who relied on their good reputation in a constituency to win a seat. They don't have whips to worry about and can vote as they see fit on each issue as it arises 'voting with their conscience', luxury not available to MPs who belong to a party. In the first election after WW2 more than 20 independent MPs were elected, steadily fell over the next few decades as the two largest parties in particular increased their dominance of the political system. In the 2005 election, 3 Independents won seats.

They all had something in common, they were part of larger local movements. George Galloway, the anti war movement, Peter Law the dissatisfaction with the Labour government. In working class South Wales, and for Richard Taylor the Kidderminster Hospital campaign. All of these movements were a reaction against the Labour government, in areas where labour normally did well. 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. Difficult to argue that any of these independent MPs have been elected purely on the basis of their personal appeal and local popularity.

Best known independent MP in recent times was Martin Bell, much respected BBC war correspondent, known for his trademark white suit. In 1997 a scandal hit tory MP Neil Hamilton, refused to stand down from his safe seat in Tatton (UK parliament constituency) despite his strong hints from the party leadership that he should. Martin Bell was persuaded to stand against Hamilton, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew their own candidates so that Bell would have a better chance of winning.Hamilton was heavily defeated in the election of that year, Martin Bell became an MP, he stood as an anti-corruption candidate and was quick to criticise the incoming Labour government when Tony Blair was revealed to have accepted a 1 million pound donation from Formula One boss, allegation was made that Labour's decision not to ban tobacco advertising in F1 has been strongly influences by the donation.In a speech in Parliament Bell famously wondered whether the 1997 election slain a 'dragon' conservation corruption, 'only to see it rise again with a red nose in its mouth', symbol of the labour party.In 2001 Bell stood in another constituency in Essex where he claimed the local party of the sitting Conservative MP had been taken over by extremist evangelical Christians, Bell lost

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Problems and Ideologies with parties

Parties provide the ideas, the organisation and the discipline needed to win and maintain power. The very centrality of parties to the way politics operates in the UK worries some people who feel they have become too powerful. Accused of being elitist (superior) only the people at the top of the organisation have any real say in what policies are adopted and what laws are passed when the party wins an election. Members of the party often complain that decision making within parties is undemocratic. Self serving and corrupt behaviour from people of parties, charges of corruption are more serious, major parties have had their scandals over donations. 

Ideologies in political parties (certain way of looking at the world). Human nature, are humans being good or bad, honest or dishonest, are they born good or bad, does this 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, who should be prevented doing things that might harm the community? A concept of what government should be apart from anarchists (believes in no laws) who wants to get rid of all forms of formal government, most political ideologists agree that government needs to exist. Should a government have strong power over its citizens or not, should it simply concern itself with maintaining law and order and defending the country form attack or should it try to shape the way people live their lives?The purpose of the state is it 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'll share a similar outlook. Many people join a political party expressly because they believe in ideology.Ideology have come together to seek political power. Ideology can be dangerous. 

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Conservative Party

The modern Conservative party can trace its roots back to the 1830s, Sir Robert Peel was the party leader, he was very sceptical about making constitutional changes, a belief that is still vey important in Conservative thinking. He was also a good organiser, and set up local associations and that Carlton Club, a London based gentlemen's club where Conservative sympathisers could gather to discuss politics. In the nineteenth century, a flamboyant novelist Benjamin Disraeli became the party leader 1874-1880. Disraeli was concerned that the economic changes created by increasing industrialisation and world trade threatened to destabilise British society. He believed that, in the past, the richer and more powerful sections of society had looked after the poor sections and that in turn the poorer sections did all of the manual and unpleasant work that needed to be done. He warned that the rich no longer accepted this responsibility and that as a result 'two nations' were forming, rich and poor, who has no contact with or love for each other. Disraeli warned that this could lead to a revolution (sudden change, violence) so he pursued 'one nation Conservatism' which stressed the unity of the nation. Conservatives have been accused of being too friendly to rich people and business at the expense of the less well off. One nation conservatism accept that the poor must receive help from the state, has helped to balance out this pro-business image. Conservatives have been in government for two-thirds of the twentieth century, 'national party of the government'.

Most Conservatives believe that human being are fallible and will never be perfect. There needs to be rules to keep people in order, chaos would result otherwise. Conservatives believe in the value of tradition and are sceptical about making changes unless there's very strong reason to.

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What Conservatives believe

Many of the institutions in the UK, the judiciary, the church, the house of lords, have slowly evolved into their present state over many centuries. New generations don't start from scratch, these institutions accumulate the wisdom and experience of previous generations. Extremely arrogant and wrong headed to Conservatives when people try to radically and suddenly overhaul institutions that have been slowly evolving and improving for hundreds of years.The sight of people with more money and possessions can often motivate less affluent people to work hard to achieve those things for themselves. Private property has always been an important principle to Conservatives, believe humans naturally want to accumulate possessions and they can't feel secure or happy with their property if the government is likely to use taxation or even confiscation to take their property away.

Conservatives believe that inequalities in society have always and will always exist, as long as hierarchies and social structures don't become oppressive, then they're acceptable and helpful.Conservatives don't believe the government has the right to interfere with people's possessions.

Most conservatives oppose redistributive taxation this is a system which aims to decrease the gaps between rich and poor by making rich people pay a much higher tax rate than poorer people, so that money can be more equally shared out among citizens. 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. Conservatives have increasingly stressed their commitment to equality of opportunity. This means that it doesn't matter if people end up with different amount of money, as long as everyone has been given the same chances to succeed.

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New Right Economic Policy

In the 1970s new ideas began to emerge about what the relationship between government and citizens should be. Conservatives felt that the welfare state encouraged people to be lazy and dependent on the state.They also criticised the economic policies of both Conservative and Labour governments since WW2.

Focused on cutting unemployment, the New Right argues that the government shouldn't try to cut employment by spending more money on things like state welfare. It should keep inflation low and encourage business, create jobs.

Nationalisation, the government owned several important industries including electricity and phone companies, coal mines and some car factories. During 1970s many of these industries were performing badly, they were inefficient and there were frequent strikes. The New Right argues that the government should see these industries off to business people that could do a better job of running them. Nationalisation and employment policy are areas where one nation and new right conservatives disagree, they agree on the importance of economic growth.

New Right 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. New Right believes in strong law and order.

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Reactionaries and Libertarians

Reactionaries want to preserve traditional ways of living, by opposing that the legislation of homosexuality and women's liberation.

Reactionaries usually support very tough sentencing for criminals and oppose immingration.

Libertarian Wing are MPs who believe in having as few rules as possible.

Some even advocate the legalisation of drugs, because they believe people should be free to make their own choices.

Libertarians main task for government are to prevent and punish crimes, protect the country against outside attack.

Government should stay out of people's lives and has no right to take a lot of their money away in taxes.

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Conservative Prime Ministers

Winston Churchill 1940-1945, 1951-1955. Britain's wartime leader is still widely revered for his inspiring leadership, he held some favouring views. 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.

Anthony Eden 1955-1957. Handsome and well dressed, been a popular foreign secretary during the war. Shortly after become PM, a crisis occurred when Egypt demanded ownership of the british controlled Suez Canal. Fighting resulted, but it became clear that Britain was not the military force it one was and Eden later resigned. 

Harold Macmillan 1957-1963. 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 'Superman' partly because of the rising prosperity that occurred while he was in Downing Street, resigned due to ill health.

Alex Douglas Home 1963- 1964. Gave up his seat in the house of lords so that he could become an MP. Another one nation Conservative, was not an inspiring leader and lost the 1964 election.

Edward Heath 1970-1974. Represented a new generation in the conservative party. Unlike previous conservative leader. Health was not from an aristocratic background (elegant). 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.

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Margaret Thatcher and John Major

Margaret Thatcher 1979-1990. Represented a break with one nation Conservative leaders of the past. The first female PM was also the first since 1945 who didn't accept the post war consensus, on the need for nationalised industries and a generous welfare state. Her government sold off state owned industries privatisation and didn't try save falling industries, even though this created a lot of unemployment, particularly in the North of England and in South Wales where many coal mines were shut down.

Thatcher was socially conservative and believed in the importance of strong families and law and order, believed that Britain needed to regain its reputation for strength abroad, Thatcher ordered a successful military operation to free the Islanders.

1989 Thatcher introduced the poll tax, a new way of collecting money for local government, everybody had to pay the same rate, regardless of how much they had. Unpopularity of this policy caused riots and Thatcher stood down in 1990 though she had never been defeated in general election. Thatcher was very determined and forceful with her cabinet colleagues. 

John Major 1990-1997. Tried to be consensual and involved as many people as possible in decision making. His premiership was 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 the 'sleaze' and in 1997 they led to the party's biggest electoral defeat in modern times.

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The Post War Consensus

The post war consensus was a general agreement between the conservative and labour parties about how the country should be run. Both parties believe din a mixed economy this meant that the economy was a mixture of private businesses and publicly owned 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's 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, NHS, unemployment, sickness benefits. Most of the Welfare State was set up by the 1945-1950 Labour government. 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. The UK had a stable economic policy.

1970s cracks were appearing in the post war consensus. Trade union 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. British government had to ask the International Monetary Fund IMF, for a loan, they opposed Keynesian economics and the government had to agree to cut public spending as a condition for receiving the loan.

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Monetarism this replaced Keynesian economics, it's the idea that if you restrict the supply of money, by printing fewer bank notes, then it will keep its value and prices will remain stable, encourage 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 who knew more than the government did about running businesses.At the time this was a popular policy because many of the nationalise industries were poorly run and offered a poor service. 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.

Confrontation with Union Thatcher believed that trade union were dangerously out of control. She believed that by holding strikes to demand more pay, the unions were holding the economy to ransom and damaging business. Laws were passed that restricted the right to strike. Thatcher tried to close down unprofitable mines in 1984-1985 that National Union of miners led a prolonged strike. Unlike previous PMs, Thatcher refused to negotiate with the miners and eventually the strikers were defeated and the closured went ahead. While many people were sympathetic to the un unemployed miners, many others felt that Thatcher's tough stance was necessary to reduce the power of trade unions.

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Legacy of Thatcherism

Reductions in welfare spending the decade for which Thatcher was PM saw a decrease in spending on benefits and the NHS.

Right to buy council houses government owned a large number of houses that it rented out to people. Thatcher wanted to let the tenants buy these houses form the government, families on moderate incomes were able to buy their own homes. Thatcher believed that home ownership gave people a real stake in society, helping to create a better country.

Simon Jenkins a journalist, argues than when Margaret Thatcher destroyed the old post war consensus, she created a new one that all of her successor have followed. Jenkins says that they 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, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have also followed Thatchers forceful style of leadership. Before Tony Blair became PM he spoke of his admiration for Thatcher despite her being the opposing party and had angered many Labour supporters with her policies. Thatcher was recorded as saying that Blair 'will not let his country down' if he was elected. 

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Structure and 1922 Committee

The Conservative party has traditionally been much centralised with decisions being made by a few people at the top of the party. Heath became leader, the party had not even held leadership elections and instead a small circle of aristocratic Conservative politicians dubbed the Magic circle, chose who the leader would be. 

The head office of the party is known as Conservative Central Office, it's officially name Conservative Campaign Headquarters CCHQ. CCHQ provides administrative support to the party leader. It contains a research department to study policy proposals. CCHQ also organises and masterminds election campaigns, by deciding on what slogans to use and which themes to concentrate on. CCHQ also has control of the local constituency party organisations and can punish them if they contravene party rules. The leader controls CCHQ and decides who to appoint as the party chair. 

Conservative MPs who weren't part of the party leadership, 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. The chairmanship of the committee is a coveted role for MPs but it has no official powers within the party and leader is not obliged to take on board its recommendations or attend its meetings.

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Electing the Party Leader

When William Hague became leader of the party in 1997 he tried to revitalise the party by making changes to its internal rules. 

When a vacancy arises for the leadership, MPs who want the job put their names forward, their fellow MPs then hold a vote, whoever had the lowest number of votes has to drop out of the election and further votes are held every few days until only two candidates remain, then ballot papers are sent out to every conservative party member in the country. 

They vote for whichever of the two candidates they prefer and send their ballot papers back to the CCHQ to be counted. 

Whoever gets the most votes becomes leader of the Conservative party.

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Removing the Party Leader

If at least 15% of MPs believe that the leader is doing a bad job and should go, they can write to the chairman of the 1922 committee, stating that they have 'no confidence' in the leader. This triggers a 'no confidence vote' in which all Conservative MPs vote on whether the leader should stay on. The leader needs to win 51% to remain in office. 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 the list, candidates can apply to as many local parties as they wish. After interviewing the candidates, the local parties choose one person, local parties that are in constituencies where the conservatives have a very good change of winning receive by far the most applications and competition can be fierce. If the constituency already has a Conservative MP this person is nearly always chosen as the candidate for the next election. The party has experimented with new ways of choosing MPs.

The A list, people whose name is put on the approved candidates list, might also be added to the a list. These are people who CCHQ would most like to se chosen for a winnable seat. Local parties are under no obligation to choose someone from the A list and many have ignored it, this has partly been because local association enjoy being able to choose who will have a chance to become an MP and don't wish CCHQ to take this power away from them. 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. This is seen as a very democratic process, and also helps to generate local interest in the Conservatives, local parties hope that a candidate who is popular in an open primary meeting will also appeal to the public during the election campaign. A text voting open primary was also held in 2007 to help choose the Conservative candidate for mayor of london, the public chose Boris Johnson who went on to win the election.

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Forming Policy

The Conservative party has a national conservative convention to explore policy options. It's made up mainly of party members form 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 parties annual get together in the autumn called annual conference, the party members who attend aren't given an opportunity to help decide policies.

Although the leader has a free had to decide policy, they must take into account the feelings of the party members and MPs. If the leader chooses a policy that the rest of the party can't accept, then it may cause arguments and divisions within the party and perhaps eventually trigger a no confidence vote.

When David Cameron became leader in 2005 he said he was willing to listen to advice on policy by setting up a number of 'policy committees' each headed by a different MP or lord, to make suggestions about improving conservative policy in a wide range of areas.

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Labour Party

Labour Party was set up to represent the working classes, the people who laboured in factories.

The working class was only given the right to vote in the second half of the nineteenth century, so it's not surprising that there was no party to represent their views. After failed attempts in the 1895 election to elect working class MPs who would represent workers interest, trade unions held a series of meeting in which they agreed to fund and support a 'Labour Representation Committee'.

1901 the LRC received a big boost as a result of the 'Taff Vale Case' this was a trial at which trade unionists who'd led a strike in south Wales were punished for the income the employers had lost because of the strike. The implication of this case was that strikes, one of the few ways in which the working classes would protest against their treatment, were effectively illegal, because poor strikers couldn't possibly afford to reimburse their employers for their lost income resulting from a strike. The LRC condemned the judge's decision in the Taff Vale Case and grew in popularity, in the 1905 election, 29 LRC MPs were elected. The first leader of the LRC, which became the Labour party was Kier Hardle a scottish former minor. The Labour party grew in size and in 1928 labour leader Ramsay Macdonald became the leader of a coalition government that contained both Labour and Liberal MPs. 

The Wall street crash a devastating collapse of the international economy and work stock markets created a financial crisis in 1929. The Labour party was bitterly divided about the best way of dealing with the crisis and many Labour MPs lost faith in MacDonald. In the next election 1931 the Labour party fared very badly and Conservatives formed a new coalition. Labour wasn't part of the new government. During WW2 Labour joined a government of national unity and party leader Clement Attlee served as Churchill's deputy PM.

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1945 Landslide

As soon as WW2 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 and the labour party.

Attlee's government reshaped Britain. Nationalism, the bank of England, coal mines, railways, gas and electricity supplies were all nationalised. Attlee's government passed laws that compelled the owners to sell these to the government.

The Welfare State was created in 1942 a civil servant called William Beveridge wrote a report that called for 'cradle to grace' 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 weren't new. The recommendations were put into place by the Attlee government with the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 and increased spending on education and welfare, together these services are known as the Welfare State.

Nationalisation stayed in place until Thatcher premiership and welfare state still exists, although it continually undergoes reforms and changes. Attlee lost the 1951 election, despite the popularity of his government's reforms, and the next labour PM didn't come along until Harold Wilson won the 1964 election. Wilson wanted to protect the achievements of the 1945-1951 government and also to modernise the UK 'white heart of technology; that could transform people's lives and boost the economy, he had moderate success in doing this, but lost the 1970 election to Edward Heath. Wilson became PM for the second time in 1974 but retired unexpectedly an dJim Callaghan took over as a leader. The world economy was in a bad shape at this time and Britain seemed to be in decline, despite being fairly popular personally, Callaghan didn't seem to most post people to be able to find a way to solve the countries economic woes, and he was defeated in the 1979 election by Margaret Thatcher.

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The Wilderness Years

In 1979 defeat was a disaster for Labour, they weren't back in government for another 18 years, these are often called labour wilderness years. They seemed to have lost touch with the aspiration and beliefs of ordinary voters. The worst moment came in 1983 under a new leader Michael Foot the parties election manifesto for the 1983 election was subbed the longest suicide note in history, the policies it contained were seen as too ideological and unrealistic.

Labour suffered another disaster, a group of very left-wing (labour) activists called Millitant 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 Millitant Tendency and the left wing of his party from taking over and making the party essentially unelectable. 

The party strongly criticised the unemployment and suffering caused by Thatcher's economic reforms and promised to overturn privatisation if it won office again. The party was out of step with the public mood, which had largely accepted privatisation as a good thing. Labour lost the 1987 and 1992 elections. 

In 1994 Tony Blair became the party leader, he marked a break with the past for the party, moving Labour policy closer to the conservatives in economic ideology and accepting Thatcher's reforms. Blair persuaded the party to 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. In 1997 the party won a landslide election.

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Social Democratic Party

During the wilderness years, one of the main reasons that people no longer voted Labour was the increasing prominence of left wingers who wanted large tax rises for the rich, huge spending on the welfares state and re nationalisation. People were concerned that these policies would be bound to lead to significant tax rises for everybody. Some Labour MPs became increasingly frustrated as what they saw as the dangerous and unrealistic  policies being recommended by left wingers like Sedgefield MP Tony Benn.

In 1981, four of these frustrated MPs known as the gang of four left the labour party to set up the Social Democratic Party. The SDP promised to steer a social and economic path that fell in between the radical reforms of the Conservatives and the unpopular policies of the Labour party. This breakaway group presented a serious problem for Labour.

More Labour MPs decided to join the SDP ahead of the 1983 election, in the campaign for that election, the party leaders told their supporters to 'go back to your constituencies and prepare for government' they were very optimistic. 

The SDP won nearly 1 out of every 4 votes in that election, nearly as many as the Labour party, but only secured 23 seats. Support for the party fell away in the 1987 election and the SDP merged with the Liberal party the following year.

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Labour Ideology

Labour Ideology is known as socialism. It's based on the beliefs that governments exist to make a fairer and better society, the economic structure of society is the root of most of society's problems because the 'means of production' that's 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 didn't have to do the hard work in the factories but nevertheless had much more money than the workers.

The most famous early supported of socialism was Karl Marx. Together with Frederick Engels, German born Marx published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, in it Marx outlines the socialist criticisms of the economic structure and recommended that all the 'means of production' should be held in common ownership so that the profits from industry could be fairly shared out among everyone. This argument was the basis for nationalisation.

Socialists have a broadly optimistic view of human nature, they believe that without the competitive atmosphere created by capitalism, people will naturally work together and be prepared to do things for the community instead of just doing things for themselves. Economically socialists believe that power goes without money, with richer people able to get away with more things than poor. Socialists want to redistribute wealth in society so that things are more equal. They don't see any reason why some people should be born wealthy while others are born into poverty, this argument is the basis for redistributive taxation, where the rich must pay more money to the government so that it can be spent on things for the less well off.

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Communism and Social Democrats

The most extreme form of socialism is called Communism. IT advocates that there should be no private property at all and that the government should own every single business. The left wing MPs and Militant Tendency who caused the party so much trouble in the 1980s seemed too many people to hold these views.

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. If nothing else, they fear that a government that controls all business would be dangerously powerful. They also believe that some inequality is inevitable in society and, as long as people are not kept in poverty, this is acceptable. 

As early as the 1950s some social democrats in the Labour party were arguing that now Attlee's government had achieved nationalisation, the main priority was now to create opportunities and a pleasant environment. A social democratic Labour MP called Tony Crossland, later a Cabinet minister, wrote a book in 1956 which outlines this views.'We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs.'

But some some socialists, this looked like 'giving up' on the working class struggle for power. Plenty of businesses were still privately owned, still inequalities in society. Left wingers answer was more nationalism and greater distribution. Wilson and Blair in particular, were seen as having 'sold out' the socialist dream, not agreed with their politics.

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New Labour

When Tony Blair became party leader in 1994, his priority was to get Labour elected again. As we've seen, he abandoned many of the policies that the left-wingers believed in and accepted. Thatcherite economic policies. He also rebranded that 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 didn't 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 ideology holds that: Market forces, the private sector, are a tool that can achieve better public services. If parents are allowed to apply 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 has to invest, should be as involved as possible in all government projects.

New Labour aimed to reach out just to the working class, but also to the middle class that was worried that Labour might be a high-tax government. Blair continually sought to reassure these voters, even though this sometimes annoyed his own party members, who felt he was abandoning them. A close ally of Blair. Peter Mandelson MP, stated in 1998 that New Labour was: 'intensely relaxed about people getting fillthy rich as long as they're paying their taxes'. Imaging what Marx and Engels might have thought of this comment!

To some socialists, New Labour seemed to be nothing more than the New Right in disguise. New Labour also introduced massive investment in schools and hospitals and created a national minimum wage, which many social democrats and socialists applauded.

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New Labour in power

During the 1997 election, Labour activists distributed thousands of 'pledge cards' with the give promises of what Labour would do if it won the election.

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 strictly 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 job 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 matter of opinion.

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 of Labour's new reputation for economic competence, a reputation that no Labour government had really achieved before. Labour could no longer 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. Succeeded in streamlining and speeding up the youth court system, particularly popular with left wingers concerned that young people were being inhumanely treated by the justice system.

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New Labour's other policies

New Labour's other policies included:

Constitutional reform. New Labour ended the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords when it passed the House of Lords Act in 1999.

Less government intervention in the economy. The power to set interest rates was given to the Bank of England. Trade unions, which had always been close to the Labour party, were kept at arms length by Blair. 

Reducing poverty. Minimum wage was introduced in 1998. The Tax Credit Act of 1999 encouraged single parents and the less well-off to find work by giving them, special low tax rates. Tax credits have however been criticised as a very complicated system.

International action. Tony Blair proved himself willing to use military force abroad. He was a leading member of the international coalition that forced the Serbian government to stop persecuting Muslims in Kosovo in 1999 and also led the way for a United Nations force to intervene in the civil war in Sierra Leone, an African nation 2000-2002. While some socialists opposed these ventures because of their anti-war beliefs, many other people on the left praised Blair for doing something to help these places. By contrast, Blair's decision to join an unpopular war in Iraq which began in 2003, badly tarnished his image and was an important factor in his decision to resign in 2007.

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Structure of the Labour Party

The main central administrative body is the National Executive Committee. It's 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. In 1960 the NEC called for nuclear disarmament, for the UK to get rid of its nuclear weapons. The leadership felt that this policy would harm the UKs national defence and succeeded in reversing the NEC policy in 1964. To avoid such tensions. Tony Blair weakened the powers of the NEC by changing the way it created policy.

The National Policy Forum was set up. 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 police takes around two years, plenty of time for the leadership to try and intervene if they're unhappy.

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's a clash between what the leadership want and what the NEC vote for, then the government can effectively ignore NEC recommendations. 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. The party has become less democratic, ignoring own members, makes unrealistic policy decisions.

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Electing the Leader and Deputy Leader

When a vacancy arises for the leadership, the party rules state that any MP who wants to become leader must get at least 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Labour MPs to support them. When the party is in opposition, candidates only need the support of 12.5% of MPs.

If there's no leadership vacancy, but 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 leaderhsip crises.

When the names of all the would-be leaders are known, a ballot paper is sent out to Every labour party member in the country, All Labour MPs and MEPs, Members of trade unions that support the party. Before the 1990s, the bosses of each trade union voted on behalf of their members, but this was seen as giving them too much power and s system called 'One Member, One Vote' was introduced which gave individual trade union members the right to vote for themselves.

These three groups of voters are known as Labour's 'electoral college'. The votes from the three groups are counted separately. The three separate results are then given equal weighting. This means that although there are tens of thousands of Labour party members and well under a thousand MPs and MEPs, the result of their separate votes are given equal weight. This means that in effect, Labour MPs votes count for more than trade unionists and party memebers votes. 

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Selecting candidates to be MPs

Like the Conservatives' CCHQ. Labour's NEC draws up a list of people it thinks would be suitable MPs and then the local parties interview these people when they apply to become Labour candidates for Parliament. 

Just like the local Conservative associations, Labour's local parties jealously guard their right to choose who the party's future MPs might be. Tony Blair wanted to see more women elected to Parliament and passed a law, the Sex Discrimination, Election Candidates Act 2002 which allowed political parties to discriminate in favour of women when choosing candidates.

The leadership forced a number of local parties, where the current Labour was stepping down to accept 'all women shortlists'. This meant that these parties would have to choose a woman as their candidate. Although this measure was successful at increasing the number of women MPs, it cased a great deal of tension between the leadership and the local parties, this was the reason Peter Law couldn't stand as candidate in Gwent.

The NEC can technically refuse to accept candidates put forward by the constituency parties, making it the most centralised method for candidate selection of the three biggest parties.

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The Liberal Demecrat Party

Gordon Brown, former leader of the Labour Party. Until the 1930s the Liberal party was the main opposition to the Conservatives. As the Labour party grew, the Liberal vote collapsed. 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. There were so few Liberal MPs that a common joke in the late 1960s and 1970 held that the entire Parliamentary Liberal party could fit in a single taxi.

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 parties electoral fortunes.As we have seen in the topic on voting systems, the Liberal Democrats are unfairly treated by the UKs 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 Liberal Democrats.

However, Ashdown didn't just sit around waiting for electoral reform to happen. He adapted his parties campaigning tactics. The Liberal Democrats are now well known for concentrating their election efforts on constituencies where they may have realistic chance of winning and campaigning on local issues that the other parties often ignore. This has been extremely successful. However, even in 2005, the Liberal Democrats won less than 10% of the seats in the House of Commons, despite getting more than 20% of the votes. Disparity between vote share and seat share that is an inevitable outcome of FPTP.

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Just like the other two main parties, the Liberal Democrat party contains people with a wide range of views, though they'd all describe themselves as liberals. Liberals 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're not harming other people, they should be left alone by the government as much as possible. It's 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 one of the most important virtues for liberals, we must accept other people's lifestyle choice, though not to the extent of condoning criminality, and in turn, they should accept ours.

'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. That is, they feel the government should not interfere with business unless absolutely necessary. Lost most Conservatives, many liberals believe the economy will work best if is left largely alone by government.

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New Liberalism

Traditional or classical liberalism emphasised that people should be left alone to get on with their lives, free from interference by the government. But by the end of the nineteenth century, some Liberals started to argue that people also needed to be made free from poverty and ignorance if they were to be truly happy and fulfilled.

These New Liberals saw that poverty and ignorance wouldn't just go aw ay of their own accord and that the state should intervene to help. New Liberals have therefore been enthusiastic supporters of the Welfare State, and in fact William Beveridge, seen as the architect of the Welfare State, and in fact committed liberal. In the view of the New Liberals, the government's job is to make sure people have all the things such as healthcare and education they need if they're to lead fulfilled lives.

Clearly then, there are two school 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. While both sets of opinion exist within the Liberal Democrats, it's probably fair to say that New Liberals are the largest group.

Drawing on these liberal idas, over the last few years, the party has supported these policies: Opposition to ID cards. Liberal Democrats believe these cards would 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 constitution would also place limits on what the government could do. Localism, the Liberal Democrats supported devolution because it took power away from the central government and shared it out to the other institutions.

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Party Structure

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 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, Nick Clegg, 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 FPCP and it rarely makes policies that the leadership opposes.

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Electing Leaders

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 packing of 50% of MPs and from 75 local parties in order to trigger an election, this is quite 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 Democracy member is given a vote and they use single transferable vote, the proportional system that the Liberal Democrats want for Commons elections.

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Choosing MPs

Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, it's the Welsh, Scottish and English regional organisations not party HQ that draws up the list of approved candidates.

People named on the list then apply to individual local parties to be selected as a candidate, in the same way as the other two main parties.

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Nationalist Parties: The Scottish Nationalist Part

The SNPs members are united to their desire to see Scotland gain more, or total, independence from the rest of the UK. They don't wish important decisions affecting their lives to be made by a Parliament hundreds of miles away in southeast England. The party wishes to reverse the 1707 Act of Union that joined Scotland to England, because it feels Scotland would be better of 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.

In 1970, the party saw its first MP elected to Parliament. In 1974, 11 SNP MPs were elected, the number fell at the next election however and never reached this high level again. Part of the reason the party did so well in the early 1970s was the discovery of natural gas under the North Sea, of Scotland's coast. Nationalists argues that profits from the fuel made it economically possible for Scotland to be independent. In 2009, the party had 7 MPs, all elected for Scottish seats. The party has no significant support and never fields candidates outside Scotland.

The three main parties all reject calls for independence, and have shown reluctance to work with the nationalists.

But a major change in the parties fortunes came with devolution. The setting up of a new Scottish Parliament, with responsibility for policy areas like education and healthcare, boosted the parties morale because it seemed to be a step in the direction of independence. In Westminster, the party was small and relatively insignificant. But in the first two Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 and 2004 the SNP was the second largest party. In the next election in 2007, the SNP won 47 seats out of 129, beating the Labour party into second place by one seat.

Party Leader Alex Salmond became Scotland's First Minister but as none of the other parties was willing to join a coalition with a party that wanted independence, he has had to lead a minority administration, seeking support from other other parties on an issue by issue basis. Nevertheless, for the first time the SNP was in power. Being in government instantly gives a party the stamp of having 'arrived' and raises its profile with the public, it also means the party will be closely scrutinised for mistakes by the press and voters.

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Plaid Cymru

Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru didn't 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 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 due to the effects of Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms. 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.

Generally, Plaid Cymru's support came mainly from North and West Wales, where the Welsh language is still widely spoken, but since devolution began, the party has been working hard to extend its appeal to the more urban, English speaking areas in South Wales. In local government elections in 1999, Plaid Cymru created a huge surprise when it won in Caerphilly and the Rhondda, areas in South Wales that were considered to be rock solid for labour.

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Smaller Parties: The British Nationalist Party

The BNP is primarily an anti-immigration party. The party has its roots in the National Front, 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 takes an extreme right wing view of law and order, calling for longer sentences for criminals.

When Cambridge graduate Nick Griffin took over the party leadership in 1999, he set out to give the party a more respectable image. He changed party policy to say that instead of forcing non-white British people to return to their family country of origin, they would only be 'strongly encouraged' to leave. He also claimed that the party was now more respectable and denied that there was a large criminal element of thuggish people in the party.

Griffin 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. Over the last decade, the BNP has started winning seats in council elections and even saw a candidate for the London Assembly election. Perhaps surprisingly for a very right wing party, the BNP has done particularly well in traditionally 'safe' Labour areas.

There are BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham in east London. In Oldham constituency in the 2005 election, Nick Griffin came third with 16% of the votes. However, the party has never come any closer than this to electing an MP in terms of votes the BNP came fifth in the 2005 election.

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The United Kingdom Independence Party

Anti-European Union feeling was running high in the mid 1990s and Sir James Goldsmith, businessman and gambler, provided funds for a new party, the Referendum Party that stood in seats throughout the UK in the 1997 election, demanding the British people be given a referendum to decide whether they want to join the single currency and stay in the EU. Goldsmith calculated that the result of the referendum would be a rejection of the EU.

The party didn't come close to winning any seats at all, but its supporters were not prepared to give up their battle against Britain's membership and when Goldsmith died, they joined another anti- EU party called UKIP that had been founded in 1993.

Despite the fact that local government has absolutely no say on EU policy, UKIP has for the last ten years been contesting local elections, though without great success. In 2008, a Conservative MP, Bob Spink, was deselected by his local association. He responded by resigning from the party and joining UKIP, becoming the parties first MP. Spink is very unlikely to hold onto his seat in the next General Election however. The party has never had one of its candidates elected to Westminster, despite the fact that the party came fourth in terms of votes in the 2005 General Election. However there are several UKIP MEPs.

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The Green Party

As the name suggests, the Greens campaign for policies that don't harm the environment. They're seen as left wing party, partly because many of their policies would involve much greater government regulation of business and the industry. Despite the growing awareness of climate change and the degradation of the environment, the Greens have never performed very strongly in UK elections, though as with all smaller parties, this is largely the fault of FPTP which, as we know, strongly disfavours small parties which have broad national support without a strong regional allegiance.

The Greens have both MEPs and number of local councillors. In most recent General Election, in May 2010, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, made election history by becoming the first Green to be elected to the House of Commons in the constituency of Brighton and Hove.

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Northern Ireland

The politics of Northern Ireland are very distinct from the rest of the UK. Centuries of religious and political strife, deriving from the ongoing dispute as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or the Republic of Ireland. While the two government are on friendly terms, the people of Northern Ireland remain divided over the issue and it dominates the political picture.

Parties in Northern Ireland are elected on the issue of 'loyalism' to the UK or 'republicanism' the desire to become part of the Irish Republic. Over the last decade, there are promising signs that the region's devolved government will allow politics to permanently replace the violence between the two communities.

However, there's yet little prospect of Northern Irish parties being replaced by the national parties that dominate the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Rein is the main Republican Party and The Democratic Ulster Unionists are the largest loyalist party.

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Membership of Parties

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 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 party in party leadership elections, Attend the parties 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, would be fairly certain to be thrown out.

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.

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Membership tasks they'll perform

Delivering party leaflets through letterboxes, knocking on doors to canvass voters ask them to support their party, help to maintain the parties database of supporters, drive elderly or housebound party supporters to the polling stations on Election Day, to ensure that they maximise their vote.

These activities are collectively known as 'Getting out the vote' or GOTV and they are the key to winning elections. A good GOTV effort in a marginal constituency will usually have a decisive impact on the result, so party member, the 'rank and file' or 'grassroots' members as they are often known, are vital, perhaps even more so for a smaller party which be definition doesn't have the funding, reach and resources of the two main parties.

Party membership reached its height in the 1950s when the Conservatives had nearly 3 million members and Labour more than a million. But by the 1970s this had fallen to around seven hundred thousand for Labour and just over a million for the Conservatives.

In 2008, some newspapers reported that the Conservative membership was set to fall to less than a quarter of a million. Membership has apparently decreased in the Conservative party at exactly the same time as its popularity with the public began to rise, suggesting perhaps that, like Tony Blair before him David Cameron is more popular with the country as a whole than he is with his own party. In comparison by 2006 Labours membership was well under two hundred thousand. As a percentage of the voting age population, party membership in th eUK has fallen from 10% in the early 1950s to less than 3% by the mid 1980s.

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Reasons for the fall in party membership

To many, this is a worrying trend. Party members help to keep politicians rooted in the 'real world' and the fact that they are willing to go from door to door, explaining their parties' policies and discussing politics with voters is seen as good for democracy because it encourages people to think about the issues, and to remember to vote.

Party memberships fallen as more people than ever aren't supporting the main parties at election time. in 1970 11% of voters choose a party other than Labour or the Conservatives. This proportion had risen to 32.5% by the 2005 election. 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 Democrats members in particular tend to feel that the party leadership has sidelined them. 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. As many people specifically join a party so as to contribute to its policy process, this has left many members disillusioned and they have left.Both Tony Blair and David Cameron became leaders of parties that were generally mistrusted by the public. They have 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 represents a change with the past. While effective at attracting support from the wider public, these disagreements have left some party members unhappy. Some academics have 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 lass they were born in until they died, and therefore felt a stronger affinity for their class as part of their identity. But increased wealth and job opportunities since the War meant that more people could rise and fall more easily and class labels became less important. By 1990s John Major a PM from a relatively modest background, declared his belief in 'classless society' in 1997. Deputy Labour leader John Prescott, who was famous for his pride in his working class roots, declared 'we are al middle class now'.

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Consequences of declining party membership

Some commentators have suggested that a new model of interacting with parties is emerging.

Before a person would join a party and seek to influence its policies from the inside by being active in one of its local branches. 

Now a person who's interested in politics will be more interested in particular issues, ending poverty or saving the environment. They will join a pressure group whose aims they agree with. The pressure group will campaign to directly influence and MPs from all parties. 

It's easy to see what the attraction of this is for the people. Joining a pressure group instead of a party means that the person concerned doesn't have to attend party meetings where discussions may be about political issues they aren't interested in. Instead, they can concentrate on the campaigns that do interest them.

There's a possible danger to this, when parties aggregate desires into policies, they have to take into account everyone's point of view and, in doing so, members come to understand that there's a wife range of demands being made on the government and that compromise is vital. By contrast, someone who's 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 understand of the give and take that is a necessary part of politics. Declining membership also means that the parties are less and less able to rely on the traditional face to face methods of campaigning, simply less people on the ground who'll participate. Parties incomes have fallen as subscription declines

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In the 1950s and 60s parties would try to increase support in two ways.

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. 

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 if they could be reminded to vote on Election Day. This face to face type of campaigning called 'canvassing', has proved an effective way of getting people to vote for a party.

While politicians definitely still try to get their message out through the media, the face to face component of campaigning is far less widespread than once it was. The British Elections and Parties Review 12 (2002) found that only 50% of voters had been canvassed in the 2001 election, even in the marginal seats where parties would traditionally concentrate their GOTV efforts. In safe seats, less than one in five voters had been contacted by a representative of a party.

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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. The postage and printing costs make mail shots fairly expensive.

Telephone Canvassing. Phoning voters instead of knocking on their door 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 argues that telephone contact is less effective than speaking to a voter in person.

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.

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 voters.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.

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Party Political Broadcasts

Unlike the USA, political parties in the UK aren't 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 'PEBs' officially called Party Election Broadcasts during election times, are about 5 minutes long and are shown on each of the terrestrial channels.

A famous PEB was aired ahead of the 1992 election. The Labours opposition's PEB highlighted the case of Jennifer, a five year old who'd 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.

In 2001, the anti abortion Pro Life Alliance Party made a PEB which depicted aborted foetuses. The BBC and ITV refused to air the distressing images, and were told off by a judge as a result.

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