Political Parties

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  • Created on: 15-04-19 14:27

The origins of political parties in the UK

Parties are characterised of having: 

  • Formal organisational structures: a leadership (with clearly set out mechanisms for electing or selecting leaders) and a membership. 
  • Formal process for the development of policy and the selection and promotion of candidates.
  • Objectives to turn their ideas and policies into government. 

With the widening of the franchise, the need to organise and to engage the expanding electorate became apparent. Over the ourse of the 19th century, Whigs and Tories developed into the more formally known Liberal Party and Conservative Party. 

As the franchise extended further around the beginning of the 20th century, incorporating working men for the first time, the Labour Party was formed, not from a parliamentary faction but from the trade union movement which sought working-class representation within the House of Commons. 

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The Conservative Party


  • The loosely organised Tory Party that existed prior to the 1830s evolved quite quickly into the modern Conservative Party following the 1832 Reform Act. 
  • Often referred to as the 'party of government' the Conservative Party has dominated the political landscape in the UK. It was in office for 67 years in the 20th century, and in the 40 years since 1979, it has been out of office for just 13 years, between 1997 and 2010. 


  • The ideological origins of the Conservative Party lie in 'conservatism' - gradual, pragmatic, evolutionary change while preserving existing institutions and political traditions.  In the postwar period, one-nation conservatism embraced a mixed economy that combined free competition with state intervention, a universal welfare state and increasing European integration. 
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The Conservative Party


  • In the 1970s and 1980s the Conservative Party adopted a 'New Right' stance by blending aspects of traditional conservatism (family values, national sovereignty) with a liberal approach to economics - privatisation, union controls, curbing the role of the state - is referred to as neo-liberalism. 

The main ideas of the New Right are: 

  • Commitment to a free market economy: restricted state intervention, government interference and trade union power.
  • Privatisation of publicly-owned industries such as gas, electricity and water.
  • Reduction in direct taxation: income and corporation tax levels were reduced in a bid to incentivise work, business and entrepreneurship. 
  • A 'neo-conservative' approach to law and order, emphasising moral authority and traditional institutions such as marriage. 
  • Limits on welfare support (targeting the 'dependency culture') and an emphasis on self-reliance, home ownership and enterprise. 
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The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party from 2015

Promising a referendum on continued EU membership, Cameron resigned following the 'No' vote. The subsequent leadership election initially pitted former allies Michael Gove and Boris Johnson against each other and Theresa May emerged unchallenged, while withdrawal from the EU casts a long shadow over possible commitments.

A number of early policy directions were: 

  • A commitment to deficit reduction and a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade, according to the 2017 manifesto.
  • Curbs on local and regional government, limiting the proliferation of directly elected mayors.
  • Reshaping government departments towards international trade and concentrating control of central government through cabinet committees. 
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The Labour Party


The Labour Party was founded at the start of the 20th century as the Labour Representation Committee. While a number of societies and federations aligned themselves, the trade union movement - primarily the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - provided the basis for its foundation, and substanially funds the Labour Party to this day. 


The Labour Party's objective was to provide effective representation for the working classes, and while never a purely 'socialist' party, the party's roots are closely associated with socialism - an ideological tradition that stresses equality and cooperation. 

It was the decision to grant the vote for all men over the age of 21 in 1918 that transformed the Labour Party into a serious electoral force. 

In the 1922 general election, the party won 142 seats. A year later in 1923 the party took office for the first time as Ramsey MacDonald led a Labour-Liberal coalition government. 

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The Labour Party

The postwar Labour Party 

UK politics in the decades following 1945 was profoundly shaped by the creation of the welfare state and by policies that reached consensus over the need for a mixed economy to balance public and private ownership. A managed economy and a commitment to social justice through universal welfare, funded by progressive taxation, became the hallmarks of the Labour Party until the 1980s. 


Labour's lurch to the left and four electoral defeats to the Conservative Party between 1979 and 1992 led to a rebranding process and the birth of 'New Labour' under Tony Blair. 

New Labour saw the party distnacing itself from class conflict and 'left-wing' collectivist approaches of the traditional 'Old' Labour Party.

Instead it stressed a 'Third Way' through. 

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The Labour Party


  • An emphasis on the role of the individual rather than a focus of equality through collective action and shared ownership. 
  • An acceptance of the free market. The removal of Clause IV, along with its commitment to renationalisation, broadened the party's appeal but led to acusations that fundamental socialist principles had been abandoned. 
  • Adapting the welfare state to focus on education and health, and a targeted approach to welfare benefits, withholding them from those not actively seeking work. 
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The Labour Party

The Labour Party in opposition, 2010 -

Jeremy Corbyn's leadership credentials were entirely different from those preceeding him. Corbyn had spent many decades following a left-wing socialist agenda that had often put him at odds with Labour leadership. 

With a lengthy record of backbench rebellion, Corbyn's successful leadership challenge appeared to many critics to be focused far more on opposition to modernisers within the Labour Party than on opposition to the Conservative Party. 

  • Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership emphasise his commitmen to fair welfare, NHS spending, an environmental agenda and a positive programme of public service investment.
  • Opponents highlight ineffectual and back-ward looking leadership of a divided party that appears out of touch with the complex aspirations and concerns of the modern electorate. 
  • Opponents and supporters point to the 2017 election campaign to prove their resepctive points. Supporters point to the surge in Labour support, the opponents would question how they only secured 262 seats. 
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The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats, 1988-2010

The modern Liberal Democrats have their recent roots in the formal merger of the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party that took place under the Gang of Four (Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen) in 1988. 

Their principles stress the importance of the individual within the classical liberal traditions of the 19th centruy, alongside a modern focus on the effective provision of state-run educational and health systems, on individual rights, electoral reforms and reforms to the process of government. 

Significant electoral success was established and consolidated in the 1990s and early 2000s, under leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. 

In 2005, the party won 18.3% of the vote, rising to 23% under Nick Clegg's leadership in the 201 general election. 

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The Liberal Democrats

Coalition government, 2010-15

The 5-year period between the 2010 and 2015 elections marked an astonishing reversal of fortune for the Liberal Democrats. Despite winning less than 9% of the MPs in the House of Commons in 2010, the party's impressive share of the national vote, together with the Conservative Party's failure to secure an outright Commons majority, saw the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg becoming junior coalition partners with the Conservatives. 


The Liberal Democrats experienced as close to a total wipeout in 2015 as modern British electoral politics has conspired to provide. Opinion polls indicated their likely demise, but the party's collapse from stable coalition partner to having just 8 MPs (4 million votes fewer than the previous election) was momentous. 

Tim Farron's leadership made the Lib Dem Common's presence grow by one after its victory in the Richmond park by-election and climbed to 12 in 2017. Vince Cable became party leader in June 2017 and resolved to push for innovative solutions to public sector reforms, housing, taxation and business enterprise. 

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Party structures and functions

Political parties lie at the heart of politics, dominating policy-making, government decision making and ideological debate. They provide a platform for aspiring politicians and national leaders and are constantly evolving and adapting to balance the representative and governing roles expected of them. 

However, poltical parties in the UK are criticised for failing to fulfil their most basic functions:

  • Failing electoral turnout is blamed on parties being insufficiently appealing to voters. 
  • Declining party membership is seen as evidnece of their inability to engage with and enthuse people in policy formation. 
  • Politicians are increasingly seen as 'slaves' to their parties, unable to vote with their consciences and tightly bound by collective responsibility.

Their perceived failure is occuring against a confusing backdrop: a narrowing media focus on party leaders alongside the advancement of minor and nationalist parties to erode the traditional two-party system. 

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Party structures and functions

The functions of political parties 

  • Representation - of different views and opinions in society. This was particularly true in the era of high partisan alignment, but dealignment and the broadening appeal of modern 'catch-all' parties has undermined this. 
  • Participationencouraging involvement in elections at various levels. Parties perform valuable educative functions - informing citizens of the issues that affect them and offering potential solutions. 
  • Policy makingparties turn ideas into potential policy and legislation. The process of formulating, discussing, agreeing and presenting coherent policy options to the electorate is vital within a pluralist democracy. 
  • Government - party organisation sustains government and opposition. the stability and coherence that parties provide allows for the operation of government and the parliamentary system.
  • Political recruitmentparties recruit and promote political leaders. Rigorous candidate selection processes weed out unsuitable candidates, but the major parties are criticised for drawing on smaller pools of 'talent' dominated by career politicans. 
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Structures and functions: local and national organ

The Conservative Party

Constituency associations play the largest role in organising members, mobilising support, planning education campaigns and selecting parliamentary candidates. Below constituency level, party branches are aligned to council wards to conduct similar activities on a smaller - and more local level. 

The Labour Party

Most activities are coordinated on a constituency level. Individual members are assigned to a local branch - the lowest level of the party organisation and where candidates are selected for local elections.

In recent years, the importance of constituency party leaders has delined as reforms to internal party decision making, in favour of a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system, have enhanced the clout of regular members. 

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Structures and functions: policy formulation

The Conservative Party 

The leader, alongside key advisors, determines policy and formulates the party's election manifesto. Recent Conservative manifestos are agreed to have been drawn up by the party leaders themselves along with a handful of trusted advisors. 

The Labour Party 

Reforms of the mid 1990s replaced the annual conference with a 2-year-policy-making cycle, and shifted the responsibility of the conference to that of 'approving' policy already made and formalised by the National Executive Committee. The process has been further centralised with Ed Miliband and a team of senior MPs and academics credited with teh writing of the 2010 and 2015 manifestos.

The Liberal Democrats 

With separate parties based on national regions, each one with further subdivisions, there are significant opportunities for contributions up to the Federal Policy Committee. 

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Structures and functions: leadership election

The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party had no formal mechanism for electing its leader until 1965. Between 1965 and 1997 the leadership election was restricted to the party's MPs alone. Reforms after 1997 included party members in the second stage of the ballot. 

The Labour Party

The Labour Party's leader was elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party for most of the 20th century. This narrow electorate was extended and modified over the 1980s and 1990s to include union and party members while fulfilling the principle of 'one member, one vote'. 

  • In 2010, the weight of the union influence was still felt since Ed Miliband beat his brother David despite being less supported by MPs and MEPs (46.6%) and party members (45.6%) - 59.8% of the votes of union members was sufficient to secure Ed Miliband leadership.
  • In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn was challenged within his own party but was re-elected Labour leader in Septembe with 61.% of the votes. 
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Structures and functions: candidate selection

The methods of candidate selection for the three main parties follow similar procedures. All candidates are vetted, approved and placed on a central list.

When vacancies arise, local constituency parties draw up shortlists of interested applicants, all of whom must be centrally approved. Meetings and ballots then take place at a local level to determine the preferred party candidates. 

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Issues and debates around party funding

There are three main ways to fund political parties:

  • Subscriptions from ordinary members: with declining party membership this sources has dwindled in recent years.
  • Donations from organisations and individuals: this can be the source of controversy if influence or honours are felt to be 'for sale'.
  • State funding - thereby ensuring that parties are not funded by wealthy individuals or groups, but could perpetuate problems of esource inequalities between parties.
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Issues and debates around party funding

Recent issues affecting party funding include: 

  • The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPER) 2000 placed a limt of £30,000 on constituency spending and reuired donations of over £5,000 to be declared. 
  • A second PPER Act in 2009 imposed further regulations on speding by candidates in the run-up to an election, empowering the Electoral Commission to investigate cases and impose fines, restricting donations from non-UK residents, and reducing the thresholds for the declaration of donations.
  • The 'loans for peerages' scandal saw evidence that parties were getting around legislation to limit or regulate donations by accepting long-term, low-interest loans - often in return for honours in the form of peerages. 
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The relations with, and influence of, the media

A number of factors have changed the impact of the media on the political agenda in recent years: 

  • The perceived fixation on 'managing the message' has given rise to accusations that the major parties have become more concerned with style than they are with the substance of the policies and the issues themselves. 
  • The advance of innovative communication technology has seen the media become an increasingly reflective force - reinforcing the diversity of views - rather than shaping the views that had previously permitted controllers of print journalism to preserve their own positions and further their own agendas. 
  • The phenomen of so-called 'fake news' mainly on social media newsfeeds, has raised further concerns about how ordinary people engage with political issues and events and how new forms of media shape the political agenda. 
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Factors affecting electoral outcomes


For 18 years between 1979 and 1997 the Conservative party won four general election victories. In 1979, the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, defeated a Labour government that was hampered by a lack of Commons majority. Thatcher campaigned on a platform of economic reform, a promise to curb the power of the unions, to create jobs and to restore Britain's place in an increasingly uncertain world. 

Defeat for the Labour party began a substantialperiod of opposition and transformation.

Support for the SNP in 1979 collapsed as it lost 9 of its 11 MPs.

The Liberal Party declined even further and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe lost his own North Devon Seat. 

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Factors affecting electoral outcomes

In each of the following general elections, the Conservatives secured working Commons' majorities:

  • In 1983 the Conservative party won the most decisive general election success since Labour in 1945. The Conservatives added 37 seats to their 1979 total, while the Labour Party's national vote share declined to 9%.
  • In 1987 Thatcher became the first PM since 1820 to lead a party to three successive election victories. With the Labour party under Neil Kinnock, the Conservative campaign successfully focused on economic stability. It withstood a 1.5% swing towards Labour and secured a government majority of more than 100 seats.
  • In 1992 the Conservatives won a fourth successive election victory. This time under the leadership of John Major. The success was unexpected since opinion polls had consistently predicted a Labour win. However, the governing majority was slashed to 21 seats. 
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Factors affecting electoral outcomes


A succession of by-election defeats running up to 1997 had eroded the Conservative Party's majority and against a backdrop of 'Tory sleaze', disunity over Europ, and declining economic credibility following black Wednesday, the party plunged to its worst electoral defeat since 1906. 

The Labour Party's rejuvination under Tony Blair saw it win 418 seats and established its largest ever parliamentary majority.

  • In 2001, the Labour Party continued to profit from weak Conservative opposition as William Hague failed to make inroads. Despite a record low turnout of just 59.4%, the Labour Party retained an overwhelming majority.
  • In 2005 despite Tony Blair's decline in popularity since the Iraq War, the Labour Party won again in Blair's last election as leader. Its vote share of just 35.2% was the lowest polled by any majority-forming government in British history. 
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Factors affecting electoral outcomes

2010 - present

The 2015 general election was remarkable for several reasons:

  • Opinion polls had consistently predicted a hung parliament but the Conservatives won an unexpected majority with 330 seats. 
  • The Labour party had a disastrous election, losing 24 seats and failing to mount a credible challenge to teh Conservatives. 
  • The SNP had been growing in popularity, but on the back of a surge in support following 2014's 'No' vote in the Scottish independencereferendum, won 56 of the 59 Scottish parliamentary seats to become the third biggest party in the Commons. 
  • The Liberal Democrats experienced their worst electoral outcome since their formation, losing all but 8 of their parliamentary seats. 
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Factors affecting electoral outcomes

2015 - present 

  • UKIP outstripped Liberal Democrat support, with over 3.5 million votes, yet returned just 1 MP.

The 2017 general election was more remarkable: 

  • The Conservative parliamentary majority was wiped out (despite polling over 42% of the vote) and the Labour Party gained 30 seats. 
  • The election was called to strengthen the Brexit negotiating hand of Theresa May's 'strong and stable' leadership, and the results proved anything but. The PM's position was seriously compromised. 
  • The surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership profoundly changed media attitudes and those within his own party.
  • The SNP's focus on Scottish independence was neutralised by the loss of 21 seats and nearly a million votes.
  • UKIP were all but wiped out as an electoral force, receiving just 594,068 votes (1.8%) and losing their one MP. 
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Policies of minor parties

Nationalist Parties and their impact

The Scottish National Party (SNP) 

Supporting devolution in 1997, the SNP went from major party in the 1980s to a nationalist party with a major political significance, forming a single-party majority government in the Scottish Parliament following the 2011 election. 

It fell two seats short of a majority when it lost its six seats in the 2016 election. 

  • The SNP-backed campaign for independence was dealt a substantial blow when the Scottish referendum returned a 'No' vote based on 55% of the electorate in 2014. 
  • In the 2015 general election, 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies were won by the SNP making it the third largest party in Parliament. This presence made it a credible threat to government policy in areas that affect the regions such as international relations and the economy. 
  • The Scottish Conservatives had a resurgance in 2017 under leader Ruth Davidson. With just one seat from 2015, the 13 seats they emerged with was their best performance since 1983. 
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Policies of minor parties

Plaid Cymru (PC) 

Appetite for regional government in Wales has historically been less prominent than that in Scotland, exemplified by the 50.3% 'Yes' vote in 1997 which supported the creation of the Welsh Assembly, from a 50.1% turnout. 

One major recent change has been the devolution of further primary legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly. 

The Welsh Assembly now has full legislative competence in areas as diverse as health, education, housing and tourism. 

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Policies of minor parties

Northern Ireland 

Party politics in Northern Ireland is based on decades of political and religious violence.

The Good Friday Agreement (1998) paved the way for Northern Ireland to become a self-governing territory with its own assembly and executive. Party divisions remain on religious lines while a range of parties hold seats in the assembly.

  • The DUP has strong links with Protestant institutions and voters, and former ties to loyalist parliamentary groups such as the Ulster Unionist Volunteer Force (UUVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). It holds 28 of the 90 seats in the assembly and its 10-seat haul in the 2017 UK general election put it in prime position to offer support to the Conservative minority government (confidence and supply coalition). 
  • Sinn Fein holds 27 seats in the assembly. Its background is Catholic and the party had histroically had links with the Provisional IRA.
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Minor parties and their impact

UK Independence Party (UKIP) 

UKIP's profile rose dramatically with 16.5% of the vote at the 2009 European elections securing it 13 seats. Its leader Nigel Farage captured many disenchanted eurosceptic Tory voters as well as those who felt that the main political parties do not offer sufficient direction in tackling key issues of immigration and law and order. 

  • In the first time that a political party other than the Labour Party or Conservative Party won the popular vote in a British election since the 1906 general election, UKIP topped the 2014 European elections, winning 26.6% of the national vote and 24 seats overall - from every region apart from Northern Ireland. 
  • UKIP's attraction was a major feature in the referendum vote to leave the EU. The party attracted significant support and funds and in June 2016, 52% of voters voted in favour of 'Brexit', but its vote share had dwindled to under 600,000 in the 2017 general election (1.8%). 
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Minor parties and their impact

The Green Party

The Greens secured modest representation in recent European elections but broke through in 2010 by winning a Westminster seat for the first time - Brighton Pavilion with 31.3% of the vote. 

With other parties embracing a green agenda, its share of the national vote stuck around 1%. 

In both 2015 and 2017, the party retained its one seat, but its vote share went up to 1.15 million voters in 2015 and back down to 525, 371 in 2017. 

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Development towards a multi-party system in the UK

The traditional two-party system in the UK

Traditional views of party politics in the UK stress the predominance of Labour and Conservatives within a two-party system. Based on seats won and governments formed, this view is difficult to dispute. The introduction of alternative electoral systems has seen patterns of representation change at different electoral levels. 

One-party systems 

  • States with a constitutionally prosribed ruling party (North Korea) or states which see opposition party support restricted (Zimbabwe).

Dominant Party Systems

  • Different from one-party systems, a natural dominance of the political system by one party (India and Japan).

Multi-Party Systems

  • A larger number of parties plays a significant role in political life - gaining representation and governing responsibility (Germany).
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Development towards a multi-party system in the UK

Does the UK still have a two-party system? 


  • One of the main strengths of the FPTP is its creation of a strong single-party government in all but two of the post-war general elections, all of which were won by the Labour or the Conservative parties.
  • The system over-rewards opposition parties and Labour currently holds 39% of the seats from 29% of the national vote. 
  • The two main parties have never held less than 85% of the seats in the House of Commons. 
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Development towards a multi-party system in the UK

Does the UK still have a two-party system? 


  • Vote shares of the two main parties in general elections have declined from around 95% in the 1950s to 65% in 2010. 
  • Recent decades have hardly been characterised by regular to-and-fro between two parties. The 1979-97 period was dominated by the Conservatives and 1997-2010 dominated by Labour.
  • In the regions where alternative systems are used, nationalist parties and independents do far better - the Scottish National Party have formed a single-party government and UKIP, the Green Party and the BNP all gained seats in the 2009 European Parliament election. 
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