British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 6 notes - Political Parties

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  • Political parties fulfil important functions in modern representative democracies.
  • Although the Conservative and Labour parties still largely dominate politics at Westminster and have monopolized UK government since the Second World War, multi-party systems and coalition government are now a feature of devolved parliaments and assemblies and many local councils.
  • Party leaders have considerable influence over policy and strategy. An effective and credible leader seems to be crucial for a party’s electoral prospects. Methods of choosing new leaders and challenging existing leaders are therefore important and often controversial. All major parties have moved towards involving ordinary members in leadership elections, although the Conservatives are having second thoughts.
  • Parliamentary parties are often accused of being too subservient to the party leadership. There are strong inducements to loyalty, not least because divided parties do not prosper. Even so, MPs are becoming more rebellious.
  • Party conferences are not generally occasions for important political decisions, and now only rarely involve major controversy. All parties now seem to use their party conferences as, primarily, opportunities for promoting the party, its policies and leading personalities.
  • Parties in Britain, as elsewhere, have experienced a significant decline in their active membership. Fewer than one in 40 voters are now party members. It is questionable how far British parties can still be described as mass parties. Party members are predominantly elderly and in other respects unrepresentative of the wider population.
  • Local constituency members normally choose candidates for parliamentary and other elections, and have more recently been given a role in leadership elections. Their influence on policy is less easy to assess. In so far as members are influential they may damage a party’s electoral prospects, as the views of party activists are generally untypical of those of voters.
  • Parties need money to compete effectively, but their finances are very unequal. Subscriptions from a diminishing membership are inadequate, and parties rely on donations from corporate bodies (particularly business firms and trade unions) and from rich individuals, leading to concerns over the purchase of influence.
  • Reforms have made party funding more transparent, but this has raised further questions about the sources of party finance. One possible solution is state funding of political parties.
  • The 2010 election, leading to the first coalition in Britain since the war, has potentially massive significance for the future of British parties and the party system.