“the system of interactions resulting from inter-party competition”.
To develop this idea, within Britain the party system essentially means the way the political parties of the day interact with one another within the politically competitive nature of Westminster and beyond.
A number of different types of party systems have been identified:
One-party system: a one-party system cannot produce a political system as we would identify it in Britain. One party cannot produce any other system other than autocratic/dictatorial power. A state where one party rules would include the remaining communist states of the world (Cuba, North Korea and China), and Iraq (where the ruling party is the Ba’ath Party). The old Soviet union was a one party state. One of the more common features of a one-party state is that the position of the ruling party is guaranteed in a constitution and all forms of political opposition are banned by law. The ruling party controls all aspects of life within that state. The belief that a ruling party is all important to a state came from Lenin who believed that only one party – the Communists – could take the workers to their ultimate destiny and that the involvement of other parties would hinder this progress.
Two-party system: as the title indicates, this is a state in which just two parties dominate. Other parties might exist but they have no political importance. America has the most obvious two-party political system with the Republicans and Democrats dominating the political scene. For the system to work, one of the parties must obtain a sufficient working majority after an election and it must be in a position to be able to govern without the support from the other party. A rotation of power is expected in this system. The victory of George W Bush in the November 2000 election, fulfils this aspect of the definition.
The two-party system presents the voter with a simple choice and it is believed that the system promotes political moderation as the incumbent party must be able to appeal to the ‘floating voters’ within that country. Those who do not support the system claim that it leads to unnecessary policy reversals if a party loses a election as the newly elected government seeks to impose its ‘mark’ on the country that has just elected it to power. Such sweeping reversals, it is claimed, cannot benefit the state in the short and long term.
The multi-party system: as the title suggests, this is a system where more than two parties have some impact in a state’s political life. Though the Labour Party has a very healthy majority in Westminster, its power in Scotland is reasonably well balanced by the power of the SNP (Scots Nationalist Party); in Wales within the devolutionary structure, it is balanced by Plaid Cymru; in Northern Ireland by the various Unionists groups and Sein Fein.
Within Westminster, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats provide a healthy political rivalry. Sartori defines a multi-party system as one where no party can guarantee an absolute majority. In theory, the Labour Party, regardless of its current parliamentary majority, could lose the next general election in Britain in 2006. Even its current majority of 167 cannot guarantee electoral victory in the future.
A multi-party system can lead to a coalition government as Germany and Italy have experienced. In Germany these have provided reasonably stable governments and a successful coalition can introduce an effective system of checks and balances on the government that can promote political moderation. Also many policy decisions take into account all views and interests. In Italy, coalition governments have not been a success; many have lasted less than one year. In Israel, recent governments have relied on the support of extreme minority groups to form a coalition government and this has created its own problems with such support being withdrawn on a whim or if those extreme parties feel that their own specific views are not being given enough support.
Dominant-party system: this is different from a one-party system. A party is quite capable within the political structure of a state, to become dominant to such an extent that victory at elections is considered a formality. This was the case under the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. For 18 years (1979 to 1997), one party dominated politics in Britain.
In theory, the Conservatives could have lost any election during these 18 years. But such was the disarray of the opposition parties – especially Labour – that electoral victory was all but guaranteed. The elections of the 1980’s and 1990’s were fought with competition from other parties – hence there can be no comparison with a one-party state. During an extended stay in power, a dominant party can shape society through its policies. During the Thatcher era, health, education, the state ownership of industry etc. were all massively changed and re-shaped. Society changed as a result of these political changes and this can only be done by a party having an extended stay in office.
Other features of a dominant system are:
the party in power becomes complacent and sees that its position in power is ‘guaranteed’. Such political arrogance is seen as one of the reasons for the public’s overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives in 1997.
the difference between the party in power and the state loses its distinction. When both appear to merge, an unhealthy relationship develops whereby the state’s machinery of carrying out government policy is seen as being done automatically and where senior state officials are rewarded by the party in power. This scenario overshadowed the Thatcher governments when the Civil Service was seen as a mere rubber stamp of government policy to do as it was told and senior Civil Servants were suitably rewarded in the Honours lists.
An era of a dominant party is also an era when opposition parties are in total disarray. This was true during the Conservatives domination of Britain in the 1980’s. Once the Labour Party started to strengthen in the 1990’s and internal problems were resolved, the whole issue of a dominant party was threatened leading to the defeat of the Conservatives in 1997.
It would be fair to conclude that Britain has a dominant-party system now. Within certain criteria, the Labour government with its near 180 majority in Westminster, has the freedom to do politically what it likes. The powers devolved to the regions were restrained by the simple fact that Westminster is still the major purse-holder of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, thereby not giving these three regions the freedom they believe they need to be truly devolved governments.