There are many political parties in Britain but throughout the whole of England, there are three dominant political parties : Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. These are expanded on in the regions by the addition of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the various Unionist parties and Sein Fein of Northern Ireland.
In terms of electoral success, Britain has frequently been referred as a two-party state; similar to America. In terms of pure definition, Britain is a classic multi-party state in which just a handful of parties have any political/electoral significance due to the electoral system we have of ‘first past the post’ in an election. During the era of Thatcher and Major, such was the dominance of the Tories up to the 1997 election, that the era 1979 to 1997 could be referred to as an era of one party dominance. The same appears to be true of Britain 1997 to 2002 with the Labour Party in a position of total dominance in Parliament after their victory in 2001.
The function of political parties
Politics, and therefore politicians, invariably have to respond to what society in general and individuals specifically want out of their community. These are the values and beliefs that society in general has. The most common are likely to be:
reform of the electoral system constitutional reform better and more effective law and order; an expansion of our police forces an improved public transport system reform of the welfare system improved national health and education systemsbetter protection of the environment greater government accountability a Freedom of Information Act as found in America.
Certain groups will also have their own interests to pursue :
unions calling for better protection for their members business leaders asking for both government aid and protection the poor wanting an expansion of all aspects of the Welfare State women demanding more equality
A government is likely to listen to any of the values or the interest/pressure groups if there is a political reason to do so. If the support for one is an electoral liability (even if it is a sound prospective policy) then it is likely that such support will not be forthcoming.
In 1997, the Liberal Democrats lead by Paddy Ashdown, stated in the run-up to the election, that they, if elected, would put 1p on income tax to fund education. All political analysts decided that this was an honest statement but political folly as no-one was going to vote in a party – however laudable its policies – if they meant that their own income tax would increase, even if they did support a policy of more money going into state education.
Any imposed “Green Tax” to fund a clean-up of the environment would also certainly meet with the same response. Everybody wants a cleaner environment but no individual wants to see his/her income decreased to assist in the financing of it. Only if the party analysts and researchers have got their information correct, and their findings show that people would be willing to do this, would there be a chance that this would become an electoral issue.
|Therefore, do political parties merely respond to what the public want or do they drive forward their own agenda and try to bring the public on board? Is a subtle blend of both required for electoral success?|
A political party must also select its leader with the death, retirement etc of its incumbent leader. A potential party leader should be charismatic, good at public speaking, have the powers of persuasion, the energy for public campaigning and above all the respect of his/her party.
While the Liberal Democrats and Labour used the traditional method of voting for a new leader – by a simple vote among MP’s – the Tories have for the 2001 leadership contest introduced a vote for its 330,000 party members to give the system a greater air of democracy.
The system in the Labour Party is rather more convoluted with the involvement of the unions and party members etc. The recent reforms leading to “one person one vote” changed this system but it does claim to be fairer as it includes all those who have a vested interest in the party and who have a right to vote on such matters rather than leaving it to just a handful of MP’s representing the party in Parliament.
At a local and regional level, parties also ‘introduce’ selected candidates to politics. Local parties are vital in identifying potential talent within their ranks. All Cabinet members and Prime Ministers in recent years had to start their political career at a local level and the input of local parties is vital to the strength of the party at a national level. In one sense, the local party is the breeding ground for potential party leaders.
A party in power requires the support of the people it governs. Without this most basic requirement, a government will find it hard to function effectively. The Poll Tax rebellion under Margaret Thatcher showed what could happen when a government misreads public desires. The fuel crisis in 2000 also showed the power the public has though its impact at the 2001 election appeared to be minimal in terms of support for the Labour Party. Through all of this, certain conventions are held by all parties in Britain :
If a party loses an election, it will confirm the right of the victorious party to exercise power. It will not deny its right to govern. Parliament remains at the centre of the political system in Britain (though recognising the importance of the devolved bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and MP’s generally work to uphold its traditions and procedures. Parliament recognises the status of the monarch as head of state. If the nation is threatened with a national crisis, traditional political rivalry is suspended and all parties work together in the interest of national unity.
One of the roles played by parties in the political system of Britain is that of organising political activities. Various institutions are unlikely to operate without this input from the parties.
One of the key areas in which parties operate is that of the formulation of policy programmes. If a party is elected to power after a general election, it must have policies ready on the very same day that it officially takes over the country. A failure to do so would be a failure to govern. In the run-up to an election, a party clearly states its manifesto. Probably at no time in history are these manifestos so readily available with the growth of the Internet.
Therefore, no-one in the Civil Service can claim to be lacking in knowledge of potential government policies. A newly elected government should have direction, shape and organisation almost from the start of its time in office. Those who need to know about these policies will do so.
|“Without the policy-making functions of parties, there is likely to be incoherence, delay and contradiction in the political process.” (McNaughton)|
Parties also recruit candidates for elections. It would not be feasible for a party leader to know about every potential candidate at constituency level. This process of selection has to come from each constituency party office. It is their responsibility to the party to ensure that each candidate is able and has an appeal to the electorate of that constituency. In this sense, the future of the party as a whole is dependent on the constituency hierarchy selecting people of ability who might rise up through the ranks of the party if elected.
At a local level, parties are of vital importance during an election. Local party supporters are crucial in getting out and encouraging people to actually vote. It is these party faithful who deliver leaflets, organise local phone-ins, organise transport etc. Without these people in a party, they would have little hope of electoral success especially in an era which seems to indicate that fewer and fewer people are voting in elections of all sorts. The involvement of such people is vital for a party but it is also a major part of ensuring that an election is run successfully and fairly – an important component of a democracy.
Parliamentary committees are also part of the party machine. It is these committees that scrutinise potential government legislation or actions. These committees need able and broad minded members. The selection process of parties for an election or potential candidates for Parliament is implicit in this process and goes back to the role played by parties at a local level. In this sense, parties organise the business of Parliament.
Political Parties and the Public
A cynic might conclude that parties are only interested in what is good for themselves. However, the role of a party at all levels is very important in informing the public about the major issues of the day. The fact that arguments take place across the floor of the House of Commons gives the public access to the arguments and counter-arguments surrounding a major issue. That these debates are televised and recorded for posterity are implicit in a democracy.
Such a system would not be found in a one-party state. Giving the public (and by implication the electorate) such a resource as information is vital in the political process as it gives the public the majority of arguments about whatever issue is being argued about; each party will present its points of view in an attempt to mobilise support and the public will then be at large to make a judgement.
In a one-party state, the public would be presented with just one point of view which may or may not be true and they would not be allowed to make a judgement on that issue. One way of holding a government accountable in a democracy is to hear and have access to the full range of arguments and making a conclusion on these arguments. The party in power will present its arguments accordingly while the opposition parties will present their arguments against government policies. In this way, the public at large usually get the necessary information before making a valued judgement.
After the 1997 election, one party – Labour – dominated Parliament as a result of its parliamentary majority. This was sustained after the 2001 election result. Even if party mavericks are willing to ‘rock the party boat’, the party’s majority is such that lack of support from the likes of Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbin etc. is unimportant though possibly embarrassing for the government. With so many young Labour MP’s out to make their mark with the party’s leadership, most follow the party line and party unity within the House remains.
It would be unwise to state that the government can do as it pleases within the constitutional boundaries of Britain’s political set-up as it has to answer to the public at some stage in its life. However, the party does have its 2001 manifesto to deliver and in this sense the party is responsible to the electorate if it is seen to be failing to deliver this. The manifesto was a written document made publicly available in 2001. Therefore, the public have a right to expect that the issues raised on the manifesto are at least addressed in some degree by the government.
In this sense, an election manifesto can become a political millstone. For example, the 1997 Labour manifesto claimed it would reduce hospital waiting queues by a specific percentage by the end of their time in government. Over the course of 4 years the climate in which a government operates can change greatly. The state of the NHS is an Achilles Heel for any government with the Blair government caught out by the 1999 flu epidemic which was quickly latched on to by opposition parties. Then, the Labour political spin was that the chaos that ensued in the NHS was the result of 18 years of Tory lack of finance etc. Now in 2001, still tied to its promises in the 2002 manifesto, the government has been accused of ‘fiddling’ NHS waiting time figures – ironically, something it accused the Major government of doing while it was in opposition from 1992 to 1997
The party in power also has what is referred to as a ‘doctor’s mandate’. This is when a problem occurs while it is in power which it has to respond to as a doctor would respond to a patient’s illness. John Major would have faced such a crisis with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; likewise, Tony Blair with the Balkans crises. The public expect resolute action even if the situation that occurred was not referred to in a manifesto.
Parliament is effectively controlled by the government especially when the current government has such a large working majority. The legislation it wishes to introduce is controlled by party managers and its committees are staffed by party appointees. MP’s are expected to adhere to the party line and their loyalty is effectively controlled by the party whips.
During the course of a 5 year government, very few pieces of private members legislation gets to the floor and if it is contentious, it can be killed off through lack of time. Departmental select committees, which examine government conduct within that department, do allow MP’s more scope for manoeuvre but outside of these select committees, those same MP’s will be looking for promotion within the party, and therefore are unlikely to want to be seen by party managers as mavericks who cannot be trusted. Therefore, the shadow of the governing party still tends to dominate MP’s of the governing party on the select committees.
The appointment of Cabinet ministers, junior ministers, senior staff to committees etc allows the party leadership huge powers of patronage. This in itself allows for a great degree of loyalty as few MP’s wish to remain on the backbench and a constituency selection panel may not be impressed with a MP who seems to have done nothing to advance his/her career within Parliament.
Opposition to the government comes from the parties that sit on the Opposition benches in Parliament. They have to remain tightly organised, disciplined and controlled if they are to maintain an effective opposition to the government in power.
If none of these exist, then the government has what is effectively a free hand to pursue what it wishes to without any effective opposition. During the fuel crisis of September 2000, the Tory opposition scored many points off of the Labour government as a direct result of the government’s inability to end the blockade. The polls indicated that the gap between both parties had dramatically fallen to single figures for the first time since 1997. Yet less than one month later and after the Tory Party Conference at Bournemouth, the figure was back up to 13% after the Tory Party’s problems on where it stood with the prosecution (or not) of those found with cannabis on them. One comment by the Opposition Home Secretary – Anne Widdecombe – was seized on by the media and left the then party leader, William Hague, in a situation he could not win; does he support one of his colleagues on the Opposition front bench, or does he not? His comment that he would put out to the party all sides of the arguments to discuss before coming to a party decision on the issue was probably the best he could do in the circumstances.
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