JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT VOLUME 6 NO 2, DECEMBER, 2008
POLITICAL PARTIES IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
Eghosa Osa Ekhator
University of Hull, United Kingdom
Political parties have been playing major roles in the economic, social and political development of the United Kingdom. A major objective of this essay is to attempt to give life to these assertions. The paper defines politics and undertakes a historical odyssey of the evolution and development of political parties in the United Kingdom. It then elaborates on the roles and functions of political parties in the United Kingdom, highlighting the advantages and the defects inherent in them. The essay also dwells on the two major political parties;while emphasising the Margaret Thatcher administration and the ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair. The essay concludes that undermining the gradual erosion and ideological re-inventions of political parties in the UK and the disadvantages, remain the major fulcrum of the British political system.
Keywords: Parties; politics; Thatcherism; ideology.
Political parties are an integral part of any democratic society. The UK is no exception. However, it is arguable that democracy could be undermined by the ‘political paralysis’ (Beer, 1980 in Mullard, 2004) of political parties outbidding each other during elections (Brittan 1977, in Mullard, 2004). Democracy has certain attributes. These attributes include “the guaranteeing of a wide franchise, the secret ballot, frequent elections and the emergence of mass political parties” (Mullard, 3, 2004). The United Kingdom is a prime example of a democratic state because these above-mentioned democratic attributes are inherent in the political system of the UK.
It has been asserted that groups or associations of compatible Members of Parliament had existed in the House of Commons for years in the United Kingdom (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). However, political parties in its modern form emerged as “being disciplined, policy oriented, possessing a formal organization in the country and appealing to a large electorate after the second Reform Act (1867)” (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994, 240). This led to the establishment of local associations all the country (Jones and Kavanagh, (ed.) 1994). At this time, the two major parties were the Liberals and the Conservatives (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones et al 1994). However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were three major parties in the UK: Labour, Conservative and the Irish Nationalists (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones et al 1994). In 1918, the Irish Nationalists left the British Parliament, and during that period the decline of the Liberals set in (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones (ed.) 1994). This era saw the rise of the Labour party. Thus, for much of the twentieth century, the Conservative and Labour Parties became the dominant parties in the United Kingdom. They alternated power for the much of that century. However, the Conservatives had the lion share of power during this period. That is, the UK is effectively a two-party state.
The assertion that the UK is a two-party is no longer tenable. This is due to the recent elections of 2005. It ought to be classified as a multi-party system (Childs in Dunleavy et al (eds.) 2006). Multi-party systems operates in virtually in all the regions and the elections saw the rise of smaller parties which garnered substantial votes (Childs in Dunleavy et al (eds.) 2006). Presently in the UK, the main
parties are Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists (Childs in Dunleavy et al (eds.) 2006). However, this essay will focus on the Labour and Conservative parties.
Political Parties – A Conceptulisation
In the United Kingdom political parties are “the essence of parliament” (Disraeli in Garner and Kelly, 1998, 1). There are profound difficulties in getting an acceptable definition of political parties (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Any definition of political parties will be affected by the political system of the country in focus. Thus, local or national values will affect such definition of politics. A political party in the UK will be different from a political party so-called in China or the defunct USSR. Thus, for the purposes of this essay, a political party can be defined as an organization or a group of organized individuals whose major aim is to attain political power. Thus, political parties seek power by taking part in elections and convincing the electorate to vote for them by virtue of their unique programmes or ideologies. Thus, politics can be seen as a struggle for power (Beer, 1965) or authority by political parties in any country.
Aims and Objectives of Political Parties
Parties seek Power or Office (Garner and Kelly, 1998)
A major difference between political parties and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is that unlike NGOs who influence government policies, political parties influence and seek to be an integral part of government or governance (Garner and Kelly, 1998). This is especially true of the major parties (Conservative and Labour) which seek to be in government by contesting in general or parliamentary elections. Smaller parties also take part in elections. Even though small parties have slim chances of getting into government, they can influence governmental policy especially in a hung parliament (Garner and Kelly, 1998) or during debates in parliament.
A hung parliament is when there is no clear winner in a general election in the UK, the leading party in the polls might call on the small parties to join it in a coalition government. The coalition government will be made of members of the leading party and the junior member of the coalition (the small party). Also, in parliament a major party (which has no clear majority) can rely on the support of the smaller parties to pass parliamentary bills into law. Thus, there are two versions of the hung parliament. The first option is a minority government like the one ran by the Labour Party between February to October 1974 and 1977 to 1979 (Dunleavy et al in Dunleavy et al, 2006). The second option is a coalition amongst two or more parties (Dunleavy et al, in Dunleavy et al (eds.) 2006). Thus, a Liberal and Labour government has been in charge of Scotland since 1999 (Dunleavy et al in Dunleavy et al (eds.), 2006).
Parties Enhance Elections (Garner and Kelly, 1998)
Political parties bring credibility into elections (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Without political parties, the elections are seen as not free and fair. Instead of voting for individuals in their personal capacities, political parties through their manifestos or ideologies help a voter to decide on who he will vote for (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Thus, political parties by presenting different policies or manifestos allow the voters to make an informed choice (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones, (ed.) 1994). Citizens of the country have a say in the way and manner they are governed by voting in elections. Thus, political parties provide the platform for citizens to partake in politics by selecting contestants for local and parliamentary elections, engaging in electioneering campaigns and having a say at party conferences (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones (ed.) 1994).
Parties Enhance Parliamentary System Of Government (Garner and Kelly, 1998).
The political system in the UK provides the enabling environment for the parliamentary system to flourish (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Thus, as a result of political party culture, the change of governments or administrations is smooth and swift after any general elections (Garner and Kelly, 1998). This is due to the prevalence of a somewhat two-party system in the UK. Thus, one of the major parties usually obtains more votes and can be called to form the new government. Since the end of the Second World War, governments have been formed after the announcement of election results in about twenty-four hours and administrations usually lasts for an average of four years (Garner and Kelly, 1998). In some multi-party States, it can take a long time for governments to be formed due to the entrenched interests of the various parties. Under the Republic of Ireland’s multi-party political system, in 1992, it took about seven weeks to form a new government because of the numerous problems inherent in a multi-party system (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Also, in the recent general elections conducted in Italy in 2006, it took about one month for Romano Prodi to form the new government as a result of coalition squabbles inherent in a multiparty system (BBC, 2006).
Parties are Medium of Change (Garner and Kelly, 1998).
Parties act as instrument of change. This is achievable by the enactment of major reforms by the government in furtherance of its electioneering promises to the voters. For example, the Thatcher administration was a major revolution in the UK. It practically changed the entire landscape of the UK economy with its innovative programmes which were remarkably different from the previous administrations. Thus, the voters can vote out ineffective governments and bring in new ones. However, governments are accountable for its actions or inactions in office (Jones and Kavanagh in Jones (ed.) 1994).
Parties Develop Ideas (Garner and Kelly, 1998)
Political parties attract voters by developing new ideas or innovations (Garner and Kelly, 1998). It does this either when it is in government or outside government (Garner and Kelly, 1998). This can be seen from the Conservative and the Labour parties in the way they developed new programmes to attract disenchanted voters. New Public Management is the importation of commercial concepts into the public sector thereby watering down the traditional or bureaucratic concepts of administration inherent in the public sector. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair administrations made New Public Management the cornerstone of their public sector reforms (Greenwood et al 2000). Some of these concepts imported into the traditional concepts of public sector include contracting and the use of professionals amongst others.
Problems of Political Parties
It can be contended that political parties in UK today lack distinctive or unique ideological strands. Ideology can be defined as “bodies of concept, values and symbols which incorporate conceptions of human nature and thus indicate what is possible or impossible for humans to achieve” (Vincent, 1996, 16 in Garnett, 1996, 3). Ideology was mainly applied to the realm of international politics during the cold war, for example, Capitalism against Communism (Barker, R. 2004). In the realm of political parties, there was the traditional Left as represented by the Labour Party of the early twentieth century and the traditional right as represented by Conservatives prior to the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as the Leader. Old Labour represented the equality of men, pluralism and the improvement of lives of the workers (Beer, 1965). Conservative represented the preservation of the existing order in society (Barker, 2004). In the UK, Labour and Conservatives have undergone changes to their traditional ethos. The Conservatives were influenced by Thatcherism while Labour distanced itself from its socialist tradition by becoming ‘New Labour’ (Barker,
2004). Thus, it can be argued that ideology in political parties is dead in the United Kingdom (Jones in Jones (ed.) 1994).
Political parties are majorly interested in getting into power (Bobbio 1987 in Mullard, 2004). They achieve this, by advocating policies that will be attractive to the voters (Mullard, 2004). A good example is Margaret Thatcher who rode on the high unemployment rate and the poor economic situation in 1970s to get into power.
It is argued that political parties are not in the position to positively affect the lives of the citizens. Professor Rose in Do Parties Make a Difference? (1975, 1984 in Jones and Kavanagh in Jones (ed.) 1994) posited that parties are ill-equipped to oil the wheels of government effectively. An example is the administration of Margaret Thatcher who promised to reduce the burden on the citizens but ended up increasing their yoke by the enactment of the poll tax on citizens, and this added to their tax burdens.
Another flaw is that political parties tend to be advantageous to its own members. That is, electoral victory leads political consensus which is to the detriment of people outside the party (Heller in Mullard, 2004). Political parties maintain the status quo and this leads to the voters being uninterested and disenchanted with political process (Mullard, 2004).
The Conservative Party
The history of the Conservative Party can be traced to the 1830s (Jones in Jones et al 1994). It was the successor to the Tory party (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). The Tory was the party of the elites. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives were the dominant political party in the UK. The modern architect of Conservative dominance is said to be Benjamin Disraeli (Ball, 2001). He said to have made the Conservative Party attractive to different strata of the society and he established the major organizational structures of the Conservative Party (Ball, 2001). These structures were the National Union and the Central Office. In the
early twentieth century, the Conservative Party could be defined as follows:
“ ...an amalgam of support for the existing social, constitutional, religious and political
order and distribution of property, a belief in the necessity and value of elites, both
social and political, and a support for markets not as an exercise of individual choice,
but as a means of promoting individual virtue and social well-being”
(Barker, 2004, 1).
From this definition of Conservatism in the early twentieth century, two schools of thoughts can be deduced. The first is the “Tory or one nation Conservatism” (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994, 242). This is the concept that the Government or State plays the major role in the welfare, employment and poverty concerns of its citizens (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). The second strand of Conservative thought was the “neo-Liberal” (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.), 1994, 242) thought. Neo-Liberalism involved the removal of government control over the market forces. Government control was seen as an obstacle in a free market economy. Thus, government believes in low taxes and minimal level of public funding so that citizens can spend their money as they deem fit (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). The election of Mrs Thatcher as party leader in 1975 was a watershed in Conservative Party history because it marked the first time a leader from neo-liberal strand was elected (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994).
The Conservative Party has had a strong hold on power in the United Kingdom because undermining its elitist origins; it continually re-invented itself to appeal to the majority of the voters (Garner and Kelly, 1998). On the basis of ideology, the Conservative Party has been flexible or malleable depending on the circumstances. Thus, the Conservative Party has adapted to the ever-changing political, social and economic environment by
permanently attached to the same issues over time (Ball, 2001).
Mrs Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She was the opposition leader from 1975 to 1979. During her years as opposition leader she developed a major agenda founded upon the “the ‘free market’, rolling back government intervention and leaving as much as possible to individual initiative” (Ball, 2001, 3). This was the bedrock of the concept known as ‘Thatcherism’.
Thatcherism was different from the prevailing Conservative ideology. It is said to have been influenced by the Liberal tradition (Leach in Burch and Moran, 1987). It is argued that it represented a new face of the Conservative ideology for three obvious reasons (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Firstly, in Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative had a leader who was heavily committed to the freedom of markets and individual responsibility (Garner and Kelly, 1994). Even before she became Prime Minister she had argued that the State had intervened in area where it ought not to (Leach, in Burch and Moran, 1987). Instead of state interference she advocated “values of self-reliance coupled with private charity” (Thatcher, 1977, 107-11 in Leach in Burch and Moran, 1987, 158).
The second characteristic of Thatcherism was Mrs Thatcher unwavering commitment to the reforms which Thatcherism entailed (Garner and Kelly, 1998). The meticulously planned flow of reforms in Thatcherism was an example of how a government should stick to its plans set out at the beginning of its administration (Garner and Kelly, 1998).
The third characteristic of Thatcherism was the government resolve to carry out reforms notwithstanding the prevailing public opinion. Instead of public opinion shaping government reforms, government reforms shaped public opinion (Garner and Kelly, 1998). Thus, the
government defied the voters in respect of unemployment, local government and privatisation reforms (Garner and Kelly, 1998). The public was against reforms in these areas, but the government went ahead and implemented them.
Thatcherism was largely successful. Mrs Thatcher won three consecutive terms as Prime Minster from 1979-1990. The economic slow-down which was reeling in the 1970s was a major factor which contributed to her victories. She was dominant political figure and the victory over Argentina in the Falklands war in 1982 contributed to her success (Ball, 2001). She was instrumental in putting the UK as a major player in the international arena in the 1980s and the economy grew into an enterprise based one (Ball, 2001). However, the economic recession of 1980s and her imposition of the unpopular poll tax led to her downfall in 1990 in a leadership contest of the Conservative Party in 1990 (Ball, 2001).
The Labour Party
The Labour Party unlike the Conservative Party developed from a populist grassroots movement outside the confines of the Parliament (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). In its creation, the Labour Party was an amalgam of different groups. In 1900, trade unions, socialist and cooperative associations combined together to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) for the purposes of catering for the interest of the workers and getting them into the parliament (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.), 1994). The party was a loose coalition of different ideologies (Garner and Kelly, 1998). In the name LRC was changed to the Labour Party (Jones and Kavanagh, In Jones (ed.) 1994). The working class were disillusioned with the existing parties (Liberals and Conservatives), and they believed that a new party was necessary to protect their interests (Labour Party 2007). The Conservatives were made of the elites in the society and the Labour party was set up to counter it (Jones and Kavanagh,
in Jones (ed.) 1994). Undermining Labour’s verve to the masses, for most of the twentieth century it was in the opposition in parliament.
The early ideological bent could be described as “social democracy” (Garner and Kelly, 1998, 98). The early Labour movement or party was highly influenced by doctrine of socialism. However, Labour’s social democracy was different from Marxism (Garner and Kelly, 1998). A major feature of Labour’s socialism was the belief in the autonomy and a total disdain for anti-parliamentary actions to undermine the authority of the parliament (Garner and Kelly, 1998). The labour party believed in a classless society, however, the workers are expected to be the major beneficiary of the benefits of socialism (Garner and Kelly, 1998). The third feature of Labour’s social democracy was the belief in public ownership as a means to achieving economic prosperity (Garner and Kelly, 1998).
Unlike the Conservatives, the Labour Party was more democratic (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). Unlike the Conservatives, Labour had a constitution made in 1918 that laid down rules on elections, decision making and appointments (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994).
However Labour went through a radical change in their ideology, structure and organization in the 1980s. This led to the notion of New Labour or the Third way.
The Labour party has been in opposition for most part of its existence. Labour in the 1990s was undergoing radical changes. The election of Tony Blair who was a moderniser to the leadership of the party in 1995 was a major catalyst to Labour’s metamorphosis (Labour Party 2007). Labour has been undergoing its modernising programmes from the time of Neil Kinnock in 1983 as Leader of the Party and through the era of John Smith as a Leader (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). Thus, the election of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in
1997 was the culmination of almost two decades of reforms. Neil Kinnock undertook some reforms of the party. He strengthened the powers of the leader of the party by the establishment in 1983 of a “Campaign Strategy answerable to only to the leader” (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). Neil Kinnock also restructured the party’s headquarters (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). A major achievement by Kinnock was his restructuring of party membership. He made individual party membership the cornerstone of the party and not party membership based on trade union affiliation (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000).
During Tony Blair‘s campaigns for the leadership of the labour party, he promised to actualize major reforms of the party. His campaigns were premised on four grounds (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). The grounds were: new economic programmes, a social policy, political and constitutional reforms and a new foreign strategy (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). These modernising reforms were presented to the British electorate as different from the policies of previous Labour leaderships. Thus, it was ‘New Labour’ (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000, 3). The modernising reforms were also different from the previous Conservative administrations, thus, Labour saw itself as a “new third way” (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 3) in the political life of the UK that was neither old Labour nor Conservative (Thatcherism). Labour was voted into power on the basis of these reforms. These new reforms led to a revision of the Socialist ethos of the Labour tradition (Barker, 2004).
Labour party also undertook internal reforms of its structure and organization under the Leadership of Tony Blair. The constitution of the labour Party, the ‘Clause 4’ was replaced by a new clause in 1995 (Labour Party 2007). The old clause 4 was the epitome of Labour’s social democracy, however, its new clause 4 epitomises its new ethos of New Labour (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). Also,
Labour embarked on massive membership drive to attract new members, thus, the reliance on the trade unions for financial support was greatly reduced (Coates in Coates and Lawler, 2000). The reforms initiated by Tony Blair were a massive success. Labour under Tony Blair became the first Labour government that won three consecutive general elections. After ten years in power, Tony Blair stood down as Prime Minster on 27, June 2007 and Gordon Brown the former chancellor took over (BBC News, 2007).
Criticisms of New Labour
New Labour has a lot short-comings, some of these are highlighted below. The first criticism of Labour is that it has devalued its traditional ethos. Thus, it is contended the actions of Labour by changing its constitution (Clause IV) and reducing the roles of the trade unions has seriously undermined the traditional ethos of socialism of the party (Mullard, 2008).
Another criticism is that undermining Labour’s posturing in attracting new members; it has failed woefully in this regard (Mullard, 2008). Its membership in 2001 was 280,000 members, whereas, in 1997 (at end of Blair’s first election), the membership stood at 400,000 (Mullard, 2008). Undermining its public posturing, membership-wise, Labour was declining.
Labour reformed its funding drive by asking its members in their individual basis to donate to the party, unlike in the past when the trade unions were major financiers of the party (Mullard 2008). This has led to scandals in the Labour party. The ‘cash for honours’ scandal was a major sore in the administration of Tony Blair. Here, the Labour party was accused of procuring peerages for its supporters or members who assisted the party via loans by giving such individuals peerages (BBC, 2006). The new administration of Gordon Brown has also being tainted with the scandal of secret donations by David Abraham. David Abraham is alleged to have used fronts to donate large sums of money to Labour contrary to the
Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2002 (BBC 2007). The law states that anybody that donates any sum larger than £5,000 pounds to any political party must declare such cash to the Electoral Commission; however, in this case, this was not followed.
The Labour party is a state of crisis in the UK. The aforementioned scandals have affected it negatively.
Political parties are the bedrock on which the UK’s political system is built. This essay has undertaken a study of the political parties in the UK. Here, the Labour and Conservative parties were in focus. Their historical metamorphoses were briefly highlighted.
Undermining, the contributions of the political parties to economic, social and political development of the United Kingdom, it has been argued that the citizens have lost interest in the political parties as a result of their inadequacies. Political parties are said to be in decline and the most people have lost interest in their activities (Webb, 2000). However, the “services they render to a democratic state are inestimable” (Laski, 1938 in Berrington, 2004). Thus, the political parties cannot be jettisoned.
To remedy the defects of the political parties it has been suggested that pressure groups and the civil service should be strengthened (Jones and Kavanagh, in Jones (ed.) 1994). This will lead to the replacement of a lesser evil (political parties) with greater ones (NGOs and a powerful civil service). Furthermore, the use of referendum, as been suggested to cure the defects of political parties (Berrington, 2004). Referendum is not fool-proof. Political parties remain the best alternative because “if parties fail...then democracy fails...” (Houghton Report, 1976 in Introduction in Garner and Kelly, 1998)
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