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The party political system

Conservative 166 163306331 318
Labour 412 407258232261
Scottish National 5 565635
Liberal Democrats 52 5557812
Democratic Unionist 5 68810
Sinn Fin 4 454 7
Plaid Cymru - Wales 4 4334
Green Party....111
Social Democratic33330
Ulster Unionist 6 5020
UK Independence........10
Alliance Party....1...0
Other parties13..1 0
Speaker and three deputies14444

The party system, which has existed in one form or another since the 18th century, depends upon there being organised political groups, each of which presents its policies to the electorate for approval. In practice, most candidates in elections, and almost all winning candidates, belong to one of the main parties.

The first two parties, the Whigs and the Tories, oriented to the Protestant strata and to the Catholic, respectively, appeared even under Charles. The word "Tory," first applied to Irish thugs, was selected as an epithet for royalists at a time when their principal opponents, the Whigs were so dubbed for a Scottish king-hater named Whigamore. The origins of the Conservative Party go back to the 18th century, while the Labour Party emerged in the last decade of the 19th century. The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party, which also traced its origins to the 18th century, merged with the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1981. Other parties include two nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales (founded in 1925) and the Scottish National Party (founded in 1934). Northern Ireland has a number of parties. They include the Ulster Unionists, formed in the early part of the 20th century; the Democratic Unionists, founded in 1971 by a group that broke away from the Ulster Unionists; the Social Democratic and Labour Party, founded in 1970; and Sinn Fin, which is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Parliamentary parties, as such, came into existence in England as soon as parliament achieved or aimed at predominance in the state. In 1641, shortly after the meeting of the Long Parliament, they were divided on the question of church reform, passing, as soon as political questions were involved, into Cavaliers and Roundheads. After the expulsion of the Cavaliers in 1642 and 1643 the Houses were divided into a peace party and a war party, and these in 1643 took the shape of Presbyterians and Independents.

After the Restoration, there was a country party and a court party, and to these the names of Whig and Tory were applied in 1679, in the heat of the struggle which preceded the meeting of the first short parliament of Charles II. At this time the Whigs were maintainers of parliamentary power over the crown and of toleration for Dissenters, the Tories maintainers of the hereditary indefeasible rights of the wearer of the crown and of the refusal of toleration to Dissenters.

The words were nicknames given by the opponents of each party. To call a man a Whig was to compare him with the Presbyterian rebels of the west of Scotland. To call a man a Tory was to compare him with the Papist outlaws of Ireland. The origin of "Whig" has been much controverted; it has been associated with the Scots for "whey," as implying a taunt against the "sour-milk" faces of the western Lowlanders; another theory is that it represented the initials of the Scots Covenanters' motto, "We hope in God"; another derives it from the Scots word "whiggam," used by peasants in driving their horses. It was, however, a form of the Scots Gaelic term used to describe cattle and horse thieves, and transferred to the adherents of the Presbyterian cause in Scotland. "Tory" is derived from the Irish Tar a Ri, "Come, oh king!" associated with the creed of the Irish native levies enlisted in the civil wars on behalf of the loyalist cause; the outlaws who fought for James in Ireland after the revolution were similarly nicknamed Tories.

The persistency of the names of the two parties was mainly owing to their essential unmeaningness. As new questions arose, the names of the old parties were retained, though the objects of contention were no longer the same. On the whole, during the last years of the 17th and the first years of the 18th century the Whigs may be regarded as the party of the great landowners, and of the merchants and tradesmen, the Tories as the party of the smaller landowners and the country clergy. The Whigs established, through their hold upon the boroughs under the influence of the great landowners, a firm government, which could keep in check, and at last practically set aside, the power of the crown.

When in 1783 Chatham's son Pitt became prime minister, the Tory party took a new start. It retained the Tory principle of reliance on the crown, and joined to it Chatham's principle of reliance on the people as opposed to the great Whig families. All this was changed by the French Revolution. In opposition to the new democracy, the Tories coalesced with a section of the Whig families, the representatives of which entered the ministry in 1794. From this time till 1822, in spite of men like Pitt, and the personal influence of Tory leaders who supported moderate reform, Toryism came to be popularly identified with a desire to retain the existing state of things.

The Liberal and Conservative party organisations, though they may at their best have come fairly near to representing the upper and middle class electorate, failed to incorporate the mass of wage-earning electors, to whom those in command were never willing to concede the influence that would have been warranted by their numbers.

A Parliament has a maximum life of five years, but not all Parliaments serve their full term. The maximum life has been prolonged by legislation in rare circumstances, such as the two World Wars of the last century. The Sovereign dissolves Parliament and calls for a General Election on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The party that wins most seats (although not necessarily the most votes) at a General Election, or that has the support of a majority of MPs in the Commons, usually becomes the Government. By tradition, the Sovereign invites the leader of that party to form a government. The largest minority party becomes the official Opposition, with its own leader and 'shadow cabinet'. Since 1945 the traditional two-party system of government in the UK Parliament has been maintained, with power being held by either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. Each has won eight General Elections in this period, the Labour Party being successful in the General Election in 2001).

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 contained provisions to make party funding more open and transparent, by restricting the sources of political donations, controlling spending on elections and regulating the finances of organisations campaigning at referendums. Campaign expenditure is regulated at elections to the UK and European Parliaments and to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and, when it is sitting, the Northern Ireland Assembly. During a General Election campaign a party is subject to limits which are calculated according to the number of seats it is contesting in England,Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; this excludes spending by candidates, for which there are separate limits. Lower limits apply for elections to the other bodies. Third parties campaigning at elections (such as trade unions) are also subject to limits on expenditure incurred on election materials. There are separate rules governing expenditure on referendum campaigns.

Political parties in Great Britain are required to abide by regulations on accepting and reporting donations: these requirements have been disapplied to parties registered in Northern Ireland until February 2005. Parties may only accept donations of over 200 from 'permissible donors' - individuals on the UK electoral register and organisations (such as companies, trade unions and political parties) that are registered and do business in the United Kingdom. All donations of over 5,000 to a political party's central organisation must be reported to the Electoral Commission on a quarterly basis, and on a weekly basis during a General Election campaign. Parties must also report donations of over 1,000 made to party accounting units. Donations of more than 1,000 to holders of elective office and to members of registered parties must be reported by the individual, and 'members associations' (groups whose membership consists mainly or wholly of members of a particular registered party) must also report donations of over 5,000. Similar controls on donations apply to other organisations and individuals campaigning at elections and referendums.

Leaders of the Government and Opposition, with members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet respectively, sit opposite one another on the front benches in the debating chamber of the House of Commons. Their supporters, 'the backbenchers', sit behind them. Benches to the right of the Speaker are used by the Government and its supporters; those to the left are occupied by the Opposition and members of the other parties. There are similar seating arrangements for the parties in the House of Lords, but many peers do not wish to be associated with a political party, and choose to sit on the 'crossbenches'.

The effectiveness of the party system in Parliament relies to a large extent on the relationship between the Government and the Opposition parties. Depending on the relative strengths of the parties in the House of Commons, the Opposition may try to overthrow the Government by defeating it on a 'matter of confidence' vote. In general, however, the Opposition contributes to the formulation of policy and legislation by constructive criticism; opposes government proposals with which it disagrees; tables amendments to Government Bills; and puts forward its own policies in order to improve its chances of winning the next General Election.

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Page last modified: 22-04-2018 18:59:47 ZULU