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The Context of British Politics




The Context of British Politics. 1

Political Parties, Pressure Groups and The Electorate. 2

Political Parties. 2

The Parties, in and out of the Parliament 4

Conservative Party: 5

Labour Party. 8





The Context of British Politics


Modern concepts of western democracy are based largely on the principles of free and regular elections, a broad suf­frage, and the existence of a party (or coalition of parties) capable of forming an alternative government. Also implied is the view that all sections of society should participate in the political process, at least to the extent of voting at elections. Many would also claim that, for a true democracy, it is necessary that the political leaders, as well as being represen­tative of the views of the electorate, should be drawn from all social, economic, religious, and ethnic groups within the community, and should not be drawn merely from an exclu­sive section of society. It is further implied that in a demo­cracy, between elections, pressure groups and the mass media should give expression to public opinions, although attitudes vary as to the extent to which the Government should, or in practical terms could, be expected to respond to public opinions between elections.[1]

For much of the post-war period Britain was widely re­garded as being characterized by homogeneity, consensus and deference. Britain was described as relatively homogeneous in its socio-economic composition, while the British people were said to exhibit a considerable degree of consensus on political issues and show a large amount of deference to political leaders and to the political system as a whole. Recent social and political conflicts have accentuated regional differences within the United Kingdom and highlighted the multi-ethnic nature of British society. Major arguments have emerged between the parties and among the electorate over the remedies to be adopted for Britain's social and economic difficulties. Far from inspiring deference, political leaders and the political system have been subjected to sustained criticism as successive governments have disappointed their supporters. Before considering whether anything remains of the traditional assessment of British society and political attitudes, it is necessary to examine the physical and cultural context of contemporary British politics.[2]


Political Parties, Pressure Groups and The Electorate


The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during elections of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it.                    

                                                                                    Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

                                                                        The Social Contract, 1743. Book III, Chapter 15.

Political Parties


The political party system is an essential element in the working of the British constitution. The present system depends upon the existence of organized political parties, each of which presents its policies to the electorate for approval. The parties are not registered or formally recognized in law, but in practice most candidates in elections, and almost all winning candidates, belong to one of the main parties.

The party which wins most seats, although not necessarily the most votes, at a general election, or which has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, usually forms the Government. By tradition, the leader of the majority party is asked by the Sovereign to form a government. About 100 of its members in the House of Commons and the House of Lords receive ministerial appointments, including appointment to the Cabinet on the advice of the Prime Minister. The largest minority party becomes the official Opposition, with its own leader and 'shadow cabinet'.[3]


in britain the role of the political parties is not recognized by statute, and an official facade is maintained of non-recognition of the parties. Until 1969 the official regulations relating to Parliamentary and local government elections did not refer to the parties and ballot papers gave a candidate's name, address, and occupation, but not his party affiliation. Each candidate's personal election expenditure is limited by law, but not the expenditure of the parties on national public­ity. Entries in Hansard specify an MP's constituency, but not his party. In these and many other respects the existence of the political parties remains officially unacknowledged. Despite official non-recognition, however, the parties are the backbone of the modern political system. The mass parties represent the main link between the people and their political leaders. General elections today are primarily a contest be­tween political parties, and to have any real chance of election a Parliamentary candidate has to have official party support. In Parliament an MP's activities are dominated by the party Whips. A government's position in Parliament is based to a great extent on the party system and the strength of Par­liamentary party discipline.[4]


Traditionally Britain has been described as having a two-party system.1 Certainly, Whigs and Tories competed for office in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and Liberals and Conservatives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while Labour and the Conservatives have monopolised the roles of Government and main Opposition party since the 1920s. Labour and the Conservatives have won at least 93% of the seats in each post-war election, and over 97% in most of them. Currently they account for over 90% of political party members in Britain (if Labour's affiliated membership is included) and they were responsible for over 80% of campaign expenditure in the 1983 election. Each has enjoyed periods of ascendency in the post-war period. The Conservatives won three successive elections in the 1950s, while Labour won four of the five elections in the 1960s and early 1970s. Taking the post-war period as a whole, however, they have been relatively evenly matched. They have each won six elections since 1945, and in these elections they have accumulated almost identical total shares of votes (Conservative 44.3%, Labour 42.9%) and of seats (Conservative 49.2%, Labour 47.5%). Such factors underlie the interpretation of Britain as being characterised not by multi-party politics, or by the dominance of a single party, but relatively even two-party competition. On the other hand electoral system produced an even more predominantly two-party system in Parliament than existed at the constituency level, but even in the constituencies the pattern was overwhelmingly that of two-party competition.[5]


While the Conservative Party existed before the developments in the party system that came with the growth of franchise extensions, the Labour Party emerged after the big franchise extensions. It can be argued that these differences in origin have produced fundamentally different organizations, power structures, and attitudes within the two parties. Certainly, the parties’ seem to suggest by word and action that it is desirable to delegate power to an oligarchy – though of course to a trustworthy oligarchy, that is subject ultimately to control by the party as a whole. It is thus necessary to examine the structures of the parties in some detail, to see whether basic differences do exist between the parties are merely a facade hiding a similar power structure.[6]


The Parties, in and out of the Parliament


Leaders of the Government and Opposition sit on the front benches on either side of the Commons chamber with their supporters - the backbenchers - sitting behind them. Similar arrangements for the parties also apply to the House of Lords; however, Lords who do not wish to be associated with any political party may sit on the 'cross benches'.

The effectiveness of the party system in Parliament rests largely 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 seek to overthrow the Government by defeating it in a vote on a 'matter of confidence'. In general, however, its aims are: contribute to the formulation of policy and legislation by constructive criticism;
    2. to oppose the government proposals it considers objectionable; to seek amendments to governmentBills;and
3. to put forward its own policies in order to improve its chances of winning the next general election.

The Opposition performs this role both by debating issues and putting questions on the floor of both Houses and through the committee system.

Government business arrangements are settled, under the direction of the Prime Minister and the Leaders of the two Houses, by the Government Chief Whip in consultation with the Opposition Chief Whip. The Chief Whips together constitute the 'usual channels' ofter referred to when the question of finding time for a particular item of business is discussed. The Leaders of the two Houses are responsible for enabling the Houses to debate matters about which they are concerned.

Outside Parliament, party control is exercised by the national and local organizations. Parties are organized at parliamentary constituency level and also contest local government elections. Inside Parliament, party control is exercised by the Chief Whips and their assistants, who are chosen within the party. Their duties include keeping members informed of forthcoming parliamentary business, maintaining the party's voting strength by ensuring members attend important debates, and passing on to the party leadership the opinions of the backbench members.

The Whips indicate the importance their party attaches to a vote on a particular issue by underlining items of business once, twice or three times on the notice sent to MPs. In the Commons, failure to comply with a 'three-line whip', the most important, is usually seen as a rebellion against the party. Party discipline tends to be less strong in the Lords than in the Commons, since Lords have less hope of high office and no need of party support in elections.

The formal title of the Government Chief Whip in the Commons is Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. The Government Whips in the Lords also act as government spokesmen.[7]


Conservative Party:  "The Conservative Party has a long history, during which it has passed through many phases and changes. For significant periods of modern British history it has been the dominant governing party, but it has also suffered divisions, defeats and spells in the political wilderness. The Conservative Party has remained relevant because its programme and outlook have adapted to the changing social and political environment, and it has never been exclusively linked to any one issue or group. Continuity is provided by the fact that the Conservative Party has always stood for social stability and the rights of property.[8]


The Basis of Conservative Party organization in Parliament is the 1922 Committee. There are various subject committees and regional groups of Conservative backbenchers, but again they tend to be less active and less vocal than their Labour counterparts. When the party in opposition, a Shadow Cabinet (known as the Leader’s Committee) is appointed by the party leader, and these frontbench spokesmen act as chairmen of the backbench subject groups.

In direct contrast to the practice within the Labour Party, the Conservative

 Whip has not been withdrawn from any MP since 1945, though a number have voluntarily surrendered it. The difference between the two parties in this respect may be because the decision to withdraw the Conservative Whip is made by the party leader, rather than by the Parliamentary Party as is the case with Labour Party. Furthermore, the Conservative way of life, as opposed to the policies of the right, remains sufficiently distinctive in Britain to make its manifestations very predictable; as seen, for instance, in the Daily Telegraph, White’s club, or hunt balls. The Conservatives have remained, through all their transformations, associated with the settled, inherited society of the countryside; for anyone who believes that the difference between left and right has become quite confused, or that Britain has fully become ‘One Nation’, the contrast between Tory countryside and Labour industrial cities is the most effective contradiction.[9]

In general in the Conservative Party, rebellions tend to be by individuals rather than by groups.

Despite his personal achievement in taking Britain into the Common market, the failures of the Heath ministry of 1970-1974 have been the catharsis of modern Conservatism. The reversals of policy, the failure to control inflation or contain the trade unions through legislation on industrial relations, and two defeats at the hands of the coal-miners led first to the fall of Heath and second to the rise and development of Thatcherism. After losing the two elections of February and October 1974, Heath was forced to hold a ballot for the Party leadership in February 1975 in which he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher.  In opposition during 1975-1979 the new leader developed a radical agenda founded upon the 'free market', rolling back government intervention and leaving as much as possible to individual initiative. This was the core of Thatcherism.

Concern over economic decline and the power wielded by the trade unions created a receptive public mood, and Thatcher led the Conservatives to three successive victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. She was the dominant political personality throughout the 1980s, especially after securing victory in the Falklands war of 1982. She is widely credited with restoring Britain's status as an enterprise-based economy and as a significant influence on the international stage. However, at the end of the decade economic recession, her commitment to the deeply unpopular 'poll tax', and internal disputes over European policy led to Mrs. Thatcher's defeat in a leadership ballot in November 1990.

The successor to emerge from this contest was the relatively unknown figure of John Major, the candidate thought most able to unify a divided and traumatised party. Major abandoned the 'poll tax' and presented a more 'caring' image, and support for the Conservatives improved enough for him to hold on to a narrow majority in the general election of April 1992. However, this margin was steadily eroded during the following parliament, and by 1997 his administration was clinging on by its fingertips.    The Major government of 1992-1997 was a painful period for the Conservative Party, and opinion poll ratings slumped to record lows following the economic fiasco of 'Black Wednesday' in 1992. The most serious problems were caused by a recession which hit Conservative support in southern England, a collapse of normal party unity over the increasingly contentious issue of Europe, and 'sleaze' - a string of personal scandals involving Conservative ministers and MPs. Press hostility and a modernised Labour opposition prevented the Conservatives from recovering when the economic position improved, and on 1 May 1997 they suffered their third and final sweeping defeat of the twentieth century. Only 165 MPs survived, and Major at once resigned the leadership; in his place, the Party selected its youngest leader in modern times, William Hague. The Conservatives were unable to recover ground during the 1997-2001 Parliament. The party remained unpopular with the public, whilst the Labour government’s careful management of the economy meant that it survived any other difficulties without lasting damage. Hague followed a more ‘Euro-sceptic’ policy, ruling out joining the single European currency. This caused tensions in the party but also led to its greatest success in the period, doubling its seats to 36 in the European Parliament elections of June 1999. However, concentration on Europe was less effective in the June 2001 general election, and Conservative hopes of at least a partial recovery were dashed. 166 MPs were elected, only one more than in 1997, and on the morning after the poll Hague announced his resignation. A new selection procedure had been introduced, and after ballots of Conservative MPs the two leading candidates went forward to a vote of the party membership in September 2001. Iain Duncan Smith secured 155,933 votes to Kenneth Clarke’s 100,864, and so became the new leader of the Conservative Party.[10]


Labour Party, in 1900, in an attempt to get working class representation in Parliament, the Labour Representation Committee was formed by an alliance between the trade unions and various socialist societies, including the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society.[11]

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe. And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect. Though Labour was only in government for three short periods of the 20th century, its achievements revolutionised the lives of the British people. The values Labour stands for today are those which have guided it throughout its existence. Labour Party aligns its values in such alignment:

·                     Social justice

·                     Strong community and strong values

·                     Reward for hard work

·                     Decency

·                     Rights matched by responsibilities[12]


The fight for the Labour leadership is very visible battle. The Labour party plays out its rivalries more openly and painfully than the Conservatives.[13]

The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is composed of all Labour MPs, including Ministers when the party is in opposition. When the party is in opposition, a Parliamentary Committee is elected by the members of the PLP, and this Committee forms the nucleus of the Opposition frontbench spokesman. There is generally more independence of spirit to be found among the PLP than among Conservative MPs, and consequently the Labour Whips have had to adopt a more stringent attitude towards the maintenance of party discipline. The leader and the deputy leader of the Labour Party are chosen at the party conference by an electoral college in which the trade unions control 40% of the votes, the constituency parties 30% and the PLP 30%. A Candidate is required to receive over half the votes in order to be elected. If no candidate achieves this in the first ballot, the bottom candidate is eliminated and a second ballot is held. The first time the system was used in 1981.

It is often argued that in formulating policy, a Labour leader and his senior colleagues are more restricted by the views of the PLP and the party outside Parliament than is the case with the Conservative Party.

In many ways the most significant aspect of the structure of the Labour Party outside Parliament is the role that is played by trade unions. Hence, their funds are provided by the unions. The trade unions also contribute additional sums to party’s election-fighting fund, and to the finances of constituency parties that adopt trade union sponsored candidates. The consequent strength of trade unions influence is reflected at various levels throughout the structure of the party.

The Labour Party has eleven Regional Councils throughout England, Wales, and Scotland. The Regional Council, which meets annually, is made up of members drawn from the constituencies, trade union organizations, cooperative, and socialist societies within regions. At a Local level there is a committee for each ward or district, and these committees join with the unions and other affiliated bodies to create a constituency organization. The annual Labour Party Conference generally lasts for five days, at this time period Conference being devoted to the debating resolutions proposed by the NEC or the delegates. The Labour Party Constitution stipulates that a Conference resolution becomes party policy if it is approved by a two-thirds majority. The Constitution, however, also gives the Parliamentary leaders the power to implement the party’s programme ‘as far as may be practicable’, and in practice the Parliamentary leaders have sought to retain the power to decide policy issues themselves, regardless of Conference decisions.[14]



Britain is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. The British constitution, unlike those of most countries, is not set out in a single document. Instead it is made up of a combination of laws and practices which are not legally enforceable, but which are regarded as vital to the working of government.[15]

The British constitution, unlike that of most other countries, is not set out in any single document. Instead it is made up of stature law, common law and conventions. It can be altered by Act of Parliament, or by general agreement to alter convention. The constitution is thus readily adaptable to changing political conditions.

The organs of government overlap but can be clearly distinguished. Parliament is the legislature and the supreme authority. The executive consists of:

·    The Government – the Cabinet and other ministers responsible for national policies;

·    Government departments, responsible national administration;

·    Local authorities, responsible for many local cervices; and

·    Public corporations, responsible for operating particular nationalized industries or other, bodies, subject to ministerial control[16].


[1]  R. M. Punnet, British Government And Politics, Dartmouth Publishing Company Limited, Fifth Edition 1987, p-479

[2] Punnet, p-3

[3],  retrieved from www.URL in 20.04.2003

[4] A. Sampson, The New Anatomy OF Britain, Hodder and Stoughton Limited, November 197, pp. 30-31

[5] Sampson, p-78

[6] Punnet, p-84

[7] retrieved from www.URL in 20.04.2003

[8] retrieved from www.URL on 18 April  2003

[9] Sampson, p-37

[10] retrieved from www.URL on 18 April  2003

[11] H  Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party, London 1985, p-276

[12] accessed from internet on 7 May 2003

[13] Sampson, p-46

[14] Punnet, pp.103-104

[15],  retrieved from www.URL in 20.04.2003

[16] BRITAIN 1992 AN OFFICIAL HANDBOOK, Prepared by the Central Office of Information, London: HMSO, p-27