Discover The Facts

Political Parties


This section contains non-partisan factual information about the Political Parties. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions


Should it be a requirement that all candidates for election be selected at open primaries?

A ‘primary’ is an election within a political party to select the candidate that can best represent a political party in a national election.  Open primaries are those elections open to all registered voters within a constituency, whether or not they are members of that party; closed primaries are open only to registered party members. There may in some instances be shortlists requiring candidates to fulfil certain characteristics for the promotion of minorities (e.g. all women-shortlists).

 

 

For:

  • primaries may open up the selection process by allowing a greater cross-section of people to express an opinion
  • primaries may widen the selection pool
  • primaries may encourage greater public participation and debate

 

Against:

  • primaries are expensive
  • primaries may encourage intra-party conflict
  • primaries may distract from more fundamental issues such as the electoral system, as they necessitate multi-level campaigning
  • there is a risk that primaries may be captured by narrow interest groups in the community, who use them to serve their own agenda

 

In 2009, the Conservative Party held an open primary election in Totnes, spending £38,000 in the process. More

The process was well received in the press. The Coalition committed in their published agreement to funding 200 all-postal primaries over the course of the current Parliament.  These were to be allocated to all political parties in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last General Election, however it appears that these plans have been shelved. More  

 

The Coalition’s plan to introduce central funding for a fixed number of open primaries suggests that the costs of standardised selection procedures could in future be met from the public purse rather than from the parties’ own election funds.  Critics fear that this may have amounted to a backdoor method of introducing greater state funding of political parties. The financial considerations which led to these plans being deprioritised, and perhaps cancelled,  might well have been motivated more by the dictates of austerity than high principle.

 

Should political parties be state funded?

In recent years, there have been suggestions that political parties ought to be state funded, as is the case in some European countries. But there are forceful arguments both for and against this suggestion:

For:

  • It would 'purify' the political process.  Parties would no longer be reliant on donors and therefore would be free from influence
  • It would enable political parties to carry out their functions more effectively, instead of being caught between declining traditional sources of funding and the increasing cost of research
  • It would signal that political parties are in fact vital to democracy

 

Against:

  • Taxpayers should not have to pay for political parties whose policies they do not agree with
  • It would harden the party system: those parties already in the system would reap the benefits of state funding
  • If parties became reliant on state funding, they might abandon local party associations and local fund-raising
  • State funding would increase the powers of the central party
  • State funding would make parties part of the state
  • The public are opposed to state funding
  • The needs of political parties are not the greatest priority in terms of public expenditure, particularly in times of economic downturn

 

Would state funding of political parties enrich our democracy, or merely entrench the dominance of the largest parties?

 

Should there be absolute limits on donations to political parties?

Currently under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) there are no limits on donations but only reporting and registration requirements.  It is suggested that the regulations should go further and limit the amount that any one individual or corporation may give to a political party.

For:

  • This would free the political parties from all appearance of potential corruption.
  • It would encourage political parties to seek donations from a wider range of people

 

Against:

  • Political parties—and not just the major parties, but also the smaller parties—rely heavily on donations: limiting donations may affect their capacity to carry out their key functions. 
  • Limiting donations will encourage evasion (which is evident in the USA, where similar restrictions are in force)
  • It will strengthen calls for state funding of parties as an alternative


Should there be tighter limits on expenditure?

It is argued that in recent years the two main political parties have engaged in a campaign expenditure ‘arms race’ in general election years. More

Should there be tighter limits on expenditure? 

 

For:

  • Helps to level the playing field, and prevents ‘crowding out’ of smaller parties
  • Reduces the pressure to seek out more donations and increase the potential power of the super-rich

 

Against:

  • Limiting expenditure suggests that campaigning is somehow wrong, when it is in fact necessary
  • There may be difficulty in determining the limit of expenditure

 

Section last updated May 2011

What you need to know


 

Political parties are associations devoted to getting political power through elections.  They balance competing claims on the UK government and organise them into packages and policies which electors can understand: it is arguable that without political parties, politics would be unmanageable.

Political parties are the ‘unspoken secret’ of the British constitution.  They are the key means through which people engage in the political process; they are the key source of candidates for elections; they make up the Government and organise MPs’ votes in the House of Commons; they make up the opposition, who criticise and scrutinise the work of the Government; they are the key source of policies about how to run government.  They are the key link between governments and the governed.  Yet they are subject to comparatively little regulation.

In recent times political parties have become a focus of discontent.  They can be thought to be partisan, divisive, existing purely to further themselves and to be separated from the people. The major parties were once geneuinely popular organisations - in 2005, only 1.5% of the UK population was a member of one of the main political parties. More

The considerable amounts of money required by political parties to fund both their internal organization and their engagement with the public means that increasingly attention has become focused on the sources from which parties raise their funds and the potential for donors to wield influence over the formulation of party policy and obtain personal ties to party leaders. More

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For example, the controversy over the influence wielded by Michael Ashcroft in spite of his 'non-dom' tax status. Or the Bernie Ecclestone affair. See Regulation of Funding and Expenditure

Why does it matter?


Political parties are best known for their central role in elections.  The political party, or group of parties, which gains the majority of the seats in Parliament gets to govern Britain.

But political parties have a wider significance than this: they are the dominant organisations in the political system:

  • they control candidate selection (and de-selection) in constituencies
  • they control who become our political leaders (both in the sense of the leader of the party, who may eventually become Prime Minister, as well as those destined to be ministers or shadow ministers)
  • they exert control over individual MPs through party discipline and the whip system
  • they dictate the policy choices available to voters and political discussion generally
  • in the case of the political party acting as the Government, they control the resources of the state. 

 

More specifically, explicit constitutional change only takes place when the political parties want it to happen.  Notwithstanding their powerful place in the constitutional structure of Britain, political parties are subject to comparatively little regulation.


What are the key dates?


1832
abolition of rotten boroughs; reduced property qualification for voting
1867
greater proportionality of representation; further reduction of property qualification
1884
reduced property qualifications; created voting population of 5m, or 25% of the adult population
1900
the Labour Representation Committee established; this later becomes the Labour Party in 1906
1918
property requirement removed; women over 30 allowed to vote; created voting population of 21m, or 75% of the adult population
1928
voting age of women lowered to 21
1925
Plaid Cymru formed
1934
Scottish National Party formed
1983
Social Democratic Party formed
1988
Liberal Party merges with Liberals; later renamed the Liberal Democrats
2000
Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 establishes Electoral Commission to regulate elections and referendums; new rules on party financing
2009
Political Parties and Elections Act adds new rules on revealing the source of donation money

What are the key facts?


 

Most constitutions in the world make no mention of political parties.  Yet political parties are fundamental to understanding the workings of every constitution.  Tony Wright MP once said that not talking about political parties in a discussion about the British constitution was like “describing a car without mentioning it had an engine.”

From 1945, the political system was essentially a two-party system, with either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party forming the Government, leading many people to believe that the first past the post electoral system favours the two main parties over other parties. However, in the 2010 General Election this theory was bucked and a 'hung' parliament was installed for the first time since February 1974.

The vast majority of MPs belong to a political party.  Those who do not are ‘independent’, but independent MPs are rarely elected.  Where they are elected they tend to be successful because they focus on an issue of specific local interest, or because they oppose an unpopular sitting MP.  More

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For example, Richard Taylor, the Wyre Forest independent MP, who won his seat in 2001 fighting to save his local hospital.  And Martin Bell who stood against Neil Hamilton in 1997 in the Tatton constituency, running on an anti-corruption ticket.  In the latter case the other main parties withdrew their candidates in order to assist Mr. Bell in his ultimately successful campaign.

In the interests of space, this piece looks at the internal machinery only of the three major political parties operating at a national level, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Below is a list of some of the main political parties in the UK as a whole: 

 

Functions and organisation

The primary function of the modern political party is to take office through elections, either alone or as part of a coalition. To do this, a political party must:

  • attract and provide candidates for election
  • provide a package of policies for government, convincing enough to attract substantial proportions of the electorate
  • attract funding for campaigning, advertising, communication and administration of the party and for research and the mechanisms of formulation of party policy.

 

The way that a political party organises itself internally can have major consequences for the way that it carries out its functions.

Composition

Each political party differs in its structure and there are no regulatory requirements or minimum standards governing their internal organisation. Generally, there is a parliamentary wing, consisting of those party members who are MPs and MEPs (usually referred to as the Parliamentary Party), local constituency branches (who organise themselves at local level) and a national party organisation which meets, usually annually, at the national Party Conference.  The Parliamentary Party is the leadership's tool for delivering the Commons vote, whereas the national party is the leadership's tool for delivering the popular vote in general elections.

In the past, the Conservative party organisation was characterised by top-down control; the Labour party the opposite; but in recent years there has been convergence, with a strong emphasis on national leadership.

At the parliamentary level, parties are controlled by their leaders through the Whips.  MPs tend to obey the Whips in part because they agree with the party line or are loyal to the principles which underlie party policy, but also because they may be driven by the desire to rise through the party hierarchy to positions of greater power.  The result is generally a dominance of frontbenchers over backbenchers, but backbenchers are compliant within the party system because working without a political party to provide sound policies or funding is very difficult. More

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Key sources for the information below include: FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007) and Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins British Government and the Constitution (sixth edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)

Management of the three largest parties and the way in which they choose their leaders are summarised as follows:

The Labour Party

In the past, the Labour Party was under the control of the General Secretary of the party and the National Executive Committee. The National Executive Committee consists of delegates from the Parliamentary Labour Party (including the party leader), MEPs and the trade unions. The NEC was in turn responsible to the National Conference.  The National Conference consists of, amongst others, delegates from local constituency branches, trades union and other affiliated organisations and was traditionally the sovereign body for policy-making.  However, in recent years the PLP has gained effective control over the Labour party.

Previously, policy tended to be formulated from ‘the bottom up’, with National Conferences playing a key role, but Labour has now centralised its party system. The power of the Trade Unions' 'bloc vote' was decreased with the introduction of One Member One Vote by Labour leader John Smith in the 1993 Labour party conference. More

Every two years the National Policy Forum and the Joint Policy Committee (made up of key members of the parliamentary party) make proposals, which are then accepted by the NEC.  They are then ratified at the party conference.

The party leader, who will become the Prime Minister in the event that the party wins a general election, is selected by a vote of the Parliamentary Labour Party, some of the party’s affiliated associations – mostly trades union – and the Constituency Labour Parties.  Accordingly the leader is elected on a fairly broad mandate of party supporters both inside Parliament and at ‘grass roots’ level. More

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Where there is a vacancy, nominations must be supported by 12.5% of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  In the case of a leadership challenge, nominations require 20% of the PLP prior to the party conference.  The nominee must be an MP. An electoral college consisting of 3 sections, the PLP, affiliated associations (mostly unions) and the Constituency Labour Parties, then votes on the nominees.  Each section has one-third of the total votes; and voting is determined on a one member, one vote basis. The candidate who receives more than 50% will be elected as leader; if no candidate gains a simple majority, further ballots are held to eliminate candidates.  See House of Commons Library Standard Note Leadership elections: Labour Party http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03938.pdf
The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party is managed by a single body - the Board - which has ultimate decision-making authority in all matters relating to party organisation and management.  The Board consists of, amongst others, the party leader, the Chairman of the party, the leader of the party in the House of Lords, the Chairman of the 1922 committee (the leader of the Conservative backbenchers) and members from the National Convention.

The party leader, along with his or her shadow cabinet, has the major role in making policy.  There are two other bodies, the National Conservative Convention and the Conservative Political Forum, but these are advisory only.  The former in particular plays a role in ensuring a link between party leadership and membership.

Election of the party leader is decided by a ballot of all party members throughout the country, but the shortlist of candidates is determined by Conservative MPs. More

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When a vacancy arises, nominations for party leader are made by MPs: if there are more than two candidates, MPs vote until there are only two remaining. The two candidates selected by the parliamentary party are then put to a ballot of all Party members on the basis of one member, one vote. See House of Commons Library Standard Note Leadership elections: Conservative Party http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-01366.pdf 
The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are a federal party: there are autonomous state parties for Scotland, Wales and England.  The federal conference is the Liberal Democrats’ key sovereign body.  It meets twice a year, and consists of representatives from the constituencies, the parliamentary party and associated organisations.

The determination of party policy depends on the nature of the issue.  Matters affecting all of the UK are determined by the federal party; all other issues are determined by the relevant state party.  A federal policy committee, controlled by the party leadership, is responsible for researching and developing policy.  Federal policy, and the general election manifesto, is ultimately determined by the federal conference, which includes representatives from local parties, MPs, peers, MEPs, representatives from the Scottish and Welsh legislatures, candidates.  The party leader is nominated by a vote of all party members from a shortlist determined by the parliamentary party and local party members. More

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The nominee must be an MP, proposed and seconded by 10% of the parliamentary party in the House of Commons, and supported by 200 members from at least 20 Local Parties. The election is determined by the STV system and the principle of one member, one vote.  See House of Commons Library Standard Note Leadership elections: Liberal Democrats  http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03872.pdf 

Candidate selection

Political parties need to select candidates or slates of candidates for a wide variety of elections in the various tiers of government. The comments in this section, however, are confined to candidate selection for general elections.

In the run-up to every general election, all political parties, big and small, select their candidates who will stand for election.  There are a number of constituency seats at the national level that are ‘safe seats’: that is, constituency seats whose constituents are known for voting overwhelmingly for a particular political party, irrespective of the identity of the person chosen to be that party’s representative for the constituency. More

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For example, the safest Conservative seat at the 2010 General Election was Richmond (Yorks) with a majority of 23,336. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/constituency/d69.stm. Compare this with the Labour-held constituency of Crawley whose MP Laura Moffatt went into the General Election holding a majority of just 37 votes. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7693834.stm
Thus, the political parties are said to be able to ‘parachute’ certain individuals into Parliament – for if an individual is the party candidate in a ‘safe seat’ it is a virtual certainty that he or she will be elected.  

 

The presence of such a large number of safe seats is thought to have had an adverse impact on the effort that the major parties put into their election campaigning at a local level and to have given rise to highly tactical campaigning strategies.  The larger parties tend to focus their efforts on targeting marginal seats or by launching concerted attacks on seats previously held as safe seats of an opposing party.  Far from being a straightforward competition between the policies of the major parties, general elections turn into a highly elaborate battle of strategy and tactics.

The voting public is not immune from involvement in this construct, because voters also engage in ‘tactical voting’ where, in order to defeat an unpopular candidate voters may vote for a candidate from a party which they would not normally support, but who stands the greatest chance of gaining enough votes to win the seat. More

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The extreme form of tactical voting known as ‘vote swapping’ has recently become more widespread.  See the following article for an account of how it works.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/04/election-2010-vote-swapping-block-tories
The role played by the political parties in elections is thus thought by some to devalue our democracy because of the distorting effect it can have on the way that the electorate votes.  On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that some MPs retain their seats with large majorities because they are popular with their constituents as individuals, quite apart from their party allegiance.  Accordingly their seats are safe because of their own merit and not because of party bias on the part of voters.

Generally speaking, candidate selection processes for the three main parties involve a mix of central party organisation control and local association choice. These two are in tension: for instance, the central party may want greater inclusion and diversity; the local association may want someone with local knowledge. More

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An example of this is found in South-west Norfolk, where the local party association attempted to reject Elizabeth Truss as their candidate against the wishes of the central Conservative party. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/norfolk/8363403.stm

In recent years, there has been concern that the candidate selection process favours white, middle-class professional men. A major issue is the under-representation of various groups: women, ethnic minorities, the young and old and those with disabilities. The under-representation of women is slowly being addressed by the main political parties with varying degrees of success.  For instance, Labour now has all-women candidate lists for certain constituencies: this dramatically improved the intake of women in the 1997 election, but it remains to be seen whether the momentum can be maintained.  Not everyone favours this type of ‘positive discrimination’ which can be criticised on the grounds that it encourages ‘tokenism’. More

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Caroline Flint resigned from the Labour cabinet in June 2009, angrily accusing Gordon Brown of tokenism.  She wrote to Gordon Brown, saying Several of the women attending cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing. I am not willing to attend cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2009/jun/05/caroline-flint-resignation

There was a Speaker’s Conference (2008-10) established to find out how best to address the disparity in the number of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in Westminster. See:http://www.parliament.uk/business/speakers_conference.cfm and the final report at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/spconf/spconf.htm. Although the number of MPs from female and ethnic minority groups increased after the last election, both cohorts still remain underrepresented. As a case in point, only 22% of MPs in the new parliament are female.

The main recommendations highlight the role of political parties as the 'gatekeepers to the House of Commons' and argue that the onus should be put on them to select candidates from different backgrounds.The report says that party leaders can 'help challenge stereotypes' by promoting MPs from varied communities to positions within government or within the party. The report also calls on parties to ensure all members involved in candidate selections recieve diversity awareness training and that codes of conduct should be established to make it clear that it is unacceptable to undermine a candidate based on their family life, race, sexual orientation, health status or disability. See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/spconf/239/239i.pdf.

For details of the different social backgrounds of MPs from the different parties, see  House of Commons, Library Standard Note The Social Backgrounds of MPshttp://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snsg-01528.pdf

There is also a growing concern that Westminster is dominated by ‘professional politicians’, where that term is used in a pejorative sense as indicating someone who has no experience of life beyond the confines of Parliament and is out of touch with the ‘ordinary’ man.  But the existence of career politicians is an almost inevitable consequence of a party political electoral system.  The method by which candidates are selected can help to mitigate the potential for bias in favour of party ‘careerists’ - the broader the franchise of those involved in selecting candidates, the less likely it is that only those who are part of an inner circle of decision makers will eclipse all other candidates.

 

So-called 'grass roots revolts' may occur over the selection of the parliamentary candidate.  This may be more reflective of the tensions caused by the conflicting roles of MPs than of a desire by the grass roots to 'flex their muscles'. More

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The issue here is should MPs be mainly:

 

1)        Representatives of like-minded voters in the constituency (and thus selected by the local party)

2)        People with broader local support, and thus less aligned with local party leadership (what might be called the 'Open Primary' candidate)

3)        People who will be useful to the party leadership in parliament and potential future front benchers (the candidate of choice of Central Office).

For more information on this conflict go to the House of Commons section of our website. 

There is no standardised method of candidate selection, nor any regulatory framework governing selection.  The three major parties organised selection as follows:

Labour candidate selection

The National Executive Committee has a list of approved candidates.  Each Constituency Labour Party draws up its own shortlist, usually, but not always, consisting of candidates from the NEC’s list.  This list should include an equal number of men and women, and in some cases, all-women lists are stipulated.  The candidate is then chosen from this shortlist by the constituency party members on the basis of one member, one vote. The NEC approves or rejects the decision of the CLP.

Conservative candidate selection

There is a list of approved candidates held by the central party headquarters, these candidates having gone through a rigorous selection process.  This process focuses on debating ability and testing character under pressure, although it is now supplemented by ‘competence’ skill tests.  Thus, it has arguably tended to encourage the selection of public school educated males.  Approved candidates then apply to local constituency parties.  The local constituency association has a selection committee, which draws up a shortlist of not fewer than three candidates.  These may or may not be from the central party list.  The local association’s executive council then nominates at least two of these candidates: again, a premium is placed on fluency.  A candidate is then chosen at a general meeting of the constituency party on the basis of one member, one vote.

However, the Conservatives have recently experimented with an open primary, an all-postal ballot of all voters in a constituency on the choice of candidate – whether or not those voters are party members or even supporters of the party.  More

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Open primaries are thought by some to represent a good way of reforming British politics, by extending the question of candidate choice to a much wider cross-section of the voting public. The system finds favour outside the Conservative party as well as inside.
Liberal Democrat candidate selection

In accordance with the federal structure of the Liberal Democrats, lists of approved candidates are drawn up by a candidates committee of each state party (England, Scotland and Wales). Local parties then shortlist from these approved candidates. Shortlists of two to four should include at least one woman; shortlists of five or more should have at least two women; and due regard must be given to ethnic minorities.  Candidates are chosen at the local level on a one member, one vote basis. 

The key candidate selection problem for the Liberal Democrats is two-fold: it is a relatively small party with far fewer resources than the other parties and the relative absence of safe seats for the Liberal Democrats means candidate selection has an extra dimension not faced by the two main parties — every constituency has to be fought for.  

Selection of Peers

Party political peers—or ‘working’ peers—are nominated by the party leaders.  There is no formalised process in the Labour and Conservative parties for the nomination of party political peers, or ‘working peers’: the leader simply chooses nominees.  The Liberal Democrats have introduced a degree of democracy, where their conference is able to propose people for nomination, but these nominations are not binding on the leader.  The House of Lords Appointments Commission vets party political candidates, but only for general propriety (that is, is that candidates have a good standing in the community and are credible) and not suitability. More

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The role of the HOLAC and the lack of transparency in the appointment process of working peers was criticised by the Public Administration Committee. See Second Report: Propriety and Peerages (MC-153, 2007) http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmpubadm/153/153.pdf

Party membership

At what is often termed 'grass roots' level in each political party are the members of the public who choose voluntarily to join the party.  Grass roots members may often be local party activists, volunteering assistance to their local party office, MP or councillors, but party members (and this is true of both parliamentary and national parties) are generally most influential during leadership contests.  Party Conferences, which are organised at least annually, represent an opportunity for members of the party from all levels to express their views in open forum, but increasingly for the two largest parties these tend to be organised around a 'corporate' model with 'key notes' speeches and presentations from interested third parties, rather than an open forum for debate of all members.  More

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The Labour Party was founded by Trades Union to represent the interests of working class people.  Accordingly in the past membership of the Labour Party was heavily dependent on the representation of Trades Union.  The 2008 Labour Party Conference caused some controversy at the fact that some affiliated Trades Union and constituency labour Parties submitted motions on issues that were denied by the central Labour party. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7002618.stm

In all three main parties it is generally the case that, once elected, the leader of the party has more or less untrammelled authority.  It is the leader and his immediate associates who decide policy: notwithstanding this, it is not unheard of for a leader to experience a revolt on a significant policy issue at a party conference. More

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At the 2002 Blackpool conference, Tony Blair suffered a defeat on a proposal to use private money to fund public services: the conference backed a motion demanding a full independent inquiry into the effectiveness of the programme by 67.19% to 32.81%.  A motion backing the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was also defeated as was a call to back the government's approach.  At the 2005 Brighton Labour party conference, the Government was defeated 4 times. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4294178.stm.

At the 2005 Liberal Democrat Conference, the Liberal Democrat leadership had wanted to keep spending on the EU to a maximum of 1% of GDP, but this was voted down by conference members.

In line with many other Western democracies, membership of political parties has been in general decline in recent years.  In the ‘heyday’ of membership in the 1950s, the Conservatives claimed to have nearly 3 million members and Labour to have over 1 million members, whereas by 2008/9 these figures had fallen to 290,000 Conservative members and 166,000 Labour.  By 2008 the Liberal Democrats claimed approximately 60,000 members.  More

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Statistics relating to party membership are unreliable, because they depend on internal records of individual parties and are not subject to standardization or external audit, yet it is fairly clear that the trend is away from members of the public joining as party members. 

Different explanations have been offered for this decline. On the ‘supply’ side, the main political parties now have to compete with other political organisations (smaller parties and single issue groups); people have less time to devote to political activism; and demographic change. On the ‘demand’ side, it may be that because parties can appeal to voters directly, or can attract larger donations from wealthy individuals or corporations they no longer feel the need to canvass for party membership as strenuously as they once did.  This may also be linked to the increasingly tactical approach to canvassing in safe seats and marginal seats at general elections.  More

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Source: House of Commons Library Membership of Political Parties http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snsg-05125.pdf.

A decline in the size of party membership is significant in two respects: first it means that candidate selection and the choice of party leader are determined by an ever-diminishing number of people (apart from those candidates who are selected by open primaries); and second it impacts on how political parties approach their funding.

 

Political parties in Europe

In the European Parliament, MEPs from the UK often organise according to ‘political group’ rather than by domestic political party. So, for instance, the Liberal Democrat MEPs elected by UK voters belong to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group within the European Parliament. Notable media attention was drawn when the Conservative party left the centre-right European People's Party to join the Europen Conservative and Reformist Group. These political groups are not parties themselves but more akin to coalitions linked together by ideology.

A political group must have at least 25 MEPs and represent at least one-quarter of the Member States.  MEPs cannot belong to more than one group.  There are currently seven political groups in the European Parliament.  No one political group has an overall majority.  There are advantages in associating with political groups, such as more office space, staff and funding. There are also clear procedural benefits—the rules of the European Parliament prioritise political groups over individual MEPs.

Each political group has a leader (or chair) who determines how the group will vote; and its own bureau and secretariat. Political groups have a whip or disciplinary system similar to that at Westminster. However, MEPs still tend to vote according to national party rather than by political group. More

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The seven current political groups are:

  • Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats)
  • Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats
  • Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
  • Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
  • European Conservatives and Reformists Group
  • Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left
  • Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group

 

There are also the ‘Non-Inscrits’ (Independents, or ‘non-attached’ members).

See House of Commons Library Standard Note “European Parliament Political Groups”http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/SNIA-05031.pdf.  See also:  http://www.europarl.europa.eu/parliament/public/staticDisplay.do?id=45&pageRank=4&language=EN 

Regulation of funding and expenditure

Until comparatively recently, the funding and financial affairs of political parties was almost entirely unregulated.  At the same time, state aid to political parties was patchy and haphazard.  This state of affairs reflected the dominant view that political parties were private associations, rather than public, and could and should be funded by their own members: it is one of the ways in which political parties were, until recently, ‘absent’ from the British constitution.

However, it has increasingly been recognised that the role played today by political parties bears little resemblance to the role of parties in, say, the 19th century.  Engagement with the public is far closer and the ‘job’ of government and opposition has ballooned with an increase in regulatory bodies and the proliferation of committees and other bodies.  Methods of engagement with the public have multiplied, but the costs of communication have also risen.  The sheer scale of spending by political parties means that the question of funding has become of increasing importance. 

At the end of John Major’s premiership (1992-1997), and again during the Blair years (1997-2007) a spate of incidents suggested a greater need for regulation, because the receipt by political parties of large sums of cash from individuals or entities raised the question of whether political parties were susceptible to influence from such donors. More

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Some examples include:

  • ‘The cash for questions’ scandal: in 1994 a number of Conservative party MPs were found to have accepted money in return for asking parliamentary questions.
  • The Ecclestone scandal: in 1997 Labour had accepted a £1 million donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One billionaire. Prior to the 1997 election, Labour had campaigned to ban tobacco advertising, but on coming into power Labour had made an exemption for Formula One.  Tony Blair later denied any links between the donation and the Labour government’s decision.
  • The ‘cash for honours’ scandal: in 2005 it was alleged that Labour had accepted loans from a number of wealthy donors in return for peerages.
  • The highlighting in the run-up to the 2010 General Election of donations from "wealth non-dom's" who do not pay tax in the UK

 

In 2000, the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) was enacted.  This was the first comprehensive piece of legislation to deal with political party finance and expenditure passed since 1883. The PPERA:

  • Requires the registration of political parties, plus details of registered political parties’ income and expenditure
  • Requires the registration of certain third parties who campaign on behalf of political parties, and limits the amount they may commit to  campaign expenditure
  • Requires that all donations over £5,000 to the central party body, and all donations over £1,000 to a local constituency, be reported
  • Bans certain kinds of donation (for instance, those coming from foreign donors)
  • Imposes national expenditure limits of £19 million (to supplement the local expenditure limit of £30,000)
  • Establishes the Electoral Commission to police the requirements of the PPERA.

 

In 2005, it appeared that in order to circumvent the requirements of the PPERA, all three main political parties had received ‘loans’ during the 2005 election period. The PPERA only applied to ‘donations’ and not ‘temporary’ loans.  The PPERA was amended in 2006 so that all loans over £5,000 made to a political party, and every £1,000 from the same lender thereafter, must now be reported. More

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House of Commons Library Standard Note Loans to Political Parties  http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03960.pdf

A number of amendments have been made to the PPERA since 2000, some of which have yet to take effect.  These include:

  • Requiring that any unincorporated association giving political donations or loans over £25,000 in one year to report to the Electoral Commission on gifts received before, during and after that year
  • Requiring the disclosure of all loans to a political party of over £5,000 (and thereafter each additional £1,000 from the same lender)
  • Raising the reporting thresholds on donations
  • Donations over £7,500 must be further accompanied by declarations confirming its original source
  • Providing the Electoral Commission with the power to impose civil sanctions.

 

For more information, see the Electoral Commission:http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/

There are strict limits on electoral campaign expenditure in the 365 days leading up to an election.  This is monitored by the Electoral Commission. More

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Generally speaking, a political party can spend up to £30,000 per constituency contested; if all seats were contested this would be over £19 million.

Party electorate expenditure is separate from the limits on expenditure by individual candidates in the lead-up to the election. More

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For the 2010 election period, candidate expenditure limits stood at £7,150 plus 7p per name in a borough electoral register, or £7,150 plus 5p per name in a county electoral register. See http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-05282.pdf.  Thus a candidate might have an expenditure of around £10,000-£12,000.

In 2005 party election expenditure was as follows:

  • Labour = £17.94 million; number of constituencies contested = 627
  • Conservatives = £17.85 million; number of constituencies contested = 627
  • Liberal Democrats = £4.32 million; number of constituencies contested = 626 More
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    Source: FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007). More about party campaign expenditure can be found at: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/election-spending

 

Sources of fundraising and expenditure deficits

The fall in party membership has put a squeeze on the major parties’ ability to raise funds from their own membership and the Conservatives and Labour in particular have looked to individually wealthy supporters, the unions (in the case of Labour) and big business as sources of funds. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 aimed to increase the transparency of political donations. More

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An increasingly strained relationship between the Labour Party and Trades Union has had a significant impact on funding for the party.  In 2004 the RMT Union was expelled from the party for allowing its Scottish branches to become affiliated with the extreme left-wing Scottish Socialist Party.  Members of other unions have called for financial support to the Party to be cut back at a time when it is perceived that the Party is failing effectively to represent their views on privatisation, cuts and the anti-trade union laws.  Dave Prentis of UNISON has warned that the union will write 'no more blank cheques'.  The Trades Union are, nevertheless, still the Labour Party's main source of funding.
The two largest parties have an annual expenditure of about £25-30 million, but both parties have tended in recent years either to overspend their income or to have borrowed to finance activities and are reported to have accumulated deficits. More  

Party expenditure rises dramatically in a general election year.  More

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It is difficult to make precise cross-party comparisons because of the lack of common accounting practices.  But for details of reported income and expenditure see here http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/party-finance/party-finance-analysis/party-finance-analysis-accounts-2009  See also: House of Commons Library Research Paper The Funding of Political Parties http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2007/rp07-034.pdf

There are calls for political parties to be state-funded in order to ensure a ‘level playing field’ between all parties in terms of the resources available to them and also to ensure complete transparency in terms of the sources of party funding.  Those who support state funding see it as important for democracy that political parties thrive, reach out to people, educate people politically and work with their members.  They warn of the risk of us descending into a ‘slum democracy’ if political parties are inadequately resourced to reach out to the voting public.  More

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Question of Julie Morgan MP, 27 April 2004 and Martin Linton MP quoted in Orcs v Hobbits:  An Analysis and Comparison of the Prospects for the Funding of Political Marketing in the US and UK Election Campaigns of 2004 and 2005. Dr. Phil Harris, The Centre for Corporate and Public Affairs, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. 

The contrary view is the old argument that political parties are essentially private organisations that should take responsibility for their own funding. More

In fact, the largest political parties already receive some state funding in a number of different forms.

Short money: this is funding support for the opposition parties. More

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The governing political party has an advantage in having access to the resources of the state (such as the civil service, who can for example conduct research to assist in the formulation and implementation of government policy, but who are expressly forbidden from doing work to assist policy formulation of the opposition.  The appointment of ‘special advisors’ who are permitted to take a party political view widens the disparity between the resources available.): ‘Short money’ attempts to level the field.   It is available to all opposition parties who win two seats, or one seat and more than 150,000 votes; money is allocated according to the results of the last election. £14,015 is payable for every seat won at the last election plus £27.99 for every 200 votes gained by the party.  Short money has 3 aspects: funding for general parliamentary business; funding for travel expenses; and funding for the Leader of the Opposition’s office. £652,936 is available for the Leader of the Opposition.   Very little information is published about the parties’ use of Short Money: it is paid automatically every month.   Only travel expenses must be claimed for.

For the year 2009-2010 £4.76 million of Short money was allocated to the Conservatives and £1.75 million to the Liberal Democrats. More

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For full details see House of Commons Library Standard Note Short Money http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-01663.pdf

Short money was put in the media glare following the 2010 General Election in the first few days of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government when it was revealed that the Liberal Democrats were still recieving it, and fought not to have the privilege taken away. More

Cranbourne money: this is similar to Short money, available to opposition parties in the House of Lords.  In the year 2009-2010 the Conservatives received £0.47 million, the Liberal Democrats £0.25 million and Crossbenchers £0.06 million. More

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House of Commons Library Standard Note Short Money http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-01663.pdf

Policy development grants: Under the 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, the Electoral Commission is able to make grants to political parties to help them in developing policies. There is a total of £2 million in funding available per year. More

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The Electoral Commission maintains a register of public development grants allocated to the opposition parties:http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/party-finance/public_funding

Indirect state funding: During an election, many parties are entitled to free party political broadcasts and free limited postage. Parties may also benefit from free use of public rooms. More

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Party political broadcasts: parties are allocated radio air time for party political broadcasts. This free air time is equivalent to £68 million in an election year. All parties who put forward candidates in at least one-sixth of contested seats in the UK or in any one of its constituent countries are eligible. The amount of air time given to parties is determined by the previous election results.

Limited Free post use of public rooms at elections is equivalent to £20 million.

Source: The Review of the Funding of Political Parties (2007) http://www.partyfundingreview.gov.uk/index.htm

Other regulation

Political parties are subject to little other formal regulation.  However, the political parties all tend within the Houses of Parliament to observe the many protocols and customs of parliamentary life. More

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For example the way in which party whips consult regarding the business of the two Houses.  For more information on this see the section on the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

 

 


What do others think?


The Review of the Funding of Political Parties (2007)

http://www.partyfundingreview.gov.uk/index.htm

 

Policy Exchange Paying for the Party: Myths and Realities in British Political Finance

http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/publication.cgi?id=71

 

The website of Open Up, a campaign for open primaries.

http://www.openupnow.org/

 

Unlock Democracy “Party Funding”

http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/?page_id=170

 

Policy Exchange Back from Life Support: Remaking Responsible and Representative Government in Britain

http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/pdfs/pub_30_-_full_publication.pdf

 

Douglas Carswell proposes the end of the 'safe seat'

http://conservativehome.blogs.com/parliament/2009/10/douglas-carswell-mp-proposes-the-end-of-the-safe-seat.html

 

Electoral Reform Society Candidate Selection

http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/downloads/Candidate%20Report.pdf


References and Links


Research papers


Useful websites


Further reading

Research papers

The Funding of Political Parties, The Commission on Standards in Public Life, 1998

The Review of the Funding of Political Parties, 2007

European Parliament Political Groups, House of Commons Library, 2009

Useful websites

House of Commons Library: Parliament and the Constitution

The Labour Party

The Conservative Party

The Liberal Democrats

The UK Electoral Commission

Further reading

- Navraj Singh Ghaleigh Expenditure, Donations and Public Funding under the United Kingdom’s Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—And Beyond? in Keith Ewing and Samuel Issacharoff (eds) Party Funding and Campaign Financing in International Perspective (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2006)

- FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)

- Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins British Government and the Constitution (sixth edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)