The British Government: The Political Party System
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services
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.
Since 1945, either the Conservative
Party, whose origins go back to the eighteenth century, or the Labour
Party, which emerged in the last decade of the nineteenth century,
has held power. A new party - the Liberal Democrats - was formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party, which traced its origins to the eighteenth century, merged with the Social Democratic
Party (formed in 1981). These three parties accounted for over 90% of the
winning candidates in general elections held in 1992.
Other parties include two nationalist parties, Plaid
Cymru (founded in Wales in 1925) and the Scottish National Party
(founded in 1934). In Northern Ireland there are a number of parties. They
include the Ulster Unionist Party, formed in the early part of this century; the Democratic Unionist Party,
founded in 1971 by a group which broke away from the Ulster Unionists; and
the Social Democratic and Labour Party, founded in 1970.
Since 1945 eight general elections have been won by the Conservative Party
and six by the Labout Party; the great majority of members of the House
of Commons have belonged to one of these two 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'.
The Party System in 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:
1. to contribute to the formulation of policy and legislation by constructive
2. to oppose the government proposals it considers objectionable; to seek
amendments to government Bills; 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 arragnements are settled, under the direction of the
Prime Minsiter 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
Financial Assistance to Parties
Annual assistance from public funds helps opposition parties carry out their
parliamentary work at Westminister. it is limited to parties which had at
least two members elected at the previous general election or one member
elected and a minimum of 150,000 votes cast. The amount is £3,442.50
for every seat won, plus £6.89 for every 200 votes.
Below are web sites maintained by political parties and factions within the UK. What better way is there to learn what they are all about than to see what they are putting on the Web for the world to see.
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
British Labour Party
British National Party
Democratic Unionist Party
Northern Ireland Government
Northern Ireland Unionist Party
Plaid Cymru - Welsh Political Party homepage
Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Scottish National Party
Liberal Youth Scotland
UK Independence Party
Ulster Unionist Party
Workers Party of Ireland
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