Functions of UK Political Parties
Page last edited: 22/03/2019
New Links added 2017- 2019 .
Click here for The UK's Changing Democracy : Democratic Audit 2018 A free to download E book
Click here for Democratic Audit 2017
Political Parties: Who joins them these days?
- Membership of UK Political Parties [Parliament Research Briefing]
- Click here for page of links on the funding of British Political Parties
- Click here for a You Tube Screen Cast on Political Parties kindly contributed by Mr. Steve Bassett of the Sociology Department of Park College Eastbourne. Very useful link
Click here for BBC Political Reviews of the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and 2018
Click here for The Conservative Party and here for The Labour Party and here for The Liberals and The Liberal Democrats [Gresham College Lectures by Professor Vernon Bogdanor:] NEW links February 2018
New Link added February 2019
Earlier Links added 2011-July 2012
- Aspects of British Politics 2010 Onwards. This document will be updated weekly with new links which hopefully will help to students to keep up to date with current developments in British Politics. The document contains several links related to Political Parties.
- Click here for an article on the role of political parties by Professor Hugh Berrington on the BBC site
- Click here for an article on the parliamentary work of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on the BBC site
- Click here for a very important 2007 article from the Politics UK website by Bill Jones entitled "Are Political Parties Dying?"
- Click here for a recent BBC item on "The Death of Political Parties?"
- Click here for a Guardian article on an important new report from Democratic Audit entitled "How Democratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit July 7th 2012
I hope that this document will prove useful to both AS Government and Politics students and to A2 Sociology students following Power and Politics or Politics and Control Unit Modules. The subject specifications for these courses do of course differ very significantly in that whereas AS Government and Politics specifications require detailed familiarity with the functions and organisation of political parties combined with some familiarity with different theoretical perspectives on political power A2 Sociology students will require familiarity with the functions and organisation of political parties combined with very detailed familiarity with the different theoretical perspectives on political power.
In this document I shall be concerned mainly with the functions of political parties as they operate within liberal democratic political systems although in the final section of the document I do discuss briefly differing perspectives on political power some of which [such as Elite theories and Marxism] lead to far less optimistic assessments of the nature of liberal democracy and of the activities of the political parties operating within liberal democracies.
Students following different subject specifications should therefore be guided by their teachers regarding the uses of the information provided here! Also although the document is rather long I hope that the following links will help you to navigate within it.
Please note also that the relevant section of the educationforum site also provides a teaching activity based upon this document as well as further related information and activities on political parties.
- They aim to develop and advance particular ideological positions.
- They aim to facilitate political education and to encourage political participation of both party members and voters.
- They aim to devise individual policies and to combine them into a coherent overall political programme to be implemented if the party is elected to government.
- They play a major role in political elections at local, national and European levels
- To secure election they must attract sufficient voters via the aggregation of interests.
- UK Parliamentary political parties seek to represent the interests of their supporters by securing election to the Legislature and by forming governments.
- The UK Parliamentary system is organised along party lines. This is said to make for more stable government and opposition but may also result in excessive dominance by the Executive of the Legislature.
- Local councils, the Northern Ireland , Scottish and Welsh Assemblies and the European Parliament are also organised along party lines. [However I shall not provide information in this document on the activities of political parties at these levels]
- MPs are nowadays almost always affiliated to political parties and they then try to represent the interests of their constituents even when some constituents will have voted for a different political party. Independent MPs (i.e. MPs affiliated to no political party) such as the anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell are still elected very occasionally
- Political parties are said to play an important role in the institutionalisation of conflict in that they provide mechanisms through which conflicts can be peacefully resolved although some would argue that they sometimes defuse conflicts rather than resolve them by removing the underlying basis of conflicts (such as deep seated patterns of social inequality.)
The Functions of Political Parties may be analysed within differing political perspectives such as including those of classical pluralism, elite pluralism, elite theory and Marxism. In this document I assume initially that countries such as the UK can reasonably be described as liberal democracies ;that these political systems may reasonably be described in terms of an overall model on classical pluralism; and political parties do make important contributions to the operation of liberal democratic systems although they may also in some respects inhibit the operation of liberal democratic systems . However towards the end of the document I do briefly discuss the various ways in which political parties might be analysed using different theoretical perspectives all of which lead to a less optimistic assessment of the nature of liberal democracy in general and of activities of liberal democratic political parties in particular.
Because of the variable nature of political parties it is difficult to provide an all-embracing definition of them. With regard to the UK political system we may define parliamentary parties as organised institutions which seek to gain political power at national level via general elections and then to form a government or to form part of a government or to influence a government via their position in the Legislature but we must note also that these same political parties also seek to gain political power via local elections, via elections to the European Parliament and via elections to the devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
In current political conditions the Conservative and Labour parties are most likely to win General Election seats and to form governments although the Liberal Party did often win General Elections and form governments in the latter half of the C19th and in the early C20th while the Liberal Democrats now partner the Conservatives in the current Coalition Government. Irish political parties have clearly had a significant impact on Irish and UK political history and the Scottish Nationalist Party [SNP] and the Welsh Nationalist Party [Plaid Cymru] also regularly win a small number of House of Commons seats and are now the dominant political parties in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly respectively.
There also exist in the UK smaller political parties such as the Green Party , the UK Independence Party and a range of Left wing and Right wing political parties. In the last 20 or so years the increasing numbers of Green Party candidates have been elected to local councils and to the European Parliament and in the 2010 General Election Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party was returned as the first ever Green Party MP. Several UK Independence Party candidates have secured election to the European Parliament but not as yet to Westminster while Extreme Right Wing political parties such as the BNP have secured representation on some local councils and in the European Parliament. Two Communist Party candidates were elected to Parliament in the 1945 General Election but small left-wing parties have in general been electorally unsuccessful and some left wing parties may in any cases reject the parliamentary process because they believe it to be a meaningless charade hiding the effective rule of elites. In some cases small political parties such as the UK Referendum Party may be more akin to pressure groups seeking influence with very little prospect of representation in local, national or European Executives and/or legislatures.
The nature of political parties varies also according to whether we are dealing with one party systems or multi-party systems and according to whether the overall political systems are to be described as "parliamentary systems" or "presidential systems". Thus former Communist states such as the former U.S.S.R. were organised as One Party States and whereas in the UK parliamentary system members of the Government must also be members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, in the USA Presidential system , the President appoints his government and they will not be members of the House of Representatives or the Senate. In this document I shall concentrate primarily on the functions of UK political parties operating at national level within the UK Parliamentary System.
The functions of UK political parties in the UK parliamentary system are listed below.
In the remainder of these notes I shall attempt to describe and analyse in more detail the functions of UK parliamentary political parties. It can be argued that in fulfilling these functions parliamentary political parties make important contributions to the operation of the liberal democratic process but also that there are important respects in which the parties do not perform these functions effectively as a result of which the overall effectiveness of the liberal democratic process is to some extent undermined.
I shall address more critical perspectives on the operation of liberal democratic political parties more briefly toward the end of this document.
Political parties are institutions which comprise groups of people sharing similar ideological views and seek to devise policies reflecting these ideologies, to persuade others of the validity of their views, and to be elected to government so that they can put their policies into practice. Very broadly speaking the Conservative Party has traditionally supported the principles of free market economics and individual initiative while the Labour Party has favoured increased economic equality to be achieved through various forms of government intervention. For many years the Liberal Party/SDP-Liberal Alliance/Liberal Democrats could be described as occupying an ideological position intermediate between the two main political parties although many would argue that Labour has moved significantly towards the Right under the leadership of Tony Blair such that the Liberal Democrats could, for several years and in some respects be seen as to the Left of the Labour Party. Under the leadership of the Nick Clegg the Liberal Democrats have entered a coalition with the Conservatives although this will have disappointed many more "left-wing" Liberal Democrats.
There are also ideological differences within individual political parties and the ideological distance between UK political parties has also varied over time. It has been argued that the ideological distance between the Conservative and Labour parties narrowed significantly in the 1950s and early 1960s but widened again in the 1970s and early 1980s and then gradually narrowed again from the mid 1980s onwards. The ideological differences between Labour leaders Tony Blair and subsequently Gordon Brown on the one hand and Conservative leader David Cameron on the other may be especially small.
Clearly, leaders of different political parties sometimes have very different ideological views as when the Conservative and Labour parties were led by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot respectively and this meant that the voters were offered a very clear choice of alternatives in the General Election of 1983 but since many voters may cluster around the ideological middle ground political parties may often moderate and indeed blur their ideological views in the hope of increasing their share of the vote. Therefore although in principle one important function of political parties is to advance their particular ideological views and in so doing to help to provide an important overall framework for political debate which assists the electorate in the clarification of issues , in practice it may sometimes seem rather difficult to distinguish between the ideologies of the major political parties leading to some confusion among the electorate.
In principle, leaders and spokespersons of political parties aim to explain both general principles and particular policies as clearly as possible in order to provide voters with a clear choice. Parties aim to encourage more committed individuals to become party members in order to provide finance, to help with organisation to be a source of new ideas and, in a few cases, to become local councillors, MPs, MEPs, Members of devolved assemblies party. It is argued that through political participation individuals can enhance their own political understanding and contribute to the common good.
Critics have argued that political parties have been relatively ineffective in promoting the political education and in encouraging political participation. As will be shown in more detail below political parties do seek to inform potential voters as to their policies on salient political issues but they also use a range of political marketing techniques which are not particularly informational to encourage voters to support them. In practice many citizens have only a limited understanding of or interest in political issues. In the UK turnout in General Elections has often been around 75% in the post-war period [and much lower in some recent general elections] while turnout in local and European Elections is even lower and many potential voters appear to be increasingly sceptical about the statements of politicians and their tendencies to utilise the services of armies of official spokespersons, spin doctors and media consultants in order to create a favourable but not necessarily accurate impression of themselves and their policies while the recent parliamentary expenses scandal has generated even more disaffection.
Political parties do seek to recruit active members who might one day become local councillors, MEPs, MPs or even party leaders but it should be noted that MPs are disproportionately, male, white, middle aged and middle class. Although the representation of women and ethnic minority members has increased in recent years they remain under-represented and the representation of manual working class people has declined very significantly: among the 2010 intake only 22 of the 650 MPs elected described their previous occupation as involving manual work. Furthermore there have been allegations that party leaders have sought to ensure the adoption of candidates especially likely to share the leaders' perspectives on party policy while potential critics have usually been unable to secure adoption as candidates.
Political parties aim to devise policies over a wide range of political issues and to combine these policies into coherent political programmes which are put forward in party election manifestos. Individual policies will reflect the broad ideological views of party leaders and to some extent of individual members and supporting voters. However party political policy-making processes are complex and variable and it has been argued that individual party members have generally had little influence on policy. Thus political scientists have argued that Conservatives tend to believe that their party can be led most effectively by a political elite which is relatively free to determine policy relatively unencumbered by the views of the rank and file membership and the policy making role of the Conservative Party Conference attended by Conservative Party members is relatively limited although perhaps a little greater than has sometimes been supposed.
Similar arguments have been applied to the Labour Party where although the Annual Party Conference has officially been the sovereign policy making body successive Labour Party leaders have usually been able to ensure that policies decided by the leadership are readily accepted by the party members at the Annual Conference. However relationships between the party leadership and the Party Conference have not always been easy and to deal with such problems Tony Blair took action to reduce the overall power of the Annual Party Conference within Labour's policy making processes. [Note that further more detailed information on party policy making processes can be found in your textbooks.]
The possibilities that policy making processes would come to be monopolised by their leaders even in parties which claimed in principle to believe in high levels of internal party democracy were recognised by the so-called elite theorist Robert Michels [1876-1936] who became a radical but increasingly disillusioned member of the German Social Democratic Party. In his study “Political Parties  he combined the broad concepts of Elite theory with detailed empirical research on social democratic political parties in general and on the German Social Democratic Party in particular to propound his so-called “Iron Law of Oligarchy” : “Who says organization says oligarchy.”
According to Michels although the German Social Democratic Party still claimed to support socialist objectives and to allow significant influence for party members in party policy making it was in practice an organization dominated by its own self-interested, careerists and therefore leaders with little real interest in the concerns of often more radical party members. Although it may be fair to say that Michels had described a strong tendency rather than an "Iron Law" it is easy to see how his ideas might be used to support the theory that the opportunities for party members to influence party policy are likely to be very limited. This is especially likely in the case of those committed party members whose views may be more radical than those of their leaders and those of the electorate. In these cases leaders may attempt to devise policies which are more in tune with the opinions of wavering voters in marginal constituencies as revealed in so-called focus groups than with the opinions of their own more radical members.
Prior to the Electoral Reform Acts of the 19th Century although political factions certainly existed there were no nationally organised political parties and parliamentary candidates stood as "Independents" possibly but not necessarily aligned with particular factions rather than as members of specific political parties. However the extension of the franchise together with the increasing scope of government activities led from the mid 19th Century onwards to the development of national party organisations with have come to play the central role in General, Local and European Elections .
Regular free elections are an essential feature of liberal democracy since they enable voters to choose between alternative candidates who nowadays almost always stand as candidates of competing political parties and political parties play a central role in the electoral processes of liberal democracy. Nowadays it is political parties which draft General Election manifestos; parties which select prospective parliamentary candidates [although there are still a very few Independent candidates; and parties which finance and organise General Election campaigns. Party manifestos are designed to outline parties' broad ideological perspectives and their policies on specific salient political issues and debates between competing party candidates at both national and constituency levels are said to clarify salient political differences and party policy differences thereby enabling voters to make an informed choice among different party candidates. However it is argued that although in some respects the roles of political parties in electoral processes help to strengthen democracy in other respects some party electoral activities may undermine democracy.
The main political parties are nowadays involved in almost permanent election campaigns which intensify , obviously, during the 3 or 4 weeks of official general election campaigning. Differences in financial resources mean that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party can and do spend more on General Election campaigns than the than the Liberal Democrats while all of these major mainstream political parties can easily out spend the relatively minor political parties all of which means that General Election campaigns are less than democratic.
Addendum: Political Parties General Election Expenditures 2001 , 2005 and 2010 [Source Electoral Commission]
Politicians have increasingly recognised the growing importance of the mass media as possible influences voting behaviour and that effective mass media campaigns are essential if parties, leaders and policies are to be positively evaluated by the electorate and consequently, political leaders may be now chosen at least to some extent on the basis of their abilities to communicate effectively and/or to show attractive personality traits of various kinds via the mass media. Thus it has been argued that the late Robin Cook's political career may have been adversely affected by his "untelegenic" image whereas Tony Blair, at least initially benefited from his apparently "easy-going" media style and both David Cameron and Nick Clegg may have gained support at the expense of Gordon Brown as a result of their more polished performances in the TV debates during the 2010 General Election Campaign .
General Election campaigns receive detailed coverage in the quality press and from the 1950s onwards leading politicians have been increasingly prepared to give long and detailed radio and TV interviews apparently as a means of clarifying the details of their policies and it has been argued that so long as we have interviewers of the quality of the late Sir Robin Day, Brian Walden, the Dimbleby brothers, Kirsty Walk, Martha Carney ,Jeremy Paxman, John Humphries , John Snow and Eddie Mair this should be sufficient to ensure that the voters can understand what the main political parties stand for so that the quality of UK democracy can thus be safeguarded.
However even in relation to the careful mass media coverage of general election campaigns problems do remain. The politicians will have been coached in advance by "spin doctors" or media consultants with answers to potential questions; they may evade questions and simply make the statements which they intended to make irrespective of the questions asked; they may attack opposition policies rather than clarify their own; they may implicitly intimidate the interviewer by giving the impression that they will complain to a higher level if they are toughly interviewed. Also although they must agree to some "serious" interviews they may also seek interviews with say Piers Morgan in attempts [not always successful] to illustrate aspects of their lives away from politics. The effectiveness of serious interviewers in calling politicians to account is open to question . Often the politicians and the interviewers are quite well matched and it may be that many potential voters will lack the interest or, very unfortunately, the understanding to assess the details of political argument. In view of the fact that, unfortunately, many UK citizens are unable to name Cabinet Ministers or their own constituency MP, it seems doubtful that they are dutifully watching ,say, Newsnight on a regular basis.
In any case the politicians believe that many voters may be unwilling [or even unable] to assess the details of party policies and that they are more likely to be influenced by attractive images and political sound bites than by careful explanations of policy detail. Thus media consultants' constructions of photo-opportunities such as those of Mrs. Thatcher cuddling baby lambs, or Tony Blair playing "head tennis" with Kevin Keegan [remember him?] or David Cameron jogging with the armed forces in Afghanistan were all considered vital as were "sound bites" as politicians and their advisers came to believe that most of the electorate would not be interested in the details of party policy but might well be influenced by a short cleverly phrased sound bite delivered mainly for the benefit of the TV News. Thus we have been told that "we are the party of the many not of the few" or that "we are all in this together" or that "it is time for the new politics" and so on . We may conclude that although party politicians do attempt to clarify the details of their policies on salient political issues in the serious sections of the mass media they also seek to attract electoral support via the use a wide range of political marketing techniques involving the use of photo-opportunities and sound bites all of which seem to undermine the democratic process rather than to enhance it.
The Labour Party has traditionally been associated policies supportive of trade union and working class interests while the Conservatives have tended to develop policies supportive of business and middle class interests. However it soon became obvious to all mainstream political parties that if they were to win General Elections under conditions of wide and especially of universal suffrage they would necessarily have to develop policy programmes would appeal to different sections of the electorate. It was for this reason the Conservative Party developed its so-called One Nation ideology designed to appeal to all social classes and the reason also why the Labour Party has usually adopted moderate social democratic policies which would win the support of the working class without totally alienating middle class support.
Political parties must also seek to reflect the different interests of different sections of the electorate thus building a coalition in support of their policies and this function of political parties is known as the aggregation of interests. In recent times, for example, the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher constructed a winning coalition mainly from among the wealthy upper and middle classes together with a significant proportion of relatively affluent working class voters who favoured policies of lower taxation and privatisation and who were disaffected with the Labour Party for various reasons. Labour was in opposition from 1979 to 1997 but won the General Election of 1997 because it was able to construct a policy programme which , while appealing to its traditional working class voters, also attracted considerable support from the middle and upper classes and persuaded previous working class supporters of the Conservatives to return to the Labour Party. This coalition of interests in support of the Labour Government was maintained relatively easily in the 2001 General Election but by 2005 there were signs that it was weakening. and David Cameron had soon success [but not enough ] in attracting some previous voters away from this coalition to support his variant of compassionate Conservatism. voting behaviour are considered elsewhere.)
In the UK political system MPs are elected to Parliament via the so-called first past the post electoral system which can usually [but not always] be relied upon to ensure that one political party gains an overall House of Commons majority. If this is the case the leader of the majority party will become Prime Minister and will select a government from among the MPs of his party although a few Government ministers will be chosen from the House of Lords. It is government ministers in conjunction with their senior civil servants and representatives of "Insider" pressure groups who determine the main contours of government legislation which accounts for the bulk of parliamentary legislation and the government of the day can usually rely on the support of its own MPs to ensure the passage of its legislation. Individual MPs of all parties may, however, have the opportunity to propose so-called Private Members Bills' and they may also suggest amendments to government legislation. It follows from all this that Parliamentary parties must strive to win a Parliamentary majority in General elections so that they can form a government because only then will they be able to control the legislative process and enact their preferred policies.
The existence of strong Opposition parties is crucial to the effective operation of liberal democracy. Opposition parties will usually be unable to defeat the Government in the Commons but Opposition MPs may sometimes propose useful legislative amendments which Governments choose to accept; they play an important role in scrutinising and criticising Government policies while they also develop their own alternative policies in readiness for the next General Election. The mere existence of effective Opposition parties should encourage Government efficiency and discourage Government complacency given the possibility of future electoral defeat if the electorate should prefer to vote in the Opposition. Sometimes , however Opposition parties they will have to wait a long time before they can form a government : the Conservatives were in office from 1979 to 1997 and Labour were in office from 1997 to 2010. We shall have to wait and see how long the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government will last!
It may be argued that the fact that the UK Parliamentary System is organised along party lines gives it a high degree of cohesion and stability. Since 1945 the operation of the First Past the Post electoral system has usually [but clearly not always] guaranteed that a single political party would secure an overall Parliamentary majority. The leader of the majority party would become Prime Minister and would choose Cabinet and other Government Ministers from among the MPS of his/her own party [although some party members of the House of Lords would also be selected] and both Cabinet and Government Ministers would be expected to abide by the doctrine of Collective Cabinet responsibility. [Click here for some further details on Collective Cabinet Responsibility] . The doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility should ideally help government to devise a coherent , inter-connected programme which will usually be supported by all members of the government because they usually accept the provisions of the doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility .
Furthermore Government sponsored legislative bills are usually likely to be enacted because governments can usually rely upon their own backbench MPs to support the legislation for a variety of reasons: because they agree with the fundamentals of government policy and do not wish to undermine party unity by voting against the details of particular legislation; because they have insufficient time to understand the precise details of legislation and are prepared instead simply to vote in support of their government; because they believe that party loyalty may enhance their promotion prospects; or because they have been persuaded by the Party Whips to support the government despite reservations. Party loyalty has the important advantage for governments that it does not have to build new supporting coalitions for each new piece of legislation while party-based opposition may also make for more effective opposition in that it can be organised to ensure that all government departments are shadowed and their policies subjected to critical analysis thereby reducing the likelihood of piece-meal and patchy opposition.
Under the terms of the Doctrine of the Mandate governments claim that their General Election victories provide them with a mandate to introduce all of the policies included in their manifestos. However the doctrine has never been entirely valid because voters voting for a particular political party do not necessarily support every single policy of that party and it was argued especially by Lord Hailsham in the 1970s that the doctrine had been weakened further because Labour Governments were elected in the mid 1970s with relatively small shares of the popular vote but proceeded nevertheless to introduce policies which , according to Lord Hailsham, were opposed by a majority of the electorate. Single party majority government had resulted in "Elective Dictatorship" in which the governing party which has been elected by a minority of the voters and an even smaller minority of the electorate can pass unpopular, inappropriate legislation because of the relatively unthinking party loyalty of its MPs. The composition of Standing Committees which consider possible amendments to legislation and of Select Committees which investigate the policies of individual government departments are both determined by relative party numbers in the House of Commons so that majority governments have majorities on all of these committees which may make for limited criticism of proposed government legislation and government policies while Question Time may be used as an instrument of generalised party political attacks rather than as a means for the reasoned consideration of government policy.
It has therefore been claimed that single party majority government as it operates in the House of Commons stifles political debate and in so doing undermines the efficiency of liberal democracy but it can be argued that coalition government could also create its own problems. For example political parties fight General Elections on the basis of their own party manifestos but if they enter a coalition government they may then feel obliged to compromise on their own policies which may cause dismay among their voters . Also come the next General Election it may then be difficult for voters to hold coalition partners to account since each partner may tend to blame the other for the government failures while claiming credit for government successes.
As has been mentioned above women, ethnic minority members and manual workers are much less likely than white middle class males to be elected as MPs which in other words means that women, ethnic minority members and manual workers are statistically under-represented among MPs. Although it is conceivable that open minded, well meaning ,white , middle class, males can fairly represent the interests of women, ethnic minority members and manual workers many would argue [in my view correctly] that a statistically representative House of Commons is more likely to be able to provide effective representation for different social groups.
It is also very important to note that only a very small number of MPs are disabled and that ,even if non- disabled MPs are essentially well-meaning, the interests of disabled people may nevertheless be imperfectly represented. Click here for some further information on this issue. Click for the obituaries of Lord Morris and Lord Ashley both of whom worked hard to represent the interests of the disabled. NEW Links added February 2013
There has also been a long debate around the question as to whether MPs should act as delegates who are in effect mandated to vote in accordance with the exact opinions of their constituents [ or possibly the opinions of their local constituency party] or whether [as believed by the renowned C18th MP Edmund Burke] they should act as representatives chosen to use their own independent judgement in the interests of their constituents rather than simply to reflect their constituents opinions.
[This issue arose in a somewhat different guise in the 1970s and 1980s when it came to be argued among many Labour Party activists that if a left-leaning Labour Party Conference were to endorse left wing policies actual Labour governments and their loyal backbench MPs could not necessarily be relied upon to enact such policies so that it was desirable that Labour MPs who had failed to support Conference policies should face the possibility of de- selection by their constituency parties. In the event a few Labour Party MPs were indeed de-selected in this way in the early 1980s but as the influence of the Left within the Labour Party has waned especially in the Blairite era de-selection has become much less common. ]
[ Issues relating to the organisation and functions of Government and Parliament and the nature of Representation are addressed in more detail in other parts of AS Government and Politics specifications]
It is argued particularly within the democratic pluralist perspective that existing mainstream political parties institutionalise social and economic conflict which restricts the possibility of potentially violent social and political revolution and instead promotes peaceful, rationally organised, gradual social and political change. For example it has been recognised that as capitalist societies industrialised they did generate huge increases in output and increases in economic wealth for successful factory owners but that factory workers were forced to work in difficult, dangerous conditions for low wages and that they and their families were poorly housed and received inadequate health care and limited educational opportunities. Marxists and other radical social theorists argued that this situation contained the seeds of a conflict which in some circumstances could lead to violent revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist order.
However this has, of course, not occurred in capitalist societies at least partly because political parties in liberal democracies with universal suffrage must gain a significant proportion of working class votes to secure election which means that they must address the concern of these working class voters by providing for higher wages, and much improved social services via the expansion of the welfare state. In this way potentially violent conflicts over the distribution of income, wealth, and opportunity have been institutionalised in the activities of political parties rendering violent revolution unnecessary and in similar ways political conflicts involving the rights of women and ethnic minorities have also been institutionalised.
Furthermore it is argued that the observable successes of political parties in institutionalising and resolving potentially severe social and economic conflicts has helped to mobilise general overall support for liberal democratic political systems which have secured long term political stability, rising living standards and the protection of individual rights.
Parliamentary parties in the UK fulfil a range of functions which are essential to the overall operation of the liberal democratic political system. They provide a series of links between the people, their representatives and their governments such that it is difficult to see how any liberal democratic political system could work without political parties. Political parties provide for the political education and participation of their citizens; they formulate coherent ideologies and policies; they help voters to make meaningful choices between competing party candidates in elections; they facilitate the operation of effective government and effective opposition; they facilitate the representation of citizens' interests; and they provide institutional mechanisms for the orderly resolution of political conflicts. Finally as a result of the successful fulfilment of all of these functions they encourage citizens to give their support to liberal democratic political systems as a whole. [ At this point you might Click here for an article on the role of political parties by Professor Hugh Berrington on the BBC site]
However we have noted also that in each case the political parties do not perform these functions entirely effectively: political parties may confuse rather than inform; opportunities for rank and file participation in the policy-making process are rather limited; effective government may be inhibited by the development of single party elective dictatorship or by the problems associated with weak coalition government; citizens' interests may be represented inadequately; political parties may manage conflicts without resolving them; and citizens might too readily acquiesce in the operation of liberal democratic processes, failing to recognise their inadequacies.. Thus we might conclude that although political parties do contribute to the operation of liberal democratic political systems they could certainly do so more effectively.
The above two paragraphs summarise what may be described as the main conclusions of a democratic pluralist approach to the study of political parties but we must note that when Marxist theories or Elite theories are used to investigate the functions of political parties they are seen in a rather different light.
According to Marxist theorists we must never lose sight of the fact that liberal democracies are also capitalist democracies as illustrated particularly clearly in Ralph Miliband's 1982 study "Capitalist Democracy in Britain". In Marxist models of capitalist societies it is necessary to distinguish between the economic base of capitalist society [ which contains the private sector of the economy in which capitalist firms are owned by the property-owning Bourgeoisie who derive their high incomes from the profits accumulated via the exploitation of the property-less Proletariat or working class] and the superstructure of capitalist society [which contains institutions such as the family, the schools, the Church, the mass media, pressure groups, political parties and all of the institutions of the state], all of which, according to Marxists are said to perpetuate in one way or another the continued economic dominance of the Bourgeoisie.
Using a Marxist approach it would be suggested in relation to the major UK political parties that, despite some differences, they all advance basically pro-capitalist ideologies; that such ideologies are all likely to secure more or less sympathetic coverage in the capitalist-controlled mass media while small anti-capitalist political parties receive very unsympathetic coverage ; that the policies developed by mainstream political parties all presuppose the continued existence of capitalism; that the inevitable class differences in educational opportunity under capitalism explain why few manual workers are chosen elected as MPs; that it is in no way surprising that social democratic political parties are dominated by their leaders who successfully limit the influence on policy of their more left -wing activists; that mainstream political parties have addressed the social conflicts arising out of significant class inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity and patterns of gender and ethnic disadvantage but they have certainly not resolved them because to do so effectively would involve radical and possibly revolutionary change to the capitalist system; and that insofar as voters continue to vote for mainstream political parties they do so at least partly because of powerful processes of political socialisation which prevent them from realising where their true interests really lie. In this view, therefore , mainstream political parties do contribute to the long term stability of liberal [and capitalist] democracy but they do so by inhibiting the prospects for economic equality and more participatory democracy.
There are considerable controversies within Marxism around the characteristics around the nature of the transition to socialism. In Tsarist Russia where liberal democratic political institutions were only in their early stages of development Lenin argued that the transition to socialism could be achieved only via the actions of a revolutionary party using revolutionary methods and that, following the revolution, all other competing political parties would be abolished so as to restrict the possibilities of counter-revolution, a strategy which arguably paved the way for the subsequent Stalinist dictatorship and undermined the long term prospects for socialism. However neo-Marxists from Gramsci onwards have argued that in mature liberal democracies which have the support of the mass of the people socialism is to be achieved more gradually and through working within existing political institutions. Thus the neo-Marxists tend to hope for the greater democratisation of existing socialist parties which will then introduce socialism via parliamentary methods rather than by resort to the political coup as in the Leninist strategy.
Classical elite theories [Pareto: Mosca: Michels] are similar to Marxist theories in some respects but different in others. Elite theorists also argue that the institutions of liberal democracy are merely a facade behind which ostensibly liberal democratic political systems are dominated by political elites which rule in their own interests rather than the interests of the mass of the citizens. Political parties [as especially in Robert Michels' theories] are especially likely to be dominated by political elites which monopolise the party leadership positions and ensure that the influence of rank and file party members on party policy is limited.
However elite theorists argue also, contrary to Marx, that such political elites may derive their political power from various sources such as their positions in the military or the church as well as from their economic wealth; that they rule in their own interests and not necessarily in the interests of the capitalist class; and that any Marxist -inspired socialist revolution will result not in the emancipation of the working class but in the replacement of pro-capitalist elites by Socialist party elites which again govern in their own interests rather than in the interests of the working classes. In these elite theories the assessment of both current and possible future political parties is universally negative.
My accounts of Marxist and Elite theories are necessarily brief and oversimplified and both sets of theories are open to important criticisms from alternative sociological perspectives and different ideological positions . However when we analyse the functions of political parties in liberal democracies from different perspectives we see clearly that even if they do contribute to the effectiveness of liberal democracy this does not mean that they are beyond reproach
I hope eventually to produce some new, more detailed documents on Pluralist, Marxist and Elite theories of power....but this will take some considerable time, unfortunately