Functions of UK Political Parties

Click here for The UK's Changing Democracy : Democratic Audit 2018  A free to download E book.

Click here for Democratic Audit 2017

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.]


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 that 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 devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and via election to the European Parliament until the UK left the EU in 2020.

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  partnered the Conservatives in the Coalition Government of 2010-15. Irish political parties have clearly had a significant impact on Irish and UK political history most recently when the DUP supported Conservative minority governments between 2017 and 2019. and The Scottish Nationalist Party [SNP] has returned significant numbers of MPs to the Westminster Parliament in the General Elections of 2015,.2017 and 2019 and also dominated the Scottish Parliament while the Welsh Nationalist Party [Plaid Cymru] also regularly win a small number of House of Commons seats play a significant role in the Welsh Parliament.

Devolved government is being restored  in Northern Ireland and the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be dominated by Sinn Fein and the DUP  with the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionists also likely to take ministerial posts. The SDLP is not eligible to take  ministerial posts and will go  into opposition.

As of January 2024, there are 19 Independent MPs who were elected as Party representatives but for several reasons have had the party whip withdrawn. Many Members of the House of Lords are party representatives but there are also many non-aligned Crossbenchers.


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 and has retained here seat until 2024 although she is not intending to stand for re-election in the forthcoming General Election. The UK’s Membership of the EEC and subsequently the EU has been opposed by the UK Independence Party and subsequently the Brexit Party which itself has been rebranded as Reform UK .Several UK Independence Party candidates have in the past secured election to the European Parliament and two Conservative MPs resigned the Conservative Whip to sit briefly as MPs representing the UK Independence Party. 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. Smaller political parties may be more akin to pressure groups seeking influence with very little prospect of representation in local, national or European Executives and/or legislatures  although there can be no doubting the political influence of the UK Independence Party and subsequently the Brexit Party. Perhaps the Reform Party will have some  influence on the next UK General Election.

The nature of political parties varies also according to whether we are dealing with  one party systems or two 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 the UK has at various times been described as a One Party Dominant System, a Two Party System , a Two and a Half Party System, and a Multi-Party System.

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


  1. They aim to develop and advance distinctive ideological positions .
  2. They aim to facilitate political education and to encourage political participation of both party members and voters.
  3. They fulfil an important representative function.
  4. 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.
  5. They play a major role in political elections at local, national and European levels.
  6. To secure election they must attract sufficient voters via the aggregation of interests.
  7. UK Parliamentary political parties seek to represent the interests of their supporters by securing election to the Legislature and by forming governments.
  8. 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.
  9. Local councils, the Northern Ireland , Scottish and Welsh Assemblies and the European Parliament are also organised along party lines.
  10. 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.
  11. Political parties are said to play a significant 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.)

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 have been formed by politically like-minded individuals sharing similar ideological beliefs.

Ideologies are often located  according to their positions according to two Criteria: a Left -Right criterion and a Liberal -Authoritarian criterion . 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. In the era of the so- called post war consensus which operated from 1945 to perhaps the late 60s , ideological differences between the Conservative and Labour Party on the Left-Right spectrum were   relatively small but they intensified in the 1970s and early 190980s so that the ideological differences between   the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and the Labour Party of Michael Foot  were very substantial. Then under the leaderships of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Particularly Tont Blair the Labour Party moved toward the Centre as did the Conservatives especially under leadership of David Cameron  so that it appeared that a new party political consensus might be established. However, party divisions intensified during the Great Financial Crash of 2008-9 and the subsequent austerity  and especially when the Labour Party moved decisively to the Left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn [2015-2019[. Then. although political disputes have continued between 2019 and 2023 it could certainly be argued that the ideological differences between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are quite limited.

Although in principle clear ideological differences between political parties help to clarify issues for voters and to provide them with a meaningful choice and although these ideological differences are sometimes very obvious  party leaders, and their advisers recognise that many voters may cluster around the ideological middle ground so that it becomes rational for political parties to  moderate and indeed blur their ideological views  in the hope of increasing their share of the vote. In this case parties are described as “catch all parties and, in practice, it may sometimes seem difficult to distinguish between the ideologies of the major political parties leading to some confusion among the electorate.

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 . However, the Liberal Democrats moved closer to the Labour Party in the 1990s and closer to the Conservatives in the 2000s leading to the formation of the Conservative -Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in 2010-2015. After a disastrous General Election result in 2015 , the Liberal Democrats have not yet succeeded in rebuilding their electoral support.


Political parties seek ideally facilitate political education and to encourage citizen participation in politics.

In principle,  leaders and spokespersons of political parties aim to explain both general principles and particular policies as clearly as possible to provide voters with a clear choice in elections. Parties aim to encourage more committed individuals to become party members 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 [if applicable], or

Members of parties in devolved assemblies. 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 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 parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 and more recent allegations of non- compliance with Covid regulations by Ministers and senior staff and financial mismanagement at the heart of government have  generated even more disaffection.

Click here for a House of Commons Library Research Briefing[2022]: Membership of political parties of Great Britain

The data indicate that membership of the liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party combined stands about 1.% of the UK population [p17]; that Females are slightly under-represented among members of the Labour Green and SNP parties and more significantly under-represented in the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties [p22]; that in all of the  5 main political parties, members are disproportionately middle class [p22;]  and that party members are actually unlikely to attend party meetings [p 26].


Political Parties and Representation


Liberal democracies are also representative democracies in which individuals are elected by voters to represent the interests of voters in elections at local, national and [if  applicable]  at European level. However, it is necessary to analyse the concept of representation in more detail.

In the late 18th century, the liberal Tory MP Edmund Burke drew a distinction between representatives and delegates  arguing that as  an MP he should use his understanding of political issues to act as a representative of his constituents using his political understanding of their interests  rather than to act as a delegate directly following the instructions of his constituents who, he believed, might well understand political issues rather less fully than he did. . Thus, for Burke , a representative should have the freedom to exercise his/her own judgement as how best to represent constituents’ interests.

More practically , it is important to note that once elected MPs always make a point of saying that although they have been elected as a member of a particular political party with particular policies,  they will seek to represent the interests of all their constituents  helping them with the redress of any individual grievances irrespective of how they voted and  seek to ensure that government policies are where possible geared to the interests of their particular constituency..

Problems may  arise also  if MPs , having been elected by voters, are considered by party activists to be acting against the dictates of party policy and/or against the current leadership of their party. Thus, there have been demands that individual MPs who were out of sympathy with the party leadership and /or party policy  should be deselected even though they had been elected by a plurality of their constituents.

Under the First Past the Post electoral system , it is rare for an individual MP to have won more than 50% of the votes cast in his/her constituency and the proportions of parliamentary seats won by political parties in General Elections are not proportional to  the proportions of votes won by these parties . Therefore, it may be argued that the results of General Elections do not adequately represent the overall views of the electorate all of which leads to calls for proportional representation.

Statistical Representation

Click here for a House of Commons Library Briefing [2022]on the social background of Members of Parliament 1979-2019 and  Click here for a BBC summary of this briefing

It has also been argued that although it is conceivable that open minded, well -meaning , able bodied, heterosexual , white , middle class, males can fairly represent the interests of women, ethnic minority members and manual workers many would claim that a statistically representative House of Commons is more likely to be able to provide effective representation for different social groups. Recent data provide here and her indicate that the  composition of the House of Commons has gradually become more diverse but there are still several social groups which are statistically under-represented  and statistical under-representation is greater in some parties than in others.

The proportion of female MPs increased from 3% in 1979 to 34% in 2019  with the Labour Party having the greatest proportion of Female MPs. Indeed in 2019 51% of Labour MPs were female.

Between 1979 and 2019 , the proportion of Ethnic Minority MPs increased from 1%  to 23%. Labour MPs are proportionately more likely than are Conservative MPs to be members of Ethnic Minority groups. Also, it is estimated that Ethnic Minorities account for 14% of the UK population in 2019 and so Ethnic Minority people are, in effect, statistically over-represented in the House of Commons.

46 MPs identified as LGBT+ in 2019;most MPs are middle aged; most MPs are university-educated; It is estimated that between 1979 -2015, the proportion of MPs who were manual workers fell from 15.8% to 3.0%; MPs are disproportionately likely to have been educated at private schools and this applies more markedly to Cabinet Ministers

It is also important to note that very few  MPs are disabled and that ,even if non- disabled MPs are well-meaning, the interests of disabled people may nevertheless be imperfectly represented. Click here for  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.

Click here for Information on the candidate selection process There have been strong allegations that party leaders have on occasion intervened excessively in the candidate selection process as a means of influencing the ideological balance of the parties. This is a crucial issue, but I  shall not pursue it here.


Membership of UK Conservative Cabinets and Private Education

Click here for Analysis of UK Cabinets : From Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak. [Data from the Sutton Trust.]

Earlier UK Cabinets and Private Education. [From an earlier version of these notes]

Reports from the  Sutton Trust have emphasised the over-representation of ex-pupils of fee paying schools among both MPs and Cabinet Ministers. Thus, although fee paying schools currently educate only 7% of the UK school population 35% of MPs elected in 2010 attended fee paying schools  [54% of Conservative MPs, 40% of Lib Dem MPs and 15% of Labour MPs] and 62% of Ministers attending Cabinet were educated at fee-paying schools. By comparison only 32% of Tony Blair's 1997 Cabinet and 32% of Gordon Brown's 2007 Cabinet were educated at fee-paying schools .

However, 71% of John Major's 1992 Cabinet and 91% of Mrs Thatcher's 1979 Cabinet were educated at fee-paying schools.

Also, since 1937 every single Prime Minister except one who attended University attended the same University.  Which University did they attend and who was the exception? Does this over-representation of privately educated individuals among MPs and Cabinet Ministers matter? Give reasons for your answer.

Choice of Party Leaders

Conservative Party Leaders

Click here for results of Conservative Party leadership elections 2001- 2022.

Notice that in 2001 Clarke was preferred to Duncan Smith by MPs but that Duncan Smith was elected as leader by the Conservative Party membership. Similarly in 20220 Sunak  was preferred to Truss  by MPs but that Truss was elected as leader by the Conservative Party membership.


Click here results of Labour Party leadership elections since 1922.

In 2010 Ed Miliband defeated his brother David Miliband  via the Electoral College although David secured greater support than Ed among MPs.

In 2015 and 2016 Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election based on the One person, one vote system although he was unpopular with the majority of Labour MPs.

These examples point to the indirect influence of party members over party policies via their roles in the choice of party leader.

Political parties aim to devise policies over a wide  range of political issues but with limited input from their rank and file members.

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 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 .Until the 1960s Parliamentary leaders of the Labour Party were usually able to secure the support of the Annual Conference[ theoretically the sovereign policy making body of the party] because they could rely upon  the support of sympathetic Trade union leaders who controlled most conference votes to cast these votes in support of the party leadership. However, from the 1960s onwards potential for dissent at conference increased and Tony Blair responded by reducing trade union influence at conference and increasing the role of the National Policy Forum[ which had been introduced by previous Labour Party leader John Smith] as a means of managing pre-conference dissent and creating an image of greater conference harmony.

The organisation of Labour Party Conference is complex and will not be considered in detail at this point but you can find some very useful additional information in this article by Alex Walker and Dr Alan Wager on the website of The UK in a changing Europe..

Some Theoretical Background: Robert Michels and the Iron Law of Oligarchy

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 [1911] 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.

Political parties play a leading role in political elections at local, national and European levels.

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 have usually spent more  on General Election campaigns than the  than the Liberal Democrats although data from the Electoral Commission indicate that this was not the case in 2019 . These major mainstream political parties can easily out spend the minor political parties although since the SNP, PC and the Northern Irish parties need to reach much smaller electorates they are not at a significant financial disadvantage.

UK elections must be conducted in accordance with rules lain down by the Electoral Commission which also collates data on political parties’ general Election spending. You may click here for a BBC item summarising the rules governing parties’ election spending and here for a report from the Electoral Commission which concludes that the General Election was well run but there were a range of concerns that need to be addressed in the future some of which are discussed further in this report from the Electoral Reform Society and in this report in  from a Sheffield University research team based upon analysis of Electoral Commission data. I have extracted the following chart from this report. However, I  shall not pursue these technicalities any further here.


Politicians recognise that General Election outcomes are influenced significantly  by their coverage in the mass media  which , in the case of the press is biased towards the Conservative  Party which may mean the Labour leaders feel obliged to court newspapers  such as the Sun in ways that many Labour Part members find uncongenial. However, the broadcast media are in general far more objective, and, in any case,  young voters especially  now take most of their political  news from social media which requires  the political parties to maintain a significant social media presence. Some political leaders such as, for example, Tony Blair or David Cameron have demonstrated better presentational skills than others such as Gordon Brown, Theresa May or. Indeed. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer but in all cases  political parties will employ media  consultants to present them and their policies as attractively as possible which has become increasingly  important now that there will usually be televised leadership debates during election campaigns.  .

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, , the Dimbleby brothers and Jeremy Paxman and , more recently, Andrew Neil, Mishal Hussein, Victoria Derbyshire and Nick Robinson 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; and they may attack opposition policies rather than clarify their own.

Also, political leaders may ration the number of interviews given  to serious interviewers and in some cases avoid media scrutiny as when Theresa May decided not to participate in a TV leadership debate in 2017 and Boris Johnson declined in 2019 to be interviewed by Andrew Neil [ who did, however, conduct a very searching and damaging interview with Jeremy Corbyn].

Party leaders may also seek out less challenging media opportunities in which  they attempt [not always successfully ] to illustrate  that they are well rounded individuals with a range of interests away from politics. In the event, such occasions might sometimes be described as “cringe making.”

In any case politicians and their advisers 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 . More recently we have seen Keir Starmer making speeches surrounded by Union Jacks and Rishi Sunak helping at restaurants and food banks. Click here for a quirky summary of the events of 2023 and expect more of the same as the next election approaches.

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 Funding of Political Parties

There have been several controversies in recent years around the financing of political parties in general and the funding of parties' election campaigns in particular. Click here   and here and here for some useful BBC Links


Click here for page of links on the funding of British Political Parties





Political Parties and the Aggregation of Interests

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 considerable 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 has gradually weakened leading to a Conservative -Liberal Democrat Coalition between 2010 and 2015 followed  by a further 8 years of Conservative Government……so far. In our current political situation, the aggregation of interests presents some problems for political parties. For example, Labour has found it difficult to retain working class support in 2017 because many working class voters were in favour of Brexit which encouraged them to vote Conservative  and in the next general Election , Labour may lose Green votes because it feels the need to tone down some of its environmental policies in order to retain the support of voters who fear that environmentalism will inhibit necessary economic growth. Meanwhile the Conservative may lose the support of working class voters who have been disappointed by the limited effectiveness of the Conservatives’ levelling up policies.

  UK Parliamentary parties seek to win seats in the House of Commons and if possible, to form governments so that they can implement their chosen policies through legislation. 

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, can 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 a significant 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. Since 2010 the Conservatives have been in government, either  in coalition with the Liberal Democrats [2010-2015] or as a minority government supported by the DUP [2017-2019] or as a single party majority government [2015- 2017  and 2019- 2024] . Is Labour’s long spell of opposition coming to an end?


The UK Parliamentary System is organised along Party Lines

Under the terms of the Doctrine of the Mandate governments claim that their General Election victories provide them with a mandate to introduce each 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.

Nevertheless, once a victorious  political party forms a government 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.

It has, however been  argued that because a single party majority governments could rely so confidently on the support of its backbenchers, detailed Commons scrutiny of government legislation and implementation of government policy would be ineffective and that, in the theory of elective dictatorship,   UK governments occupied a position of excessive dominance within the UK political system.

However, it has also been pointed out that UK political parties are broad churches,  and that ideological and policy differences mean that backbench MPs do not always toe the party line. Actual government defeats in the Commons have been rare except in the cases of Labour governments in the 1970s which had very small or non-existent majorities and Conservative governments of John Major, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson where there were significant disputes over European policy as well as, in the case of May and Johnson[in 2019[ , no overall majorities. Yet backbench opposition to government policy has become much more common and significant examples of this have been  Labour backbench opposition to Labour’s policy on the invasion of Iraq which assed the in the Commons only because Labour backbench opposition was more than offset by Conservative support; Labour backbench opposition to increased tuition fees which passed the Commons by the narrow margin of 316-311 despite Labour’s very large Commons majority;  and Labour backbench opposition to the anti-terror legislation of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which in both cases resulted in defeats for Labour

David Cameron suffered a Commons defeat  on his proposal for military intervention in Syria and there were many Conservative rebellions and defeats over European policy.

It should be moted also that the Whip system provides for two-way communication between government and backbenchers  which enable MPs to signal opposition to government policy before legislation comes to the floor of the House meaning that apparent support for government policy does not preclude the possibility that there has been opposition behind the scenes.

MPs have many opportunities to take individual initiatives via Private Members Bills, Early Day Motions , 10 minute rule bills and via their participation as members of Select Committees and Cross Party Committees. You will be considering these mechanisms elsewhere.

Also, although it 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, it can be argued that coalition government could also create its own problems. For example, political parties fight  General Elections based on 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.


Political Parties and the Institutionalisation of Conflict

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.

Conclusions and Criticisms: Different Theoretical Perspectives.  

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, because of the successful fulfilment of all these functions they encourage citizens to give their support to liberal democratic political systems as a whole.

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 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 clearly see that even if they do contribute to the effectiveness of liberal democracy this does not mean that they are beyond reproach.