guide to the party political system in Britain
discovery of Britain, the country and its life
ELECTION SPECIAL -
Political parties and the main issues of the 2019 General Election
are the Parties' principal policies ? And what does each
party stand for ? A very quick guide to the five UK parties
(excluding regional parties).
||On the economy
||Boost the economy by reducing taxes for all, including
the wealthy. Reduce bureaucracy.
||Provide an extra £20.5 bn a year for the
||Call for new referendum
||Keep the immigration that is vital for parts of the
taxes for 95% of the population, but increase them for the top 5%.
Renationalise parts of the economy, notably the railways. Abolish
tuition fees for university students
||Provide an extra £26 bn a year for the health
|The Lib Dems
||Keep Free movement of people within the EU
||Boost the economy by stopping Brexit; (almost all
economic forecasts show that Brexit will damage the British economy)
||Provide an extra £6 bn a year paid for by an
increase in income tax
|The Green party
||Keep Free movement of people within the EU
the economy by stopping Brexit; take increasingly radical measures to
combat climate change and improve the environment. Renationalise some
public services now in private hands.
||Take back some parts of the NHS currently operated by
private contractors, and inject public money as needed.
|The Brexit party
||Reduce immigration to 50,000 a year
||No major policies announced. But reduce foreign aid by
50% and abolish inheritance tax
The result of the
2019 General election
Johnson's Conservative Party won a clear victory, with a majority of 80
seats in the House of Commons. It was the fourth successive defeat for
the Labour Party, whose leader, Jeremy corbyn, announced that he would
be standing down in 2020.
Johnson, who had campaigned on the simple catch-phrase of "Get Brexit
Done" confirmed that the UK would leave the European Union
on 31st January.
Although the Conservatives won a comfortable
majority in the
House of commons, thanks to the UK's "first-past-the-post" voting
system, they only secured 43.6% of the national vote, less than the
combined score of the Labour and Liberal-Democrat parties (43.7%) and
considerably less than the total share of votes that went to all
opposition parties (50.8% - excluding Northern Ireland).
In January, the new Conservative-dominated parliament finally passed a
bill to take the UK out of the European Union on 31st January.
After this the UK enters a "transition period" during which,
basically, nothing changes, and the UK will continue effectively as if
it were still a member of the EU, while negotiations take place to
establish Britain's trading and other relations with the EU after the
end of the transition period.
Johnson continues to
repeat that these negotiations will be completed by the end of 2020;
most experts, and the EU, believe that they will take considerably
longer, and that Brexit will not "get done" by the end of the year.
the British electoral system works
Britain uses a historic "first-past-the-post" electoral system.
There is just one round of voting, and the candidate with the
most votes wins. That's it. Thus, if there are ten candidates standing
for a seat, candidates A to J, and candidates B to J each get 9.95 % of
the vote, 0.4% of the votes are invalid, and candidate A gets 10% of
the vote, candidate A is elected. There is no runoff, no second round.
Though 10% of the vote is a small
minority, it is more than any other candidate, and is thus
described as a relative
majority , or as a "plurality" in American English.
While this system works well in an essentially two-party
it is badly suited to a system in which there are three or more parties
all taking at least 20% of the votes. Where there are four or five
parties all with a considerable following, as in Scotland or Wales, the
"first past the post" system can be considered as quite undemocratic,
as it leads to candidates and parties winning seats on the basis of
maybe just 25% of the votes, with the "losers" taking 75% between them.
This is why across the UK in 2019 there are calls for the
system to be reformed to give more proportional representation.
In the meantime many voters are being encouraged to resort to
"tactical voting" - for or against Brexit - and give their vote to the
anti-Brexit candidate (or the pro-Brexit candidate) most likely to win,
regardless of party.
political parties from their origins to today
A short history
of political parties in Britain
has the oldest parliament in the world. The English
met for the first time at the Palace of Westminster in the year 1265,
but it took more than four centuries before the concept of "political
parties" gave a new dimension to political life in Britain.
Before the birth of political parties in the seventeenth century, the
English parliament consisted of aristocrats and wealthy men
formed alliances and majorities based on specific factors or loyalties.
It was not until after the English Civil War, and parliamentary
upheavals during the Republican years of the Commonwealth and
Protectorate (1649-1660), that the first English political parties
began to take shape. During the years from 1678 to 1681, and
constitutional crisis known as the Exclusion
, most members of the English parliament
formed into two "parties", named Whigs
The descendants of these two original parties are the two parties that
formed the coalition government under Prime Minister David Cameron from
2010 to 2015.
Until the early 20th century,
alone or in coalition with other groups, these two political parties in
turn formed successive British governments, based on the results of
Initially, the Whigs
were the party of the liberal and reforming aristocracy. In contrast to
the Tories, the Whig Party attracted people more favorable to
constitutional reforms, and in 1832 led the most significant
modernization of the British Parliament, the Reform Act, which
rebalanced parliamentary constituencies, and greatly expanded the
electoral base to the middle classes. In the 1850's, the Whig Party
became the most important element of a union of Whigs and Radicals who
took the name "Liberal
This centrist party continued until 1988, when it merged with the new
but smaller Social Democratic Party to form today's Liberal Democrats
. The word Tory
early supporters of strong royal power; Tories were monarchists and
traditionalists, especially at the time of the Restoration of the
monarchy in 1660. During the eighteenth century, the Whigs dominated
British politics, and the Tory party played a relatively small role in
the political life of the United Kingdom.
changed in the last three decades of the eighteenth century, when the
rise of reformism and radicalism in Europe, which was to lead notably
to the French Revolution (1789), gave a new impetus to defenders of the
status quo and conservatism
The Tories re-emerged as a major force in British politics in 1770 -
but this time as a modern party in favor of maintaining the best
traditions of Britain, but at the same time strongly supporting the new
opportunities created by the industrial revolution and imperial and
commercial expansion. During the 19th century - as today - the Tory
party, which became the Conservative
in 1834, was torn between its traditionalists and its reformers.
Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative prime minister from 1874 to 1880,
was one of the great reformers of the 19th century.
After the First World War, a
new party came to power in the British Parliament, the Labour
. The first Labour
MPs had been elected in 1900 as representatives of the Independent
Labour Party. The Labour Party formed a minority government in 1924,
but it did not last. Labour first formed a majority government in 1929.
The rise of the Labour Party came however at the expense of
other non-Conservative party, the Liberals, and Labour
the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives.
From 1929 to 2010, power alternated
between the Conservatives and the Labour Party.
Following the general election of 2010, no single party
with an absolute majority of MPs; so for the first time in living
memory, a coalition government was formed, with the Conservatives and
the Liberal Democrats sharing power.
prime ministers of recent years. Left to Right Gordon Brown and Tony
Blair (Labour), John Major (Conservative), Nick Clegg (Liberal
Democrat, deputy PM) and David Cameron (Conservative, PM in 2014)
this historical overview shows, the British political
general has until very recently been characterized by a remarkable
stability. The British
electoral system, a system of "relative majority" (known as the " first
past the post" system) 1
, has not
changed for more
than four centuries, and is favorable to large parties and stable
governments. It tends to prevent parties fragmenting into
factions or clans, and encourages consensus positions around strong
In a referendum in
2011, British voters reaffirmed their commitment to this
electoral system, rejecting a new system that would have introduced an
element of proportional representation.
three major parties are all now more than a century old, and the system
makes it very hard for new parties to get a foot on the ladder. The
rise of the Labour Party in the early 20th century was the result of
major changes in society. Since then, no new party has succeeded in
establishing itself in England, and new parties that are
remain marginal in terms of representation, or merge with larger ones.
The situation is different in other parts of the United Kingdom, where
nationalist parties have broken into the political landscape, even to
the point of becoming the principal political party in Scotland.
However, the result of the European elections held in May
show that an earthquake has hit the formerly stable political landcape.
In the European elections,the traditional "main" parties, the
Conservatives and Labour, took just 25% of the vote between them, with
the Conservatives taking their lowest share of the vote since the
nineteenth century... less than 10%. Over 66% of the votes
taken by other parties, notably the new Brexit Party (31%) ,
Liberal Democrats (20%) and the Greens (12%).
The Political landscape in Britain today
Parties in turmoil
In the May 2019 European
Union parliamentary election,
the ruling Conservative Party fell to a historic low of under 10% of
the vote. The far right, in the shape of Nigel Farage's "Brexit party",
took over 31.6%, while the three main anti-Brexit parties, the Lib Dems
(20.3%) the Greens (12.1%) and ChangeUK (3.4%) took a combined share of
35.8%. Labour, the main opposition party, saw its share of
vote fall to 14.1%.
Then, seven months later, the Conservatives romped back to the top of
the list, taking 43% of the vote in the December 2019 General election,
and giving Boris Johnson a strong parliamentary mandate to take the UK
our of the European Union.
The remarkable fluctuation of
the scores of the Conservative Party from under 10% in an election in
May, to over 43% in an election in December of the same year,
dramatically illustrate the chaos in which Britain's political parties
found themselves in 2019.
As many commentators have noted, the result of the
2019 election was not so much a victory for the Conservatives, as a
defeat for the Labour Party. The far-left policies announced
Jeremy Corbyn, such as a four-day working week, frightened
hundreds of thousands of traditional Labour supporters, and handed
victory to the Conservatives in spite of their unpopularity (as
evidenced in the European elections in May).
parties (excluding regionalist parties / nationalsts )
or conservative parties
The Boris Johnson era
The Conservative party has been taken
over by the hard right. Boris Johnson has filled his Cabinet
(government) with men and women who campaigned for Brexit, and
has appointed arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to the position of Leader
the House of Commons. The Leader of the House is the member of the
Government who is in charge of organising the business of the House.
The centrist Conservatives who were prominent in all of Theresa May's
cabinets - men such as Philip Hammond, former Chancellor of the
Exchequer and Rory Stewart or David Gauke, former Justice Secretary -
have either refused to work with Boris Johnson, or have been dropped
from the government.
Under Johnson, the Conservative Party has become the party of
Hard Brexit – forcing traditional moderate Conservatives to
their party loyalty. Many supporters and a fair number of former party
members have abandoned the party, some of them becoming independents,
others (even including former Conservative deputy Prime Minister
Michael Heseltine) joining or supporting the Lib
moderates have now either left the Conservative Party, or did not stand
for reelection in the 2019 General Election.
In the December 2019 election, the Conservatives won a
of 80 seats in the House of Commons, taking 43.6% of the national
vote, taking dozens of traditional Labour seats in
largely pro-Brexit urban areas of the North of England. Johnson now has
the Parliamentary majority needed to take the UK out of the European
Union, and Brexit will take place on 31st January 2020.
The Theresa May government
The May government, the government in charge of negotiating
Britain's exit from the European Union (Brexit
) was a
strange mix of right-wing nationalism and centrist "compassionate
Conservatism". In her speech to the Tory Party conference in Autumn
2016, Theresa May sounded almost like a leader of the Labour Party in
her promises to help the "Jams" (those who are
Just-About-Managing to get by in life) ; yet on Brexit, her
rhetoric has been that of strident nationalism. In a move to appease
the hard-liners in her party, and much to the alarm of
the Conservative centre, she pledged not only to take the UK
the EU, but also out of the Single European Market, the free trade area
that extends beyond the EU.
As from June
May had to depend for support on an
agreement (not a coalition) with "friends and allies" in the
right-wing protestant Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, to
form a government. This was a marriage of convenience which failed to
give May the success she was hoping for. She resigned in 2019 after her
Brexit agreement, carefully negotiated with the EU, was rejected three
times in the House of Commons.
is the British party of the right, traditionally including a broad
traditional conservatives and royalists, neo-liberals and social
conservatives. For the last forty years, the party has been deeply
divided over issues of sovereignty and the role of Britain in the
European Union. A majority of party members are in favour of a revision
of the terms of Britain's membership of the European Union, and the
holding of a referendum on withdrawal. But other
Conservatives, including industrial and business leaders, are strongly
pro-European. Recent leaders have been beset by problems trying to
reconcile the strongly opposing views of party members on this issue.
the divisions were sharply amplified during the campaign for the Brexit
referendum; two thirds of the Party's MPs - essentially the
centre-right moderate wing of the party - were in favour of remaining
in the EU; one third, the Conservative sovereignist hard-liners and the
neo-conservative faction, were in favour of leaving. However,
grass-roots Conservative party activists are on the whole further to
the right than their MPs.
Since the resignation of David Cameron, the Party has moved to the
right, as pro-Brexit and sovereignist MPs have taken up key
positions in Mrs. May's cabinet. Since the election of Boris
Johnson as leader, the Conservative Party has become essentially a UK
The Conservative Party is made up of local Associations which play a
major role in the selection of candidates and the appointment of the
party leader. The importance of this local structure reflects the very
old tradition of territorial representation in British politics, a
tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. However, "Central Office"
often imposes candidates on local associations to enable
up-and-coming stars to enter parliament, as was the case with Margaret
In her short speech to the press, on taking up her
job as Prime Minister, Theresa
positioned herself very clearly as a "one-nation" moderate
Conservative, keen to build a new Britain for ordinary people,
just for the wealthy. It was a speech that could equally well have been
made by David Cameron, or most of the recent leaders of the Labour
- 2019. The Brexit Party
UKIP - The UK
who founded UKIP, has now quit UKIP and founded a new anti-EU party
called simply the "Brexit party". With no policies other than to call
for a 'hard" Brexit, the BP nevertheless immediately became
most popular political party in terms of voting intentions for
the European Elections.
The BP has attracted most of
the voters who previously supported UKIP, plus those Conservative
voters who believe in Brexit. As a result, the Brexit Party did better
in the EU elections than any other party, and secured more of the UK's
seats in the European Parliament than any other party. Ironic for a
party that does not believe in the European Union.
In the 2019
General election, the Brexit party supported the Conservative
candidates in seats already held by the Conservatives.
The party plans to change its name to the Reform
Party in 2020. They did not win any seats.
sovereignist party that wants Britain to withdraw from the European
Union. The party has little in the way of policies, apart from
Europe-bashing, but is surprisingly popular with voters disgruntled
with the perceived failures of the main parties . In the 2015 election,
UKIP obtained just one member of
Parliament, a sitting MP who had moved over from the conservatives.
UKIP has several members in the European Parliament.
UKIP provided the foot-soldiers of the campaign to take Britain out of
the European Union; but the non-UKIP part of the Leave campaign has
sought to distance itself from UKIP since the referendum, worried at
the damage that UKIP's xenophobic campaigning has done to Britain.
Since Farage left the party that he created, and created
new party, the Brexit Party, UKIP has lost most of its supporters. It
won no seats in the 2019 European elections.
BNP - British
An extreme right-wing party , with nationalistic and xenophobic views.
No members of parliament
Parties of the
The Liberal Democrat party - the Liberal Democrats , or
party of the centre, formed in 1988 by the merger of the Liberal Party
and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) , the latter being made up of
dissidents from the Labour party. The Lib Dems are thus a mixture of
social conservatives and social democrats. The party is the
pro-European of the major British parties, and until 2015 shared
power with the Conservative Party in the coalition government.
Many of those who voted Lib-Dem in 2010 were furious when the
party chose to go into colaition with the Conservatives, and in the
2015 election, the Lib Dems lost most of their MPs.
However, following the election of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn to the
head of the Labour party in September 2015, and the subequent internal
divisions in the Labour party, support for the Lib-Dems has begun to
expectations have been raised further since the Brexit referendum vote.
The Liberal-Democrats are starting to appear as the only
party at the Centre of British politics, as the Conservative party
moves to the right, and the Labour Party moves increasingly to the
left. In December 2016, an unknown Lib-Dem candidate achieved a
dramatic success by beating the Conservatives, with a swing of 21% away
from the Conservatives, in a parliamentary by-election fought almost
entirely on the issue of Brexit.
In the June 2017
Lib-Dems increased their number of MPs from 8 to 11, taking seats from
the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists. However they did not
emerge as the new party of opposition, and as well as gaining seats,
they lost some.
spite of being the only one
of the three major parties that is committed to opposing Brexit, and in
spite of gaining 60,000 new members in 2018 the Lib-Dems continue to
show very poorly in opinion polls compared to Conservatives or Labour.
As the only party that has been clearly and consistently opposed to
Brexit, the Liberal Democrats are staging a remarkable comeback. In the
European Parliamentary Elections, they came second, beating both the
Conservatives and Labour. They are expected to increase their
representation in Parliament in August by retaking the Brecon and
Randnorshire seat from the Conservatives in a by-election. The party
has also been buoyed by the election of its youngest and first female
leader, Jo Swinson, aged 39.
It has also increased its parliamentary presence to 19, as
sitting MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour have defected to the
In the December 2019 election, the LibDems campaigned firmly against
Brexit, but failed dramatically to position themselves as a credible
opposition party, and instead of taking a large number of seats from
the Conservatives in "remain" (anti-Brexit) areas, came out
one MP less than before the election – in spite of
increasing their national share of the vote by 2%.
The Greens - The Green Party
centre-left party, in many ways rather middle-class, committed to the
promotion of environmental issues. One Member of Parliament (since 2010)
The parties of the Left
The Labour Party
Labour party covers virtually the whole spectrum of left wing politics
in Britain, and includes a smaller party known as the Co-operative
party. Until 2010, since the time of Tony Blair, it had been
dominated by the
social-liberal centre-left (initially known as New
the collectivist "Old Labour" views were very much in a minority . From
2010 to 2015, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, it remained
essentially a centre-left party; but in September 2015, with the
election to the leadership of a left-winger Jeremy Corbyn
party has moved into a new period in its history. (see below)
The party is supported and funded by the British
trade unions, but it
is not controlled or significantly influenced by them, and this
influence was further reduced in 2015. Very weak following the
recession of the 1970s, the party was largely reformed later by Tony
Blair, who transformed it into a modern social democratic party.
The Labour Party is made up of local parties (Constituency Labour
Parties), most British trade unions and other associations. These
structures send delegates to party conferences, depending on the number
of their members. Party Conferences define the general lines of party
policy, but conference decisions are not binding on the parliamentary
party . Until 2014 Labour party leaders were elected by three
colleges, individual members , Labour MPs, and trade unions,
college representing a third of the final result. The last leader,
Ed Miliband, was elected by the weight of union vote, even though both
Labour MPs and individual members preferred his brother David Miliband.
election, and to reassure not only the country but also a large number
of his constituents , Ed Miliband sought to emphasize his total
independence from the unions. In 2014, he announced plans to reduce the
role of the unions even further in the election of the party leader.
A new electoral process was introduced, whereby the leader is
elected by paid up members of the party and anyone else who signs up
and pays to vote in the electoral process.
Following the party's defeat in the 2015 General Election, Miliband
stepped down as leader of the Labour Party. In September however, Party
members and other electors chose as the new leader of the labour Party
a radical left-winger, Jeremy
the most left-wing
the party has ever had. Corbyn's election has sparked a serious rift in
the party, and within hours of his election, eight members of the
cabinet had announced that they would not be part of Corbyn's team.
Others are expected to follow.
For Corbyn's supporters, his election marks a return by the
Labour party to its core socialist values; for his opponents, it has
simply made the Labour Party unelectable for at least ten years.... if
not longer. Opinion polls persistently show that while Labour party
militants may favour a strong left-wing agenda, British voters as a
whole do not.
during the Brexit referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was repeatedly
accused of showing only half-hearted support for his party's official
position, which is in favour of Britain remaining in the European
Union. In the days following the vote, eleven members of his Shadow
cabinet either resigned or were sacked, and a motion has been tabled
calling on Corbyn to step down, on the grounds that he does not show
the leadership qualities that the party needs if it wants to have any
hope of winning another General Election.
However, in September, Corbyn was reelected as
the Labour Party, with an increased majority, thanks to a surge in
In April 2017,
polls showed the Labour party to be at a historic low level of around
25% – with many traditional Labour voters moving towards the
Conservatives on account their support for Brexit and their rhetoric on
When Theresa May called the surprise general election, it
was expected that Labour would lose a lot of seats as more and more
traditional voters in working-class areas moved over to the
Conservatives. However thanks to poor campaigning by the
Conservatives and very good campaigning by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour
instead gained 29 seats and the Conservatives lost 12, and lost their
absolute majority in Parliament.
2019, in spite of the Conservative government's huge
unpopularity, Labour has not
surged ahead in the opinion polls, as normally happens when a
government is very unpopular. Polls suggest that this is
essentially due to Jeremy Corbyn who has refused to take any clear
personal position on Brexit. Corbyn continues to say that he
in favour of a "better" Brexit, while opinion polls show that a big
majority of Labour voters, specially the young, are against Brexit.
In the December
general election, Labour suffered a humiliating defeat, losing 60
seats. The defeat was largely attributed to the unpopularity of Jeremy
Corbyn as a leader, to the party's inability to provide a clear
position on Brexit, and to voter apprehension about the far-left
policies put forward by the leadership.
Corbyn has announced his resignation, but remains
in place until a new leader is elected, probably in April 2020.
The party of a populist left-wing Labour party dissident,
George Galloway, who was its sole MP until 2015.
The Communist Party of Great Britain
Very marginal, the party has only ever had two elected MPs. It was
never a mass party, not even when at its peak in the 1940's.
Main regional and nationalist
does not have any serious regional parties, however, regional or
nationalist parties are now very important in the political landscape
of other countries that make up the United Kingdom.
SNP - Scottish Nationalist Party
the most important political party in Scotland, and the party in power
in the Scottish Parliament . A left-of-centre nationalist party, that
organized a referendum on Scottish independence in autumn 2014. In the
referendum, Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
following the result of the Brexit referendum vote in which Scotland
overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union, party leader
Nicola Sturgeon is currently looking at the possibility of holding a
second Scottish independence referendum before the UK actually leaves
the European Union.
In the 2017 General Election,
the SNP lost 19 of its 50 seats in the UK parliament, as many Scots
turned away from the issue of Scottish nationalism towards parties in
favour of remaining in the UK. However the SNP still holds an
absolute majority of Scottish seats in the UK parliament.
2019 General Election,
the SNP came back in force, taking 48 out of 59 Scottish seats, on a
ticket supporting Scotland's desire to seek independence from the UK,
and remain in the European Union.
Plaid Cymru - Welsh nationalist party
Welsh party, which did control the Welsh Assembly, but is now on a par
with the Labour Party, which is also very well established in this part
of the United Kingdom. In 2017 Plaid Cymru (pronounced Plied Coomry)
has three MPs in the UK parliament.
Democratic Unionist Party 2
DUP, the conservative Protestant majority party in Northern
Ireland (Ulster), is very favorable to the maintenance of
within the United Kingdom, but not to Britain remaining in the European
Union. They are in favour of Brexit, and reject the idea that
Northern Ireland could have special status in the UK after Brexit;
however they want Britain - or at least Northern Ireland - to retain
full access to the European market (in the framework of a
"Comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with
Union") , positions that may be hard to reconcile.
The DUP was first formed in 1971 as a hard-line Protestant
break-away party, dissatisfied with the direction taken by the official
Ulster Unionist party, which was closely allied with the Conservatives.
In June 2017,
the DUP agreed to support the Conservatives in the
Parliament, allowing Theresa May to form a new government in spite of
losing her absolute majority in the House of Commons. The DUP
has 10 MPs. Without their support, Theresa May would have a minority
2019 General Election,
the DUP lost seats, but remain the largest party in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein 2
majority party among the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, in
favour of the withdrawal of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom,
and the reunification of Ireland.
Party and Labour Party of Northern Ireland, a non-sectarian social
democratic party made up of both Catholics and Protestants.
Copyright : Website
and texts © About-Britain.com 2009-2019 except where otherwise
1. The system of relative majority; The winner of any election is the
person who gets the greatest number of votes, even if this is not an
majority of the votes cast.
2. The Northern Ireland Assembly is
currently in the hands of a coalition between DUP and Sinn Fein , once
bitter enemies of each other. However the Northern Ireland Assembly was
suspended in 2016 following the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to
continue working together.