Political parties

Political parties in Britain

 A short guide

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For the July election, see:   The British General Election 2024 - a short guide - background, issues, and an up-to-date profile of the main parties.

Until around 2010, the  party political landscape in the UK was essentially characterised by its stability. The main parties were established historic institutions, and British voters knew what they stood for. Since 2010, and in particular since Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's fateful decision to call a referendum over Britain's membership of the European Union, Britain's political parties have been in turmoil - both in government and in opposition.
    In recent years, Britain's political parties have been evolving and changing at such speed that keeping up with developments requires constant attention. While it is still true that the Conservatives are the main party of the right, and Labour the main party of the left, distinctions between right and left have been blurred in many areas.
See also: 

1. Recent developments - British governments since Boris Johnson

The Rishi Sunak government :  since October 2022

 Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022 - the third Conservative Prime Minister of the year, and the first UK prime minister from an ethnic minority. With the popularity of the Conservative Party having fallen to near record lows following the Truss debacle, Sunak is generally presumed to be a caretaker PM to see the Conservatives through to the end of 2024 when the next general election is due.
  Opinion polls since late 2022 suggest that the Conservatives will be wiped out in the 2024 elections, winning maybe less than 100 seats according to certain projections. Sunak is the man in charge of damage limitation over the period of his two year tenure.
  In all fairness, he  started well, giving the impression of being a competent "safe pair of hands". Although in 2016 he was a Brexiteer, he is a moderate who appeals more to traditional Conservative values than to the right wing of the party which has been dominant since the start of the Johnson premiership.
  In February 2023, together with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, Sunak announced that the UK and the EU had reached an agreement on the insoluble problem of the situation of Northern Ireland, which since Brexit has had half a foot in the EU while remaining part of the United Kingdom. The presentation of this agreement showed that Sunak had finally managed to free the UK government from the hold of the strongly Eurosceptic Conservative  far right, and from the equally right-wing Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland.
  Presenting the deal next day in Northern Ireland, Sunak provoked amazement (even incredulity)  in the media by saying that Northern Ireland was the best place in the world to do business, as it had the unique advantage of having free access to both the UK market and the EU's single market. It seems improbable that he can of forgotten that.... until Brexit, the whole of the UK enjoyed this "unique advantage" about which he was visibly so enthusiastic.
  Sunak's "Windsor Framework" agreement for Northern Ireland was a strong political statement to the effect that the chaotic May-Johnson-Truss age, in which the Conservative Party was in the clutches of the right-wing anti-EU "ERG" group, was over – at least for the time being.  Sunak and Von der Leyen both looked forward to mending Britain's bridges with the European Union.
  For a while, Sunak appeared to have won the battle for the hearts and minds of most of the Conservative Party,  and change was in the air. The far right that had dominated the party since 2016 had not however disappeared, and internal tensions within the party remained high. In summer 2023, Boris Johnson supporter and former  minister Nadine Dorries resigned as a Conservative MP, calling the Sunak administration a "zombie government". By the start of 2024, the Conservative government was in more trouble, still divided over multiple issues from the environment to public spending. In April 2024, a new bridge-building proposal from Ursula von der Leyen, the idea of a youth mobility agreement between Britain and the EU, was flatly rejected.

The Truss government : September 2022 - October 2022.

Chosen as Prime Minister by the members of the Conservative Party, against the recommendation of the party's Members of Parliament, Liz Truss will go down in the history books not just as the shortest-serving British prlme minister ever, but as a textbook example of how not to choose a party leader.
   Following the messy resignation of Boris Johnson in the summer of 2022, Truss, already renowned for her ability to change her mind, tailored her leadership campaign in order to appeal to the mostly white, elderly and relatively well off members of the Conservative Party who have the job of selecting the party leader (a total of about 180,000 people in all... including some who do not even have British nationality). Promising tax cuts for all, less government, and help with energy bills, she won over a majority of the party faithful, for whom the more realistic and fiscally prudent platform offered by Rishi Sunak was less appealing.
   Once in power, Truss and her chancellor Kwazi Kwarteng set to work making good on promises, and within a month had proposed a "mini budget" (more realistically a major fiscal revolution) cutting taxes all round, including for the wealthiest and for business. Her supporters were delighted, as were hedge fund managers; but the financial markets were aghast. Truss was promising tax cuts worth £45 billion, with little reduction in services, but with no information as to where the money was coming from. This was a huge example of the "fantasy economics" that Sunak had warned against during the leadership campaign.
    Following the mini-budget, the value of the pound fell, the cost of borrowing went up, the cost of people's mortgages (loans on real estate) went up, inflation hit over 10%, and the reputation of the Conservative party, already seriously damaged, plummeted even further.  The Bank of England had to step in to shore up the markets, the IMF expressed alarm, and there was general panic.
     Within two weeks, the Truss government was obliged to withdraw parts of the "mini budget" (notably the tax cut for the most wealthy)... and a few days later almost the whole mini budget was scrapped after chancellor Kwarteng was sacked.
     Truss hoped that these U-turns would be enough to restore calm on the markets,  in the party and in the country; they were not. Truss's plans to tear up some environmental legislation, including a moratorium on fracking for gas, were still infuriating many of her own MPs and party members. On 19th October, Truss came to the House of Commons and announced in no uncertain terms that she was not going to resign. 'I'm not a quitter", she boldly affirmed.  On the next day, 20th October, in a U-turn that perhaps required even more boldness on her part, she announced her resignation.

The Boris Johnson government (2019 -2022)

   Boris 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, stood 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 – which has now happened.
   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 2020, 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 entered a "transition period" during which, basically, nothing changed, and the UK continued effectively as if it were still a member of the EU, while negotiations took place to establish Britain's trading and other relations with the EU after the end of the transition period.
   Negotiations were completed just in time by the end of 2020. During the year, little progress had been made, and discussions between the UK and the EU became acrimonious, specifically after Johnson introduced a bill into parliament to retroactively modify the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that he himself had negotiated and signed with the EU less than a year earlier. While Johnson's large majority ensured that this bill was passed by Parliament, five former Prime Ministers, three Conservatives and two Labour, severely criticised Johnson for planning to renege on an international treaty that he himself signed. 
   In the end the Brexit deal was signed in a rush of last minute compromises which came too late to allow UK exporters and importers to prepare for a fundamental change in their trading relations with the EU, and confusion, compounded by Covid, marked the first month of the UK's new life as a "third country" outside the European Union.  In January, a report from international rating's agency Moody's concluded that the EU had got a good deal, the UK a considerably poorer one.

    By November 2021 Boris Johnson's government was losing its appeal, and Johnson's personal approval rating had fallen to a record low. Following a disastrous decision to order his MP's to change the law in order to protect an MP accused of corruption, Johnson was forced to make a U-turn within 24 hours... but the damage was done.  An Opinium opinion poll for the Observer newspaper on 4th November showed that only 30% of voters now believed that Johnson was doing a good job, compared to 50% who thought he was doing a bad job.
    In Summer 2022, after becoming the first serving Prime Minister to be fined for an offence while in office (attending a party during the Covid lockdown period), and being accused of lying to Parliament, Boris Johnson was finally forced to resign by his own MPs.  During the summer, Conservative MPs selected two of their number as a potential replacement; their preference went to Rishi Sunak. However the members of the Conservative Party preferred the more right-wing platform proposed by Liz Truss, who was duly chosen to succeed Johnson.
  Truss became Prime Minister on 6th September 2022, two days before the death of the Queen.

2. Political parties - what do they stand for?

What are the Parties' principal policies ?  And what does each party stand for ? The table below summarizes the policies of the main parties as they were before the 2017 general election. The main purpose of this table is show some key areas of policy on which there is, or was, agreement or disagreement between parties.

On Brexit On immigration On the economy On health
The Conservatives In favour Reduce immigration Boost the economy by reducing taxes for all, including the wealthy. Reduce bureaucracy. Provide an extra £20.5 bn a year for the health service
Labour Call for new referendum Keep the immigration that is vital for parts of the British economy Reduce 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 service
The Lib Dems Against 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 Against Keep Free movement of people within the EU Boost 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 In favour Reduce immigration to 50,000 a year No major policies announced. But reduce foreign aid by 50% and abolish inheritance tax Unclear

How 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 system, 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 there are calls for the voting system to be reformed to give more proportional representation.  

3. A short history of political parties in Britain

England has the oldest parliament in the world.  The English parliament 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 who 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 the constitutional crisis known as the Exclusion Crisis, most members of the English parliament  formed into  two "parties", named Whigs and Tories. 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 parliamentary elections.
     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 Party". 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 designated 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.
     This 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 Party 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 Party. 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 the other non-Conservative party, the Liberals, and Labour replaced 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 emerged 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.
     Since the end of the coalition government in 2015, Britain's political parties have been in upheaval, with the Conservative party taken over by its right wing, and the Labour Party taken over by the hard left, a situation that has caused confusion among voters and a series of unprecedented political events in Britain, culminating with a hard Brexit that was eventually sealed in 2021.

4. Former stability of the political landscape

 British prime ministersBritish 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)
As this historical overview shows, the British political landscape in 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 smaller factions or clans, and encourages consensus positions around strong party leaders.
     In a referendum in 2011, British voters reaffirmed their commitment to this historic electoral system, rejecting a new system that would have introduced an element of proportional representation.
    Britain's 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 created 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 2019 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 were taken by other parties, notably the new Brexit Party (31%) ,  the Liberal Democrats (20%) and the Greens (12%).
   Then, just seven months later, the Conservative party  was back up to a 43.6% share of the vote in the 2019 General Election - sufficient (given the way the British voting system works) to obtain an outright majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons.

5. Political turmoil in Britain today

2016 - 2024  - 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 the vote fall to 14.1%.

  Then, seven months later in the December 2019 General election, the Conservatives romped back to the top of the list, taking 43% of the vote  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 by 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).

   By 2020, the Conservative Party had become completely controlled by its militant right wing. Many former Conservatives, including former Prime Ministers Theresa May, David Cameron and John Major, had condemned Boris Johnson for the way he was running the affairs of the nation. Government policy was seen to be controlled by the Prime Minister's very right-wing and unelected advisor, Dominic Cummings. Several moderate senior civil servants either resigned or else were replaced by neo-liberals brought in more for their political leanings than for their experience.

   Meanwhile, the Labour Party has returned to electability since the replacement of the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn by the centrist Sir Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer and also former Director of Public Prosecutions.  Since summer 2022, the scandals and confusion surrounding the Conservative party have vastly improved Labour's rating in the polls, with opinion polls in October 2022 giving them a thirty point lead..... enough to form the next government with a huge majority.
    Going into 2024, Labour maintain a twenty point lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls.

6. Main British parties (excluding regionalist parties / nationalsts ) 

Right-wing or conservative parties

The Conservative Party (also called the Tories)

The British Conservative Party has been torn in two for the past half century by divisions between its neo-liberal sovereignist and Eurosceptic right wing, and its more traditional social-conservative and pro-European centre.  The arguments over Brexit further polarised the party, and power and influence within it has varied with time.

The Theresa May government (2016 - 2019)

    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 was 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 out of the EU, but also out of the Single European Market, the free trade area that extends beyond the EU.
  As from June 9th 2017, 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.

The Boris Johnson era (2019 - 2022) and after

    The Conservative party was taken over by the hard right, and Johnson  filled his Cabinet (government) with men and women who campaigned for Brexit,  appointing arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to the position of Leader of 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 -  either refused to work with Boris Johnson, or were dropped from the government. 
   Under Johnson, the Conservative Party became the party of Hard Brexit – forcing traditional moderate Conservatives to question their party loyalty. Many supporters and a fair number of former party members  abandoned the party, some of them becoming independents, others (even including former Conservative deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine) joining or supporting the Lib Dems.  Many moderates have now either left the Conservative Party, or did not stand for reelection in the 2019 General Election.
In December 2019, the Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons, taking 43.6% of the national vote,  and winning dozens of traditional  Labour seats in the largely pro-Brexit urban "Red Wall"  areas of the North of England. With his new big majority, Johnson was able to take the UK out of the EU on 31st January 2020.
    In October 2022, after Rishi Sunak was chosen as leader, the right wing of the party lost a lot of power; but it would be wrong to imagine that the Conservative Party is now back in the hands of the centre-right moderates; it is not. The British Conservative Party, under Sunak, is in the hands of a new Conservatives generation, less radical than under Johnson and Truss, but considerably further to the right than it was in the times before the fateful Brexit referendum and until 2019. 
The Conservatives are the British party of the right, traditionally including a broad range of middle-of-the-road conservatives and royalists, neo-liberals and social conservatives. Or at least that was the case until 2019.
   Since 2019 the Conservative Party has been taken over by its right wing, made up of a mix of economic neo-liberals (the ERG group), ultra-traditionalists, sovereignists and English nationalists. Many former centre-right Conservatives, including a good number of former MPs, ministers and even former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, have either strongly distanced themselves from today's party, or else gone over to other parties, in particular to the Liberal Democrats.
   Prior to 2019, and for the previous 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 were 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, were and mostly still are strongly pro-European. Recent leaders have been beset by problems trying to reconcile the strongly opposing views of party members on this issue.
   In 2016, 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 (or, as some say, English) nationalist party.
   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 Thatcher.
   In her short speech to the press, on taking up her job as Prime Minister, Theresa May positioned herself very clearly as a "one-nation" moderate Conservative, keen to build a new Britain for ordinary people, not 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 Party.

New - 2019. The Reform Party ( previously the Brexit Party)
Nigel Farage, who founded UKIP, quit his own party in 2018 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 the UKs most popular political party in terms of voting intentions for the  European Elections.
  The BP attracted most of the voters who previously supported UKIP, plus those Conservative voters who believed 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 changed its name to the Reform Party in 2020. It has no representatives in Parliament. By 2023 it had become largely insignificant, but has announced. that it will contest all seats in the 2024 General Election.

UKIP - The UK Independence Party
A sovereignist , founded by national populist Nigel Farage, that wanted 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 had several members in the European Parliament.
   In 2016, 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  sought to distance itself from UKIP after the referendum, worried at the damage that UKIP's xenophobic campaigning has done to Britain.
    After Farage left the party that he created, and created another new party, the Brexit Party, UKIP lost most of its supporters. It won no seats in the 2019 European elections, nor in the general election of the same year.

Parties of the centre

The Liberal Democrat party - the Liberal Democrats , or Lib Dems

A 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 most 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 rise again
   In 2016, expectations were raised further since the Brexit referendum vote.  The Liberal-Democrats consolidated their position as the only credible party at the Centre of British politics, as the Conservative party moved to the right, and the Labour Party moved increasingly to the left. In December 2016, an unknown Lib-Dem candidate achieved a dramatic success by beating the Conservatives.
   In the June 2017 election, the 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.
. In spite of being the only one of the three major parties that was committed to opposing Brexit, and in spite of gaining 60,000 new members in 2018 the Lib-Dems continued to show very poorly in opinion polls compared to Conservatives or Labour.
  2019. As the only party that has been clearly and consistently opposed to Brexit, the Liberal Democrats staged a strong comeback. In the European Parliamentary Elections, they came second, beating both the Conservatives and Labour.  They then increased their representation in Parliament in August by retaking the Brecon and Randnorshire seat from the Conservatives in a by-election. Later in the year, they  increased their parliamentary presence to 19, as sitting MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour, in profound disagreement with their parties over Brexit,  defected to the Lib Dems.
   December 2019. However 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 with one MP less than before the election – in spite of  increasing their national share of the vote by 2%.
   Autumn 2021. In two stunning by-election victories, the Lib-Dems overturned substantial Conservative majorities to win two parliamentary seats, both with clear majorities. In Chesham and Amersham, a prosperous suburban area to the northwest of London, the Lib-Dems won in a constituency that should have been natural affluent Conservative territory.They then took the constituency of North Shropshire from the Conservatives....  This rural area, with a very different and less wealthy population, had voted Conservative for almost 200 years. Furthermore the North Shropshire result showed that the attraction of Brexit was wearing off; in the 2016 referendum, North Shropshire voters voted strongly in favour of Brexit; in 2021 they voted strongly for the Lib-Dems, the party that has led the campaign against Brexit.
   Then in an even more stunning by election result, the Lib-Dems took the seat of Tiverton and Honiton, formerly a very safe Conservative seat, with a swing of over 30%. This was the result that really set the alarm bells ringing among Conservative MPs, and hastened the departure of Boris Johnson.
    In 2024 the Liberal Democrats are positioning themselves as the main party of opposition in the south of England outside London, until now a Conservative heartland, where they hope to win at least 30 seats.

The Greens - The Green Party

A 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 

The 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 Labour):   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, the Labour party  moved into a new period in its history. (see below). Under Corbyn, Labour was ineffectual as an opposition, losing three successive General Elections at a time when the UK, on the eve of the Brexit disaster, needed a strong opposition.  In April 2020, Corbyn was replaced by Sir Keir Starmer, a moderate former human-rights lawyer, under whose leadership the party has risen in the opinion polls.
   The party is supported and funded by the British trade unions, but it is not controlled nor 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 electoral colleges, individual members , Labour MPs, and trade unions,  each college representing a third of the final result. In 2010 Ed Miliband, was elected by the weight of union vote, even though both Labour MPs and individual members preferred his brother David Miliband. After his 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. Miliband's plan backfired, and In September, Party members and other electors chose as the new leader of the Labour Party a radical left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn – the most left-wing leader the party has ever had. Corbyn's election sparked a serious rift in the party, and within hours of his election, eight members of the shadow cabinet had resigned.
   For Corbyn's supporters, his election marked a return by the Labour party to its core socialist values; for his opponents, it had simply made the Labour Party unelectable for at least ten years.... if not longer. Opinion polls persistently showed that while Labour party militants may favour a strong left-wing agenda, British voters as a whole do not.
   Under the Corbyn administration, the Labour Party failed to win any elections, and indeed in the 2019 election lost a large number of traditional Labour strongholds, allowing Boris Johnson to sweep to power with a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons for the Conservative Party
   In April 2017, polls showed support for 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 immigration. 
  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.
   In January 2019, in spite of the Conservative government's huge unpopularity, Labour had not surged ahead in the opinion polls, as normally happens when a government is very unpopular.  Polls showed that this was essentially due to Jeremy Corbyn.
  In the December 2019 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 resigned in April 2020 and was replaced by Sir Keir Starmer, a moderate and former human rights lawyer. After initially overseeing a sharp rise in Labour's popularity, Starmer drew much critisism at the end of 2020 for supporting Boris Johnson's Brexit agreement when it came before Parliament, even though the bill would have been passed without Labour's support.
    Starmer initially failed to live up to promise, and did not manage to revive Labour's fortunes for over a year; it was not until late 2021, when the Conservatives were losing more and more public support, that Labour finally managed to pull ahead of the Conservaties in the public opinion polls.
    In 2022, as the Conservative party collapsed into chaos during the final weeks of the Johnson administration, Labour was the big winner. Its popularity in the opinion polls rose steadily to the point where, in early October Labour was credited with a thirty point lead over the Conservatives – a lead which, if translated into a General Election result, would have given them a massive majority in Parliament.  The next General Election is likely to take place in the autumn of 2024, and opinion polls in early 2024 still point to a big victory for the Labour Party, meaning that Starmer is poised to become the next British Prime Minister.

Respect / Workers Party of Great Britain

Respect was the party of a populist left-wing Labour party dissident, George Galloway, who was its sole MP until 2015.
George Galloway was reelected as an MP at a by-election in early 2024, this time as the candidate of the Workers Party of Great Britain., which he had founded in 2019.

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 parties

England 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

Currently 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.
  In 2016, 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 hoping to call a second independence referendum, and take an independent Scotland back into 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.
  In the 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.
  In 2021, the SNP failed by 1 seat to win an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish parliamentary elections, on a platform calling for a new Scottish independence referendum, with the prospect after that of Scotland rejoining the European Union.  However they were able to form another Scottih government in partnership with the Greens, who won four seats.
  In 2023, the SNP was embroiled in two serious financial scandals. Leader Nicola Sturgeon, who had championed the cause of Independence, stepped down, and the leadership battle that followed showed up serious divisions in the party. In spite of this, polls in late 2023 showed that the SNP remained the most popular party in Scotland.

Plaid Cymru - Welsh nationalist party

Major 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

The DUP, the conservative Protestant majority party in Northern Ireland (Ulster),  is very favorable to the maintenance of Northern Ireland 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 the European 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 Westminster 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 government.
  In the 2019 General Election, the DUP lost seats, but remain the largest party in Northern Ireland.  However in 2022 the DUP lost its position as the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont), following the victory of Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein 2

The 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.


Social Democratic Party and Labour Party of Northern Ireland, a non-sectarian social democratic party made up of both Catholics and Protestants.

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 absolute majority of the votes cast.
2. The Northern Ireland Assembly is 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. Those difficulties were resolved and the Stormont assembly worked again until 2022, when new Northern Ireland Assembly elections saw the DUP lose seats and Sinn Fein take over as the largest party. The DUP being unwilling to act as junior partner under Sinn Fein, the Stormont assembly is again paralysed.

Picture top of page: Whigs and Tories are strongly opposed on reforming the British parliament in 1832. Satirical cartoon by Robert Cruickshank, 

Liz Truss
Liz Truss,  catastrophic British Prime Minister from September 2022 to October 2022.

Political parties in the USA
Political parties in France

House of commons
Debate in the House of Commons - showing Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour party (the Opposition)

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