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Historic politics

Political parties in Britain - a short guide

Updated following the General Election
of June 8th 2017.
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Historic politics

Political Parties in Britain




Index A short history of party politics Stability of the political landscape
Political parties in Britain today Regional or nationalist parties

General election: 8th June 2017


The result : Details and analysis here:   British general election 2017
The Conservatives have lost their majority, but  remain the largest party in the House of Commons; Theresa May has vowed to continue as prime minister, but how long can she remain in power?  And what happens next ?

 After the elections: Is Brexit inevitable? Maybe not.

The British electoral system

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.
   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.

Topical : The Brexit referendum    
A choice of  pages :
NEW & updated:  Brexit a timeline of events since the referendum
 ►  Brexit:  The arguments and the people

British political parties from their origins to today

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.

Stability of the political landscape

 British prime ministersBritish prime ministers past and present. 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.

The Political landscape in Britain today

2016 - 2017  - Parties in turmoil

The "Brexit" referendum has plunged the main British political parties into turmoil, with both main parties Conservative and Labour being (irreparably?) divided about Britain's relationship with the European Union.
   The Conservative party has been split down the middle by opposition between pro- and anti-Europeans; but with a few exceptions, most of the Conservative MP's who formerly campaigned against Brexit have fallen silent since the election of Mrs. May.
  The Labour Party is riven by dissention between a militant party membership, and the party's generally moderate MPs. Labour MPs overwhelmingly  passed a vote of no confidence in leader Jeremy Corbyn, who nevertheless refused to stand down as he was elected overwhelmingly by party members.
   Of the three main traditional parties, only the Liberal-Democrat party has emerged intact from the chaos: the Lib-Dems always have been, and remain, firmly pro-European.
   The Labour Party remains torn between a hard-left Eurosceptic party membership, and a largely social-democrat Parliamentary party (its MPs). Internally fractured, Labour was seen, since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, as being unable to present itself as a credible challenge to the Conservative government. By April 2017 opinion polls showed that support for Labour had fallen to a historic low (around 25%), prompting Mrs. May to call another general election. However, thanks to an excellent campaign, Labour seriously narrowed the gap, and though they did not beat the Conservatives in the June 2017 election, they increased their representation in parliament, depriving the Conservatives of the absolute majority they had enjoyed since 2015.
   

Main British parties (excluding regionalist parties / nationalsts ) 


Right-wing or conservative parties

The Conservative Party

The Theresa May government

The present British government, the government in charge of negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union (Brexit) is 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. Much to the alarm of the Conservative centre, she has 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.
  Since June 9th 2017, May has 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 is a marriage of convenience which could, in the medium and long term, prove very difficult to manage.
This is the British party of the right, including a broad range of 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.
   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.
   
   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.

UKIP - The UK Independence Party
A 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.
   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 has sought to distance itself from UKIP since the referendum, worried at the damage that UKIP's xenophobic campaigning has done to Britain.

BNP - British National Party
An extreme right-wing party , with nationalistic and xenophobic views. No members of parliament

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 have been raised further since the Brexit referendum vote.  The Liberal-Democrats are starting to appear as the only credible 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 election, the Lib-Dems increased their number of MPs from 8 to 12, 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

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 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 electoral colleges, individual members , Labour MPs, and trade unions,  each 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. 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. In September however, 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 has sparked a serious rift in the party, and within hours of his election, eight members of the shadow 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.
   In 2016, 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 leader of the Labour Party, with an increased majority, thanks to a surge in membership
   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 immigration. 
  When Theresa May called the surprise general election, it was expected that Labout would lost 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.


Respect

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 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 looking at the possibility of holding a second Scottish independence referendum before the UK actually leaves the European Union (if that should actually happen, which for the time being, remains a possibility).
  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.

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.
   As from June 2017, the DUP has 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.

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.

SDLP

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

Notes:
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 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.

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 Les partis politiques en GB 









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

Theresa May
Theresa May,  leader of the Conservative Party and Britain's prime minister


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

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