Conservatives: Founded 181 years ago from the Tory Party, which they are often still referred to as, the Conservative Party sits at the centre-right of the political spectrum, with their primary philosophies of British unionism, Euroscepticism, conservatism and free market economics. They are as of 2017 the largest party in the House of Commons.
The party’s origins can be traced back to the Whig Party in the 18th century, a group that formed around the then Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger between 1783-1801. The generally accepted founder of the newly-named ‘Conservative’ party was Sir Robert Peel around 1834.
There are several factions within the Conservative Party. ‘One Nation’ conservatism, dominant in the party in the 1950s and 60s, supported the introduction of the welfare state and is generally sympathetic to those in poverty or struggling in society. It is a form of conservatism that seeks to avoid creating damaging divisions between the richest and poorest in society. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the introduction of Thatcherism, also known as the ‘New Right’, which blended laissez-faire free market economics with tough social policies on crime, law and order, and the promotion of traditional morality. Thatcherism was largely continued into the 1990s and early 2000s.
The election of David Cameron as leader in 2005 saw an attempt to modernise the Conservative Party, for example through the support for gay marriage legislation. The response to the financial crisis of 2008 was to pursue a policy of austerity, whereby public spending was cut in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit (the difference between government spending and government income). This ‘balancing of the books’ was not achieved, however, the policy continued for the entirety of the coalition government’s lifetime. These spending cuts were portrayed as necessary, rather than as an ideological choice, however, some commentators have argued that this argument masked the real desire of Cameron and George Osborne to return to the Thatcherite ideas of the 1980s. Austerity was marked by cuts to welfare spending, not raising tax, and privatising some state services. However, the Conservatives remained, on the face of it, committed to spending in relation to the NHS, and to reducing the prison population, amongst other things. This suggested that a full-scale adoption of Thatcherism was not on the agenda.
Following the resignation of Cameron in 2016, Theresa May removed George Osborne and Michael Gove from office, marking the end of the dominance of the ‘Notting Hill set’ of young, socially liberal Conservatives in the party. Her leadership has been dominated by the question of Brexit and how it should be implemented, but she has developed some policy proposals of her own. There are no plans to radically increase public spending, suggesting that the attempt to reduce the budget deficit remains an aim. The party has also remained committed to reducing net migration to under 100,000 a year (a target that has not been met since 2010). May has also signalled a return to more ‘traditional’ Conservative policies, such as the establishment of new grammar schools, and the legalising of fox hunting.
A major, ongoing division within the Conservative Party is over the issue of Europe. The right wing of the party has been (sometimes very strongly) Eurosceptic, an issue which caused John Major severe difficulties in the early 1990s. However, many Conservatives are much more pro-Europe. This division was clearly seen by the differing positions taken by Conservative politicians during the EU referendum campaign.
Labour: Founded over a hundred years ago in 1900, the Labour Party was the result of a need for a new political force that would represent the class of wage-earners in Britain’s growing industrial climate. In the late 19th century the Independent Labour Party, a small socialist group formed and entered the political landscape, experiencing limited success at the 1895 general election.
The next decade saw increasing support for the party, winning 42 MPs at the 1910 general election, and 142 seats in 1922, which made it the second largest party in the House of Commons and the official opposition to the Conservative government.
In 1924 Ramsay MacDonald was elected the first ever Labour Prime Minister, despite winning less than a third of the seats available in the House of Commons.
The election of Tony Blair in 1997 saw the party move further to the centre so that it would appeal to ‘middle England’, and as a result the party branded itself ‘New Labour’. The Labour Party won the 1997 general election with their largest ever majority of 179, forming government until the 2010 general election where The Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The party has formed the official Opposition since then.
‘Old Labour’ policies had a distinctly left-wing character, for example, support for a comprehensive welfare state, nationalised industries, and state intervention in the economy. The ideology of social democracy has also been very influential- this is less left-wing, for example supporting a mixed economy of some privately run, and some state run, services and industry. Tony Blair’s leadership saw the introduction of the ‘third way’, a balance of social democratic and Thatcherite, neo-liberal ideas. Blair’s government supported a free market economy, and reimagined welfare as a ‘hand up’, rather than ‘hand out’, for example by training unemployed people in a new skill. New Labour was also very pro-business. Labour’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was to introduce fiscal stimulus, whereby government money was spent in the economy (a very different approach to austerity). Under Ed Miliband’s leadership, the party opposed the levels of coalition spending cuts, arguing that they had gone too far. Miliband moved away from New Labour and paid attention to what was argued to be falling living standards in the run up to 2015, where the party was defeated by the Conservatives.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 has opened up significant divisions in the party. Corbyn is much more of a social democratic, perhaps old Labour figure who has in the past supported nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. This has won him lots of support within the party membership (the ‘Momentum’ campaign), however, has put him at odds with much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom are Blairite. Several Labour MPs have refused to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and (unsuccessfully) attempted to unseat him as leader in 2016. Proposals in the 2017 Labour manifesto have included the ending of tuition fees, more funding for public services, and the nationalisation of services such as Royal Mail. These policies proved popular, and Corbyn oversaw a successful general election campaign in 2017, increasing Labour’s share of the vote by 10% (although still falling short of the Conservatives’ vote share)
Liberal Democrats: Founded in 1988 after the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party (SDP) merged, the Liberal Democrats’ origins can be traced back to 1859 when the Liberal Party were formed from the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals.
The first leader of the Liberal Democrat party following the merger between the parties was Paddy Ashdown, who was elected in July 1988. In the 1997 general election they doubled their representation in parliament, gaining 46 seats, and in the 1994 European Elections gained their first two MPs in the European Parliament.
After Ashdown retired as leader in 1999, Charles Kennedy was selected to replace him, whereupon the party improved on their previous successes, increasing their number of seats to 52, and their share of the vote to 18.3 per cent. This was mainly due to their stance on populist issues, such as their opposition to war in Iraq, support for civil liberties, and electoral reform.
Their highest share came after the 2005 general election, when they took 62 seats in Westminster. In 2007, Nick Clegg became the party’s leader. The party went into coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010. In 2015, they were reduced to just 8 MPs following the election, and Nick Clegg resigned, to be replaced by Tim Farron.
The Liberal Democrats are best described as a centre-left party, concerned with individual freedom, social justice, and constitutional reform. There are different factions within the party, however. ‘Orange Book’ liberals (for example Clegg, Chris Huhne, Vince Cable), are more supportive of free-market economic strategy, more centre-right than centre-left. This was marked by a reluctance to commit to increasing income tax, which had been a more traditional Lib Dem policy. Social liberals on the other hand have had more of a centre-left character, seen through a commitment to raising tax, and providing a welfare state in which everyone has the opportunity to help themselves. This still had influence when the party was in government. The introduction of free school meals for primary school children was an example of this. Lib Dem policy in the run-up to the 2015 election continued to support the reduction of the budget deficit, raising the income tax threshold, increase NHS spending, and capping benefit rises.
The near wipeout of the Lib Dems in 2015 saw Tim Farron become leader. Under his leadership, the party has moved back towards its traditional centre-left characteristic. One policy is to hold a second EU referendum, this time on the terms of the Brexit deal, something neither the Conservatives nor Labour are suggesting. The party continues to struggle in opinion polls, and did not make significant gains in 2017.
Current Party Policy
(2017 MANIFESTOS, AS REPORTED BY BBC.CO.UK)
The economy: all parties aim to reduce the budget deficit. The Conservatives remain committed to low taxation, Labour committed not to raise income tax for those earning less than £80,000 a year. The Lib Dems support an additional 1p in the pound of income tax for all taxpayers.
Law/order: The Conservatives wish to invest more money into the prison system, and widen the role of local Police Commissioners. Labour wish to recruit and train more police officers and prison officers. The Lib Dems aim to replace Police Commissioners, and do more to recruit more police from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Welfare, Health, Education: Conservatives: replace pensions triple lock with guarantee that increases after 2020 will at least match inflation and average wages. Means-test Winter Fuel Payments “focusing assistance on the least well-off pensioners. £8bn extra NHS funding by 2022/3. Increase school budget by $4bn by 2022. Labour: Keep the pension triple lock and benefits for pensioners, such as the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes. Review the benefit cap, universal credit and reinstate housing benefit for under 21s. Increase employment and support allowance by £30 per week. £30bn extra NHS funding in the next 5 years. Abolish tutition fees and end teacher pay cap. Lib Dems: Keep the triple lock on pensions and free bus passes. Withdraw winter fuel payments for wealthy pensioners. Reverse cuts to Universal Credit. Uprate working age benefits in line with inflation. Extra 1p on income tax to fund NHS and social care. End cap on teacher pay. Spend an extra £7bn on schools. Oppose the introduction of new grammar schools.
Foreign policy: Conservatives: Continue to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid. Meet the Nato target to spend at least 2% a national income on defence, with above inflation increases each year. Labour: Commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence. Continue to spend 0.7% on international aid. Lib Dems: Commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence. Maintain 0.7% GDP commitment for international aid. Suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent.
Which of these policies would be more likely to be a Conservative policy, and which would be more likely to be a Labour policy?
- Lowering taxes.
- Fewer restrictions on businesses.
- Increasing funding for the welfare state.
- Introducing new grammar schools.
- Reducing the number of private prisons.
- Pledging significantly more money for the NHS and education.
- Reducing the tax rate for the highest earners.
- Nationalising key industries.
- Reduce tuition fees.
- Reduce public spending to address the budget deficit.