A political party is an organised group of people who wish to gain political power.
This is done by putting candidates up for election, gaining representation in Parliament and forming government. Parties have a broad issue focus (unlike pressure groups) and are usually united by shared ideas- although there are a wide variety of views within parties (they are ‘broad churches’).
- There are around 300 political parties in the UK
- Politics is dominated by parties- the only political systems without them are dictatorships
- Parties emerged as a result of voting- increased representation
- Before this, parliament consisted of ‘factions’ (loose groups of like-minded politicians). The main ones were the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories (Conservatives)
- The Labour Party developed outside of the parliamentary system by the trade union movement
Functions of Parties
Representation: Parties articulate and express public opinion. They develop policies designed to appeal to the public, and if they win, they can claim to have a mandate (right to govern). Parties in the UK are ‘catch-all’- they try to appeal to as many people as possible. BUT, parties may not represent the people that well- it has been argued that more people pay attention to personality, for example, the image of the party leader, than policy. Because of the electoral system, governing parties also tend to only win the support of 35-40% of the electorate.
Formulate policy: Parties come up with ‘programmes’ for government. They create sets of policy ideas which are outlined in a manifesto- a document released before an election. They initiate ideas and think of ways in which policies can be implemented. BUT, it has been argued that parties tend to have less interest in ‘larger goals’ for society as their ideological nature has been reduced in recent years. They also perhaps tend to be more reactive (reacting to the public’s views) rather than proactive in forming policy.
Recruit leaders: Parties are the mechanisms by which politicians enter politics, gain experience, become MPs, be part of government, and may become leaders of government departments (or even, become Prime Minister). BUT- these ‘leaders of the future’ tend to come from quite a limited pool of talent (majority party in the Commons) and may have little experience of a life outside of politics- which may not be the best preparation for leadership.
Organise government: Parties form governments, ensure that governments are stable (as party members agree on many broad issues), and provide opposition to a government. BUT- it could be suggested that, as party unity has declined since the 1970s, forming a stable government may now be more difficult even for a single party.
Foster participation: parties give opportunities for people to be involved in politics, for example by joining a party, becoming a candidate for election, being involved in campaigns, and so on. BUT- today, the numbers of people who are members of parties has declined significantly- this is partly due to ‘partisan dealignment’ where people do not feel a strong loyalty to a particular party anymore. So the ability of parties to foster participation has decreased.