Power in Parties

Power in Parties

Power in Parties, figure 1

Leaders: Tend to dominate parties, especially when PM. They have grown in importance since the age of political celebrity. This importance can work for and against them, depending on their own image and popularity.

Parliamentary parties: MPs, once thought of as just doing what they were told to by the party, have become increasingly independently-minded. Each party has its own divisions and splits which can eventually undermine the leader. This can be seen through Thatcher’s removal in 1990, John Major’s difficulty with Conservative revolts over Europe, and Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of support amongst Labour MPs.

Members/constituency parties: Falling membership suggests this has become less important, and parliamentary leaders have increased their control over policy. However, Conservative constituency associations can select candidates for elections. Also, members vote for party leaders, so in effect, it is they who choose the Prime Minister (potentially).

Party backers: It is argued that much of the power lies with those who finance parties. Labour has substantial trade union backing. The Conservatives tend to get many donations from big business. This gives these groups, potentially, a large sway over a party’s policy direction. There have been allegations that rich individuals can buy influence, although there are rules in place on party funding.

Conservative Labour & Liberal Democrat Parties

Party Policies and Ideas

Key concepts:

  • Ideology: a set of ideas, values and theories that help explain the world and guide political action
  • Left wing/right wing: a way of categorising political ideologies. Comes from the seating arrangements in French Parliament after the Revolution
  • Socialism/conservatism: the traditional political divide in the UK, underpinned by class support

Left wing: Socialists are referred to as left wing and believe in greater levels of equality. They support ideas such as state intervention to achieve this. The left has a generally positive view of human nature believing that people are naturally good but are made to behave selfishly by the divisions and inequality around them. They would support higher taxation and greater public / state spending. The Labour Party in the UK has historically had a socialist/left-wing character.

Right-wing: The right believes in people as individuals and support low levels of government intervention. They think that the state should not interfere with people’s lives and that inequality is healthy and natural as it reflects success. The right would support ideas such as low taxation and less public spending. The UK Conservative Party has historically had a right-wing character.

Capitalism: An economic system that most countries in the world use. It allows individual people to own and accumulate as much wealth (money and possessions) as they can. This is achieved through free trade between people (both in labour (work), goods and services) and is not interfered with by the state.

Interventionism (‘big government’): This is when a state will intervene in people’s lives, especially in terms of business and money. The main form of government intervention is taxation (higher taxation) and also nationalisation when a government buys a national industry (the railways, steel production or the telephone network) and runs it themselves.

‘Small government’: This is usually connected to the right of centre political parties. They believe in low taxes and therefore low government / public spending. They suggest that people should be free in economic areas to operate without government intervention. They think that government should focus on what they see as key functions – promoting business and law and order.

How the left/right divide has changed in recent years: during the 1980s, the Conservative Party became more ideological- Margaret Thatcher had a particular set of ideas and principles she wanted to implement. Some have argued that the party abandoned traditional conservatism in favour of free-market liberalism. In the 1990s, the Labour Party underwent a process of modernisation in response to losing four successive general elections. Under Tony Blair, the party was rebranded as ‘New Labour’. Many argued that the party lost its traditional socialist character during this time. The influence of New Labour thinking has since declined in the party. It has been suggested that the very concept of ideology has become less important, as people now tend to be more pragmatic rather than having a strong, clearly defined set of political principles.

Post-war consensus: in the years following World War Two, the Labour Party enacted a series of reforms, for example, the creation of the NHS and a comprehensive system of welfare. The aim was to lessen the inequalities caused by capitalism, without completely replacing it- ‘social democracy’. Principles that were adopted during this time were the ‘mixed’ economy (a combination of private and state-run services in an economy), economic management (the government intervening at times of economic difficulty, for example by spending its own money), social welfare (government assistance for the poorest in society, for example through unemployment benefits and free healthcare) and so on. These policies were accepted by Labour and the Conservatives, therefore this time is known as the post-war consensus (agreement).

Thatcherism: during the 1970s, a number of economic problems undermined faith in the practices associated with social democracy. The Conservatives came to power under Thatcher’s leadership in 1979 and initiated a series of reforms which became known as ‘Thatcherism’ (also referred to as the ‘New Right’). This was a reaction against what was seen as ‘inefficient’ state intervention and the ‘motivation-sapping’ welfare system. This time was characterised by privatisation (private companies running previously state-owned industry and services, for example, utility companies and the railways), reduced trade union power (striking was made more difficult), low taxation (income tax was lowered in favour of more ‘indirect’ taxation- e.g. through VAT), and market deregulation (removing controls and restrictions on the economy). Thatcher and her supporters believed strongly in the idea of a minimal state in the economic realm. However, in people’s social lives, more state involvement was thought necessary to re-establish the morals and sensibilities of a previous era. Therefore, Thatcherism is tough on law and order (harsh punishments to deter criminals), promoted traditional values (Christian or family values), and promoted national identity (seen as a source of stability).

Post-Thatcherite consensus: The Labour Party was weakened by general election defeats in 1979, 1983, 1987 and (unexpectedly) 1992. During the 1980s, the party had adopted an adversarial stance to Thatcherism, offering a clear alternative to the policies of the New Right. This shift to the left proved electorally unsuccessful, therefore key figures in the party started to believe that the only way to win power was to move back towards the centre ground, and accept some of the key tenants of Thatcherism. This process started under Neil Kinnock and continued under Tony Blair when Labour was rebranded as New Labour. ‘Blairism’ is sometimes referred to as the ‘third way’. The policies of the third way are a balance between neoliberal Thatcherism and social democracy. Ideas include support for a market economy, allowing for constitutional reform, reimagining the welfare system (e.g. welfare to work), and strengthening responsibility (alongside recognising rights). This was very successful electorally, and Labour won three successive elections from 1997-2005, with little serious Conservative opposition.

Age of austerity: In 2008 there was a global financial crisis. One trigger was the ‘credit crunch’. Banks were unwilling to lend money to people and businesses due to people defaulting on previous loans. Confidence in the stock market fell, banks had to be ‘bailed out’ by governments, economic growth slowed, causing a recession and the worst financial crisis since the 1920s. The parties differed in ideas of how to deal with the fallout from the crisis. Labour favoured a ‘fiscal stimulus’ approach, similar to that of the ideas of the post-war consensus, whereby the government would spend its own money in the economy to encourage consumer spending. The Conservatives, by contrast, favoured an approach known as austerity, whereby public spending is cut (the thinking being that one of the causes of the financial crisis was government overspending). Following the 2010 election, the coalition government embarked on a series of spending cuts aiming to reduce the ‘budget deficit’ (the difference between government spending and income).

Parties since 2015: The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in September 2015 arguably widened the ideological gap between Labour and the Conservatives. Corbyn stood as the candidate representing the left wing of the party, and unexpectedly won comfortably, following large amounts of support from the Labour membership. Many people joined the party specifically because they were attracted to his ideas. Under Corbyn, the party has moved away from the centre-ground towards the left. The Conservatives have arguably tried to adopt more centre ground policies as this is an area Labour has moved away from. The party manifestos for the 2017 general election perhaps represented a real choice for voters for the first time in many years. This has been viewed as more of a return to the adversarial nature of politics seen in the 1980s.

Which major UK party is traditionally left-wing?
What was the time following WW2 known as in British Politics?
Your answer should include: Post-war / Consensus
Who became the leader of the Conservatives in 1979?
What is the belief in low taxes and minimal government intervention sometimes known as?
Your answer should include: Small / Government
What is the difference between government spending and government income?
Your answer should include: Budget / Deficit
Who became the leader of Labour in 2010? (Ed Miliband)
Which two parties formed the 2010 coalition government?
Your answer should include: Conservatives / Liberal / Democrats
Which event occurred in 2008, prompting very different responses from the main parties?
Your answer should include: Financial / Crisis
Who became Conservative Prime Minister in 2010?
Which party won the 1997 election?