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 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.
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)
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 the 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 a 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.
Party successes and failures in recent years
UK politics in recent years has been dominated by two referendums: the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and the EU membership referendum of 2016. This has had some major effects on the UK’s main political parties.
Labour chose to campaign for Scotland to remain in the UK in 2014, alongside the Conservatives. A consequence of this is that support for Labour in Scotland (which was traditionally very strong) collapsed in the 2015 __election, as Labour voters moved over to support the Scottish National Party. Scotland returned only 1 Labour MP in __2015, and 56 SNP MPs. This arguably cost the party the chance of winning that election. In some opinion polls the party slipped behind the Conservatives, who have been able to unite the unionist vote. The effect of the EU referendum has been for Labour to lose much of its traditional working-class support to UKIP. Labour has been criticised for its uncertain position on the question of Brexit- Jeremy Corbyn has in the past been opposed to many aspects of EU membership, although official party policy was to support the UK remaining a member. However, the __2017 __general election saw a 10% increase in Labour’s share of the vote, due to popular manifesto policies, Corbyn’s committed campaigning style, and the unpopularity of the Conservative campaign
The Conservatives unexpectedly won an overall majority in the __2015 __election, one consequence of which was that David Cameron needed to deliver on his manifesto promise of holding a referendum on EU membership. The party was divided over this issue (as it has been historically), with some government ministers backing ‘remain’ (David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May), and some ‘leave’ (Michael Gove, Chris Grayling). Following the referendum result, Cameron resigned and was replaced by May, who has enjoyed strong approval ratings, especially in comparison to Jeremy Corbyn. The decision to call an election in __2017 __was seen as a way of shoring up this support and attempting to increase the Conservative majority. However, May ran what was regarded as a poor campaign, refusing to appear in TV debates, and performing a U-turn on a key policy (the so-called ‘dementia tax’). As a result, the Conservatives actually lost their majority (although their vote share increased by 5%).
The Lib Dems suffered greatly from being in a coalition government with the Conservatives. Seen as having ditched many of their key pledges (particularly the commitment to scrap tuition fees) their vote collapsed in 2015, even in areas where they had been traditionally strong such as the South West. This was partly due to the Conservative targeting of these seats. The __2015 __result saw the Lib Dems reduced to just 8 MPs (down from 57). Although they have seen some signs of recovery in some local elections since, they remain some way down on their pre-coalition support, and only returned 14 MPs in the __2017 __general election.
Current party policy
Based on 2017 manifestos, as reported by the BBC.
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 a 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 tuition 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.