Political Parties


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’).


  1. There are around 300 political parties in the UK
  2. Politics is dominated by parties- the only political systems without them are dictatorships
  3. Parties emerged as a result of voting- increased representation
  4. Before this, parliament consisted of ‘factions’ (loose groups of like-minded politicians). The main ones were the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories (Conservatives)
  5. The Labour Party developed outside of the parliamentary system by the trade union movement

Political Parties, figure 1

Functions of parties - do they promote democracy?

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 any more. So the ability of parties to foster participation has decreased.

Power in parties

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.

Party funding

Political parties require income to fund their activities. Private funding of political parties is associated with the risk and perception of improper influence by the donator. Reform proposals have focused on a cap on donations and an increase in public funding. However, it has proven difficult for the parties to agree on the level of a cap on donations, and there is some resistance to increasing public funding whilst there are pressures on public spending.

The finances of British political parties were largely unregulated before the Labour government that came to power in 1997 __passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act ____2000 __(PPERA). PPERA was based on a report on party funding published in __1998. It regulates the funding and spending of political parties, candidates and certain others, and created the Electoral Commission to monitor this.

During the Labour Governments in power between 1997 __and __2010, party funding reviews were carried out by the Electoral Commission (2004), the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (2006) and Sir Hayden Phillips (2007). PPERA was modified by the Electoral Administration Act __2006 __that subjected loans to the same rules as donations, and the Political Parties and Elections Act __2009 __that introduced new spending limits and altered donation reporting thresholds.

The Coalition Government included a commitment to party funding reform in its coalition agreement. Reports on party funding were published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (2011) and the Electoral Commission (2013). Cross-party talks broke down in 2013. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act ____2014 __restricted the funding and spending of non-party campaigners during election periods.

The Conservative Government elected in _2015 __reduced the public funding available to opposition parties. The _Trade Union Bill 2015-16 introduced on 15 July 2016 includes provisions that could have implications for the funding the Labour Party receives from trade unions.

There are limits on how much a party can spend on campaigning at certain elections. The limits vary by election type. At these elections, parties must keep a record of all their campaign spending. They must send this information to the Electoral Commission in a spending return after the election. Parties who spend over a certain amount must have this return independently audited. There was concern following the __2015 __election that some Conservative candidates had benefitted from spending that had been classified as ‘national spending’ when in fact the money was being spent on local campaigning- for instance, the use of a ‘battle bus’ to transport supporters around a constituency.

Traditionally, the Conservatives have received large donations from wealthy donors and large companies, whereas Labour has received backing from Trade Unions. Donations worth over £7,500 to national parties must be declared, as must be donations worth £1,500 or more to local associations. Donations to members’ associations – groups whose members are primarily or entirely members of a single political party – also need to be declared above £7,500.

There have been ongoing concerns with party funding in the UK. It could be argued to be unfair if one party is able to vastly outspend the other during an election campaign, for instance. The influence of wealthy individuals, and trade unions, on political parties has also been a matter of concern, hence the introduction of rules on spending. Similarly, it could be argued that parties should receive public funds to help them campaign as part of a healthy pluralist democracy, however this raises questions of how much they should receive, and which parties should get such money.

The benefits of state funding include:

  1. Reduces reliance on private donors or trade unions with vested interests, making parties more responsive to the public
  2. Creates more of a level playing field for parties, reducing the unfair advantage given by large donations
  3. Parties could perform more effectively without the need to spend time and effort raising funds

The drawbacks of state funding include:

  1. Parties would no longer need to seek financial support, so may have their links to society weakened
  2. If as expected funding is linked to past electoral performance, this would favour existing parties
  3. It may make parties less independent of the state
Evaluate the view that UK political parties should receive more public funding. (30 marks)Remember, a 30 mark essay needs at least 3 arguments for and 3 against.
Your answer should include: Representative / Democracy / Participation / Independence / Tax