Political Parties

• Definition
• Characteristics
• Roles and Functions
• Ideologies
• Programmes, Policies and Manifestos
• Changing Party Images, Consulting Wider Opinion, Involvement of Non Party members (for example in focus groups)


“An organised and relatively disciplined group of people who freely combine together to advance a set of political attitudes and beliefs with a view to translating them via victory at a general election into government decisions or parliamentary legislation.”

Forman, Mastering British Politics, 1985

A political party is therefore voluntary, organised, possesses beliefs and translates these into policies or legislation. It also assumes that political parties have a set of core beliefs which may change slowly over time.


1. They are organisations which possess a relative degree of permanence.

2. They contest elections and seek to place members in positions of influence in the legislature.

3. They attempt to occupy key executive positions in the political system and if not then to exercise influence on the executive. (e.g. the opposition)

4. Parties hold distinctive labels and organisational structures which distinguish them from other political parties.

Roles and Functions

According to Mackenzie (British Political Parties, 1955) political parties fulfil a number of essential functions within the British system of government. These functions are as follows.

• A Governing Function

• An Opposition Function

• An Electoral Function

• A Policy Function

• A Representation Function

• A Participation Function

• A Communication Function

• An Organisation Function

Each of these functions requires some elaboration and exploration.

The Governing Function

Since (and including) 1945, there have been 19 general elections* In each of these, political parties have competed for the electorate’s mandate (or permission) to govern. In the British system of government a single party usually secures a mandate to become the single party of government. Since 1945, either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party has formed the government and given the general level of bedrock support for these two main parties these are the only realistic contenders for office. Most of the other UK political parties seek to influence the government of the day and to secure parliamentary representation in the House of Commons in the form of seats gained.

* 1945, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (February), 1974 (October), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015

The minimum number of seats required in order to form a majority government is 325 – 50% +1 seat over all other parties combined out of 650 seats. This gives the largest party a majority over all other parties in the House of Commons, though in practice any governing party will usually require a workable majority of about 30/40 seats.

In the 19 General Elections since the war there have been 17 majority governments returned. The exceptions came in February 1974 when Labour obtained 301 seats, the Conservatives 297 and other parties 37 and in May 2010 when the Conservatives with 307 seats fell short of the required number of seats and joined a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

In 1974, Labour was the largest party but without an overall majority. Such Governments are termed minority governments and it is usually very difficult for such administrations to implement their program without cross party support.

An Opposition Function

The party which obtains the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons following a general election is termed the opposition (The official title is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.) The function of the opposition is to oppose the government of the day and present alternative policies with which to persuade the electorate that it is ready to become the government. The opposition has a shadow cabinet, a team of ‘ministers’ ready to assume office if they win a general election.

The Electoral Function

During a general election the parties compete for seats on a constituency by constituency basis. This means that each of the 650 seats in the House of Commons represents a geographical area within the United Kingdom, termed a constituency. The electorate within the constituency choose between the candidates who have put themselves forward as prospective MPs (Members of Parliament). Candidates are usually adopted by the main political parties and put forward to contest the seat on behalf of the party. It is not unusual for candidates to put themselves forward as independents or fringe candidates but they are most unlikely to succeed.  An exception to this rule from the 1997 General Election is when a former BBC journalist Martin Bell stood in the Tatton Constituency Division of Cheshire and beat the incumbent MP Neil Hamilton. In 2001 Dr Richard Taylor successfully contested Wyre Forest under the slogan ‘Save Kidderminster Hospital.’ However such successes are rare.

When making a choice between the candidates the electorate rely heavily on the party label in making assumptions about that particular candidates politics. The major parties tend to contest all the seats although the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats do not field candidates in Northern Ireland.

A Policy Function

Political parties are organisations of principle and practice. They hold, though not always rigidly, a set of core assumptions about human nature and society and attempt to design and advance policies which reflect those core assumptions. However it is the realisation that policies must be popular as well as ideologically pure that forces parties to translate their core assumptions into policies which will have broad appeal. Only in 1945 and 1979, 1983 and 1987 have parties been able to translate those core assumptions into policies which have proved electorally popular with the creation of the welfare state under Attlee and the privatisation program of the Thatcher administrations. When a party pursues its core assumptions with vigour this is normally likely only to appeal to a narrow section of the electorate, insufficient to win a majority in parliament. The prime examples of this are the Conservatives in 2001 and the Labour Party in 1983. Advocates of New Labour such as Peter Mandelson and former PM Tony Blair argued that Miliband had abandoned the centre ground and therefore forfeited the right to govern in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. According to McKenzie it is necessary for political parties in a democracy to moderate their policies in order to appeal to as wide a section of the electorate as possible.

A Representation Function

The British system of government is sometimes referred to as a representative democracy. This means that political parties fulfil the function of representing the views and opinions of the electorate. A general election is held to be the simplest way of ascertaining the views of the electorate although sometimes and more frequently under new Labour, referenda, an instrument of direct democracy, have been employed to obtain a mandate for a specific, usually constitutional, measure. M.P.s as representative both of party and constituents are one means by which parties are able to fulfil this key function.

A Participation Function

According to Mackenzie political parties are also vehicles of participation in the political process. It is difficult to imagine becoming involved in formal politics without first obtaining membership of a political party. Many people involve themselves in politics by joining pressure groups or engaging in other forms of extra parliamentary activity, but the primary route to influence is through joining a political party and advancing one’s career within a political party.

A Communication Function

Political parties serve the vital function of listening to (sometimes!) and communicating with the electorate. This allows for the electorate to make an informed choice between the parties and candidates at elections. The function of communication with the electorate is met by a number of strategies including:

• leafleting at a local or constituency level
• press, television and radio interviews with major party figures up to and including the P.M.
• the use of print and billboard advertising
• the televising of party conferences
• the publication of the manifesto
• photo opportunities
• focus groups
• party election broadcasts and party political broadcasts

Parties are increasingly aware of the need for effective communication and public relations. This has lead to the development that in presenting policies parties are more concerned with style, image and presentation rather than with the substance of the policies. The accusation that new Labour uses too much spin comes from this.

An Organisation Function

As vehicles of mass participation political parties have several layers of internal organisation, sometimes called the party machine. The relative importance of each of these usually reflects the internal distribution of power within the party. The key to successfully fighting a general election is that the party is very well organised internally. This in itself however is no guarantee of electoral success.


Ideologies are a set of coherent beliefs which may explain current social, political and economic arrangements, justify them or offer a prescription for change. Over the decades the main political parties have struggled between maintaining their ideological identities and adapting them to changing circumstances. All political parties recognise the importance of retaining their core beliefs and identities but must also square these with what has the potential to appeal to the electorate. In his 1st conference speech as Leader of the Labour Party Tony Blair said that “…we must change or die…”

• The Conservative Party

For significant periods of modern British history it has been the dominant governing party, but it has also suffered divisions, defeats and spells in opposition.

The Conservatives adapted to the agenda set by the Attlee governments whilst in opposition during the 1945-1951 Labour governments, and overhauled both organisation and policy. As a result, between the late 1940s and the early 1970s the Conservatives accepted the pillars of the post-war ‘consensus’: the Welfare State, the public ownership of certain industries, government intervention in economic affairs, and partnership in industry between trade unions and employers. Although Churchill remained rather unenthusiastic, these policies enabled the Conservatives to regain power in 1951 and then to remain in office continuously until 1964.

To general surprise, Heath won the 1970 election and became Prime Minister. Despite his personal achievement in taking Britain into the Common market, the failures of the Heath ministry of 1970-1974 have been the catharsis of modern Conservatism. The reversals of policy, the failure to control inflation or contain the trade unions through legislation on industrial relations, and two defeats at the hands of the coal-miners led first to the fall of Heath and second to the rise and development of Thatcherism. After losing the two elections of February and October 1974, Heath was forced to hold a ballot for the Party leadership in February 1975 in which he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher.

In opposition during 1975-1979 the new leader developed a radical agenda founded upon the ‘free market’, rolling back government intervention and leaving as much as possible to individual initiative. This was the core of Thatcherism.

Andrew Gamble of Sheffield University identifies six core components of Thatcherism. These are:

• Economic Liberalism
• Monetarism
• Anti Corporatism
• Individualism
• Populism
• Authoritarianism

Concern over economic decline and the power wielded by the trade unions created a receptive public mood, and Thatcher led the Conservatives to three successive victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. She was the dominant political personality throughout the 1980s, especially after securing victory in the Falklands war of 1982. She is widely credited with restoring Britain’s status as an enterprise-based economy and as a significant influence on the international stage. However, at the end of the decade economic recession, her commitment to the deeply unpopular ‘poll tax’, and internal disputes over European policy led to Mrs Thatcher’s defeat in a leadership ballot in November 1990.

From Major to Howard

The successor to emerge from this contest was the relatively unknown figure of John Major, the candidate thought most able to unify a divided and traumatised party. Major abandoned the ‘poll tax’ and presented a more ‘caring’ image, and support for the Conservatives improved enough for him to hold on to a narrow majority in the general election of April 1992. He also abandoned the controversial poll tax, brought Michael Heseltine back into the fold and developed a more constructive relationship with the European Union than had been the case under Thatcher’s premiership. That said it was essential for Major to convey to the party that he was “batting for Britain” in delicate EU treaty negotiations. However, his majority was steadily eroded during the following parliament, and by 1997 his administration was clinging on by its fingertips.

The Major government of 1992-1997 was a painful period for the Conservative Party, and opinion poll ratings slumped to record lows following the economic fiasco of ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992. The most serious problems were caused by a recession which hit Conservative support in southern England, a collapse of normal party unity over the increasingly contentious issue of Europe, and ‘sleaze’ – a string of personal scandals involving Conservative ministers and MPs. Press hostility and a modernised Labour opposition prevented the Conservatives from recovering when the economic position improved, and on 1 May 1997 they suffered their third and final sweeping defeat of the twentieth century. Only 165 MPs survived, and Major at once resigned the leadership; in his place, the Party selected its youngest leader in modern times, William Hague.

The Conservatives were unable to recover ground during the 1997-2001 Parliament. The party remained unpopular with the public, whilst the Labour government’s careful management of the economy meant that it survived any other difficulties without lasting damage. Hague followed a more ‘Euro-sceptic’ policy, ruling out joining the single European currency. However, concentration on Europe was less effective in the June 2001 general election, and Conservative hopes of at least a partial recovery were dashed. 166 MPs were elected, only one more than in 1997, and Hague immediately announced his resignation. A new selection procedure had been introduced, and after ballots of Conservative MPs the two leading candidates went forward to a vote of the party membership in September 2001. Iain Duncan Smith secured 155,933 votes to Kenneth Clarke’s 100,864, and so became the new leader of the Conservative Party.

During the following two years there was little sign of improvement in the Party’s fortunes, as the domestic, political and economic situation remained largely unchanged. The Conservatives supported the policy of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003. This was in tune with Conservative opinion whilst the Labour Party was deeply divided over the issue, but the war did not change the relative popularity of the two parties. A significant minority of Conservative MPs had been doubtful about Duncan Smith’s leadership from the outset, and the lack of improvement in the Party’s position caused this number to increase during the summer and autumn of 2003. The criticism and speculation culminated in a ballot of Conservative MPs on 29 October, in which Duncan Smith was defeated by 90 votes to 75. The desire of the party to avoid further disunity was shown when only one candidate was nominated for the vacant leadership, and so a contest was avoided. Michael Howard was declared Leader on 6 November; although older than both of his predecessors, he had the asset of considerable experience of government, having been a cabinet minister from 1990. After losing the 2005 General Election and remaining below 200 seats the Conservatives opted for the modernisation agenda of David Cameron who in 2010 returned the party to government, albeit as a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

More details on Cameron and Coalition government can be found on the PM and Cabinet section. In 2015 the Conservatives unexpectedly won a small majority (+12) when most opinion polls had predicted a hung parliament, with no party in overall control. However having secured a Conservative majority for the first time in 23 years Cameron’s premiership was to last just another 13 months and he became yet another Conservative premier whose career was ended by divisions over Europe. Theresa May will now have to take up the challenge of avoiding becoming the 4th Tory PM in a row to be unseated by Europe and the Conservative Party’s fraught relationship with it.

• The Labour Party

The Labour Party has historically been held to be a socialist party. Though there are many definitions of socialism a basic characteristic of it is that it is concerned with the pursuit of equality. There are perhaps 3 basic dimensions: social equality, political equality and economic equality.

• Social Equality

This is the idea that all people are of equal worth regardless of social class, age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. In office Labour has legislated against forms of discrimination, in the Sex Discrimination Act (1975),  the Race Relations Act (1976), The Disability Discrimination Act (1996) and the Equality Act (2010). Prejudice (an attitude) is of course much harder to tackle than discrimination (a behaviour).

• Political Equality

The idea is that all persons should have equal access to political rights such as the vote and the right to stand as a candidate.

• Economic Equality

Economic equality is of course very difficult to achieve. In fact it is so difficult that it is not truly an aim of the Labour Party. Instead, equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome, is the stated aim of the Labour party. Given wide ranging social class divisions even equality of opportunity is very difficult to achieve.

The degree to which the Labour Party has been ‘committed’ to socialism has often been called into question. An examination of how socialist the Labour Party is needs to take into account its record in office as well as changes in its commitments and policies when in opposition. It has  been particularly difficult to conceive of  Labour Party as a socialist party, given the emphasis on ‘New Labour’ by Tony Blair and other leading figures in the party. However the election first of Ed Miliband as leader (2010-2015) and now Jeremy Corbyn has seen the Labour Party shift progressively leftwards. 

The Labour Party: a brief history

In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed to secure seats in parliament for representatives of the trade union movement and the industrial working class.

In 1906, at the General Election, 29 seats were obtained by the LRC and the parliamentary Labour party was officially formed.

In 1918 Sydney and Beatrice Webb drafted a constitution for the Labour Party. The key feature of the constitution was Clause 4, part four, which stated the aims of the party:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and for the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.

This clause has historically been referred to as the ‘nationalisation clause’

In 1945 Labour obtained a landslide majority of 146 in Parliament. Set against the context of the war, and of the hardships of the depression ridden 1930s, the Attlee government pledged to build ‘A ‘New Jerusalem’. In 1942 the Beveridge Report had identified 5 Giant Ills, which had stalked the 1930s: Poverty, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Want. The Welfare state, designed to care for citizens ’from the cradle to the grave’ was introduced. The key planks of the post war consensus were laid in the first term of the Attlee government:

• The Implementation of the 1944 White Paper on Employment – Full Employment
• The Implementation of the 1944 Butler Education Act: Free Compulsory Education to the age of 15
• The Nationalisation of the ‘Commanding heights’ of the economy: Clause Four
• The Creation of the Welfare state – a system of pensions, disability and unemployment benefits, based on national insurance contributions
• The Creation of the NHS in 1948 – free health care at the point of delivery.

These reforms laid the planks of the post war consensus, observed by both Conservative and Labour Governments until the mid 1970s when the post war consensus collapsed and both parties moved away from the centre.

On taking office in 1997, Tony Blair said: “We were elected as new Labour and we will govern as new labour”. The concept of New Labour predates Blair’s leadership election in 1994. In fact, New Labour has its antecedents as far back as June 9th 1983. The election of Neil Kinnock in Oct 1983 marked the beginning of an extraordinary shift not only in the Labour Party’s ideological positioning, but also in its internal structure and organisation.

The political theorist Maurice Duverger (Political Parties 1959) argued that political parties experiencing defeat often engaged in a process of what he called “structural tinkering”. The theory is that, having lost an election, the party needs to change the internal balance of power, in order to ideologically reposition itself. The birth and development of New Labour is a case in point.

Under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, a series of internal reforms was initiated, designed to reduce the power of the left and the power of the trade unions. This reorganisation was also an attempt to relate to the electorate that Labour was changing, and that factors which made it unpopular, such as the dominance of the unions over the party, and the infiltration of the Party by members of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, were being addressed.

In 1987, Labour ran a good campaign, but lost the election. A slightly improved performance appeared to vindicate the reforms thus far implemented. In the aftermath of the 1987 defeat, Labour launched a policy review, had already replaced the red flag (reminiscent of the Eastern European state socialism) with the red rose, emblematic of Western European social democracy. It was a visual cue to the electorate, symbolic of Labour’s distancing itself from hard left policies.

The policy review and the subsequent “Labour Listens” campaign, constituted further evidence of Labour attempting to persuade the electorate that it had changed. One negative perception of such initiatives was that Labour was unprincipled and would do and say anything to obtain office. Although Labour ran the Conservatives close in 1992, it lost its fourth general election in a row.

The death of John Smith in May 1994 gave the architects of New Labour, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, the opportunity to seize the party leadership and accelerate the transition from Old Labour to New Labour. Symbolic of Old Labour was Clause 4, Part 4 of the 1918 constitution, the so-called “Nationalisation Clause”. Tony Blair, in 1995, managed to persuade the party to ditch Clause 4 in favour of a new statement of values. John Prescott, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party called the new statement “traditional values in a modern setting”.

The New Clause Four

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so, as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential, and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity is in the hands of the many and not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

New Labour  embraced the private sector in a way that Old Labour could never have done, and many of its policies were more radical than even the Conservatives could have contemplated, including the privatisation of air traffic control, privatisation of the Tube network, cuts in single parent benefits and the introduction of tuition top-up fees.

Tony Blair called the accusation that New Labour was just the same as the Conservatives, a lie. He pointed to the windfall tax on the privatised utilities, which created 1.5m jobs for the New Deal, which virtually eradicated youth unemployment. He pointed also to the constitutional reforms which the Conservatives have opposed every step of the way and he also introduced the national minimum wage and signed up for the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, which gives millions of part-time workers rights and benefits they previously did not enjoy.

Every Labour government since the war has dazzled and then disappointed especially on economic policy. The outstanding achievement of New Labour was  to steer the economy clear of recession for 43 successive quarters and make Labour the electorate’s preference over the Tories for economic management, until the financial crisis of 2008 ripped that reputation and hard won confidence to shreds. Despite attempts to label the crisis as a global one (this worked for the Conservatives in 1991) the electorate never really warmed to Brown and Labour lost the 2010 General Election.

Old Labour Policies and Image:

• Nationalisation
• income tax rises for the well-off
• social spending
• no private engagement in the public sector
• party control over the manifesto
• strong links with unions
• reputation for economic mismanagement and inflation
• a reputation for extremism

New Labour Policies and Image

• A reputation for strong economic management
• public-private partnerships (PFI = private finance initiative in public services)
• national minimum wage and the New Deal
• tuition top-up fees
• cuts in disability and single-parent benefits
• constitutional reform
• moderate public image

The 2010 defeat resulted in the election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour party. Under his leadership the rather artificial divide in the party between the Blairites and the Brownites gave way to various factions such as Blue Labour, Black Labour, Red Labour and Purple Labour each with different positions on how the party could best respond to the 2010 defeat. Miliband sought to aggregate the various positions of these factions into an electorally successful “coalition” within (and hopefully beyond) the Labour Party but was unable to convince the electorate. In 2010Labour suffered their worst result since 1983 (209 seats), with 232 seats in 2015.

Following this defeat and with a massive influx of new supporters and members the party overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015. Since then Corbyn steered the party towards a much more traditionally socialist platform than at any time in Labour’s recent history. To this day the truism that Labour cannot win an election from the left seems to be borne out in the opinion polls, but then the polls indicated a hung parliament in 2015, a remain victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum and a Clinton presidential victory in November 2016. Interesting times.

Exam Focus

Each topic at AS and A2 requires a confident and articulate grasp of core concepts. The main concepts likely to form the basis of the exam questions (and which are most directly examined in the part a) questions on Unit one for political parties are as follows:

Adversary politics a form of politics that is characterised by deep ideological conflicts between major parties; parties offer rival ideological visions and policies. Thatcher’s radical 1983 manifesto The Challenge For Our Times contrasted starkly with the 1983 Labour Manifesto A New Hope For Britain  – unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Community, further nationalization and increased investment in the welfare state, in contrast to the anti-interventionist and pro nuclear stance adopted by the Conservative Party. (Arguably 2015 election – Labour under Miliband – Energy price freezes, mansion tax and ending non-dom preferential zero tax.) 2016 Example – The Election of Jeremy Corbyn as labour leader (leftist background) reveals deeper splits between the main parties than has been the case for 30 years. Corbyn was against Syrian intervention, the Conservatives were largely pro intervention. Corbyn is a unilateral nuclear abolitionist whilst the Conservatives are committed to upgrading Trident.

Functions  of parties  – In a democratic system, parties put up candidates up for election, in the hope of gaining representation and ultimately forming (or participating in) government. Representation is often seen as the primary function of parties in liberal democracies. The three main parties fielded nearly 2000 candidates in the 2015 General Election. Labour gained 232, the Lib Dems 8 and the Conservatives 331 seats. Also policy formulation in the hope of obtaining a mandate for government – parties develop programmes through party forums, annual conferences and, most importantly, in election manifestos, formulating coherent sets of policy options that give the electorate a choice of goals and provide the winning party with a mandate. Other functions include acting as vehicles of representation and participation and political communication with the electorate

Consensus politics  – A consensus is a general agreement that nevertheless allows for disagreement on matters of emphasis or detail. Consensus politics refers to a form of politics in which major political parties subscribe to broadly similar or overlapping goals and principles. An example of consensus politics is the Post-Thatcherite consensus that developed in the 1990’s, first under party leader Neil Kinnock, as the Labour Party undertook a comprehensive policy review which abandoned policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and the commitment to withdraw from the European Community, and accepted many of the policies of the Conservative governments under Thatcher and Major. This was most especially apparent under Blair’s New Labour with its emphasis on lightly regulated markets, PFI and tougher policies on law and order. (Post war Consensus could also be used but is perhaps a bit dated). It could also be argued that just as Labour was forced to adapt to Thatcherite policies, Cameron was forced to modernise the Conservatives in response to three successive General Election defeats. Under Corbyn there is an acknowledgment that the UK must leave the European Union and the result of the referendum should be respected. There is likely to be a significant House of Commons majority in favour of triggering Article 50. Similarly there was widespread support for the Armed Intervention in Iraq in December 2015.

Left wing those  ideas associated with a desire to introduce change into the political system to engineer a ‘better society’. Moreover, left-wing ideas are based on fundamental ideas of equality through economic intervention, wealth redistribution and welfare. Left wing ideas will always favour the group solution and the collective, as they in general are optimistic about humanity and feel that the status quo is to be challenged not confirmed. Another idea associated with socialism is collectivism in ownership of industry and other modes of production. This is most often exhibited in the form of nationalisation or public ownership but could manifest itself in the collective ownership of land, or the formation of industrial cooperatives or the advocacy of mutualism.

At this point we should probably add the policy priorities announced at the 2016 Labour Conference:

  1. Increase in minimum wage to ‘over £10 per hour’ by 2020 (compared to Osborne’s increase to £9 ph by 2020 for over 25s)
  2. Re-nationalise the railway network (bring it back into public ownership)
  3. Attack on tax avoidance – more resources for HMRC inspectors, measures against tax havens and a commitment that companies found to dodge tax would not be awarded public contracts
  4. A ‘National Investment Bank’ – £250bn to invest in infrastructure ie high speed broadband, energy (‘cheap, low carbon electricity’…more wind? tidal?), railways (HS3 in the north of England) and skills
  5. This bank will be backed up by ‘Regional Development Banks’ providing ‘patient, long term investment’ (this is all part of a major critique of the alleged short term-ism of the current finance sector). Both of these signal a willingness of government to be more interventionist in nurturing/supporting certain industries. This is part of a move away from the neoliberal refusal of state support for business – the logic being that if they can’t support themselves in the free market then they should fail (‘no lame ducks’ said Mrs Thatcher)
  6. Worker representation on remuneration (pay) boards (Miliband policy, stolen by Theresa May). But they go further to ‘promote a renaissance of cooperative and worker ownership’. “We’ll help create 200 local energy companies and 1,000 energy co-operatives, giving power back to local communities and breaking up the monopoly of the Big Six (energy) producers (ie SSE, British Gas etc). And we’ll introduce a “Right to Own”, giving workers first refusal on a proposal for worker ownership when their company faces a change of ownership or closure,” John McDonnell
  7. Lift borrowing restrictions on local councils, allowing them to build more social housing
  8. Repeal the Trade Union Act – there has been one this year (2016) which is an extension of the notorious 1984 one. Both of them?
  9. Oppose government plan to allow new grammar schools (no surprise there)
  10. Reintroduce the ‘migrant impact fund’ – a number of senior Labour voices ie Andy Burnham, Rachel Reeves call for a much tougher line in the wake of the Brexit vote than that followed by the Labour leadership (notably Corbyn himself). This is a huge issue and a serious division.

Right WingRight-wing political ideas emphasise authority, the desire to resist sudden, violent or radical change and a widespread acceptance of the status quo, as they emphasize the need for stability and order in society, fearing that changes are dysfunctional and destabilizing. Those who hold right-wing ideas will favour the individual and private enterprise. Right-wingers wish to ‘roll back the state’ and support a free-market or unregulated capitalism. This could apply to introducing the Health and Social Care Act 2012 which encourages privatisation of the NHS or  the 2013 flotation of Royal Mail on the stock market. Also cultural cohesion around issues of national identity. Those on the right are resistant to immigration as they believe it threatens cultural homogeneity, cohesion and identity, especially if immigration appears to lack tight controls.

Socialismcovers beliefs ranging from revolutionary communism to reformist social democracy. The central idea of socialism is, however, that people are social creatures who are bound together by a common humanity, based on the defining traditional values such as fraternity; bonds of comradeship and sympathy between people, and cooperation; believing in a preference of people working together rather than competing with one another. Equality, in social, political and economic circumstance. Whilst political and social equality are relatively easy to promote (if not achieve) economic equality seems stubbornly resistant to progress. Past “solutions” such as redistribution through taxation and welfare provision or nationalisation have been largely ineffective in reducing wealth and income inequalities.

Liberalism  – two contrasting traditions: Classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism believes in a minimum state and a free –market economy. Individuals are viewed as strongly self-interested and self-reliant creatures. Clegg’s Orange Book Liberals are a grouping within the Liberal Democrats who strongly advocate free market economic policies and Thatcher was likened to a 19th Century Liberal more often than she was a Conservative.

Another idea of liberalism is Individualism – the individual is of supreme importance, implying an emphasis on rights or entitlements, a policy that develops from individualism is the HRA 1998. As part of the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform the Lib Dems along with the Conservatives scrapped Labour’s proposals for Compulsory ID cards which they saw as an unwarranted intrusion by the state on the liberty of the individual.

Conservatism a political philosophy with many strands ranging from traditional One Nation Conservatism through to Thatcherism. At the heart of conservative philosophy is a mistrust of the state and a belief in the free market. Conservatives are keen to privatise, deregulate and cut taxation and public expenditure. This can be seen in the privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013 and the austerity measures and benefit caps introduced by the last Conservative led coalition and the current Conservative majority government (12 seat majority) first under Cameron and Now May – this was reduced following the Richmond By – Election where the Liberal Democrats regained the seat from the Conservatives. They also place a heavy emphasis on the primacy of the individual and believe in self reliance. See right wing ideas.

Factionalism  – Political parties are said to be “broad churches.” By this it is meant that contained within each political party are distinct groupings of like minded people. No party is wholly internally united and each grouping or faction within the party may have quite distinct ideas, policies and ideological leanings that differentiate them from other factions within their own party. In the Labour Party for example there are distinctions between Blue Labour, New (Purple) Labour and the Left wing Campaign Group of MPs. There are also bitter divisions  between the Blairite group Progress and the Corbynite support group Momentum whilst within the Conservative Party there is the anti-European Bruges Group, the 2020 Group (aligned around David Cameron’s Modernisation strategy) and the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group.

EXAM FOCUS – The a) Questions

a) Using an example define adversary politics (5 Marks)

a) Outline two functions of a political party (5 Marks)

a) Using an example define consensus politics (5 Marks)

a) Distinguish between left wing and right wing political ideas (5 Marks)

a) Outline two ideas associated with socialism

a) Outline two ideas associated with liberalism (5 Marks)

a) Describe two political ideas that are considered to be right wing (5 marks)

a) Describe two political ideas that are considered to be left wing (5 marks)

a) How does factionalism apply to political parties? (5 marks)

a) Outline two ways in which parties differ from pressure groups (5 marks, June 2014)

a)Define consensus politics using an example (5 marks, June 2015)

a) Outline two functions performed by political parties (June 2016)

As a general rule of thumb I advise my students the following in relation to a) questions across all the AS topics (both Unit 1 & 2)

Q1 AO1 5 MARKS – 5 MINUTES, but try to get it down in 3/4 MINUTES

This brief question should only take you 5 minutes and is marked according to Assessment Objective One [AO1]. This means that to gain full marks you need to “demonstrate accurate and relevant factual knowledge [defining terms / concepts; providing examples; describing institutions / processes; identifying arguments / theories etc”. In order to achieve 5/5 the examiners would expect “detailed and / or developed knowledge”. You can access 5/5 by making 5 different points ( For example 5 features of liberal democracy in response to the question define liberal democracy) or by providing 2 features in detail where questions specify two features and then by developing them further. Obviously questions that ask for an example must include one. A very good way of achieving 5/5 is to answer the question in the first sentence and then develop it with further explanation and examples:

For example “A pressure group is an organisation that represents either a cause or a section of society and seeks to put pressure on those in authority/government to adopt the policies that they support” would be a good opening sentence which you could then take further by distinguishing, with examples, between cause and sectional pressure groups and then showing how they seek to influence the public in favour of their point of view and do not aim to establish a government.

Whenever you make a point in the exam you must immediately support it with detail; if you do not you will not be given marks for it. For example, if you stated that the 1983 General Election provided an example of adversarial politics you would then have to provide evidence to explain why this was the case. Leave nothing to chance, therefore, in your explanations!


b) What divisions exist within the current Conservative Party over ideas and policies? (10 Marks)

£12bn worth of welfare cuts, (Manifesto commitment 2015) raising threshold for 40p tax rate to £50,000 pa, raising threshold for 20p tax rate to £12,500, renewing Trident, Shelved plans for a reform of the HRA., but these may be raised again as Theresa May as home secretary was publicly hostile to the European Convention on Human Rights*)

Tax credit cut was defeated in the Lords and Cuts to disability benefit totalling £1.3bn were shelved after signs of a parliamentary revolt. Iain Duncan Smith resigned over this claiming that the burden of austerity was being borne too heavily by the poorest. A parliamentary majority of just 12 means that the PM will need to proceed cautiously.

Since becoming PM Theresa May has so far passed the Investigatory Powers Act (bulk collections of communications data from all of us by the security services); has signalled a ‘hard’ brexit in the form of the UK leaving the single market and the EU and made positive statements about the rolling out of more grammar schools. She has spoken about her vision of a ‘shared’ society in which she envisions more state intervention to tackle social inequality.

* A very common misconception amongst students is that the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights derive from our membership of the European Union. THEY DO NOT and are entirely separate from the European Union. 

b) In what ways has the Conservative Party distanced itself from Thatcherism? (10 Marks)

b) Explain the ideas and policies which link the Labour Party to socialism. (10 Marks)

b) Explain the differences within the Labour party over ideas and policies. (10 Marks)

b) Explain what is meant by the term Thatcherism. (10 Marks)

Note that this question does not really requiring updating as it does not ask for the relationship between today’s Conservative Party and the ideas of Thatcher. We can therefore present a model answer here which should stand the test of time.

Thatcherism was the name applied by Marxism Today in 1983 to the policies and political leadership style of Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990 and Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. According to Professor Andrew Gamble 6 key strands to Thatcherism could be identified. These were economic liberalism, monetarism, individualism, anti-corporatism, authoritarianism and populism.

Economic liberalism and monetarism were the founding principles of Thatcher’s economic policy. Economic liberalism and monetarism focused on ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state” in terms of its economic activity. This meant a programme of free market reforms including Compulsory Competitive Tendering, abolition of state subsidies to industries and privatisation. Monetarism was an economic theory that was designed to reduce public expenditure and reduce taxation in order to bear down on inflation.

In terms of individualism and anti-corporatism Mrs Thatcher sought to encourage self reliance and independence and cut welfare dependency at the same time as restricting trade union activity with a series of industrial relations laws on ballots and picketing and reducing state involvement in economic planning and decision making by abolishing amongst others the Prices and Incomes Board.

Finally Mrs Thatcher was characterised as having a strong authoritarian streak with an emphasis on increased police numbers and an unsympathetic approach to the Inner city riots of 1981 and on law and order in general. Her populism was said to stem from her ability to reduce complex social economic and political phenomena to a simplistic common sense solution.

b) Has Consensus politics become more or less evident in the UK since May 2010?

b) Explain THREE policies of the modern Labour Party. (10 Marks)

b) Explain the divisions that exist within the Conservative Party over ideas and policies. (10 Marks)

b) Explain THREE ways in which any one the major political parties is internally divided. (10 Marks) See later C) Question on internal divisions for ALL THREE MAIN PARTIES.

b) Explain THREE functions of political parties. (10 Marks)

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C Questions 25 marks


The essay question examines 3 Assessment Objectives for both the 25 and 40 mark questions.

AO1: Understanding and examples 8 MARKS / 20 MARKS

A02: Evaluation / Structure 9 MARKS / 12 MARKS

AO3: Clarity of writing and apt use of political vocabulary 8 MARKS / 8 MARKS

A good essay will have to show IMPRESSIVE FACTUAL UNDERSTANDING, combined with a great deal of INTERESTING DEBATE and an impressive OVERALL SENSE OF STRUCTURE. This means that the essay has a very clear introduction which sets out what the issues you are going to debate are and hints at which are the most significant:

Then there needs to be lots of evaluation and analysis and, at the end an intelligent and interesting conclusion. Throughout the essay you will need to be self consciously deploying appropriate words – thus in an essay on to what extent the UK is democratic it would be vital that you explain the significance of KEY TERMS such as LEGITIMACY.

If all of these criteria are fulfilled you will achieve highly on all the assessment objectives.


The Chief Examiner also points out that whatever essay you do you will be EXPECTED TO EVALUATE BOTH SIDES OF AN ARGUMENT AND IN YOUR CONCLUSION EXPLAIN CONVINCINGLY how you have arrived at that conclusion.

c) To what extent are there differences between the Labour Party and the Conservative parties over ideas and policies.  (25 Marks)

Basic Pointers where you would look for differences and similarities

  • Economic management – austerity and the debt crisis
  • The role of the state/Taxation
  • The welfare state
  • Europe/Immigration
  • Constitutional issues
  • Social Policy (e.g. Same Sex Couples Act, 2013)
  • Defence and Foreign Policy
  • Consensus between parties?

c)To what extent is the Labour Party still committed to its traditional principles?  (25 Marks.)

c) To what extent is the modern Conservative Party influenced by One Nation principles?  (25 Marks)

c) To what extent are the ideas of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party similar? (25 Marks)

c)To what extent do the UK’s major parties accept Thatcherite ideas and policies?  (25 Marks)

c)To what extent are the major parties internally united over policies and ideas?  (25 Marks)

c) To what extent have the parties involved in the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition remained faithful since 2010 to their traditional principles and ideas?  (25 Marks)

c) To what extent are the coalition partners divided over ideas and policies?

c) To what extent do the major parties differ over ideas and policies?  (25 Marks)

c) To what extent has the Conservative Party abandoned Thatcherism?  (25 Marks)

c)To what extent are the major parties internally united over policies and ideas?  (25 Marks) (June 2014)

c) To what extent do the major parties agree over ideas and policies (25 marks, June 2015)

c) To what extent has the Labour Party moved away from its traditional principles? (June 2016)

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3 thoughts on “Political Parties”

  1. Could u help explain current divisions within the conservative party today?
    Over ideas and policies by which MP’s also etc? Xx
    Same with labour party?
    Also do we need to know party policies for all parties or just labour conservative lib Dems?

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