The political campaigns are heating up in the United Kingdom ahead of the 2015 General Election on 7 May 2015. As each political party desperately tries to secure the votes needed to win the election, the following extract from British Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Tony Wright, describes the importance of the party system in British politics.
If you want to win votes and get elected in Britain, at least in general elections, then you had better get a party. The occasional and isolated exceptions only prove the rule. Before the 2010 general election, in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, there was speculation that independent candidates might do unusually well, but in the event this did not happen. Elected politicians have a wonderful capacity for persuading themselves that their electoral success is to be explained by their obvious personal qualities, but the evidence is all against them. Overwhelmingly, it is the party label that counts. British politics is party politics. This is another of the big truths. Yet parties themselves are becoming weaker and the traditional party system is less secure. This is something to which it will be necessary to return.
Following the 1997 election, legislation was introduced (Registration of Political Parties Act 1998) to enable parties to register their title to their name, and to similar names that might confuse the voters. The significance of this legislation was not what it contained, which was relatively minor, but the fact that (p. 71) legislation on political parties had been introduced at all. This was a major constitutional departure. The role of political parties might be one of the big truths of British politics, but it was a truth that had hitherto not dared to speak its name. Apart from some small housekeeping provisions, the existence of political parties was a closely guarded constitutional secret. This was like describing a car without mentioning that it had an engine.
It was not until 1969 that party names were even allowed to appear on ballot papers, finally exploding the fiction that it was individuals rather than parties who were being voted for. In the House of Commons the fiction is still maintained by the absence of any party designation in the way that MPs are formally described. They are simply the ‘Honourable Member’ for a particular constituency. The real business is done through a mysterious device known as the ‘usual channels’, curiously absent from the textbooks, where the party managers carve things up between themselves away from the decorous party-blind formalities of the chamber. But party has now come in from the constitutional cold. The legislation on party registration has been followed by a raft of other measures—on party list electoral arrangements for devolved assemblies and for the European Parliament, and regulation of party funding backed by a new commission—that bring the parties and the party system into full view.
“So the secret is out. In Britain, party rules.”
So the secret is out. In Britain, party rules. There might be argument about the extent to which the state should interfere with how voluntary associations like parties order their internal affairs, but not with the centrality of party to the operation of the political system. Tony Blair became prime minister because in 1983, just three weeks before the general election, a few members of the Trimdon branch of the safe Labour constituency of Sedgefield persuaded the 83-strong general committee of the local party, by the wafer-thin margin of 42 to 41, to add the young (p. 72) barrister’s name to the shortlist from which it was selecting a parliamentary candidate. This is a vivid illustration of the way in which the parties act as the gatekeepers and recruiting agents of British political life. With no separation of powers, governments are formed from among the tiny pool of politicians who belong to the majority party in the House of Commons. Even coalition government only extends the pool slightly. These politicians are there not primarily because of the electorate but because of a prior election held by a small party ‘selectorate’, whose choice is then legitimized by the wider electorate.
In other words, the parties control the political process. While this is a feature of political life almost everywhere, in Britain the control exercised by the parties is exceptionally tight. Ever since Jonathan Swift satirized a Lilliputian world divided between High-Heelers and Low-Heelers (the issue at stake being the size of heels on shoes) and Big-Enders and Little-Enders (where the dispute is over which end of an egg should be broken first), the party question has been endlessly debated. Some saw party in terms of the evils of faction and sectionalism; others as (in Edmund Burke’s words) ‘a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principles in which they are all agreed’. The movement from loose associations of interests and persons to tightly organized electoral and parliamentary machines is the story of the development of the modern party system. It was a development that transformed political life. In the 1840s Sir James Graham, Peel’s Home Secretary, described ‘the state of Parties and of relative numbers’ as ‘the cardinal point’, for ‘with a majority in the House of Commons, everything is possible; without it, nothing can be done’.
Featured image credit: Polling station, Southwark, London. By secretlondon123. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
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