Politics: parties and elections

From the late seventeenth century onwards, informal groups in Parliament slowly, over many years, joined together to form ‘parties’, representing different powerful interests. The two parties which emerged were the Tories’ (ancestors of the Conservative Party) who supported the landowning gentry and the ‘country’ interest, and the ‘Whigs’ (ancestors of the Liberal Party) who supported the town, the merchants and the new industrialists. At that time and until 1832, the electorate those allowed to vote) was very small, but thereafter major laws enlarged the electorate so that by the end of the century all adult males had the vote. However, women were not allowed to vote until 1918, and not on the same terms as m until 1928.

By this time parliamentary government through political parties was firmly established. Since the 1920′s our two major parties have been the Conservatives who tend to represent those with established power and wealth, and also (in the twentieth century) commercial and capitalist interests; and the Labour Party (never called Labourists in this country though some at least would be proud to be called socialists) which is a development of the radical wing of the Liberal Party into a non-Marxist workers party with considerable support from those in the State services like health and education. But, of course, every individual is free to make up his or her own mind as to how to vote.

Because of its history, our parliamentary system is the source of both legislative and executive power in this country.

What does this mean for the ordinary citizen?

Every four or five years (it cannot be more than five and is rarely less than four) we have a General Election. Voting is carried out on the basis of areas of population called constituencies. There are about 650 constituencies in the United Kingdom (the number varies slightly from election to election) with 60-70,000 electors in each of them. Any group willing to pay a reasonable but not large sum of money can put up a candidate – but unless their candidate receives at least 5% of the vote he forfeits the money, This discourages crazy candidates. In practice the only political parties of any significance are the Conservatives, the Labour Party Democrats, and, in Wales and Scotland, the nationalist parties (small in Wales, very important in Scotland). In England, some constituencies will have two candidates, most will have three.

The parties put forward different manifestos describing what they would do if elected; meetings, television programmes, candidates and their supporters knocking at your door and discussing issues, leaflets, more meetings – all these take place during the campaign. On Election Day, people go to the polling station just as you do, collect their voting paper which has a list of candidates and mark an ‘X’ beside the candidate they wish to be elected. We do not cross out the names of those we do NOT want. In each constituency, the candidate with most votes wins in a simple ‘first-past-the-post’ system.

a) Political parties

A political party in Britain is an organization of people who share similar ideas about how the country should be ruled and who try to get the power which would enable them to put these ideas into practice. Party members are a very small minority of the population because most people are not very interested in politics most of the time, but each party has a substantial number of supporters who are not as active as members, but who give encouragement and sometimes help at election time.

The purpose of any British political party is to get as many of its candidates as possible elected to Parliament, because the party with the most members forms the Government. The foundations of the electoral system were laid in the Middle Ages. Since then numerous Acts of Parliament have modified the system, but never in a systematic way. Fundamentally the system still has its ancient form, with each community electing its (now) one representative to serve as its Member of Parliament until the next general election If an MP dies or resigns his seat, a by-election is held to replace him Any British subject can be nominated as a candidate for any seat on payment of a deposit of £500, though peers and Church of England clergymen are disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons. There is no need to live in the area or to have any personal connection with it, and less than half of the candidates are in fact local residents. There are usually more than two candidates for each seat, but the one who receives most votes is elected.

The franchise (right to vote) became universal for men by stages in the nineteenth century; hence the rise of the Labour Party. Women’s suffrage came in two stages (1918 and 1928), and in 1970 the minimum voting age was reduced to eighteen. Voting is not compulsory, but in the autumn of each year every householder is obliged by law to enter on the register of electors the name of every resident who is over seventeen and a UK citizen. Much work is done to ensure that the register is complete and accurate, and each register is valid for one year beginning towards the end of February.

In 1974-83 there were 635 MPs for the UK, each representing one constituency’; in 1983 the number was increased to 650. Because some areas increase in population while others decline, the electoral map, or division of the whole country into constituencies, has to be changed from time to time so as to prevent gross inequalities of representation The maximum interval between redistributions’ is set by law at fifteen years each time subject to Parliament’s approval.

b) How Elections Work

The most important effect of the electoral system, with each seat won by the candidate with most votes, has been to sustain the dominance of two main rival parties, and only two. One forms the Government, the other the Opposition, hoping to change places after the next general election. The Prime Minister can choose the date of an election, with only three or four weeks’ notice, at any time that seems favourable, up to five years after the last. At an election the people choose ‘a Parliament’ for five years and no more; but only one ‘Parliament’, so defined, has lasted its full five years since 1945. The shortest, elected in February 1974, was dissolved seven months later. The development of opinion polls gives the Prime Minister a good idea of his or her party’s chances, month by month.

Until 1918 the Conservatives (Tories) and Liberals (formerly Whigs) took turns at holding power, then Conservatives and Labour. The Labour Party, formed in 1900 in alliance with the Liberals, replaced them as the second major party after 1918. Labour is success was made possible by divisions among the Liberals.

The two-party system which is the essential feature of modern British government is a product of the electoral system, rather than a reflection of the wishes of the people. Many opinion polls, over many years, have indicated that most of the British people would prefer to use their most fundamental right, that of voting, in a system which would give fair representation. But both Conservatives and Labour claim that the existing electoral system is better than any other, and have produced objective arguments for it and the two-party dominance which it sustains. First, all the people of each constituency have one MP to represent them and their interests. Second, the system gives the people a clear choice between two alternative sets of leaders and policies. Third, it gives stable government for up to five years at a time. Fourth, because any person with realistic political ambitions must join one of the two main parties, each party includes a wide range of attitudes. Therefore, fifth, each party’s programme, being a compromise, is likely to avoid extremes – and a government knows that within five years of taking power it must again face the judgment of the voters.

On the other hand it is pointed out that two-party choice at an election may be no better than a choice between two evils. Ministers of both parties, once in office, have developed a habit of claiming that at the last election the people voted to approve of every item in the winning party’s election manifesto – although the truth is that only about two-fifths voted for the party, and many of these were more against the losers than for the winners.