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About this book

A systematic and comprehensive introduction to party politics throughout the UK combining chapters on each of the main parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats) with an assessment of the post-devolution party systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the EU dimension and the recent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Table of Contents

2. The Role of Political Parties in the UK

Abstract
According to Schattschneider (1942) ‘modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties’. Yet although political parties are a recognizable feature of democratic politics, they are also often the source of much disillusion among electors. In recent years parties have been said to be in decline in a number of ways, whether in terms of their membership, or in their ability to motivate electors to turn out to vote for them. Against this backdrop, this chapter assesses the current literature on British parties to ask two key questions: what is the role of political parties in the modern UK; and to what extent are parties successfully fulfilling their democratic functions? The first part of the chapter begins by setting out various definitions of political parties and highlighting their functions in democracies. The second part of the chapter addresses itself to the question: to what extent are the UK’s parties successfully fulfilling these roles? British parties are argued to be fulfilling these functions to varying degrees. While they continue to simplify the electoral choices available to voters, they are decreasingly able to command the loyalty of voters. Nevertheless, through their position in organizing both government and opposition in the House of Commons, parties play a crucial, if not always necessarily central, role in providing political accountability in the UK.
Alistair Clark

5. The Liberal Democrats

Abstract
The Liberal Democrats (and predecessors) have been very much the third party in the Westminster party system. However, the party has dramatically increased its parliamentary representation in recent years, achieving 62 seats in 2005, and holding 57 seats in the 2010 parliament. This has been achieved by taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, and by being able to exploit popular issues not represented by the two main parties, for instance in opposing the 2003 Iraq war. The Liberal Democrats have consequently become an important area for study in their own right (Russell and Fieldhouse, 2005). Nevertheless, their ascent has not been problem-free and has variously involved the perception of internal ideological and policy conflict, and some high-profile changes of leadership. This chapter therefore examines developments in the Liberal Democrats. The first section sets out the key elements of Liberal Democrat ideology and policy through the lens of the two main ideological strands in the party, classical liberalism, and more interventionist social liberalism. The second part evaluates the leadership of the party, and outlines the party’s procedures for selecting a leader. The third section sets out the party’s candidate selection processes and assesses how representative the party’s MPs are. Post-2010, the Liberal Democrats have participation in a coalition government alongside the Conservatives at Westminster to add to their record of holding office in the devolved institutions.
Alistair Clark

7. The UK’s ‘Multi-Level’ Party Systems

Abstract
Writing just after the 2004 European elections, Dunleavy (2005) criticized the Westminster focus of much debate on British party politics, arguing that this failed to take account of the increasingly complex and multi-level patterns of party competition that now occur across the UK. Indeed, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a number of different parties, which means that party competition in these regions has operated in a significantly different manner from the UK norm. This has had a varied impact upon Westminster politics over the years, with, on occasion, parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) holding the balance of power. Since devolution, these parties can no longer be considered ‘minor’ parties in the UK system, but also as significant parties operating in distinct devolved party systems. Moreover, it is not just in the devolved institutions that party competition varies from the Westminster norm, but also in competition for the London Assembly, local government and the European Parliament.
Alistair Clark

9. Developments in Party Organization and Funding

Abstract
To fulfil their democratic functions, parties must have a degree of organization and be able to fund their activities throughout the electoral cycle. Organization helps parties to debate and decide upon policy, recruit members, activists and potential candidates, and to campaign for election. Nevertheless, the study of organization and funding is often overlooked since it involves looking at aspects of parties’ internal affairs conducted behind closed doors. Yet party organization and funding are key issues, and important conflicts over political power often occur not in the broader political system, but within parties. To be able to form any view on how political parties in the UK are working, understanding organization and funding is imperative. This chapter therefore introduces and evaluates key developments in party organization and funding in the UK in recent years. The chapter focuses on the main three parties at Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. These issues however also apply to the smaller and non-UK-wide parties and indicative examples are provided to enable some comparison between different party types. Discussion revolves around three sections. The first section provides an assessment of the parties’ organizational structures. Having a sizeable and active local membership is often seen as a key indicator of party strength and the second section therefore discusses levels of membership and activism.
Alistair Clark

11. Conclusion: Political Parties in the UK

Abstract
This book has done a number of things in the preceding chapters. It has introduced the three main political parties in the UK, and discussed their ideologies, policies, leadership and performance in office. It has taken a thematic approach to a number of issues such as the rise of small parties, the importance of the UK’s ‘multi-level’ party systems, the relationship between parties and the media, and how parties organize, finance themselves and campaign for election. More generally, it has also introduced broader debates about the nature of the UK party system and how parties may, or may not, fulfil their functions in Britain today. This concluding chapter returns to these more general concerns in order to reflect on some of the challenges facing the UK party system and political parties in the aftermath of the 2010 general election and the subsequent novelty of coalition government at Westminster. Discussion proceeds in four parts. The first section assesses the party system and asks whether the very notion of a British party system itself is coming under threat from political developments in the UK. The second part questions whether or not the UK’s political parties are in decline or whether they have adapted to changing circumstances and continue to fulfil certain functions in British democracy. The third section identifies a range of direct challenges to parties both collectively and individually.
Alistair Clark
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