Is there a need for political parties in the United Kingdom? by Calum Setterington, Project Director – the Young Political Bloggers

Political parties are organised groups of people who share a common ideology and policy ideas (Jones et al, 2010 p.648). They have the aims of creating and implementing policy, mobilising support, recruiting and training politicians (Budge et al 2004 p.348) but, according to Ware, most importantly, the desire to form a government or opposition (Ware, 2004 p.2). Despite a decline in party membership in the United Kingdom, for example, Conservative membership was three million in 1950 (Jones et al., 2010 p.207) falling to 290,000 according to Toby Helm in 2006 (Toby Helm, Daily Telegraph. 27th December 2006 Accessed: 24th September 2011). Parties still have a very important role to play in British Politics primarily because they allow participation, provide leadership, structure and direction working on a wide range of issues and policies. However, most importantly, in comparison, a parliament of independents would be chaotic and slow whereas a non-party state would limit involvement of the electorate and average citizen.

With an extensive range of public services, population of 61.838 million (World Bank Indicators 2008) and six hundred and fifty constituencies (Jones et al. 2010 p.304) governing the United Kingdom is extremely complex. However, political parties provide leadership, structure and direction through policy most notably from headquarters. For example, both Labour and Conservative headquarters provide research assistants, training for campaigns and at a local level communication and organisation (Budge et al. 2004 p.379). It is this level of organisation and co-ordination that highlights the importance of political parties in the United Kingdom, rallying support and mobilising political actors and in governing the country. In order to make changes, the proposed changes have to have the support of majority. Although, occasionally parliamentarians vote against their party, for instance in the second Labour government of 2001 to 2005 back bench MPs voted against the party on two hundred and fifty nine occasions (Budge et al. 2004 p.340) the party structure and whip system ensures, on the whole, that party policies are implemented and the business of government can take place efficiently and effectively, showing the need for parties in the United Kingdom.

In terms of participation, parties through their activities provide an opportunity for actors to develop policy and push these policies through at all levels, whether it be at a local, regional or national level. Political parties allow the electorate to engage more actively in the political process through party membership. Membership of associations provides a formal organisation for debate and the formulation of policy at grassroots level, which in turn will surface at national party level. Moreover, local associations are incredibly important, as they nominate their candidates, who then if successful go to parliament, and if the Prime Minister is unpopular then the MPs may become rebellious with the support of the association, undermining the Prime Minister’s position, therefore highlighting the significance of political parties in the United Kingdom.

Although membership maybe decreasing (Jones et al. 2010 p.207) and it is suggested the RSPB has more membership than the three main political parties (Jones et al. 2010 p.208), these pressure groups whilst may influence policy do not implement it and are purely focussed on one or two issues therefore would not be suitable for government.

One alternative is a parliament of independents but this is not practical or realistic. Independents by nature tend to be focussed on a single issue or local issues. Moreover, Independents do not have the ability to develop and implement policy across the spectrum, an area that political parties function in very well. From a practical point of view, if there was a majority of independents it would take significantly longer to push through legislation, in some cases with legislation becoming ineffective.

In addition, another alternative is a system where political parties are not allowed, such as the United Arab Emirates (Wikipedia Date Accessed: 24th September 2011). Instead the senior government positions are held by the ruling families, for example the UAEs Supreme Council consists of the leaders of the seven Emirates (UAE Government. Date Accessed: 24th September 2011). This system does not allow participation of the average citizen, with decisions made at the highest level. In contrast political parties in the United Kingdom allow participation – a factor of great importance.

Overall, there are a number of reasons why political parties are needed in the United Kingdom providing structure, direction and leadership in a complex environment so that government can be effective and efficient. The alternatives would limit participation, a key feature of democracy, and slow down the process significantly creating logistical and procedural chaos.

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