Political Parties (UK)

Roles & Functions

  • Representation – Of their membership and of society as a whole
  • Recruitment – Parties providing people to be MPs and frontbenchers
  • Participation – By joining a political party people are becoming actively involved in Politics
  • Governing – By winning a general election a party will provide the country with leadership
  • Policy Formulation – A party’s ideas, through its’ manifesto, will be put into operation
  • Electoral Function – Parties put forward and support candidates at election time

How effectively do they fulfil these functions?

Party Ideology (Values):

Conservative – Greater emphasis on private over public sector. Preference for lower taxation and less state investment, combined with an emphasis on the role of the individual. There can also be a strong emphasis on tradition and hierarchy. Give examples from the 2010 manifesto and policies of the Coalition (Austerity measures useful here)

Labour – Opposite to Conservative in the belief that the state should provide for those less fortunate in society. Public sector jobs being an example of this. Also look to reduce inequality between people. Positive view of human nature and their ability to work together for the good of all, rather than a more selfish individualistic view. Use examples of equality legislation under Brown and extension of welfare benefits post 97.

Liberal – Highlight the importance of liberty and freedom for the citizens of a country. Equality is also an important idea in an attempt to create a fairer society. However do not see state intervention in all aspects of life as desirable and should only be involved in helping fairness. Believe in greater freedom in the economy. Highlight championing of civil rights and plan to rescind parts of anti-terror legislation (e.g. reduction of 28 Day detention)

Leadership Selection

2019 Conservative Leadership Election

In 1997 the Conservative Party changed the system for electing their leader from just Conservative MPs electing to a system where MPs select 2 candidates and then the Conservative party membership elect the leader. 

In 2019 10 Conservative MPs were on the 1st ballot, over a series of 5 elections they were whittled down to 2 candidates by Conservative MPs. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt made the final ballot which was voted on by all 159,000 conservative members.

Candidate            Votes         %

Boris Johnson     92,153       66.4%

Jeremy Hunt       46,656       33.6%

Turnout - 138,799 (87.4%)

2005 Conservative Leadership Contest

First ballot (Tuesday 18 October)

  • David Davies 62 votes
  • David Cameron 56 votes
  • Liam Fox 42 votes
  • Kenneth Clarke 38 votes

Second ballot (Thursday 20 October)

  • David Cameron 90 votes
  • David Davies 57 votes
  • Liam Fox 51 votes

David Cameron 134,446 votes, 68 per cent of votes cast

David Davis 64,398 votes, 32 per cent of votes cast

Eligible voters 253,689

Turnout 198,844 (78 per cent)


2015 Labour Leadership Election

This was the first time the labour party would use the One Member, One Vote System (replacing the three way Electoral College system of the past).

In total over 552,000 people were eligible to vote (292,000 full party members, 148,000 affiliate members and 112,000 registered supporters.

The election was held under the alternative vote system. However Jeremy Corbyn collected over 50% of the first preference votes so no further rounds of results were needed.

Candidate              Vote          %

Jeremy Corbyn     251,417   59.5%

Andy Burnham        80,462   19%

Yvette Cooper         71,928    17%

Liz Kendell               18,857      4.5%

Turnout – 422,871 (76.3%)

2019 Liberal Democrat Leadership Election

Candidate            Votes         %

Jo Swinson          47,997       63.1%

Sir Ed Davey       28,021       36.9%

Turnout - 76,018 (72%)

2015 Liberal Democrat Leadership Election

Candidate            Votes         %

Tim Farron            19,137       56.5%

Norman Lamb     14,760       43.5%

Turnout - 33, 897 (56%)

The system uses Alternative Vote, where each member of the party has a vote.  The 2015 and 2019 elections were therefore effectively a plurality vote as only two candidates stood for election.

Consider how democratic is each method is, in particular the extent of the role of ordinary party members

Selection of Parliamentary Candidates

Conservative – Previously the central office would give the local constituency office a short list and would then allow them to interview and appoint a candidate. Now there is the “A” List with preferred candidates going to safe or marginal seats e.g. in 2010 Zac Godsmith or Chloe Smith. Note trials with open primaries in places such as Totness in Devon in 2010.

Labour – Have something similar to Conservatives due to the need to appeal to a broader base of society e.g. Mary Creagh was part of an all female shortlist in 2005 that the local association had to chose from. Leaders have tried to stop local parties having an influence e.g. George Galloway stopped from being a candidate in 2005

Lib Dem – Due to their federal approach to their party the selection process involves the membership at local level much more. Selection of some controversial candidates such as pornographic film producer in Essex.

Role of Party Conferences

All 3 major parties have an annual conference which takes place in the autumn.

Conservative – Due to their more elitist structure the Conservatives do not give their members any say at the conference. Instead it is used for other purposes:

  • Rally party members through speeches by leading members
  • Give some degree of consultation on policies already decided
  • To use the media to highlight a positive image of unity

Labour – Like the Conservatives Labour preside over an elitist party and therefore the conference is less important than it used to be e.g. 1983 agreeing to nuclear disarmament at the conference which was political suicide. It does the same as above but also allows election to NEC from ordinary members.

Liberal Democrats – Much more of a consultative process with members able to question MPs and policies being made. Key party defeats over issues such as drugs.

Role of Party Leaders

Conservative – Traditionally a more powerful role and leaders have usually come from a magic circle of senior MPs. This has changed a little but party leaders have usually dominated policy making e.g Cameron’s Big Society is a result of consultation with a few senior advisers. Also the leader appoints his own shadow cabinet and chair person. Usually seen as a top down relationship.

Labour – Traditionally much more consultative with party members and colleagues. However after significant defeats in the 1980s changed this approach. Blair criticised by some for his small circle of confidants and this lead to him having direct control of policy and this can be seen in the direction he took the party, away from traditional Labour values.

Lib Dem – Much more consultative with the members and therefore in theory more democratic.

Party Funding

Major parties reliant on donations due to a reduction in the membership fees available. Labour heavily reliant now on Trade Union donations after the private sector’s loss in confidence in the party e.g. UNITE gave £1.5 m. Conservative still the most important when it comes to individual donations because of their pro business stance.

Conservative scandal involving Number 10 should be used as an example of the corrupt nature of party funding. Likewise with the Lib Dems and the arrest for fraud of Michael Brown, after he donated £2.5 million to the party in 2005. This has never been refunded.

Spending at general election time is still high with Con spending nearly £18m at the 2010 election, but Labour down to around £11million. The Lib Dems do not have as much money, spending just over £4m and they see this is another reason why they can’t compete with the big two.


Neill Report highlighted a number of changes to the system that were put into effect by the Political Parties  Elections & Referendums Act 2000.

  • No foreign donations
  • Cap of £20m on spending at general elections
  • No donations of £5000 or more to be anonymous
  • Electoral Commission set up to monitor the spending and audit the accounts of the various political parties
  • Ensure that shareholders of a company agree on a donation rather than just the CEO to avoid claims of corruption

•       2009 Max spending limit to £19.5m approx £30000 per constituency

•       Parties to report donation of £7500 or more to HQ and £1000 or more to local bodies quarterly

•       Weekly donation reports submitted during election campaigns

•       Foreign donations banned later allowed a maximum of £7500

•       Party accounts and donation reports overseen by Electoral Commission

State Funding

In Favour:

  • Remove the spectre of corruption from the donations made to the big two
  • Would help the minority parties and remove feeling that elections can be bought
  • Elections are about democracy and therefore should be fairly funded
  • Opposition lacks the fund to do proper research and therefore propose viable alternative policies to the government.


  • How do you redistribute the money fairly?
  • People may resent their taxes going to politicians
  • It is a free society so people should be able to donate money if they want

Party Membership

Parties have all lost significant numbers of members and this has a had a significant effect on the amount of money they make from subscriptions.

Conservatives have gone from 3million after WW2 to 159,320 as of July 2019.

Labour fell from about 1million to fewer than 200,000 in 2013, the 2016 leadership election saw membership rise to over 500,000 by August 2016.

Liberal Democrats have approx 100,000 members as of July 2019.   

Reasons for the decline:

  • Rise in popularity of pressure groups have taken members
  • Pressure group objectives are achievable whereas political parties have wide ranging issues to cover
  • Sleaze and MPs expenses over the past 10 years has created an aura of mistrust about the political process
  • There is a feeling that being a member of a political party will not achieve anything
ULAW Banner
Register Now