Unit 1: People and Politics
by Hugh Berrington
The Professor Emeritus at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne writes for BBC Parliament
Parties play an important role in the political system
The calls for the wider use of the referendum suggest increasing disenchantment with the political parties.
Parties have long been a whipping-boy for saloon-bar critics of the representative process. 'To say... that parties are natural is not to say that they are perfect' wrote Harold Laski nearly seventy-five years ago, in a bid to counter such criticisms.
'They distort the issues that they create. They produce divisions in the electorate which very superficially represent the way in which opinion is in fact distributed... They falsify the perspective of the issues they create... They build about persons allegiance which should go to ideas... Yet when the last criticisms of party have been made the services they render to a democratic state are inestimable.' H J Laski, Grammar of Politics (Fourth Edition 1938).
A political party seeks power, or a share of power, and to achieve power it must win control, or a share of control, of the organs of government.
Political parties are often the object of criticism, and indeed of cynicism. If anything, such feelings seem to have grown in Britain in recent years.
Sometimes it is averred that party divisions are superfluous and harmful, and what is needed, it is said, is a government of the 'best men (and presumably women) chosen without reference to parties'. Demands for 'government by the best men/women' assume that political problems are technical problems which can best be solved by the wisest and the best-qualified.
Political issues, however, are at root conflicts of values and interests. If a firm wishes to install a new computing system, or build a bridge, it will presumably employ those best qualified for such work. In politics, however, there is no 'best' solution.
To grasp the contribution that parties, with all their faults, make to the running of the democratic process, let us try to visualise a British general election held without political parties.
Candidates in each constituency, it would seem, would stand on their personal merits - but the only question worth asking of a would-be representative is: does he or she 'represent'?
The voters would find it difficult to tell what the candidates stood for, and the election would become a personal popularity contest rather than a means of assessing support for the records and policies of the various parties.
Once elected, the MP would presumably be guided solely by his personal opinions when deciding how to vote in parliament; to keep track of his Member's record, the voter would have to scrutinize his speeches and votes with great care. How would the voter decide whether his representative's stewardship had been satisfactory?
At the parliamentary level, government would become unstable and incoherent. It is hard to envisage an assembly of 600 independent MPs agreeing on a consistent programme.
Governments would suffer from conflict, and would be be plagued by indecision, for a government chosen on the principle of the 'best men and women' would have no underlying unity of opinion.
When a general election came it would be impossible for voters to pass judgment on the record of the government, for the candidates would be standing on their personal records.
What this implausible sketch does is to show that a political party does perform important functions. These functions are essentially threefold. Parties frame the issues. Through their manifestoes and policy statements parties put issues to the electorate, and determine what the election argument will be about.
Parties also recruit the personnel of government. They choose the rival candidates, and guide the voter in his choice. The parties choose the Leaders - one of whom will become Prime Minister after an election.
The third function of political parties is to make it possible, in a parliamentary system, for voters to hold governments accountable. If they feel the government has failed to live up to its party's election promises, or to display proper standards of competence and integrity, they can vote for an opposiiton party.
The party is essentially a link between the citizen and the state; party is one of the devices which makes possible citizen influence on the policies of government.
British parliamentary politics is Adversary politics. Two large and disciplined parties confront each other across the despatch box in the House of Commons. At the end of the debate, Members divide, usually joined by those who often have not heard a word of the debate.
Rebellion in the division lobbies is more common than it was 40 years ago but conformity to party remains the norm for Members.
Adversary politics is a term borrowed from the courts of law. The parties engage in what may seem mortal, if to some eyes sham, combat.
A party spokesman acts like a prosecuting counsel or defending barrister, putting the most powerful case that he can, irrespective of any reservations or doubts he may feel in private.
The spirit of adversary politics does not necessarily carry with it the connotation that the parties are divided by a deep ideological gulf.
Adversary politics is as compatible with parties whose differences are shallow and transitory as it is with parties separated by acute doctrinal cleavages.
What then do the parties stand for? It is not easy to condense into two or three paragraphs the complexities of party belief.
Since the 1920s Conservatives and Labour have been the two main parties of the state. The deepest and most lasting division between them is economic.
The level of taxation, the scope and size of the welfare state, the role of government in regulating the economy - these have been the staple of party debate, with the Conservatives more favourable to the free market and low taxation, and Labour more sympathetic to government intervention and to high public spending.
Yet the differences are much less marked than they were in the early Thatcher years, and these in turn were much sharper than they had been during the era of consensus politics, which lasted from the early 50s to the mid-70s.
Divisions between the parties narrow, then widen, then narrow again.
The Liberal Democrats were formed by a fusion of the old Liberal party with the SDP, a breakaway from Labour.
They broadly share the free market sentiments of the Conservatives but favour bigger spending on social welfare and are more prepared than Labour to entertain higher taxes.
Their most distinctive feature is their commitment to Europe. Whereas both Labour and Conservatives have performed voltes-face over Europe the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them, have been the most consistent champions of British involvement with the European Union.
© Prof Hugh Berrington 2004
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne