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The British Government: The Political Party System
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

The political party system is an essential element in the working of the British constitution. The present system depends upon the existence of organized political parties, each of which presents its policies to the electorate for approval. The parties are not registered or formally recognized in law, but in practice most candidates in elections, and almost all winning candidates, belong to one of the main parties.

Since 1945, either the Conservative Party, whose origins go back to the eighteenth century, or the Labour Party, which emerged in the last decade of the nineteenth century, has held power. A new party - the Liberal Democrats - was formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party, which traced its origins to the eighteenth century, merged with the Social Democratic Party (formed in 1981). These three parties accounted for over 90% of the winning candidates in general elections held in 1992.

Other parties include two nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru (founded in Wales in 1925) and the Scottish National Party (founded in 1934). In Northern Ireland there are a number of parties. They include the Ulster Unionist Party, formed in the early part of this century; the Democratic Unionist Party, founded in 1971 by a group which broke away from the Ulster Unionists; and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, founded in 1970.

Since 1945 eight general elections have been won by the Conservative Party and six by the Labout Party; the great majority of members of the House of Commons have belonged to one of these two parties.

The party which wins most seats, although not necessarily the most votes, at a general election, or which has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, usually forms the Government. By tradition, the leader of the majority party is asked by the Sovereign to form a government. About 100 of its members in the House of Commons and the House of Lords receive ministerial appointments, including appointment to the Cabinet on the advice of the Prime Minister. The largest minority party becomes the official Opposition, with its own leader and 'shadow cabinet'.

The Party System in Parliament
Leaders of the Government and Opposition sit on the front benches on either side of the Commons chamber with their supporters - the backbenchers - sitting behind them. Similar arrangements for the parties also apply to the House of Lords; however, Lords who do not wish to be associated with any political party may sit on the 'cross benches'.

The effectiveness of the party system in Parliament rests largely on the relationship between the Government and the opposition parties. Depending on the relative strengths of the parties in the House of Commons, the Opposition may seek to overthrow the Government by defeating it in a vote on a 'matter of confidence'. In general, however, its aims are:

1. to contribute to the formulation of policy and legislation by constructive criticism;
2. to oppose the government proposals it considers objectionable; to seek amendments to government Bills; and
3. to put forward its own policies in order to improve its chances of winning the next general election.

The Opposition performs this role both by debating issues and putting questions on the floor of both Houses and through the committee system.

Government business arragnements are settled, under the direction of the Prime Minsiter and the Leaders of the two Houses, by the Government Chief Whip in consultation with the Opposition Chief Whip. The Chief Whips together constitute the 'usual channels' ofter referred to when the question of finding time for a particular item of business is discussed. The Leaders of the two Houses are responsible for enabling the Houses to debate matters about which they are concerned.

Outside Parliament, party control is exercised by the national and local organizations. Parties are organized at parliamentary constituency level and also contest local government elections. Inside Parliament, party control is exercised by the Chief Whips and their assistants, who are chosen within the party. Their duties include keeping members informed of forthcoming parliamentary business, maintaining the party's voting strength by ensuring members attend important debates, and passing on to the party leadership the opinions of the backbench members.

The Whips indicate the importance their party attaches to a vote on a particular issue by underlining items of business once, twice or three times on the notice sent to MPs. In the Commons, failure to comply with a 'three-line whip', the most important, is usually seen as a rebellion against the party. Party discipline tends to be less strong in the Lords than in the Commons, since Lords have less hope of high office and no need of party support in elections.

The formal title of the Government Chief Whip in the Commons is Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. The Government Whips in the Lords also act as government spokesmen.

Financial Assistance to Parties
Annual assistance from public funds helps opposition parties carry out their parliamentary work at Westminister. it is limited to parties which had at least two members elected at the previous general election or one member elected and a minimum of 150,000 votes cast. The amount is £3,442.50 for every seat won, plus £6.89 for every 200 votes.

Related Links
Below are web sites maintained by political parties and factions within the UK. What better way is there to learn what they are all about than to see what they are putting on the Web for the world to see.

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
British Labour Party British National Party
Conservative Party
Democratic Unionist Party
Green Party
Northern Ireland Government
Northern Ireland Unionist Party
Plaid Cymru - Welsh Political Party homepage
Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland
Referendum Party
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Scottish National Party
Liberal Youth Scotland
Third Way
UK Independence Party
Ulster Unionist Party
Workers Party of Ireland

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