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Explaining Politics: UK Political Parties, Parliament & Westminster

Given the last two years, you would think politics in Britain is complicated. In reality, it is far more complicated than you would ever expect.

The UK Parliament is one of the oldest and most copied political institutions in the world, providing the foundation for countless other democratic systems throughout the world – with one parliament building in Africa being modelled exactly on Westminster Palace.

Westminster Model

The Westminster model is a bi-cameral parliament, meaning that there are two chambers of the legislative branch, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Commons is the major legislative body, with the occupants being 650 MP’s, elected through a First Past The Post electoral system. Whichever party within this chamber gains the most seats is invited, by the Queen, to form a government on her behalf.

Usually the Westminster model lends itself two a party gaining a majority of the seats, resulting in that party forming a government out of the MP’s who sit in Westminster – unlike in the US where the executive (president) is separate from the legislature (Congress), the UK draws its executive directly from the legislature, with all members of the government also serving as MPs.

The upper house, the House of Lords, however, is unelected. The members of this chamber – currently there are 793 – are either appointed by the government or are hereditary and are there because of their title.

Although hereditary peers are slowly being removed due to their anti-democratic nature, the appointed Lords still exercise power in the UK, and can delay the passing of legislation should they disagree with it – however the commons can eventually overrule this.

The role of the Lords in modern Britain is now more of a check on the power of the government rather than a serious legislative chamber, with lords often being made up of former notable politicians or business people.

Within the Commons

Within this model, the UK operates pretty much as a two-party system, with the plurality of seats falling to either the Labour Party or Conservative Party for the last 100 years.

The Labour Party, borne out of labour movements in the early 20th century typically falls on the left, largely representing the working class and minority groups, whilst advocating for greater trade union influence within politics.

The Conservatives, by contrast, are considered to represent the middle and upper classes, favouring a more right of centre neoliberal brand of economics; unlike its ideological equivalents abroad – such as the Australian Liberal party – the Conservative mainstream tend to be more socially progressive, favouring gay marriage and gay rights.

The UK also has several other parties represented in parliament, most of which are regional, which rarely have enough influence in the commons to be a part of a government – with two recent exceptions.

The Scottish National Party hold almost all the seats in Scotland, making them the third largest party in the Commons. Left of centre, the SNP have gained significant traction in recent years, however, given the fact they only exist in Scotland, they have little ability to form an opposition or influence the agenda.

The fourth largest party – the Liberal Democrats – are arguably the most influential third party, often being the swing vote if a party fail to secure a majority or being a coalition partner in forming a government. This notably happened following the 2010 general election where although the largest party, the Conservatives failed to secure a majority, thus forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, giving this third-party huge influence over the government.

The Green Party also hold influence in parliament, with a solitary MP hailing from the constituency of Brighton Pavilion. Aligned largely with Labour in ideological terms, the greens have little influence but are growing increasingly popular as the Liberal Democrats have declined in recent years.

Wales, like Scotland, have a significant independent party, Plaid Cymru, who dominate much or rural Wales. Although they only have a handful of seats and little influence in Westminster, they are extremely significant within Wales' devolved assembly and can exert greater autonomy over Welsh affairs.

Where it gets really complicated is Northern Ireland, where none of the parties aforementioned stand; with ideological equivalents such as the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party standing instead. Sinn Fein is a party against the Westminster system altogether – refusing to even take up their seats in parliament due to their wish for a united Ireland, standing against the Westminster government which they see as illegitimate.

This results in there being 8 parties seated in Westminster, along with an independent, but despite this, only the major two exert significant influence; with these opposing parties becoming increasingly divided in recent years following the ascent of the more left-wing Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader and the more right-wing elements of the Conservatives driving their Brexit policy.

 

Photo Credit: UK Parliament, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) licence. 

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