Wednesday, 6 July 2022 – 17:08

How Parliament Works and the Role of Political Parties

UK Parliament

{tab About Parliament}

The UK Parliament is one of the oldest and most copied political institutions in the world. Parliament has been sitting in England in at least some form since the 13th century in the Palace of Westminster in London.

The UK has a bi-cameral Parliament – that means that there are two chambers of the legislative branch. In other words, two main groups of people are part of the law-making process. The UK Parliament is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

To learn more about the UK Parliament, navigate using the tabs above and below or watch the video at the top of this page.


{tab What is the House of Commons?}

The House of Commons is the major body of the Parliament and is made up of 650 MPs who are voted in during elections. Every Member of Parliament (MP) represents a constituency (an area somewhere in the country) and is said to have a seat. However, due to the design of the Commons, only around 430 MPs can be seated in the chamber at once, leading to many people squeezing in and standing during votes and debates on important topics.

Usually, the UK is thought of as having a two-party system. MPs tend to represent a particular political party, and for the last 100 years, the majority of seats have either been won by MPs representing the Labour Party or the Conservatives. The party that wins the most seats in a general election usually forms a government. The party’s MPs will sit on the government benches on one side of the chamber, facing the opposition parties on the other side of the chamber.


Photo Credit UK Parliament under licence (CC BY 3.0)


{tab What is the House of Lords?}

The House of Lords is the second chamber and has around 800 members which are unelected. The role of the Lords in modern Britain is to check the work of the government and also continue the work of the House in Commons in making laws.

The Lords used to be ‘wise men’ or senior members in society to advise Saxon Monarchs. Today, there are different types of members of the House of Lords;

  • Hereditary Peers – These members hold their seats until death, resignation or exclusion. It used to be the case that when the peer died, their seat passed to a member of their family. Today, new hereditary peers are elected by members of the House.
  • Life Peers – Today, most members of the House of Lords are Life Peers. These members are generally nominated by the Prime Minister and political parties and are often former politicians or experts in a particular field.
  • Spiritual Peers – The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and 24 Bishops can speak and vote in the House of Lords.

There have long been calls to abolish the House of Lords due to its undemocratic nature with its members not being elected by the public.


Photo Credit UK Parliament under licence (CC BY 3.0)


{tab What does Parliament actually do?}

Parliament scrutinizes the government, whereby it checks and challenges its work. Parliament makes and changes laws, debates key topics and checks and approves government spending.

These roles are carried out through the work of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and in Select Committees.

Perhaps the most famous example of Parliament at work in the UK is Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs). Each Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, the Prime Minister will answer questions from MPs from 12pm. The Leader of the Opposition will have the chance to challenge the Prime Minister on certain topics and exchanges can sometimes become quite heated – click here to view an example.

While PMQs may sometimes seem theatrical, MPs have some serious work to do – find out how they make laws in this explainer.

Parliament doesn’t sit all year round – it has breaks similar to the school holidays. It is free for anyone to visit Parliament, and you can sit in the gallery and watch it carry out its work when it is sitting. You can also watch most proceedings from Parliament online here.




Political Parties

{tab About Political Parties}

There are a number of political parties that currently exist in the UK. When voting at elections, voters will vote for a candidate, but they will usually represent a political party.

Political parties in the UK aim to represent members of the public and their views. Parties will develop policies and ideological positions and often play a part in forming governments or local councils.

Some members of the public choose to become a member of a political party, some of which will actively engage in party events and campaigning. Political parties often receive much of their financial income from their members.

There are too many political parties to list here, but to learn more about the main political parties in the UK, navigate using the tabs above.


{tab Conservatives}

The Conservatives have been the party in Government in the UK since 2010. Since 2019, the party has been led by Boris Johnson.

Founded in 1834, the party currently holds a majority in the House of Commons with 364 Members of Parliament. As of 2019, the party had 191,000 members. Conservative Prime Ministers led the country for 57 years of the 20th century, including most notably Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

The party is at the centre-right on the political spectrum. Generally, the party favours free-market economics, limiting state regulation and pursuing privatisation. The members of the party have mixed views on Brexit, but officially supported implementing the UK’s departure from the EU after the EU referendum in 2016.

You can find out more about the Conservatives on their website.


Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister & Leader of the Conservatives

Photo Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street under licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


{tab Labour Party}

The Labour Party has been the official opposition in the UK since 2010.

Founded in 1900, the party has around 580,000 members and currently has 202 seats in the House of Commons. Since April 2020, the party has been led by Sir Keir Starmer. 

The party grew out of the trade union movement and socialist parties of the 19th century. Today, it sits in the centre-left of the political spectrum. The party is the main party in the current Welsh government and the third-largest party in the Scottish Parliament.  Clement Attlee’s Labour government established the National Health Service and expanded the welfare state from 1945 to 1951. Other notable Prime Ministers from the party include Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

The party was split over the issue of Brexit. From the late-1980s, the party has favoured free-market policies.

You can find out more information about the Labour Party on their website.

  {module Quiz Test}


Sir Keir Starmer
Leader of the Labour Party

Photo Credit: Rwendland / CC BY-SA


{tab The Scottish National Party (SNP)}

The Scottish National Party is a political party in Scotland. In the UK House of Commons, it holds 47 seats of the 59 Scottish constituencies. The party campaigns for Scottish Independence from the UK but as a member of the European Union. 

The SNP hates the idea of Brexit and has made this very clear in Parliament ever since the vote to leave the European Union over 3 years ago. Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the European Union. The party also supports votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, something that already exists for some Scottish elections.

You can find out more about the SNP on their website.


 Nicola Sturgeon
Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP)


{tab Liberal Democrats}

The Liberal Democrats currently have 11 MPs in the UK House of Commons. It also has 91 members of the House of Lords, 5 members of the Scottish Parliament, 1 member of the Welsh assembly has 2 directly elected mayors.

The party was part of a Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition between 2010 and 2015. The coalition damaged the party’s electoral prospects and it suffered large losses at the 2015 general election. Under the leadership of Tim Farron, Sir Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, the party has refocused itself towards opposing Brexit.

Ed Davey was recently elected as the new leader of the Lib Dems, after Jo Swinson resigned following losing her seat in the 2019 UK General Election.

You can find out more information about the Liberal Democrats on their website.


{tab The Green Party}

The Green Party’s primary focus is to lead the fight against what it calls ‘climate chaos’. Currently led by Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley, the party was founded in 1990. It has two members of the House of Lords and one member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas. The party’s ideology involves a mixture of environmentalism and left-wing and centre-left economic policies.

You can find more information on the Green Party on their website.


Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry
Co-leaders of the Green Party

Photo Credit: West Midlands Green Party via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


{tab Brexit Party}

The Brexit Party was founded in January 2019 to ensure the UK left the European Union. The party is led by Nigel Farage. The party stood candidates in many constituencies in the 2019 general election, but no candidates were elected as MPs. Before the UK left the European Union, the party had 23 members of the European Parliament – it also has four Welsh Assembly members.

The party claims that it wants to ‘change British politics for good’, although it is uncertain what role the party could play in the future. Other than the UK’s departure from the European Union, the party campaigned for issues in the 2019 UK General Election including related to the environment and making changes and adding guidelines to the Supreme Court.

You can find more information about the Brexit Party on their website.

The party’s name has recently changed to Reform UK, though is still currently known by many as the Brexit Party.


Nigel Farage
Leader of the Brexit Party
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


{tab DUP}

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is a political party in Northern Ireland. The party has 8 MPs in the UK Parliament. 

After the 2017 UK General Election, the party was involved in a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives after the party (then run by Theresa May) fell short of an overall majority in the House of Commons.

You can find out more information about the DUP on their website.


Arlene Foster
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

Photo Credit: Northern Ireland Assembly 
via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


{tab Sinn Féin}

Sinn Féin is a political party in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The party is in the centre-left to left-wing of the political spectrum. 

The party has 7 MPs in the UK Parliament but these members never sit in the Commons. The party aims to create a ‘United Ireland’.

You can find out more information about Sinn Féin on their website.


Mary Lou McDonald
Preisdent of Sinn Féin

Photo Credit: Oireachtas



{tab Plaid Cymru}

Plaid Cymru is a political party in Wales. It currently holds 4 seats in the UK’s House of Commons.

The party had over 11,000 members in 2018. The party sits between the centre-left and the left-wing on the political spectrum. The party seeks to promote the constitutional advancement of Wales and secure the country’s independence from the UK, while remaining a member of the European Union. 

You can find out more information about Plaid Cymru on their website.


Adam Price
Leader of Plaid Cymru

Photo Credit: Euskampus Fundazioa 
via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)




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