Political Parties

Why It Matters

Political parties are best known for their central role in elections. The political party, or group of parties, which gains a majority of the seats in Parliament forms the Government.

The role of political parties is in fact of wider significance than this. They are the dominant organisations in the political system:

  • They control candidate selection (and de-selection) in constituencies
  • They control who become our political leaders (both in the sense of the leader of the party, who may eventually become Prime Minister, as well as those destined to be ministers or shadow ministers)
  • They exert control over individual MPs through party discipline and the whip system
  • They dictate the policy choices available to voters and political discussion generally
  • In the case of the political party acting as the Government, they control the resources of the state.
  • In the case of the political party acting in opposition, they criticise and scrutinise the work of the Government

More specifically, explicit constitutional change only takes place when the political parties want it to happen. Notwithstanding their powerful place in the constitutional structure of Britain, political parties are subject to comparatively little regulation.

The Essentials


Political parties have been described as the ‘unspoken secret’ of the British constitution. They are the key means through which people engage in the political process, providing an essential link between governments and the governed. Despite this, they are subject to comparatively little regulation.

The Important Debates

Should it be a requirement that all candidates for election be selected at open primaries?

A ‘primary’ is an election within a political party to select the candidate that can best represent a political party in a national election. Open primaries are those elections open to all registered voters within a constituency, whether or not they are members of that party; closed primaries are open only to registered party members. There may in some instances be shortlists requiring candidates to fulfil certain characteristics for the promotion of minorities (e.g. all women-shortlists).

  • primaries may open up the selection process by allowing a greater cross-section of people to express an opinion
  • primaries may encourage greater public participation and debate and may widen the selection pool
  • primaries are expensive and may encourage intra-party conflict
  • primaries may distract from more fundamental issues such as the electoral system, as they necessitate multi-level campaigning
  • there is a risk that primaries may be captured by narrow interest groups in the community, who use them to serve their own agenda

In 2009, the Conservative Party held an open primary election in Totnes, spending £38,000 in the process. The process was well received in the press. The Coalition committed in their published agreement to funding 200 all-postal primaries over the course of the current Parliament. They pledged to allocate these to all political parties in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last General Election. 

The Coalition’s plan to introduce central funding for a fixed number of open primaries suggests that the costs of standardised selection procedures could in future be met from the public purse rather than from the parties’ own election funds. Critics argue that this is a mechanism for introducing greater state funding of political parties. The financial considerations which led to these plans being deprioritised, and perhaps cancelled,  might well have been motivated more by the dictates of austerity than high principle.

Should political parties be state funded?

In recent years, there have been suggestions that political parties ought to be state funded, as is the case in some European countries. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in November 2011 (Political Party Finance – Ending the big donor culture) that public funding of political parties should be introduced, dependent on the number of votes secured in the previous election, at the rate of around £3.00 a vote in Westminster elections and £1.50 a vote in devolved and European elections. There are forceful arguments both for and against this suggestion:

  • It would ‘purify’ the political process. Parties would no longer be reliant on donors and therefore would be free from influence
  • It would enable political parties to carry out their functions more effectively, instead of being caught between declining traditional sources of funding and the increasing cost of research
  • It would signal that political parties are vital to democracy
  • Taxpayers should not have to pay for political parties whose policies they do not agree with
  • It would harden the party system: those parties already in the system would reap the benefits of state funding
  • If parties became reliant on state funding, they might abandon local party associations and local fund-raising
  • State funding would increase the powers of the central party
  • State funding would make parties part of the state
  • The needs of political parties are not the greatest priority in terms of public expenditure, particularly in times of economic downturn

Should there be absolute limits on donations to political parties?

Currently under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) there are no limits on donations. There are only reporting and registration requirements. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in November 2011 (Political Party Finance – Ending the big donor culture) that donations to political parties from individuals or organisations should be limited to £10,000 a year.

A cap on donations would arguably free the political parties from the appearance of potential corruption. It would also encourage political parties to seek donations from a wider range of people. However, limiting party finance may affect their capacity to carry out their key functions. There is also concern that limiting donations will encourage evasion (which is evident in the USA, where similar restrictions are in force) and could strengthen calls for state funding of parties as an alternative.

Should there be tighter limits on expenditure?

It is argued that in recent years the two main political parties have engaged in a campaign expenditure ‘arms race’ in general election years. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in November 2011 (Political Party Finance – Ending the big donor culture) that existing limits on election campaign financing should be reduced by 15%.

Arguably this would help to level the playing field, and prevent the ‘crowding out’ of smaller parties. Critics argue, however, that limiting expenditure suggests that campaigning is somehow wrong, when it is in fact necessary. There are also difficulties in determining the limit of expenditure.


Abolition of rotten boroughs; reduced property qualification for voting.


Greater proportionality of representation; further reduction of property qualification.


Reduced property qualifications; created voting population of 5m, or 25% of the adult population.


The Labour Representation Committee established; this later becomes the Labour Party in 1906.


Property requirement removed; women over 30 allowed to vote; created voting population of 21m, or 75% of the adult population.


Voting age of women lowered to 21.


Plaid Cymru formed.


Scottish National Party (SNP) formed.


Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed.


Liberal Party merges with Liberals; later renamed the Liberal Democrats.


UK Independence Party (UKIP) founded.


Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 establishes Electoral Commission to regulate elections and referendums; new rules on party financing.


Political Parties and Elections Act adds new rules on revealing the source of donation money.


The Committee on Standards in Public Life publishes report on Political Party Finance.


The Leveson Inquiry Report was published.

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