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The party system is an essential element of the 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 recognized in law, but in practice most candidates in elections belong to one of the major parties.
There are three major political parties in the British system of politics:
· The Conservative Party (frequently called the Tories) – the centre-Right party currently led by David Cameron. The origins of the Conservative Party go back to the 18th century. It is one of the ruling parties of the UK, working in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and its party leader, David Cameron, is Prime Minister. They currently hold 307 seats in the House of Commons.
Since the election of David Cameron as leader, party policy has increasingly focused on “social” and “quality of life” issues such as the environment, the simplifying and improvement of government services (most prominently the National Health Service and the Home Office), and schools.
Conservatives opposed devolution to Wales and Scotland in the 1997 referendums, whilst supporting it for Northern Ireland. However, with a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly now in existence, the Conservatives have pledged not to reverse these reforms. Conservatives are the most Eurosceptic of the three main parties, favouring close ties with the United States and similarly aligned nations such as Canada, Australia and Japan. One concrete economic policy of recent years has been opposition to the European single currency. The Conservative Party have suggested an expansion of the British Army, believing that it is too small for current operations. Improving the welfare of Britain's military service personnel is a priority for the Conservative Party.
· The Liberal Democratic Party (known as the Lib Dems) – the centrist, libertarian party currently led by Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party, with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats in the cabinet.
The Lib Dems was formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party which traced its origins to the 18th century, merged with Social Democratic Party (formed in 1981).
Promoting social liberalism, Lib Dems seek to minimize state intervention in personal affairs, criticizing it as that of a “nanny state”. Instead the Lib Dems supports the welfare state.
The party supports multilateral foreign policy; they opposed British participation in the War in Iraq and support withdrawal of troops from the country, and are the most pro-EU of the three main parties in the UK. The party has strong environmentalist values – favouring renewable energy and commitments to deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since their foundation, Lib Dems have advocated electoral reform to use proportional representation (a system which would increase their number of seats dramatically), replacing the House of Lords with an elected chamber, and cutting government departments.
In the general election held on 6 May 2010, the Liberal Democrats' representation went down by 5 seats in the House of Commons, giving them 57 seats, despite increasing their share of the vote to 23%. Nevertheless, the election returned a hung parliament with no party having an absolute majority. Negotiations between the Lib Dems and the two main parties occurred in the following days. Upon David Cameron becoming Prime Minister on 11 May, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. However, the differences in the two parties’ opinions on many important issues make the relationship difficult and controversial.
· The Labour Party (often called New Labour) – the centre-Left party currently led by Ed Miliband. The party emerged in the last decade of the 19th century.
The Labour Party traditionally was in favour of socialist policies such as public ownership of key industries, government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers and trade unions, and a belief in the welfare state and publicly funded healthcare and education. Since the mid-1980s party has moved away from its traditional socialists position towards what is often described as “Third way” adopting some Thatcherite and free market policies after losing in four consecutive general elections.
The last national Labour government won a landslide 179 seat majority in the 1997 general election under the leadership of Tony Blair. In their foreign policy Labourists tried to balance the European and Atlantic vectors – to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" whilst attempting to maintain military and diplomatic links to the United States. While in power the party supported the US in their war in Iraq and other conflicts; although presently British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is widely criticised inside the party as well as outside. Labour government under Tony Blair introduced substantial market-based reforms in the education and health sectors; introduced student tuition fees; sought to reduce certain categories of welfare payments, and introduced tough anti-terrorism and identity card legislation. It also carried out a constitutional reform which involved devolution in Scotland and Wales. Tony Blair's contribution towards assisting the Northern Ireland Peace Process by helping to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement (after 30 years of conflict) was widely recognised. Blair resigned from the position of Prime Minister in 2007 and was succeeded by Gordon Brown, who, however, never enjoyed wide popularity in the country and in his own party. Both Blair's and Brown's governments advocated green policies: reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and an increase in renewable energy use. Now Labour is the main Opposition party.
In the British political system, there is a broad consensus between the major parties on:
· the rule of law;
· the free market economy;
· the national health service;
· UK membership of European Union and NATO.
The main differences between the political parties concern:
· how to tackle poverty and inequality;
· the levels and forms of taxation;
· the extent of state intervention in the economy;
· the balance between collective rights and individual rights.
· devolution of power
In addition to these three main parties, there are some smaller UK parties currently represented in the House of Commons: Democratic Unionist (8), Scottish National (6), Sinn Fein (5, however Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats and sit in a 'foreign' parliament), Plaid Cymru (3), Social Democratic & Labour (3), Alliance (1), Green (1) and two Independent MPs (who do not belong to any party.
Some parties enjoy particular popularity in Scotland(the Scottish National Party), Wales(Plaid Cymru) andNorthern Ireland(Sinn Fein) These are nationalist parties advocating independence of the respective parts of the Union. British National Party, a far-right political party seeking to restore the overwhelmingly white ethnicity of Britain, gained popularity recently, but failed to win any seats in the last general election.
Each political party chooses its leader in a different way, but all involve all the Members of Parliament of the party and all the individual members of that party. The leader of the political party with the largest number of members in the House of Commons becomes the Prime Minster (formally at the invitation of the monarch).