With the General Election now just a week away, and the Leadership debates done and dusted, I thought it time to summarise who the parties are, and what they actually stand for. (Apologies to Scots, Irish and Welsh – it is an English perspective!)
The Labour Party
The Labour Party was born out of the trade union movement in 1900 with the aim of giving a political voice to the working classes. Initially left-wing, the party was designed to bring about social change through the creation of a more egalitarian society.
The 1910 election saw 42 Labour MPs elected, and by the early 1920s Labour had replaced the Liberal Party as the second most popular in the country. Their first time in power was when Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in 1924 with the consent of Asquith’s Liberal Party. Since then, there has been six Labour Prime Ministers, two of them, MacDonald and Harold Wilson, both serving two split terms. In the same period there has been eleven Conservative Prime Ministers.
During World War II, Labour leader Clement Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government alongside the conservative Winston Churchill, and prepared a report on improving welfare, which swept Labour convincingly to power in the 1945 election during the closing stages of the war. Although in opposition for more time than in government, the twentieth century did see Labour responsible for the creation of the welfare state and the nationalisation of the coal and steel industry, as well as the railways. Labour presided over economic misery and the pound’s devaluation in the 1970s, and was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives at the 1979 election, going on to lose the next four in a row.
In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour were desperate to break the Tories, so new leader Tony Blair with his ‘New Labour’ movement, shifted the party increasingly into a centrist stance. Although predominantly ‘Centre-Left’, the Labour Party does express policies that could be considered rightist, and has become pro-big business, pro-big government, and pro-unregulated capitalism. It was during Brown’s time as Chancellor that British banks boomed on sub-prime and predatory lending, easy credit, over-leveraging, deceptive risk pricing, and of course, the hyper-inflated bonuses. The public were of course, suitably outraged when tax-payers money was required to salvage the banking system, from a financial crisis they had created. Many unhappy observers noted a lack of government supervision or regulation. It was also noticed that some of the Banks continued to pay the bonuses, even after the tax-money bail-out.
The most recent Labour governments, those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have also presided over two wars. One was a possibly illegal and very unpopular war in Iraq, and the other a less controversial war in Afghanistan against fundamentalist Islam, which is seen as a direct threat to Britain. Both have brought widespread criticism to the Labour government over their lack of provision of proper resources to the military to succeed in those conflicts.
Some of the other experiences of the recent Labour government include: Independence for the Bank of England; the Ecclestone tobacco controversy; the Belfast Peace Agreement for Northern Ireland; The Human Rights Act; devolution to Scotland and Wales; the first steps to House of Lords reform; the introduction of a minimum wage; Britain’s involvement in the Kosovo War; the creation of Greater London Authority and Mayoralty of London; top-up fees introduced for university tuition; The Civil Partnership Act; The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and the creation of a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; the 2005 London bombings; the Cash for Honours scandal; the introduction of a widely unpopular national identity card scheme; the London car bombs and Glasgow Airport attack; foot-and-mouth outbreak (2007); The 2007 child benefit data loss; The 2007 driver test data loss; the ‘Donorgate Scandal’ in which the Labour party failed to publicly declare cash donations via third parties; the the nationalisation of Northern Rock bank to save it from folding following the subprime mortgage crisis; the passing of the Treaty of Lisbon without referendum, despite the promise of one; the 2008 Home Office offenders data loss; the 2008 RAF personnel data loss; the 2008 Defence contractor EDS data loss; the 2008 Works and Pensions data loss; the introduction of 42 Day detention without charge, ending nearly 800 years of protection from unlawful detention through Habeas Corpus; the abolition of the 10p Tax rate; the financial crisis of 2007–2010, largely brought about by unregulated banking in the UK & USA; the Parliamentary expenses scandal; and the Chilcot Inquiry into the legality of the Iraq War.
Traditionally centre-left and allied to Trade Unions, eighteen years of opposition saw Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ move into a much more ‘centrist’ position in order to woo back disenfranchised Tory voters. They introduced the ‘Third Way’ to British politics, which is essentially a compromise between their traditional position of democratic socialism, and a belief in unregulated free-market capitalism. Under New Labour, the party has adopted a neoliberalism approach to economy, favouring minimum state intervention, and maximising the business sector. They have also shown willingness to privatise government assets and industries. In 2001, party stalwart Peter Mandelson famously stated: “We are all Thatcherites now.”
The Labour Party continues to advocate the Third Way, which rejects laissez-faire and socialist approaches to economic management, instead placing emphasis on competition and deregulation to create continued growth. Traditional socialism had been marginalised in New Labour, although Labour does still advocate some socialist policies, such as government ownership of certain key industries, intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, workers rights, the welfare state, and publicly funded education and healthcare.
The Labour Party has brought about greater government intervention in society, creating ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); allowing councils to create ‘controlled drinking areas’; allowing detention without charge; attempting to introduce biometric identity cards; permitting the police to store DNA records of people who have not been charged with an offence; introducing police powers to ‘stop-and-search’ without lawful suspicion; permitting electronic and telephone interceptions without warrant; and permitting police to prevent photography of public places or events. Despite these introductions, widely aimed at reducing crime, anti-social behaviour, and terrorism, all of these issues have grown under the current labour government.
The Labour Party is in favour of greater European integration, but is thought to be generally opposed to the adoption of the Euro – having placed difficult pre-requisites in the way. Whilst not advocating independence, the Labour Party has shown willingness to allow greater self-control for the four British nations, and has introduced devolution of many areas of interest, including economic policy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and created national assemblies for those three states. Despite this, they have resisted the creation of an English Parliament.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party has existed in it’s current form since 1912 after merging with Liberal Unionists, but is essentially a modern continuation of the Tory Party. The Tory Party was formed in 1678 in opposition to the Whigs. Following the War of Three Kingdoms, a deep rift existed in Britain over the nature of the monarchy and the extent of royal power, and the hereditary ascendance of Catholics to the throne. The Whigs were strongly opposed to absolute monarchy, and wanted to prevent the Catholic James, Duke of York from becoming King. The Tories were mostly aristocrats who supported the crown, and saw the King as a powerful check on parliament, and their Whig opponents.
Despite that, the Whigs dominated parliament for several decades in the 17th and 18th centuries, until the rise of William Pitt the Younger. In 1783, he became the youngest Prime Minister ever elected, when at the age of 24 he took advantage of the disaster of the American War of Independence to rise to power. His platform of free trade and strong economic management saw him introduce income tax for the first time, reduce the war debt, reform the constitution, and successfully lead Britain in the Revolutionary War with France.
In the 1830s the party was split between free tradists, and agricultural protectionists, because of Robert Peel’s plans to abolish Corn Laws, which fixed high food prices. The split saw Peel’s faction use the term ‘Conservatives’ for the first time, though party members have continued to be called Tories. The party reunited under the strong leadership of Benjamin Disraeli. In 1886 the party again split over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, but the strongest branch merged with the Liberal unionists in 1912, to create the modern Conservative Party.
Since that time, the party has represented the centre-right, and has primarily been associated with landowners and the aristocracy, and more recently the middle classes. The Conservative Party was in power for more than two-thirds of the 20th century, and had 13 different Prime Ministers during that time. Hit by scandal they lost control in the 1960s, but saw Labour plunge the nation into recession.
Margaret Thatcher fought her way into control of the party, and declared war on the Labour-Trade Union power-pact, which was crippling British economic growth. She won the 1979 election on a platform of economic reform, and set about privatising national industries and weakening the unions. She declared war on Argentina when they tried to invade the Falkland Islands, and the British success in that campaign bolstered her popularity enormously.
She was removed by an internal power struggle, and her replacement, John Major, was a less effective leader. The party was soon embroiled in bitter infighting for the leadership, and suffered from sleaze scandals, including a a “cash for questions” row. By 1997 it was clear that after 18 years in power, the Tories had lost touch with the people, and lost their way, and they suffered a crushing defeat to Tony Blair’s New Labour movement in that year’s election.
The Conservatives, or Tories, are firmly centre-right, but consist of three differing factions. The first, named for former leader Margaret Thatcher, are the Thatcherites, who are Eurosceptic, and support free market with a laissez-faire approach to industry and economic governance. The second faction are the One Nation Conservatives, who are the most ‘left’ part of the Tory Party, being economically moderate, but socially conservative, and favouring traditional British values. The third group are the Libertarian Conservative Way Forward, which is the most Eurosceptic and Atlanticist (favouring ties with the United States over Europe).
The Tories are still strongly in favour of British unionism (keeping the four constituent countries together as the UK), and are strongly opposed to Scottish independence. They are in favour of issues of social and moral liberal conservatism, an example of which can be seen in Cameron’s tax incentives for married couples. They favour of a libertarian economy, low taxes, and small government. The seek to overhaul the welfare system, ensuring those who need care can access it, but preventing the widespread welfare abuses that currently exist.
The Tories are opposed to handing powers to the European Union, and oppose Britain adopting the Euro. Although not opposed to NATO, the Tories are opposed to the European Defence Agency, and would withdraw Britain from both its programme of European defence integration and the EU battlegroups. They wish to carry out a strategic defence review (the last was in 1997), setting out a new future direction for British defence capabilities.
Widely criticised for failing to have respectable environmental policies in the past, the Tories have much improved in that area under the leadership of bicycle-riding leader David Cameron.
The Liberal Democrat Party
The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the original Liberal party, and the Social Democratic Party. The Liberal Party has existed since 1859, when they emerged out of the Whig Party, one of the original two political parties in the United Kingdom. The Whigs had originally believed in opposition to absolute rule by the monarchy, and support of constitutional monarchy, where the monarch was restrained in expression of power, and had to differ certain powers to the parliament.
By the mid-nineteenth century, some Whigs had formed a coalition with free trade Tory followers of Robert Peel, and free trade Radicals, to form the Liberal Party. The Whigs survived for a few more years but the party grew in insignificance, and the Liberals became the main rivals of the Tories.
The Earl of Aberdeen was their first Prime Minister in 1852, though at the time they were known as ‘Peelites’. The first Liberal Prime Minister in their own right was The Viscount Palmerston, who began his second term in 1859, having previously been PM as a Whig. He was succeeded by The Earl Russell in 1865. William Gladstone was next in 1868 and again in 1880 and again in 1886 and again in 1892! The Earl of Rosebury was the next Liberal Prime Minister, followed by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-08), Herbert Asquith (1908-16), and David Llyod George (1916-22), who was the last Liberal Prime Minister. After he lost office to the Conservatives of Andrew Bonar Law, the Liberals soon began to fade from significance, replaced as the second party by Labour.
The rise of Social Liberalism, or new liberalism which called for personal liberty and minimum government intervention played towards Labour. The Liberal Party lost much support in the inter-war years, and shifted toward a policy Keynesian economics, but the message did not get through to the electorate. By the 1940s and 50s support had dwindled dramatically, and if not for a revival under the strong leadership of Jo Grimond in the 1960s, who positioned the party as a centrist alternative to left-socialism and communism, and the mid-right Tories, the Liberals would have become extinct.
Depsite the clever politics of Grimond, it was not until the 1988 merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party, forming the Liberal Democrats, that they started to regain real momentum. The new party was led by former Liberal MP Paddy Ashdown, but their first test was an embarrassing fourth place behind the greens at the 1989 European elections. Despite the early setback, Ashdown proved a capable leader, and they took 20 seats in the 1992 election.
Ashdown began negotiating with new Labour leader Tony Blair, and the two discussed the possibility of a Lib-Dem-Labour coalition government, in order to oust the Tories. They began a campaign of concentrating on winnable seats, and in the 1997 General Election, which swept Labour out of the wilderness and into power, they also profited from the decline of the Tories, winning 46 seats. Remarkably, they took the newly created seat of Kingston and Surbiton, both of which had been Tory strongholds for decades. It has been Lib-Dem ever since. Labours sweeping victory in that election meant Blair could govern in his own right, and he turned his back on the Lib-Dems.
Ashdown retired in 1999, being replaced by Charles Kennedy. He led them in the 2001 General Election, in which they again improved their share of the vote, moving up from 46 seats to 52. They took seats from both Labour and the Tories, and campaigned on improving civil liberties, electoral reform, including the introduction of proportional representation, and more open and honest government. Their opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, saw them steal two seats off Labour in by-elections in Brent East and Leicester South in 2003 and 2004 respectively, and in the 2005 General Election, they had their greatest ever success, winning 62 seats, and receiving more than a fifth of the entire vote nationwide.
2006 saw the party suffer a setback, when charismatic leader Charles Kennedy was forced to step aside, following a public admission of a long-running personal battle with alcoholism, and he was replaced by party stalwart Sir Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, who had been an MP for twenty years. Despite his experience, his advanced age in comparison to rivals Tony Blair and David Cameron did count against him, and by late 2007, support for the Lib-Dems dropped below 20% for the first time in over 15 years.
Nick Clegg, member for Sheffield Hallam, replaced Campbell in December 2007, bringing a younger, fresher face to the party’s leadership. Clegg began warning about his concerns over cheap credit and the direction banking was heading in, well before the financial crisis took hold, and he credited former economist and party treasury spokesman Vince Cable.
The party did well in 2008 local elections, winning control of 12 councils and installing over 1800 councillors nationwide. Clegg has gone from strength to strength, and performed exeptionally well in the 2010 General Election Leadership Debates, widely considered to have won the first two, and either winning or coming second in the third, depending on which polls you consult. Regardless, it clearly placed Labour as the third choice in most opinion polls, and saw the Lib-Dem support rise to around the 34% mark for the first time ever.
The Liberal Democrats, or Lib-Dems were traditionally centrist as the separate Liberals and Social Democrats, but after their merger, and the move to the centre by New Labour, they have drifted left in policy to fill the void left by Labour. Despite they, they remain socially progressive, and one of the key tenants of the Lib-Dem policy manifesto is the introduction of a fairer tax system, which they claim unfairly favours the rich. Overall they seek to introduce general tax cuts, and reduce the government burden on society. This would see the basic rate cut from 20p to 16p, it’s lowest level since World War , and raising the tax-free threshold to £10,000.
The seek political reform, and call for proportional representation in elections whilst trying to undo the two-party system that currently exists. The Lib-Dems want to see more community involvement in politics, and empowering the electorate with the ability to call their MP to account, even sacking them if dissatisfied with their performance.
The Lib-Dems favour social liberalism, believing the state should provide jobs, health care, and education, and protect civil rights and individual liberties. They call for better consumer protection, workers rights, and the reintroduction of civil liberties stripped by Labour. They are opposed to the ‘Nanny-State’ that has been increasingly introduced under Labour, but do favour the welfare state, and government provision of the necessities of life.
The Lib-Dems oppose nuclear power, favouring more sustainable options such as solar and wind-power, and eventually lead Britain towards a zero-carbon emission economy. They plan to introduce green-taxes on polluting industries, and support the creation of green jobs, as well as providing better protections for Britain’s rural and natural places.
They also wish to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, freeing up money to better equip the military for the roles they actually provide in the current age.
The Green Party
The Green Party of England and Wales was formed in 1973, following the rise of environmental parties in Tasmania, New Zealand and Germany. Originally called PEOPLE, they became the Ecology Party in 1975, and the Green Party in 1985. By 1990, with the increase in Green movements around the globe, they became the Green Party of England and Wales. In the mid-70s they struggled to gain public support, with general awareness of environmental issues low. At the time the British economy was in tatters, and the majority of people were more concerned about jobs and welfare.
By the 1979 General Election they received 39,000 votes and party membership had risen over 5,000, but they still struggled to bring the environment to the fore at a time of economic recession. The 1985 re-branding coincided with a slow but steady rise in support, as more and more people began to show concern for the environment. In the 1987 General Election, they pulled more than 89,000 votes, but still failed to win a seat.
The Party’s true breakthrough came two year later, when at the 1989 European Elections, the Party managed a staggering 2,292,695 votes, or 15% of the overall vote on the ‘Campaign For Real Democracy’ slogan. It brought Sara Parkin and David Icke to public prominence, but due to Britain’s first-past-the-post system, they incredibly failed to win a single seat. Had their been proportional representation, they would have won 12 seats. By 1999, they had finally gained two seats in the European Parliament, and have been represented there ever since, with two current MEPs.
The Green Party had their largest show of support in the 2005 General Election, earning 281, 780 votes. They have continued to struggle to win seats in UK General Elections, but have had slightly more success in the regional assemblies and local councils. There are currently two Greens on the London Assembly, and 116 local councillors on other councils.
The Green Part is socially progressive, and primarily centre-left in policy. Their main platform is environmentalism, although their greatly expanded manifesto covers all of the topics of the major parties. The wish to increase the top rate of tax, placing the burden more fairly on high earners. They strongly favour the removal of gender bias in pay and conditions. They are moderately Eurosceptic, favouring membership of the EU, but opposing the Euro, European Defence Integration and common European foreign policy.
The Greens have a twelve-point plan to deal with climate change, which is by far the most developed policy of any British party. They seek to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and advocate a contraction and convergence policy on greenhouse gas emissions. They wish to wean the economy off reliance on mass consumption and encourage self-sufficiency, citing current levels of consumption and waste as being unsustainable. They are completely opposed to the use of nuclear power, and wish to remove Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. They favour renationalisation of the rail network and public utilities, suggesting privatisation has led to a reduction of service and increasing waste. They favour local transit schemes such as light rail, cycle systems, and pedestrianisation, and wish to use fuel duty and road pricing to discourage car ownership.
The Greens are strongly in favour of improved animal welfare, and are opposed to genetically modified food. They wish to reduce the influence of the pharmaceutical industry over the NHS, and improve community healthcare. They believe prohibition and criminalisation of drugs is ineffective, and are in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, and the decriminalisation of recreational drugs such as ecstasy, preferring and education, health and welfare approach to drug abuse. They wish to completely ban sponsorship by alcohol and tobacco companies.
The Green Party is in favour of British Republicanism, and wishes to abolish the monarchy, and are the only party to have an official policy on this (republicanism is technically illegal in Britain in accordance with the 1848 Treason Felony Act).
The UK Independence Party
The UK Independence Party was founded in 1993 in response to Britain being embarrassingly forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, following the devaluation of the pound. Party founder Alan Sked, merged the fairly insignificant Anti-Federalist League with strongly Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party, to form UKIP. They campaigned in the 1997 election, but were overshadowed by both the revival of Labour, and the more popular Referendum party, who disappeared after that election with many of their members joining UKIP.
The Party won 3 seats in the European Parliament elections of 1999, but the party was soon plagued by years of in-fighting and leadership challenges. In 2006 Westminster Magistrates Court ordered the party to repay £14,481 of unlawful electoral donations received between 2004 and 2006, and in 2007 UKIP MEP Ashley Mote was charged with 21 counts of fraud. This was followed in 2009 by another MEP, Tome Wise, being charged with false accounting and money laundering.
The party has continued to struggle to find public support to to the general perception that they are a single-policy party, only focused on withdrawal from the European Union.
The UK Independence Party primarily campaigns on a platform of Euroscepticism. They are primarily conservative, and prefer small government and economic liberalism. They favour complete withdrawal from the European Union, and strongly oppose foreign ownership of British companies and institutions.
UKIP seeks to replace the May Day bank holiday with a public holiday for St. George’s Day, and wish to restore Imperial Units of Measure. They are opposed to the ID card scheme, and favour more powers for local and regional governments. They seek to lower taxation in general, and introduce a flat 31% rate across the board, which would result in millions of taxpayers paying more income tax than they currently do. They also wish to cut corporate tax, and inheritance tax.
The party is sceptical of man-made global warming, and wants to greatly increase the creation and use of nuclear power, and they are opposed to enforced carbon-emission cutting.
The British National Party
The BNP was formed in 1982 by John Tyndall, who also founded the National Front. The British National Party is the only party that can be considered to belong to the far right.
Right from the early days the BNP drew heavy criticism and accusations of racism. Members and former supporters have been involved in extremism, including attacking black families living in council housing in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and fire-bombing the headquarters of communist newspaper Morning Star. During the 1980s they struggled to gain much public support, but by 1993, they had won a council seat when Derek Beackon was elected to the Isle of Dogs Council. That year they also banned party members from also being members of extremist group Combat 18, which was made up of football firm members and far-right activists.
In the 1990s they continued to enjoy minor support at local levels, particularly in East London, but struggled for national success. In 1999 Nick Griffin took over leadership from Tyndall, and began modernising the party, and attempting to create a better public image. He played on nationalistic symbols, and included wartime propaganda, Spitfires and pictures of heroes such as Churchill.
The BNP had a breakthrough in 2005 General Election, gathering 192,746 votes, an improvement of 150,000 votes on the 2001 election. In the buildup to the 2010 election the BNP has been playing on dissatisfaction with Labour rule, and people’s anxiety over jobs and immigration, and hopes to gain further support. They currently hold 56 councillors nationwide, and one London-wide seat on the Greater London Authority.
The BNP’s principle stance is anti-immigration, and the repatriation of non-white members of British society to their nations of origin. They believe only white ethnic groups, principally Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish and other Celtic groups have the right to claim to be ‘British’, and advocate white nationalism. Accusations of supporting fascism have also been made towards the BNP. They have been accused of being anti-Islam and anti-Semitic, and some former members were open in their disapproval of homosexuality. The party originally had a white-only policy drawing accusations of blatant racism, but this was outlawed by the European Union, and they have since had to remove that requirement from their membership.
The BNP seeks a full withdrawal from the European Union
They also adhere to Third Position economics, which favours neither capitalism or communism, and they are highly opposed to globalism. The believe in a restoration of protectionism, and economic nationalism, but are not overly in favour of corporatism. They advocate a solution to the conflict in Ireland which would involve inviting a United Ireland, to join with England, Scotland and Wales as all equal partners in a new British Federation which would replace the current United Kingdom.
The BNP is in favour of a re-introduction of both corporal and capital punishment, and increased military spending, which would also call for compulsory military service to be reintroduced.