Comparison: Parties UK & USA

Parties: finance and funding 

While both the USA and the UK have experienced scandals about party funding and campaign funding the response has been significantly different. First, why is this issue a problem in both countries?

The reason is primarily that parties are not part of the formal constitutional structure even though they are essential to the functioning of representative democracy in both countries. This means that they have the status of private organisations and so remain largely self-funding. In the USA parties are not mentioned in the constitution and the UK national parties evolved outside of parliament in the late 19th Century. This ambiguous status has led to ongoing problems and debates on both sides of the Atlantic.


In the USA there was Watergate in the 1972 presidential election, and then ‘Chinagate’ 'Bed and Breakfastgate' and 'phonegate, during the 1996 campaign. Expenditure in US elections now routinely exceeds 1 $billion and the emergence of Super PACs and 'dark money' remains an issue.

In the UK,  the Conservatives allege that Labour is in the pockets of the big unions, while Labour accuses the Conservatives of being the poodles of big business — simply because each party is so dependent on these groups for funding their activities. And as in the USA, some changes have occurred. In 2000, the Electoral Commission was created by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. But, in 2012, the chief executive of the independent Electoral Reform Society wrote that ‘the most recent in a long line of party funding scandals made it clear that it is big business and rich donors — not voters — whose opinions count’ (Electoral Reform Society, 2012). The ' cash for honours' scandal which saw PM Tony Blair interviewed by the police and the 'Lord Ashcroft' funding scandal in 2010 have increased calls for state funding of parties. Ashcroft Guardian article 

 Why have the US and UK found it so difficult to deal with this problem?

The rational choice model is useful because part of the reason is that the dominant parties in the UK and USA see benefits in the current system and are wary of changes which may threaten their advantage.  The structural model might point to the  United States Supreme Court which has handed down several important decisions, (in particular Citizens United v FEC)  which have undermined attempts to regulate campaign finance. The underlying structural reason is the 1st Amendment which creates a right of free speech. In the UK the parliamentary system means that parties control parliament and so are unwilling to be seen to use legislation and public money to benefit parties.  The cultural model suggests that political parties are viewed with suspicion in both the USA and UK. Using public money to fund parties is therefore never likely to be a popular idea. However, both countries have tried limited state funding as a way of trying to solve campaign and party funding problems. In the USA, the 1970s saw the introduction of federal matching funds, and these funds played an important role in presidential campaigns for some three decades. In the UK, there was the introduction of Short money and Cranborne money — state money paid to opposition parties to help them cover the administrative costs associated with their role of scrutinising the government. But in neither country has significant state funding of political parties been adopted.


Should state funding for political parties be introduced?

This debate is on going in the USA and UK


■ It would end parties’ dependence on wealthy donors, corporations and labour groups, and thus avoid the perception that such donors can buy influence over a party’s policies. e.g the Koch brothers USA. Bernie Ecclestone UK

■ It would enable parties to better perform their important functions in a democracy — organising opinion, representing the people, creating policy priorities, etc.

■ In the  UK, It would fill the significant gap created by the decline in party membership. In the USA parties are not membership organisations but state funding might encourage small donations if it was provided by matching funds raised from small donors.

It would lead to greater transparency in party finances.

It would help to equalise the financial resources between political parties — especially advantageous to minor parties. Unequal access to funds is one of the reasons both the UK and the USA are the dominant parties.

■ It would make it easier to limit spending.   Although you might wonder why this is a problem. Are expensive elections necessarily a bad thing? 

■ It might lead to greater public engagement with parties if funding were linked to turnout at elections. Although this would reward popularity and so reinforce the status quo.


■ It would reinforce the financial advantage of the two major parties, especially under first-past-the-post electoral systems. Unless all parties received the same funding which would fund extreme or unrealistic parties.

It would further increase the disconnect and perceived distance between the parties and ordinary voters because fundraising helps to create a connection with small donors.

It would move political parties away from being regarded as part of civil society and towards being seen as part of the apparatus of the state. In the USA and UK parties have been seen as private organisations.

■ It would diminish belief in the principle that citizens’ participation in politics ought to be voluntary. It would lead to objections from citizens who would see their tax money going to parties that they not only do not support but whose policies they may strongly oppose.

■ It would allow parties to have a dependable source of income without the need to pursue policies more in tune with the needs and wishes of voters.

■ While it might reinforce the parties’ role in a democracy, this is increasingly seen as something of an anachronism by many voters — especially since now many voters gain their political information not from parties but from the internet and social media.  If parties are struggling to get members, do they deserve public money? However, paradoxically while parties have historically been viewed with suspicion, they are essential to the functioning of representative democracy. It could be argued they are less essential in the USA  where their is a view that parties are in inevitable decline. ( See David Broder 'The Party's Over')

Party systems in the USA and UK

Party systems is a term which is used to mean the prevailing power relationship between parties in a democratic system, in particular liberal democracies. One-party systems tend to mean the absence of liberal democracy and is a term reserved for states we would consider undemocratic.  To consider party systems is to ask; is one party dominant?  Meaning it holds power most of the time. Or do two parties tend to exchange periods of power on a fairly equal basis? Or is there a range of parties who tend to form coalitions with the smaller parties joining larger parties in government? Theories of party systems tend to describe them as dominant-party systems; two-party systems; and multiparty systems. While the dominant-party system may apply to politics within a few of the states of the USA, such as Wyoming or Massachusetts in which, respectively, the Republicans or the Democrats win almost every election,  , the USA is best described as a two-party system.  While It might also refer to certain UK constituencies where one party has won for decades, the UK   as a whole has mostly been described as a two-party system, while multiparty systems are common in the rest of Europe. However, recent structural and cultural changes have led to the suggestion that the UK is, at least to some extent, becoming a multiparty system. For most of the 20th Century, the Labour Party and the Conservatives have exchanged power. In the mid-1950s the two major parties won 95% of the vote, but in 2017 Labour and the Conservatives accounted for 67% of the vote.

The primary structural changes are devolution and the use of different voting systems for elections in non-parliamentary elections. Devolution reflected cultural changes which led to the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and N Ireland and the use of proportional voting in the devolved assemblies led to multiparty systems becoming established.

However, the rise of nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland happened before devolution and can at least partly be explained by cultural changes such as partisan and class dealignment. The erosion of working-class identification with labour and traditional regional loyalties led to a decline in Labour support in Wales and most dramatically in Scotland. The Conservatives also found that they could not really on their traditional middle-class support base in the regions as they were increasingly identified as the party of England, issue politics particularly north sea oil, the poll tax, post-industrial decline and Brexit all undermined the Conservatives' claims to support in Wales and Scotland.

In England, the same cultural changes led to a revival in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats such that they were able to return to government in the Coalition of 2010.  Issues such as Brexit and immigration also cut across class loyalties in England allowing the rise of UKIP.

In 1955, there were nationalist parties in Wales and Northern Ireland but they accounted for only 1% of the national vote between them. The Unionist vote in Northern Ireland was included in the Conservative vote — the Conservative and Unionist Party as it was then titled. The Liberals (as they were then) won only 3% of the national vote. By 2015, six of the eight new parties in the Commons were nationalist parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus UKIP, and the unionist parties in Northern Ireland which had split away from the Conservatives in the 1970s. 

While it is still more accurate to describe the UK as a two-party system about the control of government, in Parliament and the devolved assemblies there is a hybrid multi-party system.

After the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats had 62 MPs, but ten years later they had just 10. After the 2010 election, the SNP had just 6 seats; five years later they had 56. After the 1997 election, Labour had 418 seats, but 18 years later they had just 232. In 2019 the election saw the collapse of Labour's red wall or northern working-class constituencies, which is more evidence of class dealignment. The British party system — whatever label one uses to describe it — is clearly in a state of transition.

In the USA the two-party system in more clearly intact as the two dominant parties Republicans and Democrats alternate in control of the White House and the two chambers of Congress. As in the UK, the continued dominance of two parties is explained by the structural reason that both countries use first past the post. In the USA the advantages of the two main parties are augmented by the Electoral College, the systems of voter registration and fundraising. It can also be explained culturally by the long history of two-party politics where the labels Democrat or Republican have become established in the political culture as representing two sets of broadly understood principles. If a candidate says they are a Democrat then they can reliably thought of as having an optimistic view of the ability f government to address social problems and a Republican is likely to be more suspicious of the effectiveness of government action. Along with similarly broad but predictable differences over law and order, taxation, and states' rights, these provide the American voter with a two-party framework for political debate which can be understood across a nation of 400 million people, four time zones and fifty states.

While broad and predictable differences exist between the two main parties in the USA, they should also be understood as broad 'umbrella' coalitions with considerable diversity in terms of policy interpretation and priority. A Democrat from Texas is likely to support a more comprehensive view of gun rights than a Democrat from Minnesota.  It has been claimed that there are 104 parties in the USA; two in each chamber of Congress and two in each state, all with the label Democrat or Republican.

In terms of culture, it is worth noting that the broad 'umbrella' coalitions which in the USA were seen to overlap considerably, have been subject to a process of ideological polarisation in the last few decades, particularly over social issues such as gun control, immigration, abortion and law and order. This has led to terms such a 'culture wars'  and 'red, blue  America'.  This has resulted in a more divisive and adversarial political culture in the USA, where Congress seems to resemble the House of Commons and presidential debates make PMQs seem orderly and polite. (Trump, Biden 2020)

Political polarisation posed considerable problems for a constitutional structure which was dependent on James Madison's 'necessity to compromise'. These problems are most obvious when 'gridlock' leads to government shutdown.

However, in terms of the party system, the constitutional structure still allows one party to control the presidency while at the same time the other party controls Congress. Hence, as Duncan Watts (2008) explains, ‘the British-style divide between government and opposition is absent’. 

Another structural factor in creating the current party system in the USA is the nature of the presidency — the ultimate prize in American politics — which can be won only by parties that enjoy broad, national support.

Broad umbrella parties in the UK and USA

In a party systems dominated by two major parties, there tends to be a range of party factions with the parties this means party unity is often a challenge. Such broad umbrella parties find maintaining internal unity much more difficult than one issue, nationalist or purely ideological (or ideologically pure) parties such as the Green Party, the SNP or the Socialist Party — in both the USA and the UK. Members of these factions stress certain strands of ideology, certain traditions, or certain policies over others. All believe in the party’is broad principles but perhaps in a different priority order and with different emphases — perhaps even different methods to achieve them. And these differences may reflect historic ideological differences such  socialist and social democrat in Labour, or one nation or neo liberal in the Conservatives. These factions may refect current policy diffeneces such over Brexit. They may also reflect traditionalists versus modernists (Old Labour versus New Labour). 

Party factions can be constructive — providing new ideas and policies — or they can be destructive as members of different intra-party factions struggle for control and indulge in party in-fighting. Party factions tend to be short-lived in comparison to the enduring principles of the party as a whole and they represent current debates with the parties as well as historic differences. Party factions exist in the USA and the UK  for example, Blue Dogs, the Tea Party, Momentum, Fresh Start, Bright Blue or the Freedom Caucus. 

The key point is that both the UK and USA have broad 'umbrella' parties which tend to absorb or co-opt issues groups. In the UK Labour adopted the Liberal's welfare policies after WW2  and their constitutional reform agenda after 1997. In the USA the religious right found a place in the Republican Party in the 1980s and the Democrats adopted environmentalism and civil rights. In a system of proportional representation, these groups may have formed their parties. US parties are made more open and flexible than UK parties by the candidate selection process which is an internal process in the UK but open to a much wider electorate in the USA. This means that rather than form small parties candidates try to capture the nomination within the Democratic or Republican parties. Bernie Sanders and to a more obvious extent Donald Trump can be seen as 'insurgents' or outsiders.

Are Conservatives in the UK and USA the same thing, and why is there no mainstream socialist party in the USA?

The two major parties in the UK are not the same as the two major parties in the USA. It is easy to imagine that Labour matches the Democrats and the Conservatives are the same as Republicans. It has been famously observed that America has 'two conservative parties, divided over the issue of abortion' and this remark is based on the truth that the UK Conservatives would have few difficulties agreeing with most of the policies of the Democrat platform in modern presidential elections. 

■ Unlike almost all major liberal democracies the USA does not have a major party where socialism is proposed. From its beginnings in the trade union movement, the Labour Party contained a significant element of socialism which can be seen in clause 4 of its 1920. While the Labour Party came to be dominated by social democracy, socialism remained significant. The Democratic party does not have its roots in trade unionism and never had a significant socialist element. The Labour manifesto of 2019 would be far to the left of even the most left-wing Democrat candidate in the USA.    Although Bernie Sanders is happy to describe himself as a socialist and in 2020  Donald Trump accused Joe Biden of being a front for socialism, this a far from reality. Culturally, the appeal of socialism within the USA has never been widespread and for decades had to compete with the fear of communism and talk of a Red Scare.

■ Similarly, the Conservative Party's concept of one-nation conservatism meant an acceptance of government intervention in the economy, universal welfare, and social medicine which even during the Thatcher years would have been at home in the US Democratic Party. 

To some extent comparing US and UK parties is rather like comparing apples and bicycles. Abortion and gun control are not significant political issues in the UK and parties in the UK and USA have completely different structures. Parties in the UK are a unified organisation with strong central leadership over policy direction and candidate selection, parties in the USA are federal, decentralised with minimal national organisation.  National parties only exist in the USA every four years from the national convention until the presidential election. Such cultural differences have left very distinct marks on all four parties, making it dangerous to offer simple parallels between left and right.

However, Conservatives in the UK and USA have some broad similarities

■ Both dislike ‘big government’.

■ Both favour low taxation when the economy permits.

■ Both talk of being strong on law and order.

■ Both stress high levels of defence spending.

■ Both talk more about equality of opportunity than equality of results.

Equally, there are a number of policy areas in which the Democrats and Labour are in broad agreement:

■ Both put great stress on the rights of minorities — gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc.

■ Both stress the rights of workers.

■ Both favour ‘green’ environmental policies.

■ Both want equality of opportunity, leading to equality of results.

■ Both favour high levels of government spending on health, welfare and education.

■ Both tend to favour higher levels of taxation on the more wealthy to fund services for the less well-off.

The Republicans sit well to the right of the Conservatives, and the Democrats sit to the right of Labour — certainly Old Labour, and certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.   Like the Democrats, the UKConservatives  oppose the death penalty, support same-sex marriage and support a central government-run healthcare system. The Republicans support the death penalty, oppose same-sex marriage and opposed Obamacare as overly centralised. 

The other parties: Third and minor parties

When comparing the role of small paties in the USA and UK there are two questions:

Why do smaller parties fail?

What is the impact of small parties?

The answer to the first question gives many of the same structural and cultural reasons which were used earlier to explain the dominance of the two main parties:

There are also features of small parties which tend to inhibit their success. They can be dominated or strongly associated with one charismatic individual, whose personal popularity or longevity tends to determine the life span of the party. In the UK  the fortunes of UKIP were tied to Nigel Farage. The SNP owe much, at least in thier early years to the charisma of Alec Salmond. In the USA third parties have been most successful when led by charismatic individuals. Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992 , Jessie Ventura in Minnesota 1996.

Small parties tend also to have a narrow appeal to a particular region or on a particular policy. There is no future for UKIP after Brexit and the Greens struggle to offer policies beyond environmental issues. While the SNP are limited in their appeal to only Scots voters, they have successfully evolved into a party of centre-left politics in Scotland which has enabled them to replace labour. The success of 'Dixiecrat' ( Southern, White Democrats) in US elections 1948 Strom Thurmond, 1968 George Wallace, were succesful in picking up votes in southern states without any chance of winning the White House.

The second question accepts that small parties are unlikely to win power on thier own,but acknowledges thier impact in other ways.

Small parties can influence the out come of elections.  This is possibly true of George Wallace's presidential bid in 1968 which won 45 Electoral College vote and appaelled to blue collar voters, so may have contributed significantly to Nixon's victory over Hubert Humphry. In 2000 it is aso possible that Ralph Nader's 7% of the popular vote contributed to Bush's incredibly narror victory over Al Gore.

In the UK the imrpct of third parties on the result of general elections is even less clear. Evidence of the impact of tactical voting remain largely unproven althoough much discussed and anticipated. In 2017 and 2019 websites which showed voters how to tactically vote for maximum effect seem to have had little impact. However, it s arguable that the threat of the Refendum Party and its successor UKIP eventually led David Cameron to promise referendum  on membership of the EU in the 2010 manifesto, when opinion polls suggested broad support for staying in. History may judge this as a momentous  decision UK which resulted from an exaggerated fear of a minor single-issue party.

The success of UKIP can be explained using the rational model since with  Labour, Conservatives and Liberals all broadly in favour of remaining in the EU the only rational choice for the anti-EU supporter was to form a party which represented this view.

The reason small parties have had little impact on the result of general elections in the UK is our electoral college is the House of Commons and it has 650 electors with an equal share in the choice whereas in the USA the electoral college has 50 states with a widely different share of the choice. In 2000 the result hung on the outcome of one state, Florida, where the tiny Green vote may have made all the difference, but in the UK a third party has to win across multiple constituencies to impact the result. This is changing, since in 2010 the Liberal Democrats were able to determine the outcome of the election by entering into a coalition with the Conservatives. In 2017 Theresa May lost her majority in the House of Commons and entered a 'confidence and supply' agreement with the DUP. The rise of the SNP has damaged Labour's changes of winning big majorities and in 2019 the Conservatives made much of the possibility of a Labour/SNP deal forcing both parties to disown any such policy.

In a world where the big two parties do not dominate because of party and class dealignment, and the appeal of third parties in specific national regions, third and small parties will likely be more commonly significant in general election results.

In local and European elections the impact of the smaller parties has been substantial, with third parties winning up to a third of votes in parliamentary and local elections, and over half the votes in the last three sets of UK-wide European elections. The main reason is that  European elections were conducted under a proportional voting system.