Political Parties- functions and funding

Political parties form no official part of the UK Constitution yet the constitution could not currently operate without them. Political parties are crucial in ensuring the effective operation of today's representative democracy.

Features of parties

How people view parties

The general public tends to view politics in terms of the policies and general image of political parties. Individuals often identify with a party and see politics through the general philosophy of that party. Many people believe a particular party represents their interests better than any of the others. However, such close identification with a party has become less common in recent decades.

What are the functions of political parties in a democracy?

Representation: This is one of the main functions of parties- they represent the values and ideology of the people who identify with them and vote for them. Left-wing values- generally Labour and right-wing values- generally Conservative. These viewpoints and translated into specific policies by the party.

Participation  Parties offer the opportunity for people to participate in politics either by becoming members and taking part in the parties processes such as selecting candidates, deciding policies or campaigning, or by becoming candidates. Parties also provide the opportunity for education of the electorate through a range of activities – canvassing, public meetings, advertising and poster campaigns, party broadcasts,  

 Parties vary in how far they allow their members to shape party policy, but all the main UK parties have procedures that involve members in selecting candidates to stand for local and national elections, and in choosing the party leader. 

However this function is less significant in recent years since parties are no longer mass membership organisation  on the scale they were after the second world war.

Voters’ loyalty towards, and identification with, parties has declined. Whereas 44 per cent of voters claimed to have a ‘very strong’ attachment to a party in 1964, this had fallen to a mere 10 per cent by 2005 through the process of partisan dealignment.

 • The membership of the three traditional major parties in the UK has fallen – from over 3 million in the 1960s to around 384,000 in 2015, although Labour has risen since 2015.

· Recruiting office holders  Parties are the means by which most politicians enter that role. The party  selects candidates therefore its processes for doing so influence the quality, ideology, diversity and gender of future politicians.  Parties provide the experience for candidates to learn political skills as campaigners and organisers. Parties also have the right to reject or 'deselect' candidates who fail to live up to their expectation — they cannot stand for that party in any upcoming election.  Parties shape the political ideology of the party by selection and sometime deselection of candidates. Before the 2015 general election, Conservative activists in Thirsk and Malton (in North Yorkshire) and South Suffolk did not allow the sitting MPs to stand again as candidates.

However do parties produce good leaders?

 • As governments are appointed from the ranks of the majority party in the House of Commons, they rely on a relatively small pool of talent.

 • Electioneering and other party activities may be poor training for running a large government department.  Party loyalty and ambition may not make for great leaders.

· Formulating policy Parties decide and develop policies (concrete proposals)  that embody the ideas for which they stand. Policies change and are renewed as society changes and as new issues or problems arise. The core ideologies of the parties change much more slowly.  At a general election they put these proposals before the electorate in a manifesto, a document setting out their programme for government. 

The policies proposed by parties are one of the key means through which societies set collective goals. In the process of seeking power, parties develop programmes of government (through party forums, annual conferences and, most importantly, in election manifestos). Not only does this mean that parties often initiate policy (come up with policy proposals), but they also formulate coherent sets of policy options that give the electorate a choice of realistic and achievable goals.

However it can be argued that this function has changed in recent years.

The post ideological world?

• As politics  has become less ideological, parties have become more managerial and pragmatic. For example the Labour Party has distanced itself from its traditional ideology by becoming less socialist- e.g removing clause 4 from its constitution. Parties generally have become less interested in formulating larger goals for society, and generally less interested in ideas.

 • In a related development, parties have become more eager to follow public opinion (for example, by responding to opinion polls and the views of focus groups) than in trying to shape it by adopting clear ideological stances.

.Elections therefore tend to be a choice between the party electors think will manage market capitalism best. 

While this might be generally true issues such as- austerity and alternatives to it or Brexit did involve parties in the formulation of genuine alternative policy choices.

· Providing government: Parties are how we choose governments. The winning party at a general election to forms a government. That party then controls the business of Parliament, with a view to passing its manifesto into law. The prime minister is not directly elected by the people, but is usually the leader of the largest party. A prime minister who loses the confidence of their party is vulnerable. For example, in November 1990 Margaret Thatcher lost the support of a large number of Conservative MPs, and failed to win a leadership contest outright. She resigned and was replaced by John Major, who was regarded as better placed to unite the party and lead it to renewed electoral success. In 2019 Theresa May was replaced as party leader by Boris Johnson who therefore became the PM.

The operation of government relies on parties in many ways. Parties: 

Give governments a degree of unity as the members of the government are usually drawn from a single party and are therefore united by common sympathies and attachments.

 • Facilitate cooperation between the two major branches of government: Parliament and the executive . While Walter Bagehot said  the cabinet was the ' a hyphen that joins the buckle that binds the executive and legislative departments together ' this could be equally applied to parties.

• Parties also provide the opposition  whose job is to provide criticism, help to scrutinise government policy and provide a ‘government in waiting’.  (Shadow Cabinet and alternative manifesto)

However, the effectiveness of parties in organising government has also been criticised in two opposing ways

First, the paradox that a parliamentary system and representative democracy can not function without parties but parties are also the means by which governments dominate parliament and there by reduce it effectiveness to that of a 'rubber stamp'.

On the other hand

. • The decline in party unity since the 1970s has been seen to weaken the majority party’s control of the Commons seen under John Major and even more so as Theresa May became exasperated  by the Commons inability to form a majority view on Brexit.

How parties are currently funded, debates on the consequences of the current funding system.

 MPs are paid from general taxation (The basic annual salary for an MP from 1 April 2019 is £79,468. ). They are also allowed to claim expenses to cover the cost of running an office, living in Westminster and their constituency, and travelling between the two. There is also a  special state provision to support the activities of the opposition in Parliament, known as Short money.   But parties must meet most of their election costs from the voluntary subscriptions of their membership and from fundraising events in MPs' constituencies. In recent year all the major parties have struggled to fund these activities.

If parties are essential to the function of our democracy why are they not publicly funder like any other essential service?

In the UK there has been resistance to state funding of parties (a practice that happens in some other countries). 

Party funding has  also been a controversial area because of the suspicion that powerful interests offer financial support in return for political influence. While the Conservative Party has historically been seen as the party of big business, Labour has traditionally been funded by the trade unions, which played a major role in founding the party and shaping its policies. During the 'New Labour' years (1994-2010) this was to some extent replaced by donations from successful individuals as Labour became friendlier towards the business community.

 The financial resources of parties is also unequal.

The Liberal Democrats (the least well-funded of the main UK parties) often criticise their opponents for being bankrolled by the wealthy. The large parties have been accused of offering political honours, such as places in the House of Lords, to their most generous benefactors, a practice that seems to run counter to principles of democracy and openness

Blair faced criticism within months of becoming prime minister in 1997 following the revelation that Bernie Ecclestone, the motor-racing boss, had donated million to Labour. It was alleged that there was a connection between this and a delay in implementing a ban on tobacco advertising  in Formula One racing. Blair was forced to justify himself in a TV interview, in which he famously described himself as 'a pretty straight sort of guy, and the money was subsequently returned.

In 2000 the Blair government passed the  Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

As a result of the 2000 act:

The cash for honours scandal

 In March 2006, several men nominated for life peerages by then Prime Minister Tony Blair were rejected by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It was later revealed they had loaned large amounts of money to the governing Labour Party, at the suggestion of Labour fundraiser Lord Levy. Suspicion was aroused by some that the peerages were a quid pro quo for the loans. This resulted in three complaints to the Metropolitan Police , Blair was interviewed by the police and two of his aides also faced questioning. Although no charges were brought, the affair cast a shadow over Blair's last months in office. It was later decided that loans would be subject to the same rules as donations, and spending limits for parties were revised in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Potential reforms The Philips Report

In March 2006, former civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips was charged with setting up an inquiry to come up with reform proposal. It reported a year later. He recommended capping individual donations at £50,000 and capping spending for political campaigns. He also suggested increasing state funding by £25m and expanding its reach  However, no subsequent government has acted on this recommendation. Pressure to make public spending cuts under the coalition government meant that this was not the time to place an additional burden on the taxpayer.

A suggestion supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the 2015 election was to impose limits on individual donations to parties. This debate was complicated by issues of party-political advantage because the Conservatives, who stood to lose most from such a move, wanted to place corresponding restrictions on Labour's trade union backers. The Conservative government's

2016 Trade Union Act obliged new trade-union members to choose whether to 'opt in' to making payments towards the political levy. This was expected to lead to a significant drop in the funding received by the Labour Party from the unions but while Labour several million pounds in union funding its expanded membership after 2015 more than compensated Labour: UK's richest party Guardian

Problems with public funding of parties

In providing parties with a reliable source of income, it may weaken their links to the larger society. These are brought about by the need to seek financial support as well as electoral support. 

• It may create a bias in favour of existing parties if (as is usual) the level of state funding reflects past party performance

. • It may reduce the independence of parties, making them, in effect, part of the state machine and less likely to advance policies that run counter to the interests of important state bodies. 


It would reduce parties’ dependence on vested interests and allow them to be more responsive to the views of party members and voters. This would make parties more democratically responsive. 

• It would create a more level playing field for the parties, removing the unfair advantages that some parties derive from the simple fact that they have wealthy backers

. • It would improve the performance of parties generally, allowing them to carry out their roles more effectively; and to waste less time and energy on fund raising.

Should the state fund political parties?

State money would be ‘clean’ without the dependence on wealthy donors and interest groups who may expect something in return, whether in the form of honours or policies.

It would enable politicians to focus on representing constituents and developing policies that benefit the entire nation as opposed to cosying up to potential donors.

It could provide a greater sense of equality between the parties. The Conservatives considerably outraised all their rivals in 2019.

Other attempts to regulate party funding and eradicate allegations of corruption have largely failed. Both the independent 2007 Phillips report ‘Strengthening Democracy’ and the 2011 Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended greater state funding of parties.

If parties had state funding that matched their vote, it would encourage them to campaign in all seats to increase the party vote and not just in the key marginals, which would help democracy overall.

State funding would make it easier to limit overall spending on elections, much of which goes on advertising and could be reined in.

If funding was matched to small donations, it would encourage parties to seek more money from all their supporters, not just the wealthiest.

Voters should not fund parties with which they disagree, and there are many better areas on which to spend taxpayers’ money, such as health and education.

Parties could become isolated from the ‘real world’ if links and donations with interest groups were cut.

There will always be inequality in party funding. Some parties are larger and more popular than others. What matters is that everyone is equally able to join and give as they wish.

Politics should be treated as an extension of the free market and the right to donate is a basic democratic right, provided it is made openly and major donors are identified.

Funding based on the existing share of the vote merely strengthens the larger parties and makes it more difficult for smaller parties to get off the ground.

Smaller parties, already disadvantaged by FPTP, would be hit again.

State funding would make parties too dependent on the state and less incentivised to actively recruit members.

Funding could also be manipulated by the governing party for its own benefit.