The organisation and structure of UK Parties.
How are UK Political Parties organised?
Traditionally the Conservative Party, was a top-down organisation that exists predominantly to support its MPs in forming a governing majority and contrasts greatly with the Labour Party, a bottom-up movement that aims to represent its members and is far more concerned with internal democracy.
Choosing the leader
The traditional procedure in the Labour Party for selecting leaders required the leadership of trade unions to cast all the votes of their membership as a bloc, often in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The unions therefore gained enormous leverage in leadership elections. The concept of a one-member, one-vote (OMOV) system for the election of the party’s leader was first proposed at Labour’s Wembley Special Conference in 1981. It was opposed by Tony Benn, who instead initiated an electoral college comprising different interest groups in the party – a trade union section which accounts for 40% of the total vote, made up of bloc votes cast by union general secretaries, another section of 30% was allotted to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and a further 30% for active party members in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).
The electoral college reflects the history of the party which was formed from a coalition of groups-the most significant being the unions. Neil Kinnock attempted but failed, to introduce OMOV in 1984. It was John Smith that made the first successful moves in introducing OMOV into the Labour Party’s rulebook at the 1993 conference, abolishing the trade union bloc vote in the selection of parliamentary candidates, instead giving union members paying the political levy a direct vote on the party’s candidates as ‘affiliated supporters’. This worked to the benefit of Tony Blair, who took over 50% of the trade union vote on his way to the leadership and subsequently became Labour’s most electorally successful leader. It was not until 2014, however, that OMOV was introduced by Ed Miliband, allowing the public to take part in leadership elections for a £3 fee. The result of this rule change – as insignificant as it may have seemed to a wider public – was a dramatic increase in the membership. At the time of the May 2015 election, the party had just over 200,000 members. By the end of the leadership election in August 2015, the party had 189,703 affiliated union members, 121,295 registered supporters and 299,755 full members; a total electorate of 610,753.11 This exponential rise in the party’s membership meant that the party can claim to be Europe’s largest, but more significantly is widely credited as resulting in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, possibly the most dramatic shift in the party’s direction since Blair’s Clause IV reform.
The Conservative Party is a far looser coalition of groups, or at least a far less organised one. It is telling that in contrast to the Labour Party’s annual rulebook, formalised at party conference by a series of elected committees, the Conservative Party’s Constitution was last formally amended in April 2009, although minor changes were proposed by the National Conservative Convention in 2017. The Constitution simply states that the Party’s aim is to ‘sustain and promote within the Nations the objects and values of the Conservative Party’. This makes it easier for the party to be moulded according to the political ideology of the leadership, a definably top-down approach. Such was the case in 2006 when Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) drew up the so-called ‘A-List’ at the behest of the newly elected David Cameron. The Constitution is sufficiently vague in its wording that Cameron was able to, without a rule change, establish a centralised means of selecting parliamentary candidates. As part of his attempt to modernise the Conservatives and win a general election, Cameron aimed to transform the Party in Westminster, something that is at once strikingly similar but procedurally radically different to the project undertaken by the Labour leadership in recent years. The Parliamentary Party was seen by many as ‘reactionary and unattractive to voters’ according to Michael Portillo.13 In drawing up an A-list of candidates, many of whom were women or from BAME backgrounds, Cameron aimed to widen Conservative appeal. This was achieved by a process which allowed CCHQ to impose candidates on local selections. Candidates are required to apply to the party centrally, who may then invite them to a regional forum to discuss their application. Desirable candidates are asked to submit a further application to a centrally administered Parliamentary Assessment Board who approve provisional candidacy. With an A-list of preferred candidates decided, CCHQ were able to impose their preferred Parliamentarians on local Conservative Associations. At least two members of the A-list were put to every open primary where the preferred forums for selection were held. Where they were not, A-list candidates were recommended directly, particularly in target seats. The legacy of this approach has been equally significant; both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have been able to use it to impose candidates on local parties, with the National Convention moving to further centralise candidate selection in 2017.Furthermore, the A-list provides an excellent example of the ease with which the Conservative Party can be changed when compared with the Labour Party.
For five years, the PLP remained overwhelmingly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The Parliamentary Conservative Party, however, was remodelled with comparative ease. Of the 152 names on Cameron’s A-List, 36 were MPs at the time of the 2019 dissolution and of those, just seven have held cabinet roles, and five no longer sit as Conservative MPs.
Prior to 1998, the Conservative Party did not have a unified structure. After the crushing loss to Blair’s Labour Party, Hague ordered what became known as the Fresh Future reforms, merging the three wings of the Party (the constituencies, the parliamentary party and the professional head office) under one constitution. A Party Board was established to oversee such matters as fundraising and party management, while the Conservative Policy Forum was aimed at allowing members greater access to the policy-making process. Members were given an OMOV system in party leadership elections. However, the unification process appeared to reduce the power of the previously autonomous constituency organisations, particularly with regard to candidate selection as outlined above with Cameron’s A-List. Furthermore, Howard and Duncan Smith marginalised the policy forum and the party board, Cameron’s reforms focused on the strengthening of the professional wing of the party, rebranded as CCHQ, and according to Tim Bale’s account of Cameron’s party, the leadership remained dominant in the policy-making process. Despite attempts at greater democracy and codification of its practices, the reforms of the last twenty years have done little to deter from the notion that ‘the leadership continues to be the key element in understanding Conservative Party organisation’.
In stark contrast, the Labour Party’s constitution has a long history, dating back as early as 1918 when Sidney Webb’s drafting of Clause IV was adopted as one of the key tenets of the Party’s aims and values, remaining unaltered until Blair’s era-defining redrafting in 1995.
The Party is a historically federal organisation with three constituent parts: the trade unions, socialist societies and Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Its annual conference is the Party’s sovereign decision-making body, while the National Executive Committee (NEC) is in charge of day-to-day policy and organisational matters. With these bodies elected and populated by members, the party as an organisation is far more interested in internal democracy than its oldest opponent, seeking to be representative of the views of its members, if at times superficially so. As outlined above the trade unions historically hold a great deal of sway over the policy-making process in the Party, but successive leaders from Kinnock to Brown did a great deal to diminish their role under the rubric of ‘democratising’ the party for lay members. As evidenced by the 2004 Warwick Agreement, the Party’s reliance on the unions for funding allowed them to regain some influence over policy-making during the latter years of the party’s time in government, even if Miliband sought to downplay their role after their votes contributed to his leadership election in 2010. Successive leaders, from Blair’s Partnership in Power, to Miliband’s commissioning of the Collins review in 2014, have sought to reform the party’s structures and rulebook, often with the aim of remaking the party in the image of their ideology. This all points to a process vindicating Michels’ Iron law of oligarchy – the ways in which the current leadership of the Party has sought to control the party at all levels attests to this. It is no coincidence that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, ‘organisation has become the arena where the battle for the soul of the party is being conducted’.25 In short, the rules and constitution – i.e. the internal structures – of the Labour Party are key to understanding everything it does, and much
Are the structures of UK political parties outdated?
Are broad church parties outdated with the rise of issue politics and polarisation? With the post ideology of Third Way politics of the 1990s and 2000s came an ‘End of History’ approach to domestic policy: that the big ideological battles in society had been concluded with the victory of liberal democracy, and that what was left were policy goals that parties across the spectrum broadly agreed on – economic health, climate change, and law and order being examples. The politics of compromise was actively encouraged.
However, recent years have seen a rise in nationalist movements and populist politics, particularly as the UK and USA have moved further away from the politics of the European Union. Class alignments have weakened and issues such as climate change and identity politics have become more important to voters.
Are party structures undemocratic?
Yes: The election of Jeremy Corbyn was heavily reliant on union votes. Unions have considerable influence over the Labour Party. The Conservatives are influenced by business interests. The Conservative party is dominated by the leadership