The idea of political parties first took form in Britain and the Conservative Party claims to be the oldest political party in the world. Political parties began to form during the English civil wars of the 1640s and 1650s. First, there were Royalists and Parliamentarians; then Tories and Whigs. Whereas the Whigs wanted to curtail the power of the monarch, the Tories - today the Conservatives - were seen as the patriotic party.
Today there are three major political parties in the British system of politics:
· The Labour Party (often called New Labour) – the centre-Left party currently led by Ed Miliband
· The Conservative Party (frequently called the Tories) – the centre-Right party currently led by David Cameron
· The Liberal Democrat Party (known as the Lib Dems) – the centrist, libertarian party currently led by Nick Clegg
In addition to these three main parties, there are some much smaller UK parties (notably the UK Independence Party and the Green Party) and some parties which operate specifically in Scotland (the Scottish National Party), Wales (Plaid Cymru) or Northern Ireland (such as Sinn Fein for the nationalists and the Democratic Unionist Party for the loyalists).
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. By convention, 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 Queen).
Political parties are an all-important feature of the British political system because:
· The three main political parties in the UK have existed for a century or more and have a strong and stable 'brand image'.
· It is virtually impossible for someone to be elected to the House of Commons without being a member of an established political party.
· All political parties strongly 'whip' their elected members which means that, on the vast majority of issues, Members of Parliament of the same party vote as a 'block'.
Having said this, the influence of the three main political parties is not as dominant as it was in the 1940s and 1950s because:
· The three parties have smaller memberships than they did since voters are much less inclined to join a political party.
· The three parties secure a lower overall percentage of the total vote since smaller parties between them now take a growing share of the vote.
· Voters are much less 'tribal', supporting the same party at every election, and much more likely to 'float, voting for different parties at successive elections.
· The ideological differences between the parties are less than they were with the parties adopting more 'pragmatic' positions on many issues.
In the past, class was a major determinant of voting intention in British politics, with most working class electors voting Labour and most middle class electors voting Conservative. These days, class is much less important because:
· Working class numbers have shrunk and now represent only 43% of the electorate.
· Except at the extremes of wealth, lifestyles are more similar.
· Class does not determine voting intention so much as values, trust and competence.
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