Politics of the United Kingdom

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

Politics of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland take place in the framework of a constitutional monarchy in which the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government. It is a pluriform multi-party system with a partial devolution of power in Scotland, Wales, and sometimes Northern Ireland. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Since the 1920s, the two largest political parties in British politics have been the Labour Party and Conservative Party. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of Parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party to deliver a working majority in Parliament. The constitution is uncodified, being made up of constitutional conventions, statutes and other elements.

The head of state, theoretical and nominal source of executive, legislative and judicial power in the UK is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. However, sovereignty in the UK no longer rests with the monarch, since the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which established the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. None-the-less the monarch is still known as the Sovereign.

The British Sovereign possesses many hypothetical powers, including the right to choose any British citizen to be her Prime Minister and the right to call and dissolve Parliament whenever she wishes. However, in accordance with the current uncodified constitution, the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, and Parliament is dissolved at the time suggested by the PM. The monarch retains the ability to deny giving a bill Royal Assent, although in modern times this becomes increasingly more unlikely, as it would cause a constitutional crisis. Queen Anne was the last monarch to exercise this power, which she did on 11 March 1708 with regard to a bill "for the settling of Militia in Scotland". Other royal powers called royal prerogative, such as patronage to appoint ministers and the ability to declare war, are exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, with the formal consent of the Queen.

Today the Sovereign has an essentially ceremonial role restricted in exercise of power by convention and public opinion. However the monarch does continue to exercise three essential rights: the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. As a consequence of these ideals, Prime Ministers hold weekly confidential meetings with the monarch in which the Sovereign holds the right to express her opinions.

In formal terms, the Crown in Parliament is sovereign even though in practical terms the political head of the UK is the Prime Minister (Tony Blair since 2 May 1997). However, the real powers of position of the Monarch in the British Constitution should not be downplayed. The monarch does indeed retain some power, but it has to be used with discretion. She fulfills the necessary constitutional role as head of state, and with the absence of a distinct separation of powers as in the American model and a strong second chamber, acts as a final check on executive power. If a time came to pass, for instance, when a law threatened the freedom or security of her subjects, the Queen could decline royal assent, free as she is from the eddies of party politics. Furthermore, armed removal of her by Parliament or Government would be difficult, as the Monarch remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who swear an oath of allegiance to her.


Tony Blair, current British prime-minister and leader of the British Labour Party.
Tony Blair, current British prime-minister and leader of the British Labour Party.

The Government performs the Executive functions of the United Kingdom on behalf of the Sovereign, in whom executive power is theoretically and nominally vested. The monarch appoints a Prime Minister as the head of Her Majesty's Government, guided by the strict convention that the Prime Minister should be the member of the House of Commons most likely to be able to form a Government with the support of the House. In practice, this means that the leader of the political party with an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons is chosen to be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then selects the other Ministers which make up the Government and act as political heads of the various Government Departments. About twenty of the most senior government ministers make up the Cabinet. In total, there are approximately 100 ministers that comprise the government. In accordance with constitutional convention, all ministers within the government are either Members of Parliament or peers in the House of Lords.

As in some other parliamentary systems of government (especially those based upon the Westminster System), the executive (called "the government") is drawn from and is answerable to Parliament - a successful vote of no confidence will force the government either to resign or to seek a parliamentary dissolution and a general election. In practice, members of parliament of all major parties are strictly controlled by whips who try to ensure they vote according to party policy. If the government has a large majority, then they are very unlikely to lose enough votes to be unable to pass legislation.

In November 2005, the Blair government suffered its first defeat, on a proposal to extend the period for detaining terrorist suspects to 90 days. Before this, the last bill proposed by a government that was defeated in the House of Commons was the Shop Hours Bill in 1986, one of only three in the 20th century. Governments with a small majority, or coalition governments are much more vulnerable to defeat. They sometimes have to resort to extreme measures, such as "wheeling in" sick MPs, to get the necessary majority. Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and Tony Blair in 1997 were swept into power with such large majorities that even allowing for dissent within their parties, they were assured of winning practically all parliamentary votes, and thus were able to implement radical programmes of legislative reform and innovation. But other Prime Ministers, such as John Major in 1992, who enjoy only slender majorities can easily lose votes if relatively small numbers of their backbench MPs reject the whip and vote against the Government's proposals. As such, Governments with small majorities find it extremely difficult to implement controversial legislation and tend to become bogged down cutting deals with factions within their party or seeking assistance from other political parties.

Government departments

The Government of the United Kingdom contains a number of ministries known mainly, though not exclusively as departments, e.g. Ministry of Defence. These are politically led by a Government Minister who is often a Secretary of State and member of the Cabinet. He or she may also be supported by a number of junior Ministers.

Implementation of the Minister's decisions is carried out by a permanent politically neutral organization known as the civil service. Its constitutional role is to support the Government of the day regardless of which political party is in power. Unlike some other democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government. Administrative management of the Department is led by a head civil servant known in most Departments as a Permanent Secretary. The majority of the civil service staff in fact work in executive agencies, which are separate operational organizations reporting to Departments of State.

"Whitehall" is often used as a synonym for the central core of the Civil Service. This is because most Government Departments have headquarters in and around the former Royal Palace of Whitehall.


Parliament is the centre of the political system in the United Kingdom. It is the supreme legislative body (i.e., there is parliamentary sovereignty), and Government is drawn from and answerable to it. Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

House of Commons

Parliament meets at the Palace of Westminster
Parliament meets at the Palace of Westminster

The UK is divided into parliamentary constituencies of broadly equal population (decided by the Boundary Commission), each of which elects a Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons. Of the 646 MPs there is currently only one who does not belong to a political party. In modern times, all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have been drawn from the Commons, not the Lords. Alec Douglas-Home resigned from his peerages days after becoming Prime Minister in 1963, and the last Prime Minister before him from the Lords left in 1902 (the Marquess of Salisbury).

One party usually has a majority in Parliament, because of the use of the First Past the Post electoral system, which has been conducive in creating the current two party system. The monarch normally asks a person commissioned to form a government simply whether it can survive in the House of Commons, something which majority governments are expected to be able to do. In exceptional circumstances the monarch asks someone to 'form a government' with a parliamentary minority which in the event of no party having a majority requires the formation of a coalition government. This option is only ever taken at a time of national emergency, such as war-time. It was given in 1916 to Andrew Bonar Law, and when he declined, to David Lloyd George. It is worth noting that a government is not formed by a vote of the House of Commons, merely a commission from the monarch. The House of Commons gets its first chance to indicate confidence in the new government when it votes on the Speech from the Throne (the legislative programme proposed by the new government).

House of Lords

The House of Lords was previously a hereditary, aristocratic chamber. Major reform has been partially completed and it is currently a mixture of hereditary members, bishops of the Church of England known as Lords Spiritual and appointed members (life peers, with no hereditary right for their descendants to sit in the House). It currently acts to review legislation formed by the House of Commons, with the power to propose amendments, and exercises a suspensive veto. This allows it to delay legislation if it does not approve for twelve months. However, the use of vetoes is limited by convention and the operation of the Parliament Acts: the Lords may not veto the "money bills" or major manifesto promises (see Salisbury convention). Persistent use of the veto can also be overturned by the Parliament Act by the Commons. Often governments will accept changes in legislation in order to avoid both the time delay, and the negative publicity of being seen to clash with the Lords.

The House of Lords is currently also the final court of appeal within the United Kingdom, although in practice only a small subset of the House of Lords, known as the Law Lords, hears judicial cases. This court follows the Crown Courts, Magistrates etc. However, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 outlines plans for a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to replace the role of the Law Lords.


The Lord Chancellor (prior to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005) was the head of the judiciary in England and Wales. He appointed judges and magistrates for criminal courts on behalf of the Sovereign. Since 2005, the Lord Chief Justice has assumed the role as head of the judicial branch of government. The Lord Chancellor fell into all the three branches of government, taking roles in the executive, legislature and judiciary, which is a peculiarity amongst many liberal democracies in the world today. However, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 removes much of the power in this role and gives it to others in the British government, mainly the newly created post of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. Another part of The Lord Chancellor's duties in the House of Lords have been replaced by a dedicated "Lord/ Lady Speaker", who acts as a permanent presiding officer for the House of Lords.

The highest court of appeal within the UK at present is the House of Lords. In practice, only the Law Lords hear cases. After 2009, the highest court of appeal will be a new dedicated Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Devolved powers

In addition to the House of Commons, Scotland now has its own parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have assemblies.

Some members of the devolved bodies are elected by a form of proportional representation. Although the new devolved governments have some legislative and other powers, they do not have the same powers as the UK parliament. As devolved systems of government, they have no constitutional right to exist and can have their powers broadened, narrowed or changed by an Act of the UK Parliament.

Thus, the United Kingdom is said to have a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.

The Scottish Parliament Building in Holyrood, Edinburgh, seat of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament Building in Holyrood, Edinburgh, seat of the Scottish Parliament.
Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Tendencies to devolution with the wider United Kingdom have had only little resonance in England. There is little appetite for a devolved English parliament, although senior Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have voiced concerns in regard to the West Lothian Question, which is raised where certain policies for England are set by MPs from all four constituent nations whereas similar policies for Scotland or Wales might be decided in the devolved assemblies by legislators from those countries alone. Alternative proposals for English regional government have stalled, following a poorly received referendum on devolved government for the North East of England, which had hitherto been considered the region most in favour of the idea, with the exception of Cornwall, where there is widespread support for a Cornish Assembly, including all five Cornish MPs. England is therefore governed according to the balance of parties across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The resurgence in Celtic language and identity, as well as 'regional' politics and development, has contributed to forces pulling against the unity of the state. However, there is at present little sign of any imminent 'crisis' (at the last General Election, where both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru saw their percentage of the overall vote drop. The SNP did, however, gain two more seats and are the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament as well as official opposition). Nevertheless, recent opinion polls have suggested that nationalism (i.e. a desire to break up the UK) is rising within Scotland and England. However, the polls have been known to be inaccurate in the past (for example, in the run up to the 1992 General Election). Moreover, polls carried out in the 1970s and the 1990s showed similar results, only to be debunked at elections. While support for breaking up the UK was strongest in Scotland, there was still a clear lead for unionism over nationalism. In Northern Ireland, there has been a significant decrease in violence over the last twenty years, though the situation remains tense, with the more hard-line parties such as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists now holding the most parliamentary seats (see Demographics and politics of Northern Ireland).


The government has no plans to establish an English parliament or assembly although several pressure groups are calling for one. One of their main arguments is that MPs (and thus voters) from different parts of the UK have inconsistent powers. Currently an MP from Scotland can vote on legislation which affects only England but MPs from England (or indeed Scotland) cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, current Home Secretary John Reid, who is an MP for a Scottish constituency, runs a department which deals primarily with England and Wales. This anomaly is known as the West Lothian question.

The policy of the UK Government in England was to establish elected regional assemblies with no legislative powers. The London Assembly was the first of these, established in 2000, following a referendum in 1998, but further plans were abandoned following rejection of a proposal for an elected assembly in North East England in a referendum in 2004. Unelected regional assemblies remain in place in eight regions of England.

Northern Ireland

The current government of Northern Ireland was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly which is currently under suspension. The Assembly is a unicameral body consisting of 108 members elected under the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing, in order to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist, participate in governing the region. When fully operational, it has power to legislate in a wide range of areas and to elect the Northern Ireland Executive (cabinet). It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.

The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly enumerated in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but instead include any competence not explicitly retained by the Parliament at Westminster. Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into "excepted matters", which it retains indefinitely, and "reserved matters", which may be transferred to the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date. Health and education are "transferred" but criminal law and police are "reserved" and royal succession, defence and international relations are all "excepted".

While the Assembly is in suspension, its legislative powers are exercised by the UK government, which effectively has power to legislate by decree. Laws that would normally be within the competence of the Assembly are passed by the UK government in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than legislative acts.


The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament.
The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

The current Scottish Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998 and its first meeting as a devolved legislature was on 12 May 1999. The parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax-varying capability. Another of its jobs is to hold the Scottish Executive to account. The "devolved matters" over which it has responsibility include education, health, agriculture, and justice. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster.

The public take part in Parliament in a way that is not the case at Westminster through Cross Party Groups on policy topics which the interested public join and attend meetings of alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).


The Welsh Assembly Building
The Welsh Assembly Building

The National Assembly for Wales is a devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales, and is also responsible for most UK government departments in Wales. The Assembly was formed under the Government of Wales Act 1998, by the Labour government, after a referendum in 1997, (also supported by Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats), approved its creation.

There is no legal or constitutional separation of the legislative and executive functions of the National Assembly, since it is a single corporate entity. Compared with other parliamentary systems, and other UK devolved countries, this is highly unusual. In reality there is some sort of day to day separation, and the terms "Assembly Government" and "Assembly Parliamentary Service" have been used to distinguish between the two arms. It is proposed to regularize the separation, and it is considered likely that the UK Parliament will pass the necessary legislation.

Although the Assembly is a legislature, it currently does not have primary legislative or fiscal powers, as these powers had been reserved by Westminster. However, the position is set to change with the passing of the Government of Wales Bill in 2006.

Elections and parties

Unlike many European nations, the United Kingdom uses a first-past-the-post system to elect members of Parliament. Therefore, elections and political parties in the United Kingdom are affected by Duverger's Law, which causes the agglomeration of related political ideologies into a few large parties with many small parties rarely winning representation.

Historically, the United Kingdom had two major political parties, though currently three parties dominate the political landscape. Originally, the Conservatives and the Liberals dominated British politics, but the Liberal Party collapsed in the early twentieth century and was largely replaced by the Labour Party. In the 1980s, the Liberals merged with the Social Democratic Party and have recently experienced a resurgence as the Liberal Democrats, enough so to again be considered a major party. In addition to the three major parties, many minor parties contest elections. Of these, few except for regional parties such as the Scottish National Party and Democratic Unionist Party win seats in Parliament.

In the most recent general election in 2005, the Labour Party won re-election on a reduced majority, with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats making gains at the expense of Labour.

Electoral systems

Various electoral systems are used in the UK:

  • The First Past the Post system is used for general elections, and also for some local government elections in England and Wales (previously in Scotland).
  • The Bloc Vote system is also used for some local government elections in England and Wales (previously in Scotland).
  • Additional member systems have been in use, since devolution in 1999, for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly.
  • The Single Transferable Vote system is used to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland's local councils, and Northern Ireland's members of the European Parliament. It will also be used for the next elections to councils in Scotland in 2007.
  • The party list is used for European Parliament elections in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland).
  • The Supplementary Vote is used to elect directly-elected mayors, such as the Mayor of London.

In the last few general elections, voter mandates for Westminster in the 40% ranges have been swung into 60% parliamentary majorities. No government has won a majority of the popular vote since the National Government of Stanley Baldwin in 1935. Twice since World War II (in 1951 and February 1974) the party with fewer popular votes actually came out with the larger number of seats. One reason for all the quirks is that Britain has many political parties, making it possible to win individual constituencies on less than 50% of the vote due to the opposition votes being divided.

Electoral reform has been considered for general elections many times, but after the Jenkins Commission report in October 1998, which suggested the Alternative vote top-up for general elections was effectively ignored by the government, there have been no further government proposals for reform. It is highly unlikely that electoral reform will happen unless there is a significant change in the balance of power and Labour loses its large majority.

Low turnout is a concern, as the percentage of the electorate who voted in the last general election was just 61%.

History of political parties

UK political parties originated in 1662 in the aftermath of the English Civil War, with the creation of the Court Party and the Country Party, soon becoming known as the Tories (now the Conservative party, still commonly referred to as "the Tories") and the Whigs. The two remained the main political parties until the 20th century.

The term "Tory" originates from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681 - the Whigs were those who supported the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Tories were those who opposed it. Both names were originally insults: a "whiggamor" was a cattle driver, and a "tory" was an Irish term for an outlaw.

Generally, the Tories were associated with lesser gentry and the Church of England, while Whigs were more associated with trade, money, larger land holders (or "land magnates"), expansion and tolerance. Both were still committed to the political system in place at that time. Neither group could be considered a true political party in the modern sense.

The Rochdale Radicals were a group of more extreme reformists who were also heavily involved in the Cooperative movement. They sought to bring about a more equal society, and are considered by modern standards to be left-wing.

After becoming associated with repression of popular discontent in the years after 1815, the Tories underwent a fundamental transformation under the influence of Robert Peel, himself an industrialist rather than a landowner, who in his 1834 " Tamworth Manifesto" outlined a new "Conservative" philosophy of reforming ills while conserving the good.

Though Peel's supporters subsequently split from their colleagues over the issue of free trade in 1846, ultimately joining the Whigs and the Radicals to form what would become the Liberal Party, Peel's version of the party's underlying outlook was retained by the remaining Tories, who adopted his label of Conservative as the official name of their party.

The term ' Liberal Party' was first used officially in 1868, though it had been in use colloquially for decades beforehand. The Liberal Party formed a government in 1870 and then alternated with the Conservative Party as the party of government throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The Irish Parliamentary Party was set up to replace the Home Rule League in 1882. It remained the third-largest party in British politics until 1918, often holding the balance of power.

In 1900, the Labour Representation Committee was established and it changed its name to The Labour Party in 1906. After the First World War, this led to the demise of the Liberal Party as the main reformist force in British politics. The existence of the Labour Party on the left of British politics led to a slow waning of energy from the Liberal Party, which has consequently assumed third place in national politics. After performing poorly in the elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924, the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party as the party of the left.

Following two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929-1931, the Labour Party had its first true victory after World War II in the 1945 " khaki election". Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Labour governments alternated with Conservative governments. The Conservatives were in power for most of the time, with the Labour Party suffering the "wilderness years" of 1951-1964 (three straight General Election defeats) and 1979-1997 (four straight General Election defeats).

During this second period, right-winger Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, made a fundamental change to Conservative policies, turning the Conservative Party into an economic neoliberal party. In the General Election of 1979 she defeated James Callaghan's troubled Labour government after the winter of discontent.

For most of the 1980s and the 1990s under her successor John Major, Conservative governments pursued policies of privatization, anti- trade-unionism, and Monetarism, now known collectively as Thatcherism.

The Labour Party elected left-winger Michael Foot as their leader after their 1979 election defeat, and he responded to dissatisfaction with the Labour Party by pursuing a number of radical policies developed by its grass-roots members. Several right-wing MPs formed a breakaway group in 1981, called the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a move which split Labour and is widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which contested the 1983 and 1987 general elections as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After some initial success, the SDP did not prosper (partly due to its unfavourable distribution of votes in the FPTP electoral system), and was accused by some of splitting the anti-Conservative vote.

The SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Support for the new party has increased since then, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 gained an increased number of seats in the House of Commons.

The Labour Party was badly defeated in the Conservative landslide of the 1983 general election, and Michael Foot was replaced shortly thereafter by Neil Kinnock as leader. Kinnock expelled the far left-wing Militant Tendency group and moderated many of the party's policies. Yet he was in turn replaced by John Smith after Labour defeats in the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party after John Smith's sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He continued to move the Labour Party back towards the 'centre' by loosening links with the unions and embracing many of Margaret Thatcher's liberal economic policies. This, coupled with the professionalising of the party machine's approach to the media, helped Labour win a historic landslide in the 1997 General Election, after 18 years of Conservative governent. Some observers say the Labour Party had by then morphed from a democratic socialist party to a social democratic party, a process which delivered three general election victories but alienated some of its core base.

Main political parties

  • Whigs
  • Tories
  • Radical Party (UK)
  • Conservative Party (UK)
  • Liberal Party (UK)
  • Irish Parliamentary Party
  • Labour Party (UK)
  • Social Democratic Party (UK)
  • Liberal Democrats

Current political landscape

In the 2005 General Election, Tony Blair's Labour Party won an unprecedented (for Labour) third consecutive term, albeit with a reduced majority.

After the Labour victory senior Conservative figures indicated that their party needed to change both its outlook and, perhaps more importantly, its image. The Conservative Party's legacy of its difficulties in the early- and mid-1990s appeared to have alienated many middle-class voters, and its aging membership (average age 65) also posed problems.

Leader Michael Howard tendered his resignation soon after the election, and his resigning was followed by a review of the leadership election rules and the leadership campaign. The campaign culminated with speaches by the two lead candidates, David Davis and David Cameron, at the 2005 party conference. Following his well received speech David Cameron was elected by the party membership with large majority of votes cast.

The Conservatives under David Cameron have seen their popularity grow considerably, as shown by their success at the Local Elections in May 2006 and opinion polls which have largely shown consistent leads over Labour since early 2006. These poll leads are their first since the early 1990s.

Conversely, since the 2005 election the Labour Government has suffered from internal power-struggles over who will succede Tony Blair as Prime Minister and party leader, as well as allegations of Political corruption in the form of the “ cash for peerages” investigation. Individual Labour government departments have also come under increasing criticism, especially the Home Office, which is in charge of U.K prisons, as well as the country's immigration and asylum policies.

Major national issues in current British national politics, in descending order of voter concern (as of MORI poll September 2006), are:

  • Race relations / immigration
  • Defence / Terrorism
  • Law and order
  • The National Health Service (NHS)
  • Education
  • Pollution and the environment
  • The state of the economy
  • Housing and house prices
  • Pensions and benefits
  • Taxation

There are also specific regional issues, not listed above.

Minor parties

Small parties

The Respect party, a left-wing group that came out of the anti-war movement has one MP, George Galloway, and a small number of seats on local councils across the country.

Non-Parliamentary political parties

Two parties have no seats in Parliament, but multiple seats in the European Parliament and a number of seats on local councils.

  • Green Party
  • United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

The Greens also have two seats in the London Assembly; UKIP elected two members to the London Assembly, but they subsequently quit the party and now sit as One London members. Veritas has one Member of the European Parliament (MEP), its founder and former leader Robert Kilroy Silk, though he was elected for UKIP (which he later left). The Scottish National Party and Scottish Socialist Party have seats in the Scottish Parliament, and Plaid Cymru have seats in the Welsh Assembly, as well as each having a number of council seats. A number of other parties have local councillors including the British National Party (BNP), the Liberal Party (in Liverpool, Peterborough and elsewhere), Mebyon Kernow (Cornish nationalist party) in Cornwall, and the Communist Left Alliance (in Fife).

Regional parties

Other political parties contest elections in constituent parts of the United Kingdom, seeking autonomy or independence, for example:

  • Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall)
  • Plaid Cymru - Party of Wales
  • Scottish Green Party
  • Scottish National Party (SNP, advocating independent Scottish statehood within the European Union)
  • Scottish Socialist Party (campaigning for a socialist Scottish republic)
  • English Democrats (campaigners for a separate English Parliament)

The SNP and Plaid Cymru work as a single parliamentary group in the UK and European parliaments.

Several local parties contest only within a specific area, a single county, borough or district. Examples include the Better Bedford Independent Party, one of the dominant parties in Bedford Borough Council, led by Bedford's current Mayor, Frank Branston. The most notable local party is Health Concern, which controls a single seat in the UK Parliament.

The fringe parties

Other political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament. There is a tendency on the far left and right for a proliferation of tiny groups (also known by the French term ' groupuscules'), sometimes characterized by extremely rigid ideologies and built around personalities, that are constantly splitting to create new groups.


There are also a few independent politicians with no party allegiance. This normally occurs only when an MP decides to break with his party in mid-session. Since 1950 only two MPs have been elected as genuine independents, though others have been elected after breaking away from their party:

  • Martin Bell represented the Tatton constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2001. He was elected following a "sleaze" scandal involving the sitting Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton -- Bell, a BBC journalist, stood as an anticorruption independent candidate, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties withdrew their candidates from the election.
  • Dr. Richard Taylor MP was elected for the Wyre Forest constituency in the 2001 on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital. He later established Health Concern, the party under which he ran in 2005.

Local Government

The UK is divided into a variety of different types of Local Authorities, with different functions and responsibilities, which are further subdivided in rural areas and some urban areas into parishes.

Local Authorities are responsible for such matters as administering education, public transport, and the management of public spaces. Local authorities are often engaged in community politics.

Parishes have councils too and some are known as city or town councils. These councils are either made up of elected parish councilors, or in very small parishes, they use direct democracy.

There are two common systems of local government in the UK: the old-style two-tier and newer single-tier system. The older (and far more complex) two-tier system consists of District Councils and County Councils. The District Councils are responsible for rubbish collection, granting planning permission and council housing. County Councils are responsible for education, social services, some public transport and other local functions.

Unitary Authorities, which are in use throughout the whole of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in some areas in England, have a single tier of local government, and combine District and County Council functions into one body.

In Greater London, a unique two-tier system exists, with power shared between the London borough councils, and the Greater London Authority which is headed by an elected mayor.

Unitary authorities often share common public safety authorities with other neighboring councils. For example, Luton shares services with Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire and Milton Keynes (borough) shares services with Buckinghamshire.

European Union

The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union (EU). As such, UK citizens elect Members of the European Parliament to represent them in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. The UK elects 78 MEPs.

In recent years, there have been divisions in both major parties as to whether the UK should form greater ties within the EU, leave things as they are, or reduce the EU's supranational powers. Opponents of greater European integration are known as Eurosceptics, supporters Europhiles. Divisions over Europe run deep in both major parties, and though the Conservative Party is seen to split over this issue, whilst in Government up to 1997 and today in opposition, The Labour Party also faces conflicting views within Cabinet over UK involvement in the Euro and the new European Constitution.

British nationalists have long campaigned against EU integration. The strong showing of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2004 European Parliament elections has shifted the debate over UK relations with the EU.

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