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The parliamentary parties



The Political System of the UK

 

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. This means that it has a monarch (a king or a queen) as its Head of State. The monarch has very little power and can only reign with the support of Parliament. Parliament consists of two chambers known as the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament and the monarch have different roles in the government of the country, and they only meet together on symbolic occasions such as the coronation of a new monarch or the opening of Parliament. In reality, the House of Commons is the only one of the three which has true power. It is here that new bills are introduced and debated. If the majority of the members are in favour of a bill it goes to the House of Lords to be debated and finally to the monarch to be signed. Only then does it become law. Although a bill must be supported by all three bodies, the House of Lords only has limited powers, and the monarch has not refused to sign one since the modern political system began over 200 years ago.

The House of Commons and the electoral system

The House of Commons is made up of 650 elected members, known as Members of Parliament (abbreviated to MPs), each of whom represents an area (or constituency) of the United Kingdom. They are elected either at a general election, or at a by-election following the death or retirement of an MP. The election campaign usually lasts about three weeks. Everyone over the age of 18 can vote in an election, which is decided on a simple majority - the candidate with the most votes wins. Under this system, an MP who wins by a small number of votes may have more votes against him (that is, for the other candidates) than for him. This a very simple system, but many people think that it is unfair because the wishes of those who voted for the unsuccessful candidates are nor represented at all. Parliamentary elections must be held every five years atthe latest, but the Prime Minister can decide on the exact date within those five years.

 

The party system

The British democratic system depends on political parties, and there has been a party of some kind since the 17th century. The political parties choose candidates in elections (there are sometimes independent candidates, but they are rarely elected). The party which wins the majority of seats forms the Government and its leader usually becomes Prime Minister. The largest minority party becomes the Opposition. In doing so it accepts the right of the majority party to run the country, while the majority party accepts the right of the minority party to criticize it. Without this agreement between the political parties, the British parliamentary system would break down. The Prime Minister chooses about twenty Cabinet Ministers. Each minister is responsible for a particular area of government, and for a Civil Service department. For example, the Minister of Defence is responsible for defence policy and the armed forces, the Chancellor of the Exchequer for financial policy, and the Home Secretary for law and order and immigration.



 

Their Civil Service departments are called the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury and the Home Office respectively. They are staffed by civil servants who therefore do not change if the Government changes. The leader of the Opposition also chooses MPs to take responsibility for opposing the Government in these areas. They are known as the 'Shadow Cabinet'.

 

The parliamentary parties

The Conservative and Liberal parties are the oldest, and until the last years of the 19th century they were the only parties elected to the House of Commons. Once working-class men were given the vote, however, Socialist MPs were elected, but it was not until 1945 that Britain had its first Labour Government. At this election, the number of Liberal MPs was greatly reduced and since then Governments have been formed by either the Labour or the Conservative party. Usually they have had clear majorities -that is, one party has had more MPs than all the others combined.

The Conservative Party can broadly be described as the party of the middle and upper classes although it does receive some working-class support. Most of its voters live in rural areas, small towns and the suburbs of large cities. Much of its financial support comes from large industrial companies. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has always had strong links with the trade unions and receives financial support from them. While many Labour voters are middle-class or intellectuals, the traditional Labour Party support is still strongest in industrial areas.

 

In 1981, some MPs left the Labour Party to form a new 'left-of-centre' party - the Social Democratic Party (SDP)- which they hoped would win enough support to break the two-party system of the previous forty years. They fought the 1983 election in an alliance with the Liberals, but only a small number of their MPs were elected. In 1988, the majority of SDP and Liberal MPs and party members decided to form a permanent single party, to be called the Social, Democratic and Liberal Party or The Social and Liberal Democrats.

 

However, some SDP MPs and party members disagreed with the idea, and so the SDP still exists as a separate party. They (and other small minority parties in the House of Commons) would like to change the electoral system; they want MPs to be elected by proportional representation. Under this system, the number of MPs from each party would correspond to the total number of votes each party receives in the election.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords has more than 1,000 members, although only about 250 take an active part in the work of the House. There are 26 Anglican bishops, 950 hereditary peers, 11judges and 185 life peers, and unlike MPs they do not receive a salary.

They debate a bill after it has been passed by the House of Commons. Changes may be recommended, and agreement between the two Houses is reached by negotiation. The Lords' main power consists of being able to delay non-financial bills for a period of a year, but they can also introduce certain types of bill. The House of Lords is the only non-elected second chamber among all the democracies in the world and some people in Britain would like to abolish it.

Local government

Parliament in London is responsible for deciding national policy, but many public services are provided by local government. The United Kingdom is divided into administrative areas known as 'counties' and each county has a 'county town' where the offices of the local govenunent are located. Local government is responsible for organising such services as education, libraries, police and fire services, road-building and many others.

TALKING POINT

Some people think that the monarchy should be abolished because it has no power and it costs the State a lot of money to maintain. How useful do you think the monarchy is in Britain today?

from SPOTLIGHT ON BRITAIN (SECOND EDITION)

by Susan Sheerin, Jonathan Seath, GiIIian White

 





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