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politics and government of
the United Kingdom
Before the mid-19th century politics in the United Kingdom was dominated by the Whigs and the Tories. These were not political parties in the modern sense but somewhat loose alliances of interests and individuals. The Whigs included many of the leading aristocratic dynasties committed to the Protestant succession, and later drew support from elements of the emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants, while the Tories were associated with the landed gentry, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.
By the mid 19th century the Tories had evolved into the Conservative Party, and the Whigs had evolved into the Liberal Party. In the late 19th century the Liberal Party began to pursue more left wing policies, and many of the heirs of the Whig tradition became Liberal Unionists and moved closer to the Conservatives on many of the key issues of the time.
The Liberal and Conservatives dominated the political scene until the 1920s, when the Liberal Party declined in popularity and suffered a long stream of resignations. It was replaced as the main anti-Tory opposition party by the newly emerging Labour Party, who represented an alliance between the labour movement, organised trades unions and various socialist societies.
Since then the Conservative and Labour Parties have dominated British politics, and have alternated in government ever since. However, the UK is not quite a two-party system since a third party (recently, the Liberal Democrats) can prevent 50% of the votes/seats from going to a single party. Following electoral co-operation as part of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, The Liberal Party merged with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 becoming the Liberal Democrats, which is now the largest third party.
The UK's First Past the Post electoral system leaves small parties disadvantaged on a UK-wide scale. It can, however, allow parties with concentrations of supporters in the constituent countries to flourish. Other than the Green Party of England and Wales, the only other parties winning seats in the House of Commons at the 2010 general election were based in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Since 1997, proportional representation-based voting systems have been adopted for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the London Assembly and the UK's seats in the European Parliament. In these bodies, other parties have had success.
Traditionally political parties have been private organisations with no official recognition by the state. The Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 changed that by creating a register of parties.
Membership of political parties has been in decline in the UK since the 1950s, falling by over 65% from 1983 (4 per cent of the electorate) to 2005 (1.3 per cent).
The Electoral Commission's Register of Political Parties lists the details of parties registered to fight elections, and their registered name, in the United Kingdom. Under current electoral law, including the Registration of Political Parties Act, the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, only registered party names can be used on ballot papers by those wishing to fight elections. Candidates who do not belong to a registered party can use "independent" or no label at all.
As of 10 June 2011[update] it shows the number of registered political parties as 419. In Northern Ireland there are 42 registered parties.
Three parties dominate politics in the House of Commons. They all operate throughout Great Britain (only the Conservative and Unionist Party stands candidates in Northern Ireland). Most of the British Members of the European Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales represent one of these parties:
|Party||UK House of Commons members||Scottish Parliament members||National Assembly for Wales members||Northern Ireland Assembly members||London Assembly members||European Parliament members||Notes|
|Conservative and Unionist Party||306||15||14||N/A||9||25||Centre-right party which can be loosely divided into three categories, though with considerable overlap: The Thatcherites or Conservative Way Forward, who strongly support a free market and tend to be Eurosceptic, the economically moderate, often more europhile but socially conservative One Nation Conservatives, and the socially conservative, deeply Eurosceptic Cornerstone Group.|
|Liberal Democrats||57||5||5||N/A||2||11||Liberal, radical-centrist and socially progressive; strongly support democratisation of the political system. Promotes modern liberal values; opposing what some pen the 'nanny state', while supporting the welfare state for the basic necessities of life. The party's main two branches are the social-liberal grouping, and the dominant 'Orange Book' grouping.|
(inc Lab Co-op)
(inc 9 as Lab Co-op)
(inc 4 as Lab Co-op)
|N/A||12||13||Centre; a big tent party historically allied with the trade union movement; its platform is based upon mixed market Third Way policies since the party's reinvention as New Labour in 1994, whilst maintaining democratic socialist MPs and left-wing factions within the party such as the Socialist Campaign Group; it generally supports greater Pro-Europeanism.|
|Democratic Unionist Party||8||N/A||N/A||38||N/A||1||Hardline Unionist and national conservative party in Northern Ireland. Also very socially conservative with close links to Evangelical Protestantism.|
|Scottish National Party||6||69||N/A||N/A||N/A||2||Social-democratic party in favour of Scottish independence.|
|† Sinn Féin||5||N/A||N/A||29||N/A||1||Irish republican party that supports the unification of the island of Ireland as a 32-county Irish republic.|
|Plaid Cymru - Party of Wales||3||N/A||11||N/A||N/A||1||Centre-left party in favour of Welsh independence.|
|Social Democratic and Labour Party||3||N/A||N/A||14||N/A||0||Social-democratic and Irish nationalism party supporting a United Ireland.|
|Alliance Party of Northern Ireland||1||N/A||N/A||8||N/A||0||Liberal party in Northern Ireland that aims to break down sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Has a neutral stance on the Constitutional issue of Northern Ireland's status and is linked with the Liberal Democrats via ELDR.|
|Green Party of England and Wales||1||N/A||0||N/A||2||2||Green political party. Favours British republicanism.|
|Respect Party||1||0||0||N/A||N/A||0||Left-wing, socialist, and populist party active in Great Britain founded by George Galloway; concentrates on an anti-war platform.|
|Ulster Unionist Party||0||N/A||N/A||15||N/A||1||Unionist party in Northern Ireland (previously affiliated to the British Conservative Party via the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists electoral arrangement at the 2009 General Election). Also is socially conservative but with some small liberal factions.|
|Scottish Green Party||0||2||N/A||N/A||N/A||0||Green political party in favour of Scottish independence.|
|NI21||0||N/A||N/A||2||N/A||0||Unionist in Northern Ireland, which advocates progressive and liberal policies, with non-sectarian ideals|
|Green Party in Northern Ireland||0||N/A||N/A||1||N/A||0||Green party in Northern Ireland.|
|Traditional Unionist Voice||0||N/A||N/A||1||N/A||0||Strongly social and national conservative unionist party in Northern Ireland, opposed to the St Andrews Agreement.|
|UK Independence Party||0||0||0||1||0||13||Eurosceptic party which favours withdrawal from the European Union, small government and economic liberalism.|
|British National Party||0||0||0||0||0||1||British nationalist party who support withdrawal from the European Union, halting mass immigration and Third position economics.|
†Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats in the UK House of Commons as they choose not to swear allegiance to the crown.