Focus On Political Parties
How do the conservative and labour parties compare?
Both Conservative and Labour parties are organised locally on the basis of Parliamentary Constituencies with Conservative Associations and Constituency Labour Parties (CLP) as the basic units. There may be branch parties below this, generally organised on the basis of local council wards, but declining membership has meant that these are often grouped or meetings only take place at the constituency level. Members attend meetings, campaign, discuss issues and raise money, though, in practice, only perhaps a quarter of members take an active part. Members chose the people to run the local party and, in the Labour Party, branches of trade unions that are affiliated to the party can also play a role.
One of the most important powers of Associations and CLPs is to select Parliamentary candidates. Conservative Associations have traditionally been independent of the national party but reforms introduced by William Hague, the leader of the party after the disastrous 1997 election performance, gave the party a Constitution for the first time and this included the power for the central party to intervene. Labour has been more centralised and the national party has had the power, used only occasionally, to disband the constituency party and take over the selection of parliamentary candidates. Some parties used to have paid Agents who would fund raise and organise elections but because of a lower membership this is now hardly ever affordable. MPs receive public funds to employ two or three people in a local constituency office. These would normally be party members or supporters but Parliamentary rules are that, in office time, they can only work on parliamentary duties such as dealing with constituents’ problems and not on party work.
Local government boundaries may include several constituencies or cut across constituencies and so both parties have Local Government Committees to select council candidates and for local councillors to report to on local issues. The two parties have Regional Offices whose role is to support constituencies in each region but, while Labour has paid officials at this level, Conservative officers are mostly volunteers. The two main parties have tended to treat Scotland and Wales as just two more regions though the Liberal/Lib Dem Party had a more federal structure with each country having an organisation fairly independent of the main party. Since the rise of the SNP there have been demands in the Labour Party to have clearly separate Scottish, Welsh and English parties. The British parties do not organise in Northern Ireland.
National Party Organisation
The two parties have a different national structure:-
The main central body of the Labour Party is the National Executive Committee NEC). It consists of the Leader of the Party, six people elected by party members, one elected by young members, twelve people elected by affiliated trade unions, two elected by socialist societies such as the Socialist Medical Association and representatives of the frontbench and backbench MPs. There is also a General Secretary who manages the day-to-day activities of the party and runs party headquarters with its full-time officials. The NEC is essentially a political body and many members are chosen because they are on the right or left of the party. This means that the NEC was not very good at actually ensuring the party ran smoothly and the financial difficulties that the party was in by 2007 led to the setting up of a group to oversee the management of the party.
Conservative Central Office, which consisted of professional staff, was the national organisation of the Conservative Party with a Chairman, appointed by the Leader, in overall control. A Federation of Conservative Associations organised the annual conference of the party. In 1998, William Hague, the then Leader of the party modernised the system and set up :-
a) The Conservative Campaign Headquarters to replace Central Office with more of a focus on elections and campaigns.
b) A Board as the main body to run the party including the Leader, Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the party and representatives from backbench MPs, the Conservative European MPs, the party generally and the Scottish and Welsh parties.
c) A National Convention which meets twice a year representing the Constituency Associations, regions and youth and women’s organisations conveys the general views of the party to the Leader.
The Office of the Leader of the Party is the nerve centre of the party organisation. It has a few key people very close to the Leader who keep in touch with the national party organisations and the Parliamentary Party and seek to influence things in the direction that the Leader wants. It is in charge of relationships with the media and develops key policy changes. When the party is in power it becomes part of the Prime Minister’s Office in No 10.
The Parliamentary Parties
The parties have an organisation for their elected MPs so that they can discuss current issues and give views to the Party Leader and Ministers or Shadow Ministers. These are the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and, for the Conservatives, the 1922 Committee, named after the year when it was created. Their meetings also provide a vehicle for the Leader to raise the morale of MPs, especially if things are going wrong for the Party, and to answer questions and listen to backbench views. The 1922 Committee has been the more powerful over the years and, after stormy meetings, ministers and even two Leaders have resigned.
The parties have a yearly Conference, as well as some other smaller conferences. Constituency Parties send delegates and, in the Labour Party, so do the trade unions. The Labour Party Conference used to be central to Labour Party policy-making with constituencies and trade unions sending policy resolutions that were voted upon, occasionally critical of the leadership. These became party policy though did not necessarily appear in the party’s election manifesto which was controlled by the NEC and the Leader. Under Tony Blair as Leader, Conference lost much of this power and can, at present, only pass a few motions on topics not already decided by the Party’s National Policy Forum. The Conservative Party Conference has been much less powerful and rarely passed motions. Both Party Conferences have come to see less debate in recent years with less delegates attending and more lobbyists present from firms and interest groups. However, the real discussions take place at smaller ‘fringe’ meetings which form part of the Conference.
Detailed manifestos, issued near the beginning of the general election campaign, containing the range of policies that the party intends to carry out if it wins the election, are a feature of British politics. Parties in other countries often issue only short programmes of action. Although there will have been general discussions within the party over a longer period of time, the detail is written by one or two people chosen by the Leader, Labour’ has officially to be agreed at a meeting between the National Executive Committee and the Shadow Cabinet. Manifestos are important because:-
- There is the idea of the mandate. That the public have supported the winning party’s proposals and given it authority to carry them out. The constitutional convention is that the House of Lords cannot reject legislation that appears in the winning party’s manifesto.
- Although few of the voters do actually read the manifesto, the media will pick out promises that are being mad e and question politicians during the campaign.
- Academic research shows that some 70% or more of manifesto commitments are carried out and so they are in fact a blueprint for the new Government
- Party members and MPs remind their Government of manifesto commitments and ask why they are not being carried out, if this is the case.
with other membership organisations, have a structure which gives roles to people within the organisation so that decisions can be taken about how the organisation works and its future direction and also to provide a framework within which members can be involved.
Parties, however, are different in that:-
- They need means to campaign and win elections.
- They constantly have to look at and update their policies, partly to take account of changing events.
- As well as the party in the country there is the Parliamentary Party which consists of the elected MPs and there has to be a relationship between the two arms of the party.
- There has to be a special role for the party Leader who has a high public profile and can be a potential Prime Minister or, in Coalition, a Deputy Prime Minister.
- Labour has a particular relationship with the Trade Unions. Those that are affiliated to the Labour Party, such as Unison or Unite, have roles within the party organisation.