Britain has a bicameral parliamentary system (two houses). The House of Commons has around 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), each elected to represent one constituency in the UK and each a member of a political party. Independent candidates are not unknown but are very rare, as only a large party organisation can provide the funding necessary for a prolonged election campaign.
MPs theoretically work under the principle of Burkean representation: although elected by their constituents, they must represent the interests of the country as whole primarily. The political parties have favoured lists of candidates, and the local party headquarters interviews them before selecting a final candidate. This has been controversial in recent years, with the Labour party using such lists to ensure that only centrist, ‘on-message’ candidates are selected (rather than traditional left-wing types) despite public opinion.
Elections occur once every five years based on a simple first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Whoever gets the most votes in his or her constituency wins (each vote gets one vote, no redistribution or preferences involved). Of course, this has also caused controversy, since it can result in parties with a large percentage of the vote nationally having no power at all if their candidates don’t win individual seats. The government of the day gets to pick the date of the election – unsurprisingly it’s often timed to coincide with news of successes, or budget tax cuts, or opposition scandals.
The party with the most seats forms the government. In the event that the total number of seats held by other parties outnumbers them there may be a hung parliament – a stalemate. For example, the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists usually vote together, and the Liberal Democrats have been known to support Labour occasionally. The executive branch of government consists of a cabinet of ministers from the winning party, led by a Prime Minister. Although theoretically primus inter pares (first among equals) the PM is increasingly presidential in style these days – thanks Maggie and Tony.
Legislation is tabled by the executive according to a tight schedule for the parliamentary session, and is usually based around ‘promises’ to the electorate contained in a manifesto document issued by each party prior to the election. Can you guess how much those promises are really worth?
Bills (think: unapproved legislation) are debated in the Commons by all MPs, then sent to specialist committees of interested MPs for detailed review, debated again, then sent to the House of Lords – see below – who approve or reject the bill. If everyone eventually agrees the Queen rubber-stamps the bill and it becomes an Act, to be enforced by the judiciary. The Queen could theoretically refuse, but this would likely be ignored by the government, overturned by new legislation to curb the monarch’s powers, or result in the collapse of public support for the monarchy.
The House of Lords is in a state of change. Hereditary peers (those who inherit their position through blood) are being turfed out in favour of life peers, theoretically selected by the government on an impartial basis based on their specialist skills. Only cynics would suggest that it has only the thinnest veneer of impartiality and is nothing more than a way to reward your cronies in the private sector. Although the Lords can reject bills, they cannot ‘destroy’ them, only demand that the government amends and resubmits the bill. They cannot do this for finance-related bills such as the budget. The most damage that can be done is to screw up the legislative timetable by constantly rejecting a bill, so that the government doesn’t have time to pass its key legislation.
Britain has three main parties:
[ul][li]Conservatives (Tories): traditionally right-wing, the Conservatives also had Disraeli’s heritage of ‘one-nation conservatism’ – that is, ideas of noblesse oblige and paternalistic social services were never anathema. However, when Margaret Thatcher took over as leader in the 1970s the party changed somewhat, adding laissez faire economics and a belief that the private sector was always more efficient. Privatisation and the sale of council homes proved somewhat successful (especially in terms of winning the support of homeowners and big business) and the Tories were secure in power for much of the 1980s. She maintained the traditional emphasis on ‘family values’ despite various scandals during her leadership.[/li]
However, her style became increasingly autocratic. She alienated her party and eventually the voters – the turning point usually highlighted were the poll tax riots, where middle class voters joined in riots in London in 1989 (IIRC) to protest at a highly unpopular new taxation system based on number of occupants rather than size/value of property. She was brought down through the party’s arcane leadership selection system.
Her successors muddled through, but were increasingly undermined by a fundamental split in the party that remains to this day: Europe. The Tories are split between europhiles and eurosceptics, and this very public mess has certainly made them look a divided party unable to maintain a coherent policy. Living in the shadow of Thatcher’s style also reflected badly on her comparatively personality-free successors (Major and Hague).
Since 1997 the party has been in crisis. Unable to reconcile the two wings over Europe, trying desperately to reinvent itself to reclaim traditional policies now espoused by Labour, without a ‘big name’ leader. Traditionally Conservatives pointed to their lack of concrete policies as a sign of pragmatism and flexibility matching the spirit of the term ‘conservative’; now it hurts the party as it has no real policies with which to differentiate itself from Labour.
[li]Labour: currently the party in power, with an overwhelming majority. Tony Blair, the PM, is seen as young, dynamic, spineless, unprincipled, too busy doing what pollsters tell him too and (lately) more concerned with looking good on the world stage. [/li]
Labour was the party of the industrial working class; socialist, paternalistic, based around the support of unions and voters in poorer industrialised northern areas. As Thatcher demolished the British political landscape in the 1980s the Labour party imploded into ‘loony left’ factions. Despite some horrible stereotyping the Labour party was out of touch, making stories of excessive political correctness common. Their 1983 manifesto was famously described as “the longest suicide note in history”.
Blair (and to a lesser degree, his sadly deceased predecessor John Smith) moved the party to the right, getting popular with big business and the increasingly affluent southern middle classes – traditional Conservative territory. All vestiges of traditional Labour policy – unilateralism, nationalisation etc – were abandoned. Beaten at their own game, the Tories crumbled in 1997 and Labour looks safe for the next election too.
[li]Liberal Democrats: the third party, never realistically in with a shout to win elections, but increasingly popular as the only real alternative to the centre-right policies of Labour and the Tories. Centre-left by US standards (pro-electoral reform, constantly debating soft drug legalisation etc).[/ul][/li]
Wow. I’m sure to have missed something there. Sorry for that in advance.