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Functions of political parties and how well they perform them today


Political parties are essential in contemporary politics. By definition, Political parties are a group of individuals organized with the objective of attaining government power through elections or other means. The formation of Political parties in many states can be described as a recent initiative that is a mark for political modernization and democracy. By the later years of 1950s, almost 80% of most countries of the world had taken up the political party system. The U.K for instance, modified its adoption of the two party system by 1970, however the number of political parties have progressively risen (Webb, 2000, p13). Although the role of political parties in modern democracies has experienced intense critisms, it is vital to evaluate the functions of political parties and how they perform these functions today. This particular paper therefore seeks to provide an analysis of the functions of political parties in the UK and how well they do perform their functions today.

One of the fundamental functions of political parties is the formation of government. The basic agenda behind a group of individuals coming together to formulate a political party is usually based on the anticipation that one day they will form government. As a result these individuals come up with ideologies and manifestos that may assist them in winning the votes of electorates. Heywood (2006, p274), highlights that many parties drastically devise their ideologies in a manner that can appeal to the largest possible number of voters. For instance the U.K Labour party has frequently developed its agenda based on the idea of unity and leadership. In addition the Labour party has frequently surrounded its political agendas on supporting and mobilizing the working class in order to attain their principal goal which to get to power and form government. For instance in the 1945 election, the Labour party won by a land slide against the conservative party. Kavanagh (2002, p267) reveals that the electorate at this particular time was clearly in favour of the welfare polices and full employment that the labour party had promised. In the recent 2010 elections the Conservative party took over from the labour party with a diverse manifesto of dealing with the debt deficit more rapidly in order to get the economy moving. It can therefore be argued that the ideologies and manifestos propagated by the various political parties during different election years are usually geared towards attaining power.

As the party that gets elected into government gains power and does the running of government, the opposition parties on the other hand take up the role of spearheading the development of polices, which is another primary role of political parties. Both the ruling party and the opposition party contribute to the development polices that are adopted by a state. Policy work is usually undertaken in party groups .This involves the combination of the views of the back bench committees (those of the opposition party) and the ruling party committee. In the context of government, the major policy initiatives lie with cabinet ministers, the prime minister and the policy unit (Kavanagh, 2002, p274-275).

Jones et al (2007, p183-184)) evaluate the policy process development in the U.K. The authors bring to light the fact that in the recent years the policy process in the U.K has greatly changed. This is attributed to the fact that the party that gets to power usually turns to the notion of perennial public policy which is grounded on the aspect of how best the political parties can facilitate the efficient delivery of policy. Jones et al (2007) argue that the traditional approach used by U.K governments in dealing with policy issues was more frequently derived from the Westminster model which stresses the application of the top-down strategy which promotes escalating the centre power in order to develop a wider control within the policy chain. For instance when we evaluate the Conservative government by Margret Thatcher in the 1980s, Thatcher’s government took up policy initiatives of privatization of many industries and educational institutions owned by the government, Thatcher‘s government tried to lessen government association with society. This was an indication of conservativeness of the traditional approach (Heywood, 2006, p274). However many parties in contemporary governments have adopted a new strategies in their policy development process. For example, when the Labour Governments came to power in the 1997 elections, the effect of the existing government on the policymaking process was revealed. The labour party acknowledged the significance of the concept of the capability of central control and the aspect of fragmentation, through adopting the dual –level approach (Jones et al, 2007).

Training of leaders is another essential function of political parties. Heywood, (2006, p278) describes the training of leaders as elite recruitment and formation. According to Heywood, (2006, p278) political parties of all types have the responsibility of providing or giving states their political leaders. Many politicians get into office which accords them the role of leadership. In the context of the U.K the parliamentary system gives the party that wins the elections the post of Prime ministerial leadership. Ministerial and other cabinet posts are mainly filled by prominent figures within the ruling party. Heywood, (2006, p278) therefore argues that political parties act as a training ground for politicians through equipping them with knowledge , skills and experiences and also providing for them some kind of career structure , that is mainly grounded on the parties fortunes. It is worth noting that although political parties provide a ground for the training of leaders, what is evident is that the strong influence that political parties have on government offices can actually be criticized as a mechanism of ensuring that political leaders are only derived or recruited from a pool of talent that is relatively small Heywood, (2006, p278).

Representation of social groups and individuals is another significant function of political parties. Heywood, (2006, p278) highlights that political parties assist social groups and individuals through aggregating and articulating their various interests. Parties frequently facilitate the development of a mechanism through which entities such as religious organizations, businesses; ethnic and labour groups can defend or advance their various interests. For example the Labour party was initiated as a trade union movement that had the objective or enhancing the political representation of the working class. Heywood, (2006, p278) highlights that political parties also articulate the demands of multitudes of groups through drawing their interests. For instance most Constitutional parties are frequently forced to support the interests of groups and individuals in order to enhance their capability in electoral competition.

Political parties are also charged with the duty of providing avenues of influence for pressure groups. Budge et al, (2007, p355) reveals that political parties have frequently worked in support of pressure groups in their protests against various issues affecting society. Pressure can be defined as bodies or associations that are separate or detached from the government; in the context of U.K political system, they are linked to the Westminster Model. Pressure groups propagate various issues that affect society such as GM foods, human rights violations and other essential political matters that concern citizens. Budge et al, (2007, p355) highlights that for many years the membership of pressure groups has always been huge due to the fact that they support direct actions such as a demonstrations, petitions and boycotts furthermore they are usually perceived as being outside the boundaries of the traditional class . Pressure groups have therefore become very significant in modern U.K politics. Consequently political parties have adopted a system of working in collaboration with pressure groups in order increase their popularity. For instance the 2003 invasion of Iraq is one issue that raised a great deal of controversy. Although people were not given an opportunity to officially give their view points concerning the invasion of Iraq, political parties such as the Conservative wing, some of Tony Blair’s Mps and pressure groups took up the role of propagating the views of ordinary citizens. . Budge et al, (2007, p356) articulates that due to the political parties providing avenues that can influence the actions of pressure groups Tony Blair was not able to progress with the notion of invasion of Iraq.

Policy prioritization is another role of political parties. Prioritizing of policies involves categorizing of polices based on the order of importance. According to Heywood, (2006, p278) political parties have traditionally acted as one of the ways through which societies present their collective goals and in many incidences political parties work to ensure that this goals are executed. Heywood, (2006, p278) highlights that parties take up this particular role due to the fact that the procedure of seeking power involves the formulation of government programs with the objective of attracting the support of citizens . This therefore implies that political parties are the main source of policy initiation and implementation due to the fact that they develop coherent policy sets that are presented before the electorate in order for them to choose those they perceive as achievable, important and realistic. The function of policy prioritization is mostly undertaken by parties that are able to claim mandate within the parliamentary system. Many of the policies are usually ideologized in a manner to suite the welfare of the interest groups, the civil service, and international as well as domestic situations. For instance Webb (2000, p17) highlights that devolution was one the policy priorities between the period of 1979-1970 during the tenure of the Labour. As a result the labour party worked to ensure that the overall legitimacy of the U.K would only be enhanced through devolution. This therefore resulted to supporting the Scotland bill which resulted to the independence of Scotland.

Political parties also play the role of informing and mobilizing voters. As highlighted by Heywood (2006), through their internal debates and discussions, campaigning and electoral competition, the UK political parties play a significant function as agents of political education and socialization. The issues that these political parties focus on helps in setting the political agenda, and the values and attitudes that they express become part of the larger UK culture. In principle, political leaders and spokespersons of major political parties in the UK try to enlighten both general principles and particular policies as clear as possible so as to provide electorates with clear choice.

How well do Political Parties Perform their Functions Today

Daalder, (2007, p 269) highlights that the debate concerning how effectively political parties performs their functions in contemporary democratic states suffers from lack of acknowledgement of the social process and the society due to the lack of utilization of practical analysis when coming up with party ideologies and manifestos . Daalder, (2007, p 269) highlights that most political parities use what is referred to as empirical analysis or theoretical reasoning in coming up with ideologies and polices , the outcome of such reasoning is that party crisis arise when parties do not deliver as they promised to the electorates.

Daalder, (2007, p 270) also highlights that contemporary political parties have lost most of their functions due to the existence of political actors. There is a rising assumption that political parties are just simple market forces and that they do not matter in policy issues. The implication of such phenomena is that political parties predictably loss their functions or roles to political actors. Daalder, (2007) argues that there is need for house –cleaning in most political parties in order for them to effectively perform their functions.


From the above analysis, it is clear that Political parties in the UK fulfill a range of functions that are crucial to the overall operation of UK’s liberal political system. They offer a series of links between the people, their representatives as well as their governments such that it is not easy to see how any liberal democratic political system could work without political parties.

On the other hand, it is also evident that political parties today do not carry out these functions entirely effectively: electorates’ interests may be inadequately represented; effective government may be held back by problems associated with weak coalition government; opportunities for rank participation in the policy making process are rather limited; political parties may deal with conflicts without solving them; and electorates might too readily give in the operation of liberal democratic processes, failing to recognize their inadequacies. Therefore, it can be concluded that although political parties contribute to the operation of liberal democratic political systems, they can surely do so more effectively.


Budge, I, Bartle, J, Newton, K and Mckay, D,2007, The New British Politics, Harlow: Pearson Education, chapters 16 & 17.

Daalder, H, 2007, A Crisis of Party, Scandinavian Political Studies, HYPERLINK “” 15(4), p269–288.

Heywood, A, 2006, Politics: Parties and Party Systems, Palgrave McMillan

Jones , B, Moran , M, Kavanagh , D, 2007, Politics U.K, Pearson Education .

Kavanagh, D, 2002, Political Parties, Pearson Longman

Webb, P, 2000, The Modern British Party System, Sage, p13.

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