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The Functions of Parties.

The functions of parties

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Introduction

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Political parties can be defined as institutions that comprise of organized groups of people with similar ideological views that seek to formulate policies reflecting these ideologies, in order to convince others of the validity of their views, and to be voted for in the government so that they are able to implement their policies (Heywood, 2006). Although often taken advantage of by politicians and the public alike, political parties do carry out significant roles in every political system, and in nations with democratic traditions, they are certainly a necessary part of the democratic process. The UK has several political parties, with the major ones being Labour, Liberal Democrat and the Conservative Party. The three political parties work in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons carrying out various functions. 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.

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According to Heywood (2006), although political parties are often defined by the central function of filling the political office and the exercising of government power, their influence on the political system is significantly broader and more complex. However, despite this, a number of general functions of political parties can be identified.

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One major function of political parties in the UK is that of leaders’ formation and recruitment (Heywood, 2006).Parties of all kinds in the UK have the responsibilities of providing the state with political leaders, and more commonly, politicians attain office by virtue of their political parties. The UK Parliamentary System is organized along party lines. The leader of the majority party normally becomes the Prime Minister and chooses his Cabinet and other Government ministers from among the members of parliament of his/her own party. Some members of the party of the House of Lords can also be appointed with both Cabinet and Government Ministers expected to conform to the doctrine of Collective Cabinet responsibility. Cabinet and other ministerial positions are therefore filled by higher-ranking party figures. Therefore, as highlighted by Heywood (2006), political parties in the UK offer a training ground for politicians, endowing them with skills, knowledge and experience as well as providing them with some form of a career structure, albeit one that depends on the party fortunes.

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Political parties in the UK are also charged with a representative role. As highlighted by Heywood (2006), representation is more often than not seen as the most important function of political parties. It can be described as s the capacity of political parties to respond to as well as communicate the views of both members and electorates. According to the systems theory, political parties are significant inputting devices that make sure that the government pays attention to the needs as well as the wishes of the society at large. Heywood (2006) argues that this is a political party function that is best carried out, however, believed to be carried out only due to an open and competitive system that forces political parties to respond to popular preferences. Rational-choice theorists enlighten this process by arguing out that political market parallels the economic market in that political leaders (politicians) act essentially as entrepreneurs seeking votes, implying that political parties behave much like businesses. Power therefore ultimately resides with consumers, who are in this case the voters.

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Therefore, as the representative of their electorates, Political leaders act as representatives elected to use their own independent judgment in the interests of their electorates rather than simply reflecting their electorates’ opinions. Under the guidance of a strictly constitutional interpretation, the elected political candidates often represent territorial constituencies, but also serve to represent a range of socio-economic groups within the national legislature.

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Another function for which political parties in the UK have traditionally taken responsibility of is that of articulation and aggregation. According to Heywood (2006), in their process of developing collective goals, political parties in the UK help in articulating as well as aggregating the various interests found within the society. Political parties often develop as vehicles through which business, religious, labour, ethnic or other groups press forward or defend their various interests. According to Heywood (2006), the UK Labour Party was, for instance, formed by a trade union movement with the objective of attaining a working class political representation. The fact that these national political parties consistently articulate the demands of large groups forces them to aggregate these particular interests by drawing them together into a coherent whole, balancing competing interests against each other. Constitutional parties are normally forced to do this due to pressures of electoral competition.

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Socialization and mobilization forms another significant function of the UK political parties. 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.

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The political parties also encourage more commitment individuals to become party members so as to provide finance, to help with organization, to be a source of new ideas and, in some cases, to become councilors, MPs or Members of the desolved assemblies’ party. According to Dalton (2008), it is argued that through political participation individuals are able to enhance their own political understanding and contribute to the common good of the country. Political parties therefore seek to ideally facilitate political education in addition to encouraging citizen participation in politics.

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As highlighted by Webb (2000), it is argued predominantly within the democratic pluralist perspective that existing mainstream political parties institutionalize social as well as economic conflict that restricts the possibility of potentially violent social and political revolution and in its place promote peaceful, rationally organized, gradual social as well as political change. According to Kavanagh (2002) therefore, political parties in the UK represent a coalition of different groups within the society and provide a means through which conflicting elements of similar interests are reconciled, harmonized and thereafter fed into the political system. For instance, it has been recognized that capitalists’ societies did generate huge increases in output in addition to increases in economic wealth for successful factory owners but factory employees were forced to work under dangerous conditions with low wages.

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According to Webb (2000), Marxists and other radical social theorists claimed that this situation contained the seeds of conflict which in some way could result in violent revolution and an overthrow of the capitalist order. However, this has not occurred in capitalist societies partly due to the fact that political parties in liberal democracies must gain a significant proportion of the working class votes in order to secure elections which implies that they have to address the concerns of these working class voters by providing them with higher wages, as well as a much more improved social services through the expansion of the welfare state.

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As a result of this, potentially violent conflicts related to the distribution of wealth, income and opportunities have been institutionalized within the political parties’ activities thus rendering violent revolution unnecessary and in similar ways political ways related to the women rights and ethnic minorities have also been institutionalized (Webb,2000).

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Lastly, political parties play the role of forming and organizing the government. According to Heywood (2006), complex contemporary societies would not be governable without political parties. In the first place, political parties help in the formation of governments in parliamentary systems to an extent that it is possible to talk of a party government. Political parties also provide the government with a degree of stability as well as coherence, especially if members of that particular government are taken from a single party and are thus united by common considerations and attachments.

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Even parties created from a coalition are likely to cultivate unity and agreement than those that consist of separate individuals each with their own priorities. Political parties, additionally, facilitate co-operation between the two main branches of the government: the assembly and the executive. In parliamentary systems, just like in the UK, this is effectively made certain due to the fact that the government is created from the party or parties that have majority control in the assembly (Heywood, 2006). Finally, they provide they provide an important source of opposition as well as criticism, both inside and outside the government. They therefore broaden the political debate and in the process educating the voters. This helps to ensure that government policy is thoroughly scrutinized, therefore workable.

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How well do political parties perform their functions today

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One of the major functions of political parties in any democratic democracy is to organize accountable as well as effective governance. However, political parties in contemporary democracies, the UK not an exception, have often seemed to struggle to enforce distinctive and effective policy solutions when in government.

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According to Garnett & Lynch (2007), the Conservative and Labour parties which have been the two major parties of the UK since the 1920s have had deep, lasting divisions amongst them. The deepest and most lasting of these divisions between them has been economic. To some extent, this is because the parties have often found it difficult to make a difference to policy outcomes given the legacies of past incumbents in office. In addition, it is also well known that a variety of macro-social developments have seriously constrained the UK government’s scope for autonomous action, including economic cycles, technological changes as well as demographic and social trends.

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These factors explain why the UK political parties have since the end of the long post-war boom suffered from the prevalent perception of policy ineffectiveness; the apparent failures of the UK government to solve persistent national policy problems that tend to undermine the popular status of political parties-particularly when the failures are associated with more than a political party in a system (Garnett & Lynch, 2007). Moreover, the lack of autonomy has been made worse by the globalization of economic processes, which further harmed national governments so that they can always respond to domestic demands in way that fully satisfies local interests on which they depend for their legitimacy and authority.

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Even though contemporary political parties remain central to the functioning of any democratic system, their relationship with the public has also dropped dramatically in the recent years (Webb, 2000). Their relationship with the public is therefore widely seen as being in crisis. There is a lot of talk of disconnect, apathy and alienation and the search is on for reasons as well as for ways to put things in order. The blame for this state of affairs is heaped on various targets with political parties and politicians inevitably leading the way, but to some extent, less tangibly, the political system is likely to be criticized from some quarters. In assessing all this, it is evident that political parties have probably never really dominated all the functions claimed for them. It is not surprising that political parties in the UK are dominated by political leaders who successfully limit the influence on policy of their more left-wing activist.

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Mainstream political parties in the UK have addressed social conflicts arising out significant class inequalities of income, opportunity, patterns of gender, wealth, power and ethnic disadvantage but they have without a doubt not solved them because to do so successfully would entail radical and perhaps revolutionary change to the capitalist system; and so far as electorates continue to vote for mainstream political parties they do so at least partly due to the powerful processes of political socialization that prevent them from realizing where their true interests really lie (Budge et. al, 2007).

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In this point of view, therefore, mainstream political parties in the UK do play a significant role towards the long stability of liberal democracy but they do so by holding back the prospects for economic equality and a more participatory democracy.

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Conclusion and Criticism

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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.

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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.

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References

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Budge et. al, 2007, The New British Politics.

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Dalton, R. J, 2008, Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 5th Edition, CQ Press.

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Garnett, M & Lynch, P, 2007, Exploring British politics, Longman Publishers.

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

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Kavanagh, D, 2002, Political Parties, Pearson Longman

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Webb, P.D, 2000, The modern British Party System, SAGE.

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