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Summary - Модернизация партийной системы Великобритании

The processes at the root of Great Britain’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society have influenced all aspects of life. Among them is the modernization of the country’s party system, which began in the 1970s. It led not only to major changes in the leading parties but also to qualitative changes in the system itself — in its make-up, structure, and direction of development. The crisis of the two-party system could be seen, among others, in the fact that the political pendulum, which had assured for a long time the alternation of the Conservatives and Labour at the helm of power, stopped functioning at the national level: first the Conservatives came to power for almost 18 years, and then Labour began to predominate.

The Westminster model of democracy (the majoritarian democracy), based on the principles of the sovereignty of parliament and the unwritten constitution, has been evolving towards plurality, while the two-party system — towards a multiparty system. This does not mean that the shift from the Westminster to a plural model of democracy has taken place in the entire British political system or that it has not been opposed. This shift was most visible in changes in the party system, in the redistribution of power between the centre and the regions and in other constitutional reforms.

Labour have had an ambivalent attitude to the processes, initiated by their reforms. The contradictions inherent in them are referred to as the «Blair paradox». On the one hand, government policies implemented in 1997–2005 led to the decentralization of power and the democratization of mechanisms of state governance and made the political system more open.

On the other, Labour tried to keep these processes within the framework of parliamentary sovereignty and to preserve a series of principles of the majoritarian democracy. For example, the current «half-way» reform of the House of Lords has only increased the misbalance in British parliament. Changing the electoral system for general elections has been postponed for an indefinite period. Attempts to modernize the work of the House of Commons has ended up with superficial measures. The decision-making process has been centralized in the Labour Party as well as in government.

The period from 1945 to the 1960s was the heyday of the two-party system in Great Britain. The latter was the dominant political model not only at general elections but also at the local and regional levels. During the subsequent three decades, the two-party system gave way to a «two-and-a-half party» system, in which not only the Liberals (later Liberal Democrats) but also a group of small parties, especially regional ones, became the new element. The Conservatives and Labour continued to have a monopoly on national power. However, aspects of a multiparty system began to appear at the local level in many municipalities where more than two parties had access to power and coalition forms of government began to emerge. In recent years, the multi-party system has reached the regional level as a result of devolution and the application of various proportional systems of voting. The main hindrance preventing it from attaining the national level is the majority electoral system (the single member plurality system), which is traditionally used at general elections.

Although Labour and the Conservatives continue to have a monopoly on national power, they have had to turn to small parties for support and assistance on several occasions. Alongside the traditional culture of political opposition, a certain culture of political cooperation and dialogue has emerged. The Liberal Party (which became the Liberal Democrats after merging with the Social Democratic Party) has gained considerable political weight. In contrast to small parties, the Liberal Democrats have not only achieved a solid standing as the third party among voters and in the House of Commons but also gained access to executive government since 1997 through their cooperation with Labour in the sphere of constitutional reforms.

In the 1970s—1990s, the structure of the British party system became more complex. First of all, a new «supranational» voting level appeared in 1979 with the introduction of European parliamentary elections, which have been held according to a proportional system since 1999. Secondly, a multiparty system appeared in practice, and coalition methods of government began to spread at the local and regional levels long before the devolution process was launched. In the 1970s, the Liberal Party, Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Thirdly, after the reforms in the «Celtic Fringe», autonomous party systems emerged at the regional level with their own electoral and institutional dimensions. With the introduction of a mixed electoral system at regional elections in Scotland and Wales, small parties came to the fore after having been in the background for many years. Westminster is the only level which retains a «two-and-a-half» party system.

Devolution is the delegation of a part of state sovereignty to elected regional legislative and executive bodies of government. At the same time, the principle of the sovereignty of British Parliament, which is based on an unwritten constitution, formally remains untouched. Nevertheless, devolution has in reality eroded the sovereignty of Westminster. Great Britain’s unitary state structure is giving way to a quasi-federative structure (England — Scotland — Wales) with confederative elements (Great Britain — Northern Ireland) in which some of the country’s regions obtain limited sovereignty.

In addition to the evolution of the Westminster model of democracy towards a plural one and of the two-party system towards a multiparty system, a shift has taken place from the political cycle of Social Democratic reformism (1945—1970s) to a neoliberal — social liberal cycle against the backdrop of the decline of collectivism and the ascendancy of individualism. The transformation of industrial society into a post-industrial society with a new system of values, social restructuring, and changes in national self-awareness after the break-up of the British Empire accompanied by a rise of nationalistic trends on the «Celtic Fringe» played a key role in this process. Both cycles were based on inter-party consensus underpinned respectively by Social Democratic statism (Keynesianism, «mixed economy», the «welfare state») and by combination of neoliberalism and social liberalism approaches.

Each of the leading British parties (the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberals/Liberal Democrats) has combined the traits of a cadre and a mass party in a particular way depending on the period of their history. During much of the 20th century, these parties were characterized as «mass bureaucratic parties» that had come to replace the «mass electoral parties». They were marked by inner party hierarchy and a mass membership. In the 1980s—1990s, changes in the social make-up of society and in the behaviour of voters made the Labour and the Conservative Parties evolve towards «electoral professional parties» («catch-all» parties) with a staff of professional specialists (advertising consultants, PR specialists, and electoral technology specialists employing an arsenal of political marketing techniques).

It is possible that major parties transform into «electoral cadre parties» with a rigid vertical structure and no interest in mass membership, ready to mobilize electoral coalitions to their advantage at any given moment. However, the implementation of such a party model is far from certain. The Tories, who lost their mass membership base in Scotland and Wales, are a vivid example of what can happen to a party that neglects the maintenance of a permanent network of local offices for recruiting activists and grass root members. Generally speaking, modern major British parties are still in transition from «mass bureaucratic parties» to «electoral professional parties».

The modernization of the British party system has not only led to changes in its configuration and in the «rules of the game» regulating party activities but also to a profound inner restructuring of organizations and considerable (or even radical) changes in their political platforms. Common traits include a better defined inner structure, a stricter party discipline, and the parallel processes of the consolidation of the authority of the central office, the democratization of decision making, and the expansion of the rights of grass root members. At the same time, the balance of power within the British major parties became even more lopsided: the influence of activists and critically minded backbenchers on the decision-making process diminished, while the influence of «leaders» (party management, frontbenchers, and loyal members of parliamentary parties) grew accordingly.

Party ideologies were extensively revised. On the whole, the ideological aspects of party struggle became less important, and major parties no longer have narrow and sharply defined ideological programmes. The national party system has stopped putting voters before the choice between collectivism and individualism and does not bring the market economy into question. All of the three major parties are pro-market. The Labour Party, which distinctly shifted to the right, has rejected the class-based approach to political struggle, distanced itself from trade unions, changed its constitution (Clause IV), and recognized the equal merit of public and private forms of ownership.

The Third Way championed by New Labour is about a search for new ways of combining (rather than opposing) collectivism and individualism, the values of social justice and economic efficiency. The Third Way has furnished an experimental platform for the search of new approaches for assuring a fair social order in the conditions of the stiff competition on world markets. At the same time, it has not become a full-fledged ideology.

In turn, the Conservative Party abandoned its unconditional support of free market reforms that had been typical of the Thatcher era, recognized a number of important social innovations of Labour such as the minimum wage, gave up its opposition to high and sustained level of public spending, and reconciled itself with devolution and the reform of the House of Lords. The party developed the idea of «caring Conservatism» and manifested a growing opposition to «social authoritarianism». Still, the question remains whether the Tories are on the way to becoming an English nationalist party.

The Liberal Democrats took up the rich traditions of British Liberalism and revisionist Social Democracy. However, the Liberal Democrats (just as the Conservatives) had problems formulating their ideological credo in the 1990s, for many of their initiatives and mottos had been taken over by the Labourites. The Liberal Democrats took advantage of the Labour Party’s considerable shift to the right, which had left bare the left wing of British politics. Out of the country’s main three parties, the Liberal Democrats most actively support the transition from a Westminster to a plural model of democracy and from a unitary to a federative state structure.

At the same time, the Liberal Democrats are facing a dilemma. In order to displace the Conservatives as the main opposition party, they must attract part of the Tory electorate and consequently shift ideologically to the right. However, if they choose to do this, they risk losing left-centrist voters that they had obtained after the Labour Party’s shift to the right. Moreover, the gap in the number of votes between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is still too great to allow the former to supplant the latter. Another possibility is to continue cooperating with Labour as a constructive opposition, to oppose the Tories on all fronts, and to wait patiently for a proportional electoral system to replace the majority one in elections to the House of Commons.

The stunning success of the Labour Party at the 1997 and 2001 general elections and their third victory in a row in 2005 does not mean that the twoparty model is being replaced by a single-party system at the national level. As during the periods of single-handed Conservative rule in 1951–1964 and 1979–1997, it seems that the political pendulum is only temporarily favouring one of the parties. British political traditions, long-term consequences of constitutional reforms launched by New Labour, and other objective factors are already leading the pendulum to move again. At the next general elections, which may take place in 2009, the Conservatives stand a real chance of winning power for the first time in many years. In spite of the temporary distortions in the party system resulting from the current predominance of the Labour Party, the re-establishment of the two-party system can not be ruled out. However it is more likely that the further dismantling of this system and its replacement by a multiparty one is in the making.


Alexey A. Gromyko graduated from the Moscow State University with distinction, Faculty of History. Later worked at the Institute of Comparative Political Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). In 1997 — candidate of political science. From 2000 — a Senior Researcher and Head of the Centre for British Studies at the Institute of Europe, RAS. In 2005 defended the doctoral thesis «Modernisation of the British Party System (1970s2005)». The same year was appointed Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe. A member of: the Scientific Council of the Institute, the Editorial Board of the journal «Contemporary Europe», the Dissertation Council of the Russian Diplomatic Academy. In 2002 was awarded a Webb memorial Trust Scholarship and was a researcher at Ruskin College, Oxford University. In 2004 was elected to Senior Associate Membership of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Co-founder of the Russian non-governmental move-ment «For the Democratic Legal World Order and the Support of the United Nations».

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