Myths and realities

Why we need political parties

Political parties are rarely popular. However, there is general agreement in any representative democracy that if political parties did not exist, we would almost certainly have to invent them.

The core functions of political parties in a democracy are widely agreed upon.  Political parties serve to aggregate and weigh-up the competing demands of different groups in civil society to formulate policy proposals and programmes. They compete at elections to secure a mandate from the electorate to implement their respective policy programmes.

In turn, competition between organised parties offers the best guarantee that free and fair elections will result in the formation of an effective government (whether formed from a single-party or a coalition) and that the government will be held to to account by effective opposition groupings.  In short, political parties provide the principal interface between free civil society and effective, accountable government.

Why political parties need money

If they are to undertake these tasks successfully, political parties cannot be sustained by party membership fees and the volunteer labour of their activists alone. They also need access to financial resources to develop policies, to engage with constant media coverage of political affairs, and to run election campaigns.

In recent decades party spending has risen significantly. The major factor behind this rise in spending does not appear to be the increase in general election spending since the late 1980s – although this is a factor.

Rather, the major cause is almost certainly the professionalisation of party politics associated with new forms of political communications and media management. In effect, political parties are engaged in a sort of ‘permanent election campaign’ – the costs of which can run into tens of millions of pounds for the two largest parties.

Paying for the party

Unlike their counterparts in most of Western Europe, UK political parties do not receive significant amounts of money from the state (although the main opposition party in the UK Parliament can receive in excess of £5 million annually via government grants).  As a result, political parties have long been dependent on large donations to finance their operations, giving rise to what has often been described as ‘a big donor culture’.

Britain’s big donor culture

Party funding scandals

Public support for reform