Political Parties

June 04, 2020 Pete G

Comparing political systems

Lockdown lessons  No 2

Political Parties  in context - the development of a multiparty system

Party systems dominate politics in Britain. In "Party and Party Systems", G. Sartori describes a party system as:

"the system of interactions resulting from inter-party competition".

In Britain the party system essentially means the way the political parties of the day interact with one another within the politically competitive nature of Westminster and beyond.

A number of different types of party systems have been identified:

One-party system: a one-party system cannot produce a political system as we would identify it in Britain. One party cannot produce any other system other than autocratic/dictatorial power. A state where one party rules would include the remaining communist states of the world (Cuba, North Korea and China). The old Soviet Union ( USSR) was a one party state. One of the more common features of a one-party state is that the position of the ruling party is guaranteed in a constitution and all forms of political opposition are banned by law. The ruling party controls all aspects of life within that state. In Soviet Russia, for example, music could well be regarded as bourgeois and therefore unfit for public performance. Naturally, those in breach of such conditions could be exiled or worse. One of the greatest Russian composers, Dimitri Shostakovich, was in a constant cultural and political battle with the Kremlin. Amazingly, he survived whilst Uncle Joe Stalin relaxed to the sounds of the bourgeois Mozart.

Two-party system: as the title indicates, this is a state in which just two parties dominate. Other parties might exist but they have no political importance. America has the most obvious two-party political system with the Republicans and Democrats dominating the political scene. For the system to work, one of the parties must obtain a sufficient working majority after an election and it must be in a position to be able to govern without the support from the other party. A rotation of power is expected in this system. The victory of Barrack Obama in the November 2008 election, fulfils this aspect of the definition.

The two-party system presents the voter with a simple choice and it is believed that the system promotes political moderation as the incumbent party must be able to appeal to the ‘floating voters’ within that country. Those who do not support the system claim that it leads to unnecessary policy reversals if a party loses an election as the newly elected government seeks to impose its ‘mark’ on the country that has just elected it to power. Such sweeping reversals, it is claimed, cannot benefit the state in the short and long term.

The multi-party system: as the title suggests, this is a system where more than two parties have some impact in a state’s political life. Coalitions are familiar in Scotland with the SNP; in Wales with Plaid Cymru and in Northern Ireland with the various Unionists groups and Sein Fein.

A multi-party system can lead to a coalition government as in the UK ( Conservative-LibDem/ Conservative -DUP ) and Germany. In Germany these have provided reasonably stable governments and a successful coalition can introduce an effective system of checks and balances on the government that can promote political moderation. Additionally, many policy decisions take into account all views and interests. In Italy, coalition governments have not been a success; many have lasted less than one year. In Israel, governments have relied on the support of extreme minority groups to form a coalition government and this has created its own problems with such support being withdrawn on a whim or if those extreme parties feel that their own specific views are not being given enough support.

Dominant-party system: this is different from a one-party system. A party is quite capable within the political structure of a state to become dominant to such an extent that victory at elections is considered a formality. This was the case under the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. For 18 years (1979 to 1997), one party dominated politics in Britain.

In theory, the Conservatives could have lost any election during these 18 years. But such was the disarray of the opposition parties - especially Labour - and the nature of the the UK’s First Past The Post system ( gaining a majority of 100 plus virtually ensures at least two terms in office ) that electoral victory was all but guaranteed. The elections of the 1980s and 1990s were fought with competition from other parties - hence there can be no comparison with a one-party state. During an extended stay in power, a dominant party can shape society through its policies. During the Thatcher era, health, education, the state ownership of industry etc. were all massively changed and re-shaped. Society changed as a result of these political changes and this can only be done by a party having an extended stay in office.

Other features of a dominant system are:

The party in power becomes complacent and sees that its position in power is ‘guaranteed’. Such political arrogance is seen as one of the reasons for the public’s overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives in 1997. The difference between the party in power and the state loses its distinction. When both appear to merge  an unhealthy relationship develops whereby the state’s machinery of carrying out government policy is seen as being done automatically and where senior state officials are rewarded by the party in power. This scenario overshadowed the Thatcher governments when the Civil Service was seen as a mere rubber stamp of government policy and senior Civil Servants were suitably rewarded in the Honours lists.

An era of a dominant party is also an era when opposition parties are weak. This was true during the Conservatives domination of Britain in the 1980s. Once the Labour Party started to strengthen in the 1990s and internal problems were resolved, the whole issue of a dominant party was threatened leading to the defeat of the Conservatives in 1997.

It would be fair to conclude that Britain had a dominant-party up to the 2010 election. The Labour government had a 179 majority when elected to office in 1997 and therefore had the freedom to do politically what it liked. The powers devolved to the regions were restrained by the simple fact that Westminster was still the major purse-holder of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, thereby not giving these three regions the freedom to be truly devolved.  Should - as is highly likely, given an 80 majority - the Conservatives win the next general election this could further strengthen the dominant party system thesis.  

Lockdown Task 2

Using the above article and your own knowledge and ideas  …..

Explain what is meant by a one party, two party, dominant party and multi-party system.

A brief paragraph on each should suffice!

Now to a couple of little longer questions:

Discuss the view that the UK has a two party system.  

You might wish to consider ( then again , you may not ) UK governments since 1945 and the  occasions when coalitions ( Lib - Lab/Tory- LibDem/ Tory -DUP) were formed and when a minority administration functioned. Also, were we to reflect pre 1945 we would recognise the existence of a  National government. Moments of crisis - sound familiar? - might lead to cross party consensus. Since 1945 the UK has experienced periods of both majority Conservative and Labour rule. However, as you can see this is not always the case. 

Discuss the view that the two party system hinders democracy.

The main consideration here might be that such a system prevents the beliefs of other so called  ‘minority’ views - green/environmentalism, for instance - being represented. A major party might ‘appeal’ to the green voter by offering green compromises in their manifesto but fall considerably short of actual radical change on say, our carbon footprint. Therefore, a significant potential difference is diluted, reduced to mere tinkering and populism.

How about trying 2-3 paragraphs for each? Hey, it’s just a thought.


When contemplating the nature of a dominant party system we will begin to look at the media’s role.  A one party state will have a state run newspaper. For example, the USSR had Pravda and the People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. However, in the UK we have a media generally sympathetic to the Conservatives, a situation which probably dates as far back as the 1920s and the Daily Mail’s notorious Zinoviev letter.

What are the dangers of a compliant media?  


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