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To what extent are modern political parties in the UK “catch- all parties”?
Politics in Britain has seen radical change throughout time. In terms of the political spectrum, parties who dominate Government are either traditionally right wing or left wing. In Britain, the conservatives are a right-wing party while the labour party sit on the left on the spectrum. The liberal party were a dominant left-wing party up until labours uprising.
Throughout the 20th century, Britain was met by radical new ideologies from both sides of the political spectrum, which have largely shaped British politics today.
A ‘catch-all party’ is the term given to parties who” attempt to maximise electoral support by appealing to as many classes and interests as possible” (Gabrovsky, 2018) Otto Kirchheimer is the founder of this concept, which is part of his theory on party transformation. Kirchheimer was fixated on the vanishing of “principled opposition within parliament and society” (Krouwel,2011) and his approach is still applicable to the on-going debate to the change of western political systems.
The Conservative party is the oldest political party in the UK, with its’s oldest tradition being high Toryism. Traditionalist conservatism is an ideology that has seen decline in modern politics. State socialism and capitalism poses a threat to the focus of high Toryism, as the values of a traditional, family rooted society which traditional conservatives favour, is an expiring concept in modern society. A key movement which enforced changed to traditional conservatism was the French Revolution. Britain saw a new-found concept known as classic liberalism which challenged old traditions about governments and societies, with an emphasis on economic aswell as individual freedom. (Leach, 2011)
One nation conservatism became most influential during the 20th century until the rise of Thatcherism.(Bale,2011)With this ideology revolving around uniting the British people to decrease class alignment, it could be said the conservatist party had began to show characteristics of becoming a catch-all party early on. During the 1920s/1930s the Prime Ministers of those eras Baldwin and Chamberlain were keen to appeal to more working-class voters. The conservatives were dubbed as ‘the party of everyone’ whereas the opposition labour, were driven by appealing to one section of society and initiating a class war. In more recent times, the coalition government produced by the 2010 general election, saw conservative leader David Cameron become prime Minister. Cameron associates as a one-nation conservative and had a forceful impact on modernising the conservative party. His leadership abandoned traditionalist conservatist components and instead embraced social liberalism (Hitchens, 2005) Todays PM Theresa May, continues to advocate one nation conservatism. Her political positions do display an interest in the working-class family and her first speech in office mentioned “the government I lead will be driven not be the interests of the privileged few but by yours” (Stewart, 2016)
This is a clear demonstration of how the conservatists have drifted to catch-all policy’s. The shift from only engaging with middle/upper-class values, to attempting to appeal to all of society within Britain, maybe contemplates how political apathy is widespread throughout the party as the
Thatcherism also known as neo-liberal, is one of the boldest political ideology’s to arise from the conservatives. The ideology originating from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ignited a battle between conservatism and socialism (Leach, Coxall, Robins 2011) Thatcher favoured the free market and discarded “traditional conservative pragmatism” (Leach, Coxall, Robins 2011) Thatcherism was successful with the electorate for only a short while. Social, economic and political environments were forever changed under Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher is probably the most controversial Prime Minister in modern times, but it should be noted that thatcher did attract new voters to the Tories. Many working-class groups of voters who had historically been devoted with labour, switched their support to the conservatives. Thatcher’s stance on Britain’s economic circumstances significantly boosted support for the party. On the contrary, the conservative party experienced some of the worst popularity during the thatcher era. (Twyman, 2013)
In terms of Scottish politics, the Scottish Nationalist party is the party with the largest support in Scotland, shown by the 2007 election and could be classed as a successful catch-all party. The SNP appeal to both independence supporters but also those who favour Scottish autonomy within the union. (Lundberg, 2014) SNP are somewhat unique as they appeal to all sections of society through its left-wing identity, and comfortably compete with Scottish Labour by utilising grass-roots campaigning. The SNP’s positive campaign is solely focused on making Scotland prosper, socially and economically. Although the SNPs main political drive is achieving Scottish independence, the working-class families policies such as the baby box proves SNP are in favour of attracting not just independence support, but the votes of the majority Scottish population. Introducing these policies broadens electoral support by appealing to all social class backgrounds, age groups and genders. The party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is the first Minister to make the cabinet gender equal. Promoting gender equality in modern politics greatly enhanced the SNP’s image with the electorate. The abolishment of University tuition fees is a policy that largely caters for the middle class. In saying this, SNP are at odds with middle class voters (Political Studies Association). Higher council tax and higher income tax has damaged the already lack of support for SNP from the Scottish middle class. Therefore, classing SNP as a successful catch-all party is somewhat hindered.
The labour party has been the main opposition of the conservative party since the collapse of the liberals. The post-ww2 period was when labour introduced the most radical government of the 20th century. With significant social change evolving after the war, changes introduced by labour were reluctantly accepted by the conservatives.
Labour values lie in representing the needs and interests of the working class. In the first era of labours uprising “British socialism began to make headway in local government” (Davies,1996) During the inter-war years, labour was increasingly climbing the political ladder in terms of support and government representation. It wasn’t until the 1945 wartime coalition that labour was able to put their ideas into practice. Labour enforced a wide range of economic reforms to improve the living standards of the working-class Britons.
In more recent times, Labour has drifted to more middle-class values. Former PM Tony Blair was at the forefront of labours shift in principles. Middle class socialism was the new face of the labour party under Blair. (The Economist,2018) Tony Blair was convinced that labour must drop some of its old positions to convince the public it was ready for power. Thus, labour was transitioning into a catch-all party and now seen as more left wing. The term “New labour- New Britain” was the core of Blairs New labour movement.
Although, in its effort to modernise and change the face of the labour party, the party can be seen to lose touch with it’s working class roots. “Many of it’s traditional communities that have voted labour for generations are not voting labour anymore” (Financial times,2017) The party distancing themselves from trade unions to become more concentrated of the middle centre, may have impacted long standing support for labour.
The current labour party under leader Jeremy Corbyn, has almost looped back by returning to left ideology’s rather than centre-ground like that of previous leaders such as Tony Blair. Labour can be seen as trying to re-establish its image as a working-class social party by acting in a catch all manner.
In Conclusion, I agree many political parties have adopted a catch-all style to a certain extent. It is clear that many parties consolidate a middle ground stance to seek as many voters as possible. As discussed, party leaders have played down their traditional party ideologies, in order to appeal to groups that have not previously supported them. The conservatives and labour both expanded the welfare state, as economic prosperity is a mainstream interest for the public. The Tories perhaps saw the most radical changes within their party, from Thatcherism to Cameron’s rule. Although Margaret thatcher’s leadership somewhat contradicted the catch all party theory. Her policies divided political opinion, but did engage with groups previously not associated with the Tories. Currently the conservatives advocate a one nation ideology under Theresa May, an ideology that is aimed at bringing Britons together, hence displaying the catch all thesis.
The establishment of New labour by Tony Blair saw the party undergo renovation, and by Kirchheimer’s model, is clearly a catch all party. Securing middle ground has dominated labour’s focus since Blairs rule and took the consequences of paying less attention to its tradition working class voters, in favour to attract swing voters.
The SNP can be seen as the model catch-all party, by implementing policies aimed at appealing to the majority of scots. Its centre-left wing image aligns with working class roots and draws in middle class support through its “putting Scotland first” campaigning.
Although such parties have highlighted catch-all characteristics, it should be noted that they are not absolutely catch-all. The Tories have gained recognition by some for increasingly becoming the’ party for everyone’, yet they remain firmly affiliated with the middle-class values. Labour are maybe the most prolific catch-all party as the rebranding of the party demonstrated a strong desire for modern political change and the need for not just working-class votes, but other sections of society. This reinforces my argument that modern political parties in the UK are catch-all to a partial extent.
Word Count – 1606
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- Gabrovsky, I, 2018, UK Institutions and political parties, Week 4, SS08101, Edinburgh Napier University. (Lecture delivered on 01/10/2018)
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