The Inner Workings of British Political Parties by Ben Westerman


This report examines the interaction between organisational structures within Britain’s two major political parties, assessing the influence this can have on political direction and behaviours.

The UK’s arcane electoral system has resulted in the dominance of two parties for a century. However, public attitudes to political parties are overwhelmingly negative. This paper therefore explores the ways in which the behaviour of contemporary political parties, so negatively perceived, is shaped by their organisational structures and the interactions of individuals and groups within party organisations, rather than simply by political policy or ideology. Contemporary parties in a parliamentary democracy do not and cannot function as simple hierarchies. Individuals within party structures have varying interests and career paths and the relationships between them are fluid. Within the parties, the rules dictating the selection and career paths of those in different roles and the governance of the parties play a central role in governing these inter-relationships.

When we scratch the surface of the two parties, we find two organisations radically different in aim, ethos and structure despite sharing the common goal of seeking to govern the country. The Conservative Party, a top-down organisation which exists predominantly to support its MPs in forming a governing majority contrasts greatly with the Labour Party, a bottom-up movement which aims to represent its members and is far more concerned with internal democracy. However, striking similarities can be found when it comes to ability of dogmatic leaderships to shape their parties.

Through a study of the rules, constitutions and structures of the two parties, a series of interviews conducted with staff, MPs and party members, and a review of existing academic literature on the two major parties, this paper aims to shed light on how and why our political parties act, and what conclusions we can draw from this about their – and the UK’s – future.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.