Models of Voting
When electors enter the polling booth at UK general elections the ballot paper invites them to select an individual to be their Member of Parliament (MP), but most choose their preferred candidate not because of her or his qualities and characteristics but rather because of the political party he or she is standing for. Indeed, since ballot papers were revised in 1969 to allow candidates to include a small amount of information about themselves, most have used this opportunity to give the name of their party. This is because parties dominate UK general elections and most people's voting choice is determined by the party whose policies they wish to support and which they hope to see in government. The same is now also true at most local government elections (although this is a relatively recent development, especially in rural areas where 'independent' county and district councillors were for long the norm: see Johnson, 1972) and in those for seats in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Only in European Parliament elections and for the 'list seats' (a minority of the total) in the Scottish and Welsh legislatures are electors invited to vote just for a party. In Northern Ireland, the electoral system for all contests other than seats in the House of Commons invites voters to rank order candidates according to their preferences for them—but again, the main determinant of their choice is not the individuals' characteristics but rather the party they represent.
Parties dominate British politics therefore—as they do in all comparable countries, and have done in the UK for most of the past two centuries, especially at general elections, on which this book concentrates. Parties play three interrelated roles in national politics (as identified by a leading American political scientist, V. O. Key, 1964): in government, in the electorate, and as organizations. Their role in government is to provide parliamentary majorities—either separately or in coalition—which will enable their policy objectives to be implemented: the government has a guaranteed majority (unless some of its members defect), which allows it to enact its programme. Parties are the media by which not only the government but also the opposition are organized; for the former, in particular, they provide the stability without which an executive would find both legislation and administration extremely difficult.
A parliamentary party thus comprises a group of elected members committed to an agreed legislative programme set within an established political