TOPIC GUIDE: Political Parties

"Political parties are bad for democracy"

PUBLISHED: 26 Aug 2016

AUTHOR: Nadia Butt & Justine Brian

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Political parties are an essential feature of representative democracy in the UK [Ref: Wikipedia], and just a handful of parties have dominated British politics through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Members of Parliament [Ref: Parliament] are elected to represent their constituents [Ref: Merriam-Webster] whilst simultaneously standing as a representative of a political party [Ref: Parliament]. This system of legislative representation is largely replicated across what is known as ‘Western’ or ‘liberal democracy’ [Ref: Wikipedia]. However, in recent times, the role and function of long-established political parties has been in the spotlight, with debate centring on whether they are a help or hindrance to democracy. In the UK the Labour Party is currently divided over its leader and internal democratic processes [Ref: Daily Mail], and previously minor parties, such as UKIP and the SNP in Scotland, have presented a challenge to the strength and roles of mainstream parties in recent years [Ref: BBC News]; in the USA the Republican Party finds itself with a divisive Presidential candidate [Ref: Politico]; and across Europe, post-war parties are under pressure from new political movements [Ref: Guardian]. However, despite this apparent upheaval, as an example, the current leadership contest in the Labour Party has led to a huge surge in membership [Ref: International Business Times], and some argue, a more active engagement between voters and party [Ref: YouGov]. For some, this is an example of political parties being good for democracy, by encouraging participation in the political process, and representing a range of political opinions and ideologies. But others question whether political parties still serve a democratic purpose, and argue that, “political parties do not represent the people; they represent themselves” [Ref: Daily Cardinal], because the role of MPs has been subverted by the competition for power between the two dominant parties in the UK. Is it possible for politicians to truly represent their constituents whilst remaining loyal to their party? Do political parties play a crucial role in the democratic process, by representing vast swathes of the electorate on a host of issues? Or are they the cause of what some call a ‘democratic deficit’ in British politics today [Ref: Free Parliament]?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

For the people or for the party?
Democracy today is far removed from what some see as the idealised depiction of direct democracy of Plato’s Athens, where citizens played a direct role in making political decisions [Ref:]. The scale of modern societies, many argue, means that “direct democracy is still not an option on a large scale. Democracies with millions of voters probably still need some kind of representative system” [Ref: Democratic Audit]. In the UK, the electorate votes for a candidate to represent them in Parliament, with their primary role “to represent their constituents, including those who did not vote for them” [Ref: News Hub]. However, some deny that the will of constituents can ever be truly represented, due to the powerful influence of political parties over their MPs in parliament. Describing the role of MPs, the Free Parliament Campaign for instance, says that “although their primary duty is to their constituents, few dare defy the (party) Whip. Not only would their chances of promotion evaporate but they would also face demotion and even withdrawal of their party affiliation” [Ref: Free Parliament]. Ultimately, for critics of political parties, elected representatives “hew to that party line absolutely, speak when they’re told to (which is rarely), vote how they’re told to, espouse the views their leader tells them to hold, and occasionally come back to your city/town/rural area and get their picture in the paper saying that they’re standing up for your interests” [Ref: The Alfalfafield]. Nevertheless, whilst not perfect, supporters argue that political parties are a necessity for democracy, ensuring that a range of ideas are represented, giving voters choice, because “parties pick up demands from society and bundle them into packages. Demands are numerous and sometimes conflicting. Parties are able to discuss and evaluate these issues and shape human needs into policy alternatives” [Ref: IDEA]. Political parties, they argue, allow for the practical application of representative democracy, enabling “those with common values to come together and reach a position on issues that can then be offered up as a choice of programmes for voters” [Ref: Guardian].

The way forward: Independence or collective vision?
For many, it is vital that politicians are able to act according to their conscience, with 18th century British parliamentarian and writer Edmund Burke arguing that an MP, “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”  [Ref: Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774] In this spirit, and as an alternative to the traditional party structure, some advocate the introduction of more independent MPs into parliament to strengthen democracy. Graham Brady MP argues that such a move would ensure “proper scrutiny and challenge” of government, away from “a system that discourages independent thought” [Ref: Telegraph]. As it currently stands, some MPs in parliament are not affiliated to a political party, but instead stand for election on single issue campaigns [Ref: BBC News] or to be free of party direction [Ref: Financial Times]. In theory, supporters argue that if there were more of these independent MPs, “all of the 650 parliamentary seats would be given to individual representatives acting on behalf of their voters” [Ref: Democratic Audit]. However, others disagree, arguing that rather than representing the whim of an individual MP with a specific set of interests and aims, political parties, “combine individual ideas, interests and preferences to a larger vision or plan, often inspired by or accumulating to an ideology.” [Ref: Democratic Audit] They contend that the benefit of political parties to the democratic process is that they, “contribute to the stability of the government”, and are “important to the success of democracy” [Ref: Important India], acting as a “strong opposition for sustainable democracy… consistently and responsibly [exposing] the weaknesses of the ruling party and challenging it to deliver on its promises… That way the opposition is able to keep the government on its toes and motivate them to deliver on good governance” [Ref: Guardian].

A crisis of political legitimacy?
Whilst some critics of contemporary UK politics see the problem lying in the structure of the British parliament - the way MPs are elected and the dominance of the two-party system of governance - others point to a more fundamental issue. Political parties in western liberal democracies have traditionally convinced voters “that they will deliver jobs, decent wages, financial stability and enough economic growth…By and large, this is what the parties have done since the 1950s.” [Ref: Financial Times].  For these critics, the issue is not a technical or structural one to do with political parties, but instead a crisis of political legitimacy, and a breakdown of the post-war ‘social contract’. One commentator, speaking of the current American situation, where both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have upset the traditional party establishments, argues that “The social contract is a modern invention. It is the implicit agreement between a state and its people about how a country should be governed.  When the social contract works, there is peace in the land…But when the social contract breaks down, as it seems to be today, people get restless.” [Ref: Salon] Across liberal democracies the post-war order is being questioned as seen in the rise of new political movements [Ref: Guardian], and in the UK, politicians “know that their parties, their political vehicles, be they Tory or Labour, no longer have deep roots in wider society”, and they are unable to turn “their parties into expressions, representations, of social sentiment, to inspire people, to articulate with clarity the interests and vision of large swathes of the British populace” [Ref: spiked]. So would independent MPs be a solution for what some call our “malfunctioning democracy” [Ref: Guardian]? Or do political parties still play a vital role – holding government to account and cohering people around broad political aims? Are political parties good for democracy?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Britain’s two-party political system isn’t working

Steve Hilton Guardian 20 April 2016

Political parties are bad for democracy

Thomas Rademacher Daily Cardinal 24 February 2016

The end of the party: how we could be heading for a post-democratic era

Michael Kenny & Nick Pearce New Statesman 1 August 2014


How American politics went insane

Jonathan Rauch Atlantic August 2016

Why political parties are good for America

David Cole Odyssey 15 February 2016


A crisis of trust - and the rise of new political parties

Alberto Nardelli Guardian 6 November 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The week Democracy died

Yascha Mounk Slate 14 August 2016

Huge rise in Labour membership figures show Corbyn’s strength

Sam Power The Conversation 5 August 2016

More democracy within parties, less democracy without

Doug Saunders Globe & Mail 30 July 2016

Corbyn’s populism is bad for British democracy

Thomas Baker News Hub 28 July 2016

Jeremy Corbyn support rises among party members

Luke Chambers YouGov 19 July 2016

The new social contract: Trump, Sanders, Cruz

Robert Freeman Salon 6 February 2016

Functions of political parties in democracy

Amit Goel Important India 21 July 2015

The party system is undemocratic – here’s why

Matt Alfalfafield Alfalfafield 12 July 2015

Europe must confront crisis of legitimacy

Tony Barber Financial Times 23 April 2012

Britain’s would-be independent MPs

Alex Barker Financial Times 10 April 2010

Political parties: necessary for democracy?

Matthias Caton IDEA 12 March 2007

What MPs do


The party system



Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Britain delivers stunning rejection to EU

Wall Street Journal 24 June 2016


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