University & Degrees

The fundamentals of UK politics

6 mins
January 17, 2022
Politics is a fascinating subject and it plays a huge part in our daily lives; from the amount of tax we pay (and what it gets spent on) to more minor things like what type of eggs we're allowed to make an omelette with (yes, really!), it all comes down to politics. Let's face it, UK politics is confusing. It's made worse because many politicians constantly move around different government roles, meaning just when you think you've got a handle on things - they change! In this article, we're going to discuss the fundamentals of UK politics, so even if the players change, you'll still know the rules of the game. So…

What is politics?

We all engage with political ideas on some level - but sitting down to think about the answer to the question 'what is politics?' can be trickier than it sounds! Put simply, politics is the set of activities associated with the governance of a country or area. Politics covers and impacts a broad range of sectors, including education, health, public services, food production and distribution, and welfare.

How does politics work in the UK?

Politics in the United Kingdom operates within a 'constitutional monarchy' similar to that of countries like Spain, Thailand, Denmark, Japan and the Netherlands. This means that the monarch (in the UK's case, the Queen) is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government.

Since 1999, the UK government has shared executive powers with the devolved governments of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly. Whilst certain powers remain with the UK-wide government, a devolved government means that a large number of powers rest with the devolved government of that country (an example of this would be how Scotland had different rules in place for the Covid-19 epidemic).

The UK Parliament in London is the heart of the political system in Britain. It is the legislative body for the UK and British overseas territories. The UK Parliament is made up of two chambers – the House of Lords and the House of Commons:

  • The House of Lords includes three types of members: Bishops from the Church of England, nobility (noble titles, eg, “Sir”, “Dame”, “Lord”, “Baron”, “Lady” and “Baroness”), and Law Lords (judges). Its members are not elected but instead appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.
  • The House of Commons consists of democratically elected Members of Parliament (MPs) from various political parties.

Elections are held every five years following party campaigns. Everyone aged 18 and over can vote and elect parties within their local and national areas.

What is left-wing? What is right-wing?

Political parties can be split into three groups: left-wing, right-wing and centrist (in the middle of the two). Let’s explain these a little more.
Left wing parties believe:  

  • The government should be more involved in our lives.
  • The government should distribute wealth among us all.
  • Public sector services and jobs are good.
  • Large businesses can be bad as they tend to care more about profits than people.
  • People who earn lots of money should be taxed the most.
  • The government should offer essential services to everyone for free.
  • They believe in minimum wage, a welfare state and nationalising industries (i.e. turning privately owned assets into publicly owned assets).

Right wing parties believe:

  • The state should only be strong enough to ensure we don’t commit crimes, our streets are clean and our roads are paved (essentially, to ensure that the country is running well) but the state shouldn’t be the only one making sure of this.
  • People should be taxed at the same rate; if people that make more are taxed more and everyone is looked after by the state, then there is no incentive to work hard.
  • Business is good - it keeps the country wealthy and ensures new innovations.
  • The private sector is good as it brings new jobs and innovations and the state shouldn’t take over business.
  • The public sector is inefficient and slow.
  • The minimum wage is okay, but people should work hard for what they earn.

What is a political party?

A political party isn’t a load of people in suits setting off party poppers. In fact, a political party is an organised group of people sharing similar political ideas who come together to operate the government and determine public policy. There are lots of political parties in the UK (around 300!) but the three main ones are: The Conservative Party, The Labour Party and The Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives are a right-wing party, Labour is a left-wing party and the Liberal Democrats sit in the middle.  

People vote in elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them and have a ‘seat’ in parliament. The party that gets the most seats in parliament forms the Government. For example, if the Conservatives have the most seats in parliament, then the UK has a Conservative government. The other parties then become the ‘opposition’; they check and debate the work of the government in parliament.

The way voters decide on which party they want to be in power is by reading through their manifesto, which is a document that sets out their beliefs and what they think should be done to run all areas of the country better. All parties have one, and they cover everything from how much money they’ll need in taxes and how it should be spent to whether or not we should be part of the European Union (side note: a referendum (public vote) on whether we should be in the European Union was part of the conservative manifesto in 2012/16).

Other parts of the UK also have their own political parties which operate alongside the main ones:

  • Political Parties in Scotland: The Scottish National Party, The Scottish Labour Party, The Scottish Conservatives, The Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Green Party.
  • Political Parties in Wales: Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
  • Political Parties in Northern Ireland: The Northern Ireland Assembly elects the Northern Ireland Executive, which consists of several key ministers, including the First Minister. Key political parties are The Ulster Unionist Party, Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, and Social Democratic and Labour Party.

How to get into politics in the UK

From lobbying to communications, journalism to research, academia to strategy, there are a broader variety of jobs in politics than people think. Because politics impact so many different parts of our society, there’s a broad scope of work and career pathways available - it’s not just about becoming an MP! Here are a few different opportunities worth exploring:

  • Policy officers use research and analysis to advise the government, think tanks (also known as policy institutes) and businesses to help them make informed decisions. The major part of their work is conducting research, analysing data, and presenting information to others. They liaise across departments and organisations and often play a role in communicating policy changes and campaigns.
  • Political risk analysts examine issues that may impact policies and the public. They then inform organisations and government departments on the risks relating to those issues. This includes economic conditions, crime levels, government stability, trade and regulations, and human rights issues. They may analyse risks based on country, specific sectors or industries, or particular issues.
  • Politician’s assistants provide administrative support to an elected politician. They help with secretarial tasks, research and publicity. They’re involved with behind-the-scenes work to help their politicians achieve their campaign goals and represent their constituents effectively.
  • Public affairs officers draw on their knowledge of the political system to offer political and public policy advice to their clients. Clients may include private sector companies, trade associations, charities, not-for-profit organisations and overseas governments. Public affairs officers leverage their networks, media sources, and contacts to stay up to date on political developments and uncover key information to assist their clients and keep them informed.

How do you get politics work experience?

Now you’ve got some of the fundamentals down, do you think you’ve got what it takes to complete our Politics virtual work experience programme? Even if you’re not looking to develop a career in politics, we promise it will still come in handy!

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