Britain’s political parties and the constitution

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Tim Bale

February 9, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at role that political parties play through their influential constitutional reforms.

Political parties are the “ghosts in the machine” of the UK constitution – and more attention should be paid to their role in reforming how it operates. This guest paper by Professor Tim Bale for the Institute for Government/Bennett Institute Review of the UK constitution explores the “vital but barely acknowledged” role that political parties play through their influential – and often self-interested – constitutional reforms. Bale cites franchise reform, curbing the power of the House of Lords, reorganising local governance, legislating for human rights, creating a Supreme Court, introducing devolution, and leaving the European Union as examples of the way political parties have changed the constitution. In Europe, 28 out of 32 continental democracies now make references to parties in their constitution, but in the absence of a codified UK constitution the “role, rights and responsibilities of political parties remain at the level of an assumption and an implication.” However, the report argues that political parties “deserve more attention than they have traditionally been paid whenever we come to discuss what we might term ‘the rules of the game’ – rules that they themselves help set, and a game in which they are some of the principal players.” This increased attention could mean codification or, at the very least, a further ‘official’ and therefore authoritative contribution to the sources of the UK’s uncodified constitution.