John Whitehead considers the history and policies of the five parliamentary parties. If you'd like to see what they have to say about themselves, go to our political links page.
The Conservative Party
The Conservatives, also known as the 'Tories', have been the governing party of the United Kingdom since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher led her party to a 43-seat majority in the general election. The Conservative majority in the House of Commons rose to over 100 at the general elections in 1983 and 1987, but fell in 1992 to just 21 seats.
John Major, MP for Huntingdon, became leader of the Conservative Party in 1990, shortly before the last general election. Commonly viewed as an honourable leader who has had difficulty in maintaining the unity of a party for whom Europe, in particular, has become divisive, the popular expectation is that he will no longer be Prime Minister after the 1997 election. However, most opinion polls predicted a Conservative defeat in 1992, which failed to materialise.
A right of centre party, and in their own eyes, Britain's natural party of government, the past 18 years have seen the Conservatives moving to ever greater economic liberalisation and, arguably, political nationalism.
Ever more public sector business concerns have been moved to the private sector, trade union power has been curtailed and Britain's national self-interest has been stoutly defended, whether in going to war over the Falkland Islands, or in resisting greater integration within the European Union.
Most commentators attribute the Conservatives' electoral success through the 1980s to their winning the votes of the social groups referred to as 'C1C2s' - non-management white-collar workers and skilled blue-collar workers, many of whom had previously been loyal to the Labour Party.
This led to the coining of the term 'Essex man' to describe these voters. Essex, a county to the east of London, has become home to many former working-class families from London's East End - some through a natural progression to London's eastern fringes, as greater affluence has permitted them to buy their own homes, and some through re-location to new towns such as Harlow and Basildon.
The Conservatives' natural constituency has always been among the better-off and older sections on the population, with a marked regional bias towards the more affluent South East regions.
The Conservatives have a particular problem in Scotland, where the common perception that they have become the party of English, as opposed to British nationalism has led to a drastic decline in their vote since the 1950s. At the last election the Conservatives only won 10 of Scotland's 72 parliamentary constituencies.
The Labour Party
The Labour Party last held power in Britain in 1979 under the premiership of James Callaghan. Although pursuing broadly social democratic policies when in power, most members of the Labour Party then still saw it as a socialist party, and the party had very strong and public links with the trade union movement.
This became even clearer at the 1983 general election when Labour stood on a very left wing manifesto and nearly slipped to third place in the national vote behind the then-extant 'Alliance' party grouping (see Liberal Democrat Party).
The 1980s saw the Labour Party in turmoil with pro-European social democrats splitting away to form the short-lived Social Democratic Party, while within the party the leadership struggled to control extreme left-wing elements. All of this led to serious problems of credibility with the electorate.
The past decade has seen the Labour Party steadily attempt to reconstruct itself as a more clearly centrist/social democratic party, weakening links with the trade union movement and distancing itself from self-styled socialists.
This process was started under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, now a European Commissioner, and continued by John Smith, who led the party from 1992 to his early death in 1994. Labour now claim that this process of modernisation has been completed under new leader Tony Blair, MP for Sedgefield in County Durham. However, such claims are unsurprisingly challenged by the Conservatives. This modernisation has led to the label 'New Labour' being attached to the party.
Labour's natural heartland lies in the traditional industrial seats of South Wales, the Midlands, the North and Scotland, as well as parts of poorer Inner London. The entire project of the Labour leadership in the past ten years has been to win back the more middle-income voters that were lost to the Conservatives in 1979.
Success in this venture will be indicated by Labour gains in the 1997 general election in Outer London, the South East and the Midlands.
The Liberal Democrat Party
The Liberal Democrat Party of the 1990s has emerged from the resolution of much manouvering within the centre ground of British Politics over the past 20 years. It is best seen as the successor of the former Liberal Party. Indeed, a tendency on the part of political opponents to refer to them as simply 'Liberals', raises the hackles of most Liberal Democrat spokesmen.
Led by Paddy Ashdown, MP for Yeovil, the Liberal Democrats and its antecedents have for decades been the poor thirds of British politics, gaining a respectable share of the national vote but winning very few seats under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Not surprisingly, the party are long standing supporters of proportional representation.
In 1981 the Liberals found themselves sharing the centre ground with the Social Democratic Party that had broken away from Labour. They fought the 1983 general election together as the 'Alliance', and nearly reached second place in the popular vote, although even then very few seats were gained.
This coalition subsequently fell apart. Most members of the SDP joined with most Liberals to form the new Liberal Democrat Party. A continuing rump Social Democrat Party soon disappeared, and a similar similar rump Liberal Party, although extant, is not a serious player on the national stage.
That the Liberal Democrats win any seats at all results from a few areas of regional strength, in the South West, rural Wales, and the Border and Highland areas of Scotland. This bias to very rural and sparsely populated areas means that the Liberal Democrats, although only holding around a tenth of the number of parliamentary seats of the Labour Party, control a vastly larger land area. Colour coded maps may therefore seem to overstate Liberal Democrat strength.
Where strong, the Liberal Democrats are normally runners-up or challengers to the Conservative Party, particularly in securely comfortable county towns and rural constituencies. Any modest advance by the Party will see them winning primarily Conservative seats in the South and South West.
However, in a few metropolitan areas the Liberal Democrats have built very local pockets of strength which see them winning a few seats or being the leading challenger to Labour. This local tradition of seeing Labour rather than the Conservatives as the opposition is guaranteed to cause some difficulty for Paddy Ashdown if a hung parliament after the next election opens up the possibility of a coalition government with Labour.
The Scottish National Party
The Scottish National Party (SNP), are now a truly nationalist party and advocate an 'independent Scotland within Europe'. This is far more radical than proposals from Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a form of devolved regional government in Scotland that preserves the Union with England.
The SNP have built strong local support in more rural parts of Scotland where they have won a handful of seats, and are the main challengers in a number of others.
In 1992 the SNP made modest but significant advances in more industrial seats in Central Scotland, which has long been a region with strong loyalties to Labour. In many such constituencies the SNP candidate achieved second place in 1992, but nowhere do they seem strong enough to pose a serious threat to Labour in 1997.
If the SNP were to maintain or improve on these positions in 1997 and Labour were to form the next government and then enter a subsequent general election as the unpopular incumbent party, there could, hypothetically, be a scenario where the SNP could make substantial advances in the future. However, such unsubstantiated speculation in not really relevant to the general election at hand.
The fact that the SNP have become the challengers to Labour in many Scottish constituencies has led many Labour politicians to deride the SNP as being 'tartan Tories', but the true picture is more complex than this. The SNP will be looking to consolidate and make gains at the expense of all the other parties in Scotland.
Plaid Cymru (The Welsh Nationalist Party)
Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist Party, is currently the party of those parts of the population of Wales whose sense of Welsh nationality is defined by the Welsh language. Welsh remains the language of a majority of the population in parts of west and north-west Wales, although these areas are now bilingual. Plaid Cymru currently hold four of the five parliamentary seats where Welsh fluency predominates, the odd man-out being Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where they challenge the Labour Party.
At occasional past Welsh by-elections Plaid Cymru have managed to gain the votes of a wider constituency among the electorate of Wales in other parts of the principality, but their electoral success at general elections remains very closely correlated with language.
Plaid Cymru tends to be a radical party. Although restrained by Welsh non-conformist religious traditions from being too adventurous in some areas of social policy, they tend to vote with Labour. They espouse a vision of Wales enjoying a high degree of local government within a Europe of relatively autonomous regions.