Saturday, November 10, 2007

Are UK Political Parties Dying?


[Plus Two Approaches which Might Save Them]

This is a question frequently asked by political scientists and if the answer is yes, our democracy has a mega crisis brewing sometime soon in the future.On 30th September, 2007, Simon Jenkins suggested in his Sunday Times article that ‘Political Parties are Dying’. Let’s look first at the case that parties are already in ‘intensive care’:

Ideology: some time ago now, Otto Kircheimer- a German writing in the USA- suggested that those mass ideological movements called political parties had ceased to relate all that much to ideology per se. Instead, they had become ‘catch-all’ parties: assemblers of voter coalitions, gathering in a pocket of support here, wooing a block of interest groups there. If we apply this model to the UK New Labour might easily be deemed a neat enough fit. Having realized its ideology had been rejected by voters four times in succession, it decided, in effect, to abandon it. But without a saleable message to market, what could it do? Answer, borrow another. New Labour acquired the economic programme of the Tories: Thatcherism, the unpleasant but apparently effective remedy for an ailing economy which focused on tight control of interest rates, opposition to trade union curbs on economic activity and an emphasis on ‘flexible’ employment policies which enabled employers to hire and fire without too much restraint.

To this lurch to the right Brown and Blair, advised by the likes of Mandelson and Gould, added: a line on law and order which openly competed for toughness with the Conservatives; a promise to follow Conservative spending plans for two years after winning power; and an approach to public services which seemed to accept the Thatcherite premise of ‘Public sector bad, private sector good’. Many traditional Labour party members thought Blair was advancing the interests of the privileged class from whence he sprang, rather than the disadvantaged one Labour had always championed. When he came to power, Gordon Brown, having posed as an ‘Old Labour’ supporter, seemed to take the process even further, with his embrace of rightwing policies and gestures like inviting Margaret Thatcher to Downing St. When Cameron turned the tables on him by advancing initiatives on inheritance tax and on the lightly taxed ‘non domiciles’, Brown promptly stole these policies. With this bare faced policy larceny, ‘Political cross dressing’ had reached a kind of apotheosis. Moreover, with Cameron seeking to haul his party into that electorally strategic centre ground, the current political spectrum is as narrow as I can remember. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian 2nd November 2007 thinks the positioning for the centre ground masks a reality:

At heart, of course, Labour and Tories are viscerally separate tribes, deep-dyed by their own histories, born and bred in opposite intellectual and moral universes; government under either would differ much more than they pretend. Yet in public they converge, swimming in a shoal, afraid lest any difference might alienate anyone. So they nibble each other's tails on small policies, but stick together on everything large.

Participation: to function properly a representative democracy needs a participating citizenry to staff the parties and vote in elections.

Parties: Simon Jenkins, in The Sunday Times, 30th September 2007, sums this up as follows:
The collapse of parties in Britain has been spectacular. In the 1950s more than 4m people claimed some affiliation. Today the figure is 0.5m and falling, having dropped 70% in the past 25 years alone. Even those asserting some political activity amount to a mere 2% of adults, the lowest in any comparable democracy.
Voting Turnout: most people are now aware that the decline in party membership and activism is merely a symptom of a wider malaise. In the 1950 election turnout was 80%; during the seventies it averaged 75% but fell to 71% in 1997 and plummeted disastrously to 59% in 2001, recovering only slightly to 62% in 2005.
Grass Roots Membership: Jenkins lambasts British government for being so centralized, thus stifling the opportunity for parties to build up the kind of vibrant grass roots membership enjoyed in pother European countries. He points out that :
In France there is roughly one elected official for every 100 voters and in Germany one for every 250. In these countries local mayors and councillors are known by name and often in person to the overwhelming majority of voters. In Britain the figure is one elected person for every 2,600 voters and few can name any local community leader, let alone one to whom they might turn in trouble. The smallest unit of democratic administration in France, the commune, covers an average of 1,500 people, in Germany 5,000 and America 7,000. The equivalent figure in Britain is 118,000 and the Brown government wants that size to increase under “unitary” authorities, thus removing government still further from voters and consumers. It is no surprise that ever fewer people want to be patronised in this way.
Arguably British government is far too centralized and less competent for this. Critics argue that London based civil servants, party apparatchiks and their advisers are not able to cater for the needs of specific groups with anything like efficiency.
Funding of Parties: it follows that with smaller memberships parties have fallen on hard times financially. Modern politics is highly sophisticated with private polls, focus groups and scores of researchers to staff election efforts and keep the machine ready for when the big tests arrive. It costs around £20m p.a. just to pay for a party to survive, let alone finance election campaigns. So where does the money come from? And where can it come from in the future?
The Conservatives have traditionally drawn their funds from business and Labour from the unions. Membership subscriptions constitute just 6% of Conservative income; 13% of Labour’s. Corporate business donations used to infuriate Labour as ‘their’ party, the Tories, could always be relied on to outspend Labour when it mattered. Unions also delivered millions to ‘their’ Labour party when it mattered, though at the politically damaging cost of appearing to dictate party policies; this more damaging during and the decade after the seventies, the high tide of union power in the Labour Party.
Labour attacked the ‘dodgy’ donations from dubious rich foreigners and, when in power, its Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000, banned overseas donations plus limiting anonymous donations to £5000. However, Labour found that as its own membership declined it was forced, like the Tories, to resort to a few big donors, like Lord Sainsbury and his ilk. Before the 2005 election, Blair’s office arranged for rich donors to help fund the forthcoming election but changed the ‘gifts’ to ‘loans’- a loophole that would keep the donors anonymous but which opened up the hugely damaging ‘cash for peerages’ scandal and accompanying police inquiry.
Sir Hayden Phillips, a retired civil servant was asked to head an inquiry in 2007 into how party funding could be improved. He came up with a possible plan-a £50,000 cap on donations, reduced spending on general elections and increases in state funding. However Labour could not accept Tory insistence that union contributions should be limited to this extent as this would have denied them the millions they have traditionally received from the unions. He gave up in despair at the end of October. So this way out of the dilemma has been foreclosed for the time being.
Charismatic Leaders: shorn of their distinctive ideologies, their membership and, to a degree, their income, parties seemed to invest in charismatic leaders. In a 24 hour news environment a figurehead was needed to attract attention and deliver messages crafted to reach the requisite groups of voters. Thatcher was a one –off but her example encouraged the emergence of Tony Blair with his voter friendly media brilliance. Cameron, without a doubt, sought to emulate such PR virtuosity and the party gratefully welcomed him- though having absorbed some of the focus group led changes, some-Simon Heffer in the Mail, Norman Tebbitt- protested their discontent. This development tends to support the ‘catch-all’ party thesis- part of the stripped down machinery designed to assemble the coalitions of voters needed to win elections- though Gordon Brown surely represents a return to a more traditional kind of politician.
Case that Parties still Function Democratically and Situation Remediable:
Ideology: it could be pointed out that Labour had not choice but to tack towards the centre and appeal to middle class voters as so many of its working class constituency has disappeared: from 75% of the population in 1911 to less than 40% at the end of the millennium. Moreover, it can be argued that the fact of globalization and the enthronement of market economics has made all parties conform to similar economic policies.
Nevertheless, Labour did pursue a distinct social democratic agenda, perhaps not in the generation of wealth, but in its distribution to the poorer strata- something which Brown assiduously sought to achieve in successive budgets. So public services were funded where, had the Tories been in power, they would not have been. Labour also implemented a radical programme of constitutional reform, in the form of devolution and ending hereditary peers in the House of Lords and introducing elected mayors; few would have expected the Conservatives to have done such things.
Representational: Parties still provide the crucial connection with voters and act as the nexus between them. Even the critical Jenkins allows that:
“Parties remain the golden thread that links voters to their governors both at and between elections. Parties embody the democratic mandate. They can discipline representatives and leaders who stray from what was pledged to the public. They hold MPs’ jobs in their hands.”
He goes on to point out that in the USA one in ten Americans gave money for a presidential candidate and $206 was raised by gifts under $200.
Funding: the parties are predictably wrangling over money, as they always have, but it is still very possible a compromise will be reached. There is also the possibility that state funding might fill the gap. Arguments over this are complex- and Jenkins’ trenchant views are recorded below- but other countries as in Scandinavia and Germany, think democracy is sufficiently important to the common good, to assist it financially.
Conclusion: Jenkins’ diagnosis that ‘the political parties are dying’ has a certain amount of truth in it- the parties are in a bad way and democracy has been healthier- but it is basically an exaggeration. The parties still function- there is no shortage of candidates to sit in the Commons- the debates in the chamber are heated enough to be called vibrant and the system, though ailing, still has popular legitimacy.
Reviving Democracy
Decentralize: local government has been revived to an extent by New Labour- e.g. elected mayors and improved consultation- but some structural reform is needed to bring voters closer to representatives, to devolve services to local level as in other countries like Sweden and France.
Refuse State Aid for Parties: Jenkins argues powerfully that ‘parties need to revive themselves’ and that denying them the easy answer of state aid is one way of doing this. Tony Blair decided to have a membership drive in Sedgefield he bumped up membership to 2000. It is possible but parties have to be made to renew themselves. As Jenkins concludes:
‘Nothing would do more to restore democracy than forcing parties to find more members to give them money and publicly declare it. An active and empowered membership, warts and all, is essential if the British constitution is not to lapse into oligarchy. Party finances will be restored only when parties persuade enough voters that they are worth preserving. Otherwise they will become mere offshoots of the state.’
Reform the Voting System: Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, 2nd November 2007, makes a passionate case for proportional representation(PR). A study by the Electoral Reform Society argued that, given the mountains of votes piled up in safe seats, only 8000 votes in marginal seats effectively decided elections. Given this reality parties refused to take any risks but all grapple for a slice of the centre ground, thus alienating people who might otherwise feel they are being represented.
Rather than targeting their millions on such a minuscule number Toynbee suggests a system in which every vote counts would encourage participation and democratic vibrancy. Yes, it would cause coalition government but at least they would be representative of what the nation believed and felt- they would be made via ‘public bargaining after an election instead of current pre-election merging by focus group’ Toynbee is not sanguine however about the chances of voting reform being delivered, despite nudges and hints that it might be on the agenda. It has to be said, however, that the introduction of PR in Scotland and Wales devolved elections, has not noticeably improved turn-out figures.
Bill Jones, November 2007.

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At heart, of course, Labour and Tories are viscerally separate tribes, deep-dyed by their own histories, born and bred in opposite intellectual and moral universes; government under either would differ much more than they pretend. Yet in public they converge, swimming in a shoal, afraid lest any difference might alienate anyone. So they nibble each other's tails on small policies, but stick together on everything large.


Like that, but as their universe became meaningles they have been obliged to lie more.

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