Life and soul of the party

30 Sep 05
ALAN LEAMAN | Three weeks by the seaside with Britain’s politicians is enough to convince any dispassionate observer that our political parties are all in a sorry state.

Three weeks by the seaside with Britain’s politicians is enough to convince any dispassionate observer that our political parties are all in a sorry state.

And that if the party conference season didn’t exist, we would try very hard not to invent it.

But parties are the sine qua non of a modern democracy. Even if we find it tiresome to live with them, we certainly can’t live without them. It is time that they renewed themselves.

The symptoms of decline are all too obvious. Membership is falling and ageing; fewer voters identify with any particular party; and the media is paying less and less attention to party events and debates.

At the same time, party politicians are suffering a crisis of confidence. They know that the electorate is much more demanding nowadays and that fewer voters can be relied on to be loyal to a party cause. They find it more difficult to recruit talented people into their ranks. And, while modern politics requires parties to run a professional, disciplined and national campaigning machine, the politicians know that this often doesn’t look good to the voter or feel right to the rest of the party.

Recent reforms of party funding, while full of good intentions, only seem to have made these matters worse. Corporate donations have now largely dried up, local fundraising is tiny and parties are more and more dependent on the generosity of a small number of very wealthy individuals. Even the Liberal Democrats have discovered how awkward this can be.

This year, the picture seems to be particularly bad. The general election left all the parties feeling deflated and disappointed. Labour won only 36% of the vote, the Conservatives flatlined and the LibDems underachieved. To underline the point, all three parties are now enmeshed in their own leadership difficulties and have little to say about their policies of direct interest to the public.

It is tempting to greet this state of affairs with a cynical chuckle and a few jokes at the politicians’ expense. But it would also be wrong. We can leave that to Rory Bremner.

Instead, we should ask why it is that the parties have found it so difficult to renew themselves in the face of these challenges. And what they can do now.

A recent special issue of the academic journal Parliamentary Affairs starts to answer some of these questions. Three bright young MPs wrestle with the issues from their differing perspectives.

Labour MP Liam Byrne wants his party to fill the local vacuum and do a lot more to recruit talented people to local spending bodies. He also argues that MPs should now have a much more activist role in their local communities. They are no longer just their constituents’ representative at Westminster but ‘have to help create epicentres for change in their local communities’.

Matthew Taylor for the Liberal Democrats argues for a cap on individual donations to political parties, and proposes that the state match funds provided by members and local parties. This, he believes, would give the parties an incentive to recruit more members and stimulate more party activity around the country.

Newly elected Conservative MP Ed Vaizey wants to make it easier for young people to be involved in politics, noting that, while their interest in political issues is high, they have rejected much of what traditional politics can offer. He argues that politicians themselves have done much to make mainstream politics ‘boring’ and ‘managerial’. At the same time, young people have many other demands on their time and attention. Why not enable them to vote on-line, or give them the power to initiate local referendums on local issues that interest them?

The common theme of all three MPs is striking — it is at the local, not national, level that action is needed to put our political parties back on track. And, like many of their colleagues, all three seem to be saying that it is in their own constituency where they feel they can make a real difference.

These reformers will still bump into many of the realities of twenty-first century Britain that make politics a declining activity. The conditions no longer exist to sustain mass political parties and it would be folly to try to recreate them. The dividing lines between the parties are blurred. Modern Britons lead busy lives and our attention span is short. Long-term trends in the media and communications generally make it difficult to create a sense of shared political space or political values.

But these three MPs all suggest that some imaginative thinking could still re-energise our mainstream political parties. This should be a priority. Political parties are part of the infrastructure of our society and politics: they recruit our political leaders, organise our elections and generate public policy. They deserve better than just three weeks by the seaside.

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