Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The strange death of political parties

As I was listening to the comments from the Conservative spring conference, it occurs to me that party politics as we have known it has finally died in the UK.

Without exception every Conservative expressed reservations about how David Cameron is leading his party- several even questioned whether the party even was Conservative any more. These views, remember, were being expressed to journalists- it was public dissent. In private, many of my Conservative friends are even more deeply anxious about what Cameron is doing, but their basic sense of loyalty would never allow them to voice these concerns in public- even though their views are deeply held.

It occurred to me that what holds for the Conservatives is true for Labour too- the membership do not have a central role any more. In fact both parties now fight "virtual" campaigns: they don't need members to canvass, because they buy detailed data bases that give better accuracy. They don't need members to leaflet, because they use paid delivery. They don't need members to telephone canvass, because they use call centres.

Once upon a time, the Young Conservatives was the largest club in the country, with over a million members. There was a whole social life on offer- tennis or other sports, and a myriad of other activities. No more. As the latest spring conference shows, the views of the members are not so important to the leadership, because in order to get power they must speak to so many people beyond their party- as Labour have done before. Indeed the traditional views of the Conservatives are actually seen as a barrier for the leadership to get elected.

Meanwhile in the Labour party, the views of the membership count for less and less- the membership does not wish to expand the strategic nuclear deterrent, indeed many remain unilateralists. Membership of the party counts for little, when large corporations or unions are prepared to give the funds for virtual campaigns.

The Liberal Democrats have their problems too, which I shall return to in a later post, but for now, I think that we should be concerned that the processional political class is untrammelled even by members of their own party. The increasing isolation professional politicians is leading us to disaster. Councillors now must take on almost unlimited liability, so fewer are prepared to do it- as in the past- on a voluntary basis. MPs now have a recognised career path, entirely within politics. And when even party members with relevant experience are sidelined, we should be increasingly concerned.


James said...

I've often wondered about whether a wide membership base is really necessary or even desirable to Parties in the age of mass media communication and corporate financial donations. Declaring your card carrying allegiance to a set of political principles is just 'so' last Century you know. All I can say with certainty is that while falling membership is problematic, mass membership, as well as being an extremely unrealistic goal, is also indicative of a society where there is genuine and possibly violent dissention about the direction of the country as whole - interesting but not always pleasant times to live in.

Anonymous said...

Cicero, the ones who attend conference most often tend be the most driven to uphold the true faith as thry see it. Do you dispute Lib Dem conferences are any more representative of the party at large. Cameron was elected by the membership as a whole not by the activists, which by the way explains Ming's victory after the media inhaled the Chris Huhne activist hype. I await you on the previous thread.


James said...

Well, an interesting point Lepidus. There is a gap between the activists and the general supporters of any political party of course.

Patrick W said...

There's a difference, perhaps, between

(a) those who claim allegiance to the ideas and principles of their chosen party and a consequent right to second-guess the leadership's practical interpretation of them day to day

(b) those who are more likely to see politics in terms of the people at the top of the party and be swayed by personalities.

Incidentally, I like the (presumably accidental) idea of a "processional" political class. After a while, it does rather look as though that's what we have, and possibly always has..

"Th'accursed power called Privilege
Which goes with women, and champagne, and bridge
Broke. Democracy resumed its reign -
Which goes with bridge, and women, and champagne."

Guess which mould-breaking election that was written about?