In our continuing series on the political class, we suggest that the depth of the crisis of legitimacy being experienced by the mainstream political parties requires a radical rethinking of their role in contemporary politics.
Ed Miliband’s speech this week suggested that the Falkirk Scandal signified the death-throes of the old politics. However, his speech failed to recognise the depth of the crisis facing the mainstream political parties. Most commentators agree that the main political parties need to broaden their base and become more representative of the public if they are to survive. The main political parties are in decline – their membership is shrinking with only 1.1% of the population a member of the three main political parties. The share of the vote garnered by Labour and Conservatives is at its lowest level ever and parties are now ‘winning’ elections with a third of the votes cast.
This problem starts at – but is not limited to – the top. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, the leaders of the three main political parties, are symptomatic of the problem. They are all products of the Westminster Village, whose life experience is far removed from the day-to-day experience of UK citizens. Their entire career histories have resolved around politics – all three attended Oxbridge and worked as special advisers to various Cabinet Minister before entering Parliament (and in Clegg’s case the UK’s EU Commissioner). They are the epitome of the political class.
Our leaders are ordinary politicians for extraordinary times. We need, and especially in extraordinary times, politicians who can connect with the public and demonstrate empathy and understanding of the challenges that we as a nation face. Clement Atlee is an example of such an extraordinary politician who during the period 1945-50 pushed through difficult reforms to the economy, which enabled the creation of the welfare state. Whether you like her or not Margaret Thatcher’s focus on household economics struck a chord with part of the electorate in a way that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have never been able to do.
The front bench of politics mirrors their party leaders. In research that we conducted earlier this year we found that one in five members of the Cabinet (7 ministers out of 32) were special advisers before becoming MPs or Peers, while one in three (10 ministers) is a political insider. The dominance of political insiders is even stronger on the Labour frontbench. Of the 31 members of the Shadow Cabinet, two out of five (13 shadow ministers) were special advisers before entering Parliament, while a remarkable three out of five (19 shadow ministers) are political insiders, at least on our definition. We also found that of the 63 members of the combined Government and Opposition frontbenches, only one has any substantial frontline public service experience before entering politics – Vernon Coaker MP, who shadows Northern Ireland and previously spent twenty years as a teacher in the East Midlands.
The Speakers Conference on Political Representation (the first since 1978) published its final report in 2010 and set out 71 recommendations to increase the diversity of politicians in Westminster. The report called upon party leaders to… “challenge stereotypes of an effective Member, or Minister, by ensuring that MPs from all backgrounds and communities are able to demonstrate their skills in positions of prominence, either within Government or within the party.” There is clearly a long way to go to achieve this.
Some political innovations have taken place to increase diversity in parliamentary candidate selection. All women shortlists have been successful in significantly increasing the number of women elected to parliament. Open primaries have also been piloted but with mixed results. Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, was selected through an open primary but has proved to be an independent thorn in the side of the Government because she has not always been prepared to follow the party line. It is interesting to note that no open primaries have been held by the Conservative Party to select their candidates for 2015 despite their fondness for them before the last election.
The issue isn’t just representation at Westminster level – it is also about the size and nature of the grassroots base engaged in the three main political parties. The Falkirk Scandal illustrates the failure of their political class to broaden their base. The Labour Party has alleged that the trade union Unite tried to flood their local constituency with union members to ‘fix’ the selection of prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) to succeed the discredited Eric Joyce. Yet a leaked document from Unite illustrates how the main political parties are dying fast: “We have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members”).
Neither are the challenges associated with Falkirk just a problem for the left of British politics. Party membership is in seemingly terminal decline across all three parties as Paul Goodman points out on Conservative Home:
“Is the Party simply going to stagger on as it is, losing more and more members each year - all the way to the point where they may be a Conservative Party in the Commons, but there will no longer be one on the ground? As Gavin Barwell points out on this site today, local Associations don’t exist in most Labour-held urban seats, and scarcely do in many suburban marginals, either. Much of the Conservative machine is as out of date as an Austin-Healey car.”
The shrinking of the mainstream parties’ membership base makes them easier to ‘capture’. It also means that our politics involves a rump of party members who are increasingly out of touch with ordinary citizens – witness the attempted de-selection of Liz Truss in Norfolk South West before the last election (by the so-called ‘Turnip Taliban’) because of an affair with the married MP, Mark Field. Shrinking membership also allows central parties to show favour to their preferred candidate – allegations have been made that Luciana Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree, was a beneficiary of this. There are also accusations that evangelical Christian groups have influenced the selection of candidates by the Conservative Party.
There are some innovations taking place – Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, has demonstrated the potential for community organising to galvanise a community around a particular policy through her high profile campaign against loan sharks. However, these innovations feel like side-shows and don’t address the fundamental question – how can traditional parties reinvent themselves as mass movements for social change? If political parties don’t reinvent themselves they will be comprised (a) mainly of members who are increasingly removed from the day-to-day views and experiences of most ordinary people and (b) elected representatives who are plucked from a privileged political class.
The question that the parties need to address is then why join a party in the first place? Yes you can have influence over the selection of the leader, but in return for your membership stipend and knocking on local doors at the weekend you have little influence over party policy – how many Labour Party members voted for the Iraq War for instance? Is it surprising that political energy and debate has leaked to the likes of ‘guerilla policy’ movements such as 38degrees, change.org and Mumsnet where there is greater transparency about how policy ideas are proposed, debated and put forward? If political parties were designed today – would they be the bureaucratic, hierarchical institutions that they are – or would they look more like the Pirate Party?
This hollowing out of the democratic process around a privileged political class and a small coterie of political activists matters. Political parties are leeching political legitimacy at the same time as they attempt to grapple with the some of the most significant challenge that the UK economy has faced since the 1920s. They are facing these challenges against a backdrop of declining disposable incomes, increased inequality and poverty and a general anxiety about the future.
At the same time, the era of ideological and (class) identification politics is over; we now live in an era of mass mobilisation. As the parties gear up for the next election they need to embrace the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ movements such as 38 Degrees and change.org to reinvent themselves as popular vehicles for policy – and for real change – or they will surely perish.