When the Party’s Over

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (Peter Mair, Ruling the Void)

In the UK, party politics has always been refracted through the first-past-the-post electoral system that demanded that both Labour Party and Conservative Party adopt ‘broad church’ approaches, representing and conciliating diverse sectors of society. Yet the cultural and social shifts that emerged in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1980s as the twin phenomena of individualization and globalization have been enabling conditions for trends of declining party membership, declining voter turnout across elections, and declining partisan allegiance. It is an important consequence of these phenomena, however, that political parties can no longer play the role of mediating between society and state that emerged with, and sustained, mass party democracy.

With Labour and Conservative vote share declining from 97% in 1951 to 67% in 2015, electoral logic has driven both parties to a focus on key swing voters and a relative neglect of those who, in Peter Mandelson’s brutal phrase, ‘have nowhere else to go’. While with membership declining from 1950s highs of 1,100,000 and 2,800,000 respectively to figures under 200,000 for the Tories and under 400,000 for Labour (helped upwards by a rise under Corbyn), the local infrastructures of both parties have weakened at the same time that professionalization of politics under the discipline of a 24 hour new cycle drove centralization of party control and the disconnection of ‘the Westminster bubble’ from regional and local roots. The changing conditions of these political parties, no longer meaningfully ‘mass organizations’, was further impacted by the post-devolution boost to the SNP and Plaid Cymru as their ability to portray themselves as ‘national’ parties for the whole of the UK (excepting the special case of Northern Ireand) has become increasingly tenuous, with the Greens and UKIP adding to the electoral complexity.

It is commonplace to recognize that David Cameron’s reckless political gamble with Britain’s membership in the EU was driven by a failure of authority within a fragmented Conservative Party that was exacerbated by the rise of UKIP. But this is reflective of a wider phenomenon. As Will Jennings and Martin Lodge argue:

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs.

The current internal debacle of the Labour Party presents itself as driven by the traditional competing logics of the Party as a vehicle for gaining power and as the medium of a social movement. But lacking the bulwark of mass membership, it is more accurately depicted as a competition for control between an organised sect and a professional elite.

The Brexit Referendum and the responses of the two parties to the outcome of this referendum demonstrate nothing more truly than Mair’s argument that mass party politics, and party democracy, is dead and we do not yet know how, or with what, to replace it.

In this context, what steps may help? Perhaps the first is to recognize the reality of this situation and that the social and political conditions under which our electoral system could be justified no longer apply. A shift to some forms of proportional representation is both democratically necessary as well as providing a mechanism for encouraging greater party responsiveness to people across the UK. A second possible move is for regional devolution in England (modelled on the Welsh Assembly) combined with a shift in the structure of Labour and Conservative parties to a more federal form and, quite possibly, the rise of regional political parties (such as Yorkshire First). In both cases, national government becomes more complex but the role of parties in mediating between society and state is given new, if different, life.

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