by Peter Watt
Political parties are strange constructs where by necessity a coalition of views is encapsulated under one brand. So you have the campaign group and Progress all sharing the Labour banner or left leaning Lib Dems sharing a party with the orange bookers and so on.
To put it even more colourfully, it means that Frank Field and Jeremy Corbyn can share the same political colours! While there will be some shared world views of course and certainly a degree of shared culture and history, actually it is often more of a case of “vive la difference” or “damn your principles and stand by your party” depending on your view or current mood! And the reason for this is that it is important for two very good reasons.
Firstly, when it comes to elections voters are offered a relatively easy to consume and unified approach from a small group of potential political alternatives. Debates around the direction of travel and then the detail of policy happen within the parties in order that common policy stances can be offered to the public.
And secondly, that there is a reasonable chance of a stable administration being formed after the votes are counted.
There are other benefits of course. Political parties have been excellent institutions at identifying and developing potential future political representatives. They also allow a forum and focus for the discussion and development of policy positions as the wider environment changes. All of this relies on party discipline and a desire for unity to work; and the system has generally served the country well for many years. And at election times people have voted for their preferred party rather than their preferred candidate.
But slowly such certainties are changing.
Turnout at elections is falling; polling indicates that the numbers of those who consistently vote for any particular party come-what-may are dropping and in recent years we have seen the rise in a more presidential style of politics.
Certainly on the government Benches, there appears to be a greater willingness by some newer MPs to vote against their whip. In a world that is becoming increasingly individual, driven by fast flows of information and in which a large degree of scepticism of the establishment is the norm – it is not really surprising.
In other words, the loyal sticking to “the line” of the day sounds increasingly forced and inauthentic. Something said at 8:01am can be challenged by the wisdom of the masses by 8:02am and be a PR disaster by 8.15am. And some politicians are beginning to respond.
Boris Johnson is the most obvious non-party party politician. Reaching out beyond his party’s faithful to appeal to a broad range of London’s voters, many of whom may very well disagree with him on many things, but basically like him.
There are many other examples in constituencies around the country as very, very slowly some individual politicians wake up to the fact that there may be votes to be had if you are not seen as a machine politician and let a bit of personality show.
They are using the full range of social and traditional media to promote their individuality. My personal current favourite is Michael Fabricant MP who has taken to twitter (@Mike_Fabricant) and is making waves. He is funny, irreverent and often controversial and definitely a real individual. Not bad for a vice chair of the Conservative party.
But there are plenty of others who to a greater or lesser degree are doing their best to be individuals and take the odd risk. Ken Livingstone, Sally Bercow and Tom Harris come to mind for instance for Labour. Nadine Dorries may have got a lot of stick for going into the jungle, but to be honest, good on her for doing so I say!
It doesn’t always work out of course and sometimes showing a bit of personality or individuality can horribly backfire, just think Sarah Teather and stand-up comedy routine! But I suspect that attempting to be a bit more human and individual will become more common.
Now all of this will be a nightmare for whips in town halls and legislatures across the land as they continue to try and impose discipline on political colleagues who increasingly wish to make up their own minds.
But the tide is turning and the time of the bland, ultra-loyal robot politician is slowly coming to an end. It may take another few years for the process to complete but it is inevitable that rocking the boat, striving to be seen as an authentic individual and occasionally being prepared to vote against the whip will become more common.
Put simply, the public have moved on even if the bulk of the political party machines haven’t yet. Voters are increasingly intolerant of a political discourse that so obviously lacks authenticity. The loyalty so valued by the political centre and seen as vital to electoral success will in fact become less and less attractive. Political parties will need to respond or will continue to decline.
There was a joke back in the day. A New Labour candidate had gone, as instructed, to get their hair cut in advance of the forthcoming campaign. All of the hairdressers were busy and so they had to wait a while until someone was free, so they kept themselves busy listening to a personal music player. But when the hairdresser finally got around to the candidate they noticed that they had stopped breathing and that the music player had paused. In a panic the hairdresser shook the candidate and they started breathing again. Out of curiosity the shocked hairdresser put the headphones on and pressed play. They heard Peter Mandelson’s voice slowly intoning “breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out”
Ah! Those were the days.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party