The party machines might not know it yet but political parties are dying

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

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9 Responses to “The party machines might not know it yet but political parties are dying”

  1. swatantra says:

    All Parties are coalitions and Labour has its share of nutters just like the Tories or Lib Dems. But in order for Govt business to get through there has to be ‘Parties’.
    So I’d disagree with Peter on 3 points
    1 Fabricant is in no way funny
    2 I don’t understand that joke about Mandelson one bit
    3 Sarah Tether was misunderstood

  2. Clr Ralph says:

    Well apart from the tosh about MPs becoming more individualistic (believe me in the Labour PLP it probably is best when they are a conforming or never present for debate set of pointless drones and weirdos), the title and content Peter is very good.

    Yes indeed, but I shall do all I can to help the Conservative Party recover when it chooses to do so. They are doing some good things but are still a bit shy.

    Labour however is well and truly f….well I shan’t use that word, watching Cruddas struggle with the other blog was amusing, he failed to do because of his failures that which many of us politicians do fairly often which is engage with people. The man should never have gone beyond leafleting lol and I certainly would not let him canvass, but then I have met people he did canvass lol. Yes Labour as a Political Party is dead and it is a shame and reflects a crises in politics and Ed Millibands fumbling with campaign ideas whether domestic or USA style show an increasingly out of touch ignorance of reality driven by pride and snobbery.

    Look at the quality of your movement, beyond attacking Conservatives it would appear you are limited to some weird and dangerously vague form of shallow and unconvincing Nationalsim that would leave Nick Griffin appear enlightened and suppressing the free press. The hilarity and extent of the madness is beyond belief if not for the consequences this will have that will be far from pretty. The extraction of any soul or idealists from the movement has left a vacuum, an eerie silence that is deafening and no doubt as vacuous as the void lying between any Millibands ears. The destruction of a Political Party is never pretty and they tend to merely change form, gradually becoming increasingly insular and strange until what you are left with is a separate isolated group who operate outside societies social and legal boundaries and decline further as “strange” and increasingly “illegal” activities occur. There are threshold stages though where divisions occur, we have already experienced one where Mps whose perceptions are limited to their expenses and the money they went to Parliament for are more than willing to end media freedom and free expression to attempt to raise a cover between themselves and society at large. We will see others.

    The actions will become increasingly ruthless and aggressive and repellent to the public at large.

  3. LesAbbey says:

    I suspect that the parties are dying has more to do with them crowding onto the pinhead that they perceive is the centre point of public opinion and the public’s difficulty in seeing any difference between them. With both Cameron and Clegg claiming, probably correctly, to be heirs to Tony Blair we must live in hope that Ed Miliband can lead Labour out of this boring consensus politics.

    Of course the expense and other financial scandals haven’t helped. Are our political machines more criminal than used to be, or is it just that they are getting caught more often?

  4. Clr Ralph says:

    Here is a Report from a Champion of the Left, a man I respect because he is at least a champion of democracy also:


    George Barratt, 14 Dec 12

    The term “rotten” or “pocket” borough was applied to parliamentary constituencies which had such a small number of voters that they could be individually bribed by the local landlord. Before the 1832 Reform Act, the electoral franchise was so narrow that the aristocratic landowner could ensure that his son or another relation was elected to Parliament to represent his personal interests.

    In Barking and Dagenham, the number of active Labour Party members is so low that a would-be ward councillor can invite his or her cronies along to the ward selection meeting to ensure the right result. The council is therefore dominated by a network of cronies and the effects can be seen in the council assembly votes.

    On 5 December 2012, despite a lobby of about fifty people outside the Barking town hall, the Labour members of the assembly voted to cut the budget to voluntary sector organisations. This sector delivers services to disabled and elderly residents and had earlier submitted a petition to the council not to reduce their slashed budgets even further.

    But to stifle these protests, the Labour members also voted to restrict the right to petition. Previously two hundred signatures were required to compel the assembly to discuss a problem, but this requirement has now been raised to 1500 signatures. If an organisation is successful in raising 1500 signatures, the petition will be referred to a select committee, but not to the full assembly. There will be no right to appeal against the decisions of the select committee. Such is the state of democracy in the Rotten Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

  5. Andy Boddington says:

    Thoughtful piece rather ruined by the incomprehensible last paragraph.

  6. The Political party is not dead yet, and because it is central to our political system it isn’t going to die. But it does have to adapt to the times.
    All parties are coalitions, and this should be central to the way parties present themselves to the electorate. Don’t crush the individuals in the party, celebrate them. That goes for members and activists as well as the politicians.

    How political parties present themselves and their policies, how they deal with internal disagreement, and how they organise themselves both outside parliament and inside, has to change. What goes into the parliamentary programme, the attitude of governments to party loyalty, whipping, and voting in divisions all needs fresh thinking.

    It’s not the only thing that needs to change.

    We also need a new electoral system that reflects the twin political realities of the individual and the party.
    ‘First past the post’ is no longer fit for purpose. Second rate MPs elected on the party label is just one of the reasons. We need an electoral system that gives the opportunity to vote for the party and its programme, but also for the local individual.

    This could be mixed member proportional. It allows the voter to vote for the party and for the individual to represent the people locally. But the additional members, and the enlargement of constituencies are drawbacks.

    Better a system like Direct Party and Representative Voting (see dpr voting) that allows the voter to vote both for the party, and an individual to represent the constituency, while retaining existing constituency boundaries without the complication of additional members (or preferential voting).

  7. Andy says:

    Swatantra, if you don’t understand the joke about Mandelson then you really are not very bright.

    I shall explain it to you. Mandelson erased individuality and kept the drones ‘on message’ – controlling every opinion they had in public. The music player was Mandelson telling the candidate to breathe. When it paused the candidate stopped breathing because he had no longer had genuine thought of his own – not even to breathe unless told to..

  8. swatantra says:

    Any joke that needs that lengthy an explanation … is no joke.
    Mandelson is no Svengali or Darth Vadar. He’s an extremly good strategist.

  9. Rallan says:

    Yes, the Labour & Conservative parties are dying. HURRAH! 10 years I reckon, then you’ll both be polling in the teens.

    Consider the near total failure of the established political parties to successfully engage with the internet. The few “successes” have been with tiny pools of political anoraks – there have been no (intentional) viral videos and no public buy in. Simply put, you all suck.

    The internet is enabling new levels of communication without you. You can’t stop it, and you can’t use it either. They established political parties are no longer required as organizations for people to engage in democracy. You have been replaced with information technology. Anyone can now easily examine, discuss and challenge our established institutions, including you, and those institutions can no longer hide their incompetence & greed.

    You can’t escape your track records any more. You can’t rewrite history any more. You’re not running the show any more! It’s out of your hands! We can see that you are all cynical and useless. Most of all, we can see that you always serve yourselves not the country. The modern Tory and Labour brands will become something to be ashamed of.

    Remember that Tory MP during the expenses scandal who came out of a meeting claiming that his constituents had forgiven him, only to be humiliated when an audience filmed video clip of the meeting showed him to be a liar? As I recall he had to resign. That’s the future of the established political parties. None of you have anything positive to offer that is going to be believed.

    Look at how the small, under-resourced UKIP dominates the YouTube, and is a positive theme in so many blogs/forums. UKIP don’t need masses of money or activists (yet). They just need to be sincere, engaging, interesting and popular (and/or populist) all at the same time, and to have no track record to be ashamed of.

    You simply can’t compete.

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