Political parties in the UK now operate on a narrow political base and are vulnerable to challenge

A very important underlying trend in UK, European and US politics has been the increasing isolation of a “political class” or elite from the mass of voters. It shows itself in a wide variety of features, but from the perspective of our main political parties it is a potentially dangerous trend in times of upheaval or change such as the current Great Recession, as it opens up the ground for challenges from populist and more extreme parties with widespread support. The risk this trend runs is of a mass political vacuum which others might fill.

Mass-based parties

Arguably the model of 20th Century democratic politics was the mass-based party, agreed on a set of ideological principles or enough to form a coalition of interests and beliefs. In the UK, we had a Conservative party that had emerged out of its aristocratic and gentry dominated past to reach out to working class voters as the franchise was extended, with a system of constituency associations in the single-member representation system with powerful links to local interests and “people of substance”. Funding came from donations by many small subscriptions but also big interest sources linked to business. It became a very middle class party led by Etonians. It’s values were based on notions like free enterprise, the freedom of the individual, the importance of local autonomy from central control, a strong sense of patriotism and an instinctual distrust of change.

Its rival was the Labour Party, which in the 1920’s superceded the Liberal Party as a “workers’ party”, heavily reliant on Trade Union funding and sponsorship but also, like the Conservatives, constituency associations. Like the Conservatives, it was a coalition of left-wing socialists advocating state control of industry and wealth re-distribution, moderate trade unionists concerned to ameliorate and improve working class conditions, and erstwhile liberals in the European, not US, sense of liberal. This coalition was more prone to division that its conservative rivals. The trade union membership tended to be large, although often nominally so, since unions were then still mass organisations capable of considerable industrial muscle until the reforms of the Thatcher era. The Labour Party Clause Four was, while open to interpretation and until removed under Blair in 1995, often taken as the classic statement of tradional Labour ideology, although its policies proved much more moderate in practice, and articulated concepts like “social justice”.

Members of Parliament

MP’s were from a variety of backgrounds. For some, such as the Conservative Party, it would be inherited wealth, public (ie. private) school education, a career in the law or in business, although some might have been landowners. For Labour, the background could be again in professions, although more the “liberal” ones like education, university lecturer or journalism as well as law, or following a route through being a trade union official. However the point here is that people would make a shift into politics from a prior career, or at least have “done service” in a local authority for example. Membership was largely male and white until both parties started more actively recruiting women and BME people in the 1990’s.

The contrast today

This very simplified portrayal of the two major parties lasted well through the 20th Century. Minority parties were very much that, with the single-member, “first past the post” electoral system working against them and exaggerating the position of the major party. The three-party situation of the inter-war period proved temporary as Labour supplanted the Liberals by 1945, and had already made massive inroads by 1923-24. Today however, the two-party system is struggling, as voters no longer support the major parties so readily (more on voting behaviour changes in a later post). This is arguably related however to a very marked shift in the relationship between voters and parties that has been growing for some considerable time and has now emerged as a major issue confronting the political status quo today.

Narrow political base

Firstly, the membership of constituency parties has been shrinking steadily. You can see the contrast quite starkly in the link just provided. Membership of both major parties struggles to be over 200,000, a far cry from the mass membership after the last war (I’m ignoring the Labour trade union block vote, as many consider that to be nominal). Google “membership of UK parties” and you get a big set of discussions on its implications. The danger here is several: funding gets less constituency-based and more dependent on national campaigns and big donations from interests. Moreover the potential for local recruitment into politics is diminished and the parties become more reliant on career politicians. The parties become less connected to the masses whom they claim to serve and look more and more like a self-interested elite, which is how they are being perceived by many today. You could say they become “celebrities”, and therefore subject to the same scrutiny as others, rather than seen as people who represent and lead.

A political elite disconnected from voters

This brings me to the second aspect, the nature of the political elite. Such elites are not new in British politics, but the last time we had them as a distinct force, the vote was limited to a very few, such as before the Parliamentary Reform Acts from 1832 onwards. This elite is a very political one. A career path now can consist of internships at Westminster, serving in a think tank, being an advisor to Ministers and shadow ones too, although entry from other walks of life still occur. The recently departed David Milliband was one such career politician, as is his brother and Labour leader, our current Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It is not surprising therefore to find that many observers consider that these people are out of touch with voters. This is by the way a trend seen in other European countries and in the USA. There too the same complaint is being made. At the last by-election in Eastleigh, when the Conservatives were pushed into third place by the populist UKIP and failed to take the seat from a party whose incumbent MP had resigned due to lying to the police, it was reported widely that voters were cynical about politicians, were disengaged and likely, if they voted, to vote elsewhere. Thus we had the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, a normally loyal Conservative newspaper, saying much the same thing: this article is worth reading closely.

Lack of a clear and consistent lead based on principle and vision

Furthermore, in terms of ideology, the main parties lack a clear, distinguishable basis of principle and have arguably ceased to make their case to voters on principle (a point that I will also return to in a future post). The consquences of Thatcherism, which I would suggest have been profound for this country, has been that both parties have tended, since 1992 at least, to share ideas about the appropriate political interventions. Thus Blair’s politics was very much about copying certain aspects of Thatcher’s policies and he talked about a “third way”. In turn Cameron too pitched for the middle ground (“I am the heir to Blair”), much to the consternation of the big right-wing intake of 2010 into Parliament. Parties are more pragmatically focused, and less likely to argue on the basis of principle. Thus people are feeling that there is no inspiring vision and strategy being communicated during difficult times and leadership becomes more a matter of short-term fixes. The contrast with the textbooks on leadership and successful leadership models is fascinating.

On the European mainland, parties are emerging that are protest-based and carrying wide support around the notion of removing a corrupt and self serving elite, as the more deeply recession-bound countries become more divided. Thus in the recent Italian election the party led by the former comedian Grillo garnered 20% of the vote and is committed to ousting the political elite. They refuse to form a coalition and could be said to be a profoundly de-stabilising phenomenon were it not for the point that the lack of politicians’ mass connectedness was already in full play.

British voting has historically tended to avoid extremes and has shown a marked preference for strong government, stability and economic competence. However, these are extreme times; as Clinton famously said in the US, “It’s the economy, stupid”. This Great Recession is now the longest in modern times. The challenge is now right out there for our leaders to re-engage with voters or perhaps to lose the ground to successor parties and new ideas. Some might think that that would be a good thing, of course!

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