Come to the parties

Observations on reforming politics

This autumn Britain will have a rare national debate about what political parties are for. Thanks to the endless scandals over party funding, their finances are the subject of an official review. Some fear it will ultimately be little more than a stitch-up between the parties. But it just might mark the moment when their underlying problems were at last addressed.

The problems aren't hard to see. A generation ago 3.5 million Britons were members of political parties. Today the figure is nearer 500,000. A generation ago nearly half of all electors identified "very strongly" with a party; today the figure is less than one in six. According to a poll in our report*, newly published by the Young Foundation, a quarter of the British public think we would be better off with no parties at all.

Long-term changes such as declining class identity have played a part. But much of the blame lies with the parties themselves, which adopted strategies perfectly designed to turn the public off. The Tories moved first, when Margaret Thatcher, in alliance with the Saatchi brothers, turned the Conservative Party into a tightly centralised machine, focused almost entirely on mass advertising, and ever more dependent on a few wealthy individuals to pay for covering Britain with posters at election time. Ten years later, Labour followed a very similar route.

The approach helped both to win elections. But it left them hollowed out as parties - less able to recruit new members, less able to relate to the public and less able to renew themselves internally. Part of the reason is that spending on advertising - some £18m each for the two main parties last year - squeezed out everything else, such as the great research departments once run by figures such as Michael Young or Chris Patten.

Some are happy to see the decline continue. In February the Power inquiry, for example, made many recommendations for reforming democracy, but nearly all involved bypassing the parties. We believe that parties play a unique role - and we see no chance of a healthy democracy if the parties that compete for state power are sick.

The priority now is to remake the parties as civic institutions. That means no state money for mass advertising on top of the £8m parties already receive, and tough caps on spending and donations to protect them from dubious donors. But it also means giving parties strong encouragement for activities that contribute to democracy - such as developing future leaders, policy and research, and work in improving local areas. These activities deserve support in the form of matched funding for small donations and funding that reflects membership levels.

The public ranks parties above voluntary organisations, campaign groups, business or the media as means of meeting their long-term needs: 49 per cent believe they help people to have a voice. But 54 per cent want them to become more local, and they want them to be better listeners.

New incentives would still leave the parties poor by the standards of the media that cover party politics, but they would help them on the road to recovery.

And so long as the parties themselves changed - for instance, by encouraging high-fliers to prove themselves in local government before they head off to Westminster, and allowing real debate at the conferences - we could end up with political parties to be proud of.

*"Parties for the Public Good" by Geoff Mulgan and Fiona Mactaggart is published this month by the Young Foundation. www.youngfoundation.org