The rise and fall of the political party

In an era where individualism, not collectivism, has become the leitmotif, the mass party is dying o

Political parties have formed the cornerstone of our representative system since long before the era of universal suffrage. Yet there are signs that the age of the mass party is coming to an end; that our political parties are dying on their feet. In the early 1950s, the Labour Party had a million individual members, the Conservatives, 2,800,000. Since then, membership has declined precipitously. By 1975, when Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader, the Conservatives had one and a half million members. They now have around 250,000. The Conservatives have thus lost over four out of five of their members in the last 30 years, despite being in office for over half of that period. At the end of 1996, following membership drives by John Smith and Tony Blair, Labour had around 400,000 members. Today, it has under 200,000. It has thus lost more than one in two of its members during its years in office. Fifty years ago, 1 in 11 of the electorate belonged to a political party; today just 1 in 88 do. Moreover, voters feel less attached to parties than they did. In 1966, 42 per cent professed a "very strong" attachment to the party of their choice; today only 13 per cent do. That, no doubt, is one of the reasons for the increasing volatility of voters and low turnout in general elections - 59 per cent in 2001, 62 per cent in 2005.

These trends - towards lower party membership, lower turnout in general elections and falling identification with political parties - are by no means unique to Britain. Indeed, they are common to most advanced democracies. Parties have become among the least trusted of social institutions. A recent Eurobarometer survey covering the member states of the European Union found that just 17 per cent of respondents trusted political parties, while 65 per cent trusted the police and 49 per cent the churches.

The story of the rise and fall of the mass political party is one of the great unwritten books of our time. Yet the consequences of the demise of the mass party are likely to prove very profound.

Political parties reached their zenith in the era of tribal politics from the end of the second world war until the mid-1970s. This was also the era during which it was still genuinely possible to believe in a radical transformation of society, away from the mixed economy into something qualitatively different. In 1945, after all, the Labour Party had declared in its manifesto: "The Labour Party is a Socialist Party and proud of it". Even in its revisionist, Croslandite, version, social democracy held to the view that society could be consciously transformed as a result of human will. Social democracy then rested upon what was conceived of as a progressive social base, the organised working class, in whose name the Labour Party would act. The vision was essentially a paternalist one. "We, as middle-class socialists," Hugh Gaitskell told Richard Crossman in 1959, "have got to have a profound humility. Though it's a funny way of putting it, we've got to know that we lead them because they can't do it without us, with our abilities, and yet we must feel humble to working people."

The late 20th century, however, has been unkind to such notions. Possibly, a bolder Labour Party or a bolder working class could have transformed society. Aneurin Bevan certainly thought so. "History gave them the chance and they didn't take it," Bevan told his journalist friend Geoffrey Goodman in 1959, speaking of the British working class. "Now it is probably too late." In the bible of revisionists, The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, Anthony Crosland ruefully cited Engels's fear that "the masses have got damned lethargic after such long prosperity".

In post-war Britain, the organised working class was to become a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate. In 1979, around 13 million people belonged to trade unions. Now, fewer than 8 million do. Moreover, the sympathies of the working class were by no means always progressive. The fundamental problem, however, was that members of the working class sought individual advancement for themselves and their families rather than emancipation as a class. They favoured what Tony Benn called, "the individual escape from class into prosperity, which is the cancer eating into the Western European Social Democratic parties". So it was that that class came, in Ralf Dahrendorf's words, to be "transformed into individual social mobility". Gradually, the paternalist vision faded. For while the leaders continued to try to lead, the followers were ceasing to follow - or rather they were ceasing to see themselves as followers. Individualism, not collectivism, has become the leitmotif of modern politics, and social democratic parties have been forced to follow the lead of Germany's SPD which, at Bad Godesberg in 1959, formally abjured any idea of transforming society.

Mass parties were the product of the collectivist age, so it is natural that the demise of collectivism should also mean the demise of the mass party. There has been a shift from what political scientists call "position" politics, where parties disagree on fundamentals - nationalisation of basic industries, raising or lowering taxes, retaining or abandoning nuclear weapons - to "valence" issues, where there is agreement on fundamental aims - an effective National Health Service, better schools - and disagreement is confined to the issue of which party is best placed to achieve them.

The mass party, then, is dying on its feet. But the grip of the parties on the institutions of government remains as strong as ever. Moreover, as Ben Rogers of IPPR has noticed, politics has come to be "dominated by the career politicians who have made politics their occupation and have no other professional aim than to remain in politics". MPs now tend to resemble each other more than those they claim to represent. Westminster has come to be disconnected from the people; it has become a home for professional politicians, a house without windows.

Local government, too, has come to be dominated by the professional politician. In the past, office in local government tended to derive from a pre-existing community leadership role. Now it derives from a connection with a political party. All too often, local councillors are emissaries of their parties rather than community representatives. They are seen not as local representatives, representing "us", but as emissaries of "them"; and it is for this reason that local government was unable to mobilise the support which would have enabled it to withstand the assaults launched by every government since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Local authorities, like political parties, have ceased to be vehicles for democratic engagement. It is striking that out of the 12 direct mayoral elections in England, six have been won by independents. There is a yearning to be represented by men and women of independent spirit, people whose interests are not constrained by the requirements of party politics.

Political leaders have had to adjust to these new realities. Both Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and Tony Blair since 1997 sought to transform their parties so that they became vehicles for their own personal vision of leadership. David Cameron seems to be trying to do the same. "I was never really in politics," Blair revealingly said in January 2000, "I never grew up as a politician. I don't feel myself as a politician even now." What he meant, I suspect, was that he did not feel himself to be a party politician. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have been plebiscitary leaders, appealing over the heads of their parties directly to the people rather than through them.

The demise of the mass party raises fundamental problems for democratic government. If political parties are no longer the primary vehicles of political engagement, how will voters be able to achieve change? Parties, admittedly, are likely to remain crucial in the formation of governments and in ensuring the periodic accountability of rulers to the people in general elections. But what will replace mass parties as vehicles of engagement? What shape is the democracy of the 21st century likely to take?

Contrary to what many have suggested, the demise of the mass party has not been caused by a loss of community engagement, a decline in social capital. Survey evidence has found that popular interest in politics is as strong as it has ever been, and that there is a powerful sense of civic obligation in modern Britain. Around 40 per cent of the population belong to a voluntary organisation, while around 3 million 18-24 year olds, the very generation that is least likely to vote, volunteer every year. 81 per cent of British adults gave to the tsunami appeal, twice the rate in the United States and two to three times the rate of many European countries. The National Trust has around one million members - more than all of the political parties put together. Popular interest in politics remains high, but electors no longer see parties as the best means by which to influence political events. Perhaps they are right. But how can we develop institutions so as to channel the British people's civic spirit and desire for community engagement into politics?

In a perceptive Fabian pamphlet written as long ago as 1992, entitled Making Mass Membership Work, Gordon Brown identified the problem. "In the past," he argued, "people interested in change have joined the Labour Party largely to elect agents of change. Today they want to be agents of change themselves." He instanced as agents of popular participation such bodies as tenants' associations, residents' groups, school governing bodies and community groups. There can be no doubt that, in the democracy of the future, direct democracy will come increasingly to supplement, though not, of course, to replace, the traditional machinery of representative government. The Labour government has already moved in this direction with its referendums on constitutional change, the provision in the Local Government Act, 2000, that 5 per cent of the registered local electorate can require a referendum on directly elected mayors, and ballots on the retention of grammar schools. Yet, if voters can be trusted to decide for themselves such matters as local mayors and grammar schools, why not wider issues also - the size of the local authority budget, for example, or the shape of the National Health Service in their area. The danger, of course, is to avoid the politics of participation becoming a form of democracy which is just for the articulate.

The next prime minister will not find himself short of problems. Perhaps the most fundamental, however, is that of refashioning our democracy so that it meets the needs of a new age, an age in which participation has to reach beyond party.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University and Professor of Law at Gresham College. His book "The New British Constitution" is to be published by Allen Lane/Penguin next year.

Changing times

One in 11 Proportion of the electorate belonging to a political party 50 years ago

One in 88 Proportion today