The faint pulse of party politics

An introduction to the <em>New Statesman</em> Political Studies Guide 2007

The death of the political party, like the death of the novel, is an event periodically predicted yet, curiously, never reached. The extensive coverage of the recent British party conference season may be taken as proof of these institutions' continued vigour. However, as Vernon Bogdanor notes, the precipitous decline in membership over the last 50 years shows that the mass party is fast vanishing. Voter attachment has weakened and turnout is low. This phenomenon is not unique to Britain but is widespread in the "old" democracies.

This is going on even though it is clear that popular concern about political issues, varying from AIDS, developing world debt relief and intervention in the Middle East, remains high. Voters are disengaging from European political parties, argues Paul Webb, partly because they are disappointed by how little effect parties appear to have once they get into power, partly because too many of them are tarnished by scandal. It seems we are not far from taking the low of view of parties that Benjamin Franklin did. "Ignorance leads men into party," he wrote in 1753, "and shame keeps them from getting out again."

A new voting system offers one opportunity for the revival of party politics in Britain. As Peter Kellner shows, every alternative form would weaken the Labour-Conservative duopoly, and some would allow extreme voices to be raised inside the Palace of Westminster. Whether one regards the latter as welcome or not, any fragmentation of the British party system would almost certainly lead to greater dynamism within parties.

Do the newer democracies have something to teach us? Participation in political parties remains high in countries where their role in achieving independence is still within living memory, such as India (page 15) and Malaysia. Such enthusiasm for the democratic process ought to shame a West that still presumes to lecture the rest of the world about a system of government it appears to be too jaded to practise at home.

In an age when communication is so advanced that direct mass democracy – with daily votes via laptops across the land, perhaps – would be entirely possible, some may be tempted to call for an end to party. Yet representative democracy has long been our chief safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. As that system cannot function without party, we had better hope that reports of its death remain greatly exaggerated.