Renewing the party

Political parties must ensure voters are more widely consulted if they want to thwart the BNP and st

The prospect of Gordon Brown’s leadership has brought a renewal of interest in Labour. He has said the past decade’s membership decline must be reversed, and the deputy leadership candidates all made calls to rebuild the party. This is a big challenge which requires reform not just of the organisation but of its role in the wider community.

All party memberships are dropping – Tory membership figures continued to fall, even during David Cameron’s first high profile year. There is a perceived malaise which is part of the wider disengagement in politics generally.

What's more, parties are the least trusted of civil institutions and are subject to increasingly active antagonism at elections. In 2005, more than a third of people, without being asked, were actively urging others to vote against a particular party; in 1997 it was just one in seven.

The central question is whether people see political parties as an important part of our democratic system or as a barrier to democracy and good government. Recent research for the Young Foundation shows the answer, perhaps to the surprise of many, is that people do understand the need for political parties and when asked if they believe political parties are good, bad or make no difference for a democratic system, those saying “good” outnumbered “bad” by 7:1. Half those questioned thought that political parties in Britain “enable people to have a voice”, though they are very critical of how they perceive parties to operate.

When then asked what changes would help to make political parties more appealing, the top three responses were, in order: involving people more in local decision-making; listening more to the public; and taking the time to talk to people about their organization and explaining their values. This provides a rich agenda for parties at national and local level: developing as more active forums for debate and deliberation; being more pluralist in culture and composition; campaigning more forcefully on community concerns; acting as a stronger bridge between local level issues and national institutions, policies and debate; and, critically, being seen and strongly supported by the party leaderships to play an essential role in between and not just during elections.

Labour’s Big Conversation in 2004 was a good initiative but it was a one-off.

Now, Brown’s determined devolution of power from the centre – on local government, education, health, crime and economic development – will bring more decisions within people’s reach. It is the opportunity for local parties to act more continuously as a forum for wider public dialogue, active consultation, involvement in decision-making and in holding local government or agencies to account.

[In recent years, however, the locus of mainstream political parties has become more centralized. Parties have moved away from the community and civil society, creating a vacuum which single-issue campaigns or sectional interest groups are filling. This is a particular characteristic of political parties in power when the imperative to support the government inevitably moves them towards the state and further from being either a voice or channel for local and regional viewpoints. Many in the Labour Party would recognise this description of our present position and Conservatives might accept that their party is only now emerging from the long shadow of 18 years in government.]

Two significant shifts are required.

First, membership is central but parties cannot renew their purpose and appeal only through the singular mechanism of membership. With the general decline in collective institutions and identities, the traditional form of political party association – pay to have your say – is too limited. Parties must encourage wider connections through supporter status, online networks, consultative forums, and more joint meetings, training and campaigns. New technologies and electronic communications can help but there is no techno-fix. What parties and politicians do, and crucially how they respond to public interest and views, is the key.

And second, parties must understand and encourage a wider definition of what it means to be politically active. Electoral Commission research shows that the vast majority of people are actively interested in the issues that affect them, their family and the wider world. They want to have a say in the way the country is run. Yet the perception exists that politics is something done by others in formal institutions.

Parties must seek to foster an appreciation that the broad political process is simply individuals seeing things they want to change, making allies, pressing the case and securing the necessary decisions to bring about that change.

The goal is to translate civic activism into a political activism that is not limited to the activities of professional politicians. The Make Poverty History Campaign showed the power of such links, and climate change concerns have a similar potential

No-one should underestimate the challenge in making political parties more interesting and appealing – too often one of the last places to go for anyone with an appetite for political discussion or action is a local Labour Party meeting. The stakes, however, are high. If the major parties fail to meet these challenges of renewal, then the recently rising appeal of BNP anti-politics and “none of the above” will strengthen.

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and was formerly housing minister, local government minister and financial secretary to the Treasury

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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