The row over the Euro elections disguises a deeper malaise in British politics. This is the failure of political parties to renew themselves to match modern needs.
If Benjamin Disraeli and Keir Hardie returned to earth they would find the outlines of the political parties they founded remarkably unchanged. The territorial imperatives of the constituency as the unit of organisation; the monthly gathering of the activists incanting arcane mumbo-jumbo which saps the political soul; the permanent struggle between a London high command and awkward platoons at the base with no intermediary organisation in between; and the utterly unchanged focus on personality not policy, and on individuals not teams.
At this century’s end, Dizzy and Keir would recognise at once the tribal smell of their parties and smile knowingly at the absence of serious policy debate about how the country should be governed.
No British party has a proper communications system with its own members, let alone the public. Lack of resources hamper efforts by any party to discuss and explain its policies in an adult fashion, and do not allow a horizontal dialogue to co-exist with top-down harangues.
As a result the news and op-ed pages of the national press become the substitute for party political discussion, education and debate. It should not matter to the Labour high command whether or not the Guardian is “helpful”, but it does because the Guardian is the main means of written communication about Labour news and views to Labour’s 400,000 members. Likewise, the main channels of communication and discussion between Conservative Party members are anti-European papers like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, thus making it impossible for the party to have a proper debate.
It is only against this background that we can really understand the fuss over open and closed lists for the election to the European Parliament. What the supporters of an open list are calling for is open warfare between all seven candidates as they fight each other to make sure they get the biggest possible personal vote.
A closed list system will give us a political fight between various different political positions: Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and perhaps independent anti- or pro-federalist parties. The open list would give us a non-stop contest between candidates on the same list striving to maximise their personal profiles at the expense of their party colleagues.
This would be a joyous feast for the media who would play up candidate against candidate – the old Labourite against the new Labourite, the gay wannabe MEP against the Christian family woman, and (given the residual racism in some papers) the black or Asian against the white candidate.
Anti-European millionaires such as Paul Sykes would spend limitless cash (as against the limited cash that the parties are allowed to spend) promoting Euro-hostile candidates on each party list. Would-be MEPs, instead of looking for votes across the region, would throw all their energy into canvassing solidly Labour (or Tory) areas to secure a maximum personal vote.
The aftermath of any election fought on open lists would cause even more trouble. Take a region like Yorkshire with a theoretical 1.4 million votes and seven MEPs. Let’s assume Labour gets 800,000 votes, the Conservatives 400,000 and the Lib Dems get 200,000.
Four Labour MEPs, two Tory MEPs and one Lib Dem MEP go to Strasbourg. That seems fair. But wait a minute. Each Labour MEP will have got approximately 120,000 votes, each Tory 60,000 and each Lib Dem 35,000 votes. So if votes are cast for individuals it will mean a Lib Dem and two Tories going to Strasbourg with far fewer individual votes than the three Labour candidates who fail to make it because the system is proportional.
The bitterness and recriminations would be such that the open list system would not survive its first try-out.
There are other arguments for the closed list system: at the candidate selection stage, for instance, it is probably the only way to ensure that Labour candidates for Strasbourg are not all white, middle-aged men.
But the important point is that the whole debate over open and closed lists shows how woefully ill-prepared our political parties are for the new system of governance that is coming into being.
Candidate selection for the new parliaments, assemblies and the mayor of London has become bogged down in personality clashes as politicians a lot closer to retirement than to the moment they took out a party card are having their one last go at fame and office. The rows are a symptom of unmodernised party structures. Unfortunately, Lord Neill, in his report on political funding, focused almost entirely on electoral campaigning. He rejected calls made by a number of MPs and others for more generous support for party political activity in the fields of policy, education, communication and research which has to go on in the 50 or 60 months between major elections.
The Neill recommendations need to be revisited if we are to have modern political parties which can communicate with their members and expand policy discussion beyond a narrow elite in London and political anoraks willing to serve every night of the week on local committees.
If we had modern political parties in Britain, we would not be having this absurd row over the European lists. And until political parties reform themselves they will be a dead weight around the ambitions of many of us, in more than one party, who are in politics because we want to see modernisation and renewal of our country.
Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham