On the 750th anniversary of parliament, we need parties to take a risk

It's Democracy Day, and time for our political parties to recapture their democratic potential.

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Today marks the 750th anniversary of the first elected parliament. In 1265 Simon De Montfort gathered together representatives from towns and cities around the country and laid the foundations for our political system. The institution he created has changed markedly over the years but we have become accustomed to the idea that we can elect our representatives, voice our opinions, and exert our will through the parliamentary system. "Democracy Day" – as it has been termed by some – provides an opportunity to reflect on the virtues and vices of this system.

Scratch the surface of British democracy and concerns rapidly appear. We may have regular elections, a world renowned parliament and the principle of free speech but many of us feel disengaged, disenfranchised and powerless. This is particularly evident around general elections. Rather than being enthused by the prospect of exercising our democratic rights, vast numbers of us turn off – failing to be inspired by the choice of offer and becoming fatigued by the tenor of political debate. There are many reasons for this response, but the problem seems in part to stem for the character of party politics.

Political parties are essential to the democratic system and dominate parliament – they provide people to run government, they formulate policies, they represent different perspectives and they offer voters choice at election time. But, as democratic institutions parties are far from thriving – they have less members, less loyal supporters and are viewed with distrust and dislike. Whilst intended to serve as a link between the people and power, parties have become alien institutions that few of us identify with or are enthused by.

In pausing to consider the state of British democracy it is worth asking why are so few of us failing to engage with party politics?

The reasons for disenchantment are many and it is difficult to put your finger on exactly what is causing so many of us to switch of. The academic analysis has argued that politicians have neglected the public, that the public have forsaken their civic duties, or that people have simply become content with the status quo. In short, no unequivocal answer has been offered as to why disengagement prevails.

In many ways it is conversations with acquaintances, colleagues and friends that offer more insight. Regardless of a person’s background, level of education, income or social class the same themes emerge when you talk about politics. There is an almost uniform perception that parties are all the same, that politicians are not trustworthy, that it makes little difference who is in power, and that one vote doesn’t make any difference. In such a climate why would you bother to exercise your democratic right to vote – it is difficult to respond with any compelling answer.

What these comments reveal is that politics has become divorced from people’s lives. It is something to chastise and avoid – a point I am keenly aware of whenever I mention my job at the hairdressers. That long exhale of breath speaks volumes about how people view parties and politics.

Yet, it wasn’t always so. Political parties used to be key to how we engaged with democracy and inspired significant loyalty. In the post war era party membership was high, around 4 per cent of the population were party members and many voters felt a strong affiliation to one party or another. Parties were an active component of local communities that brought people together to push for change.

Over time these bonds have weakened, rendering parties reliant on support from voters who are increasingly willing to change their voting allegiances. In response parties have altered how they behave. Rather than being active parts of people’s communities helping to change things in villages and towns across the country, they have become centrally run electoral machines. If you see a political party out campaigning now they are more likely to be trying to find out how you vote than launching local campaigns. Or, if you are blessed with an active local party then those campaigns that are apparent often feel strategic – aimed at pursuing a quick win that will boost electoral support rather than long term change.

Meanwhile party leaders have come to rely on techniques gleaned from political marketing. They have come to treat voters as consumers and now expend significant amounts of time testing their policies, their speeches, their image, their voice, and their brand on the public to calculate how to maximise their electoral support.

Parties have therefore changed. Whilst they used to connect with and represent the people, they are increasingly occupied with the pursuit of power. It is arguably this change that has driven disaffection. Politics has become more strategic and this approach has had precisely the opposite effect to that desired. Rather than provoking support people are disengaging, judging party campaigns and politicians to be inauthentic and uninspiring. People are not foolish and they are less likely to identify with a party and remain loyal if they feel they are being manipulated rather than offered a genuine message and reason to engage.

This poses a significant challenge for political parties that will not be met with more message testing or strategic campaigning. What is required is for parties to reconnect and act as a bridge between people and politics.

People remain civically minded. The decline in voting turnout has not been accompanied by rampant individualism or the decline of community, but what it means to be part of a community has changed. For many people where they live remains important and people are happy to help out neighbours or contribute to local causes. But increasingly community is less spatial – it is about shared interests and ideals between people who may be geographically disparate. Parties have failed to adapt to these changes, and they have failed to act as advocates working with these communities in a genuine, collective way. 

If parties are to reconnect with the public and begin to rekindle their role as civic organisations engaging people in politics by campaigning to bring about change then they need to rethink their role in society. Parties used to be representative and governing organisations, but in recent years they have pursed electoral victory and the chance to govern above all else. The voice of the people has therefore been lost from contemporary party politics – rendering it an alien realm in which only a minority of the population are active or interested.

To recapture the democratic potential of parties fundamental change is therefore needed. This kind of change will not be achieved ahead of the 2015 general election, it will take many years to bring about. We, the people, need parties to take a risk. We need them to look beyond their immediate electoral fortunes and reimagine their role, forging strong links with geographical and abstract communities to act as conduits that reconnect people with politics. Without change the health of parties and the Parliament they constitute is in doubt, making it unclear how exactly politics will look in another 750 years.

Dr Kate Dommett is Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics (www.crickcentre.org). She leads the Centre’s research on Political Institutions and Democratic Reform. Her own work looks at the role and reform of political parties in democracies around the world.