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They may be ill-loved, ugly and tribal – but political parties are a necessity

In a world where depoliticising politics is sure to get a cheer on Question Time, the parties are key to keeping the system running.

I have spent a lifetime shouting (privately) at the radio when I disagree with a piece of broadcast journalism. Normally by the time I arrive at the next set of traffic lights I’ve forgotten what it was that induced the abuse. But every now and then something sticks. In 1981 France faced a choice between the incumbent, the centre-right Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the Socialist François Mitterrand. Fifth Republic France had never had a president from the left, and if Mitterrand won, the Communists, with over 15 per cent of the vote and the cold war nowhere near won, were likely soon thereafter to be a formal partner in a socialist government. In the run-up to the presidential vote a corres­pondent pooh-poohed the whole thing – the campaign had been flat, everyone was bored, France was obviously France, and life would go on. I shouted loudly. The election seemed obviously dramatic and the stakes very high. In the event, Mitterrand won, the Champs-Élysées erupted, and the Communists duly arrived at the ministries.

Democracy had done its stuff; a bunch of people had been removed from office, others had come in, often with pronouncedly different economic and social beliefs and policies, and nobody had been killed. All types of ideas were let loose and those ideas now had the power of the state behind them. But then one of those ideas – the most important of them – the Mitterrand experiment in “go-it-alone” expansionist economics, rapidly failed. The government retrenched, and France indeed went on. So perhaps the world-weary correspondent had been right all along. Why bother to celebrate the apparently marvellous fact that peaceful change to both the left and the right is part and parcel of life, when we can see that politicians from all sides face great constraints that they often cannot negotiate. And before we even rue the limits of political activity and success we should remember that those who did not opt for the winning party or leader in any election, very often a majority of those who bothered to vote at all, might have reason to be delighted by those constraints.

But there is an asymmetry. The losing voters don’t much celebrate the braking mechanisms of democratic life – coalition politics, independent judges, a pesky media, the need to control your own party supporters, the power of other institutions, the dispassionate advice of civil servants, the markets, and on and on; and the voters of the winning party feel even more frustrated that their politicians haven’t delivered the brave new world promised in the campaign. All in all, we seem decades ago to have given up on both any serious appreciation of elections and the subsequent checks on power.

The seminars and articles about political disengagement have been churned out for decades. The evidence of political ennui is everywhere. Turnout in 2010 was 65 per cent, a little up on the 2001 and 2005 elections when the result was not much in doubt, but still way down on most of the previous century. For anything other than general elections things are worse. Parliament is admired by few – give or take the admirable attempt by Michael Cockerell to give a rounded (verging on supportive) view of it in his recent BBC series. Politicians are forever stuck somewhere near the bottom of any popularity poll of the professions. The expenses scandal of 2009 made things terrible but they were bad already. Russell Brand’s colourfully expressed distaste for all the contrivances of modern British democracy (first set out in this magazine) did not make any particularly new points, and he was hardly the first to suggest that contemporary politics was lacking in sufficient meaning; but he gave unfocused oomph to the politically disaffected, and from my eyrie in Oxford it was palpable that his soufflé of criticism was much to the taste of students of many different types.

Nobody is going to argue during this campaign that politics is noble and that the election is an edifying expression of civilisation. Rather, most will accept that it is a mess just about worth enduring. And politicians now mostly run against their own profession. If an MP wants to get a burst of enthusiastic applause from the audience of Question Time or Any Questions, and not merely from natural supporters, he or she simply has to assert that a particular policy problem will be best tackled by taking the politics out of it; or, as a variant, that the time has come to stop playing political football with, say, the structure and funding of the health service or education or housing.

Depoliticising politics is a phenomenon that is far from uniquely British. President Obama’s standard rhetorical technique during his budget battles with the Republicans in Congress is to treat “politics” as a bad word. Here is one of his recent pleas to pass a US budget for 2016 (and there are many other examples of this sort of thing): “You have to put politics aside, pass a budget that funds our priorities at home and abroad and gives middle-class families the security they need to get ahead in the new economy . . . I’m calling on Congress to get this done.”

At one level this is profoundly baffling, almost oxymoronic. How can you describe a ferocious battle over something as fundamental as the federal budget as being anything other than political, in the sense that it is about taxing and spending and defining the size and scope of the activity of the United States government, all $4trn of it? But Obama the politician knew that the audience wanted to hear something emollient if they wanted to hear anything at all. Imagine if he’d said something along the lines of: “Let’s go into the room armed with our political philosophies and arguments. I am the president and my politics, derived from a national vote, deserves to be stronger than yours, derived from narrower constituencies. I’ll give you some bonbons to enable you to assuage some of your more powerful or reasonable supporters. But if you don’t accede I am not going to budge, the government will close and I will do my utmost to ensure that your politics will be damaged.” Obama, for many liberal Democrats, has been insufficiently combative, not least in budget battles; but his tactic – tacitly acknowledging the toxicity of the idea of politics – was probably the best rhetorical course available.

And we know what his anti-politics soundbite means. He is suggesting that (Republican) politics is destroying the policy: that the horse-trading, the defence of local interests and the presentational choreography used by his opponents are all combining, as he would see it, to obliterate rational analysis of the problem at hand. He wants to say that reasonableness is being subsumed by something else altogether – a desire to ensure that blame for the deficit, and for its attendant corrective measures, is associated with the president.

All of that is too complex to express, and way too ruffling. Most voters do not like the idea that politics necessarily generates friction and that the clashes are not always of egos, but sometimes of ideologies and values. Many fantasise that matters would be better settled by a consensus forged by wise professionals and producing outcomes to difficult problems with reference to “the national interest”: a warm, inclusive phrase that very often means not very much, outside war, but which would certainly relegate the importance of political parties.

And if the word “politics” engenders a set of hostile responses, party politics guarantees much worse. Again, the contemporary indicators are well known: the collapse of membership for the three main UK-wide parties is startling (but that does not apply in recent times to the SNP or the Greens). The tradition of deploring parties is a long one. The American Founding fathers lined up to coin brilliant phrases decrying their inherent divisiveness. James Madison, the principal author of The Federalist Papers and fourth president of the United States, summed up their hostility: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points . . . an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence . . . . have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s immediate predecessor, was even more drastic: “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” But they were defeated. By the 1790s America had parties. The Founding Fathers were all men of property and standing, and astonishingly gifted thinkers and writers. But however wise and decently motivated they thought they were, they could not coalesce for long around one definition of the common good. And, in any event, parties in wider democracies than late-18th-century America have had to reflect, absorb and voice a wider range of views than those propounded by Madison, Jefferson et al, about different visions of society, money, property or identity.
 

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And thus parties are a necessity – ill-loved, ugly and sometimes viscerally tribal. They are for very many an embarrassment, but without them it is government by the clash of personalities with paltry mechanisms to decide between the claims of competing interest groups, and even more problems than we already have in defining which issues count and how to frame them. But there has been a collapse in our collective understanding of the nature and purpose of party political life – and that is something that really has become more pronounced. I would find very few students who would agree with my defence.

I cannot advance any prescription beyond a plea that journalists and commentators of all sorts allow complexity through the door. If parties take money for improper favours or from corrupt donors they should be held to account, and strongly. But whenever it happens, it is worth remembering and stating that every hefty democracy suffers from the taint of party funding. Clinton, Kohl, Chirac, Blair, and countless others, have had blows inflicted on them trying to raise money for parties without a mass membership broad enough or remunerative enough to sustain the level of purity we demand.

Politics is civilisation – often inadequate, but totally necessary. We should all feel enfranchised not only to vote but to grumble about systems, structures and unfairnesses. Political satire should be celebrated, but so should the inability of politicians in the UK to duck out of demanding appearances on the many programmes where there is some form of challenge; imperfect challenge, but challenge nonetheless.

It won’t do to keep kicking out at everything associated with politics with almost equal intensity, the whole time. Politics can, and does, fail spectacularly but when it does we know the very unpleasant alternatives – and we should be sure not to declare that everything is smashed to bits. Because if politics were to break down completely we might by then not even notice.

Mark Damazer is a former controller of Radio 4 and Master of St Peter’s, Oxford

This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special