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.