Tuesday 26 May 2015

The Strange Return of the Political Party

In the aftermath of the general election, this little gem from the BBC caught my eye. It reported on the seemingly counter-intuitive view that political parties, particularly if they lose, often experience a surge in membership. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, who saw their worst defeat in their history saw them put on 10,000-15,000 members (depending on who you talk to) since the general election. The Greens have apparently added another 5,000, the SNP 7,000, and Labour just over 30,000. Poor old UKIP, however, failed to put on any thanks to some untimely IT problems. Still, the combined membership of parties are stuck stubbornly beneath 1% of the electorate but it seems, at least on the surface, that the political party is back. At least as organisations comprised of growing numbers of active citizens - however you'd like to define them.

Of course, the political party never really went away. If you take the period from the 2005 general election to the eve of the Scottish referendum, despite falling combined memberships and dislocation from the constituencies of people that breathed life into them parties remained relevant. They formed governments and councils, sent their members to the European Parliament and devolved bodies, they won elections and pushed through policies. Insurgents from the far left and far right challenged incumbents successfully through the party form. For all of the talk of party breakdown and the erosion of stable identification, the success of self-styled independents remain sporadic and highly localised.

Yet for anyone interested in the health of representative democracy, and that includes those who are well aware of its limitations and might perhaps like to see more participatory and democratic forms eventually develop, the weakness of political parties are bad news. It can exacerbate other pressures constantly bearing down on the state that contribute to the withering of democratic accountability. Party weakness can let undesirables through too. In Stoke the BNP's rise during the 00s had many roots, and one of them was the complete absence of the Conservatives from most local election contests.

From the liberal democratic perspective then, parties are necessary. And this is why seas of ink have been poured over the problem of declining parties and hollowed out polities. It's a problem that's exercised me too. Both Conservatives and Labour have undergone a progressive diminution of influence as tectonics of classes and class fractions have shifted beneath their feet. It's a symptom of their own decadence as declining forces that they act against their own interests. I believe Labour can come back from this, but only if it appreciates itself as a movement in society - not a PLP of latte slurping wonks for whom the party is an adjunct. As for the Tories? More on that another time.

If the main parties are in decline then, and mainstream political participation is low and election turnouts have practically flatlined, where is this sudden about turn coming from? If the multitude of social trends are responsible for miniaturising parties and presumably still working them over, what are the counterveiling forces? There are a few things going on. Some are short-term and episodic events, others may have longer term salience.

1. The reaction to defeat can drive political people who, for whatever reason, haven't taken up party membership beforehand to do so. It's the realisation that no one else is going to participate and build the sort of party you want in your absence, so it's up to you. This is certainly the case for Labour and the LibDems. Indeed, when Labour were dumped out of office in 2010 it put on 50,000 members in the space of six months in reaction to the formation of the coalition. Fear is a great motivator, as we have seen with those angsty voters that gifted the general election to the Tories.

2. A low-level feeder to be sure, but way after Blair ceased displaying Bambi's qualities, the procession of young careerists into Labour continued unabated. Regardless of what's going on in wider society, there is a small section for whom politics is a career choice: there will always be seats to fill, constituency offices to be staffed, council candidates needed, and various other jobs to be taken up. From this position, joining a party is a long-term investment. Networks have to be built, notables flattered, activism undertaken, favours accumulated and banked. Also, opportunities in politics, depending on what you're looking for, can come up frequently. I can't but help think that a substantial number of people pouring into the LibDems presently are aware that the next five-ten years will see more opportunities open for aspiring activists as it recovers.

3. Events, dear boy, events. The Scottish referendum and the spectacularly stupid way Labour in Scotland and UK-wide handled it saw them dynamite their own citadels north of the border. The spectacular growth of the SNP was won on the back of a mass politicisation that coincided with monumental strategic blunders, a moribund party, and those long-term trends. Similarly in England and Wales, the surge that saw the Green Party overtake UKIP and the LibDems in terms of members were driven by one-off events. That doesn't necessarily mean both parties are now likely to fall back. I can't speak for the Greens, but I know the SNP's left in its trade union group are looking to set up the kinds of workplace linkages that used to nourish Labour and provide it generations of activists, thinkers, and politicians. With a Parliament pregnant with tumultuous potential, a few 'one-off' events might act as triggers of active political participation and therefore party membership.

4. Perhaps the most important long-term driver partially replacing the transmission belts of old is social media. Like nearly every political Twitter user I know, my feed is little better than an echo chamber. The vast majority are labour movement people from all corners of the broad tent, but we hold some basic positions in common. It can provide the illusion that your utterances get some real world traction when they are retweeted thousands of times, but that pails against the millions that still read the mainstream press. Nevertheless, the tendency for social media to create unstructured, 'spontaneous' intentional communities can be a boon to political parties. The informal hierarchies and networks that make them up can and do encourage people in them to join the party they're broadly aligned with. Take, for instance, the typical (maligned) campaign selfie. Yes, they're a touch on the narcissistic side but they can and do convey a sense of community, of people from all kinds of backgrounds (apparently) getting on with the job to hand. For some that can be an incredibly powerful pull factor, especially in the context of inhabiting a self-constructed social media world revolving around party politics. As social media continues to expand, so this will be many - mainly young - people's first point of contact with parties. From there it's a short hop, skip, and a jump into active party membership.

Is the return of the political party that strange then? Not really.


Speedy said...

It seems to be the received wisdom that Labour handled the Scottish referendum "spectacularly stupidly" but I don't see how it could have seriously played it any differently.

People were offered a binary choice - and you were either on one side of the argument or another. Perhaps Labour could have changed the nuance of their approach somewhat, but that division would remain.

Labour in Scotland were a victim of the detoxification of nationalism, the long defeat of socialism (which began in 1989), and the decadence of the general public. They had nothing to offer the Scots, other than Tory-lite. However in Scotland they had a meaningful (if not particularly serious) alternative. In England they had none. Labour lost in Scotland for the same reasons they lost in England.

But now I have arrived at that point, I suppose you were saying ,uch the same... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Labour were repeatedly invited by Salmond to propose a middle way which could be Option 3 in the indyref. They could have campaigned for that positively instead of holding hands with Osborne to tell Scots they would never be allowed to use their own £ Sterling etc. At the time Unionists thought this intervention would destroy the Yes side, but it detonated an explosion of resentment and defiance and marked the beginning of the upswing for Yes. Labour had campaigned as small n nationalists from 1987 with great success. They destroyed that the minute they publicly joined hands with the Tories. Recovery might take a while...

BCFG said...

I do fear that those who are/were writing the obituaries of the Lib dems are/were way over-estimating the British public!

Mark Walmsley said...

Nice piece Phil, though the echo chamber effect has made me newly mistrustful of the worth of social media. And there is rather more than a hop and a skip I think between social media identity and the sort of activism that really counts.

Ken said...

Anonymous - 'never be allowed to use their own £ sterling' is an emotive way of saying that if Scotland were to leave the UK, it would have no guarantee of a currency union, and none of the former, current or possible Chancellors of the Exchequer thought it would be in the interests of the rUK to have a currency union.

As was also pointed out at the time, an independent Scotland would be quite free to go on using sterling in the same way as Panama uses the dollar.

It should probably have been emphasised more than it was that neither of these options offered much in the way of an independent Scotland having an independent economic policy. It would have remained under the control of the City of London and the Bank of England, without having any voice or vote at Westminster.

All this was well known to the pro-indy Left, but they still thought it expedient to say, as Colin Fox did: 'They're telling us we cannae use the pound!'

Speedy said...

Precisely Ken, but the myth is stronger than the reality - Labour made the "mistake" of treating the voters like adults, or perhaps not. After all, the referendum was won.

The ironic thing is that if it had gone the other way, Scotland would be in the shit now with the collapse of the oil price. The voters called it right, or half-right: the want their cake and to eat it. There's nothing wrong with this, but it handed the election to the Tory party, as Labour, again, warned.

Scotland could indeed be looking at independence, and without the oil or the currency, be much the worse off for it - except that my hunch is that if it comes to it, providing the UK stays in EU, they will not. The trouble is that this makes them seem a wholly unattractive lot, which may not trouble them at the moment as they make fools of themselves on the opposition benches, but will store up trouble in the long run as English resentment gradually sees the tap turned off.

Anonymous said...

Labour deludes itself if it believes that the SNP surge and alleged reaction to it was the reason it failed to win Tory seats in England. It was merely an illustration of the regrettable lack of trust floating voters had in Milliband. Saying that Better Together was a good idea because No won is missing the point. The Yes campaign narrowed the gap considerably and Ed Balls lining up with Osborne to say No on currency was a key example of Labour's miscalculation. Scottish Labour MPs probably thought it was a good idea at the time...