Monday, July 17, 2006


Are Parties On The Way Out?

'The survival of political parties is now in doubt as much as Blair's' wrote the always interesting Michael Portillo yesterday in the Sunday Times. His argument is that their sources of funding have progressively dried up: subscriptions as voters have ceased to join parties for social reasons; company donations banned; rich donors(which this scandal will probably outlaw); and trade union donations which the Conservatives will ban when and if they acquire power. Portillo expresses his personal distaste for state funding of parties-'a dreadful idea'- and speculates that any PM would struggle to introduce such a measure while the present disaffected climate persists. Few would argue with that.

He then suggests that the big parties might go bankrupt; adding that the reinvention of both big parties over the last decade or more provides evidence that they are, to borrow a phrase, 'not fit for purpose'. Portillo goes on to envisage politics without parties- something which might 'bring joy to an embittered electorate' and lead to a 'government made up of independent MPs.' This would work because 'the people in office have little need of parties. They can use the full aparatus of the state to promote their political objectives'. But whilst political parties- so long unrecognized constitutionally- might atrophy through lack of funding, one assumes the basic constitution would survive and that majorities in the legislature would determine the law.

This would certainly make it more difficult for governments to be voted out as clarity of choice would be lost. But I'm sure that after only a very brief-though dangerous- period, new parties- perhaps better attuned to our changed times- would emerge to contest the power to govern. Maybe such a genuine 'breaking of the mould' experience -unlike the one anticpated by the SDP in the eighties- would do us a power of good, but I suspect that well before such a situation state funding will have arrivedlike the cavalry to relieve the beseiged fort of democratic government.

Why do you think that the SDP didn't make a breakthrough in the 80s?
Lots of reasons as Ivor Crewe and Tony King analyze in their book on its history, but I think the major reason was its lack of any solid support in institutions; Labour had the unions, Tories business but SDP nothing apart from disaffected socialists and some former Liberals. It was also a good repository for protest votes at a time not unlike the present when both major parties seemed not to be in tune with the times. Moreover, it lacked a coherent set of beliefs- not socialist yet sort of sympathetic to it did not sound coherent to voters after the first flush of newness had worn away. Finally, the personality clashes between the leaders did not help things; David Owen mostly to blame for that I'd say.
I think the weight of history (ie, the perpetuation of the traditional two-party system due to both FPTP and our political culture) far outweighs any transient practical problems that parties may be having. The funding question is serious, but it is much more likely to be solved via conventional (partial state funding? - as with charities at the moment) means rather than a total upheaval of our party system.

Skipper, the cartoon's caption reads, "parties were not recognised in the constitution until 1977". What does this refer to?
Parties never used to be officially recognized in constitutional law and-though I'm not certain on this- they were first mentioned in such a law in 1977; they are of course metnined in the (PPER) 2000 Act which set up the Electoral Commission. I'm writing to Philip Norton for the chaoter and verse on this for my own curiosity/education.
Philip has now replied to confirm it's the PPER which has changed the legal status of parties. He advises reading whole of it to get to bottom of this query; that is, if you are a true anorak!
Thanks, Skip. One for a very rainy day I think.

I opened up the relevant website via Google ( and was pleasantly surprised at its shortness. I then quickly realised that it was just the contents page...
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