Wednesday, November 07, 2007


'Are Political Parties Dying?

In his well argued article on 30th September Simon Jenkins suggested that political parties are dying. In support of this he adduces:
i) their ideologies are all melding into one centrist collection of sameness.
ii) they are having to rely on charismatic leaders to provide their cutting edges rather than ideas that used to move people to support them.
iii) their memberships have plummeted by 70% in the last quarter century, from 4million to half a million or 2% of of adults.
iv) Conservatives receive 6% of their funds from membership subs while Labour receives 13% but both have had to look elsewhere for money: mainly to rich donors though Labour still has the unions.
v) Sir Hayden Phillips' review suggested a cap of £50K on donations but Labour said no to union contributions being so limited as they receive millions in this way though prefer to see them as aggregates of individual member donations.
vi) By insisting on having large basic units of administration, the UK discourages the growth of grass-roots party membership and creates a larger distance between parties and voters.

It's a powerful case which Jenkins caps off by calling for for government to refuse them any state aid: parties should regenerate themselves through their own efforts:

Nothing would do more to restore democracy than forcing parties to find more members to give them money and publicly declare it. An active and empowered membership, warts and all, is essential if the British constitution is not to lapse into oligarchy. Party finances will be restored only when parties persuade enough voters that they are worth preserving. Otherwise they will become mere offshoots of the state.

I think Jenkins overstates the case however. Parties have crowded into the centre ground because: Labour has had to court middle class voters once their working class base declined; the Conservatives have had to shift back into the centre after voters felt they were out of touch with a changing society; and all parties, even the Lib Dems, have tended to espouse free market economics as globalization has imposed more severe financial punishments for doing otherwise. And in Jenkins' own words:

Parties remain the golden thread that links voters to their governors both at and between elections. Parties embody the democratic mandate. They can discipline representatives and leaders who stray from what was pledged to the public. They hold MPs’ jobs in their hands.

Jenkins is right to state that parties are in intensive care but in reporting their imminent demise, he was exaggerating, as journalists tend to do.

It is not a question of... they receive millions in this way though prefer to see them as aggregates of individual member donations.. They are individual member donations into a political fund which the individual member has to sign to say they agree to pay into.
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