In light of the recent Eastley by-election, Jeremy Paxman’s observations on British political parties (below) seem quite interesting. Read the Observer’s review of the book here and a less favourable review by Gerald Kaufman MP here.
EXTRACT FROM: Jeremy Paxman 2003 The Political Animal London: Penguin Books, pp 143-5.
Perhaps the mass-membership party is dead in an age of the citizen-as-consumer. There do seem to be moments when a political organisation appears to meet a need. In the early 1980s the Social Democratic party emerged from nowhere to sign up over 50 000 members, until it fell apart. With the longer-established parties, the figures do suggest that more people will join if they believe there is a realistic chance of their party wielding power. That would be another explanation for why the Labour party membership rose steadily through the 1990s, peaked after the 1997 victory, and then began to drop. Having reached 400 000 before the 1997 election, by the 2001 vote for the second Labour term the total had fallen to 310 000 and the following year to 280 000. (At the same time, in early 2002, the Liberal Democrats were claiming 76 000 members.) The total membership of the three main national parties was, therefore, under 700 000 people. At the same time, English Heritage had 400 000 members, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds over 1 million and the National Trust nearly 3 million. It is not that people have lost their political instincts so much as that they do not find expression through conventional party politics.
British political parties have managed the remarkable achievement of modernizing in such a way that joining them seems a dated thing to do. As society has become more atomized, individuals have redirected their energies into campaigns which have much more narrowly focused ambitions than a generalized prospectus for the salvation of the broader community in which they live. At the time of the 2001 General Election, Amnesty International and Greenpeace between them had more members than any of the political parties. This disengagement from old-fashioned party politics was most acute among the young, whom the Labour party freely admitted it was failing to attract. The consequences is that those people who do belong to political parties are, by definition, unusual. This might not matter very much if their activities were confined to pounding the pavement at election-time. But their power goes wider. As we have seen, they choose the candidate who will try to get elected for the constituency. Effectively, therefore, they have picked every single member of the House of Commons. Under the influence of a belief in ‘party democracy’, the members are also allowed a significant, sometimes decisive, voice in who will lead the party, thereby determining who will become Prime Minister. Unusual they may be. Unimportant they are not.
The lucky politician will rub along happily with his local members: after all, they all belong to the same party. But the spectre of dislike or even deselection means that many MPs are at least a little bit frightened of their local party. ‘The rule of thumb’, one of them told me, ‘is that, at any one time, one in three of them is out to get you. It may be because they never thought you were much good in the first place. It may be something as earth-shattering as the fact that you failed to turn up to their Pea and Pie supper. And because we have this reselection pantomime, every local butcher or solicitor gets his day in the sun when they have to be listened to’. And as every political party covers a spectrum of views, there is a good chance that at some point or other the politician is going ot find that the members expect a commitment – it may be on anything from relations with the rest of Europe to capital punishment – that can not be given. The politician then relies upon the argument most elegantly put by Edmund Burke in a speech to the voters of Bristol over 200 years ago. ‘Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests’, he told them, ‘but … a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole… You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament‘. Under this classic formulation, the MP is elected not merely to make the prejudices of his electors law, but to sit as their representative, using personal judgement to decide how to vote on the issues of the day, loyal to something larger and more intangible.