‘People want to have their cake and eat it’, Involve, 24 January 2019.

‘Jesus.  Never mind having their cake and eating it, too.  They want the flipping moon on a stick.’

Whether that’s how politicians and staffers will actually react to What People Want to see in Parties, I’ve no idea.  But I confess: that was my first response.

Not very politically correct, I’ll admit.  But look at the evidence that Kate Dommett and Luke Temple have assembled by conducting surveys and focus groups to explore the electorate’s feelings about organisations that – love them or loathe them (and many people do, indeed, seem to loathe them) – remain absolutely essential to democracy the world over.

People want parties to have principles but not necessarily to stick to them.  They want them to keep their policy promises, yet to compromise, too.  And they want MPs to exercise their best judgement at the same time as insisting they should do what their constituents tell them.

No wonder, then, that parties are held in such low esteem.  What human institution could possibly hope to satisfy such competing demands?  It’s so easy to say they’re not up to the job.  But maybe, in a more fragmented and more consumerist society – one increasingly used to getting what it wants when it wants, and how it wants – the job itself has become impossible.  Perhaps the fault, dear reader, is not in our parties but in ourselves.

Yet it’s hard to read the most popular pet peeves about parties without concluding that those who criticise them may nevertheless have a point. Unrepresentative? Check. Undemocratic? Check.  Divided? Check.  Self-serving? Check. Tribal? Check.  Perhaps, after all, parties are their own worst enemies.

But here’s the paradox.  If political parties really are so awful, then how come so many more people have joined them – or at least some of them – in recent years?

Ten years ago, the UK’s political parties, like most their continental counterparts, were drifting and dwindling downwards.  But look at them now: Labour can claim to be the biggest party in Europe – certainly on the centre-left; the SNP doesn’t seem to have declined significantly since the huge bounce it experienced after the Scottish Independence Referendum; the Lib Dems can plausibly claim to have nearly as many members as the Conservatives (the one obvious exception to the rule); and both the Greens and UKIP (before the EU Referendum anyway) have had their moments, too.

Arguably, then, the parties (collectively at least) don’t have that much to worry about.  Maybe, like the big energy companies most people seem somehow locked into using, they can be confident of survival in spite of their woefully poor reputations for both value for money and customer service?

I’m not so sure. The growth we’ve seen recently could eventually turn out to be a blip – for reasons that soon become evident the deeper one dips into What People Want.  Parties, it turns out, can bend over backwards to make it easier for folk to get involved in what they do; but they shouldn’t expect many of them to bother.

Why?  Because, although most of us say we’d like to see parties provide more opportunities for participation, it turns out we’re honest enough to admit that we wouldn’t bother taking advantage of those opportunities themselves.

There are probably as many reasons for this as there are individuals.  Research I’ve conducted with my colleagues on the ESRC-funded Party Members project suggests, for instance, that even people who are big fans of a particular party often don’t go so far as to join it because they worry (unnecessarily many existing members would say) about the amount of time it will take up.  But Dommett and Temple’s work also points to another important factor – namely the belief that members don’t really have much impact on what parties do and say anyway.

In some cases (and that’s true of many of the accusations flung at parties) that’s not really fair.  The Lib Dems and the Greens are actually pretty democratic organisations which allow members the final say on almost everything.  Moreover, one of the biggest ironies in British politics in the last couple of decade is that, at least when it comes to Europe, the members of the party who lack any formal power over policy – the Conservatives – can claim to have helped shift it most profoundly.

But there is one case – a test-case really – on which the future of mass participation in political parties, and therefore of parties themselves, may eventually come to rest.

Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party since 2015, at least in part because they truly believed Jeremy Corbyn when he promised that it would henceforth be guided by the wishes of its members, not its leader.

Survey after survey has demonstrated that Labour members want to remain in Europe and, more recently, are overwhelmingly in favour of a referendum to help bring an end to Brexit.  If Labour’s leadership, in its anxiety not to upset Leave voters, continues to maintain its studied ambivalence on the issue, then it risks effectively proving the cynics correct, thereby ensuring that what many have hailed as a renaissance of grassroots participation party politics ends up as a nail in its coffin.

Originally published at https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/blog/opinion/people-want-have-their-cake-and-eat-it-tim-bale


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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