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What’s happening to our political parties? Mass–participation, to machine, to movement politics

What’s happening to our political parties? Mass–participation, to machine, to movement politics

Can the new ‘ideology free’ movement fix British politics? Paul Bickley tries to make sense of The Independent Group. 21/02/2019

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Does the departure of the Labour ‘Southbank seven’ (plus some) and Conservative ‘three amigos’ into the Independent Group signal the rise of a new ‘ideology free’ movement in British politics? And would that be a good thing if it did?

Here’s an opinion that’s unlikely to win many votes: political parties are really important.

They provide a kind of connective tissue between popular sentiment and the work of governing. Imagine a general election where there were no parties, only individual candidates. There would be no easy way to translate local votes for individual candidates into either a national policy programme or a democratically accountable leadership. As the two main political parties have slowly weakened we have seen politics fragilize, rhetoric become extreme, heterodox and extreme positions gain ground, and the work of governing become harder. What is the cause and what is effect?

It is hard to gauge the significance of the Independent Group, not least because their breakaway comes at a time of almost unprecedented political fluidity. What is the split about? Personal rivalries? The fringe v. centre? Anti–Semitism? Foreign policy? Brexit? All of these, of course, but I would argue something else as well – that something else is a deep and often unnamed change of which the current travails of the different political parties is merely a symptom. To understand how our political culture is changing we have to take a long view – a view which demonstrates a series of collapses: first from mass participation politics to machine politics, and then from machine politics to movement politics. It’s an oversimplification, in need of many caveats, but a helpful one in terms of understanding the current political moment.

The first collapse is easy enough to illustrate. Consider, for instance, that in the 1951 General Election, the combined share of the vote won by the two main parties was 96.8 percent. In 2010, they took 65.1 percent. The First Past the Post System continued to give the impression of two party dominance but hid underlying frailties and inhibited further change. In 1951 the two main parties took all but 9 of the available seats, but in spite of their collapse in vote share they still took 87 percent of seats in 2010. So far, so familiar.

Facts like this underpinned the received wisdom that the United Kingdom was lumbered with outdated political technology – in particular, people were and would no longer join political parties in large numbers. The emerging reality was one where people would have fewer tribal allegiances and would vote in non–ideological and self–interested ways. Mass participation politics was rooted in social class and in the interests of labour and capital expressed through ideological traditions that held coherence over time, but economic, social, class, and cultural structures were changing.

Of course, many people still identified strongly with one or the other big two, but by 2015 pollsters were estimating that around 50 percent of voters were ‘floating’, that is expressing no party allegiance. Politics of the two different parties had already hybridised; the post–war consensus in the first instance, and after Thatcherism, the ‘Third Way’. Politics was not without conflicts or big shifts, but at least in the last 20 years the parties had been firmly pegged in the liberal centre. There was no need, for instance, to make false choices between market and the state; both should be harnessed for their strengths. It was the ‘end of history’, in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, and there was no longer a need or an appetite for debates around fundamental visions of the good. As a result, political work became a technocratic work, making sure a given system delivered good outcomes for voters. At its worst this was extremely reductive; as Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville put it, “It’s the economy, stupid”. From voters’ perspective, there was less and less choice – “they’re all the same these days”.

If political parties still had a function, that function was as election machine operated by a relatively small number of highly committed individuals. Political parties were still full of civically minded people, doing their best to shape the country for the better. However, party hierarchies saw them as a problem to mitigate rather than the source of political power. The Labour Party annual conference, for instance, was denuded of any policy making function and became a tightly managed shop window through which party leaders made their appeal to the public. Party structures had one goal – to maintain power. They commissioned the advertising agencies, organised the phone banks, managed the databases. No wonder then that once the politics had gone, membership figures plummeted over time. After all, Conservative membership once stood at nearly 3 million. It now might be lower than 124,000.

Smaller, more ideologically motivated movements might come and go, but their best hope was to pressure the big players to adopt new concerns and interests into main party platforms. The difficulty of breaking through in a system that always penalised start–ups and new entrants, even if they won substantial support, would make it virtually impossible for them to take a representative function.

At this stage, political scientists worried about the implications of party decay. There was a crisis of legitimacy, where the big two were no longer a popular means of democratic participation, but still controlled access to power and position. In the time of machine politics, the opportunity for big donors to exercise undue influence grew. Public trust in politicians and the party system slowly eroded, plunging engagement in a cycle of decline. What would the future hold?

I recall reading (and writing) articles on these lines until quite recently, but around 2014 things visibly began to shift. In retrospect, I think we were witnessing the arrival of a movement politics into the two–party system.

First, in May of that year, UKIP took 27.5% of the vote (4.4 million) in the 2014 European Parliament elections, ahead of any other party, returning 24 MEPs. This added significantly to the internal pressure on David Cameron to commit to an in–out referendum on the EU. A party that had beaten a mainstream centre–right voice in European elections could easily deny the Conservatives an outright victory in the upcoming General Election (and UKIP did take 3.8 million votes – 12.6 percent of the vote share, though only one seat). Of course, UKIP had existed for many years – but growing concerns around immigration, and the perception that this was an issue that was not being dealt with by mainstream politicians, became their core pitch. Importantly, they were winning former Conservative and former Labour voters.

Second, in September of that year the Scottish National Party (which has since grown to 125,000 members, now probably larger that the Conservative Party) spearheaded a much larger cultural movement into the closely contested Scottish referendum. The three established parties had to marshal all their resources to hold back this heady mix of nationalist and left–of centre anti–establishment and anti–austerity politics. The movement’s defeat in the referendum wasn’t its end.  The SNP subsequently took 56 seats in the 2015 general election, demolishing Labour’s hitherto unassailed Scottish redoubt. In part, Scottish voters were punishing both Labour and Liberal Democrats for what were perceived to be their Westminster ways.

Third, the financial crash of 2008 obliged the Coalition Government led by David Cameron to engage in a deficit reduction programme that amounted to a reshaping of the state (some would argue all too enthusiastically). This stoked existing dissatisfaction not only with the Conservative party but also with the New Labour/Third Way political vision. Anti–austerity and anti–establishment politics – student fees protestors, anti–war movements, liberationist voices – were looking for a political voice. Following his defeat in the 2015 General Election, Ed Miliband made changes to Labour’s internal party rules and created an associate membership. That anti–austerity movement flowed into the party. Membership jumped from 200,000 to 550,000 inside two years, and Jeremy Corbyn was elected as party leader (supported by 84 percent of the new associate membership).

What happened on the political right was similar, but different. Similar, in that hitherto marginal voices successfully dragged the Conservative Party first towards a Brexit referendum and then, it seems, toward a harder, potentially economically more destructive, version of Brexit than many in her own party can countenance, with border control as a non–negotiable. Different, in that this gravitational pull has mainly come from outside the party (though there has been talk of a ‘purple momentum’ or Bluekip movement of former UKIP members joining Conservative associations in an attempt to de–select Remainer MPs). This is all bitterly ironic – Cameron’s attempts to neutralise the UKIP threat may well have ended the Conservative Party in its current form.

Labour heading left and the Conservatives heading right looks like a return to the two–party politics of yesteryear. This is not what it seems. This is a new grudge match – a ‘radicalised’ Labour versus a ‘radicalised’ Conservative party, each flourishing because they seem to be answering the same national anxieties and a desire for major change. All of this in the context of a bricolage of apparent contradictions and paradoxes. In spite of hoovering up more votes than they had in a generation, the two main parties are internally divided over Britain’s departure from the EU and many issues beside. Small parties, while they suffered in 2017 under the first past the post system have been empowered (take the DUP, for example). The ideological volume has been turned up on the left and the right, but there is little actual ideological work being done – all the noise is about the internal rivalries of different houses. Individual MPs – especially those who came of age in the previous era – are effectively freelancing, and strong groups (e.g., the ERG inside the Conservative Party and the Independents leaving Labour) are having a significant effect on the political landscape.

The truth is that two–party politics is not reasserting itself. Right now movement politics is asserting itself within the hollowed out organs of the parties born in an era of mass participation. How long the husks themselves will survive is an interesting question, but for the moment their future has been secured precisely because they have been ‘movement–ised’. The birth of the Independent Group should be seen as the movement platform for those who can no longer co–habit with the extreme wings of their former parties. It isn’t a Remainer platform as such but a movement for moderacy, if you like.

Will that be enough to sustain a different politics? Perhaps they can represent Remainer Britain, become the voice for that significant minority. I think therein lies a problem – Brexit is a very urgent cause, but when the book is closed on that, what story will the Independent Group tell? What tradition of thought will guide their reasoning? Plenty of politicians have loftily declaimed against ‘the old broken politics’, only to be beaten with that very stick when they are forced to make judgements which seem to betray principles (this why the Liberal Democrats have not been able to re–emerge for post–Coalition life in the age of movement politics). What meaning will help the Independents forge a political movement out of moderacy, because it seems that one thing that movement politics offers is some kind of answer to the question, who am I? Scottish nationalism, English nationalism in the form of UKIP, the crusade against austerity are all freighted with deep conviction both for the cause and against the immorality, blindness and alleged irrationality of those that don’t share it. It’s not so much that politics and religion have mixed as that politics has become a kind of religion. Zealots promulgate their dogmas without compromise or self–reflection. What should be the penultimate, pragmatic, prudential search for the good – the work of politics – has become ultimate, transcendent and non–negotiable.

For some, the Independent Group will be a breath of fresh air in a stale room. To others, it will come across as the empty pragmatism which has already had its day. For me, it is a newly built house – tidy, unspoilt and with a good amount of kerb appeal but lacking in character. For now at least, it is a building full of empty rooms. It will require people of considerable imagination and enterprise to turn it into a house worth living in. That’s not just a matter of policy but of poetry.

It wasn’t so long ago that people complained that politics had become bland and managerial. Be careful what you wish for! Politics hasn’t been broken by Brexit – at a deep level it was changing a long time before 23 June 2016. If it has reminded us that a democracy is not a static thing, but an ongoing endeavour, then that’s a message we – the general public – needed to hear.

What can’t be denied is that British politics has not proved immune to the cultural currents at play in the rest of Europe and beyond. For the foreseeable future it will be characterised by fluidity and factionalism. To paraphrase Eliot, it will be a time when it will seem like the best lack all conviction and the worst will be full of passionate intensity. Sensible people will be inclined to step away and live peaceful and quiet lives. That is what they must not do.  The Independent Group will give some a way of staying in the game. Good for us.

Image by chrisdorney under a Shutterstock licence.

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 21 February 2019

Brexit, Britain, Conservative Party, Democracy, Parliament, Politics


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