Across the world political parties are struggling, with declining membership and lower levels of public trust. The fortunes of established parties are also becoming more volatile.
In 2010 we saw chaotic scenes from Israeli, Ukrainian, Italian and Belgian Parliaments. In Sweden the once dominant Social Democrats lost their second election in a row in 2010. From a UK perspective that might not seem like a big deal. However, bear in mind that the Swedish Social Democrats have been in power for all but 14 of the past 93 years and that this is the first time since the 1920s that they have lost two elections in a row; you can see that this represents a significant shift.
Formally dominant parties cannot take their support for granted anymore. The decline in party membership over the past decades has been almost universal across the world. A recent Economist article outlined some of the struggles that parties face.
There are of course still fluctuations in the fortunes of parties but there are few cases of parties achieving sustained massive growth anymore. It doesn’t matter if we consider the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Democrats or Republicans. All established parties have seen their membership base shrink.
According to recent research by Parliament the Conservative Party had almost 3 m members and Labour around a million in 1951. The 2008 estimate was Conservatives 250,000 and Labour 166,000. This decline has not been compensated for by a growth in the smaller parties.
In part the decline of party membership is down to changing socio-demographics and is inevitable. When my father was a teenager he joined a local youth party branch not out of conviction but because they organised the only youth dances in the countryside. Nowadays young people are spoilt for choice with multiple one issue movements, and are not reliant on political parties for parties!
For the last 100 years or more organised mass parties have been the backbone of politics in most democratic nations; this period seems to be drawing to a close. What impacts will the decline in party membership have on democracy?
I’ve identified three impacts:
The first and most of this is obvious impact is increased political volatility. Large and stable party machines have provided consistency, discipline and predictability in politics. Of course they also have negative impacts, for example predictability may also seem like a stitch up; a cynical non-voter in last years election explained to me that ‘Whoever I vote for, parliament always gets in’. Volatile party membership may lead to more frequent changes in government.
The second impact is the rise of new parties, often with populist agendas; in Sweden between 1940 and 1988 no new parties were voted in. Between 1988 and 2010 four new parties have been voted into parliament. This volatility also means that these new parties increasingly are charismatic one person shows. For example we had seen Shinui in Israel, the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands and the series of parties centred around Berlusconi in Italy come and go. This development loosens the power of party whips but also creates quickly shifting fortunes. One man (or occasionally woman) bands are not stable. After the initial enthusiasm dies down a succession of populist flashes in the pan is likely to further disenchant voters.
A third impact of the decline in party membership is that it leaves established Parties open to internal take over. If active party membership at the local level is limited to a dozen or so active members the branch becomes very easy to take over by a committed group of activists or indeed by wealthy funders able to bankroll a campaign. An examples is the sudden success of the Tea Party in shifting the focus of the Republican Party; in some cases taking over local branches of the Republican party in the process.
All of this is leading towards a more unpredictable form of politics. The decline in party membership may or may not be reversible (I wouldn’t hold my breath) but we will need to mitigate or live with it. What are the options available to society to deal with these impacts?
One option is to go with politics as usual, blindly ignore the problem and pretend parties still represent mass movements. The results are likely to be the growth of executive power to combat volatility, leaving parliaments increasingly distant and mistrusted. In my view the strengthening of the executive at the expense of parliament has already gone far enough in the UK.
Another option is to look to independent candidates as the solution. If the people no longer want parties why insist? After all didn’t we have a function parliament before parties in the modern sense existed? However a system of individual independent MPS which worked in the 1700s and 1800s would be hard to pull off today. While we are likely to see a rise in number of independents, these individual MPs will need to find ways of overcoming disagreements and finding workable solutions. If parties aren’t there to facilitate this we will need a substitute.
A third option to deal with volatility is to boost bureaucracy -we have already seen key decision taken from elected politicians and given to quangos and expert panels. This has been criticised as disempowering elected politicians and we are currently seeing the “Bonfire of the Quangos”. The question is will it last? After all the Conservatives set up many of the quangos they now profess to detest (including the much maligned Audit Commission). I think we’re likely to continue to see some decisions taken out of the hands of politicians and given to experts.
Another solution which some people propose is more direct democracy -handing power directly to people through referendums and initiatives. This will take power away from elected politicians and the Swiss example suggests direct democracy further weakens parties. direct democracy has its place but it is not always a good thing. The difficulty of getting unpopular, but long term beneficial developments, such as congestion charging, through referendums show that direct democracy is probably a complement to representative party politics than a replacement.
Personally I feel that while the above provide some answers a more workable option would be for parties to give up their monopolistic aspirations in favour of a more networked model. The old all encompassing party allegiance feels out of touch; opening up the possibility of more fluid allegiances where the elected member plays a leadership role in the community and the role of the party becomes more about harnessing and interpreting local needs in society. Forward thinking politicians are already doing this of course; developing the skills needed to reconnect to citizens by providing community leadership. Parties can be more relevant connected into a mass network as opposed to trying to be a mass movement on their own.
On Friday, Involve hosts the Local Society Seminar together with Urban Forum and 21st Century Councillor. This event will look at some critical questions around local government, including the strategic role of local government, accountability and risk and the role for councillors in strong and active communities. The discussion papers are well worth a look.
This event won’t come up with a simple solution to the global decline in party membership but it is exactly these kinds of conversations we need to have if we are to understand what it means and how to live with it.