There is a tension at the heart of our politics, that as political parties have become increasingly consumerist over the last 30 years, triangulating policies to try and appeal to as many voters as possible, they have actually satisfied the public less. The effects of this are clear in the attitudes expressed in the 'The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today' research, which showed that participants felt that political parties are “unrepresentative” “self-interested” “corrupt” and “self-serving.”
There is also another tension evident in this research, that the public can be contrary and contradictory in their attitudes to political parties and participation more generally. This is clear both in trying to explore what forms of representation people want and regarding opportunities for participation. There was concern that parties were not representative, but no consensus found on what good representation looked like. Equally while participants wanted more opportunities for participation, they also don’t see themselves as taking up those opportunities.
One of the features of the British state is that it has evolved gradually over time, slowly adapting to a changing society. But this means it was never designed with the public or participation in mind. This is as true of political parties as the other institutional elements of our democracy. They developed initially to serve the interests of groups within Parliament, long before there was universal suffrage.
So how do we resolve these tensions?
Parties clearly need to change the way they engage with the public, and supporting all of the individual reforms proposed in this report is a good place to start. However, worthwhile as these reforms are in their own right, they won’t solve the fundamental problem at the heart of our democracy.
Borne out by the research is the fact that neither political parties or the public see themselves as having a shared responsibility for our democracy and for achieving political change. Doing democracy can be sub-contracted to politicians, with the public’s only role being voting in elections every 4 or 5 years.
One criticism of political parties found in this research was the failure to engage with the public outside of election periods. This is not at all surprising when you consider how public deliberation and engagement are missing from the way politics is done in the UK, largely the result of the UK’s constitutional settlement and the way the institutions of the British state are setup and run. This is one reason for the gap between what people expect from political parties and democracy more widely, and what they get in reality.
The British state turns the public into passive recipients of politics. Politics becomes something that is done to them, rather than something they do or that is done with them. This is not to say that individuals aren’t politically active, for example signing petitions, running street stalls, and lobbying their MPs. But beyond this, it is exceptionally difficult for the public to put issues on the political agenda and meaningfully shape the debate. Initiatives like the parliamentary petitions system have done little to address this because of the limited time for debate and no concrete outcome. One of the findings in this report is that the efficacy of involvement matters enormously to people, and this is true for politics more widely as well as for political parties.
Unlock Democracy believes that we need new rules for the way that we do politics and that they have to be written by all of us. There has never been a moment in our history where ‘we the people’ have been included in defining the UK's constitutional settlement - what the limits on government power should be, what the government can and cannot do in our name, and which rights and freedoms we hold to be inalienable - and therefore free from interference. We need to build that moment now. For Unlock Democracy that means a codified constitution created by a citizen-led deliberative process.
We want a codified constitution because when the rules aren't well defined, let alone written down, the government is given free rein to act in the name of the public with little constraint. This is a critical problem for our democracy. If you don't understand the rules of the game, how can you to hold its players to account? But how we decide on the new rules matters just as much.
While lawyers and academics could draft a constitution, that would not create the sense of ownership we so desperately need. The deliberative process involved in a citizen-led constitutional convention would help counter the increased polarisation of politics, which has been worsened by the tribal behaviour of MPs in parliament.
So yes, political parties need to change the way they engage with the public. But we also need to redesign the British state putting the people at the heart of it, rather than an optional extra.
DISCLAIMER: This blog was produced by Alex Runswick as part of a blog series following the publication of “The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today” report. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Involve, University of Sheffield or the ESRC.