The party isn’t over

'When the bad combine, the good must associate,' wrote the arch-individualist Edmund Burke. David Beetham considers the continuing need for a political party of the left

May 24, 2009 · 4 min read

A book dropped uninvited through my letterbox the other day entitled The End of the Party, written by an organisation calling itself ‘The Jury Team’, which proposes to put up a slate of independent candidates at forthcoming UK elections. It hopes to tap into a widespread disillusionment with political parties and their conduct in parliament and government, and successfully challenge the idea that they are indispensable to representative democracy.

The authors are certainly correct about the public disengagement from political parties, which is a Europe-wide phenomenon. In almost all established democracies, political parties come at the bottom of the list of institutions in which people express confidence, lower even than banks and bankers, not to mention second-hand car dealers. Over time political parties have lost what popular implantation they once had, and are seen merely as vehicles for professional politicians to win and exercise power, integrated into the state rather than society.

A number of factors have coincided to produce this detachment between parties and the electorate. One is the fragmentation of their traditional social bases and associated organisations. Another is the electoral ‘arms race’, which puts parties in hock to wealthy funders and business interests. A third has been the neoliberal economic hegemony driving globalisation, which has robbed political parties, especially on the left, of any ideological distinctiveness that might make them worth joining or voting for.

Then there has been the decline of inner-party democracy, as leaderships have excluded divergent voices for fear of media exposure of ‘splits’ and ‘loss of authority’. And finally we could add the professionalisation of politics and the construction of a special class that seems to bear little relation to how people live their daily lives. Together these factors have produced a self-reinforcing cycle of alienation between political parties and the public, reflected in declining memberships and voter turnout.

If this situation is general across much of Europe, it is particularly acute in the UK. The hollowing out of local government and its powers has deprived local parties of much of their rationale, and prevented the development of alternative leaderships that might challenge the centralised hierarchies. And the first-past-the-post electoral system ossifies the existing party structure by creating an enormous hurdle for new party entrants. In this context the idea proposed by the Jury Team of a loose framework of self-selected independents, bereft of ideology or programme except the need to ‘clean up politics’, looks more like another symptom of the problem rather than a solution to it.

Nor does the idea of reinvigorating the roots of existing parties by copying the successful electronic mobilisations of the US Democrats look at all plausible, in the absence of any credible renewal of leadership, programme or way of conducting politics such as Obama has represented. All the main UK parties are now ideologically bankrupt, having all embraced the neoliberal economic project with enthusiasm, and are now flailing around for some alternative other than a future return to ‘business as usual’.

The dilemma of the left in Britain is that our critique of neoliberalism and elaboration of alternatives to its orthodoxies now has a potentially receptive audience for the first time for a generation, yet we lack a political party to articulate it and campaign widely for it. Many progressive activists have abandoned parties altogether to take part in single-issue campaigns, self-help organisations and broader social movements, which offer a better chance of achieving meaningful change than by passing ineffectual resolutions up the party line, only to be shunted into a siding. Yet these modes of activism lack any broader political organisation to provide continuity and programmatic coherence, and to campaign for the influence that comes with elected public office.

In sum, if political parties didn’t exist, we would be forced to reinvent them. Even the arch individualist, Edmund Burke, acknowledged the need for groupings of the likeminded in parliament. ‘When the bad combine, the good must associate,’ he wrote. In the absence of any credible party of the left in Britain, at least there are organisations to support that combine members of the left within and outside the Labour Party to develop a programmatic alternative to neoliberalism, such as Compass and the Convention of the Left. I welcome the fact that Red Pepper is associated with both.

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