Local democracy is in a state of terminal decay, through disinterest, apathy, disgust with politicians and general ignorance, with the effect that unrepresentative cabals are dominating the national political agenda, from Town Hall to parliament, often assuming power simply by joining their local parties and then using that to further their own pet projects or to favour areas of self-interest.
That’s the view of a prominent Conservative party policy-maker, a former adviser to two Tory party leaders and a current speechwriter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gideon Osborne.
Daniel Finkelstein is also a former leading member of the SDP and mate of David Owen. So when he pens an article that says that the political parties need to be more open to supporters and less dependent on formal membership in order to strengthen the democratic process, it is a fair guess that there’s a “policy initiative” just around the corner.
Finkelstein was writing the leader column in Monday’s Times, at the start of a month of party conferences. “Watch the audience rather than the platform,” he advised, shrewdly. “In some debates, there are more lobbyists and representatives of the media than there are party members.
“In many fringe meetings, the parliamentary affairs departments of different pressure groups talk to each other, making up both speakers and spoken to, because there are hardly any party members there.”
He’s right. As annual party conferences have been “modernised” (which is not synonymous with “improved”), and made more “corporate”, with sponsored lunches, company stands and “keynote speeches” staged on behalf of one multi-national or another, all with the aim of swelling the parties’ campaign coffers, the ordinary party members have been left behind, forgotten.
Attending conference is not cheap. Even before hotels, meals and time off work is considered, a Labour party member wishing to attend conference in Manchester starting on Sunday needs to pay more than £120 for a balcony pass (and woe betide you if you dare to heckle Tony Blair…).
If you are a member of the Croydon Conservative Federation and want to attend your party’s conference in Birmingham a week later, you needed to cough £80 in July for an accreditation; otherwise, it was £250, or if you’ve left it this late, you could be charged up to 500 quid, non-refundable and with no guarantee that you’ll even get a pass. Nice.
How is all this, and Finkelstein’s column, relevant to Croydon? He explains:
“There are constituency parties standing 20 council candidates when they have only 50 members… parliamentary candidates in winnable seats are being selected by ‘mass’ meetings of fewer than 100 people…
“Local parties have become steadily older and less representative.”
Apply this to Croydon, which has 70 council seats up for grabs across 24 wards in 2014. The local political parties are coy about their membership, with good cause. It is not unreasonable to speculate that in Croydon, the Liberal Democrats, a party of government let’s not forget, may not even have 70 members (if any local LibDem wants to post a comment with the actual membership figure, we’d be delighted).
The situation is better, but a long way short of good, with the two other major parties. Labour is estimated to have around 1,000 members in Croydon, the Conservatives, according to their own figures, had 1,300 members in 2011.
Join any of the political parties tomorrow, and it is almost possible that you could have your name on the ballot paper by 2014. “Britain’s political system increasingly resembles an inverted pyramid with a large elite supported by a tiny base,” Finkelstein wrote.
Croydon benefits from the hard work of many dedicated and excellent councillors. But think about your own local councillors – and most Croydon wards have three. Have yours been chosen, and then elected, because of their calibre as candidates, or might there be one or two out of three for whom it was just a case that they were “available”, or maybe it was just “Buggin’s turn”?
Because of the rapid decline in party membership – the local Tories recently advertised for a recruitment officer – it has all become a dystopian reality which favours full-time, professional politicians, who often jumped aboard the gravy train from university, frequently taking up publicly funded advisers’ jobs linked to the political mechanisms at Westminster, or City Hall, or more locally.
“MPs are, in effect, being chosen by tiny bunches of people,” Finkelstein warned.
“An outsize amount of attention is being paid, and has to be paid, to the views of people often outside the mainstream as if they represented the broad opinion of party voters.” Perhaps you recognise some from the Croydon political scene in that description?
“The parties without money or members become the prey of groups, such as the Unite union or influence-seeking donors, who are trying to advance their own interests rather than those of the nation,” Finkelstein continued.
Ahhh, the unions. The Conservatives have always, when in power, tried to separate the Labour party from its source of finance, the trades unions which founded it.
Now in coalition, the Conservatives might get an excuse for furthering that cause. The LibDems are so desperate for cash that Nick “I’m Sorry” Clegg may even be prepared to sacrifice the parliamentary constituency seats of several of his party big-hitters – including deputy leader Simon Hughes and deputy leader of the House, Carshalton’s Tom Brake.
Finkelstein’s column suggests that those at the heart of the ConDem coalition – including Chancellor Osborne – might be hatching a deal that could offer funding for political parties (an item that has long been on the wish-list of the under-funded LibDems) in return, perhaps, for agreement over the sidelined Tory boundary changes which would offer numerical advantage to the Conservatives at future General Elections.
Such boundary changes would have a profound effect on the political scene in Croydon and Sutton, as we have previously outlined: where from five of the boroughs’ existing seats – two Conservative seats, one Labour and two LibDem – Croydon and Sutton would likely have four seats, two of them staunchly blue, one safe red, and one a close-call contest between red and gold.
If those boundary changes are delivered in return for political funding, it is likely that the umbilical cord between the unions and Labour will be forcibly severed. Had that happened in the 1980s or 1990s under Thatcher, it would have done the Labour party immense damage.
As it is, unions’ membership and therefore their finances, have suffered a similar decline as party membership. So it might just be that state-funding of political parties will arrive at a opportune time for Labour, delivered by a most unlikely source.
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- ‘Pleb’ Cable taunts Tories as poll shows he would boost Lib Dems (theweek.co.uk)
- Simon Hughes interview: Labour would find us good partners (telegraph.co.uk)
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- The Times quietly sides with the Left against austerity (liberalconspiracy.org)