Democracy needs political parties and they need activists: A response to Mark Thompson

The Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Thompson is a Liberal Democrat no more. He explains that this is not because he’s disenchanted with the Liberal Democrats per se but with political parties in general.

The impetus for me to leave is really because politics is broken. The Westminster Village is obsessed with who managed to shout the best for 5 minutes and get their friends to jeer and point at the other side just after midday on a Wednesday. They genuinely seem to think it matters. I very rarely even bother watching PMQs any more. They insist on speaking in sound bites and clichés and point-blank refuse to answer questions thinking that their “clever” evasions can’t be seen for precisely what they are. The tribal nature of much of what goes on drives me nuts. Labour have been the worst for this in recent years castigating the current government for doing things that they would almost certainly have done themselves and in a number of cases were actively planning to. But none of the main parties are free from this sort of thing. It reduces politics to a bunch of silly games where tiny nuances are picked up on and there are a million hidden rules that only highly experienced practitioners of the “art” of politics are aware of. That’s one of the reason so many of them are now former SpAds. It is only by immersing yourself in this culture for decades that you can learn these rules. People who may have spent most of their lives doing something else much more worthwhile aren’t aware of them and thus struggle to become part of the inner circles of real power being seen as ingénues who have little to offer. Sarah Woolaston, a woman who spent most of her life as a doctor is an excellent example of this.

None of this is specifically the fault of the Lib Dems. But they are complicit in it. They have 57 MPs. They are part of the government. They have tried to change some of this but on the constitutional and political reform front they have utterly failed. Again I am not blaming them particularly. The forces of conservatism in Labour and the Tories closed ranks to ensure AV (what would have been a very minor, positive change) was a failure and they killed Lords reform too. Those who sneer that the Lib Dems are to blame themselves for all of this fail to recognise just how far the status quo will go to preserve itself.

I joined the Lib Dems over 5 years ago in the hope that I could be part of something that would advance electoral reform, move the government’s drugs policy in a positive direction and improve civil liberties. On the first two we are further away than we were when I joined*. The third one has been a case of two steps forward in some areas (e.g. ID cards) but two steps back in others (e.g. secret courts).

I have become convinced that real change needs to come from outside of the three main parties now. I’m not calling for a Brand-esque revolution or telling people they shouldn’t vote. That was totally irresponsible. I will certainly be voting at the next election and I may well vote for the Lib Dems. I have been interested in some of what the Green Party has to say although some of their more statist policies turn me off. I am also interested in the nascent Pirate Party philosophy. But the truth is I have had enough of being a member of a party for now. I only joined at the age of 34 having spent the previous two decades as a highly politically engaged lone wolf. Perhaps that is my natural state.

I think that love them or loathe them groups like 38 Degrees and the TPA have shown how much outside groups can influence things. The power of political parties is waning. The financial crisis has shown the limits of business as usual and yet nothing his really changed yet. We have a political system that was designed hundreds of years ago and it is utterly unfit for the world we now live in. But I see and hear very few people agitating for the sort of fundamental change we need. And I include myself in that criticism. I have on occasion bemoaned one or other aspect of it but being a member of one of the main parties, attending the conferences, speaking on the media as a member, posting leaflets, canvassing for them and generally doing all that a good party member should has made it difficult for me to say what I really think and has ultimately become untenable for me.

There is little there that I disagree with. However, it misses the bigger picture. There may indeed be advantages to campaigning outside parties rather than within them. Though it should be said that pressure groups are hardly immune to closed mindedness or triviality – a point that Thompson’s example of the Tax Payers Alliance illustrates rather well.

The more important point though is that whatever its deficiencies we still need party politics. In fact, efforts to promote democracy in the developing world include promoting political parties. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy explains why:

Political parties are central to representative democracy and to the process ofvdemocratisation. They connect society and the state. They aggregate and represent interests. They recruit political leaders. They disseminate political information. They socialise citizens into democratic politics. They manage conflicts of interest and, very importantly in societies that have recently experienced violent conflict, they can offer a forum for social and political integration, a tool for nation-building. Democracy in the modern world is inconceivable without healthy parties and an effective party system. Such a system exists where the number of genuine parties is neither too small (a highly polarised system) nor too large (highly fragmented). It offers meaningful choices to the electorate. The relations among the parties display a responsible attitude towards the practice of political competition. And the parties connect with society.

The presence of an institutionalised party system means that society can hold elected politicians to account for their performance in office and their role as the people’s representatives. The public standing of the political parties – and of politicians themselves – benefits when the parties and the party system are in good health. Strategies to establish and consolidate democracy that ignore the central role of parties cannot hope to be successful, no matter how much attention they pay to other vital matters such as building civil society and the institutions of good governance.

So while I understand and respect Thompson’s reasons they seem misguided. If we need political parties, and they need activists and members if they are going to mean anything

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3 thoughts on “Democracy needs political parties and they need activists: A response to Mark Thompson

  1. Pingback: Tomorrow’s Party: ERS Survey | Emma Does Politics
  2. Pingback: Reflections on the referendum in Scotland | Matter Of Facts
  3. Pingback: Be nice to canvassers | Matter Of Facts

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