Thursday 23 February 2023

What are parties for?


It’s rather more than half a century since I read Bob McKenzie’s tome on British Political Parties, so my memory of the detail is more than a little hazy. My main takeaway from the book was that the Conservative and Labour parties, despite starting from very different places, had ended up, organizationally at least, in a very similar place. The Conservative Party started in parliament as a grouping of members elected as individuals, and only later set up any organisation outside parliament in the form of local associations to support those individuals. Indeed, as I recall, despite the party having been founded almost two centuries ago, for most of that time, only MPs could join the ‘party’; mere plebs could only join their local association. Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, as a democratic movement, with the aim of achieving the policy objectives defined by its members. Both have ended up, with the brief aberration of the Corbyn years, as parties largely run by their elected MPs; both leaderships see their memberships as being there to serve them, rather than the other way around.

That which has happened in organisational terms has been reflected in policy terms as well. ‘Policy’ has become that which they say to win votes (and is most definitely not to be confused with what they will do if actually elected). It’s an exaggeration (to which I’ve sometimes been prone myself) to argue that there is ‘no’ difference between them, but the difference between vicious uncaring austerity on the one hand and austerity with a caring face and a few minor mitigations on the other is hardly a difference of ideological outlook. The point is that, on all the main points of neoliberal economics, the two parties are singing from the same hymn sheet, even if one is the tenor and the other the bass. For both of them, the only conceivable answer to the question ‘what are political parties for?’ has become ‘ensuring the election of this gang rather than that gang’ instead of presenting voters with any sort of real choice of futures.

It leads to articles like this one from the Guardian, where the author argues that the Labour Party leadership has a duty to restrict the influence of mere members on its policies and leaders. Far better to let MPs be the judge, apparently. There are similar murmurings within the Conservative Party about the dangers of allowing ordinary members any sort of role in selecting their leader. (Although, after the Truss debacle, it’s easy to see why people might think that.) It’s the sort of view of what political parties are about which leads to this sort of nonsense, advocating that the SNP should drop their demand for independence and choose some other mission in the light of their failure to win over a clear majority. It reminds me of Phil Williams’s old story about the man who came up to him and said, “If only you’d drop this nonsense about independence, Plaid Cymru would sweep the Valleys”. Well, yes. Or, perhaps, maybe. It's not something that’s ever been tried, although there have been periods where it seemed that some Plaid figures were at least flirting with the idea. There was another article by Martin Shipton in the Western Mail a week or so ago (unable to find it online) about Plaid’s launch of its new strategy. It contained a number of valid points and criticisms, but one of his points was that Plaid’s new platform looked remarkably similar to the previous one. Both that and the Telegraph miss the point: if a party believes that its proposals are the right ones for the country in which it operates, failure to persuade the populace at large doesn’t make them the wrong ones. Unless, of course, you start from the prevailing Labour-Tory belief that parties are just about getting elected, not about what they do afterwards.

Some argue that we are in a period of post-ideological politics, where minor differences of approach are all that there are. That is testimony to the success of capitalist ideology in convincing enough people that it isn’t an ideology at all. (Spoiler: it is.) And in the case of the UK, an electoral system which polarises people into two main parties, both of which believe that they are fighting for voters exclusively in the so-called ‘centre’, reinforces the expectation that the future will always be much like the past. Breaking through that is never going to be easy, but it’s an absolute certainty that accepting the basic premise is not the way of doing it.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

What a pity Phil W didn't listen the man in the Valleys more carefully. He might have come to some interesting and totally valid conclusions. And Plaid might have swept the Valleys though (as you say) who knows?
1. PC was doing something right = standing up for Wales.
2. Keep to standing up for Wales. Fizzy drinks and banning Meal Deals is not it, because you're not tackling a Welsh problem. Obesity is a general problem and in that sense not central to who PC is. Virtue signalling at the expense of standing up for Wales gets you to PC's derisory polling, and Sturgeon.
3. Why it the man nervous about Indy? It is obvious. PC hadn't made the case in PW's time, 1968-2003. And hasn't since - see fizzy drinks etc. Make the case. To get the man to nibble at Indy and maybe go for it here's what you do.
- you have to overcome the Welsh self-doubt about being self-sufficient. So (at least) you must get enough tools to be able to improve the Welsh economy. Not done.
- you have to do it in stages ie don't shoot for Indy in one go. Luckily, under the Westminster system something is available which all other GB colonies used after the American ones = Dominion Status. Not done
If PC and PW could have pointed to a self-sufficient Wales with Dominion Status I think there 'd be a good chance the man the Valleys would buy the package.
Then, when you've done these hard yards, you can get him to look at Indy. When. PC and PW didn't, sadly. I don't know but you might, Borthlas. Would Wigley have done the above? My worry is that (in reality) there never really was proper road-map. And still isn't.