Thursday, April 9, 2015

Political Parties, Democracy and Voter Engagement

Political Parties, Democracy and Voter Engagement
John E. Strafford

            Political parties play a major role in our democracy.   At a General Election they issue a manifesto showing their policies and use it to persuade the electorate to vote for them.   They choose the candidates who will stand for election.   From those candidates Members of Parliament will be decided by the electorate.   Members of Parliament from the Party capable of obtaining a majority in Parliament then form the Government.  
            The political parties choose their Leaders and one of them will become the Prime Minister.   This is all very well if our political parties are democratic organisations open to all, but what if they are undemocratic organisations?   Who controls our political parties?      Does it matter if they are oligarchies of the political elite?   In such a case a small group of people will determine who governs our country and hence the policies by which we are governed.
            Political parties are part of the democratic process in the United Kingdom.   Their role is recognised by Parliament.   In the current financial year nearly £7 million of public money known as “Short” money will be paid to the opposition political parties.   During the period that the Conservative Party was in opposition, 1997-2010, it received over £40 million of public funding.   In government the gravy train does not stop.   £8.4 million is being paid this year for 103 political special advisers to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.   All this money is supposed to be given to enhance our democracy – it does no such thing.   All it does is perpetuate the power of the oligarchs who run our parties.   Whilst ever the parties are able to rely on the State and/or big donors like businessmen or Trade Unions they can ignore their party members.  
            Both of our main political parties – Labour and Conservative, are undemocratic organisations run and controlled by oligarchies.   Who are these oligarchs?   They start with the Party Leaders, who are elected by the Party memberships but then effectively cease to be accountable to the members.   The Leaders appoint the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet and other Ministers when in Government.   They exercise a great deal of patronage by creating Peers and giving out honours.   The oligarchs include businessmen who advise the Conservatives and Trade Unionists who advise Labour.   All are totally unaccountable to the Party members.   The net is spread wide.   If the Parties had been successful in retaining the trust of the people, perhaps one could understand their desire to maintain the status quo, but the reality is that they are failed organisations, their membership has suffered catastrophic decline and public confidence is in free fall.   Soon, as membership organisations they will cease to exist.
            William Hague said that the Conservative Party “was like an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide.   The Nation abolished absolute monarchy and regicide 350 years ago.   It is time for the Conservative Party to follow suit.

            A major factor in the reduction in turnout at General Elections is the long term decline in the membership of our three main political parties.   Correlated with the lesser satisfaction which the people have with the political process, we have a toxic mix.   Party activists represent approximately 10% of members.   With the decline in membership there has been a decline in activists.   It is the activists who work to get the electorate out to vote.   Critically it is feet on the ground that gets that last marginal voter to the polling station.
            At the end of World War II the membership of the Conservative Party was about 250,000.   As a result of the efforts of Lord Woolton membership had risen by 1952 to 2.8 million.   Since then the decline has been continuous.   By 1979 membership had fallen to 1,350,000 and during the 1980s and 1990s it declined further to 400,000 by 1997.   When David Cameron became Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 there were 258,239 members of the Party.   By the beginning of 2010 membership had fallen to 177,000 and in the three years to the end of 2012 membership fell a further 43,000 to 134,000.  
            So we can see from this that in 1950 when turnout at the General Election was 83.9% there were approximately 280,000 party members working to get out the Conservative vote.   By the 2010 General Election when turnout was 65%, there were 17,700 members trying to do the same.   The activist members of the Conservative Party are now primarily local Councillors and their families.   After the elections of 2014 there were 8,296 Conservative Councillors in the United Kingdom      
            Individual Labour Party membership in 1951 was about 1 million.   Today it is less 200,000, so activists have declined from 100,000 in 1951 to 20,000 today.    The Labour Party gets significant help from Trade Unionists but we have seen a decline in the membership of Trade Unions also from some 12 million to 6.5 million.   Some 70% of Labour MPs are linked with the Trade Unions.
            Liberal Party membership has fallen from some 300,000 after the War to less than 50,000 today.
            So from a party activist base for the main parties of over 400,000 in 1950 it has declined to 38,400 today.   In view of these figures it is surprising that turnout has not collapsed further!
            Why has this happened?   What effect will it have and can anything be done to change this disastrous trend?
            The number of people not correctly registered to vote has risen substantially from 3.9 million in 2000 to 7.5 million in 2012 per the Electoral Commission.   The major factor that affects voter registration is the decline in membership of the political parties.   The origin of political parties was as registration societies which were set up in the 1830s after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.   Their function was to ensure that all those entitled to vote were registered and did vote.   Today this function has almost ceased, except in some marginal constituencies, because there are no longer the activists to do the work.
            So what are the costs to society of low voter registration and turnout?   Potentially the costs will be significant.   There will come a point when the legitimacy of the elected government is questioned because of the low turnout.   Democracy is a process by which you determine the will of the majority.   If the gap between the majority and those elected becomes too great the people may say what can we do to change this.   The only solutions will be major electoral reform or revolution.   Time is running out.
            Research on party membership, done in the 1990s, showed two main reasons why people join political parties.   The first reason was for social purposes.   People like to be with others of a like mind.   They feel more comfortable.   There is a tribal instinct.
            Party members like to be led, but they also like to know that the Leader has listened to them before he or she takes a decision.   The second reason is participation.   This has to be meaningful participation i.e. they either vote on decisions or vote for the people taking the decisions.    It is this latter reason which has not been met by the two main political parties.   Effectively large numbers of people join these parties each year wanting to participate.   When they find that they have no voice they leave, usually after a couple of years.   Only by adopting a radical approach will we break this cycle of decline.   I set out below the measures that need to be taken.   It is a check list to which all parties should comply:
·         Party constitutions should be capable of being altered by the members of the Party on the basis of one member, one vote, if a clear majority vote in favour of change.
·         There should be an Annual General Meeting of the Party to which all members are invited.
·         The Chairman of the Party should be responsible for the Party Organisation.
·         The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party should be elected by the members of the Party.
·         The Chairman of the Party should present an Annual Report on the Party organisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Party for adoption by the members.
·         The Treasurer of the Party should present the Annual Accounts of the Party to the Annual General Meeting for adoption by the members.
·         The Chairman of the Committee on Candidates should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on candidate selection at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
·         The Chairman of any policy groups should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on their workings at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
·         Motions for debate on policy should be allowed at the Party’s Conference and voted upon.

            The most important of these provisions is the ability to change the Party’s constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote.
             If we believe in democracy the fundamental requirement for political parties is:
“No political Party should be registered with the Electoral Commission unless it has a democratic constitution which can be changed by a clear majority of its members on the basis of one member one vote.”
            By adopting the above, participation would be guaranteed for party members.   Some parties already have some of the above provisions in their constitutions.   The Conservative Party has none of them.   The Labour Party is still dominated by the Trade Unions although moves are afoot to have One Member One Vote.   Both Conservative and Labour operate electoral colleges which distort democracy by breaching the principle of One Person, One Vote of equal value.  
            For years our two main political parties have protested that the decline in membership is because membership is a redundant concept.   People have other things to do.   They are too busy.   They join single issue pressure groups.    Rather than give any power to members the oligarchies would rather retain all power in a diminishing Party.  The Scottish National Party has demonstrated just how wrong they are.   In September 2014 at the time of the Scottish Referendum their membership stood at approximately 25,000.   In just three months they have increased it to over 100,000 so how does the Scottish National Party compare with the Conservative Party?
The Scottish National Party:
·         Has quarterly newsletters to members.
·         Policy is determined at their annual Conference.
·        Their Officers are all elected by their members including their Leader and Deputy Leader      who are elected annually.
·       They can change their Constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote with a two       thirds majority.
They are a democratic Party!
            What a comparison with the Conservative party where the Chairman and Treasurer of the Party are appointed by the Leader, so are unaccountable to the membership.   There is no Annual General Meeting of members, so there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies.      The Annual Accounts of the Party are not tabled for approval at an AGM.    The selection of parliamentary candidates of the Party is controlled centrally.   The Party Board can and does take control of any Constituency Association, which does not toe the line.   The infamous clause 17 of their constitution states: “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”, and this makes the rest of the constitution meaningless.
            What does a member get from membership of the Conservative Party?   Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member.   There were meetings at area and national level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation.   Social gatherings emphasised the tribal feeling and sense of belonging.   The Party Conference was run by the voluntary party and it had motions for debate.   Votes were taken at the end of the debates and although they were not binding, they reflected the views of the members.   Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous.   The Party had three distinct sections - the parliamentary party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation.   There were checks and balances in the distribution of power.   All of these were swept away in 1998 with disastrous result.
            Who determines policy?   Of the two main political parties, policy in the Conservative Party is decided by the Leader and is constructed by a small coterie of people around him.   In the 2014 European Parliament election the Leader of the Conservative MEPs only discovered what was in the manifesto on the day it was published.   The Conservative Party no longer goes through the charade of pretending that the members of the Party have any say.   There are no motions for debate at the Conservative Party Conference.   The Conservative Policy Forum has little, if any influence on policy.    The Labour Party has the National Policy Forum and policy discussion papers.   Its conference sets the “framework” of policy, but the days when it was the conference which decided policy are over.
            Policy in the Liberal Democrat Party is determined by their Party conference and it was their Conference which had the final say on the Coalition Agreement.   Ironically, as soon as they got into government they changed their rules so that their MPs now will have the final say on a Coalition Agreement.   Power corrupts!
            Contrast the approach of the three main parties with the three political parties whose membership is increasing.   In the Scottish National Party, UKIP and the Green Party, policy is decided at their National Conferences.   Perhaps when people have a say in policy they take ownership of the policy and are better able to propagate it?   By allowing members to participate you increase membership.

            Why cannot any registered member of the Labour or Conservative Parties be a candidate, subject only to vetting to ensure that they have no criminal convictions and comply with electoral law?   It should be up to the members of the Parties to determine who shall be their candidate.   This is a fundamental principle.   If the members do not decide, who does and how are they accountable to the members?
            The selections of parliamentary candidates of our political Parties are controlled centrally.   They do this by controlling the Approved List of candidates.  
            We have heard a lot recently about how the range of candidates should be widened and the Conservative Party have made much of Open Primaries.   The model for Open Primaries is the United States so how do Conservative Open Primaries compare?
            In the United States anyone can stand.   In the Conservative Party the candidates are sifted and three or four candidates put forward.   In many States electors have to register support for the Party in order to vote.   With the Conservatives anyone on the Electoral Roll can vote in an Open Postal Primary or an Open Meeting Primary, even if they are members of another Party.
            The candidates in the United States raise their own funds for campaigning in the Primary.   The Conservative Party pays for a postal primary.   The costs in Totnes amounted to £38,000.   There are only half a dozen constituencies in the country that could afford this, so unless the Party at national level pays or State Funding is given postal Primaries will be few and far between.
            Campaigns in the United States are usually prolonged, giving plenty of time to investigate the candidates.   The campaigns run by the Conservatives are strictly limited in time.
            Caucus meetings of registered voters are held in the United States at which the merits of the different candidates are debated and then voted upon.   These are banned by the Conservative Party.
            A distinction should be drawn between Open Primaries where there is a postal ballot as in Totnes and Open meeting Primaries.   The most common, because of costs are the Open Meeting Primaries.   The Conservative Party imposes a number of restrictions on Open Meeting Primaries:
            The meetings are advertised in the local paper so there is no guarantee that every    elector is aware that the selection is taking place.
            At the meeting no debate is allowed between the candidates – they are not even    allowed to be on the platform together.
            The elector must be present for the entire meeting and cannot leave the room for any         reason.   Contrast this with a postal primary where the elector doesn’t have to hear      any candidate before voting.
            Limits are imposed by Central Office on the amount of money candidates can spend         on their campaigns.
            The vote on the final adoption of the selected candidate is by Conservative Party members.
            It can be seen from the above that there are major differences between what the Conservatives call Open Primaries and what in practise most people understand as Open Primaries.   The Conservative Open Primaries are a gimmick.   The people and the media have been hoodwinked into believing that the process is open.   It is not.   The process is controlled in detail by the Party hierarchy.   There is also the danger that the selection can be manipulated by the members of other parties, who can vote for the weakest candidate.   The Conservative Party does not care, because it has decided on who the candidates will be.
            Some Constituency Associations now run Open primaries for local government elections.   In these cases the sift of candidates is done by people accountable to the members of the particular Association, so the fundamental objections do not apply.
            In Hong Kong in 2014 the people took to the streets in protest at the Chinese Communist Party imposing a short list of four candidates for the people to choose from.   Yet this is the very same process that is used by the Labour and Conservative Parties in the United Kingdom.
            All the other main political Parties operate with approved lists for parliamentary candidates but because they are more democratic than the two main Parties there is democratic accountability of those who decide who can be candidates.

            There is no doubt that the public’s perception of politics is influenced by the way in which the political parties are funded.   Big donors or Trade Union Leaders have more access to the Party hierarchies so more opportunity to influence. “Cash for honours” is continuously levelled at the Conservative party.   “Controlled by and funded by the Trade Unions” is levelled at the Labour Party.   People believe that money buys influence in politics.   There needs to be a complete overhaul of party funding with a cap on donations of £5,000.   There may have to be a transitional period for this to be brought in.
            It is estimated that 50% of the Conservative Party’s income is from financial institutions i.e. fat cat Bankers and Hedge Fund Managers and 80% of the Labour Party’s income is from the Trade Unions.

Social Media
            The development of social media has been a lifeline to our main political parties.   Twitter, Facebook, email, have all improved the Parties ability to communicate at little cost.   A daily email requesting a £10 donation to several hundred thousand supporters brings in a substantial amount of cash particularly when those supporters have been targeted for their views.
            The appointment of Jim Messina (former social media guru to President Obama) as an adviser is an indication that the Conservative Party believe that the way forward is to organise our campaigns as in the United States by gathering up supporters rather than relying on members.   The Labour Party has made a similar appointment.   What of course is forgotten is that the Presidential Election in the United States costs approximately $6 billion.   Support is bought.   Canvassers are paid.   Because of the financial restrictions on campaign spending we cannot do this.

            With the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, and the Scottish Nationalist Party, not forgetting the Democratic Unionist party we are now in an era of multi party politics.   Who now knows which seats are marginal?  
            By one of those moments of irony the next General Election will be fought on an Electoral Register drawn up by individual registration rather than household registration.   When this was done by the Northern Ireland [Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002] 10% of the Register disappeared.   The origins of political parties were as Registration Societies.   Their main function was to ensure that their supporters were all registered to vote.   This job will now be resurrected, except that there will not be the Party activists to carry it out.
            The most important factor in the General Election will be “feet on the ground”   At the margin it is the canvassing and the knocking up that will count most.   For that you need volunteers and the most committed volunteers are members.   The political Parties will ignore this at their peril and unless our two main Parties reform themselves into democratic organisations their decline will continue until they cease to exist.
            The Scottish National Party with 100,000 members is fighting in 59 seats.   It is the only Party that can mount  a “feet on the ground” campaign in all the seats it is contesting.   The other parties that are fighting 650 seats would need a million members each to fight a similar campaign.   Makes you think!   It ought to make the Parties think too!   You can virtually guarantee that turnout in Scotland in the General Election will be higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom.