End of the Party?

PAUL SALVESON ponders the future of party politics and sees instead a future dominated by regionalist movements and single-issue campaigns.

A feature in the Observer on Sunday 8 September on the slow death of party politics led to some interesting conversations with friends. The facts certainly speak for themselves, with a mere 42 per cent of the population admitting to the Hansard survey that they had any interest in politics, bolstered by the alarmingly low voter turn-out at elections. I was elected on a turn-out of around 32 per cent, which is fairly typical and by no means the bottom of the spectrum.8749794

It’s easy for politicians to react by suggesting that people are lazy, stupid, besotted by the lure of consumer attractions. It’s a bit like Bertolt Brecht’s cheeky comment following the popular uprising against the East German authorities in 1953. “The party has lost confidence in the people,” the party central committee announced. Maybe, Brecht (left) suggested, the government “should dissolve the people and elect another?” And of course the fact that people were prepared to rise in revolt against an oppressive regime suggests they were not exactly uninterested in the world around them.

The same goes for Britain today, where people get involved in no end of activities which are ‘political’ if you see politics as being about changing the world we live in. Party politics is a means to an end and clearly a lot of people are questioning that particular means.

Increasingly, we prefer to spend our time in community activities, national campaigns of all different sorts from anti-fracking and animal welfare to the National Trust and campaigns against climate change. Railway preservation has always been a profoundly political activity, rebuilding a resource which was taken away from us, by a decision of politicians.

I’ve no more idea than anyone else as to how politics will look in 10 years’ time but I’ll hazard some guesses. The continued decline of mainstream parties looks inexorable. I think we will see the rise of regionalist movements and single-issue campaigns which transcend traditional party boundaries. These may get representation in government, locally, regionally or nationally.

There will be a strong move towards a more decentralised form of governance, away from large local authorities to smaller units which reflect people’s identities. It’s difficult to see the current electoral system continuing and sooner or later a more proportional system will emerge which gives further encouragement to smaller niche parties and campaigns. I’d like to see Britain become a truly federal state, maybe even with the Irish Republic forming a part of it – it would be a civilising and liberal influence on the rest, particularly England.

Labour’s lack of vision

As a Labour Party member I find it particularly difficult to see where the party is going. There is very little direction coming from the top and the ‘one nation’ stuff hasn’t struck many chords.

While I can sympathise with Rachel Reeves for feeling hurt about being called boring, the reality is that the party as a whole is coming over as pretty dull, bereft of new ideas, or even good old ones. We could win support by presenting a radical but realistic vision of extending democracy, letting go of power at the centre, encouraging a dynamic social enterprise sector with funding for co-operatives and mutual.

Labour remains the party which most people who want real progressive change put their trust in. Yet that trust has to be earned, and relying on party loyalty on its own is no longer enough. North of the border there are several genuine radical alternatives to Labour while in Wales Plaid Cymru is well to the left of Labour on many issues. In England, there are fewer alternatives though the Greens have made inroads into Labour’s membership and will continue to do so unless we sharpen up our act and come out with some popular, radical policies soon.

However, I don’t think creating a new, but conventional, UK ‘workers’ party’ with a set of re-hashed traditional left-wing demands would achieve much other than attracting disenchanted party members and allowing right-wing parties to defeat Labour.

Change needs to come from within the Labour Party by re-energising local parties and adopting a new approach to politics which shies away from the narrow-minded tribalism we’ve been guilty of in the past. I doubt that the party leadership will go out of its way to encourage that, but at least Miliband is sufficiently open in his approach not to discourage it. It would be nice if he was more pro-active in supporting it.

Politics in the next 20 years will be all about alliances and coalitions, based around very different issues and solutions.


Professor Paul Salveson is general secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation and author of Socialism with a Northern Accent.

‘Party Politics is Slowly Dying’ was in the Observer on 8 September 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Jonathan
    21 September 2013

    I doubt if regionalist parties will grow in the next decade – there’s no support for English regional government as it is seen as an attempt to merge us into a Federal Euro SuperState. Also, many of us suspect that regional government would magnify the faults of local government, and metropolitan centres would benefit at the expense of outlying areas. People already refer to the Leeds City region. Well, b******* to that.

    However, Paul is spot on though when he says that local and issue based politics will grow as party politics declines. Personally, I love being a town councillor, involved in lots of local issues, with no cuts to make. Unlike the Labour Party, I get to speak to lots of people in the community, who actually get off their bottoms and do things for others.

Comments are closed.