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A New Kind of Politics?

Pete Smith on the death of the parties.

For many commentators the decline of political parties and the rise of popular movements in recent times have gone hand in hand. There are several explanations as to why political parties are in the state they are in. Some are deep seated: the changing nature of the social structure has tended to undermine the take-for-granted political loyalties that provided the basis of party support in the twentieth century and, in particular, the rise of mass-based political parties from the very early 1900s through to at least the 1960s. This is a point made frequently by the Professor of Government at Essex University, Ivor Crewe, who has seen this process as having two aspects, both of which he calls dealignment. One of them he terms class dealignment: that a person’s social class as defined by their occupation is a less reliable guide to how they are likely to vote than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Now, although of course there was never a complete match between a person’s social class and family background, partly because other factors such as religious affiliation and the region or district that they lived in meant that social class was always an imperfect guide to how they were likely to vote, and indeed their rates of political participation. However, Crewe argues that now the close connection between social class and political affiliation and participation is much weaker than it once was. The rise of so-called Essex man or Mondeo man or Basildon man – different terms which expressed the same notion – has meant that old assumptions no longer apply in the way that they once did, in particular, during the 1980s and 1990s upwardly mobile working class people were likely to have aspirations during the Thatcher/Major years that meant that they drifted away from their Labour or trade union roots as they moved out to the suburbs, bought houses and even shares and were increasingly alienated from what we might call traditional Labour values. Hence Labour’s disastrous performances in general elections between 1983 and 1992.

Once of the supports for Crewe’s argument came from Scottish academic Bill Miller, who claimed that this weakening of old class loyalties meant that voters were potentially more likely to be influenced by newspapers, particularly the tabloid press, most of which were controlled by Conservative supporting proprietors who were able, or at least claimed they were able, to swing election results on the basis this influence.

Martin Linton, Guardian journalist turned Labour MP, who looking at the outcome and explanations for the Conservative victory in 1992 did come the conclusion that it was indeed The Sun Wot Won It. Even Oxford academic Tony Heath, who often seems to disagree with Ivor Crewe about virtually everything, shared some of these conclusions that a loosening up of the class structure had happened to Labour’s disadvantage and, because of the shrinking size of the manual working class, the natural Labour vote had also shrunk and that Labour needed to reinvent itself to appeal to substantial numbers of middle class voters in order to have any prospect of winning an election.

Some other academics, such as Anthony Seldon, argued that the Conservative victory in 1992 against the run of public opinion polls, which conflicted with the idea that no government would be able to win a general election during a recession, had shown that the Conservatives had turned themselves into the dominant party in British politics and, much like the Japanese Liberal Democrats, would dominate British politics in a similar way, allowing very little opportunity to the opposition to be serious contenders for power. This argument can be turned upside down: that it was not the Thatcher and Major years which enabled the Conservatives to dominate British politics; this was a much more longstanding phenomenon.

It might be said that despite the myths peddled in politics textbooks both at A Level and degree level, the Conservatives dominated British politics with Labour floundering in its attempt to compete. Labour only won two elections with substantial majorities in Parliament – 1945 and 1966; at all other times it was the Conservatives who made the running. After 1992 it became difficult to believe that the Conservatives could win the following election: they did indeed lose the 1997 election to Labour with a massive swing against them. In this sense, Tony Blair was able to count on a Labour victory after he became party leader in 1994, but he always seemed as though he was never fully convinced of this and that therefore the party had to be reorganised as a top-down institution, with policy changes such as the radical changes to Clause 4 and other innovations which tended to look backwards to the Thatcher era. Partisan dealignment means that party loyalties are weaker than they were and therefore their loyalties less fixed and more variable than they once were.

In the run-up to 1994, both major parties had been in apparently terminal decline in terms of membership ever since the early 1950s. Blair’s election as Labour leader seemed to change all this: Labour’s membership started to grow again as the Conservatives’ continued to decline with an increasingly aged membership which no longer reflected the real social basis of British society. However, it did not take long after the 1997 victory for Labour’s decline in terms of membership and its lack of connection with the wider currents of British society to reassert themselves. This was perhaps not just longstanding problems for the party reappearing, but also because the top-down party structure generated by Blair and his immediate associates did not encourage people to join the party and certainly not to attend meetings or become active at grassroots level.

Some writers, such Geoff Mulgan, were supremely unworried by this. Mulgan was for several years one of Blair’s advisors and he laid out his ideas in his 1994 book Politics in an Antipolitical Age. The assumption here was that political parties did not need mass memberships, which implicitly might get in the way of the intentions and aspirations of party leaderships: elections were won or lost through the mass media, so who needed a horde of enthusiastic amateurs when television coverage or articles ghosted in the tabloid press would do the job as well if not better? For the Labour leadership the party membership became a horde of troublesome loudmouths who were irrelevant and anyway such hordes don’t really exist any more.

As Andrew Coulson has recently put it, who would want to spend their time on hard seats in draughty church halls when you can spend your time in the local multiplex enjoying the latest movie. This is the root of why party membership declined in the first place: can politics compete with leisure pursuits, family, work preoccupations and such like — to which the answer is probably no. The perplexing thing is that the decline of parties has not eliminated people’s involvement in politics, the most obvious examples of this are not just the demonstrations against the Iraq war, but also the rise of more narrowly focused groups which concentrate on single issues or a small number of issues. We need to remind ourselves that the National Trust has more member than all the political parties combined. Although I suspect that most Chartist readers have little sympathy with the aims oft the Countryside Alliance it was a real movement, with real supporters, not a confection dreamed up by the media. This move away from party politics towards other forms of political expression is most noticeable amongst younger people: more 18-25 year olds voted in the final of Pop Idol than did in the 2001 general election. I have not seen any evidence for this, but I suspect that young people who have watched Big Brother are much more likely to do so than to show any interest in television coverage of politics and certainly not Prime Minister’s Question Time. At least Big Brother is on at a time when ordinary people can watch it, rather than hidden away in the daytime schedules, along with home makeover shows and antique programmes.

Some writers believe that party politics in general and the Labour party in particular can be revived. This is the view of Andrew Coulson and various groups campaigning to so-called save the Labour Party. The trouble with all this is that it is an attempt to establish a kind of Jurassic Park, but with real people standing in for the animatronic creatures. This will not work and even if we could make it work, would we want to? Campaigning against war in Iraq or against nuclear energy or live animal exports seems to me potentially more productive than all those scarcely attended meetings in Labour Party halls or dusty and draughty parish halls. People who have been involved, for example in recent trade union campaigns at Heathrow Airport, are unlikely to be persuaded that the Labour Party is a valuable use of their time and energy. Bluntly, I do not blame them.