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It’s the party, stupid

Peter Kenyon reviews the prospects for Britain’s mainstream political parties in 2006 ahead of the PoWEr Inquiry report, and fears of a bloodbath for Labour in local elections in May.

Political party membership enjoyed a surprising and little reported boost in the second half of 2005. Determined democrats in the Conservative Party, no less, fought for the right to have a say in the election of their latest leader. And won. No thanks to the Parliamentary Conservative Party and its outgoing leader Michael Howard who wanted to reverse the ‘one member one vote’ system introduced after Labour won in 1997 and led to the election of William Hague.

Democratic Socialists in the Labour Party could only stand by wistfully and dream of a leadership contest promised by their Leader, but still not timetabled. But there were encouraging signs from inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, that maybe 2006 will see party democracy revived. The scale of their revolt over detention without charge, and then the Education White Paper have given hapless rank-and-file members a glimmer of hope. Sadly, it is probably too little, too late to help turn Labour’s prospects in the May 2006 local government elections. But it might just stir the PLP into demanding nomination papers be issued to start the leadership election process in accordance with the Party’s Rules and not the whim of its current leadership.

The outcome of the Tory party leadership contest sent the Parliamentary Liberal Democrats into a spin about the future of their own Leader, Charles Kennedy. Their claims of having brought three-party politics into the mainstream look less convincing against the prospect of a resurgent Tory Party under David Cameron. No democratic socialist could deny the Tory leadership contest was a dignified and edifying process from which lessons could be learned by the ruling Labour Party.

That contest could mark a watershed in the way our elected representatives conduct themselves in relation to their own parties. No sooner was Cameron declared the winner than he proclaimed an end to Punch and Judy politics across the despatch boxes in the House of Commons. He launched a membership appeal. Within half an hour of the declaration a new Conservative Party website was released to reinforce those messages.

Not surprisingly, the warm words were marred a few days later when the traditional week-long Annual Conservative Party conference was abolished by diktat from Conservative Central Office. Reports stated it is only attended by ‘fanatics’ and retired people. No doubt those Tories who campaigned for the right to have a say in the election of their leader will be making their views known about the annual trip to the seaside (or canal-side if at some point in the future they follow Labour in 2006 and go to Manchester for an Annual Conference).

On the plus side, there was the newly elected leader of a mainstream political party appearing to appreciate the need for members. Wasn’t that what New Labour did? In that regard, at least, there is no doubt of the voracity of Labour Leader Tony Blair’s claim that Cameron’s Tories are copying New Labour.

On 27 February 2006, if all goes according to plan, Britain’s mainstream politicians will get a rude awakening. The PoWEr Inquiry into Britain’s democracy chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC proposes to publish its report. The Inquiry funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust was launched in late 2004. At the time it said of its work,

‘We seem to be entering an era of permanent political disaffection and mistrust, where the gap between citizens and political power is getting ever wider. And yet, beyond the ballot box, many of us continue to feel passionately about the issues that affect our lives and the lives of others. This growing disconnection between the governors and the governed threatens to undermine the vitality and legitimacy of Britain's democracy. The POWER Inquiry has been set up to explore, through public engagement, research and a high profile commission, the causes of our disillusionment and to examine new approaches to political participation. POWER will act as a forum for the best available thinking on the sources of political disaffection and will host debate and discussion across the country, to seek out solutions to this complex and pressing problem.’

Initial indications suggest that its conclusions will highlight the enormous difficulties all the parties face if they hope to rebuild their membership as a contribution to strengthening British democracy. According to a source close to the Inquiry it seems that we Brits hate and despise our politicians with a ferocity that bodes ill for the future unless politicians themselves change. To date politicians of all parties have generally shown themselves adept at deflecting criticism of their own behaviours. They often seek comfort in the the idea that we, the people, are just apathetic. The idea that membership of a political party (with a distinctive programme expressing ideology and values) is a legitimate expression of active citizenship has been overwhelmed by the scramble for middle England, and a working majority of seats in the British Parliament at Westminster. Similarly the idea that politicians should be accountable to their party members is summarily brushed aside.

Democratic socialists need to rally to this idea that party politics is legit, and politicians must be accountable not just the electorate but their party members.

The Electoral Commission sought to encourage party membership in its report published in December 2004 on the Funding of Political Parties. But it was far too timid in the way in which it presented its recommendations, and in any event its report was published through no fault of the Commission’s on the same day that David Blunkett, then Home Secretary resigned from the Cabinet for the first time, and the Law Lords ruled on New Labour’s Guantanamo Bay – Belmarsh Prison and those people detained there without trial.

A key test for the PoWEr Inquiry is what it says about the role of political parties in our Parliamentary Democracy. In answer to the question, ‘Does PoWEr have political bias?’, the organisation states on its website, ‘No. POWER is completely independent of any political party or organisation. The Commission is made up of people from the left, right and centre of politics, and mostly of people with no particular party political affiliation.’

Whether that proves to have enabled the Inquiry to take a more dispassionate view of our democracy and how to strengthen it remains to be seen. What is not in doubt in the minds of some who gave evidence is the critical importance of political parties in our democracy. Which other institutions are capable of forming governments? Well, once upon a time there was the monarchy. But events have moved on. Now we have the reincarnation of the monarchy as parliamentary democracy. When we talk in constitutional terms about the Sovereign in Parliament, we really mean the Prime Minister, not the occupant of Buckingham Palace. But given that political parties are the only source of people to form governments in Britain, it might have been prudent of the PoWEr Inquiry to take a closer interest in their inner workings than has so far proved to be the case.

Forward thinking members of the Labour Party, albeit self-appointed ones, have already positioned themselves to respond. The LabOUR Commission, with Michael Meacher MP in the chair, has been meeting for over eight months. Focus groups have been conducted with Labour Party members and former members in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. No doubt that will have some of you spitting blood. But all the advice is that if you want to know what questions to ask in a national opinion poll, ask the people whom you are targetting what they think…then you might start out asking the right questions. Just in case anyone thought that the Commission rigged the Focus Groups, the participants were drawn predominantly from a database supplied by the national online polling organisation, YouGov.

More focus groups are planned to learn from political activists and trade unions about their views on the Labour Party, their values and aspirations and how they can be realised in a modern parliamentary democracy. A representative national opinion poll will follow conducted by a reputable polling organisation. This work is being supervised by a team of top flight political scientists led by Professor Stuart Weir of the Democratic Audit at the University of Essex. Events are being planned to offer stakeholders opportunities to present positive suggestions about how to rebuild the Party. Details will be posted at www.labourcommission.org.uk

This will provide an evidenced-based approach to the steps Labour is going to have to take to rebuild as the leading progressive force on the centre-left of British politics. Making Labour re-electable is a vital consideration. With a membership that includes three members of the current Labour Party National Executive Committee, the Commission aims to make recommendations that can feed quickly into mainstream Party thinking.

Latest polling data suggests that the Tories are positioning themselves to make further electoral gains at the next General Election. An ICM opinion poll in mid-December showed two-thirds of voters think Blair's government has run out of steam, putting the Conservatives a point ahead of Labour on 37 percent -- only the second time since 1993 they have led in an ICM survey. Both main opposition parties are expecting to increase their grip on local government in the May 2006 elections. The Tories are already the largest party in UK local government. This should only serve as a further reminder to the current Labour leadership of the importance of carrying the Party’s members, even while in government, if electoral success is to be sustained.

What Labour needs is a statement in early 2006 from Blair saying he will step down at the 2006 Party Conference. This would trigger a leadership election which would give Labour a chance to demonstrate to the electorate it is still brimming with ideas, and not run out of steam. Even then it will be a gargantuan task for his successor to convince the electorate and party activists, Labour is a party worth not just voting for, but joining. Gordon Brown, his presumed successor, the rest of the cabinet and Blair’s closest advisors are going to need to persuade him to step down this year to advance Labour’s prospects of securing a 4th term, if only to maintain their own political credibility. The PoWEr Inquiry and the local elections may prove to be as decisive as internal rumblings in accelerating that process.