olitical parties are at the base of any involvement in
the political process. When we vote, we vote for party politicians
not individuals. This is partly because we know so little
about the people who want us to elect them to council, Parliament
and European Parliament or, now, to Scottish Parliament and
Welsh Assembly or London Assembly. Party labels separate
candidate from their opponents and provide the cue that triggers
electors to vote for one candidate rather than another.
Political parties, as we currently understand them, arose
with the creation of a mass electorate. Politicians needed
to communicate with a large number of voters and, thus, the
world of mass memberships, subscriptions, meetings, rallies,
canvassing, posters and leaflets was brought into existence.
Mass-based political parties arose in the era when the masses
where making their impact felt in society and even conservative
and elitist parties (like the British Conservatives) had to
learn how to play the game. Many right wing parties made few
pretensions that their members actually had much of a say
in the running of the organisation or policy determination.
The members were merely the humble sherpas who lifted their
leaders to power through their electioneering efforts, not
people thought capable of deciding on more weighty matters.
Parties of the left claimed to be different. They represented
the workers and were democratic of their very essence. The
question marks were raised very early on. Robert Michels,
in his book Political Parties, as long ago as 1911,
took a long hard stare at the German Social Democratic Party
and its associated trade unions. This led him to conclude
that such organisations were, in fact, rather than in theory,
dominated by their leaders, not democratically controlled
by their members. For Michels an "iron law of oligarchy"
meant that however democratic an organisation claimed to be
the reality would always be rule by the few. An educated,
cultured and professional elite, which as Max Weber once said
lived "off politics" rather than "for politics"
would be able to dominate a membership of poorly educated
workers easily prone to deference and respect for those in
Michels and Weber were writing about the domination of leaders
over followers, long before the arrival of the mass media.
Now party leaders can communicate directly with the people
without the intermediary of the party organisation. If Tony
Blair wants to speak to the people of Britain he goes on 'Breakfast
with Frost' or has Alistair Campbell or Andrew Adonis write
articles, under his name, which appear in tabloid newspapers.
Weber saw a tension between what he was to term the "ethic
of responsibility" and the "ethic of ultimate ends".
The ethic of ultimate ends was the world of those who preferred
the party to be right rather than to be in power. Better to
despair of the prospect of ever being in a position of doing
anything than to sacrifice the principles of the party on
the altar of expediency. The ethic of responsibility was the
conception that if parties (and their leaders) cannot win
power they are not able to do anything, not even the wrong
things. Leadership brings with it the responsibility to win.
How many times have we heard people in the Labour Party (and
elsewhere) express the view that it was better to stick to
our deeply held beliefs than it was to win elections? Labour
spent eighteen years in the wilderness as a consequence and
the most vulnerable groups in society suffered as a result.
In the aftershock of the Conservative melt down of 1997 the
Tories have found themselves in a similar position. The conference
faithful are overcome by the once and future queen. It does
not matter that the voters will not buy it. Better to be right
than to be in power.
Are we not reminded of Tony Benn saying of the 1983 election
that it was not a defeat because eight million people had
voted for Labour's socialist manifesto? In 1983 Labour got
only 28% of the vote, its lowest share of the total since
before 1918, but this election, in which Benn lost his own
seat, was not a "defeat". People on the Labour left
or the Tory right who fail to face up to defeat cannot move
on. Ultimate ends are all very well but what is the point
of a political party that is always in opposition and never
in power? Opposition is all talking and no doing.
In contrast party leaders, as far as Weber is concerned,
are attracted to the "ethic of responsibility" and
need to dominate the party to prevent the "ethic of ultimate
ends" excluding the party from power. Leaders are driven
in this direction, partly because they wish to be in power
and make a difference, but also because power and office brings
more prosaic rewards. Cars, salaries, offices and the prestige
and the status which go with them are attractive to most of
us flawed human beings and to those from fairly humble or
working class backgrounds in particular.
The "iron law of oligarchy" ensures that the "ethic
of responsibility" dominates over the "ethic of
ultimate ends". The top down nature of political parties
is rooted in the need to be an effective contender for power.
For most of this century the Conservatives excluded the party
grassroots from decision making by simply giving the conference
no say over policy and using the party membership as spear
carriers in election campaigns rather than as people capable
of having a say in where the party should be going. Until
1965 the party leader did not even bother to attend the conference
but spoke at a rally of representatives on the afternoon of
the last day. Votes on resolutions were few and far between
and the whole event was stage managed so that awkward voices
were seldom heard.
Labour was very different. The party conference aspired to
be the supreme policy making body of the party. Policy was
what the conference said it was. Neither the National Executive
Committee nor, even the leader, decided it. That was why the
block vote of the trade unions was so important for the leadership.
It provided the shore defences of the "ethic of responsibility"
against the breakers of the "ethic of ultimate ends"
racing in from the constituency parties. As Perry Anderson
has said of the block vote, "it raised up a Leviathan
of dead souls, whose mythical millions enabled party leaderships
to crush rebellions and to finance elections - enforce discipline
and amass funds - without duly exerting themselves."
The transformation of Labour during the 1990s has been remarkable.
The shift has been away from representative democracy towards
plebiscitary democracy. We have seen the introduction of One
Member One Vote (OMOV) in the election of the leader and the
National Executive Committee plus postal ballots on policy
and constitutional issues. These have created a party where
the membership is periodically activated to support the leadership,
either in internal party ballots or in knocking on doors and
delivering leaflets in an election campaign.
A party organised around infrequent referenda on policies
and leaders is likely to be very different from one where
the leaders are held accountable to a series or strata of
representative structures. The leaders can expect little serious
opposition from a membership that is asked to fill out postal
ballot papers now and again.
Arthur Lipow, in his comments on Sidney and Beatrice Webb's
The History of Trade Unionism points our that the Webbs
saw the use of the referendum in early trade unions as "primitive
democracy". Lipow goes on to remark that in short, "given
the atomised state of the membership, the absence of any provision
for a system of representation and the monopoly of communication
exercised by the executive, the referendum was transformed
into an instrument of domination over rather than by the membership.
If democracy must mean this kind of 'direct' democracy, the
Webbs conclude, then the result will either be 'inefficiency
and disintegration' or in reaction to this, 'the uncontrolled
dominance of a personal dictator or an expert party bureaucracy'."
Party leaders have clearly come to the conclusion that the
party is less important than was once the case. The rise of
the mass media has given leaders the ability to communicate
with voters without the need for a grassroots organisation.
Spin doctors, media advisers, fund raisers and campaign experts
become the new elite which replaces the old one of trade union
bosses, Tory grandees and habitual meeting attenders.
Both major parties have constructed systems of control that
involve leaders and their policies being periodically confirmed
by votes of party members. Party leaders legitimise their
power by claiming that the direct voice of the party's members
has anointed them with the holy water of democracy.
Party memberships are falling and have been for a very long
time. Changes in society are at the bottom of this. Old loyalties,
based on class and family background, are weaker than they
used to be. Work and leisure compete for time and enthusiasm.
Women no longer provide an almost inexhaustible supply of
free labour for party organisations. The collapse of the Conservative
Party grassroots has been well documented by Paul Whiteley,
Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson in True Blues, and
elsewhere. Labour bucked the trend from Blair's election as
party leader through to 1st May 1997, a period when membership
increased dramatically, but the long decline seems to have
As traditional party structures slip into crisis so leaders
seek to bypass them or replace them with a pattern of organisation
that reflects their top-down orientation. The abolition of
representative structures within the Labour Party is now a
declared aim of the leadership. Committees and resolutions
will be replaced by rallies at which a stage army of selected
members can make evident their faith in the wisdom of their
leaders. Joseph Schumpeter once argued that a "party
is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the
competitive struggle for political power". If a party
is to act "in concert" it needs some notion that
it is a joint enterprise or common endeavour, not simply the
domination of leaders over the led. In fact, in the modern
world, where authority is less taken-for-granted than was
once the case and deference has all but disappeared, such
a top down party is hard to imagine. The modernisers who want
to remodel the Labour Party are living in the past not the
The most striking thing about the new world of politics is
the way that the elite are people who move effortlessly between
the worlds of politics, public relations, business, the media
and show business. Politicians look and act like chat show
hosts, when they are not acting as PR consultants or twin
tracking as journalists. Turning the party into a voiceless
agent of the powerful, an unspeaking tool of the charmed circle,
is the next step in hollowing out the democratic process.
The elite, the privileged, the well connected are able to
dominate the decision making process regardless of which party
is in power. Political parties once gave ordinary people a
say in the political process. Whilst claiming to modernise
them the intention of some is clear: abolish them. The iron
law of oligarchy is replaced by the iron law of malarkey.