Election Reflections: Who Should Be Most Satisfied?

By Dr Danny Rye

On May 5th 2016, UK political parties were subjected to the biggest electoral test since the general election last year.  Local council elections in England, devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales as well as Mayoral elections in London have provided an opportunity to assess the state of the parties and their prospects. What did we learn?  Some have suggested that there is something for everyone.  All parties can point to good news and highlight bad news for others, but overall, it should probably be the Conservative Party who are most satisfied with the results.

The Labour Party did not make the gains that an opposition arguably needs to make at this stage of the so-called ‘electoral cycle’ but neither was it subject to the level of meltdown that many were (gleefully in some cases) predicting.  They lost a net of 11 seats in total, held on to key councils including important bellweathers like Crawley and Nuneaton (the symbolic scene of Labour’s failure to reach into the middle ground in 2015) as well as winning back the mayoralty of London by a significant margin and in Bristol for the first time (where they also took control over the council). However, at a time when the Conservatives appear to be having yet another collective breakdown over Europe, and major policy intiatives are being dropped by the government under pressure from its own backbenchers, it has been widely suggested – not least by the Labour leader himself – that this is not good enough.

Labour failed to significantly eat into the Conservative vote – who made a net loss of one council and 49 seats – and were able to keep things relatively steady despite the distractions of Europe and significant tensions in the party over key policies, including a row over George Osborne’s flagship policy on academies announced only a few weeks ago (uncermoniously dropped the day after the polls closed). At best, then, the two main parties are electorally marking time in England, which is better news for the Conservatives than Labour.

Despite the continuing hegemony of the Scottish National Party (SNP), standing still is certainly not the order of the day in Scotland, where Labour have not only slipped behind the Conservatives, a position they have not been in since the 1950s, but in doing so found themselves in third place , which has not been the case since 1910 (before universal adult suffrage). The Scottish Conservatives, under their undoubtedly charismatic and appealing leader Ruth Davidson, have carved out a clear identity for themselves, in opposition to the SNP’s brand of moderately leftist nationalism they are becoming the clear go-to party for middle class voters who retain a unionist outlook. In doing so, they have made a chink in the hitherto impenetrable armour of the SNP, perhaps pointing to further interesting shifts in the political landscape north of the border. It may be that the Conservative ‘brand’ is finally being detoxified. Devolution has provided the party with the opportunity to shape a more specifically Scottish unionist identity which they have finally been able to take advantage of. This spells great danger for Scottish Labour who at times give the impression of being unable to decide which side of the fence they are on. Doubtless this rise in Conservative fortunes has much to do with their leader, an exceptionally talented politician by any standards,  something that the Scottish Conservatives (and Scottish Labour) may have lacked up to now, but it is ekeing out political space and contributing to shaping a political landscape that Labour may find itself squeezed out of.

In Wales, Labour continues to dominate despite losing Rhondda to Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru.  It is a significant breakthrough for Plaid, although Leanne Wood’s claim that it represents ‘a new dawn’ may be stretching it a bit.  For the time being Labour in Wales remain one of the most successful and formidable election machines in the country. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats in Wales have slide further into insignificance, retaining only one seat, whilst UKIP has replaced them as the fourth party in the assembly, coming from nowhere to gain seven list seats, which will provide them with a significant voice in the assembly. The Liberal Democrats in general will hope that their fortunes are bottoming out.  Elsewhere, they made a few modest gains in England (around 30 councillors), where they also successfully defended three councils and even gained one and held their seats in Scotland, where they slipped into fifth place behind the Green Party. They have only one remaining London assembly member and came a distant fourth in the mayoral election there.

So whilst Labour can argue, as its leadership has been doing so quite forcefully, that this represents a solid basis on which to make progress, and the leadership must be somewhat relieved that they have not been significantly pounded in England, there is little – as most analysts have argued – to suggest that Labour is ‘on course’ to win in 2020. Arguably, it has stabilised Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader for now, but further obstacles no doubt lay ahead and there are plenty of people waiting for him to stumble.  London remains a bright spot, but it is a place that seems increasingly out of tune with the rest of the United Kingdom (as the General Election results demonstrated).  Moreover, the party should be very concerned that its diminishing electoral relevance in Scotland makes the imperative to improve performance in England even greater. It is the Conservatives who are probably most relieved and have most cause to be satisfied.  Despite the government’s significant problems, even disarray at times, they have not been significantly damaged. They also will be celebrating the return of the party as a significant force in Scotland. Whilst this may not translate into seats at the next general election thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post, it lays a foundation on which they can build and, significantly, gives them a more legitimate voice in Scottish affairs as the official opposition. This can only benefit the party.

There is one major blot on their copy-book, however.  That they were so resoundingly defeated in London is put down in part to Zac Goldsmith’s (or rather Lynton Crosby’s) somewhat racially tinged campaign, attempting to link the Labour candidate (and eventual winner) Sadiq Khan, a liberal Muslim, with ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists’ and other unsavoury elements . It has attracted severe criticism amongst senior figures in the party and may more seriously have damaged the party’s standing amongst minority communities both in London and the rest of the country for some considerable time to come.  Given the importance the party has placed in recent years on attracting minority votes and attempting (often successfully) to overcome their Powellite legacy, this is a major failure and perhaps the one piece of bad news on an otherwise relatively good day for the Conservatives.

This post was originally published on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment Page

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Labour’s Registered Supporters Scheme Should be Seen as a Success

by Dr Danny Rye

Since the 2015 election defeat the Labour Party has attracted many thousands of new members  and supporters, largely it seems as a result of the enthusiasm generated by the current leadership contest. What initially promised to be a very dull contest of triangulating centrists was electrified by the unexpected explosion in support for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result around half a million people or more will be eligible to participate in the contest to lead the party. On the face of it, this seems to buck a trend to which nearly all political parties in the Western World have been subject, that of disengagement and declining participation and membership. House of Commons Library figures suggest that in 2013 all significant parties in the UK – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens, UKIP and the SNP – had collectively less members than those now taking part in the Labour leadership contest.

What has made this possible, of course, is a key reform to the party’s internal election process put in place under Ed Miliband which were a response to bad publicity over the Falkirk selection process (involving Unite apparently recruiting members en masse in order to ensure the adoption of their favoured candidate). The outcome of the ensuing Collins Review was the abolition of the party’s electoral college and its replacement with a system of one member one vote, including individual trade unionists who signed up as ‘Affiliated Supporters’ and enhanced with the enfranchisement of a new category of Registered Supporters, allowing individuals who registered by signing a declaration of support and paid a small fee to participate in the ballot for leader. This, the report said, meant ‘the final realisation of the … process that was begun by John Smith thirty years ago’ towards One Member One Vote in leadership contests.

One might think that the fact that the effect this scheme has had on participation levels would be something for those concerned with the state of participatory democracy to celebrate. However, there has been a growing strand of commentary in the British press and media (now thankfully being countered by some such as Tom Baldwin) which suggests that somehow the groundswell of supporters and members that have signed up to Labour since the election defeat in May should be seen as a disaster and that they are ‘killing the party’. Whilst the scheme is not perfect, this kind of response strikes me as overdramatic. Political parties have been struggling for decades to identify ways in which they can attract new supporters and members, largely without significant or sustained success. Although some ‘insurgent’ political parties have in recent months had some impact in terms of membership – UKIP claim well over 40,000 members, the Greens over 60,000, whilst the SNP claims over 100,000 – these (with the exception of the SNP in its specific national context) represent small numbers compared with the large memberships the main parties claimed in the past (3 to 4 million between them by some estimates), which have been in inexorable decline. Political parties seem to have been at a loss of what do about it. The Conservative Party, seemingly giving up on the idea of membership altogether, have even experimented with open primaries, allowing anyone to participate in selecting candidates for Parliament  which involve making no commitment to the party at all (although the resulting selection in Totnes of an independent-minded MP in Sarah Wollaston may have given them cause to think again).

Labour’s experiment with the registered supporters scheme in conjunction with a high profile leadership contest has been in many respects, therefore, a potential breakthrough. There has been much hype and hysteria about so-called infiltrators or ‘entryists’ from either the hard left or the right, including a Tory MP, and clearly the party might need to think about how it polices its borders, but a certain amount of ambiguity is going to be inevitable if parties are to be genuinely more open and engaged with the public beyond the usual, and dwindling, band of activists. In its favour, the scheme provides a simple and easy way in which people can indicate their support for a political party and their willingness to get involved on some level. It is thus a pool of potential new members, activists and donors. The fact that they have to sign up and pay a small fee to join up gives the party the opportunity, by widening support, to then deepen it.  Certainly not all of these supporters will make the leap into membership, perhaps even a majority will not, but the most important question for Labour is whether – whoever actually wins the leadership election – the party can hold on to enough of these new members and supporters and convert them into activists and participants.

It would be a mistake therefore to unravel the scheme completely, although some adjustment, for example to guard against systematic infiltration by hostile groups or individuals, may be necessary.  However, handled correctly, it could be a positive boon for the future of the Labour Party, firstly by bringing a wider range of voices into debates about the party’s direction and, secondly, by harnessing greater potential for electoral mobilisation and the growth of more committed members and activists, which was the point of the Registered Supporters scheme in the first place.  It might even be a model that other parties would consider emulating in order to arrest the decline in participation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, for the Labour Party in particular, the opportunity is to finally have a proper debate about what its response to so-called ‘austerity’ should be and to engage a wider movement of participants in that process can only be a positive thing.  A wider range of voices and participants in this debate, then, is surely welcome. Together, and with the involvement of many thousands of new supporters, members and activists, they might be able to produce a coherent, genuine and realistic response to austerity with popular appeal that is rooted in centre-left ideas and has the backing of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters across the Labour family. If so, this will be in no small part due to the life that the Registered Supporters scheme has injected into the party. That should be celebrated on every wing of the party and perhaps be watched closely by officials and analysts of political parties in general.

This post was originally published on the Political Studies Association website here

In Defence of the Party

Reflections on ‘After the Party’ seminar held on 24 April 2014 at Birkbeck University of London , Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life.

Political parties are still our best hope for articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities, but they need renewal.

By Dr Danny Rye

Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck University of London

It is almost a truism to say that political parties are in decline. Their memberships have dwindled away to historically low numbers, and although they are still effective vehicles for recruiting candidates and political elites and organising government and opposition, their capacity to fulfil their democratic roles of articulating and aggregating interests, mobilising and integrating populations, facilitating popular choice and control are seriously in doubt. Thus, if this is the case and the party is dead or dying, what comes after the party?

There were two broad strands of opinion on the panel. The first, represented by Neal Lawson of Compass and Liam Barrington-Bush (from More Like People), was that parties as we know them are all but finished as bridges between the electorate and the state and urgently need to be replaced by something more relevant and effective.

Lawson argued that social media facilitates a flattening process which reduces the cost of organisation and makes a more egalitarian, cooperative politics possible, or at least easier. This, he says, can support the development of a kind of politics where we solve problems ourselves rather than ‘waiting for heroes’ to do so for us. The future of political organisation needs to be more like an ‘open tribe’, pluralistic, adaptive and relational. For Barrington-Bush self-organisation is the key. Institutions like parties are based on a lack of trust in people and empowers an enlightened elite over ordinary people. People are far better at self-organising than they are given credit for and we don’t need top down strategies or elites to tell us what to do. What is needed is more autonomy: the kinds of networks that have emerged out of the Occupy movement, which have provided practical solutions to problems of everything from housing and finance to participative decision-making show us what can be done when people are free to organise themselves.

The second broad line of argument, represented by Nick Anstead of the LSE and James Dennis – a research student at Royal Holloway – was that parties are by no means dead but need to adapt to survive.

Anstead argued that parties have become distant and elitist, vacating the social arenas and become subsumed into an elitist, state-centred vehicle for winning power. Part of this has been motivated by the desire of political leaders to wrest control of their parties from a dwindling band of ideological activists who alienated the mainstream electorate (New Labour springs to mind). In doing so, however, political elites have themselves alienated the public by eroding the ‘bridge’ between them. The possibility that technology offers is material with which to rebuild that bridge, creating space for participation, dialogue and pluralism. Dennis pointed out that organisations like 38 Degrees are increasingly acting as that bridge. Most famous for mobilising large-scale single issue campaigns via the web and social media, they are increasingly focusing energy on building capacity, providing people and communities with the tools they need to organise their own campaigns through the use of web tools and templates. Crucial to this model is not by-passing political parties, but communicating and working with them as articulators of public interest.

The common theme that emerges from these arguments is that mainstream political parties have a problem in that they simply haven’t adapted to the changing social and political landscape. Their structures and organisation are products of a bygone age when they were not only political machines but the centre of social life in many communities (Conservative Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs for example), and – especially in Labour’s case –working lives too. As this social role has diminished so has the articulation of distinctive class interests, and thus their ability to mobilise. The world has changed and so has the way people relate to each other, socialise and organise. People are less inclined to join and submit to the disciplines of ‘traditional’ party life. They are less deferent, more articulate about their rights and opinions and, with the help of social media, more able to organise and express themselves. If they are to survive – and I would argue that it is important that they do – parties need to recognise and embrace this.

All of this points towards possibilities for the renewal of political participation facilitated in part by the possibilities that social media provides. This is not an idea which is exclusive to the left either nor one that mainstream parties have ignored: from the right, Douglas Carswell amongst others, are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers for refreshing political participation and activism. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister has argued that their respective parties’ fortunes can be revived by redefining the relationship between supporters, members and party elites, an idea which is being taken very seriously within the Labour Party. Indeed, the signs are that parties are increasingly seeking to blur the distinction between ‘formal’ members and less formal supporters in the hope of reviving participation. The way in which the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed activism through technology has been held up as something of a model to learn from.

However, these kinds of approaches are still somewhat elite driven and although perhaps it goes some way to addressing problems of participation, it does not go far enough. Too often the problem of political engagement, why aren’t people joining, campaigning and voting for them is framed as a problem that political parties need to solve by making a better product, or by marketing it better. This misses the point and indeed perhaps says something about what theproblem is in the first place. It is not a case so much of parties ‘listening’ or ‘responding’ to potential voters, so much as to open up and let other voices in. To survive, in other words, parties need to let go.

Nonetheless, we cannot reject parties out of hand. Parties also provide a continuity of organisation and an access to political power at a national level that flatter, more transient forms of self-organisation cannot so easily do. As Barbara Zollner of Birkbeck pointed out, although social media and spontaneous forms of grass-roots organisation have played crucial roles in recent revolutions in the Middle East in particular, the failure of more traditional forms of organisation like parties, has perhaps gone some way to undoing them in places like Egypt especially. The powerful elites in society (like the Egyptian army) are well-organised and disciplined and therefore those that seek to challenge them must be also.

Thus parties may have isolated and distanced themselves in recent years, but they are still our best hope of providing a channel through which the electorate’s voice can be heard in the halls of government, articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities. These roles are vital to democratic health and to provide them, parties need to re-imagine themselves. They need to understand themselves as part of wider movements and thus be much more open, much more willing to allow a plurality of voices to find articulation, much less concerned with command and control. This is vital to the renewed relevance and flourishing of organisations which at their best can provide some form of linkage, however filtered or indirect, between the political elite and the ordinary voter.

But the rest of us too must recognise that although politics can be understood as many things – the pursuit of the ‘good-life’ or the good society, the pursuit of power –it is also in part the art of compromise. The way in which we organise ourselves can enhance the autonomy of individuals and communities and maximise political empowerment, but that does not mean that we can always get what we want. It does, however, mean that we might have more chance of getting heard.

Why Parties Need to Change But Not Too Much.

Parties need to adapt to the changing ways in which people engage in politics, but they must also challenge  individualised consumerist politics and provide a platform for collective decision-making and accountability.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a recent article for Labour Uncut, Peter Watt – a former General Secretary of the Labour Party – argued that traditional political parties are under threat.  Parties need to wake up to how the ways in which people engage (or not) with politics have changed.  In particular, parties need to use social media platforms to engage with members of the public beyond the narrow confines of a community of politicians or activists.  They need to seek invitations into and meet people in their worlds rather than making ‘clumsy attempts’ to entice them into traditional political settings.

This would require no less than a revolution, not just in the way that political parties engage with the outside world, but also how they are organised: for example becoming ‘flatter’, more ‘networked’, a new kind of ‘cyber party’ using web-based technologies to build relationships directly with voters.  This perhaps means departing from out-dated notions of ‘membership’ which suited the age of the mass class-based party, but is out of step with political engagement in the contemporary world (indeed, the Labour Party may have taken an important step towards this already with the launch last year of the Labour Supporters Network).

On the face of it, this is a sensible thing for parties to do.  Since the heyday of two party politics, we have undergone a social revolution.  People do not feel they need to be committed traditional political parties anymore: the social role they used to play has long been lost to the market (which is a problem all social institutions like churches, clubs and societies have faced) and allegiances based on class have dissolved, being replaced by a more fragmented identity politics, or by brands and consumer-oriented niche interests.  Similarly, political activity and commitments have shifted into the increasingly crowded market-place of single issue causes (like conservation or aid) and specialised interests, or relatively spontaneous ‘grass-roots’ campaigns such as those organised by 38 Degrees or Occupy.  In short, no one has to submit to the disciplines of party life because one can pick and choose which causes to support with no need for messy compromise or accommodation.

Underlying all this is a consumerist ideology, in which ‘free’ individuals make rational decisions based on our interests and desires.  The modern consumer-citizen can expect to get what she wants when she wants it, with little concern for ‘collective’ or ‘class’ interest, which belong to the drab paternalistic world of the past.   And if people do not need political parties to meet their interests, then all they are is a means by which the powerful and those that wish to join them seek to dominate others.  Why, then, should anyone else want to participate in them?  Indeed, why should parties as we know them even exist in a world where everyone potentially has their own platform?

I would argue that parties must have a future if representative democracy is to remain healthy.  Yes, they must change and adapt to the world as it is, but they must also provide a challenge to the individualistic and atomised politics, which ultimately lead to politics being dominated by remote elites.  Thus, any attempt to meet and engage people in ‘their worlds’ must not be to the detriment of three crucial roles that parties have to different degrees played in representative democracies.

Firstly, parties provide a structure for collective political activity and expression which individualised media and fragmented causes cannot.  In particular, the party provides an arena for debate and a system for making and influencing policy.  It provides clear rules and procedures and a context of shared values that gives focus and meaning to the process and its outcomes, even if that outcome is not the one desired by all participants.  Party members and activists I have interviewed as part of my own research have talked about how much they have valued being able to contribute to debates, even when they knew they would probably not get their way.  In attempting to attract more support, parties must not lose sight of this.  It is something that the fragmented politics of single issues and social media cannot offer.

Meeting the demands of all the fragmented competitive interests in society is impossible and  dividing people up into specific causes and atomised voices undermines the ability of people to act collectively.  If we cannot act collectively we run the risk of becoming dominated by those that can, or who do not need to: that is, ever more remote political elites and the powerful interest groups lobbying for a small slice of the policy pie. This leads the individual even less able to influence the context and content of politics, despite the opportunities they have to express their opinions and pursue their desires.  Parties can play an important role in educating people to understand this and providing them with a platform that is effective because it is collective.

Secondly, parties can and should provide some kind of ‘linkage’ between those that seek to govern and the generality of voters.  This, many would argue, is precisely the reason they must change.  However, the quality of this linkage is crucial too:  it is vital that action designed to make parties more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ avoids the danger of hollowing them out even further.  Providing a more direct transmission belt between party representatives and the public could be an important act of ‘democratisation’ but the danger is that it bypasses the organised, collective power of a membership and replaces it with an uneven relationship between an elite with all the advantages and resources and a series of fragmented voices with no collective authority or power.  A democratic party organisation can supply that collective authority to speak to and challenge elites which a ‘network’ cannot.

Vibrant political parties that engage with supporters and give them real power can be vital to ensuring that the needs of real communities are reflected in the policy process, in other words to ensure that parties remain rooted in the places in which people live.  Of course, that means branching out into online communities too.  But however parties respond to the challenges of modern life, they must attempt to engage people not only by meeting them in their worlds on their terms, but also by challenging the atomisation of consumerist politics and drawing people into a greater sense of collective life.  Social media is part of this and must be used to help bring it about, but the medium must not become the message and it must not end up driving politics in a direction which is even more atomised and unequal.

This brings me to the third reason why so-called ‘traditional’ parties remain important:  stable, healthy party organisations with meaningful accountability mechanisms are a crucial check on overmighty leaders.  In our political system, parties are the means by which leaders are selected and their support sustained.  Whereas in some systems, parties are vehicles for leaders and can be discarded when they are no longer of use, here leaders are arguably vehicles for parties.  Thus they can be removed if they become detached, remote, or a threat to the political or electoral health of the party.  ‘Network’ parties in which political leaders communicate directly with the voters may allow leaders to circumvent the need for an active and powerful membership base whilst at the same time appearing to be more ‘democratic’.  This may make them more politically nimble and even more responsive to the public in some sense, but without proper structures of accountability and powers of recall, parties may be little more than empty brands, engaged with individuals on a superficial level: surfing the mood of the mass whilst providing no means to check the power of leaders and replace them from time to time.

Thus, in summary, whilst I agree with Peter Watt that parties must adapt to new realities, this must not be a pretext for abandoning the democratic role that old-fashioned organisations can play.  I do not suggest that parties as they are now perform these roles perfectly and at times there have been worrying indications that parties are responding to problems like membership decline by attempting to undermine the basis for it.

Parties are collective organisations trying to survive in an individualised age.  They are hierarchical broadcasters in an era of networks and interactive social media.  But whilst they must adapt to these changing modes of communication and engagement, they need to do so in such a way that provides a challenge to the individualism and atomisation that poses very real dangers to democracy.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 22 MARCH 2013 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London