2017 Election Reflections: May Blows It, Uncertainty Reigns.

Not unlike David Cameron before her, Theresa May has gambled and lost.  Despite winning the highest proportion of the vote for the Conservatives since 1983, the largely unexpected result (with the honourable exception of YouGov) leaves the Conservatives the largest party but losing their overall majority. This is, in part, thanks to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn increasing its vote by almost ten per cent on 2015, the biggest increase in share since Clement Attlee’s time.

Within their respective parties, Corbyn is clearly vindicated and strenghtened his authority whilst May’s has been spectacularly undermined by her own actions and her own poor campaign.  It remains, however, that no one has won and we are potentially entering a period of ongoing weakness and instability in government at a crucial time. Precisely the opposite of what May intended to convey in her now slightly risible looking campaign slogan.

It is too early to say what might happen, but there is some suggestion that Theresa May is planning to stay for the time being and she may be able to put together some kind of agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (who have ten seats) and continue in government.  However, it is difficult to see that she can last long. Many Conservative MPs will almost certainly want to see her go after having put them through this ordeal.

Although Labour has been arguing the case for forming a minority government, putting forward its own programme based on its manifesto and challenging other parties to vote against it, this seems very unlikely to fly, at least for time being. May will get the first chance as leader of the largest party to form a government and much will depend on her capacity to carry that through in the face of a huge personal defeat.  It seems certain she will stand down before long, however, perhaps sooner rather than later.

The most serious part of this for the country as a whole is that it is bound to cause problems for Brexit negotiations, unless some kind of cross-party approach can be taken. However what it certainly does mean is that there is less likely to be a so-called ‘Hard’ Brexit (that is a complete break from the single market and the customs union as well as the political and legal institutions of the EU) since there is no majority for it in the House of Commons.

It would also appear that this signals an end to austerity, since a substantial proportion of the population have clearly voted against it.

Perhaps the only real certainty at the moment is uncertainty. It’s going to be an interesting few days!

Brexit and Political Parties: Challenges and Opportunities

Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University ryed@hope.ac.uk

As a result of the vote to leave the European Union, party politics as usual, if there ever was such a thing, has been shaken. The referendum itself and the ensuing debate about Brexit has exposed the instabilities, contingencies and fragilities at the heart of the main parliamentary parties. We do not yet know what the effect of this will be, but British political parties face key challenges and opportunities as a result, and how they respond to them could have major implications for them and for the shape of the party system.

A glance back at British political history tells us that the structure and configuration of political parties has been periodically subject to this kind of flux and instability at times of social and economic change, leading to sometimes significant reconfigurations or reorganisations of the party system. In 1832, for instance, an organised Tory party first emerged out of the process of resistance to and the aftermath of the Great Reform Act, establishing what we would recognise as a two party system, with a government opposed by a ‘loyal opposition’. The ensuing need for competitive appeal to voters and the emergence of ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ labels brought the party system into the modern age. Following the First World War and the ‘confusion’ of parties that emerged from it, the changing social and political landscape, including the emergence of class and the decline of religion as key political dividing lines and the extension of the franchise saw in the 1920s the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour as the main alternative to the Conservatives, a rise interrupted by a split in the party over its handling of depression and economic crisis in 1929-31 and the formation of the National Coalition. The collapse of the post 1945 consensus, following the failures of Wilson, Callaghan and Heath governments in the 1970s to address Britain’s economic and industrial problems led to the emergence of Thatcherism, a split in the Labour Party and the formation of the SDP, as well as the emergence of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Liberal revival in the 70s, giving shape to the politics of the last thirty years.

What each of these developments have in common is that in the face of major political or economic crises, the existing party configurations, allegiances, alliances, positions proved inadequate and some kind of realignment, if not inevitable, became necessary. It is tempting in such circumstance to imagine that the hand of history is at play and that there is little that can be done to arrest the inevitable consequence of it. However, history is not something that is done to us, but something in which we participate. The political world just like our social environment is in ‘constant process and transformation’ a process of ‘perpetual motion’ and history is ‘a series of specific events’ in which we are ‘consciously involved and … can consciously influence’[1]. Thus, outcomes that seem inevitable in retrospect, like the emergence of the two party system in the first place, like the decline of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party are not necessarily so.  Crucially, the contingencies, the avoidable errors and unexpected successes can be at least as important. The response to such events therefore is crucial to the effects that they have. Thus the political virtuosity with which political leaders and politicians respond to the Fortuna of events can have profound consequences.

For British political parties, then, the aftermath of the referendum may be one of these moments. Brexit presents challenging issues and potential opportunities for parties’ stability and success. It has presented challenges for party leadership and management by exposing or sharpening existing divisions and creating new ones, opening questions about future direction.In this short article, I will briefly outline some of these issues and what they might mean for the parties.

Conservative Issues, Challenges and Opportunities

The first challenge that the Conservative Party faces is trying to find ways to bridge its continuing divisions in the party over Europe. Tensions over Europe in the party are deep and persistent and it was David Cameron’s attempt to do just this that gave rise to the referendum in the first place. The increasingly Eurosceptic make-up of the Parliamentary Conservative Party meant that whilst those who could be called ‘Europhiles’ had greatly diminished in number, the most significant division in the party now emerging was between ‘soft’ Eurosceptics, who supported membership but argued that integration should go no further, and an increasingly vocal band of ‘hard’ Eurosceptics, who advocated withdrawal altogether[2]. Cameron’s attempts to appeal to this arguably stoked the problem rather than healed it. His 2005 leadership campaign promise to withdraw from the centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament was fulfilled (after some prevarication), but the pledge of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was deemed irrelevant following its ratification in 2009. In January 2013, Cameron was effectively forced into conceding a referendum (dependent on a Conservative majority) after 81 MPs defied the party whip to vote in favour of one following a Backbench debate in the House of Commons. It was clear that Cameron’s move had failed abjectly to dampen the growing Eurosceptic revolt when in May, 116 Conservative MPs rebelled on the Queen’s Speech, by voting for an amendment ‘regretting’ the absence of a referendum bill from the government’s legislative programme. Party leaders were forced to allow backbenchers a free vote and even ministers were permitted to abstain.

When Cameron won his unexpected majority in 2015, he had to deliver on his referendum promise. However, the effect was to galvanise Eurosceptic MPs by providing both a unifying focus for an otherwise unorganised group with differing aims and motivations[3], and leadership, which it had lacked up to this point. The decision of both Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to support the Leave campaign, brought high profile, mainstream ‘big hitters’ with a strong public appeal and significant communications skills to the Leave side. This was made easier, moreover, by Cameron’s insistence during the referendum campaign that he would not engage in ‘blue on blue’ attacks, a source of frustration for some on the Remain campaign team, as Craig Oliver’s recent memoir on the referendum campaign attests. Nevertheless, much of the media coverage seemed fixated on the divisions in the Conservative Party anyway, a substantial amount of it through the prism of whether Cameron was likely to Remain leader or not afterwards[4]. Thus, whilst the referendum did not create new divisions in the party, it focused, sharpened and exposed them.

Although the party’s claim to be the ‘natural’ party of government is not as strong as it was, the Conservatives were able to find a unity of purpose in its desire and instinct to govern. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it looked as if the party might have lost sight of this, but in the end it was able to settle the leadership relatively quickly following Cameron’s resignation after the referendum defeat. Conservative leadership election rules give party members a choice between two potential leaders whittled down by MPs. Given the Eurosceptic bent of the party’s relatively small membership of around 150,000, the post-Brexit leadership contest held potential to reinforce a grass-roots revolt by presenting members with the possibility of voting for a vocal supporter of ‘Hard Brexit’. In the end, however, the inheritors would not be the architects of the Leave campaign. Michael Gove’s ‘knifing’ of Boris Johnson ended his candidacy before it even began but it did Gove no good either who was eliminated, just as Liam Fox and Steven Crabb had been in earlier rounds. Members were therefore left with a choice between Theresa May, Home Secretary since 2010 and a Remain supporter, albeit a relatively reticent one (as Craig Oliver’s account of the campaign attests), and Andrea Leadsom who had come to prominence as a high profile and effective advocate for the Leave campaign. Given the orientation of the membership, there was every possibility that Leadsom might win, a potential result that could have put the parliamentary party and the party in the country at loggerheads. However, it was never put to the vote. Leadsom withdrew from the contest stating that she could not justify going to the membership ballot with support from only 25% of MPs. Theresa May, was installed quickly as the new party leader and prime minister on 13 July just a few days after the contest officially began, displaying the strong instinct for survival that characterises the Conservative Party’s staying power and success.

The Conservative Party, therefore, in sorting out the leadership swiftly demonstrated that it had not lost touch with what it has seen as its historic purpose above all, to govern. Leadsom standing down meant, first of all, that the party was spared the possibility of a ‘revolt’ by members which may have created further crises; secondly, that leadership and therefore some direction on Brexit could be established quickly – curtailing the possibility of continued political limbo and uncertainty over the summer period; thirdly, it meant that an impression of strong leadership could be given to contrast with the divisions in the Labour party that had exploded into public view in the aftermath of the referendum and used to the party’s advantage.

May, moreover, came through looking like a reassuring, mature, statesmanlike figure. She won appearing to be above the fray, without apparently getting her hands dirty, by sitting back and allowing her rivals to self-destruct. She was perhaps not so much the winner as the last one standing when the firing stopped. She was also in many ways the ideal unity candidate.  She supported Remain, but took a cautious, low profile during the referendum campaign, and on assuming the leadership insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, appointing prominent Eurosceptics to the key positions coordinating the process of exit. Thus, it seemed possible that divisions over Europe might finally have been put to rest in the Conservative Party. Perhaps the party would finally stop ‘banging on about Europe’ (as Cameron had always wanted) and begin to show some unity of purpose behind a new leader with a clear sense of direction. Now that this issue of EU membership had been resolved, the party could come together in the interests of the nation.

However, despite the initial truce, there is, as yet, no sign of the divisions coming to an end. Post-referendum, the distinction between hard Eurosceptics and supporters of membership have transmogrified into an emerging division between supporters of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit which has created some further party management issues for the new Prime Minister. Analysis of recent parliamentary debates[5] reveals that Hard Brexiters have made a range of different arguments, some taking an economically liberal line, based on global free trade and a competitive open economy based on low-tax and low-regulationwhilst others take a more ‘nationalistic’ position more directly resonant with the ‘taking control’ mantra of the Leave campaign, interpreting the referendum result as a vote for control over borders (against free movement), finances (against paying fees) and law (against the European Court of Justice) which rules out remaining in the single market under any terms since it would represent a ‘betrayal’ of what the British people had voted for. ‘Soft Brexit’ supporters on the other hand disagree. The strongest line is taken by ‘single marketeers’ whose arguments are oriented around the economic importance of being part of such a major free market, including a defence of the free movement of labour. Others are more pragmatic, expressing concerns about the impacts that the UK extricating itself from key arrangements and institutions like the single market might have on specific sectors, businesses, and industries, seeking assurances that their needs are fully understood. Thus the referendum has clearly not put the issue of Europe to rest in the Conservative Party and, if anything, the divisions between ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Brexiters have become fiercer and hardened by the constitutional dimensions about the role of parliament that are emerging as part of this debate. Hard Brexiters have tended to argue that the referendum result is a clear instruction for complete withdrawal (i.e. ‘Hard Brexit’) and does not require any further interpretation or debate in Parliament,which has in any case delegated its sovereignty to the people in this matter. The latter, on the other hand, have argued that Parliament must play role in providing a mandate to the government as demanded by established constitutional practice and to provide the public with confidence in the integrity of the process. The divisions in the party are only strengthened by these more procedural dimensions and – as contributions to Parliamentary debates show – underlined by mistrust. ‘Soft Brexiters’ are accused of using arguments about parliamentary sovereignty to frustrate the process and undermine the will of the British peoplewhilst ‘Hard Brexiters’ are, in turn, are accused of seeking to bypass Parliament’s ‘historic’ and constitutional role as a sovereign body because it is unlikely to come up with an answer that they would like.

The party leadership has attempted to navigate these continuing divisions by maintaining a reticence on the detail of how it wishes to proceed with Brexit and what the outcome should be. The Government has been accused therefore of having no discernible plan, whilst claiming that revealing its negotiating hand to parliament will weaken its position.  This may be so, but there are also likely to be important party management reasons for this reticence too.  Revealing the government’s position is bound to incur the wrath of one side or another in the debate and may yet precipitate further splits and even endanger her own position as leader. After Thatcher and Major, the issue of Europe has dispensed with a third Conservative Prime Minister. There is, as yet, no guarantee that it will not dispense with a fourth.

Labour Issues, Challenges and Opportunities

An important advantage that the Conservatives have, however, is that the opposition is also divided on at least three levels. Firstly, there are and have been growing divisions within the party between the mainstream majority of the parliamentary party and the party membership which has been most clearly exposed by the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader. He was not even expected to get on the ballot but a campaign by constituency activists to persuade enough MPs to nominate him (he needed 35) in order to ‘widen the debate’ worked.  That he went on to win illuminated the fact that many members and supporters, old and new, profoundly disagreed with the direction of the party and rejected the implied prescription of other ‘mainstream’ leadership candidates that the Labour Party had lost in 2015 because they had, under Ed Miliband, been too strongly associated with an anti-austerity position. Indeed, it appeared that the majority of the party’s electorate felt the opposite and thanks to rule changes made by Miliband, MPs (and trade unions too) lost the weighted votes that the old electoral college system gave them and could now more easily have a leader they did not want imposed upon them.

That this happened means there is now also a stark division, secondly, between much of the Parliamentary Labour Party – whose ideological positions range from a small group of so-called ‘Blairite’ reformists, to mainstream ‘soft left’ MPs – and the leadership, which now is effectively in the hands of key members of the left-wing Campaign Group. Any attempts to paper over this division fell apart spectacularly in the aftermath of the Referendum.  Corbyn’s support for the Remain campaign during the referendum was regarded by many party moderates as somewhat lacklustre and equivocal at best and his reported initial response to the result that Article 50 should be triggered ‘immediately’ was greeted with incredulity by a number of Labour MPs who supported the Remain campaign. This division was exposed most destructively in the resignation of over 60 MPs from the front bench and a vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party in the leader which took place immediately after the EU Referendum in June 2016. This attempt to force him out failed. Corbyn refused to go and thus a leadership challenge followed in which Owen Smith, although claiming the support of the vast majority of the parliamentary party, went down to defeat by 62% to 38%.

Since then, an uneasy peace has settled over the party in parliament, but divisions are not far beneath the surface and have emerged over the party’s response to Brexit, albeit without the same degree of publicly expressed rancour. Labour has started to shape a more directed response to the government on Brexit, steered by Keir Starmer, which has met with some success in pressing the government to reveal its plans, but Labour’s somewhat nuanced position seems to be hiding some deeper divisions, some of these between the PLP and party leaders (in reported tensions between Starmer and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for instance), but also between MPs representing Remain supporting, cosmopolitan constituencies and those in Leave supporting ones.

This exposes a further important division, thirdly, which is the dislocation between the party generally and substantial parts of its ‘traditional’ working class support, especially in the North of England. Labour MPs were overwhelmingly Remain supporters during the referendum (just ten MPs out of 232 supported the Leave campaign), and so were most party supporters, but many of its so-called ‘traditional’ heartlands voted to overwhelmingly leave: although more than two thirds of party supporters voted Remain, seven out of ten Labour held seats voted Leave[6].  Thus, contributions to parliamentary debates[7] indicate that whilst most Labour MPs are inclined to take a Soft Brexit position, emphasising the importance of access to the single market in particular and clarity and reassurance for key businesses and employers, some Remain-supporting Labour MPs have in response begun to adjust their position. Ending free movement for them has become, post-Brexit, a ‘red line’and despite ‘proven economic benefits’ Steven Kinnock argued in a recent Fabian publication that it ‘is not socially and politically sustainable’. Failure to address it, wrote Rachel Reeves in the same publication, would be tantamount to ‘holding the voters in contempt[8] However, at the same time key party leadership figures have argued a different line. Diane Abbot, for instance, in a November 26 interview in The Guardian argued that Labour needs to hold its nerve and maintain its support for free movement and defend immigration, reflecting views expressed by Corbyn himself that immigration is not in itself the issue so much as the resources communities have to cope with it. [9]   

The trick that the Labour Party has to perform is to hold on to its old heartlands in the face of the challenges of Brexit, whilst seeking to build new constituencies of support. Corbyn seems to have made great strides in the latter. His leadership has clearly galvanised a large number of people and membership now stands at over 500,000 (it was 200,000 in 2015) bucking the general trend of decline in party membership across western Europe. This might indicate it seems a strength of appeal in leadership that many political parties lack. However, polls have suggested his appeal amongst the electorate is low and, furthermore, his approach has also raised questions about Labour’s function and focus. Is it an electoral party that seeks office through maximising votes, or is it a mass membership movement that seeks to mobilise opposition to the existing political consensus? A successful political party needs in some sense to be both but in a political system which is heavily centred on the sovereignty of parliament and is likely to get more so in some respects (because of leaving the EU), it is difficult to see how a genuine political breakthrough can be made without control of the parliamentary arena.

Liberal Democrats

Another party in desperate need of a breakthrough is the Liberal Democrats. The first challenge the party faces is their weak parliamentary position and, thus, relatively low levels of influence. They were almost destroyed as a parliamentary force at the 2015 general election. They lost large number of voters, not least because having been part of the Coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010-15, the party could no longer rely on being a repository of protest votes. However, they gained no reward from elsewhere either, least of all their coalition partners. Indeed, they lost all 15 seats in their South West ‘heartland’, almost all of them to the Conservatives who ruthlessly targeted their seats. Overall, the result of that election was catastrophic, being reduced from a total of 57 MPs to just eight. Despite being the most Euro-enthusiastic party of all, and not long out of government, the Liberal Democrats were, due to their much diminished status, largely absent from the referendum campaign, and there were a distinct lack of significant roles for the party leader, Tim Farron, in key debates or on Remain platforms.

However, in the post-referendum landscape, their clear pro-European position has presented them with an opportunity, especially in the face of division or lack of clarity coming from the two main parties. They have cultivated and emphasised this pro-European voice in Parliament and their decision to oppose the (amended) Opposition Day motion in Parliament on 7th December which set a date for triggering Article 50 has set them apart as taking a strong anti-Brexit, or at least anti-Hard Brexit line on which it shares common ground with the Greens, Nationalists and a small number of Labour MPs. They have also sought to emphasise democratic credentials by developing this into a campaign for a further referendum on the outcome of negotiations. This is a distinctive line of argument taken by the remaining Liberal Democrats and their leader, Tim Farron, underlining their emergence as a clear, pro-Remain voice in the current political landscape.  This appears to be attracting significant new membership (the party currently claims around 80,000 members) and growing support which has culminated in a stunning by-election success at the Richmond Park by-election on 1st December. Thus although severed at the head in 2015, the Liberal Democrats appear to be growing back at the roots.

UKIP

UKIP was founded for the express purpose of agitating for, and winning, a referendum on membership of the European Union, and its unity of purpose in this respect at least was not in doubt. Despite only having one MP, UKIP has, in terms of setting the agenda, framing the debate and achieving political goals, been just about the most successful and effective political party of recent times. Both the staging and the outcome of the referendum represents the fulfilment of its founding purpose, which is something not all parties can claim, and underlines the perceived and real threat they have posed to both main parties. It is therefore an unequivocal success for UKIP as party and its members and leaders could be forgiven for basking in its success.

Leadership has clearly been vital to UKIP’s success. The achievement of its goal is in no small measure down to the skill and astuteness of Nigel Farage as a political operator and communicator. The pressure that the party’s success under his leadership has put on the main parties is what led to the promise of a referendum in the first place and the sharpening of the divide between Labour and its once taken-for-granted Northern heartlands. What he and UKIP have successfully done is, first, frame the impacts of the financial crisis as a problem of immigration and, second, linked the question of immigration to the European Union. Europe had for a long time been low down on the priorities of voters, but immigration and the economy were both high. To link all of these together in a way that exploited the political and economic fallout for the purposes of achieving a specific long-held ambition was a skilful piece of political campaigning

At the same time, despite their low parliamentary representation they attracted almost four million votes (12.6%) at the last election which has put them in a strong position electorally, too. They were remarkably consistent in their level of support across the country (except for London) meaning that overall it achieved 120 second places: 44 to Labour and 75 to the Conservatives (the other being the Speaker’s seat).  At the same time, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, particularly in the South West of England means that it is UKIP which arguably provides the most potent threat to the established parties, competing with Labour in much of the North, and the Conservatives in much of the South.

And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – this success, UKIP finds itself at a crossroads and a moment of introspection. Farage’s leadership is arguably what held the party together and stepping down leaves a gap that could be hard to fill. The infighting (literally in the case of two MEPs: leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem) and squabbling that followed the referendum and the debacle of Diane James’ short-lived leadership exposed this to a great extent. Indeed, even the Referendum itself exposed divisions in the party over the campaign, which may contain some clues about the lines of debate opening up as to its future as a political party. The more optimistic, relatively liberal side, represented by people like Douglas Carswell (the party’s only MP) and Suzanne Evans were aligned with the mainstream Vote Leave campaign, whilst Nigel Farage represented a populist, more explicitly anti-immigration campaign through Leave.EU, including the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster.  Paul Nuttall’s election as leader provides UKIP with an opportunity to find a new, post-Brexit path. In his acceptance speech, he set UKIP the aim of replacing Labour as a patriotic working class voice. It remains to be seen if he can pull this off, but Labour MP Frank Field described his election as a ‘game changer’ for Labour.[10]

Scottish National Party

Sixty-two per cent of Scotland’s voters supported Remain in the referendum which has provided opportunities for the Scottish National Party to further its campaign for independence. The party are in a strong position to do so and this is down to a number of factors.  Firstly, strong, effective leadership which was on display in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. In contrast to other politicians who appeared in a state of shock at the result (including some of the winners), Sturgeon decisively pressed Scotland’s case. This is combined with the party’s straightforward clarity of purpose on the issue of independence, its large, motivated membership and its stunning electoral success in 2015 (when it gained 56 out of 59 Scottish seats). Thus its parliamentary position as the third largest party, which gives it rights in terms of asking questions, organising debates and populating committees, has enabled it to bring its own distinctive arguments to the Brexit debate. It has enabled it to press for a central role for the devolved administrations in negotiations as well as to push another constitutional dimension to the debate in the form of the argument that Brexit requires consent from Holyrood.Ultimately, much of this should be interpreted through the prism of the SNP’s campaign for independence, which underpins arguments that Scottish voters are sovereign and the vote for Remain needs to be ‘respected’. [11]

Although the huge difference in support for European Union membership in Scotland might appear to make another referendum on independence inevitable, it is notable that the party has been reticent about committing to this and a key question for the SNP is the extent to which Scottish voters would be willing to sacrifice a 300-year-old union with England and Wales for a European one. The SNP, in short are in a delicate position between the electorate and its membership and so the ‘threat’ of a second referendum is a weapon that has to be handled carefully.  Support for independence does not seem to have grown dramatically, if at all, since the referendum, and the party will not want to initiate one if it is unlikely to win. Furthermore, polling suggests that most Scots would prefer not to have a second referendum for now at least.[12] At the same time, however, those who identify as SNP voters are overwhelmingly in favour of independence and need to be kept happy too. So far, the SNP has proved adept at maintaining the balance between these two and continuing to get the balance right is likely deliver continued and sustainable success for the SNP.

Conclusion

Brexit and the aftermath of the referendum presents a number of challenges threats and opportunities for the political parties and how they respond to them may have a significant impact on the party system and its configuration for some time to come.  In order to maintain its unity, the Conservative Party leadership faces the significant challenge of overcoming the divisions between supporters of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ variations of Brexit, which appear to be increasingly entrenched, whilst at the same time providing a positive way forward for negotiating a settlement with the European Union which satisfies both sides. Labour, meanwhile, needs to find ways of bridging significant gaps between its MPs, its leaders, its members and its voters and faces the difficulty of maintaining a coherent response to Brexit whilst seeking to rebuild a potential election winning coalition. For both main parties, these divisions are reflected in their responses to Brexit which are strongly influenced by party management concerns.  The Conservative leadership retains an air of ambiguity and secrecy so as not to antagonise the fragile relations between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexiters. The Labour Party, although ostensibly more sympathetic to ‘soft Brexit’ takes a somewhat nuanced position which masks the divided response the party has to it. Should they fail, however, to meet these challenges, other parties will be waiting to exploit the opportunities it offers them. The relative strength of UKIP as a voice for hard Brexit under their new leadership and their capacity to attract votes from Labour and the Conservatives is likely to have an important effect on how those parties’ overall positions develop. The same applies on the other side of the issue. The Liberal Democrats are emerging as a clear, pro-Remain voice in the current political situation and their recent success in Richmond Park has opened questions as to whether Conservatives are under threat from pro-European voters if they continue to take a relatively ‘Hard Brexit’ position. The SNP are also unequivocally pro-EU as a party and, given Scotland voted to Remain by a substantial margin, have carved out a clear role to defend Scotland’s interests, seek to influence the process and possibly use it to leverage further support for independence.


[1] Carr, E.H. (2001) What is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave), 129

[2] Heppell , T. (2013) ‘Cameron and Liberal Conservatism: Attitudes within the Parliamentary Conservative Party and Conservative Ministers’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations Vol 15, 340-361.

[3] Lynch, P. and Whitaker, R. (2013) ‘Where There is Discord, Can They Bring Harmony? Managing Intra-Party Dissent on European Integration in the Conservative Party’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations Vol 15 317-339, 335

[4]For example, see: Philip Johnston ‘The Conservative Party may be destroyed by this European madness’ The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk Accessed 30 November 2016; George Parker ‘Conservative party infighting on Europe referendum escalates’ Financial Times May 23 2016;

[5] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/ [HC Deb 11 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 23-35; HC Deb 5 September 2016 Vol 614 cc 38-74; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69; HC Deb 10 October 2016  Vol 615 cc 70-71; HC Deb 12 October 2016  Vol 615 cc 314-415].

[6] Chris Hanretty, ‘Most Labour MPs represent a constituency that voted Leave’. Available online: https://medium.com/@chrishanretty/most-labour-mps-represent-a-constituency-that-voted-leave- 36f13210f5c6#.fu9zvch6u (accessed 2 December 2016).

[7] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/ [HC Deb 21 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 428-454 WH ; HC Deb 5 September 2016 Vol 614 cc 38-74; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69]

[8] Facing the Unknown: Building a Progressive Response to Brexit Fabian Society Policy Report, 13, 17

[9] ‘Labour will not win a general election as Ukip-lite, says Diane Abbott’ The Guardian Saturday 26 November; ‘Jeremy Corbyn: I will not put a limit on immigration’ Politics Home 24 September 2016Online at: https://www.politicshome.com Accessed 1 December 2016.

[10] ‘Ukip leader Paul Nuttall is ‘game changer’ for Labour, says Frank Field’ The Guardian 30 November 2016

[11] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/  [HC Deb 21 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 428-454 WH; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69; HC Deb 12 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 314-414]

[12] ‘Scots don’t support a second independence referendum’ You Gov 1 September 2016 Online: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/09/01/davidson-now-more-popular-sturgeon-scotland/ Accessed 28 November 2016.

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

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

Political Parties and Power: A New Framework for Analysis

Political Parties and Power: A New Framework for Analysis

Article for Political Studies, now available online earlyview via the above link.

Abstract:

Political parties are both vehicles for the pursuit of power and specific sites in which it is produced, organised, fought over, captured and lost. However, the literature on parties has not kept up with theoretical developments and largely lacks an explicit, systematic theorisation of power. To address this, a framework of power is proposed in this article that introduces some of the more nuanced and sophisticated insights of political theory to the analysis of parties without dismissing the benefits of more established approaches. Power is approached as a rich, multilayered concept, derived from diverse intellectual traditions. The framework acts as a heuristic which encapsulates individual agency, the strategic mobilisation of rules and norms, rationalisation and bureaucracy, the constitution of agents and the micro-level discipline of bodies. This provides a more satisfying framework for analysing power in parties than has previously been offered.

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