What Is Happening With Political Parties?

Edward Heath led the Conservatives in the 1970s

I wrote this back in 2015 just after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour Party leader, but before his MPs started the process of trying to get rid of him.  At the time his rise seemed the most surprising and unpredicted political event.  I didn’t trouble publishing it at the time.  It isn’t particularly insightful or even very well written.  But it does show how quickly events change how things seem.  

I really really wish I had kept the slip of paper I put in my jacket pocket one Saturday night in 1978. I was 18, and was devoting considerable efforts to try and get a girlfriend. This was the height of the Disco era, so it was discos I mostly went to. But a straight forward old fashioned dance was worth a try as well. So this particular weekend I had ended up in the Conservative Club in the seaside town where I grew up, at a dance. I seem to remember enjoying it, but didn’t manage to pull anyone which was my main objective at the time. It was only the next day that I realised that by picking the cheaper admission option I had actually joined the Conservative Party and had a membership card to prove it.

Sadly I didn’t really appreciate the historical significance and lost my party card shortly afterwards. In the seventies the Conservative party still managed to claim a membership of about a million. To be fair to them, I don’t think many of them joined up in quite such an absent minded way as I did. It was a mass party, and in the very Tory part of the country I lived it was quite a big part of the social scene. Labour had fewer paid up members, but did have close links with the unions who had their own extensive organisation with lots of people involved. The Labour movement was in those days exactly that. It was a movement, of which many members genuinely did a fair bit of actual physical labour. Politics really did make sense as a struggle between two classes of people – the ones who did the work and the ones who owned everything. It wasn’t a violent revolutionary struggle.  People did talk about private armies in the seventies but nobody seriously expected a civil war to break out. But there were two sides and you knew which side you were on.   It was enough for me to keep quiet about my inadvertent signing up for what was quite distinctly the other side when I got back home to my council house family. They were not particularly political.   As it happened they were rather more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.  But even so actually joining the Tories would have taken a bit of explaining.

But the interesting thing is that although it seemed to be simply part of the landscape back then, even in the seventies the big parties were losing their place in society. The million or so Tories were well down in numbers compared to the three million they had had in the fifties. The Labour Party was losing members even more quickly. Both institutions tried to hide the fact, but the reality was that people simply had better things to do. Television was taking up more of people’s leisure time. There was more money around so people had more options for their free time. And as the deference of earlier times broke down, criticism of politicians became a mainstream topic. Being a politician became less an honourable expression of public service and more something to be ashamed of.

The decline in participation in politics continued. The Tories were more discrete about how many cards they had issued so it is hard to put figures on it. But for Labour the membership numbers were always going down. The so called takeover by the left in the eighties was largely due to the left staying in the party while others drifted off to the centre parties, single issue pressure groups and simply watching it all on Newsnight instead of leaving the house to actually participate. In the famously ill fated 1983 election party membership was around 330,000 for Labour. The Tories claimed at the time not to have a central list. But I was following politics very closely at the time, and based on how many party workers they seemed to have available and how many council candidates they were able to find my guess is that had about half as many more as Labour did. So I’d guess they were about half a million.

Both parties were clearly steadily losing members.

There were a few blips along the way. The membership of the Labour Party increased a lot with the advent of Tony Blair. New Labour was able to refresh the parts other leadership teams couldn’t reach. In fact it got over 400,000 for a while. But it began to fall again as the novelty wore off. I would be surprised if the Conservatives didn’t pick up members during the Blair government. We’ll never know, but Ian Duncan Smith was the first Conservative leader picked by a vote of the members, and there were around 250,000 votes cast in that election. Four years later when David Cameron was selected in 2005 only 190,00 votes were cast.

Things were much the same in the Labour camp. The Blair euphoria settled down to leave a party with around 200,000 members by the time the party lost its majority in 2010. The partisans for the two sides would no doubt find a way of showing that their team was doing better than the other. The two parties are very different in their organisations and history, so you can’t really directly compare them. But they both shared the same long term loss of their grass roots. And both responded in the same way by relying more heavily on external donations rather than subscriptions. The annual party conferences ceased to be forums for debate and began to become photo opportunities. They were both becoming shells in effect.

And this is perhaps not something the party leaders find too disconcerting. And I can sort of sympathise. Given a choice, if I had a big project to do I’d rather be given a cheque to hire some help than a bunch of volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic they might be. And it must be a lot easier keeping donors happy than political activists. Labour surprisingly for a long time seemed to thrive in this environment. They still managed to keep their traditional voters onside and while they didn’t get quite as much cash as the Conservatives they generally had a better product to sell. They stood for the common people, were socially liberal and above all were still seen as the best party to look after the National Health Service.

But in a long run war of attrition the side with the most resources usually comes out on top. The Tories had the support of the press and plenty of money. They could hire more and better support, and eventually, just, made the breakthrough in 2015. Interestingly they managed to do particularly well just where they needed to. They not only had more cash, they knew where they wanted to spend it and how to make it work. Interestingly, their progress was entirely invisible to national pollsters. This can’t possibly have been part of the plan, but it had the effect of concentrating everyone’s attention on the possible outcomes of a hung parliament. This helped avoid some scrutiny that might have made their task a bit tougher.

Watching the last election from my home in one of the safest Tory seats in the country I was fascinated. I saw nothing. No canvassing from the main parties. No public meetings. The only political activity of any kind was UKIP turning up and handing out leaflets in the high street. I was half tempted to vote for them to reward them for their effort. I might as well have – in a safe seat my vote counted for nothing whatever. And the parties made this brutally clear by concentrating their efforts elsewhere.

So that seemed to be that. Political parties had moved on from their origins. The general election was proof positive that the era of mass parties was over. Politics had moved on to another stage. I was feeling nostalgic for the old days when I heard that there was a left wing candidate in the Labour leadership election. In fact it was Jeremy Corbyn, who I remembered from the eighties and was quite surprised to discover he was still around. He would of course be humiliated. I still consider myself a socialist, so I was quite sympathetic. I imagined that he would be the last socialist on the national stage, and that he would inevitably be slaughtered by the media. Or maybe he would be treated with condescension. That seemed worse somehow. I toyed with the idea of signing up to vote for him, but it seemed futile. I didn’t retain enough residual loyalty to Labour to actually vote for them anymore. But voting for their embarrassing rebel would be positively mucking up their carefully constructed marketing pitch. I was still well enough disposed towards them to not want to positively hinder them.

Well I was wrong.

Far from struggling to even be heard Corbyn managed to seize the agenda from an early stage. The strategy was simple and straightforward. He got out and started addressing meetings. People started to listen. Before long he was packing out halls up and down the country. The other candidates began to imitate his approach – I suspect that they had been planning a television studio campaign. And who could blame them. The days of mass parties are over and you win by being media friendly and avoiding gaffs. Avoid saying anything too specific that can be turned into a stick to beat you with, and you are home.

It ought to have worked, and if nobody had been doing anything differently it probably would have worked. But then the most mysterious bit of the whole process began to become apparent. Labour was still a shell compared to its size in the fifties, or even the seventies. But membership started to increase significantly. A new category of Labour supporter had recently been introduced which enabled people to sign up for just £3 – but full membership was proving pretty popular too. By the end of the registration period Trade Union affiliates, registered supporters and full members amounted to somewhere in the region of half a million. (There was some double counting of people who were in more than one category, so the real figure was a bit less than the headline figure.)

As the whole world now knows, Corbyn easily won. The final result was only an anticlimax with respect to the result being quite close to the one poll that tried to predict the outcome. But the fact was that a marginalised left winger had achieved the impossible and won the leadership of the party. But in many ways the remarkable fact was not the result but the manner in which it was achieved. Corbyn boasted of having held 100 meetings during the campaign. To have scheduled and spoken to so many was quite a feat of organisation and stamina, not too mention something of a strain on Mr Corbyn’s credit card given that he generally used public transport. But to have got so many people out to listen is a bigger achievement still, and one that really is without precedent.

So what happens next? The reinvention of Labour as a mass party opens up all kinds of possibilities that would have seemed crazy just three months ago. To be sure, the size of the new party is still not overwhelming. It is still behind the SNP in terms of proportion of the available electorate. And while I suspect the Labour party’s activists are going to be more active than those of other parties, they are still only slightly ahead in numbers of all the other parties put together. Reports are that recruitment is continuing to be strong, but it is not impossible that the bubble will deflate as quickly as it inflated. If so the Labour Party will be worse off than if the whole thing had never happened, saddled with a leader whose support has wandered off elsewhere.

But what if this is the start of a long term revival of mass politics? If so, the next election might see a contest of PR against people. Particularly if in the long years ahead the Conservatives fail to inspire many new members and continue their long term downward trend. A party with millions of pounds to spend but only a handful of actual paid up members sounds like a campaign managers dream in some ways. I don’t doubt that some Labour Party members will find ways of embarrassing their team. And it will be a hard army to concentrate on marginal seats no matter how committed it is. But even its failings will probably emphasise that this is a real campaign and not a set of photo opportunities. I’d be far from confident that 2020 was a shoe in if I was working at the Conservatives’ central headquarters.

Who knows how it will all turn out? Not me for sure. But it is cowardly to avoid making a prediction, so although a big part of me wants to see people power triumph, I have a feeling that the euphoria will not last. Politics is a long hard slog with many setbacks along the way. Corbynmania has turned up in some surprising places and obviously draws support from people nobody would have expected it to. But I don’t think it is up to winning a shock by-election from the Conservatives the way the Liberal Democrats used to be able to yet. Even if it could, it is worth remembering just how little came of all those record breaking triumphs once the dust had settled. And there are many distractions that can pull the idealists away from the fight. In five years time it may well be that we can no longer think ourselves back to what all the fuss was about. But I will watch with interest.

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