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Political Parties: What are they good for?

Are politicians just barometers of public opinion? Or do we deserve more than that?

Are politicians just barometers of public opinion? Or do we deserve more than that?

There will be ‘blood on the carpet’ within the Labour movement following the 2015 General Election result. This is truly a low point. From where they stand now it seems a long way back. How can they reverse their current fortunes?

My fear is that there will be voices within the movement arguing that the Party should move further to the right in order to win back the support of the electorate. There are already stories appearing in the press of Ed’s brother and ‘New Labour’ acolyte David Milliband returning to rescue the party. Shifting to the right would be a mistake in my view.

In a my last post I argued that Labour failed to oust the coalition because they simply weren’t a radical alternative.  In my view this led to them losing their traditional base, while at the same time failing to inspire either the ‘floating voters’ or the abstainers to get behind them.

In addition when faced with a choice between Tories or Tory Light the rest chose to go with the original version. After all who could be better at being a Conservative than, well a Conservative. Labours job is to persuade those voters there’s a different and better way; it’s not to suggest they can out-Tory the Tories.

The counter argument suggests that times have changed. It states that the electorate prefers moderate centre-right politicians. Proponents of this outlook would point to the success of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. When ‘Old Labour’ was all left wing they lost elections.

Of course this ignores the context. In 1997 the country was emerging from 17 years of Tory rule. The nation was deeply divided and the sense of social injustice and inequality was palpable. Labour’s election theme “Things can only get better” was very apt. They certainly couldn’t have got any worse.

I don’t believe the election of Blair in the 90’s was a conscious  endorsement of ‘New Labour’. It was a vote for change and optimism.

I wouldn’t hold ‘Old Labour’ up as a perfect model either. Although they did offer a manifesto that was radically different from the political right, they remained tied to and limited by their adherence to the prevailing political order. ‘Old Labour’ failed to deal with the inherent instability of the free market economy and they also seemed happy to operate within the current political system.

People like Tony Benn, Michael Foot and others argued for electoral reform, such as the abolition of the House of Lords. They also supported economic reform, championing Clause 4 of the Party constitution, which had existed since 1918, but they didn’t implement any of that while in office.

'Old Labour' Tony Benn and Michael Foot

‘Old Labour’ Tony Benn and Michael Foot

Clause 4:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This is a profound alternative to Conservative free market ideology and one I find truly inspirational. It is the very expression of social justice, fairness and speaks of a system that is truly democratic. Imagine a society where all of industry is owned and controlled by all of us and one in which we all share in the full fruits of our labours. This is the same ethos that led to the creation of  a National Health Service in 1945. An idea that remains hugely popular today.

The current Party still talks of a society where wealth and power are in the hands of the many, instead of the few. Capitalism has never been able to achieve this anywhere. By removing the section that refers to  common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, they will be unable to deliver on this.

Are these ideas outdated? Will the electorate buy into a philosophy of socialist planning over free market principles? That was largely the justification within the movement for ditching ‘clause 4’. Essentially we were told Socialism isn’t popular any more. People are too individualistic, upwardly mobile and selfish to vote for these old fashioned ideas. Even if that’s true, what does this say about the role of a political party?

Clearly in a true democracy the electorate is king. What ‘New Labour’ seemed to be saying was, let’s develop policies that we know the electorate are in favour of. In this sense they became mere barometers, reflecting the changing whims and desires of the population as a whole.

In this interpretation of a political parties role, those who produce a manifesto that most closely matches the electorates hopes and dreams wins. Simple really. In fact you could argue ‘why have different political parties at all? Why not just have one party that governs by focus group and opinion polls?’

In reality we are scarily close to this vision today. Most of the main stream parties use such forms of engagement to test out the popularity of their manifesto pledges. In my opinion this has more to do with winning a popularity contest that actually putting forward ideas and debating the issues.

My view is different. I believe the electorate still call the shots. However, rather than seek power for power’s sake, the role of the party is to articulate a vision it genuinely believes in and aims to implement. They’re job then, is to then go out and convince the electorate of that vision. If they fail to do so, then so be it. This is at least an honest and noble position. However, if you succeed then you find yourself in a position to make the changes that you truly believe in.

For me if we lose those politicians who have genuine conviction and are prepared to risk unpopularity to say what they really mean then democracy is lost. Where will the true innovation come from if our elected leaders continue to trot out the tried and tested sound-bites? If they’re honest about their beliefs then we can make a truly informed choice. We can debate their ideas and in that process society can move forward, rather than being locked in the same sterile status-quo forever.

We live in an age where the majority are deeply cynical about the motives of politicians. Most people believe that those standing for election will promise them the earth, only to renege on those pledges as soon as they get into office. This is for the most part fair. However, we should accept that sometimes elected official have to make decisions based on rapidly changing circumstances, sometimes out of their direct control.

This is why we need to know what their principles and values are. If they are honest about what drives them and what their ultimate vision is, then we are better able to predict how they will respond to the chaos of the world. In my view if Labour is to climb back into office, then it needs to clearly articulate those principles set out in Clause 4. Fear of failure or playing it safe will only lead to another defeat.

People have had enough of the same old message. This is why 40% don’t even turn up on election day. What a difference they would have made if Labour could have inspired them to vote.

The next leader of the Labour Party needs to set out a clear vision based on the guiding principles of the movement, inspire new recruits to the cause and then go out and convince the electorate that it is right for the country as a whole. What if it doesn’t work? So be it. Why would you go into politics to campaign for someone else’s ideas anyway?


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