Thursday, 22 November 2012

In defence of political parties

Last week's mayoralty and Police Commissioner elections across England and Wales were, above all, a kick in the teeth for political parties. Voters turned out in part to stop Labour winning the Labour mayoralty, and elected an Independent Mayor; elsewhere, political parties who thought that PCC posts were theirs for the taking got fingers poked in their eyes. The Conservatives managed to lose in Surrey, for instance.

Voters aren't happy with the established political parties. That's the bottom line.

But they might regret taking the plunge for the alternative, if they dare. What was it that Benjamin Disraeli (above), that great nineteenth-century Conservative Prime Minister, said about political parties? Ah yes, this is it: 'Things must be done by parties, not by persons using parties as tools'.

And why? They keep politics clean - because it's hard to effect a widespread takeover of a truly vibrant movement (not that our political parties are all that vibrant, but still). When Militant leftists tried to hijack the Labour Party in the early 1980s, they eventually got booted out - after a very bloddy battle. They have a record you can check up on, and that voters often hold dear - making sure they gave John Major's Conservatives a drubbing four and a half years after that Prime Minister's humiliating devaluation of sterling. They hold their leaders to programmes - most of the time. They connect council chambers and Cabinet rooms to the politics of the neighbourhood. They represent the great currents of opinion. Ask yourself: are British voters' choices really as cramped as they appear? From Respect on the left to UKIP and then the BNP on the right, via the Socialist Labour Party, the Greens, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and a slew of English, Welsh and Scottish Democrats, your correspondent can see plenty of choice.

The effects of this are not all that far to see. Britain is pretty well governed: quite clean; quite efficient; quite disinterested in parts. Certainly when compared to many other European countries. Voters real incomes soared between the 1950s and the 2000s, with a couple of breaks inbetween - though they have sunk and then stagnated since 2007 and the onset of the Great Recession. 

Political parties have been one key reason for this success and sense of continuity. From the Conservatives adapting to Free Trade in the 1840s, to a modern and democratic electrorate in the 1860s and under Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s, and to cultural modernisation since the 1960s, to Labour adapting to 'aspiration' and individualism in the 1990s, they may be protean, chameleon and capable of rapid change - but they carry over their earlier memories and values into those new settings.

'Independence'? I'm yet to be convinced.