What has become received wisdom is that modern politics in the West is too removed from people and their every day concerns. That parties have become too remote. While there is truth in this, the solutions all parties have taken on board to combat this problem have been the wrong ones in reaction to this issue and have even made things worse. While all parties have made the mistake I am about to lay out, the parties of the Right have done it way less and it has directly benefited them at the ballot box.
The way parties have tried to reach out is by giving their members more say in everything from policy to who is the leader of the party. This is a massive error for several reasons. One is that being a member of a political party is a very niche thing these days, which means that the concerns of the membership are going to inevitably be removed from most people’s mainstream worries. In other words, the parties have taken power away from what is perceived to be an out of touch elite and given it to a group of people who are even more removed from most voters’ lives. Instead of the outreach helping the parties to be more grounded, they have moved even further away from the electorate.
You can see it clearly in the Labour leadership contest. Where once upon a time, not all that long ago, a Labour leadership candidate had to appeal to the membership, the unions and the PLP at the same time, now the membership is the whole electorate. And the candidates are scared of the membership. Really scared. All of the candidates are. Everyone is giving RLB a hard time for accepting questions that were framed in an anti-semitic way, yet I do understand to some extent why she did. When the membership have as much power as they do in the Labour Party, taking on the nut jobs is incredibly risky.
The worst thing is, this increased power of the membership results in bad policies being trotted out that the MPs arguing for them know are bad policies. It means everyone is putting the membership on, for a start, and also that policies are worse than they would otherwise be. If this was a think tank, fine, but it’s the official opposition – they are creating policy ideas that might be what the next government puts into action. That members are making it worse is a big problem.
The Conservatives have been able to change their spots and keep winning so much over the last decade in large part because their accountability to the membership is so weak. They didn’t have to fear the membership when making large scale directional changes recently, going from a party dedicated to economic conservatism to one that, as the prime minister might say, spaffs money up the wall. Being less accountable to their membership made the Tories closer to the whims of the electorate.
So, what’s the solution? I think parties of the left just need more balance when it comes to the power of their memberships. For instance, the left of the Labour Party wants the members to have more power in terms of deselecting sitting MPs? Fine – but in return, it has to go back to the way things were pre-83 and the PLP has to have 100% of the vote in terms of selecting the leader of the party. That way the PLP will always be happy with the leader – and you’ll never get the ridiculous situation you had in 2016, where 80% of the PLP voted no confidence in the leader and he carried on anyhow. The trade off is the membership has more of a say in who the MPs are int he first place.
As for the Lib Dems, keep the membership as the electorate for the leadership contests but allow the parliamentary party full say on policy. The way the membership micromanages policy within the Lib Dems is dysfunctional and results in either wacky policy or lukewarm policy. This would streamline the party and make it exponentially more efficient.
The Tories basically have the balance right – which, again, is a notable part of the reason they keep winning elections.
As usual, Nick totally misunderstands the Lib Dem party. While Party members can and do make policy at Party Conference, in practice they are very deferential (in my opinion, too deferential) to the Party Leadership. Anyone who has attended Lib Dem Conferences will be able to remember many occasions on which the Party Leadership has wheeled out one of the Party Grandees (often a Peer) to argue that Conference should not push through a policy position, but instead refer it back for reconsideration by the FPC or be amended to allow the Parliamentary Party more flexibility.
Also, the Party Leadership has absolute control over which Party policies end up in the election manifesto; many of the more radical policies that Party members have voted through never reach the manifesto.
So what would happen if all party policy came from the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party? There are 11 Lib Dem MPs and 93 Lib Dem peers (excluding Lord Steel); even including the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only add a further 6 elected representatives. Effectively, all Lib Dem policy would be made by unelected representatives, whom the members would have no power over. When the Party in the Lords can depose a Party Leader (Tim Farron) without any reference to the membership, one has be reminded of Stanley Baldwin’s quotation about ‘power without responsibility’.
Does that — if the party leadership really are acting as an effective brake on the wackier idea of the membership getting made policy or, if they are policy, getting into the manifesto —not just prove the point, though, that the members having even the power they do is a terrible mistake, given the extreme wackiness of some of the policies that have made it through?
I’ve seen it given as a reason to join the Liberal Democrats that’s because of the democratic policy-making process, anyone can propose an idea and, if they can argue it well enough, get it adopted as party policy. Well that’s fine if what you want is to join a debating society and play a big game of Nomic, but it’s a terrible way to run a political party that apes to become the government.
I don’t think that us aping the Tories and not allowing the members any input in policy as you suggest is likely to encourage anyone to join the Lib Dems. Without new members the Party will quickly cease to exist. Ben Rich, Chief Executive of the Radix think tank indeed argues that the Party structure makes real policy innovations impossible and that the only way of achieving these is through the undemocratic form of a think tank.
But then he would say that, wouldn’t he.