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.