I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about the role that membership of a political party plays in the democratic process. I found that this article by Andrew Rawnsley from last month helped me to crystallise my thinking, as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does:
Here Rawnsley is astute in recognising that the underlying cause of many recent political events is the slow dying of the political party as an institution. A decline in membership that makes belonging to a political party a very abnormal thing indeed and how that has disturbing consequences for our political system. He recognises that the usual answer to this problem isn’t working;
“From time to time, usually in the wake of being embarrassed by a favours-for-donations scandal, party leaders talk about funding reform and make noises about rebuilding mass memberships. Sometimes they even make a bit of an effort to try to do it. They find it is difficult, give up and then collapse back into the arms of big money.”
Yet, he is less astute in finding a better answer;
“So the only way to go will be for all of them to try to reinvent themselves as mass-membership organisations. I don’t say it would cure every malady that currently afflicts politics. I can’t even tell you whether it is really possible. I am certain it is essential to try.”
I believe a return to mass membership political parties is an impossible task. Changes to the social and economic relationships within society make it impractical. Changes in our culture makes the idea itself, to most non-political people, seem weird. So to continue trying to do the impossible is not an approach that is going to get us anywhere. We need to do something different.
The question is what? Greater state funding will be part of the answer but it cannot, and for obvious reasons will not, be the whole answer. So other, perhaps more innovative, approaches will be needed. Finding these will be a key challenge for political reformers over the coming years.
It will also be a difficult and painful challenge for political parties, those most institutionally conservative of organisations, to face up to.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.