The Activists, Members, Supporters, Voters, Us Disconnect
There is an interesting comment on Labour List about the Leadership Election that concludes:
Broadly, then, CLPs [Constituency Labour Parties] nominating left wing candidates have a history of not voting for them.
Labour List 17 July 2015 : What do CLP nominations actually tell us about the final results?
To a degree this is unsurprising, but what conclusions should party members (of all parties) draw from this observation?
Jeremy Corbyn has caused a stir by taking the lead in the Constituency Labour Party nomination race – with 57 CLPs backing him, he has the most support. But it’s unclear how good a guide CLP nominations actually are. Does this really mean that Corbyn is in the lead with Labour Party members? Or are the types of people who go to the meetings unrepresentative of the wider membership?
“Are the types of people who go to the meetings (i.e. activists) unrepresentative of the wider membership?” Duh, yes!
Likewise people who join political parties are unrepresentative of the parties’ wider support – and of those who may go so far as to vote for them.
And people who vote for a particular party are not exactly representative of the general public!
This applies just as much to the other parties.
The question is “how much should the activists ‘trim’ their views to come in line with those who might vote for them?”
This comes back to the late Tony Benn’s challenge as to whether you are a political signpost pointing the way forward, or a political weather-vane swinging in the wind of perceived public opinion.
The purist in me wants our political parties to be signposts – which would imply many more parties. Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall would not belong in the same party. For ease of use let’s label them “Socialist” and “Social Democrat” (and hope such a label is not a kiss of death to Liz Kendall).
Why shouldn’t the electorate be presented with a “Socialist choice” and a “Social Democrat choice” – and possibly a choice that is a more Hattersleyite “Democratic Socialist” (even though I do not like that label – implying that Socialists are by default undemocratic)?
(Likewise you can split the other old parties into their constituent signpost parties.)
Pragmatically we have to recognise that under First Past the Post, votes would be split as parties cannibalised the support of parties that are politically their near neighbours.
So each of the old parties periodically goes through a process of weather-vaning as they adjust their internal coalitions in the vain hope that they might increase their appeal to the electorate. Almost inevitably this means “moving to the centre” and giving up that which is most distinctive (and therefore most likely to frighten a proportion of the electorate).
This then sets up a tension between the more purist “activists” (be they Socialists, Democratic Socialists or Social Democrat) and those who “support” the party with varying degrees of tepidness.
Support is tepid because currently political parties are uninspiring. We have seen senior members of both Labour and the Liberal parties criticise their party’s general election campaigns – but is that really a surprise?
The country is not politically homogeneous, but it is helpful – some would say essential – that a government has a core of “common cause”. But where do you forge that common cause?
China and North Korea are quite clear that this should be done entirely within “the party” – therefore relieving the electorate of even having to choose between parties.
Our political system is a bit less patronising; it believes that choices should be boiled down by a small number of political parties to a choice between three of four political fudges.
Why not allow the public to have a real choice between genuinely different political stances and elect a parliament that is – for once – representative of the people? From that parliament can emerge a Government (almost certainly a coalition – based on respect for the views of the people) which is cognisant of the views of the parliament and held to account by that representative body?
If we had a vibrant political eco-system of differing parties we might find a greater degree of political involvement.
Voters would feel they had a genuine choice and (with an appropriate electoral system) that that their votes made a difference. They may even feel a bit more than “just tepid” in their support of political parties and join! Membership of more narrowly defined political parties might be higher and might also be more stable because they would be concentrating on making a case (that they whole-heartedly believed in) to the electorate rather than indulging in periodic navel gazing as they tried to realign their internal coalitions.
Paradoxically the need to form coalitions and to govern together may also ensure that political campaigning is more principled and less rabid as they concentrate on promoting their ideas rather than attacking their possible future coalition partners.
But it’s all a dream – our political lords and masters would never allow us peasants anywhere near a system that took power from them and gave it to us.