Sunday, May 20, 2007

On the Future of Political Parties

At a time when the Prime Minister-elect is one of the key architects of the last decade of government, it can be difficult to remember that this should be a time to look to the future. But we have reached a stage of party politics that could define government for a generation or more and it is increasingly vital to reflect on how we got there and what that means for the routes available to us. As ever, the future is rooted in history.

It began with Thatcher. It was whilst in her hands that the Conservative party began to crumble, shattering in a much too strong grip. And it was under her that Labour was confined to the wilderness of opposition for longer than is natural. When Major stepped up as leader it was near miraculous that he held the party together for one more parliament and the reason must lie much more in the weakness of Labour and the Liberal Democrats than the strength of his Conservative party. The fall that began with Thatcher climaxed spectacularly in 1997 with Labour’s crushing victory. The changes made to the machinery of the Labour party before 1997 are now mirrored by the changes that Cameron is making to the public front of his Conservative party.

The changes Blair wrought in the Labour party are probably best crystallised in the unceremonious dumping of Clause Four from the party constitution – the clause that called for the nationalisation of the means of production – and the manner in which the trade unions, broken by Thatcher, were marginalised. These were the institutions, the ideology upon which the Labour party was founded, founded by even, and they were discarded with an unsettling casualness. But eighteen years is a long time to be on the wrong side of the dispatch box and desperation for power began to set in, much as it is doing to the opposition now. As the years of exile to the wilderness of opposition tick by, parties have started to become rasher and rasher. Nothing is sacred; nothing is not worth sacrificing for power. Labour was hardly a socialist party before Blair, but the distance it has moved is remarkable. This is a familiar story and one that needs not to be retold. Suffice to say, nowadays power is held not by Parliament or the Cabinet, but by the press office of Number 10.

Today we can see the opposition struggling to make similar renovations in time for the next election. Again, this can be crystallised in a few acts, but these ones are much more ominous than even the loss of Clause Four. It is Cameron’s new logo that really tells us about his party. Gone is the strong, bold, Conservative-blue fist and heavy, imperious font. Instead, there is a so soft, it’s barely there scribble logo and gentle lowercase letters, in a pastel blue. If the old fist was too reminiscent of “the nasty party”, then the new tree reveals the Conservatives as a party willing to do anything they believe to be popular. What is most insidious, however, is not the logo as such, but what the change was. When Blair wanted to reform Labour, he began with the internal workings – Clause Four. Yes it was a move designed to appeal to voters he might not otherwise reach, but it was at least a policy decision. Cameron on the other hand has missed this first step and is instead rebuilding the public face of the party: everything else seems to follow from that. Policy is whatever pleases at that instant. In opposition perhaps this is a luxury allowed, but it means that there is no clear view of the party when the public comes to the ballot box.

What does this all mean? Where does the future lie? The lesson we are forced to draw from this state of affairs, then, is the danger of two parties that believe not in a theory or philosophy or even a kind of pragmatism, but in power. And they are opposed to nothing but not being in power. The boom and bust of the Conservatives under Thatcher was the beginning and we must be wary not to let it continue or escalate further after Blair. As the electorate we hold the keys to Parliament and Downing Street. We must be prudent in deciding whom to lend them to and for how long.

No comments: