The Falkirk affair matters because it is a symptom of a much deeper political malaise – for Labour obviously but for a very old and tired looking party politics in general. Because what is true for Labour is certainly true for the Tories and Liberal Democrats as none of the traditional, mainstream political parties are thriving today.
Labour is in the firing line at the moment but the underlying problem is that an essentially Edwardian institution, the party, is falling apart at the seams. We still need political parties to coordinate and consolidate a programme in and out of government but they need to be radically reinvented whilst they continue to play this role. Real reform will be tough but can’t and mustn’t be impossible. Falkirk displays all the symptoms of what’s going wrong but the causes are structural and deeply cultural.
Political parties have hollowed out in part because there is less they can achieve in a world where power, in the form of corporations and finance, went global and they stayed avowedly national. As their external influence waned they looked to make up the loss through tighter internal control. The economic convergence of parties, who more or less all signed up to a neo-liberal agenda, meant they had to drill their members to accept this new and narrow world and to demonstrate their fitness to govern through their internal discipline. The Green Party and the Party of Wales may be more radical and democratic exceptions but have failed, at least yet, to make an electoral impact that helps break this suffocating mold.
Power for all the mainstream parties has increasingly been located around the leader and their office. The parties have become more and more a machine for the election of an elite to deliver from the top down – a story as true for Labour as the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. In place of the former mass membership parties, politics became an activity for a select, professional elite. And since what mattered was control of the party and therefore the state machine, this became the age of the political fix. Ends justified means. Democracy was just a route to power, never an end in itself.
This command and control model is increasingly out of kilter with the modern world. The end of deference and the rise of new technology that enables instant exchange of information cannot be contained within the arid structures and cultures of parties that have no room and no need for anyone’s voice. The parties impose an identity and expect rigid conformity. Outside in the real world people are busy voting with their feet on the high streets and joining myriad campaigns online. Bottom up political successes like the Living Wage and UK Uncut speak to a politics that is empowering, impactful and often fun.
Labour promises more inquiries and other parties hope the spotlight won’t fall on them but inquiries simply suggest this is all just another technical fault to be fixed by yet more bureaucrats. Whilst an inquiry may tell us if anyone broke the rules it cannot tell us whether a whole political culture is now redundant.
The complexity of the problem demands carefully thought through answers. In future the political parties we need to represent and push for a good society will be light years from the clunky antiquated model we now have. They must be homes for or have strong links to every social class, especially the poorest, while promoting and reflecting gender and race equality. It is going to take time and exploration in order to harness strong values in organisations that are open to new thinking and yes, other parties.
The new culture has to be more open, tolerant, respectful and pluralistic. No single party or organisation has all the answers. Influence and power will come to people and parties who want to reach out, create unlikely alliances and to find answers through negotiation and not imposition.
For all political parties this process is going to demand radical internal democratisation combined with openness to the outside world. State funding would help as, beyond doubt, would voting reform. The days of big strong single party government are over. Our first past the post electoral system failed to deliver single party government in 2010 and will go on failing to do so. After the next election voting reform will move quickly back onto the political agenda. Even the party whipping system must now be scrutinized as a method of control that extinguishes freedom of thought and action.
The nature of political leadership must also be transformed. The idea that a single person can in effect control a party, let alone a nation must now be quietly dropped. There’s an emerging federal system of government emerging in the UK and Westminster needs to catch up with the devolved assemblies and parliaments, in which proportional representation has forced parties to explore a different way of doing politics. Strength today comes from knowing when it is appropriate to lead and when it is necessary to ‘let go,’ trusting others and empowering them to take control of their lives, communities and workplaces. As Aneurin Bevan said ‘The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.’
Compass has been working its way through these issues, seen most notably through the move to open its membership out to anyone who shares our good society values of much greater equality, democracy and sustainability. Recently we have championed the notion of the ‘open tribe’ – in recognition that people may root themselves in a party or a single issue but to be successful they now have to learn to work beyond their tribe with others.
Compass always said a transformed Labour Party was a necessary but insufficient vehicle for a good society. Other countervailing forces beyond a UK parliamentary majority, like the trade unions, grassroots movements and the capacity to work with other parties would also be needed. But the transformation of Labour cannot now come soon enough. Labour has to show in opposition how it would govern in office. It must help show that democracy is not a means to an end but is an end in itself. It must show that democracy is not just something to fight for but fight with. As other people sharpen this fight for democracy in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt – where are Labour’s squares of protest and how can the party transform itself, to help transform the political culture of a nation?