Friday, 27 June 2008

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper (IV)

So far I have tried to demonstrate that
  • Political parties have no special constitutional role; inside parliament they perform a useful function of 'grouping' MPs, but this is not an 'indispensible' role and other mechanisms have been used in the past and are possible now
  • Mass-membership national parties were a phenomenon that flourished during two or three decades of the last century and have been in decay since
  • Changes in particular since 1979 that have increasingly centralised legal and administrative control in government have been paralleled by changes in party management that have marginalised the role of local party organisations and have accelerated the loss of local political engagement
  • Party expenditure overall has not grown significantly above inflation since the 1960s, but there has been a massive shift in spending from local to central
  • As a result of these changes local political activity has atrophied and memberships are in freefall. State funding has already been substituted to the extent of £1.75bn over the parliamentary election cycle (Pinto-Duschinsky)
Cui bono?
One of the most telling facts revealed by P-D is that the number of Party workers employed by the State - as political assistants and the like - dwarf the numbers employed privately by the parties; 1,000 full time equivalent workers employed by the parties (at HQ and paid agents and the like) to 13,000 full time equivalent party workers paid for by the State - i.e. by you and me. Given that 98.6% of the electorate are not members of one of the three main parties, you may feel they are right to be aggrieved at not being consulted on this.

And this brings us to the question of who benefits from all this? Not electors, for sure; 16m electors have deserted the polls, not, as politicians would believe, from apathy but largely from disgust. The Power Commission's research has comprehensively exposed the myth of 'apathy'.

Pinto-Duschinsky comments:
It doesn’t take very much for political leaders, parliamentarians and local politicians to convince themselves that it is a matter of the public interest that they should receive more money from the taxpayer. Whether it comes in the form of improved salaries, benefits, allowances or subsidies for their party organisations, the basic demand is for more.
And this has given rise to what Peter Oborne has called in the eponymous title to his book 'The Triumph of the Political Class'. He writes:
This new Political Class has emerged over the past three decades to become the dominant force in British public life - and increasingly pursues its own sectional interests oblivious to the public good. It encompasses lobbyists, party functionaries, advisers and spindoctors, many journalists, and increasing numbers of once independent civil servants. All mainstream politicians of the three main parties belong to it. Gordon Brown is a member, so is the Tory leader David Cameron.

The Political Class is metropolitan and London-based. Its members perceive life through the eyes of a member of London's affluent middle classes. This converts them into a separate, privileged elite, isolated from the aspirations and the problems of provincial, rural and suburban Britain.
And here is the nub. We have almost lost a national grass-roots politically engaged electorate for whom politics and political activity is just a part of their normal lives and work to a cabal of those who pronounce smugly that 'politics is a career' and 'politics is a profession', and who look to the taxpayer to fund their introverted but aspirational lives.

Oborne also comments:
MPs from different parties now have far more in common with each other, as members of the Political Class, than they have with voters. They seek to protect one another, help each other out, rather than engage in robust democratic debate.

As a result, the House of Commons is no longer really a cockpit where great conflicts of vision are fought out across the chamber. It has converted instead into a professional group, like the Bar Council or the British Medical Association.

To be continued