'Political parties are integral to our democratic system' begins Jack Straw's introduction to his white paper, 'They make parliamentary government possible'. Now before all those of you who know anything about British history leap to point out that we've had a parliament in some form or another for around 800 years but that political parties as we know them today have been around for less than a century, and before we demolish the patent absurdity that parliamentary government is impossible without political parties, let's wander through the document and find the evidence that Straw offers to support this extraordinary claim.
'In Britain, as in all mature democracies, political parties are an indispensable feature of the electoral process'
Not wholly true. Certainly, they have been central in the UK since 1945; at the height of political tribalism in the 1950s the Tory party had some 2m members and Labour around 1m. Before the days of mass media, before mass circulation newspapers and radio and cinema, before the Great War, our political preferences for a parliamentary candidate were shaped more by our memberships of local intermediate institutions and local factors. With universal suffrage grew a national consciousness over single issues to which the three parties allied themselves on one side or the other. A true statement would be 'From 1945, political parties have been a central feature of the electoral process'. No evidence that they are 'indispensable' is offered at all.
'Parties offer the electorate the opportunity to decide between competing visions of Britain's future and alternative teams of political leaders to realise those visions'
Again, not wholly true. When parties were ideologically divided the first part was the case; now they are crowded on the ideological consensus centre ground this no longer really applies. The differences are of style not ideological substance. As for the second part, Straw knows as well as anyone that we don't vote for a Prime Minister in the UK - we vote for a local MP. The sovereign invites whoever she thinks can command a majority in the Commons to form a government. And that's how it should be. To attempt to institutionalise a 'presidential' system in the UK by institutionalising the role of the current extant parties is fundamentally to undermine our system of parliamentary democracy.
'(Parties) also provide the vital link between the electorate and Parliament and a clear means of ensuring political accountability'
This is wholly untrue and is patent nonsense. Our MP is our 'vital link' with Parliament. He or she is the one we hold accountable. We don't write to the chair of the local Labour party when we have a problem. The local Labour party, and the national Labour party (and the Tories too) are wholly unaccountable; they are private clubs with no public accountability whatsoever.
And on these three flimsiest of premises the white paper sets out a pernicious proposal to establish the incumbent parties as 'State' parties. No evidence is offered. No alternatives are allowed. No options are considered. Indeed, the white paper itself contradicts these risible claims for the eternal and immutable necessity of national parties just a couple of pages later;
'The 1983 legislation did not, however, recognise the much larger role that the national political parties had come to play in parliamentary elections. Election spending was no longer concentrated at a local level as it had been from the 1880s through to the early 1950s.'
Ah, I see. So the white paper is really just attempting to prolong a brief phase in British politics that flourished in the 60s and 70s, declined in the 80s and 90s and is now in its death throes in the oughties. At last a hint of honesty from Straw.
To be continued