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Friday, 29 May 2009

Now for the parties

I've lost count of the number of times over the past three years on this blog that I've seen this political reform coming; something as momentous as the reforms of the 1820s and 30s, I've said. But I never imagined that an expenses scandal would precipitate it. But let's not imagine that big bang Localism alone - again constantly advocated here - will be the end of it.

Attention will now start to shift to the state of the parties. With an electorate in the UK of 45m, the combined membership of the three main parties barely exceeds 450,000, or 1% of the electorate. The Conservatives alone lost over a million members from 1979 to 1997. The current sleaze scandal will see more members lost by all parties, but perhaps more from Labour than the others.

For local
government elections in May 2010, it's doubtful that the main parties will have sufficient willing members to stand candidates in every ward being contended; this is already the case right now, and will get worse. Local papers are already doing a series of mini-Telegraphs on their local councils' expenses. Yet with the planned return of power to localities, the job of local councillor will become more important than ever. And with the freedom to ditch the discredited Cabinet system imposed by the 2000 Local Government Act, councillors are set to exercise more real power across the board rather than just a favoured ten in each authority.

These factors, I think, will lead to a real reform of the party system from the grassroots up,
rather than from the top down.

The Catholic church (Roman and Anglican both) has been so successful because it has allowed local cultural traditions to survive in a broad interpretation of doctrine; voodoo, animism, pantheism have all been absorbed into local Catholic ritual - even in this country, where we now imagine that the Celtic paganism that lies behind our religious orthodoxy arrived with the founding Saints, rather than awaiting them here.

The need for political groupings on local councils will not disappear; a council chamber full of unaligned independents cannot govern effectively. That's not to say that Labour, the
Conservatives or the Lib Dems have any a priori claim to this, but that a broad umbrella political grouping could shelter and support a number of councillors who are not necessarily party members. A Tory majority group in mid-Suffolk could be as different from a Tory majority group in Eccles as a Catholic mass in Guatamala is from one in Cameroon.

So what will become of the big, central, Statist parties with their hunger for vast sums of cash?
Given that the public mood has now turned unequivocally away from any suggestion of State funding, that will be the $64,000 question.


Nick Drew said...

Can't be sure they won't award themselves state monies anyway - there are backdoor ways of doing this: but if they don't, the parties will be on sale to the highest bidder.

Unite, by all accounts, has fairly much bought Labour; and Ashcroft's bounty talks very loudly amongst Tories in key marginals.

We've had this discussion before, R: if there's to be a random, hasty wave of decentralisation, with money being disbursed in large dollops, I'm ever more concerned about corruption.

(I saw a proposal that individual MPs should have control of local Social Services budgets - can you imagine the outcome of that ?!)

Raedwald said...

I accept what you say Nick - but would give the effects a different spin.

Will a powerless, decentralised party be worth buying? Sure, local associations can be 'bought' but if influential they have a habit of not staying bought, with dynamic local memberships and a degree of churn that unseats incumbent interests. And a shift from central to local will make CCHQ increasingly valueless - back to the early 70s, maybe.

And yes, there will be widespread local corruption to start with, and you and I can both predict the councils and the wards 'most likely to'. Remember those contrasting pics of sections of the same street that runs through both Wandsworth and Lambeth? I think transparency and communication will drive corruption out - eventually. Self-interest will win out over tribal loyalty. I reckon the game's worth the candle.

Guthrum said...


Stop giving Government large amounts of cash !

We have to stop thinking about reform of Government just by tinkering around the edges on expenses. Depriving citizens of their money before it reaches their bank accounts, and making companies large and small to act as unpaid tax collectors, under the thumb of local hirelings of the HMRC.

If everybody had to write out a cheque every year for their contribution to the exchequer they would start asking question as to where the money is going.

With the current financing arrangements left in place, the corruption will go on and Reform impossible

Pete said...

'With an electorate in the UK of 45m, the combined membership of the three main parties barely exceeds 450,000, or 1% of the electorate.'

Where can we find membership numbers, please?

Raedwald said...

Pete -

From various sources - email me if you want more details. I'm pretty sure they're about right.