:::: MENU ::::

Swivel eyed loons, party membership and post democracy

commonsSo Tory Andrew Feldman may or may not have said that some of the party’s members are “swivel-eyed loons”. I am not especially bothered whether he said it or not, because as far as I am concerned it is right. And it is not only in the Tory party that this is so – it is the same in any political party, Labour included. Just look at what happened in Labour in the 1980s. I’d defy any reader of this blog who’s been to a number of party meetings in the UK to not come to the same sort of conclusion.

The question is what – if anything – that can be done about it, and to try to explain why party members seem to so often be a bunch of odd-balls.

The starting point for understanding the situation is the shocking predicament of British political parties. Among the 27 countries of the EU, the UK ranks 25th in terms of party political membership by capita. Only Poland and Latvia are lower. The situation for the Conservatives is especially grave, with party membership down to 130,000 (here in para 3, for example). Labour has rebounded a bit and is pushing 200,000 members again as new people join to protest against the coalition’s cuts, but even Labour still stands at half the number of its late 1990s  recent high. But all political parties, all together, number less than 500,000 members, meaning less than 1% of the British population is a member of a political party.

The problem then for the Tories (and indeed Labour and the Lib Dems) is that they are stuck in a Catch 22 situation. Membership is unappealing, becomes less and less appealing, and hence the membership becomes less and less representative of society, and so the swivel-eyed loons quotient increases.

This is exactly what Colin Crouch’s theory of post democracy (summary here, longer (excellent) Fabian paper here) would say – “A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell“. The innovation, the creativity, the political life has gone elsewhere – to NGOs, to campaigning organisations, even to bloggers and online networkers. The networks of networks are more effective and more vibrant that the old and creaking political parties.

Crouch argues that mature democracies are in an inexorable decline, and we have to simply live with post democracy. If the past couple of weeks are anything to go by, it is going to be a painful process.

Photo: "House of Commons Chamber - elevated view" by UK Parliament on July 25, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

6 Comments

  • Max |

    I’m not sure if I’d share your disposition to gauge the soundness of the democracic system on the basis of the level of party membership. Austria and Cyprus appear to be the top scorers there – both countries where you’d better be a party member if you want a job in the public sector or access to lucrative business or anything like that…

  • Jon |

    Max – I think you need something in between. The Austrian case worries me, and is not a model to follow, while I am not keen to draw any lesson from a country of less than 1 million inhabitants. However, conversely, if political parties are too disconnected from society that brings other problems…

  • Martin Keegan |

    Two unrelated points. Every time you mention this “post-democracy” fantasy, it comes across as trying to sneak in the old lie that “the EU isn’t as bad, relative to its member states, as people say it is”. I judge EU democracy by Australian standards and it’s pathetic and people who defend it should be ashamed of themselves.

    The notion of “dignified” and “efficient” constitutional structures goes back at least as far as Bagehot and he probably didn’t come up with the idea himself. That political parties as membership organisations are now a dignified rather than efficient part of the British constitution doesn’t really tell us much about the overall state of the system. The fact that party membership in Austria is hideously high should be a good warning first that there’s a non-linear relationship between party membership and democratic standards, and that maybe something else is going on in Austria that we ought to take into account.

    Oddly enough, Jon admits that Austria is a problem, but can’t quite bring himself to admit what the problem is …

  • Jon |

    I’ve mentioned multiple times on Twitter what the Austria problem is – it’s that you need to be a member of a political party in order to get a job in all sorts of professions. It is no model for anyone to follow. I am also uneasy about trying to draw any conclusions from Cyprus, a country of less than 1 million inhabitants. So if we exclude these two outliers, then look at the other 25, can we learn something?

    And Martin, while you might not like the “post democracy” term, what is your answer as to the role party members could or should play in the democratic system? You say I am wrong, but present no answer yourself.

  • Martin Keegan |

    i don’t see any reason why we necessarily ought to be able to learn anything about party membership per capita in EU states.

    Firstly, we’re not comparing like with like. The parochial little Europeaner focus just on EU states scrambles together a huge diversity of constitutional, electoral and political systems, so there’ll be a bunch of confounding variables, like the one we’ve identified: CardX, the relationship between having a party card and getting a job.

    Party membership numbers can be inflated by branch stacking and membership drives, which can leave minor parties with huge and active memberships for decades (e.g., the Nationals in Australia, who are to the Outback as the CSU is to Bavaria).

    The existence of the party as a membership organisation distinct from a parliamentary grouping is only 150 years old, whereas party politics in many European countries is considerably older (about 400 years in the British Isles). There’s no reason the pendulum cannot swing back again away from “party as membership organisation” to something else.

    I had a long hard look at the “post democracy” stuff; I’m not sure there was a case to answer. It was more like “this is what post democracy would be; here are its characteristics” rather than “here is proof that post-democracy is what is happening now”. It’s not like you engage with the more serious arguments about EU integration and supranationalism; I happen not to feel that “post democracy” has risen above the rebuttal threshold.

So, what do you think ?