This is the sort of blog post that can lose you 200 Twitter followers at a stroke but what the hell.
Politics is a profession prone to humbug and those stripy mints rarely come thicker or faster than when public debate turns to party activists. No politician ever damaged their career by talking of their deep affection for their grassroots and, as we have seen over the last few days, any suggestion that the love does not run deep can cause turmoil.
An assumption behind much of the long-running tension between party leaderships and local activists is the notion that when political generals ignore their troops, democracy has somehow been undermined. This assumption needs to be challenged.
Democracy, of course, is primarily about the relationship between government and the citizens of a nation based on accountability and responsiveness. There are many good arguments for why political parties strengthen this relationship but the claim that local activists act as a transmission belt between the voters and government in between elections is surely false. Indeed, they often get in the way of a proper conversation. I think there are three key reasons why:
- Party activists believe they are more in touch with public opinion than their leaders (or anyone else for that matter) because they speak to ‘ordinary people on the doorstep’. Indeed this claim is used regularly to influence debate within parties. It is nonsense, of course, as any professional pollster will tell you. The party activist’s ‘sample’ is about as far from random as you can get and the views of that sample are never understood nor presented in an unbiased fashion. This is why the Chairs of local Conservative Associations, for example, can convince themselves that there is a wave of hostility to same sex marriage out there which will lose the Tories the next election. Many local Labour activists seem to have come to similar conclusions about the Government’s welfare policies.
- The wider public have not shown any great desire to engage with local political parties for a long time now. Membership figures have fallen consistently over the last forty years. As the Power Inquiry reported (I was its Research Director), people have a strong dislike for political parties both as a concept and in practice and generally feel highly alienated from them.
- Securing a position of power within a local party elite is not at all reliant on one’s strong link with local communities or even voters but is usually the result of simply being bothered to get involved and/or the capacity to impress other members of the elite.
Many will see those points as an argument against democratic engagement. In fact it is the opposite. When party leaders engage closely with their grassroots, it is a dialogue between two very well entrenched elites. Democracy best flourishes, in my view, when leaders have the culture, tools and incentives to have meaningful conversations with the millions of people who are not part of an established political elite.
There are some moves in this direction with national and local politicians making wider use of social media and some MPs and Councillors (as Joe pointed out) ‘embedding’ themselves deeply in their communities. Efforts are also being made in the Labour Party to forge closer links between activists and local communities although I do share the scepticism about how realistic this is.
If we really want to deepen democracy then learning from and developing these initiatives will serve our purposes far better than letting activists set the terms of national debates and policies.