Willie Sullivan: Parties must evolve to meet new challenges
SOME of us – but probably not many – might have caught a glimpse of the UK party conferences on TV over the past few weeks. Speeches were made, fringes were held and copious amounts of canapés and wine were consumed.
These are the people who govern or seek to govern us. At one time they represented the big class divide in British society. They were tribes most of us could identify with. They were active in our communities. The unions who were an integral part of the Labour party had pit bands and football teams. The Conservatives ran coffee mornings and beetle drives.
But now they seem a separate tribe all of their own.
As several commentators pointed out going into conference season, parties don’t even seem to be made up of
ordinary members anymore. Most of the people who attend party conferences are paid to be there and, as a result, their roots into real life and real communities are severely stunted. The people who rise through the ranks to become leaders and representatives more often than not are paid advisers or party workers.
This commentary struck home with us at The Electoral Reform Society. Inspired by the debate around the Scottish constitution and the independence referendum we have recently embarked on a year-long investigation in to what would make a good Scottish democracy and we’ve called it Democracy Max.
We wanted the process itself to be a good example of democracy as well as tell us what needed to change. So the first stage of the investigation brought together a group of engaged yet diverse Scots to discuss their ideals and the barriers to getting there. More than 80 people volunteered for this “People’s Gathering”, giving up their Saturday to take part in a vibrant facilitated session. We publish a report of that event today and this will form the basis of an ongoing discussion via roundtables and public meetings until we produce the final vision of the good Scottish democracy at the end of next summer.
The striking thing about the conclusion of that day-long conversation was that
political parties are viewed as part of the problem with our democracy, not a part of the solution.
Some would say this is unsurprising. This year’s Hansard Society annual audit of democracy concluded that voters are more “disillusioned and disengaged’ with politics than ever. And by politics they predominantly meant party politics.
Parties are necessary for any democracy to work properly. They should articulate ideas and explain policy positions; develop and train representatives and encourage and organise citizens to vote. If they didn’t exist we would have to invent them. However, there seems to be a perception that they are failing in the tasks we rely on them for.
Those commentators that questioned the role of parties and their conferences offer little in the way of remedy. More radical agendas are floated, changes at the top speculated on. But different
programmes or different leaders do not begin to address the fundamental problems we face.
We look forward to presenting the “vision of a Good Scottish democracy”. Initial impressions from the start of Democracy Max are that if parties – and therefore our democracy – are to revive and flourish there needs to be some fundamental changes.
Times have changed. Information is digital and can be found through Freedom of Information requests and shared through the internet and social media. Transparency and scepticism have replaced hierarchy and deference.
Our political structures have yet to evolve to meet these new times. Parties need to consider if being monolithic power-seeking blocks will allow them to change sufficiently. The party of the
future could be looser networks of organisations and interests that could develop functions that we currently expect from parties. These might be built up of community organisations and pressure groups with real roots in real communities from which representatives can be developed. There is no shortage of people who are interested in political issues – they are just not that interested in party politics.
Any political organisation that can regain the trust of the public it seeks to represent will be guaranteed electoral
success. The party system has to be one that allows the people to be governed by the people.
• Willie Sullivan is director, Scotland of the Electoral Reform Society; electoral-reform.org.uk
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