The end of party politics? A couple of books and some thoughts

Verso_978_1_84467_324_7_Ruling_the_void_300_Site-6c16fc1a36f99a2f191ca0f19b6cb162I’ve been reading a couple of interesting books this week: Colin Crouch’s Post-democracy and the late Peter Mair’s final book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy.

Both of them share a common theme: that our understanding of how politics works, including the nature of our democracy, is wrong. For Crouch, post-democracy represents a time when corporate interests now overwhelm those of a citizenry that is incapable (and perhaps unwilling) to rpresent itself as effectively. Mair’s thesis is set out quite succinctly on the first page: “The age of party democracy has passed.”

The political systems of the 20th century developed around mass parties that served as intermediaries between the state and the people. However, across the past few decades and across almost all established democracies, the number of people who are members of or involved directly in political parties has dropped dramatically. In the 50s and 60s, almost 10% of the population of Britain was a member of a political party, but party membership has now dwindled so much that we’re almost at the point where it could round down to 0%.

The problem we have is that because this decline has been gradual, in the short term everything has looked as though it’s perfectly normal and any decline can easily be turned around. For instance, in the first few years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour membership started going up significantly, after decades of steady decline. However, after a few years, the downward trend continued again, but even faster this time, soon reaching the point it was already for before Blair. (See the graph on page 4 of this report for lots of peaks in all parties that fail to mask the long term decline)

The problem we have is because the breakdown has occurred so slowly, we’ve failed to notice that anything’s changed. Post-democracy is the end of a long process, not a sudden transformative change – we can’t point at one date or one event and say that all was fine before it and all was broken after it. What we have, though, is a system that has (in Mair’s words) been hollowed out and mass parties representing the whole population have been replaced by cartel parties that compete over a small patch of ground. We assume that people naturally identify with a party, when evidence suggests that is increasingly unlikely, and regarding a party as something that can automatically link the government with the people is becoming a weaker assumption every day.

Neither Mair or Crouch have solutions to offer for this issue, but given that the diagnosis hasn’t been accepted widely, why would the remedy? I think both books are definitely worth reading for anyone involved or interested in British politics, just to get a radically different view of how things are and to ask what we need to do to make things work again in the future. The Scottish referendum has shown us that there’s a huge wave of discontent with the system and how it works, and I don’t think we can close our eyes to it and pretend it’s not happening, or that carrying on with politics as usual is going to fix it.