Last year, I mentioned the new ESRC-funded project to research political party members and their beliefs. There’s now some interesting data from it available on the LSE politics blog. This data is looking at how party members and strong supporters place themselves on a left-right scale, how they see their party and others, but also how their opinions show up on an objective analysis of the left-right positioning.
There’s lots of interesting information in there, including that the biggest mismatch in perceived views and actual views is from UKIP voters, who think they’re much more right-wing than they are. There’s also lots of interesting data and relationships in how people see other parties, particularly the wide range of positions parties take in the minds of other parties’s supporters. It’s interesting that only Labour supporters and members see the party as being to the left of the SNP, for instance.
And here’s some other interesting data on Labour and Conservative members:
By collecting original quantitative and qualitative data, the project explores party membership’s supply side (the members themselves and what they do and think) and its demand side (how and what parties think of their membership and their recruitment and retention strategies).
It’s a three year project, so it’ll be a while before the really interesting data comes out of it, but there’s useful stuff there already. They’re also looking at questions of why people who are strong supporters of parties don’t become members, and also why people leave parties, so there should be a lot of interesting data coming out of it.
One question I’d love to see them look at, or maybe provide the data for someone else to examine, is the question of how much party members’ views change over time. It’d be interesting to see the balance between how much party members change their views to match those of the party, and how much parties change their policies to match the views of their members. It’s going back to ideas I’ve written about before, like the Zaller model of public opinion, and asking if repeated exposure to the way other party members think causes shifts in people’s thinking. Hopefully the data will help explore that question.
Anyway, something worth keeping an eye on, and they’ve also got a Twitter feed to make following them easier.
British political parties are very resilient and flexible institutions. Since the modern party system came into being after 1945 there’s only been one permanent major split in a party, when the SDP separated from Labour in 1981. People – and that includes me in the past – have often got quite excited at the prospect of there being a split (most notably in the post-Thatcher, pre-Cameron Tories) but none have come about. In true British style, parties find a way to muddle through and come to some kind of agreement or those that might have split end up quitting and finding something to do other than politics.
With all that in mind, I would predict that the most likely outcome of the Labour Party’s current travails is that it will just about hold together. There may be some quite fierce internal fights and electoral disasters on the way but at some point down the line they’ll get their act together and look as unified as British political parties can manage, probably around the point where we’re all speculating again about a possible Tory split.
But what if something more unlikely happens? It’s clear that there are massive divisions within the party at present, and these have only been exacerbated by last night’s vote on Syria to the point where some are calling for deselection of those who voted with the Government. As I wrote last week, Labour is stuck in a curious position with the bulk of the parliamentary party on one side of the debate and the bulk of the membership (especially the new membership) on the other. There doesn’t seem to be much prospect of the two sides coming together in the near future, and the interesting question is whether they can find some common ground that defuses the tension before one moves against the other.
The important factor weighing against a split is that for both sides, the prize remains control of the Labour Party. The Parliamentary side (let’s call them Bennites, as they appear to rallying around Hilary, and the historical irony is too great to pass up the chance) want to remove Corbyn from the leadership – or at least the Parliamentary leadership – to give them control over the direction of the party, while a large number of the membership faction want the Parliamentary party to reflect their views and prepared to effectively dissolve the current PLP and elect another to make that happen.
For a split to happen, one side would have to make their move and be successful while the other side felt that they had no realistic chance of taking control of the party again and decide that they were best served leaving it and organising something new. This could be the Bennites walking away to create the New Improved SDP where the membership are fully aware of their level of importance, or it could be the Corbynites deciding to go an organise the new party to the left of Labour that British politics needs. This, of course, shows us why a Labour split is unlikely as attempts to form new parties to the right (the SDP) and the left (there are so, so many examples) of Labour have both consistently failed, crushed by the electoral system and/or public indifference.
That’s why I think a split in the Labour Party is possible if things go on without the two sides finding some common ground, but it’s not likely. Any potential split has to cross two hurdles: not just convincing people that they’ve got no future in the Labour Party, but also convincing them to have the level of optimism that they can ignore the history of splits and be sure that this time it’ll be different. Until that happens, there may be the odd individual defection or retirement from politics, but most will just choose to persuade themselves that it’s better to stay put and wait for the times to change.
A late post today because I’ve been out for most of it (in London seeing The Commitments, if you want to know) so perhaps not been given the election my full and undivided attention.
We’ll start with today’s dip into Election Leaflets which also gives us the first (and no doubt last) instance of a new feature: Candidate Nominative Determinism Of The Day. This is won by the Conservative candidate in the Highland constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, one Edward Mountain. I expect the ‘Winner Climbs Mountain’ headlines are already drafted for the post-election coverage.
Some useful information now available on Your Next MP, including this very interesting list of the number of candidates being stood by each of the parties. There are a couple of glitches in it, but plenty of interesting parties standing across the country, and definitely some stuff there to write about. Hopefully, I’ll have the time to feature a minor party of the day in these roundups after today. The list also has details of all the parties registered with the Electoral Commission who aren’t standing candidates, containing everyone from 2015 Constitutionalists UK to Yourvoice, the latter of whom are probably still smarting from the £5000 deposit they lost after getting a little more than 0.1% of the South East vote in the European Parliament election last year.
Starting tomorrow, we finally get the parties remembering that they ought to publish their manifestos sometime before people start voting, and with postal votes going out soon they can put it off no longer. I’m not expecting to find out too much new when they do come out as the big headline announcement about Labour’s is that they’re now ‘a party of fiscal responsibility’. You can see why people are more excited by Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she’s running for President than anything that’s going on in our election campaign.
We hear little talk of Whiggery nowadays, and outside of the strange world of Daniel Hannan there are few calls for it to return. But, such practical concerns should never deter a truly idealistic politician which may help to explain why we appear to have the return of the Whig Party. New internet-based political parties haven’t been that uncommon over the past few years, and will probably continue to multiply. When the chief barrier to setting up a ‘political party’ becomes ‘can you set up a Facebook page and/or Twitter account?’, we shouldn’t be at all surprised. Plus, judging from the list on the Electoral Commission’s site, actually registering as a political party isn’t too much of a hurdle to jump, given how many appear to have managed it.
It’s one of the peculiarities of the British system that while it’s very easy to create a new political party, it’s very hard for new parties to actually have an impact. The majority of registered parties never win an election anywhere, even at the smallest local level, and most fizzle out and die after a few years. Sadly for the Whigs, I don’t see them breaking this trend. Like a lot of internet-based micro parties, their web presence is long on words and very short on action.
If we consider politics as a marketplace, it’s one where supply (the number of people and parties wanting power) is much higher than demand (the amount an individual wants to know about them). Most people don’t make any active attempts to obtain political information, and they’re certainly not going to trawl the more obscure corners of the web in the hope of finding out information about them. For most people, full knowledge of who’s standing for election in their area is only likely to come in the polling booth when confronted with the ballot paper. Regardless of whether or not your party has the potential for widespread support, you have to get out there and put your message to the people, something micro parties seem consistently reluctant to do.
The Whigs are no different in this, preferring to use their website to tell you about the importance of the Whig view of history and also to talk about some historical Whigs rather than discuss any concrete examples of things they’re doing now. The latter page also mistakenly assumes the old Whig Party existed in something that approximates to the current organisation of political parties, while also asserting that Edmund Burke is “the greatest ever British political theorist”, to which one can only respond by thinking whoever wrote that hasn’t read many British political theorists.
In short, I’m not expecting this to be the beginning of a new Whig Ascendancy, indeed I’m not really expecting it to be the era of Whig saved deposits, to be honest.
After my ‘what if Nick Clegg loses his seat?‘ post the other day, I was thinking more about the various party leaderships after the election, given that regardless of how well they do in their constituencies, at least one of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband will be out of a job as party leader after it.
Defeated leaders quitting after elections is something that’s become an entirely natural and regular part of British politics. The last time a leader of one of the big two parties didn’t step down after an election defeat was Neil Kinnock in 1987, and the post-election resignation speech has become a ritual of the political landscape. It also means that the post-election environment usually has a party leadership campaign running through it, regardless of whether that’s the best time to have it.
The rush to get things done and not leave a vacuum is common throughout British politics, of course – for instance, look at how quickly we formed a coalition compared to most other countries that have required coalition talks. The same applies to parties – the idea that a party could go for a while without a permanent leader being in place is not even considered, even if at times it might be the best way for a party to proceed.
Although I’m sure this will fall on stony ground, I want to propose that whichever party or parties end up leaderless after the next election doesn’t immediately rush into a full leadership election, but considers appointing someone as an interim leader for a period, so they can have a proper consideration of the future direction of their party and what they need in a leader. We have a system now where we know when the next election is going to happen, and I’m not convinced that the leader of any party necessarily needs the full five years to get themselves in position for it.
What I would suggest instead is that the party decide on how they’re going to appoint an interim leader, who’ll be in place for something like eighteen months with a remit to steady the ship and get the party ready to have a proper debate as part of a leadership contest, not just a rush to appoint whoever is the flavour of the month at the time of the election campaign. How they appoint someone as interim leader is up to them, but we’ve seen how party leadership election rules can be gamed by MPs ensuring only one person gets nominated, so it shouldn’t be that hard. I’d also expect that any interim leader would likely be some kind of senior and experienced figure, unlikely to take part in the actual leadership election.
There are similar systems used in other countries, be it explicit interim leaders in Canadian politics or the routine of not choosing the lead opposition candidate until relatively close to the election as happens in many European countries. It gives parties a chance to pause and take a breath before plunging straight into the long run-up to the next election campaign, as well as waiting to see how the political culture is closer to the coming election rather than making important decisions still in the shadow of the last one.
We’ve had some leaders who turned out to be interim leaders while the party sorted itself out – Ming Campbell and Iain Duncan Smith spring readily to mind – so perhaps its time someone did it officially? Maybe we’d all be better off if our political parties weren’t rushing to decide their future when they haven’t yet worked out their present.
However, there seems to be a problem with that news: it’s not true. Reading an account from a Green Party member, it seems that the party’s conference has insisted that the policy is included in the manifesto, and the Telegraph’s report is merely extrapolating wildly from some comments by Caroline Lucas. The member’s account suggests that she has opposed the inclusion of it in the manifesto, but even with that news, the Telegraph appears to be stretching her words. It reports that she said:
“The citizens’ income is not going to be in the 2015 general election manifesto as something to be introduced on May 8th. It is a longer term aspiration; we are still working on it,”
The key point they’re not factoring into their story is ‘as something to be introduced on May 8th’, instead focusing on the first part of the sentence. Let’s be honest, I don’t think even the most hardened support of a basic income scheme thinks it could be introduced quickly, and it helps to show the ignorance of reporters who believe that is the case.
However, I think this comes back to the point I made a couple of weeks ago about how journalists don’t understand how policy making within parties actually works. As someone with experience of seeing similar things in the Lib Dems, it’s almost pleasant to see another party being similarly misunderstood. Journalists like to believe that all political parties are run from the top down, not the bottom up, and of course ‘senior party figures’ are always happy to encourage this impression. So, when Caroline Lucas says something (and it’s misheard) it’s easy for them to leap to ‘the party has changed its policy!’ rather than ‘hmm, better check that for accuracy.’
It does make me think about the Iron Law of Oligarchy – the idea that all political organisations will progress from democracy to oligarchy over time – and whether the media have a role in encouraging and fostering that process. Could one even argue that social pressures and the expectation that an organisation will be run from the top are as much a pressure making it happen as the role of bureaucracy concentrating power in the organisation? Something else to add to the list of things I need to think about and write about some more…
The proposition this time is that the surefire way for Labour to win the election is to proclaim that they will govern as a single party, or they won’t be in government at all. Apparently the political equivalent of a child’s tantrum and declaring you don’t want to play with anyone at all will be the secret weapon that makes everyone vote Labour. Quite why Luke Akehurst thinks that a party getting just over 30% in the polls wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for suggesting that, he doesn’t explain (and if we had an even vaguely sensible electoral system the idea would be so bizarre as to be inconceivable).
Yet again, though, it’s someone imagining that what’s happening in our politics is just a temporary blip and things will get back to normal as soon as those naughty voters stop messing about and give their votes to the two big parties, just like they’re supposed to. In this view, no one is voting SNP, Green, Lib Dem, UKIP or whoever else because they agree with their policies, it’s just because they need to be showing Labour and the Tories that they need to recommit to Full Socialism Now/Blairism/Proper One Nation Toryism/Red Blooded Hyper-Thatcherism (delete as applicable) and then they’ll return to the fold. In this view, Labour is the One True Party for voters who are vaguely on the left (where ‘left’ equals ‘not Tory’) but by occasionally being stupidly pluralist it has let voters forget that. If it now forcefully reminds people that it is the One True Party (accept no imitations), they will all be instantly struck by the truth of this statement and happily vote Labour again.
(The mirror of this argument is also used on the right with the same expected result – everyone who is not Labour seeing the error of their ways and voting Tory again, like they’re supposed to. This shared image of themselves is why many people can look from Tory to Labour and back again without noticing much difference.)
One day soon, it’s going to sink in to some people that the old politics has likely gone forever and won’t be coming back no matter how hard they might wish for it. Until then, there’ll be lots of laughs to be gained from watching them insist that the One True Party is so powerful, even reality must bend to its will.
There’s a certain inevitability in the fact that the day after the Greens break through 10% in a poll, a ‘look at all these wacky Green policies’ article appears in the Telegraph. Those of us with long memories will remember similar articles appearing on a regular basis over the years, right back to 1989 when they normally featured some reference to David Icke as Prime Minister. (At that point, the height of Icke’s weirdness was having played for Coventry City and being one of the Greens’ five Principal Speakers – the wearing turquoise and seeing alien lizards everywhere were still in his future)
However, it seems to me that this sort of coverage misses the main issue and reveals the media’s expectation as to how political parties should work. The general picture painted of political parties is that they’re monolithic entities in which all members will agree with the party line at all times. When a party’s policy on something changes, it’s usually presented as the product of some nebulous process going on behind closed doors (‘party sources tell me they’re thrashing out the details of their new policy…’) that all party members will be expected to adopt when its decided by those same nebulous processes.
In short, most journalists appear to have got their ideas of how parties work from Stalin. Policy comes from above, all members must agree and factions or dissent are intrinsically bad. And in true Stalinist style, any facts that disagree with this narrative should be ignored. This is why coverage of party conferences is happy to depict them as a never-ending range of set piece speeches and photo opportunities, with party members as just a backdrop for the Important People to speak at.
In this view, the only policy-related thing members have to concern themselves with is memorising what the party line is that day, and they definitely should be kept well away from making it. This is why they have such a problem in covering democratic parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, where policy actually comes from members, and especially so with the Greens who properly collate all the policies of the party and put it on their website. (While the Lib Dems are good at encouraging people to make policy, the party’s not so good at actually displaying that policy in an easily-found way)
The problem is that this giant block of policy isn’t seen by the media for what it is – a body of ideas that’s been built up over many years, through many debates and votes of the members – but through their existing idea of how parties work. Thus, they assume that these Green policies have been worked up by policy wonks through the usual processes and aren’t something that’s come from the bottom up. The question that should be asked, but never is, is where are the similar detailed policies from the other parties? Sure, there are various issues and policies on their website, but those are normally limited to whatever’s salient at the time, and all can be easily dispatched to the memory hole the moment someone in the leadership decides it needs to be changed.
People may agree or not with the Green policies, but they should be congratulated for putting them out in the open and sticking to them, not hiding them away or not even bothering to come up with them.