Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Political Parties and Democracy


The following was printed  as a pamphlet by the Reform Foundation:

Political Parties and Democracy.

By

John E. Strafford

            Political parties play a major role in our democracy.   At a General Election they issue a manifesto showing their policies and use it to persuade the electorate to vote for them.   The parties choose the candidates who will stand for election.   From those candidates Members of Parliament will be decided by the electorate.   Members of Parliament from the Party capable of obtaining a majority in Parliament then form the Government, sometimes in conjunction with other parties - which have been through the same process -  as happened in 2010, or sometimes alone.    

            The political parties choose their Leaders and one of them will become the Prime Minister.   This is all very well if our political parties are democratic organisations open to all, but what if they are undemocratic organisations?   Who exercises power in our political parties?      Does it matter if they are oligarchies of the political elite?   In such a case a small group of people will determine who governs our country and hence the policies by which we are governed.

            Political parties are part of the democratic process in the United Kingdom.   Their role is recognised by Parliament.   In the current financial year nearly £7 million of public money, known as “Short” money, will be paid to the opposition political parties.   During the period that the Conservative Party was in opposition, 1997-2010, it received over £40 million of public funding.   In Government the gravy train does not stop.   £8.4 million was paid last year to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for 103 political special advisers.   All this money is supposed to be given to enhance our democracy: it does no such thing.   All it does is perpetuate the power of the oligarchs who run our parties.   Whilst ever the parties are able to rely on the State and/or big donors like businessmen or trade unions they can ignore their party members.  

            Both of our main political parties – Labour and Conservative, are undemocratic organisations run and controlled by oligarchies.   Who are these oligarchs?   They start with the Party Leaders, who are elected by the Party memberships but then effectively cease to be accountable to the members.   The Leader appoints the Cabinet and other Ministers when in Government.   He or she exercises a great deal of patronage by creating Peers and giving out Honours.   The oligarchs include businessmen who advise the Conservatives, and Trade Unionists who advise Labour.   All are totally unaccountable to Party members.   The net is spread wide.   If the Parties had been successful in retaining the trust of the people, perhaps one could understand their desire to maintain the status quo, but the reality is that they are failed organisations whose membership has suffered long term catastrophic decline, and public confidence is in free fall.   Soon, as membership organisations they will cease to exist.   The recent increase in the Labour Party’s membership since the General Election is due to the Leadership contest on which they are embarking.   Leadership contests always bring an increase in membership because it is the one time when members know that their vote counts.

            William Hague said that the Conservative Party “was like an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide.   The Nation abolished absolute monarchy and regicide 350 years ago.   It is time for all parties to follow suit and examine the powers exercised by their Party Leaders.   For too long our Party Leaders have behaved like absolute monarchs. 

Membership

            A major factor in the reduction in turnout at General Elections is the long term decline in the membership of our traditional three main political parties.   Correlated with the lesser satisfaction which the people have with the political process, we have a toxic mix.   Party activists represent approximately 10% of members.   With the decline in membership there has been a decline in activists.   It is the activists who work to get the electorate out to vote.   Critically it is feet on the ground that gets that last marginal voter to the polling station.

            At the end of World War II the membership of the Conservative Party was about 250,000.   As a result of the efforts of Lord Woolton membership had risen by 1952 to 2.8 million.   Since then the decline has been continuous.   By 1979 membership had fallen to 1,350,000 and during the 1980s and 1990s it declined further to 400,000 by 1997.   When David Cameron became Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 there were 258,239 members of the Party.   By the beginning of 2010 membership had fallen to 177,000 and in the three years to the end of 2012 membership fell a further 43,000 to 134,000.  

            So we can see from this that in 1950 when turnout at the General Election was 83.9% there were approximately 280,000 party members working to get out the Conservative vote.   By the 2015 General Election when turnout was 66%, there were 13,400 members trying to do the same.   The activist members of the Conservative Party are now primarily local Councillors and their families.   After the elections of 2014 there were 8,296 Conservative Councillors in the United Kingdom      

            Individual Labour Party membership in 1951 was about 1 million.   At the time of the 2015 General Election it was less than 200,000, so activists have declined from 100,000 in 1951 to 20,000 today.    The Labour Party gets significant help from Trade Unionists but we have seen a decline in the membership of Trade Unions also from some 12 million to 6.5 million.   Some 70% of Labour MPs are linked with the Trade Unions.

            Liberal Party membership was some 300,000 at the end of World War II.  At the time of the 2015 General Election it had fallen to less than 50,000 under the Liberal Democrats.

            So from a party activist base for the main parties of over 400,000 in 1950 it has declined to 38,400 today.   In view of these figures it is surprising that turnout has not collapsed further!

            Why has this happened?   What effect will it have and can anything be done to change this disastrous trend?

            The number of people not correctly registered to vote has risen substantially from 3.9 million in 2000 to 7.5 million in 2012 per the Electoral Commission.   A major factor that affects voter registration is the decline in membership of the political parties.   The origin of political parties was as registration societies which were set up in the 1830s after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.   Their function was to ensure that all those entitled to vote were registered and did vote.   Today this function has almost ceased, except in some marginal constituencies, because there are no longer the activists to do the work.

Let me expand on this point from my own experience.   I was Chairman of the Gerrards Cross branch of the Beaconsfield Constituency Association from 1977 to 1980. Gerrards Cross was the largest Conservative branch in the country with a membership of over 2,000.   It was one of some twenty branches in the Beaconsfield Association.   The Beaconsfield Association today, in total, has about half the number of members of the Gerrards Cross branch in 1980, and yet today it is one of the largest Constituency Associations in the country.

            In 1980 the Gerrards Cross branch had a committee of 38 people for which elections were held annually.   It was a requirement of standing for the committee that you had         to take on a road in the town in which you would do the canvassing and membership subscription collecting.   The membership was approximately 40% of the electorate.   Each year when the Electoral Register was published one of the prime functions of the branch was to check that all members were on the Register and also that all Conservative supporters were on the Register.   A list of errors was sent to the Electoral Registration Officer so that the Register could be altered before the Register was finalised.

            The result of all this work was that few people were left off the Register and the final Register was accurate.   Branches of political parties throughout the country were doing the same as Gerrards Cross.

            So what are the costs to society of low voter registration and turnout?   Potentially the costs will be significant.   There will come a point when the legitimacy of the elected government is questioned because of the low turnout.   Democracy is a process by which you determine the will of the majority.   If the gap between the views of the majority and those elected becomes too great the people may say “What can we do to change this?”   The only solutions will be major electoral reform, reform of the political parties, or revolution.   Time is running out.

            Research on party membership, done in the 1990s and published in the book “True Blues” showed two main reasons why people join political parties.   The first reason was for social purposes.   People like to be with others of a like mind.   They feel more comfortable.   There is a tribal instinct. Party members like to be led, but they also like to know that the Leader has listened to them before he or she takes a decision.  

            The second reason is participation.   This has to be meaningful participation i.e. they either vote on decisions to be taken or vote for the people taking the decisions.    It is this latter reason which has not been met by the two main political parties.   Effectively large numbers of people join these parties each year wanting to participate.   When they find that they have no voice they leave, usually after a couple of years.   Only by adopting a radical approach will we break this cycle of decline.   I set out below the measures that need to be taken.   It is a check list to which all parties should adhere:

  • Party constitutions should be capable of being amended or changed by the members of the Party at a General Meeting of the Party on the basis of one member, one vote provided there is a majority in favour of amendment or change and not less than 50% of the members have voted.   Proxy voting shall be allowed.
  • There should be an Annual General Meeting of the Party to which all members are invited. (Note: this meeting should not always be held in the same location so as to prevent it being skewed in favour of members from a particular Region.)
  • The Chairman of the Party should be responsible for the Party Organisation.
  • The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party should be elected by the members of the Party.
  • The Chairman of the Party should present an Annual Report on the Party organisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Party for adoption by the members.
  • The Treasurer of the Party should present the Annual Accounts of the Party to the Annual General Meeting for adoption by the members.
  • The Chairman of the Committee on Candidates should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on candidate selection at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
  • The Chairman of any policy groups should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on their workings at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
  • Motions for debate on policy should be allowed at the Party’s Conference and voted upon.   If due to time constraints all motions submitted cannot be debated the members at the Conference should be able to choose at least three motions for debate.   All motions duly proposed and seconded should be put on the Party’s web site.
  • Regional/Area/Constituency officers should be directly elected by the members of the Party.

                The most important of these provisions is the ability to change the Party’s constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote.

                If we believe in democracy the fundamental requirement for political parties is:

“No political Party should be registered with the Electoral Commission unless it has a democratic constitution which can be changed at a General Meeting by a clear majority of its members on the basis of one member one vote.”

            By adopting the above, participation would be guaranteed for party members.   Some parties already have some of the above provisions in their constitutions.   The Conservative Party has none of them.   The Labour Party is still dominated by the Trade Unions although the Labour Party constitution has been changed so that their Leader is elected on the basis of One Member One Vote including registered supporters.   At present the Labour Party conference has Trade Union delegates attending.   These affiliated delegates should be full members of the Party and in such a case would have full voting rights.   Both Conservative and Labour operate electoral colleges which distort democracy by breaching the principle of One Person, One Vote of equal value.   The Liberal Democrat constitution is more democratic.  

           

            For years our two main political parties have protested that the decline in membership is because membership is a redundant concept.   People have other things to do.   They are too busy.   They join single issue pressure groups.    Rather than give any power to members the oligarchies would rather retain all power in a diminishing Party.  The Scottish National Party has demonstrated just how wrong they are.   In September 2014 at the time of the Scottish Referendum their membership stood at approximately 25,000.   By the time of the General Election in May 2015 they had increased it to over 110,000 so how does the Scottish National Party compare with the Conservative Party?

The Scottish National Party:

  • Has quarterly newsletters to members.
  • Policy is determined at their annual Conference.
  • Their Officers are all elected by their members including their Leader and Deputy Leader who are elected annually.
  • They can change their Constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote with a two thirds majority.

         

They are a democratic party!

            What a comparison with the Conservative Party where the Chairman and Treasurer of the Party are appointed by the Leader, and are thus unaccountable to the membership.   There is no Annual General Meeting of members, so there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies.      The Annual Accounts of the Party are not tabled for approval at an AGM.    The selection of parliamentary candidates of the Party is controlled centrally.   The Party Board can and does take control of any Constituency Association, which does not toe the line.   The infamous clause 17 of their constitution states: “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”, and this makes the rest of the constitution meaningless.

            What does a member get from membership of the Conservative Party?   Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member.   There were meetings at area and national level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation.   Social gatherings emphasised the tribal feeling and sense of belonging.   The Party Conference was run by the voluntary party and it had motions for debate.   Votes were taken at the end of the debates and although they were not binding, they reflected the views of the members.   Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous.   The Party had three distinct sections - the parliamentary party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation.   There were checks and balances in the distribution of power.   All of these were swept away in 1998 with disastrous result.

            The Labour Party has seen similar changes in recent times.   Its conferences used to be dominated by motions from constituencies and Trade Unions.   Vast amounts of time were spent on creating “composite motions”.   This was scrapped and now there is little place for such debates.   Instead delegates are invited to vote on long policy papers on a take-it-or leave it basis.   The old system was far from perfect, but the new one means that delegates become rubber stamps.


           

Policies

            Who determines policy?   Of the two main political parties, policy in the Conservative Party is decided by the Leader and is constructed by a small coterie of people around him or her.   In the 2014 European Parliament election the Leader of the Conservative MEPs only discovered what was in the manifesto on the day it was published!   The Conservative Party no longer goes through the charade of pretending that the members of the Party have any say.   There are no motions for debate at the Conservative Party Conference.   The Conservative Policy Forum has little, if any, influence on policy.    The Labour Party has the National Policy Forum and policy discussion papers.   Its conference sets the “framework” of policy, but the days when it was the conference which decided policy are over.   The National Policy Forum has severe limitations.   Few members know who sits on it or what it talks about.   There is very little reporting back to members or consultation with members before issues are debated.

            With the development of the internet Party members could and should be much more involved in policy making.  The priority of policies has to be left to the Party Leaders but in determining those priorities they should be aware of the strength of feelings of the membership.

            Policy in the Liberal Democrat Party is determined by their Party conference and it was their Conference which had the final say on the Coalition Agreement.   Ironically, as soon as they got into government they changed their rules so that their MPs had the final say on a Coalition Agreement.   Power corrupts!

            Contrast the approach of the three main parties with the three political parties whose membership is increasing.   In the Scottish National Party, UKIP and the Green Party, policy is decided at their National Conferences.   Perhaps when people have a say in policy they take ownership of the policy and are better able to propagate it?   By allowing members to participate, you increase membership.

            Clearly, although the parties should determine policy, it is the Leader of the Party who determines priorities and ultimately can alter or abandon policies if conditions change.   The Leader should be accountable to the Party for his or her actions.

Candidates

            Why cannot any registered member of the Labour or Conservative Parties be a candidate, subject only to vetting to ensure that they have no criminal convictions and comply with electoral law?   It should be up to the members of the Parties to determine who shall be their candidate.   This is a fundamental principle.   If the members do not decide, who does and how are they accountable to the members?

            The selections of parliamentary candidates of our political Parties are controlled centrally.   They do this by controlling the Approved List of candidates in the case of the Conservative Party or by setting various criteria for selection determined by the Organisation Sub-committee of the National Executive Committee in the case of the Labour Party.  

            We have heard a lot recently about how the range of candidates should be widened and the Conservative Party have made much of Open Primaries.   The model for Open Primaries is the United States so how do Conservative Open Primaries compare?

            In the United States anyone can stand.   In the Conservative Party the candidates are centrally sifted and three or four candidates put forward.   In many States electors have to register support for the Party in order to vote.   With the Conservatives anyone on the Electoral Roll can vote in an Open Postal Primary or an Open Meeting Primary, even if they are members of another Party.

            The candidates in the United States raise their own funds for campaigning in the Primary.   The problem with this is that candidates who win primaries are often those with most money to spend.   “Pork Barrel” politics still has a big role to play in United States politics.   The Conservative Party pays for a postal primary.   The costs in Totnes amounted to £38,000.   There are only half a dozen constituencies in the country that could afford this, so unless the Party at national level pays, or State Funding is given, postal Primaries will be few and far between.

            Campaigns in the United States are usually prolonged, giving plenty of time to investigate the candidates.   The campaigns run by the Conservatives are strictly limited in time.

            Caucus meetings of registered voters are held in the United States at which the merits of the different candidates are debated and then voted upon.   These are banned by the Conservative Party.

            A distinction should be drawn between Open Primaries where there is a postal ballot as in Totnes and Open Meeting Primaries.   The most common, because of costs are the Open Meeting Primaries.   The Conservative Party imposes a number of restrictions on Open Meeting Primaries:

            The meetings are advertised in the local paper so there is no guarantee that every    elector is aware that the selection is taking place.

            At the meeting no debate is allowed between the candidates – they are not even    allowed to be on the platform together.

            The elector must be present for the entire meeting and cannot leave the room for any         reason.   Contrast this with a postal primary where the elector doesn’t have to hear      any candidate before voting.

            Limits are imposed by Central Office on the amount of money candidates can spend         on their campaigns.

            The vote on the final adoption of the selected candidate is by Conservative Party members.

            It can be seen from the above that there are major differences between what the Conservatives call Open Primaries and what in practice most people understand as Open Primaries.   The Conservative Open Primaries are a gimmick.   The people and the media have been hoodwinked into believing that the process is open.   It is not.   The process is controlled in detail by the Party hierarchy.   There is also the danger that the selection can be manipulated by the members of other parties, who can vote for the weakest candidate.   The Conservative Party does not care, because it has decided on who the candidates will be.

            Some Constituency Associations now run Open primaries for local government elections.   In these cases, the sift of candidates is done by people accountable to the members of the particular Association, so the fundamental objections do not apply.

            One of the objections to allowing the members to determine who their candidate shall be is that in many constituencies there are very few members and they may be unrepresentative of the voters.   In the Conservative Party it is estimated that about 130+ constituency Associations have virtually ceased to exist.   In such circumstances it is reasonable for there to be a minimum number of members taking part in the selection process and where that minimum is not reached Party Headquarters has to take over the process.

            Recently both Labour and Conservative Parties have allowed Registered Supporters to participate in selections.   Attractive though this might be in involving more people in the electoral process it has its dangers.   During the course of the current Leadership election in the Labour Party, Registered Supporters who paid a fee of three pounds were then given a vote in the contest.   “The Daily Telegraph” proceeded to give a step by step guide on how to register with the admonition to vote for a particular candidate.   The Trade Union “Unite” boasted that it would sign up 70,000 affiliated members.   It is estimated that between the date of the General Election and the date of the Selection no less than 140,000 affiliated members and registered supporters will have joined the Party.   Already charges of entryism from both the “left” and the “right” are being made, throwing considerable doubt on the legitimacy of the selection.   Registered supporters could totally distort the election.   It is the members of the party which should take these decisions.

            In Hong Kong in 2014 the people took to the streets in protest at the Chinese Communist Party imposing a short list of four candidates for the people to choose from.   Yet this is the very same process that is used by the Labour and Conservative Parties in the United Kingdom.

            Whenever Approved lists are used or procedures are implemented for the selection of candidates those taking the decisions should be democratically accountable to the ordinary Party members.   Other than the Conservative and Labour Parties all the other main political Parties operate with approved lists for parliamentary candidates and there is democratic accountability of those who decide who can be candidates.

Funding

            There is no doubt that the public’s perception of politics is influenced by the way in which the political parties are funded.   Big donors or Trade Union Leaders have more access to the Party hierarchies so more opportunity to influence. “Cash for honours” is continuously levelled at the Conservative party.   Controlled by and funded by the Trade Unions” is levelled at the Labour Party.   People believe that money buys influence in politics.   There needs to be a complete overhaul of party funding with a cap on donations of £5,000.   There may have to be a transitional period for this to be brought in as suggested by the recent all party report on Party Funding.

            It is estimated that 50% of the Conservative Party’s income is from financial institutions i.e. Bankers and Hedge Fund Managers and 80% of the Labour Party’s income is from the Trade Unions.

            It is quite clear that the way in which the Conservative and Labour parties are funded distorts our politics, but any changes would involve them in a considerable loss of income.   The way out of this is State funding of the parties.   This should be done by a payment per head for audited membership of all political parties.   Such a scheme would be a big incentive to the parties to increase their membership.   Over a period of say five to ten years it could be phased out.   The costs of such a scheme could be met in several ways:

  • Abolition of the “Short” and “Cranborne” money saving over £8 million with a substantial cut in the number of political advisers employed by the government.
  • Abolition of the freepost at the European and General elections saving some £68 million.
  • Sending out all election addresses for each constituency together, in booklet form, as was done for the London Mayoral election would save £47 million.


Social Media

            The development of social media has been a lifeline to our main political parties.   Twitter, Facebook, email, have all improved the Parties ability to communicate at little cost.   A daily email requesting a £10 donation to several hundred thousand supporters brings in a substantial amount of cash particularly when those supporters have been targeted for their views.

            For the 2015 General Election the appointment of Jim Messina (former social media guru to President Obama) as an adviser was an indication that the Conservative Party believe that the way forward is to organise our campaigns as in the United States by gathering up supporters rather than relying on members.   The Labour Party made a similar appointment.   What of course is forgotten is that the Presidential Election in the United States costs approximately $6 billion.   Support is bought.   Canvassers are paid.   “Pork Barrel” politics still has a major role to play in the politics of the United States.   Because of the financial restrictions on campaign spending we quite rightly cannot do this, but there are clearly ways in which social media can be exploited.   For example registered supporters could be signed up for a nominal sum, or even no sum at all, and with regular communication and involvement encourage them to become members of the Party.   Only members of the Party should be able to vote on decisions of the Party or vote for those who take the decisions.

Conclusions

            With the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, and the Scottish Nationalist Party, not forgetting the Democratic Unionist party we are now in an era of multi party politics.   Who now knows which seats are marginal?  

            By one of those moments of irony future General Elections will be fought on Electoral Registers drawn up by individual registration rather than household registration.   The main reason for this was to reduce fraud.   The origins of modern political parties were as Registration Societies as a result of the 1832 Reform Act.   Their main function was to ensure that their supporters were all registered to vote.   This job will now be resurrected, except that there will not be the Party activists to carry it out.

            The most important factor in the General Election will be “feet on the ground   At the margin it is the canvassing and the knocking up that will count most.   For that you need volunteers and the most committed volunteers are members.   The political Parties will ignore this at their peril and unless our two main Parties reform themselves into democratic organisations their decline will continue until they cease to exist.

            The Scottish National Party with 110,000 members fought 59 seats in the General election.   It was the only Party that mounted afeet on the groundcampaign in all the seats it contested.   It won 56 of them.   The other parties that fought 650 seats would have needed a million members each to fight a similar campaign.   This makes you think!   It ought to make the parties think too!   The result was seen in the 2015 General Election.   Turnout in Scotland was 71%.   For the UK as a whole it was 66%.

            What is becoming increasingly clear is that our two main political parties face extinction unless their whole culture is changed.   They must embrace democracy, member involvement and participation and without this, like the dinosaurs, extinction will be their destination.   The Labour Party must break the link with the Trade Unions other than as an affiliated organisation.   Voting rights should be reserved solely for the members of the Party.   The great danger is that within the next five years the Party could implode.   Due to its low membership it can no longer fight a ground campaign in every constituency, leaving it vulnerable to attack from the new parties which will target their seats.   What happened at the General Election in Scotland could easily be repeated in England and Wales.

            The Conservative Party must break the link between itself and big donors who wield influence by being members of organisations such as the £50,000 club.   There is a danger of complacency in the Conservative Party which having just won a General Election, has a belief that their Road Trip 2015 - where they attracted hundreds of supporters into a constituency on a particular day - is a new way of campaigning.   Lots of information was gathered, but unless you can get hundreds of supporters into every seat on election day, there is nobody to get the vote out and the information becomes useless.   It was probably the fear in the electorate’s mind of a coalition between the Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party that swung the election rather than superior campaigning.

            The Conservative Party has the advantage of patronage as it is in government and by pushing through parliament the Boundaries Commission proposals altering constituency boundaries it will get some further advantage, but like the Labour Party it can no longer fight a general election campaign on the ground.   With a new Leader before the 2020 General Election and a possible split during the European Referendum the Conservative Party is also vulnerable to attack and could implode.  

            One final point, in 2017 there will be a referendum on whether the United Kingdom will remain a member of the European Union.   Whichever way the electorate vote there will be a substantial minority perhaps as many as 10 million who will be disappointed.   They will be deciding which political party to support in the future.   After the Scottish referendum the Scottish National Party attracted huge support in spite of losing the referendum.   Which party will the disappointed turn to after the European referendum – one of the major parties or one of the new parties.   What is for sure is that we are moving to a major shake-up in British politics and it will be those parties which are democratic which are likely to be the beneficiaries.



About the Author

JOHN E.  STRAFFORD

John Strafford is the author of “Our Fight for Democracy” – a history of democracy in the United Kingdom.

John Strafford joined the Conservative Party in 1964, and was a Councillor for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea from 1968 to 1974.   He has served at nearly all levels of the Conservative Party including as a member of the Party’s National Union Executive Committee for nine years and three years on the Conservative Board of Finance.   Within the Conservative Party his political achievements include:



  • As Treasurer and then Chairman of Beaconsfield Conservative Association from 1980 to 1990 increased the Constituency’s income per annum from £30,000 to £100,000.
  • Successfully campaigned for the Conservative Party to be recognized  in Northern Ireland and in recognition of this was made the Hon. President of South Belfast Conservative Association, Hon Vice President of the North Down Conservative Association and Hon. Vice President of the Northern Ireland Conservatives.
  • In 1990 published a Paper on the Reorganization of the Conservative Party proposing a Board of Management.   This was introduced in 1993.
  • As Treasurer of Wessex Area in 1991 raised over £250,000 from the Constituency Associations for the Conservative Party.   This still is the highest amount ever raised in one year from an Area.
  • In 1995 wrote a Paper for the Bow Group – “The Conservative Party for the 21st Century” proposing a Party Constitution.   This was introduced in 1998.

  • Member of the Management Committee of the National Conservative Draws Society since its formation in 1994.   Since its formation the Draw Society has raised over £15 million for the Conservative Party.
    In 2011 John was Chairman of the Conservative Yes Campaign in the referendum on the Alternative Vote.

    27th July 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Bill of Rights to the American War of Independence - 1685 to 1780

Updated weekly. See latest update above - updated 10th November 2015. "Democracy at the end of the eighteenth century"

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Political Parties, Democracy and Voter Engagement

Political Parties, Democracy and Voter Engagement
By
John E. Strafford

            Political parties play a major role in our democracy.   At a General Election they issue a manifesto showing their policies and use it to persuade the electorate to vote for them.   They choose the candidates who will stand for election.   From those candidates Members of Parliament will be decided by the electorate.   Members of Parliament from the Party capable of obtaining a majority in Parliament then form the Government.  
            The political parties choose their Leaders and one of them will become the Prime Minister.   This is all very well if our political parties are democratic organisations open to all, but what if they are undemocratic organisations?   Who controls our political parties?      Does it matter if they are oligarchies of the political elite?   In such a case a small group of people will determine who governs our country and hence the policies by which we are governed.
            Political parties are part of the democratic process in the United Kingdom.   Their role is recognised by Parliament.   In the current financial year nearly £7 million of public money known as “Short” money will be paid to the opposition political parties.   During the period that the Conservative Party was in opposition, 1997-2010, it received over £40 million of public funding.   In government the gravy train does not stop.   £8.4 million is being paid this year for 103 political special advisers to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.   All this money is supposed to be given to enhance our democracy – it does no such thing.   All it does is perpetuate the power of the oligarchs who run our parties.   Whilst ever the parties are able to rely on the State and/or big donors like businessmen or Trade Unions they can ignore their party members.  
            Both of our main political parties – Labour and Conservative, are undemocratic organisations run and controlled by oligarchies.   Who are these oligarchs?   They start with the Party Leaders, who are elected by the Party memberships but then effectively cease to be accountable to the members.   The Leaders appoint the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet and other Ministers when in Government.   They exercise a great deal of patronage by creating Peers and giving out honours.   The oligarchs include businessmen who advise the Conservatives and Trade Unionists who advise Labour.   All are totally unaccountable to the Party members.   The net is spread wide.   If the Parties had been successful in retaining the trust of the people, perhaps one could understand their desire to maintain the status quo, but the reality is that they are failed organisations, their membership has suffered catastrophic decline and public confidence is in free fall.   Soon, as membership organisations they will cease to exist.
            William Hague said that the Conservative Party “was like an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide.   The Nation abolished absolute monarchy and regicide 350 years ago.   It is time for the Conservative Party to follow suit.

Membership
            A major factor in the reduction in turnout at General Elections is the long term decline in the membership of our three main political parties.   Correlated with the lesser satisfaction which the people have with the political process, we have a toxic mix.   Party activists represent approximately 10% of members.   With the decline in membership there has been a decline in activists.   It is the activists who work to get the electorate out to vote.   Critically it is feet on the ground that gets that last marginal voter to the polling station.
            At the end of World War II the membership of the Conservative Party was about 250,000.   As a result of the efforts of Lord Woolton membership had risen by 1952 to 2.8 million.   Since then the decline has been continuous.   By 1979 membership had fallen to 1,350,000 and during the 1980s and 1990s it declined further to 400,000 by 1997.   When David Cameron became Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 there were 258,239 members of the Party.   By the beginning of 2010 membership had fallen to 177,000 and in the three years to the end of 2012 membership fell a further 43,000 to 134,000.  
            So we can see from this that in 1950 when turnout at the General Election was 83.9% there were approximately 280,000 party members working to get out the Conservative vote.   By the 2010 General Election when turnout was 65%, there were 17,700 members trying to do the same.   The activist members of the Conservative Party are now primarily local Councillors and their families.   After the elections of 2014 there were 8,296 Conservative Councillors in the United Kingdom      
            Individual Labour Party membership in 1951 was about 1 million.   Today it is less 200,000, so activists have declined from 100,000 in 1951 to 20,000 today.    The Labour Party gets significant help from Trade Unionists but we have seen a decline in the membership of Trade Unions also from some 12 million to 6.5 million.   Some 70% of Labour MPs are linked with the Trade Unions.
            Liberal Party membership has fallen from some 300,000 after the War to less than 50,000 today.
            So from a party activist base for the main parties of over 400,000 in 1950 it has declined to 38,400 today.   In view of these figures it is surprising that turnout has not collapsed further!
            Why has this happened?   What effect will it have and can anything be done to change this disastrous trend?
            The number of people not correctly registered to vote has risen substantially from 3.9 million in 2000 to 7.5 million in 2012 per the Electoral Commission.   The major factor that affects voter registration is the decline in membership of the political parties.   The origin of political parties was as registration societies which were set up in the 1830s after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.   Their function was to ensure that all those entitled to vote were registered and did vote.   Today this function has almost ceased, except in some marginal constituencies, because there are no longer the activists to do the work.
            So what are the costs to society of low voter registration and turnout?   Potentially the costs will be significant.   There will come a point when the legitimacy of the elected government is questioned because of the low turnout.   Democracy is a process by which you determine the will of the majority.   If the gap between the majority and those elected becomes too great the people may say what can we do to change this.   The only solutions will be major electoral reform or revolution.   Time is running out.
            Research on party membership, done in the 1990s, showed two main reasons why people join political parties.   The first reason was for social purposes.   People like to be with others of a like mind.   They feel more comfortable.   There is a tribal instinct.
            Party members like to be led, but they also like to know that the Leader has listened to them before he or she takes a decision.   The second reason is participation.   This has to be meaningful participation i.e. they either vote on decisions or vote for the people taking the decisions.    It is this latter reason which has not been met by the two main political parties.   Effectively large numbers of people join these parties each year wanting to participate.   When they find that they have no voice they leave, usually after a couple of years.   Only by adopting a radical approach will we break this cycle of decline.   I set out below the measures that need to be taken.   It is a check list to which all parties should comply:
·         Party constitutions should be capable of being altered by the members of the Party on the basis of one member, one vote, if a clear majority vote in favour of change.
·         There should be an Annual General Meeting of the Party to which all members are invited.
·         The Chairman of the Party should be responsible for the Party Organisation.
·         The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party should be elected by the members of the Party.
·         The Chairman of the Party should present an Annual Report on the Party organisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Party for adoption by the members.
·         The Treasurer of the Party should present the Annual Accounts of the Party to the Annual General Meeting for adoption by the members.
·         The Chairman of the Committee on Candidates should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on candidate selection at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
·         The Chairman of any policy groups should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on their workings at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
·         Motions for debate on policy should be allowed at the Party’s Conference and voted upon.

            The most important of these provisions is the ability to change the Party’s constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote.
             If we believe in democracy the fundamental requirement for political parties is:
“No political Party should be registered with the Electoral Commission unless it has a democratic constitution which can be changed by a clear majority of its members on the basis of one member one vote.”
            By adopting the above, participation would be guaranteed for party members.   Some parties already have some of the above provisions in their constitutions.   The Conservative Party has none of them.   The Labour Party is still dominated by the Trade Unions although moves are afoot to have One Member One Vote.   Both Conservative and Labour operate electoral colleges which distort democracy by breaching the principle of One Person, One Vote of equal value.  
           
            For years our two main political parties have protested that the decline in membership is because membership is a redundant concept.   People have other things to do.   They are too busy.   They join single issue pressure groups.    Rather than give any power to members the oligarchies would rather retain all power in a diminishing Party.  The Scottish National Party has demonstrated just how wrong they are.   In September 2014 at the time of the Scottish Referendum their membership stood at approximately 25,000.   In just three months they have increased it to over 100,000 so how does the Scottish National Party compare with the Conservative Party?
The Scottish National Party:
·         Has quarterly newsletters to members.
·         Policy is determined at their annual Conference.
·        Their Officers are all elected by their members including their Leader and Deputy Leader      who are elected annually.
·       They can change their Constitution on the basis of One Member One Vote with a two       thirds majority.
           
They are a democratic Party!
            What a comparison with the Conservative party where the Chairman and Treasurer of the Party are appointed by the Leader, so are unaccountable to the membership.   There is no Annual General Meeting of members, so there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies.      The Annual Accounts of the Party are not tabled for approval at an AGM.    The selection of parliamentary candidates of the Party is controlled centrally.   The Party Board can and does take control of any Constituency Association, which does not toe the line.   The infamous clause 17 of their constitution states: “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”, and this makes the rest of the constitution meaningless.
            What does a member get from membership of the Conservative Party?   Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member.   There were meetings at area and national level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation.   Social gatherings emphasised the tribal feeling and sense of belonging.   The Party Conference was run by the voluntary party and it had motions for debate.   Votes were taken at the end of the debates and although they were not binding, they reflected the views of the members.   Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous.   The Party had three distinct sections - the parliamentary party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation.   There were checks and balances in the distribution of power.   All of these were swept away in 1998 with disastrous result.
           
Policies
            Who determines policy?   Of the two main political parties, policy in the Conservative Party is decided by the Leader and is constructed by a small coterie of people around him.   In the 2014 European Parliament election the Leader of the Conservative MEPs only discovered what was in the manifesto on the day it was published.   The Conservative Party no longer goes through the charade of pretending that the members of the Party have any say.   There are no motions for debate at the Conservative Party Conference.   The Conservative Policy Forum has little, if any influence on policy.    The Labour Party has the National Policy Forum and policy discussion papers.   Its conference sets the “framework” of policy, but the days when it was the conference which decided policy are over.
            Policy in the Liberal Democrat Party is determined by their Party conference and it was their Conference which had the final say on the Coalition Agreement.   Ironically, as soon as they got into government they changed their rules so that their MPs now will have the final say on a Coalition Agreement.   Power corrupts!
            Contrast the approach of the three main parties with the three political parties whose membership is increasing.   In the Scottish National Party, UKIP and the Green Party, policy is decided at their National Conferences.   Perhaps when people have a say in policy they take ownership of the policy and are better able to propagate it?   By allowing members to participate you increase membership.

Candidates
            Why cannot any registered member of the Labour or Conservative Parties be a candidate, subject only to vetting to ensure that they have no criminal convictions and comply with electoral law?   It should be up to the members of the Parties to determine who shall be their candidate.   This is a fundamental principle.   If the members do not decide, who does and how are they accountable to the members?
            The selections of parliamentary candidates of our political Parties are controlled centrally.   They do this by controlling the Approved List of candidates.  
            We have heard a lot recently about how the range of candidates should be widened and the Conservative Party have made much of Open Primaries.   The model for Open Primaries is the United States so how do Conservative Open Primaries compare?
            In the United States anyone can stand.   In the Conservative Party the candidates are sifted and three or four candidates put forward.   In many States electors have to register support for the Party in order to vote.   With the Conservatives anyone on the Electoral Roll can vote in an Open Postal Primary or an Open Meeting Primary, even if they are members of another Party.
            The candidates in the United States raise their own funds for campaigning in the Primary.   The Conservative Party pays for a postal primary.   The costs in Totnes amounted to £38,000.   There are only half a dozen constituencies in the country that could afford this, so unless the Party at national level pays or State Funding is given postal Primaries will be few and far between.
            Campaigns in the United States are usually prolonged, giving plenty of time to investigate the candidates.   The campaigns run by the Conservatives are strictly limited in time.
            Caucus meetings of registered voters are held in the United States at which the merits of the different candidates are debated and then voted upon.   These are banned by the Conservative Party.
            A distinction should be drawn between Open Primaries where there is a postal ballot as in Totnes and Open meeting Primaries.   The most common, because of costs are the Open Meeting Primaries.   The Conservative Party imposes a number of restrictions on Open Meeting Primaries:
            The meetings are advertised in the local paper so there is no guarantee that every    elector is aware that the selection is taking place.
            At the meeting no debate is allowed between the candidates – they are not even    allowed to be on the platform together.
            The elector must be present for the entire meeting and cannot leave the room for any         reason.   Contrast this with a postal primary where the elector doesn’t have to hear      any candidate before voting.
            Limits are imposed by Central Office on the amount of money candidates can spend         on their campaigns.
            The vote on the final adoption of the selected candidate is by Conservative Party members.
            It can be seen from the above that there are major differences between what the Conservatives call Open Primaries and what in practise most people understand as Open Primaries.   The Conservative Open Primaries are a gimmick.   The people and the media have been hoodwinked into believing that the process is open.   It is not.   The process is controlled in detail by the Party hierarchy.   There is also the danger that the selection can be manipulated by the members of other parties, who can vote for the weakest candidate.   The Conservative Party does not care, because it has decided on who the candidates will be.
            Some Constituency Associations now run Open primaries for local government elections.   In these cases the sift of candidates is done by people accountable to the members of the particular Association, so the fundamental objections do not apply.
            In Hong Kong in 2014 the people took to the streets in protest at the Chinese Communist Party imposing a short list of four candidates for the people to choose from.   Yet this is the very same process that is used by the Labour and Conservative Parties in the United Kingdom.
            All the other main political Parties operate with approved lists for parliamentary candidates but because they are more democratic than the two main Parties there is democratic accountability of those who decide who can be candidates.

Funding
            There is no doubt that the public’s perception of politics is influenced by the way in which the political parties are funded.   Big donors or Trade Union Leaders have more access to the Party hierarchies so more opportunity to influence. “Cash for honours” is continuously levelled at the Conservative party.   “Controlled by and funded by the Trade Unions” is levelled at the Labour Party.   People believe that money buys influence in politics.   There needs to be a complete overhaul of party funding with a cap on donations of £5,000.   There may have to be a transitional period for this to be brought in.
            It is estimated that 50% of the Conservative Party’s income is from financial institutions i.e. fat cat Bankers and Hedge Fund Managers and 80% of the Labour Party’s income is from the Trade Unions.

Social Media
            The development of social media has been a lifeline to our main political parties.   Twitter, Facebook, email, have all improved the Parties ability to communicate at little cost.   A daily email requesting a £10 donation to several hundred thousand supporters brings in a substantial amount of cash particularly when those supporters have been targeted for their views.
            The appointment of Jim Messina (former social media guru to President Obama) as an adviser is an indication that the Conservative Party believe that the way forward is to organise our campaigns as in the United States by gathering up supporters rather than relying on members.   The Labour Party has made a similar appointment.   What of course is forgotten is that the Presidential Election in the United States costs approximately $6 billion.   Support is bought.   Canvassers are paid.   Because of the financial restrictions on campaign spending we cannot do this.

Conclusions
            With the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, and the Scottish Nationalist Party, not forgetting the Democratic Unionist party we are now in an era of multi party politics.   Who now knows which seats are marginal?  
            By one of those moments of irony the next General Election will be fought on an Electoral Register drawn up by individual registration rather than household registration.   When this was done by the Northern Ireland [Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002] 10% of the Register disappeared.   The origins of political parties were as Registration Societies.   Their main function was to ensure that their supporters were all registered to vote.   This job will now be resurrected, except that there will not be the Party activists to carry it out.
            The most important factor in the General Election will be “feet on the ground”   At the margin it is the canvassing and the knocking up that will count most.   For that you need volunteers and the most committed volunteers are members.   The political Parties will ignore this at their peril and unless our two main Parties reform themselves into democratic organisations their decline will continue until they cease to exist.
            The Scottish National Party with 100,000 members is fighting in 59 seats.   It is the only Party that can mount  a “feet on the ground” campaign in all the seats it is contesting.   The other parties that are fighting 650 seats would need a million members each to fight a similar campaign.   Makes you think!   It ought to make the Parties think too!   You can virtually guarantee that turnout in Scotland in the General Election will be higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom.