George Galloway was right. I can hardly believe that I have typed that but on at least one thing he really is right. In his post-election interviews he said that:
“There are very large numbers of people completely disenchanted and alienated from the political process and from the mainstream political parties”.
And he is spot on. The problem is that the mainstream political parties can’t see it or choose not to. On the whole the big three UK Parties operate as a closed shop. They talk the language of reaching out to communities and engagement but they don’t really mean it. Instead they operate a series of cosy closed and highly secretive cabals that suit everyone involved and no one who isn’t. That may sound harsh but it is pretty accurate.
Let’s take selecting candidates for election which is absolutely a closed shop. Candidates are selected from a tiny group of activists who have to preform strange rituals to impress other activists in order to try and be selected. You have to stop having much of a life outside of politics in order to focus your efforts. You have to endure endless and often pointless meetings held in bizarre locations and appear to enjoy them. You have to learn how to access blocks of flats with entry phones in order to leaflets that no one reads. And you have to make sure that you learn the language of the political elite, the lexicon of the politically initiated within your chosen political tribe. And all of this just to be considered. The chances are that the whole thing will end up being stitched up in some way or other anyway and your best bet is that you are the beneficiary of said stitch-up.
"The problem is that the mainstream political parties can’t see it or choose not to. On the whole the big three UK Parties operate as a closed shop. They talk the language of reaching out to communities and engagement but they don’t really mean it. Instead they operate a series of cosy closed and highly secretive cabals that suit everyone involved and no one who isn’t. That may sound harsh but it is pretty accurate."
Or let’s take rational argument and debate which cannot happen within the cabal, in fact has to be stamped out. Put simply, if your side’s front bench says something then it must be true and has to be supported. If the other side’s front bench say it then it is a lie, worse a self-interested lie and must be opposed. So Labour opposes Free Schools because they are a Tory policy; even though for all intents and purposes they are academy schools which Labour introduced. Labour opposes the current welfare reform legislation because it is ‘Tory’ reform and therefore bad; even though Labour would have passed something very similar. The Tories accused Labour of cutting equipment from our troops and say it is typical of their attitude towards our armed forces; and then in Government scrap our aircraft carriers. They condemned Labour for blocking any referendum on EU treaties as evidence of their rampant Europhilia; and then in Government block a referendum on changes to an EU treaty.
Or take policy development within parties which is essentially a fix. Structures are created and the language of inclusion and openness is used to justify them. But in reality the process is exclusive, deliberately designed to make involvement more difficult. Certainly more difficult if you are not in the cabal, all but impossible if you are one of the 96% of the population who are not members of a political party.
In fact the party machines have a language and culture that justifies this exclusion. Member engagement is seen a more important than engaging the public. Allowing the public a glimpse of the inner workings of political life is fought tooth and nail by activists who want to preserve their privileges. So attempts to engage the public end up being barely that at all. They are grudging and desperately unattractive offers to the public to visit the Party rather than the Party going out to visit the public. The result are misnamed ‘open days’ at Conferences which you have to apply to in advance. Or handfuls of ‘real people’ being hand-picked to hear a speech after being carefully vetted for suitability. It’s not engagement at all and in fact just reinforces the sense of separation.
My favourite comment from party members is the one about ‘I did/I didn’t hear that on the doorstep’. As if the odd and snatched conversations between a party canvasser and a member of the public is a rational way to gauge opinion! But to hear activists talk you’d think that there is no purer and efficacious way to ascertain what is really going on out there than knocking on the doors of total strangers whilst wearing a rosette and carrying a clipboard!
So it all ends up in a closed and cosy world that benefits a tiny proportion of the 4% of electors who choose to join a political party. This tiny, exclusive and closed elite have developed a system that justifies its own existence to itself. That has a collective belief in its own sense of superiority. That creates jobs and elected positions from within its own ranks. And that is alienated from the vast majority of the public. But they can’t see it. And to be honest even if they could they wouldn’t want to change it because they like it just the way it is.
It’s why there attempts to look in touch look so desperately staid and inauthentic. Ed Miliband might think that buying sausage rolls makes him look in touch; most people suspect that he dumped them when he got round the corner. David Cameron might think that playing badminton makes him look like action man; most people thought he looked a prat.
But it can’t go on. A healthy democracy needs healthy political parties and right about now we have sick and dying parties. And in order to become healthy they will need to open up. Selections need to be open to the public not closed as must policy development. In fact central control generally has to reduce so that innovation and creativity can thrive. And the emphasis should be on being in partnership with electors not being their master. It will certainly take a damn sight more than any of the so called reforms that the main parties have tried so far.
The big political parties are seen as irrelevant by most voters. For now however they tend to vote for them come election time, even if unenthusiastically. But as Bradford West shows you can’t take even that for granted forever.
Reproduced with acknowledgements to Dale & Co., the current affairs mega blog by Iain Dale & Friends