Support for political parties is collapsing but the issue is missing from the main platform debates at the three party conferences. Demos, the independent think tank, has responded by organising a fringe meeting called After the Party: Can Labour restore trust in politics?
Speakers at a fringe meeting include Tessa Jowell, Douglas Alexander and David Lammy. These high-profile government ministers will discuss this largely unspoken crisis in party politics at Labour party conference on Tuesday 28 September.
In major essay on political parties published before Labour party conference, Tom Bentley, director of Demos, and senior researcher Paul Miller argue that parties urgently need to renew their democratic legitimacy, or face collapse.
Combined membership of the main three parties in Britain has fallen from 3.5m in the 1950s to less than 500,000 today. The weakening of mainstream political parties helps explain the sudden break-through of populist parties such as UKIP in Britain and the strength of single-issue campaigns.
“The largest political gathering of the autumn season won’t be the Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem party conferences but the estimated 30,000 who will converge on London for the European Social Forum,” they write in the Financial Times Magazine tomorrow (Saturday). “The big question for the political season is: can these network-based organisations continue the role carried out by political parties for most of the 20th century.”
The Demos essay paints a bleak picture for mainstream parties in Britain and across the developed world. Party membership is plummeting and parties are increasingly dependent on rich benefactors. Opinion polls show a weakening allegiance to political parties across the developed world, even among their core voters.
In the US, the rise of independent political campaigns is undermining the local base of mainstream parties, particularly the Democrats. The so-called 527s such as Moveon.org and America Coming Together (ACT) are draining grassroots support and funding from party organisations.
In the UK, there is no evidence of ‘apathy’ with a range of single-issue groups, from anti-war campaigners to pro-hunt protesters, showing that they can effectively mobilise support.
“The mainstream political parties are failing to convince a younger generation of activists of the value of working through political parties,” says Tom Bentley of Demos. “On current membership trends, parties will be facing oblivion within a decade. Instead of competing for advantage within a declining system, parties need to start widen their supporter base.
“We need a process for democratic renewal. That process has to start with an honest acknowledgement by leading politicians of all the major parties that their parties have a problem.”
After the Party: Can Labour restore public trust in politics?
Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP; Douglas Alexander MP; David Lammy MP;
Kierra Box, co-founder, Hands Up for Peace; Martin Kettle, The Guardian; Hilary Wainwright, author of Reclaiming the State; Tom Bentley, Demos.
6-8pm, Tuesday 28 September 2004, Sussex Arts Club, 7 Ship Street, Brighton
Notes to editors
- Demos is an independent think tank with a long-standing interest in democratic renewal. It is current looking at ways to restore public faith in democracy at local, national and European level.
- An essay called ‘Party Poopers’ on the crisis in political parties is published by the Financial Times Magazine on Saturday 25 September 2004.
- Tom Bentley is the director of Demos and a former special advisor to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary. Paul Miller is a senior researcher at Demos with a special interest in grassroots political activism. He is a former campaigner for Jubilee 2000.