Are political parties over?Saturday 22 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Garden Room State of the Nation 2016
At one point this summer, in the wake of the Brexit vote and amid deeply fractious national conventions, all four main political parties in the US and UK appeared to be undergoing an unprecedented simultaneous crisis. In this regard they were following a trend of other Western nations where parties who have dominated the post-war era have faced electoral wipe-out. In Britain, the vote to leave the EU has brought this trend to the fore: every one of Britain’s major political parties seems to be in some sort of crisis. Divisions, resignations and leadership elections have come thick and fast in recent months. Labour seems to be doing its best to tear itself apart in a leadership election that illustrates the huge divide between its MPs and members, with both claiming to represent ‘Labour voters’ who may or may not prove to exist at the next election. The Conservatives only avoided a similar crisis in their leadership election after MP Andrea Leadsom withdrew for the sake of party unity. And while the Liberal Democrats have seen a surge in membership after the referendum, they are still a long way from recovering the 48 seats they lost in 2015. UKIP is also riven by faction fighting and leadership squabbles.
This turmoil seems to indicate a broader crisis for the modern political party: what do they stand for any more? If once Labour was once the party of a mass labour movement and the Conservatives represented business, large and small, today the ‘political class’ often appears to form a constituency of its own, with no roots in broader society. For some, this is an opportunity for a new pluralistic politics, with the likes of Paul Mason arguing that Corbyn’s Labour should remake itself as a ‘social movement’ in the model of Spain’s Podemos or Greece’s Syriza. Others worry that British and American politics could be entering a new era of one-party politics for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the possibility over the summer that the SNP could become the UK’s official opposition suggested that not all traditional political parties are dying: similarly it could be argued that it was the sustained electoral threat of UKIP which pushed Cameron to offer the fateful referendum on EU membership. But can we expect new parties to emerge? An EU-friendly centrist party made up of liberal Tories and the Labour right; a Corbynite left party in alliance with the Greens and Scottish nationalists, a right-wing anti-immigration party uniting UKIP and the Tory right?
Do the travails of political parties represent a refreshing departure from old-fashioned left-right politics, or a fragmentation into niche interests? Is there a danger of exaggerating the scale of crisis for mainstream parties, glossing over the often deep and bitter divisions of yesteryear, or is there something unique to their contemporary parlous state? What are the new battlegrounds of political life, and do we need parties to represent them?
chairman, Conservatives for Liberty
member of Parliament; author, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health
journalist and former Liberal Democrat advisor, specialising in politics and education
student & political activist; former member of Dudley Youth Council; founder and chair of Political Sweep
Will the Labour party split?, Brian Taylor, BBC News, August 2016
British democracy in terminal decline, warns report, Juliette Jowit, Guardian, July 2012
The decline of the political party: what comes after?, Tony Wright, Democratic Audit UK, August 2013
Can UK political parties be saved from extinction?, Brian Wheeler, BBC News, August 2011
The party's (largely) over, The Economist, October 2010