Eye-catching headlines are stock in trade for any media. Yesterday, my attention was grabbed by British democracy in terminal decline, warns report in The Guardian newspaper. So I have read it. Not just the Guardian account, but the report itself from the Democratic Audit - How Democratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit . Not every word (yet) I confess. The expression 'terminal decline' only appears once, in the Executive Summary, and not at all in the main body of the report. But let's not quibble, it got people reading. To get through 463 pages asap, my technique was to use 'Find' on the keywords 'parties' and then in the key section for me: 2.2 Democratic role of political parties, where I switched to the keyword 'members'. Very revealing it proved too.
I immediately spotted a factual error about Labour Party membership trends in the mid-1990s. Part of the NuLab myth is that a recovery in Labour Party membership was brief and wholly attributable to newly elected Leader Tony Blair. The authors of the Democratic Audit (DA) repeated it, even though Figure 2.2f in its report shows Labour Party membership increasing from 1992 onwards until 1997, ie pre-Blair. (That prompted a brief exchange with DA on Twitter, in which my observations were acknowledged. My hope is this will lead to a constructive dialogue about broadening and deepening democratic audit work inside our mainstream political parties.)
That should not detract from a critique of the report, which could be read as writing off political parties. I had a similar problem with the Power Report (2007). Without that detailed democratic audit work of the political parties themselves, it is relatively easy to misunderstand membership trends in Britain and elsewhere among western democracies.
There is no mention in the DA Report of the LabOUR Commission Interim Report (2007), or the issues it raised about party democracy inside the Labour Party based on evidence. Nor was there any reference to the Electoral Commission report on the funding of political parties (2004).
Instead, we have, what have become for the dwindling band of party democrats like myself, a series of familiar assertions. I will cite a few examples - in Sn 2 Representative and accountable government, paragraph 6. is headed:
Continued dysfunctionality of the 'first past the post’ electoral system for the House of Commons.
To which the obvious question is what 'dysfunctionality'? Did the electorate, to a woman and man, boycott the polls? Did they all put numbers in orders of preference against candidates standing for election, instead of 'X'? No, of course not - this is elite-speak for 'proportional representation' being a better voting system in a democracy than 'first-past-the-post'.
In Sn 2.1.3 Candidates & parties: registration and media access
it is important to note a number of long-term trends in party campaigning and political communications which have important implications for measures intended to promote fair access for candidates and parties to media and communications.
Well that may have been the case until former Labour Leader, Tony Blair, nearly bankrupted the Labour Party after the 2005 General Election. but since? A rather different set of considerations have been in play that have reshaped campaigning and political communication due to a shortage of money.
Then in Sn 2.2 Democratic role of political parties, DA recall:
In our 2002 Audit we suggested that 'British political parties are not likely to increase in size ever again’ (Beetham et al., 2002, p. 114). The evidence we have compiled for this Audit reaffirms our past assessment that declining party membership may prove irreversible, not least because the problem may be greater than we were previously aware. As Childs (2006, p. 69) notes, 'the era of mass parties is clearly over’. It is not just party membership which is in decline, but also party activism (Driver, 2011)
Well, is that really surprising in the absence of no political party leader actively championing political party membership since before the 1997 General Election, stripping out members' rights to have a say either in policy-making or increasingly in candidate selection?
Then the the final insult for us democratic socialists, in Sn 2.2.4 Funding of political parties which concludes:
Some means of channelling state funding so that it bolsters the efforts of parties to recruit more members and engage more widely with the electorate is therefore essential (Wilks-Heeg and Crone, 2010a).
Why? Why should taxpayers money, which would be better used (IMHO) relieving poverty and encouraging growth and jobs be used to subsidise political parties recruit, when members don't have a say, all for the benefit of well-paid careerists who have not only voted themselves gilt-edged pensions, but had their hands in the till and still can't be trusted? End of rant.
In the absence of serious and regular audit of the workings of our political parties, no-one can be certain that our democracy is in terminal decline, the era of mass membership political parties is over, or that channelling state funding to political parties is essential. That includes the DA.
As for the future, there is an interesting clue in the Introduction to Sn 1.2 The rule of law and access to justice, the DA asserts:
The rule of law is widely accepted as essential to the functioning of democracy.
Indeed. And which institutions' internal affairs are not directly regulated by the rule of law? Political parties. This is not a path which I personal wish to advocate. But unless our political parties submit to open and transparent democratic audit, then maybe that is the only remedy left to regulate them in the interests of democracy.
In the meantime, I would hope more curiosity can be aroused in the academic community than has been evidenced in DA report 2012 about how our political parties have been hollowed out, and how they might be revived. Why bother? Well, I can't think of any other institution in our society able to form governments.