What are Political Parties for?

What are political parties for?

You may have your own ideas about that. However, the official answer is that they came into existence alongside mass democracy, to identify and support candidates in elections, to mobilise voters to vote for them and to formulate policies around which candidates and voters can coalesce.

If so, they are failing mightily in my town. At the last by-election for the Town Council, all the three main parties tried to find a candidate. The Lib Dems came up with a candidate who was elected – good for him. At the last moment someone stood as an unofficial conservative – which in practical terms meant that he received no support from the conservative party. The Labour Party did not have a candidate. The turnout was 13%. As for policy, we have no Local Plan, no strategy and a general sense of drift and hopelessness about our local government.

Why is this?

There are a great many reasons – but the most important is hardly mentioned at all. It is that civic life is becoming more and more geriatric.

I can offer no carefully researched statistical analysis to prove this. I’m hoping someone will read this and decide they now have that elusive PhD topic they had been worrying about. All I have to offer is experience. To avoid causing offence to my neighbours I am going to put this by way of the example of a fictitious dominoes society in a fictitious market town, Greater Grumbling, in Barsetshire.

The Greater Grumbling Dominoes Society (GGDS) is thought to have been founded in about 1900. Like most such societies it has a chair (in the modern, correct and non-furniture sense) and a committee, a core group of dedicated members and a wider group of more casual ones. Dominoes is a game for all ages – let us suppose that the median age of the membership of the GGDS was just under 34 in 1974 which, coincidentally was the UK median age at that time.  What does it look like now, when the national median age is over 40?

From experience, I suspect you would find two things – that median age of the members is now well over 60 and there are fewer of them – virtually none under the age of 40. The wider group of casual players has virtually disappeared – the core group of dedicated members has shrunk, but remains just as dedicated.

In the past, say up until 1980 or so, lower life expectancy made for a higher turnover of membership.  The prospects for a younger member to get onto the committee or to become chair were far better – the grim reaper would ensure the necessary vacancies. Conversely, the need to recruit younger members, if the society was to survive, would have been more obvious.

A high proportion of the current members of the GGDS were in fact playing dominoes in 1974, if not in Greater Grumbling, then elsewhere. New members are not actively sought or necessarily encouraged. Meetings are not advertised. The Greater Grumbling Times used to cover tournaments, but went out of business in the 1990s. Sometimes, a member introduces a friend, or a member of the GGDS’s great rival, the Moaning on the Marsh Dominoes Association moves into the neighbourhood and switches allegiance.  However, most people who live in Greater Grumbling have no idea that there is a Dominoes Society.

The Chair would say that he and his Committee are right on top of technology – most of them check their computers for emails most days of the week. He has promised his wife that he’ll think of stepping down when he’s 80, but he’d like to stay on the Committee – after all he’s been on it for the best part of 20 years and experience still counts for something. As for all this talk of internet dominoes, or of playing dominoes against a computer, it’s just a fad that will soon pass – he has seen them all come and go over the years. You can’t replace human cunning and experience with a machine.

The sad thing, he’d add, is that young people today just aren’t interested in dominoes, or at least not proper dominoes as played by the GGDS. They don’t have the time and anyway they spend all day fiddling with their i-things. Someone did suggest having meetings on Saturday mornings when it might be easier for people with families to come, perhaps even bringing the kids. They’d tried something like that for a while in Moaning on the Marsh. Personally, he wasn’t against children as such – he started when his dad used to bring him along. But frankly children were expected to behave in those days and anyway Saturday meetings wouldn’t wash – they’d been meeting at 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays for so long it had become part of their lives.

Of course it’s sad – he can remember the days when you’d get over a 100 turn up for the annual tournament whereas nowadays you’d be lucky to get a dozen. Probably there will come a time when the GGDS just dies out. But that’s life isn’t it? In the meantime why be gloomy? There’s plenty of time to play some good games eh?

I rest my case and commend the Greater Grumbling Dominoes Association as a paradigm of those real local clubs and societies – including local political parties – which have become fossilised, resistant to change, out of touch, and concerned only to preserve things as they are long enough to see the current incumbents out. After them, the deluge, but so what?

In other words, this is just another way in which baby boomers have pulled up the ladder behind them.

One encouraging thing is that it hasn’t happened to all local institutions. Those concerned with sport, in particular, seem to be thriving. But then not many people in their 60s and 70s play competitive sports.

Another encouraging thing is that there are many examples of new groups forming and of people working around the gerontocracy.

That, I think, is exactly what we have to do with local government. We have to work round the gerontocracy and elect independent candidates. If our recent by-election is anything to go by, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

On a national level, the parties still seem to function in the sense of putting up credible candidates, mobilising voters and formulating policies. That is because parliamentary elections are first past the post. If we adopt proportional representation, we are lost.

2 thoughts on “What are Political Parties for?

  1. Bravo Jan, another thought provoking article – but you may be shooting at the wrong target.
    I would suggest another major reason why politics is becoming more “geriatric” maybe to do with the last issue you mention – First Past the Post vs PR. One of the reasons why non-geriatrics are disinterested from engaging in politics is precisely because if they vote under the first past the post system, as often as not it doesn’t matter how they vote, their views will never be represented. In particular seats, the same party will always win.
    Look at the Greens, UKIP and SNP at the last general election; the Greens had 1m voters and 1 MP, UKIP 3.8m voters and 1 MP, SNP 1.4m voters but 56 MPs. Under a PR system, the Greens would have about 23 seats, UKIP 83 seats and the SNP 25, a much better representation of voters’ preferences (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32601281).
    Until voters views are better represented by the voting system turnouts will probably remain low, except perhaps in by elections where special conditions often prevail – e.g. the recent Richmond Park by election had a 53.5% turn-out. When voters are given an opportunity where their individual votes will make a difference, e.g. the Scottish Independence referendum, which had a turnout of 84.6% (the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the United Kingdom since the introduction of universal suffrage), and the EU referendum, 72.2%, turnouts are likely to be better.
    We have PR for Euro elections and the London assembly, so it may be time to trust voters and adopt a fair system of PR for all elections, so giving younger voters a real incentive to participate in politics, local or national.
    We just need to find a way of avoiding the sort of problems you outlined in your article on MEPs! And have you heard about “walking football”? – an increasingly popular competitive sport for “geriatrics” of all ages. I commend it to the Greater Grumbling Dominoes Society.

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    1. You make some good points – thank you. I did not say so, but recent experience with MEPs reflected a problem I was reading about with the Weimar Republic – that legislators elected by PR become answerable to interest groups rather than voters. As a voter who (like most voters) does not belong to a political party, I would rather vote for an individual rather than a party list.

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