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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it remains for me to thank my noble friend the Minister for his typically robust reply and all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. I thank the noble mob on this side of the House—it is a shame and a pity that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, did not have the support of her mob. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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Political Parties

6.5 p.m.

Viscount Chandos rose to call attention to the role which political parties play in public life; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, your Lordships' House is distinguished by the presence of, and the great contributions by, its Cross-Bench Members. It is hard to find a parliament in the world where there is any comparable, substantial element of independent membership. Switzerland is perhaps the closest. Even if we have not as yet reached a consensus about the next stage of reform of this House, there is widespread conviction that its future composition should include the independent component that exists today.

For that reason I hope that the debate that I have the privilege to introduce today will have an unusual resonance: an exploration of the role of political parties in public life from a Chamber with a unique balance between party political and independent Members and, even beyond that, a justified tradition of independence on all Benches.

I am delighted to see on the list of speakers today members of, I think, five political parties, including not only those well represented in this House and another place, but also others such as the Green Party, in the unmistakable form of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, whose parliamentary representation is more limited, a subject about which I suspect he, and I am sure other speakers, will have more to say.

Among the small collection of press cuttings that I have relating to my political and parliamentary life, there is only one that my wife thought worthy of pinning to the kitchen board. In it, the then political editor of the Daily Express, before his move, no doubt to avoid being asked to join in the Basil Fawlty-like antics of that paper's management, to his current position at the Spectator, nominated me, as a result of my support for the Government's proposals for the first stage of the reform of this House, as "Crawler of the Week".

I am conscious that I may be encouraging a further award, as I now owe my position in your Lordships' House to my nomination by a political party as opposed to the accident of birth. So, to my declaration that political parties are the lifeblood, the very essence of parliamentary democracy, I am quite prepared to find a response, to echo Christine Keeler, of "Well, he would, wouldn't he?". I will assert, nonetheless, that political parties have enriched public life over many centuries and continue to do so; and, most importantly, they should play a key role in the re-engagement of public interest in politics and trust in the political process. Of course, it is always difficult to separate clearly the role of the individual and the contribution of a party to which he or she belongs. However, if we look at the great reforms and political events of the past 200 years, parties have been at the centre of them: from the abolition of slavery to the introduction of the minimum wage and the foundation of the National Health Service to the right to buy council houses.

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The support for Winston Churchill in 1940 by the Labour Party (notwithstanding the story of mis-communication over the acceptability of Halifax) demonstrates the critical role of a constructive opposition. The very issues that have stretched parties to their limits or beyond—Corn Law reform, Ireland, Europe and even Iraq—represent a testament to the vibrancy of the political process and the parties' place in that.

Even when the running has been made by single issue groups—as, most notably perhaps, in the case of women's suffrage—I would argue that it has been the ultimate interaction with one or more of the political parties that has ultimately led to successful change.

Professor Dennis Kavanagh has written that political parties reconcile conflicting interests, act as vehicles of participation, assist in the recruitment of people for public office, strengthen democratic control, strengthen choice—through the provision of packages of ideas and policies—strengthen communication between government and society, and assist in the enforcement of accountability.

We recognise in other countries the essential desirability of a multi-party system for the creation of an effective parliamentary democracy and the essential incorporation of human rights in those societies. Formal or de facto one-party states are little better than overt dictatorships, and arguably can be worse as they cover the vices of autocracy with a deceptive veneer of democratic legitimacy.

As America emerged at the end of the 18th century from the shadow of empire and sought to establish a society of its own design, there were strong voices for doing so without the incorporation of political parties—a demonstration perhaps that disillusion with political parties is not an entirely new thing. But, try as they might, they could not devise a parliamentary democracy that did not ultimately depend on the central role of political parties.

For all of this, however, there is no shortage of evidence that public interest in politics and political parties has been declining—falling party memberships; sharply lower turn-out at the last general election; opinion polls that show young people are more likely to join a single issue organisation than a political party; and the combined membership of the two largest environmental groups exceeding that of either of the two largest political parties. Why is that and what can be done about it?

My noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in a speech on democratic engagement last week analysed both the underlying trends and their possible causes. I agree with him that not all the reasons are necessarily ominous. In a changing society with improving economic trends and government initiatives benefiting many—but not all—people, it is reasonable to expect that many people want a lower level of engagement with politics and political parties, placing greater priority and value on family and friends, work and leisure interests.

However, on several counts, that analysis offers no grounds for complacency. Democratic disengagement is most marked within the lowest income groups, so economic contentment at least cannot be an overwhelming factor; and even among those who may feel some degree of

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contentment, we should think carefully before allowing a declining level of political interest and participation to become embedded.

I would not want to leave the impression that my noble and learned friend viewed these trends with any more complacency than I do. My noble friend the Minister, in winding up, may well address some of the same issues and ideas that are humming around their department.

I should like to use the remainder of my introduction to touch briefly on five issues—trust, patronage, the parties' challenge to renew their appeal in a changing society, the linkage between political parties and their representation at every level of democracy, and party funding.

My noble and learned friend rather disarmingly said in his speech last week:

    "The evidence seems to show that trust in politicians to put the national interest first over party interest was never high, is not high now and has fallen".

If we read the great satirists and writers over the ages and look at the contemporary cartoonists, we find plenty of support for the low starting point to which my noble friend refers—no "Golden Age" in that context.

From this low starting point, therefore, I wonder whether trust has really fallen? And, if so, has it been by any more than that applying to many other institutions in a society where there is openly less deference towards established institutions than in the past? There is no doubt that political parties in and out of government should strive ceaselessly to improve the way they can, on the one hand, provide leadership, while on the other, still leave the electorate with reasonable, realistic expectations. A formidably difficult challenge, which I suspect armchair pundits, whether in the Lobby, the pub or fashionable dinner parties inevitably underestimate. So I do not question this perceived decline in trust in order to advocate a reduction in these efforts. Rather, I offer it as another case where we should be careful not to allow a desirable sensitivity to public opinion to create an exaggerated sense of inadequacy—in psychobabble terms, a sense of collective low self-esteem. Not an affliction, I suppose, that is conventionally associated with politicians.

I was struck when I read a short and stimulating book written a few years ago by the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, entitled The Purpose of Politics. In 176 pages, I do not believe that he referred once to political parties or their role, even in a chapter headed "Politics as a Constructive Art". In contrast, the great former leader of his party, Disraeli, said:

    "I believe that without party, Parliamentary Government is impossible."

And, possibly less reliably, he also had attributed to him the cry:

    "Damn your principles! Stick to your Party!"

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I do not cite this comparison to make a party-political point—there may still be time for that later—but to illustrate the mood of the age, where I sense that advocacy of party in politics has become the love that dare not speak its name.

Whether trust is low and declining, therefore, or just low, we must do everything we can to increase it. Over the last 10 years, the transparency of government and of politics has, I believe, been transformed. Started under the last Conservative government, if not under duress, but perhaps under crisis—and significantly enhanced since 1997 by this Government—this new openness is unequivocally to be welcomed. But with it has come a new challenge; to operate in government in political and public life, while being subject to an intensity of constant scrutiny that is far greater than that applying to practically any other walk of life. Premiership football, perhaps, being the most glaring exception.

I would not have it any other way. But I think that, if this is not a naively optimistic sentiment, all participants in public life and, critically, the media in their coverage should perhaps respond to this enhanced openness with a corresponding maturity in the way they treat information.

Government have exercised great patronage throughout history and, I believe, generally honestly and well. It is clearly right that party affiliation should not give any advantage to candidates for non-political office. Equally there is a risk that if party affiliation of any colour becomes seen—in a McCarthyite way—as an absolute disadvantage for anyone seeking a role in public life outside the strict parliamentary arena, then either or both public interest and the political system will be diminished.

Political parties need to recognise the changed society in which they now operate and, without compromising their fundamental raison d'entre, find new ways of engaging with their actual and prospective supporters. If we look over to the United States at the presidential campaign—and the Democratic primary leading up to it—it is clear that, even if Howard Dean proved spectacularly unsuccessful in his quest for the nomination, he has found ways of reaching parts of America that others could not reach. Not primarily, I believe, because of his success in appealing to the anti-war vote specifically, but much more through his harnessing of a powerful network—both metaphorically and, through the Internet, literally—of latent activists and supporters.

Above all, as my noble and learned friend argued last week, political parties will succeed in re-engaging the interests and support of different parts of society by putting forward programmes and policies that strongly connect with those people, offering in particular hope and ambition for the disadvantaged. If we believe that political parties are essential to parliamentary democracy then we must inexorably recognise that political parties need fair representation in Parliament and in all levels of elected bodies.

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The introduction of proportional representation for the European elections, mayoral elections and those to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales represent a huge step forward, but like, I am sure, other speakers, at least on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we must recognise that there is unfinished business. A more proportional voting system for Westminster elections is a necessary condition for achieving greater public democratic engagement. So, too, is reform of party funding. I very much look forward to the report on the subject later this summer by the Electoral Commission, and strongly hope that it will recommend some form of match funding for parties, combined with a cap on individual contributions.

I cannot end my remarks in praise of political parties without one unabashed statement of support for my party. I am sure that other noble Lords may feel the same about theirs. When I look back over the past seven years I feel real pride in the achievements of this Government: great steps towards the elimination of child poverty; the establishment of economic stability combined with a dynamic environment for innovation and growth; widespread constitutional and social reform; and vital initial moves to reform the provision of public services. I believe that that pride is widely shared by members and supporters of my party. That pride lies at the heart of the party's strength and, through that, the strength of our democracy. I beg to move for Papers.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, it is my privilege and pleasure to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for introducing an extremely important and interesting subject. This is a classic Wednesday debate. I hope that I will not embarrass him when I say that I agree with most of what he had to say. He quoted Disraeli's definition of a political party; I shall go back a little further, to Edmund Burke, in the 18th century. He defined a political party as,

    "a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed".

If one substitutes "men and women", that definition is as relevant today as it was when it was first given. Looking back, when a political party and its leaders have adopted that principle, it has usually been successful. When they have departed from those principles, they have usually paid a heavy price. Two obvious examples in the past century were Peel, over the reform of the Corn Laws, and Gladstone, over Irish Home Rule.

Like the noble Viscount, I should like to refer to some of the worrying features in political life today. As he said, people, particularly the young, are not joining political parties in the numbers that they used to. I remember the good old days when the Young Conservatives served as a great marriage bureau. I am sure that the same applied to other political parties, and no doubt the Cross Benches had a similar operation. It seems today that people are more

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attracted to one-issue groups, which, although they fulfil a valuable function, do not see politics in the round.

The other worrying feature, to which the noble Viscount also referred, is the poor turnout of voters. That has been a feature in local and European elections for some time, but it is now also appearing in general elections. As the noble Viscount reminded us, our forefathers fought long and hard to get universal suffrage in this country, but it no longer seems to be regarded as the prize of citizenship that it once was. That must be disturbing to anyone—including, I am sure, all noble Lords—who believes in responsible and representative government.

What is the reason for that apparent decline? There is a whole series of reasons. The main one is people's rising expectations. Twenty years ago we did not dream of the expectations for life and leisure that we have today. We are egged on by advertisers and the media to expect the moon. No wonder, in those circumstances, that governments of all colours do not always succeed in meeting people's expectations. Disappointment and apathy set in, and it is easy for people to say, "Why bother? They do not care about me." What is to be done? First, we are trying out new methods of voting, in addition to, or in place of, the traditional ballot box in the polling station on a Thursday. If those methods can be achieved without fraud or confusion, they are wholly desirable. However, they do not go to the heart of the problem.

I disagree with the noble Viscount on the financing of political parties. The Short and Cranborne money to enable parties in opposition to fulfil their parliamentary functions is valuable. It gives them broadly the equivalent of the Civil Service available to the government of the day. But I am very doubtful about extending that still further to the activities of political parties in the country. That could easily be resented and therefore counterproductive.

The referendum is now part of our constitutional arrangements, and the procedure is covered by law. I am bound to say that I am not enthusiastic, for three reasons. First, it tends to weaken the authority of Parliament and of parliamentarians using their judgment rather than following public opinion. Secondly, it is difficult to draft a question that will be readily understood by those asked to vote. Perhaps most important of all is the tendency of people to vote for or against the government of the day rather than on the issue before them. However, the referendum is here to stay, and if people feel more involved as a consequence of a referendum, that is all for the good. We should certainly have a referendum on such vital matters as the European constitution. It is not a tidying-up matter; it is one of major importance. I am very glad that the Government have conceded that the referendum will take place.

Whatever the solutions to the problems, we in Parliament and the political parties have a big responsibility. To some extent, we have failed to strike a chord in the hearts and minds of the British people. Too many people feel out of touch, and too many feel

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that we do not understand properly their hopes, ambitions, worries and fears. Too many people also, particularly in recent times, feel that governments say one thing and do another. Unless we can find ways to break down these barriers, the consequences for stability and good government in our country will be serious. If we succeed, as I am confident we will, we will add a new, splendid chapter to the political genius of the British people.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for initiating this debate today, calling attention to the role played by political parties in public life. It is an important, but neglected, issue. I thank him for his balanced contribution. I am particularly pleased at his reference to proportional representation, and I forgive him his one-minute party political broadcast.

There have been attempts to define a political party. The major element of a political party is its generalist nature, rather than being a single-issue pressure group. I have written down, "a loose grouping of men and women, nationally, regionally and locally based, with similar values and ethos, leading to principles, and then that is followed by policies". It is interesting that it is national, regional and local. Indeed, the main political parties have been regionally based and had regional organisations long before thoughts of devolution.

I perhaps ought to declare an interest, as a Liberal Democrat and a former Liberal, having had involvement politically at national, regional and local level. I am also a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, and a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, chairing its democracy committee. Those two organisations make grants in the general area of democracy.

To be effective, political parties need members. The numbers of those members have been going down hill fast for a long time. There is almost a secret at the level of decline. People do not want to own up that their party does not have quite as many members as they would like people to think it had. Members are needed; they are needed to be candidates. We are a few days away from a nomination day, when in metropolitan areas, because of the all-out nature of elections, political parties that want to be vibrant must fight all the seats, with the maximum number of candidates. That means that there is a bit of scratching in terms of those who are persuaded that perhaps it would be a wonderful thing if their name were to be on the ballot paper.

Activists are also needed. In some work done by the Joseph Rowntree trusts, on local government elections in Calderdale, Burnley and Oldham, it is interesting that the people are saying that they want to see people on doorsteps, and they want to be able to speak to representatives of those political parties. There is a decline in the numbers who are prepared to do that work and be the foot soldiers. There is a disinclination to join political parties. There is a perception that nice people do not do it.

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Yet, these political parties do change. If you look at the major parties, the Conservative Party was a one-nation party, and it changed itself into a rather different sort of party; the Labour Party was the old Labour Party, and has become new Labour; the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to become the Liberal Democrats. We have seen a resurgence in the national parties in Scotland and Wales. We have seen new entrants, and they—the Greens, the UKIP, the BNP—have a tendency to be on certain issues only. Particularly with the latter, it is worth making the point that if gaps are made, someone will fill them.

It is interesting that people compare the numbers involved in political parties with the numbers who join the RSPB and the National Trust. I do not know how active members are in those organisations, or whether they like the picture books that may come along. We need a climate where it is thought that membership of a political party is a high calling. It is a great shame, although I see an array of Bishops in front of me, that we do not have a Bishop or a Cross-Bencher taking part in this debate. Party politics is too important to leave to the politicos. Unless we are moving to a point where there is a post-political party politics en route, political parties are essential in terms of elected office, policy, campaigning, and they need ideas, people and money.

In the times that we are living in, it seems that there is a choice of where the money comes from. It would be interesting to put the question to the British people of whether they want their politics funded by on the one hand, rich people, or on the other hand, the state. Which answer would they come up with? In my book, they would say "neither". They would say, "Oh no, we would sooner it be ordinary folk, ordinary volunteers". Of course, they are not there in numbers and the resources that they are able to bring in voluntary subscriptions are not sufficient to the needs of a political party. We ought to be moving to a time when membership is linked to money, and there is a system of funding whereby there could be a tax rebate or a grant, provided that a subscription is paid in the first place to that political party. The incentive of getting more money and more members may well be a route to more activists and more people. Such a scheme would work only if there was a local return in the case of those moneys; an incentive to local people, and not a sense that any subscriptions, rebate or tax deduction would go to a headquarters in London.

Perhaps I have spent far too long on the present position, but I did so because it is serious. Political parties are in a state of serious decline. The question here is the role that they play in public life. I often have carried a receipt book about for my political party and signed up people as members from time to time. It should not be a liability to be a member. It has not been unusual for me to suggest that someone had the right attitude and perhaps ought to be a member of the political party of my choice, and for them to say, "Well, I must be very careful, I could not really commit myself".

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Political parties are important in the role of our proceedings. We presently have state funding, in terms of that policy money. We have an involvement in terms of the list systems for elections, which, if the numbers in the parties are so reduced, means that very important decisions are in the hands of a tiny group of people. Political parties are too important to be seen only as a place for the deviant or the anorak.

6.39 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Chandos for initiating the debate. It provides the opportunity to discuss where political parties fit in society today, on which I shall concentrate. As my noble friend said, political parties are essential institutions in our democracy, which provide the crucial link between voter preference and the forming of government at all levels; that is, local, national and European.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. We should be building our political parties and not falling for the slogan that we hear too often; namely, that the party is over. There is no doubt that membership of political parties is falling. Only 3.5 per cent of British voters are members of any political party. We used to talk about "mass parties". That has always been a myth. There has never been any such thing as a mass party. There has always been only a minority of the electorate who has joined political parties.

I am not so worried about membership, although, as an ex-party apparatchik, of course I want membership to increase. But I am much more concerned about the disenchantment of the electorate and examining why that so; for example, whether it is because of disinterest, complacency or detachment from politics generally. Yesterday, the Electoral Commission published a new report, entitled, Do you do politics?. It concludes that the vast majority of people see politics as something that someone else does. We need to get over that phenomenon in order to build our political parties.

As I said, members are still needed. We are still considered by the majority of people as a group of very strange people who are members of political parties, go to party meetings, attend conferences, work with the local or national party machine and spend time knocking on doors. But our democracy owes a great debt to these grass-root activists. Without them, politics and decision making would be dependent on the temporary whims of populism. Without parties, voters would be confronted with a bewildering array of independents. Parties add meaning and clarity, through manifestos and campaign messages. We hope that that enables voters to make rational choices when they put their crosses on the ballot papers.

If there is a democratic malaise, I think that the media, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, referred, has a lot to answer for. I shall give just one example: it is absolutely appalling that there is a discussion of a candidate being chosen for public office by a pop-idol style political programme. That

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makes a farce of our political system. Politics is about people working together through political parties to influence the communities in which they live, and not passively selecting a media-manufactured false idol.

Political parties are the gatekeepers to political office. They provide the mechanisms for public representatives to receive public endorsement and work within a laid-down set of rules, which is very important. Parties today are more than just election machines that mobilise electoral support. They are recruitment agencies for public representatives, the training ground for local councillors and MPs and, ultimately, for our party leaders and Prime Minister, which we sometimes forget.

Shortly, we shall discuss the report of the Electoral Commission, entitled, Gender and Political Participation, and the crucial role that political parties play in promoting more women as public representatives. It is a clear illustration of why we need political parties.

As I said before, it is disturbing how little voters know about political parties. There seems to exist deep-seated misconceptions, ignorance about politics generally and—I believe absolutely—real distrust. That level of distrust has grown over the years and should not be taken with any complacency.

Research by Eurobarometer identified that only 15 per cent of the population trusted political parties. In a recent survey, the Institute for Citizenship showed that 64 per cent of those surveyed knew hardly anything about how Parliament or their local councils work. It is no wonder that people are not really interested. It is not wholly surprising when, until recently, there has been two decades without citizenship being taught adequately in schools.

The real question for many people is: why have any interest or participate in a political party when it appears that decision making in many areas has moved away from government to non-elected bodies, such as quangos, to regulators or to international institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank? We no longer live in a neat environment within known boundaries.

Many key decisions affecting people's lives are now beyond the reach of domestic politics. As globalisation and technological change are mainly developing outside the conventional political framework, people are finding alternative avenues of engagement and new ways of feeling connected. New technology is the biggest driver of political change. The Internet allows different forms of interaction based on common interest and lifestyles. We are fast becoming a society of individuals who interact with each other through a nexus of networks. Influence is now increasingly shared among a variety of formal and informal networks, pressure groups and charitable organisations.

It is a myth that the British people are apathetic, which always relates to whether they vote. But British people are not apathetic. All the evidence belies the idea that the public have somehow become disengaged from civil life. Rather, the British are a society of joiners. The problem is that their interest in political issues is not translated into interest in political parties.

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Other noble Lords have referred to the single-interest groups. There are now more than 180,000 registered charities in the UK, of which many have very large memberships and whose influence is felt and recognised by the Government. Organisations have been brought into policy making and implementation at the highest levels of government. That is challenging the role of parties as the main agents of political participation.

There is a plethora of area-based initiatives and schemes; for example, people involved in the New Deal and Sure Start programmes and local civil forums. Local people are providing civic leadership and accountability with a sense of ownership of the outcome and that their contribution has made a difference. But parties are distinguished from those alliances by their desire not just to influence those in government but to become—or become part of—government themselves.

Nevertheless, political parties have to be involved in the changes in society and must look at the way in which they operate. If parties are to impress voters and to sustain their reputation as agents of change, there is a clear need to cultivate new themes and update traditional thinking. That may mean a new style of political party that turns outwards to local campaigns and concerns, and which needs to be seen to be very engaged in the local community. I agree that organisations need to be properly funded and professionally run.

There is an urgent need to rebuild the relevance of politics as a concept and as an activity worth taking part in. We should not forget that the lesson of the 20th century has been the birth and growth of political parties in eastern Europe, South Africa and the old Soviet Union, providing them, for the first time, with democratic and representative governance.

Political parties are central to democracy. In the main, they are the only way that public opinion can be effectively articulated and governments elected. As long as there is representative governance, there will be political parties that are made up of people with joint values coming together to bring about social change. That is the essence of our political democracy.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I am a party man—all sorts of parties, but particularly political ones—from the moment when my father held me up on the balcony of the Bull's Head in the market square in Aylesbury in 1935 and, secure in his 20,000 majority, introduced me to the crowd as its future Conservative Member of Parliament; through the moment when I made a speech as a cocky late arrival at Gordonstoun in 1942 announcing that Labour would sweep into power after the war and that the Conservatives would get back at the following election—not bad forecasting—and that I would be in that House; through to the day when Frank Byers brought me into the languishing Liberal party—only five MPs at that particular moment—during my first term at Oxford;

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and down to the day when, after 50 years in the Liberal Party, I finally realised that one could not be Green, which I always knew that I was, and believe in free trade. And I joined the Green Party. I have never had occasion to doubt the party system during that whole period. That is why I welcome the debate and thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for introducing it.

When I was running the Liberal Party back in the early 1960s, the local government of this country quite largely rejected the involvement of political parties, and members of the Conservative Party, in particular, expected to run large parts of the country while serving as "independent" councillors. It was my welcome duty to help the Liberal Party to challenge that situation and, together with our own red guard headed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—who I am sorry is not taking part in the debate—to introduce community politics, which was much derided because of its emphasis on cracked pavements.

But cracked pavements are what the householder cares about. For this reason it is important that we bring down the units of representation as low as possible. I believe I was right to say the other day, in our debate on London governance, that we should go back to the old boroughs that existed before the big ones were introduced.

The Green Party is a serious party and it is to be taken seriously. It has claims to be the fastest growing political party in the country—certainly, none of the major ones seem to be growing—and, wherever there is a reasonable system of voting, its candidates get elected. It has two Members from England in the European Parliament—both outstanding—where they are members of an important and influential bloc; on the Greater London Assembly it has a group of three members; and in the Scottish Parliament it has eight. It is not a party to be dismissed out of hand.

Why did the last set of nominations to your Lordships' House not contain a Green? It is monstrous. My grandfather, Lord Gainford, died in your Lordships' House, sitting on the Privy Council Bench. One of these days you will find that I, too, have passed away in this little green eyrie of mine up here because the Prime Minister has not seen fit to do his clear duty, which is to send me a colleague.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Patten: My Lords, for once, I am left slightly speechless by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, but I enjoyed his speech. As a party man through and through, I am very glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, has given the House the chance to discuss this issue. Indeed, if at a post-mortem I was cut across, you would find "Conservative, Conservative, Conservative" written there like the inside of a stick of Brighton or Blackpool rock, venues where I have spent so many party conferences—those endearing crosses between a seminar and a bacchanalia.

I wish to refer to three issues today: the party system, my party and the role of the non-party when it manages to get a toehold in elective politics or finds itself represented on the Cross Benches of your Lordships' House.

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First, our party system is deeply embedded in our way of doing things, with two of the big national parties able to trace their roots back to the 18th century. One party, Labour—old Labour or new Labour; I could not quite gather which phrase found favour with the noble Viscount—can trace its roots into the late 19th century. Conservative, Labour and Liberal are part of the warp and weft of our national lives. They have been joined more latterly by the Greens, and we must not ignore the parties of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I wish only that I was able to campaign among the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone as a Conservative and Unionist, as we used to be able to do.

We should not feel self-satisfied as political party members but between us, thanks to the common sense of the British people over recent centuries, we have managed, more or less, to eschew revolutionary politics, favoured stability and been fairly tolerant as a nation. Political parties are part of our national political settlement; they help us to codify, restrain and domesticate the national tensions that otherwise might erupt.

That is not to say that political parties are spotless vessels. Party politics is a form of gang warfare: it is highly organised both between the gangs and within them. No party leader ever manages to rise to power, let alone stay in power, without the help of his or her own gang of political supporters. Even as someone who hung up his political knuckle-duster from active service some years ago, I have a fairly precise feel for the social structure of my own party and a deep fascination, as an observant outsider, for the shifting gang boundaries within the Labour Party, with its new clan and factional groupings emerging under the new Labour or old Labour would-be robber barons.

I am not absolutely certain in which gang to place the Minister who is to reply to the debate; I am not quite sure what secret sign he gives or whether he has some clan marking about his person. Perhaps we will find out over the years. However, I get a growing sense that, rather like the last of the Mohicans, our Prime Minister, Mr Blair, is becoming more and more the last of the Blairites—save for some cheerful figures such as the noble and learned Lord the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who is endlessly and busily involved in forming a protective ring of wagons. My only message to the noble and learned Lord's right honourable friend is that he might spend so much time getting the wagons in a protective circle that, once they are arranged, he will find out that there is no one left in the middle.

It will be very hard for a genuinely national new party to find much space in our crowded party field, any more than a new daily newspaper would get much of a look-in should it be launched. I understand exactly what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said about not so many people joining now. I hear that party membership figures go up and down; I am told by the press that the Labour Party's figures are going down. I have no idea whether that is true. Trusting party figures is like trusting the circulation figures of national newspapers; anyone who travels by train and sees the great megalithic piles

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of free newspapers which are given out knows how unreliable are the circulation figures of our national newspapers.

I am certainly told—this is interesting because I know the place a little, as does my noble friend Lord Windlesham, who is sitting on the Privy Council Bench—that this year in Oxford there are suddenly more members of the University Conservative Association than there have been for a quarter of a century, during the run-up to the 1979 general election. I have no idea what this means or how accurate it is, but it is interesting to see that some people still do wish to join. But most of the British electorate are not great joiners of political parties, even though, come a general election, those who get to vote cleave to someone to vote for.

This brings me to my second point in regard to my own party, the Conservatives. Arguably the oldest party in the known world—and probably intergalactically—we Conservatives know who we are. We do not need to change our name a la new Labour, a term that I predict will be dropped as quickly as you can say "Keir Hardie" under the leadership of a different Labour leader. Let me pick a name completely out of the hat; Mr Gordon Brown, for example. I do not think you will find much new Labour should he be in No. 10.

I think we should call ourselves "Conservatives", not "Tories". I have noticed increasingly in the media the use of the word "Tory" as a form of abuse. I have once or twice in the past mentioned to your Lordships that I feel that the BBC, in particular, has a slant. I do not blame it for having a slant; it is perfectly understandable in a group of men and women who have taken their views on life. I have a number of friends in the BBC—I would not dream of mentioning them for fear of ruining their career—to whom I talk. I see the BBC as being, broadly speaking, a tiny bit inside the liberal left—a bit pro-Palestinian and a bit pro-Europe—but certainly not pro-Conservative. One notices that by the way in which the BBC increasingly uses the word "Tory" in its comments. When was the last time any of your Lordships heard the BBC refer to the Labour Party, new Labour or old Labour, as the "Socialists"—and yet the Labour Party in this country belongs to a number of international socialist organisations? I think, on the grounds of balance, that every time the BBC uses the word "Tory" it should balance it with a reference to the Labour Party as "Socialists". That would be nearer the point. I will not, however, press this for fear of causing the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, to erupt on to his feet saying that the Liberals should be referred to as Whigs. I would not want to go that far.

Thirdly and lastly, I would like to say how important I think that fast-vanishing group of people, the independents, is in this country. I am not a great man for quotas, but I wish that in some ways we could find mechanisms for encouraging more people to stand as independents in local government. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that in the old days, many people stood as independents, particularly in rural areas, and they were actually Tories. We have a number of people who sit primly on the Cross Benches, that bastion of the

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vice-chancellorian and upper mandarinate classes, whom we know are strong supporters of the Labour Party, because they do a spot of "blue skies thinking" on its behalf.

It is extremely important that we look to the health of the independents in this place and ensure that we have routes to membership of the Cross Benches that would allow such great national treasures as our Deputy Prime Minister, for example, to emerge on to them. I suspect that under our new way of doing things, alas and alack, it will be the mandarinate of the most heightened sort and the vice-chancellorian classes whom we will see decorating those Benches.

I warmly welcome the opportunity to have this debate, and thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, very much for promoting it.

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