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Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him one question? He made a most enjoyable and robust speech, but are we to deduce from this distinction between Tories and Conservatives that the latter are significantly to the left of the former?

Lord Patten: My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord caught me just before I sat down. I was not suggesting that anyone whom the BBC or any other person in the media chooses to give the name Tory to is anything other than a Conservative. It is just that I believe that the Conservative Party has no reason to change its name. Why should we be linked with a lot of Irish robber barons from an island off the north-west coast of Northern Ireland? I speak as a left-footed Conservative and Unionist on this. I do not wish to be linked with these people. I am a Conservative through and through, as is my noble friend Lady Seccombe. I just prefer to be called Conservative rather than Tory or anything else.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Gould mentioned the Internet. In preparing for this debate, I thought I would enter the words "political parties" into an Internet search engine. As noble Lords know, the more popular the website, the higher it comes on the search engine list. Well, I was surprised to see that the first 268 entries were about political parties as social gatherings—celebrations with a political theme. The reference to parties of people united in a cause, as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, came after. I mention this because I think it says something about the status of political parties in public life today. So it is timely that we should debate this, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Chandos on moving this Motion.

Those of us who came late to political life were probably as surprised as I was to find that people in politics were not as they are portrayed. People outside politics are rather cynical about politicians because they are often seen or portrayed to be on the make, power-hungry and corrupt. Such cynicism is transferred to political parties. This is not only dangerous, because only extremists gain from these

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attitudes, but also untrue. Most of the politicians whom I have met want to win power in order to serve—to serve the public and the public interest rather than to enjoy personal power and its trappings. Very few people rise to that level.

It is unfortunate that political parties do not radiate this attitude of serving the public, not only because it is nearer the truth but also because it would deflect some of the cynicism and disenchantment about which many noble Lords have spoken.

This is not the first time that I have been faced with this kind of problem. In the 1970s, my work was building up a business. Noble Lords will, I am sure, remember that at that time, people were equally cynical and disenchanted about businessmen—greed was good, creative accountancy was all the rage and for the sake of easy money, any businessman could be corrupted. But, as with politics and political parties today, the opposite was largely true. Of course there were a few corrupt businessmen, but most of us were trying to build up businesses which would serve society, our families and the economy. Somehow we had to express this in terms that meant something to ordinary people. So we invented—or, rather reinvented—corporate social responsibility. We formalised the things that most of us who ran a good business and had a social conscience did anyway. As a result, the position today is that banks, investors, financial institutions and the public consider a company's social attitudes alongside all the other judgments they make about it—its products, financial status, and so on. It seems to me that in order to play their full role, serve public life and defeat cynicism, political parties have to do something similar. There is a model here, because all the ingredients are there.

First, let us take the people who are involved in politics and political parties. There is no lack of social responsibility there. I am amazed at the huge amount of voluntary work that these people do. They raise money for charity; they organise and help in the welfare of disabled and unfortunate people; they do voluntary work in churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as politics; they look after the environment; and they serve on boards and councils. There are 180,000 charities, according to my noble friend Lady Gould. Is not this a demonstration of social responsibility?

The problem is that people do not know about these activities, even though they are very relevant to most people's everyday life and experience. Other noble Lords have spoken about the importance of this relevance.

Curiously, our political parties seem to have lost this everyday relevance. There is a story about an MP who was canvassing in a tower block in Battersea. He decided to start at the top flat and work his way down. At the top flat he explained his party's policy on the euro, the NHS, funding universities and foreign policy, and then asked the voter if there was anything else he would like to know about. "What are you going to do to stop people urinating in the lift?", the voter asked. If political parties are to play a role in people's lives, they have to connect with people's lives. My noble friend Lord Chandos spoke about engagement, as did other noble Lords.

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This brings me to ideology. For organisations which are created around ideology, it seems extraordinary that political parties have handed over the creation of new policies and ideas to think tanks, NGOs and the media. We really have to win back this initiative. It is not easy because we have to win it back from organisations which have the luxury of campaigning on a single issue, as other noble Lords have mentioned. I agree with them that somehow political parties have to take the initiative in acknowledging that all these issues exist, but alongside each other.

I think that political parties have to go back and reinvent some of their basics, as business had to do in the 1970s. They have to win back their reputation of defending basic freedoms such as liberty and justice. To many, it seems that other organisations and the media are there to protect these freedoms while political parties are there just to bicker over them. Surely political parties should be a lot more robust in contrasting our society, where we have these freedoms, with other societies which do not. It is just one more way of demonstrating our social responsibility instead of just taking it for granted.

I know that for many people and many politicians the essential role of political parties is to organise well at an election. Nothing is more important for a politician than being in office—locally or nationally. However, that should not be to the exclusion of political parties demonstrating their social responsibility—demonstrating it through the voluntary and charitable work that political people undertake, by being socially aware and effective at all levels and by winning back the ideological initiative. That is how political parties will eventually play a much fuller role in public life. Otherwise, political parties will become social gatherings with a political theme.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for giving us the opportunity to draw the House's attention to the issue of public participation in politics, voter apathy, and the role of political parties in our society today. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dean, I also joined the youth wing of a political party many years ago. He alluded to the fact that in those years we had thousands of members. Times have changed. There is more television. There are more attractions for young people and more opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex.

The 2001 elections marked a highly significant downturn in the numbers of people turning out to vote in Britain, and if public disillusionment over domestic and international events during this Parliament have been anything to go by, that is a problem that politicians have seriously failed to address and a trend that looks set to continue. Unlike the Americans, we do not live in a country that could be accused of having too much democracy. We ask our citizens to vote only in European, national and local elections, and the occasional referendum when issues of constitutional importance arise. We must therefore ask ourselves why voters are turned off by politics, what we can do to address the problem, and how we can ensure that our political parties play a positive role in society in every

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aspect of their interaction with the public. We should be mindful that such a process should naturally find its origins in this House, as we have the tradition of debating issues in the fullest and most constructive fashion.

The end of the Cold War brought with it unexpected changes to the nature of the Western political party system, most notably in the United Kingdom and the United States. The distinctions or divisions between left and right became blurred. A third way emerged that often left political parties struggling to identify the key issues that distinguished them from each other, with voters becoming somewhat disengaged from the political process.

One of the key findings of research into public opinion on the 2004 elections carried out by MORI on behalf of the Electoral Commission and published in September 2003 stated:


    "The widely reported voter apathy and disconnection seems to stem largely from the political process itself".

It is my belief that the most negative side effect of that is that we frequently see debates and political contests between the main parties that are fundamentally based upon opportunism, and are driven by competition for votes as opposed to any deeply held ideological debate or belief on a point of principle.

The immigration debate is a good example of that. We recently saw the Home Secretary taking the unusual step of calling for a truce with the Opposition over the issue. There are many issues in British politics that are far too delicate and fundamentally important to the public to be defined primarily by idiosyncratic party political interests. Consequently, there is a vacuum in British politics that can be filled by a more mature approach to political debate and policy formulation. The Government and the Opposition's handling of the Belfast agreement is a very good example of how the sting can be taken out of political debate for the benefit of political progress. There is no doubt that the public notice this, that such political action benefits the process greatly, and is of little or no harm to party politics.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, we have only to survey the newspapers from the past few weeks to garner an idea of the damage that has been done to our prestige internationally and to the Government domestically, through their campaign in Iraq. In fact, if one lesson has been clearly learned from the past two years, it is that the British electorate will simply not swallow whatever line the Government churn out to promote a policy. The public will simply not accept that it is in our national interest to invade another country just because the Government say so. Neither will the public accept that such an invasion is an exercise in promoting democracy and democratic standards abroad. The weapons of mass destruction smokescreen fooled nobody and has consequently damaged the Prime Minister and this Government. Rather than having been seen to practise and promote an ethical foreign policy, the Government have been seen to have misinterpreted our national interests and caused our traditional interest and standing in the Middle East to suffer.

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This House should be in no doubt that many citizens have become disillusioned with the lack of participation in British politics that has been uppermost and apparent in recent years. It is clear that our political system does not take public opinion into consideration to the same extent as many of our European counterparts. We must remember that politicians are merely the representatives of the British citizenry and if we fail to exercise the general will of the population, we have failed them, failed the system, and failed ourselves.

Political parties are society's role models and the sounding board for all the issues that influence and dominate people's lives. As such, political parties have an intrinsic duty to conduct politics in the most meaningful and constructive way possible. That means having honest debates about issues such as immigration, race relations and crime. The Government should start by paying more attention to what is said in this House on such issues, adjusting their policies on the basis of the needs and interests of the voters, and creating a progressive culture of political co-operation between parties when our national interests are at stake.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Chandos for giving us this opportunity for debate. I first want to take us away from concern with British politics or even the politics of developed countries and examine the role of political parties on a wider scale. If I have time, I will probably return to our own situation.

The Prime Minister has launched his Africa commission. Many of us are interested in why Africa is not developed. Of the many analyses of development problems that we have heard—technical and economic problems, for example—we have now arrived at governance as an important missing ingredient. I argue that it is not governance that matters, but politics. Countries that do not have good politics cannot have good governance, and politics is supplied by political parties.

If we look at the political and economic health of African countries, we see that what those countries lack is a political culture or political life. Very often they are one-party states, as my noble friend pointed out. They are also one-party states with very narrow membership and no tradition of political discussion. Few countries in Africa have succeeded in having multiple political parties. Even though some of those parties have been corrupt, the parties have kept each other on their toes. Parties correct each other—the party opposite always being holier than the party in government. That culture is necessary to establish good governance. It does not come out of technical reports or instrumental approaches; it comes out of the activities of citizens. Political parties are the mobilisers, the aggregators, of citizens' activities.

One of the questions the commission should answer—if any of its members reads Hansard—is: what can we do to encourage healthy and rivalrous political life in Africa? The success of South Africa, for

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example, is largely due to the fact that the ANC has not become the only political party. However, in Zimbabwe, ZANU has swallowed up ZAPU. When that happens the quality of political life is lost.

It is not that some of the political parties are vital to democracy but that political parties create the possibility of democracy. Looking at our own historical experience, we tend to believe that democracy has been here since 1066—or at least since 1832. But full adult franchise did not come until 1928 and political parties, especially mine, were instrumental in agitating for a broadening of the franchise. When political parties have worked for such a broadening and for protecting and establishing political freedoms and human rights, their countries have had a rich political life and good governance.

We take those things for granted today. We have almost forgotten that mass democracy is a recent arrival on our shores. It is good to remember that because it is only when political parties have continuously worked for it, often in extra-parliamentary action, that conditions for good parliamentary democracy are created.

The problem is that in many countries—not only in Third World countries but in Japan, Mexico, Italy and India—there is one-party dominance. If that party has a democratic culture, it manages to create a better democracy. The Congress Party in India is a good example of that. Even while it was the dominant party for approximately 40 years, and all the Prime Ministers came from that party, there was still a healthy democracy because within the Congress Party there was never dominance by a single faction or a single person. However, that did not happen in Mexico or Japan. Indeed, in Italy the Christian Democrats ended up as an extremely corrupt political party, causing all kinds of problems for that country.

Therefore, we must look, first, for a system of political parties because there are multi political parties. If that is not the case, we must see whether whichever political party is dominant has diversity and rivalrous factions which might be able to guarantee a difference of opinion and challenge established positions because that will guarantee democracy.

That brings me to voter apathy, mentioned by some noble Lords today. Political experience here and abroad shows that we need sharp differences both economically and socially, and perhaps ideologically, in order to establish a stable political party with a large membership. It is not just that ideology has extinguished, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, but that by and large class differences have vanished. We still talk the language of class, but in terms especially of a large working-class population which felt and behaved differently and whose consumption patterns were different from the middle-class, the reality is that class differences have disappeared due to increasing prosperity. So while people talk in terms of coming from such and such a region and of being a Geordie, a Scouser or whatever—having regional identifiers to distinguish themselves from each other—the class identifiers work less and less. They have to go back to their great grandfathers in order to claim their working-class origin.

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In a society which is increasingly homogeneous, in which there are few differences, it is hard to define political parties which would differ. All you have are alternate programmes of competent government, and competent government does not excite much interest. Whichever party is in power, the government will, by and large, be competent. No great crisis is likely, no matter who comes to power. There is no reason why citizens should say, "I'm going to join the party and improve the country", or, "My ambition is to establish a better region or nation". Therefore, we should not be surprised if that is the case. We should be happy that while citizens are apathetic, at least they are not hostile.

7.26 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, particularly when he is in one of his philosophical moods. He epitomises the non-deferential society to which the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, referred in opening and which government Whips will affirm as their experience of the noble Lord, Lord Desai.

For some it has been a nostalgic debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, reminded us of those wonderful days when the Young Conservatives was the greatest marriage bureau in the country. And he was wrong—it was unique because no other political party could match it. Furthermore, in my part of the country much Conservative recruitment depended on the fact that the Conservative clubs inevitably had the best snooker tables.

The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, subtly tried to emphasise his comparative youth by attributing the words, "He would, wouldn't he?" to Christine Keeler. Those of us who are old enough to have been around at the time know that that was Mandy Rice Davies. We certainly would not like to see that misattribution rest in Hansard. And we had a good old romp around BBC paranoia from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and we were all the better for it.

But we are grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for the timeliness of the debate because the party machines are gearing up for 10 June. Those of us who will go out on the doorstep know what we will hear: "You're all as bad as each other"; "You're only in it for what you get out of it"; "I never vote". I have to tell your Lordships that when I receive those responses I make the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, sound almost diplomatic. I do not accept them. I have been in politics for 40 years. It was said of Elizabeth Taylor that she must believe in the institution of marriage because she got married eight times. Well, I must believe in political parties because I have been in three of them. I have not found those responses to be the image of party activists because most are committed to their communities and beliefs.

But there is a cynicism and an apathy, which is worrying. They were evident in the fall in party membership, the low turnout in elections and the lack of involvement by the young. As we all recognise, democracy needs active democrats to make it work and we need political parties to channel activism into

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public service. I am not as admiring of Cross-Benchers as the noble Viscount. I like many of them but I have never accepted that not having a party-political affiliation gives one some higher state of grace to opine on politics of the day. As has been emphasised, party politics makes our system work. It is often the party politicians who stand, as my noble friend Lord Shutt said, against extremism in places such as Burnley. It was the party politicians who took a stand when militant Trotskyism was abroad in the Labour Party.

So how do we breathe fresh life into party politics? I am not sure that the answer lies simply in making it easier to vote. We have to ensure that these experiments and new systems are both corruption and intimidation-free. Anyway, I am old fashioned enough to see my active voting as a commitment and tribute to the sacrifices of those who went before me. For the time being at least, leave me with a stubby pencil. Every time I go to vote I think that I am benefiting from the sacrifices of the suffragettes and the Chartists and everyone else. Unless voting has some kind of civic commitment it becomes meaningless. That is why I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, about the need for better civic education in schools and why I pay tribute to the work done in that field over the years by the Rowntree trust. I think that there should be more informational programmes on television about how parties work.

I am not sure that PR is the panacea that some of us thought it might be. The hard truth is that where it has been introduced it has not produced a dramatic increase in turnout. It is no worse than first-past-the-post elections, but thus far it has been no better. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, on state aid for political parties. I think that a lot of humbug and hypocrisy is talked about that issue. All the political parties have been taking state aid for well over 25 years and it is no use dressing it up in other words.

I hope that the commission examining these issues will consider one matter. I think that funding could be most beneficial at the organisational level. Too often, party agents spend far too much time trying to increase their own salaries. If there were some pump priming perhaps at the organisational level which could be tied to the number of members or checked off against taxation or whatever, it would help to revitalise parties.

I also think there should be another look at some of the absurd rules on funding at local level that we built into the political party funding Bill. Our debates on that legislation made it sound as though the post of local party treasurer was one of the prime offices of state for which any ambitious politician would reach. In fact, it is a damn difficult job. Now, with all the current sanctions, one could fall foul of the law by missing out on a report or failing to report rather small sums. The matter needs to be seriously reviewed to bring it into accord with the reality of running politics at local level.

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Like the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, I think there should be a tight cap on individual and organisational donations. We must also retain the ban on television advertising—the corrupter of American politics.

Party democracy is a fragile balance. If the party outside Parliament is too ambitious for power over elected members then that balance can get out of kilter. However, if a party of government or a parliamentary party gets out of touch with its grass-root membership its very support will begin to wither. There has to be a balance.

When looking at political parties we also have to ask the question, "What, if not?". Without them we would see a far greater influence of extra-parliamentary bodies such as the press which so buffets our politicians. Mr Blair has said that he is much influenced by Mr Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun. All I can say is that the greatest of Labour Prime Ministers, Clem Attlee, used to read the Times, and only then for the cricket scores. One might think that Mr Blair would be a better Prime Minister if he adopted a similar attitude. There is no doubt that the culture of spin has debased British politics. I think that journalists themselves have a role in sustaining standards and our democracy.

I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Those who are involved—the political activists—are not as self serving as the cynics say. Anyone like me who goes on the rubber chicken circuit on Friday nights will never cease to be in awe of the dedication of those who make up our political parties. I end with a quote from someone who was one of my earliest mentors and will certainly be known to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould—Dame Sarah Barker, national organiser of the Labour Party. She said:


    "The triumph of ideals must be organised".

That is what political parties are, the triumph of ideals.

7.36 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for initiating this important debate, which he introduced with a most thoughtful and interesting contribution. It has been a fascinating debate all round and gave me great pleasure. It appeared to me that all the speakers are proud and enthusiastic of their own parties.

I enjoyed the contributions from both my noble friends. It is good to see my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree fully repaired and back in his usual ebullient form. I share his view of state funding of political parties. My noble friend Lord Patten brought us his usual flair and enthusiasm. I am delighted to join him in supporting my party as a Conservative.

This is an unusual House. Only two-thirds of us wear political or party political labels, though we learntlast weekend that the number of political Peers is to increase by 37—even though the number of peerages assigned to the Cross Benches is slightly less

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than the 20 per cent that most of us, and particularly my noble friend Lord Patten, would wish to see as the absolute minimum.

We are also unusual as a House in that, though we all care passionately for what we believe in, we are never aggressively partisan—perhaps I should say "almost never". Long may it stay that way.

This cross-party courtesy illustrates a key point. Some see political parties as a threat. However, when they act with restraint, political parties can serve a body without altering its character or corrupting the institution as a whole. But the issue of restraint is crucial. Certainly, bad politics can corrupt. So-called politicisation of institutions that are not inherently political is almost always counterproductive, both for the institution and the political party. This is, I believe, one of the underlying reasons for the clear crisis of trust that now bedevils the present administration.

We have seen increased politicisation of the Civil Service and increased power for unelected party appointees inside government departments and the ever growing number of quangos. We have seen increased use of party focus groups for setting national policy priorities. Perhaps that is why the priorities change so often. And, sadly, we have seen increased bypassing of Parliament as the place where, in any democracy, the conflicting wishes of the population are brought together, debated and, ultimately, peacefully reconciled—a process in which the political parties, which under our system are themselves broad coalitions, play an indispensable role.

The Government sadly fail to see that any government are immeasurably stronger if they carry Parliament with them and do not try to act on party lines alone. No government have been more obsessed—or for long, so successful—in securing headlines for the party in power. But that has ended by being a self-defeating process. Over-politicisation of public life has bred cynicism; it has turned people off, and they simply feel let down.

We must all acknowledge with sadness a growing perception that politicians and the political process have little to offer. At the last general election, turnout was a dismal 59 per cent. In next month's elections we shall be lucky in some areas if a quarter of the electorate actually turns out to vote. Some respond by ascribing blame to our electoral process. The Government and the Electoral Commission seem to fall over each other in thinking up ever more gimmicky plans, such as banning the traditional ballot box and using all-postal ballots with votes cast before an election is half under way; talk of Internet voting, as if a general election were some kind of Sky television poll; stopping local councils electing by thirds—a process which keeps them in active touch with local opinion; votes at 16; reducing the number of ward councillors and creating a new breed of highly paid regional assemblymen; the absurdity of three different electoral systems being used on one day, to the total confusion of London voters.

Our electoral process has become a dog's breakfast in the past few years and, if we go on like this, will finish as a dog's dinner. All this is treating the symptoms, not the cause, and losing some very

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important elements along the way. I was proud of this House's sadly unavailing fight against closed lists in European elections. Closed lists are an abomination, taking choice of their representative away from the people and handing it to party bosses. I was proud, too, of our more recent battle, sadly also finally unavailing, to save the traditional polling station and ballot box in the north of England.

Generations of people fought for the right to vote, at home and on many a foreign field. When a new democracy is born, as in South Africa, the most moving sight is always the patience and pride with which people queue to vote at polling stations. One of my earliest memories is going with my mother and grandmother when they voted. They understood the sacrifice that had been made to get women the vote, and they were determined to use it.

The traditional ballot is secret, almost incorruptible and a protection against manipulation and abuse. When one steps into the polling booth to pick up that stubby pencil on a piece of string or one sees the votes tipped out on to the table for counting, one senses the awesome dignity of the democratic process. I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that voting in person is a commitment. By all means use postal ballots—although I shudder to think, with the present state of the Royal Mail, how many ballot papers will arrive at all. But why ban what works so well? I simply do not understand it.

I would like to see less fiddling about with the election process. I hope that the Electoral Commission will take note and that there is a return to dealing with the real cause of falling turnout. That is a manner of conducting politics that leaves people with a sense that what they think does not matter and that those in power will do whatever suits them at the time.

It is easy to disparage political parties, but it is wrong. I am proud to speak as a member of the largest and oldest political party in Britain, whose membership is rising fast. But all political parties are great voluntary organisations. They must never become arms of the state—still less think that they own the state. They are vehicles for the hopes and ideals of millions.

We should recognise what those who support and work for all the major political parties give our country in local councils, in work for voluntary bodies and in their concern for others. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, I believe that those who join political parties are belongers and doers, but all my experience tells me that they belong and do, not for themselves, but for what they believe their ideals can do for others. I hope that the cynical manipulation at the top that we have seen in the last few years and which has so disappointed thousands of members and former members of the Government's own party will prove a passing aberration. I hope that political parties can again be viewed as they were in the past—as a vehicle for hundreds of thousands of often very different people to come together to work for what they all believe is a better future for this great country.

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7.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): My Lords, it is good to have the opportunity to respond to the House and to my noble friend Lord Chandos on this issue, in drawing attention to the role of parties in public life. At one level, what is striking is that the role of parties in liberal democracies in our society now is almost exactly the same as it has been for at least the past 150 years or so, since the progressive move towards universal suffrage from the 1860s onwards.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, put it at its best with that lovely quotation that the triumph of ideals must be organised. That is, above all, what political parties have had as one of their central aims: the articulation of a vision and of the debate in public life around sets of ideas. Clearly, the subsidiary role of parties has been to organise campaigns, recruit candidates, provide the building blocks for government, define political career paths and, not least, to recruit potential political players at local and national level. Those are the classic roles of political parties in liberal democracies. They have been for 150 years, and they are still the characteristics that we see today.

Parties dominate the organisation of local, national and European elections in Britain—in the United Kingdom—in ways that they have never done before. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, was quite right to point out that local government elections, which at least nominally in the past in large part appeared to be non-party political, are mostly party politically run.

What is the problem? Is there a problem? The conundrum—although I am not certain that it is a problem—is that the roots of parties on any objective measure are weaker and thinner than they once were. By roots I mean the scale of their membership and the numbers of activists, and the degree to which the population at large identifies itself with those parties as a defining characteristic of its own personal identity. That is what has changed. Clearly the membership no longer funds parties in any substantial way, although it makes contributions; it is not the dominant funding source, as the party arithmetic shows.

Parties are no longer the main vehicle for governance. All governments have to govern with and through interest groups, public consultation processes and expert advice. It is not something that one does directly with the mass membership of the partnership with the party, although it plays a role. Membership of the party is no longer the crucial or central communication vehicle for the national party with the public. Membership is not irrelevant but, clearly, mass media is the central vehicle by which all national parties seek to get their message across.

As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, helpfully pointed out, we should not be totally narrow and insular in our perspective in this debate, although the debate has naturally enough tended to focus on the United Kingdom. In Britain, that point apart, we are left with one question: why has membership declined and does it matter for liberal democracy? At one level, I would

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suggest that functions of parties nationally are the same as they have always been, and that they have been remarkably successful at adapting themselves to the loss of membership while still being able to fulfil the classical functions.

So why has membership declined, and does it matter? It is not that the role of politics has collapsed. From about 1973 to about now, there is a drop of about 60 per cent to 50 per cent, if I recollect the figures correctly. There is a drop, but that is not a complete collapse. The arguments have been touched on by a number of noble Lords—by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and others—that it is true that we are less class based and ideologically based and we define ourselves less in party terms. There is weaker ideological identification. One way of putting that is that the public has a life outside party politics. People have such a range of interests and options, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, pointed out, that membership of a political party is in competition with a range of other opportunities. Who are we as politicians to say that our obsession is more important than their obsessions with golf or whatever?

This is speculation rather than evidence based, but I think that the other reason is that parties are less life-critical to people than they would have been in the past. If one reflects on what it felt like to be unemployed in Britain in the 1920s, it was your party that gave you hope. It was your party that gave you the prospect that you would not continue to be unemployed, that your children would not be hungry and that if they got ill, they might not die as a result of the lack of education. I have just sufficient imagination to perceive that if I were a small property owner in a rural part of Britain in the 1920s I might have felt threatened by what I would have seen as political extremism and the threat of revolution in society in Britain. We are not in that world any longer. Parties are not our routes to salvation or perdition. We have a more consensual society and a wealthier society. That does not mean to say that what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, defined as the "articulation of hopes, values and visions" is any less important but it is a more complex process of debate. Those are some speculations on why membership might have declined but I have not seen much detailed research to substantiate them.

Is membership decline a problem? The point I touched on is that all three of the parties have had the most remarkable decline in membership over the past 10 or 20 years. If one looks at the graph of the decline and projects it forward the amusing conclusion is that in about 10 years' time there will be no members left. Fortunately it does not work like that. But the decline in mass membership of all three parties is one of the characteristics of democracy in this society. What is striking is that the parties still seem to be able to continue to perform the classical roles of parties that other noble Lords articulated earlier on. The parties appear to have found other sources of funding. There are clearly issues and worries about the exposure of parties to funding from donors and what donors might

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expect, or might be perceived by the public to expect, as a consequence of their donations. Clearly parties have also adapted to the fact that they have to communicate using the media because there are not many other vehicles for them to use. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke on that. I did not share her view about what the leadership of the Labour Party has done in that respect, but that will not surprise her.

Clearly there is an issue—the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, touched on it—that if parties are incapable of getting enough interest in their activities to field candidates, we are in deep trouble. Although we have not, as yet, seen that at national level, we have certainly seen it at local level. Many the friendship that has been broken in the past by one friend saying to another, "Please stand—we really must have somebody in this seat but you have no hope of winning, and you are perfectly safe", only to find that the candidate is elected and condemned to perdition or a joyful experience, depending on the point of view, for the next four years. So there are some areas of worry.

That apart, parties still seem to manage to fulfil these functions, despite the decline in membership. There is one area where we have seen that they have not been able to continue, because of the lack of mass membership: they are no longer the force for social cohesion at a local level that they were historically in many communities and societies. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, gave one of the nicest examples of that and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, also referred to it as the contribution of nominal membership of political parties to relationship building and other forms of activity through the Young Conservatives. If we have seen any decline in party political membership, the decline and collapse of the Young Conservatives' membership is the true social horror of our time. My God, how are people finding partners in rural Britain from now on? But they seem to be getting by.

I do not think that the nature of the problem is particularly clear. It is complex, which makes the debate about what we should do much more difficult. The first point that I would mark is that the stance of political parties towards the fact that the electorate do not seem to want to engage—to imply the electorate must change—is the route to hell, as we all know. If the politics are not with us, parties have to change, rather than the politics. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us—some of us might have forgotten—that there is the alternative route of changing party, but that is a sub-plot to this, although I recognise the genuineness of that process.

A lot has been happening on funding. Two things have been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Dean. There is already a substantial amount of funding going in, both for policy formation—so it should—and to support the parliamentary process, as it also should. Why should people be forced to suffer from being active participants in the process of parliamentary democracy or parties be starved of making creative contributions to policy and political thinking? Clearly, a lot has been done, I would assert, by this Government to try to make the funding of

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political parties more transparent and cleaner. We accepted the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and were glad that we did so. It is important that the public do not believe that there is any reality behind allegations of, or concerns about, sleaze.

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, we must be concerned if any party member is disqualified, or is deterred from taking a role in public life, as a result of being tarred with being a crony or as a result of being seen as a political appointee. That would be lamentable because it would mean that some of the most talented people in our society, from all parties, might be deterred. Perhaps people have to be rough and tough and big enough to take a bit of the rubbishing that one sometimes get from the national media and still take on these roles.

Is there a case for more funding? In a sense, we have to be clear about for what, for whom and by what mechanism. I am not going to say more than that, although it was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos. The Electoral Commission will report on this in the summer and that will give us plenty of opportunity to have a further, informed debate on that issue.

Should we change the electoral system? It is not clear that changing the electoral system would increase party membership or increase turnout. If those are the problems, it is not self-evident. Other arguments are advanced for PR, but the evidence does not support it to address the issues that we have been talking about. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. If we were to change the voting system, what would change in time would be the political parties because they have to adapt to the voting system, otherwise they are in trouble. But that is to go round in a circle. I do not think that changing the electoral system would alter interest in politics or trust in politicians. If it is to be argued, it must be on other grounds.

I thought that one of the most creative arguments I heard this evening about what should be done to address these issues was advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. It was basically that it is lonely being in a party of one—self-evidently it must be true—and therefore people should pay attention to that and create a second Green. I am sure that those who think on these matters will have noted the comment but I would not advise him to hold his breath immediately.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about a more mature political debate is right. The extent to which the public think that politicians conduct debate about complex issues only in slogans, slang and simplifications, has an insidious effect over time on their belief in politics and in party politics and the contribution of party politics to our society. I acknowledge with gratitude the way in which he affirmed the presentation of the Belfast agreement in that respect but will duck what he said about Iraq, for reasons that he will understand.

Although the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, alleged it—and I would be happy to have evidence of it at another time—I do not think that I have seen either academically

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or in my own direct experience any evidence of the increased politicisation of the Civil Service. I have been seriously impressed as a Minister with the commitment to proper governmental processes and democratic processes by our civil servants, while also being a critic of their experience. It does civil servants an injustice to claim that they have been susceptible to, or influenced by, politicians in that respect. I have not seen it and I hope that I may never see it.

The only other thought I would leave is the following: if the public do not want to join political parties, why should they? That probably says something about how both political parties and government have to change their behaviour. You can no longer use the party machine or the party membership as your vehicle for debate and involvement; you have to find other means of involving and understanding where the public are in the formation of policy. By that I mean that government—and it is more difficult at national than at local level—have to have processes during the process of policy making and draft legislation of engaging vigorously with a variety of opinions in society and they should have the debate often, in public and private, around those elements of policy that concern people.

I refer to interest groups, voluntary organisations and different forms of association of the public, which is where the public choose to put their allegiances and identification. It is a fact of life that politicians and governments have to learn to use those new identifications of the public as ways of involving them in governance and in understanding how best to shape policy and to set out an agenda and legislation.

We have had a fascinating debate; at least, I have found it fascinating. We have marked that there is a significant shift in the way that parties behave and perform but not in their fundamental roles. Some interesting issues were discussed about how they sustain activists and how they sustain their funding, but I did not hear anyone say that there is a single magic bullet that we all should look to to change the scene that we have painted. That is why I welcome continuing debate about these issues. I believe that we have another one next week and no doubt we will have others as the Electoral Commission and others stimulate us to think about how we shape the operations of a liberal democracy in our society, and the contribution that party politics make to that.

8.2 p.m.

Viscount Chandos: My Lords, in thanking all noble Lords who have spoken today, I can say only that the debate has proved to be everything I hoped it would be. I have been corrected on my memory of the difference between Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, for which I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as I was for his reminder of the eight husbands of Elizabeth Taylor.

I worked out that if you aggregated the number of parties to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and I have belonged—never, I believe, one at the same time—I believe that we just about match

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Elizabeth Taylor, although if I am allowed to claim at least two different Labour parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, suggested, I think that we exceed it.

The unpredictability of party politics was certainly demonstrated when I found myself a more fervent advocate of electoral reform for Westminster than the Front Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party. With that said, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.


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