Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation - Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

3  The importance of political parties

    what has happened now … is a perception that political parties are somehow not in the public interest, and that has seeped into the whole of the way society is.[50]

52. For many of us, interest in politics begins with a personal interest or a local concern such as post office closure. The example given by Omar Salem (see paragraph 40 above) shows how such a personal or local issue can prompt someone to make the connection between the issue and the power of political parties to effect change. While citizen engagement is a social benefit which can be effected non-politically, as a Conference we want to see people joining political parties: without political parties our representative democracy would not work, and parties are essential to the recruitment of people to serve in public office.


53. At its simplest, a political party is an organisation which allows like-minded people to work together to promote certain ideas and achieve certain goals. The co-operation and collaboration of people with different experiences, skills, knowledge and views within a political party is what enables that party to develop policies across the whole range of concerns which the national interest requires.


54. The functions of a political party were described by the Houghton Committee [51]in 1976. This committee said that political parties:

·  Aggregat[e] the many and diverse interests in society into reasonably clear political programmes;

·  Simplify [..] electoral choices for citizens;

·  Provid[e] coherence to Parliamentary parties thereby facilitating government;

·  Select [..] candidates for election to Parliament and other bodies;

·  Enabl[e] ordinary citizens to participate in the policy-making process; and

·  Help to provide a broad political education.

55. Other functions of political parties which have been described are:

·  A political party acts as a brand: because it is associated with certain values, ideas or actions the public in general should know, in broad terms, what people who associate themselves with that brand stand for;

·  By seeking to appeal to a wide range of voters political parties are able to act as a counterweight to special interest groups which could otherwise seek to manipulate government to their own benefit; and

·  Parties can help citizens "who are on the losing side in elections and policy debates to accept defeat". They do this by encouraging an understanding that while their party may lose now, it may win on another occasion: this keeps politics "non-violent".[52]

56. We can say, in summary, that political parties are the mechanism by which people of any background can be actively involved in the tasks of shaping policy and deciding how society should be governed. While they are not perfect organisations they are essential for the effective functioning of our democracy. Without the support of political parties it would be difficult for individual Members of Parliament, as legislators and/or as members of the Executive, to organise themselves effectively for the task of promoting the national interest—including by challenge to the Government, where that is necessary and appropriate—and ensuring that proposed new laws are proportionate, effective and accurately drafted.


57. Yet the membership of all the main political parties represented at Westminster is falling. Between 2001 and 2003 overall membership of the main parties fell by 14%. The small scale of party membership has been demonstrated by the figure that there are now two members of the RSPB for every member of a political party in the UK.[53] A similar decline is apparently occurring in other democracies in Europe as well.[54]

58. The decline in membership has knock-on effects for the understanding of politics in wider society: Dame Jane Roberts, Councillors Commission, told us that

    something like 1.5% of the electorate is a member of a political party so increasingly people know fewer people who are a member of a political party. It becomes something very distant, something very remote and something that other people do and I think that is a real danger … that the political class becomes so divorced and distanced from the rest of the population.[55]

59. The extent to which political parties are the subject of both contempt and general public indifference should be a cause of concern to all who are interested in how our country is run. We acknowledge that the recent disclosures about Members' allowances and some Members' expenses claims have been extremely damaging, but a general dwindling of attachment to political parties—going wider than the decline in formal membership—has been apparent over more than 40 years. This trend is shown in the graph below, which shows the extent to which individuals have identified with British political parties since 1964.[56]

Trend in strength of party identification in Britain, 1964-2005

Source: 1964-2005 BES post-election surveys.

60. The graph shows the strength of identification over time in terms of the average scores on this scale. The average strength of identification was 2.2 in 1964 and 1.4 in 2005: the closeness of all the marked points on the graph to the central regression line—which is a straight line travelling from the top left hand corner of the graph to the bottom right hand corner of the graph—illustrates that the decline in identification has been continuous and steady throughout the period.

61. It is important to the future of our democracy that political parties are able to continue to function. As Nan Sloane, Centre for Women and Democracy, put it,

    The democratic process we have may not be a perfect way of governing ourselves but it is better than most of the other ones that there are out there and it is very dangerous to have that undermined.[57]

In this context it is clear that the effective functioning of political parties is very much in the public interest.

62. If political parties are to survive in the face of a growing distaste for organised politics they will have to do one of two things:

·  Either, they will have to become increasingly driven from the centre; or

·  They will have to make real efforts to rekindle local interest in local parties and expand their voluntary base.

63. Analysis of political party models suggests that highly centralised political parties have powerful leaders but their local members and activists have little influence over the party's direction. When such a party also receives substantial public subsidies it does not need to recruit local members who can contribute financially to support the party's work. It could be argued that if a party can afford to employ professionals in its key positions the role of local members becomes less important; but a recent study of 36 countries has shown that where a party lacks connections with local communities—either through direct membership or 'partisanship' in the wider electorate—its effectiveness and credibility in government will be diminished.[58]

64. Therefore it would appear that it is in the interests of any political party which wishes to achieve, and sustain, a period in government that it should foster local activism and seek to build up social capital and trust. Active, healthy and accessible local political parties will also play a vital role in identifying and nurturing a greater diversity of MPs for the future.


65. The decline in membership of political parties across the board means that local parties lack both activists and income. Without these resources local parties may no longer be able to support election campaigns across entire constituencies. In some cases, they may not even be able to find enough candidates to stand at every election, particularly in local elections.[59] This is damaging to our democracy since elections which are not properly contested deny the voter a real choice, and the opportunity to compare the skills and experience of different individuals. The absence of a visible party presence in many areas tends to reinforce perceptions that the political parties nationally are irrelevant, or not listening.


66. In 2004 a report by Alexandra Runswick argued that the engagement of local parties with the electorate is important because:

·  personal canvassing by local parties meets "the electorate's basic desire to meet the people from the party they are being asked to vote for": this, she argues, leads to greater responsiveness and greater medium to long-term loyalty than canvassing by post or by national advertising;

·  a strategic campaign of reaching out to the community would enable parties to address their lack of diversity. Local parties will need to recruit, mentor and develop the skills of people from under-represented groups if those people are to be future council or parliamentary candidates and give the electorate a greater choice; and

·  personal canvassing "forces both the electorate and members of political parties to … see each other as fellow citizens", and provides a corrective to the cynicism of much media coverage of politics.

67. Looking back to the 'sleaze' allegations which were prevalent prior to the 1997 general election Runswick writes that

    "the perception of corruption [might] well have died down had the majority of the electorate had an alternative perception to counter it with—an alternative gained possibly from meeting a normal party activist on their doorstep and talking about common interests and concerns. But parties at the moment lack the person power to speak to the electorate and to counter ill feeling." [60]

Her point is just as relevant today.


68. Local party membership, income and activism are very closely linked. One of the major problems for all the political parties today is that people simply will not join, or donate money to, a system which they believe to be discredited. The reputation of all party activity, local as well as national, is likely to have been adversely affected by the current loss of trust in politics and politicians. The self-confidence of party activists must have taken a knock. Without proper resources political parties are unable to get out onto the streets, and knock on doors, to challenge the perception of corruption and self-interest. If those perceptions are not countered people become even less likely to want to participate.

69. This narrative describes a downwards spiral which needs to be corrected. If it is not corrected, parties may find it increasingly difficult to get good candidates to stand at either local or national elections.

70. The Runswick report notes also that many local political parties have only a basic web presence, and few if any paid staff. This severely limits their ability to produce mailings and to encourage and organise members to be active participants through leafleting, canvassing and policy debates.

71. A research report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2002 surveyed sixteen local constituency parties. While the richest local party in the survey had an income in excess of £130,000, ten of the parties had an income under £10,000 a year. Of these, four had an income less than £5,000 and six an income of less than £1,000.[61] The accompanying analysis comments that £1,000 a year is barely enough to print campaign leaflets, let alone rent an office or employ a member of staff to maintain a website, manage local campaigns and work on party recruitment, retention and talent-spotting.

72. If local parties are to improve their campaigning they will need greater resources both in terms of volunteers and income. A suggestion proffered by the research is that a low level of state funding be offered to local, rather than national, parties to support their renewal. Researchers asked those participating in the local party survey what would be their preferred options for the method of such funding: their clear preference was for the state to provide locally retained matching funding, based on the number of membership fees and small donations paid within each local party. Under this proposal the parties would still have to work for the money and the funding would remain proportionate to the level of local support; but the offer of matched funding would provide an incentive for local parties to canvass local opinion, to engage in dialogue about policy and actively to seek to recruit and retain new members. Our own estimate of the cost to the Government of such action, based on current membership levels for the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, is approximately £13 million per year.

73. We recognise the formal restraints on Government spending and the fact that each political party sets different membership subscriptions. Rather than matched funding, therefore, we advocate consideration of a fixed rate grant: set at £10 per local party member the cost to the Government would initially be about £5 million per year. While we recognise that there is little appetite at present for giving more money to political parties we would argue that giving small amounts of money to individual local parties is a slightly different matter from giving large subsidies to central parties. We also stress that any such funding should be well-regulated, the money should be earned and its use accounted-for.

74. The Government should consult on the introduction of a scheme enabling local political parties to apply for funding linked to their receipts from member subscriptions. The scheme should be administered by a suitable independent body and the details of all funding allocations made should be published. Local political parties should also expect to make some account of the way in which they use the funding to support the development of social capital. This consultation should take place in the first session of the 2010 Parliament.


75. Dame Jane Roberts of the Councillors Commission told us that she found local parties "notoriously unenthusiastic … about reaching out" beyond the party's existing membership. She felt, however, that it was not as difficult as might be imagined for local parties to recruit new members—provided there was a well-developed local engagement strategy in place.[62] We believe that as part of a local engagement strategy each local party should consider what steps it can take to encourage people from under-represented groups to take part.

76. Operation Black Vote noted anecdotal evidence which suggests that many new joiners leave their political party after a year because they find it "boring": the organisation says that this can be more damaging to faith in our democracy than a failure to recruit members in the first place. The following points have been suggested for political parties to consider:

·  local parties should look at where they hold their meetings: meetings should be in venues which are accessible to disabled people and are not intimidating.[63]

·  local parties should try to hold their meetings at times when individuals with caring responsibilities are better able to attend. [64]

·  parties should seek to minimise their formal procedure and look to increase the number of social events held, debates and talks. Debates and talks could sometimes be held with guest speakers from outside the party.

·  local parties should be ready to listen to the opinions of new joiners, and less swift to condemn people as "troublesome" when they ask difficult questions.

·  local parties should be ready to offer new joiners specific roles in campaigning, canvassing or managing party communications.[65]

77. While lack of income will be a concern for many organisers of local political parties, Operation Black Vote notes that there can also be cultural resistance to a programme of open recruitment. It says that clear leadership from the national parties will be necessary, to assert the benefits of widening membership, until local parties are genuinely changed. Each national party needs to develop a systematic plan of action to support the development of local parties. As part of this plan parties should draw up a checklist of actions which will promote diversity (such as meeting in accessible venues) and might also offer practical support and incentives to local parties which adopt measures on the checklist: such incentives might, for example, include professional assistance with campaign strategy, website design and maintenance, or the offer of guest speakers for a particular event.

78. Witnesses from both the BME and LGBT communities told us that they also looked to the political parties to demonstrate their openness by appointing national, regional and local advocates, or champions, who would be able to express the value which the party derived from association with their communities. They further recommended that the parties employ professional 'headhunters', or talent spotters, who could identify talented individuals within local parties and support them in finding the best role for their skills.

79. We recommend that all political parties appoint national and/or regional community champions for women, and people from BME and LGBT communities, and disabled people. The champions' remit should include supporting individuals from those communities in finding and sustaining a suitable role within the party. Consideration should also be given to formalising strategies for talent spotting within parties and within the wider community.

80. In the remainder of our report we look more closely at the specific problems which may face individuals who seek to become a Parliamentary candidate.

50   Q39 Back

51   The Committee on Financial Aid to Political Parties (the Houghton Committee) reported in August 1976 (Cm 6601) Back

52   Paul Whiteley, 'Where have all the members gone? The dynamics of party membership in Britain', Parliamentary Affairs 2008 (Oxford University Press/The Hansard Society) pp 250-251 Back

53   Q116 Back

54   Paul Whiteley, 'Where have all the members gone? The dynamics of party membership in Britain', Parliamentary Affairs 2008 (Oxford University Press/The Hansard Society) p 242 Back

55   Q174 Back

56   The graph uses data drawn from the British Election Study, which carries out surveys after every general election. In every election study since the first one in 1964, respondents have been asked if they identify with a political party and if they do they are subsequently asked how much they identify with it. The response categories to this latter question are:

Very Strong = 3

Fairly strong = 2

Not very strong = 1

Not at all strong or no identification = 0 Back

57   Q352 Back

58   Paul Whiteley, Where have all the members gone? The dynamics of party membership in Britain, Parliamentary Affairs 2008, OUP/the Hansard Society Back

59   Ev 139 Back

60   Life Support for Local Parties, p8 Back

61   An analysis of the health of local political parties in 2003, Peter Facey and Emily Robinson, printed with Life Support for Local Parties, Alexandra Runswick, p15 Back

62   Q157 Back

63   Ev 6 Back

64   Ev 217 Back

65   Ev 6 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 11 January 2010