Do we need political parties? This is the question raised by New Labour’s funding problems.
The fact is, the two main parties can no longer rely upon a mass of small donations. This gives them three options: to accept big donations/loans, with the suspicion of corruption this entails; to get money from the tax-payer; or to shrink out of business.
Politicians and the MSM would like us to ignore option 3. But there’s a lot to be said for it, because parties do real damage:
1. They stifle debate. Not just explicitly, via three-line whips and the threat of deselection, but implicitly, as MPs believe toeing the line is the road to career advancement.
2. They’re hierarchic. This encourages us to look to leaders to help us, rather than solve problems ourselves.
3. Both main parties – perhaps because of their outmoded hierarchical nature – share a similar managerialist ideology. For me, though, the most important political question is: can political and economic institutions be re-organized on non-managerialist lines? Party politics forces this issue off the agenda.
4. Important issues often cut across party lines. The divisions over Iraq or civil liberties, for example, don’t map neatly into party lines.
5. The Labour-Tory divide made sense when class alignment dominated politics – when unions vs management was a big issue, and when people felt instinctive class loyalties. Now we are (sadly?) no longer in this world, what do parties stand for?
Maybe then, we should welcome the shriveling, for want of funds, of parties.
What could replace them? Direct democracy for one thing. And/or a group of loose coalitions. I like to think that, in future, parliamentary politics will look not like two entrenched positions (which are essentially the same), but more like variations on a Venn diagram.