How do modern political parties cope with change?
The current turbulence in Labour is part of a wider picture seen across the West. Simmering dissatisfaction with established parties and politicians is generating support for iconoclastic individuals and movements in nearly every country to an extent not seen for a long time. From Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to Syriza, Podemos, UKIP, the AfD, the FN and numerous others, merely being not part of the familiar establishment attracts a wave of interest. In Britain, it’s not clear if Labour will settle in markedly different policy positions to its previous stance, and a bad-tempered European referendum with a Leave victory or narrow defeat could leave us talking in similar terms about the Conservatives.
As punters assess how likely these trends are to stay, there is a non-trivial general question. Leave aside whether these changes are good or bad. How can political parties legitimately change their political positioning?
Traditionally, in Britain, these things are leader-driven. A leader (Blair, Thatcher) says, “Things can’t go on like this, we need to change.” The party and the wider electorate may or may not go along with it, but if they succeed the membership generally either puts up with it or leaves. However, the democratisation of leadership elections (membership rather than MPs) increases the likelihood that restless members elect a leader with different views to most MPs – who by definition were selected when the party was whatever it was before.
At this point, honest disagreement can arise, separate from any rivalries or bitterness. Say you’re a pro-Trident Labour MP but the party votes to scrap it, or a pro-EU Tory if the party has elected a Eurosceptic leader. It’s not that you hate the leader or the membership, but you find yourself in disagreement with it. What do you do?
One answer is “defy the party and vote the other way”. But if you do that across a wide range of issues, inevitably both members and electorate will be unsure what they’re voting for.
Another is “sigh wearily and go along with it”. But what if the issues are central to your beliefs?
A third is “defect to the other side”. But that’s like getting divorced and marrying someone you’ve been feuding with for years – it goes against the grain.
A fourth is “set up a new party”, but we’ve seen where that tends to lead with FPTP – oblivion, and the end of your working life.
Don’t underestimate the interest that MPs have in survival. The number of alternative Parliaments that they could join if they lose their seats is more or less zero. It’s no more dishonourable to think about that than it is in any other walk of life, and MPs will be influenced by polling as well as personal belief.
The members have a similar problem. Mad fanatics are a rarity: most members rather like their MPs (who they chose and voted for) and make plenty of allowance for honest differences of view. But ultimately there will come a point where they get tired of their representative constantly disagreeing with them. There isn’t an iron law – legal or moral – that says that the current parliamentary membership of any party has an absolute right to determine policy forever.
What parties have to try to do is discuss possible change with as little rancour as possible (which is difficult) and a clear sense of what is a fundamental expectation and what is merely a preference.
Both MPs and members need to be frank during this process – there isn’t anything dishonourable about saying politely, “If we change to policy X I shall feel I can no longer be your MP” or “If you don’t feel able to support X then I’m afraid we need to find someone who does.”. But out of common sense everyone needs to minimise the list of such policies. For example, I know lots of people who have definite views for or against fracking, but I’ve never met anyone who changed their party over it or talked of deselecting an MP who disagreed. I’m not sure that Trident is that decisive for most Labour people either, for all the rhetoric – a weapon system that nobody can imagine using is neither quite as valuable or quite as horrific as one might suppose. Similarly, many Tories have a definite view on Europe, but I’m not sure that many would really quit the party if it moved in the opposite direction.
Two conclusions. First, it’s important that the legitimacy of disagreement is accepted. Of course an MP selected in a different time may think differently to a group of new members: it doesn’t mean either is morally wrong, and all sides need to think hard before deciding that an issue is absolutely make or break for them. Second, the pressure of personal loyalty and continuing political careers will tend to dampen down apparently irretrievable differences. Journalists like to highlight the drama, but despite Trident and Europe and whatever else comes up, I suspect that the political landscape in 2020 will look less different than we might think, with few defections or deselections and no new parties. Politicians, generally, play the long game. In Britain, it’s often the only game in town.
Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010