Political parties are losing popular legitimacy, while campaigning groups are increasingly under fire: what does this mean for political power?
By the time the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill was published in summer 2013 it had become little more than a brutal attempt to shut down civil society influence on electoral politics. Any work in the public domain that could be seen to address matters of public policy would be covered by far stricter rules than previously; but corporate lobbying would be virtually untouched. And although there will be some adjustments to the Bill before it finally becomes law, it will undoubtedly retain its character as a strategic move by government to place a firewall around the establishment's monopoly on political authority. This attempt to constrain non-party campaigning groups also represents a tacit admission by politicians that much political legitimacy lies outside the party system.
While the political elite is attempting to shut down the culture of civic campaigning, the corporate world is attempting to co-opt it. Nestlé breakfast cereals now have their own manifestos, 'campaigning to let everybody know that kids looove Cheerios'; while Wetherspoons is spearheading a campaign 'to secure more equal tax treatment for food sold through pubs, restaurants and food service operators' by introducing a 'tax parity day' on which prices in pubs will by reduced by 7.5 per cent - in effect drawing on the aesthetics of popular campaigning to give credibility to a day-long happy hour. With 17 per cent of people claiming to be [End Page 25] part of an environmental group, and media-savvy activists increasingly skilled at garnering media attention, it is little surprise that 'cause culture' has now been firmly incorporated by commercial branding as part of their repertoire.
The Bill can be understood as a response by political parties to an existential threat. It does not simply reflect a worry about digital technologies having made it easier to rapidly aggregate opinion and co-ordinate action in the form of campaigns; it stems from an anxiety that the explosion of energy around cause-based politics is coinciding with a time when mainstream parties, by all the key indicators - voter turn-out, party membership and trust in politicians - are virtually dead. Voter turnout declines at every election.1 Those who do vote do so as much out of fear or disgust at one of the other parties, rather than as a genuine enthusiasm for putting an X on the ballot paper. Membership of political parties has collapsed over the past half-century from a peak of 3.8 million to around four hundred thousand.2 The Guardian recently revealed that the average age of a Conservative Party member is now around 70 - on this evidence it is literally dying out, unable to renew itself generationally.3 The Liberal Democrats have their own crisis, with membership crashing after they entered the coalition government. As for Labour, in the row over union affiliation the GMB has suggested that only 15 per cent of its members would identify as supporters of the party, and has slashed its funding accordingly. Working people can no longer be relied on to support the party formed to represent their interests. To many, political parties are a necessary evil only because there seems no alternative to the electoral process. Politicians are despised: according to Ipsos Mori only 18 per cent of people think they can be trusted.
This is zombie politics.4 The flesh on the bones of our decision-making institutions is rotten. Parties are aware that they face a crisis and are trying to reinvent themselves - as in the Refounding Labour project or the new Renewal think tank for the Conservatives. But their most pressing need is to understand why and how they have become such unpopular vehicles for expressing popular engagement in the political process. Labour shows some awareness of the problem, but apart from in the leader's office and among a few other outliers, there seems little real appetite for going beyond the party's role as an electoral machine.
As the gagging bill indicates, some politicians within the Coalition have...