The Leader’s Cheerleaders

Simon Jenkins

  • The Cost of Democracy: Party Funding in Modern British Politics by K.D. Ewing
    Hart, 279 pp, £30.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 84113 716 2

Men are dying daily to bring Western democracy to supposedly less advanced parts of the world. Its export is the chief cause of conflict between the developed and the developing world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But how healthy is that democracy? Most people assume that its requirements are met by a periodic visit to a polling booth, but dictators can arrange that. What if ever fewer people vote? What if prosperous modern citizens take the view that their lives are more or less fine, so why bother? In particular, why worry about other things democracy is supposed to entail, like free speech, executive scrutiny, judicial independence and membership of political associations, all in noticeable decline in modern Britain?

A Norwegian ‘millennium’ study went so far as to wonder whether Norway’s democracy, then a hundred years old, was likely to survive the 21st century in anything like its present shape. The authors pointed out that all systems of government evolve, and 20th-century democracy might well have served its purpose in reacting against 19th-century authoritarianism. It had proved expensive and flatulent, and the rolling coalitions brought about by proportional representation bored the electorate. In a globalised world, democracy might soon yield to something else, meritocratic oligarchy perhaps, or multinational bureaucracy.

At the heart of this debate lies that battered and now much tarnished institution, the political party. The decline of democracy is often expressed in terms of the decline in party membership and a related decline in election turnouts. Britain’s political parties are descendants of the political clubs of the 18th century and of the clash of interests and ideologies that steered the age of reform towards the universal franchise. Commentators from Burke to Tocqueville saw such associations as crucial to the democratic glue. They expressed a point of view and answered to the electorate for that point of view. They were thus more than a participative association; they were a running check on public administration. They were also a bridge between elector and elected across which both might pass back and forth.

Since the 1980s and the growth of a political consensus on taxation and welfare reform, British parties have lost their policy (and class) distinctiveness and become more like the electoral machines of their leaders, as is largely the case in America. Tony Blair’s celebrated ‘project’, guided by Philip Gould, dismantled the rambling institutions that formed the Labour coalition and turned Labour into whatever the leader wanted it to be, even, in Blair’s case, a continuance of Thatcherism. In disempowering county and city government, long the power base of the Tories’ electoral strength, Margaret Thatcher did likewise. She told her own party activists that they were not wanted and knocked from under her the support of local power and patronage that was the essence of a mass party. Thus, under leaders of both parties since 1979, the poor bloody infantry of politics has been left to atrophy.

The unspoken assumption of K.D. Ewing’s study of party funding is that this matters. Parties are essential conduits for accountable and representative democracy. They are crucial institutions through which citizens debate and put themselves forward to serve in government. No democracy does without parties. No leader can be elected or re-elected without their support and trust. The political party is the marketplace of political advancement. Yet who is to pay for it?

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