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Death of the Party

"Politics is dead!", or so say the more forthright political commentators. Year by year elections throughout the developed world pull in smaller numbers of voters, and the media struggle to find causes and cures for the public's disenfranchisement. But looking for solutions in the monolithic political parties whose once vibrant memberships have now faded to die-hard, more elderly supporters is like trying to win a race on a dead horse. The more the media concentrates on the turmoil of party politics, the more the public lose interest.

To approximately 50% of the American public, and approximately 40% of the British public, politicians aren't worth voting for and party politics isn't worth following. But they aren't disinterested in politics, because they readily engange in all kinds of social politics at home, at work and on the TV. People engage in debate and discussion, no matter how trivial or important, if it is relevant to themselves and they are able, intelectually and financially, to get involved.

If a soap opera character has trouble getting an appointment in a hospital, the viewers will be thinking about, and maybe even discussing, the politics of the situation: the lack of provision in hospitals. If a mother had to decide between buying a holiday for the family, or investing the money for the future, the family is debating the relative benefits of short and long term solutions. But then they turn their TV set on and see two politicians from rival parties playing ridiculous public relations games, toeing their party line in an effort to come off best, and they lose all interest.

Locally too, people are more interested in politics. When a parking fine scheme was introduced in my home town Bedford a year ago, there was all manner of debate in the local papers, hairdressers and staff rooms about the issues at stake. Many people actively campaigned to have them removed, and the papers were flooded with letters of complaint and support. This was an issue which directly affected people, and which they had the power to change, so they got involved. The same happens between parents in schools, workers in companies, and any other issue in which people have influence.

Many people who have strong views on certain issues also find the time to get involved. Those who feel strongly about animal rights, or peace, or the environment, often join action groups with whom they can try to make a difference. So to say that many people are apolitical is not strictly true - they are politically disenfranchised, because they believe that politics happens in Westminster and Capitol Hill, rather than in every quarter of the world. Why do they believe this? Because for fifty years party politics has changed so radically that it has discredited any political process other than its own, and in doing so has discredited itself in the public's eyes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, party politics was highly polemical, with issues such as nuclear weapons, war, race, gender and general equality feeding a fiery political scene. It was easy to say if you were left or right wing, or in the centre. But then party lines became confused; the Republicans in America began to campaign for an extremely right wing agenda, and the Democrat's coalition was imploding because of their support for the black civil rights movement and Vietnam. Slowly parties turned to centrist policy, and corporate backing, to win elections and maintain power. In doing so, they confused the traditional boundaires of the "wings", yet they still clung to the old model.

This had a profound affect on the parties, most notably in Britain, because they were no longer left or right wing, having split into so many factions with different agendas. The right became split into the classical conservatives fighting for old values and isolation, the neo-liberal conservatives fighting for the right of the individual and the market, the ecologists fighting for the protection of the environment and rural life, and the centrist conservatives moudling themselves to the public mood to appeal for votes. The left meanwhile split into similar factions, as did the centre, so political allegiances began to shift.

Neo-liberal conservatives found they had more in common with the neo-liberal socialists, both wanting a free market paradise, just with different proposed outcomes. Ecologists found affinity with the greens in the centre and left, even if they disagreed on economic models to achieve their ends. In short, politicians became confused as to their allegiances, and as a result party politics became ever more confusing for the public, who had been used to alternating decades of conservative capitalism and liberal socialism.

But while this was happening, and while the neo-liberals were carrying out their market reforms, a new political force was growing from the active groups disenfranchised by their parties' changes. They gathered around single issues, campaigning without party backing for more investment in local hospitals, less use of petrol, fairer working conditions in multinationals, and so on. Slowly these groups realised their common grounds, over classical conservatism, or neo-liberalism, or ecologism, or anarchism, and so on, with the result that new "parties" had formed over common grounds, shirking the confusion of party politics.

Though they were themselves fractured, with few leaders and no single ideology to lead them, they grew and matured into what is now the largest political movement since the peace movement of the 1960s: the so called "anti-globalisation" movement. They had strength in their modernisation of political lines, and in their chaotic structure, making them very difficult for parties to attack. The most they could do was to discredit them for not having any structure in the traditional party sense. But this was their biggest mistake.

In clinging to outdated political models, the British Conservative Party commited suicide, losing the 1997 and 2001 general elections by massive landslides, because Labour had reformed, in a sense. They had followed the American political model, which was to follow a neo-liberal economic line, whilst staying as close to the centre of politics as possible, trying to appeal to everybody at once. This has fuelled the growth of action groups, and the shrinking number of voters. Why vote when both candidates say the same thing, and they probably won't stick to their word anyway? To make it worse people feel they have no power over them once voted in, which is more true than many realise.

Why, indeed, did many people with environmental sympathies, vote for George W. Bush when he said he would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, when it was quite obvious that he wouldn't hold his promise, due ot his connections with the oil industry? Why not vote for the Green Party, who still have not achieved a 5% share of the voters. These are tough questions facing voters, and there is a simple answer. Vote for your "favourite" candidate, but turn to an action group of your choice to really try to make a difference. Vote for the Green Party, then help Greenpeace affect people's opinions on the street, and effect some real changes. Vote for the Labour Party to ban fox hunting, and help the numerous animal rights groups expand their campaign.

When I first became interested in politics, it was a single-issue group that got my attention. Compared to watching political manouverings around the same old public service crises, candid discussion about an international financial body that was damaging developing countries seemed much more interesting. Though the institution in question (the International Monetary Fund) was completely out of my reach compared to national politics, the ability to discuss the issue with a huge number of people around the world on the Internet, and the number of demonstrations and meetings in England made it far more exciting and involving than watching the TV from my armchair.

With parties, you can become an official member, and perhaps help out with canvassing and leafletting in your neighbourhood. But your influence over the party is minute, and the scope of your actions is limited by party policy. And then you must ask what is your aim? Working on the behalf of a party, you are trying to get people to vote for that party, in the hope that it will get elected and then perhaps make some changes you agree with. Action groups are considerably easier to join and get involved with, and you are working to change people's minds on a particular issue, so your work is more likely to have results, even if the scope isn't as great. I'm not discrediting the party process, but it isn't as inviting and productive as the action group process.

A single e-mail to a group called the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) saw myself and several friends travelling to London to attend a demonstration outside the US Embassy. There we met and talked to lots of people with similar views, listened to some of the leading lights of the environmentalist movement, marched through the center of London, and most importantly got the opporunity to talk to curious members of the public. Since the demonstration I have been kept up to date on the group's activites via a mailing list, and I've discovered several other interesting groups. One e-mail, and one day trip, pulled me into the midst of a hugely important issue without any considerable effort on my behalf.

More recently I organised a demonstration for Stop Esso Day, at a local Esso petrol station. With only four people, a banner and a stack of leaflets we were able to talk to hundreds of people about Esso's negative attitudes towards tackling climate change, peacefully turning a lot of people away from the station and getting several people interested enough to join Greenpeace. Had we been in the company of a local politician, people would have been far less interested, because people distrust politicians and their agendas. Because there can be no hidden agenda behind a demonstration about climate change, people were happy to talk with us, even if they completely disagreed. The scope for getting amongst the public, influencing and interesting them is much greater.

Parties do themselves no favours in discrediting action groups, because often they are the first step towards getting people back into the political process. Action groups may have no solid affiliations, but parties that favour views of action groups often get a lot of support from the members of the groups. And most importantly, action groups give people an easy way of getting involved in real politics, rather than armchair politics. You can do anything from making small donations to attending demonstrations, from blockading factories to helping with leafletting. And when action groups gather together under a common banner, such as "anti-globalisation", they begin to tackle some really core problems in society, such as the unbalanced distribution of power, in a way that parties could never countenance.

Actions groups are open, vibrant, modern and far more effective than parties at getting people interested and involved in party politics. They should be embraced, followed and talked about more, to reverse the creeping apathy in western society.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2002, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.