3 The importance of political parties
what has happened now
is a perception
that political parties are somehow not in the public interest,
and that has seeped into the whole of the way society is.
52. For many of us, interest in politics begins with
a personal interest or a local concern such as post office closure.
The example given by Omar Salem (see paragraph 40 above) shows
how such a personal or local issue can prompt someone to make
the connection between the issue and the power of political parties
to effect change. While citizen engagement is a social benefit
which can be effected non-politically, as a Conference we want
to see people joining political parties: without political parties
our representative democracy would not work, and parties are essential
to the recruitment of people to serve in public office.
WHAT IS A POLITICAL PARTY?
53. At its simplest, a political party is an organisation
which allows like-minded people to work together to promote certain
ideas and achieve certain goals. The co-operation and collaboration
of people with different experiences, skills, knowledge and views
within a political party is what enables that party to develop
policies across the whole range of concerns which the national
WHAT ARE POLITICAL PARTIES FOR?
54. The functions of a political party were described
by the Houghton Committee in
1976. This committee said that political parties:
the many and diverse interests in society into reasonably clear
· Simplify [..]
electoral choices for citizens;
· Provid[e] coherence
to Parliamentary parties thereby facilitating government;
· Select [..]
candidates for election to Parliament and other bodies;
· Enabl[e] ordinary
citizens to participate in the policy-making process; and
· Help to provide
a broad political education.
55. Other functions of political parties which have
been described are:
political party acts as a brand: because it is associated with
certain values, ideas or actions the public in general should
know, in broad terms, what people who associate themselves with
that brand stand for;
· By seeking
to appeal to a wide range of voters political parties are able
to act as a counterweight to special interest groups which could
otherwise seek to manipulate government to their own benefit;
· Parties can
help citizens "who are on the losing side in elections and
policy debates to accept defeat". They do this by encouraging
an understanding that while their party may lose now, it may win
on another occasion: this keeps politics "non-violent".
56. We can say, in summary, that political parties
are the mechanism by which people of any background can be actively
involved in the tasks of shaping policy and deciding how society
should be governed. While they are not perfect organisations they
are essential for the effective functioning of our democracy.
Without the support of political parties it would be difficult
for individual Members of Parliament, as legislators and/or as
members of the Executive, to organise themselves effectively for
the task of promoting the national interestincluding by
challenge to the Government, where that is necessary and appropriateand
ensuring that proposed new laws are proportionate, effective and
THE DECLINE IN PARTY MEMBERSHIP
57. Yet the membership of all the main political
parties represented at Westminster is falling. Between 2001 and
2003 overall membership of the main parties fell by 14%. The small
scale of party membership has been demonstrated by the figure
that there are now two members of the RSPB for every member of
a political party in the UK.
A similar decline is apparently occurring in other democracies
in Europe as well.
58. The decline in membership has knock-on effects
for the understanding of politics in wider society: Dame Jane
Roberts, Councillors Commission, told us that
something like 1.5% of the electorate is a member
of a political party so increasingly people know fewer people
who are a member of a political party. It becomes something very
distant, something very remote and something that other people
do and I think that is a real danger
that the political
class becomes so divorced and distanced from the rest of the population.
59. The extent to which political parties are
the subject of both contempt and general public indifference should
be a cause of concern to all who are interested in how our country
is run. We acknowledge that the recent disclosures about Members'
allowances and some Members' expenses claims have been extremely
damaging, but a general dwindling of attachment to political partiesgoing
wider than the decline in formal membershiphas been apparent
over more than 40 years. This trend is shown in the graph
below, which shows the extent to which individuals have identified
with British political parties since 1964.
Trend in strength of party identification in Britain,
Source: 1964-2005 BES post-election surveys.
60. The graph shows the strength of identification
over time in terms of the average scores on this scale. The average
strength of identification was 2.2 in 1964 and 1.4 in 2005: the
closeness of all the marked points on the graph to the central
regression linewhich is a straight line travelling from
the top left hand corner of the graph to the bottom right hand
corner of the graphillustrates that the decline in identification
has been continuous and steady throughout the period.
61. It is important to the future of our democracy
that political parties are able to continue to function. As Nan
Sloane, Centre for Women and Democracy, put it,
The democratic process we have may not be
a perfect way of governing ourselves but it is better than most
of the other ones that there are out there and it is very dangerous
to have that undermined.
In this context it is clear that the effective
functioning of political parties is very much in the public interest.
62. If political parties are to survive in the face
of a growing distaste for organised politics they will have to
do one of two things:
they will have to become increasingly driven from the centre;
· They will have
to make real efforts to rekindle local interest in local parties
and expand their voluntary base.
63. Analysis of political party models suggests that
highly centralised political parties have powerful leaders but
their local members and activists have little influence over the
party's direction. When such a party also receives substantial
public subsidies it does not need to recruit local members who
can contribute financially to support the party's work. It could
be argued that if a party can afford to employ professionals in
its key positions the role of local members becomes less important;
but a recent study of 36 countries has shown that where a party
lacks connections with local communitieseither through
direct membership or 'partisanship' in the wider electorateits
effectiveness and credibility in government will be diminished.
64. Therefore it would appear that it is in the
interests of any political party which wishes to achieve, and
sustain, a period in government that it should foster local activism
and seek to build up social capital and trust. Active, healthy
and accessible local political parties will also play a vital
role in identifying and nurturing a greater diversity of MPs for
CONSEQUENCES OF THE DECLINE IN LOCAL
65. The decline in membership of political parties
across the board means that local parties lack both activists
and income. Without these resources local parties may no longer
be able to support election campaigns across entire constituencies.
In some cases, they may not even be able to find enough candidates
to stand at every election, particularly in local elections.
This is damaging to our democracy since elections which are not
properly contested deny the voter a real choice, and the opportunity
to compare the skills and experience of different individuals.
The absence of a visible party presence in many areas tends to
reinforce perceptions that the political parties nationally are
irrelevant, or not listening.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL POLITICAL
66. In 2004 a report by Alexandra Runswick argued
that the engagement of local parties with the electorate is important
canvassing by local parties meets "the electorate's basic
desire to meet the people from the party they are being asked
to vote for": this, she argues, leads to greater responsiveness
and greater medium to long-term loyalty than canvassing by post
or by national advertising;
· a strategic
campaign of reaching out to the community would enable parties
to address their lack of diversity. Local parties will need to
recruit, mentor and develop the skills of people from under-represented
groups if those people are to be future council or parliamentary
candidates and give the electorate a greater choice; and
· personal canvassing
"forces both the electorate and members of political parties
see each other as fellow citizens", and provides
a corrective to the cynicism of much media coverage of politics.
67. Looking back to the 'sleaze' allegations which
were prevalent prior to the 1997 general election Runswick writes
"the perception of corruption [might] well
have died down had the majority of the electorate had an alternative
perception to counter it withan alternative gained possibly
from meeting a normal party activist on their doorstep and talking
about common interests and concerns. But parties at the moment
lack the person power to speak to the electorate and to counter
ill feeling." 
Her point is just as relevant today.
MEMBERSHIP, INCOME AND ACTIVISM
68. Local party membership, income and activism are
very closely linked. One of the major problems for all the political
parties today is that people simply will not join, or donate money
to, a system which they believe to be discredited. The reputation
of all party activity, local as well as national, is likely to
have been adversely affected by the current loss of trust in politics
and politicians. The self-confidence of party activists must have
taken a knock. Without proper resources political parties are
unable to get out onto the streets, and knock on doors, to challenge
the perception of corruption and self-interest. If those perceptions
are not countered people become even less likely to want to participate.
69. This narrative describes a downwards spiral which
needs to be corrected. If it is not corrected, parties may find
it increasingly difficult to get good candidates to stand at either
local or national elections.
70. The Runswick report notes also that many local
political parties have only a basic web presence, and few if any
paid staff. This severely limits their ability to produce mailings
and to encourage and organise members to be active participants
through leafleting, canvassing and policy debates.
71. A research report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform
Trust in 2002 surveyed sixteen local constituency parties. While
the richest local party in the survey had an income in excess
of £130,000, ten of the parties had an income under £10,000
a year. Of these, four had an income less than £5,000 and
six an income of less than £1,000.
The accompanying analysis comments that £1,000 a year is
barely enough to print campaign leaflets, let alone rent an office
or employ a member of staff to maintain a website, manage local
campaigns and work on party recruitment, retention and talent-spotting.
72. If local parties are to improve their campaigning
they will need greater resources both in terms of volunteers and
income. A suggestion proffered by the research is that a low level
of state funding be offered to local, rather than national, parties
to support their renewal. Researchers asked those participating
in the local party survey what would be their preferred options
for the method of such funding: their clear preference was for
the state to provide locally retained matching funding, based
on the number of membership fees and small donations paid within
each local party. Under this proposal the parties would still
have to work for the money and the funding would remain proportionate
to the level of local support; but the offer of matched funding
would provide an incentive for local parties to canvass local
opinion, to engage in dialogue about policy and actively to seek
to recruit and retain new members. Our own estimate of the cost
to the Government of such action, based on current membership
levels for the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties,
is approximately £13 million per year.
73. We recognise the formal restraints on Government
spending and the fact that each political party sets different
membership subscriptions. Rather than matched funding, therefore,
we advocate consideration of a fixed rate grant: set at £10
per local party member the cost to the Government would initially
be about £5 million per year. While we recognise that there
is little appetite at present for giving more money to political
parties we would argue that giving small amounts of money to individual
local parties is a slightly different matter from giving large
subsidies to central parties. We also stress that any such funding
should be well-regulated, the money should be earned and its use
74. The Government should consult on the introduction
of a scheme enabling local political parties to apply for funding
linked to their receipts from member subscriptions. The scheme
should be administered by a suitable independent body and the
details of all funding allocations made should be published. Local
political parties should also expect to make some account of the
way in which they use the funding to support the development of
social capital. This consultation should take place in the first
session of the 2010 Parliament.
75. Dame Jane Roberts of the Councillors Commission
told us that she found local parties "notoriously unenthusiastic
about reaching out" beyond the party's existing membership.
She felt, however, that it was not as difficult as might be imagined
for local parties to recruit new membersprovided there
was a well-developed local engagement strategy in place.
We believe that as part of a local engagement strategy each local
party should consider what steps it can take to encourage people
from under-represented groups to take part.
76. Operation Black Vote noted anecdotal evidence
which suggests that many new joiners leave their political party
after a year because they find it "boring": the organisation
says that this can be more damaging to faith in our democracy
than a failure to recruit members in the first place. The following
points have been suggested for political parties to consider:
parties should look at where they hold their meetings: meetings
should be in venues which are accessible to disabled people and
are not intimidating.
· local parties
should try to hold their meetings at times when individuals with
caring responsibilities are better able to attend. 
· parties should
seek to minimise their formal procedure and look to increase the
number of social events held, debates and talks. Debates and
talks could sometimes be held with guest speakers from outside
· local parties
should be ready to listen to the opinions of new joiners, and
less swift to condemn people as "troublesome" when they
ask difficult questions.
· local parties
should be ready to offer new joiners specific roles in campaigning,
canvassing or managing party communications.
77. While lack of income will be a concern for many
organisers of local political parties, Operation Black Vote notes
that there can also be cultural resistance to a programme of open
recruitment. It says that clear leadership from the national parties
will be necessary, to assert the benefits of widening membership,
until local parties are genuinely changed. Each national party
needs to develop a systematic plan of action to support the development
of local parties. As part of this plan parties should draw up
a checklist of actions which will promote diversity (such as meeting
in accessible venues) and might also offer practical support and
incentives to local parties which adopt measures on the checklist:
such incentives might, for example, include professional assistance
with campaign strategy, website design and maintenance, or the
offer of guest speakers for a particular event.
78. Witnesses from both the BME and LGBT communities
told us that they also looked to the political parties to demonstrate
their openness by appointing national, regional and local advocates,
or champions, who would be able to express the value which the
party derived from association with their communities. They further
recommended that the parties employ professional 'headhunters',
or talent spotters, who could identify talented individuals within
local parties and support them in finding the best role for their
79. We recommend that all political parties appoint
national and/or regional community champions for women, and people
from BME and LGBT communities, and disabled people. The champions'
remit should include supporting individuals from those communities
in finding and sustaining a suitable role within the party. Consideration
should also be given to formalising strategies for talent spotting
within parties and within the wider community.
80. In the remainder of our report we look more closely
at the specific problems which may face individuals who seek to
become a Parliamentary candidate.
50 Q39 Back
The Committee on Financial Aid to Political Parties (the Houghton
Committee) reported in August 1976 (Cm 6601) Back
Paul Whiteley, 'Where have all the members gone? The dynamics
of party membership in Britain', Parliamentary Affairs 2008 (Oxford
University Press/The Hansard Society) pp 250-251 Back
Paul Whiteley, 'Where have all the members gone? The dynamics
of party membership in Britain', Parliamentary Affairs 2008 (Oxford
University Press/The Hansard Society) p 242 Back
The graph uses data drawn from the British Election Study, which
carries out surveys after every general election. In every election
study since the first one in 1964, respondents have been asked
if they identify with a political party and if they do they are
subsequently asked how much they identify with it. The response
categories to this latter question are:
Very Strong = 3
Fairly strong = 2
Not very strong = 1
Not at all strong or no identification
= 0 Back
Paul Whiteley, Where have all the members gone? The dynamics
of party membership in Britain, Parliamentary Affairs 2008, OUP/the
Hansard Society Back
Ev 139 Back
Life Support for Local Parties, p8 Back
An analysis of the health of local political parties in 2003,
Peter Facey and Emily Robinson, printed with Life Support for
Local Parties, Alexandra Runswick, p15 Back
Ev 6 Back
Ev 217 Back
Ev 6 Back