Are political parties a good thing?
Do they formalise groups that will naturally emerge, and thus make politicians more accountable? Or do they entrench group identities, when individuals forming groups would be more pragmatic?
Do they mitigate the populist effects of everyone being able to vote for individuals, and thus avoid the style of democracy which exists in Argentina today, or that which existed in Ancient Rome? Or do they entrench the status quo, resist change, and keep the elites in power?
Do they homogenize society into opposing groups, when in reality everyone has so many different identities and issues of importance that the divisions are grossly exaggerated? Or do they bring competition into the political realm, and ensure that there is always (assuming we’re not talking about a one party or dominant party system) a strong opposition group to hold the government to account?
Do they blur issues and encourage a lack of transparency? Or do they ensure that no matter how little voters know about their electoral candidates they can at least know their ideological positions based on the party they stand for?
Do they provide stability by avoiding the obvious difficulties of maintaining a government composed of independents coming from different positions? Or do they disenfranchise the minorities?
The idea of a party system is surprisingly rather modern. It comes largely from the work of nineteenth century Europeans such as Ostrogorsky and Bryce. In discussing whether such a system was a good thing or not, Ostrogorsky said that:
“As soon as a party, even if created for the noblest object perpetuates itself, it tends to degeneration”
I find this incredibly insightful, for it is how many people think today, and also one of the biggest weaknesses of the party system. Bernard Shaw, in ‘the Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, suggested that parties are always seeking primarily to get themselves into power. They do this, he reasoned, because they believe that their party will help the people more than the opposition party would. So noble reasons. But, Shaw argues that it is precisely for this reason that many people end up voting contrary to what they actually believe. He gives an example of a Conservative Member of Parliament being presented with a bill proposed by his own party, which he finds distasteful. The MP ends up voting for it in order to avoid the perception that his/her government is no longer in a majority, which he rather exaggeratedly reasons might lead the opposition into government. Meanwhile, he gives another example of an opposition Labour MP, who supports the bill but votes against it, for precisely the opposite reasoning. And thus the belief that being in power will help them affect positive change leads politicians to take decisions which lead to negative changes.
In practice it is usually these ‘realpolitik’ methods which move the hand of governance. The UK Party System didn’t emerge for ideological reasons so much as it did because of the necessities of war. King William III was fighting a war against the French King Louis XIV, and the House of Commons were refusing him supplies, and limiting the fighting potential of his forces. Robert Spencer therefore advised that if the King chose ministers always from the strongest party in the House of Commons, then that party would have to back him through the war. And because it worked, it stayed.
For Bernard Shaw it is the changes that emerged as a result of this system which so weakens the practicable party system. He says that the party system in place at the local level is in fact effective, for it is committee led, and doesn’t require that anybody has to resign after a failed vote or notion.
“The rigidity of the party system, as we have seen, depends on the convention that whenever the Government is defeated on a division in the House, it must ‘appeal to the country’: that is, the Cabinet Ministers must resign their offices, and the King dissolve the Parliament and have a new one elected.”
Of course today a single defeat does not result in the dissolution of government. But the resignations often do occur. And the trend is further towards, as opposed to away from, these practices. For instance the cross-party consensus at present is to enact a right of recall, so that members of the public can recall the MP that they elected should he/she fail to please them during their elected term. This trend enhances democracy. And yet as Shaw argued, it also encourages fear-led decision-making, and populism as opposed to difficult decision taking about which the public does not have as much information.
Despite the fact that reference to the party system was first found in published print as recently as 1888, I will leave you with the fact that after only a couple of decades this system was already seen as out-dated. In fact in 1920 two famous professors of political science, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, published a Socialist Constitution for the UK. In this constitution they discarded the notion of maintaining the party system within two Houses of Parliament as completely impracticable. They described its existence then, 96 years ago, as a condition of “creeping paralysis”. They proposed in this constitution that we should have one political Parliament, like the present Cabinet style system, and a second, industrial Parliament with a municipal system.
If you had the choice, what system would you propose? Is the party system fit for purpose?