John Harris

Journalist & Author

Local democracy: the future looks bleak for political activism | Analysis

Party faithful soak up gripes about bins – but is anyone at the top listening to their woes? John Harris reports

Ron Hogben steps out from his groundfloor flat and lets rip: problems with his bins, the lack of parking, bus lanes, the cost of replacing his windows, why Britain should get out of what he insists on calling “the EEC”, and the crazy excesses of the 2012 Olympics. I then ask him about his view of party politics. “Let’s be truthful: you get a local MP that promises you this, that and the other, but he’s only going to toe the line,” says Hogben, 59. “My idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat.”

It’s a drizzly weekday night on the Doddington estate in Battersea. Armed with a petition decrying the ”shocking state of disrepair” of a nearby children’s playground, seven Labour party activists, all under 35, are trying to bridge the gap between politics and ordinary life. It is not easy. Moreover, the party has long been on the wane.

One of the clearest plotlines of the Democratic Audit report – a study into the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade – is bound up with the huge decline in party membership, and in traditional political activism. Despite minor growth spurts, the last 50 years have seen the Conservatives come down from about 2 million members to 177,000, and Labour from almost 1 million to 194,000. In 1964, the then Liberal party claimed 280,000 members; the current figure for the Lib Dems is near 65,000.

The share of the British electorate who carry a party card was 10% in the 1960s, but is now a mere 1.1%, among the lowest figures in Europe. Even among those who are still members, rates of activism have come down. And other grim statistics abound: Labour mislaid over half its membership while it was in power, and since David Cameron became Tory leader the Conservatives have lost 81,000 members. Meanwhile, campaign machines have been centralised – and, as the report puts it, “The three main parties have become increasingly reliant on forms of corporate support as membership dues wither away.”

Battersea’s constituency Labour party claims that in the past two years, it has managed to increase its numbers by 50%, which reflects Labour claims of surges that followed the last general election and Ed Miliband’s election as leader – but on a national level, Labour membership remains 4,000 lower than it was at the time of the Iraq war, and under a fifth of the size it was in the glory days of the first Wilson government. Here, though, they think they may have some kind of answer: the local party has led the charge away from the old model of Labour party meetings, at which the procedural equivalent of cabaret was provided by the obligatory monthly resolution (for the details, read John O’Farrell’s Labour party memoir Things Can Only Get Better, set in the Battersea constituency). Each month, there’s a discussion-based event often addressed by a member of the shadow cabinet, and party business seems informal, open, and prevailingly social, a bit like the Tories do it.

Which makes me wonder: For all that such a way of working might appeal to new members, how do tonight’s canvassers exert any meaningful influence on the people at the top?

A few of the activists visibly bristle. “I find it so interesting that you’re talking about, like, resolutions and policy,” says 22-year-old Hannah Cusworth, who joined the party three years ago, and has just started work as an English teacher. “That’s not how I see being part of the Labour party. For me, I guess the way I spend most of my time is going out on the doorstep and talking to people, and then trying to have discussions … like, when shadow cabinet ministers come down here, I can talk about the issues. It’s much more about face-to-face stuff than resolutions.”

She says the last word in the same way that some people reluctantly swear.

For some people, this will not do at all. As the Labour party became hollowed out, a smattering of veteran activists tried to reverse the decline, and stop the squashing of Labour’s last traces of internal democracy. But it’s telling that their fate seems to be a microcosm of the wider decline of the party’s membership. Six years ago, I can remember writing about a group called Save the Labour Party; but aptly enough, they could apparently not even save themselves: one of their founders, Peter Kenyon, describes their campaign as “languishing”, and now dedicates his efforts to something called the Labour Democratic Network.

With no little defiance, h e puts Labour’s membership decline down not to unstoppable sociological forces, but the fact that party leaders has been hostile or indifferent to the idea of recruiting new members, and giving the party a renewed voice. “Ask yourself: when did you last hear an authentic appeal to be active in political parties?” he says. “Who was the last great champion of party member? The last voice was John Prescott, who took up the cause of getting one million Labour members. But the Blairites simply shut that down.” In addition, he claims, New Labour’s increasing antipathy to local government had a negative effect on local parties, and the umbrage taken by members at everything from the Iraq war to the privatisation of public services also did its work.

Within the Conservative party, Kenyon’s closest equivalent is probably John Strafford, an activist of some 48 years’ standing who is in charge of a group called the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. Since 1995, it has been pushing the case for a new party constitution, a revived party conference that might actually debate things again, and national officials who would be elected rather than appointed. Strafford, who lives in the Conservative stronghold of Beaconsfield, reckons he gets 25 to 30 people at the group’s meetings, and has 650 friends on Facebook. Like Kenyon, he goes straight to an aspect of the debate about the decline of parties that has now become a cliche: the fact that though party membership has fallen, the numbers of people signed up to such organisations as the National Trust and the RSPB have exploded. Whatever that denotes, he says, it is not across-the-board civic disengagement.

“People want to participate and have influence,” he says. “And when they don’t find those things, they leave. We seem to be losing 30,000 members a year,” he says. “20,000 of those are people who join, find they can’t really participate or have influence, and leave. The other 10,000 are deaths. The result is that the average age of party members has been increasing. And fairly soon, we’ll be dropping off the end of the log.”

Two days after my evening in Battersea, I arrive in Ipswich, a constituency snatched by the Tories from Labour in 2010 – and where, until recently, the borough council was run by a trailblazing Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, who gave a flavour of the world to come by pursuing a controversial programme of cuts. While the Olympic torch arrives elsewhere in the town centre and brings out vast crowds, I have a quiet couple of drinks with three local activists: 62-year-old Bob Hall, who works as a lorry driver; a 55-year-old émigré from the East End and “confidence coach” called Nadia Cenci; and 37-year-old Lee Reynolds, a telecoms specialist. All three acknowledge that over the past 10 years or so, local membership levels have dwindled and that outside election time, it is often hard getting people out to canvass. It may also be a token of how much activists must now do that all three have either stood for or served on the borough council – a job that Cenci still does, and in which she takes no little pride.

When I ask them why they think parties have so shrunk, they mention the MPs’ expenses crisis, and the modern deluge of information, from which people seem simply to switch off. Reynolds also talks about the sharp contrast between the past two decades of effective consensus, and times when much more was at issue. “When you had something to fight for, you would have had mass membership, because people were fearful of something else. When you see documentaries about the 1980s, it was like warfare. People had a real clarity of choice between Labour and Conservative. But if there’s less to fight for, why would anyone want to belong to a political party?”

We talk about something that the people at the top of the main parties might do well to bear in mind. Cenci, who has a winning, in-touch quality that presumably accounts for her local political success (”I can predict who’s going to win the X Factor before they get to the final,” she tells me), last went to the Conservative party conference in 2010. It was in Birmingham, where wealthier delegates, as well as the usual hangers-on and lobbyists – and, let’s not be coy, journalists – made the most of high-end hotels and restaurants. But not her: “I think it cost me about £400altogether,” she says. “And that is too much money. How can people afford that?

“The conference, for me, is not a place where we go to be listened to,” she goes on. “”We go to hear other people: we’re spoken to. There’s some debate and discussion, but that’s not the same as influence. What would make me go again is if I had someone’s ear, rather than them having mine.”

Reynolds agrees. “If someone said, ‘Look – you have to spend £400, but you can challenge the elites, and engage with members’ … of course people are going to want to go.”

Cenci takes a sip of her half of cider and then says something that may chime with Britain’s remaining party faithful, dutifully knocking on doors and soaking up people’s complaints about bins and bus lanes, while their leaders pay them far too little attention: “I wouldn’t call them elites,” she says. “I’d just call them … elusive.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

This entry was posted on Friday, July 6th, 2012 at 9:27 pm and is filed under Guardian RSS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « On the beat with Labour canvassers – video | Without festival dads we’d have no festivals | John Harris »
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

John Harris is powered by WordPress 2.8.4 Entries (RSS) Comments (RSS). Designed by Hywel Harris

ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Galactic Elite W Blanc Cheap Womens AF Sublimation Graphic Tee 2016 Adidas Originals ZX Flux Weave Shoes Sale Mens AF Active Running Shorts Online ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Duramo 6 W Running White Ftw Metallic Silver Vivid Mint F14 Mens AF Washed Out Tee AF 2016 ADIDAS ORIGINALS Court Star Slim W Sale Mens AF Classic Taper Pants Online Adidas Running adizero XT 5 Shoes Cheap Womens AF Textured Open Cardigan 2016 Mens AF Varsity Logo Cardigan AF 2016 ADIDAS ORIGINALS Zx 700 W Sabpou Sabpou Noiess Mens AF Striped Icon Henley AF 2016 ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Duramo 6 W Earth Green S13 Tech Grey Met S14 Solar Pink Mens AF Premium Utility Jacket AF 2016 ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Response Aspire Str W Running White Ftw Pink Buzz S10 Light Grey Sale Mens AF Denim Joggers Online ADIDAS ORIGINALS Extaball W Noiess Ormeta Nuiflu Mens AF Quilted Bomber jacket AF 2016 ADIDAS ORIGINALS Tech Super W NOIR NOIR ROSSOL Mens AF Classic Chambray Shirt AF 2016 ADIDAS ORIGINALS Bankshot 2 0 W Aluminum 2 Aluminum 2 Chalk 2 Mens AF Rib-Trim Crew Sweater AF 2016 Adidas Women adidas Neo Zip Fleece Hoodie New Womens AF High Rise Cropped Flare Sateen Pants 2016 ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Duramo 6 W Running White Ftw Metallic Silver Glow S14 New Womens AF Denim Mini Skirt 2016 Adidas Men Originals Plimcana 2 0 Low Shoes New Womens AF Lace Midi Skirt 2016 ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Duramo 6 W Noiess Noiess Rosflu Men Running adizero Tempo Boost 7 Shoes ADIDAS ORIGINALS Extaball Up W Noiess Noiess Ftwbla ADIDAS PERFORMANCE Galaxy W Neon Pink Metallic Silver Black 1 Men Running Springblade Ignite Shoes