Benedict Surtees has been a Conservative Party Agent since 2008 and is currently working towards a masters degree focusing on the way in which changes in Party organisation are influencing approaches towards constituency campaigning in Britain.
Today, the decline in party membership and activism is a recurrent concern right across the political spectrum, not just in the UK but also in democratic societies throughout the world. Political parties that have existed for more than a century, as organisations sometimes boasting millions of members, now struggle to maintain organisational structures that have depended on large and active grassroots memberships. As this has happened, a growing proportion of the electorate have become genuinely disaffected with party politics, leading some to argue that we face a fundamental challenge to the health of our democracy.
Yet, while political parties struggle to sustain themselves, the appetite for political action and engagement remains very much alive. Rather than join political parties, however, many people now seek to express their ideas and values through less formal media. As a result, political parties are no longer the primary vehicles for civic participation that they once were. Increasingly, formal political parties are missing out to a verity of adaptable coalitions and interest groups, through which this civic capital is finding expression, often through effective use of new media.
In the United States, the success of groups such as MoveOn.org and the Club for Growth demonstrate how successful these third party groups can be in harnessing grassroots enthusiasm around specific issues and affecting the political debate in a way that political parties struggle to match. One of the most significant features of the Obama campaign (which paralleled aspects of the 2004 Bush campaign) was that together with its use of new technology, it worked effectively with third parties to mobilise its supporters, fundraise and even coordinate field operations in key states. Of course, there are significant differences between the party system in the US and the UK; however, the relative decline of formal political parties and the rise of popular ad-hoc coalitions, based around specific issues and causes, is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.
So what does this mean for the future of political parties here in the UK?
Firstly, it is unlikely that we will ever again see the kind of formal mass membership political organisations that characterised much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The society that supported such entities simply no longer exists.
Secondly, the successful political parties of the future are likely to be those that embrace the “movement politics” that we have seen in the United States, building coalitions with third parties while involving and, most important of all, trusting grass roots supporters. Not only would this represent a far more responsive and accessible model of political participation, but it would also serve to dismantle the historic barriers between political parties and the societies they seek to represent.
We have already seen the first tentative steps towards this new kind of politics in the UK, as parties begin to reforge their organisations to reflect the changing ways in which people interact with the society around them. Open Primaries, the emergence of pressure groups such as the TaxPayers' Alliance and Immigration Watch and internet-based campaigns are all sweeping away barriers between citizens and those who aspire to represent them.
That it has been the Conservative Party that has adapted most rapidly to the changing nature of political participation probably owes as much to the instinctive pluralism of the Right as it does to the freedom and flexibility that thirteen years of opposition provide. Philip Gould may have described Labour as ‘a party born old’, whose efforts to change and adapt to the new dynamic of political competition have been as clumsy and stalled as any of its earlier efforts to modernise; however, opposition would provide Labour with the chance to fundamentally recast its relationship with the electorate as a whole.
Should it win the general election, the Conservative Party should not retreat into misguided attempts to revive historic models of party organisation that reflect society as it once was: instead, the Party must continue to pioneer and promote new means of political engagement and participation that reflect the rapidly changing and pluralistic society we live in today.
Whatever the great electoral and political dividing lines of the future will be, they seem likely to be far more ephemeral and the electorate’s relationship with them appears more transitory than those of the last century. As a result, it is only by building on the innovations of the last few years and drawing on that peculiarly Conservative talent for adaptation and reinvention that the Conservative Party can continue to speak successfully to the values, hopes and aspirations of Britain.