What is the purpose of a political party? Its basic function, in theory, is to facilitate voter choice. By representing distinct interests or worldviews, parties are supposed to offer electors a broad choice as to how they want to be governed.
Historically, parties in democratic countries did facilitate choice. They used to represent different sectional, demographic interests. In Britain, the Tories originally drew their support from the landed gentry; the Whigs from aristocrats and the wealthy middle class; Labour from unionized workers.
Parties also used to articulate different worldviews. The Tories, and later the Conservatives, stood for monarchism, protectionism, and the preservation of institutions; the Whigs, and later the Liberals, for religious nonconformity, free trade, and political reform; Labour for socialism and the expansion of the welfare state. Similarly, in the United States, Democrats and Republicans embodied the oppositions between federalism and states’ rights, statism and free markets, interventionism and isolationism.
But do political parties still offer choice today?
Democratic countries today superficially retain the same political structure. Both Britain and the United States are still broadly two-party systems. Competing parties in modern democracies still ostensibly represent different groups and different ideas.
Yet something is evidently amiss. Electorates across the world are disaffected not with particular parties, but with the political system as a whole. Publics increasingly see politicians in general as out of touch and indistinguishable. People are increasingly frustrated that the way they vote makes no difference to the way they are governed or how public services are run. Many have given up voting altogether.
The reality is that public perceptions are correct. Political parties no longer perform their basic function. Far from facilitating voter choice, parties now serve to diminish it.
The clearest manifestation of the lack of choice in politics today, especially in Britain, is the similarity between politicians. On both left and right, the educational, professional, and social backgrounds of many politicians are virtually the same.
In the United Kingdom, different parties’ candidates for Parliament are virtually indistinguishable from each other. In terms of their backgrounds, their education, and their professional history, they are almost identical.
Fifty years ago, Labour candidates were predominantly ex–industrial workers. Yet in the 2015 election, six in ten Labour candidates in target seats came straight from jobs in Westminster. The Conservatives barely differ. Candidates in both parties move from the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics course at Oxbridge to special adviser to safe seat.
In France and Germany, the political system is different, yet the outcome is the same. Voters can only choose the party that represents them, not the individual representatives. Consequently candidates selected for the party lists are the favorites and placemen of central party organizations.
Even in the United States, where the selection process for candidates is decentralized with open primaries, the diversity of politicians has decreased. Both Democrats and Republicans have come to be seen—and despised—as Beltway insiders, chiefly defined by their deep links with lobbyists.
Party machines often claim they are promoting diversity in politics by pushing for more women and more ethnic minorities. But the truth is that diversity in politics has been restricted. Politicians increasingly share the same professional backgrounds, constituencies, and career ambitions. They have come to constitute a separate class.
The lack of diversity in politics across the world is no coincidence. It has been orchestrated. Political choice has diminished because political parties have colluded to restrict it.
In Britain, the big parties have been rigging the rules in their favor since the First World War. In fact, the restriction of choice is inscribed in the statute books.
For 217 years, if a backbench MP was asked to become a Government minister, he would have to resign his seat and fight a by-election to gain a new mandate for his new job. Yet with the Re-Election of Ministers Act in 1919, the big parties joined forces to drop this requirement, and end the separation of powers.
Until the 1930s, all MPs had the right to table amendments to the budget. But the big parties teamed up to restrict power over the most important piece of annual legislation to the Cabinet, and reduce Parliament to rubber-stamping the public finances.
Until the late 1960s, it was illegal to put the name of the party for which a candidate was standing on the ballot paper. The law expected voters to back the person they trusted to represent them. But, in the Representation of the People Act of 1969, the big parties combined to remove this check and transform election campaigns into a uniform, national contest between labels rather than a localized, varied choice between individual candidates.
Until two years ago, businesses and charities had the full right to campaign on political issues. But—under the guise of transparency—the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition enacted legislation to curb third-party campaigning and give the big parties a monopoly over politics.
These fundamental changes to our political system took place following mass enfranchisement, which was supposed to expand British democracy. Instead, throughout the last hundred years, the big parties have colluded to dissociate the voter from government and recentralize power in an unaccountable elite.
The two dominant parties in the United States rig the system as well. By working together to redraw district boundaries around certain demographics, Republicans and Democrats systematically restrict meaningful choice. Gerrymandering has facilitated effective disenfranchisement, ossifying politics in the sole interest of its practitioners.
By colluding to restrict voter choice, parties have turned politics into a cartel. Voter alienation from politics reflects a disturbing modern phenomenon: the emergence of a new oligarchy.
By restricting choice at the ballot box, parties have systematically undermined the clash of opposing philosophies of government. The consequence of the new oligarchy is that insightful debate over major issues has been replaced by a soggy consensus. Real scrutiny of policy and legislation has given way to lazy groupthink.
In the United Kingdom, both main parties support the European Union. Both back minimum wage laws. Both believe in the welfare state. Both advocate raising energy prices in a shared obsession with curbing carbon emissions. The focus of Parliamentary debate has narrowed to questions of which barely differing technocratic means are best suited to achieving the same uncritically accepted ends.
In the United States, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is often said to be wider than ever. But is it? Despite controlling both Houses of Congress, the Republican Party has been unable to mount effective opposition to President Obama. Instead, on key issues—from immigration reform to the debt ceiling—GOP leaders have made their peace with him. In truth, as Washington insiders, many Republican congressmen and senators don’t fundamentally oppose Obama’s agenda at all. The centralization of power in a distant political elite and an ever-expanding federal government comes as naturally to them as it does to him.
Legislators today are almost relieved when they can avoid the façade of debate entirely and cede decisions to other, unelected branches of government.
In both Westminster and Washington, legislators today are almost relieved when they can avoid the façade of debate entirely and cede decisions to other, unelected branches of government: whether judges, central bankers, appointed officials, or—in the case of MPs—supranational bodies in Brussels.
European countries are no different. In Germany, there is no significant debate about the Euro project, or critique of Merkel’s plans for mass immigration. In France, there is no dissent from dirigisme. Decisions of major national importance are deferred to the European Union without a second thought.
Groupthink has enabled problems to grow unchecked. The expansion of government debt, the preservation of a fundamentally flawed banking system, the dangers of uncontrolled borders, and the refusal to confront the unsustainable growth in social security liabilities have all been facilitated by a widespread state of denial within the political class. The elite has become desensitized to problems that the public feel acutely. Consequently, the key political difference is no longer between different parties, but between the oligarchy and the people.
Establishment parties across the democratic world are now in a crisis of their own making. In their attempt to stave off competition, they have sown the seeds of their own destruction.
In the 1950s, the cumulative membership of British political parties stood at 3 million. Now it is less than 100,000. An open primary to choose the Conservative candidate to be mayor of London garnered fewer than 10,000 votes in total—in a city of over 8 million.
This summer, the Conservatives won an outright majority in Parliament for the first time since 1992—giving them the illusion of strength. Yet they got under 37 percent of the vote—a lower proportion than Churchill mustered when the Conservatives were defeated in a landslide in 1945.
In Scotland, both Establishment parties have been wiped out because of their failure to adapt. Until the 1980s, Scotland had the same two-party system as the rest of the United Kingdom. They collapsed because they lost touch with the base. Cronyism in the selection process, the prime example being the Falkirk Scandal, has alienated the people.
The situation is not so different in the rest of the United Kingdom. The U.K. Independence Party may have only one seat, but it got almost 4 million votes—three times as many as the Scottish National Party. The Establishment parties are relying for their survival on the unfairness of the electoral system. As Scotland has shown, that in itself won’t be enough.
Everywhere, the new oligarchy is driving the rise of political outsiders. Capitalizing on public disaffection with the elite, a new countercultural, populist insurgency is emerging in response. European countries are awash with strident new voices: Beppe Grillo in Italy; Podemos in Spain; the True Finns and the Swedish Democrats in Scandinavia; the Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany; Syriza in Greece; Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France; Jeremy Corbyn and the Scottish Nationalists in the United Kingdom. The United States is abuzz with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Across the Western world, new radicals are gaining public support.
But do the new radicals really promise to reform politics? Is their radicalism really new?
Most of the insurgents define themselves negatively, in opposition to an enemy. For the Left, the target is the 1 percent; for the Right, it is immigrants. New radicals tend to be pessimistic. They hark back to an idealized past, whether a nostalgized, monocultural, apple-pie–filled 1950s paradise, or an imagined pre-civilized, egalitarian utopia. They do not orient themselves towards the future. The politics they are selling isn’t new.
Moreover, much of what the new radicals advocate reinforces the oligarchy they claim to oppose. Bernie Sanders’s demand for more bank regulation would increase regulatory capture, and empower the central bankers and treasury bureaucrats who presided over the banking collapse. The idea of “people’s quantitative easing,” proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, is no different from TARP: massive handouts of public money to big corporations. Donald Trump’s support for eminent domain reveals him to be exactly the kind of corporatist insider he purports to despise. Syriza, elected on a platform of rejecting EU austerity, has ended up backing tougher measures from Brussels than those they won a mandate to reject.
Today’s radicals are a reflection of political dysfunction, but they are not offering the systemic change necessary to reform it. Like anti-establishment movements throughout history, they risk feeding the elite they set out to overthrow.
The Western world needs a functioning democratic system to survive and progress. We cannot persevere with a system that pits an Establishment elite against the people. Neither can we progress if the supposedly radical alternative is only capable of changing the personnel in the oligarchy, not the system itself. To restore our democracy, we need to break the political cartel.
Part of the process of restoring democracy, particularly in the UK, entails electoral reform. The first-past-the-post system, which often denies a voice in Parliament to the majority of voters in a constituency, is actually a much more recent invention than most people realize. Until 1884, Britain had a first-two-past-the-post system. The current system of all-or-nothing elections reinforces the control of the party machine: it incentivizes spending in swing constituencies while ignoring voters elsewhere; it directs gerrymandering the boundaries; and it encourages candidates to compete for “safe seats,” rather than stand in constituencies to which they have a personal connection.
Breaking the cartel also involves a new kind of political party. Successful parties not only need to tap into the frustration with the political class but also embody a different model of politics.
Instead of concentrating power, parties now need to disperse it: by changing the models of membership, candidate selection, and campaign finance. By harnessing the internet, parties can both reduce administrative costs and enable different tiers of affiliation, tailored to individual levels of involvement. Open primaries must be adopted, to take candidate selection out of the hands of the party machines and empower the electorate. A new form of finance, based on broad crowdfunding of small donors rather than dependence on lobbyists and plutocrats, is necessary to reduce the influence of special interests.
Yet these reforms alone are not enough. Open primaries have not, in themselves, opened up politics in the United States. Crowdfunding financed President Obama’s campaign in 2008; it has yet to deliver change.
Real change will only come from greater accountability. Thanks to modern technology, this is now eminently possible. To win back public confidence, parties must embrace the accountability made possible by the digital revolution.
Since the full extension of the franchise a century ago, the personal link between candidates and their constituents has been broken. Politicians, who used to be in direct contact with the people who elected them, could no longer know the majority of voters in their constituencies. In part, this is what facilitated the dominance of the party machine.
In the 1910 election in Harwich, formerly part of my constituency, the total number of votes cast was 5,400. Voters had the chance to meet and get to know the candidates, and vote for a person rather than a party. In the 1997 election, by contrast, over 80,000 votes were cast. Most voters never came into contact with the candidates; they could only vote for parties. And from the candidates’ perspective, parties were necessary to mobilize and aggregate a campaign.
But the digital revolution is bringing the personal connection back. Thanks to social media, voters can now communicate directly with the people they elect. They no longer have to vote for a faceless representative of an amorphous party; they can now once again get to know the candidate.
In this context, big parties with uniform mantras become a disadvantage. Candidates who are in direct contact with their electorates seem disingenuous if they act like mere cogs in the party machine. Parties must instead relax the leash and spare the whip: allow candidates to build relationships with their constituents, respond to local concerns, and act with the integrity and independence of mind that voters expect.
Technology could take us further still. Blockchain technology is already enabling alternative currencies, like Bitcoin, to self-regulate, with no human intervention at all. Innovators are now talking about building block-chain companies: enabling transactions to take place without any intermediary coordinating or organizing them. What if we could have block chain parties? Self-organizing, digital organizations that would allow members to pay for membership, choose candidates, and support policies without the mediation of any party hierarchy. It may seem fanciful; but bypassing the party machine would truly empower the people.
Twentieth-century bureaucracy created the new oligarchy. Twenty-first century innovation provides the means to disrupt it.
The path to restoring democracy is through progress rather than return. Twentieth-century bureaucracy created the new oligarchy. Twenty-first century innovation provides the means to disrupt it.
The problem with our politics is a broken political system. The digital revolution gives us the opportunity to reform the system, and revitalize our democracy. But to do so, the case for change needs to be made and heard. The Establishment parties need to realize that the political cartel is unsustainable. And the anti-Establishment radicals need to realize that they must target the system, rather than convenient scapegoats, to bring about positive change. The Western world could be on the brink of a new digital, democratic, decentralized age. Or, like the entrenched oligarchic societies that preceded it, the Western world could resist change and precipitate its own decline and demise. I believe that is the choice we have before us. Let us make sure we choose wisely.