Magazine article The Spectator

The End of the Party

Magazine article The Spectator

The End of the Party

Article excerpt

The decline of tribal loyalties spells the end of the big traditional political organisations

If Cyril Northcote Parkinson was still around he would devise a law for party political conferences: that the significance of what is discussed in the conference centre is inversely proportional to the difficulty of getting in. Time was, when politicians stayed in shabby hotels in Blackpool and wandered along the seafront to the Winter Gardens to debate with constituency members, that conferences meant something. Over the next three weeks anyone visiting Glasgow, Manchester or Brighton, even if not involved in a party conference, will be inconvenienced by a security buffer which resembles the former green zone in Baghdad. But will anyone care what goes on inside?

Party conferences have become a misnomer. The last genuine conference was held about 20 years ago, since when the events have evolved into lobbyists' trade shows.

There will be no genuine conferring over policy. All that will happen is that ministers will make presentations of policies which have been conceived and honed by a small coterie of aides in London, and a very large number of lobbyists will compete for ministerial attention. The switch from seaside towns to large cities is indicative of the change: the latter have better restaurants, for the benefit of people on expense accounts.

Delegates will drown in saccharin as leaders pay tribute to the hard work of the envelope-stuffers who make the party tick. The BBC may even present the conferences as a meeting of the party faithful - but it will be a big lie. Neither Cameron, Miliband nor Clegg care one jot for their respective bands of swivel-eyed loons, whom party managers will do all they can to keep away from the podium - even if they are a little more subtle about it than the bull-necked bouncers who ejected 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang from Labour's conference in 2005. The sheer cost of attending nowadays restricts it to those with a working interest in politics.

The good news for party managers is that there are fewer and fewer party members to keep under control. The posher the conference venues have become, the smaller the parties have become. In 1953 the Conservative party had 2.8 million members and the Labour party 1 million. It isn't easy to find out current membership levels, owing to the refusal of parties to publish the data - itself surely a sign of the problem. But a House of Commons briefing paper last December came up with estimates of 193,000 for Labour and between 130,000 and 170,000 for the Conservatives.

The website ConservativeHome (which now stages its own conferences) last month surveyed Conservative constituency associations which do return membership figures. It ads up to just under 60,000 paid-up members. This suggests total membership is unlikely to exceed 100,000 - less than half of the 253,600 when Cameron was elected leader. Never mind trade unions, the Church of England, county cricket: the Conservative party has taken over the role of Britain's most rapidly declining institution. With an average age of 68, the Conservative party is like a rural bus service whose clientele has dwindled year-on-year to an elderly rump, to the point at which it would be cheaper to replace it with a dial-a-ride taxi service.

Labour's membership has been more stable but its situation is arguably worse.

A huge slice of its affiliate membership is made of people drafted in, through union membership, without their approval or even their knowledge. The GMB union, for example, automatically affiliates 420,000 of its members to the Labour party at a cost of £3 a year each. The union, in slashing its annual donation to Labour from £1.2 million to £50,000, reckons only 50,000 of its members would voluntarily choose to join the Labour party. Ed Miliband's party has become like one of those supermarket loyalty card schemes which force you to join something called a 'club' when all you want is tuppence off your groceries. …

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