The political party is a very modern institution, born out of the twin needs of dealing with a population explosion which has occurred over the last 500 years and the need for a scaled down form of governance which moves beyond existing feudal lines. However, today’s political parties have more in common with businesses than their landed ancestors. They are juggernauts which create, respond to and aim to harness the general populous towards a particular ideology. Political parties of today use terms like left, centre ground, right wing that are equally at home on any football pitch and, in a sense, we as the public form the football.
But what does it all mean? The terms are rather superfluous when it comes to your average voter, who will base his or her political choice on factors which are largely independent of these parties. For example, a trade union individual is more likely to vote Labour while an entrepreneur is more likely to vote Conservative etc. In addition to this, you have the so-called cult of personality, i.e. the voter will vote for the party leader or political personality they like, independently of their own political bias and in some cases completely contravening their prior voting record.
To the casual observer, this melting pot of factors can make political parties seem like crazed groups of idiots screaming at the tops of their voices to anyone who will deign to hear. But if you look closer, you will see their perceived insanity is a very sane operating system reliant on two things, creating white noise around their own policies while creating enough negative sentiment around their opponents.
We begin our journey to the reform and reenergising of democracy with perceptibly that most simple of documents, a party manifesto. Manifestos are as Wikipedia will attest the “published declaration of the intentions, motives or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government”. But do any of these individual terms apply to the political manifestos of today? Maybe they do and maybe they do not.
Today’s political party manifesto’s share many similarities with your average restaurant menu in that they contain a number of delectable treats designed to entice, but also increasingly costings for those treats. The fully costed public policy is perhaps a product of the recent parliamentary policy of austerity but has been used in many countries successfully for many years.
However, these documents can be extremely complex and beyond the attentions of most traditional voters. In addition, they can often be buried within websites of political parties, making them inaccessible to all but the most ardent of politicos.
So how do we bridge this gap? Two ways: We require all political parties to develop simplified versions of their larger manifestos, reducing them down to a maximum of 10 bullet points. These bullet points must all be on the same uniform subjects i.e. healthcare, benefits, taxes etc. Secondly, all political parties should be required to publish these manifestos in a side-by-side publication, either a newspaper, online website or social media post. In this way the voter would have a checklist style comparison site for political parties, allowing voters to select what party they feel best meets their needs.
But this already exists, I hear you cry! Permeated by media outlets such as the BBC, Sky News etc. And you might well be right, but look at the names, they are all media outlets controlled by individuals with stated interests, interests which can be manipulated to suit a specific bent. Another good example are newspapers, which can display political leanings towards one party at the expense of another. These organisations would not lose out, in fact they could build coverage around the development of manifestos, interviews with individuals involved and organise editorial in preparation for the run up of publication.
The issue is media spin, the use of specific techniques or language to present an issue in a favourable way: how do we avoid this being used by media outlets? Simple, you make it a criminal offence to alter or change the manifesto during the printing process, and you also invent a media code of conduct specifically for the manifestos’ printing that you require all media outlets to sign up for or they don’t get to print it. Simple. Why would anyone sign up to such a code? The loss of news this big is not something the news outlets can afford to do.
Now we switch tack, from the manifestos to another big issue. How do we allow new parties to flourish? The most obvious example of a political party suffocated by the present political environment is the Change UK party, a party made up of exiles from the Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour parties. Regardless of the political stance of this group, they had a view on the Brexit process which made them unique and worth voter consideration. But instead they never got the chance to figure within the process. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, look at Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which for me is UKIP 2.0. It has been able to garner significant financial support and has used this in European election wins making it a real political challenger. Are their ideas any more or any less valid? No, but they’ve been able to utilise infrastructure and finance to get a message and candidates out there.
A crowded parliament
Do we need more political parties? Arguments can be made for both yes and no, but the decline in voting turnout for me proves all people’s views are not being represented by our current political parties. However, great care must be taken to ensure the legitimacy of these parties and that voters time is not wasted by silly ideas like the green bins for London party etc. How do we ensure this? We refine the process for setting up a new political party, make it like a Dragon’s Den style business environment where only those individuals or groups that are truly serious and good enough receive political party status.
A simple political style business plan would weed out the serious candidates from the non-serious ones. There should be a template of requirements to do so, as well as a specific interview process conducted by either a body made up of ex-MPs or an independent body such as the Electoral Commission, which should be repurposed and receive increased funding.
We also need to make it easier for existing MPs to join new parties but make it a less frequent occurrence. At present a member of parliament is tied to a specific party until they leave that party, be it via a defection to another party, standing down as an MP or an election loss. Limiting MPs to one political party change in every fixed term parliamentary cycle would give the option to do so without the farce of defection. It would also stop the present flip-flopping of certain MPs, which has brought the collective distrust of politicians.
At present, the defection of an MP from one party to another is seen and used as a slap in the face for the party that individual leaves. It’s a cheap trick that is used a lot but doesn’t engender a positive opinion of politicians. To combat this, MPs must be forced to declare their party choice for the next parliamentary cycle and must only be allowed to change party upon the presentation of valid reasons to the local party in which they serve or with the consent of constituents. If the individual changing their party prior to an election is a good public servant, then they will be selected regardless of their political allegiance.
This ability to change parties would allow new parties to attract new members from inside the parliamentary sphere, increasing their stature while also increasing their membership. Another issue concerns the treatment of MPs in the party of governance. While MPs are referred to by other MPs in parliamentary proceedings as my right honourable colleague, friend, etc conveying the semblance of respect, often these individuals are disrespected by other members publicly.
This most notably occurs in election season where individuals from all sides participate in mud slinging and disrespecting of opposing MPs. This disrespect and frankly fragrant mocking does not engender a spirit of trust and strength required to sustain voters. Abuse of politicians by other politicians should not be tolerated, as abuse of MPs by members of the public should also not be tolerated. But to end the abuse of politicians by members of the public, we must first create a new climate among MPs and the only way to do that is to strengthen rules governing MPs so that behaviour is consistent with the highest ethical and moral standards.
Politics is the biggest and most profound thing we will encounter in our lives, and people need to be as respectful of those who take up public service as they would of any other individual. But that takes trust, honesty and time.