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What is the point of joining a political party?


9:45 am - January 3rd 2011

by Paul Sagar    


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Just under a year ago I joined the Labour Party. I will not be renewing my membership.

This is not, however, because of some ideological disenchantment. Neither is it due to dissatisfaction with Ed Miliband’s faltering start, or the Party’s lamentable response to the Coalition.

The truth is, I’ve done nothing for Labour since the 2010 General Election. I’ve not even bothered updating my CLP membership since moving to Cambridge. And the basic reason for this is that I intensely dislike political campaigning, and party-political activities.

I find knocking on doors at best boring, and at worst utterly unpleasant. This isn’t so much because I’m averse to meeting the general public, as that I’m averse to looking them in the eye and lying. Like when they say “Labour has a rubbish policy on Trident/ID cards/immigration/the 10p tax”. Or “Gordon Brown is a crap Prime Minister, I’m not putting him back in power”.

And I’m supposed to sit there and pretend that they’ve got it all wrong. Because The Party is fantastic and if it wins everything will be sunshine and kittens.

Likewise, away from the doorsteps I find the experience of party-politics pretty nauseating. The herd mentality in particular is stifling. It’s like being stuck with a bunch of football fans who only want to talk about their team and how great it is – apart from the heretics and traitors trying to ruin it from the inside, of course.

That, and the constant, compulsory mantra about how awful and evil the other teams/parties are.

The fact is, to stay active in grass roots party politics you have to enjoy this. Or at the very least, be able to engage in it whilst not contantly battling the urge to shove pins in your eyes.

Of course some people are able to so partake and nonetheless maintain good judgement, political sense and basic moral principles not determined by party policy. Don Paskini is the outstanding example here, though Chris Brooke gets a mention too. But these types are, in my experience, very rare.

But furthermore, those that go on to be seriously successful – to head local councils, become MPs, or even government ministers – have to invest enormous amounts of time and energy in this world of perma-propaganda, dogma, and tedious tribalism. So they, too, must find the entire process in some way satisfying. Or else they’d go off and do something else. Like make money, or save the whales.

Sure, these individuals will possess moral values and principles, of varying degrees of coherence and sophistication. But what drives many is the appeal of politics as a participatory activity. They do politics because politics itself is how they like to spend their time: propagandising, disseminating and tub-thumping for their chosen tribe.

Which this leads again to the conclusion that there’s something very misguided about conceiving of politics as being fundamentally an exercise in applied ethics. And that any political theory maintaining otherwise will be quite seriously deficient.

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About the author
Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Reader comments


1.2% of the population belongs to a political party. You aren’t alone in wondering their relevance to good governance.

Excellent article.

I felt the same when I started campaigning nearly 40 years ago. All doubt disappeared quickly when it became obvious to me who and what the sort of people are that are involved in politics.

Look closely and you’ll also find good people of all parties but you’ll also find politics is riddled with incompetent, devious, criminally minded, power crazy, licentious, tit-brained two-legged, ne’er-do-well reptiles.

Keeping them out of power is what politics is all about and it’s also the reason I think you’ll remain involved. Having the courage to express such is a good start.

3. Mike Killingworth

A very accurate description of the political animal. The people who become councillors and – particularly – MPs are not those who are best qualified, but those who want it the most. And who will therefore sacrifice all other life goals to it.

People aren’t involved in politics because they feel powerless. People feel like joining Party X won’t empower them to shape the direction of said party. By and large it probably won’t. However, sitting back and doing nothing to change the situation won’t exactly fix it either. The big two parties (and the Lib Dems) are certainly lost causes, and their morals and principals have evaporated as business interests have rushed in and usurped them. I’d be inclined to argue that the Tories had substantially less conflicting morals and principals to begin with, but that’s an irrelevance. Inaction is complicity, and whilst people do nothing, the situation will continue to get worse and worse.

Your dislike of party politics and the crap that goes with it makes me think that you would be ideally suited to be a significant part of it.

@ 4. BenB

Wrong in my opinion. Most of those I’ve encountered who are least suitable for power have been the most active. In other words, nasty bits of work beavering away like hell.

7. Solomon Hughes

So does that mean that , say, the welfare state, the National Health Service , public education, the minimum wage, which were all delivered through political parties in some way or other , were all a bit of a waste of time ? And that having maverick leaders, who pull together coalitions by direct appeals to the public, without a real party base (Hello Mr Berlusconi) are where it is at ?

An interesting article with lots of valid points.

However, something you omit is that if we want to change the way politics operates then more people need to engage in political activity.

If the old political parties were inundated with new members, who presented a new way of thinking, then we could change our politics.

I agree with the writer – but from a voter’s perspective. I’ve been so disillusioned with party politics so why would I want to join a party and become an agent of deception? I can’t do it. There are other ways of changing things than joining a political party like BenB says. Protest is one way of empowering people, in my opinion the students demos, anti-cuts campaign, anti-war coalition etc seem to be more worthwhile than investing time and energy into lobbying politicians. When people speak up, politicians listen and change their way of doing things as was recently exemplified in the Booktrust turn-around and concessions to students on fees (even though the govt voted to increase fees). When politicians start to realise deceptive rhetoric doesn’t cut it with the electorate and start to reform their ways, then people will feel encouraged to join a party.

This line:
There are other ways of changing things than joining a political party like BenB says.

Was meant to be:
There are other ways of changing things other than joining a political party as BenB seems to think.

11. Alisdair Cameron

Quite so, Paul.Parties aren’t the solution, in fact I’d go as far as to say that the current party system is a major part of the nation’s problems.
is unbearable now. New labour aren’t strangers to West London dinner parties, little soirées, celeb hob-nobbing, rubbing shoulder with the rich et al. They and the Cameroonies are of the same self-serving clique: the fact that Mandelson and Osborne both yachted in the same circles speaks volumes. Look beyond the window-dressing, rhetoric and odd token outlier, and you see the same cadre of on-the-make smooth, unprincipled, spivvy sorts in the Tories,Labour, and in the Orange Book LibDems. Some of their grandfathers maybe had it tough, but they haven’t: PPE at Oxford,loadsa student politics which they’ve never grown out of, bit of wonkery/thinktankery/union sinecure, no proper work, parachuted into a safe seat.over-mighty party structures, The parties’ ludicrously-whipped, on-message, control-freak, top-down approach is utterly discredited.
Anyone truly independent of thought would be obliged to align with one of the establishment parties, and then be subjected to the machinations and bullying of the party hierarchy and their minions.Thus we get (often astonishingly ill-informed, bordering on unworldly ignorance) drones, who have to ask their ‘superiors’ what the issue is, what the line to take is, what to say, and what this week’s ‘principle’ (buy one get one free) is.
The whipping system with the enforcement of a party line and party discipline is an affront to democracy. End of story

An incredibly immature article that comes to some reasonably ill-founded conclusions.

Have you tried talking honestly to the people you’re accusing of tribalism or investing their time fruitlessly (as you have it) in party politics?

I meet as many people who blindly follow party line as I do those who challenge the status quo.

I also have never met someone rates ‘enjoying politics’ over ‘hanging on in there because I believe this is the way for me to make a bigger difference in exchange for a great deal of my time and peace of mind’

Personally I believe blind party-line following makes a party weaker, but I understand why people do it – if they believe that the party as a whole is a better option than any other in power and they see blind support the best way to do that, a slightly naive point of view, perhaps, but no less that the one purported in this article. Also politics is f*cking tough. Sometimes you need a tribe, you need the support, otherwise you’d never get out of bed.

It’s the media who have closed down real debate in the parties. Councillors and MPs have to be constantly guarded, cannot for a second break party line lest it be brought up as ‘weakness’, ‘dissent’, or (gasp) precipitant of a U-turn – just as the marketing age meant a focus on packetable leadership over messy narrative-less community.

I’ve recently been asked to stand as a local councillor and I’m ashamed that I said no, because I don’t believe I could close off the parts of me that would be necessary to participate in the media’s version of politics. I’m ashamed because it was selfish of me to not sacrifice my individuality for the difference that I might be able to make in speaking for many more than just myself.

Party politics doesn’t suit everyone, but there’s a degree of maturity involved in order to admit that a party will never wholly represent the views of any one person, but that you believe essentially that most of the things they do are the best expression of your basic principles.

I also fully agree with the commenter Matt; if you don’t like it, get involved and change it. Organise your own meetings, find like minded people, hold debates, and for goodness sake be honest on the doorstep. Who says you can’t speak your mind? If anyone ever asks me about Trident I say ‘I know it’s a pretty dumb that we’re continuing to support Trident, but my support for other aspects of their policies is why I’m a member, I personally put pressure on my MP to vote against the renewal, and often speak up in the party against it, if you wanted to join, you could be a voice against it too, enough voices, and we could hopefully change the leadership’s mind on it’.

Grow up and realise that idealism makes good individual fuel, but to have a countrywide effect in this democracy, you need to swallow your ego and be a part of some degree of compromise. Better small changes for the good, than none at all; better in the party, holding its members to account, than standing outside shouting ‘you’re all a bunch of automatons’.

Since joining Labour not once have I felt obliged to argue for something I didn’t agree with on the door step or on the phones. I had my reasons for joining up and I have found them more than sufficient for debating people who are extremely critical of the party. Perhaps Paul joined Labour with a set of expectations not shared by everyone else?

@ 11 “The whipping system with the enforcement of a party line and party discipline is an affront to democracy”

This about says it all. However, no party will get rid of it as it’s the only effective tool available to the Executive that ensures compliance from MPs.

After all if they get rid of the Party Whip system we would have MPs actually trying to represent the wishes of their constituents !

Lets see, what would constituents be likely to come up with: out of EU, return of capital punishment, immigration clampdown, catch rich tax dodgers etc..etc…

15. the a&e charge nurse

@Ted I’ve heard some argue that you have to trust people with ‘proper democracy’* before they actually take responsibility for it – i.e. hanging is fine until it’s your wayward son that’s up for hanging; MP-ing by rote – like jury service -might mean 25 years of horrible mayhem but could also bring about a much truer representative system and politically engaged, participatory and truly representative populus.

I don’t agree with this method – I could never have that many lives ruined for any ‘greater good’, but either way I’d urge you not to judge people by the tabloid media – I’d give individuals more credit, and suggest that the characterisation of your average british person as bloodthirsty xenophobes only helps alienate the ‘political classes’ from everyone else. ‘For their own good’ is rarely the best way to run a country.

*obviously taking the colloquial definition of democracy here

What IS the point of joining a political party?

On the one extreme, there is the pure self interest of being owed when the party gets into power. This seems to be the sole purpose of some Eastern European parties that sprang up after the Wall fell.

On the other extreme, there is the possibility of being convinced of a certain ideology, whether it be the belief that the free unregulated market with traders competing for profits will produce the best of all possible worlds, or whether it be the belief that the health of human economics and society depends ultimately on the health of our living physical environment. Once seized of a notion, and convinced that there is a party that broadly represents that notion, party political involvement is a natural sequel.

For Labour, self interest seems to be the only motive, because after Blair, the ideology of a once proud party is in tatters. They have no credible programme, no ideology, no principles, nothing. That is how it seems to someone viewing the Labour party from outside. Is this just another example of party political chauvinism? I honestly do not think so. Ed Milliband is offering us a blank sheet of paper. He offers only muted opposition to Osborne’s malicious dismantling of British society and economy, muted because he would have done much the same.

I agree, party politics is often two dimensional, follow the leader, envelope stuffing stuff, but the core of a political party is a belief, a purpose. It really does seem that Labour has no belief or purpose. No wonder Paul Sagar will not be renewing his membership.

@ Hannah

“Party politics doesn’t suit everyone, but there’s a degree of maturity involved in order to admit that a party will never wholly represent the views of any one person, but that you believe essentially that most of the things they do are the best expression of your basic principles.”

But what if there is no party such that most of the things that they do express your basic principles? Or if you cannot accept some of the things they do as compromises? It’s too simple to say that it’s always mature to accept compromise and always immature to dissent from the two or three options available.

@ 16. Hannah

As an old Greek said to me once

“you can have too much democracy to the point where it becomes meaningless”

If personal experience from many decades ago is anything to go by, the average ward or constituency party meeting is excruciatingly boring.

@12 Hannah – I don’t think branding someone’s thoughts on this issue as “incredibly immature” really does much for your argument. Maybe Paul expected something different from his experience, but the inner workings of parties are often dispiriting for those who are new to the experience. That doesn’t make it “immature”.

@18. AG1985 To clarify: I make a point of saying that party politics doesn’t suit everyone – indeed if no party expresses a majority or essence of your convictions, don’t join one! I don’t suggest that party politics is necessarily mature; indeed just because I think the article is immature doesn’t mean that the alternatives I offer to try to explain this are necessarily the opposite in a diametric choice.

I *do*, though, think this article immature. If it was speaking for a personal point of view it would be less so, but the aspersions it casts on others are particularly naive. It is not immature to not join a party, it is immature, however, to suggest that everyone who does so is doing so fruitlessly, blindly, tribally or an otherwise pejorative manner. Or that the best or most effective response is to run away.

(I would also add that there are more than three parties…)

@21. Darryl Feeling dispirited or that party politics is not something you can swallow is not immature – it is a perfectly reasonable and understandable reaction. Drawing from this personal experience wide conclusions about the drive of others who find the involvement palatable, however, is naive, and I make no apologies for saying so.

Hannah: it is immature, however, to suggest that everyone who does so is doing so fruitlessly, blindly, tribally or an otherwise pejorative manner.

Yes. That would be immature. Paul doesn’t, however, come close to saying this.

On the point about the door knocking and the kittens – which I realise has been dealt with already by many other commenters here – it sounds like you have joined a political party for the wrong reasons.

From your description it sounds like it is expected of you to be tribal when you join a party. To the contrary.

This may sound odd to some people; why would you join a party were it not for tribalism. The answer is that I’m tribal to a set of political goals and purposes; my reason I joined a political party is because I am ideologicaly driven to the conclusion that the best place to fight for those ideas, goals and purposes is in that party.

If you should catch me knocking on doors telling people that life would be better under the leader of my party, well then shoot me dead there and then – I’ve clearly lost my senses.

@Chris Brooke, I draw your attention to the following quotes and implications:

That the majority (indeed, as he explicitly states he sees only few exceptions) exhibit a “herd mentality” and parrot “compulsory mantra”s

The unfounded conclusion that “The fact is, to stay active in grass roots party politics you have to enjoy this […] perma-propaganda, dogma, and tedious tribalism”

And that “They [party members] do politics because politics itself is how they like to spend their time: propagandising, disseminating and tub-thumping for their chosen tribe.”

That sounds to me like suggesting those who participate willingly in party politics are doing so fruitlessly, blindly, tribally or an otherwise pejorative manner.

@23 Hannah But Paul’s comments have obviously struck a chord. You might disagree with them, but dismissing them as “immature” would seem to bear out his argument.

Sure, he may have had a better experience in a neighbouring branch of the same party, or in a different party in his area, but his experience clearly isn’t unique.

My own two-year stint as an active member of a political party began in a meeting where two members had a furious, stand-up row about the square root of sod all. I nearly walked out there and then. I’m glad I didn’t, but often the immaturity is shown inside local political parties, not out in the real world.

@ 26. Hannah

You’re doing a valiant job trying to keep our leaky old political bath-tub afloat ! Lets start looking at what is actually required of a politician in terms of actual skill ? (1) A good speaker. (2) ?

Why is there not a generic job description for MPs ?

What do they actually do all day ?

What do they actually do in those long holidays ?

What other skills are actually required for an employment package of approximately £100,000 per annum ? Now you know why increasing numbers of the public consider MPs as low-life.

When I joined the big world and started working For The Man, it quickly dawned on me – and I stated it often (to the detriment of pay rises and promotions, I’m sure!):

* Those who seek power are usually the last who should be given it.

That applies especially to politics, Blair being a prime example of the beady-eyed, power-crazed sociopath who flourishes in an environment that rewards duplicity.

We need a new system to elect our leaders. I suggest an anarcho-syndicalist commune and take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week and all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting. 😉

I’m slightly unsure that it’s right to describe parties as being homogeneously fanatical to the party line, there’s a lot of diversity within parties. Take a straw poll of party members and they’ll actually be diametrically opposed on plenty of issues!

A very thought-provoking post. All I will say is that you can tell such a lot from mixing with ‘grassroots’ activists…they are much more representative of the party than any parliamentary member or officer. If you find they are on a completely different level to you then you might just be in the wrong party. I have found this to be the case myself as a former Lab & Lib Dem member but am having a completely different experience now as a Green.

Also if you find you feel trapped from a writing pov and put in a box why not just be a progressive left supporter or green supporter?

Jo

@ 30. Varus

Not Labour, Conservative and us old fashioned Liberals. You’re talking about UKIP, BNP, ENP, Respect and a whole host of other confused bit-part players.

I’ll sum it up from my point of view, I’ve never heard of a politician who risked telling the truth in plain language when votes were at risk or the party line differed.

@Ted to continue your metaphor of a leaky old political bath-tub, what’s better, to abandon ship, or to mend the leaks?

Actually I don’t know why my bathtub is at sea. But hopefully you take my point.

I would suggest that you turn your rhetoric to people who can answer you, instead of answering for yourself (implied, not explicit in your comment, certainly).

Ask your MP civilly and they might answer.

In answer to your questions, do you think there should be a generic ‘type’ of MP? That they need certain qualifications? There is certainly a code of conduct, which gives an answer to most of your queries: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmcode/735/735.pdf

All of my MPs seem to have worked 18 hour days, replying to constituents, writing to others for their constituents, visiting their constituents, representing them in parliament, and the party, campaigning, and considering votes, debating, writing their contributions to debates and writing/considering legislature.

The bog-standard MP pay that most receive is £65,738 PA. ( http://bit.ly/grkmbB ), I’m not sure where you’ve sourced your figure but I suppose you might be including expenses. I think expenses should be much better regulated, but I have no problem with them, as they allow people from less privileged backgrounds to participate. In terms of pay, I think every industries pay structures need shaking up, but I do think MPs do an important job. Not as important as teaching, working in health or social care, but most work very hard, long hours for a lot less than a similar position in any other industry would pay.

The long holidays you’re referring to are the parliamentary recesses I imagine? These are only breaks from parliamentary duties – constituency ones still persist.

‘Low-life’, really? Would you characterise the whole of any other profession as all ‘low-life’s? I’m sure a few are, as are many of other lines of work. But this facile dismissal of all those who willingly involve themselves in politics seems to me (as I have probably made sufficiently clear by now) naive in the extreme.

You don’t have to be a member of a party if you don’t want to be – but in the thousands of doors I’ve knocked on I’ve never lied to anyone on the doorstep and don’t intent to start. It is possible to behave like a decent human being and be involved in a political party – perhaps Labour is different, but I think not.

It does not do you any credit that you admit to consistently lying to people on the doorstep and it’s probably just as well you’ve jacked it in.

35. Elliot Folan

The problem is not political parties; the problem is the Labour Party.

I have met a number of people who left Labour for the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party for one simple reason: they no longer have any power in the party to decide policy. Instead, a power which once belonged to them now rests with a little clique of power-hungry politicians.

As you say –

“I’m averse to looking them in the eye and lying. Like when they say “Labour has a rubbish policy on Trident/ID cards/immigration/the 10p tax”. Or “Gordon Brown is a crap Prime Minister, I’m not putting him back in power”.

And I’m supposed to sit there and pretend that they’ve got it all wrong. Because The Party is fantastic and if it wins everything will be sunshine and kittens.”

For someone like me, who is a proud member of a democratic party, I see it as awful to have to lie and pretend I support something that I do not support just because its the party line.

Of course there are some things in my party’s manifesto I do not agree with. But there is something different about that as compared with your situation: I have it in my power to change that manifesto, and to convince others to agree.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party retain policy-making power with their conferences. And while membership of other political parties has fallen, membership of the Greens has increased by 50% since spring 2009 – precisely because members feel they control policy, rather than policy controlling them and treating them like robots.

I can’t blame you for not liking door-knocking or canvassing. Personally I love it, but if you don’t like it then maybe political parties are not for you. As someone said above, only a very tiny percentage of Britons are members of parties.

But being forced to swallow a party line is not inherent to political parties: it is inherent to the centralised mass that is the Labour Party.

I know plenty of good people from Labour and I believe, very simply, that their party is letting them down.

Ed Milliband’s party reforms must include a commitment to a democratic party structure. Otherwise Labour will never win an election again – not because of its policies, but simply because it will no longer have any activists left.

@ Tamsin, you seemed somewhat keener on political parties last may when you decided to establish your own vanity “party” and run against a Green candidate

@35

Exactly how I feel.

Couple of quick points.

1. I expressed myself badly when I phrased things as “lying” on the doorsteps. Copied and pasted from the comments at my place, as a correction:

A better way of putting it is: I can’t stand being an official representative of (say) a manifest social injustice to the worse-off whilst also having to try and persuade somebody else that even if I agree that this was indeed a manifest injustice to the worst off that should be ignored because next time The Party promises to be different (even though the Leader refuses to admit what he did was wrong).

I appreciate that some people are able to stomach having to take that sort of personally-compromised position, and in many cases I actually respect it insofar as it shows commitment to a perceived greater good. It’s just for me, personally, I can’t stomach it, mostly because I dont see the ostensive greater good as sufficiently great.

2. Hannah, all I’m pointing out is that to stay involved in grass roots party politics, you have to enjoy grass roots party politics. Now as it happens, grass roots party politics involves a fair amount of rather tedious, tribalistic, self-indulgent behaviour – so staying involved means, at a basic minimum, being able to put up with these aspects of party political life. As far as I’m concerned,these are just facts. You may not like them, but I think it’s a bit silly to shout the word “immature” at me. Not to mention, self-defeating.

3. To all those saying we don’t need political parties: I’m afraid I can’t see what else is going to work. The fact is, political parties are a staple part of any representative democracy. It just happens that I, personally, am not a party-political animal. I’m not drawing any wider conclusions about democratic structures or systems.

@ 33. Hannah

In view of the last 3 years of Parliamentary and MPs behaviour, the case for the prosecution rests M’Lud ! See archives on expenses, Iraq etc.

Ps I was referring to the whole remuneration package for MPs, not just basic salary. This includes generous expenses, pension, allowances, equipment and staff costs. It is in fact well in excess of £100,000.

Your retirement from party politics does you credit, Paul. The inability to chant “four legs good, two legs bad” in time with the rest of the animals is, indeed, a virtue.

But it seems to me it is not only party politics that is the problem.

Having recently returned from an ill judged all inclusive holiday on which the majority of my countrymen appeared to by auditioning for an episode of the Jeremy Kyle show, I am disenchanted with whole concept of democracy itself.

I kept looking on horrified by the realisation that it is these people who vote for a government which then makes decisions that directly affect me and thinking……… what hope is there?

And before someone asks me what political system would be better, I accept there is none.

The only hope is less government.

41. Chaise Guevara

@ 40 Pagar

“The only hope is less government.”

Not quite sure how you got here. I understand your starting point – the idea that people as a group cannot be trusted to elect good governments – but why does that make small government better than big government? If you think people can’t be trusted, surely it’s a good idea to introduce the moderating if flawed effect of government.

After all, you yourself admit that democracy is better than all the known alternatives – following the logic used to reach the conlusion above, wouldn’t you prefer total anarchy?

Political parties need to keep activists onside or they will not do whatever it is that political activists do. However, if political parties are pleasing their activists then it is pretty certain whatever it is they are doing is wrong and pissing off even more people. So the problem is the political activist who invariably is a political obsessive. Moreover, they make the erroneous assumption that everyone else is a political obsessive who thinks just like them. The vast majority of the population do not think like political activists. They have a range of views that can’t easily be pigeonholed into neat left right political spectrum’s. Millions of voters express in one sentence reactionary right wing views and in the next sentence a left wing opinion. That is the reality of the general public. However, political activists are not like that. So it is unlikely that a party pleasing their activist base will have much electoral success. Step forward Michael Foot, William Hague and IDS.

Why would anyone want to join a political party? That intelligent people feel obliged to ask themselves this question explains much about what is wrong with politics in this country.

Too much control freakery from the centre; too little power devolved to the grassroots and, more than anything else, a lack of anything resembling a coherent message apart from ‘vote for us; because we’re not like them.’ Is it any wonder so many people with something worthwhile to contribute can’t be bothered?

All of which makes a rather good case for backing PR over the timid alternative vote we’re going to be offered next May. At least under proportional representation a wider range of ideas and voices would enter the political debate, perhaps giving people who feel ignored now a point to rally round.

@ Chaise

the idea that people as a group cannot be trusted to elect good governments – but why does that make small government better than big government?

Because the less that a flawed government selected by a flawed electorate have to do with my life, the better I will like it.

If you think people can’t be trusted, surely it’s a good idea to introduce the moderating if flawed effect of government.

Not at all.

Part of the reason my fellow holidaymakers were as they were is because of the “moderating” effect of government. They have been systematically stripped of all semblance of duty and discipline precisely because the government has taken responsibility for their lives away from them. Usually in the name of equality or security.

wouldn’t you prefer total anarchy?

Of course not. One of the few legitimate roles government does have is to establish the rule of law and to legislate to protect people from violence, theft etc.

45. paul barker

2 quick points, the big event this year is the Vote on AV. One of the big advantages of AV is that it would push activists & Parties alike towards acknowledging the good in rival Parties & the issues that cross Party lines.
On Party memberships, there has been a decline across all Parties over the last 60 years with the biggest Parties showing the greatest losses. Since all Parties have shorter cycles it really only makes sense to compare one peak in membership with another.The Green have only had one obvious peak, at 20,000 in 1990 so its very hard to say how fast they are declining in the long term.

@43

“Too much control freakery from the centre; too little power devolved to the grassroots and, more than anything else, a lack of anything resembling a coherent message apart from ‘vote for us; because we’re not like them.’ Is it any wonder so many people with something worthwhile to contribute can’t be bothered?”

The problems that you describe their are pretty much exclusive to the Labour and Conservatives. The other left-wing parties (such as the Greens) do not have that problem.

This article hits the nail on the head.

Political activists from different parties have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the ordinaries.

Their reason for being so tribal despite this? I think it’s their relief at having found an ‘in group’ that will have them.

@ 42. Richard W

Not quite, activists need to keep politicians and parties firmly in line. When I first got into political activism most politicians at all levels had quite well established organisations behind them eg types of association etc. I often affectionately and jokingly referred to them as “the machine cogs”.

I was of course quite wrong because it was they – and only they – who kept the politicians in place by ensuring election funding was healthy, good candidates were made available, party and individual manifestos were carried out and party rules were adhered to.

These “cogs” appear to be disappearing at an alarming rate to be replaced by those who want to be part of the action without the work. To explain. I’m seeing more and more people who want to be councillors and MPs but don’t want to wash up at fundraising events, lick envelopes, deliver leaflets, canvass door-to-door. Need I go on ? If that’s what I’m seeing as a long serving activist, what does the public see when we’re out campaigning ?

My advise to all activists, bang tables and shout if you have to – provided you’re trying to act in the best interests of the public as you see it.

#38

I’m glad for that comment; the clarification is substantially different from what’s in the article above.

Yes, being involved in party political campaigning means having to put up with a certain amount of crap. It doesn’t mean lying – for a start it’s generally more effective when on the doorstep you say “I agree we’re crap on that but overall I think a Labour vote is important despite that because x” or even, on something like immigration “actually I think we’ve been crap on that from the opposite direction – you probably like x, y and z we’ve done but I think it’s wrong because etc”. But it does mean that some people will view you as a representative of the party you’re supporting, and if you can’t put up with that I can see why you’d leave.

Being an elected representative means putting up with a lot more crap than that. But there are relatively few politicians I know within Labour who do it because they enjoy the process. It’s much more common that people put up with all the crap for their perception of the greater good.

Once you realise the depths of party politics, it is quite easy to see how the business of politics itself has it’s own drives and failures that make it unlikely to solve social problems. Which is why I concentrate on policy myself in the hope that the psychopaths that run politics will one day notice and decide something is a good way to get re-elected. Beyond that, there is wittgenstein’s creed: improve yourself as that’s the only thing you can actually make better in this world.

#49

In response to my own comment, I think there’s an interesting question about the extent to which the amount of crap involved in our political process predisposes politicians to be people with a utilitarian mindset, ie they are more likely to be people who view the discomfort caused to them as less important than the big picture they’re trying to affect. I wonder how much that in turn self-selects people to be involved in politics who’re willing to accept a certain amount of crap policy on the basis the general thrust of their party is better than the others. I’m not making a judgement about whether or not that is desirable, or whether or not it is inevitable/avoidable, but would be interested if anyone has written about this effect.

52. Chaise Guevara

@ 44 Pagar

“Because the less that a flawed government selected by a flawed electorate have to do with my life, the better I will like it.”

Still doesn’t follow: why not demand that this flawed government remove itself further from your life by cancelling laws against theft? Or, indeed, removing itself altogether?

“Part of the reason my fellow holidaymakers were as they were is because of the “moderating” effect of government. They have been systematically stripped of all semblance of duty and discipline precisely because the government has taken responsibility for their lives away from them. Usually in the name of equality or security.”

This sounds to me as if you’ve thrown a load of symptoms onto a bunch of people you dislike, then decided to blame something you also dislike – big government – for those symptoms. You could just as well say that their behaviour was due to them lacking the firm hand of big government in their upbringing. Or due to television, or modern diets.

“Of course not. One of the few legitimate roles government does have is to establish the rule of law and to legislate to protect people from violence, theft etc.”

OK. At what point does government stop being legitimate, in your eyes?

Also, given that this all started from your horror at the nature of your fellow humans… weren’t you the one who recently said people who criticise the “big society” concept are misanthropes?

@34; but in the thousands of doors I’ve knocked on I’ve never lied to anyone on the doorstep and don’t intent to start.

I’ve not lied to people on the doorstep either. If the original poster feels he needs to, he’s doing it wrong.

It is possible to behave like a decent human being and be involved in a political party

My experience too.

54. Chaise Guevara

@ 46 George W. Potter

“The problems that you describe their are pretty much exclusive to the Labour and Conservatives. The other left-wing parties (such as the Greens) do not have that problem.”

In fairness, you could say that these are problems that are likely to arise in parties that don’t get into power. The Greens et al can afford to be more democratically minded within their own membership because they’re not constantly under attack from all sides. They’re also smaller, seen as special-interest, and hence more likely to be homogenous.

Of course, it’s possible that this centre-driven attitude would be reduced under AV or PR, as parties might become less focused on trying to be all things to all people, and therefore more reflective of the views of their core supporters. Under the latter, I reckon Labour would lurch to the left and the Tories to the right.

I think what should be remembered here is that in the UK we vote for individuals and not political parties (with the exception of the devolved parliament “List” system). Perhaps when questioning politicians we should be pushing them on what THEY believe rather than on party policy.

It would be superb if anti-capitalist Left Activists of varying hues could come together in a loose coalition (one that could withstand the likes of the SWP trying to usurp/destroy… ahem Mr Hundal…) – this coalition could be pre or post elected to positions on the basis of policies.

Our political system is corrupt – those with power pay parties to ensure that power is neither questioned nor placed in danger.

The student demonstrations and the Top shop, vodaphone etc actions are the first real questioning of power this country has seen since a generation were disillusioned by the total ignoring of the anti-War demonstration in the early 2000s.

The students involved in the occupations and demonstrations have a total disregard and suspicion for the NUS, who dont mind being corralled by the Government – and in fact are complacent in the corralling of demonstrations (much in the way the G8 demos in Edinburgh and London back in 2005 were corralled).

This is a healthy development in my opinion and hopefully new ways of organising and perhaps new democratic processes and movements will kick the corporate controlled, platitude spouting political parties severely up the backsides.

@ 55. Plot Tracer…..Eh ? First Past The Post means you’re voting for a party and its policy.

#56

No, you’re voting for an individual who has signed up to a policy platform, and for whom there are strong incentives to act in tandem with her/his party, but who can legally vote for whatever they like once elected. It’s culturally hard (and legally impossible) for local parties to mandate their representatives, so they can pretty much do what they like once elected, bound only by the constraints of getting re-elected, ie having to appeal to both their party and the electorate. I actually like our system of elected representatives being legally able to think, vote for and act in parliament however they like, but having whips to try and keep them loosely to the party line so the electorate knows roughly what someone stands for by who their friends are in parliament and so that manifestos have a chance of being implemented.

I don’t like this question. Everyone must find their own reasons one way or the other.

However I will say that everything is political at some level, and that is why it’s up to each of us to decide the issues we are prepared to stand up for and make our contributions on.

Whether it is writing a letter to the press or asking a question of an official, campaigning on a single issue or joining a party to promote a particular manner of doing politics, there are an infinite variety of ways to participate in the political process.

If you’ve found that your choice hasn’t hitherto suited your habits and hopes, this is no reason to revert to the ranks of the apathetic and lazy, instead it’s an opportunity to reassess your situation and make a better decision about how best to make an impact with the hindsight of your experience.

For me party membership has always been about having a pretext to meet other people and listen to their concerns about any issue with the knowledge that there is the back-up of a set of channels through which to raise them to the appropriate level where relevant action can be taken.

As said above without this voluntary infrastructure our civic society would cease to function effectively, and although political parties are only the most public part of it they are essential as the places where the direction of society can be decided – whether it’s engaging in positive communication with authorities over delivering better services, or arguing over how limited resources can be made to stretch to the maximum public benefit (in whichever area), political parties form a vital part of the chain in the public discourse without which we would be stuck consuming nothing but whatever the powers that be choose is in their interests to feed us.

Unpopular decisions are the direct (if delayed) consequence of reduced participation; if you haven’t been part of the process you will find the reasons much more difficult to accept and impossible to influence in any constructive way. And that goes for the current domestic cuts agenda, as it did the policies which caused the deficit and the economic crisis, or even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the battle for our civil liberties.

There is so much at stake that all the reasons to participate and your choice over best way to do so can become daunting, but that is the challenge everyone faces.

Protesting is only a starting point for activism, as it is campaigning which creates positive change. So protesting is meaningless unless it inspires you to join in campaigns.

So choose your campaign.

It strikes me that you are unhappy with the way party politics operates, so I’d like to encourage you to get involved with the fair votes campaign for the upcoming referendum.

The debate over a change to the electoral system goes to the heart of how politics functions, so whether you agree or disagree with the specific proposals actively participating in any of the different campaigns will at least enable you to refine your wider critique, clarify your mind about the future course of action you wish to take and teach you all sorts of things about how to make a stronger impact if you want to go further.

“Part of the reason my fellow holidaymakers were as they were is because of the “moderating” effect of government. ”

Not really, the reason they acted as they did (and I think you probably overstate the case), is because they were on an all inclusive holiday – which no doubt encouraged them to consume as much food and booze as possible. After working all year in shit jobs, its not a big shock that many let off steam. It was your own fault for going on an all inclusive holiday. Perhaps you would have been better off choosing something more to your own taste.

So let me get this straight. You were asked to do some campaigning; didn’t like the idea of having to talk to voters, and have now decided to justify your laziness by labelling every party member who is prepared to sacrifice their own time and energy to make things better as an unthinking tribalist.

If you’d bothered to go along to any Labour meetings (which as I understand, you haven’t) you might be surprised to find members asking some piercing questions of their MP or Councillors; or at very least some good arguments at the pub afterward. But if you haven’t even tried to meet other people in your local CLP, how have you been able to come to the conclusion that they all like being mindless tub-thumping drones?

The assumption that this whole article is based on is the idea that party membership requires you to not have any critical opinions of your own party. That assumption is so obviously divorced from the reality, and frankly of my entire time as a member of the Labour Party (I’m a member in Southampton), that it’s difficult to take any of the following conclusions seriously. More than anything else, the childishness it just depresses me. You found something imperfect, and rather than trying to take any practical action to make it better, you give up at the first hurdle.

I’m a local councillor and I have to say that I don’t ‘enjoy’ the process (not sure I’ve met many who do), I participate in it because the decisions taken by government at all levels impact upon society and the only way to make things better is to bother to engage.

Find me an alternative model of selecting and electing representatives (assuming you actually believe in the democratic process), without it simply becoming a club for those with wealth and celebrity, and maybe all this stuff you find too much hard work could be done away with.

Until that point I’d appreciate it if you’d refrain from attacking the very small fraction of the population who have sacrificed significant amounts of their personal time to carry a burden our democracy has yet to find a way to run without.

Wow, some of the activists’ responses here are simply awash with persuasive charm. “Politics is f*cking tough”? Jeez.

Life should be a beach, huh?

Heh, definitely. It isn’t, of course, but there’s still no need for people to get all Nic Cage about politics. That’s probably how things like the Woolas campaign happen.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    What is the point of joining a political party? http://bit.ly/e9iKIZ

  2. tom geraghty

    RT @libcon: What is the point of joining a political party? http://bit.ly/e9iKIZ

  3. Gavin Lingiah

    RT @libcon: What is the point of joining a political party? http://bit.ly/e9iKIZ

  4. Jae Kay

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  5. Max Hernández Calvo

    Given how appalling the existing ones are… RT @libcon: What is the point of joining a political party? http://bit.ly/e9iKIZ

  6. Alex Marsh

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  7. Jamie Potter

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  8. Justin McKeating

    What is the point of joining a political party? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/SGyI8mr via @libcon

  9. George Allwell

    RT @justmckeat: What is the point of joining a political party? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/SGyI8mr via @libcon

  10. Luke Rowe

    What is the point of joining a political party? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/IyWd4pz via @libcon

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    RT @libcon: What is the point of joining a political party? http://bit.ly/e9iKIZ

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    What is the point of joining a political party? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/D1uBhUj via @libcon #fb

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    Couldn't agree more with @paul_sagar on LibCon, this is why I've never joined a party http://bit.ly/hCQyMx

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