Political Parties: Past Their Sell-by Date?

Do political parties still work? Do they serve the purpose they were created for? Or, perhaps more importantly, is it even possible for them to do so? These are key questions for our times.

Political unrest unbounds and perhaps more so than ever; even in countries that have historically been stable – most notably the UK and USA. As the long-time bastions of democracy this is alarming. It begs questions as to the very future of democracy.

Particularly noteworthy is that both are largely two-party nations, governed by the political party that secures the most candidates – albeit in radically different systems. Yet both appear to be so divided as to be almost ungovernable. So much so that some doomsayers are even predicting the possibility of a second civil war in the US. The UK, on the other hand, is suffering from a complete anomaly in that, while it is possibly equally divided, one party – in what may be a victory of epic pyrrhic proportions – has just won by one of the biggest margins in its electoral history.

In both countries trust in politicians is at an all-time low. In the USA the constitution is held as an infallible, timeless guide that will help people overcome all odds, and deliver “the American Dream.” In the UK, however, where the constitution is largely unwritten, there are mounting calls for a new written constitution to address the ills. These are somewhat limited at present but growing, and underscored by increasing demands for:

  • Proportional representation;
  • A lower voting age;
  • Greater devolved power or independence.

While there is no doubt that fresh thinking is called for – which will more than likely make new constitutions inevitable – you have to ask whether current thinking is just papering over the inherent faults built into our existing systems. And perhaps the biggest fault line is the concept of the political party itself. What if the concept of the political party is itself an anachronism?

In an age of increasing change and complexity, the concept of a “broad church” organisation being able to address all the concerns, values and issues of a significant proportion of the population is no longer the proposition it once was. Scientific and technical advances dispel the dogma of the past and it simply isn’t feasible for traditional conservative values to meet the demands of feminism; nor can the melting pot of mass migration and diversity easily meld with the idea of tribal sanctity and purity. It is like a reverse prism: you simply cannot collate all the different causes into a single, white policy beam.

In such an environment ideas like greater proportional representation or a lower voting age are simply a desperate attempt to hold on to the past and promote your opinions or beliefs. This may lead to greater compromise but the historic instability of countries like Italy and Israel are not good advertisements. In a world being battered by humanly generated environmental and climate challenges, compromise is not going to be good enough.

Similarly the concept of independence, in an increasingly globally interactive world of mutual inter-dependence is a quixotic fantasy. Already the concept of the nation state is being challenged, and it seems likely that one of the root causes of our distrust of politicians is that they are “in the pockets” of the people who hold and control the bulk of the money. As Nobel-prize winning authors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo point out in their book, “Good Economics for Hard Times” developed economies now face the same big challenge as developing economies: an increasing wealth gap between the wealthy few and the rest.

Those problems will never be addressed by political parties spouting passé ideologies and supported by an electorate who cling to those ideologies out of a sense of tradition or because of the way their parent always voted. It’s imperative we find a new way of governing ourselves and protecting our resources. Political parties in their current guise are certainly not going to achieve that. Nor, I would argue, are they capable of being reformed to offer that kind of ability. They are a dog that has had its day and won’t hunt any more.

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My book, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped presented ideas as to how we could change our economic and socio-political systems and attempted to promote discussion and debate around them. Now, however,  I have written a new book that takes them further through what I call “The Universalist Manifesto.” Provisionally entitled. “Searching for Better:  Exploring Ideas for Eliminating Conflict and Improving Quality of Life” I am currently searching for a publisher, but if you are interested in the learning more and/or would like to help in that quest please contact me.

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