The professionalisation of party politics

An interesting and uncommonly informative leader from today’s Guardian, which urges the Conservative Party not to rush to the business of being Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition too quickly, but rather to cogitate further on the reasons for their current position, and on how they might get out of it.It focuses on the decision of the party’s 1922 backbench committee to rescind an earlier decision to franchise the whole of the party membership for party leadership elections, but goes on to make a much more general point about the centralisation and professionalisation of British party politics:

Tory MPs do not trust Tory members because those members, as they showed by electing Iain Duncan Smith rather than Ken Clarke in 2001, have moved well to the right of the electorate. Yet the MPs’ move also responds to a spectacular decline in representativeness in other ways. Half a century ago, Tory party membership stood at 2.8 million; today there are fewer than 300,000, with an average age in the mid-60s. Yet crisis is not confined to the Tories. Labour’s membership, which briefly surged above 400,000 in the 1990s, is today half of what it was in 1997, while Liberal Democrat numbers mark time at around 73,000.

As membership has declined, the political parties have become more centralised and more dominated by elite professionals, though which is cause and which is effect is a matter of argument. As the parties have grown less radical, so their ability to appeal to idealism has declined, and the membership of single-issue campaigns has increased. Though the Tory move shows boldness of a kind, it is not the only party that is rethinking. Labour has lost much of its grassroots organisation, and even the Lib Dems want to take more control of the annual conference from the party membership.

And the movement within a recently regenerated parliamentary Conservative party? As the Guardian puts it: “it is getting interesting, even important”.