This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?
It is time to put our diseased and decaying political parties out of their misery before they do any more damage to our fragile politics. But this isn’t one of those articles arguing for a new set of parties (one which happens to agree with me on everything, and another full of all my favourite bad guys). We should abolish political parties altogether. They do far more harm than good.
You’ve probably heard the Aaron Sorkin line from the West Wing, urging people to vote: “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Well, in a party political system, especially one like ours, decisions are actually made by those who take sides. And – as I’ve written here before – the act of taking sides is proven to destroy your ability to think rationally about other people and their ideas.
We have made our political parties increasingly democratic for those who choose to join them. The party I used to work for, the Liberal Democrats, has always been obsessively democratic, offering members the vote on everything from party policy to the members of party administration committees.
The Conservatives now offer the members a vote on the leader, which they never used to. And Labour has continued a shift towards party democracy started by Ed Miliband, who changed the voting system to give members the final say in choosing the leader. The party now tries, at least, to take seriously the party’s official policies, which their last successful leader Tony Blair never did.
Of course all this makes the parties feel terribly smug and happy with themselves. It validates the status and identity of those who have chosen to join these exclusive clubs: it tells them they are special. Internal democracy helps parties hold together. The problem is that it tears a country to pieces.
Corbyn is the consequence of Labour’s journey into true democracy: creating a culture of intolerance towards all those with different opinions. When Theresa May is finally dragged out of 10 Downing Street, the country won’t get to choose the next Prime Minister: it will be up to about 100,000 people who chose to be members of the Conservative party. The next PM will be someone who can pander to a single partisan group, instead of someone who can bring a divided country back together.
At every step in Brexit, the PM has asked herself: how do I keep the Conservative party together? It’s common currency to say that getting a deal through ‘with Labour votes’ would be the death of her. And ‘Labour votes’ is said with the tone of voice you would use to say ‘the blood of slave children’. It’s considered beyond the pale to cooperate with elected representatives of the people, simply because they wear a different colour rosette once a year. What total insanity.
So I’m done with partisan thinking. Time to scrap these toxic parties that make us all go crazy with conspiracy thinking and assumptions that the other guys are always wrong.
Of course, we will need something in their place. I’m calling them political movements. They would be simpler, single issue-based organisations that endorsed and funded candidates who agreed with them. Anyone could stand for Parliament, on their own if they chose. But each candidate would be free to seek the endorsement of as many political movements as they wanted – greens, feminists, defenders of the local hospital, pro-nuclear activists, anti-pornography campaigners – giving a far more accurate representation of who they were and what they stood for than a party logo can.
And citizens would be able to join as many political movements as they wanted, instead of being forced to pick a side.
At the moment there is only one political party that permits you to be a member of another political party. It’s the Women’s Equality Party – deliberately styled as cross-party. They offer a political home for women and men who believe gender equality is the most important issue in politics. But they also recognise that equality for women is not the sum total of politics: that it is possible to be a feminist on the Right as well as on the Left. They’re open to feminists of every stripe and you don’t get thrown out for voting differently if you choose to.
Contrast the Cooperative Party, which lets you join the Labour Party, but no others. Daft and self defeating. There are believers in the cooperative movement in all our political traditions. The Cooperative Party would have real impact in our politics if it endorsed cooperative-lovers in all the parties, instead of pretending cooperativism is exclusive to the Left.
Imagine if the Green Party had instead been the Green Movement, backing and endorsing candidates from across the political spectrum who understood the urgent importance of climate change. Instead of one MP, with little power or influence, they would have a strong relationship with hundreds of MPs.
Instead of diluting the green message with hundreds of other policies that have nothing to do with the environment, they’d be a crusading force to protect the planet. Environmentalists could have chosen a winning candidate who came with a Green guarantee, instead of wasting their vote on a minority party that couldn’t win. Progress would have been faster.
A parliament elected in this way would need to choose its own Prime Minister: someone who could command the confidence of the House. Instead of just taking a party “whip” on every topic, MPs would be able to gather and decide the approach on different topics with those elected with the backing of the relevant political movement. To win their confidence a Prime Minister would need a programme for government and a Cabinet that brought together a wide range of groups, offering them progress on each movement’s policy priorities. Much better to have this kind of negotiation and debate out in the open, than in the secret rooms where party manifestos are written.
Perhaps this sounds confusing. But informal groupings exist in Parliament already, it’s just that they are only understood by the Westminster watchers. Citizens get little information about what their candidate stands for, just a basic brand of red or blue: under my system it would be crystal clear what kind of candidate you were voting for. And honesty is what we need more of in politics.
Yes, democracy is wonderful. But democracy inside parties privileges the partisans, and is torturing the parties themselves to death. It’s too late. We need a new system that celebrates complexity, cooperation and communication. The party’s over.
Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?