This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
Yes says Heather Wheeler
My choice of political party was based neither on who my parents voted for nor my family upbringing.
My father was a civil servant and never told me how he voted. What attracted me to the Conservative Party was its values: a limited role for the state, civic virtue, pragmatism, individual responsibility. They led me to stand for Wandsworth Council as a Conservative candidate at the age of just 22.
Parties matter, and the Conservative Party represents values and traditions that people can relate to, identify with and believe in.
Some may argue that the political parties are redundant in today’s political landscape, where party leaders on both sides of the main political spectrum appear to be marching to the centre. Some would argue they are less distinctive – I would disagree.
The Conservative Party manifesto, its very foundation, always reflects its core standards. These attract the electorate and make people want to vote Conservative. Although they’ve been modified along the way, they’re still at the heart of every manifesto the party produces.
This modification has been portrayed as a move to the centre, but it’s part of the party’s evolution. The Tories have always been about evolution, from Sir Robert Peel onwards, but their central tenets remain while there is adaptation around the edges to modernise with the times.
Without political parties providing a continuity of ethics and a choice between left and right, people would find it much harder to engage with politics. It would be harder to know what people really stand for. I’m proud to be a Conservative, and when I knock on people’s doors as the party’s candidate, they know what I represent.
And political parties are also important on a structural level. Engaging with a party gives you a position in the political hierarchy, whether it’s as local voter, councillor, humble backbencher, cabinet member or leader of the party.
As a group, you’re all part of the same agenda, working towards an end goal, your different backgrounds and experiences adding to a collective that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
This network of individuals and support that the party provides allows the development of a truly inclusive and reflective policy. Imagine, instead, a mass of independent representatives in Parliament: this network would fall apart.
There would be little check, if any, on the direction of policy, and the basic parliamentary stability of a successful democracy, which we have had throughout the history of Parliament, would vanish.
An example of the internal support system of my party, and one that’s close to my heart, is the 1922 committee. It is designed to act as a barometer of party opinion to inform the leadership as to whether or not they are going in the right direction.
In a world with no political parties, this check would not exist. Instead, a small clique of individuals would be deciding the success or failure of their own policies. But this would not allow for proper scrutiny. In our current political system we have scrutiny between and within each party, so that no policies go unquestioned. This is a good thing for the legislative process and makes the party paramount.
I am convinced that the party system has not passed its ‘sell by date.’ On a recent all-party parliamentary group trip to Jordan, King Abdullah II asked us to help show his MPs how politics is run under a party system. He is proposing a new constitution with a ‘top-up list’ arrangement for the most successful political parties.
Lastly, people like to feel like they belong to something. As with sport, when it comes to politics our natural instinct for tribalism sets in. We like to feel part of the bigger picture – or perhaps it’s simply a question of safety in numbers that makes the political party so important.
As we approach the next election in 2015, we will only see the party structure strengthen, especially as the Tory Party will be campaigning back on its own manifesto with the aim of getting a majority.
Heather Wheeler is the Conservative MP for South Derbyshire
No says Siobhan Benita
Political parties used to matter. Many people used to socialise in their Labour, Liberal or Conservative Club and the parties had a community element to them.
My generation, like many before us, tended to vote for the party that our parents had always supported, but nowadays that’s all changed. With the main parties fighting over the middle ground, it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between them.
My own daughters certainly don’t have the same ‘black and white’ sense of what the parties stand for as I did when I was growing up. The old labels no longer apply. Party membership is in decline, and less than one per cent of the UK population belongs to a party.
It’s not just active participation that is dwindling. On 3 May this year in the London elections less than 40 per cent of the electorate voted. Or, to put it another way, six out of every ten Londoners chose not to play their part in the democratic process.
That’s a real shame, but it’s not surprising. Public respect for political parties has slumped.
In recent years, the parties have lurched from one scandal to another. I can’t recall exactly which MPs flipped their mortgages or who claimed for a duck house on their expenses.
I can’t name the donors who had secret dinners with Dave at Chequers, and I can’t remember if it was only Gordon who partied with Rebekah in his PJs.
To a large extent, the details no longer matter. The established parties have all been caught behaving badly in one way or another, so it’s little wonder that so few people want to give them their vote.
In the same way, however, that a parent might forgive their teenager one or two drunken incidents so long as they pass their exams at the end of the year, the public might be willing to tolerate some of this errant conduct if the parties were doing a decent job of governing the country.
Unfortunately, they aren’t.
Neither the government nor the opposition has put forward a compelling vision for helping people in these extraordinarily difficult times. At this turbulent time, when people are worried about their futures and struggling to make ends meet, our political parties remain stuck in Jurassic ways of operating.
Politicians from all parties still squabble and shout at each other across the floor in the House of Commons, they still publicly bash each other’s ideas without putting forward real alternatives and, even as we slide into the double dip of recession, the parties can’t stop themselves from hurling scripted insults and blaming current problems on past policies.
They would matter a whole lot more if they actually suggested some thoughtful, fair policy ideas that made sense to normal people.
The Liberal Democrats had the potential to be a party that mattered. For a while before the general election, they provided a useful challenge to the traditional political voices.
They were more humble, they recognised flaws in our parliamentary processes and vowed to reform them. Their approach and messages resonated with a young generation of voters, who favoured collaboration over confrontation and who were already looking for an alternative to the out-of-date and macho left v right rhetoric of the main parties.
As the junior partner in the coalition government, however, the Liberal Democrat Party has had to surrender many of its ideas along with its identity. In doing so, it has also ceased to matter. (Don’t take my word for it – the recent elections speak for themselves.)
I wish that political parties did matter more. On a national level, now more than ever, the country could benefit from strong leadership and having trusted public leaders. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that.
During the mayoral campaign, a message that I heard regularly from members of the public was that they thought all politicians were the same, regardless of their party. I have a great deal of sympathy with that.
Our political parties are too white, too privileged and too male. They continue to select their candidates from a shallow pool of individuals who have scant real-life experience.
They must attract diverse talent and become more representative of the public they serve. They must shout less and listen more. If they manage to do all of that, they might start to matter a little bit more.
Siobhan Benita was the independent candidate for Mayor of London