Artillery Row

The trouble with political parties

Starting a new political party is not as easy as it looks

When you’re knocking on people’s doors canvassing for a political party, it’s amazing how often someone says, “Why don’t you all just come together and do what’s best for the country instead of constantly arguing with each other?”

Hasn’t the time come to take politics out of the hands of politicians and let the experts have a go?

People really dislike the bickering and point-scoring they see on TV. It’s no way to behave, they think. It’s unprofessional for people who are supposed to be running the country. There must be a better way of doing politics. This view leads some people to conclude that we need a new political party to take what they think is the “petty tribalism” out of politics and, instead, be motivated by higher goals such as “finding what unites us rather than what divides us”, “being led by fact not ideology” and “getting back in touch with what voters really want”. Who could disagree?

So, hasn’t the time come to take politics out of the hands of politicians and let the experts have a go? If you can start up and run a successful business, how hard can it be to set up a political party? The answer is, very. But why is it so difficult? Laurence Fox, the actor and Question Time sensation who is launching the latest new political party, Reclaim, is about to find out.

While a political leader is in many ways like a CEO, a political party is very unlike a business

First, getting the people you want to join is one thing. Keeping the people you don’t want out is quite another. With his founding principles of reclaiming British heritage and freedom of speech, how will he prevent the wrong sort of supporter signing up? The idea that British culture needs to be “reclaimed” is something that will be very appealing to those activists made homeless by the decline of the BNP. As Nigel Farage discovered with UKIP, if even one rogue element slips through, your reputation for being Far-Right is sealed.

Second, how does the support of 240,000 or so followers on Twitter translate into political power? It doesn’t amount to an adoring nation spontaneously standing candidates at elections and sweeping you into Downing Street to spend your days talking about what’s best for the country.

While a political leader is in many ways like a CEO, a political party is very unlike a business. It’s full of volunteers and funders, many with strong opinions, all wanting a say in your party’s policies. If your new political party wants to be in any way democratic, the day you start recruiting members is the day you lose control of decision-making.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party got around that by setting up a limited company. But isn’t that something else altogether? Isn’t that more a movement than a political party? His £25-a-head supporters have no say in policies or decisions.

Without organisation, all you have is men in pubs saying what they think

But third, and most importantly, is the mundane reality of what it is to be a political party – and that is organisation. Without organisation, all you have is men in pubs saying what they think. And the problem with political organisation is that it is a trudge. It takes endless time and energy. It’s stuffing soggy leaflets through letterboxes in December and sitting in cold party meetings with people you don’t like very much.

It’s arguing about the wording of motions to Conference, £5-a-head barbecue fundraisers, and finding someone who can design a newsletter. It’s standing candidates in council elections that you know you can’t win. It’s watching ballot boxes being emptied late into the night and working out which housing estates are voting for you and which road groups still need more work.

To get people to do that stuff, you need tribalism. Not only do we, as members of political parties, have to know that our beliefs are right, but also that what motivates our opponents is wrong. Football has shirts, politics has ideology. It may be divisive, but it’s what keeps us trudging through the good times and the bad.

And how can a new political organisation possibly compete against a Labour Party that has been part of the national political consciousness for over a hundred years, and a Tory Party that’s been around for nearly twice as long? The members of established parties are deeply embedded in local communities. They are trade union shop stewards and governors of schools. They run the lunch clubs and mother-and-toddler groups. They ring the church bells, organise the over-60s fitness class and chair the local WI.

But that important tribal history and those tireless, trudging activists are not what people see. They look only at the leaderships of the current parties and think things need changing. A previous attempt, United for Change, the party set up by Simon Franks the millionaire film distributor, even put it in the title. In spite of the huge amounts of money he raised and all the people he employed, the launch of his new party went unnoticed.

Change UK – the Independent Group of MPs split from their parties just before the 2019 General Election because they wanted something different. In spite of having candidates who were political celebrities for their anti-Brexit position in Parliament, the new party managed no more than 10,006 votes nationally, quite a way behind a group of Independents in just one constituency, Ashfield, who got 13,498 people to vote for them.

The Greens who have been around for 30 years have one MP – and then only because most of the party organisation has focused on her constituency. UKIP, even when Nigel Farage was at its helm, and standing hundreds of candidates in general elections, only managed to get one MP elected to the House of Commons, who subsequently quit the party to become an independent MP.

What motivates people like Simon Franks and Laurence Fox to set up new political parties is usually frustration that the issues they really care about are not getting a proper hearing. They feel there is an underswell of opinion that is ignored by a suffocating elite in politics and the media.

They may well be right. And providing a stronger voice for people who wanted to remain in the EU or those who want to reclaim Britain’s cultural heritage are both important issues that many people feel very strongly about. But are they the foundations of a political party? Do these dissatisfactions amount to a programme for government? Or are they the basis of a movement?

Instead of standing for election, it can be far more effective to pressure those who are already there

If you’re not sure, ask yourself what the UK’s annual tax take is and how much of it you think you might want to spend on the NHS and how much of it on schools. Would you prioritise pensions or potholes? Should art galleries be free to visitors or should we put more money into rejuvenating high streets? If you can’t answer these questions (or more likely you feel your eyelids getting heavy), you’re probably a movement.

It might sound less impressive, but a movement will give you a real shot at getting what you want.

Look at two highly successful examples: the campaign to leave the EU, and the movement created to raise climate change up the political agenda. Each had a single clear message, a simple idea behind which to organise, and no need for party members nor complex democratic decision-making structures. As those two campaigns showed, instead of standing for election, it can be far more effective to pressure those who are already there.

At the last general election, 67% of people who could vote did so. Of those, 76% voted for one of the two main parties (87% if you include the Lib Dems). There was a score of other parties to choose from, very few of which you would be able to name. So, when Simon Franks said that he wanted to start a new party because “Britain deserves better than this!” I’m not so sure. Britain generally votes for who it wants and deserves what they get.

As for effectiveness, a movement puts the fear of God into MPs who sense a threat to their re-election. That more than anything will bring them round to your way of thinking or at least force them to bring your concerns into the debate.

But apart from anything else, starting a movement is much quicker and simpler. You can call for things without ever having to make the difficult decisions about how to deliver them. More furlough! Lower taxes! More affordable housing! Don’t build on the Greenbelt! Free school lunches!

A movement allows you to focus on, for example, reclaiming British values rather than having to talk authoritatively on the Today Programme about your party’s policies on welfare reform, how to make Test and Trace work better or whether you would nationalise the trains.

So, if you’d like to see things shaken up a bit or you want to push back in culture wars, don’t waste your time trying to register your name with the Electoral Commission and learning the myriad of rules on party spending and election returns. Get stuck in. The narrower and simpler your message is the better. Don’t get distracted by people trying to make you give your views on things that don’t concern or interest you.

Instead, target the existing political parties that are most susceptible to what you are saying and show them that you have public opinion, their voters, on your side. Don’t worry about knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, recruiting members and standing candidates. Get on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Get yourself invited back on Question Time.

You’ll have a much higher chance of success and you’ll have more fun trying.

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