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Losing the faith: Can political parties recapture the public imagination?

Party activists may be passionate, but they’re dwindling in number. AAP/Dean Lewins

Around the western world, political parties have lost their appeal. Membership of major parties has declined dramatically, while our willingness to vote for one party throughout our adult lives has collapsed.

The mass parties which emerged in the twentieth century were initially the focal point of democratic participation. Now they have memberships reduced to a quarter or less of what they had a few decades ago.

In the public imagination, political parties have become boring, obscure organisations. When they do hit the headlines it’s for all the wrong reasons – like branch-stacking scandals and internal brawls.

For many young people today, political participation ranges from the ephemeral action of “liking” a page on Facebook or sending a GetUp! email, to the full engagement of a stint with a non-government organisation (NGO) addressing poverty in East Africa or the slaughter of whales in the Great Southern Ocean.

When compared to these other options, joining a mainstream political party has little appeal.

The old mass parties have struggled mostly in vain to engage with young people through a limited use of the internet. The one party that has grown in this new era is the Greens, where ideology and the social movement ethos are still sufficiently present to engage a committed minority.

The dimming light on the hill

On the same Sydney Town Hall stage where NSW Treasurer Michael Costa screamed at his detractors in 2008, then Prime Minister Ben Chifley delivered his famous “Light on the Hill” speech in 1949.

NSW Treasurer Michael Costa unleashed his frustration at unions. AAP/Sergio Dionisio.

Chifley’s speech neatly summed up the relationship between ordinary people and their party as it was for many hundreds of thousands of people until relatively recently:

“When I sat at a Labor meeting in the country with only ten or fifteen men there, I found a man sitting beside me who had been working in the Labor movement for fifty-four years.

I have no doubt that many of you have been doing the same, not hoping for any advantage from the movement, not hoping for any personal gain, but because you believe in a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people.”

Several decades ago, Chifley’s loyalists could be found in great numbers in many organisations, including all the big political parties. The people Costa barked at were representatives of a declining band of people willing to give up a few hours on a long weekend to debate great affairs of state. Most of us were too busy doing something else to care.

Losing touch with the party roots

For most of the twentieth century mass political parties were the resilient core of Western democracies. They provided citizens with ways of participating in policy development, the selection of candidates for public office and those great, tumultuous election campaigns of times gone by.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) was Australia’s first professional party. It appealed to workers, small landholders and miners. Centred on the rapidly expanding union movement, it built a large membership, imposed discipline on its members and ran well-resourced, and successful, election campaigns.

The days of the nineteenth century parliaments of amateur politicians were over. The success of Labor’s community links shaped the thinking of its opponents over ensuing decades.

The Country Party (now National Party) was founded at a national level in 1920 and it grew mainly out of state-based organisations representing farmers, settlers and graziers. It provided a viable alternative for many regional and rural voters who had previously supported Labor.

When RG Menzies re-built a modern Liberal Party out of the factionalised remnants of the big business dominated United Australia Party (UAP), he drew on community organisations and other links to the growing middle class, which he famously termed the ‘forgotten people’.

A declining membership

People have stopped joining organisations in the vast numbers. Our lives are too busy for meetings. We have many other ways to learn about what is happening and to connect with like-minded people. We have become sceptical of ideologies, and cynical about the true motives of leaders and their organisations.

As their memberships have collapsed in recent decades, the importance of political parties as a source of campaign workers and a guide to community opinion has declined.

For a while, this did not seem to matter. The new campaigning techniques - television, computer databases and the internet – seemed to offer an alternative to reliance on large memberships.

Indeed, a party run by a small coterie of insiders, the fewer the better, offered the prospect of unprecedented discipline. No more messy internal brawls about policy.

Yet, as membership has declined internal brawling and factionalised scrambling for power seems only to have got worse. The NSW ALP saw two premiers, and several potential leaders, destroyed by the mysterious goings-on behind the scenes. Tony Abbott may have won last year’s federal election had it not been for a failure of the NSW Liberal Party to resolve pre-selection battles in several key seats.

Where once these brawls inside and between parties were redolent with meaning for the very future of our society, now they are just seen by many as petty squabbles between egotistical individuals.

The rise of the professional

Membership of major parties has not just declined it has collapsed. In interviews for my doctoral thesis, senior labour movement figures were dismissive and despairing of local ALP branches as fewer, smaller and frequented mainly by political professionals and “maddies”.

Several said that the ALP would have little chance of electoral success if it relied on the opinions of its own members.

The same reluctance to rely on their memberships has seen the major parties increasingly turn to consultants and think tanks for policy development. A trend that further disenfranchises their memberships.

Indeed, the policy program, a key feature of twentieth century mass parties, has become in most cases little more than a collection of so-what statements.

Australia’s major political parties are now dominated by professional campaigners, people who are experts in reading opinion polls, conducting focus groups and crafting messages for speeches, media releases and television commercials.

Professionalism is not a bad thing. It is the reason that political parties replaced gentlemen’s clubs. It has always been the key to the success of our major political parties. But it needs a context.

Ghosts of their former selves

Today’s problem lies in a lack of balance between the professionals and a substantial legion of engaged members who are involved for their commitment to a cause, and the sheer satisfaction of playing a small part in the workings of a great political institution.

Without that member engagement, political parties lose their rationale. They become poor ghosts of their pasts.

The ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign (2005 – 2007) was a great example of the power of getting this balance right; it had great TV ads, sophisticated canvassing and many opportunities for ordinary union members to get involved and make their voices heard.

But campaigns like that are rare.

Can parties recover?

The Greens may resemble the parties of old but that might just condemn it to being a sort of anachronistic relic, a good dose of the old-time religion for those few who still like their politics to be ideologically heavy.

The recent Faulkner-Bracks review of the ALP was clearly impressed by the gains unions have made in recent years in rebuilding and re-engaging their members and potential members. Yet, it is hard to see the unions’ organising and campaigning models being easily translated to the political party environment.

The Liberals, Nationals and Labor are all looking towards some modified form of American-style primaries as a way of attracting wider public engagement through their candidate selection processes. It is a good idea, but the parties will be slow to adopt it in any large-scale way.

In any event, primaries only serve to reduce the importance of political parties because they make it easy for candidates to bypass the internal party structures and build power bases directly in the broader electorate. That may be a good thing overall, without being the solution to the hollowing out of party memberships.

Perhaps political parties as we knew them will come to be seen as a passing feature of twentieth century politics.

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