Political parties are a crucial part of British democracy. Are they accountable enough?

With the Labour leadership contest almost upon us, it is looking ever more likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win. As the odds on a Corbyn leadership shorten, so the howls of anguish from centre-left commentators increase. My Twitter feed is almost unanimous on this: a Corbyn victory would make Labour unelectable and guarantee at least another decade of Tory government.

But why should this be the case? Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, tremendously popular. The latest polls show that 53% of Labour party members are planning to vote for him as their first preference, and that he would easily win a run-off against either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper.

The problem may be that Corbyn is too popular with party members. That is, he is giving them what they want – a kind of intra-party populism – rather than trying to sell to them a platform that he thinks can win an election. A successful modern politician, it seems, must make tough choices and compromises, between her ideals (and those of her party members) and what she think the rest of the voting public wants. Populism only works if applied to a sufficiently large number of voters.

In a democracy, compromise is essential. Different sections of the population have different preferences and one group can rarely have everything it wants. But the way in which a democracy is administered determines how and where these compromises are made.

In countries with proportional voting systems, people can (in principle) vote for the party that best represents their beliefs. The parties win seats in parliament according to the number of votes they receive, and will then begin the process of thrashing out a compromise and forming a government. Compromises are reached within the democratic institution of a parliament, through negotiations between elected members who represent the various viewpoints of the population.

In the UK, with our first-past-the-post voting system, it doesn’t usually make sense to vote for the party that is best aligned with your beliefs. Just ask the millions of people who voted for the Greens and UKIP earlier this year, for a return of two seats. Instead, the rational approach is generally to vote for whichever of the two main parties has come up with the best-looking compromise.

However, the compromises that we get to choose between are not formed within our public institutions, but within the political parties. The wider electorate doesn’t get a say in these compromises, except insofar as party members try to second guess their preferences in developing an electable platform. As a result, the major parties are themselves crucial parts of the UK’s democratic machinery – yet they carry out their role outside of the institutions that are supposed to govern our democracy.

Now, I don’t mean to argue that a proportional voting system is necessarily a better way of reaching a compromise. In the UK, voters can choose between manifestos that represent complete programmes for government with ready-made compromises, while under PR voters might have to choose their representatives without knowing what compromises they will ultimately make. But in the UK, the messy compromises that are crucial to a democracy are worked out within the two main political parties, whose memberships comprise less than one percent of eligible voters. It seems reasonable to ask whether that is a sufficient level of engagement and accountability for such a central part of our democratic system.

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