With Labour they might see a political party that replaced the Liberals as the party of reform in the 1930s and after WW2, based on representing the ‘working class’ – then working mostly in industry. They might contrast this with today’s Labour party – now mostly funded and controlled by public sector unions – both a strength and weakness in terms of the progression of democracy. A public sector union is a very peculiar animal. Without the constraints of industrial competition, and with senior ‘two-hatted’ civil servants facing conflicts between the public interest and the interests of their unions, one can understand why the Labour party has certain weaknesses as part of the democratic system. Hence their conflation of the public interest with ever-expanding public employment, usually couched in the language of additional benefits to the public, (and a policy cohabitee with Tory centralization). Therein lies Labour’s key weakness as well as its strength.
The Conservative party, traditionally the party of the wealthy elite, has experienced a century old battle between old money and new – still very visible to our observer in Tory run councils across the UK today, with their property & land factions and their private sector and small business factions. The industrial elite has always had influence rather than control however, and then along came Thatcher with her ideological market and anti-state approach which upset the apple cart (Thatcher was disdainful of landed and industrial elites). Whilst Thatcher claimed to support democracy by limiting an overbearing state, the reverse trend was seen in her centralizing of administrative power and consolidation of ‘the Deep State’ and US influence. After years in the doldrums (when ‘public sector Labour’ courted popularity with increased public funding), the Conservatives were led by Cameron – whose new project to decontaminate the ‘nasty party’ brand was interrupted by the financial crisis, and by a selection process which saw lesser quality MPs enter parliament on the back of their anti-EU obsessions. The result has been a weak, confused and vacillating leadership.
Our space observer might see the Liberal Democrats as inheritors of the UK’s strong liberal and democratic-reformist traditions – the underlying motivation for democratic reforms for over a century. For much of the post-war period the British public supported liberalism in principle but not in practice, as the need for strong and well-funded political parties dominated. Three events then moulded the new Lib Dem party into a hybrid state-skeptical liberal and pro-state social democratic party – Thatcher clothing herself with (economic) liberal garb, the merger with the SDP, and the flight from New Labour under Blair-Brown. Wary of reconciling differing philosophies, the party reinvigorated its community politics methods, invented as a survival strategy in the 1970s, and re-focused on local government elections and ‘quality-of-political-service’. This approach however contained weaknesses – parliamentary candidate selection dominated by local councilors and public sector employees, and an outlook conditioned by the fact that around 80% of local authority funding is Whitehall provided and negotiated. Our observer might see resulting weakness in public policy development and funding, and serious problems in public perceptions related to the party’s role in having to go into coalition.
Our space observer may therefore conclude that the progress of democratisation in the UK has at least decelerated, partly because the three main political parties themselves have become weak, while the state administration has become stronger.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.