How political parties have lost their sense of purpose

How Political Parties Have Lost Their Sense of Purpose

Several years ago I was in a meeting between senior commercial and research staff in a multinational pharmaceutical company. Discussing various research projects, one commercial person declared with obvious exasperation “Don’t forget that we’re here to make money not to indulge in fancy research projects.” The President of R&D, a Scotsman, looked him in the eyes and responded “Laddie, you’re wrong. We’re here to make medicines that make people better. And if we can do that, then we’ll make money as a result.”

This episode illustrates what has happened to business over the last several decades. It has lost its sense of purpose. There was a time when business used to focus on making products that made people’s lives better. If they could do that at a cost that was below what they could sell their products for, they made a profit and prospered. All of that is gone in far too many businesses. Now the primary goal is “shareholder value” – code for short term profit maximization – irrespective of whether social good is created or destroyed.

The same loss of purpose now besets political parties. There was a time when political parties were focused on delivering widespread social good. Their leaders were statesmen with broad visions about how society should best function. One either agreed with their vision or one did not but they had a sense of purpose underpinned by well thought out programmes. This has now largely vanished. Political parties have turned themselves into election winning machines – in the same way as corporations have turned themselves into mere profit maximizing entities. Parties are structured to win elections. Their main focus is campaigning and winning votes and many more resources are devoted to these activities than to developing ideas and policies that benefit society. Knocking on doors, digital targeting, electoral tactics and getting out the vote are seen as more important core competencies than developing new ways to create prosperity and social cohesion. To win elections they indulge in all sorts of gerrymandering and other vote catching tactics. As one senior politician put it “Winning elections is about mobilizing your base not about creating broad appeal.” As a result policy becomes focused on appealing to parties’ narrow base rather than on the creation of a cohesive, well functioning society. The results are there for all to see: large swathes of the population ignored because they do not routinely vote or do not vote for the party that happens to be in power; policies that favour parties’ voter and donor base rather than the wider society; handouts to friendly vested interests; cynicism and alienation of large numbers of people from political engagement; citizenship with an sense of powerlessness that transforms to anger; and a door that is left wide open for demagogues and populists.

All of this will continue to get worse. It will continue to fracture our societies until political parties regain their sense of purpose. Their purpose should be to aim to govern as reasonably as possible in the interests of the nation and all its citizens. Winning elections should be the result of these higher purpose activities not the result of tactical manoeuvering to eke out some temporary electoral advantage. Otherwise politics becomes nothing more than one big sales exercise – it doesn’t matter how poor your product is as long as you have enough salespeople on the road to shove it down people’s throats. Persistence of that sort of attitude will continue to undermine our societies and people’s trust in politics.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank and a Lib Dem member

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  • I think it gone beyond even this level. Actually, it’s all been about metaphorically beating up the electorate to prove how “realistic/pragmatic ” and “anti-populist” you are. There is a vision behind this, but it’s the vision of power elites.

  • David Allen 13th Jul '16 - 4:12pm

    Food for thought. In business, it’s very easy to find markets (banks, energy companies etc) where “they’re all as bad as one another”. All the “competitors” are known to provide rotten customer service, so switching from one to another is no solution. In those circumstances, half-hearted attempts by the guys at Millenium Energy to be a little bit better than the guys at Electricite de Ruritania will fail. They might do a little bit better, but nobody notices, and soon they slump back toward the average.

    What works, in those circumstances, is to be a genuinely “new entrant” with a new pitch. At least in energy, there are some new companies out there who have managed to make a new start, and (rightly or wrongly) aren’t viewed as just more of the same.

    A lesson for political parties – you have GOT to break up and start afresh?

  • Max Wilkinson 13th Jul '16 - 4:14pm

    Glenn – if the political parties have been trying to present themselves as ‘anti-populist’, they’ve been hiding it well!

  • Those are some powerful rose tinted glasses you may want to get the prescription checked.

  • Your business example shows that the understanding of the basic effective business strategy is not missing as the person advocating it was “President of R&D.” There will always be those who aren’t seeing the big picture and just responding on their short term pressures, it comes from humans in business and as AI won’t take over it is here to stay.

    In relation to politics do you think most politicians in history were doing much more than accepting the current orthodoxy in most areas and trying to change a very particular area of interest? There are exceptions but we remember them because they are exceptions.

  • Max.
    They tried to be and they lost. I never said present. What I was talking about is what they do. Not what they say they will do.

  • Max Wilkinson 14th Jul '16 - 2:28pm

    A fair point well made Glenn.

  • Simon Banks 14th Jul '16 - 9:24pm

    There is some truth in this, though the vast majority of people who make up political parties – the members, activists, councillors and MPs – are doing their best according to their lights and few, especially below MP level, would be there if they didn’t think they could perhaps make the world a bit better. One problem, of course, is that a world made better by an extreme anti-state capitalist or by a racist is actually worse.

    But political parties, despite the worthy debates and motions within some of them (us and some other small parties), fail to reflect this adequately. I want us to win elections at all levels, but some party bodies that could have a wider role discuss only electoral strategy and tactics (my experience of our county co-ordinating committee, for instance) and our local party, having created the post of Campaigns Officer, has seen it slip largely into meaning Election Campaigns Officer. This is also a criticism that has been made of ALDC. For us there is a real opportunity in the two surges of new members. Yes, they should be encouraged to help in election campaigns and to be candidates; but there’s more to politics than that.

  • Jon Hannah

    “I would argue for a core strategy of a clear and small set of policies, seen as distinctive and permanent, supported by values and principles that would define an approach to other policies.”

    Good idea, depending on your interpretation of “permanent.”

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