Opinion: Time to drag our treatment of parties out of the 18th century

Should councillors, MPs or MEPs elected under a party banner be able to defect to another party without facing re-election?

Is it acceptable to demand councillors pay a proportion of their allowance to their party – so-called tithing?

Can MPs’ £10,000 communications allowance really be used to leaflet constituents as long as it doesn’t promote a party?

Three questions, one common source of confusion: the role of parties in our political system.

Go back a couple of hundred years and the situation was clearer. Voters elected a gentleman to represent their interests in parliament with no party machine to speak of and little expectation of loyalty to the loose coalitions that gradually solidifed into whigs and tories.

The reality today, and for the last century at least, is that while voters might moan about the party machines from time to time, we invariably vote for one of them. How well did those independents do in the European elections? How many votes did Jury Team (the umbrella for independents) win? How many independent MPs have been elected to parliament over the last few decades?

For better or worse, we live in a party democracy, and yet many of our rather quaint political rules and traditions try to ignore the fact, to pretend that we’re still in the reign of King George III, electing those worthy independent gents to park their well-fed backsides on the green benches.

So let’s admit it. Let’s not have this ludicrous situation where people complain about the evils of the party system and begrudge them having any money, especially from the public purse, whilst all the while well over 95% of us vote for a party candidate, even when we have a choice not to and even when an independent could win a seat with less than one in ten votes.

It’s about accepting the will of the people – as expressed through the ballot box – and the realities of modern politics. Attractive as the idea of the noble independent might be (and I’m not denying that such people exist) party politics is where the power lies, because that’s what the people vote for most of the time.

If we accept that, certain things follow.

Unless we seriously want the wealthiest party to consistently buy victory, we should both limit national spending (as we do within wards, divisions and constituencies during election campaigns) and allow some element of public funding for political parties.

Unless we’re happy to disregard the will of the electorate, we should introduce some form of penalty for those elected on a party ticket who either defect or, through breaking the rules, are forced out. It might fall short of an automatic by-election, but there should be something. Perhaps a petition signed by 5% of electors would trigger a by-election.

Do we want to live in a fantasy land where an MP can put out a leaflet saying what a great job he or she’s doing, and have it funded by the taxpayer as long as it doesn’t mention the party? As if it doesn’t benefit the party anyway, regardless of the lack of a name check. If not, we should either accept that the money can promote parties or scrap the Comms allowance and tighten the rules on what MPs can claim for.

This isn’t the 18th century. A balance needs to be struck between the MP as an individual and as a party representative. Today, the balance is wrong – tipped too far towards the old idea of the independent gentleman. Let’s update the rules so they better reflect the reality of 21st century British politics, make the system better and fairer, and recognise the huge benefits that a healthy and competitive party system gives us.

* ‘Costigan Quist’ blogs at Himmelgarten Cafe.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • National spending by partuies was and is limited by the political parties and Referendums Act 2000 for 12 months prior to polling day.

  • David Allen 16th Jul '09 - 6:32pm

    We do live in a party democracy, and we will continue to live in a party democracy. However, all the main parties have shown themselves at worst corrupt, at best complacent and totally insensitive to what ordinary people think of their behaviour.

    In that situation, we do not only need parties. We also need independents who can challenge those parties from time to time, and force them to reform – as Martin Bell did, and as Craig Murray is about to do.

    People who want to see real political reform should not vote for any of the unreformed parties standing in Norwich next week. Sadly, that includes the Lib Dems, who might be the best of the bunch as regards financial probity, but can’t nowadays pretend to smell of roses as regards consistency of policies and basic political values, campaigning methods, or campaign management.

    Nor, of course, should anyone even think of the BNP as a valid protest option. To get rid of that idea, to give all the parties a real shock, and to force genuine change, vote Murray in Norwich on July 23rd!

  • Sate funding of political parties? no thanks. If parties can’t persuade people to donate to support them then they should spend within their limits not go running to the tax payer for money.

    We need to transform politics do that people want to join and donate to political parties. Look at how Obama funded a lot of his campaign from relatively small donations.

    As for re elections for defectors the only time I would say this might be justified is for MEP as under the current crap election system for the euros people do not vote for an individual MEP but for the party.

  • Alix,

    “There’s no such thing as an independent. …. they call (their philosophy) “common sense”, or “what ordinary people want”.

    Nonsense. There are all sorts of independents. Only some of them behave the way you suggest that they should be constrained to do. Many independents have many different ideas and philosophies. Some of them are very valid. They can think for themselves. They are independents.

    It seems you are a rather dyed in the wool party loyalist, who is unable to contemplate the idea of someone independent enough to think for themselves, without having to refer back to the comfort blanket of a political party!

    If you want to see some very well thought through policies from one particular independent who is going to do rather well in Norwich next week:


  • David Allen,

    To be fair, Alix missed out a category, and that category is ‘idiot’. Murray’s principles are a mix of already-existant Lib Dem policies and wishful thinking.

    The man thinks taxes can be kept low and enormous flood defences can be erected, because ‘technology has moved on’. I’m shocked that a former civil servant can have such a lax grasp on the cost of public works, but there you go.

    Independent candidates tend to be only successful when there’s a particular local issue that’s not been taken up by one of the main parties, or they’re celebrities on single-issue crusades. The voting public is very good at spotting egotistical idiots when they’re not hidden behind a party line.

  • Hey, Lib Dem campaigner for coastal constituency supports North Sea floods! What was that you said about “idiot”, now?

    “Independent candidates tend to be … successful when there’s a particular local issue that’s not been taken up by one of the main parties, or they’re celebrities on single-issue crusades.”

    Precisely so. The issue is honesty in politics.

  • My point still stands, given that it was about the idiocy of proposing lower taxes while advocating massive public works – not about the public works in themselves. Given that you clearly didn’t read the post, I extend the title of idiot to you too.

  • Adam,

    Mindless abuse is obviously your strong point. Advocating a spending priority in one localised area hardly disqualifies you from advocating cuts elsewhere.

    Clearly you were just desperate to find something Craig Murray said that you could take issue with!

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Andy Chandler
    @Adam Ah, that's my bad on that. I misread it. Apologise about that. Part blame dyslexic tendencies (always came out as that despite three attempts to get it p...
  • David Symonds
    I find the adversarial politics in Britain to be highly depressing and corrosive. They are enforced and reinforced by the rotted First Past the Post voting syst...
  • Martin Gray
    @Alex Macfie..Whatever the reason, this individual felt the need to assassinate a democratically elected head of government. As Mary has pointed out - those t...
  • Adam
    @ Andy Not "invented" but "inverted"! https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/inverted_snobbery...
  • tom arms
    @ Ian Sanderson: Normally I would agree with your assessment, but in the case of Robert Fico, in the first elections after 1991 he was elected to parliament as ...