Do political parties still fulfil their functions?
The two main parties still have different ideologies and images and so attract members, supporters and voters on the basis of these even if their policies in Government do not diverge so sharply. Although the Conservative and Labour parties have lost support, new parties such as UKIP, the Greens and the SNP have mobilised support on the basis of new ideas that have attracted members and voters.
Parties still produce distinct policies and carry these out in Government and, in doing so, have to reconcile the interests of different groups. The present Government has brought forward proposals that were in its manifesto such as expanding free schools and English votes for English laws. The policies that Governments have carried out have never entirely depended on party manifestos and so, on some issues, there may be limited disagreement between the parties.
Parties still recruit hundreds of people to be local councillors and Parliamentary candidates and have gradually increased the representation of women and ethnic minorities. Although there are quite a few Independents at the local council level, Parliamentary representation is entirely by political parties.
Parties have adapted to changes in society. Labour has recruited people as supporters with a vote in the leadership election, the Liberal Democrats have opened up meetings to non-party members and the Conservatives have held primary elections, in which all voters can take part, to choose some of their Parliamentary candidates. They have made use of the social media in campaigns and elections.
The existence of parties ensures that their leaders have democratic links with local party members who are active locally and may be members of local interest groups. The alternative is leaders who have the money to get elected by running intensive media campaigns and paying workers to canvass support for them.
Parties, their leaders and their policies are still the focus of public debate about politics and media attention. They attempt the put forward ideas about the direction of the country.
With declining membership, less people saying that they strongly support the parties and less people voting in general elections, parties seem less relevant to society. Although Labour has had a recent surge in membership, this often happens to parties after losing a general election but membership declines later. The Conservatives and Labour used to largely represent working class and middle class voters respectively and attendance at meetings and functions was a social activity for people before the advent of television but this is no longer the case.
People have become more individualistic and so mass parties are no longer relevant. People are more interested in single issues and action groups such as 38 Degrees are more in tune with how people relate to politics.
Parties are increasingly recruiting their Parliamentary candidates from a narrow elite, many of whom have been researchers for MPs or think tanks, rather than drawing in a wider group of people.
Parties have become centralised with the leader and key advisers in the leader’s office controlling policy rather than being debated among a large membership with roots in the community. The concern of the central party units are increasingly with adding ‘spin’ to stories to put the party in a favourable light and in attacking opponents rather than in putting ideas and vision before the public.
The media now plays the main role in putting information before the public and a range of diverse ideas are available via the internet so parties no longer need to play their role in communicating to the public.