Much has been written, rightly, about the expenses scandal, but in reality this is merely sypmotomatic of the rise of a new political class entirely dependent on politics for a living. This wasn’t always the case as illustrated by this passage from A. N. Wilson’s magisterial study: After the Victorians
As well as being a businessman, Sir Alfred Mond was also in the House of Commons, sitting as a Liberal representing Chester from 1906 to 1910, then as an MP for Swansea from 1910 to 1923. Finally from 1924 to 1928 he represented the rural market constituency of Carmarthen in West Wales…(his) constituents in Carmarthen asked him to continue as their MP which he did until taking a peerage…(22)
The point of quoting this passage is not to eulogise Sir Alfred Mond’s virtuosity in being an MP as well as a businessman, in his day he no doubt had plenty of sycophants to perform that function. No, the point is he combined both with his role as businessman taking precedence. He had inherited his father’s chemical firm Brunner, Mond and Co and used this as a platform to create the great British chemicals conglomerate ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). Some would doubtless see this as a classic instance of a capitalist coming into Parliament to represent the interests of the big bourgeoisie. Others that it brought the invaluable experience of a successful businessman into the House of Commons for the benefit of both British politics and the various constituents he represented. The right answer (if there is one) is not important here, what is important is that: 1) Sir Alfred had a life outside politics in the business world and 2) while being a Liberal MP he was his own man, both in terms of personal wealth and his own personal character.
Throughout the course of the twentieth century, as the franchise was extended to include most of the population over 18, both the parties that would come to constitute the dominant forces in British politics, Labour and Conservative, developed a mass membership. At its peak the British Labour Party had 1.6 million members while the Conservatives numbered 2.8 million, most of whom were active in their respective parties. Mass membership at these numbers is important and healthy in a modern liberal democracy for a number of reasons. A large membership indicates a vibrant engagement of political parties with the life of local communities in which the latter can interact with and influence policy and decisions at a national level. Equally mass membership allows parties to draw on a repository of experience from all walks of life, whether from the business community, trade unions and working people generally, people from professions such as law and medicine, researchers and academics etc to become councillors, MPs or even Cabinet ministers: this repository of experience can be used to enliven policy and decision making within parties and even act as a ‘reality check’ to restrain some proposed policies that are otherwise out of kilter with the real world.
Mass membership also allows parties to raise funds from their own members and thus not become dependent completely or beholden to a few sources of finance such as the trade unions for Labour and business for the Conservatives. Finally, though the twentieth century has shown that mass political parties (or more precisely in this case movements) can be run ruthlessly by one individual (the Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin to take the most extreme examples), within a pluralist democratic system an engaged active, committed, but not docile mass membership can act as a brake or restraint on political party leaderships and oblige the latter to consult and consider the views of the membership before deciding on policy.
These factors around membership of political parties have now largely, with a few exceptions, disappeared from British politics. As of 2007 membership of the Labour Party stands at 208,000 (which has halved since Tony Blair became Prime Minister) and the Tories have slumped to 320,000 member (down from 750,000 when John Major was leader) (23). In other words membership, already declining has “haemorrhaged” under recent leaders, which in Labour’s case included its most charismatic and electable leader for many decades. In fact the situation is even worse than this. For instance in the case of Labour: “when those who have let their membership lapse for the past six months are discounted as well, the figure stands at 190,000: the lowest since Ramsay MacDonald split the party in the 1930s and a drop of 25,000 in the past six months” (24). There are no comparable figures for the Conservatives, but we can infer from the rapid decrease in their membership figures that current active members will be a lower proportion than those recorded. This means that many constituency Labour parties and local Conservative Associations are effectively moribund; made up of only a few dedicated activists. The repository of experience parties could previously draw on is no longer valid, a source of independent funding has largely dried up and restraints, checks and balances resulting from an active mass membership interacting with the Party leaderships defunct. Consequently, political party memberships are no longer representative of the population at large, in fact somewhat distinct and different from the issues and concerns of ordinary people, a situation captured by the following quote which actually came from a then senior Labour Party figure in an uncharacteristically candid reflection: “One reason why people are so sick and tired of politics is that it seems remote, alien and conducted by people not like me” (25).
Disenchantment with politics is not only reflected with the precipitous decline in political party memberships, but also, as we have seen, in the low turn out at general elections in the UK (61% of the electorate in 2005): In some recent local and parliamentary election results in Scotland, constituency turn-outs have been as low as 33% (26). The rapid decline in independent funding as a result of the decline in membership has meant that the two main political parties have increr and business for the Conservatives, but also on individual donors that have led to allegations of influence peddling and democratic political parties being dependent on a few wealthy individuals and organisations which have dogged both main parties. In the form of “cash for honours” accusations this took the form of a police inquiry (which found the accusations unproven) that benighted Tony Blair’s final year as Premier. Political parties in the UK are increasingly cash strapped, and despite stricter accountability procedures for who is financially donating to them seek to find ever more innovative and sometimes desperate means of raising money.
As noted the severe contraction in party membership has meant parties are less able to call on a wide and varied repository of experience from outside politics. This process has gone on in tandem with the increasing specialisation of politics as a distinct profession. That is to say an increasing number of people in contemporary political life, whether as a councillor in a local authority but more likely as an MP (or MSPs in Scotland, Assembly Members in Wales and Northern Ireland), Cabinet Minister or Government office holder, will have had little or no experience of life outside politics or the closed incestuous world of political party activism and will be completely dependent financially on their political status. A typical career path in this scenario would be for an individual to become active in a political party at University, spend a few years after graduating as a research assistant or researcher to an MP then be selected as a candidate for Parliament (or the regional parliaments). Alternatively, they could commence their career working in two professions that have strong connections with politics in both being a stepping-stone to a political career and a veritable safe-haven for politicians who have left office or resigned: these are the media (and its ancillary profession which has burgeoned in recent years, Public Relations) and the legal profession (27). If they are successful in being elected they could, after a relatively short-period on the back benches, accede to a junior position in office and then proceed to further their career in government.
Now whether they obtain a position in government, remain on the back benches or alternate between the two, the growing “professionalization” of politics (28) as a distinct carer path means that: a) with the possible exception of the media or the law, a considerable number of politicians have no other career or viable alternative to fall back-on. b) Their first-hand experience of the world has been largely mediated through the rarefied and enclosed world of political party activism, with its intrigues and machinations and response to external events (and the external world altogether) dictated by the requirements of the Party machine, spin and sound-bites for the media; this way of life, of course, will become the norm if they succeed further in their political career. c) They are totally financially dependent on politics, whether it is a MP’s salary or that of a government official or Cabinet minister exacerbated by the fact that they have little or nothing to fall back in terms of making a living (though to be sure business and institutes enjoy the prestige of having former Cabinet ministers on their books, even if the quality of what they’re paying for can be variable). In combination this results in dependence on the Party machine (whether in government or opposition) both financially and in terms of career development. But it is not just loyalty to the Party machine that prevails. Because of their increasingly common reliance on politics as a profession financially, for career development and their limited experience of doing anything else apart from their virtually parasitical relationship with the media and/or the legal profession, politicians of all parties have a greater affinity and common set of interests with each other that transcends Party divisions or labels. Thus the emergence of a political class whose defining characteristics have been vividly outlined By Peter Oborne in his book The Triumph of the Political Class:
The Political Class has come to acquire one of the defining characteristics of a social class: a common economic base. Politicians are now fundamentally dependent for funding and prestige upon the British state. Indeed many members of the Political Class abuse their financial and other privileges, then collaborate with each other, even across traditional party lines, to prevent themselves being found out. The real dividing line in British political life is no longer between the main political parties, but between the political class and the rest (29)
Political convergence within the new consensus forged by Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Gordon Brown will reinforce this trend as apart from the structured convergence engendered by financial and career dependence on the political party machines, and for the party in government state funding, the substantive ideological and political differences that hitherto defined and differentiated the main political parties have been toned down considerably. Adherence to the free market, privatisation, social justice, multi-culturalism and the politics of the individual are common to all the main political parties and major differences are now based on presentation, style, emphasis or the best way of managing the new consensus, rather than on principle.
There are exceptions to this trend. There are politicians who do have convictions that run counter to the prevailing political convergence, who have interests and experience outside the prisms of the party machines, are not financially dependent on politics or seek preferment and advancement to political office to the virtual exclusion of every other consideration, and who have resigned from high office on points of principle. But these appear to run counter to the prevailing trend. The era when a figure such as Sir Alfred Mond, independent and with a career and profile as distinguished outwith politics as within, would be considered the norm in political life has largely vanished.