Parties need to open up in the 21st century – including Labour

23 Feb 2016

The following is a report from ERS Cymru’s fringe at Welsh Labour Party conference in Llandudno on the 20th February on how Labour and other parties should open up and modernise to reflect how voters and democracy has changed.

With distrust in politics on the rise and tribal ties breaking down, the challenge for Labour and political parties is more than simply winning an election, said Steve Brooks, Director of ERS Cymru, opening the debate at Welsh Labour’s conference last weekend.

First Past the Post is clearly a major stumbling block. Lewis Baston, author and psephologist, noted that 2015 saw Labour’s vote share increase, but its number of seats declined. A 10% swing to Labour is now needed for a majority of just 1 in Parliament – a 6-7% lead over the Tories. The boundary review and the shift to individual electoral registration also affects Labour’s prospects. In this context, we need to decontaminate the idea of parties working together.

But how do parties change? Alun Davies AM used to hear ‘my dad would turn in his grave if I didn’t vote for you’ – but that idea is dying out. People want to see a creative politics that’s constantly changing, and that people have created together. Labour should be a vibrant political body – one that is dynamic and organic.

Davies holds Facebook surgeries every week – for him, structures should reflect the young swing voter, not the old die-hard. ‘We need to invent what we do and how we do it.’

Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland, reflected on the Scottish experience. Old political traditions have also collapsed in Scotland: ‘all parties are in trouble, and all our institutions in society have changed’. The tradition where people only get info through the media and parties has changed too. In the past, there was centralised information distribution. Not anymore. ‘Parties are seen as manifestly hierarchical institutions – yet we have a much more horizontal world now.’ There’s a style aspect too – it’s off-putting to the public that a majority of political speeches are about attacking opponents. ‘A culture change is needed. People don’t like political tricks.’

Hannah Blythyn, Welsh Labour Assembly candidate for Delyn, pointed out there is a shroud of mystery around politics, including getting selected as a candidate. The process should be opened up: after all, people want their candidates to look like them. For Labour, ‘it’s our job to engage people and get them involved in politics.’

In a multi-party nation though, how Labour reacts to other parties has to change, too. One audience member noted ‘Labour think of themselves as the only left-wing party. But we need to talk about alliances. Labour often puts parties in little boxes – presenting Plaid Cymru as purely nationalist, the Greens as purely environmental. But it’s more complex than this. Labour needs to reach out.’

Lewis Baston agreed the mentality of the ‘true tribe’ is false. A statement of shared principles between parties of the left would be a good start. Labour have worked well with the Greens on the London Assembly – there’s no reason it can’t happen elsewhere.

For the public, apathy isn’t the biggest problem.People are involved in politics all the time – just not party politics’, said Alun Davies AM. They sign petitions, attend marches, share political news. Yet ‘I’d be terrified to take a new young member to a local party meeting’.

Across the UK however, technological change is leading to profound cultural change. There are ways to respond. Online voting could be one idea to be trialled. But there are other things that can be done too, for Alun Davies AM: ‘We do need to look at what system we use [for local councils]’ with regards to the upcoming local authority mergers in Wales. And ‘we need to look hard at how the Assembly operates: I think it could be more effective if it had additional members.’

‘We have to have a serious think about how we elect people to the Assembly, and to me, STV is the best way. We need to have that debate within the Labour Party,’ said Davies, backing a key ERS recommendation.  

In Scotland, new movements are spreading out from online to physical spaces. Willie Sullivan pointed out that spaces for debate on the internet aren’t enough. ‘We have to be connected to power locally.’

Instead, Europe and some parts of the UK have seen the rise of populism. ‘FPTP creates massive polarisation - populism is a signal,’ noted Sullivan – and partly this comes from a binary voting system. In contrast, ‘PR enables plural democratic politics,’ according to Lewis Baston. But parties are somewhat to blame: Hannah Blythyn said Labour ‘should never take people’s votes for granted’.

So there was broad agreement that parties need to open up – but other institutions do too. There are reforms that both can make to reflect the 21st century democracy we are today.

The ERS will be pushing hard for this in the coming months, ahead of the Assembly elections. We hope the parties get on board, too.

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