Where have all the political parties gone?

Across the Western world, parties are fragile, anchorless and out of touch.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Is there a real political party left anywhere in Europe or the Western world? The recent evidence provided by everything from the German election to the British party conference season suggests that you would be hard pressed to name one.

Of course there are still sophisticated party machines contesting elections everywhere, most of which retain a core of loyal supporters, albeit shrinking and ageing. But none of these pseudo-parties can claim deep roots in society or genuine authority over people. All appear increasingly fragile, anchorless and out of touch.

As the major German parties manoeuvre desperately for power in the wake of the electoral stalemate, one former Christian Democrat minister has reportedly accused the Social Democrats of displaying ‘a lack of democratic culture’. That would surely be a fair description of the entire political class today, and not only in Germany.

The German election result provided a stark snapshot of the essential nothingness of party politics now. No party won. Neither of the major organisations could mobilise a constituency, with the result that both suffered one of their worst results. None of the smaller parties made a genuine breakthrough. As a consequence, the parties have retreated in horror from the electorate, entering backrooms to try to cook up a deal that will allow them some semblance of power while blaming the voters for somehow being deaf and blind to the charms of their leaders.

The proposal for a ‘grand coalition’ of the SPD and CDU, supposedly parties from the opposite sides of the battle lines, expresses the absence of any distinctive polices or alternative visions. Arguably there has never been a great ideological divide in postwar German politics; a party system set up under the American military occupation was unlikely to be a hotbed of radicalism. Yet now that system has been emptied out of whatever meaning it had.

As reported on spiked during the election, the campaign was marked by the reluctance of the major parties even to discuss those policy differences they did have (see Germany: have politicians lost their tongues?, by Sabine Reul). So it was largely reduced to a personality contest between Gerhard Schroeder of the SPD and Angela Merkel of the CDU. Schroeder’s personalised ‘Vote for ME!’ campaign won more votes than earlier polls predicted, suggesting that Germany is not as immune to the influence of Anglo-American style-over-substance presidential electioneering as some observers claimed.

Indeed, everywhere in Europe one is struck more by the similarities than the differences in the fragility of party systems. Look at Britain, where the annual party conference system is now underway. The two major opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, appear preoccupied with such navel-gazing questions as who are we, what are we for, what are we doing here, rather than presenting a coherent political face to the world outside. Both seem to be snatching at any passing policy, in search of a distinctive appeal; both are likely to end up playing it safe and appealing to the instincts of their dwindling band of core supporters. They appear to be adrift in a political sea that they no longer understand how to navigate, huddling together for comfort. The Tories are embroiled in an endless contest to choose a new leader. Whatever result that eventually throws up, it will not alter the fact that they, like the Lib Dems, are experiencing a profound crisis of leadership in terms of direction and purpose, one that will not be resolved by a change of faces at the top.

Tony Blair’s New Labour seems to stand above all of this, commanding the political scene. Yet it is important to remember that it occupies that vaulted position only by default. Only a few months ago, we were being told that Blair was finished. Now, a series of events entirely beyond his control – from the European referendums to the London bombs – and the suicide mission of the opposition parties have helped to put him back on top. Yet New Labour remains, if anything, an even more hollowed-out shell of a party than its opponents, a fragile collection of egos and cliques that can easily be exposed by unhelpful events, and has little in the way of foundations to fall back on.

To see how thin is the veneer of authority attached to even the strongest political party today, look to America. After last November’s elections, President Bush’s Republicans were said to be in an historic position of power, having comfortably won the presidential poll and secured control of both houses of congress. Ten months later their authority is in tatters, and Bush’s supposedly radical agenda appears to be bogged down everywhere from the economy to Iraq. Hurricane Katrina did not cause Bush’s problems. But the fallout from that crisis did blow away the myth of Republican hegemony (see Government collapses, Americans come through, by Helen Searls).

Perhaps the example that best illustrates the gap between the appearance of party politics today, and the underlying reality, is all the pre-election talk of Merkel being ‘Germany’s Margaret Thatcher’. The fact is that nobody could ‘do a Thatcher’ today, even if they had a stronger personality than Merkel. In 2005 there could not be a successful Margaret Thatcher figure in Germany – or, indeed, in Britain.

Let us leave aside for now the point that the Thatcher legend is based at least as much on myth as on real history. The Thatcher governments were at least distinguished by their capacity to mobilise a firm constituency in society for a political battle. They thus were able to fight and win wars both at home and abroad, wielding the so-called ‘Falklands factor’ to forge a system of militarised one-party politics.

Such a feat would appear to be impossible anywhere in Europe in the political conditions prevailing today. The political class is too uncertain and risk-averse to act with resolution; parties lack the vision or political resources to mobilise a strong constituency to vote, never mind fight; and attempts to find a military-style solution to political problems – such as the Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq – quickly falter and make matters even worse. A younger Margaret Thatcher might still be able to play the part, but her prospects of success would be little better than Frau Merkel’s.

There seems a particular irony in the notion that the new Germany could now have a new Thatcher. The reunification of Germany, through the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, coincided with the demise of Thatcherism in Britain. This was more than mere coincidence. The fall of the Soviet bloc destroyed too the old parties of the European left, with their more-or-less overt links to Stalinism and the ideas of state socialism. Before long, however, that disintegrative process also exposed the political exhaustion of the ‘triumphant’ parties of the right, which had long relied on anti-communism to compensate for the emptiness of their own vision. Fifteen years on, the empty shell of Western party politics stands revealed as clearly as the decrepitude of the Soviet system was then.

In Professor Frank Furedi’s important new book, The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, he describes a situation in which the right is no longer right-wing in any meaningful sense, having lost its conservative belief in tradition and the past, while the left is no longer really left-wing, having abandoned its attachment to the future and progress. Instead, they are both paralysed in the present.

In this situation, it does not seem to matter much which party cobbles together enough votes or coalition partners to form a fragile government in Germany or Britain or wherever. We appear to be living not so much in a one-party system or a multi-party system, but a no-party system, where the very idea of mobilising partisan constituencies to fight for their interests and worldview is viewed with terror by supposed political leaders.

We cannot, and should not want to, go back to the old system of party politics. But if we are to go forward to something new, we at least need to start by recognising the unprecedented situation politics is in today. And to ensure that whatever alternatives are proposed do not end up imitating the ‘lack of democratic culture’ among the dead parrot parties of today.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

German election: Was ist das?, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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