Matt McCarten makes some very valid points about the lack of democracy within political parties in his Herald column today. Using the Lee fiasco as a stepping off point he talks about the dangers of candidate selection, and indeed all major party decisions, being made by a small group of party faithful.
Lee’s meltdown shows she was clearly unsuitable. She was put forward by her caucus and that raises real questions about democracy. The parliamentary leaders of National, Labour, Act and Green parties all effectively appointed their candidates. They could do this with ease because mass-member political parties no longer exist.
As membership has dwindled, control of parties has moved to parliamentary caucuses.
To be fair to the parties, membership participation has always been a thorny issue. In the late seventies one of the problems the Labour Party struggled with was getting Labour voters engaged in the party business and it was only under Jim Anderton’s presidency that this changed. Of course that effort rode on the back of Muldoon’s divisive governance and was subsequently shot to hell by the betrayals of the 4th Labour government.
But it is a big issue. The more disengaged voters there are the more the more swing voters there are and the less informed the general voting populace become. That’s fertile ground for the kind of big money, on-message, presidential-style campaigning we’ve seen increase in the last two decades and for the subsequent dumbing down of the political discourse and increased influence of large donors.
Part of the issue is that people just don’t have the time to engage anymore as working hours keep growing and the explosion of media platforms exponentially increases competition for citizens’ attention as consumers.
But just as big a part of the equation is the fact that the current situation suits the hierarchy of most political parties. Limited participation increases their individual power and reduces the amount of internal bargaining they have to do to achieve their policy objectives. Unfortunately, as Matt points out in relation to the error of Lee’s selection, that bargaining is a vital provider of checks and balances and in the long-term makes for a healthy party.
Matt’s answer is to use a voter-registration system similar to that used in the US to encourage people to take a stake in the the political process. I’m not sure that’s a silver bullet but it would certainly be a great help. Personally I’d be inclined to think that membership and activism can be increased by ensuring that any decision made by a party must be assessed against one question:
“How can we meaningfully involve the greatest number of voters in this decision?”
Any party that keeps asking that question and moving on making sure every answer to it is implemented will find itself in a very strong state after a few years.
Of course as Matt states:
When I raise the central decision-making and caucus control with senior politicians, they shrug their shoulders and say this is inevitable as the days of mass party membership are over.
A cynic would say the unspoken last line in each of these instances is “And that’s the way we like it.”