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Viscount Chandos (Labour)

rose to call attention to the role which political parties play in public life; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, your Lordships' House is distinguished by the presence of, and the great contributions by, its Cross-Bench Members. It is hard to find a parliament in the world where there is any comparable, substantial element of independent membership. Switzerland is perhaps the closest. Even if we have not as yet reached a consensus about the next stage of reform of this House, there is widespread conviction that its future composition should include the independent component that exists today.

For that reason I hope that the debate that I have the privilege to introduce today will have an unusual resonance: an exploration of the role of political parties in public life from a Chamber with a unique balance between party political and independent Members and, even beyond that, a justified tradition of independence on all Benches.

I am delighted to see on the list of speakers today members of, I think, five political parties, including not only those well represented in this House and another place, but also others such as the Green Party, in the unmistakable form of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, whose parliamentary representation is more limited, a subject about which I suspect he, and I am sure other speakers, will have more to say.

Among the small collection of press cuttings that I have relating to my political and parliamentary life, there is only one that my wife thought worthy of pinning to the kitchen board. In it, the then political editor of the Daily Express, before his move, no doubt to avoid being asked to join in the Basil Fawlty-like antics of that paper's management, to his current position at the Spectator, nominated me, as a result of my support for the Government's proposals for the first stage of the reform of this House, as "Crawler of the Week".

I am conscious that I may be encouraging a further award, as I now owe my position in your Lordships' House to my nomination by a political party as opposed to the accident of birth. So, to my declaration that political parties are the lifeblood, the very essence of parliamentary democracy, I am quite prepared to find a response, to echo Christine Keeler, of "Well, he would, wouldn't he?". I will assert, nonetheless, that political parties have enriched public life over many centuries and continue to do so; and, most importantly, they should play a key role in the re-engagement of public interest in politics and trust in the political process. Of course, it is always difficult to separate clearly the role of the individual and the contribution of a party to which he or she belongs. However, if we look at the great reforms and political events of the past 200 years, parties have been at the centre of them: from the abolition of slavery to the introduction of the minimum wage and the foundation of the National Health Service to the right to buy council houses.

The support for Winston Churchill in 1940 by the Labour Party (notwithstanding the story of mis-communication over the acceptability of Halifax) demonstrates the critical role of a constructive opposition. The very issues that have stretched parties to their limits or beyond—Corn Law reform, Ireland, Europe and even Iraq—represent a testament to the vibrancy of the political process and the parties' place in that.

Even when the running has been made by single issue groups—as, most notably perhaps, in the case of women's suffrage—I would argue that it has been the ultimate interaction with one or more of the political parties that has ultimately led to successful change.

Professor Dennis Kavanagh has written that political parties reconcile conflicting interests, act as vehicles of participation, assist in the recruitment of people for public office, strengthen democratic control, strengthen choice—through the provision of packages of ideas and policies—strengthen communication between government and society, and assist in the enforcement of accountability.

We recognise in other countries the essential desirability of a multi-party system for the creation of an effective parliamentary democracy and the essential incorporation of human rights in those societies. Formal or de facto one-party states are little better than overt dictatorships, and arguably can be worse as they cover the vices of autocracy with a deceptive veneer of democratic legitimacy.

As America emerged at the end of the 18th century from the shadow of empire and sought to establish a society of its own design, there were strong voices for doing so without the incorporation of political parties—a demonstration perhaps that disillusion with political parties is not an entirely new thing. But, try as they might, they could not devise a parliamentary democracy that did not ultimately depend on the central role of political parties.

For all of this, however, there is no shortage of evidence that public interest in politics and political parties has been declining—falling party memberships; sharply lower turn-out at the last general election; opinion polls that show young people are more likely to join a single issue organisation than a political party; and the combined membership of the two largest environmental groups exceeding that of either of the two largest political parties. Why is that and what can be done about it?

My noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in a speech on democratic engagement last week analysed both the underlying trends and their possible causes. I agree with him that not all the reasons are necessarily ominous. In a changing society with improving economic trends and government initiatives benefiting many—but not all—people, it is reasonable to expect that many people want a lower level of engagement with politics and political parties, placing greater priority and value on family and friends, work and leisure interests.

However, on several counts, that analysis offers no grounds for complacency. Democratic disengagement is most marked within the lowest income groups, so economic contentment at least cannot be an overwhelming factor; and even among those who may feel some degree of contentment, we should think carefully before allowing a declining level of political interest and participation to become embedded.

I would not want to leave the impression that my noble and learned friend viewed these trends with any more complacency than I do. My noble friend the Minister, in winding up, may well address some of the same issues and ideas that are humming around their department.

I should like to use the remainder of my introduction to touch briefly on five issues—trust, patronage, the parties' challenge to renew their appeal in a changing society, the linkage between political parties and their representation at every level of democracy, and party funding.

My noble and learned friend rather disarmingly said in his speech last week:

"The evidence seems to show that trust in politicians to put the national interest first over party interest was never high, is not high now and has fallen".

If we read the great satirists and writers over the ages and look at the contemporary cartoonists, we find plenty of support for the low starting point to which my noble friend refers—no "Golden Age" in that context.

From this low starting point, therefore, I wonder whether trust has really fallen? And, if so, has it been by any more than that applying to many other institutions in a society where there is openly less deference towards established institutions than in the past? There is no doubt that political parties in and out of government should strive ceaselessly to improve the way they can, on the one hand, provide leadership, while on the other, still leave the electorate with reasonable, realistic expectations. A formidably difficult challenge, which I suspect armchair pundits, whether in the Lobby, the pub or fashionable dinner parties inevitably underestimate. So I do not question this perceived decline in trust in order to advocate a reduction in these efforts. Rather, I offer it as another case where we should be careful not to allow a desirable sensitivity to public opinion to create an exaggerated sense of inadequacy—in psychobabble terms, a sense of collective low self-esteem. Not an affliction, I suppose, that is conventionally associated with politicians.

I was struck when I read a short and stimulating book written a few years ago by the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, entitled The Purpose of Politics. In 176 pages, I do not believe that he referred once to political parties or their role, even in a chapter headed "Politics as a Constructive Art". In contrast, the great former leader of his party, Disraeli, said:

"I believe that without party, Parliamentary Government is impossible."

And, possibly less reliably, he also had attributed to him the cry:

"Damn your principles! Stick to your Party!"

I do not cite this comparison to make a party-political point—there may still be time for that later—but to illustrate the mood of the age, where I sense that advocacy of party in politics has become the love that dare not speak its name.

Whether trust is low and declining, therefore, or just low, we must do everything we can to increase it. Over the last 10 years, the transparency of government and of politics has, I believe, been transformed. Started under the last Conservative government, if not under duress, but perhaps under crisis—and significantly enhanced since 1997 by this Government—this new openness is unequivocally to be welcomed. But with it has come a new challenge; to operate in government in political and public life, while being subject to an intensity of constant scrutiny that is far greater than that applying to practically any other walk of life. Premiership football, perhaps, being the most glaring exception.

I would not have it any other way. But I think that, if this is not a naively optimistic sentiment, all participants in public life and, critically, the media in their coverage should perhaps respond to this enhanced openness with a corresponding maturity in the way they treat information.

Government have exercised great patronage throughout history and, I believe, generally honestly and well. It is clearly right that party affiliation should not give any advantage to candidates for non-political office. Equally there is a risk that if party affiliation of any colour becomes seen—in a McCarthyite way—as an absolute disadvantage for anyone seeking a role in public life outside the strict parliamentary arena, then either or both public interest and the political system will be diminished.

Political parties need to recognise the changed society in which they now operate and, without compromising their fundamental raison d'entre, find new ways of engaging with their actual and prospective supporters. If we look over to the United States at the presidential campaign—and the Democratic primary leading up to it—it is clear that, even if Howard Dean proved spectacularly unsuccessful in his quest for the nomination, he has found ways of reaching parts of America that others could not reach. Not primarily, I believe, because of his success in appealing to the anti-war vote specifically, but much more through his harnessing of a powerful network—both metaphorically and, through the Internet, literally—of latent activists and supporters.

Above all, as my noble and learned friend argued last week, political parties will succeed in re-engaging the interests and support of different parts of society by putting forward programmes and policies that strongly connect with those people, offering in particular hope and ambition for the disadvantaged. If we believe that political parties are essential to parliamentary democracy then we must inexorably recognise that political parties need fair representation in Parliament and in all levels of elected bodies.

The introduction of proportional representation for the European elections, mayoral elections and those to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales represent a huge step forward, but like, I am sure, other speakers, at least on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we must recognise that there is unfinished business. A more proportional voting system for Westminster elections is a necessary condition for achieving greater public democratic engagement. So, too, is reform of party funding. I very much look forward to the report on the subject later this summer by the Electoral Commission, and strongly hope that it will recommend some form of match funding for parties, combined with a cap on individual contributions.

I cannot end my remarks in praise of political parties without one unabashed statement of support for my party. I am sure that other noble Lords may feel the same about theirs. When I look back over the past seven years I feel real pride in the achievements of this Government: great steps towards the elimination of child poverty; the establishment of economic stability combined with a dynamic environment for innovation and growth; widespread constitutional and social reform; and vital initial moves to reform the provision of public services. I believe that that pride is widely shared by members and supporters of my party. That pride lies at the heart of the party's strength and, through that, the strength of our democracy. I beg to move for Papers.

6:22 pm
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Lord Dean of Harptree (Conservative)

My Lords, it is my privilege and pleasure to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for introducing an extremely important and interesting subject. This is a classic Wednesday debate. I hope that I will not embarrass him when I say that I agree with most of what he had to say. He quoted Disraeli's definition of a political party; I shall go back a little further, to Edmund Burke, in the 18th century. He defined a political party as,

"a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed".

If one substitutes "men and women", that definition is as relevant today as it was when it was first given. Looking back, when a political party and its leaders have adopted that principle, it has usually been successful. When they have departed from those principles, they have usually paid a heavy price. Two obvious examples in the past century were Peel, over the reform of the Corn Laws, and Gladstone, over Irish Home Rule.

Like the noble Viscount, I should like to refer to some of the worrying features in political life today. As he said, people, particularly the young, are not joining political parties in the numbers that they used to. I remember the good old days when the Young Conservatives served as a great marriage bureau. I am sure that the same applied to other political parties, and no doubt the Cross Benches had a similar operation. It seems today that people are more attracted to one-issue groups, which, although they fulfil a valuable function, do not see politics in the round.

The other worrying feature, to which the noble Viscount also referred, is the poor turnout of voters. That has been a feature in local and European elections for some time, but it is now also appearing in general elections. As the noble Viscount reminded us, our forefathers fought long and hard to get universal suffrage in this country, but it no longer seems to be regarded as the prize of citizenship that it once was. That must be disturbing to anyone—including, I am sure, all noble Lords—who believes in responsible and representative government.

What is the reason for that apparent decline? There is a whole series of reasons. The main one is people's rising expectations. Twenty years ago we did not dream of the expectations for life and leisure that we have today. We are egged on by advertisers and the media to expect the moon. No wonder, in those circumstances, that governments of all colours do not always succeed in meeting people's expectations. Disappointment and apathy set in, and it is easy for people to say, "Why bother? They do not care about me." What is to be done? First, we are trying out new methods of voting, in addition to, or in place of, the traditional ballot box in the polling station on a Thursday. If those methods can be achieved without fraud or confusion, they are wholly desirable. However, they do not go to the heart of the problem.

I disagree with the noble Viscount on the financing of political parties. The Short and Cranborne money to enable parties in opposition to fulfil their parliamentary functions is valuable. It gives them broadly the equivalent of the Civil Service available to the government of the day. But I am very doubtful about extending that still further to the activities of political parties in the country. That could easily be resented and therefore counterproductive.

The referendum is now part of our constitutional arrangements, and the procedure is covered by law. I am bound to say that I am not enthusiastic, for three reasons. First, it tends to weaken the authority of Parliament and of parliamentarians using their judgment rather than following public opinion. Secondly, it is difficult to draft a question that will be readily understood by those asked to vote. Perhaps most important of all is the tendency of people to vote for or against the government of the day rather than on the issue before them. However, the referendum is here to stay, and if people feel more involved as a consequence of a referendum, that is all for the good. We should certainly have a referendum on such vital matters as the European constitution. It is not a tidying-up matter; it is one of major importance. I am very glad that the Government have conceded that the referendum will take place.

Whatever the solutions to the problems, we in Parliament and the political parties have a big responsibility. To some extent, we have failed to strike a chord in the hearts and minds of the British people. Too many people feel out of touch, and too many feel that we do not understand properly their hopes, ambitions, worries and fears. Too many people also, particularly in recent times, feel that governments say one thing and do another. Unless we can find ways to break down these barriers, the consequences for stability and good government in our country will be serious. If we succeed, as I am confident we will, we will add a new, splendid chapter to the political genius of the British people.

6:30 pm
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Lord Shutt of Greetland (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland Affairs, Deputy Chief Whip; Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for initiating this debate today, calling attention to the role played by political parties in public life. It is an important, but neglected, issue. I thank him for his balanced contribution. I am particularly pleased at his reference to proportional representation, and I forgive him his one-minute party political broadcast.

There have been attempts to define a political party. The major element of a political party is its generalist nature, rather than being a single-issue pressure group. I have written down, "a loose grouping of men and women, nationally, regionally and locally based, with similar values and ethos, leading to principles, and then that is followed by policies". It is interesting that it is national, regional and local. Indeed, the main political parties have been regionally based and had regional organisations long before thoughts of devolution.

I perhaps ought to declare an interest, as a Liberal Democrat and a former Liberal, having had involvement politically at national, regional and local level. I am also a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, and a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, chairing its democracy committee. Those two organisations make grants in the general area of democracy.

To be effective, political parties need members. The numbers of those members have been going down hill fast for a long time. There is almost a secret at the level of decline. People do not want to own up that their party does not have quite as many members as they would like people to think it had. Members are needed; they are needed to be candidates. We are a few days away from a nomination day, when in metropolitan areas, because of the all-out nature of elections, political parties that want to be vibrant must fight all the seats, with the maximum number of candidates. That means that there is a bit of scratching in terms of those who are persuaded that perhaps it would be a wonderful thing if their name were to be on the ballot paper.

Activists are also needed. In some work done by the Joseph Rowntree trusts, on local government elections in Calderdale, Burnley and Oldham, it is interesting that the people are saying that they want to see people on doorsteps, and they want to be able to speak to representatives of those political parties. There is a decline in the numbers who are prepared to do that work and be the foot soldiers. There is a disinclination to join political parties. There is a perception that nice people do not do it.

Yet, these political parties do change. If you look at the major parties, the Conservative Party was a one-nation party, and it changed itself into a rather different sort of party; the Labour Party was the old Labour Party, and has become new Labour; the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to become the Liberal Democrats. We have seen a resurgence in the national parties in Scotland and Wales. We have seen new entrants, and they—the Greens, the UKIP, the BNP—have a tendency to be on certain issues only. Particularly with the latter, it is worth making the point that if gaps are made, someone will fill them.

It is interesting that people compare the numbers involved in political parties with the numbers who join the RSPB and the National Trust. I do not know how active members are in those organisations, or whether they like the picture books that may come along. We need a climate where it is thought that membership of a political party is a high calling. It is a great shame, although I see an array of Bishops in front of me, that we do not have a Bishop or a Cross-Bencher taking part in this debate. Party politics is too important to leave to the politicos. Unless we are moving to a point where there is a post-political party politics en route, political parties are essential in terms of elected office, policy, campaigning, and they need ideas, people and money.

In the times that we are living in, it seems that there is a choice of where the money comes from. It would be interesting to put the question to the British people of whether they want their politics funded by on the one hand, rich people, or on the other hand, the state. Which answer would they come up with? In my book, they would say "neither". They would say, "Oh no, we would sooner it be ordinary folk, ordinary volunteers". Of course, they are not there in numbers and the resources that they are able to bring in voluntary subscriptions are not sufficient to the needs of a political party. We ought to be moving to a time when membership is linked to money, and there is a system of funding whereby there could be a tax rebate or a grant, provided that a subscription is paid in the first place to that political party. The incentive of getting more money and more members may well be a route to more activists and more people. Such a scheme would work only if there was a local return in the case of those moneys; an incentive to local people, and not a sense that any subscriptions, rebate or tax deduction would go to a headquarters in London.

Perhaps I have spent far too long on the present position, but I did so because it is serious. Political parties are in a state of serious decline. The question here is the role that they play in public life. I often have carried a receipt book about for my political party and signed up people as members from time to time. It should not be a liability to be a member. It has not been unusual for me to suggest that someone had the right attitude and perhaps ought to be a member of the political party of my choice, and for them to say, "Well, I must be very careful, I could not really commit myself".

Political parties are important in the role of our proceedings. We presently have state funding, in terms of that policy money. We have an involvement in terms of the list systems for elections, which, if the numbers in the parties are so reduced, means that very important decisions are in the hands of a tiny group of people. Political parties are too important to be seen only as a place for the deviant or the anorak.

6:39 pm
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Baroness Gould of Potternewton (Labour)

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Chandos for initiating the debate. It provides the opportunity to discuss where political parties fit in society today, on which I shall concentrate. As my noble friend said, political parties are essential institutions in our democracy, which provide the crucial link between voter preference and the forming of government at all levels; that is, local, national and European.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. We should be building our political parties and not falling for the slogan that we hear too often; namely, that the party is over. There is no doubt that membership of political parties is falling. Only 3.5 per cent of British voters are members of any political party. We used to talk about "mass parties". That has always been a myth. There has never been any such thing as a mass party. There has always been only a minority of the electorate who has joined political parties.

I am not so worried about membership, although, as an ex-party apparatchik, of course I want membership to increase. But I am much more concerned about the disenchantment of the electorate and examining why that so; for example, whether it is because of disinterest, complacency or detachment from politics generally. Yesterday, the Electoral Commission published a new report, entitled, Do you do politics?. It concludes that the vast majority of people see politics as something that someone else does. We need to get over that phenomenon in order to build our political parties.

As I said, members are still needed. We are still considered by the majority of people as a group of very strange people who are members of political parties, go to party meetings, attend conferences, work with the local or national party machine and spend time knocking on doors. But our democracy owes a great debt to these grass-root activists. Without them, politics and decision making would be dependent on the temporary whims of populism. Without parties, voters would be confronted with a bewildering array of independents. Parties add meaning and clarity, through manifestos and campaign messages. We hope that that enables voters to make rational choices when they put their crosses on the ballot papers.

If there is a democratic malaise, I think that the media, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, referred, has a lot to answer for. I shall give just one example: it is absolutely appalling that there is a discussion of a candidate being chosen for public office by a pop-idol style political programme. That makes a farce of our political system. Politics is about people working together through political parties to influence the communities in which they live, and not passively selecting a media-manufactured false idol.

Political parties are the gatekeepers to political office. They provide the mechanisms for public representatives to receive public endorsement and work within a laid-down set of rules, which is very important. Parties today are more than just election machines that mobilise electoral support. They are recruitment agencies for public representatives, the training ground for local councillors and MPs and, ultimately, for our party leaders and Prime Minister, which we sometimes forget.

Shortly, we shall discuss the report of the Electoral Commission, entitled, Gender and Political Participation, and the crucial role that political parties play in promoting more women as public representatives. It is a clear illustration of why we need political parties.

As I said before, it is disturbing how little voters know about political parties. There seems to exist deep-seated misconceptions, ignorance about politics generally and—I believe absolutely—real distrust. That level of distrust has grown over the years and should not be taken with any complacency.

Research by Eurobarometer identified that only 15 per cent of the population trusted political parties. In a recent survey, the Institute for Citizenship showed that 64 per cent of those surveyed knew hardly anything about how Parliament or their local councils work. It is no wonder that people are not really interested. It is not wholly surprising when, until recently, there has been two decades without citizenship being taught adequately in schools.

The real question for many people is: why have any interest or participate in a political party when it appears that decision making in many areas has moved away from government to non-elected bodies, such as quangos, to regulators or to international institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank? We no longer live in a neat environment within known boundaries.

Many key decisions affecting people's lives are now beyond the reach of domestic politics. As globalisation and technological change are mainly developing outside the conventional political framework, people are finding alternative avenues of engagement and new ways of feeling connected. New technology is the biggest driver of political change. The Internet allows different forms of interaction based on common interest and lifestyles. We are fast becoming a society of individuals who interact with each other through a nexus of networks. Influence is now increasingly shared among a variety of formal and informal networks, pressure groups and charitable organisations.

It is a myth that the British people are apathetic, which always relates to whether they vote. But British people are not apathetic. All the evidence belies the idea that the public have somehow become disengaged from civil life. Rather, the British are a society of joiners. The problem is that their interest in political issues is not translated into interest in political parties.

Other noble Lords have referred to the single-interest groups. There are now more than 180,000 registered charities in the UK, of which many have very large memberships and whose influence is felt and recognised by the Government. Organisations have been brought into policy making and implementation at the highest levels of government. That is challenging the role of parties as the main agents of political participation.

There is a plethora of area-based initiatives and schemes; for example, people involved in the New Deal and Sure Start programmes and local civil forums. Local people are providing civic leadership and accountability with a sense of ownership of the outcome and that their contribution has made a difference. But parties are distinguished from those alliances by their desire not just to influence those in government but to become—or become part of—government themselves.

Nevertheless, political parties have to be involved in the changes in society and must look at the way in which they operate. If parties are to impress voters and to sustain their reputation as agents of change, there is a clear need to cultivate new themes and update traditional thinking. That may mean a new style of political party that turns outwards to local campaigns and concerns, and which needs to be seen to be very engaged in the local community. I agree that organisations need to be properly funded and professionally run.

There is an urgent need to rebuild the relevance of politics as a concept and as an activity worth taking part in. We should not forget that the lesson of the 20th century has been the birth and growth of political parties in eastern Europe, South Africa and the old Soviet Union, providing them, for the first time, with democratic and representative governance.

Political parties are central to democracy. In the main, they are the only way that public opinion can be effectively articulated and governments elected. As long as there is representative governance, there will be political parties that are made up of people with joint values coming together to bring about social change. That is the essence of our political democracy.

6:48 pm
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Lord Beaumont of Whitley (Green)

My Lords, I am a party man—all sorts of parties, but particularly political ones—from the moment when my father held me up on the balcony of the Bull's Head in the market square in Aylesbury in 1935 and, secure in his 20,000 majority, introduced me to the crowd as its future Conservative Member of Parliament; through the moment when I made a speech as a cocky late arrival at Gordonstoun in 1942 announcing that Labour would sweep into power after the war and that the Conservatives would get back at the following election—not bad forecasting—and that I would be in that House; through to the day when Frank Byers brought me into the languishing Liberal party—only five MPs at that particular moment—during my first term at Oxford; and down to the day when, after 50 years in the Liberal Party, I finally realised that one could not be Green, which I always knew that I was, and believe in free trade. And I joined the Green Party. I have never had occasion to doubt the party system during that whole period. That is why I welcome the debate and thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for introducing it.

When I was running the Liberal Party back in the early 1960s, the local government of this country quite largely rejected the involvement of political parties, and members of the Conservative Party, in particular, expected to run large parts of the country while serving as "independent" councillors. It was my welcome duty to help the Liberal Party to challenge that situation and, together with our own red guard headed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—who I am sorry is not taking part in the debate—to introduce community politics, which was much derided because of its emphasis on cracked pavements.

But cracked pavements are what the householder cares about. For this reason it is important that we bring down the units of representation as low as possible. I believe I was right to say the other day, in our debate on London governance, that we should go back to the old boroughs that existed before the big ones were introduced.

The Green Party is a serious party and it is to be taken seriously. It has claims to be the fastest growing political party in the country—certainly, none of the major ones seem to be growing—and, wherever there is a reasonable system of voting, its candidates get elected. It has two Members from England in the European Parliament—both outstanding—where they are members of an important and influential bloc; on the Greater London Assembly it has a group of three members; and in the Scottish Parliament it has eight. It is not a party to be dismissed out of hand.

Why did the last set of nominations to your Lordships' House not contain a Green? It is monstrous. My grandfather, Lord Gainford, died in your Lordships' House, sitting on the Privy Council Bench. One of these days you will find that I, too, have passed away in this little green eyrie of mine up here because the Prime Minister has not seen fit to do his clear duty, which is to send me a colleague.

6:52 pm
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Lord Patten (Conservative)

My Lords, for once, I am left slightly speechless by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, but I enjoyed his speech. As a party man through and through, I am very glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, has given the House the chance to discuss this issue. Indeed, if at a post-mortem I was cut across, you would find "Conservative, Conservative, Conservative" written there like the inside of a stick of Brighton or Blackpool rock, venues where I have spent so many party conferences—those endearing crosses between a seminar and a bacchanalia.

I wish to refer to three issues today: the party system, my party and the role of the non-party when it manages to get a toehold in elective politics or finds itself represented on the Cross Benches of your Lordships' House.

First, our party system is deeply embedded in our way of doing things, with two of the big national parties able to trace their roots back to the 18th century. One party, Labour—old Labour or new Labour; I could not quite gather which phrase found favour with the noble Viscount—can trace its roots into the late 19th century. Conservative, Labour and Liberal are part of the warp and weft of our national lives. They have been joined more latterly by the Greens, and we must not ignore the parties of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I wish only that I was able to campaign among the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone as a Conservative and Unionist, as we used to be able to do.

We should not feel self-satisfied as political party members but between us, thanks to the common sense of the British people over recent centuries, we have managed, more or less, to eschew revolutionary politics, favoured stability and been fairly tolerant as a nation. Political parties are part of our national political settlement; they help us to codify, restrain and domesticate the national tensions that otherwise might erupt.

That is not to say that political parties are spotless vessels. Party politics is a form of gang warfare: it is highly organised both between the gangs and within them. No party leader ever manages to rise to power, let alone stay in power, without the help of his or her own gang of political supporters. Even as someone who hung up his political knuckle-duster from active service some years ago, I have a fairly precise feel for the social structure of my own party and a deep fascination, as an observant outsider, for the shifting gang boundaries within the Labour Party, with its new clan and factional groupings emerging under the new Labour or old Labour would-be robber barons.

I am not absolutely certain in which gang to place the Minister who is to reply to the debate; I am not quite sure what secret sign he gives or whether he has some clan marking about his person. Perhaps we will find out over the years. However, I get a growing sense that, rather like the last of the Mohicans, our Prime Minister, Mr Blair, is becoming more and more the last of the Blairites—save for some cheerful figures such as the noble and learned Lord the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who is endlessly and busily involved in forming a protective ring of wagons. My only message to the noble and learned Lord's right honourable friend is that he might spend so much time getting the wagons in a protective circle that, once they are arranged, he will find out that there is no one left in the middle.

It will be very hard for a genuinely national new party to find much space in our crowded party field, any more than a new daily newspaper would get much of a look-in should it be launched. I understand exactly what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said about not so many people joining now. I hear that party membership figures go up and down; I am told by the press that the Labour Party's figures are going down. I have no idea whether that is true. Trusting party figures is like trusting the circulation figures of national newspapers; anyone who travels by train and sees the great megalithic piles of free newspapers which are given out knows how unreliable are the circulation figures of our national newspapers.

I am certainly told—this is interesting because I know the place a little, as does my noble friend Lord Windlesham, who is sitting on the Privy Council Bench—that this year in Oxford there are suddenly more members of the University Conservative Association than there have been for a quarter of a century, during the run-up to the 1979 general election. I have no idea what this means or how accurate it is, but it is interesting to see that some people still do wish to join. But most of the British electorate are not great joiners of political parties, even though, come a general election, those who get to vote cleave to someone to vote for.

This brings me to my second point in regard to my own party, the Conservatives. Arguably the oldest party in the known world—and probably intergalactically—we Conservatives know who we are. We do not need to change our name a la new Labour, a term that I predict will be dropped as quickly as you can say "Keir Hardie" under the leadership of a different Labour leader. Let me pick a name completely out of the hat; Mr Gordon Brown, for example. I do not think you will find much new Labour should he be in No. 10.

I think we should call ourselves "Conservatives", not "Tories". I have noticed increasingly in the media the use of the word "Tory" as a form of abuse. I have once or twice in the past mentioned to your Lordships that I feel that the BBC, in particular, has a slant. I do not blame it for having a slant; it is perfectly understandable in a group of men and women who have taken their views on life. I have a number of friends in the BBC—I would not dream of mentioning them for fear of ruining their career—to whom I talk. I see the BBC as being, broadly speaking, a tiny bit inside the liberal left—a bit pro-Palestinian and a bit pro-Europe—but certainly not pro-Conservative. One notices that by the way in which the BBC increasingly uses the word "Tory" in its comments. When was the last time any of your Lordships heard the BBC refer to the Labour Party, new Labour or old Labour, as the "Socialists"—and yet the Labour Party in this country belongs to a number of international socialist organisations? I think, on the grounds of balance, that every time the BBC uses the word "Tory" it should balance it with a reference to the Labour Party as "Socialists". That would be nearer the point. I will not, however, press this for fear of causing the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, to erupt on to his feet saying that the Liberals should be referred to as Whigs. I would not want to go that far.

Thirdly and lastly, I would like to say how important I think that fast-vanishing group of people, the independents, is in this country. I am not a great man for quotas, but I wish that in some ways we could find mechanisms for encouraging more people to stand as independents in local government. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that in the old days, many people stood as independents, particularly in rural areas, and they were actually Tories. We have a number of people who sit primly on the Cross Benches, that bastion of the vice-chancellorian and upper mandarinate classes, whom we know are strong supporters of the Labour Party, because they do a spot of "blue skies thinking" on its behalf.

It is extremely important that we look to the health of the independents in this place and ensure that we have routes to membership of the Cross Benches that would allow such great national treasures as our Deputy Prime Minister, for example, to emerge on to them. I suspect that under our new way of doing things, alas and alack, it will be the mandarinate of the most heightened sort and the vice-chancellorian classes whom we will see decorating those Benches.

I warmly welcome the opportunity to have this debate, and thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, very much for promoting it.

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Lord Watson of Richmond (Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs; Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him one question? He made a most enjoyable and robust speech, but are we to deduce from this distinction between Tories and Conservatives that the latter are significantly to the left of the former?

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Lord Patten (Conservative)

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord caught me just before I sat down. I was not suggesting that anyone whom the BBC or any other person in the media chooses to give the name Tory to is anything other than a Conservative. It is just that I believe that the Conservative Party has no reason to change its name. Why should we be linked with a lot of Irish robber barons from an island off the north-west coast of Northern Ireland? I speak as a left-footed Conservative and Unionist on this. I do not wish to be linked with these people. I am a Conservative through and through, as is my noble friend Lady Seccombe. I just prefer to be called Conservative rather than Tory or anything else.

7:02 pm
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Lord Haskel (Labour)

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Gould mentioned the Internet. In preparing for this debate, I thought I would enter the words "political parties" into an Internet search engine. As noble Lords know, the more popular the website, the higher it comes on the search engine list. Well, I was surprised to see that the first 268 entries were about political parties as social gatherings—celebrations with a political theme. The reference to parties of people united in a cause, as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, came after. I mention this because I think it says something about the status of political parties in public life today. So it is timely that we should debate this, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Chandos on moving this Motion.

Those of us who came late to political life were probably as surprised as I was to find that people in politics were not as they are portrayed. People outside politics are rather cynical about politicians because they are often seen or portrayed to be on the make, power-hungry and corrupt. Such cynicism is transferred to political parties. This is not only dangerous, because only extremists gain from these attitudes, but also untrue. Most of the politicians whom I have met want to win power in order to serve—to serve the public and the public interest rather than to enjoy personal power and its trappings. Very few people rise to that level.

It is unfortunate that political parties do not radiate this attitude of serving the public, not only because it is nearer the truth but also because it would deflect some of the cynicism and disenchantment about which many noble Lords have spoken.

This is not the first time that I have been faced with this kind of problem. In the 1970s, my work was building up a business. Noble Lords will, I am sure, remember that at that time, people were equally cynical and disenchanted about businessmen—greed was good, creative accountancy was all the rage and for the sake of easy money, any businessman could be corrupted. But, as with politics and political parties today, the opposite was largely true. Of course there were a few corrupt businessmen, but most of us were trying to build up businesses which would serve society, our families and the economy. Somehow we had to express this in terms that meant something to ordinary people. So we invented—or, rather reinvented—corporate social responsibility. We formalised the things that most of us who ran a good business and had a social conscience did anyway. As a result, the position today is that banks, investors, financial institutions and the public consider a company's social attitudes alongside all the other judgments they make about it—its products, financial status, and so on. It seems to me that in order to play their full role, serve public life and defeat cynicism, political parties have to do something similar. There is a model here, because all the ingredients are there.

First, let us take the people who are involved in politics and political parties. There is no lack of social responsibility there. I am amazed at the huge amount of voluntary work that these people do. They raise money for charity; they organise and help in the welfare of disabled and unfortunate people; they do voluntary work in churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as politics; they look after the environment; and they serve on boards and councils. There are 180,000 charities, according to my noble friend Lady Gould. Is not this a demonstration of social responsibility?

The problem is that people do not know about these activities, even though they are very relevant to most people's everyday life and experience. Other noble Lords have spoken about the importance of this relevance.

Curiously, our political parties seem to have lost this everyday relevance. There is a story about an MP who was canvassing in a tower block in Battersea. He decided to start at the top flat and work his way down. At the top flat he explained his party's policy on the euro, the NHS, funding universities and foreign policy, and then asked the voter if there was anything else he would like to know about. "What are you going to do to stop people urinating in the lift?", the voter asked. If political parties are to play a role in people's lives, they have to connect with people's lives. My noble friend Lord Chandos spoke about engagement, as did other noble Lords.

This brings me to ideology. For organisations which are created around ideology, it seems extraordinary that political parties have handed over the creation of new policies and ideas to think tanks, NGOs and the media. We really have to win back this initiative. It is not easy because we have to win it back from organisations which have the luxury of campaigning on a single issue, as other noble Lords have mentioned. I agree with them that somehow political parties have to take the initiative in acknowledging that all these issues exist, but alongside each other.

I think that political parties have to go back and reinvent some of their basics, as business had to do in the 1970s. They have to win back their reputation of defending basic freedoms such as liberty and justice. To many, it seems that other organisations and the media are there to protect these freedoms while political parties are there just to bicker over them. Surely political parties should be a lot more robust in contrasting our society, where we have these freedoms, with other societies which do not. It is just one more way of demonstrating our social responsibility instead of just taking it for granted.

I know that for many people and many politicians the essential role of political parties is to organise well at an election. Nothing is more important for a politician than being in office—locally or nationally. However, that should not be to the exclusion of political parties demonstrating their social responsibility—demonstrating it through the voluntary and charitable work that political people undertake, by being socially aware and effective at all levels and by winning back the ideological initiative. That is how political parties will eventually play a much fuller role in public life. Otherwise, political parties will become social gatherings with a political theme.

7:10 pm
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Lord Rogan (UUP)

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for giving us the opportunity to draw the House's attention to the issue of public participation in politics, voter apathy, and the role of political parties in our society today. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dean, I also joined the youth wing of a political party many years ago. He alluded to the fact that in those years we had thousands of members. Times have changed. There is more television. There are more attractions for young people and more opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex.

The 2001 elections marked a highly significant downturn in the numbers of people turning out to vote in Britain, and if public disillusionment over domestic and international events during this Parliament have been anything to go by, that is a problem that politicians have seriously failed to address and a trend that looks set to continue. Unlike the Americans, we do not live in a country that could be accused of having too much democracy. We ask our citizens to vote only in European, national and local elections, and the occasional referendum when issues of constitutional importance arise. We must therefore ask ourselves why voters are turned off by politics, what we can do to address the problem, and how we can ensure that our political parties play a positive role in society in every aspect of their interaction with the public. We should be mindful that such a process should naturally find its origins in this House, as we have the tradition of debating issues in the fullest and most constructive fashion.

The end of the Cold War brought with it unexpected changes to the nature of the Western political party system, most notably in the United Kingdom and the United States. The distinctions or divisions between left and right became blurred. A third way emerged that often left political parties struggling to identify the key issues that distinguished them from each other, with voters becoming somewhat disengaged from the political process.

One of the key findings of research into public opinion on the 2004 elections carried out by MORI on behalf of the Electoral Commission and published in September 2003 stated:

"The widely reported voter apathy and disconnection seems to stem largely from the political process itself".

It is my belief that the most negative side effect of that is that we frequently see debates and political contests between the main parties that are fundamentally based upon opportunism, and are driven by competition for votes as opposed to any deeply held ideological debate or belief on a point of principle.

The immigration debate is a good example of that. We recently saw the Home Secretary taking the unusual step of calling for a truce with the Opposition over the issue. There are many issues in British politics that are far too delicate and fundamentally important to the public to be defined primarily by idiosyncratic party political interests. Consequently, there is a vacuum in British politics that can be filled by a more mature approach to political debate and policy formulation. The Government and the Opposition's handling of the Belfast agreement is a very good example of how the sting can be taken out of political debate for the benefit of political progress. There is no doubt that the public notice this, that such political action benefits the process greatly, and is of little or no harm to party politics.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, we have only to survey the newspapers from the past few weeks to garner an idea of the damage that has been done to our prestige internationally and to the Government domestically, through their campaign in Iraq. In fact, if one lesson has been clearly learned from the past two years, it is that the British electorate will simply not swallow whatever line the Government churn out to promote a policy. The public will simply not accept that it is in our national interest to invade another country just because the Government say so. Neither will the public accept that such an invasion is an exercise in promoting democracy and democratic standards abroad. The weapons of mass destruction smokescreen fooled nobody and has consequently damaged the Prime Minister and this Government. Rather than having been seen to practise and promote an ethical foreign policy, the Government have been seen to have misinterpreted our national interests and caused our traditional interest and standing in the Middle East to suffer.

This House should be in no doubt that many citizens have become disillusioned with the lack of participation in British politics that has been uppermost and apparent in recent years. It is clear that our political system does not take public opinion into consideration to the same extent as many of our European counterparts. We must remember that politicians are merely the representatives of the British citizenry and if we fail to exercise the general will of the population, we have failed them, failed the system, and failed ourselves.

Political parties are society's role models and the sounding board for all the issues that influence and dominate people's lives. As such, political parties have an intrinsic duty to conduct politics in the most meaningful and constructive way possible. That means having honest debates about issues such as immigration, race relations and crime. The Government should start by paying more attention to what is said in this House on such issues, adjusting their policies on the basis of the needs and interests of the voters, and creating a progressive culture of political co-operation between parties when our national interests are at stake.

7:17 pm
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Lord Desai (Labour)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Chandos for giving us this opportunity for debate. I first want to take us away from concern with British politics or even the politics of developed countries and examine the role of political parties on a wider scale. If I have time, I will probably return to our own situation.

The Prime Minister has launched his Africa commission. Many of us are interested in why Africa is not developed. Of the many analyses of development problems that we have heard—technical and economic problems, for example—we have now arrived at governance as an important missing ingredient. I argue that it is not governance that matters, but politics. Countries that do not have good politics cannot have good governance, and politics is supplied by political parties.

If we look at the political and economic health of African countries, we see that what those countries lack is a political culture or political life. Very often they are one-party states, as my noble friend pointed out. They are also one-party states with very narrow membership and no tradition of political discussion. Few countries in Africa have succeeded in having multiple political parties. Even though some of those parties have been corrupt, the parties have kept each other on their toes. Parties correct each other—the party opposite always being holier than the party in government. That culture is necessary to establish good governance. It does not come out of technical reports or instrumental approaches; it comes out of the activities of citizens. Political parties are the mobilisers, the aggregators, of citizens' activities.

One of the questions the commission should answer—if any of its members reads Hansard—is: what can we do to encourage healthy and rivalrous political life in Africa? The success of South Africa, for example, is largely due to the fact that the ANC has not become the only political party. However, in Zimbabwe, ZANU has swallowed up ZAPU. When that happens the quality of political life is lost.

It is not that some of the political parties are vital to democracy but that political parties create the possibility of democracy. Looking at our own historical experience, we tend to believe that democracy has been here since 1066—or at least since 1832. But full adult franchise did not come until 1928 and political parties, especially mine, were instrumental in agitating for a broadening of the franchise. When political parties have worked for such a broadening and for protecting and establishing political freedoms and human rights, their countries have had a rich political life and good governance.

We take those things for granted today. We have almost forgotten that mass democracy is a recent arrival on our shores. It is good to remember that because it is only when political parties have continuously worked for it, often in extra-parliamentary action, that conditions for good parliamentary democracy are created.

The problem is that in many countries—not only in Third World countries but in Japan, Mexico, Italy and India—there is one-party dominance. If that party has a democratic culture, it manages to create a better democracy. The Congress Party in India is a good example of that. Even while it was the dominant party for approximately 40 years, and all the Prime Ministers came from that party, there was still a healthy democracy because within the Congress Party there was never dominance by a single faction or a single person. However, that did not happen in Mexico or Japan. Indeed, in Italy the Christian Democrats ended up as an extremely corrupt political party, causing all kinds of problems for that country.

Therefore, we must look, first, for a system of political parties because there are multi political parties. If that is not the case, we must see whether whichever political party is dominant has diversity and rivalrous factions which might be able to guarantee a difference of opinion and challenge established positions because that will guarantee democracy.

That brings me to voter apathy, mentioned by some noble Lords today. Political experience here and abroad shows that we need sharp differences both economically and socially, and perhaps ideologically, in order to establish a stable political party with a large membership. It is not just that ideology has extinguished, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, but that by and large class differences have vanished. We still talk the language of class, but in terms especially of a large working-class population which felt and behaved differently and whose consumption patterns were different from the middle-class, the reality is that class differences have disappeared due to increasing prosperity. So while people talk in terms of coming from such and such a region and of being a Geordie, a Scouser or whatever—having regional identifiers to distinguish themselves from each other—the class identifiers work less and less. They have to go back to their great grandfathers in order to claim their working-class origin.

In a society which is increasingly homogeneous, in which there are few differences, it is hard to define political parties which would differ. All you have are alternate programmes of competent government, and competent government does not excite much interest. Whichever party is in power, the government will, by and large, be competent. No great crisis is likely, no matter who comes to power. There is no reason why citizens should say, "I'm going to join the party and improve the country", or, "My ambition is to establish a better region or nation". Therefore, we should not be surprised if that is the case. We should be happy that while citizens are apathetic, at least they are not hostile.

7:26 pm
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Lord McNally (Shadow Minister (Broadcasting), Culture, Media & Sport, Deputy Leader, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, particularly when he is in one of his philosophical moods. He epitomises the non-deferential society to which the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, referred in opening and which government Whips will affirm as their experience of the noble Lord, Lord Desai.

For some it has been a nostalgic debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, reminded us of those wonderful days when the Young Conservatives was the greatest marriage bureau in the country. And he was wrong—it was unique because no other political party could match it. Furthermore, in my part of the country much Conservative recruitment depended on the fact that the Conservative clubs inevitably had the best snooker tables.

The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, subtly tried to emphasise his comparative youth by attributing the words, "He would, wouldn't he?" to Christine Keeler. Those of us who are old enough to have been around at the time know that that was Mandy Rice Davies. We certainly would not like to see that misattribution rest in Hansard. And we had a good old romp around BBC paranoia from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and we were all the better for it.

But we are grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for the timeliness of the debate because the party machines are gearing up for 10 June. Those of us who will go out on the doorstep know what we will hear: "You're all as bad as each other"; "You're only in it for what you get out of it"; "I never vote". I have to tell your Lordships that when I receive those responses I make the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, sound almost diplomatic. I do not accept them. I have been in politics for 40 years. It was said of Elizabeth Taylor that she must believe in the institution of marriage because she got married eight times. Well, I must believe in political parties because I have been in three of them. I have not found those responses to be the image of party activists because most are committed to their communities and beliefs.

But there is a cynicism and an apathy, which is worrying. They were evident in the fall in party membership, the low turnout in elections and the lack of involvement by the young. As we all recognise, democracy needs active democrats to make it work and we need political parties to channel activism into public service. I am not as admiring of Cross-Benchers as the noble Viscount. I like many of them but I have never accepted that not having a party-political affiliation gives one some higher state of grace to opine on politics of the day. As has been emphasised, party politics makes our system work. It is often the party politicians who stand, as my noble friend Lord Shutt said, against extremism in places such as Burnley. It was the party politicians who took a stand when militant Trotskyism was abroad in the Labour Party.

So how do we breathe fresh life into party politics? I am not sure that the answer lies simply in making it easier to vote. We have to ensure that these experiments and new systems are both corruption and intimidation-free. Anyway, I am old fashioned enough to see my active voting as a commitment and tribute to the sacrifices of those who went before me. For the time being at least, leave me with a stubby pencil. Every time I go to vote I think that I am benefiting from the sacrifices of the suffragettes and the Chartists and everyone else. Unless voting has some kind of civic commitment it becomes meaningless. That is why I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, about the need for better civic education in schools and why I pay tribute to the work done in that field over the years by the Rowntree trust. I think that there should be more informational programmes on television about how parties work.

I am not sure that PR is the panacea that some of us thought it might be. The hard truth is that where it has been introduced it has not produced a dramatic increase in turnout. It is no worse than first-past-the-post elections, but thus far it has been no better. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, on state aid for political parties. I think that a lot of humbug and hypocrisy is talked about that issue. All the political parties have been taking state aid for well over 25 years and it is no use dressing it up in other words.

I hope that the commission examining these issues will consider one matter. I think that funding could be most beneficial at the organisational level. Too often, party agents spend far too much time trying to increase their own salaries. If there were some pump priming perhaps at the organisational level which could be tied to the number of members or checked off against taxation or whatever, it would help to revitalise parties.

I also think there should be another look at some of the absurd rules on funding at local level that we built into the political party funding Bill. Our debates on that legislation made it sound as though the post of local party treasurer was one of the prime offices of state for which any ambitious politician would reach. In fact, it is a damn difficult job. Now, with all the current sanctions, one could fall foul of the law by missing out on a report or failing to report rather small sums. The matter needs to be seriously reviewed to bring it into accord with the reality of running politics at local level.

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, I think there should be a tight cap on individual and organisational donations. We must also retain the ban on television advertising—the corrupter of American politics.

Party democracy is a fragile balance. If the party outside Parliament is too ambitious for power over elected members then that balance can get out of kilter. However, if a party of government or a parliamentary party gets out of touch with its grass-root membership its very support will begin to wither. There has to be a balance.

When looking at political parties we also have to ask the question, "What, if not?". Without them we would see a far greater influence of extra-parliamentary bodies such as the press which so buffets our politicians. Mr Blair has said that he is much influenced by Mr Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun. All I can say is that the greatest of Labour Prime Ministers, Clem Attlee, used to read the Times, and only then for the cricket scores. One might think that Mr Blair would be a better Prime Minister if he adopted a similar attitude. There is no doubt that the culture of spin has debased British politics. I think that journalists themselves have a role in sustaining standards and our democracy.

I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Those who are involved—the political activists—are not as self serving as the cynics say. Anyone like me who goes on the rubber chicken circuit on Friday nights will never cease to be in awe of the dedication of those who make up our political parties. I end with a quote from someone who was one of my earliest mentors and will certainly be known to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould—Dame Sarah Barker, national organiser of the Labour Party. She said:

"The triumph of ideals must be organised".

That is what political parties are, the triumph of ideals.

7:36 pm
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Baroness Seccombe (Conservative)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for initiating this important debate, which he introduced with a most thoughtful and interesting contribution. It has been a fascinating debate all round and gave me great pleasure. It appeared to me that all the speakers are proud and enthusiastic of their own parties.

I enjoyed the contributions from both my noble friends. It is good to see my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree fully repaired and back in his usual ebullient form. I share his view of state funding of political parties. My noble friend Lord Patten brought us his usual flair and enthusiasm. I am delighted to join him in supporting my party as a Conservative.

This is an unusual House. Only two-thirds of us wear political or party political labels, though we learntlast weekend that the number of political Peers is to increase by 37—even though the number of peerages assigned to the Cross Benches is slightly less than the 20 per cent that most of us, and particularly my noble friend Lord Patten, would wish to see as the absolute minimum.

We are also unusual as a House in that, though we all care passionately for what we believe in, we are never aggressively partisan—perhaps I should say "almost never". Long may it stay that way.

This cross-party courtesy illustrates a key point. Some see political parties as a threat. However, when they act with restraint, political parties can serve a body without altering its character or corrupting the institution as a whole. But the issue of restraint is crucial. Certainly, bad politics can corrupt. So-called politicisation of institutions that are not inherently political is almost always counterproductive, both for the institution and the political party. This is, I believe, one of the underlying reasons for the clear crisis of trust that now bedevils the present administration.

We have seen increased politicisation of the Civil Service and increased power for unelected party appointees inside government departments and the ever growing number of quangos. We have seen increased use of party focus groups for setting national policy priorities. Perhaps that is why the priorities change so often. And, sadly, we have seen increased bypassing of Parliament as the place where, in any democracy, the conflicting wishes of the population are brought together, debated and, ultimately, peacefully reconciled—a process in which the political parties, which under our system are themselves broad coalitions, play an indispensable role.

The Government sadly fail to see that any government are immeasurably stronger if they carry Parliament with them and do not try to act on party lines alone. No government have been more obsessed—or for long, so successful—in securing headlines for the party in power. But that has ended by being a self-defeating process. Over-politicisation of public life has bred cynicism; it has turned people off, and they simply feel let down.

We must all acknowledge with sadness a growing perception that politicians and the political process have little to offer. At the last general election, turnout was a dismal 59 per cent. In next month's elections we shall be lucky in some areas if a quarter of the electorate actually turns out to vote. Some respond by ascribing blame to our electoral process. The Government and the Electoral Commission seem to fall over each other in thinking up ever more gimmicky plans, such as banning the traditional ballot box and using all-postal ballots with votes cast before an election is half under way; talk of Internet voting, as if a general election were some kind of Sky television poll; stopping local councils electing by thirds—a process which keeps them in active touch with local opinion; votes at 16; reducing the number of ward councillors and creating a new breed of highly paid regional assemblymen; the absurdity of three different electoral systems being used on one day, to the total confusion of London voters.

Our electoral process has become a dog's breakfast in the past few years and, if we go on like this, will finish as a dog's dinner. All this is treating the symptoms, not the cause, and losing some very important elements along the way. I was proud of this House's sadly unavailing fight against closed lists in European elections. Closed lists are an abomination, taking choice of their representative away from the people and handing it to party bosses. I was proud, too, of our more recent battle, sadly also finally unavailing, to save the traditional polling station and ballot box in the north of England.

Generations of people fought for the right to vote, at home and on many a foreign field. When a new democracy is born, as in South Africa, the most moving sight is always the patience and pride with which people queue to vote at polling stations. One of my earliest memories is going with my mother and grandmother when they voted. They understood the sacrifice that had been made to get women the vote, and they were determined to use it.

The traditional ballot is secret, almost incorruptible and a protection against manipulation and abuse. When one steps into the polling booth to pick up that stubby pencil on a piece of string or one sees the votes tipped out on to the table for counting, one senses the awesome dignity of the democratic process. I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that voting in person is a commitment. By all means use postal ballots—although I shudder to think, with the present state of the Royal Mail, how many ballot papers will arrive at all. But why ban what works so well? I simply do not understand it.

I would like to see less fiddling about with the election process. I hope that the Electoral Commission will take note and that there is a return to dealing with the real cause of falling turnout. That is a manner of conducting politics that leaves people with a sense that what they think does not matter and that those in power will do whatever suits them at the time.

It is easy to disparage political parties, but it is wrong. I am proud to speak as a member of the largest and oldest political party in Britain, whose membership is rising fast. But all political parties are great voluntary organisations. They must never become arms of the state—still less think that they own the state. They are vehicles for the hopes and ideals of millions.

We should recognise what those who support and work for all the major political parties give our country in local councils, in work for voluntary bodies and in their concern for others. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, I believe that those who join political parties are belongers and doers, but all my experience tells me that they belong and do, not for themselves, but for what they believe their ideals can do for others. I hope that the cynical manipulation at the top that we have seen in the last few years and which has so disappointed thousands of members and former members of the Government's own party will prove a passing aberration. I hope that political parties can again be viewed as they were in the past—as a vehicle for hundreds of thousands of often very different people to come together to work for what they all believe is a better future for this great country.

7:45 pm
Photo of Lord Filkin

Lord Filkin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Labour)

My Lords, it is good to have the opportunity to respond to the House and to my noble friend Lord Chandos on this issue, in drawing attention to the role of parties in public life. At one level, what is striking is that the role of parties in liberal democracies in our society now is almost exactly the same as it has been for at least the past 150 years or so, since the progressive move towards universal suffrage from the 1860s onwards.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, put it at its best with that lovely quotation that the triumph of ideals must be organised. That is, above all, what political parties have had as one of their central aims: the articulation of a vision and of the debate in public life around sets of ideas. Clearly, the subsidiary role of parties has been to organise campaigns, recruit candidates, provide the building blocks for government, define political career paths and, not least, to recruit potential political players at local and national level. Those are the classic roles of political parties in liberal democracies. They have been for 150 years, and they are still the characteristics that we see today.

Parties dominate the organisation of local, national and European elections in Britain—in the United Kingdom—in ways that they have never done before. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, was quite right to point out that local government elections, which at least nominally in the past in large part appeared to be non-party political, are mostly party politically run.

What is the problem? Is there a problem? The conundrum—although I am not certain that it is a problem—is that the roots of parties on any objective measure are weaker and thinner than they once were. By roots I mean the scale of their membership and the numbers of activists, and the degree to which the population at large identifies itself with those parties as a defining characteristic of its own personal identity. That is what has changed. Clearly the membership no longer funds parties in any substantial way, although it makes contributions; it is not the dominant funding source, as the party arithmetic shows.

Parties are no longer the main vehicle for governance. All governments have to govern with and through interest groups, public consultation processes and expert advice. It is not something that one does directly with the mass membership of the partnership with the party, although it plays a role. Membership of the party is no longer the crucial or central communication vehicle for the national party with the public. Membership is not irrelevant but, clearly, mass media is the central vehicle by which all national parties seek to get their message across.

As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, helpfully pointed out, we should not be totally narrow and insular in our perspective in this debate, although the debate has naturally enough tended to focus on the United Kingdom. In Britain, that point apart, we are left with one question: why has membership declined and does it matter for liberal democracy? At one level, I would suggest that functions of parties nationally are the same as they have always been, and that they have been remarkably successful at adapting themselves to the loss of membership while still being able to fulfil the classical functions.

So why has membership declined, and does it matter? It is not that the role of politics has collapsed. From about 1973 to about now, there is a drop of about 60 per cent to 50 per cent, if I recollect the figures correctly. There is a drop, but that is not a complete collapse. The arguments have been touched on by a number of noble Lords—by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and others—that it is true that we are less class based and ideologically based and we define ourselves less in party terms. There is weaker ideological identification. One way of putting that is that the public has a life outside party politics. People have such a range of interests and options, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, pointed out, that membership of a political party is in competition with a range of other opportunities. Who are we as politicians to say that our obsession is more important than their obsessions with golf or whatever?

This is speculation rather than evidence based, but I think that the other reason is that parties are less life-critical to people than they would have been in the past. If one reflects on what it felt like to be unemployed in Britain in the 1920s, it was your party that gave you hope. It was your party that gave you the prospect that you would not continue to be unemployed, that your children would not be hungry and that if they got ill, they might not die as a result of the lack of education. I have just sufficient imagination to perceive that if I were a small property owner in a rural part of Britain in the 1920s I might have felt threatened by what I would have seen as political extremism and the threat of revolution in society in Britain. We are not in that world any longer. Parties are not our routes to salvation or perdition. We have a more consensual society and a wealthier society. That does not mean to say that what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, defined as the "articulation of hopes, values and visions" is any less important but it is a more complex process of debate. Those are some speculations on why membership might have declined but I have not seen much detailed research to substantiate them.

Is membership decline a problem? The point I touched on is that all three of the parties have had the most remarkable decline in membership over the past 10 or 20 years. If one looks at the graph of the decline and projects it forward the amusing conclusion is that in about 10 years' time there will be no members left. Fortunately it does not work like that. But the decline in mass membership of all three parties is one of the characteristics of democracy in this society. What is striking is that the parties still seem to be able to continue to perform the classical roles of parties that other noble Lords articulated earlier on. The parties appear to have found other sources of funding. There are clearly issues and worries about the exposure of parties to funding from donors and what donors might expect, or might be perceived by the public to expect, as a consequence of their donations. Clearly parties have also adapted to the fact that they have to communicate using the media because there are not many other vehicles for them to use. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke on that. I did not share her view about what the leadership of the Labour Party has done in that respect, but that will not surprise her.

Clearly there is an issue—the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, touched on it—that if parties are incapable of getting enough interest in their activities to field candidates, we are in deep trouble. Although we have not, as yet, seen that at national level, we have certainly seen it at local level. Many the friendship that has been broken in the past by one friend saying to another, "Please stand—we really must have somebody in this seat but you have no hope of winning, and you are perfectly safe", only to find that the candidate is elected and condemned to perdition or a joyful experience, depending on the point of view, for the next four years. So there are some areas of worry.

That apart, parties still seem to manage to fulfil these functions, despite the decline in membership. There is one area where we have seen that they have not been able to continue, because of the lack of mass membership: they are no longer the force for social cohesion at a local level that they were historically in many communities and societies. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, gave one of the nicest examples of that and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, also referred to it as the contribution of nominal membership of political parties to relationship building and other forms of activity through the Young Conservatives. If we have seen any decline in party political membership, the decline and collapse of the Young Conservatives' membership is the true social horror of our time. My God, how are people finding partners in rural Britain from now on? But they seem to be getting by.

I do not think that the nature of the problem is particularly clear. It is complex, which makes the debate about what we should do much more difficult. The first point that I would mark is that the stance of political parties towards the fact that the electorate do not seem to want to engage—to imply the electorate must change—is the route to hell, as we all know. If the politics are not with us, parties have to change, rather than the politics. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us—some of us might have forgotten—that there is the alternative route of changing party, but that is a sub-plot to this, although I recognise the genuineness of that process.

A lot has been happening on funding. Two things have been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Dean. There is already a substantial amount of funding going in, both for policy formation—so it should—and to support the parliamentary process, as it also should. Why should people be forced to suffer from being active participants in the process of parliamentary democracy or parties be starved of making creative contributions to policy and political thinking? Clearly, a lot has been done, I would assert, by this Government to try to make the funding of political parties more transparent and cleaner. We accepted the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and were glad that we did so. It is important that the public do not believe that there is any reality behind allegations of, or concerns about, sleaze.

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, we must be concerned if any party member is disqualified, or is deterred from taking a role in public life, as a result of being tarred with being a crony or as a result of being seen as a political appointee. That would be lamentable because it would mean that some of the most talented people in our society, from all parties, might be deterred. Perhaps people have to be rough and tough and big enough to take a bit of the rubbishing that one sometimes get from the national media and still take on these roles.

Is there a case for more funding? In a sense, we have to be clear about for what, for whom and by what mechanism. I am not going to say more than that, although it was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos. The Electoral Commission will report on this in the summer and that will give us plenty of opportunity to have a further, informed debate on that issue.

Should we change the electoral system? It is not clear that changing the electoral system would increase party membership or increase turnout. If those are the problems, it is not self-evident. Other arguments are advanced for PR, but the evidence does not support it to address the issues that we have been talking about. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. If we were to change the voting system, what would change in time would be the political parties because they have to adapt to the voting system, otherwise they are in trouble. But that is to go round in a circle. I do not think that changing the electoral system would alter interest in politics or trust in politicians. If it is to be argued, it must be on other grounds.

I thought that one of the most creative arguments I heard this evening about what should be done to address these issues was advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. It was basically that it is lonely being in a party of one—self-evidently it must be true—and therefore people should pay attention to that and create a second Green. I am sure that those who think on these matters will have noted the comment but I would not advise him to hold his breath immediately.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about a more mature political debate is right. The extent to which the public think that politicians conduct debate about complex issues only in slogans, slang and simplifications, has an insidious effect over time on their belief in politics and in party politics and the contribution of party politics to our society. I acknowledge with gratitude the way in which he affirmed the presentation of the Belfast agreement in that respect but will duck what he said about Iraq, for reasons that he will understand.

Although the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, alleged it—and I would be happy to have evidence of it at another time—I do not think that I have seen either academically or in my own direct experience any evidence of the increased politicisation of the Civil Service. I have been seriously impressed as a Minister with the commitment to proper governmental processes and democratic processes by our civil servants, while also being a critic of their experience. It does civil servants an injustice to claim that they have been susceptible to, or influenced by, politicians in that respect. I have not seen it and I hope that I may never see it.

The only other thought I would leave is the following: if the public do not want to join political parties, why should they? That probably says something about how both political parties and government have to change their behaviour. You can no longer use the party machine or the party membership as your vehicle for debate and involvement; you have to find other means of involving and understanding where the public are in the formation of policy. By that I mean that government—and it is more difficult at national than at local level—have to have processes during the process of policy making and draft legislation of engaging vigorously with a variety of opinions in society and they should have the debate often, in public and private, around those elements of policy that concern people.

I refer to interest groups, voluntary organisations and different forms of association of the public, which is where the public choose to put their allegiances and identification. It is a fact of life that politicians and governments have to learn to use those new identifications of the public as ways of involving them in governance and in understanding how best to shape policy and to set out an agenda and legislation.

We have had a fascinating debate; at least, I have found it fascinating. We have marked that there is a significant shift in the way that parties behave and perform but not in their fundamental roles. Some interesting issues were discussed about how they sustain activists and how they sustain their funding, but I did not hear anyone say that there is a single magic bullet that we all should look to to change the scene that we have painted. That is why I welcome continuing debate about these issues. I believe that we have another one next week and no doubt we will have others as the Electoral Commission and others stimulate us to think about how we shape the operations of a liberal democracy in our society, and the contribution that party politics make to that.

8:02 pm
Photo of Viscount Chandos

Viscount Chandos (Labour)

My Lords, in thanking all noble Lords who have spoken today, I can say only that the debate has proved to be everything I hoped it would be. I have been corrected on my memory of the difference between Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, for which I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as I was for his reminder of the eight husbands of Elizabeth Taylor.

I worked out that if you aggregated the number of parties to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and I have belonged—never, I believe, one at the same time—I believe that we just about match Elizabeth Taylor, although if I am allowed to claim at least two different Labour parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, suggested, I think that we exceed it.

The unpredictability of party politics was certainly demonstrated when I found myself a more fervent advocate of electoral reform for Westminster than the Front Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party. With that said, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.