Who are the real zombies in the West? Political parties

Political parties are now increasingly the creatures of their leaders, argues Alan Philps

Republicans is so out of touch with its base that it has been taken over by a showman like Donald Trump. Dan Reiland / The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP Photo
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Wherever Halloween is celebrated, it brings children dressed as ghosts and ghouls onto the streets on the last night of October. This year, with the US presidential election only days away, it is clear that there are some real zombies abroad in the western world. These are not the children in their scary costumes but the venerable political parties, which are dying but cannot depart this world.

In America the contest for president and control of Congress is between two established parties. But the leadership of the Republicans is so out of touch with its base that it has been taken over by a showman like Donald Trump, while the Democratic Party is losing its soul to become a career path for the Clinton family.

In the UK, the parties of the 20th century are the living dead. Labour saw its membership ebb away as it moved to the centre ground and now it has been taken over by the Far Left under its new leader, the gentleman-activist Jeremy Corbyn, a man of principle with no hope of being prime minister. The Conservatives have lost the pragmatism that made them a natural party of power and have succumbed to the siren song of anti-Europeanism.

As for the socialists on the Continent, they are wilting in the face of the Right and Far Right. France’s president Francois Hollande, with approval ratings of four per cent, according to one poll last month, is being urged to spare his party humiliation by bowing out of the race for a second term next year. In Spain the socialists, whose ascent to power completed the transition from dictatorship to democracy, tried for 10 months to form a government, but have now slunk away to leave the field to the Right.

All these parties still exist, but they are now increasingly the creatures of their leaders. This is not entirely new – Margaret Thatcher moved the British Conservatives sharply to the right, while Tony Blair engineered a move by Labour to the centre. But these were long-term strategies and, in the case of Labour, the work of three successive leaders. Now a party can do a handbrake turn, as Mr Trump has done, turning the Republicans against free trade, while the new British prime minister, Theresa May, overturned more than 30 years of Conservative education policy by announcing the revival of selective state schools – and all without even being elected.

Competence in governing is no longer enough to excite the electorate. There are many reasons for this, foremost the technologies which have undermined the dominance of the old media. This has favoured Mr Trump, who has mastered the art of television and the power of the tweet.

Those less media-savvy than Mr Trump seek to come to office with a laundry list of policy initiatives. But a cynical electorate doubts these promises will ever be implemented. Voters suspect that the margin for manoeuvre of a political leader is vanishingly slight when he or she has to satisfy the bond markets first. The huge cost of campaigns – Hillary Clinton has raised $1.3 billion so far – gnaws away at trust. These sums do not come from the small donations of party members, but from corporations and the super wealthy. In terms of money, lobbyists have replaced the political parties.

The result is that it is far easier to hold an audience by creating enemies – Mexicans for Mr Trump, or secularists and the Left in the case of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – than by talking policy.

This is not to say that people are no longer political. But they want a sense of authenticity in a politician, someone in touch with the people, not a product of an expensively educated elite. In Scotland, the insurgent Scottish National Party rode this wave to win 56 of 59 seats in parliament. This does not mean that all Scots want independence from the United Kingdom. Far from it: up to one third of SNP voters do not support independence. But they like the party’s tone and the fact that it drove out the Labour old guard.

All this is pleasing to those leaders who have dispensed with liberal democracy. Vladimir Putin said this week: “Elections have ceased to be an instrument of change, and are all about scandals, about blackmail.”

This is not quite true, but the search for authenticity carries the risk of lowering the tone of the debate, with insults directed at immigrants, women and minorities. This is not inevitable – in Scotland the SNP has discovered a progressive and inclusive authenticity thanks to having an enemy – the overbearing English – next door. But in America the tone is ugly.

It is inconceivable that the errors made by Mrs Clinton with her email servers would have dogged a male candidate to the same extent.

The chants of “lock her up” which ring out when her name is mentioned at a Trump rally are now accepted as part of the campaign, just like the balloons at the conventions. Would they ever chant “lock him up” with such relish? Unlikely.

Logically these big parties should split. The Republicans combine three distinct coalitions – big and small business, religious conservatives, and the blue-collar workers who feel washed up by the forces of globalisation. That could make three parties. In Britain the Labour Party is already split into a Centre Left and Far Left.

The problem here is the existing electoral system favours a two-party approach in the US and in UK and strangles new parties at birth. A radical change in electoral law and practice is not usually in the interest of the incumbent, by definition a beneficiary of the status quo.

So even though the time has passed for these mass parties, their structures will live on, pulled hither and yon by the latest leader to catch the mood of the moment. In a word, they will be the undead.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps