Open Up: the future of the political party

18 Dec 2014

The traditional political parties are in big trouble. Back in the 1950s, one person in every ten was a member of a political party. Now, there are more people who identify their religion as 'Jedi' than there are members of the Conservative party, and almost the same number of Labour members.


The era of two big political parties slugging it out on the national stage is well and truly over. Today we publish new research showing clear public appetite for having a larger number of parties on the national stage, and for those parties to be willing to work together in pursuit of the common good.


A ComRes poll [1] of the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour constituencies (ie. the areas where the traditional two-party battle is fiercest) found that:


  • 67% believe the rise of smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens is good for democracy (against just 16% who think the opposite)
  • 51% believe it is better to have several smaller parties than two big parties (against 27% who think the opposite)
  • 50% believe the era of two parties dominating British politics is over (against 32% who think the opposite)


The same poll showed that people are comfortable with the implications of a multi-party system, and prefer parties to work together in the common interest rather than continually attack each other:


  • 78% believe the Opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on
  • 54% believe Parliament works best when no party is too dominant so that cross-party agreement is needed to pass laws


The older, more traditional parties need to wake up to this new reality or face the consequences of ever-dwindling support. They need to embrace new ways of opening up beyond their narrowing band of members, and they need to push through reforms which will give people the type of politics they want.


Parties should be a force for good. At their best, they bridge the divide between politics and people and make our democracy work. They should be part of the solution to political disengagement, not part of the problem. But to achieve this, the British party system needs to catch up with the type of politics people want to see.


Today the Electoral Reform Society publishes a landmark report on the future of political parties. Open Up sets out the challenges faced by the mainstream parties, the ways in which newer parties appear more adept at attracting support in the 21st century, and what the mainstream parties need to do to reconnect with voters.


The report makes four core recommendations for the mainstream parties to address their spiral of decline. These are:


  • Increased role for non-members Parties’ experiments with involving non fee-paying supporters should be accelerated
  • More member- and supporter-led policymaking People want to see an end to top-down, command-and-control politics
  • Party funding reform Parties’ reliance on big donors is undermining people’s trust in them
  • Electoral reform A fairer voting system would help meet people’s expectations of having a greater choice of parties and more consensual policymaking


Please have a read of our report, and let us know what you think


1. ComRes interviewed online a representative sample of 1,002 GB adults living in the 40 most marginal constituencies where the Conservatives and Labour shared first and second place between them at the last General Election in 2010. Of these 40 constituencies, 25 currently have a Conservative MP and 15 currently have a Labour MP. Each constituency is represented in the sample equally, with results weighted to be representative of all adults in all 40 constituencies as a whole. Data were also weighted by past vote recall. Fieldwork took place from 15th to 24th November 2014. 


22 Responses to Open Up: the future of the political party

Peter 18 Dec 2014

The points made here are pertinent and important too. However, I have a question regarding the fourth core recommendation:

"Electoral reform - A fairer voting system..."

Voters rejected a proportional representation style of voting system a few years ago, perhaps a decision incorrectly made in ignorance, one cannot know for certain. How would one convince these voters that reform of the voting system is a good thing, and avoid the loss that AV suffered?

graham 18 Dec 2014

@Peter - The "rejection" of AV was not one simply "made in ignorance", but a monumental stitch-up of the electorate.

Only the Lib Dems would support it, Labour sat on the fence and wouldn't come down on either side and the Tories campaigned against it, backed by false statitics about the "price" of AV (which included the cost of the referendum) and advertising campaigns by rich donors who gave us the "Vote No to AV or the Baby Dies" billboard posters.

What we were *not* given was a proper choice, but, of course, that's what Dave and his cronies wanted to avoid because First Past The Post is what keeps our Buggins Turn two-party system running.

Barry 19 Dec 2014

Indeed, Graham. The reason why we were given a 'choice' between FPTP and AV was because the Tories knew that ONLY putting a NON-PROPORTIONAL voting system like AV up against FPTP could the FPTP 'option' possibly win. The MAIN problem with the present system is it is NON-PROPORTIONAL and AV would have done nothing to rectify that and in 'landslide' elections such as in 1983 and 1997 could have led to results even more biased towards the 'winning' party.

James 18 Dec 2014

AV is not a proportionate system of voting. Whether the outcome of an AV system is more proportionate than the FPTP system is entirely depends on how the votes are allocated, i.e. if small but significant parties (e.g. UKIP) do not win additional seats from second preferences, then it will be less proportionate.

Barry 19 Dec 2014

Indeed, James. AV is a PREFERENTIAL voting system and NOT A PROPORTIONAL one and in 'landslide' elections it would have given us EVEN MORE DISPROPORTIONAL results such as in 1983 and 1997. Let's face facts, the ONLY reason the Tories were prepared to give us a vote on AV was because they knew they had a good chance of seeing this proposal defeated because AV is the one other electoral system that put-up against FPTP could be compared to the awfullness of FPTP and found wanting. They were not going to allow us a vote on ANY PR system (even one like STV that would have helped the Lib Dems mostly rather than parties like UKIP and the Greens) as the British electorate would probably have voted for reform then. Until we get a REAL opportunity to choose a PROPORTIONAL system then this issue won't go away.

Helen Gripaios 18 Dec 2014

Hello, isn't it about time we got a bit more sensible we're approaching 2015. regards Helen Gripaios

Alan Bond 18 Dec 2014

At the present time we have a tory party which is hell bent on grabbing permanent power by gerrymandering. They have tried twice to reduce the power of opposition parties and are close to succeeding with a third attempt. Their support for TTIP shows that they are in hock to big business and would sell us down the river for their own personal gain. Democracy is in danger from this one political party and if they are re-elected democracy will effectively be for sale to the highest bidder. Our first priority in 2015 must be to rid ourselves of these greedy parasites by electing any government which will stand up to big business and then give us a fairer electoral system. Any party bust the tory party (or their libdem cronies) will do as long as they give power back to the people.

graham 18 Dec 2014

I agree with much of this article, however there is a crucial point which some of the contributors mentions but which is barely addressed, that of the Party Whip system.

MPs are supposed to represent the views of the Constituants to Parliament, however what we actually get is, as it says, them being told by their leadership to "sell" the Party's policies to voters.

All votes in the House of Commons should be "Free Votes", ie the MPs should be allowed to make up their own choices about how to vote and, in this day of almost everyone having access to the internet, those choices should be informed by the people who voted for them, not dictated from "On High".

There is one other issue, that of the Media who love to publish and broadcast stories about "rifts" and "splits" and "deep divisions" which Party Leaders hate because it makes them look weak and ineffective, so they do their best to stifle disagreement and dissent.

But, of course, that simply means that then end up with a bunch of Yes-Men and Women who will agree with whatever they're told because otherwise they know that the Party Machine won't support them when they have a campaign or a policy to put forward.

Our current system is broken and that is why people are so disillusioned with it. Until these issues change, it's going to stay that way.

barrie singleton 18 Dec 2014

Zac G has been at pains to spell out MPs have no duty to voters.
Indeed: dig deep and they are NOT EMPLOYED BY ANYONE. Westminster tyranny stitches us beyond the belief of almost all.

Mike Drew 18 Dec 2014

The whip is meant to only be a guide to the Party's MPs as to the considered view of the Party. It is up to the MP how much notice they take of it. As far as I can tell, there is no come back on MPs such as Adrian Saunders (Lib Dem, Torbay) who vote his own views.

The issue is to how much party members allow power to be taken away from themselves.

Matt 19 Dec 2014

Graham, whilst I agree with all the points that you make, I feel that I must correct your assumption that "almost everyone having access to the internet".

I work in social housing, focusing on digital exclusion. This summer we carried out a survey of all 8000 tenants around internet access/use. As is the case across the entire social housing sector, 40% do not have access. The most common reason given was cost.

So, whilst I support your desire for greater use to be made of new technologies in order to reinvigorate our failing democracy, it is precisely the 9.5 million citizens not online who are also most likely to not vote, or see any reason to. These are already amongst the most disadvantaged and disengaged amongst us. Also, just the sort of people that the big two parties would rather didn't vote.

Henry James Riley 18 Dec 2014

The present system of Government is defunct and borders on corrupt. There is no democracy when the Electioneering process is carried out by only the large parties.

It is time the people took back ownership of Government.

MP's are elected by very few citizens and the Electorate have no real input unless they happen to reside in an area where there is a marginal seat.

The system of Government has too many lairs we only need two, National and a new level to cover all the levels in between which could be named as Citizen Area Councils.

barrie singleton 18 Dec 2014

With respect: "borders on corrupt" is way short. If you stress-test 'democracy under rule of law' you find 'D' MOCK CRASS Y? Rule of law is infnitely elastic.

Mike Drew 18 Dec 2014

While I agree that our electoral system concentrate too much campaigning in the relatively marginal seats it is possible for citizens to make changes to what is otherwise safe seats but it does take hard work by dedicated campaigners over a long period of time. We Liberals in what was the then very safe Conservative seat of South Gloucestershire in 1979 was able to move from third place to take the seat (then named Northavon) by 1997. This was done by local people with local resources but inspired by a national political belief.

I would dispute that we have too many layers of government. I am a councillor on South Gloucestershire Unitary Council and Yate Town( same powers as a parish council). There are issues which are dealt with by the Town Council which are too local and detailed to be sensibly handled by the unitary council but there are also issues which are of wider significance that that of the Unitary area. These have to be dealt with by unrepresentative joint bodies which have little accountability. To abolish the unitary and just have a larger authority would be too remote for much of local government responsibility.

barrie singleton 18 Dec 2014

Only if you have had cause to require 'Westminster Governance' (wherein parties function) to behave with honour and integrity, can you know - first hand - just how corrupt Britain is.
Open primaries notwithstanding, Westminster parties 'draw their own'. The quintessential Westminster Creature has mores that are the MIRROR IMAGE of the decent citizen - I know, as I have tested many of them over a number of years. I offer my experience FOC; you will find it challenging but not aberrant. My website expands.

Stephen Johnson 18 Dec 2014

If politics is a market, then parties are the product brands and the electoral system determines how the market operates. ‘First Past the Post’ rigs the market, and corrupts political parties which contort their behaviour and policies in an attempt to win under the FPTP rules.

Accepting your basic premise that political parties are essential to democracy, the voting system should give the voter an opportunity to vote for the party of their choice – to vote for the product brand that they want to run the country - without that vote being conflated with concerns of the personal characteristics of the party’s candidate (s), and that their vote for their party will count proportionately rather than ‘all’ or ‘nothing’.

Similarly if political parties are to be rebuilt from the ground up, they need to base their organisation around the local political unit, the constituency, and the constituency needs to be the smallest possible. The smallest constituency unit is the single member constituency.

This represents a dilemma for advocates of PR, and the ERS’s position of rigid adherence to promoting STV makes the ERS a part of the problem when it could be part of the solution.

Barry 19 Dec 2014

I agree that the ERS should change its stated position in favour of just one PR system ie STV. I have a feeling that if STV is the only option in a future referendum on PR then there might be a good chance of it losing as some of the accusations the No To AV crowd levelled at the Alternative Vote could also be used against it ie 'its too complicated for the voter to understand' and also that it would probably help centrist parties like the Lib Dems most of all.

rosshi 19 Dec 2014

I am afraid that the day of truly honourable politicians has been and gone; I am not saying they do not exist at all; they are just few and far between and Nick Clegg and even Ed Milliband are akin to Mr Cameron; they are all BLAIRS of a different colour; THATCHERist if you will. Not many of them are fair and honourable although this is what they all proclaim to be and if they get caught lying, the rules they have made requires only an apology and nothing more; not a consequence in sight.

I, much like many people, voted for the LibDems at the last general election; wanting real change, we actually honestly thought Nick Clegg was one of the few; a man of honour and spoke the truth; that is why he is where he is now. We, those many others; duped believers now have absolutely no trust in red yellow or blue; Mr Clegg has almost singlehandedly destroyed and lost our trust completely; many of the people I talk to; will be voting UKIP; not because they like their policies but mainly to tell the RED BLUE and YELLOW that; THE PEOPLE have had enough of the status quo. Unfortunately the majority of British citizens are politically illiterate; UKIP are right wing Tories and don’t even fully understand what their policies are; like the rest they are Populist and say what they think the majority want to hear; say whatever is necessary to get the all important vote.

Most of our modern day PoLIEticians are only interested in feathering their own nests, I understand why they want to be in Europe; they can then claim even more expenses; from an even more corrupted (Bastardised) system, whilst leaving the decision making to un-democratically, nonelected technocrats.

Take TTIP for example they all want it but non of them have read it; they and even MEPs are not allowed to view the entire documents; and yet they are all keen to see it through, MADNESS!!!!

Nick Clegg was the perfect candidate to lose the alternative vote and lords reform; he was played good and proper. Did he even see it coming? WE DID!!!.

And as for the recovery, the PoLIEticians are praising themselves for fixing; is as fake as the LibDems are; there is NO recovery; just fixed statistics assembled by the coalition, the new housing bubble we see the beginnings of, is only going to expand with the BRILLIANT 95% Tax payer guaranteed mortgage schemes; thought up by CLEVER IDIOTS who have no economic clue; @DavidCameronMP; @OsbourneMP . Then we will see it BURST! If this were a ‘recovery’ wages would be rising in line with inflation; not freezing year after year after year; except PoLIEticians wages of course 10-11% this year and next?

Banking; Quantitative Easing (QE) give banks free money to lend to businesses and what do they do? They use most of that free money to buy back their own assets; making the stock market rise to boot and the super-rich tripling their wealth; there is still 3-4 years planned for QE; those super-rich taking the cake and eating it while everyone else gets poorer. They are not interested in borrowing to business, the interest rate is too low; there is not enough PROFIT for the GREED MACHINE; now who are you PoLIEticians going to look after, UK citizens or BANKSTERS? Where does Cameron, his ILLUMINARTI - GLITTERATI and the rest of you keep your BILLIONS? The BANK OF ENGLAND has even been fixing the gold price. Oh and our tax law state ASSETS aren’t TAXable. The Tories are only interested in keeping the fraudulent financial services going and screw everything else, they can’t see past their own GREED.

London IS the fraudulent banking capitol of the world; that is why the likes of JP Morgan & Goldman Sachs to name but two; did their dodgy dealings via their London branches; our banks are the Tories GODS because that is all they have left for them to cling onto with their greedy Tallons and false Gods at that. After all they won’t be going cold or hungry this winter, no matter how high the bill sour; oh yes; because the tax payer (Inc. benefit claimants; as benefit is taxed too) pay those expenses for you.

The coalition has sold out this country, giving our energy security over to the French and the Chinese. Even agreeing a price for EDF way in the future of George Osbourne’s crystal ball….

Welfare reform; yet another way to persecute and oppress the poor. There is absolutely no reason to abolish DLA for example; the way it was awarded should have been changed is all; take it out of the hands of GPs and only let consultant be able to declare someone not fit for work. But we all know the real reason PIP is to replace it; certain legal obligations can then be watered down or got rid of altogether, the same thing is going on in education; free schools and academies; legalities comprehensives had are now gone.

And as we all see the whole lot is in disarray; the DWP and @IDuncanSmithMP is a disgrace; the costs of this lot far out weight any savings.

Now to WAR; Afghanistan, all that is happening is; the UK is training up of the next Taliban army; the UK is even arming that army too.

This coalition bang on about companies evading tax but then support crooks like ‘Sir’ Philip Green who evaded just under £500 million in tax by sending his wife a dividend of 1.5 billion to the tax haven of Monaco; dividends are not TAXable, at least Amazon give the UK public great prices; you could say they hand back some of it to the UK public, PoLIEticians would just hoard it and most likely claim more expenses.

These elitist’s Bastardised idiots have long since killed the goose and think that the common British man should provide the eggs now.

I feel today's political system just goes through the motions, most PoLIEticians are just in it for themselves; to feather their nests and although they are supposed to represent their constituents; on the whole they don’t. Nowadays it’s just a game of a point scoring pantomime with no real substance and no real aims. No men of real principle or honour everything is just for show; say one thing while doing something else.

It is hard to distinguish one party from another; they are all Blairites, corporation and bankster pleasers and only care about profit. Most of the policies of the main three parties are full of hidden agendas, slanted towards the rich especially the 1%.

It is understandable why the Labour party has distanced itself from the unions; as they no longer stand up for the working classes, despite the fact that they wouldn’t exist if it were not for those unions.

Until the day comes when there is a people’s parliament; made up of a broad cross-section of real citizens, there will be no real progress for this country. They are perfectly happy passing the ball to one another, after-all nobody else has a chance of a say, and that is the way they like it; all stitched up and theirs.

British politics has been hijacked by elitists, millionaires row; the old boys club. And it’s sad to conclude it will probably always be that way, and this is why I have absolutely no faith or trust in the British Political system.

I was going to vote Labour at the next general election but after researching all the available candidates, parties and also in the light that Labour is insisting that this country is going to remain in Austerity and under the European Union, Ed Milliband is as out of touch as all the rest and has a lower appeal rating than Nick Clegg; #SayNoMore.

I draw the conclusion that my ballot paper will have written ”NONE OF THE ABOVE” they are mostly con-artists and crooks and I want an end to them! #TheyALLMustGo #TimeForChange

I don’t want Old Labour, I don’t want New Labour, I want TRUE Labour Dream on… My final advice; if you’re lucky enough to have the choice, vote #GREEN or #Respect; at least George Galloway stands by his beliefs…

John Rolfe 29 Dec 2014

I love your article how about a party that cares about the People that wants to give e-voting on all important issues.

barrie singleton 19 Dec 2014

Well said - not a word wasted. We are on common ground. The monarcho-Westminster model is corrupted beyond the understanding of most people. Another party won't do. Wild-man heroes won't do. Where is the rallying figure of GRAVITAS, WISDOM and EMPATHY? Can medical science cross the Dalai Lama with Camilla Batmanghelidjh?

Chris Vassiliades 20 Dec 2014

I have avoided making comments, until now, on "Electoral Reform" as deep down I know we need a lot more than that to make an impact on the political scene of a country that is so deeply embedded in privately funded political parties.
What we really need is a "reform" to the way we think about politics and how we fund the people we choose to lead us.
I would love to join a party that would place up front sound principles as the base of it and would only accept members that are willing to be sworn to abide by these principles.
Preferably a party that would also lead and support the way of life for it's members, including their jobs and businesses from which it should only be funded.
We may start small, but from little acorns mighty oak-trees grow.

Anthony Tuffin 26 Dec 2014

The ERS has made four recommendations:

Increased role for non-members;
More member- and supporter-led policymaking;
Party funding reform;
Electoral reform.

While all these could help, electoral reform is the essential one and is the core of the ERS's objectives.

The problem is that the more the public shows its support for a multi-party system by voting for smaller parties, the more the two main parties will resist electoral reform, which would give fair representation to smaller parties. If two new parties eventually supplant the present two major ones under First Past The Post, the chances are that they will also oppose reform then even if they support it now.

It may be too much to expect that any party in power will introduce electoral reform in the interest of voters.

The best hope for reform will be if no party has overall control and a number of parties sharing power recognize that electoral reform is in their mutual interest.