Life Support for Local Parties

This pamphlet brings together a collection of work conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd over the summer of 2003 focusing on the health of political parties at a local or constituency level. The work was carried out to make-up part of the JRRTs contribution to the Electoral Commission’s review of the funding of political parties. 

The issue of how we fund political parties fairly and effectively has been with us for a long time.The Committee on Financial Aid to Political Parties, known as the Houghton Committee, recommended the introduction of financial aid to political parties as far back as 1976. What this pamphlet does is focus that debate on the health of political parties at the constituency or local level and argues that without reform, our system of representative democracy will be seriously weakened.

The two reports in this pamphlet give a true, evidence-based picture of political party activism at a constituency level. They both find that even comparatively healthy constituency parties find it impossible to cover the whole of their constituency with an active campaign and that many local parties struggle to field full slates of candidates at local authority elections. Even when parties can find candidates the majority of local parties do not have enough of them to hold contested selections and very few will be able to ensure that they can run proper campaigns across a whole constituency. These findings support other studies as well as the anecdotal evidence many in politics have had for some time.

Alexandra Runswick outlines the case for small amounts of public money to be passed on to political parties to better enable them to carry out their local democratic functions. The New Politics Network outlined more extensively the various ways in which political activism and local parties could be supported in its pamphlet: “Clean Politics, Strong Parties” (NPN 2003). 

Many individuals and commentators are deeply sceptical of lending support to our political parties and some will argue that if parties decline and fade then that this is simply a result of their failure to inspire the electorate and others will come along and replace them.The problem is that all parties are in the same boat and if they all fail we don’t have a back-up plan. We must invest in our democracy.