George Walford: Parties, Politics and Proportions

Systematic ideology indicates that the ideological structure of a developed society resembles a stepped pyramid, the larger numbers of people on the lower levels and the more sophisticated ideologies toward the top. This being so, one would expect to find the same structure appearing in party politics, with numbers diminishing as one moved from the non-political to the right and on through the centre toward the extreme left. But this has been so, in Britain at least, only in a broad sense; it is clear enough that the numbers identified with private ownership and low intellectuality (the eidostatics) are greater than those holding the contrary position (the eidodynamics), but when one gets into the smaller details there are at least two major departures from the expected picture: the Labour Party has several times obtained enough votes to win office, and the Liberal Party has been less influential than would have been expected.

Each political party expresses one of the major ideologies, but not with simple directness. Programmes and policies are modified to suit particular situations; the Labour Party, for example, although the nearest thing in British party politics to an expression of the protodynamic, is careful not to call itself officially socialist and sometimes claims support on the ground that it can run the present system of society more efficiently. Sheer contingency is also a power in practical politics. The discrepancies between expectation and event can be accounted for, but it would be nice if the party structure were to reveal the underlying ideological structure more exactly than it does, and developments of recent years seem to be tending in that direction.

The sudden decline of the Liberal Party (one book on the subject was entitled The Strange Death of Liberal England) can be traced back to the split between Lloyd George and Asquith after the First World War. The effects of this have been magnified by the first-past-the-post electoral system used in Britain, the Liberals repeatedly gaining a substantially smaller number of seats than their proportion of the votes cast would seem to call for. Failing proportional representation (which the majority parties have strong interest in opposing) there seems to be little hope of the Liberal Party getting out of this electoral poverty trap by itself, but the advent of the SDP, and the alliance between this party and the Liberals, does suggest that political programmes and policies expressing the major ideology underlying both these parties (the parastatic) may be about to win a political place corresponding to its place in the ideological pyramid.

The amount of support obtained by the Labour Party has been largely due to its association with the trade unions; many large companies automatically deduct from their employees pay the political levy – which goes to the Labour Party – along with tax and national insurance. The present government is seeking ways to cut off these funds, one suggestion being that employers should have to obtain written authorisation from the employee before making this deduction. A National Opinion Poll survey found that of union members who do not vote Labour 40% do not contract out as they are entitled to do, paying the political levy through ‘ignorance, fear or apathy.’ Another 25 per cent said they did not know whether they paid it. The proposed change would deprive the Labour Party of four-fifths of its present income. (Observer 11 Aug 85). Also, and we suggest this may be at least as important, it would weaken the implication that a member of a trade union ought to vote for the Labour Party.

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ANOTHER of life’s minor horrors: On St. Patrick’s day in (of course) America, it is possible to buy green beer. (TLS 5 July 85, p. 759)

from Ideological Commentary 20, September 1985.