But in a chamber of hundreds, every one fending for themselves meant nothing could ever get done. By and large that was by design. Monarchs were still powerful and governments still served their majesties. Parliaments were needed to approve spending and authorize war but were largely inconveniences otherwise.
Resistance to power required allegiances and like-minded MPs ganged up to challenge government. For this, if not to be the government’s rubber-stamp and public legitimisation of the exercise of the power of the executive, is the true function of Parliament. To scrutinise, oppose, resist and provide an alternative to the decisions of government.
Political parties grew out of these alliances. They were a structured and formalised product of the need to form pockets of resistance to government rule creating rules in order to concentrate minds and mobilise votes. From there grew processes on how to team up behind a leader of the opposition through whom opposition to government domination could be focused. And so with whips and coordinated voting. Parliamentarians, theoretically elected on their own merits and personally invested with the freedom to take any position they wish on any matter of policy, rescinded some of that autonomy in favour of more cohesive and therefore more effective teamwork.
Political parties therefore first grew as associations of like-minded elites. There is obviously a limit to like-mindedness and party loyalty only extended to the point that an MP felt it served his (always “him” at this point) narrow political agenda.
The rise of the democratic left in the early 20th century changed all that. The original cadre parties organised from within Parliamentary teams were now confronted with the rise of mass parties grown from the grass-roots organised in a force that mobilised the participation of the electors themselves rather than merely the elected.
The British Labour Party did not grow out of the Parliamentary elites. They grew out of the elites that organised trade unions and cooperatives and politicised the franchise throughout the political season. This ensured that party discipline extended to the choice of candidates and to the setting of the rules for their behaviour even before their election.
Mass parties transcended the old contract between MPs and their constituents. They created a wider contract between the party and its masses of volunteers and campaigners who fought for it and its program in the streets and on the shop-floor. MPs as individuals lost their policy-by-policy autonomy, renouncing their freedom to act as individuals in exchange for the support of the party, now the only viable way of getting elected to Parliament.
One could argue that that reduction of autonomy has diluted the democratic value of the MP. The flipside of that is that in binding an MP to a program and whipping them into consistency by forcing them to account to party discipline has actually extended the value of democracy beyond ballot day throughout the term.
I subscribe to this latter view. Especially since the example of the mass parties of the left has forced all parties, no matter their background, to depend on popular mobilisation, constant persuasion, permanent and open debate on policy, and a careful choice of candidates willing to subordinate their own ambitions to a program defined by something greater than them.
Mass parties have forced the crystallisation of policy making, making it graspable by the population at large and allowing anyone interested to participate in its formation. In presenting electoral programs to the electorate, parties are forced to disclose their thinking, their plans, their biases and expectations for the brief term of power they are entrusted with.
I have argued in previous posts how many of the traits of a mass party in the PN started to decline in a gradual and at first imperceptible manner around 1996. As the party went into stages of ‘modernisation’ it let go of its tools of popular mobilisation: its street leaders, community leaders, shop stewards and district leaders that were the personal two-way channel of communication, upstream as individual concerns were raised to party central and downstream as the party’s message was disseminated coherently and forcefully.
There were many reasons why this entire edifice was allowed to go to waste. The new tools of communication available to the party made it feel like the effort to maintain such a grand armada was no longer efficient. Why have street leaders, when complainants could call the party’s radio and make their views known? Why retain a national network when sophisticated polling could tell you what people are thinking?
People today speak of the echo-chamber phenomenon of Facebook where you can shut out news and comments you don’t like and create a bubble that gives you the illusion everyone is agreeing with you. Nothing new there. What better echo-chamber can there be than a party owning its TV station where ‘journalists’ on the party’s payroll are as cotton when questioning their paymasters and as projectile acid in the face of the opposition?
Party newspapers, then radios, then TVs and now on line presences have created alternative, parallel and unrelatable universes with realities that have no connection with each other and where loyalists can opt to settle comfortably knowing they are on the right and by the classic illogical extension, the winning side.
The PN moved from being a mass party to being a media organisation where advertising superseded argumentation. This transition was reinforced by the successes of the 2000s powered by the EU debate where Labour was trapped in KMB’s legacy and thousands of voters held their noses in disdain of the PN while voting for it repeatedly to ensure EU membership.
Once that debate was over (and it could only be over once Alfred Sant was out of the way) noses were unblocked and the PN found itself talking to itself on its own TV station which only it was watching and losing elections.
It had no way to perceive the sea change that was happening under its feet. It came to a point that individual MPs within the PN no longer felt the inherent obligation of loyalty belonging to a mass party. “Rebels” conveniently forgot that the seat they held was loaned to them on the back of the commitments made on their behalf by their party to their voters and instead decided they could use their seat and their vote as they pleased. This was not a rebellion against a party. It was a rebellion against the democratic process that enabled their election and to which conditions of cohesion, loyalty and commitment to a unified program were naturally attached.
That too is a result of the withering of the mass party structures of the PN. I do not argue that the PN detached itself from the needs of the country. On the contrary, it never lost the inherent blessing of being the single most important force for good of the country, even in an electoral minority. Right up to 2013 it steered the country through the toughest recession this side of the grapes of wrath, creating new opportunities that we roll in today. In opposition it was the nation’s conscience stinging when the rest of the country either wanted to ignore corruption or was profiting from it.
I am not arguing the PN needs to rebuild its mass party structures because it needs them for its eminent competence to run the country and for its ability to elaborate the clearest and brightest vision for its future. I am arguing the PN needs to rebuild its mass party structures because it needs them to remind the country of that ability.
It had done so in 1981 and 1987. It had no radio station, no TV station, no on line campaigning. It had a newspaper, possession of which attracted retribution and violence and its voice was suppressed on state-controlled broadcasting and banned otherwise. But the PN reached the nation by speaking to it, by speaking to people at work and people at home, and by entering into a dialogue with the nation in spite of the oppression suppressing it.
The great media tools built since then have atrophied those muscles. It’s time to start stretching again. If the party is to be an effective opposition and resist the monopolised power of the current regime and if it is to successfully articulate its eligibility to replace it, it cannot do so as a media organisation or a parliamentary cadre. It must do so as a People’s Party.