Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Dark Side of Political Parties

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for Samara Canada extolling the virtues of participating in political parties. The piece was in response to a young man in Saskatchewan who said he didn’t understand the purpose of political parties and thought we might be better off without them. I disagreed and suggested that political parties are critical in the functioning of our democracy, and serve a valuable purpose at a local community level.

However, to make my point and keep within a tight word limit I did not discuss the dark side of political parties. As I am getting ready for my move to the Northwest Territories I have been considering the non-partisan political system they have there, along with the one at our municipal level. I think political parties are necessary steps once a legislative body reaches a certain size. Therefore it makes sense to introduce parties (perhaps) to Toronto City Council, but not to the Northwest Territorial Assembly. That is all beside the point, I wish to discuss some of the problems with political parties.

Riding associations or electoral district associations are organizations at the local level of a political party. Their primary purpose is to select candidates for election, help run election campaigns and build party support on a local level by bringing new people into the political process. Informally they build a network of activists at a community level. It is also the responsibility of the riding association to represent the riding back to the party, i.e. defend its interests and offer its perspective. If the riding is fortunate to have elected an MPP/MP their role changes slightly. The RA/EDA must do what it can to hold the MPP/MP to account and help the representative connect with the constituents. Here is where the system begins to break down.

Riding associations with elected members are more active. Party members and citizens are more likely to get engaged when it means access to an elected official. Politics, especially party politics, is tribal. Those who dislike the MPP/MP may disengage while those who do become very active. Paid political positions in the constituency office or capital office go to loyalists and friends of the elected official for obvious reasons. During the next Annual General Meeting to elect the executive of the riding association the MPP/MP is able to bring a lot more of the membership out to vote and people close to the representative tend to be elected. Sometimes this is a hostile takeover. Political veterans with years of experience but no particular ties to the representative are pushed out in favour of new blood less likely to cause trouble.

This process is repeated throughout a political party. Party leaders are often accused of excess control of caucus, but control of caucus is only matched by control over the party. Each party has its own unique internal structure, but there are checks and balances that are supposed to keep the leaders accountable to the party. Party leaders have a vested interest in subverting this process. High positions tend to go to those close to the leader. It is not patronage, the leaders command a large number of votes at conventions and councils and so candidates who are part of these factions tend to do well.

The two examples above of centralizing control damages political parties and strengthens politicians. Party members want to have influence and control, that is part of why they join. By stripping away their power and influence the motivation to get involved and stay involved evaporates. Parties can become victims of regulatory capture, they become controlled by those they are suppose to oversee and influence.

In my experience EDAs are made up of a small number of dedicated people. For example, in Brampton West there are hundreds of New Democrats. Most have never gone to a meeting or attended an event. A couple of dozen are active and have participated in some sort of event or even sit on the riding association’s executive. Within that group there are a handful of diehard activists. These folk are the real deal; political junkies through and through. The sad thing is they exist in very small number. If a group of people wanted to take over the riding association it just takes a small number, or a majority, to push out the old guard. Sometimes this is good. Parties need rejuvenation and new people need to be given the opportunity to take on leadership roles. However, to cast aside people who have been dedicated for years or decades is a mistake. More often than not the stories I have heard about take-overs have resulted in greater problems.

Ideally new members join, learn the culture of the party and riding association and ultimately can grow and obtain a position in the party if they want it. However, participating in politics requires a commitment of time, and sadly, money. If you live in one of the country’s major cities or capitals being involved in politics isn’t so hard. Most of the events having to do with your party will be local to you. Even if there is a big event outside of your city you can keep busy with local stuff. If you live outside of those cities participation in party politics will be much more difficult. If your work means that you do not have a regular schedule, or you’re not working Monday-Friday, 9-5, or you simply cannot afford to take a night off, then that means you can be cut out of the process. If a convention is held in another part of the province or country that means you will probably be unable to go. Not to mention you have to pay for the privilege to attend and even be a party member.

With all this in mind I still think it is valuable to be a member of a political party, but I thought it was important to highlight some of the negative. So far I have had a positive experience in politics, personally. I have heard stories and seen negative things in party politics, but that is merely a fact of life. Ultimately a person can avoid that if they believe in making their community a better place through a committed vision, be that with the Conservatives/PCs, Liberals, NDP or Greens.

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