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Power to the right people? Political party members' influence under the spotlight


Members of the UK's political parties have more power than they used to – including the ability to pick a Prime Minister. But given that they hold strong opinions that aren't representative of the wider electorate, is the power safe in the activists' hands?

Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University London's Head of the Department of Politics and History, was asked these and other questions by Evan Davies during Newsnight yesterday evening (4 January) on BBC2.

"It's always been an issue," explained Professor Fisher – right from the start of the 20th century. "Labour, for example, kept the unions involved in policy-making because they were scared of members being too extremist. The Conservatives kept the members out of the selection of candidates and leaders for many, many years..

"Hitherto, it's always been a balancing act between voters, the leader and the activists. But what we see in Labour at the moment is the leadership and the activists being much more aligned than usual."

New report exposes extremities of views

Professor Fisher gave expert opinion live in the studio alongside two party members who shared their opinions: Cherry Mosteshar of Labour (Co-Chair of Momentum in Oxford) and Chloe Ahmed of the Conservatives.

This political issue was topical because of the results of a 2017 survey, published earlier that day by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London, which canvassed Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP party members on topics such as Brexit, the death penalty, austerity and same-sex marriage. The report shows that wider party voters are more centrist politically and have less extreme views than the activists do.

Evan was keen to know whether parties that have more activists or member power become more alienated from the voters.

"Well, comparatively, that's tended to be the case with more left-of-centre [parties]," said Professor Fisher. "And that's largely because the right-of-centre parties have been able to command things like finance from outside sources; left-of-centre parties tend to be less well serviced financially."

Loyalty needs to be rewarded somehow

MPs are accountable to their voters, Evan posited: "So it always used to be, until relatively recently, that the MPs chose the leader – and thus chose the Prime Minister. And now, basically, the MPs might have foisted upon them someone they don't particularly want as a leader."

Professor Fisher noted that this was always the danger, such as when Iain Duncan Smith was chosen as leader of the Conservatives. But he highlighted that party members have to be rewarded for their loyalty and commitment.

"What you've got to remember is that the parties have got to give members something to keep them involved. Cherry and Chloe here do all the wonderful things that parties do: campaigning, and so on, and so forth.

"But what's the incentive for someone to get involved if they don't get a say? It's a real balancing act for parties."

The episode of Newsnight can be viewed for 30 days after initial broadcast by UK TV licence holders. The sequence starts at 27:10.

For more information about Professor Fisher's expertise, visit his staff profile or follow him on Twitter.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268821