John Howard on parties, membership and ideology

John Howard was interviewed by The Australian in Australia and offers some interesting perspectives on political parties, membership and ideology.

“All political parties need reform,? Howard said in an interview with this columnist to mark the 40th anniversary of his election to parliament.

?The greatest problem that my party has, the greatest problem the Labor Party has, is that we no longer pursue with zeal the idea of expanding the membership.?

The problem has become ?particularly acute for Labor.

The party?s terrible result in the West Australian Senate ?election underscores the need for reform.

With its two lead candidates beholden to unions and each representing polar ideological ?extremes, it is not surprising Labor received a dismal 22 per cent of the vote.

Both Labour and National face similar issues here, though I suspect Labour’s issue is more pressing.

When Howard joined the Young Liberals as an 18 year old in the late 1950s, he said it was the ?mission? of every member to ?recruit new members.

?We spend too much time arguing about what the existing membership does rather than throwing open the doors to new members.?

However, given the loss of members in both major parties, retaining new members has ?become a life or death matter. At Labor?s peak in the 1930s, it boasted a membership of more than 150,000. The Liberals had a membership of more than 150,000 in the 1950s.

Today, membership of both major parties has declined even though the population has expanded. Labor and the Liberals each have about 45,000 members nationally.

?People don?t join local sporting clubs, local churches, local service clubs and political parties the way they did 50 years ago,? Howard says.?

But he wants both parties to focus on boosting their membership so they better reflect the community. Shorten recently ?announced a goal of 100,000 Labor members.

It is a challenge to retain let alone gain new members. This is why there is a strong emphasis in some elements of the Labor and Liberal parties to open up their structures and empower the membership. Why would you stay in a party, or join one, if you don?t have a genuine say?

Which is why it is strange that the Bugger’s Muddle in Auckland, led by Peter Goodfellow saw fit to send a message to the members that if you want to stand for parliament don;t bother door-knocking, don’t bother signing up members, don’t bother engaging in the local electorate. All you have to do is get alongside a bent electoral chair, suck up to the Bugger’s Muddle and have the pre-selection rigged to deliver numpties and also-rans…all fuelled by a healthy dose of murk without foundation delivered up by the campaign manager of two senior MPs. That won’t deliver a good result for the electorates or the party and makes a mockery of the president’s claims every caucus meeting that membership is a priority.

The problem with a declining membership is not only that the parties become detached from the community, but they also ?become susceptible to control by the few. The rise of factions and a power?broker ethos that serves only self-interest, rather than the party?s broader interests, has ?afflicted both major parties.

The upshot of community disengagement, the rise of factions and shrinking membership is the selection of candidates from ?narrower backgrounds. ?You?ve seen the rise of the political class within both parties where you have an increasing number of MPs, especially at the state level, who have just had no life experience,? Howard says.

Howard laments the rise of the political staffer turned MP. As the new member for Bennelong in 1974, he had just one secretary to answer the phone and handle correspondence and appointments. There was little opportunity to eye a seat in ?parliament and spend time ?crunching the numbers and stacking branches?.

Both Labour and National have that same problem, but Labour’s is far worse as we saw during the leadership stoush last year. National’s problem is easily fixed by clearing out the board and in Auckland getting rid of the Bugger’s Muddle who cling to past glories and sad old MPs at the end of their relevance.

Howard says politics is still ?a battle of ideas?. But the hollowing-out of the major parties means that politicians struggle to conceptualise what their core values are and to articulate policies.

Both parties lack the ability to communicate in a compelling and persuasive way. ?Sometimes the ideas are not very well articulated,? Howard says. ?I don?t think either side, as frequently as they should, puts their differences in a philosophical or ideolog?ical context. I think it is enormously important that that happens.?

That is why internal party ?reform matters. It is a test for Shorten and Abbott. Unless politicians know what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it and who they represent, then the voters will ?remain forever distrustful and disillusioned with the political process.

There is nothing wrong with ideology…it gives one a foundation of beliefs…the shame with MMP is that most politicians like to hide their ideology for fear that someone might get upset.

Politics is about reactions. In order to achieve progress we must cause reactions.

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