Monday, May 04, 2009

History of an institution in decline: the political party?

Even the true believers seem to have been bored silly with the Liberal convention in Vancouver this weekend. Calgary Grit called it the Seinfeld convention (does that joke need explaining, what with all the reruns on?). Trying to find the bright side, (s)he was reduced to saying, hey, the weather was great.

Our political parties really do have convention crisis. When there is a leadership race, the convention is dominated by huge rival blocs of mindless automatons whose votes have been bought up in advance. (I still love the memory of an Ontario convention year ago where one Charles Beer was a candidate, and his supporters marched about the hockey arena shouting Beer, beer, beer.) The race usually means the party and all its strong personalties are broke, exhausted and at loggerheads, and the winner is likely to prove to be inept... but that's what parties do, isn't it?

When there isn't a leadership race, well, parties have become so bereft of any purpose beyond recruiting donors and organizing sign-pounders that they simply don't know what to do. Serious policy discussion? In a political party, are you crazy? What do they do for three days before the leader gives his Triumph of the Will imitation?

Stephen Michael MacLean, noting the replacement of delegate conventions by one-member-one-vote, writes:
I suppose if it’s not essential for a party leader to enjoy the confidence of the caucus, they why should he require the support of committed party members? Instant member, instant leader. Although it may be tellingly nostalgic to speak of confidence with respect to any parliamentary institution any more....
In countries with a functioning party system, where the people elect representatives to parliament and the representatives hire and fire parliamentary leaders as necessary, party conventions still seem to have a function. Where it's understood that party leaders must be both skilled and accountable, there is no need for the mass party vote nonsense. And the party at large tends to be held together by, gasp, political conviction. Where there is a real party structure -- other than just an appendage to The Leader -- parties actually take an interest in policy and ideology, and members willingly get together to discuss those things. Not here, of course, but it happens.
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