Political parties should not be chameleons

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Some interesting but hardly surprising research from Queen Mary’s London discussed in the media today highlights a difference in attitudes between Conservative grassroots members and their opposition part counterparts.

The obvious differences on policy, particularly social issues, are mirrored by differences on party involvement and what Professor Tim Bale calls more “consumerist” expectations. He concludes that the Conservatives have to change to reflect these new attitudes.

This to me displays a fundamental misunderstanding of purpose of a political party.

The purpose is not to be more popular. The purpose is to stand for the beliefs shared by members and set their stall out to the electorate. A party should not change what it stands for to win votes or gain members. Political parties should not be chameleons.

On the specific point about expectations of voice, involvement, and influence it is hardly surprising that this should be lower in a party which does mot support those new attitudes in society and so would not be expected to support them inside their own party.

The gap in attitudes between liberals and socialists on one side and Conservatives on the other with attitudes on issues such as capital punishment are hardly surprising. This is an issue as polarising as Brexit. To expect consensus on this would be absurd.

Interestingly as with Brexit, the Conservative grassroots support for capital punishment is probably more in line with the majority view in the electorate. In this case their position could be the most popular. But they should hold that view because it is their belief. It is irrelevant to the purpose of party to consider how popular that stance is.

If this were not so, nobody would ever join minority parties like Ukip, Lib Dems, or Greens which have no hope of ever winning. Their purpose is not to win. Their purpose is to stand up for their shared beliefs.

As Margaret Thatcher said to me once (well more than once actually): “We do not change things to win elections. We win elections to change things.”

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