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21 September 2020

281: Political parties change: Your public affairs thinking needs to change

‘Traditional’ views of political parties rarely reflect the reality of the time. The parties keep changing so you need to update your thinking otherwise it will be difficult to engage with them. Understanding is critical in public affairs.

It can sometimes be difficult not to think in a caricatured way about what a political party is and stands for. The reality is always more complex and nuanced. But the most important aspect is not to let that image of a party infect the way that you devise engagement and policy solutions.

The Liberal Democrats are really starting from scratch again under their new leader, so we will all wait to know more about what they stand for now. But with the other big Westminster parties, we have a little more to work with.

The Labour Party

The party has always seemed to shift between periods of ideological purity, generally when it is out of office, and a betrayal of its values when it is in office (which isn’t very often). So whether there is a ‘real’ single version of the labour party at all is highly doubtful.

Keir Starmer has spent the last few months focusing on internal issues and drawing his team together, largely virtually, so has not yet had that much time to consider policy positions. That will start to change in 2021 and will, all being well, be helped by being able to hold a ‘real’ party conference.

As things stand, the party’s approach is a mix between policy hangovers from the Corbyn era, but with the start of a shift towards a more business-friendly approach, especially economically.

So which labour party we have is not yet clear.

The Conservative Party

Depending on who you talk to, this is not a traditional conservative party. The mainstay is their undoubted ability to win elections and, unlike labour, it has never been concerned with ideological purity. Instead, the ability to listen, change positions and win has been its most important trait. It could be said that Brexit / Europe has become an ideology within the party but that, so far, has not stopped them winning.

However, a consequence of the 2019 win was to bring with it a number of ‘red wall’ MPs. It would be wrong to consider them to be a homogeneous group but, it appears that they are unhappy with the leadership of the party. They feel alone, un-mentored and, so far, unloved.

Others in the party question whether outside of a commitment to getting Brexit done, they are really conservatives at all. This to some makes their loyalty potentially fragile.

So is this not a very traditional conservative government? That question may really depend on which era of party you are talking about. Mrs Thatcher was fond of bashing the BBC, challenging the public sector and taking on traditional institutions. But Boris promised to be a ‘Brexity Hezza’, a mix of the all the ‘best bits’ of conservativism, the inclusive one nation approach with Brexit.

The party does listen to focus groups and data, a lot, and consistently calls for evidence and input from businesses. It seems that, so far, combined with a nod to the ‘red wall’ and levelling-up, this has led to a number of confusingly un-conservative positions:

  • a commitment to breaking international law if it feels it has to;
  • backing state aid to allow them to ‘pick winners’ (especially in the tech sector it appears);
  • a lack of clarity on how to rectify the position on public finances;
  • putting politics at the heart of the civil service (some may point to the Thatcher reforms but I would say they were more focused on introducing free market disciplines);
  • police control and enforcement, such as on COVID-19, encouraging people to ‘dob in’ their neighbours and not ‘mingle’ with others (although Johnson himself seems to say something else); and
  • a nanny state across a number of areas, not least health.

Why mention all this? It is because in public affairs we need to recognise the realities of the parties as they exist, not as we think they exist in some idealised version. Knowing and understanding the realities of the parties means we can more effectively advise on engagement.

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