This article was first published on the Guardian on 4 Jan 2014.
I've never bought the argument that people are apathetic about politics. Take Tulse Hill, the most deprived ward in my south London constituency, Streatham. At the 2010 general election, there were turnouts of more than 70% in some polling districts there. Because local elections and the general election took place on the same day, some constituents in the ward had to wait over half an hour to vote, but wait they did.
Since then, from the protests over the tripling of tuition fees in the autumn of 2010, through to the "March for the Alternative" in 2011 – which attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life – we have witnessed political engagement on a scale not seen for years. However, increasingly, people find party politics a turnoff. When they hear us in the House of Commons or on the TV, they increasingly reach for the remote. Party politics is in crisis.
The reasons for this disconnect between party politics and those in whose name politics plays out are varied. The ridiculously adversarial way in which debate is sometimes conducted is a primary contributor, in my view. To contest ideas on what is best for our country is essential in a healthy democracy. But, in an age when people are less tribal and do not identify with political parties as strongly as they once did, those we represent are thoroughly fed up with the tribal, yah-boo nature of so much of what passes for political debate. Save for a welcome renaissance in our select committees, parliament's culture of political combat has changed little since the past century, while the world outside has changed. We urgently need to move with the times, too.
Though I am probably guilty of indulging in excessive tribalism myself at times, I try to put partisanship to one side where appropriate. Lord Heseltine is a Conservative peer – but that hasn't stopped me publicly praising his pursuit of industrial activism over the decades. I acknowledge when my Liberal Democrat opposite number, Vince Cable, does the right thing (it was he who rightly insisted that an Independent Commission on Banking be established), as well as point out when he and his colleagues get things wrong (dismantling the regional development agencies, for example).
For businesses, this is particularly important: they are as interested in the areas where we agree as in those where we disagree, because consensus reduces risk and gives them confidence to invest for the long term, safe in the knowledge that not all the goalposts will move if the government changes. Many in businesses have told me that short-term political considerations risk standing in the way of the long-term investment. So, as Ed Balls has said, it is for this reason that we would, if elected, set up an independent infrastructure commission to end dither and delay, and to build cross-party consensus on big infrastructure projects that are, by their nature, multiple-parliament endeavours.
Also, in a world that is less deferential, people resent policies being imposed on them from Westminster – communities want to be empowered to do things for themselves. We made a good start in office with devolution in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with regional development agencies across England, to push power down and out. This is an unfinished project.
But it is not only our political culture and institutions that must adapt. No party that claims to want to reconnect politics with people can expect to be taken seriously if it is not prepared to take a long, hard look in the mirror and accept that it must change, too. This is ultimately what Ed Miliband's proposed reforms of the Labour party are about.
Political parties – which too often operate like closed circles – must open up. It is why Ed is absolutely right to propose that Labour picks its next London mayoral candidate by way of a primary, in which any Londoner would be eligible to vote, provided that they register as a supporter of the Labour party. The French Socialists picked up their presidential candidate this way in October 2011 – more than 2.8 million French citizens took part, paying €1 or more, raising crucial funds, increasing supporter activism and without compromising the standing of their party members.
Rebuilding party membership is vital. The Conservative party's membership has reportedly halved under David Cameron to 134,000. Labour's membership has increased substantially since 2010 to around 190,000, but the long-term trend has been in the other direction. That's why Ed is determined we become a mass movement once again.
Developing a more meaningful relationship with the 3 million working men and women who are members of the trade unions that sit inside the Labour family will give our party a head start in addressing this. It will open up our party and give working people a real choice and voice as individuals inside Labour. What Ed's package of party reforms will do is to update a party architecture constructed in the 20th century to make it fit for the 21st, better embedding our party in every community.
Much more besides what I've described needs to happen if we are to reconnect people to political parties. Why does it matter? Why not let the main parties wither? Because I know of no better vehicle than the political party to enable those with common values to come together and reach a position on issues that can then be offered up as a choice of programmes for voters. If we are to remain relevant and do this more effectively, reform is not an option, it is a necessity.