Be careful what you wish for – it might come true. That's what I thought as I watched Ed Miliband promise more power to his members at the weekend. Party democracy may sound great, but it can be a disaster in practice. In fact, as a general rule, the less influence members have over policy the better.
Just ask Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. For years, the official Liberal Democrat policy has been to abolish tuition fees, even though the leader and his then shadow chancellor opposed it. Imagine that! A leader has to advocate a policy he doesn't believe in because his federal policy committee has told him to. At last year's party conference, Clegg warned that, at a cost of £12bn, scrapping tuition fees was unaffordable in these straitened times. But still the policy appeared in the party's manifesto. Look what that led to.
Evan Harris, then the party's science spokesman, and a great supporter of scrapping tuition fees, made this chilling remark at last year's conference: "Good Liberal Democrat leaders only become great leaders when they recognise it's the party that makes the policy. I expect Nick will soon be recognised as a great leader." (Harris's sucking up to students was soon repaid by his being turfed out of his Oxford West seat.)
Now Clegg, Cable and their Lib Dem ministerial colleagues are faced with a ghastly choice. The tuition fees bill will come to the Commons in a couple of weeks. Do they vote for it, against it, or abstain? Clegg believes in the need to raise fees, but his party opposed it at the last election. He is now part of a coalition government and his own Business Secretary has designed the new package. But he rashly signed a National Union of Students pre-election pledge to vote against any fee increase.
Ridiculous, eh? And it's all because the Lib Dem constitution allows party members to make policy on behalf of their leaders. Had Clegg had the freedom to follow his own instincts, as any good leader should, he wouldn't be in this pickle. As it is, he has been flirting with abstention, but I am told that he will vote for the bill, as will Cable. And he will be roundly loathed by students and future students, none of whom have any better idea than the Lib Dem federal policy committee how to fund higher education.
Party democracy is often held up as a way of restoring people's trust in politics. Miliband was at it on Saturday. But in this case, it is party democracy itself that has led to a whole younger generation losing its faith in politicians. If Clegg had been allowed to espouse a policy in which he believed at the last election he wouldn't now be the butt of so much anger for having broken his word.
Why don't party members make good policy? Mainly because they're not in government. A graduate tax sounds marvellous until you discover, once you're in the Treasury, that it doesn't fill the funding gap, that it will encourage all your best graduates to leave the country, and that foreign students will never end up paying it. Not so marvellous, after all, then. But still easy for party members in opposition, with none of the responsibilities of ministers, to drive through.
I remember the bad years of Labour Party conferences too. Trade unions and constituency Labour parties would send in motions on policy, which would then be "composited" by the union barons in the small hours of the morning in seedy Blackpool hotel rooms. The end result bore little resemblance to what members wanted, and even less resemblance to what the leadership wanted. No wonder Tony Blair replaced the whole cumbersome and corrupted process with a national policy forum, whose findings he could then politely ignore if they didn't suit.
Now Miliband is advocating more power over policy for his party members. Peter Hain, who chairs the national policy forum, is considering ideas such as allowing party conference to vote on a choice of policy alternatives rather than a single take-it-or-leave-it package. Members will also be encouraged to feed their views into the policy reviews being led by Shadow Cabinet members.
It's definitely a good idea for politicians to listen to their activists, particularly if they have just lost an election. After several terms in government, ministers do tend to become high-handed and out-of-touch. Ordinary Labour Party members could have warned them, for instance, that there was a desperate shortage of social housing and that this was fuelling resentment about immigration.
But listening to your members is different from being told what to do by them. The Conservatives have always understood this. "The idea of democratising the party is not a fallacy we've ever fallen for," one senior Tory told me yesterday. Hence there was nothing in the Conservative manifesto that made David Cameron feel uncomfortable.
Indeed, the only commitment that has caused him embarrassment while leader has been his undertaking to pull Conservative MEPs out of the European People's Party grouping. That was a pledge he made to garner right-wing votes in the leadership contest. At least he has only himself to blame – no one forced it on him.
Where party members ought to have power is over people. The wisdom of crowds is at its best when it comes to judgments of character, not the minutiae of policy. Party leaders should be elected through a one-member-one-vote system, with no special say for trade unions or MPs. That helps to ensure that the winning candidate has the greatest popular appeal. Open primaries to choose parliamentary candidates are also a good thing. They produced some really imaginative choices for the Tories before the last election. And it is right for party members to select candidates for local council seats. But beyond that, what? How can a party hold on to and recruit members, if it doesn't give them any other power?
Well, joining a political party is mainly a statement of identity; it tells the world what sort of person you are. If you are ambitious, it may give you the chance to stand as a candidate to be a councillor, MEP or MP. If not, it still gives you a cause to fight for, and principles that you broadly believe in. You can choose to do as little as fill in a direct debit form, or as much as traipsing round doorsteps in the rain.
That, after all, isn't much different from other membership organisations these days. If you join the RSPB or Amnesty International you don't expect to have a say over whether golden eagles should have more protection than hoopoes, or whether there should be an official protest against a visit by the Chinese President. You join because you love birds or hate human rights abuses, and you leave the leadership to get on with the job. In the case of a political party, at least you get the chance to choose the leader and the broad set of policies on which he or she wants to fight.
Party democracy isn't a ratchet. It is possible to roll it back. That's what Blair did with Labour, and it enabled him to make the party's policies far more voter-friendly, and to win three successive elections. Nick Clegg, unfortunately, is constrained by the stroppiness of his members. Ed Miliband is choosing to go in the opposite direction. No wonder David Cameron still looks so serene.