Why don't parties represent their members' views?

The two issues of taxation, for Labour, and Europe, for the Tories, best underline the political mess

Addressing a group of public affairs consultants with me, last Friday, Mark Seddon, the editor of the left-wing journal Tribune and a member of Labour's National Executive Committee, described both the Labour and Conservative parties as "empty shells". He is right. On all the main questions of policy neither party is now prepared to reflect, without equivocation, the true views of their members or supporters. Small wonder, then, that their respective party memberships are declining, if the leaderships expend much of their efforts trying to distance themselves from their activists.

The two issues of taxation and Europe best underline this. Peter Hain may have fumbled in his awkward attempt to get a debate going on tax within the Labour Party, but at least he understands that, for party workers and trade unionists, Labour's underlying mission should be to tax the rich, redistribute the proceeds to the poor and use the state to provide free public services.

Similarly, on Europe the Tory leadership opposes the single currency and the proposed constitution, yet it continues to support membership of the European Union when it is patently obvious that most of its activists - and probably its potential supporters - would, given the chance, vote in a general election for a policy of withdrawal from the EU.

The problem for modern politics arises from parties being in thrall to pollsters and focus groups. This leads each party to be under an obligation to rival the other, down to a consensus common denominator, on nearly every policy issue. This means each party's previously distinctive policies are becoming so watered down that they are neither appealing to their bedrock supporters nor the wider electorate.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown originally thought their policy on top-rate income tax would become a permanent electoral nirvana. What a clever ruse it seemed all those years ago when they ditched traditional Labour policy in favour of the Tory tax agenda. They have been painfully reminded by Mr Hain of how this policy is now likely to cost them votes. No wonder they wanted to shut him up. But he is addressing a fatal flaw in New Labour's taxation policy. Increasingly, middle-income earners are being sucked into the 40 per cent tax bracket because of an unwillingness to address "fiscal drag", but the debate on this has been closed down by a panic-stricken Prime Minister who ought to have recognised just what an excellent service Mr Hain was providing.

It may well be that, as some experts suggest, a 52 per cent higher tax rate on £100,000 would be the implied level in order to recoup the revenue that would be lost by increasing the threshold at which the 40 per cent rate is payable to £38,000 per annum. But imagine just how many traditional Labour supporters would actually have something to cheer in the constituency general management committees. Instead of feeling battered and bruised, they might be prepared to get on to the streets and campaign with enthusiasm. Turnout might even increase in Labour's heartland areas and the Government, if re-elected, might actually have some authority.

The trouble with New Labour, as Mr Seddon pointed out, is that it does not really want to be a mass party any longer. It wishes to secure just enough votes in the "right" constituencies in order to win and is no longer much concerned about its former bedrock supporters - let alone the underclass. New Labour has bought the Tory tax rhetoric, but it has not understood that this implies an annual requirement to adjust tax-band thresholds upwards. The party will enter the next election in the unenviable position, from a Labour activist's perspective, of dragging more people into the tax net than its avowedly tax-raising predecessors of the 1970s.

In much the same way, the Tories have allowed themselves to become terrified of the charge that they are the anti-European Party. But what is wrong with being publicly anti-European and embracing the fact that polls consistently show that over 40 per cent of the public, given the chance to withdraw from Europe, would vote to do so? Such a withdrawal would provide an annual saving of over £10bn, being the net contribution that the UK pays as its annual membership fee.

The logic of withdrawal makes sense to those - the majority - who see joining the single currency and signing up to the new constitutional convention as a disaster for Britain. Tories would be able to campaign with enthusiasm on a policy in which they genuinely believed. Instead, they sit squirming as Mr Blair blunts their legitimate attacks on his European policy. Yet they would be better able to energise their activists if they carried through the logic of their policy and embraced withdrawal.

Think what a battle royal there would be at the next election if the main political parties actually campaigned on behalf of their members' beliefs. Turnouts would certainly be up. Party activism would once again become an honourable volunteer pastime. Political parties belong, first, to their supporters. The electorate has the right to have the final say, but, in the long run, the voters are ill served by parties that are empty shells based on what they are told by focus groups rather than their own supporters.