Leading Article: Give the new pressure parties a good airing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Buying a Party Election Broadcast could be one of the cheapest kinds of advertising, and a host of "pressure parties" have sprung up to take advantage of it. For just pounds 25,000, the cost of 50 deposits at pounds 500 per candidate, anyone posing as a political party is entitled to a five-minute broadcast.

The anti-abortionists are at the head of the growing queue for guaranteed airtime. Behind them are the pro- and anti-handgun lobbies, fathers who don't like the Child Support Agency, animal rights activists and maybe the gay rights pressure group Outrage. At this rate, every seat in the general election will boast an array of candidates as colourful as any by-election, with Green, Referendum, UK Independence, Monster Raving Loony and Natural Law candidates in many or most seats as well as the staple fare of Con, Lab and Lib Dem. But this is not (just) the lovable eccentricity of British tradition - the Bill Boaks Tendency, for those of us old enough to remember that veteran of lost deposits. Pressure parties are the new phenomenon of British politics.

Once, people who felt passionate about a cause went on demonstrations. People who are old enough to remember Commander Bill Boaks probably remember those too. But as a way of putting pressure on mainstream politicians, demos were cold, time-consuming and ineffective. So today's pressure groups have gone in different directions: direct action and professional lobbying are two avenues; but, as the election nears, a third approach has come to the fore - using the electoral system to gain publicity and exert leverage on the main political parties.

Some see "single issue" candidates as a threat. Unsurprisingly, these include some sitting MPs. Tim Wood, Conservative MP for marginal Stevenage, yesterday described the development as "a perversion of the normal democratic processes". We disagree. We welcome the use of the democratic system by people who care passionately and want to see change. That is what democracy is for. The last thing we should do is set out to frustrate it.

With the possible exception of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, we know that almost all the pressure party candidates will have no impact whatever on the outcome in their constituencies, but they will have an impact on politics defined more broadly. Even in safe Labour seats, of which pollsters tell us there are around 500 at present, fringe candidates will force the future MPs to state their position at least on abortion, gun control, crated veal and no doubt many other issues. The pressure groupies will take part in hustings and radio debates, get local television coverage, be taken seriously by local newspapers. The issues that they want to get discussed will get discussed. Clearly this paper lends no support to the so-called pro-life lobby; but the best way to deal with poor arguments is to expose them to democratic scrutiny. What better scrutiny is there than an election? Besides, putting up candidates is better than the intimidatory American approach of picketing clinics and harassing nurses and doctors.

It should be added that the Pro-Life Alliance has no chance of using its political broadcast, as some of its members want, to show footage of a late aborted foetus. This would, quite rightly, be ruled out of order by the television regulators under existing taste and decency guidelines.

With that off the agenda, a vigorous debate about abortion is healthy. The invention of pressure parties will likewise promote debate on other "single issues", and bring democratic pressure to bear on the broad coalitions which are the main parties. However, this flowering of competitive democracy will only last until 1 May, or whenever the day falls. Forming a party may be a cheap way of buying five minutes of airtime on three channels, but you can only do it once every few years (during general and European election campaigns). Then, after the first-past-the-post system has delivered its winner-takes-all verdict, the campaigners will disband their parties and wind down their propaganda.

The intriguing question raised by this new style of pressure-politics is what would happen under a fairer voting system. What would we say if an anti-abortion party of half a dozen MPs held the balance of power in a new horseshoe-shaped assembly? In reality, the single issue of abortion could not sustain a political party, even under a reformed system. It is conceivable that the abortion issue could form part of the platform of an explicitly Christian party, and this may be the intention of some of those on the fringes of the Movement for Christian Democracy, whose chairman is standing against Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate. But any attempt to particularise and politicise Christian beliefs in this way is bound to lead to a splintering even of committed Christian voters.

It is true that some issues are less single than others, and then they might, under a proportional system, gain the odd seat or two. Environmental concerns, for examples, amount to a coherent philosophy. If the green movement became big enough and strong enough again, then it should be heard in parliament - as it should have been heard in the European Parliament in 1989, when the Green Party won 15 per cent of the vote.

In short, there is nothing to fear from pressure parties. The only thing to fear is what follows when their voices fall silent.