Is the party over?


After a year of shocks to democratic orthodoxy, what does the future hold for modern political parties? In new research for the think tank Compass, Indra Adnan looks at where we go from here

29th November 2016
Mr Mozzarella of the Don't Cook Party at the Corby by-election in 2012

When Compass first began this piece of research (pdf), it was just after the UK general election 2015 – broadly understood as a debacle for the left. We had noted how, at crucial points in the campaign, when we needed some helpful analysis or inspiration from Labour central office, the only emails we received were selling us cheeky tea towels.

Today, in the light of two globally impactful political events – Brexit and the US elections – I've just received another offer: a limited edition calendar, called Labour Through the Ages. And nothing else.

Who, we wondered, do the Labour party think their members are? Following this question through has led us to other useful discoveries. For example, did you know that only 2 per cent of the British electorate is a member of a political party? That includes the Tories, UKIP, SNP, Greens and Lib Dems.

Who are 'the people'? And how do we stand up for them?

Of course, that doesn't mean only 2 per cent is politically active or interested. But it does mean that 98 per cent of 'the people' don't think it's worth joining up, and putting regular time (with a bit of money) behind any organisation that has a chance of leading or shaping government today.

And yet, single issue initiatives, broad movements, and interest groups of all kinds are clearly on the rise. Whether we are talking about the massive volume of political exchange on Facebook (1.57 billion active users), the plethora of petition sites (Avaaz has 45 million members) or the more engaged projects like the New Economics Organisers Network (NEON) (1,000 very active members), apathy does not seem to be the problem. So what is?

In this paper, Is The Party Over?, I use four analytical 'lenses' to identify forms of party-political practice – from the traditional to new (and sometimes experimental) forms.

Leadership: from authoritarian to post-egoic

Structure: from cartel parties to fractal, movement-driven ones

User experience: from member as servant to member as transformer

Culture: from ideological purism to values-based pluralism

There is plenty of inspiration available – though we borrow from a lot of European initiatives to find it.

So it is just a matter of party-political reform? Meaning that if the existing parties just got better, would that add up to more engagement and better democracy, leading us inexorably to the the Good Society? My conclusion is that it's unlikely.

Both Brexit and the US election have shifted the political debate significantly, forcing us to ask bigger questions about dominant political narratives. In particular: who are 'the people'? And how do we stand up for them?

When it’s the so-called 'right' who is championing direct democracy and self-rule against overbearing state or corporate power, what does 'progressive' mean any more?

For example, in Brexit, how did the Leave campaign manage to create a new political constituency out of those who are anti-globalisation and looking for more control over their lives? Surely that should be the left's domain?

In the USA, why did many women vote for a misogynist – and why did many of the disadvantaged vote against Obamacare? When it’s the so-called 'right' who is championing direct democracy and self-rule against overbearing state or corporate power, what does 'progressive' mean any more?

Can we continue to organise our politics along dualistic lines – left versus right, Democrats v Republicans – when the boundaries between them have been so clearly transgressed? Where can we go when progressive parties are locked in battle with each other and even within themselves, as Labour is?

Compass's decision to campaign for a Progressive Alliance addresses some of those issues. It asks competing parties on the left to come together in the interests of bringing in a new voting system, based on proportional representation. PR would generate a more pluralist politics, reflecting more accurately the will and preferences of the public. But it is an uphill struggle. As long as most of them still retain the dream of being able to win an outright majority of seats in a UK general election, only a handful of Labour MPs are – and will be – in favour of PR.

If we truly stand for people power, why back away when it emerges and surges, and automatically fear it as a right-wing phenomenon?

Is this fixation with party fortunes over outcomes for the voters exactly where the current notion of political parties is failing us? When any one party is singularly focused on their comparative advantage over other parties, will it be open to forces moving outside the regular political terrain? The online voter-mobilisation platform Leave.EU was arguably more instrumental in bringing about Brexit than UKIP – itself a party with only one MP. What links Brexit with Trump is much more instrumental than ideological – check this on the role of media organisation Breitbart and their success as creating narratives that reach the 'hard to reach'. We are living in a world where creativity, emotional literacy and sheer chutzpah have more sway than morality, class and abstract theory. In his capacity as arbiter of post-truth campaigning on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg could become a more effective politician than Jeremy Corbyn.

But why should this move into a more populist politics be a reason to mourn or quake? If we truly stand for people power, why back away when it emerges and surges, and automatically fear it as a right-wing phenomenon? If the political party is to survive as relevant into the 21st century, its new role must be to capture and serve better the needs of people as they are being revealed to us, in real time. Not the superficial needs, elicited simply through triggering fear and loathing, but the deeper needs lurking underneath.

It's not enough any more to think that a standard left rhetoric about providing jobs and housing for people – however important these provisions are – will suffice. Political parties must be able and willing to tap into more fundamental emotional needs, to earn the support of 'the people' they so often invoke. What imagery and metaphors, animating what policies, can champion the human need for autonomy, belonging, status, control, privacy, meaning and purpose?

And this may not be the task of politicians alone: being able to work better within society, reflecting social developments, partnering with social actors – activists of course but also artists, scientists, educators – might bring them down from their mountain-tops and make politics more accessible overall. So, after the party as the vehicle of ideology and political power, might we see the party as a network, a hub, a vehicle for social transformation?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not against tea towels – or raising money – both pretty essential. But maybe next time it could have a picture of Rosa Parks or our beautiful planet on it – something for the 98 per cent?

You can read the full report here (pdf)

This piece was originally published at Open Democracy and has been republished under Creative Commons


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