Why Parties Need to Change But Not Too Much.

Parties need to adapt to the changing ways in which people engage in politics, but they must also challenge  individualised consumerist politics and provide a platform for collective decision-making and accountability.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a recent article for Labour Uncut, Peter Watt – a former General Secretary of the Labour Party – argued that traditional political parties are under threat.  Parties need to wake up to how the ways in which people engage (or not) with politics have changed.  In particular, parties need to use social media platforms to engage with members of the public beyond the narrow confines of a community of politicians or activists.  They need to seek invitations into and meet people in their worlds rather than making ‘clumsy attempts’ to entice them into traditional political settings.

This would require no less than a revolution, not just in the way that political parties engage with the outside world, but also how they are organised: for example becoming ‘flatter’, more ‘networked’, a new kind of ‘cyber party’ using web-based technologies to build relationships directly with voters.  This perhaps means departing from out-dated notions of ‘membership’ which suited the age of the mass class-based party, but is out of step with political engagement in the contemporary world (indeed, the Labour Party may have taken an important step towards this already with the launch last year of the Labour Supporters Network).

On the face of it, this is a sensible thing for parties to do.  Since the heyday of two party politics, we have undergone a social revolution.  People do not feel they need to be committed traditional political parties anymore: the social role they used to play has long been lost to the market (which is a problem all social institutions like churches, clubs and societies have faced) and allegiances based on class have dissolved, being replaced by a more fragmented identity politics, or by brands and consumer-oriented niche interests.  Similarly, political activity and commitments have shifted into the increasingly crowded market-place of single issue causes (like conservation or aid) and specialised interests, or relatively spontaneous ‘grass-roots’ campaigns such as those organised by 38 Degrees or Occupy.  In short, no one has to submit to the disciplines of party life because one can pick and choose which causes to support with no need for messy compromise or accommodation.

Underlying all this is a consumerist ideology, in which ‘free’ individuals make rational decisions based on our interests and desires.  The modern consumer-citizen can expect to get what she wants when she wants it, with little concern for ‘collective’ or ‘class’ interest, which belong to the drab paternalistic world of the past.   And if people do not need political parties to meet their interests, then all they are is a means by which the powerful and those that wish to join them seek to dominate others.  Why, then, should anyone else want to participate in them?  Indeed, why should parties as we know them even exist in a world where everyone potentially has their own platform?

I would argue that parties must have a future if representative democracy is to remain healthy.  Yes, they must change and adapt to the world as it is, but they must also provide a challenge to the individualistic and atomised politics, which ultimately lead to politics being dominated by remote elites.  Thus, any attempt to meet and engage people in ‘their worlds’ must not be to the detriment of three crucial roles that parties have to different degrees played in representative democracies.

Firstly, parties provide a structure for collective political activity and expression which individualised media and fragmented causes cannot.  In particular, the party provides an arena for debate and a system for making and influencing policy.  It provides clear rules and procedures and a context of shared values that gives focus and meaning to the process and its outcomes, even if that outcome is not the one desired by all participants.  Party members and activists I have interviewed as part of my own research have talked about how much they have valued being able to contribute to debates, even when they knew they would probably not get their way.  In attempting to attract more support, parties must not lose sight of this.  It is something that the fragmented politics of single issues and social media cannot offer.

Meeting the demands of all the fragmented competitive interests in society is impossible and  dividing people up into specific causes and atomised voices undermines the ability of people to act collectively.  If we cannot act collectively we run the risk of becoming dominated by those that can, or who do not need to: that is, ever more remote political elites and the powerful interest groups lobbying for a small slice of the policy pie. This leads the individual even less able to influence the context and content of politics, despite the opportunities they have to express their opinions and pursue their desires.  Parties can play an important role in educating people to understand this and providing them with a platform that is effective because it is collective.

Secondly, parties can and should provide some kind of ‘linkage’ between those that seek to govern and the generality of voters.  This, many would argue, is precisely the reason they must change.  However, the quality of this linkage is crucial too:  it is vital that action designed to make parties more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ avoids the danger of hollowing them out even further.  Providing a more direct transmission belt between party representatives and the public could be an important act of ‘democratisation’ but the danger is that it bypasses the organised, collective power of a membership and replaces it with an uneven relationship between an elite with all the advantages and resources and a series of fragmented voices with no collective authority or power.  A democratic party organisation can supply that collective authority to speak to and challenge elites which a ‘network’ cannot.

Vibrant political parties that engage with supporters and give them real power can be vital to ensuring that the needs of real communities are reflected in the policy process, in other words to ensure that parties remain rooted in the places in which people live.  Of course, that means branching out into online communities too.  But however parties respond to the challenges of modern life, they must attempt to engage people not only by meeting them in their worlds on their terms, but also by challenging the atomisation of consumerist politics and drawing people into a greater sense of collective life.  Social media is part of this and must be used to help bring it about, but the medium must not become the message and it must not end up driving politics in a direction which is even more atomised and unequal.

This brings me to the third reason why so-called ‘traditional’ parties remain important:  stable, healthy party organisations with meaningful accountability mechanisms are a crucial check on overmighty leaders.  In our political system, parties are the means by which leaders are selected and their support sustained.  Whereas in some systems, parties are vehicles for leaders and can be discarded when they are no longer of use, here leaders are arguably vehicles for parties.  Thus they can be removed if they become detached, remote, or a threat to the political or electoral health of the party.  ‘Network’ parties in which political leaders communicate directly with the voters may allow leaders to circumvent the need for an active and powerful membership base whilst at the same time appearing to be more ‘democratic’.  This may make them more politically nimble and even more responsive to the public in some sense, but without proper structures of accountability and powers of recall, parties may be little more than empty brands, engaged with individuals on a superficial level: surfing the mood of the mass whilst providing no means to check the power of leaders and replace them from time to time.

Thus, in summary, whilst I agree with Peter Watt that parties must adapt to new realities, this must not be a pretext for abandoning the democratic role that old-fashioned organisations can play.  I do not suggest that parties as they are now perform these roles perfectly and at times there have been worrying indications that parties are responding to problems like membership decline by attempting to undermine the basis for it.

Parties are collective organisations trying to survive in an individualised age.  They are hierarchical broadcasters in an era of networks and interactive social media.  But whilst they must adapt to these changing modes of communication and engagement, they need to do so in such a way that provides a challenge to the individualism and atomisation that poses very real dangers to democracy.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 22 MARCH 2013 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London