In Defence of the Party

Reflections on ‘After the Party’ seminar held on 24 April 2014 at Birkbeck University of London , Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life.

Political parties are still our best hope for articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities, but they need renewal.

By Dr Danny Rye

Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck University of London

It is almost a truism to say that political parties are in decline. Their memberships have dwindled away to historically low numbers, and although they are still effective vehicles for recruiting candidates and political elites and organising government and opposition, their capacity to fulfil their democratic roles of articulating and aggregating interests, mobilising and integrating populations, facilitating popular choice and control are seriously in doubt. Thus, if this is the case and the party is dead or dying, what comes after the party?

There were two broad strands of opinion on the panel. The first, represented by Neal Lawson of Compass and Liam Barrington-Bush (from More Like People), was that parties as we know them are all but finished as bridges between the electorate and the state and urgently need to be replaced by something more relevant and effective.

Lawson argued that social media facilitates a flattening process which reduces the cost of organisation and makes a more egalitarian, cooperative politics possible, or at least easier. This, he says, can support the development of a kind of politics where we solve problems ourselves rather than ‘waiting for heroes’ to do so for us. The future of political organisation needs to be more like an ‘open tribe’, pluralistic, adaptive and relational. For Barrington-Bush self-organisation is the key. Institutions like parties are based on a lack of trust in people and empowers an enlightened elite over ordinary people. People are far better at self-organising than they are given credit for and we don’t need top down strategies or elites to tell us what to do. What is needed is more autonomy: the kinds of networks that have emerged out of the Occupy movement, which have provided practical solutions to problems of everything from housing and finance to participative decision-making show us what can be done when people are free to organise themselves.

The second broad line of argument, represented by Nick Anstead of the LSE and James Dennis – a research student at Royal Holloway – was that parties are by no means dead but need to adapt to survive.

Anstead argued that parties have become distant and elitist, vacating the social arenas and become subsumed into an elitist, state-centred vehicle for winning power. Part of this has been motivated by the desire of political leaders to wrest control of their parties from a dwindling band of ideological activists who alienated the mainstream electorate (New Labour springs to mind). In doing so, however, political elites have themselves alienated the public by eroding the ‘bridge’ between them. The possibility that technology offers is material with which to rebuild that bridge, creating space for participation, dialogue and pluralism. Dennis pointed out that organisations like 38 Degrees are increasingly acting as that bridge. Most famous for mobilising large-scale single issue campaigns via the web and social media, they are increasingly focusing energy on building capacity, providing people and communities with the tools they need to organise their own campaigns through the use of web tools and templates. Crucial to this model is not by-passing political parties, but communicating and working with them as articulators of public interest.

The common theme that emerges from these arguments is that mainstream political parties have a problem in that they simply haven’t adapted to the changing social and political landscape. Their structures and organisation are products of a bygone age when they were not only political machines but the centre of social life in many communities (Conservative Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs for example), and – especially in Labour’s case –working lives too. As this social role has diminished so has the articulation of distinctive class interests, and thus their ability to mobilise. The world has changed and so has the way people relate to each other, socialise and organise. People are less inclined to join and submit to the disciplines of ‘traditional’ party life. They are less deferent, more articulate about their rights and opinions and, with the help of social media, more able to organise and express themselves. If they are to survive – and I would argue that it is important that they do – parties need to recognise and embrace this.

All of this points towards possibilities for the renewal of political participation facilitated in part by the possibilities that social media provides. This is not an idea which is exclusive to the left either nor one that mainstream parties have ignored: from the right, Douglas Carswell amongst others, are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers for refreshing political participation and activism. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister has argued that their respective parties’ fortunes can be revived by redefining the relationship between supporters, members and party elites, an idea which is being taken very seriously within the Labour Party. Indeed, the signs are that parties are increasingly seeking to blur the distinction between ‘formal’ members and less formal supporters in the hope of reviving participation. The way in which the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed activism through technology has been held up as something of a model to learn from.

However, these kinds of approaches are still somewhat elite driven and although perhaps it goes some way to addressing problems of participation, it does not go far enough. Too often the problem of political engagement, why aren’t people joining, campaigning and voting for them is framed as a problem that political parties need to solve by making a better product, or by marketing it better. This misses the point and indeed perhaps says something about what theproblem is in the first place. It is not a case so much of parties ‘listening’ or ‘responding’ to potential voters, so much as to open up and let other voices in. To survive, in other words, parties need to let go.

Nonetheless, we cannot reject parties out of hand. Parties also provide a continuity of organisation and an access to political power at a national level that flatter, more transient forms of self-organisation cannot so easily do. As Barbara Zollner of Birkbeck pointed out, although social media and spontaneous forms of grass-roots organisation have played crucial roles in recent revolutions in the Middle East in particular, the failure of more traditional forms of organisation like parties, has perhaps gone some way to undoing them in places like Egypt especially. The powerful elites in society (like the Egyptian army) are well-organised and disciplined and therefore those that seek to challenge them must be also.

Thus parties may have isolated and distanced themselves in recent years, but they are still our best hope of providing a channel through which the electorate’s voice can be heard in the halls of government, articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities. These roles are vital to democratic health and to provide them, parties need to re-imagine themselves. They need to understand themselves as part of wider movements and thus be much more open, much more willing to allow a plurality of voices to find articulation, much less concerned with command and control. This is vital to the renewed relevance and flourishing of organisations which at their best can provide some form of linkage, however filtered or indirect, between the political elite and the ordinary voter.

But the rest of us too must recognise that although politics can be understood as many things – the pursuit of the ‘good-life’ or the good society, the pursuit of power –it is also in part the art of compromise. The way in which we organise ourselves can enhance the autonomy of individuals and communities and maximise political empowerment, but that does not mean that we can always get what we want. It does, however, mean that we might have more chance of getting heard.

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