Beneath these European Elections is a fundamental crisis of existing party politics. What new forms are needed?
As we’re writing in the days before the Sunday polling count for the European Elections, we won’t say anything too specific. But we have been noticing how commentators have been gradually waking up to the structural crisis in UK party politics, which we at A/UK (and in papers we’ve written a few years ago) have been anatomising and strategising about for ages. Here’s a selection:
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What’s a politics for Generation C, asks the FT’s Gillian Tett:
…My daughters (and I) have become part of what I like to call “Gen C” — Generation Customisation. We have quietly slipped into a world where we can personalise our consumption rather than accept a predetermined package.
This shift is so stealthy we often ignore it. But it is affecting almost all areas of consumption. When we listen to music today, we stream personalised playlists, say, rather than buying entire albums or listening to the radio.
When we consume news media, we click on individual articles from a variety of sources rather than buying just one newspaper. However, I suspect that we are also increasingly projecting this consumer shift on to other areas of our life — such as politics.
For just as preset television schedules or albums jar with Gen C, the idea of pre-packaged political parties seems less attractive and inevitable too. Gen C is rallying around issues, brands, celebrities and ideas that matter to them, unconstrained by traditional party lines. As I have written before, we can think of this as the rise of pick ’n’ mix politics, where many voters and politicians choose to create their own political “playlist”.
Citing Farage’s Brexit Party (and its drumbeat on democracy), Ocasio-Cortez’s tight focus on a Green New Deal, and even Trump’s vague sloganising, Tett continues:
…This partly reflects the polarised and poisonous climate in the UK over Brexit. But it may also reflect rising antipathy among voters towards the idea of traditional parties as a whole — and a preference to rally around single issues in a more personal, customised way.
…Gen C no longer regards “political action” as something that is done according to a timetable in preset places such as voting booths. They want to express their political views in cyberspace whenever it suits them, via Twitter, Instagram or anything else.
No, this viral chatter is not “politics” as we knew it in the 20th century; it does not (yet) have as much impact as casting a vote in a ballot box. But the explosive nature of online viral political movements — on issues ranging from climate change to #MeToo activism — is striking.
The key point is this: just as digital technology has disrupted almost every other aspect of our modern life, it is starting to disrupt our ideas of what it means to have a political “voice”. The problem, though, is that our institutions have not kept pace.
So, as the hand-wringing intensifies around the EU elections, the fascinating question is not simply whether party politics is breaking down; it is whether we can imagine a system that might seem more effective in this Gen C age. Do we need more referendums? Online polls? Entirely fluid parties? Is there a better way, in other words, to engage political voices in a digital, personalised age?
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Richard Seymour argued that The Brexit Party is not really a party at all - or it may be a completely new form of one:
At face value, the Brexit Party is an emergency, single issue vehicle. It has no declared programme. According to Farage, it will not declare a programme until afterthe European elections. It has no democratic structure. Strictly speaking, it has no members. You can sign up to be a 'registered supporter', but as yet this comes with no rights.
The party's constitution holds that the leader can only be deposed by a vote of no confidence on the part of a board appointed by the leader. If there is to be a policy discussion after the election, it will be conducted by Farage, Richard Tice and the leadership-appointed board. The 'grassroots' can share content on social media, attend ticketed events at which Farage speaks, and apply to be candidates, but that's it.
In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, Arron Banks and Nigel Farage each spoke of the possibility of a post-UKIP organisation. Something without the laboriously democratic, membership-based structures, not to mention internal factions and power struggles, of UKIP. A networked party, something like the Five Star Movement. Almost three years on, and that project has borne fruit. As Farage recently put it:
I've watched the growth of the Five Star Movement, from its inception, with absolute fascination. The genius of setting up this new way of doing politics, an online platform... and, hey, look at what we're doing. Look at what we're already doing in four weeks, we're doing the same kind of thing.
This is the Digital Party, of which Paolo Gerbaudo has written. In a way, it's less a party than a new form of company, like a venture capitalist-funded start-up. It emulates the platforms, engaging people neither as consumers nor as a demos, but as carefully administered and manipulated data points.
And it is incredibly data-hungry. It elicits 'engagement' and 'feedback', and it is possible that, as with the Five Star Movement, the Brexit Party will even evolve some plebiscitary forms of 'direct democracy'. But all of it will be built around the central authority of the charismatic leader, and his emotional relationship with his supporters.
One thing that the online platform party is terribly good at it, is gaming the social industry. As we, and they, have learned from Trump, one does't need a detailed policy agenda when one knows how to manipulate the volatile attention flows of new media.
You make sure you say and do things that the media can't not report on. You carefully script 'throwaway' remarks, or 'eccentric' campaigning choices. You make a professional operation look like it's a seat-of-its-pants, barely-hanging-together jumble, always tremulously on the brink of collapse.
…There is a real danger of capitulating to the mystique of such organisations, while appearing to criticise them…We will need to learn how to oppose without fuelling the attention cycle, or without ourselves being gamed.
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Quoted by Seymour, the author of The Digital Party, Paulo Gerbado, writes here (in an excerpt from the book )in Novara Media.
Like Facebook and other digital companies, the “digital party” promises “disintermediation” - cutting out the middle-man and the bureaucracy, giving you direct voice and input through its “platform”. However, when it comes to politics, not cat videos… "intermediation” sneakily comes back in again…
Firstly, the role of intermediation performed by digital parties consists in the centralisation of organisational functions, which is the necessary counterpart of more distributed and open access.
This may be described as a “distributed centralisation”, a process of organisational polarisation that empowers both the leadership and ordinary members at the expense of the cadres and the bureaucracy.
This counter-intuitive trend is echoed in Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s discussion of big organising, where “the plan is centralised and the work is distributed”. Namely, in the digital party there is a greater openness and flexibility in the way in which people can participate, but this goes hand in hand with a strong central control about strategy.
The key way in which this centralisation is attained is through the construction of a centralised database of members which is constantly queried by the various scripts used in their participatory platforms. This situation contrasts sharply with the custom of traditional branch-based parties in which lists of members were often maintained locally and local cadres had much influence over the decision-making process.
On this front, digital parties seem to continue on a track of development that was already visible embryonically in the plebiscitary transformation of ‘cartel parties’, which introduced primaries and direct leadership elections. This could be justified on the basis of greater organisational efficiency and a more direct membership democracy.
But this centralisation of the members’ list and of the decision-making process obviously raises questions about its consequences for internal power dynamics. Particularly in view of the significant advantage it accords the existing leadership vis-à-vis possible contenders.
Secondly, even though the platformisation of parties is often presented as a means to allow the membership to be listened to in an unsupervised manner without any top-down control or bias, this is hardly the case.
Advocates claim that digital platforms will champion spontaneous and authentic engagement, allowing ‘the people to decide’ on whatever issue, without any pre-defined decision or indication coming from the leadership.
Hereby, emphasis is laid on the process, where “the workflow becomes an iterative, evolutionary process of trial and error, of constantly adapting and improving, without anybody’s supervision to make it happen”, as proposed by Falkvinge.
This narrative casts an image of the platform as a transparent and purely technical apparatus, a digital version of the square of any physical gathering space that serves merely to bring people together.
This metaphor of the agora often goes with proclaims of leaderlessness, voiced by politicians in the Pirate Party and the Five Star Movement, or more moderate attempts to say that leadership is simply a ‘spokespersonship’ or a ‘facilitation’ of what people have decided collectively.
Yet this narrative serves precisely to conceal the persistence of power structures within the party, and of forms of management and influence of the decision-making process… Simply, it is the platform - with its biases and hidden forms of control - that becomes the intermediary.
This hidden bias becomes apparent at different levels:
in the leanings inherent in decision-making software and the way it allows for certain behaviours while prohibiting others;
in the process of management of decision-making and the way in which the party staff can influence the results of digital ballots through their timing and the formulation of questions submitted to the base;
and it highlights how, far from the edifying picture of a digital ‘basic democracy’, digital parties often correspond more to a model of plebiscitarian democracy, which is strongly top-down in its orientation.
Thirdly, platformisation results in a subordination of content to process, sometimes at the cost of the loss of a coherent party line. To understand this point it is worth musing upon the changing meaning of the term platform in party discourse.
Traditionally, in political contexts, the term platform was used to indicate the set of policies pursued by a political party, typically presented before elections in the party manifesto. By inverting the order of the terms platform and party, the digital party also inverts the meaning of the notion of platform.
Emphasis moves away from content and towards process. What keeps the party together is no longer the adherence to and pursuit of a given set of policies, seen to embody the party’s objectives, in accordance with its ideology… But rather, it’s an ethos of open participation which binds together members, and their experience of common involvement in decision-making and campaigning efforts.
The party becomes process-oriented. It is the temporary and never finished product of an ever-changing dynamic: it constantly responds and adapts to the transformation of the environment. And this proceduralism ends up carrying evident risks for the party’s identity and strategic coherence.
The digital party may profit much from its being cloud-like, which in turn is what allows it to be capable of almost wondrous growth, similar to the business model of start-up companies. However, by the same token it is also as inconsistent as the clouds.
It can condense great popular anger and hope, and flash thunderbolts of rage, but just like a cloud it can also rapidly disperse into blue skies and thin air in response to the ever-changing winds of public opinion.
Ultimately, unless the digital party manages to find a way to give solidity to its energy—either by routinising the charisma of the hyper-leader or giving weight to its organisational structure—it risks experiencing the same mortality rate of start-ups. Or worse, could end up becoming a party just like the others it so vehemently criticises.