What are the three elements you need to launch a successful new political party, in these turbulent days?
Interesting column from Geoff Mulgan, the departing head of Nesta, the innovation foundation [disclaimer: Pat Kane, editor of the Daily Alternative, works as a freelance curator for Nesta’s FutureFest]. It dwells on their past work on new, digitally-driven political parties (like the 5 Star Movement, Podemos and the Pirate Party), and how this might illuminate our contemporary political turbulence.
With varying fates, new parties like the Brexit Party and Change UK have launched themselves (and there’s a Wikipedia list of the many hundreds currently operating in the UK). But considering all these, and including recent phenomenon like Macron’s EnMarche and Volodymyr Zelensky’s ‘Servant of the People’ party in the Ukraine, Mulgan came up with three key elements for launching a successful political party:
Leadership/Attention: First, to succeed they needed to grab attention. That usually meant having a charismatic leader without political baggage – like Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) or Beppo Grillo (5Star) – who were already well known, could gain the attention of national media and project freshness and novelty. A grassroots movement on its own was not enough.
Internet/Organisation: Second, they needed strong internet-based organisation and technical data skills, to recruit and then organise a large membership or supporters group from scratch.
Narrative/Sticky messages: Third, they needed a simple diagnosis of what was wrong, and a simple prescription as to what needed to be done.
These were the essentials. There were plenty of other important elements – including money, and an irreverent, ‘up yours’ ethos – as well as clever tactics. But these were the key ones, and they could make up for the inevitable raggedness, unprofessionalism and contradictory messages that are endemic to insurgent parties of this kind.
Emmanuel Macron was unusual in achieving some of this while coming from the heart of the system (helped by several huge doses of luck with the implosion of the centre right front-runner, a disorganised left and a far-right adversary still seen as beyond the pale).
Nigel Farage has been the closest equivalent in the UK (twice, first for UKIP and then for the Brexit Party), and of course he studied M5S closely. He fits all three conditions. He also had the backing of the most powerful media barons. The new centrist party Change UK, by contrast, met none of the criteria. It had no charismatic leader; very weak Internet capacity; and only the vaguest prescription – which made its failure all too predictable.
Mulgan speculates on the future:
British politics looks set for a series of combustions and implosions, which could further corrode the conventional wisdoms. The main parties may go through further occasional surges (as both Tories and Labour did in 2017) and crashes, but the space for new parties looks set to grow, not shrink as electoral battlegrounds become more competitive. And we could see some new options in both the centre and the left that better pass the three tests.
Then the big question will be whether they can consolidate. The internet tools used by the insurgent parties are fantastic for campaigning, but much less well-suited to government (as M5S has discovered).
So the future probably lies both with old parties that can reinvent themselves, adopting the best tools from the new ones; and new parties that are smart enough to adopt some of the vital capabilities of the old, including sustaining a local base of councillors and activists, resolving policy dilemmas and handling the inevitable compromises of government.
We began A/UK in 2017, with an acute sense that the party system had broken down (see Indra Adnan’s paper for Compass, and our own blog category). The last few years have confirmed this breakdown, to say the least. But we are as interested in Mulgan in the evolutions of representative democracy going forward - yet maybe driven by an everyday community revival that looks to create new structures (like a “citizens action network”) to contain our hopes and plans.