Momentum and the future of political parties

bannerThere have been some very odd reactions to the announcement that the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign has now regenerated itself into a new organisation called Momentum. Some appear to think that because it starts with an M, it must be harking back to Militant while others appear to have decided that it’s clearly a front group for the Trotskyite takeover of the Labour Party. It’s a good example of another political irregular verb: I promote internal debate, you’re a factionalist, they’re creating a party within a party.

Aside from all the arguments about what an organisation that’s existed for about 48 hours will do in the future, I think it shows an interesting development in people’s perceptions of the Labour Party (and perhaps political parties more widely) and how party structures might develop in the future. Until recently, Labour had become what Katz and Mair call a ‘cartel party‘, an essentially technocratic organisation that reinforced the political system. However, the surge in its membership since the general election (especially during and after the leadership election) appears to be turning Labour back into a mass-membership party, though potentially unlike any we’ve seen before. Previous iterations of parties as mass-membership organisations developed over long periods of time with strong community structures that sustained and institutionalised that membership. This current surge is not just rapid, it comes into party structures that have been reduced and hollowed out over the years as the mass membership withered away.

What Labour reminds me of now more than anything is the major parties in American politics. One mistake Europeans often make in looking at US politics is to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are similar to our political parties, when their function is quite different. They work much more as empty shells, waiting to be filled at each election cycle with the candidate and their supporters, with the permanence of any version of the party – nationally and locally – dependent solely on electoral success. The candidate is more important than the party, and networks are just as likely to be built around individuals than they are around the party. The party becomes just a framework for candidate organisations to work in and populate, only giving it permanence after they’re successful and need it to remain in place for re-election.

This, I think, fits more with what people are expecting of political parties today and explains the need for organisations like Momentum. The old mass-membership structures were based around political parties as social organisations as much as they were political ones, but with so many other social opportunities available to fill people’s time, the desire now is much more for the political. Groups that will cut away all the rigmarole and bureaucracy of running a political party are much more likely to arise in order to allow people to engage solely with the politics and the campaigning side.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar organisations emerge around the Tories as well, especially in the wake of the EU referendum. it’s easy to see someone like Boris Johnson trying to draw together assorted Eurosceptics into a movement to support his bid for the leadership, perhaps with the same surprising result as happened with Labour. Conservative Party structures and membership have been hollowed out just as much as Labour’s (perhaps even more so), and those seeking to rely on insider campaigns for the leadership could find themselves in the same position as Burnham, Kendall and Cooper.

2015 General Election Day 27: Cordon sanitaire

This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.