Since first reading Mary Kaldor’s piece at the LSE EUROPP blog this autumn about alternative social movements I’ve been fascinated by the practical meaning of the term “prefigurative action” that she mentions. Her description of the term is “the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that the participants imagine” – i.e. to behave in politics in the way that we behave in our normal lives. This, I think, is absolutely central to the problems our traditional party structures face, and it remains the reason people are inspired by Occupy, even if the practical outcomes Occupy can bring are so thin.But I do take issue with the implicit conclusion that even a fully distorted, first-past-the-post system doesn't leave room for a party to bridge the gap between the need to promote its own agenda, and the need to work with others who don't fully agree.
Take, for example, the new craze within the Labour Party in the UK to brand everything “One Nation”, started by Ed Miliband in his conference speech in October. I am a member of the party, but I have no idea how the mantra came into being. But now everyone follows it, shadow cabinet members and think tank wonks repeat it, and it has become party line. That process is not normal, it is not healthy. It is not practicing the kind of politics the participants imagine. Try changing the mission statement of a large corporation so abruptly and there would be harsh counter-reactions among the employees. In Labour there is slavish, flaccid loyalty among the devotees (at least in public), and a shrug from the 99.5% of the UK population that are not party members.
The problem is that being in a party for a decade squeezes the life, the straightforward honesty, the originality out of people. It is not that party people become dishonest per se, but more that the spontaneity, the vitality is drained from them. They will Google themselves compulsively to check how they are being perceived, rather that using the net to really make political change happen. They will use social networks to repeat the leadership’s line and show how diligent they are on #LabourDoorstep, rather than building networks beyond the party. Party politics is no “ecosystem fizzing with ideas”, the words Alex uses to describe the social innovation sector in the UK.
The problem is that the old ways still can win elections in the UK. Labour and the Tories can muster up enough activists in the 2015 election, and the first past the post election system will, as ever, mask that a third of the votes will be for non-mainstream parties, while 2/5 of the population will not vote at all. And in the meantime the media will frame all of this as a victory for some party or another, and yet our political system and the quality of our politics will be poorer as a result.
Let's not forget that it was less than two years ago that Canada's Prime Minister built his campaign message around an all-out assault on the very idea of cooperation and coalition-building. And the result wasn't to destroy the lone party which actually spoke up for those virtues, but to push it to a record showing which nearly toppled an unsuspecting governing party.
Which means that if too many politicians are earning themselves repeated lectures on the importance of working across party lines and listening to the wide range of actors affected by policy decisions, it reflects a lack of memory of recent events as well as more distant ones. While we may not have as many examples as we'd like, the available evidence suggests that Canadian voters will reward rather than punishing a party reaches beyond its own loyalists in the pursuit of shared values.
And that's merely within the existing voter pool. But as Worth notes, in the UK as elsewhere there's an increasingly large share of the population tuning out politics altogether as it becomes based more on brand competition than a sense of popular input and involvement. And if there's indeed some connection between those two factors, then it stands to reason that an "ecosystem fizzing with ideas" model might also be able to move the needle as a matter of crass partisan consideration by expanding the group of possible voters (an option I'll discuss in more detail in a post to come).
All of which is to say that there looks to be plenty of opportunity for parties to break out of the march-in-lockstep model - and that they may well benefit just as much as the broader political system for the effort.