New parties the world over are using technology to enhance democratic engagement, and the UK could be nextby Geoff Mulgan / December 30, 2014 / Leave a comment
This is an exciting moment for new parties in Europe, such as the UK Independence Party, Germany’s Alternative fuer Deutschland, the Finns Party and the Sweden Democrats, all of whom are benefitting from anger and distrust directed against incumbent politicians and elites. Many of them have now progressed to become serious contenders for power.
Most of the debate about these parties has focused on their programmes—populist, anti-European Union and anti-immigrant. There has been much less attention paid to what kind of parties these are—their structure, and the methods used to organise themselves and promote their message—and what other kinds of party might emerge in years to come.
Most of the newer parties on the populist right are very traditional in their methods, made up of local branches, national conferences and predominantly middle-aged, white male leaderships. But other new parties are radically reinventing how they work and may point to a very different future for the political party, both mainstream and otherwise. Five Star in Italy is best known elsewhere for being the creation of comedian Beppe Grillo—but just as interesting is the internet-based decision-making structure at its core. For example, choices for its parliamentary candidates were made through an online vote involving tens of thousands of registered party members. The Pirate Parties in Iceland, Germany and Sweden pioneered what they call “Liquid Democracy,” a way for members and the wider public to take part in every decision. Democracy OS in Argentina is a sophisticated digital platform that allows citizens to propose and shape policy ideas online, a system being used by the new Partido de la Red.
Podemos in Spain is rapidly emerging as one of Europe’s most impressive parties, combining mass public support (they currently lead in the polls, on around 30 per cent), serious policy prescriptions (the Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau recently praised them for having one of the most coherent approaches to post-crisis economic management), and, again, a radical use of the internet to involve supporters. Like many of the other parties, it rose to prominence thanks to leaders who had gained exposure in other areas—in this case, Pablo Iglesias, a professor who regularly appeared on TV.
For all of these parties the internet offers a way to bypass discredited elites. Podemos’s slogan during the 2014 European Parliament election campaign was “They do not represent us”—“they,” the political elite, increasingly intertwined with the business and financial elites. These parties promise an enriched democracy that goes well beyond a choice between two or three alternatives every few years; and they offer the kind of immediate, direct engagement that voters now expect in their day-to-day interactions with Facebook, Amazon and Google, but is largely missing in a political world still dominated by monologue from politicians, mediated by monologue from columnists in newspapers, and guided by very traditional opinion polls.
Podemos made it easy to engage. Any citizen could register on their website and vote on a list of 100 proposals. These were pretty broad brush—the winning options included “the defence of public education” and “measures to combat corruption”—and, on its own, the internet is an imperfect tool for making decisions or shaping options. Opening decisions up to large numbers of people doesn’t automatically make decisions better (the “wisdom of crowds” isn’t always that easy to find). But in the right circumstances, the internet can involve far more people in shaping policy, setting priorities and sharing their expertise. Done well, the result can be a much more politically engaged public, confident that their views are being taken seriously.
The best models now seem to be hybrid ones, that combine face-to-face interaction in public meetings with online input, and that encourage deliberation rather than only votes or Facebook-style “likes.” Some of the most forward-thinking parliaments and cities are building this into how they work. DCENT, for example, a project run by Nesta, the innovation charity I lead, is working with cities including Helsinki on softwares that allow citizens to be much more closely involved in every step of an issue they’re interested in, and we’ve also worked with Democracy OS and Podemos on designing the next generation of platforms for parties to involve members in shaping policy.
The UK was at one point a pioneer in this territory, with the No 10 petitions website and hundreds of experiments in participatory budgeting. Programmes like UpRising, which aims to get more young people from diverse backgrounds into leadership roles, are now thriving in the big cities, supporting a new generation of leaders much more at home with social media. We’ve also seen huge numbers make use of campaigning and petitioning platforms like Change.org, Avaaz and 38 Degrees.
In the aftermath of next year’s general election, we could see the first internet-age parties emerge in the UK, our own versions of Podemos or Partido de la Red. The hope is that they will help to engage millions of people currently detached from politics, and to provide them with ways to directly influence ideas and decisions. Ukip has tapped into that alienation but mainly offers a better yesterday rather than a plausible vision of a better future. That leaves a gap for new parties that are more at home in the 21st century and can target a much younger age group—the group that feels more alienated from politics and are least likely to vote.
If new parties do spring up, the old ones will have to respond. Open primaries, deliberations on the internet, and crowd-sourced policy processes could become the norm. The Speaker’s Commission on digital democracy could also nudge parliament into using new tools. As that happens, politics will become messier and more interesting. Leaders will have to be adept at responding to contradictory currents of opinion with more conversation and fewer bland speeches. The huge power once wielded by newspaper owners and commentators will almost certainly continue to decline.
The hope, in short, is that democracy could be reenergised. There are other possible futures, of course. A sullen anti-political mood could fuel populist demagogues. But there is a good chance that those with their eyes on the future rather than the past will have the edge.