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Open parties? A map of 21st century democracy

About the author
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of the Labour party.

Is the party over? Will political parties stagger on in name alone? Or can they be renewed – and if so, how?

These questions are not trumpeted from newsstands. But they should be. They are fundamental for anyone who cares about public life.

Since the beginnings of mass democracy, parties have been the main intermediaries between people and power – the instrument whereby people can claim to shape their choices, making their votes really count. The ladders our leaders climb, parties are also the vehicles through which we aim to govern ourselves. Yet today they are collapsing.

Can a new form of open political party inaugurate a new era of open politics?

“We need to see our parties less as ‘war headquaters’ and more as biodiverse think–tanks or workshops”, says George Papandreou. Read his interview in openDemocracy, and join the discussion in our forums!

If you share openDemocracy’s concern with open politics – including the relationship between power and citizens, the future of political parties, and the nature of leadership – please consider subscribing for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy–to–read PDFs of all our articles

In most western countries party membership is falling faster even than election turnout. Widely observed and studied, the phenomenon was recently anatomised in the Financial Times by Tom Bentley and Paul Miller (“Party poopers”, 24 September 2004). Old ideologies appear to have vanished, replaced by spin, managerialism and nostalgia. Direct action on the streets or single-issue organisations seems to offer more hope of positive change. Most politicians are viewed as liars. But their faceless parties are trusted even less.

Our critical imaginations should be sharpened by the awareness that parties as formerly understood may be disappearing. Who benefits, and how?

George Papandreou’s interview in openDemocracy (“Go ahead George, change it all”, December 2004) creates an opportunity to ask this question in a positive fashion. Most party leaders are defensive about the hollowing-out of the organisations they rely on. But Greece’s opposition leader sees the need and opportunity for a profound change if parties, and democracy, are to be renewed in the age of globalisation.

Papandreou calls for a new kind of “open party”. That ideal, as yet found nowhere in reality, is novel even as aspiration.

At the beginning of constitutional democracy, the authors of the Federalist Papers, the founding debate of American politics, deplored parties as schismatic factions working counter to the interests of the commonwealth.

Two hundred years later, could “open parties” instead bring public life closer to achieving the common good? What could they look like? Are they even possible? Would they depend, in turn, on a new pantheon of sun-god leaders?

Part of the answer to such questions depends on history, on understanding how it is we got here. Mapping the issues in play is equally important. Here I describe six broad areas that include and reach beyond both party membership and the election process:

  • financing
  • candidate selection
  • involving citizens in the party
  • involving citizens in the ongoing processes of policy-making and governance
  • representing and communicating with citizens
  • shaping and responding to the values and priorities of the time.

Below is a diagram of the forces and relationships through which open parties – and open politics – may be formed. You can continue reading in the usual fashion. The diagram makes it possible for you to click on elements of the map and jump to sections in the order they interest you. This is a first draft of what we hope will be shared: please respond with new ideas and fill in the missing pieces.

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1 – Selecting candidates

Whether parties can really offer voters significant policy choices is one of the questions of our time. But they certainly determine the pool of candidates who will contest elections and become representatives and leaders in future. Two stereotypes spring instantly to mind: the professional or machine politician who has been sitting on committees all their life; and the celebrity politician – the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Silvio Berlusconi. A third, more important category is those generally absent: the young, women, minorities, hard-working professionals, the poor…

Most parties still choose their candidates using internal selection boards or committee votes, but an increasing number hold closed primary elections in which their party members or registered supporters can vote for the candidate they prefer. Rarer and bolder is the decision to open primaries to all voters. Typically the further a party reaches beyond its membership base in the selection process, the more centrist, and generally popular, are the candidates who emerge. One dilemma is that a role in candidate selection is one of the last remaining incentives for party membership. Selection boards can also be a means for “positive action”.

The United States case demonstrates how primaries, particularly when combined with permissive campaign financing laws, can significantly shrink the pool of potential candidates. They give advantages to celebrity, regardless of whether fame has been achieved through local politics, war heroism, film acting or bodybuilding, and fatally handicap anyone who is not rich. This issue could be addressed through finance reform or new mechanisms to bring other candidates into the public eye. A different form of “popularity” could flow from alive, two-way connections between candidates and their constituencies.

Opinion polls indicate that people generally trust individual politicians more than parties, and wish to be represented by someone they themselves have chosen and can hold directly accountable. In an attempt to close the gap between people and politics, Britain’s broadcaster ITV3 recently ran a programme called Vote For Me, fragmenting politics down to individual viewers and rhetoricians. It was won by a brutal populist who immediately received 140,000 emails of support.

There are, of course, more progressive ways to redress the alienations of contemporary machine politics. Some are suggested elsewhere in this piece; one simple strategy is to base electoral systems mainly around candidates (such as first-past-the-post or single transferable vote) rather than on party lists.

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2 – Involving

Many practical ways in which parties can involve their members and others, from policy forums and consultations to participative budgets and citizens’ assemblies, are discussed below under Policy & Governance. Where once party identity and membership was straightforward, tribal, even inherited, today’s individuals – increasingly urban and mobile, less rooted, more demanding in their public and private choices – may need to take smaller steps toward it. Consequently parties are considering establishing a category of registered supporters, but worry over their rights and responsibilities.

Since the powers of members over policy and candidate selection have often narrowed, won’t incentives for membership vanish if supporters play a similar role? What new incentives can be offered? Given the public demand for plain speaking and individualism, how much pluralism can be tolerated from membership and leaders? Perhaps an even more important category is the potential supporter, and some parties are devoting much effort to finding these people, building lists and communicating with them.

Parties, once a vital environment for social mixing, have been overtaken by the leisure society. Attempts to revive this function often but not always collapse. The social function of politics today is to be found more through public debates in halls or chatrooms than around particular institutions. Hence the renewed importance of civic and political media. The old-style party newspaper is largely moribund. But the internet has given new life to partisan discussions.

Not long ago in Hungary, Fidesz’s Viktor Orban established a network of civic circles in which people could whisper their suspicions of the former communists. The US has seen a renaissance of local meetings and activism, catalysed partly by the success of MeetUp.com and partly by the renewed clarity of political identity there.

Community-based organisations (CBOs) – neighbourhood forums, tenant associations, school, hospital or police boards – enable citizens to participate in and shape their fate at the very local level. Colin Greer rightly calls attention to their importance as an arena in which citizens can learn about power by exercising it, and they play a powerful role in developing activists and leaders for politics. Community leaders, often coming from outside parties, can play an important role in challenging and connecting them to broader society. As accessible lower rungs on the ladder of power, CBOs hold the promise of renewal from the bottom up – provided parties are humble, willing to share and listen.

One related trend is particularly striking: the re-emergence of civil society outriders on the peripheries of parties, borrowing many of the strategies of NGOs and social movements but directly political in their approach. They might even be called the new unions: they help train and select candidates, they raise funds, they mobilise volunteers and present policies. As parties have moved toward the state and away from civil society they have left a vacuum that these groups may be starting to fill, creating a more diverse and individualised ecology of political intermediaries. Examples include the landless movement in Brazil, the Arab European League and US groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn.org. In the UK, one grouping is developing a Vote for Peace campaign to support candidates in the next general elections.

In the US the phenomenon was muddied by the campaign finance botch-up (see below). The Democrats’ outsourcing of their “get out the vote” operation to independent “527” organisations often led to duplication and chaos. Some of these platforms function only as the vehicles of political entrepreneurs, offering citizens the minimal choice to support or ignore. MoveOn and others are experimenting with internal democracy, but their local dimension is entirely informal.

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3 – Representing & Communicating

In open parties, representation and communication will converge into an ongoing dialogue. Citizens’ patience with “vote-and-forget” representation is wearing thin, making them angry and apathetic by turns. Party representatives today need not just to announce who they are and what they’ll do, but to engage in two-way communication with their constituents; and that means first of all listening. As Margot Wallstrom said recently of the European Union, we need to put ears on parties.

Partly, that requires showing you’re ready to change things as a consequence of what you hear. Sometimes it means arguing or explaining a different position; always in an atmosphere of respect. Dialogue can take place over the airwaves, on message boards, by post, SMS or email. But politics is most alive on doorsteps and in public meetings. Good representatives decide after listening to their constituents and to the evidence: they take listening decisions.

One of the most intense new modes of communication is the weblog or blog. A blogging representative can open up their work for scrutiny in a plain-speaking diary on which constituents can comment, and link up with colleagues in a collective blog. Examples include the vice-president of Iran, leading French socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) and British Labour MP Tom Watson. A similar tone is adopted by Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi in his weekly “Lionheart” email. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign took this to almost neurotic extremes: the blog became the campaign, the candidate a transparent vehicle.

Many argue that a more responsive and humane politics will require less party discipline and more free votes, enabling representatives to vote their conscience or in harmony with their constituents’ views. Some cohesion is necessary if politics is not to grind to a halt, but the political system as a whole will surely benefit from greater pluralism. Independent competition and smart voting systems where citizens can match their views and preferences to those of candidates (presaged by the excellent Public Whip site in the UK and Canada) could help drive this.

A panoply of bottom-up means of political communication, citizen-centric and peer-to-peer, and new forms of civic media are also becoming more important: in the US, online watering-hole DailyKos raised millions for its slate of progressive candidates; in South Korea, the OhMyNews media channel helped President Roh Moo-hyun get elected, fight off an impeachment charge and start reforms. Co-ompetition (collaboration in the midst of competition) for instance through multi-party public debates is just as important for the public good, but less likely to be initiated by parties themselves.

No-one should ignore the vast power of database profiling and phonebanks, tools deployed to particular effect by the US Republicans in 2004. Such tools allow parties to personalise their communications and complete the journey of politics toward marketing. Unless regulated out of existence, they are here to stay. But as with most methods of manipulation, citizens are developing resistance and cynicism toward them. They may even be turned to the end of two-way dialogue, as phonebanks become distributed to activists beyond headquarters’ command and control.

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4 – Financing

As memberships have shrunk, so have their dues. The Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil is unusual in its hefty members’ tithes, but they come substantially from public officials whose salaries in turn depend on the party. The expense of campaigns appears to grow and grow. Scandals over financial corruption or suggestions of influence by big individual or corporate donors have become commonplace, helping to erode trust in parties. The European response has typically been state funding, often distributed on the basis of previous election results. Yet this tends to separate parties even further from their memberships and society and to reinforce political inertia.

So a rising chorus of voices argues instead for the tying of state support to party engagement. This could take different forms: state money can be provided as matching funds for individual memberships or small donations, as a reward for registering supporters or for processes of party democracy. A recent Council of Europe Green Paper proposes a voucher or ballot approach whereby voters or taxpayers can decide which party they want the state to support financially (it may not be the party they vote for; it may even be None of the Above – in which case the money will go into a seed fund for new parties). Capping individual contributions and incentivising small ones could give parties roots that are simultaneously broader and deeper.

The US campaigns of Howard Dean and subsequently John Kerry succeeded (without matching funds) not only in raising many small donations, but in portraying those donations as evidence that they represented the people at large. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, which aimed to remove large-donor “soft money” from US politics failed, instead diverting those funds to that horde of shadowy “527” organisations on the political periphery. But these organisations (particularly on the Democratic side) succeeded in raising millions more in small donations and volunteer time. The political periphery, adequately regulated and appropriately democratic, has a bright future (see above).

If the politics of money is itself undesirable, perhaps the emphasis should switch from glitzy media campaigning to activism – for instance, by reducing the cap on national funds and offering partial tax rebates on limited local budgets, doorstep and citizen-based efforts.

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5 – Policy & Governance

Parties play a well-known role in presenting their policy manifesto at elections. Their leaders exert party discipline in parliaments and executive councils to ensure that legislation and decisions pass. But manifestos have slid toward marketing tools: undemocratic in their compilation, treated cavalierly after elections, they are anyway too general to determine every decision in the years that follow. In today’s complex and fast-moving world, the processes by which authorities operate – their ongoing systems of “governance” – have taken on increasing importance. These workshops of power, some permanent, some informal or transitory, often lack transparency or are dominated by experts.

It is in the meat of politics that we find the greatest potential tension between empowering party members and listening to the wants of the population at large. Most parties are far distant from the ideal “sovereignty of the congress”, in which the membership’s delegates gather together to determine party policy. This model has never lacked advocates, but its eclipse has followed from the frequent electoral failure of delegates’ manifestos.

Party memberships have generally been unrepresentative of the population at large. Their worldview and the priorities of voters are seldom naturally synchronised. So the party leadership takes it upon itself to decide a raft of policies that will appeal to the wider public, brokering conference votes, sometimes not even seeking the sullen membership’s consent.

Party executives have used a range of tools to read the horoscope of public opinion, in particular polling (asking a representative sample simple questions) and focus groups (smaller in-depth discussions). These methods can be valuable in identifying immediate concerns and preferences, but risk closing politics down to a uncreative repertoire of instant reactions. They are susceptible to manipulation and have little to offer in the way of policy leadership, collective agency or multidimensional problem-solving.

Meanwhile, in Colin Crouch’s arresting image, an “ellipse” of experts and lobbyists thrusts through the old concentric circles of party policy-making to influence decision-makers direct. Think-tanks, party foundations and other policy shops have to walk a fine line between impotence and thralldom to their clients. Many of the people in these organisations would in a previous age have become tribunes of the parties, and are concerned by their paradoxical position. Some are working to forge more practical connections with society at large, or to move beyond partisanship.

A panoply of soft approaches are deployed to consult party members on the policy-making process. Policy forums are established, often involving outside experts, through which members can contribute their ideas and feel they are involved. They are almost never given the final say. Meanwhile general consultations, like Labour’s “ Big Conversation” in the UK, invite the input of the wider public on the problems to be tackled and the broad outlines of party policy. Issy-les-Moulineaux and other places use an online citizens’ panel as a sounding-board for ideas. The more a process is seen to matter and to influence the eventual outcome, and the more trust they have in the party and its leaders, the more involved people get – and vice versa.

Referendums of party members have become more common, particularly on divisive issues. They have had mixed results. In August 2004, Likud party members in Israel rejected their leader Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza on a turnout of 40%: the majority of members supported him, but didn’t care about it enough to vote. Sharon disregarded the outcome. But the French Socialists’ referendum on whether to support the EU constitution saw almost 80% turnout and a resounding Yes.

Party referendums are often plebiscites, votes called by the leadership on territory of its choosing where it is confident it can win. Without a rich process of deliberation, direct democracy risks reducing politics to the rule of the mob. But a proper initiative and referendum whereby a quorum of members can put an issue to a general vote could be one path to the renewal of party democracy. Postal, SMS and internet voting make such processes easier, if at present less secure.

It is not impossible to think of a democratic party, responsive to the signals of focus groups and polls and to the more subtle dynamics which its members pick up through their day-to-day interactions, which acts as a funnel for effective and imaginative new policies. But such an approach would require openness and renewal, and could be hamstrung before the start if the existing membership is too far out of touch. (There are ways round this – imagine twinning every grey-haired member with a bright young affiliate, each of whom may learn from the other.)

Meanwhile many problems exceed the nation-state. But parties have been slow to build international campaigns and networks of influence, overtaken by NGOs and business on the world stage. The counter-globalisation movement vaulted over domestic politics, profiting and suffering from that disconnection. Here we can do no more than touch on the emergent possibilities of global politics. To take one near example, the Madrid dialogue in which openDemocracy is involved holds the seeds of a global movement for a democratic response to terror. But it is clear that global or nascent European political parties, if they aspire to bring a broad delta of humanity under their wings, will need the tools of open politics even more.

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Beyond the party – citizen decision-making

Some of the boldest steps that parties have taken involve reaching beyond their membership to empower decision-making by the broader community. Letting go of control, they hope to engage a wider circle, to win their confidence and support, and to improve the quality of governance. Referendums are just one example. In Sweden, one mayor held a local referendum on the tax rate, recommending the highest option; his constituents voted for the second highest, but re-elected him with an increased majority.

People are selected at random for citizens’ juries, which deliberate on an issue and make recommendations. In British Columbia in Canada, the Liberal Party established a “Citizens’ Assembly” of 160 people selected by lot to assess the province’s electoral system and decide a reform proposal to be voted on in a general referendum. Philippe Schmitter has proposed a Citizens’ Assembly also chosen by lot, to which a minority of representatives can submit legislation for scrutiny.

One of the most striking examples of party openness is the participatory budget. Established by the PT in Brazil’s southern city of Porto Alegre, it is now spreading to municipalities around the world. It is a subtle model built up from neighbourhood and district to city level, under which many thousands of local citizens gather, deliberate, decide their priorities, are supported by officials and select delegates who will take decisions. They control a wide range of decisions, from local investment to issues such as administration costs, land planning, health and schooling. The process has fostered civic learning by doing, and has encouraged a lively ecology of associations.

In the Indian state of Kerala, the Communist Party of Kerala introduced a participative planning process based on ward assemblies (gram sabhas) yet integrating local representatives. It had a dramatic impact on the character and level of local investment, and became supported by the opposing Congress Party.

Former mayor of Porto Alegre, Tarso Genro, describes such approaches as: “the creation of a new state with two spheres for combined and contradictory decision-making: one consisting of existing political representation, and a second originating in the non-state public space – where the direct presence of civil society organisations combines with universal consulting mechanisms for referendums”.

As with all institutions, the devil is in the detail of the design. The participative budget was created partly to bypass Porto Alegre’s opposition legislature, and the details of its design to empower the local working class, in particular PT supporters, and to co-opt the middle class. Partly thanks to its educational elements, it refutes the accepted wisdom that participatory democracy is the domain of the upper-middle-classes – the typical participant is a whisker below the social average. In other places, different designs and contexts yield different results. Such ideas exceed their original authors and are turned to other ends – democratically or otherwise. Kerala’s gram sabhas have hollowed out, partly due to a focus on the mechanics of planning, partly to sabotage by entrenched bureaucratic forces. Civic participation works best in localities and can be hard to scale up.

As a set, such experiments are still in their early days. But they may be well-attuned to the times. They revive the idea of popular sovereignty not as an abstract notion immediately surrendered to representatives, but as persistent demand and practical process; and they offer new forums where citizens of all stripes may discover and engage in politics.

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6 – Values & Zeitgeist

Old ideologies have receded from view. What has risen to take their place? This is a curious minefield that will hopefully be illuminated in the openDemocracy debate.

Relatively stable blocs of interests and identities were the basis of 20th-century politics. A party knew whom it stood for, and could deal with its constituents as a largely undifferentiated mass. But in today’s society, individualised as it is, our lives, interests and identities are unique collages rather than identical reproductions. This diversity shakes the foundations of politics as we know it.

This is the trend drawing us toward open parties. Future structures must be able to cope with and even draw strength from the differences within them. In September 2004, Britain’s finance minister Gordon Brown presented his vision of a “progressive consensus” which he compared explicitly to the global social justice movement. I challenged him on whether he also embraced its conflictual plurality as a model, and (amusingly for gossip-mongers, but importantly for democrats) he confirmed he did.

It is not only George Papandreou who has turned from ideology to the concept of “values”. Values mean many things to many different people, being not policy prescriptions, but broad dispositions responding differently to different contexts. For some people, “values” is a code word for identity, race or religion, or nostalgia for the traditions of the past. Values affirmed together often appear to conflict: security and human rights in the “war on terror”, democracy and security in the Yugoslav crack-up. They live in the institutions of society and in the hopes of its people: they can be conservative, progressive, both at once. Values are a more pliable political armature for a more complex age. As Colin Greer states in his post-mortem of the US elections, political messaging can and should grow from the bottom up. The question of “what moral [or ethical] issues are legitimately political issues?” is contested community by community.

Tides in the affairs of men are volatile today. Parties need to sense change rapidly, adapt and find ways to shape it. In future we will see more single-issue initiatives (as in Kidderminster in midlands Britain, where Health Concern – a group of local people determined to save their hospital – astonished the well-entrenched parties and took the seat). There will be more protest parties like the Reform Party in the US or Ljist Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, and more “instant parties” based on the charisma and power of their leaders, like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Putin’s United Russia. Hyper-responsive politics is coming. Its possibilities are cynical and populist as well as civic and popular, and charisma will play a major part.

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Leading change: civic republicanism and Sun Gods

The most exciting prospects of open parties hold out the idea of a new civic republicanism, reconnecting power to the people – the many not the few. Perhaps paradoxically, some of the most promising innovations are emerging under charismatic leaders like Papandreou in Greece and Lula in Brazil. Often a visionary can take great strides where a group would move too slowly. It is too soon to know whether in this age of celebrity, open parties will be indissolubly linked to charismatic leadership.

Also by Paul Hilder on openDemocracy:

  • “Making the space for creative dissent” (August 2001)
  • “Which Europe do you want? A map of visions” (March 2003)
  • “The Amman roundtable, or people matter” (June 2004)

George Papandreou deliberately reaches out to a negative charisma. He rejects the traditional party leader’s style of domination and his (or her) refrain, “Trust me.” Instead he says, “the future for progressive politics lies in leaders like myself trusting the people as citizens.”

At least two questions are unavoidable. Given that Pasok, Papandreou’s party, has a history of machine politics and ingrained corruption, will his party and his officials walk it like he talks it? Will Greeks trust in George more than themselves to “change it all”? Do they need him to be their lighthouse? Can the party or his cabinet replace him?

Charisma and executive power are watchwords in much of the world, where the possibility of open politics faces an autocratic countertrend. In Russia and many parts of the middle east, democracy is often a dirty word. Feeling powerless in the face of complexity, many people find comfort in the idea of “leadership as command”. President Putin has traded on this. Promising voters security is easier than leading them to discover their own power.

In an era of radical change, personal qualities are the essence of leadership. But lasting leadership involves knowing how to listen, how to empower others, and how to communicate your vision. The ultimate test of those like George Papandreou will be what they leave behind.

Could parties ever die a death? Before its “rose revolution” of late 2003, Georgia had almost as many parties as MPs: a circumstance that led to chaos, paralysis, corruption and the pursuit of narrow interests. Given today’s complexities, we need institutions giving shape to politics, regardless of whether they are called parties, movements or platforms; but we need them to be more responsive than they are today. The challenge is to redesign them into human, friendly places, channelling our collective wisdom rather than our greed, fears and follies.

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You can contact Paul Hilder via democracy@pobox.com


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