Parties for everyone?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
9 December 2004

This is an invitation to a turning point. In a surprising interview with openDemocracy this week, George Papandreou outlines his approach to a new way of doing politics. He wants the party he leads to become an ‘open party’ which reverses the familiar top-down relationship.

For a party leader putting his role on the line, the challenge he sets out is exceptionally frank, human and thoughtful. If there is a starting point for a new discussion of how we can open up politics to democracy, surely this is it.

George Papandreou was the outstanding Greek Foreign Minister of recent times. Most notably, he oversaw a fundamental reversal in policy towards Turkey, Greece’s historical enemy - opening a new era of co-operation and friendship. He now leads PASOK, which was for many decades the country’s ruling party, but which was thrown out by Greek voters last year.

To read George Papandreou on open politics, click here.

Thrust into opposition he describes some of the steps he wants PASOK to take. Speaking from personal experience he describes how he rejected calls to be a politician in the normal sense of the word, banging the table and driving around in big cars. He sets out his alternative way of seeking to lead. The style is the man. For him this is a matter of method and substance. He directly criticises what he sees as the authoritarian politics of confrontation personified by President Bush.

By transforming a political party Papandreou addresses the relationship between the citizen and government. Across the world, hundreds of millions of people are passionately involved in political issues through diverse organisations such as faith groups and non-governmental organisations. Even larger numbers may (or may not) vote when it is offered.

But in many countries (especially the “mature” democracies), political parties – the supposed agents of popular power and democratic agency – are shrinking, funded from above by the rich and despised from below by everyone else.

Prominent politicians – among them Britain’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown – are concerned over popular disengagement from traditional politics. But usually they treat it as a ‘problem’ they can tackle through established means and ways of thinking.

It is much more serious. In Britain, to continue with its experience, only twenty per cent of young people now identify with a political party, down from forty per cent ten years ago. Only recently most young people felt themselves associated with a party. Now it is almost a deviant form of behaviour to think of oneself as being Conservative, Labour or Liberal.

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A new way?

In the United States, too, political parties are hollowed out. This seems particularly true of the Democrats, as Colin Greer, who worked closely with the movements to register voters, will discuss in a future interview with openDemocracy. In Greer’s view the Democrats have virtually ceased to exist as a party at all, and are an empty shell, filled with the echoes of individual candidates.

Others, for example John Lloyd in his recent book, see the corrosive influence of the media as part of the problem, severing loyalties with their scorn and sensationalism.

But there is an upside to the loss. Papandreou has grasped the way globalisation in all its various guises has severed people from a predetermined fate. Insecurity grows but so too does a positive demand for self-determination. People want to be responsible for their own choices.

Traditional politics manipulates both the desire and the concern, playing on fear. And the traditional political party demands that its members leave their brains at the door when they enter a meeting. What were once broad bodies that expressed a social and class interest and developed their members’ role in the world, have become prisons for ‘policy delivery’ - usually decided by small cliques around the leadership based on evidence from focus groups and attitude surveys under the gravitational pull of the media.

George Papandreou wants to reverse this by opening up his party to the energy and intelligence of modern culture. Can it happen? If it does it will be a significant move forward in the long marathon from government of the people towards government by the people.

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