Who can ’change the way politics is done’? Politicians

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Who can 'change the way politics is done'? Politicians
Attendees queuing to enter the UK Conservative Party conference in 2015. Photograph: Gareth Milner // Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Discontent with the traditional mould of party politics manifests in various ways, including the success of existing anti-system parties, and calls for more direct democracy. Another manifestation is the creation of new parties that want to ‘change the way politics is done’.

‘More of the same’ rarely is a strong rallying cry. However, new parties can genuinely bring transformative ideas to the table. It can be new decision-making mechanisms within parties, exemplified by the open online votes that the Italian Five-Star Movement uses to consult its membership and craft policy.

It can also be a call to end the eternal two-horse race in elections, as in the case of Renew Britain that seeks to appeal to pro-EU voters disenchanted with Labour and Conservative leaders. Similarly, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche rapidly transformed the French party system by conquering the centre ground vacated by struggling socialist and centre-right parties. Finally, it can be the creation of a political movement that is pan-European from the start, as in the case of DiEM25’s electoral wing, or in the case of Volt.

Brilliant ideas or brilliant people?

The Five-Star Movement appears ideologically flexible, rootless or disorientated, depending on one’s preferred expression. DiEM25 has a left-wing aura, but its electoral strategy is in the first instance based on partnership with existing parties wherever possible. Apart from these, all of the parties mentioned occupy a similar ideological space to existing parties, and success depends on stealing supporters from the closest competitors.

Voters are often attached to the ideas or to the elected representatives of a party. Long-standing party identification may also help a faithful supporter to keep ticking the right box on election day, but this weapon is not at brand new parties’ disposal. While all new parties claim to have brilliant, revolutionary ideas, En Marche and DiEM25 – with Yanis Varoufakis – additionally rely on existing political figures’ leadership. The Five-Star Movement was spearheaded by Beppe Grillo, a famous comedian and political commentator, but in leading a political movement Grillo quickly became known as a politician. By contrast, Renew and Volt rely rather on grassroots activism and the power of ideas than on well-known figures.

A grassroots-based party is above all competing on ideas, not on faces. The risk is that voters will try to shape an established party from the inside, instead of abandoning ship. This risk grows if politicians lead by example. If pro-Europeans of the UK Labour Party stay on Labour’s candidate lists, and have a good chance of being elected, the threshold for a Labour supporter to vote Renew instead is high.

If the main reason to vote for Renew is a belief that Labour will remain anti-EU, but heavy hitters within the Labour Party disagree, a Renew activist will have a hard time making their case. Indeed, Renew Britain has thus far failed to gain traction, and instead of its policies, the party continuously has to justify its existence. At the end of the day, Renew’s ideas are not very different from what established parties’ policies are, or could be.

Steal the politicians, and the voters will follow

A British precedent exists. In the 1980s, centrist Labour politicians frustrated with party leader Michael Foot’s left-wing politics launched the Social Democratic Party. In 1983, the SDP was a part of an alliance that tallied nearly eight million votes but, because of the UK’s majoritarian electoral system, it was left with only 23 parliamentary seats out of 650. On The Guardian, Peter Kellner argues that a key factor in the party’s failure was its inability to convince more than just 28 Labour MPs to leave their party.

A ‘gang of four’ prominent politicians was enough to bring UK-wide exposure to the party, but not even that was enough to secure sufficient support required for winning close contests in individual constituencies. What if the local candidate had been an MP known and trusted by locals? Or what if a more complete exodus of centrist politicians from the Labour Party had helped create an impression that a centrist’s political home can no longer be in Labour?

Admittedly, En Marche’s success in France was a one-man revolution by Emmanuel Macron. However, the French presidential election was a suitable platform for a single candidate (a former Finance Minister, rather than a newcomer) to gain success. When it came to the election to the National Assembly, there was much suspense about whether enough many suitable candidates could be found in time. Just over a month before the election, only 14 candidates were known.

In the end, around half of Macron’s candidates were ordinary citizens and newcomers to politics, a fact that the incoming President was proud of. However, the post-presidential election hype, the support of the centrist MoDem party as well as the defection of more than 20 Socialist MPs added a measure of political establishment that helped En Marche to success in the legislative election. When a one-man show was no longer enough, En Marche already had established authority behind it instead of mere grassroots.

Because of differences in electoral systems, lessons from these case studies may not be directly applicable elsewhere. Regardless, they offer food for thought for pan-European movements. For example, if DiEM25 decides to field its own candidates in a given country, famous figures at the top might not be enough if the candidates are less well-known. Likewise, it is hard to see how large numbers of voters from mainstream pro-European and federalist parties would defect to Volt if the party can only offer a promise that their unknown newcomers will promote essentially the same policies, but that they will do it better. As much as European democracy would benefit from a revolutionary shock that brings about a cohesive EU-level party system, even revolution has its rules.

The author is writing in personal capacity.

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