Do we still need political parties?

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman, 4 October 2016

Technology has changed everything. Apart from politics. When the Uber of democracy hits, will parties still have a role?

It’s party conference season. Political parties appear to be doing well – about a million people are now members, and donations have increased.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, parties are tearing themselves apart as they struggle to adapt their operations to the 21st century. This is no surprise – if you ask people to
vote for policies instead of parties, they soon discover the diversity of their values. In all likelihood, no single party represents their wishes. The world simply isn’t left vs right any more, if it ever was.

This disenchantment with this inflexibility is reflected in our engagement. No party in the UK has had the support of more than 35% of the electorate in a general election since World War Two, 98% of us aren’t members of a political party, and about 30% of us don’t even vote. It’s little wonder that so many conclude the government doesn’t much care what you think; the average adult only gets 14 chances in a lifetime to vote in a general election.

Our expectations have been raised. We live in an era when a company can go from startup to global giant during a single election cycle, so why is politics so infuriatingly slow to change and address the problems we most care about? “Politics as usual” no longer tallies with the world we see, and so leaves many people dispirited, or deliberately voting for anti-establishment choices to shake up a complacent system.

A new wave of ‘civic-tech’ is addressing these problems, and it completely revolutionises how we can take decisions and get things done as society.

Feeding our civic appetite

As author Dan Pink summarised, humans are motivated by mastery, autonomy, and purpose. We want to be useful in the service of a worthwhile mission by being really good at something only we can do. New services are harnessing that desire.

Political parties and campaigns are already using tools like NationBuilder, a service which makes it easy to gather supporters and target niche messages to to ask them to take actions specific to their interests.

Phone-banking and canvassing are going virtual, as technology from the Bernie Sanders campaign allows anyone to volunteer small slices of time to support a cause by telephoning people, or rewarding them for sharing posts on social media. Parties and political movements are also taking steps to listen more to their members in policy discussions and leadership decisions.

But these are still one-to-many relationships led by a single party or campaign. The real shift comes when we start evolving the political system itself.

Government as a platform

The most game-changing innovations this century have come about when an internet platform turns a ‘consumer’ into a ‘creator’.

These platforms (e.g. eBay, Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) empower people to shift from being passive consumers of a service, to being its creators and curators. This shift unlocks huge amounts of activity. A wider variety of resources is used more effectively by more people more of the time, and power (i.e. influence and money) is more democratised and decentralised.

In the same way, a new wave of technology (often known as ‘civic tech’) is creating services to enable us to shift from being ‘voters’ to ‘citizens’. By helping us discuss, vote, harness topical expertise and local knowledge – and make sure that no one is left out of those decisions – people can work more effectively together to make a changes locally, nationally, and internationally.

The effects of redesigning a system to give individuals with freedom, choice, and responsibility are dramatic. The volunteer sector, which takes a similar approach, sees 14.2 million people donate almost 12 hours each month – a level of which commitment politicians can currently only dream.

With this shift to ‘citizenship’ comes a more mature and collaborative approach to power. Whereas consumers of a service feel entitled to take an “us vs them” approach to politicians, citizens who are trusted to make decisions understand that decisions are about compromise and consensus.

Cities which have participatory budgeting – where citizens have a say in the allocation of budgets to sectors – find that bold decisions are made more quickly, and concessions come more readily as people are trusted to make responsible decisions within the context of the bigger picture.

The current UK Parliamentary party system is hard to budge, especially with First Past the Post voting. Rather than working against this, civic tech can help use our existing democracy more effectively. By making it easy to discuss and vote on issues, and to work with representatives to find solutions we are are more likely to get the changes we want to see.

Smart politicians, parties, movements, and even cities are realising the power of working with citizens to organise more meaningfully to unlock civic potential to effectively address issues at all scales. From the international (e.g. migration, trade deals, environment) to the national (eg energy, education, health), though to the local and city level (housing, transport, high streets, flooding), decisions makers and representatives are building stronger relationships with constituents by making sure they have more clearly heard, and help them take action.


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