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Membership • Political Movement • Community

How to build a political movement

Kathryn Perera - 30 May 2013

While reports of the death of political parties have been greatly exaggerated, in many western countries they are no longer the pre-eminent mechanism for the expression of political opinion
Political parties now compete with other forms of political action that seem more attune to the increasingly complex and often paradoxical identities of individual citizens. While not yet at the point of collapse, existing systems based on the mass-membership model have struggled both to recognise sufficiently members’ desire for individuality and to offer a sense of belonging within political communities of interest and place.  

Facing this challenge, parties of all shades across Europe are beginning to experiment, with the result that new but still inchoate forms of party political organisation are emerging.  Among the most creative experiments in the British Labour Movement is the use of Community Organising techniques, both within the party’s internal structures and through a grassroots arms-length organisation allied to it, Movement for Change.  In part, this interest in using Community Organising to re-energise a wider political movement around the core functions of the Labour Party stems from its potential to move beyond the hierarchical mass-membership party model whose effectiveness has so markedly decreased.

The Challenge

We are a long way from the post-war high watermark of political parties in the UK. In the post-war period, both the Conservatives and Labour could rely on a relatively stable support base shaped around social class patterns, a position that changed little for most ordinary people throughout their lifetimes. Now, in an era of sophisticated individualism, the hollowing out of political parties – both in terms of formal membership and wider allegiance – has reached a critical state.  

The most common perspective on the challenge facing political parties centres on this individualism. It argues that individualism is the dominant mantra of the modern age, expressed in increasingly diverse and refined ways through social media, consumer purchasing and a public who demand conversation rather than broadcast in all walks of life. Temperamentally, people are less willing to accept the terms on which membership of political parties is offered, and balk at the collectivist sentiment of organisations that present themselves as representing a coherent set of ideological beliefs. For most people, there is little self-interest to be served by ascribing formally to organisations which purport to represent a comprehensive value system. Organisations, including political parties, which cling to this model seem anachronistic.

A more nuanced perspective, however, highlights the complexity of the challenge faced by political parties. While individualism is an important factor in the decline of current party systems, it operates in a cultural context of increasing nuance. Public life is ‘messier’ than ever, with neither the dominance of individualism nor the death of collective forms of political expression.  Rather, political engagement is diversifying in ways which place individual expression in tension with a residual desire for collective identity. Institutions offering long-term yet largely superficial commitment to a single cause have thrived (the so-called “single issue” lobby), while at the same time new methods for creating single moments of collective political action have emerged. These ‘moments’ are often organised online, culminating around a one-off action (flash mob, mass tweeting, quick-time petitions). Among their key characteristics is the offer of minimal time demands alongside a person’s ability to bespoke how high-profile their involvement is via social media and other online platforms.

Facing such complexities of engagement in public life, many political parties are struggling to overcome a crisis of confidence.  All but the most successful parties have struggled to adapt their traditional political organisations, with many approaching people as clients or consumers rather than as potentially active citizens capable of leading change in their communities.

At the same time, the impetus of the market is trending the other way. The world’s most successful youth-oriented brands, from Apple to Adidas, consciously respond to consumer desires to interact with and shape the brand’s narrative rather than simply consume products passively. In most Western contexts, then, there is an obvious contrast between the active consumer and the passive citizen. Attempts by political parties to forge a new narrative, based on the increasingly complex web of values and expectations that people hold, are in their earliest stages.

In this climate, it is legitimate to ask not only whether mass membership political parties are sustainable, but whether they are even desirable. The question may sound facetious. Yet it points to the degree of fundamental reassessment that is required in order for us to build future organisations which are fit for purpose.

A crisis of identity for the left?

The widely touted “crisis in democracy” (lower electoral turnout, falling party membership, less identification with political parties) poses particular challenges for parties of the left.  For the UK Labour Party, facing the challenge demands that the party confronts its own identity narrative: of the many not the few; drawn from the working classes; and based on principles of collective action for the common good. Clearly, Labour needs a new offer and a different sort of relationship with citizens if it is to realise this identity in an organisational sense to win national power again.

Our attitude to party membership is a case in point. Across European parties of the left, discussion often has centred around how parties can attract more members. The preceding questions – whether a mass membership model is fit for modern times and what other models of organisation are potentially desirable – are left largely unaddressed. The traditional approach, based on an assumed need to grow membership, tends to drown out discussion of why a person might join a party, or what that party should offer individuals in return. In starting to redress the balance, political parties of the future would do well to resist the current urge to decrease the cost of membership rather than address the question of how to increase its value.

Party membership is but one facet of the problem.  As both its financial resources and popularity declined during the past decade, the UK Labour Party managed to outperform expectations in many areas by having disciplined, targeted campaigns. Yet there are clear limits to a politics based on segmentation of the electorate and centralised messaging. Modes of operating which categorise people as passive consumers of controlled communications are subject to the law of diminishing returns, and there is a growing realisation that relying on these methods will neither take Labour ‘past the post’ come election time nor build a thriving Labour Movement. Whereas previous generations of citizens may have been satisfied to join a political party mainly to elect representatives as agents of change, the limited scope of that role no longer suffices.

Without acknowledging that party membership is a reciprocal process and that sharing responsibility, not delegating tasks, encourages greater action in public life, political parties of the future will fail to thrive. The tendency over time, for any organisational system, is that it feeds the institutional needs of the people within it far more than it appeals to the self-interest of the wider community who are yet to be engaged. In political parties, this tends to manifest itself in an emphasis on organising foot-soldiers for elections, delegating short-term functional tasks which service its central goals, and finding candidates to stand. At its most extreme, this tendency inhibits other forms of action which provide gateways for citizens to grow in public life through their party identity.

What is needed, then, is a wider offer from parties in terms of people’s ability to ‘do politics’, rather than simply perform an occasional function of selecting others to do it for them. In a Labour context, that wide offer can and should reach beyond the party’s existing active base wherever possible. To achieve that end, it may be necessary for political parties to invest in building an ecosystem of support around their core purpose. After all, the primary goal of any political party must be to secure elected office and formal power. As such, organisations which feed into political parties – trade unions, co-operatives, socialist societies, training bodies – may be better positioned to lead innovative work which re-energises the wider political movement and draws citizens into the party at different levels.

The purpose

The purpose of Movement for Change, for instance, is to build a movement of people who use the power of Community Organising to make change happen:

  • Change that reflects the values of collective action and community alliance upon which the Labour Movement was built.  
  • Change in people and their capacity to take action in public life.
  • Change in people’s communities on issues that matter to them.

The team of professional Community Organisers work through local Labour parties in broad alliance with other civil society institutions to support people in running localised public actions on issues they care about. Whether organising campaigns for rural bus timetables or leading negotiations to curb the spread of unregulated payday lending, the work builds people’s skills and confidence to achieve substantive change through collective action. The links between this work and the party’s own organisation are many: increased community activity in partnership with Labour, which both showcases Labour’s relevance and provides the basis for future collaboration; new routes through which the party can identify hyper-local issues of concern; and a means by which potential leaders in public life can learn more about Labour’s values and purpose through direct action in their communities.

In some cases, the Labour Party could undertake this work directly with an overt “Labour stamp” on the campaign and action.  In other cases, it is precisely because the wider community is in control of the planning and actions, partnering with Labour activists in a non-formal capacity initially, that the work even gets off the ground.  Movement for Change was established at arms-length to the UK Labour Party in part to reflect that reality.

Thorough analysis of the future of political parties is in its infancy. Yet there is enough evidence of potential routes to organisational renewal to draw some initial conclusions. Political parties of the future will fundamentally reassess the mass membership model in order to create organisations which are both robust and flexible. They will recognise that the key driver towards a thriving organisation must be increased value for potential activists rather than a decreased offer. And they will tackle pervasive narratives of disengagement, so-called apathy and cynicism, not merely through words but through substantive action. Above all, successful political parties of the future must find new and dynamic ways to demonstrate their values and increase their relevance to local communities. The machine alone cannot achieve this end – the movement is critical.

Kathryn Perera is Chief Executive of Movement for Change

She will speak on the themes of this essay on 9 Dec in London.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Party of the Future , Kathryn Perera , Campaign , Election , Labour Party , UK , United Kingdom , Campaigns , Campaigning , Localism , Direct Action , Membership , Direct Action , Political Movement

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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