Isn’t that what political parties are for….?

When trying to explain the recent rise of the social innovation/unconference by saying something to the effect that ‘its about getting a group of people together to create shared solutions to social problems’ – I was met with the response:

“Isn’t that what political parties are for…?”

This is a bloody good question. Yes, of course that is what political parties are supposed to be for, but has our common perception of what a party is/does now lost sight of that focus on fellowship in problem solving and collective action for the greater social good? Surely parties are for arguing, combat and infighting – not problem solving…?

It seems that people  now increasingly think of political parties as not being applicable to their own lives. Is this a question of party political structure that needs revitalising from the inside out, or a far wider reaching issue connected to social trends at work in society at large, such as the relentless rise of the single issue politics and individualism?

Whatever the preceise nature of the problem, it is clear that parties cannot carry on the way they are as membership dwindles ever further. So what would the parties of the future look like and what can they learn from social innovation style problem-solving models and ways of working?

(I can’t resist saying it) – What would PartyPolitics 2.0 actually look like, and would an innovative social approach be any better than a traditional route to renewal?



  1. I think the problem with political parties is that they have lost the capability to DESIGN solutions. Political parties (at least those I know) are too involved in the communication and discoursive activities, which are very important, of course) but they lost site of the content of those activities.
    I think a Designer (in all sense, not necessarily a person trained as designer, but anyone who is interested in producing social solutions) may get much better results than political parties.

  2. I’ve just pledged not to write another ‘What would Something 2.0 look like?’ post for a while (seems to have been my stock blog title recently..) but this would be interesting to explore.

    Designing and innovating involves making mistakes, admitting them and moving on. Can political parties ever do that in a 24 hour news world where picking over even the slightest mistakes provides plenty of content to fill the schedules?

    Social Entrepreneurs are able to innovate at least in part because they can fail. They can go bust – end one enterprise and start another. That’s not a luxury we allow political parties…. (although perhaps we should encourage it on times…)

  3. I love the idea that a designer might get better results than political parties Nico – am imagining how politicos might feel about that. Talk about threatening their expertise! & I do think that territorial expertise is one of the problems which tends to stifle innovative thinking.

    Tim’s point about making mistakes in a 24hr news culture is also v.much core to the party political problem. Politicians currently feel as if they have no room to fail – however, maybe there are way sof making room in a culture to fail – if we change the current combative party political model itself. However, you can’t get rid of the 24hr coverage issue from inside the parties . The wider culture in general seems to be geared up towards competitive stagnation rather than open innovation…

  4. It’s what political parties were for. I think we now have better ways of connecting and organising, without the baggage or administrative inertia that comes with traditional membership bodies.

    The social web allows us to join groups on single causes and collaborate with people who on every other issue we might disagree. Something that would be tricky within a party political framework.

  5. The tricky part Dave – is that we probably still need some way of bringing together many difference single issues into coherent frameworks (if not plans of action…)…

    The function of political parties as mechanisms for prioritising competing demands in a resource constrained world still seems a valid one – and that still often requires the innovative thinking and creativity which, as Alice pointed out, parties are not doing so well on…

  6. It is true that “we now have better ways of connecting and organising, without the baggage or administrative inertia that comes with traditional membership bodies”.

    That is exactly what I’m getting at – the political party needs to reshape itself to become useful and relevant again to the majority. Membership is in continuing decline. The party’s very mode of conduct seems outdated. After all, what’s the point in having a structure that only serves to interest and engage a very specific section of society enough to join it – when it is supposed to be at the business end of a democratic representative system?

    I think the point is that if parties are as Tim puts it: “mechanisms for prioritising competing demands” as we are faced with ever more complex and circular policy problems, then how can they meet not only the policy challenges without change or “innovative thinking and creativity”, but the ‘recruitment’ challenges.

    The ‘rise of the social web’ (or whatever you want to term the current sea-change) has germinated new models of innovation and is a hotbed for new ideas and new strucutres- what positive impact could this have on rejuvinating our old fashioned party political systems? What would it take to get single-issue-conscious individualists to join a political party in its current form – or does a deeper change have to take place beyond remodelling ways of working from inside a party?

  7. I don’t think that the web can be put in the dock for the decline in party membership.

    From what I understand all the major parties in Europe have been suffering declining membership, and here in the UK its been at a rate of about 1 member leaving every 12 minutes since 1980.

    In my more pessimistic moments I’m can’t see how the mainstream political parties will be able to re-create a culture where joining is seen as a natural way of seeking the changes you want from society.

    But, any solution – it seems to me – will have to focus on developing a social as well as a political angle. By which I mean fun and enjoyment more than social activism. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Conservatives had their highest membership figures when it was a place you went to find a life partner, or that Labour’s membership and working men’s clubs seemed to go hand in hand.

  8. “any solution – it seems to me – will have to focus on developing a social as well as a political angle. By which I mean fun and enjoyment more than social activism”

    I absolutely agree that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on the social side, and on rejuvinating parties to be more inviting and fun types of organisations…that make people want to actually get involved.

    I’m certainly not putting the web in the dock on this – web uptake and party membership downturn are parallel trends, but its wider societal issus that are at work – the downturn in membership is symptomatic of these various other issues.

    I mean rather to say – what can the social web offer in terms of a model of action at the ‘business end’ of things as an alternative to stale and tradtional committee meetings and what lessons &tools does it offer to help improve involvement and to reach new people?

    Part of this approach would also necessarily be a mixing of the ‘fun stuff’ in with ‘business’.

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