Or, perhaps to phrase the question a different way, is the era of the small political party over in modern democratic Anglosphere politics? The question occurred to me today as I read the latest reports of the implosion of Australia’s Palmer United Party, which has been in the Senate now for perhaps four months and is already facing its first split, if reports are to be believed.
The Palmer United Party (PUP) is a new entrant in Australian politics. It is run by Clive Palmer, a mining magnate, and is variously depicted as a political insurgency or a vehicle for Palmer’s self-aggrandisement, depending on who you read. It was entertaining to watch for a while, but the major parties seem to have been fairly sanguine about it, and the leader appears to be batshit insane. There are other small parties in the Senate at the moment but they’re quirks of Australia’s mutant electoral system and won’t last. In terms of quantifiably important parties there are only really two minor parties in Australia: the Greens on the left, and PUP. We could add the Nationals to the calculation here but they are in coalition with the Liberals [Australia's "conservative" party] so are usually seen as a “major” party despite their declining vote share and limited number of seats. The UK has the Greens on the left, and UKIP on the right, both seen as “minor” parties in contrast to the (soon-to-be-extinct, poor darlings!) Liberal Democrats. So it would seem that small parties are flourishing. However …
The Greens and UKIP are actually quite old parties now, having been formed in the early-to-mid 1990s. The Australian Greens, for example, were formed in 1996 federally, and existed before that at a State level – they emerged out of the famous Franklin Dam protest of the 1980s. UKIP in the UK formed in 1993 and was originally a small scale and largely liberal national self determinationist party, growing very slowly until it adopted its racist patois. In fact most of the small and functioning parties in both of these democracies were formed long before the modern political era – the Greens, for example, formed three Prime Ministers ago, which in Australian political terms is a lifetime. Both the Greens and UKIP are characterized by a strong political platform and ideological underpinnings, and whether or not one agrees with their policies, in political terms I think they have to be accepted as coherent. The Greens have a broad leftist environmental and social justice platform, not compatible with our social democratic institutions, built on a manifesto co-authored by one of the world’s most respected philosophers. UKIP are built on trenchant opposition to one of the core European modernizing ideas, and have a coherent and ideologically consistent central goal. Ironically UKIP probably owe a lot of their success to the European parliament they oppose, since it was through strong election results in the European parliament that they convinced the British public they might be worth backing at home. But whatever you think of their politics, UKIP put in long, hard years of work and have slowly built their platform around a central critique and ideological purpose, that taps into the core beliefs of a large part of mainstream Britain. PUP, on the other hand, went from nothing to a handful of senators on the back of their founder and lead senator’s private money. They have no fundamental ideological purpose, and no experience of politics.
But would PUP be the only party that would tear itself apart in the modern political environment, or is it impossible for any new party to form in the modern environment? I think there are three reasons why the time when parties can form and grow and remain stable has passed.
The modern media environment is much more punishing: Back in the early 1990s journalism was not yet under threat from the internet, investigative journalism still existed outside of movies, and it was almost impossible for political candidates to get caught out saying stupid things in non-official forums, because video cameras were big and expensive and Facebook didn’t exist. Furthermore, there was a general assumption that private and political beliefs could be kept separate (for example, I didn’t know the Greens’ political leader, Bob Brown, was gay even though I voted for them) and politics was treated as less of a gotcha game. The media cycle could be measured in weeks or days rather than hours, and it was much easier for small parties to keep a low profile. It was also harder for small parties to get air time, because air time was tightly controlled by a small clique, but I think it’s pretty clear that the modern media environment makes air time for small, amateur parties very dangerous. In the 1990s, “vetting” a party member involved checking they didn’t have a criminal record. Now it means sifting through blog posts, years of Facebook bullshit, dating sites, photos and footage held by friends and exes … And it also means dealing with the risk that organizations like the News of the World have been hacking your phones, something that was reserved only for heads of state in the 1990s. In the 1990s, that most horrible of things, “media training,” was a kind of boutique investment for parties that were starting to hit the big time; in the modern era, it’s a survival necessity, and the major parties have a huge advantage too. This, I think, is also part of the reason that major parties tend to recruit from within their own structure. Enforced conformity is a real bonus in the modern media culture. PUP recruits its members from actual real life, which is political disaster – real people say all sorts of stupid shit.
In modern politics you need huge amounts of money: The amounts of money floating around in modern politics can be eyewatering, and kind of embarrassing when you think about the quality of people representing you. UKIP is almost entirely dependent on a single rich, crazy ex-conservative party donor who forks money over by the truckload. After the paper mill Gunns recently launched a defamation (?) case against the Greens’ leader, he had to take a personal donation of some fucktons of money from an Australian entrepeneur in order to deal with the court costs. Nick Griffin, the only idiot ever to have tried to mainstream British Fascism through the British National Party, was bankrupted recently by court cases. That kind of thing started in the late 1990s, but when the Greens and UKIP formed these kinds of financial pressures weren’t an issue. This is especially fortunate for small parties in Australia, since they receive state funding if they pass a certain vote threshold. Indeed, PUP has been in dispute with the government over staffing levels, since they don’t get the staffing support of a major party (their seat count isn’t high enough) and that kind of support is expensive even if you’re a mining magnate. In the UK there is a further problem of fair representation: the Greens and UKIP are denied seats in the House of Lords even though their vote share has been growing, because they aren’t “major.” The only solution to these problems is to have more money, and for a minor party to get money requires pretty exceptional circumstances. It’s pretty obvious how this works for PUP: they don’t have “policy platforms,” they have “Clive Palmer’s whim.” He is funding the party and he chooses its policy and its tactics (shudder). For the major parties this is not a huge problem – Labour have union funds and the Tories have corporate donors – and the political issue from our perspective is about governance and disclosure. But from a minor party perspective, it’s a real challenge. As an example, suppose independent leftists in the UK wanted to start a party of the workers that wasn’t tainted by the legacy of Blair and that genuinely represented workers’ demands – one imagines that such a party would be quite nationalist and anti-European, but also very socialist and strongly anti-corporate and opposed to the banking industry. Whether or not you support the potential policies of this bunch of imagined anarchists, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there’s no way they could ever raise enough money to compete successfully in modern politics. But I contend [without evidence] that in the early 1990s they could have – the Greens in Australia and the UK did [I don't claim these are anarchist workers' parties] through drawing on existing environmentalist networks. The kind of money you can raise from even strong, coherent community movements today will last about three minutes against a corporate-funded major party. Which is why only parties of the Oligarchy will arise now, and they’ll be so incoherent and selfish that they’ll never last.
The ideological context is much more confusing: The developed world has drifted for 20 years without a major ideological clash, and the only real ideological clash still left is that between capitalism and environmentalism – a clash that doesn’t have to exist and is, in any case, already represented by mature small parties across the developed world. Everything else has drifted into different theories of how to manage capitalism. There’s just no ideological space for modern parties, and unless something new appears – libertarianism springs to mind, but it’s been hideously unsuccessful to date – I can’t see that there is much chance of new parties being able to find an ideological niche. Furthermore, party membership is declining rapidly, and political engagement occurs in different places now. For example, wikipedia puts the membership of Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, at 800,000 in 2012. In just one week, the Japanese branch of Change.org raised 46000 signatures on a petition to deny seedy sexual assaulter Julien Blanc a visa. Political organization is different now, and the way citizens engage with their polity has changed. In theory this could make political growth easier, but I think in reality it has opened new avenues of political activism, and as the Julien Blanc case in Australia showed, ordinary citizens can use these new modes of power effectively outside of mainstream political culture. This combination of a lack of centralized ideologies that can support new parties, and new alternatives to mainstream political activism in an environment of technical managerialism, make the political context very different. As an example, the Victorian police were key agents in the response to Julien Blanc, tweeting about how wrong his views on sexual assault are and updating the public on his movements. The Victorian Police, ladies and gentlemen – who were famous for tigger-happy murders in the 1990s. As another example in the same vein, if you want to see how far politics has changed in the past 20 years (since the Greens were founded, for example), sex workers can now view police as a key ally in their quest for worker safety, primarily through the activism of sex worker community associations, public health organizations, and even church organizations. This changed relationship between police and sex workers (and even injecting drug users) has bipartisan political support in Australia – Tony Abbott may wink at a radio DJ about a 60 year old phone sex worker when he thinks he’s not being watched, but he almost certainly won’t be changing the laws and social policies that affect sex workers. Obviously most of these achievements were built on first steps by a labour government, but that was only the beginning – the major achievements in sex work law in the past 10 years have been achieved through the work of a much broader coalition of forces working outside of political circles, and legislation has been almost an afterthought. In this context, the role of political parties changes and the role of new political parties becomes much harder to pin down.
There are probably counter-arguments to these three points, and other reasons why parties might be easier to form now than before (e.g. the internet). There are a couple of parties that got thrown up into the senate at the last election through sheer fluke, who everyone expects to be swept away at the next election. One (the Democratic Liberal Party) has a coherent (but batshit insane) ideological basis, and the other (the Motoring Enthusiast Party) appears to have been started as a joke but its representative appears to be taking his responsibilities seriously. Perhaps from their future we can see whether it is possible for new parties to grow in the modern era. I wonder if they will prove me wrong?
fn1: They visited immigration to appeal for rejection of his visa yesterday, I think. I personally would prefer that he were allowed into the country and arrested for sexual assault at the airport. He has video evidence of his crimes. That would be fantastic.
fn2: Although it obviously gives me great pleasure to see this man being given the kind of welcome he deserves in Australia, I don’t like the idea of people’s visas being determined by popular referendum. As a resident of a country of which I am not a citizen or permanent resident, the implications of this as a political strategy are fairly obvious and not very pleasant.