After the Party: Inaugural Seminar – Panel Discussion Organised in Conjunction with openDemocracy

24 April 2014

Read Dr Danny Rye’s report of this event here.


Liam Barrington Bush (More Like People)

Nick Anstead (LSE)

Barbara Zollner (Birkbeck)

Jason Edwards (Birkbeck)

Neal Lawson (Compass)

James Dennis (Royal Holloway, University of London)

It can be argued that widespread disillusionment with party politics across the world clouds the fact that the political party as it has developed over the last two hundred years – as a mass membership association with professional political leadership and an administrative hierarchy separated in organization and activity from ordinary party members and publics more broadly – remains the only vehicle for the expression of democratic voice in the conduct of political, social, and economic governance. In other words, we have no extant alternatives to the party as the main agency of political socialization and representation in contemporary democracies. Thus the enterprise of thinking what may replace the party in a democratic political order is hampered by any obvious examples of successful experiments in non-party democratic politics.

In more recent years, however, various political movements have appeared that have mobilized mass support and have, in some instances, been highly successful in prompting political change or at least in altering political consciousness. These movements – such as Democracia Real YA! in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece, the Five Star movement in Italy, and Kefaya in Egypt – are diverse in character but share some common characteristics. They are distinct from the traditional political party in the sense of being more networked and less hierarchical, with a vertical organization able to respond to changing political circumstances with rapidity. Central to the character of these movements has been the use of new communication technologies and social media.

But what also characterizes these movements is their largely transitory character. While they have been able to articulate popular distress and mobilize large numbers in protest and, in the case of Egypt, revolution, their liquidity and diversity has made it difficult for them to govern radical change.

It is also noticeable that elsewhere such movements have proved at best marginal. This includes the UK, much of northern Europe and the USA. There, dissatisfaction with existing politics has been expressed in terms of growing support for populist political parties, particularly of the right, such as UKIP, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the Tea Party in the USA.

Against and with reference to this conjunctural background, this seminar will explore some of the central questions for a consideration of the future of mass political organization. Does the problem of political party organization reflect more fundamental changes in the contemporary world, where pluralisation and social disintegration have rendered traditional political parties incapable of effectively representing various kind of social groups, including classes? Can established political parties adapt to take on the more ‘networked’ character of movements of resistance and protest, or does this undermine their ability to bring about political change? Can such movements offer a model for an alternative form of political organization? Can they adapt to be successful as agents of government, or does their very fluidity make it impossible for them to govern? What does the growth of populism tell us about the prospects for a popular politics, in which citizens engage in and direct political movements?