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From the Pirate Parties in Northern Europe to Podemos in Spain and the 5-Star Movement in Italy, to the movements behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in UK, the last decade has witnessed the rise of a new blueprint for political organisation: the ‘digital party’.

Paolo Gerbaudo, author of The Digital Party, examines the organisational revolution that is transforming political parties in the time of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, looking closely at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Momentum. 

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In December 2016, a vociferous factional debate emerged within the pro-Corbyn movement within the Labour Party: Momentum. The debate was about internal decision-making, and whether or not to use a delegate-system, with delegates coming from local groups, or an OMOV (one man, one vote) system. At a committee meeting, which turned into a heckling match, the vote went for the delegate system. However, this move was opposed by Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman who denounced the push as an hi-jacking attempt by various Trotskyist fringe groups centring around the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). Lansman and the National Steering Committee, the executive body of Momentum, overturned the decision, supporting instead the adoption of an OMOV system that according to a poll was favoured by 80% of Momentum members.

This conflict within Momentum is representative of two cultures of political organisation that have come into conflict in recent years. On the one hand, we find older and more ideologised activists, such as the Trotskyist fringe militants who were accused of attempting a takeover of Momentum. These people tend to prefer delegate democracy, and the blueprint of the mass party of the 20th century, with its functionaries, its bureaucracy and its cadre, because they consider it the only viable form of democracy. On the other hand, we find younger militants, who have been politicised by events such as the 2010 student protests, the Occupy movement, and Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. These people tend to be suspicious of delegate democracy, of the heavy intermediation that it involves, and of the cadres who carry out these tasks. They are less keen on endless physical meetings, when compared to older and more ideological militants, and believe that all members should be empowered to participate directly in important decisions whenever possible.

Informed by this second vision, since the controversy of December 2016, Momentum has gone on to develop its own participatory platform called My Momentum. This platform is similar to many other ‘participation portals’ that have emerged from new movements and parties in recent years. These platforms include, LiquidFeedback for Pirate Parties in Northern Europe, Rousseau in the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Participa in Podemos in Spain. The platforms allow party members to make decisions on party leadership, candidates and policies; create and join local groups; donate to the movement; download campaign material and attend online training sessions for activists and prospective candidates. Often, they are available via mobile apps, allowing easy access from any point and at any time.

As I discuss in my book, The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy, participatory platforms as the ones listed above have become the ‘digital heart’ of new political organisations: the space in which the digital assembly of members is periodically summoned to discuss and decide on important issues affecting their organisation. In this context, the platform comes to substitute the multi-tier bureaucratic structure of mass party of the industrial era, which in present digital times is perceived to be too heavy and convoluted to allow for effective organisation and mobilisation.

momentum labour party political parties digital online activism gerbaudo Political Organisation and Online Democracy social media

In this volume, which draws on 4 years of research and 30 interviews with political leaders, civic tech developers and organisers, I describe emerging organisations such as Momentum, the Five Star Movement, Podemos, France Insoumise and many others as “digital parties”, or “platform parties,” to show how these formations are transforming themselves, following the logic of the digital platforms of contemporary capitalism and mimicking operations like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. The organisational revolution that we are witnessing signals how, after a long period of immobilism, digital transformation has eventually reached institutional politics and of political parties; spheres that for a long time appeared impervious to change. While until recently political parties used digital communication more as a means of outreach, aimed at contacting their external publics, now they are also changing their own internal structures, and the forms of decision-making that are responsible for the political direction of the party.

At the heart of this transformation lies a redefinition in the notion of membership to political organisations. Platform parties are based on a free membership model, similar to the free sign-up of many online services. Becoming part of a political party is now as easy as becoming the user of any online app. It is sufficient to enter one’s name, email and few other details to become a supporter. This radical lowering of the barrier to entry has allowed many organisations the world over to secure a vast membership, numbering sometimes over half a million people, as is the case with Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos, and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise. This has been seen in the case of Momentum, which in few years has managed to attract 40,000 members, but also in the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which thanks to its lowering of membership fees, is now approaching 600,000 members, compared with the nadir of 180,000 members it touched at the end of Tony Blair’s leadership.

This spectacular growth of membership marks a distancing from the stale professionalism and cynicism of “television parties” that treated participants as an embarrassment rather than a resource. Within digital parties this goes alongside an emphasis on the importance of members’ active participation what I describe as “participationism”. Indeed, these organisations have invested much energy in developing new forms of online participation for their members. They have experimented with forms of collaborative legislation, and crowd-sourcing on policy and strategy. On this course, these parties seem to be informed by a desire that is paramount in digital culture about the need for more directness and transparency in everything we do, from the way we purchase goods of any kind, to the way we make collective decisions. And indeed, some of these new practices of online decision-making, appear to offer significant opportunities to restructure the way people participate in political parties, and move beyond the self-referentiality and aloofness of many traditional political parties.

However, it is apparent that in some occasions, and in some of the organisations, this promise has been delivered upon only in part. For example, looking at the Five Star Movement, and the way in which it has often used referendums that have almost invariably had widely predicted results, favouring the line of the leadership. Rank-and-file rebellions tend to be very rare across all digital parties, and often digital democracy appears in the form of a top-down democracy, in which consultations are used more as a means of ratification and temperature check, a device to reassert their leadership and extend their mandate, rather than as a genuine means of consultation of supporters.

Another sticking point revolves around the continuing importance of leadership, which contradicts the promise of leaderlessness that we often find in the discourse of these parties. At the heart of many of these formations we see the presence of charismatic leaders, what I describe as “hyperleaders”, figures that are an unlikely yet necessary counterpart to the activated superbase of users these parties have managed to gather. These hyperleaders include the likes of Pablo Iglesias in Podemos, of Luigi Di Maio in the Five Star Movement, or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France Insoumise; they are uncontested and uncontestable and often use digital platforms as a way to legitimise their leadership and establish a direct connection with party members, by-passing all intermediary layers. The risk thus is that rather than making decision-making more open and inclusive than it was in traditional parties, digital democracy may end up appearing as a plebiscitary democracy in which the only power in the hands of the membership is the power of reaction to contents and stimuli trickling down from above.

Yet, for all its limits it is important to bear in mind that digital parties have demonstrated an impressive degree of success, as demonstrated by the impressive electoral results that they have achieved. They have proposed an effective template to coordinate collective action, distribute political labour, and works towards common objectives. Therefore, they do represent an important development for all those who are convinced that far from being a relic of the past, political parties are as important as ever in this era of crisis and extreme inequality. All political parties will have to reckon with the lessons of the digital party. The challenge is to find a working balance between effectiveness and democratic legitimacy, addressing some of the most notable limits of this party type, and turning it into a tool for popular forces fighting against economic and political oligarchies the world over.

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The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy by Paolo Gerbaudo is available from Pluto Press.

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Paolo Gerbaudo is the Director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College, London. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets (2012), and The Mask and the Flag (2017).