Last week, in Manchester, eager activists gathered in their thousands. They rallied, they debated earnestly and listened with rapt attention to a speech from their Party Leader. A stone’s throw away, the Manchester Central conference centre played host to a more sedate gathering of politicos, lobbyists, journalists and a few select activists. To some, the contrast between Jeremy Corbyn’s rally at Manchester Cathedral and the Conservative Party Conference taking place nearby was further evidence of how traditional party politics is being upended by a new generation of activists. This insurgent tide isn’t confined to rainy Monday evenings in Manchester: in Italy, Spain and Greece, left-wing insurgents are on the march; earlier this year, UKIP won nearly 4 million votes in the UK general election; meanwhile, in the US Presidential race, it is Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who have made the early running.
So what’s going on? In a nutshell, the distribution of political, cultural, and economic power has been unravelling for decades. Regardless of what you think about it, the way in which we relate to one another and society is being transformed, with technologically driven individualisation of experience and a breakdown of the large institutions that once governed our lives. In the age of mass participation, political agency was concentrated in the hands of the few; but now with all of us living far more individualistic lives, it has become far more challenging for top-down institutions to organise our lives. At the same time, the big political debates have been thrown open to all. This is exciting for some, disconcerting for others, empowering for most and also profoundly disruptive and challenging for those seeking to shape the political agenda.
Political parties have generally responded to this fragmented landscape with either technocratic blandness or partisan posturing. Neither approach has succeeded in filling the void left by the decline in the institutions that have traditionally dominated and driven political debate. Instead, a diverse range of groups are entering this sphere and there is now a positive expectation that good corporate citizenship should involve a proactive contribution to public debate. Why rely on a centuries old political party to champion your cause when you can do it yourself? This offers those seeking to lead debate on societal issues with enormous scope for action; but it also presents pitfalls, not least a heightened degree of scrutiny. Many organisations won’t have a choice about taking on this role; as expectations shift, they will have to do so if they are to retain trust and confidence.
If the phrase ‘new politics’ means anything today, it is that political debate, setting the policy agenda and driving social change is no longer a closed shop. In a world where we can personalise and individualise so much of our day-to-day lives, the barriers to entry for those wishing to secure political change are fast disappearing. Whether it is seizing control of the Labour Leadership election or campaigning to get Jane Austen on the £10 note, you no longer need a nod from political power brokers to succeed; indeed, you can bypass them altogether. At the same time, engaging with this expanding political sphere is no longer an “optional extra” but a key component of what is expected of any socially responsible organisation. All this is bad news for anyone relying on political gatekeepers, but also means that there are now diverse avenues for affecting change open to a wide range of organisations. It is this sweeping democratisation of the public realm which is the exciting promise of the ‘new politics’ rather than Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to draw a crowd.