May 17, 2017 | Graham

Corporatisation of political parties

Hillary Clinton has just started a new movement called Onwards Together to “resist” Donald Trump. It is similar to her campaign slogan “Stronger Together”, but if you translated it into French you would probably call it something like “En Marche”, which is the name of Emmanuel Macron’s new political party.

In turn Macron’s party name is extremely similar to that of the party of Silvio Berlusconi – “Forza Italia” , which is translated along the lines of “Forward Italy”, or “Let’s Go, Italy”.

Macron and Berlusconi are self-made politicians. Both are essentially business candidates. In Macron’s case, he is supported by the financial establishment, from which he has made a lot of money. In Berlusconi’s case, he, like Donald Trump, made the money himself and had such a big business empire that conflicts of interest, particularly with his media properties, frequently coloured perceptions of his government.

While Hillary hasn’t started her own party, setting up what sounds like a super PAC is somewhat on the way. (And anyway, from what we know through Wikileaks, she and Bill had effectively taken over the Democrat organisation, so she already owns one political party).

So here we have three big personalities, leveraging support directly from electors, using similar slogans. It is a top-down, branding exercise, executed in the way you might launch a new fashion range, and completely different from the bottom-up, grass roots ways that political parties have been traditionally formed.

Australia has been in the vanguard of this movement. The first eponoymous political party I was ever aware of was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. But that has now been joined by the Katter Party, the Nick Xenephon Team, the Jacquie Lambie Network, and the Derryn Hinch Justice Party.

Is this good for democracy?

I’m not sure, but it is an entirely different way of mediating between voters and governments. In the old parties party members got to make policy, but that doesn’t really appear to happen in the new parties.

Pauline Hanson runs hers like a business franchise. When a sacked candidate complained he disagreed with her on policy she asked whose name was that in front of One Nation?

That is the commercial logic of “If you don’t like this shop, go and try another”. It’s different from the old parties, where rather than try another shop you’d work to change the shop you were in.

So in this new world we aren’t members, we are customers and employees.

At one level, that isn’t such a bad thing. Changing party policy, and therefore government policy, could take decades.

As the last budget shows, you can turn a government from a judicious classical liberal agenda into a more social democratic tax and spend one within less than 5 years. All you need to do is vote for the corporate parties in the Senate, and they will read their market research directly, and ensure that the government does what you want. No need to go to branch meetings and work tirelessly to effect policy.

But is that what consumers, I mean voters, really wanted?

I suspect not. What we want, and need, is parties that every now and then, show “leadership”, and go against what we tell them we want. We’ll reward them for that, (as German voters appear to be rewarding Angela Merkel at the moment).

Here they may have more luck in countries where big brand corporate parties now exist, rather than the niche branded-parties we have in Australia. Party Trump really does have a lot of power in the USA, and it has a list of promises in its mission statement which it is ticking off. Perhaps En Marche will behave similarly.

But what happens when the terrain moves to something that voters didn’t have in mind when they voted? And how will these parties innovate if they are always reading the market research from voters?

The Australian experiment doesn’t look promising, and the US experiment is starting to look wonky, for entirely different reasons. In Australia the corporate parties are reinforcing bad economic behaviours on behalf of their customers. In the US the behaviour of the CEO is getting to the stage where it may compromise his ability to negotiate effectively with the other stakeholders.

Berlusconi had similar problems.

Perhaps Emmanuel (translates as God with us) Macron may show a different direction.

Although, watching this train wreck from Canada with his look alike Justin Trudeau, who has done a vaguely corporatist make-over of the Canadian Liberals, good looks and charisma are not always enough.

The Internet is partly responsible for the rise of these parties, because it lowers the barriers to entry. But just as it lowers the barriers to entry to individuals, like Trump and Macron (and Obama for that matter), it might be discovered to lower the barriers of entry to groups who want to behave more like traditional political parties.

In politics, evolution has never been as fast as it is now.

Posted by Graham at 9:15 am | Comments Off on Corporatisation of political parties |

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