What is the point of a political party?
As New Democrats and Conservatives prepare to pick leaders, the Liberals pose a key question
When, in future years, we look back on this week in Canadian politics, we may decide we rather underestimated its importance. For, unlike most weeks in Canadian politics, all three of our major parties are asking very fundamental questions about their own existence — about why they exist, and for whom.
The New Democrats, grumbling vocally as they go, will arrive in Edmonton to decide (among other things) whether to keep their leader and all that has come and may yet come with him. The Conservatives are beginning their own leadership race, as Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier are now officially the first two to put their names forward as candidates. And the Liberal Party is looking to undo a key component of what we have long understood parties to be, as their leader (who happens to be prime minister) presses for abolishing due paying, card-carrying party members.
It’s the last of those that is perhaps the most interesting, though it has perhaps spawned the least amount of commentary. And the stuff that has been written about it has a certain similarity.
At the National Post, for example, John Robson worried about the coherence of the party’s structure and integrity, and what might result if that were to be destroyed. “If coherence in government matters, including the need to keep promises once elected, then the rapidness of change in social movements and the ephemeral nature of trends that appear, peak and vanish in the wink of an eye, could prove to be serious problems,” he warned. “Is it safe, or advisable, to base a party on public views that last only as long as millennials clicking the ‘Like’ button?”
At iPolitics, Tasha Kheiriddin suggested that, “without limits on membership, the Liberals will by extension have no firm principles or policies they can’t exchange for new ones at the drop of a hat…. It’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club.”
It seems like a minor point, but this comparison to Facebook is interesting — just unfortunately not for the reasons that either Robson or Kheiriddin suggest.
Firstly, rather than just being a venue for passing fancies and millennial ennui (though it is that, in part), Facebook is literally a treasure trove for political parties. Having someone “like” your party on Facebook is actually exactly the kind of thing any smart organization would want to do. Via Facebook, all sorts of interesting information becomes available, and you barely ever have to ask for it — people just give it up for free. It also makes it easy to get in touch with them, which smart parties also do. That is to say, if your fear is that any party might base its views, in whole or in part, on what people like on Facebook, then you are too late — that future is basically now (or imminently).
More to the point is that dismissing this breakdown of party membership as a ploy to become a catch-all for any simplistic idea floating past is to fundamentally misunderstand a very large and increasingly important cohort of voters — millennials, for lack of a better term. They are dismissed in the critiques above as partial to the daily winds of change. That might be true to some degree, but the more pertinent truth is that, if this generation of voters — the ones who are now aged approximately anywhere from their late teens to mid-30s — consistently wants anything, it’s transparency.
That’s not to say the Liberal party is necessarily more transparent by virtue of its new plan than any other party (promises of transparency are notoriously difficult to keep). What this new non-membership move does seem to do, on the surface, is force a very interesting question — that is: what is the point of a political party?
The simple answer is t0 offer structure.
For one, this is how Ottawa works — under a party system. That structure is present throughout. Everything from how the House of Commons functions, to how finances work, and on and on is based on a party system. Even the Senate, newly (somewhat) freed from parties, and welcoming seven new independent senators, will still function, by and large, in this way. Parties give our system rigidity, but they’re also incredibly important to the way government functions.
But structure applies elsewhere, too. Parties themselves are structures – or were.
A possible heretofore-unexplored, but important, side effect of the election result in October was that it actually validated destructuralized parties – or at least those that look that way. Many Canadians voted in a Liberal government, yes. At the same time, they implicitly endorsed what that party stands for, including the idea that it is possible to take an axe to what was considered a core element of basic political party structure — party membership. Two years earlier, the Liberals had introduced their ‘supporters’ category for those who were at that time maybe-Liberals (many of whom the party subsequently converted into full Liberal voters last fall).
What was an important stated justification for that new category? To make the party appear more open (read: transparent).
In retrospect, that move appears now to have been more than an attempt to merely gather information about possible voters — though surely that occurred – and also more than a simple attempt to win people to the Liberal side.
What it did, though quietly to the majority of Canadians at the time, was announce a breakdown of structure. That matters because inherent in the idea of structure in political parties are other ideas about limited access, closed doors, and hierarchies. If you appear to destroy the structure, you can look as if you are destroying the rest of it, too. Even if you don’t.
As Susan Delacourt hinted at recently, for a party that was at the time likely to elect the son of a former prime minister to its leadership, and that would then be tasked with making that son of a former prime minister relatable on the campaign trail to a majority of Canadians, destroying structure was important. There is a reason why, at the 2014 Liberal convention, the posters and paraphernalia of past Liberal prime ministers and campaigns that were on display in 2012 were gone: they were totems of a structure, a hierarchy, an inapproachability, and an elitism of an opaque past.
This is perhaps also why Liberal president Anna Gainey used the term “movement” to describe what the Liberal party hopes to be. What else would you call an apparently destructuralized political party?
So, let’s say you are the New Democrats or the Conservatives this week. The issue of choosing a new leader is at the moment a very deep, existential, one. For, what will those leaders be leading, exactly?
The Liberals have hinted that the point of their political party is that it’s not really a political party. They have more than hinted at how they plan to run Ottawa as a direct result of that. Are the NDP and Conservatives still political parties? If so, what kind of political parties are they? If not, then what are they otherwise? What is the point of them?
More accurately, perhaps: What do they want Canadians to think is the point of them?
Like I said, it’s an interesting week.
(Disclosure: Between Sept. 2014 and Nov. 2015 [inclusive], I worked as a speechwriter for the Liberal Party of Canada. In that role, I wrote material for both Justin Trudeau and Anna Gainey. None of it had to do with the topic of party membership addressed here. I am not a member of the Liberal party.)