European movements could mark the end of ‘representative’ politics

The success of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party has profoundly disrupted the tedious pendulum movement between Left and Right. EPA/Robert Perry

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


In the wake of an extraordinary climax to the UK general election, it might seem strange to be posing the question of the health of representative politics. The turnout for the election was 66.1%, the highest recorded in the UK for 18 years.

The tedious pendulum movement between Left and Right – which many believe to be at the root of the current malaise – was profoundly disrupted by the explosion in support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) and by the 13% of the vote gained by the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Crisis? What crisis? But despite the interest generated by the UK election, signs of change – even transformation – in Western democracies are not far from hand.

‘Strong’ and ‘stable’ government

Much of the media crowed with news of the Conservatives’ clear mandate to govern. The markets went up; the pound strengthened. “Strong” and “stable” government was restored after a temporary hiatus brought about by a hung parliament and the need for a coalition government.

While the Conservatives polled 37% of the popular vote, it ended up with 51% of the seats and a clear majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, the Greens and UKIP combined polled 16.5% of the popular vote but ended up with two seats between them. Such disproportionality makes a mockery of the “one person, one vote” notion that underpins democracy.

So, the government claims to represent the British people – but the maths suggests otherwise.

None of this is of concern for the markets and much of the mainstream media. We are collectively cajoled to accept this as democratic legitimacy in the face of evidence that suggests it is anything but.

We have, as Lord Hailsham famously put it, “elective dictatorship” – the imposition of state power in a manner that meets with the approval of a small minority. But that doesn’t matter, because that small minority includes all those who “count”.

Weak parties as organisational totems

The issues concerning the health of representative politics are by no means exhausted simply by looking at the outcome. Whereas Labour and the Conservatives could draw on the support of millions of members in the 1960s, they are now left with rapidly declining memberships in the 100,000s each.

Their memberships are not merely declining – they are ageing. This means they need to turn to other sources of support. In the case of the Conservatives, this pulls them toward corporate Britain, banks and “high net worth” individuals whose wealth and power ensures much greater “representation” than the ordinary party member – let alone the voter.

The Labour Party, once the flagship for organised labour, looks even worse. The declining memberships of trade unions are creating a financial crisis for the party. This is not to say that the trade unions exercise no influence. Ed Miliband’s election to the leadership in 2010 is testimony to the over-preponderance of union influence in the party. Labour’s credentials as a mobiliser and representer of “ordinary people” looks flimsy.

With a steady hollowing out of membership, the cosying up to vested interests with pockets deep enough to maintain party bureaucracies in the manner to which they have been accustomed and the televisual display of forced smiles, today’s political parties barely “represent”. They are rather organisational totems: expressions of certain values, vaguely defined to appeal to as many as possible.

But how then to interpret the SNP’s extraordinary rise from relative obscurity to a position of near monopoly in Scotland?

The SNP’s emergence can be read as a pragmatic response to this crisis. It is part of that more general phenomenon spreading across Europe and elsewhere: a generalised discontent with the state of democracy, resulting in support for parties that draw their support from the promise to highlight the iniquities and failures of the present system.

A new cycle?

The current cycle started with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement winning the largest vote of any single party in the 2013 Italian election. It gathered pace with the emergence of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

The emergence of the SNP should not be read as a source of comfort for those thinking that the 2015 UK election represents a re-enchantment with representative politics. The signs are clear, warning us of the exhaustion of this manner of doing politics – and thus a deepening of the crisis, now accentuated by the rejection of “Westminster” by a large portion of the Scottish electorate.

Why does any of this matter?

We are reaching a tipping point in the public’s perception of the democratic content of representative democracies. The emergence of “something has to change” parties, movements and tropes in the UK and elsewhere is a symptom of this feeling. In Spain, a plethora of new parties have emerged since the 15-M movement of 2011 to challenge the dominance of the two main parties.

What unites many of these initiatives is the desire to generate a “second transition” for the Spanish constitution: a constituent process of re-founding Spanish democracy to make it more capacious, representative, connective and ethical.

Ada Colau, a leading figure of the new movements and the newly elected mayor of Barcelona, is an emblematic figure of the new politics and the new thinking. Colau emerged not out of the trade union movement nor out of the traditional parties, but out of the direct action “street” politics that for so long in Spain as elsewhere turned its nose up at involvement in electoral and mainstream politics.

Colau represents a programme that promises greater transparency and engagement, ethical governance and direct participation in the key decisions that face Barcelona’s citizens: unemployment, lack of opportunity, austerity, loss of power to influence and participate in collective life. She is in favour of “connective governance”, which seeks to develop partnerships, coalitions and alliances, and engages individual citizens as well as existing interest groups and elites.

Others are urging something more radical. They seek a transition to direct democratic governance using peer-to-peer technologies. Many of these new initiatives have themselves been created on the back of the greatly increased mobilising capability brought about by technological developments.

In Spain, close to 400 new parties have emerged since 15-M. Many have been created on the basis of interactions facilitated through technology. Some started out as a Facebook initiative, a Reddit platform or alliances generated by activists involved in the occupation of the towns and squares in 2011 – and combinations of the above.

The new political parties indicate this connective logic. They do not articulate any particular ideology that would be familiar to an observer of 20th-century politics. The activists behind them see themselves as deploying political tools to generate the momentum necessary to reboot the system in favour of a connective logic rather than to capture power in the manner of the traditional parties.

Millions have taken to the streets in Spain to demand political change. EPA/Chema Moya

Something has to change

All these initiatives are united by the idea that “something has to change”. That “something” is the very idea at the heart of our contemporary practices of democracy: governance is something practised by a professional caste of politicians acting in our interests and in our name on the basis of a single gesture. That is, we mark our ballot papers once every few years to deliver “strong” and “stable” government whether it has the backing of a numerical majority or not.

Such an antique conception of “self-governance” has now become the very substance of political contestation. For example, it is noticeable in Spain that the tumultuous political climate in 2011 later took on a more optimistic and engaging flavour. “Street” protestors began to think of ways they could engage in mainstream as well as street politics.

Podemos’ emergence in the 2014 European elections, when it captured five seats after only a few weeks in existence, offered hope to those who had previously thought that change could only be effected from “without” – by occupations and protests. Podemos created a hubbub of a kind that should enthuse democrats of whatever stripe.

But far from channelling energies in a single direction and to a single party, Podemos’ rise has led to all manner of other initiatives, parties, groups emerging – so much so that it has created a kind of political laboratory, where citizens seek out others in gestures of pragmatic co-operation and experimentation.

The challenge presented by the crisis of representative politics is to find an institutional expression for the connective energies and desire to participate articulated in the “something has to change” gestures that we see in the emergence of the SNP, Podemos and their ilk.

The alternative is to allow the mantra of “strong” and “stable” government peddled so emphatically by much of the media, corporations, financial markets, currency traders and politicians to stave off the necessary process of change needed to make the leap from 18th- to 21st-century governance.


Simon Tormey’s new book The End of Representative Politics is available from Polity and Wiley. You can read John Keane’s review here.