Are political parties in Europe in trouble?
Political parties are facing a changing landscape in Europe for a number of reasons:
The past two decades have seen continuing drop off in membership of parties (circa 4% of voting population) and declining affiliation with party values.
Parties have seen increasing fragmentation of voting patterns (increase in number of parties represented in parliament) and the number of countries where multi-party coalitions are the norm is on the increase.
At the same time, voter apathy and distrust of politicians is on the rise. Voter turnout at elections is declining in nearly all countries (circa 45%). Trust in national politicians ranges from 2/10 to 5/10 depending on the EU country.
And the big one, data privacy, with GDPR legislation now in force, how can political parties understand their electorate when asking voters question implies data controller obligations?
Do parties see this as a crisis and what should they do anyway?
Parties are reacting to the changed digital landscape that they operate in and have begun to communicate with the electorate online and through social media. However, the key challenge for parties remains, how to reach voters effectively and, at the same time, build their support base. So what are the responses parties are making in 2020?
Direct voter contact
In 2018 the FDP party in Switzerland took the decision to focus efforts on direct voter contact. They decided to do this because they felt that online-only engagement with voters could result in losing touch with the broad cross-section of society. They believed in building relationships with voters directly through their grassroots network so they had a strong core of support when elections came around again. They also operate in a political culture within Switzerland where direct democracy is the norm, so they want to be as close as possible to what voters are thinking at all times. Switzerland has some of the lowest rates of distrust in politicians and direct voter contact can be used to do party membership drives.
Data privacy controls
A strange and powerful thing happens when someone in a political party speaks with a voter and they record information from that voter. If that information is personally identifiable, such as a name, address, email, etc then the person taking the information suddenly becomes a ‘data controller’. In the eyes of the law, they are now responsible for taking care of that data. The obligations on volunteers and party operatives whenever they talk to voters are huge and parties need to start taking them seriously if they are to continue to engage the people they serve. The European Commission itself has been fined for breaches of data protection under GDPR so it is likely that we will see European parties too be fined in the coming year.
The Social Democrats in Sweden decided that their party, including every grassroots member around the country should be connected together on one system so that everyone can learn from one another. With a connected digital infrastructure the party can now direct regional offices, see what everyone is doing, and begin to get a sense of what the electorate nationally are concerned about. With one system that everyone is working on the party can reach out to voters by email, phone or face-to-face, they can analyze what is happening and they can organize all of their members more effectively.
Energising grassroots teams
The region of Emilia-Romanga in Northern Italy had an election recently where the liberal party were facing a challenge from the La Lega party who were backed by the Italian leader Matteo Salvini. Energising the liberal party’s grassroots teams became highly important to maintain the campaign effort. The party sent out their grassroots to talk to voters directly and do surveys on the street. What they found was that their party had the backing of the electorate despite all the rallies being held by the La Lega party. What appeared to be a very challenging situation, became a good one for grassroots teams who quickly realized they had the support to win. This momentum carried them to victory at the polls and convinced them of the need to engage voters, because the very act of doing so helped to cement the support of the grassroots teams.
In Austria, the pro-EU party NEOS, have moved to a strategy of always-on campaigning to try to avoid the situation of voters feeling that parties only engage with them at election time. They are moving beyond the cycle of politics and trying to systematically get to talk to everyone in the country. Though they may never achieve this fully, in the process they are building a real-time picture of the electorate by map. This interactive map can tell them where they need to work on, and on what issues. This is their interface with the entire body of voters and the culmination of the hard work that grassroots operatives do every day in every party around Europe.
Despite trends to falling party membership and voter apathy, parties can reverse this trend and begin to build relationships with voters that allow them to really represent those voters. Technology is going to play a major part in any story about politics in the coming decade as it has done in the past decade. How parties respond to the challenge is going to dictate which of them is around to see 2030.