Minimum viable party

A radical reboot of our approach to politics is long overdue

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. This edition is about the future of the political party – why institutions like these need to change, and how to get there.

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The central tenet of our work on tech policy is that the institutions of the 20th century are fundamentally mismatched to the challenges of the 21st century.

Lots of the public policy debates that flow from this are naturally about how best to govern in the internet era: how to think about culture and mindsets, how to modernise the state, how to reorient its modus operandi around the needs of citizens not elites.

To remake the state to deliver for the people, one must first hold the levers of power. In a liberal democracy, the traditional vehicle for contesting elections and obtaining the public’s permission to govern is the political party.

Here in the UK, the Labour Party was once the standard bearer of progressive politics. It has just gone down to another defeat in our recent local elections; when presented to the nation it has failed to win the last four general elections.

Behind these defeats there is a strong argument that recent years have seen a more fundamental realignment in politics than most people practising it care to realise.

This has profound implications for progressives seeking to govern. Political parties are institutions too, and no more inherently able to outrun a shifting external environment than any other artefact of the previous century.

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Kobayashi Maru

How do you refit a political party for the internet era? As progressives survey the wreckage of previously formidable election-winning machines shattered by the revolt of the public, this question has become more urgent than ever before.

Arduous work to reimagine every aspect of policy for the 21st century is a prerequisite for a distinctive pitch to the public. Armed with a new progressive agenda, the exercise of political power still holds the promise of a better and more equal society.

The right ideas alone, however, are not enough. Political parties exist to provide a credible alternative for governing the country. To persuade people to pledge their votes, they must both present a compelling vision and be trusted to deliver.

Although the internet is the defining feature of our time, political parties in desperate need of renewal will never prove their competence to the public with shinier websites, viral video clips and retweets, or endless virtue-signalling petitions.

This isn’t to discount the importance of a good digital presence, of course. But frantic tactical pandering to a party’s core supporters is no substitute for electoral strategy.

Online advertising has an important role too, even if its use in politics makes some people feel uncomfortable. Promoted content gets messages in front of people; the internet gives parties more scope to do this effectively, particularly when resources are scarce.

Taking advantage of new channels not just to broadcast but also to listen to the public is more promising still. Doing this well requires new ways of organising; the internet era has put a premium on convenience, which means meeting people where they already spend time rather than expecting them to come to you.

But while valuable, even this may be nowhere near enough.

Fans of Star Trek will be familiar with the Kobayashi Maru, a training exercise for Starfleet cadets that confronts them with a no-win scenario. It can be seen as a test of character in the face of extreme adversity. But it can also be seen as a test of the grit required to change the rules rather than be crushed by an impossible situation.

In a world where the political odds are now stacked against progressive challengers, leaders that want to win need to stop navel gazing and get busy redefining the nature of the contest itself. The goal must be to secure an entirely new source of competitive advantage, so that a victory for progress is possible once again.

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Discover the unknown

One of the most exciting developments of the internet era is the explosion in permissionless innovation. It’s never been easier to build, and it’s never been easier for people outside of traditional institutions to stand up a viable alternative to the status quo.

In the context of this discussion, the implicit assumption that a political party has to be in government before it can start delivering for the public belongs firmly in the past.

You may have come across people in tech who work as product managers (or better yet, you might be one yourself!):

A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfil, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality. — Atlassian

Applying this mindset to the activities of a political party would be revolutionary. The organisation’s need is to get elected, but from a product perspective what matters is the needs of customers – in this case, the needs of voters.

And today’s technology makes it possible to build things that start to meet these needs and that prove practical competence, even when a party is in opposition.

To kick off a debate about what this might mean in practice, I’ve jotted down some thought starters designed to push the boundaries of current thinking about the role of tech in politics.

This list is inspired in part by the growing civic tech movement around the world, which is starting to show us what is possible when technology is applied to improve public services. But much of this activity is positioned outside of party politics, so it’s interesting to consider how the two worlds might be brought closer together.

1. APIs as civic infrastructure

Modern life is characterised by a tangle of services that have trouble talking to each other. API-first approaches abstract away lots of the complexity, making it easier to build great products that meet user needs. A sufficiently capable party could try to do the same for public services, making it easier for developers to build new integrations and interfaces that outperform those provided by the state.

2. Alternative service delivery

Work on APIs could be taken a step further, to stand up new user-facing services and overlays (or as close a simulacrum of them as possible) for the public to access. Rather than telling people how things could be different, a more practically-minded party would show them and be guided by their direct feedback – the classic political manifesto reimagined through the medium of Testflight, if you like.

3. Platform provision

The internet has revolutionised all sorts of interactions, from messaging and payments to travel and accommodation. There’s no practical mileage in political parties trying to compete with services that are already successful. But there may well be niches where providing a marketplace or platform could help people connect with others and unlock value from interactions that would otherwise be missed.

4. Community group buy

Community group buying sees people who live near each other pooling orders for food and other everyday products, with a single bulk purchase delivered to a local community leader. As neighbourhood apps and messaging groups increase social capital, there may be an opportunity to achieve something similar – for example coordinating demands to fix local problems or get new services up and running.

5. Consensus at scale

Technology has digitised things like traditional focus groups and consultations, but these are still typically organised to meet organisations’ perceived needs for insights. New tools and methods for finding consensus on difficult issues come much closer to putting the needs of voters first, generating viable solutions that people will advocate for because they were meaningfully involved in the problem-solving process itself.

6. Coins and tokens

The growing Web 3 movement has given us new ways to think about the governance of organisations and what it means to have a stake in them. This in turn opens up new ways for a reimagined political party to engage with voters. One of these is the possibility of issuing digital tokens with interesting properties, for example allowing the public to express their preferences on key policy proposals using quadratic voting.

7. Digital twins

Advances in artificial intelligence and massive agent-based simulations are powering an increasing number of so-called digital twins – digital representations of objects or systems that exist in the real world. This approach could be built out to give voters a credible assessment of new policies, helping to prove the case for change (or to more effectively call out the shortcomings in opponents’ positions).

8. The metaverse

One huge trend accelerated by the pandemic has been the migration of activity from the offline world to the online world. Nevertheless, we are in the early days of the next big era of the internet, and there is lots still to figure out. There may be a significant first-mover advantage for political parties able to adapt themselves to thrive in novel virtual environments and address the new user needs that arise within them.

These are all just brief provocations to illustrate the point. New ideas often seem implausible at first, and perhaps none of these are the right answer. But embedded in this way of thinking may be an opportunity to prove competence to the public more tangibly than any stump speech or manifesto could ever manage.

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Things are only impossible until they're not

A political party that wants to successfully execute on this sort of strategy will need to come at it with the attitude of a startup, not of an incumbent.

Could a traditional political party be rebooted to clear this bar? There are certainly well-intentioned people trying hard who may yet succeed. But all the evidence thus far suggests most institutions with their roots in the previous century don’t want to be reformed.

To make matters worse, in many countries a punishing electoral system can make it extremely hard for new political parties to achieve escape velocity.1

And yet there are countless industries in which the incumbents looked unassailable until, all of a sudden, they were proved not to be. In the internet era, software can change the world – and determined people operating outside of conventional institutions can have a massively outsized impact.2

There was a time when the first choice for many new graduates was a high-status job in finance or consulting. Then it was going to work for one of the big tech companies. Now, many would seriously consider joining a startup; some of the hottest competition around is to get into Y Combinator or Entrepreneur First.

Matt Clifford from Entrepreneur First argues convincingly that it really matters what the most talented and ambitious people choose to do with their lives.

Applied innovation is our best hope for overcoming so many of the great challenges of our time: halting the climate crisis, revolutionising human health, extending education and economic opportunity, and building the cities of tomorrow.

Meanwhile, it’s become a common lament that too many good people no longer choose to make their mark in politics, even though politics ultimately frames all of our attempts to improve the world around us.

But perhaps the future of our political parties belongs rightly to a new generation of political entrepreneurs able to master the new complexities of a new era.

There are surely innovators out there who have what it takes to forge a radical and practical new approach to progressive politics – and who don’t believe in no-win scenarios.

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1

Notable failures in the UK include the SDP in the 1980s and Change UK in 2019

2

Some great examples include Tesla / SpaceX, as well as Bitcoin and Ethereum