Are political parties still capable of integrating the long term into their strategic reflections? This crucial question for ecologists has particular relevance in France, where political foundations have the potential to contribute to the reforming and reinvention of the country’s democracy.
Generating New Ideas in Political Parties: Simply Tokenist?
Promoting, proposing and debating ideas: in these times of economic challenges and declared end of ideology, political parties are struggling to convincingly fill this role. For one, they are veritable professional election machines. Under these circumstances, developing ideas, spreading a platform, facilitating public debate is both necessary and secondary. Experts write opinions, working groups meet, decision makers are questioned, policy proposals are debated, some even with full fledged communication plans to back them. But none of this imposed structure really has any effect on the reality of political party life. What really matters is elsewhere: the games of political movements and people; buzz words; the art of rebuttal and communication surrounding this back and forth; in the institutions when a political party is the ruling party; or within the networks of influence.
The very organisation of political party life is difficult to reconcile with real, intellectual work.
During campaigns, fresh ideas are generated once again, usually when the parties close ranks around the main candidates and a political personality is built. During these times of conquering new or holding on to old electoral ground, the exercise of proposing and debating ideas remains important. Under the Fifth Republic in France, the five-year term presidency has meant an increase in the linking of political content to a personality. To such an extent, that the role of generating ideas comes down to the front (wo)man in the electoral battle: presidential candidates, mainly, but also to heads of the party lists for regional or European elections. S/he has the ideas and the others follow along. The party kowtows to the candidates’ wishes. This was clear in the Nicolas Sarkozy-Ségolène Royal face-off for the French presidency in 2007. In 2012, François Hollande immediately showed that he did not feel constrained by the platform agreed on by the Socialists and the Greens, after several months of concerted efforts on issues of institutional, economic, social, energy and international importance. During the legislative elections of 2012, the majority of socialist candidates took up François Hollande’s 60 proposals word for word; any straying from the line would risk weakening the party.
The very organisation of political party life is difficult to reconcile with real, intellectual work. The need for swift reaction to current events, in-fighting amongst leaders and deputy leaders, and the need to be constantly present in the field means that political activity has become highly based on the individual themselves and on a need for a quick response and empiricism. The committees set up by the political parties to debate the major issues (broken down into the traditional categories of social issues, economic issues, international issues, sustainable development, culture, etc.,) function without cross-checking with those in charge of election campaigns. True debate on the issues during weekly meetings of the various decision making bodies are few and far between and are often left to the wayside in favour of speeches of party line stances and the political mainstream. Under these circumstances, producing “ideas that can gain ground” is a real challenge.
In this context, the fact that political life revolves around a Socialist Party – UMP bi-polar reality is more a result of the institutional system and the majority voting system than of a true comparison of the party platforms. The irony is that it is those parties that have little access to the institutions, such as the Greens, the centrist party MODEM, and the right wing National Front that put forth new ideas and new policy proposals. These parties are able to make their presence felt more during alternative elections such as the European Parliament elections, which are proportional. On the other hand, the windfall of public funding in these cases can impede real differences from becoming apparent. For example, for the European Parliament elections in May 2014, there are a whopping 31 lists in the Ile-de-France (Paris) region alone; many of these parties state that they defend the environment; all of them state they have ideas about Europe, but a loosely defined Europe.
Should a Political Party’s Activity of Producing New Ideas Be Outsourced?
All of the major political families in France have a foundation in charge of coming up with and spreading new ideas. There are six total: the Socialist’s Jean Jaurès Foundation; the UMP’s Fondapol; the Fondation Gabriel Péri, which is related to the Communist party; The Robert Schuman foundation which specializes in issues related to Europe for the centrist parties; The Res publica Foundation of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and the recently established Foundation for Political Ecology for the Greens. The National Front has also expressed its desire to establish a Foundation and already has a think tank known as the Ideas Nation. Although they are independent from the parties in their work, the status and role of these foundations is currently being redefined. They will have to find the right balance between daily political life, promoting ideas in a society that is weary of promises and seeking a vision for the future, and organising their European and international facets. Considering the need for debate and comparison of ideas, the French versions of these foundations still need to show that they are up to the task, and also expand their membership beyond insiders. Should the German model be emulated, where political foundations are powerful and have access to significant funds allocated by Parliament and produce proposals that are then reported on in the press? That is at least one option that should be explored.
Globalisation, sovereign debt crisis, environmental challenges, the apparently unavoidable divide between what is promised during a campaign and what is actually delivered when in power, all of this adds up to a daunting context in which to put forth policy ideas.
In addition to these political foundations, there are a number of think tanks that, through incorporation as an association, have a political role: Terra Nova, considered socialist; Institut Montaigne, liberal leaning; Fondation Nicolas Hulot, apolitical and promoting the major environmental issues. There is no institutional link between these entities and the political parties, which means that they can facilitate public debate in a freer and, at times more audacious, way. The recent boom in think tanks that do not really have a specific status or single definition as to their role does however raise a number of questions. Minimum disclosure rules should apply to their work methodology, links to networks of influence, and possible conflicts of interest.
Finally, it would be worthwhile to contemplate the consequences of this outsourcing. Accepting that structures external to the political parties themselves generate ideas is tantamount to accepting the professionalisation of politics without fully exploring the democratic limits to this system. How can we expect citizens to get more involved in politics if their elected officials are not even interested in the major debates affecting society today and are getting lost in the complexity of it all? The main subject that will need to be addressed urgently in order to resolve the current democratic crisis is that of the embodiment of a project by an individual.
Good Policy Ideas vs. Bad Policy Ideas: Shouldn’t We Move Away from This Dichotomy?
Globalisation, sovereign debt crisis, environmental challenges, the apparently unavoidable divide between what is promised during a campaign and what is actually delivered when in power, all of this adds up to a daunting context in which to put forth policy ideas. People are inhibited when making proposals. Implementation, costs, timeframe, all of these things are compulsory conditions and difficult paths to navigate. Sometimes it seems that generating policy ideas has run into a dead end.
It seems as if the political parties are still reasoning within outdated schemas of the world. They are working off a blueprint based on a model of productivism that struggles to factor in the mechanisms of globalisation, that does not address the issues of resource depletion and the environment, and that does not give enough breadth and depth to the long term. The best illustration of these contradictions is the debate on the energy transition launched in the autumn of 2012. That debate should have been exciting, stimulating, strategic and led to a real law that laid the foundations for a concrete plan. Instead it fell victim to everything that was neglected: long term management was neglected; questions were left as to representativeness (NGOs, unions, employers, how should this be weighed? how should decisions be made?); unknowns were left as to the appropriations; integration with employment and social policy was not dealt with. And there was no real debate on the concrete makeup of the energy mix for the 2025/2030 timeframe. Where should we stand on nuclear energy? Which plants should be closed and which should stay open? In which alternatives should we invest most heavily? All of the data and all of the opinions on these issues have been piling up but without resulting in a clear stance, for lack of solid political backing.
We can no longer proceed by juxtaposition between the old world and new issues. We must develop a new political mindset. This will require political parties to undergo an update. This can be done by placing importance on the development of ideas as a top priority, but also and most importantly, by understanding that these ideas must form a system to establish a vision and a platform. Without that resolve, citizens, who are already confused by the lack of coherent political platforms, will only become more disenfranchised by the democratic process.