What is a movement?

In the discussion – and sales talk – around the party reform proposals, people often talk of creating a movement, sometimes equated to a supporter scheme. Sometimes, as in that video, it’s presented as an alternative to a political party. There is a danger of positive language being repeated till people stop asking what it means. So what is a movement and how’s it different from a political party?

“Movement” suggests moving – towards some shared goal. Parties can do that, but you can’t have a movement for not changing things much. Movements require mass participation.

Any party can call itself a movement. In France in 1945, some traditional parties were blamed for France’s unpreparedness for the war and others for collaborating. So a new party was called the “Mouvement Republican Populaire” – People’s Republican Movement. It was organised as a traditional party with mainly unclear goals.

Parties have a defined membership, organisation at local and national levels, a leader or leaders and some process for choosing people with particular responsibilities. Movements may or may not have these things.

Many movements campaign for something narrowly defined. Consider the 19th century movements for abolition of slavery in the UK and the US. The UK movement worked through traditional parties. The US movement founded its own parties (Free Soil, then Republican). Other genuine movements include the Feminist movement, the Green movement, CND and nationalist separatist movements. Some have formed parties, others not.

If a movement aims to win elections, it will either have a structure to ensure fairness in selections, or it will be an undemocratic following of a Great Leader or unelected cabal. Organisations like MIND and Greenpeace would not be effective if they tackled issues as varied as a serious political party must. “Movements” that try to represent a wide range of issues, but do not have a political party structure or traditions, risk disintegrating or fading away. “En Marche” in France, essentially a movement to elect a President, is already experiencing the disbenefits of drawing in too wide a range of people with contrary views. The Irish Progressive Democrats and Australian Democrats ballooned and burst. Political traditions give bloody-minded persistence, essential in hard times. 

Valuing tradition need not be in opposition to fighting for change, or the British Liberal tradition wouldn’t exist. The idea of a movement stresses the future, but a sense of roots in earlier struggles can give strength.

There is no contradiction between the structures needed for a political party and the drive, focus and participation needed for a movement. A movement can be within a party, or can be the party. If we want to be a movement, a supporter scheme would help, but we would need a clear focus on a limited number of aims and a common vision. It seems to me we’re halfway there. If we’re going to be a party that is also a movement, seen by the public to be that, we need a clear vision, priorities and message. 

* Simon Banks, who joined the Liberal Party in 1966 as a student and the Liberal Democrats at the merger, is now Chair of North East Essex Liberal Democrats. He contested several parliamentary elections and was a Waltham Forest Councillor 1980-92.

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3 Comments

  • A ‘clear vision’ is so often a narrow vision, with no ‘if’s and no ‘but’s, no irreconcilable or competing ‘good’s; so clear the vision that it’s easily chanted; so simple a vision that it’s simplistic and on no way commensurable with the complexities of a haphazard world; a ‘clear vision’ that is not too useful in tangledly unclear world. Clear visions often belong to populisms of all shades.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Dec '18 - 1:11pm

    A movement within a Party is an interesting idea. A movement by my thinking encompasses all shades of involvement so our Supporters’ scheme would encompass that. In addition a movement has a populist edge to it so you can have badges, stickers, and social media involvement. It is more than a Party and would involve people from all Parties. A movement for constitutional reform is a good example.

  • Simon Banks 24th Dec '18 - 2:22pm

    Thanks, both.

    MI Taylor: there’s a risk of an argument based on different understandings of a word – just what my article was meant to prevent in respect of “movement”. If there is no room for dissent or shades of meaning, you’re right: that kind of clarity leads to intolerance and even totalitarianism. But is that the risk with us now? Or is the risk that, having persuaded the modest numbers of people who thought they knew what the Lib Dems were about in 1997-2010 that they were mistaken, no-one outside the activists and maybe a minority of the members has any roughly accurate idea of what the Liberal Democrats are about and stand for? The answer is not going to be as simple as it could be for the Tories or the Greens, but if we can’t give an answer lots of people can understand, we certainly can’t have a movement and we won’t change much.

    I find among activists there’s a huge amount of agreement on our values and distinctive approach; and within that, of course there are fruitful debates. However, what the activists agree on, few other people know. That’s why the policies we highlight should help us say soemthing distictive(ly Liberal).

    Peter: I agree. That’s why I support the idea of a supporters’ scheme. However, I think there is a danger of mealy-mouthing the traditional but reformable structures that ensure politics is democratic. That’s why for me a key issue is how the supporters’ network would relate to local parties and whether it would lead to an increase in actual membership, as it well could, or to a decline as people who would have become members stuck with being supporters.

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