In the commercial world, many examples of digital transformations – both successes that have seen companies bloom and failures which have seen them crash – revolve around leaving behind extensive, inflexible networks of branches with large resource overheads which used to be required to get the requisite geographical coverage and instead using the internet. Direct provision often makes those extensive geographic networks obsolete.
Most obviously, it is the transition banking is moving through, with local branches being cut as more people switch to the internet. In both books and music, some physical outlets remain but the most successful sellers need have not even one outlet on a high street anywhere in the country.
All of which raises a question for politics. To some extent the pull of geography is essential and permanent given that our electoral system is based on geography too. Even in the Liberal Democrat promised land of STV, there would be sequence of geographically-based constituencies to fight.
Some local connection clearly is also useful – as we saw by its absence in 2010 when a huge Facebook community grew up in the wake of Cleggmania but translated into very little extra vote-winning activity in marginal seats.
But is “some ” really “to such a great extent as to justify the dominance of geographically based local parties”? For example, new members of the party get welcomed by the central party – and welcomed increasingly well with the ramping up of membership cards, welcome packs, introductory events and initial phone calls over the last few years. Yet the only other element is to put them in touch with their local party even though we know that the quality of local parties when it comes to welcoming new people and getting them more active is not only highly variable but also often not up to scratch at all.
Imagine a world instead where the habits of geographic organisation didn’t grip minds quite so tightly and there was a dual structure: the local geographic party and a national (regional?) electronic social community with new people welcomed into both – and the latter picking up more of the work for people living in areas with weaker parties or for people who simply aren’t that rooted in the place they are temporarily living.
This happens in a small way at the moment with various informal groups – but new members are not systematically told about them, their reach is relatively small (for example, it’s very rare for a private Lib Dem related Facebook group to have over 1,000 members, and this is in a 60,000 membership party) and the groups are run with other purposes in mind.
Overall, the Liberal Democrats (and other parties) increasingly look to me like one of those firms that had hundreds of high street outlets – and whilst its customers were moving online failed to match that switch by moving more of what it did locally into the online world to match.
Woolworths should not be a role-model for political parties, but if often looks as if it is.