Continuous learning: La Grande Marche and listening campaigns

Societies are changing at a faster pace than ever before in history. Humans today are smarter than their forebears, and most of them have access to exponentially more powerful technology than just a couple of decades ago. The same goes for enterprises. What works today might be yesterday’s news tomorrow. Start-ups therefore need to innovate relentlessly. In order to transform the markets around them, they need to keep transforming themselves. In order to evolve, they need to continuously learn. Like AirBnB Founder Brian Chesky says: in order to keep growing, „you can’t stay the same“.

Politics might be slower than the business world to adapt, and there are good reasons for it having more inertia built-in. But why should politics be totally different?

A political enterprise can only be successful if it cultivates what Peter Senge in his book „The Fifth Discipline“ called „The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization“.

En Marche has made an art of continuous learning. In April 2016, Emmanuel Macron announced the launch of a political movement called „En Marche“. One month later, the big reachout and learning exercise „La Grande Marche“ started. From May to June 2016, En Marche activists knocked hundreds of thousands of doors all over France.

Supported by the consultancy LMP that built on the experiences of the campaigns of Obama and Hollande in 2012, En Marche systematically recorded the gathered information via a typeform that was made available via a mobile app. The tons of information were then analysed with the help of an algorithm. The final results were shared in November 2016 with the working groups that drafted the first version of En Marche’s policy programme. Some measures proposed by citizens were then put in the policy manifesto, and tested with focus groups.

But that was only the beginning: One thing they currently consider is using technology-assisted „listening campaigns“ as a standard tool. As with La Grande Marche, but on a smaller scale, and on a regular basis, they try to compile qualitative citizen feedback in order to create a real-time evidence-based image of a certain department or city. For this, they plan to train activists as „civic pollsters“. It will be interesting to see what comes from it.

A̶̶n̶̶a̶̶r̶̶c̶̶h̶̶y̶ Political Entrepreneurship in the UK!?

In the UK, the foundation of a new centrist party is currently underway. There are lots of open questions, like who are their political leaders, what are their concrete policies, and what is their understanding of 21st century politics, but for now they seem to have at least the financial firepower to scale nationally.

The usual rules…

Lately I have discussed the possibility of Political Entrepreneurship in first-past-the-post (FPTP) democracies like the UK or the US. Such “winner takes all”-systems favour the development of two large parties – like the Tories and Labour in the UK, or the Republicans and the Democrats in the US. Third parties normally do not play a decisive role. While there are exceptions (like the LibDems in the Cameron-Clegg coalition from 2010-2015), usually the two big parties take turns in Government. The others remain on the electoral fringes.

„Look at history“, my opponents would argue, „FPTP is just too hard for third parties“. The Green party in the US, the Social Democrats in the UK – they were all full of good intentions, but in the end they did not become relevant. In the end, they failed. I agree that it is very hard. If getting to scale is a super tough hurdle in proportional representation systems, it is almost insurmountable in FPTP systems. Becoming sustainable is even more improbable.

…don’t apply

But, and that is my counter argument, we live in extraordinary times. We live in the time of Brexit, where both the Tories and Labour seem to have become dysfunctional parties. We live in the age of Trump, where most Republicans seem to have given up on any measure of decency, and Democrats seem to be lost in an eternal process of mourning for what might have been.

And in such extraordinary times, extraordinary things become possible. In fact, they are required. If we look back in history, there have been such special moments when a new party disrupts a dysfunctional political market, even in FPTP systems.

When the Grand Old Party was new

In the US, the Republican party was created in 1854. Founded at a critical moment of US history by anti-slavery activists, economic modernizers and liberal Whigs in 1854, the Republicans then went on to dominate politics nationally and in the majority of northern states for most of the period between 1860 and 1932.

More than 160 years later, we are again at a point of high electoral volatility, where whole political systems can tilt into a very different setup very quickly – just look at France.

Watch and learn

Surely observers in the US will watch the UK developments with interest. If such a political startup can make significant headway in the UK, expect the United States to be next in line for a new centrist movement at massive scale.

What Italy needs now is centrist Political Entrepreneurship

The Italian election provided a warning shot for everyone who thinks the populist wave is over. Far from: the biggest winners were the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), and the far-right Lega Nord.

The center parties on the other hand, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s Democratic Party (PD) as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, suffered defeats. PD’s Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister, already stepped down as head of the party. Berlusconi is still clinging on what is likely to be his very last opportunity to play politics.

Two to rule them all?

In consequence of the election result, no single party or coalition won enough votes to govern alone. There are five scenarios how this stalemate could play out, including a highly explosive populist-far right M5S-Lega Nord Coalition (one ruling the North, the other the South, supposedly).

Meanwhile, the centrist political startup More Europe reached 2.55%, and failed to cross the electoral threshold of 3% by a whisker. While it is a shame, the results make clear that the populist political entrepreneur Beppe Grillo has been more successful in building and scaling his political startup than the centrist political entrepreneur Emma Bonino.

Populist stars all around

Like Grillo with M5S, many successful political entrepreneurs recently have been either right-wing or left-wing populists – like the AfD in Germany, the PiS in Poland, Podemos in Spain, or FIDESZ in Hungary. While some observers have interpreted Marine Le Pen’s defeat in France and Norbert Hofer’s defeat in Austria in 2017 as turning of the tides, the populists are still afloat, some in fact stronger than ever before.

The Italian election has demonstrated what popular rage towards a long-time failing political establishment can do to a political landscape. Italy may be ahead of the curve in that regard, but is not unique. Traditional parties, particularly center-left, have been suffering at the voting booths for quite some time. However, most of them have shown to be unable to transform themselves at a deep level into 21st century parties.

Constructive rage

What is therefore required are centrist political startups that connect with the emotions of the citizens, and channel their rage in a constructive way – that manage to transform protests into genuine reforms. Political startups such as En Marche in France, Ciudadanos in Spain, Nowoczesna in Poland, Momentum in Hungary or NEOS in Austria are driving such positive political change, from inside and outside the Parliament. They are all pro-Europe, pro-market and progressive. There are many lessons to be learned from their successes as well as failures in building and scaling their movements.

From a “glass half full”-perspective, More Europe has almost managed to enter the Italian Parliament at first attempt. Even though the first analyses show that it appealed more to Italians’ heads than to their hearts, it would be wrong to conclude that all is lost. In fact, that would be a tragedy: Italy needs big and bold centrist Political Entrepreneurship, now more than ever.