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Could communities decide their platform before selecting the best local candidate to advocate for it? In 2013, a small group of voters in rural Australia did precisely that; it might just prove to be a game-changer.

Historically, political parties have been the most effective coordinating mechanism for people who shared similar ideological convictions to establish policy platforms, select candidates and appeal to the electorate for votes. However this settlement is increasingly being challenged by three emerging trends.

The first is the decline in membership of traditional political parties and the rise of interest-based movements (the National Trust has six times more members than all mainstream political parties combined). The second is declining trust in traditional political parties as a result of scandal (eg. expenses) or policy reversals (such as the Liberal Democrats on student fees). And the third trend has been the increased ability for people to self-organise outside of traditional institutions aided by online and mobile technologies, as exemplified by the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.

In response, existing political institutions have sought to improve feedback between the governing and the governed through the tentative embrace of crowdsourcing methods, ranging from digital engagement strategies, open government challenges, to the recent stalled attempt to embrace open primaries by the Conservative Party (Iceland has been braver by designing its constitution by wiki). Though for many, these efforts are both too little and too late. The sense of frustration that no political party is listening to the real needs of people is probably part of the reason Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman garnered nine million views in its first month on YouTube.

Voice for Indi

However a glimpse of an alternative approach may have arrived courtesy of the 2013 Australian Federal Election.

Tired of being taken for granted by the local MP, locals in the traditionally safe conservative seat of Indi embarked on a structured process of community ‘kitchen table’ conversations to articulate an independent account of the region’s needs. The community group, Voice for Indi, later nominated its chair, Cath McGowan, as an independent candidate. It crowdfunded their campaign finances and built a formidable army of volunteers through a sophisticated social media operation.

As Campbell Klose and Nick Haines write here: “Indi has never seen anything like this before. For the first time in living memory thousands of people from all walks of life were engaging in politics and having a say in how they would like to see their electorate represented. For too long they had been taken for granted. Labor knew it couldn’t win it, so it hadn’t ever bothered trying; the Liberals knew they were going to win, so they didn’t bother either.”

Cath McGowan won the seat by 400 votes.

While this is admittedly an isolated example, the implications of their success are potentially profound. Communities need not settle for the limited range of platforms on offer by major political parties, but can create their own and then find the best candidate to prosecute their case.

In the lead up to the next UK General Election, there has never been a better moment for local communities to start a different conversation about the needs they have and the kind of representation they are looking for. The experience of Indi might be worth studying and replicating.

For more on the Voice for Indi story see this piece on Sheilas.org.au 

* photo by Amanda Oliver on Flickr