“A political party is like a business. But its currency is not profit, it is power”. So said Mike Nesbitt, the UUP’s next Leader. Many will have agreed with him, not least within his own ranks.
And yet he is astonishingly wrong. In the same way as Monday’s blog established football clubs are not businesses, nor are political parties. Football clubs exist to win football matches and trophies, an objective which often those which are least business-like end up achieving the most often. Likewise, political parties exist to achieve their vision of society, notably (but not exclusively) by earning election to government offices. They are not businesses in any way whatsoever.
Political parties are in fact vehicles, in many ways close to charitable foundations which seek to shape lives in various ways. It does help them if they can be relatively efficient (what may be described as “businesslike”), but if they start thinking, even remotely, in terms of profit margins and such like, they will hit a downward curve quickly.
Similarly, there is little point in football clubs or political parties seeking “gaps in the market” the way a business might. Football clubs play football (and, in a broad way not necessarily understandable to all, provide an emotional outlet), but there is no “gap in the market” for them to enter; ideas for actual profit come from outside agents, such as Nike or Sky TV. Political parties promote a vision of society and work to achieve it, again with no “gap in the market” because the aim is to advance an already established vision/platform. Where companies can move from making ships to making wind turbines or some such (and often need to in order to survive as markets and technologies change), football clubs and political parties will always do the same thing they have always done – football clubs will only collapse completely if it turns out no one is prepared to back them (clubs almost never disappear completely, often being “replaced” if necessary – cf. Derry City, Aldershot Town, Fiorentina etc); political parties will only collapse completely if it turns out no one shares their vision (or broad identity), if they merge with a party whose platform and vision turn out to be similar, or if representative democracy itself fails (notwithstanding the odd “protest” party’s occasional success over a single electoral cycle).
In other words, political parties are most certainly not businesses. They are not even like businesses. Their objectives are different, their raison-d’etre is different, their scope for collapse is different. They are much more like charitable foundations or even community groups (although even there caution is best applied with any direct parallels). Most of all, they do not exist to exercise power, but rather to achieve vision. The ones who haven’t worked all of this out are the ones losing votes at election after election. It is noteworthy that the next leader of the UUP is obviously so far from working it out himself.