So if the era of dominant parties is drawing to a close, what might be expected to take its place? When it comes to politics, what form might Anderson's 'niches' or Leadbeater's 'pebbles' take?
Writing in 2001, Helen Margetts identified a new type of political organisation which she termed the 'cyber party'.
"So what might be the characteristics of a cyber party? The key defining feature is that cyber parties use web-based technologies to strengthen the relationship between voters and party, rather than traditional notions of membership. There is evidence that technological innovations in political activity seem to be fuelling the trend towards lower levels of membership, rather than being used to ameliorate it." [i]
So for a new range of smaller political parties, technology is a key enabler.
But this is to define them by their means rather than their ends. It may be better to think of them as microparties, tightly focused on the needs of a community in contrast to the broad brush approach of the larger mass parties.
It is useful to note that while they are smaller than some of their competitors, these microparties may not seek to grow significantly in size. Their focus, instead, is on representing and providing an electoral outlet for small communities, whether geographical or issue-based.
And unlike the policy platforms of their larger rivals, the manifestos of these new organisations are likely to be focused on a single issue or theme, developing their own set of micropolicies.
The list of political parties registered in the UK runs from a range of single issue campaigns such as animal welfare or transport, religious parties, and a huge number of location-based parties,
And this gives a clue about how improved use of technology will help microparties grow beyond their current levels of support.
A city-wide Birmingham First or an Anti-Heathrow Expansion Party could have a strong appeal to a particular geographical location. A Countryside Party might take a nationwide role but perhaps be formed out of the Countryside Alliance pressure group.
An NHS Party could represent the millions of people who work in the health sector or a Teachers' Party might be formed by the various education unions.
In areas such as social roles, a Carers Party could speak for those who care for elderly or disabled relatives while a Mums Party might represent the interests of new mothers.
In such a changed world, why stop at campaign groups running their own parties? There have already been suggestions that Google, in its dealings with China, is developing its own foreign policy. Perhaps the company would consider backing policies, at least in the technology sphere, that abide by its motto of "don't be evil".
The potential of microparties to tap into the long tail of social interests is huge, and there would be little that the larger parties could do to prevent it given that identification with niche interests is stronger than identification with a blockbuster party.
As Parvin and McHugh (2005) wrote of two of Britain's smaller parties:
"Parties like Respect or UKIP, for example, are less demanding of their members in that they do not require them to buy into a raft of principles and ideals: they run on one issue above all others (in this case, Britain's independence from the EU or the war in Iraq) and appeal to the public to support their stance on that issue. The strengths or weaknesses inherent in further European integration, for example, transcend traditional class and party lines; the Conservatives and Labour in particular have had enormous trouble working out their position on it. In campaigning on this issue alone, UKIP have been able to gain support from people across the political spectrum without having to espouse a controversial and holistic world view which seeks to capture their views on a wide range of issues." [ii]
A point to note here is that voters can easily belong to more than one of these niches at once but will, for example, be prevented from voting for a party supporting the interests of their local community if they cast their single vote instead for a microparty representing their sector of employment. Ways of giving expression to the full range of these multiple social identities are the theme of Part II.
Before that, however, it will be useful to consider how technology can bring about the growth of these microparties.
[i] Margetts, H. (2001), 'The Cyber Party', paper to workshop 'The Causes and Consequences of Organisational Innovation in European Political Parties', ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops, Grenoble, pp. 9-10.