Can UKIP scale up?

Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP provoked a furious reaction from the man who thought he was going to be the local candidate at the general election. What was supposed to have been a triumphant announcement was soured by the row, as UKIP supporters insulted each other on Twitter in a way that only they seem to know how.

This is just the sort of shit-storm that companies employ change managers and communications specialists to prevent. Sometimes, when things are changing rapidly, you have to do things that people don’t like. Occasionally, you have to dump on them from a great height. You try to get as many people as you can to support, or at least go along with, the change. For the rest, you do things to minimise the damage. That’s why you use stakeholder analyses and premortems. Work out what might go wrong, who will be most pissed off and what the impact might be.

Roger Lord could stand for another equally winnable seat in Essex, says Nigel Farage. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it have been better to have that conversation with him before the announcement, rather than let him hear it on the news?

Does this bumbling and crass behaviour reflect UKIP’s lack of maturity as an organisation?  In a discussion last week, Brian made this comment:

It’s an interesting point. Scaling up an organisation is not an easy thing to do. Over the last few years, I have worked with a number of companies that were experiencing growing pains. It’s a fascinating process. At a point, usually somewhere around the 100 employee mark, companies have to introduce a certain amount of process and structure or they become unmanageable. There’s another point around the 500 mark, where they need to do even more boring stuff.

Everybody just mucking in and doing things, with the founders making most of the decisions on the hoof, doesn’t work when the company gets to a certain size. The organisation needs to develop a cadre of managers who can grow the business. Often, the founders lack confidence in their own management abilities, let alone those of their direct reports. It’s a problem of both capacity and capability. Are your business leaders good enough and do you have enough of them?

The other problem facing growing companies is what I call Startup Mourning. Wasn’t it so much more fun when there were a few of us in a poky little office, disrupting the market and scaring all the old fuddy-duddy competition? Now we’ve got to go all establishment and it’s so bloody boring! As the HR director of one such firm said to me, “It’s a bit like teenagers being told to tidy their rooms. They know they need to do it but there’s a lot of ‘Awww Maaan! Do I really have to?’”

Stanford’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao have done a lot of work on how organisations scale up successfully. It seems that even Google experienced a bit of Startup Mourning in on the road from disruptive upstart to global corporation. As Sutton explains:

Google’s founder and CEO Larry Page is exhibit one. As we wrote in Scaling Up Excellence:

‘Page has been described as “obsessed with making Google work like a smaller company.” In 2001, when Google grew to about 400 people, Page decided that middle managers were creating complexity and friction – symptoms of John Greathouse’s “Big Dumb Company Disease.” So he got rid of all of them. More than 100 engineers reported to a single overwhelmed executive. Frustration and confusion was rampant. Without those middle managers, it was nearly impossible for people to do their work and for executives to grasp and influence what was happened in the company. Page learned the hard way that a hierarchy can be too flat and that middle managers are often a necessary complexity.’

When you get to a certain size, you can’t work like you did when you were a small company. If you do, things will start falling apart.

There are any number of ways to scale up an organisation. Each will be unique to the organisation. But, say Sutton and Rao, most adopt one of two philosophical approaches:

Is it more like Catholicism, where the aim is to replicate preordained design beliefs and practices? Or is it more like Buddhism, where an underlying mindset guides why people do certain things — but the specifics of what they do can vary wildly from person to person and place to place?

So you create a model and structure that works and replicate it, or you imbue people with an idea and let them adapt it to their particular environment and circumstances.

As I was thinking about all this, something else struck me. We don’t study political parties in the same way that we study companies and public sector bodies. There is very little written about them as organisations. A number of academic disciplines, entire university faculties and tomes of literature are devoted to understanding organisations and the reasons behind their success and failure. Yet explanations for the success of political parties usually focus on their policies and the social and economic reasons why they appeal to certain groups of voters. Comparaitively little is written about the organisational factors behind their success. I’m sure some people have studied this but the difficulty I had in locating any of it suggests that the discipline is fairly obscure. This was about the closest thing I could find.

Yet much of what applies to companies must also apply to political parties. Across Europe, there have been a number of insurgent parties of the populist right. All are appealing to similar demographics based on similar concerns yet their success and its sustainability varies considerably. It is true that proportional electoral systems help get them started but that doesn’t always mean they will survive. Under Pim Fortuyn, for example, the Dutch right burned brightly then faded just as quickly. It’s successor, under Geert Wilders, has never come close, despite all the hype. One of the most successful has been France’s Front National, all the more interesting because it has broken through in a first-past-the-post electoral system. That this has something to do with its capacity for organisation is suggested in a couple of papers though, again, the literature is sparse.

The successful insurgent parties that have appeared over the last few decades are, if anything, characterised by the slowness of their growth, rather than its speed. The Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic and the various Green parties across Europe are examples of steady, rather than hyperbolic, development. How far has their success been due to the long-term development of organisational capability?

The lack of a successful party of the right in the UK has been partly due to the electoral system but also because our far right parties have been rubbish. Like companies, insurgent political parties experience something similar to Startup Mourning. It’s great fun when you are upsetting the system but tedious when you have to start building a party for the slow grind of winning elections. Even more tedious when you have to start running things. The BNP’s disastrous performance when it finally managed to get its councillors elected shows its complete lack of competence as an organisation. It produced plenty of people who could rant about things but very few who could actually run things.

Britain is as fertile a territory for a populist right-wing party as anywhere else in Europe. Until now, though, no-one has developed the organisational capacity to mobilise the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside into a coherent and sustainable political movement.

Could UKIP be that organisation? As with a company, growth depends on people with the right organisational capabilities. Does it have them? Does it have enough of them? If it doesn’t, can it develop them quickly enough?

As Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin say, since its foundation, UKIP has shown an almost complete absence of organisational ability:

For much of their history, the party repeatedly undermined their own prospects through fierce infighting, strategic miscalculations, single-issue obsessiveness and a failure to build an effective campaign organisation. That they even survived the past twenty years is, in itself, truly remarkable.

This, they believe, is now changing. Whether it can change quickly enough and whether the party’s leaders can manage that change will determine how successful it is over the next few years. Last week’s fiasco suggests it still has some way to go.

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6 Responses to Can UKIP scale up?

  1. Interesting.

    I seem to recall encountering Greiner’s Growth Model (?) during my management studies of yesteryear,which posited that organisations pass through a number of phases as they grow. It seemed a bit formulaic at the time but perhaps it is correct.

    The Socialist Workers’ Party is another (Micky Mouse) outfit, alongside UKIP, and which characterised by infighting. Reminiscent of the Judean Peoples’ Party in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. LOL

  2. paulinlancs says:

    One factor which may go against UKIP is the age demographics of its activist base (not to be confused with voter base). Put simply, many of them will be dead or less able to function as activists in 5-10 years, and while of course there will be some succession to younger activists it’s not a great place to start scaling from.

  3. Dave Timoney says:

    It’s worth bearing in mind that UKIP are essentially a small capitalist party, so they draw their organisational talent from a particularly shallow pool, as you yourself noted in your post on Britain’s management problem.

    You should also remember that politics is performative, so the way the party behaves is constrained by its ideology. For example, Farage drinks at work, considers ignorance a virtue, and routinely criticises bureaucracy (the good as well as the bad). UKIP was never going to be led by a corporate lawyer, any more than a trades unionist or an academic (e.g. Alan Sked).

    Parties of the far right that do scale tend to either have fascist antecedents (e.g. the French NF) or be populist fronts for big capital interests that provide the organisational sinew (e.g. the US Tea Party). Of course, most fascist parties are only capable of scaling due big capital support in their early stages, which is why the NF and BNP never got anywhere in the UK.

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  6. Dave says:

    I’m tempted to say there’s not much need to study parties as organisations, because Roberto Michels’ work in 1913 can’t be bettered.

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