Uffe Elbæk: “We need vibrant and highly diverse and talented open political tribes”

Uffe Elbæk is former Minister of Culture and the party leader of The Alternative in Denmark,  currently MP for the Independent Greens, where he is the spokesperson for culture and art, education and science, business and entrepreneurship, and foreign affairs. 

Before he became a national political figure in Denmark, Elbæk was best known as a cultural and educational entrepreneur as the founder of the culture youth organisation The Frontrunners and the entrepreneurial leadership education The KaosPilots.

He has published several books and has contributed to all of the major national newspapers as a columnist throughout the years. He is now looking forward to ending his career as a member of the Danish Parliament, and to focussing on finishing the three novels he has already written in his mind. One of them is about The New Political Party. 

In this interview, he opens up about the significance of diversity and transparency within political parties, healing the struggles of those parties in a collaborative manner, and his next book. 

How good are political parties at change?
They are really, really bad. It is of course a very natural human reaction to be afraid of change: You know what you have, but you don’t know what you will get. Political parties are doubly afraid of change because they know that change – both internal and external – may mean that they will lose power and status, either as individuals, as a party or both. 

The political system is built and organized to maintain and protect the status quo. Just look at the British first past the post election model: It’s nothing but one big protection system for the status quo. 

On top of that political parties tend to choose candidates who look very much alike – across political parties. The candidates and MPs have more or less the same social and educational background. From the middle class and up, nearly all with an academic background, most in political science. People of color, working class people and sexual minorities are underrepresented. There are so many voices and perspectives that are not included in the present political system or even among the candidates running for election. 

This dynamic – fear of change and a very homogeneous social, educational and cultural DNA among the politicians – together with the always ongoing pressure from the media, who day-in and day-out are looking for mistakes among the politicians, creates the very opposite of a risk-taking, daring and entrepreneurial culture. 

Why do so many strategies fail and what do political parties need to change?
There is not only one answer to that question, but many. Let me just point out some of them: First of all the political party should be able to answer the simple question: What are the top three problems or needs in the society you as a political party are the answer to. And out of these top three priorities, what is the most important need/issue/problem? 

Today most political parties are omnibus parties – they have an opinion on all kinds of issues, which means that their political and cultural identity gets easily confused and unclear. And because of this blurry identity the party attracts all kinds of people. People who look out of very different political windows. 

This protection of the status quo and safe playing organizational mentality on the inner lines, coupled with an externally blurry identity means that most political parties don’t attract the best talents or entrepreneurial minds. 

They attract a strange mix of safe players and power climbers. All of this together creates the feeling that political parties are very closed – and again to be very frank – a terribly boring tribe. That’s the reason why so few citizens want to be a member of a political party. In Denmark it’s less than 4% of the population. 

And we need the exact opposite: We need vibrant and highly diverse and talented open political tribes. So we can go from the present 4% democracy to a 96% democracy. 
The big essential question: Is the present understanding of a political party outdated? Should we talk about political platforms instead? Personally I would recommend that. 

What are the top three aspects they struggle with?
Imagine the different elements of the work culture in the Parliament as ingredients in a cocktail. A workday for the individual MP is often very, very lonely. They not only compete with politicians from other parties but also with politicians inside their own party. That is a very lonely position. So let’s put loneliness into the cocktail glass. 

After that let’s put competition. The political environment is extremely competitive. Then a bit of gossip. There is always tons of bitchy gossip inside a political party and among MPs. Now it’s time for a pretty big portion of exhibitionist attitude. Which drives the desire to be visible in the media 24/7. And then backstabbing. There is so much backstabbing going on because everyone wants to climb up the power ladder. 

So let’s wrap it up: We have now a cocktail full of loneliness, competition, gossip, exhibitionism and backstabbing. Who on Earth would like to drink that? Political parties need to invent a totally different cocktail, otherwise they will never be able to attract the right profiles for tomorrow’s candidates or create a vibrant member base. 

On my top three list of aspects most political parties struggle with, number one is: Internal work culture. Most politicians have no clue about leadership and organizational development. Number two: Lack of talent attraction. These days most parties scare the best people away. And as number three: How boring most political parties are. There is no humor and self irony. A famous quote says: Politics is show business for ugly people. I would add boring. 

How can we rethink parties to drive innovation and social value amid the post-pandemic world?
First of all we have to see parties – if we still want to use that name – as educational institutions. As places where people can learn about how societies work and function. And on top of that: A unique space where the same people can turn their new knowledge into action, if they want to run for election. 

Imagine if all parties were seen as educational institutions instead of an arena for power play and career. I hope that we will see political parties turn into political platforms, where running for election is only one activity out of many. Because politics are so much more than what happens in the national parliament or city council. 

How do you envision the future political organisation? 
It starts at the highest level in the party. Someone should create a vision for how the party of today turns into a vibrant entrepreneurial political platform of tomorrow. A platform where all kinds of stuff can happen. And what we today define as political activities is only a small part of what’s going on at tomorrow’s political platform.  Activities like small entrepreneurial start-ups, educational programs, cultural and social activities etc etc. 

What are some best practices political parties can implement right away?
I would look at how political movements like Adbusters in Canada, citizens assembly-movements, education programs such as KaosPilots in Aarhus, Denmark and democratic entrepreneurial environments like Democratic Garage in Copenhagen, Denmark and Mass LBP in Toronto Canada are doing their stuff. 
And if you need further help give me a call and let’s meet. 

Your first book, Leadership On The Edge, features stories of your many experiences as a leader and a change agent. You’re currently working on a new book – what shall we expect to read about this time?
You should expect a very different kind of memoir from a former party leader and culture minister of Denmark. That’s for sure. I hope I find the right balance between my own personal story and the bigger story of what happened in Europe from the mid-50’s to now. It’s going to be a highly personal and honest book. But hopefully also a book that tells the next generation how crazy wonderful life can be.