The travails of the New South Wales Labor Party following Saturday’s catastrophic election defeat have revived talk of the urgent need for party reform. Insofar as this discussion hones in on reviving party membership, the barriers to participation said to be inherent in general trends discussed by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone are cited again and again.  Declining social capital, driven by individualisation, passive consumerism, changed and more fluid lifestyles and work habits, is the culprit: most recently invoked by Dr Andrew Leigh, MP, in the Financial Review, but increasingly an all-purpose explanation in Labor circles.

There are two problems with this proposition.

The first is that it’s not true, at least not in the form stated.  The second is, like most conventional wisdom, it avoids rather than engages with the problem.  Hence its attractiveness, but also its danger, for Labor figures.

Putnam’s thesis has come under a lot of attack.  A bit like Richard Florida’s Creative Class, it has been accused of being entrepreneurial pop sociology — something seemingly common sense in search of a statistical grounding.  There’s an element of romanticism in the idealisation of strong ties (as anyone who’s left a sea-change town for a big city can attest), and good evidence that weak ties can be more instrumentally effective in many contexts of collective endeavour.  And there might be a lot more people playing multi-user games than at the bowling alley.

But, leaving the academic debate aside, there are wide variations in the rate of voluntarism and political participation even among nations shaped by an English language culture, and American imports don’t always hit the mark.  More importantly, though, the concept is too diffuse to be politically meaningful.

As Dietlind Stolle and Thomas Rochon have observed, forming a bowling league is not the same sort of thing as taking collective political action.  The concept of “voice” is useful here.  It’s not the same thing as a motivation for wanting to serve a community, or seeking status, or friendship.  Unions are another social institution often said to be declining because of a lack of social capital.  But this is to ignore the difficulty unions have with transient and casualised workers lacking a primary identity tied to their job, and with legislative and management barriers.  Consistently, polls have found that more workers would like to be in unions than join — and that inclination is strongly correlated with a desire to have their voice heard at work.

As I argued in 2006, and as Sydney University political scientist Ariadne Vromen’s research confirms, there’s no lack of interest in political issues among many Australians, particularly among young Australians.  It’s just that the existing political institutions — which include political parties — find it difficult to harness or channel that interest.

The UK Labour Party has just gone through a period of soul searching after its election defeat, and a somewhat more profound one than the federal ALP’s recent exercise.  A research report by the Fabian Society, Facing Out Online: How Party Politics Must Change To Build A Progressive Society, very usefully cites much of the research on the disjunction between frozen institutional structures and activist impulses.  It would repay a much broader reception in this country.  But the key point here is that tinkering at the edges is not enough — the decline of political party membership is not just about a lack of willingness to review the minutes of the last meeting in a cold school classroom on a week night.  It’s the way that political parties give their membership no effective voice.

There is, in other words, no lack of potential social capital around.  But it’s not just a matter of finding tech savvy ways to harness it.  Internal party democracy, a word that strangely seemed much more at home in debates about parties 20 years ago than now, is one ingredient in the mix.  There would never be a better time to try an electoral college system or a Canadian style “closed primary” for the election of a new party leader in New South Wales.  But it’s the disconnect between party membership and voice in public policy, and therefore input into real bottom up social change that is the missing link.

There are all sorts of ideas that could be tried — Climate Change Citizens’ Assemblies aside, deliberative democracy has great promise, as do a range of ideas so far oriented to government about crowd-sourcing public policy.  There’s no good reason why political parties couldn’t take some of the excellent ideas generated in the Gov 2.0 exercise, and use them in their policy formulation processes.  But what the Labor Party doesn’t need, and what we as citizens don’t need if we wish to live in a rich democracy, is a set of clichés about “Bowling Alone” becoming an excuse for cosmetic change, or worse, business as usual.

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.  He founded  leading group public affairs blog Larvatus Prodeo.