Political parties in comparative perspective

Political parties across the world appear to be in crisis. However, argues Paul Webb, democracy's ho

Across different societies and historical periods the organisational features, size and functions of political parties have varied considerably. These differences reflect factors such as the historical circumstances surrounding the birth of parties, their social and ideological bases, constitutional settings and the changing nature of communications technology.

Party models

Political scientists recognise that parties have changed. In his classic work Political Parties, first published in 1951, Maurice Duverger argued that, in the pre-democratic era, parties were purely parliamentary alliances of elites that banded together for the purpose of coordinating legislative action; these cadre parties lacked extra-parliamentary national organisations and grassroots memberships. While this model was inspired primarily by the uncohesive and unstable parties that typified the French Third Republic, it applied equally well to the pre-democratic British Conservatives and Liberals.

By contrast, democratisation brought with it the advent of the mass party, a form of political organisation that depended on large numbers of grassroots members, and a more centralised national structure - the German Social Democrats being the classic example. The mass party was a "socialist invention" for two reasons. Since political education and integration of the newly enfranchised masses was the primary goal of the left, it was obvious that the mobilisation of as many individual supporters as possible was necessary; this also generated resources, whereas the cadre parties of the traditional right were sustained by a limited number of wealthy backers.

By the 1960s, political scientists were suggesting that the mass party might have had had its day. Otto Kirchheimer argued that such parties - including the great German Volksparteien - were substituting electoral ambition for their role as social integrators. Like many other observers, before and since, he perceived an attenuation of ideological conflict in western societies, deriving from the erosion of class and religious tensions. As a result, the mass party was being transformed into a "catch-all" organisation, whose primary goal was a wider audience and more immediate electoral success.

This transformation of mass parties involved not only ideological change, but also a downgrading of the members' role within the organisation, and a concomitant growth in leadership power. Subsequently, Angelo Panebianco took the argument further, arguing that modern electoral-professional parties maximised the strategic autonomy available to leaders intent on winning votes and office, and gave greater prominence to new coteries of professionals with expertise important to the conduct of election campaigns (principally in marketing and opinion research). As their links to traditional social and institutional bases of support weakened, parties turned to the state as an alternative font of resources. While political marketing was pioneered in the USA, and state funding in Germany and Scandinavia, both developments were quickly assimilated in post- communist countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Parties challenged

Crisis is a common refrain among observers of modern political parties, but do parties deserve the bad press they often get these days? Some critics argue that the popular disaffection is exaggerated, and rooted in a failure to grasp the extraordinary problems that contemporary politicians attempt to wrestle with or the inevitable brouhaha and compromise that the process of politics entails. Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that there might be some fire behind the smoke. So what is wrong with political parties?

Research points to two major difficulties. First, parties disappoint citizens in their attempts to fulfil some of the classic political functions attributed to them. Second, they suffer from perceptions of impropriety and undue privilege. The first problem starts with the growing challenges to party as instruments of governance. For many observers, parties too often struggle to impose distinctive policy solutions when in government. This owes much to a number of important factors that can seriously constrain governments' scope for autonomous action, including economic globalisation, technological change, and demographic trends. For some, European integration holds out the promise of greater political control over the international economy, but for others it further erodes national governmental autonomy. Neither is it clear how governance through the EU might entail a meaningful role for parties. A further challenge to party government is posed by the apparent personalisation of the executive through the increasing dominance of individual leaders. There is some evidence that this phenomenon is not limited to presidential systems - as one might expect - but is affecting many of the world's traditionally more party-dominated parliamentary regimes as well. There are obvious recent European examples in the shape of politicians like Blair, Schroeder and Berlusconi, and even the Swedes spoke until recently of "President" Göran Persson.

The role of party as a mechanism of representative linkage is often said to be challenged by alternative sources of interest articulation. The burgeoning of single-issue group activity suggests that, in the eyes of many citizens at least, other organisations are better at articulating demands now. This preference for non-partisan modes of action reflects the growing difficulties that parties face in aggregating interests. With parties less closely tied to particular social groups, they are obliged to compete for the votes of very heterogeneous blocks of supporters and the task of aggregating this diversity of interests is bound to be daunting. One consequence is that the major parties tend to be accused of offering electors blandly catch-all policy programmes, thus depriving them of meaningful choices. The irruption on to the agenda of new issues that cut across old lines of conflict may offer a possible way out of such blandness, but it further complicates the task of aggregation.

Since citizens across the democratic world rely mainly on non-partisan mass media for political information, parties are seldom in a position to control the process of political communication. Instead, parties are drawn into an ever-more competitive confrontation with the media over the agenda and interpretation of political news, a development exemplified by New Labour. If anything, the limits of party politics are even more stark in respect of their capacity to foster political participation. We have already alluded to the decline of party membership, activism and electoral turnout, all of which feeds the criticism of those who favour more radical participatory forms of popular democratic involvement. A recent example is provided by the Power Report (an independent inquiry funded by the Jospeh Rowntree Trust), which regards "the process of formal democracy" - to which parties are intrinsic - as incapable of fulfilling the democratic potential of the people. From this perspective, the efforts made by many parties in recent decades to democratise their internal procedures, in respect of such matters as candidate selection, leadership election and policy-making, are unlikely to make much difference.

There remains one major political function that parties do continue to dominate in the majority of democratic states - political recruitment. National parliamentarians in most democracies are still overwhelmingly likely to bear party labels; moreover, the parties often maintain control over significant reservoirs of patronage. Therefore, recruitment of candidates for representative office at both national and sub-national levels remains virtually inconceivable without political parties. On the other hand, even here, parties have been damaged in those countries where voters have become cynical about the corruption that attends some of these patronage networks, the most prominent examples in recent European experience being provided by Italy and Belgium.

This leads us to the second broad source of popular disaffection with parties, which is the widespread perception that they are self-interested, unduly privileged and even sleazy. Nothing is more likely to generate a sense of cynicism about parties than the feeling that politicians are exploiting their situations for partisan or personal gain, and both new and old democracies have been tainted by such scandals. Further, it is possible that party legitimacy has been eroded through perceptions of self-interest, even when parties have not been involved in any illegitimate activity.

Parties and democracy

Nevertheless, despite the long list of complaints and challenges laid at the door of political parties, it would be wrong to write them off as essentially dysfunctional in a modern democratic setting. To a large extent, the erosion of party membership and identification can be seen as a consequence of the social and technological changes that have terminated the age of the mass party, but this does not mean that parties no longer have meaningful roles to play; still less does it mean that democracy is in trouble. Moreover, one might argue that sharing the political communication functions with the media and other actors is healthy from a democratic perspective; it is hardly positive for democracy when parties are able to retain excessive political control over the media (as in contemporary Russia or Berlusconi's Italy).

While parties may seem challenged by interest groups as articulators of interests, there is no getting around the fact that the huge variety of demands imposed on the political system has to be aggregated somehow - and it is only parties that are in a position to render this service (even if the task is often harder to complete than hitherto).

Finally, despite the enormous challenge of governing, there is ample evidence that parties continue to "make a difference" to policy outcomes and thereby provide systems of popular choice and democratic accountability. While these achievements are unlikely to be sufficient to satisfy those ambitious for more participatory forms of democracy, they nevertheless remain substantial. Democracy is best appreciated and consolidated in those places where party politics are most developed.

Wherever party politics is only weakly established, political inequality tends to be greater, commitment to pluralism less certain, clientelism and corruption more pronounced, and populist demagoguery a greater temptation. In essence, without party, democracy's hold is more tenuous.

Paul Webb is professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He is co-editor of The Journal of Party Politics and author of The Presidentialisation of Politics: a Comparative Study of Modern Democracy (OUP)