Not the sexiest blog title you'll ever read on this blog, but the changing relationship parties have with the electorate and each other goes to the heart of the malaise contemporary (mainstream) politics finds itself in. Can political science shine a much-needed light on the problem? Last Wednesday Gemma Loomes came to Keele to present her paper on developing a framework of analysis that can make sense of party system change.
Since the 1970s West European societies have undergone significant social change, which in turn has had a varying impact on their party systems. Dominant political parties have been come under increasing challenge from new rivals, election turnouts have fallen and everywhere disenchantment is on the rise. But while social change and electoral volatility has sped up party systems have proved more resistant to these developments. Why? Is it the case parties have responded to changes and therefore limited the impact social structural shifts have had on the party system? Are there other processes at work?
The existing political science literature on the topic falls into two broad perspectives. The first is the socio-structural perspective. This argues the four main cleavages bisecting Western societies structured and made stable the party systems of these societies. However the changes in advanced capitalist societies from the 1970s on have undermined the saliency of these cleavages which in turn has upset the balance of party systems. In these approaches the line of causality runs from social change through to electoral change and then political change. Party systems are a dependent variable. They have next to no efficacy of their own.
The party-centric alternative is diametrically opposed to the determinist argument. This lays more weight on the actions and strategies parties can pursue as independent agents. As opposed to a causal relationship between electoral and party system change, between the two lies institutions and political parties themselves. Whatever is being "passed down" the line is always mediated by them. This suggests a number of things. First, in contrast to the determinist model, more than just socio-structural cleavages can shape party systems. Second, the strategies of parties can mitigate change by adapting to new developments and/or sheilding the system from its most radical effects. Third, state laws that govern and help structure party systems are always open to being modified by parties themselves.
Gemma argued the roots of these approaches can be found in political theory. For the classical liberal tradition, theory locates power and sovereignty in the electorate (this, for instance, is forcefully argued by J.S. Mill). This is linked with the socio-structural approach in that the normative biases of classical theory - that parties should be responsive to the demands of the electorate and represent their interests - finds expression in the party system literature's assumption that party systems are dependent variables mechanically determined by social change.
Modern political theory has a similar relationship to the party-centric argument. Observing more contemporary transformations in democratic political systems, Joseph Schumpeter argued the conceptualisation of politics in terms of common good assumptions should be replaced. The normative idealisation of 'government by the people' should give way to a more realistic preference for 'government for the people'. Therefore parties are entitled to become rational actors in competition for votes, which of course is how the party-centric approach to party system change treats them. This does not mean parties are cut off from electorates. According to Richard Katz parties represent segments of society, but they can have independent agency vis a vis their base. They can develop strategies that improve their standing in party systems by accommodating the electorate's desires and attempt to shape them. But aside from vote seeking some parties can enhance their position and influence by securing a place in the state's institutional set up.
Therefore parties can adopt strategies that are vote-oriented or office-seeking. The former maximise their votes by developing attractive policies or new ideas. From this base they court sections of the electorate and establish relationships with other parties. The latter tries to influence electoral law, rules governing party finance, the media, etc.
In practice all significant parties engage in a mixture of both. For example, the recent MPs expenses crisis has seen the parties move as a collective to change the rules of the game so the most flagrant abuses won't occur in the future. But because these are strategies, party actions always run the risk of failure, regardless of the types of strategies they pursue.
Therefore, by way of a conclusion, the approach Gemma favoured is party-centered. How else to explain that after decades of rapid social change and the emergence of new parties, traditionally dominant parties have tended to retain their controlling positions?
In the questions and answers a number of issues came up. The first was regarding her treatment of the socio-structural tradition. There was a dispute over the extent to which parties as dependent variables possessed or lacked a strategy. Instead one can argue they pursue strategies suited to the social structures out of which they emerged. They cannot ever fully shake off these roots either. For example, New Labour may have distinguished itself by overtly reaching out to the so-called middle ground and brazenly courted British capital, but it never entirely abandoned the aspirations of its base - as several mild social-democratic measures testify.
Another problem is the role of individual political personalities. The party-centric approach tends to treat parties as discrete coherent entities who typically engage in disciplined action. But contemporary politics, perhaps more than ever, is driven by personalities. So, how to integrate this into the analysis of party system change? Should they be treated as a variable under the heading of electoral tactics?
As far as I was concerned the problem dogging the paper is common to political science as a whole: it proceeds from a high level of abstraction and is undergirded by functionalist assumptions other social sciences dispensed with decades ago. That isn't to say the discipline cannot generate insights, but as far as I'm concerned these will always be handicapped by the (unsaid) theoretical assumptions political science depends on. And so it is with this case. One can develop an ideal typical repertoire of strategies and behaviours parties can undertake, but can it provide analyses superior to the contributions of political sociology, which enmeshes together the influences of classes, class fractions, social movements, institutional actors and parties in its analysis of politics? I remain to be convinced.