Yes, we can? Renewal vs remorseless decline of political parties

Posted in: European politics, Political ideologies

At the end of last year, Spanish voters delivered a major, some would say fatal, blow to the country’s two party system.  The combined vote share of the two mainstream parties, the conservative People’s Party and the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party, fell from just short of 74% at the previous general election in 2011, to a little over 50%. Two new insurgent parties – the radical new left Podemos and the liberal centrist Ciudadanos – won nearly a quarter of the vote between them. No single party gained enough seats to form a majority government, yet no obvious coalition emerged either. Negotiations are ongoing but fresh elections may yet be called.

Is this further confirmation of the decline of established political parties? For decades now, political scientists have tracked the indicators of mainstream political party decline: falling membership, weakening partisan loyalty and shrinking vote share. In their celebrated thesis, the late Peter Mair and his colleague Richard Katz, described the transition in the late twentieth century of mainstream "catch all" political parties into “cartel parties”, that is, parties that had become increasingly state-centric in their finances, staffing and modes of operation, increasingly cut adrift from their foundations in civil society and the social class interests they had been formed to represent. Instead of representing the people to the state, they had come increasingly to represent the state to the people.

In parallel with this process, Mair further argued, citizens steadily abandoned the terrain of formal party politics. Turnout at elections, loyalty to parties, and trust in politics declined in tandem with the gravitation towards the state of the political party. As nation states ceded power to supra-national institutions like the EU or the WTO, and their room for fiscal manoeuvre shrank under pressure from accumulated social security obligations, dwindling corporate tax receipts and, latterly, austerity, the choice between different political parties also narrowed, leaving professionalised, technocratic political cadres “ruling the void”.

Spain’s recent history may appear as a precise exemplar of this thesis. Its mainstream parties occupied the state apparatus to such an extent that they became increasingly engulfed in corruption scandals. Austerity and the transfer of headline fiscal policy to the EU dramatically narrowed democratic policy choices, at the same time as Spain suffered mass unemployment and increased poverty. As a consequence, just as Mair & Katz predicted, “anti-party-system” or “post-cartel parties” sprang up to fill the void: Podemos, a new left formation, incubated in citizen resistance to austerity, and Ciudadanos, formed as an anti-Catalan independence party before morphing into a national liberal party nourished on anti-corruption, but promising “sensible change”.

Whether this new political pluralism represents a renewal of the party system, or simply another expression of its morbidity, is an open question. Populist and anti-system parties take many forms. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have arisen in very specific economic circumstances; they differ not just in ideology, but in their social roots and political practices, to the newly insurgent right wing anti-immigrant populist parties of Northern Europe. Different again are the various Pirate Parties scattered around Europe that draw on the libertarian sentiments of a young, prosperous urban population – a liquid democratic populism of relative prosperity, rather than austerity. In turn, civic nationalists like the SNP have managed to channel populist hostility towards a remote central government, while simultaneously governing effectively and responsibly in a devolved legislature.  Although each of these parties draws on “anti-politics as usual” public sentiments, it is difficult to characterise them as species of the same “anti-system party” form.

Yet in their different ways, each of these new parties does try to collapse the distance between represented and representatives, and to reintegrate the party with civil society. They are often highly networked horizontally, making free use of new technologies for communication as well as community-based activism. In their communications, they seek clarity and authenticity, speaking with strength and conviction, rather than the muted, often bloodless voices of mainstream parties. They often align themselves with new forms of democratic practice – participatory, local and citizen-led, rather than the traditional mechanisms of formal representative democracy.

In these new practices and modes of organisation may lie the key to the reinvention of the mainstream party form. As the political scientist Ingrid Van Biezen has written, in a tribute to Peter Mair:

“In order to address the legitimacy crisis, parties will have to integrate these alternatives with established institutional mechanisms…they will have to find a way to close the gap between an increasingly horizontalized public domain, on the one hand, in which critical citizens, societal organisations and political actors operate on a relatively equitable footing in real and virtual networks, and the vertical structures of electoral democracy and party government, on the other, which continue to be organised hierarchically and top-down. It is not easy to see how this can be accomplished.”

This challenge is perhaps most acute for social democratic parties. They have suffered the steepest decline of their core constituencies and cannot rest on the conservative reflexes of an ageing electorate. It is noticeable that in recent elections in Spain, Germany and the UK, the decline in mainstream party vote shares has been asymmetric: the centre-right bloc has held up better than the centre-left, despite voters peeling off from both.  For social democratic parties the challenge is to reinvent their democratic practices and party forms, while remaining electorally competitive – a challenge that is a lot easier to state than to meet. But unless they can reinvent themselves, the party may well be over.

Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath

Posted in: European politics, Political ideologies


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