Party politics has long been associated with narratives of decline. Falls in party membership, loyalty and participation seem to indicate that parties are in crisis. While supposed to perform the essential democratic functions of facilitating citizen participation in politics and governing society, parties are now frequently depicted as detached and archaic, no longer representative bodies but instead administrative organisations detached from the people.
However, recent developments such as the surge in Scottish National Party membership, the rush to become a supporter of the Labour Party and the creation of new parties such as the Women’s Equality Party suggest that parties may not be as doomed as the narrative of decline suggests. So are parties in decline, and if so why? And are there indications that parties could address their shortcomings to become more democratic organisations?
In considering these questions academics have tended to focus on the structural changes that have led to party decline. While once it was commonplace for people to spend their evenings at their local Labour, Conservative or Liberal Club, and to engage with parties through the workplace or community campaigns, now the idea of joining a political party and participating in lengthy evening meetings seems archaic. From this perspective, the challenge facing parties derives from a disconnect between the ‘traditional’ conception of party politics and the way citizens now live their lives, with more individualized, time-poor lifestyles negating the kind of interaction that led parties to have over a million members. This kind of explanation undoubtedly has resonance, but it does not explain why parties can exhibit upsurges in support of the kind recently evident in Britain.
‘Post-Democracy’, the topic of a recent special edition in Political Quarterly, provides some ingredients for an explanation. In his 2004 book, Colin Crouch argued that changes in society were diminishing opportunities for participation and hence eroding a vital component of democratic politics. Crouch specifically singled out changes in parties’ agenda-setting, organisation and communication as responsible for making parties less democratic. He argued, first, that while once parties channelled public desires into political programmes, they now rely increasingly on experts and pollsters. Second, the power and significance of party membership had been eroded in favour of party elites and political advisers. And, finally, the way parties communicate had changed, being no longer based on community led modes of interaction that encouraged participation, but rather top-down messages that ‘sold’ a party to the public.
These different explanations resonate in parties’ reforms to policy making processes and the use of consultants and advertising agencies. But the diagnosis also suggests the potential for parties to counter these trends. In my Political Quarterly article, I argued that there were signs of attempts to reform parties on these fronts through techniques such as the promotion of community organising. In practice, however, many of these developments represent little substantive change. So, to take one example, the new agendas presented by UKIP and Podemos in Spain do not necessarily indicate a more direct role for members in forming party positions: rather, they present more populist messages that resonate with the public but do little to advance participation in agenda setting.
Reform to party organisation can make a difference, however. Take, for example, the dramatic increase in the number of members and registered supporters within the Labour Party after the 2015 General Election. Reports have signalled that over 150,000 people joined the party and many more registered as supporters. Changes to the way the party elects its leader and a subsequent focus by Jeremy Corbyn on democratizing party decision-making signal a move away from the post-democratic tendencies diagnosed by Crouch. This helps to explain why party membership may have had more appeal.
In a similar fashion, the SNP experienced an increase in membership after a lengthy grassroots campaign for Scottish Independence. The increase in more localised campaigning and the shift from articulating a party message through elites or via canvassing at election time, to promoting a specific cause through local community campaigning and discussion in pubs and the workplace altered the way in which the party’s message was heard. Such changes in communication made party politics more accessible.
When attempting to understand the paradoxes of contemporary party politics, ‘post-democracy’ therefore provides a powerful tool through which to isolate and explore recent developments. It is important to note, however, that as Crouch himself argued, democracy is continually evolving. Hence while parties may improve their democratic standing, they can also fall back. Parties need to display an ongoing commitment to restoring and upholding their democratic credentials. This commitment may, however, be hindered by parties’ need to maximise influence and win electoral success. In predicting the future for political parties, narratives of decline are premature, but any attempt to revive parties’ fortunes will be far from easy.
You can read Kate Dommett’s article in full here.