The old class mass membership party type discussed in the previous blog post, has increasingly been superceded by a model of organising that is more exclusively concerned with electoral success and organised along smaller and more professional lines. The new party form is reliant on professionals, its use of new forms of communication techniques, and the strengthening of the role of leadership. There is less role in the party for members, as the party organisation is more narrowly involved in the recruitment of leaders, the legitimation of authority, and generally publicising the parliamentary leadership. [Read more below]
Within the political party academic discipline, a significant evolutionary change in party types was first noted by Otto Kirchheimer (1966) and Leon Epstein (1967), who both saw that the mass parties of Europe were – in an electoral sense – becoming obsolete and inferior to the political parties of the United States, which were more elite and cadre-like.
Epstein’s book Political Parties in Western Democracies (1967) amounted to the most significant revision of Duverger (discussed in the previous post). Epstein perceptively pointed out that although the mass party ideal-type had become the standard model for both left and right parties, its usefulness appeared to have declined, and that eventually, therefore, contagion from the right was likely to take place, as the mass membership party declined and was replaced by parties that were more exclusively concerned with electoral success and organised along smaller and more professional lines. The old elite-cadre organisational model was therefore re-emerging, but as a new variant of this old party type.
This is exactly what happened in New Zealand, most notably since the 1960s. It is the argument of this series of blog posts that in New Zealand today the mass party type and ethos is clearly extinct. None of the parties possess dominant or substantial extra-parliamentary organisations. They may still have the legal or official appearance or status of authority but they are in reality all greatly subservient to the parliamentary wing. In some ways the New Zealand parties still look like mass parties in that they have regular members, branches, party conferences and so forth, but in practice they all emphasise the role of the parliamentary party as being at the top of the structure and the role of the extra-parliamentary organisation and membership as the supporters of the parliamentary leadership.
It was the effect of the quickly-developing mass media, Kirchheimer argued, that was providing party leaders the capacity to market their parties to the whole electorate, in a similar way to businesses selling to consumers (Kirchheimer, 1966: p.192). This was an important part of the emergence of the new party model which was termed the ‘catch-all party’ by Kirchheimer, but which is generally now seen within the party literature as being an early form of the ‘electoral-professional party’ (Krouwel, 2003).
Kirchheimer is particularly noted for his sociological argument that in the postwar period parties have been transforming from class-based parties into vehicles with much more heterogeneous social support. Kirchheimer argued that modern parties were increasingly attempting to attract votes from whatever social groups they could, and this was having a highly significant effect on ideological competition. It seems that once in power the party leaders of mass parties have found great reason to shift their organisations towards the catch-all model. According to Kirchheimer, the drive for ongoing success pushes parties to broaden their appeal beyond their original and distinctive class support (Kirchheimer, 1966: p.190).
In contrast to the class-based mass parties which behaved almost as electoral pressure groups of specific social constituencies, the new electoral-professional parties aimed at more immediate success by appealing to a wider market of voters. They therefore formulated programmes which were not so strongly partisan or divisive, but which could claim to serve the interest of the whole electorate.
The idea of catch-all parties therefore tied in with the ideas of the ‘end of ideology’ in the 1960s and the weakening of social cleavages that had previously been the foundation of stable party systems (Broughton and Donovan, 1999: p.4). In line with this, the parties moved from stressing comprehensive programmes to emphasising specific issues. The importance of leadership also became more emphasised – with parties promoting the technical and managerial qualifications of their candidates (Maor, 1997: pp.106, 109). This form of party also made for politics based around individual political personalities. In this new schema of party politics, elections revolve more than ever before around a choice between politicians rather than between policies or programmes.
In this model, according to Moshe Maor, parties are typically responsive rather than intergrative, using ‘extensive polling research to formulate many presentational strategies aimed at convincing people that their policy platform accords most closely with the views of voters’ (Maor, 1997: p.106). Kirchheimer was particularly critical of this simple reflection of the shifting moods of the electorate:
The instrument, the catch-all party, cannot be much more rational than its normal master, the individual voter…. The voters may, by their shifting moods and their apathy, transform the sensitive instrument of the catch-all party into something too blunt to serve as a link with the functional powerholders of society (Kirchheimer, 1966: p.200).
This catchall phenomenon contributes to policy convergence because the need to maintain a distinctive constituency through doctrine and policy becomes further undermined, thus encouraging ‘a waning of the ideological and/or policy distinctiveness of the parties’ (Katz and Mair, 1997: pp.102-103). As a result of the highly responsive nature of electoral-professional parties, ‘Any firm commitment to anything beyond a vague promise of "better days ahead under us" is antithetic to the style of a catch-all party – it may alienate some voters’ (Jaensch, 1994: p.243).
Most party theorists have seized upon only these ideological issues in understanding Kirchheimer’s thesis. For although it is thought that the catch-all party model that Kirchheimer studied was primarily significant because of its heterogeneous approach to classes, his new party model was also characterised by significant changes in its organisational nature. The Italian political sociologist Angelo Panebianco (1988) argues that theorists have been inclined to over-emphasise a sociological reading of Kirchheimer’s analysis, concentrating on the shift away from class-based support to much more heterogeneous electoral support (Ward, 1991: p.168).
Panebianco’s analysis of the electoral-professional party concentrates more on issues of organisation. He distinguishes the new party form by its reliance on professionals, its use of new forms of communication techniques, and the strengthening of the role of leadership. Panebianco has therefore argued that the term ‘electoral-professional’ party is preferable to ‘catch-all party’ because it emphasises the ‘professionalisation’ of the new model and underlines the crucial organisational difference between mass parties and the new party type. In this new arrangement, the traditional party office holders are displaced by professionals with both technical and political skills, which are of more use in the modern media and political environment. The role of professionals not only increases in the parliamentary offices of the parties, but also in the extra-parliamentary party organisation (Mair, 1997: p.145).
The whole function of the extra-parliamentary party organisation changes under the electoral-professional model. While the mass party performed an integrative and expressive function in society, the electoral-professional party is preoccupied with winning elections and therefore more narrowly involved in the recruitment of leaders, the legitimation of authority, and generally publicising the parliamentary leadership. This means that the activities of the party organisation that were previously directed towards the organisation and maintenance of the party in the electorate are now overtaken by the mobilisation of support in the electorate at large. The role of servicing and organising the party membership and generally building the party in the electorate becomes downgraded and secondary to winning votes. While this is partly due to the decreasing amount of people belonging to the parties, it is mostly because the party leaders have no significant roles for members to play and contribute to their parties.
The effectiveness of professionalisation means that it is far better for a party to put the bulk of its resources into electoral-related activity than party-building. Party leaders also have ‘less interest in catering for the interests and opinions of the rank-and-file in the intra-party decision-making process’ (Pierre et al., 2000: p.3). Leaders are therefore less likely to encourage the traditional-type of representative party structures that ‘function as participatory, representative and communicative channels in the political system’ (Pierre et al., 2000: p.3).
In general, both the national office and the membership still have a role in the campaign – but not the central role they once had. While they still carry out much of the logistical operations of the campaign, they do not generally have the actual control over decision-making that they once possessed. In a sense, then, the extra-parliamentary organisations are now akin to ‘service organisations’ carrying out the demands of the party professionals and politicians in Parliament. Meanwhile ‘the parliamentary party has become increasingly self-sufficient and autonomous from the central party office’ (Farrell, 1994: p.224).
The increasing reliance on capital resources instead of labour resources is also a key element of the transition from the mass party model to the electoral-professional party model. Previously, the mass membership party could not afford to hire much professional labour and, therefore, offered members policy promises in exchange for their involvement (Maor, 1997: p.97). It is partly for this reason that such parties were marked by ideology. In contrast, electoral-professional parties are generally more able to rely on professional labour, thereby avoiding the exchange relationship with the membership. The necessity for modern political parties to have large capital resources is also part of what drives them to the electoral-professional model. The campaign technologies of today are very sophisticated, and require greater resources of capital than labour.
Clearly the hierarchy and dynamics of power have been re-arranged. Previously the party in the electorate was often as politically powerful as the parliamentary wing, and the party officials played a mediating role to ensure that the will of the party in the electorate prevailed over the politicians. Under the electoral-professional model, the party organisation clearly follows the dictates of the parliamentary leadership (Mair, 1997: p.145), and the leaders of the parliamentary wing are both more autonomous and dominant within the party. This is largely because they no longer require a strong party organisation. Katz and Mair (1997: p.96).
Instead they can appeal to all voters through the link of the mass media and other modern campaign resources. Also, with fewer members, the autonomy of the parliamentary wings has consequently grown. For example, the parliamentary wings of the parties have often taken full control of the policy-making process, in which the membership and extra-parliamentary organisation were once reserved a key role. According to Maor, ‘The decline in party membership and party activism during 1960-92 is in stark contrast to the growth of autonomy of the parliamentary groups. Individual members seem to be playing a subordinate role in policy-making, and their only significant power has been to select parliamentary candidates’ (Maor, 1997: p.122).
The extra-parliamentary national offices of the parties have also declined significantly. Increasingly, Western political parties carry out their traditional organising functions from within their parliamentary offices. Certainly in New Zealand it is often from Parliament that the parties now create policy, communicate with voters and members, create strategy, fundraise, and research material for policy. The extra-parliamentary organisations still play a part in holding annual conferences, but these have changed a great deal, and are, more than ever, showpieces for the parliamentary wing to court the media. That the conferences are forums empty of any decision-making politics is illustrated by the fact that discussion and voting on remits now forms only a minor part of the agendas.
Next post: The numbers of party members in New Zealand