The Politics of Power: a Life
History of the Party System
This chapter is the ®rst of two on political parties. Although unknown to the constitution, parties dominate the real world of politics; they are symbols of the modern age. The ®rst section examines the concept of the modern mass party. Parties in a democracy should not be seen in isolation; it is in their essential nature to be linked through competition and cooperation. The following sections identify a series of key periods in the evolution of the party system, concluding with an evaluation of British two-party politics.
Any political movement can describe itself as a party, but in a democracy political parties are essentially associations with a common set of beliefs and goals, and aiming to take of®ce by constitutional means. Some commentators see the quest for of®ce overriding all else, portraying parties as vote-maximizing machines (analogous to pro®t-maximizing ®rms) prepared to pursue any policy that commands support (Downs 1957: ch. 7). While much behaviour bears this out, parties usually re¯ect ideologies to some extent, though over time they may pick and choose from the ideological cafeteria in the quest for support (see pp. 23±5).
The modern mass party The major British parties are large associations essentially comprising three elements: a parliamentary cadre of elected MPs, a bureaucracy and a large extra-parliamentary army in constituency associations. These mass parties evolved as a direct result of extensions to the franchise.
Mobilizing the Demos
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book II, ch. 1)
Functions of parties Parties play multifarious roles in political life. Elections are their great celebrations; they energize campaigns, feed the media and mobilize voters. In addition, they organize the life of Parliament; without them the Palace of Westminster would be an empty shell of anachronistic ritual. They also shape popular opinion, set the political agenda, stimulate public debate and, in doing so, help to provide political education. Recruiting people into politics and training them in the Machiavellian arts is another party function; historically Labour has been important in enabling working-class participation. Mass parties also aggregate diverse interests, constructing the compromises that help maintain social stability. When out of government they continue to play a crucial role, providing political opposition: without this, democracy is in peril. In the 1983 election campaign Conservative minister Francis Pym expressed fear of too weak a Labour opposition; similar sentiments were repeated by some commentators after Labour's 1997 and 2001 triumphs.
The party system
Parties in a democracy do not exist in isolation. The British parties have been inextricably entwined, cross-fertilizing each other with philosophy, policy, strategy and organizational form. They have even made physical contact, to ®ght or to hold together in the warm embrace of coalition, sometimes even exchanging vital ¯uids as factions have surged from one to impregnate the other. Each party can therefore only be understood as part of a party system. It is usual to classify these in terms of number of parties and their relative dominance, thus distinguishing four types.
Multi-party: more than two parties; governments usually coalitions. Two-party: two parties share dominance, each capable of forming an entire government. In reality, minor parties always exist and a more realistic term is two-party dominant.
Single-party-dominant: several parties compete but one stands like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, able to command either an overall majority or remain the dominant partner in successive coalitions.
Single-party: such `systems' are unlikely to arise naturally and occur mainly under totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany, communist...