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New forms of political participation. Changing demands or changing opportunities to participate in political parties?

Abstract

In the past 30 years, party membership has dropped significantly across Europe, whereas other forms of political participation have developed. I first show how political parties have sought to be more attractive by lowering the cost of membership and creating new selective incentives (such as the right to vote in internal ballots), leading to a convergence of party rules across European parties. To understand the logic behind such reforms, one needs to take into account the broader political context and I focus on the United Kingdom to show how competition between and within parties provided the justification for changes that mostly aligned them with organisational myths. The third part argues that such changes in opportunities to participate in political parties contribute to explain why membership has continued to fall. This article draws on extensive qualitative research (including my own) conducted in and on political parties in the United Kingdom and France to provide a new account of membership recruitment crisis that contrasts with the traditional emphasis on supply/demand.

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Notes

  1. From the 1990s, empirical research has shown that the alleged gap between activists and supporters is generally much smaller than expected and these differences are limited to particularly salient issues (Kitschelt, 1989; Norris, 1995b; Narud and Skare, 2002). There is no evidence that the decline of membership has rendered parties less representative of their supporters (Scarrow and Gezgor, 2010, p. 836) and thus that this alone justifies the blurring of party boundaries.

  2. Participatory and deliberative democracy sparked interest in the academic community, with a flurry of publications and experiments, and contributed to the emergence of a new industry of consulting activities at the local, regional and even national levels (Lee, 2011; Lee and Romano, 2013).

  3. In 1997, there was a single candidate, elected with 95 per cent of the votes. In 1999, the election was competitive for the first time. After the election Sarkozy to the Elysée, the position was left vacant – thereby demonstrating the flexibility of the party rules and the limited attachment to the democratic selection of a leader (Haegel, 2012). In 2012, the elections were reinstated. The competition was bitterly fought and the results too close to call, leading to months of disputes and a new ballot a year later.

  4. Closed primaries can also be used by members to express dissent. The first secretary of the PS was defeated in primaries for the election of the presidential candidate in 1995 and in 2011.

  5. In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the primary (24 per cent turnout) delivered a candidate who had no previous political career or experience and campaigned with non-partisan line. The exercise proved costly and it is unclear whether the experiment will be extended to other constituencies.

  6. Indeed, this was often precisely the objective, as in the French socialists after 1993 (Treille, 2000).

  7. The two main parties attracted up to 90 per cent of the votes until the 1980s.

  8. This may need to be qualified following the latest findings of the Hansard Society’s political engagement audits (9 and 10), which identified significant drops in interest in politics and willingness to engage in voluntary as well as political participation, http://hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/parliament_and_government/pages/audit-of-political-engagement.aspx

  9. Although financial contributions are included in the list of forms of participation, one must remember that visa card members mostly sub-contract their political involvement to bodies created and led by political entrepreneurs (G. A. Jordan and Maloney, 2007).

  10. The idea was that governmental responsiveness would be linked and measurable through indicators of the personalisation of the delivery of public services (Leadbeater, 2004).

  11. They have, by the same token, become heavily dependent on patronage (Maloney, 2010 and Jordan, 2010).

  12. It is ironic that a procedure that was seen as maintaining leadership control thanks to union support led to the surprise election of Ed Miliband as leader in 2010.

  13. Most communication seeks to provide them with information about national policies and campaigns, or sometimes involves special offers from insurance companies or from businesses providing a wide selection of goods and services (Faucher-King, 2005).

  14. Such as the belief (however delusional) in policy efficacy through conference deliberation in Labour or identification with the imagined community of the party as a family of brothers and sisters (Faucher-King, 2005).

  15. Successive studies have demonstrated the importance of local (and traditional) campaigning in delivering votes, and hence the renewed interest in voluntary workers (Denver et al, 2004; J. Fisher and Denver, 2009).

  16. This exercise allowed ministers to respond to public questions without really providing an opportunity for participants to engage (Coleman, 2004).

  17. London Citizens is the British-based organisation most directly inspired by Broad-based Community Organising (Balazard, 2012). Its targeted (and successful) campaigns contributed to attract a good deal of attention to its issues and itself during the 2010 general election campaign.

  18. David Miliband referred to community organising to explain his vision for the party in his unsuccessful leadership bid in 2010. Once elected leader, his brother Ed followed the suggestion and recruited Arnie Graf to develop community organising as a strategy for the next general election (see for instance, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/nov/21/arnie-graf-labour-party-miliband). Movement for change is working on training community leaders and engaging local communities on issues close to their preoccupations. It hopes to create a new dynamic (http://www.movementforchange.org.uk/). It is also closely associated to the short-lived Big Society programme (Batho, 2013).

  19. The social constituency that is likely to support each organisation is well identified and thoroughly exploited through a regular flow of direct mail, personalised calls and the price of fierce brand competition (Jordan and Maloney, 2007, p. 118). Similar techniques are deployed in electoral campaigns to target effectively switching voters (Nielsen, 2012).

  20. Other analyses confirm class de-alignment but dispute the individualisation of the vote (Heath and Andersen, 2002). (Braconnier, 2010).

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Faucher, F. New forms of political participation. Changing demands or changing opportunities to participate in political parties?. Comp Eur Polit 13, 405–429 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2013.31

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Keywords

  • political activism
  • political parties
  • participation
  • marketing
  • disaffection