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In questioning whether the role of parties has declined in today’s consolidated democracies, I will first give a brief explanation of what political parties are and their role in democratic states. Then I will see what the main roles of the parties in politics are, and examine whether their role has declined in recent years.
In recent years, it appears that the role of political parties in the politics of consolidated democracies have decreased drastically. Many argue the reason behind this decline is primarily the change in the roles of the parties. Hague and Harrop argue that the question for the twenty-first century is whether we are witnessing a crisis of parties or merely a change in their role. It is important to emphasise that the parties have not declined in the sense that they have ceased to be important in government, but they have changed, and today perform rather different functions or perform traditional functions in a different manner.
Political parties have been deemed necessary since the early societal grouping of man. Men would find a pattern of the state that would subsume societal conflict and which would allow the rule of law to function and apply it to their state. Thus, one could say that political systems deal with conflicts and the political institutions they create. Giovanni Sartori defines a political party as ‘any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through elections candidates for public offices.’ Unlike interest groups, serious parties aim to obtain the keys to government.
It is true that political parties are needed and cannot be replaced by civil society or by any other organized structure created to give representation to citizens because political parties have formed the cornerstone of democratic society and serve a function like no other institution. Hence, in a modern society, democracy cannot function without political parties. The active support and collaboration of strong, inclusive political parties in partnership with a vibrant civil society is fast gaining acceptance as the correctly balanced equation to achieve a more transparent and participatory system of government. In strengthening democratic institutions in consolidated democracies, it is not a matter of having to choose between building a strong civil society or strengthening political parties and political institutions such as parliaments. The real challenge lies in balancing support for democratic institutions and organizations that are more accountable and inclusive, while at the same time continuing to foster and nurture the development of a broadly based and active civil society.
Hague and Harrop question whether parties are facing a crisis and whether they are declining into weak, decentralized organizations. Amongst other reasons, they argue that major parties no longer offer radically different visions of the good society, and electors’ party loyalties are weakening as tradition social divisions decay. Furthermore, they state that party members are older than the average person and are becoming less active; and party membership is falling and will continue to do so as older members leave the electorate. Young people are more likely to join single-issue groups than parties, and parties have become charity cases, relying for funding on state handouts. Moreover, the trust in parties is lower than for other political institutions, and is declining. On the other hand, Crotty argues that the demands of society have changed, and parties change to meet them. Too often, models of what parties ‘ought’ to be like are drawn from the narrow experience of Western Europe in the twentieth century. Today, it is unrealistic to expect the rebirth of mass membership parties with their millions of working-class members and their supporting pillars of trade unions. In an era of mass media and electronic communication, such an organisational format is gone for good. In its stead, comes the new format of parties found in the consolidated democracies: lean and flexible, with communication from leaders trough the broadcast media and the internet. Rather than relying on outdated notions of a permanent army of members, new-format parties mobilize volunteers for specific, short-term tasks, such as election campaigns. The form of parties will continue to evolve but their purpose of giving direction to government continues unchanged.
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According to Hague and Harrop, political parties are said to perform four main functions:
The ruling parties offer direction to government, thus performing the vital task of ‘steering the ship of state’;
Parties function as agents of political recruitment, and serve as the major mechanism for preparing and recruiting candidates for the legislature and executive;
Parties serve as devices of interest aggregation, filtering a multitude of specific demands into more manageable packages of proposals. Parties select, reduce and combine policies; and
To a declining extent, political parties also serve as a brand for their supporters and voters, giving people a lens through which to interpret and participate in a complicated political world.
The decline in the role of political parties has been identified mainly in terms of a constant erosion of the functions listed above. In what is already a highly fragmented political system, the decline of these functions has very often led to inefficient government and the wearing away of the legitimacy of institutions.
1-The parties crate the link between parliament and the government – because the party which gets an overall majority in parliament and controls it then forms the government. The parties also provide for the scrutiny and control of the government since the party which does not win the election and becomes the ‘Opposition’ then has the job of constantly attacking and criticizing the government and exposing its failings to the public – as well as putting forward alternative ideas of its own. However, in recent years amid all the furore over the decline of traditional parties, not a single third party has emerged with even the semblance of electoral strength. Third-party candidates have sometimes done well, but they represent more of a protest vote than some discernible social movement. Weaker party identification is producing a more inconsistent electorate prone to sudden shifts in loyalty, to vote splitting and to voting for individual candidates or issues rather than according to traditional party ties. Only a minimal percentage of the adult population are active participants in party organizations. Generally, over the past few years these activists have become more candidate- and issue-oriented, one of their main motivations being to promote a particular candidate or to support just one special issue. Critics argue that these trends have weakened party organization and coherence even further.
2- Parties are the main way in which democratic leaders are recruited and fed into the political system. Parties provide us with the personnel who govern that state. There has been a dramatic decline in the membership of both of the major parties – people (especially young people) appear to be less willing to get actively involved in party organisations at grass roots level. Parties are said to provide the most important way in which people become involved in politics. This can be done on a number of levels. By joining a party people become involved – and may even get elected. However, established political parties have experienced a declining membership that is ageing. Young people are hesitating to join or become associated with political parties. At the same time, support has risen for independent candidates, and interest parties. There has been a dramatic decline in party membership between the 1960s and the 1990s. In Scandinavia, Sundberg argues, since the 1970s and the 1980s, membership decline has set in at an unprecedented rate. Denmark is a particularly extreme case, with membership falling from one in every five people in the 1960s to one in twenty by the 1990s.
By voting for a party, people are able to express their political opinion and help choose the government. It is parties which give people the choice at elections between alternative views and policies. The parties also provide the voters with a choice in elections – by presenting programmes and taking stands on issues parties allow the voters to choose between rival policy packages. Parties produce policies or ideas which they hope will win them power – so these ideas have to appeal to a large enough section of the electorate. The parties have to produce policies on a whole range of issues covering all aspects of politics if they are to be taken seriously as a potential government. This gives the voters a genuine choice of alternative packages to choose from.
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3- Policy formulation is another role of the parties since they come up with the policy proposals which the voters can choose and then put those policies into action if they win the election. Hence, parties initiate the policies / ideas which then govern the nation in a wide variety of areas e.g. foreign policy, environment, health, education etc. In recent years, the parties have become less attached to ideas and are more willing to shape their beliefs and policies to respond to public opinion rather than leading people to follow them, and it can also be argued that parties now also deliberately keep their ideas and policies very vague and refuse to go into detail because this might antagonize voters and also open them to attack about the details.
Nowadays, the number of programmatic parties has decreased, and they are in turn becoming catch all parties. Programmatic parties tend to have definite and fixed set of ideas and beliefs which they firmly believe in and which they can apply in all circumstances. However, parties have now become pragmatic that is they are willing to change ideas to suit changing circumstances. While the former were more interested in transforming society to bring it in line with their ideas over a long period of time, while the catch-all parties’ policies are designed to win the next elections and to deal only with current and short term issues. The programmatic parties aim to bring the people around to their way of thinking and to agree with their principles, while the latter seek to find out what the people want and then fit their ideas and policies to match so that they can gain popularity and elect candidates. Catch-all parties tend to change their policies on a regular basis to match changing circumstances and public opinion, while the programmatic parties tend to stick to long held policies and not change them.
4- Representation is one of the main functions of political parties in a democracy. They are to serve the interests of their people as party representatives, and they are also supposed to represent the nation as a whole. Through representation, parties help to link the government to the people because they attempt to match their policies to public opinion as much as possible and then if they win the election they can carry out those policies – hence, translating what the public wants into action. However, recently it has been argued that the parties are not ‘representing’ those who elect them properly because many MPs are elected by a minority of their constituents, for instance, in Britain, the first past the post system means that MPs do not have to be chosen by a majority of the voters in their area. E.g. some Scottish seats the MP were elected with only 1/3 of the vote. Furthermore, the government itself can be elected to rule with minority of the vote.
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