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Are Conventional Political Parties in Decline?

Staff writer Elijah Bodinetz outlines the signs and potential causes of the falling influence of parties in shaping the political agenda.

The concept of the political party and the large, traditionally dominant parties in many democracies have had a great impact on the political sphere which cannot be understated. The divisiveness and vast spectrum of political views are encapsulated and represented through this partisan idea even through periods of fading trust and increased corruption in many countries. In recent times, many feel that these long-established major parties are in decline and that their stable image as the leading forces in politics is dwindling.

A political party is a group of persons organised to acquire and exercise political power and so it should come as no surprise that political parties hold huge influence and importance in our politics. These institutions are key to the functionality of democracies across the world, as the groups often have significant power in proposing policies and ideas. Every political party seeks to resonate with voters by identifying key issues and cleavages in society and creating a powerful manifesto, with most having the ultimate goal of being voted into power. One of the most powerful aspects of political parties is that whether in a free society or under a totalitarian regime, the organisation is expected to organise public opinion and to communicate their demands to the centre of governmental power and decision-making.

Party Membership Figures

In recent years, political parties have been in a state of decline. Although this statement can be debated from a qualitative stance, statistics make the point undeniable. One of the most apparent ways to quantify the level of involvement with parties is through the measurement of party membership, and its fluctuations through time. In the mid-1950s, membership of the Conservative Party stood at around 3 million while the Labour Party had around 1 million members. By the time of the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party had a membership of around 150,000 while Labour Party membership stood at about 270,000. This is an example which would support the notion that our customary, traditional parties are declining, as in recent decades, these figures suggest a decrease in people’s desire to make their partisan affiliation official.

Populism and its Consequences

The rise of populism and independent candidates in politics poses a great threat to traditional political parties. The eruption of anti-establishment figures continues to sweep across much of the global political landscape, with perhaps one of the most archetypal cases being Donald Trump and his success in becoming President of The United States in 2016. Whilst he did win the election as part of the Republican party, it was thanks to his populist, dissident character, and not on the basis of the party he was representing. It could be argued that this idea of voting for the candidate rather than the party is to be expected in a presidential electoral system, but in the case of Donald Trump, this was significantly more apparent and has had a domino effect across several democracies in Europe and across the world. It’s important to note that during times of economic stress and cultural change, populism often becomes a popular means of communication, and has been used by aspirants for the presidency. This is crucial in understanding the link between party decline and the rise in populism, as it has largely manifested from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, which left people across the globe demanding change and an alternative to the system which seemed to have failed them, and these conditions are where populist leaders thrive.

Fragmentation of Parties

To become a ‘party’ to something always means identification with one group and differentiation from another. Due to increasing sectarianism, in some democracies, the number of parties has increased as different sections of a party break off or simply new groups form to create a higher number of parties, and this can occur for a variety of reasons. These include the equalisation of votes across parties, linguistic splits in Belgium which leads to the creation of more parties on the basis of language differences, or regional parties being formed such as the Scottish National Party in the UK. As a result of this process of fragmentation, the main, traditionally dominant parties lose votes to new political forces. This consequently diminishes the significance of the political party due to the increased spread of votes across the range of parties.

Partisan Dealignment and a Shift in Voter Thought Process

Partisan dealignment is another key factor in the decline of political parties and is perhaps one of the most complex for politicians to solve. Partisan dealignment describes the detachment and breaking of people’s bond and commitment to a party. This phenomenon is increasingly exacerbated as the development of advanced industrialism, the expansion of educational opportunities, the evolution of mass media bolstering access to information beyond partisan channels and a changing social structure. This has collectively enabled people to think politically beyond what politicians and parties feed them. This should concern political parties, because as people increasingly begin to think outside the typical partisan sphere of influence, the functional utility of partisan cues decreases substantially, as parties generally speaking have failed to incorporate the ideas and wishes of the people into their structures. This shows how partisan dealignment poses an ever-growing threat to political parties, as voter thinking in many countries is shifting from partisan to cognitive, leading voters away from blindly electing the traditionally dominant parties. As mentioned, this is a challenge for politicians to address, as reversing people’s education and ability to think freely would go against any progressive or feasible policy put in place and the situation is also perhaps too far gone to be reversed in any significant way at this stage.

Disenfranchisement and a Lack of Trust

Another reason why certain parties may be in decline is the increasing lack of trust and a sense of disenfranchisement among voters towards politicians. As the figureheads and representatives of their respective parties, politicians have a responsibility to maintain the link between voters and politics and to engage citizens in the political process. However, with scandalous events involving corruption, lying, or misinformation, voter apathy is inevitable, which in turn can turn people away from engaging with politics and their partisan allegiance. One of the most obvious cases of this was the ‘Partygate’ scandal which consumed British politics for much of the Covid-19 pandemic. As politicians and leaders ignored the guidance that the public followed, the scandal represented a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time. This is one of the most pressing issues for parties and politicians to address, as scandals such as this one can lead to a domino effect which can result in events such as protests and potentially even revolution if voter apathy continues to grow.

Endurance and Relevancy of Parties across time

However, all is not dire for political parties. There are some reasons which show that they are not necessarily in decline.

Firstly, it cannot be ignored that despite the challenging current climate for parties, they remain the primary form in which elected officials are structured and distinguished in democracies across the globe. This, along with the duration in which parties have existed throughout centuries, in itself shows resilience and a sense of stability found with having parties as a key feature of politics. This is shown by the fact that parties which traditionally do not hold the keys to power, such as the Green Party, have failed to ever usurp the traditional parties. In the UK, we can date back to the 19th century with the emergence of the first political parties. These were the royalist Tories and the parliamentarian Whigs. […] Following the Representation of the People Acts of 1832 and of 1867, the two parties clarified their political positions to attract the new voters’ support. This notion and the fact that parties, including the ‘Tories’, have continued to exist up until the current day shows an endurance in this concept and a resistance within political parties to the changes and volatility of politics. Similarly, the relevancy that the names alone of political parties hold in the media cannot be ignored. Endless headlines featuring the Tories or Labour parties create a personality and characteristics associated with the main political parties. This in turn creates conversations and discourse and keeps the divisive, partisan nature alive in society. This is one example which would support the view that political parties aren’t necessarily in decline, as the extensive lifespan of these parties and the level of relevancy and publicity which they receive suggests.

Parties Responding to Crises

Finally, when determining whether parties are in a state of decline or not, it’s vital to consider the wider context of events and global affairs which can influence the approval or discontent of parties. For instance, since 2020 alone, politicians have had to confront a global pandemic and more recently a full-scale war on mainland Europe, which consequently contributed to the energy and cost-of-living crises many countries continue to face. Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when social distancing measures were put in place, associations of political party affiliation with physical distancing behaviours among young adults in the US became apparent, and this shows how it may not necessarily be the political party idea and concept which is in decline, but that it’s more a case of a rejection of unprecedented measures on peoples’ lives brought about by the pandemic, such as social distancing or the contentious issue of vaccine coercion, rather than disagreement in traditional political legislation. In other words, politicians, and thus the parties they represent, are seen to be first in the firing line when it comes to civil discontentment, implying that parties hold importance in taking accountability and receiving criticism, with the aim of solving these issues in question.

This would suggest that once the current period of multiple crises has passed, party affiliation may return to pre-pandemic levels, showing that this period was more of a blip than a long-term, downward spiral of partisanship. In support of this view, there have been other occasions in history where, in spite of a decline in party support and a rise in civil unrest, a strong response to crises can cause a significant rise in party popularity and satisfaction among a population. The most obvious case which comes to mind was the creation of the NHS and the introduction of a welfare state in Britain after the devastation of World War Two.

The exposure to widespread social deprivation made the central government fully conscious for the first time of the need for reconstruction, which sums up the point perfectly, as the response to crises often has the power to reverse the decline and struggle of crises if enough is done to get voters back on side and engaged in the political environment. Although there are some obvious differences, there are some undeniable similarities between the recovery needed after the pandemic and energy crisis, and World War 2. Therefore, I believe that the traditional political party structure will see a resurgence as soon as parties start engaging with their constituents as they did in post-war Britain. Regarding the debate of whether parties are in decline, although the results aren’t necessarily visible yet, one would hope and expect politicians to make changes and progress to reverse the suffering people have experienced in recent times, just like the government did for post-war Britain, which would suggest that party affiliation will see a resurgence and not a further decline.

The issue of party decline isn’t black and white. Although some indications suggest long-standing, major parties are currently in a state of decline due to issues such as voter apathy, fragmentation and a rise in populist figures, with the necessary steps being taken, these parties can remain important to democracies. There are clear indications that the form and structure of traditional political parties need to evolve and adapt, and although it’s highly unlikely for the major parties to cease to exist from the world entirely, given the historical challenges they have faced and overcome, I strongly believe that a process of restructuring is necessary. It’s probable that parties will remain for the foreseeable future in some form, however, I do also believe that, at least for the time being, they are currently in a state of decline in the current global climate.


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