How the party mood can shift

Party System Change
October 3, 1997

The distinction between "party system change" and "party change" is not an easy one. Peter Mair's theme lies in the number and nature of parties and their relationship to the state rather than in their detailed structure and operation. But the overlap between the two concepts makes the distinction hard to sustain. Peter Mair has produced a book that represents political science at its most erudite, but perhaps at its worst. It is a learned work based on wide reading. It is brimming with references to the contributions of other scholars. But it seems to say very little about the real world. It is hard to imagine William Hague or Peter Mandelson stumbling on something in these pages that will give them a fresh insight into the nature of their party managerial task.

Panta rhei, everything is in a state of flux. The fascination of political science is that one's subject matter is constantly changing. Very few interesting generalisations are valid for more than a small space of territory and slice of time. Parties have proven to be an essential component of democracy, a necessary mechanism for coordinating policy decisions into manageable packages. But parties do change in function and structure. They are shaped by changing national cultures and by changing means of communication as well as by events, national and international. Usually the process is evolutionary and unperceived. Occasionally it is conscious and deliberate, as Tony Blair and his colleagues have demonstrated.

Mair is legitimately concerned with stability and change in parties worldwide. They exist within a framework of laws that are often slow to adapt to circumstances. They evolve in response to events, coalitions, and electoral systems. Their membership alters in terms of numbers and of serious involvement in policy-making. Their class basis and, in many cases, their democratic credentials often erode. Their fortunes and finances vary with the costs of electioneering and the extent of public subsidy. But what is surprising is how different have been the ways in which parties have changed over the past 50 years in the United States, France, Britain and Germany. In 1949, Duverger tried to produce a world typology in his massive Les Partis Politiques. He acknowledged the weakness in his work- he was forced to generalise without evidence because the necessary detailed studies from individual countries were as yet lacking. Today there are plenty of works about parties in every major democracy, but the reader of Mair will hardly be nearer to important truths than the reader of Duverger. Yet, as Arend Lipjhart has shown, international comparison in this area can be enormously rewarding.

For a book that is so replete with references and that ends with a 14-page bibliography, there are some extraordinary omissions. The most influential postwar book from the US, The American Voter, is not mentioned. Nor is the most influential of works here, Robert McKenzie's British Political Parties. Other names are missing - Don Aitkin, Larry Bartals, Bruce Cain, Peter Hennessy, John Ramsden, Anthony Selden. Little is drawn from biographers or journalists, often the most perceptive observers of change.

There are also interesting omissions from the index. Where are constituency, discipline, or representation, let alone Thatcher, Nixon, and De Gaulle? Where are Lenin, Joe Chamberlain or Franklin Roosevelt, let alone separatist, green or fascist?

It can be unfair for a reviewer to ask for a different book. There is a limit to what can be got into 250 pages. But it is disappointing for a reader exposed to the learning of someone so patently well-read to find himself so little stimulated by new thoughts about the parties and polities of which he has some knowledge.

This is a book about the theory of theory. Just as in Eng.Lit. the substance of great works can be lost in writing about writing about writing, here the essence of polities is lost in generalisations too broad and international and abstract to throw much light on what is actually happening out there.

This is not a work for the faint-hearted as its final sentence demonstrates: "Other constraints on electoral mobility still remain, of course, including both institutional inertia and the cleavage structure itself but should this particular anchor now begin to shift, and should structures of competition begin to open up, then it will certainly enhance the scope of uncertainty."

There may just possibly be an essential truth here, but it is certainly no way to end a book.

David Butler is a fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford.

Party System Change: Approaches and Interpretations

Author - Peter Mair
ISBN - 0 19 829235 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 244

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