Party types – past their ‘use-by date’?

A mainstay of any first year undergraduate politics topic is an introduction to political parties. Political parties, as any student of politics quickly learns – in between checking their smart phones in lectures – are integral to the functioning of liberal democracy. For writers like Schumpeter, with minimalist accounts of democracy – they are the breeding ground for the next generation of leaders. More critically, no other political organisation can aggregate public interests and provide the link between political elites and the demos.

Students then – in between googling ‘how to stay awake during a politics lecture’ – become introduced to the main typologies and types of political parties: Cadre, Mass, Catch-all, and so on. Some political scientists, unlike some historians, generate typologies and models to better understand recurring and new political phenomena. How do we understand the rise of the Palmer United phenomena? Why did One-Nation come to prominence? Why are the Democrats dead? Why is Bill Shorten so dull? (Ok, I made that last one up). The point is, typologies help us better understand power and the role of agency and institutions by ascribing key characteristics to the phenomena we are studying. Some historians refrain from such categorising because it violates the specificity and complexity of each historical phenomena. But that’s historians for you.

build a mass party

Bernie Taft speaking at a Communist Party of Australia meeting, Brisbane 1965.     Grahame Garner, UQ eSpace 

Yet, typologies are a vital tool and a crucial short-hand for understanding political ideas and institutions. Understanding what a ‘micro’ party is (rather than a ‘minor’ or ‘major’) – can tell us something about the rise of Ricky Muir, the, ahem, driving force of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.

It was the path-breaking work of Duverger that led to the better understanding of the different party types. Duverger categorised the first type as ‘cadre’; parties with little real membership, formed by the coming together of wealthy and like-minded parliamentarians. First-year politics students, paying some vague attention above the din of a new-fangled student ‘hub’, might well recall the Australian Liberals are often lumped into this category. Woodward in his chapter on party types (from the venerable Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, 9th edn.) notes they ‘come closest’ to this type.

Duverger witnessed a new phenomena – the rise of the social democratic and labour parties around the world – and accordingly saw them as ‘mass’ parties, with of course, large numbers of fee-paying members. The ALP clearly fell within this category. And for many Australians, joining a party was akin to modern prevalence of first-year students watching youtube clips in the library – an everyday act of identity-making. To some extent, the Australians Liberals adopted some of the ‘mass’ characteristics; after all it was the crucial support of the Australian Women’s National League which helped Menzies forge the modern party.

Perhaps the last and most significant effort to categorise and map wider changes was Kirchheimer’s work on noting the rise of the ‘catch-all’ party. Profound social change followed the second world war, and alas for Marx, the working class found a new level of affluence. Ideological distinctions between the major parties waned, and parties sought appeal beyond specific class or other support, be they ‘forgotten’ or not.

Since then, there have been efforts to and find new categories. For some, like Ian Marsh, the parties exhibit strong ‘cartel’ behaviour. Although, Murray Goot, in a fine intervention, single-handledly added the question mark to the title of Marsh’s important ‘Political Parties in Transition?” book. Goot sees little evidence for cartel-like activity. Others now see the major parties as ‘electoral-professional’). Here, we might look at the ALP again, and see at times, a strangely deathless, remorseless electoral machine crunching focus groups, and pumping out a cavalcade of apparatchiks as candidates. We might also include ‘niche’ parties or the emergence of Kefford and McDonnell’s ‘plutocrat’ type – with a nifty contrast of Palmer United and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Obviously, by this stage, most first-years’ eyeballs are spinning and just want some comforting certainty by streaming ‘Game of Thrones’ (A sort of politics primer without the messy or confusing theorising).

Yet – and this won’t be much comfort to the first-years who have just learning the main party ‘types’ – this is perhaps all rather unsatisfying. Do any of the major categories, ‘catch-all’, ‘electoral-professional’, ‘mass’ and so on actually help us understand modern political parties? The ALP may have fewer than 40,000 members, but yet, the legacy of its ‘mass’ past still continues to haunt. Why, if it was purely driven by ‘electoral-professional’ concerns would it be experimenting with community organising? Or how this ‘type’ help us explain the rise of new movements like ‘Rainbow Labor’ or ‘Country Labor’ within the party? (see Manwaring’s outstanding contribution to the recent Australian Political Party Organisations volume). If the parties were mere machines, why do so many still call it a ‘cause’ or a ‘movement’? Does the still lingering ‘catch-all’ party really help us explain how the ALP operated under Rudd and Gillard? Why if it was ‘catch-all’ would it bother pursuing policies which alienated so many – like the ETS? Similar claims might also be put to the Liberals. The core issue is that whilst typologies and types are central to understanding political phenomena, there is a good case that the current labels maybe reaching their ‘use-by date’. This is not a plea to abandon typologies, rather to renew them. Otherwise, we’ll just join the ranks of the historians, and what’s to be gained from that?*

*Some of my best friends are historians.

Rob Manwaring is a lecturer in politics at Flinders University, and deals regularly with first-years.