Major party, minor party, micro party: Does it matter what we call parties?

In the three federal elections since the Australian Labor Party (ALP) were elected to government in 2007, first preferences for non-major parties and Independents in Australia have increased significantly.

While in 2007 these stood at 14.5 per cent in the House and 19.8 per cent in the Senate, in 2016 these were 23.4 per cent in the House and 35.5 per cent in the Senate. Quite evidently this is a significant development.

senate crossbench

The Senate Crossbench, Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

These changes in voting behaviour are also not unique to Australia as major party vote shares are plummeting across advanced parliamentary democracies. While changes to the Senate electoral system appear likely to temper the growth in new parties contesting elections, it is still fundamentally important to be able to describe and classify the variety of small political parties standing for election.

In a recent article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, I sought to improve the analytical and conceptual tools used to describe and classify political parties. My aim in this article was to improve our ability to compare and classify parties and party systems in Australia with those from other countries.

In improving how we classify and describe political parties I suggest that ‘micro party’ should no longer be used. I document a variety of reasons why I think this is an unhelpful addition to the political science lexicon, but most importantly is that ‘micro party’ adds further confusion to an already messy area of the scholarship.

In reviewing use of ‘micro party’ in the political science literature and in some media commentary it was clear that it had generally been used in one of three ways.

  1. To describe a party with a small percentage of the vote;
  2. To describe a party that had ‘gamed the system’ by engaging in preference harvesting;
  3. To describe a party that had received a small percentage of the vote and had ‘gamed the system’.

The problems with this approach are numerous but two are worth outlining here.

First, there was significant confusion and contradiction evident as to which parties were ‘micro parties’ and which were minor parties. The reason for this is that ‘micro party’ had been operationalised in an ad hoc manner with no reference to existing concepts. Indeed, it’s use in Australia was entirely idiosyncratic.

Second, the literature on party types was being conflated with the literature on party systems. Commentators were often trying to express what the organisational goals of the party were, a common approach for identifying different types of parties, while simultaneously expressing what impact the party had on the party system.

Unfortunately, many commentators, particularly in the media, fail to understand that minor party relates to how relevant parties are in the party system and has nothing to do with vote share.

This problem is further exacerbated by the word selected. ‘Micro’ is not comparable to major or minor for the simple fact the meaning of the word is not comparable. As I say in the article, micro just means small while major and minor imply significance.

Considering the fragmentation of the political landscape it’s clear that we do need to improve the way we classify parties in the party system. Though it is worth noting that this isn’t an entirely new problem as 50 years have passed since V.O. Key (1964: 254) argued that ‘minor party is not a useful analytical concept, for such parties are diverse’.

So to respond to these issues, I decided the best course of action was to refine how we classify parties in the party system. In particular, I argue that in addition to major and minor parties we should also use a third class of parties, peripheral parties. But in contrast to the way ‘micro party’ has been operationalised, I refined how we deal with these parties by building on the existing scholarship. The party system typology would therefore consist of:

  • Major parties: are parties which regularly can be expected to form government in their own right or which can regularly be expected to become the biggest party out of government.
  • Minor parties: are parties which are not regularly expected to be able to form government on their own, or to be the biggest party out of government. They still, however, play an important role in the party system. They could hold balance of power or veto positions, have coalition potential or, dependent on the electoral system, could shape party competition.
  • Peripheral parties: are parties which have no effect on the party system. They may have parliamentary representation and/or play an important role in the polity. However, they will not have blackmail or coalition potential.

Since publishing the article, I’ve been asked, ‘does it really matter whether we call parties, major, minor or micro?’. Well, yes it does.

Non-specialists, and even other scholars, derive meaning from the words and labels we use. If we cannot clearly explain the difference between these classes of parties we have little hope in clearly explaining changes and even less hope of being able to compare.

Sartori has said that ‘we become prisoners to the words that we use to define things so we had better pick well’. I agree.

Dr Glenn Kefford is a Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University.