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Party ReformThe Causes, Challenges, and Consequences of Organizational Change$

Anika Gauja

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198717164

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198717164.001.0001

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(p.1) 1 Introduction
Party Reform

Anika Gauja

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the main themes of the book. It argues that although scholars have been concerned with the topic of party change for some time, it has taken on a particular relevance in the modern context with widespread trends of membership decline and an associated push to democratize party organizations. The chapter discusses how we can understand party change in this climate of membership decline and democratization. It focuses on the four main themes of the book, which are the introduction of primaries, the changing meaning of party membership, issues-based online policy development, and finally it discusses community-organizing campaigns.

Keywords:   political parties, reform, membership decline, comparative analysis, democratization, party conferences, participation, representation

Taking the podium for his first public address as the newly elected National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, parliamentarian Mark Butler called upon delegates to the 2015 National Conference to finally ‘grasp the nettle’, and to undertake ‘real party reform’. Dismissing the view that reform was simply an exercise in navel gazing and a ‘distraction against winning elections’, Butler argued that changes to the party organization were needed to ‘repay the hard work of party members with real trust and more power’, and that it was ‘about time Conference listened to the clamour’ (Butler 2015). As the television cameras closed in on the party leader and his deputy sitting in the front row, the auditorium filled with applause as conference delegates and observers welcomed the call to arms.

Two years earlier, and half a world away, Ray Collins stood addressing the 2013 UK Labour Party conference in Brighton to put the case for internal party reform. Selling a reform package that would fundamentally alter the relationship between the party and its trade union affiliates, Collins—a former general secretary of the party and a life peer—passionately argued the ‘need to change the party so that we are in a better position to change the country’. While Collins acknowledged that some in the party were ‘nervous about change’, he suggested that they should not be afraid of it, and that ‘broadening and deepening the party’s relationship with ordinary people across the country’ was the primary means of achieving it (Collins 2013a). Delegates politely applauded when Collins completed his speech, but it was the unionist who spoke next, pleading that ‘years of history should not be thrown away for an electoral gimmick’, who received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Regular observers of political party conferences would be familiar with debates of this kind. Conferences, as the highest formal decision-making bodies of many political parties, are the natural arenas for internal reform debates. Nevertheless, to describe these two reform initiatives as purely internal matters would be to underplay the public quality of the announcements and the substantial, outward-facing campaigns that accompanied them. For example, Butler’s call for reform within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was accompanied by an opinion piece in the national Australian newspaper, and a petition from more than 1,000 party members.1 Collins’ trade union reform campaign began with a public address by former party (p.2) leader Ed Miliband at the St Bride Foundation in London, in which he proclaimed ‘I want to build a better Labour Party’, and argued that: ‘We will do so by shaping a Party appropriate for the twenty-first century, not the twentieth century in which we were founded. Understanding we live in a world where individuals rightly demand a voice. Where parties need to reach out far beyond their membership’ (Miliband 2013). In the months that followed, the highly stylized interim and final Collins Review reports were covered in major British press outlets, including the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent newspapers.2 The campaign ended at a specially convened conference of the Labour Party one year later, in which delegates voted overwhelmingly to approve the reforms that removed the electoral college for the selection of the Labour leader and replaced it with a one-member, one-vote system—which included registered supporters and union affiliates. In September 2015, under these new rules and amidst much controversy and allegations of ‘entryism’ (supporters registering simply to sway the contest), Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the new leader of the UK Labour Party.

Understanding Party Change in a Climate of Membership Decline and Democratization

How political parties, as organizations, change over time is certainly not a new topic of academic inquiry. On the contrary, it has concerned party scholars working across many different subfields of political science (for example, comparative politics, political institutions, political and organizational sociology) for more than a century. In one of the earliest and most well-known examples of work on the causes and consequences of party organizational change, Robert Michels argued that the development of organizational complexity necessarily resulted in the creation of hierarchy (1915). Models of party organization such as the mass, catch-all, electoral professional and cartel party types, which have had a major impact on the trajectory of comparative party research (Duverger 1954; Kirchheimer 1966; Panebianco 1988; Katz and Mair 1995, 2009), also originated from a concern with organizational change and adaptation.

While Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ still resonates today, the debate concerning party change has broadened significantly over the years. Real-world developments such as technological advances and the changing nature of social relations have been crucially important in driving the need for theoretical and explanatory advances. In 1997, the organizers of a workshop at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Joint Sessions (p.3) and a resulting special issue of the journal, Party Politics, cited the fact that ‘after a few decades observing some parties “decline” and then “renew”, it was perhaps natural that more attention would be focused on how they got from there to here’ (Harmel and Svasand 1997: 291). The key questions these scholars identified as important in this research agenda were: What roles do internal and environmental factors play in party change? How likely is change to occur (that is, is it inevitable, probable, or random)? Is it reactive or proactive? Is change gradual or abrupt? And who are the relevant actors in the process of party change? While more researchers are addressing these questions, and providing more and more answers, as Chapter 2 will argue, the scholarship suffers from a lack of integration of different perspectives and methods.

Almost two decades on from the publication of the special issue of Party Politics, the context within which organizational change is experienced (or practised) by parties and studied by scholars has itself altered quite significantly. Perhaps the greatest concern that overshadows studies of party organization today is the collapse of formal party membership. For parties such as the German Social Democrats, the halving of membership since the 1990s has created what has been described as ‘beyond catastrophic circumstances’, which mean that ‘party reform is today more urgent than ever’ (Totz 2011; see also Spier and Klein 2015: 89–92). The decline in party membership has been well documented in previous research (Scarrow 2015; van Haute and Gauja 2015; van Biezen et al. 2012; Whiteley 2011; Scarrow and Gezgor 2010), but it impacts upon how we might think about party organizational change in a number of important ways.

The first is the sheer pervasiveness of membership decline, which has been shown to affect parties both across democracies and across party families. Rather than being a specific ‘problem’ faced by only some parties, it is now part of a broader fight for institutional survival.3 This highlights not only the salience of the trend, but also the complexity of the problem as encompassing social changes that transcend states and parties with different ideological standpoints and organizational histories. As the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany noted when it embarked on its organizational reform programme in 2009, new political ‘citizens have become more self-assured; they no longer wish to simply be “plugged” into an organization. They are demanding opportunities for political participation’ (SPD 2011: 1).

Another aspect of this pervasiveness is the extent to which membership decline impacts upon key party functions. Members have traditionally been seen as a committed group of activists that promulgate a party ideology, a source of outreach and policy innovation and as the provider of financial and campaigning resources (Scarrow 1996: 42–6; Ware 1996: 63–4). Insofar as dwindling party memberships affect the performance of parties’ participatory and representative functions, they also raise broader questions about the (p.4) continued capacity of parties to enhance the quality of democracy (see, for example, van Biezen 2014: 178). Perhaps the most important role that party members have played is in creating a sense of democratic legitimacy for a political party. Although many are increasingly questioning the ‘golden age’ of the mass party and now regard it as a historical episode (see, for example, van Biezen and Poguntke 2014: 205), it still carries significant weight as a normative model of how political parties should be organized—evident in the common legal requirement that political parties must be established as membership organizations (Gauja 2015a).

The phenomenon of ‘party decline’ is, however, cyclical. Whilst membership crises might seem acute at the time of writing, Harmel and Janda (1994: 260) note that much of the literature on the decline of party systems in the 1980s was stimulated by the ‘real or perceived “decline” of political parties in industrialized societies’ and the expectation that other political organizations, such as interest groups, might one day replace them.4 If we accept that fears of party decline come and then go, then come again, the timing of this book is predictable. However, the focus is not so much on whether political parties are in decline—it is on how they perceive this tenuous position, and how this, in turn, influences what they do about it.

As a book dedicated to the topic of what motivates political parties to undertake organizational reforms, and how they go about this process, the arguments developed within speak to the debate on party decline in several ways. It is important to note at the outset that the book does not present a longitudinal analysis stretching back decades, but rather a more contemporary examination. The last ten years of party organizational reform in a handful of established democracies is analysed: Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand. Readers will therefore need to form their own judgements on how similar reform debates of the present day are to those undertaken in the past, and whether the events and motivations described here resonate in their own party systems. The primary concern of the research is in establishing how parties’ perceptions of the social trends in which they operate shape reform agendas, and how this relates to competitive demands and pressures from within the party for organizational change. A fundamental question that this book grapples with is whether, in a climate of membership decline, party reforms are designed to reinvigorate the normative ideal of the mass party model of representation, or whether the breakdown of membership (coupled with social change) has created a climate conducive to reforms that might fundamentally alter the way in which parties connect citizens and the state. The chapters that follow focus particularly on four key reform initiatives that begin to blur the traditional boundaries of party: the introduction of primaries, the changing meaning of party membership, and issues-based online policy development and community organizing campaigns.

(p.5) In addition to the substance of change, the research is equally concerned with the process of change. As this book will demonstrate, declining party memberships have had a fundamental effect on the way in which political parties ‘sell’ organizational reform: as part of a broader rhetoric of democratization, of re-engagement, and of modernization delivered to diverse audiences—both internal and external to the party. The way in which Ray Collins spoke of the UK Labour Party as needing to deepen and broaden its relationship with ‘ordinary people’ provides a nice example of this type of rhetoric. Reform is therefore conceptualized not only as organizational change, but also an opportunity for public engagement and rebranding. Chapter 2 further articulates the concept of ‘party reform’ in the context of the existing scholarship on party organizational change, outlining the analytical framework and research design that forms the basis of the book.


(1.) Mark Butler, ‘ALP national conference: Reform should give more say’, Australian, 23 July 2015; see also, Michelle Grattan, ‘Butler will press for ALP reform’, Conversation, 21 July 2015.

(2.) Building a One Nation Labour Party Interim Report (released September 2013) and Building a One Nation Labour Party: The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform (released February 2014). Press coverage included Patrick Wintour, ‘Ed Miliband to put Labour union reform to vote at special conference’, Guardian, 23 July 2013; Andrew Grice, ‘Miliband plans to cut off the hand that fed him with ambitious plan to rob trade unions of their one-third share of Labour leadership vote’, Independent, 17 January 2014; and Christopher Hope, ‘Labour funding reforms will not “damage” party’s links with unions, says Lord Collins’, Telegraph, 19 September 2013.

(3.) However, with the expanding availability of party (rather than aggregate national level) membership figures over time, new research is suggesting that the effects of membership decline are not even across all parties, with Green parties—for example—actually increasing their memberships (Paulis et al. 2015).

(4.) See, for example, Lawson and Merkl (1988). However, for a more critical view see Reiter (1989).