Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges

By Richard Gunther; José Ramón Montero et al. | Go to book overview

6 Beyond the Catch-All Party: Approaches to the Study of Parties and Party Organization in Contemporary Democracies

Steven B. Wolinetz

Imagine two different kinds of political party. One is a skeletal organization, intermittently active. Constituency associations exist throughout the country, but most of the time the party outside of Parliament is barely visible. However, this changes dramatically when an election has been called. Then, the party turns into a well-oiled machine, distributing literature, organizing rallies, and getting voters to the polls on election day. This flurry of activity ceases as soon as the last ballot has been counted. The only other time that the party organization is visible is when nominations or the party leadership are at stake. Candidate organizations recruit members to elect delegates to nominating meetings and for a few weeks the party is more like an arena for competition than a cohesive machine. But new members drop away almost as soon as they are enlisted and, except for a small office staff, the party outside of Parliament returns to its dormant state.

The second party operates at several different levels, and possesses not only a national office, but regional and local organizations. Local sections hold regular meetings. There is a detailed party programme, drafted by the central office and parliamentary caucus staff, debated vociferously by party members and adopted by a party congress. The party outside Parliament is active not only during election campaigns but also in between. However, the party organizes only a small percentage of its voters as members and many of these rarely attend meetings. Election campaigns are run by a small team, in and around the leader and the central office, and most members rarely do more than attend an occasional rally or display a party poster in their front windows.

The first party corresponds to one of the two large Canadian national parties (Liberals, and in better times, Progressive Conservatives) and would typically be termed a cadre party, or perhaps an elite-centred party. The second is modelled on the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) but also resembles the Christian Democrats (CDA) or Liberals (VVD). The organizational form is that of a mass party but,

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