What is an electoral professional party?
The decline in membership of political parties was accompanied by other changes that have led political scientists to talk about a transition to parties as an electoral professional machine which have two main characteristics:-
- Parties have become centred around the Leader and his or her key advisers in the Leader’s Office who manage the media and increasingly decide policy. The advent of the 24 hour news cycle means that the relationship with the media has to be constantly managed. Policy announcements are often designed to counter other parties and provide media stories rather than as a result of looking for long term solutions to social and economic problems. The Leader takes control of the election manifesto. Party conferences are managed as media events rather than as a forum for discussion within the party.
- Campaigning becomes based on testing policies with focus groups and opinion polling and the Leader’s office uses this data to refine what is said to voters through the media. Traditional methods of campaigning are seen as less important. The public meeting died out after the 1983 general election and the election meetings that do happen are largely organised to include party members and for media consumption. Local campaigning was seen as more a way of keeping members busy than having a significant effect with the belief that there was a uniform national swing that decided elections, so that local activity and the popularity of the MP not worth more than a 1000 votes at most. Full-time officials in the national and regional party offices and volunteers for the election period take over the important campaigning by sending targeted letters to key swing voters in a marginal seats and follow this up with telephone canvassing.
Is the electoral professional party here to stay?
The increasing disillusion of voters with the professional style of politics may mean that its methods are becoming less effective. Some voters turned to UKIP and the Greens with their different styles of politics and the contenders for the Labour leadership have talked about the need for a more open politics, that does not depend on soundbites from the leaders, and which organises from the grassroots up.
On the other hand, the Conservatives’ main strategy in the 2015 general election was of key messages targeted at a few swing voters in key marginal constituencies and this won the election. Under the first past the post voting system and with low turnouts, the two main parties only need to get just over25% of the electorate to support them to win a majority in Parliament. The Conservative majority was based on winning over a few hundred voters in 12 constituencies. Controlling things from the centre is easier for the Leader and the Leader’s advisers than running a grassroots campaign in the country and they see party members as having views that are much more left-wing or right-wing than the electorate.