University 18 Yrs + | Parties and Voting
The Catch-All Party
Even as the mass membership party was at the peak of its membership, the American political scientist Otto Kirchheimer perceived a change in the nature of parties because of changes in society and the media (‘The Transformation of Western European Party Systems’ in Joseph LaPalombara and Myron Weiner, Political Parties and Political Development, 1966)
Kirchheimer identified key changes affecting parties:-
- Social change was blurring the distinctions between social groups. Economic growth had led to social mobility and greater prosperity for the working class and a more secular society decreased the importance of religion in everyday life, while urban growth and rural decline brought shifts in the population and so the social bases of mass parties was weakened.
- Governments of the centre left and centre right managed the economy on Keynesian lines and developed a Welfare State. Voters’ judgements of how well a party would manage these policies became more important than ideology or how well they looked after their traditional supporters. In a more individualistic society voters behaved more like consumers.
- Appearances on television and an ability to manipulate media stories becomes increasingly the way in which parties communicated with the voters, rather than through the membership, and the image of party leaders on television becomes a more important part of the decision voters take.
These changes, according to Kirchheimer, had produced a new type of party, the ‘catch-all party’. Party leaders had taken more control of the party and played down their traditional ideologies in order to appeal to voters, in groups that had not previously supported them, on the basis of economic competence and the quality of the leader. Leaders, supported by experts in opinion polls and media management, increasingly decided policies and what the messages used to persuade the voters would be, creating what has been called the electoral-professional party. Kirchheimer deplored the changes in left parties which he thought would increasingly be identified with the state, rather than maintaining an ideological criticism of the state, and would ignore its poorer working class supporters in favour of the swing voters it needed to persuade to win elections.
The Catch-All Party in Britain
Britain in the 1950s and 1960s saw a rapid increase in prosperity and a growth in consumer spending and home ownership. Conservative and Labour Governments both applied Keynesian economic management and expanded the Welfare State. Harold Macmillan, as Conservative Prime Minister in the 1959 election, based a good deal of his appeal on economic prosperity, while Harold Wilson, as Labour leader, developed the themes of economic modernisation and the use of technology for the 1964 election.
The 1959 general election was the first in which there was any significant TV coverage of the campaign and by now 70% of the population had a television. Harold Wilson was the first Prime Minister to be effective on television and the political interview became an important part of political debate in the 1960s. The daily party press conference designed to set the news agenda became established. Despite these changes, it is difficult to say that there were major developments in party structure.
The Conservative Party had always combined considerable autonomy for constituency parties in the selection of MPs and local activities with deference to the party leader in the choice of policies and overall strategy; Labour leaders from Gaitskell in the1950s to Kinnock in the 1980s constantly had problems with party management and controlling the rival power centres of the Parliamentary Party, the National Executive and the Trade Unions.
The Liberal Party had a very decentralised and democratic structure even though Grimond, Thorpe and Steel were charismatic leaders. Certainly the public meeting went into decline as television coverage of the campaign increased and 1983 was the last general election in which the major public meeting was used, mainly because its leader, Michael Foot, had been such a good platform speaker.
Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party seemed to contradict the catch-all thesis as she developed radical policies which divided public opinion, although this was by no means apparent in the 1979 election, though the weakness of the Labour Party in the early 1980s, its shift to the left, and the appeal of the breakaway Social Democrat Party took centrist voters away from it.
The creation of New Labour by Tony Blair, in his speech in 1994, was a conscious attempt to rebrand the party and it became more clearly a catch-all party in the Kirchheimer sense. Peter Mandelson as Director Communications, Alistair Campbell as the party’s press secretary and Philip Gould as policy adviser ensured Labour was able to develop a centrist appeal and won the support of middle class groups in 1997 and 2001.This was accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the significance of the National Executive and the Party Conference and a distancing of the Party from the trade unions so that policy making became more concentrated at the centre.
The Labour Party, under Blair, set the new model for capturing the centre ground something that the Labour Party and in particular the Conservative Party have sought since 2009/2010. Successive leaders, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron have been criticised for drifting too far to the left and too far to the right. We are yet to see where Prime Minister Theresa May will 'drift' but indications from her first speech as PM are very much centre ground.