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How UK Political Parties have Adapted to Change – 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.