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In search of the ‘core electorate’

How should political parties react to an individualistic society?

By Nico LangeJune 24, 2015


Voters are becoming unstable in their voting behaviour, and party identification is in decline. These are only two of the developments that have their roots in a more individualistic society. Parties are confronted with these developments and have to find a way to maintain their attraction for the electorate. This article illustrates the challenges for parties and gives recommendations for action to maintain political stability.

Intro

Society is changing. There is a strong trend towards individualisation. This is mirrored in various developments, and among the most significant of these are changes in voting behaviour and in the electorate itself. This paper illustrates the reasons for these changes and gives advice on possible solutions.

Core voters: A romantic dream?

It is election day. Father, mother, son and daughter are sitting at the breakfast table in their Sunday best. Having finished reading the Sunday papers, they leave together to attend church. Then they walk from the church to the polling station, meeting some neighbours on the way. They chat about newspaper reports and the Saturday night entertainment on television, which each family would have watched together. They generally vote for one of the people’s parties. Then the parents go off to spend Sunday afternoon in trade union meetings, engaging in parish work or in club activities. And the children play together.

This romantic image of an election Sunday is hardly applicable to Europe these days. Many of the voting pensioners, families, single parents, singles, patchwork families and immigrants would have cast their vote by post before election day. Instead of jointly watching the Saturday night family entertainment on TV, they will have viewed different digital cable channels or used a streaming service to watch TV. Many would have surfed the Internet on their tablets at the same time. If they had sought to keep up with the news at all, it would have been from online media and TV, which do not overlap to a great extent. Neighbours hardly know one another, and there are few common points of reference to stimulate conversation. Voluntary work in churches, trade unions and clubs are also increasingly characterised by temporary commitment and project-based involvement.

The transformed electorate

There is a clear understanding of the long-term social developments which have changed voters and therefore voter behaviour so fundamentally over recent decades. In the political party system, this social transformation manifests itself particularly in the loss of long-term party allegiance and its power to influence people’s conduct. As is the case for trade unions and churches, membership is declining, officials are ageing and few new people are joining. Since the democratic transformation, levels of party allegiance have been low in countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It would appear that the dynamic and frequently fragmented party systems of the new EU member states are increasingly setting the trend for development in the old member states.

Against this backdrop it is remarkable that traditional positions have continued to play such a large role in the analyses and discussions of election results and voter behaviour. No interpretational approaches are yet available to gain a true picture of the transformed electorate and of the associated impact on election results and the party landscape. Over a long period, societies throughout Europe have been undergoing noticeable changes which have undermined previously existing certainties with respect to voters, the underlying reasons for voter behaviour, and developments in party systems and in government compositions. Yet despite this, many commentators and analysts are still primarily trying to identify ‘core voters’, ‘camps’ and ‘milieux’.

New parties come and go

Analysts and political planners who still work with conceptions of ideologically motivated core voters disregard the fact that new parties are forming and disappearing again in Europe, that recently formed parties are achieving good election results within weeks, and that even in the rigid British multiparty system there has been a coalition government in place for some time and an increasing number of relevant parties. In many EU member states, people’s parties from the centre–right and centre–left now attract support from less than half the voting public. The European Parliament too acquired broader fringes and a narrower centre at the last European elections. Many political analysts run the risk of working on the basis of an outdated model of European societies, which no longer matches the realities in many respects. This is reflected in the efforts still made by political actors and analysts to pigeonhole on the basis of left–right criteria new phenomena such as the Italian Five Star Movement, the Slovenian Modern Centre Party, the German Pirate Party or the Alternative for Germany. Within the parties too, the classic election Sunday described above, which may have existed in the 1970s, appears to continue to be a generally accepted ideal or at least a romantic notion. During many discussions between party members and party officials all across Europe, the parties are still frequently called upon to make greater efforts to return to the proven concepts of membership parties with a clear ideological orientation.

When reviewing election results, many party representatives mistakenly assume that voters ‘belong’ to them. Seen from that perspective, losses are then frequently interpreted as meaning that the voters ‘belonging’ to the party have merely ‘moved away’ and could be made to ‘return to the fold’ by the party repositioning itself with respect to certain issues. Citizens’ freedom in deciding where to cast their votes is left out of the equation.

In contrast with this viewpoint, the continuation of long-term trends towards the extensive individualisation of society that is apparent within the EU clearly suggests that other forces are at work. Permanent identification with a particular party is either on a continuous decline or non-existent. The picture is characterised by voter indecision, low turnouts and an ever greater willingness on the part of voters to experiment.

Where is the core electorate?

The electorate and the party system are experiencing ever greater changes. During national elections, most European voters cast their votes for a different party from the one they voted for in the previous election. Many voters do not make up their mind about which party to vote for until shortly before polling day. There are large voter shifts, and conditions are favourable to the sudden emergence of new parties. These movements produce great uncertainties and risks in Europe, which are expected to play an even larger role during future elections. Assuming that current trends will continue, it appears likely that, in the future, achieving good election results will depend less on parties making efforts to appeal to who they mistakenly believe are their ‘core’ voters. Instead, it will be important to convince floating voters anew every time. This means that each campaign will be a competition to appeal to all voters.

In individualistic societies that are devoid of ideologies to a large extent, achievements in solving problems as part of government action will be the main means of convincing voters. Modern voters want parties to solve their individual problems, not to explain the world to them. Taking up positions based on ideology in the political debate runs the risk of fragmentation under these circumstances. Due to the demographic development if nothing else, parties will have to make efforts to attract new voters just to stand still in terms of electoral results. Great triumphs and disastrous failures frequently lie close together, given volatile electorates.

The numerous new parties created in Europe over recent years—you have only to look at the rapid rise and fall of the Pirate Party in Germany— demonstrate above all that declining identification with parties, voter indecision and the fading importance of ideological orientation mean that it is becoming ever easier in Europe to found a new party and achieve good results within a short time. Unfortunately, European elections often perform an incubator role, as party allegiance traditionally plays an even smaller role in that context and voter turnout is lower in what are considered second-order elections. In many countries, a volatile electorate encourages the arrival and departure of new political parties, many of which resist traditional classification on the left–right spectrum.

This scenario produces an important realization for political planning. If the rise of new parties is first and foremost a consequence of volatile and increasingly non-aligned, highly heterogeneous electorates, then it is an illusion based on past performance if conventional parties think that they can ‘win back’ voters who have abandoned them for new parties by adopting certain positions on the left–right spectrum. Instead, long-term trends indicate that it is very likely that new parties will continue to appear and disappear rapidly because individualistic, non-ideological voters will be increasingly swinging between parties and be open to experiments in voting for different parties. Against the backdrop of a highly heterogeneous electorate, taking up uncompromising positions with respect to certain issues will be more likely to encourage fragmentation rather than stabilization. Under these circumstances, people’s parties will have to take up integrative rather than confrontational political positions. Given the conditions of an individualistic society, the frequently quoted ‘hard line’ or entrenched ideological stances are only likely to produce fragmentation, fundamentalism and marginalization.

Personalities and problem-solving more important than party ideology However, despite the long-term trend towards the rapidly advancing individualization of society, it appears to be possible for a party to appeal to and represent society in all its diversity. This has been illustrated not least by the election results of the CDU/CSU1 in Germany and the fact that its approval rating has held steady at over 40 % for years (Wolfram 2015a, b). But people’s parties will obviously have to undergo significant changes to achieve this goal. The recipe for success does not appear to be a return to old traditions but the beginning of something new instead. Winning 41.5 % of the vote in an election in 2013 (Wolfram 2015a) is simply a totally different challenge from achieving a similar result back in 1976 (Wolfram 2015b). The CDU/CSU did not win 41.5 % of the vote in the federal elections because it returned to old recipies but because under Angela Merkel the party did something new.

Long-term allegiances and ideological orientation are of less importance to parties in individualistic societies than the impact of personalities and the demonstration of concrete problem-solving capabilities. In the new and still changing circumstances, the latter also suggests that successful action while in government is the most promising way to strengthen the standing of people’s parties.

It appears that, above, all the effects of personalization have the capability to stabilize parties faced with a volatile electorate. Integrative leaders, who can convince the party’s own membership as well as having charisma that impresses the heterogeneous segments of wider society, can help parties to gain greater appeal. The successful parties of the future will not leave the development of these leaders to chance. The early identification of talented individuals, efforts to foster their talents and their development, as well as the assignment of responsibilities to them, are becoming important factors in the survival of the political parties. This idea of purposeful personnel development frequently stands in contradiction to the existing selection and decision-making processes within the parties.

What applies to personnel also applies to political issues; in future, parties will have to increase their efforts to find processes that enable positioning and decision-making, taking into account not only the party’s homogenous membership but also the increasingly heterogeneous society. Modern parties will likely be characterized by efforts to reach out to non-members, from regular targeted surveys to co-decision rights. The reality of political parties will also increasingly involve open lists, preliminary elections, public candidate hearings and open forums on specific issues.

Problem-solving capabilities can only be demonstrated when the parties are capable of picking up on the problems that are relevant to their very diverse voters and devising approaches to solve those problems. If the people’s parties in particular want to avoid being left behind by social changes, they must be capable of extending their reach into all segments of an individualistic society. This is where they encounter a serious problem. While society is changing at an ever faster pace, the rate of change at the organisational level of the political parties has lagged behind. This applies similarly to churches, trade unions and other major organisations. To date, the parties in Europe have not changed sufficiently to reflect phenomena such as the rapid changes in working practices, the increasing digitisation of everyday activities and changed expectations with respect to social engagement. The injection of new blood into the membership and the ranks of party officials is not keeping pace with social change. At the same time, the forms of organisation and participation of political parties in Europe, which have not changed in decades in many cases, have not allowed the parties to tailor their offering to members with very different demands, different time budgets, different interests in issues, and different qualifications and competences. There is still generally one participation model for all.

Conclusion

The successful parties of the future will have to offer their members different membership models. These could range from passive membership and classic participation in the local association to purely issue-based involvement and virtual association structures to temporary involvement in individual projects. Purposeful mentoring for new party members, new member officers in the parties, and trial and premium memberships will soon be a matter of course. Established European parties would be well advised to recognise the antiparty parties of the populists, the unpopularity of political parties and the protest behaviour of many voters as indications that the accelerating social change makes it necessary for them to contemplate the consequences for their internal forms of organisation and participation. This places the parties in a paradoxical situation. They claim to be involved in shaping social change, but the parties are themselves driven by social changes that they can neither steer nor undo.

The ability of political parties in Europe, and particularly the people’s parties, to achieve substantial success will depend to a very large extent on their capability to keep adapting to social developments. The parties’ flexibility in issues, organisation and participation is increasingly turning into a decisive success factor for political stability.

References


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