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Political Parties Lose Ground Steadily

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal

Political parties are losing ground due to fundamental shifts occurring across most industrialized societies. (Editors Note: This was written in the aftermath of the 2000 Federal election. Given the continuing drop in voter participation evidenced by 2004 election results, the observations & conclusions seem even more apt.)

There is growing evidence to suggest Canadians are less interested in voting and less attached to political parties.

  • 40 years ago, turnout for federal elections was in the 79% range; 30 years ago in the 75% range. Turnout for the 1993 election was 69.6%, 67% in 1997 and 62.8% of registered voters in this most recent election.
  • These numbers actually overstate the number of voters who show up. Many Canadians don’t bother to register. If we counted voting age adults as opposed to registered voters, only 53%-55% of potential voters bothered to cast a ballot this past federal election.
  • Public cynicism has been on the rise for decades. Over 80% of Canadians consistently state they believe party politicians soon lose touch with the people who elected them.
  • In a series of surveys between 1967 and 1997, Canadians were asked how they felt about political parties on a scale of one to 10. Parties rating dropped over time from an average of six to four – a failing grade.
  • Political parties have more trouble attracting volunteers to canvas, get out the vote and scrutinize at polls.
  • For individuals with exceptional success in other walks of life, a political life holds much less appeal than it once did. Despite a clear public expectation they would win the election; the Liberals had difficulty attracting ‘star’ candidates.

If Canadians are unhappy with their political parties, we might expect replacing them with new parties would lead to a rise in public satisfaction. In fact, Canadians have done that! Two new parties, the Reform/Alliance and the Bloc have gained a significant presence in Parliament over the last three elections. But - this has had no discernable impact on voter turnout and levels of public cynicism.

So what’s going on? Are our political parties really that bad?

We don’t think so. And if they are, they have lots of company. A recent survey of 19 industrialized countries prepared by the UK Think Tank, Demos showed party identification falling among 17 countries between the 1960s and 1990s. Strong attachment to parties fell across the board. Party membership in all European countries except Germany is now lower than in the 1960s.

Overall, since the 1950’s voter turnout has declined by an average of 10% in 18 of the 20 most industrialized countries. Countries as diverse as Switzerland, New Zealand, France, Austria, the US, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Italy – have all experienced a decline in voter turn-out greater than or comparable to Canada.

Clearly, political parties are losing ground due to fundamental shifts occurring across most industrialized societies. Here are common explanations offered in Canada and elsewhere.

  • Party identification is down among the young, well educated and politically sophisticated. The general level of education has risen in the last 30 or more years and we are less deferential to authority.
  • Women used to be the backbone of many local party associations but more women work.
  • The decline of class-based politics means parties of the left & right now offer the same policies once elected. So, why express a preference?
  • In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, government was given the reins of society. The result was inflation, bloated programs and astronomical debt levels. Our faith in Government has never fully recovered.
  • As government’s role has expanded into most areas of society, political parties have offered policies to mirror government’s reach. Most of us have a far more eclectic range of views than the parties that seek to represent us. We have trouble buying into all of a party’s positions.
  • In a gobalized economy, government’s role is less important than the marketplace.
  • TV-centric, personality-driven politics focuses the attention on the leader and parties appear less important.
  • Elections used to be a competition between parties promising big spending programs. Now, elections do not insert much money in our pockets or our region. If there is nothing in it for us, why show up to work for a party or vote?
  • Media has gone from placing public figures on pedestals to putting them under the microscope. Elections are portrayed as a personality-driven horse races; campaigns presented as war rooms, gaffes, positioning, photo-ops, spin and ads. Political parties themselves are more skilled at managing the media and orchestrating and selling their campaigns - but at a cost of sincerity and authenticity. Predictably, voters are more disengaged. Flip the channel!

So what are the consequences of this decline in party loyalty and voter turnout?

  • Greater political volatility. This is not exactly news in Canada. Since the Tories were reduced from a majority government to two seats in 1993, Canada has been the international poster child for political volatility. Party loyalty is conditional. Vote splitting and wide swings are far more likely. (Against, this backdrop, the Liberals ‘three-peat’ stands as an exceptional achievement.)
  • Brokerage politics give ways to value politics. Brokerage seeks win-win. Value politics is zero-sum and, by its nature, more divisive. In this recent election, all parties were running straight value campaigns – with the winner being the most successful in using a divide and conquer strategy.
  • With fewer people showing up to vote, those that do are more important and can expect to be catered to. Election results can be skewed, since small shifts can lead to big results, (i.e., Florida).
  • With less commitment to voting, turning people off your opponent can be just as viable a strategy as turning people on to your campaign.
  • When a party can win a decisive majority with fully 2/3rds of the electorate voting for someone else or not bothering to vote, the nature of a “mandate” is somewhat nebulous. You can claim the people’s support but you have to tread carefully.
  • Since the poor and young are less likely to vote, parties of the traditional left who champion their interests have a harder road to hoe.
  • Money and technology increasingly substitute for a lack of volunteers, e.g., canvassers give way to phone banks. An ability to raise larger sums of money is what makes parties competitive. Tightly targeting & motivating voters becomes a necessity.
  • The Internet will become more important because of its ability to filter interests and drive one-to-one sales messages.
  • Money & technology can never fully compensate for committed volunteers. The parties, with money & technology, who also maintain, engage and motivate committed party workers, have a real edge. Savvy politicians and parties will increasingly apply customer relationship technologies and methodologies to maintain and effectively organize a committed cadre of party workers and reach out to those voters that do remain loyal to a party. Again, the Internet will be a critical medium for these programs.
  • Political parties are in the dark ages in terms of human resurce development. They are recruiting candidates for elected office from a smaller talent pool of known apparatchiks. They face the problem of being seen to represent their own professional group and not society as a whole. They have to look for new ways to engage potential recruits from their own organization and corporations, NGOs, and interest groups in order to draw them into the fold.
  • If parties are less important and voters less loyal, party discipline is harder to maintain. MPs will be less amenable to being cogs in the machine. They will want to be more politically independent & entrepreneurial. The Internet becomes an ideal platform for this type of entrepreneurship.
  • We will hear a lot about solutions to address the voter turnout issue – Internet voting, proportional representation, greater power for MPs. These ideas are worth examining on their own merits but it is not obvious that they will reverse the trend in any significant way. (Recently, the Chief Electoral Officer was musing that mandatory voting legislation may be necessary. We are not convinced that the government would assess mandatory voting legislation as a high priority.)
  • Low voter turnout and the decline in political party loyalty are not indications of public disinterest in political action. But for a growing numbers of political engaged citizens, parties and elections are an irrelevant diversion. Their concentration will be on moving the political agenda between elections by public demonstrations, effective lobbying, engaging public opinion, using the courts, and/or targeting corporate behavior.
  • The confluence of the explosion in NGO activities and the organizing capabilities of the Internet mean that single issue groups can ‘converge’ and ‘cluster’ and pick common targets to ‘swarm’. These groups start to take on some of the characteristics traditionally associated with political parties.
  • Traditional political parties offer a department store model of lowest common denominator issue aggregation. Many politically active consumers now want to mix and match their political issue brands without the intermediation of a party.
  • Governments in Canada and elsewhere will need to find the systems and the resources to adequately respond to the pressures of Internet-driven campaigns and public communications over the Internet. Involving democratically elected representatives in this process will be a key democratic, technological and resource challenge.  

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