Party System Change in Legislatures Worldwide: Moving Outside the Electoral Arena

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However, there are costs to party membership, with one of the most important being that a politician is not free to make an independent choice on most policy issues.

Party System Change In Legislatures Worldwide Moving Outside The Electoral Arena

Joining a political party implies a voluntary contract to support that party and its views. In some parties, the contract is formalised through a signed pledge in which politicians promise to uphold the party's aims and constitution. The effectiveness of such pledges will be discussed below. To an extent, the contract with the party is a two-way obligation: as the politician agrees to support the party, so the party agrees to remain true to its manifesto-unless it can justify its deviations.

It is the alleged breach of the party's side of this contract that many party jumpers use to vindicate their decisions to defect. That is, a common explanation for leaving the party is that the politician's principles remain unchanged and aligned with the voters' will whereas the party has abandoned core principles and is heading in a different direction. This will be discussed further below. Politicians do have the option of going against the party while remaining within its ranks.


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On some policy issues, parties allow a free conscience vote in which their members do not have to adhere to the party's preference-or the party may have no preference-but may vote according to their own beliefs. However, consistently voting against one's party carries the risk of punishment, which may include reduced access to party resources, less influence on the party's legislative agenda or-in the worst case-expulsion from the party.

Party System Change In Legislatures Worldwide: Moving Outside The Electoral Arena

Parties cannot achieve their goals if politicians continually choose to pursue their own individual agendas. A constant stream of floor-crossings undermines the ability of party leaders to maintain coherent policy platforms and may damage the party's reputation with voters, who may withdraw their support from a fractious and divided party. As political scientist Timothy Nokken observes, 'collective benefits are only enjoyed if members do not defect, if the party maintains cohesion'. Academics Shaun Bowler, David Farrell and Richard Katz stress the importance of party cohesion to parliamentary systems, arguing that:.

Cohesion and discipline matter in the daily running of parliaments. The maintenance of a cohesive voting bloc inside a legislative body is a crucially important feature of parliamentary life. Without the existence of a readily identifiable bloc of governing politicians, the accountability of the executive to both legislature and voters falls flat. It can be seen, then, as a necessary condition for the existence of responsible party government.

A difficulty for parties in maintaining cohesion is that parties are comprised of individuals, each of whom is capable of independent action and each of whom has her own set of priorities that may differ from that of the party. One way that parties maintain cohesion is through party discipline or, in colloquial parlance, ensuring that its members 'toe the party line'.

Some methods of discipline that parties have at their disposal are obvious.

Parties in parliamentary systems, for example, have 'whips' or officers responsible for both keeping members informed of the party line on various issues and issuing any necessary directives or whips for how the party wants members to vote on specific issues on the floor of the House. Less obvious means of discipline at a party's disposal include the ability to offer or withhold desirable promotions and positions from recalcitrant members.

Thus, 'loyal MPs may be promoted and disloyal MPs demoted'. Some of the ultimate sanctions at a party's disposal include withdrawing its support for the politician in the pre-selection for the seat at the next election or expelling the member from the party, both of which may potentially end a politician's political career. These forms of discipline mean that, even in systems where discipline is characterised as 'weak', such as that of the United States, because there are few overt sanctions for those going against the party, politicians cannot afford to defy the party on every vote.

This casts doubt on the claim that defections are less likely in countries with weak party discipline because such weakness allows politicians to vote however they please, meaning that a politician has no reason to defect. Even where party discipline is 'weak' and politicians have 'relatively free rein to cast In addition to these 'negative' reasons for conforming to party discipline, there are several 'positive' ones, most notably those discussed above in the section on benefits of party membership. Political scientists Michael Laver and Kenneth Shepsle also argue that politicians submit to party discipline because it creates 'more powerful bargaining units' that are able to achieve policy goals that are close to the 'ideal points' of those submitting to the discipline.

Last, but not least, politicians who owe their seats in parliament to their position on a party's list may feel a particular obligation to adhere to the line of the party that put them in power. Generally, politicians gain significant benefits from party membership in terms of brand recognition, administrative and financial support and so on. However, on the cost side, the voluntary contract that binds politicians to a party also obliges them to support that party.

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They may also be bound by a pledge, owe their seat to their position on a party's list, or face disciplinary action up to and including loss of endorsement for their electorate if they fail to obey the party's rules and decisions. Thus, the role of the party in democratic systems, the benefits of party membership and the costs of disobedience are among the reasons why politicians choose to stay aligned to their parties rather than jump overboard from the party ship.

Given the reasons discussed in the previous section for why politicians choose to remain with their parties, how can we account for those who choose to defect? According to a common understanding of representative democracy, politicians are responsible to those who elect them, either the people of a particular constituency or the people in general if the politician's seat has been allocated from a party list.

However, as flagged earlier, another notion comes from Edmund Burke, who claimed that MPs were responsible to their consciences rather than voters.

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In an oft-cited speech to the electors of Bristol in , he said that while voters' wishes and opinions should have 'great weight' with an MP:. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

In this view, politicians do not always have to vote as the electorate desires. Yet both of these notions-responsibility to voters and responsibility to conscience-may conflict with that of politicians owing their loyalty to their parties. Generally, politicians are able to keep the demands of their voters, their party and their consciences in balance. However, they may feel they have no option but to defect if one of these competing demands comes to outweigh the others. It may also be that simply dissenting or abstaining on a vote 'would not indicate the full measure of their disenchantment'.

Academics Timothy Nokken and Keith Poole note that studies of party defections over a 'wide swath' of American history have found that party switching usually coincides with important political events, such as military conflict or changes in partisan control of legislatures or key economic indicators. In Australia, the periods with the largest number of defections support the contention that most party jumping coincides with important political events. For example, large numbers defected in and over policies to deal with the Depression.

Looking at more recent party switching in the United States, Nokken and Poole observe that defections over the past two decades are associated more with ideologically cross-pressured members or those members whose views do not sit obviously on one side of the left-right political spectrum and who, therefore, may feel at home in more than one party.

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The increase in defections for this reason fits with the idea that defections are less likely in highly polarised systems; that is, those systems in which parties have distinctly different ideological views that manifest in opposing views on policy issues. However, today's major parties are more likely to appear towards the centre of the left-right ideological spectrum, which itself has become a less useful descriptive tool in a complicated world in which party views no longer fit so neatly into a single position on the left-right scale. As parties move to 'centre' positions, and even the same position on some issues, then there is an overlap that may lead to those in a 'right' faction of a 'centre-left' party jumping to the 'left' faction of a 'centre-right' party and vice versa.

The jumps are justified with the claim that the new party offers a better match with the views of the politicians and their constituents. This helps to explain Nokken and Poole's observation on recent defections in the United States, where politicians are more likely to switch to another party than to sit as independents. The following sub-sections discuss some of the most common reasons that politicians advance to justify their defections.

Two points must be made with regard to these reasons:. Deserting the Deviating Ship. A common explanation for leaving a party is that the party has changed while the defecting politician has not. The claim here is usually that the defector is still 'true' to the party's principles whereas the party has either abandoned those principles or twisted them beyond recognition.

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Much of the justification that Meg Lees offered for her defection from the Australian Democrats in July was based on the claim that the party had shifted and her principles had not changed:. My very strong argument is that I haven't moved anyway as far as my philosophy, my principles are concerned It's the party that has shifted. Senator Shayne Murphy used similar arguments when he resigned from the Australian Labor Party in October to sit as an independent.

He responded to demands that he resign his seat with the following statement:. I remain very committed to the Labor ideals I took up years ago. Indeed, I believe I am more committed to those ideals than many of my former Labor colleagues. Further afield, in the United States, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords resigned from the Republican Party in May over differences on education spending, taxes and environment issues, he noted that he was increasingly finding himself in disagreement with the party on whose ticket he was first elected to Congress in Justifying his decision to jump from the Republicans to sit as an independent aligned with the Democrats, he said:.

Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them. I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. In a similar vein, in the United Kingdom, MP Shaun Woodward, who quit the Conservative Party in December to join Labour, argued that he had not 'ratted' on his party; rather, the party had 'ratted' on him:.

I can no longer support the increasingly right-wing policies of the Conservative Party My Party has left me They have left me and they, therefore, have left the people of Witney [Woodward's constituency], too. When politicians believe that their parties are deviating from agreed core principles such that they find they can no longer vote along party lines, then they may feel they have no option other than to quit their parties. However, they retain their seats because they believe that they still represent the principles that attracted the support of voters.


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  4. Another explanation for party jumping is that the politician is obeying the will of the voters, who either no longer have faith in the party or have changed their political viewpoint. For example, in the United States, Jeffords's defection from the Republicans was seen to reflect that Vermont had changed in the past forty years 'from one of the nation's most reliably Republican states into one of the most strongly Democratic'.

    A similar argument can be made in Australia to account for Bob Katter's decision to quit the National Party in July to sit as an independent.

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    Party System Change In Legislatures Worldwide: Moving Outside The Electoral Arena

    Katter claimed that the party's policies were crippling people in his constituency and:. The question is not why I'm leaving but how could I possibly stay?


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    I'm doing it because I can't do the right thing by the people I represent otherwise. That is, Katter believed the party's policies were no longer of benefit to Katter's rural Queensland constituents. Country residents themselves argued that the party had 'become city orientated and forgotten the country'. When politicians consider that their parties no longer reflect the interests of their local constituents, then they may feel that they have no option but to quit their parties.

    Again, they retain the seats because they believe that this is what the voters want. Falling somewhat between the two previous justifications for why politicians choose to jump from the party ship is another explanation: that a politician has exercised her or his judgment and decided that it is in the voters' best interests for the politician to defect. This justification clearly reflects Burke's position, as outlined above, that representatives must use their own critical faculties when assessing policy options, taking into account party and electorate views but ultimately making what they believe is the best decision for voters and 'the country'.

    There are many examples of politicians using this reasoning to justify quitting their parties. Jeffords claimed in May that he had no other option than to quit the Republicans, even though it would give control of the Senate to the Democrats: 'I knew it was my responsibility to do what I truly believed was in the best interest of our country'.