10 May 1995 - 12 May 1995

The Role, Function and Regulation of Political Parties

Chair: Mr John E Rielly

Joint conference with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations

Ditchley renewed its fruitful co-operation with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in handsome surroundings west of the city, generously provided by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation. Given Chicago’s lively political history, the future of parties was perhaps a notably apt theme.

Few of us were in any doubt of the continuing key role of the concept of parties in a healthy democracy. Their precise significance varied with the particular constitutional structure within which they operated - in France, for example, they were often at present more the vehicles for individual leaders than the focus of philosophies - and we touched briefly on the point, though we did not elaborate it, that they mattered more acutely in Parliamentary than in Presidential (or strong-Mayoral) systems. Every system however needed mechanisms for aggregating particular interests into a capacity for coherent government across the spectrum of responsibility for action; without these, the public arena lacked dependable means for shaping trade-offs between interests (“organising disappointment”, as one phrase had it) and defining a framework for the voter’s choice at elections. Parties fostered debate on current issues, recruited talent into public life, chose candidates for office, promoted voting, formulated policies, and organised collective action in the elected fora.

Despite these needed roles, however, the operation of parties was, in many democratic countries, at a relatively low ebb. The picture was by no means uniform, but in the United States - and not only there - parties were struggling to maintain active-member participation (and avoid the risk of minority hijacking which low participation posed) and to keep public respect; in the US, indeed, party identification or endorsement was sometimes avoided by candidates as a downright handicap.

We reviewed a number of possible explanations for trends like these. The changing structure and behaviour of the media ranked high on almost everyone’s list, on several counts. The pervasiveness and increasing diversity of the multi-media world gave the public access to copious and instant information in ways that fragmented audiences and reduced the leverage of party structures. Parties moreover faced difficult problems of organising timely response, especially amid the tendency of media increasingly driven by “business” rather than public-service or paternalist concerns to handle political material as low-cost high- margin entertainment, with a premium on the short sound-bite which fostered exaggeration, over-simplification and hostile negativism at the expense of serious in-depth coverage. The cumulative effects, it was suggested, in heightening cynicism about the political process as a whole and about parties within it were at their most severe in environments like the US where the concept of public control of broadcasting for political “balance” was alien; but they were evident in some measure even where that concept still operated. And though poll evidence often suggested a low degree of public trust in elements of the media, respect for parties and processes was still harmed.

The growing salience of single-issue pressure groups also exerted awkward pressure upon parties. Many people now found there a more directly appealing form of public involvement than parties offered; their operation and loyalties often cut sharply across natural party lines in ways which made them difficult to accommodate within the parties’ interest-aggregation function; and the heightened accessibility of the media made it easier than in the past for them to mobilise public leverage without party commitment. But parties had no option but to adapt to this changing reality. On the positive side, single-issue concerns often energised the political scene and recruited valuable new talent into it, provided that the dangers could be fended off or pressure-group capture of parties (as in the case of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with the UK’s Labour Party in the early 1980s, and perhaps - so one or two participants conjectured - with opposing factions in the US over the abortion debate).

The phenomenon of public cynicism about politics and parties, scarcely new though it was, preoccupied much of our discussion. Some saw its roots in the perceived failure of elected leaders, when in office, to cleave to the principles and promises put forward during campaigning, with a subsequent sense of “betrayal” and of blurred inter-party distinctions becoming a powerful corrosive to confidence. Another perspective, more sympathetic to the awkward dilutive forces of practical reality and coalition-building, recalled the near-inevitable mismatch between the pressures of office-seeking and those of office-exercising - “We campaign in poetry, we govern in prose”, in the Cuomo-attributed axiom; “Government entails hard and complex choices, which the media and oppositions share an interest in over-simplifying”, in a British journalist’s phrasing. Parties, it was argued, had an important responsibility in managing and containing expectation, and a related task (though capacity for its discharge varied widely) of helping to build prospectus or manifesto on solid foundations of realistic evaluation as well as opinion bargaining. At the same time, voters needed to be offered some coherence of underlying theme and some sense of public purpose beyond office-holding, especially as the currency of political competition increasingly became that of ideas and value-systems rather than class interests and patronage. We heard that these roles were nowadays more often seen as belonging to parties in most of Europe than in the US, where the distinctive role of individual candidates and their staffs in agenda-setting was more salient.

The problem of voter alienation from parties and from government - exemplified in the US by disturbingly low levels of voter registration - posed to parties a particular challenge of re-engagement. Over-centralisation had become in many settings a serious risk, with the role of precinct captains or ward chairmen often (though not everywhere) much diminished; and there was widespread need for special efforts to strengthen the sense of local involvement and empowerment and of upward communication to party leaders (not just downward from them), perhaps especially - hard though this sometimes was to organise - when those leaders were actually in power and reliant upon governmental rather than party structures.

Our exploration of the issues of party regulation and financing, and of campaign expenditure control, brought home to us the wide differences between US practice and attitudes and those of most other countries represented in the discussions. In these latter, as many participants agreed, the public limitation of campaign expenditure, especially on television advertising if permitted at all, was mostly seen as a constructive discipline which heightened public confidence and therefore public participation in the political process (though we recognised the considerable practical problems, among others, of defining “campaign” duration in fixed-term systems). Most interventions viewed the regulation of expenditure as more useful than that of donations (though the case in any event for requiring the latter to be made public was strongly urged). Expenditure constraint aside, we heard vigorous argument in favour of public funding of legitimate campaign expenditure in whole or part (perhaps subject to a minimum criterion of electoral support, and to rules about internal party democracy) as reinforcing party coherence and compensating for the special advantages inevitably enjoyed by those currently in office. Little of all this, we acknowledged, seemed easily translatable to the US political environment, but we heard considerable (albeit not unanimous) unease expressed about the consequences, for both the quality of debate and genuine ability to run effectively for office, of the unconstrained availability there of paid political advertising.

Time did not allow us to inquire into the interaction between electoral systems and party characteristics, though we were aware of the impediment to good and consistent government that resulted if systems led to a plethora of small or shifting parties and thus to insecure coalitions; there was - especially perhaps in the newer democracies - a delicate balance to be struck between these risks and those of over-constipated systems insufficiently responsive to true voter preference. In this as in other respects neat universal prescriptions understandably escaped us.

Throughout our diversities of experience and perception, however, our shared sense of the value and indeed the necessity of parties, for the health of our democracies, remained robust - as did our recognition that in changing modem circumstances parties needed to tackle, perhaps more consciously and resolutely than hitherto, the tasks of adaptation to maintain their relevance, influence and credibility.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Mr John E Rielly
President, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations


The Rt Hon Peter Brooke CH MP Consul
Member of Parliament (Conservative), City of London and Westminster South

General Robert J Chase
Consul General of Great Britain in Chicago

Mr James Cornford
Director, Paul Hamlyn Foundation
Baroness Hogg
Member of the House of Lords (Crossbench)

Mr Peter Kellner
Political columnist, Sunday Times

Mr Ben Lucas
Political adviser to Jack Straw MP, (Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on Home Affairs), specialising in constitutional policy

The Rt Hon Sir Peter Morrison
Member of Parliament (Conservative), City of Chester (1974-92)

Mr George Robertson MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Hamilton; Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Dr Patrick Seyd
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

Mr Robert Worcester
Chairman, Market and Opinion Research International (MORI);

Professor Richard Johnston
Professor of Political Science, University of British Columbia and Mackenzie King Professor of Canadian Studies, Harvard University (1994-95)

Mr Pierre Lortie
President, Bombadier Regional Aircraft Division

Mr Hugh Segal
Associate, Gluskin Sheff (investment management firm);

Monsieur Jean-François Blarel
Political Counsellor, Embassy of France in the United States

Dr Konrad Adam
Correspondent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Herr Volker Schlegel
Economic Minister, German Embassy, Washington. D.C.

Dr Bàlint Magyar MP
Deputy Chairman of Parliamentary National Security Committee

Mr Andrzej Potocki
Member of Parliament (Democratic Union)

Mr John I Adkins Jr
Associate Chief of Correspondents, Chicago Tribune

Ms Mary Sue Barrett
Chief of Policy, Office of the Mayor of Chicago

Mr Judson T Bergman
Vice President, John Nuveen & Co., responsible for business and product development

Major General Neal Creighton
President and Chief Executive Officer, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Dr Arthur Cyr
Vice President and Program Director, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR)

Mr William M Daley
Partner, Mayer, Brown & Platt law firm, specializing in corporate and government relations
Mr Gary R Edson
President of ECG, a private investment firm focused in the Midwest

Mr Cyrus F Freidheim Jr
Vice Chairman, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, Inc

Mr Thomas Hardy
Political Writer, Chicago Tribune

Mr Robert A Helman
Chairman of the Management Committee, and a Partner since 1967, Mayer, Brown & Platt law Finn

Mr Edward A Kolodziej
Research Professor of Political Science. University of Illinois

Mr Jeffrey E Lewis
The Vice President-International Legal Services, Associate Counsel and Assistant Secretary, the Chicago Stock Exchange

Mr Richard C Longworth
Senior Writer, the Chicago Tribune

Mr Robert P McNeill
Executive Vice President, Stein Roe & Farnham

Mr Mark. J Miller
Deputy Managing Editor, Chicago Sun-Times

Dr Milton Morris
Vice President for Research, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (Washington, D.C.)

Mr Barton R Peterson
Chief of Staff, Office of the Governor of Indiana (Evan Bayh);

Mr Phil Ponce
Correspondent, Chicago Tonight

Mr Thomas F Roeser
President. Thomas F. Roeser and Associates

Mr David J Rosso
Partner, Jones, Day. Reavis & Pogue law firm

Mr James W Sutherland
Executive Director, the Cantigny Foundation, an operating foundation of the Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation

Mr David C Wilhelm
Senior Managing Director, Investment Banking, Kemper Securities, Inc.