Party government: All we want for Christmas is you…?

All I want for ChristmasAt an eye-watering £75 Hans Keman and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel’s new Party Government in the New Europe which came out earlier this year with Routledge is unlikely to have made it to under many people’s Christmas trees this year. It does, however, offer a quite thought-provoking, if not causally readable, a state-of-the-art survey of research on the place of parties in European democracy – and one with laudable and long overdue goal of taking in  both established West European democracies and the younger democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

 As Keman and Müller-Rommel make clear, despite an onslaught of social and geopolitical transformation – post-modernisation, de-industrialistion, Europeanisation, globalisation and so on – patterns of European party government have proved surprisingly resilient. Although public dissatisfaction and electoral volatility have mounted in Western Europe – driving the emergence of new parties that many of us political scientists professionally know and love– old established parties have maintained a central position in government.

While an impressive feat – and mildly reassuring to the middle aged and middle of the road, the editors are almost certainly right to term is growing mismatch between the represented in parliament and the pool of from which of governing parties are drawn as a ‘gap in representational quality’. Eastern Europe’s party systems till recently also been characterised by high (if reducing) volatility, but Keman and Müller-Rommel claim, rather intriguingly, greater fluidity of parties and party systems implies less of a representation deficit. A chapter by Fernando Casal Bértoa and the late Peter Mair party system institutionalisation in CEE confirms that the region’s parties are both less institutionalised than those in earlier waves of democratisation and are bcoming, if anything, less institutionalised, but is rather less sanguine about what the prospect implies for democracy.

 Political scientists have often, if somewhat implicitly, followed Schumpeter in seeing party competition as i being about picking teams of elites to govern. However, as Ian Budge and Michael McDonald point out this not only ties the profession to an elitist and technocratic model that many would find rather toxic, neglects the question nature of the democratic majorities which underpin them.  More specifically, they are concerned with the question of whether – and how – elected governments’ majorities should overlap with the position of the mythical median voter in the political centre or with the electorate of largest party (which may be elsewhere).

 Through a series of simulations, they find that there is often considerable tension between the two according to the format of party system and the speed and scope of policy change under a new government. Slower rates of policy change make it more straightforward to reconcile the two models of ‘democratic congruence’. Such findings Budge and McDonald note are particularly relevant to CEE, where lack of voter-party identification makes simplified party competition models of this kind a good(ish) approximation of reality.

 Social policy specialists are not everyone’s idea of sexy, but – as well driving forward many of the best innovations institutional theory – they have long seen party competition as a key factor shaping policy outcomes. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly then this book features as a triple whammy of chapters in this area. Klaus Armingeon kicks off, testing whether the classical proposition that strength of left parties, leads to stronger trade unions and more egalitarian welfare states, applies to Central and East Europe. While CEE the does exactly not invalidate this view – Armingeon finds no instances of social democratic welfare states without strong left parties – many CEE case fit the West European paradigm uncomfortably:  there are many instances of strong left parties with weak trade unions and minimal welfare states.

 CEE party specialists might at this point nod sagely and wonder whether the region’s self-styled social democratic parties – many successors to ruling communist parties – can be straightforwardly taken at face value as programmatically ‘left’ parties.  For as F.G Schmidt notes – and Armingeon himself allows – additional factors such as the national legacies of communist rule clearly needs to be factored in. Schmidt analysis of patterns of party government and social policy in CEE accordingly picks out two distinct groups of states, which intuitively make sense: the Visegrad countries and Slovenia, where – as in Western Europe – the party-political coloration of governments matter for social polciy and Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states where it does not.

 Paul Penning top things off using Charles Ragin’s QCA to show that the left/right complexion of governing parties matters for welfare policies only in combination with factors such pre-existing benefit levels, integration into global markets or corporatism.  Frustratingly, however, data limitations stop him extending the analysis to CEE, where – as in so many areas – QCA might help unpick spaghetti-like patterns of similarities and difference with the West.

 Although it narrows ‘party government’ to party influence on policy, overall Party Government in the New Europe is an engaging collection, refreshingly free of padding, which gives a lucid overview of a well established but obviously still evolving research agenda. Despite the good intentions, however, it sadly makes limited progress in integrating the comparative study of Western Europe and CEE. Faced with the usual awkward patterns of difference and similarity, even chapters genuinely pan-Europe in scope fall back on the old standbys of simply juxtaposing the two halves of the New Europe or viewing the East through the prism of the West.

 Like the inevitable presents of socks and aftershave, useful, familiar and not altogether unwelcome, but not quite…

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