Political Parties and Other Organizations

Thomas Poguntke. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.


The analysis of patterns of relationships between parties and their organizational environment is key to understanding parties’ survival, organizational stability and electoral success (Panebianco, 1988: 12; Streeck, 1987: 488). Essentially parties ‘use’ other relevant organizations that constitute their environment to create linkages to diverse groups of potential voters (Lawson, 1980; Poguntke, 2000, 2005). While such organizations vary widely as regards their own organizational format, their focus and, above all, their specific kinds of relationships to one or more political parties, they share one characteristic: they articulate and aggregate interests vis-ă-vis parties and are, as such, important intermediaries between parties and society at large. The essence of these relationships is that votes are exchanged for policies or, more realistically, policy pledges. This exchange is based on more or less permanent and formalized negotiations between party elites and organizational elites (see below) by which policy concessions (by the party) are traded for the mobilization of organizational support (by the organization) (Poguntke, 2000: 23-31). From the perspective of political parties, they serve as ‘collateral organizations’ reaching out to specific societal interests, which may not be directly accessible for political parties which need to serve, by definition, a wider and more contradictory range of interests. Hence, those concerned with one specific interest may find it more attractive to join a relevant interest organization rather than a party. By creating ties to such collateral organizations, political parties are capable of extending their anchorage in society beyond their core constituency (Duverger, 1964: 107; Beyme, 1980: 196ff.), thereby stabilizing their electorate (Webb, 1992: 1-7; Lane and Ersson, 1987: 121).

Historically, the relevance of collateral organizations reached its peak during the heyday of the mass party of integration in Europe (Neumann, 1956), when dense networks of collateral organizations created almost impermeable subcultures which enclosed individuals literally ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and which almost stifled communication across subcultural boundaries (Bartolini and Mair, 1990: 216; Steininger, 1984: 146). These networks of collateral organizations were an essential factor in the process of stabilizing the cleavage structures underlying (Western) European party systems in the 1920s (Lepsius, 1973; Lipset and Rokkan, 1967; Bartolini and Mair, 1990: 235-43).

In some deeply segmented societies the potential conflict between these subcultures could only be contained through elite accommodation based on power sharing and mutual veto. This model of consociational democracy reached perfection in the Netherlands and Austria but elements of it were applied elsewhere (Daalder, 1987; Lijphart, 1968, Gerlich, 1987; Luther and Deschouwer, 1999). Party political elites were the chief negotiators for ‘their’ socioeconomic subculture (pillar), which was characterized by a dense network of interest organizations tied formally or informally to one or several parties representing a specific subculture. Elsewhere, there was less segmentation but all Western European party systems were, until the 1960s, dominated by mass parties representing the major socioeconomic cleavages and attempting to maintain exclusive formal or informal ties to interest organizations belonging to their own political camp. During the heyday of the mass party of integration, election campaigns were primarily aimed at mobilizing a party’s constituency not at winning over votes from other political camps.

Table 33.1 Types of collateral organizations
Type of organization Independent collateral organization Corporately linked collateral organization Affiliated organization Ancillary organization
Type of party individual collective individual individual
membership membership optional membership (individual optional) membership membership
Overlap of membership partial partial partial total
Membership individual collective individual individual
rights (individual)
Type of organizational tie informal formal formal formal
Control by party low low high very high
Influence of collateral organization variable high to very high variable variable
Most frequent type of interest external internal

Source: Poguntke, 2000: 38.

When, from the 1960s onwards, the combined forces of post-war economic growth, the development of the welfare state and general socioeconomic modernization began to erode these sharp social boundaries, and hence the secure electoral basis of the mass party of integration, the organizational and strategic answer of many large parties in Western Europe was the catch-all model (Kirchheimer, 1966). This involved de-emphasizing ideological competition in favour of the managerial qualities of the senior candidates for public office and, above all, the pluralization of parties’ social ties. Now the aim was to reach out to as many relevant social forces as possible rather than stabilizing the core support, and the ties between parties and the major social interests became less exclusive. This did not change significantly as parties continued to lose secure social anchorage and began to move ever closer to the state, a trend that gave rise to the proposition that we were seeing the emergence of a new type of party, the cartel party, at the end of the last millennium (Katz and Mair, 1995).

As the patterns of interaction between parties and major interest organizations became more pluralistic in Western Europe, they began to resemble the dominant North American pattern, where exclusive ties between parties and organized interests have been largely unknown. This trend towards pluralistic party-interest-group relations was accelerated through the emergence of a significant number of new parties, particularly from the late 1960s onwards, which either did not forge any close ties with social interests (like most parties of the different variants of the extreme/populist right) or with new social actors (like Green parties) (Betz and Immerfall, 1998; Ignazi, 2003; Kitschelt, 1989; Poguntke, 1987). In any case, even parties that have not sought to link up to ‘external interests’ (see below), or have not succeeded in doing so, have created their own, party-dependent collateral organizations.

Types of Collateral Organizations

The exact nature of the relationship between party and collateral organization varies from full independence to close organizational integration (Table 33.1). In its most independent incarnation, collateral organizations have no formal ties to political parties. Their exclusive relationship with a specific political party (or a political camp) rests on a mutual understanding concerning a broad commonality of interests. While there is no guaranteed access for the collateral organization to party decision-making bodies, this model of organizational interaction leaves the interest organization with maximum autonomy. Party and organization enter into negotiations about policies knowing that support by the collateral can be withdrawn at any time without involving any formal organizational changes. Strong societal interests such as employers’ federations or churches have, by and large, preferred to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with political parties generally sympathetic to their cause. Good examples are the Catholic lay organizations in Italy, which have never had formal ties to the Christian Democrats (Bardi and Morlino, 1994: 250). Similarly, the Economic Council of the German CDU has never entered into a formal relationship with the German Christian Democrats (Haungs, 1983: 135-7).

Interest organizations that are tied to parties through corporate membership are the potentially most powerful variant of collateral organizations. This involves collective membership of organizational members in a party and can lead to extensive control of the party by the elites of collateral organizations. The classic example for this constellation is the British Labour Party prior to far-reaching reforms in the 1990s. While the case of the British Labour Party has gained widespread attention in scholarly and public debate, the so-called Labour Party, model based on corporate membership links between a left-wing party and the trade union movement, has remained the exception rather than the rule. In any case, it was phased out by the early 1990s in Norway and Sweden, while it was substantially reformed in the UK (Svåsand, 1992: 763, 1994b: 305; Pierre and Widfeldt, 1992: 813, 1994: 337; Alderman and Carter, 1994, 1995: 444; Richards, 1997: 30ff.; Webb, 1992: 35, 1994: 115).

Affiliated and ancillary organizations are the classic variants of party-created suborganizations. As such, they represent a conscious organizational strategy by parties attempting to diversify their appeal by creating target-group-specific suborganizations catering for the needs and interests of specific socio-economic groups (e.g. the young, women, religious or ethnic minorities). Affiliated organizations are technically largely independent organizations that are linked to their party on the elite level through ex officio seats of the affiliated organization’s leadership on party executive bodies. Also, partial membership overlap is typical, which indicates that collateral organizations are indeed capable of reaching beyond their party’s natural constituency. Their degree of autonomy varies but a minimum is guaranteed through the affiliated organization’s independent organizational structure. Ancillary organizations, on the other hand, are fully integrated in the main party structure and have no independent membership. They are therefore least suitable for broadening a party’s appeal but can be subjected to tight party discipline.

Throughout, we have implicitly referred to two types of political interests that are organized in collateral organizations. So-called external interests exist independently and, in most cases, prior to a political party. Many are related to the classic socioeconomic cleavages, others to the agenda of the new politics (Lipset and Rokkan, 1967; Dalton et al., 1990; Hildebrandt and Dalton, 1978). This includes working-class interests organized in trade unions, agrarian interests, religious interests, economic interests and ecological interests. Frequently, the foundation of political parties has been initiated by such external interest organizations, which have provided parties with an external legitimation (Duverger, 1964: xxx-xxxvii; Panebianco, 1988: 50-3). This pattern is not imperative. A party may create an affiliated organization in order to organize party members and sympathizers who are trade unionists, or it may decide to launch an environmental organization in order to connect to the environmental movement.

Internal interests, on the other hand, are created through organizational activity by the party. Strictly speaking, there is no pre-existing social group like Christian democratic women or social democratic teachers. Parties create satellite organizations with a view to getting a hold on sizeable segments of the electorate with specific socioeconomic interests and fairly homogeneous political preferences. This kind of ‘target group’ organizational strategy attempts to create an organizational forum for such potential interests.

Types of Relationships

The preceding discussion of different kinds of collateral organizations has shown that they need not have formal organizational ties with a party. As long as both collective actors share an understanding that they belong to the same political camp, a more or less permanent negotiation relationship can be maintained which allows the exchange of policy pledges for support. The principal mechanism here is reaction to pressure (Lawson, 1988: 15), that is, party elites need to be convinced that the collateral organization in question actually is capable of either mobilizing or withholding electoral support based on whether or not preferred policy concessions are made. The relative power of both partners varies according to political context.

To be sure, formal ties between organizations may also involve reaction to pressure but they are primarily based on organizational penetration, that is, the guaranteed access of (mainly) organizational elites to party decision-making bodies (or vice versa). In relatively few cases, there is also a proportional representation of organizational membership in one or several of the party’s rule-making bodies. This makes exchange relationships more predictable (not least as a result of shared information) and more durable, because there are high thresholds against terminating such connections. Not only would this require a formal rule change, which usually involves specific procedural hurdles such as a qualified majority, it would also represent an explicit political statement regarding the relationship under question. This is only likely to come about either if both partners agree that the continuation of an exclusive relationship is detrimental, or if one partner decides that the other is no longer needed. In any case, it is a highly visible political move, which means that formalized ties between organizations will normally survive phases of strained relationships. Clearly, linkage based on formal organizational ties is more durable, stable and effective than linkage through informal ties, and this is what makes it particularly valuable for party political elites. There is however, a disadvantage: strong organizational ties to powerful collateral organizations may limit party elites’ freedom for manoeuvre, as the example of the British Labour Party demonstrates (Seyd and Whiteley 2004).

New Social Movements

Given the advantages of permanent organizational ties, parties that depend primarily on support from the new social movement sector are at a structural disadvantage. New social movements are characterized by a predominant lack of formal organization, which makes formal ties to party organizations very difficult. They can be understood as networks of networks (Neidhart, 1985: 197) based on a high degree of symbolic integration and low levels of role differentiation (Neidhart and Rucht, 1993: 315-17; Rucht, 1994: 79, 154). Particularly in phases of high mobilisation, they tend to generate steering committees which can be regarded, to a limited degree, as functional equivalents of decision-making bodies of traditional organizations (Schmitt, 1989; Rochon, 1988: 77-82). While the capacity of such movements to act collectively depends to a considerable degree on movement elites active in such coordination bodies (Kaase, 1990: 90), their political mandate typically remains precarious. In fact, their elevated position within the movement rests to a considerable degree on external ascription (mainly by the mass media or other political actors), while their legitimation through the movement itself remains weak. After all, new social movements simply lack the degree of internal formalization that is the essential precondition for elite selection, because individual movement organizations tend to guard their autonomy. The absence of movement elites with a reliable mandate makes new social movements therefore unlikely candidates for formal organizational ties with political parties.

While political parties can at best expect to forge informal ties to new social movements, even those are of limited value for party elites seeking to stabilize their electorate. The reason is that new social movements are weak interest aggregators, which limits the effects of linkage. They tend to be based on the smallest common denominator, endorse a plurality of ideological and strategic orientations and frequently limit inherent centrifugal tendencies by calling for maximal solutions (Neidhart and Rucht, 1993: 318; Rucht, 1993: 265). Hence, political parties that depend primarily on linkage through new social movements (e.g. Green parties) have to live with a structurally weak social anchorage, which can provide them with comparatively little electoral stability. While good relations with new social movements may be a significant (though highly contingent) electoral asset in phases of high protest mobilization, they are of little value in quiet times.

There are, however, highly formalized and professionalized elements within new social movements which would, in principle, meet all the organizational requirements to be stable and reliable partners for party elites. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other kinds of non-governmental organization could permanently liaise with a political party. However, these movement organizations are particularly concerned with maintaining their non-partisan image, which is, after all, also a precondition for their substantial fundraising capacity (Dalton, 1994). Furthermore, the very fact that they are primarily based on ‘cheque book participation’ means that they are poor mobilizers of mass support and hence of limited value for political parties seeking to stabilize their electorates.

Table 33.2 Collateral organizations of Western European parties (1960-89)*
Type of organization N %
Youth 1287 24.1
Women 1036 19.4
Trade unions 656 12.3
Other 512 9.6
Leisure 491 9.2
Education 472 8.8
Self Help 281 5.3
Media 244 4.6
Middle Class Interests 147 2.8
Religion 144 2.7
Agrarian 69 1.3
Total 5339 100
counts of collateral organizations per year over a 30-year period.

Source: Poguntke, 2000: 135


Parties and Collateral Organizations

Given the evident problems of data collection, it is hardly surprising that systematic comparative data on the development of informal ties between political parties and interest organizations are non-existent. Yet, a wealth of literature on party and party system change, particularly in the wake of the debate about Kirchheimer’s catch-all thesis, has shown that the relationships between parties and independent collateral organizations have become more tenuous.

When it comes to information concerning collateral organizations that are formally tied to political parties, we are empirically on fairly safe ground as these links are normally documented in party statutes. In most cases, this involves different variants of ex officio seats for members of collateral organizations in the party’s decision-making bodies. To a lesser degree, it also takes the form of proportional representation of the collateral organization’s membership on the party’s main rule-making body, usually the party congress (Poguntke, 2005: 51-53). A detailed analysis of the data collected by the Party Organization Project (Katz and Mair, 1992) has shown that youth and women’s organizations dominate the organizational periphery of Western Europe’s parties’ (Table 33.2). They are followed by collateral organizations concerned with trade union interests. This does not necessarily involve a direct organizational tie between a party and a trade union, as this category also includes party-created ancillary or affiliated organizations that target trade union members.

It is noticeable that those categories that directly relate to the classic socioeconomic cleavages amount to a mere 19.2 per cent of all collateral organizations that existed over the 30-year-period under investigation (i.e. middle-class interests, trade unions, agrarian sector, religion). The conspicuously low number of collateral organizations with a specifically denominational mission indicates that some of the most powerful cleavage-forming interests have preferred an independent arm’s-length relationship with political parties. The most eye-catching finding is, however, that the entire new social movement sector in all its variable incarnations has not connected at all to Western European party systems. In other words, the entire spectrum of the protest movements from the 1970s onwards, ranging from the anti-nuclear and ecological movements to the peace movements and anti-globalization activists, have not connected formally with political parties.

While many New Politics parties had consolidated their presence in Western European party systems by the late 1980s, they still lacked organizational connectedness to important elements of their core constituency. To be sure, this can be explained to a large extent by the specific organizational nature of the new social movements and the behavioural dispositions of their activists, who tend to be sceptical about party politics (Dalton, 1994: 227; Poguntke, 1992: 244-54). Furthermore, it is also a reflection of the organizational philosophy of New Politics parties, which regarded themselves as the natural party political ally of the movements and hence tended to regard it as superfluous to create ancillary or affiliated organizations in order to connect to the new social movements. Still, the failure of this new party family to create its own organizational periphery left it electorally exposed to the mobilization cycles of the new social movement sector.

New Politics parties are not unique in their lack of organizational roots. All parties that originated after World War II and that have no clear pre-war organizational ancestor are united in their almost complete lack of formal ties to collateral organizations. While it is not entirely surprising that these latecomers could not connect to the major cleavage-forming interests since they emerged long after the ‘full mobilization of electoral markets’ (Lipset and Rokkan, 1967), it is nevertheless remarkable that they also invested very little energy in creating some of the standard collateral organizations such as youth or women’s organizations. To be sure, this would have been superfluous in some cases: Green parties have such a strong commitment to the women’s movement that a separate ancillary or affiliated organization would have appeared meaningless – just as some agrarian parties never developed formal links to agrarian organizations. And as Greens are increasingly turning ‘grey’ (and into more conventional parties), we are seeing the first Green youth organizations. By and large, however, the findings show that new parties, quite independent of their ideological orientation, have tended to follow an organizational strategy which distinguishes them from traditional parties: they concentrate on the core political organization of the party and invest little energy in creating the organizational periphery which is typical of parties that lived through the heyday of the mass party (Poguntke, 2000: 131-61; 2005).

Parties and New Social Movements

The organizational limits to formal ties between political parties and new social movements have already been addressed. Yet, the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s played a crucial role in changing Western party systems. As mentioned above, the emergence of a new family of New Politics parties (now mainly referred to as Green parties) is intimately related to a very high level of protest mobilization in most Western democracies. Sustained by underlying shifts towards postmaterialist values and fuelled by the resistance to the so-called old politics agenda of economic growth and military strength (Hildebrandt and Dalton, 1978; Baker et al., 1997), an alliance of different movements sharing a broad and fairly unspecific vision of what the world should look like first mobilized against the growth of nuclear power generation and then expanded into a general ecology movement (Rucht, 1994; Dalton and Kuechler, 1990; Kriesi et al., 1995). When NATO decided in 1979 to deploy a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, the movements found a new focal point and protest mobilization reached unprecedented levels in many Western European countries. By and large, established parties found it difficult to address the issues raised by the movements, which eventually led to a growing preparedness among many movement activists to engage in party politics themselves. In other words, the structural inability of established parties to reconcile their traditional political goals with the new agenda resulted in the emergence of a new party family, and the new social movements were to a very substantial degree the driving force behind this (Kitschelt, 1988; Müller-Rommel, 1985, 1989; Poguntke, 1987).

A closer look at the first generation of Green party elites shows that they had almost invariably gained their initial political experience as activists in the new social movements. Since Green parties grew out of the movements, their initial party programmes were little more than a reflection of the central concerns of the various new social movements. In return, large parts of the new social movements regarded the newly founded Green parties as their natural ally in the realm of party politics and provided them with electoral support. In a nutshell, the Green parties surfed into many Western European parliaments on a wave of high new social movement mobilization. Initial electoral success tended to upstage some of the inherent problems of this ‘symbiotic’ party-movement relationship. New social movements are, by definition, weak interest aggregators, which tend to integrate and mobilize support by advertising maximal solutions, such as the immediate closure of all nuclear power stations – a demand that became the hallmark of all Green parties emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As Green parties were increasingly drawn into the normal party political game of negotiation and compromise, new social movements tended to find it difficult to accept that their primary goal was now only one among several important political objectives the Green party wanted to pursue. Inevitably friction occurred and movement support for the Greens became less reliable. As a consequence, Green parties and new social movements began to move apart, reasserting their separate identities, not least when Green parties began to assume executive responsibilities, first at local and regional levels and then, finally, in national governments (Müller-Rommel and Poguntke, 2002). Partially a result of this, but also because they had succeeded in establishing themselves as credible political actors in many countries, the electoral performance of Green parties was only moderately affected when movement mobilization declined noticeably in the late 1980s and 1990s (Müller-Rommel, 2002).

Collateral Organizations and Social Change

When the catch-all strategy was beginning to generate electoral benefits in the 1960s, more and more large parties began to reach beyond their core constituencies and establish contacts with relevant interest organizations. The very essence of this strategy, that is, the attempt to move out of clearly defined social subcultures and establish contacts with as many relevant social interests as possible, required that such contacts should remain non-exclusive and hence non-formalized. At the same time, however, all Western European parties maintained existing formal ties to different kinds of collateral organizations. Consequently, longitudinal analysis shows that there has been virtually no change in the number of collateral organizations formally linked to parties in Western Europe between 1960 and 1990 (Poguntke, 2000: 155). A more detailed analysis using a standardized measure of the strength of these organizational linkages yields similar results: while there has been a modest decline in linkage through collateral organizations connecting parties to external interests, linkage through internal collateral organizations has compensated for this modest erosion. Overall, the picture is one of great stability (Poguntke, 2000: 168-9). The data show little difference between parties that originated as cadre and mass parties, which is a powerful indication of the adaptive pressures generated by the mass party model. Clearly, there was a contagion from the left (Duverger, 1964: xxvii).

The more refined measure shows again that new parties are virtually without formal organizational linkages, which makes these parties more vulnerable to electoral fluctuation. Empirical analyses have shown that parties with strong organizational linkages to society have more stable electorates. This is also true for linkage through a party’s own membership organization: large memberships are positively associated with stable electoral results, and a growing membership tends to go together with electoral gains (Poguntke, 2005: 56-8). Party elites can reach out to their electorate through their own membership organization as individual members act as disseminators of the party’s message within their own social context. Members of collateral organizations can fulfil similar functions, advertising the party’s views in their community and, to a degree, communicating grievances back to their organizational elites who will then formulate appropriate demands vis-ă-vis party elites. Clearly, this is a simplified depiction of complex processes of interest articulation and aggregation but it describes the basic mechanism that was mentioned in the introduction to this chapter: policy pledges are exchanged for organizational support in stabilizing and/or mobilizing voters for a given party.

There is a price to be paid for support by collateral organizations: strong ties to strong collateral organizations limit the freedom of manoeuvre of party elites. This applies not only to the few but conspicuous examples of strong ties between parties and trade unions or the Catholic Church. It is generally true for all kinds of collateral organizations. Even ancillary organizations, that is, organizations that are fully integrated in the main party structure, will provide an organizational arena for dissenting views and a potential power base for rebellious counter elites. A more differentiated organizational structure and more representation of ancillary or affiliated organizations in a party’s main decision-making bodies will increase the likelihood of programmatic or strategic moves being blocked by alliances of veto players.

Essentially, this means that party elites of new parties have, by and large, more strategic flexibility than their colleagues in traditional parties when it comes to repositioning their party. Furthermore, their electoral disadvantage is declining as the substantive strength of organizational linkages is declining across the board. Clearly, the enormous stability of formal ties between party organizations and various types of collateral organizations reflects the continuing relevance of such linkages for traditional parties. As societies have become socially more diverse (van Deth, 1995), however, these organizations have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their attractiveness. On the one hand, ever fewer people fall into neat social categories such as the classic manual worker, who has nothing to lose but his chains, or the archetypal church-going Catholic farmer in Southern Europe (Streeck, 1987. 474-82; Wessels, 1991: 457; Rucht, 1993: 271ff.; Katz, 1990: 145). And even those who still belong to these groups may have far more independent views than in the past, not least because, with the advent of the mass media, information is no longer controlled by social elites (Poguntke, 2000: 56ff.). Whereas these organizations are still important mobilizers and aggregators, their overall role has clearly declined. Many have suffered membership decline, while others have become internally more pluralistic. To be sure, the apparent stability of linkage via collateral organizations conceals, to a degree, their diminishing substantial importance. Still, they have in most cases remained important allies for party elites, which explains that organizationally mediated linkage has remained so staggeringly stable. After all, as long as mutual benefits outweigh the problems caused by increasing heterogeneity, both party and organizational elites have no reason to terminate exclusive relationships. The few conspicuous cases where close links between parties of the left and the trade unions have been severed indicate, however, that a point can be reached where a formerly beneficial symbiosis turns into a liability (Alderman and Carter, 1995; Richards, 1997: 30ff.; Svåsand, 1994a: 315; Webb, 1992: 35; 1994: 115; Widfeldt, 1997: 91).

Overall, then, the organizational anchorage of Western European party systems has clearly declined over the past decades. First, the growing vote share of new parties without significant ties to collateral organizations means that the aggregate anchorage of party systems has been reduced. Second, traditional parties have managed to maintain most of their ties to different types of collateral organizations but their capacity to ‘deliver’ votes and interest aggregation has suffered due to ongoing processes of social differentiation. Finally, there is every indication that democratic latecomers in Southern and East-Central Europe have developed party systems which, by and large, lack the social foundations which gradually eroded in traditional Western European party systems. The result is an increasingly pluralistic system of interaction between organized interests and party politics, a system that increasingly resembles the pattern familiar from the United States.