Post by David Farrell (July 12, 2011)
It is not just political systems that need to be reformed from time to time, parties also need to go through a process of renewal if they’re to survive the trials and tribulations of electoral politics. As reported in today’s Irish Times, Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party met yesterday to have a full and frank discussion about its future and about how it might change and adapt in the light of its recent electoral defeat. This is an entirely understandable move by the party leadership as it seeks to find a way back to electoral success in future elections.
The first attempt to explore the issue of party change systematically was by Kenneth Janda and Robert Harmel in a much-cited paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Politics in 1994. See also their paper in Party Politics published a year later. As they show using comparative evidence, the three most common factors behind major change in political parties, is election defeat, the election of a new party leader, or changes in the dominant faction within a party.
Fianna Fáil has experienced the first two of these factors (indeed, arguably all three), so it makes sense that the tone of the discussions about change and renewal should be ambitious. The party has a steep hill to climb.
Will it succeed? Well, if the comparative evidence is anything to go by, the party should. In a recent stock take of political parties in a number of the world’s democracies, my colleagues and I find compelling evidence of the adaptive capability of political parties. Of course, there are parties that come and go all the time, but the larger, more established parties seem to stay the course for the most part, and one main reason for this is because they successfully tack and change to meet the prevailing electoral winds.
The sorts of discussions that the Fianna Fáil leadership are currently having suggest that they are well aware of the need to do this.