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Political Parties as Arena for Descriptive Representation

Participation
Parties and elections
Bram Wauters
Ghent University
Knut Heidar
Universitetet i Oslo

Wednesday 09:00 - 17:00 (26/04/2017)

Building: Business School South Room: Room A06 Building: Business School South Room: Room A06 Building: Business School South Room: Room A06 Building: Business School South Room: Room A06

Abstract

The crisis of ‘party on the ground’, which refers to the link of the party to the broader society has already been extensively documented in several studies. One aspect that has been underexposed in this kind of research is to what extent party decline has also affected parties’ representative capacity. This may relate both to descriptive (background) representation and to attitudinal (policy) representation. In political parties, several representative relationships are established, for example between rank and file members and conference delegates, between members and the party elite, between voters and the party elite and between party members and the population at large. One can doubt to what extent these relationships are representative in descriptive terms, i.e. to what extent these representatives share characteristics of those who they intend to represent. In other words, whether women, blue collar workers, young people, ethnic minorities, etc. are present in (one of the layers of) the party. It seems logical that owing to a general decline in membership figures, also this descriptive representation is put under pressure. But the few empirical studies undertaken in this area question this general assumption. In addition, levels of party membership vary between countries, so that even parties that have experienced dramatic falls in membership could still have comparatively high membership levels. The puzzle is whether massive membership loss will trigger a crisis in parties’ representativeness. This will not necessarily be the case. Alternatively, the crisis of party representativeness is – as indicated by the political participation literature – intrinsic to all high intensity participation modes. We seek papers mapping descriptive representation within different strata in parties (especially in comparative perspective: either across parties, across countries and/or across strata in the party), and papers investigating causes and/or consequences of the overrepresentation or underrepresentation of particular social groups.

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