The Role of Political Parties in Germany and Britain

Political parties have existed in human history for quite some time. People form political parties to have a voice in political issues that they encounter, while others are encouraged by the fact that coordinated action is more efficient. Thus, the parties are vehicles through which democracies build governments, elect people's representatives and reach the masses. Given the need for mass action and movement, political parties are necessary elements of global politics since they use their might and influence among the people to drive policies and reforms in governance, as well as the general ways of people’ lives. The nineteenth century paved the way for mass parties that controlled democracies all over the world. In the recent past, developing countries have incorporated political parties in their systems of governance. In some places, there are one-party states, whereas others have multiparty democracies. Advanced nations such as Germany and Britain lead as the most politically developed countries in the world. As a result, they have had both mass and small political parties. Thus, this paper will draw upon a comparison of the political systems of the two countries to put forward the argument that mass political parties are no longer critical in modern democracies.

Many mass parties have either disappeared or disintegrated into different outfits. Initially, before the twenty-first century, Britain and Germany had catch-all mass parties that were so popular to an extent that nothing else made political sense. However, as it is today, the former mass parties are merely shadows of their former slaves.  The politics of one unitary mass party are passed with time, and the new dawn globally is in hybrid parties that embrace both mass and catch-all tendencies. More importantly, people no longer follow significant parties blindly. Instead, for the twenty-first-century voter, the best political party is that which aligns with their social grouping. That is why the British Labour Party performed dismally in 1983 with the emergence of smaller political outfits that resonated more with the masses (Strom 568). Thus, It is viable to argue that the existing mass party, such as the Germany’s SPD, CDU and Britain’s Labour Party in Britain, are a hybrid of mass and catch-all parties. Therefore, their mixed characteristics offer them a comparative advantage in the modern affluent and consumer-oriented society, gaining more political importance and electorate.

A party refers to a collection of communities, a union of small groups spread throughout the country and holding similar congruent political, economic and social view, resulting in a familiar idea on the policy implementation and government structure (Duverger 37). Mass parties originated from extra-parliamentary concept and aimed at representing the interest of a particular group of society, often social class. In comparison to intra-parliamentary caucus party, a mass party is much more centralized and ideologically coherent, as a result of branch design. Branch design was vital as it enhanced the organization of masses, political education, and recruitment of the working-class elites. Mass parties funded their activities such as elections and campaign rallies through membership fees. Thus, the parties were free from capitalist pressure. As a result, these parties appealed to the masses, especially the political knowledgeable who were ready to fund parties to engage the state into acting for the overall welfare of such a group (Duverger 41). By empowering people to question the country, mass parties set nations on a different dangerous path- radicalism and division of the society into followers of a party. Consequently, they forced the will of people into that of the majority. Often, leaders of parties were the principal beneficiaries; influencing people against their will. Fundamentally, mass political parties were characteristic of a high degree of political influence, the aggregation of the electoral support and, a voice in the policy enforcement.


In understanding mass parties, it is vital to comprehend the division between the party of individual representation and the party of inclusion. From history, it is apparent that mass parties can embrace dangerous ideologies that may include; Fascism, National Socialism and, Bolshevism (Rashke 112). As a result, they contradict the very basis of Schattschneider’s thoughts when he argued that political parties are the only vehicles through which the society can achieve democracy (Bawn, Cohen, and Karol n.p). In this regard, Neumann's argument that people move from individual representation to social integration is valid (Caramani 46). Political parties are social units that unite different individuals. However, in the neoliberal reality, in which capitalism is the primary way of life, the electorate usually focus on their business, unless politics affect it strongly. Nevertheless, there has been a shift in the type of political parties from the 1970s. Thus, currently, there is a transformation from previous class and denominational gatherings of mass integration into ideologically bland catch-all parties. The new parties have more interest in winning elections than defending the principles of ideological goals. Ideology lost significance in the voting behaviour, as with the emergence of consumer-oriented societies that have a disintegrating relationship between the masses and parties (Caramani 218).


The primary assumption on which Kirchheimer bases his transformation scenario is the change in the socio-economic condition of the society. As the economy grew, so did the people's wealth, which consequently shrunk the classes that divided the community initially. The softening of class divisions and distinctions threatened mass parties, making their existence untenable into the future. However, when one examines the transformation itself, there are mixed signals that do little in pointing out the exact causes for the change. For instance, neither economic development nor the continuity or discontinuity of political system impacted on the process of transformation itself. At this point, it is essential to examine both Germany and Britain as they perfectly fit in the purview.

Accordingly, they appeared on the opposite sides of the spectrum, but showed similar transformation speed. The catch-all transformation itself also meets some specific barriers, coming from the traditional framework of the society. The Kirchheimer's state bases on the hypothesis that the decreasing loyalties make mass parties to adopt catch-all policies, and if the implementation of such an approach is successful, there are considerable changes in the party alignment of the nations. In this regard, national electoral data is crucial.

However, as Wolinetz argues, depending on which vantage point is selected, the electoral trend in Western Europe will differ substantially (Wolinetz 219). Most political scientists in 60s and 70s observed stability of party proportions in most structures, which implies that at hand, stood small changes and therefore, limited electorates accessible for the expansion of catch-all parties (Wolinetz 220). Consequently, there was an increase in fluctuations of voters that gave rise to success of minor parties. To understand why catch-all parties emerged from mass parties in some countries and not in others, there is need to investigate the nature of voter attachment to parties. The increased fluidity that resulted in more fragmentation, instead of only growth of catch-all parties follows a similar approach. After the WWII, secure attachments to political parties restricted the expansion of catch-all parties. That explains why such parties only developed in countries with weak or non-existent party alignments- the progress of variable vote coincides with the rise of novel alarms, making them similarly available to new small parties.

In the Western European orientations, catch-all parties are developing and achieving strong suit only in a limited republic while party placements in a different place remain reasonably steady. Therefore, the clarification for the soundness of party arrangements in most nations in the 60s and 70s was the lack of votes accessible for modifications in party alignments.  Kirchheimer’s societal changes should not be the primary cause of party disintegration, instead, they should strengthen alliances (Caramani 224). Thus, the changes can have an effect on the sublimation on social classes in the long-run while they remain insignificant in the short-run (Caramani 225). Kirchheimer identified both Britain and Germany as countries in which catch-all phenomenon was most advanced. However, it appears that both countries, although showing similar tendencies, had utterly different roots of transformation, consequently, failing to follow Kirchheimer’s assumption about the affluent, consumer-oriented society (Krouwel 24).

Therefore, the Labour Party’s rise in Britain remained mainly accelerated by the vicissitudes in the conformation in the voters, which backs up to inter-war period and the separations in the Liberal Party (Caramani 225). Additionally, the presence of broad parties in the post-war historical reflects more of two-party race than social structure vagaries or prosperity after the war. Comparatively, the rise of West German SPD and CDU parties in the post-war period is partially consistent with the Kirchheimer thesis (Krouwel 23). Wolinetz claims that the increase of consumer-oriented societies and economic growth fostered the growth of catch-all parties in Germany and France (Gaullists n.p). However, he maintains that the primary concern of parties was to ensure that the nation emerged healthy from the war, return normalcy to the political environment, as well as alter rules governing elections (Caramani 227). Change of political alignments in German reflects disturbances in political improvement, recreation of the political framework and the adjustments in the constitution and discretionary law. Since the party organisations of the Weimar Republic and Imperial Germany were incredibly split, the imposition of 5 % threshold successively eliminated the vote fluidity and rise of small parties. The main two of the three parties that survived were on the foundation of previous mass parties.


Party membership and identification among the electorate are vital factors that influence the success of any party in elections. However, party membership is especially crucial for the mass parties that are mostly built and dependent on their active members. Since the sixties, there has been a gradual decrease in party membership among European democracies. Over the years, party membership has been decreasing from 15% (M/E) in the sixties to around 5% (M/E) in the 90s (Mair and Biezen 10).What is more striking is that party membership is apparent in all traditional democracies, including Britain and Germany. Also, M/E percentages in the time-honoured democracies average less than sixty percentage of the levels documented just two spans formerly (Mair and Biezen 12). In the 80s, the decline in M/E ratio was as a result of the failure by party affiliation levels to rise at a similar proportion as the state electorate. Important to note is the fact that it is not only the M/E ratio that decreased, but also the raw numbers of party members that fell substantially.

By the end of the nineties, the raw numbers of party members fell by 50 percent in Britain, and 20 % in Germany, concerning levels claimed in 1980s (Mair and Biezen 13). Mair and Biezen in their report, emphasize on the fact that it is not only the steep scale, but also the consistency of decline that is evident. Parties in Western Europe are trailing their ability to involve people in the way they formerly did. For the case of mass parties, the reason for this change can be the decline in significance of traditional forms of institutional mediation, such as trade unions from which the mass party evolved.

 Moreover, party membership is no longer attractive and as beneficial as it was before for the leaders (Mair and Biezen 14). The perks and privileges one had before do not exist anymore. There is less effective motivation for parties to form and uphold their mass affiliation. Therefore, Mair and Biezen argue that party identities and partisan politics are on the downhill. Thus, distinct voters are less likely to dedicate their time and energy required by active involvement, considering Kirchheimer’s claim of the rise of an affluent and consumer-oriented society.

 Country/ Year


(West Germany)


(West Germany)


% change










United Kingdom

The Labour Party




The Conservatives




table1 Membership in Twenty European Democracies, 1980-2000

Table 1 shows the membership levels for individual parties from 1980-1998 in the United Kingdom and Germany. Although both countries experienced an overall decline in the M/E ratio over the years, the decrease in Germany was more consistent, considering both mass and cadre parties. On the other hand, the United Kingdom experienced a steep decline in the membership level of the Conservative party and an increase in the membership of the Labour Party (Seyd 385). Although these may be considered extrapolations, the increase in the group of the Labour Party is justifiable by ideological diffusion of party agenda from 1994, introduced by Tony Blair. He continued to move the party further towards the centre, grasping more of the catch-all party character. Thus, the example of United Kingdom justifies Kirchheimer’s view of mass party transformation to catch-all party scenario (Katz and Mair 9).


Party alignment changes are a crucial part of understanding the transition from mass parties with regard to the assumption that party preference originates from the joint effects of executive pressures, class and group allegiances. Therefore, any change in party alignment should be primarily a result of the shift in either social courses or group loyalties. The rise and availability of alternatives parties representing a similar ideology, will consequently affect electorate distribution since party alignments live through generations. As such, current generations entering the electorate are open to new alternatives, considering ideological shift towards Anti-materialism. Additionally, young voters are less likely to undergo the pressures and influences of trade unions and churches. However, in the same manner, they are more likely to yield up to the effects of electronic media, and its role in disseminating political information. Furthermore, the new generation of voters grew up in an affluent and materially secure society, which makes them possess different values. Unlike voters from the post-war years who valued material benefits promised to them to support a party, the current community of young people does not quickly succumb to economic and religious appeals.  

In conclusion, it suffices to agree that mass political parties are losing relevance in the modern political equation. With the power of information and economic freedom of members of the society, people hardly support parties for their social needs; instead, they join smaller parties which appeal to them. The British Labour Party, an old mass party, has had to shift its ideological focus from the concept of masses to incorporate both aspects of mass parties and catch-all. However, it remains illogic that with a change in time, politics must evolve. Therefore, voters should be free to pursue their passion, rather than having large parties where the electorate blindly follows leaders. In Germany, for instance, people have made a shift to embrace new parties, with the same trend applying to Britain, albeit in a different way.

Works Cited

Bawn, Kathleen, et al. "A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands, and Nominations in American Politics." 23 March 2012.Web . 28 March 2018. .

Caramani, Daniele. Comparative Politics. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2208.

Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. London: 1954, 1959.

Katz, Richard S., and Mair, Peter. Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy. New York: SAGE Publications.1.1 (1995): 5-28.

Krouwel, André. "Otto Kirchheimer and the catch-all party ." West European Politics (2011): 23-40.

Mair, Peter, and Ingrid, van Biezen. Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies, 1980-2000. New York: SAGE Publications (2001): 5-21.

Rashke, Joachim. "Political Parties in Western Democracies*." European Journal of Political Research, 11 (1989): 109-114.

Seyd, Patrick. New Parties/ New Politics? A Case Study of the British Labour Party. New York: SAGE Publications. 5.3 (1999): 383-405.

Strom, Kaare. "A Behavioral Theory of Competitive Political Parties." American Journal of Political Science.34.2 (1990): 565-5980.

Wolinetz, Steven B. "Parties, Policy Styles and the Politics of Climate Change." Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, 2008.

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