The Nature of Parliamentary Parties

By Larry Gambone

There is unhappiness among many Green Party of Canada supporters that the “establishment” candidate won the leadership. This after the GPC “establishment” weighed in against the eco-socialist candidates. There is also the generations-long failed attempts to drag the NDP to the left, an act of masochism, if there ever was. Usually people blame the party leadership for selling out or being undemocratic. This is only a superficial way of looking at the problem.
Parliamentary parties of the left always start out militant and radical. Over time they move increasingly to the right. It happens so often, it is almost like a law of nature. All contemporary social democratic parties started out as socialist parties whose goal was to replace capitalism with socialism the moment they achieved power. Within two decades these parties became purely reformist and socialism was for “Sunday sermons.” By the 1990s they had abandoned even the goal of significant reforms within capitalism and embraced neoliberal ideology. These parties – including the NDP – are now center parties. Many of the Green Parties have had a somewhat similar trajectory, starting in the 1980s as very anarchistic and New Left and then evolving more toward typical parliamentary parties. (The difference with the social democratic parties is the Greens become moderate without abandoning the core of their platform – ecological sanity).

When something happens constantly like this you have to look for systemic and structural causes. The cause for the slide to centrism by radical parties can be found in two areas. 1. The nature of parliamentary politics and the effect it has on parties who are serious about engaging in the such politics. 2. The internal structure of the political party.
A tiny, irrelevant sect can remain pure, but once you are serious about getting elected you are bound to make compromises. First off, your platform has to be broad and inclusive enough to draw in voters. Once elected, you have to get results otherwise you won’t get re-elected. This means compromise and trade-offs with groups to your right. Compromise can quickly become a habit. The longer one is reelected the more one begins to think like a parliamentarian and less like the ordinary Janes and Joes who elect you.
You want to run candidates who are electable – this means people who are photogenic, say the right things and become “personalities.” They may not, however, be the most radical or ideological of party members. As the party gains influence the ideological become increasingly seen as a threat to getting MP’s elected. When a party gets politically established, the MPs take on an ever greater leadership role. They, and their handlers, begin to take the party away from the ideologues and grass roots militants. The party ends up a “vote-catching machine” and policies are designed to gain votes rather than pursue a coherent social or economic goal.
The internal structure of political parties leads to a dimming of radicalism. This is Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” which he developed from studying the Social Democratic Party of Germany early in the 20th Century. Parties are based around representation, not delegation. Thus, one elects party officials for a set term and it becomes difficult to dislodge them. The party leaderhip is a hierarchy and the longer one is a member of that group, the more one has the time to develop a loyal band of supporters. Parties typically use simple majority democracy and it is thus easy to stack meetings with one’s supporters. Once established, a party hierarchy can control credentialing (who is acceptable as party reps or MPs) and the party media. The party hierarchy can send in organizers to undermine and takeover recalcitrant party branches. Since party radicals are also the party ultra-democrats, their isolation or purging means there is even less restraining the authoritarianism of the party hierarchy. Bureaucracy tends to grow and the party develops a whole stratum of paid staffers, who quite naturally know who pays their wages.
The “iron law” does not work in every organization. Anarcho-syndicalist unions have largely avoided it. They have done this through radically decentralizing power to the branches, by a bare minimum of paid officials, recallable delegates rather than representatives, and term limits for elected officials. Any member and any branch can propose modifications to union policies and these are voted on by the membership on an annual basis. Delegates to convention are selected by the branches and the number of delegates per branch is dependent upon the number of branch members.
The Green Parties in their original form adopted some of these anarchist concepts and added the modified consensus democracy which grew out of the direct action environmental movements. Radical democracy was soon found in some ways to be incompatible with being a parliamentary party. (says a lot about parliamentary democracy) The Greens, while still keeping a much higher level of internal democracy than other parties, modified and became more like regular parties. As they gained in votes and MPs, the pressure has been ever greater in that direction.

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