In modern political discourse, the term ‘democracy’ is often employed without any kind of qualification to describe the political system in many Western polities and the evolution towards such systems that we might wish to see encouraged in nations that have hitherto followed a different route. Government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ is how Abraham Lincolm famously articulated this principle, yet how it applies in practice depends on more than simply free and fair elections or separation of powers. Unless democratic institutions can be cultivated which are transparent and publicly accountable, it is easy to see how a so-called democracy may suffer a deficit that devalues the ideal. In particular, the manner in which political parties operate may be seen as one impediment to such an ideal. The ubiquity of undemocratic forces that characterise our current political system have contributed to widespread voter disenchantment, yet how often are these publicly questioned? Such forces arise from a competing neo-liberal ideal whereby adherents attempt to remove the barriers democracy presents them with.
On New Year’s Day 2014 The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne wrote a column in which he described the illuminating impact the work of political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair had upon his view of declining political participation. Katz and Mair’s essay The Emergence of the Cartel Party was influential in its explanation of the modern transformation of political parties and the concurrent decline in election turnouts and party membership. In a telling analysis, they write: ‘…with the emergence of the cartel party, comes a period in which the goals of politics, at least for now, become more self-referential, with politics becoming a profession in itself’.
Katz and Mair’s argument traces the history of party models and organisation as the franchise was gradually extended to those who protested their democratic exclusion. They derive the ‘cartel’ party model from the fraught political landscape of the 1970s and 1980s and the demise of the mass-party – a model based on different parties distinctly representing the interests of one particular demographic (e.g. the Labour movement).
The authors examine the impact of neo-liberalism and Thatcherism and how the cohesive social groups that had formed from 1945 onwards began to be dismantled. There were no longer coherent demographics on which parties could focus their message as communities and unifying forces, particularly of the working class, were systematically destabilised. This fragmentation resulted in the ‘catch-all’ party model as parties broadened and centralised their outlook, appealing to the entire electorate. In conjunction with media proliferation and American style leadership contests, politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan began to look towards statecraft as a political mainstay. Party politics was thus no longer focused on policy or principle but instead on the appearance of competence, strong leadership and the ability to create an effective media brand which voters could consume. The culmination of this process, in Katz and Mair’s view, is the cartel party model. A system in which parties compete over miniscule policy differences and collude to secure state subsidies to fund themselves as their detached and disaffecting character results in low membership and consequently insufficient funding.
This conclusion conjures up quite a bleak picture of contemporary politics. Rather than society consisting of the three traditional separate groups – the state, political parties and civil society – we have a scenario in which the gap between the parties and the state closes. In the cartel party formulation, politics becomes more overtly about ‘social stability’ and less about ‘social change’ whilst posing under the illusion of public participation.
Naturally, there are repercussions of such a system. This democratic deficit is capitalised upon by other parties who break onto the political scene and decry the characterless monotony of those more prominent. Nigel Farage has continually claimed there to be no significant difference between Labour and the Conservatives and has used such an argument to advance the popularity of UKIP. This trend is another that Mair has described. He writes of the rise of ‘populist’ parties and how, in light of the cartel, they become the new opposition, ostensibly representing popular interest, largely due to their ‘freedom from the constraints of governing’. This of course implies that any party can appear to voice popular concerns up until the point of governance, at which point statecraft overrides motives toward representation.
Oborne evidently shares UKIP’s concerns about the EU; as he goes on to argue that the cartel party and the ‘Hollowing of Western Democracy’ as a later posthumous work by Mair is titled  are entirely products of the European Union. For Oborne, if the UK were to exit, democracy would be restored and the bureaucrats and managerial class would be history. Mair’s anti-EU stance is indubitable but Oborne’s interpretation of these authors’ work is both simplistic and opportunistic.
It is at best naïve to assume that the rise of a managerial class is solely down to the EU. Rather, the ‘cartel party’ formulation supposes that managerialism is a product of catch-all politics and statecraft, thriving in tandem with neo-liberalism at both national and supranational levels. A stark example of the trend is the UK banking sector, an area of the economy continuing to evade much EU legislation, as banking multinationals continue to lavish absurd bonuses to managers, irrelevant of success and shareholders and customers are neglected. As opposed to much of the anti-EU Right, who would have it that the EU is anathema to business and, perhaps more importantly to them, nationalism, it may reasonably be argued in contradistinction that the EU is protective of business as a capitalist bloc that ensures free movement of capital, goods and labour.
The democratic criticisms of the EU remain legitimate, however, which leads to the central point: whether the democratic deficit is merely a consequence of the EU or part of a larger political picture? Capitalism itself has entered a new, more chaotic phase. As economies become more indebted, capital is increasingly volatile and unfettered and supranational organisations are beginning to concentrate power and attempt to preserve ‘social stability’ in polities and markets that time and again prove their instability. Democracy is not, and never has been, an essential part of this development. Popular democracy is in fact inimical to it, as workers protest for rights and against the inequities of the system, disrupting profit. It would appear then that the major constraint to democracy is not a pan-European project, but rather the neo-liberal model itself, with the EU simply one element of this. Only through realising and confronting the concentrating power of markets can we begin to see any legitimate forms of democracy.
In order to secure political power in the next election, we will see our politicians engage in their usual dalliance with the electorate. Yet until political parties openly distance themselves from corporate power and vested interest, the electorate will remain unconvinced. It may be possible to form a majority government in parliament and claim a political mandate on increasingly dwindling turnouts, yet the erosion of their credibility that these parties have seen must sooner or later come to a head. Whether our democracy is able to avert the catastrophe that this implies depends on new visionary political leadership, that understands corporatism will lead it only to destruction. Whether such leadership will emerge is moot.
 Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (2011) Verso
You can follow Joseph Ward on Twitter @smashthecartel