Through our first set of meetings in 2014-2015 we began work on a document that summarized some of our perspectives on the role of party congresses and intra-party politics. The most updated version of that perspective is encapsulated in the Party Congress Research Group Manifesto.
Party Congress Research Group Manifesto
Political parties play a crucial role in organizing electoral competition, developing policy, and coordinating government activities in democratic politics. There is a substantial body of research on the causes and consequences of parties’ behavior, however, little is known about parties’ internal decision-making process and the ways in which intra-party actors’ goals translate into the party’s observed behavior. Several projects are dedicated to mapping the official rules of intra-party politics, yet there is no systematically comparable cross-national information on the preferences of intra-party actors. Through studying the rules alone we cannot fully characterize how the preferences of members, activists, elected representatives and leaders translate into party policy and thereby the infamous black box of intra-party politics remains closed. To date, there is little research dedicated to studying parties’ organizational meetings and the goals of the actors in these meetings. These meetings are important as the mark the primary opportunity for party members to engage, propose new ideas and to vote on the party’s policies and leadership. Given the importance of parties for the functioning of democracy, party meetings and the intra-party decision-making process often expressed in these meetings are crucial for understanding the representation process.
The PCRG takes as its mission the goal of studying parties as decision-making bodies. Moving beyond the treatment of party organizations as a collection of like-minded individuals, we add that party meetings perform a number of purposes necessary to the functioning of parties. Specifically, the project develops an informational perspective. Foremost, we propose that party congresses, along with other bodies and less formal means of communication, reduce uncertainty about the distribution and goals of intra-party actors and provide a forum for the making and/or legitimation of difficult decisions. This allows the party leadership to select a party platform that maintains their supporting coalition and mobilizes the party base for campaign purposes. We focus on party congresses as one of the most visible manifestations of intra-party communication.
We conceptualize parties as a group of actors seeking to influence government policy and behavior through collectively controlling government. Party organizations require actors to fill a number of roles such as financing and manning campaigns, representing the party in office and acting as the party’s public face. Although these actors might broadly share a similar policy goal, the existence of a large number of geographically disperse actors from a range of experiences and socio-economic backgrounds assures the existence of real differences in actors’ preferred policies or strategies. Personal ambition is another driver of intra-party differentiation. Despite intra-party diversity, election campaigns and controlling government require parties to act as unified while simultaneously allowing for potential diversity that could divide the party. In parliaments, party leaders have multiple tools to demand unity, but they face serious uncertainty about the distribution of intra-party preferences external to parliament. Party congresses provide party and intra-party factional leaders with the opportunity to observe the range and concentration of intra-party diversity. Likewise, party members and activists use these opportunities to become informed about the leadership’s policy priorities. Altogether, by reducing uncertainty, we believe that party congresses increase the efficiency and success of party decisions and balance activist and member support with the electoral and government needs of the elected representatives and leaders.
To empirically examine our informational perspective on intra-party politics, the PCRG will pursue this goal by collecting documents from a range of parties and countries with the explicit goal of cross-national comparison. In particular, we will collect the speeches, motions and documents circulated at party meetings over time. We will use these documents to apply a common coding technique that facilitates easy and robust cross-national analysis. To facilitate collaboration, we will coordinate a series of conferences and meetings between the principal researchers. Following the preliminary meeting that was held at the ECPR Research Sessions in Essex (July 2014), we have held meetings in Vienna (2015), Milan (2017), and Vienna (2018).