downsI’ve been re-reading Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy again for part of my MA course, and it reminded me that I need to write a long post explaining some of his ideas in there as they are pretty fundamental to how a lot of modern party politics is conceived and reported.

But I don’t have time for that today, so instead I’m going to share with you an interesting couple of paragraphs from it:

According to our hypothesis, party officials are interested only in maximizing votes, never in producing any social state per se. But voters are always interested in the latter. Therefore a rational voter who is not a party official himself cannot assume members of any party have goals similar to his own. But without this assumption, delegation of all political decisions to someone else is irrational – hence political can never be the agents of rational delegation.

There is only one exception to this rule: if a voter believes a certain party will seek to maximize votes by catering to the desires of a specific interest group or section of the electorate, and if his own goals are identical with the goals of that group or section, then he can rationally delegate all his political decision-making to that party.

Downs’ book looks at what’s rational for voters and parties to do, rather than what they necessarily actually do, but this section jumped out at me as an interesting description of what’s happened to party politics in Britain since the 50s. (There’s probably an interesting debate to be had about whether An Economic Theory Of Democracy was a self-fulfilling prophecy in some countries, with the question of if parties began acting in the way Downs predicted because he said they would, rather than vice versa, but we’ll leave that for another time)

What strikes me is that Downs’ ‘one exception’ matches with the way things were in the UK (and other countries too) in the 50s and 60s. Parties then defined themselves as the representatives of certain sections of the electorate and for most (though never all) members of those sections, it made sense to not think much about politics and assume that the party would get on with the job of representing them. This is the classic era where of cleavage politics where two parties represented each side of a cleavage within society. The classic societal cleavage – and the one on which most party systems developed around – was class, though there are others (church and state or centre and periphery, for instance). When there were strong cleavages in society, more people would closely identify with ‘a certain group or section of the electorate’, but as those cleavages have faded, the nature of the parties has changed and they are now more preoccupied with vote-seeking than representation, as Downs had assumed they would be from the start.

Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that the membership of political parties has dropped so precipitously since the 50s, followed by the support for the traditional parties from the electorate. However, what’s also dropped since that period – matching up with the first part of Downs’ prediction – is that the amount voters in general identify with parties has dropped dramatically as well (I don’t have the figures to hand right now, but they can be found in Elections and Voters in Britain). The number of people willing to describe themselves as ‘Tory’, ‘Labour’, ‘Liberal’ or whatever else has dropped over time, with a corresponding drop in their willingness to vote the same at every election. Ironically, becoming organisations that are more about seeking votes has made them less likely to get them.