chapter  3
16 Pages

Professionalised parties, the electoral mechanism and the new wave of party leaders: The rise of David Cameron

This chapter is focused on the transformation of parties and politicians as they adapt to changing electorates and campaign environments. In contemporary politics, traditional links between parties and voters, based on socio-economic and ideological ties, have declined. Mass media has become central to elections. Parties, accordingly, have evolved, first into ‘mass’ or ‘catch-all’ parties, and then into ‘electoral-professional’ parties. Modern parties now rely less on traditional party organisations and ideologies, and more on centralised management structures and the inputs of a range of external ‘professionals’ from marketing, media and elsewhere. The questions are: have such developments made parties more responsive to electorates or less, and how has the process of professionalisation influenced parties and politicians themselves? Debates have focused on how recent waves of party professionalisation have

affected news contents and citizen engagement with politics. For critics, electoral coverage has been contaminated, turnouts have declined and public cynicism has risen. The professionalisation of party politics is part of the problem. For advocates, alternatively, the professionalisation of parties has made them more communicatively adept and more sensitive to public opinion generally. Declining turnouts and memberships have other causes. This chapter aligns itself with critics but pursues an alternative line of argu-

ment. Employing the ideas of Max Weber and Michel Foucault, it contends that the very processes of professionalisation work in ways that socially detach political leaders from wider society. As party leaders have ‘rationalised’ their parties, in order to impose themselves on new campaign environments and electorates, so parties and conditions, in turn, have ‘disciplined’ and separated their leading politicians. Consequently, we have a modern class of party leaders who are more proficient at winning elections and attuned to elite policy networks but, at the same time, are less connected socially to general publics. The chapter is in three parts. In the first, the literature and debates on party

professionalisation, and their impact on news content and electorates, are reviewed. As argued here, a key impact of professionalisation has been the

reshaping of parties and leading politicians themselves. In the second part the argument is tested by looking at the personal characteristics of MPs of the frontbenches of the two main UK parties. This is followed by an extended case study focusing on the rise of David Cameron as he unexpectedly gained the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005.