In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

The Role of Political Parties in Parliament

Posted 6/27/2013 by Grant Mitchell


I have always said that the parliamentary system is the most successful system of government on the face of the earth, having been in place for upwards of 900 years. It has lasted so long because it works, and one of the reasons it works is because of the party system. There are other reasons as well, including question period, but I will discuss some of the other reasons in another post.

The party system is often criticized for a number of reasons, each of which can be refuted. The criticisms and my rebuttals are here:

1. One of the main criticisms is the idea of partisanship. Partisanship, in its negative sense, is somehow seen to be a force for entrenched positions and a lack of cooperation and vicious fighting. This is not entirely the case. I expect that the Conservatives do not disagree with me because I am a Liberal; they disagree with me because they think I am wrong. 

For example, even if we are expected, in the interest of non-partisanship, to agree with them that the best way to reduce crime is to put more people in jail, the scientific evidence and the ethical arguments are to the contrary. Yet the Conservatives still think, for whatever reason, that putting people in jail is the only way to make streets safer.

It is more likely that politicians become entrenched because they are highly driven people with strongly held views. If it were only political parties and partisanship that accounted for an apparent inability to cooperate politically, then there would never be impasses and conflict at the local level.

If you really don't like partisanship, have a look at Russia where there is essentially one-party rule.

2. Due to party discipline, representatives are constrained from representing the interests of their constituencies. As in most things in life, there is often a tension between different interests, in this case, the interests of constituencies and the interests of the country (or province or municipalities depending on the level of government). 

I remember speaking with a farmer who insisted that representatives should represent their constituencies above all else. I responded that that would be fine if he never wanted to have another rural road paved, because there were more urban seats than rural seats.  Sometimes, for the good of the country, an MP may well have to support things that are not directly favourable to their own constituencies.

The party system in the parliamentary system allows this to happen because it allows for a majority develop around, one of, an often largely unpopular number of possible solutions to a problem.

The US experience where there is very little party discipline makes for the most unseemly form of brokerage politics where representatives bargain their vote for constituency gain. I am reminded of one Congressman, for example, who voted for the banking bailout bill only after insisting that there be funding for an archery facility in his riding.

Moreover, while people will say that they dislike the party system, they hardly ever vote for independents. In fact, they hardly ever vote for independents that left their party on what they explained as a point of principle. If you don't run for a party, you generally don't get elected.

3. Party discipline means that the leaders can push their caucus members around. This may be the case sometimes, but leaders are vulnerable to their caucus members pushing back. Witness the problems Harper is having now. Even if they do not directly push back, discontent in a caucus is a cancer that has finished many a leader. No successful leader can completely disregard their caucus members.

The party system provides three very important services for the parliamentary system:

1. It organizes a disparate number of ideas, on a disparate number of issues, into packages that facilitate voters' choice in elections.

2. It allows for decisions to be made on difficult issues where there is no clear solution supported by a majority of the population.

3. It provides for one source of structured input into politicians, through the debate and policy development work that occurs amongst party members.

So, don't accept the easy conventional wisdom that our party system is bad. It reflects reality and facilitates democracy.

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