The plight of the partisan

 Prof Lea Ypi


Prof Jonathan White







POLITICAL partisans have come in for some stick in recent years. Not only do we have to bear insults like being accused of being part of a dying breed or part of a crumbling political system, we often, despite ourselves, end up defending every cock-up committed by our party of choice out of a sense of loyalty to that party and our fellow members. We are told that parties are a menace, people are fed-up with party politics and should be replaced by a non-party system centred on the individual.

But here, at last, is a book that lends succour to the beleaguered party animal. And it does so in a thoroughly academic way and without trying to eliminate reason from the political landscape – as so many tiresome books have of late. As Jonathan White and Lea Ypi write in their 2016 book The Meaning of Partisanship: “One has learnt to be attentive to the travail of parties, and unlearnt how to see the inspiration behind the partisan stance.” The authors quote civil rights activist Angela Davis as saying: “I needed an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology. I was tired of ephemeral ad-hoc groups that fell apart when faced with the slightest difficulty.”

The authors argue that the ‘collaborative effort to turn individual beliefs and interests into generalizable principles and aims that are defined, proclaimed, and pursued in association with others is valuable from a democratic perspective, we have suggested, as it contributes to the processes of political justification without which the exercise of political power is arbitrary’. Of course, we know that there can be problems and none of what the authors argue is a defence of a particular political configuration. In addition, much of the argument against political parties is that they encourage tribalism. All this is true, but the authors add that if the ‘price of their association is a measure of intransigence, the sacrifice of some independence of thought and action, it is a price worth paying in view of the merits of political commitment’.

Those of us who try to ensure that their party remains true to its overall aims also gains some traction in this book. The authors argue, for example, that party structure should not mask its ‘principled position irreducible to sectoral interest alone’ even though ‘there is a real possibility that the organizing process distorts the terms of the association, putting its basis in question’. The authors are at pains to point out that, while it might be necessary from time-to-time to obscure the normative basis of the party, this should be seen as a pathology and should not become the main driver of the party.

Another important aspect of the party is that its structure should give voice to its partisans ‘proportionate to their position in the ethical life of the association’. And given the time and commitment required to effect lasting change, the ‘party structure should preserve the constancy of the partisan project’. The authors also point to the profound scepticism of ‘those who see fundamental transformations in the social and economic structure of contemporary societies as ruling out the possibility of marshalling  large numbers of people to a cause, or of achieving meaningful political change’. But they add that these are ‘challenges of course to democracy and democratic theory tout court‘. And I would add that part of the aim of the partisanship to which I ascribe is to restore the sense of the individual flourishing as part of the collective, as opposed to a lone wolf whose relationship with others is purely transactional.

The Meaning of Partisanship is an important corrective to the common view that party politics is almost entirely destructive. That does not mean that the current duopoly is good in itself or that there might be welcome changes in the fortunes of smaller parties with, say, the introduction of some form proportional representation. But it makes a powerful case for the benefits of action in association with others. The Meaning of Partisanship is published by Oxford University Press.

Dickie Bellringer