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Political Studies (1998), Vol. 46, pp. 61l-632
Effects of Party Organization on Performance during the 'Golden Age' of Parties
Measuring Party Performance

Unfortunately, the literature on party organization is rarely linked to that on organizational theory, which is based mostly on business firms.[20] Barney and Hesterly recently reviewed studies in organizational theory that ask, 'Why do some organizations out perform others?'.[21] One approach, called the resource-based view of the firm, builds on two assumptions: '(1) that resources and capabilities can vary significantly across firms (the assumption of firm heterogeneity), and (2) that these differences can be stable (the assumption of resource immobility)'.[22] Our present study reflects that approach; we assume that parties differ in their organizational features (resources and capabilities) and that these differences, while not immutable, are relatively stable over adjacent elections. Although firms and parties are both organizations, do they both operate in a marketplace? Schlesinger says yes:

elections are a type of political market, in which parties offer their candidates and their policies in exchange for the votes needed to gain office. In this market, parties gain what is surely their key resource, control of public office ... And, just as the economic market sends clear and unambiguous messages to the business firms concerning the success or failure of its product, the political market evaluates openly, automatically, externally, and with exquisite numerical precision the output of the political party.[23]

Political and economic markets are not identical; e.g., 'the political market operates much more discontinuously in accord with the electoral cycle'.[24] Competitive parties get their 'revenue reports' from periodic elections. Of course, parties use polls to estimate their status in the marketplace, but only votes define how parties fare against their competition in elections.

Most businesses focus on 'making profit' as the main criterion of success, and most parties focus on 'winning elections'. Party research, in the United States and in Europe, typically assesses electoral performance by votes won.[25] But seats won in parliament and winning control of government are other possible measures of electoral success. Moreover, parties have goals other than winning elections, so different criteria of party performance deserve consideration.[26] Among these are the party's success in shaping governmental policy, its ability to command cohesive behaviour from MPs, and the extent and breadth of the party's activities in promoting its message and attending to the needs of its members. All these conceptions of performance present their difficulties in measurement. Even more difficult is the party's success in shaping public policy, which, although crucial, is too complex to conceptualize and study in this essay.[27] The other aspects mentioned, however, are feasible to study with the ICPP data. Our research will therefore focus on assessing the party's electoral success, the breadth of its activities, and its cohesion. Party performance along each dimension will be assessed with our data set. To illustrate how parties were scored, we will cite scores assigned to the major parties in the United States and the United Kingdom for 1957-62.

Electoral Success

Electoral success can be measured in several ways--in terms of votes won, seats won, and governments formed. We have data on each indicator, but for this analysis we use only ~Electoral Strength', which is the average proportion of votes won in elections to the national legislature or parliament.[28] For the 95 parties in 28 'democratic' countries that held free or fairly free elections, the typical competitive party won 27% of the votes in elections held from 1957 to 1962.[29] We illustrate our scoring of electoral strength, with reference to parties in the US and UK. The Democrats and and Republicans respectively won 54% and 45% of the votes cast in House elections from 1957 to 1962, while the British Conservative and Labour parties won 49% and 44% of votes in parliamentary elections during the same period.

Unfortunately, party success cannot be directly measured by electoral strength, which is affected strongly and negatively by the number of parties in the system: the more parties, the harder it is to be 'successful' competing for vote shares. Because electoral success is relative to the party system, we adjust for system differences by recomputing the parties' votes as deviations from the mean values for all parties in that system. For example, the more successful parties--e.g.. Democrats in the US and Conservatives in the UK- obtained positive deviations while Republicans and Labour received negative scores. In essence, we are measuring electoral success relative to other parties in the system.

Breadth of Activities

Parties engage in activities that have functions for society. Activities are what parties actually do while functions are what scholars see as the social consequences of those activities.[30] Presumably, the more activities in which parties engage, the more multi-functional they are. At a point, activities and functions become blurred, as in the list of about a dozen functions attributed to American parties.[31] The ~breadth of activities' concept focuses on what parties actually do rather than on imputed consequences of their actions. It is measured by the sum of party scores on two distinct factor-analytic dimensions: (a) propagandizing ideas and programs and (b) providing for members' welfare.

The 'propagandizing' factor contained four indicators: (1) passing resolutions and platforms; (2) publishing position papers; (3) operating party schools; and (4) operating mass communications media. The 'welfare' factor contained five: (1) providing food, clothing, and shelter to members from party resources; (2) running employment services; (3) interceding with government on members' behalf; (4) providing basic education in addition to political education; and (5) providing recreational facilities or services.[32] Thus the breadth of activities scale is based on nine different indicators.

Due to missing data on the 'welfare' indicators, only 50 parties were scored on breadth of activities. The mean for all parties was 0.11. The US parties, which did few of these nine things, scored low on the scale (Democrats -0.47 and Republicans -0.67). The British parties scored somewhat higher (-0.24 for both Conservatives and Labour).


In a 'proper' party, party members are expected to carry out party policy, especially in voting on issues in the legislature, where a perfectly cohesive party would vote unanimously. Blondel even cites 'unity' as one of the four requirements of an ideal party, and Ozbudun contends, 'the more cohesive a party is,the greater is its role as a policy-making agent'.[33] The concept of Legislative Cohesion was operationalized by computing (or estimating) the Rice Index of Cohesion for samples of party votes on issues before the legislature.[34] It proved difficult to obtain the data for computing the index of legislative cohesion, and the index often was estimated from impressionistic judgments of the party's cohesiveness. Even so, we were only able to score 70 parties on their legislative cohesion, so there is considerable random measurement error in this measure of party performance.

The mean level of legislative cohesion for 70 parties was 0.85. The Democrats and Republicans averaged 0.63 and 0.65 respectively on voting in the House of Representatives during this period, while the Conservatives and Labour parties displayed virtually complete cohesion (1.0).

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