This chapter looks at the nature and evolution of political parties in a number of European democracies. It analyses the important functions of political parties. It charts how they have developed over time. Starting with the social cleavage approach, the chapter addresses the origins of European party families and party systems. It then turns to the transformation of European party families and systems. It considers this both nationally and within the European Union (EU). It provides evidence of the ‘unfreezing’ of European party systems and thinks about whether a dealignment of traditional cleavage patterns can currently be witnessed. It asks: is there also a realignment along a new ‘cultural’ dimension of politics? Finally, the chapter addresses the evolution of party types from cadre over catch-all to modern entrepreneurial challenger parties.
This chapter looks at competition between parties. First, the chapter outlines the ways in which party systems are described and categorized, in terms of the number of parties (in other words, fragmentation) and their ideological position (polarization). The chapter then addresses the theological models that aim to explain party competition. The chapter uses the simple spatial model here which predicts that parties position themselves close to the centre of politics to appeal to the modern voter. It then looks at competition models. These models expect parties to champion issues they ‘own’. The chapter also looks at valence models which focus on competence, leadership traits and other non-party characteristics of candidates and parties. The chapter ends with a discussion of mainstream parties, looking at how they seek to respond to the rise of challenger parties.