The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: POLSIS


It is often claimed that political parties in Europe are losing their traditional function of bridging the gap between citizens and the political elites. Whereas the 20th century saw the rise of political parties characterised by large memberships organised in local branches, it is now widely assumed that the era of the 'mass parties' is over. In a well-known article, for instance, Katz and Mair (1995) argued that political parties are converging towards a new organisational model: the 'cartel party'. In essence, this model entails that parties become increasingly intertwined with the state, whilst ties with their grass-root membership, or what is left of it, weaken. Parties, in other words, become actors of the state rather than society.

We argue, however, that it may be too soon to speak of the end of the mass party. Particularly among certain parties challenging the traditional political establishment (or 'cartel'), this party model is ostensibly still popular. In our study we focus in particular on parties of the populist radical right (PRR), which currently pose the most serious electoral threat to mainstream parties and which, despite several prominent exceptions, have also been shown to often adopt mass organisations and create communities of loyal partisans activists (Heinisch and Mazzoleni, 2016). PRR parties, then, do not only pose a challenge to established politics, but also to the theory that the age of mass parties is over.

In our research we aim to understand why the mass party is still a popular model among the PRR, from the perspective of both the party members and party elites. On the one hand, we seek to understand why different groups of people become activists of these parties and what different typologies of party activists contribute to their parties. On the other, we want to understand why the leaderships of populist parties go against the 'tide of disengagement' characterising their competitors: what are, in their eyes, the advantages of adopting rooted models of party organisation. Crucially, answering these questions will allow us to build a more nuanced conceptual framework for assessing differential party development; rather than converging around a similar model of organisation, political parties are likely to organise their party in a way that best suits their aims and ideology.

We take a comparative case study approach, and investigate the 'life of the party' within four seasoned PRR parties which are well established within their party systems: the Italian Northern League, the Flemish Interest in Belgium, The Finns Party in Finland, and the Swiss People's Party. To map the parties' formal and informal organisational structures, and shed light on party members' and elites' motivations, our study combines a variety of methods: it involves a study of secondary and party literature, an original survey conducted among party members, life-history interviews with party activists, and semi-structured elite interviews with party representatives and executives. We have received confirmation from the parties that they are willing to participate in the research.

Our research, first of all, benefits the academic community: there is still a serious gap in our knowledge of how party organisations operate, in particular regarding the role of members and activists (Gauja and Van Haute, 2015). By advancing our knowledge of what happens inside PRRPs, we seek to address the serious shortage of comparative party research on this topic. The project will also have benefits beyond academia, as we will listen to the activists of populist parties themselves, and capture in detail the individual, cultural, social and organisational drivers of populist sentiment at a highly critical juncture in the life of the EU. Our findings thus have implications not only for political parties more generally, but also for organisations interested in the quality of Western democracy.

Planned Impact

Beyond generating knowledge about PRRP organisations, our research findings have important implications for discussions surrounding political participation and party organisation at large, and are relevant to a variety of stakeholders. The project significantly contributes to understanding causes of the widespread perception of a 'democratic deficit' affecting both national and EU institutions, by listening to the activists of populist radical right parties themselves, mapping their motivations and convictions, and understanding how PRRPs work. Beneficiaries of the research can be grouped into the following categories (see "Pathways to Impact" for a list of specific organisations that will be targeted):

1) Policy makers, including ministries, branches of government and EU institutions. These organisations follow the rise of PRRPs often out of concern for the legitimacy of contemporary democratic systems, and some of them are in a position to design policies countering citizen disengagement.
2) Institutions responsible for the management, communication and promotion of the European Union's image at national levels. PRRPs are arguably the most vehement and electorally successful opponents of the EU, and their Eurosceptic arguments resonate with a considerable share of European citizens, also affecting the rhetoric and policy positions of mainstream parties across the continent. If the EU is to improve its democratic legitimacy - which seems imperative - it needs to understand what drives the discontent of PRRP supporters.
3) Think-tanks and NGOs, as well as organisations facilitating debate and the exchange of information among policy makers and diplomats at the highest levels, or running capacity building programmes, as these have a particular interest in the quality of democracy and civil society.
4) Media organisations, as they report on the successes and setbacks of PRRPs across Europe, but often lack the time and means to explore the motivations of PRRP activists in any depth, as well as whatever makes PRRPs' organisations effective.
5) The informed observer of political events (i.e. citizens/voters).

To reach these stakeholders the project team utilises Knowledge Exchange opportunities (relying in particular on the expertise of CI Lucas), as well as traditional impact generation activities, including reports and briefs, the organisation of workshops and the deployment of an already high profile website. These activities aim to increase understanding of the following areas:

- The causes of the widespread perception of a "democratic deficit" affecting both national and EU institutions - thereby capturing the political, social and cultural drivers of populist sentiment (and ressentiment) at a highly critical juncture in the life of the EU.
- Linked to the above, the motivations of people who engage in political activities, by asking what draws them to different kinds of activism, including within PRRPs.
- The workings of party organisations, by identifying and exploring the advantage accrued by a selection of PRRPs as they commit themselves to maintaining costly and complex mass organisations. This knowledge will help challenge the assumption that the strength of PRRPs in Europe is due merely to "charismatic leadership" and allow us to draw lessons that can be applied to party organisations more generally.
- The nature and features of political participation in post-industrial societies, including the survival of more "traditional" means of participation, alongside new ones made possible by new technologies.

The project's findings will be relevant for, and factored into the work of, the different categories of beneficiaries and stakeholders listed above. They have the potential to beneficially influence the further evolution of policies aimed at fostering political participation.


10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/R011540/1 30/07/2019 30/08/2021 £727,274
ES/R011540/2 Transfer ES/R011540/1 31/08/2021 29/04/2022 £124,892
Description The research has taken a comparative case study approach, as originally envisaged. After the recruitment of four research fellows, the team has gained access to the four populist radical right parties that had originally been selected for the study: the Italian League, the Flemish Interest in Belgium, The Finns Party in Finland, and the Swiss People's Party. Via the study of statutes and party literature, and elite interviews with party representatives and executives familiar with their party's organisation, the team has accomplished the first main objective of the research:

OBJECTIVE 1. To describe the ideology of the selected parties and explain how they are organised.

Each research fellow has produced a structural commented summary of the party, including an organisational chart mapping party structure at national, regional and local levels. This was complemented by an analysis of ideological positions and key policies of each party. Taken together, the documents produced by the research team provide answers to the following questions:
1a. How is each party structured at national and sub-national levels?
1b. What formal and informal hierarchies and power relations exist between levels?
1c. What are each party's ideological positions and substantive policies?

We now have evidence of the extent to which these parties are highly centralised, with little power being devolved to subnational and local units. The role and power of the leader within them (both as stated in statutes and via informal authority) remains considerable in all cases.

After submission of the first report, as European countries entered lockdown and as conducting fieldwork was no longer possible, I swapped the remaining 2 objectives of the research and proceeded to address n. 3 first:

OBJECTIVE 3 (Party elites and member socialisation): Identifying and explaining the reasons behind the adoption of the mass party model by the selected parties, and rethinking theories of political participation, party development and party organisation in light of: a) the identified strengths of the mass party model; b) its suitability to PRRPs; and, c) the reasons for such suitability.

This objective was addressed mainly by conducting online interviews via Zoom. All respondents were political representatives or party officials, as originally envisaged. We also requested further documentation from the selected parties. Although we are running late on our original timetable due to the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, the research team has now completed the following:

1. All planned interviews with party representatives (circa 100 overall) conducted online;
2. Transcriptions of interviews in the original languages
3. Translation of all transcripts
4. Analysis of transcripts via N-Vivo.

After submission of the last report, the team has moved on to accomplish OBJECTIVE 2 (Grassroots and party activities): To explain why different groups of people becomes activists of PRRPs, why they stay and whatever different typologies of activists contribute to the parties. Unfortunately, we were unable to run the online survey that had originally been planned, as, by now, we had accumulated a 4 month delay due to the pandemic. Secondly, and contrary to our hopes, it still wasn't possible to interview respondents face-to-face, due to new waves of covid-19 resulting in new restrictions in the countries relevant to our project. Therefore, all planned interviews for OBJECTIVE 2 were again conducted online. The following was completed:

1. All planned interviews with grassroots members (circa 110 overall) conducted online
2. Transcriptions of interviews in the original languages
3. Translation of all transcripts
4. Partial analysis of transcripts via N-Vivo.

The analysis of all transcripts will be completed by end of February 2022, thus allowing PI and Co-I to start the comparative analysis of the data.
Exploitation Route It is too early to assess this, as the award is still active
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Our findings have been used by journalists to inform their writing on populist parties in Europe and also, more specifically, political developments in the 4 countries we study. As explained in some detail elsewhere on the form, the research team has been very active: giving interviews to prominent media organisations; organising webinars to disseminate research findings; writing articles, both for the project's own website and other blogs; running social media accounts, through which to disseminate the work of the team.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Collaboration with University of Surrey 
Organisation University of Surrey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution There was no change in the input provided by me and my team (see following answer).
Collaborator Contribution The University of Surrey was added as a collaborator as the PI Daniele Albertazzi was employed by them as Professor of Politics from 1 Sept 2021, and left the University of Birmingham. Hence the University of Surrey became the lead institution in this project and took over responsibility for: managing the budget, providing intellectual leadership to the team, guaranteeing the ethical conduct of the research and producing the deliverables.
Impact The collaboration allowed the research to continue despite the PI having moved institution.
Start Year 2021
Description Partnership between University of Birmingham and Queen Mary University of London 
Organisation Queen Mary University of London
Department School of Politics and International Relations
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This research project was always envisaged as a collaboration between the two institutions. While the PI and one of the Co-I are based in Birmingham, a second Co-I (Stijn Van Kessel) is based at Queen Mary (London).
Collaborator Contribution Dr Stijn van Kessel has been fully involved with all research and dissemination/impact activities. As an expert in populist parties throughout Europe (ideology, discourse, voters, electoral performance) he has played a key role in: completing the preliminary research before the research fellows started their fieldwork; contributing to finalising what aspects of party organisation needed investigating; contributing to the analysis of the collected data, feeding into the production of the outputs listed elsewhere.
Impact All items listed elsewhere on the form are a product of this collaboration. The project - as approved by ESRC - was always going to be run in collaboration between the two institutions.
Start Year 2019
Description 2 project briefs sent out to NGOs, government officials, MPs, Think-tanks and the media 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A project brief describing the objectives of the research was sent out in 2019 to 117 individuals and/or organisations, which can be divided into the following categories: a) journalists (all British national media organisations, plus international ones such as AlJazeera, Washington Post, Reuters, Deutsche Welle; b) UK MPs and European MEPs; c) Researchers for international think-tanks and NGOs, such as Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, Demos, Wilton Park, Counterpoint, Chatham House. They were invited to sign up to a distribution list so as to receive further briefs, updates and invitations to our forthcoming impact events, and 46 of them did so.

In September 2020 (after the first report was submitted to ESRC) a second project brief focusing on the first findings of the research was sent out to 175 individuals and/or organisations, which also fall into the categories described above. Thanks to the webinars organised by the team to disseminate our research (see elsewhere on this form) we have been able to reach even more individuals working in these fields, hence we now hold contact details for 230 people/organisations who wish to receive news from the project. All of them have now been sent the two briefs mentioned above, and will receive our forthcoming "Brief 3".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Engagement with media 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The PI gave eleven interviews to the international media before the first report was submitted to ESRC (including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Skynews and the Independent), drawing on the results of the research to comment on political developments in the countries under investigation.

From March 2020 onwards (that is, after submission of the first report to ESRC), the PI gave a further 12 interviews with the international media (including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Politico-eu and Euronews). He continued to draw on the results of the research to comment on politics in various European countries.
Moreover, in the same period, other members of the research team were interviewed a further 14 times by the international media (including Yle 1 TV, News 24, Euronews). Research fellows drew on the results of their research to comment on politics in the European countries they study.

In February 2022, the research team has given a total of 149 interviews to the international media on populism in Europe. These include interviews with high profile organisations, such as the BBC, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Reuters and Sky News.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2021,2022
Description Project website, Twitter and Facebook accounts set up 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We set up a website that provides: 1. Information about the project and the research team; 2. Information about planned academic and impact activities; 3. Blog articles written by team members concerning developments affecting the selected parties being studied, based on our original research.

We also set up Twitter and Facebook accounts to maximise the dissemination and reach of the items published on the website and keep followers updated about our research. As of 3 March 2021, the Twitter account has 1,454 followers and the Facebook account has 296.

Since the start of the project the principal investigator and other members of the research team have written 44 articles commenting on recent developments in the politics of the 4 countries covered by the project: Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Finland, as well as populism in Europe. They were written for: a) the project's own website (; b) academic blogs, such as: The Conversation, LSE blog, The UK in a Changing Europe, the Centre for Constitutional Change; c) newspapers, such as the Italian Domani. When the original articles appeared somewhere other than the project website, they were always republished by the latter to reach our followers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021,2022
Description Public lectures about the research project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Around 100 people overall (postgraduate students, undergraduate students and academics) attended three separate events at which the PI was invited to speak about topics related to the current research project:

29 October 2019. Invited Panellist for 'Europe in Question roundtable: Democratic Backsliding in Europe', University of Warwick, Department of Politics and International Studies.

9 December 2019. Jean Monnet lecture on "'No Regionalism Please, We are Leghisti!' The Transformation of the Italian Lega Nord Under the Leadership of Matteo Salvini" for the programme "Challenges to European Integration: Multidisciplinary Perspectives" at Oxford Brookes University,

12 February 2020. Presentation of "The Survival of the Mass Party" project at the London School of Economics. Event organised and funded by the Anti-Politics Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association.

The events generated lively debate among attendees about populism in Europe, and stimulated increased interest in the research. This is evidenced by the increased number of followers for the project's Twitter account in the following days.

After submission of my first report to ESRC, members of our research team have organised the following online webinars in order to disseminate the findings of our research. (The pandemic meant that in person presentations and seminars could not be organised throughout 2020 and beyond):

11 May 2020. 'Populism and Activism in Europe Today'. Presentation of the findings of our research project, with principal and co-investigator. Co-organised by our research project and EA Worldview.

15 October 2020. 'Populism Around The World: Beyond The "Charismatic Leader". Presentation of the research project by Principal and Co-Investigator. Co-organised by our research team and University College Dublin (Clinton Institute).

22 October 2020. 'Populism Around The World: Populism in Europe and the USA'. Co-organised by the project's research team and University College Dublin (Clinton Institute). Including the principal investigator as one of the panellists.

24th February 2021. 'New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe: populists vs. populists'. Webinar organised by the project's research research team. 120 people enrolled for this event alone. Chaired by the principal investigator.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021