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.


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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. We will report on these findings at the Annual Conference of the UK's Political Studies Association to be held in Edinburgh (6-8 April 2020), and subsequent publications.
Exploitation Route It's too early to assess this, as, so far, we have only fulfilled 1 out of 3 main objectives of the research, in line with our Timetable.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Partnership between University of Birmingham and Queen Mary University of London 
Organisation Queen Mary University of London
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 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 since the research started (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.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Project brief 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 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.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
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. At the time of reporting, roughly two months after setting them up, the Facebook account has 172 followers and the Twitter account has 706.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Public lectures about the research project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
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 (it now stands at 694).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020