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Paul D. Webb, "Are British Political Parties in Decline?" Party Politics , 1 (July, 1995), 292-322.

First Paragraph:
The idea that political parties might be 'in decline' is hardly new in western political science. Indeed, the theme probably figured initially in the American literature in the mid-1960s and has continued to develop since that time (see, for example, Dennis, 1966; Fisher, 1980; Lawson and Merkl, 1988; Wattenberg, 1990; Selle and Svansand, 1991). The motion of party decline is in fact multi-faceted and complex, but its essential qualities can be stated briefly for all that. For instance, Howard Reiter summarizes it in terms of the view that parties in general are

...less determinative of the attitudes and behavior of political actors on both the mass and elite levels, less highly regarded, and less likely to inspire the electoral act than they once were.

In a number of western democracies examples can be found of observers who perceive parties to be 'in decline', or at least under severe pressure in these or other senses. In Germany, for instance, the literature is littered with references to the phenomenon of parteienverdrossenheit, a crisis of party legitimacy. Survey literature in that country has produced much evidence that citizens are disillusioned with the motivations, true concerns and effectiveness of the parties (Poguntke, 1993: 2). Even the President of the Republic has openly criticized the parties on some of these counts (Scarrow, 1994: 24). A similar, and probably even more intense phenomenon, is apparent in Italy. The crisis of party legitimacy there, it should be emphasized, has deep roots which precede the stunning tangentopoli(bribesville) scandals of the 1990s. In the UK, left-wing intellectuals such as Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, have contrasted the erosion of party-society links with burgeoning non-partisan associative life of the country. In this context, he argues that the established model of representative politics, which focuses on the parties in Westminster, constitutes something of an impasse for democracy and that it should be supplanted by the development of new forms of political participation (Jacques, 1993). In similar vein Geoff Mulgan, director of the independent think-tank DEMOS, asserts that 'it is hard to see the secular decline of the party reversing' (Mulgan, 1994a: 18). According to Mulgan, this decline is associated with a gap between the ethos and practice of democracy: 'all over the world', we are told, 'this gap is fueling political crisis', from parteienverdrossenheit to the rise of Ross Perot and Silvio Berlusconi. Parties and parliament, he insists,are the culprits in much of this, stuck as they are in the 19th century-'centralized, pyramidal, national with strictly defined rules of authority and sovereignty' (p. 16; see also Mulgan, 1994b).

Figures and Tables:
Table 1: Real income of party head offices in Western Europe.
Table 2: UK party head office real income, 1964 and 1989.
Table 3: Number of employees of party head offices in Western Europe.
Table 4: Change in central and local party staffing in the UK.

Last Paragraph
Whatever the precise truth of these claims, the essential and general point about the centrality of parties for processes of interest aggregation and policy-making has recently been powerfully reinforced by an impressive piece of comparative research on parties in government since 1945.After an extensive examination of the association between what parties say and what they actually do when in office, Hans-Dieter Klingemann and his colleagues conclude that:

Political parties are the major actors in the system that connects the citizenry and the governmental process...political parties aggregate demands into loosely coherent policy packages...Thus, they are crucial to decision making and implementation. From this perspective, political parties must choose policies.They have to rule and they have to take responsibility for their decisions. They are the major actors in the representative democratic systems when it comes to solving societal problems.

In short, even though political parties in the UK may have to contend with challenges in the fields of interest articulation and political communication,they remain vital for the functions of interest aggregation, political recruitment and decision-making. We might add that they continue to serve as conduit (though admittedly a shrunken one) of political participation and have long been important to the political integration of social groups, thereby helping to legitimize and stabilize the entire political system. Taken together,the arguments and evidence of this article suggest a number of things, therefore.First, we should say that functionally related reasons for what might be regarded as the partial 'decline' of British political parties can be identified , as suggested by critics like Mulgan and Jacques. But these are the strongest terms in which a case for decline can be stated, and they are hardly resounding. The evidence of 'decline' is at best patchy; our overall review of the data indicates that it consists of the gradual rise of partisan detachment in society (though there is little downright hostility), which in turn has undermined membership levels and constituency organization. Against this, parties continue to fulfill a number of crucial political functions, benefit from the continuing propensity of the electorate to see public life in partisan terms, and have most probably strengthened and professionalized their head office organizations. Overall, we should not be surprised by such changes as have occurred; change is endemic to the human condition and party life is as caught up in all this as anything else.But it is not necessarily a passive victim of change, and has shown evidence of its capacity to respond to a changing environment the world over. From this perspective, it may be more appropriate to speak of the phenomenon of party adaptation rather than that of party decline.