Résumé : Most recent literature that analyzes parties from an organizational perspective focuses often on the concepts of intra-party democracy and party organizational democratization (Scarrow, 1999a; Scarrow and Kittilson, 2003; LeDuc, Niemi and Norris, 2002; Bosco and Morlino, 2007). Le Duc (2001) and Rahat and Hazan (2007) underline that the most used instrument for implementing this ‘democratization’ process is the enhancement of the inclusiveness of the methods for candidate and party leadership selection. The actors endowed with candidate and leader selection powers are the central actors in the functioning of the party according to many authors (Gallagher and Marsh 1988, Marsh 1993; Massari, 2004; Hazan and Rahat, 2010). At the moment, the most inclusive method identified by the literature for selecting candidates for elections or the party leader is represented by party open or closed primaries, i.e. internal direct elections by party members and, in the case of open primaries, supporters and voters (Cross and Blais, 2011; Kenig, 2009b).

In this study, we explore two specific dimensions of party politics: membership and internal activisms, on the one hand, and on the other hand the internal democratization processes and in particular those dealing with broadening the inclusiveness of leadership selection procedures. Therefore, this study integrates in particular the debate on the nature and consequences of party organizational democratization. The debate finds its origins both in the influential work of Michels on the “iron law of oligarchy” thesis but has been more recently boosted by the theories of May (1973), Mair (1994) and also the studies on intra-party democracy in the British Labour (Shaw, 1994; Russell, 2005).

However, we are interested in the point of view of members themselves on the consequences of internal democratization. We are interested on how members perceive these organizational changes, in whether they are frustrated form the actual consequences on their role and powers and whether they perceive them as a potential threat that could undermine their organizational position within the party. In order to respond to the debate on the consequences of intra-party democracy at individual level, we rely mainly on three questions. The main research questions of this study are thus the following: to what extent party organizational changes in the sense of greater democratization affect the membership role at individual level? How are these organizational changes perceived by members? To what extent members’ perceptions of their own role affect their behaviors and in particular their internal activism?

The aim of this study, thus, is to empirically assess the impact on members’ activism of party internal democratization and in particular of the perception of membership role. We are interested in whether party members’ attitudes are changing as a result of parties’ organizational changes, particularly if these changes are giving members more say over outcomes. This is a study of how (and whether) perceived roles affect behaviour. The independent variable is constituted by the members’ perception of their own role within party organizational structures and in particular with regard to the leadership selection methods, whilst the dependent variable is represented by the level of activism of party members, in terms of participation to party activities in general. In fact, the impact of party rules at individual level will be addressed, as well as how the perception of organizational rules affects individual attitudes and behaviors. In particular, the focus is on leadership selection methods that integrate party members at some point in the overall process (Lisi, 2009), such as direct elections (Hazan and Rahat, 2006). The case selection is thus implemented on the basis of the research question: the comparison is developed across parties (and not across time) using different instruments for enhancing intra-party democracy.

Therefore, we analyze the role perception, attitudes and behaviors of grass-roots members of three contemporary Western European parties: the Belgian French-speaking socialist party (Parti Socialiste, PS), the British Labour and the Italian Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD). Among the selected parties, one (PD) holds primaries open to all voters for selecting their leader and one (Belgian PS), on the contrary, has chosen the closed primary (OMOV) system. The British Labour Party uses an electoral college for electing its leader since 1981. The Electoral College method refers to a system in which specific groups are allocated a specific share of the leadership vote. In the case of the UK Labour, the votes are equally divided among its constituency members, the parliamentary caucus and the trade union members.

Concerning the first research question of our study, our empirical results underline that in the three selected cases organizational changes affect indeed the membership role at individual level and that grass-root members perceive very clearly this impact on their status and organizational rights, obligations and privileges. When grass-roots members evaluate their role within the party, in particular with regard to the procedure for selecting the leader and the involvement of non-members and passive members within party organization, their perceptions take into account their organizational power as defined, among other factors, also by their share of votes in leadership selection. Thus, we expect that PD members perceive their role as more blurred than Labour members and particularly than PS members. In the case of parties, such as the PS, adopting direct elections of the party leader only by the affiliates, the majority of the members are expected to perceive clearly the distinction of the position, privileges and functions between members and non-members and the extensive role reserved for the affiliates.

Our data show that the perception of own role vary among members, but also that many members perceive their own role as being rather blurred. They display in fact nuanced but generally negative attitudes towards the integration of voters and supporters within the selection of party leader. On the basis of our survey data, the observed variation in the perception of membership role within and between the three parties seems to correspond to what we expected. A higher proportion of PD surveyed members declare to perceive their role as blurred, while smaller proportions of PS and particularly labour respondents share this evaluation. In general, our data confirm that party members do not evaluate positively the fact that these formal privileges are extended not only to all individual members, not only to activists but even to passive ones, but also to party voters and supporters. Mair’s “activists’ disempowerment” thesis (Mair, 1994) seems to be supported by our data, at least in terms of individual perceptions.

Moreover, our data show that the degree of satisfaction with intra-party democracy significantly vary among parties and is generally not nearly as high as could be expected on the basis of party politics literature. If in the British Labour survey the responses of grass-roots members seem to form a more positive picture, with a great majority of member declaring that the party leader is not too powerful, the level of dissatisfaction with party functioning is rather higher in the other two parties. Nevertheless, PS members are fairly more convinced than PS members that the party internal decision-making is democratic. This is what we expected to find on the basis of our first hypothesis. In fact, our first hypothesis postulated that the perception of the role of party membership by affiliates in terms of (lack of) distinction between members and non-members affects inversely their level of satisfaction with the internal functioning of the party and their degree of perceived political efficacy. The stronger the perception of the blurred role of membership, the lower will be the level of political efficacy and specific support for the party. According to our data, among PD members the perception of the blurred, undefined role of members is rather high and so is the degree of dissatisfaction with intra-party functioning. On the contrary, within the other two parties and especially within the Labour, the role perception by grass-roots members is rather positive and well-defined and the level of specific support for the party is also higher.

The expectations formulated on the basis of our first hypothesis appear to be supported by the empirical data also with regard to the variations in the sense of external political efficacy of members. Our data seem consistent with the hypothesis, developed by several scholars (Katz and Mair, 1995; Carty, 2004; Bolleyer, 2009), that expanding the leadership selectorate and granting formal powers to party members and supporters may hide, on the other hand, the perception by enrolled members to be actually loosing power. On the basis of our data, it is possible to assert that grass-roots members seem to be aware of the possibility of a trade-off between extreme inclusiveness of decision-making procedures and actual centralization of organizational power in the hands of party elites.

With regard to the third research question of this study, our results confirm that indeed members’ perceptions of their own role, in relation to internal democratization, affect their behaviors and in particular their internal participation. The three parties appear to have different features in terms of internal activism, at aggregate but in particular at individual level. Secondly, not only the overall level of intra-party activism of grass-roots members vary between and within the three selected parties, but appears to be influenced by members’ attitudes towards the party. In fact, our second hypothesis postulated that the levels of specific support for the party and political efficacy of party members impact directly on their level of activism. The lower the level of political efficacy and specific support for the party, the lower will be the degree of activism of all members (as well as the quality of the activities they perform) and vice-versa. In a party holding open and direct elections to choose its leader, party membership is thought to be divided between a highly active avant-garde and a larger mass of inactive affiliates, feeling inefficacy, frustrated with intra-party democracy and perceiving their own role as blurred and undefined. Consequently, dissatisfied or low efficacy members are argued to participate less.

Our data only partially support the expectations. In fact, the impact of the sense of external efficacy is clear and strong in all the three cases, while on the contrary the relationship between specific support and intra-party activism is less clear-cut than expected. The results are therefore nuanced with regard to the expectations formulated in the second hypothesis of this study. The explanatory power of external efficacy and specific support in terms of internal mobilization is only partially supported by our data. Therefore, the evaluation of the consequences of the implementation of party organizational changes such as the adoption of open primaries depends on what party elites are interested in: if the goal is to assure membership loyalty, adopting open primaries is not a good way to strengthen membership involvment in the party.

We believe that real intra-party democracy is normatively impossible with regard to the position of members. Organizational power cannot be too dispersed among different units without jeopardizing not only effective functioning of the party, as the old debated on the trade-off between democracy and efficacy asserted (Duverger, 1951; Panebianco, 1988), but also the incentives for internal participation of the party base. Party members are well aware that internal power cannot be too dispersed. From the point of view of members, a party should have a clear chain of command and should be composed by elites, activists and members. Each one of them should also be endowed with clearly defined tasks and responsibilities. In conclusion, we believe that intra-party democracy is a symbolic element of party organization but not as actually implementable.

In sum, intra-party democracy does not mean the same for different party units. For party elites, it represents a process for either legitimizing the party, changing party image, mobilizing electoral support, managing internal faction or even indirectly increasing their own organizational room for manoeuvre. For party members, intra-party democracy represents an incentive for mobilizing and a political identification tool until a certain point. After that, it becomes a threat to their rights and their status. For grass-roots affiliates, intra-party democracy is not a value per se, but it depends on its real intensity and actual implementation. In conclusion, at theoretical level, we can conclude that party organization theories should increasingly take into account membership’s point of view. On the contrary, at practical level, we can conclude that parties should adapt their strategies with regard to intra-party democracy according to their goal. If party elites are interested in tightening their grip on internal decision-making while increasing their room for manoeuvre and legitimizing party image at the same time, increasing intra-party democracy could be the best organizational strategy. On the contrary, if the leadership’s aim is to mobilize members and guarantee a stable and loyal membership, then it should be noted that increasing intra-party democracy is not always the best choice. To this regard, it might be useful for party elites to find other and more effective ways to loyalize member.