Archive | June, 2011

CEE parties: Gardeners’ World or Jurassic park?

A slow train wends it way through the tower blocks of South London to get me to plusher territory near Runnymede, where  Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) is holding its annual research conference. As  ever this takes place in the Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.

Cumberland Lodge was built by a Roundhead during the English Civil War, but smack bang in the middle of the royal estate it has had strongly  monarchist associations ever since. The interior also features in the The King’s Speech as George VI’s bedroom.   I always half expect to see Hercule Poirot coming round the corner or to hear that Colonel Mustard has been done in With the Candlestick, In the Library, but bar a brief mention of Ian Rankin, most of the conversation during my day stays off the subject of royalty and crime fiction and stay strictly political science – gardening.

The early morning panel I’m on features and interesting three-way discussion of the breakthroughs made by market populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe (my jointly authored contribution);   Tim Haughton’s presentation on the reasons some(mainly larger) parties in the same region have doggedly hung on and prospered as ‘hardy perennials’ ; and the changing role of parties in the (now) decidedly different context Russia (more ‘electoral authoritarianism’  than ‘competitive authoritarianism’).  Tim’s presentation is interesting – beyond the nice horticultural graphics and the underlying issues of party stability  – for its self-conscious use of metaphor.

The academic literature on parties is replete with metaphors mostly (as Tim and co-author Kevin Deegan Krause) note, of geological or meteorological inspirations: the ‘freezing’ of party systems,  ‘earthquake elections’ and so on. Other sub-genres of the literature, mostly those dealing with individual party organisations, rather than party systems, use a biological type of metaphor:  references to party ‘birth’ and ‘death’, the ‘life cycle’ of a party or its ‘genetic’ character are not hard to come by.

I used to think that such reliance on metaphor was a weakness of the literature and an inveterate bad habit: organisations are not organisms still less geological formations and, if you’re going to write about processes and structures write about processes and structures without lazily reaching for analogies. Our presentation had (we hoped) nothing more florid than pink and green Tosmana visualization, that might distantly have looked like some kind of exotic orchid to people sitting at the back,

But tracking down an old conference paper by Jernej Pinklo on ‘Metaphors of Nature in Political Science’, I realised I was my  first take  far too dogmatic. Shaking loose from metaphor was in reality damn near impossible, so what mattered was their conscious and creative use and application.

Chewing this over quick walk among the royal Rhododendrons, I realised, however, Central and Eastern Europe’s toughest and most aggressive enduring parties were perhaps not Chelsea Flower Show material, but instead exactly what their anti-establishment challengers accused them of being: political dinosaurs. Understood, of course, that dinosaurs were the most  longlasting and dominant life forms the ever: usually  big, capable of continual adaption  in changing environments, sometime aggressive and usually pretty much top of the food chain.

Do party specialists need to put down the garderning gloves and reach for their copy of Charles Darwin or Stephen Jay Gould?  Ideas of population ecology seems already to become established in the literature on interest groups  and, as  Ian Lustick’s recent paper suggests, political scientists generally might gain a lot from doing so.