Monday, 22 June 2009

Thesis Plan: Exploring the Relationship Between Political Leadership and Party Politics

Below is the plan I submitted to my PhD supervisors as to what I intend to explore and argue in my thesis, which is to be submitted to Griffith University by February 2012.

The thesis seeks to study the relationship between political leadership and party politics. It aims to explore the ways in which these concepts are both interrelated and contradictory. Leadership is looked upon as an increasingly important skill in modern political culture as the Australian system of government moves toward an increasingly Presidential focus. Conversely, the study of party politics is focused primarily towards the collective political culture. It is these inherent tensions, between the focus towards individual superiority favoured in leadership theory, and the need to examine political parties from a structural perspective that this work aims to explore.

The concepts of leadership and party politics have been widely studied as interdependent terms, but rarely combined. Using elite theories, political party theorist Robert Michel claimed that ‘For technical and administrative reasons, no less than for tactical reasons, a strong organization needs an equally strong leadership.’(Michel, 1915, p.28) This is but one example of Michel providing an instructional guide to would be leaders. However, the relationship between stable leadership and a strong political party is not explored with greater analysis. Panebianco covers similar territory, by examining successful political parties throughout Europe and identifying successful commonalities, in both party dominance and organisational superiority. He states that ‘…The party leadership’s fundamental objective is to safeguard organisational stability.’ (Panebianco, 1988, p.42) Additionally Panebianco explains how leadership of a party affects it on an organisational level, but does not explore the political ramifications, or more particularly the electoral consequences of this relationship.

A similar trend has emerged in the field of leadership theory. The trend in the field is to develop an individual leadership framework to fit specific examples, both within Australia and internationally. Whilst these works provide useful information to examine characteristics and trends, scant attention is paid to the effects of party politics upon leaders. The structure of a political party influences the way in which leaders are cultivated, chosen, supported and sometimes dismissed. Graham Little has done extensive work in this area studying leadership from a psychoanalytical perspective in Strong Leadership (1988). He argues that ‘Party leaders…have become symbols of who we are personifications of our way of life and our deepest beliefs.’ (Little, 1988, p.2). As a way to expand this theory Little developed his own categories to fit archetypical leaders by using Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Malcolm Fraser as case studies. However, little mention is made of the roles that political parties play in developing leaders, which fit into these categories. More recently, James Walter and Paul Strangio expanded upon Little’s work to comment on the trend towards a ‘…domineering leadership model… in a climate when the currency placed on leadership has become so pronounced, and where leaders are looked upon as transformative agents of politics.’ (Walter and Strangio, 2007, p.12) This has become known as the ‘command culture’ of modern politics. (Walter, 2008). Whilst Walter links the elite theories of Michel and Panebianco when stating that institutional factors play a significant role in creating the command culture, greater detail is needed to examine what these factors are, and more specifically what kind of role they play in influencing styles of leadership.

Therefore, the thesis intends to fill the theoretical gap by combining both leadership theories and party literature. It aims to determine a comprehensive approach to how differing leadership styles fit within a party system and within different party systems. It will examine how leadership and party politics can work collaboratively, but also demonstrate how these factors can contradict one another. Does a certain leadership style suit the political party structure? Which is the more important to leader the stakeholders of a political party, the needs of a party’s stakeholders, or to maintain a hold on their leadership? What can political parties do to not only cultivate successful leaders, but to maintain them? These are all important questions that will be considered during the course of the thesis.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) on a Federal level provides an instructive set of examples in which to examine these theoretical questions. The ALP is based upon social democratic principles with a rigid and hierarchical structure. The grass root branch structure is fundamentally important for the parties overall ethos. As Crisp describes it, the ‘…ALP membership as a whole is based on sovereignty, a sovereign band of equals and can do more than delegate its authority where direct exercise of that authority is impracticable.’ (Crisp, 1978, p.5) The branch level encompasses a variety of policy and special interest committees, which in turn reports on its activities to the annually held State Conference and the tri annually held Federal Conference.

The Executive of the ALP is the main decision making body of the Party. They are responsible for overseeing the management of election campaigns; finances, and membership. They act as an intermediary between the parliamentary wing and the branch members themselves. The main criticism of the overall structure is that the parliamentary wing (Caucus) must serve too many masters. In a streamlined political environment critics believe it is impossible to consult all of the stakeholders involved in the Party Structure. (McMullan, 1991, p.42) With so many conflicting interests there are many occasions where Caucus must make decisions, which are politically beneficial, whilst going against the wishes of the Branch Members as well as the Executive. Over the course of its history the ALP’s structure has been highly beneficial in its successful periods, whilst being a hindrance during others. It arguably led to the three party splits, which remain the darkest spots in the ALP’s history. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Party lives and dies based upon the success of its structure.

One commonalty between those splits was the lack of effective leadership. The thesis will examine the leadership of the Federal ALP over a fifteen year period between 1996 and 2010? During this period, the ALP had four different leaders Kim Beazley (in two separate terms), Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd. The majority of this period was spent in opposition, and suffering against an electoral tide. This period also provides examples of the ALP operating under great extremes within the party political leadership paradigms. Under the successive leadership tenures of Beazley, Crean and Latham, the needs of the party were often in direct conflict with the objectives being pursued by its leaders. Similarly these leaders did not meet the many structural needs of the party. Yet under Rudd’s leadership he and the many stakeholders within the party structure have so far enjoyed a mostly harmonious working relationship.

The thesis will explore why this was the case. Was it simply the case of Rudd’s leadership characteristics suiting the ALP regimented structure? Did the ALP develop a better model of adapting to Rudd’s leadership style? Were their other obvious external factors at work? Did the electoral failures persuade members to moderate their concerns? These questions will help determine what kinds of leadership qualities suit the ALP. More broadly they will help determine what role effective leadership plays within the party system.

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