The geographies of Political Parties

by Sam Halvorsen, Queen Mary University, London

Political parties matter. We do not have to look far to see that the fate of countries’ relationship to the world, and to themselves, appears to hang in the balance of disputes within and among parties of different stripes. Understanding how and why political parties operate is therefore an important task and is something than geographers cannot afford to shy away from.

Geography informs political parties in multiple ways. The most obvious way is through national politics, the scale at which most researchers direct their attention, and which tends to dominate public debate. There is of course a reason for this: national governments command the majority of a state’s resources and are where the most dramatic political events unfold. Whether it be Brexit or Trump, political parties in established democracies have been drastically reconfigured by internalising national debates. 

Yet one only has to scratch the surface of political party activity to appreciate that they are highly dependent on transformations taking place at a range of scales, from the global to the local. In my recent article, published in Transactions, I was particularly concerned with shedding greater light on how and why local activities determine what parties can and cannot do.

First, political parties rely on an organisational structures to support them. Although the tendency in much of the world since the 1980s has been a shift towards centralised and professional run political party organisations, most recently there has been a surge of parties that are built on strong local branches. This can be seen in new, movement-led parties such as Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece, or the Five Star Movement in Italy, all of whom harnessed the energy of locally grounded, grassroots campaigns to build a national party. The reliance on local structures to sustain high numbers of grassroots activists is not only apparent in new parties but has also transformed established parties such as UK Labour or The Democratic Party in the USA.

On the outside, there are signals of the return to the “mass party” model that prevailed in socialist parties in Western Europe, such as UK Labour, over half a century ago. There are some notable differences in the contemporary context, however.  Whereas parties such as Labour were previously reliant on their bond with trade unions, that relationship is weaker today and their mass consistency appears to be more territorially rooted, through local branches. In addition, digital media has come to play an ever-important role in how parties organise and recruit and is challenges much conventional wisdom.

Second, as geographers have argued for some time, elections are inherently geographical events. Understanding where people vote and parties campaign is not simply a matter of colouring in maps (despite what people may say of us geographers); it is to grasp that politics and places are deeply interrelated, with each informing each other in complex ways. In the UK context, endless analysis of Brexit has brought to light a complex set of local electoral dynamics, including regional pro/anti Brexit hotspots. Not only has this presented internal divides in parties (most notably Labour), it has exposed tensions in MPs geographical loyalty when their constituents voted differently to the national Brexit vote.

Third, political parties not only govern in the national interest, they represent constituents when in power at sub-national scales. This is particularly important in decentralised or federalised states, as in the case of most of Latin America where much fiscal and political authority has been passed from central to local governments, including large cities. Nevertheless, there is a longstanding debate within Latin American parties over the extent to which local elections should primarily serve as a setting strong to national victories, or whether taking over municipalities should provide the basis for realising their policy aims. This debate has recently gained traction in Europe, particularly in the wake of the Spanish municipal takeover, and has demonstrated the need for a geographical sensitivity to local party politics.

Finally, the recent rise in populist party politics, from both the left and right, across much of the world can be better understanding with a geographically sensitive analysis. Although populism tends to draw on a highly nationalistic discourse, it is closely related to global dynamics (e.g. the post-2008 financial crisis) and also relies on locally rooted practice. The populist turn in left-leaning governments across Latin American in the early 21st Century is an interesting case for exploring how relationships were built between the national and local scales, which became crucial for effectively implementing certain policies and mobilising support among the general public.

In my article I examine these issues through a close reading of one Argentine political party, known as Nuevo Encuentro, and its experiences of party-building in the city of Buenos Aires since 2008. This party is an interesting case study for geographers because it grew through an explicitly territorial strategy that hinged around opening neighbourhood branches across the city. The case demonstrates that geography is a crucial component for understanding how and why parties organise, evolve and success. Doing so will greatly improve its capacity to make sense of major challenges facing democracies around the world today.

About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Lecturer in Human Geography and Leverhulme Research Fellow in the School of Geography at Queen Mary University London. Hisresearch focuses on the relationship between territory and grassroots urban politics, particularly in social movements and political parties, spanning Latin America (Buenos Aires) and Europe (London).

Halvorsen, S. (2019). The Geography of Political Parties: territory and organisational strategies in Buenos Aires. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12343
The full text can be read by following this link: https://rdcu.be/bRiGF

The cover photo of the Argentine National Congress.JPG” by Zimbres is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 

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