Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics by Christopher J. Kam

Sorry to everyone for the inconsistent posting. I have been enjoying an extended holiday this year and have not had time to follow any of the news, therefore the distinct lack of Worth Readings over the last couple of weeks. However, I have had the time to do some non-news reading so I have finished Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics by Christopher J. Kam.

Despite being deeply interested in politics Kam's Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics was a difficult book for me to read and understand. I never studied political science at university, though I wanted to find the time in my course schedule for it. Kam's work is definitively an academic approach to the question of how party leaders maintain discipline and order within their caucuses.

The study surveys four different Westminster systems: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Kam takes data from the last thirty years or so to provide him with the long-term data to discern current trends. Kam hypothesizes that political parties maintain control through what he calls the "LEADS model". LEADS stands for Loyalty through Advancement, Discipline, and Socialization.

The author takes time to look at the evidence for the support in how well methods of central control work on Members of Parliament. Backbencher unity is critical in the Westminster system to ensure that governments survive confidence motions, pass key legislation and, for the leader, avoid leadership challenges. Kam highlights that there are a number of forces that strain political parties, such as the difference between the party's position and the interest of individual MP's constituents. Kam even provides evidence how a certain amount of dissent boosts the popularity of MPs.

Kam's LEADS model does not really challenge the understanding of how parties maintain control of their members, but what it does do is shows the relative effectiveness of techniques. In the conclusion Kam points to the fact that advancement (promotion up the ranks) and socialization (MPs adapting to party norms and more readily being a 'team player') is the best tool in their kit. Discipline through demotion, restriction of privileges or public scolding is basically the A-bomb of parliamentary control. As such it can have a terrible backlash on the leadership and does not necessarily succeed in curbing the rebel's behaviour.

One of the aspects that interested me the most was the suggestion by Kam that the institutional structure of Westminster's system makes this sort of discipline and control an intrinsic part of the culture of democratic life. For example, Kam could not discern any clear ideological or issue-based rebellions among MPs. As a counterpoint it is easy to highlight that these are individual politicians, each making calculations based on their own interests and do not really provide a sufficient sample size to make predictions. Kam suggests in his conclusion that other political institutions have different structures that make this sort of control unnecessary or at least differently. In Scandinavia it is more common to see compromises on policy and in countries with strong committee structures the backbench exercise their power there.

The book was very challenging for me to work through. It is riddled with models and statistical analysis which left me blankly staring at charts with incomprehensible correlations. Kam does a decent job at setting up what each chart is seeking to examine and what conclusions he is drawing from them, but I simply lack the ability to analyze them myself.

Some of Kam's conclusions made me laugh in the light of the recent past. He states fairly early on that Canada is the parliament with the least disciplined MPs. His sample largely drew on the Chretien years (1993-2003). The Liberal Party was famously divided on a number of social and economic issues while simultaneously dealing with a fractious party with leadership challenges. Likewise in the opposition was the Reform Party rejected party discipline. I cannot help but wonder what sort of conclusions Christopher Kam would draw looking at the Harper years in office.

Ultimately Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics provides a rich research basis to what is already accepted political wisdom. The delicate job of managing politicians, akin to herding cats, requires a multitude of tools which each come with their own set of consequences. I would only recommend this book to those with a background in political science and not for those interested in day-to-day politics.

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