National Party Delegates

1. Who are the national party delegates?

National party delegates are not just simply party members, but activists with a long political militancy. In many cases, these are people with a certain social visibility, thanks to organizational or elective positions in politics and local-level associations, and therefore, frequently, pivotal members of the civic and party communities. They are figures who can shed light on the relationship between not only parties and society, but also local party units and the central organization. In fact, party delegates can be considered privileged witnesses who experience from within the parties’ transformations induced from without. Hence, their values and attitudes are more stable compared to those of simple members — another reason why they represent a bridge between the old and the new parties in Italy (Bordandini, Di Virgilio and Mulè, 2011a).

National party delegates, in fact, lie somewhere between a party’s local leadership and its national leadership, and thus can be defined as middle-level party elites. According to Niedermayer, “European political parties are internally differentiated organizations. To study their functioning, five types of relevant actors can be distinguished: ordinary party members, local party activists, local party elites, middle-level party elites, and party leadership.” (Niedermayer, 1986: 253)

From a formal viewpoint, national delegates participate in national party conferences and can be considered the party’s indirect representatives on the ground to some extent. In most cases, members vote for their representatives at the municipal level; these then elect the provincial delegates, who in turn, elect the national delegates. Delegates are a crucial link in a party’s organizational chain; they constitute a bridge between the party membership and its leadership (Rohrscheneier, 1994). In fact, it is they, who must communicate the opinions and moods of members and supporters to the governing bodies, and simultaneously make the party’s political line known at the local level (Ignazi, 1989: 331).

Today, middle-level elites are a “strategic group” of political actors not only because they are the driving force of party organization, but also because they are “people who are intensively involved politically, but who do not live off politics” (Bellucci, Maraffi and Segatti, 2000: 16–17). However, they are actors who “expect to become at least semi-professional politicians… [for this reason] they perform roles of linkage-coordination between distinct organizational areas from which they derive the main resources to capitalize in the struggle for organizational power and, in general, in the quest for political influence” (Raniolo, 2011: 236). In fact, delegates were traditionally perceived as the privileged pool from which to select a party’s leadership and candidates, not only at the local level. They have been referred to as “Leaders in the Years to Come” (Bordandini, Di Virgilio and Mulè, 2011b).

Therefore, an analysis of parties from the viewpoint of their national delegates allows researchers to acquire a crucial observation perspective, especially during a historical phase, such as the last 20 years, during which parties have undergone profound transformations, with split-offs, mergers, and elimination from the political scene being the rule.

Another aspect to consider is the quality of the data that this analysis unit allows one to obtain. Researching parties and their organizations today is quite different from the past. The gradual shift of political parties from civil society to the state and the loss of importance of the party on the ground with respect to the party in central office (and especially, to the party in public office) has rendered analyses of party membership more complex and less salient, whereas surveys on national delegates have taken on a much more significant role. There are two reasons for this increasing significance: first, this is the group from which future leaders will emerge (Mulè 2011); second, that surveys on national delegates can be organized much more easily than those on party members and party local organizations. Organizational streamlining, in fact, has prompted parties to focus less and less on collecting and managing data on membership, local party headquarters, official documents, and their structure in general.

Consequently, researchers who are interested in these types of analyses are forced—at least in Italy—to deal with outdated and unreliable data (Ignazi, 2013). The only time parties try to sort out the information on their organizations is on the occasion of their national conferences, which require the activation of all the necessary logistical and organizational procedures to elect and appoint the national delegates.

2. The tradition of research on national delegates

Although not on an on-going basis, party delegates have constituted a tested research field in the literature on political parties. The first comparative research based on this analysis unit dates back to the 1970s, namely, the EPPMLE (European Political Parties Middle Level Elites) Project of the European Election Study, financed by the Volkswagen Foundation, the European Committee, and the European Parliament. The project was directed by Karlheinz Reif (University of Mannheim) and Roland Cayrol (National Foundation of Political Science, Paris), and involved 12 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK) and 68 parties; the surveys of party delegates were conducted mainly between 1978 and 1981. The questionnaire used had a common section for the political parties of all countries and a specific section adapted to each party, and it focused on identifying the respondents’ political profiles and on the national delegates’ perception of their party’s organization and political culture (see Reif, Cayrol, and Niedermayer, 1980; Niedermayer, 1986; Reif, Niedermayer and Schmitt, 1986; Pierre, 1986).

The data collected by the EPPMLE Project served as the basis not only for conference papers and research reports, but also for articles, books, and individual chapters, many of them based on intra-country comparison (or on the analysis of a single party). Among the cross-national publications based on the original data set, we recall Van Schuur’s book (1984) on the political beliefs of delegates from nine European countries; the article by Reif, Cayrol and Niedermayer (1980) on the attitudes of middle-level party elites regarding transnational policy-making; the paper by Cayrol and Reif (1983) on the different attitudes of delegates of 40 European parties regarding internal party conflict; Rohrschneider’s work (1994) on intra-party dynamics in 11 West European democracies; Iversen’s article (1994) on the policy positions of middle-level party elites in seven European countries; and the article by Ignazi and Cayrol (1983), based on a comparison of the French Socialist Party (PS) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

Gianfranco Pasquino and Piero Ignazi of the University of Bologna supervised the Italian section of the EPPMLE Project. The surveys focused on six parties: PDUP, PSI, PSDI, DC, PLI, and MSI. The PCI was excluded. However, in 1990, Ignazi used the EPPMLE Project questionnaire to conduct a survey on the delegates at the XIX PCI Conference (Ignazi 1991 and 1992). Among the publications based on the delegates of the Italian parties, we recall Ignazi and Panebianco (1979), Ignazi, Mancini and Pasquino (1980), Pasquino and Rossi (1980), Ignazi and Pasquino (1982 and 1986), and Mancini and Pasquino (1984).

After the EPPMLE Project, between the mid-1980s and the early years of the new millennium, no other systematic research on national party delegates was carried out in Italy, except for sporadic surveys on the middle-level elites of the PCI (Accornero, Mannheimer and Saraceno, 1983; Accornero, Casciani and Magna, 1987; Accornero Magna and Mannheimer, 1989), the PRI (Ignazi, 1986 and 1988; Ignazi and Ysmail, 1992), the MSI (Ignazi, 1989), the AN (Ignazi, 1994; Baldini and Vignati, 1996), the PDS (Ignazi, 1992), and the DS (Bellucci, Maraffi and Segatti, 2000).

A new and broader comparative survey of the opinions, values, and attitudes of Italian middle-level party elites, namely, the research project on party delegates conducted by the “Italian Observatory on the Transformations of Political Parties” was launched only in the early years of the new millennium. This research, coordinated in methodological terms by Aldo Di Virgilio and Paola Bordandini, collected over 6,000 questionnaires between 2004 and 2013 from national delegates during 21 national surveys conducted at the conferences of 18 different Italian parties.

Finally, with reference to the last few years, one should recall the surveys on the delegates who participated in the last National DS Conference and in the National PD Assemblies; these surveys were conducted (in conjunction with those of the Observatory) by the research group of the University of Milan’s Department of Social and Political Sciences (see Fasano and Martocchi Diodati, 2014).

3. The research on national delegates of the “Italian Observatory on the Transformations of Political Parties”

The Italian Observatory on the Transformations of Political Parties originated from an inter-university research program (“PRIN”), co-funded by the Ministry of Education, University, and Research and the four universities involved: Florence (unit coordinated by Marco Tarchi, who was also the PRIN’s national coordinator), Bologna (unit coordinated by Aldo Di Virgilio), Cosenza (unit coordinated by Francesco Raniolo), and Trieste (unit coordinated by Anna Bosco). The Observatory’s goals were to reconstruct the structural features of the new Italian parties and to examine the evolution of their interactions with the external (social and institutional) environment. Several research tools were contemplated for this purpose: an analysis of political communication and the websites of the political parties; a study of their statutes and electoral programs; the preparation of in-depth interviews with their organizational and communication managers; the reconstruction of their electoral competition strategies; and the surveys on the conference delegates. The Observatory’s Bologna unit (soon to be dedicated to Aldo Di Virgilio) has focused its research on party delegates since 2004. The Bologna research group1 – led by Aldo Di Virgilio – organized (until 2010 in collaboration with the other PRIN research units, and in particular, with the Florentine unit) the data collection during the national conferences, but it was involved primarily in the search for information on the participants in the various conferences, in coding the questionnaire’s open questions, and in building the 21 research data sets.

The data collection was based on a self-completion questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of a common general section for all parties and of a specific section adapted to each party’s characteristics and to the context in which the conference took place. No sampling plan was included because a survey on the entire population was attempted, by distributing questionnaires to all conference participants. As seen in Table 1, the Observatory group was hosted at the following 21 national conferences: Third PDCI National Conference (Rimini, February 20–22, 2004); Second DL National Conference (Rimini, March 12–14, 2004); Third SDI National Conference (Fiuggi, April 2–4, 2004); Second FI National Conference (Milan, May 27–29, 2004); Fourth MSFT National Conference (Fiuggi, December 11–12, 2004); Fourth NPSI National Conference (Rome, January 21–23, 2005); Third DS National Conference (Rome, February 3–5, 2005); Second UDEUR National Conference (Naples, February 18–20, 2005); Fourth PRC National Conference (Venice, March 3–6, 2005); First UDC National Conference (Rome, July 1–3, 2005); National Assembly of the Greens (Fiuggi, November 10–12, 2006); Fourth DS National Conference (Florence, April 19–21, 2007); Third DL National Conference (Rome, April 20–22, 2007); Seventh National Conference of the Italian Radicals (Chianciano Terme, October 30–November 2, 2008); First National Conference of The Right (Rome, November 7–9, 2008); Third AN National Conference (Rome, March 21–22, 2009); PD National Assembly (Rome, November 7, 2009); First IDV National Conference (Rome, February 5–7, 2010); First SEL National Conference (Florence, October 22–24, 2010); First FDS National Conference (Rome, November 20–21, 2010); and Third PD National Assembly (Milan, December 15, 2013).

Table 1. National Conferences that hosted the “Italian Observatory on the Transformations
of Political Parties
”, respondents and sample coverage (% respondents on the population
of delegates attending the conferences).

National Conference Respondents Sample %
Third PDCI National Conference (Rimini, February 20–22, 2004) 290 40.6
Second DL National Conference (Rimini, March 12–14, 2004) 310 22.1
Third SDI National Conference (Fiuggi, April 2–4, 2004) 352 44.5
Second FI National Conference (Milan, May 27–29, 2004) 382 17
Fourth MSFT National Conference (Fiuggi, December 11–12, 2004) 104 20.8
Fourth NPSI National Conference (Rome, January 21–23, 2005) 206 13.7
Third DS National Conference (Rome, February 3–5, 2005) 434 27.5
Second UDEUR National Conference (Naples, February 18–20, 2005) 96 8
Fourth PRC National Conference (Venice, March 3–6, 2005) 208 30.1
First UDC National Conference (Rome, July 1–3, 2005) 179 9.4
National Assembly of the Greens (Fiuggi, November 10–12, 2006) 131 23.1
Fourth DS National Conference (Florence, April 19–21, 2007) 324 23.8
Third DL National Conference (Rome, April 20–22, 2007) 305 16.5
Seventh National Conference of the Italian Radicals
(Chianciano Terme, October 30–November 2, 2008)
173 48.5
First National Conference of The Right (Rome, November 7–9, 2008) 284 9.5
Third AN National Conference (Rome, March 21–22, 2009) 143 9.5
PD National Assembly (Rome, November 7, 2009) 205 20.6
First IDV National Conference (Rome, February 5–7, 2010) 944 33
First SEL National Conference (Florence, October 22–24, 2010) 385 44
First FDS National Conference (Rome, November 20–21, 2010) 259 43
Third PD National Assembly (Milan, December 15, 2013) 352 32
Total 6,066

All information relating to the surveys on the party delegates carried out by the Italian Observatory on the Transformations of Political Parties are gathered in the book series (currently composed of nine volumes) “Delegati di partito”, published by Clueb (Bordandini and Di Virgilio, 2009–2013). This is a documentation work designed to present the research, data collected, and methodological choices made. Other publications based on these data include Chiaramonte and Di Virgilio (2007), Bordandini and Di Virgilio (2007), Bordandini, Di Virgilio and Raniolo (2008), Di Virgilio (2008), Raniolo (2008 and 2011), Bordandini and Cartocci (2011), Bordandini, Di Virgilio and Mulè, (2011), Di Virgilio and Giannetti (2011), Mulè (2011), and Bordandini (2013a and 2013b).

Notes

1 Comprising since 2008, besides Aldo Di Virgilio and Paola Bordandini, Roberto Cartocci and Daniela Giannetti too.

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