Political faction

From Academic Kids

A political faction is a grouping of individuals within a political organisation, such as a political party, a trade union, or other group with some kind of political purpose (referred to in this article as the “broader organisation”). It may also be referred to as a power bloc, or a voting bloc. The individuals within a faction are united in one common goal or set of common goals for the broader organisation, not shared by all of its members. They band together as a way of achieving these goals and advancing their own position with the broader organisation.

A political faction could thus be described as a “party within a party”. It is important to note, however, that political factions are not limited to political parties; they can and frequently do form within any group that has some sort of political aim or purpose.

Contents

Aims of Factions

The aims of a political faction are as diverse as the different types of bodies within which they appear. Typically, however, they include: advancing a particular policy or policy agenda within the broader organisation; preventing the adoption of alternative policies; and supporting given individuals to positions of power within the broader organisation. A faction can primarily be based around supporting a given person or group, or a single major aim, with little in the way of common agenda, or it can have a comprehensive and definitive set of policies. Either way, factional politics typically revolve around personality, with a few individuals playing key roles: acting as a magnet for like-minded people, leading the activities of the faction, and acting as a prominent voice for the shared objectives of the faction. Such individuals can be referred to by a variety of names, such as “powerbrokers” or “factional chiefs”.

Organisation

Where factions differ is the amount of organisation and internal structure they possess. Most factions are very loose organisations, having no definitive list of members and little in the way of common goals besides the advancement of particular individuals. Some factions, however, have a formal internal structure, with membership lists, regular meetings, official positions – such as negotiators, conveners, whips, and organisers, - and a definitive policy position on every issue affecting the broader organisation. Such factions will typically be binding – that is, they rely upon all members casting their votes in accordance with the pre-ordained official stance of the faction.

Operation of Factions

In political organisations that are democratic in structure, factions rely heavily on securing enough votes to win important ballots. This process is referred to as “doing the numbers”. Having the numbers will allow the faction to push policies it supports and elect its members to powerful positions within the broader organisation.

If one faction develops within an organisation, there will usually be at least one other that develops in opposition to it. Opposing factions will try to match each others’ level of organisation and internal discipline, but will also engage in negotiations and trade-offs to ensure that the broader organisation’s activities are not compromised and that every group has a chance to obtain at least some of its goals.

Key to the operation of an organised faction is the existence of a power base. This will typically be some office, division or branch of the broader organisation over which the faction has effective control. Sometimes a power base may be an external or affiliated organisation that is involved with the broader organisation in some way.

A power base serves several key functions:

  • It acts as a recruitment centre for new members, and promotes homogeneity within the membership (crucial for maintaining factional cohesion);
  • It can be used as an organising centre for factional events and activities;
  • It functions as a springboard, advancing the career of selected factional members and allowing them to gain skills that will increase their effectiveness and clout.

Effects of Factions

The existence of a factional system can have serious negative consequences for a broader organisation.

If factional strife becomes intensive and public, the broader organisation may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organisation that seriously impede its effectiveness, leading to break-up or collapse of the broader organisation.

To avoid harm to the broader organisation, factional operations are usually conducted under strong secrecy and with minimal public scrutiny. This, however, can lead to the proliferation of unethical behaviour. Warfare between the factions may lead to tactics such as ballot box-stuffing, stack-outs, membership fraud, and other generally fradulent conduct. Individuals who abandon (or “rat on”) a faction may buy subject to intense personal vendettas where their former comrades go about sabotaging their careers.

A climate of intense factional conflict can also motivate individuals to focus on attacking their factional enemies rather than furthering the broader organisation.

However, the benefits of factional systems are often overlooked. It is often incomprehensible to outsiders why members of a broader organisation would engage in factionalism. This stems from the assumption that the natural factional relationship is one of conflict and strife, when in fact, factions are often able to engage in productive co-operation.

In any political organisation there are likely to be many highly opinionated and passionate people. The existence of a factional system allows its operations to be more predictable and stable. Compromise and give-and-take between factions allows the organisation to operate without having to satisfy the whims of many different, uncompromising individuals who might otherwise cause a split. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, factionalism can actually promote organisational harmony.

Factions also help to broaden and diversify the organisation’s appeal. A person who might otherwise find the organisation’s goals unattractive might be persuaded to support a faction within it whose goals are closer to their own. Just as a democratic government is often invigorated by a strong opposition, so having a number of distinct points-of-view with an organisation can energise it and allow it to perform its role more effectively. It is also highly unlikely that any sizeable political organisation is wholly united in purpose, so arguably factions simply represent a way of managing pre-existing differences within the organisation.

Examples of Factions

Within the United States Democratic Party

Within the Australian Labor Party

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