Political parties have a number of different goals such as enacting policy, gaining the maximum number of votes in elections and winning office. Helene Helboe Pedersen assesses whether these goals are broadly similar within different parties, or whether the nature of particular parties leads them to prioritise different aims. Her findings show that there is indeed variation in goals between parties, with larger parties and those in the centre of the political spectrum advocating more ‘office-seeking’ behaviour than smaller parties and those with more intra-party democracy.

What parties want – in terms of policies, office or votes – affects how they represent their voters, make strategic decisions and respond to external changes in society. But what do parties actually want, and do all parties want the same thing? The answer to these questions is crucial since parties’ goals affect their behaviour. It is widely accepted that parties have multiple goals such as policy, votes or office, but most theories are also based on the assumption that parties have common goals and therefore behave similarly, such as joining coalitions, given the same circumstances.

Using data from 117 parties from 23 countries I investigated variation in party goals, and considered to what extent party-specific factors such as intra-party democracy, size and policy position explain this variation. From this research I found that party goals do indeed vary across parties, and what parties primarily seek to accomplish depends on their positional power in parliament as well as their internal organisation.

The question of party goals relates not only to the similarity of goals but also to how many goals parties might have and to what extent they are compatible. Early coalition theories assumed that parties had only one goal: to get into office. They may seek votes or policy as instruments to get into office, but their main goal is to obtain the benefits of office. When the policy goal was included in coalition theory, it was primarily seen as a supplement to office, which was seen as a precondition for policy. As coalitions are expected to be majority coalitions, membership of the executive provides the best opportunity to influence policy as well as gaining office benefits, and hence no trade-off between policy and office exists. If this is in fact the case, there is no reason to expect intra-party politics to matter. Party activists should be best off with an office-seeking leader, and they have no reason to try to constrain his/her behaviour in coalition bargaining.

Despite the common view that parties have homogenous goals, Kaare Strøm pointed out over 20 years ago, that goals may vary across parties and across political systems. An essential part of Strøm’s argument is that party goals are often conflicting so that parties face trade-offs when making strategic decisions. However, the trade-off between office and policy only becomes evident if we specify what we mean by policy; Strøm defines it as influencing public policy, and office first as private goods which are ‘bestowed on recipients of politically discretionary governmental and sub-governmental appointments’, and later as control over political office. If office is defined as control over political office it is hard to imagine a trade-off between office and policy, since government incumbency promotes both. If, however, office is defined as ‘private goods’ the trade-off exists but only within coalitions in which parties may trade spoils for policy influence. This however, makes it less useful for explanations of coalition formation.

I suggest that we define policy as the realisation of party policy. This makes the trade-off more evident and perhaps also the goal more realistic. If we assume that parties are not only concerned with policy changes but also the responsibility of policy changes, parties will not enter any coalition that moves public policy only slightly in their preferred direction, since the policy payoffs are simply too small. When deciding on party strategy, parties will therefore be guided by some level of policy rigidity or policy horizons.

The ranking of different and often incompatible goals (votes, office and policy) depends on party specific factors as well as structural and institutional factors. Focusing on party specific factors, we can deduce three main expectations from the literature:

  • Intra-party democracy is positively related to the pursuit of policy since party activists are assumed to be more concerned with policy than party leaders
  • Parties centrally placed in the policy space are more likely to be office seeking than policy-extreme parties since centrally placed parties have a privileged position in coalition bargaining and hence need to make smaller policy compromises in order to win office
  • Large parties (by seat size) are more likely to be office seeking since larger parties tend to win more ministries which can result in more influence on public policy; larger parties therefore need to accept smaller policy-compromises than smaller parties.

I used survey data from Laver and Hunt’s expert survey and the Party Change Project headed by Harmel and Janda to investigate these expectations. These data have not been sufficiently utilitised in relation to party goals yet and in combination they provide a strong test, since Laver and Hunt’s survey included information on parties from no less than 25 different countries but only asked questions in relation to office versus policy. In contrast Harmel and Janda included more different party goals. Finally, the datasets are based on different sources which make it possible to do more careful tests of party goals which are hard to measure.

The first important finding is that the ranking of different goals does indeed vary across parties, as shown in Table 1, which shows the relative priorities of the four goals of votes, office, policy and intraparty democracy (which were coded primarily based on a review of secondary party material). Each variable shown in the table can take on four values based on their priority, and low values indicate a high priority. 68.4 per cent of the parties give first or second priority to policy; most frequently (‘Absolute’ in the table below) parties give policy second priority. To most parties policy is a very important goal, but there is no sign of perfect similarity. Political parties do not have homogenous goal structures even though policy and office seem to be the most important goals to most parties.

Table 1 – How parties ranked the priority of policy goals in relation to three alternatives (seeking office, maximizing votes and intra-party democracy) in 1990

Policy seeking ranked



Cumulative %




















Source: Harmel and Janda

The second finding, from a ‘fixed effects’ regression analysis of Laver and Hunt’s survey data, with parties represented in national parliaments as analytical units, shows that all expectations are supported. The analysis shows that intra-party democracy tends to decrease party leaders’ willingness to give up policy in order to win office, and that party size has a significant and positive impact on the parties’ propensity to seek office over policy. Large parties are generally more office seeking than small parties. Additionally, mainstream parties placed centrally on the left–right policy spectrum are more likely to seek office over policy than parties placed at either end. Hence, both right-wing and left-wing parties tend to give policy higher priority. These findings suggest that the size and policy position of political parties influence how troublesome the trade-off is between office and policy. Large, centrally placed parties have to make smaller policy compromises to win office and are therefore more inclined to seek office.

These findings suggest that since party goals vary systematically across parties we can also expect their behaviour to vary even in similar situations. This means that theories and empirical analyses on party behaviour could benefit from taking variation in party goals into account either directly or indirectly by including measures of intra-party politics. The analyses also show that country-level factors are of importance which could be interesting to explore in future research.

This is a version of a longer article published in West European Politics

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Helene Helboe PedersenAarhus University
Helene Helboe Pedersen is an Assistant Professor in comparative politics at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University. She is currently involved in the Interarena Project on interest group influence and has published on parties and intra-party relations in Party Politics and Journal of Legislative Studies.


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