In Chapter 4, we suggested that parties are the key to understanding how the executive in Europe dominates the legislature – how the government, in other words, controls parliament. In fact, parties are crucial to the government and politics of European countries more generally. Without them representative democracy could not function (see Kölln, 2015a). And yet Europeans seem to have little confidence in them (see Table 5.1). In this chapter, we explain what parties are and how they came to be. We also look at the ways they organize, and at the way political scientists have tried, by looking at their ideas and their origins, to sort them into meaningful categories that they call party families, most of which are represented in almost every individual country’s party system. We go on to look at these systems and at how political science tries to classify them, and ask whether, why, how and how much they are changing. Finally, we touch on debates on how parties should be funded and explore the popular notion that parties – unpopular with the public and struggling for members – are on the way out. Although they have been around for some 200 years, political parties still sometimes seem easier to recognize than to pin down. One can arrive at a workable definition, but it has to be hedged around with qualifications and caveats.
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