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Encyclopedia > Political faction

A political faction is presently an informal grouping of individuals, especially 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 party is a political organization that subscribes to a certain ideology and seeks to attain political power within a government. ... A union (labor union in American English; trade union in Commonwealth English) is an organisation formed by workers. ...

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.


Etymology - Party avant la lettre

Before the introduction of the modern parliamentary model lead to the emergence of modern political parties, organised for electoral campaign and political working (as in a political fraction within a legislative assembly), there were often more informal political tendencies, which are often termed party of faction in modern languages. The Latin word factio denoted originally either of the chariot teams that were organized professionally (not unlike gladiator schools, but the lethal nature of that entertainment meant few performers lasted long enough to build up similar crowd loyalty to the 'team', while the fighters rarely actually teamed up, but rather fought duels or beasts) by private companies in ancient Rome, each recognizable by characteristic colour, and arousing similar supporter hysteria as say modern soccer (known to start riots between fans of opposing teams in England and Europe and which once started a war in Central America). In time, political currents -'ideological' parties as the senatorial and popular lost their function under the Principate- could get associated with such a team, how exactly is unclear (maybe predominantly recruiting in certain parts of the city, were mainly certain classes and professions lived?). In Byzantine Constantinople, only two such chariot factions remained, blue and green, which have repeatedly made or broken the claims of candidates to the imperial throne. Royal motto (French): Dieu et mon droit (Translated: God and my right) Englands location within the UK Official language English de facto Capital London de facto Largest city London Area - Total Ranked 1st UK 130,395 km² Population - Total (mid-2004) - Density Ranked 1st UK 50. ... A satellite composite image of Europe Europe is the worlds second-smallest continent in terms of area, with an area of 10,600,000 km² (4,140,625 square miles), making it larger than Australia only. ... The Football War (or Soccer War), as it was named by the international mass media, was a shortlived war (only 6 days in duration) fought by El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. ... The Principate is, according to its etymological derivation from the Latin word princeps, meaning chief or first, the political regime dominated by such a head of state and government. ...

Note: Occasionally, the term "faction" is still used more or less as a synonym for political party (but "with opprobrious sense, conveying the imputation of selfish or mischievous ends or turbulent or unscrupulous methods", according to the Oxford English Dictionary). In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson (a Tory) dismissively defined Whig as "the name of a faction". Similarly, in the tenth instalment of the Federalist Papers, James Madison defines a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." A political party is a political organization that subscribes to a certain ideology and seeks to attain political power within a government. ... The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a comprehensive dictionary published by the Oxford University Press (OUP). ... Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. ... This article is about the British Whig party. ... James Madison, author of Federalist No. ... Title page of an early Federalist compilation. ... James Madison (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836) was the fourth (1809–1817) President of the United States. ...

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”. A policy is a plan of action for tackling issues. ...


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. In politics, a whip is a member of a political party in a legislature whose task is to ensure that members of the party attend and vote as the party leadership desires. ...

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. Democracy is a form of government under which the power to alter the laws and structures of government lies, ultimately, with the citizenry. ...

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 fraudulent conduct. Individuals who abandon (or “rat on”) a faction may be subject to intense personal vendettas where their former comrades go about sabotaging their careers. A vendetta is a blood feud where relatives of someone who has been killed or otherwise wronged seek vengeance by killing or otherwise punishing the culprits or their relatives. ...

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. Parliamentary Opposition is a form of political opposition to a designated government, particularly in a Westminster-based parliamentary system. ...

Examples of Modern Political Factions

Within the United States Parties

The Democratic Leadership Council is an influential non-profit corporation that advocates centrist and neoliberal positions for the United States Democratic Party. ... 21st Century Democrats is a political organization founded by Senator Tom Harkin, commentator Jim Hightower and Congressman Lane Evans to help elect progressive or populist candidates in winning elections. ... The National Federation of Republican Assemblies is an organization which seeks to promote conservative principles and candidates within in the United States Republican Party. ... The term Moral Majority signifies the concept that there are often informal subgroups within many larger nations which pursues a strict moral agenda, usually based upon a deep belief in a religion, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism, which is embedded to some extent within the national culture. ...

Within the Australian Labor Party

The Labor Right Faction of the Australian Labor Party (the Right) make up the more economically liberal and socially conservative members of the ALP. The Right claims to represent the social democratic (as opposed to socialist) element within the party. ... The Socialist Left faction of the Australian Labor Party (the Left) is an organised political faction that advocates within the party for traditionally Labor interventionist and socialist economic policies. ...

Within Belgian political parties

  • In the former CVP (Flemish Christian democrats; now CD&V), socio-economic interests were known as standen ('social standings', historically also used for feudal estates: nobility, clergy and third), such as the agricultural Boerenbond; similarly in the French-speaking sister party PSC (now CDH, after a merger)

Sources and References

  • Etymology on line
  • Pauly-Wissowa

  Results from FactBites:
Qwika - Political faction (1331 words)
Il uno o il altro senso, politica factional gira tipicamente intorno a personalità, con alcuni individui che svolgono i ruoli chiave: fungendo da magnete per la gente simile, conducendo le attività della fazione e fungendo da voce prominente per gli obiettivi comuni della fazione.
Un clima del conflitto factional intenso può anche motivare gli individui per mettere a fuoco sull'attacco dei loro nemici factional piuttosto che sull'avanzare la più vasta organizzazione.
L'esistenza di un sistema factional permette che i relativi funzionamenti siano più prevedibili e stabili.
Highbeam Encyclopedia - Search Results for Factions (875 words)
Guelph Political faction in medieval Italy, opposed to the Ghibelline.
The two factions were linked to rival families contending for the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th century.
Faction: in the reign of Elizabeth I: Will Saunders examines the diverse and changing interpretations of the Queen's relations with her Councillors.(Talking Points)
  More results at FactBites »



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