Political faction

Political faction

A political faction is a grouping of individuals, especially within a political organisation, such as a political party, a trade union, or other group with a political purpose. It may also be referred to as a power bloc, or a voting bloc. The individuals within a faction are united in a common goal or set of common goals for the organization they are a part of, not necessarily shared by all of that organization's members. They band together as a way of achieving these goals and advancing their agenda and position within the organization.

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 and usage

The Latin word "factio" denoted originally either of the chariot teams that were organized professionally by private companies in ancient Rome, [These teams were 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.] each recognizable by characteristic colour, and arousing supporter hysteria similar to that in modern sports fans. [Soccer, for instance, has seen riots between fans of opposing teams in England and Europe and once started a war in Central America.] In time, political currents could become associated with such a team, although precisely how this happened is unclear. In Byzantine Constantinople, two such chariot factions, blue and green, repeatedly made or broke the claims of candidates to the imperial throne.

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." In plain English this is a group that pursues self interest at the expense of the common good.

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, preventing the adoption of alternative policies and supporting given individuals to positions of power within the organization or in the wider political world. 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 otherwise, 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”.


Factions differ in the amount of organization and internal structure they possess. Most factions are very loose organisations, having no definitive list of members, but some factions, 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 organizations that are democratic in structure, factions rely heavily on securing enough votes to win important ballots. This process is sometimes 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 organization, 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 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 organized 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 center for new members, and promotes homogeneity within the membership (crucial for maintaining factional cohesion);
*It can be used as an organizing center 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 political organisation. If factional strife becomes intensive and public, the 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 organisation.

To avoid harm to the 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 a faction may be 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.

Despite this, 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 organization 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 organization 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 organizational 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 modern political factions


Within the Australian Labor Party

*Labor Right
*Socialist Left

Within the Liberal Party of Australia

*New Right
*"wet" and small-l liberals


*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).


*In the history of the Republic of China from 1911 until 1949, factionalisation within the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang was a large problem for the central government, especially for Chiang Kai-Shek. Warlord factions which had been persuaded to ally with Chiang during the Northern Expedition had to be constantly pacified, as well as regional military governors who ruled regions that were not directly administrated by Chiang's central government. Often historians conclude that this lack of unity contributed to the defeat of the Nationalists in holding mainland China during the Chinese Civil War.

*Post-1949, factionz in the People’s Republic of China had a profound influence on both politics and policies. In the 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Field Armies were sources of factional support for senior party cadres with close ties to individual military units. [Whitson, William and Huang Chen-hsia, "The Chinese High Command: A History of Communist Military Politics", ( New York: Praeger, 1973).] In the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution drove all conservative factions together, for (often unsuccessful) matters of survival, whereas the radical left split into “redder than thou” factions. [Chang, Parris H. "Power and Policy in China", (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975).] The 1970s saw a grand alliance of military, conservative and moderate radical factions overthrow the notorious Gang of Four in a coup d’etat. [ Dittmer, Lowell. "Bases of Power in Chinese Politics: A Theory and an Analysis of the Fall of the 'Gang of Four'," "World Politics", XX, No. 4, October 1978, 26-60]

United Kingdom

=Labour Party=

*The Socialist Campaign Group, a left-wing parliamentary group committed to nationalization and the repeal of anti-union laws.

=Conservative Party=

*The Tory Reform Group, aligned with the more moderate One Nation Conservatism, developed by Benjamin Disraeli. considered to represent the left wing of the party. Support British Unionism and, to an extent, EU involvement.
*No Turning Back and Conservative Way Forward, represent the Thatcherite wing of the party, committed to privatization, dismantling the welfare state and Atlanticism.
*The Cornerstone Group, the party's Traditionalist wing. On the far right of the party, they are against gay rights and secularism in schools. It is also strongly Eurosceptic and supports the death penalty.

Liberal Democrats

*Social Liberals, Mixed economy, higher taxation and public spending.
*Libertarians, enshrine civil liberties and political freedoms, more private ownership and less welfare.

Respect – The Unity Coalition

*Respect Renewal, supported by George Galloway and represents the Democratic Socialist mainstream of the party.
*Left Alternative (formerly Left List), supported by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party, which has built a broad left consensus with the party.

Green Party of England and Wales

*Green Left, Anti-Capitalist and Eco-Socialist wing of the party
*Green 2000, A former faction that pushed for a Green government in Britain by 2005.

Scottish Socialist Party

*The party allows factions to openly organise within its ranks calling them platforms in recognition of these benefits and also in the belief that it is healthier for substantive differences of opinion to be debated openly than to be covertly promoted, undermining the underlying aims of the party.

United States

Within the Democratic Party

*New Democrats, such as the Democratic Leadership Council.
*Conservative Democrats, such as the Blue Dog Coalition.
*Social Democrats, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Within the Republican Party

*Business interests and corporate welfare proponents.
*Christian right, such as Christian Voice, Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family.
*States' rights advocates.



* [http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=faction&searchmode=none| Etymology on line]

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