At a time when the literature on political parties is brimming with health and vitality, the parties themselves seem to be experiencing potentially severe legitimacy problems and to be suffering from a quite massive withdrawal of popular support and affection. This article addresses one key aspect of the problems facing contemporary parties in Europe, which is the challenge to party government. I begin by reviewing the changing pattern of party competition, in which I discuss the decline of partisanship in policy- making and the convergence of parties into a mainstream consensus. I then look again at the familiar ‘parties-do-matter’ thesis and at the evidence for declining partisanship within the electorate. In the third section of the paper I explore the various attempts to specify the conditions for party government, before going on in the final section to argue that these conditions have been undermined in such a way that it is now almost impossible to imagine party government in contemporary Europe either functioning effectively or sustaining complete legitimacy.
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