Review: British Elections & Parties Review volumes 13 and 14

This review appeared in the Journal of Liberal History Issue 49.

British Elections & Parties Review:

  • Volume 13, edited by Colin Rallings, Roger Scully, Jonathan Tonge and Paul Webb
  • Volume 14, edited by Roger Scully, Justin Fisher, Paul Webb and David Broughton

Over the years the volumes in this series have maintained a consistent house-style despite a large number of different editors. These two volumes, as with previous ones, contain a collection of new political science research, largely about the UK and heavily reliant on detailed statistical analysis. There is the usual smattering of chapters which make a nod to the outside world and a few which do not rely on the detail consideration of residuals, coefficients and significance levels. But the core of the publications is detailed statistical analysis of modern British politics. They are the place to turn to for an overview of the latest statistical analyses of the UK political system, by both established and new academics.

The fourteen chapters of Volume 13 and Volume 14’s twelve mainly cover elections held in 1999-2003. The non-UK content of Volume 13 is higher than normal in the series, due to its range of chapters on various European elections in 2002.

Both contain the usual triple-layered approach familiar to readers of previous volumes. There are summaries of each chapter, which give a brief 15-second overview of the content. Then the full chapters. And then detailed footnotes and bibliographies which often provide pointers to much deeper levels of detail.

Volume 13 has a trio of chapters on overseas elections in 2002 – France, Ireland and Holland. All three in their different ways illustrate the crisis of legitimacy for mainstream parties in modern Western democracies. In Ireland Fine Gael could not turn dissatisfaction with the government into support for itself, whilst in both France and Holland an extreme party managed to force itself centre stage.

These studies are followed by five chapters on devolution within the UK. They are largely contemporary, with very little historical rooting to the stories they tell. What there is though serves as a useful reminder of the paucity of support for devolution over many years in Wales. Important though it may have been to Welsh liberal politicians, it was much less of an issue for the public.

Although many of the academics genuinely engage with their subject areas, there is still a degree of ivory tower other-worldliness lingering in the background. How else could a statement such as the following be reported as a newsworthy and new research finding? “In general, the more intense a party’s campaign in a constituency relative to its opponents’, the better its performance,” we are solemnly told.

Many campaigners may wonder why it has taken academics so long to accept that campaigning has an impact. One reason, of course, is that much of the most effective constituency campaigning has been carried out by those outside the two main political parties – and so considered until relatively recently as fringe (and so not worthy of much study) parts of the political system.

Volume 14’s first two chapters examine how voters decide who to support. In the theoretically perfect world of a rational voter, people base their preferences on careful consideration of the parties’ views on a range of issues. In reality, two major short cuts are taken. First, there is the retrospective evaluation of the incumbents – support them if they’ve done a good job and oppose them if not, regardless of future policy promises. Second, views on issues can be influenced by the positions parties take. Thus, rather than backing a party because of its views on issue X, a voter may have take a view on issue X because that is the view taking by their favoured party.

Whilst the particulars of the evidence and statistical models are very specific to modern British electoral politics, the general theoretical points raise interesting issues for historians of the Liberal party. Both suggest that some caution should be attached to identifying a straightforward link between changes in party policy on issues such as free trade with consequent levels of public support for the Liberal party.

Four chapters then examine the issue of modern political citizenship and participation in social movements – what shapes it and what encourages it. As with voter choice, these chapters attempt to quantify and then statistically analyse a range of possible factors.

Two chapters on devolution follow – one on the record of Scottish opinion pollsters and one on the 2003 Welsh Assembly elections. The former, in going through a range of explanations for the poor performance of political pollsters in Scotland, provides a useful primer on the pitfalls of conducting political polling.

The three overseas chapters in Volume 14 – on New Zealand’s AMS PR system and on a leadership election by party members and grassroots campaigning in Ireland –cover topics of relevance to UK elections. The one other chapter deals with the voting records of Labour MPs since 2001 (rebelling frequently by historical standards, though not in large numbers).

There are some production blemishes in Volume 13, such as the mysterious footnote three in Chapter 2 that does not refer to the main body of the text and the wrong labelling of part of Table 5 in Chapter 1. More notable is the decline in the quality of what should be one of the most useful appendixes. This volume, as with the others, includes in its appendixes a narrative diary of the main political events, details of election results and similar. This makes the full collection of volumes a handy reference source. But the collection of public opinion polls in volume 13 is a much thinner collection than usual. Volume 14 sees a welcome and marked improvement.

Despite these blemishes, the series remains an interesting and useful collection of new research, packaged in a relatively accessible way and suitable for a wider audience than just specialist academics.

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