Will Jennings, University of Southampton
Theresa May's surprise decision to call a snap General Election for June 8th 2017 sets up a contest that may come to define British politics for decades. The work of political scientists can help us to understand the long-term and short-term forces that shape all elections. Changes in society and the economy set the scene for broad shifts in public opinion and party competition, while a range of factors influence the decisions of individuals in the privacy of the polling booth. A wide range of books and journal articles published by Cambridge University Press offer valuable insights into the wider political context of 2017 and the factors that tend to matter in British elections specifically.
These articles and chapters are available free of charge until end of July 2017 and you can click on each sub-heading to access the relevant section directly.
A number of long-term trends form the backdrop to the 2017 general election. Britain is a relatively late-developer as far as populist politics is concerned, and much recent commentary overlooks insights from comparative politics that should have made the rise of UKIP and the result of Britain’s EU referendum far less surprising than some have claimed. Cas Mudde’s seminal article on ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’ in Government & Opposition nicely sets out the theoretical contours of populism for readers.
The events of Brexit were arguably foretold in Peter Mair’s ‘Political Opposition and the European Union’, well before Trump and others ‘predicted Brexit’. Writing in 2004, Mair argued that the EU’s failure to develop capacity for opposition within the European polity was creating space for the mobilisation of populist forces. Pippa Norris’ Radical Right similarly was a decade ahead of recent interest in the populist reshaping of politics in contemporary democracies.
Alongside specific arguments about the EU and populism, trends of economic globalisation have impact on voters and parties, reorienting the dimension of political choice, as Tim Hellwig shows in Globalization and Mass Politics. In Britain, Labour’s electoral coalition has been put under strain by its weakening ties with working class voters in its traditional heartlands, especially among those concerned about immigration. Robin Best has presented cross-national evidence of ‘the declining electoral relevance of traditional cleavage groups’, while Geoff Evans and James Tilley have demonstrated how the association between class and party support in the UK has declined as a result of ideological convergence between the main parties (in particular due to New Labour’s move to the centre). Labour has struggled with the politics of national identity in both England and Scotland.
Despite the emergence of new dividing lines in British politics, the traditional contest between left and right remains important. John Bartle and collaborators provide rich insights into the long-term left and rightward swings of the British public’s ideological mood that shape elections, while Maria Grasso et al. highlight a rightward shift of younger generations in recent decades. This reaction of voters to the politics and policies of the New Labour era culminated in Britain’s vote to leave the EU, as is extensively documented in Harold Clarke et al.’s Brexit, the event which has defined the political contest in 2017.
Many perspectives can be brought to bear on how voters make up their minds, and how campaigns do (and do not) matter. Will the 2017 election be a verdict on Corbyn vs. May: who can deliver ‘strong and stable leadership’, not just on Brexit, but on the economy, national security, and the NHS? Studies published in the British Journal of Political Science and American Political Science Review reveal how religion, candidate (name) ethnicity, leader evaluations, voter expectations and height (!) variously impact on voting behaviour in UK elections.
At present, Theresa May has a commanding lead over Jeremy Corbyn on who the public consider would make the most capable prime minister. Arguably the most influential model of vote choice for recent British elections is the ‘valence model’ introduced by Donald Stokes more than half a century ago, which suggests that elections are often about the party or candidate that is seen as most fit to govern and best able to handle salient policy issues and problems. This theory was applied to recent British elections by Paul Whiteley et al., and continues to stimulate debate over the interrelationship of party choice and performance evaluations.
It has also been argued that rebelliousness of legislators offers British voters a valence signal of integrity and trustworthiness. In The Politics of Competence, Jane Green and I show how voters form assessments of governing (and opposition) party competence and how this, in turn, impacts on vote choice. Major policy failures and crises, such as the financial crisis, can have lasting effects on party support. Parties that are flagging in the polls, and in their reputation for policy competence, will tend to fall back on their ‘owned’ issues to shore up their electoral base. This has already been seen in 2017, as Labour has sought to focus the campaign on its best issue – the NHS.
After the high turnout in the EU referendum, we will soon find out whether voters are really fatigued, as some have suggested, or if that it is just the political journalists and political scientists who are exhausted after major referendums or elections in the UK in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017! Declining turnout is one of the factors that has been presented as evidence of political disengagement, while others – such as Pippa Norris – take a wider view of civic engagement. Turnout among younger voters has been a recurring concern in recent British general elections. In a recent article in European Political Science Review Kaat Smets shows how later maturation means that young adults are less likely to vote than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations at the same age.
It would take an unprecedented electoral upset for the Conservatives to not be returned with a larger majority on June 8th. What might we expect from a newly elected government? How will it matter for democratic representation? Elections have important consequences for ‘symbolic’ and ‘substantive’ representation – that is, in providing representation of different parts of society and translating their preferences into policy. In Political Recruitment, Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski present a seminal study of recruitment of parliamentary candidates – and the under-representation of women, minorities and the working class in elected office.
Building on these earlier insights, Rosie Campbell et al. argue that the under-representation of women in elected office may have negative implications for women’s representation in policy. Oliver Heath finds that changes in the social background of members of parliament have contributed to change in class voting in Britain – in particular with the falling number of working class Labour MPs linked to the party’s weakening support among working class voters.
Beyond questions of the representation of different social groups in parliament, a number of studies reveal how elections fit into the ‘chain’ of policy representation. Richard Hofferbert and Ian Budge find that the policy priorities presented to the electorate in party manifestos are translated into government spending in particular policy domains. As such, manifestos give us important clues about how the parties intend to govern. Parties can also change tack in response to public opinion during their term of office. In Degrees of Democracy, Soroka and Wlezien reveal how policy-makers represent public preferences for policy in spending decisions over time. Green and Jennings show how in government parties tend to pursue policies that reflect their reputations for issue ‘ownership’, but that popular governments tend to pursue broader agendas while attention to their favoured issues is constrained by the policy priorities of the public.
The 2017 general election will offer novel insights into the future of Britain’s electoral landscape after Brexit. At the same time it will provide a test of classic axioms of electoral choice: that leaders and competence matter and that unpopular parties will try to shift the debate to issues on which they are credible. After the dust has settled, we may discover whether British politics has changed beyond all recognition, or if instead the more things change the more they stay the same – in the familiarity of a strong Prime Minister, a dominant and radical Conservative government, and a weak and divided opposition Labour Party.
Emotions matter in politics - enthusiastic supporters return politicians to office, angry citizens march in the streets, a fearful public demands protection from the government. Anxious Politics explores the emotional life of politics, with particular emphasis on how political anxieties affect public life.
This book focuses on national identity in England and Scotland. Using data collected over twenty years it asks: does national identity really matter to people? How does 'national identity' differ from 'nationality' and having a passport?
Drawing on a wealth of survey evidence collected over more than ten years, this book explains why most people decided to ignore much of the national and international community and vote for Brexit.
Democratic Phoenix - Reinventing Political Activism
Conventional wisdom suggests that citizens in many countries have become disengaged from the traditional channels of political participation. Commentators highlight warning signs including sagging electoral turnout, rising anti-party sentiment, and the decay of civic organizations. But are these concerns justified?
This book develops and tests a 'thermostatic' model of public opinion and policy. The representation of opinion in policy is central to democratic theory and everyday politics.
Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain investigates the political economy of party support for British political parties since Tony Blair led New Labour to power in 1997. Using valence politics models of electoral choice and marshalling an unprecedented wealth of survey data collected in the British Election Study's monthly Continuous Monitoring Surveys, the authors trace forces affecting support for New Labour during its thirteen years in office
The Politics of Competence - Parties, Public Opinion and Voters
Using decades of public opinion data from the US, UK, Australia, Germany and Canada, and distinguishing between three concepts - issue ownership, performance and generalised competence - Green and Jennings show how political parties come to gain or lose 'ownership' of issues, how they are judged on their performance in government across policy issues and how they develop a reputation for competence (or incompetence) over a period in office.