Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 March 2010
British elections exhibit two patterns contrary to expectations deriving from Duverger and Downs: centrist third parties (Liberals and their successors) win a large vote share; and the two major parties often espouse highly divergent policies. This article explores relations between the Liberal vote and left–right scores of the Labour and Conservative manifestos in the light of two hypotheses: the vacated centre posits that Liberals receive more votes when major parties diverge; the occupied centre proposes a lagged effect in which major parties diverge farther after Liberals do well in the preceding election. Data from elections since 1945 confirm the vacated-centre hypothesis, with Liberals benefiting about equally when the major parties diverge to the left and right, respectively. The results also support the occupied-centre hypothesis for Conservative party positions, but not for Labour’s. After considering explanations for this asymmetry, we identify historical events associated with turning points that our data reveal in post-war British politics.
1 The centrist parties discussed in this article, and the elections they contested in the period analysed, are the Liberal party (1945–79), the Alliance of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party (1983 and 1987), and the Liberal Democratic party (1992 onward). The Liberals and Social Democrats maintained separate organizations but campaigned under an electoral pact, so their candidates did not oppose each other in any constituency. In 1988, the Liberals and SDP merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats. In 1990, the merged party simplified its name to Liberal Democrats. For a definitive history of the SDP and the merger, see Crewe, Ivor and King, Anthony, SDP: The Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. To avoid awkward constructions, we use ‘Liberals’ and ‘Liberal vote’ as generic terms, employing the later names of the centrist party or parties only when the context is restricted to the periods of their existence.
2 See also the Appendix for numerical data. Vote shares throughout the article are for Great Britain only. Northern Ireland, which usually records little more than 2 per cent of the overall United Kingdom vote, has a separate party system. Since 1974, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties have generally not offered candidates there. Unless otherwise noted, electoral data through 1999 in this article are drawn from Rallings, Colin and Thrasher, Michael, British Electoral Facts, 1832–1999 (Aldershot, Surrey: Ashgate, 2000)Google Scholar. Data for 2001 and 2005 are from the website of the UK Electoral Commission, http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/election-data/index.cfm. Manifesto scores were provided by Eric Tannenbaum and Judith Bara of the Comparative Manifesto Project. Scores for 1945–97 are also available on a CD included with Budge, Ian, Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, Volkens, Andrea, Bara, Judith and Tanenbaum, Eric, Mapping Policy Preferences: Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments 1945–1998 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. The measures are described more fully below.
3 Douglas, Roy, Liberals: The History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), pp. 281–282. Previously, after the February 1974 election, Labour had formed a minority government with 301 seats, seventeen short of a majority. However, at that time, the Liberals, with fourteen MPs, did not by themselves hold the balance of power. An absolute majority would have required help from the seven MPs of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The Labour government called a new election in October 1974, from which it emerged with an absolute majority of 319 seats. The subsequent Lib–Lab pact of 1977–78 became necessary after Labour lost its majority due to defections and by-election defeats.Google Scholar
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14 For alternative approaches to explaining the dynamics of party ideologies as measured by manifesto scores, see the substantial literature that begins with Budge, Ian, ‘A New Spatial Theory of Party Competition: Uncertainty, Ideology, and Policy Equilibria Viewed Comparatively and Temporally’, British Journal of Political Science, 24 (1994), 443–467CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Recent articles in this tradition include Adams, James, Clark, Michael, Ezrow, Lawrence and Glasgow, Garrett, ‘Understanding Change and Stability in Party Ideologies: Do Parties Respond to Public Opinion or to Past Election Results?’, British Journal of Political Science, 34 (2004), 589–610CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Somer-Topcu, Zeynep, ‘Timely Decisions: The Effects of Past National Elections on Party Policy Change’, Journal of Politics, 71 (2009), pp. 238–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Tests in this literature are based on pooled cross-national data; and do not involve hypotheses that relate parties’ positions to the votes won by a competing party in the preceding election.
15 For detailed accounts of how the scale is constructed, see Laver, M. J. and Budge, Ian, eds, Party Policy and Government Coalitions (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chap. 2; Klingemann, Hans-Dieter et al. , Parties, Policies, and Democracy (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994)Google Scholar, chap. 3; and especially Budge et al., Mapping Policy Preferences.
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17 Some of these results are reported below; others are available upon request.
18 An examination of Figure 3 shows that moves by a major party caused all of these anomalies, except in 1964 when the Liberals shifted sharply but temporarily to the left.
19 This was suggested by a reviewer, to whom we are most grateful.
20 Russell, Andrew and Fieldhouse, Edward, Neither Left nor Right? The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 90–93.Google Scholar
21 The pattern is unchanged when the lagged Liberal vote is included in the equation – its effect is small and insignificant (b = 0.09; s.e. = 0.25). Full-fledged error correction modelling shows further that the effects of the current (time t) changes in Labour and Conservative positions are effects of the corresponding lagged (time t−1) positions. This is important because it strongly suggests that party positions Granger-cause the Liberal vote.
22 The pattern is robust to the inclusion of other variables. Following the suggestions of one anonymous referee, we included the interest rate (following the model of Sanders, David, ‘Economic Performance, Management Competence and the Outcome of the Next General Election’, Political Studies, 44 (1996), 203–231, and doing so did not significantly alter the effects of Labour-Liberal and Conservative-Liberal distance. To probe the nature of voter response, we included lagged changes in our distance measures, and this made little difference to the results as well.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
23 In these equations, we use the Labour and Conservative left–right scores alone, rather than the differences between them and the Liberal score as in Equation 1. At the beginning of the campaign for election t, each major party controls its own manifesto, but probably cannot calibrate it against the Liberal manifesto, which is published almost simultaneously. For those who would question this premise, we also estimated versions of Equations 3 and 4 using algebraic differences between the major-party and Liberal scores. The results are virtually the same for Equation 3 and far weaker for Equation 4.
24 The effect also holds when the equation includes the lagged Conservative position, the coefficient for which is insignificant (b = 0.27; s.e. = 0.18).
25 In contrast, the occupied-centre relation between the Liberal vote and the Conservative left–right position remained strong during 1966–87, with a correlation of 0.74 (p = 0.06).
26 Adams, James and Merrill, Samuel III, ‘Why Small, Centrist Third Parties Motivate Policy Divergence by Major Parties’, American Political Science Review, 100 (2006), 403–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Their analysis in part seeks to explain results first presented in an early version of this article: Nagel, Jack H., ‘Center-Party Strength and Major-Party Polarization in Britain’ (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 2001).Google Scholar
27 Here is the regression result:
28 As a referee has pointed out to us, Adams and Merrill implicitly assume a uniform distribution of voters across the ideological spectrum, which seems unlikely. Their hypothesis might be salvaged by positing that voters on the extremes have a greater propensity to defect (to non-voting or fringe parties) in response to policy moves than do supporters of the centrist third party.
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30 The CMP codes for statements in favour of decentralization and centralization, but does not include them in the left–right scale (Bara, ‘The 2005 Manifestos,’ Appendix 1).
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34 Although we use a simple linear specification in Equation 4, there is an even closer fit to a logarithmic model.
35 We calculated V*lib by dividing the Liberals’ vote percentage in Great Britain, Vlib, by the proportion of British constituencies in which a Liberal candidate stood. Owing to variations in constituencies’ population and voter turnout, slightly different results would be obtained by the more laborious method of actually averaging the Liberal vote percentage across the constituencies their candidates contested.
36 We say ‘roughly’ because tactical voting (motivated by fear of ‘wasting’ one’s vote) causes the average vote to give an imperfect measure of popular support for the Liberals.
37 Because the analytic relation is multiplicative (Vlib = Clib * V*lib), we also estimated a logarithmic version of Equation 5. The results are qualitatively similar.
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39 For an account of US political history that similarly depends on the influence of activists and changes in the composition of activist coalitions within parties over an extended time period, see Miller, Gary and Schofield, Norman, ‘The Transformation of the Republican and Democratic Party Coalitions in the U.S.’, Perspectives on Politics, 6 (2008), 433–450CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schofield, Norman and Miller, Gary, ‘Elections and Activist Coalitions in the United States’, American Journal of Political Science, 51 (2007), 518–531CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Schofield, Norman, Miller, Gary and Martin, Andrew, ‘Critical Elections and Political Realignments in the USA – 1860–2000’, Political Studies, 51 (2003), 217–540CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Their model of US politics is two-dimensional, whereas we explicitly model only one dimension in British politics, though we do recognize the influence of cross-cutting allegiances and issues.
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42 Webb, P.D., ‘The United Kingdom’, in Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair, eds, Party Organizations: A Data Handbook on Party Organizations in Western Democracies, 1960–90 (London: Sage Publications, 1992), pp. 837–870, at p. 847.Google Scholar
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49 In Equation 1, the 1951 Liberal vote produces the second largest negative residual in the entire postwar period, slightly below 1992.
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56 In 1964, the Liberals would be to the left of both major parties, a pattern that did not occur again until 1997 and 2001. From 1969 through 1992, they continuously occupied the middle position.
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58 Quoted in Cyr, Liberal Party Politics, p. 158.
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65 New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other centrist leaders explored such a possibility in early 2008.
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