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The British Conservative party during 1997–2005 appeared to support the view that parties react to defeat by energizing their core vote base. Using a series of spatial and salience-based definitions of the core vote, combined with elite interviews with William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, the three Conservative leaders between 1997 and 2005, empirical evidence in support and also refutation of the core vote critique is evaluated here. The analyses suggest that Conservative issue strategies between 1997 and 2005 were chosen on grounds of spatial proximity and public perceptions of issue ownership, and that an appeal to Conservative voters was consistent with a broader appeal. The implications of this evidence are important for conceptualizing and applying party base explanations in Britain and beyond.
1 See Adams James and Merrill Samuel, ‘Modeling Party Strategies and Policy Representation in Multiparty Elections: Why Are Strategies so Extreme?’ American Journal of Political Science, 43 (1999), 765–791; Adams James, Party Competition and Responsible Party Government: A Theory of Spatial Competition Based upon Insights from Behavioral Voting Research (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); Adams James, ‘A Theory of Spatial Competition with Biased Voters: Party Policies Viewed Temporally and Comparatively’, British Journal of Political Science, 31 (2001), 121–158; Adams James, Merrill Samuel and Grofman Bernard, A Unified Theory of Party Competition: A Cross-National Analysis Integrating Spatial and Behavioral Factors (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Schofield Norman, ‘A Valence Model of Political Competition in Britain: 1992–1997’, Electoral Studies, 24 (2005), 347–370.
2 Downs Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).
3 Lipset Seymour M. and Rokkan Stein, ‘Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: An Introduction’, in Seymour M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan, eds, Party Systems and Voter Alignments (New York: The Free Press, 1967), pp. 1–64.
4 Hirschman Albert O., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970); May John D., ‘Opinion Structure of Political Parties: The Special Law of Curvinlear Disparity’, Political Studies, 21 (1972), 135–151; Robertson David B., A Theory of Party Competition (London: New York: John Wiley, 1976); McLean Iain, Dealing in Votes: Interactions between Politicians and Voters in Britain and the USA (Oxford: M. Robertson, 1982); Aldrich John H., ‘A Downsian Spatial Model with Party Activism’, American Political Science Review, 77 (1983), 974–990; Chappell Henry W. and Keech William R., ‘Policy Motivation and Party Differences in a Dynamic Spatial Model of Party Competition’, American Political Science Review, 80 (1986), 881–899; Kitschelt Herbert, The Logics of Party Formation: Ecological Politics in Belgium and West Germany (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989); Kitschelt Herbert, The Transformation of European Social Democracy, Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Tsebelis George, Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Politics, California Series on Social Choice and Political Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Strøm Kaare, ‘A Behavioural Theory of Competitive Political Parties’, American Journal of Political Science, 34 (1990), 565–598.
5 Kitschelt , ‘The Transformation of European Social Democracy’, p. 116.
6 Dunleavy Patrick and Ward Hugh, ‘Exogenous Voter Preferences and Parties with State Power: Some Internal Problems of Economic Theories of Party Competition’, British Journal of Political Science, 11 (1981), 351–380; Kitschelt, ‘The Transformation of European Social Democracy’; Laver Michael, ‘Policy and the Dynamics of Political Competition’, American Political Science Review, 99 (2005), 263–281.
7 Robertson, ‘A Theory of Party Competition’.
8 Fielding Steven, ‘Labour's Campaign: Things Can Only Get … Worse’, in Andrew Geddes and Jonathon Tonge, eds, The UK Votes: The General Election of 2010 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 653–666.
9 Butler David and Kavanagh Dennis, The British General Election of 2001 (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave, 2001); Norris Pippa, ‘Apathetic Landslide: The 2001 British General Election’, Parliamentary Affairs, 54 (2001), 565–589; Collings Daniel and Seldon Anthony, ‘Conservatives in Opposition’, Parliamentary Affairs, 54 (2001), 624–637; Kelly Richard, ‘Conservatism under Hague: The Fatal Dilemma’, Political Quarterly, 72 (2001), 197–203; Garnett Mark and Lynch Philip, ‘Bandwagon Blues: The Tory Fightback Fails’, Political Quarterly, 73 (2002), 29–37; Garnett Mark and Lynch Philip, The Conservatives in Crisis: The Tories after 1997 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Norris Pippa and Lovenduski Joni, ‘Why Parties Fail to Learn: Electoral Defeat, Selective Perception and British Party Politics’, Party Politics, 10 (2004), 85–104; Seldon Anthony and Snowdon Peter, ‘The Conservative Campaign’ , Parliamentary Affairs, 58 (2005), 725–742.
10 Downs, ‘An Economic Theory of Democracy’.
11 Bale Tim, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p. 316; Green Jane, ‘Strategic Recovery? The Conservatives Under David Cameron’, in Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge, eds., Britain Votes 2010, pp. 85–106.
12 ‘So yes, this is a modern, progressive Conservative manifesto. It is confirmation that this party has changed … that we have returned to the centre ground of British politics … and that is where we will stay.’ http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2010/04/David_Cameron_Your_invitation_to_join_the_Government_of_Britain.aspx (speech at the launch of the Conservative's 2010 election manifesto).
13 Rohrschneider Robert, ‘Mobilizing versus Chasing: How do Parties Target Voters in Election Campaigns?’ Electoral Studies, 21 (2002), 367–382.
14 Petrocik John R., ‘Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study’, American Journal of Political Science, 40 (1996), 825–850; Petrocik John R., Benoit William L., and Hansen Glenn J., ‘Issue Ownership and Presidential Campaigning, 1952–2000’, Political Science Quarterly, 118 (2003), 599–626.
15 Adams and Merrill, ‘Modeling Party Strategies and Policy Representation in Multiparty Elections’; Adams, ‘Party Competition and Responsible Party Government’; Adams, ‘A Theory of Spatial Competition with Biased Voters’; Adams, Merrill and Grofman, ‘A Unified Theory of Party Competition’; Schofield, ‘A Valence Model of Political Competition in Britain’.
16 For example, Butler and Kavanagh, The British General Election of 2001; Norris and Lovenduski, ‘Why Parties Fail to Learn’; Collings and Seldon, ‘Conservatives in Opposition’; Seldon and Snowdon, ‘The Conservative Campaign’.
17 Cook Charles, ‘Both Parties Are Missing ‘Bold Colors’ to Appeal to their Bases in 1998’, Roll Call Monthly, 7 (December 1997).
18 Aldrich, ‘A Downsian Spatial Model with Party Activism’.
19 Tsebelis, Nested Games.
20 May, ‘Opinion Structure of Political Parties’; Norris Pippa, ‘May's Law of Curvilinear Disparity Revisited: Leaders, Officers, Members and Voters in British Political Parties’, Party Politics, 1 (1995), 29–47.
21 Dalton Russell, ‘Political Parties and Political Representation: Party Supporters and Party Elites in Nine Nations’, Comparative Political Studies, 18 (1985), 267–299.
22 Converse Philip E., ‘The Concept of a Normal Vote’, in Angus Campbell, Phillip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes, eds, Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1966), pp. 9–39.
23 Fiorina Morris, ‘What Happened to the Median Voter?’ (unpublished paper for the MIT Conference on Parties and Congress, Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Johnston Ron and Pattie Charles, ‘Representative Democracy and Electoral Geography’, in John A. Agnew, Katharyne Mitchell and Gerard Toal (Gearóid O'Tuathail), eds, A Companion to Political Geography (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003); Stokes Susan C., ‘Reverse Accountability: A Formal Model of Machine Politics with Evidence from Argentina’, American Political Science Review, 99 (2005), 315–325; Cox Gary C., ‘Swing Voters, Core Voters and Distributive Politics’ (paper presented at the Yale Conference on Representation and Popular Rule, 2006).
24 Butler and Kavanagh, ‘The British General Election of 2001’; Norris, ‘Apathetic Landslide’; Collings and Seldon, ‘Conservatives in Opposition’; Kelly, ‘Conservatism under Hague’; Garnett and Lynch, ‘Bandwagon Blues’; Garnett and Lynch, The Conservatives in Crisis; Norris and Lovenduski, ‘Why Parties Fail to Learn’; Seldon and Snowdon, ‘The Conservative Campaign’.
25 The association between Conservative party identification and vote intention is very high. The proportions of Conservative identifiers voting Conservative were 95 per cent, 87 per cent and 83 per cent in 1997, 2001 and 2005, respectively (source: 1997, 2001, 2005 BES cross-sections).
26 Somer-Topcu Zeynep, ‘Timely Decisions: The Effects of Past National Elections on Party Policy Change’, Journal of Politics, 71 (2009), 238–248.
27 Laver Michael, ‘Party Policy in Britain 1997: Results from an Expert Survey’, Political Studies, 46 (1998), 336–347.
28 Benoit Kenneth and Laver Michael, Party Policy in Modern Democracies (London: Routledge Research in Comparative Politics, 2006).
29 Bara has analysed the CMP data for Britain; see Bara Judith, ‘The 2005 Manifestos: A Sense of Déja Vu?’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 16 (2006), 265–281.
30 Prior to 1987, the question wordings of BES policy scales were different, with different end points and often different scales. The 2005 BES omitted some policy questions in earlier cross-sections and panels.
31 In each case, ‘don't know’ responses are omitted, so that biases are reduced as far as possible, and party position estimates are taken from the overall mean, minimizing assimilation or projection effects.
32 See Zaller John, ‘Information, Values, and Opinion’, American Political Science Review, 85 (1991), 1215–1237; Zaller John The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
33 Note that this problem also relates to the relationship of issue preferences and concerns to the vote – since parties seek to prime voters to cast their votes on favourable party issues.
34 If we took this measure as a proxy for party issue emphasis, the Conservative party's top three issues (in order of emphasis) would be health > Europe > taxation. The Labour party's would be health > education > pensions. The Liberal Democrat's would be health > education > Europe. Overall, the ‘most important election issues’ were of the order: health, education, Europe, taxation, pensions, crime, economy.
35 For example, all respondents, by party identification, ranked health between 9.03 and 9.35 on the 0–10 scale, all ranked taxation between 7.47 and 7.98, all ranked education between 8.59 and 9.11, and all ranked crime between 8.62 and 8.93 (total N = 4,304).
36 These data were kindly made available to the author by Dr Roger Mortimore from Ipsos-MORI.
37 Clarke Harold, Sanders David, Stewart Marianne C. and Whiteley Paul M., ‘Taking the Bloom off New Labour's Rose: Party Choice and Voter Turnout in Britain, 2005’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 16 (2005), 3–36; Green Jane, ‘When Voters and Parties Agree: Valence Issues and Party Competition’, Political Studies, 55 (2007), 629–655; Adams James, Green Jane and Milazzo Caitlin, ‘Has the British Public Depolarized Along with Political Elites? An American Perspective on British Public Opinion’, Comparative Political Studies, 45 (forthcoming 2012).
38 ‘Considering everything the Conservative and Labour parties stand for, would you say there is a great difference between them, some difference between them, or, not much difference between them?’
39 These were based on large sample sizes in 1997 (approx. 71) but the 2001 obtained smaller Conservative MP samples of around 30. Therefore, the total Conservative samples are reported in Table 1.
40 Bara, ‘The 2005 Manifestos’.
41 Clements Ben and Bartle John, ‘The European Issue and Party Choice at British General Elections, 1974– 2005’, Journal of Public Opinion and Parties, 19 (2009), 377–411.
42 Benoit Kenneth and Laver Michael, ‘Estimating Party Policy Positions: Comparing Expert Surveys and Hand-Coded Content Analysis’, Electoral Studies, 26 (2007), 90–107.
43 Laver, ‘Party Policy in Britain 1997’.
44 Laver, ‘Party Policy in Britain 1997’, p. 339.
45 Benoit and Laver, Party Policy in Modern Democracies.
46 Other dimensions included deregulation, EU peacekeeping, ‘social’, decentralization, Northern Ireland, Environment and a constructed dimension, ‘sympathy’. The discussed issues are chosen for their relevance to the core vote debate.
47 Green Jane, ‘Conservative Party Rationality: Learning the Right Lessons from the Last Election for the Next’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 15 (2005), 111–127; Green, ‘When Voters and Parties Agree’; Quinn Thomas, ‘The Conservative Party and the “Centre Ground” of British Politics’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 18 (2008), 179–199; Adams, Green and Milazzo, ‘Has the British Public Depolarized Along with Political Elites?’.
48 Benoit and Laver, Party Policy in Modern Democracies; Green, ‘When Voters and Parties Agree’; Clements and Bartle, ‘The European Issue and Party Choice at British General Elections’.
49 All scales in this article have been re-coded between 0–10 where 0 = most left and 10 = most right.
50 The 2001 BES cross-section figures for taxation are slightly but not substantially different to the figures in Table 2, which used the 2001 wave of the 1997–2001 British Election Panel Study.
51 The Liberal Democrat position is marginally but not significantly closer than the Conservative position to Labour partisans (0.17 difference between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat gap) and Liberal Democrat partisans (0.09).
52 See Clarke Harold D., Sanders David, Stewart Marianne C. and Whiteley Paul F., Performance Politics and the British Voter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
53 Ironically, this may be an example where Cameron was attempting to shore up his Eurosceptic voters and supporters. Cameron withdrew Conservative MEPs from the European People's Party (the centre-right grouping in Europe) and negotiated a new grouping of Eurosceptic parties.
54 Source: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/content/attitudes-towards-immigration.ashx. The net ‘agree minus disagree’ score was the percentage of ‘strongly agree’ and ‘tend to agree’ responses minus the percentage of ‘tend to disagree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ responses.
55 Using the 2005 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, and the question, ‘Do you think there are too many immigrants have been let into the country or not?’, 89.5 per cent of Conservative identifiers agreed, compared with 78.3 per cent of Labour identifiers, 66.4 per cent of Liberal Democrat identifiers, 73.7 per cent of people identifying with ‘other’ parties, and 86.5 per cent identifying with no party (total N = 2,093).
56 Benoit and Laver, Party Policy in Modern Democracies.
57 Post-2005 data indicate that public opinion may have subsequently moved in a low taxation direction, so that perceived Conservative policies in 2001 and 2005 would be closer. See Curtice John, ‘Back in Contention? The Conservatives’ Electoral Prospects’, Political Quarterly, 80 (2009), 172–183.
58 Quinn, ‘The Conservative Party and the “Centre Ground” of British Politics’.
59 Butler and Kavanagh, The British General Election of 2001; Cowley Philip and Quayle Stuart, ‘The Conservatives: Running on the Spot’, in Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge, eds, Labour's Second Landslide: The British General Election 2001 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 47–65; Bartle John, ‘Why Labour Won – Again’, in Anthony King, ed., Britain at the Polls, 2001 (London: Chatham House, 2002); Seldon and Snowdon, ‘The Conservative Campaign’.
60 MORI includes all race/immigration and asylum terms in one category.
61 It would be possible to analyse change among the same respondents using panel data. However, since these panel study questions occur in elections, we would not be able to distinguish changes in issue salience from responsiveness to party agendas in campaigns.
62 Iyengar Shanto and Kinder Donald R., News that Matters: Television and American Opinion, American Politics and Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
63 Zaller, ‘Information, Values, and Opinion’; Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.
64 Note that it is not possible to test the question of whether the campaigns failed to win potential votes, but the conclusion rests on the shared wisdom that they failed to improve the party image, at the least.
65 Webb Paul, ‘Parties and Party Systems: More Continuity than Change’, Parliamentary Affairs, 55 (2002), 363–376.
66 Budge Ian and Farlie Dennis, Voting and Party Competition: A Theoretical Critique and Synthesis Applied to Surveys from Ten Democracies (London: Wiley, 1977); Budge Ian and Farlie Dennis, Explaining and Predicting Elections: Issue Effects and Party Strategies in Twenty-Three Democracies (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983).
67 John Petrocik, ‘Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections’, 1996; Petrocik, Benoit and Hansen, ‘Issue Ownership and Presidential Campaigning’.
68 Riker William H., The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986); Riker William H., ‘Rhetorical Interaction in the Ratification Campaigns’, in W. H. Riker, ed., Agenda Formation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 8–123.
69 Green Jane and Hobolt Sara B., ‘Owning the Issue Agenda: Party Strategies and Vote Choices in British Elections’, Electoral Studies, 27 (2008), 460–476.
70 Interviews were semi-structured so that the same questions were posed. Each was conducted within one year of the individual being leader, so that any post hoc rationalization could be minimized. The interviews were also cross-validated by twenty interviews with other senior Conservatives. All interviews were recorded and transcribed in full.
71 Analysis of the vote also supports this contention. See Evans Geoffrey, ‘European Integration, Party Politics and Voting in the 2001 Election’, British Elections and Parties Review, 12 (2002), 95–110.
72 Bartle, ‘Why Labour Won – Again’.
73 Petrocik, ‘Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections’; Petrocik, Benoit and Hansen, ‘Issue Ownership and Presidential Campaigning’.
74 The question was asked only in relation to immigration, asylum and race relations (a combined category) in 2001, 2003, 2004 and from 2006.
75 Green and Hobolt, ‘Owning the Issue Agenda’; Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whiteley, ‘Performance Politics and the British Voter’.
76 A cattle disease, which forced farmers to destroy livestock and the government to restrict rural transport, led to the postponement of the 2001 general election by one month.
77 The ballot was a member survey inviting support for Hague's policy of ruling out membership of the eurozone for two parliaments.
78 Evans Geoffrey, ‘Economics and Politics Revisited: Exploring the Decline in Conservative Support, 1992–1995’, Political Studies, 47 (1999), 139–151.
79 Hindmoor Andrew, New Labour at the Centre: Constructing Political Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
80 Cowley Philip and Green Jane, ‘New Leaders, Same Problems: The Conservatives’, in Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge, eds, Britain Decides: The British General Election of 2005 (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
81 Budge and Farlie, Voting and Party Competition; Budge and Farlie, Explaining and Predicting Elections.
82 Howard said: ‘The thing I regret most is that I don't think I ever properly and convincingly explained where I stood on the war … I never really explained that – yes I'm in favour of the war, yes I still think it was right to get rid of Sadam Hussein, but we at the time said that you needed to plan for what came after the war, and if [there had] been proper planning and if the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police hadn't been disbanded, and there hadn't been this terrible vacuum everything could and almost certainly would have been different. And that was my view. That was my position ... People said to me “lay off Iraq because whenever you say anything about Iraq it sort of goes pear shaped” which it had on a number of occasions and I sort of listened to that which I shouldn't have done, and that was my responsibility because I decide who to listen to and who not to listen to. That's probably my biggest regret.’
83 Green Jane, ‘Strategic Recovery? The Conservatives under David Cameron’, in Geddes and Tonge, eds, The UK Votes, pp. 85–106.
84 Bafumi Joseph and Shapiro Robert Y., ‘A New Partisan Voter’, Journal of Politics, 71 (2009), 1–24.
85 Adams, Green and Milazzo, ‘Has the British Public Depolarized along with Political Elites?’
86 Przeworski Adam and Sprague John D., Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
87 Johnston and Pattie, ‘Representative Democracy and Electoral Geography’.
88 Budge and Farlie, Voting and Party Competition; Budge and Farlie, Explaining and Predicting Elections; Petrocik, ‘Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections’; Petrocik, Benoit and Hansen, ‘Issue Ownership and Presidential Campaigning’.
* School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester (email: email@example.com). The author wishes to thank Geoffrey Evans, all those who assisted with arranging or providing interviews with Conservative party leaders, and also Laura Stoker, Caitlin Milazzo, the Editors of the Journal and the anonymous referees for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts.
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