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Paper Stones Revisited: Class Voting, Unionization and the Electoral Decline of the Mainstream Left

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 March 2020


Relying on post-election surveys, we analyze how class and union membership condition voters’ abandonment of mainstream Left parties and the alternatives chosen by former mainstream-Left voters in the period 2001–2015. Inspired by Przeworski and Sprague’s Paper Stones (1986), our analysis shows that Left parties face a trade-off between mobilizing workers and other voters and that unionization renders workers more loyal to Left parties that mobilize non-workers. By contrast, unionization does not render non-workers more loyal to Left parties that mobilize workers. Union membership increases the likelihood that workers who abandon the mainstream Left continue to vote. It also increases the likelihood that voters abandon the mainstream Left in favor of radical Left parties rather than Center-Right parties. Finally, we show that workers are more likely to abandon mainstream Left parties in favor of radical Right parties than non-workers and that union membership does not affect their propensity to do so. We conclude that reversing the decline of working-class organization should be a long-term objective of mainstream Left parties.

Special Section: Working Class Blues or Reds?
© American Political Science Association 2020

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.


Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

The research for and write-up of this paper have been supported by the European Research Council (Grant Agreement no. 741538). Jonas Pontusson also wishes to acknowledge the support of the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2017S1A3A2066657). Earlier versions of the paper were presented at the Annual Conference of the European Political Science Association (Milan, 2017), the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (San Francisco, 2017), the Norwegian Institute for Social Research (Oslo, 2018), the Swedish Institute for Social Research (Stockholm, 2018), the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern (2018), the European University Institute (Fiesole, 2018), a workshop at the University of Geneva (2018), and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (2019). For insightful comments and other help, they thank John Ahlquist, Christoph Arndt, Paul Bauer, Michael Becher, Hans-Georg Betz, Björn Bremer, Reto Bürgisser, Henning Finseeras, McCartan Humphries, Konstantin Käppner, Daniel Oesch, Nadja Mosimann, Adam Przeworski, Magnus Rasmussen, and Reto Wüest.


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