So Nick, how goes the PhD?

Very well, and thank you for asking, interrogative construct of a title.

ArtsOne at QMUL – one of these windows is of the PhD office where I work.

What? You want some more detail than that? OK then…

I’m now about 4 1/2 months into doing a PhD. During that time, I’ve been doing a hell of a lot of reading, attending classes on quantitative and qualitative research methods, attending a range of other seminars and classes on a variety of subjects, meeting with my supervisors (Tim Bale and Philip Cowley), travelling to Germany for a conference…oh, and doing lots of writing (though obviously not on this blog).

The main thrust of my work is about centre parties and how the presence (or absence) of them affects political and electoral competition in different countries. This came to me as an idea a little over a year ago when I was thinking about ideas for a PhD research proposal and realised there’s a big gap in the academic literature around concepts of the centre in politics, and especially about centre parties. They get talked about in passing a lot, but they’re more often an unexamined assumption than the focus of actual study. There are plenty of people studying parties of the radical left or right, plenty of studies of conservative parties, socialist parties, liberals, greens, nationalists etc etc, but the centre and centre parties? Almost nothing, except for this book from getting on for twenty years ago.

So, the main task I’ve been focusing on over the last couple of months has been writing a paper on how to define the centre party, as there’s no definition out there at present, and I feel I need a reliable definition to work from for the rest of my work and I need a bit more than the ‘I know one when I see one‘ sort of definition to rely on. And honestly? Trying to come up with a formal definition for something that has a vaguely understood definition isn’t as easy as you might think it is, but it’s been an interesting process and resulted in what I hope was an interesting paper. I presented it at a conference last weekend and it seemed to go down quite well there, so I think I did a good job on it. (If you want to read it, you can follow me on Academia, or just email and ask)

Next up, I’ve got to develop the work I’ve done in that paper to come up with an actual list of centre parties, and then move on to the next stages of the thesis. The first part of that is going to be a more statistical analysis of the effects of centre parties, and seeing how much they their presence or absence affects politics in a country. For instance, does the presence of a centre party mean that the ideological centre of a political system is out of competition and parties have to be more extreme to get votes, or does it mean that there’s lots of competition for the centre and so there’s a good basis for a party rooting itself there? In terms of votes, do centre parties mean a stable electoral system where voters can find a party that suits them more and not need to move, or do they encourage more electoral volatility by providing a halfway house for voters switching from left or right parties?

I also want to look at centre parties and ‘centrism’ as a whole to see if they do have any common features beyond their positioning – what features might be part of a centrist ideology and do centre parties exist as a coherent party family?

After that, which is obviously going to be looking at the past because no matter what the massed psephologists of the internet might think, it’s not yet possible to analyse the results of future elections, I want to use the centre to look at how party competition might evolve in the future especially with the rise of different dimensions of political competition. In most, but not all, party systems the dominant dimension of competition has been a left-right one, but now we’re seeing other dimensions of competition rise to prominence and perhaps become more important than the left-right one. I want to use centre parties as a basis for looking at how parties adapt to these changes – do they look for a centre position on the new axis, or find a position on one side or the other of the new cleavage? Plus, what happens to existing parties who find themselves suddenly caught in the centre of a newly dominant cleavage, having had a clear position on one side of the old one?

That’s where I am so far, with lots more questions and not many answers so far, but that’s all part of the process. I only get to worry if the questions keep multiplying over the next few years while the answers remain elusive.

Coming soon: Nick the PhD student

As regular readers of my blog and followers of my life might remember, about a year ago I completed a Masters in Politics at the University of Essex. I’d started the Masters partly on a whim, figuring that it would be good to take advantage of having one of the leading politics departments in the country on my doorstep, but as I went on with it I discovered that I really enjoyed being a student again, particularly in getting to research new areas and explore political systems.

While the Masters came to an end last year, I decided that I didn’t want that to be the end of my studies and decided to look into the prospects of doing a PhD, picking up some of the threads I’d found while researching my Masters dissertation and going further in exploring them. Luckily for me, it turns out that other people think that’s an area worth exploring too, and so from the end of September I’ll be a PhD student (and graduate teaching assistant) in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. (I’m not leaving Colchester, though, so I’ll also be a commuter…)

My research proposal has the title ‘centre parties and the structure of competition’. My plan is to look at centre parties in various electoral systems and look at how the structure of competition within a political system (an idea originally developed by the late Peter Mair) relates to them. I’m aware that no PhD research proposal tends to survive intact from its first meeting with your supervisor, so the details will likely change over the coming months and years, but I’ll be looking at questions like what defines centre parties (and the Duverger/Sartori question of whether they exist at all), how they interact with parties and party blocks to left and right, and what factors lead some to be successful while others aren’t.

The Finnish doctoral hat and sword.
The Finnish doctoral hat and sword.
However it develops, I’m sure it will lead to many interesting points that I’ll be sharing either here or elsewhere, and hopefully in three or so years time I’ll be able to enter a room and get a ‘Hi, Dr Nick‘ response. Because what’s three years of study worth if you can’t get a weak Simpsons joke out of it at the end? It’s either that or transfer to Finland so I can work towards my doctoral hat and sword.

New academic research project on political party members

partymembersHere’s an interesting new academic research project: the ESRC Party Members Project. Their description of the project is:

By collecting original quantitative and qualitative data, the project explores party membership’s supply side (the members themselves and what they do and think) and its demand side (how and what parties think of their membership and their recruitment and retention strategies).

It’s a three year project, so it’ll be a while before the really interesting data comes out of it, but there’s useful stuff there already. They’re also looking at questions of why people who are strong supporters of parties don’t become members, and also why people leave parties, so there should be a lot of interesting data coming out of it.

One question I’d love to see them look at, or maybe provide the data for someone else to examine, is the question of how much party members’ views change over time. It’d be interesting to see the balance between how much party members change their views to match those of the party, and how much parties change their policies to match the views of their members. It’s going back to ideas I’ve written about before, like the Zaller model of public opinion, and asking if repeated exposure to the way other party members think causes shifts in people’s thinking. Hopefully the data will help explore that question.

Anyway, something worth keeping an eye on, and they’ve also got a Twitter feed to make following them easier.

Politics with distinction

distinctionIt seems like ages ago that I finally handed in my dissertation but it’s only been two months. Two months of regularly checking my University email account for notifications while second-guessing everything I wrote in it, until today the maring was done, the exam board had met, and I got my final grade: a distinction for the dissertation, which meant an overall distinction for my MA, so those two years of studying and several thousand pounds of fees weren’t wasted in the end.

Anyway, this is just to say thanks to those of you who read and commented on the posts about my dissertation and other degree-related things as you did help me work through my thoughts and come up with ideas in a lot of areas, and all that helped me get to this point. The title – and the opportunity to flog the phrase ‘politics with distinction’ until it becomes devoid of all potential humour and meaning – is all mine though.

Right, time to start applying for next year’s PhD courses and funding…

Qualitative Election Study of Britain

qesb-logo-3-logogardenBack during April and May, I did a little bit of work helping Drs Edzia Carvalho and Kristi Winters on their Qualitative Election Study of Britain project, which was looking at people’s perceptions and attitudes towards the election campaign.

They’re now publishing some of the data they gathered from their work, in the form of transcripts of various of the focus groups that were conducted. They make interesting reading, as even though they’re individual testimony, they give an interesting account of how people outside the political bubble see and understand politics and should help to give anyone a bit of perspective on what ordinary members of the public were thinking during the election campaign. I’ve only had time to peruse them briefly so far, but there’s plenty in there of interest.

Click here to go to the main QESB site.

Equidistance is good at winning votes, but not seats

winninghereI handed in my Masters dissertation a couple of weeks ago, and rather than reproduce the whole thing here, I thought a summarised version of the key arguments would be of more interest than the whole thing. (That some of it would be an absolute bugger to format for WordPress is entirely by-the-by) Should you be interested in reading the whole 10,000 word original (“The role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system: Strategic coordination and the structure of competition”) let me know.

The main aim of the dissertation was to look at Liberal Democrat positioning and strategy since the party was formed in the light of different theories. In the first part, I looked at spatial (Downsian) models of party positioning (which I discussed in more detail here), specifically in terms of papers by Adams & Merrill, and Nagel & Wlezien. They find some interesting patterns in British politics, most notably that when the two major parties diverge from the centre, the vote share of the centre party tends to grow (and when they converge, the centre party gets squeezed).

However, what’s interesting about this relationship is that it only applies to vote shares, not seats, and as even a cursory look at Liberal Democrat and Alliance electoral history will show you, there’s not a strong relationship between number of seats won and number of votes in the party’s results. Indeed, some of the best results in terms of votes (1983, 1987, 2010) have seen disappointing returns of seats. Why was the party suddenly so successful from 1997 at turning votes into seats, when it hadn’t been before?

To explain that, I looked at theories of strategic coordination by voters (also known as tactical voting), particularly in the light of the theories proposed by Gary Cox in his book Making Votes Count. Cox looks at voters as two different types: expressive voters, who are voting to make a point; and instrumental voters, who are seeking to achieve a certain goal. It’s very hard to get expressive voters to shift from their preferred party to another, but instrumental voters might if they think another party will have a chance of achieving that goal.

This is something that’s a key part of Liberal Democrat campaigning, of course: persuading people to shift from supporting their first choice party to the Liberal Democrats because the bar chart shows that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat Party X here. However, the assumption in that message is both that the voter wants to see Party X defeated (they’re an instrumental voter seeking that end), and that they see sufficient difference between the Liberal Democrats and Party X to prefer the Liberal Democrats over them. It’s that second point which to me is the key to explaining why the party managed to do so well in 1997 and after. It wasn’t just that the party got better at targeting seats, but that the way the party had positioned itself made it more attractive to tactical anti-Tory voters.

Consider that when someone is casting a vote, especially a tactical one, they’re not just thinking about their constituency but the national situation. So, when asking a Labour voter to tactically switch to the Liberal Democrats to defeat a Tory in their constituency, they’re not just considering whether they prefer the Liberal Democrat candidate to the Conservative one, but the effect that will have on the national picture. A voter may want to beat the Conservatives, but in order to tactically switch, they have to see a difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives not just locally but in terms of the end result. If the party’s being officially equidistant and not saying who it’d support, it weakens the argument for tactical switching as it doesn’t help prevent the end the voter wants to avoid.

To see this in action, look at what Paddy Ashdown did from 1992. Starting with the Chard speech soon after the election, he positioned the party as explicitly anti-Tory and the party’s general behaviour up to and including 1997 general election tended to reinforce that. (One key signal in this, I think, was both parties standing down in favour of Martin Bell in Tatton) You can see the change in British Election Study data – at the 1992 election, 44% of voters thought the Liberal Democrats were closer to the Tories, 38% to Labour, but by 1997 that had shifted to 56% saying closer to Labour, and just 10% to the Tories.

That’s important, because at the 1997 election, the party had a huge number of seats it could win from the Conservatives if enough Labour voters would switch. So, even though the party saw its share of the vote drop as Labour moved to the centre, the increased level of strategic coordination by voters meant that the Liberal Democrats won a lot more seats than ever before. Voters who were seeking to remove the Conservatives felt able to vote for whichever was the best anti-Tory option in their constituency because Ashdown’s actions had made it clear what we would do afterwards. Similar things happened in 2001, when even more voters thought the party was closer to Labour than in 1997, as the results of 1997 had made the best anti-Tory option in a constituency clear.

2005’s a bit more complex to explain but one interesting fact from then is that voters still saw the Liberal Democrats as closer to Labour than the Conservatives at the same level they did in 1997. That, I believe, is what led to the gains from Labour that year – people who would normally vote Labour switching as a protest, but generally these voters were demographically close to existing Liberal Democrat voters (this article by John Curtice explains it in depth, if you can access it). In other countries, this is the sort of voter shift that would be called intra-block movement, where voters still want the same block of parties in power but shift their support between the parties within that block – Denmark and Sweden have good examples of this sort of system.

By 2010, the party had returned to equidistance and this affected voters decisions, hence why the share of the vote went up, but the number of seats went down. The overall share of the vote went up because there was more space in the centre, but because Labour voters couldn’t be sure that the party wouldn’t support a Tory government, there was an unwinding of the tactical votes that had previously won seats for the party. (While the party’s national share was going up, it was going down in many held seats) This was only accentuated after 2010, when the ‘we voted for you to keep the Tories out, but then you joined the coalition’ argument undid the tactical vote. It’s interesting to look at the different patterns of where the Liberal Democrat vote went in seats lost in 2015 – in seats gained by the Tories it tended to scatter, while in seats won by Labour there was a much more pronounced direct swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour.

I could go on at a lot more length (I haven’t even mentioned Mair’s structure of competition yet, which was an important part of the dissertation) but the key point to remember is that in the British system, votes and seats aren’t the same thing. As the Alliance showed, and the result in 2010 echoed, it’s easy to pile up 20-30% of the vote in a lot of seats, but that sort of share of the vote isn’t going to win you many of them. Unless the party can get above a tipping point level of about 30% of the vote to win seats by itself, victories are going to require tactical voting and tactical voting requires giving people the motivation to switch their vote. Equidistance doesn’t help in providing that motivation, and any wins rely on motivating purely local factors. The national factor – and the significant level of gains – came when the party had picked a side, and gave voters much more motivation to tactically switch because they could be sure of what effects it would have outside of the constituency battle.

In short, equidistance when the two big parties are moving away from the centre might be a good way of increasing the party’s vote in 2020, but it’s not going to bring a lot of seats with it.

An academic perspective on the Liberal Democrat collapse

In today’s ‘glad I didn’t submit my dissertation yesterday’ news, Nicholas Whyte has drawn my attention to an interesting article from the upcoming Parliamentary Affairs supplement on the General Election. “From Coalition to Catastrophe: The Electoral Meltdown of the Liberal Democrats” is by David Cutts and Andrew Russell, academics who’ve written lots on the party over the years (Russell’s the co-author of Neither Left or Right: The Liberal Democrats and the electorate, which has been very useful for my dissertation) and available to read for free. I look forward to watching people read it and then playing the ‘my anecdote trumps your academic data’ game…

In dissertation news, I am 99.9% complete, and just have to convert a couple of spreadsheet data tables into text format to add them into the document. Once done, and probably when the deadline’s passed, I’m going to post it in section son the blog as I think a lot of will find it of interest, and it’ll hopefully spark a debate. So look out for that either before the weekend or in a couple of weeks, depending on if I manage it before or after I go on holiday.

2015 General Election Day 5: Oh message, in volume, oh forget it

leftrightcrossRemember ‘on message, in volume, over time‘? There was a bit of a stir a couple of years ago when Liberal Democrats were told that’s what we had to do to ensure that the ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ message was buried into the public consciousness. Which makes it all the stranger that that message (and its later addition ‘opportunity for everyone’) appears to have disappeared from the party’s latest poster. Still, I’m not a campaigning and marketing genius being paid huge sums of money to run election campaigns, so I’m obvious missing the complex subtleties behind the apparent forgetting of a slogan that was of supposed vital importance not so long ago.

Elsewhere, everyone continues to talk about the debate and what effect its had on the campaign but it’s going to be a few days before we find out the real impact of it. First, we need to see polling that’s taken place after it (but not in its immediate wake), and second, we likely need to wait until after Easter weekend is over as holiday periods often cause extra volatility in polling. Any wild fluctuations may just be because of only certain people being around and able to be interviewed, not because of what happened last night. Then again, they could just be random fluctuation around the generally unchanging views of the population, but it won’t stop every one of them being treated with absolute authority by someone whose views they support.

The problem with the relative quiet of Easter weekend being upon us this early in the campaign is that there’s likely to be very little to write about, but I have managed to get hold of three of the five ‘Why Vote‘books and will be looking at those over the next few days. My initial impression of a couple of them isn’t good, but I’ll not spoil my future reviews of them by telling you which. Let’s be honest, though, it’s much more fun to write a critical review of a political tract you disagree with than a dull and worthy appreciation of something you like.

Of interest to some of you may be a piece of academic research that the British Journal of Politics and International Relations has made available for free on the effects of leaders’ visits to constituency votes in the 2010 election. I don’t know if it’s permanently free, or just during the election campaign, but there’s some interesting data and conclusions in there.

Finally, the Election Leaflets site continues to deliver lots of interesting information about what’s being said around the country, but also lots of amusement at poorly designed leaflets, stereotypical photos, poorly worded pledges and odd-looking candidates. My favourite of the moment is Dave Conway, leader of the Stoke-On-Trent City Independents who not only bears a striking resemblance to Peter Serafinowicz’s Brian Butterfield character, but appears to be such a busy man and in such a hurry to be somewhere else he didn’t have time to take his raincoat off when being photographed. Still, he leads a group with ‘an agreed intended direction of travel’, and that’s the sort of vision that truly inspires people, isn’t it?

Worth Reading 165: Taxing gamblers

Scotland’s colour revolution? – “It’s belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what’s going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.” Ken MacLeod offers an interesting take on Scottish politics.
The Tories want to give away houses to make sure we have enough houses – Jonn ‘build more bloody houses’ Elledge on the idiocy of the Tory plans to extend Right To Buy to housing associations.
Revealed: how British voters’ political mood swings – John Bartle of the University of Essex’s latest research on how the ‘policy mood’ of the voting public swings in an opposite direction to the Government.
The Unbearable Angst of being Britain – We need to decide what we want Britain to be in the world before we get obsessed with the minutiae of defence spending, says Tim Oliver, otherwise we’re having a meaningless debate.
Why did Brussels become the capital of Europe? Because Belgium starts with letter B! – Brussels’ role as the capital of Europe came about as an accident, inheriting the role when no one could agree on an alternative.

The existence of the House of Lords corrupts our democracy, and it needs to go

A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.
A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.
Thanks to some fine academic work by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thevoz, we now have what comes as close as possible to proof that there’s a link between donating large amounts of money to political parties and finding yourself with a seat in the House of Lords. I know that this is unsurprising news to many of you, on a par with a study into the Pope’s religious habits or bear’s defecatory practices, but it’s important evidence in making the case for a better democracy.

This is one of the rare areas of politics where I find myself in total agreement with Nick Cohen, especially in just how hard it is to explain the concept of the House of Lords to someone with no knowledge of British politics, let alone the practice of it.

“You want to know why they’re there? Let me see – there are still hereditary peers in Parliament for the unimpeachable reason that a long-dead ancestor slept with Charles II. We’ve Anglican bishops with nothing better to do, party loyalists appointed by leaders who expect them to remain loyal, and plutocrats who have given hard cash to a party and ended up – with the help of a process no one is anxious to explain – sitting on their haunches in the legislature of a democracy.”

Remember that one of the outcomes of the recent revelations about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind was that they likely wouldn’t get their expected seats in the Lords when they left the Commons. Just imagine the future: an ennobled Jack Straw giving you the benefit of his opinions and making your laws forever, regardless of what we might wish. Now remember that the Lords is already littered with people like that who’ve bene utterly discredited, even sent to prison, and by letting it remain, we’re allowing our democracy to be thoroughly corrupted. Half of our Parliament is made up of legislators who have seats for life, can’t be removed by the people and gain their positions there through an opaque process where appointments are in the hands of a small group of people. It’s a perfect recipe for corruption and that corruption rots the rest of the system along with it.

There’s a lot more wrong with the British system than just the Lords, but we’re now past 100 years of trying to reform it and ending up with that traditional British fudge of a tiny symbolic reform that leaves the underlying problems in place and turns out to add even more problems as time goes by. Reform of the Lords isn’t working – the whole chamber needs to be removed and we should start again from scratch. Cut out the whole corruption and then work on sorting out the rest of the system.