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.