WAS IT A LANDSLIDE, AND IF NOT, WHY NOT?(*).
British general elections have attracted an increased volume of academic as well as popular attention in recent decades. Until the 1970s, one academic commentator not only stood out but stood almost alone in providing detailed insights to the conduct and outcome of each election -- David Butler. He wrote the substantial `Analysis of the voting section' in the first of the Nuffield studies -- McCallum and Readman's The British General Election of 1945; he wrote The British General Election of 1951 on his own; the next four involved collaborations with Richard Rose, Anthony King (twice) and Michael Pinto-Duschinsky; and since 1974 he has worked in a settled partnership with Dennis Kavanagh -- The British General Election of 1997 is their seventh collaboration.
In 1983, the year in which there was nearly no British Election Study because the political scientists then advising the ESRC thought there was no need for one (we knew everything there was/is to know about British electoral behaviour!), there was a spate of other academic books on elections.(1) There was a lull in 1987, when Butler and Kavanagh virtually had the field to themselves again, but 1992 saw serious competitors enter it with a book edited by Anthony King (taking over from the Britain at the Polls series previously published by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute) and a special issue of Parliamentary Affairs. Both were repeated after the 1997 election, when the Parliamentary Affairs issue was also published as an OUP book, and were joined by a third, produced by Manchester University Press. But Butler and Kavanagh's publisher won the race to be first on the bookstalls. They were the first academics but not the first authors, however: two books by journalists who beat them are reviewed here too.
The goal for each of the academics' books is to provide an appreciation of the election and its outcome for both academic and more general audiences, though with varying emphases--the volume derived from Parliamentary Affairs has the strongest academic orientation: the journal is oriented primarily to students of politics. The question that they all address (at least implicitly) is `Why did Labour win?', which is conducive to very generalised answers. My preference would have been for two, more rigorously-phrased questions: Why did Labour win 44.3% of the votes to the Conservatives 30.7?; and Why did Labour win 63.6% of the seats to the Conservatives 25? Unless these are addressed, writing on the election is more likely to provide just an impressionistic account rather than a rigorous set of answers which can tell us why Labour did as well as it did in terms of votes (rather than telling us why it won most votes) plus why it won what to many observers (academic and lay) was a landslide in seats (and why the Liberal Democrats more than doubled their seat tally when their vote fell). One could argue that my two questions are too demanding for books scheduled to appear within six months of the election or thereabouts (and so have to be written within a couple of months or so of election day): instant history cannot be expected to include detailed analysis and has to be supplemented by other types of analysis at a later date, as survey and other data become available.(2)
The British General Election of 1997 follows the well-established pattern of the previous fourteen books in the series. The majority of it was written by the principal authors, with specialist contributions on the media (separate chapters on the press and radio/TV) and the candidates, plus statistical analyses of the results. David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh are seasoned observers of the British political scene, with wide-ranging contacts that provide them with a wealth of information, and these (plus interviews with many of the actors involved during and after the campaign) are drawn on very heavily as the foundation for their commentary. I got the clear impression, however, that they had much better contacts in and entrees to the Conservative Party than to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats, and their introductory chapters on the five years preceding the election have an uneven quality as a consequence. Their coverage of the national campaign and the polls provides solid fare (although there is occasional evidence of undigested material). There is also a chapter on the constituency campaigns. Butler and Kavanagh have long held the firm view that these are largely irrelevant tokens and that it is the media-focused national campaigns, concentrating on the party leaders, that matter(3) Recent research -- not least Denver and Hands' excellent book on constituency campaigning (4) -- has shown otherwise: Butler and Kavanagh recognise this, but their chapter is entirely descriptive and makes no attempt to evaluate the competing claims.
The chapters on the media and the candidates are similarly informative but not analytically strong. They reflect the view that the media generally follow rather than the lead the electorate, but they focus on the campaign only; Nicholas Jones' book-of which more later -- clearly shows the vital role of Labour's spin doctors during the `long campaign' (basically from the 1992 general election on) as manipulators of the agenda, and hence of the public mood. Butler and Kavanagh concluded that (p. 243): `The 1997 campaign will be looked back upon as one that neither changed the outcome of the election nor contained any memorable events, but it will be remembered as one where the techniques of controlled electioneering took a quantum leap forward'. Maybe so, but little of their book's main text illustrates this. Furthermore, virtually none of it addresses my two questions, especially the second: why did Labour win so many seats?
One of the strengths of this series of books over the years has been the statistical appendices, not just the very valuable listing of all results but also their analysis, undertaken for some time by John Curtice and Michael Steed. This, typically for the two authors, explores particular features of the result in novel ways. It also addresses the second of my questions. Unfortunately, the answers are not very convincing. They note that the electoral system produced a very biased anti-Conservative outcome, but do not attempt to quantify this in a rigorous way although all of the causes are discussed verbally.(5) And their account of why both Labour and Liberal Democrats won `so many seats on relatively unimpressive shares of the votes' is particularly unconvincing. They rightly focus on tactical voting and develop some useful statistics of its extent. But why did it come about? They appear to assume a sophisticated electorate aware of their local tactical situation (recall that the election was fought in a new set of constituencies) and although they refer to the parties' mobilising activities during the `long campaign', they say nothing about what happened during the six weeks of the official campaign itself, when the two opposition parties were actively promoting their causes on the hoardings, through the letterboxes, down the telephone lines, and on the doorsteps. Because of this, and their finding that Labour performed better in the seats they did not target during the long campaign than in those where they did, they conclude that the campaign was largely irrelevant, an argument picked up by Ivor Crewe.(6) But how about the targeting by both opposition parties during those last six weeks: didn't that contribute substantially to production of the biases?
The book edited by Anthony King -- New Labour Triumphs -- comprises eight fairly long chapters and is specifically targeted at: a wide international readership. Like Butler and Kavanagh, much attention is given to the five years prior to the election, and thus to answering the general question rather than my specific ones. The quality is very high -- Patrick Seyd's excellent chapter on `Tony Blair and New Labour' fills the gap that Butler and Kavanagh substantially leave, for example. However, chapters on `The government that could do no right' (David Denver), `The Conservative party: "in office but not in power"' (Philip Norton), and `The battle for the campaign agenda' (Pippa Norris) overlap somewhat. Iain McLean's on `The semi-detached election: Scotland' is rather detached from the remainder (although interesting, much of it is of only marginal relevance to the 1997 election). And there are some clear gaps--relatively little on the Liberal Democrats, for example. The editor's own chapter on `Why Labour won -- at last' is a substantial contribution to the general question posed at the beginning of this review, but it says little about the first of my more specific pair and nothing on the second. David Sanders' description of `The new electoral battleground' deals with the UK (Great Britain really) as a placeless, uniform political plain, and so makes no mention of the massive mountain that the Conservatives face to win power again, because of the detailed geography of the 1997 result.(7)
The newcomer to the bookstalls -- Geddes and Tonge's Labour's Landslide--is similar to the other two, and most of the twelve chapters are about the general situation as context for the election rather than analysing what happened and why: they too suggest why Labour won (or rather, why the Tories lost), but not why they won (or lost) so well (badly). A number of the chapters could have been substantially written before the election occurred and slightly modified after. Justin Fisher's on `Third and minor party breakthrough' relies very heavily on the parties' manifestos and says almost nothing on tactical voting, for example, and Ian Holliday's on `The provision of services' has just one paragraph on the election result. It is only when we get to the editors' brief conclusion that the important questions are posed! Some of the material is of interest, and some of high quality (notably Philip Cowley on dissent in the Conservative Party) but the book does not live up to Vernon Bogdanor's blurb for it. (As an aside, most of the book is written by relatively young political scientists, but it seems a mark of the times in British psephology that the chapter analysing the results is by a -- relatively -- old-hand in David Denver! Quantitative analysis is a dying art in British political science, it seems.)
Britain Votes 1997 is by far the most substantial in terms of detailed analysis, at least with regard to the first of my two questions. (It is an interesting choice of title, in that one of its best chapters is on Northern Ireland!) Much, though not all of it, is based on a constituency data set assembled by Pippa Norris (integrating census and other data with the election results) plus the exit polls conducted for the media on election day. The wide-ranging chapters concentrate much more on the election itself than on the five years which preceded it: this is political science rather than contemporary history. Several are very impressive, not least that by the only non-academic (Peter Kellner). There are several attempts to assess the volume of tactical voting (by Hugh Berrington, for example, and Ian McAllister), plus excellent and original analyses of the local elections that were held on the same day (by Colin Railings and Michael Thrasher), of the election in Northern Ireland (by Brendan O'Leary and Geoffrey Evans), and of turnout (by David Denver and Gordon Hands -- the former is the only person to appear in all three of the edited books!). The overall quality of all 18 chapters is high, as is the excellent overview by Pippa Norris, although the presentation is more fragmented than in the Butler-Kavanagh and King books. There are gaps -- nothing specific to Wales (a criticism of the other books too) for example, or of the impact of the Boundary Commissions' changes to three-quarters of all the constituencies (again, largely ignored in the other books) -- and it is a pity that the proof-reading was not a little more accurate.(8)
What of the other two, non-academic, books? Cathcart's Were You Still Up For Portillo? is a gripping, if somewhat lightweight, re-run of the election night's television: but since you can buy the video, why read about it? Jones' Campaign 1997 is much more substantial. Its focus is on the spin doctors and how they manipulated the media (very successfully in the case of Labour, largely unsuccessfully for the Tories) over the long campaign. Written by an insider who clearly felt the impact of Mandelson and his colleagues, it contains a considerable degree of special pleading and stretches one's sympathy at times, but it tells an important tale of how one set of messages -- and constructions of others' messages -- came to dominate our media after 1994. Tony Blair and New Labour might well have won without the spin doctors, but probably neither as well nor as easily: the messages about future election campaigns are clear and worrying, and are unlikely to be addressed by the potential legislation on party funding following the Neill Committee inquiry, let alone the work of the Independent Commission on the Voting System.
So the books under review have signally failed to answer my questions -- indeed only Britain Votes 1997 even approaches them. Two of the academic volumes provide very substantial fare if what you are looking for is contemporary history, essays on the politics of the period 1992-97, on how the Tories lost, Labour won and, as an aside, the Liberal Democrats did both better and worse; one of the others not only provides illuminating analyses of the election result but also suggests a number of avenues for future study. But why the vote percentages and why the seat percentages? These crucial questions remain unanswered. Perhaps I expect too much, and should be grateful for what has been provided so far. The richer data that will become available about a year after the election through the British Election Study surveys, and the range of other data sets being collected by ESRC-funded and other projects will enhance our ability to address my questions -- the first perhaps, but how about the second, for so much electoral analysis in the UK continues to atomise people and tear them out of the contexts within which elections are won and lost, the constituencies?
So, we `know' why the Conservatives lost in 1997 -- their credibility as economic managers after Black Wednesday, sleaze, divisions over Europe, and John Major's perceived deficiencies as a leader (Butler and Kavanagh add the experience of the Child Support Agency, but I doubt it). We `know' why Labour was able to defeat them this time -- Neil Kinnock's departure after undertaking the needed basic reforms, John Smith's untimely death and the end of the `steady as we go' approach to the next election, Tony Blair's perceived leadership potential and his `modernization' programme, Gordon Brown's proposed fiscal prudence, party discipline, and the success of Peter Mandelson and the spin doctors. We `know' too why the Liberal Democrats won so many more seats -- Ashdown's standing, the party's record in local government, and geographical targeting linked to tactical voting. So do the political journalists who write in the broadsheets. What does academic analysis -- specifically analysis by political scientists -- add? Many of the papers in Britain Votes 1997 quantify some of the verbal generalisations, but do they take us much further -- yet? Or are my two questions overambitious? Dave Sanders writes about a new electoral battleground -- but it looks like a battle to be fought in virtual reality rather than the reality of 659 constituencies: most of those had been in place for little more than two years when the 1997 election was fought (officially that is: most were known of, even if the details were slightly changed, at least two years earlier). Those are the contexts in which Labour has to consolidate (assuming no electoral reform before the next election) and William Hague has to rebuild his campaigning machine -- albeit with a much stronger foundation in the party's central headquarters. What have we learned about them from these books? Very little. A decade ago I criticised much writing in British political science for treating Great Britain (if not the UK) as having a uniform political culture -- a claim which Vernon Bogdanor made in 1983 and Ian McAllister repeated a decade later.(9) For all their skills at general interpretation, it seems that the argument is still being shunned -- it certainly has not been addressed, save for the small group who agree that the local campaign matters.(10)
All of which may be the paranoid meanderings of a misunderstood geographer. Perhaps you should forget them, read Butler and Kavanagh for a worthy successor to their long line of successes at instant history, Tony King's book for further exemplars of the quality of British academic political writing as informed appreciation, Britain Votes 1997 for some examples of real political science, even if the important questions are far from fully addressed, and Jones if you want to be depressed about the manipulations that spin doctors can achieve: perhaps Big Brother will not be that late arriving after all.
(*) D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1997, Macmillan, 1997, 343 pp., 45 [pounds sterling], pb. 17.50 [pounds sterling]; A. King (ed.) New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls, Chatham House Publishers, 1997, 259 pp., pb. 14.99 [pounds sterling]; P. Norris and N.T. Gavin (eds) Britain Votes 1997, Oxford University Press, 1997, 253 pp., pb. 12.99 [pounds sterling]; A. Geddes and J. Tonge (eds) Labour's Landslide, Manchester University Press, 1997, 211 pp., 40 [pounds sterling], pb. 12.99 [pounds sterling]; B. Cathcart, Were You Still Up For Portillo?, Penguin Books, 1997, 192 pp., pb. 5.99 [pounds sterling]; N. Jones, Campaign 1997: How the General Election was Won and Lost, Indigo, 1997, 288 pp., pb. 8.99 [pounds sterling].
(1) See R.J. Johnston, `A Space for Place (Or a Place for Space) in British Psephology', Environment and Planning A, 1986/4.
(2) Against that, we undertook detailed statistical analyses of tactical voting and partisan bias in the election result within months of the election: see R.J. Johnston et al, `Spatial Variations in Voter Choice: Modelling Tactical Voting at the 1997 General Election in Great Britain', Geographical and Environmental Modelling, 1997/2; `Anatomy of a Labour Landslide: The Constituency System and the 1997 General Election', Parliamentary Affairs, 1998/2; `New Labour Landslide: Same Old Electoral Geography?' in D. Denver et al (eds) British Elections and Parties Review 8, Frank Cass, 1998.
(3) Kavanagh has recently partially recanted slightly -- in his Election Campaigning: The New Marketing of Politics (Blackwell, 1995) -- though unconvincingly.
(4) D. Denver and G. Hands, Modern Constituency Campaigning: The 1992 General Election (Frank Cass, 1997): this book was warmly reviewed by Dennis Kavanagh in the EPOP Newsletter.
(5) As is done in the papers referred to in footnote 2. All include analyses of spending which had to be collected from some 500 Returning Officers.
(6) New Statesman, 12.12.97.
(7) As in his otherwise excellent summary in P. Dunleavy et al, Change in British Politics 5 (Macmillan, 1998).
(8) An earlier book in the series had a chapter, according to the title page, on `pubic perceptions'!
(9) `Electoral behaviour came to display a considerable degree of geographical homogeneity since an elector in Cornwall would tend to vote the same way as an elector from a similar class in Glasgow regardless of national and locational differences' (V. Bogdanor, Multi-Party Politics and the Constitution, Cambridge University Press, 1983); `a voter in the South of England will vote similarly to a person in the North of England or Wales, if they are similar in their individual characteristics' (I. McAllister and D. T. Studlar, American Journal of Political Science, 1992/2).
(10) See our debate with Denver and Hands in Electoral Studies, 1997/2.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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