Critical elections
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Critical Elections:

British Parties and Elections in Long-term Perspective

Ed. Geoffrey Evans and Pippa Norris

Book published 1999 Sage 240 pages Cloth(0-7619-6073-2) Price 47.50 Paper (0-7619-6074-0) Price 15.99  


 Drawing upon the tenth British Election Study, Critical Elections brings together leading scholars of parties, elections and voting behaviour to provide the first systematic overview of long-term change in British electoral politics up to 1997.

Part 1 analyzes new patterns of party competition by evaluating changes in party ideology, parliament, party members and loyalists.

Part 2 assesses the case for the emergence of new social alignments by analyzing voting behaviour in terms of class, race, region, and gender and the decline of voter turnout.

Part 3 focuses attention on the evidence for new issue alignments by examining the impact of left-right ideology, the key issues of Europe and devolution and the rise of 'new politics'.

This book will provide an invaluable lens through which to view and understand comtemporary British politics, using a common intellectual framework throughout and concluding with a summary discussion of the extent to which 1997 British General Election can be considered a critical realignment.

It will be essential reading for all researchers, practitioners and students of British party politics, elections and voting behaviour and political sociology.



"A splendid collection from Britain's most dynamic psephologists."
David Lipsey, The Economist.

"An excellent account of how we have got here, a landslide New Labour victory, from there, almost two decades of uninterrupted Conservative Government, with expert analyses on the interrelated themes of party, social influences and issue alignments."
Richard Rose, University of Strathclyde.

"Critical Elections assembles the leading scholars of British electoral politics to provide a rich analysis of the forces that propelled Tony Blair and New Labour to victory in 1997. Even more valuable, by placing this election in the context of long-term trends, this book makes an important contribution to the study of British politics and electoral change in modern democracies. While it is yet unclear whether 1997 represents a critical election, it is certain that this book should be considered critical reading for scholars in the field."
Russell Dalton, UC Irvine

West European Politics Review by Herbert Kitschelt, Duke University

The analysis of alignments and realignments in electoral politics is a long-standing pursuit of political science, but rarely do two important books on this topic appear within a single year. While both studies employ very different analytical techniques and deal with different countries, Britain and France, they share a commitment to the long-term analysis of voter alignments. Moreover, both books speak to broad theoretical concerns in the comparative study of parties and elections and are thus well worth reading for almost anyone interested in comparative electoral politics.

It is the strength of the volume edited by Evans and Norris to provide a technically sophisticated, yet theoretically penetrating analysis of British electoral behavior over several decades, including the 1997 election. Contrary to most edited books, the individual chapters complement each other so neatly that the final product has more the character of a coherent monograph. The common theme is to determine whether Labour's victory in 1997 represents a realignment in electoral partisan coalitions or only an incremental adjustment that may be easily reversible. With some violence to the subtlety of the finely crafted empirical analyses throughout the book's 14 chapters, the basic thrust of the editors' data interpretation is that the realignment is more visible at the level of political elite programmes and strategies than that of popular electoral behaviour. In this sense, chapters by Budge and by Norris show that it is party and leadership strategies that changed and 'sold' the Labour opposition party's centrist reform programme to its electoral constituency, yet not a dramatic shift in citizens' policy preferences that would have made Labour more attractive to a new coalition of groups.

In fact, data about individual level voter conduct suggest that 1997 was no realigning election in many ideological respects. As David Sanders shows, most of the ideological dispositions that predicted the partisan vote in 1997 also shaped voter choices in previous elections. Where policy preferences do become weaker predictors in 1997, the decline results from Labour's steadfast adherence to centrist appeals in the electoral campaign.

Overall, the conclusion of the editors, Evans and Norris, appears to be on the mark that the strategic centrism of the Labour Party (but not the Conservatives) induced electoral partisan realignment, while simultaneously gradual dealignment reduces the predictive power of social structural background variables for citizens' party choice. Thus, the chapter by Evans, Heath and Payne diagnoses a further decline in class voting in 1997. The evidence on differential turnout by geographical districts suggests that Labour's centrism demobilised its core working class constituencies. Nevertheless, there are some sharply contoured electoral features of the new dominant party. Thus, Labour is strongly over-represented among younger and highly educated women, Scots, and ethnic minorities of all kinds.

Editors and authors realise that it is all but impossible to give an exhaustive and conclusive answer to the (re)alignment question based on the 1997 election alone (e.g., pp.xxvi-xxvii). Whether that election signalled a realignment, we might know in 20 years when we have information on three to four subsequent parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, the book does its best to relate 1997 to British electoral history and thus allows us to determine at least whether the 1997 election continues trends or represents a break with the past that could indicate either a single deviant election or a long-term realignment.

Scholars working on electoral politics in other democracies or in comparative perspective may read the Evans/Norris volume as a model of the state of the art analytic reasoning and statistical techniques that should be brought to bear on the field as a whole.



 Introduction: Understanding Electoral Change Pippa Norris and Geoffrey Evans;

1.Party Policy and Ideology: Reversing the Fifties? Ian Budge;

2. New Politicians? Changes in Party Competition at Westminster Pippa Norris;

3. Party Members and Ideological Change Paul Webb and David M. Farrell;

4. Party Loyalties: Dealignment or Realignment? Ivor Crewe and Katarina Thomson;

5. Class: Labour as a Catch-All Party? Geoffrey Evans, Anthony Heath and Clive Payne;

6. Race: Towards A Multicultural Electorate? Anthony Heath and Shamit Saggar;

7. Region: New Labour, New Geography? John Curtice and Alison Park;

8. Gender: A Gender-Generation Gap? Pippa Norris;

9. Turnout and Registration: New Sources of Abstention? Bridget Taylor and Anthony Heath ;

10. The Impact of Left-Right Ideology David Sanders;

11. Europe: A New Electoral Cleavage? Geoffrey Evans;

12. Scotland: Constitutional Preferences and Voting Behaviour Paula Surridge, Alice Brown, David McCrone, and Lindsay Paterson;

13. Dynamic Representation in Britain Mark Franklin and Christina Hughes;

Conclusion: Was 1997 A Critical Election? Pippa Norris and Geoffrey Evans;

Bibliography and Technical Appendix.



Copyright 2004 Pippa Norris, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138.

Last updated 12/06/2009