How are political movements positioned? How do they react to changes in the society and with which topics do they position themselves where in the political debate?
In this overview of political strategy debates of political parties in selected European and non-European countries, the authors strive to present political analyses not in text form, but graphically and pointedly. We hope this product contributes to a constructive discussion.
The General Election has been one of surprises, the biggest of hich was that it happened at all. While the Conservative government had repeatedly said it did not want to call an election before its planned schedule in May 2020, it saw an opportunity to profit from its strength in the opinion polls, using the issue of Brexit to frame a debate that would be about leadership, in which Theresa May very strongly out-performed Jeremy Corbyn. However, campaigning proved much more volatile, as May appeared very unwilling to debate with either the public or her opponents face-to-face, while Corbyn was very clearly in his element, out-performing the very low expectations that many had of him. The rise of Labour in the opinion polls appears to come partly at the expense of the Conservatives, with the former posed to reverse the negative electoral trend they experienced in the last decade. In particular, Labour has managed to lure former Liberal Democratic voters disillusioned by Lib Dems’ support for Conservative governments in the past. Moreover, following UKIP’s collapse in the polls, someformer UKIP voters are now considering voting Labour, although most have gone to the Conservatives.
Despite Brexit being the nominal justification for the election, this did not have much of a profile as an issue, with social policy and security playing much more of a role: the latter was made even more important following the attacks in Manchester and London. Devolution has continued to fragment debate, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all being caught up in regional issues as much as national ones. This contributed to a range of policy positions that appears to be one of the most diverse seen in the UK for several decades, as both Left and Right focus on their core support more than the centre ground.
The Labour party has undergone one of the more disruptive periods of its existence in recent years. The long process of managing the legacy (and fall-out) of Tony Blair’s period as leader has now continued over three of his successors. Under Blair’s leadership, Labour moved towards the political centre, adopting a moderate Third Way platform in order to distance itself from more traditional conceptions of socialism. While this strategy has resulted in an unprecedented success for the party, signified by three consecutive election victories and subsequent Labour governments, it also came to characterize the Labour party with what many describe as lack of political identity. In the 2010 election, the Social Democrats, ledby Gordon Brown, polled their lowest results to date in the post-war period, followed by an even more embarrassing electoral performance in 2015, under the leadership of Ed Miliband. While Gordon Brown made relatively minor moves back to a more traditionally socialist policy line, Ed Miliband and – especially – Jeremy Corbyn have acted as major reactions, seeking in their own ways to reaffirm the ‘old Labour’ agenda of social justice, wealth distribution and state intervention. However, this repositioning has come with much tension. Most obviously, while Corbyn appears to be connected with a strong constituency of support among party members, he remains at odds with most of his parliamentary fraction.
It is important not to overstate the policy movement that has occurred under Corbyn. The 2017 election manifesto is not dissimilar to the views held by Miliband; it is the rhetoric that has moved, reflecting Corbyn’s political style, grounded in his long experience as a backbench rebel. Thus, the manifesto has taken on some of this rhetoric, but has rounded the edges, as with removing calls for nuclear disarmament, full re-nationalisation of assorted industries or even pushing for Brexit itself.
But this European issue remains one of the most problematic points of policy for the party, reflected in its very ambivalent stance, which in turn echoes the different groupings within the party. Withdrawal is presented as simultaneously problematic for the UK – in terms of jobs and social protection – and as an opportunity to rebuild social values on a national scale. This confusion has weakened Labour’s ability to hold the Conservative government to account thus far on negotiations and will continue to be a significant hindrance in the party’s efforts to build its profile as a potential party of government.
A particular point of weakness relates to economic governance. As much as the party has been able to play on popular unhappiness with the ever-more visible effects of the austerity agenda pursued since 2010, this has been balanced by concern that a Labour government would mean a return to Keynesian ‘tax and spend’ policies last seen in the 1970s. There is little evidence that the party has moved to adapt to cope with the new economic situation of globalisation and digitalisation, with all the disruption that it brings. Again, the absence of the modernising Blairite rhetoric among the senior leadership allows Labour to be painted as defenders of an order long gone.
The Tories currently enjoy a very strong position. The smooth handover from David Cameron to Theresa May helped to keep the party together after the unexpected referendum result last year, with the leadership swiftly adjusting to the new situation. The firmness of May’s rhetoric on Brexit and more generally, has built up public support at a time when the country is evidently undergoing major changes: it is not coincidental that the focus of this election has been on leadership.Moreover, the weakness and disorganisation of opposition parties has also served to paint the party in a favourable light, although the campaign has highlighted that dissatisfaction with the former is not the same as unbridled approval of the latter. This matters since May is attempting not only to manage Brexit, but also to recast her party into a more conservative group than the liberal Tories of Cameron: on education, social policy and economic policy, May appears more reactionary than her predecessor.
Nevertheless, attempting to lure voters across the political spectrum, the Tories have pitched for centre ground with their new manifesto, trying again to shift the image of the Conservatives from being the “nasty” party. Still, it will be the European issue that shapes the entire agenda, since so much of her plan depends on a successful and contained resolution of Article 50 negotiations. Despite this, the party has not elaborated on its plans for these talks, looking instead to maintain as much room for manoeuvre as possible, and profiting from the lack of alternative models from other parties. Whether this will sustain the current success in winning over former UKIP and Labour voters will only become clear further on in the Brexit process.
The Liberal Democrats enter this general election looking to rebuild their relevance in British politics. Having been part of the government coalition 2010-15, they paid a heavy election price, losing over three-quarters of their MPs. In part, this was driven by the party being associated with very public changes in policy on university tuition fees, but mainly it was a result of the party no longer being able to gain support from being locked out of government. The liberal and moderate politics of the party has found appeal across the centre of the political spectrum, but party policies have drifted to the left in recent years, not least in order to put clear water between them and the Conservatives. This is most clearly seen on Brexit, which the LibDems strongly opposed, fighting to overturn right up until the notification of Article 50 in March.
Since then, they have shifted to seeking as close a relationship as possible with the EU, hoping to build support among those who voted to remain last year. However, the strongest regional bases for the party, such as the South West, were also strongly leave-leaning, making it difficult to balance local and national messages, especially given the strong emphasis on Brexit by the party leadership. In common with liberal parties elsewhere, the core challenge is how to handle being outflanked on left and right, especially when British politics appears to be heading to a more polarised competition between parties.
Like the LibDems, the Green party’s major preoccupation has been the institutional barrier to representation in the House of Commons, namely the first-past-the-post electoral system. In 2010, it meant putting almost all of the party’s resources into fighting one seat – Brighton Pavilion – which secured their first ever MP. Despite this breakthrough, and the very big growth in votes in 2015, this did not translate into more representatives, presenting the party with the dilemma between further growing their national profile and throwing efforts into much more targeted campaigning.
In part, the Greens have benefited from the collapse in LibDem support, providing a convenient home for those who became disillusioned with that party during the 2010-5 coalition: the gap in policy is relatively small, especially as the Greens have built up their manifesto in an increasingly balanced way from their origins as an ecologically-focused group. The return of their MP – and most well-known face – Caroline Lucas, as co-leader will also help a party that has shunned politics by personality. This is important, given the degree of policy overlap with both Labour and LibDems, especially on social questions.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) currently sits in a very difficult position. While it can claim to have first pushed the issue of EU membership up the political agenda, and then to have helped secure the majority for leaving in the June 2016 referendum, the party now faces a challenge to justify its existence to potential supporters, now that Brexit appears to be underway. In part, this reflects the wide mix of voters that have come to UKIP, especially in the past five years. While often seen as a Conservative-party-with-proper-EU-opposition, it has always been much broader, especially as it attracted many former Labour voters in areas of high social and economic deprivation: the populist approach of Nigel Farage drew in many who were disaffected with all the ‘politics as usual’ of Westminster.
The departure of Farage and some of his financial backers, not to mention the loss of the sole UKIP MP, has further complicated matters for the new leader, Paul Nuttall. His plan – to reorient UKIP to a broader-based populism – was based on having until 2020 before a general election, so Theresa May’s sudden decision has left him with little of the groundwork done. Importantly, the party lacks the momentum in either public opinion or the media that it had between 2014 and 2016, so the key priority will be to survive the election and then attempt to regroup once more.
The SNP achieved an impressive result in the 2015 UK general elections, following a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The party went from holding six seats in the House of Commons to 56, mostly at the expense of the Labour Party. SNP polled more than 50 per cent of the votes and won all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats compared to just one for Labour, one for the Tories and one for the Liberal Democrats. This unprecedented and historic landslide saw Labour all but wiped out in its former stronghold. Thus, it appears that the Scottish nationalists have become the most serious competitor of Labour. Moreover, a future Labour led government is most likely going to see the necessity of including SNP as a junior coalition partner.
Launching its 2017 election manifesto, the SNP put forward policies that echoed Labour’s plans for higher taxes and more generous welfare provision. The party promised a rise in the UK top rate of income tax from 45 per cent to 50 per cent. The party opposes all further cuts to social security planned by the Conservatives and is planning to abolish the cap on tax credits for third and subsequent children as well as cuts to allowances for disabled people. The SNP says that its manifesto commitments amount to £80bn in extra spending over the life of the next parliament and can be funded by a more relaxed policy on deficit reduction.
The SNP leader – Nicola Sturgeon has called for another independence referendum to be held after the terms of the UK's exit from the EU become clear in late 2018 or early 2019. But with polls showing no sign of a surge in support for leaving the UK, the SNP has sought to play down the issue on the campaign trail.
The graph above displays the positions the main political parties in the UK on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of parties on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with the expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions.
The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.
Simon Usherwood – Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey
André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
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