Return to: Search Page or to: Table of Contents Vol. 7, issue 6

Ed Fieldhouse and Andrew Russell, "Latent Liberalism? Sympathy and Support for the Liberal Democrats at the 1997 British General Election," Party Politics, 7 (November 2001), 711-738.

First Paragraph:
In 1988, the Liberal and Social Democratic Party alliance parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats, cementing its place as the third force in British politics. Traditionally, the third party in Britain has found it difficult to assert itself in a predominantly two-party system. In particular, a crucial task facing the modern third party is to maintain an identity that is distinctive from that of the two major parties (Crewe and King, 1995; Dunleavy, 1993; Russell and Fieldhouse, 2000). Writing in the days of the Alliance, some commentators had already concluded that the lack of identity of the third party led to a lack of positive electoral endorsement and precipitated only short-lived improvements in the fortunes of the third party (see, for example, Studlar and McAllister, 1987l Rose and McAllister, 1990;l but also Lutz, 1991). In Downsian terminology (Downs, 1957), a party of the center is likely to be squeezed from both Left and Right. Essentially, whilst being the least unpopular of the three largest parties on many issues, the center party may be the most popular on very few. Whilst this may make the party a safe haven for protest votes, it does little to provide a long term basis of support (Crewe, 1985; Studlar and McAllister, 1987; Clarke and Zuk, 1989; Huang, 1999).

Figures and Tables:
Figure 1: Percentage share of the vote and share of seats 1974-97 p. 714
Table 1: Reported vote retention and recruitment rates for 1997 general election p. 716
Table 2: 1997 Reported vote by 2nd choice party (percent) p. 716
Figure 2: Assessments of Liberal Democrat Party p. 717
Table 3: Party identification by reported vote (percent) p. 718
Figure 3: Assessments of party leaders by reported vote p. 719
Table 4: Determinants of Liberal Democratic voting p. 720
Figure 4: What do Liberal Democrat voters think? P. 722
Table 5: Vote of individuals agreeing with Liberal Democrat position on key issues (percent) p. 723
Table 6: Proximity to party's positions on five key issues (percent) p. 728
Table 7: Tax versus spending: proximity and vote (percent) p. 729
Table 8: EU integration: proximity and vote (percent) p. 730
Figure 5: The change in Liberal Democrat share of the vote in 1997 by constituency outcome in 1992 p. 733

Last Paragraph:
In fact, the evidence suggests that the most reliable route to success for the Liberal Democrats is for the party to build on its credibility as a potential winning force in areas where the party is already established. The British Liberal Democrats can thrive where they can close the credibility gap- and they appear to be able to do this through campaigning effort rather than through policy renewal. Dorling et al. (1998) show that the Liberal Democrats can profit in local contests from becoming established in previous contests and in neighboring seats, while Cox (1997: 190-201) suggest that third parties can break through at the constituency level (rather than the national ) by establishing strong local networks and organizations. Thus third parties may be able to contradict Duverger's Law, at the local level at least, by forging a link with the local electorate . Ecological or constituency level modeling of Liberal Democrat vote is much more successful than the individual level models which rely on demographics precisely because they measure the constituency context more efficiently (see McAllister et al., forthcoming). Moreover, it is through the constituency context that the liberal Democrats can hope to persuade voters that they are a viable force in a given locality and can continue to profit from concentrated support rather than having to improve the party's share of the national vote. Understanding the structural constraints that hamper Liberal Democrat electoral performance and the strategic measures that they party may take to overcome them will be an important aspect of understanding Liberal Democrat support in the future.