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Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski, "Why Parties Fail to Learn: Electoral Defeat, Selective Perception and British Party Politics," Party Politics, 10 (January, 2004), 85-104

First Paragraph:
For the British Conservative Party to lose one election may be regarded as misfortune, to lose two seems like carelessness. Given Tony Blair's recordbreaking majority in the 1997 British general election, many expected the pendulum to swing back to the Conservatives four years later. Instead, in the May 2001 British general election, the total number of Conservative MPs rose by one. To secure an overall majority in the next general election, based on these results, the Conservatives would need a uniform national swing of 10.5 percent from Labour (Norris, 2001a), representing twice the size of any swing they have achieved during the post-war era. Moreover, in the mid-term period, in spring 2003, the Conservatives trailed behind Labour in most of the opinion polls, or at best approached level pegging, despite widespread public disquiet and Labour Party splits about the direction of Blair's leadership over Iraq, continuing problems in the delivery of public services, and a major slump in business confidence. So how do we explain this sharp and yet puzzling reversal in British Conservative Party fortunes and Blair's electoral success? After all, under Thatcher the Tory Party had long seemed invincible, 'the natural party of government'. Eighteen years of Conservative rule generated studies entitled 'Can Labour Win?' (Harrop and Shaw, 1989) and 'Can the Tories Lose?' (Smyth, 1991), even suggestions that Britain was 'Turning Japanese' with a one-party predominant system (Margetts and Smyth, 1994). Indeed, the party's remarkable success stretches back far further. As Seldon and Ball (1994) observed: The Conservative party has dominated British politics to such an extent during the twentieth century that it is likely to become known as the 'Conservative century'. Either standing alone or as the most powerful element in a coalition, the party will have held power for seventy of the hundred years since 1895. One central question raised by the outcome of the last British general election is why the Conservative Party suddenly proved incapable of turning around party fortunes in the face of two successive electoral disasters.

Figures and Tables:
Figure 1. The theoretical model of party competition
Figure 2. The map of British party competition, June 2001
Table 1. Distance between politicians and the median British voter
Table 2. Change in the political elite, 1997&endash;2001
Table 3. Politicians' perceptions of voters
Appendix A. Issue scale questions

Last Paragraph:
This study does not claim that a single explanation provides a satisfactory way of understanding the outcome of the 1997 and 2001 British general elections. The electoral system, in particular, contributed significantly to the way that Labour's 40.7 percent of the UK vote in the 2001 election was translated into an unassailable 167-seat majority and a massive landslide in the Commons (Curtice, 2001), along with many other factors (Norris, 2001). Nevertheless, the account provided in this study does fit the evidence and provides a reasonable story giving an important part of the explanation. The irony is that although selective perception limited the strategic campaigns of Conservative vote-seeking politicians, selective perception among the electorate may have limited the damage since, despite the campaign, large swathes of the public remained ignorant of the Conservative position on Europe and tax cuts (Norris and Sanders, 2001). Voters consistently believed that the Conservatives were more middle-of-the-road than was the case. The evidence suggests that if the public had known the policy positions of the Conservatives more accurately, and if they had voted rationally based on these issues, the party could have become even more unpopular. The Conservatives face multiple problems &endash; of membership, of organization and of leadership. But the study provides substantial evidence that ideological patterns of party competition have structured and contributed towards Conservative failure, and Labour success, in the past two elections. The Conservatives lost, not just because of Hague's image, the Millbank machine, or the economy, but also because they did not understand what was necessary in order to win. As in therapy, the first step towards recovery is to recognize a problem. The second is summoning the will to change. Until these blinkers are stripped, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will take the first steps towards restoring their electoral fortunes.