Political Interest Furthers Partisanship in England, Scotland, and Wales


This is the author’s version of the work. Please cite as:

    Arzheimer, Kai and Harald Schoen. “Political Interest Furthers Partisanship in England, Scotland, and Wales.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties 26 (2016): 373-389. doi:10.1080/17457289.2016.1179315
    [BibTeX] [Abstract] [HTML]

    According to much of the literature, partisanship in Britain exercises little independent influence on the vote but merely reflects voters’ prospective and retrospective evaluations of the parties’ performance with regard to their management of the economy, national security, and public services. In this view, partisanship comes close to Fiorina’s model of a "running tally" of political experiences. Similarly, Dalton’s notion of "cognitive mobilisation" suggests that seeking out political information should undermine both the need for and the likelihood of party identification. Applying Mixed Markov Latent Class Analysis to the BES Panel 1997-2000, we challenge these perceptions by demonstrating that partisanship is more stable than previously thought, and that high levels of political interest are linked to higher levels of partisanship and possible also to higher levels of stability. This is much more in line with classic ideas about party identification than with "revisionist"" critiques of the Michigan model, and with current models of political cognition. Moreover, it suggests that political interest renders affective ties more powerful in stabilizing themselves.

    author = {Arzheimer, Kai and Schoen, Harald},
    title = {Political Interest Furthers Partisanship in England, Scotland, and
    journal = {Journal of Elections, Public Opinion \& Parties},
    year = 2016,
    pages = {373--389},
    issue = {3},
    volume = {26},
    doi = {10.1080/17457289.2016.1179315},
    html = {http://www.kai-arzheimer.com/paper/political-interest-furthers-partisanship-in-england-scotland-and-wales/},
    abstract = {According to much of the literature, partisanship in Britain
    exercises little independent influence on the vote but merely
    reflects voters' prospective and retrospective evaluations of the
    parties' performance with regard to their management of the
    economy, national security, and public services. In this view,
    partisanship comes close to Fiorina's model of a "running tally" of
    political experiences. Similarly, Dalton's notion of "cognitive
    mobilisation" suggests that seeking out political information
    should undermine both the need for and the likelihood of party
    identification. Applying Mixed Markov Latent Class Analysis to the
    BES Panel 1997-2000, we challenge these perceptions by
    demonstrating that partisanship is more stable than previously
    thought, and that high levels of political interest are linked to
    higher levels of partisanship and possible also to higher levels of
    stability. This is much more in line with classic ideas about party
    identification than with "revisionist"" critiques of the Michigan
    model, and with current models of political cognition. Moreover, it
    suggests that political interest renders affective ties more
    powerful in stabilizing themselves. }

1. Introduction

In the field of public opinion and voting behaviour, few concepts have stimulated as many analyses and have aroused as much debate as that of party identification. The idea of a durable “identification” with a political party has been a staple in American electoral studies since the 1940s and is at the core of the Michigan model of electoral choice (Campbell et al., 1960). But with the proliferation of Michigan-inspired voting studies during the late 1960s and early 1970s (see Miller, 1994) scholars tried to apply the concept to political systems other than the US and began to couch their analysis of voting behaviour in Western Europe in terms of stabilizing party attachments and disruptive short-term factors. Roughly about the same time, the concept came under criticism both in the US and abroad.

A first strand of this critique accepts the basic premises of the Michigan model but holds that their empirical findings were dependent on the unusually quiet and stable political setting of the 1950s. According to this school, the political unrest of the 1960s and 1970s greatly reduced the prevalence and electoral importance of partisanship (Abramson, 1976; Nie et al., 1976). A second and related line of argument questions the validity of the indicators, which is of particular importance for the application outside the US. Critics objected that in political systems other than the US indicators for party identification merely presented another measure for vote intentions (Schleth & Weede, 1971; Thomassen, 1976; LeDuc, 1981; Küchler, 1986). Other challenges focus on the fact that the original Michigan indicator was based on a single continuum spanned by the two relevant American parties, whereas the vast majority of European polities feature multi-party systems (Katz, 1979).

The third and most fundamental line of criticism addresses the meaning and theoretical status of party identification. The original Michigan model as outlined in the American Voter was firmly grounded in then-contemporary assumptions about human behaviour that have been subsumed under the label of a “homo sociologicus of sociological empiricism” (Lindenberg, 1985, p.102): Voters were perceived as actors who “form opinions about everything”, are “easily influenced by others”, and “act directly on the basis of … [their] opinions” (Lindenberg, 1985, p.102). Consequentially, the attachment to one of the major parties would have a powerful direct impact on one’s political behaviour and would operate as a “perceptual screen” that biases the reception and the processing of political information (Campbell et al., 1960, p.133).

According to the classic Michigan model of political behaviour, citizens do not apply an explicit decision rule to maximise their utility from voting but rather react in a semi-conscious and stochastic way to political stimuli. This runs against the grain of a competing “model of man” which holds that citizens act rationally, i.e. actively choose the political alternative that is optimal given their general preferences. Starting out from Downs’ instrumental interpretation of party identification (Downs, 1957), authors such as Samuel L. Popkin and Morris P. Fiorina developed a competing view of partisanship. According to them, party identification is nothing but a cost-saving device for voters in a situation where it would be irrational to gather too much political information (Popkin et al., 1976; Fiorina, 1977; Fiorina, 1981).

While the question of whether humans act rationally in politics or merely follow their attitudinal dispositions is obviously a deep and complex one, in the case of party identification both competing views have observable implications that lend themselves to an empirical test. While the Michigan school never claimed that party identification is perfectly stable (Campbell et al., 1960, pp. 135, 165), it follows from their presentation in the American Voter and subsequent accounts that one’s identification is normally acquired early in life and then retained for years if not decades unless the political landscape changes dramatically. On the other hand, the “revisionist school” claims that party identification is nothing but a “running tally of retrospective evaluations of party promises and performance” (Fiorina, 1981, p. 84) that is frequently updated and changes accordingly as new political information comes in (see Milazzo et al. 2012 for a more subtle development of this idea in the British context).

On the basis of panel data that track the party identifications of individuals over time, it should be fairly straightforward to establish which of the competing views more adequately reflects political realities: if many electors change their identifications over a comparatively short period of four or five years, that would constitute rather strong evidence of rational updating in the light of new information. If, on the other hand, identifications are more or less stable over this period, this would prima facie support the classic view, although proponents of the revisionist school could still argue that political circumstances have simply not changed enough to trigger significant updating.

The issue is further complicated by random measurement error: respondents will get tired and bored during the course of a lengthy interview and give an incorrect or random answer to get over with the procedure, and interviewers will mishear or mistype their utterances. Therefore, not all apparent changes in the answers to a survey question reflect a true shift in the underlying attitude. Put differently, the correlation between measurements at time t and time t+1 will be attenuated.i Therefore, results from panel analyses of partisan change and stability that do not account for random measurement error will be seriously biased in favour of the revisionist school (Green et al., 2002).

As regards party identification in Britain, to our best knowledge only the analyses by Clarke and his colleagues (Clarke et al. 2004, Clarke et al. 2009, Clarke & McCutcheon 2009) deal adequately with this problem. Their main finding is that even if measurement error is taken into account, the “substantial latent-level dynamics in party identification in recent years … [are] inconsistent with the high levels of partisan stability as argued by Green et al. and other proponents of Michigan-style partisanship” (Clarke et al., 2004, p. 193; see also Clarke et al. 2009, pp. 327330; Clarke & McCutcheon 2009).

While we agree with Clarke et al. that party identification in Britain is not completely stable, we disagree with some of their interpretations of their findings. More importantly, we argue that their model should be extended to include political interest as a key factor that can explain stability of partisan ties. This reflects the crucial role political interest plays in another strand of the literature that harks back to Dalton’s (1984) seminal contribution on cognitive mobilisation and partisan dealignment. Although both strands of the literature should obviously complement each other, they are by and large disjoint. Our own model aims to narrow this gap.

In the remainder of this paper, we first review very briefly the existing evidence on the status of party identification in Britain. Then, we present findings from a model that differs from the specification chosen by Clarke et al. by introducing one additional variable and by defining the analytical sample in a slightly more restrictive way. These two innocuous modifications lead us to substantively different conclusions that are much more in line with the classic model of party identification. Finally, we discuss how our findings relate to the broader discussion on the nature and stability of party identification.

2. Previous Research

The Michigan-inspired concept of party identification (labelled as “partisan self-image”) was introduced by Butler and Stokes (1969; 1974) to the analysis of public opinion and voting behaviour in Britain. While building on the American concept, the authors found considerable Anglo-American differences. Though highly stable in absolute terms, partisan self-images in Britain turned out to be much more likely than their American counterparts to travel in tandem with vote choice over time. Given these findings, some scholars discarded the concept arguing that in Britain party identification is not as independent from voting behaviour as implied by the Michigan school. Others related the Anglo-American differences to features of the political institutions or even to measurement problems and concluded that the concept could be applied to Britain in principle (LeDuc, 1981; Mughan, 1981; but also see Crewe et al., 1977, p. 141; Cain & Ferejohn, 1981). Following the latter account, many scholars used the concept of party identification to analyse public opinion and voting behaviour in Britain.

Subsequent analyses, however, yielded more and more evidence that seemed at odds with the traditional concept. Beginning in the 1970s, Britain underwent a period of partisan dealignment, i.e. the strength of party attachments decreased considerably (Crewe et al., 1977). What is more, the decline in intensity resulted from party attachments’ responsiveness to retrospective evaluations of party performance on salient political issues and party leader evaluations (Clarke & Stewart, 1984; see also Johnston & Pattie, 1996). Expanding on this line of research, Clarke and colleagues (e.g. Clarke et al. 1997, 1998) argue in a number of contributions that the directional component of British partisanship also responds to short-term forces like performance evaluations and party leader images. Summarising these findings, Clarke et al. conclude that this level of aggregate and individual volatility cannot be reconciled with the classic model. Therefore, party identification in the sense of the Michigan model should be replaced by the Fiorina-inspired concept of “valenced partisanship” (Clarke et al., 2004, p. 211; Clarke et al. 2009; Whiteley et al. 2013).ii Specifically, employing fractional cointegration methods (e.g., Box-Steffensmeier & Smith 1996), Clarke and his colleagues suggest that party leader images and personal economic evaluations exert effects on aggregate-level party support in Britain (Clarke & Lebo 2003; see also Lebo & Young 2009; Pickup 2009).

But this conclusion has not gone uncontested. Several scholars claimed that the apparent instability of party identification in Britain is the result of an inappropriate survey instrument. Since the traditional indicator prompts respondents with a list of party labels and does not offer them an explicit non-identity option, respondents who lack the sense of durable attachment that is implied by the concept will in all likelihood answer the question on the basis of their present (but not necessarily stable) party preference. This will result in an inflated figure for the percentage of partisans in Britain as well as in a deflated estimate of partisan stability.

Cross-sectional analyses have largely supported the view that the traditional indicator has problems (Brynin & Sanders, 1997; Bartle, 1999; Bartle, 2003; Blais et al., 2001; Sanders et al., 2002; see also Sanders, 2003; see for a similar argument on the effects of question order Heath & Pierce, 1992). When it comes to the stability issue, however, the findings are somewhat mixed. Comparing the traditional and a revised measure (the so-called “supporter question”), Clarke et al. can demonstrate that both indicators result in identical rates of stable responses. At the same time, the revised indicator leads to considerably lower rates of inter-party change than the traditional instrument (Clarke et al., 2004, pp. 196199).

A related methodological objection against the notion that party identification in the UK is merely a “running tally” was raised by Donald Green and his colleagues. Using a simple dummy indicator specification for party identification, Green et al. show that party attachments in Britain turn out to be very stable over time if one controls for random measurement error. What is more, they demonstrate that short-term forces do not seem to affect party identification in Britain if random error is accounted for. Accordingly, Green et al. conclude that evidence in favour of the running tally account of party identification is based on methodologically flawed analyses (Schickler & Green, 1997; Green et al., 2002).

Clarke and his colleagues (e.g. Clarke & McCutcheon 2009, pp. 711-714), however, argue that Green et al.’s approach to measurement error is methodologically flawed and suggest to take an alternative route based on Mixed Markov Latent Class (MMLC) analysis a more adequate method for dealing with categorical latent variables that estimates probabilities for transition from one latent group to another and obtain very different results. Their analyses of panel data collected between 1963 and 2006 reveals considerable change in party identification at the latent-variable level even when allowing for measurement error. Testing four different specifications, they find that a Mixed Markov Latent class model with time homogeneous measurement error rates fits the data for Britain (and also Canada and the USA) best. In such a model, the measurement of partisanship is assumed to be affected by random error that is homogeneous (constant) over time. Moreover, one group of respondents is assumed to have perfectly stable partisan orientations (the “stayers”), whereas members of a second group change their orientations randomly from one wave to the next (the “movers”). The model is related to Converse’s “black-white” model but differs in one important aspect: the assumption that these switches occur with equal probability is relaxed. In Britain, the estimated size of the “mover” group varies between 29 and 37 per cent (Clarke & McCutcheon 2009, pp. 721). Therefore, they suggest discarding the original Michigan concept in favour of the running tally model (Clarke et al., 2004, pp. 194195; Clarke et al., 1999, pp. 97-101; Clarke et al. 2009, pp. 327330).

Clarke et al.’s works are an important methodological and substantive step forward, although we think that they do not represent the final word on the “Michigan vs Running Tally” debate. To be sure, the probabilities for retaining one’s party identification do not equal unity. Perfect stability, however, is not implied by the Michigan model. Rather, this would be a feature of the “unmoved mover” caricature of the original concept (Converse, 2006, p. 5).iii The finding that about two thirds of the respondents in the UK are “stayers” with perfectly stable partisan orientation, combined with the fact that estimated retention rates amongst the “movers” are also relatively high could easily be read as an endorsement of the Michigan model.

However, the debate on the relative merits of both models has become somewhat stale. In reality, electorates are comprised of stable partisans, party switchers, and apartisans, and investigating the scale, the sources and the consequences of this unobserved heterogeneity seems to open up promising new avenues for research (Neundorf, Stegmueller & Scotto 2011). In this article, we suggest adding political interest as an explanatory variable into Clarke et al.’s model to re-examine the over-time stability of party identification in Britain in the late 1990s. This seemingly innocuous modification leads to an important new insight that helps us to discriminate more clearly between the traditional interpretation of partisanship and the revisionist one. In addition, it has some bearing on a related conflict within the traditionalist camp.

The rationale is simple: From the ideas of Downs, Fiorina and Popkin it follows that citizens who are interested in politics and hence exposed to political information will update their “running tally” more frequently than their compatriots with lower levels of political interest. Being interested in politics should therefore have a positive effect on the probability of being in the “mover” class. Moreover, since party identification is merely a function of prior information, interest in politics will raise levels of exposure to political information and should hence be associated with higher levels of partisanship.iv

From the point of view of the traditionalists, expectations regarding the role of political interest are less clear-cut. On the one hand, starting from ideas originally formulated in the American Voter, the thrust of Dalton’s (1984) seminal “cognitive mobilisation” thesis is that low-interest citizens will rely on partisan cues, whereas cognitively mobilised citizens have no need for these cost-saving devices. Cognitive mobilisation will therefore undermine partisan ties and contribute to dealignmant (e.g. Dalton 2014).v For individual respondents, this implies that political interest should once more increase the probability of being the mover group. Moreover, it follows that political interest should have a negative effect on the likelihood of identifying with a political party.

On the other hand, Campbell et al. (1960, p. 133) have famously argued that party identification acts as a perceptual screen that affects the way political information is selected, processed, and stored (see also Bartels 2002). This view is in line with modern theories of motivated reasoning, which suggest that voters with high levels of interest in politics and high levels of political knowledge already stored in their long-term memory are more likely to select information that bolsters their preferences and to counter-argue information that runs contrary to their existing preferences (confirmation and disconfirmation bias). In effect, additional information is likely to support, rather than undermine, existing preferences. Among low-interest voters, this effect is smaller (e.g., Taber and Lodge 2006; see somewhat relatedly Converse, 1962; Zaller, 1992). Political interest should therefore be associated with higher levels of partisanship (e.g. Albright 2009), as well as with a higher probability of being in the stayer class.

To summarise, the three different theoretical perspectives lead to diverging expectations regarding the effect of political interest:

– Table 1 about here –

3. Data and Model

It is not our aim to fully replicate the various analyses by Clarke and his colleagues or to refute their findings. Rather, we want to demonstrate how adding a single variable to their model can shed some new light on the heterogeneity of partisanship stability in Britain and beyond. We therefore focus on data that were collected for the British Election Panel Survey from 1997 to 2000. There are three reasons for re-analysing these data that were collected more than a decade ago. First, this was the last face-to-face panel study of the BES, which began to employ internet (access) panels from 2005 on. While these are cost-efficient and can offer comparable data quality, the bulk of the data analysed comes from traditional surveys, and we would rather avoid mode effects. More specifically, we are worried that “professional respondents” who participate in many surveys may be more interested in politics in the first place and will develop more consistent attitudes over time, which would bias the results in favour of the traditionalist camp. However, an additional analysis of the 2005-2009 internet panel (documented in the online appendix) leads to essentially identical findings.

Second, the 1997-2000 panel (just like the 2005-2009 study) is a “truncated” panel, as far as party identification is concerned, because the last measurement was taken well before the beginning of the election campaign in the following year. Hence, it will not be contaminated by any campaign effects that may prompt voters to revert to their initial identification (e.g. Finkel 1993), while still giving us the benefits of analysing four measurements that span almost the complete life of a parliament.

Third, and most importantly, Clarke & McCutcheon (2009, p. 721) flag up the 1997-2000 panel as the UK’s least stable in modern times. This is confirmed by our own analyses of the 1963-2009 BES panel data: While 80 per cent of the respondents reported the same identification in the last wave in 2000 as they did when they were first interviewed in 1997 (compared to 74 per cent in the 1992-95 and 84 per cent in the 2005-08 periods), the year-to-year changes (documented in the online appendix) are higher than most of those that have been previously observed. To summarise, re-analysing the 1997-2000 data stacks the odds against finding stable identifications of traditionalist lore and is therefore a sensible modeling choice.

The volatility of the 1997-2000 period does not come as a surprise. After all, “New Labour” won the 1997 election by a landslide following the abolition of the old Clause IV (that called for nationalisation) in 1995 and an “Americanised” campaign, which played down ideological differences between the parties. Subsequently, Labour implemented a flurry of constitutional changes, but carried on with many of the previous government’s fiscal and economic policies and established a leadership style that was widely seen as presidential and tried to appeal to the broadest possible constituency (Bevir & Rhodes, 2006). Therefore, the early Blair years should provide a litmus test for the hypothesis of (largely) immutable identifications: if identifications resist the momentum of these events, if they remain stable although Britain has, according to Clarke et al., entered an era of valence politics, this would constitute strong evidence in favour of the classic model.

Unlike Clarke et al., we analyse the 1064 respondents from the smaller nations (882 from Scotland and 182 from Wales separately). Since the 1970s, both Scotland and Wales have featured party systems that are clearly distinct from the national party system, with Labour as the dominant party (until 2014/15) and comparatively strong nationalist parties that represent the centre-periphery cleavage. Devolution of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in 1999 has made these differences even more salient (Bohrer & Krutz, 2005; Lynch, 2007). In our view, pooling respondents from the three nations would lead to more unobserved heterogeneity instead of controlling for sources of heterogeneity, as the presence of the nationalist parties (taking seats in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly from 1999) will alter the meaning and possibly the stability of the “other” category. Moreover, the stability of mainstream party identifications might be lower in the periphery because respondents may well hold diverging party preferences and loyalties at the national and the sub-national level (see for evidence on the US and Canada Niemi et al., 1987; Stewart & Clarke, 1998).

The second important difference between the analysis by Clarke et al. and our approach is the specification of the model: As outlined in the previous section, we introduce self-stated political interest as an additional variable, which is correlated with both the mover/stayer property and the initial latent identification. The model’s parameters were estimated with MPlus 7.11 assuming that data are missing at random (MAR). Apart from considering political interest, our model is identical to the Mixed Markov model championed by Clarke et al.: We distinguish between Labour identifiers, Conservative identifiers, and all others. Like Clarke & McCutcheon, we further assume that reliability of the indicator is stable across the 1997-2000 period but place no restrictions on the transition matrices within the mover group.

4. Findings

As outlined in the previous section, we set up the model separately for a) England and b) the devolved nations. To establish a baseline, we first estimate the model without considering political interest and its correlations with the latent classes. In line with our expectations, restricting the sample to English respondents results in a higher estimate for the proportion of stayers (75 per cent vs. 66 per cent). Like Clarke et al., we note that some (about one third) of those placed in the mover category do not actually change their identification, bringing the total number of respondents with perfectly stable party identification to 83 per cent. This finding alone is a powerful re-assertion of the idea of largely stable party alignments.

In 1997, 40 per cent of the respondents were Labour identifiers, and 32 per cent identified with the Conservatives. Amongst the initial Labour identifiers, only one quarter are movers. For the Conservatives, the rate is even lower (one fifth), but for the “other” group, it approaches one third. Across all respondents, the probability of retaining one’s identification from one wave to the next varied between 0.94 and 0.99 for Labour and between 0.86 (between 1997 and 1998) and 0.97 for the Tories. For the heterogeneous “other” group, the retention rate is markedly lower (0.74) in 1998 and somewhat lower (0.92) in 1999 and 2000.

For Scotland and Wales combined, the estimate for the stayer group is also somewhat higher than 70 per cent and thus tends to exceed the figure reported by Clarke & McCutcheon. While this difference is small and within the margin of error, the discrepancy underlines that it is worthwhile to disaggregate the data. Once more, about one third of the “movers “(most of them Labour identifiers) retain their initial identification over the four waves, bringing the total number of stable partisans close to 80 per cent. Across all respondents, retention rates are slightly lower than in England and vary between 87 per cent (Labour from 1998 to 1999, the year of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) to 97 per cent (the Conservatives 1999 to 2000).

Next, we introduce political interest as an additional variable. Interest was measured in every wave using a five-point scale. While we could have constructed another latent variable from these four measurements (see, e.g., Prior 2010), this would have made the estimation prohibitively expensive in terms of computation, and would have led to a further proliferation of parameters. Instead of trying to purge random measurement error from this variable, we simply use the single measurement from the first wave as a rough indicator for general political interest. This is actually a conservative modelling strategy: Any random noise in the 1997 measurement (which could be due to higher levels of interest during the campaign) will dilute the relationship between political interest on the one hand and partisanship and its stability on the other.

  • Table 2 about here –

Including political interest in the model involves estimating three additional parameters – one for membership in the mover group, and two for initially identifying with Labour or the Conservatives, respectively. The change in the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) shows that this additional complexity is well-warranted: The BIC (which aims to strike a balance between model fit and parsimony) drops from 11,024 to 10,996 in England and from 4,386 to 4,378 in Scotland/Wales, which indicates a modest improvement over the pure Mixed Markov model (see Table 2).

  • Table 3 about here –

In both regions, including political interest in the model has hardly any effect on the estimated sizes of the mover/stayer classes. However, higher levels of political interest seem to reduce the probability of being a mover. The effects are sizable at about -0.2, meaning that each one-point increase in interest will reduce the odds of being a mover by roughly 18 per cent, but are not statistically significant by conventional standards (p=0.06 in England, 0.09 in Scotland/Wales). Hence, the findings (narrowly) fail to support the “motivated reasoning” perspective on partisan stability, but also clearly contradict the “running tally” and “cognitive mobilisation” perspectives, which predict a positive coefficient.

Regarding the effect of political interest on partisanship, the results are less equivocal. Political interest has a statistically significant and substantial positive effects on both identification with the Labour and the Conservative party (see Table 3). They are equivalent to changes in the odds ranging from 19 to 43 per cent. The somewhat weaker effects in the devolved nations are compatible with a lower number of apartisans in the “other” category due to the relevance of the nationalist parties.

  • Table 4 about here –

Moreover, there is a strong correlation between membership in the mover/stayer groups and the direction of the (initial) party identification. In England, stayers are considerably more likely to identify with one of the two major parties (see Table 4) than movers. From the relative size of the groups it follows that only about 19 per cent (a quarter of 75 per cent) of the respondents remain in the “other” group over the course of the survey. In Scotland and Wales, however, stayers predominantly identify with none or one of the nationalist parties, whereas more than two thirds of the movers identified with Labour in 1997 but may have changed their allegiance further down the line.

  • Table 5 about here –

Taken together, the results imply that overall retention rates are high in some, but not in all circumstances as Table 5 reveals. In particular, we can see that Labour experiences a significantly lower rate of retention outside England while the situation is reversed for the Tories and to a lesser extent for the “other” parties, both of which see a higher levels of loyalty among supporters in Scotland and Wales than in Englandvi These findings suggest that some of the late-1990s support for Labour in Scotland and Wales may have been rather instrumental in nature, and that devolution may have facilitated and accelerated the emergence of subnational party systems in the devolved nations.

5. Conclusion

In many ways, the discussion between proponents of the Michigan model (that has been updated and revised many times since its first inception in the 1950s) and their revisionist critics could be described as a dialogue of the deaf. This is in part because both models will lead to very similar empirical findings under most circumstances. In this contribution, we have tried to bring some fresh air to this otherwise stale debate by taking a closer look at the role of interest in politics in affecting the prevalence and stability of party attachments. Relying on this perspective, we derived three models with clearly distinguishable predictions: the “running tally” model, the “cognitive mobilisation” model, and the “motivated reasoning” model, which is well in line with the traditional notion of party identification.

The evidence gleaned from the 1997-2000 BES panel survey suggests that in Britain the traditional model is better suited to describe the role of interest in politics in affecting the prevalence and stability of party attachments than its contenders. Rather than providing evidence for a frequent “updating” of identifications amongst those who are interested in politics, our results for England and Scotland and Wales support the classic view that a change in party identification is a comparatively rare event amongst both high- and low-interest citizens, and it is even rarer among the former than among the latter. Our findings thus support the classic notion of party identification (Campbell et al., 1960; see also Bartels 2002), which implies that party attachments serve as perceptual screen. In particular, they suggest that the affective nature of party identification is conducive to motivated reasoning and thereby lends considerable stability to party attachments. In line with recent findings in political psychology (e.g., Taber and Lodge, 2006), these self-stabilizing effects of party attachments are particularly strong among high-interest citizens. This finding in turn fits nicely into Zaller’s (1992) RAS model which posits that high levels of political awareness is valuable in identifying and refuting information that contradicts existing predispositions.

In accordance with the latter model, our findings also have implications for the dynamics of party identification at the aggregate level, the so-called macro-partisanship (e.g., MacKuen et al. 1989; Clarke et al. 2001; Clarke & Lebo 2003). They suggest that the dynamics in the aggregate-level distribution are primarily driven by voters who are not heavily interested in politics. To be sure, this finding on voter heterogeneity does not imply that these dynamics are indicative of some kind of irrationality (see on this debate, e.g., Page and Shapiro 1992). However, it contradicts the notion that it is highly involved voters who cause shifts in macro-partisanship, a notion that would appear to be desirable from a democratic accountability perspective. Thus our findings can be seen as supportive of the well-known paradox whereby individuals with less than ideal citizenship traits actually seem to make important contributions to the functioning of democratic political systems (Berelson et al. 1954: 316; Neuman 1986).

As is the case for most empirical studies of political behaviour, this paper is subject to several limitations.vii First, we studied the stability of party attachments in a specific period in time. The 1997-2000 period is probably atypical in that citizens were provided with much information that could make them switch party allegiances. While this characteristic made a good test case for the hypotheses it also limits the generalizability of our findings, although our additional analysis of the 2005-2009 data leads to essentially identical results. Also, we did not take into account the durability of changes in party attachments. With data from multi-wave panel surveys covering longer time periods, future research may also be able to distinguish short-term fluctuations from more permanent changes in party attachments and hence explore whether political interest affects the durability of shifts in party attachments. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that we simplified our model by treating political interest not as latent variable. Yet, this strategy is likely to have diluted the impact of political interest on the stability of party attachments. Utilizing more sophisticated techniques would probably yield evidence that supports our conclusions even more strongly. So, we are confident that our evidence lends considerable support to the classic notion of party identification in Great Britain.


Abramson, P.R. (1976) Generational Change and the Decline of Party Identification in America: 1952–1974. American Political Science Review, 70(2), pp. 469–478.

Albright, J.J. (2009) Does Political Knowledge Erode Party Attachments? A Review of the Cognitive Mobilization Thesis. Electoral Studies, 28(2), pp. 248–260.

Bartels, L. M. (2002) Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), pp. 117-150.

Bartle, J. (1999) Improving the Measurement of Party Identification in Britain. British Elections & Parties Review, 9, pp. 119–135.

Bartle, J. (2003) Measuring Party Identification: An Exploratory Study with Focus Groups. Electoral Studies, 22(2), pp. 217–237.

Berelson, B., Lazarsfeld, P.F. & McPhee, W. (1954) Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bevir, M. & Rhodes, R.A.W. (2006) Prime Ministers, Presidentialism and Westminster Smokescreens. Political Studies, 54(4), pp. 671–690.

Blais, A., Gidengil, E., Nadeau, R. & Nevitte, N. (2001) Measuring Party Identification: Britain, Canada, and the United States. Political Behavior, 23(1), pp. 5–22.

Bohrer, R.E. & Krutz, G.S. (2005) The Devolved Party Systems of the United Kingdom: Sub-national Variations from the National Model. Party Politics, 11(6), pp. 654–673.

Box-Steffensmeier, J.M. & Smith, R.M. (1996) The Dynamics of Aggregate Partisanship. American Political Science Review, 90, pp. 567-580.

Brody, R.A. & Rothenberg, L.S. (1988) The Instability of Partisanship: An Analysis of the 1980 Presidential Election. British Journal of Political Science, 18(Oct 88), pp. 445–465.

Brynin, M. & Sanders, D. (1997) Party Identification, Political Preferences and Material Conditions: Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey, 1991–1992. Party Politics, 3(1), pp. 53–77.

Butler, D. & Stokes, D. (1969) Political Change in Britain: Forces Shaping Electoral Choice (London: Macmillan).

Butler, D. & Stokes, D. (1974) Political Change in Britain: The Evolution of Electoral Choice (London: Macmillan).

Cain, B.E. & Ferejohn, J. (1981) Party Identification in the United States and Great Britain. Comparative Political Studies, 14(1), pp. 31–47.

Campbell, A., Converse, P.E., Miller, W.E. & Stokes, D.E. (1960) The American Voter (New York: Wiley).

Clarke, H.D. & McCutcheon, A.L. (2009) The Dynamics of Party Identification Reconsidered. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(4), pp. 704–728.

Clarke, H.D. & Lebo, M. (2003) Fractional (Co)integration and Governing Party Support in Britain. British Journal of Political Science, 33, 283-301.

Clarke, H.D. & Stewart, M.C. (1984) Dealignment of Degree: Partisan Change in Britain, 1974–1983. Journal of Politics, 46(3), pp. 689–718.

Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C. & Whiteley, P. (1997) Tory Trends: Party Identification and the Dynamics of Conservative Support since 1992, British Journal of Political Science, 27(2), pp. 299–319.

Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C. & Whiteley, P. (1998) New Models for New Labour: The Political Economy of Labour Party Support, January 1992–April 1997. American Political Science Review, 92(3), pp. 559–575.

Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C. & Whiteley, P. (1999) New Labour’s New Partisans: The Dynamics of Party Identification in Britain since 1992. British Elections & Parties Review, 9(1), pp. 87–104.

Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C. & Whiteley, P. (2001) The Dynamics of Partisanship in Britain: Evidence and Implications for Critical Election Theory. British Elections & Parties Review, 11(1), pp. 66-83.

Clarke, H.D., Sanders, D., Stewart, M. & Whiteley, P. (2004) Political Choice in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Clarke, H.D., Sanders, D., Stewart, M. & Whiteley, P. (2009) Performance Politics and the British Voter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Converse, P.E. (1962) Information Flow and the Stability of Partisan Attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 26(4), pp. 578–599.

Converse, P.E. (2006) Researching Electoral Politics. American Political Science Review, 100(4), pp. 1–8.

Crewe, I., Särlvik, B. & Alt, J. (1977) Partisan Dealignment in Britain 1964–1974. British Journal of Political Science, 7(2), pp. 129–190.

Dalton, R.J. (1984) Cognitive Mobilization and Partisan Dealignment in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Journal of Politics, 46(1), pp. 264–284.

Dalton, R.J. (2014) Interpreting Partisan Dealignment in Germany. German Politics, 23(1-2), pp. 134-144.

Dalton, R.J. (2000) The Decline of Party Identifications, in: R.J. Dalton & M.P. Wattenberg (eds) Parties without Partisans. Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 19–36.

Downs, A. (1957) An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row).

Finkel, S.E. (1993) Reexamining the “Minimal Effects” Model in Recent Presidential Campaigns. Journal of Politics, 55(1), pp. 1–21.

Fiorina, M.P. (1977) An Outline for a Model of Party Choice. American Journal of Political Science, 21(3), pp. 601–625.

Fiorina, M.P. (1981) Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven:Yale University Press).

Goodman, L.A. (1961) Statistical Methods for the Mover-Stayer Model. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 56(296), pp. 841–868.

Green, D., Palmquist, B. & Schickler, E. (2002) Partisan Hearts and Minds. Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Greene, S. (2004) Social Identity Theory and Party Identification. Social Science Quarterly, 85(1), pp. 136-153.

Heath, A. & Pierce, R. (1992) It was Party Identification all along: Question Order Effects on Reports of Party Identification in Britain. Electoral Studies, 11(2), pp. 93–105.

Johnston, R.J. & Pattie, C.J. (1996) The Strength of Party Identification Among the British Electorate: An Exploration. Electoral Studies, 15(3), pp. 295–309.

Kalton, G., Kasprzyk, D. & McMillen, D.B. (1989) Nonsampling Error in Panel Surveys, in: D. Kasprzyk, G. Duncan, G. Kalton & M.P. Singh (eds) Panel Surveys (New York: Wiley), pp. 249–270.

Katz, R.S. (1979) The Dimensionality of Party Identification: Cross-National Perspectives. Comparative Politics, 11(2), pp. 147–163.

Küchler, M. (1986) Wahl- und Surveyforschung. Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 27(Special Issue 17), pp. 194–208.

Langeheine, R., Pannekoek, J. & van de Pol, F. (1996) Bootstrapping Goodness-of-Fit Measures in Categorical Data Analysis. Sociological Methods & Research, 24(4), pp. 492–516.

Lebo, M. J. & Young, E. (2009) The Comparative Dynamics of Party Support in Great Britain: Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 19 (1), pp. 73-103.

LeDuc, L. (1981) The Dynamic Properties of Party Identification: a Four-Nation Comparison. European Journal of Political Research, 9(3), pp. 257–268.

Lindenberg, S. (1985) An Assessment of the New Political Economy: Its Potential for the Social Sciences and Sociology in Particular. Sociological Theory, 3(1), pp. 99–114.

Lynch, P. (2007) Party System Change in Britain: Multi-Party Politics in a Multi-Level Polity. British Politics, 2(3), pp. 323–346.

MacKuen, M.B., Erikson, R.S. & Stimson, J.A. (1989) Macropartisanship. American Political Science Review, 83 (4), 1125-1142.

Milazzo, C., Adams, J. & Green, J. (2012) Are Voter Decision Rules Endogenous to Parties’ Policy Strategies? A Model with Applications to Elite Depolarization in Post-Thatcher Britain. Journal of Politics, 74(1), pp. 262–276.

Miller, W. E. (1994) An Organizational History of the Intellectual Origins of the American National Election Studies. European Journal of Political Research, 25(3), pp. 247–265.

Mughan, A. (1981) The Cross-National Validity of Party Identification: Great Britain and the United States Compared. Political Studies, 29(3), pp. 365–375.

Neuman, W. R. (1986) The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Neundorf, A., Stegmueller, D., & Scotto, T. J. (2011) The Individual-Level Dynamics of Bounded Partisanship. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(3), pp. 458–482.

Nie, N. H., Verba, S. & Petrocik, J.R. (1976) The Changing American Voter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Niemi, R.G., Wright, S.G. & Powell, L.W. (1987) Multiple Party Identifiers and the Measurement of Party Identification. Journal of Politics, 49(4), pp. 1093–1103.

Page, B.I. & Shapiro, R.Y. (1992) The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pickup, M. (2009) Testing for Fractional Integration in Public Opinion in the Presence of Structural Breaks: A Comment on Lebo and Young. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 19 (1), pp. 105-116.

Popkin, S., Gorman, J.W., Phillips, C. & Smith, J.A. (1976) Comment: What Have You Done for Me Lately? Toward An Investment Theory of Voting. American Political Science Review, 70(3), pp. 779–805.

Prior, M. (2010) You’ve Either Got It or You Don’t? The Stability of Political Interest over the Life Cycle. Journal of Politics 72, pp. 747-766.

Rapoport, R.B. (1982) Sex Differences in Attitude Expressions: A Generational Explanation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 46(1), pp. 86–96.

Richardson, B.M. (1991) European Party Loyalties Revisited. American Political Science Review, 85(3), pp. 751–775.

Sanders, D. (2003) Party Identification, Economic Perceptions, and Voting in British General Elections, 1974–1997. Electoral Studies, 22(2), pp. 239–263.

Sanders, D., Burton, J. & Kneeshaw, J. (2002) Identifying the True Party Identifiers: A Question Wording Experiment. Party Politics, 8(2), pp. 193–205.

Schickler, E. & Green, D.P. (1997) The Stability of Party Identification in Western Democracies: Results from Eight Panel Surveys. Comparative Political Studies, 30(4), pp. 450–483.

Schleth, U. & Weede, E. (1971) Causal Models of West-German Voting Behavior. Sozialwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch für Politik, 2, pp. 73–97.

Stewart, M.C. & Clarke, H.D. (1998) The Dynamics of Party Identification in Federal Systems: The Canadian Case. American Journal of Political Science, 42(1), pp. 97–116.

Taber, C. S. & Lodge, M. (2006) Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs. American Journal of Political Science 50, pp. 755-769.

Thomassen, J. (1976) Party Identification as a Cross-National Concept: Its Meaning in the Netherlands, in: I. Budge, I. Crewe & D. Farlie (eds) Party Identification and Beyond. Representations of Voting and Party Competition (London: Wiley), pp. 63–102.

Whiteley, P. F., Clarke, H. D., Sanders, D. & Stewart, M. C. (2013) Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Zaller, J.R. (1992) The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

i While it is possible that random measurement error masks some true changes at the micro-level, the correlation of measurements at occasions t and t+1 will underestimate stability in the aggregate.

ii Similarly, Richardson (1991) claimed that in Britain partisanship did not resemble affective-laden identifications but rather cognitive partisanship.

iii Campbell et al (1960, p.135) proposed non-recursive rather than recursive effects between party identification and short-term attitudes, though they found party identification to be the predominant factor in the 1950s.

iv As Fiorina (1981: 90) suggests that party identification may also have non-political roots, this relationship might be attenuated.

v Dalton’s original measure of of cognitive mobilisation is an additive index of political interest and levels of formal education. We focus on political interest because it is more closely related to Fiorina’s idea of updating one’s identification based on the influx of new information, and also because average levels of formal education have risen sharply in Britain so that educational attainment is now closely linked to birth cohort membership.

vi It should be noted that the retention rates reported here refer only to those respondents who (net of any measurement error) were deemed to hold a perfectly stable identification across all four years. While this is a more conservative measure than looking just at consistency over the two ‘end’ points it does mean we exclude those too young to be included in all waves which may lead to some under-estimation of volatility levels, given the higher rates of switching commonly found among younger voters.

vii More recently, social identity theory has become quite popular in addressing party identification (e.g., Greene 2004), but we obviously have to rely on the traditional BES indicator..


Table 1: Theoretical Perspectives on the Expected Effects of Political Interest




Running tally”


Cognitive Mobilisation”

Motivated Reasoning”



Table 2: Model Fit


Free Parameters


Adjusted BIC


Mixed Markov




Mixed Markov + Interest




Scotland & Wales

Mixed Markov




Mixed Markov + Interest




Table 3 Effects of Political Interest






On Mover




On Lab-Identification




On Con-Identification




Scotland + Wales

On Mover




On Lab-Identification




On Con-Identification




Table 4: Mover/Stayer Property and Initial Party Identification (row percentages)

















Scotland + Wales











Table 5: Estimated Retention Rates 1997 → 2000 (per cent)









Scotland + Wales




%d bloggers like this: