What we are reading: Party Activism in the Populist Radical Right

In the second week of my reading class, we had a go at this one.

Whiteley, P., Larsen, E., Goodwin, M., & Clarke, H. (2019). Party activism in the populist radical right: the case of the uk independence party. Party Politics, online first. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1354068819880142

Big guns, and Paul Whiteley was the friendliest next-door (office) neighbour I could wish for in a previous life. Apart from that, the research question is intriguing: are/were members of UKIP motivated by the same factors as members of more “normal” parties? Or are/were UKIP members different, because their party was a (self-styled) outsider? The text is also a convenient introduction to the subfield of party member studies/surveys, something my students were not really aware of.

What we liked

The data set is amazing: thousands of UKIP members, many of them without doubts graduates from the school of hard knocks, were willing to talk to, you know, boffins. Students really liked that. They also appreciated the choice and framing of the research question, and that the authors tried to address the issue of relative deprivation (though the students pointed out that they were talking about a macro concept while using micro data).

What we did not like so much

United Kingdom Flag Map

Having said that, students were quite critical. They kicked off by pointing out that the general incentives model is not so totally different from but rather a special case of the Civic Voluntarism model. So a bit of a straw man/false dichotomy to start with?

The text is rather short (less than 8,000 words including the tables but excluding the references). Cynics might think that students would like that, too, but some of them actually complained that they wanted more information on the wording of the items and the construction of the variables, something that they could not even find in the online appendix (yes, they are perverted like that). More generally, they felt that one or two extra pages would have been required for the presentation of the findings and a fuller discussion of their implications.

They also said that additional factors such as religiosity and Islamophobia should have been included in the model and were concerned that UKIP and the UK were not necessarily very representative of the Radical Right and Western Europe. All good points.

And I’m really proud that they spotted one major issue: Whiteley et al. find that the same general incentives that work for other parties also explain variation in participation levels within the UKIP membership. But a more interesting question is perhaps whether they also explain the decision to join a party, and more specifically UKIP. Which reminds me of another piece that I could have selected for this course:

Poletti, M., Webb, P., & Bale, T. (2019). Why do only some people who support parties actually join them? evidence from britain. West European Politics, 42(1), 156–172. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2018.1479921

do exactly this: by comparing party members and non-members, they show that general incentives can explain the crucial step of joining. Then again, they have a much smaller sample of UKIP members.

All that ends well…

In the end, students said they had learned a lot from the text, even if they disagreed with some of the authors’ choices. What more can you ask for?

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