The 1997 election

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The 1997 election

How can we understand the behaviour of voters in the British General Election of 1997?

British Election Study (Evans & Norris (eds) 1999)

Norris and Evans distinguish between three types of elections:

  1. Maintaining elections.
  2. Dealigning elections.
  3. Realigning elections.

For the purpose of understanding 1997, we can forget the maintaining type, because this type describes elections in which no major change occurs in voting patterns, the political parties, or the issues.

So the argument comes down to whether de-aligning or re-aligning is the most accurate way to describe the 1997 election result.

These occur when the links between a particular party and its 'normal' supporters becomes weaker.

This type has two subdivisions:

Deviating

These are a consequence of particular personalities, issues or events. They are linked to the idea of the 'protest vote' and can dramatically change the 'normal' share of the vote going to the main parties.

They do not, however, indicate long-term change. Short-term issues have the most influence.

Evans and Norris argue that 1997 could be seen as a deviating election in as much as it was a protest vote against the Conservatives. (Note, that already in the 2000 district elections, there is a protest vote against Labour).

Secular

These suggest that de-alignment is a long term progressive weakening of the links between particular types of voter and their 'traditional' political party.

This then is the Crew and Sarlvick argument known as partisan dealignment.

This approach would suggest that Labour's 1997 victory was part of an ongoing trend, the erosion of loyal support from all parties.

These involve a change in the identifications that voters have with a particular party. Voters re-identify with a particular party. So a new variety of partisan alignment occurs.

This type also has two subdivisions:

Secular

This involves the gradual increase in a party's support over a series of elections. So in 1997, Labour achieved success after improvements in their share of the vote over 10 years.

If this is the case, then Labour must have broadened its support base among formally non-traditional supporters.

Critical

These are wholly unusual elections, which mark a sea change in party loyalty with long-term consequences for future elections.

The crucial realignments are likely to be:

  • Ideological - a party might shift its ideological position.
  • Issues might change.
  • The social basis of support might change.
  • New partisan relationships are formed.
  • Party loyalty in transferred.
  • The Labour Party has shifted to the right. Europe is an important new issue; defence is less controversial.

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