Ron Johnston, "The 2001 UK General Election: Lots of
Words about Little Change," Party Politics, 8
(September 2002," 607-616
Time was -- before the 1983 general election, which was
going to break the mould of British politics but didn't (but
which might have broken British psephology if some political
scientists then associated with the Social Science Research
Council had had their way!) -- when there was just one
author to whom we turned to understand what had happened at
a UK general election: David Butler. Psephology was a small
sub-field of British political science; within it, David
Butler had nurtured a few students, several of whom acted as
co-authors for particular projects, but his was very much a
single -- and impressive -- voice. So much has changed over
the last two or three decades, not least as a result of the
expansion of British higher education and the rapid
expansion of the study of politics and government therein.
David Butler's is still a strong and influential voice in
the interpretation of UK elections, but he has many
'competitors' (in the best sense of that term). And so, five
books -- with very similar titles -- appeared within a year
of the 2001 general election offering non-journalistic
accounts of that contest and its outcome.
Figures and Tables:
[Books reviewed in this review essay]
- Pippa Norris (ed.), Britain Votes 2001.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Robert Worcester and Roger Mortimore, Explaining
Labour's Second Landslide. London: Politico's,
- Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge (eds), Labour's
Second Landslide: The British General Election 2001.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
- Anthony King (ed.) Britain at the Polls, 2001.
New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2002.
But we rarely get beyond the preface. A year after the
election was held, we have several books providing instant
interpretations -- alongside a second group by political
commentators and journalists not reviewed here -- but then
interest wanes. Papers are written using the British
Election Survey data which -- until 2001, and then only just
-- are not available to inform that first generation of
books, but where are the overviews written from the
perspective of more information and the 'longer view'? Of
course, major books have emerged from the British Election
Survey -- Butler and Stokes' (1969, 1974) pioneering
volumes, Särlvik and Crewe's (1983) synthesis of a
decade of change, and several from the CREST team (Heath,
Jowell and Curtice, 1985, 2001; Heath et al., 1987; Evans
and Norris, 1999). But with a few exceptions -- such as
Denver (1994), Catt (1996), Harrop and Miller (1987),
Leonard and Mortimore (2001) -- the substantial number of
British social scientists interested in elections and voting
behaviour have not sought to synthesize what we have learned
from more than 50 years of studying elections in Britain,
and some 40 years of academic surveys of the electorate. Why
not? Surely it is time to go beyond the preface and to start
writing the main body of the book -- either by one or two
authors producing a major work of synthesis or, as an
interim statement, a collection of essays with a wider remit
than just one or two elections (which Evans and Norris
(1999) partially attempted). We know plenty about the
short-term and the local; what we need is reflection on what
that knowledge implies for theory and for longer-term
developments. The material is there -- both in the books and
journal articles and in the raw material from surveys. Who
will take up the challenge?