Friday, May 06, 2005

Lessons from Britain?

Expect American pundits to begin uncovering lessons for Democrats in the British election results. Some will say that moving to the center enabled Labour to win an historic third consecutive term. Others will say that same move cut their majority in half.

The truth is that there are no lessons for Democrats in Labour's performance. As Kenneth Baer has recently pointed out, "England is England and the US is the US; chalk up [the parties'] individual positions to their unique political cultures and history." One of the differences that makes comparison particularly difficult is the presence of a credible third party in Britain (the Liberal Democrats). The losses would not have been as great for Labour if Tories were the only alternative. [Even though the Lib Dems, as of this writing, only have a net gain of 11 seats, they certainly drained votes from Labour in districts all across Britain. In the London constituency of Putney, for example, Conservatives picked up a seat previously held by Labour with a majority of about 1800 votes; the Lib Dems garnered nearly 6000 votes there.]

The British results do, however, raise questions about the old saw that voters prefer a party that has a vision, takes clear positions and knows where it wants to lead. That's true in the abstract and it's certainly the case that they prefer clarity to muddle. But when given the choice between a clear vision they oppose and no vision at all, it's a toss-up. Blair tried to convince voters that he faced a difficult choice over the war in Iraq and, agree with him or not, he should be given credit for making a decision. (For a vivid illustration of this line of argument, see his interrogation on the BBC program Question Time.) Most voters didn't buy it.

People want to be lead, but only in the direction the want to go.


At 12:46 AM, Anonymous Joel J. Toppen said...

The point about the uniqueness of each situation is important, especially for political scientists. It makes me wonder about a science of politics that by definition is organized around the search for generalizations, patterns, laws. Considering that simplification is another form of abstraction it seems that in epistemological and ontological terms the tail is wagging the dog.

At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, if the ability to replicate results is a hallmark of science, but politics only presents us with unique situations, then in what sense is a distinct science of politics possible at all?

At 9:08 PM, Blogger John said...

It's probably more accurate to call PoliSci Political Voodoo, not a science.


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