The Iceberg and the Titanic: Electoral Defeat, Policy Moods, and Party Change

20 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2002

See all articles by Pippa Norris

Pippa Norris

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); University of Sydney

Joni Lovenduski

University of London - Birkbeck College

Date Written: September 2001


Multiple factors can be offered to explain the Labour victory, and Conservative defeat, in the 2001 British general election. Here we pursue one of the most interesting explanations offered by a modified Downsian model of party competition. Part I of this paper builds on Stimson's (1991) rational choice theory of policy mood cycles and considers how this framework can be applied to the context of British elections. Part II discusses measures of ideological change at mass and elite levels, focusing on two issues at the heart of British party politics: tax cuts v. spending and European integration v. independence. Evidence is drawn from the 2001 British Representation Study (BRS), involving 1000 parliamentary candidates and MPs. Comparisons are made with the British Election Studies (BES). Part III lays out the evidence.

The study comes to three main conclusions: (i) on the key issues of public spending and Europe, Labour politicians remained close to the center-ground of Westminster party politics, along with the Liberal Democrats, with the Nationalist parties further towards the left, while the Conservatives remained with clear blue water on the far right; (ii) as a result of this pattern the Conservatives were the party furthest away from the median British voter; and (iii) one reason for this pattern was selective perception, so that Conservative politicians "missed the target." The conclusion discusses the reasons for this phenomenon, the implications for the future of British party politics, and the broader lessons for why parties fail to learn and adapt in the face of the repeated electoral defeats.

Keywords: Advocacy and Persuasion, Electoral Politics, Leadership, Political Science

Suggested Citation

Norris, Pippa and Lovenduski, Joni, The Iceberg and the Titanic: Electoral Defeat, Policy Moods, and Party Change (September 2001). KSG Working Paper Series RWP01-038. Available at SSRN: or

Pippa Norris (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-1475 (Phone)
617-496-2850 (Fax)

University of Sydney ( email )

University of Sydney
Sydney, NC NSW 2006

Joni Lovenduski

University of London - Birkbeck College ( email )

School of Politics and Sociology
London WC1E 7HX
United Kingdom

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