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Political interest furthers partisanship in England, Scotland, and Wales

Pages 373-389 | Published online: 11 May 2016


According to much of the literature, partisanship in Britain exercises little independent influence on the vote but merely reflects voters’ prospective and retrospective evaluations of the parties’ performance with regard to their management of the economy, national security, and public services. In this view, partisanship comes close to Fiorina’s model of a “running tally” of political experiences. Similarly, Dalton’s notion of “cognitive mobilization” suggests that seeking out political information should undermine both the need for and the likelihood of party identification. Applying Mixed Markov Latent Class Analysis to the British Election Study Panel 1997–2000, we challenge these perceptions by demonstrating that partisanship is more stable than previously thought, and that high levels of political interest are linked to higher levels of partisanship and possible also to higher levels of stability. This is much more in line with classic ideas about party identification than with “revisionist” critiques of the Michigan model, and with current models of political cognition. Moreover, it suggests that political interest renders affective ties more powerful in stabilizing themselves.

Notes on contributors

Kai Arzheimer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, Germany. He has published widely on voting behaviour, parties, and political attitudes.

Harald Schoen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Mannheim, Germany. He is the author of books and articles on voting and elections, public opinion, political psychology and political communication.


1While it is possible that random measurement error masks some true changes at the micro-level, the correlation of measurements at occasions t and t + 1 will underestimate stability in the aggregate.

2Similarly, Richardson (Citation1991) claimed that in Britain, partisanship did not resemble affective-laden identifications but rather cognitive partisanship.

3Campbell et al. (Citation1960, 135) proposed non-recursive rather than recursive effects between party identification and short-term attitudes, though they found party identification to be the predominant factor in the 1950s.

4As Fiorina (Citation1981, 90) suggests that party identification may also have non-political roots, this relationship might be attenuated.

5Dalton’s original measure of cognitive mobilisation is an additive index of political interest and levels of formal education. We focus on political interest because it is more closely related to Fiorina’s idea of updating one’s identification based on the influx of new information, and also because average levels of formal education have risen sharply in Britain so that educational attainment is now closely linked to birth cohort membership.

6It should be noted that the retention rates reported here refer only to those respondents who (net of any measurement error) were deemed to hold a perfectly stable identification across all four years. While this is a more conservative measure than looking just at consistency over the two “end” points, it does mean we exclude those too young to be included in all waves which may lead to some under-estimation of volatility levels, given the higher rates of switching commonly found among younger voters.

7More recently, social identity theory has become quite popular in addressing party identification (e.g. Greene Citation2004), but we obviously have to rely on the traditional BES indicator.

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