Don't expect too much: what can Conservative experience tell us about how much Labour will change before the next election?

Author:Bale, Tim

Given Labour's current lead in the polls and the Coalition's current difficulties, it is easy, even tempting, to forget that only two-and-a-half years ago the Labour Party suffered one of the worst general election defeats in its history. In part because that defeat has not (so far at least) triggered the kind of factional infighting witnessed in the 1950s and 1980s, and in part because so much media attention has been focused on Tory-Lib Dem troubles and tensions, there has--with the honourable exception of Renewal and some other left-leaning think tanks, journals and blogs--been far less public debate than one might have expected about how (and how much) the party needs to change in order to regain office.

Perhaps, however, we are expecting too much. We assume--as if it were somehow a simple matter of stimulus and response--that a big defeat will, or at least should, lead automatically to big changes, be they in personnel, in organisation, or in policy. But what if we are wrong? Political scientists have long been interested in the question of what drives political parties to change who represents them, how they run themselves, and what they stand for. Until now, however, their work has been confined to fairly abstract cross-national comparisons, on the one hand, and very brief country case studies on the other. Even so, it casts doubt on the idea that change is always, or even mainly, driven by the 'external shock' of defeat and/or loss of office. It finds that leaders and, to a lesser extent, factional shifts make a big difference too.

In a new book published this autumn and called The Conservatives Since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change (Bale, 2012b), I conduct what is probably the first full-length study designed explicitly to explore the reasons how and why parties change. The result, I hope, will interest not just political scientists and political historians but also help social democrats to revise their expectations about the extent and scope of any renewal that Labour is likely to undertake between now and the next general election (1).

Taking periods of Conservative opposition and government (of which there have been four each since 1945) as separate cases, and using, as raw material, internal papers, memos and records of meetings from party archives, along with historical and contemporary accounts, memoirs and interviews, the book examines each case for evidence of changes in how the party is organised, what human and material resources it draws upon, what it says it stands for, and what it actually does. The book then explores the role of the three drivers most commonly expected to have played a part in producing that change, namely defeat (where one occurred), the leader, and the dominant faction, before, in each case, going on to discuss additional factors that seemed to have played a part in prompting the party to do things differently.

As so often, the devil is in the detail. Still, since there is more than enough of that detail in the book itself to satisfy and (fingers crossed) delight even the most demanding of political anoraks, and since the main purpose of this article is to allow us to draw parallels and make predictions, the focus here will be on the take-home messages.

The extent and scope of party change since 1945

1) Until 1979, at least, the Conservative Party changed more in opposition than it did in government.

2) Policy always changed more than organisation, and organisation always changed more than the party's public face. Indeed, the lack of changes made to what one might term the Tories' sales force--its high-profile politicians and, in particular, its parliamentary candidates--is one of the most striking (and possibly most depressing) features of the entire post-war period.

3) That said, changes to the public face of the party were rather more extensive in office than out of it--although, because such changes were rarely rapid or deliberate, this was probably due, in the main, to the fact that (until 1997 at least) the Tories tended to spend...

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