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Labour party adaptation to multilevel politics: evidence from British general election manifestos

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British Politics Aims and scope


Some policy areas debated in British general elections are the responsibility of devolved institutions, not the UK parliament. Devolution means that state-wide parties produce different versions of their general election manifestos in the devolved territories. Deploying a multilevel party framework, this article examines intra-party variations in Labour’s manifesto content through an original study of British, Scottish and Welsh Labour party manifestos from 2001 to 2017. The analysis focuses on the content and structure of Labour’s general election manifestos across the UK. It examines the roles performed by these documents, revealing how the Labour party has responded to the challenges of devolution. The analysis highlights the variable speeds at which sub-state parties embrace autonomy. It finds that Welsh Labour is more inclined to diverge from the content of UK Labour manifestos than the Scottish party, suggesting Scottish Labour has been slow to understand the politics of national identity and reluctant to embrace opportunities created by devolution. The article has implications for three key literatures: approaches to manifesto analysis; the roles performed by party manifestos; and party adaptation in multilevel systems.

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  1. We are grateful to participants at the March 2018 ‘Manifesto Co-ordination in Multi-Level Settings’ workshop at Universitè Libre de Bruxelles and Waseda University for feedback on an earlier version of this paper. We are also grateful to the three anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful comments.

  2. See: ‘Johann Lamont resignation: Scottish Labour leader stands down immediately’, BBC News, [25/2/2019].

  3. For consistency, we refer to the British manifesto throughout because it covers state-wide issues and matters reserved to Westminster, even though, with policy areas devolved to Scotland and Wales, it is often referring to England.

  4. See Table 9 in Appendix for a full list of manifestos analysed.

  5. 2017 figures were not available at the time of writing. We are grateful to Katie Hamilton at the Electoral Commission for providing the 2015 data.

  6. Labour lost 40 Scottish seats in 2015.

  7. We refer only to the English-language version of the Welsh Labour manifestos in this paper.

  8. We are grateful to one of the reviewers for this point.


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Correspondence to Lynn Bennie.

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See Table 9.

Table 9 General election manifestos analysed

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Bennie, L., Clark, A. Labour party adaptation to multilevel politics: evidence from British general election manifestos. Br Polit 15, 411–432 (2020).

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