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The Rhetoric and Reality of Austerity: Electoral Politics in Britain 2010 to 2015

Part of the Studies in Political Economy book series (POEC)

Abstract

Britain experienced its first peace-time coalition government since the 1930s after the 2010 general election. It was put together very hastily and, to the surprise of many people, it survived for the 5 years planned in the original Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. By 2015 it was widely anticipated in the polls that the Parliament emerging from the general election would also be deadlocked and another possible coalition government formed, but this did not happen. Instead, the Conservatives won a surprising, but narrow election victory, capturing just short of 51 % of the seats in the House of Commons.

Keywords

  • Budget Deficit
  • Great Recession
  • Coalition Government
  • Election Campaign
  • Coalition Partner

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Quoted in Wren-Lewis (2015: 231).

  2. 2.

    Quoted in Wren-Lewis (2015: 231).

  3. 3.

    The survey questions used to measure the variables in the individual level voting model appear in the Appendix.

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., David M. Drukker and Richard M. Gates, ‘State Space Methods in Stata’, Journal of Statistical Software 41 (2011), issue #10. http://www.jstatsoft.org/

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Appendix: Measurement of Key Variables

Appendix: Measurement of Key Variables

Attitudes Towards Membership in the European Union

The question is: ‘Overall, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of Britain’s membership in the European Union?’ Responses categories are scored: ‘strongly approve’ = 1, ‘approve’ = 2, ‘disapprove’ = 4, ‘strongly disapprove’ = 5, ‘don’t know’ = 3.

Best Prime Minister

The question is: ‘Who would make the best Prime Minister?’ The response categories are: Ed Miliband = 1, David Cameron = 2, Nick Clegg = 3, Nigel Farage = 4, Don’t know = 5. For the analysis in Chapter Three of factors affecting the choice of Cameron/Miliband as best prime minister, the dependent variable is scored: Cameron/Miliband best prime minister = 1, other leader or don’t know = 0.

Civic Duty

Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: ‘I would be SERIOUSLY neglecting my duty as a citizen if I didn’t vote’. Response categories were scored ‘strongly agree’ = 5, ‘agree’ = 4, ‘neither agree nor disagree’/don’t know = 3, disagree = 2, strongly disagree = 1.

Costs of Political Participation

Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: (a) ‘It takes too much time and effort to be active in politics and public affairs’, (b) Most of my family and friends think that voting is a waste of time’. Responses to (a) and (b) were scored ‘strongly agree’ = 5, ‘agree’ = 4, ‘neither agree nor disagree’/‘don’t know’ = 3, ‘disagree’ = 2, ‘strongly disagree’ = 1. The resulting scores were added together to construct a ‘costs of political participation’ index.

Differential Benefits Provided by Political Parties

Respondents were asked to use a 0–10 scale to indicate how much they liked or disliked various parties where 0 means ‘strongly dislike’ and 10 means ‘strongly like’. Missing data were recoded to the mean. Pairwise differences comparing all the parties were computed and averaged.

Economic Mood

Questions are: (a) personal retrospective—‘How does the financial situation of your household now compare with what it was 12 months ago?’; (b) personal prospective—‘How do you think the financial situation of your household will change over the next 12 months?’; (c) national retrospective—‘How do you think the general economic situation in this country has changed over the last 12 months?’; (d) national prospective—‘How do you think the general economic situation in this country will develop over the next 12 months?’ Response categories are: ‘get/got a lot better’; ‘get/got a little better’; ‘stay the same’; ‘get/got a little worse’; ‘get/got a lot worse’. For purposes of analysis, the response categories are coded: lot better = 5, little better = 4, stay the same/don’t know = 3, little worse = 2, lot worse = 1; (e) ‘Which, if any, of the following words describe your feelings about the country’s general economic situation? (Please tick up to FOUR)’; (f) ‘Thinking of the same list of feelings, do any of them describe your feelings about the financial situation of your household? (Please tick up to FOUR)’. The words are: angry, happy, disgusted, hopeful, uneasy, confident, afraid, proud. A word is scored 1 if mentioned and 0 if it is not mentioned. Overall national and personal emotional reactions to economic condition variables are constructed by subtracting the number of negative words mentioned from the number of positive words mentioned.

The six variables (a)–(f) are treated as monthly averages. These scores are subjected to a dynamic factor analysis (see Footnote 4) and the resulting factor scores are used to assess Britain’s economic mood each month over the April 2004–March 2015 period. For the individual-level voting analyses, the six variables are subjected to an exploratory factor analysis. This analysis yields a first factor that explains 62.8 % of the item variance, with factor loadings ranging from 0.70 to 0.88. Factor scores are used to measure respondents’ economic reactionsFootnote 4.

Immigration

The following questions are used to measure attitudes towards immigration: (a) How well do you think the present government has handled the number of immigrants coming to Britain? Response categories are: (a) ‘very well’ = 5, ‘fairly well’ = 2, ‘neither well nor badly’ = 3, ‘fairly badly’ = 2, ‘very badly’ = 1; (b) Which of the following statements comes closest to your view? (i) ‘Britain should increase the number of immigrants coming to the country’ = 1, (ii) ‘The current number of immigrants coming to Britain is about right’ = 2, (iii) ‘Britain should reduce the number of immigrants coming to the country’ = 3, (iv) ‘don’t know’ = 2; (c) ‘Using the 0–10 scale, how important a problem is the number of immigrants coming to Britain these days?’ (d) ‘Do you think the number of immigrants coming to Britain these days is: ‘a lot better’ = 1, ‘a little better’ = 2, ‘the same’ = 3, ‘a little worse’ = 4, ‘a lot worse’ = 5, ‘don’t know’ = 3’; (e) ‘Which, if any, of the following words describe your feelings about the number of immigrants coming to Britain? (Please tick up to FOUR)’. The words are: angry, happy, disgusted, hopeful, uneasy, confident, afraid, proud. A word is scored 1 if mentioned and 0 if it is not mentioned. Overall emotional reactions to immigration are measured by subtracting the number of negative words mentioned from the number of positive words mentioned.

The four variables (a)–(e) are treated as monthly averages. These scores are subjected to a dynamic factor analysis and the resulting factor scores are used to assess reactions to the NHS each month over the April 2004–March 2015 period. For individual-level voting analyses, the four variables are subjected to an exploratory factor analysis. This analysis yields as single factor that explains 69.6 % of the item variance, with factor loadings ranging from 0.77 to 0.86. Factor scores are used to measure respondents’ reactions to immigration.

Interest in 2015 Election

The question is: ‘How interested are you in the general election that will be held on May 7th this year?’ and the scored response categories are: ‘very interested’ = 4, ‘somewhat interested’ = 3, ‘not very interested’ = 2, ‘not at all interested, don’t know’ = 1.

Leader Images

are measured using the following question: ‘Using a scale that runs from 0 to 10, where 0 means strongly dislike and 10 means strongly like, how do you feel about David Cameron/Ed Miliband/Nick Clegg/Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood/Natalie Bennett’? Respondents saying ‘don’t know’ were assigned the mean score.

Most Important Issue

The question is: ‘What do you think is the most important problem facing the country at the present time?’ Using a ‘drag and drop’ widget, respondents were asked to rank the following issues as most important, second most important and third most important: crime, the economy, education, the environment, Europe, health, housing, immigration, pensions, tax, transport, welfare, inflation, unemployment. ‘Don’t know’ and ‘there are no important issues’ also were included as response categories.

National Health Service

The questions are: (a) ‘Do you think the National Health Service these days is: ‘a lot better’ = 5, ‘a little better’ = 4, ‘the same’ = 3, ‘a little worse’ = 2, ‘a lot worse’ = 1, ‘don’t know’ = 3’? (b) ‘How well do you think the present Government has handled the National Health Service? Response categories are: (a) ‘very well’ = 5, ‘fairly well’ = 2, ‘neither well nor badly’ = 3, ‘fairly badly’ = 2, ‘very badly’ = 1; (c) ‘Using a 0–10 scale, how important a problem is the National Health Service these days?’ (d) ‘Which of the following words describe your feelings about the National Health Service? (Please tick up to FOUR)’. The words are: angry, happy, disgusted, hopeful, uneasy, confident, afraid, proud. A word is scored 1 if mentioned and 0 if it is not mentioned. An overall emotional reactions index is constructed by subtracting the number of negative words mentioned from the number of positive words mentioned.

The variables (a)–(d) are treated as monthly averages. These scores are subjected to a dynamic factor analysis and the factor scores are used to assess reactions to the NHS each month over the April 2004–March 2015 period. For the individual-level voting analyses, the four variables are subjected to an exploratory factor analysis. This analysis yields as single factor that explains 51.6 % of the item variance, with factor loadings ranging from 0.58 to 0.82. Factor scores are used to measure respondents’ assessments of the performance of the NHS.

Party Best on the Economy

The question is: ‘With Britain in economic difficulties, which party do you think could handle the problem best—the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats?’ The ‘party performance on the economy’ variables are a series of 0–1 dummies for the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats with ‘none’ and ‘don’t know’ responses designated as the reference category.

Partisanship

Partisan attachments are measured using the first question in the standard BES party identification sequence: ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or what?’ Party identification variables are a series of 0–1 dummies for Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP and ‘other party’ identifications. ‘None’ and ‘don’t know’ responses are designated as the reference category.

Party Campaign Contacts

Respondents in the 2015 ECMS post-election survey were asked: ‘Did any of the political parties contact you during recent election campaign?’ Those indicating ‘Yes’ were asked: ‘Please indicate all the political parties that have contacted you during the election campaign. Please select all that apply’. Responses to the latter question were recoded into a series of 0–1 dummy variables, e.g., contacted by Greens = 1, not contacted by greens or ‘don’t know if contacted by Greens = 0.

Personal Political Influence (Political Efficacy)

The question is: ‘On a scale from 0 to 10, how much influence do you have on politics and public affairs? (where 10 means a great deal of influence and 0 means no influence)’. Missing data are recoded to the mean of valid responses.

Political Knowledge

A political knowledge index is constructed by computing the number of correct answers to nine true-false statements. The question is: Please indicate if you think the following statements are ‘True or False. If you don’t know, please tick Don’t know’. The statements are: (a) ‘The UK has committed to sending ground troops to fight against ISIS in Iraq’ (false), (b) ‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for setting interest rates in the UK’ (false), (c) ‘In 2013 over 500,000 new immigrants came to the UK’ (true), (d) ‘In the UK, the standard personal allowance for income tax is £10,600’ (true), (e) ‘In their election manifesto the Conservatives promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union by the end of 2017’ (true), (f) ‘Labour wants to introduce a ‘mansion tax’ on homes worth over £2 million’ (true), (g) ‘The minimum voting age for UK general elections has been lowered to 16’ (false), (h) ‘Any registered voter can obtain a postal vote for a general election by contacting their local council and asking for one’ (true), (i) ‘The UK currently spends just over one per cent of its gross national income on overseas aid’ (false).

Populist Attitudes

Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following four statements: (a) ‘Economic inequality is a major problem in Britain’, (b) ‘Social injustice is a major problem in Britain’, (c) ‘Corporate greed is a major problem in Britain’, (d) ‘British banks are making excessive profits at the expense of ordinary people’. Responses to (a)–(d) are scored: ‘strongly agree’ = 5, ‘agree’ = 4, ‘neither agree nor disagree’/‘don’t know’ =3, ‘disagree’ = 2, ‘strongly disagree’ = 1. An exploratory factor analysis of the four variables explains 70.7 % of the item variance with factor loadings ranging from 0.81 to 0.86. Factor scores from this analysis are used to measure populist attitudes in various multivariate analyses.

Proximities Between Parties and Voters on Tax-Spend Scale

Respondents were asked to place the parties and themselves on a 0–10 scale where the end marked 0 means that government should cut taxes a lot and spend much less on health and social services, and the end marked 10 means that government should raise taxes a lot and spend much more on health and social services. Missing data were recoded to the means of the valid scores. The proximity variables for each party were computed the absolute value of respondents’ self-placements minus their scores for a given party. For example, if a respondent placed herself at 2 on the scale and the Conservative party at 5, her Conservative proximity score would be abs(2–5) = 3. Since smaller scores indicate closer proximity these scores were multiplied by −1 for the multivariate analyses.

Social Trust

The question is: ‘Think for a moment about whether people with whom you have contact can be trusted. Use the 0–10 scale again, where 10 means definitely can be trusted and 0 means definitely cannot be trusted’. Missing data are recoded to the mean of valid responses.

Socio-Demographics

Age is measured as age in years or as a set of 0–1 dummy variables for the following age brackets: 18–25, 26–35, 36–45, 46–55, 56–65; respondents 66 years of age and older are treated as the reference category; ethnicity is measured as a 0–1 dichotomy with persons saying they are ‘white British’ when answering the question To which of these groups do you consider to belong? are scored 1 and all other respondents scored 0; gender is a dummy variable with men scored 1 and women 0; country of residence is two 0–1 dummy variables for Scotland and Wales with England as the reference category; social class is measured by dividing respondents into white collar and blue collar occupations (or former occupations for retired persons), with the white collar group scored 1 and the blue collar group scored 0. In cases where a respondent did not supply requisite occupational information and the respondent had a spouse, the spouse’s information was used.

Volunteerism

Respondents were asked the following two questions: (a) ‘Over the past few years, has anyone asked you to get involved in politics or community affairs?’ (b) Over the past few years, have you volunteered to get involved in politics or community affairs? Responses to (a) and (b) were scored: ‘yes’ = 1, ‘no’/‘don’t know’ = 0. The resulting scores were added together to construct a volunteerism index.

Voting Intentions in Monthly ECMS Surveys

Respondents are asked: (a) ‘If there were a General Election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?’ Those saying they ‘don’t know’ are asked: (b) ‘Which party would you be most inclined to vote for?’ The percentage supporting a party is the sum of (a) and (b).

Voting in the 2015 General Election—Turnout

Respondents in the ECMS post-election survey were asked: ‘Whenever there is an election, some people decide that they have good reasons not to vote, other people want to vote but are unable to, and some people vote. Thinking of the recent general election on May 7th, which of the following statements best describes you?’ (a) ‘I definitely did not vote in the May 7th general election’, (b) ‘I usually vote but decided not to vote this time’, (c) ‘I really wanted to vote but just wasn’t able to’, (d) ‘I think I voted, but I’m not sure’, (e) ‘I am absolutely certain that I voted’, (f) ‘Don’t know’. Respondents who indicated that they were ‘absolutely certain’ that they voted and also gave a score of 10 on a question asked in the ECMS pre-election wave survey concerning the likelihood of voting were considered to have voted in the 2015 general election. For purposes of the multivariate analyses of voter turnout, voters were scored 1 and non-voters were scored 0.

Voting in the 2015 General Election—Party Choice

Respondents who were ‘absolutely certain; they voted were asked: ‘Which party did you vote for in the General Election?’ Response categories were: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru, Green Party, British National Party (BNP), Other Party.

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Whiteley, P., Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M. (2017). The Rhetoric and Reality of Austerity: Electoral Politics in Britain 2010 to 2015. In: Schofield, N., Caballero, G. (eds) State, Institutions and Democracy. Studies in Political Economy. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-44582-3_4

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