Don’t sweep it under the carpet! How parties react to defections

Parliamentary defections can severely damage parties' reputation. How can parties react? Andrea Ceron and Elisa Volpi argue that rather than sweeping the damage under the carpet, parties can best restore their image by emphasising competence, clarity and their ability to handle the core issues

The painful consequences of party disunity

Unity is crucial for political parties. Notably, united parties are more effective in getting their preferred policies passed into law. Unity is also important for citizens, who see unified parties as being more responsible and trustworthy. Parties that fail to keep their ranks together often suffer electoral defeats. Yet despite the importance of unity, parties sometimes have difficulties maintaining it.

Defections hurt parties’ reputation and can even endanger their survival

For example, legislators might vote against the party line, or express their discontent during party conferences. In extreme cases, politicians may decide to leave their party, a phenomenon called legislative party switching. Such defections damage parties’ reputation and might even endanger their survival. It is, therefore, crucial for parties hit by 'out-switching' to restore their image. How can they do so? We argue (and find) that they mostly focus on the so-called 'valence issues'.

The importance of valence issues

During electoral campaigns, political parties usually set out their position on a variety of subjects. To gain an electoral advantage, they will try to differentiate their stances from those of their competitors. But there are certain issues on which all citizens have the same opinion, and on which all parties, therefore, should hold the same position.

These special policy areas are known as valence issues. One example is corruption. Every citizen is against corruption, and you would struggle to find a party in favour of it. Party unity is also a valence issue, because nearly every voter prefers a unified party over a fragmented one.

Party switching hurts, in particular, parties’ valence attributes. To overcome this, parties must focus on these core policy issues

The result is that party switching hurts, and it hurts parties’ valence attributes in particular. To overcome this reputational damage, we argue that parties have to focus their campaigns more on valence issues than on other policy areas.

Finetuning the electoral manifesto

In particular, there are three strategies parties can pursue to restore their reputation. Firstly, parties can emphasise their credibility in representing voters, and their competence to rule the country. Specifically, parties can highlight their ability to solve problems and steer a reliable course of action.

A second strategy for parties is increasing the clarity of their manifesto. Disunity might confuse voters about a party's real position in the political space. It is therefore crucial that defection-hit parties signal to voters, in an effective way, precisely where they stand. To do so, parties will adopt clear-cut positions and streamline their manifestos to make them clearer.

Parties adopt three key strategies to restore their reputations: emphasising credibility, improving manifesto clarity, and focusing on valence issues

Thirdly, parties will focus their attention on the issues on which they have a valence-advantage; that is, the topics on which they are seen as competent by voters. Rather than talking about lots of different subjects, their manifesto will discuss a smaller set of advantageous policy areas.

From theory to practice: British parties after Brexit

Our findings can help explain the outcomes of British parties' 2019 electoral campaigns in the wake of Brexit. In February 2019, eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party. It was the most serious breakaway in 40 years, in open opposition to the party leadership and in particular to Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity over Brexit.

Despite this, the Labour Party did not clarify its position on Brexit, and suffered a major electoral defeat in December of that year. In comparison, after similar episodes of internal dissent, Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson took a clear stance on Brexit. In line with our theory, the party manifesto opened by repeating the same sentence, ‘Get Brexit done’, several times, sending a clear message to voters. This proved a winning strategy for the Conservatives, and in particular for Johnson, who won the election and secured a clear majority for his party.

This example shows that political parties do react to instances of disunity and defection. They do so not just by differentiating their position from that of their competitors, but also by investing in valence issues and streamlining their manifesto to appear more competent, with a clearer agenda on carefully selected policy areas.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Andrea Ceron Andrea Ceron Associate Professor, University of Milan More by this author
photograph of Elisa Volpi Elisa Volpi Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Geneva More by this author

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