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Political party in crisis reacts like an institution

What does a political party do in the wake of a disastrous electoral defeat? Martijn van Nijnanten researched this and discovered that parties turn to core values from the past. PhD defence on 12 September.

It became a running joke for Martijn van Nijnanten. Every time he went to a party and spoke about his research, people would invariably come up with a perfect example of a political party that was going through difficult times. One time it would be GroenLinks, the next PvdA and the next SP. But what he could always count on was one party being in trouble.

It’s a feature of politics today,’ says Van Nijnanten. ‘In the Netherlands, but outside too, there are scores of floating voters. That also means that political parties can suffer a humiliating defeat in the elections. Since the beginning of the 1990s, one party has lost a third of its seats in nearly all national elections in the Netherlands.’

Core values

For his dissertation, Van Nijnanten researched the effect of such a defeat on a political party. How does the party try to climb out of the hole? And why does it choose that particular way? Van Nijnanten’s research shows that political parties mainly delve into their own past. They revert to the core values that inspired their formation.

‘A severe shock doesn’t suddenly erase the past’

A severe shock doesn’t suddenly erase the past,’ says Van Nijnanten. ‘Parties react like an institution and revert to their core values. In the Netherlands, the CDA, for instance, returned to Christian-Democratic values such as the family, and with D66 under Hans van Mierlo, you saw a revival of the democratisation ideal.

Strategic considerations

For his research, Van Nijnanten, studied four parties that underwent such a crisis, two Dutch ones and two British ones. He studied the crises of the CDA (1994-2002) and D66 (1982-1989) in the Netherlands, and of Labour (1983-1992) and the Liberal Democrats (1970-1974) in the United Kingdom. He chose these parties because CDA and Labour are established parties with a clear support base, whereas D66 and the Liberal Democrats are much less tied to one group.

A party under pressure can do one of two things,’ says Van Nijnanten. ‘You can try to attract more voters like your traditional support base or you can try to expand this by attracting voters who have never voted for you before. None of the four parties that I studied made strategic considerations about which target group they wanted to reach. Instead they began with some serious soul searching, and went on to translate the outcome into strategy.’

Influence of electoral system

Van Nijnanten also discovered that the electoral system can influence a party’s strategy. The United Kingdom has a first-past-the-post system. It is divided into constituencies and the party with the most votes in each constituency wins a seat in Parliament. Van Nijnanten thinks that this may facilitate more radical changes than the Dutch system does because votes in the Netherlands are proportionately converted into seats in the House of Representatives, so it doesn’t matter where your voters live.

‘Your options increase after a defeat

Take Labour in the 1980s. They initially wanted to consolidate their position with themes that they thought would appeal to their traditional working-class base. That didn’t work, and Labour failed to reclaim enough constituencies in the next elections, in 1987. You then see Labour undergoing a radical metamorphosis and re-evaluating its ideology. The aim of socialism changes: it’s now about “promoting individual freedom”.

Increased options

And what should a political party do after a crushing electoral defeat? Van Nijnanten is quick to note that he doesn’t have a recipe for a miraculous resurrection or a manual that a party can consult that will help it speed up its recovery. ‘The path that a party takes is also greatly dependent on specific people and circumstances. That makes it difficult to generalise.’

But he does emphasise that a political crisis is not all bad. Van Nijnanten is an active member of the CDA and witnessed the chaotic cabinet formation congress in 2010, soon after the party suffered significant losses in the national elections. ‘The mood was somber,’ he remembers. ‘But that’s just one side of the story. Such a defeat also increases your options. When all’s going well, you don’t need to make fundamental changes to a party. At most, you tinker with your sales strategy. But in times of crisis, your options are suddenly open, as if you can return to the drawing board with the product. That’s how you stay relevant, and this ability to change is part of the strength of political parties.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Lilian Marijnissen gives a speech. The SP suffered a crushing defeat in the European elections. Photographer: Peter van der Sluijs via Wikipedia.
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