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The personal vote, electoral experience and local connections: explaining retirement underperformance at UK elections 1987-2010

Middleton, Alia (2018) The personal vote, electoral experience and local connections: explaining retirement underperformance at UK elections 1987-2010 Politics.

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At each election, some MPs decide to step down. Irrespective of their motivation, retirement has an electoral impact; their party’s constituency vote share experiences a 'slump'. Conventional wisdom attributes this underperformance to the loss of the retiring MP’s personal vote. This article uses aggregate-level data covering UK General Elections between 1987 and 2010 to demonstrate whether this explanation is supported. It also examines whether political parties can mediate such underperformances by considering the electoral experience and local connections of candidates contesting the post-retirement election. The article finds mixed evidence for the link between personal votes and underperformance. However, parties should pay close attention to the candidates selected to fight the post-retirement election. If an inheritor wants to win a national government or opposition seat, experience and local ties can be harmful. Also, schooling and other local ties enable candidates to mount effective challenges to government and opposition inheritors.

As elections approach, some incumbents will not recontest their seats. In the UK the numbers of MP retiring varies; ranging from 79 in 2001 to 149 in 2010 in the period covered by this article. However, the retiring incumbent leaves behind an uncomfortable electoral legacy: the retirement slump; more accurately an underperformance in vote share at the subsequent election. Existing research (see Curtice, Fisher and Ford 2010; 2015) has shown that in seats where the sitting MP retires, their party’s vote share performs worse than in other constituencies where they are the incumbent or challenger. In 2015, for example Conservative vote share in seats where an MP retired (albeit after their first term) rose 1 percentage point, yet in seats where a Conservative first term incumbent stood again, the party’s vote share rose by 4.5 percentage points on average (Curtice, Fisher and Ford 2015: 398). Such underperformances have been attributed (Norris, Vallance and Lovenduski, 1992) to the loss of the retiring MP’s personal vote; that part of the constituency vote tied to their own particular personality traits, reputation and career. When the MP steps down, this individual source of support is absent and the party vote will fall. However, this assumption has not been tested in depth and there has been no investigation of alternate explanations.

This article addresses this gap by considering whether the loss of the personal vote lies behind retirement underperformances and if careful candidate selection post-retirement can affect the fall in the party vote. It begins by considering the evidence for retirement underperformance in the context of the wider personal vote literature, examining whether the size of the underperformance depends upon the retiring MP’s career; specifically their national prominence, tenure and constituency service. This article also considers the role that candidates standing in the post-retirement election play in mediating such underperformances, focusing on their previous electoral experience and their local connections. Using data from an aggregate constituency dataset combined with biographical information and Hansard records the article takes an innovative approach to explaining retirement underperformances at UK general elections from 1987 to 2010. It examines three hypotheses considering the impact of the loss of a retiring MP’s personal vote and whether parties should select experienced or local candidates to fight in post-retirement contests.

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Politics
Authors :
Date : 2018
Copyright Disclaimer : Copyright 2018 SAGE Publications
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Clive Harris
Date Deposited : 02 Feb 2018 13:06
Last Modified : 14 Mar 2018 15:35

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