University of Sussex
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Obeying the iron law? Changes to the intra-party balance of power in the British Liberal Democrats since 1988

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posted on 2023-06-07, 16:15 authored by Emma Victoria Sanderson-Nash
This study examines intra-party power in the Liberal Democrats, looking at the formal role and remit of the various sectors that make up the party bureaucracy, and evaluating the exercise of power with regard to policy, campaigning and the use of resources. It is interested in two overarching questions: has the party professionalised, and has power moved toward the top? If so could this have had an impact on its electoral success? The theoretical context for this study is a well-established tradition of scholarship on party organisation going back to Moise Ostrogorski (1902) and Robert Michels (1911). The hierarchical nature of party organisations has been a constant refrain in this literature, especially in respect of major parties that are serious contenders for governmental office (McKenzie 1963; Kirchheimer 1966; Panebianco 1988; Katz & Mair 1995). This thesis offers a test of these theories by applying them to a smaller party that gradually evolved from a party of opposition to a party of government. While the incentives for intra-party centralisation are clear in office-seeking parties (the leadership requires maximum autonomy in order to devise and adapt a competitive strategy), this research explores whether it is a necessary precursor to electoral success. It will test whether the party has become more professional, or top-down, by looking at the policy making process, at the way the party campaigns, and at its distribution of resources. Finally the thesis examines the role of intra-party politics in achieving and maintaining the coalition with the Conservatives negotiated in May 2010. The research spans the lifetime of the party from 1988 to present day, and relies on an extensive series of semi-structured interviews with 70 individuals connected to the party including prominent politicians, senior staff and ordinary members. It argues that the party has become significantly more professional during this time, and that this was a contributory factor in delivering office.


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