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Theories of UK Party Systems – The Downs Model

Anthony Downs’s theory of party systems and voting was adapted to the idea that voters in the 1950s were now behaving like consumers when voting, rather than that they were tied to a party by social bonds and traditional loyalties (An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957). It is a rational choice model and uses similar ideas to those of neo-classical economics.

It is based on a number of assumptions:-

  • Voters have good information about the political positions of the political parties
  • Voters can place the various parties along a single spectrum which runs from left to right based on their ideology and policies
  • Voters know what their own policy position is
  • Voters will act rationally in choosing the party that most closely fits with their own position – in economic terms the party that maximises their utility

In party system terms, although small parties may stay on the left or right of the spectrum and collect a few voters in those positions, the main parties that hope to win the election will converge in their policy positions on the centre of the spectrum, in order to attract the voters there, as these median voters are the ones that decide the election.

There are problems with the assumptions that Downs’s model makes and this has led others to suggest modifications, some of which almost lead to a different explanation.

  • Voters rarely study the policy details that a party produces and instead they use information shortcuts or snapshot impressions of a party policy (Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns , 1991)
  • To be rational voters should be able to know what policies a party will actually carry out if elected but many factors may lead a Governing party to modify its polices and so they use the past record of a party in Government instead ( Morris Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Politics, 1981)
  • Downs is mainly basing his model on the two party first past the post system that is found in the United States and where choices are clearer. It could be seen to work in multi-party first past the post systems such as Britain where voters vote tactically to support their second choice party, or, with the experience of the Coalition, vote Liberal Democrat with the possibility that some of the party’s policies will be carried out. Downs is less clear though on multi-party systems with proportional representation and thought that they would diverge from each other to keep more distinctiveness in the voters’ minds

A major problem with Downs’s theory is that surveys of parties has shown that they and their candidates tend to take more extreme positions on issues when the theory would suggest that they should converge towards a centrist consensus (Torben Iversen explains this problem and the two alternative theories below – Comparative Political Studies Vol. 27 No. 2, 1994):

The Directional Theory of Voting

This suggest that voters only have vague preferences on issues and are attracted by politicians that clearly and strongly put forward policies on the same side of the issue as themselves (G. Rabinowitz and S. Macdonald American Political Science Vol. 83 1989)

The Mobilization Theory

This criticises those approaches that always see the voter as having well defined views and the voter as always influencing party policy positions. Politicians by promoting a policy may be able to influence voters’ views over the longer term so that their policy becomes more popular (A. Przeworski and J. Sprague Paper Stones: a History of Electoral Socialism, 1986)