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Theories of UK Party Systems -The ‘Frozen’ Party System

Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan looked to explain the development of party systems across European countrie,s as electorates expanded at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries (‘Party Systems and Voter Alignments’, the introductory chapter in their edited book of the same name, 1967).

They argued that four sets of social conflicts or, to use the political science term, cleavages, defined the new party systems, so that different parties attracted voters from one or the other side of the each cleavage.

All the four cleavages had developed historically, the first two through the process of nation building and the other two as a result of the industrial revolution and urban expansion of the 19th century.

The cleavages were:-


Nation states with a definite identity began to develop out of the patchwork of territories owned by the various ruling families in the Middle Ages. In each case there was a core area from which the nation building groups sought to expand into peripheral areas and absorb them into the nation.

This process was less successful in some countries so that peripheral areas remained distinct in language or culture such as Wales or Catalonia. Conflicts of interest between core and peripheral areas remained part of the country’s politics.


In the 16th and 17th century the rulers of each country adopted either the Catholic. Church or one of the Protestant Churches as the official or established Church. The privileged position of the official Church was resented by members of other Churches and by the developing secular movement that believed in separating Church and State.


As the economy expanded differences developed between urban and manufacturing interests and rural and agricultural interests. For example, agriculture supported protection to keep out cheaper foreign imports, whereas urban employers supported free trade to allow the cheap import of raw materials and cheaper food prices to keep wages down.


A class conflict develops between employers and workers over issues such as employment rights and wages and over taxation to pay for social improvements. This became a middle class/working class cleavage.

Lipset and Rokkan set out how the party system in each country developed across these four cleavages. In Britain at the beginning of the 19th century we can see the Conservatives as the party of the core of southern and central England, the established Church of England, rural interests and the middle class.

The Liberal Party gained support from the peripheral areas of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Nonconformist Churches, urban interests and the working class. As Conservative/Labour politics replaced Conservative/ Liberal politics class becomes the most important cleavage, although Labour also picks up Liberal support to a degree in the other three cleavage areas.

Lipset and Rokkan’s view was also that once party systems had developed over these four cleavages they became frozen so that, by and large, the same parties still drew support along the same cleavage lines when they were writing in the 1960s as had existed 50 years before. However, as they were writing they saw social changes, basically those producing the catch-all party, as leading to the unfreezing of cleavages so that party support from the electorate becomes much more fluid.

Later writers contrast the party systems since the 1970s, when electoral support for parties is seen as much more volatile, with the early period when it is held that social characteristics were the main determinant of voting.

Although there has been a good deal of discussion about class voting, the only major study to attempt to show that social cleavages are still important has been by Bartolini and Mair who look at class voting across the two blocks of left and non left parties (rather than voting by individual parties) and find class voting to be stable within each block (Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability, 1990). Martin Elff’s article on Social Structure and Electoral Behaviour also questions how far social cleavages have declined (Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 5 No, 2007)

Are Lipset and Rokkan Right?

One of the biggest problems with the Lipset and Rokkan model is that, although clearly the voters’ social characteristics must influence their voting, studies in the late 60s and 1970s showed a fairly poor correlation between the four cleavages and voting for political parties.

There is no data, apart from election results, for the interwar period, by which time the ‘frozen’ pattern is meant to have become established. However, Michal Shamir found that voting patterns are relatively volatile during this period, in contradiction of the idea that party systems are frozen over social cleavages. (Comparative Political Studies Vol . 17 No. 1, 1984)

The most stable period is the 1950s and 1960s,which stands out as a contrast to the instability of the periods before and after. There are also many problems with the Lipset and Rokkan assumptions and methodology (See Ed Gouge ‘Lipset and Rokkan’ in Volumes of Influence, ed. K. Theakston, 2011).

Historians have also begun to question whether social patterns alone decided party support in the past. In Britain the electorate would have been mobilized by parties after the extension of the franchise in 1885 and so patterns of Liberal and Conservative voting should have been established soon after that.

Jon Lawrence in his study of Wolverhampton in this period and Patricia Lynch in a study of rural constituencies have shown that party support varied considerably depending on the sort of popular appeal that the parties put forward so that the Conservative were able to appeal successfully at times to the working class urban voter and the Liberals in 1885 and 1906 to the rural voter. (Jon Lawrence Speaking for the People: Party Language and Popular Politics in England 1867-1914, 1998: P. Lynch The Liberal Party in Rural England 1885-1906, 2003).

Lawrence argues that the relationship between politicians and the voters has to be renegotiated at each election and this happens with varying success depending on the type of appeal they are able to develop.