Why strong leaders often end up hurting their parties in the medium term
Successful leaders tend to be great personalities who dominate their party’s organization, policy-making and election campaigns. But does this control come at a price? Despina Alexiadou and Eoin O’Malley the assumption that political parties will go through a period of leadership instability and electoral decline following the resignation of strong leaders. Using a dataset with elections under party leaders in nine countries over a 25-year period and a qualitative case study, they find evidence for the theory.
Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly a strong leader: her influence over the Conservative Party was almost complete. She dominated party organization, party politics and electoral strategy. Under Thatcher, the party had its best electoral results ever and she broadened her base to make it attractive to support from the working class who had traditionally only voted Labor. Indeed, Thatcher created a new coalition that held power for nearly two decades. She resigned from the leadership of the party in 1990, after 15 years at the head of the party. The Conservatives won a narrow majority under his successor in the election 18 months later. You would think that after her period of domination, she left her party in good shape.
Another interpretation could be that in the two decades since his departure, the party struggled with internal divisions and poor electoral results. He committed what one prominent member called “political suicide”. This could have been an indirect result of his dominance. As leader, she suppressed debate on issues that divided the party, such as relations with the European Union, but these divisions remained and escalated. As the leader, she effectively wiped out all of the challengers, partly by surviving them, but also sacking and demoting them. She promoted John Major as her preferred successor, even though he was seen as weak and lacking in charisma. When he succeeded him, Major won an election that the Tories were largely to lose, but then fought to prevent divisions within the party from overthrowing his government. In the 1997 election, the Conservative Party was annihilated by New Labor. He went through three leaders in quick succession and lost two more elections with only hints of recovery. It was 2010, two decades after Thatcher left, and with the help of the global economic crisis, before the Conservatives managed to rule again, and only as part of a coalition.
Do strong leaders leave their party worse off than they found it? The departure of the exceptional leader could see the party simply returning to “normal”. However, strong leaders can also harm their parties; this positive bump can come at a cost. If this happens, what explains it? In our research, recently published in European Journal of Political Research we answer these questions.
The parties are faced with a principal-agent problem, where they can cede too much control to the leader, which in certain circumstances can be difficult to recover. While the leader and the party obviously share many interests, they sometimes diverge. The leader can run the party in his own best interests, and his time horizon may differ from that of the party. They may favor immediate tenures and voting rewards over slower, more sustainable growth.
The detrimental impact of strong leaders on their parties can occur through a variety of three-face mechanisms: organizational, political and electoral.
Data limitations prevent us from testing these different mechanisms, but we can see that parties perform less well than one would expect with successors of strong leaders. Defining a strong leader can be difficult, but operationalizing it is even trickier. Strong party leaders are operationalized in two ways, one by tenure and also by the leader’s control of the party organization, as measured by an expert survey. For robustness, we use a variety of thresholds to ensure that the results are not biased by the definition of a strong leader. The dataset spans 1988 to 2013 with the main unit of analysis election / party. We test two empirical implications of our theory: (1) that successors of strong leaders will have shorter terms than successors of other leaders, and (2) that a party will have poorer electoral results after departure. of a strong leader. The dependent variable for hypothesis 1 is change of party leader and for hypothesis 2 is variation in the share of party votes.
The figure above shows that successors of strong leaders have shorter survival rates. Perhaps it is because of their party’s electoral performance. Successors of strong leaders will typically suffer an electoral loss of nearly three and a half percentage points. Such a loss is six times greater than the average (the average value of electoral vote change is -0.5) and twice as high as the electoral gains of having a strong leader. It is important to note that the loss of three and a half points is not due to the reversal of the party towards its historic electoral balance. Our models control both the electoral gains of strong leaders, but also the changes of party leader. These results rule out the possibility that the negative effect of successors of strong leaders on share of the vote is due to parties returning to “normal” electoral performance after the departure of strong leaders, or that it is simply of a normal “decision cost”, which we also monitor for.
This argument has been tested on parties in parliamentary democracies, but it could also be applicable in presidential systems, authoritarian regimes, and even any organization, such as a business, suggesting this is a mature field. for further research.
about the authors
Despina Alexiadou is a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.
Eoin O’Malley is Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer in Old Fund) in Political Science at the Faculty of Law and Government, City University of Dublin.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.