Friday, January 21, 2022

Using Political Party Manifestos to Investigate the Relative Importance of Industrial Relations Ideas in Politics

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Before almost any major election in democratic countries, each political party publishes its manifesto which declares the party’s values, goals, and policies it will pursue if elected. In order to fully inform candidates from that party as well as voters, manifestos comprehensively cover a wide range of topics. Researchers have created ways of categorizing these topics to study them. In fact, researchers from the Comparative Manifesto Project have assembled a data set of manifestos for over 1,000 parties from more than 50 countries across 700 elections. The earliest manifestos in the data generally date back to each country’s first postwar national election, so some start in the 1940s with other countries coming into the data set in later years. The data include countries from five continents. 

The key variables in this data indicate what fraction of a manifesto’s statements pertain to each of 56 possible topics, some of which distinguish between positive and negative mentions. Across all of the manifestos, welfare receives the most attention, on average. Our focus is on work-related mentions; more specifically, the “Labour Groups: Positive” and “Labour Groups: Negative” categories. The positive category includes pro-worker ideas, like calls for more jobs, fair wages, good working conditions, and stronger labor unions. The negative category almost exclusively consists of anti-union statements.

Across all years and countries, parties dedicated about 2.8 percent of their manifestos to labor groups positive topics—that is, pro-worker ideas—and 0.15 percent labor groups negative topics—that is, anti-union ideas. While these might seem like low rates of industrial relations content, ultimately what matters is the relative importance of these categories compared to others, and the implications of variation in these categories across time, place, and parties. Over time, there was a decline in pro-worker mentions in the 1980s and 1990s, but since then there has been a resurgence, and today pro-worker mentions are more common in manifestos now than they were even during what might be considered the heyday of the labor movement following World War II. Anti-union party platforms are consistently less prevalent, but there have been some periods with greater anti-union attention, such as in the 1970s and 1980s which include the anti-union platforms of Thatcher’s conservatives in the UK.

To think about these dynamics more deeply, we contend that political party manifestos are ideational documents. They are not simply a listing of policy proposals. Rather, a manifesto provides the means for a political party to give meaning to its platform, and allows politicians, policy makers, and voters to more deeply understand a party’s platform. In other words, it embodies ideas about the issues a party sees as important, and attempts to use these ideas to persuade others that these are the best ways to think about those issues.

But where do a manifesto’s ideas come from? We theorize three channels. One, party manifesto ideas on work-related issues may be rooted in a party’s entrenched values based on longstanding historical traditions, ideologies, or beliefs about work and workers. Parties that are ideologically farther left are expected to have greater pro-worker content, while manifestos will be more relatively anti-union among right-leaning parties due to their core beliefs. Two, industrial relations ideas can end up in party manifestos due to new thinking that reflects deviations from the party’s longstanding ideological positions. Three, ideas can arise in party manifestos because of the reactive mirroring of ideas to which the party believes voters will be most receptive, usually in an attempt to gain political power. If voter interests shift regarding how work should be governed, so too might the ideas placed within a party’s manifesto, reflecting an attempt to demonstrate commitment to the new interests of their constituents. 

We use these three channels to motivate statistical analyses of the frequency of pro-worker and anti-union ideas in political party manifestos using the Comparative Manifesto Project data combined with other measures that we merge in, although we cannot directly observe the three channels. Specifically, we estimate OLS regression models with two dependent variables: the percent of pro-worker and anti-union mentions in a manifesto. Depending on data availability, our regressions have between 2,000 and 4,500 observations. 

With respect to party family, socialist parties have the largest average pro-worker mentions, followed by social democratic parties, just as one would expect. Looking first at a party’s enduring ideology as reflected in its mean ideology across all elections, parties that are more right-leaning have fewer pro-worker mentions than left-leaning parties, even controlling for the party family, but there are mixed results for deviations from long-term ideology. These results suggest that entrenched values are an important foundation for political parties’ ideational strategies pertaining to work while the support for the new thinking or reactive mirroring channels is not as strong. We also explore the explanatory power of other measures relating to party extremism, parties’ responses to competitors, labor movement and economic conditions, and political systems characteristics. 

But do voters care about work-related mentions? Yes. We find that more pro-worker mentions predicts greater votes and seats won in an election, and pro-worker ideas is one of only 7 (out of 56) manifesto categories correlated with greater vote share. 

In conclusion, political parties are under-researched actors in industrial relations, and we hope that this study of their ideas spurs additional research into the importance of political parties in industrial relations. With respect to the emerging scholarship on ideas in industrial relations, we’ve tried to illustrate that political manifestos are useful documents for capturing ideational thinking that are unadulterated by necessary legislative or political compromises required to govern. Methodologically, we hope our large-n analyses shows that quantitative analyses can make unique, complementary contributions to the qualitative literature. For example, our finding of an enduring use of pro-worker ideas paired with more episodic deployments of anti-union ideas could be hard to see in a focused, qualitative study. This should also serve as an indicator that there are consistencies in ideas over time such that ideational research needs to incorporate theories of long-term stability with theories of shorter-term change. Conceptually, the three-channel framework sketched here for thinking about the ideational content of manifestos can also be applied employers or unions. As the environment changes, how do they navigate the tensions between staying true to their core ideas, introducing new ideas, and being responsiveness to what their constituencies want?

Source: J. Ryan Lamare and John W. Budd (forthcoming) "The Relative Importance of Industrial Relations Ideas in Politics: A Quantitative Analysis of Political Party Manifestos across 54 Countries," Industrial Relations [free access to the pre-publication version here].