Writing in response to Peter John’s defence of political science, Dr Mark Pack argues that research on party funding is not an academic success story but rather illustrates that political scientists simply do not know enough about what is really going in with British politics.
Shouldn’t there be more to political science than running regression analysis on other people’s datasets? That question has often occurred to me when sat in a university room somewhere around the country at one of the academic political science conferences as yet another presenter looks at British electoral politics through the eyes of a statistician. It is a tribute to the profession that it produces data sets – most notably the British Election Study series – which are then so heavily used by so many people. A tribute, but also a weakness because the easy availability of credible data sets makes them deeply seductive as if the only research that needs doing is locating the data set and exporting its details. Then you can live in a world of mathematical tools and statistical analysis to your heart’s content.
That may sound harsh, but I am struck by the number of times the answer to one of my questions at a session has been, “we’ve not looked at that because the data doesn’t let us”. Not “we’ve not looked at that because we think it is pointless/obvious/stupid/wrong/silly” but instead the answer is that the only things being studied are those the data is available for, conveniently off the shelf.
Consider the case of party funding, which Peter John has used as an example in his defence of the state British political science:
“The record of the study of politics has been very good, with long-term impacts of political science in subjects such as the study of elections, the reform of electoral systems, party funding, decentralisation, devolution, constitutional reform, public management reform, the work of the House of Commons and Lords, and in the conduct of foreign policy.”
Yet huge areas of basic information about party funding are a mystery. Much good work has been done with analysis of data reported to and by the Electoral Commission (back to running statistical analysis on other people’s data). Get beyond the limitations of that data set and ignorance descends.
What was the total income of the Liberal Democrat last year? Or the year before? Or the year before that? No-one knows. The vast majority of Lib Dem local parties fall below the threshold for publishing accounts and the vast majority of their income does not come in chunks that require declaration. The money does not feature in the Electoral Commission’s records and so does not feature in political science’s knowledge of British political finance. Look at the number of local parties and the thresholds involved (several hundred local parties, £25,000 threshold each), and we could be talking of millions of pounds missing from the picture. That is not a trivial matter of detail.
Most likely the total is well below the theoretical maximum, but how far below and how have the figures changed over the years? No-one knows, because too much emphasis goes on analysing existing data and not enough on creating new data.
Nor is this one isolated example. Another big evidential hole is money donated directly to election campaigns, getting declared on the election expense return, rather than via a party. Who gives such money, how much do they give, what is the balance between individuals, companies and unions? All those sorts of questions go not only unanswered but unasked because political scientists concentrate on the donation records conveniently held and published by the Electoral Commission and which exclude this information.
The more you look into quite what the much used datasets do and don’t include, the more the questions multiply. The examples go on but the lesson is the same: political scientists do not know nearly enough about what is really going in with British political finances to be able to describe, explain or advise safely and well on points that require an understanding of the whole picture.
Which makes using party funding as an example of political science’s success decidedly odd. There are reasons both good and bad why there are so many unanswered questions. That makes party funding an example of the problems political science faces, not a stand out advert for its successes.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Dr Mark Pack is Head of Digital at MHP Communications. He is co-author of two books on election law and was a member of the Electoral Commission’s Political Parties Panel for several years.
1) Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie have done exactly what you refer to (though admittedly, they are political geographers)
2) The logic of your argument is badly flawed. It is, in effect, saying because political scientists have not enquired about a matter which you think is vital (which in fact they have), then the whole subfield is a failure. That’s a very odd case to make and an even more difficult one to sustain. Like I said, good research acknowldeges gaps, and no piece of research is ever without gaps or unknowns.
You make some good points in your comment Justin.
For an example of where I think political scientists haven’t been pushing the potentially available data enough, take the example of the preservation (or rather destruction) of the records of those local campaign donations made at general elections. Despite the Electoral Commission gathering in copies of all the forms containing such records, their practice used to be to then destroy them.
Thankfully the Electoral Commission has since changed its policy, but that’s been due to a mix of me raising it with them and their own archiving review (see http://www.markpack.org.uk/13772/good-news-as-electoral-commission-decides-to-preserve-local-donation-records/). What was missing, as far as I know, was political scientists saying, “this would be really valuable data for us, please keep it!”.
As I said in my post, I really struggle to see why this area would therefore be held up by someone as an example of political science at its best. If it is, I fear for the rest of the discipline…!
Mark Pack makes some perfectly reasonable points – some work is too constrained by an over-reliance on existing data rather than the generation of new datasets. Equally, he is absolutely right that some aspects of party finance remain unexplored (or at least under-explored). But his general criticisms are problematic in at least two key ways. First and foremost, some the work that he says needs to be done, has been done. Second, saying that certain work should be done is not the same as saying that political science research is inadequate. In other words, political scientists may not have yet answered all the questions that he wants answered, but that’s very different from saying that none of the work is informative and useful. Rather, that it is not yet complete. No serious political scientist would pretend otherwise and as with all good science, the research is clear about what it does show, but crucially, acknowledges what it doesn’t.
Of course, I should declare an interest, here – one of my research areas is in political finance and I’m delighted that Peter John identified this as an area of research that has helpfully and positively informed policy. But Mark Pack appears to make a rather odd leap in saying that because a research area is incomplete (which I would not contest), then no advice should be given based upon clear patterns that we have observed. No serious political scientist would pretend that their research answers all the questions – there will always be gaps. And any good scientist will be candid about the gaps and the unknowns as well as the patterns and trends in the research. Good political scientists do this and policy is better informed as a result.