Measuring Party Competence

This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), award number ES/J001678/1. Here you will find more information about ratings of parties and governments on the all-important feature of competence. Data is now freely available to download.


Our macro-competence index provides a summary measure of the public’s evaluation of the parties in Britain, consistent both with long-term trends and short-lived events in British politics and government.

The Conservatives’ macro-competence index was at its height during the post-war years, maintaining a steady level up to around the mid-1990s, with fluctuations, such as prior to election losses in 1964 and 1966, and again in 1974, as well as in the early years of the Thatcher government in the 1980s, prior to the Falklands War. There was a sustained drop in the early 1990s – in the period following Britain’s withdrawal from ERM and divisions over Europe and the Thatcher succession. It is only in the last year of our data, in 2008 around the time of the global financial crisis, that Conservative competence moves above its pre-1990 level.

For Labour, the macro-competence index reveals sharp drops in 1968 (in the run-up to the 1970 election at which the Conservatives won power under EdwardHeath) and between 1983 and 1987, when the Labour party split and theparty was led by Michael Foot. The party’s competence index grew steadily from the mid-1980s onwards under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, reaching an all-time high inthe period just before Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. In government, first under Blair and later under Brown, Labour’s reputation for competence went into sharp decline, hitting its 1981-1982 nadir during the global financial crisis in 2008.

Macro-competence for the Liberals tends to exhibit far less dramatic movement or meaningful long-term trends, fluctuating around a much lower level. Still, certain peaks can be identified in the series that are consistent with the development of the party’s reputation as an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives, such as under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s and during the Liberal/SDP alliance in the 1980s, declining with the disintegration of the alliance and recovering again under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown. We will continue to collect data and estimating the measure, analysing the macro-competence of the Liberal Democrats in coalition government.


It is interesting to examine trends in macro-competence for parties in government and in opposition. In the UK, these give rise to a distinct pattern, where the reputation for issue competence of governing parties tends to decline over the course of time in office (akin to the ‘cost of governing’), quite often with an up-tick just before the party is removed from office. The trajectory of competence evaluations for parties in opposition tends to be upwards in direction, climbing steadily until they win office. Interestingly, these patterns are not perfectly symmetrical. For example the competence rating of New Labour after 1997 underwent a steady decline, whereas the competence ratings of the Conservatives virtually flat-lined until 2007, only resurging after the replacement of Tony Blair as Prime Minister and the onset of the global financial crisis in Britain, with the run on Northern Rock bank.


In the US, the measure of macro-competence appears to reflect the relative strength and cohesiveness of the parties and their reputations for governing over the post-war period. For most of the time between 1945 and 1980 the Democrats held a relative advantage over the Republicans. They suffered occasional dips such as around 1953, 1967 through 1970, which coincided with escalation of the Vietnam War, and in 1979 through 1981 towards the end of the Carter presidency and the troubled 1970s. Ratings of the Republicans occasionally peaked for short periods during the mid- to late 1950s under President Eisenhower and in the late 1960s under the pre-Watergate Nixon. Then, from the 1980s onwards, the index exhibits the gradual strengthening of Republican competence. The Democrats gain the ascendancy in competence ratings again around 1996 after the Republican Party had taken control of the House in the wave election of 1994, and rise sharply under the presidency of George W. Bush, before falling precipitously in the aftermath of the economic bailout. In recent times the series depict the decline of Republican competence under George W. Bush, and latter a sharp decline in Democratic competence under the presidency of Barack Obama.


The trends of macro-competence for parties in government and in opposition are somewhat less illustrative in the US than in the UK, but still very much worth analysing. There is a less obvious decline in the reputation of governing parties for competence, although in most instances the competence standing of incumbents tend to decline, with the notable exceptions being the Republicans under Reagan and the Democrats under Clinton, both also notable as periods of divided government. There is a clearer pattern for opposition parties, whereby their reputation for competence tends to increase over time.

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