Gridlock: Income Inequality and Party Infighting

Friday, 3 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW1.3.02 (Tower One)
David Barrett, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Liam Kneafsey, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Political strategies to address growing income inequality are a source of major scholarly and public interest in the present climate. The recent scholarship examining the linkages between rising inequality and the political system has largely, if not exclusively, focused on the North American politico-economic structures. Furthermore the limited comparative literature has largely focused on the differential operation of welfare states, institutional structures and varieties of capitalism. This means that the practical realities of politics have been largely overlooked in this strand of empirical work bar some discussion of the role of Social Democratic parties. This means that the role of parties in general as important actors for action to prevent income inequality has been somewhat overlooked. Policy solutions in industrialised democracies must be approved by parties in government in order to become law, making the views of those in control of those parties especially important as a potential veto point for any possible change.

We argue that the internal mechanics and divisions within political parties play a key role in restricting the responsiveness of political parties and governments in addressing widening income gaps. The ability to implement critical socio-economic policy or indeed any policy at all is largely contingent on the ability of party elites to coalesce around a particular policy position. If they do not we would expect the party not to act or not state its position. While there has been considerable discussion on the sources of cohesion within the literature on party politics, the practical impact of low cohesion on both parties and the state as a whole has rarely been discussed.

This impact is likely to be especially important and far-reaching when applied to problems with long-term impact, such as climate change or income inequality. This is because these issues require action that may be politically costly to enact at present in order to achieve gains in terms of outcomes in a potentially distant future. This makes these kinds of problems intrinsically different from more prosaic contentious political issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, where legislating can be seen to have an immediate impact by the public. Unlike these issues, legislating for these kinds of long-term problems has no political payoff in terms of outputs. In turn, this means that the incentives for parties to act, regardless of feeling within the party or the severity of the policy problem, are limited as the impact of said lack of action is certainly unlikely to be felt within the term of office of any particular government. We expect that this would make party leaders especially aware of any differences of opinion that exist within a party and especially unwilling to antagonise party elites needlessly. We maintain that as issues such as this do not immediately affect the voting public, there is little incentive for party leaders to implement legislation that antagonise key members of the party when there is no short-term consequences to their lack of action. Party division, both on policy issues and general ideological standpoints is readily apparent and measurable when examining the viewpoints of candidates.

Income inequality is an especially interesting policy problem to examine within the framework. It is a problem that requires costly political decisions to be made for which benefits that arise from these will not accrue to the government that makes those decisions. It is also a problem whose boundaries are easily understood by party elites as it operates within the left-right political spectrum that elites are familiar with and which frame political conflict in almost all industrialised democracies. This means the effect of policy divergence should be readily apparent if present.

In an effort to measure the effect of policy divergence on income inequality we constructed a measure of party policy cohesion using data from the Comparative Candidate Survey by examining the ideological spread of candidate positions from the same party using the left-right political spectrum. Using this new measure we examine the effect of divergence from the party position on inequality and the redistributive efforts to address this in a comparative framework, allowing for the examination of a broad range of countries beyond the classic US case. Preliminary statistical results indicate that divisions within parties across countries play a key role in limiting redistributive strategies to mitigate increasing inequality and therefore allow the current trends towards ever-widening economic disparities to go unchecked.