British Journal of Political Science

Research Article

The Moving Centre: Preferences for Government Activity in Britain, 1950–2005

John Bartle, Sebastian Dellepiane-Avellaneda and James Stimson*


The political ‘centre’ is often discussed in debates about public policy and analyses of party strategies and election outcomes. Yet, to date, there has been little effort to estimate the political centre outside the United States. This article outlines a method of estimating the political centre using public opinion data collected for the period between 1950 and 2005. It is demonstrated that it is possible to measure the centre in Britain, that it moves over time, that it shifts in response to government activity and, furthermore, that it has an observable association with general election outcomes.

(Online publication December 21 2010)


* Department of Government, University of Essex (email:; School of Politics, University College Dublin; and Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, respectively. The authors would like to thank Hershbinder Mann for collecting much of the early Gallup data. This project was funded by ESRC award number 00-22-2053. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the ECPR General Conference, Pisa, 2007 and the MPSA, Chicago, 2008. The authors also thank James Adams, Judith Bara, Malcolm Brynin, Evelyn Bytzek, Ian Budge, Lawrence Ezrow, Jane Green, Samantha Laycock, Anthony McGann, Hershbinder Mann, Samuel Merrill, Thomas J. Quinn, David Sanders, Elinor Scarbrough, Thomas J. Scotto, Stuart Soroka, Vera Troeger, Hugh Ward, Paul Whiteley and Chris Wlezien for their helpful comments and suggestions, and are particularly grateful to Frances Lynch of the University of Westminster for generously supplying data on average income tax levels.