These results indicate that party leaders with more career capital seem to be better able to manoeuvre in the political arena, especially if they have legislative experience. While it is true that politicians can adapt to their newfound position as party leader, starting such a position with more experience clearly puts leaders at an advantage. It is no coincidence that many prominent and successful party leaders, such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte or former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had extensive political experience before they reached the top job.

The black box of experience

The fact that party leaders benefit from political experience – especially recent experience and experience in the national legislature – leads to further questions. Are there particular positions within the legislature that benefit leaders? Does the length of the experience matter? And to what extent does this effect depend on the nature of the party and the party elite?

These and other questions could be explored in a more qualitative examination through interviews with parliamentarians, former party leaders and party activists. We can agree with Neil Kinnockthat the first aim of a party leader is to “manage the party” and “offer a coherent set of policies and a convincing manifesto to the electorate” to win policy, office and votes. What best prepares a leader to do so in what context is still something of a black box, but at least we know that extensive experience improves a leader’s prospects,


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