Category Archives: Politics

One Year On: The Many Factors in Brexit

Pro-EU Protest March, London, 25th of March 2017, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

I’ve heard the claim made in multiple contexts, usually amongst Remainers, that Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for the outcome of last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. This strikes me as an overly-simplistic analysis that should be heavily caveated but rarely (if ever) is. Indeed, I think that most political outcomes are the result of an interaction of context and actors, so I’d probably be equally unsatisfied with any attempt to pin the blame for Brexit on a single factor. As soon as I hear claims like this my mind starts cycling through all the other things that plausibly contributed to the outcome, and I rapidly reach the conclusion that it’s pretty hard to weigh their importance against each other and thus conclude which ones are more important than others, let alone to identify the decisive factor. This is tied up with the difficulty of demonstrating causality in relation to social outcomes (of which political decisions are an element), and I think we should always try to talk about as many of the influences on an outcome as possible. Of course, if we’re lucky enough to have data that measures all those plausible influences then we can think about finding out which are more closely correlated than others with the outcome, and interpret this to mean that there is some sort of relationship between them. I don’t have this data (and I’m not sure it exists) so my focus here is on flagging up the things that, to my mind, are likely to have influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. In doing so, I also hope to show that a range of factors all had a part to play in that outcome, and that trying to pin it on one of them alone is unconvincing. Indeed, even if we ignore the factors that are unlikely to have changed, there are enough things that could plausibly have changed to make blaming any one of them a bit of a stretch. So, let’s start with the contextual factors, the order of which does not imply anything about their presumed importance:

 

The Great Recession

There’s the obvious way in which this had an impact; namely, the financial crisis caused serious economic problems, and problems of economic coordination, in the European Union. These indicated weakness whilst, at the same time, prompting a response that could be characterised as heavy handed. The latter played into existing narratives of the EU being distant, detached, and out-of-touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ (there’s no such thing; most people think they’re ordinary; no-one is). At the same time, the economic downturn had an impact on domestic politics, prompting austerity and reducing or removing economic security, or the sense of it, for many. Economic insecurity often makes people more risk averse, leading them to want to batten down the hatches and seek familiar forms of security. The frame of reference for that security will vary from person to person but there are enough for whom the European Union has not always been the status quo that returning to ‘British sovereignty’ (i.e. ‘taking back control’) seems the safer, and more familiar, option. So, we know that economics often matters in voting, and the economic circumstances preceding the EU referendum meant that it was plausible to paint the EU in a bad light whilst also promoting a desire to return to a non-EU state of security for many.

 

Explanations for the economic downturn

In the aftermath of the financial crisis different causes were identified and emphasised by different political actors, and these included reckless behaviour by banks and their employees, the financial decisions made by large sections of the public, government policy (be it spending too much during the good times, or failing to regulate financial markets properly) and, as the downturn unfolded, remote international institutions such as the EU. The reason for some of those explanations becoming more accepted than others remains mysterious to me (crucially, in line with the point of this blog, I suspect many things played a part) but it seems that the Conservative Party achieved a major victory by emphasising the issue of state spending rather than irresponsible behaviour by banks and bankers. This played to their strength as the party that is seen as more responsible with state spending, whilst ‘banker bashing’ played to Labour’s image as the party of ‘working people’ against ‘the elite’ (though this was fatally undermined by their failure, when in power, to adequately regulate financial markets (a difficult thing to do, perhaps, because of their international nature)). This meant that a domestic solution to the economic downturn (i.e. limiting state spending (thus making the promise of the notorious £350 million tempting)) could be emphasised instead of international coordination and cooperation (e.g. regarding financial market regulation), rendering the EU part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Further, the focus on one element of, and explanation for, the economic downturn contributed to the electoral outcomes in 2010 and 2015 and thus set the scene for David Cameron to call the EU referendum. So, prevailing explanations for the Great Recession contributed the circumstances that allowed the referendum to be called whilst, at the same time, promoting solutions centred on national rather than international governance.

 

Strain on public services

This is obviously related to, but not exclusively the result of, the economic downturn and the prevailing explanations for it, whilst government policy (both in response to the above factors and preceding them) and demographic changes have also played a role. These strains are real and can be seen by people in their day-to-day lives but have also been emphasised in the media (who, perhaps, have a duty to report problems with such services) and by political parties (both for electoral purposes and because it’s a legitimate policy concern to consider). The presence of the idea that public services are under strain contributes to the previously mentioned sense of insecurity that can lead to people seeking familiar solutions (again, ‘taking back control’, with the middle word being key) whilst also feeding a belief that there is an uncaring elite who are making bad decisions for the population. Such mud sticks more easily to distant institutions than ones that are closer (this is related to a concept called the paradox of distance[1] in which people rate their local services or MP better than they do national services overall or MPs as an entire group; in the same way, Westminster is closer (and more familiar) than the institutions of the EU). Thus, when people have a sense that things are going wrong and are trying to place the blame, they will be more likely to pin it on something that is, in some sense, distant. Again, this did not bode well for the EU.

 

The coalition government

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government administered the ‘necessary medicine’ in response to economic downturn and, thus, was a reflection of and a contributor to the previous two points. Further, by uniting two previously opposed political parties it contributed to the general sense, held by many, that there is a ‘them’ (politicians) and an ‘us’ (‘ordinary’ people). This sustained the idea of the very establishment (with the EU as part of it) that would subsequently be given a bloody nose in the EU referendum (with the outcome, arguably, being about ‘taking back control’ from the generic establishment ‘them’ as well as from the EU specifically). Further, it significantly weakened the Liberal Democrats, undermining the sense that they were an alternative, or opposed, to the Conservatives (as has often been the case in coalitions, their independent identity was washed away by association with a larger and more prominent partner). This meant that Liberal Democrat seats became juicy low-hanging fruit for a well-run and well-targeted Conservative campaign in 2015, thus paving the way for the majority that allowed David Cameron to instigate a referendum on EU membership.

 

The expenses scandal

This feels like the dim and distant past now, but it played a role in the 2010 election that resulted in the above coalition, and thus indirectly contributed to the 2015 election outcome. More to the point, though, it was symbolic of, reinforced, and expanded the common mistrust of politicians in the population. Thus, it affirmed the sense, again, that there is a distance ‘elite’ (perhaps incorporating, as well, the much-maligned experts) with different interests from the general population. It was this very group that was then, a few years later, seen to be unified behind another position, the Remain Campaign, that could be presented as in their own interest (and concomitantly seen as questionably in the interests of ‘ordinary people’). Thus, the role of the expenses scandal, and other scandals and news stories presenting politicians in a bad light, was to prompt not only mistrust but also a rejection of those who advocated remaining in the EU.

 

Divided parties

Of course, were it not for (ongoing and long-term) disunity over the EU in the Conservative Party, there would have no need for that David Cameron would have felt the need to ‘resolve’ the issue by calling a referendum. However, all parties are coalitions so disunity can emerge on a range of issues and at different times. The Labour Party was also disunited, though less severely, over the EU membership and this meant that there could be representatives of both parties on each side of the referendum campaign (indeed, the presence of Labour MPs amongst the largely Conservative ranks of Leave supporters was an important influence on some voters), whilst also meaning that Jeremy Corbyn and some of those around him were less-than-enthusiastic about the Remain campaign. Further, and more tenuously, the divide between liberal and social democratic elements of the Liberal Democrats allowed a situation in which the party promoted itself in the latter light for many years but then, with the ascendance of the Orange Book liberals, went into coalition with the Conservatives (linking with the previous point). This not only hurt the party at the next general election, and played into the ‘establishment’ narrative (i.e. ‘they’re all the same’), but also made the idea of untrustworthy and dishonest politicians (already common) more salient, which would prove important in the EU referendum.

 

UKIP

Their success as a political party was always a longshot (given the electoral system in the UK) but it’s fair to say that UKIP has been one of the most successful campaigning groups of recent times. They used electoral politics as one of their main campaign tools, not to win seats but to threaten the main parties with losses. Certainly, they were aided by other contextual factors, but the presence of this group of dedicated campaigners helped make the EU, and especially the topic of free movement of people, an issue that could not be ignored. Nothing more need be said; UKIP’s influence is self-evident, and should not be forgotten as they become electorally insignificant.

 

A divided electorate

Of course, UKIP would have been on a hiding to nowhere were it not for the fact that plenty of the electorate felt, on some level at least, that the EU had disempowered the British state, facilitated levels of immigration that they were uncomfortable with, and sustained values that were at odds with their own. These views may not have been solidified at the outset (though they certainly were for some) but there were people who were more or less predisposed to adopt pro- or anti-EU positions. There is a concept in political science called heresthetic,[2] which is the ability to identify and activate previously latent divisions in an electorate (i.e. make new dimensions of politics salient) for strategic gain. It seems clear that the emergence of the EU as a clear dividing line is the result of successful heresthetic by some (prominent members of UKIP included), but this also indicates that some level of meaningful division existed in the first place. That such a division was made salient threw the traditional political parties off their game because it was a cross-cutting issue, with the divide between Labour’s traditional and more recent core groups of supporters being a key example. This meant that normal partisan appeals could not be made in the in the referendum campaign, and the outcome was far from a foregone conclusion.

 

The left behind

There are multiple explanations for the above division in the electorate, and one of the most prominent is that there is a section of the population who can be considered ‘left behind’.[3] That group is often characterised as older, white, male, less educated, and working class, but those characteristics are not pre-requisites. The main thing is that people in the ‘left behind’ group have a sense that changes in the UK (and world), over whatever period of time, have not been materially beneficial to them. Thus, they are likely to take issue with things such as free movement of people (perceived to remove job opportunities and put strain on public services), offshoring (again, seen to remove job opportunities), and free trade (which is bound up with the preceding points and the broader concept of globalisation). These are all things that are seen to be beneficial to other sections of society at the expense of the ‘left behind’. This leads such people to reject (i.e. vote against) the policies and institutions that have brought about the changes that they feel have harmed them, and also to consider themselves different from the groups that are seen to have benefited from such policies. This is especially so in relation to the ‘elite’ who have been responsible for implementing the policies and who, again, the ‘left behind’ wished to give a bloody nose.

 

A commitment to authority

Another major explanation for the division in the electorate that led to the outcome of the EU referendum is competing basic values. Specifically, it is argued that some people are more committed to the exercise of authority in social contexts. For instance, such people are more likely to support children being taught to respect authority in school, to think that punishments for convicted criminals should be stricter, and that the death penalty should be applied in some cases. Thus, such people are described as having authoritarian social values, but this is not intended to be pejorative. Crucially, those values can cross-cut the material circumstances that differentiate groups such as the ‘left behind’ from others and there are more or less wealthy, and more or less privileged, people who are committed to the exercise of social authority. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to believe in both economic redistribution and the importance of social authority, so views that are considered ‘left wing’ are not mutually exclusive with ‘social authoritarianism’.[4] A question of particular interest here is what the roots of such values are, with possible explanations including socialisation, basic psychological dispositions, or some interaction of the two (which seems most plausible to me). Regardless of their origins and relationships with other characteristics, however, the key thing is that such values also incline people to support the clear exercise of authority by a single institution or limited set of institutions, especially if they are familiar (as the British state undoubtedly is to most in the UK). Thus, any undermining of ‘sovereignty’ by the EU was much less likely to be tolerated by people with a commitment to authority, especially to the extent that the EU institutions are complex and unfamiliar, are predicated on consensus rather than clear exercise of power by one group, and espouse values (e.g. universal human rights) that may be opposed to those held by ‘social authoritarians’.

 

Educational disparities

The relationship between educational levels and EU referendum votes has been observed (i.e. areas with lower levels of education tended to have a higher proportion of the population voting Leave), and this relationship is open to interpretation. For me, this is about the types of knowledge that people hold, and the broader cultural divides that exist in society. In other words, education can be seen to have three not entirely reconcilable functions: first, to engage people in a dialogue that promotes thinking about and understanding of the world; second, to set particular standards of knowledge and understanding, and rank people against these standards so that qualifications can be awarded; third, to imbue people with particular norms and values. To the extent that the latter two functions are emphasised, education is likely to imbue people who are educated with different norms and values to those who are not, and thus to create competing cultures. Of course, this does not happen only in educational contexts (early years are also important, especially in creating lower-order beliefs[5]) but they are clearly important. The resultant cultural differences can be related to the above two explanations for the divide in the electorate that led to the EU referendum outcome.

 

Prevailing media coverage

I won’t spend ages on this because it’s been done to death, and because the issue of cause and effect is particularly difficult (i.e. the classic question of whether the media reflects or shapes the views of the public). Still, it seems likely that the long-term and widespread coverage of, and emphasis on, the EU’s failings (despite not always being accurate) with very little coverage of, and emphasis on, its successes affirmed the views of those who opposed membership, weakened the views of some of those who supported it, and made the issue salient when it might not have otherwise been. Indeed, I don’t think the power of the media lies only (or even mainly) in the tone with which it reports issues but, instead, in the decisions about what to report and not report prominently, and in the links between issues that can be made. Thus, media coverage of the issue of immigration is also important, again not only because of its tone but because it made the issue prominent in people’s minds and linked it with the EU. Indeed, it is the case that many people associated the issue of immigration with that of the EU in their minds and, to the extent that they were concerned by the former, this made them more likely to vote to leave the latter. Thus, when it came to the vote, the table had been set not in the previous months of campaigning but in the preceding years of national media discussion of particular issues, and emphasis of the links between them. In light of all this, I could include a range of editors and proprietors in the list of individuals that is outlined below, but I’ll leave it at giving them a non-specific name-check here.

 

The EU

The previous point argues that the media coverage of the EU was lop-sided, emphasising the problems more than the benefits (again, though, perhaps the media has a duty to report things going wrong more than things going right), but there was also material that provided the basis for some of that coverage. The horror stories about ‘red tape’ regulations (e.g. straight bananas) are well known and, whilst many of those stories were over-the-top or downright inaccurate, it is the case that the EU is involved in many areas of regulation. Thus, to the extent that one is opposed to those sorts of regulations it makes sense to be opposed to the EU (though it has other functions too). Further, for many years it was possible (and, perhaps, legitimate) to be sceptical about the financial comings and goings of the EU (though this has been less the case since 2007), which contributed to the idea of it being wasteful (and even corrupt). More important, to my mind, than the output of the institutions is their very structure. Education around the setup of the EU could be improved but, regardless, that setup is rather complicated. There are two elements of the executive branch, the European Council (heads of state or government of the member countries) and the European Commission (nominated by member states, adopted by the European Council, and approved by the European Parliament), with only the latter having the capacity to propose laws (though one element of the legislative branch (the European Parliament) can also ask it to do so). The legislative branch then has two elements in the form of the directly elected European Parliament and the non-directly elected Council of the European Union (distinct from the European Council, mentioned previously), which is referred to as the Council and made up of relevant ministers (depending on the policy area being discussed) from member countries. The second of those bodies also has some executive powers, and it makes decisions using a special system called qualified majority voting. Further, all of the institutions and powers of the EU have evolved over the course of its existence. This is positive (allowing responses to circumstances) but also adds further complexity in the sense that one must pay attention to stay up-to-date not only with the decisions of the EU but also how they are made. I’ve tried not to be opaque in the preceding descriptions but I think they give a sense of the extent to which they can be viewed as inaccessible. This is not helped by the fact that there is no individual constituency link to the European Parliament (there are seven Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for my region; three Conservatives, three from UKIP, and one Labour) and it’s remarkably difficult for such a small number of people to meaningfully engage with a large and dispersed electorate. Thus, overall, it’s understandable that the EU can feel complex and distant, thus rendering it an irrelevance (which does not motivate endorsement) or an imposition (which prompts opposition).

 

The Campaigns

The Remain campaign looked like (was?) an ‘establishment’ project, whilst the Leave campaign looked like a scrappy insurgency. The former appealed to the head rather than the heart, whilst the latter did quite the opposite. This is important because the outcome seemed like Remain’s to lose; had they found some content appealing to emotions and, perhaps, elevated a more diverse bunch of people to prominent campaign positions, it seems plausible that the result could have been reversed. They appear to have underestimated the extent to which the electorate was looking for an opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote against the prevailing advice. Furthermore, the Leave campaign benefited a great deal from prevailing media coverage and, despite being funded and led by figures who are absolutely not ‘of the people’, looked anti-establishment. This may have been helped by the fact that they had few scruples about the ‘evidence’ they used, and being controversial is a very good way to look like the outsider who won’t be silenced whilst standing up for what they believe in. Splits meant that they could have fallen apart, but they kept it together, and the Remain campaign cruised to failure.

 

With the contextual factors covered, we can turn to the individual actors who made decisions within the context that existed:

 

David Cameron

Handed the decades-old problem of a party divided over Europe, David Cameron decided that the best way to resolve that squabble was a divisive national referendum. I’m exaggerating of course, and it’s not that simple; it really is a difficult internal party division, and he was additionally confronted by a meaningful electoral threat from UKIP (again, not because they could win seats but because they could split the Conservative vote and cause them to lose seats). Nevertheless, it seems that he (and others) were complacent about victory, and he can be counted amongst the pro-Remain leaders who failed to see the need to appeal to emotion in the campaign (alas, I think this may be common amongst those who simplistically attribute humans the characteristics of utility maximising calculus machines). Further, in terms of having a campaign in which one side (the status quo) was likely to be hamstrung by the appearance of representing establishment interests, it might’ve been sensible not to have one of the main leaders being, well, David Cameron. Of course, his background is beyond his control, and it would’ve been difficult for him to take a back seat (without this looking like a lukewarm endorsement, which could’ve been equally damaging) but, again, he did choose to call the bloody referendum.

 

Nick Clegg

To the extent that Nick Clegg represents the Orange Book liberals within his party, this point can be linked to those covering divided parties and the coalition government. In deciding (along with other senior party colleagues) to go into coalition with the Conservatives, despite having presented a policy agenda to the public that was rather distinct, sowed the seeds for the party’s near-elimination in 2010 (which was worse than the preceding decline in the Liberal Democrat vote share otherwise suggested). This, in part, facilitated the Conservative majority that allowed David Cameron to work his referendum magic. More to the point, there was a choice, despite the line that ‘there had to be a government in a time of national crisis’. For a party that advocates constitutional reform, the leader seemed rather eager to maintain Britain’s ‘tradition of strong government’ (i.e. the constitutional status quo) rather than, for instance, offering to support a Conservative minority government on legislation in the vital national interest (e.g. bank bailouts, if you’re so inclined) without signing up to all the things they claimed to oppose (e.g. the Health and Social Care Act, Welfare Reform Act, and Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act). Incidentally, I struggle to think of an electoral line that’s weaker than ‘yeah, sure, the stuff we supported in government was bad, but it was slightly less bad because we were there’. Note, there’s no attempt to say it was good. A confidence and supply arrangement would have allowed the Liberal Democrats the capacity to stay closer to their principles, but the party leadership including Nick Clegg chose not to pursue that path in return for the ground-breaking, world-changing opportunity to have an AV referendum. Or something.

 

Nigel Farage

As with UKIP in general, not a lot needs to be said here; his impact is obvious but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. In Nigel Farage, UKIP got a leader who was not only charismatic but also could give the impression of being ‘straight-talking’ and a ‘man of the people’ (despite all the evidence to the contrary). He was also, apparently, pretty tireless and had the brass neck to say controversial things and stick to them, which shored up core support whilst having some wider appeal.

 

Aaron Banks

It’s tempting to write a one-word summary of this gentleman but I’ll avoid doing so. Again, not a lot needs to be said; to a large extent he bankrolled UKIP and Nigel Farage, not-to-mention the non-official Leave.eu campaign, allowing them not only to continue their activities but also to raise their profiles.

 

Boris Johnson

A popular high-profile political figure with appeal beyond his party (such things are rare), and who (despite his dispatches from Brussels as a journalist, linking to the point about media coverage above) was apparently undecided at the outset of the referendum campaign. Part of the reason for his popularity and appeal beyond the Conservatives was his reputation as a maverick, which perhaps pointed towards endorsement of the more anti-establishment Leave campaign (despite being so clearly part of ‘the establishment’). Nevertheless, there’s good reason to think that some voters could be swung, at least in part, by his decision on the matter and his hands certainly weren’t tied.

 

Gisela Stuart

The most prominent Labour member of the Leave campaign, Gisela Stuart is a good example of the importance of party divisions in the referendum. She is certainly not a well-known political figure (though perhaps more so after the campaign) but her role is likely to have been picked up by high-attention undecided voters (a key group because they can be won over to either side, and are likely to turn up at the polling station). This is important because the fact that she took a different line to most of her fellow Labour MPs can be seen as acting against type. Indeed, people expected Nigel Farage, Peter Bone, and others in the awkward squad to be on the Leave side, but the presence of a ‘liberal left-winger’ (and a citizen of another EU country to boot) amongst those ranks was less expected. Such unexpected information is more persuasive (e.g. if a fiscal hawk says that spending needs to be raised people will take that more seriously than if a fiscal dove suggests the same), and it also allowed the issue to be, at least in part, non-partisan. There were other political figures who can be put in the same group, but Gisela Stuart is the most prominent example.

 

Jeremy Corbyn

The case being made in this post is not that Jeremy Corbyn had no part to play in the outcome of the EU referendum, but that his actions were only part of an interaction between context and actors. So, it is fair to say that his position on membership of the European Union was lukewarm, and that he could have done more to proclaim clear support for remaining, and motivate Labour voters to turn out and vote for that option. Still, his less than wholehearted endorsement of membership was known when he was elected as leader and should have come as no surprise. Further, and as noted previously, the Labour party has a divided electorate in relation to the issue of Brexit, making it a difficult task for any Labour leader to take a clear-cut position on the matter. So, part of the picture? Yes. But all of it, or most of it, the largest part of it, or even the decisive element? No.

 

So, what does all of the above suggest? Well, as was the argument at the outset, it demonstrates that the outcome of the EU referendum was the result of, to become boringly repetitious, an interaction between context and actors. All of the above elements played their own part in the outcome but none of them alone was decisive. Without the economic downturn the EU would have been less likely to look simultaneously weak and heavy handed, whilst there would have been less capacity to argue for cuts in national state spending. The pressure on public services would thus have been reduced, the electorate would have felt less insecure, and they would have been less eager to seek familiar (national-level) ways to address that. At the same time, the outcome of the 2010 election would have been different, with a coalition that reinforced the view that politicians are all the same and cannot be trusted (which also emerged from the expenses scandal) less likely. That coalition also relied on divided parties in which the Orange Book liberals could become the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and contradict its social democratic image by aligning with the Conservatives. Indeed, were the parties not divided there would have been much less need for a referendum, and there would not have been an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to ascend to the leadership of the Labour Party as a left-wing insurgent. Further, the divide in the Conservative Party as well as the divided electorate could be exploited by a strong campaigning organisation like UKIP. That divide in the electorate was a prerequisite for the referendum, and its basis was a combination of meaningful differences in material circumstances, different basic (ideological) commitments to the exercise of authority in society, and educational disparities. The latter is important not only because it imbues particular knowledge in some groups and not others, but also because it creates different sub-cultures with different norms and values. Such competing sub-cultures can be plugged into by prevailing media coverage, especially to the extent that it is aimed at some groups and not others, and this exaggerates existing divides. Further, such coverage hardens the views that align with it and, to the extent that it is prevailing, weakens views that don’t align with it, thus solidifying likely outcomes based on the other contextual factors. Of course, this might have mattered less had the EU not provided (primarily constitutional) material that made it look distant, complex and, perhaps, untrustworthy. Further, had the Leave Campaign been worse run or the Remain Campaign been better run, especially in the sense of appealing to people’s emotions, there was the chance for a different outcome despite the other contextual factors. Within the context set by those factors, David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum, facilitated by Nick Clegg’s decision to go into coalition and set the table for the Conservative’s 2015 electoral victory, set the train in motion from the penultimate station to the terminus. Along the way, Nigel Farage’s tireless campaigning, Aaron Banks’ money, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart’s support for Leave, and Jeremy Corbyn’s less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of Remain all ensured that points weren’t changed, and the train continued along its track (I’ll leave the metaphor there now).

 

Could all of the above things have changed? The answer in relation to contextual factors is tricky; context does change, but not necessarily quickly, in an expected direction, or because of the actions of a particular individual (despite possible intent). Had previous governments around the world co-ordinated better in order to regulate financial markets, the Great Recession and all its knock-on effects might have been averted or mitigated. Such coordination was unlikely but possible, as was the potential for explanations of the downturn that didn’t require austerity to become dominant, and in doing so negate the need to place public services under more strain. The subsequent coalition government certainly did not have to happen, and neither did the behaviour of the MPs embroiled in the preceding expenses scandal. Those MPs actions could have changed, but the nature of parties is to be divided (in the sense that they always encompass competing positions), so this is always likely to be a feature of the political landscape, whilst UKIP had been part of the furniture for some time. Divides in the electorate and the things that underpinned them are a function of the vast never-ending interaction of humans that we call society. That’s hard to change. Being disposed towards the exercise of authority in social contexts is likely to result from early life experiences and may be difficult (but not impossible) to alter subsequently. The economic disparities that created the ‘left behind’, and the educational disparities that sustain potentially competing sub-cultures can be influenced by government policy and demographic change but they are hard to change decisively in a short period (or even in an intended direction). Prevailing media coverage can certainly alter, given that it’s in the gift of a few editors and proprietors, but that’s to underestimate the extent to which they are committed to their existing (political) positions. In a similar ‘could change but probably wouldn’t’ camp is the EU itself, which is part of what made the Remain campaign’s job more difficult. Still, that job could plausibly have been done much better, whilst the Leave campaign’s divisions sowed surprisingly few seeds of failure. Moving to the individuals in those campaigns, we can safely rule Nigel Farage or Aaron Banks out of the ‘could have changed’ group, and this is also likely to be the case with Gisela Stewart. David Cameron, however, could absolutely have sought a different option than a referendum, and Nick Clegg did not have his hands tied in terms of joining the coalition. Boris Johnson, despite his previous journalistic endeavours, could have come down on the other side of the campaign and, to finish, Jeremy Corbyn could have cracked out his recently demonstrated campaigning prowess to support Remain more wholeheartedly.

 

So, looking back at all those factors, we can see plausible scenarios in which a coalition government didn’t happen, perhaps because Nick Clegg decided to pursue alternative arrangements. The need for austerity might have been mitigated, reducing strain on public services and perceived insecurity. Even had none of these things happened, the shape of the campaigns could have been dramatically different, presuming of course that David Cameron hadn’t taken the eminently plausible step of not calling a referendum in the first place. With that decision made, nothing bound Boris Johnson to put his considerable political weight behind the Leave campaign. So, even just taking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of contextual factors and individual decisions that could have changed, there are multiple other things that played a part in the EU referendum outcome. To be sure, Jeremy Corbyn also played a part, but is he to blame, primarily, decisively, or more than any other single factor? I’m not convinced. So, as argued at the outset, laying the outcome of the EU referendum at the door of a single factor seems a bit of a stretch.

 

 

 

[1] See H. George Frederickson and David G. Frederickson, ‘Public Perceptions of Ethics in Government’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 537, Ethnics in American Public Service (Jan., 1995), pp. 163-172.

[2] For more information, and examples, see Iain McLean, ‘Review Article: William H. Riker and the Invention of Heresthetic(s)’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 2002), pp. 535-558; Kenneth A. Shepsle, ‘Losers in Politics (and How They Sometimes Become Winners): William Riker’s Heresthetic’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 307-315; Andrew J. Taylor, ‘Stanley Baldwin, Heresthetics and the Realignment of British Politics’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 429-463.

[3] For the definitive work on this concept in relation to Brexit, see Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (London, Routledge, 2014).

[4] See James Duckitt and Chris G. Sibley, ‘A Dual Process Motivational Model of Ideological Attitudes and System Justification’, in John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir (eds.), Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 293-308; and Anthony Heath, Geoffrey Evans, and Jean Martin, ‘The Measurement of Core Beliefs and Values: The Development of Balance Socialist/Laissez Faire and Libertarian/Authoritarian Scales’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 115-132.

[5] Daryl J. Bem posits that zero-order beliefs (e.g. that our parents can be trusted) are the first that are defined in our lives, with subsequent levels of lower and then higher order beliefs (e.g. the news sources that my parents consume can be trusted) based on those zero-order beliefs: Daryl J. Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs (Belmont, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1970), pp 6-12.

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Why Cameron and Corbyn Should Remain their Parties’ Leaders

Oh my god, I don’t know if you heard, but apparently there’s a CRISIS going on right now! And, it seems, the best thing to do when there’s a CRISIS going on is to talk constantly about how there’s a CRISIS going on. Oh no, wait, talking about how there’s a CRISIS going on isn’t enough. Instead, we have to SHOUT about the CRISIS that’s going on. Oh, and let’s run around tearing our hair out as well, because that helps. Uh oh, that’s not enough either. What we clearly need to do in order to deal with a CRISIS is to CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yes, let’s all behave like stockbrokers when there’s a market crash and GET RID OF EVERYTHING because there’s a CRISIS going on.

I’d like to see or hear politicians calmly addressing the problems that are approaching as a result of the Brexit vote. It’d also be nice to see or hear more of politicians who aren’t expending large amounts of energy on creating or fighting leadership contests when there are already some significant issues to be dealt with. In that light, here are three reasons each why David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn should remain their respective parties’ leaders.

First up, Dave:

  1. He won a general election just over a year ago (admittedly via a rubbish electoral system) and gained the mandate he had, in part, on the basis of promising a referendum on EU membership. So, it’s a bit weird that he’s resigned having done exactly what he said he would.
  1. He’s on record saying that he’d stay as the Prime Minister even if the UK voted to leave the EU, and there’s already a public perception that MPs don’t stick to what they say they’ll do.
  1. He bears a large part of the responsibility (not all of the responsibility, just part of it; these things are complex) for the UK being in its current situation, and it’d be nice if he’d stick around to deal with the consequences. That seems to me to be part of being a leader.

As for Jezza:

  1. He was elected leader of the Labour Party less than a year ago, when it was known that there would be an EU referendum coming, and when it was known that he was not a full-blooded supporter of the EU. Sure, he’s partially responsible for the referendum outcome, but only partially (the campaign was long and rancorous, with competing factions campaigning on the same side, thousands of campaigners, and millions of interactions, so of course there were disagreements, angry emails, and claims that some people weren’t doing enough), and getting rid of him doesn’t change it.
  1. Party leaders are elected on the basis of internal party processes (although Labour’s process was open to everyone who didn’t want Corbyn to be leader as well as all those people who did), not the spectre of future general elections. Few people predicted the outcome of the last general election or, indeed, the referendum last week, so I’m not convinced by the ‘we can’t win a general election’ self-fulfilling prophesy. It would be nice to see support for the party leader and a focus on engaging with the public rather than a party turning its focus inwards in the belief that changing the leader is some sort of magic bullet that will make a general election victory suddenly much easier. And incidentally, I’m not convinced that a more centrist Labour leader would be more clearly distinct from the ‘establishment’ that was given a bloody nose last Thursday than is Corbyn.
  1. It’s bizarrely contradictory to cite prospective party disunity as a reason for triggering a leadership contest that will certainly create party disunity. Again, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Parties are broad churches but their members share more with each other than they do with other parties. Crucially, I’m not convinced that even the most centrist Labour MP shares more in common with a Conservative than they do with Corbyn (though maybe I’m wrong on this), and it would be nice to see both sides recognising this rather than focussing on their differences. Or, in other words, to see both sides recognising the unifying purpose of their party, rather than using it as an arena for a never-ending battle between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Labour.

I’m not a party member, and I never have been, but I can’t say I’m tempted to become one on the evidence of the last few days. To the extent that the country is facing problems, it’d be nice to see elected representatives behaving like calm leaders rather than acting as the angry faces of feuding factions.

On Campaign Materials Alone, Khan Deserves to Beat Goldsmith

Based just on the campaign materials that we’ve received from the two leading candidates, Sadiq Khan deserves to beat Zac Goldsmith in today’s election for London Mayor.[1] Now this isn’t to say that the slick newspaper pull-out-style flyer that we received from Mr. Khan’s campaign is particularly good. The centre page is roughly 70% picture, and what text there is goes big on emphasising the candidate’s background or restating the problems (which I credit voters with already being aware of). Fair enough on the background stuff, you might say; it’s OK for Mr. Khan to differentiate himself from his main rival on the basis of their backgrounds. And you’d be right. On the basis of background alone I’d much prefer the next Mayor of London to be a ‘council estate boy’ whose father was a bus driver than a man who once saw a bus as a child.[2] But there’s also the small matter of policy and, if you glanced at the material, you’d be forgiven for coming away knowing only that Mr. Khan is a ‘council estate boy’ whose father was a bus driver. Did you hear that? Apparently he’s a ‘council estate boy’ whose father was a bus driver. So, in my judgement the balance isn’t quite right but there’s just about enough content in there, if you look beyond the generic language, to get a sense of the candidate’s policy priorities and orientations. Thus, if you don’t have the time or inclination to check out his website, as most people may well not, the materials at least give you a sense of Sadiq Khan’s plans if elected.[3]

Zac Goldsmith’s materials are a different beast altogether. Our flat has received one letter and one mailshot from Mr. Goldsmith’s campaign,[4] and the format of the former means that there’s plenty of text to work with here. There are three main problems that I can see:

  1. Attack campaigning. Even before the recent controversy over the Prime Minister’s claim that Sadiq Khan had questions to answer about who he has shared platforms with in the past, the letter we received went big on negative campaigning. Apparently, a ‘dangerous four-year Khan-Corbyn experiment will put London’s future at risk.’ This claim that Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan are two peas in a pod is an inaccurate oversimplification that ignores the diversity of opinion in the Labour Party, and reinforces the unhelpful idea that political parties are monolithic entities. Sure, Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Khan will share some ideas, but they’ll also differ on others, and his mayoralty be no more of a dangerous experiment for London than would Mr. Goldsmith’s. Also, this focus on bad-mouthing the other candidate creates the second problem.
  2. Absence of policy. Again, people can see his website if they want more policy detail, though I doubt many will get beyond skimming it. In that light, and given how much more text-heavy Goldsmith’s materials are, there’s remarkably little in the way of concrete policy proposals. Indeed, whilst the section of the letter attacking Sadiq Khan is three paragraphs long, the section outlining Mr. Goldsmith’s ‘action plan for Greater London’ is one short paragraph with no specifics. This is complemented on the associated leaflets with four generic two-word phrases that are supposed to give insight into what he would do if elected Mayor. I mean, seriously, ‘More Homes’, ‘Better Transport’, ‘Cleaner Air’, and ‘Safer Streets’? Phew, it’s lucky he clarified those positions, otherwise I never could have differentiated him from all the other candidates who want fewer homes, worse transport, dirtier air, and more dangerous streets. Give me a break.
  3. Cynical use of numbers. As someone with a passing interest in the use of numbers in politics, and a bit of a pedantic side, this is the most aggravating of the three problems for me. Mr. Goldsmith has been going really big on the fact that he increased his majority as an MP by almost 19,000 votes between 2010 and 2015. Apparently this ‘is proof he successfully stood up and delivered for his constituents.’ Nonsense. Another large change happened between 2010 and 2015: public opinion turned dramatically against the Liberal Democrats. So, whereas Mr. Goldsmith was challenging a respected incumbent Liberal Democrat MP in 2010, in 2015 he was the incumbent MP and his main opposition was hampered by the fact that voters no longer wanted to support their party.[5] Indeed, looking at the results, we can fairly assume that most of the voters who abandoned the Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park in 2015 went to Labour, the Green Party, and UKIP, who between them gained over 9,000 votes from 2010 to 2015. By contrast, Mr. Goldsmith gained fewer than 5,000 votes. That’s still a decent bump, and Mr. Goldsmith may be a good MP, but his success in 2015 resulted from a changing national political picture more than anything else. I think he knows this, and I think his campaign manager knows this too. Yet, they still chose to spin the numbers hard. I call that cynical campaigning.

So, whilst the Sadiq Khan campaign materials that we’ve received are a little lacking in content, they’re still a darn sight better than those we’ve been sent by the Zac Goldsmith campaign. On that basis alone, I’d say that Mr. Khan deserves to beat Mr. Goldsmith today. Oh, and I’d also say thank goodness for the guide to candidates that was sent to households by London Elects. Well done them.

 


[1] And, barring a major shock, he will.

[2] Thanks to The News Quiz for that observation.

[3] Albeit a vague enough sense that it’ll be difficult for many to recall what he pledged and check whether he’s done it.

[4] Bizarrely, my flatmate, who shall remain nameless, is a member of another political party but received both pieces of campaign material addressed to him. I’m not a member of a political party but haven’t received a jot. Is it something I’ve said?

[5] Crucially, voters had largely turned against the Liberal Democrats because of their association with Mr. Goldsmith’s party in the Coalition Government.

The Polling Inquiry and a Public Good

A few months ago I wrote about Prof. Patrick Sturgis’ Cathie Marsh Lecture, which dealt with the same topic as the then-forthcoming preliminary findings of the Polling Inquiry. A couple of days later I went to the release of those preliminary findings, at which Prof. Sturgis again featured heavily (being, as he is, the Chair of the Inquiry), and this is my selective summary of the key points as well as some of my own thoughts. I thought I’d publish them now because it’s almost a year since the general election and because we have elections and a referendum (plus, naturally, accompanying polling) approaching. If you’re interested in more detail, then you can read the full Polling Inquiry report here.

The first thing to note from the release of the preliminary findings is that the extent to which the polling companies got their prediction of the general election result wrong was not especially out of line with the normal magnitude of error in estimations of results based on polls. True, the underestimation of the Conservative share of the vote seems to be getting worse over time, which is a matter for the attention of the polling companies, but it was not dramatically worse in 2015 than it had been for other elections. Thus, since the results weren’t especially bad, the problem lay in part with the story that was told. In other words, this wasn’t just a problem of numbers but also one of narrative. If the results had been equally inaccurate but predicted a Conservative victory, then the hot water that the polling companies found themselves in after election day would have been decidedly lukewarm. This is something that the polling companies are aware of but, I presume, they’re also aware that it might appear a bit churlish for them to hark on about the problem being the story rather than their numbers (which had demonstrable problems). Nevertheless, it’s interesting that one of the first points to emerge from the preliminary findings of an inquiry into the error in the 2015 polls is that it wasn’t that unusual.

Error there certainly was, though, so it was worth the Inquiry moving on to consider what might have caused it. The first step was to list the things that they’re pretty confident weren’t major contributing factors, which eliminated postal voting, voter registration, overseas voters, question wording or framing, differential turnout misreporting, and mode of interview. The first three items on that list are no great surprise but the latter three might have been expected to be more of an issue. The amount of academic research on how to word questions in surveys is indicative of how important it can be. However, the Inquiry found no evidence that asking people how they’d vote in different ways made anything more than a modest systematic difference to the results. Of more relevance outside polling and academic circles, the elimination of differential turnout misreporting as an explanation rules out one of the more public arguments made after May the 7th. In other words, it seems that all the talk of ‘lazy Labour voters’ (who said they’d turn up on polling day and cast their votes for Ed Miliband’s party, but ended up not doing so) was wide of the mark. Similarly, and finally, the oft-cited issue of whether you survey people by phone or over the internet seems not to have been an issue in 2015.

So, if it wasn’t any of the above stuff, what the heck was going on? Well, it seems that the polling companies had too many Labour voters in their samples. This, as Prof. Sturgis was careful to joke, might seem like a rather obvious answer: “Why did you think Labour were going to win the general election?” “Um, because we asked lots of Labour voters.”[1] Of course, there was much data presented that supported this conclusion. In particular, analyses of British Election Study (BES) and British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey data, which resulted from something more akin to random probability sampling, revealed predicted results that were much closer to the actual election outcome. Indeed, when only the keen early respondents in the BES and BSA data (who are more like the (keen) respondents to online quota sample surveys) were analysed, the predicted election result was closer to those proffered by the polling companies. In particular, the polling companies appear to have had too many people at the younger end of the oldest age group in their sample. Because age is positively related to turning out it seems that these ‘younger older’ people meant that the polling companies underestimated how many older people would turn out to vote and thus underestimated the Conservative vote (because older people are more likely than younger people to vote Conservative). Similarly, and at the other end of the age spectrum, the polling companies also appear to have had too many keen younger voters in their samples. This lead to an overestimation of the number of younger people who would turn out to vote and thus an overestimation of the Labour vote (because younger people are more likely than older people to vote Labour).

With the main cause of the polling miss identified the obvious next step is to consider what can be done about it. There are two options: improve the samples (to make them more representative of the population) or improve the weighting (especially but not only in relation to predicting likelihood of turning out). Those options aren’t mutually exclusive and, as an example, YouGov (who I’ve worked for in the past and who have co-funded my PhD research) have made it clear that they will be addressing both of those points. There are, of course, multiple ways to improve samples and weighting and, helpfully, the event hinted at some tentative recommendations. These suggested that although changes to the methodologies used by the polling companies will be needed to improve their samples, it will not be necessary for them to move to random probability sampling (which is appropriate for academic research but not necessarily for fast-turnaround polling). There may also be recommendations relating to the British Polling Council’s regulations on transparency and to the reporting and interpretation of polls. Crucially, it was emphasised that there is not a silver bullet to eliminate this problem; it is only possible to reduce, rather than remove, the risk of future polling misses.

The lack of a quick fix was a nice note to end on and I reckon the polling companies will be working on improving their results via as many (financially viable) routes as are available to them. From my perspective, the emphasis should very much be on improving the samples rather than focusing on improving weighting. This is for both a technical reason and a principled reason. In the former case, weighting of results should only ever be the last step in a process that is designed to make results as representative as possible before then. In other words, weighting should be a means to tweak results rather than to make them significantly more representative. Following this logic, it is fair to argue that the goal should be make the results as accurate as possible as early in the process as possible. This points towards the recruitment of more representative panels of respondents, and not just in terms of demographics (though they are important). This, in turn, leads me to the point of principle: in so far as polls profess to give us an insight into the views off the public, they should be based on samples that represent that public as accurately as possible. In particular, this means that there need to be a lot more people who are less politically engaged in the panels that polling samples are drawn from. Of course polling companies are commercial bodies and do not have unlimited resources, but I think this is something that they should prioritise.

Focussing on recruiting less politically engaged people to polling samples could even bear financial fruit in the future, not only by making polling results less liable to be wide of the mark but also by creating the possibility of asking questions to samples of such people. It’s difficult to recruit less politically engaged people to answer polls but I’m not yet at the stage of thinking it should be given up on. That said, there’s also a risk that asking those people lots of questions about politics could rapidly transform them into being more politically engaged. Clearly this is not the purpose of polling companies, and it would place a burden on them to continue recruiting less politically engaged people, but it’s hardly a negative externality. This brings me to the concept of the public good. I think it’s useful to have information about what people in the population think about politics and the government available more than once every five years. Yes, polls can be misused and abused. Yes, politicians can pay too much attention to them. Yes, they can become the focus of too much media coverage (which can risk presenting them as absolute truth).[2] However, I also think that they can provide a complement to other worthwhile expressions of public opinion such as petitions, letter-writing, public meetings, protests, strikes, and direct actions. Crucially, the more they provide an outlet for people who are less inclined to do any of those things (i.e. less politically engaged people) the more they are a complement to those other means of expression. Thus, to my mind, the prize is not just polls that tell us something about public opinion, but polls that can also offer an outlet to those who might not otherwise say anything.

 


[1] This puts me in mind of my travels around the U.S. in 2004. I came back convinced that the Kerry-Edwards ticket was a nigh-on guaranteed victory. It was only after George W. Bush won his second term that I realised that my travels around the U.S. had only been to New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Hardly Republican strongholds.

[2] The issue of whether polls are true taps into a wider, and fundamental, academic debate in the social sciences (and, no doubt other fields) about what, if anything, we can know. I obviously do not, and cannot, resolve that debate here but, I’m largely of the opinion that polls tell us something true but are very far from telling us the whole truth. This means we need to be very careful, every time we see a poll, to establish what the something true that it’s telling us is, and be cautious not to generalise beyond that.

Two MPs’ Views on Public Political Engagement

This post is a complement to one that I wrote to report the launch of the Hansard Society 2015 Audit of Political Engagement. There were two MPs at the event to respond to the findings of the Audit and, after making many and varied points and sharing some (often very funny) anecdotes and quips, they took nicely distinct positions. I’m not going to name them or their parties because I’m more interested in the ideas that they presented than in the individuals themselves (engaging though they were).

The first MP’s response to the Audit can be pretty much summarised as ‘the public are a confusing and contradictory lot.’ I find this sort of sentiment frustrating because it suggests judgement of the public by a politician and because it seems to expect the public to coordinate their opinions so that they are more easily interpretable, rather than expecting politicians to think about the possible reasons for superficially contradictory opinion. Further, I don’t think that the public are necessarily any more confusing and contradictory than any other big group of people (be they MPs, party activists, or another group) who are confronted with complex topics on which they are expected to have an opinion. I have written on this more extensively in relation to vote choice elsewhere, but it seems clear to me that there could be many factors affecting the positions that people take on politics at any given time. More importantly, the examples cited by the MP were not, to my mind, necessarily contradictory.

To take a specific case, it was observed that 75% percent of respondents to the Audit think that referendums should be used for important decisions, but only 59% report that they are certain to vote in the EU referendum. This was taken as a contradiction but it isn’t. It’s perfectly possible to think that referendums in general are a good thing but to accept that circumstances might stop you voting in a particular referendum. Further, it’s perfectly reasonable for members of the public to indicate their uncertainty on a complex topic like, say, the EU by stating that they aren’t sure to vote on that topic. If someone doesn’t feel sure that they understand an issue should they be expected to vote on it because they think voting is a worthwhile thing? I don’t think so and, in fact, I think that the logical corollary of the right to vote is the right not to vote, for instance if you are uncertain.

Similarly, the MP suggested that the public is ‘schizophrenic’ about Prime Minister’s Questions because it is the event for which most people want tickets and yet polls consistently show a majority who disapprove of the conduct and manner of debate there. Of course, it’s not difficult to see that this isn’t a contradiction; a majority of the public can disapprove of something but that leaves a (potentially sizeable) minority who approve of it. In other words, it’s perfectly possible that all those people who want tickets to Prime Minister’s Questions are members of the public who approve of how it currently works. Or alternatively, because it’s probably the most prominent example of parliamentary debate in the UK it’s also possible that people know about it and thus apply to see it when they want to see Parliament in action. There may be other explanations but the key point here is that it’s not necessary to think that the public are confusing and contradictory. Indeed, as I noted when I wrote about the range of motives for voting for candidates, when politicians dismiss political behaviour that doesn’t make sense to them it demonstrates a lack of willingness to think about why the public might be behaving that way.

Much more positively, the second MP who responded to the Audit showed a greater willingness to accept the idea that it’s easy for politicians to become disconnected from members of the public. This was a nice counterbalance to the first MP’s view in the sense that it acknowledges that MPs have some responsibility to engage with, and understand, the public. Indeed, the second MP gave a fascinating and vivid example of how the actions of politicians can dampen public engagement. Citing the hypothetical example of a leisure centre being built, they noted how a local MP would be sure to get their picture taken at the opening and claim credit for getting it built. In fact, such projects are usually the results of a whole host of actors coming together. Members of the public might make comments to councillors, who could then start raising the issue with the officers at the council, who may then note that the area is affected by problems relating to lack of exercise, resulting in a proposal for a leisure centre. The local MP will probably only get involved in the process towards the end, and even then is only likely to intervene by offering support for an existing plan. Thus, for the MP to take credit for the leisure centre is inaccurate and, crucially, removes agency from all the other people, including local residents, who contributed to the process.

The second MP also went on to say that the public wants MPs to get on with doing things for the country rather than be seen to do things for their own benefit. Indeed, it was noted that when people say ‘you’re all the same’ about politicians it may well be an observation that they’re not seen to care about ‘normal people’. This was a polite rebuttal to the first MP’s observation that there is a contradiction between the public wanting MPs to work together but also to have distinct positions. This may be a difficult balance to achieve but I think it’s a lot easier to move towards it if you make the effort to understand and interpret what members of the public say rather than dismissing their opinions. Thus, again, I had a lot for sympathy for the second MP’s position, and was pleased to see such obvious efforts to understand some of the reasons for the opinions that members of the public express. Crucially, whilst I disagreed with the first MP it was great to have two such distinct positions expressed in the same space so that they brought each other into contrast. Thus, I thought the Hansard Society did a good job of complementing their presentation of the 2015 Audit of Political Engagement with some lively, if indirect, political debate.

Report on the Launch of the 2015 Audit of Political Engagement

 

Introduction:

This morning I was at the launch of the Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement, which is, as always, a laudable and valuable piece of work. For those of you who don’t want, or don’t have time, to read the whole report (and couldn’t make it to the launch) I thought I’d summarise what was said. I’ll stick to the structure that they used in this post, but I’ve also written a separate post (with a little more with opinion) on what was said by the two MPs who were invited to pass comment at the launch.

I always await the Audit with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, the former because it’s a fascinating piece of work, the latter in case it answers all the questions I’m focussing on in my own research. This year was no exception and, fortunately, they rewarded my excitement and proved my trepidation misplaced (though, from a less self-interested perspective it would be brilliant to have the Hansard Society looking into the structural and perceptual influences on political engagement). The launch event was at Parliament, which is fitting given that the focus is on engagement with that institution, though I worry that it makes it less accessible to the public at large. Still, it was open to those who wanted to attend, and was constituted by a succinct summary of some key points emerging from the data.[1] These can be grouped under the headings of the election effect, perceptions of Parliament, and the EU referendum.

 

The Election Effect:

There appears to have been a post-election bounce in political engagement, with some areas showing much higher levels than in 2014. More people reported certainty to vote (up by 10% to 59%), interest in politics (up by 8% to 57%), knowledge of politics (up by 8% to 55%), satisfaction with politics (up by 7% to 33%), and a sense of efficacy (up by 3% to 35%). As you can see, the latter two areas have much lower levels of engagement than the others, which has also consistently been the case in the past. In addition, I noticed a trend that wasn’t commented on; there were distinct peaks in many of these areas in both 2010 and 2015 (i.e. general election years) with an apparent decline in between.

The above trends in engagement hold across age groups although, despite the positive movement, young people were still the least likely to report certainty to vote (39% compared to 59% overall). At the same time, the Audit recorded the highest level of party support (41% being either very or fairly strong party supporters) since the beginning of the series in 2004. I’m intrigued by whether the link between the increased engagement amongst younger people and increased party support could be, in part, the ‘Corbyn effect’, which has been widely reported to have engaged younger people.

Interestingly however, the above uptick in engagement was counterbalanced by a decline in the sense of influence at the national level reported by respondents (13% feel influential compared to 17% in 2014). As is commonly the case, the reported sense of influence was also lower at national level than at local level (with 25% feeling influential at local level), whilst also being lower than the reported desire to be involved at both local and national level (46% and 41%, respectively wish to be involved at those levels). Thus, more people wish to get involved in politics than think they can influence it, perhaps because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to get involved with a system that you can’t influence, even if you’d like to. Of course, this is an abiding problem of political engagement; people need to get involved to influence politics but they won’t feel influential unless they get involved (and perhaps not even then).

 

Perceptions of Parliament:

Net reported knowledge of Parliament is now positive for the first time since the Audit began (i.e. more people report being knowledgeable than report not being knowledgeable, by a whopping 5%), though it would be interesting to see some measures testing knowledge (which should relate to both local and national contexts, and practical and abstract knowledge) alongside the question on self-perceived knowledge. There were also increases (again, between 2014 and 2015) in the number of respondents agreeing that Parliament ‘holds government to account’ (up by 7% to 42%), ‘encourages public involvement in politics’ (up by 3% to 28%), ‘is essential to democracy’ (up by 12% to 73%), ‘debates and makes decisions that matter to me’ (up by 10% to 58%). This very positive looking slew of findings, it was pointed out, could be another result of the election effect.

Satisfaction with Parliament also increased (by 5% when compared to the 2013 Audit, when it was last asked) but still stands at only 32%, which is lower than in the first Audit in 2004. Satisfaction with MPs continues to be higher in relation to local MPs (35% satisfied) than in relation to MPs in general (29% satisfied), though the gap is closing due to a big (6%) bump in satisfaction with MPs in general (perhaps surprisingly). Despite the closing gap, this remains a good example of the paradox of distance, in which people rate their local services (e.g. schools or hospitals) and the people they have encountered (e.g. immigrants they know or their local MP) more favourably than they do those services (e.g. education or health) or groups (e.g. immigrants or MPs) in general. This is could be logical because it is reasonable to assume that the national picture or a wide group of people will include more variation than the specific service or person you’ve encountered and thus may not be as good overall. Also, it could be explained on the grounds that that people are likely to be more favourable towards what they know and have experienced than they are towards distant or abstract concepts. Of course, a more pessimistic interpretation could be that people are disposed to be negative towards (or prejudiced against) some services and groups generally despite encountering examples of them being good individually.

Moving on, the Audit suggested that undertaking political acts continues to be a minority pursuit. Indeed, even in terms of willingness to undertake an act in the future (rather than reporting having done so in the past), only contacting an MP or Peer had more than half (52%) saying they would do it. Willingness to create or sign a paper petition came in second (with 35%, closely followed by paper petitions with 34% willing to create or sign one), and these two areas constitute by far and away the most used, or potentially used, routes to engage with politics. Importantly, almost all of the areas of political activity had increased in terms of both reported acts and willingness to act in future, which could well be another result of the general election. Lastly in this section, there was a statistically significant increase (the only time this was reported) in the belief that Prime Minister’s Questions deals with the important issues facing the country, and in agreement that it is grounds for pride in Parliament, though both are still very low (45% and 17% agreement respectively (despite each being up by 5% compared to 2014)).

 

The EU Referendum:

As a kind of footnote to the presentation of the results it was reported that there are high levels of interest and intent to vote in the EU referendum (63% interested, 59% certain to vote), coupled with low levels of satisfaction with and knowledge of the EU (21% satisfied, net -24% feel knowledgeable). It was thus suggested that there may be too much heat and not enough light in the debate around the referendum. This suggestion appeared to be contradicted by one of the MPs on the panel, who argued that people need to feel less like the referendum is a debate over technicalities between bureaucrats and more like it matters to day-to-day life, though I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to outline technical information about the referendum and relate it to the meaningful ways in which the outcome could impact on people’s lives. As with politics in general, the aim should be to strike a balance between being passionate and being informed, which can be a tough one to get right.

 

Conclusion:

All of the above was fascinating but I felt the launch was lacking in terms of considering who is engaged with politics. Are some groups more interested than others? Do some groups report undertaking more political acts than others? These are the questions relating to political engagement that underpin my research, along with questions of why any such differences between groups exist. Fortunately, the Hansard Society had a ready-made response in the form of the following summary paragraph (in the Audit and on the website) relating to inequalities in engagement:

‘Generally, the most politically engaged in the Audit series tend to be male, older, white, higher educated, affluent, home-owning citizens. The social class gap in electoral participation continues to rise: there is now a 37 percentage point difference between the certainty to vote levels of those in social classes AB and DE, an increase of six points in 12 months. However, the gap between the social classes tends to be much smaller in relation to questions about satisfaction with politics and institutions. Younger people (aged 18-24) are also more likely to be satisfied with the politics and institutions of our political system, and have a greater sense of their own potential to influence it than are other more generally engaged groups. This is also true of BME adults, although they are much less likely to say they have actually undertaken some form of political action than white adults in the last year.’

I find the first two sentences in the above the most striking, and I will certainly be reading the report more closely with them in mind. I also hope that when I finish my research (ideally sooner rather than later) I will be able to shed at least a sliver of light on why those discrepancies exist.

 


 

[1] In terms of methodology, the Audit is a time series study in its thirteenth year, and can be seen as an annual health check on the state of political engagement in the United Kingdom. The survey that all of the results are based on was fielded last December, by Ipsos MORI, to a representative sample of 1,231 British adults across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland). The Audit should not be used at the basis for predictions, rather it is a snapshot at particular moment in time. It presents a complex and contradictory picture, which is unsurprising given people’s lukewarm attitudes towards Parliament (and politics).

 

On a Relative’s Benefits Tribunal

A few Fridays ago (fortunately not on Easter Friday) I got up early and caught the train to Cambridge, where I needed to attend the County Court. This was so that I could be present whilst a close relative went through a tribunal to appeal the withdrawal of her Disability Living Allowance and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) element of the benefits that replaced it. I am writing this post is to give an insight into the effect of the current (and last) government’s policies on disability benefits both on a recipient from whom they have been (partially) withdrawn and, much less importantly, on someone who’s not a recipient (i.e. me).

To give some context, my relative has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and has been signed off work by her GP for the last seven years. For those of you who wish to know more about the condition, you can read about it here, here, or here. My experience of having a relative with BPD is that she is fine most of the time but experiences episodes of acute depression or anxiety and self-harm. These can be more predictable, for instance when they are associated with a time of year, or less predictable, for instance when they are triggered by a negative experience, but there is always the possibility that such an episode is just around the corner. The likelihood of such an episode is reducing as my relative gets better at dealing with the patterns and triggers that affect her, as those around her improve their understanding of BPD, and also as the health service gets better at supporting people with such conditions. Still, the risk of an episode is ever-present, and is heightened when the government’s squeeze on spending threatens provision of things like the Complex Cases Service, which provides excellent support to those with personality disorders. The threat of closing such services is a threat to remove a safety net from those who demonstrably need it. It is worth noting that the government’s approach to limiting spending not only means that benefits are withdrawn from recipients but also that support services are closed or reduced at the same time, thus doubly impacting on users.

The last time my relative had a severe mental health episode was on the day that she received notification that her PIP was to be withdrawn by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP, still headed at the time by Iain Duncan Smith). It is clear that receipt of the letter from the DWP played an important part in triggering the episode. That was in October 2015, and my relative has had periods of acute anxiety and depression since then due to the fact that she has had her income notably reduced and has spent the entire period with an approaching tribunal hanging over her. It is testament to her resilience that she has borne the brunt of preparing for the tribunal and sought appropriate advice and support from Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB, one of the first services to be cut as a result of the last (and now the current) government’s austerity agenda), from Complex Cases, and from a friend who works for Unite the Union.

The particularly unpleasant twist in the above is that her very capacity to appeal the withdrawal of her PIP might be seen by some as evidence that she could get a job and cease receipt of benefits. Such a view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my relative’s condition, and this is a problem with the government’s assessment system that is being implemented by ATOS. By that assessment system’s reckoning my relative can make a cup of tea, cook for herself, and clean herself so she should not be entitled to PIP. It doesn’t matter that she has periodic and, at times, severe mental health episodes (which can be triggered, for instance, by the stress associated with a full-time job), the fact that she is physically able most of the time means that she doesn’t qualify. My relative’s capacity to live her life is mostly due to her own abilities but it is also, in part, to do with the support available to her from family, from friends, and from the state. All of those things are needed and they complement each other; the state can’t replace family or friends but neither can family and friends provide the financial support and mental health services that the state offers. The withdrawal of any one of those sources of support creates a more precarious situation for my relative.

When I arrived at the court on that Friday a few weeks ago my relative seemed fine (she can be good at hiding inner turmoil from those around her). As the time passed, however, it became increasingly apparent that the stress of being assessed (having already been assessed once by ATOS) was hard to bear. She was impatient for the tribunal to start and desperate for it to be over and to know the result. After the hour of the tribunal itself, during which I waited outside and my relative was supported by a lawyer from Citizens’ Advice Bureau, she emerged in tears. This was not because the tribunal panel itself had been horrible (indeed they approached the situation with admirable humanity) but because my relative had to prove that she deserved to receive the financial support that enables her to live her life. In some way, even despite the decency of the panel members, my relative was on trial, being asked to prove that she had a condition that justifies the support she receives. Never mind that her relatives and friends, her GP, and the staff who support her at Complex Cases had no doubts that she needed PIP. Never mind what the people who know her best think, a series of tick-boxes on an ATOS assessment form meant that my relative had to bear the burden of proving her right to receive support from the state.

The good news is that, after a short but tense period of deliberation (during which we waited outside), the tribunal panel ruled in favour of my relative, awarding her the standard payment from the DWP (including back-payment). This affirmed my broad faith in the British justice system,[1] and I’m thankful to the panel members (who I will probably never meet) and the lawyer from CAB who supported my relative. Still, she had to live through five months with her PIP withdrawn and a tribunal approaching. Thus, this government’s policies on disability benefits (even before the recent budget, resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, and subsequent capitulation on the part of the government) have had a direct negative impact on my relative and an indirect negative impact on me. I don’t for a moment resent or regret offering support to my relative, but I do oppose a government policy that places stresses and demands on those in receipt of benefits and also their families and friends. I had to balance attendance at the tribunal alongside my research, my teaching, and completing job applications, which was a psychologically exhausting experience. Whilst I don’t think this is the most important impact of the government’s benefits policies I do think that we should assess policies on all of the impacts that they have, and we can’t ignore the possibility that placing stress on recipients of benefits has a ripple effect that impacts on those around them as well.

I have tried to avoid hyperbole and generalisation in what I’ve written here, and provide insight into this particular case. However, I think we can safely say that the experience of my relative is not unique. Indeed, I also have a friend who has had to go through a tribunal to prove his chronic health condition warrants PIP payments (which, of course, it does, as his tribunal ruled). Further, I imagine that there are many who do not necessarily have the knowledge or skills to challenge the withdrawal of their benefits (my relative has resolved to used her experience to help such people). So, the cases that I know are not necessarily examples of the people who are most in need of help and support, and this puts me in mind of a conversation that I had with a friend before the 2010 general election. He was arguing that it will make little difference which party is elected because the country will largely continue to run regardless (e.g. bins will be collected, schools will stay open, and trains will keep running). I pointed out that it was very unlikely to be privileged people like us (we’re both educated, financially secure, white, heterosexual men with no disabilities or chronic health conditions) who would be significantly affected by a change in government. Rather, it is the less privileged who are most vulnerable to changes in government policy, and it seems clear to me that this has been the case since 2010. Indeed, I now have personal experience of the negative impact that the austerity agenda can have on someone who receives support from the state.

 

 

[1] On the basis of its capacity to make evidence-based decisions that challenge the unjust consequences of government policy, and thus to provide recourse for those who might not otherwise have it. In that light, let’s not even get started on cuts to legal aid.

It’s as Good as Everyone Says

2014-09-17 Green Yes Campaign

Here we all are outside the ‘Green Yes Tardis’. Thanks to Ric Lander for the photo.


Luckily for me I had a conference (which turned out to be great) to go to in the exceptionally fine city of Edinburgh last weekend. As such it seemed silly not to stay an extra day and join the campaign for Scottish independence, which is being supported by all of my friends north of the border (and me, obviously). I’d heard talk of how engaging, inspiring, and positive the ‘Yes’ campaign was and my experience of being on the campaign trail on Monday supported this entirely. In an effort to spread the enthusiasm, here’s a post on the highlights of my day.

For many hours I was based at the ‘Green Yes’ police box on Leith Walk, where I encountered dozens of members of the public who are enthusiastically supporting independence. They expressed this by variously putting their thumbs up to us, smiling, shaking our hands, and shouting supportively at us to keep up the good work. The day was filled with smiles and friendliness, both amongst the campaigners and between campaigners and members of the public. In fact, the line between campaigners and public was blurred because so many people shared such a strong commitment to the campaign. Probably my single favourite expression of the public enthusiasm came when, amongst all the cars that had driven past bibbing to show their support, a fire engine loudly honked us with all the firemen inside putting their thumbs up.

Plenty of people, both ‘Yes’ supporters and those who were undecided, took the time to stop and talk to us as well. One of these was an English ex-soldier who wasn’t sure whether to vote even though he lived in Edinburgh. Part of the reason was that he was concerned about the future of the military and wondered what kind of force Scotland would have if it goes independent. As a pacifist this was not my natural campaigning territory but I could honestly reassure him that the country would not be without a military and that soldiers in the force would arguably be better looked after than their counterparts in the rest of the UK because none of the military budget would be used to support the (at best hypothetically useful) Trident nuclear missile system. This seemed to be a point that he was particularly open to, and he went away saying that he’d been swayed beyond 51% in favour of independence. This isn’t the reason for me counting the conversation as a highlight though. Instead, it was a heartening interaction because it was open, honest, and nonjudgemental. He hadn’t stopped because he wanted to argue, and he wasn’t expecting to hear a particular answer. He told me when he wasn’t convinced by what I was saying but he was still open to hearing more. Likewise, I didn’t feel defensive and I was very happy to listen to his different point of view and his concerns. This is how political discussions should be, and what’s remarkable is not only its quality but the fact that it wasn’t a one-off. This kind of public engagement is an incredibly valuable thing regardless of the outcome tomorrow.

Another of the people who stopped to talk to us was a young man who’d only been convinced of the case for ‘Yes’ (by his mum) the day before. He wanted to pick up materials because he was on his way to a friend’s to convince them of the case. The fact that someone who has only started supporting a campaign the day before is immediately becoming active in it is remarkable in itself. Again, this was not a unique experience; plenty of people came to pick up materials not just to convince their friends and families but also their colleagues. This speaks of people being empowered, realising the opportunity for change that is in their hands, and actively taking responsibility for it.

This was also reflected by a pair of teenage lads who slightly sheepishly approached the stall to ask for some ‘Yes’ stickers for their skateboards. When I enthusiastically handed them over they didn’t leave straight away but instead struck up a conversation about how they wanted to convince their friends to vote ‘Yes’, and how they felt it was their responsibility to do so. Then, just as they were about to leave, one of them looked at me and said that, because of the referendum, he’d gone out and got a job. He said that he didn’t want to be on benefits any more, not because of some stigma but because he felt like there was a future for his country and he wanted to contribute to it. This was a wonderful moment for me, and represented the perfect manifestation of all the positivity that has been poured into the ‘Yes’ campaign. That positivity is already being reproduced.

I stayed in Edinburgh to join what I suspected would be an amazing ‘Yes’ campaign and I wasn’t disappointed. I encountered enthusiasm and positivity in the streets, met lovely campaigners, and caught up with great friends. Whatever happens in the vote tomorrow, I’m so happy that I’ve been able to share in a campaign that represents the beginning of something so good.

Why I’m Supporting Scottish Independence

Introduction:

Before I leave it too late and the big event passes by I want to get up my reasons for supporting independence for Scotland. Until a few months ago I was an instinctive but wavering ‘Yes’ supporter without any real handle on the arguments either way. Since then I have encountered and been familiarised with a number of those arguments and, at each turn, I have been more convinced that independence is both sensible and emotionally appealing. The main injection of well-rounded arguments came at the Radical Case for Independence event that was hosted by Red Pepper and Open Democracy at Westminster back in June, and I’ve adopted some of those arguments here. Of course, the emphasis is based on what’s important to me and there are other thoughts reflecting conversations that I’ve had with friends in the subsequent three months. This is a mammoth post so I’ve split it into sections; I begin by considering nationality, national identity, and nationalism, move on to economic prospects, and then outline thoughts on government south of the border before finishing on constitutional change. I then conclude that Scottish independence is too good an opportunity to shake up the system to miss.

Nationality, National Identity, and Nationalism:

National identity has never been very important to me and, since I first started thinking about it at school, I’ve considered myself British primarily in terms of nationality rather than identity. In other words I’m largely British because I’ve needed to apply for a passport and fill out forms that expect me to have an answer to the question ‘What is your nationality?’ Identity-wise I only define myself as British by default to avoid the more uncomfortable status of being English, which (perhaps unfairly) has more negative connotations for me. Britishness is a very small part of my identity and a part that I’m not particularly keen on.

I have been told that, whether I identify with Britain or not, I’m British because I was born and brought up here and there are things that make me similar to others for whom the same can be said. I find this an unconvincing argument; I believe that we can construct or at least priorities elements within our identities and I’m uncomfortable with the expectation that a large part of mine should be defined by a geographical and cultural entity that I’m not especially sympathetic towards. In this light I’m happy with the idea that Scottish independence might bring Britishness into question, or leave it as only a husk concept that people think of as an official designation rather than a meaningful identity. I’m happy to describe myself, amongst other things, as an egalitarian, a democrat, a supporter of immigration, a pacifist, a cyclist, a vegetarian, a comedy-lover, a film-fan, a music-enthusiast, a beer-drinker¸ and a Cubs supporter. I’ve got enough things to define my identity without needing Britishness.

The potential demise of British national identity does raise the question of nationalism that has been a part of the ‘No’ campaign. They seem to equate, implicitly at least, the call for Scottish independence with the rise of unpleasant nationalist parties across Europe. This would be a worrying idea were it not so patently obviously ridiculous. No one could reasonably categorise the SNP, which is the most right-wing party in the ‘Yes’ camp, as a far-right entity. In addition to this the SNP are very far from being the only group who support independence. There is a huge, diverse, and vibrant progressive movement in favour of independence, something that I witnessed first-hand this past weekend. Both that movement and the SNP have engaged in an overwhelmingly positive campaign that has focussed on building an inclusive, multicultural society that welcomes immigrants, funds state-run services, and reduces inequality. Contrast this with the focus of the ‘No’ campaign on retaining Great Britain (emphasis on the ‘Great’) and stressing the achievements of the country whilst studiously ignoring the terrible things it has done and you can see which side is regressively nationalistic.

The widespread and implicit acceptance of British nationalism makes it more important, not less, to challenge it. Scottish independence would do this. Of course, there is a risk that a stronger vein of British nationalism (albeit with a reduced claim to the former word), or an equally or more unpleasant English nationalism, could emerge. This risk does worry me because such nationalism could have real and unpleasant consequences for some groups in our society. Also, as a person with little national identity, I don’t especially want to live in a highly nationalist society. However, as I’ve just outlined, the ‘Yes’ campaign has shown us something important on this front; it’s possible, even when exclusive nationalism might seem the natural recourse, to build a movement around inclusive goals. If Scotland goes independent there’s an opportunity for the remainder of Britain to be reshaped in multiple ways; a rise in exclusive nationalism is not the pre-defined outcome.

The Economic Prospects:

A big fear that the ‘No’ campaign have tried to instil in voters is that Scotland will be economically worse-off if it goes independent. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are risks here; as we’re frequently reminded, markets and institutions such as credit rating agencies are conservative and can go nuts when something happens that they don’t like. Scotland will certainly face economic challenges if it goes independent but no more so than any other relatively small independent country does. The idea that Scotland is too small to deal with these challenges on its own is literally ridiculous. There are plenty of examples in Europe alone of economically viable countries of an equivalent or smaller size in terms of geography and population and, crucially, they’re not all rich in natural resources. Every day that those countries exist (and have existed) provides an argument against the idea that Scotland can’t manage on its own. In addition to this Scotland is already a developed country economically with a skilled workforce and decent infrastructure (not-to-mention the insurance of oil revenues that can sustain the economy as it transitions (both to independence and, hopefully, reliance on renewables)), meaning that it has good economic prospects.

Further to the above, if the country goes independent they will no longer be subject to the economic decision-making of Westminster. This is a pretty simple point; MPs at Westminster are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents and thus, in aggregate, of the United Kingdom. The problem is that smaller regions with fewer representatives (even assuming that those representatives are unified) cannot outvote large regions and thus their economic (and other) interests can be consistently subordinated. Those in favour of the union are defending a system that has an inbuilt majority that can (and, based on the responsibility of representatives to advocate for their constituents, is required to) overlook or override the interests of Scotland. I can’t see how this is a more tempting economic proposition for the country than is independent control over its economy. Yes, Scots will be subject to uncertainty and the vicissitudes of the global economy (as everyone is) but at least they can be sure that they won’t be dragged in the wrong direction (for them at least) by the unresponsive British juggernaught.

The idea that there are both economic risks and opportunities reflects another idea; the relationship between economics and politics is not a one-way street. Even assuming that we can find reliable economic predictions, politics should not be about chasing whatever the projections say. This is especially the case since politics can change the context on which those projections are based. Politics isn’t just about doing what’s best based on what we have now, it’s also about thinking about how we can change the context so that things get even better. We should never forget that we are not just subject to economic outcomes; we also have a say over them. Adopting this line of thought makes it clear that, given the greater economic control that would follow, independence represents a great opportunity for Scotland. In the short term there might be economic tremors but independence is about the long-game, in which Scotland is better served by itself than by Westminster.

Government in the Rest of the UK:

Drawing on that theme of change offering opportunity as well as risk (apologies for sounding like an investment banker) I turn to the ‘thousand years of Tory rule’ argument. My first position on this is one that many many people have expressed; if I was Scottish, living in a country that is clearly not dominated by Tories, I would absolutely want to gain independence and cease to be subject to government by that party. Furthermore, as a person living in England, I don’t begrudge them this aspiration. The problem is that the Conservative base of support is, and would continue to be, in England and there’s a risk for all those non-Conservatives in the remainder of the country that (without the Scottish non-Tory vote) they’ll never constitute a unified-enough majority to elect a government of a non-blue orientation. There are two reasons to discount this risk, the first of which is historical.

There are only four occasions since the Second World War that removing Scottish MPs from the equation would have changed the majority at Westminster; 1964, 1974 (twice), and 2010. Since these are all shifts or potential shifts towards Conservative government it seems that there is something in what the ‘No’ side are saying. This only rings true if we think that nothing has changed since 1974, which is a bit of stretch. It’s more instructive to consider the most recent example, which may also be disheartening; without Scottish MPs we would have a majority Conservative government rather than a coalition at Westminster. However, continuing to focus on recent electoral history, we can see three examples in which the Labour Party has built impressive electoral victories without the need for their Scottish MPs. I believe that it’s reasonable to think that such results could occur again; it might require a different Labour leadership (whatever else you think of them, Blair and his team were good at winning elections) but it’s a plausible prospect. The forced choice between Labour and Conservative alternatives may not be tempting but it’s no different from what we’ve been offered at most elections to Westminster for the last century.

Crucially, the preceding argument is predicated on the status quo in British politics, which leads to the second reason that never-ending Conservative rule south of the border seems less plausible; if Scotland goes independent then things will change in the remainder of the country too. I’ll turn to the possibility of constitutional change below but the point here is that I don’t believe the electorate are incapable of adapting to a new electoral context. Things could change in multiple ways but it seems pretty certain to me that British politics will be different to the extent that we can’t presume uninterrupted Conservative electoral victory.

Constitutional Change:

The British state is an anachronism. It acts as a brake (though fortunately not a block) on change and is very difficult to reform. Tradition has never struck me as a good reason to retain something; lots of entirely unjustifiable things have been defended on the basis of tradition. We shouldn’t look at how long our institutions have been around but at whether they’re any good (and I don’t believe the two things are correlated). First amongst the institutions of the British state is Westminster, a place that has one foot in the eighteenth century. One of the most egregious manifestations of this backward-looking status is, as you might expect me to say, the deficient electoral system that it’s wedded to. Since the Second World War no political party has attracted a majority of the vote (let alone majority support the population including those who don’t vote or don’t register to vote) and yet almost every general election has led to the formation of a majority government by one of those parties. At every election the population has been governed by politicians who garnered only minority support. Accepting electoral defeat in such a flawed system is not part of democracy but anathema to it. I would be willing to accept a government that I disagreed with if it had actually gained the support of a majority of the population; without that basis I believe it’s entirely right to question its democratic legitimacy. More legitimate are coalition governments that actually reflect a majority of the electorate (even if this is an understandably unpopular sentiment to express now). The idea that a party without a majority of the vote has to work to find the common ground with coalition parties seems a better reflection of the complexity of society and public opinion than is a large legislative majority for a party that has not gained most people’s support. And, lest it be said otherwise, there are plenty of examples of electoral systems that are vastly more proportional than ours that function perfectly well and lead to the creation of coalition governments that implement policies and respond to challenges.

But what the hell has Scottish independence got to do with advocating a different electoral system? If Scotland goes independent it doesn’t just mean constitutional change north of the border; there’s also a big opportunity for the remainder of the UK. The basics of the system of government could be seriously questioned in a post-independence UK. This doesn’t just mean the electoral system but also things like the unelected House of Lords, further devolution to Wales, and more regionalisation within England. There might not be much or any change in those areas but, at the very least, they’ll be given a hefty bump up the agenda (both amongst the population and politicians) if the basis of the British state is called into question. Independence would mean Scottish freedom from government by a state that was built in the era of the British Empire, and it would at least offer the opportunity to reshape that state south of the border. Without independence that opportunity looks much smaller. I believe that there are enough progressive people, and people frustrated by the status quo, outside Scotland to bring about meaningful constitutional change in the remainder of the UK. I don’t think Scottish independence would make this less likely (especially since we would have a example of an alternative on our doorstep) but I do think that retaining the British state as it stands does.

Summary and Conclusion:

I will not mourn the loss of British national identity; other parts of my identity are far more important to me. Further, I think that the Scottish case would and already does give us an example of how to build movements around causes other than exclusive nationalism, which is an exciting prospect. It seems eminently plausible that Scotland can improve its economic prospects without the deadweight of a political system that mathematically prioritises the majority of the British population that live elsewhere. These points can be seen as a matter of faith; I believe that humans are able to shape the world that they exist in and make it better. The problem is when the structures that they exist in, which may have developed for historical reasons, put a brake on this ability. There’s no doubt in my mind that the British state does this but that Scottish independence could reduce or, at the least, challenge its ability to do so. The plans for devo max essentially admit that Scotland is being held back by Westminster and, as such, beg the question why Scots (or any of us) should accept any government by that outmoded institution. We shouldn’t just accept what Westminster wants to give us, we should decide the shape of the state that we want and pursue it. I’m tired of living in a political system that is predicated on the idea that change ‘cant’ be done’ or is ‘unrealistic’, and Scottish independence is the biggest opportunity in my lifetime for this to cease to be the case. If I accept the possibility that humans can adapt and build a better world then I have to see the opportunity in change as well as the risk. At the same time, I can’t help but see the huge deficiencies of the British state as it stands, deficiencies that are not just a hypothetical risk. This is a case of the devil we know definitely not being better than the devil we don’t. We need a catalyst for change and Scottish independence represents that. For this reason I am enthusiastically in support of it.

Next Year Nigel: UKIP’s General Election Prospects

Back in May I attended an excellent event at King’s College London titled ‘General Election: One Year Out’ (hosted by Ipsos MORI), the main conclusion of which was that it is exceptionally difficult to predict the outcome of the forthcoming general election. As Professor Roger Mortimer, the first speaker at the event, pointed out, post-war British electoral history suggests the low likelihood of any of next year’s possible results. It is very rare for an incumbent party to increase their vote, for an opposition party to return to government having lost power at the last election, or for there to be two hung Parliaments in a row. So what the heck is going to happen? The opinion in the room seemed to be that a second Conservative-led coalition is the most likely outcome, and I reckon that’s probably right, though I also think that there’s an outside chance of a Labour-led coalition (which would be much more comfortable for the remaining Liberal Democrats).

Of course one of the themes of the event was the potential impact of UKIP, with the consensus seemingly that they will have an important role in defining the result. I agree with this general prediction but I also think they’ll be doing well to get even a single MP. It’s true that they had a strong, and perhaps even better than expected, outing in the European elections but those are a different kettle of fish from the general election (which will play less to their strengths). Still, it’s worth considering the factors in favour of and against a strong UKIP showing next year.

First up, the advantages that the party have are not just based around the fact that the media talks about their prospective impact a lot. They certainly benefit from the oxygen of publicity (as have the major parties for a much longer time) but, more to the point, they also benefit from the broader narratives in much of the media. Of course, what I’m talking about is the large quantity of stories that either explicitly focus on or implicitly flag up immigration and the EU as problems. Those narratives have existed and been sustained for a long time, and have made the political arena ripe for the entry of an anti-immigration and anti-EU party. The BNP ruled themselves out by being populated by people who even the more, shall we say staunchly, right-wing press found difficult to stomach. UKIP are just about respectable enough (unless you look too hard) not to be opposed by those elements of the press, though they also tend not to endorse them explicitly. That fact itself plays to the party’s strength because it allows them to maintain their outsider status, which is what makes them attractive to many people who are disillusioned with the three main parties (a vote for UKIP may well often just be a plague on all the other houses).

The party’s outsider status is played to by Nigel Farage, who relishes the opportunity to speak truth to power as he sees it (e.g. ‘what the other parties won’t admit is that…’). Putting aside the fact that he is certainly not a man of the people, UKIP does benefit from his jocularity and willingness to laugh at himself. As with Boris Johnson, this allows him to appear to be different from the (focus group-led, autocue reading) brushed aluminium cyber-pricks that populate much of the rest of politics. So, plain speaking Nigel is both telling the ‘truth’ that other politicians ignore and, unlike them, doing it in a straightforward manner. This whole narrative is supported, implicitly at least, by the aforementioned articles in the press that sustain the image that immigration and the EU are major problems that are willingly or incompetently ignored by mainstream politicians. The oxygen of publicity supplied to UKIP was just the cherry on top of the broader ongoing anti-EU and anti-immigration press narrative.[1]

Beyond all the above focus on media narratives it must be acknowledged that there may be real worries and concerns, and a sense of detachment from the main parties, in the voting population. People may genuinely be concerned about the EU and immigration so UKIP aren’t just benefiting from media coverage per se; they’re benefiting from press narratives that plug into, sustain, promote, and reflect actual concerns (and prejudices). In relation to the flaws of the EU I have a little sympathy with some of the prevailing discontent; it does seem a remote and complex set of institutions, and the extent to which it is democratic remains a moot point.[2] I’m less sympathetic to the discontent about immigration but perhaps that discontent reflects something beyond the issue itself.[3] It may be prejudice but it may also be a sense of discontent or worry based on insecurity. I may disagree with the manifestation of that insecurity but the point is that it’s there and is given focal points by the aforementioned press narratives. Crucially, the focusing of that discontent, worry, and prejudice on the EU and on immigration is what gives strength to UKIP.

Important though UKIP’s strength may be, I remain unconvinced that it’s enough to overcome the problems that they face at the general election. The overarching point here is that people vote differently in different elections. Many in the electorate believe, and behave as though, a general election is more important than a local or European election (hence the much lower turnout rates in the latter two types). This means that they are less likely to register a protest vote, a fact that shores up the support that the main parties receive. It also means that (as mentioned) more people turn out to vote and, for a number of reasons, they may not be easy to win over to the UKIP cause. Many people are aware that the electoral system is different (and they are reminded of this when they are instructed how to vote upon receiving their ballot paper), and therefore that it makes much less sense to support an outsider party. First-past-the-post is hugely beneficial to the major parties because the electorate understand that it’s rare for there to be more than two serious contenders in a constituency (or, in a safe seat, just the one). They are therefore unlikely to endorse a third or fourth party unless they have been thoroughly convinced that it stands a chance of winning (which is a hard sell). Building on this, the main parties will have been peddling the (sometime accurate, sometimes not) line that ‘a vote for [in this case, UKIP], is a vote for [the other main party than ourselves]’, highlighting the risk that a split in the electorate’s votes can award victory to an unwanted party. People are often risk averse and, to take an example, traditional Conservative voters will not like the idea that switching to UKIP could help Labour win in their constituency. This will, again, shore up the votes of the main parties.

Beyond the technicalities of the electoral system, general elections are also a different proposition from a policy perspective. That is to say that many more issues are salient to voters during a general election. The European elections were the perfect stomping ground for UKIP because they related directly to one of their key issues (the EU) and can be easily linked to the other (immigration). At the general election, though, those issues will have to contend with the economy, health, education, crime, welfare, pensions, and transport, amongst many others. As a single or double issue party UKIP are not well equipped to tackle all of these policy areas seriously, and they don’t benefit from the assumptions (built up over years, if not generations) that the Conservatives are good with the economy, and Labour are good with health and education. This means that UKIP are not well-placed to benefit from habitual voting; there is a reasonable chance that many voters will revert to type in a general election, having expressed their righteous indignation in the European elections.

The obstacles facing UKIP are pretty big and, consequently, I think they’re unlikely to get an MP elected. So, what’s the impact that they could have? The answer to this goes back to the origins of UKIP as a single or double issue party; they’re main goal is to put pressure on the major parties to take a hard line on the EU and immigration. To the extent that they can threaten to split votes in constituencies and help the opposition win they will be doing their job (i.e. by posing a real threat to the main parties). They won’t be gaining seats themselves but they will be upsetting the usual electoral outcomes. In essence, I think UKIP are a successful pressure group in the guise of a political party; they don’t have, or aren’t perceived as having, a serious position on lots of policy issues. They’re the manifestation of the press narratives outlined above, and they’re pushing the other parties to move right on their issues of interest. It remains to be seen what their electoral impact will be in a general election though I suspect they’ll contribute to upsets in some seats by splitting the vote whilst not winning a seat themselves. Their real impact, though, will be in the threat that they are perceived to pose to the main parties (particularly the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, Labour). This impact can already be felt in the hardening of the main parties’ lines on the EU and immigration.

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[1] For a fascinating and convincing account of the complex ways in which media coverage relate to public opinion see John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992). Or, for something shorter, see John R. Zaller, ‘The Myth of Massive Media Impact Revived: New Support for a Discredited Idea’, in Diana C. Mutz, Paul M. Sniderman, and Richard A. Brody (eds.), Political Persuasion and Attitude Change (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 17-78.

[2] That said, as both a friend and a comedian have pointed out, if the media made an effort to explain and report on the EU a little more rather than just giving up and proclaiming it too complicated (after all, is it really any more complicated that the antiquated system of government in the UK?) then perhaps it would appear more relevant (and not just because of all the laws it ‘imposes’ on us).

[3] I really think it’s a storm in a teacup; I believe that immigration has a positive social, cultural, and economic impact. Further, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for people who choose to leave their homes (and often families and friends) to try and make a better life for themselves (and that’s not even to speak of the immense sympathy that I have for asylum seekers, who constitute an entirely separate group). Further, and again, if the prevailing press narratives about immigration weren’t both implicitly and explicitly negative then perhaps public opinion would change.