Edwin Bacon

Last week I had the privilege of talking to Birkbeck’s new undergraduate politics students. These guys are serious about politics. Serious enough to take on debt, move house, give up their evenings, and so on, to study politics. Serious enough to know what’s going on in the world. When I asked how many of them knew that there had been a parliamentary election in Russia a week or so ago, I would say that about a quarter raised their hands. When I asked how many of them knew who had won the election, more than half raised their hands. So, if even people who didn’t know there was an election, knew that Putin’s party had won it, what was the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

Russia’s Electoral System

The Duma (lower house of parliament) has 450 seats. For this election, 225 deputies were  chosen under a party list system, with all parties getting over 5% of the nationwide party list vote receiving a corresponding proportion of the 225 seats. The other 225 seats were allocated in constituencies, under a first-past-the-post system. There is no connection between votes cast for the party list and votes cast for the constituency candidates.

Fourteen parties took part in the elections. The four listed in Table One gained sufficient votes to share 448 of the seats. The other two were won in constituencies by a couple of minor parties (‘Motherland’ and ‘Civic Platform’). For details of all the parties and the electoral process, see this pre-election briefing from the European Parliament.

Table One. Results of Russia’s Duma Election, 18 September 2016 (showing only those parties passing the 5% threshold for seats under the proportional representation half of the ballot).

Party PR share % PR seats Single Seats Total Seats % Total Seats
United Russia 54 140 203 343 76
CPRF 13 35 7 42 9
LDPR 13 34 5 39 9
A Just Russia 6 16 7 23 5

The unchanging state of Russia’s elections

Adam Przeworski wrote in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed, that ‘democracy is a system in which parties lose elections’. That’s a pretty good definition.

A couple of years after the Soviet collapse, I was an official election observer at Russia’s first post-Soviet general election. I was in the city of Kursk, in the bitter December cold, with a British MP. We were miffed to discover that we’d scarcely had time to file our report before the leader of the UK observer mission announced the elections ‘free and fair’. It was always clear that the findings of that observer mission would be positive, as there was widespread enthusiasm for the notion that Russia had joined the democratic camp of countries.

The surprise ‘winner’ in terms of the party-list popular vote in 1993 was the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his so-called ‘Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’  – though the presidential constitution and the mixed ‘party-list and constistuencies’ electoral system meant that he won only notoriety, not power, and his party came second behind the pro-presidential party in terms of numbers of seats. In third place came the Communist Party, just a few seats behind Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. The Communist leader was Gennady Zyuganov.

What have these reminiscences of 1993 got to do with the Duma elections of 2016?

Simply this. If you had told me then that 23 years later the president’s party of power would still be coming first in elections with the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party finishing almost neck and neck in second and third place, I would have concluded that Russian democracy had spent nearly a quarter of a century becoming moribund.

If you had further told me that 23 years later the seemingly ageless Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov would still be leading their parties, I might have concluded that Russian democracy was not moribund, but dead.

Would I have been right?

There certainly is a sense in which little changes in the Duma elections.  In last month’s elections, the president’s party – United Russia – won. Just as in the previous two elections (2007 and 2011), only the same four parties gained any real presence in the parliament (United Russia, the Communist Party, the misnamed right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and the regime-friendly left-ish party ‘A Just Russia’). As usual, Chechnya voted 96% for the president’s party. As usual, United Russia drew up a list of candidates headed by ‘big names’ who had no intention of taking up their seats.

The ever-changing Russian electoral system

But let’s not say that nothing changes.  After all, Russia’s elections are in constant flux. Every election brings multiple rule-changes, new procedures, new refinements to make things run better. Or at least to makes things run in a regime-friendly way.

The term of office for the deputies elected in 1993 was two years. After that elections went to a four year cycle, the same as the presidential term. Until 2011 when parliamentary elections changed to every five years, and the presidential term to six years. So 2016’s parliamentary plebiscite was Russia’s first ‘mid-term’ election, with the next presidential vote due in 2018. Though the discrepancy in term lengths means that mid-terms will not continue to be the norm, as in another 20 years both presidential and parliamentary elections will take place together – if we make the unlikely assumption that the electoral rules will not be changed again in the meantime.

What else changed this time round? For the first time in the post-Soviet era, the elections were not held on a Sunday in December, but on a Sunday in September. Low turn-out has already led to the suggestion that next time round, parliament will be elected in April, on a weekday.

As for the electoral system itself, between 1993 and 2003 the 450 seats in the Duma were filled by a half single-mandate, half proportional combination. That changed in 2007 and 2011 to an entirely proportional, party-list vote in order ‘to strengthen Russia’s party system’, since independents won more than 100 seats in 2003.

Now, having established a stable group of ‘parliamentary parties’, the electoral system has reverted back to the previous 50:50 mix. This has had beneficial results for the ruling regime. United Russia won 60% of its seats from the single-mandate constituencies.

The revival of single-mandate constituencies also gives structure to the ruling ‘power vertical’, that is, the connections by which the Kremlin sees its authority carried across Russia’s vast territory.  None of the opposition parties has a concentration of support anywhere, as the few constituencies that they won are spread out. For example, there is one seat each in Moscow and St Petersburg for both the Communists and ‘A Just Russia’. The degree of local control in particular regions can also be seen by the clustering of continuing deputies. There are no new United Russia deputies at all in Tatarstan’s constituencies, ditto in Tversk, and almost all deputies in the Voronezh region remained in place.

Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) made mention of Voronezh when she talked about several examples of electoral malpractice that came to light. It is possible to spend a fascinating half hour or so watching such examples on Youtube, thanks to Russia’s practice of having live webcams in all polling booths and using transparent plastic ballot boxes. It is less possible, however, to be sure of the extent to which electoral fraud shaped the final results. Pamfilova bemoans the fact that the CEC headquarters cannot remove CEC regional heads, as this is in the remit of the governors.

 What do the numbers tell us?

Apart from the results themselves, the two stand-out numbers from the Duma election relate to turnout and turnover.

  • The 48% turnout represents the lowest in post-Soviet Russia’s national elections. Turnout was especially low in big cities, notably Moscow and St Petersburg. Such low turnout reflects well a lacklustre campaign, where few people doubted the identity of the eventual winners. If the result is so predictable, then why bother voting?
  • A remarkable 49% of the deputies elected to Russia’s Duma on 18 September are new to parliament. For half of all members of parliament to be new to the role means that there are plenty of fresh faces coming into Russian politics. The figure is higher still if we consider only the president’s party, United Russia, which has 204 new deputies, 60% of its cohort.

A notable trend in Russian politics over the past few months has been the renewal of the presidential cadre, with some well-known, long-standing associaties of President Putin moved out of their positions. In their place come younger people, who are more clearly protégées, rather then colleagues. Previous practice shows that the parliament serves as a talent pool for the president’s team. Even though far from all of the new United Russia deputies are young – their average age is 51 – there are still more than 80 new deputies in their 30s and 40s. These represent the coming generation of Russian politicians.

 So why bother?

Let us return to the question with which we started. If the campaign is lacklustre, the turnout low, and the result entirely predictable, what is the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

First, from the point of view of the regime, elections serve as a legimating mechanism. I mean here legitimation in the political science sense, rather than in the vernacular sense that implies approving of the electoral process and its results as legitimate. All regimes, of whatever stripe, employ some mode of legitimation – be that popular vote, ideological justification, or ‘social contract’ based on the provision of economic goods or national security. Those who govern Russia have chosen democracy as their legitimation. Russia has a democratic constitution, and its rulers are scrupulous about sticking to its fundamental provisions, holding elections accordingly, and ensuring that these elections are multi-party in nature. One can criticise the way in which elections are managed in order to protect those in power – the regular rule changes, the blind eye turned to electoral manipulation, the media bias, the various forms of political control, the judicial means employed to restrict candidates, and so on – but from the regime’s point of view it is essential for reasons of legitimacy that elections are seen to be held. It is just that, contravening Adam Przeworski’s definition of democracy, United Russia does not lose elections.

If the purpose of the elections for the regime is clear, why do opposition parties play along? Surely they could threaten that unless the electoral playing field is levelled, they will refuse to play their part in legimating the ruling regime? Although such action is sometimes threatened when the regime is deemed to have committed particularly egregious electoral violations , the opposition parties do take part.

For those parties that get into parliament, there are obvious material rewards for the deputies and a comparatively exalted position within national political life for the parties themselves. But these parties, although capable of sharp criticism of the Putin regime at times, tend to work with it in parliament.  A revealing meeting of party leaders with President Putin, shortly after the election results were announced, had all present agreeing on the need for stability. Stability? What sort of opposition wants so little to change?

Zyuganov, the Communist leader, complained about there being too many parties in the election, and then lobbied Putin for positions for some of his party colleagues who failed to get elected. Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia asked that the chairmanship of a key parliamentary committee be given to someone from his party. That he was asking the president for something that is theoretically in the gift of the parliament is indicative of the control of the executive over the legislature, and the position of the regime in relation to the parliamentary opposition.

If the advantages of the elections for the regime and the parliamentary opposition are clear, what on earth is in it for those smaller parties that don’t even get into parliament, such as the liberal opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS? Analysts of Russian affairs often argue that one of the main reasons for the non-systemic liberal opposition not making a breakthrough is their inability to unite their efforts. They bicker amongst themselves, taking votes from one another rather than from their ideological opponents. To make such a criticism is to misunderstand why these parties enter the elections. They’re not stupid. They don’t take part to win, because they know that they won’t. Their aims are different.

First, taking part in the elections gives them a voice. During an election campaign, these parties get air-time, criticise the ruling party, and can try to get their voices across – albeit that the rather lively TV debates can be so cacophonous as to drown out much of what is said.

Second, campaigning serves as a training ground for aspirant political figures dissatisfied with how Russia is ruled.

Third, and most significant, they take part in order to stay in the game. The legitimating mechanism of the Russian political system is democracy. At some point in the future – who knows when? – there will be a state of flux and the question of who next rules Russia will become urgent. The constitution and established political practice are clear, the people’s vote decides who rules. In some future time of change, the democratic institutional structure that is Russia’s political system will stop being more form than substance.

Those who remember the Soviet collapse recall the way in which de jure institutions and institutional rules quickly became de facto, and mattered enormously in enabling that process and shaping its progress. It is to prepare for such a day that parties take part now in elections that the ruling party does not lose.


We should always be careful when an adjective like ‘great’ is attached to a piece of law in Britain. The Great Reform Act of 1832 wasn’t that great and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 wasn’t very glorious and wasn’t a revolution.

Theresa May’s proposed Great Repeal Act of 2017 could join these misnamed changes. Its essential purpose is to take, in one heave, all EU law and turn it into UK law the instant we finally Brexit. One commentator described it as a huge legal cut and paste job. However, even this underwhelming cut and paste could cause all sorts of political and constitutional problems as this blog explains. So here’s six questions that might determine how the ‘Great Repeal’ goes:

  1. Will the House of Commons oppose it? It’s unlikely the Great Repeal Bill will be rejected outright (though it could be). More likely is that MPs could disrupt its progress and use procedure and process to slow it, question it and possibly amend it. There are around 500 MPs who are pro-EU and 100-150 or so confirmed Brexiters. May can whip it through (see 2) but those numbers, to me, spell trouble.
  1. Will Conservative MPs rebel? May has a majority of just 16 and many of her backbenches are unhappy and could use the bill to let the Prime Minister know. The ghost of John Major and Maastricht still stalks the backbenches. Remember, it wasn’t that Major lost votes but the constant media speculation that eroded his authority.
  1. Will the House of Lords oppose it? Again, it’s unlikely they’ll oppose it outright. But the House of Lords is estimated to be around 5-1 in favour of EU membership, is packed full of lawyers and sees itself as the guardian of constitutional and civil rights. And, of course, no one controls the timetable. It’s also not clear where the Salisbury convention stands here-the referendum was in a manifesto but was the result?
  1. Who will scrutinise it? There’s all sorts of time stealing options available. The law will have to be published in draft, lengthening the whole process. There is also a convention that constitutional issues can be debated by the whole chamber of one or both Houses and are normally given plenty of time (Scottish and Welsh devolution in the 1990s both had entire days dedicated to them).
  1. Will the devolved assemblies agree? Legally there’s little they can do but protest despite the (largely formal) need for legislative consent. Politically there could be far more trouble. May’s apparent overriding of Scotland will play well to her core (English) support already the SNP are making it look like London bullying Edinburgh again. And the apparent shift to hard Brexit again raises the question of the Northern Ireland border.
  1. What will the Bill come to symbolise? If the Bill is just admin then it may pass relatively simply. But some laws come to be symbols of failure or incompetence and represent far greater issues: think of the Dangerous Dogs Act, the Hunting Act or Human Rights Act. As the main chance for Parliament to be involved in Brexit, the passage of the law could become, by default, the battleground for a three way fight between hard Brexiters, soft Brexiters and Remainers.

The danger for May is that this ‘Great Repeal’ will steal her government’s time, energy and focus. The last three Conservative Prime Ministers were all destroyed by a potent combination of EU membership and an unhappy party. Could May’s Bill help make it four?

brexit-twitter-imageEric Kaufmann

A new survey shows most Britons are not willing to pursue hard Brexit if it will cost them personally.

Thus far, the economic indicators post-Brexit don’t look bad. Consumer spending and investment are holding up well, despite a lower pound. But if the going gets tough, there is a two-thirds majority willing to accept current levels of EU migration to retain access to the single market.

The leading motivation for Leave voters was reducing immigration while Remain voters prioritised the economy. This hasn’t changed. According to my YouGov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey data, two-thirds of British people want less immigration, including 47 percent of Remainers and over 91 percent of Leavers.

Hard Brexit is a good way to bring numbers down. However, some suggest that when Theresa May triggers Article 50, the EU will drive a hard bargain, inflicting pain on the British economy. With economists claiming entry to the single market is worth 4 percent of GDP by 2030, I asked how much the average Briton is willing to sacrifice to reduce European immigration in the event the doomsayers are right. The final deal between Britain and the EU over leaving will hinge on how much economic pain, in the form of reduced market access, Britain is prepared to absorb to restrict European immigration.

The survey, carried out by the polling firm YouGov, asked a sample of over 1500 people the following question: “Roughly 185,000 more people entered Britain last year from the EU than went the other way. Imagine there was a cost to reduce the inflow. How much would you be willing to pay to reduce the number of Europeans entering Britain?” The options ranged from “pay nothing” for no reduction to paying 5 percent of personal income to reduce numbers to zero. Each percent of income foregone reduced the influx by 35,000. The results are shown in figure 1.




Figure 1.

Source: YouGov survey, August 20, 2016.

Among those surveyed, and excluding those who didn’t know, 62 percent said they were unwilling to pay anything to reduce numbers, and would accept current levels of European immigration.


Figure 2.

Source: YouGov survey, August 20, 2016.

As figure 2 shows, even among those who said they voted to leave the European Union, 30 percent reported they would prefer the current inflow of 185,000 to paying any of their income to cut the inflow. In other words, there is a significant ‘soft’ component within the Leave vote.

On the other hand, there is a considerable core of Brexit voters willing to tighten their belts to reduce migration: over a third of Leave voters indicated they would contribute 5 percent of their income to cut European migration to zero. More than half of Brexiteers are willing to pay at least 3 percent of their income to reduce European net migration from the current 185,000 to under 80,000. The average person who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election is willing to stump up 2.5 percent of their pay packet to reduce European immigration to half its current level.

This means that if the costs of Brexit mount in line with pessimistic predictions, most British people favour a deal that preserves market access even if this results in only limited reductions in European immigration. May’s Conservative voters will put up with more pain, but not if it costs more than 2 percent of GDP. This suggests a deal between Theresa May and her EU interlocutors based on significant market access in exchange for limited migration controls may be acceptable to the 45 percent of voters who currently back her party. It certainly will pass muster with a majority of the electorate.

If the economy continues to hold steady, the question is moot and hard Brexit remains a strong option. But if pain is on the way after Article 50, Middle Britain will be inclined to prefer soft over hard Brexit.

Originally on the LSE policy and politics blog here


Last week academics from the Department of Politics at Birkbeck debated the future of Brexit Britain. On 23rd of June 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union. But who exactly voted to go and what did they vote for? And will they get the ‘leave’ they want or a mushy compromise?

The panel debated what happens next now we are under a new government, with Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Theresa May faces, perhaps, the glass cliff to end all glass cliffs with a vast array of complex tasks from when to trigger article 50 (sooner, later or never?) to keeping the United Kingdom together and facing down the electoral challenge of UKIP.

Discussion ranged across the prospects for complex trade negotiations (for which there may be no negotiators), the possibility of an early General Election (unlikely), the potential effects on Scotland and Northern Ireland and the big question of why did Britain (or a majority of parts of Britain) vote to leave.

So if you want to find out if and when we’ll leave the EU, why there are ‘gargantuan turf wars’ breaking out across government and if we could ever Brijoin the EU listen here:


See also our Brexit Briefing here, our blog as well as this House of Commons Library note ‘Brexit: What happens Next?’

Panellists: Dr David Styan; Dr Dermot Hodson; Dr Jason Edwards; Professor Eric Kaufmann; Jessica Smith


 Events leading up to the recent referendum on EU membership help to show that our politics is poorly served by the ways in which we think about reason and rationality in relation to our central political institutions.

Our democracy and the media that reports on it both perform public reasoning functions on society’s behalf. Our politicians table motions, engage in parliamentary debates and participate in committee meetings in order to explore argument and evidence and reach political decisions on the nation’s behalf. This encourages reasoning by citizens themselves, who are caused to reflect on parliamentary debates and decisions in order to consider whether or not to re-elect their political representatives. And indeed, as we have seen, citizens are occasionally tasked with directly deciding on an issue via referenda. For its part, the media functions to facilitate citizens’ reasoning by describing and publicising these democratic reasoning processes, while of course also engaging in reasoning itself as it seeks to inform and assess our politics, advancing particular claims and arguments which not only reflect public discourse but also help shape it.

The contributions to public reasoning made by our democracy and our media are typically taken to play out in accordance with a particular understanding of rationalism – one which holds that reason proceeds via conflict and contestation. This familiar understanding of public reasoning holds that issues are framed such that debate may ensue between a small number of disagreeing groups, identifiable by their distinctive views, who each strive to ensure that their own stance will prevail over those of their opponents’. Our democracy can be seen to rest on an understanding of public reasoning that draws on an image of martial conflict, with opposing political ‘armies’ squaring-up to each other in the Houses of Parliament in order to engage in a form of intellectual battle whose victors are decided by votes among politicians who are whipped to follow their party line. Our expectations of the media reveal the same tendency to understand reasoning in terms of an image of contestation, with journalists taking care to provide ‘balanced’ reporting in which the views of opposing ‘sides’ of a debate are sought out and given air time and column inches in fair measure, lest allegations of bias be raised.


That we understand public reason in terms of contestation has certain implications for the ways in which our politics proceeds. Firstly, an understanding of reason as contestation demands that issues be fixed and framed to facilitate competitive debate. This has the effect of solidifying and simplifying complex and shifting circumstances such that stark positions can be taken and binary choices offered. Secondly, an understanding of reason as contestation requires that opposing sides be clearly delineated. This can have a divisive, polarising effect, crystalising and delimiting the range of possible positions and narrowing the terms on which debates can be engaged with, thus widening the gap between those with different points of view. And thirdly, an understanding of reason as contestation anticipates that discerning an ultimate and decisive victor is a simple matter of initiating a democratic process of decision making. This can effect the ways in which public reasoning processes unfold, as they are shaped to accommodate the expectation of imminent finality and to expedite its arrival.

All of this is readily apparent in relation to Brexit. The path to the stark binary choice offered in the referendum is an exemplar of the kind of narrowing and increasingly divisive public reasoning process outlined above. From a heterogeneous range of objections to various aspects of European integration emerged the catch-all term ‘Eurosceptic’, and, in consequence, its opposite: ‘Europhile’. The sides of the debate thus established, the media were set to invent countless ‘Euromyths’ and to amplify the voice of UKIP in the interests of ‘balance’. Calls for a decisive electoral test came with a mounting sense of urgency: why delay the inevitable, given that our view of reason-as-contestation anticipates such easy closure? We thus found ourselves urged to take our places, with degrees of discomfort, on ‘sides’ of a debate whose terms suited too few of its participants. Indeed, it has been widely noted that the ostensible terms of the debate seem not to have been those that were actually at issue for many voters. Immigration, nebulous notions of control and sovereignty, and revolt against a seemingly remote and technocratic politics all emerged as key motivations for ‘leave’ voters, whereas Number 10 had anticipated a debate about EU membership on narrow economic grounds. And what might Brexit mean? Although, apparently, “Brexit means Brexit”, a more enlightening definition of what we have voted for has yet to emerge: the referendum has conspicuously failed to provide an ultimate, decisive settlement on our relationship with Europe, raising many more questions than it answers. So it seems that not only does our understanding of reasoning-as-contestation distort our politics, but that it also fails to accurately capture the realities of public reasoning, in which issues are mutable and multivalent, rarely lending themselves to starkly opposing positions, with decisive closure remaining elusive.

This should come as no surprise. Academic work in the field of the social study of science has, for several decades now, favoured an alternative conception of rationalism. Rather than assuming contestation, ethnographically-based work by Bruno Latour and others encourages us to understand reasoning as a process more akin to that of coalition building, in which heterogeneous participants make and remake their own distinctive translations of a multivalent proposition, as opposed to seeking fixed relationships of identity with a likeminded ‘side’. This work offers a valuable repertoire of sensitivities, concepts and techniques that not only point the way to the production of more realistic accounts of public reasoning, but also speak directly to the idea that our conceptions of public reasoning shape our politics, being particularly concerned to explore how reasoning, and our understandings of it, go hand in hand with changes in the world in ways that are difficult to disentangle.

Has this work in the social study of science been successfully absorbed by academics engaged in the study of politics? Not yet. Presently, some of the most prominent theoretical perspectives on political reasoning remain those which emerged from an intensification of interest in its study during the 1990s. The much-cited work of Peter Hall, Peter Haas, and Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith attempts to repurpose Kuhnian and Lakatosian philosophy of science for the study of political rationalism, but as such work itself relies on an image of contestation, it unfortunately serves merely to perpetuate the commonplace understanding of reason outlined above. However, things are beginning to change. Recent books such as Jan-Peter Voß and Richard Freeman’s Knowing Governance point to exciting new directions for politics scholarship, and later this Summer the joint 4S and EASST social studies of science conference will feature no less than fourteen tracks which discuss political themes.

That academics studying politics are seeking-out new ways of thinking about reasoning not only makes a valuable contribution to the study of politics, but it may eventually even come to shape the ways in which our public reasoning proceeds.

Patrick Coupar is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London



There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either (i) win a General Election (ii) win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i).

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

Prime Minister[1] Previous Position Won or Lost Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20)[2]
Gordon Brown 2007 Chancellor Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major 1990 Chancellor Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Foreign Secretary Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Foreign Secretary Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Chancellor Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Foreign Secretary Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned 20
Winston Churchill


First Lord of the Admiralty Lost 1945 5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Chancellor n/a 3 years Resigned 17
Stanley Baldwin 1923 then 1935 Lord President of the Council Lost   1923

Won 1935


-1 year

2 years




Andrew Bonar Law        ? n/a 1 year Resigned 16
David Lloyd George Chancellor Won 1918 6 years Resigned 3

 So what can we tell our new Prime Minister from this?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to the IFG’s Gavin Freeguard for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have exactly even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

1950 - Confirm your confidence in Churchill (Conservative poster)

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as kind of historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected

[2] Not included here is Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.



When Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, said that “England has collapsed”, he was not referring to England’s elimination from the European football championship by Iceland.  What he meant was that the UK has collapsed, in his words, “politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically”.  Far from looking like a party of government in waiting, capable of offering an answer, the Labour party has become entangled in this systemic crisis and may end up splitting as a result.  The party’s reaction to the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates that the image of unity and pro-European conviction that could be detected before the referendum was little more than a façade.  The pro-European conviction is being shaken to the core and unity, if it ever existed, has evaporated.

Key facts indicate that it did not have to be like that.  Recent polling indicates that 81% of Labour party members are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU.  nearly two thirds of those who voted Labour in 2015 are estimated to have voted for the country to remain a member of the EU.  More than 90% of Labour’s MPs were active supporters of the Remain campaign and the leaders of virtually all trade unions and the TUC.  For a party that over the past year has been divided over a number of policies, these are indications of a remarkable degree of unity. In reality, though, things are quite different.  The behaviour of leading Labour politicians indicates that both the left and the right wing of the party find it very easy indeed to move away from their declared pro-EU stance.

Jeremy Corbyn performance in the referendum campaign was so lackluster and he was, arguably, so late in supporting the Remain camp (a stance that may be the result of his Bennite associations), that a couple of weeks before the referendum almost half of Labour’s voters said they did not know where the party stood on the referendum question.  The extraordinary degree of hostility from the media towards its leader (a hostility that brings to mind the mendacity of the British press against the EU that arguably had a decisive impact on the referendum’s outcome) can explain only part of this state of affairs.  Even if one ignores the multiple allegations that Corbyn and his collaborators actively sabotaged the party’s Remain campaign, the suspicion that Corbyn actually preferred Brexit was compounded by his spokesman’s statement that the result shows that Corbyn’s view is much closer to the views held by the British public.

Secondly, the extent of anti-EU sentiment in the party’s former heartlands in the North of England was such that just days before the referendum leading members of the party’s frontbench like its deputy leader Tom Watson and prominent backbenchers like Yvette Cooper argued in favour of restrictions in the free movement of people inside the EU.  Cooper in particular was so desperate in this attempt that she argued in favour of the abolition (in all but name) of the essence of Schengen area (i.e. one of the most significant achievements of the process of European integration) despite the fact that the UK is not part of it.  This was a belated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to appease the anti-immigrant (to put it mildly) feeling that was unleashed by the referendum.  It was reminiscent of the party’s 2015 general election pledge to reduce new EU migrants’ access to some benefits for two years: late, wide of the mark, out of line with the party’s pro-EU stance and ultimately unsuccessful.  Crucially, these Labour politicians did not try to confront the public’s misconceptions and prejudices at a time when academic research shows the significant contribution that EU immigrants make to the exchequer, even before one considers the cultural and other forms of their contribution.  Nor did they say much about the fact that for decades non-EU immigration (for which the UK has sole responsibility) has been higher than immigration from the EU.  So, even if one (despite the evidence) believes that immigration in the UK is a problem, policy failed in the part that is under the control of the UK government.  Though changing public perceptions during the post-fact politics is anything but easy, these Labour politicians have failed the party and the country by allowing the fact-free, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment to settle.

To his credit Corbyn publicly rejected the notion that immigration is a problem.  Both he and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, were right to argue that parts of the country were feeling the negative impact of immigration as a result of decisions made in Whitehall, not Brussels.  Proof of this is the scrapping by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in August 2010 of the fund that was meant to help ease the pressure on housing, hospitals and schools felt by these communities.

The huge row inside the Labour party after the referendum has focused much more on Corbyn than on the policies that the party ought to pursue in the future.  In this context even some of Corbyn’s supporters (including amongst trade union members) have acknowledged that under his leadership Labour cannot make the electoral progress that it needs to make and offer the country a real alternative to the Conservative government.  At the same time, internal analysis of Labour’s performance in last Amay’s local elections shows that the party has increased its share of votes in areas where this progress would not affect the outcome of a general election.  As the authors of that analysis put it,

“The strategic problem is that only 14% of our gains were in areas we need in order to win general elections – while just under 50% of our losses were in those areas.”

This poses a major dilemma, the answer to which will determine the fate of the Labour party in the next decade or so.  Should it abandon its pro-Europeanism of which its support for immigration is a key indication and hope to attract some of the voters it has lost in its Welsh and northern English former heartlands or should it stick to facts and principles and try to change (rather than echo) the views of these voters some of whom harbour xenophobic opinions.  In other words, at the end of the day, it must decide whether it is a progressive, left-wing party or not.

Those amongst its most prominent MPs and officials who (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) prefer the former to the latter must be aware of the costs that this option will entail.  Joining the anti-immigration bandwagon (instead of, for example, attacking austerity and beefing up labour standards) is no free lunch.  The millions of cosmopolitan, urban dwellers (including those who helped propel Sadiq Khan to victory in the 2016 London mayoral elections) who support Labour (and have boosted its membership since Corbyn’s victory) will abandon it if it becomes little more than ‘red UKIP’ while it is hard to see why other voters (who could be tempted by the anti-immigration line) will prefer the copy to the original.  After all, preliminary evidence shows that a) there is absolutely no correlation between wage growth and support for Brexit and b) culture and personality, rather than material circumstances, lie behind majority support for Brexit.

This was originally posted on http://ukandeu.ac.uk/labour-after-brexit/


Britain’s choice to vote Leave, we are told, is a protest by those left behind by modernisation and globalisation. London versus the regions, poor versus rich. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics. Age, education, national identity and ethnicity are more important than income or occupation. But to get to the nub of the Leave-Remain divide, we need to go even deeper, to the level of attitudes and personality.

Strikingly, the visible differences between groups are less important than invisible differences between individuals. These don’t pit one group against another, they slice through groups, communities and even families. Our brains deal better with groups than personality differences because we latch onto the visible stuff. It’s easy to imagine a young student or London professional voting Remain; or a working-class man with a northern accent backing Leave.

fig 1

Open and Closed personalities are harder to conjure up: yet these invisible differences are the ones that count most – around two or three times as much as the group differences.

fig 2

A second problem is that many analyses are spatial. Don’t get me wrong: I love maps and differences between place are important, especially for first-past-the-post elections. However, some characteristics vary a lot over space and others don’t.

Figure 1 ranks Local Authorities and England and Wales by the average social grade of their White British residents. The lower the average class position of White British residents, the higher the vote for Brexit. In fact this working class index explains 58% of the variation in the Leave vote across districts. But, according to the 2015 British Election Study Internet Panel of over 24,000 respondents, class only explains 1-2% of the variation in Brexit voting intention among individuals. There may have been a slight shift over the past year, but this won’t have altered the results much.

Figure 1.

fig 3

Source: https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/ (census data); http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/

Why the discrepancy? Social characteristics such as class, ethnicity or region are related to where people live, so they vary from place to place. Psychology and personality do vary over space a little because they are affected a bit by social characteristics like age. But they’re mainly shaped by birth order, genetics, life experiences and other influences which vary within, not across, districts.

Aggregate analysis distorts individual relationships even when there aren’t problems caused by the ecological fallacy. The sex ratio, for instance, is more or less the same from one place to another, so even if gender really mattered for the vote, maps hide this truth. On the other hand, maps can also exaggerate. If 1% of Cornwall votes for the Cornish nationalists then Cornwall would light up on a map of Cornish nationalist voting with a 100% correlation. But knowing that all Cornish nationalist voters live in Cornwall doesn’t tell us much about why people vote for Cornish nationalists.

As with region in the case of Cornish nationalism, class matters for the vote over space because it affects, or reflects, where we live. This tells us a lot about a little. Notice the range of district average class scores in figure 1 runs only from 1.8 to 2.4 whereas individuals’ class scores range from 1 (AB) to 4 (DE). The average difference from the mean between individuals is ten times as great as that between districts.

Let’s therefore look at individuals: what the survey data tell us about why people voted Brexit. Imagine you have a thousand British voters and must determine which way they voted. Figure 2 shows that if you guess, knowing nothing about them, you’ll get 50 percent right on average. Armed with information on region or their economic situation – income and social grade – your hit rate improves to about 54 percent, not much better than chance. In other words, the big stories about haves versus have-nots, or London versus the regions, are less important.

Age or education, which are tied more strongly to identity, get you over 60 percent. Ethnicity is important but tricky: minorities are much less likely to have voted Leave, but this tells us nothing about the White British majority so doesn’t improve our overall predictive power much.

Invisible attitudes are more powerful than group categories. If we know whether someone supports UKIP, Labour or some other party, we increase our score to over 70 percent. The same is true for a person’s immigration attitudes. Knowing whether someone thinks European unification has gone too far takes us close to 80 percent accuracy. But then, this is pretty much the same as asking about Brexit, minus a bit of risk appetite.

Figure 2.


Source: British Election Study 2015 Internet Panel, waves 1-3

For me, what really stands out about figure 2 is the importance of support for the death penalty. Nobody has been out campaigning on this issue, yet it strongly correlates with Brexit voting intention. This speaks to a deeper personality dimension which social psychologists like Bob Altemeyer – unfortunately in my view – dub Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). A less judgmental way of thinking about RWA is order versus openness. The order-openness divide is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension. This was noticed as early as the mid-1970s by Daniel Bell, but has become more pronounced as the aging West’s ethnic transformation has accelerated. Figure 3 shows that 71 percent of those most in favour of the death penalty indicated in 2015 that they would vote to leave the EU. This falls to 20 percent among those most opposed to capital punishment. A similar picture results for other RWA questions such as the importance of disciplining children. RWA is only tangentially related to demographics. Education, class, income, gender and age play a role, but explain less than 10 percent of the variation in support for the death penalty.

Figure 3.

fig 5

Source: British Election Study 2015 Internet Panel, waves 1-3.

Karen Stenner, author of the Authoritarian Dynamic, argues that people are divided between those who dislike difference – signifying a disordered identity and environment – and those who embrace it. The former abhor both ethnic and moral diversity. Many see the world as a dangerous place and wish to protect themselves from it.

Pat Dade at Cultural Dynamics has produced a heat map of the kinds of values that correspond to strong Euroskepticism, and to each other. This is shown in figure 4. Disciplining children and whipping sex criminals (circled), keeping the nation safe, protecting social order and skepticism (‘few products live up to the claims of their advertisers…products don’t last as long as they used to’) correlate with Brexit sentiment. These attitude dimensions cluster within the third of the map known as the ‘Settlers’, for whom belonging, certainty, roots and safety are paramount. This segment is also disproportionately opposed to immigration in virtually every country Dade has sampled. By contrast, people oriented toward success and display (‘Prospectors’), or who prioritise expressive individualism and cultural equality (‘Pioneers’) voted Remain.

Figure 4.

fig 6

All told, the Brexit story is mainly about values, not economic inequality.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He may be found on twitter @epkaufm.

10 downing st

Being Prime Minister is, even at the best of times, rather tough. For the all of the £143,462 a year and free house (in a lovely central London location) it is a difficult and demanding job.

The next Prime Minister’s in-tray is looking particularly problematic. Whoever leads the UK will have to somehow head a divided party, run a divided country and confront the new forces pulling the UK apart, from the SNP’s referendum manoeuvres in Scotland to the borderless uncertainty of Northern Ireland. This is without mentioning the two years of negotiations with 27 rather upset EU member states.

Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to be Prime Minister now? Why are the runners and riders in the Tory party frantically backstabbing and front-stabbing in a Macbeth-style incarnadine orgy? Why is everyone not doing what we can now term a ‘Boris Johnson’ and running from their responsibilities?

Here’s three reasons why people want to be PM-but each comes with a downside.

  1. Because they think they’d be good at it (‘I Should Not fail’)

Many candidates want to be PM because they think they can do it and do it well. They believe only they have the abilities, outlook and temperament to be in control events. Churchill wrote that in the summer of 1940 he knew, as he stepped over the threshold of the famous black door, ‘a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail’.

Sometimes they also think that because they have done other jobs well they may be effective leaders-though the evidence for this is not convincing. Gordon Brown was a long serving Chancellor, Eden a (very) long serving Foreign Secretary and John Major did a bit of both. All went on to fail pretty spectacularly in Downing Street.

The problem is that being Prime Minister ruthlessly reveals whether you are truly good at or not. Even though you are still technically only ‘first among equals’ the office of PM is fundamentally different in its exposure from other great offices of state. A Chancellor can, to an extent, duck and hide from the media. A PM cannot. Whoever heads the Brexit government will find out, very quickly, whether they have the skills. And they will have nowhere to hide.

  1. Because they want to ‘Change Things’ and ‘Make a Difference’ (‘Walking with Destiny’)

Those who wish to be Prime Minister often speak of changing things and making a difference, though the desire normally precedes the detail. Thatcher and Blair arrived in power intending to modernise the country. Both of them took some time to find out what this all meant and there was a large element, even for Thatcher, of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Only perhaps Edward Heath changed things at a stroke when he took the UK into the then EEC.

Some Prime Ministers never even had a plan and never made a difference. Despite ten years of plotting, there was no real Brownism. Similarly Wilsonism amounted to very little while Majorism was nothing more than paraphrased George Orwell quotes and a cone hotline.

Any leader that takes Britain out of the EU would indeed walk with destiny and change things to an extraordinary degree. At least for the post Brexit PM the mission is clear (ish) –to leave the EU (ish). Exactly how this is to be done is extraordinarily complex and very, very fuzzy. Leaving would be as time consuming and attention sapping as Northern Ireland or reversing national decline was for a succession of past leaders. The lurking danger is what other change leaving would bring. Will it trigger the break-up of Britain? Would any leader (especially a Conservative) want to be the Prime Minister that finally, after 300 years, dis-united the UK?

  1. Because of their ego.

Possibly the least noble but most important motive for being PM is ego. The only real immortality, as Machivelli argued, is ‘lasting fame after your death’. In Downing Street, the photos of your illustrious predecessors gaze at you each time you walk up the stairs. Being Prime Minister instantly makes you a true historical figure, inhabiting an office of weather-makers, part of a lineage with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That’s an ego boost.

Few politicians can truly avoid the desire to be top. The hand of history, international prestige, the trappings and power are all almost irresistible (not to mention the gifts and foreign travel).  Churchill, for all his walking with destiny, was deeply ambitious and egotistical. Lloyd George, no slouch in the ego stakes, said of Winston he ‘would make a drum of out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’. So it is with others, as an innate belief in yourself is what gets you there. However, ego destroys as well as creates. It can easily give way to hubris, unwarranted certainty and inflexibility.

Whoever enters Number 10 brimming with confidence needs to look closely at those other faces on the stairwell. From Eden to Brown, leaders attracted by the office found that their supposed abilities and plans turned to dust. Even worse are the reputations of Prime Ministers like Neville Chamberlain (and now David Cameron) who were simply overwhelmed and whose names are synonymous with failure. For every ‘winner’ like Attlee or Thatcher on the wall there are two or three losers who were, as Clement Attlee said, simply ‘not up to it’. Coming bottom of this list is not good for the ego.

Being PM

It is, perhaps all about context. In some situations ego, duty, desire and ability fuse and work together well. Churchill, at least in the summer of 1940, had probably the worst welcome to office possible. The Low Countries were invaded by the German army the very morning he became PM, and the British Empire and its allies (note Empire, not Britain alone) were left facing grave peril. However, Churchill spoke of how

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.

How will it be for the new Prime Minister? Power, as Robert Caro puts it, reveals. The challenges are awesome, if not terrifying, for whoever wins the Conservative leadership. Their place in history is secured, though whether as a dazzling success or terrible failure is for them to determine. The first few months of our new PM will tell us very quickly if they are walking with destiny or simply tripping over their own ego.