Birkbeck politics

IAPSS World Congress 2015 took place in London’s Bloomsbury last week.  The International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS) held it’s annual global international congress with Birkbeck College, University of London as it’s host and major partner.  IAPSS is the worldwide representation of students of political science and related studies.  They strive to deliver a sustainable academic contribution to the education of its members and to foster exchange among young political scientists across the globe.  This year’s World Congress welcomed almost 500 students from 5 continents, 32 speakers that are leaders in their field and over 200 student paper presentations selected from over 800 applications.  Inspiring speakers included Professor Sir Adam Roberts from Oxford University; French-Czech political scientist Jacques Rupnik, who was an editor at the BBC in London between 1977-82 and advisor to President Vaclav Havel from 1990 to 1992; and Eric Kaufmann, leading researcher of Nationalism and Ethno-Religious conflict.

Over 4 full congress days, students from all around the world witnessed expert sessions, panels and keynotes by a diverse field of academics, independent journalists and political leaders.  Among notable sessions was a keynote by Carne Ross, the founder and director of the Independent Diplomat, who was in the British Foreign Service from 1989 and his testimony in the Butler Review directly contradicted the British position on the justification behind the invasion of Iraq.  Carne Ross gave a talk on ‘Anarchist Diplomacy: New Approaches to International Relations’, which was filmed by the BBC and will be part of a documentary about him.  Wednesday afternoon saw an invigorating expert panel titled ‘Political Dynamics in the Middle East: Four Years after the Middle East’ attended by H.E. Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq; Tarek Osman, writer of the international best-seller Egypt on the Brink; which was moderated by Dr. Barbara Zollner, expert on the Middle East and lecturer at Birkbeck University.

His Excellency Ambassador Michael Žantovský gave a fascinating expert session on Europe and Russia and joined a charged panel with Hussein Shobokshi, independent journalist and businessman from Saudi Arabia; and Ellen Hume, former White House and political correspondent to the Wall Street Journal and now independent media analyst at the Central European University in Budapest; where they discussed ‘Media and Democracy: Limits, Contributions and Contradictions’.

A London Organising Committee and the IAPSS Executive Committee, consisting of members situated across the world in Nepal, Holland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden, conducted the organisation of the entire event.  The three central organisers were Odessa Primus, the Head of Congress in London; Jannick Burggraaff, Head of Congress Management at IAPSS; and Philipp Aepler, the President of IAPSS.  The Congress was hosted by Birkbeck College, University of London, who were also the main partner, and contributed to much of the logistical organisation.  Birkbeck greeted participants from diverse backgrounds and nationalities amongst which were East Timor, Botswana, Mongolia, the Philippines and Australia.  Many of these students were Paper Presenters that brought topics such as ‘On the Role of Non-State Actors’, ‘Sub-National Politics and Communalisation of Governance’, and the winner of the IAPSS Award for Academic Excellency 2015: Mr David Wong De-Wei, from Oxford University, with his outstanding paper on ‘Who is my Neighbour: Cultural Proximity and the Diffusion of Democracy’.

The IAPSS World Congress 2015 in London was the largest congress yet by the International Association for Political Science Students and students are invited to next year’s held in Berlin, Germany in April.  IAPSS holds conventions, study strips, and summer & winter schools, as well as publishes in their several online journals and research portfolios.  This year’s World Congress was a success beyond any expectation and has been praised by participants on social media channels, where it continues to build its reputation and IAPSS membership.

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In the run-up to the election, senior business leaders have launched an attack on Labour’s policies. No-one should be surprised at this criticism. Labour presumably hopes to get its votes primarily from people who are not exceedingly wealthy. If Labour offers policies to attract the votes of the non-wealthy, the wealthy are not likely to be favourably impressed. That’s just how partisan politics works.

Nonetheless, criticisms from business do make voters uncomfortable when they associate the moniker of ‘business leader’ with entrepreneurship and job creation. If people with deep knowledge of economic affairs have reservations about Labour’s policies, those who feel that they lack that knowledge are likely to pick up the cue. The difficulty for voters is that meaningful messages from business about the impact of policies are overlaid with self-interested babble. Much of the critical comment has been about Labour’s tax plans. Claims that these will be a dampener on ‘business’ are the  self-interested objections of wealthy people.

The difficult reality for Labour is that the era in which it could comfortably bridge class divides and occupy a middle ground that combined business-friendliness and redistributive ambitions has ended. In its New Labour variant, business-friendliness meant at least a partial embrace of ‘trickle-down’ economics: what was good for business was good for the country. It was a comfortable position for its proponents, who could engage in great deal of glad-handing and prawn cocktail consumption, and save themselves from some of the more vitriolic attacks that might otherwise come from the right-wing media. But now that we live in the era of ‘trickle up’, where the wealth of the few grows at the expense of the many, this stance is no longer tenable.

Nothing has happened since the financial crisis to reverse the well-documented picture of rising inequality in the UK. Each year since 2009, growth in average weekly earnings has not kept pace with inflation; only in 2015 is this expected to change. The median hourly wage in 2014, a princely £11.85, was 12% below its 2009 peak in real terms.[1] While incomes have stagnated, wealth has soared, thanks in no small part to monetary policy.

The political implications of the rise in inequality are worrying. In the US, the political power of wealth has been evident in innumerable policy changes, often too small to be noticed by the general public, but adding up to substantial gains, particularly in reducing the tax paid by the most well-off. At least the wealthy in the UK do pay taxes, although this creates its own paradoxical pressures. Stuart Adam and Barra Roantree at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have drawn attention to the very high concentration of income tax receipts: half of revenue comes from just 3% of adults. The IFS has expressed concern that this leaves the public finances vulnerable: the ominous subtext being that governments have to handle the wealthy with kid gloves, or they will exit for Monaco. The less reactionary implication is that governments have to tackle these concentrations of income and wealth at their source if they are not to be held hostage by the top 1%.

In any case, the primary difficulty for Labour in formulating policies that reflect strong public preferences for combatting inequality is not the threatened mobility of the tax base. It is the belief that the party must demonstrate ‘economic competence’ to win elections. Since the court for judging economic competence is rigged by powerful economic actors, policies that challenge their interests are quickly condemned for failing to accept economic realities.

There is a lot of slippage between the idea of the ‘business leader’ who might be engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the person who is merely rich. The distinction emerges rather strongly in recent research on the United States by Martin Gilens and Ben Page. They found that the preferences of the wealthy are not well-correlated with those of business interest groups. The wealthy tend to have stronger ideological objections to state intervention, and ‘prefer lower levels of government spending on practically everything’ while business groups often lobby for regulation or spending in specific sectors.[2] These differences, while rarely identified so clearly, are not surprising. Businesses need public goods to function; the wealthy can exit to their private domains.

If Labour is serious about tackling inequality, it is in for an uncomfortable time. It has to destroy the pleasant illusion cultivated by New Labour, that there are no fundamental conflicts of interest in a successful capitalist economy. Not only will this bring political opprobium from the rich down on the heads of the party’s leadership, but also it is a message resisted by many people who will never be rich. Nonetheless, it is the message that has to be conveyed, especially now that Labour can be undermined by voices from further left, at least in Scotland. Weathering the storms that can be whipped up by the rich and powerful is tough. Even the Financial Times, loved on the centre-left for its acerbic criticisms of the City, has shown its family loyalties by criticising Miliband. But there is no way of avoiding a bad press from business if Labour is to offer an alternative to the Tories. The easy times of the prawn cocktail circuit have gone for good.

This is an edited version of Deborah Mabbett’s ‘Commentary’ for the journal Political Quarterly. Read the full version at http://www.politicalquarterly.org.uk/p/editors-blog.html

 



[1] Low Pay Commission (2015) National Minimum Wage Report, Figure 1.10.

[2] Gilens, M and B Page (2014) ‘Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups and average citizens’ Perspectives on Politics Vol 12 No 3 at p.571.