Waterloo Bridge Towards Palace of Westminster

In episode 37 of our politics podcast, Dr Dermot Hodson and Dr Ben Worthy reflect on the power of the Prime Minister to hire and fire and the constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland. Just another week in UK politics-listen in here http://bit.ly/2ii3Cxp

You can read the paper on Prime Ministerial power by Allen and King that we mention here. You can also read some reflections on the border difficulties here and some scenarios for Northern Ireland here

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by Hendrik Kraetzschmar (University of Leeds) and  Barbara Zollner (Birkbeck College)

In a recent crackdown on Egypt’s LGBTQ community, the authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is showing its fear of any expressions of personal freedom, particularly those by young Egyptians who lived through the Arab Spring.

The latest spate of arrests across Egypt was triggered when a handful of fans waved rainbow flags to celebrate LGBTQ pride during a concert in Cairo by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila in late September. After an initial media storm of hostility, the Ministry of Interior declared that the act amounted to inciting homosexuality and was an offence punishable under Egypt’s infamous public morality laws.

The arrests that followed targeted those who were thought to have carried the rainbow flags during the concert, alongside others suspected of being LGBTQ or who sympathised with ideas of personal liberties – even if they had not been at the concert. Since the arrests, around 20 people have so far been sentenced, receiving prison terms of up to six years.

Human rights NGOs and a number of Egyptian activists condemned the executive and judiciary for its heavy-handed actions. They accused the state of making illegal arrests, of subjecting some detainees to degrading examinations and torture and of undermining the possibility of a fair legal process by pandering to a public bias against homosexuality.In their support for those arrested and charged, however, these NGOs did not tackle the issue of prevailing homophobia in Egypt head-on, bringing into stark relief the ongoing stigma associated with being LGBTQ in the country. Even so, the president of Egypt’s parliament demanded that the NGOs be charged with treason.

All this amounts to a calculated “divide and rule” strategy by the al-Sisi regime, playing on conservative religious attitudes to single out the LGBTQ community as a legitimate target. The government’s objective is to ingratiate itself with the country’s conservative mainstream, while at the same time constraining personal liberties and silencing liberal views.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 232 people suspected of being LGBTQ have been arrested by the authorities, since al-Sisi seized power in 2013.

What the law says

The legal framework for prosecuting people in Egypt for their sexuality is a grey area. Under the Egyptian penal code, the sexual conduct between people of the same gender is not subject to criminal proceedings.

In the past, the Egyptian courts have used both Article 98f of the penal code, which criminalises blasphemy, as well as the vaguely formulated 1961 Supplementary Law Number 10 against prostitution and debauchery to prosecute LGBTQ people in a number of high profile cases. Yet convictions under these laws have been relatively limited.

In 2001, the Queen Boat incident saw 52 people arrested at a private party in Cairo, of which 21 were eventually handed three-year jail sentences. Two years later, 62 men were rounded up by police on Cairo’s Nile Bridge, which was widely seen as a cruising area for LGBTQ people. In 2013, a downtown bathhouse in Cairo was searched and 26 men were accused of debauchery, but later cleared of all charges.

More recently, authorities have begun using Article 178 of the Criminal Code, which refers to the manufacture, possession, and distribution of any kind of material which violates “public morality”. This clause was introduced during the rule of Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak to give legal room for the persecution of his political opponents. It has been used to curtail online activities of those critical to the Mubarak and al-Sisi regimes. Along with other laws on public morality and decency, the current regime has developed a broad set of legal tools to expose, prosecute and try rights activists and members of the LBGTQ community.

Following the recent arrests, members of the LGBTQ community in Egypt were urged to delete apps such as Grindr and social media messages on their mobile phones that could be used against them in future prosecutions under these laws.

Illiberal impulses

The al-Sisi regime regards people with non-heteronormative sexuality as perverse and a danger to public morality for breaking with Egypt’s socio-religious norms. Religious attitudes in Egypt have hardened in recent decades to a more orthodox interpretation of Islam, driven largely by growing Salafi, Salafi-Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood influence. The LGBTQ community is now often depicted as spear-heading a Western liberal conspiracy that aims to undermine the moral fabric of society and the state.

Ever since al-Sisi came to power, his government has been fixated on undercutting any opposition and on restraining any countenance of personal freedoms. Paradoxically, this comes from a regime that presents itself as outwardly secular, yet uses religious populism at home to shore up the support of religious conservatives and right-wing nationalists.

The clampdown on the LGBTQ community extends this authoritarian logic by repressing those who appear to fall outside of the regime’s definition of the norm. Egypt’s leaders worry that the push for personal freedoms could be contagious. The arrests are indicative of a much deeper fear within the regime of the influence of liberal views, freethinking and self-expression.

This article was originally on The Conversation

Disappearance of the Battlefield 3

Dr Antoine Bousquet has published a new article on the evolution of military conflict and the nature of modern battlefields.

Dr Bousquet writes: “The image of the battlefield is one that exerts a powerful hold on our collective imagination. It immediately evokes in our minds the sight of massed troops clashing furiously with each other, culminating in a decisive outcome that determines the fate of a wider conflict. However, such military confrontations have largely vanished from the contemporary landscape of war.”

The article can be read in full on Aeon.

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As part of a new series Birkbeck Politic’s own Ed Bacon has a new book on Russian Politics-see here

Is there more to Russian politics than Putin?

Inside Russian Politics is an intelligent, critical and engaging account of the realities of contemporary Russian politics.  It is distinctive in widening our view of Russia beyond the standard account of global power plays and resurgent authoritarian menace. Putin matters, but he is not Russia. Russian military adventurism has had a major effect on contemporary international affairs, but assessing its aims and projecting future intentions and impacts requires analysis within a context deeper than the stock ‘Cold War renewed’ story.

The holistic approach of this book facilitates our understanding of power politics in and beyond the Kremlin and of Russian policy on the international stage. Revealing the Russia beyond Moscow and the central figures around Putin, Edwin Bacon focuses on Russia’s political present, not to ignore the past but to move beyond cliché and misleading historical analogy to reveal the contemporary – and future – concerns of Russia’s current generation of politicians.

Find out more about Ed’s work on Russia here.

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(Image courtesy of Salon.com)

Is it a case of Jeremy thrives, Theresa survives? Birkbeck’s Ben Worthy and Dermot Hodson talk leadership and conference speeches on their latest Westminster Watch podcast here https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/westminster-watch-episode-35. You can find out more about how Conservative leadership contests work here and read some analysis of May’s time as Prime Minister and why so many ‘serious’ prime Ministers fail here.

 

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(image from whatdotheyknow.com)

To celebrate International Right To Know Day, the Centre for British Politics and Public Life held a panel discussion on how Open Britain was. The UK has seen more than a decade of continuous openness reform, from Freedom of Information and Open Data and all sorts of information on gender pay gaps and experiments with election data. But where are we now?

Our panel of experts, Martin Rosenbaum (Journalist, BBC), Rosemary Agnew (Former Scottish Information Commissioner and now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) and Professor Sarah Childs (Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College) debated how open the UK really is in 2017 and where we could go next.

If you want to know about the openness of Britain’s political candidates and  restaurant hygiene, why FOI is not always enough and how Brexit could take us backwards, listen to the podcast below.

Listen on Sound Cloud https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/how-open-is-britain-in-2017-and-where-next

For further reading

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‘An opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotists, a rotter, a bounder, a cad’ and ‘a glory-chasing, goal-hanging opportunist’. Not my words, of course, but the words of Boris Johnson in his biography of Winston Churchill. For all you people who haven’t been near the Kindle daily deals section or a Works bookshop for a year or so, back in sunny 2016 Boris, with his eye on Downing Street, wrote a biography. Why Johnson would choose Winston Spencer Churchill over, say, Henry Campbell Bannerman, is about as mysterious as a very large white number written on a great big red bus.

The temptation for Boris to draw parallels with Winston must be irresistible. It all seems to fall so neatly into place: both ex-public school japers, ex-journalists and all around loose cannons, embarking courageously alone on crusades against the establishment and convention, braving the slings and arrows of anger and resistance until, in the hour of greatest need, they lead their country down a new (and more honourable) path. The parallels run even deeper, and are slightly less flattering-both were supremely egotistical and supremely ambitious. Lloyd George hit Churchill with one of the most striking insults of all time (try not to think through the implications of all this-it is deeply creepy): ‘he would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’.

Boris claims that he wrote his book because we have all forgotten about Churchill. I’m not so sure. Winston’s beady eyes now follow me on every fiver and my multiplex is clogged up with Dunkirks and Finest Hours. But what Boris was really doing was putting us in mind of those Churchillian months from May 1940-June 1941 when the British Empire stood alone against Nazi Germany (supported, remember, by India and a host of Commonwealth countries). Alone, one brave public school rebel took a stand and used his gift for words to stir the population…Well, you get the idea.

Johnson acknowledges that Churchill has taken rather a kicking of late. He puts this down to sour grapes from some Marxist party pooping academics (I think he’s referring to most of my friends). Personally, I’d take a bit more seriously Churchill’s direct role in the Bengal famine of 1943 which led to the deaths of 3 million people. His role in the creation of the notorious auxiliary Black and Tan police in Ireland and his proposal to gas Iraqi tribes from the air has shown us a far less rosy side to ‘Winnie’ (there’s not much wriggle room in a phrase like ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ in an official document).

Nevertheless, for Boris, Churchill’s shadow is enough. But Boris seems to have examined Churchill’s finest hour and drawn all the wrong conclusions. Churchill’s strength in that year or so of 1940-41 was to do what leaders should do and ‘teach reality’. He famously gave dire warnings and doom, offering ‘Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat’ to Britain, and cautioning after Dunkirk that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. John Lukacs’ meticulous recreation of the time has Churchill weeping in the back of the car after being appointed Prime Minister, convinced that it was too late. Churchill recognised that he had to ‘teach’ Britain of the danger it was in, and his true role was to explain the situation, prepare the public for the worst and say what needed to be done, with his only throw of the dice being to fight until he could ‘drag the Americans in’. Churchill drew on his years of experience, and decade on the backbenches warning of the dangers of Hitler, to warn, persuade and defy.

But Boris, in the Brexit crisis, has done the opposite to Churchill. Instead of ‘teaching reality’, he has been peddling fantasy. Boris has gone for hyper-optimistic non-reality weirdness, and retreated into a fantasy world where the EU could ‘go whistle’ and key negotiators could be insulted with crass World War Two jokes (Churchill, by contrast, offered to unite the UK and France into a single country when it faced defeat-imagine…).

However, Boris’ relentless, reality-free optimism is now meeting the concrete political world with a crunch.  His actions in the last week reinforce the idea that the Foreign Secretary is, as Clement Attlee put it, ‘not up to it’. His too clever by half attempt to make a weakness a strength by bringing up that number on the bus again has backfired. His rejuvenation of the £350 million figure has not, as he hoped, de-toxified it, but re-toxified it. The Chief of the UK Statistics Authority (who, I presume from his title, knows his stuff about numbers) called it ‘a clear misuse of official statistics’.

While Churchill went from egotistical wrecker to party superstar in a decade, Boris seems to be doing the reverse. The problem for Boris is that, unlike Churchill, he has no reputation, no moral capital, to fall back on. The Foreign Office job that should have given him gravitas has made him look like David Brent. As Foreign Secretary he has, as Rafael Behr puts it, never ‘missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to take a moral stand’, from Trump to Yemen. Rumours are circling that decisions aren’t being made and things are not being paid attention to, with one official saying ‘his lack of rigour or ability to prioritise has frustrated people . . . We fell out of love quite quickly’. It seems, as Churchill said of one of his predecessors, that ‘the greatness of the office has found him out’.

So I have a theory (be warned, I’m often wrong). Time is running out for Boris. One way of viewing his innocent newspaper article/attempt to remove the Prime Minister/brave warning to the people of Britain (delete as applicable) is that it is the desperate act of an isolated figure. The opportunist is running out of opportunities.

The mood music on Brexit is slowly changing. Boris is manoeuvring to be the saviour of ‘true’ Brexit, and the noisy (but small) group of MPs who want it, because he has nowhere else to go. You don’t write an article like Boris did, I would argue, unless you are in trouble. The ‘will he/won’t he’ resign dance shows him to be the amoral skulduggerer his enemies claim. And if he does resign he will truly be a party-wrecking, government-wrecking, power hungry egotist. You may say ‘tish’ and ‘fipsy’ to all this but the public have clearly gone off him and even the ever-adoring grassroots are getting tired of his antics. Boris’ retreat in the last 24 hours makes him look like a general who gloriously charged ahead only to find that no one has followed him (except maybe Ringo Starr, the drummer from Wings). ‘The only thing worse than having allies’ as Churchill once quipped ‘is having no allies’.

What if Johnson had taken a more downbeat approach? What if he had done a Churchill and tried to teach reality and warned of the hardship and danger that await us? The problem is that the persona of Boris Johnson simply can’t allow that: ‘Character’ he reminds us in his book ‘is destiny’. Downbeat Boris would not be popular and populist Boris with his sunny optimism. He must be a combination of Henry V and Tommy Cooper. Boris is doubly trapped into striking the wrong note by his position and persona.

The problem is he now looks like Lear running around the heath rather than Henry V closing the wall. Which brings me neatly to Shakespeare, the next subject for Johnson’s pen (or perhaps not). What astonishes me is that the man who was thinking of writing a biography of William Shakespeare staked his political reputation and character on a hopeless political venture to free his country/become Prime Minister (delete as applicable again). Then, in the hour of his unexpected victory, in spitting distance of Downing Street, he was robbed of the throne by his closest ally who stabbed him in the back and then was in turn destroyed (temporarily). And Boris, his mind on Shakespeare, did not foresee it. How many Shakespeare plays has he read?

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets @benworthy1.

 

Vittoria, the daughter of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, at sessions of the European parliament

(Image of Italian Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli and her daughter Victoria courtesy of http://blog.gotomeeting.co.uk)

From Theresa May to Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Adern, women politicians have faced questions about family and motherhood in a way male politicians don’t. Birkbeck Politics own Jess Smith comments on the problematic issue of female politicains and babies in this BBC article. She argues that

The “stereotype of women as primary caregivers” is still “very much a lens that we like to see women through”, she told the BBC. “There’s also a trope that gets rolled out about career women, that if a woman doesn’t have children she’s sacrificed that for her career…men seem to have an opt-out clause for discussions of family, which women don’t”.” she added.

Read more about Jess’ research in her Guardian article here

Gender pay gap two

Over the Summer the BBC, with a bang and probably a muffled whimper, released details of its highest earners. It predictably provoked outrage at the overpaid but also, less predictably, re-ignited the debate on the gender pay gap. Political leaders were quick off the mark to condemn the stark gap between male and female presenters. Theresa May criticised the BBC for paying women less for doing the same job as men and Jeremy Corbyn suggested a pay cap.

How Big is the Gender Pay Gap in the UK?

Measuring the gap is tricky. Here’s a summary from the ONS of some of the key figures for the UK in 2016:

  • Average pay for full-time female employees was 9.4% lower than for full-time male employees (down from 17.4% in 1997).
  • The gap for all employees (full-time and part-time) has reduced from 19.3% in 2015 to 18.1% in 2016 (down from 27.5% in 1997).

So the gap is nearly 10% or 18% depending how you measure it. This FOI request shows how the gap has altered in the past decade or so in the UK. The pay gap is high, and higher than the UK, in many other parts of the EU, where the UK sits about seventh from the top: ‘across Member States, the gender pay gap varied by 21 percentage points, ranging from 5.5 % in Italy and Luxembourg to 26.9 % in Estonia’.  To get some sense of the scale of the problem, in 2015 ‘women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.3 % below those of men in the European Union (EU-28) and 16.8% in the euro area (EA-19)’.

Gender pay

So what’s being done?

Something, finally. Successive governments have been determined to open up gender pay. Gender pay transparency is actually a Labour policy from long ago in 2010. Theresa May’s sound and fury has been heard before. Back in 2010 a certain Theresa May, writing in the Guardian no less, already claimed she was ‘clearing a path towards equal pay’ in 2010.What she forgot to say was that the Conservative-Liberal coalition she was part of didn’t actually engage the requirement to publish gender pay, contained in section 78 of (Labour’s) Equality Act of 2010. They wished to pursue a ‘voluntary scheme.’ Alas, few volunteered. Four years into the scheme only 4 companies had reported.

David Cameron, in a second wind of revolutionary ardour, committed to engage mandatory reporting (5 years after not doing so). This would ‘eradicate gender pay inequality’. All companies over 250 employees would have to publish the data. As of April 2017 companies have a year to produce the data and a written statement explaining, if there is a gap, what action will be taken. After 2018 organisations not publishing will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The light of transparency will, it is hoped, end pay inequality.

How’s it going so far?

Although a number of companies have been voluntarily publishing the data, as of May 2017 only 7 companies had reported. An email from the GEO from July informed me there were now 26 and, according to a spreadsheet on data.gov.uk, there are now 40.

That’s from an estimated 7,000 companies with 250 or more employees. On a very generous rounding up, that means only 0.57% companies have reported. At this rate, if the Equalities and Human Rights Commission must send out notices next April, they’d better fire up the old email wizard or buy plenty of stamps.

There is also concern over the coverage of the policy, as this paper argued:

Only around 6000…of the 4.7 million businesses in the UK have more than 250 employees. Thus, around 59% of employees would be unaffected by the provisions if reintroduced in their current form.

The government calculated that the pay gap reporting would cover 34% of businesses with a further 12% covered by regulations for public bodies, meaning ‘approximately 8,500 employers, with over 15 million employees’ would be opened up.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee argued that the data needed to be broken down by age and status, and applied to companies with less than 100 employees-moving to 50 in the next two years (the government argued smaller businesses may find it ‘difficult to comply due to system constraints’). May appeared to promise further action on gender pay before the General Election and there was a mention of more data in the manifesto but, like much in that doomed document, we’ll probably never know what, if anything, was intended.

What will publication do?

On a practical level much may depend on how the data is published and who accesses or uses it. Underneath this is a serious question for all transparency policies: what exactly will publication do? While opening up such data is useful, measuring gender inequality is highly complex and a ‘moving target’ and is caught within wider issues of female representation in public life, professions and boardrooms. There is a long way between publishing data on a problem and ‘eradicating’ it.

In the case of the BBC, the controversy has led to a letter and high profile lobbying but will it lead to real change? Tony Hall has set a deadline for action (2020) and promised representation and consultation. There is now an external audit underway and something ‘pretty big and dramatic’ is planned that is going to be ‘open, transparent and independent’.

The former Secretary of State for Equalities spoke of how publication of gender pay gaps would have benefits in terms of ‘transparency, concentrating the mind and helping people make employment decisions’, all of which are either a bit tautological (transparency will make everything more transparent) or vague. More worryingly, a survey for the Young Women’s Trust found that many business were unconvinced ‘44 per cent of those making hiring decisions say the measure introduced last April will not lead to any change in pay levels’. In the 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded that pay publication focuses attention on the issue but is not a solution: ‘It will be a useful stimulus to action but it is not a silver bullet’ and recommended that ‘the government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting’.

As the committee put it, openness is ‘a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself’. It is hoped that publication could drive up pay and standards-though the evidence of what publishing pay generally does is rather mixed (publishing executive pay appears to push overall pay up not down). Companies could be embarrassed into action but could, equally, ignore it, wait for the storm to blow over or kick it to the long grass with a consultation.

As with all sorts of openness, mandating publicity is only the start. Gender pay data must not sit on a spreadsheet but needs to wielded, repeated and find a place as a staple, symbolic benchmark-and become, like the ‘scores on doors’ restaurant star rating, a mark of quality or reason to avoid.

Images from UK government equality report and EU gender pay gap pages

Birkbeck politics

More than ever universities and students are framing their degrees in terms of future prospects rather than present knowledge. This partly explains a renewed interest in teaching applied politics on degree programmes, including the Practice of Politics module taught in the Birkbeck Politics Department. But applied politics needs to be taught in a deeper and more critical way than simply focusing on employability allows.

‘So, you’re doing a politics degree? Do you want to be a politician then? Perhaps we’ll see you as Prime Minister in 20 years time’.

I would hazard that this and similar conversational gambits have been heard by the vast majority of students studying politics today. The assumptions coming together in such conversation underpin my article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary published in the journal Politics. They are also to be addressed in a keynote session at the 10th Annual Political Studies Association/British International Studies Association Teaching and Learning Conference for Politics taking place at the University of Lincoln in September 2017.

An assumption that the friends and families of politics students, and indeed many students themselves, often make is that a politics degree is vocational. In the sense of a vocation as a calling, studying politics surely is vocational. But in the narrow sense of providing a qualification for a profession, a BA in Politics is not a licence to practise. Indeed, more than that, modules on how to practise politics remain comparatively rare on the syllabi of UK politics degrees. Where they do exist, such modules often tend towards an emphasis on placements, which by definition have a specific focus rather than a wider view opening up the many ways in which people engage in the practice of politics.

Politics placements and the few applied politics modules that do exist are valued by students. They are also appreciated by universities and the state because they tick the employability box. We live in an age where higher education policy —and importantly, funding— is framed in terms of ‘graduate destination’, getting a job, and paying off the tens of thousands of pounds of debt that the state now obliges students to take on in return for getting educated. If universities teach politics from this perspective, the Chancellor of the Exchequer smiles and university marketing departments have a spring in their steps as they rush to brand their institution a ‘Top Twenty university for employability’ or something similar.

But how many politics students, or even politics lecturers, took on their current roles in order to brighten the life of Philip Hammond and boost the notion of a university as a corporate brand? What happened to changing the world and bucking the system?

A recent survey asked young people in the UK to identify their most pressing political issues; top of the list came concerns over education and employment, particularly fees and debt. If the immediate solution for a few individual students is high remuneration after graduation, then an employment-focused module addresses that need. But politics students are learning too about political theories, competing ideologies, the nature of power, anti-politics, and so on. Applying such deeper critical analysis, they might contend that a more profound and longer-term solution for all students perhaps lies in political change and contestation rather than acceptance of the world as it is?

Instead of ‘doing employability’ to get a job and start the life-long process of paying off debt, politics students might argue that a better response to anxiety over their future financial insecurity arises from questioning the very nature of today’s political norms. They might query the dominant discourse that opts for marketised solutions to policy challenges, the monetisation of public goods, a precarious labour market, the encouragement of personal debt, and so on.

In other words, teaching applied politics should not be the same as offering an employability module. It must include consideration of future careers, but it also ought to range far wider. Applied politics teaching meets student needs when it caters for both the careerist and the activist; for those who do their politics in suits climbing the ladder to Westminster and Whitehall, and for those who do their politics in a harness and hard-hat climbing the outside of a cooling tower in an ecological protest.

The article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary draws on many years of experience teaching applied politics to develop these and related questions. It argues that applied politics merits a central place in the politics curriculum, and that it requires an approach that puts students’ own motivations, skills, and values first. Applied politics modules work best when they facilitate students’ own ideas about how and where they want to apply their politics. We need to move beyond a pedagogy of information towards a pedagogy of formation and transformation.

Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck