poster_1984_lrg

How long does it take to read a classic 20th-century political novel? What if you read it aloud, from cover to cover over the course of one day?

On Tuesday 6 June , the answer to the first question was 10 hours and 57 minutes.

Richard Blair, George Orwell’s adopted son was three years old when his father completed the book in 1948. It was Richard who started reading ‘…the clocks were striking  thirteen’. Almost 11 hours, two tides and a fleet of 50 actors, journalists and activists later, writer Bonnie Greer intoned Winston Smith’s final, anguished defeat,  ‘…he loved Big Brother’.

This was 1984 Live, read and performed in our University’s Senate House. Propaganda was plastered over the darkened Chancellor’s Hall (notionally the heart of London’s federal university). The royal portraits and baroque tapestry-map were obscured by flickering slides of blitzed London and Airstrip One. Young actors, soundtrack and lighting, driven by technology Big Brother would have died for, accompanied the marathon reading.

You can see and hear the full reading of 1984 via the Orwell Foundation. Each will have their choice extracts: I’ll flag Michela Wrong on double-thinking Oceania’s international relations (at 1 hour 25 minutes), Peter Hitchens on memory and the revolution (3:19), Simon Schama on Julia’s copse (4:37), Billy Bragg on sex and totalitarianism (5:20), the pairing of Melyvn Bragg and Ken Loach (on Ingsoc and the party, 7:55). Jean Seaton (10:14, on Winston’s incarceration), herself the steely-chair of the Orwell Foundation and, I suspect, the red-sashed powerhouse behind the live reading.

Dank Senate House and its surrounding streets are central to 1984 and Orwell. The Senate inspired 1984’s Ministry of Truth and Room 101. Images of Orwell remain in the Fitzroy Tavern, Bricklayers Arms and other hostelries he frequented off Charlotte St (though not his imaginary ‘The Moon under Water’).  He died of tuberculosis in University College Hospital, a few hundred yards from Birkbeck and Senate House, on 21 January 1950. In the six months between the publication and his death, 1984 was reprinted several times. In its first year it sold almost half a million copies and has been in print ever since.

Birkbeck’s Politics Department was co-founded by the scholar who more than any other shaped our understanding of George Orwell. Bernard Crick’s monumental George Orwell: A Life was published in 1980 and remains the definitive biography. Crick himself gave a series of open lectures in Senate House on Orwell in 1982, marking the publication in paperback of A Life.  Royalties from the book underpinned the Orwell Foundation and the annual Orwell Lecture. Crick, who died in 2008, chaired the Orwell Prize until 2006; his death in 2008 left numerous intellectual legacies. These included Birkbeck’s archives from his work on Orwell, his editorship of Political Quarterly (currently back under a Birkbeck editor), as well as our Department and his wider writings.

You can read Ben Pimlott’s introduction to 1984 here and listen to the Birkbeck Arts week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984?’ here

David Styan is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck

LgtfaWVu

Lots of people are eating humble pie about Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2017 General Election Corbyn was going to destroy the Labour party, lose Wales and lose Bolsover. Yes, yes, I know May technically ‘won’ but anyone who saw Michael Fallon on the TV knows full well who really won and lost. Jeremy Corbyn, the bearded, quasi-Marxist geography teacher and friend of [insert extremist group] deprived May of her majority, stopped her landslide and won the largest increased vote share since 1945. He even swung a near 10,000 vote majority in Canterbury and Canterbury has been Conservative since 1868, apart from a brief Independent Unionist presence 1910-18 (no, I don’t know either).

The point, though, is not to eat humble pie but to work out why the humble pie eating is necessary. Now I can argue that I’m not a quants or statistics person. Nor am I an expert in psephology. I am, I could also point out, extraordinarily bad at predicting elections (Listen in to our podcast to hear the wrongness). I wrongly predicted almost every significant political event since 2010:

  • Lib-Dems going into Coalition in 2010 (‘not going to happen’ I scoffed)
  • Conservative victory in 2015 (‘Don’t have the numbers-mathematically impossible’ I opined)
  • EU referendum of 2016 (‘60-40 Remain’ I announced just seconds before Sunderland)
  • Presidential election 2016 (‘Trump’s done for’ I said sagely after ordering a copy of Clinton’s (second) autobiography)

In part it is also the classic problems of a fire station effect and social media echo chambers. You talk and listen to people like you. Fellow lefties, fellow nerds, fellow cynics. But this isn’t really enough as an explanation. Here’s four reasons I was wrong.

The Polls, the Polls

We are obsessed. They shape our thoughts and guide our actions. We forget margins of error and the all-important qualifications that come with them. We are still obsessed despite a growing series of poor performances. In 3 major political contests in the last two years polling has been out or wrong, from the 2015 General Election, to the Brexit referendum and US presidential election. Yet still we interpret, analyse and believe them. We then enmesh ourselves in analysis of polls without stepping back and seeing them as just one source-and one that has shown to be pretty fallible. YouGov’s recent success now also points to the fact that old fashioned polling is out and more complex modelling is in: as the great Stuart Wilks-Heeg put it ‘Goodbye polls, hello multilevel regression with post-stratification’ (please drop this into casual conversation and impress your friends).

Truisms

Here’s a series of truisms about UK elections that Jeremy Corbyn has probably overturned or at least badly dented:

  • Campaigns don’t matter,
  • No one cares about manifestos,
  • Older people are all Tories,
  • Young people don’t turn out
  • The press have a decisive influence
  • Divided parties don’t win elections

The problem, as with polls, is that we hold the rules to be ‘self-evident truths’ rather than things that ‘normally’ but don’t ‘always’ happen. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true, as Thom Yorke perhaps once said.

We need to recognise how these ‘rules’ can be bent. Take the example of technology. Andrew Chadwick pointed a year ago to the new ‘parties-behaving-like-movements’ phenomenon, where old bodies used social media and fluid networks to reach and mobilise voters in new ways. While everyone focused on Conservative Facebook ads, Labour was digitally mobilising, organising and undercutting the power of the traditional media, demolishing several truisms while we looked the other way.

Bias and Cynicism

Most academics are left-wing. However, most political scientists, I sense, have been somewhere between unimpressed to hostile towards Corbyn (though I suspect we have many ‘shy Corbynites’ amongst us). Why the bias? Most of us probably felt he has been a reasonably poor opposition leader by any measure, seemingly unfocused, disorganised and ineffective. For me personally, a red line was his lack of enthusiasm in the Brexit referendum and his later whipping of MPs and Peers over article 50. The only time I felt slightly pulled towards him was when he confessed he didn’t know who Ant and Dec were.

Corbyn 2

Yet I forgot certain things, or at least my bias let me forget them. I forgot a politician campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. Corbyn’s prose was pretty clunky but his campaigning was, well, Shakespearean, especially when compared with May’s approach, which seemed to consist of  running around the heath in a lightning storm trying to lose her power (see what I did there?). Abraham Lincoln was once told his Commander in Chief, U.S. Grant, was a drunk. ‘I can’t spare that man’ he answered ‘he fights’. And so did Corbyn.

I also forgot that politicians and public perceptions of them can change and change very quickly. Look, topically, at how Martin McGuinness and Iain Paisley transformed themselves into doves or how Gordon Brown went from ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ in a matter of weeks. It’s ironic that as the campaign unfolded I was writing about Ken Livingstone, another figure of the Left who, in the 1980s, turned vicious press attacks into a strength and sold Leftist policies as ‘common sense’ and simple fairness.

Frustratingly, I had glimpsed at how Corbyn could become a powerful anti-elite symbol but then dismissed it (and I want to go on record as being the only academic I know to openly compare Jeremy Corbyn to Charles De Gaulle). I have no such trouble with the Conservatives and have been loudly proclaiming May’s total incompetence since I saw her misinterpret article 50 at the largely unreported car-crash of a liaison committee appearance in December 2016.

But it isn’t just about bias. It’s also cynicism. Studying politics can make you rather pessimistic. Everyone fails, everyone disappoints. For any academic vaguely of the left the last few years have been a series of hammer blows from Miliband’s failure to Farage’s success, with a great big Trump shaped cherry on top. It was hard to believe someone could again bend the rules and win from the left.

Brexit

Brexit has confused us all and left British Politics in flux. Divided parties, divided countries and referendums, real and threatened, have all clumped into one huge rolling political and constitutional crisis that dare not speak its name. The fault lines run across Scotland, especially across Northern Ireland, and also through the ‘Two Englands’ that Jennings and Stoker have brilliantly mapped. But do people care?

Remember, the election was supposed to be all about Brexit. It was called because (i) those opposed to Brexit (9 Lib-Dem MPs and 55 SNP) could actively sabotage the other (586 MPs) who supported or accepted it and (ii) because the EU were plotting to throw the election to Labour (‘How’s the paranoia meter running?’ as Bob Dylan used to say).

Then something odd happened. Brexit stopped being discussed in the campaign. The Tories offered no further detail than they had in their utterly opaque White Paper that gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year. Labour’s Brexit plans would have confused the oracle at Delphi and, even now, I still can’t understand whether we would be in the Single Market or out.

But while the parties side-stepped it the voters didn’t. We are still awaiting proper analysis and data. So far, it seems, as the great John Curtice put it ‘Thursday’s results revealed that voters had not forgotten about Brexit.’ So it was, in a sense, the revenge of the Remainers who swung heaviest for Labour with Corbyn capturing even a good chunk, according to YouGov, of 25-44 year old Conservative Remainers. Yet Labour also drew in an anti-establishment UKIP vote up north. It’s almost impossible to know what to conclude except, perhaps, that Labour’s fudging was masterful as well as infuriating and that May lost not with the dementia tax but with her hard Brexit speech in January. Perhaps.

And so?

So what do we do now? There’s more mileage in connecting with activists and those who ‘do’ politics (a few Momentum and Tory workers wouldn’t go amiss at conferences) and also in understanding technology and change more generally. I also need to step back from media horse race and prediction game: I’ll aim to offer insight without predictions or at least give more wary speculations. Perhaps the best thing that could happen is to open up politics to other disciplines-historians, anthropologists and literature scholars can all offer insights (see this talk by Dr Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh on Boris and Jeremy here). We should certainly sellotape health warnings and margins of error to our heads and keep in mind Martin Luther King’s and/or Pliny the Younger’s dictum that ‘it always seems impossible, until it is done’.

So Theresa May’s gamble failed and we now have a hung Parliament. This means that, although they are the largest party, the Conservatives do not have a majority of MPs to pass laws. As the House of Commons Library explains:

General elections are held to return MPs to the House of Commons. Most commonly, one party has a majority of seats, and this party then forms a government. If a general election produces results in which no party has a majority of Members this is known as a ‘hung Parliament’.

Here’s the balance of seats (number of MPs). No party has the magic 326 (50% plus one but actually 322) to have a majority to pass a bill [1]

.

Party Seats
Conservative 317
Labour 262
Scottish National Party 35
Liberal Democrat 12
Democratic Unionist Party 10
Sinn Fein 7
Plaid Cymru 4
Green Party 1
Independent 1
Speaker 1
Total number of seats 650
Working Government Majority  0

This great graphic from the Institute for Government shows how no one quite gets over the finishing line of 322 seats:

hoc

 

So What Now?

According to the Cabinet Manual that tells us the rules of the political game in the UK, the Conservatives get first chance to try and form a government that can govern ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’(i.e. put together a group who can pass laws):

Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

They now have a number of options. The Conservatives can (i) govern as a minority government, working to pass legislation each time and ‘to strike issue-by-issue deals to pass its business’ (ii) create an informal alliance with another party (iii) put together a formal coalition with agreed terms.

Their current choice is to go for (ii) and ask for the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a small Northern Irish party (see how many UK newspaper have articles entitled ‘who are the DUP’). This will probably done by a so-called ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement (see this explainer and analysis here). This means the DUP will support important bills in exchange for certain concessions (probably about money). At the time of writing it seems the negotiations are a little trickier than many thought.

How Long Will It Last?

If you think such an arrangement sounds a little temporary then you are right. Below is table of how such minority governments and informal arrangements have lasted since 1910.

 

Government Lasted (approx)
Minority Liberal Government (1910-1915) 5 years (Dec 1910-1915).
Minority Labour Government (1924) 9 months (Jan-October 1924)
Minority Labour Government (1929-1931) 2 years (June 1929-August 1931)
Minority Labour Government (1974) 8 months (Feb-October 1974)
1977 Lib Lab pact (1977-1978) 14 months (March 1977-July 1978)
Minority Conservative Government (1997) 4 months (Feb-May 1997)
Minority Conservative Government (2017) ?

The Liberal minority from 1910-1915 is probably the exception, when the Liberals governed with the support of Labour MPs and others. The government achieved a great deal but was beset by a crisis in Ireland and constitutional deadlock with the House of Lords and then interrupted by the First World War in August 1914. All the others have lasted months rather than years. Minority and informal pact governments have often been temporary and driven by crisis.

In each case, whether formally in the case of the 1977 Lib Lab pact or informally, the larger party has relied on the votes of smaller parties to pass bills. The difficulty, as this report puts it, is that it ‘depends upon shared interests and the ability of the leaderships of both parties to work together’. The question is what the shared interests of the DUP and Conservatives are (especially around Brexit) and whether Theresa May has the skills to hold together an informal alliance.

The wider politics of the agreement could raise all sorts of problems and have ‘worrying consequences’ . It would make the  peace process in Northern Ireland much harder (at a delicate stage since elections this year and the suspension of the Assembly) and also raises political tensions, with unhappiness in the Conservative party and among the public at DUP policies on LGBT rights, abortion and association with Northern Ireland’s violent past.

How About a Coalition?

Would a more concrete arrangement not be better? Looking at the more formal coalitions since 1915, it seems they do last much longer (though again a number of these were created in crisis, either wartime or economic).

 

Government Lasted
Wartime coalition and the “coupon” election (1915-1922)

 

7 years
The National Government (1931-1940?) 9 years
Wartime coalition (1940-45) 5 years
Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010-2015) 5 years

 

A formal deal would, so to speak, be stronger and more stable. As the great @Parlyapp put it ‘Coalition government would have been preferable for the Tories as from a Commons point of view it is a majority government.’ It also gives a government greater control of committees and rules in Parliament.

However, it seems the DUP would be reluctant to do it as smaller parties tend to suffer in more formal agreements and the DUP saw how the Liberal Democrats suffered in coalition with the Conservatives. The black widow effect means the weaker gets eaten. Some Conservative MPs may also shy from being seen as too close to the DUP on too many issues.

And Now?

What happens next is uncertain. If May cobbles together an arrangement (and it is still if) it will probably be short-lived and tricky. Amid all the discussion of the General Election two things are certain with the new hung parliament: Northern Ireland is back at the heart of UK politics and Brexit just got a lot harder.

Further Reading

House of Commons Library Hung Parliaments in the 20th Century

 

[1] It isn’t actually 326 owing to the non-voting Speaker, deputies and 7 Sinn Fein MPs who don’t attend-it’s actually 322.

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Birkbeck’s Professor Rosie Campbell explains what makes people vote the way they do…

After weeks of political campaigning, the UK’s electorate is about to be asked to choose a new government. But do people actually listen to politicians before deciding how to cast their vote? Is it party, reputation, fear or anger? Read the full piece on the BBC here

In Birkbeck Politic’s 33rd Westminster Watch podcast Dermot Hodson and Ben Worthy looks across the General Election of May-June 2017, asking who has had the best campaign and who had the worst policy (is it the Conservative’s dementia tax or UKIp’s hospital ships?). Most importantly, who will win? Find out here.

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Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

Image credit: Number 10, Jay Allen, Crown Copyright, BY-NC-NC 2.0

Theresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued

Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

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Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of the collection The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by OUP. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog. You can also read more about the Leadership Capital Index here and read a more detailed analysis of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

Originally on the LSE blog here