Brexit_WEB

The issue of whether the government would allow Parliament a vote (it seems as though it will) and whether any such vote will be meaningful (it won’t be) has dominated Brexit coverage since the referendum. This has been a distraction from the main event – not least because the EU Withdrawal Act makes any vote meaningless. When the Conservatives and Labour whipped their MPs in the same direction, they whipped away Parliament’s power and gave it to the EU and UK government.

The place where Parliament has actually had most success is not  taking back control of what’s happening, but actually finding out what’s going on (or not going on). This was symbolised by the apparent success last month in forcing the government to release the 58 studies about the likely economic impact of Brexit.

MPs and the public first got wind of these ‘studies’ back in the summer when David Davis mentioned them on the Andrew Marr show: (see p.11 of this transcript):

“That  data’s  being  gathered,  we’ve  got  50,  nearly  60  sector  analyses already done, we’ve got planning work going on in the customs,  we’ve  got  planning  work  going  on  22  other  issues  which  are  critical,  127  all  told.  All  of  them  have  got  to  be  grounded  before  we come to a conclusion what it looks like.”

Repeated FOI requests for the studies by the MEP Molly Scott Cato and others failed, as the government appeared to argue it would undermine their ability to negotiate (and there are certain protections under FOI that might support this rather bland statement).

In November, Labour then used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure to force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies, as this blog by Andrew Defty explains. Using a motion for a return, Labour ‘transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House’ (see more on these here in this 1999 report Section 3 (ii)).

However, the government then responded with an admission (or confession) that the ’50’ or ‘60’ – or possibly 127 – pieces of analysis are not what they seem: “As we have made clear, it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist”. The statement went on to explain that the papers are a

“… wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum. It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives after we leave as well as looking at existing precedents. This analysis ranges from the very high level overarching analysis to sometimes much more granular level analysis of certain product lines in specific sectors.”

At some point, a discerning reader could conclude, Davis was being ‘economical with the truth’. Either the impact studies exist (or existed) in some form, or they didn’t. It now seems that ‘Brexit studies’ doesn’t mean, as it were, ‘Brexit studies’. And whatever they are, they won’t be fully released (though the ultimate power may lie with the DExEU committee here).

Back in July of 2016, when Brexit meant Brexit and Theresa May had a majority, her new government asserted that it was for government to declare and trigger article 50 and then conduct the subsequent negotiations in a confidential way. The government were keen to keep things closed and secret. There was to be, famously, no running commentary.

In September 2016 Davis, the new secretary of state for Brexit, made it clear the limitations of any openness, saying he would be “as open as I can. More accurately, the Government will be as open as they can”. He argued that it may be ‘the most complicated negotiation ever’ but there would be ‘debates, reports by Select Committees and hearings’ and he promised:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees. At given times, that will be tactical, I am afraid. I do not want to be boring about it, but this is likely to be the most complicated negotiation of modern times. It may be the most complicated negotiation of all times. By comparison, Schleswig-Holstein is an O-level question. We will not always be entirely free agents, but we will be as open as we can be.”

He also spoke of the impossibility of secrecy:

“… I will seek to be as open as is possible…Even were I to decide that I was going to behave like Rasputin and keep it all entirely secret, I would fail. It would not be possible… other Governments would do it. In the Government’s own interest, it is a better idea to be more open than is perhaps traditional, but always subject to the overriding point that we cannot pre-empt the negotiation.”

 In October the report from the House of Lords EU Select Committee took a rather stronger view of what right Parliament had (2016).

“One of the key objectives of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure transparency – to cast a light on the actions of the executive. It is, we suggest, essential that many elements of the forthcoming negotiations – for instance, negotiations affecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU police forces—should be conducted transparently.” (House of Lords EU 2016a).

Since then, Parliament has been the key to shining more light on Brexit. The sheer volume of investigation and scrutiny can be seen below:

Scrutiny of Brexit by Parliament, 13 July 2016 – 19 June 2017

Written questions 490
Written answers 819
Select committee inquiries begun 55

(House of Commons/UK Parliament: IFG)

 

Select committees launched more than 55 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, though some were curtailed by the June 2017 General Election. In December 2016, the Liaison Committee was the first body to subject the Prime Minister to detailed scrutiny of the government position on Brexit revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that her approach was one of secrecy and that she appeared unaware of how exactly article 50 functioned. In one day in November 2017, in a ‘bumper day for select committees’, six select committees questioned different officials and Ministers on various aspects of Brexit. In March 2017, the new DExEU Select Committee scrutinised the government’s objectives and positions and questioned Davis, who confessed there had been no preparation for what would happen in the event of Brexit talks breaking down and that any financial settlement will favour the EU. The debate around the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) bill from January to March 2017, triggered by the Supreme Court ruling, also gave a focus to discussion and debate and revealed more about the prospects and government plans.

All this pressure has given us far more information that the government seemed prepared to give before. We have had two major Prime Ministerial speeches and one, heavy, evidence session (with another due December 20 this year). Ministers have appeared and explained (and sometimes contradicted each other) regularly. We’ve also had a Brexit White Paper (that, you’ll be pleased to know, gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year).

Brexit has not, of course, been fully opened up by Parliament. The government refused some of the more transparent options, such as a cross-party approach via Royal Commission, in 2016 and again in 2017. The January White Paper was described as ‘largely devoid of content because the UK government’s concern about negotiating secrecy’ and offered ‘as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine’. The government also resisted Parliamentary motions to mandate regular updates on Brexit to Parliament in the future.

Nevertheless, Parliament was key in forcing appearances. Far more is known than before, and benchmarks have been lain down with the legislature’s action leading to far greater understanding of the government’s views and preparation. And here is what has proved so damaging: the lack of preparation. Westminster’s digging and pressure have revealed not what has been done but what has not been done. There is no hidden grand plan, but a void at the heart of government thinking on the most important event in the last 60 years. And this is what the ‘58’ studies symbolise. As General Montgomery once said: “I have not been told of any master plan and I must therefore assume there was none.”

See my paper ‘Brexit and Open Government in the UK: 11 Months of May’ (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2988952

Women-MPs

In this episode of Birkbeck Voices, we’re joined by Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck.

Professor Childs discusses the benefits of equal gender opportunity in parliament, the current system of quotas for women in politics and a report she recently put forward that recommends a change to the law on job-sharing for MPs. She has worked extensively on representation theory and policies surrounding gender politics and currently advises the new Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion(www.parliament.uk/business/committ…ation-inclusion/).

Listen here https://soundcloud.com/birkbeck-podcasts/the-rise-of-the-female-politician-how-gender-equality-is-permeating-parliament

Read this recent piece by Sarah Childs, Jessica Smith and Meryl Kenny on the 2017 election ‘Women and the 2017 Parliament: scratching, rather than smashing the glass ceiling’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/women-and-the-2017-parliament/

nhs-foxjohnson

‘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.

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

20130612_Whistleblower

(Image courtesy of Lotus)

On Saturday 10 June, the Guilt Group, in conjunction with the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, convened its fourth annual colloquium. It was devoted to whistleblowers. Here’s a brief overview of the policy in the UK. You can read more about the event here.

The UK’s current approach to whistleblowing was contained in the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) of 1998 a law that was widely praised for its scope and force. As this briefing explains, the law ‘protects workers who make “protected disclosures” from being subjected to detriment by their employers’ (as PIDA puts it, it applies to ‘certain categories of person, who disclose information of a certain kind in a certain way’).

In 2013, the coalition government argued that scandals over banking and controversy over failings in the NHS, particularly the 2013 Mid-Staffs case, highlighted the need for greater protections for those wishing to expose wrongdoing. The government concluded that the whistleblowing framework ‘has not worked as effectively as hoped, and … there is a need for a cultural shift in attitudes to whistleblowing.’ In 2013, the charity Public Concern at Work (PCW) commissioned a group of experts to examine and make recommendations on improving whistleblowing. This led to some changes in 2013 extending protections and introducing a public interest test, with other potential reporting requirements on whistleblowing also put in place but not implemented so far.

In 2014 the Public Accounts Committee noted that a positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent. In 2016, when revisiting the topic, the committee spoke of how it was ‘disappointed by the lack of urgency shown in dealing with this important topic’ on which it previously reported in August 2014. The problem, it argued, was one of the difference between having rules and open cultures. Despite the existing protections ‘too often whistleblowers had been treated badly’, and ‘attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes…had not been successful in modifying a bullying culture or combating unacceptable behaviour’. The government had been ‘too focused on policy and process, rather than on taking the lead to drive the much needed cultural change required’. Looking across 15 years of the PIDA, Jeanette Ashton also identified ‘a frequent disparity between an organisation’s ‘party line’ and the cultural reality of the workplace’. However, she argued that, given the Act was designed for the difficult task ‘to change attitudes in the workplace…the PIDA continues, albeit incrementally, to move towards its intended purpose’.

But can we be sure that the application of whistleblowing rules will always produce desired changes in attitudes and culture? The recent example of the Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust highlights the difficulties employees still face, while the use of so called-gagging clauses in the public sector continues to have a chilling effect that can undermine and threaten disclosure. The current legal framework itself was then challenged in early 2017 when the Law Commission’s review of the Official Secrets Act proposed a series of changes to the protection of information that were described as a . According to the Campaign For Freedom of Information, these changes could ‘lead to the imprisonment of civil servants and journalists for disclosing information that would be available to anyone asking for it under the Freedom of Information Act’. When combined with new secrecy proposals in the Queen’s speech about patient deaths, these changes may mean whistleblowing could become harder not easier in coming years.

 

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.

brexitposter_i1

t is said that the ultimate test of a general is whether they can conduct a retreat. One scholar famously spoke of how leadership is similarly about ‘disappointing followers at the rate they can absorb’, and that a leader must ‘teach reality’ to the people they lead. This, in essence, is the Prime Minister’s job description. Theresa May, with her hard edged, no nonsense style and mastery of detail was the person chosen to retreat from the heady promises of ‘the bus’, disappoint the high hopes of vote Leave and teach the reality of Brexit.

And the reality of Brexit will be one of disappointment. In fact, the General Election of June 2017 was called, as Anthony Barnett argues convincingly here, because May must compromise and betray through a transitional deal. This deal will be packed with everything she has promised to break the UK free from: European law, European rules and European Free Market probably long past 2020. As Barnett explains, the EU’s published draft guidance on withdrawal ‘ruined’ May’s ‘2020 election scenario’:

It has dawned on the Prime Minister that by the time of a 2020 election, instead of the UK having left the EU with a trading agreement as she dreamt, it will still be paying its dues and paying a large leaving bill and still be under European Court jurisdiction and may still even have to accept free movement. Only by 2022 at best can she hope to have realised her Brexit.

The sheer vacuity of the manifesto on Brexit almost confirms the great u-turn to come. So once the General Election is over and (if) May is safely ensconced with a larger majority, the retreat will begin. Can May do it?

Probably not. Rather than fall back in an ‘orderly’ fashion, her tactic is generally to loudly blame and quietly cave. As Home Secretary May made this into a certain art. She blamed others for her policy mistakes over dropping border checks in 2011. For all her bluster, she backed down over Abu Hamza (see @davidallengreen thread May 2017) and caved, according to Tim Shipman, in the pre-referendum negotiations when Merkel applied pressure in 2016.

Since being Prime Minister she has continually caved, blamed and u-turned rather than admit fault: tax rises, child refugees, Grammar schools etc. Her justification for the General Election was based on a claim that (9) pesky Lib-Dems MPs and the unelected House of Lords (who let article 50 through pretty sharpish) were blocking the will of the people. In recent weeks May’s blame tactics have gone much further and much weirder, straight out of the Trump playbook, with some bizarre accusations that the EU are seeking to influence the election.

Nor is this really balanced by any ‘mastery of detail’. Watch closely her appearance at the Liaison committee in December 2016. This is probably the most severe and sustained grilling May has had on Brexit. May greets vital questions with bland generalities, hostile responses and, towards the end, very clearly misunderstands article 50 (the text of which, unbelievably, she has to look up in a folder) and has to be corrected by the chair. The Junker-May Brexit dinner told a similar tale of someone out of their depth. So we can measure the speed and depth of May’s retreat by the volume, vigour and spread of the government’s blame.

What would May need to survive the Brexit process? A Prime Minister trying to master the huge complexities would need a keen sense of history, deep empathy and a great deal of imagination: you could imagine, perhaps, a mixture of Churchill’s sense of the past, Thatcher’s strategic sense with Blair’s famous empathy. May is proud to admit in her famous Vogue interview that she has none of these skills. In fact, every line of this paragraph reads as a negation of every attribute a leader would need to carry out a ‘successful’ Brexit:

She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance. She doesn’t think about her legacy. When I raise the notion of empathy, she dismisses it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding). She seems wilfully unimaginative, kicking every question into an area of generality.

What this adds up to is a terrible self-destructive short-termism. The big question is how the parts of public and media react when May’s retreat begins and they get transition, plots and excuses instead of a Brexit.

With a snap General Election just weeks away, the business of what MPs do is back in the spotlight, with citizens closely scrutinising their views on everything from Brexit to bins. This year students on our Parliamentary Studies course each followed online the activities of a chosen MP for six months to see how Members of Parliament do their job and use their time, to answer the question ‘what makes a good MP?’ Students analysing their MP’s pages on TheyWorkForYou, read their tweets, and followed their blogs and voting record. Here’s what three of them found out:

 Georgina Ryall

Chosen MP: Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) ‘Rebellion and Responsibility’

HilaryBenn920-20130924125642124

Labour MP for Leeds Central, Hilary Benn once told an interviewer, ‘Ultimately, all politics is a compromise between the purity of the ideal and being able to help people. You can be completely happy with your beliefs – but if you don’t win, you can’t help anybody’. After researching Hilary Benn for several months as my case study for ‘what makes a good MP’, I would say it is this conviction which best encapsulates his approach to the role of parliamentarian.

The job description of an MP is highly open to interpretation. Once the MP is in Westminster, the parliamentary roles that MP may take on vary from being elected Speaker and never voting on anything again, to remaining a backbencher and rebelling against the government their constituents elected them to represent. In the case of Hilary Benn, he is a curious mixture of rebellion and responsibility.

Benn has more parliamentary muscle and influence than most due to his current role as Chair of the Brexit select committee, several years of cabinet and shadow cabinet experience, a revered family name and an arresting style of oratory. He has voted with the party on the vast majority of issues and yet, in recent years, he has also proved capable of some high profile dissent.

Perhaps, when he publicly declared no faith in his party’s elected leader, he deemed it unlikely that Labour could ‘help people’ while polling saw them so dizzyingly far away from any hope of an election victory. However, good intentions aside, further resignations and a spiral of negative press were what ensued. Whether this made him a good parliamentarian depends on who you ask.

He also makes a ‘compromise’ between his Westminster work and his work in Leeds. His majority of almost 17,000 gives him ample manoeuvre room to spend more time in the chamber and less battling to prove himself in the constituency. Nevertheless he holds above average levels of surgeries and is an avid user of social media and a prominent local blogger. He has proved popular enough to comfortably win four general elections. The two are not separate phenomena.

Leeds Central’s Harvey Nichols bestowed city-centre is a short bus journey away from hill after hill of lapsed industrial suburbs. These kinds of deprived constituencies require more surgeries, staff and time and they are also far more likely to vote Labour. Add to this the increase in constituency communications from ‘fewer than twenty letters per week’ in the 1950s to hundreds a week today and it is evident that our MPs are working harder than ever before. This development became apparent reading the diaries of the former MP for Benn’s area, Hugh Gaitskell. Mentions of any constituency work are few and a rather far cry from what I speculate Benn’s seven surgeries a month entail. Gaitskell once recounted a visit to Beeston Working Men’s Club where he was greeted by rounds of applause and constituents buying him so much beer that his colleague had to help him drink it all.

An example of the decline in public opinion towards parliamentarians since then can be exemplified by a conversation I had with one of Benn’s constituents outside that same Working Men’s Club last year. I won’t repeat verbatim their views on parliament, but suffice to say he would not be buying any MPs a pint. Why Benn might be categorised with that era of corruption is unclear, being that his expenses were so frugal the newspapers named him ‘Bargain Benn’.

This brings me to the crux of my research, which found that much of what makes a good MP, despite popular belief to the contrary, is already exhibited by a majority of today’s members. But if the electorate is no longer paying attention, what does it matter how good the parliamentarian is?

 Jack Byrne

 Chosen MP: Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central): the loyal crusader?

Dan-Jarvis-007-e1402992991485

 

Dan Jarvis, continually touted for the Labour Party leadership, represents the constituency of Barnsley Central. He has held the seat since a 2007 by-election in which he held the seat for the Labour Party. Since then he increased his majority in the 2015 General Election to a substantial vote majority of 12,435. Jarvis does not serve in the Shadow Cabinet and devotes all of his time to back-bench activities, scrutinising the Executive, and seeking clarity on issues, through both written questions to ministerial departments and oral questions within the House of Commons.

Although Jarvis is comparatively quiet in asking oral questions, asking only six questions between 16.10.16 and 29.01.17, he is rather more prolific with his written questions receiving responses to 131 questions from government departments in the same time period. He has covered a wide range of issues, from Brexit to care for veterans, but most prominently he has focused his attentions on the issue of child poverty for which he is the sponsor of a private members bill. The bill, which is due its second reading in the House of Commons in May 2017 (though the election may interfere), entitled the Child Poverty in the UK (Target for Reduction) Bill, tabled by the Back-Bench Business Committee, has received cross-bench admiration and achieved media attention, raising awareness for the cause in both parliamentary and public spheres.

Jarvis voted according along party lines in the recent EU Notification of withdrawal Act, voting with his Party and in line with his constituency, even though he campaigned for the UK to remain within the European Union. According to Public Whip Jarvis is a fairly well-disciplined member of his party, hardly rebelling, voting with his parliamentary affiliation all but 3 times since becoming an MP. He devotes much of his time away from Westminster taking part in constituency surgeries, and visiting local schools and hospitals.

William Donald

Chosen MP: Jacob Rees-Mogg MP: Member for the 19th Century?

Hon_Jacob_Rees-Mogg_MP

Jacob Rees-Mogg (47) is the Conservative member for North East Somerset. He is 47 years old and the son of William Rees Mogg (former Times editor) and Gillian Shakespeare-Morris. He was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Oxford – where he read History. Following Oxford he became an investment banker in the City of London. His own children are famously looked after by the same Nanny that looked after Jacob, who also campaigns with him.

He has made 3 attempts to become an MP. His first attempt in the 1997 General Election was contesting a safe Labour seat in Central Fife where he came third, gaining 9% of the vote (3,669). The next attempt was in the 2001 General Election where he stood as prospective Conservative candidate for The Wreckin (Shropshire). Again Labour retained the seat but on this occasion he came second. His third and successful attempt came in the 2010 General Election as Conservative candidate for North East Somerset when he won the seat with a comfortable 4,914 majority. He increased the conservative vote by 2.2%. Since then he has stood for re-election in the 2015 General Election. He retained the seat but this time with a 12,749 majority and increased the Conservative vote by 8.5%.

Although the member for North East Somerset, some MPs also consider him to be the Member for the 19th Century on account of his style. Jacob is a Conservative, but definitely on the Eurosceptic wing of the party. Within Parliament, he is busy. Jacob sits on the Treasury Select Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee. He is also a member of the Palace of Westminster (joint committee), which is looking at the modernisation of Parliament. He clearly has a strong interest in Public Finance, according to ‘They work for you’ he has attended every meeting of the Finance Bill committee and the Financial Services reform committee (being the owner of Somerset Capital Management, he has a strong motivation for attending). In the last year he has submitted 57 written questions (above average). Since 2010 he has participated in 326 debates- again above average for an MP. Jacob frequently writes in the local newspapers. In one article he says that he finds ‘helping an aggrieved person obtain redress far more satisfying than all the debate in the chamber’. He tends to keep his constituency work low-key for reasons of confidentiality.