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On Sunday evening, Boris Johnson, with the zeal of a convert or the scheming of a Machiavellian, has decided to join the ‘Outers’. Here’s 3 reasons why it doesn’t matter:

Reason 1: Boris isn’t that popular. Remember, Heineken isn’t that strong. I’m intrigued by the poll in the Evening Standard that claimed ‘he could be a game-changer in the historic vote’ as ‘one in three people regard him as “important” to deciding whether they vote In or Out’. Putting aside exactly what ‘important’ means, the statistics are revealing. 32 % of those asked said Boris could be ‘important’ but a full 28 % said Theresa May’s and George Osborne’s views were important-only 4 % points behind Boris (and 23 %, by the way, identified Stuart Rose as ‘important’ too). So if, as the report claimed, Boris could ‘partly’ cancel out Cameron’s influence, presumably May and Osbourne could do the same to Johnson? Boris’ position as ‘the most popular politician’ is often cited though his reach to UKIP voters is probably rather unnecessary– and it looks like Nicola Sturgeon pipped Boris in the popularity stakes at least once.

Reason 2: Boris doesn’t do arguments. As Janan Ganesh argues in the FT ‘voters like Mr Johnson. But they like Judi Dench too. Liking someone and deferring to their judgment on a serious question are different things’. As a number of people have argued, what the Leave campaign needs, above all, is a serious alternative vision, equivalent to the Scottish YES campaign’s positive, mobilising narrative. Boris hangs hilariously from aerial slides but he doesn’t really do ideas or arguments, just quips and ‘mishaps’. Cameron’s speech last night in Parliament was perhaps a taste of the gravitas, clarity and seriousness the Remain campaign will deploy. Judging by his question in Parliament, Boris’ re-joiner will be about ‘soveregnity’ a word not even constitutional lawyers agree on. And there is no nuance or wriggle room in a vote to leave.

Reason 3: Boris doesn’t do teams and messages. Being the Mayor of London is (or was) the perfect job for Boris, where he can be a maverick, a loose cannon and is able to rail against everyone and everything. His record when part of an organised group e.g. in the shadow cabinet, is much less glittering given his tendency to be rather egocentric or, as one unkind review put it, a gold medal egomaniac. How will he fare as part of an organised group with a message and a ‘line to take’?

Boris cites his great hero Winston Churchill. However, for most of the 1930s Churchill, a similarly gold medal level egotist, entangled himself in a series of failed and doomed campaigns, from the cross-party ‘arms and the covenant’ rearmament initiative (which he almost wrecked), to supporting Edward the VIII and a bizarre solo effort to stop Indian independence. Churchill was very much, and very often, on the wrong side of history, and only his later struggle against appeasement saved him.

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Last night, Michael Crick quoted an unhappy MP who spoke of another Churchill, Winston Churchill’s dad, Randolph (above). He was also a famous politician, gifted, witty and talked about as a future Prime Minister in the 1880s and 1890s. Randolph had, as Winston wrote of his father, ‘the showman’s knack of drawing public attention to everything he said or did’. Why did his career end? Boris take note-he gambled and took sides against his own party and leader on a fundamental debate in British politics. And lost, never to return.

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In the past year British politics has got (even more) interesting, uncertain and unpredictable. On Wednesday 17th February staff from the Birkbeck Politics Department Joni Lovenduski, Tony Wright, Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards joined together to discuss the state and health of British democracy in 2016. Should we congratulate ourselves or be concerned?

The talk ranged from where Britain stood in the world league table of democracy (good but could do better) to the growth of inequality and the rise of populism, both good and bad. The audience questions then ranged across celebrity politics, the EU referendum, local government and the quality of the UK’s political debate and discussion.

If you want to hear more about all these issue, and find out what gardening tells us about politics and how John Redwood can change your life, listen to the podcast below.

david_bowie_by_alexwomersley-d5g9foa                                           Image courtesy of Alex Wormersley

 As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.

David Bowie rarely indulged directly in politics or political slogans. His lyrics seemed to deal obliquely with it across his career-from ‘Now the workers have struck for fame’ in ‘Life on Mars’, his 1996 song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ to the album Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, direct ‘interventions’ seemed rare and a little unclear, as with his plea for the union and Scotland to vote No to independence in 2014, sent via Kate Moss, or this rather entertaining acceptance of a Brit award in 1996 from a young Tony Blair. This didn’t, of course, stop his fans who seem, on the whole, left-wing (and also fans of scrabble, Patrick Moore and Monty Python, according to YouGov).

But Bowie was not apolitical. In the 1970s Bowie challenged entrenched gender and sexuality stereotypes at a time when few would. Jarvis Cocker has said how Bowie sent out the message that it was OK to be different while the Mirror speakers of how the singer’s ‘radical, gender-busting personas turned traditional conservative views upside down and widened what was acceptable in society’. He also wrote about the world around him, describing events from the space race to divided Berlin (the German Foreign Ministry today publically thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall).

At the same time, his championing of different cultures pushed all sorts of new ideas into society-look over his top 100 books, covering everything from a memoir of Stalin’s Gulags to Viz magazine. He popularised of whole kaleidoscope of new sounds and visions to new audiences, from German electronic music to Soul, while also experimenting with what people insist on calling ‘world music’. And his message reached a huge, diverse number of people.

In this way, David Bowie was a very political animal, in the same way that Elvis Presley or the Beatles were. None of them urged ‘revolution’ or told people how to vote. Elvis was rather conservative, John Lennon asked to be counted ‘out’ of the revolution (or maybe ‘in’-he wasn’t sure) and David Bowie was too wide-ranging or elliptical to join any one party. But like these other musical legends, in challenging convention, the Man Who fell to Earth tore down barriers and opened up new worlds. David Bowie made people think differently about the world around them. And that is very political.

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Last Monday we found out what it’s really like to work for an MP courtesy of Rob Dale (@robandale),  when he spoke about his new book How to Be A Parliamentary Researcher.

  • Is it exciting?
  • Is it hard work?
  • Do you get to hear all sorts of information you shouldn’t?
  • Can you make a difference?
  • Is it more like the West Wing, House of Cards or In The Thick of It?

As Rob explains here researchers are the unsung heroes of Westminster ‘parliamentary researchers are required to support and guide their boss through these new pressures, whilst also helping them with the more traditional aspects of the role: speaking in the House of Commons, tabling questions, establishing campaigns, appearing in the media and attending many, many meetings. It is their responsibility to do much of the legwork so that their boss can focus on his or her main job; performing.’

In his talk he offered a whole range of advice from how to write the perfect CV (tailor it), how to get ahead (get campaigning) and how to do the best you can (make friends, get contacts, pay attention!).

To hear it all and our later discussion about Parliament with Rob, the Parly app creator Tony Grew and our own Susan McClaren listen in here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/fighting-for-a-place-in-parliament-an-evening-with-robert-dale/

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John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the politics department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.

In answering to Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right the rules of political leadership had now changed.

There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the main stream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.

John McDonnell was an MSc. student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.

To hear more listen to the podcast here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell/

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In Conversation with John McDonnell 5th November 2015, 6.30pm 

Labour Shadow Chancellor and Birkbeck alumnus John McDonnell will be speaking at Birkbeck on November the 5th. He will draw on his long career and experience of more than 18 years in Parliament to speak about his politics and current plans before opening up to a Q and A session with staff and students. This will be a unique opportunity to hear from one of the most important new figures in the Labour party and British politics.

Admission is free but it is necessary to reserve a place at

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/birkbeck-politics-in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell-tickets-19273323028

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Birkbeck Politics Department’s Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos contributed to a debate in the Guardian on the EU:

The European parliament’s directly elected members wield significant powers, ranging from shaping the EU’s budget to the appointment of the European commission, as well as the content and scope of EU legislation (such as directives). These powers have increased dramatically since the early 1990s and – as Mr Cameron discovered last year – now ordinary citizens can have a direct impact on who becomes the president of the European commission, ie the head of the EU’s main executive body. In the past, the European parliament has also acted as the EU’s collective conscience and has blocked agreements with countries whose human rights record was poor. Clearly, if one ignores this institution, the picture that emerges from one’s analysis of the EU is, at best, flawed.

Dr Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos
Department of politics, Birkbeck, University of London

See the debate here

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There’s always discussion about how many members of the Cabinet went to Oxbridge (half of them) or how many Prime Ministers went to Oxford (26) or Cambridge (14) or how many this century didn’t go to university at all (4 including Winston Churchill who went to military school). But what, I hear you ask, about Birkbeck?

Well, we have a Prime Minister too. Not just any Prime Minister either. We have as a former student Ramsey MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. He was later head of another Labour government from 1929-1931 and a national coalition government from 1931 to 1935. While here he studied science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics.

But what about now? At the moment there’s a good number of senior and influential politicians from across the political spectrum who studied here. In the right corner, for the Conservatives, is Birkbeck alumni include Jesse Norman MP. He is now chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that is currently looking into the future of FIFA and doping in athletics. Jesse Norman lectured in philosophy here (and also wrote a book on thinker Edmund Burke that was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction). In the (middle?) corner we have ex-Liberal Democrat Minister Ed Davey who was in charge of Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015.

In the left corner we have no less than four Birkbeck alumni on Labour’s front bench. This includes Gloria De Piero MP (Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration Cabinet Office) Lisa Nandy MP (Energy and Climate Change) Luciana Berger MP (Shadow Minister for Mental Health and also, incidentally, grandniece of a famous Labour politician) and John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor).

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So Birkbeck is doing well. And it doesn’t end there. Not only do we have great alumni. We also have a big fan base. Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised our university. Thatcher herself went to Oxford, where, incidentally, she may or may not have helped invent Mr Whippy ice cream [the Guardian says not but Mr Whippy says she did]. While Prime Minister she took time out to say in 1986 how ‘I admire Birkbeck college and its splendid work’.

You can see more about other famous Birkbeck students here and the history of our building at 10 Gower Street here.

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On Friday of last week, the Government announced a new commission on Freedom of Information. What is it looking to do to the UK Freedom of Information Act?

What’s Wrong?

The questions in the remit of the commission boil down to asking ‘is FOI undermining decision-making’ and ‘is it too expensive’? The remit itself is, of course, priming discussion in a particular way, framing it  towards two issues of (1) whether FOI is hampering decision-making and (2) whether it ‘costs too much’ . So what does the evidence say?

Is FOI Hampering Decision-making?

Just to put this discussion into context:

  • Our 2010 study of FOI in the UK found very few requests for Cabinet documents and also found a broader lack of interest in the decision-making process. Leaks are a far more important cause of openness for these citadels of government decision-making than FOI.
  • UK governments since 2005 have used the veto seven (or technically eight) times, compared with 48 times in Australia in the first five years of its own FOI Act. This seems to indicate that ‘dangerous’ requests trying to prise open the very centre of government are relatively few in number, though their psychological effect may be disproportionate.

As I’ve said before, the effect of FOI on policy discussions generates lots of heat but very little evidence. Tony Blair claimed FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions or inhibitions in discussion (the so-called ‘chilling effect’). Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell also claimed it has ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer isolated examples-one hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations, one of the most unique and unusual political events in recent decades. Doubtless we’ll hear similar claims made again.

In terms of harder evidence, the Justice Committee ‘was not able to conclude, with any certainty, that a chilling effect has resulted from the FOI Act’ and also felt the protections for policy were sufficient and was ‘cautious about restricting the rights conferred in the Act in the absence of more substantial evidence’. The committee argued against change but cautioned care…

Given the uncertainty of the evidence we do not recommend any major diminution of the openness created by the Freedom of Information Act, but, given the clear intention of Parliament in passing the legislation that it should allow a “safe space” for policy formation and Cabinet discussion, we remind everyone involved in both using and determining that space that the Act was intended to protect high-level policy discussions. We also recognise that the realities of Government mean that the ministerial veto will have to be used from time to time to protect that space.

Our own studies found a few examples but no systematic behavior changes around advice or space-and also many officials more concerned about the dangers of not having a record if a judge came knocking.

But the claim won’t go away. The recent Supreme Court ruling weakened the government’s veto over requests and has undoubtedly caused concern, or at least reignited old worries. But is also partly psychological. Politicians believe it happens and keep repeating it, so it then becomes true to them. It is a rather wonderful example of a self-confirming myth, especially as the myth itself may then make people wary. It is, of course, more politically, a convenient and half acceptable way of attacking FOI, for those politicians who don’t like the disruption FOI brings.

It ‘costs too much’

This is a tricky one. Measuring the cost of FOI in any reliable way is almost impossible. Estimates have varied from

  • A pre-Act estimate of £350 per request
  • A UK government study of 2006 giving £293 per request
  • A Scottish government of 2010 of £193 per request.
  • Cornwall Council calculated an average of £150 per request
  • Bexley council found it was £36 with most requests costing around £19.

As we pointed out here on pg. 33:

  • The costs of FOI are very difficult to measure and calculate. Different studies have used different methods and, unsurprisingly, have come to very different results. While you can simply multiply hours by time taken this may fail to catch, for example, the ‘opportunity costs’ of involving other staff or time spent in discussions. By contrast, the 2006 UK study factored in ministerial time (which is, of course, pretty expensive) while the Scottish study included one request that had taken 200 hours-a little over the 18 hours allowed under legislation. See this report.
  •  The cost of FOI is a political issue. From the view point of politicians and officials FOI introduces ‘concentrated costs and dispersed benefits’ (Fung et al 2007: 117). It is easy to see the resource and, for politicians, the political costs but much more difficult to quantify or see the benefits flowing from FOI, such as transparency. This means there is a hidden bias in any discussion of FOI which tilts discussion in a negative direction.

The real difficulty is arguing in favour of rather vague (but real) ‘democratic benefits’ against concrete numbers. Yet on a day when an FOI revealed that the UK government has been involved in military action in Syria, despite a Parliamentary vote against it in 2013 the argument is there-and from potholes to extraordinary rendition there is a strong case to be made. Not to say that FOI is perfect or unabused but it is an important, if messy, democratic force.

And so…

Neither of the two ‘problems’ the commission is looking into are new. In fact, they represent two of the most frequent complaints or lines of attack on the legislation from Ireland to India. Tony Blair, as we all know, felt FOI was ‘abused’ and was ‘utterly undermining of sensible government’ while Cameron spoke of how some requests were ‘furring up the arteries’, with the Act as a sort of cholesterol on the healthy body politic. The issue of resource costs is, of course, perennial in FOI with police forces and councils keen to complain of frivolous costs. Moreover, FOI discussions are often about what those in power think is happening or what they want to believe, the myths, perceptions or rumours rather than the reality.

The interesting point about the remit is that it tilts all discussion naturally towards the two issues of damage and costs, rather than any more equal cost-benefit analysis. How easy will it be to say ‘actually, it doesn’t…’?

Ben Worthy is a lecturer in Politics. You can see his blog on FOI and Open Data here.