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.

 

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

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

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

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

Read more about Jess’ research in her Guardian article here

Gender pay gap two

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

How Big is the Gender Pay Gap in the UK?

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

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

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

Gender pay

So what’s being done?

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

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

How’s it going so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will publication do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birkbeck politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck

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.

 

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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