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’.

polling-station

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.

]

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

Originally on the LSE blog here

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.