The new political class of 2015

There is a perception that Westminster politics is a self-serving career machine for the ambitions of a small cadre of self-reproducing politicians. To what extent is this view justified on the basis of the evidence? With six months until the 2015 general election Rosie Campbell, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson assess the diversity of the parliamentary candidates selected so far.

This post originally featured on the Constitution Unit blog.

There can be no silencing of discussions about who governs us in the wake of the Scottish referendum. As the Westminster parties try to identify means to simultaneously fix both the Scottish and English questions, whilst maximising their electoral advantage, the electorate remains sceptical about mainstream politicians’ commitment to truly represent them. We see evidence of this scepticism in the declining turnout rates at British general elections, the rise in support for UKIP and in the 1,617,989 Scots who decided that they would prefer not to be governed from Westminster at all.

The three party leaders, who travelled up to Scotland to deliver their promise of greater devolution, may not share policy preferences, but on the surface at least they have a great deal in common. All three are white, youngish, middle-aged men with high levels of education and all are career politicians. The seeming homogeneity of the political elite feeds into a perception that Westminster politics is a self-serving career machine for the ambitions of a small cadre of self-reproducing politicians. To what extent is this view justified on the basis of the evidence? Are political parties continuing to select individuals who fit the usual mould to stand for parliament or is there evidence of increasing diversity among parliamentary candidates?

Using data from our study of parliamentary candidates (see parliamentarycandidates.org), we look at the gender, race, age and occupation of the candidates selected by party and seat winnability so far.

Sex/Gender

The Labour Party’s continued use of all women shortlists has become very topical once again. Veteran MP Austin Mitchell used the occasion of the announcement of his retirement to complain that the influx of women MPs had ‘weakened parliament’. Mitchell’s intervention was followed by a YouGov poll for The Times Redbox that showed that All Women Shortlists (AWS) remain unpopular with the electorate, although they were even more unpopular among older people and men than among women and members of younger generations. Female politicians and feminist commentators, however, have defended the use of all women shortlists to overcome bias in the parties’ selection processes.

So what is the sex balance of those seeking (re)election to the Commons in 2015 for the seven largest parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green)? Of the 1,320 candidates standing so far (including returning MPs) 72% are men (954) and 28% are women (366). Excluding incumbent MPs, there are 748 candidates standing for Parliament, 69% male (513) and 31% female (233) candidates. Breaking this down by party, we can see that Labour’s continued use of AWS, means a 6 percentage point advantage over the Conservatives in terms of selecting women candidates.

women cadidates

Among new candidates in the 100 most marginal seats (those with 2010 margins of £ 5.37%), the Labour party has selected 30 women out of 58 candidates (52%), the Liberal Democrats have selected 11 women out of 32 (34%), the Conservatives 9 women out of 40 (23%) and UKIP trail behind with 4 women candidates out of 21 (19%). The differences are slightly starker when we consider seats where the parties came second in 2010 (i.e. marginal seats they might hope to win in the event of a positive swing). Among our top 100 most marginal seats where the parties came second in 2010, the Labour party has selected 24 women out of 42 new candidates (57%), the Liberal Democrats have selected 8 women out of 17 (47%) and the Conservatives have selected 7 women out of 31 (23%).

And finally, looking at retirement seats where the incumbent MP has stepped down and the party who won in 2010 has selected a new candidate: the Conservatives have selected 13 men (68%) and 6 women (32%); Labour have selected 5 men (23%) and 17 women (77%); the Liberal Democrats have selected 3 men (43%) and 4 women (57%) and Plaid have selected one female candidate.

Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Candidates

Of the candidates (including returning MPs) selected thus far, we have identified 100 with a BME background. The Labour party has the highest number of BME candidates (43), followed by the Conservatives (29) Liberal Democrats (15), UKIP (8), the Greens (4) and Plaid Cymru (1).

Promisingly, 70 of the 100 BME candidates are not sitting MPs but new candidates and, and as shown in Table 1 below, seven have been selected to stand in retirement seats. Five Tory candidates, Ranil Jayawardena (Hampshire North East), Nusrat Ghani (Wealden), Seema Kennedy (South Ribble), Alan Mak (Havant) and Rishi Sunak (Richmond) have been selected in safe Conservative seats. Given the success of previous BME candidates in safe seats, it is likely that all three will represent their constituencies in Parliament in Westminster in 2015.

In addition to retirement seats, 16 BME candidates have been selected to stand in the 100 marginal constituencies, also indicating that parties are attempting to increase the number of their BME MPs. Whilst it remains to be seen whether further progress towards representation will be made in 2015, the selection of 70 new BME candidates this early on, as well as the choice of seats, suggests that the positive trend established in 2010 may continue.

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Age 

One consequence of the professionalization of politics has been a change in the age at which MPs begin their political and parliamentary career. Peter Riddell and Anthony King have demonstrated the shift from parliamentarians who had established careers elsewhere before entering politics, with a new generation who chose politics as a career, increasing the number of politicians first elected in their 30s and early 40s. This trend is evident in the 2015 selections.

When we compare the average age of the new candidates to the 2010 election candidates we find that the 2015 candidates are younger, with an average age of 46 years compared to 48 years of the 2010. Of the 2015 cohort selected thus far, 73% of Conservative candidates are in their 30s and 40s compared to 50% of Labour and 43% of Liberal Democrats.

The Labour party has selected a higher percentage of younger candidates (16%), compared to Conservative (12%) and Liberal Democrat (9%) candidates. Notably, however, of the three main parties, the Labour party also has a higher percentage of older candidates: 14% are in their 60s compared to 10% for the Liberal Democrats and just 3% for the Tories. Finally, our data show that the vast majority of the UKIP candidates, 75%, are in their 50s and 60s, with one-third of new candidates aged 60 or older.

Looking at retirement seats, the pattern holds for the Conservative and Labour selections. The majority, 53%, of Conservative candidates in seats in which the party’s sitting MP is standing down are in their 40s whilst most of Labour’s candidates in retirement seats, 44%, are drawn from the 30-39 age group. Overall, the data selected for the 2015 cohort thus far, confirm previous findings about the gradual rise of a younger British political class.

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Occupation

Finally, we look at the previous occupation of 2015 candidates by party and specifically those candidates with ‘instrumental’ occupational backgrounds. Instrumental occupations are those that have a clear link to politics—e.g. local councillor, special advisor, party worker or union leader—and are used as ‘a means to an elected end’ (Cairney 2007).

As shown in the figure below, roughly a third of Conservative and UKIP candidates hold instrumental jobs at the time of standing for Parliament. Historically, candidates from the three main parties came to politics from established professions (e.g. solicitors/lawyers, medicine, university lecturers, etc.) or from business/industry, however, as politics has become more professionalized, the number of candidates from instrumental backgrounds has grown. This is increasingly true for Labour, Plaid Cymru and other minor parties.

2015 candidates: Candidates with instrumental occupational backgrounds

backgroud

A new political class?

So, are the 2015 candidates really new in terms of what has come before? Is there evidence of a new political class? We draw three conclusions based on candidates selected to date. First, there is some evidence that parties are choosing a more representative set of candidates, at least in terms of sex and class. Second, candidates are slightly younger on average, but there is variation across the parties in terms of average age. And finally, there are an increasing number of candidates for whom politics is their first job, confirming evidence elsewhere showing a narrowing of the political class. One consequence of this is that it may serve to reinforce the view among many in the public that Britain’s politicians are ‘out of touch’.

There are some changes, but its early days. With six months until the 2015 general election, we’ll be keeping watch over who’s selected and elected.

Data are correct as of 22 October 2014. The parliamentarycandidates.org project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2013-175) 

About the Authors

Dr Rosie Campbell is Reader in Politics at Birkbeck

Dr Chrysa Lamprinakou is a Research Associate and Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL

Dr Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour & Departmental Graduate Tutor at UCL

Who Will Win in 2015? Peter Kellner Talks to Birkbeck

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

Peter Kellner, expert pollster and President of YouGov, spoke to the Birkbeck Centre for British Politics and Public Life on Wednesday 5 November. A podcast of the talk is also available.

Peter spoke of how influential polls could be. He gave the example of the YouGov poll run by the Sun in August 2013 before proposed military intervention in Syria in 2013. This polling had a real impact on the subsequent debate and may have contributed to the narrow defeat of the vote on military action (or to put it more precisely, on the government motion).

Public opinion can also be fickle – see the changes in public opinion over the War in Iraq and the fluctuation in the ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ column between 2002 and 2007. The public can also get it wrong (see how mistaken we are about everything here). Peter spoke about the need for leadership and the fact that a leader’s job is to sometimes to tell people they are wrong. Immigration is good example – see this gap between perceptions and reality.

So how about the big question – who will win in 2015? In brief, it isn’t clear. Most elections are decided not by switches to Labour-Conservative but by undecided and Liberal-Democrat voters. However, for 2015 there is not one but three wildcards.

Wildcard 1: How will the Liberal Democrats do? We do not know whether or to what extent Liberal Democrats will suffer (or not) for being in government. Previous election results were based on Liberal Democrats as a ’third party’ and a ‘protest vote’. How many seats will they lose from their 57? Will they be down to 30? 20? Or will their famously efficient ground organisation machine save them? This analysisconcludes ‘there are so many possibilities, you can make up your own mind what it all means’.

Wildcard 2: How will UKIP do? This is less about which seats they may capture – possibly 10 but more likely four to six. More importantly, how may Labour versus Conservative seats will they throw in a particular direction? Here the number may be many more (see this blog by our own Eric Kaufmann and this analysis of UKIP support).

Wildcard 3: How will the Scottish National Party do? A recent YouGov poll gave the SNP an astonishing 19 point lead in Scotland, enough to capture 31 seats from Labour. Even if this does not happen, the SNP could capture enough of them to deprive Ed Miliband of victory. This is indeed Labour’s Scottish nightmare.

So these three wildcards may well shape who wins or loses, without mentioning even more complications such as the Greens, now polling higher than the Liberal-Democrats. The most likely result is some sort of ‘messy coalition’ made up of various parties of one combination or another. One thing is sure, as Peter puts it here, ‘Those days of decisive, first-past-the-post election outcomes might be over, at least for the time being’.

The Lessons of Clacton and Heywood

In this expert analysis, Professor Eric Kaufmann explains how Ukip will damage the Tories in 2015 but may ultimately harm Labour.

This post originally featured on Birkbeck’s departmental blog, 10 Gower St and on Huffington Post.

Ukip’s Douglas Carswell won the party’s first seat in Clacton while in Heywood & Middleton, Labour held the seat by a whisker. These results prefigure the kind of damage Ukip may inflict on the Tories, making a Labour victory more likely in 2015. Yet in the long run, Labour should worry about Ukip’s riseThe upstart party’s support rose substantially in both contests over its level in 2010. The media and some commentators have spun the story as a tale of dispossessed voters from forgotten constituencies striking a blow against the political elite. On this view, both the main parties will suffer at the hands of the Faragists.

Yet the data does not support the contention that the economically and politically disadvantaged of all political stripes are in revolt. Instead, the by-elections, and the rise of Ukip more broadly, reflects cultural anxieties and status resentments which loom largest among middle income people who lack degrees. These turn on the issue of immigration which I discuss in my recent Demos report on the White British response to ethnic change.

Ukip damages the Conservatives more than other parties and is set to tilt the electoral terrain in Labour’s favour in 2015 and beyond. This means we need to entertain the possibility the Tories may enter the political wilderness, much as the Canadian Tories did between 1993 and 2006 when the populist Reform Party split the right-wing vote.

In Clacton, Douglas Carswell, a high-profile defector from the Tories, carried the seat easily, winning 60% of the vote in a constituency Ukip did not contest in 2010. Popular in Clacton, Carswell carried wide support across a range of social and voter groups. In Heywood and Middleton, Ukip candidate John Bickley won 39%, increasing Ukip’s share by a whopping 36 points over 2010. It was an impressive Ukip tally, but the seat was held by Labour, winning 41% of the poll. Here we have two strong Ukip performances, resulting in a Tory loss in one instance, and a Labour win, albeit narrow, in the other. The constituencies are not typical of the country, but the results are indicative of what may happen in 2015. Why?

First, consider that in both by-elections, Ashcroft polls show the Tories lost a larger share of their vote to Ukip than Labour. These results are corroborated in the admittedly small sample of some 70 British Election Study (BES) internet panel respondents from these seats interviewed in early and mid-2014 about their 2015 voting intentions.

The British Election Study provides data on over 34,000 people, interviewed in both early and mid 2014. Looking at the second wave reveals a stunning pattern: 47 percent of those who voted Ukip in the 2014 European elections said they voted Tory in 2010 compared to just 13 percent from Labour. When it comes to intended vote in the General Election, it’s much the same story: 44 percent of those intending to support Ukip are ex-Tories while just 10 percent said they voted in Labour in 2010.

2014-10-10-Kaufmannimage1.png

In terms of current party identification, while 38 percent of those intending to vote Ukip in 2015 identify their party as Ukip, 24 percent say they identify as Conservative, compared to just 10 percent of Ukip vote intenders who currently identify with the Labour party. These data rely on respondents reported retrospective vote. However, the Understanding Society longitudinal survey just compares what people said in the previous wave with what they say in the current wave. These actual results, between 2009 and 2012, confirm the self-reported results from the BES: between 2 and 5 times as many people switched allegiance from Conservative to Ukip as moved from Labour to Ukip.

Some suggest Tory defections are in safe Conservative constituencies where they are unlikely to affect the Cameron-Miliband contest. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, there is no evidence for this. The figure below shows the predicted probability that an individual in the BES will vote Ukip in 2015, on the vertical axis, against the Labour share of the vote in his or her constituency in 2010, on the horizontal. The blue line represents those who voted Tory in 2010, the red line those who voted for parties other than the Conservatives in 2010. This is a multivariate model where we also control for a host of other predictors of Ukip voting, such as age, education, ethnicity and so forth. The cross-hatch lines represent confidence intervals, which are longer at the extremes of Labour share because sample sizes are smaller there.

2014-10-10-Kaufmannfig3.png

Two things jump out of this chart. First, Ukip will hit the Tories harder than other parties by 6-8 points across all types of constituency. There is no reluctance among 2010 Tory voters to desert the party for Ukip in marginal seats. Nor are Ukip defectors concentrated among Tory voters in Labour strongholds. Where votes averaged 30% Labour in 2010, often indicating a tight contest, a 2010 Conservative voter has a 21 percent chance of voting Ukip, which falls to just 15 percent among their Labour counterparts. Ukip support is holding steady in the polls, and if this continues, Ukip will pose a threat to Cameron.

Instead of fixating on the Clactons and Heywoods where Ukip is strong, pundits should focus on marginals where even a small shift to Ukip could tilt things Miliband’s way. We could see upsets not only in Ukip strongholds like Thurrock, but in middle class spots such as Cambridge or Hendon, often in the South of England, where Miliband may pull off an upset. The plot below shows seats the Tories won in 2010 with less than a six percent margin over Labour. These, and more, may be vulnerable.

2014-10-10-kaufmannfig4.png

If Ukip hands victory to Labour, this raises a whole series of important questions. Can the Conservatives strike a deal with Ukip, as with the ‘unite the right’ initiative between the populist Reform party and more elite Progressive Conservatives in Canada? Should Labour rejoice, or should they look to the reinvigorated Canadian Conservatives as a warning that the rise of the populist right can shift a nation’s political culture against them in the long run? Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford’s excellent book on Ukip warns that the party, with its working-class support base, threatens Labour as well as the Tories. My work suggests working-class Tories rather than Labour traditionalists are most likely to defect to Ukip, but their overall point holds: this is not a movement Labour can afford to ignore.

Eric Kaufman is a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck.

Missing Women: It’s Time for Legislative Quotas in British Politics

By Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, and Meryl Kenny and the other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics Specialist Group

Originally posted on the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog.

Last week the Counting Women In coalition published its 2014 report into Sex and Power in the UK. Yet again women will be reading that they are under-represented in British politics: at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont, and in local government across the UK. Meanwhile, resistance to gender quotas continues, with a recent YouGov poll highlighting the lack of popular support for all-women shortlists. It’s time for political parties to show leadership on this issue and follow the global evidence – well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Patience is no longer an option – the time has come for legislative quotas in British politics.

Still Counting

The findings from last week’s Sex and Power in the UK report are stark: women constitute more than half the population but only 23% of MPs and Government Minsters, 35% of MSPs; 42% of AMs; 19% of MLAs and 33% of local councillors. Globally, the UK’s performance on women’s representation is slipping – in 1997 the House of Commons was ranked 20th in the world for women’s representation; it is now 65th.

No one who knows anything about British politics will be surprised about this. Sure there are frequently lots of brightly coloured jackets on show at PMQs , but earlier this year the maleness of politics was laid bare at Westminster: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister apparently failed to realise that their front bench was men-only. While the Sex and Power report is welcome, it’s but another in a long line of reports over the last decade and a half which show substantially fewer women than men in politics[i]. We also now know – for the first time systematically – that mothers are a particularly absent group in the House of Commons. Working class women are rarely part of elite male claims about the under-representation of working class MPs. And BME women are fewer than they should be despite gains and ‘firsts’: in 2010, the first BME Conservative woman MP and the first Muslim women MPs.

The research evidence is clear about the causes of women’s under-representation: a combination of a lack of women coming forward and obstacles placed in their path. Academic research also shows – based on UK and global analysis – that something can be done about it in the here and now. The use of gender quotas by the Labour party in the form of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) for Westminster elections in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, and twinning in Scotland and Wales in 1999, reveals the critical role that UK political parties play as gatekeepers to political office. In short, when a political party has adopted a quota for women in the UK, women’s representation has increased.

Sex and Power shows clearly the impact of Labour’s quota for the 2015 general election on the numbers of women selected as parliamentary candidates relative to the other two main parties. While not all selections have been completed, the Tories lag well behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats in terms of the number of female candidates selected in retirement seats, and behind Labour in target seats. Admittedly, the Conservatives might be able to increase their selections of women candidates in the last year; meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats will need localized above national swings to protect their sitting women MPs. In contrast, Labour should – as a direct result of AWS – see a PLP that is more than 40 percent female.

If we look to Scotland and Wales, Labour’s advantage remains, again thanks to quotas. Yet while Labour women continue to hold up headline figures, the previous Nordic-level highs of women’s representation at Holyrood and Cardiff are beginning to look rather like distant memories. In Scotland, the decline in women’s representation has been particularly dramatic, with the current SNP government only delivering a ratio of 1 in 4 women to men in their parliamentary group. This is likely to stall if not fall in the event of another SNP victory in 2016, given the party’s reluctance to follow Labour’s lead in adopting quota measures.

Following the Evidence: The Argument for Gender Quotas

As soon as quotas are raised critics are quick to tell us that everybody hates them. Male and female politicians (the usual suspects) are vocal in the media rubbishing them, from across the political spectrum. And a YouGov poll reported last week found that the public don’t like them, with not one group in favour of them. Indeed, if you ask the public what kind of representative they want, they don’t want women, even as they will agree that in principle there should be more women in politics. The findings of the YouGov survey should again not come as a surprise; surveys have repeatedly shown that voters are hostile to the concept of gender quotas or all-women shortlists. However, parties that present an all male face to the public risk looking out of touch and out of date, and the only short to medium term fix to this problem is to apply equality guarantees; be they AWS or ‘A lists’ rigorously applied.

Do quotas work? The global evidence is overwhelming – quotas that are well-designed and properly implemented are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. Indeed, 17 of the top 20-ranked countries for women’s representation have used some form of gender quotas – ranging from voluntary party quotas to statutory legislative ones. Rather than follow the evidence, however, opponents of quotas usually advance a set of well-worn criticisms – quotas are un-democratic, they discriminate against men, they create ‘token’ women politicians, and so on. Well, here’s a few counterarguments to the critics, in the elite and in the wider society:

  1. ‘Just be patient, increases in women’s representation will happen naturally’. The evidence is clear – gains in women’s representation are too small and they are taking too long. As the Sex & Power report highlights, a girl born today in the UK will be drawing her pension before she has an equal voice in the government of her country. Such a scenario also presumes an upward linear trajectory – which in the UK and elsewhere is demonstrably not guaranteed.
  1. ‘There just aren’t enough women’When parties are required to select women, they usually manage to ‘find’ that they had women who’d been willing to stand all along, if only somebody had asked them. Indeed, both Wales and Scotland managed to find women to stand for the new institutions, achieving record levels of women’s representation in 1999 and 2003. Many studies have shown actual increases in the share of women candidates following the introduction of quotas. Do we really think the UK does not have 300 women good enough to be MPs out of a population of 65 million?
  1. ‘Quotas promote unqualified candidates’First, as above, qualified women are out there, just not ‘seen’. Second, the concept of merit is itself gendered, in that it privileges the ‘male-politician-norm’ over the ‘female-politician-pretender’ – there is no evidence to support the assumption that men are ‘naturally’ better at politics than women. Indeed, analysis of the career trajectories of Labour’s women MPs shows that they were as successful as their male colleagues.
  1. ‘Quota women will be stigmatised’. This may be a problem if there are only a few women, but where a larger number come in this is less likely. Labour’s AWS women have reported that their colleagues and the public rarely have an accurate sense of who was and who was not a ‘quota woman’. Finally, if one has sex neutral quotas – for example, 50/50 for both sexes – then you also create ‘quota men’, and the argument simply disappears.

The long Grass is no longer an option: time for legislative quotas now

Quotas work, but they lack popular support – does this mean that the issue of women’s under-representation is irresolvable? Absolutely not, there is a space for political leadership on this issue. As recent Scottish polls demonstrate, opinions change – voters agree that there should be more women in politics and they don’t penalise women candidates at the ballot box. When faced with an AWS woman the voter does not discriminate either.[ii]

Yet, the political parties have not yet tried to lead rather than follow public opinion on this issue. As a result, the UK debate over quotas has been marginal (within the parties, and only to any effect within Labour), parochial (refusing to engage with the global evidence), non-scientific (failing to follow the evidence), and ideological (refusing to accept that gender matters to democracy). The leaders of both main parties in England who are resistant to quotas have a tendency to raise their spectre only not to follow through: Cameron in 2010 said there would be some when the best candidates were women; Clegg is apparently prepared to countenance them after the next election…..we have become sceptical of such promises.

In this context, the debate about quotas in the UK can no longer be left in the hands of the parties. In all of the recent reports, recommendations have suggested that it is time for the UK to consider legislative quotas:

And

  • The concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which call on the UK to consider more prescriptive measures to address the political under-representation of women in political life

A Labour government is probably the most likely direct route; but a cross-party group of women MPs post 2015, if the numbers of women on the Tory and Lib Dem benches decline, would be another. Of course the House would need to be persuaded. Political leadership is essential – not just from the women who are most vocal on this, but from the men too who support the principle of equality. The exclusion of women from British politics is a serious democratic deficit. As such, it demands not patience but a solution that works: that solution is quotas.

 

PSAWomenPollogoThe PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group provides a focus for members of the UK Political Studies Association whose research focuses on women or gender, and is also a resource for women in the PSA. The group has a commitment to ensure the visibility of women in the PSA and the discipline, while combating sexism.

 

[i] See for example Sex & Power 2014published by Counting Women In (the collective voice of the Hansard Society, Fawcett Society, ERS, CFWD and Unlock Democracy), September 2014; Improving Parliament, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament, July 2014; The Speaker’s Conference Report on Parliamentary Representation, 2010; and the Hansard Society’s Women at the Top, 2000, 2005, 2011.

[ii] Cutts, David, Sarah Childs, and Ed Fieldhouse. 2008. “‘This is what happens when you don’t listen’: All-women shortlists at the 2005 General Election.” Party Politics 14(5):575-95; Cutts, David, and Paul Widdop. 2012. “Was Labour penalised where it stood all women shortlist candidates? An analysis of the 2010 UK General Election.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 15 (3), 435-455.

‘More complaints please!’: a public services problem

By Dr Ruth Carlyle, Macmillan Cancer Support and Associate Research Fellow, Birkbeck

A very British plea emerged from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in April 2014: ‘More complaints please!’. In the case of British public services, particularly the National Health Service, the Select Committee noted a ‘toxic cocktail’ of reluctance to complain and unwillingness to learn from such complaints as are made (House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 2014: p.3)

The Public Administration Select Committee inquiry was triggered by the events at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The Francis inquiry identified that the problems at the Stafford hospital should have been apparent earlier, through complaints made by patients and their families. The Select Committee noted that Mid Staffordshire was not alone in its failure to learn from complaints, as a Which? survey of 94 NHS trusts found that only 20 percent reviewed learning from complaints (2014: p. 16). Unless people complain and managers learn from the complaints, services in a near-monopoly are unlikely to improve.

A similarly toxic problem with the Nigerian railways inspired Hirschman’s 1970 monograph on resolving ‘repairable lapses’ in firms, organisations and states. Hirschman identified that in an economic model managers may learn about problems through ‘exit’ from a product or service, but that in political terms consumers may also ‘voice’ concerns (Hirschman, 1970: p. 3). He indicated that customer ‘loyalty’ also needs to be taken into account: in a market, it may discourage early exit by customers who could provide useful feedback; but it might also deter feedback where customers do not have a realistic exit option (1970: p. 55). In the Nigerian railways, Hirschman identified that exit was not an issue for managers, as in a state-supported industry they were not unduly concerned by the loss of customers, and that voice did not operate as the most roused customers were those who transferred their custom to the road network (1970: p. 45).

The lack of a true exit option for users of NHS services creates different pressures from those in the Nigerian railways. For most patients within the NHS, private healthcare is not an alternative and so a choice to ‘exit’ is a choice not to be treated.  In these circumstances, voicing concerns is the only option to improve services.

The principal recommendations within the Select Committee report relate to improving how complaints will be managed, rather than increasing the number of complaints:

  • A single Minister responsible for complaints across public services
  • Changing professional attitudes to increase the value placed on complaints
  • Sharing learning from high-performing organisations
  • Cabinet Office audits of complaints
  • Annual reports from government departments to include management of complaints.

The title of the report, ‘More complaints please!’, points to the more complex issue of how to enable members of the public to complain. A Which? survey cited by the Select Committee found that just 65% of those with a cause to complain had made a complaint about the NHS; whereas 90% with those for cause to complain had done so in relation to high street retailers. The Select Committee propose that patients and families need to be supported to make complaints about the NHS.

Various attempts have been made to increase the public voice within the NHS, including lay governors in NHS Foundation Trusts, professionally-led engagement and state-funded voluntary schemes. The Select Committee refers to Community Health Councils, a form of state-funded public involvement institution, as having provided support in the past. Local Healthwatch groups, the current successors to Community Health Councils, were granted the right to support complainants as part of the Government’s response to events at Mid Staffordshire (Secretary of State for Health, 2013).

Given the complex loyalty issues for users of NHS services, it is likely to take more than independent support to increase the number of complaints made in the NHS.  Hirschman’s 1970 monograph continues to remain relevant, with its warning that having ‘locked in’ customers does not of itself ensure that concerns will be voiced (1970: p. 55).

REFERENCES

Hirschman, A.O., 1970. Exit, voice, and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 2014. More complaints please! Twelfth report of session 2013-14: report together with formal minutes relating to the report. London: The Stationery Office.

Secretary of State for Health, 2013. Hard truths: the journey to putting patients first; volume one of the Government response to the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry. London: The Stationery Office.

In Defence of the Party

Reflections on ‘After the Party’ seminar held on 24 April 2014 at Birkbeck University of London , Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life.

Political parties are still our best hope for articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities, but they need renewal.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London

It is almost a truism to say that political parties are in decline. Their memberships have dwindled  away to historically low numbers, and although they are still effective vehicles for recruiting candidates and political elites and organising government and opposition, their capacity to fulfil their democratic roles of articulating and aggregating interests, mobilising and integrating populations, facilitating popular choice and control are seriously in doubt. Thus, if this is the case and the party is dead or dying, what comes after the party?

There were two broad strands of opinion on the panel. The first, represented by  Neal Lawson of Compass and Liam Barrington-Bush (from More Like People), was that parties as we know them are all but finished as bridges between the electorate and the state and urgently need to be replaced by something more relevant and effective.

Lawson argued that social media facilitates a flattening process which reduces the cost of organisation and makes a more egalitarian, cooperative politics possible, or at least easier.  This, he says, can support the development of a kind of politics where we solve problems ourselves rather than ‘waiting for heroes’ to do so for us. The future of political organisation needs to be more like an ‘open tribe’, pluralistic, adaptive and relational. For Barrington-Bush self-organisation is the key. Institutions like parties are based on a lack of trust in people and empowers an enlightened elite over ordinary people. People are far better at self-organising than they are given credit for and we don’t need top down strategies or elites to tell us what to do. What is needed is more autonomy: the kinds of networks that have emerged out of the Occupy movement, which have provided practical solutions to problems of everything from housing and finance to participative decision-making show us what can be done when people are free to organise themselves.

The second broad line of argument, represented by Nick Anstead of the LSE and James Dennis – a research student at Royal Holloway – was that parties are by no means dead but need to adapt to survive.

Anstead argued that parties have become distant and elitist, vacating the social arenas and become subsumed into an elitist, state-centred vehicle for winning power. Part of this has been motivated by the desire of political leaders to wrest control  of their parties from a dwindling band of ideological activists who alienated the mainstream electorate (New Labour springs to mind). In doing so, however, political elites have themselves alienated the public by eroding the ‘bridge’ between them. The possibility that technology offers is material with which to rebuild that bridge, creating space for participation, dialogue and pluralism. Dennis pointed out that organisations like 38 Degrees are increasingly acting as that bridge. Most famous for mobilising large-scale single issue campaigns via the web and social media, they are increasingly focusing energy on building capacity, providing people and communities with the tools they need to organise their own campaigns through the use of web tools and templates. Crucial to this model is not by-passing political parties, but communicating and working with them as articulators of public interest.

The common theme that emerges from these arguments is that mainstream political parties have a problem in that they simply haven’t adapted to the changing social and political landscape. Their structures and organisation are products of a bygone age when they were not only political machines but the centre of social life in many communities (Conservative Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs for example), and – especially in Labour’s case –working lives too. As this social role  has diminished so has the articulation of distinctive class interests, and thus their ability to mobilise. The world has changed and so has the way people relate to each other, socialise and organise. People are less inclined to join and submit to the disciplines of ‘traditional’ party life. They are less deferent, more articulate about their rights and opinions and, with the help of social media, more able to organise and express themselves. If they are to survive – and I would argue that it is important that they do – parties need to recognise and embrace this.

All of this points towards possibilities for the renewal of political participation facilitated in part by the possibilities that social media provides.  This is not an idea which is exclusive to the left either nor one that mainstream parties have ignored: from the right, Douglas Carswell amongst others, are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers for refreshing political participation and activism. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister has argued that their respective parties’ fortunes can be revived by redefining the relationship between supporters, members and party elites, an idea which is being taken very seriously within the Labour Party.  Indeed, the signs are that parties are increasingly seeking to blur the distinction between ‘formal’ members and less formal supporters in the hope of reviving participation. The way in which the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed activism through technology has been held up as something of a model to learn from.

However, these kinds of approaches are still somewhat elite driven and although perhaps it goes some way to addressing problems of participation, it does not go far enough. Too often the problem of political engagement, why aren’t people joining, campaigning and voting for them is framed as a problem that political parties need to solve by making a better product, or by marketing it better. This misses the point and indeed perhaps says something about what theproblem is in the first place. It is not a case so much of parties ‘listening’ or ‘responding’ to potential voters, so much as to open up and let other voices in. To survive, in other words, parties need to let go.

Nonetheless, we cannot reject parties out of hand. Parties also provide a continuity of organisation and an access to political power at a national level  that flatter, more transient forms of self-organisation cannot so easily do. As Barbara Zollner of Birkbeck pointed out, although social media and spontaneous forms of grass-roots organisation have played crucial roles in recent revolutions in the Middle East in particular, the failure of more traditional forms of organisation like parties, has perhaps gone some way to undoing them in places like Egypt especially.  The powerful elites in society (like the Egyptian army) are well-organised and disciplined and therefore those that seek to challenge them must be also.

Thus parties may have isolated and distanced themselves in recent years, but they are still our best hope of providing a channel through which the electorate’s voice can be heard in the halls of government, articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities. These roles are vital to democratic health and to provide them, parties need to re-imagine themselves. They need to understand themselves as part of wider movements and thus be much more open, much more willing to allow a plurality of voices to find articulation, much less concerned with command and control. This is vital to the renewed relevance and flourishing of organisations which at their best can provide some form of linkage, however filtered or indirect, between the political elite and the ordinary voter.

But the rest of us too must recognise that although politics can be understood as many things – the pursuit of the ‘good-life’ or the good society, the pursuit of power –it is also in part the art of compromise. The way in which we organise ourselves can enhance the autonomy of individuals and communities and maximise political empowerment, but that does not mean that we can always get what we want. It does, however, mean that we might have more chance of getting heard.

This post originally featured on Dr Danny Rye’s blog.

The End of an Era in Pension Reform

By Professor Deborah Mabbett

The Financial Times (20 March) called it ‘the biggest pensions revolution for almost a century’ but their timing is a few decades out. The Chancellor’s budget announcement on the lifting of constraints on drawing down retirement pension pots is the end of an era that began, not in 1921, but in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, the government sought to curtail spending on the state pension and promote private provision of retirement income. Private pensions would, supposedly, perform so well that state provision could die back under the heavy mulch of the funded layer, managed by our cutting-edge financial services industry and reaping the high returns that followed the big bang of financial market liberalisation.

What happened instead was that the inadequacy of the National Insurance pension, linked to prices at a time when wages were rising strongly, brought increasing numbers of elderly people into the means-tested part of the social security system. This system was made more generous under Labour, which at least did something to address the problem of pensioner poverty. But it damaged the strategy of promoting private funded provision, because savers faced a ‘better off’problem. Basically, it was not worth saving for retirement if the expected level of savings was insufficient to steer clear of means-testing.

It was against this background that the Turner review found that we must return to a basic state pension, whether universal or contributions-based, which would be adequate to live on, so that means-tested supplementation could be put back in its box. This was strongly supported by the financial services industry, which had detected the potential for another mis-selling scandal affecting private pensions taken out by low income earners.

The industry’s problem became the government’s problem with the advent of automatic enrolment. While this has been marketed to the public as a clever application of behavioural economics, its public policy feedback effects have been neglected. If a government tells everyone that they will be better off saving for their retirement, and ensures that they are defaulted into schemes, then it risks some pronounced negative feedback if people are not in fact better off. Thus the recent scramble to find ways of ensuring that excessive fees are not skimmed from auto-enrolled pensions, and thus the decision announced in the budget to allow people to draw on their savings pots as they please.

The government is taking a risk: it is quite likely that many pots will be used up early in retirement, leaving people dependent on the state pension alone. The calculation is that the state pension will have to be paid anyway, so there are no savings for the Exchequer to be reaped from limiting drawdown. This assumes that means-tested supplementation will shrink and become confined to people who would never have saved for retirement. This is the point of the Triple Lock: it will keep the state pension at a sufficient level of adequacy. For historians of social policy, this is not the biggest change in a century but a return to Beveridge, who planned that flat-rate National Insurance benefits would drive out the remnants of the Poor Law. That plan failed, but this one might succeed, because the costs of failure will rebound on a government that has become in effect the main sales agent for private pensions.

The budget announcement has been pitched as an end to compulsory annuitization, brought about by the failings of the annuities market, supposedly about to be forensically exposed by a now-redundant retirement income Market Study. This is smoke and mirrors. The media have proved wonderfully manipulable: few have pointed out that compulsory annuitization ended in April 2011. What stayed after 2011, and has now gone, was a set of rules limiting the drawdown of funds from pension pots. These limits were set with reference to annuity values, but the government had the option of allowing more drawdown, and it exercised this option recently when it raised the drawdown limit to 120% of the corresponding annuity value. If annuities market failure was the problem, the drawdown limit could have been raised further.

The real problem is not the annuities market, but low interest rates on low-risk investments. Low returns are making money purchase pensions look rather sickly at the point of retirement, but they look twice as ill on a realistic assessment of the income stream they will generate. So let’s use a bit more behavioural economics, this time to cover the tracks of low returns. People value the lump of money in their pot at retirement way above the income stream it will generate. The government can avoid a tide of complaint about the results of auto-enrolment by letting people take their pots as lump sums.

Um – so what is the point of auto enrolment, since it is not to generate a retirement income? Some will invest the money differently: by paying off their mortgage, or buying a rental property. Buying a new car (preferably one that does not depreciate as fast as a Lamborghini), or replacing domestic appliances, or double-glazing the windows, might also be sensible decisions. The government is right that people may find better ways to use the money than the financial services industry can offer them, but it still leaves the question of why exactly auto-enrolment took this money in the first place. Why only get the lump sum at retirement? What about other times in life when a lump sum is useful? Perhaps we should just be allowed to draw down our pots every ten years or so? It’s not a rhetorical question: New Zealanders can draw on their auto-enrolled KiwiSaver pots to buy their houses; Americans can take money out of their 401k schemes if they are made redundant or face other major costly events.

It is well-known in public policy-making that problems are redefined to fit the solutions that are available. The solution is auto-enrolment, that beacon of ‘nudge’ policy-making. With a bit of imagination, we find a problem for it to solve. Here it is. The age of eligibility for the state pension is rising. Some people are working longer, but many are not. Life is tough for those who stop working before the state pension age. The available benefits have been cut in real terms: no triple lock for them. The process of claiming benefits, designed to deter scroungers and benefit tourists, will keep many self-respecting citizens from entering the doors of JobCentre Plus. How to survive until reaching pensionable age and entering the promised land, protected by Conservative voters? Answer: tap the pension pot that has been accumulated, which can be accessed ten years before the state pension age. Draw it down carefully, working towards the definite end date of pensionable age, not to an uncertain life expectancy.

One final question: what about those who really want to save to provide income for their retirement, and do not want to be a landlord, or run their own share portfolio? The Chancellor does have something for them after all. For people aged 65 and over, NS&I will launch ‘market leading’ pensioner bonds, paying a significantly higher return than other safe assets. The financial crisis taught everyone that the financial system is underpinned by the state, but large parts of the industry already knew that. The annuities market in particular has always been heavily dependent on the government to provide the financial instruments that it needs to match its liabilities. Reformers have periodically advocated that the government should boost the market by creating tailor-made instruments such as ‘longevity bonds’ that would shift some risks from the insurer to the taxpayer, a process which we’re now all thoroughly familiar with.  In this light, the new bonds from NS&I are a great step forward: pensioners will be able to secure an income stream directly from the government, rather than paying the masters of the financial universe to buy government bonds on their behalf. No wonder the share prices of some financial intermediaries fell. At this rate, we’ll return to having a welfare state by the back door. It might be expensive, but now that we know how much financial intermediation can cost, the welfare state is beginning to look like quite a good idea.

Prime Minister’s Questions as Masculinity

By Professor Joni Lovenduski 

PMQs are a prominent feature of political news routinely reported by journalists. They are a recurring topic in parliamentary sketches and Wednesday news bulletins. The reports offer some largely unchallenged received wisdom. We are told that PMQs are a ‘Punch and Judy’ show, a gladiatorial contest between party leaders who falter at their peril. Their adversarial nature bears responsibility for putting the public off politics but it is a loved and necessary part of the theatre of British politics.

It is the most famous parliamentary session anywhere in the world. In Britain it is both reviled and relished. The present Speaker, John Bercow, knows that for the most part the public dislikes the schoolboy rowdyism and tries periodically to quieten things down. He rarely succeeds for long.

Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 2011.

Bercow’s reported views are shared by women MPs and feminist observers of parliament who contend that the occasion is particularly off putting to women, so much so that they explain women’s relatively lower levels of interest in politics and also their reluctance to become parliamentarians. There is plenty of evidence that the institution encourages sexism. For example the ‘calm down dear’ and Nadine Dorries ‘frustrated’ comments for which Cameron apologised, the Kenneth Clarke rape comment controversy, the recent row about efforts to cancel the international women’s day debate (disapproved of by some commentators as a ritual debate) and the fall in the numbers of women in government and cabinet positions may be an indicator of recidivism. The press are unrepentantly sexist. As recently as April 2011, The Telegraph ran a ‘whose boobs are these?’ item using photos of a woman MP sitting behind Ed Miliband during PMQs.[i]

I was interested in the claim that PMQs put women off politics so I commissioned a YouGov survey that explored public attitudes to it in 2010. I was surprised to find that not only were women and men generally positive to PMQ, women were slightly more positive than men.[ii] The survey research was not designed to pick up ambivalences and ambiguities in public attitudes. This is the terrain of qualitative work such as interviews and focus groups. Hence the recent Hansard (Tuned in or Turned Off 2014) research showing that the public are put off by some aspects of PMQ was focus group based.

My research found a discrepancy between voters and MPs (who had been interviewed and then surveyed about their attitudes to PMQs.) Among voters women are, if anything, more positive about PMQs than men while women MPs are less so. This is puzzling though some of it can be explained. The differences in attitudes of women MPs and women in the public may result from their different experiences of PMQs. The public see only the relatively more exciting (!) version of it that appears on TV.

Overall it is in the ritualised aspects of PMQs that we find institutionalised masculinity. The standards of good performance at PMQs were designed by and are best suited to particular kinds of male political actor. Women MPs say they would prefer substantive political discussions to confrontational argument a view that may well be shared by their male colleagues. However there is little about PMQs that reflects this. Its performance standard is one saturated with ideals of traditional masculinity and is difficult for most women and some men to emulate. The performance standards, which are reinforced by party competition, are compelling. Most members concede that the competitive aspects of the performance socialise MPs, help to bind party groups and maintain backbench morale. However, it also helps to embed and continue a logic of appropriateness that is not inclusive and may not be supported even by the actors who abide by them. One example of the effects of PMQs on performers is PM David Cameron’s widely criticised remarks to Nadine Dorries during PMQs. In an interview with Andrew Marr of the BBC, Cameron blamed the aggressive and confrontational atmosphere of the occasion for his remarks which he said ‘came out wrong’ and ‘caused the wrong impression…’. Cameron then underlined how PMQs norms affected his behaviour, saying ‘It’s not what I’m like, that’s not who I am’. (BBC News 2 October 2011). Similarly, when asked about her widely publicised conventionally adversarial performance opposite William Hague when taking PMQs on 8 July 2009, Harriet Harman stated that she had no choice but to follow the conventions when she took PMQs because she knew that was what her party wanted. ‘I had to do it that way’ she said. (October 28, 2011[iii]) Such examples indicate a very high level of awareness by individual actors of how embedded norms affect their own behaviour.

PMQs are a rule governed activity that supports a paradigm of politics which is internalised by MPs and accepted and internalised by the public. The ritual sustains the traditional masculine culture by continually repeating performances of adversarial confrontation. Performance is evaluated in terms of competitive success framed in the way that the discourse of sporting competitions, races or wars are framed. (Did David Cameron win over Ed Miliband during PMQs today?) Commentary, if often amusing and erudite, is rarely framed in terms of the contribution to policy made in the contributions to the debate. But for the public this is the best known of all of parliament’s activities, and likely its main notion of the functioning of parliamentary accountability. Generally the public thinks that PMQs are functional and their belief that parliament should hold government to account explains why. However this may be because it is all they know. Even if the practice is symbolic and ritualistic, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, if it is a means, perhaps the only means of securing accountability, it will be valued.

While PMQs undoubtedly contribute to the accountability of government to parliament, the ritual offers a model of behaviour in the political arena that affects not only how citizens and actors see politics but also how they see themselves. In short, PMQs performance accords to a logic of public masculinity that is accepted by both women and men voters. This is a barrier to women MPs and would-be politicians because it underpins an expectation that politics is an activity best performed by men. Some women MPs and many feminist observers of politics believe that PMQs performance requirements are a paradigmatic example of the type of posturing and strutting that puts women off politics and stops them from wanting to be politicians. At present good evidence that would enable fuller assessment of this important claim is not available.


[ii] For a full discussion of the study see Joni Lovenduski 2012 Prime Ministers Questions as Political Ritual British Politics Vol. 7, 4, 314–340.

Watch Professor Colin Crouch discuss his new book, Making Capitalism Fit for Society.

On Thursday 30 January, 2014, the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, in partnership with the Political Quarterly and the UCL Department of Political Science, held a public debate about Colin Crouch’s new book Making Capitalism Fit for Society.

Video from the event has now been published on the UCL Department of Political Science website, and can be viewed here.

Hot MPs or not? Attractiveness worth 2.3% in vote share (and other things learnt on Friday)

This post originally appeared on Revolts, the blog of Professor Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, and it reports on the Centre’s recent conference on MPs and their constituents in contemporary democracies.

Friday saw a fascinating day-long seminar at Birkbeck college, on ‘MPs and their constituents in contemporary democracies’.  There were nine formal papers:

  1. Nick Vivyan & Markus Wagner: House or Home? Constituent preferences over representative activities
  2. Rosie Campbell & Philip Cowley: Designing the perfect politician: exploring desirable candidate characteristics using hypothetical biographies and survey experiments
  3. Vincent Tiberj: Yes they can: An experimental approach to the eligibility of ethnic minority candidates in France
  4. Michael Marsh: Parish pump and the preferential vote in Ireland
  5. Jocelyn Evans and Kai Arzheimer: Living in the wrong part of town: voter-candidate distance effects in the 2013 English local elections
  6. Caitlin Milazzo: Attractiveness and candidate popularity
  7. Andy Eggers, Markus Wagner & Nick Vivyan: Partisanship and punishment for MP misconduct
  8. Wolfgang Müller & Marcelo Jenny: Who MPs think their principals are
  9. Rosie Campbell & Joni Lovenduski: What characterises a good MP?  Public and Parliamentarians views compared

Amongst the many things you’d have learnt had you been there was that candidate attractiveness can be worth up to 2.3% in vote share (and this in proper grown up Westminster elections, not Mickey Mouse ones like Police Commissioners…); that British MPs basically spend their time doing the things that voters say they want them to do, and in roughly the right proportions; and that, out of an 18-country study, the country in which MPs were most likely to say that their primary representative role was to represent their constituents – as opposed to their party, or their country, or a particular social group – was Britain.  That last finding was from the Müller and Jenny paper.  One might quibble with the interpretation of this – MPs may say that, but do they mean it? – but even so it is still revealing as the thing that they think they must say.  The country with the most party-centred representatives was Denmark; that with the most country-focussed was Estonia.