Rafael Behr: Life in the Lobby at Westminster

This week, in the comfort of the Keynes library, Guardian journalist Rafael Behr gave Birkbeck’s Parliamentary Studies students an insight into life in the lobby at Westminster. He remembered how forbidding Parliament appeared to a budding new journalist, explained how the famous lobby system works and gave an insight into the ways in which reporters try to find out (or try to find out) exactly what is happening. Questions and discussion ranged across from the ‘usual channels’ to Conservative mutineers and ended with Rafael reflecting on some of his favourite Parliamentary moments.Rafael Behr in the Keynes Library

You can see his columns here and follow him on Twitter @rafaelbehr

Authenticity in Politics

Boris Johnson

Questions of authenticity loom large in recent politics. From the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the fall of Nick Clegg, from Tony Blair’s decision to enter the Iraq War to Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the idea that a politician is or isn’t ‘authentic’ is key to how they are understood. 

Professor Rosie Campbell hosted an episode of Analysis on BBC Radio 4 considering authenticity in politics. What makes a politician authentic, and how do we know? What does it mean for democracy when we value authenticity above other qualities more typically valued in politicians?

Professor Campbell speaks to school students, pollsters, academics and journalists to find out more. 

Listen to the full episode on BBC Radio 4 (login required). 

Image: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on a visit to Japan. Courtesy of UK in Japan – FCO.

Desperately Seeking an Elderly Gentleman with a Large Majority … to Persuade Parliament to Allow MPs to Job-Share

Open House

by Professor Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

Or a woman MP for that matter. But they must be adored by their parliamentary and local constituency party so that both will be happy for them to stand as half of one of the first MP job-shares at the next General Election. We think it might take someone who understands Parliament, and is respected within it, to push the debate about making parliament accessible forward.

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Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

By Professor Sarah Childs, Dr Meryl Kenny and Birkbeck PhD candidate Jessica Smith

Polling station

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs. But we’ve put the champagne on ice. Continue reading

General Election 2017: Pre-Election Predictions

In the latest episode of Westminster Watch, the podcast from the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, Dermot Hodson and Ben Worthy consider the state of the election two days out from voting.

Topics covered include:

  • The recent attacks in Manchester and London, and their impact on the campaign and the broader debate around national security;
  • The worst idea in the General Election manifestos;
  • Election predictions, and the future of the leadership of the Conservatives and Labour.

Listen to the podcast below:

Subscribe to the Birkbeck Politics podcast to get the latest episodes of Westminster Watch and our other audio productions, including recordings of lectures, panel discussions and debates.

Can Progressive Parties Work Together?

by Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics

The big question for the left is whether parties can work together. Everyone from John McDonnell to Tony Blair has spoken of the need to co-operate in an increasingly fragmented and divided country. But can it be done?

On 21st February the Centre for British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck hosted a discussion around the possibility of creating a ‘progressive alliance’ in the UK, based on the recent book The Alternative (read a sample chapter here). The panel was made up of the three editors of the book: Lisa Nandy MP (Labour), Caroline Lucas MP (Green) and Chris Bowers (Liberal Democrat) as well as Jon Cruddas MP (Labour). They propose an alliance, perhaps taking different forms, between the progressive parties of Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, all uniting around co-operation, political reform and radical economic change.

Working together in British politics isn’t as unusual as it seems. Local authorities up and down the country have done it and there have been coalitions in Scotland and Wales. In general elections, there are all sorts of ways of tactical voting and vote swapping. The idea of progressive co-operation has also been tried and tested in by-elections: in December 2016 the Greens and Women’s Equality Party threw their support behind the Liberal Democrat MP – who went on to spectacularly unseat Zac Goldsmith.

There are, however, plenty of obstacles. The electoral system may need to change to one that is more proportionate – but not everyone in all the parties, or even on the panel, were convinced. Labour appear split with some for and some against or lukewarm.

The tribalism of British politics will also need to be broken down or at least temporarily suspended. Labour, as the biggest party, must be persuaded. As the panel discussed, not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea, and some are happier arguing that their potential allies are not really progressive. Jeremy Corbyn appeared set against it, unhappy at working with the Lib Dems, though he may have slightly changed his views as the Copeland and Stoke central by-elections draw near. Tim Farron has also rejected the idea of working with ‘hard Brexit’ Labour.

So can the historic left divide be united and what principles can they unite around? How would it work? Can there really be an alliance without a push for PR? Listen to a recording of the event and judge for yourself:

Ben Worthy’s book, The Politics of Freedom of Information, was published in 2017 by Manchester University Press.

What is it like to work for an MP?

On Wednesday 16 November the British Politics Centre welcomed Robert Dale,
author of the book How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher and a former member of staff for Andy Sawford, MP for Corby.

Robert spoke to students from the Department of Politics and beyond about how to get a job in parliament, the kinds of people who apply for these positions, and what it’s like when they get there.

The talk was followed by a Q&A session.

Listen to a podcast of the event:

The 2016 US Election: Trump Can Win


In one of the most unpredictable elections in decades, two of the most unpopular and divisive candidates in modern American political history, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, face each other at the ballot box in November.

The so-called fundamentals of the election, in a traditional contest with traditional candidates, should support a narrow Democrat win. However, with so much uncertainty around the two candidates and very high levels of undecided voters, no one is sure.

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The EU Referendum: Will it be In or Out?

by Dr Ben Worthy

On 8 June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on 23 June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not too hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, referenda can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom – creating what has been called a ‘Disunited Kingdom‘ of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife-edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23 June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below:


To find out more:


Chills, thrills and surprises: ten years of freedom of information in the UK

By Dr Ben Worthy

This post originally appeared on Oxford University Press’s OUPblog (10 April 2016). It is reposted here with the publisher’s permission.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has been in the news again, when the controversial Independent Commission, much to the surprise of many, concluded the Act was ‘generally working well’, had ‘enhanced openness and transparency… there is no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered’.

How can this be squared with the claims of Tony Blair, who passed the Freedom of Information Act back in 2000, that the law is one of his greatest regrets? Blair spent some time in his memoirs bemoaning how terrible and counter-productive FOI was:

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

He’s not the only politician who has fallen out of love with transparency. David Cameron began his time in office with a ringing commitment to make his government the most transparent ever and initiate a revolution in openness. In 2012 he was a little less enthusiastic, speaking of how FOI can ‘occasionally fur up the arteries of government’ and by 2015 he was referring to it as just another ‘buggeration factor’ alongside judicial review and Health and Safety laws. The Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling also complained that FOI was being abused by journalists (though the Daily Mail pointed out that he was quite a fan of FOI in opposition).

So why do politicians dislike it so much?

In part the unhappiness is due to a politician’s natural dislike of “surprises.” FOI is the antidote to “spin,” amid a growing emphasis on “spin.” FOI can often cause embarrassments and scandal, digging up stories and delving into forgotten corners. Imagine being a politician and think of the effect of seeing stories such as MPs’ expenses, councils’ use of credit cards or an online list of which politicians supported what controversial decisions. You can also glance over this fascinating list of snooping councils, inappropriate use of social media and escaped convicts revealed by FOI. Spare a thought also for the parish of Walberwick where the council resigned on masse over a combination of cover ups and Christmas trees exposed by FOI requests.

Another claim made is that FOI stops everyone writing things down, the so-called chilling effect. Despite endless discussion and Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s rather creative warning that officials are ‘working on Brexit plans in their head’ to avoid FOI, we found the chilling effect to be a myth (as did a Parliamentary committee). The quality of official advice or government records is no worse and emails and “sofa government” have led to far more change than FOI. Despite this lack of evidence, it is still being talked about and the danger is it can becomes a self-confirming myth.

A final reason for their unhappiness has to do with how politicians meet FOI: senior politicians and officials only ever see a few requests, often the most sensitive or most potentially damaging, and often from journalists. They get a very narrow, and negative, view of what requests are received and are prone to view FOI as a ‘problem’ and see it as ‘abused’ by the media. Rather than Iraq, Tony Blair was upset with how FOI revealed who had visited him at chequers (and who gave him an iPod). This also plays into claims that FOI is an alleged resource burden as [some] local councils andpolice forces have claimed.

So, politicians easily go off FOI, through a mixture of unpleasant surprises, (imagined) chills, and bad memories. However, here hangs a paradox. FOI needs support from politicians to flourish and those very politicians most at risk from exposure need to get behind it or at least tolerate it. FOI will still be around in another 10 years but so will the complaints.

Read more on this topic.