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.

The State of British Democracy

State of British DemocracyBy Dr Ben Worthy

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

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Jeremy Hunt’s masterclass in how NOT to negotiate

Jeremy Hunt

By John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations, Department of Management, Birkbeck

As somebody who teaches negotiations at the London School of Economics (and whose elder daughter is a junior doctor) I have followed the junior doctors’ dispute very closely. What I have gradually discovered is that one of the key obstacles to the successful resolution of the dispute is that the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has violated almost every basic principle of effective negotiation.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 21.19.54

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

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.

Reflections on Thatcher

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

The discussion following the death of Margaret Thatcher has quickly moved from a fragile peace to a divisive debate (see these ambiguous local press headlines). I don’t remember much about Thatcherism but I have vague memories, as Russell Brand wonderfully put it, of a woman on the TV telling people off and constantly saying no.

Having taught British politics I find it fascinating to see the differences between myth and reality in leaders from across time. Thatcher appears to be one leader who will be as wrapped in myth and controversy as Churchill. As Richard Vinen points out his great book on Thatcher, both left and right had an interest in creating a straw Thatcher, a repository of virtue or evil. Added to this, academics, supporters and others, including Thatcher herself, have piled on further layers of mystique. Her comments about there being ‘no such thing as society’, for example, are quoted out of context while her comments about immigration in 1978 are often forgotten.

Take Thatcher’s background as the famous ‘grocer’s daughter’. As Simon Jenkin’s (see a good article here) and biographer John Campbell argue in their works on Thatcher, Alderman Roberts was an important local politician – but Grantham gave her a ‘hinterland’ and an ‘outsider’ story to tell. More importantly the ‘outsider’ Thatcher developed her real contacts at that most establishment of places Oxford, where she gained the friendships that eventually found her a seat. An outsider perhaps but with at least one foot firmly in the establishment.

More interesting is Thatcher as a politician. Her portrait as an ideology driven ‘wrecker’ needs to be qualified. Vinen is not certain she ever read any of the ‘classic’ texts that were supposed to have inspired Thatcherism or that she regarded them as anything more than ‘polish’ (though this is not to underestimate her formidable intellect). Nor was she the first to privatise parts of government or acknowledge the financial arrangements were unsuitable-the prize for both of these goes to her ‘socialist’ predecessor. Her golden rule of politics was said to have been ‘always leave yourself a way out’ – not a very Thatcher thing to say.

As a politician Thatcher is seen as a model conviction politician. But, as John Major and Jon Snow both tried to point out, the same Thatcher signed the Single European Act of 1986 and agreed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Her privatisation began slowly and she backed away from reforming the NHS or privatising the Post Office. Only when she truly became an ideologue did she lose power.

Vinen highlights her famous 1988 Bruges Speech, seen now as the founding moment of the UK Eurosceptic movement in Britain, as one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. As a statement of Euroscepticism it leaves a lot to be desired. Parts of the speech are very pro-European, peppered with phrases such as ‘And let me be quite clear…Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’-she even begins the speech with a gentle joke about her supposed ‘anti-European’ views.

Even Thatcher’s ‘iron resolution’ over the Falklands war may not be all that it seemed-these papers from the National Archives reveal Thatcher open to the idea of a negotiated settlement (borrowing from Churchill again who said ‘jaw jaw is always better than war’).

The most confusing aspect is her legacy, which can be less a verdict and more an on-going debate. Thatcherism shaped the views of what the state, the economy and society should do. In 2004 this all seemed to have been settled. Post 2007 light touch approaches to banking and food safety seem more questionable.

Thatcher herself spoke of her key achievements as being variously the creation of Tony Blair or the changing of ‘values’ and ‘common sense’. None of these take us very far in understanding what it was Thatcherism did. The difficulty is that debate is on two levels. One level we can (and are) discussing economic and social changes Thatcherism created. On this one I broadly agree with Ken Livingstone’s assessment.

But on another level, the argument is about something harder to define-this may be what Thatcher meant about ‘values’. Both left and right believe Thatcher did something less tangible. To the right Thatcher made Britain ‘great’ again as Cameron said, saving us from a terminal sort of ‘spiritual’ as well as economic decline-though some interesting and much debated research points to 1976, that year of terrible economic crisis, as being the time when the UK was ‘happiest’. To the left Thatcher ‘broke’ something about Britain and what Alexei Sayle called her ‘prejudice wrapped up as policy’ destroyed something worth keeping- a sense of community as difficult to measure as happiness.

The events of the last few days have showed that she has one unarguable legacy. Her idol Winton Churchill spent much of his life a divisive and contrary figure but, a year shy of his 70 birthday, transformed into a figure of national unity and ‘the saviour of his country’ (as a very left wing historian said). By contrast Thatcher, who claimed quoting St Augustine she sought unity, has left division and conflict.

Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.

Taming the PM?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

The classic essay question asks: what are the powers of the Prime Minister? Graham Allen’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has been wrestling with this issue since 2011. The driving force for this debate can be traced back to the 2003 parliamentary debate on the war in Iraq. There is recognition now that any prime minister would find it impossible to commit troops in similar circumstances without a substantive vote in favour in the House. Codifying the prime minister’s war making powers has never made it to the statute books, but maybe it should as an additional safeguard to convention. We now have fixed term parliaments, a Cabinet Manual, a Coalition Agreement and a more formalised cabinet system under this coalition government. Why not fix the Prime Minister’s power in law too?

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Mark Bennister cautioned against codification. Prime Ministers gain power from a range of sources, both formal and informal. It is not only the institutional resources associated with leading the executive that empower a Prime Minister, but also the ‘skill in context’ or ability to shape situations to the leader’s advantage. Personal is indeed political. A dynamic and charismatic figure, whilst clearly not imperial in parliamentary democracies can stretch resources to support and enhance predominance. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, also giving evidence, argued that the Prime Minister needed more partisan resources to do the job.

Mark Bennister warned against direct prime ministerial election, a particular interest of the Committee Chair. The only case of direct prime ministerial elections political scientists have to study occurred in Israel from 1996 to 2000. This form of presidential parliamentarianism or ‘presidentarianism’ proved a disaster, causing fragmentation of the party system and sclerosis as the prime minister’s position was weakened. The experiment was quickly shelved.

There are however perhaps better areas for reform and greater clarity. Prime Minister’s Questions could certainly do with an overhaul. It may be great political fun, but longer sessions with supplementary questions may reduce the Punch and Judy aspect. The Liaison Committee which questions the Prime Minister twice a year could meet more frequently with fewer members to provide a more focused and forensic probing. Another option could see an investiture vote in the Commons to confirm a new Prime Minister in post. Such a shift to positive parliamentarianism would locate the Prime Minister firmly within the legislature.

Does comparative research in this area help? In most countries we find ambiguity surrounding the role and powers of the prime minister. In Australia the Prime Minister is not even mentioned in the written constitution. Cabinet formality is stronger and more structured in Australia, but on Iraq John Howard could boldly state that it was ‘an executive decision’ to commit troops. However as Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke found to their cost, Australian Prime Ministers remain in post at the gift of heir parliamentary parties and can be removed swiftly if the numbers in the party room or caucus swing against them. By contrast in Japan the Prime Minister is written into the constitution with their powers mapped. But this is no guarantee of stability; since 2006 Japan has had 7 Prime Ministers.

As Machiavelli would perhaps point out, codification may clarify but it is political power that counts.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Cameron’s EU Speech: What Would Machiavelli Say?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

David Cameron made his long awaited speech about Europe this week, a speech that will decisively shape both his premiership and Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been welcomed by parts of the press and Eurosceptic Tory MPs. It has been criticised by various other members of the EU.

The big question is what happens next-will the speech save or sink Cameron, Britain and the EU? In reaching for an assessment one way to go is backwards to 1513 to get the views of that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, author of The Prince, spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of foreign policy. He has already been used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband.

So what would Machiavelli say about Cameron’s speech and its consequences? He would welcome the clarity (though some feel the superficial clarity hides much fudging).  Machiavelli advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.  Cameron’s speech was striking and welcomed as defining. Machiavelli may have had some reservations about some of the ‘ifs’ contained in the speech-the clarity of the position could unravel under pressure and no amount of ‘sunny’ optimism could hide this.

Machiavelli warns, however, to ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’. Cameron must beware potentially transient poll ratings or cheering headlines. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’.

Another point Machiavelli may make, rather unexpectedly, would be to go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him.

In this case discovering precisely what the people want is difficult. It seems that, as of this weekend just over 50% of the public wish to leave the EU, there is support for renegotiation and most people asked would like a referendum (though apparently referendums on any subject are always popular). However, other polls indicate that the EU as a political issue remains a low priority for most voters.

Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’.

So Cameron needs to be able to move with events. The difficulty is that, while the ‘ifs’ may bring wriggle room, the promise of a referendum does not. In the short to medium term the question is whether the speech and referendum promise strengthens his hand in Europe or hobbles his negotiating power. In the longer term Cameron has committed to a referendum in 2017 that may take place in be in a very different political landscape. Machiavelli may well point out that if Cameron wins the next election (on his own-another big if) and if his negotiations are successful the EU, the world economy and Britain may all be very different in five years. Could Cameron adapt his cast-iron pledge to this new world?

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

A Change is Gonna Come? Learning from the Tories

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Source: Opinium Research

How do parties regain power? Perhaps Ed Miliband should look to his opponents for some tips. Tim Bale’s new book on the Conservative party offers some important lessons. As one of the oldest parties around, the Conservatives , leaving aside the wilderness years between 1997 and 2005, have shown themselves ‘willing and able to do whatever it took to return to office as rapidly as possible’. The secret of the party’s success lies in its now legendary ability to change.  Are there any signs that the Labour party is now doing the same?

Bale points out that there are several ‘classic’ drivers for party change- a new leader, a heavy defeat or a shift in the dominant faction. Ed has at least two of these to start with though whether there is a fiercely group of Milibandites who’ve taken over the party must be open to question. Aside from these classic ‘forces for change’, there are some ‘hidden’ pressures such as

  • the pressure to ‘make right’ past wrongs or ‘match’ popular policy
  • the ‘domino’ effect of a particular policy leading to others
  • responding to ‘external’ events

So has Ed set the scene for change? Has he kick started the process? Ever since Tony Blair had his ‘Clause IV Moment’ the media has looked for the key moments when an opposition leader has emerged or sunk. Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech sunk him. David Cameron’s husky dogs made him. Was Ed’s ‘One nation party’ speech to conference his starting gun for change?

We can perhaps see some of Bale’s ‘hidden pressures’ at work. The speech matched policy and may lead to other commitments. On spending Ed made it clear ‘there will be many cuts that this Government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to’ something Ed Balls also emphasised. Ed’s recent moves on other policy, such as his speech on Climate change or position on the banks or Leveson or Europe, may bring a ‘domino’ effect on policy producing many unexpected ‘knock on’ commitments.

The speech also showed signs of Labour making up for past wrongs. Ed spoke of how ‘we can’t go back to Old Labour’ but that New Labour too had its faults ‘because New Labour, despite its great achievements, was too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top, and too timid about the accountability of those with power’. Labour’s adoption of spending plans may be atonement as well as opportunism. There was also a great deal of responding to events ‘no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account’. Incidentally, the speech stole a big chunk of political space where the left of the Conservative party used to be.

So what could we see? The pressures for change are certainly there. We may yet see a Labour party with new faces, a new way of working and a raft of new policies. Positions are still unclear and Ed’s big policy review is still in process, as Grant Schapps delights in pointing out here.

Perhaps the big unanswered question is whether the changing party can also propel the leader upwards. Ed’s own ratings remain low (see the graphic above and here). The question, as Bale points out, is how central the leader is to winning elections. Does the increased ‘personalisation’ of politics mean that any changes in the party will be undermined by Ed himself?

And of course, it all depends on how much the Tories are prepared to change too.  One thing Bale emphasises is how much governing parties’ shifts are driven by their desperation to avoid an anticipated defeat.  With an election looming, Cameron may surprise everyone by jettisoning some measures that are supposedly set in stone and running with others that right now no-one would predict.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Nick Clegg: Is It All His Fault?

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Nick Clegg has been Deputy Prime Minister for just over two years. Recent polls of his leadership have not been kind: both his party and the electorate do not seem impressed. Hence his pose in the speech at the Lib-Dem conference as he characterised his party (and presumably himself) as the responsible one attacked by ‘vitriol and abuse, from Right and Left, as we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground’.

Nick Clegg has not achieved what he aimed or hoped to do: the referendum on AV was lost, the House of Lords reform dropped and even his apology doesn’t seem to have gone down as well as he hoped. It is claimed that Vince Cable is circling.

Here again is the link between personality and context. Is Nick Clegg a victim of ‘circumstance’, as one journalist put it? Or is it all his fault? Is he the ‘weakling, a liar and an incompetent fool’, unable or unwilling to change his situation?

To some extent Clegg and his party are the ‘classic’ junior party in a coalition, epitomised by portrayals of Clegg as ‘Cameron’s butler, wife or dog’. There is only so much they can do about this, hence his ‘mansion tax’ call (rejected by Cameron).

For Clegg himself, his steep rise to fame through ‘Cleggmania’ may also mean a fall was very likely, if not inveitable-Cleggmania was unlikely to last long against the realities of power sharing. The sheer range and vehemence of criticism in the media may mean Nick Clegg is some sort of lightning rod or a symbol of increasing personalised politics. As a result of this media portrayal, as this fascinating piece points out, like Cameron, Clegg’s once positive traits have turned into negatives: his boyishness to ‘siren’-like charm or smarmy seductiveness.  Clegg’s courtship of the electorate was portrayed as a ‘holiday romance’ turned sour. So sour that he is now the ‘effigy of choice’ in protests.

But it isn’t all circumstance. Others have pointed to Clegg’s inexperience in the Coalition negotiations and later political manoeuvres. It’s not only Clegg – everyone in the Lib-Dems from leader to staff and special advisers has suffered from this. Yet some accuse him of having a particular talent for wrenching defeat from near victory, or at least turning the ‘tricky’ into ‘disaster’:

For months, if not years, constitutional experts have been warning him that Lords reform faced all sorts of serious obstacles, but he did not listen to their demand for a strategy until it was too late. He has mismanaged this great political project, just as he previously blundered over both student fees and NHS reforms, in both cases turning tricky political situations for his party into outright disaster. Clegg was only elected to the Commons in 2005, but the longer his leadership of his party goes on, the more it appears that he was too inexperienced for the job (full article here)

But what is Nick Clegg to do? He may be hoping that history will see him right. In time he may be seen as the resolute man who made Lib-Dems a party of government. There are historical turnarounds for reputation. George Orwell famously described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as a dead fish beginning to stiffen. Now, more than 60 years later his name is associated with great concrete achievements – even Thatcher didn’t hide her admiration. However, as Attlee pointed out, his achievements were based on a thick pile of legislative achievement rather than words. Clegg needs something on the statute book. Soon.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.