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?
John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the Politics Department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign Secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.
This General Election is the most unpredictable in decades. From the SNP in Scotland to UKIP’s assault and the Green insurgency, this election is full of uncertainties. We tried to make sense of a contest even pollsters are seeing as too close to call.
Last night Birkbeck staff from the Politics Department each gave a five-minute pitch and bite size assessment on a different aspect of the election, chaired by Professor Tony Wright. Did we piece together who could win?
Listen to the talk as a podcast here to find out (the pitches and Q and A are separate).
We discussed a whole range of issues:
- Who is voting for who, and how has it changed? Rosie Campbell made the point that fewer and fewer people are voting for the main two parties and women voters (who make up, remember, 52% of the electorate) will be crucial.
- Jason Edwards looked at what’s happening in Scotland and argued that, whether there will be a clean sweep of all 59 seats for Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP or not, the UK will be profoundly disrupted.
- What will be the UKIP effect? Eric Kaufman argued that their influence in marginals, despite their supposed fall, will be crucial, and they may kick start a new English nationalism.
- Diana Coole pitched for the Greens, fresh from by far the best and funniest election video (see the Boyband here), who are attracting votes and attention, especially from younger parts of the electorate. Even if we are unlikely to see a Green Prime Minister, could they capture another seat?
- How did social media influence things? From Milifans to Brand, social media has disrupted, upset and entertained, showing it is a new media force, if a very unpredictable one. But who is so keen on getting our data?
The discussion then covered English nationalism, who stays technically in Downing Street, how you get to be a government (Tony Wright advised us to read the Cabinet Manual – it’s all written there) and whether the election may be more like 1945 (in a certain way) than 1992. Most importantly, as Tony Wright pointed out, voters are now getting used to voting for the party they want, not who will be in government. This means more and more governments will be made through bargaining after elections.
So what did we predict for 2015? A Labour Minority? A Left Rainbow Coalition? Or a sneaking in of the Tories, powered by ‘shy’ Conservative voters?
All of the above, and we changed our minds.
To help you try and make more sense of this election, below are some helpful links:
- Poll of Polls explaining the actual position of the parties (updated daily)
- The Polling observatory’s election forecast
- Polling wizard Nate Silver, who successfully predicted the last two US Presidential elections, predicts UK 2015
- For the more historically minded-all the UK’s General Elections since 1945 in 12 graphs
- Find out about your constituency at democratic dashboard and your candidates at Yournextmp
- Finally, a guide to what will happen post-election (and what the rules and myths are about it) looking at the Queen’s Speech and how the Fixed Term Parliament Act changes it-the trick is to survive the Queen’s Speech…
By Dr Rosie Campbell, Reader in Politics, Department of Politics, Birkbeck
On 11th February Harriet Harman launched the Labour party’s magenta battle bus intended to reach out to women voters. The bus generated a fair amount of publicity and was explained on the basis that women have been less likely to vote in previous elections.
Women are less interested in formal politics than men, but there is little convincing evidence that significantly fewer women than men have voted in recent British General Elections. Take the last general election. The 2010 British Election Study post-election face-to-face survey shows that 77% of men and 76% of women said that they had voted, a gap between men and women of just 1% that is not statistically significant. As well as self-reported turnout the survey includes a validated vote variable (the survey team used electoral registers to establish whether respondents voted in the election). Using these figures, 57% of men and 56% of women in the survey were found to have voted in the election, again producing a gap of just 1% between men and women, and a gap which is again not statistically significant. In my view it is difficult to use this miniscule difference between men and women in the survey to claim that there were a disproportionate number of missing women voters in 2010.
So why else might women voters be receiving so much attention? First, women are often over represented in the ‘don’t know’ category in political survey questions (as reflected in the figure below). But given the lack of a significant turnout gap between men and women it is likely that a sizeable proportion of the women represented in the ‘Don’t Know’ category will vote for a party’s candidate on May the 7th. Women are also somewhat less likely to be strong partisans than men, and again, as a result there are slightly more women among the undecided voters who are the target of the parties’ activities during the campaign.
Vote intention by sex, 2015 BES online panel wave three
Second, there are some differences in men and women’s political attitudes. Women are on average a little more hostile to cuts in public spending than men, with 5% more women than men judging that cuts to public spending have gone too far and 10% more women than men believing that cuts to the NHS budget have gone too far. Given attitudes to austerity are likely to be a crucial decider in this election these small gender differences between men and women may have some impact on the result.
However, as things stand there are only relatively minor differences between men and women’s vote intention evident in the BES 2015 wave three. After removing non-voters and the ‘don’t knows’ 31% of men and 30% of women intended to vote Conservative, 33% of men and 36% of women intended to vote Labour (the largest gap between men and women in vote intention). Thus it would seem from this data that Labour have a marginal lead among women, but the differences are small indeed and should not be overstated.
This blog was originally posted on the British Election Study website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
In this expert analysis, Professor Eric Kaufmann explains how Ukip will damage the Tories in 2015 but may ultimately harm Labour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.