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

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 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:


The Conservatives have been the biggest borrowers over the last 70 years

By Richard Murphy

This post originally appeared on Richard Murphy’s blog Tax Research UK (13 March 2016). It is reposted here with his permission.

I was interviewed twice on the radio on Friday evening to discuss John McDonnell’s new fiscal rule, once on LBC and the other on Radio 5. In both cases the interviewers were quite explicit in stating that it was known that Labour always borrowed more than the Conservatives and that was why the electorate could not trust them with the economy. I knew that evidence I had prepared a year ago did not support that view in recent years (post 1997) but I decided to see if this claim really had any substance to it all at all. This blog is about my findings. There is a note on data sources at the end.

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David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

By Professor Eric Kaufmann

Former Labour MP and Birkbeck Politics Professorial Fellow Tony Wright hosted a memorable evening with former Tory MP David Willetts on 11 February in the cozy confines of the Keynes Library. Willetts, known as ‘two brains’ for his intellectualism and (current) tally of ten authored books, served as Universities Minister in the Cameron government until 2015. He also served under Margaret Thatcher at her Policy Unit. Among his more influential works is his recent book on problems of intergenerational equity entitled The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

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Why Carswell and Brand are both wrong about British politics

By Danny Rye

Neither individualism nor therapeutic withdrawal from the political arena are enough to empower people to make the fundamental changes needed in their lives.

This article was first published at OurKingdom, the UK section of openDemocracy – click here 

British politics is in a fragile state.  Levels of trust in politicians are low, traditional measures of political engagement indicate an increasing dislocation between a distant ‘political class’ and the electorate. People are less inclined to vote at all (as turnout figures for recent elections indicate) and those that are seem in increasing numbers to be more attracted to ‘insurgent’ parties and charismatic individuals from George Galloway to Nigel Farage who appear to offer simple answers to often complex questions. Underlying this is a sense of powerlessness, anger and disappointment that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the political system itself, and which mainstream politicians seem powerless to address without making worse.

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