The Lessons of Clacton and Heywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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.

Britain in the EU

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

This blog post summarises parts of a lecture Dr Dimitrakopoulos gave to British diplomats at the Foreign Office on 18 February 2013.

Britain has been described as an ‘awkward partner’ (George, 1994) within the EU but the chequered history of her membership is even more complex. Although it is true that until 1997 there were only two major episodes of positive engagement (the establishment of the single European market in the second half of the 1980s and John Major’s short-lived attempt, upon his arrival at 10 Downing Street, to place the UK ‘at the heart of Europe’) a more thorough understanding of Britain’s 40-year history as a member of the EC/EU ought to be couched not only in contemporary debates on the future of European integration but also Britain’s own past, present and future.

For a start, Britain’s accession to the then European Communities was a sign of an undeclared defeat. As Hugo Young appositely notes,

‘For the makers of the original “Europe”, beginning to fulfil Victor Hugo’s dream, their creation was a triumph.  Out of defeat they produced a new kind of victory.  For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a kind of defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe’ (Young, 1998, 2).

Indeed, not only did Britain’s governments shun the opportunity to participate in this process from the beginning – in the 1950s – but their pronouncements were matched by further concrete action: Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Free Trade Association which was meant to be a counter-weight to the emerging European Communities, and was devoid of a common external tariff and a common trade negotiator vis-à-vis third countries, i.e. two ‘state-building’ features of the EEC. Britain was initially joined by Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, nearly all of which [i] subsequently became full members of the EC/EU (as did Finland that became a full member of EFTA in 1986 but joined the EU only nine years later).  In addition, far from its usual position as a leading decision shaper in international affairs, Britain has had to apply three times in order to join the European Communities.

Since then, by and large Britain’s membership has been marked by a number of paradoxes or even contradictions: a sceptical member state but also one whose basic preferences are often (though not always) congruent with key developments in the process of integration as indicated by the single market project, successive enlargements, market-based approaches to a series of policy issues, including employment.

More recently, the terms of the domestic debate on Britain’s membership have not only returned to the themes of the late 1980s and early 1990s but can be seen as evidence of the British political elite beginning to catch up with the continental European debate on the future and the finalité politique of European integration – a debate essentially launched by Joschka Fischer’s famous speech at Humboldt University in May 2000. This involves a struggle between the supporters and opponents of essentially two quite different options for the future of Europe, namely neoliberalism and regulated capitalism. Indeed, on the one hand, David Cameron’s recent speech at Bloomberg and other pronouncements made by senior Tories place them firmly on the side of those who support unfettered markets, a neoliberal Europe – that is arguably the essence of contemporary Tory Euroscepticism for they see the EU as an actual or even just potential source of intervention in the economy. As the emerging debate on the UK’s membership of the EU is bound to reveal, when Mr Cameron refers to ‘flexibility’ he actually has in mind what many on the Continent as well as the UK call ‘social dumping’. In that sense, the recent developments in the debate in the UK mark a return to the early 1990s, when the late John Smith, then Labour leader, was castigating the Major-led government for trying to turn the UK into the sweatshop of Europe, trying to compete with Taiwan on low wages, rather than with Germany on skills, as he put in a speech in the House of Commons. The fact that Mr Cameron has singled out the EU’s Working Time Directive makes him particularly vulnerable to that line of attack because that directive (like others in the socio-economic and environmental domains) actually allows individual member states to pursue higher standards. So, if Mr Cameron wants flexibility, this is bound to mean the dilution of standards, not their improvement.

The Labour Party’s response was largely couched in Ed Miliband and his team’s preference for ‘responsible capitalism’ which has a clear social democratic ‘flavour’. This is good news for those who want to have real choices not only in national electoral contests but also the forthcoming European elections for, ultimately, the kind of Europe that we want is inextricably linked to the kind of Britain we want.

References cited

George, S. (1994) An Awkward Partner.  Britain in the European Community. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, H. (1998) This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. London: Macmillan.

[i] Norway and Switzerland are the two exceptions.

What Do MPs Read?

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

How to be an MP by Paul Flynn (Biteback Publishing, 2012)

In the past few years there have been several attempts to understand how our elected and non-elected representatives work, what they do and what they think, including Emma Crewe’s great anthropological study of the Lords and Tony Wright’s thoughts on what MPs are for.

How can we know what MPs think? One way is to find out what they are reading. Following a Freedom of Information Request, the Daily Telegraph revealed the top ten books borrowed by MPs from the House of Commons Library in 2012. They are as follows:

Ten most borrowed books from House of Commons library in 2012

  1. How to be an MP, by Paul Flynn
  2. How Parliament Works, by Robert Rogers
  3. The new few, or a very British Oligarchy, by Ferdinand Mount
  4. Losing small wars: British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, by Frank Ledwidge
  5. Erskine May’s treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament, edited by Malcolm Jack
  6. Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol 4, by Robert Caro
  7. Outside in, by Peter Hain
  8. A Journey, by Tony Blair
  9. Chavs, by Owen Jones
  10. Back from the brink, by Alistair Darling

The article itself makes much of the first two books – it looks as though MPs don’t know what they are doing or how Parliament works. But the list may be cause for optimism. The first two books are both useful, detailed guides to Parliamentary activity. It could be eager and enthusiastic members are using respectable guides to improve how they work-this is perhaps supported by the presence of the bible of Parliamentary procedure, Erskine May, half-way down.

Some of the others books are the sort of book you want our representatives to read. Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ is a recent study of what he sees as the demonization of the working class while Frank Lewidge’s is a searing assent of recent British military performance. The Robert Caro book on Lyndon Johnson (beloved of Gordon Brown and Michael Gove while his wife was in labour and apparently  the inspiration for Osborne’s tactics against the SNP) is part of a vast four volume study of one of history’s great legislators, who passed laws no one else could before becoming unstuck in Vietnam.

This list tells us a little bit more than the rather eclectic mix of books chosen by Prime Ministers on Desert Island discs – David Cameron (‘River Cottage’ by Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall), Nick Clegg (‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Lampedusa) ,Gordon Brown (‘The Story of Art’ by Ernst Gombrich), Tony Blair (‘Ivanhoe’ by Walter Scott), Margaret Thatcher (‘a survival manual’). It also is more indicative of what is being really read rather than the lists of summer holiday reading politicians provide, though the thought of Ed Milliband’s spur of the moment ‘kindling’, Iain Duncan Smith being inspired by Dickens or Nick Clegg reading ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ makes for a good story.

By way of a comparison here is an FOI request by the Reading Post for the most popular books borrowed from libraries in the local area.

1. The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend
2. A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics by Neil Faulkner
3. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
4. Phantom by Jo Nesbo
5. Fault Line by Robert Goddard
6. The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope
7. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
8. Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey
9. Hugo by Asa Butterfield
10. Are You Smart Enough to Work for Google? by William Poundstone

As a point of interest, FOI has proved rather a boon for researchers of libraries. There are some extraordinarily overdue books in Cornwall and a list of those banned from Hull libraries. On a more serious note Anti-library closure group ‘Voices for Libraries’ has used FOI to fight closures up and down the country while a Huddersfield local paper has calculated through statistics on lending which are the most efficient libraries in their area.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

The UK Referendum on Europe: Prepare for the By No Means Inevitable

By Dr Dermot Hodson

So the Prime Minister has finally agreed to a public vote on EU membership, or has he? Media coverage of David Cameron’s longsuffering Europe speech, finally delivered at Bloomberg HQ on 23 January, has focused on the Conservative leader’s commitment to hold a referendum by 2017. As is so often the case with political pledges of this sort, however, the devil is in the detail. At the present moment, there are at least three reasons why this referendum might not go ahead as planned. This blog post sets out these reasons before arguing that the Prime Minister nonetheless needs to change his rhetoric on the EU if he holds out any hope of turning around public opinion in the UK.

The Conservatives might not win the next general election (and Labour and the Lib Dems might hold their nerve).

The coalition agreement signed in May 2010 between the Conservatives and Lib Dems made no mention of an in/out referendum on EU membership and the two parties have not reopened this issue thus far. For this reason, the Bloomberg speech can be seen as a trailer for a future Conservative government rather than a jump cut for the coalition, with Cameron announcing that his party would, if it wins the next election, seek a ‘new settlement’ with the EU before asking the people if they wish to remain members under these new terms. Although some commentators have downplayed the significance of this commitment it goes well beyond the current requirement to put certain categories of EU treaty change to a referendum before they can become law in the UK. This requirement, which is set out in the European Union Act (2011), refers only to a referendum on proposed treaty changes and not on the wider question of whether the UK should remain in the EU.

With the Conservatives trailing in the opinion polls (even after their post-Bloomberg bounce) the opportunity to deliver this manifesto pledge might not materialise. A key question, therefore, is whether the two other main political parties will be forced to match Cameron’s commitment to an in/out vote. Ed Miliband’s initial response to the Bloomberg speech was to reject calls for such a referendum for now, but the Labour leader is already under pressure from the ‘euro realist’ wing of his party to recant. Nick Clegg also came out fighting against the Bloomberg speech, although his criticisms of Cameron rested uneasily with the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge in 2010 to hold an in/out referendum in the event of a ‘fundamental change’ in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

EU member states might not play ball

The Bloomberg speech is premised on the view that a new EU treaty is inevitable either to determine the fate of the euro or ensure a ‘diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe’. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. As regards the euro, the consensus last year may have been that further treaty change was inevitable to resolve the on-going sovereign debt crisis but the comparative calm on financial markets in recent months has given pause for thought. A new EU treaty on the political underpinnings of the European project seems less likely still. Here Cameron’s speech glossed over the fact that the UK and other EU member states spent much of the last decade bringing Europe ‘closer to the people’ though a new European Constitution only for the people of France and the Netherlands to reject this project. Although most elements of the European Constitution were later salvaged under the Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders remain rightly wary after this debacle about seeking legitimacy for European integration through poorly understood treaty reforms, especially when referenda are required for ratification.

Should other EU leaders not take forward plans for a new treaty then the fall back position, according to the Bloomberg speech, is that the UK would seek a unilateral change to its terms of membership. Quite how other EU member states would respond to such a request is unclear. Harold Wilson, it is true, secured a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 but the cosmetic changes negotiated at this time stopped well short of the kind of new settlement that Cameron seems to have in mind. Also problematic are the potential knock-on effects from a UK renegotiation. In the mid-1970s the UK’s domestic difficulties with the European project could be treated by the EEC in isolation. These days there is more than one member state capable of unpicking key elements of the European legal order, with France and the Czech Republic among the potential members of this awkward squad.

That said, if the Conservative Party wins the next general election and makes good on its manifesto commitment, the expectation is that other EU member states would cut a deal with the UK to keep it in the European club. What is unclear at this stage is what such a deal would look like and whether it would carry any weight with UK voters. The wording used in such a referendum would obviously be key. Whereas Harold Wilson sensibly put the UK’s renegotiated accession treaty to one side in 1975 by asking voters ‘Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’, Cameron is in danger of asking the more nebulous question of ‘Do you want the UK to remain a member of the European Union under the new terms of membership?’ Having committed to draw up legislation for this referendum within the current Parliament Cameron should take a leaf out of Wilson’s book by finding a formulation of words that focuses on the fundamental political issues at stake rather than the fine detail of future treaty negotiations.

The Conservative Party could yet implode

Why the Prime Minister picked this particular fight with the EU at this particular time is puzzling. It is certainly difficult to understand from an economic point of view; calling into question the country’s involvement in the EU single market was hardly the tonic that the UK economy needed in a week in which it emerged that GDP growth had turned negative for the third time since the global financial crisis. Nor does the Prime Minister’s move make sense from a geopolitical perspective. The unstable situation in North Africa at present makes it more important than ever that the EU speak with one voice on international issues, a fact that David Cameron has tacitly acknowledged by committing UK personnel to an EU training mission in Mali. There will be further tests of this sort ahead but such challenges will be unquestionably harder to meet if the UK leads other EU member states into another decade of institutional naval gazing.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the Bloomberg speech is a party political one in which David Cameron sought to silence Conservative eurosceptics by signing up to their longstanding demand for an in/out referendum. Some also see Cameron as attempting to contain the UK Independence Party (UKIP) by taking its leader, Nigel Farage, up on his offer not to challenge Conservative candidates in the next general election in exchange for an unequivocal commitment to hold an in/out referendum. The problem with this line of explanation is that the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 January truly satisfied neither Tory hardliners nor UKIP.

Further backbench rebellions from Conservative Members of Parliament can be envisaged unless the Prime Minister commits to an in/out referendum sooner rather than later and agrees to hold a public vote even if no new settlement with the EU can be achieved. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s rival for the Conservative leadership, has already sown new seeds of discontent here by supporting calls for a referendum before 2015. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, has emerged stronger than ever from the Bloomberg speech by being able to claim credit for the Prime Minister’s referendum pledge while rescinding his offer of a pre-election pact with the Tories because of the contingent character of Cameron’s commitment.


A referendum on EU membership along the lines envisaged in the Bloomberg speech is by no means inevitable for the reasons discussed above. This does not mean, however, that David Cameron can delay political preparations for such a vote. If the Prime Minister is really serious about putting his ‘heart and soul’ into campaigning for staying in the EU under a new settlement then he has his work cut out. A Guardian/ICM poll published in the light of last week’s referendum pledge suggests that 49% would vote to leave the EU. Such views are not set in stone, however, with around 30% of likely ‘no’ voters describing their voting intentions as probable rather than definite. Changing these voters’ minds is critical for a possible future referendum and, even if this vote does not transpire, for winning back public support in the UK for the European project.

Some commentators have praised David Cameron’s efforts to set out a positive vision of UK membership in his Bloomberg speech. Self-evident though the Prime Minister’s remarks were on the EU’s contribution to peace in Europe they sounded less than convincing from a leader who couldn’t find the time to travel to Oslo in December to see the EU awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This argument will, in any case, carry limited weight with those voters for whom war in Europe is a distant memory. More promising in this regard was Cameron’s quiet questioning of calls to follow Norway and Switzerland into a free-trade agreement with the EU in place of membership, an argument that will receive a hearing if the Conservative leader turns up the volume about the loss of UK influence in Europe from such an arrangement.

In truth, however, the Bloomberg speech betrayed the shallow understanding of Europe that underpins contemporary Conservative thinking. Central to this (mis)understanding are two key beliefs: the first being that France, Germany and other EU partners are motivated by federalist fervour rather than, as is so plainly the case, national interest; and the second insisting that reforming Europe is a peculiarly British phenomenon when it so clearly is not. On the first of these points, Cameron wasted a glorious opportunity to slay the federalist dragon by making it clear that cooperation between EU member states occurs where national interests overlap and cannot persist for long when they don’t, preferring instead to portray the UK as an isolated pragmatist that ‘come[s] to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional’. On the second point, Cameron’s calls for a more competitive, flexible, accountable and fair Europe without weighing EU leaders’ efforts to achieve exactly that over the last twenty years was another serious misstep. At best, this insistence on re-drawing Europe on a blank page misses an opportunity to build alliances with other EU leaders over on-going reform efforts. At worst, it paints Europe in black and white rather than shades of grey, asking people to think of the EU as being entirely uncompetitive, inflexible, unaccountable and unfair only to wonder why they then won’t vote for continued membership.

Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He is the co-author of ‘British Brinksmanship and Gaelic Games: EU Treaty Ratification in the UK and Ireland from a Two Level Game Perspective’ (with Imelda Maher, University College Dublin), which is forthcoming in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Thanks to Joni Lovenduski, Jason Edwards and Rosie Campbell for comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

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.

For and against women’s political representation

by Professor Joni Lovenduski

Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?  I can think of at least eight types of opponents.

The uninterested who think it does not matter; the complacent, who, if they think about it at all, believe women’s interests are well represented; the traditionalists who believe that politics is about the representation of class interests hence other inequalities are a diversion; the diversity advocates who argue that gender is only one of many identities;  their mirror image, the anti-essentialists who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women; the optimistic who think it is just a matter of waiting and the dinosaurs who think politics is best left to men. Each of these in different ways contributes to the eighth type, the mistaken who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

The uninterested simply ignore the issue. They are probably the majority of political commentators and are dangerous because they are part of the reason why sex inequality is so often below the radar of discussion of political events, behaviour, issues, electoral forecasts and so on. When pressed they may opine that it simply does not matter [i]. The complacent, if they argue at all, hold that underrepresentation does not really matter because the UK does well on issues of sex equality. That is not the case. The UK ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Gender Gap Report has fallen steadily since the first report in 2006. The report measures inequalities between women and men in Economic and Political Participation, Health and Education. In 2011 the UK was 16th of 135 countries; in 2006 it was 9th of 110 countries. This is a real fall; the UK has not been pushed down the rankings by new entrants to the list. It is 34th in the rank order of economic participation and 23rd in political participation, rankings that are disguised at the aggregate level by relatively more equality in education and health. The data show that in each case except education where it ranks first, the position of UK women is improving relative to men’s but more slowly than in comparator countries where women’s political participation is higher [ii]. The UK position on other league tables is worse. Using the simple indicator of the per centage of national legislators who are women the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking places the UK at  a wretched 54th  behind not only the worthy Scandinavian states but also Canada, Mexico, Latvia, the Philippines and Malawi [iii].

The optimistic will have to wait a long time.  At the current rate of increase in each party and assuming a normal election cycle, it will be at least 100 years before parity of women is reached in the House of Commons, not a fast track to equality by any reasonable standards.

Traditionalists probably operate on the assumption that political inequality is a zero sum game. Often they argue that more women means more middle class women and fewer working class men. This impression almost certainly reflects party candidate selection regimes in which to be successful women aspirants must be more ‘qualified’ than their male opponents. But it is selector stress on particular ‘qualifications’ that squeezes working class aspirants, not prioritisation of women. Class and gender interact. A wealth of social research shows that it is women who bear the brunt of class inequality, that gender and class are so intertwined that treating inequalities of sex simultaneously treats those of class. Some diversity advocates and anti essentialists make similar assumptions, failing to recognise that identities such as race, class, sexuality and disability cross cut each other. They also fail to recognise that with more women representatives there are more opportunities for those who are working class, members of ethnic minorities, disabled etc.

Political dinosaurs are not quite extinct. Some thrive in UK politics sometimes as eccentrics who take pride in their exaggerated outdated prejudices. They are useful for equality advocates because they are so easy to discredit as is the sexist behaviour that characterises their condition. Like the smile of the Cheshire cat their influence may be evident even as they fade from view. Their attitudes leave an afterglow that encourages sexist remarks which are then excused as parliamentary humour. While David Cameron is probably not a dinosaur he sometimes behaves like one. Examples include his ‘calm down dear’ remarks to Angela Eagle and  his accusation that Nadine Dorries’  interventions took place because she was ‘frustrated’, not exactly hilarious comments for which Cameron apologised. Press dinosaurs are very much in evidence. As recently as April 2011 the Telegraph ran an item entitled ‘whose boobs are these?’ using photos of a woman MP sitting behind Ed Milliband during PMQ [iv].

Finally the mistaken come in various forms. Some argue that women candidates cost votes for parties who select them. Yet UK data on voter preferences for different types of candidates consistently shows that votes do not penalise women candidates [v].

Another common mistake is making unsubstantiated assertions about women’s political preferences implying that they differ from men’s.  An example is the widely reported Netmums claim that women were turning to the Tories in 2012, based on a survey only of women, that is with no male comparators [vi]. Contrast this with contemporary evidence that women are turning away from the Tories [vii]. Women may have been turning right, but the evidence was flawed. Often commentators use data and/ or to design research badly to draw unsound conclusions. Common errors are women only samples, badly framed questions and mixed samples that are too small. It is bad science to design and use of social surveys or other studies that examine only women to claim that women are distinctive in some way without systematically comparing them to men. It is bad science to collect evidence from such a small number of respondents that variations within groups are not reflected.

The case for more women in parliament more or less mirrors the arguments of its opponents with one exception. Current absolute and relative numbers are low, policy is often unfavourable to women, but concealed by gender blindness, the rate of progress is glacial, traditional roles are no longer sustainable, not least because demography shows they are rarely found. To this we must add the argument from justice. The representation of women in political decision making is vital not because it will necessarily make a difference for women, though it often does, but because justice demands it. Equal representation should be taken for granted, part of the institutional fabric. Women should not have to justify their political presence on any other basis than justice. To do so puts a special burden of representation on women MPs who become subject to scrutiny and pressure that male politicians largely avoid, a point well made by Ruth Fox. Yet as Rosie Campbell shows there are subtle but important differences in men’s and women’s political attitudes that warrant representation. Political parties, not voters are responsible for the male domination of politics. This is sometimes defended by the assertion that men can and do represent women’s interests. While true, it begs the question of which particular version of women’s interest is being represented. Moreover evidence from more balanced legislatures than ours shows that is membership of women increases, so does the sensitivity of male MPs to the range of women’s concerns. So men can act for women but they may be more likely to do so when there are more women around.

The debates at the Centre on women’s representation in the UK see the resulting special issue of Political Quarterly here.

The full text of this article can be downloaded free here


[i] Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards, Men’s voting behaviour: it’s a hunter-gatherer thing apparently! Posted on January 12, 2012.

The ‘Big Society’: criticism and contradiction.

By Professor Rodney Barker

Is Big Society rhetoric just that, a froth concealing the reality beneath. There are clear contradictions between what the Cameron government says it wants, and what it does. Voluntary action is valued in the rhetoric, and deprived of funding in practice. Choice is applauded in education whilst the ability of 16 year olds to exercise that choice is undermined by the abolition of Educational Maintenance Grants. But even if the rhetoric were dismissed as mere deception, deception is always easier if the deceiver believes it themselves.

Fitting the evidence round the policy is not the monopoly of Blairism, and Nelson is not the only person to put a telescope to a blind eye and declare ‘evidence, I see no evidence’. What the actions of the present British government reveal is not a deceptive function of rhetoric, but the overwhelming power of ideology to digest evidence. Economic policy illustrates this most clearly with a Chancellor who insists he is not drowning but waving. There is no mileage in the distinction that conservatives have used so often in the past between ideology and common sense, or between rationalism and cautious empiricism. Unless you are the most rigid of representative positivists, you are a rationalist in that evidence is sifted and shaped according to ideology as much as if not more than vice versa. Conservatives are, and always have been, as ideological as anyone else. The question to ask of political rhetoric is not what arguments people use or what principles they invoke, but where do they want those arguments and principles to take them. What kind of world do conservatives who speak of a Big Society, hope to live in?

The crucial word is ‘big’. The big society is comprehensive and uniform in one crucial respect; it depends on individual choices made on the basis of individuals’ command of material resources; that is the function of money, in reducing all choices to a common coin. A big society may not be uniform in its outcomes, but it is uniform in its principles and powers of choice. And those who invoke Burke and the little platoon should remember that a platoon is not a feature of an anarchist commune, but of a uniform military hierarchy. That is where the contradictions swiftly emerge: markets are a way of reducing everything to common and individualised, socially fragmented coin, and create their own uniformity of criteria, subverting a variety of principles of choice.

The simple juxtaposition of either unrestrained markets or regulation and planning has been challenged by the activities since 2011 of Occupy, and by the slow realisation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy that whatever is rendered unto Caesar, some things still need to be left to God, so that even if we don’t return to the medieval church’s condemnation of usury, everything has its proper place, and there is no one currency for deciding everything and allocating everything. The values and principles for providing cars and computers are not the same as those for providing health care. The Good Samaritan did not ask to see the victim’s credit card before deciding to give first aid.

The opposition of society to state is a befuddling diversion. In each case, as a good socialist pluralist such as Tawney recognised, the question is what is the appropriate function, who should perform it, under what conditions and with what criteria. However big a society is by virtue of its uniformities, to be healthy it must also be a rainbow society. For social life to exist, there have to be common elements, and dimensions of life where people are equal, and where therefore the patterns of provision reflect the need and the provision in question, not criteria from other dimensions such as wealth or social position. Three dimensions are of primary importance for equal treatment:

1.       Before the law: no tax privileges.

2.       In sickness and in health: universal provision funded by universal contributions.

3.       Education, realistically available to all.

Within that framework there can then be diversity, a big society as the framework for a multitude of little ones. Such an agenda is distinct from multiculturalism: people occupy different roles for different aspects of their lives, and do not inhabit any one collective culture or way of life. As members of a public national health service they are all fellow citizens, as members of faith groups or of none, they are part of particular, non-universal associations. There is no one in society who can represent them in their entirety but themselves.

Whilst Cameron’s conservatism goes for the universality of the market in which, following the linguistic coup of the Thatcher years, we are all reduced to being nothing but customers, it undermines or fails to cultivate the three equalities of law (tax); physical care (health); and flourishing (education). The objection to the modern state from the right, and from liberals or at least from economic liberals, is that it is too big, it regulates and controls and co-ordinates too much. The belief is that the more comprehensive and universal a set of arrangements, the less detailed as to substance they should be and the more a matter of procedures, of facilitating rather than prescribing. But that is an objection which rests on an aversion to bigness and prescription in all their forms, and not just to states. If it is maintained consistently, it must apply just as much to society. That then provides an argument against a simple belief in the universal superiority of markets and profit seeking. That may be the best way of producing a telephone service, but not the best way of providing health care. A big society in that case is desirable only if it is an enabling context for lots of small societies, and small societies moreover, which operate on a great variety of principles, some commercial, some hedonistic, some religious.

For society to be ‘big’ it must have universal dimensions which sustain and cultivate solidarity and equality. For it to be free it must have many small and diverse components performing other functions. The way to achieve that is not to see government and society as antagonistic alternatives, but to recognise the necessary symbiosis between the two, and to discover, and continually be alert for, the ways in which diversity in one dimension or function can only flourish if there is universality in others, and to recognise the role of citizenship and the state in achieving such a way of living, a pluralism of both ends and means which is both flexible and attuned to cultural variety, and committed to realistically sustained equalities.

These ideas are further expanded in the Political Quarterly special issue, Retrieving The Big Society.

This article originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

Lessons from the Big Society

Dr Jason Edwards

The idea of the Big Society was conceived prior to the present crisis, yet it was informed by anxieties regarding neo-liberal government that had amounted over decades 

The Big Society has been seen by many on the left as no more than rhetorical bombast or an ideological justification for the coalition’s deficit reduction programme. But as much as critics are right to point out how Big Society policies pursued by the coalition to date resemble established neoliberal exercises in state shrinking and marketisation, those on the progressive left would do well to take seriously the ideas that lie behind Big Society thinking.

Read the rest of the piece on the Policy Network website, here.