IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

A weak UK government might do a better Brexit deal than a strong one

📥  Brexit, Economics, European politics

Professor Timo Kivimäki is Professor of International Relations and Director of Research in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

When Theresa May called her disastrous snap election, she justified it by saying she needed a longer and stronger mandate to negotiate a Brexit deal. Her campaign was based on the claim that she embodies strength and stability, and is therefore a better negotiator than her Labour rival, Jeremy Corbyn.


May’s much-derided “strong and stable” slogan boiled down to the idea that it was self-evident that Britain needs a strong domestic position to negotiate to its advantage, and to strongarm the EU into giving it concessions. Labour tried to convince the electorate that it could also offer a strong position if the voters backed it, but never challenged the assumption that a unified, internally strong Britain would be a better bargainer.

Yet strangely enough, when it comes to the way negotiation dynamics work, this “common sense” flies in the face of both theory and empirical research – both of which would have it that the UK’s messy political situation in fact puts it in a better position from which to get what it wants. When it comes to extracting concessions in negotiations, strength is weakness and weakness is strength.

This was famously suggested by John Nash, whose work on game theory won a Nobel Prize in economics (and whose life won an Oscar for best film). Nash’s mathematical bargaining formula holds that if one side in a negotiation is less than fully dependent on a deal being struck but more inflexible than the other side when it comes to the deal’s terms, then it will have to yield less than the opposing side.

While Nash’s bargaining theory is fully explained using highly complex mathematical proofs, the point that’s relevant to Brexit is relatively simple.

Imagine you visit a dealership to buy a car. If you were choosing a car completely independently and were dead set on buying one, you’d be less determined to negotiate a good price than you would be if you weren’t entirely sure you really needed a car, or if you had to justify your purchase to someone else – a sceptical spouse, say. If you’re less purely invested in the car no matter what and instead under pressure to justify the terms of the deal, you will need to get a better price. The dealer, meanwhile, just has to sell you the car.

Everyone’s watching

May’s government might now have a hazier vision of what it wants than it did headed into the election, but Nash’s theory would imply that since there are plenty of sceptical voices inside the Conservative party as well as outside it, the British team will now be better placed to get the best possible deal.

When a negotiator is vigilantly monitored rather than given freedom to make independent decisions with a clear mandate, it’s difficult for them to settle for the other side’s demands. According to Jean Bartunek’s research team, this gives one side a paradoxical sort of strength: to reach a negotiated solution, the “stronger” side ends up having to make more compromises than the weaker one.

A similar conclusion was reached by Helmuth Lamm and his co-researchers: if a negotiator is not only closely monitored but weakly positioned vis-à-vis the people monitoring them, they will be under even more pressure not to compromise. This might make the process messier and the agreement harder to reach – but it also means that if both sides want to reach one, the stronger side will be the one that needs to compromise.

This is the dynamic that may be about to play out. May is short of a working majority, and is having to make difficult deals in order to govern with any sort of confidence. Her government will directly depend on the support of MPs and parties who aren’t committed to its preferred form of Brexit. May has neither strength nor stability on her side, and her team have substantially less political capital than they thought; that means a show of steadfastness in the face of EU demands could be their best hope for being allowed to see the negotiations through.

As things stand, the EU and its member states want a negotiated solution with the UK rather than no deal at all. Faced with the tightrope-walking representatives of a weak, pressurised government, they’ll have to accept that unreasonable demands have little or no chance of making it into the deal.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.


Accountable for what?

📥  Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Evidence and policymaking

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

Accountability is fundamental to democracy. Holding decision-makers to account for what they do and the impact they have can be seen both as a good in itself and a way of aligning their choices with the interests of the public at large. So effective democracy needs effective accountability, defined here as a system that holds decision-makers to account for things they control in a way that is meaningful and legitimate in the eyes of the public, and which is likely to promote desired outcomes. In turn, therefore, accountability needs to be based on an understanding of what different decision-makers can and should be doing, to fit with public expectations and to promote effective outcomes. Without such an understanding there is a risk that the accountability framework creates the wrong incentives and promotes neither legitimacy nor the right decisions.



What should decision-makers be doing?

In a previous piece[1] I argued that policy outcomes are heavily influenced by culture and value systems, that governments are part of the prevailing culture and, crucially, that they can also affect it. Therefore a critical role of decision-makers is to embody and shape a culture that supports the outcomes they (and in a democracy those who elected them) desire.

One of the most important ways in which culture and values shape policy outcomes is through the individual choices and decisions made every day by the people responsible for implementation: teachers, social workers, employment advisers, police officers and so on. They interpret and act on policy according to their values and the values embodied by the organisations they work in. As I argued in another previous piece[2] these front-line decisions create constant mutation and evolution in what policy means on the ground. As with evolution in the natural world, the resulting pattern is one of periods of stability interspersed with large and often unpredictable shifts.[3] Decision-makers need to recognise this unpredictable dynamic of front-line evolution, and use their position to shape a culture that supports positive experimentation and learning.

If this understanding of how policy works is correct, then central decision-makers should be focusing on shaping a culture that promotes desired outcomes, and that supports front-line decision-makers in a process of learning that leads towards those same outcomes.

What are decision-makers held to account for?

Does our current system of accountability promote such behaviour? In one respect I believe that it does. The central form of accountability in a democracy, the way citizens choose to cast their votes, does reflect a view of political leadership that is centred on values and system oversight. There is evidence that views of a candidate’s cultural values and overall competence in overseeing a system are important in determining voter choice. Put simply, you vote for someone because you think they share your values and will promote them, and you think they are going to be OK at running a government that does so.

Some models of politics assume that people vote for the candidate who espouses the policies they want. However if the argument above about how policy feeds through front-line evolution into practice is correct, it would make little sense to vote on the basis of policy specifics. They will end up being reshaped and mutated by the time they reach individual voters. It is therefore entirely rational for voters to invest little in the highly costly effort of understanding detailed policy propositions (which will change through implementation) and instead form a view of whether a candidate or party has values congruent with their own. There is evidence that fundamental values (e.g. around openness, security and tradition) are significant drivers of voter choice.[4]

Policy proposals therefore become a way of signalling what values a leader will embody and promote, rather than firm statements of what they will deliver. Politicians have always understood this: policies are announced to send a signal and create a narrative about what kind of person or party you are. A good recent example is Donald Trump’s infamous promise to build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it. According to one poll around the time of his inauguration only 14% of Americans believed he would actually build a wall paid for by Mexico.[5] But the announcement was an extremely strong signal of a value system (against immigration and cultural change) and an attitude (aggressiveness to other countries and a willingness to break the perceived “rules of the game”). It is those values and attitudes that people are choosing and against which they are holding people to account. In doing so they are showing a genuine understanding of what really matters for senior decision-makers.

And what are they not held to account for?

Therefore there is a fit between what it makes sense for leaders to be accountable for, given how we know policy actually feeds through into practice, and what voters use as the basis for deciding how to cast their ballots. So what is the problem?

There would be no accountability problem if political leaders did indeed devote their efforts to affecting values, culture and the overall properties of the system within which they sit: voters are good at holding them to account for that. The problem arises in that in practice they do a lot of other things. Political leaders devote considerable time and effort to designing and implementing detailed policy changes. Democratic accountability for such changes is weak. This is for two reasons.

First, a policy change can be completely disastrous in its own terms without seriously impinging on the welfare of individual voters. Very large sums of money lost to the public purse are hardly noticeable to individuals, especially if such losses are from future potential value rather than current income. A good example would be under-valuation when privatising an asset: no voter feels an immediate loss even if they are in fact worse off because their share of a valuable asset has been given to someone else. But this is true of any large policy failure that wastes money, makes a large service incrementally worse or damages the environment in lasting but not immediately apparent ways.

Second, even if voters are aware of a policy (usually not the case) and are affected by it, it is unlikely to change how they vote. In fact there is evidence that the causation often runs the other way: how someone is inclined to vote affects their understanding of what a policy has achieved. Whether or not someone is aware of a policy and what they believe its effects to be are influenced by their political starting point. This is down to confirmation bias: we interpret information in line with our starting positions. A recent piece of research showed that people’s ability to interpret statistics correctly is dramatically worse when the same statistics are used to describe a divisive political topic (immigration) rather than a neutral one (effectiveness of a skin cream)[6]. When political control changes after an election, partisan perceptions of other events changes dramatically. To use another contemporary US example, there was an 82% net positive swing among Republican voters in perceptions of how the US economy was doing in six months Trump’s election as president, at a time when objective economic indicators were fairly stable.[7] So if we believe a political leader is acting in line with our values, that shapes how we see policy and we will tend to register information that implies they are being successful. This dynamic gives politicians considerable leeway to implement policy that is damaging as long as a majority believe they have the right values.

In an attempt to remedy this weakness, we have created a structure of accountability intended to expose policy failure and thereby create incentives for politicians to do the right thing. In the UK this includes the National Audit Office and Select Committee scrutiny. The media also performs an important function in exposing policy failure. Part of the thesis behind such structures is that the appearance of competence is vital to politicians and so methods that expose the opposite will create a strong drive towards successful policymaking.

These structures are, however, unlikely to succeed. Media coverage of a damning NAO report on a multi-billion pound policy will still go unnoticed by the vast majority of the population. And there is no evidence (or even a very plausible theoretical case) for arguing that such a report is likely to contribute to any significant change in party perception and voting behaviour. Confirmation bias is important here too: even if a hypothetical damning audit of a policy became widespread news, people would interpret that news according to their existing cultural framing of the political situation and use it to confirm their existing biases about what policies are or aren’t desirable. It is much more psychologically plausible to believe that a report is biased or wrong than to change your view of a policy and political leader with whom you identify in a deep-seated cultural sense.

Audit and scrutiny take a long time, because of the understandable desire for thoroughness and rigour. This creates two further difficulties. The first is that, because ministers and civil servants – especially in the UK system – move around frequently and fast, by the time a major project or policy is evaluated, those needing to explain it are probably not those responsible for implementation. Again, this means that the incentive to make good policy created by this part of the accountability system is limited.

The second is a more fundamental point. I argued previously that the evolutionary nature of policy means that rapid feedback is critical. It is important to know immediately whether a deliberate or inadvertent change has started to make a difference, allowing the front-line policy implementers to adjust accordingly. The clearer and faster the feedback, the more likely it is that people will learn and iterate towards improvement. In technology projects it has become the norm to use “agile” techniques: build something small, test it with users, learn fast and make repeated small changes. Such techniques have evolved as a way of coping with uncertainty about how people will behave in the face of change and the fact that requirements and goals shift as we find out more about what the front-line users actually want. Such uncertainty and changing goals are a strong feature of policy implementation and so these techniques, and the rapid feedback on which they depend, could have major benefits. However the norm in the public policy field is one of long-term detailed studies that aim to assess, retrospectively, the impact of a whole programme against its stated objectives once enough time has passed to measure progress against them.

What should we do differently?

In an ideal world, political and administrative leaders would devote their efforts to the kind of activity that they are able to carry out effectively and for which we have accountability mechanisms that work: embodying and shaping values and setting the overall parameters for how policy systems work. Alongside this, we would develop rapid feedback mechanisms that enable empowered front-line policy implementers to innovate and iterate within those overall system parameters.

This is, of course, an unrealistic ideal. Political leaders are not going to deny themselves the possibility of pushing through large scale detailed policy change, despite the evidence that complexity and uncertainty means the results will almost certainly not be as promised. They may do this because, contrary to that evidence, they believe that they will be able to deliver the specific promised results. However there is also a more sophisticated view available: a leader can believe that although uncertainty means that exact results are unpredictable, launching a large systemic change is one tool for beginning the process of shifting culture in a policy system. Therefore the real goals of the policy are not specific changes in some output metrics but a much longer-term, more fundamental and hard-to-measure shift in attitudes, values and the way people behave.

One good example of a large, detailed change programme with cultural objectives was the privatisation programme in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. There were plenty of technocratic claims and counter-claims about the merits of access to private capital and management, and whether the receipts realised in the sales were appropriate. But the bigger-picture goal, explicit in some of the government communications at the time, was to change culture both within the companies themselves and in society more widely by spreading share ownership and a sense of investment in the capitalist system.[8]

So if one of the aims of major policies should be, and often is, cultural change, what do we need to do to make accountability more effective? For a start, accountability and audit could look at the impact policy has on culture, rather than a pure financial and service quality focus. To take the privatisation example, did attitudes to private capital and entrepreneurship change more among people who received shares than in the general population? The tools for this kind of evaluation exist: attitudes and values can be measured and compared over time (e.g. through the British Social Attitudes Survey or World Values Survey), and specific behaviours that are symptomatic of underlying values can also be identified. Of course it is hard to attribute cultural change to a specific intervention, but attribution difficulties also apply to many of the effects (e.g. behavioural or economic) that policy evaluation is usually concerned with. This is not a reason to put culture to one side.

Such an approach would make the issue identified above about the time that scrutiny takes even worse: it only makes sense to think about culture change over a long period. Also, just because an audit report looks at cultural change won’t give it any additional traction with voters in determining how to exercise their powers of democratic accountability. However if the real aim of a policy is (or should be) culture change, evaluation done in those terms is at least more honest and more likely to lead to valuable learning.

As well as shifting assessment and audit towards culture, we could shift it towards the sort of front-line feedback that agile and iterative working needs. If large-scale technical analysis of policy is ineffective in delivering accountability, as argued above, then the resource could be better deployed. Emerging technology offers plenty of opportunities to create ways for front-line workers to get more rapid feedback on the effectiveness of their practice and new initiatives. For example, schools are already using sophisticated and continuous tracking of how pupils are progressing and to inform and improve teaching practice. The “Friends and Family” test in the NHS was introduced to provide immediate and specific feedback on patient experience. If government gave a clear signal, backed by a financial commitment to invest in new tools, that such real-time accountability was a priority then it is very likely many more methods would emerge.


These two suggestions – switching resources to front-line feedback and putting greater weight on evaluation and audit in understanding impact on culture – are not revolutionary. They will not immediately solve fundamental issues around what a democracy actually holds leaders to account for, or how that relates to what they are able to do. But they may help us make better policy within that environment, and have a more honest conversation about what that policy is trying to achieve.

[1] http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/iprblog/2016/08/12/culture-comes-first-putting-culture-and-values-at-the-centre-of-public-policy/
[2] “Is your policy a dodo?” Civil Service Quarterly October 2014
[3] Agendas and Instability in American Politics Baumgartner and Jones 1994
[4] “Personality and Politics: values, traits and political choice” Capara et al Political Psychology 2006 Vol 27 Issue 1
[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/eight-in-10-americans-think-u-s-will-pay-for-u-s-mexican-border-wall/
[6] “Personality, Authoritarianism, Numeracy, Thinking Styles and Cognitive Biases in the UK’s 2016 Referendum on EU Membership” onlineprivacyfoundation.org 2017
[7] Marquette University Poll in Wisconsin reported at http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/blogs/wisconsin-voter/2017/04/15/donald-trumps-election-flips-both-parties-views-economy/100502848/
[8] “The United Kingdom: Privatisation and its Political Context” David Heald West European Politics 1988 vol 11 issue 4


GE2017 and International Relations: The Mandate for Brexit Remains Unclear

📥  Brexit, Economics, European politics

Dr Maria Garcia is Senior Lecturer in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

This week – just under three months after Article 50 was triggered, announcing the UK’s decision to depart from the European Union – Brexit negotiations have commenced in Brussels. British negotiators led by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, arrived in Brussels under very different circumstances than they had envisaged a couple of months ago. Prime Minister May’s gamble, calling an early election to bolster her parliamentary majority in the hope of gaining a robust mandate to conduct negotiations, has backfired spectacularly. If the outcome of the EU referendum divided the country (without clarifying what kind of trade-offs the population would be willing to accept in Brexit) the 2017 election again reflected the cacophony of views in the country. Nor have any of the acceptable trade-offs been clarified.



From the outset of her premiership Theresa May, as well as prominent Brexiteers like David Davis and Boris Johnson, have insisted on a leaving the EU but retaining a ‘deep and special relationship with allies and friends in Europe’ and trading freely. They have also reiterated the mantra of regaining border control, reducing immigration and escaping the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), as well as enacting an independent trade policy. These aims featured prominently in PM May’s letter triggering Article 50, the White Paper on Brexit, various speeches and the Conservative Party Manifesto. Yet nowhere has there been any detailed explanation of how to bring about their vision. By the time the election was called it had become clear that their reassurances of economic ties remaining the same and enabling business to continue as they had until now – whilst also fulfilling the Leave campaign’s requirements of ending worker mobility and ECJ jurisdiction – were illusory. This is not surprising, given the constitutional constraints on the flexibility the EU has in negotiations; the single market is predicated on the four freedoms of movement (including labour mobility) and the ECJ as the overarching arbitrator and guarantor of the market. David Davis’ and Boris Johnson’s claims that there was no need to pay a Brexit bill (to settle financial commitments the UK has already made and payment of British EU civil servant pensions), which is in fact the initial part of Brexit negotiations, further added to speculation that the UK government’s preferred variety of Brexit would involve a complete break from Brussels – even though they constantly referred to a deep and special relationship and continued trade on the current basis. PM May did, however, present a more nuanced appraisal of the situation by accepting the commitment to pay a ‘reasonable’ bill and the possibility of paying for participation in certain EU projects (see White Paper and Manifesto). Senior members of the Conservative Government articulated different approaches to the negotiations, but coincided in putting forward an unrealistic vision of a future relationship with Europe. During the election campaign, a more realistic vision failed to materialise, with the Conservative Party Manifesto reiterating incompatible objectives, and campaign rhetoric focusing on personal character for engaging in challenging negotiations with the EU. During the campaign, the Conservatives failed to present what it was they actually planned to negotiate, and therefore what they were seeking a public mandate for through the election.

Brexit was clearly a crucial aspect of this election, but it is impossible to claim that Labour’s surprising improvement in votes was exclusively down to Brexit – not least because Labour’s position on the matter is vague too, despite a commitment to negotiate it. Now that the Conservatives have lost their parliamentary majority and need to rely on the support of the DUP to govern, their manifesto promises regarding avoiding a re-instatement of customs controls and borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland become more significant – and may affect the choices available in the Brexit negotiations, since leaving the EU with no (temporary) deal in place would legally mandate a hard border. Moreover, the lack of majority means that as Brexit negotiations unfold, a greater proportion of views and positions will be discussed in Parliament. Whatever is agreed will have to be the result of consensual agreements. Considering the significance of Brexit and its effects on every person and economic activity in the country, a more negotiated and consensual outcome can only be welcomed, not least given the very narrow majority in favour of Leave in the 2016 referendum.

Initial statements from members of the new government are reflective of this situation. Andrea Leadsom, as new Leader of the Commons, announced over the weekend that the Government will not put forward a new legislative plan next year to leave space for Parliament to scrutinise and pass the necessary legislation around Brexit – and admitted the need to secure consensual support for Brexit plans. Departing from the David Davis, Theresa May and 2017 Conservative Party Manifesto line, Chancellor of the Exchequer Phil Hammond admitted in an interview on the Andrew Marr show that leaving the EU with ‘no deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain’; he also admitted the need to put in place a temporary agreement that ensures business continuity on current terms, extending beyond the end of the two-year Article 50 negotiations and providing support until a new long-term relationship can be agreed to. PM May’s new cabinet remains a mix of Leave and Remain campaigners, with notorious Leave supporter Michael Gove returning to the cabinet as Secretary for the Environment. Perhaps more reflective of the changed parliamentary situation, and May’s need for allies, was the appointment of Damien Green, a personal friend of the PM and pro-EU advocate who will take on the role of First Secretary. The election results, the support of the DUP, and the Exchequer’s public statements suggest that a more moderate tone will be taken in negotiations than indicated by some of the pre-election rhetoric.

However, critical questions remain unanswered. Leaving the EU, even if it is an orderly manner with intermediate stages aimed at minimising trade disruptions – as now appears to be more likely – means that the UK’s future relationship with the EU will of necessity be different. Consequently some sectors and groups that benefit from the current arrangements will find themselves in an inferior position to today (e.g. financial services). Others may well find that they benefit from different arrangements. A ‘Brexit that works for all’ is a fallacy, unless the government is finally willing to enlighten the population as to exactly what sectors it will prioritise in the negotiations and what sectors it will sacrifice, and what measures it will put in place to compensate sacrificed sectors. The same logic applies to any future post-Brexit UK trade agreements with the other states – especially the US, where Secretary for Trade Liam Fox is this week discussing post-Brexit possibilities.

All trade agreements have redistributive effects. The EU trade agreement with Canada (CETA), when it comes into effect later this year, will increase competition in the European market for European beef producers by allowing increased beef imports from Canada – where larger production facilities and the use of cheaper animal feed result in high production. By contrast, European speciality cheese producers are set to benefit from improved access to the Canadian market and the protection of some of their speciality names linked to specific locations – to the potential detriment of Canadian cheese producers.

Throughout the referendum campaign, the run-up to the triggering of Article 50, and even during the electoral campaign, open and frank discussion of which areas, economic sectors, societal groups and companies would be privileged in these challenging negotiations (and in future domestic and trade policies) was neglected. The government’s plans for an Industrial Policy, although still lacking in detail, are an important first step towards acknowledging the need to equip people with relevant skills, and to foster innovation in the country so that it can retain a competitive edge in global markets. In and of itself, however, it will not suffice – especially when in future negotiations with other states, they may press for their own interests (consider India’s pursuit of access for its IT workers to labour markets elsewhere as service providers, for example). Over the coming years, at a time of rising global tensions (geopolitical as well as economic), Brexit will be the overriding issue of UK foreign policy. A more subdued approach to Brexit, with intermediate steps, such as remaining in the European Economic Area or the customs union on a temporary basis as suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, can curtail some of the economic shocks to various sectors – but the current Parliament, and society, would do well to insist that the Government reveal their longer-term plans regarding the relationship they hope to have with the EU and other markets. They should also be put under pressure to explicitly identify the winners and losers of such plans, as well as remediation measures. Without this information, manifesto promises to tackle inequality in the country (an obvious and pressing problem) may fall by the wayside in the re-crafting of the country’s socio-economic environment and its international position and relations.


GE2017 and Education: a policy ‘battle royale’

📥  Economics, Education, UK politics

Professor Hugh Lauder is Professor of Education and Political Economy at the University of Bath

The general election provided an opportunity for the political parties to demonstrate a vision for the future of education. In the recent past, more has united the parties than divided them, but this election there has been clear water between them – and as we enter an uncertain future, their manifestos signal very different understandings of the nature of the country and its future.



To say this much is already to court controversy. It’s not clear what ‘this country’ means, so we should be clear that the discussion will be about education policy in England. Despite an unexpected election result, it is worth analysing the Conservative and Labour manifestos because their respective policies on education may tell us much about their thinking and – particularly, in fact, in the context of the surprising election result. The Liberal Democrat manifesto does not provide the clear contrasts which illuminate the debate about the visions for this country.

Judgements about these manifestos will of course be coloured by evidence, but also by prognoses for the future. Here my colours need to be pinned to the mast. As a specialist on the education-labour market relationship, it is quite clear to me that the neo-liberal assumption that the primary aim of education is to provide skilled workers for the economy is now in question. It appears that we are now on the cusp of a new form of capitalism in relation to the labour market. Up until now, the prevailing policy assumption of all the political parties has been that there will be increasing demand for high-skilled work and that graduates will be appropriately rewarded for their productivity. It is for this reason that graduates have to pay high fees for what is perceived to be the advantage they gain from the graduate premium. The politicians have been supported in this view by human capital theories that cannot address current conditions: when we disaggregate the returns to graduates we find that it is only those in the top decile of earnings that conform to the profile assumed by human capital theorists.

The assumption has been that the new technological revolution will raise the demand for skilled workers. But if we look at the returns to graduates in the United States – considered the hothouse of the technological revolution – as I have done with Phillip Brown and Sin Yi Cheung, then two points stand out. Firstly, when we track graduate returns between 1970 and 2010, incomes declined for all except those in the top decile. Secondly, and significantly, those with postgraduate degrees, who we may expect to be at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy, have fared in the same way. The UK data from the Labour Force Survey also shows that there is a wide disparity in incomes according to education credentials; interestingly, top A-level students who have not attended university earn more than median graduates.

Craig Holmes and Ken Mayhew at Oxford have documented the increase in the proportion of graduates who now undertake what were formally non-graduate occupations – an indication that there is deficient demand for high-skilled work. At the present time, some 46% of graduates won’t pay back their loans because they won’t earn enough. When that figure reaches 48%, the government will gain no more from the £9,000 fees than when they were set at £3,000. It is clear that, in the light of these data, we need to re-evaluate the idea that technology will raise the demand for skills; it will for some, but it is more likely to re-stratify the occupational structure to reduce the costs of knowledge-based work. This is, of course, one reason why industrial policy is now back on the agenda: left to itself, the market cannot create enough good quality jobs.

In essence, the optimism which accompanies the dominant view has come face to face with new forms of predatory capitalism. Here the drive is to create cut-price brain power, leading to a situation where learning no longer equals earning. In this emerging form of capitalism, the role of education is wholly uncertain, since the rationale for education under neo-liberalism has been that it is an economic investment in which the relationship between education and wages is relatively straightforward. The case for education will now have to be re-stated in very different terms.

If this account is plausible then it speaks to the two most high-profile policies advanced by the Tory and Labour Parties. The most controversial policy in the Conservative manifesto is that of the promotion of grammar schools or, as it says in the manifesto, selective schools. Such a policy is a clear example of how individual biographies and anecdote have trumped evidence. The research evidence against selective education which led to the creation of the comprehensive system was led by Jean Floud and my friend and colleague A.H. Halsey in the 1950s. They demonstrated how inequitable the 11+ system was. Since then, with more developed databases, the early claims they made have been fully substantiated, notwithstanding the use of questionable data in the Conservative Manifesto. The purpose of the reintroduction of selectivity was ostensibly to promote social mobility; in Britain, as in other neo-liberal societies, destinations are indeed still determined by origins. The debate over this issue has been dismal because it has been assumed that education alone can promote social mobility, ignoring the labour market conditions necessary to turn educational credentials into opportunities. Indeed, data from the United States suggests that the demand for high-skilled work for the younger generation is now in decline. For those of us who have a commitment to evidence-led policy, such a manifesto pledge suggests that reason is not a dominant principle in education policy. It is probably the case that the election has put paid to this pledge, but it nonetheless tells us something about the nature of a party that aspires to turn the clock back.

A similar claim has been made with respect to the Labour mainfesto’s commitment to abolish tuition fees. Commentators on the left, including The Guardian, as well as those from the right have condemned this pledge as, at best, advantaging the already privileged among the younger generation. That would be a reasonable claim if the labour market reflected the assumptions of human capital theory: as we have seen, it doesn’t. In the light of the scenario I have sketched, this Labour policy looks enlightened. As the economic returns to education decline for many, we can expect a battle royale over the role and cost of education. Given the uncertainties that this generation are confronting, the best that our society can do is to provide young people with a good education, which gives them the mental flexibility to see that other worlds and other ways of doing things are possible. This, of course, is what lies behind the European states that do not charge fees and look upon our obsession with the private rates of return from a university education with a degree of curiosity, if not outright scepticism.

This not only applies to university education but to the kind of technical education that FE colleges can provide. It is almost impossible to understand the savage cuts to FE colleges that have taken place under austerity policies. Both parties have something to say on this matter. We see this in the Conservative Party’s aim of linking technical education to degree-level studies, a theme consistent with the idea of social mobility. But before we innovate further, we might do better to re-lay the foundations of what we have.

Here, it is important to examine lifelong learning. It has long been the ‘Cinderella’ in education policy and, indeed, under the period of austerity, education has been front-loaded so there are few second chances available for those in their mid-twenties and older. Now, in the light of radical labour market uncertainty it is needed to provide necessary social and economic support for workers. Singapore is already dipping its toes in this pool with Skills Future, which provides every Singaporean citizen with $500 for further education and skills upgrading. The Conservative manifesto is silent on the issue. Labour is committed to lifelong learning, which starts with a return in the early years to Sure Start, and this too is important for the age we are entering. It may create flexibility for parents, who will certainly need it in their paid working lives, as it will for those who have caring responsibilities that extend above and beyond their children.

When these two manifestos are compared, it is clear which one has the most comprehensive account of educational policy. Of course, those on the right will suggest that this judgement is based on sector self-interest, since I am a university professor – but that is too easy. The points I’ve raised need to be addressed rather than dismissed. It is unclear on what basis Labour have made these commitments and whether they can be paid for, given the straitening times we are entering. But the implications are clearly forward-looking.

For the Conservatives, all appears well with the education system we now have with some tinkering at the edges, mainly in terms – yet again – of qualifications. We might expect Labour’s manifesto to be more radical, but it is squarely in the social democratic tradition, as would be well understood in Germany, for example. There is no suggestion of integrating the public schools with the state sector. There is no attempt to abolish school choice, and there is only a mention of questioning the testing culture, which clearly benefits the political class but neither students nor schools. In these respects, whatever the merits of the debates that no doubt will be forthcoming, this is a moderate set of policies. They may have their roots in the 1980s, but – either by design or happy accident – they are relevant to our future.


Connecting with Nature: social and economic opportunities for sustainability

📥  Energy and environmental policy, European politics, US politics

Professor Ricardo García Mira is Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruña in Spain, and Visiting Professor at the IPR.

The UN established World Environment Day in 1972 and it was first celebrated in the city of Spokane in 1974, in the State of Washington, with the theme “Only One Earth”. A few days ago we celebrated it again, and the central theme this year has been "Connecting people to Nature - In the cities and on land, from the poles to the equator", which invites us to go outside and appreciate Nature's beauty and grandeur, while advocating for sustainable urban strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, improve health and well-being, foster social cohesion, and engage in the conservation of places we inhabit and share.



This is precisely the theme that brought me to Dublin last week, to participate in the kick-off of the Connecting Nature project, an innovative European action that seeks to shape the design and implementation of nature-based solutions in cities by engaging city councils, civil society organisations, businesses and academics in co-producing strategies to meet the challenges of sustainability. The understanding of the fact that we are part of Nature and that we depend on it stands at the heart of these efforts, and is something that seems to elude President Donald Trump, who announced the US' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change - signed by close to 200 countries - just three days before World Earth Day 2017. We all know the signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, and its launching at the Marrakesh Summit during COP22, was preceded by many tensions and a lack of commitment from different countries, making it a significant breakthrough that involved intense efforts and high costs. The implications of this downturn are beginning to be announced. The head of the United Nations Environment Agency said last week that if the United States continued to decline its commitment for a transition to a green economy, it would end up losing the best jobs in the renewable energy sector to Europe and China, as the latter has become increasingly competitive. Many of China's advances, he stated, had come from joint efforts carried out with the United States in recent years, which had also generated a healthy competitive dynamic to assume leadership in the sector of clean energy and the fight against climate change.

Dr García Mira (centre) and colleagues at the Connecting Nature Kick Off Meeting

Professor García Mira (centre) and colleagues at the Connecting Nature Kick Off Meeting

No government can stop progress, nor is it possible today to halt the development of a market that is inevitably assuming the culture of decarbonisation. And if Europe remains united in its transformation towards renewable energy sources, the market - and consequently employment - will move towards clean and low-carbon industry. Reducing dependence on carbon is already a goal towards which more and more regions and cities of Europe are moving, as they launch their roadmaps towards green employment and urban regeneration through nature-based solutions. New global cooperation platforms and networks are being created to experiment with sustainable options and to establish a new reference framework for sustainable social and economic development. Anyone choosing to remain an outsider will only stand to lose significant economic opportunities, as the world moves towards a new paradigm, in sync with Nature.


Polarisation, Diversification, Amplification: GE2017 in the Devolved Nations

📥  Democracy and voter preference, UK politics

Dr David Moon is Senior Lecturer in Politics, and Dr Sophie Whiting is Lecturer in Politics, at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

Rather than being the ‘Brexit Election’ widely predicted and in some political corners desired, the 2017 snap General Election has, with its resultant hung parliament, had the unexpected consequence of placing relations within another union of nations centre stage – the United Kingdom. The outcome of the General Election has highlighted the differing political context within each of the UK’s nations. Furthermore, the emergence of the DUP as a crucial player in the subsequent formation of a minority Conservative Government – and thus in securing Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister – has generated unexpected interest in Northern Ireland, a place which, throughout history, has been shunted outside the psyche of ‘British politics’. This article provides a brief overview of what the election has meant for politics in the devolved nations; specifically, polarisation (Northern Ireland), diversification (Scotland) and amplification (Wales).



Polarisation: Northern Ireland

Given the comfortable Conservative majority predicted in the run up to the election, it was not expected that the politics of Northern Ireland would come to play such a crucial role in determining the next government. However, the outcome was always going to be important for Northern Ireland for two key reasons: (i) Brexit and the question of the Irish border; and (ii) getting the government at Stormont back up and running. Yet, the result and the DUP’s subsequent position as kingmaker have illuminated broader trends within UK politics and devolution.

First, Theresa May’s decision to reach a deal with the DUP to secure her minority government has placed a spotlight on the differing rights that citizens in Northern Ireland possess, in particular around same-sex marriage and abortion. For many British citizens outside Northern Ireland, the recent discovery of the views and position of the DUP on these issues has sparked concern, with widespread revulsion expressed through social media at the idea that the party might exert influence on social policy at Westminster. Whilst the DUP’s set of demands will not include a reversal on the relatively liberal legislation in Scotland, Wales and England, this reaction has demonstrated the general indifference previously shown towards Northern Irish politics, particularly at the expense of progressing rights and social policy. In the past, this has not just involved the Conservatives; indeed, in 2008, a deal was made between Gordon Brown and the DUP, securing the latter’s support for the extension of detention limits for terrorist suspects in exchange for the UK government not interfering in Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The concern now being expressed towards the Conservative-DUP ‘friendship’ thus highlights a wider trend of blinkered vision when it comes to the politics of Northern Ireland, particularly around issues that are taken for granted in the rest of the UK.

Second, the election itself has further embedded the polarisation of Northern Irish politics. With the more moderate parties of the UUP and SDLP losing all their MPs, Northern Ireland’s 18 seats are now dominated by Sinn Fein (seven seats) and the DUP (ten seats), plus Lady Sylvia Hermon retaining her seat as an independent candidate. It is this polarisation between the DUP’s unionism and Sinn Fein’s nationalism that is reflective of the current state of devolution in Northern Ireland. The collapse of Stormont in January following accusations of an expenses scandal left a political vacuum in Northern Ireland that subsequent talks have been unable to resolve. Sinn Fein’s questioning of James Brokenshire’s neutrality as Secretary of State caused talks towards getting power-sharing back up and running to falter earlier this year. The even closer friendship the DUP now enjoys with the Conservatives will exacerbate the tension and polarisation of Northern Ireland’s politics, with Sinn Fein already declaring the ‘deal’ between the two parties a betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement. It is now difficult to conceive how any Conservative-led negotiations will reboot devolution in Northern Ireland.

Diversification: Scotland

Politics in Scotland has in recent years been calcified around a central division between pro-Union and nationalist politics. This redefinition of politics around constitutional preferences and away from the classic left-right conflict over social policy saw the once hegemonic Scottish Labour Party overtaken by the Scottish National Party. The SNP has subsequently dominated Westminster’s Scottish seats and Holyrood. Such dominance made Nicola Sturgeon’s proposition for an IndyRef2 back in March seemed a likely win for Scottish nationalists following the Brexit vote. However, due in part to signs of pro-Union tactical voting, the snap election saw the SNP drop 22 seats to Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems, with the loss of big political hitters such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.

A rejection, no doubt, of the poorly timed call for IndyRef2 and an underwhelming SNP manifesto, this election result is also a demonstration that left-right politics has not been completely overshadowed in Scotland. Many who supported the SNP did so seeking progressive policy making, yet the party has been visibly overtaken on the left by the Labour campaign that hammered the nationalists in weak spots such as their record on education. Increasing their MPs from one to seven, Scottish Labour, at one time written-off, now has a base to continue its rebuilding. Simultaneously, the continued climb of the Conservative vote in Scotland has left leader Ruth Davidson as a figure of great influence within the party – and a challenge for Theresa May, as shown by her flexing her opposition to the Conservative-DUP deal. At the end of the election, the picture from Scotland demonstrates a diversification in terms of parties and a movement away from the constitution as the epicentre of politics. Where once Scotland’s exit from the Union seemed inevitable, it now seems less certain.

Amplification: Wales

Wales’ General Election story is a tale of two halves. It started with Theresa May launching her election campaign in Bridgend, sending a clear message of the Conservative’s intention to make inroads into Welsh Labour territory. Polling in the early weeks of the election appeared to foretell a massacre, with results showing the Conservatives ahead of Labour and on course to win the most Welsh seats for the first time since 1922. Come election day, however, the result was the complete reverse. The Conservatives lost three seats to Labour who increased their previous majorities across the board, recording 49% of the overall vote. Welsh Labour finds itself in a far, far stronger position than before, its historic position as the hegemonic force in Welsh politics amplified rather than diminished.

There are several reasons for this turnaround. The first was a deep arrogance on the part of the Conservatives in Wales, exemplified by the party parachuting candidates into target constituencies such as Bridgend against the wishes of its local party members. The Welsh party also endured an unsightly spat between the Welsh Secretary (Alun Cairns MP) and the leader of the Welsh Conservatives (RT Davies AM) over who would appear on the BBC Wales TV debate (in the end neither did, with the party’s education spokesperson having to step in). Above all else, the appalling campaign run by Theresa May caused huge damage, with the release of the party manifesto a turning point for canvassers on the doorstep.

In contrast, faced with early polling threatening a defeat of existential proportions, Welsh Labour fought back hard. Framing its campaign as Welsh Labour, differentiated from the UK Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the party plastered their popular Welsh leader, Carwyn Jones, all over its leaflets and election broadcasts. It fought a soft-nationalist campaign, in keeping with the party’s strategy since the leadership of Rhodri Morgan (a titanic figure of Welsh politics who sadly died during the campaign), promising to “stand up for Wales” against the Conservatives, and warning the Welsh people not to “let the Tories walk all over Wales.” As noted, whilst rhetorically defensive, the campaign put the party on the offensive, snatching seats from the Conservatives and whittling away majorities elsewhere. Ultimately a win-win strategy, the Welsh Labour campaign, by foregrounding Carwyn, was able to inoculate itself to some degree from those sceptical of the party’s Westminster leader, whilst still attracting the support of Corbyn-enthusiasts – in particular, it seems, from outside its usual base.

As in England, Welsh politics saw the two ‘major’ parties squeeze out the smaller parties, achieving 82.5% of the combined vote (the Conservative party’s 33.5% would, in any other election, have been a momentous achievement). While it is too soon to say, Welsh Labour appears to have benefitted from general anti-Tory tactical voting, its message of ‘standing up for Wales’ eclipsing Plaid Cymru’s own similar but less convincing election pledge to ‘defend Wales’. Plaid’s vote share of 10.5% was its lowest since 1997, although their narrow victory in Ceredigion, by a mere 104 votes, now means that there is no Liberal Democrat MP in Wales for the first time since the party formed in 1859. Ukip – who in 2015 had come in fourth place, and in 2016 won seven seats in the National Assembly – saw their voters melt away to the blues and the reds.


What has this election revealed about the politics of the UK? If anything, the election campaign and results have highlighted the different political dynamics across the nation and the importance of understanding these in order to grasp modern UK politics. It is far too early to make any assumptions that the decline in seats for the SNP spells a long-term trend, but the growing support for pro-union parties in Scotland and the likelihood of greater DUP influence at Westminster has thrown the Union a life-line. Whether this can be sustained, however, is another matter.



A Parliament hanging by a thread

📥  Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics

Back outside No10, Theresa May has confirmed that she will govern anew in the way she campaigned: obdurate, closed and controlled. The governing styles of Prime Ministers do not suddenly change, as Gavin Kelly pointed out this morning. The Prime Minister simply states her position, asserts nothing has changed, and waits for someone else to fill the void. It is relentlessly unyielding.



A deal with the Democratic Unionist Party will give her the votes she needs to pass a Queen's Speech, assuming she pays down initial instalments on their demands and can persuade resentful and agitated Conservative backbenchers to support her. But what policy programme will underpin the Queen's Speech? The Conservative manifesto was shredded in the campaign. It cannot now form the basis of a programme for government. There will be no grammar schools, fox hunting, net migration targets, cuts to the Winter Fuel Allowance and half baked social care proposals. None of that will get through the House of Commons, let alone the Lords. The odds on an autumn election must be short. Harold Wilson managed to run a minority administration for eight months in 1974, having returned to power in circumstances far more propitious than those which accompanied Theresa May back to No10. History may not be an infallible guide, but it is the best we have to go on. The autumn also happens to be when the German federal election result will be known. That matters too.

What of Mayism, such as it is? Her Chamberlainite rhetoric always outstripped the reality of her policy agenda. The prospect of a Conservative realignment, in which Euroscepticism is detached from neoliberalism and bolted onto a One Nation interventionism of the kind historically associated with the pro-European left of the party, now looks remote.  The prospects of a "no deal" Brexit, and perhaps even the Hard Brexit agenda of leaving the EU single market and customs union, have receded. Liberal conservatives will reassert their credentials, trimming the nationalist edges of May's agenda and tilting the party's electoral strategy towards younger, urban and centrist voters (precisely the kind of calculation Boris Johnson will now be makings as he weighs up his leadership options). But Conservatism now looks ideologically stuck: unable to advance further on either its left or right wings.

Labour's dilemma is whether to align itself with the SNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Remain Conservative MPs, to support Britain staying in the single market - an EEA style Brexit. Labour did not campaign on that basis and to shift its position may reopen old wounds which have been closed up in the euphoria of the Corbyn surge. But the economic interests of its supporters will perhaps way more heavily now on Labour's calculations than concerns about free movement once did, and unless the Labour bloc of MPs in the House of Commons joins battle with the Eurosceptics, the terms of the Brexit deal cannot be shifted closer to the new centre of gravity amongst the electorate. The future of the UK also remains at stake: the problems of a hard border in Northern Ireland will now loom larger in British political calculations. Corbyn campaigned in a (certain kind of Labour left) poetry; now he must lead in prose.








A General Election to Challenge – or Intensify – Neoliberalism?

📥  Brexit, Political ideologies, Welfare and social security

Dr Bryn Jones is Senior Teaching Fellow in the University of Bath's Department of Social & Policy Sciences. Professor Mike O'Donnell is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Westminster.

Public sector retrenchment, deregulated markets and corporate takeovers of public and civil society spheres are contested topics in this election. Yet the protagonists do not directly acknowledge that these arise from the disruptive effects of the generation-long, neoliberal system.



Neoliberalism still underlies the current social unrest and political crisis – but its ideological hegemony is under threat. Trump, neo-nationalist populism across Europe and Brexit all express popular angst caused by neoliberal processes: de-industrialisation, public sector austerity, worsened living standards and insecure and/or poorly paid employment.

The stances of the main parties in the election reflect different orientations to this crisis. The Labour manifesto tends to over-emphasise selective aspects of neoliberal rule in order to project more statist alternatives. The orientation of the Conservatives is more tortuous.

Their manifesto hints at ideological retreats from neoliberalism. Yet an explicit rejection of ‘untrammelled free markets’ and ‘the cult of selfish individualism’ is not matched by any general reversal of fiscal austerity, or by increases in genuinely public sector activity, or reversals of privatised and corporate control of the servicing of public and personal needs.

A ‘Hard Brexit’

Thanks to an adroit move to capture the forces behind the fading UKIP project, the Tories are making a virtue of a ruthless break with the EU systems of regulated markets – even though such a ‘hard Brexit’ would mean more neoliberalism: subjecting British businesses, public services and workers to the rigours of harsher international trading arrangements, with greater freedoms for corporations from taxes and regulation. Labour’s more activist state framework of re-nationalisations, higher public spending and selective tax increases directly attacks key elements of neoliberal governance, but has two significant weaknesses.

Firstly, its ‘retro’ character ignores the fiscal and governance flaws in the traditional social democratic (SD) paradigm that enabled neoliberalism to discredit and supplant SD institutions. Secondly, Labour’s proposals lack a distinct and unifying thematic which attacks the core of the neoliberal paradigm in voter-friendly terms. Labour’s tepid stance on Brexit outcomes reinforces this weakness. Rather than confronting Theresa May’s tough Brexit position, Labour claims, unconvincingly, that it is not a defining issue. In short, in a period of acute national uncertainty and division some of Labour’s solutions look dated – ‘back to the future’ rather than innovative and timely.

Useful Ambiguity

The Conservatives’ strategy has been to surf the populist wave: flaunting a hard Brexit and severing trading agreements with the EU. Yet in other contexts May advances onto Labour territory: promising not only novel SD elements such as vague promises of worker representatives on company boards, but also guaranteeing to maintain EU-enshrined employment rights.

Such policies may be chimerical but their reportage creates useful ambiguity: even the TUC gave them guarded support. How are voters likely to react, and will the opposition parties’ campaigns at least open up neoliberalism’s hegemony to popular challenges?

Polls suggest a large Tory majority, a corresponding loss for Labour and modest gains for Lib Dems with little or no further progress for Greens, UKIP and the SNP. Such a Tory landslide depends on three plausible but uncertain conditions.

  1. May wins seats outside the Tory heartlands and votes from erstwhile Labour voters.
  2. Corbyn’s Labour fails to win, or loses support of, traditional and potential supporters: disadvantaged working classes, youth, minorities etc.
  3. The Lib Dems’ appeal to ‘Remain’ supporters from the EU referendum fails to convert into enough votes or seats.

Momentum and the progressive alliance

Labour’s massive advantage in terms of activists on the ground, especially its Momentum praetorian guard, could mobilise latent Labour voters to preclude the first two of these conditions. Other potential grass-roots checks on a sweeping Tory victory could be belated surges of voter registration amongst the young, transient and often politically disenchanted, promoted by the numerous tactical voting campaign groups, some derived from the EU Remain movement.

A further positive development is the necessarily belated launching of a Progressive Alliance. Supported by cross-party politicians and civil society activists and organisations, it aims to promote tactical voting to return sufficient progressive MPs for democratic checks on a potentially all-powerful Conservative government.

Together these initiatives could hold off Tories in marginal seats. Finally there is the question of whether the Tories ‘air war’ supremacy – financial and media superiority – can maintain a discursive integrity, avoiding internal dissent or refutations from opponents.

These political and ideological ramifications reflect the broader societal conflict over the neoliberal regime, with civil society forces trying to resurrect the public sphere and curb the dominance of the corporate and financial establishment, which Conservatives covertly seek to strengthen through Brexit. The worst-case Parliamentary scenario for the opposition parties would set back progressive alternatives rooted in equality, community, environmental and democratic reform movements.

Their common core is the pursuit of the cumulative emancipation, amelioration and improvement which flourished under post-war social democracy and post-60s social liberalism. Thomas Marshall placed the early upsurge of this project within a three-stage progression through the acquisition of legal, political and then social rights. In the vortex of Brexit’s economic upheaval, under a right–wing Tory Parliament and government, these rights could stall or even reverse.

Democratic Equality’s Fourth Phase

More positively, even if Labour’s retro Social Democracy fails and they are out of power, an emergent fourth phase of democratic equality could become politically plausible. Its key theme would be challenging neoliberal inequality by enhanced participation – the fostering of everyday democracy as a norm. Buttressed by a participation-linked basic income, it would be rooted in the lifeworld of civil society; for instance, extending support for family and neighbourhood caring networks.

Economic development would mean small and social enterprise development and regulating corporations’ local operations by social licensing with social stakeholder decision-making at board level. Transformation on this scale would require a legal and organisational framework encoding and securing participatory democracy – in parallel with more organic development through educational institutions, local bodies and workplaces.

This ‘bottom-up’ democracy would support aspects of a re-invigorated public sphere – consistent with, but advancing beyond that currently envisaged by social democrats. A scenario this ruthlessly sprung election threatens to suffocate.

This article originally appeared on the Policy Press Blog and draws on themes further explored in a book edited by Dr Jones and Professor O'Donnell:  Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Towards equality and democracy, recently published by Policy Press.


In what ways does gender matter for voting behaviour in GE2017?

📥  Democracy and voter preference, Political history, UK politics

Rosalind Shorrocks is Teaching Fellow in Quantitative Political Science at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.

The Fawcett Society recently published analysis in which it claimed that there would be a ‘missing eight million’ women in the 2017 general election. To support this, they argue that 2.5% points fewer women than men say they are certain to vote in the election, and 2.5% points fewer women than men say they are registered to vote. If women were to vote in substantially lower numbers than men, this would lead to serious concerns about the representation of women in our political system, as well as raise questions as to why our political parties are putting off women.



However, it would be surprising if women did, in fact, vote in substantially lower numbers than men on 8 June. The British Election Study, the highest quality post-election survey data available, shows us that in most elections women and men have voted at roughly similar rates. In fact, we have to go back to 1964 to find a statistically significant gender difference in turnout, and even then women were only 3% points less likely to vote then men. There is no reason to expect this pattern to be different in this year’s election.

Figure 1


So, are there any significant differences in voting behaviour between men and women in 2017? Most opinion polls conducted since the general election was called indicate small to modest gender differences in vote intention, with more men than women supporting the Conservatives, and (slightly) more women supporting Labour. Most polls also show men intending to vote for the Liberal Democrats in greater numbers than women, although the numbers are small. Data from YouGov and Panelbase highlight the age dimension in these gender differences. They show that women are more supportive of Labour than men in younger age groups, but more supportive of the Conservatives than men in older age groups. Age differences in the gender gap have been well-studied in the academic literature (see here and here).

However, the 2015 general election was the first election where we saw this specific age-by-gender pattern in Britain. The figures below show the distribution of votes by gender for those aged 25 and under, and 66 and over, in 2015. The well-known age dynamics are visible, with younger voters more supportive of Labour, and older voters more supportive of the Conservatives. Within this, there are divisions by gender. Younger women were 16.5% points more supportive of Labour than young men, and young men were 14.5% points more supportive of the Conservatives than young women. Conversely, older women were 12% points more supportive of the Conservatives than older men, but older men were more than twice as likely to vote for UKIP than older women. Those aged 26-35 looked very similar to those aged under 25, but the gender gap reversed for those aged 36 and above so that women were more supportive of the Conservatives than men.

Figure 2


Figure 3


Current polling thus suggests we can expect the pattern of results in 2017 to look very similar to that in 2015 for men and women. This is perhaps to be expected given the short, two-year window between the elections. Yet the age dynamics in the gender gap in British elections have not historically been consistent between elections. In 2010, young (25 and under) men were more supportive of both Labour and the Conservatives than young women, whilst young women were much more supportive of the Liberal Democrats. In 2005, young men and women differed very little in their degree of support for Labour or the Conservatives, but young men were more supportive of the Liberal Democrats than young women.

This suggests that specific election contexts produce different gender gaps in younger age groups. In the current election, none of the major parties have yet made specific appeals to women voters (contrast this to the ‘Woman to Woman’ battle bus of 2015). The Women’s Equality Party, contesting its first general election, is only fielding candidates in 7 seats. The election is framed to a certain extent – particularly by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – as the ‘Brexit’ election, but polling has suggested that women are less likely to think of Brexit as a key issue in this election compared to men (see here and here for the latest polls on this). Women are more likely to list the NHS, education, health, or welfare as important issues, which might explain Labour’s comparative advantage with young women.

Importantly, though, women are much more likely to say that they don’t know who they are going to vote for than men. In current polls, on average around 10% of men say they don’t know who they are going to vote for; whilst 20%-25% of women say this. As the first section of this post argues, this is unlikely to lead them to be less likely to actually vote. Women have always tended to be more uncertain about their vote intention than men, but still turn out to vote at a similar rate. What’s particularly interesting is that Panelbase shows it is especially women under the age of 55 who are unsure. This could bode either well or ill for Labour: either the undecided women in these age groups will eventually settle for the Labour Party, as many of them did in 2015, or the reason they are undecided is because, although they prioritise the issues that Labour is primarily campaigning on (the NHS, public services), they still don’t see the current Labour Party as a viable option.

The relationship between gender and the vote in this election, as with previous elections, is complex. Women do not tend to vote at lower rates than men in Britain, and at the aggregate level – comparing all men and all women – differences in vote choice between men and women are rather modest. In 2015, overall, there was little difference between men and women in support for Labour whilst women were about 4 points more supportive of the Conservatives. Polls suggest a similar advantage for the Conservatives, but amongst men, in the current election.

However, such headline figures hide substantial gender gaps within age groups, particularly amongst the young. Evidence suggests that Labour is particularly successful amongst young women, but this is also the demographic most undecided about how to vote in the upcoming election. Perhaps this is because this group find it difficult to identify a party to vote for in the current election, characterised by a focus on Brexit, gender-neutral campaigns and a dominant Conservative Party.

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


Basic Income – Have Austerity’s Chickens Come Home to Roost?

📥  Basic income, Public services, Welfare and social security

Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is Policy Fellow at the IPR and Political Economy Research Fellow at the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF).

In the space of a mere five years, the idea of granting each citizen – or long-term resident in some proposals – an individual, universal and above all unconditional basic income has taken off like a rocket in established policy circles. The phrase “basic income’s time has come” is no longer the hallmark of the quasi-delusional battle cry of the seasoned utopian but can be heard – albeit perhaps with some trepidation – in the corridors of power across Europe and beyond.[1] Of course, talk is often cheap, and political talk is no exception. Expressions of support from stakeholders and decision-makers in previous years mostly took the form of cheap support: political statements not backed by commitments to expending political resources (time, money, political capital) and therefore of little value to furthering basic income policy.[2]



However, it would appear that “the times are a changin’”, as the famous Dylan song would have it. Surely, the recent policy interest in piloting basic income experiments across the world represents a serious political commitment to exploring the potential of basic income as a key component of the next stage of welfare reform? Finland has already embarked on the basic income train by paying out an unconditional basic income of €560 to 2,000 unemployed test subjects currently receiving basic unemployment benefits for the next two years.[3] Several municipalities in the Netherlands (Utrecht, Tilburg, Wageningen and Groningen, amongst others) and the Canadian province of Ontario are to follow suit in a few months, while local, regional and national governments across Europe are exploring similar options (e.g. Fife and Glasgow in Scotland; Barcelona in Spain).

What to make of this recent interest in basic income? What explains the surge in interest in universal and unconditional cash transfers across the ideological spectrum, including a willingness of some government actors to proceed with pilot schemes? Explanatory variables are no doubt manifold. One fashionable answer is to refer to the “rise of the robots”, where automation is said to irrevocably change labour markets including rendering vast numbers of jobs obsolete.[4] The threat of automation-driven technological unemployment at a scale we haven’t witnessed before is driving much of the tech-industry interest in basic income. However, the automation debate is in its infancy and the predictions of the labour market equivalent to a mass extinction event remain controversial.[5] In addition, as an explanation for the policy interest in basic income, time works against the automation argument. The rise of the robots is predicted to take another couple of decades to fully manifest, and politicians are not exactly famous for considering public policy in the long-term!

It is hard to avoid the observation that the recent “elevation” of basic income coincides with the occurrence of the financial crisis in 2007-2008, especially the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009, and the austerity response that followed suit. In a nutshell, austerity is a mechanism of kick-starting growth and recovery by means of drastically cutting public spending. Mark Blyth calls it “the austerity delusion”, a dangerous idea because it clearly doesn’t work – as evidenced by significantly increased debt-to-GDP ratios across European economies – while the idea itself remains stubbornly immune to rational refutation.[6] The idea is not just dangerous because it stubbornly fails, but in large part because the burden of failure is unequally distributed across the population and its social effects disproportionally felt by those at the bottom of the income distribution. Austerity increases risk of unemployment, poverty, social exclusion – even morbidity and mortality rates[7] – for a growing number of citizens.

The resulting division between insiders and outsiders is affecting both people’s wellbeing and the capability of government to institute policies aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in society.[8] At this point it is worth noting that austerity is nothing new when viewed from the perspective of welfare state development. Paul Pierson, almost two decades ago, referred to the new politics of the welfare state under conditions of “permanent austerity”, arguing that welfare state retrenchment employed a different logic from the expanding welfare state of the post-war decades.[9] From the Pierson perspective, austerity and welfare state retrenchment is mostly about changing political dynamics and finding ways to avoid (or shift) blame for unpopular reforms. Post-crisis austerity politics is partly a continuation of this welfare reform agenda but at the same time constitutes a break with governments having been granted a “license to cut” much deeper across a wider range of social programmes. Recent comparative research shows that while austerity had relatively little effect on social assistance budgets the impact on minimum income schemes is nevertheless serious and the tightening of minimum income schemes is at odds with the goal of “active inclusion” as mandated, for instance, by the 2008 European Commission Recommendation on active inclusion of people excluded from the labour market.[10]

The picture that is emerging after several years of austerity politics is one of European societies becoming increasingly socially, economically and politically divided – enter populism! – and governments apparently unable to turn the tide. The overall result of these recent policy developments has been increased pressure on the most vulnerable in society – the long-term unemployed, young labour market entrants, those operating at the margins of the labour market (the “precariat”), but increasingly as well, many who are poor while in work. Policymakers are becoming aware of the limits of increased conditionality and restrictions imposed on minimum income schemes. In this context, the interest in basic income could be seen as an attempt to square the austerity circle: the need for a policy that combines robust minimum income protection with the modernisation of welfare programme complexity, while retaining a strong focus on labour market activation and human capital-building as per the “social investment” agenda.[11] Instead of focusing on the de-commodifying effect of basic income – separating income from work – policymakers are emphasising its ability to combat poverty, unemployment and bureaucracy traps. In this perspective, basic income is not viewed as a utopian alternative to the welfare state, but to the contrary, a key instrument in its long-term survival by allowing the minimum income floor to be mainstreamed and modernised. Of course, squaring circles is hard work and in the first instance we need to know that basic income can deliver; hence, the focus on piloting and experimenting with basic income schemes in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and so on as part of a broader approach to evidence-based policymaking.

It is early days so perhaps making an assessment as to whether the many experiments will generate results that support the basic income policy would be premature. It is moreover impossible to predict whether positive piloting experiences will lead to robust policy implementation. At this point we need serious political science research examining the conditions under which basic income can build up a robust constituency (for more on this, see Luke Martinelli's excellent blog on the subject), as well as long-lasting coalitions amongst decision-makers across the ideological spectrum.[12] However, even if – paradoxically – austerity has caused policymakers to conceive of basic income as a valid instrument in their “activation toolbox”, the resulting programme may still fall short of the more progressive aims, for which most basic income advocates push. This is serious cause for concern among those who insist that basic income is primarily an instrument of freedom and equality.[13] The answer to this worry is twofold, in my view. First, we should appreciate what even a modest basic income may accomplish given the dire prospects of continuing along the road we currently travel. Second, once anchored in our policy environment, political forces can focus on upgrading the modest (almost residual) basic income model to something more progressive, emancipatory and liberating. If successful – and, granted, for now it remains a big “if” – such a political strategy would certainly make sure that austerity’s chickens finally come home to roost!

This blog originally appeared in ISRF Bulletin Issue XIII: Today's Future - Challenges & Opportunities Across the Social Sciences. It builds on research conducted jointly by Dr De Wispeleare and Dr Luke Martinelli on the political economy of basic income in European welfare states. You can find out more about the IPR's work on basic income here.

[1] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “Basic Income in Our Time: Improving Political Prospects Through Policy Learning?” Journal of Social Policy 45(4): 617-634.
[2] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[3] Olli Kangas, Miska Simanainen, and Pertti Honkanen (2017) “Basic Income in the Finnish Context.” Intereconomics 52(2): 87–91; Laura Kalliomaa-Puha, Anna-Kaisa Tuovinen, and Olli E Kangas (2016) “The Basic Income Experiment in Finland.” Journal of Social Security Law 23(2): 75–88.
[4] Martin Ford (2016) Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. New York: Basic Books; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2016) The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. W.W Norton; Jerry Kaplan (2015) Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Yale University Press.
[5] Labour economist David Autor, for instance, insists firms and employees will adapt to the anticipated automation by shifting tasks within jobs; this argument offers an important antidote to the most pessimistic forecasts about layoffs. David H. Autor (2015) “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 29(3): 3–30.
[6] Mark Blyth (2013) “The Austerity Delusion: Why a Bad Idea Won Over the West.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013.
[7] Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler (2014) “Economic Suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 205(3): 246–47.
[8] Johannes Lindvall and David Rueda (2013) “The Insider–Outsider Dilemma.” British Journal of Political Science 44(02): 460–75.
[9] Paul Pierson (2001) “Coping with Permanent Austerity: Welfare State Restructuring in Affluent Democracies.” In: P. Pierson (Ed.), The New Politics of the Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[10] Sarah Marchal, Ive Marx, and Natascha van Mechelen (2016) “Minimum Income Protection in the Austerity Tide.” IZA Journal of European Labor Studies: 1–20.
[11] Anton Hemerijck (2015) “The Quiet Paradigm Revolution of Social Investment.” Social Politics 22(2): 242–56.
[12] Joe Chrisp (2017) “Basic Income: Beyond Left and Right?” Juncture, 23: 266–270; Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[13] Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (2017) Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. Harvard University Press.