IPR Blog

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

Topic: Democracy and voter preference

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


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.



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.


Macron’s daunting to-do list: unite a nation, form a government, reform Europe

📥  Democracy and voter preference, European politics

Dr Nick Startin, Head of Department, PoLIS

The French presidential election campaign delivered as many twists and turns as a soap opera. But it ended with an air of predictability. Emmanuel Macron polled two thirds of votes cast compared to Marine Le Pen’s one third. There was no late surge from Le Pen. Her performance in the only television debate between the two rounds illustrated how difficult it is for radical right leaders to move from being the anti-system candidate to serious contender.


Le Pen and her entourage will take some solace from the fact that she polled around 11m votes in the second-round run-off – 3.4m more than in the first – but the result will nevertheless be perceived by some in the Front National inner circle as disappointing. Given the ongoing difficulties in the eurozone, France’s high unemployment rate (particularly among the under 25s), the refugee crisis, the terrorist security threat, Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the prevailing demand-side conditions could not have been more favourable for the Front National. This is, after all, a party whose whole campaign was built around the notion of a perceived cleavage between globalists (as represented by Macron) and patriots (as represented by Le Pen).

Although Front National strategists such as Florian Philippot have always had one eye on the long-term game and the possibility of victory in 2022, it’s not a given that the Front National can continue to grow in electoral terms if the demand-side conditions do not remain as favourable. The party has worked tirelessly to detoxify its image over the past decade but doubts remain as to whether an historically anti-system, radical-right party is capable of positioning itself as a party of government.

Govern and unite

Much will of course depend on whether Macron can heal the divisions in France that were so evident during the campaign. His first priorities will be logistical. He must choose a prime minister and seek a mandate at next month’s legislative elections.

Given that a majority of his voters in the second round would have preferred to back an alternative candidate, securing a majority for his fledgling movement, En Marche! (just renamed La République en Marche), in the National Assembly will be far from straightforward. Macron may well be forced to reach out to sympathetic socialists and centre-right républicains to obtain a working majority in the lower chamber. The latter, following the defeat of candidate François Fillon in the first round, will be looking to re-establish themselves as the biggest party in the National Assembly.

The logistical problems of obtaining a working majority to fulfil his campaign pledges will be just the start of the challenges facing Macron’s administration. While his campaign (and others for that matter) have demonstrated a dilution of the traditional French left-right cleavage, the result has only served to underline the social fracture that exists in France. This is well illustrated by the distribution of the Macron vote. It’s no coincidence that around nine out of ten voters backed Macron in London and Paris. How he reaches out to those citizens who remain static in their social mobility, many of whom feel disconnected from and alienated by globalisation, will be crucial.

In his manifesto, the new president emphasised educational and economic reform as a means of generating social and economic mobility. But the stark reality is that such reforms may prove difficult to implement in a country often hostile to major structural change.

The European question

One of the strategic problems facing Macron, and one central to the so-called “globalist versus patriot” tension, is how to pitch the European question. Although the French electorate doesn’t seem ready to jettison the euro, it has become increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union. Macron (a self-proclaimed europhile) was not scared to wrap his campaign in the European flag. He even played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the EU anthem) as he delivered his victory speech.

Le Pen has, in contrast, increasingly used opposition to the EU as a strategic driver in an attempt to widen the party’s electoral base. This has been a particularly successful tactic in the north of France, where post-industrial unemployment makes it difficult for many to see economic globalisation in a positive light.

How Macron deals with the European question will be crucial to the success of his presidency. He has stated that strengthening the Franco-German axis is central to his project – something which most of the electorate are likely, at least for the time being, to tolerate. However, Macron will also need to convince his doubters, including some of the 12% who either spoiled their ballot papers or failed to mark them, not to mention the quarter of the registered electorate who did not vote in the second round. To help win them over, he must demonstrate that he is prepared to fully embrace the reform agenda which the EU has often tried to dodge.

Solidifying the eurozone and developing the EU’s defence and security arm are obvious directions of travel but Macron will also need to demonstrate that he is prepared to visit more contentious issues if he is to keep the electorate on board. In talks with EU leaders, he shouldn’t shy away from re-examining the Schengen area and developing a more robust EU-wide response to the EU’s horribly high levels of youth unemployment.

And while it would take a bold French president to seek radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, perhaps now is the time for boldness. France has a historic, protective stance on the CAP, but it continues to gobble up nearly 40% of the EU budget. Diverting those funds into tackling social problems in EU nation states remains something of a pipe dream.

Failure to fully embrace the reform agenda within the EU could soon damage Macron’s popularity ratings. France is at a crossroads. The direction it takes under Macron will have a massive baring not only on the future of the nation, but also on the future of the EU.



The governance of England in the Union

📥  Democracy and voter preference, UK politics

When the flood comes, the survivors will be found on the higher ground. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have joined Sadiq Khan on the new peaks of Labour politics, as metro mayors of major English conurbations. Their former colleagues in the House of Commons will be scrabbling for local boats to lift themselves above the Conservative tide that is about to wash through the country.



In England, the metro-mayors bring a new structure to sub-national government. It is more than simply a functional reform to deliver public policy at an appropriate spatial scale. In London, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, the new metro mayors give expression to strong civic identities; in time, the same may be said of Tees Valley and the West Midlands, which has Joe Chamberlain’s Birmingham at its core. Civic identity will prove a firmer foundation for sub-national government than the regional artifices of the former nine government offices for England, which were in turn the basis for the now defunct Regional Development Agencies. Lacking popular attachments shaped by history and urban cultures, regional bodies were easy targets for the incoming Coalition government to abolish in 2010.

Civic attachments are evidently weaker in the West of England and Peterborough-Cambridgeshire, where the mix of county and city, and a smaller scale, means that there isn’t an existing popular identity to which the mayors can give political expression. The West of England combined authority brings back memories of Avon County Council but these are seldom fond ones. Bristol has a strong identity but it already has a mayor. The more inchoate, though tangible, green-liberal character of the West of England runs through the region on ley lines, not the boundaries of a public authority.

The fact that the Conservatives won four of the six metro mayor elections up for grabs in 2017 will nonetheless help cement their place in the governance of England, particularly now that their main patron in Westminster has decamped to the Evening Standard. Whether they will join forces to represent the interests of the English cities in the Brexit negotiations is moot. Each of the new mayors represents areas with strong interests in one or more of the aerospace, automotive and aviation sectors, as well as leading universities – and each would be seriously damaged by a hard Brexit. But the sweeping up of the UKIP vote into the Conservative bloc will pull at least two of the Tory Mayors towards more eurosceptic government-friendly positions, while Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are likely to prioritise the demands of the wider North over the metropolitan interests they share with their fellow mayors.

In the West Midlands, the Labour candidate Sion Simon wrapped himself in the flag of St George and harnessed the Brexit discourse of “taking back control”, but it wasn’t enough to get him over the line against the UKIP collapse and Labour’s national weakness. Labour thinkers will now debate whether his embrace of Englishness helped or hindered his campaign.

Whatever the verdict, the debate on England’s future in the union will not go away. The revival of Scottish conservatism does not signal the return of a strong unionist British identity of the kind that once shaped Conservative political loyalties in Scotland, and which the English also took for granted. Its foundations in empire, Protestant loyalism, and later, the strong post-war national state, are not coming back, even if the rise of Scottish nationalism and the decline of working class Labour identities have sharpened the importance of political unionism north of the border (in passing, I suspect there is a reason why some electors voted for the unionist party in Shettleston and it is not because they have been reading Iain Duncan Smith pamphlets on social justice).

The SNP will still return a phalanx of MPs to Westminster after June 8th and they will govern in the Scottish Parliament and is major cities. They will not cede their political leadership of Scotland’s aspirations to a Conservative-Unionist government in Westminster. The SNP may exhibit greater tactical caution but a Scottish Conservative revival will not dispense with the question of whether the UK can hold its constituent nations together. Paradoxically, the election of metro mayors in England will make the federalist case for the UK that little bit harder to answer, since they take off the table the idea that the English regions can be partners with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a new federal constitutional settlement. For that, England will need national recognition to go alongside devolved city and county governance.




The Resurgence of Mainstream Racism and the Need for Nuance in Democratic Turmoil


📥  Democracy and voter preference, Racism and the far right, UK politics

Dr Aurélien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Misdiagnosing the Democratic Crisis 

With the French elections just around the corner, and with current polling suggesting the Front National is set to become a leading party in France, the stakes have never seemed so high. While the Front National is used to making headlines come election time, its strong position this year seems somewhat reinforced by the electoral events which shook the UK and US last year. Indeed, the Brexit vote and Trump’s election have sent a strong signal that nationalist and even racist politics are now part of the mainstream, and no longer an insurmountable handicap in electoral jousts. In fact, an uneasy sense of resignation seems to have enthralled the mainstream elite discourse: the people have turned reactionary and all that can be done is limit the damage.



Yet only a year ago, few would have guessed the way events would unfurl. Had they had to guess, most commentators, pundits and experts would have forecast that the UK would have voted to remain in the European Union and Hillary Clinton would have defeated Donald Trump. At that stage, predicting the results of the French presidential election seemed fairly straightforward: Hollande’s dismal record and approval rating would make it impossible for him – or any other likely socialist contender, such as Manuel Valls – to appeal to enough of their disenchanted base to reach the second round. The Parti Socialiste’s failure would clear the path for Marine Le Pen to do to the centre left what her father did to Lionel Jospin in 2002, and reach the second round. She would eventually lose to Alain Juppé, whose more consensual approach would serve as a shield against the far right – as Jacques Chirac had in the past. All in all, it would be business as usual. Bremain, Clinton and the French Républicains would triumph over the rise of far right racist politics, and life would go on for another political term, allowing the far right to polish its discourse and increasingly normalise its ideas as political distrust and disillusionment remain unaddressed.

But, things did not go to plan. Under the right circumstances, a campaign based on lies and racist stereotypes succeeded, reinforced by an alternative whose only argument was also based on fear and the pursuit of an unsatisfactory status quo. The US presidential election highlighted widespread political dissatisfaction across the west, as a candidate prone to racist and sexist outbursts, clownesque at the best of times, and whose own party banded against him, went on to beat the politician par excellence.

With an emboldened far right – and the media and experts lamenting the results and blaming parts of the electorate for their vote – key lessons have been mostly ignored. Brexit has for the most part been publicised as a plebiscite for the politics promoted by UKIP, thus justifying Theresa May’s choice to send the country down a hard Brexit line with a strong stance on immigration. This of course neglected the many reasons behind the vote, from the left-wing Lexit, to the more neo-liberal justification put forward by some Conservative pro-Brexit campaigners. More importantly, whether it be Brexit or the US presidential election, mainstream media coverage has allowed caricatural elitist politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump to pass themselves off as the voice of the people, claiming they speak for a conveniently ‘silent majority’. Here again, a more careful analysis would highlight that, while their campaigns did indeed gather enough votes to win these particular electoral jousts, their politics are by no means majoritarian, with Brexit receiving ‘only’ 37% of the registered vote (split between all the Brexit factions) and Trump a mere 25% of the eligible voting population. Worse still, Farage’s UKIP only received 8.5% of the registered vote in the 2015 General Election, and yet was allowed a prominent voice in the debate. Of course, abstention and other forms of political discontentment were ignored in much of the mainstream discourse, as voting has become internalised as the only valid way to express democratic concerns (Mondon 2017).

Immigration as a Key Issue: Following, Appeasing, Manipulating or Creating Public Opinion? 

As a result of this partial understanding, the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory have often been carelessly linked in the mainstream discourse to a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Some commentators and politicians have welcomed that censorship on the issue has finally been broken, while most appear to have accepted the return of xenophobic and nationalist sentiment as popular and democratic demands. In the UK, such a reaction has even crossed traditional boundaries, with prominent figures in the Labour Party toeing a similar line to the Conservatives.

Yet accepting anti-immigration measures as a democratic demand emerging from the ‘demos’ itself is overly simplistic, and ignores the fundamental power relationships at play in our public discourse. Indeed, it would be naïve to think that people’s perceptions of their society beyond their immediate community are not mediated by the views expressed around them (and in particular within elite discourse). To put it simply, while those controlling the public discourse may not tell you what to think, they can certainly influence what you will think about (McCombs and Shaw 1972). It is thus not surprising to discover that the mainstream media has played a key part, consciously or unconsciously, in the mainstreaming of what Ruth Wodak called ‘the Haiderization of Europe’ (Wodak 2013, see also Khosravinik 2009, Mral, Khosravinik, and Wodak 2013). The negative and skewed media coverage of political campaigns and their disproportionate focus on immigration is reflected in the way people (mis)perceive their broader community and the issues these imagined and fantasised communities face. As demonstrated by the Ipsos Mori survey The perils of perception in 2015, it is common for respondents to overestimate the number of migrants and Muslims in their country (Ipsos Mori 2015), two categories of the population which occupy a disproportionate and stigmatised place in our media and political discourse (Kundnani 2014, Hajjat and Mohammed 2013). However, well-recorded misperceptions do not in themselves convincingly argue whether public opinion is predisposed to anti-immigrant sentiment leading elite discourse to respond to the matter, or whether this skewed understanding of society is created by elite public discourse through agenda-setting.

Some clarity emerges using a simple, and by no means exhaustive, experiment conducted taking two questions from the Eurobarometer survey. The first requires respondents to provide what they think are ‘the two most important issues facing (their country) at the moment’. As Table one suggests, immigration does indeed seem like a genuine concern across the EU, and in the UK in particular where it is noted as the most important issue.

Table one

Table one: Question: What do you think are the two most important issues facing (YOUR COUNTRY) at the moment? (Top five EU answers with immigration and terrorism). (Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015. Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015).

However, a different picture emerges when respondents are asked what they think affects them personally. When European citizens consider their daily struggle, immigration and terrorism remain low on ‘the most important issues’ they face ‘personally’ (despite the poll taking place after the January Paris attacks). ‘The most important issues’ the French, British and Europeans are facing are those which have seemed conspicuously absent in the public debate about the future of the EU, or addressed through the immigration lens (see Table two).

Table 2

Table two: Question: And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment? (Top five European answers with immigration and terrorism). (Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015).

Perhaps most striking here is that respondents felt immigration to be an issue when asked about their countries, but not about their own daily lives and struggles. It should not come as a surprise that respondents have a better grasp of their daily lives. They experience them first-hand and their concerns appear to be practical, although not necessarily unbiased: cost of living; health; social security etc. Their neighbour is not perceived as an immigrant, but as someone who takes the bus, is employed or unemployed, goes to university, and struggles in similar ways. However, when asked about their country, it is much harder to grasp first-hand what the concerns are or should be, and the appreciation of such concerns becomes necessarily mediated. This mediated knowledge of politics acquired through the media, relatives or any other social interaction means that people’s construction of the national (and international) political context must rely on sources with various ideologically-loaded agendas.

It must be noted that the results from the Eurobarometer discussed above are not taken as ‘real’ representations of public opinion, either at a personal or national level – as Pierre Bourdieu once argued, ‘there is no such thing as public opinion’ (Bourdieu 1973). Yet they point to a dissonance in what public opinion seems to desire when it is confronted with immigration. Instead of those issues more likely to be reported by the media being a pressing issue for respondents as could rightly be drawn from the question about the national context, the question about the self provides a counterpoint, which, while not evidence of immigration not being an issue in itself, shows that a different narrative is just as credible according to the same survey data. While providing an answer is outside the purview of this article, the aim here is to demonstrate that an obvious question is absent from our reporting: are ‘we’ worried about immigration, or do ‘we’ think immigration is an issue because it is so prominent in our public discourse?

Moving Towards the Acknowledgment of Systemic Failures 

This is not to say that we should not take the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and its expression in xenophobic and racist acts seriously. Nor should we downplay the rise of the far right and the politics associated with it. The electoral surge of such parties and the mainstreaming of their discourse have dramatic and very real consequences for the lives of many and for the functioning of democracy. However, what this article argues is that the rise of the ‘populist alternative’ has not taken place in a vacuum, but has been used as a synecdoche for the much deeper crisis. Polls have suggested that a vast majority of Europeans no longer trust their representatives, be they embodied in the national parliament, government or political parties (including the so-called populists). Since 2004, the Eurobarometer (European Commission 2015) has recorded only one instance out of twenty where the trust in either parliament or government reached an approval rate of more than 40 % across Europe. Strikingly, this was in September 2007, before the GFC hit Europe. Since September 2009, the level of trust has fallen below 33% and as low as 24% in the Autumn 2013 survey. Trust in political parties is even lower, with only one instance in which levels reached more than 20% (22% in April 2006). In France in the November 2014 survey, 90% of respondents declared their lack of trust (80% in the UK in the same survey). This lack of trust in parties and institutions has demonstrated a schism between the demos and the cratos, and yet has only been addressed within the hegemonic understanding of democracy.

Therefore, the main argument put forward here is that mainstream narratives used to explain the rise of the so-called populist right offer at best an incomplete version of the complexity behind the state of contemporary politics. Ignoring abstention and focusing on partial and mediated attitudes to pressing issues has led to a fundamentally skewed understanding of the democratic landscape. In our post-democracies, discontentment takes many shapes and the resurgence of so-called populist parties is but one of the symptoms.

These findings would suggest, therefore, a different approach to policy if we are to counter the rise of nationalism and racism. This would first require a move away from short-term panics and quick fixes such as the borrowing of far-right discourse to deal immediate but ultimately counterproductive blows – Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign (Mondon 2013), for example, or David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU. Instead, more radical recommendations should be made to tackle such issues in the long term:


  • Conduct careful and nuanced analysis of the political campaigns and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, where the far right is set to be a prominent actor.
  • Shift the focus of discussion towards political dissatisfaction, and stress consistently the limited appeal of far right parties so far. Note that this should not downplay the very real impact these movements have on politics and policy, but should act as a word of caution to politicians and their mandates.
  • Engage in a thorough analysis of the impact of political and media coverage of so-called right-wing populism and the potential hype it generates.
  • If hyping is confirmed, explore ways to counteract the phenomenon and engage in alternative modes of enquiry and dissemination of information.


  • Re-engage with the growing sections of the population who have demonstrated little to no interest in either alternative offered so far (‘business as usual’ or the ‘populist right’) in an open manner, beyond commonly understood political boundaries and horizons.
  • Understand the current hegemonic status and challenge its contingent borders to make the possibility of more progressive and radical politics a reality.


  • Explore systemic issues pertinent to the current level of dissatisfaction.

Obviously, these policy suggestions would require a thorough transformation in the way ‘progressives’ approach politics, even though they are rather modest. It would first of all necessitate a more radical approach, not just to politics, but to the way we think about political possibilities. If anything, the success of the far right in imposing its agenda and normalising ideas which were long considered to be unthinkable politically should demonstrate that political norms remain contingent and the mainstream something malleable.

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.



Bourdieu, Pierre. 1973. "L'opinion publique n'existe pas." Temps Moderne no. 318.

European Commission. 2015. Eurobarometer. Brussels: European Commission.

Glynos, Jason, and Aurelien Mondon. 2016. "The political logic of populist hype: The case of right wing populism’s ‘meteoric rise’ and its relation to the status quo." Populismus working paper series no. 4.

Hajjat, Abdellali, and Marwan Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie. Comment les élites françaises construisent le "problème musulman". Paris: La Découverte.

Ipsos Mori. 2015. Perils of Perception. Ipsos Mori.

Khosravinik, Majid. 2009. "The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers during the Balkan conflict (1999) and the British general election (2005)." Discourse & Society no. 20 (4):477-498.

Kundnani, Arun. 2014. The Muslims are coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso.

McCombs, Maxwell, and Donald Shaw. 1972. "The agenda-setting function of mass media." Public Opinion Quarterly no. 36 (2):176-187.

Mondon, Aurelien. 2013. "Nicolas Sarkozy's Legitimisation of the Front National: Background and Perspectives." Patterns of Prejudice no. 47 (1):22-40.

Mondon, Aurelien. Forthcoming 2017. ‘Limiting democratic horizons to a nationalist reaction: populism, the radical right and the working class’, Javnost.

Mral, Brigitte, Majid Khosravinik, and Ruth Wodak, eds. 2013. Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wodak, Ruth. 2013. "'Anything goes!' - the Haiderization of Europe." In Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse, edited by Brigitte Mral, Majid Khosravinik and Ruth Wodak. London: Bloomsbury Academic.


Labour’s weakness leaves the Tories free to do as they please

📥  Democracy and voter preference, Political ideologies

This article first appeared in the Financial Times.

Soul-searching about the electoral prospects of the Labour party has been a British political pastime for decades. After Labour’s defeat at the 1959 general election, Anthony Crosland, the party’s pre-eminent revisionist intellectual, published a Fabian pamphlet entitled “Can Labour Win?” His argument was that economic growth had shrunk the industrial working class and swelled the ranks of an affluent middle class, transforming the electoral battleground on which Labour had to fight.



Pamphlets and polemics have been published with variations on that theme ever since, always after Labour has lost elections. With the exception of a bout of civil war in the early 1980s, Labour has responded to each defeat by seeking to broaden its appeal and modernise its policies. In each era, it has succeeded in getting re-elected.

The results of Thursday’s by-elections paint a bleaker picture, however. It is not simply that Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is unpopular, or that his brand of reheated Bennism holds little appeal for most voters. The chances of his leading Labour into the next general election must now be considered minimal. It is that in the heyday of postwar social democracy, Labour won handsomely, whatever the national result, in seats like Copeland (which it lost on Thursday) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (which it held with a reduced majority).

Since then, three things have happened in these constituencies and others like them: turnout has fallen dramatically, the number of parties contesting the seats has multiplied and the Labour majority has been slashed. The party’s grip on power in its historic strongholds is now more tenuous than at any time since the 1930s, when it was split and faced a popular National government.

Until relatively recently, Labour could rely on its working-class supporters, even as the industrial society that shaped their allegiances steadily disappeared. Today, age and social class inequalities in voting patterns work decisively against the party. Older, middle-class voters turn out in much greater numbers than working-class and younger voters, which disproportionately benefits the Conservatives. Theresa May has been adept at consolidating this older voting bloc behind her government.

The prime minister has used the Brexit vote to offer a new configuration of Conservative politics that is both Eurosceptic and post-Thatcherite, detaching the interventionist, One Nation economic and social traditions of the party (at least in rhetoric, if not yet in practice) from its enfeebled pro-European wing. It is an electorally potent combination, which has had the effect, not just of boxing Labour into liberal, metropolitan Britain, but of holding down the UK Independence party’s vote.

Breathless post-Brexit talk of Ukip eating away the core Labour vote in the north of England has now given way to a more sophisticated appreciation of the flows of voters between the parties — flows from which the Conservatives, and to a lesser degree the Liberal Democrats, appear to be the winners.

Britain’s new electoral geography has also undermined Labour. Once, the party could bring battalions of MPs to Westminster from Scotland, Wales and northern England, where it was indisputably dominant. Now it fights on different fronts against multiple parties across the UK, a national party in a fracturing union. In Scotland, its support has been cannibalised by the Scottish National party, while the Conservatives have picked up the unionist vote there.

In Wales, party allegiances have split in different directions, while in England, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats at the last general election handed a swath of seats to the Conservatives. The EU referendum added another layer of complexity, splitting coastal, rural and post-industrial areas from cities and university towns, and leaving Labour facing in different directions, trying to hold together a coalition of voters with divergent views.

Any Labour leader would struggle in these circumstances — renewing the party’s fortunes at a time of national division is a monumental task. But it is now clear that the surge of support for Mr Corbyn in 2015 was less a new social movement giving energy and purpose to the Labour party, than a planetary nebula collecting around a dying star.

Labour’s weaknesses leave pro-Europeans bereft of political leadership at a critical time. In the absence of an effective opposition that can marshal blocking votes in parliament, the government is able to conduct the politics of Brexit internally. Countervailing forces are restricted to alternative centres of power, such as Scotland or London, and civil society campaigns that are only just starting to form. Big business is curiously mute and the trade unions have other priorities. On the most important question facing Britain, political power is dangerously lopsided.

Yet there are still grounds for optimism on the left, however small. Britain’s radical political traditions — liberal, as well as social democratic — are resilient and resourceful ones, particularly when they combine forces. The defeats inflicted on progressive parties in recent elections around the world have been narrow not decisive, suggesting that talk of a nationalist turn in the tide of history is overblown. While British Conservatism may be remarkably adaptive, Brexit will be a severe test of it.

Five years after Crosland posed the question of whether Labour could win, Harold Wilson became prime minister in a blaze of the “white heat” of technology. It will not be Mr Corbyn, and it will take a lot longer this time, but Wilson may yet have a successor who can do the same.


Colin Crouch: The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences

📥  Democracy and voter preference, Political history

The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences, argues Colin Crouch

From the time of the French Revolution, mass politics has revolved around two core conflicts: that between preferences for more or less economic inequality; and that between conservative, authoritarian values and liberal ones. The main divisions among political parties in most countries fit into this frame, but we have become accustomed to seeing the former, raising issues of redistributive taxation, the welfare state, and the role of trade unions, as the senior partner. In western Europe, if not in the USA, this has become even more the case as organized religion, the main historical carrier of social conservatism, has declined in importance.



This situation is challenged by the growing prominence of a chain of partly associated, partly quite independent, forces: economic globalization, immigration, refugees and the assertion of Islamic identities, which includes terrorism as its extreme. Together these reassert the old struggle between authoritarian conservatism and liberalism. Many people feel that everything familiar to them is being threatened, that they are being confronted with decisions, cultural artefacts and the presence among them of persons, all coming from outside their familiar and trusted sphere.  They seek security by trying to exclude the forces and people that are doing this to them. Most affected are those whose own working lives give them little control in any case, and who are accustomed to the security that comes from the enforcement of rules that exclude troubling diversity. This response takes various forms. Many Russians become both highly nationalistic and also stress their homophobia. Many people in the Islamic world assert their religion (which is here far more important than nationality as a symbol of a pre-globalized past) and impose strict dress codes on women. Many Americans not only become fearful of Mexican immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but become agitated about abortion. A more general social conservatism, most powerfully embodied in deep-rooted feelings around sexuality, mixes with xenophobia to produce new social supports for the traditional, not the neoliberal, right.

Europe, especially western Europe, has been a partial exception. The final great battles of the 1970s in Catholic lands over contraception, divorce and finally abortion petered out, the churches, the main bearers of European social conservatism, became weak and in many cases often liberal in their social attitudes. There are today few supports for general authoritarian conservatism, and matters have narrowed down more closely to immigration and the following chain: the European Union is a super-national force that suppresses traditional national identities; in particular, it brings immigrants with unfamiliar cultures and languages; it is difficult to distinguish immigrants from refugees, who come in alarming numbers from even more unfamiliar cultures; and since these refugees are Moslems, they are likely to include terrorists who will try to kill us.

Against these beliefs and fears stands a liberal, inclusionary mind-set that sees in globalization and multiculturalism a series of opportunities for a richer life, more varied cultural experiences, perhaps new possibilities for individual advancement.

A brief history of political identity

To put this confrontation into context, we need to understand how it happened in the first place that ordinary people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose daily lives were very remote from big political issues, ever came to have political identities. It occurred as they found that aspects of their social identities, which they understood very well, were engaged in struggles over inclusion and exclusion in voting and other political rights. Depending on one’s social position, one’s identity was implicated in either demands to be included, or demands to exclude others. Class and property ownership, religion, and occasionally ethnicity (in Europe normally with reference to Jews, in the USA to Afro-American people) were the key identities around which these struggles revolved. By the end of World War II and after considerable bloodshed the concept of universal adult citizenship had become accepted in almost all advanced economies. Spain and Portugal remained outside the consensus until the mid 1970s; Greece flitted in and out. In central and eastern Europe a very back-handed kind of universalism dominated, where universal inclusion came to mean universal exclusion except for a small communist party elite; but in general in the west politics became peaceful and more or less democratic.

Once universal citizenship was achieved, those identities forged in struggles to achieve or prevent citizenship began to lose their raison d’être, but so deeply rooted were they that paradoxically they became the basis of democratic electoral politics. Over time they could do this not as direct memory but only as memories of parents’ and grand-parents’ experiences. These necessarily faded, and in any case many people moved away from the social locations of their parents and grandparents. Democracy therefore began to depend for its vigour on forces that its very achievement had weakened. Their decline was reinforced by three major changes. First came the rise of the post-industrial economy and the creation of many occupations that have no resonance with the struggles of the past, and whose practitioners cannot easily relate their occupational identities to political allegiance at all. Class declined as a reliable source of political identity. Second, (in Europe but not the USA) religious adherence declined, and along with it both the power of the identity struggles surrounding it and general conflicts over authoritarianism versus liberalism. Finally, the use of ethnicity or nationality as identity resources in partisan struggles had been rendered horrifying to most politicians and ordinary people, partly as a result of the two world wars and their demonstration of the destructive force of nationalism, and partly through knowledge of the Holocaust and the passions that had lain behind it. A nationalistic fringe continued in some countries, and the separate issue of racial entitlements to citizenship continued to flourish in the USA until the 1960s, but in general this became a no-go area in political conflict.

We should not puzzle at declining voting turnout and even more strongly declining identification with political parties once we appreciate that a strong interest in politics by the mass of citizens who have no chance of being politically effective needs social supports, and that those bequeathed to us by the struggles of the past have declined in salience. There has now been such a general loosening of ties between parties and voters that it increasingly seemed inappropriate to include a discussion of voting behaviour within a discussion of identities. Does voting for a party, even repeated voting for it, necessarily imply an ‘identity’ with it any more than frequent purchase of a brand of soap implies an identity with the firm making the soap? Certainly, election campaigns increasingly resemble advertising campaigns for products, suggesting that parties do indeed consider that they bond with voters no differently from the way producers of goods bond with customers.

But this may now be changing, as economic globalization and its broader consequences start to reproduce social identities with powerful political potential. Central is revived national consciousness. While the great majority of politicians had for decades abjured using national identity in party conflict, there was no reason for them not to use it as a non-conflictual rallying call, since after all their role is to care for the nation. As a result national sentiment has been left lying around in popular consciousness, available for other purposes if occasion arose. Globalization, immigration, refugees and terrorism provide such occasions. Meanwhile memories of the appalling consequences of the political use of nationalism in the first half of the 20th century are fading. Nation is strengthening as a political force, while class and religion (unless the latter becomes implicated in conflict around Islam and therefore absorbed into nationalism) are declining.

The turnaround can be seen most clearly in parts of central Europe. The political implications of class identities had been stood on their head under state socialism, and national identity remains the only strong link that people can feel to their polity. This helps explain the puzzle of the Czech Republic, which has suddenly become the most Europhobic country in Europe after the UK. The country has benefited more than any other from the European Union, which has provided its modern infrastructure, a safe framework for the divorce from Slovakia, an easy channel for the German and other investment that has equipped an advanced economy, and a base for trading with the rest of the world that the infant country would otherwise have had to create from scratch. Then the EU asked for some payback, putting pressure on the Czechs to help bear the burden of Middle Eastern refugees arriving on the coasts of Greece and Italy. Czechs – whose nationalism historically never hurt anyone but has been a badge of resistance against various forms of foreign domination – suddenly became responsive to the wave of anti-foreigner feeling sweeping through Europe.

One major, unexpected result of these developments is that the old predominant conflict axis around inequality and redistribution is itself becoming interpreted through nationalism rather than through class politics. The new nationalist movements nearly always include the global financial elite in their attacks. Many observers were surprised when there were relatively few mass expressions of anger after the 2008 financial crisis. We can now understand why. For ordinary non-political people to take any kind of action, including voting, against powerful forces they need some confidence-boosting assurance that they are part of something wider, something rooted in a strong social identity. Given the decline of class, only national identity has been available to give them that assurance. All contemporary xenophobic movements, from Donald Trump in the USA and Mariane Le Pen in France to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria, link their attacks on immigrants and refugees to those on the national elites implicated in the financial crisis. In turn, some protest movement that began as non-xenophobic opponents of elites, like il Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, find that they can get more traction if they include resentment at refugees in their rhetoric. Groups like UKIP in the UK or Alternative für Deutschland, which started life as critics of the European Union, have found success by responding to fears around immigrants and Moslems. The challenge to powerful elites is hereby made safe, because it is enfolded in attacks on the weaker symbols of globalization. One might be frightened to kick a strong man, but one might kick what one believes to be his dog.

In a recent Guardian article, Martin Jacques claimed that the successful Brexit campaign and various other instances of widespread support for populist movements around the western world constituted the return of class politics in general and a political reassertion of the working class in particular[1]. This was wistful thinking. Outside Greece, Spain and possibly Scotland, the new populism is precisely not articulating itself as class movements, but as nationalistic, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee – quite apart from the fact that a majority of Brexit voters were comfortably off Conservative voters in southern England.

The social supports of multiculturalism

Is nationalism therefore set to trump all other political forces, as its deeply rooted emotions come up against little more than voting behaviour of the soap-buying kind? Are persons holding liberal opinions anything more than randomly scattered individuals? Stalin invented the term ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ to stigmatize Jews, but the general idea that cosmopolitanism or a positive approach to multiculturalism implies rootlessness or normlessness is widespread. Some recent research suggests otherwise, providing evidence that liberal attitudes are associated with particular social locations.

The starting point is the work of a Swiss sociologist, Daniel Oesch[2]. He became dissatisfied with the idea of an undifferentiated middle class used in so much academic as well as popular discussion, given that the category was coming to mean the broad majority of occupational positions in the advanced economies. He proposed that social and political attitudes were formed, not just by the positions people occupied in organizational hierarchies (class), but by the kinds of work tasks on which they were engaged. He distinguished three of these: technical (e.g. manufacturing), administrative (e.g. banks, public bureaucracies), interpersonal (e.g. public services). If these categories were combined with hierarchical position, he found that one could account for differences in, say, voting behaviour among those occupying middle-class positions.

Oesch’s idea was applied to issues of direct relevance to us here by two German political scientists working in the US, Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm[3]. Gathering data from all western member states of the EU, they examined typical differences in attitudes among people working in different hierarchical positions and on Oesch’s different types of task along the three dimensions that I have used here: inequality and redistribution; the role of authority versus liberty; and immigration. The first of these relates to the inequality axis, the other two to the authoritarian versus liberalism axis. Unsurprisingly, they found that people at the upper and middle levels of hierarchies in all types of task held less egalitarian views than those in lower positions, though senior and middle-ranking persons in interpersonal services were considerably less inegalitarian than the others. Those at higher and middle levels in all work tasks had liberal attitudes on both general authoritarianism and immigration, though there were differences. The most liberal were professionals in interpersonal services, then those engaged in technical tasks, least so those in administration. Those at the lowest levels of hierarchies held illiberal views on both dimensions, and egalitarian views on the third dimension. These findings held true after controlling for whether people worked in the private or public sectors, or whether they were male or female.

Without more detailed research it is difficult to know to what extent people with certain social attributes are drawn towards working at particular tasks, or working at particular types of task leads people to develop the attitudes in question. From the finer details of Oesch’s and Kitschelt and Rehm’s work it emerges that the more people have discretion in their work tasks and work directly, face to face, with other human persons, the more liberal and inclusive they are; the more their own work follows rules and routines in impersonal contexts, the more they support authoritarianism and exclusion. There does not seem to be any important difference between attitudes to immigrants and those on general issues of authority. For example, people who believe that immigration should be restricted are also likely to believe that school discipline should be tougher.

It seems clear that attitudes on issues of authority and liberty are not just personal whims, but socially rooted. The Brexit referendum similarly revealed sociological regularities. Young, particularly female, well educated people living in large cities were more likely to vote to remain in the EU; older, mainly male persons in both declining industrial cities and prosperous provincial areas not much touched by the new economy tended to vote to leave. The politics of this question is more complex in the British case than elsewhere. Whereas the Brexit campaign played on fears of foreigners and implicitly encouraged isolationist tendencies, the purpose of the ministers involved in negotiating the UK’s future economic place in the world seems to be to expose the country to intensified global competitive pressure. How they will eventually reconcile that with their mass supporters is a very interesting question, but beyond our concerns here. Most important is to recognize that openness to multiculturalism and internationalism have become deeply felt, socially grounded beliefs among those parts of contemporary populations whose work and other aspects of social location lead them to reject exclusion and value inclusiveness. This determined cosmopolitanism might be based on a positive appreciation of being enriched by engagement with other cultures, or on a desire to be free of constraints on individual freedom. In either case, it is necessary to note that the revival of exclusionary nationalism is not the only popular development in contemporary politics. A major cleavage is opening between two sets of deeply held attitudes.

Long-term implications

These changes will have long-term and unpredictable consequences for all main political forces in advanced societies. The biggest challenge is to the alliance of neoliberals and conservatives, currently the world’s dominant political formation, expressing the inegalitarian end of the inequality and redistribution axis. Hegemonic as the economic ideology of an international elite, neoliberalism is rarely a powerful force in democratic party politics. When it appears virtually alone in a party’s identity, that party is usually very small (as with the German Free Democrats). More normally it appears within conservative parties, as with the UK Conservatives or US Republicans. But classic European democratic conservatism is weakening alongside its former religious supports. Its parties then face a strong temptation to rediscover the nationalism that is part of their heritage and become part of the new xenophobia. They can do this either in coalitions or deals with far-right parties (as in Scandinavia) or through shifts within the party (as with British Conservatives). But this threatens the heart of the neoliberal project, which is globalizing and highly cosmopolitan. So far the tension has been even more severe in the US, where the Christian right is far stronger than in most of Europe. The Republican Party is being torn apart between the neoliberals who have dominated it for years through their billionaire backers and the protectionist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Neoliberalism and conservatism are allies when the main conflict axis is that around inequality and redistribution; if that is gradually replaced by one that sets liberalism and a nationalist conservatism against each other, they stand at opposite poles.

Moderate conservatives do not necessarily follow the nationalist path. Using their central position in most political systems, they can achieve simultaneous accommodations with the two main rival forms of liberalism, neoliberalism and social democracy. One sees this most clearly in German Christian Democracy – the country where the nationalist option is seen as most dangerous.  It was also there in the currently defeated Cameron-Osborne wing of British Conservatism.

Neoliberals also have the option of shifting to the left by making compromises on the inequality axis, if that axis is being dwarfed by that over conservatism-liberalism. There are certainly precedents. Blair’s New Labour, Schroeder’s Neue Mitte SPD, Clinton’s New Democrats, have all been examples, as are today Renzi’s Democratici. These may seem uncomfortable antecedents, but arguably the largest social change in recent times, the move towards gender equality, has been a shared neoliberal/social-democratic, anti-conservative project. When, following the financial crisis, the OECD and IMF began to resile from their earlier neoliberal policy stances, they were motivated mainly by the risks being posed by growing US inequality to mass consumption[4]. In the wake of the Brexit vote some global investment advisors went further and began to worry whether growing inequality was not nourishing xenophobic resentment against globalization. How far are neoliberals willing to accept redistribution and strong welfare states in order to safeguard their other achievements?

Social democrats have their own crises. As the manual working class declines in size, they reluctantly face the reality that they will never again be the assured representatives of the biggest fraction of society. Instead they fight for their share of that large middle mass of the post-industrial world. Thanks to Oesch’s analysis, we can see that this mass is no longer just the conservative bourgeoisie of the past, but includes, particularly among those engaged in interpersonal work tasks, the new constituency of the left, though where voting systems give them the chance, they often prefer environmentalist and other non-social-democratic forms of the left. These people are primarily liberal, though also favourable to redistribution, and there is growing tension between them and the old working class as the conservatism-liberalism axis grows in importance. Can social democrats reassert the priority of the inequality axis to hold their coalition together?

David Goodhart[5], Wolfgang Streeck[6] and some other observers have pointed out that the social democratic welfare state was an essentially national institution, rooted in people’s sense of shared membership in a national community. The idea is expressed most clearly in the Swedish idea of the welfare state as folkshemmet, the place where people can feel at home. These meanings could be stretched to include small numbers of immigrants, but to how many? Is the US aversion to a strong welfare state a reflection of its cultural heterogeneity? Thinking on these lines leads some to seek a national social democracy, which requires severe limitations on immigration, a rejection of liberalism, and in the case of European countries withdrawal from the EU.

Political clocks cannot be put back. The great welfare states developed under the aegis of a benign form of national identity that was not directed against outsiders. The most advanced welfare states developed in open trading nations – Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK. That world cannot be recaptured. To assert the limitation of social citizenship to ‘real’ nationals now can no longer be the folkshem of a people who just happen to be ethnically homogenous, but becomes symbolized by the demand of the Front National that rights be limited to français de la souche (best translated broadly as ‘true born French’), requiring active exclusion of those deemed to be outsiders. Non-aggressive nationalism is still possible in places like Scotland or Greece, where resentment against external domination does not require the victimization of immigrants and refugees. Elsewhere it has become very difficult to sustain.

Also, free trade is now nested in a regime with global rules, not a series of national decisions to choose how much free trade they want to accept. In this context the EU constitutes an opportunity to extend social policy alongside free trade, expressing the pooled sovereignty of its members, rather than the loss of sovereignty implied by the pure free trade of the World Trade Organization.

But is the direction of pooled sovereignty towards the construction of transnational social policy possible with the current politics of the EU? Today’s European tragedy has two components. First, Europeans are being asked to absorb large numbers of dispossessed people from the other side of the Mediterranean. Second, the EU is coping with both this and the free movement of labour from central Europe at a moment when EU policy makers and the European Court of Justice have experienced an extreme neoliberal turn, rendering it unwilling to provide the social policy support that these large movements of people require. The first was not Europe’s fault; the second it is fully within the power of its policy makers and jurists to change. This is again dependent on some rethinking by European neoliberals, which the withdrawal of the UK might make easier.

No political family can look forward to a comfortable future. The outcomes of these tensions and their explosive consequences for the main contemporary political currents will be very varied. A particularly important variable is the balance between the electoral (democratic) component of political systems and that which concerns lobbying, the role of big money, the bargaining power of global corporations. The latter is probably more important in shaping our politics, though since it is largely invisible we can say least about it. It is the arena within which neoliberalism mainly operates as a political force. Ironically, it is likely to be here that alliances between neoliberals and social democrats are forged. It may be easier for neoliberalism to soften in this non-democratic but dominant part of political life, because change involves rational calculation by small numbers of self-interested individuals and corporations, not the deep feelings of large numbers of people. One can already see the framework for this elite compromise in the changing approaches of the OECD and IMF. As international organizations, these can never share in the new xenophobia. Since the late 1970s they have helped forge the neoliberal hegemony and have been major protagonists of an open global trading system, but their recent fears about the impact of growing US inequality on mass consumption, and the role of big money in political lobbying marks a major shift. The OECD has also started to change its earlier hostility to the work of trade unions and collective bargaining. This could be the start of a new neoliberal/ social democratic historic compromise.

In the electoral sphere much depends on the relative sizes of Oesch’s different fractions of the middle class, on party structures and voting systems. The tensions within both conservative and social-democratic parties as the relative importance of the two great axes of conflict changes can be most fruitfully released in systems where new parties can form and then make various alliances. Electoral systems of the British and in particular US kind force everything to remain within existing parties, sometimes contorting them out of all meaning. Within all this complexity, generational change and economic restructuring seem to favour the growth of various kinds of liberalism, while every new horror emerging from the Middle East strengthens xenophobic nationalism.
[1] Jacques, M. (2016) ‘The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in Western politics’, The Guardian, 21 August.
[2] Oesch, D. (2006) Redrawing the Class Map. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[3] Kitschelt, H. and Rehm, P. (2014) ‘Occupations as a site of political preference formation’, Comparative Political Studies.
[4] See, in particular, OECD (2011) Divided We Stand (Paris: OECD).
[5] Goodhart, D. (2013) The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. London: Atlantic.
[6] Streeck, W. (2015) ‘The Rise of the European Consolidation State’, MPIfG Discussion Paper 15/1. Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

Colin Crouch is a sociologist and political scientist, and is emeritus professor at the University of Warwick and an external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. His most recent book, Society and Social Change in 21st Century Europe, is published by Palgrave Macmillan

This essay appears in the latest edition of Juncture, the IPPR journal of ideas.


The under 30s in the UK: A generation used to not getting what they voted for

📥  Brexit, Democracy and voter preference

Dr Benjamin Bowman, Teaching Fellow in Comparative Politics, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

The EU Referendum underlined a clear disconnect between the ruling elites and the electorate, writes Benjamin Bowman. Disappointment with political choices is particularly marked among the younger generation, whose disaffection exemplifies a deeper depolitisation. Much can be learned from recent episodes such as the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees if we are to prevent a further failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. Bowman suggests a mainstreaming of youth politics, for instance by including youth branches within party lists.

young people

Britain voted to leave the EU, but now little is certain in British politics, except that more uncertainty beckons. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you are likely disappointed with this situation. For young people the experience of disappointment and disaffection is nothing new. Britain is currently on the cusp of constitutional change: we must, seize this opportunity to rebuild the connection between everyday people and institutional politics in our modern democracy. The way recent political choices have impacted the way younger generations perceive politics offers some lessons in this sense.

Brexit, like the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees, risks alienating the young

Our political moment is a deeply elitist one, despite the hullaballoo of the democratic mandate of the 52%, or the call to “take back control” at a national level. The referendum was criticized as a “media circus of exaggerated claim and counter claim” in which voters were called to muster into opposing camps by elite actors, rather than having the capability to make fully informed decisions. both campaigns were cursed by male-dominated (and indeed, white male-dominated) politics, as Professor Jacqueline Rose wrote last month.

Young voters may feel that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Brexit is another episode in a long political soap opera for young people, in which the vote represents the dissolution of complex individual concerns, needs, experiences and feelings into a binary (and non-binding) vote for one elite group or another, whether between Remain or Leave, between David Cameron or Boris Johnson, between Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage, none of whom are generally perceived to be seeking to represent voters’ needs, but simply to be hunting a democratic mandate for a plan that has already been settled.

As in the case of the Iraq War, or the Liberal Democrats short-lived pledge to oppose tuition fees, the shortening of the odds that Brexit will ever actually happen will be familiar to young people as a process of voting for one thing and getting another, a failure of the democratic transmission belt between everyday life and the representatives selected to organize it.

Young people will also likely feel that the representation of older generations has been fortified at the expense of the young. Young turnout was reportedly high with a 75% majority among 18-24s voting to remain. This, of course, didn’t stop a tidal wave of criticism aimed at young people who didn’t bother to vote (largely based on a discredited estimate tweeted by Sky, which was based on data from the 2015 General Election and had nothing do to with the Referendum itself).

Blaming young people for their own marginalization has become commonplace, to the point that the words “they should bother to vote if they care that much” is a kneejerk reaction happening all too often. The stacking of the deck against young people is thus blamed on young people themselves, while it is easily forgotten that there is now a whole generation whose experience of voting is largely that you don’t get what you voted for. On a deeper level, this represents an uncoupling of politics from governance, a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. The alienation of young people is just one symptom of broader depoliticisation.

All about the money: why young people are abandoning politics and vice versa

As part of a recent research project, I was working with teenagers in a small town in rural England. We discussed how they saw themselves fitting into British society and politics. The participants in the group had a good working knowledge of how the local council functioned and what the big issues in their community were. They were also very clear about the reality for everyday people who needed local government to take action: “I know what the answer will be”, said one participant, a 15-year-old girl, “it’ll be: well, we ain’t got the money”.

Young people’s experience of politics in our austerity era is a complicated relationship between citizens and everyday lives, and elite-level governance. As such, rather than a single political arena, we actually have two sets of politics in Britain – the everyday and the elite. The relationship between the two, in the words of this participant, is a question of not having the money. It is about blaming the inability to transmit popular voice into popular power due to budget constraints or the need to privatize the tools of government. This could be called a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and their representatives. “Well, we ain’t got the money” is a keen observation of the main political event of our time for the young: the breakdown of the transmission belt between the everyday and the elite level.

Everyday politics is a remarkably vibrant and accessible field for young people, who are more educated in citizenship and in methods for making a difference than ever before. They are connected to the world around them, informed about current events from the local to the world stage, and trained in tools from fundraising and volunteering to petitioning at a remarkably young age. The everyday level is about celebrating young power and raising the volume of young voices.

On the other hand, the elite level – the level at which governance is performed – is largely geared against the young participation that is so celebrated at an everyday level. Political parties continue to keep youth wings in policy silos, using them to float youth-specific policy, or as foot soldiers for handing out pamphlets, but little else. The hallmark of young politics is diverse participatory acts, and we celebrate diverse ways to give young people a voice, but mostly fail to transmit that voice into effective power. And it is not just the young who feel disheartened by British politics. We know from the decades of post-war data that there is a growing distance, distrust and even hatred that citizens perceive towards politicians. Where do we go from here?

We need broadband democracy for a broadband age

We must fix the transmission belt between everyday politics and elite governance. There is no better time than now, and no better group to bring into the heart of the process than the young. The Referendum was politics done wrong. Though we are voters with a world of information at our fingertips, we were subject to a circus of exaggerated and (at best) poorly explained claims. Though we have a wealth of tools for communication, our needs, voices and actions were boiled down into a simple In or Out decision.

The UK’s EU Referendum was thus Morse code politics in a broadband age. For young people, especially, this was a poisonous experience, since the modes of democratic activity the young most value – direct participation – were the least represented in a campaign led at a distance by male, aging elites and dominated by grandiose economic, political and social claims rather than by clear connections to everyday life. The Brexit era provides us with the opportunity for a fuller democratic relationship between everyday and elite, institutional politics.

We need to upgrade the transmission of democratic power from the everyday level to the institutional. Young people need direct avenues for participation. Practically speaking, political parties could strengthen the representation of young people directly in their Party structures: not just in segregated youth wings, but at the heart of policymaking, and on Party lists. As long as local politics was able to get things done – which, granted, may be a larger, budgetary issue – this would be especially valuable at local level where young people would be best able to make direct contact with representatives. For the same reason, MPs should be working to get young people into contact and into their surgeries.

A voice for young people must also mean effective power, and there are practical ways to do this too. Unions need to be reaching out to the young: both the working young and those out of work or on insecure contracts. Like Party youth wings, Unions can be a transmission belt by which young people can make a difference on the way society is run at an institutional level, and perceive the effects of those institutions on everyday life. The same could be true of public consultations. For one example, the LSE’s project for The People’s Constitution could teach us a lot about the value and potential for popular participation in upcoming constitutional reform.

We have a new Prime Minister, a new Government, and we are looking at a period of constitutional reform even to the possible extent of Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union. An era of political change is on the cards. Involving young people at the heart of that change is not only practical, it is essential if we are to rebuild the connection between everyday people and the institutions that serve them.


After the Referendum: Picking up the bits, by Professor Graham Room

📥  Democracy and voter preference, UK politics


What have we learned from this referendum campaign, the passions and fears that it unleashed?  Were the electorate truly energised by the question, to leave or remain, or were they asking quite other questions than that on the ballot paper?  Was this a national – and rational - debate about our membership of the European Union - or a mix of quite different hopes and especially fears, using this referendum as a brief opportunity to express themselves?

These questions arise most fundamentally for Labour, as they sense the gap that has opened up, between the internationalism of their London-based elite and their traditional supporters in the Midlands and the North.  If Cameron, with his divided party, was forced to look Left for some hope, Labour was itself forced to look to its progressive middle class and younger supporters.

How did we get to this situation?  How in particular did immigration divide Labour from its base?

Immigration into the UK over the last decade has been 5.77 million.  Many have gone into areas of low-cost accommodation, alongside the working class households from whom Labour traditionally drew its support. True, there has been emigration of 3.48 million (meaning net immigration has been 2.49 million) but not necessarily out of those same localities.  During the same period, austerity and recession have meant cuts in public services, in jobs and in benefits, which have hit those same areas particularly hard.  Is it so surprising that established residents should infer a causal connection?  And is it surprising that they should feel insecure and abandoned?

In such a situation, it is incumbent on political leaders to unpick a complex mix of problems and offer policies which unite and build resilience.  This both major parties have failed to do.  Labour assured us that immigration was a good thing: those who said otherwise were bigoted or misguided.  After all, had not immigration been accompanied by some growth in GDP? (Maybe so, but real wages for households on average incomes stagnated).  And did not immigrants contribute more in terms of social security contributions than they took out in benefits? (Maybe so, but in localities receiving large numbers, policies of austerity meant there was little if any financial support for the extra services needed.)

In the mid-20th Century, Tawney and Titmuss and T H Marshall provided an account of the development of UK social policy strongly related to national identity and solidarity. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society. It was a solidarity that would welcome the stranger - but this generosity depended on that foundation of solidarity. When other writers – Rimlinger and Esping-Andersen for example - wrote the comparative history of social policy in other countries, it was similarly in terms of the solidarity and resilience of local and national communities.

We might also go back to those sociologists who described the changes that came to working class urban communities in the mid-20th Century. Wilmott and Young described the move from the close-knit relationships of Bethnal Green to the nuclear families of Debden.  Richard Hoggart described the ways in which rising levels of material consumption, while welcome in themselves, left those solidaristic links to atrophy.  By the end of the century, New Labour was able to bring consumerist aspiration and choice in public services to the centre of its electoral promise. The question was reduced to how well ordinary citizens would deal with this cornucopia, and how much a benign government would need to nudge them, if they were to exercise those choices wisely.

Such optimism for the new century was understandable.  The economic crisis following 2008 - and the programme of austerity that followed - changed all that. Solidarity failed: all but the wealthiest suffered: Labour’s natural constituency suffered most of all. The referendum provided an opportunity for them to give vent to their sense of abandonment. It is this that we as a nation must now address.

The need is for positive action to rebuild our solidarity and creativity as a nation.  Austerity has not worked and is intellectually bankrupt, having played a major part in producing the disaster we now face.   Something different is needed.

Re-Building Solidarity

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed.  This is the politics of fear - and of surrender to the global market.

In contrast, the post-war social contract between State and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [1]  It was only out of that struggle that institutions of shared security emerged.

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society: and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal.  Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

·       Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to State welfare;

·       Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [2]

·       The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

·       Investment in vibrant local communities, as loci of education, learning and creativity for all: in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the community at large;

·       Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract.

These are complementary elements of development.  Such a contract would involve a broad range of policies of relevance to all citizens, rather than focussing just on society’s casualties. It would need to go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; promote individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would also go far beyond the extension of choice in public services, with the citizen seen primarily as a consumer.  It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can be connected up.  It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community not its master.

This would also re-shape the debate on immigration.  First, by investing in the skills and creativity of our own population, we reduce the need for employers to look elsewhere – for nurses, for IT specialists and others - in ways that denude poorer countries of those in whom they have invested their slender national resources.  Second, by taking collective responsibility for the infrastructures of those communities to which large numbers of immigrants come, rather than ‘devolving’ this burden to the local areas in question, we reduce the risk that those communities will see immigrants as a threat.

The main political parties cluster around a narrow agenda of neo-liberal policies with low political risk. Nevertheless, the 2008 crisis produced enormous discontent and a loss of legitimacy for major social and political institutions.  It is to that discontent that the rise of the SNP, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the victory of the Leave campaign have now variously given expression.  It must be collectively addressed.

Away from Austerity

The EU referendum was remarkable in bringing together the leaders of all the major political parties in defence of Remain.  Concealing as it did their dramatically different visions of social and economic policy – and by extension their vision of the UK’s future within Europe – this subterfuge only underlined the artificial nature of the referendum debate.  The latter instead served as a distorting mirror, in front of which the electorate struggled to make sense of the futures paraded before them.

Central to this strange tableau was the Chancellor George Osborne, whose austerity policies have been so wantonly destructive of our social fabric and who thus - no less than the Leave campaigners themselves – was the reckless co-architect of their victory. It is to the wholesale replacement of those austerity policies that any effective response to the referendum must now be geared.  Just as the near-defeat of the British establishment in the Scottish referendum forced some recognition of Scotland’s grievances, so also this more dramatic defeat requires a clear re-engagement with the have-nots of the country, if these deep divisions are to be healed.

Austerity insists that reduction of the public sector deficit must be the principal economic goal, pursued mainly through cuts in public expenditure.  Shrinkage of the public sector is meant not just to reduce the deficit, but also to stimulate the private sector.  Underlying this view is the assumption that the market, left to itself, will automatically adjust, and produce investment, full employment and economic growth.  Government only gets in the way.

There is an alternative and very different analysis of the modern economy: one which aligns with the foregoing argument for a new social contract. This recognises that Government must play a leading role, in maintaining the general buoyancy of the economy, and in using public investment to build its long-term capacity. Viewed from this standpoint, to make reduction of the deficit the top short-term priority has been unnecessary and unhelpful. If government expenditure is continually cut back, the economy is likely to stagnate: business investment will remain low, the growth in the underlying capacity of the country will be slow, and tax receipts will be flat or falling. And, as we have seen, the most vulnerable communities disproportionately bear the costs. It is like the medieval practice of blood-letting, overlooking that this only weakens the patient and reduces the likelihood – or at least the speed – of recovery.

Whether a new government dominated by Brexiteers will offer such a vigorous re-orientation of economic policy is rather doubtful. The immediate response by the public authorities to the economic uncertainties created by the referendum has been to promise new rounds of ‘quantitative easing’ by the Bank of England. Such measures lower the interest rate and, it is argued, make it easier for businesses to borrow money and invest. Keynes however showed that if those businesses lack confidence in the future level of economic activity, then no matter how cheaply money can be borrowed, they will not invest in new programmes of activity.

What the successive rounds of QE over recent years did do was to channel money not into investment in the real economy, but into equities, very much to the advantage of the already wealthy. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the announcement of new rounds of QE in recent days has sent the FTSE soaring, after the falls immediately after the referendum.  Whether the working class communities, who voted in large numbers for Brexit, will take similar delight from the announcement, is more doubtful.

Re-Building Europe 

The Brexit victory demonstrates deep disaffection with the European project across broad swathes of the UK – including areas which have benefitted from EU regional support. This disaffection must be addressed, if some new and positive involvement by the UK is to be possible.  It will not be enough to tell those who voted to leave that they should be less xenophobic: nor that the City of London needs to be part of the single market.

How can those who believe in a shared European future now recast the European project, so that it encompasses first and foremost the sorts of communities that brought Brexit its triumph?

In the Eurozone, as in the UK, economic orthodoxy demands balanced budgets and constraints on public spending.  This ignores the interconnections of the European crisis.  On the one hand, German industry has enjoyed a ‘virtuous circle’ of exports, investment and productivity growth: a process which has however weakened the economies of the European periphery. Meanwhile, austerity and unemployment in that periphery have prompted the migration of skilled workers to the job markets of the north, with a transfer of human capital paid for by the home countries.

Recent decades have seen vigorous calls for public and private investment in Europe’s knowledge economy, in the social cohesion of its diverse peoples and the solidarity of its regions, whatever their different stages of social and economic development. In the Eurozone however, these calls have been trumped by austerity.   The resulting stagnation is politically destabilising: and the effects spill far beyond the Eurozone proper.

It will therefore be necessary to confront the toxic austerity regime that Berlin has imposed on much of Europe and that sends a clear message of disregard to communities which are being left behind.  This will mean working with reform groups in other European countries.

In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles imposed heavy reparations on Germany and restrictions on how it might re-build its industrial base. Keynes famously condemned the Treaty in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). [3]  This was in part on grounds of justice - and the need to build a peace in which the new and democratic Germany would feel included. It was also because a Germany without a thriving economy would hardly be in a position to pay the reparations that were being exacted.  It was however primarily in relation to the rebuilding of the European economy as a whole that Keynes advanced his case. Europe involved highly interdependent national economies: within this, the German economy was central: restoring prosperity to Europe would be impossible if Germany remained devastated.

For modern Germany, the dominant economic power in Europe, it is no less important that these interconnections today are fully recognised; and that Germany takes a major responsibility for building a sustainable Europe for all of its communities. How Germany does this will in large measure shape Europe through much of this century: no only its economy, but its cohesion, its democratic institutions and its global influence.   What this will require is much more than a single market, a single currency and a single labour market: and adding further levels of political union will also not suffice. What is also needed is a European-wide social contract, with investment in the       social and economic security of communities across the Continent - and in their active citizenship, confidently in charge of their own destinies, and with none feeling left behind.

It is still possible for the UK to be part of this grand re-working of the European project. The referendum was a collective decision: and responsible citizens, individually and collectively, are able to change their minds.  The dialogue between citizens and their political representatives need not and should not be confined to a single visit to the polling booth.   We are collectively free to choose an alternative to Brexit.
[1] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[2] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[3] J M Keynes (1919), The Economic Consequences of the Peace, New York: Skyhorse Publishing