IPR Blog

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

Policymaking, Citizenship and Democracy in a Complex World

📥  employment, future, migration, New Labour, policymaking

Professor Graham Room is Director of Research and Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath

Complexity Science

Recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the literature on complex systems. Much of this has developed in mathematics and in the natural and computational sciences. Increasingly however it is also infusing the social sciences.

This has in many ways been a breath of fresh air. It has got social scientists drawing upon dynamic models from the natural sciences that can be extremely fertile in suggesting new insights – in terms for example of tipping points, bifurcations and co-evolving systems. It has created much greater interest in the non-linear dynamics of the social world – and in the macro-patterns that emerge unanticipated from the micro-interactions in which we are all involved.



Nevertheless, in applying these perspectives to the social world, we need to take care. How human beings interact depends on the subjective meanings which they construct and negotiate with each other. These interactions involve them in exercising and contesting power. All this also involves uncertainty – and efforts by the powerful to offload that uncertainty onto others. Yet these have been rather neglected by much of the complexity writing within the social sciences.


Evidence-based policymaking brings together robust evidence as to the outcome or impact of a particular intervention. Evidence is collected, evaluated and aggregated – ‘systematically reviewed’ – across as wide a range of contexts as possible. The gold standard remains the randomised controlled trial.

The prominence given to this gold standard can be explained in part by its high status within medical science and clinical practice. What may also be relevant is the ascendancy of the 'contract culture' for the commissioning of public services from multiple providers – contracts that need to specify the impacts against which the service providers will be judged, and which depend therefore on a well-established evidence base for such impact (and a policy research community that endorses such an approach). This may also explain why impacts which can be couched in terms of ‘behaviour change’ are especially attractive, if they seem readily identifiable and measurable.

This tends to assume that any particular intervention can be assessed in isolation from others. The complexity literature however tells us that we live in a connected world – and that these connections require us to pay attention to the dynamic interactions among policy interventions. Any new intervention is an intrusion into a dynamic policy ‘ecosystem’ and must be evaluated as such.

Government leaders warn that conventional methods of policy intervention no longer seem to work. New models of a dynamically interconnected world are needed, if they are to anticipate, steer and control its turbulent behaviour. It is just such models that the literature on complex systems affords. One of the simplest and most elegant is Schelling’s model of residential segregation in cities.[1] His agents have different addresses on a grid or lattice. Schelling posits a ‘tolerance schedule’, a preference not to have within one’s immediately adjacent neighbourhood more than a certain proportion of another race: the general racial composition of the city at large is however of no concern. Starting with an initially random distribution of households across the city, Schelling conducts repeated simulations, as households walk step-wise to an adjacent address, whenever their immediate neighbours exceed this racial threshold. He shows that even a rather mild level of racial antipathy – and concerned only with immediate neighbours – will quickly generate zones of racial segregation across the city.

Schelling’s actors react to the racial composition of their immediate neighbourhood. As they do so, their actions affect the composition of adjacent neighbourhoods, and the society as a whole moves progressively to a more segregated state. Any particular individual may find that, whatever the level of their own tolerance, the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is increasingly likely to exceed that threshold, obliging them to move. Even the most tolerant finds that their neighbourhood steadily loses all diversity. In this way the rate of segregation accelerates, through processes of positive feedback.  What this means is that the level of social segregation that results is quite other than the individuals in question themselves anticipated or sought.

This is a simple model, but one which illustrates well how ‘macro’ emerges from ‘micro’ in non-linear ways and with counter-intuitive results. Policy interventions launched with insufficient thought, as to their interactions with the wider policy ecosystem, are unlikely to be sufficient to the task. No policy is launched onto a greenfield site: it is an intervention in a tangled web of institutions that have developed incrementally over extended periods of time and through a succession of political struggles. Complexity analysis can play a central role in the analysis of such policy dynamics.

Where much of the complexity literature is weak however is in recognising the exercise of power and interests in human societies and social interactions. What works for whom? By reference to which interests do we assess the significance of the effects of any intervention? In what ways do power inequalities ‘emerge’ from the complex social interactions to which complexity writers refer?

Of course, there is much that remains stable: otherwise we would hardly be able to live our everyday lives. Nevertheless, it is easy to take this stability for granted and not to notice the small changes that are continuously underway. It is also easy to focus on the stability that may be evident at home, while overlooking developments elsewhere. Stability and freedom of manoeuvre do not descend equally on all, as manna from heaven: they are the distributed through positional struggle.


Policymakers – and their academic policy advisers – adopt a variety of assumptions about the citizens they serve and what motivates those citizens to behave as they do. These assumptions are not immune to successive intellectual fashions.

Rational action theories remain dominant across much of social science: here social actors assess the menu of choices available to them in terms of their costs, benefits and consequences. The rational citizen deserves to be provided with clear information about the public services that are available and those services should embody variety and choice.

There is however increasing recognition of the bounds to such rationality, because of the partial information that actors have at their disposal and their limited ability to assess risk. This is true not just of the person in the street: it was also only too evident in the 2008 financial crisis, when the ‘rationality’ of the financiers produced risky behaviours that almost led to systemic collapse. The complexity literature reinforces that recognition of the bounds to rational choice. The lesson of Schelling’s model, discussed above, is that aggregating individual choices can produce counter-intuitive results for the individuals in question, as well as being non-optimal socially. This fundamentally challenges the central place that has been given to individual choice in the rhetoric of policy reform over recent decades.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen growing interest – especially on the part of economists – in behaviourist perspectives. These in some degree abandon orthodox models of rational economic behaviour, especially as far as ‘ordinary’ people are concerned, instead pointing to the biases and blunders that they display in many of their decisions. These behaviourist perspectives – based on empirical studies of individual behaviour – have increased the attention given in policy debate not only to the contribution of psychologists, but also that of neuroscientists, claiming to measure wellbeing in a far more rigorous manner than social scientists could ever offer.

This is the realm of ‘nudge’, with policymakers seeking to structure the ‘choice architectures’ that face citizens, so that even with their innate biases and short-sightedness, they will make choices that align with their own best interests. Nudge has been well-described by Thaler and Sunstein as ‘libertarian paternalism’. [2] This might however seem a very modest form of paternalism, compared with that which traditional welfare states are often accused of embodying, where the citizen is said to be left with few if any options. Nudge leaves the citizen to make the final choice: government can structure the choice architecture, but if, despite this, citizens still make the wrong choices, that is their responsibility.

What if the citizen, however – far from being lazy or short-sighted – is simply but profoundly unsure what to do, given the insecurity and instability of the world around them? It is after all not with all citizens that Thaler and Sunstein are equally concerned: their particular focus is on ‘the least sophisticated’, who they reckon to be in greatest need of such guidance. These are precisely those who are most exposed to such insecurity and instability. The citizen may want not more choices, but a guarantee of wellbeing and security instead.

Consider instead therefore an account in terms of agile actors. This depicts social actors as probing the complex and turbulent landscapes on which they find themselves, but only if they can do so from the vantage point of some stable and settled ground. In contrast to rational action theories, it sees social actors not as menu-takers but as menu-shapers, re-working and contesting the social and economic world in which they find themselves. In contrast to behaviourist perspectives, it understands any biases and blunders by reference to the settled ground from which social actors draw their routines and practices: a ground which may be extensive or shrunken, and which must be understood in terms not of psychology but of sociology and political economy. The result is a perspective on social action that sharply distances itself from the abstract individualism of much contemporary writing.

This gives a central place to uncertainty and instability and to the efforts by agile actors to offload their costs onto others. The social distribution of uncertainty thus moves to centre-stage. But of course, this is a struggle played out on unequal terms. Those already at a positional disadvantage are likely to carry a disproportionate share. They may end up with hardly any stable and settled ground from which to shape their world, and with little option therefore but to hunker down and cling to a precarious existence.

A New Social Contract

It is from this analytical standpoint that we examine the social and political conditions under which agile citizenship may be possible for all.

Citizens need to be secure, resilient and adaptable, if they are to survive and thrive in a complex world. No less than the earlier leitmotifs of rational consumer choice and nudge, our notion of agile actors suggests an agenda of policy reform. This involves public policies to provide a stable and secure ground for all – and investment in the creative energies of everyone.

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 surrender to the global market, of insecurity and hunkering down.

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. 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. 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’. [3]

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; [4]

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

·         Investment in vibrant local communities, as places of education, learning and creativity for all – in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the society 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.

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 reshape 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.

It is not however enough for government to provide stability and security and to invest in agile and creative citizens; those citizens must also be able to hold government to account. This means government being placed under critical scrutiny by citizens, rather than vice versa. This gives a fundamental role to citizens in policymaking as well as in policy implementation. Nudge, in contrast, makes little or no attempt to engage citizens as active, critical and responsible partners; they are deemed hardly up to that.

A Self-Organising Democracy?

By the start of the new century, New Labour had in some measure joined the Conservatives in their celebration of market capitalism, with philosophical underpinnings that owed much to Hayek. The economy was a decentralised system, best left to self-organise and self-steer. Government could not expect to second-guess the market and had therefore better stay out.

In the public services, both parties sought to expand individual choice: in many cases by expanding the role of the market and its self-organising virtues. Government would nevertheless maintain its overall grip, albeit at arm’s length – and even under conditions of austerity, big data and smart government would enhance its effectiveness. Public services would become leaner and fitter and more tightly managed, so as to be better-tuned to consumer choice.

Hayek’s vision likewise resonates with many of those who have been attracted by the literature on complex systems. He describes a complex and interconnected economy peopled by a myriad of micro-decision-makers – but one which has generated wealth on an unprecedented scale. This would seem an obvious example of the processes of ‘self-organisation’ with which the complexity literature deals, and one with socially benign consequences. In contrast, the complexity literature might well seem poorly aligned with the sort of social democratic vision that has been outlined above.

There are however several important caveats.

First, the complexity literature gives little attention to uncertainty (as distinct from risk) and its implications for social actors. As argued above, uncertainty makes people hunker down. On the economic and on the social front, government has a strong role to play in building stability and confidence – on the part of businesses, communities and individual citizens. This was of course a major tenet of Keynes’ analysis of economic recession, differentiating him from Hayek. In conditions of great uncertainty, businesses would not invest; strong government action was needed, to boost confidence in the future buoyancy of the economy. Otherwise the economy would ‘self-organise’ at sub-optimal levels of activity.

Second, Hayek pays insufficient attention to power differentials among social and economic decision-makers. The same goes for much of the complexity literature, including writers such as Schelling, concerned with a mass of micro-decision-makers, each following a simple algorithm as to whether to move house. The real world of contemporary capitalism gives scope for large corporations to shape the rules of those micro-interactions in their own interests. Not least, the more powerful are able to offload the costs of uncertainty onto others. Complexity analysis must be conjoined with political economy.

Third, there is little reason to confine the vision of a complex and interconnected society to the economy and market agents alone. The complexity literature can also inform our thinking about citizens and communities, their networks of interaction and the public services on which they draw. These too we can think of as decentralised systems with distributed intelligence, connecting a myriad of agile actors, with their varied projects and visions of change. Here too we might examine the counter-intuitive outcomes that can emerge and how these vary, depending on the institutional conditions.

Finally, while the complexity literature can help us to understand the non-linear emergence of macro-patterns from micro-interactions, it helps little in evaluating those macro-patterns in terms of how socially benign or otherwise they are.


Complex dynamics can produce a tangled knot of institutions and policy interventions, with path dependencies and lock-ins which are hard to escape, and trade-offs which allow of no easy resolution. ‘Wicked’ problems of this sort are unlikely to be solved by leaving them to the market, or by improving the technical skills of those in government. What is needed instead is the distributed intelligence and wisdom of all those involved and cooperative solutions that include citizens, their communities and the public services on which they depend.

The literature on complex systems demonstrates that quite small changes in initial conditions can result in dramatically different dynamics and directions of travel. It underlines that the future is open: there is always an alternative. This chimes well with longstanding critiques of ‘futurology’. [5]  Nevertheless, faced with an open future, the more powerful do not hesitate to intervene, to ensure as far as possible that their interests are protected, their position consolidated and the costs of uncertainty displaced onto others. To expose how these powerful groups narrow the range of possible futures is one of the tasks of the social scientist.

A second is to illuminate other possible paths of development, thereby enriching democratic debate. This is no merely technical matter. These alternative futures span the different values by which citizens live their lives and express their hopes and their fears.

A third is to fix responsibility and enable powerful actors to be held to account. But is this even in principle possible, given the unexpected and unintended dynamics that can emerge from simple individual choices? Think for example of Schelling’s interconnected city residents who collectively produce a segregated city – and which in the real world may mean the dramatic narrowing of choices and life chances for some of those ethnic minorities. Complexity analysis can enrich our analytical toolkit and illuminate these tangled processes.

Nevertheless, in a complex social system it is never wholly possible to allocate clear responsibility for such effects; it is necessary for the State to take ultimate responsibility for solidarity and compensation across the society as a whole. Civility does not ‘self-organise’ – it must be politically constructed, and we cannot escape the social and political choices of our time.

This blog post draws on Graham Room’s recently published book Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Routledge, 2016)

[1] T C Schelling (1978), Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, London: W.W.Norton
[2] R H Thaler and C.R. Sunstein (2009), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Revised edition), London: Penguin
[3] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[4] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[5] J H Goldthorpe, J.H. (1972), 'Theories of Industrial Society: Reflecrions on the Recrudescence of Historicism and the Future of Futurology'', European Journal of Sociology, 12: 263-88.


Trump and the "alt-right": a brief reader

📥  Trump, US Presidential Elections

Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US Presidency, and in particular his recent appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing media site Breitbart to head up his campaign, has brought fresh attention to the so-called “alt-right” in America. The term was first coined in 2008 and is commonly used to describe hitherto fringe groupings of far right activists, white nationalists/supremacists and fascists in the US.  Their closest parallels are to European far right movements, but the history of slavery, segregation and Anglo-Saxonism gives racist and ethno-facism in the US particular specificity. That any of this has been brought anywhere near the mainstream of US conservatism is a measure of what Trump’s candidacy both represents and has become.


The Guardian has recently carried a primer on the alt-right, and an excellent long read on intellectuals associated with their activities. The Spectator has also discussed the phenomenon. Here the Washington Post talks to the racists “cheered by Trump’s latest strategy”.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may be seen as a resurrection of the Republicans’ erstwhile “Southern Strategy”, as the Atlantic outlines here, substituting Islam for godless communism. Unsurprisingly, his ratings amongst African-Americans are rock bottom.  Conversely, his support amongst conservative evangelicals is holding firm – chiefly because they see him as their only hope for preventing a liberal swing in the Supreme Court. The New York Times also examines how to think about the Latino vote here.

In a welter of comment and analysis, a couple of older pieces are also worth reading, to give historical context to Trump and the alt-right. The invention of race in the fledgling USA, as a means ideologically to justify and sustain slavery, was the subject of an essay by Barbara Jeanne Fields in the New Left Review in 1990.

And this wonderful piece by Richard Hofstader from 1964 on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” shows just how many alt-right political themes echo paranoid conspiracy theories of plots, invasions and moral degeneracy that crop up throughout US history. Well worth a read.


No Utopian solution for future funding, but partnership offers a fighting chance

📥  funding, future, research

Professor Chick Wilson, Department of Chemistry

There is no point in hiding from the truth; an already difficult and complex situation for research funding became significantly more complicated following the Brexit vote in June. We must not lose track of the fact that the pre-Brexit funding landscape had been complicated not only by successive settlements which, while protecting science from the worst of the fiscal reductions evident elsewhere in Government, introduced new strings to much of the effective flat cash settlements with which the research community have made only tentative steps in being able to appreciate to date. It is to the credit of the previous Chancellor that, relatively speaking, he did protect research from cuts that would have severely hampered the ability of the UK to continue punching above its weight in research delivery and impact. However, this was achieved through a series of compromises that became increasingly severe as time proceeded through his Chancellorship. Having seen major research funding within the ring-fence earmarked for major investments that made for eye-catching announcements, the culmination of what some may regard as a dilution of core research funding was the establishment of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), which will ramp up to account for a total spend of £1.5 billion by 2021. This protects research funding but only by coupling it strongly with resource that can be accounted towards the UK commitment to 0.7% ear-marking of government spend for international development efforts, through DfID. The latter government department plays arguably an unexpected central role in the UK research environment; embracing and understanding that partnership will be both key and a significant challenge for the research community, particularly those not historically tuned into the international development agenda.


The history of the GCRF is interesting in itself. Rumours of a “Grand Challenge Fund” were around in 2015 both prior to and immediately following the General Election in that year. Rumoured to be a “top-slicing” of funding from the budgets of each of the seven research councils (and this idea is likely still to form part of the future landscape), there was significant engagement between the research councils and their communities, with each identifying key Challenges that could be addressed by such a fund, of order £100M per annum. Taking advantage of this opportunity would have been a challenge in itself, requiring new interdisciplinary approaches to research and targeting if existing efforts towards the unified priority areas. The GCRF that emerged as part of the CSR2015 statement was, to most of the community, surprising in the extent to which it is targeted at delivering research that focuses on producing solutions that are relevant in development contexts.  It is new, it is different, it challenges our thinking as researchers but also, crucially, challenges our funders in the Research Councils. It is obvious from the response to the modest funding available through GCRF in 2016/17 that the Councils have dramatically different views on how and where this fund could best be targeted; these differences in views will become crucial when the non-earmarked finds kick in from 2017/18 onwards. Here is where partnership with our funders will become increasingly crucial. Engaging with RCUK colleagues will enable the research community to influence approaches to the GCRF, not only to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of UK research as well as its targeted beneficiaries in the developing world. Moreover, and more of this below, such partnership can also help reinforce the case made for the importance, relevance, adaptability and impact of the UK research base, to ensure that the full extent of the GCRF can still be delivered in the post-Brexit landscape.

Of course the new elephant in this room, as is true of other funding streams for UK research, is the inevitable alteration of the landscape for EU funding into the UK. For researchers this primarily presents as the funding distributed by the European Research Council, through a wide range of often complex streams held within the Horizon 2020 framework. The UK is a substantial contributor to the ERC budget, but as is well rehearsed, is also a major beneficiary from these research funds, with funding wins for UK researchers consistently outstripping the contribution made. A situation of such “juste retour plus” is to be, and has been, celebrated and is a core element of the UK research funding landscape. The announcement by the new Chancellor on 13 August that EU funds awarded to UK researchers prior to Brexit will be underwritten by the Treasury is welcome, positive and may well have broader implications for the place of research in the new administration’s thinking.  However, this guarantee is of course limited to the pre-Brexit period, and it goes without saying that the post-Brexit destination of this funding is critical to sustaining our research; once the imperative to respect these prior commitments has been removed, it will be important not to rely on some of the more optimistic, naïve hopes and expectations about this funding. Many cling to the commitments to repatriate EU contributions “in full” to UK needs post-Brexit, of whatever true value they represent, but of the priorities for this advanced in securing the plurality for Leave in the Referendum, just think where research funding might sit with respect to the NHS, regional development, agriculture and others. Some believe that we can lobby the Government to fill the European funding gap in its entirety, and even to make the case to deliver in the future not only the UK contribution but the juste retour-plus bonus also. We can say it, but how will we make such a possibility realistic or even possible? As we move to make the case for this next stage of the argument, we must be realistic and robust in our engagement and influencing of policy, setting out the case without falling into the trap of seeking funding to be maintained “because it is what we have now” and instead make the case within the frame of the critical importance of the research base for the UK economically and societally. We must do this in partnership with those fighting the same battle, including our RCUK partners; this is also relevant to the arguably more fundamental question of what our broader relationship with EU research funding will be in future.

Assuming the new post-Brexit administration maintains continuity of approach to research funding, we in the research community have clear challenges, some of which have been noted above but also including the establishment of the unified funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our response must be positive but not Utopian. We must work with both existing and evolving partners in fighting for the next settlement for UK research, in particular as part of Brexit negotiations and in renewing our lobbying and influencing prior to the autumn financial statement. A recent UUK meeting was addressed by one of these partners, Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee.  As with our RCUK partners and the GCRF, it is clear that the S&T Select Committee needs the mature engagement of research community in undertaking its important work in protecting and promoting UK research and the importance of its adequate funding. Another partnership with which we must work, offering well-reasoned but again realistic and non-naïve inputs to its consultations and evidence sessions. Being confronted with a research community that refuses to accept reality and wishes to envisage solutions that pretend that major perturbations have not occurred will do none of us any good. We will not be able to exert our influence unless we are robust, realistic and creative in our views, and produce viable alternatives that can form part of a real policy delate rather than presenting unachievable pipe-dreams.

In this, the research community must show itself to be increasingly sophisticated in engaging with those with whom we share common cause. Likewise with RCUK as it moves towards the establishment of UKRI. Long gone are the days when we could consider our relationships with the Research Councils and their committed staff as “them and us”; this relationship has changed out of all recognition in the last decade or more, and we must utilise these increasingly important partnerships to secure our funding future.



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

📥  Brexit, voting, young people

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.


Culture comes first: putting culture and values at the centre of public policy

📥  policymaking, political parties

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.

The best approach to making decisions when information is dispersed and constantly changing is the subject of a central debate in public policy. Core textbooks for public policy students generally set out the arguments for and against a series of frameworks for such decision-making, each of which lead to different policy tools. More fundamentally, political leaders and senior public officials implicitly or explicitly endorse these frameworks to different degrees, shaping their favoured policy solutions. My argument is that many common frameworks fail to take sufficient account of culture and values both as a way of understanding policy change and as an explicit goal.



Tools for decision-making

Four sets of policy tools flowing from four overarching frameworks dominate policy debate.

Market tools, such as privatisation, financial transfers to enable people to purchase in the market and internal markets within public services like the NHS, will be the favoured options if you believe that the price mechanism and free self-interested agents will tend to arrive at the optimal outcome. A different – and arguably more sophisticated – variation of this is based in the Austrian rather than neo-classical school of economics: not attempting to argue that the market will necessarily optimise, but that that the price mechanism is the best proxy we have for summarising and assimilating dispersed information about the preferences of different actors.

Deliberative tools such as citizens’ juries, micro-level community control of services and the creation of new forums for public debate are the priority if you believe the interplay of unrestricted dialogue between individuals and/or groups is best suited to achieving the most desirable overall social outcome.

Rational state tools such as strategic planning, heavily regulated markets and needs-based allocation formulae will prevail if the preferred thesis is that the government is best able to assess and respond to the competing sources of information and social value. This is typically enabled by the use of bureaucratic expertise to assess options, with elected representatives determining normative issues of value and relative priority.

Informal judgements such as clan or family based networks and precedents are less often put forward as a desirable framework to aim for, but frequently posed as an empirically-based description of what actually happens. Such informal decision-making is a major feature in development studies, but is also highly relevant in industrialised societies (for example, studies of the former USSR have argued that the system was only capable of functioning because of its highly developed informal network of patronage, deals and exchange[1]).

Officials developing policy advice for ministers, MPs debating propositions, journalists commenting on policy issues and academics assessing the results spend considerable time and effort debating the merits of these frameworks and the tools they lead to. Is it better to contract out a service or plan it centrally? Should a service be devolved to local communities so they can decide the approach, or centralised to drive efficiency and fairness? Can a national formula allocate money efficiently and effectively? Should the government give people money to purchase something or provide it directly?

The importance of value systems

There is, however, a good case for saying that debating these different tools is missing the point. Anyone who has spent any time wrestling with public policy will have had the experience of changing the policy tools applied to a problem but getting the same results – or applying a tool that worked well in another locality or country and finding it is completely ineffective in a different context. If getting the right framework for understanding how to make decisions and designing tools appropriately doesn’t work, then what should we focus on?

Values and culture are the missing ingredients. Values and culture in this context refer to the set of (usually implicit) norms, ethical standards and habits shared by the actors in the relevant system. The psychological concept of ‘superordinate goals’ is useful here: the overall aims, sometimes at a broad, high level, which are shared by all the actors and which their ways of operating act to reinforce. Such goals do not need to be, and often aren’t, written down or otherwise expressed in a way that all the actors would sign up to – but can nonetheless be deduced from the way they interact.

Experience shows that values and culture are extremely powerful in determining outcomes. In the famous quote (sometimes attributed to Drucker), “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. After consuming strategy, culture then moves on to policy interventions and tools for lunch. Tools and interventions get co-opted and altered in order to serve the goals, values and assumptions of those using them.

International development practitioners are well versed in this phenomenon. Years of attempts to introduce ‘rational’ western-style merit-based bureaucracies, transparent needs-based allocations and fiscal planning in developing countries have, in many cases, seen those tools simply used to continue the extraction of rents for clan and family members. In a contrary example, similar informal networks and patronage-based approaches in China have produced impressive economic growth – one reason for this being that those networks sit within a very powerful set of superordinate goals around national prosperity and prestige. In western countries there are plenty of examples where supposedly market-based or technocratic processes are actually used to reinforce the existing position and values of elites and insiders: procurement rules that are in fact so complex that new entrants find them impossible, ‘open’ recruitment based on a set of criteria that narrowly reflects the status quo, ‘market-based’ solutions that involve little competition and the state retaining all the major risks (the failed London Underground PPP is a good example[2]).

Value systems as a policy goal

The first implication of value systems’ triumph over policy tools is that it would make sense for voters in a democracy to choose leaders on the basis of their fit with the values and superordinate goals that the elector wishes to see prevail in the country, rather than their detailed policy proposals. In this model, specific policy proposals offered by political leaders are important not so much in themselves but as ways of signalling a deeper set of cultural assumptions. There is, in fact, a reasonable amount of evidence that many voters do operate in this way. One study of the 1983 UK General Election found that many of the major policies in the Labour manifesto, the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’, were popular. However, polling on more abstract and value-based perceptions of the two major parties (estimations of their ‘leadership’ and ‘patriotism’, for example) pointed much more accurately to the result[3]. Recently, some analyses of the UK’s EU referendum have argued that cultural values (order versus openness) were the strongest predictor of whether someone would vote to remain in or leave the EU, with attitudes to specific issues and also demographic factors emerging more as proxies for those underlying values[4]. Political campaigns often launch policies not because of their substantive merit but to ’send the right message’ about the assumptions on which their candidate operates.

Moving away from elections to decision-making in government, what are the implications of a focus on value systems? One is that it reinforces a long-standing line of argument in public policy research that having the centre determine processes across a dispersed policy system is futile. Outcomes will not be driven by centrally specified approaches, but by how the individual actors (“street-level bureaucrats” in Lipsey’s famous phrase) use and mutate those processes based on their own needs, values and desires. The process in and of itself has little force against street-level norms and values. A linked point is how to use international evidence and learning effectively. We need to move away from “can we implement the policy tool that was successful in country X?” towards “what is it about the system in country X that enabled them to develop an intervention that was so successful in their own context?”[5]

So if detailed process specification, or scouring the world for good ideas to import, won’t work, what should decision-makers be doing? The logic of focusing on value systems implies that they should be doing what they can to create a culture and value system that supports positive change, learning and evolution. If it is inevitable that outcomes are shaped by ‘street-level’ culture and the constant iteration that happens as people interact and revise their plans, are there things that can be done to help that dynamic lead to better outcomes?

Should government promote positive value systems?

First, it is necessary to address two arguments against attempts to change or create value systems. The first is that such attempts are doomed to failure. Culture is so persistent over time, and develops in such a dispersed, organic and unplanned way, that it is hubristic to think that conscious action by government, or indeed any other institution, can change it. There is a two-fold response to this challenge. The first part is to acknowledge that there is some force in this argument. Changing culture is not easy, and certainly not quick. It needs to be done with the grain of what is already there, and by building broad support rather than by top-down decree. The second part, however, is to point to the clear evidence that it can be done. The extreme example is the actions of totalitarian regimes: it is hard to argue that the Bolsheviks didn’t manage, over many years of focused effort, to change the fundamental culture and values of Russia and the other Soviet republics. The experience of Germany after WWII demonstrates the impact of government on culture through a sort of natural experiment: surveys after reunification showed that different cultures and value systems had become internalised by the populations of the two halves of the divided state. However, they also showed significant continuity, and so emphasised that government can only influence culture slowly and in part[6].

The second argument against attempts to change or create culture emerges from this last discussion: such actions are associated with dictatorial regimes and have no place in a liberal democracy. Shouldn’t a democratic government represent and embody the values of its population, rather than trying to engineer them? There are, again, two counter-arguments to this. The first is that a government cannot help influencing the values of the society it leads. Even if not done deliberately, the way government and its leaders behave and the values they implicitly or explicitly endorse will have an impact on society. If this impact is inevitable, there must be a case for consciously considering it and acting accordingly, rather than allowing the impact to occur by accident. The second is that if we believe that values and culture are central to determining social outcomes, and democratic governments are elected at least in part to deliver outcomes, then taking a position that they should not address those factors is to will the ends but not the means, and potentially condemn them to failure.

How to promote value systems

The most obvious way to create a culture that supports positive change and learning is for government to send messages through its words and actions that this is desirable. This would include launching and welcoming experiments in policy and practice and being open to learning from failure, to bottom-up innovation and to constant iteration rather than over-specifying plans from the start.[7]

Such an approach can, however, seem rather intangible. The obvious way to give it harder edges is to use incentives to reward service improvement and thereby encourage innovation that delivers such improvement across the system. This is the philosophy behind recent school reform; the changes gave schools autonomy to innovate, and strong incentives to do so, by introducing a rigorous performance regime.

However, performance incentives alone are unlikely to engender the culture of wholesale creative experimentation discussed above, for several reasons:

  • There is a long-standing body of literature which argues that it is hard to design incentives which can’t be gamed and that do not lead to distorting behaviour. There is always a risk that hard performance measures produce great innovation in the management of the measures themselves, rather than genuinely improving services across the board. Classic examples include hospitals meeting the four-hour A&E waiting time target by creating other queues elsewhere in the system[8], and schools focusing their efforts on pupils around the borderline of exam targets at the expense of the less able, who were never likely to make it[9].
  • Problems that require collaboration between lots of agencies, with the costs and benefits potentially falling asymmetrically, are difficult to address through performance incentives. While it is theoretically possible to design an outcomes framework that pulls all agencies together behind a common goal (the UK model of joint PSA targets, for example) it is hard to do so in a way that isn’t highly complex and bureaucratic. Simple measures of their own performance will tend to have more traction with service managers.
  • Measuring and rewarding performance as a way of promoting innovation has the downside of pushing innovation towards current problems that we know how to measure. The most valuable feature of a dispersed system is, in fact, its ability to react quickly to a changing situation, beginning the task of innovating to respond to new challenges before the central authority has even clocked their existence. The makers of Blackberry phones were proud of the way they encouraged employees to innovate and improve keypad mobile phones – but missed the real innovation of moving to touch-screens and disposing of keypads altogether.
  • Service outputs, or even outcomes, are not the only objective of public services in a democratic state. Such services also need to operate in a way that is recognised as fair and legitimate, and which promotes trust between citizens and institutions. While trust and legitimacy is, in some cases, measurable, it is much harder to target with performance incentives[10].

Multi-national corporations that operate with a high degree of autonomy amongst their business units face the same challenge around creating a positive culture of innovation and learning. Evidence from examples such as General Electric indicates that performance incentives alone are not sufficient. These companies have tended to find that, within a decentralised environment, the centre needs to provide an infrastructure for collaboration, mutual learning and opportunities that actively pushes people in that direction, in order to avoid narrow and immediate targets being the sole focus for their creativity. Simply incentivising people to hit performance goals doesn’t lead to a culture that is healthy for innovation in the long term[11].

What a successful infrastructure and environment for collaboration and learning looks like will be highly context specific. What General Electric does to engender innovative learning by local business managers will look very different from what the health service or the police might do. Innovation and learning will be needed to discover how best to innovate and learn, and to keep that understanding up to date. While performance incentives alone are not likely to work, there is also a long history of softer collaboration approaches (best practice networks, peer support, joint boards and shared funding, for example) draining large amounts of resources for little discernible effort. Developing better ways to promote a culture of positive change, learning and evolution is a central task for both public service leaders and the researchers who wish to understand and help them.


[1] Russia’s economy of favours, A Ledeneva 1998, CUP
[2] Blunders of our governments, Crew and King 2013, OneWorld
[3] British General Election of 1983 1984, Butler and Kavanagh, Palgrave Macmillan
[4] “It’s not the economy, stupid”, Kaufmann 2016, LSE discussion paper
[5] “What makes governments get great”, Andrews 2013, Harvard Business School discussion paper
[6] “Value Priorities in the United Germany”, Boehnke et al 1993, European Journal of Psychology of Education; “Individual Preferences for Political Redistribution”, Corneo and Gruner 2002, Journal of Public Economics
[7] “Is your policy a dodo”, Muers 2014 Civil Service Quarterly
[8] “Review into the Four Hour Emergency Access Reporting at Nottingham University Hospital Final Report”, Ken et al 2010
[9] E.g. “Quick fixes to climb league tables”, Marley and Mansell, 2007 Times Educational Supplement
[10] “Creating Public Value”, Kelly and Muers 2004, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit discussion paper
[11] Author discussion with Monia Mtar, University of Bath Business School


Young, Female and Forgotten?

📥  Economy, employment, labour market, Welfare

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR, and is distinguished by her important work on the topics of education, employment and social policy.

Way back in 1988, the Thatcher government, through the Social Security Act, took most young people under the age of 18 out of the unemployment statistics by effectively removing their welfare entitlement. Then, in the 1990s, concerns over the numbers of 16-18 year olds who were not engaging in formal learning, training or employment led to the creation of the term ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) – which sought to capture the size and scale of youth disengagement and social exclusion. In the UK, as in most countries across Europe and other advanced economies, the economic turmoil of the 2000s saw an alarming rise in the levels of young people who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system. However, rather than the initial focus on a younger cage group, the term ‘NEET’ is now applied internationally to a much wider cohort, typically 16-24-year olds (and, in some countries, up to the age of 29 years), and includes young people in receipt of unemployment benefit as well as to those who claim other types of welfare support or none at all. Despite the official NEET figures in the UK falling over the last couple of years, the numbers remain persistently high. For example, in the period January to March 2016, 865,000 young people (aged 16 to 24 years) were NEET[1]. Of these, 485,000 (56%) were classified to be ‘economically inactive’, with the remainder being ‘unemployed and actively seeking work’.



A striking feature of these statistics is that young women accounted for nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of the economically inactive group, but only 40 per cent of the unemployed group. In the UK, trend data show that young women consistently outnumber young men within the economically inactive group, although the number of economically inactive young men is currently rising. While there have been a number of studies[2] which have segmented the NEET group in terms of young people’s propensity to re-engage with education, employment or training, the prevalence of high economic inactivity rates among young women is under-researched. This perhaps reflects a widespread belief that it is largely attributable to early motherhood or other caring responsibilities and that this group of young people requires little policy attention or intervention because of their domestic commitments. Such assumptions run counter to a body of research evidence which has demonstrated that periods of economic inactivity in early life leave a scar on the individual’s education and employment prospects that persists over time[3].

I am currently collaborating with the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) in undertaking a two-year study (2015-2017), with supported funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to examine economic inactivity rates and why they disproportionately impact on the lives of young women. Early evidence from the research points to the picture being far more complex than the conventional explanations would suggest. It is apparent that there has been a distinct lack of investigation into why so many young women are economically inactive, and at a time when teenage pregnancy rates have reached their lowest levels across England and Wales[4]. While engaging in ‘caring responsibilities’ is undoubtedly a significant factor, evidence about the characteristics of young women who carry this label, where they live, who they are caring for and for how long, as well as data on what types of intervention they attract or require, is thin on the ground. What is clear is that economically inactive women (and men) are assigned to different welfare trajectories than the young unemployed, with those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support (IS) and Carer’s Allowance (CA) receiving significantly less intensive support and intervention than those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Crucially, young people on ESA/IS/CA are not included in the ‘official’ unemployment statistics.

High rates of economic inactivity within the NEET population are not peculiar to the UK. Young women are disproportionately more likely to be NEET and economically inactive in almost all OECD countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Spain. Female NEET inactivity is overwhelmingly linked to child or elder care and/or other domestic/family responsibilities and in some countries, to cultural expectations. As an extreme case, 40 per cent of young girls in Turkey are NEET (compared to 18 per cent of boys), of which 93 per cent are economically inactive, possibly with family care responsibilities[5]. It is contended by Assaad and Levison that inadequate global labour market demand for young people invariably leads to young women being more likely to be found doing non-labour-force work and less likely to report themselves as actively seeking work. This results in many young women not being included in the unemployment rate, especially when the ‘seeking work’ criteria are applied[6].

While large groups of economically inactive females are a common feature among most NEET populations world-wide, there is a dearth of national and international evidence about effective interventions to reverse this trend, or, in fact, to accurately quantify or qualify their composition or existence. Some commentators highlight that the NEET economically inactive group is essentially an under-researched ‘black box’, which is categorised in terms of what young people are not doing, as opposed to understanding the likelihood of young people within the overall group or subgroups (re)engaging with education, employment or training (EET)[7]. The research by the YWT is exploring the reality of the lives of young women in the economically inactive group in England, including an analysis of their circumstances and aspirations. It is being carried out in a climate where impending welfare cuts are likely to remove even greater numbers of young people from independent welfare support, including housing benefit. However, early evidence suggests that the majority of economically inactive young women live with their families or relatives, with the impact of their ‘exclusion’ being borne by themselves and their household group.

With regard to future policymaking, the research into the economically inactive NEET group also calls into question the continued rationale for assigning both the young unemployed (i.e. those ‘actively seeking work’) and the economically inactive group within the umbrella term ‘NEET’. Is such an approach an equitable or acceptable way of ensuring that significant numbers of young women (and men) are not simply ‘written off’? Given that the epithet ‘NEET’ was coined originally in the UK to define 16- and 17-year olds who were outside the unemployment count, but is now commonly applied to those over 18 who are eligible to claim unemployed status, it may be both opportune and productive to question whether ‘NEET’, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate. Certainly, if it is applied too casually, it may mask rising and unacceptable levels of inactivity among young people. Another issue is whether an age range of 16-24 is too wide, as it encompasses significantly different ‘sections’ of the life course. Pronounced differences are apparent between the under-18s NEET group and the 18-24s NEET group in the UK. Here, the percentage of under-18s who are NEET is higher for males, whereas among the 18-24s, the percentage of females who are NEET is higher than that of males. Overall, there is an urgent need to reappraise how we define the NEET group, and, as a consequence, to re-think our policy responses to the issues confronting the various sub-groups within the NEET category.

At present, policy intervention is primarily targeted at young people who are ‘available for work’ (i.e. the unemployed group within the NEET population), as opposed to those who are defined as economically inactive. In order to formulate appropriate policy measures, we first of all need to identify and locate those who are presently ‘unknown’, ‘missing’ or ‘forgotten’, as far as the statistics are concerned. Along with this process, we need to generate substantive evidence – especially relating to the legion of young women who are affected – about what support, if any, they require. Crucially, this will include understanding what works best in assisting them to engage with support services and what additional support mechanisms may be required to attain an education, employment or training (EET) outcome. As far as current policy direction in the UK is concerned, there is a need to assess the potential impact of any national roll-out of Universal Credit on the future trajectories of the economically inactive NEET group.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016), Statistical Bulletin ‘Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET), May 2016’, 26th May.
[2] Eurofound (2016) ‘Exploring the diversity of NEETs’, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
[3] Britton J, Gregg P, MacMillan L, Mitchell S. (2011) The Early Bird... Preventing Young People from becoming a NEET statistic. Department of Economics and CMPO, University of Bristol.
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/09/halving-of-teenage-pregnancy-rate-hailed-as-extraordinary
[5] Bardak, U., Maseda, M. R. and Rosso, F. (2015) Young People Not in Employment Nor in Education or Training (NEET): An overview in ETF partner countries. Turin, European Training Foundation. July.
[6] Assaad, R. and Levison, D. (2013) Employment for Youth – A Growing Challenge for the Global Economy’. Background Research Paper. Submitted to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. University of Minnesota.
[7] Tamesberger, D. & Bacher, J. (2014) NEET youth in Austria: a typology including socio-demography, labour market behaviour and permanence. Journal of Youth Studies. 17:9, 1239-1259.

In search of the green economy

📥  Economy, sustainability

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

On 12 December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the Paris Agreement – a first-of-its-kind deal that bound member states to measures for climate neutrality in this century.

Some steps have already been taken as part of what we might call the institutional response to this challenge of sustainability; promoting environmental education programmes, holding awareness campaigns and providing means for accessing information are all positive measures. But are people taking on the challenge implied by living in a more sustainable way to fight against climate change? What changes should we introduce into our economic models to encourage them, and with what impact on our own lives? And are we taking involvement and cooperation seriously?



Experts say that human responses to the environment are inconsistent with growing ecological awareness and the general acknowledgement of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. The best way to deal with this situation is not clear, but what is clear is that people, as individuals, need to undertake sustainable lifestyles. This is a challenge, because changing to a new lifestyle requires drastic changes in our daily conduct.

Although there is little general awareness of how serious and urgent environmental change is, there have been some attempts to head towards more sustainable lifestyles, and a good number of organisations are working in that direction. These are sustainable initiatives, starting up social innovation projects which, on numerous occasions, have taken the lead over governments as far as identifying the problem is concerned. They involve part of the population in the initiative, respond to the challenge of climate change with small-scale impacts, and ultimately facilitate the survival of sustainable economies in fields related to mobility, nutrition, construction, the use of energy and the reduction or rationalisation of consumerism, to mention but a few. The analysis of different initiatives for sustainable lifestyles in Europe today shows us that, even though there is no collective response to taking on climate change, there is evidence that it is possible to move towards a more sustainable economy in Europe.

The good life

The challenge of real change in behaviour and lifestyles depends on overcoming the deep-rooted conceptions that we still hold about what success, self-fulfilment and consumption are. Attaining a sustainable lifestyle demands an economic model that is truly different from the current, unsustainable models. Using a bicycle instead of a luxury car or living in a smaller house requires us to investigate the complex interactions between psychological, economic, social and technological factors that promote or hinder the adoption of sustainable lifestyles and the transition to an environmentally responsible social economy. A macroeconomic focus on the study of lifestyles should contemplate the way these sustainable but small lifestyle initiatives can be scaled up to a national and even global level, and what needs changing in our economy so that it can become ecological and sustainable.

If we take climate change seriously we will no doubt have to reduce our general level of consumption, but we do not have to see this as a sacrifice. Research results are showing that Europeans are feeling a greater and greater sensation of dissatisfaction with current consumer-based lifestyles and the accelerated rhythm of modern life. In fact, research shows that we experience a greater sensation of welfare when we enjoy more time for ourselves and when we can spend it with others in meaningful activities; in general, we are happier when we withdraw from everything that is related to a materialist understanding of what the good life means.

Culture is an important factor in this problem too. In our concept of what the good life means, we make consumerism the equivalent of the good life and happiness, and our economy is based on this concept. However, people are realising more and more that the way we live is, in many ways, unsustainable – not just from the perspective of the environment, but also because we feel more and more distant and alone, or that our lives lack meaning. Because of this, we must try to develop and assess a global model that can explain changes in lifestyle, while simultaneously testing the efficiency of different routes of transition to a greener and more environmentally sustainable economy.

Possible economies

The University of A Coruña, in partnership with the University of Bath, endeavours to unravel the multifactorial problem of using economic policy to influence behaviour in the GLAMURS (Green Lifestyles, Alternative Models and Scaling towards Regional Sustainability) project. The overall purpose of GLAMURS is the study of the different economic and behavioural models experts have defined as the most conducive to the development of specific policies and combinations of policies to guarantee sustainable development. Our results will furnish recommendations not only for the European Commission and other levels of policymaking, but also for professionals who work in sustainable initiatives and for people interested in living a more sustainable life.

Three possible economies are being analysed by this consortium of eleven European universities in the context of climate change. The first point of analysis starts with the evaluation of a lifestyle based on what has been called the “green economy”, focused on the ecoefficiency of an economic and production system which orients its action towards producing and consuming in a more responsible manner within a model that respects the responsible and efficient use and management of environmental resources.

Secondly, the model of “degrowth” is analysed; it is possibly the least popular model as it requires a reduction in consumption, which today is associated with social and economic status. According to this approach, it is not necessary to grow continuously. Human beings can live and efficiently distribute their resources by reducing production and consumption, which would alleviate environmental impact and make lifestyle more sustainable and closer to nature.

Finally, a third focal point is based on “growth anchored in the community”, the idea of generating the necessary level of self-sufficiency in a community to become sustainable in terms of emissions, production and the consumption of resources. This model can be adapted to the characteristics and needs of various communities, which in a participative way would responsibly manage their own resources.

Individual behaviour, then, interacts with and is dependent upon other systems in society, such as political, economic and cultural systems. Part of our research includes an analysis of how people use their time, and also the role that identity and social rules on responsible environmental behaviour play therein. Identities, based on feelings of belonging to specific social groups, are also developed through observing our own behaviour, and constitute that part of what makes us unique – in addition to being a driving force for behaviour when we define ourselves as the kind of person who acts in favour of the environment. It is also important for people to be aware of the situations in which their choices are sustainable, how taking choices in awareness contributes to the construction of a personal identity which includes seeing ourselves as in favour of the environment, which in turn leads to more sustainable lifestyle choices.


Hinkley Point C and Its Implications for Energy Policy

📥  energy, France, sustainability

Professor Geoffrey Hammond is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the interdisciplinary International Centre for the Environment at the University of Bath.

Britain faces major challenges in the period out to 2050. Socio-technical solutions will be required on both the demand and supply side of any future UK energy system. Reduction in the energy demand for heat, power and transport will be a significant element of any energy strategy aimed at limiting global warming to <2°C under whatever pathways we take towards our mid-century goals.

Improvements in energy efficiency can be obtained from better thermal insulation of the building fabric, smart appliances and controls, alongside the adoption of efficient heating systems, such as heat pumps, community energy schemes, and the like. In addition, lifestyle or workplace changes may well be needed – but these will be partially offset by so-called ‘rebound effects’. Decarbonising the supply side is likely to see the continued adoption of offshore wind and rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays. It will inevitably need the uptake of carbon capture and storage (CCS) coupled to gas-fired power plants for a cost-efficient transition, together with sustainable bioenergy and biofuels, and possibly hydrogen as a fuel and energy storage media in the long-term. Unfortunately, there are constraints over the use of bioenergy resources, including uncertainties over the availability of sustainably-sourced biomass in the UK, land use challenges, and competition with food supply.



The energy infrastructure in Britain will also need renewal in order to make it more resilient (to climate change impacts, for example) and to potentially accommodate greater decentralised or distributed generation, including greater use of both large and small energy storage devices. Significant generation, transmission and distribution network reinforcements (operating with much lower utilisation factors) will be needed to meet future changes in demand and generation patterns. However, smart power innovations (a combination of interconnectors, storage and ‘demand flexibility’) could generate £8bn per year in savings. The electricity grid is arguably the most vulnerable part of the power system, reinforcing the case for UK network renewal and reconfiguration by the middle of the 21st Century. Innovation, systems integration, and ‘whole systems’ thinking to identify sustainable energy options (sometimes termed ‘optionality’ in industry) will therefore be critically important in the transition towards a low-carbon future.

Successive UK Governments since the 1990s have argued that new nuclear power plants have an important role to play in our energy mix. The decision by the UK Government to instigate a pause and review before signing off on the contract for the construction of the Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station may well be sensible, or even courageous in terms of the diplomatic implications. All energy technologies have unwanted side-effects, including the likes of shale gas extraction (via hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking') and renewables. They vary only in their magnitude and the extent to which they impact on different human communities and natural ecosystems. Fossil fuels give rise to significant quantities of carbon dioxide emissions that are likely to lead to yet further global warming. Wind generators, in contrast, are low carbon but require costly back-up capacity (most likely from natural gas combined cycle power plants) at high concentrations when wind speeds are low. Indeed, even building energy-saving measures on the demand side can have adverse social consequences – the switch of the burden of financing from the large energy utilities to potentially poor consumers, for example, for the installation of modern condensing boilers, thermal insulation, heating controls, or micro-generators.

The real nuclear power ‘balance sheet’ has therefore both credit and debit sides. On the positive front, it represents a low- or near-zero-carbon source of electricity that is available on a large-scale. However, there are potential risks in terms of nuclear plant safety; actual failures in the case of the Windscale fire at the military plutonium facility in Cumbria (1957), the Three Mile Island partial ‘meltdown’ in Pennsylvania that was contained (1979), and Chernobyl meltdown – that was not – in what is now the Ukraine (1986). In the vicinity of Three Mile Island over 630,000 local people self-evacuated the area following the accident. Closer to home, the Irish Government and NGOs have long been concerned about the cumulative impact of low-level radioactive emissions, principally from the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing and medium-term storage facility, into the Irish Sea.

Perhaps the most dramatic side-effect of power generation was demonstrated by the nuclear power reactor failure at the Fukushima Daiichi site on the North East coast of Japan in March 2011. That was caused by a tsunami wave of sea water some 14 metres high, and triggered by a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The plant was built to withstand a wave of only about 6 metres. This was arguably a so-called ‘Black Swan’ event – one that is very unlikely to occur but, when it does, the impact is extremely severe. They may be instigated by natural causes as at Fukushima, although the failure to allow for or respond to them results from human frailties. That has induced major changes in energy policy around the world, particularly the potential shut-down of the programme in Germany and the shift in Japanese public sentiment that has been calling for their nuclear power programme to be abandoned.

The case is often made in the UK for nuclear power generation on the grounds of climate change mitigation. But even a doubling of Britain’s nuclear capacity over the next 30 years would only yield about an 8% cut in CO2 emissions. The Hinkley Point C station would also provide 7% of our electricity under favourable baseload conditions. Nuclear power plant safety and radioactive emissions from a European pressurised reactor, such as that planned for Hinkley, are unlikely to present any significant concern in a UK context because of our tight regulatory regime. Nevertheless, the subsequent treatment of nuclear waste and the high life-cycle costs, when 'back-end' (decommissioning and waste disposal/storage) costs are taken into account, are important downsides. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have argued that nuclear power is one of the least cost-competitive means of carbon abatement. An energy-efficiency strategy, for example, displaces between 2.5 and 20 times more CO2 emissions than nuclear power per dollar (euro or pound) invested. They will fall disproportionately on different sections of British society.

It has been speculated in the press that the new UK Government’s pause of the Hinkley Point C decision is primarily due to a long-term concern by the Prime Minister (Theresa May) on security concerns regarding the involvement of the Chinese. The state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation was due to fund a third of the cost of this European pressurised reactor, with the French energy utility eDF covering the bulk of the investment. It is currently estimated by the French to cost £80bn to build over 10 years, although the UK National Audit Office believes that this could cost British consumers over £30bn per annum to run in terms of top-up payments. Apparently the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, rejected the idea of a "special share" in the Somerset-based Hinkley Point C nuclear power project in order to provide extra protection against potential Chinese national security threats. No European pressurised reactor design has actually been commissioned anywhere in Europe, and those elsewhere are some 10 years behind schedule and way over projected construction costs. Taking time to consider the various negative consequences of this proposal is therefore likely to be time (and money) well spent.


Islamophobia(s) in the aftermath of the Nice attack

📥  defence, France, terrorism

Dr Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on elite discourse and the mainstreaming of far right politics, particularly through the use of populism and racism. Dr Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London.

On the 14th of July 2016, the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice ended in carnage. Eighty-four people were killed when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove his truck through a crowd of bystanders: men, women and children, who had gathered on the Promenades des Anglais to watch the fireworks. Within hours, the French media and politicians denounced yet another ‘Islamist terrorist’ attack, despite the lack of evidence present at this early stage. Even though it appears increasingly that Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s links to terrorism and IS were indeed tenuous at best, Islam, once more in the spotlight in France and Muslim communities in the country (and wider Europe), remains under collective suspicion and the target of fear and hate.


Islamophobia in France is nothing new, from its colonial heritage to the more recent focus on terrorism. In the years since 9/11, Islam, Muslims and, closely linked, the issue of Islamophobia, have become central to public, policy and research debates and agendas in France as well as in Europe and the wider West (Levey and Modood 2008; Morey and Yaqin 2011). Various surveys have shown in recent years that ‘anti-Muslim biases’ (Taras 2013, 426-31) have been prevalent across much of Europe (for a more thorough overview in France, see (Hajjat and Mohammed 2013, 37-68) and in Britain and the United States, see (Kundnani 2014)). Many have argued that this trend has increased, as have anti-Muslim hate crimes, in France and elsewhere, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in the past 18 months (LeMonde.fr July 17 2015; Mark November 18 2015; Al-Othman December 1 2015).


bayualam / Shutterstock.com

While some repercussions took the form of traditional far-right hate and violence, what we have witnessed recently in France - and which has been consolidated in the wake of the first attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 - is a form of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate that, far from traditional racism, appears liberal and progressive, attacking Islam in the name of secularism and free speech (as well as women’s rights in the case of banning the hijab and burka (Delphy 2006; 2015)). These features make it more acceptable in mainstream French society, as it hijacks once progressive concepts such as the Republic, laïcité and the popular motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This has allowed parties on the far right, such as the Front National, to normalise their neo-racist discourse as much of their criticism of Islam could now be couched in mainstream terms (Mondon 2014; 2015).

The intersection between traditional far-right forms of racism and the subtler mainstream Islamophobia, which has become increasingly prevalent in our societies, has been the basis of our current research project (Mondon & Winter 2015, 2016). The aim of the present article is to illuminate the current situation in France using part of the theoretical framework we are currently developing. Our research argues that to understand the changing nature and articulations of, as well as debates about, Islamophobia in the current context, it is necessary to understand it in the plural, and in particular to differentiate between what we have called its illiberal and liberal forms.

The distinction between the two forms of Islamophobia we identify begins with what appears to be an analytical distinction and disagreement, albeit a functional one. The main debate amongst academics, and within the media and civil society (for different reasons from understanding to hate), has been whether Islamophobia is about religion or race, based on whether Islam relates to a race/people or religion/belief system. This is less about definitions than whether anti-Muslim discourses and rhetoric are a form of racism and unacceptable or about belief and thus acceptable. As such, it is not really about what Islam is or Muslims are, but how the definition allows people to say certain things about it and avoid less palatable ones. While many scholars and activists, as well as Muslims on the sharp end of Islamophobia, see it as a form of racism directed at a people and often based on physical or cultural markers and signifiers (to use the traditional understanding), the religious argument does provide a convenient cover for those wishing to argue that they are attacking a belief and not people or ‘race’. In a mainstream context where racism is allegedly unacceptable and associated with the far right, this focus allows Islamophobes to wriggle out of or deflect such charges, as well as permitting the far right to recast themselves as legitimate and mainstream through simple rephrasing. In this context, it is thus not surprising to hear prominent mainstream commentator Elisabeth Badinter declare: ‘we should not be afraid to be called Islamophobes’. Obviously, defining and seeing Islamophobia only through the prism of religion ignores many of these and others issues, processes and effects, most notably racialisation (Meer and Modood 2009; Garner and Selod 2015). It is in fact particularly functional and politically expedient in so-called liberal secular societies such as France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the US, where criticism of religion is considered a healthy and necessary practice to allow for freedom of thought and expression, and central to the conception of the nation and national identity, as the case of France highlights particularly well. Muslims are not French, not because of who they are, but because of what their beliefs are believed to be and the values this imagined and caricatural belief system prevents them from accepting. This is where the distinction and intersections of the liberal and illiberal qualities of Islamophobia become particularly relevant.

The illiberal type of Islamophobia or ‘anti-Muslim’ hate, is closest to traditional racism based around exclusivist, essentialised notions and concepts of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, as well as identity itself, and is commonly associated with the far right and authoritarian treatment of minority groups and rights. It presents Islam as monolithic and innately threatening and inferior (in terms of ‘race’ if not also culture). Like traditional forms of racism, it views Muslimness as an immutable characteristic (akin to biology), Muslims, and not just Islam as a religion, as a problem, and can be seen for example in calls for repatriation, genocide or violence against Muslims and mosques. As such, it falls outside the remits of what is considered acceptable in the hegemonic discourse and apart from the most ideologically-focused groups on the right, most have tried to distance themselves from such labels. Yet this type of Islamophobia is essential to allow for the very existence of the liberal form as it acts as a unifier within mainstream society: it binds the norm within boundaries by drawing a clear line of demarcation between the extreme and the norm. It is the construction and containment of a clearly delineated type of Islamophobia at the margins of the political spectrum, one which falls outside of the liberal ideal because of its essentialism, unmediated call for violence, total rejection and open discrimination, which make it possible for subtler forms of Islamophobia to enter the mainstream discourse due their apparent allegiance to liberal democratic rules.

Liberal Islamophobia is based on the construction of a pseudo-progressive binary and narrative. It creates a loosely defined Muslim culture and community inherently opposed to some of the core values espoused in a mythical, essentialised, culturally homogenous, superior and enlightened West, or specific western nation, based on specific examples where the West embodies progress, such as democracy, human rights, free speech, gender and sexual equality and rights, and ironically tolerance. As David Theo Goldberg (2006, 345) argues, ‘Islam is taken in the dominant European imaginary to represent a collection of lacks: of freedom; of a disposition of scientific inquiry; of civility and manners; of love of life; of human worth; of equal respect for women and gay people’. Criticism of Islam and Muslims is praised as an example and defence of liberal free speech. Nowhere is this clearer than with the example of Charlie Hebdo, with its satirical cartoons of the Prophet, designed to express free speech and provoke to prove the point about a fantasised version of Islam and Muslims’ backwardness.

Of course, the construction of a liberal West standing unified behind equality and freedom willfully ignores the tensions within liberalism itself in terms of the legacy(ies) of the Enlightenment, universalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism and patriarchy, as well as increasing inequalities and curtailment of freedoms within the ‘West’. Liberal Islamophobia thus acts as a decoy to provide ‘Us’ with a righteous sense of self as the defenders of a more progressive vision of the world, and displace tensions, failures and inadequacies inherent to our societies onto Islam. This is particularly important and even ironic considering that much of the Muslim population in France and other European countries originally come from former colonies - such as the Nice attacker, who was from Tunisia - and have been subjected to racisms that both represent a reaction to the loss of empire and reassert the racist colonial schema of the civilised versus the primitive.

The two forms of Islamophobia though are not mutually exclusive, as they both target and scapegoat Islam and Muslims, and the liberal form fails to adequately conceal or erase the racism and other contractions in liberalism and the enlightenment project. More explicitly, the Charlie Hebdo attack did not just create an opportunity for liberal opposition to Islam, but led to a rise in illiberal hate crimes and violence. In addition to that, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sentiment expressed in the aftermath by world leaders - many of whom would lead a march through Paris in solidarity despite leading states with repressive laws, including France, which would enact a state of emergency, and engaged in aggressive and imperialist militarism - exposed the hypocrisy if not lie of such liberal framing and rhetoric. Subsequent attacks in France in November 2015 and July 2016 would see an assertion of the more aggressive illiberalism form from hate crimes within civil society to securitisation and authoritarian repressive state measures.

Islamophobia(s) in the Context of the Nice attack

Despite the liberal framing and rhetoric, it has been common for Islamist terrorist attacks to be couched by the mainstream western media and some opportunistic politicians and commentators as being part of a broader clash of civilisations between fantasised visions of Islam and the West. This was very much the prevalent narrative after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015: the ‘West’ represented freedom of speech and progress in line with liberal Islamophobia. ‘Islam’ (and anyone loosely defined as Muslim) was caricatured as censorious and retrograde. No space was left for nuance or the shortcomings of the ‘West’ with regard to freedom of speech in increasingly unequal societies. After the November attacks in which 130 were killed, most politicians reiterated that France was ‘at war’. Prime Minister Manuel Valls went as far as discussing the ‘enemy within’ – a phrase with clear connotations with the Second World War. Still reminiscent of France’s darkest hours, prominent politicians on the right called for any suspect to be imprisoned without trial in ‘interment camps’. The attacks on the Bataclan and wider sites of Parisian nightlife in November 2015 were taken by some to represent an attack on the liberal culture and lifestyle of the young in France by Muslims opposed to drinking, mixed gender socialising, dancing and social pleasure itself. Yet, these events lacked the specificity and iconic symbol of Charlie Hebdo. Instead, repeated attacks and a growing fear, comfort with hate and security measures have hardened politicians, the press and public opinion.

On the 14th of July, within hours of event, terrorism and not the defence of so-called liberal values became the focus as François Hollande declared that this was ‘an attack whose terrorist quality cannot be denied… it is the whole of France that is under the terrorist threat’. As demonstrated by Le Monde, the ‘Islamist terrorist’ line remained the preferred explanation for French politicians (and much of the media in France and beyond) for days, despite conflicting evidence which should have suggested a much more cautious approach. While, as these lines are written, the links between Lahouaiej Bouhlel and so-called Islamic State remain ‘unproven’ - and, in fact, increasingly tenuous - the French Minister of the Interior continued to defend on the 18th of July what, at that stage, was mere speculation: the modus operandi was reminiscent of IS and, while the attacker seemed to suffer from various mental health issues, he had been ‘quickly radicalised’ despite no evidence being presented to the public. Of course, this is not to say that this official explanation is not the correct one, but that in the absence of publicly available evidence, one should expect more caution on the part of public servants, particularly in such a delicate context. This simplistic coverage has led opportunistic and demagogic politicians to demand ever more stringent measures to fight terrorism, but also to the further stigmatisation of the Muslim communities in France. This also has acted as a diversion away from real issues. The state of emergency and the call for more policing have been criticised as ineffective as they not only curtail the civil liberties of all but also ignore the root causes affecting millions in France and potentially driving a handful to committing terrorist attacks. In February 2016, Amnesty International denounced the state of emergency, highlighting that only one person had been arrested on terrorism charges out of 3210 often violent interventions. Such policies and the associated rhetoric are likely to feed into IS’s propaganda machine as they will no doubt highlight the unfair treatment Muslims are subjected to in France. While most Muslims will ignore such simplistic calls, it will only take one person to answer them to send us further down this infernal spiral of an eye for an eye.

In this context Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National, kept mostly quiet in the aftermath of the attacks. As mainstream politicians outbid each other in a race towards securitisation and suspicion, at the expense of civil liberties and fostering further discrimination of Muslim communities, Le Pen has steered away from polemical grounds and simply claimed that mainstream politicians had failed in their duty to protect their citizens. Instead of taking the necessary step back which should be expected by politicians in a democracy, the government and opposition jumped to radical conclusions early on and called for an escalation of the war against terrorism, playing right in the hand of both so-called Islamic State and the far right and its demand for ever more stringent laws on civil liberties and against immigrants and minorities. Such reactions have further legitimised Islamophobia in France and freed the actions of those espousing its most illiberal forms.

This short article, first published on e-ir.info, is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.


Al-Othman, Hannah. December 1 2015. “Anti-Muslim hate crimes in London more than triple in the wake of Paris attacks.” Evening Standard. London.

Delphy, Christine. 2006. “Antisexisme ou antiracisme? un faux dilemme.” Nouvelles Questions Féministes 26 (1): 59-83.

———. 2015. Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. London: Verso.

Garner, Steve, and Saher Selod. 2015. “The Racialization of Muslims: Empirical Studies of Islamophobia.” Critical Sociology 41 (1):9-19.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. “Racial Europeanization.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2):331-64.

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

Khiabany, Gholam, and Milly Williamson. 2011. “Muslim Women and Veiled Threats: From ‘Civilising Mission’ to ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson. Oxford: One World.

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

LeMonde.fr. July 17 2015. “Les actes islamophobes et antisémites en nette progression au premier semestre en France.” Le Monde. Paris.

Levey, Geoffrey Brahm and Tariq Modood (eds.). 2008. Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mark, Michelle. November 18 2015. “Anti-muslim hate crimes have spiked after every major terrorist attack: after paris, muslims speak out against islamophobia.” International Business Times.

Meer, Nasar, and Tariq Modood. 2009. “Refutations of racism in the “Muslim Question”.” Patterns of Prejudice 43 (3/4):332–51.

Mondon, Aurelien. 2014. “The Front National in the Twenty-First Century: From Pariah to Republican Democratic Contender?” Modern & Contemporary France: 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09639489.2013.872093.

———. 2015. “The French secular hypocrisy: the extreme right, the Republic and the battle for hegemony.” Patterns of Prejudice 49 (4): 1-22. doi: 10.1080/0031322X.2015.1069063.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron (2015), Breaking taboos or strengthening the status quo – Islamophobia in the name of liberalism in France and America, BSA conference – manuscript currently under review

Morey, Peter, and Amina Yaqin. 2011. Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Taras, Raymond. 2013. “‘Islamophobia never stands still’: race, religion, and culture.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36 (3): 417-33.


Giving back control? A contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit

📥  employment, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath. Fran Bennett is Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the University of Oxford's Department of Social Policy and intervention.

As Damian Green arrives as Secretary of State in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Universal Credit must be at the top of the long list of issues he faces. And the decisions he takes will have a major impact on the incomes and living standards of those ‘ordinary working class’ families that the new Prime Minister has promised will be the focus of her government.



An estimated ten million people will be in the Universal Credit net when the new system is fully in operation in the next five years. The current system is very complex: people have to find their way through a maze of benefits, and they have to make new claims for some benefits every time they move in and out of work. Universal Credit will smooth that transition by replacing six existing means-tested benefits (Income Based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support) with a single benefit.

Having one single benefit will, it is asserted, encourage more people to work, improve take-up of benefits and tackle in-work poverty. The idea of Universal Credit – and in particular the simplification of the system – has itself received almost universal support. This has come from political parties, from think-tanks and NGOs, from the House of Commons Select Committees, and from the Social Security Advisory Committee. There have been some cold feet about the very slow and very costly implementation, with critical reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee among others, and the recent announcement of further delays until 2022 highlight the very real challenges of making this system work. But Iain Duncan Smith’s vision for Universal Credit remains, so far, largely intact.

The fact that there is support from a wide range of interests and groups might be taken as a good sign. But policy consensus can also mean lack of scrutiny and challenge. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the design and try to understand what it might mean for those millions of people as they try to access the system. If we walk through the system, as it is supposed to work, what happens?

First, you must make your claim online. This is the only way to claim and the only way to update your claim if your circumstances change, though Jobcentres or local advice services may help complete this for you. This is a big step into the modern IT world – but perhaps not a step that everyone is able to take yet. Many people with low incomes have no access to computers at home, and must rely on friends or public systems in libraries or Jobcentres, which are not always readily available. Others will lack the experience and skills to easily negotiate complicated online forms. DWP evaluation has already found some significant barriers to the use of IT, which suggests that this area might require significant and ongoing investment.

Second, you must sign a ‘claimant commitment’. This kind of arrangement will be familiar to people who have claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, most of whom have always had full-time work requirements as part of their benefit conditions. Universal Credit extends these work requirements in various ways, depending on your circumstances. Lone parents will have to be actively looking for work once their youngest child is three, and be preparing for work before that. But so will partners with children, who have not previously had work requirements like this. And people already in part-time work may be required to try to increase their earnings or hours. A new role within DWP – the ‘work coach’ - is being introduced to support unemployed people into work and help those in work to increase their hours. The work coaches will have some discretion to vary work requirements (for example, for disability and caring obligations) but will also be responsible for sanctioning those who fail to meet their claimant requirement. Some early evidence suggests that people in work are bemused by these requirements, which they feel are very unfair.

Third, you must report changes in circumstances, apart from changes in earnings. Changes in earnings for employees will be picked up automatically by the ‘real-time information’ system that uses PAYE data – a big step forward and key to making work transitions smoother. But all other changes in circumstances must still be reported and there are many of these, in total (including earnings changes) when fully operational this could mean as many as 1.6 million per month.

Experience with tax credits shows that many people will struggle to understand what exactly they have to report and when. And when they do report, the changes will be applied on a single assessment date each month and treated as though they apply to whole of the previous month. This might be good or bad news, depending on the event and the timing. Universal Credit is paid for the month just gone, not the month to come. So if you have a baby just before the assessment date you will get almost a month’s extra benefit. But if your oldest child leaves home just before assessment you will lose almost a month. This creates a disjunction between income and circumstances, making it harder to meet current needs or to plan ahead.

Fourth, you will receive your benefit as a single monthly cash payment. This is intended to give people the opportunity to manage their money in the same way as they would in work. But the single payment will challenge budgeting practices that rely on the receipt of different sources of income at different times. There are systems to allow for alternative arrangements in certain circumstances, and support for budgeting and money management has been piloted alongside the digital support services. But again it is clear that not everyone will want, or be able, to access such support. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the conclusions reached so far is that the ‘most significant challenge in delivering personal budgeting support was that...trial participants simply did not have enough money each month...’.

Which takes us to the final point about the difference between the current situation and that under Universal Credit: there will be less money. The 2015 Budget proposed cuts to tax credits, some of which George Osborne was forced to postpone after challenge from the House of Lords. But these were not abandoned; they were instead pushed ahead to Universal Credit. Spending on Universal Credit will fall by £3.7 billion (leaving aside temporary protection for some new claimants) compared with the existing system. The impact on families may be mitigated in part for some by rises in the ‘National Living Wage’ and personal tax allowances, and much will depend on individual circumstances. But many working families will receive less from the Universal Credit system than they do now from tax credits. As a new Universal Credit claimant, you will also wait longer for your money; there are seven waiting days (for which you get no money), meaning a wait of about six weeks to the first payment.

So far, the evidence about the impact of Universal Credit is limited. The early evaluations do show some positive effects on moves into work, and increases in job search. The work coaches are generally upbeat about the personalised support they can offer, and some claimants respond well to this. But the main groups brought into the system so far are single people and childless couples. There is a long way to go before all families, with their more complex circumstances and needs, are covered. Simpler systems may work very well for straightforward cases, and this could be a huge gain for Universal Credit. But there are limits to simplification for means-tested benefits, especially when the aim is to target people whose circumstances are not secure.

Universal Credit is supposed to be ‘like work’ and thus make people feel more independent and – to use a Prime Ministerial phrase of the moment – give them back control. But there will be no escaping the state for these millions of people, subject to ongoing means tests, having to report changes in their lives, fulfilling tougher work requirements even if already working, getting less financial support, and for many also being advised how to budget. This is a contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit. It is intended as a simplification, but the intrusion and control embedded in the design are substantial and extend both to more people and to more aspects of their lives.

Note: the above draws on the authors' published research in Social Policy and Society.