Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Why Change UK may turn out to be neither democratic nor a force for change

Lea Ypi explains why Change UK – The Independent Group appears to be aligning itself to a very different tradition of thinking about the relationship between citizens and representatives.

Modern democracy, wrote one of the great political scientists of the past century, is inconceivable – save in terms of party government. If that is true, when democracy is in crisis, a new political party might in principle offer opportunities for a way out. The newly created Change UK/Independent Group sees itself as a fresh political force breaking the way old politics works. It wants to occupy a space in the centre that traditional party divides are accused of having left void. It urges people to make change happen.

Except Change UK is not your standard political party. It has no manifesto, no popular base, no memory of struggles, victories and defeats. Instead of being a movement in search of political representation, it is a group of elected representatives in search of a movement. Instead of being the many represented by a few, it is the few urging the many to get involved.

Elections are arguably one of the most important moments in which a political group consolidates its principles and identity. It is how a new political force gathers the popular support that legitimises its demands for change. But Change UK is not that interested in elections either. If members were interested in popular mobilisation – campaigning to persuade fellow-citizens for the need to change, deliberating with supporters over principles – they would seize the first opportunity to confront their adversaries in by-election campaigns. Instead, they argue, fighting a by-election would “crush the birth of democracy”.

Change UK may not have a manifesto but it must at least have a vision of democracy. Except, on closer inspection, it turns out to be not very democratic. The birth of democracy, to return to their favourite formulation, is associated to rule by the many. In the Greek polis, the many ruled themselves by making direct decisions in the Athenian assembly. In modern societies, the many are too many and too diverse to speak directly for themselves. They speak through representatives in parliament. The extent to which the relation is democratic depends on the degree of proximity between representatives and represented. When that relationship is not subject to ongoing scrutiny it is not clear who the representatives speak for. Or what they speak about.

The more democratic a representative relation is, the more likely it is that the voice of the represented is heard in parliament (and not just on election day). Maintaining a close relation between professional politicians and the people who elect them is the only way to ensure that the voice of the many is continuously heard. For radical democrats, the purpose of democratic politics was to ensure that powerful people with more money, knowledge, and means to access public office were kept in check by the masses; that the few were constantly scrutinised by the many. To this effect they advocated a number of measures: mass membership in political organisations, imperative mandate, mandatory reselection, mechanisms of deselection of MPs, rotation in office, and so on. This is what democratic theorists call “the delegate” model of representation.

The Labour Party’s recent moves to expand membership along with proposals to change the relationship between members and MPs are part of this tradition. MPs are seen as only one of the links in the chain of democratic participation, they are by no means the most important one. Every MP and every decision made by them must remain accountable to party members at every step of the way.

Labour party leaders are often accused of authoritarianism. But if Labour really had been in the business of silencing criticism and undermining democracy, it should have discouraged rather than encouraged the delegate model of representation. The current Labour Party may have many flaws but a lack of democratic commitment is not one of them.

The same cannot be said about Change UK. The expressed refusal to fight by-elections and the arguments given to motivate that refusal signal its alignment to a very different tradition of thinking about the relationship between citizens and representatives. Members of Change UK insist that there is no reason to subject their views to democratic scrutiny since their values have not changed. But even if that were true, MPs are not selected only for the values they embrace but also for how they interpret those values in public life, and for the policy proposals they generate on that basis. A cursory look at CHUK’s statement of values in connection to particular public policies reveals sharp differences between those policies and the manifesto of the Labour party on the basis of which its former Labour members were elected. The only argument in their defence is given by a view of representation where MPs retain independence from their constituents: what is often called the trustees’ model of representation.

Historically, the emergence of the trustees’ model is associated to an explicitly anti-democratic attempt to isolate politicians from the power of the many. Its origins are in the explicitly moderate (we might say ‘centrist’ thought) of authors like Sieyes, Constant or Madison. The trustee model seeks to conceive of the representative relation as one in which political institutions are authorised by the masses but isolated from them. The argument is essentially an elitist, technocratic one: since modern life is about division of labour, only those with accumulated knowledge, expertise, and the right degree of wealth or skill are in the best position to make decisions about common affairs. The point of political authority is to guarantee the minimal amount of security that enables particular individuals to pursue their private affairs. The institutions that work best are, as in CHUK’s statement of values, those where “well-regulated private enterprise can reward aspiration and drive economic progress”. Disagreements of principle are reducible to disagreements of policy.

On the trustees’ model of political representation, once representatives are selected, their link with the represented is essentially a fiduciary one, like the link between a bank manager and the people who put money in a bank account. Once money is in the bank, you trust the bank managers to do their job. Once elections are over, you trust politicians to represent the people. While that model is much more pervasive in the electoral systems and political institutions of Western liberal democracies, the divide between professional politicians and ordinary people on which it is premised is arguably at the heart of what citizens resent the most in contemporary liberal politics.

To revive democracy, one has to depart from the trustee model of representation and consolidate the radical democratic one. Change is needed and change is coming. But it won’t come from a group of politicians whose democratic antipathies go so deep that they resent confrontation with ordinary citizens at every level, including in by-elections, the most basic level of representative accountability.


Note: a shorter version of the above was first published in the New Statesman.

About the Author

Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

How involved is the public in changes affecting the devolved NHS?

Ellen Stewart, Angelo Ercia, Scott Greer, and Peter Donnelly compare how the public is involved in major service changes across the UK’s four health systems. They find some clear differences between the four systems’ processes, including the extent of central government oversight and guidance.

Of the issues that have dogged health politics since the creation of the NHS, the closure of hospitals has proved one of the most intractable. What decisionmakers describe as service ‘reconfigurations’ or ‘redesigns’, but many campaigners perceive simply as cuts, highlight central-local faultlines that have been evident in the NHS for 70 years. They outplay any other local issue in causing national political ructions; with local clinicians elected to Westminster, Stormont, and Holyrood on single-issue ‘save our hospital’ campaigns. Health policy debates have long exhibited impatience with such campaigns, and the result is that the bricks and mortar of the NHS is remarkably slow to change.

Recent research has argued that genuine processes of public involvement – how organisations consult and engage local populations in decision-making – may be key to enabling healthcare organisations to make the changes that they argue are clinically, and oftentimes also financially, necessary as health systems manage ageing populations with increasingly complex health needs. However what constitutes ‘meaningful’ (or ‘successful’) involvement processes remains contested.

In our research, we seek to understand how the NHS is involving the public in contentious service change comparatively, drawing on the remarkable natural experiment that is devolved health policy in the UK’s four health systems: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It’s a task complicated by increasing divergence in both terminology and structures between these evolving systems, but one which provided intriguing insights into their priorities. All four systems have a stated, in most cases statutory, requirement for NHS organisations to involve the public in changes to services. However beyond that there are significant differences.

Public involvement and NHS England

England is both by far the largest of the UK health systems and also the one which has been most subject to radical reorganisation – or what has been described as redisorganisation – and fragmentation in alternating pursuit of competition or collaboration. Change – including closures – seemed most frequent in the English NHS compared to the other health systems. Central government actively seeks to distance itself from local service changes:

If your starting point here is who’s responsible for NHS service change … it doesn’t take place in this building [the Department of Health] anymore. Government, central government is not responsible for service change in the NHS. (Official, England)

As well as the Department of Health’s distance from change plans, NHS England, the behemoth agency-come-policymaking body, also emphasises that it advises but does not take responsibility for local decisions on approach. English policy guidance to local NHS organisations encourages involvement but in very general terms, and based on broad principles, not prescription.

Public involvement and the Northern Irish NHS

Northern Irish policy, by contrast, mandates a somewhat rigid and legalistic approach to public involvement. The focus is very much on pre-defined ‘consultation schemes’ which set out with some precision who will have a say and exactly how, and the approach to engagement was broadly, and with good reason, risk averse.

Say for example there was a service change and I thought I’ll have a focus group… we’re likely to be challenged… If it’s controversial and somebody doesn’t like our decision, which quite often happens, we would be challenged on the process. (NHS manager, Northern Ireland)

Not helped by prolonged periods without a functioning Government, hospital closures are vanishingly rare in the Northern Irish NHS, and even ostensibly minor changes to services provoke significant concern. As in the all the devolved system, Government civil servants play an active role in brokering solutions where controversy develops over proposed changes, but the overwhelming impression from our Northern Irish research was of frustration from both NHS staff trying to improve services and from campaigners, tired of repeated consultations on even very minor changes.

Public involvement and NHS Scotland

In Scotland, Health Boards redesign services with an extensive and prescriptive set of policy guidance which sets out how involvement should proceed. Perceived by some interviewees as excessively thorough, others felt that the detailed guidance gave Boards a degree of protection:

…incredibly nitpicky… it was absolutely exhausting… [But] you’re much more certain to be able to make the change if you’ve gone through the process, you’ve got a fighting chance. (NHS manager, Scotland)

A team of service change specialists within the Scottish Health Council (an NHS agency) provide advice and also assurance on the quality of involvement. Distinctively, current Scottish health policy additionally mandates the approval of the Minister in every service change which is deemed ‘major’. This contrasts sharply with the other three health systems where government politicians are generally shielded from the often febrile politics of hospital changes, and has kept hospital closures firmly on the Scottish political agenda.

Public involvement and the Welsh NHS

Welsh policy ambitions in this area are the most distinctive by some distance. Welsh health policy directs Local Health Boards to focus on continuous engagement with its population, with far less attention to a discrete process of consultation when a change is proposed. This emphasis on building trust, and therefore dialogue, between an organisation and its population seems closest to longstanding accounts of best practice. However this ambition for culture change towards transparent, responsive organisations was less evident in local practice, and had seemed to become embroiled in extant entrenched battles over particular hospitals.

Despite a proliferation of generic best practice guides and the availability of technical advice from organisations which cross national boundaries, processes of public involvement in contentious service changes were overwhelmingly shaped by factors endogenous to the four health systems. This supports other studies which have criticised organisational change management models for neglecting the highly politicised context in which UK healthcare organisations operate: put simply, in the UK, NHS change projects are deeply entrenched in their national politics. Taking an explicitly comparative approach to understanding British health politics – still too often assumed to refer only to English health politics – enriches debates on the relationship between the NHS and the British public. While calls for more comparable quantitative performance data are commonplace, qualitative comparison remains well-placed to handle the complexity of our increasingly divergent NHS(s).


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Health Economics, Policy and Law.

About the Authors

Ellen Stewart is Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Studies of Health & Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Angelo Ercia is Research Associate in Health Informatics at the University of Manchester.

Scott Greer is Professor in Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan.

Peter Donnelly is Professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The political roots of capital mobility: reassessing Britain’s abolition of exchange controls

Jack Copley explains how the Callaghan and Thatcher governments in the late 1970s were concerned by the worsening performance of British industrial exporters, and so exchange control abolition constituted a strategy to depreciate sterling and boost export competitiveness.

Exchange controls – restrictions on the purchase or sale of currencies – have been thoroughly delegitimised as an instrument of economic management amongst advanced capitalist states. A state’s implementation of exchange controls is generally seen as a sign of that economy’s ‘emerging’ status, a temporary measure to respond to a severe crisis, or an indication of a development model that radically diverges from contemporary liberal ‘best practice’. Indeed, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri’s dismantling of his country’s currency controls after his election in 2015 was intended to signal Argentina’s entry into the modern capitalist world after more than a decade of populist interventionism.

Yet this has not always been the case. Following the Second World War, exchange controls were commonly employed by states to manage the exchange rate and balance of payments, despite IMF rules that sought to phase them out. Such controls constituted an important instrument for states as they sought to reconcile the globally interconnected economic order of Bretton Woods with national democratic politics.

How did exchange controls fall so dramatically out of fashion? Political economy literature has tended to focus on two factors. Firstly, in the 1970s states began to compete to attract mobile capital flows by pursuing a deregulatory race to the bottom. Secondly, the rise of neoliberal ideas during this same period, within both national policy-making circles and international organisations, acted to stigmatise exchange controls and capital controls more generally.

Britain occupies a special place within this conventional explanation. The British abolition of exchange controls in 1979 was amongst the earliest deregulations of this kind, and thus acted as an important domino in the global dismantling of currency controls. Further, the British case is said to best exemplify the combined role of competition and ideology in motivating exchange control liberalisation, as this policy was supposedly driven by a competitive desire to promote the City of London as a global financial centre and the Thatcher government’s commitment to neoliberal principles.

My research challenges this dominant explanation of Britain’s scrapping of exchange controls. I argue that this radical deregulation, which was actually implemented in four stages from 1977-9 by the governments of James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, should be understood primarily as an ad hoc, pragmatic attempt to address the serious governing dilemmas generated by the stagflation crisis.

The British state faced two major problems in the late 1970s: rising inflation and low rates of profit. Additionally, sterling began to rise in value following the 1976 IMF bailout and the discovery of North Sea oil, which aided in the fight against inflation, but exacerbated the profitability crisis by further reducing the competitiveness of UK exports. In this context, the scrapping of exchange controls was a double-edged sword. By abandoning controls on the sale of sterling, the value of the pound could fall, which would aid British exporters; yet this would compound the problem of inflation by raising the price of imports. Archival evidence suggests that both the Callaghan and Thatcher governments prioritised the export competitiveness problem, at the expense of inflation. The potential benefits for the City of London and the influence of neoliberal ideology played secondary roles in motivating this deregulation.

However, two barriers stood in the way of this strategy to lower the value of the pound. First, the Trades Union Congress was strongly opposed to the liberalisation of exchange controls, as they saw exchange controls as an important element of a much needed industrial strategy. Second, in a context of floating exchange rates, any attempt to manufacture a depreciation of sterling could frighten money markets and result in a run on the pound.

The Callaghan government was ultimately impeded by these obstacles. The Labour Party’s close ties with the unions, combined with the fact that their incomes policy was already putting a terrible strain on their relations with the Trades Union Congress, meant that they were wary of further incensing the labour movement through an aggressive policy of exchange control liberalisation. Furthermore, Callaghan’s administration failed to come up with a strategy to pursue this competitive depreciation of the pound without spooking global markets and risking a sterling crisis. The result of this combination of pressures was Labour’s limited relaxation of exchange controls in October 1977 and January 1978.

The Thatcher government had much more success in pursuing this policy. The problem of an opposed trade union movement had significantly eased following the Winter of Discontent. Additionally, the Conservatives forged a rhetorical strategy that they believed would allow them to put downward pressure on the value of sterling without frightening global markets. Key members of the Thatcher government publicly declared that exchange control liberalisation was motivated purely by laissez-faire notions of responsible economic management, rather than a pragmatic desire to boost British exports.

This strategy was remarkably successful, with Thatcher’s supporters and critics united in their belief that this policy was indeed driven by a deep commitment to neoliberal principles. The government hoped that this discursive strategy would act to reassure currency markets, and thus allow for a gradual diversification of investment out of the pound, rather than a full sterling crisis, with the ultimate objective of easing the terrible pressure on UK exporting firms. Confident in the success of this strategy, Thatcher’s administration took a ‘leap in the dark’ in July and October 1979 by fully scrapping exchange controls.

The UK’s abolition of exchange controls is widely understood as a crucial juncture in the creation of a global economy in which capital flows freely across national borders. Yet this policy was not primarily designed to privilege the City of London’s business nor can it be simply categorised as an expression of Thatcher’s laissez-faire credentials. Rather, this liberalisation was pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments as a strategy to postpone the worst effects of the global economic crisis of the late 1970s by boosting the competitiveness of British exports through sterling depreciation.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

About the Author

Jack Copley is Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. His research interests include the political economy of financialisation, state theory, Marxism, and British politics. He has published in New Political Economy, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Environment and Planning C, and Capital & Class.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Why Britons living abroad for more than 15 years still don’t have a vote

Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years lose the right to vote in UK elections. This would have changed had a Private Member’s Bill with government support passed last month – but a Conservative MP talked it out. Susan Collard says the incident reveals the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy.

MPs’ attempts to take over the parliamentary agenda are an illustration of how the government lost control of its management of Brexit. But 22 March saw another spectacular example of how Theresa May has lost control of her own party as well.

That was the date set for the Report Stage of the Overseas Electors Bill 2017–19, a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) sponsored by the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, Glyn Davies, and backed by the government as a Handout Bill. The Bill aimed to introduce ‘Votes For Life’ by abolishing the existing ‘15-year rule’ which means that UK expatriates lose their vote 15 years after moving abroad. With the government’s support, it was successfully ushered through the second reading last February and the committee stage last autumn despite determined opposition from Labour, which put forward a range of objections and counter-proposals.

Britons living abroad were therefore expecting that it would proceed through the report stage to the House of Lords. Those who were disenfranchised in the 2016 EU referendum and hoped to win the right to vote in time for a possible ‘People’s Vote’ or another Brexit-based snap election felt a particular sense of urgency to get the Bill passed.

However, it fell foul of the arcane procedures in place for consideration of PMBs, which allow an opponent of the Bill to kill it by ‘talking it out’, otherwise known as filibustering. This is frequently the fate of PMBs, only 5% of which on average make it on to the statute book. A government-backed bill normally stands a better chance of success. However, these are not normal times and events on 22 March did not turn out as anticipated.

Instead of the Bill being talked out by Labour, which had been planning to focus the discussion on its cross-party amendment to allow votes at age 16, supported by 85 MPs, it was filibustered by the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, a member of the European Research Group (ERG) and ardent Brexiteer. In what was clearly an act of collaboration with Labour against the government: Davies more or less copied and pasted a whole raft of new clauses and amendments tabled by the opposition during the Committee Stage (none of which had been successful) that he referred to as ‘Matheson’s greatest hits’ (Christian Matheson was leading the proceedings for Labour), adding a few more of his own to boot. Several amendments were tabled jointly by Matheson and Davies.

With his well-established talent for talking endlessly without much substance, only ‘giving way’ to pre-arranged interventions from other MPs in order to prolong a semblance of discussion, Davies ended his speech just 10 minutes before the Speaker called time at 2.30pm. This left only a few minutes for Labour’s Matheson and the sponsors of the Bill, Glyn Davies and the constitution minister Chloe Smith, to make a few concluding statements. Labour might have been glad of the support in killing the Bill, but its planned debate on votes at 16 was also hijacked in the process.

Other rebellious Tories also turned out for the session and Labour mustered an impressive showing. But genuine supporters of the Bill were thin on the ground: Dominic Grieve and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for the Conservatives, Ben Bradshaw for Labour, Mike Gapes (ex-Labour, now Independent Group) and Layla Moran for the Lib Dems, were all notably absent. There was no question of anyone putting a closure motion for the government as at the Second Reading: their troops were simply not there to answer the call. The progress of the Bill came to an end, not with a bang but a whimper.

This deliberate humiliation of the government did not only reflect the fallout from Brexit. It was also a rebuke for trying to push through a significant change to the franchise, indeed a party manifesto pledge, through a PMB rather than a government Bill.

What was it that persuaded Philip Davies to jump in at the last minute with his myriad amendments? Was it that already-infamous speech by the Prime Minister against Parliament? Did he fear the possibility of an extended expat vote swinging the result against Brexit in the event of a second referendum? Was he put up to it by Labour to make sure the Bill would not get through? Whatever his motives, several conclusions can be drawn from this extraordinary display of strategic disruption.

First, there is serious need for reform of the procedures for Private Member’s Bills: the government has failed to act on a number of petitions and recent reports from the Parliamentary Procedure Committee making recommendations for change. A system that allows such wasting of parliamentary time by filibustering, funded by taxpayers, and watched with incredulity and incomprehension from the public gallery, surely has no place in a country which considers itself to be a model of democracy.

Second, the intervention by Philip Davies laid bare the internal disarray within the ranks of the Conservatives, torn apart by deep divisions over Brexit. That a Conservative MP should filibuster an important Bill supported by its own government reveals the extent to which the government has lost control of its own party.

Third, the question of overseas voting rights continues to be dominated, as in previous parliamentary debates, by party politics. As anticipated a year ago, the pursuit of partisan interests prevented the emergence of a properly informed discussion of the core issues at stake in this Bill. It is those who will become, or remain, disenfranchised by the 15-year rule that have paid the highest price.

The Overseas Electors Bill is now dead, but the question of UK overseas voting rights will not go away and determined expatriate campaigners will continue their battle for what they see as electoral justice. The Conservatives should recognise that trying to deliver votes for life through a ‘single issue bill’ presented as non-political was an ill-judged strategy that proved to be counter-productive, particularly in a hung parliament.

The politics of overseas voting in the UK are such that the removal of the time limit on the overseas franchise is more likely to be achieved if it is counter-balanced by the reduction of the voting age to 16, which is now a manifesto pledge of all opposition parties. Both extensions of the franchise could be incorporated into a single but wide-ranging bill to increase democratic engagement, which could also include a much needed overhaul of electoral administration, putting an end to the untidy state of current legislation, as called for by the Association of Electoral Administrators.

But – and it is a big but – this would demand a significant degree of political compromise. Unless the trauma of Brexit triggers a new approach to consensus-building in Westminster, the necessary cooperation remains unlikely: Britons abroad will once again drop out of sight and out of mind.

Readers who want to know more about the issue of voting rights for Britons abroad can go to Britons Voting Abroad or its Facebook page.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was first published on the LSE Brexit blogFeatured image: Philip Davies MP. Photo: UK Parliament via an Attribution 3.0 Unported licence


About the Author

 Dr Sue Collard is a Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.




‘It’s Westminster’s fault’. Political identities and blame attribution in devolved systems

In devolved systems, people may be unsure about which government does what and so who is responsible for policy outcomes. Sandra León and Lluís Orriols use a survey experiment on responsibility attribution surrounding the NHS in Scotland and Wales, and point to the role of partisanship and identity as cognitive guides in attributing credit and blame.

A Scotsman’s reader recently sent a letter to the newspaper titled “Don’t blame the SNP, blame Westminster austerity” and which included the following statement:

Years of austerity have made it difficult for the SNP government to be effective. Blame Westminster for difficulties in maintaining good NHS services, meeting environmental targets and caring for young and old. If you think public sector standards are bad here, you need to visit England more often. (Letters section, The Scotsman, 6/03/2019)

Blame attribution on policy outcomes is a controversial issue in democratic theory. One of the most celebrated promises of representative democracy is that free, competitive, and fair elections should enhance good government. The mechanism goes as follows: as incumbents may anticipate the electoral costs associated to deviating from the interests of the electorate, they will end up being responsive to voters’ demands in order to avoid electoral punishment.

However, elections can only effectively discipline politicians if voters can discern to what extent incumbents are responsible for policy outcomes, and that capacity varies according to the institutional context. Devolution is one of the institutional characteristics in a political system that complicates clarity of responsibility, as there are different levels of governments responsible for different policy areas and, in turn, potentially blameable for policy outcomes.

Think about healthcare. Although the NHS is a devolved power, the Scotsman’s reader considered that Westminster was responsible for poor healthcare services. This posits an interesting question: why are some individuals more prone to accuse Westminster than Holyrood? What are the determinants of blame attribution? The aim of our investigation is precisely to shed some light on how citizens end up attributing responsibility for policy outcomes in federal or decentralised systems.

We argue that vertical fragmentation of powers which characterises devolved settings provides an opportunity structure for individuals to engage in a blame-attribution game between the different levels of government. Our hypothesis is that political identities play a key role in blame-attribution. We claim that citizens are not neutral in their judgements, but filter them through a group-serving bias: giving credit for good performance to the group they identify with, and blaming the out-group for poor outcomes. Although research has studied the role of partisanship as a source of attribution bias, it has largely ignored another salient identity in politics: the national one.

In our investigation we try to test to what extent individuals’ bias in responsibility assignments respond to their in-group preferences, namely party affiliation and national identity. Indeed, according to our expectation the Scotsman reader would probably be someone who is emotionally attached to the SNP and (or) to Scottish identity.

In order to test our expectations we conducted survey experiments on responsibility attribution for the NHS in Scotland and Wales in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The experiment consisted of randomly providing a positive or negative statement made by experts about changes in healthcare outcomes, followed by a question about who is mainly responsible for the change. More specifically, the positive and negative treatments were worded as follows (positive treatment in brackets): “Many experts say that healthcare in Scotland/Wales has generally worsened [improved] over the last year; for example the waiting times for patients in urgent services are now longer [shorter] and time allocated to patients in primary care has decreased [increased]”.

Respondents were then asked to locate on a 7-point scale the degree of responsibility of the central and regional governments (being 1 regional government and 7 central government).

Our findings show that both party identification and national identity are drivers of attributions of responsibility in Scotland and Wales. Our results also indicate that partisanship has a more prominent and encompassing effect than national identity. Some of the empirical findings are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The effect of party identification and national identity on responsibility attribution for NHS outcomes

Note: The figure shows the mean differences on the NHS responsibility scale (1-regional authorities to 7-central authorities) between regional and central government partisans (top line) and between British and Scottish/Welsh identity. The spikes indicate the 95% confidence intervals.

The two graphs above show the differences in attribution of responsibility between individuals who identify with regional incumbent party(ies) (we label them as regional government partisans) and individuals who identify with incumbent parties at the central level (central government partisans).

Results are consistent with the claim that citizens make responsibility assignments that are coherent with their party alignment. But this only occurs for the negative treatment only. Individuals who identify with parties other than the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats (that formed the central incumbent coalition at the time of the experiment) hold the central government more responsible for poor NHS outcomes than those identified with the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. In summary, empirical evidence suggests that people are more willing to filter responsibility assignments through the lenses of partisanship when things go wrong.

The two bottom graphs in Figure 1 show that differences in responsibility attribution between those more or only identified with the region and those who feel mainly British are only significant for the negative treatment and for the Scottish sample. In Wales, attribution of responsibility for the results of the NHS is not significantly moderated by national identity, regardless of the positive or negative nature of the treatment. Overall, our investigation indicates that it is partisanship, and not national identity, the most important in-group bias driving responsibility assignments.

These results have important implications for the operation of representative democracy and electoral accountability. If voters filter their responsibility judgements through the lenses of partisanship and national identity, incumbents may end up being rewarded or punished by the electorate in a way that is unrelated to policy outcomes. As a result, the incentives of politicians to be responsive to the electorate’s preferences may ultimately fade away.

Our findings also have important implications for the current debate on British devolution. Constitutional amendments since the late 1990s have turned the UK into one of the most heterogeneous institutional settings amongst European countries. The ongoing nature of the process of devolution in the UK, illustrated by recent reforms in Wales and Scotland as well as by the process of English devolution to local combined authorities, will certainly complicate responsibility assignments. How will British citizens cope with that complexity? Our research indicates that partisan alignments and national identity will very likely act as cognitive guides for individuals in an increasingly complex institutional setting.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Electoral Studies.

About the Authors

Sandra León is Senior Lecturer at that University of York.



Lluís Orriols is Associate Professor at University Carlos III, Madrid.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

The women of Westminster and how they have transformed politics beyond recognition

Despite their century-long struggles and achievements, the stories of women MPs have often been overlooked in political histories, writes Rachel Reeves MP. She draws on her new book to highlight the many battles fought by the women of Westminster since 1919.

Note: Rachel Reeves will be speaking about her new book at the LSE today.

‘Women have worked very hard. They have starved in prison, they have given their lives, or have given all their time, in order that women might sit in this House and take part in the legislation of the country’. These were the words of Ellen Wilkinson, the fiery left-wing Labour MP who was elected in 1924 and became one of the first Labour women in Parliament.

Just five years prior to Wilkinson’s election, the first woman to take her seat – Nancy Astor – was elected as an MP. Since Astor and Wilkinson’s time, women MPs in Parliament have revolutionised both the policy and the culture of Westminster. The effects of the campaigns that they fought – on issues from equal guardianship of children to equal pay – lives on today in all of our lives. Yet all too often, the histories and the successes of these brilliant women have been ignored and omitted from the history books. My new book, Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, attempts to write some of those women back into history.

It all started with the first two female MPs to take their seats in Parliament – Conservative MP Nancy Astor and her Liberal colleague, Margaret Wintringham. Despite being from different parties and being temperamentally very different (Astor was spirited where Wintringham was sensible), the two women were very close, and supported each other in their campaigns. Wintringham once affectionately called Astor as a ‘prancing pony’, with herself being the ‘carthorse’ trotting steadily alongside. Together, in 1925 they successfully passed legislation for the equal guardianship of children, reversing the status quo in which women had no rights to their children in case of divorce or separation. It has been described by some as the first piece of ‘feminist’ legislation.

While Astor and Wintringham felt a particular need to represent women’s interests as the only two women MPs, the tradition has continued throughout history. Independent MP from 1929, Eleanor Rathbone, was a passionate campaigner and lobbyist for family allowances – regular payments to mothers to help with the costs of having children. After her 25-year campaign in which she gained the support and advocacy of William Beveridge, in 1944 her vision became a reality. Family allowances were the forerunners of what we know as child benefit today – a policy taken forward by Barbara Castle in the 1970s and Yvette Cooper in the 2000s.

On many of these issues, women MPs have found strength in numbers by working cross-party. When I interviewed Shirley Summerskill, Labour MP from 1964, she emphasised that ‘fighting for equal pay brought women together, whatever party’. During the Second World War, a cross-party group of women MPs came together to create the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, lobbying for equal treatment of the newly-recruited women in the war effort. In 1944, Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir tabled a successful amendment for equal pay for teachers, which the government virulently opposed. It was the only vote that Churchill lost during the war. He was furious, chastising her that equal pay was like ‘trying to put an elephant in a perambulator’. He overturned the amendment by making it into a vote of confidence in the government, which he won resoundingly. But Cazalet-Keir had bravely put equal pay on the political map.

It was not until 1970 that Labour MP and Secretary of State, Barbara Castle, was able to implement legislation to enshrine the principle of equal pay for equal work into legislation. Thanks to Castle and the women who went before her, equal pay is now a legal reality. But a gender pay gap of 18% persists. The tireless work of Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson within the Coalition government to implement the mandatory reporting of businesses’ gender pay gaps has become yet another chapter in the equal pay story.

Of course, one of the most seismic moments for women in Parliament was the 1997 election. 101 of the 121 women MPs elected were Labour, ushered in on the wave of a landslide, all-women’s-shortlists and tireless campaigning from Harriet Harman, Angela Eagle and others to increase the representation of women. This boost in the sheer number of women MPs led to an unprecedented representation of women’s interests in policymaking. Tessa Jowell introduced SureStart children’s centres to improve the choices available to mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Harriet Harman also pioneered the National Childcare Strategy and National Minimum Wage, both of which had a disproportionate impact on women.

In 2017, a record number of women MPs were elected. From Jess Phillips’s cross-party work to tackle domestic abuse, to Stella Creasy’s campaign to improve access to abortion for Northern Irish women, to Theresa May’s action on human trafficking and modern slavery as Home Secretary, women continue to fight for causes that disproportionately impact women.

These causes should not be viewed as an essentialist pigeonhole – the fact is, women’s interests should be seen as mainstream, and men all too often have failed to represent them. The very concept of ‘women’s issues’ presumes that women are an abnormal subset of the population. Childcare policy, for example, is just as much about encouraging men to take a greater role in caregiving as it is about giving women the opportunity to enter the labour market.

In shaping the political agenda, women MPs haven’t just changed the content of policies. They have also changed the culture of politics. When Nancy Astor arrived in Parliament, she summed up the attitude of her male colleagues by saying that ‘They would rather have had a rattlesnake than me in the chamber’. When trying to get to her seat, she was physically obstructed by the men sitting on her row. She pushed past them regardless. In 1919, the parliamentary authorities found accommodation for them in the Lady Members’ Room, a dingy small room in the basement that the women dubbed ‘the dungeon’. The Lady Members’ Room was the only space in the male-oriented Parliamentary estate where the women MPs could work, dress or relax.

When Ellen Wilkinson was elected, she decided to defy convention by entering the Smoking Room. She was stopped at the door by a policeman who informed her that ladies did not usually enter. ‘I am not a lady,’ she responded curtly. ‘I am a Member of Parliament,’ as she pushed the door open. These acts of defiance, determination and courage brought about a sea change in the cosy male club that had previously existed. Parliament has its fair share of problems today, but the situation has improved drastically since 1919: we now have a parliamentary nursery, every woman MP has her own office, and maternity and paternity leave for MPs has finally been introduced after the campaigning of Harriet Harman and Maria Miller.

The 100th anniversary of the election of the first woman MP to take her seat is a time to remember, honour and celebrate the pioneering women MPs who have changed policy and politics for the better. We all stand on their shoulders. In the words of Nancy Astor ‘We can never forget the pioneers, the women who first dared – ours is such an easy task compared to theirs.’


About the Author

Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West and Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Her book, Women of Westminster: The MPs That Changed Politics, is out now.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: index backlink | Thanks to insanity workout, car insurance and cyber security