Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Is Theresa May a Thatcherite? Beneath the superficial similarities, there are important contrasts

Many comparisons have been drawn between Britain’s two female prime ministers, but Graham Goodlad explains that they governed in completely different contexts, even if their styles shared similar elements. In answering whether Theresa May is Thatcher’s ideological heir, he goes beyond the superficial similarities and considers their social, economic, and foreign policies.

Britain’s first two female prime ministers shared a number of superficial similarities beyond their gender: both were hard-working, serious individuals from modest, aspirational backgrounds. Both possessed autocratic temperaments. Nonetheless we need to beware of drawing over-simplistic parallels. May herself once warned against ‘lazy’ comparisons with her predecessor.

In comparing the two leaders, we need to remember the very different contexts in which they operated. The 1970s and 1980s had a very different feel from the second decade of the 21st century. Modern political culture is much more fluid, more cosmopolitan and globalised. Theresa May became Prime Minister following her predecessor’s unexpected resignation and the implosion of her main leadership rivals, at a time of acute national and party divisions. The issues facing Thatcher when she won the 1979 election were very different, and leaving Europe was not on the agenda.

The political fortunes of the two prime ministers have also been sharply divergent. Thatcher won three decisive majorities and was weakened only near the end of her long premiership, whereas May now struggles with her government’s minority status as well as the unprecedented complexity of Brexit.

Both premiers could be ruthless in their treatment of Cabinet colleagues, as shown in the signals given by the sackings of Francis Pym (1983) and George Osborne (2016). Thatcher and May have followed the post-1945 tendency to take key decisions in Cabinet committees and have governed with a core of trusted senior colleagues – Damian Green and David Lidington have been likened at different times to Willie Whitelaw.

Both prime ministers have been accused of depending on unelected advisers: Thatcher’s fateful reliance on Professor Alan Walters bears comparison with May’s association with her unpopular joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, before the 2017 election. Both leaders have had to manage contending Cabinet factions, although Thatcher became more independent with the passing of time. May still has to balance Remainers and Brexiteers, and powerful colleagues have more opportunity to constrain her freedom of action.

So, is Theresa May a ‘Thatcherite’? We will briefly examine three areas – social, economic and foreign policy – in assessing how far May is truly Thatcher’s ideological heir.

May, Thatcher, and society

May’s well-known 2002 ‘nasty party’ speech, as Conservative chairman, was a way of distancing the party from the politically toxic memory of social division under Thatcherism. She was socially progressive enough to accept same-sex marriage – a far cry from Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. May has also been more active in promoting women’s interests, supporting the adoption of female Conservative parliamentary candidates through the pressure group Women2win, in a way that Thatcher never did. While Thatcher notoriously appointed just one woman to her Cabinet, four full members of May’s Cabinet are female and until April 2018 the Home Office was held by a fifth woman, Amber Rudd.

Economic policies

Thatcher emphasised the moral value of the free market and of personal independence in a way that May has not done. She has spoken of making Britain ‘a country that works not for a privileged few but for every single one of us’. The 2017 Conservative manifesto condemned, in a wholly un-Thatcherite phrase, what it termed ‘the cult of selfish individualism’. True, she has defended capitalist values against Labour Party criticism. In January 2018 she struck a Thatcherite tone when Jeremy Corbyn tried to use the collapse of construction and outsourcing firm Carillion to make a wider political point, responding that ‘what Labour oppose isn’t just a role for private companies in public services, but the private sector as a whole.’

Yet May’s philosophy is unquestionably more interventionist than Thatcher’s. At the 2016 party conference, she stated that ‘where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene’ and reminded her audience of ‘the good that government can do’. Her 2017 manifesto proposed an energy price cap which was strikingly similar to Ed Miliband’s policy two years earlier, denounced at the time by the Conservatives as an example of misguided socialist interference in the market.

The wider world

The coincidence of having, from January 2017, two right of centre leaders in London and Washington, one female, the other male, prompted simplistic parallels with the Thatcher/Reagan relationship. In practice, however, May and Donald Trump have not recreated the personal chemistry of their predecessors. Trump’s unpredictability, his tendency to comment on the internal affairs of allies, and his isolationist and protectionist instincts are obstacles to a close transatlantic alliance. The postponement of Trump’s visit to the UK until July 2018 was another indicator of a weakened relationship.

Finally, how are we to assess Thatcher and May in relation to Europe? We cannot know which side Thatcher would have taken on the 2016 referendum. In her final book, Statecraft, she argued that Britain should contemplate leaving the EU if it could not obtain better terms for its membership. Yet this was written deep into her retirement. Charles Powell, her closest foreign policy adviser, insisted that had she been in charge, she would have done as Cameron did – seek a renegotiation and then campaign to remain. This was essentially May’s position at the time of the referendum. There has been continuity in their broad approach: trying pragmatically to protect British interests, whilst criticising the alleged growth of an EU ‘super-state’.


Beneath the superficial similarities there are important contrasts between the two leaders. Thatcher was not as inflexibly ideological as some have portrayed her, but she certainly had divergent social attitudes and political priorities from May. This can partly be attributed to generational differences. Nor has May aroused the extremes of adoration and loathing associated with Thatcher. Although Thatcher was harshly caricatured, she was almost always depicted as a dominant figure, quite unlike the hapless ‘Maybot’. In politics, it is much harder to survive people’s scorn than their hatred.


Note: the above draws on the author’s article in Political Insight.

About the Author

Dr Graham Goodlad is Head of Politics at St John’s College, Southsea, and author of ‘Thatcher’, published by Routledge in 2015.


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: Portrait of Theresa May shared under an Open Government Licence v3.0; Portrait of Margaret Thatcher shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Diasporas as a force in foreign affairs: the case of Tamils in Britain and Canada

A number of factors impact whether or not diasporas influence host country foreign policy, writes Matthew Godwin. He looks at two major decisions facing Canada and the UK toward Sri Lanka, and explains how pressure from the Tamil diaspora affected how each government decided to respond to events.

Countries in the West have long welcomed immigrants from all over the world. In Canada, as many as half of the residents in the country’s largest city, Toronto were not born in Canada. In the United Kingdom, one in seven British residents were born abroad. As newcomers arrive, many organise into diaspora communities, setting up organisations which support the continuation of “homeland” cultural or athletic practices, offer settlement and integration services, and advocate for the rights of newcomers to government officials.

Along with the creation of service-oriented organisations, many diasporas have created interest groups advocating for issues facing their homeland. This is especially true for those fleeing conflict and communities seeking to establish a national homeland. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Vietnamese immigrants advocated for political prisoners in Vietnam while the Jewish diaspora did the same for Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union. In Canada and the UK, the Sikh diaspora has sought to enhance support within its host country governments for the creation of a national homeland for Sikhs. In Germany, the country’s large Turkish diaspora includes many Kurds who seek the establishment of a Kurdish homeland.

How successful have these groups been in influencing host country government policy towards such issues? Given American influence abroad, its large diaspora communities, and pluralistic system, it’s not surprising that this question has been on the minds of American foreign policymakers for many years. In parliamentary democracies like the UK and Canada, there has been much less research undertaken on this question. Through an analysis of the efforts of Tamil diaspora interest groups in both countries, I set out to uncover whether they’ve influenced policymaking toward Sri Lanka.

My research looked at two major decisions facing Canadian and British governments toward Sri Lanka: how to respond to the dramatic final stages of the country’s 26-year-old civil war in 2009; and whether or not their respective Prime Ministers should attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. What the evidence shows is that Tamil diaspora interest groups did indeed influence foreign policy outcomes in these cases.

In the face of a humanitarian disaster in 2009, Tamil diaspora interest groups in both countries vigorously pressured the two governments to use any means available to force the Sri Lankan government to end hostilities against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Such groups were more influential in impacting the UK’s response than Tamil groups in Canada for three key reasons.

Firstly, the governing Labour party in the UK viewed the Tamil diaspora as politically salient. Tamils are concentrated in a number of important London-area constituencies and, only a year before the 2010 general election, Labour desperately needed to hang onto these constituencies. The Tamil diaspora in Canada is similarly concentrated in Toronto, but the Tory government in 2009 did not view Tamils as political salient – they were viewed as traditionally supportive of the Liberal Party and not likely to switch to the Conservatives.

Secondly, both Tamil diasporas engaged in contentious action through continuous, massive protests in major cities. The demonstrations in London were some of the largest in history, involving hunger strikers and altercations with police. Similar scenes were witnessed in Canada, but the effect was very different. In the UK, Tamil diaspora interest groups representing the protesters retained a measure of control over the protests, including liaising with law enforcement. Additionally, Labour party ‘inside advocates’ in the form of MPs sympathetic to the Tamil cause interfaced with Cabinet members to leverage the power of the protests. In Canada, the Harper government was at no point moved by demonstrations and increasingly viewed them as hostile and illegitimate. The use of LTTE flags by protesters, which was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2006, further reduced Harper government sympathies.

Finally, efforts prior to 2009 by British Tamil diaspora elites to build inroads with the governing Labour Party led to readily available channels of access, unlike in Canada where the diaspora has failed to do the same with governing Tories, who still viewed the Tamil groups as suspect.

The story was very different in 2013. Facing the decision to boycott the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka over the government’s human rights record, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to stay away, sending a low-level delegation instead. His British counterpart and fellow Conservative, David Cameron chose to attend.

So what had changed since 2009? Firstly, after the 2011 Canadian general election, the Tamil diaspora became a much more strategic constituency for the Tories than they had been in 2009. Secondly, the Tamil community largely abandoned its contentious tactics in favour of developing a more sophisticated approach of building trusted channels of access through which to engage Conservative policymakers. In the UK, despite the Tamil diaspora having its own channels of access, Cameron chose to attend the summit. The UK’s dominant role in the Commonwealth institution and the confirmed attendance of the Prince of Wales ensured Cameron’s presence at the summit – and no amount of pressure could be applied by the diaspora to alter this outcome. However, diaspora elites were able to negotiate Cameron’s visit to include a visit to Tamil-dominated regions, a public remonstration of the Sri Lankan government, and other concessions aimed at embarrassing the latter.

A number of factors, including strategies employed by interest groups and the role states play in international institutions, impact whether or not diasporas influence host country foreign policy. As pluralist democracies, countries like Canada and the UK should expect the involvement of diasporas in the foreign policymaking process and, where possible, engage these interest groups to enhance knowledge of and networks in homeland countries. Engaging diaspora organisations constructively can enhance the UK’s role as a peacemaker in conflicts abroad and encourage the inclusion of diverse communities in British public life – making politics more reflective of the country’s growing diversity.


About the Author

Matthew Godwin holds degrees from UCL, SOAS, the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University. He has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Canadian Parliamentary Review and elsewhere. Having worked previously in the Canadian and UK parliaments, as well as in a technology start-up, Matthew now pursues his interest in Middle East politics at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and continues research on inclusive growth, diasporas and migration.


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).


Generation wars over Brexit – and beyond: how young and old are divided over social values

Pippa Norris explains how generation gaps divide the electorate and mainstream parties. She writes that, while the EU referendum is a prime example of how these divisions play out in the UK, the changing nature of electoral cleavages raises important questions about politics and party competition in Western democracies more generally.

The Brexit decision shocked Britain’s image of itself, and sent reverberations around the world. Until recently, Westminster shared a broad consensus about the value of the liberal international order abroad and liberal democratic governance at home. The accord reflected a cosmopolitan vision, convinced of the benefits of access to global markets, open border, and international cooperation. In Europe, the ‘permissive consensus’ allowed Brussels technocrats to pursue a common vision of deepening and enlarging the EU, without giving a direct voice to the European public on the matter – even though polls suggest that this goal was increasingly rejected by many of its citizens.

At home, as well, the major UK parties differed on many economic and social policies, and the Conservatives have obviously been deeply divided on Europe ever since Thatcher. Nevertheless, beyond policy debates, during the 1990s British politicians on both sides of the aisle seemed to share broad agreement about the underlying rules of the game, tolerant respect for robust pluralistic debate at Westminster, and support for liberal democratic norms. This includes the values of liberal freedoms, social tolerance, and respect for diversity, the protection of minority rights, and the rejection of the forces of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia. Mainstream parties agreed to quarantine the BNP, the National Front, and other fringe alt-right white nationalists.

In recent years, however, the outcome of the Brexit referendum and its dithering aftermath, the bitterly divisive splits within both the major parties, and polarizing battles over anti-Semitism in the Labour party and Islamophobia in the Tories, have shaken faith in the traditional tolerance of British society, raised challenges to the liberal consensus concerning the principles of democratic governance, and threatened the stability and unity of the UK.

The well-known story behind Britain’s momentous decision to seek a divorce from the European Union, after more than four decades, and the historical role of UKIP in this process, rests ultimately on ‘supply-side’ factors in Westminster politics – including the critical impact of contingent historical events and key blunders by spectacularly inept and short-sighted political leaders.

On the ‘demand side’ of the equation, once the referendum was triggered, several factors help to explain the main drivers of public opinion and voting behavior determining the outcome of the 2016 referendum – as well as the ups and downs of UKIP’s electoral support during the 2015 and 2017 general elections. Work by Harold D. Clarke et al. argues that Euroscepticism was fueled by anxieties about government management of immigration and, to a lesser extent, the economy and NHS. But a broader comparative perspective suggests that Brexit is part of the phenomenon of authoritarian-populism which has been sweeping across the globe, so it needs a more general explanation than one based on British party politics alone.

Beyond specific policy issues, several authors have sought to describe the emergence of a long-term cultural cleavage. For example, David Goodhart depicts Britain as split between the ‘Anywheres’, the degree-educated, geographically mobile professionals who embrace new people and experiences, and define themselves by their achievements; and the ‘Somewheres’, with a fixed identities rooted in their hometown community, unsettled by rapid change, particularly the influx of migrants, the growth of multiethnic cities, and more fluid gender identities.

Many have referred loosely to the ‘Left-behinds’ as an economic category referring to the losers from global trade. These ideas partially capture some of the tensions observed in the UK and can be applied elsewhere, such as the familiar divisions observed between the God and Guns values of heartland Trump America and the Climate Change and Diversity values of coastal Obama-nostalgic elites, or between voting support for Macron in urbane Paris and Le Pen in Ardennes, Alsace and Marseilles.

But observing the contrasts doesn’t help to explain the contemporary reemergence of this classic center-periphery geographic division – and thus why some people have become increasingly more reluctant to embrace social change than others. Impressionistic notions such the distinction between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’, or ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from global markets, are also fuzzy concepts to measure. The distinction can also sound patronizing, as though the Left-behinds are deeply irrational and they just need to get with the culture.

In a new book on Cultural Backlash forthcoming in the fall, we argue that support for Authoritarian-Populist parties and leaders in Europe and America, and the bitter polarization over Brexit in the UK electorate, reflects culture wars over fundamental social values dividing young and old in many Western societies. There is widespread evidence from the British Attitudes Survey that British society continues to move in a socially-liberal direction, with younger and college-educated people being far more tolerant than older and less-educated groups on same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and pre-marital sex.

Millennials are also far more likely to have voted Remain, while a study of young people in Britain concluded that many are concerned about the negative impact of Brexit on multi-ethnic communities – and they expressed concern about rising intolerance, discrimination, racism and the decline of Britain’s multicultural image. They were also resentful that the decision to leave the EU was made by the older generation and concerned that Brexit would limit their opportunities to live and work in Europe.

Meanwhile, the Interwar generation supported Leave, and UKIP, because they tend to endorse a broader range of socially-conservative and authoritarian values associated with nationalism, Euroscepticism, and immigration. The generation gap in Europe and America is linked with cultural cleavages around these issues. As the old Left-Right divisions of social class identities have faded in Britain, an emerging cultural war deeply divides voters and parties around values of national sovereignty versus cooperation among EU member states; respect for traditional families and marriage versus support for gender equality and feminism; tolerance of diverse lifestyles and gender fluid identities; the importance of protecting manufacturing jobs versus environmental protection and climate change; and restrictions on immigration and closed borders versus openness towards refugees, migrants, and foreigners.In the long-term, the silent revolution continues to move the Western societies gradually in a more liberal direction. In the short-term, however, older generations are far more likely to vote than the young – and the authoritarian reaction against progressive values has mobilized to become  significant force in politics.

Our book accounts for the rise of Authoritarian-Populists in many Western societies by emphasizing the long-term consequences of the Silent Revolution in cultural values. This started to become evident with post-materialist value change among the younger and college educated generation who grew up in affluent post-industrial societies during the 1960s and 1970s. The proportion of more socially-conservative older cohorts holding traditional values towards core identity issues, such as those surrounding the values of religion, family, and nation, has gradually faded away over the years and younger generations with more socially liberal views gradually took their place in the population.

The proportion of Interwar and Baby Boomers in Western societies has gradually declined, losing hegemonic status and cultural power – although they usually remain a bare majority of active voters and thus their preferences continue to be over-reflected in representative bodies. At a certain point, a tipping point occurs in society, as the proportion of those holding traditional values becomes the new minority in the population. This experience, we theorize, triggers an authoritarian reflex among the older and less educated sectors most resistant to cultural change, who seek strong leaders to defend socially-conservative values, blaming liberal elites like Westminster politicians, the media, academic experts, Eurocrats and the establishment in general, as well as out-groups like immigrants and foreigners for lack of respect for traditional values.

This account can be applied to help explain the outbreak of cultural wars over Brexit and its dispiriting aftermath. If so, then the division between the Leave and Remain camps should be found to revolve around the cultural cleavage between authoritarian and libertarian values, especially where Leave is endorsed by older generations who feel threatened by the rapid pace of cultural change and the loss of respect for traditional ways of life. The threat to socially-conservative values is expected to have triggered an authoritarian reflex among these groups – emphasizing the importance of maintaining collective security by enforcing strict conformity with traditional mores within the tribe, a united front against outsiders, and loyalty towards tribal leaders.

This orientation is reinforced by populist leadership rhetoric reasserting the legitimate voice of ‘Us’ through claiming ‘power to the people’, denigrating the authority of Westminster politicians at home and, of course, Eurocrats and EU institutions abroad. The cultural backlash thesis argues that a tipping point in the long-term process of cultural change has been mobilized and reinforced by authoritarian-populist leaders, whether opportunistically motivated to advance their personal ambitions (Boris Johnson?) or whether they share similar values (Donald Trump?) or a bit of both. These developments reflect a new cultural cleavage in party competition and in the electorate, emerging not just in Britain, but also in many other Western societies.

What evidence supports this thesis? Cultural Backlash provides a broad cross-national comparison across Western societies. For a snapshot on some of the evidence in the case of the UK, we can draw on the British Election Study (BES) panel survey of 31,196 respondents conducted by YouGov over 13 waves from February 2014 until after the June 2017 general election.

The survey evidence is most clear-cut and consistent across numerous polls for the sizeable generation gaps observed in voting for Brexit and in recent general elections in the UK. Figure 1 illustrates the contrasts in the BES, demonstrating that roughly twice as many of the Interwar generation voted Leave compared with the Millennials.

Note: “In the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, how did you vote?. Source: British Election Study Internet Panel Waves 1-13. Wave 9 post-Brexit (24 June to 6 July 2016)

What explains the generational gaps over leaving the EU and support for UKIP? We suggest that the Millennials and Gen X disliked the Leave camp and UKIP’s appeals to English nationalism and white nativism, racial and ethnic intolerance, and social conservatism. They were more strongly attracted to other parties with a cosmopolitan outlook and socially-liberal policies on cultural and moral issues, exemplified by Labour’s manifesto pledges to support LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, anti-racism, protecting animal welfare, lowering the voting age to 16, supporting international development, and building sustainable environments.

Note: Authoritarian values in Britain can be gauged using a BES 100-point standardized scale calculated from the following agree/disagree items: “(1) Young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values; (2) People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences; (3) For some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence; (4) Schools should teach children to obey authority; (5) The law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong; (6) Censorship of films and magazines is necessary to uphold moral standards.”
Note: Populism can be measured in from the BES using a similar 100-point standardized scale constructed from the following agree/disagree items: “1) The politicians in the UK Parliament need to follow the will of the people; 2) The people, and not politicians, should make our most important policy decisions;  3) I would rather be represented by a citizen than by a specialized politician; 4) Elected officials talk too much and take too little action; 5) What people call “compromise” in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles.” Source: British Election Study Internet Panel Waves 1-13.

To reduce the risk of attitudinal conditioning by prior party voting preferences, authoritarian values were measured in waves conducted months before people went to the polls, and they are designed to tap into a broad sense of the value of social conformity and obedience towards authority, without asking directly about policy issues such as Euroscepticism or anti-immigrant attitudes.

After controlling for the standard socio-economic and demographic variables, the results show that support for both Authoritarian and Populist values strongly predicted Leave voting. As Figure 2 illustrates, among those who were most authoritarian, 8% voted to Leave. By contrast, among those who were least authoritarian, only 1% voted to Leave. Similarly disparities can be observed among those scoring highest in the populism scale. Moreover these patterns predict not only who voted Leave in the EU referendum, but also support for UKIP in the 2015 and 2017 general elections. The data confirms that authoritarian and populist values were strongly linked with generational gaps and with voting behavior in Brexit, as expected.

Therefore, the evidence suggests that generation gaps revolving around cultural issues deeply divide the electorate and factions within mainstream parties as well. The Leave vote mobilized the older generation by appealing to nationalistic and nativist identities, achieving a bare majority favoring divorce from the EU, while Gen X and the Millennials were more pro-EU – but also far less likely to get to the polls. If a second referendum were to be held today, the generation gap in turnout is likely to prove critical for the outcome. This development raises important challenges about the changing nature of electoral cleavages and party competition in Britain and elsewhere.


Note: the above is drawn from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart 2018 (forthcoming). Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism. NY: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the ARC Laureate fellow and Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and she is founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project.



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).

Distorted perceptions: how Leavers and Remainers view the economy – and with what consequences

There is a divide between how Remainers and Leavers perceive the UK’s economic performance and other policy developments, explain Miriam Sorace and Sara B. Hobolt. A major consequence of this lack of agreement about basic facts is that reaching a consensus on how to navigate Brexit becomes even more complicated.

On the 23 June 2016, UK citizens voted to leave the European Union. The vote came after a heated referendum campaign where the Remain camp highlighted the economic dangers of Brexit and the Leave camp promised to bring back control of borders and reduce immigration. The outcome of the referendum has subsequently triggered strong political identifications along Brexit lines.

Is this new fault-line in British politics also shaping beliefs and perceptions, in line with Brexit campaign promises? We know that group identities, such as party identification, tend to shape how people select and interpret new information, sometimes leading to ‘cognitive illusions’. Our study finds that the new Brexit identities have indeed resulted in distorted (or ‘biased’) images of the key issues of the economy and immigration levels.

To examine how Brexit has shaped such views, we use data from the British Election Study (BES) 2014-2017 panel. This allows us to compare assessments of the economy and immigration by Leavers and Remainers before and after the Brexit vote. To the extent that the referendum has led to very different evaluations of the economic performance and of immigration levels among the two groups, then this is evidence that the referendum vote may have distorted perceptions.

It is worth noting that data from the Office of National Statistics shows minimal changes in key indicators of UK growth and immigration rates in the 2016-2017 period. Hence, if perceptions were not biased by the referendum vote, we wouldn’t anticipate substantial changes in people’s views. However, if the emerging Brexit identities play a role, we expect people to view changes in the economy and in immigration in ways that confirm their referendum vote: Remainers should become more pessimistic about the economy after the vote, while Leavers should become more optimistic about immigration (i.e. observe lower immigration levels).

To see if that is the case, we measure economic and immigration perceptions are using the following survey items of the BES:

  • Do you think that the economy is getting better, getting worse or staying about the same?
  • Do you think that the level of immigration is getting higher, getting lower or staying about the same?

Figures 1 and 2 below represent graphically the results (based on ordered logit panel regression models).

Figure 1. Economic perceptions

Note: Predicted Probability Graphs for outcomes 0-1 (economy got worse); 2 (economy stayed the same) and 3-4 (economy got better). Covariate profile held constant at modal categories: Labour, 46-55 age bracket, A-level educational attainment, female, income: 20-25k. All other variables held at their mean. Source: BES

Figure 2. Perceptions of immigration levels

Note: Predicted Probability Graphs for outcomes 0-1 (decreased levels of immigration); 2 (same levels) and 3-4 (increased levels of immigration). Covariate profile held constant at modal categories: Labour, 46-55 age bracket, A-level educational attainment, female, income: 20-25k. All other variables held at their mean. Source: BES.

The figures clearly demonstrate changes in economic and immigration perceptions (by Remain voters and Leave voters, respectively) immediately after the referendum. Remainers became noticeably more pessimistic about the economy after the vote, while Leavers perceive immigration rates as lower, in line with the respective campaign promises. We can see very clear differences before and after the Brexit vote in perceptions of the main campaign issues, the economy and immigration – holding constant partisanship, gender, age, education and income. This is despite the fact that the UK had yet to leave the EU, and actual changes were limited.

What about differences in the perceptions of Leavers and Remainers? Have they converged or diverged in the aftermath of the vote? In the case of economic performance evaluations, Leavers and Remainers shared very similar assessments before the referendum, but started diverging immediately after the vote. There is a clear contrast when it comes to the immigration issue: the two camps held starkly different perceptions of immigration rates before the referendum, but they started converging afterwards, with Leavers approaching Remainers’ evaluations.

In addition to this panel regression analysis, we also ran a survey experiment run in July 2018 to examine how Remainers and Leavers respond to economic facts. The experimental results confirm the patterns above and further reveal that these biases are not simply due to Leavers and Remainers receiving different types of information; instead, we find that they interpret the same new information in radically different ways.

Figure 3 shows how UK economic growth was ranked in comparison with other developed economies by Leavers and Remainers after respondents were given information about growth rates. The results clearly demonstrate that even when provided with information on UK growth from the Office of National Statistics, Leavers and Remainers still rank the performance of UK growth vis-à-vis the other 34 OECD economies significantly differently. Leavers rank the UK economy more optimistically (placing the UK 15th out of 34) than Remainers (placing the UK 18th out of 34). These differences are even greater when we remind (‘prime’) individuals about the Brexit referendum.

Figure 3. Economic perceptions – Survey Experiment

Note: Answer to the survey question “How do you think the UK’s economic growth rate currently ranks in comparison to other the 34 developed countries part of the OECD? Please give a ranking from 1 to 34, where 1 means that you consider the UK to currently be the best performing economy in the developed world, while 34 means that the UK is the worst performing one.  If you don’t know the answer, please make your best guess”. Source: Hobolt & Sorace – YouGov, July 2018.

Our study highlights that in the aftermath of the referendum, citizens view economic and immigration politics through new Brexit-tinted glasses. Leavers and Remainers immediately responded to the referendum result by updating their opinions in line with the respective referendum campaign promises and beliefs. Similar to party identity, the Brexit referendum has thus biased people’s view of key political issues.

This divide between Remainers and Leavers in their economic perceptions is likely to make any attempt to foster national unity around an eventual Brexit negotiation outcome more difficult, as Remainers will focus on the negative economic consequences, while Leavers will see the developments in a very different, and more positive, light. When there is no agreement about the basic facts of economic and policy developments, it becomes far more difficult to find a consensus about appropriate policy solutions. It also complicates matters for those who advocate a second referendum on the basis of “what we now know to be the consequences of Brexit”. Given the divergence in views, a second referendum would likely lead to another clash between ‘project fear’ and ‘project hope’ strategies, potentially deepening the divide.


About the Authors

Miriam Sorace is LSE Fellow in EU Politics, having joined the European Institute in September 2017. She earned her PhD in Political Science in April 2017 from Trinity College, Dublin.



Sara B. Hobolt is the Sutherland Chair in European Institutions at the European Institute and the Department of Government at the LSE. She is also an Associate Member of Nuffield College, University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy. 



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).

Regeneration and segregation in Belfast: rethinking the economics of peacebuilding

Belfast’s physical regeneration since the Good Friday Agreement has had socially and spatially uneven effects, writes Brendan Murtagh, with sites of modernity now sitting uncomfortably close to communities still affected by poverty, division, and violence. He emphasises the centrality of economics in the community relations and peacebuilding agenda, especially in the places left behind.

The latest collapse of the Stormont administration, scandals about a renewable heat initiative, and Brexit underscore the fragility of the Northern Ireland peace process. It is tempting to dismiss the progress that has been made in the last 20 years. Peace and economic development have bolstered inward investment, tourism, growth in high value sectors (cyber security, film production, and back office finance) as well as elite property precincts in the city centre and along the riverfront. These processes have also led to significant residential desegregation, especially where labour and housing markets intersect to create mixed religion, but overwhelmingly middle-class neighbourhoods.

However, at the same time as integration has increased in the south of Belfast, segregation has intensified in the north and west. This ‘twin-speed’ city sees new peace lines, poverty, and even violence sit uneasily alongside the face of modernity that the authorities like to project as the Belfast renaissance story. But, if economics has expanded integrated neighbourhoods, inter-group contact, and socio-spatial mobility, then where is class in the community relations and peacebuilding agenda?

Credit: Public Domain.

The community relations sector in Northern Ireland has developed enormously, bolstered by EU, US, and government funding over the last five decades. The sector has also done enormously good work in tackling sectarianism, the legacy of paramilitarism, the needs of victims and segregation in education, the workplace, and housing. Yet conflicts rarely remain frozen; they are instead constantly restructured in composition and meaning, and demand new and more flexible responses as they move temporally and spatially.

The economist Amartya Sen disputes the idea of a ‘civilian clash’ in global conflicts, arguing that identities around race or religion often mask underlying conditions of poverty and exclusion, which in turn act as a resource to mobilise disaffected groups for sectarian advantage. Northern Ireland may have been a late colonial relic, a sectarian statelet, and a divided community but it is clear that division is now most pronounced among the poorest and is increasingly reterritorialized where the benefits of the ‘peace economy’ simply have not reached. The knowledge economy that has expanded a more cosmopolitan and outward looking city is off-limits to the most divided and disadvantaged communities. They face a skills mismatch (with depressingly low levels of literacy and numeracy, especially among young males); and a spatial mismatch, in that new jobs are concentrated in investment sites that are not close to (or interested in) the poorest places.

A different regime, that is more sustainable in these conditions, has emerged in the form of social enterprises, intermediary labour markets, local trading, and (limited) community finance. It is not particularly new but has a proven record of success in creating jobs, labour mobility, cooperative start-ups, and in delivering services in areas where private and (increasingly) public markets are failing. As an example, the Ashton Community Trust in north Belfast employs 220 people, has a turnover of £8m, and has six business lines including childcare, housing maintenance, and professional counselling. It opened a high spec Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) to teach digital skills and this has attracted people from both communities, across the interface and among the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the city. This offers a pathway to employment and has had significant effects on inter-community attitudes for the 700 young people who use it every year. But it does not assume that young people have constructed their identity around a strong sense of Britishness or Irishness. Some have, but for most these are simply not relevant to their sense of themselves, their interests or their aspirations.

Community relations practice often emphasises an identarian frame, which intentionally or unintentionally reinforces the very structures it purports to challenge. Single-identity work simply reproduces sectarianism and a sense of entitlement among thinly-constructed notions of the self and especially the community. ‘My community’ is the most overused and farcical term in the peace-building narrative, because it ultimately pits poor neighbourhoods against each other, encourages a race to the bottom and a destructive resource competition for increasingly limited funding.

In north Belfast, the social economy has developed facilities and services that are replacing interfaces; it has created new, reasonably-paid jobs and training pathways in sectors that work; brought people together as workers; recycled money in the local economy; created networks and alliances to strengthen community businesses; and provided opportunities for expression that refuses the containment of green and orange politics. Every £1.00 that the Ashton Community Trust invests creates a local multiplier effect of £1.78. They have supported the development of a new childcare centre on a notorious peace line and have developed links with advanced social economies in the Basque Country, Emelia Romagna, and Quebec.

But they have struggled to scale their work and without the right enabling environment, they face considerable challenges in growing the business. There is little actual evidence that social enterprises, certainly in Belfast, are being repositioned as a welfare alternative and most have developed in response to local service gaps, community mobilisation, the church, factory closures and so on.

Ethnic entrepreneurs in the form of flag protesters and dissident Republicans, of course, capitalise on these processes holding the bloc vote in place behind the peace lines that show no signs of moving. The DUP and Sinn Féin have little investment in an explicit desegregationist project, despite their previous commitment to removing the interfaces by 2023. The Irish Language Act is at the forefront of the political agenda, but works in the false consciousness that pulls back both communities from recognising their common economic position, history, and likely future.

There is no social economy strategy, no programme investment to support community businesses, nor progressive legislation (such as a Social Value Act or Community Asset Transfer), despite repeated calls for such support from projects in DUP and Sinn Féin heartlands. The weak regulatory environment extends to a lack of progress on social finance, public procurement and skills development; and despite their local impact, social enterprises remain as largely isolated, self-maintaining projects rather than a coherent movement capable of building cross-community alliances and business networks. Northern Ireland is likely to get its fifth EU Peace Programme (PEACE PLUS  2021-2027) and this provides an opportunity to reposition the post-conflict narrative around the people and places that were most affected by the violence and have benefited least from the peace.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Authors

Brendan Murtagh is Reader in the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast.




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 do people exit in-work poverty and what prevents them from doing so?

Rod Hick examines the ways in which people move in and out of working poverty, as well as the impact that the UK’s tax credit system has had on in-work poverty levels. He emphasises the need for researchers and policymakers to focus on the factors which prevent or enable people to exit working poverty, so that positive transitions can be supported.

The issue of in-work progression has been getting a lot of attention in policy circles of late. This attention is due in no small part to rising concern with in-work poverty and the introduction of in-work conditionality as a component of Universal Credit. But what is in-work progression and how does it relate to in-work poverty? A recent report by the Social Security Advisory Committee equated it with earnings progression for low-paid workers. This focus on raising the earnings of a low-paid worker or, to a lesser extent, the earnings of their partner, is the primary focus of the emerging work on in-work progression.

Sometimes, and often in passing, one sees mention of structural factors preventing progression, such as the lack of availability and affordability of childcare and opportunities within local labour markets to take on extra hours of paid work. Social security tends not to get a look-in: indeed, one of the aims of Universal Credit is to incentivise claimants to ‘graduate’ from it by increasing their earnings.

A problem, then, with this emerging focus on in-work progression is that it is largely limited to the issue of low pay. And one thing we know from the literature on in-work poverty is that many low-paid workers are not poor, often because they are second or third earners in a household, while not all working households in poverty have a low-paid member. The latter may fall into poverty because, even if not technically low paid, their wage has to stretch too far, either in terms of the number of people who rely on it or because of other costs such as housing.

If we want to understand how people can leave in-work poverty then it is worth examining how this is achieved in practice. In two recent papers with my colleague Dr Alba Lanau, we have attempted to shed some light on the ways in which people move in and out of working poverty, and the extent to which the tax credit system has helped to reduce in-work poverty in the UK. Our measure of in-work poverty was when at least one person in the household was in paid work, but the household’s total net income remained below the poverty line.

In the first paper, we analysed in-work poverty transitions by following households over a four-year period  – between 2010/11 and 2013/14. Our research found that almost seven in ten exits from in-work poverty were associated with an increase in earnings from employment. In about half of these cases, this increase was due to an increase in the number of workers in the household, while in the other half it was due to an increase in hourly pay or in hours of work for a fixed number of workers. So, progression from in-work poverty is about increasing the number of workers in a household as well as the pay of those already in work. But social security mattered too: in 45% of cases, an exit from in-work poverty coincided with an increase in social security income of at least 20%. Thus, social security increases as well as labour market events help to explain exits from in-work poverty.

While the focus of in-work progression is ostensibly positive, some in-work poverty exits are more concerning. We found that while most people who exited in-work poverty did so by remaining in work, the working poor were also three times more likely than non-poor workers to become workless. Preventing these negative trajectories should also be a focus for policy.

In a second paper, we explored the significance of tax credits, and social security more broadly, in terms of their contribution to household income and the extent to which they reduce in-work poverty in the UK, using data from the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) survey.

While earnings from employment made up more than 80% of the income of all working households, this fell to two-thirds for households in working poverty. The proportion accounted for by social security (including tax credits) rose from 11% to 28%. Social security is thus an important component of the incomes of those experiencing working poverty.

A key question, then, is the extent to which this 28% is made up of tax credits. To examine this, we made use of the detailed information on social security receipt within the HBAI dataset to identify the specific payments received by working poor households. Of the total social security income received by working poor households, only about one-third came from tax credits. So where did the rest come from? About another third came from a combination of Housing Benefit and Child Benefit, and a final third accounted for by a complex mix of payments, including out-of-work payments, such as JobSeeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance, for household members who were not working.

That tax credits account for a minority share of social security income of the working poor does not mean, however, that they are not vital in terms of lifting households above the poverty line. And this is where our attention turned next. We analysed the extent to which the receipt of Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit reduced the poverty gap – the distance that households experiencing working poverty fell below the poverty line. We found that tax credits reduced the poverty gap by 64% – a substantial proportion – for households who received them. But many households experiencing working poverty didn’t, especially low-income working households without children, who made up almost half of those households who experienced working poverty, but for whom receipt is very low.

The recent focus on in-work progression seems, on the face of it, to provide a response to the growing problem of in-work poverty in the UK. But if progression to be meaningful, it must also lead to an escape from in-work poverty. Examining more closely how people do, in fact, exit in-work poverty, and the factors which prevent others from doing so, would be a good place to start. But we must also be clear about our goal, and this ought to be to ensure progression from in-work poverty.


Note: the above draws on the author’s work in the Journal of Social Policy and their work in Social Policy and Society (both with Dr Alba Lanau).

About the Author

Rod Hick is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Cardiff University.




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).

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