Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Confidence motions, humble addresses, and amendments: Brexit’s procedural dilemmas

Brexit has revealed some of the tools that govern the legislative process and how these interact with party politics. Louise Thompson summarises the key procedural dilemmas faced in the Commons so far, and explains why things could get even more complicated in 2019.

As we watch the continued unfolding of the Brexit story and wait to see when (and if) MPs will get to vote on a final deal, media commentary has been awash with talk of confidence motions, humble addresses, and the selection of amendments. The process of scrutinising Brexit has been governed by an often bewildering array of procedural tools. Procedure is complex. The most recent edition of Erskine May, the ‘bible’ of parliamentary procedure on which MPs and clerks rely on a daily basis, runs to over 1000 pages. This sits alongside the House of Commons Standing Orders (another 278 pages), another set of rules and decisions which are crucial to the way in which the House works. What’s been very clear over the last few months is what a powerful weapon procedure can be and how it can be used by the opposition to exert influence over the government.

Labour’s use of the humble address in November 2018 is a good example of this. The Opposition used a fairly archaic procedural device to force the government to release its Brexit legal advice. As Andrew Defty explains, Labour first deployed this tactic just over a year ago, this time to force the government to publish its Brexit impact assessments. The use of the humble address wording in the party’s opposition motion created a ‘motion for return’, whereby the government had to abide by the motion. Thus, when the Attorney General’s legal advice was not published, despite Labour’s successful opposition motion requesting it’s publication the week before, the government found itself in contempt of parliament (see Defty’s explanation again here).

When MPs began debating the withdrawal agreement in the Commons in December, all eyes were on procedure once again in an attempt to work out what might actually happen if the government were defeated. This flow chart put together by the House of Commons showed how many different outcomes there were.

Things were a bit more complex here due to the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011. The Act requires a very precisely worded confidence motion in order to trigger a General Election, despite what some commentators reported. But as the Institute for Government’s Catherine Haddon explains, Parliament is still able to pass a motion expressing its disapproval or loss of confidence in the government, just as it would have done in the past. What’s not clear is what the consequences would mean, largely because it depends on how confidence motions are interpreted by those at Westminster.

So procedure may be written down, but the interpretation of what is written can be key. The collection of Points of Order to the Speaker when it became clear that the meaningful vote on the deal was not going to go ahead showed the importance of interpretation. The Speaker was asked by MPs what the Prime Minister had meant when she said she would ‘defer the vote’ – when would it now take place? Would it be a completely new debate, with a new motion? And could the government get around it again? With the help of the Commons’ clerks – the procedural experts who sit directly in front of the Speaker’s Chair – Bercow explained that much of this would depend on the context (whether there was an amended deal to discuss), but even he did not want to take an instant decision on whether there could end up being no parliamentary vote on a no deal Brexit, a question perplexing Labour’s Home Affairs Committee Chair Yvette Cooper.

Then on 12 December we saw the interplay of parliamentary procedure with the party political. The rules of the Conservative Party leadership contest are very clear. Had May lost the vote, we would have seen a leadership election taking place as the Brexit clock continued to tick. As the Prime Minister herself told MPs at PMQs, the time taken up by the election of a new party leader may require a delay or a stop to the Brexit process. As MPs were waiting for the result to be announced, opposition MPs were being asked if and when they will seek a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey has been hesitant about this in the past, but told Andrew Neil last night that there was a possibility of a vote, but that the party was considering timing and discussing their options with other parties on both sides of the House.

The Prime Minister may have survived her party’s attempt to remove her, but we may yet be faced with more procedural dilemmas if we do see a confidence motion on the floor of the House before Christmas. As Catherine Haddon has noted, the ambiguity of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes it unclear what would happen in the event of a successful no confidence motion, meaning that things could still get very complicated as we move into the New Year.


About the Author

Louise Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester.





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.

#3OD: OpenData, Open Dialogue, Open Democracies

Introducing the Race Disparity Audit’s Ethnicity Facts and Figures website, Zamila Bunglawala explains the importance of open and accessible data to democracies.

My dream is #3OD. That is: open data coupled with open dialogue to achieve open democracies – but we are not there yet. Not everything that counts is counted. Not everything that’s counted is accessible. And not everything that’s accessible is used innovatively to inform policies and behaviour change, and to improve outcomes for citizens.

Creating #3OD to challenge our data infrastructure

It is time to challenge the norm that simply ‘publishing data informs policy change’, and to recognise that ‘how and where the data is published’ affects data use, understanding and impact. In a digital age, permanent data websites – unlike one-off data reports – can better inform user choices, change policies and behaviours, if the following two principles are applied to our data infrastructure:

  1. open, accessible data that focuses on quality and trust – data should be presented in accessible ways to meet the needs of multiple users for simple data, raw data, and downloadable data, and to build trust in the data
  2. open dialogue about data – to enable trust in and understanding of data; debunk myths and facilitate disruptive thinking; and empower expert and non-expert users, to inform choices, behaviours and policies, to improve outcomes

“Data use can be a driver for progress – it enables people to make better choices and hold Governments to account.”

John Pullinger, National Statistician, Office for National Statistics

The data spectrum: open–shared–closed

It is vital and appropriate to continually insist that data about taxpayers should be freely accessible to them, while also challenging data that is not currently open, in order to understand why. The possibilities from open data are significant – to access, use and analyse it; identify causal drivers, trends and impact; challenge assumptions and bust myths; fill data gaps; and create new products and services; and for wider public or commercial use. For their part, service providers can respond through greater transparency, accountability and better services.

Websites about data and the data infrastructure are evolving rapidly, as open data websites offer permanence and allow for greater user focus, and – potentially – empowerment, to build and sustain trust with the user.

“It’s important to be curious– data allows us to gain insights and ask ‘what does it mean?’ Data websites help to bring that to life!”

Sandra Kerr, Race Equality Director, Business in the Community

Open dialogue

This user-led focus is a key component of the pioneering UK Government Race Disparity Audit’s Ethnicity Facts and Figures website. I am the founding member of this great team and website. It’s creation included extensive dialogue with user groups, including academics, policy-makers at all levels, public, private and charity sector organisations, community groups and members of the public, through user-labs, roundtable discussions and visits across the UK.

This dialogue aided understanding of the data and stimulated debate. It enabled us to really listen to diverse users, identify expectations and challenges, and how we should respond to them. Ongoing dialogue and data websites can lead to a more informed population and to broader use of data for spin-offs and innovations, so that its impact can become more widespread. Open data and open dialogue can also encourage open policy-making, enabling policy-makers to acknowledge that they do not yet know the answers and to engage both internally and externally to find them.

Government departments and wider public and private sector organisations may use their data effectively internally. However, they do not necessarily connect with other organisations trying to achieve the same outcome, even when this might be in their mutual interest. This, necessarily, limits the dialogue they have and the outcomes they can achieve. Open dialogue offers a bridge between using data and provoking debate to identify how to overcome challenges.  Open data websites can be an effective medium in this space, enabling cross-government or cross-sector dialogue.

“Examining data enables policy-makers to ask the right questions, but this does not necessarily lead to the answers. Presenting data on an accessible transparent website is a great way to share what Government does know – and provokes debate about what we don’t know.”

Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary, Department for Health & Social Care, and Head of the Policy Profession

Data to tackle inequality

Wide-ranging user engagement and open dialogue can also facilitate greater mobilisation of the data itself, helping to form powerful narratives and policy and to stimulate behaviour change – including in tackling inequalities, disparities and disadvantage.

“Inequalities data is not new – but in the last 10 years we have seen a mobilisation of inequalities data to tell powerful stories built around a narrative.”

Mike Savage, Director, International Inequalities Institute, LSE

#3OD could become a watershed moment in shaping our data infrastructure, becoming a movement for recognising the value and importance of open data websites to our societies. And it will challenge the norm, recognising that data alone does not inform – and that open dialogue and open data websites that focus on data quality, trustworthiness, transparency, access and presentation for end-user interpretation are vital to open democracies and better outcomes for all.

“Data has value – it is a new form of creative and cultural capital.  Open data is vital for sound data ecosystems – but building an open data infrastructure is still work in progress…”

Nigel Shadbolt, Chairman and Co-Founder, Open Data Institute


Note: the above was originally published on the Civil Service blog.

About the Author

Zamila Bunglawala is Deputy Director of the Race Disparity Audit at the Cabinet Office, and Visiting Fellow at the LSE.




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).

An impoverished, divided, dirty island? Brexit and EU state aid

Membership of the EU stops arbitrary corporate welfare in the UK and expressly encourages aid for environmental protection, writes Ewan McGaughey. He explains how state aid rules work and how they empower the UK to get a New Green Deal. What stops us from changing the direction of the economy in this respect is therefore not the EU but Brexit.

‘Left Brexit’ or ‘Lexit’ advocates are pedalling a myth that EU law prevents the massive infrastructure spending we need to rebuild our broken economy and reverse austerity. Best represented by the ‘Full Brexit’ blog, it is said that state aid laws ‘prevent [us] from setting the direction of an industry, a sector, or the economy as a whole’. This is false. State aid rules stop arbitrary corporate welfare, but empower us to lead the fourth, green industrial revolution. In the EU, Germany spends among the most on state aid: about 1.3% of GDP, while the UK spends 0.5%. By closing this gap alone (and we could do much more), the UK could spend at least £30 billion each year for a massive New Green Deal.

State aid rules stop corporate welfare

Every democrat, every socialist, should want EU state aid law: it prevents arbitrary corporate welfare. In the US, state aid rules are non-existent. Corporations like Amazon use their bargaining power to force states and cities compete with offers of tax-breaks to build new distribution centres. Governments are lured into thinking their aid to corporations will bring jobs. But apart from the corrupt waste of public money, the evidence showed fighting for Amazon actually cut wages. EU law prohibits corporations playing governments off against one another like this. In 2016, the EU stopped Ireland from cutting corporate tax to get Apple headquarters. If anything, the state aid rules should be far stricter than they are, because we need human welfare, not unrelenting corporate greed.

EU state aid law says governments must not ‘distort competition by favouring certain undertakings’ (TFEU art 107(1)). Lexit advocates argue this protects a ‘neoliberal framework that avoids deploying state power against the market and private capital’. The opposite is true: it stops private capital capturing governments to enrich itself at society’s expense. Most importantly, EU law expressly promotes ‘aid having a social character’ for consumers that does not discriminate (art 107(2)), and expressly empowers aid for ‘environmental protection’, including infrastructure, tax incentives, even education (Regulation 2014 (EU) No 651/2014 arts 1(c) and 36-49). The rules mean governments can’t discriminate, favouring crony capitalists, when spending public money.

The critical fact is that state aid law restricts giving money to fund corporate profit. But the UK government could also spend an unlimited amount of money by carrying out public work (TFEU art 345) or building through public procurement. We can reset the direction of ‘the economy as a whole’ any time we want. What stops us is lazy thinking, and the lack of a plan, not the EU. More than ever, as the great labour lawyer Lord Wedderburn wrote, we need ‘hard legal analysis allied to an alternative social vision’. The claim that EU state aid stops a green revolution is a sell-out to multinational corporate propaganda.

A £30 billion New Green Deal

We need a massive New Green Deal, to stop our planet burning and drowning. Raising our state aid, even by 0.8% of GDP to match Germany, would mean £30 billion a year, and our future transformed. Estimates vary on how much money we really need. In 2009, an Imperial College London institute advocated spending 0.7% of GDP. In 2018, Thomas Piketty and other leading economists advocated an EU-wide €800bn stimulus, spending 4% of GDP. What’s absolutely clear is that deficit spending – the public becoming more indebted to multinational banks, and breaking the EU stability and growth pact – is the wrong way to do it. We must stop corporations hoarding cash and restricting investment, and make them pay their fair share of tax. When we do, we will transform (1) energy generation, (2) transport, and (3) corporate production and governance.

First, we must shift our energy generation to solar and wind – and scrap coal, gas and oil. The more we build, the more costs will fall. The Moray East offshore wind farm is costing just £2.6bn, generating 950 MegaWatts, enough for nearly 1 million homes. There are just over 27 million homes in the UK. The maths is simple: in a 5 year Parliament, £150 billion would cover every home with renewable energy, with over £40 billion to spare. And these quick, rough calculations are incredibly conservative: 1/3 of UK electricity is already renewable.

Second, we need to electrify our entire transport fleet, starting with taxis, buses, delivery vehicles, and rail. Your personal car does not matter so much for now, because 96.5% of the time it’s parked. But business vehicles drive, and pollute, constantly. Petrol and diesel vehicles are currently subsidised by tax-deductions. Yes, that’s right: the smog in your air, filling our children’s lungs at school, is being subsidised. Volkswagen diesel engines alone probably killed around 240 British people. We should end this now, and only subsidise electric vehicles. As more are bought, costs will drop, reducing the green subsidy cost to zero. All new Hackney carriages (but not Uber or minicabs) in London must already be electric. The same tax reform would electrify all delivery vehicles: all vans, all trucks. Then, every new bus. Just north of Hong Kong, the city of Shenzhen has already electrified its entire 16,000 bus fleet (London has 8,000). Then we must get our ‘paltry 42%’ of electrified rail up to 100%, and install electric charging points from the Cairngorms to Cornwall. Instead of Brexit-Britain (or more likely the United Kingdom of England and Wales), we can build infrastructure to re-unite the country.

Third, we must reform our corporate production and governance. Engine manufacturers need help to switch off all oil vehicles, and switch on electric. BP, Shell, and the rest, instead of drilling and fracking need to phase out that business, go ‘beyond petroleum’, and become renewable network services. This has already begun, and must accelerate: workers who used to lay oil pipe-lines in the North Sea are now employed laying electric cables to windfarms. Transition requires state aid, but not without conditions. Every boardroom needs an environmental committee, meaningful employee representation, and in natural monopolies the public needs representation as well. Government should purchase a strategic stake of 5% to 25% in the shares of vehicle manufacturing companies, and use governance voice to retool for sustainable production. We should recognise that all corporate directors have a duty to switch to clean energy (under the Companies Act 2006 section 174) because it saves money, creates jobs, and preserves a living future. There are no profits or jobs on a dead planet.

As Brexit reaches its climax, we have a fundamental choice. We can choose to be an impoverished, divided, dirty island. Or we could be a United Kingdom in a European Union, leading a ‘zero carbon, zero poverty world’. Every step we take toward that world has to be done in ever closer union with other countries, because we are one people, and we have one planet to call home. If you believe in democracy, socialism, and internationalism, it’s clear there is no ‘Left Brexit’. Our membership of the EU empowers a massive New Green Deal, stops corporate welfare, and gives us the influence for meaningful change. Being an active member of the international community, including the European Union, enhances our sovereignty in building a just society.


About the Author

Ewan McGaughey (@ewanmcg) is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, King’s College, London. He teaches enterprise law, labour law, contract law, and constitutional law.



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.

Is it the English question – or the British question? The three strands of Britishness

John Denham finds that the majority of those who identify as primarily English or equally English and British are also strongly British; those who are primarily British, on the other hand, seem to hold a different outlook to those who combine English and British identities more fully. He suggests that more attention should be paid to the evolution of British identity as English identity. 

Most England residents identify as both English and British, though placing themselves on a range from ‘English not British’ to ‘British not English’. Twenty years ago, identity did not correlate with political choices, but in recent years those who identify as primarily English (‘English not British’ and ‘more English than British’) have been more likely to vote Leave and for parties on the right; those who are primarily British have tended to vote in the opposite direction. The votes of the equally English and British sit between the two ends of the identity spectrum.

Despite this correlation it has not been clear what people mean when they say they are English or British, nor how their understanding of national identity may be related to their political choices. It has been suggested that the adoption of different national identities within England reflects alternative narratives that offer an explanation of different economic and social experiences. Recent polling by the BBC and YouGov, and additional polling by the Centre for English Identity and Politics sheds some new light on the relationship between the two identities.

Figure 1

Data by BBC/YouGov

Taking the population as a whole: 83% are strongly (‘very strongly’ plus ‘fairly strongly’) English and 85% are strongly British (Figure 1); 61% say they are proud to be English, and 58% proud to be British (with 6% embarrassed to identify as English and 6% embarrassed to identify as British). Asked which characteristics are associated with English and British identities, the responses are remarkably similar (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Data: BBC/YouGov; CEIP/YouGov

This similarity does not necessarily mean that the two identities are synonymous or interchangeable; but any distinction is not defined by the characteristics associated with them.

English, British or both?

On the Moreno scale (Figure 3) the largest group is the equally English and British (34%). Those tending to emphasise English identity (more English than British (18%) and English not British (16%)) outweigh those who emphasise their British identity (more British than English (14%) and British not English (8%)). The balance between Englishness and Britishness has a discernible impact on respondents’ sense of their strength of national identity, national pride, and their perception of political issues.

Figure 3

Data: BBC/YouGov

Openness to other identities

One of the differences between English and British identifiers is their openness to non-English identities (Figure 4). The extent to which people hold a strong European identity is a significant factor in balance between their English and British identities. (The survey respondents included 7% who identify with other nations inside or (8%) outside the UK. Those who also identify as British are included in our analysis but those who placed themselves as Other or Don’t know are not.)

The question which identity ‘best describes the way you think of yourself’ does not define sharp boundaries between identities. Both the English not British and the British not English include people who hold both identities, but the English not British are less likely to reject the other identity. 62% of those who describe themselves as English not British nonetheless say they are ‘strongly British’. Only 28% of the British not English say they are ‘strongly English’, and 33% say they do not identify as English at all. Only 7% of the English not British say they do not identify as British at all.

By contrast, the British not English are more likely to strongly identify with other nations inside the UK (29%) and outside the UK (20%). The more British than English are also twice as likely as the other English identity groups to identify with other nations inside (11%) or outside the UK (10%). 8% of the English not British identify as European, rising to 28% of the equally English and British, 40% of the more British and 38% of the British not English.


Differences in worldview and experience are also apparent from the sub- and supra-nation identities. The primarily English, and the equally English and British, are significantly more likely than the primarily British to have a strong identity with a region, country or place within England.

Figure 4

Data: BBC/YouGov; CEIP/YouGov

In the starkest divide, 61% of the more English than British say they strongly identify with a region or part of England; only 37% of the British not English do so. Previous polling has shown that the primarily English and the equally English not British are more likely to be found outside the major metropolitan cities.


82% of the English not British and of the more English than British are proud of their English identity (Figure 5). This falls to just 13% of the British not English. However, it is not the British not English who are most proud of being British: only 52% of them are proud to be identified as British. Most proud of Britishness are those with a strong sense of both identities (more English, equally English, and more English than British all score 65% or above). Englishness is a strong marker of pride in both English and British identity; being British alone is not a source of strong national pride. The British are also more likely to hold a negative view of both Englishness and Britishness. 14% of the more British than English and 15% of the British not English would be embarrassed to describe themselves as English.

Figure 5

Data: BBC/YouGov; CEIP/YouGov

National characteristics

The different identity groups have different perceptions of the characteristics associated with Englishness and Britishness (Figure 6). The primarily English and the equally English and British tend to associate both identities with a broadly positive set of values. On the other hand, the more British than English and the British not English are less likely to associate either British or English identity with the same characteristics.

Figure 6

Data: BBC/YouGov; CEIP/YouGov

To give one example, 71% of the English not British associate Englishness with Tolerance but only 51% of the British not English do so. Similar patterns can be found on Welcoming, Friendliness, Generosity and Plain Speaking, and Outward looking.

Political perceptions

The different groups on the Moreno scale have different perceptions on some key issues of politics and power (Figure 7). While only a minority of English residents of any identity feel they have real influence at local and national level, the primarily English are least to feel well represented. They are significantly more likely to support an English Parliament, and to want the interests of England to be prioritised over the future of the union.

Figure 7

Data: BBC/YouGov

Earlier work has also shown that English identifiers were much more likely than British identifiers, (or those living in Wales and Scotland) to credit the EU with significant influence on domestic policy.

The British question?

Englishness and Britishness do not appear to represent different characteristics in the popular mind, but an emphasis on an English or British identity reflects different perceptions of the world. Those who are equally English and British, and primarily English, tend to identify strongly as English and British, have high levels of national pride, and strong roots in English localities. They associate the same characteristics with English and British identities. The primarily British have weaker local roots, are more likely to be European, do not have such high levels of national pride, and are more likely to be antipathetic towards the English. They are less likely to associate either English or British identities with positive characteristics. Those who feel that their own and English interests are not adequately represented by the political system are most likely to emphasise English identity and want England’s interests prioritised.

While not providing a causal explanation, the different worldviews revealed by this data are at least compatible with voting patterns. Those most open to non-English identities, including European, were most likely to vote Remain. To the extent that migration is seen as more culturally unsettling to those with more deeply rooted local identities it may underpin votes for parties seen as more hostile to immigration. On most issues, however, there is less difference between the equally English and British, the more English and British, and the English not British between them and the more British than English and the British not English.

Our analysis suggests that as much attention should be paid to the evolution of British identity as English identity. The majority of those who identify as primarily English or equally English and British are also strongly British, so we need a better understanding of why those who are primarily British seem to hold a different outlook to those who combine English and British identities more fully. The current evidence might suggest that there may be least three strands of Britishness:

  • One similar to Englishness in being rooted in England, and strongly patriotic, though less concerned with English interests, more open to European identity, and more supportive of the union.
  • A second reflecting a migrant heritage, perhaps seeing Britishness as a citizenship as much as a national identity.
  • A third associated with the more liberal, cosmopolitan, more highly educated part of society that is more likely to disdain both national identity and patriotism.

Understanding this more complex notion of Britishness would help shed more light on the political salience of both English and British identities.


About the Author

John Denham is Professor at the Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester.

Deal > Remain > No-deal > Deal: Brexit and the Condorcet paradox

With the possibility of a second referendum gaining increasing support, what happens if more than two options are on such a ballot paper for voters to rank? Simon Kaye explains the prospect of a Condorcet cycle and considers alternatives. He concludes that, whatever the route taken, there will always be a majority who will find the outcome of the Brexit process to be far from their first choice.

After more than two subsequent years of Brexit negotiations, manoeuvres, follow-up polls, and parliamentary debates, the UK has arrived at a political impasse. There are now widely believed to be three potential future outcomes: leave with no deal, remain and forget the whole thing, or approve the government’s Withdrawal Agreement (and its attendant, carefully vague Political Declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU). There are frequent attempts by all parties to suggest that one or another of these potentialities is effectively ruled-out or illegitimate, but clearly this has not yet been persuasive.

What is striking is that many polls now indicate that a Condorcet cycle – a paradox of preferences – exists between these three options. This is a paradox which seemingly runs throughout UK politics, from the general public to the dispositions of elected MPs. But what is a Condorcet cycle? Famously explored by Kenneth Arrow, this is about an underlying paradox that can emerge when translating individual preferences into social choices. Imagine three voters choosing between three options.

Voter 1:            A > B > C

Voter 2:            B > C > A

Voter 3:            C > A > B

It is clear that there can be no majority winner among them: the vote is deadlocked, because by pairwise comparisons, each option is at some stage preferable to every other. Different methods of counting these votes will therefore produce varying outcomes, and in any situation a majority of participants will be disappointed by the result. They’ve tried to be democratic, but the final decision will always feel, to some extent, arbitrary.

When people are polled directly on these three options in pairwise comparisons, a similar pattern emerges. At least a few polls now indicate a majority would prefer May’s deal to remaining in the EU outright; almost all polls show that a majority prefers remaining in the EU to leaving; and a subset of these show an even clearer majority preference for remaining over a no-deal exit. Finally, a majority prefers leaving the EU without a deal to the government’s Withdrawal Agreement. Deal > Remain > No-deal > Deal.

To simplify further: the referendum showed that more people oppose remaining than support it. Polling shows that more people oppose the government’s deal than support it, and that more people oppose a no-deal exit than support it. Under all circumstances, a majority will end up displeased.

Reflective of this, at present no outright majority exists in the House of Commons for any of these three outcomes. Even with a strong pro-remain tendency in the average MP, the political mandate created by the 2016 referendum leads to a similar preference-impasse. Intuitively, it makes sense for a median position to be marginally preferred to simply forgetting the whole Brexit idea, among both public and politicians. It also makes sense that the risks associated with no-deal would create a majority preference around remaining if it were the only alternative, and that the compromises and gaps represented by the government’s deal would lead to overarching preferences for that no-deal Brexit in a pairwise comparison.

What can we do in a deadlock situation like this? Here are some possible escape routes:

1. Articulating deeper preferences. Going further than finding out everyone’s first choice through a simple vote – is one. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of Condorcet cycles, as in the example given above, but it does make them more unlikely. See the illustration from a recent Deltapoll survey below. In this poll, the government’s withdrawal agreement emerges as a ‘Condorcet winner’ – a middle option that trumps either outright remain or outright no-deal, as discussed by Simon Fisher. This could be achieved by a referendum using a voting system that allows voters to set out their preferences in order. But this is not uncontroversial: we’re not used to finding ways of endorsing an outcome that’s everybody’s second-favourite. And, perhaps worse, this could ultimately reveal an even deeper level to the Condorcet cycle.

2. Hand-off the decision to a smaller subset of representatives who are empowered to make an informed final decision. Or, more simply – representative democracy. The problem here is that our representatives may be liable to be just as divided as we are, but this is effectively the option that is being trialled now, over days of debating and voting in the Commons. A crucial component that can be added under these circumstances is deliberation, which is impossible to accomplish meaningfully for a whole population, but could make all the difference among 650 legislators. By hearing and offering reasons for the different alternatives, deliberation can sometimes eliminate Condorcet cycles through meta-agreement, where participants find they can agree on the most important benchmarks against which the alternatives should be measured, and/or the emergence of more rational preferences, which will tend to favour the ‘middle’ option in a set of three. This is effectively what the government is counting on. Unfortunately – as any MP can tell you – the Commons is seldom reflective of an ideal deliberative environment, and even if it were, you might nevertheless fail to resolve the deadlock.

3. Formulate a new alternative to disrupt existing preferences or to become a clearer overall preferred option. This could be the product of a deliberative process, or it could be suggested from outside and gather enough support to come into real contention. We might think of the often-mooted Norway model/EFTA Brexit in these terms: a different plan that could end up generating wide appeal among MPs, if not the general public. There are issues here too, though: a new option could simply further complicate the whole picture, leading to a Condorcet paradox between four alternatives instead of three, and further weakening the mandate for any one option.

4. Boil the options down to two alternatives. Condorcet cycles can’t emerge between fewer than three options. If the final decision is between just two options, then a clear winner is likely to emerge. This is probably the simplest response, but also arguably the most arbitrary one. Which two options should be on the table, when at least three seem to be quite equally disliked? How legitimate would a subsequent vote or referendum be in the eyes of those participating? And, of course, even a straight-forward two-way vote can result in near-deadlock. The 2016 referendum itself ended up with a result so close that it has been the backdrop for endless disputes ever since: a more emphatic victory either way would surely have led to a very different political reality now.

Option 2, rolling through the Commons as I write, may yet yield results. Nevertheless, it now seems clear that, however things play out, there will always be a majority in the UK that will find the ultimate outcome of the Brexit process to be very far from their first choice.


About the Author

Dr Simon Kaye is Research Director at the Project for Modern Democracy think tank, having previously worked at King’s College London.




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).

Why 2017 may have witnessed a Youthquake after all

While prominent immediately after Labour’s performance in the 2017 election, the idea of a ‘youthquake’ has since been challenged by the British Election Study team. Using the latest data from the Understanding Society survey, however, Patrick Sturgis and Will Jennings show that there was, after all, a large and significant increase in turnout amongst the under 30s.

The 2017 snap general election saw a substantial reconfiguration of party support during the short campaign from 18 April to Election Day on 8 June. From polling as low as 25% in mid-April, Labour surged to as high as 40% in the final polls, an estimate that matched their actual vote share. While not historically unprecedented, such large shifts in voting preferences are rare during the course of a campaign.

Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the surge in Labour support in 2017. These include disaffected Conservative Remainers switching to Labour, weaknesses in the Conservative manifesto and campaign strategy – in particular the so-called ‘Dementia Tax’ and widespread tactical voting for Labour as a means of preventing the Conservatives from winning a landslide. In the weeks after the election, however, the most widely held view was that Jeremy Corbyn had particularly appealed to young people, who turned out to vote at historically unprecedented levels – the so-called ‘Youthquake’.

The Youthquake theory was supported by an analysis of constituency level vote shares carried out shortly after the election by Oliver Heath and Matthew Goodwin, which found the largest increases in turnout were in constituencies with larger numbers of young people. Pre- and post-election polls conducted by The Stream for the music magazine NME and by Ipsos MORI also showed large increases in turnout amongst 18- to 30-year-olds between the 2015 and 2017 elections. YouGov’s own polling, as well as polls it carried out for the Essex Continuous Monitoring Survey, provided further corroborating evidence of a large increase in voting amongst those aged under thirty. As this all tallied with anecdotal evidence, such as Corbyn’s ecstatic reception at Glastonbury, the idea that Labour’s electoral gains were driven by young voters soon became established as conventional wisdom.

The British Election Study (BES) team, however, were not convinced. In a widely reported study, they showed that there was no relationship between the proportion of 18- to 30-year-olds in a constituency and the level of turnout increase once population density was controlled for. Turnout just happened to have increased most in constituencies with more young people, and it could not be concluded from this aggregate evidence that more young people actually turned out to vote. They also noted serious limitations of opinion polls for studying voting behaviour, namely that polls substantially over-estimate turnout. This is for two reasons. First, UK polls employ non-random sampling procedures which include too many politically engaged people and too few non-voters. Second, a substantial minority of people tell pollsters that they voted when they in fact didn’t.

The BES team undertook their own individual-level analysis of turnout amongst young people using the 2015 and 2017 waves of the BES. The BES is a post-election cross-sectional survey that has been fielded at every election since 1964. It adheres to the highest methodological standards, using face-to-face interviews and strict random sampling at all stages. The survey also includes a vote validation component, in which respondents’ self-reported vote is validated against electoral records. This means that estimates of turnout are not biased by misreporting.

Using these higher quality data sets, they found little in the way of change in turnout for the under 30s in 2017, concluding, “there is no evidence to suggest the relationship between age and turnout changed substantially between 2015 and 2017”. The same conclusion was drawn by John Curtice and Ian Simpson in their analysis of the 2015 and 2017 British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys, which also employ random sampling and face-to-face interviews. While the BSA showed a 6 percentage point increase in turnout for the 18 to 24 group, this was not statistically distinguishable from no change.

So, case closed? Perhaps not. In November 2018, the University of Essex released Wave 8 of the Understanding Society survey. Understanding Society is a longitudinal household panel survey which interviews a random sample of the UK population annually on a range of different topics, including voting and party support. Like the BES, Understanding Society uses ‘gold standard’ methods. A key feature is its very large sample size (around 40,000 respondents at Wave 8). This is important for our purposes here, because the primary limitation of both the BES and the BSA is their comparatively small sample sizes for sub-group analysis. For the BES, the sample size for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2017 was just 53 using validated vote and 157 using self-reported vote, while for the BSA (which only has a self-report question) the sample size was just 162. These small samples make it difficult to statistically detect even quite large changes in turnout between elections (particularly when weights are applied, as this tends to reduce the effective sample size still further).

In Waves 2, 7, and 8 of Understanding Society respondents were asked whether they had voted in the most recent election and, if they had, which party they voted for (corresponding to the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections, respectively). The number of 18 to 24 year olds was 1,897 in Wave 2, 1,363 in Wave 7, and 919 in Wave 8. (These are the sample sizes for respondents who were asked the turnout question and provided a valid answer. The full sample sizes for this age group are larger. The sample size is lower in Wave 8 partly due to attrition and partly because some respondents were interviewed before the election, so were not asked whether they voted.) These larger sample sizes make it possible to assess the evidence for change in turnout among young people at a higher degree of granularity than has been possible to date.

Figure 1 plots non-parametric regression estimates of the relationship between age and turnout. The dark blue line, which represents turnout in 2017, is clearly and substantially higher for the youngest voters, aligning with 2015 turnout at around the age of 35. Interestingly, the figure also reveals a significant increase in turnout for the youngest voters between 2010 and 2015, a change which has not, to our knowledge, been previously noted – indeed the focus of Ed Miliband’s Labour on youth engagement in the run-up to the 2015 general election was widely derided at the time.

The estimates in Figure 1 are unweighted, so do not account for the greater tendency of non-voters to drop out of the Understanding Society panel over time. We therefore also compare turnout proportions within age-bands using a weighted estimator. The results are reported in Table 1. These show that there was an 8 percentage point increase in turnout for 18-24 year olds between 2015 and 2017, although this difference is marginally non-significant at the 95% level of confidence. For 25- to 29-year-olds, the increase in turnout is 13 percentage points and this difference is statistically significant. Differences in turnout at higher age bands are smaller and none are statistically significant.

The thresholds used for age bands are essentially arbitrary (i.e. why use 24 years as the cut-off point for the youngest group?). We therefore also present estimates in Table 2 using 18-25 for the youngest group with age bands increasing at five-year intervals thereafter. Using this age banding, the increase in turnout is statistically significant for both the 18-25 group (9 percentage points) and 26- to 30-year-old group (14 percentage points). While the statistical significance of the increase does, then, depend to some extent on how the age bands are defined, these estimates nevertheless support the claim that there was a large increase in turnout amongst voters under the age of 30 in the 2017 general election.

Figure 1. Nonparametric smoothed local polynomial regression probability of turnout by age in years, Understanding Society Waves 2, 7 & 8.

This increase in turnout amongst young people, combined with the greater tendency of young people to vote Labour in 2017, means that the party drew particularly heavily on the support of younger voters in this election. This can be seen in Figure 2, which plots predicted probabilities of voting Labour by age. Strikingly, the probability of someone in their 20s voting Labour is estimated at around 0.7 compared to 0.4 in 2015 and 2010.

Figure 2. Nonparametric smoothed local polynomial regression probability of Labour vote by age in years, Understanding Society Waves 2, 7 & 8.

Like the other sources of data discussed here[1], the Understanding Society survey has its own limitations and weaknesses, most notably a low response rate – although the wealth of information on nonrespondents available from earlier waves means that powerful weights are available to correct for differential nonresponse – and the use of self-reported turnout (rather than validated vote). It over-estimates turnout at each of the past three general elections by between nine and 13 percentage points, no doubt a combination of nonresponse bias and mis-reporting. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that these biases are largely stable across waves, i.e. the levels of estimated turnout may be too high but there is little reason to assume that changes in turnout or party support should be subject to systematically different biases across elections. And, while the size of the turnout increase we see in this data may not be as of great a magnitude as some have contended, it would seem that 2017 may have witnessed something of a Youthquake after all.


[1] Interested readers are directed to Roger Mortimore’s excellent chapter on data sources for measuring turnout in the UK in the forthcoming book Political Communication in Britain.


About the Authors

Patrick Sturgis is Professor of Research Methodology in the Department of Social Statistics & Demography at the University of Southampton and Director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods.


Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton.




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.

Vote switchers: the two groups of voters whose values the main parties must understand

Looking at voters’ values helps explain the UK’s changing electoral landscape, write Paula Surridge, Michael Turner, Robert Struthers, and Clive McDonnell. They look at vote switching between 2015 and 2017, and explain why the two main parties need to understand the values of two specific groups of voters in order to appeal to them.

The period between the 2010 general election and that of 2017 has been marked by very high levels of voting volatility. The collapse of first the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015, and then UKIP in 2017 appears on the surface to have led us back to a two-party system, with Labour and the Conservatives gaining the highest two-party share of the vote since the 1970s. This apparent return to the two-party system masks high levels of individual level volatility as well as the potential for existing (and new) ‘3rd’ parties to be resurgent as the voters struggle to fit themselves into a party system which barely reflects their values and preferences.

Having previously introduced the values clans here, this piece uses this framework to look at vote switching between 2015 and 2017, and considers the values of the clans which had the greatest prevalence of vote switching.

Taking only those who voted in both the 2015 and 2017 elections, we can calculate the proportion who changed parties within each of the values clans. As shown in Figure 1, this proportion was highest among the Proud and Patriotic State clan – who combine left-wing economics with socially conservative values – and lowest among the Notting Hill Society – with broadly right-wing economic instincts. This strongly mirrors the two-party (Labour plus Conservative) share of the vote in each clan and is indicative that much of the switching between parties occurs between a ‘minor’ party and one of the two major parties, with direct switching between Labour and the Conservatives rare. Overall, around 1 in 20 voters switched directly between Labour and the Conservatives between 2015 and 2017.

Note: see here for a detailed explanation of the various clans illustrated above.

Considering how the different clans behaved, and the characteristics of those with higher levels of switching helps us understand where potential volatility still lays. Two clans stand out as having higher levels of vote switching, these being the Proud and Patriotic State (PPS) and the Modern Working Life (MWL) clans – the latter being more likely to believe in individual responsibility for financial well-being but liberal on social issues and the environment. Nonetheless, the two groups are very different in their behaviour. The PPS were the clan most likely to have voted UKIP in 2015 (1 in 5); there was therefore a substantial proportion of this clan ‘up for grabs’ by the major parties as UKIP collapsed in 2017. By contrast, the MWL clan did not have a particularly large share for UKIP (or any other minor party) in 2015. Around half this group voted Conservative in 2015, a further quarter voted Labour, and around 1 in 8 voted for the Liberal Democrats. As a result of these very different profiles in 2015, switching in these two clans is different too. For the PPS group this is primarily switching from UKIP to one of the main parties, while among the MWL 1 in 10 switched directly between Labour and the Conservatives, such that in 2017 Labour had a very slight lead among this group.

Looking more closely at the values of these two groups provides us with further clues as to how values influence political behaviour. The clans are described according to their positions on a set of 27 items which can be further grouped into 11 broader categories. Spider diagrams then illustrate the values profiles of the clans. The diagrams are drawn so that positions close to the centre of the ‘web’ are the most ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ positions and those furthest out are the least liberal or most right-wing positions.

The spider diagram for the Proud and Patriotic State group shows a values profile that lies close to the outside of the web on a wide range of issues; notably Immigration and Multiculturalism, International Affairs, and Crime and Punishment but who also have notably ‘left’ leaning views on the Economy and Workers’ Rights. In an earlier piece we described this as one of the ‘cross-pressured’ clans for this reason.

Looking at how these voters switched between 2015 and 2017 reflects this cross-pressure. Most of the switching in this clan is between UKIP in 2015 and one of the main parties in 2017. This is not all to one party, however: a mistake often made in the run up to the 2017 election was to assume that all the ex-UKIP vote would go to the Conservatives. Among this clan those who switched from UKIP went to the Conservatives over Labour in a ratio of 2:1. So, around one third of those who switched from UKIP in this clan voted Labour in 2017. By contrast among the Bastions of Trade and Industry (BTI) group (the clan with the second highest proportion voting UKIP in 2015) those who switched from UKIP overwhelmingly supported the Conservatives in 2017 (almost 95% of the UKIP switchers went to the Conservatives).

The Modern Working Life spider diagram contrasts sharply with that of the PPS. This group are much more liberal on issues of Immigration, Gender and Sexuality, the Environment and Religion. They are close to the ‘mid-point’ on the Economy but somewhat less liberal on issues of Welfare and Crime. Having less obvious and clear ties to a party on economic grounds, this clan are a key ‘swing’ clan for the major parties. While only representing a small proportion of the electorate they are nonetheless a crucial group electorally given this heightened tendency to switch directly between the two main parties.

Aside from high levels of vote switching, these two clans share another feature. They are the two clans (apart from the Apathy group) with the lowest levels of political interest. Just 1 in 10 of these groups say they are ‘very’ interested in politics. This may mean that they are less likely to have strong attachments to parties and therefore make them more volatile, but it also means they are less easy to reach with political messages.

For future elections these groups are likely to again be volatile, but with rather different possible scenarios. The MWL group could prove central to the competition between the two main parties whilst the PPS group are the most likely source of any resurgence in the UKIP vote. In both cases the main parties will need to understand the values of these groups in order to make success appeals for their support.

About the Authors
Paula Surridge is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol.



Michael Turner is Research Director & Head of Polling at BMG Research.



Robert Struthers
is a Senior Research Executive at BMG Research.



Clive McDonnell
is a Data Analyst at BMG Research.

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