Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Campaigning online and offline: the significance of local and national contexts.

Paul Webb addresses the question of what members do for their parties during campaigns, and explains why there is value in considering the impact of national and local political contexts. He writes that whereas the former enhances online participation by party members, the latter considerably improves the model of offline participation.

When it comes to election campaigning, boots on the ground can sometimes beat – or at least, mitigate the effect of – cash in the bank. It is very likely that Labour’s huge advantage over the Tories in terms of membership would have counted for something in close constituency races in the general election of 2017 – as long as a decent proportion of those members are actually active. These are the sort of people who will volunteer for phone banks, deliver leaflets, and canvass door-to-door in the run-up to the election, and then remind people to vote and help them get to the polling stations on polling day itself. But in this day and age, it isn’t just a matter of these perennial methods of campaigning, but increasingly too about exploiting the potential of social media to spread party and candidate messages. With evidence that Labour enjoyed a particular advantage over their main rivals in terms of social media strategy in 2107, it is important to know what drives online campaigning by activists, and whether the answer differs from that for offline campaigning.

We can shed light on this, thanks to the detailed surveys of the members of six British parties we have conducted since 2015 as part of the ESRC-funded Party Membership Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University. Table 1 reports the range and scale of activities of our respondents during the election campaign. In terms of inter-party differences, this shows that SNP members were the most active overall, while Conservative members trailed behind the others. Social media acts (posting on Facebook or tweeting) feature among the most prominent forms of campaign activity, while things that generally require more effort or time, like running party committees and getting the vote out on polling day, attracted far few participants – unsurprisingly. But do the same factors drive members to participate online and offline? Not exactly.

Our results suggest some significant differences between offline and online campaign participation. The details of our statistical modelling can be found in this article, but the major findings are fairly easy to summarize. We found that factors relating to the local party and constituency context are especially helpful in understanding the drivers of traditional offline activism, but are less pertinent to online activity. If an individual is recruited by his or her local party, becomes embedded within its social network, forms a positive impression of the way it conducts its business and feels comfortable with its general ideological outlook, he or she will be significantly more likely to campaign for it at election time than if one or more of these conditions do not apply – all the more so if this all happens to occur in a marginal constituency, and if he or she is a member of one of the major two parties. However, these local contextual factors do not carry the same significance for online participation, which is driven more exclusively by factors associated with the national party and its leadership (i.e. its general policy positions and leader images).

A point of particular interest is that members who are recruited via the local rather than the national party are more likely to participate in traditional offline forms of campaign activity, but less likely to engage in social media ‘clicktivism’. While online activism is undeniably significant now, offline campaigning is by no means a thing of the past – and our research suggests that if parties want members to get involved in such activities, then they need to think very carefully before rushing into making recruitment and participation more national and more digital. At the heart of this is the process of welcoming and inducting new recruits without intimidating them or turning them off: it is vital that members feel that they are part of a sympathetic social network of like-minded people whose company they enjoy if they are to commit themselves to a party’s cause in a national election campaign. In this regard, for instance, anecdotal reports that Constituency Labour Party meetings are becoming increasingly fraught (and sometimes downright bloody) affairs should therefore be a cause for concern.


Note: the above draws on the author’s paper (with Tim Bale and Monica Poletti) in Political Studies.

About the Author

Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.




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.

When people decide whether to write to their MP, does the MP’s gender matter?

Alex Parsons and Rebecca Rumbul explain that although women are more likely than expected to write to female MPs, this does not necessarily mean that they are making that decision purely based on gender; rather it may be because certain topics that are more important to them are also ones that female MPs have developed an interest in.

WriteToThem, a mySociety project running since 2005, lets people write to their elected representatives through a website. It takes your postcode and gives you a list of your elected representatives, from local councillors to MPs. It then gives you a box to write a message and sends the email for you.

We’ve previously explored how we can use the website’s responsiveness survey to examine features of the electoral system. This time we’re exploring how the data from the site shows that there is a same-gender effect in constituent communication, with women being more likely than expected to write to female MPs, and men to male MPs (with the effect for women being larger). While personal information is discarded after a period, we retain some anonymised demographic features – derived gender from name and the LSOA of their original postcode. This lets us explore demographics of who the site is being used by, who is writing to different kinds of representative, and how it differs from the overall picture of users to the site.

Because we know demographic use of the site isn’t even, we use chi square tests to see if a particular subset of the data is statistically different from the general picture. From this, for instance, we learned that people writing to MPs on the site tend to be more male and writing from less deprived areas than those writing to other representatives. People writing to local councils have a roughly even gender balance and are writing from more deprived postcodes. This has also thrown up some odd effects like a gender difference in the time people write to their MPs. While generally very few people are writing to their MP at night, those who are, are disproportionately male.

Combining this data with data about the representative they’re writing to, we can examine how these factors interact. Given the overall number of men and women writing to the site, is there any effect where women were more likely to write to female representatives or men to male ones?

For the House of Commons, the analysis showed that, while female MPs received most of their messages through the platform from men (57.9%), a disproportionate number came from women compared to the number of women using the website. The difference between expected and actual was 4.8% (std. residual: 15.45). This effect was similarly true for men writing to men, but smaller – with a difference between expected and actual of 1.09% (std. residual: 7.33). This is quite a subtle effect and requires a large sample size to detect.

Looking for the same effect across all UK representatives covered by WriteToThem we found a similar effect for messages sent to Lords and councillors. For the House of Lords the effect was much larger, with a 16.7% difference between actual and expected (std. residual 14.08). For the European Parliament this also held except the effect for men writing to men is not statistically significant. There was not an effect for the devolved parliament and assemblies (but this might also reflect there were fewer messages sent to these bodies, and so we are less able to detect subtle effects).

One potential show-stopper for this analysis is how it interacts with party. While at present 32% of MPs in the House of Commons are women, this figure is propped up by the Labour Party and drops to 23% if you remove Labour MPs. So, one concern is a greater number of women writing to women might actually be detecting a ‘women are more likely to write to their MP if their MP is a Labour MP’ effect. To resolve this, we re-ran the analysis for each party in turn. This showed the effect can be seen for Labour and Conservative Parties, with the effect of women being less likely to write to men and more likely to write to women visible for the Lib Dems, with no effect for the SNP. These last two results might simply be an effect of the lower number of messages sent to MPs of these parties – making the small effect harder to detect. However, the results for the Labour Party and Conservative Party validate that this effect is not acting as a proxy for party.

The effect is evident (if small), but what does it mean? We need to examine what choices we think people are making. For the House of Lords, WriteToThem gives several options for how you can contact: interest in topic (based on speeches), connection with place, or if they share your birthday. The first option seems the most important as it gives people a list of Lords to choose from and might explain why the effect is stronger. People writing to peers on a specific topic are given the option to choose from a set – which can allow people to make choices based on gender (which people can’t do when writing to their MP).

Alternatively, this might suggest that the important aspect is the topic. Rather than this being an effect based on gender, are there certain topics that are more important to women, and that female MPs are more likely to have developed an interest and profile in? And so the effect is greater for the Lords because it facilitates this ‘person with a specific expertise’ connection?

This area of research is still in development and something we’re trying to figure out how to think about. That gender (or topic) effects are present (if small) presents a new frame for discussions of voting systems that give voters multiple options of representatives, and potential problems with the MP-constituency link when the majority of the country have only male representatives.


Note: Other mySociety research and the mySociety research newsletter can be found here.

About the Authors

Alex Parsons is a Research Associate at mySociety. He holds a MSc in Democracy and Democratisation and tweets at @alexparsons.



Rebecca Rumbul is Head of Research for mySociety. She holds a PhD in politics and governance, and tweets at @RebeccaRumbul.




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

The transformation of British politics: was it really caused by the 2008 crisis?

The vote to leave the EU, the rise of the SNP, the demise of the Liberal Democrats, and Labour’s turn to the left mean British politics looks very different now than it did in 2008. But these changes are not the product of the 2008 crash per se; rather they are the result of the intense politicisation of issues that were already evident as fault lines when the crisis happened, writes Helen Thompson.

A decade after the 2008 crash, British politics looks very different than it did. Britain is on course to leave the EU; the Union has been stretched to near breaking point by the ascendancy in Scotland of the Scottish Nationalist Party over the Labour Party; the Liberal Democrats have sunk into near irrelevance; and the Labour Party has moved radically to the left and back towards being a mass membership party. Yet this rapid political change has dovetailed with an economy that in most structural respects looks considerably as it did in 2007, even as average real wages remain below what they then were. Despite the promises of the Coalition government to rebalance the economy towards the manufacturing sector, Britain remains a service-dominated economy in which finance plays a significant part. The economy also remains characterised by low unemployment, sizeable consumer debt, quite high levels of net immigration, and a significant current account deficit.

What is striking about the political transformation of the past ten years is the way much of it has arisen from the intense politicisation of issues that were actually already evident as fault lines before 2008. This pattern begins with Brexit. Prior to 2008, Britain had a singular political economy in regard to EU membership. It was outside the euro and had eschewed transition arrangements on freedom of movement, in good part because the Blair government had seen high levels of immigration as an anti-inflationary discipline in an economy that was more prone to inflationary pressures than those in the euro-zone. British membership of the EU worked by keeping the question of Britain’s participation in the European Single Market, including freedom of movement, separate from its non-membership of the euro.

What the fallout of the 2008 crash shattered was this compartmentalisation. It in part did so because British governments and the Bank of England could respond to the crash in macro-economic terms with policy tools that Britain retained in the 1990s and the eurozone states renounced. Under crisis conditions, the substantial differences between the macro political economy of British politics and those of the eurozone states could not be masked, and neither could the problems that London’s position as the offshore financial centre of the eurozone posed for other states.

The ascendancy of the Scottish Nationalists over Labour in Edinburgh and later at Westminster is also hard to explain if the 2008 crash is seen as a primary cause. Labour did extremely well in Scotland in the 2010 general election. What changed Scottish politics was the manner in which the end of Gordon Brown’s leadership of the Labour Party exposed the organisational hollowness of Scottish Labour and the inability of Ed Miliband to calibrate himself to Scottish politics at the time of the 2011 elections. The fact that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour has made little progress in recovering its position in Scotland suggests that the pre-Corbyn party’s stance on fiscal austerity had a limited effect on this political change. Given the issues generated by the manner of Scottish devolution in 1999, including in relation to the governance of England, Scottish politics was always likely to be rendered unstable under conditions when Labour was no longer in power both in Westminster and Edinburgh.

Indeed, the issues caused by the rise of the Scottish Nationalists at the expense of Labour under conditions of asymmetrical devolution are also central to the demise of the Liberal Democrats. Certainly the Liberal Democrats lost credibility among their left-wing voters by entering into coalition with the Conservatives and supporting specific expenditure-cutting measures to reduce the budget deficit as well as for their U-turn on tuition fees. But what cost them their position as a necessary governing coalition partner for the Conservatives was their unwillingness to rule out a coalition with Labour in circumstances when such a coalition would, by necessity, also have to have included the Scottish Nationalists and their consequent electoral wipe-out in constituencies where their rival was the Conservatives.

Labour’s move to the left under Corbyn is the clearest case where what has happened is almost certainly dependent on the deterioration of real average wages and the fiscal response to the 2008 crash, given the way Corbyn was able to use austerity as an issue of attack against his opponents for the leadership in 2015. The internal rebellion among Labour members against the cadre of former special advisors that came to dominate the upper echelons of the party after Blair and Brown’s exit also arose in part from the inability of that group of politicians to respond to the wider political backlash triggered by the 2008 crash against the material corruption of parts of the political class by their relationship to the donor and influence-seeking class.

Nonetheless, a significant social basis of Labour’s mass membership and an important constituency of its electoral support in 2017 have also arisen from structural changes that were already occurring before 2008, namely the falling rates of home ownership among millennials and younger generation Xers and the large expansion in the number of those going to university without anything like a concurrent increase in graduate level jobs. In taking control of the party, Corbyn also hugely benefitted from the ongoing political fallout of the Iraq war. Fifteen years later it is still not plausible that anyone who supported that war can secure the leadership.

Paradoxically, Corbyn’s success as an insurgent politician takes us back to what 2008 revealed about the long-standing distinctive nature of Britain’s macro political economy. Labour is one of the few European centre-left parties that has not had a dismal time since the 2008 crash. British politicians can sound plausible talking the language of anti-austerity and borrowing to invest because Britain is not bound by the fiscal rules of the euro. Moreover, the reason why bond markets are not such an obvious constraint on the Corbyn economic project is precisely because the British monetary response to 2008 that non-euro membership made possible demonstrated that the Bank of England can support government borrowing without necessarily igniting inflation. Whether the policy tools that appear to be be available to the Labour government could be anything like sufficient to achieve economic outcomes that would benefit Labour’s new electoral coalition must remain a very open question, even before the (at least short-term) difficulties of transitioning away from EU membership are considered. But even the experiment, if and when it comes, will speak to the political consequences of the rather singular long-term trajectory of Britain’s macro political economy.


About the Author

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge. Her latest book Oil and the western economic crisis was published by Palgrave in 2017. For a full list of publications, see here.



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

The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity

Drawing on spatial analysis of local authority budgets, Mia Gray and Anna Barford highlight the uneven impacts of UK austerity. They argue that it has actively reshaped the relationship between central and local government, shrinking the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments, and exacerbating territorial injustice.

Contemporary austerity in Britain has become both a powerful political discourse and an integrated policy of rapid cuts to state expenditure. Although there was considerable public debate about the wisdom of austerity – its pace and its scope – politicians and much of the popular media presented a narrative around austerity that invoked inevitability, the probable consequences of spooking financial markets, and the prudence of fiscal responsibility. Our research explores the spending cuts in local authority budgets in the UK and examines the relationship between the local and central government. We argue that austerity has actively reshaped the relationship between central and local government in Britain, shrinking the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments, and exacerbating territorial injustice.

UK austerity policy focused on across-the-board budget cuts to almost all government departments. By far the largest cuts between 2010 and 2015 fell upon local government which lost over half its funding during this period (Figure 1). These cuts have been very uneven, both between local authorities and in which services suffered the greatest cuts. Simultaneous state restructuring has meant that additional public service provision is pushed down to lower levels of government with no corresponding revenue stream – concentrating the tensions and politics of national fiscal crisis onto local government. Within local government, councillors weigh service areas up against one another, making forced choices as to where to cut the most. Planning and development services, which to many on the political right is the exemplar of the “bloated” and bureaucratic state, seemed a particular target and lost over half (53%) of their spend between 2010 and 2016.

Figure 1. Real-terms cuts in departmental expenditure limits, 2010–11 to 2015–16.

Note: The 2015-16 defence budget includes the special reserve. The CLG Local Government budgets for Wales and Scotland are adjusted for council tax benefit localisation and business rates retention. Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies (2015), ‘Recent cuts to Public Spending’. Based on HM Treasury Data (July 2015 Budget).

Despite having good data on total national cuts in departmental funding, including for local government expenditure, patterns of cuts and the specificities of how local economies are affected are harder to come by. Analysis of government data by the Institute for Fiscal Studies offers insight into the geography of local government austerity. The biggest spending cuts, and highest grant dependence, tend to exist in cities. This pattern is clear in many London boroughs and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Oldham, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Nottingham and Doncaster; all received a high proportion of their funding from the central grant, and experienced cuts of over 25% to total service spending (Figure 2). Wales and Scotland have been buffered from the depths of the English budget cuts.

Figure 2. Map of change in service spending in Wales, Scotland and England, 2009-10 to 2016-17.

Note: The Welsh data show service spending, excluding education spending and housing benefits. The Scottish data exclude education spending. The English data exclude police, fire, public health, education, and elements of social care spending. Map drawn using data sourced from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Amin-Smith et al. (2016).

Austerity budgets have exacerbated the division between those cities which have the economic resilience to withstand these cuts and those that are unable to do so and are forced to downsize local government and retrench public services. Variations between authorities (in terms of funding, local tax-base, fiscal resources, assets, political control, service-need and demographics) lead to great variation in spending cuts. The funding from the central state results from a funding formula which largely allocates budgets according to need. Thus, it acts as a mechanism to redistribute tax revenue to areas with the highest need – but also renders the same areas the most vulnerable to budget cuts (Figure 3). This vulnerability is evident from the past seven years: the places which are most dependent on money from central government have cut service spending most severely, in order to meet the legal requirement of balanced budgets.

Figure 3. Grant dependence and service spending cuts in England.

Note: This graph shows the relationship between percentage of local authority grant dependence in 2009/10, and service spending cuts 2009/10-2016/17. Local Authorities are sorted into decile groups according to level of grant dependence, hidden by this are the extremes of the City of London being the most grant dependent at 95% and Wokingham Unitary Authority being the least grant dependent at 28%. This graph has been redrawn, based on the original produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Amin-Smith et al. (2016).

Austerity pushed down to the level of local government in the UK has led to:

  • a shrinking capacity of the local state to address inequality;
  • (ii) increasing inequality between local governments themselves;
  • (iii) intensifying issues of territorial injustice.

Some local authorities have moved to a position of only providing the most basic functions and dropping many preventative interventions, and those with the biggest service spending cuts will be withdrawing services the fastest. A very serious outcome of this is that removing structures of social support paves the way for more sizable case loads in the future. More broadly, austerity at the local level is part of a longer-term political project to re-shape and redefine the welfare state, shifting responsibility for societal well-being towards individuals, the private sector, and the third sector. This research shows how austerity compromises a major redistributive function of the local state, exacerbating territorial injustice in an already highly unequal nation.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. The full article is open access and the research is funded by the Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust, the British Academy and the Canada-UK Foundation.

About the Authors

Mia Gray is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Girton College.




Anna Barford is a College Lecturer in Geography at the University of Cambridge, Fellow of Girton College, and Bye Fellow of Murray Edwards College.




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).

Who won Britain’s culture wars? The urban left’s mixed success

Although often ridiculed in the 1980s, the left’s social policies were on the winning side when it came to gender, sexuality, and environmentalism, writes James Curran. However, the same cannot be said for their politics of race, and certainly not for their economic policies.

During the 1980s, the urban left was rendered toxic. It was reviled by the press, demonised by Conservative government minsters, and denounced by Labour’s leadership. The phrase ‘loony left’ entered the English language to denote a deluded socialism that warranted only ridicule. Nothing more needed to be said, no additional arguments needed to be mustered: the ‘loony left’ stood for all that was absurd about an unhinged, zealous, politically correct strand of social radicalism.

However, since the 1980s, the once derided policies of the urban left have gained increased support, and in some instances become part of the new consensus. This is especially true in relation to the urban left’s stand on homosexuality. It championed Gay Liberation and argued that gay relationships should be normalised – a deeply unpopular position during the AIDS moral panic. But a sea change of public attitudes took place in the subsequent period. Whereas 74% said that same-sex relationships were always or mostly wrong in 1987, only 16% took this view in 2016. In 1983, only 41% thought it was right for a homosexual to teach in a school, compared with 83% in 2012. Similarly, a bare majority (53%) in 1983 thought that it was acceptable for a homosexual ‘to hold a responsible position in public life’ whereas 90% was comfortable with this in 2012. Against this background of changing attitudes, gay marriage was legalised in 2013 – symbolically affirming the normality of gay relationships.

Something similar happened in the case of gender relations. In the 1980s, the urban left were mocked for championing feminism, and ridiculed for seeking to ‘subvert’ traditional gender norms. But what seemed to some ridiculous in the 1980s appeared less so some 25 years later. Whereas in 1987 48% of the population agreed that ‘a man’s job is to earn money’ and ‘the woman’s job is to look after the home and family’, only 13% took this view in 2012. This reflected a generational shift. Younger people were much more inclined than the older generation to say that it was acceptable for women with young children to go out to work.

Admittedly, the traditional stigma attached to feminism lingered on. In 2015, only 7% of British adults (and 9% of women) defined themselves as feminists, principally because feminism was associated with being extreme, polarising and ‘political’. But the movement became stronger from the 1980s onwards partly because it gained increased support from the right, and also among men. By 2015, large majorities in Britain agreed that gender equality was desirable; that it had not been achieved; and that more needed to be done to rectify this. Indeed, 67% said that they were sympathetic to feminism. Feminism-lite became mainstream.

Although the urban left’s environmentalism was not reviled in the 1980s, it was viewed by many as a ‘fringe’ interest. This ceased to be the case, with the dawning realisation that climate change was a reality. By 2014, a mere 6% disputed that the planet was warming; and a further 6% disagreed that human activity was contributing to climate change. Against this background, only a handful of MPs opposed in 2008 the Labour government’s Climate Change Act, setting out a detailed plan for reducing carbon admissions. Britain’s support for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2016, under a Conservative government, had all-party backing.

The 1980s London left (in which the Labour triumvirate of Corbyn, McDonnell, and Abbott were all prominent ) were also outriders of change in relation to race. Their stand in favour of positive action to redress racial inequality was attacked as a form of ‘inverted racism’. However, their stand became mainstream by the 2000s. Organisations like the BBC, Football Association, and Metropolitan Police deliberately sought to recruit and promote members of racial minorities, urged on by both Labour and Conservative governments.

However, this shift was not underwritten to the same degree by a change of public attitudes. On the one hand, racism in much of Britain declined. Whereas over 50% expressed hostility to inter-racial marriage in their family in the late 1980s, this dropped to 35% in 1996 and to 20% in 2013. But if one part of society became less racist, another part dug in its heels. The percentage of people saying that they were prejudiced against other races fell from 36% to 26% between 1983 and 2017. But the decline was not linear, and those saying that they were racially prejudiced never dropped below a quarter of the population during this period. Overt racism was anchored by tenacious beliefs about racial inferiority; fuelled by the rise of Islamophobia (in 2013, twice as many people said that they would mind a family member marrying a Muslim as said the same of a black person); and strengthened by growing opposition to the increase of immigration into the United Kingdom.

So, if the urban left of the 1980s were on the winning side in relation to gender, sexuality and environmentalism, they encountered strong headwinds in the politics of race. Furthermore they got absolutely nowhere when they argued that the state should play an activist role in the creation of good jobs to counteract de-industrialisation. If the left won the battle more or less on social issues, it was comprehensively defeated in the area of the economy. Neoliberalism reigned supreme under both New Labour and Conservative governments. This created the conditions in which a resurgent social conservatism in ‘Brexitannia’ took wing. One of the causes of the EU Referendum result was economic resentment in the declining regions of the country, unalleviated by government action. The left’s failure to prevail in one area (economic policy) – until the emergence of Corbyn – may yet undo its success in another (social policy). Social democracy needs to make a firm break with neo-liberalism if its social liberalism is to flourish in the future.


Note: The above draws on Chapter 12 of James Curran, Ivor Gaber, and Julian Petley, Culture Wars: the Media and the British Left (2nd edition, Routledge, 2018).

About the Author

James Curran is Professor of Communications, Goldsmiths, University of 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).

The power of negative thinking: why perceptions of immigration are resistant to facts

Research shows consistently high levels of concern among people in the UK over the scale of immigration and its impact on jobs and services. Drawing on new research on how people use and understand information about the economic impacts of immigration, Heather Rolfe writes there is a tendency to rely on personal accounts rather than on economic statistics.

The recent report from the Migration Advisory Committee confirms what all main research studies on the subject have consistently shown: the economic impacts of EU migration in the UK are very largely positive. Yet immigration was undoubtedly a main driver behind the Leave vote in the EU referendum and opinion polls consistently show public concerns centre on negative impacts on jobs, wages and public services.

To test ways of getting people to consider the economic evidence of the impact of EU migration, a team at NIESR and Birkbeck College carried out research in a predominantly Leave voting area, Sittingbourne Kent. We found immigration attitudes are deeply embedded, resistant to change, and that immigration is framed as a problem, sometimes a threat and something that politicians should be dealing with. This was despite recognition of the economic benefits of EU migration. What are the consequences of this negative mindset and, as new immigration policy starts to emerge, how can the quality of the debate be improved?

Immigration attitudes are resistant to change

We asked our focus group participants to consider the economic evidence on immigration through three experimental interventions: active listening, playing devils’ advocate with their own immigration concerns, and writing a short defence for a policy which would benefit migrants. We also screened our own facts-based video, summing up the available evidence on the economic impact of immigration. However, consistent with existing evidence from survey research, attitudes of our participants were impervious to these methods.

Are cultural concerns more important than economic considerations?

One of the most common explanations for why making the economic case for immigration doesn’t affect attitudes is that it’s a side-show to the main event, which is the impact of migration on culture. But this doesn’t chime with our findings: indeed, participants were not shy in expressing cultural concerns about immigration but, for EU migration at least, this was not their main concern. They saw the main impact of EU immigration as economic, in terms of impacts on jobs, wages, and public services and their views on this did not change as a result of considering the evidence. They recognised the need for skills, and not just highly skilled migrants. But the impact on public services was an issue of considerable concern which did not shift: many participants not only believed that some migrants were a net drain on public services, they also believed that some groups of migrants, though not necessarily from the EU, enjoy priority access to health and housing.

Politics is personal

There’s a strong strand of argument that narratives, not facts, are most effective in forming and changing opinion. But we found the most influential narratives were generated by participants themselves, gathered in their daily lives and not through mainstream or social media. Our focus group participants had an implicit hierarchy of evidence, where personal experiences and anecdotes are at the top, followed by media stories and statistical information at the bottom. Participants had a store of such evidence from the accounts of friends, family and acquaintances, which they used to support specific and popular themes around migration impacts. These included migrants being given priority for housing, knife gangs and bogus asylum seekers. In contrast, few media stories were brought up by participants. When mentioned, newspapers and social media were typically referred to as unreliable and as presenting extreme views and unrepresentative cases. It may have nonetheless influenced opinions, but through negative framing rather than information.

Facts are not trusted

Our methods involved the use of economic evidence in the form of a specially commissioned video which more than four in ten participants believed was biased in its presentation of basic facts about impact. The video used aggregate economic statistics which some participants did not accept as providing the true picture of immigration impacts. They believed that there are many cases that go against the general picture. Many felt that their local area was affected more by immigration than other parts of the UK, and attracted migrants who make a low contribution. More generally, participants were suspicious that the positive messages of the video revealed bias. One respondent called it a ‘PR video’ another, a ‘propaganda film’.

So with statistics and the media seen as unreliable and biased, many participants concluded that it’s best to rely on your own evidence, on what you hear and see in your everyday life. Inevitably selective, this allows deeply held views, underpinned by moral considerations about deservedness and entitlement, to continue despite exposure to contrary evidence.

It’s good to talk

The tendency to rely on personal accounts and to distrust economic statistics about immigration presents wider challenges for society, not least when beliefs are expressed in open hostility towards migrants. It also presents problems when policy is developed with public attitudes in mind, when those attitudes are not evidence-based but are viewed as valid by policy-makers.

So where do we go from here? One positive message emerges from our research. Many participants felt they did not have enough opportunity to discuss immigration and that the current debate is polarised. They enjoyed taking part in the focus groups and said they welcomed the opportunity to hear others’ views. While there is clearly a selection effect, it may indicate a more general public interest in discussing immigration in some form of public setting, as suggested recently by British Future, and in improving the quality of the debate.

And we should also not ignore the role that facts can play in the immigration debate. Despite criticisms of the video, around half of participants who filled out the follow-up survey two weeks after the focus groups said that they felt they had learned something from it. And as previous NIESR research found, statistics can be useful when linked closely to specific issues of direct concern to the public and framed within a clear narrative, for example costs and benefits. Attempting to rebalance from the negative by accentuating the positive isn’t enough.


About the Author

Heather Rolfe leads the Social Policy team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.




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).

Are we witnessing a ‘deal dividend’ effect on the economy?

The latest GDP data for 2018 shows an annual growth of about 1.5%. This may be reflecting expectations of an impending Brexit deal which would greatly reduce policy uncertainty, write Costas Milas and Michael Ellington. But if this growth is indeed conditional on a deal, no deal will result in no dividend.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just published its latest monthly GDP data. This dataset suggests that our economy expanded on a rolling basis by 0.7% in the three months to August 2018 compared with 0.7% in the three months to July 2018. According to the ONS, this is evidence that “the economy continued to rebound strongly after a weak spring”. Indeed, the economy recorded quarter-on-quarter growth of only 0.1% in the first quarter of 2018 and 0.4% in the second, and has only done better since.

However the above data needs to be scrutinised more thoroughly, not least because the latest publication includes data revisions that appear to somewhat contradict the ONS’s own publication from two weeks earlier (in late September). To see this, we plot annual GDP growth (chained volume measure) based on quarterly data provided by the ONS on 28 September together with the annual GDP growth (gross value added measure) inferred from the monthly data provided by the ONS on 10 October.

Note: the data is available here and here.

We observe the following: the average growth rate for both series has been almost identical: 2% for the quarterly series and 2.01% for the monthly series. Nevertheless, there are important differences since the EU Referendum vote. In particular, the monthly GDP data indicate that the UK economy has over-performed by 0.5% per annum on average compared to the quarterly series.

This raises the issue of whether, at some stage, the quarterly data will be revised upwards to reflect this ‘additional performance’. From a political point of view, the monthly GDP series seems to offer support to those in the Brexit camp who believe that the impact of the referendum on the economy has not been as negative as Remainers seem to believe. The counter-argument, of course, is that (a) Brexit has not happened yet and (b) the better-than-previously-thought performance has to do with the cut in the policy rate from 0.5% to 0.25% and the additional Quantitative Easing authorised by the Bank of England. Notice, also, from Figure 1, that the latest ONS data indicate an annual growth rate of 1.6% in the third quarter of 2018, which is higher than the 1.46% forecast provided by the Bank of England’s policymakers in their latest Inflation Report.

We interpret this positive performance as an indication of a forthcoming deal dividend effect. Annual GDP growth has been negatively affected by Brexit-related policy uncertainty (the latter constructed based on newspaper articles regarding policy uncertainty from The Times and The Financial Times). From Figure 2, policy uncertainty, which increased rapidly in the run up to the 2016 Referendum, recorded a notable decline only after early 2017 when Theresa May triggered Article 50. Doing so ‘forced’ government to start negotiating with the EU in a constructive manner. This helped GDP growth somewhat stabilise.

Assuming we see a Brexit agreement in the next few weeks, policy uncertainty will fall; and consequently GDP growth should bounce back. The annual growth of 1.6% in the third quarter of 2018 could reflect expectations of the so-called ‘deal-dividend’ effect. If these expectations are not fulfilled, we may well end up with a ‘no-deal, no-dividend’ collapse.


About the Authors
Costas Milas is Professor of Finance, University of Liverpool.




Michael Ellington is Lecturer in Finance, University of Liverpool.





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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