Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Another ‘rotten borough’? Allegations of electoral fraud in Peterborough

Timothy Peace and Parveen Akhtar discuss the allegations of electoral malpractice in the recent Peterborough by-election in which Labour won by 683 votes. While an initial police inquiry found that no offences were revealed, they explain why certain areas are more susceptible to such claims.

After its success in the European Parliament elections, many expected Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to follow this result by electing its first MP at the subsequent by-election in Peterborough, held on 6 June. Called because the sitting Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was forced out of office following a conviction, few expected Labour to retain the seat. So when their candidate Lisa Forbes won the contest by just 683 votes, many observers were surprised even if nothing untoward was initially mentioned as a reason for her victory.

Fast forward just over a week after the result and Nigel Farage was claiming that Peterborough was a ‘rotten borough’ and that postal voting was producing the ‘wrong results’. Out of the 33,998 ballot papers counted, 9,898 were postal votes, with approximately 400 of these being rejected because of discrepancies in details including signatures and dates of births not matching the council records. Cambridgeshire Police subsequently confirmed that it was investigating five allegations of electoral irregularities, three of which related to postal votes, with one allegation of bribery and corruption and another involving a breach of the privacy of the vote. Speculation about potential malpractice was also suggested in various media reports and the social media rumour mill went into overdrive.

Electoral malpractice is relatively rare in the UK, but the allegations of irregularities involving postal votes, bribery and corruption in the Peterborough by-election have once again thrown the spotlight on this issue and its relation to voters from the South Asian community. A report by the Electoral Commission published in 2014 identified 16 local authority areas, including Peterborough, where there was a greater risk of cases of alleged electoral fraud being reported. These were all areas which are known to have a significant South Asian presence and the authors reported receiving strongly held views about electoral fraud being ‘more likely to be committed by or in support of candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominately populated by some South Asian communities, specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh.’

The Electoral Commission subsequently commissioned a report about Understanding Electoral Fraud Vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi Origin Communities. The authors identified seven main sources of vulnerability to fraud and recommended several solutions including stricter and more transparent guidelines to political parties and candidates on postal vote handling. Just a few months later, this issue became national news when the Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was removed from office after he was found guilty of electoral fraud. The case also prompted the government to ask Sir Eric Pickles to carry out an independent review into electoral fraud. A series of 50 recommendations were outlined in the report, including clamping down on postal vote ‘harvesting’ by political activists. Subsequent research also outlined how community leaders or elders can ‘take advantage of the postal voting on demand system to commit personation and tamper with ballots.’

In our research into British-Pakistani communities and local politics in Bradford and Birmingham, issues of electoral fraud were regularly invoked by research participants. In the constituency of Bradford West, one political activist recounted how people would often go around houses to collect people’s postal votes. However, it was also stressed that this fraudulent practice was not only committed by supporters of the Labour Party. Indeed, back in 2010, five men, including two former councillors, were jailed for their part in a failed postal votes scam intended to benefit a Conservative candidate.

The introduction of postal voting on demand in the early 2000s certainly provided a very clear opportunity for anyone tempted to influence electoral outcomes through dubious means.  Labour  councillors convicted of fraud in Birmingham’s 2004 local elections continue to maintain their innocence, with one blaming instead South Asian family structures where the male head of the household fill in postal ballot papers on behalf of wives, sons and daughters. It is clear that postal voting strengthened the hand of community or ‘biraderi’ leaders who view this as a convenient way to deliver a bloc vote. However, rather than illegal practices such as vote rigging, many people we spoke to were more concerned about the legal means through which these biraderi connections can still influence local politics.

This was noted in relation to the candidate selection contests, despite repeated attempts by the Labour Party to improve the transparency of its selection contests in the wake of the Bradford by-election result in 2012. According to those we interviewed, the local Constituency Labour Party in several locations is dominated by key biraderis and candidate selection is influenced by the mobilisation of biraderi members who are signed up to the Constituency Labour Party to ensure they have a vote in the selection process. This despite the fact that the influence of such community leaders has been waning and that young people in particular are more likely to reject practices which are either corrupt or seriously disenfranchise them from the political process.

The allegations of irregularities in Peterborough centre around the potential misuse of postal votes although the initial police inquiry found that no offences were revealed with the allegations relating to postal votes. If any misconduct is proven to have taken place, it will be particularly embarrassing for the government given that it had selected Tower Hamlets and Peterborough as the locations for postal voting pilots at the local elections of May 2018 to test measures to improve the integrity of the postal vote process.

The Brexit Party have now announced that they will challenge the Peterborough by-election result and lodge a petition under the Representation of the People Act 1983. It is to be hoped that the results of any such investigation can be announced sooner rather than later as the current debate is dominated by hearsay. What is certain is that more work needs to be done to ensure that the integrity of the electoral process is maintained. Postal voting can be a tool for enfranchisement and inclusive democracy. It should remain an option for those who require or desire it. At the same time, robust mechanisms of countering possible malpractice would help to restore confidence amidst recurrent allegations of fraud.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

About the Authors

Timothy Peace is Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow at the University of Glasgow.




Parveen Akhtar is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University.





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

The link between the framing of election results and expectations about government performance

Based on a survey experiment, Ekaterina Kolpinskaya, Gabriel Katz, Susan Banducci, Daniel Stevens, and Travis Coan find that victories depicted as narrow in the media increased scepticism about the incoming government’s ability to deliver on its promises. The opposite was observed when the victory was presented as decisive – especially among the less politically knowledgeable.

Although it may be heart-warming to win by a landslide, under the First-Past-the-Post system, a handful of votes can decide the fate of a parliamentary seat: ‘getting over the line’ in the majority of seats is all it takes for a party to form a government. Yet governing – and winning subsequent elections – is another matter entirely.

Previous research has shown that the magnitude of victory for a government determines the public’s expectations and confidence in that government’s ability to enact their manifesto promises. Put simply, if the governing party wins big, then voters can be more confident the government can deliver, whereas if they have a tiny majority (or, like the current Conservative government, no majority) voters are more sceptical about that ability.

Less is known, however, about how the public develop their assessment of the magnitude of a new government’s victory. Our research set out to look at what role the media played in shaping this assessment: we used experiments to look at how different ways of framing the Conservatives’ victory in the 2015 election affected voters’ views of the magnitude of that victory. We found that the way the media frames an election victory is very important in this respect, and it is even more important in close elections (such as that in 2015), as well as for less politically knowledgeable voters who are more susceptible to media framing.

The 2015 General Election offered an excellent opportunity to explore how media framing of electoral victories influences citizens’ confidence that the new government will enact their policy programme. That is, considering the widespread expectation of a hung Parliament and a coalition government that opened doors to multiple post-election interpretations of how decisive the Conservative victory was. Indeed, the descriptions of the Tory majority varied from ‘slender’ and ‘slim’ to being a ‘crushing victory’ for David Cameron, conveying a ‘strong endorsement from the electorate’. Different interpretations of the electoral outcome led to different readings of the policy implications. At the same time that The Telegraph readers learned that the Prime Minister’s party would ‘have a free hand’ to craft policy, The Economist reported that Cameron would find little support to push a divisive government programme.

Using these conflicting interpretations of the size of a Conservative mandate, we examined how alternative media interpretations about the decisiveness of the electoral victory affected people’s beliefs about the incoming government’s policy performance. In a survey experiment conducted three weeks after the election, we presented participants with news articles portraying the Tory victory as either ‘decisive’ or ‘narrow’ using two real-life news stories from The Telegraph and The Guardian, and two further articles communicating the same messages but without attribution to a news source. We then estimated the effects of exposure to these competing descriptions – while accounting for individuals’ political, attitudinal and socio-demographic characteristics such as vote choice, trust in media, interest in politics, age, education, etc. – on expectations about the government’s ability to honour its policy commitments.

Overall, when the incoming government’s victory was portrayed as ‘decisive’, subjects were more likely to believe that they would be able to deliver on their campaign promises. This is particularly true for less politically knowledgeable participants who were significantly more prone to believe that the Conservatives would honour their commitments when exposed to ‘decisive’ victory frames. The magnitudes of these differences were quite sizable – with those who got a ‘decisive’ victory news story (even without a source) and did not regularly follow the news having been three times more likely to believe that the Conservatives would implement their policy programme than more knowledgeable participants who received the same message.

Partisanship too affected expectations about government policy behaviour by pre-disposing Conservative identifiers and non-partisans to believe that the government would deliver on its campaign promises, but only when the news story was attributed to The Telegraph. Unsurprisingly, Labour identifiers who read the article from The Guardian were 3.4 percentage points less likely to believe that the Tories would be able to deliver on their promises than those in the control group. Finally, trust in media/news source plays some role too. On average, those who do not trust newspapers in general were 7 to 15 percentage points less likely to believe that the Conservatives would deliver on their campaign promises compared to those with higher trust levels. However, this did not affect people’s receptivity to information about the decisiveness of the Tory victory.

In general, we show that decisive victories enhance expectations of government performance, and the (perceived) decisiveness of the electoral victory influences voters’ expectations about government policymaking. The effects from media framing of electoral outcomes shape expectations of those with low levels of political knowledge in particular, though a lack of trust in media and partisan motivated reasoning play a role too.

These are important findings when we consider the need for voters to be able to hold government to account in subsequent elections in a democracy: voters who believe that governments could and should have implemented their full manifesto (because they felt the margin of the government’s victory made that possible) are more likely to be critical of that party in the next election if it fails to do so, whereas those who felt that the government was less likely to be able to keep all its promises (because its majority in the House of Commons was small, or non-existent) might be more forgiving. The way the media presents and frames an election result is vital for shaping voters’ expectations of the government delivering on its promises – meaning it may play an important role in determining those voters’ decisions in future elections.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.

About the Authors

Ekaterina Kolpinskaya is Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Swansea University.



Gabriel Katz is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter.




Susan Banducci is Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.




Daniel Stevens is Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.




Travis Coan is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter.




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).

British democracy and the power of the military: too much or too little?

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the escalation of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan in 2006, the British military have gone from being highly popular to spectacularly popular. This has been achieved in spite of the widespread perception that the two wars were failures. Why, then, has the military become so popular and does this represent a threat to British democracy? Paul Dixon explains.

In the Hansard Society’s 2019 ‘Audit of Political Engagement’, the military topped the survey suggesting that 74% of public opinion had most confidence in the military/armed forces to act in the best interests of the public. 32% had complete confidence and 42% a ‘fair amount of confidence’. By contrast, just 29-34% had confidence in political actors.

The military has always been one of the UK’s most respected institutions, alongside the NHS and the BBC. There was a dip in popularity after the invasion of Iraq. Since 2005, ‘favourable’ opinions of the armed forces have gone from a low of 54% in 2005 to 88% in 2017. Most significantly, those having a ‘very favourable’ impression have gone from 14% to 61%.

Public sympathy for the military is important because it can constrain the extent to which politicians are able to control the armed forces.

The Militarisation Offensive 2006

On 12 October 2006, General Dannatt, head of the British Army, broke constitutional convention and publicly attacked the Labour government. In an interview for the Daily Mail, Dannatt argued that Britain should withdraw from Iraq and claimed that the government and nation had broken the ‘Military Covenant’. This was the opening shot of a ‘Militarisation Offensive’ to extend the power of the armed forces.

The Covenant, some claimed, dated back to the days of the Duke of Wellington, or was as old as soldiering itself. In reality, the Covenant was invented by the army in 2000. After Dannatt’s interview, however, the concept took off and was referenced in the Armed Services Act 2011.

The Military Covenant was so vague it could be endorsed by right-wing militarists and left-wing anti-imperialists. Right wing militarists saw the Covenant as a way of extending militarisation and creating special privileges for the military that might generate public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bolster recruitment. Left-wing anti-imperialists could support the Covenant as a way of achieving fair treatment for working class soldiers who were victims of imperialist wars.

The ‘Militarisation Offensive’ was galvanised by ‘Moral Panic’. The right-wing press attempted to generate further support for the military and the wars they were fighting by highlighting, exaggerating or even inventing allegations of discrimination against or insults to military personnel. A ‘Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of Our Armed Forces’ (2008) found very few ‘unpleasant incidents’ of discrimination against the armed forces.

Stab in the back?

The military elite’s power and popularity have been achieved by blaming politicians for failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and claiming that the military ‘stabbed them in the back’. The ‘dominant military narrative’ blames the politicians for over-stretching the military by fighting two wars, the ‘bad’ war in Iraq and the ‘good’ war in Afghanistan. The politicians lacked the will and determination to rally domestic public opinion by putting the country on a ‘war footing’. The military were left with a shortage of equipment, inadequate troops numbers, and without clear political leadership.

In Afghanistan the military constantly claimed that they were ‘learning, adapting and winning’. By 2009-11 the counterinsurgency strategy and ‘surge’ was winning the war just at the moment the politicians decided to withdraw from combat. The implication is that the power of the military should be increased so that in the future, it has greater resources and control over the conduct of war.

The power of the Generals

The ‘Dominant Military Narrative’ is problematic. There is growing evidence, particularly from The Chilcot Report (2016), of the military’s responsibility for failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not that the military elite lack power, but that they have too much power to shape policy.

The Chilcot Report suggested that it was the military, and particularly the army, that pushed for maximum British involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The size and composition of the UK military contribution to the invasion was ‘largely discretionary’. The British military used their connections with the US military to get the US President to put pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair for a strong contribution to the invasion. The President would have been satisfied by a limited British military contribution to the invasion. But the army would have been left out of such a force and so lobbied for a maximum deployment that involved about 46,000 British service personnel.

The British military elite sought the mission to Helmand in Afghanistan, in 2006, as redemption for failure in Southern Iraq. They reassured the politicians that they could simultaneously fight two wars. The ‘high risk’ assumption was made that as the troops drew down from Iraq they would be re-deployed to Afghanistan. The Helmand mission was sold to the politicians and the public as ‘peacekeeping’. There is some evidence, however, that intelligence was withheld from politicians about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan for fear it would jeopardise the deployment. Soon after troops went in the army changed the mission from peacekeeping to war-fighting. Some claim that this had always been the intention of the military. The change of mission led to some of the most severe fighting since the Korean War.

The military were overstretched and in crisis. In September 2006, General Dannatt stated that the military was ‘running hot’ and could only “just” cope.

Politicians in Power?

General Dannatt’s attack in the Daily Mailwas trumping the government and setting strategy’. In public, Tony Blair announced that “he agreed with every word” of Dannatt’s interview. In private, the Prime Minister considered sacking him but, with good reason, feared an adverse public reaction. An ICM opinion poll for the Sunday Express suggested that 71% of the British people believed Dannatt should not be sacked for saying that the British presence in Iraq was making the security situation there worse.

Gordon Brown recounts in My Life, Our Times his struggle with the military. A militarist alliance – comprising some in the media, the Conservative opposition, and groups in civil society – was putting intense pressure on the Prime Minister. When the Chief of Defence Staff asked for an additional 500 troops, Brown wanted a public guarantee ‘that each of them was properly equipped for the tasks ahead’. Brown, criticised Dannatt for crossing a line by publicly identifying with the Conservative Party. He quotes a constitutional expert, ‘To abandon the principle of a non-political army would be a catastrophe’.

The Conservative Opposition had allied with the military to attack the Labour government. In government, however, Prime Minister David Cameron also struggled with the power of the military. He claimed that he had been alarmed at the way the Army chiefs ran rings around Gordon Brown, colluding with The Sun to whip up support for the troops ‘to gain financial leverage for more equipment and more men’.

There was tension between Cameron and the Chief of Defence Staff, David Richards, because Cameron felt Richards was briefing the media and preparing to blame him in the event of failure in Libya. In June 2011 the Prime Minister responded to public pressure from the military: ‘I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking’.

In 2015 the military, after intense pressure, won the Conservative government’s pledge to commit 2% GDP to defence spending. Remarkably, the Corbyn-led Labour party embraced the 2% target in its general election manifesto in 2017.

There is emerging evidence, most notably from The Chilcot Report, that the military manoeuvred to achieve maximum Yet the legacy of the Iraq and Afghan wars has been a spectacular increase in the popularity and confidence in the military. This has been in spite of growing evidence that it was the military elite that were responsible for overstretch and the military crisis. War was good for the military organisation and this creates further incentives to embark on future unwinnable wars.


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

About the Author

Paul Dixon is Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy (2018) and Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process: In Defence of Politics (2018). He is working on a book on the Iraq and Afghan wars.



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).

What history tells us about the challenges of post-Brexit immigration policy

Jonathan Thomas outlines four key lessons from recent history to illuminate the potential consequences of the government’s proposed immigration system. He concludes that the ending of freedom of movement represents the start of a significant new challenge for the UK in managing not only immigration, but also the public’s concerns over it.

With the ending of freedom of movement to the UK, the government’s White Paper proposals for the post-Brexit immigration system look to take back control – and to the future. But looking backward can be instructive. Taking a historical approach to the potential consequences of ending freedom of movement can help to illuminate the challenges, and indeed risks, of the UK’s plotted course.

The UK has its own history with ending freedom of movement, with the case of Commonwealth citizens in the 1960s. And examples abound of countries that, as the UK is now proposing, have tried to manage immigration through temporary stay regimes. Most instructive of all though may be the United States’ experience in seeking to regulate immigration from Mexico. Across a 70-year period US immigration policy has ranged from allowing relatively free, but temporary, movement for work, to total prohibition of such, accompanied throughout by a fluctuating enforcement approach. Across these examples, the consequences were often unexpected, sometimes counterintuitive, but all instructive as to how immigration policies can have a profound and lasting impact on a nation. From these experiences one can identify four key lessons for UK policymakers.

First is that greater immigration restrictions on well-established existing immigration flows can lead to an increased permanent lawful immigrant population, even if immigration flows themselves reduce. For those immigrants already in-country, increased immigration restrictions combined with a one-time offer to stay to those already here can convert some of what would have been circular migration into permanent stay. And for those immigrants not yet here, the UK’s current proposals pair greater restrictions on EU immigrants with easing of restrictions on non-EU immigrants, who compared with EU citizens have tended towards greater permanence once in the UK. So, while new flows from the EU will be curtailed, placing immigration restrictions on an existing labour immigration route, which many used on a circulatory basis, may cause migrants to switch into other routes into the UK which may actually favour more permanent settlement.

Second is that greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular migrant (overseas citizens who enter, stay and/or work without lawful permission) entry. The UK will remain open to visitors, tourists, workers and students from the EU. EU migrants will not be irregular as such on entry, but may become so through overstaying. This cannot therefore be effectively controlled at the border. The White Paper proposes temporary immigration routes to help business adjust to living without EU lower-skilled labour without resorting to irregular workers. But history suggests that temporary routes, unless rigorously enforced, themselves incentivise irregularity.

Third is that greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular immigrant stay, and therefore an increased irregular immigrant population. Immigration enforcement dynamics pose a particular challenge for the UK, seeking to restrict a long-established migration flow in circumstances where it will not meaningfully be able to control that flow on initial entry at the border, and reliant instead on in-country controls. The ‘hostile environment’ approach has significant limitations on the extent to which migrants no longer permitted to be in the UK can be practically controlled, in the sense of identified and tracked. The UK’s increasingly effective border control regime might actually compound the problem, incentivising migrants who become irregular to stay put, knowing their chances of re-entry, should they depart for a period, are increasingly slim.

The size of the irregular migrant population in the UK will also be more directly impacted by the consequences of Brexit. In the laissez-faire form applied in the UK, EU freedom of movement allowed a fluid immigration status, with few questions asked. No more. The one-off Settlement Scheme for those EU citizens already in the UK will instead set in stone their immigration status. And for those who for whatever reason are not able to access settled status, the status of being irregular in the UK will become more impactful to the migrant, more visible to society; greater immigration control may therefore paradoxically give the impression of the opposite.

Finally, an increasingly visible irregular immigrant population, accompanied by increased immigration enforcement, can give rise to greater public concern over immigration even where immigrant flows are reducing. Look at the US. Largely due to EU freedom of movement, the UK has had the luxury of not having to seriously grapple with irregular immigration. This is now coming to an end. Given UK public attitudes towards irregular migration, any spike in concern over this will likely be a deeply uncomfortable experience for politicians and the public alike. Media interest in irregular migration that has largely lain dormant during the EU immigration debate may well be reawakened.

This will focus attention on the practical challenges in the UK of achieving realistic and scalable in-country immigration controls. An even more hostile environment? A local area registration regime? A population-wide ID card scheme? Periodic ‘earned regularisations’ of status? Will any such measures assuage public concern over immigration or have quite the opposite effect?

The ending of EU freedom of movement thus heralds a challenging new era for the UK in managing immigration and the public’s reaction to it. And the White Paper only sets out the baseline; the policy which the UK will adopt in isolation, but with the possibility that trade deals may result in less controlled access to the UK for certain countries’ citizens.

The government needs to design its policy inputs accordingly, but also think about how to best manage the outputs. It should inject a dose of honest realism, coming clean about the complexities and unintended consequences of immigration policy, about the control that it does have, but also the practical limits to that control. It must also be honest about the trade-offs: it may not be realistic to have the degree of control over immigration that many people in the UK say they want, while at the same time keeping other aspects of society as those same people say they would like them.


Note: read the full report on which the above draws here.

About the Author

Jonathan Thomas is Migration Researcher at the Social Market Foundation.


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 Brexit Prime Minister? Assessing Theresa May’s legacy

Theresay May’s real legacy is that her premiership exacerbated the political divides behind the ongoing breakdown of the Conservative-Labour duopoly of the party system, write Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, and Kevin Theakston.

The political obituaries that followed Theresa May’s decision to step down as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party were not kind. The Timesassessment was that her premiership had become a ‘humiliating failure… that was largely her own fault.’ ITV, reflecting the view of most other media outlets, described a legacy ‘defined by Brexit chaos.’ Private Eye went one better, leaving their front page blank except for the headline, ‘The Prime Minister’s Legacy in Full.’

One way of explaining the ‘Brexit chaos’ of the past several years is to ascribe it to May’s failings as a political leader. This is not hard to do. Her detractors will point to her poor handling of the Brexit negotiations and her fateful decision to hold a snap general election in June of 2017 as her two major missteps. They might ascribe difficulties in the Brexit process to the fact that May, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, felt the need, largely for internal party management reasons, at the beginning of her premiership to burnish her Brexit credentials by adopting a ‘hard Brexit’ stance. To this end, she ruled out customs union and single market membership, and a continuing role for the European Court of Justice in British law, while also continuing to insist on ‘bespoke’ arrangements for the UK to ensure something like the economic status quo with the EU would continue.

Such ‘ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking’, as well as the under-resourcing of the civil service for the Brexit negotiations, was castigated by Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the EU, in his leaked resignation email in January of 2017. Similarly, we might pin the blame for the 2017 general election calamity on Theresa May’s dire public communication abilities and her lack of political vision.

May’s reluctance to meet ordinary members of the public during the campaign, combined with her robotic repetition of the Conservatives’ ‘Strong and Stable’ mantra, and her obstinacy in the aftermath of the ‘Dementia Tax’ U-turn (‘Nothing has changed!’), earned her the epithet of the ‘Maybot’, and she explicitly disavowed the existence of anything like ‘Mayism’ well before the general election. It is also true that these two failures fed into each other, in that losing the general election made the Brexit negotiations much more difficult, primarily because the government could no longer guarantee that any deal reached with the EU would be able to get through Parliament.

This critique is fair, but it overlooks the fact that Theresa May also occupied an unenviable position in political time. We argued in this blog in 2017 that her predecessor David Cameron became Prime Minister at a moment when the existing political regime — what we might call the neoliberal consensus — was deeply enervated. This was most clearly reflected in the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, in the form of the recession that followed immediately after and the next decade of slow wage growth and public spending austerity.

Compounding these difficulties were the growing threat of Scottish independence and the emergence of Ukip as a major electoral force on the right. Cameron — the self-styled ‘heir to Blair’ — was affiliated to this highly vulnerable political regime and was, therefore, a disjunctive political leader, unable to repudiate the indefensible and forced to defend the dysfunctional. When Theresa May replaced Cameron in the wake of the referendum result, it was under the same conditions of political disjunction.

In one crucial respect May had an even tougher task than Cameron. The vote for Brexit not only represented a failure of Conservative statecraft, it was also in many respects a rejection of the prevailing political order. Support for Leave mirrored past support for UKIP, in that both did well among voters with no qualifications, older age groups, and in midlands and northern constituencies, and among people who wished to ‘Take back control’ of immigration.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, it was incumbent upon her to tackle some of the grievances underlying the vote for Brexit, but the mandate she had been given was an unwelcome one, because it meant pursuing a policy with which she did not agree and thought would do serious damage to the UK economy, including in the same ‘left behind’ areas that voted for Brexit. Furthermore, the magnitude of Brexit as a process, necessitating major machinery of government changes and tortuous international negotiations over an indefinite number of years, inevitably monopolised the media and parliamentary agenda and stretched Whitehall’s governing capacity, making it difficult for May to focus on other important challenges.

Perhaps an even clearer illustration of the difficulties caused by May’s position in political time is the 2017 general election, in which she was expected to cruise to victory over a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn with an abysmal net favourability rating of -42 at the start of the campaign. May hoped to achieve a substantially increased Conservative majority, ostensibly to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. Up until just a few weeks prior to election-day the Conservatives were 14-to-1 odds-on favourites to win a majority, but in the event Labour made significant gains and the Conservatives lost their small majority and were only able to continue in office after putting together a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the DUP.

Although it is probably fair to say that May performed poorly in the campaign, and Labour avoided any major mishaps, the real reason for the upset was that the Conservatives’ offer to the electorate represented a spectacular misreading of the political moment. The message of the manifesto and of the campaign more broadly was one of continuity, at a time when there was a growing public appetite for change. The Conservative strategy was to capitalise on May’s then-high favourability ratings by running a highly personalised campaign, with her at the fore as a ‘safe pair of hands’ capable of delivering Brexit.

Voters had other ideas though: despite research showing that the public thought Brexit was the single most important issue facing the country at the time of the general election, 2017 was not the ‘Brexit election’. There was no significant swing towards anti-Brexit parties capable of accounting for the loss of Conservative seats. Instead, 2017 reflected Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘reconstructive’ appeal among a new cosmopolitan coalition of younger, more diverse and more educated voters with liberal social attitudes, mainly living in urban areas plugged into the global economy. The Conservative manifesto, with its focus on ‘Governing from the mainstream’, had very little to say to these people and, especially, to the public sector workers in their ninth year of austerity, younger people unable to afford to buy a home, and people grappling with the reality of low pay and highly precarious work in the ‘gig economy’.

What does all of this mean for assessments of Theresa May’s legacy? Most assessments thus far have overly personalized the ‘Brexit chaos’ and neglected the challenging context in which May operated, given her place in political time. However, her failings as a political leader have also undoubtedly contributed to the chaos and show how bad things can get when an already tricky political situation is mishandled. Therefore, perhaps May’s real legacy is to have exacerbated the political divides behind the ongoing breakdown of the Conservative-Labour duopoly of the party system.


About the Authors

Christopher Byrne is a Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.

Nick Randall is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University.

Kevin Theakston is a Professor in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.


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: “Brexit talks on the verge of crucial new stage as Theresa May falters” by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Remain, revolt, reform: the EU needs policies that tame capitalism and a politics conducive to socialism

The fight for Europe cannot just be a fight against how certain things are done, but also a fight for how they should be done, writes Lea Ypi. This requires changing power relations and power structures, both within states and between them.

The one conclusion on which many seemed to agree after the European elections was that: ‘it’s complicated‘. The far right did what it promised, it increased its vote share, but not to the extent one feared. The left lost ground, except for a few places.

That the scale of the defeat was not quite as spectacular as expected is no reason to be optimistic. It may be more revealing of how much we have normalised the discourse of the right – for example, being told that migrants in need should be left to drown. The centre left is mostly in retreat, and the advances of solidly pro-European parties like the Greens in Germany or like the anti-austerity socialists of Portugal and Spain may be too ephemeral to give us reason to cheer. In the United Kingdom, Labour is at a cross-road: urged to embrace the cause of ‘remain and reform’ or condemn itself to irrelevance for many years to come.

This is a crucial time for the development of an alternative vision of Europe. The old coalitions in the European parliament are broken, and unless the progressive left comes up with a genuinely transformative agenda, that vision will be shaped by the far right. What Europe will be in the future depends on what we say and do about it now. Yet ‘remain and reform’ may be too vague to persuade those who voted for Brexit for a reason in 2016, and arguably voted for the Brexit Party for the same reason in 2019. These reasons are not reducible to a new cosmopolitan versus communitarian cleavage: there is probably more solidarity amongst cleaners of different nationalities than there is amongst bankers. Nor is it about class versus culture. The composition of the working class has changed in recent years but to say that the working classes are now all in places like Wigan just shows you never took the bus to Harlesden. It is also to maintain, implicitly, that the poor can only be ignorant and racist, or that cosmopolitanism makes you outward looking and altruistic. Both claims are plainly false.

Remain versus Leave is not a political cleavage that the progressive left can do anything with: this may explain the dilemma of the Labour Party. But what Brexit offers, and what unites that offer to the project of the nativist right all across Europe is the promise of political agency, the promise of being empowered after decades of political and economic disenfranchisement. One can only be empowered if one knows where power lies. In a world of nation-states, power is coupled with the idea of popular sovereignty. Taking back control means a return to popular sovereignty, to the site where power struggles can be fought and, with sufficiently strong political movements, won. What makes Brexit and the nativist idea of Europe attractive from a left-wing perspective is the promise of restoring sovereignty to the nation-state, thereby also turning it to a site in which even vulnerable people can exercise democratic control, for example by voting against what the establishment is perceived to want.

There are shortcomings to these propositions. One is that we still have not been told what to do about capitalism. But the trouble with the pro-European, critical left is that it abounds in diagnosis and lacks in prescription. A credible progressive movement for remain and reform needs to articulate what ‘reform’ would look like, starting with the obstacles to it in the current structure of the EU. It would also need to indicate a feasible path for how to get from here to there.

This is where it gets properly tricky. ‘Remain and reform’ or the manifesto for Social Europe have been the rallying call of European social democrats for a few years now. There are structural reasons why they have failed, not all reducible to the centre left embrace of capitalism with a human face.

In the nation-state, popular sovereignty may be an ideal but at least we know where power lies. The combination of its executive, judicial, and administrative structures gives us a target and a structure for the fight. In the case of the European Union we have no clue what popular sovereignty consists of, not even in its ideal form.

Plato says in the Republic that democracy is like a constitutional bazaar. People in it have so much freedom that they can choose any other form of rule as the foundation of the state: rule by the people (democracy), rule by the rich (oligarchy), rule by the best (aristocracy) and, when democracy deteriorates, rule by tyrants.

The European Union may not be democratic in the sense in which it aspires to be, indeed the topic of its ‘democratic deficit’ has concerned eurocrats in theory before it began to concern the wider public in practice. Yet the EU comes close to Plato’s definition of a democracy when one looks at its institutional configuration. If you focus on the European Parliament, you have something akin to rule by the people. If you focus on the powers of the European Central Bank you have something resembling rule by the rich. If you focus on the powers of the Commission and of the European Court of Justice you get rule by the best (or in this case, the experts). And if you focus on the powers of the Council you have a cocktail of all of these.

This combination of elements makes the progressive agenda for reforming the EU a particularly challenging one. In the case of the nation-state, the fact that there is sovereignty (at least nominally) makes it possible to locate the site of political power and challenge any particular balance of power relations through the usual democratic channels of political will-formation (elections, the authorisation of representatives, referenda, protests, boycotts, strikes). In the case of the EU, by the very nature of its institutions, none of this is sufficiently entrenched. The only credible way forward is to elaborate progressive policies: a green new deal for Europe, a common European migration policy, a progressive taxation scheme, and so on. But policies without politics, is still politics focused on outcomes at the expense of processes. Agency is still marginalised in favour of structure. Democracy in theory is still likely to lead to tyranny in practice.

This is why it is not enough for the left to have policy ideas if it lacks a movement that fights for those ideas, a collective agent that can own these ideas and a mechanism of democratic will-formation that can be expressive of that agency. It is also why particular proposals for reform will not be enough unless there is an overall European movement that shapes the day-to-day struggles of those who are failed by capitalism (in both its cosmopolitan and nationalistic versions) and that articulates the conflicts they experience within a transformative, left-wing, vision of Europe.

The fight for Europe cannot just be a fight against how certain things are done, but also a fight for how they should be done, not just for policies taming capitalism but for a politics conducive to socialism. Yet fighting for socialism in Europe requires changing both power relations and power structures, both at the level of nation-states and between them. Europe is up for grabs. But given the shape of its institutions, what begins as a mission to ‘remain and reform’ may well end up as ‘remain and revolution’. This is a heroic task. No wonder the left is not ready for it.


Note: a version of the above also appeared in the New Statesman.

About the Author

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




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

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