Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

How benefit sanctions push single parents further from work

Benefit sanctions encourage job-seeking behaviour, successive governments have claimed. Yet in the case of single parents, sanctions actually move parents further from work, write Sumi Rabindrakumar and Laura Dewar. They draw on Gingerbread’s research to show how parents are often penalised despite seeking work, caught out by unrealistic expectations from jobcentres and poor administration.

The government argues that benefit sanctions serve a purpose. Under job-seeking benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit, penalising those who claim benefits but do not comply with conditions is said to provide fairness for the taxpayer and change behaviour to help people into work.

In some ways, these principles are intuitive. Indeed, when benefit sanctions are criticised, defenders point to the fact that claimants themselves often agree that penalties should be in place for those who ‘don’t do the right thing’. However, this still raises significant questions as to whether this is actually how sanctions are being used and whether they achieve the impact the government intends.

New research from Gingerbread sheds light on some answers. We already know that the growth in single parent sanctions indicates they are far from the ‘last resort’ that policymakers claim. These findings, based on single parent case studies, show just how far-reaching the impact of sanctions is on families – whether as a result of warnings or actual penalties imposed. Sanctioned single parents describe the severe financial and emotional toll of the sanctions regime; and how they were pushed into debt as a result. Even when sanctions are overturned and benefits repaid, the length of the appeal process means the financial burden is still heavy. The worry and stress caused by even warnings over sanctions was made clear – as the main carer for their children, this caused particular concern for single parents.

Total and utter fear, shock and worry. Panic about how to manage.

The impact of sanctions is not limited to claimants. When benefits are cut, other support must pick up the pieces. This includes friends and family, as well as local services. Housing providers and the voluntary sector were typically relied upon for further assistance – particularly local advice services and foodbanks, as others have found. It also highlights the precarious nature of support for those affected by benefit sanctions. Single parents reported the finite amount of support that already-stretched family and friends can provide; local advice services are increasingly under-funded and not an option for all sanctioned claimants.

Perhaps the government sees this is an unfortunate but necessary result of ensuring people are doing what they can to seek work. Yet the evidence suggests that sanctions actually move single parents further from work. There are practical considerations – parents said they could not afford to travel to the jobcentre or interviews while sanctioned; others have been caught between sanctions and a desire to find more sustainable work. For example, one parent could no longer meet the shift patterns required by an employer alongside caring for her child and was forced to leave her job. She was sanctioned as a result and the financial pressures meant she had to take the first available (and insecure) job rather than wait to apply for a more senior and flexible job as suggested by her work coach. Finally, sanctions – particularly unfair sanctions – fundamentally damage parents’ relationship with their jobcentre and advisers. This chimes with evidence suggesting that some claimants leave the benefit system altogether after being sanctioned.

The government may regard these effects as fair consequences for ‘non-compliance’. Yet as the report shows, single parents are in fact job-seeking, but are impeded by external factors. The lack of part-time or flexible work can mean some do not meet the strict criteria for the number of job applications made in a week. The lack of local affordable childcare can mean single parents need to give up work. Yet, despite the intention to seek and remain in work, single parents are penalised.

This approach to sanctioning is clearly not focused simply on wilful non-compliance. It is the result of a tick-box approach to policing job-seeking activity. Moreover, claimant commitments and Universal Credit were supposed to address individual circumstances to avoid just this rigid approach. However, there is little evidence of this working for single parents. In fact, there are signs that Universal Credit is making things worse. More single parents are now subject to job-seeking conditions (parents of three and four years must seek work and there are conditions to encourage working claimants to increase their pay or hours being piloted) and therefore at risk of being caught out by rigid rules. Worse, the chaotic delivery of support for childcare costs has meant some single parents have had to give up work – and been sanctioned as a result.

The findings add to a growing weight of evidence asking serious questions of the sanctions regime – not just about how sanctions are administered, but their purpose as a whole. Arguably, the experience to date indicates that benefit sanctions poorly serve those with additional support needs and barriers to work and begs the question as to whether they should be used at all – particularly given the impact on claimants with children.

I don’t think the children should be punished…[they] still need to be fed and clothed and live in a warm home…sanctions undermine the purpose of the benefit system in our country to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from poverty.

Notwithstanding an in-depth review of the use of sanctions, the government can limit the financial impact of sanctions in the short term. Instead of dragging its heels, it can introduce a proper ‘yellow card’ system where warnings are used in the first instance, instead of sanctions. The government can also reduce the financial penalty of a sanction – it cannot be right to withdraw an element of state support in its entirety. Alongside this, the government can do more to target sanctions on genuine non-compliance. The government must make conditions realistic for groups like single parents, where they face barriers to work rather than lack the motivation to comply with conditions, and ensure claimant commitments reflect the flexibility needed to accommodate claimants’ needs.

Single parents overwhelmingly want to work – around seven in ten already do. There is little evidence which suggests the sevenfold increase in the number of benefit sanctions for single parents between 2005/06 and 2016/17 (the latter taking Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit sanctions together) is warranted as a result of single parent job-seeking behaviour. The government has a chance with the new system of Universal Credit to put in place a system that genuinely encourages people to find work, and supports them to sustain and progress in work. While it is politically unlikely that sanctions will be halted, there are choices the government can make to ensure they are not wasting resources on an ineffective and inappropriate policy.


About the Authors
Sumi Rabindrakumar is Research Officer at Gingerbread.




Laura Dewar is Policy Officer at Gingerbread.

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 determines how much an MP spends on communicating with their constituents?

Why do some MPs invest more in constituency communication than others? Using data from the Communications Allowance between 2007 and 2010, Katrin Auel and Resul Umit identify key incentives that explain this puzzle.

Everyone agrees that parliamentarians should keep in touch with the people they represent: constituents demand more of their representatives’ attention, while parties encourage their members to reach out to the people in order to pass political messages. Yet in the UK, some MPs invest more in communication with their constituents than others. Is there a logical explanation for this puzzle? Which constituencies are more likely to hear from their MPs?

Our research addresses these questions by looking at MPs’ Communications Allowance, in place between 2007 and 2010. We find that rebellious MPs, senior MPs, and those who do not seek re-election communicate less with their constituents. In contrast, MPs in marginal seats, those who are more active in parliament, and those who represent urban constituencies communicate more. We see these results as evidence of MPs’ constituency communication depending on challenges to their re-election. Communication is an important tool for MPs to convince their electors of their trustworthiness, and the more that job is insecure, the more incentives they have to communicate.

Figure 1 shows on what MPs spent their allowance during the 2009—2010 parliamentary term, highlighting expenses such as publications and postage costs, advertising constituency surgeries, and maintaining websites.

Figure 1: Percentage of allowance spent on individual types of expenditure (2009–2010).

Before the introduction of the Communications Allowance, the prevailing assumption was that MPs would use this new allowance to the maximum. We find that this was clearly not the case. On average, MPs claimed only a little over 70% of it. Yet, there were also relatively large deviations. While a few MPs preferred not to use their allowance at all, others used almost two and a half times their limit by moving funds from other allowances into the Communications Allowance.

Yet a more nuanced look at how MPs used their allowance suggests that the predictions were not completely off — at least for those MPs seeking re-election. Figure 2 shows that MPs seeking re-election spent significantly more (on average, £2212.66 more per parliamentary term) on communicating with their constituents. Moreover, while MPs seeking re-election spent on average more or less the same to communicate with their constituents in three parliamentary terms, the rest significantly cut down their communication expenditure as the election year got closer.

Figure 2: Communications expenditure of MPs (2007–2010)

There is further evidence that re-election is an important incentive for MPs’ parliamentary communication in between elections. First, we find that senior MPs claimed significantly less from their allowance to communicate: every year served as an MP lessened the claims by £56.69. This may be because senior incumbents will have built a reputation with their voters. In contrast, MPs in more marginal seats have to increase the number of voters trusting them and so have far greater incentives to invest in communication. Indeed, we find that MPs’ claims increased with the marginality of their seat by £69.31 per percentage point.

With regard to MPs’ work in parliament, we find that the more an MP attends parliamentary votes, the more they invest in communication. They simply have more to communicate to their constituents as a result. However, where their work goes against the party line, these rebellious MPs do the complete opposite and spend less. This is especially the case among rebellious MPs in marginal seats.

Figure 3 plots the relationship between votes against party line and communication with constituents, for different levels of electoral safety. It shows that the negative effect of voting against the party line on communicating with constituents decreases with increasing majority; this may be because dissenting votes may lead part of the rebel’s electorate to realise that the rationale behind the rebel vote was unrelated or in opposition to their own preferences.

Figure 3: Average marginal effects of rebellion on change in communications expenditure, conditional on electoral majority.

With regard to constituency characteristics, we find that MPs representing densely populated urban constituencies spend significantly more than those from relatively rural constituencies. The latter can generally rely on being better known to their constituents due to a slower turnover in the electorate. Urban constituencies, in contrast, are more challenging as changes in the electorate happen more quickly, thus increasing the need for MPs to win over prospective voters continuously.

These findings all underline that the degree in which MPs invest in communication depends on re-election-related incentives. It is difficult, at least in practice, to separate communicative accountability from electoral accountability: what happens in between elections, and specifically how much MPs communicate with their constituents, also depends on what happened in the last election, and what might happen in the next one.


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

About the Authors

Katrin Auel is Head of the Research Group European Governance and Public Finance at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna.



Resul Umit is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lucerne.



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).


‘Rivers of Blood’ fifty years on: Enoch Powell’s rhetoric of blame and exclusion

It is five decades since Enoch Powell told a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham that soon “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. Judi Atkins analyses the rhetoric of that speech and concludes that, although Powell’s notorious prediction of a race war has not materialised, his rhetoric of division and blame still forms part of British public discourse.

On 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell delivered his now-infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham. In an article for a forthcoming special issue of The Political Quarterly to mark its 50th anniversary, I analyse Powell’s address through the lens of epideictic (or ‘display’) rhetoric. This branch of rhetoric is traditionally associated with praise and blame, but scholars have broadened its scope to encompass the affirmation of a common identity.

At first sight ‘Rivers of Blood’ is antithetical to this conception of epideictic rhetoric, given that its purpose was to unsettle and divide. However, the application of a framework proposed by Celeste Michelle Condit shows that Powell’s speech is best understood an example of the epideictic of blame and exclusion.

According to Condit, epideictic rhetoric serves three functional pairs. The first is display/entertainment, whereby an orator’s eloquence may ‘entertain’ their listeners.  Meanwhile, the second pair is definition/understanding, which refers to the speaker’s power to explain a troubling situation and so to provide reassurance. The third is ‘shaping/sharing of community’, which acknowledges the role of rhetoric in constructing a collective self-image and reinforcing a shared identity.

Powell began the speech by seeking to establish his authority. Thus, he told his listeners that ‘the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils’, the discussion of which is ‘the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician’. The unspecified ‘evils’ are, of course, the consequences of immigration and, by confronting this contentious issue head-on, he came across as a lone voice in the wilderness, warning the nation of the dangers ahead. By ‘saying the unsayable’, Powell did not so much entertain his audience as provide gratification by articulating their deep-seated concerns. Consequently, the speech acted as an (albeit temporary) outlet for the built-up resentment he believed was felt in areas that were experiencing high levels of immigration.

The ability to define a situation enhances the authority of a speaker, and Powell devoted much of his address to setting out the nature of the problem as he saw it. In particular, he predicted that unrestricted immigration would lead to ‘whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England [being] occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population’ by the year 2000. A key contributing factor was the government’s decision to allow an annual inflow of around 50,000 dependents, a move that Powell claimed was akin to ‘watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. This definition of the situation offered no reassurance to those concerned about immigration, while Powell’s vivid portrayal of a dystopian future served only to heighten public anxiety.

The shaping/sharing of community is achieved through public affirmations of communal identity. However, by emphasising some values and traditions over others, a speaker can exclude individuals or groups from their definition of community. So, to this end, Powell contrasted the nation’s treatment of immigrants with that of its own people:

While, to the immigrant, entry to this country was admission to privileges and opportunities eagerly sought, the impact upon the existing population was very different. For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country.

To illustrate his argument, Powell claimed the native English ‘found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places … their plans and prospects for the future defeated’. Though he never stated it directly, Paul Chilton notes that the audience can plausibly infer that ‘the agents of change … are either the politicians criticised by Powell or the immigrants themselves’ [p. 123]. Irrespective of culpability the consequences were the same, namely the displacement and victimisation of the existing population, which fueled the in-group’s hostility towards immigrants and their fears for the future.

A striking feature of Powell’s rhetoric of exclusion was his use of the ‘anecdotal testimony of an “ordinary” person … as an authority and as a proof of a more general political point’. Thus, he repeatedly praised the ‘ordinary, decent, sensible [English] people’ who had voiced their concerns about immigration, and treated their stories as representative of what ‘thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking’. In one such conversation, Powell reported, a constituent said he wanted his children to settle abroad, claiming that ‘in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. This view was consistent with Powell’s prediction that unfettered immigration would result in large swathes of England being ‘occupied’ by an ‘alien element’. In turn, the claim that the existing population would be subjugated served to foster division by presenting these ‘others’ as a direct threat to the nation and its way of life.

The legacy of Powell’s speech is mixed. His most notorious prediction – that unrestricted immigration would lead to a race war, which would see the streets of Britain ‘foaming with much blood’ – has not materialised and, according to Sally Tomlinson, the 86% of the settled population of England and Wales identified as ‘white’ in the 2011 census ‘presumably still [holds] the “whip hand”’ over the 14% who identify as Asian, Black or Mixed Race.

Nevertheless, the arguments of the Leave campaign prior to the EU referendum contained strong echoes of ‘Rivers of Blood’. A notorious example is UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which showed a winding queue of Syrian refugees in Slovenia in 2015. As Jonathan Jones explains: ‘This tide of faces summons up exactly the same swarms and rivers and hordes of otherness and racial difference that Powell spoke against in 1968 and that so many have tried to evoke since’.

Campaigners also reiterated Powell’s argument about the impact of immigration on the existing population, with Priti Patel claiming that ‘the shortage of primary school places is yet another example of how uncontrolled migration is putting unsustainable pressures on our public services’. This rhetoric of division and blame was widely condemned but, with rising anti-immigrant sentiment and the uncertainties surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, it is likely to feature in the public discourse on ‘race’ and immigration for some time to come.


Note: the above draws on the author’s forthcoming article for The Political Quarterly, entitled ‘“Strangers in their own Country”: Epideictic Rhetoric and Communal Definition in Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” Speech’.

About the Author

Judi Atkins is Senior Lecturer in Politics in the School of Humanities at Coventry University.  She is author of Justifying New Labour Policy (2011) and Conflict, Co-operation and the Rhetoric of Coalition Government (2018), as well as several articles on the relationship between ideas, language and policy in British politics.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).


How should the UK respond to the attacks in Syria? For a weakened PM, there are no easy options

Following the suspected chemical attacks in Syria, the question of whether Britain should join any missile strike action in the region alongside the US and France has been raised. Daniel Kenealy considers whether parliament would support such action if asked, and how Theresa May could avoid domestic political fallout if the matter is not put to a vote after all.

Since the suspected chemical attacks in Douma on 7 April the governments of the United States, France, and the UK have been inching closer to launching missile strikes against Syrian government military assets. You would be forgiven for feeling a sense of a déjà vu. In August 2013, news broke of a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. Western leaders – Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, and David Cameron – reacted with firm rhetoric and it seemed as though missiles would be launched within days. Then, it all unravelled. Cameron failed to win the support of the House of Commons for UK involvement. That loss was a major factor influencing President Obama’s decision to back down in August 2013: a reminder that votes in the House of Commons could have significant international ramifications.

Can the UK’s armed forces be deployed without parliamentary approval?

The first question to be addressed is can the Prime Minister deploy the UK’s armed forces without parliamentary approval? The answer, in a word is yes. Under the Royal Prerogative the Prime Minister has the necessary legal authority. Although this answer might be legally correct, it ignores the role of conventions in the UK’s uncodified constitution and the realities of politics. In an excellent book Rosara Joseph traces the development of constitutional practice since 1600, showing how arguments in favour of the War Prerogative have changed as our prevailing ideas of what is politically appropriate and legitimate have evolved. It has also been argued that, since 2003, one such change is the development of a War Powers Convention. Ironically, the 2003 Iraq War – which was characterised by many institutional and procedural failings – was the first time since 1950 that parliament was given a vote on the use of military force.

In the 15 years since Iraq, the Commons has voted to approve military action against Daesh/ISIL in Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015. It also voted to retroactively approve the deployment of UK military force in Libya in 2011. These votes strengthen the argument that a constitutional convention has begun to crystallise. Despite this, successive governments have refused to make the requirement to consult parliament firmer, for example through legislating to that effect. Although it represents a strengthening of parliament’s role, the War Powers Convention remains ambiguous, the definitional issues involved in military decisions remain slippery, and any punishment for violating the convention remains political.

That being said, politics matter and the Prime Minister – already weakened and consumed by Brexit woes – could suffer political punishment for ignoring the convention and committing the UK military without a parliamentary vote. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would undoubtedly make political hay out of the issue in the short term; and there would likely be Conservative MPs who would also join the chorus of criticism.

Would Parliament vote for action?

The second question is: would the Prime Minister win a vote? In both 2014 and 2015, Cameron easily won votes to use UK force against Daesh/ISIL in Iraq and Syria. However, the most appropriate analogy in the present case is the 2013 Syria vote. Many of the arguments voiced then in opposition to bombing resonate today, and perhaps even stronger. Russia is now deeply embedded on the ground in Syria. The US has less diplomatic leverage now than it did then. The Assad regime is far stronger now than then. As in 2013, there is no UN Security Council resolution authorising military action. And the regional situation has grown increasingly complex. What seemed messy in 2013 looks even more so in 2018.

In the 2013 vote Cameron saw 30 Conservative MPs vote against him. Of those, 23 remain in the Commons. But some – including David Davis, who was an important voice of opposition in 2013 – are now in government and likely to support the Prime Minister. Others have said in recent days that they would now favour strikes. Then there are the 10 DUP MPs, whose confidence-and-supply agreement gives the government a working majority of 13. The DUP opposed strikes against Syria in 2013 but have since voted for UK military action against Daesh/ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. It remains unclear how they would vote but they are not obliged, under the terms of their confidence-and-supply agreement, to support the government on this issue. The Prime Minister cannot be assured of holding her majority on her own benches.

With the SNP, Plaid, and the Greens almost certain to oppose strikes, the Prime Minister may need to draw the support of between 25-35 Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Although Jeremy Corbyn is likely to oppose strikes, some of his MPs may vote with the government, as 66 of them did in 2015 to use force against Daesh/ISIL in Syria. Palpable divisions within Labour, especially on matters of foreign and security policy, remain and the Prime Minister might hope for a similar sized block of Labour support. The eight current Liberal Democrat MPs have a fairly consistent record of voting for interventions since 2011. In short, the vote would be winnable but it would require careful parliamentary management in contrast to the fiasco of the Whip operation in 2013.

Is there a third way?

Finally, does the Prime Minister have any alternatives? If the US and France are intent to press ahead with strikes over the weekend then it may not be possible to recall parliament in time to approve UK action. In that case MPs may have to content themselves with a retroactive vote. The government’s argument would be that the pace of events forced a decision before parliament could be reconvened. It is hard to predict how such a vote might go. It is a difficult thing for a parliament to vote against the activities of UK military personnel once they are underway. And, once the strikes are underway or are completed, the heat of the moment and thus the heat in the debate might have ebbed.

A final option would be for the Prime Minister to offer support to US and French military activities that stops short of the use of force by the UK itself. Most are in agreement that such actions would not require a parliamentary vote, an argument that has precedent in the UK’s 2013 actions in Mali and the deployment of Special Forces to Syria. Such a policy decision would be a way of fudging some of the controversy. It would allow the UK to say it was ‘involved’ without risking the political fallout of bypassing parliament, but runs the risk of sending a message that the UK is further retreating from a role of global responsibility. In short, for a weakened Prime Minister, there are no easy options.


About the Author

Daniel Kenealy (@Realist_IR) is a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science where he teaches government and public policy and researchers UK foreign and security policy. His work on parliaments and UK foreign policy has appeared in European Security and West European Politics.



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: Number 10 (Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Understanding the UK’s soft power: more than Shakespeare and the Royal Family

Do we understand enough about what soft power is? Gary Rawnsley explains that although the focus has so far been on cultural icons and stories, there is another important aspect to soft power: the actions of the British government. These are seen as a reflection of the values the UK upholds, and so influence opinions overseas. He argues that understanding this dimension of soft power is becoming more urgent as Brexit approaches.

So-called “soft power” is now a critical component of UK government discourses on foreign policy. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review recognised Britain’s soft power capacity as a valuable asset while acknowledging the vital role played by instruments of British public and cultural diplomacy such as the BBC World Service, the British Council, and institutions of higher education. Moreover, frequent discussion of “global Britain” at the highest levels of government after the 2016 referendum and the continuation of the “GREAT” campaign demonstrate an enthusiasm for understanding how soft power can help the UK prepare to leave the European Union.

However, if British state and non-state institutions wish to maximise the country’s soft power potential, they must first understand what soft power is and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not; and as yet there is little evidence to demonstrate that they do appreciate what soft power is. The key lies in recognising how governments and other political actors “generate” soft power rather than “exercise” it, because soft power is a resource, not an instrument. It is the end result – the consequence – of policies pursued and relationships maintained that further social progress and generate favourable opinions overseas. Soft power cannot be touched, counted, or used as and when required. Its accumulation and exercise represent long-term processes that should be barely noticeable. It is something that a nation acquires and exercises naturally, not something that can be deliberated and decided by Cabinets and Kings.

Also, the introduction of other unnecessary labels such as “smart power” and most recently “sharp power” simply add to the confusion. As Tom Fletcher, a former Ambassador to Lebanon, noted in his 2016 discussion of Naked Diplomacy, “it matters less whether you call is soft, smart, new or whatever the next catchy moniker is. What matters is that you call it power. And that you get out there and use it”.

The problem is that successive governments, following the British Council’s lead, remain convinced that soft power is synonymous with attraction and familiarity. For example, opinion poll surveys measured the “attractiveness” of the UK among respondents in Europe, the Commonwealth, and the G20 after the 2016 referendum, while the British Council’s 2014 report, As Others See Us, documents what we already know about high levels of awareness among foreign publics of British culture, education, and society.

While the UK has every reason to be proud of its cultural reach, engagement, and heritage, this does not necessarily translate into “power” so that Britain’s foreign policy ambitions will progress. More attention or familiarity does not correlate with more influence. Of course respondents to surveys overseas are familiar with the Monarchy and Shakespeare. They are highly visible, more accessible stories, they are non-threatening, and certainly more “sexy” than complex political ideas, values, institutions, and processes. Yet this is very different from understanding, accepting, or rejecting the values these cultural icons represent. After all, while “to know us” may be “to love us” in some circumstances, in other situations “to know us” may also be “to fear us” or “hate us”.

Rather, I call for greater attention to the behaviour – at home and overseas – of the British government. It is judged less by what it says about itself than what it does and the company it keeps. Soft power lies in the credibility and moral authority of actions taken by state and non-state institutions. This is the reason why we are justified to worry about reports detailing the questionable conduct of some workers in our most prominent overseas aid charities, such as Oxfam, and when the government insists on maintaining a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia despite criticism of that country’s military action in Yemen.

The policy implications of this approach are clear: To generate soft power, the government must behave in an ethical, transparent, and accountable manner; and when it fails to do so, it must correct its mistakes in an equally transparent way. The Chilcot Inquiry and the inquest into the 1989 Hilsborough disaster demonstrate levels of accountability and transparency that communicate a positive narrative about the UK’s democratic values, institutions, and processes. The value of the Chilcot Inquiry lies not in the detail of who said what to whom and when decisions about Iraq were made; rather the value lies in the fact that the inquiry happened. This is the narrative that contributes to the UK’s soft power by communicating a story that not even former Prime Ministers are above scrutiny. The accountability of the police force, a component of the British state’s power, during the Hilsborough inquest likewise communicates a compelling narrative that is absent in many other parts of the world. These are powerful messages about democratic values, democratic institutions, and democratic processes that are often ignored in favour of a more comfortable, glamorous, and easier narratives focusing on British ‘culture’.

For all of the government’s ambitions to create “Global Britain” post-Brexit, the current institutional arrangements – the absence of public diplomacy from core political institutions, the treatment of overseas applicants to Universities, the demonization of migrants and refugees, and misjudged changes to the funding of the BBC World Service and the BBC Monitoring Service – suggest that the UK does not take seriously its soft power capacity or the public diplomacy mechanisms designed to project it.  As we approach our exit from the EU and need to turn our attention to more strategic approaches to global influence, the UK government needs to do much more to understand and recognise its soft power and both protect and strengthen the public diplomacy mechanisms designed to communicate it.

Issues about governance as well as the (foreign and domestic) policies the government pursues, affect the UK’s capacity to generate soft power and therefore the quality of its global relationships. It is essential that the government recognise how, since soft power arises from attraction to a country’s values and moral authority, the actions it takes at home and abroad will be seen as a reflection of the values the UK upholds, and will therefore have a profound effect on the UK’s soft power. These issues will only grow more urgent as Brexit approaches.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The Journal of International Communication.

About the Author

Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth 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: Michael Garnett (Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Don’t call me a customer, treat me like a human: rethinking relationships in public services

The pressures of competition, together with the growth in the use of performance data, keep service providers on their toes: if they want to keep customers and their money, they need to keep them happy. But this is not good news in a public services context, writes Catherine Needham and outlines four key problems created by the customer language.

Once upon a time there were public services that treated everyone the same, and people had to take what they were given. Patients, school children, students, welfare recipients were grateful and deferential and prefaced all their requests, with ‘if it’s not too much trouble’. There would be an audible gasp if ever they did an Oliver Twist and dared to ask for more. Then came Margaret Thatcher with her faith in markets and business people, and a feeling that government would run a whole lot better if lots of things were privatised, and those public services that remained were run like businesses. Users were encouraged to be customers of public services and to demand what they wanted, and to shop around.

Of course, this is an oversimplification– the welfare state never treated everyone the same, and before Thatcher there were groups of people who combined together to demand different kinds of public services. But beyond this simplistic picture, a cross-party assumption of governments has been that public services will flourish through adopting the entrepreneurialism, efficiency, and customer focus of the market. We have seen the customer language and approach take hold in a range of public services. Customer language is applied when people pay directly for public services (e.g. tuition fees); have choice over services (e.g. state schools and elective surgery); and/or are treated in an attentive and respectful way (good ‘customer service’).

There has been a huge growth in performance data about public services, so that we can be smart customers, shopping around between providers to get the best fit for what we want. We can see the death rates of surgeons before we choose a hospital. We can see the punctuality rates of trains and perhaps decide to take the car instead. The pressures of customer competition keep providers on their toes: if they want to keep customers and the money that comes with them then they need to keep those customers happy.

Credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

There are a number of problems with this, and I’m going to focus on four:

The language of customer is individualising. It focuses on what you want to get out of public services, not on the broader collective goals of those services, which are often public in the first place because they are about shared and equal access to a good life. Prioritising people’s individual demands risks intensifying inequalities in access to services, and in generating collectively undesirable outcomes such as over-prescribing of antibiotics in response to patient demand.

It draws a false equivalence between private customer service and quality improvement. when I’m shopping for car insurance I like being able to pick a different provider if I’m not happy with the one I’ve got, but it took me a few goes at buying car insurance before I learned how to compare them properly and make a good choice. A lot of public service choices are sticky: people make a choice once and after that it is difficult to change university, school, care home, hospital consultant. You’ve often had to work quite hard to get those services in the first place (since a lot of them have entry requirements before you can get through the door). And often (despite the plentiful performance data) the quality of the service isn’t really clear to you until you are in them. There’s little scope to make a poor choice and learn from it the next time, and that means the signals we send to providers by our choices are not a reliable guide to service quality.

The language of customer shifts the blame for bad services onto the individual. If we make consumer choice the engine of change in public services, then – if I’m not a very articulate or motivated customer – isn’t it my fault that the service isn’t better? Making choices about certain things is really difficult. We know that it’s hard to compare energy prices and mobile phone tariffs because they are designed to be difficult to compare. Now imagine choosing a care home to live in, because of advancing dementia or a medical crisis which has affected your mobility. It’s a hard time to make a choice, and we need to have more to offer people facing poor quality underfunded services than blaming them for not being good enough at making choices.

It puts staff and service users in conflict. Underpinning the customer language is the view of public services as a battleground between staff and customers, where customers have to keep their wits about them and be ready to complain, switch and be generally awkward in order to get what they want. You can see this in the language around students as customers in higher education in which tuition fees are seen as flexing customer muscle over wayward academics.

But this conflictual model fails to recognise that the interests of users and providers can be closely aligned. Successful delivery of public services often requires high trust relationships between users and providers on the front line. We need to get better at supporting good relationships, at harnessing relational power. In our 21st Century Public Servant research into the future public service workforce, we repeatedly find that people want public services and organisations that feel human and treat them as humans.

And that’s not easy. In the many presentations we have given to public service organisations what’s clear is that taking relationships seriously is a radical challenge for them. Big organisations in the public (and indeed private) sectors are not good at being human. Large organisations work through the efficient processing of people – the customer service algorithm – rather than the building and sustaining of relationships.

Creating good relationships is small-scale work. We need to find ways for even big organisations to feel small. There may be ways to nest the insights of small organisations in bigger ones, so that within large hospitals and large schools we have wards and classes where relationships can be developed and sustained. We need to get better at understanding the places where good relationships exist and celebrating and copying them, rather than allowing adversarial narratives (‘them and us’) to take hold and thrive.


Note: the above draws on Catherine’s inaugural lecture given at the University of Birmingham in March 2018.

About the Author

Catherine Needham is Professor of Public Policy and Public Management at the University of Birmingham.




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.


Public attitudes to Brexit: the referendum was more a vote for re-regulation than for de-regulation

Drawing on new polling of attitudes to Brexit, Marley Morris explores the public’s preference for different trade scenarios when faced with a number of difficult trade-offs. He concludes that, if the government wants public support for its negotiating position, it must negotiate a deal that keeps the European model close – and rejects the deregulation agenda.

The strange irony of Brexit is that the origins of the movement for withdrawing from the EU in the 1990s and 2000s have little in common with the public’s own motivations for voting Leave in 2016. The earlier campaigns for leaving the EU were at heart free-market and libertarian: they argued that the UK should break free from the protectionist shackles of EU institutions, set alight a bonfire of EU regulations, and forge new trade deals around the world. But, as we find in IPPR’s latest research, the public’s vision of Brexit is rather different. As the next stage of the UK-EU negotiations begin – on the all-important question of the future partnership – and the government is forced to confront some seemingly intractable trade-offs, it is essential to understand where the public’s priorities for the negotiations really lie.

With the help of polling company Opinium, we tested how the public would navigate a series of binary trade-offs in the negotiations – on trade and regulations, on immigration and services, on the ‘level playing field’ and state aid – to get a clearer view of their vision for post-Brexit Britain. The picture that emerged is in stark contrast to how the earlier generation of Brexiteers originally envisaged life outside the EU.

First, on regulations, we found that the public consistently favoured high employment, consumer, and environmental standards. For many of the policies which UK governments opposed at the time of their introduction and which were the cornerstone of earlier Euroscepticism – the Working Time Directive, the cap on bankers’ bonuses, renewable energy targets – we found firm public support. There was no appetite for deregulation among either remainers or leavers, and in some cases – such as the cap on bankers’ bonuses – both sides wanted tougher laws than already exist.

Figure 1: the public favour continued alignment with EU standards over deregulation

We also asked the public about the EU’s call for there to be a ‘level playing field’ between the UK and the EU post-Brexit, which includes requirements on aligning regulation and state aid rules. When asked whether they would prefer to align with EU consumer, environmental and employment rules to secure a far-reaching UK-EU trade agreement or instead lower standards, the public backed alignment (49%) over deregulation (28%).

On the other hand, the public showed considerably greater interest in a more activist state aid policy: when asked whether they would prefer to have greater flexibility on state aid to protect particular industries or to keep state aid limits for a far-reaching EU trade deal, 53% favoured greater state aid flexibility over EU state aid limits. On free movement, too, when asked to choose between imposing controls on EU citizens or maintaining free trade in services, our respondents showed a stronger preference for restricting immigration than for protecting services trade. The public seem more interested in using Brexit to enhance the power of the state than to roll it back.

Even on future trade deals, the public are not instinctive free-trading libertarians. While in principle the public have a clear preference for an independent trade policy – more people favour this than favour maintaining a soft Irish border – in practice there is strong opposition to any free trade agreements that lead to a race to the bottom.

Figure 2: there is a public preference for having an independent trade policy over protecting the soft Irish border.

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross has suggested that alignment on food safety standards would be central to any future UK-US trade deal, but our survey found that only 8% of the public supported deregulating food safety standards in return for a trade deal with the US, compared to 82% who supported maintaining current food safety standards. Negotiating trade deals around the world may well turn out to be even more politically controversial than our membership of the EU.

Figure 3: the vast majority of the public are unwilling to sacrifice maintaining food safety standards for a trade deal with the US.

The vote to leave the EU was therefore far from a call for the UK to become a buccaneering, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames; instead the public appear to expect a larger state post-Brexit, with tougher regulations on everything from environmental protections to financial policy, additional controls on immigration, and more opportunities to use state aid. The referendum was more a vote for re-regulation than for de-regulation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost in the negotiations. There are models that can address the public’s priorities while protecting our economy – for instance, IPPR’s ‘shared market’ approach, which prioritises continued alignment with EU rules while allowing for the option to diverge over time.

But it does mean there is no public appetite for a rupture from the European economic and social model after Brexit. There are signs that some parts of the government recognise this: Brexit Secretary David Davis has dismissed suggestions that withdrawal will be a means of cutting loose EU regulations, while DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove has pursued a high-standards agenda in environmental policy. Yet this will mean nothing without the right deal. As the next stage of talks with the EU begin, if the government wants public support for its negotiating position it must put its money where its mouth is, and negotiate a deal that keeps the European model close – and rejects the deregulation agenda outright.


Note: the above draws on an IPPR briefing, available here.

About the Author

Marley Morris is Senior Research Fellow at IPPR.




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.

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