Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

MPs with constituencies far from Westminster choose different ways to represent their voters

MPs face demands on their time in both Westminster and their constituency. The greater the distance between the area they represent and Parliament, the more this requires trade-offs. David M. Willumsen finds that the type of parliamentary activities an MP takes part in is affected by the distance of their constituency from Westminster, which has implications for the principle of equal representation.

Equality of citizens in the democratic process is a cornerstone of representative democracy: all voters should be equally represented. As such, analysing systematic differences in the quality of representation is a central question in political science, which has been explored with regards to interest groups, voter wealth and income, gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and educational levels. The role geography plays in representation, however, remains relatively unexplored.

Legislators face a large number of demands on their time, and with both Parliament and the constituency exerting a strong pull, they face trade-offs regarding were to spend their limited time. One aspect of this trade-off is, however, beyond their control: the extent to which their constituency is geographically near to, or far away from, the capital. A more distant constituency requires increased travel time, which decreases the time available for activities both inside and outside of the legislature.

In an article recently published in West European Politics, I explore how MPs’ representative activities are influenced by the constraints imposed on them by geography, and how MPs respond to the limitations imposed by a more remote constituency. Do legislators follow a logic of compensation, engaging in other, less time-sensitive representational activities in the capital? Or are they driven by a different logic, one based on a centre-periphery dynamic, where voters from more distant constituencies have a different relationship with the state, and expect different forms of representation than those closer to the capital?

To explore these questions, I collected the vote attendance records in the UK’s House of Commons (2005–15) and the Early Day Motions (EDMs) tabled in the same period. Attendance at votes is a good proxy for presence in the capital (and consequently for other activities pursued in the legislature), as MPs are expected to attend votes when possible. EDMs, non-binding motions on which neither debates nor votes are held, and which can be signed at any time, are a good example of a non-time-sensitive compensational representational activity. EDMs can be used by MPs to emphasise their role in the political process, while signalling to constituents that their MP is hard at work representing their interests in the capital. The UK House of Commons serves as an ideal case to explore these questions. There is wide geographical variation in the location of constituencies relative to the capital, and all MPs are elected using the same, geographically based, electoral system.

The key findings in terms of attendance are shown in Figure 1: regardless of whether remoteness is measured as distance or as travel time, the farther away a constituency is from Westminster, the fewer votes are attended by its MP. The extent to which this is the case, however, depends on the day of the week a vote takes place. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays (the two overlapping top lines), attendance is highest, and independent of how remote a constituency is; the two lines are essentially flat. On Mondays, there is a small effect of remoteness on attendance, with MPs from more remote constituencies attending votes at a lower rate than those from constituencies nearer London. A much stronger effect was found for attendance on Thursdays and Fridays, where MPs whose constituencies are far from Westminster attended votes at much lower rates than their fellow legislators from more proximate constituencies.

Figure 1: Effect of remoteness on vote attendance

Calculating the predicted attendance rates while holding all other variables at their means shows that an increase in travel time from 15 minutes to five hours would lead to a drop in the attendance rate of 5.8 percentage points, while an increase in the distance between Westminster and the constituency from 1km to 600km would lead to a decrease of 7.9 percentage points. Variations in constituency remoteness thus lead to both substantial and significant differences in attendance rates.

MPs’ attendance rates are thus clearly influenced by the remoteness of their constituency; the farther away, and the longer the travel time, the fewer votes they attend. As such, constituencies farther from London are less well-represented in Westminster. This raises the question of whether MPs use non-time-sensitive activities to compensate for lower attendance rates.

The key results from analysing the signing of EDMs are shown in Figure 2. As can be seen, for MPs elected in constituencies relatively near London (under 300km/less than 3 hours’ travel time), the lower their attendance rate, the more EDMs they sign, indicating that they are indeed using non-time-sensitive activities to compensate for their lower attendance rate.

Figure 2: Effect of remoteness on EDM signing rates

For MPs from more distant constituencies (400+ km/5+ hours), this is not the case. Instead, for such MPs, the higher the attendance rate, the greater the share of EDMs signed, indicating that a different logic is at play, which places a higher value on showing constituents that a legislator is active on their behalf in the capital. These MPs also use EDMs to signal their voters, but are not doing so in a compensatory manner. Rather, the driving force appears to be a centre–periphery dynamic, where good representation is perceived differently depending on how far removed a constituency is from the capital.

Thus, the MPs with the highest attendance rate, who have little to compensate for, differ in their behaviour depending on how remote their constituency is; the ones from more remote constituencies use EDMs in addition to attendance to signal to their voters that their interests are being represented at the centre, whereas MPs with similar attendance rates from more centrally located constituencies have no need to send such signals. Less active MPs behave much the same regardless of where their constituency is located.

Emphasising these centre-periphery dynamics, MPs from nationalist parties – Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the SDLP in Northern Ireland (Sinn Féin do not take their seats in Westminster) – were found to attend significantly fewer votes, but sign more than twice as many EDMs as MPs from other parties, all other things being equal. MPs from these nationalist parties use EDMs to draw attention to the interests and concerns of their voters in their home nation much more than Labour, Conservative and other UK-wide party MPs do, while placing less emphasis on legislative work, as indicated by their lower attendance rates. This supports the argument that for MPs from more remote constituencies, EDMs are used to signal voters that their concerns are being raised at the centre, and are not a primarily a compensatory device.

In summary, and similar to the findings of systematic differences in representation based on gender, race, and income, substantial differences in representation exist driven by geographic factors, indicating that voters are unequally represented and may have worse access to the levers of power depending on where they live.

This work shows how the physical location of the capital matters for representation. While it is a rare event, capitals can be moved, as the examples of Brasília (previously Rio de Janeiro) and Berlin (Bonn) illustrate. As such, when faced with the choice of where to place a country’s capital, one consideration should be geography. By choosing a capital in a central geographic location, a lessening of systematic differences in political representation may be achieved.

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Note: This post was originally published on Democratic Audit. It draws on the author’s article ‘So far away from me? The effect of geographical distance on representation’, published in West European Politics (open access). Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain

About the Author

David M. Willumsen has worked as a post-doctoral Researcher (Universitätsassistent) at the University of Innsbruck since October 2016. He holds a PhD from the European University Institute, Florence.

 

Rethinking the impact of government expenditure and how it is accounted for

David Walker sets out the case for a more devolved, accountable, and reliable public audit system, and offers ambitious proposals for unifying the way services are assessed. Such reforms could go a long way in restoring public trust in government credibility when it comes to expenditure.

A century ago, a distinguished LSE political scientist railed against auditors. To William A Robson, a founder of the Greater London Group, audit was economistic, an instrument for controlling progressive Labour local authorities’ social spending. When auditors certified spending on hungry children as ‘excessive’, they were (he said in a 1925 Fabian pamphlet) ‘a menace’. Social control through accountancy remained a theme. The Audit Commission was established by the Thatcher government as an explicit check on spending by left Labour councils, including Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – though one of its great moments turned out to be backing an auditor’s prosecution of Tory councillors in Westminster.

Now austerity trumps all. Public audit is in the doldrums: its utility as a means of curbing spending diminishes when grants are cut and tax raising proscribed. You can only account for money if you have any. In the NHS, in local government and in the central state, the audit function has become residual. But now may, paradoxically, be a good time for the political left – at least for protagonists of higher spending – to look again.

Audit is a deficit discipline: it remedies structural absence of trust in an organisation’s managers. If company directors could be relied upon to state revenue and spending truthfully; if ministers and permanent secretaries never succumbed to the temptation of doctoring budgets and output data, auditors would not be needed to check and cross-tabulate. So audit’s principal purpose is assurance. It certifies that public money is being spent lawfully and verifies stated amounts. It could potentially become a tool in the politics of fiscal persuasion – if it enhanced confidence that money is well spent, citizens might be convinced to endorse higher levels of tax and expenditure.

The case for more hardly needs rehearsing. The state needs more revenue to end austerity let alone confront the long list of undernourished collective concerns – from ageing through climate change to equipping sectors and places to cope, let alone flourish, post Brexit. But a precondition is electoral consent and fiscal honesty – policed stringently by the Institute of Fiscal Studies – requires us to admit those on median incomes will probably have to pay more, however skewed additional taxation were towards wealth and higher incomes.

A first step is reconceptualising audit. To assess ‘value for money’ goes far beyond the traditional audit tasks of ensuring probity and the regularity of testing balance sheet sums, essential as they remain. Accountancy is notionally a social science, but has had little or no communication of exchange with other disciplines. Gauging value for money demands quantitative skill, yes, but draws on sociology and political studies as well as economics in a more rounded assessment of social and public value. Value for money may not be science, but it can lay claims to being a discipline – and one much broader than financial accounting.

In a report for the Smith Institute, John Tizard and I make some bold propositions about the institutional basis of this reconceptualization. I say bold because they affect one public body that stands tall and proud, amidst the degradation and disarray of Brexit politics and the denigration of expert knowledge and contempt for evidence. This is the National Audit Office.

Efforts have been made, notably by Patrick Dunleavy, to stimulate debate about its functionality, governance and performance. But the NAO, along with public audit at large, inhabits the shadows. Sir Amyas Morse, its head, has intervened on Brexit preparedness, Treasury power, and Whitehall capacity; but the House of Commons (of which he is an officer) has shown little interest in the principles and practice of how public money is spent and assessed for its efficiency, effectiveness and equity. The last of those is vital, but till now excluded even as a neutral exercise in plotting the spatial and social winners and losers in spending decisions. The architecture of value for money is ramshackle. In recent years the NAO has expanded the thematic studies it does, but they are ad hoc, belong to no systematic programme underwritten by MPs, and overlap untidily with the NAO’s other functions as custodian of the legality of spending: spending can simultaneously be legal, properly accounted for, and utterly ineffective and inequitable.

NAO studies do not encompass the NHS and English local government. Audit of NHS trusts and local authorities, now undertaken by private accountancy firms, has notional ‘use of resources’ categories but fails to ask central questions (what does this spending accomplish) or link with the qualitative assessment of services undertaken by the Care Quality Commission or Ofsted. No one extracts lessons by comparing the performance of different parts of the public sector – not least from the diverse value for money arrangements in England relative to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there are unified audit offices covering the whole of those devolved administrations. But there, too, audit and value for money are blurred.

Our proposition is that value for money (in England) is unified in a new Office for the 3Es (effectiveness, efficiency and equity). Its task would be data collection, comparison, commissioning studies, asking big, provocative questions focused on effectiveness and equity. Many will be hard to answer definitively: the data does not exist or simply is not collected. But the act of asking, the active pursuit of value could have large educative and persuasive effect. The right has long deployed the language of waste, excess, misuse, fraud; it is the common currency of the press and rightwing media. Advocates of higher taxation can rebut that by making financial and service accountability their own hallmarks of progressive government.

Our rearrangement points to repurposing the NAO as its value for money work shifts to the new Office. It’s an opportune moment to re-enfranchise public audit, which would become its centre, its remit extending across the public sector to supervise and possibly part provide audit in local government and the NHS. A move in this direction is predicated by the intellectual and moral crisis in private sector auditing and its consequences for the ostensible regulator of company audit, the Financial Reporting Council.

Economic theory often relies on large assumptions about the truthfulness of market data, including company accounts. But if auditors validate balance sheets at the behest of company directors, the power of incumbent managers relative to the notional owners of companies and those who lend to them is further downgraded. The sale of audit services (i.e. corporate truth) is compromised when the same accountancy firms double up and sell to the companies being audited consultancy services, which have a contingent relationship with truth.

Part of the problem is that there is neither a market for audit services – because the Big Four accountancy firms are too powerful – nor is company audit regulated. The recent examination of the Financial Reporting Council by Sir John Kingman is scathing and ends with a recommendation to abolish it. But, an example of the mindless empiricism that characterises British public administration, the Council turns out to have oversight of the quality of audit in English local government – oversight that it has signally failed to exercise.

It is a task the NAO could easily assume as the standard setter and supervisor of public audit. The NAO’s own personnel do external audit for Whitehall departments. In the NHS and local government it might, as the Audit Commission used to, oversee a mixed economy, allowing comparison between public and private provision. Moving in this direction brings into question the status of the NAO as a parliamentary office; localists worry that the electoral autonomy of councillors would be infringed if council spending came under the jurisdiction of MPs. But the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee at present rarely concerns itself with the NAO’s audit work; it concentrates on the value for money studies (and only a handful of the total produced, at that). As a non-departmental public body the Office of the 3Es would enjoy as much if not more autonomy than existing local inspectorates.

These proposals are far from revolutionary. In various forms they have been around for some time. They gain currency from the need to make the case for more tax. A progressive government cannot avoid asking households on median incomes to pay more tax. That will have to be justified by progressive management, which embraces both fair terms for staff and stretching targets for serve delivery. A large act of persuasion is going to be needed. The public will have to be convinced that extra resources will be equitably, efficiently, and effectively spent – that safeguards are in place to guarantee that the public pound is buying services that work. Those safeguards should take the form of a radical reworking of value for money and audit.

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Note: the above draws on the author’s Smith Institute report (with John Tizard).

About the Author

David Walker is a former managing director of the Audit Commission and author (with Polly Toynbee) of Dismembered: How the attack on the state harms us all (Faber 2017).

 

 

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).

Low income households under austerity: a notable rise in debt for essential needs

Looking at low income household indebtedness in austerity Britain, Hulya Dagdeviren and Jiayi Balasuriya find that the poorest households have experienced the greatest growth in unsecured debt to income ratio. More importantly, unlike the pre-crisis period when debt reflected a desire ‘to keep-up with the Joneses’, in recent years there has been a rise in debt for essential needs such as rent, food and utilities.

Unsustainable household debt was a major source of instability during the 2008 crisis. A decade after the crisis, one would expect a substantial deleveraging to take place across the economy. This is far from reality in Britain. In 2017, outstanding consumer credit was over £200 billion according to figures from the Bank of England. Longitudinal surveys revealed that while the proportion of households with financial liabilities (excluding mortgages and student loans) declined slightly in recent years and in comparison to the pre-crisis period, average household debt increased by around 43% (see Table 1). It is in fact more common for the unemployed and sick/disabled to be net debtor than employed and retired populations. Unlike the pre-crisis period when low income household debt reflected aspirations for home ownership, under austerity, debt or arrears for essential needs such as rent, food, energy and water account for a significant proportion of low income household indebtedness.

Indebtedness among low income households worsened 

In our recent research we analysed a large and representative sample of UK society extracted from the UK Household Longitudinal Study and its predecessor, the British Household Panel Survey. These surveys, sampled before and after the financial crisis, collected information on debt in 2005-6 and 2012-3 from a total of more than 62,000 respondents and revealed the financial strain of the poorest households.

Compared to wealthier counterparts, low income households have had higher debt to income ratios over the past decade. On average 31% of the respondents reported having unsecured debt. While the unsecured debt of a typical individual in the top 10% income group has always been less than their monthly income, the debt-to-income ratio for the poorest 10% of the population grew from 140% in 2005-6 to 190% in 2012-2013, representing the largest growth in the degree of indebtedness in comparison to other income groups, a few years after austerity programme first rolled out. The proportion of individuals holding debt in the lower income groups also increased after the crisis as opposed to the contraction in the corresponding indicator for most above the average income groups.

Rising demand for debt advice corroborates the intensifying debt pressures amongst low income households. For example, the number of people who received debt advice from StepChange (a leading debt management charity, assisting mostly low income clients) increased six fold within a decade, rising from around 50,000 to 300,000 people between 2006 and 2016. In 2016, the charity was contacted by a record number of nearly 600,000 people for help, together with 3.3 million visits to its website.

Debt and economic activity

Net financial wealth is an important indicator, reflecting the extent to which people are able to cushion their liabilities with their assets. Examining net financial wealth by economic activity reveals some remarkable dynamics with respect to household indebtedness in the pre- and post-crisis periods. Firstly, the proportion of employed and self-employed individuals in negative financial wealth (net debtors) has risen after the crisis. Secondly, and more importantly, those whose needs are supposed to be covered through the welfare state such as the unemployed, sick and disabled and their carers have been net debtors by greater proportion in comparison to other household categories. This was the case both before and after the crisis, reflecting the inadequacies of the welfare provision. To be precise, around 40% of unemployed and disabled population is in negative financial wealth.

 

Debt for essential necessities

An important element of low-income household indebtedness has been arising from difficulties with essential payments rather than the aspiration of households to accumulate assets or to keep up with their wealthier peers. This is reflected by UKHLS data on self-reported difficulties for paying rent or household utility bills. In 2012–13, several years after the austerity measures first rolled out, a greater proportion of the poorest households in the lowest 10% income category had arrears of essential bills. Over a fifth of the UKHLS respondents in that category found it hard to keep up with their housing payments, and around 18% were behind with payments for essential household bills. The rising debt for essential household spending is also confirmed by Citizens Advice and National Audit Office that provided a minimum estimate of £18 billion in personal debt owed to government, utility companies, landlords and housing associations.

The evidence from our research shows that while growth of household indebtedness prior to the crisis may have reflected a desire to accumulate wealth or maintain socially acceptable lifestyles, a different phase of indebtedness has emerged under austerity. The evidence from surveys, debt advice organisations, and interview data shows that low income households have been incurring debt for basic necessities and key services. This underpins the fact that debt is not always accrued from financial providers but also from non-financial companies providing services like water and energy, or local authorities providing social housing.

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Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work (with Sheila Luz, Ali Malik, and Haider Shah) in New Political Economy.

About the Authors

Hulya Dagdeviren is Professor of Economic Development at University of Hertfordshire.

Jiayi Balasuriya is Senior Lecturer in Finance at Hertfordshire Business School

 

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

 

 

 

Are there any benefits to divided parliamentary parties?

Intra-party dissent is generally considered a bad thing – for parties seeking power and for voters wishing to make sense of political conflicts. However, using a survey experiment to test people’s responses to different forms of intra-party policy disputes, Eric Merkley finds that there are circumstances in which voters find moderate divisions useful as cues for evaluating policy choices in light of their own preferences.

As hard as it might be to imagine with the recent goings on of UK politics, but parliamentary parties are typically highly disciplined operations. Historically MPs only infrequently cross-party lines in sizeable numbers to vote against their party’s position on matters before Parliament.

This is a good thing according to most observers and scholars of parliamentary democracy. Disciplined parties provide clear choices to voters about packages of policies they can support with their vote, and can allow them to more easily hold parties accountable if they do not follow through on their commitments. For example, what exactly is a voter to make of the Conservative Party’s position on Brexit when the party is so deeply splintered between former supporters of Remain, and hard and soft Brexiters?

There is another, less obvious benefit of disciplined parties. Most citizens form opinions and preferences on politics and policy with little information. There are few incentives to become fully informed about politics, so people often rely on heuristics – cognitive short-cuts – in the political environment to make low effort decisions that are generally in line with their interests and values. One such heuristic is to adopt the positions taken by the political party they support. Disciplined parties send consistent signals to their supporters about the policies they should or should not support. Divided parties sow confusion in their supporters’ ranks.

In a paper recently published in Parliamentary Affairs, I examine possible consequences of divided parties. I ask whether or not there are consequences of intra-party dissent over policy on the public’s support for that policy. And, if there are important implications: is it all bad? Does dissent from the party line simply confuse voters, or does it provide valuable information in its own right?

I argue that under certain circumstances divided parties can provide useful information to citizens. Dissent from the party line is a costly signal, particularly in Westminster systems. Party leaders and MPs prefer to maintain their party’s brand by forming a united front, and the latter face discipline from the former if they deviate from the party line. Parties are united more often than not, so dissent signals to citizens that there is something unusual about the party’s policy stance, like that it occupies an unfamiliar ideological space for a given party. Of particular interest for me here is that centrist dissent – where dissenters agree with the opposing party’s elites – may indicate that policy is more extreme than citizens might expect if the party was united.

 Method and findings

I conducted a survey experiment to test this proposition. I exposed respondents to a series of mock newspaper articles on a policy debate on an education initiative put forward in the legislature of the Canadian province of British Columbia. These articles were designed to appear to be from legitimate and popular news sources, and respondents were led to believe the debate was recently in the news. Respondents were given a set of articles where the government party was either modestly divided or united on the initiative. And, if they were divided, dissenters either opposed the policy because it was too extreme (i.e. centrist dissent) or because it didn’t go far enough (i.e. extreme dissent).

The traditional expectation is that dissent within the government party should confuse supporters of the government and reduce their support for the policy compared to what it would have been with a united party. This should occur regardless of whether or not dissent was extreme or centrist. My expectation, however, is that dissent should reduce support among supporters of the opposition party, but only when dissent is centrist – such dissent tells opposition party supporters that the policy is further from their preferences than they might otherwise expect with a united government party.

Figure 1. Estimated reduction in policy support in response to centrist (left) and extreme (right) legislator dissent across strength of opposition party partisanship.

Note: policy support measured on a 1-7 scale. 90% confidence intervals.

The results fit more closely with my expectation. As shown in Figure 1, policy support is much lower among opposition party supporters in response to dissent on government benches, but only when it is centrist. In contrast, there are no significant effects of dissent on government supporters across both types of dissent. Respondents who support the opposition party appear to have taken a cue from centrist government dissenters that the policy might be further from their preferences than they would otherwise expect.

The process I have outlined for how citizens may use divided parties to inform their evaluations of policy requires them to understand why parliamentary dissent is unusual, and the implications of that dissent for the likely distance of a policy proposal from their own preferences. It is, in a word, complex, at least compared to people mechanically adopting policy evaluations in line with their partisanship. Consequently, I find that the effect of dissent on policy evaluations is stronger among those that have higher levels of political knowledge, as shown in Figure 2. If divided parties can be used as a short-cut for public opinion formation on policy issues, it is employed only by those with a strong understanding of politics.

Figure 2. Estimated reduction in policy support in response to legislator dissent across levels of political knowledge (4=highest level of knowledge).

Note: policy support measured on a 1-7 scale. 90% confidence intervals. 

Implications

So what does this mean for the practice of parliamentary politics? First, the findings suggest that government party leaders have little to fear from modest levels of dissent affecting public support for their policy agenda. Effects of dissent on support for a policy are found primarily among largely inaccessible voters – supporters of the opposition party. It is important to note, however, that this finding was made in the context of modest levels of intra-party dissent. Deeper, more widespread dissent, such as what is afflicting the governing Conservatives, may have different effects – a possible subject for future research.

Second, and more substantively, my findings suggest that we cannot be so easily dismissive of the value of divided parties. The novelty of intra-party parliamentary dissent can provide information to citizens about public policy that gets papered over by strong party discipline. Future research should not hesitate to make use of experiments to explore the implications of unity and division for public opinion.

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Note: the above was first published on Democratic Audit. It draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Author

Eric Merkley is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia and a Joseph-Armand Bombardier SSHRC Scholar. He specializes in public opinion and political communication. He studies how elite behaviour shapes public opinion using experiments and time series methods.

 

 

Featured image credit: UK Parliament/Open Government Licence(CC BY 3.0)

What did the coalition government do for women?

Much of the progress made towards gender equality under the coalition government was offset by the impact of austerity on women, writes Anna Sanders. While a number of gender equality policies were brought forward in 2010-5, these were largely symbolic, rather than redistributive in nature.

One month after the 2010 General Election, the newly formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition delivered its Emergency Budget, setting out plans to rapidly reduce the deficit through a series of public spending cuts. The coalition’s commitment to public spending cuts soon raised concerns among gender equality advocates regarding the disproportionate impact this would have on women, who are more reliant on the public sector for income, services, and employment. At the same time, the coalition was headed by a Prime Minister who sought to appoint more women into cabinet, and the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, was noted for wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt. So how did women fared under the 2010-5 coalition?

Legislative progress on status policies

In our recent research, Claire Annesley, Francesca Gains and I find that the coalition introduced a number of legislative initiatives aimed at tackling violence against women and girls. Integral to pushing violence against women onto the governmental agenda was Theresa May. Under May’s stewardship, the coalition introduced a range of legislative changes, including the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (making stalking a specific offence), the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (criminalising the possession of realistic depictions of rape and revenge pornography), and the Serious Crime Act 2015 (which included a mandatory reporting duty for cases of Female Genital Mutilation). In this case, May’s role as Home Secretary and Equalities Secretary supports existing research suggesting that critical government actors can be key to pushing non-costly, symbolic gender equality policies to the forefront of the government’s agenda.

Limited progress on redistributive gender equality policies

Research suggests that redistributive gender equality policies are less likely to gain executive attention when the economy is stagnant, due to their costly implementation. Though some redistributive policies did in fact reach the government agenda, we find that, in each case, they had a limited effect on gender equality. The introduction of the Single Tier Pension, for instance, raised the state pension above Pension Credit level – a policy particularly beneficial to women, since they tend to be poorer than men in later life. Yet extended time out of the labour market due to greater caring responsibilities means that women are less likely than men to have accrued the 35 years of contributions required to receive the full Single Tier Pension payment.

Progress has been similarly mixed on the issue of childcare. The coalition’s tax-free scheme – designed to aid parents with the rising cost of childcare – saw working parents receive up to 20% from the government towards their childcare costs. Such incentives are, however, regressive in nature, with less financial support given to low-paid workers, the majority of whom are women.

Austerity: a negative effect on gender equality

When we look at these policy agendas in the context of austerity, we find that much of the progress made towards gender equality was negated. Significant cuts to local authority funding reversed many of the gains made on violence against women and girls. A report by Jude Towers and Sylvia Walby found that the domestic and sexual abuse sector lost 31% of its local authority funding between 2010 and 2012. Such cuts have reduced the availability of women’s specialist support services across the country, where 32 domestic violence services in England are reported to have closed at least one of their services.

Meanwhile, despite the coalition’s initiatives to reduce childcare costs, access remains an issue. Cuts in local authority funding have contributed to the closure of over 600 Sure Start centres in England between April 2010 and June 2014. Commitments to reducing family welfare have also removed considerable entitlements from women as mothers. These have included cuts to the ‘baby’ element of Child Tax Credits, the tapering of Child Benefit, and the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant – a tax-free payment given to mothers to help with the cost of having a child.

Conclusion

Overall, then, progress towards gender equality under the coalition was a mixed bag. On one hand, a range of initiatives were introduced in regards to violence against girls and women – due, in part, to the presence of a critical actor to drive through legislative change – and some progress was made on childcare and pensions. Yet at the same time, the coalition’s commitment to reducing welfare spending and state intervention limited the effectiveness of gender equality policies that were brought onto the agenda, and reversed progress in several policy domains.

What is the key lesson that governments can learn from this? If governments are to take their commitments to gender equality seriously, they must ensure that legislative change is complemented with fiscal backing for women’s welfare and services. In January 2019, for example, the government announced a new legal definition of domestic abuse, to include economic abuse and control. Though this was a welcome change, no mention was made of reforming its current Universal Credit policy, which leaves women at greater risk of economic abuse due to its payment into a single bank account. While the full impact of austerity is yet to be felt, there is the risk that women’s access to resources will continue to be undermined, and progress towards gender equality will be hindered even further.

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Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains) in British Politics.

About the Author

Anna Sanders is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Manchester.

 

 

 

 

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

What did the coalition government do for women?

Much of the progress made towards gender equality under the coalition government was offset by the impact of austerity on women, writes Anna Sanders. While a number of gender equality policies were brought forward in 2010-5, these were largely symbolic, rather than redistributive in nature.

One month after the 2010 General Election, the newly formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition delivered its Emergency Budget, setting out plans to rapidly reduce the deficit through a series of public spending cuts. The coalition’s commitment to public spending cuts soon raised concerns among gender equality advocates regarding the disproportionate impact this would have on women, who are more reliant on the public sector for income, services, and employment. At the same time, the coalition was headed by a Prime Minister who sought to appoint more women into cabinet, and the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, was noted for wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt. So how did gender equality fare under the 2010-5 coalition?

Legislative progress on status policies

In our recent research, Claire Annesley, Francesca Gains and I find that the coalition introduced a number of legislative initiatives aimed at tackling violence against women and girls. Integral to pushing violence against women onto the governmental agenda was Theresa May. Under May’s stewardship, the coalition introduced a range of legislative changes, including the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (making stalking a specific offence), the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (criminalising the possession of realistic depictions of rape and revenge pornography), and the Serious Crime Act 2015 (which included a mandatory reporting duty for cases of Female Genital Mutilation). In this case, May’s role as Home Secretary and Equalities Secretary supports existing research suggesting that critical government actors can be key to pushing non-costly, symbolic gender equality policies to the forefront of the government’s agenda.

Limited progress on redistributive gender equality policies

Research suggests that redistributive gender equality policies are less likely to gain executive attention when the economy is stagnant, due to their costly implementation. Though some redistributive policies did in fact reach the government agenda, we find that, in each case, they had a limited effect on gender equality. The introduction of the Single Tier Pension, for instance, raised the state pension above Pension Credit level – a policy particularly beneficial to women, since they tend to be poorer than men in later life. Yet extended time out of the labour market due to greater caring responsibilities means that women are less likely than men to have accrued the 35 years of contributions required to receive the full Single Tier Pension payment.

Progress has been similarly mixed on the issue of childcare. The coalition’s tax-free scheme – designed to aid parents with the rising cost of childcare – saw working parents receive up to 20% from the government towards their childcare costs. Such incentives are, however, regressive in nature, with less financial support given to low-paid workers, the majority of whom are women.

Austerity: a negative effect on gender equality

When we look at these policy agendas in the context of austerity, we find that much of the progress made towards gender equality was negated. Significant cuts to local authority funding reversed many of the gains made on violence against women and girls. A report by Jude Towers and Sylvia Walby found that the domestic and sexual abuse sector lost 31% of its local authority funding between 2010 and 2012. Such cuts have reduced the availability of women’s specialist support services across the country, where 32 domestic violence services in England are reported to have closed at least one of their services.

Meanwhile, despite the coalition’s initiatives to reduce childcare costs, access remains an issue. Cuts in local authority funding have contributed to the closure of over 600 Sure Start centres in England between April 2010 and June 2014. Commitments to reducing family welfare have also removed considerable entitlements from women as mothers. These have included cuts to the ‘baby’ element of Child Tax Credits, the tapering of Child Benefit, and the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant – a tax-free payment given to mothers to help with the cost of having a child.

Conclusion

Overall, then, progress towards gender equality under the coalition was a mixed bag. On one hand, a range of initiatives were introduced in regards to violence against girls and women – due, in part, to the presence of a critical actor to drive through legislative change – and some progress was made on childcare and pensions. Yet at the same time, the coalition’s commitment to reducing welfare spending and state intervention limited the effectiveness of gender equality policies that were brought onto the agenda, and reversed progress in several policy domains.

What is the key lesson that governments can learn from this? If governments are to take their commitments to gender equality seriously, they must ensure that legislative change is complemented with fiscal backing for women’s welfare and services. In January 2019, for example, the government announced a new legal definition of domestic abuse, to include economic abuse and control. Though this was a welcome change, no mention was made of reforming its current Universal Credit policy, which leaves women at greater risk of economic abuse due to its payment into a single bank account. While the full impact of austerity is yet to be felt, there is the risk that women’s access to resources will continue to be undermined, and progress towards gender equality will be hindered even further.

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Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains) in British Politics.

About the Author

Anna Sanders is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Manchester.

 

 

 

 

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

The left-wing case for a second referendum: Labour’s obligations to members

The Labour Party’s leadership has so far refused to take steps towards seeking a second referendum. Now is the time to break the latest Brexit deadlock by honouring the party’s conference commitments and by sharing responsibility with members, argues Lea Ypi, and discusses what a second referendum ought to be about.

In assessing the left-wing case for a second EU referendum it may be useful to start with what the referendum is not about. It is not about the people’s will. It is not about legitimacy. And it is not about truth. A second referendum cannot promote any of these things for the same reason that the first referendum could not.

The will of the people (or the relevant voting subset)

Take the people’s will. Opposition to the idea of a second referendum is often voiced in the name of defending popular sovereignty. On 23 June 2016, the people spoke. The people must not be asked again. If they somehow got the decision right the first time around, there is serious reason to worry that the second time they will be confused or side-tracked. Therefore, better not try to find out. So goes the left case against a second referendum.

The truth is, we only know what the people’s will is if we know who the people are. When leftist champions of popular sovereignty celebrate the ‘will of the people’, what they are celebrating is merely the will of those with a British passport and a right to vote. The will of everyone else is pretty much irrelevant. Compare this to an argument about the franchise in the 19th and early 20th century. If the requirement to respect the will of the people had been invoked then in the way it is now, the will of the people would have remained the will of propertied men over a certain age. If the left then had used the same arguments about popular sovereignty that the left uses now, the workers, the poor, women and those in the colonies would have never be included in the franchise.

Historically, the radical democratic left – the left that was truly committed to the ideal of popular sovereignty – had a view of ‘the people’ that amounted to much more than who was on the electoral register. Radical democrats, from Rousseau to Marx, thought that political decisions reflect the people’s will to the extent that the people who are affected by such decisions have a say when those decisions are made. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out exactly who is affected and how. But in the case of Brexit, who is affected and who is excluded by the decision is relatively straightforward. There are more than three and a half million EU citizens in the UK whose lives are affected by Brexit and who were denied a say in the referendum. Short of a new suffrage revolution, they will be ignored in a second referendum too. So will the views of millions of other resident migrants. Therefore, a referendum – first, second, third or fourth – can be anything but reflective of the people’s will. If you want to ask what the people want, you first need to put them, all of them, in a position to give you an answer. A good first approximation would be to give them the right to vote.

Distored legitimacy

Now take legitimacy. A decision is legitimate when those who contribute to that decision give their informed consent. In the case of the first referendum, it has become clear that consent to leave the EU was not informed. The people (or the relevant voting subset) did not know what the EU exactly was or did. They did not know what the implications of leaving it would be. And it turned out that a number of things they were told about it during the referendum campaign were lies. As things stand, there is no guarantee that we know better.

All this may sound like a reason to stick with the decision to leave. Who wants to be part of an institution that lacks transparency to such a degree that only experts can figure out what it is about? The trouble is that the capitalist state is no better. We may not know how the EU exactly works. We may not know how long it will take before it can be reformed. But we do know that we live in a capitalist system and that the United Kingdom is as much part of it as the European Union. And we also know (or should know) that in a capitalist system, business interests, the information industry, most of the political class, and much of the administrative apparatus often collude to promote particular interests at the expense of the people’s will.

The United Kingdom is every bit as neoliberal, every bit as capitalist as the EU. The very least you can do in a capitalist society where information is regularly distorted by market processes is wonder to what extent consent really is informed. We did not need to hear about campaign lies or about Cambridge Analytica to worry about the quality of voting decisions in the UK, or indeed pretty much everywhere else. Poverty, lack of education, lack of access to unbiased information, lack of representation in relevant offices and positions all contribute to opaque decisions being made by a few powerful elites and imposed on the majority of people.

There is no reason to believe that the consent produced by a second referendum will be more informed than that produced by the first. And there is reason to suspect that the legitimacy of a second referendum would be just as questionable as the legitimacy of the first. A decade of Tory austerity has not made any of this better.

In light of all this, a second referendum has as little epistemic value as the first. It is not about the truth. It is not about finding out whether to Leave or to Remain or whether to leave with a deal or no deal. If the process that leads to a particular decision is distorted, the outcome will be distorted too. A second referendum will not give us the right answer on what the people really want. The result, whichever way it goes, will be as divisive and as contested the second or third time round as it was the first.

There was a time when the radical left’s approach to the question of what to do about the state was a strategic-pragmatic one. There were no illusions about what the state is and does, and about the constraints of democracy in a capitalist society. The same goes for any network of international cooperation between states. Popular sovereignty was an ideal rather than a reality. Self-government could be fully realised with radically transformed political and economic structures. Of course, many people are sceptical of these claims. For those that take them seriously, the task is to build a democratic, pluralistic and unitary movement that challenges the dominant orthodoxy. It is unfortunate that the Brexit debate has divided the left between lovers and haters of the European Union. The EU is not an ideal and it is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end. The question of whether to stay or leave is not really a question of principle but a question of context, alliances, timing and strategy. This is what the debate should be about, not whether to respect or ignore the first referendum’s result.

Labour’s obligations

But what can the left do in a context where the people’s will is unknown, the legitimacy of decisions is distorted, and the right answer unlikely to emerge? What is left to the Labour party? Should it support a second referendum? Should it endorse a no-deal Brexit?

What is left is politics as it is and society as it should be. The answer to isolation, exclusion, disenfranchisement, political apathy, ideological distortion and lack of trust in politics is collective mobilisation. It is political practice under conditions of imperfect representation, uncertainty, risk of instrumentalization and potential manipulation by those with different principles and aims.

The key to Labour’s success so far is not that it has discovered the magic ingredient to the election-winning recipe – it has not. What has set Labour apart from the other mainstream social-democratic parties in Europe has been its clear anti-austerity message promoted through a notable expansion in membership. All that has been achieved, despite the hostility of mainstream media, the scaremongering about electoral wipe-out and despite having campaigned to remain and reform in the first referendum (something that Lexiteers are often inclined to forget).

The majority of Labour members and supporters are committed to social equality and international solidarity. They want to end the hostile environment towards immigrants. They are opposed to a no-deal Brexit. Their views are at the source of a hugely important and unprecedented revival of democratic activism. The party leadership has obligations to its members, and promoting their political commitments is arguably one of the most important. It is true that during the 2017 election Labour campaigned to deliver Brexit. But Labour lost that election. In light of current events, the priority must be how to take the matter forward in a way that promotes the party’s goals while preserving the unity and strength of the movement.

During its 2018 general conference, it was agreed that Labour would seek to trigger a confidence vote in the government, press for a general election and, short of that, ask for a second referendum. It was also agreed that the party would do all it could to avert a no-deal Brexit. The party has delivered on the first two and it needs to do the same with the third. It must do that regardless of the risks of the proposal being turned down in parliament, regardless of what the polls say on any given day, and regardless of the threat of its claims being instrumentalised or distorted by centrist elites with very different aims. Every political decision runs the risk of being manipulated by one’s political adversaries. Every political decision is likely to backfire. The right way to limit the damage is to make the process leading up to that decision as open and inclusive, as democratic as possible. It is to involve members at every stage of the process, not just when it comes to distributing leaflets and knocking on doors.

Labour Party members have already discussed whether to have a second referendum. The overwhelming response was that in the event of a possible no-deal Brexit all options were on the table. Other options are quickly being exhausted, and the time and venue for debate was the party conference. It is the commitment to the outcome of that debate that must be honoured now.

In line with conference resolutions, it would be rather disingenuous to put the referendum question off the table, pretending it was never meant seriously. The question to ask is not whether to have a referendum but how to make it work. For that, the party must go back to its members and thoroughly involve them in the process. It must consult with the base on all key issues: when to hold the referendum, what the question on the ballot should be, and how to develop the party’s response and strategy in an eventual campaign.

The leadership has no claim to know better than members, and when the stakes are so high it must share responsibility with them. If there is a case for a second referendum, this is the only plausible argument for it.

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About the Author

Lea Ypi is Professor of Political Theory at the LSE. She is the author of Global Justice and Avantgarde Political Agency (Oxford University Press 2011) and (with Jonathan White) of The Meaning of Partisanship (Oxford University Press 2016).

 

 

 

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

 

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