Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Young people and the post-crisis precarity: the abnormality of the ‘new normal’

Craig Berry and Sean McDaniel draw upon research with focus groups and an online community exercise to examine the attitudes of young people in relation to the apparent ‘normalisation’ of precarity in the post-2008 economy. They find that although young people recognise the abnormality of labour market conditions, they nevertheless fail to see value in conventional forms of trade union organisation.

The 2008 crisis crystallised the trend towards ‘precarious’ labour market conditions – stagnation in earnings growth, skills under-utilisation, labour market ‘hollowing out’, and the emergence of ‘gig economy’ practices – which disproportionately affect young people. Insecure employment is not new, especially in lower-skilled occupations, although it may have reached a new peak since the crisis. Indeed, two decades ago, Richard Sennett warned of ‘flexible capitalism’, wherein uncertainty and instability were becoming ‘woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism’.

However, today’s young people are perhaps the first cohort to have experienced the shift towards precarity on a large scale, across occupational groups. In a landmark 2018 book, the late Andy Furlong et al. refer to the spread of precarious labour market conditions in recent decades in the UK as a ‘new normal’, which has built up over decades and accelerated in the context of the crisis from 2008.

Yet the perspective of young people themselves has been relatively absent from academic debates on the advance of precarious work. Our research seeks to develop our understanding of this new normality of precarity by inquiring how it has been internalised into the attitudes of today’s young workers. Too often, young people’s understanding of their economic circumstances is assumed rather than investigated; or, a relatively politically engaged and media-savvy minority of young people is assumed to be representative of the cohort as a whole.

We conducted a series of focus groups with 18-25 year-olds (in Manchester, Grantham and London, supplemented by a nationwide online discussion forum) in October 2017. The groups had a mix of male and female, and graduate and non-graduate participants, with the exception of one of the sessions in London, which was composed of only graduates (this reflects our interest in distinguishing between different groups of young people – we must be careful not assume the young think, and act, as one).

We investigated their attitudes to work, the economy and, importantly, industrial relations. Drawing a link between wider labour market processes and young people’s attitudes to trade unions, we interrogated the notion of ‘normalisation’ itself by considering if, how, and why young people seek to operate and succeed (or simply survive) within this economic environment, rather than resist it (through, for example, forms of collective action).

We found that young people’s experience of the ‘new normal’ of precarious labour market conditions has been internalised within their attitudes to a significant degree. This does not mean, however, that changes have been accepted passively or unknowingly. Rather, there is a recognition amongst these people of the novelty of their socio-economic circumstances, and thus frustration and disquiet at the nature of these circumstances. The ‘new normal’ is in fact recognised as abnormal. There was clear anger expressed at the way in which current economic conditions of the post-crisis environment, including the legacy of the economic crisis and phenomena such as Brexit, have affected the life chances of young people.

Nevertheless, we also found, as others have, that young people feel that insecure labour market conditions are simply ‘part and parcel’ of the economic order they expect to confront throughout their lifecourse. This attitude means they focus on how they can succeed within this inherited structure rather than on pursuing structural change. There is a degree of resignation to a situation wherein precarity is deemed largely immutable. Accordingly, it seems many young people understand the prospect of improving labour market outcomes in terms of personal development and their ability to successfully navigate this more competitive environment (an attitude also identified elsewhere). (We found some attitudinal differences between graduates and non-graduates, with the former more concerned about unmet expectations from their career, for instance, and the latter more concerned by general degradation of economic conditions. Yet these are differences of degree rather than being fundamental in nature.)

Our research shows that antipathy towards trade unions (even if trade unionism is conceived in fairly positive terms) can be associated with this perspective, insofar as membership is not deemed particularly helpful to young people plotting their career while navigating precarious labour market conditions.

Most participants reported that they wanted trade unions to craft an offer more resonant to their individual ambitions for their careers – and were unaware of services offered by unions which might already be meeting this need. They were not particularly interested in being represented by trade unions in the workplace – with some young people particularly critical of unions seeking to represent members’ interests via political engagement, reflective of a wider ‘anti-politics’ sentiment (our fieldwork was conducted just after the so-called ‘youthquake’ election in 2017).

Of course, if young people lack knowledge of trade unions, it is perhaps because the information they are presented with is not deemed salient to their experience of industrial relations. (We detected few differences between graduates and non-graduates regarding specific views on trade unions; interestingly, there were few, if any, explicit suggestions by participants that there might exist social class-based divisions within age cohorts.)

Overall, the 2008 economic crisis underpins much of what young people believe about the economy and their own place within it – investigating the impact on crises on generational identities is an area where further research would be especially welcome. This sense of injustice among today’s young people – dealing with a crisis they did not create – has been compounded by the Brexit vote, which young people report has created manifold uncertainties for their future lives. Our research reveals therefore a relatively strong sense of age-related identity among today’s young people in which, rightly or wrongly, they believe their political and economic experiences are unique, or uniquely difficult, compared to recent cohorts. The long-term implications of such a perspective for industrial relations and political participation – and how progressive political actors might seek to accommodate it – remain uncertain.


About the Author

Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Economic and Industrial Democracy (open access basis). The original research was funded by Unions21.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.




Sean McDaniel is Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.




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


Flybe rescue: why the government may be putting the green revolution at risk

Boris Johnson may be putting the green revolution at risk by aiding regional airline Flybe, writes Tony Hockley. He argues that while Britain led the way in the liberalisation of air travel, current evidence on climate change as well as the rise of the world wide web have transformed choices for regional development.  

The rescue of Flybe from extinction was one of the first proper decisions that faced the new British government. The decision was a triumph of politics over policy. Whilst communities around Britain celebrated concessions on a £106m tax bill that would have finished off the ailing airline, some of us just saw trouble ahead.

In the early 1990s I opted for a new role employed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to press the consumer case for air transport liberalisation. At the time, European aviation was trapped in the past. Over-protective governments across Europe were trying to save their airlines from market forces. National airlines and their national airport bases enjoyed this protection. Regional airports and airline users payed the price. Smaller airports would receive the occasional charter flight to the sunshine, or serve as a national airline’s feeder to its hub. For years, for example, Southampton was little more than a feeder for KLM passengers through Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

Along with my CAA colleagues we would to-and-fro to Brussels, pressing the liberalisation case. It took three regulatory reform “packages” over five years to get to a situation in which most standard competition law would apply to airlines and airports. The hardest nut to crack was state aid. Governments came up with ever more imaginative ways to pretend that their bail-outs could be deemed normal “market economy investor” actions. For a while, these games were tolerated as part of a smooth transition to “open skies”. The low-cost airlines would never have survived if we had not remained vigilant in making the case against state aid and routine abuse of dominance.

The biggest winners from liberalisation were, of course, travellers; fares tumbled as competition brought real innovation. The other big winners were the regional airports. New airlines shunned busy, expensive, slot-constrained airports in favour of little-used alternatives. Indeed, a core part of the strategy for step-wise liberalisation was first to open the potential for links between regional airports, in which legacy airlines had no interest. Flybe grew out of this process, developing from a niche carrier serving the Channel Islands into Europe’s largest regional airline with more almost 200 routes.

For those of us who put such time and energy into pressing the (unpopular) case for market liberalisation, it is upsetting to see the UK government using ploys only previously seen from France, Greece and Italy. Allowing Flybe to defer handing over to HMRC the Air Passenger Duty paid to them by their passengers, is a gamble with other people’s money.

What is even more upsetting are the other gambles that the government appears willing to take. Since the market liberalisation work of the 1990s, dramatically improving access to air travel, evidence on climate change and the impact of aviation has mounted. The second shift since then has been the transformation of communications, by the world wide web. Both shift the public policy balance away from the exceptional protection of air transport from normal tax treatment. When Air Passenger Duty was first announced in 1993 many of us in the sector saw it as undermining what was being achieved in reducing the costs of air travel. Today it would be hard to make a rational case against the tax, given that aviation fuel is untaxed. This may be part of the reason why the cheapest Monday morning fare from Southampton to Manchester by Flybe is £99; by train it is £236 (prices correct at the time of publishing). The externalities of short-haul air travel, the socio-demographic profile of those flying, and the lack of hard evidence of the routes’ development value comparative to good rail, road, and broadband links all suggest that short-haul aviation is heavily undertaxed.

In 2018 the Department for Transport commissioned an analysis of the economic impact of regional air services. The conclusion was not compelling evidence for state support. The authors said that these services: ‘May have a role to play in policies associated with re- balancing the economy. The evidence on which this assessment is based is limited.‘ Nevertheless, governments worldwide do support routes where the potential alternatives are limited or inadequate for essential needs.

In the discussions on European liberalisation, we took steps to make this state support transparent and contestable. Instead of supporting individual airlines, governments could support routes and spur innovation in service quality and costs. These Essential Air Services would be put to tender. We thought that the days were over when support for routes was a covert mechanism for supporting a particular carrier. The policy decisions taken this January appear determined to support one airline.

The new UK Government finds itself in an early political bind. The priority of levelling up the regions seems to call for the preservation of all current regional air routes. The priority of moving to net zero carbon calls for the opposite. The conundrum will demand some innovative thinking. Can Flybe reasonably be kept in the air long enough to boost the alternatives, such as cheaper, easier, and better rail connections; the introduction of electric planes; a green revolution on the roads; better availability of fast fibre and the arrival of 5G? The Conservative manifesto did point to these and the Budget in March may reveal how the Government intends to answer some of this, not least in whatever reforms it makes to Air Passenger Duty.

By attempting to preserve Flybe permanently the government would be hindering, not helping this technological shift. The primary effect of airline state aid before liberalisation was to deter innovation. There is no reason to believe that the effect would be any different today.


About the Author

Tony Hockley ia Director of the Policy Analysis Centre and Visiting Senior Fellow, Department of Social Policy, LSE. Dr Hockley was Economic Adviser to the Air Transport Users Council at the Civil Aviation Authority, and Secretary of the Federation of Air Transport User Representatives in the EU during the completion of the Single Market in Air Transport. He was Special Adviser in the government led by John Major.


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).

Punctuation and rhetoric: the difference between the “the people’s parliament” and “the peoples’ parliament”

How Boris Johnson’s government refers to parliament may come to reveal how deep a commitment it has to constructing a pluralistic claim of a collective UK state interest, rather than a singular populist claim, writes David Judge.

Immediately after the general election, Boris Johnson greeted the newly convened parliament with the triumphalist words, ‘[this] is one of the best Parliaments that this country has ever produced’, and pledged that ‘this new democratic parliament – this people’s parliament [will] get on with delivering the priorities of the British people’. Repeatedly the PM enthused that this was to be ‘a Parliament that works for the people’ and a parliament that had ‘delivered a people’s government dedicated to serving you’.

The PM’s repetitions seemingly pointed to a singular vision of ‘the people’ sharing common priorities, and with their elected representatives capable of sustaining a ‘people’s government’ dedicated to serving ‘one nation’. Yet, on closer inspection, they also pointed implicitly to the existence of ‘peoples’ – in the plural – who were to be represented, and of institutions – in the plural – made manifest in the differentiatedness of ‘parliament’ and ‘government’ within Westminster.

According to the PM two features of the new parliament made it a ‘vast improvement on its predecessor’. First, it was more representationally descriptive of the UK population; and second, and more importantly for the PM, it was ‘going to get Brexit done’.

Peoples in the plural

If ‘bestness’ is measured by the extent of descriptive representation, then the new parliament was indeed ‘better’ than its predecessor. The idea of descriptive representation denotes ‘shared experiences’ between represented and representatives – which allow the latter to be ‘in some sense typical of the larger class of persons whom they represent’. And, if within-group intersectional differences are inserted into this relationship, further complexity and contingency come to characterise the practice of parliamentary representation. Intersectionality recognises that there are no uniform identities within descriptively defined groups.

The new parliament returned record numbers of: women MPs (220); Black and Minority Ethnic MPs (65), Muslim MPs (18); and openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs (45). Yet while descriptively ‘better’ than its predecessors, this parliament is far from being the best it could be. Women and BAME groups remained proportionately under-presented when compared to their population size, while other visible and invisible minorities remained notable by their absence. While 22% of the UK population are recognised as having a disability, only a handful of self-declared disabled MPs are present in the new parliament. A cursory examination of the CVs of MPs also reveals that few had direct prior experience of unemployment or of grinding poverty. The significance of this descriptive representational deficit is that comparative empirical studies of policy preferences in legislatures reveal that ‘differential representation [of income groups] is always in disfavour of the poor’.

A simple listing of the group characteristics deemed to be of descriptive importance, immediately reveals, therefore, the innate plurality of ‘peoples’ in a representative parliament. Indeed, even Boris Johnson’s baseline definition of representational ‘bestness’ – in terms of ‘more female Members than ever before and more black and minority ethnic Members than ever before’ – still managed to undercut the very idea of a singular people represented in a ‘people’s parliament’ – no matter the powerful, propagandist, populist appeal of this rhetorical device.

Institutions in the plural

The PM’s main criterion for assessing the ‘bestness’ of the new parliament, however, was simply that it wasn’t its predecessor. The 2017-2019 parliament stood accused of using ‘every trick in the book’ to thwart ‘the will of the electorate’. In contrast, the new parliament would ‘not waste the nation’s time in deadlock, division and delay’; instead ‘this people’s parliament … [is] going to get Brexit done’.

If the meaning of Brexit had long been a conundrum – encapsulated in Theresa May’s mantra of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – the new ‘people’s government’ now claims, on the back of its electoral victory, the licence to determine what Brexit means. Indeed, the Johnson government has every right to define Brexit in whatever way it sees fit, and equally it has a right to claim, as the PM did in his contribution to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, that it will legislate in the name of all the people. In fact, the PM’s invocation of ‘all the people’ is but the latest iteration of a constructed claim made by all UK governments to represent the collectivity of the state and its peoples (whether couched in terms of the common interest, national interest or the people’s interest).

Central to the notion of representative democracy, however, is that these claims of a collective interest are subject to what Manin calls ‘argumentative scrutiny’ and ‘the trial of discussion’ where ‘everything has to be justified in debate’ in the legislature. This notion of justification is epitomised in the institutionalised processes of deliberation, scrutiny, and accountability – with their associated elaborate procedures, rituals, and symbols – embedded in the contributions made by parliaments to state decision-making processes. Governments thus have the right to make claims to act, and legislate, in the collective interest; but, equally, parliaments have the right to subject those claims to ‘argumentative scrutiny’ and to ask executives to account for their actions.

Significantly in this respect, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg proclaimed that 2020 would be a year ‘in which this House, this great institution of our democracy, will work for the people, delivering the Prime Minister’s ambitious legislative agenda while conducting its work of scrutiny and accountability in the proper way’. Earlier, upon his appointment as Leader of the House, he had expressed ‘perhaps a somewhat romantic view of the House of Commons’, in his belief that it was the job of MPs ‘to hold the Government to account and not simply facilitate whatever the Government will want to do’.

Whether this romantic view prevails in the face of a government majority of 80 is an open question. The portents are unfavourable, however: generally, all governments tend to be gripped by ‘an executive mentality’ which predisposes them to undervalue the requirements of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability when formulating and implementing their policies. Specifically, since the Brexit referendum, successive Conservative governments have sought to evade parliamentary judgment of their Brexit strategy through procedural deceits and corrosive anti-parliament narratives. In the intervening period, the Supreme Court has been called upon twice to remind the executive of its foundational constitutional responsibilities to subject itself to the authority of parliament. In the same period, government ministers, leading Conservative MPs, and even Prime Ministers  themselves, have peddled populist narratives of being on the side of the people against parliament, of parliament setting itself against the people, and of ‘parliament versus the people’.

More specifically still, and possibly symptomatic of Johnson’s mindset towards parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, has been the appointment of Dominic Cummings as the PM’s chief special adviser. Cummings had earlier been admonished by the House of Commons Privileges Committee for contempt of parliament, with the Committee deeming that Cummings’ attitude ‘did not to serve the interests of civilised debate’.

When punctuation matters

If civilised debate is the hallmark of parliamentary government, then Boris Johnson and his closest ministerial confidants and political advisers have ‘previous’ in their disregard for scrutiny and accountability. There is every prospect, therefore, that the institutional divide between the ‘people’s government’ and the ‘people’s parliament’ will be brought into stark relief as the realities of representing the diverse experiences of multiple peoples throughout the UK become apparent in a ‘post-Brexit’ UK after 31 January 2020.

In these circumstances, punctuation may yet come to matter. Where the apostrophe is placed – “the people’s parliament” or “the peoples’ parliament” – may come to reveal just how deep a commitment the Johnsonian ‘people’s government’ has, first, to constructing a plausible pluralistic claim of a collective UK state interest, rather than a singular populist claim; and, second, how prepared it is to justify its claim before a parliament representing the interests, opinions, and expectations of multiple peoples.


About the Author

David Judge is Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Strathclyde.




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

Why did the Conservatives’ large lead in vote shares produce only an 80-seat majority?

Plurality rule voting systems have a well-known tendency to exaggerate the seats of the largest party. A full analysis of the 2019 results remains to be completed, but Tim Smith finds evidence that this time around the Conservatives had a modest 23 seat advantage over Labour in terms of two-party bias. The ‘leader’s bias’ advantage was also much smaller than that which Labour enjoyed in 1997-2005. This may mean that the future boundary reforms to equalize constituency sizes may not be as beneficial as the Conservatives hope.

Conservative politicians have long complained that they have been fighting the Labour party on an uneven pitch. Their case has been that Labour MPs have been elected in constituencies with smaller electorates than those in Conservative seats. The 2019 manifesto is the fourth Tory manifesto in a row to promise legislation to equalize the sizes of constituencies by implementing boundary reforms on a strict population basis. Once implemented, the pledge means that in future constituency sizes will not vary more than 5% from the UK quota (national average), with every set of boundaries reviewed every five years. The boundaries used in the 2019 election are now almost twenty years out of date. The electoral statistics used to draw them up derive from December 2000.

Some Conservative commentators have also noted that despite being just under 12 percentage points ahead of Labour in national vote share, Boris Johnson none the less gained a smaller majority of 80 seats in the Commons than when Labour won a majority of 165 in 2001 with just over a 9% lead. Table 1 below shows that Labour’s two-party lead in 2005 was under 3%, but it yet produced a two-party seats lead of 158 and an overall majority of 66. In 2019, the Tory lead was four times larger, but the two-party seats lead was almost the same as in 2005, and Johnson’s overall Commons majority is 80 seats.

The classic means of measuring two-party bias in a plurality rule (‘first past the post’) system, is using Brookes’ decomposition method, as adapted by Johnston, Rossiter and Pattie, and also explained here. Everyone accepts that plurality rule benefits the larger parties, especially the winning party, at the expense of the smaller parties with widely spread support. The Brookes method has a more limited purpose, namely to check how level the playing field is between the top two parties. By adjusting the vote shares on a uniform basis to an equal level, one finds the Conservatives 23 seats ahead of Labour, which constitutes the total bias. The various components that go make up the overall bias can be derived algebraically using the Brookes method from this point.

Table 2 below shows that total bias in the system has been in the Conservatives’ favour since the 2015 election, when it peaked at a 49 seat lead advantage. Since then it dropped to 12 seats in 2017 (when Labour almost matched Tory support). In the 2019 election the Conservatives were well ahead in terms of votes, but the overall seats advantage they enjoyed rose only slightly to reach 23 at this election.

Sources: Data for 1987 to 2010 are drawn from Johnston and Pattie [link to be added shortly]. Data for 2015-19 are the author’s calculations.

Notes: The cell entries show the consequences of bias in terms of two-party seat leads, i.e. multiplying each seat by 2. Positive numbers show a pro-Tory bias, and negative numbers a pro-Labour bias. Notice that the 2019 overall bias is much smaller than the leader’s bias Labour enjoyed in the three elections it won from 1997 to 2005. Indeed, Labour had a larger two-party bias in its favour in 2019, an election that it lost, than the Conservative gained in 2019 despite being streets ahead in voter terms.

Looking at the different components shown in Table 2 helps to explains why the very large lead the Conservatives received in terms of vote share did not translate into the kind of majority that Labour managed in 1997 and 2001. The size differentials between constituencies remains an issue, giving a Labour advantage over the Conservatives of 18 seats. Eight seats of this come from the differential between the three nations, England, Scotland, and Wales. Whilst Scotland’s representation was reduced closer to English levels in 2005 after devolution, there is a considerable malapportionment in the system favouring Wales. If constituency sizes were equalized in Wales, then the country would overwhelmingly elect Labour MPs on the basis of equal vote shares. This effect is currently constrained because Wales has much smaller constituency sizes than England, 58,000 to 74,900.

The other ten seats due to differentials in constituency sizes arise within a country, mainly within England. The Conservatives have tended to favour regular boundary reviews because in the past this seat bias in favour of Labour has grown between such reviews – inner city seats have tended to shrink whilst suburbs and rural seats have seen their electorates grow. However, this effect has not been the case this cycle. The size bias is exactly the same in 2019 as it was in 2010 when the current boundaries were first used. On the basis of actual voting shares (rather than the equal ones assumed by the Brookes method), the size bias has actually dropped since 2015, as the Conservatives have gained more support in territory with declining electorate sizes such as Stoke.

Differentials in turnout, or more properly lack of turnout, have had a greater impact on the two-party bias than differentials in constituency sizes. Throughout the period shown in Table 2, there has been a lower turnout in seats that are more Labour-inclined on average than those that are more Conservative-inclined on average. This effect peaked in 2001 and 2005 at a 38-seat bias to Labour and it has been 20 to 24 in the last three elections, larger than the impact of constituency size differentials. The average turnout in seats more Labour than the national average was 65.3%, compared to 69.3% in those seats more Conservative. Boundary changes will not assist the Conservatives here.

The ‘third party’ effects in Table 2 come from the minor parties either piling up ‘wasted’ votes in seats where they cannot win, or winning seats, in areas which are differentially more Conservative or more Labour. The net effects here have tended to favour Labour, with the Liberal Democrats historically winning more seats in areas which were more Conservative than Labour. However, after the Liberal Democrats’ big losses in 2015, and the SNP’s big gains in Scotland at that election, the third-party effect has moved towards benefiting the Conservatives, albeit only slightly. As John Curtice, has pointed out or here, this larger wedge of third party seats means that there is now a bigger landing zone for the UK’s voting system to produce hung Parliament outcomes, as it did in 2010 and 2017.

The main component in the system for the last three elections that has cancelled out the Labour advantage in terms of size and turnout, has been the Conservatives having a considerably more efficiently distributed vote. This comes from Tory votes being located in the right places across the country, so minimizing ‘wasted surplus’ votes from piling up huge majorities in safe constituencies, and also minimizing ‘redundant votes’, in seats where the party does not win. There was a big bias in Labour’s favour in 2005. The Conservatives have done well to turn this around to a bias in their favour of 55 seats over Labour in 2015. However, at the last two elections they have not been able to match the kind of advantage that Labour had in 2001 (74). The pro-Tory efficiency bias stood at 27 in 2017 and 46 seats in 2019. During the ‘New Labour’ era in 2001 and 2005, Labour made the most of local incumbency advantages and the party ruthlessly targeted and held onto marginal seats.

Some consequences

The Conservatives cannot necessarily assume that changing constituency boundaries on a stricter or more regular basis will help them buttress their majority as much as many appear to hope, or indeed as feared by some of the left.  The much cited estimates that give the Tories a notional majority of 104 on ‘new’ boundaries are based on numbers for the 2018 review that was never implemented. That scheme is now unlikely to be put into action without significant change, since the electoral numbers on which it was based are now themselves dated (deriving from December 2015).  Removing a more realistic two-thirds of the size bias would increase the current Tory majority a little bit, to 92 seats. But recent voting patterns also appear to be changing towards the Conservative Party doing better in northern towns. If so, then the strategy of putting though a strict boundary review every five years may not yield the kinds of gains that Tory party elites expect.

Both parties also appear to be looking at reforming the franchise in order to tilt the electorate in their favour. Labour has been proposing lowering the voting age to 16 and giving the vote at General Elections to EU citizens, on the grounds that Commonwealth citizens already have this right. Surprisingly, the Conservatives have not moved to close off this unreciprocated anomaly, especially since it enfranchises large numbers of overseas students, who are eligible to vote immediately at general elections on arrival to the UK. These additional student votes almost certainly cost the Tories several university town constituencies, such as Canterbury and Warwick.


About the Author

Tim Smith recently graduated with a PhD in Politics from Nottingham University. He works as a Senior Dealer for Ruffer LLP, but writes here in a personal capacity.




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).

How the UK’s migration regime negatively affects the lives of transnational couples

Clive Sealey and Daniel Nehring discuss how the recent changes to UK migration policy have redefined the way that transnational marriages are created and maintained. The explain that, on the one hand, legal and financial requirements can force couples to marry earlier than they otherwise would have, but on the other hand they also limit their ability to function as a couple once married.

Transnational marriages – those between the residents of two different countries – are now a significant social phenomenon, not least due to high levels of mobility and the extension of intimate life across borders. Already towards the end of the 2000s, 8.4% of all marriages in the EU involved a foreign-born and a native-born partner. In many countries in East and Southeast Asia, the proportion of such marriages was similarly high or higher, suggesting more than a geographically isolated trend. Transnational marriages, we suggest, are a common feature of intimate life in the 21st century.

If we historically compare economic migration and marriage migration policy in the UK, it is evident that it is the latter which has squarely been defined as unwanted. The recent focus in policy has been on reinforcing this objective through changes to the financial and legal context of transnational marriage migration, and thereby seeing controls on marriage migration as primarily an immigration concern above anything else.

Generally, it is easier to enter the UK as married or in a civil partnership than it is if you are in a relationship. The Immigration Act 2014 has also made it harder for transnational marriages to take place, due to a concern about ‘sham marriages’ being a significant threat to immigration control. Some of the measures introduced included:

  • increasing the waiting period between the notification of a marriage and the actual ceremony;
  • a power to investigate suspected sham marriages;
  • an inability to get married or enter into a civil partnership for noncompliance with an investigation;
  • and action where it was deemed that a sham marriage would or had taken place, including refusal, deportation, and prosecution.

Our research provides evidence that these measures have led to the involuntary separation of couples, due to the fact that it is harder to live together as an unmarried couple in the UK: transnational couples are being forced to spend significant time living apart. However, an unintended outcome of the policy is incentivising transnational couples to get married earlier than they normally would, as marriage to some extent makes it easier for them to meet the legal requirements to live together as a couple. This means that administrative expediency rather than love has become a significant reason for transnational marriage migration.

Yet while it is easier to migrate to the UK as a married couple, the introduction of the minimum income threshold now makes this less straightforward. Since July 2012, the resident spouse must earn a minimum of £18,600 per year in order for the non-UK resident spouse be eligible to live in the UK. Underpinning this policy is a pervasive belief that migrants in general, including family migrants, are an economic drain on social policy, such as in relation to the notion of benefit tourism. Our research provides evidence that this policy is stopping transnational families from functioning as families, and putting strain on their marriages. In particular, it is curtailing their mobility and their ability to spend time with or live with their family. So, in addition to the unintended consequences observed above, another consequence of the minimum income threshold is to make it harder for families to live together even once married.

From a sociological standpoint, the tightening of marriage migration policy highlights the de-legitimisation of cross-border marital relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, the above impacts are changing the conventional development of intimate bonds that should bind transnational couples together and enable them to function as other married couples do. In effect, the changes have the dual perversity of potentially forcing transnational couples to marry earlier than they would and then to limit their ability to function as a married couple once married. This situation reflects what we now know to be a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in general.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Social Policy & Administration.

About the Authors

Clive Sealey is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Theory in the Department of Social Work and the Community at the University of Worcester.

Daniel Nehring is Associate Professor of Sociology at the East China University of Science and Technology.


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).

Underemployment among part-time workers may have detrimental psychological consequences

Victoria Mousteri, Michael Daly, and Liam Delaney outline how underemployment affects well-being. They find that underemployment predicts meaningful increases in distress in two UK cohorts – an effect that is reversed when the underemployed find full-time work.

The potential psychological effects of atypical and precarious employment arrangements are attracting increasing attention among academic and policy researchers. The UK economy is approaching ‘full employment’ and the jobless rate has dropped below pre-recession levels. Yet, for many workers these employment levels have not meant high quality jobs. More employees now find themselves underemployed than before the recession and many more are on zero-hours contracts. Furthermore, when considered together, the total number of underemployed and zero hours workers has remained remarkably stable since the recession in contrast to the improving picture of employment rates more generally.

Underemployment (or hours-underemployment specifically) is an intrinsically undesirable state, defined as working part-time while preferring to work more hours. In a recent study, we examined whether this persistent employment hardship could have detrimental mental health consequences. It is not difficult to imagine why this may be the case. Hours-underemployment is linked to uncertainty, reduced control over working hours, in-work poverty and reduced well-being. We argue that understanding the psychological harms of underemployment is crucial for motivating the design of policies aiming to protect workers and prevent labour force detachment and poverty.

To examine the contribution of hours-underemployment to psychological distress, we operationalised the International Labour Organization (1998) definition of underemployment, defining underemployment as working below 30 hours per week in the UK context and preferring to work more hours. Distress was assessed with a well-validated measure (the 12-item General Health Questionnaire) and we took two important steps to consider self-selection biases and reverse causality.

First, drawing on the very rich information collected as part of the National Child Development Study, we compared part-time workers preferring to work more hours with full-time workers. Using propensity score matching, we constructed two comparable samples of underemployed and full-time employed workers that had similar probabilities to end up in hours-underemployment based on a broad set of demographic, cognitive, psychosocial, and economic background factors. We found that being in hours-underemployment predicts substantially higher levels of psychological distress compared to working full-time (β = .22-.25).

Next, we drew on the British Household Panel Survey to explore the psychological impact of moving between underemployment and full-time employment. As previously, we used analytical techniques to account for unobserved differences among workers that might explain transitioning between different types of employment as well as their psychological wellbeing. We found that moving from full-time employment to underemployment was associated with increased distress levels across 18 years of observations.

The estimated effects were comparable to longitudinal estimates of the psychological effect of becoming unemployed (i.e. β = .19). Critically, our results also suggested the adverse psychological consequences of hours-underemployment are reversible. Transitioning from hours-underemployment to full-time positions predicted a decrease in distress that closely matched the increase associated with becoming hours-underemployed.

We also tested alternative combinations of working part-time and working time preferences to distinguish between the contribution of employment type and individual preferences to the observed impact. Our sensitivity analysis revealed that the combination of working less than 30 hours per week and preferring to work more hours was associated with the greatest and most consistent increases in psychological distress.

Somewhat surprisingly, job earnings and perceptions of job security explained only a small portion (≈10%) of the psychological impact of underemployment. We suggest two reasons for this. First, the inferior working conditions of underemployment in affecting time structure, social contact, and status, were only partly captured by our income and job security measures. Second, we did not assess the potential broader impact of underemployment in depriving psychological needs of competence and autonomy, curtailing work ambitions, and hampering social relationships and family formation. An extensive analysis of the paths linking underemployment to poor psychological health is now needed.

In addition to our work on underemployment we now aim to examine the psychological impact of the recent proliferation of zero-hours contracts. Such contracts are associated with poorer self-assessed general health and an increased risk of psychological distress. We anticipate distressing effects similar to underemployment because zero-hours contracts are associated with many of the disadvantages of underemployment along with high levels of insecurity, uncertainty, and pressure to accept unfavourable hours.

There is a stark divide in the United Kingdom between those employed on secure full-time contracts and those working on precarious employment contracts. Underemployment has outstripped unemployment in prevalence over the past decade and may have similar psychological implications. Our research suggests that the divide between full time workers and the underemployed is not only associated with financial inequality, it may be generating mental health inequalities.

In the UK, the effectiveness of the policies implemented to prevent unfavourable treatment of part-time workers and improve quality of part-time jobs has been criticised. For example, Bell argues that the Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 was not successful in removing discrimination against part-time workers or in supporting transitions into full-time employment especially in low-skill, low-wage sectors with high female presence. The findings of our research suggest that policy makers should monitor the implementation of current regulation more closely and consider the design of interventions aiming to improve the working conditions and psychological well-being of underemployed workers. The work of Bell and Blanchflower documenting high rates of underemployment in the UK and throughout the OECD underscore the importance of these issues internationally.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Social Science & Medicine.

About the Authors

Victoria Mousteri is Senior Economist at Alma Economics and a member of the Stirling Behavioural Science Centre.



Michael Daly is Associate Professor in Psychology/Behavioural Science at Maynooth University.



Liam Delaney is Professor of Economics at UCD and Visiting Professor of Economics at Stirling University.



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

The public’s climate change views: strong beliefs but low salience

What does the British public think about climate change? Is there strong public pressure on politicians to enact policy to bring down emissions? Drawing on online survey data, Sam Crawley, Hilde Coffé and Ralph Chapman explain that there are five climate change opinion ‘publics’. The two largest publics have strong beliefs that climate change is occurring, but view it as a low salience issue.

The UK is often thought of as a world leader in addressing climate change, being among the first countries to pass legislation setting binding targets for emission reductions. However, concerns have been raised about how well the UK is living up to its commitments, with a June 2019  report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) finding that the UK “is lagging behind what is needed to meet legally-binding emissions targets”.

Survey evidence has shown that a large majority of the UK public is concerned about climate change, and would like something to be done about it. Does this strong public support for action on climate change suggest that politicians are ignoring public preferences?

Belief, issue salience, and support for government action

A lot of the existing research on public opinion on climate change focusses on people’s beliefs about climate change (e.g. whether or not they believe climate change is happening and are concerned about it). However, this focus tends to (implicitly) categorise people as either “believers” or “deniers”.

To get a more comprehensive picture of public opinion on climate change, we surveyed nearly 800 people in the UK in August 2018. We asked people about their climate beliefs, but also questions on the relative importance of climate change (issue salience), and whether or not they support government action to address climate change. We were interested in finding out if some people are concerned about climate change but consider it a low salience issue, or do not support government action to address it.

With respect to climate beliefs, as illustrated in figure 1 below, only 7% of our respondents thought climate change is not happening, although more than half of those were not confident in their views. 74% of respondents thought climate change is happening and are fairly or extremely confident in that position.

Regarding other aspects of climate belief, 72% of people surveyed thought that climate change is mostly caused by humans, and 73% believed that most scientists agree that climate change is happening.

To find out about issue salience, we asked people to rank eight issues (climate change, health care, education, crime, immigration, the economy, terrorism and poverty) from the most to least important to the country. The results – presented in figure 2 – illustrate that the salience of climate change is very low, with 53% of people putting climate change in the bottom two of the eight issues, and only 7% of people believing it is the most important issue.

Finally, looking at support for government action to address climate change, most respondents support the government doing something about climate change, with 78% of people believing that government action (rather than individual action) is the most effective way to solve climate change, and 61% believing the government is not doing enough on climate change. However, only 32% of people are willing to pay higher taxes to help combat climate change.

The “publics” of climate change

Social scientists often think about the population not as a single “public”, but as a collection of multiple “publics”, each with their own perspectives on particular issues. We used the idea of multiple publics to help us understand public opinion on climate change in a way that moves beyond the believer/denier dichotomy. Our study is therefore similar to the “Six Americas” study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Using our survey results, we identified five different publics: the highly engaged, the moderately engaged, the action-wary, the uncertain and the deniers.

Figure 3 below shows the relative size of each UK public, as well as the percentage of people in each public that hold particular climate change views. The “highly engaged” are concerned about climate change, rank it as a high importance issue, and support government action to address it. The “moderately engaged” are similar to the highly engaged, except that they tend to rank climate change as only a medium importance issue. The “action-wary” are concerned about climate change, but rank it as low salience, and have some concerns about government action to address it. The “uncertain” are unsure whether or not climate change is happening, and are generally against government action on climate change. The “deniers” tend to be fairly certain that climate change is not happening, and think that the government is doing too much to combat climate change.

We also investigated whether the publics had any characteristics in common. We found that older people are more likely to be deniers, and slightly less likely to be highly or moderately engaged. The highly engaged are more likely to be on the left of the political spectrum, while the action-wary and the uncertain tend to be on the right. Education is also important, with the uncertain less likely to hold a degree, while the highly engaged are more likely to have completed a degree.

Political implications

How might this picture of public opinion impact the adoption of ambitious climate policy? Politicians often take the time to understand what the public thinks about a particular issue and use that knowledge to guide their decisions. They are not likely to take big, bold actions (of the type required to address climate change) if they do not feel they are under public pressure to act. That pressure primarily comes through elections, where politicians are worried about keeping their jobs.

When people vote, they tend to have – at most – only a handful of issues in mind. As we have shown with the results of our survey, for most people, climate change is not one of those issues. The salience of climate change is low, and only about 17% of the UK population can be considered as being “highly engaged” with climate change. This means that politicians are simply not under substantial public pressure to act on climate change, as they know it is not one of the main issues that decide most people’s vote.

Several factors are likely contributing to the inadequate action on climate change in the UK described in the CCC report mentioned earlier. These factors include the influence of fossil fuel companies, the long-term nature of climate change, and the personal preferences of politicians. However, the low salience of climate change among the public means that politicians have the space to avoid taking the bold actions required to comprehensively address climate change.


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

About the Authors

Sam Crawley is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.




Hilde Coffé is Professor in Politics at the University of Bath.




Ralph Chapman is Postgraduate Programme Director in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.



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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