Posts Tagged ‘Economy and Society’

How can politicians build a case for action on climate change, when British voters aren’t interested?

Voters are simply not asking their representatives to act on climate. Rebecca Willis draws on interviews with MPs to find whether MPs can still construct a ‘representative claim’ and justify action on climate change. She identifies four different types of claims and explains why it is not straightforward for a politician to argue that action is in the interests of their electorate.

Scientists are clear that urgent action is needed on climate. At the Paris Summit, world leaders agreed to limit rises in global temperatures. And yet, climate change barely troubles domestic politics. As part of a collaborative research project with Lancaster University and Green Alliance, I have interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament since 2015. One message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, “Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.”

This is a fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?

The answer to this question boils down to the way in which political representation is understood. This is something that has been debated ever since the Ancient Greeks’ early experiments with democracy. In the UK parliamentary system, we tend to think about representation in terms of the electoral constituency. MPs represent the local area that elected them. But they are influenced, not controlled, by what their electorate tells them. They are representatives, not delegates. This is explained well by a new theory put forward by the political theorist Michael Saward. He argues that representation should be seen as a process of claims-making, in which the politician makes claims which are then accepted, rejected or ignored by the electorate. In short, representation is a dialogue. When an MP campaigns against a hospital closure, they are, in effect, saying “I am campaigning for local health services and this makes me a worthy representative of this area”. Saward calls this a “representative claim”.

Saward’s theory helps to explain how MPs might tackle a complex global issue like climate change. It’s a harder sell than the local hospital, that’s for sure. But my research shows that MPs develop ways of claiming that action on climate change is necessary. In my interviews with MPs, I encountered four different sorts of “representative claim”.

A cosmopolitan claim: This frames climate change a global problem to which a global solution is proposed. Politicians argue that it is in the interests of the global community to take action. As one interviewee told me, “a lot of the impacts of climate change are going to hit other places before they hit here. [My constituency] is not likely to be one of the first places to be hit particularly badly. So what? I just happen to be here.”

This claim has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. Yet it has limited appeal, as another explained, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space… We have these sort of massive big things about what will happen in other parts of the world… and they’re like, “yeah, ok, whatever”.” In short, this claim is often ignored.

A local prevention claim: Another strategy is to tailor the claim explicitly to a local setting, saying that action is necessary to prevent local impacts like flooding. One MP representing a flood-prone area told me that he used floods as a way of talking about wider climate impacts. This claim has the advantage that it links a global issue directly to the local area, and allows a politician to talk in terms of the interests of local people. As with the cosmopolitan claim, though, it does not link directly to a case for local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A co-benefits claim: The most common strategy that interviewees reported was linking climate change to practical, achievable local actions, particularly economic measures, such as encouraging renewable energy generation, or improving transport infrastructure. This has the obvious advantage of relevance to the local area. As one MP told me, “I’m happy to use an economic argument if that means that more people will come on side… I change the language to be much, much less extreme.” The disadvantage of such a claim, though, is that it may reduce the opportunity to discuss the full implications of climate change, focusing instead on small steps at a local level.

A surrogate claim: A significant minority of MPs in my sample use an intriguing strategy, which I call the ‘surrogate claim’. This approach involves promoting local benefits, like public transport, or reduced congestion, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change. In this case, although the politician is privately thinking of a particular strategy in terms of its climate benefits, they deliberately do not mention this, because they think it would backfire. One judged that, if he had mentioned carbon emissions in arguing for a sustainable transport scheme, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’”.

These findings are relevant both for the way we understand representation, and for thinking about how we might tackle climate change. My study confirms that politicians construct their representative role in an active sense, as Saward describes. Politicians know that climate change requires political attention, and so they find ways of building a claim that is meaningful to the people they represent. Seeing representation in this way overcomes the vexed questions of whether politicians can or should represent nature or other species; people beyond their constituency; and over the long-term rather than a single electoral cycle.

The answer is deceptively simple: they can, and should, if they can make a representative claim which is accepted. Implicit in the theory, however, is the idea that some claims are harder than others to sustain; a claim like the cosmopolitan claim identified here, based on the long-term interests of a globalised humanity, will find it more difficult to gain traction than a claim which represents immediate local interests. Thus the theory provides a nuanced account of the way in which politicians conceptualise their role as a representative.

The research also points to ways in which politicians could be better supported. Demonstrating wide buy-in, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted. Second, politicians might be tempted to use a surrogate claim, trying to get the right policies in place without seeking a mandate for action on climate. But such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the case.

Last, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support. Who will it appeal to? Does it help to make the wider case for action? It is only by making bold, positive claims that a political, as well as scientific, case for action on climate can be made.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Political Studies.

About the Author

Rebecca Willis is a Researcher in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster 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.

Overseas Electors Bill: does government really intend to give expats ‘votes for life’?

Will the Overseas Electors Bill, proposing to give Britons living abroad the right to vote in UK elections for life, make it beyond second reading? Sue Collard puts recent developments in their wider context and explains their potential implications. She argues that if government does indeed mean business, then the issue is far too important to those affected to justify it being eventually sacrificed to party politics.

An announcement from the Cabinet Office on 8 February confirmed that the government is still committed to implementing a pledge made in the 2014 Conservative Manifesto and endorsed by David Cameron in 2015, to grant ‘Votes For Life’ (VFL) to UK citizens resident abroad. This means abolishing the current rule that disenfranchises UK citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years.

Cameron’s promise was originally made in response to long-standing demands by expat campaigners, whose public figurehead is the indomitable war veteran, Harry Shindler MBE. But he and other activists were deeply aggrieved by the government’s failure to implement VFL before the EU referendum, despite their legal challenge. Verbal commitments under Theresa May to honour Cameron’s pledge before the next scheduled election have done little to reassure them, and it has been widely assumed that this bill was being kicked into the long grass.

That is, until the recent statement, which went further than the simple reiteration of a tired promise. This time it was backed up by the publication of detailed responses to the policy proposals announced in October 2016. This latest document shows that the Cabinet Office has indeed been hard at work, trying to thrash out the complex implications of extending the franchise to what it estimates to be potentially 3 million ‘overseas electors’.

Registration issues

The current system of electoral registration allows ‘expatriate’ citizens to continue to vote for 15 years (by postal vote or by proxy), in the constituency where they were last registered. Until 2015, registration levels for overseas electors were in fact extremely low, largely due to bureaucratic obstacles. But the introduction of online registration in 2014 triggered a massive increase in registration, which was further magnified by the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 snap election, when the number rose to over 285,000.

This increase has caused headaches for the electoral authorities, trying to administer an already overloaded and underfunded electoral system. But the introduction of VFL would add to their burden because it means developing a whole new registration process to cater for those whose registration lapsed more than 15 years ago: their previous addresses cannot be verified through the electoral registers because the law does not require electoral authorities to keep these for more than 15 years. The Cabinet Office proposes therefore to allow registration based on proof of previous residence; but this throws up additional complications that have been highlighted by the Association of Electoral Administrators in its response to the consultation.

Certain campaigners have suggested that the creation of dedicated ‘overseas’ constituencies, such as those created by France, Italy, and Portugal, would avoid the problems of establishing proof of previous registration or residence, and would give expats better representation. However, this idea has been rejected by the Cabinet Office on the grounds that it constitutes ‘too fundamental a departure from the existing arrangements’. Besides, it is a proposal that does not sit well with the government’s plan to reduce the number of constituencies.

Does the government really mean business?

Just how significant is the government’s recent announcement? The failure to include VFL in the latest Queen’s Speech suggested that, given the Brexit agenda, parliamentary time would not be found for this bill. Yet February’s press release explicitly makes reference to the imminent second reading debate in the House of Commons of a Private Member’s Bill on Overseas Electors, to be presented on 23rd February by Glyn Davies MP. The implication, now confirmed, is that the government will be supporting this bill.

This is further corroborated by the simultaneous statement from the Chair of ‘Conservatives Abroad’, Heather Harper, who welcomed the government’s renewed commitment to VFL: “The second reading of [the Overseas Electors Bill] brings us closer to getting votes for life for all British expatriates”. Conservatives Abroad have played a key role in getting VFL put on the government’s policy agenda. They have been campaigning on this issue for many years within the party, but it was the advent of coalition politics in 2010 which enabled them to highlight the potential contribution of overseas supporters towards winning selected target seats in marginal constituencies. Their efforts in the 2015 election campaign were rewarded by Cameron’s inclusion of VFL in the Queen’s Speech.

So it looks as if now the government really might mean business on VFL, but this time, spurred on by a different political context: the post-Brexit. The message from Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution, makes an explicit link to a brave new vision of the post-Brexit world and the role that expats are expected to play in it:

Following the British people’s decision to leave the EU, we need to strengthen ties with countries around the world and show the UK is an outward-facing nation. Our expat community has an important role to play in helping Britain expand international trade, especially given two-thirds of expats live outside the EU.

Assuming the VFL bill makes it beyond the second reading, we can expect any subsequent parliamentary debate to be highly politicised: opposition parties see VFL not as a progressive move to end the disenfranchisement of potentially millions of its citizens living outside the UK, but as a cynical ploy to increase Tory votes and donations (individuals can only donate if they are on an electoral register). It remains to be seen whether partisan positions based on mere assumptions about the political preferences of expats will continue to hold sway, or whether more substantiated arguments might be brought to bear on the discussions. This issue is far too important to those directly affected to justify its being sacrificed to party politics.


About the Author

Sue Collard is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex.




Why going to university in Britain is still a wise investment

Dennis A. Ahlburg responds to the argument that there is no return on investment in higher education in Britain. He writes that, whilst there is no guarantee that all graduates will have higher incomes, for a large subset this will indeed be the case. He highlights the importance of helping students to make more informed decisions about which university to attend and what to study, so that they can make better economic choices.

In a recent article in The Political Quarterly Alan Ware claimed that for most students, higher education was not worth the cost. He claimed that there is no “need” for higher education, that higher education does not result in higher earnings, higher education does not impart useful skills, nor does it facilitate social mobility. In a recent article in The Political Quarterly I evaluated Ware’s claims and found them to be inconsistent with empirical evidence. I agree with Ware that ’not everyone needs a highly academic form of education.’  But this does not lead to the conclusion that no one does.

On “need” there is considerable evidence that students and employers in Britain are willing to pay for higher education qualifications, and indeed any education qualifications obtained in formal education. Blundell report an average return of 27% for those completing higher education relative to anything else. A recent report on graduate earnings released by the Department for Education also found very substantial earnings advantages for graduates. These and similar findings refute Ware’s claims that higher education is not needed and does not result in higher earnings.

Ware stresses the increase in the supply of graduates – ‘too many graduates’ – and concludes, incorrectly, that for most students ‘there is no graduate premium’. However, his claim largely ignores demand. In fact, he states ‘education credentials are worthless if everyone has them’. A direct examination of the hypothesis that the increase in the supply of graduates resulted in a fall in the higher education premium found no evidence in support of it.

Ware also predicts a devaluation of ‘good’ degrees as they become more common and further unproductive investment in postgraduate education as students try to distinguish themselves from the mass of graduates. However, the market has rewarded university education more highly even as more people acquired it. The return to university education is higher now than it was in the 1970s when relatively few people attended university. Growth in the demand for educated labour explains these results.

While I disagree with Ware that ‘for many there is no graduate premium’, it is true that for some there is no graduate premium. The dispersion of returns to graduate education increased substantially from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Consequently, some students will earn substantially less than the average but some will also earn substantially more. A study in the UK showed that earnings of graduates exceed those of non-graduates for about 80% of graduates. That is, there is a graduate premium for most graduates.

Regarding skills, recent research by Deming has shown that the growth of employment and earnings is greater in jobs that emphasise “soft skills” – that is, the skills that are acquired at university such as problem solving, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communication skills. These are a better preparation for cognitive non-routine jobs which are of increasing importance.

Credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

On social mobility: with the expansion of university education, one may expect that mobility, however measured, increased. This did not happen. Over time, the correlation between family income and children’s higher education has increased so that the expansion in university education has disproportionately aided children from more affluent families. However, a significant portion – but probably not all – of this under-representation is explained by differences in previous academic achievement. So it is likely that it is not university education primarily that is failing to fuel social mobility but education at the pre-university level and at less selective institutions.

I reject Ware’s claim of ‘too much higher education’. As I have argued, university education is an attractive option for many if not most secondary school leavers. However, we must not oversell the returns of higher education, although on average they are historically high. Students must be informed of the variability of returns and, particularly, the variability of returns by institution and degree program within an institution. Like other investments, higher education does not come with a guaranteed return for all but information can help improve decision-making. The provision of league tables in the 1990s and the knowledge of differences in reputation they provided affected the behavior of employers and prospective students. But league tables are not sufficient.

The publication in June 2017 of earnings data one, three, and five years after graduation by sex, higher education institution, and for 23 subjects combined with information on earnings for those who do not attend university will greatly enhance a student’s ability to make informed decisions about whether to attend university, what to study, and where to study it. Although a huge advance in informing student decision-making these data still do not allow the student to answer the most pertinent question, that is, ‘what can a student like me expect to earn taking this subject at this university?’ nor do they allow for full accountability because they do not control earnings for differences in the pre-university achievement nor the school backgrounds from which they came. In the jargon, the data do not measure ‘value added’ or ‘contextualized value added’. But an attempt to do so is made by reporting for each university a rough estimate of the average attainment of students prior to commencing studies and an indicator of disadvantage of the area from which students came. In principle, students now have information that will allow them to make better economic choices.

For most graduates there is a return to higher education in Britain although higher education is not a guarantee of higher earnings for all graduates. The evidence supports the conclusion reached by Britton and colleagues: ‘there is no doubt that a degree offers a pathway to relatively high earnings for a large subset of graduates, from across a range of institutions’, that is, for most students going to university in Britain it is a wise investment.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published article in the Political Quarterly.

About the Author

Dennis A. Ahlburg is a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Trinity University. He served as the 18th president of Trinity University and served from January 2010 until January 2015.



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 wider electoral advantages of the Green Party’s opposition to fracking

One of the ways the Greens set themselves apart from others is by claiming to be the only mainstream political party to oppose fracking. While this opposition is sincere, the party’s anti-fracking rhetoric shows that there are also pragmatic considerations at work, explains Ashley Dodsworth.

The Green Party is sincere in its opposition to fracking. But that opposition, and their subsequent rhetoric, has been carefully framed to help achieve the party’s electoral goals. This examination of the party’s statements on fracking reveals how, through the rhetorical tropes of antithesis, logos, and ethos, the Greens use these arguments to distinguish themselves in a crowded political landscape, emphasise their unique character, and appeal to both their base and new voters through linking environmental concerns with concerns surrounding social justice.

The first clear theme that can be identified with the Green’s rhetoric is that of differentiation through antithesis, with the Greens using their opposition to fracking as a point of contrast with other political parties. They state that ‘the Green Party is the only mainstream political party fighting to stop fracking’ and that they are ‘the only party calling for an outright ban on fracking for shale gas’. This enables the Greens to advertise their distinctiveness, which is particularly important as Labour’s move to the left under Jeremy Corbyn has negated many of their previous selling points.

Their explanation of why they oppose fracking is also framed around the rhetorical technique of ‘logos’, of logic and reasoning. This enables the Greens to demonstrate that they are scientifically and economically responsible and so combat stereotypes of the party. Yasminah Beebeejaun notes that ‘opponents of fracking are often derided as scaremongers standing in the way of progress’ and this perception is seen in the British debate over fracking – as in Bernard Ingham’s clam that those who oppose fracking ‘wish us all to live in their yurts, tepees and wigwams’. Through their rhetoric, the Green Party aims to reverse this framing. Caroline Lucas, for example, has described the Conservative support for fracking as an ‘irrational obsession’ which is ‘driven by ideology not evidence’, and Natalie Bennett argued that the government had a ‘dangerous fracking fantasy’. This is contrasted with the Green Party’s competence and evidence-based approach. Opposing fracking therefore enables the Greens to distinguish themselves from other political parties and emphasise that this difference is due to their rationality and knowledge.

The second key theme within the Greens opposition to fracking is that of ethos. In discussing why and how they have opposed fracking, the Green Party stresses again and again both their own character and that this reflects the character of the country as a whole. Fracking provides the Greens with a unique opportunity to demonstrate their ethos as several Green councillors and their only MP have been arrested for protesting fracking. (Caroline Lucas was arrested in Balcombe in 2013 and councillor Gina Dowding was arrested at a protest in Lancashire in 2017.)

The references to these arrests highlight the principles involved, e.g. ‘[Lucas] was standing up for her principles’. This is also said to be shared throughout the party and their other candidates: ‘Caroline shows what voting Green delivers: passion, sensitivity and courage’, so the electorate should vote for Green candidates as they will share these qualities. The Greens also state that this ethos is shared by the electorate, presenting opposition to fracking and the choice of protest as a bond, for ‘there is a proud tradition of non-violent action in this country’, and it is ‘the will of the English people not to have fracking’. The shared ethos displayed by opposition to fracking is therefore grounds to identify with, and vote for, the Green Party.

The third and final theme within the Greens rhetoric on fracking is that of unification, specifically the joining together of environmental and social justice concerns in order to appeal to both their base and new voters. If the Greens do not speak to non-environmental issues then they risk being seen as a single issue party and limiting their appeal to the wider electorate, but doing so risks alienating their core voters. This was highlighted in the campaign for the 2015 general election when some members criticised Bennet for being ‘too concerned about moving to the centre-ground to appeal to voters’, and Lucas responded that the party was ‘damned if they do; damned if they don’t’.

Fracking provides a way to square this circle by uniting concerns over climate change, environmental quality, economics, and good government. So the Greens refer to ‘climate-destroying fracking’, as well as to the increased traffic in fracking areas and its failure to reduce energy bills. This approach is typified by Lucas’ claim that ‘not only does fracking fly in the face of climate science but mounting evidence suggests it won’t lower bills’. The fracking industry is also said to be focused on personal profit not the common good, ‘put[ting] an energy company’s profits over the wishes of a community’ and the Greens also tie the implementation of fracking to concerns for democratic government: ‘the government’s plan to fast track fracking is shocking but not surprising as we all know the Tories are in bed with the fracking industry’. Opposing fracking means that the Greens can oppose environmental damage and climate change as well increased energy bills and perceived bad governmental practice, thereby delivering to their base whilst pitching to a wider audience.

In their review of the party’s performance in the 2017 General Election, Carter and Farstad noted that ‘with Corbyn ascendant and Brexit likely to dominate the political agenda for some time… the Greens will struggle to improve their electoral prospects. Their best hope may be if the environment ascends the political agenda’. In contrast to Carter and Farstad I argue that the Greens rhetoric on fracking provides a means for them to link environmental concerns with the wider political agenda, and position themselves as the party best able to address these issues. The success of this strategy will be crucial in determining the party’s ability to navigate the political landscape of 2018.


Note: The above draws on the author’s work published in Voices of the UK Left. The author holds an elected position within Bristol Green Party, however all views expressed here are the views of the author and are not representative of the Green Party.

About the Author

Ashley Dodsworth is Senior Teaching Associate in Politics at the University of Bristol.




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: Public Domain Files.


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