Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

Is Theresa May a Thatcherite? Beneath the superficial similarities, there are important contrasts

Many comparisons have been drawn between Britain’s two female prime ministers, but Graham Goodlad explains that they governed in completely different contexts, even if their styles shared similar elements. In answering whether Theresa May is Thatcher’s ideological heir, he goes beyond the superficial similarities and considers their social, economic, and foreign policies.

Britain’s first two female prime ministers shared a number of superficial similarities beyond their gender: both were hard-working, serious individuals from modest, aspirational backgrounds. Both possessed autocratic temperaments. Nonetheless we need to beware of drawing over-simplistic parallels. May herself once warned against ‘lazy’ comparisons with her predecessor.

In comparing the two leaders, we need to remember the very different contexts in which they operated. The 1970s and 1980s had a very different feel from the second decade of the 21st century. Modern political culture is much more fluid, more cosmopolitan and globalised. Theresa May became Prime Minister following her predecessor’s unexpected resignation and the implosion of her main leadership rivals, at a time of acute national and party divisions. The issues facing Thatcher when she won the 1979 election were very different, and leaving Europe was not on the agenda.

The political fortunes of the two prime ministers have also been sharply divergent. Thatcher won three decisive majorities and was weakened only near the end of her long premiership, whereas May now struggles with her government’s minority status as well as the unprecedented complexity of Brexit.

Both premiers could be ruthless in their treatment of Cabinet colleagues, as shown in the signals given by the sackings of Francis Pym (1983) and George Osborne (2016). Thatcher and May have followed the post-1945 tendency to take key decisions in Cabinet committees and have governed with a core of trusted senior colleagues – Damian Green and David Lidington have been likened at different times to Willie Whitelaw.

Both prime ministers have been accused of depending on unelected advisers: Thatcher’s fateful reliance on Professor Alan Walters bears comparison with May’s association with her unpopular joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, before the 2017 election. Both leaders have had to manage contending Cabinet factions, although Thatcher became more independent with the passing of time. May still has to balance Remainers and Brexiteers, and powerful colleagues have more opportunity to constrain her freedom of action.

So, is Theresa May a ‘Thatcherite’? We will briefly examine three areas – social, economic and foreign policy – in assessing how far May is truly Thatcher’s ideological heir.

May, Thatcher, and society

May’s well-known 2002 ‘nasty party’ speech, as Conservative chairman, was a way of distancing the party from the politically toxic memory of social division under Thatcherism. She was socially progressive enough to accept same-sex marriage – a far cry from Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. May has also been more active in promoting women’s interests, supporting the adoption of female Conservative parliamentary candidates through the pressure group Women2win, in a way that Thatcher never did. While Thatcher notoriously appointed just one woman to her Cabinet, four full members of May’s Cabinet are female and until April 2018 the Home Office was held by a fifth woman, Amber Rudd.

Economic policies

Thatcher emphasised the moral value of the free market and of personal independence in a way that May has not done. She has spoken of making Britain ‘a country that works not for a privileged few but for every single one of us’. The 2017 Conservative manifesto condemned, in a wholly un-Thatcherite phrase, what it termed ‘the cult of selfish individualism’. True, she has defended capitalist values against Labour Party criticism. In January 2018 she struck a Thatcherite tone when Jeremy Corbyn tried to use the collapse of construction and outsourcing firm Carillion to make a wider political point, responding that ‘what Labour oppose isn’t just a role for private companies in public services, but the private sector as a whole.’

Yet May’s philosophy is unquestionably more interventionist than Thatcher’s. At the 2016 party conference, she stated that ‘where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene’ and reminded her audience of ‘the good that government can do’. Her 2017 manifesto proposed an energy price cap which was strikingly similar to Ed Miliband’s policy two years earlier, denounced at the time by the Conservatives as an example of misguided socialist interference in the market.

The wider world

The coincidence of having, from January 2017, two right of centre leaders in London and Washington, one female, the other male, prompted simplistic parallels with the Thatcher/Reagan relationship. In practice, however, May and Donald Trump have not recreated the personal chemistry of their predecessors. Trump’s unpredictability, his tendency to comment on the internal affairs of allies, and his isolationist and protectionist instincts are obstacles to a close transatlantic alliance. The postponement of Trump’s visit to the UK until July 2018 was another indicator of a weakened relationship.

Finally, how are we to assess Thatcher and May in relation to Europe? We cannot know which side Thatcher would have taken on the 2016 referendum. In her final book, Statecraft, she argued that Britain should contemplate leaving the EU if it could not obtain better terms for its membership. Yet this was written deep into her retirement. Charles Powell, her closest foreign policy adviser, insisted that had she been in charge, she would have done as Cameron did – seek a renegotiation and then campaign to remain. This was essentially May’s position at the time of the referendum. There has been continuity in their broad approach: trying pragmatically to protect British interests, whilst criticising the alleged growth of an EU ‘super-state’.


Beneath the superficial similarities there are important contrasts between the two leaders. Thatcher was not as inflexibly ideological as some have portrayed her, but she certainly had divergent social attitudes and political priorities from May. This can partly be attributed to generational differences. Nor has May aroused the extremes of adoration and loathing associated with Thatcher. Although Thatcher was harshly caricatured, she was almost always depicted as a dominant figure, quite unlike the hapless ‘Maybot’. In politics, it is much harder to survive people’s scorn than their hatred.


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

About the Author

Dr Graham Goodlad is Head of Politics at St John’s College, Southsea, and author of ‘Thatcher’, published by Routledge in 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: Portrait of Theresa May shared under an Open Government Licence v3.0; Portrait of Margaret Thatcher shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Book Review: The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest

In The Circulation of Anti-Austerity ProtestBart Cammaerts examines how protest circulates in society, drawing on an investigation into the UK anti-austerity movement following the 2008 financial crisis. Proposing the ‘circuit of protest’ as a novel theoretical framework, this engaging and informative book offers rich insights into how social movements engage with communication technologies and processes, finds Sabrina Wilkinson.  

The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest. Bart Cammaerts. Palgrave Macmillan. 2018.

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From the rise of left-wing politician Jeremy Corbyn to strikes in the higher education sector, there is no shortage of figures or events in recent news emblematic of a resistance to austerity measures in the United Kingdom. Members of the British public have pushed back against deep cuts to public spending, whether this is at the ballot box, on the picket line or – as is the empirical focus of Bart Cammaerts’s meticulously researched book, The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest – in grassroots social movements. At the heart of these protests against austerity, Cammaerts suggests, are two core discourses: a renewed politics of redistribution and ‘real democracy’. To that second notion, he writes: ‘democracy, as it functions today, is viewed more and more as a broken system, controlled by an unrepresentative and distant elite […] not acting ‘‘in accordance with the views of the citizens’’’ (50).

Drawing on an investigation into the UK anti-austerity movement after the 2008 financial crisis, Cammaerts’s aim is to develop a greater understanding of how protest circulates in society, and the implications of this process. To do so, Cammaerts relies on a novel theoretical framework termed the ‘circuit of protest’, which involves four instances where media and communication technologies are incorporated into social movements. These moments are: the production of movement frames, discourses and collective identity; the movement’s internal and external communicative practices; mainstream media representations of the movement; and the reception of the movement’s discourses and frames by non-activist citizens.

Relying on methods including surveys, content analysis, focus groups and in-depth interviews, The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest walks the reader through an application of the circuit of protest to the involvement of several key groups in the UK anti-austerity movement: namely, UK Uncut; the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts; and the Occupy London Stock Exchange. Cammaerts’s findings relate to each moment within the framework as well as to what he terms the mediation opportunity structure: ‘the power dimension at the level of the production, circulation and reception of meaning’ (30).

Image Credit: Occupy London Stock Exchange Protest, 2011 (Valters Krontals CC BY 2.0)

It is through this framework that Cammaerts reveals some of his most salient empirical findings in all four ‘moments’ of the circuit of protest framework. During the ‘moment’ of the production of anti-austerity movement frames, the author outlines the ways that activists framed the protests as pure common sense and, accordingly, without an ideology. With regard to the movement’s internal and external communicative practices, Cammaerts highlights the many contradictions between social movements’ reliance on mainstream media and technologies to achieve their aims and their resistance to many of the practices promoted by these platforms, such as digital exploitation. Within mainstream representations of the anti-austerity protests in the UK, the author points out, amongst other things, the disparate representations of ‘civic’ student protestors and those who are disruptive, corrupted and sometimes violent. With respect to the reception of the anti-austerity protests’ discourses and frames by non-activist citizens in the UK, Cammaerts finds both that the movement resonated with the public in a variety of often contradictory ways and also that it evoked ‘a deep sense of frustration and powerlessness […] by many citizens’ (177).

Broadly, Cammaerts’s insights are compelling because they shine a light on the many tensions between the ways that activists use traditional and contemporary media to promote their cause against the challenges posed by corporate and state repression. As scholars in the discipline of media studies have long pointed out, communication processes are not homogenous activities but ones fraught with tensions between various powers, albeit unequal ones. Cammaerts also highlights the extent to which neoliberal forces are in some ways left unaddressed by the anti-austerity movement. The author finds that by abstaining from identifying an ideological position, the social movement operated within the neoliberal framework rather than against it: ‘mere political momentum, which clearly was present in the post-2008 period, is not enough to break a movement or denaturalize the hegemony of neoliberalism’ (168).

Although Cammaerts’s empirical findings are thorough and engaging, it is his theoretical contribution to the study of protest that makes this work stand on its own. In an area of research such as social movement studies where the insights provided by the examination of media studies have often been placed at the periphery (5), Cammaerts offers a coherent framework that others may apply to investigate the role of communication processes and technologies in a variety of other political struggles. With the increased connectivity provided through networked technologies in nearly all aspects of social and political life, theoretical frameworks that position these tools as a central element of study, rather than an afterthought, are critical. As the author writes, ‘contentious actions are […] not only fought on the street, but also in the public sphere, in the mainstream media, and online as well as offline’ (5).

While beyond the scope of Cammaerts’s endeavour here, further research may do well to examine the implications of contemporary media and communications policy at various moments in the circuit of protest. For instance, it may be useful for future studies to incorporate questions such as: what do media and communications policies mean for how activists engage in communications within and surrounding social movements? And what are the implications of the type of technologies audiences use to consume information and news about protests? Individuals who rely on a public broadcaster and have limited access to broadband internet and cable networks due to prohibitively high prices, for example, would surely have different media consumption habits than they would if these technologies were regulated to make them affordable to the widest available public.

Recognising the importance of media and communications policy that is actually in the public interest reminds this reviewer of the very example that Cammaerts uses to begin his exploration into anti-austerity protest group, UK Uncut: the settlement made between mobile operator Vodafone and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Office (HMRC) that was revealed to have cut the provider’s tax bill from £6 to £1.3 billion. While Cammaerts’s illustration is an issue of taxes rather than consumer prices, this instance is at least emblematic of the often too-close relationships held between powerful communications organisations and governments.

In sum, The Circulation of Anti-Austerity Protest is an engaging and readable contribution to the field of media and communications and to social movement studies. It offers rich empirical insights into how various groups involved in anti-austerity protests in the UK—ranging from activists to audiences—use communication technologies as well as a theoretical framework that others can apply to the study of social movements, organised for this end or any other. Accordingly, this book will surely be an informative read for students and researchers interested in these disciplines, as well as activists and media practitioners.


Note: The above was originally published on LSE Review of Books.

About the Reviewer

Sabrina Wilkinson is a doctoral researcher in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her dissertation focuses on the politics of internet policy in Canada. She is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Read more by Sabrina Wilkinson.


Happiness is more a cause than a consequence of career success

No Deal, No Trucks? What a No-Deal Brexit will mean for road transport

What a No-Deal Brexit will mean for road transport? Dmitry Grozoubinski explains that come March 30th 2019, UK firms may not be able to transport goods between European Union countries. This means that many British lorry drivers will not be able to work in the EU, and many UK firms will urgently need to become permanently established somewhere in the EU to operate across Europe. This, in turn, will have a knock-on effect on the many UK businesses which rely on road transport for their supply chains, and those who supply businesses who do so.

UK registered vehicles moved 7.8 million tonnes of goods into and out of the United Kingdom in 2016. Unless something changes between now and March 29, the EU will cease treating UK logistics firms, transport professionals and drivers as EU Members. This could disrupt their operations and that of businesses which rely on smooth road transport between the UK and the European Union. What we know about the planned changes comes from the EU Commission’s Article 50 Preparedness Notices. Unless a deal is reached or the EU issues new notices, these are the rules the EU has formally advised it will apply.

Image by Glen Wallace, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

What are some of the major changes?

UK firms may not be able to transport goods between European Union countries. To provide cargo road transport services between European Union countries or entirely within one European Union country, a firm requires a ‘Community Licence’ issued by an EU Member State. On Brexit Day 1, Community Licences issued by the United Kingdom will not be accepted by the EU. Moreover, Community Licences are issued only to firms registered in the country issuing the licence, so UK firms may not be able to obtain a new licence unless they re-establish within the EU-27. There is a system of permits which allows a limited amount of truck drivers from certain countries without a Community Licence to enter the EU every year. For the UK, that limit is 1,224 permits annually. For reference, 500 trucks cross into the EU from the UK daily.

Those with only UK Certificates of Professional Competence will not be able to work in the EU. To work as a driver, road transport operator or transport manager, in the European Union an employee needs a Certificate of Professional Competence. On Brexit Day 1, the EU will no longer accept Certificates of Professional Competence issued by the United Kingdom’s Department of Transport or anyone it authorises to issue such a certificate. If a worker is employed in one of the above professions and has a Certificate of Professional Competence only from the UK, they will not be able to work in the EU.

All UK drivers in the EU will need driver attestations from the EU Member their firm is based in. If an EU firm employs drivers who are not EU permanent residents, they have to apply for and receive a ‘Driver Attestation’ from the EU country their firm is registered in. On Brexit Day 1, drivers living in the United Kingdom will require such attestations, and the United Kingdom will not be authorised to issue them. Without such an attestation, a driver will not be able to work in the EU.

UK firms will need a ‘Permanent Establishment’ within the EU to operate. To operate a freight business in the EU, a firm needs to have a ‘Permanent Establishment’ in an EU Member State. On Brexit Day 1, freight and logistics firms whose ‘Permanent Establishment’ is in the UK will not be allowed to deliver goods within the EU.

Why are these changes happening?

If Brexit occurs with no deal or bridging arrangements in place, the EU will begin treating the United Kingdom in the exact same manner as it does a World Trade Organization Member with which it has no additional agreements in place whatsoever. The requirements described above are those the EU applies to drivers and firms from such Members.

Will the EU really go through with enforcing these rules? That’s difficult to predict. The Preparatory Notices are official documents and the EU has not formally indicated it plans to unilaterally back away from their contents. Even a temporary decision by the EU not to actively enforce these measures would not necessarily solve the problem. A driver operating in contravention of EU licensing rules, for example, would potentially be voiding their vehicles insurance, even if the EU itself is not actively enforcing the rules. Most logistics firms will hesitate before allowing an uninsured truck on the road.

Could a deal still be reached to avoid this scenario? A deal covering the entire UK-EU trade relationship or a smaller agreement specifically on aspects of the above could still be forged in time for Brexit. However, market access for road transport is a highly sensitive area for the European Union and so the possibility of Brexit occurring without a fix in place must be taken seriously.

What can business do to prepare?

Whether you are in the road transport sector or rely on its smooth operation for your business, it’s worth familiarising yourself closely with the Preparatory Notice. A number of the certifications which may be required post-Brexit take time to acquire and should all this transpire, a flood of applications could overwhelm relevant authorities. Consider whether taking steps now is a good investment. Beyond that, carefully consider the resilience of your business to short-term disruption in the road transport sector.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Dmitry Grozoubinski is a former Australian trade negotiator, including at the World Trade Organization, working at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. He explains trade accessibly at

Diasporas as a force in foreign affairs: the case of Tamils in Britain and Canada

A number of factors impact whether or not diasporas influence host country foreign policy, writes Matthew Godwin. He looks at two major decisions facing Canada and the UK toward Sri Lanka, and explains how pressure from the Tamil diaspora affected how each government decided to respond to events.

Countries in the West have long welcomed immigrants from all over the world. In Canada, as many as half of the residents in the country’s largest city, Toronto were not born in Canada. In the United Kingdom, one in seven British residents were born abroad. As newcomers arrive, many organise into diaspora communities, setting up organisations which support the continuation of “homeland” cultural or athletic practices, offer settlement and integration services, and advocate for the rights of newcomers to government officials.

Along with the creation of service-oriented organisations, many diasporas have created interest groups advocating for issues facing their homeland. This is especially true for those fleeing conflict and communities seeking to establish a national homeland. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Vietnamese immigrants advocated for political prisoners in Vietnam while the Jewish diaspora did the same for Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union. In Canada and the UK, the Sikh diaspora has sought to enhance support within its host country governments for the creation of a national homeland for Sikhs. In Germany, the country’s large Turkish diaspora includes many Kurds who seek the establishment of a Kurdish homeland.

How successful have these groups been in influencing host country government policy towards such issues? Given American influence abroad, its large diaspora communities, and pluralistic system, it’s not surprising that this question has been on the minds of American foreign policymakers for many years. In parliamentary democracies like the UK and Canada, there has been much less research undertaken on this question. Through an analysis of the efforts of Tamil diaspora interest groups in both countries, I set out to uncover whether they’ve influenced policymaking toward Sri Lanka.

My research looked at two major decisions facing Canadian and British governments toward Sri Lanka: how to respond to the dramatic final stages of the country’s 26-year-old civil war in 2009; and whether or not their respective Prime Ministers should attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. What the evidence shows is that Tamil diaspora interest groups did indeed influence foreign policy outcomes in these cases.

In the face of a humanitarian disaster in 2009, Tamil diaspora interest groups in both countries vigorously pressured the two governments to use any means available to force the Sri Lankan government to end hostilities against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Such groups were more influential in impacting the UK’s response than Tamil groups in Canada for three key reasons.

Firstly, the governing Labour party in the UK viewed the Tamil diaspora as politically salient. Tamils are concentrated in a number of important London-area constituencies and, only a year before the 2010 general election, Labour desperately needed to hang onto these constituencies. The Tamil diaspora in Canada is similarly concentrated in Toronto, but the Tory government in 2009 did not view Tamils as political salient – they were viewed as traditionally supportive of the Liberal Party and not likely to switch to the Conservatives.

Secondly, both Tamil diasporas engaged in contentious action through continuous, massive protests in major cities. The demonstrations in London were some of the largest in history, involving hunger strikers and altercations with police. Similar scenes were witnessed in Canada, but the effect was very different. In the UK, Tamil diaspora interest groups representing the protesters retained a measure of control over the protests, including liaising with law enforcement. Additionally, Labour party ‘inside advocates’ in the form of MPs sympathetic to the Tamil cause interfaced with Cabinet members to leverage the power of the protests. In Canada, the Harper government was at no point moved by demonstrations and increasingly viewed them as hostile and illegitimate. The use of LTTE flags by protesters, which was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2006, further reduced Harper government sympathies.

Finally, efforts prior to 2009 by British Tamil diaspora elites to build inroads with the governing Labour Party led to readily available channels of access, unlike in Canada where the diaspora has failed to do the same with governing Tories, who still viewed the Tamil groups as suspect.

The story was very different in 2013. Facing the decision to boycott the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka over the government’s human rights record, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to stay away, sending a low-level delegation instead. His British counterpart and fellow Conservative, David Cameron chose to attend.

So what had changed since 2009? Firstly, after the 2011 Canadian general election, the Tamil diaspora became a much more strategic constituency for the Tories than they had been in 2009. Secondly, the Tamil community largely abandoned its contentious tactics in favour of developing a more sophisticated approach of building trusted channels of access through which to engage Conservative policymakers. In the UK, despite the Tamil diaspora having its own channels of access, Cameron chose to attend the summit. The UK’s dominant role in the Commonwealth institution and the confirmed attendance of the Prince of Wales ensured Cameron’s presence at the summit – and no amount of pressure could be applied by the diaspora to alter this outcome. However, diaspora elites were able to negotiate Cameron’s visit to include a visit to Tamil-dominated regions, a public remonstration of the Sri Lankan government, and other concessions aimed at embarrassing the latter.

A number of factors, including strategies employed by interest groups and the role states play in international institutions, impact whether or not diasporas influence host country foreign policy. As pluralist democracies, countries like Canada and the UK should expect the involvement of diasporas in the foreign policymaking process and, where possible, engage these interest groups to enhance knowledge of and networks in homeland countries. Engaging diaspora organisations constructively can enhance the UK’s role as a peacemaker in conflicts abroad and encourage the inclusion of diverse communities in British public life – making politics more reflective of the country’s growing diversity.


About the Author

Matthew Godwin holds degrees from UCL, SOAS, the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University. He has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Canadian Parliamentary Review and elsewhere. Having worked previously in the Canadian and UK parliaments, as well as in a technology start-up, Matthew now pursues his interest in Middle East politics at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and continues research on inclusive growth, diasporas and migration.


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).


A second referendum is clearly possible

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000Meg.Russell.000 (1)Two years on from the Brexit vote, the benefits of a second referendum are being hotly debated. In this post, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell (Constitution Unit) identify seven questions that should be considered before parliament decides whether a second Brexit referendum will take place.

A recent Sky poll suggested that 50% of the public would favour a three-way referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. This follows calls from key figures including Justine GreeningDominic Grieve, and Tony Blair, as well as a campaign launched by The Independent for the public to be allowed a vote on the final deal. Number 10 has categorically rejected these calls, stating that there will be no further referendum on Brexit ‘in any circumstances’. Nonetheless, talk of a second referendum is likely to continue. Whether you are a supporter or an opponent of that proposal, there are some big important questions about the practicalities of such a referendum that need to be explored. This post sets out some of the most crucial questions.

1. Would it be possible to hold a referendum in the time available?

To hold a referendum in the UK, parliament must first pass primary legislation, which clearly takes time. To complicate matters, during the bill’s passage through parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. There are then other key steps after the bill has received royal assent. The Electoral Commission and the local authorities that must run the poll need sufficient time to prepare. Campaigners on both sides must be designated, and the current legislative framework – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) – sets out a ten-week regulated campaign period.

The time taken to go through these steps in actual referendums has varied. The legislation for the 2016 EU referendum was introduced 13 months before polling day. For the 2011 AV referendum, this was nine and a half months, with only 11 weeks between royal assent and the poll. If the UK is to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 (exit day), such long timescales clearly are not feasible. A big question is therefore, in the current exceptional circumstances, whether the time needed for each step can be compressed – and if so, by how much and with what consequences? For a new referendum to have public legitimacy, these are crucial questions demanding careful answers.

2. Is extending Article 50 feasible?

Even if the timetable can be compressed, it seems likely that the UK would need to request an extension of the two-year Article 50 window to enable a referendum to take place. To postpone exit day beyond 29 March 2019, all of the other 27 EU member states would need to agree to such an extension. Reports have suggested that this is likely to be possible if the reason for extension were to hold a referendum, but this would not be without its difficulties.

One obvious problem is that European Parliament elections are due to take place at the end of May 2019. If the UK were still a member at this point, a question would quickly arise regarding what should happen to its seats in the Parliament. Either the terms of existing MEPs would need to be extended, the UK would need to temporarily be a member without seats, or the UK would need to hold fresh elections. None of these would be legally straightforward, and new elections could become a kind of ‘proxy referendum’, used by voters to express an opinion on Brexit.

There are also potential problems surrounding the EU budget that would need to be considered if Article 50 were to be extended. These issues would be pivotal for whether the EU was willing to do so, and if so for how long.

3. How could a referendum be triggered?

If a second referendum became government policy, the government would introduce a bill to enable it to happen. This would be passed provided a majority in parliament was in favour.

The potential also exists to trigger a referendum against the government’s wishes. Parliament will vote at least twice on the withdrawal deal: on the ‘meaningful vote’ motion to approve the deal and future framework; and on the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, which will give the deal effect. If there was sufficient support amongst MPs for a second referendum, amendments requiring one could be added at either of these points. It is unlikely that all of the necessary legal framework could be set out adequately in a backbench amendment, so the government would then need to table its own extensive amendments or bring forward additional referendum legislation.

The questions here are deeply political. Are there any circumstances in which the government might drop its opposition to a referendum? In what circumstances might a House of Commons majority support one? What kind of referendum might win approval? Above all, this leads on to the next question, on what the options in the referendum could be.

4. What might the options be?

A key point emphasised by the Independent Commission on Referendums, which reported last month, was the importance of having clear, well-developed options in referendums.

In the case of a second Brexit referendum three options look most likely as candidates to be put to the voters: the deal the government has negotiated; leaving the EU without a deal; or remaining in the EU.

It would be possible to achieve clarity on the withdrawal deal – if one can be reached. But voters are likely to want clarity on the UK’s future relationship with the EU as well, and this may remain very undeveloped. For a ‘Remain’ option to be clear, assurances from the EU that the UK could remain on the same terms as before would be needed. The biggest question is who would be responsible for outlining what would happen should the electorate vote for a ‘no deal’ option. The Independent Commission recommended that the government should set out detailed proposals for any poll, as it will be responsible for implementing them – but in this case some might doubt the government’s good faith in doing so. There is arguably a fourth option of reopening negotiations, but this is likely to be too vague to be acceptable.

5. What form should the question take?

Various proposals have been made for the nature of the question put to voters in the event of a second referendum. One option would be to hold a simple Yes/No referendum asking voters whether they accept the government’s deal. However, voters who felt the deal was ‘too hard’ and those who thought it ‘too soft’ would both vote No; consequently if voters rejected the deal, it would be very unclear what should happen next.

Alternatively, a binary referendum between any combination of two of the three proposed options could be held. While voters might benefit from a familiar referendum format, excluding any of the options could be politically difficult, or be perceived as an attempt to manipulate the process.

Recently, Justine Greening proposed a three-option referendum. This may allow voters to express their preferences more clearly, but there are further issues to consider, notably the voting system. Using First Past the Post would risk an inconclusive result; a preferential voting system, as Greening proposed, would solve this problem but could also create anomalies of its own.

Another option that has been suggested by Dominic Grieve and Vernon Bogdanor is to hold a two-question referendum. These questions could be asked at the same time, as in the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum, or asked separately, with a period of time in between. Grieve and Bogdanor propose different orderings and combinations of options. Again, potential difficulties need to be considered: any such proposal could make it difficult for voters to express their true preferences, and could encourage ‘gaming’.

There may be no perfect approach that would allow all voters to express their preferences and guarantee an unambiguous result. The advantages and disadvantages of each approach need to be carefully considered and weighed up.

6. What should the legislation contain?

As well as setting out the question, the legislation enabling a new referendum would also need to specify the franchise and any amendments or improvements to the regulatory framework.

Many proponents of a second referendum advocate extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. But doing so would raise questions of legitimacy: if the result of the first referendum were reversed because the franchise had been changed for the second referendum, that would hardly be likely to command respect among Leave supporters. Registering these new voters would also take time.

The last referendum raised serious concerns about the UK’s current regulatory framework for referendums – particularly relating to the role of government in the campaign and the weakness of the rules on digital campaigning. The Independent Commission on Referendums made detailed recommendations regarding what needs to change. Consideration would need to be given as to which such changes were feasible in the time available.

7. What are the alternatives?

Holding a second referendum on Brexit would be fraught with difficulties and added complexities. But other paths to concluding the Brexit process entail very big challenges of their own. The numbers in the House of Commons are so finely balanced that it is possible that parliamentary deadlock could be reached. This is worsened by the fact that if parliament makes the final decisions – no matter what option it endorses – it may well face accusations that it has disregarded public opinion. Public support for a particular outcome could be sought through a general election rather than a referendum, but that would also be fraught with difficulties. Hence there is no easy way out of the current situation, and even if a referendum is difficult, it may ultimately be reached for as a solution.

Despite the current positions of both the government and the official opposition, a second referendum is clearly possible. It is therefore imperative that the questions raised here are explored in detail.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at the Constitution Unit blog.

Jess Sargeant is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit. 

Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit. 

Why has the populist radical right outperformed the populist radical left in Europe?

Valerio Alfonso Bruno and James F. Downes draw on recent election data to show the extent to which the radical right has tended to outperform the radical left since the late-2000s financial crisis. They argue that the radical right has been able to offer a clearer message on key issues such as immigration which has translated into greater electoral success.

Twenty-first century European politics has been characterised by patterns of electoral volatility, alongside the recent economic and ongoing refugee crisis. This has allowed ‘populist’ parties on both the right and left to capitalise on the electoral failure of mainstream centre left and right parties.

There has been a considerable amount of research on the recent rise of populist radical right and populist radical left parties. A number of studies have shown that these parties have shaken up the political landscape in contemporary European politics during times of economic and political crisis. But surprisingly few studies have examined the electoral fortunes of radical right and left parties together.

Electoral gains

The figure below demonstrates that in the last two national parliamentary elections that fall across the recent refugee crisis period, the radical right made the largest electoral gains in EU countries. Mainstream centre left parties suffered the largest losses, underlining the electoral downfall of this party family in the post-economic crisis period and wider anti-incumbency effects. Radical left parties performed well electorally, but their electoral gains were considerably lower than those of radical right parties.

Figure: Percentage vote share change for different types of political parties (last two national parliamentary elections amongst the EU28)

Source: Authors’ own dataset (Downes, 2018)

The radical right has made considerable use of the refugee crisis to build its support. Two of the most striking examples are the 2017 Austrian legislative election which ultimately saw the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) entering into coalition with the centre right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), and the 2018 Italian legislative election, which saw the radical right League enter into a coalition with the Five Star Movement.

Those radical left parties which have made gains in recent national parliamentary elections include the Left Bloc (BE) in Portugal, which substantially increased its vote share in the 2015 Portuguese legislative election. Other parties, such as Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain, have achieved notable electoral success over the last decade. It is important to note however that this success is not uniform, with some parties faring less well electorally and others facing challenges maintaining their support.

The radical right’s winning formula

What factors can explain the electoral success of radical right parties in the post-economic crisis period? First, the party strategy of the radical right has tended to be simple and clear, with a focus on issues such as immigration and an attempt to link this directly to general discontent and dissatisfaction with the EU. Second, the radical right has a much broader voter base to target with this narrative than radical left parties have. Recent research has shown that radical right parties have the ability to attract traditional working-class voters away from centre left parties, primarily due to their effective use of the immigration issue.

The simplicity and clarity of the radical right message has been a key part of their success. Powerful images of nationhood have combined with fears over issues such as immigration to drive this support. Capitalising on popular fears has been shown by previous research to be a core element of the radical right narrative. And the ‘accessibility’ of this message is arguably one of the most important differences between the approach of the radical right and the radical left.

In contrast, the radical left remains to some extent a platform for abstract intellectual ideas. Such narratives are far more difficult to translate into the slogans and messages which have proven successful in the digital age of politics. The perceived inability of the radical left to form concrete policy responses to the global economic crisis has not helped their cause. The radical left has in many cases failed to weave together a clear and simple narrative on the economy which can rival the message of the radical right, while it has also been less willing to focus on the key issue of immigration which the radical right has used so effectively to attract support.

Radical right parties have ultimately been better placed to offer a clear ‘populist’ message on issues such as immigration and the EU, thereby capitalising on the disaffection of voters. But understanding the reasons why the radical right, as opposed to the radical left, has proven particularly adept at winning support will be of obvious importance for European politics in the coming years as the electoral power of populism is unlikely to disappear in the short-term.


Note: This article was originally published on LSE EUROPP and is is based on the authors’ working paper “The Electoral Success of the Radical Right in Europe (2013-2018): Why are the Radical Right better at “capitalizing” on ‘Populism’ than the Radical Left?”

About the Authors

Valerio Alfonso Bruno  holds a Ph.D. in “Institutions and Policies” from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (2017) and was doctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (2015).



James F. Downes is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is an Affiliated Visiting Research Fellow (Honorary) at the Europe Asia Policy Centre for Comparative Research. He is also a Data Advisor for the Local Democracy Dashboard project, based at the London School of Economics.


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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