Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

Britain can once again be the master of its own trading destiny

Wherever one stands on the question of Brexit, it undoubtedly presents opportunities, denied to Britain for almost half a century, to embrace its historic role as a global trading power. Britain can once again be the master of its own trading destiny, argues George Brandis QC (Australian High Commissioner).

A short distance from Australia House on the Strand, a commemorative plaque marks the location of the offices of the Anti-Corn Law League. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the great issue of 19th century politics. And, while it produced endless controversy in the Parliament and split the Tory Party, there are few today who would doubt that Britain made the right decision to throw off the chains of protectionism.

In fact, it is hard to think of a nation in history whose prosperity was more directly the product of free trade. For centuries, Britain was a land of merchant adventurers, for whom the oceans were highways of global commerce. Wherever one stands on the question of Brexit, it undoubtedly presents opportunities, denied to Britain for almost half a century, to once again embrace its historic role as a global trading power.

Australia, too, is a nation whose modern prosperity is the product of free trade. Trade between our two nations has diminished in the 45 years since Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community. Brexit gives Britain the opportunity to revive that trade – as it does with other like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific region: the engine of the 21st-century global economy.

Endeavour, Thomas Luny 1768. C00 Public Domain

When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, it was Australia’s most significant trading partner. Thereafter, we found ourselves shut off from your market. At first, our response was to keep high tariff walls around ourselves, as protection from international competition. It was a manifest failure. We made poorer products at a higher cost than we should have. By 1980, Australia’s GDP per capita ranking had fallen to 19th in the world – from 7th in 1950 and 2nd in 1913.

By the mid-1980s, our policymakers realized their mistake, and we began to gear our industrial and trade policy to respond to international competition, not industry protection. Far from killing our national economy, the removal of protectionism renovated it: new industries emerged. Old, inefficient and uncompetitive industries fell away.

There were costs resulting from economic reform: some people lost their jobs or struggled to adjust to work in the new services industries that emerged. But we implemented strong social security safety nets, industry transition programs, and a commitment to education and training to help people find new careers. As demands on our labour force grew, policies facilitating immigration and the further participation of women rose to meet them. By 2017, even after the waning of the mining boom, we had once again resumed our position among the most prosperous nations. We are now in our 28th consecutive year of annual economic growth.

Our embrace of free trade is undoubtedly key to that economic success. Six years ago just 26 per cent of Australia’s trade enjoyed preferential access into export markets under negotiated FTAs. Today, that stands close to 70 per cent and is set to keep rising. The hungry middle classes of Asia provide us with markets for our agricultural exports that we will forever struggle to satisfy – which, incidentally, puts paid to the notion that British markets would be swamped with Antipodean beef and lamb under a bilateral trade deal.

The UK has once again arrived at a point in which trade will play a pivotal role in its destiny. It is not for Australia to encourage one outcome over another in the Brexit debate. We will stand by the UK regardless; our ambition to build on our already robust relationship (economic and otherwise) remains undiminished. Nevertheless, for those who look for precedent in these unprecedented times, the Australian experience – that the outside world is not a threat, but an opportunity – is surely instructive.

When confronted by change, it can be comforting to seek to shield oneself from the outside world. This was the sentiment Australia fell victim to in the 1970s, and what shaped the attitude of those who resisted repeal of the Corn Laws in the 19th century. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

For the first time in almost half a century, Britain can once again be the master of its own trading destiny. It is an exciting opportunity – but only if it is bold enough to seize the day.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. An earlier version of this blog was published as an op-ed in The Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2019. 

The Hon George Brandis QC is Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He has had a distinguished political career in Australia as a member of the Federal Parliament. His appointments have included Attorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Leader of the Government in the Senate, Federal Minister for the Arts, and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate.

What will life be like in the Commons for the Independent Group?

On 18 February, seven Labour MPs resigned from the Party to sit as an independent group. Operating without the formal support of a parliamentary party they will face several institutional barriers to working effectively in the House of Commons, writes Louise Thompson.

The press conference with the seven breakaway Labour MPs focused overwhelmingly on their reasons for leaving the Party – Luciana Berger citing institutional anti-Semitism and Chris Leslie citing its hijacking by the hard left. The former Labour MPs are calling themselves the Independent Group, but have stopped short (for now) of creating a formal political party. There are still questions to be answered about how this band of very different Labour MPs will seek to work and function together (where will they sit in the chamber? Will they coordinate their voting behaviour?), but with no formal party affiliation, what we can be sure about is that their position in the House of Commons has substantially changed. Two key challenges facing these MPs are the reduced rights they will now have as independent MPs and the reduction in crucial parliamentary resources.

Rights in the Commons chamber

The House of Commons functions through its political parties. Everything from speaking rights to committee positions are allocated on the basis of party size, with the Official Opposition party holding a privileged position among other non-government parties. Labour MPs dominate the opposition contributions made in debates. As I wrote on this blog just a few months ago, smaller opposition parties and independents often find themselves in a much weaker position. Their size entitles them to fewer contributions and – perhaps most importantly – these contributions often come several hours into debates, where the clock is running down and very short time limits are introduced.  Whereas a Labour Party backbencher may be able to speak for eight minutes or more, a small party MP or independent may find this time reduced to two. Not only does this minimise the contribution possible, but it becomes difficult to set the tone of a debate or to influence its direction.

The same applies to things like committee memberships. Select committees and legislative bill committee memberships are also allocated in proportion to party size, so scrutinising forthcoming Brexit legislation in committees will fall largely to those who are members of political parties. Other former Labour MPs (John Woodcock and Frank Field) have retained select committee positions, but it is notably harder for small party and independent MPs to battle for places on legislative committees.  Without a whip sitting on the Committee of Selection, they have often relied on the SNP forfeiting a committee place of their own for them. For MPs in the Independent Group like Chris Leslie, who has been very active during parliamentary debates on Brexit, it could be incredibly frustrating to find that they have less of a voice in the chamber and in the legislative process.

Reduced parliamentary resources

All opposition parties are entitled to Short Money funding, designed to assist opposition parties in carrying out their parliamentary business. It’s available to all parties who have received either two House of Commons seats, or one seat plus 150,000 votes. In practice this money is used to support party staff – people who work for the party group as a whole rather than for individual MPs, providing vital policy research and information. Labour were entitled to £7.8 million of short money funding in 2018/19. The breakaway MPs will no longer be able to take advantage of this, and will be unable to receive Short Money funding themselves until they create a formal political party. The donations they are seeking may overcome some of this, though it’s not clear as yet how the donations sought will be used.

Being part of the Labour Party also brought additional parliamentary resources – in the form of weekly PLP meetings and the weekly Whip, informing MPs of forthcoming parliamentary business and showing how MPs should vote. Without it, MPs may struggle to be certain what they were voting on each day. Single party MPs like Caroline Lucas, or Douglas Carswell (in the previous Parliament) are forced to prioritise business, focusing only on the business or votes which really matter to their constituency or to their party. Ministerial statements and other important documents will be distributed in advance to the main opposition parties, but small parties and independents often lose out. Access to this information is now likely to disappear unless the Independent Group forges relationships with MPs from other parties. This is common practice already for the smaller opposition parties in the chamber. Caroline Lucas, for example, as the only Green MP, has previously relied on Plaid Cymru and the SNP group for information about parliamentary business. It will be interesting to see if the group forges alliances with other small parties – the Liberal Democrats for instance – to overcome this.

These are not the only parliamentary challenges facing the group as they seek to put distance between themselves and Corbyn’s Labour Party. But as they take their seats in the Commons as independent MPs, these are two of the most pressing. How they respond to their new position and overcome the parliamentary obstacles in front of them will be the key to their success.


About the Author

Louise Thompson (@louisevthompson) is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. She holds an ESRC Grant (ref ES/R005915/1) for research into small opposition parties in the UK Parliament.



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.

How Brexit affects Italy – and its Eurosceptical politicians

elisabeth alberHow will Brexit affect Italy’s businesses, its citizens and its political landscape? Elisabeth Alber (Eurac Research) explains that while the country now has an avowedly Eurosceptical government, Italians have mixed feelings towards the EU. It is unclear how many Italians have been living in the UK, but Italy’s hopes of attracting them back seem to have been fruitless.

Brexit will undoubtedly affect the EU’s Member States in different ways, but trying to quantify or even just schematise the impact it will have is immensely challenging. In a 2018 study, the European Committee of the Regions assessed the likely impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on regions and cities in the EU27. Some Italian regions figure among those EU regions that could be most affected by Brexit, especially in the sectors of machinery, textile and furniture (for example, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Marches).

giuseppe conte

Italian PM Giuseppe Conte at the European Parliament, February 2019. Photo: European Parliament via a CC-BY-4.0 licence: © European Union 20XY – Source: EP.

Italian businesses

The results of the study confirm what Italian businesspeople have said ever since the referendum: Brexit impacts the Italian (export) economy. With Brexit, Italy becomes the third biggest economy in the EU. However, given its political instability, this is only a theoretical promotion. Businesses are therefore looking for their own solutions to deal with the implications of Brexit.

Not only does Brexit impact Italy’s economy, it also creates uncertainty for the large number of Italian citizens living and working in the UK. According to the Italian embassy in London, many Italians are revising their plans to stay in the UK, or have already left. However, the desired reverse brain drain has not materialised, because the Italian labour market is not able to attract Italians leaving the UK. In general, it is difficult to estimate how many Italians live in the UK and to grasp what they intend to do. This because not all of them are registered as Italians residing abroad. By law, Italians residing abroad or intending to do so for a longer period are obliged to register, but not all of them do so, mainly so as not to lose basic rights in Italy.

The coalition government

While Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stresses the need for an orderly Brexit and acts as a mediator in the tense relationship between Italy and the EU, his two deputies, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, do not miss any chance to enter into open conflict with the EU. The populist coalition government, sworn in on 1 June 2018, aims at a drastic revision of Italy’s longstanding pro EU-policy and the underlying principles and frameworks of the EU’s set-up. Unlike preceding governments, the current government formed by the anti-establishment party Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle – M5S) and the right-wing party League (Lega) is anything but EU-friendly. Both deputy Prime Ministers, Luigi Di Maio (M5S) and Matteo Salvini (Lega) personally support referendums on fundamental questions about the EU, though they are not currently on the agenda. Back in 2016, neither leader hesitated to congratulate the UK’s political elites and electorate for being so courageous in, on the one hand, consulting the electorate over such an important question, and on the other starting the process of regaining sovereignty over the country’s own fate. In social media posts, they stressed that Euroscepticism had at last picked up steam, and that Italy should follow the UK’s example in using referendums for fundamental decision-making.

Academic and political analysts

Academics and political analysts barely addressed the question of whether direct democracy was the right remedy for political disenchantment – partly because the media failed to draw attention to the issue. They have mainly confined themselves to evaluating its implications for UK’s parliamentary sovereignty, and on Italy. The chance to start a debate on how to renew decision-making processes within the EU and its Member States was missing, in part because of the political turmoil that characterised Italy between 2016-2018 (constitutional referendum on 4 December 2016 – resignation of Matteo Renzi as Prime Minister – 64th Government under Paolo Gentiloni – general elections on 4 March 2018).

Public opinion

In most western EU Member States, the public reacted with incomprehension to Brexit. This was not the case in Italy. According to data from 2016, Italians showed understanding for the UK’s desire to withdraw from the EU (Poli 2016). Figures from the November 2018 Standard Eurobarometer 90 (European Commission 2018) confirm the mistrust of Italians for the EU, but do not reveal to what extent Italians support the coalition government’s narrative on the EU. In short, the level of trust and mistrust remains unchanged in comparison with the spring 2018 survey.

When asked what the EU should worry about most, Italians rank migration, unemployment and economy at the top, while nationally, Italians rank unemployment first, then migration and the economy. Interestingly, Romania and Italy are the only states where one in five respondents are against the principle of freedom of movement (overall, a large majority of EU citizens are in favour of it). Respondents in all EU Member States (strongly) support the use of the single currency (a new high since 2004!). In Italy, 63% support the euro. This is a rise of two percentage points compared to spring 2018. Asked whether they feel they are citizens of the EU, Italians are among the citizens with the lowest figures. Only 59% of the respondents answered positively.

A variety of contradictory narratives

The analysis of Italian narratives on Brexit and the EU shows that there is no clear answer to the question of how friendly or hostile to the EU Italian stakeholders are. At present, views and insights are subject to populist reflexes, and Brexit is discussed on the margins. In theory, the coalition’s Eurosceptical roadmap is already drawn up. In practice, the governing parties are running the gauntlet between their own political crises in Rome, and those with Brussels. A variety of contradictory narratives is the outcome and reconciling them seems impossible. Much will depend on the outcome of the EU parliamentary elections on 26 May 2019.

The post represents the views of the author and not those of LSE Brexit. It summarises the results of the research project The Brexit and EU Member States (case study Italy) led by the Department of Political Science of the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. Elisabeth Alber analysed more than 1.000 media entries (from 2016-2018) and assessed views and insights of Italian stakeholders on Brexit, and the EU. The detailed results are published in German (Elisabeth Alber, “Italien und der Brexit: Europapolitische Ansichten und Einsichten im Triennium 2016-2018”, in: Thorsten Winkelmann/Tim Griebel (Hrsg.), Der Brexit und die Krise der europäischen Integration. EU und mitgliedstaatliche Perspektiven im Dialog, Nomos, Baden-Baden, 2018, 177-189).

Elisabeth Alber is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism in Eurac Research.

Can a general election be a way out of the Brexit conundrum?  

The mess that UK politics is in cannot be overstated, nor the harm that this is doing to many of its citizens and the economy. Can a general election be a way out of the Brexit conundrum?  It could lead to a change of government and at least would almost certainly mean a new prime minister. In this blog, John Ryan (LSE) explains what might happen, and says that an extension of Article 50 would be necessary to hold a general election. 

In the discussion of how to break the Brexit impasse, the idea of holding a snap general election is suggested by some. This could lead to a change of government and at least would almost certainly mean a new prime minister. Although general election campaigns are inevitably far more wide-ranging than referendums, making them ill-suited to resolving individual policy questions, the fact that it would lead to a decisive change in political leadership could make it an appealing option, particularly for those opposed to No Deal or another referendum.

Any campaign would inevitably be dominated by Brexit, but it is hard to see either of the main parties producing a coherent manifesto on the Brexit question. The Conservative campaign, if led by Theresa May, might well consist of her already rejected deal. The Labour one would very likely maintain the dogged assertions made by Jeremy Corbyn: that Labour would somehow extract from negotiations the benefits of being in the Single Market without the constraints.

The result might indeed be another hung parliament and no end to the Westminster stalemate. Even a government elected with an apparent majority could still struggle to find a majority in Parliament for its version of Brexit.

How could a general election come about? The first option is that a two-thirds majority of the Commons (not just those that show up to vote), or 464 MPs, would need to vote for an election. The second option is that a simple majority (50% +1, so a minimum of 326) of MPs must pass a specifically worded no-confidence motion in the government. This would then be followed by a two-week period when an alternative government could be formed. If such a government could not be formed, there would be a general election thereafter. A final (probably impracticable) option would be to overturn the Fixed Term Parliaments Act itself. This is something that the Conservative manifesto of 2017 pledged to do and would involve the government winning a vote in Parliament.

Holding a general election would take approximately six weeks. The  Electoral  Registration and  Administration Act  2013  requires  25 working days for an election campaign. This is likely to mean that a general election would have to be forced before mid-February to take place at some point before the end of the Article 50 period.

In practice, an extension of Article 50 would be necessary to hold a general election. Although a general election could be called and held relatively quickly, in all likelihood we would end up with a new prime minister who would almost certainly want to renegotiate at least some aspects of the Brexit deal. Theresa May has made a commitment not to lead the Conservatives into the scheduled 2022 general election, but in practice, this probably also applies to any earlier election.

A few weeks ago there were rumours that Tory polling has concluded a snap general election would put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. Senior Conservative officials have privately warned Theresa May that she could face disaster if she calls a new nationwide poll to try to unblock her irresolvable Brexit deal proposal. Confidential party projections put Jeremy Corbyn in No.10, at the helm of a rainbow coalition government including the SNP and the Lib Dems. The internal report says the Tories are completely unprepared for an election, with databases out of date and the grassroots badly demoralized.

A more recent YouGov poll for The Times suggested, however, that Theresa May could win a working majority if a general election was held today. According to YouGov, which had correctly predicted a hung parliament in 2017, Conservatives would gain 4 seats to take 321 seats, while the Labour party would fall to 250 seats, down 12 from 2017. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party would both gain 4 seats each. These polls are snapshots and as we saw in the last General Election campaign significant leads can be overhauled.

Labour’s chances of forcing a general election to renegotiate Brexit are now slim according to John McDonnell who indicated that Labour is considering a compromise Brexit deal with the government — or a second referendum. Keir Starmer has poured cold water on pushing for a general election was no longer a “credible option.” Starmer’s intervention sparked a sharp response from Jeremy Corbyn’s office, which insisted an early election remained the party’s “preferred option.”

It is difficult to predict what Theresa May would put in her 2019 election manifesto as the Tories’ official position on Brexit and in fact it is similarly difficult to predict Jeremy Corbyn’s official position. The mess that UK politics is in can’t be overstated, and the harm that this is doing to many of its citizens and the economy. With the possibility of leaving with no deal, UK and foreign firms are having to make decisions to move jobs abroad to avoid the impact of that outcome. That, in turn, reduces the living standards of everyone in the UK. Rather than trying to convince them to stay, the government is actually urging firms and citizens to plan for No Deal.

Prime Ministers Theresa May is lacking authority and credibility, unable to listen or lead. Indeed, having led the first government to be found in contempt of parliament, May now finds herself in contempt of the people: is her intransigence paralysing the country, the economy, the political system the country and its economy perhaps for years to come. Now the endgame threatens the preservation not simply of the British government, but of modern Britain. The Brexit process revealed the weakness of Westminster’s insular politics. The UK Parliament is seemingly incapable of running a modern economy and society. Westminster’s politics are becoming more not less dysfunctional.  Whether a general election could provide a way out of this mess, hangs in the balance.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. Image © Copyright ceridwen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Professor John Ryan is a Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was a fellow at the St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany. John is working as a senior partner in consultancy as a Brexit adviser for EU, Gulf and Asian clients.

Supporters Direct: how the Co-operative Party influenced government policy

The Co-operative Party, institutionally linked to Labour, is the third largest party in the House of Commons. But does it influence public policy? Sean Kippin uses the case of Supporters Direct – an organisation created by the New Labour government in 1998 – to argue that it did so in this case by acting more like a ‘think tank’ than a political party, and that this marked the beginning of the party’s return to relevance.

Despite the claims of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party – at least in terms of seats in the House of Commons – is the Co-operative Party. Since 1917, it has been in an unusual electoral partnership with Labour, with a number of the latter’s MPs serving as ‘dual nationality’ Labour and Co-operative MPs. In practice, the arrangement allows the Co-operative Party – who retain a direct institutional link to the wider cooperative movement of member-owned businesses – a degree of input and visibility in the political realm.

During the long years of Labour opposition (1979-1997), the Co-operative Party experienced a difficult period, with the cooperative and member-owned sector (particularly in finance) struggling economically, organisationally, and politically. In the early 1990s it experienced leadership problems, and in a broader sense struggled to define a role for itself in the ‘Project’ of New Labour. From 1997 onwards, the Co-operative Party sought to remedy this through the enaction of the “New Mutualism” project which sought to expressly link those cooperative values and principles to Third Way politics, mimick its language, and more overtly orientat itself towards policy development. This approach harvested some early fruit in the form of the creation of the organisation Supporters Direct.

Supporters Direct seeks to support football fans in influencing and potentially owning their football clubs. In its nearly 20 years in existence, it has become a fixture of the professional football world, helping to organise football fans into supporters’ trusts. Its origin was in a pamphlet authored by Jonathan Michie, who made the case for mutual (specifically fan) ownership of football clubs, and suggested a means by which this could be realistically achieved: the formation of football supporters trusts. Crucially, it came at a time in which the Labour government was paying attention to football’s  social and cultural facets, as evidenced through the Football Taskforce, which had been asked to make recommendations about the future of the sport. One of its key participants had been a young Andy Burnham (today, the Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority).

Burnham, a football fan, had since the publication of the report been hired as a Government Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Media, Culture, and Sport, Chris Smith. Following some machinations, Smith announced the creation of Supporters Direct to the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth in 1999. The organisation was to assist and advise in the formation and activities of Supporters Trusts, and would go on to help facilitate the takeover of several clubs by groups of fans. Although it has never quite achieved what its most idealistic advocates would hope – the creation of a fan owned Premier League superpower in the mould of FC Barcelona – it has nonetheless increased the voice and influence of organised football fans. While the Co-operative Party would go on to influence government policy in a more high-profile way (most notably through its influence in helping to design NHS Foundation Trusts and Hospitals, and Co-operative Schools), this nonetheless represents the success of the party in influencing government policy.

My recent article in British Politics seeks to use the Multiple Streams Approach to break-down the features of this influence. Drawing on elite stakeholder interviews and secondary sources, it argues that the Co-operative Party and associated ‘policy entrepreneurs’ used the opportunity of the publication of the Football Taskforce report to present a solution of sorts to the problem of the perceived ‘over-commercialisation’ of the professional game in the nascent Premier League era. It further argues that this overt linkage of its own aims to that of New Labour through the New Mutualism project allowed its policy agenda to be seen in a new light, rather than something imposed outwith that of the Labour Party leadership. It also did so at a time in which captured – to the extent that this was necessary given the relatively small scale of the change – the national mood, which had become influenced by news stories relating to the excesses of footballers’ wages and iniquitous behaviour by the ownership of certain clubs.

The most interesting element of this case study is the way in which policy change was achieved. Despite having 30 or so MPs, change was achieved through the direct engagement of (non Co-op) Government ministers through what can be described as a ‘think tank’ (and particularly ‘advocacy tank’) style of influence: hosting events, recruiting sympathetic and influential ministers, and generally acting as a bridge between ideas, policy, and decisionmakers. Indeed, this is perhaps symptomatic of a broader shift towards think tanks as sites of policy influence, which occurred concurrently with the sidelining of the traditional organs of the Labour Party, such as conference and the unions. Undoubtedly, this shift placed the Co-operative Party at an organisational disadvantage, despite its institutional separateness.

Ultimately, the Co-operative Party would go on to play a modest but notable role in the public policy output of the Labour government, with its role in packaging the set of ideas known as ‘mutualism’. Beyond this, its practical role in placing the cooperative structure into secondary education (with 900 Co-operative Schools) now in operation across England, and the membership elements of NHS Foundation Trusts and Hospitals, also left a mark on public policy. Supporters Direct represented the first step on this journey, with the party showing that it was capable of creating credible policy initiatives that appealed to key decisionmakers within government.

Today, the Co-operative Party is enjoying one of its strongest periods to date. With a left-wing Labour leadership looking like credible contenders for power, the shift towards a new institutional politics of public ownership and aggressive market intervention may see the likewise return to its roots of advocating, straightforwardly, for cooperatives as a bulwark against exploitative capitalism. Crucially, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn seem receptive to such a role for the party and for the institutional form they represent. Again, this shows that the Co-operative Party has become capable of placing itself within Labour’s dominant ideological paradigm and presenting a version of its idea that fits the current zeitgeist. Supporters Direct was, in some ways, the beginning of the Co-op Party’s return to relevance. If, and when, Labour return to power, it will be worth keeping an eye on.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in British Politics.

About the Author

Sean Kippin is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of the West of Scotland and Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling.




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).

Book Review: The British General Election of 2017

In The British General Election of 2017, the latest in the venerable Nuffield series on British elections since 1945, Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh explore one of the most extraordinary political events of the young century in the UK: the British General Election of 2017. While not able to produce a fully coherent explanation of the results, the volume achieves the same skillful blend of narrative and analysis that we have come to expect from the series, with the help of excellent sourcing and well-chosen specialist contributors, writes Lawrence McKay.

The British General Election of 2017. Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh. Palgrave. 2018.

Find this book: amazon-logo

On 9 June 2017, as at every election since the late 1980s, Jon Snow introduced the Channel 4 post-election programme with the words: ‘I know nothing. We, the media, the pundits and experts, know nothing.’

That day, it was probably true. In their final pre-election figures, the pollsters had substantially underestimated the Labour vote share. The 335 experts – 280 of them academics – who responded to the Political Studies Association expert survey predicted, on average, that the Conservatives would win a majority of 110 seats (though most of these predictions were made ‘before the launch of the Conservative manifesto and so at a time when the opinion polls were pointing to a 17 point Conservative lead over Labour’ (PSA)). As the results rolled in, it became plain that this was not the story of the night. The Conservatives had lost their governing majority, finishing with just 317 of 650 seats, despite consolidating the Right by decimating the UKIP vote. Only a strong performance in Scotland, at the Scottish National Party’s expense, kept them within arm’s length of government. Labour, on the other hand, gained 30 seats net, helping to suppress talk of an imminent ‘coup’ in the general election aftermath. Meanwhile, excitement around the pro-European pitches of some of the minor parties – the Greens and especially the Liberal Democrats – fizzled out.

Yet, more than a year on, we are starting to get to grips with this seismic election. March saw the release of the traditional Hansard Society edited collection Britain Votes 2017; in June, Nicholas Allen and John Bartle’s Britain At The Polls 2017, the latest in the Essex series; and, rounding out the trifecta, Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh bring us The British General Election of 2017. The title is the latest in the venerable Nuffield series of election studies, dating back to David Butler, the ‘father of psephology’, and beyond. Cowley and Kavanagh’s book is, without doubt, worthy of this inheritance – while, insofar as this extraordinary election demands it, also breaking with the weight of received wisdom.

Image Credit: UK General Election headline, The Guardian, 2017 (Gwydion M. Williams CC BY 2.0)

The core of the book – as with other iterations of the series – is the skillful merge of narrative and analysis that Cowley and Kavanagh achieve. The psychodramas of the political advisers and strategists Fiona Hill, Nick Timothy and Lynton Crosby, and the factional clashes between Corbyn’s office and the Blairite ‘Southsiders’ at party HQ, are each pacily told, and their relevance to the election drawn out effectively. These will be familiar to readers of Tim Shipman’s weighty Fall Out or Tom McTague’s Betting The House, but they lose little in the more condensed telling.

In some areas, the narrative and number-crunching portions reinforce each other particularly well, allowing the reader to draw out key lessons. One is that the election was as much the terror election as the Brexit election. As Stephen Cushion and Charlie Beckett show in their chapter on broadcasting, on television terror-related news made up around one-sixth of total election coverage, dominating the final weeks of the campaign; Brexit, meanwhile, took up less than one-tenth. Here, Cowley and Kavanagh’s sourcing with Tory insiders comes into its own. First, the attacks in Manchester and Westminster prevented a fightback on the social care plan and the economy. Second, perhaps the Prime Minister’s chief political achievement to date had been to cut the beloved ‘bobbies on the beat’, still associated in the public mind with security. Manchester and Westminster opened Theresa May to sustained criticism, to which Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) had ‘no good rebuttal’. ‘The result’, as the authors mischievously remark, was that ‘the election went into its final week focusing on security and terrorism’ with a Labour party led by Corbyn, and yet ‘remarkably, it was the Conservative party that was on the back foot’.

Cowley and Kavanagh complement their book with a variety of chapters authored by well-chosen field experts: some new, others stalwarts of the series. To mention a few, ‘The Results Analysed’, by Sir John Curtice, Stephen Fisher, Robert Ford and Patrick English, provides the traditional meticulous breakdown of constituency-level electoral movements. Along the way, it also offers a useful service to readers with diverse specialist interests, touching on factors as varied as the legacy of the Scottish independence referendum, the incumbency bonus for political candidates and the ongoing ‘ethnic minority penalty’ at the ballot box. Rosie Campbell and Jennifer Hudson provide a valuable discussion of ‘political recruitment under pressure’: how did the parties choose appropriate candidates, and how did the inappropriate slip through the gaps? They highlight the endurance of the Conservative candidate revolution in the Cameron years: while the current PM May had been accused of ‘turning the clock back’ with policies on fox hunting and grammar schools, her legacy as co-founder of Women2Win was sustained in 2017. I was pleased to see that for the first time one of the chapters is authored by female academics: similarly, Britain at the Polls made such a breakthrough with its 2017 volume. We can only hope that this is the start of an overdue trend in election research.

If the book has a flaw, it is not that it lacks for an explanation of the shock result. Rather, it is that so many plausible explanations emerge, and that these are not weighed and prioritised to the extent that some readers might like. It is, however, hard to distinguish how much this is a flaw of the book itself and how much it is simply a reflection of messy reality. How do we assess the importance of Brexit against the ‘dementia tax’? How do we weigh the Labour manifesto against the role of mass rallies and the street-pounding of Momentum? It is relatively clear when Cowley and Kavanagh, or their co-authors, think something worked in the favour of Labour or the Conservatives. It is less clear what we are meant to understand as being the primary drivers of the most extraordinary turn-around in a British election campaign. Though Cowley and Kavanagh’s conclusion struggles gamely to reconcile the disparate strands, the election of 2017 continues to resist any single, coherent account.

Yet perhaps this is to ask too much. All elections are complex beasts: Cowley and Kavanagh open by quoting the introduction to the 1945 volume that the only thing certain about a General Election is that ‘it is not simple’. An election that witnesses such dramatic movements at the individual, constituency and national levels may need far more determination than a more ordinary one: perhaps everything really did matter.

More than this, however, the difficulties of telling the story of 2017 might reflect the growing complexity and intensity of our political divides, both between and within parties. These are most potent, surely, among those who would seek to govern us, wherein disputes over ideas are entangled with fruitful or frustrated ambitions, with being what’s hot or left out in the cold. Cowley and Kavanagh write in the Preface that, usually, a consensus will emerge once the dust settles on an election. 2017 was different: the many versions of the story they encountered were all ‘passionately believed’. As such, 2017 was, they write, ‘a particularly difficult election to write about’. I would not bet on elections becoming any easier on the authors; but even so, should Cowley and Kavanagh continue their run, they should at least still be a joy to read about.


Note: the above was first published on the LSE Review of Books.

Lawrence McKay is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Manchester. His research concerns political representation and public discontent with politicians and the political system. He can be found on social media at @lawrencemckay94. Read more by Lawrence McKay.


Why lobbying in Brussels is not always an obscure activity

Lobbying in Brussels is often envisioned as an activity that takes place behind closed doors, away from the spotlight of public scrutiny. Yet at the same time, some lobbyists intentionally seek media attention to win their policy battles. Drawing on a recent study, Iskander De Bruycker explains that media attention can help EU lobbyists attain their policy objectives, but only if they manage to frame their position as being in the public interest.

Brussels currently houses some 15,000 lobby organisations, employing over 30,000 lobbyists. All try to affect EU policy decisions on a daily basis. While this lobbying is often considered to be an obscure activity, conducted outside of public scrutiny, some lobbyists intentionally seek the mass media’s attention to try and further their policy goals.

But what determines the success of these interventions through the media? In a recent study of 125 different EU legislative cases (2008-2010), I have analysed whether appeals to the public interest in the media support lobby groups in realising their policy objectives. My findings indicate that participating in news media debates does not significantly affect lobbying success.

What matters for lobby groups in realising their policy goals is whether their goals are framed as being in the public interest, i.e. the interests of ‘the people’, ‘citizens’, ‘consumers’, or ‘the European public’. About 19% of the lobby groups in my study managed through the media to connect their own goals with the interests of European citizens. This was true not only of citizen action groups, but also corporate lobby organisations, who saw their lobbying success improved when addressing public interests in the news.

Media strategies matter

Before lobby groups can present themselves as the people’s protectors in the mass media, journalists first need to include the groups’ claims in news stories. Journalists seem to have, however, no decisive impact on interest groups’ influence via the mass media. The data in my study shows that the impact of public interest frames on lobbying success is mostly triggered by lobbying strategies geared at attracting media attention. Lobby groups that develop a full-fledged publicly oriented strategy (organising press conferences, media campaigns, protest events, etc.) and manage to appeal to public interests in the news, will see their policy success improved.

This beneficial effect does not hold true for lobbyists who never actively sought media attention themselves, but nevertheless ended up in media debates. The positive effect of public interest frames are thus mostly a result of lobbyists’ strategies, rather than journalistic routines and selection processes. At the same time, journalists should always be critical when lobbyists present their own goals as beneficial to the greater good and whether or not such a statement is relevant to their news story.

The quest for the Holy Grail

What is unique about my analysis is that I adopt two different measures of lobbying success: one based on interviews with lobbyists and the other based on interviews with spokespersons of the European Commission. Both measures are shown in the figure below.

Figure: Lobbying success and participation in media debates

Note: For more information, see the author’s journal article.

The figure shows the predicted chances of lobbying success for groups that did and did not appeal to public interests in the news. Both measures support the research findings. Public affairs practitioners and academics face many hurdles in estimating political influence. Measuring political influence is much like a quest for the Holy Grail. But by combining different measures of success, we can arrive at reliable, evidence-based estimates. Incorporating complementary measures should be the next golden standard in studies on political influence as such measures can capture how successful lobbyists perceive themselves, but also how successful others perceive them to be.

Finally, my findings indicate that a lobby group’s resources and the types of constituencies it represents are not consequential for success. What matters are the strategies lobbyists develop and how these fit in the overall public affairs context. Of course, developing a sophisticated lobbying strategy takes resources and expertise. But how resources are spent is more important than the resources themselves. For instance, in debates over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, it was not the more resourceful business corporations which prevailed, but the civil society groups that were able to articulate a pervasive signal of public support.

These findings are important in evaluating the EU’s vulnerability to non-democratic forms of political influence and biases towards the corporate world. The findings point to a potential loophole in EU democratic decision making: lobbyists may cloak their self-interests and impact EU policy by falsely presenting themselves as the people’s voice. We need more research to clarify whether lobbyists who present their goals in the media as being aligned with public interests are genuinely representing the views of the broader public. At the same time, citizens, journalists and politicians should remain vigilant of lobbyists who portray their goals as being in the public interest.

This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. It was originally published on LSE EUROPP and draws on the author’s published work in Political Communication. The data used in the study are the result of a large-scale collaborative research project, funded by the European Science Foundation.

Iskander De Bruycker is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Antwerp.

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