Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

The process of leaving political office in Britain and its implications for democracy

Drawing on interviews conducted with British politicians, Dame Jane Roberts explains the different impacts of leaving political office. She writes that the process if often made unnecessarily harsh, something that often prevents politicians from standing down altogether, with implications for representative democracy.

Losing political office is an integral part of any system of representative democracy. But we don’t like to talk about it in polite company. It’s too close to the bone. There’s a great deal of excited chatter as well as scholarly work about how to get into elected office – but it all falls oddly silent at the other end of the spectrum. Politicians currently in elected office don’t like to think about their future departure and those who have left office, particularly if they have been defeated, may find it too painful to talk about the circumstances of their exit. Former MP Ed Balls is an exception, having confronted head on in the opening chapter of his book his widely publicized ejection from office. Even for those who choose to stand down, the transition from elected office can be a discombobulating experience and far from straightforward. It’s about political mortality.

And it is often a very sudden death. ‘Like a bereavement – and it was – but there was no funeral’ was how it was described in my research, in which I conducted in-depth interviews with former MPs and council leaders and, where possible, their partners, as well as current politicians. Once an announcement to stand down is issued or following a defeat, the political circus moves on immediately. The phone stops ringing both literally and metaphorically and the politician dropped like a stone. Those who are defeated may describe powerful emotions of devastation, humiliation, failure, resentment and betrayal as their opponents cheer and erstwhile colleagues fall away for fear of contagion.

But even after standing down, all goes eerily quiet, leaving the now former politician possibly only to ruminate about how to channel cherished beliefs and values. The sudden disappearance of income, purpose, daily structure, status, social networks – and simply mattering in the same way – can be highly disorientating. Contrary to public perception, there is no revolving door from Parliament into the corporate sector: most former MPs now struggle long and hard to find employment; council leaders who increasingly (but incautiously) work full-time in the role even more so.

That politicians leaving office hurtle back on to ‘civvy’ street, avoiding any elision between being in and out of office, is just as it should be in democratic terms. But the personal struggle is often made unnecessarily harsh: a punitive, salacious glee in the media; shockingly little in the way of acknowledgement of the contribution made by the politician (and often their family) over many years; not even the statutory redundancy pay to departing council leaders; cut off immediately from municipal communication, unable even to say goodbye to colleagues; no access to a local government pension (courtesy of the now Lord Pickles); the absence of the normal support given in other occupational roles on retirement or redundancy; and barely any interest in making use of the skills and experience of former politicians in civic society.

My contention is that this matters not just on a human, empathic level but that there are wider implications for representative democracy. Any healthy system of representative democracy depends on a reasonable degree of ‘fluidity’ between those who are elected to serve in political office and those whom they represent. That is, that citizens should have a reasonable chance of gaining positions of elected political leadership should they be able and motivated to do so, and not be precluded from seeking office by disproportionate risks that might be encountered. And in order for some to gain political office for the first time, others, of course, must leave: but they will be reluctant to do so if the stakes are too high.

‘Democratic rotation’ is hardly a new idea. That there should be an obligation to leave office after a defined period is an idea with deep roots in classical republican political thought. Rotation in office was seen as allowing more opportunity for a greater number to serve in public office and thus deepen their understanding of the public responsibilities that they would retain once they had left office. The idea was later taken up in the Renaissance city-states and by Harrington in England, and later still in the USA by Jefferson who, in 1811 insisted, ‘there is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance.’ In the modern USA, the movement in support of term limits (keenly contested too) has been drawn directly from the principle of rotation of office, designed both as a check on excessive power and an opportunity to enhance political participation.

The notion of democratic rotation, however, seems to have fallen by the wayside in the UK. I think that this is shortsighted. In the absence of a reasonable degree of political fluidity, representative democracy is diminished: it reinforces the perception of a political class separate from the rest of the population; it limits the range of people who are able and willing to come forward to serve in elected office; and with exit made more difficult than it needs to be, there are fewer opportunities to share the deepest experience of political citizenship, representing others.

We know that politicians are perceived to be – and are – different from those whom they represent, seen as a separate political class, compounding cynicism in and disengagement from politics. We know that access into political office is now narrowing again with a predominance of ‘career politicians’ at Westminster. And we need to know that if the risks of leaving office are disproportionately high, we only further entrench the perception of politicians’ distance from their electorate.

With exit so potentially fraught, might some politicians be tempted to remain in office for longer than they might otherwise, ‘bed-blockers’ as one unkindly described them in my research? Some were described as ‘trapped’: too late to return to earlier careers, too risky to leave, and too soon to retire – ‘Huis Clos’ as one former MP put it. Might it be too precarious for some even to embark on standing in the first place given the risks involved? Might there be some groups for whom the risks would be seen to be especially high thus influencing the nature and composition of those who get to be elected? As one participant lamented, ‘I gave up something that I can’t go back to … you want to make it easy for people to leave.’ But we don’t. I think it’s time that we did – for all our benefit.


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

About the Author

Dame Jane Roberts is Visiting Fellow at The Open University Business School. Jane is a medical doctor and worked for many years as a hospital consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She was Leader of the London Borough of Camden from 2000 to 2005. She chaired the Councillors Commission for the Department of Communities and Local Government (2007-2009) and amongst other roles, she chairs the think tank New Local Government Network.


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).

Brexit psychology: cognitive styles and their relationship to nationalistic attitudes

Leor Zmigrod looks at the cognitive underpinnings of nationalistic ideology in the context of Brexit. She writes that those with strongly nationalistic attitudes tend to process information in a more categorical manner, and this relationship manifests itself through a tendency to support authoritarian and conservative ideologies.

The failure of political polling in the recent elections of Europe and North America has revealed weaknesses in both our polling methodologies and our understanding of the psychological origins of voting behaviour. Traditional accounts tend to focus on the role of demographics and emotional influences in determining how citizens vote. Pollsters, politicians, and the public often fixate on how socioeconomic status, age, gender, race and geographical location shape voting preferences, or how charismatic leaders or emotionally-charged slogans motivate – and at times distort – voters’ preferences.

Nonetheless, new empirical research conducted by myself and my colleagues at the University of Cambridge is revealing that non-emotional psychological dispositions also shape citizens’ ideological inclinations. That is, differences in the ways in which our brains process information may hold clues for why we vote in certain ways.

The idea that our ideologies reflect our psychological motivations is not new. In an influential book titled The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Adorno and colleagues hypothesized that “ideologies have for different individuals, different degrees of appeal, a matter that depends upon the individual’s needs and the degree to which these needs are being satisfied or frustrated”. Similarly, in 1954, the famous psychologist Gordon Allport already suggested that our prejudices and ideological preferences are “unlikely to be merely specific attitude(s) toward specific group(s)… [these are] more likely to be a reflection of [a person’s] whole habit of thinking about the world”. These eloquent proposals captured the hearts and minds of researchers by making politics an extension of personal psychology, and not merely a feature of demographic circumstance.

Even though these ideas have been around for nearly 70 years, there has been little rigorous empirical research examining how cognitive traits shape nationalism and voting behaviour. In a recent paper, we sought to investigate the extent to which individual differences in emotionally-neutral, “cold” information processing styles predict voting behaviour and nationalistic sentiments in the 2016 EU Referendum.

The findings reveal that individuals with strongly nationalistic attitudes tend to process information in a more categorical and persistent manner, even when tested on neutral cognitive tasks that are unrelated to their political beliefs. These cognitive tasks probed how flexibly individuals process and evaluate perceptual and linguistic information. Notably, while most research relies on often-biased self-report questionnaires to measure psychological traits, here objective cognitive measures were administered to quantify cognitive information processing tendencies in a rigorous manner.

As evident in Figure 1, cognitive flexibility (measured by the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test) and support for Brexit were negatively correlated. In turn, cognitive flexibility was positively correlated with favourable attitudes towards immigration, the European Union, free movement of labour, and access to the EU Single Market (more details here).

Additionally, cognitive flexibility was significantly negatively correlated with agreement with the idea that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere,” a quote by UK Prime Minister Theresa May (see Figure 2). This quote may be interpreted as reflecting a highly specific and narrow definition of citizenship, as well as some negativity toward globalization; the negative correlation might therefore indicate that psychological flexibility could be linked to how broadly versus narrowly identity boundaries are drawn.

Furthermore, Structural Equation Modelling analysis demonstrated that cognitive flexibility and intolerance of ambiguity predicted individuals’ endorsement of authoritarianism, conservatism, and nationalism to a substantial degree (see Figure 3). Individuals who exhibited greater cognitive flexibility and were more tolerant of uncertainty were less likely to support authoritarian, conservative, and nationalistic attitudes. These ideological orientations in turn predicted participants’ attitudes towards Brexit, immigration, and free movement of labour, accounting for 47.6% of the variance in support for Brexit. The results suggest that cognitive thinking styles associated with processing perceptual and linguistic stimuli may also be drawn upon when individuals evaluate political and ideological arguments.

Participants were also asked to indicate whether they believe that the UK Government has the right to remain in the EU if the costs of Brexit are too high. Cognitive flexibility was positively related to participants’ endorsement of the government’s right to adapt its policies to potential risks (see Figure 1). This highlights a parallel between flexible cognitive styles and support for flexible policy implementation.

Notably, these psychological dispositions are not fixed or purely genetically determined. Education, training, and experience can shape individuals’ cognitive flexibility throughout the lifespan.

We have already replicated these findings in other studies focused on different ideological domains. The results illustrate that non-emotional psychological dispositions can also predict religiosity, political partisanship (Zmigrod et al., under review), and intellectual humility (i.e. individuals’ receptivity to evidence in forming decisions; Zmigrod et al., under review).

What are the implications of this research for British politics? Firstly, these findings challenge the idea that political behaviour is solely a product of emotional processes and demographic characteristics; our ideologies possess cognitive, non-emotional dimensions that transcend socioeconomic issues. Secondly, the results provide empirical evidence that – to some degree – democracy reflects a battle to capture and exploit our psychological biases and tendencies. Consequently, effective political campaigns may need to consider framing and providing policy solutions in terms that satisfy both individuals’ preferences for traditions and clarity as well as their desire for flexibility and change. As a Brexit deal or no-deal scenario approaches in the coming months, policymakers may benefit from incorporating these considerations and implementing them in socially responsible ways.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with Peter J. Rentfrow, and Trevor W. Robbins) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

About the Author

Leor Zmigrod is a PhD candidate in the department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

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).


Shallow, hostile, toxic: Corbynism’s social media problem

Social media creates a bubble in which Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters validate each other but convince few others, writes Andrew S. Crines. At the same time, debates on Labour’s future currently lack the intellectual justification which writers of the left previously enjoyed. This combination renders Labour unable to articulate a clear message about its vision for the country.

The Labour Party has a long and well-researched history of political and intellectual thinkers. These thinkers are drawn from a wide range of perspectives that includes social democrats, Fabians, Marxists, amongst others. They are each the product of longstanding traditions with origins in various protest movements of the 19th century, with some locating their opposition to inequality in the Enlightenment period. Over the course of industrialisation, they crystallised into developed political ideologies that sought changes to economic and social assumptions.

The aspiration of improving the quality of life underscored much of their mutual objectives. Indeed, whilst coming from diverse backgrounds, they were united in opposition to the exploitative excesses of capitalism and the impact it had upon the working classes. For some on the left it was about replacing capitalism with an entirely new economic order; for others the aim was to reduce the exploitation of capitalism whilst retaining the system through a mixed economy. Put simply, ‘capitalism could be tamed’. Despite being united in these objectives, these traditions within the left were very much in opposition to each other, thereby creating divisions on the best ways to bring about a better society.

Today those debates have re-emerged. Some would argue they never dissipated – rather, they simply became less prominent in the increasingly interconnected globalised world. Through systems of progressive taxation and investment, society did indeed begin to improve, and so those debates became less prominent in an increasingly consumerist society. Needless to say the financial crisis threw such assumptions into the air, and gradually those same debates of old re-emerged back into Labour’s political discourse.

As is well discussed in other places, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership has been seen by many as a hopeful sign that alternatives to free market assumptions can be found and be introduced into the mainstream political discourse. The problem is that, so far, such debates lack the intellectual justification which thinkers such as Crosland, Wilson, or Giddens enjoyed. Books such as PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future by Paul Mason, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power by Alex Nunns, and Leading from the Left by Nigel Cawthorne are restricted in their appeal to sympathetic audiences who accept many of the assumptions of Corbyn’s leadership. These books lack the intellectually-charged analyses of Bevan’s In Place of Fear, Wilson’s The Relevance of British Socialism, Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, or Holland’s The Socialist Challenge. Rather, they position Corbyn as the sole driving force of Labour renewal and use emotional language over evidence-based analyses. This is not to suggest noteworthy texts are entirely absent – The Corbyn Effect features an interesting and diverse range of contributions.

In part the problem of the left’s growing intellectual difficulties are a by-product of a political discourse that has become toxic. These create arenas that preclude the style of arguments that have been a feature of Labour discourse in the pre-Corbyn period. This is because social media has brought individuals and groups together in a way hitherto unimaginable. It is sometimes forgotten that before the age of Twitter there was a healthy detachment between politicians, commentators, journalists, voters, and activists. This detachment slowed down the process of discussion, but it did not end it. Indeed, it can be characterised as ‘quality over quantity’. That slower pace allowed all to think more carefully about the comments or arguments they wanted to make, and how they were presented.

Arguments are best used when trying to convince, rather that silence ideas. Also considered arguments need time to be constructed and justified in a way that platforms such as Twitter do not allow. It is, however, ideal for opinions over evidence-based positions to be put in place of the kind of arguments that improve the quality of our democracy. Put simply, a slower pace isn’t simply an ideal – it is a necessity within a healthy political environment.

The impact of this area upon Labour’s ability to articulate a clear message has been substantial. A speedy, knee-jerk approach to political engagement prevents any meaningful attempt to connect with voters. Indeed, it can be alienating because it tends to be conducted in a hostile environment where there simply is no time to construct an intellectually informed argument. As such, it is not the arena where true social democratic renewal is possible.

This raises the obvious question of where now for Labour? The problem Corbyn has is that his leadership is very much connected to social media. It is difficult to divorce Corbynism from social media, and so this has created a safe bubble in which Corbyn’s most loyal supporters validate each other but convince few others that they are right. If anything, this hostile environment for criticism can have the opposite effect. However, if Labour is to begin an intellectual journey towards renewal and change, and to construct the evidence-based justifications for a more social democratic approach to society, then contemporary Labour thinkers are going to need to take their arguments into the outside world.


About the Author

Andrew S. Crines is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.




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).

Lessons from Ireland’s recent referendums: how deliberation helps inform voters

Ireland’s 2015 referendum on equal marriage and its 2018 one on abortion both had their origins in deliberative assemblies. But did such processes influence the result? The evidence suggests that the information and debate that came with these assemblies had an impact both on vote choice and turnout, writes Jane Suiter.

Ireland has made history in recent years with two landmark socially progressive referendum votes on abortion and marriage equality. The votes revealed a growing liberal consensus and generational change in the once conservative Catholic nation; but the votes were also notable for the new deliberative procedures they employed, and which appear to have had an impact on understanding, vote, and turnout.

Referendum research has revealed the importance of voters understanding the issues at stake in order to drive both turnout and votes in line with attitudes and values. A good deal of the research has focused on Ireland which has a long history of referendums due to a combination of fairly restrictive constitutional provisions for consulting the people and extensive social and political change. These referendums can be classified into three categories: those relating to sovereignty (EU Treaties largely); administrative or technical; and moral or social. It is the latter category which have made the headlines in recent years.

These votes tend to draw from a deep-rooted conservative-liberal cleavage in Irish politics and have delivered some of the divisive and bitter referendums of recent years. Divorce passed by just 9,000 votes in 1995; abortion referendums from the 1980s and until 2002 were noted for the deep hostilities they exposed; a Children’s Right referendum as recently as 2015 passed by just 58-42% on a turnout of just 33.5%, despite almost no opposition. As a result, successive governments were reluctant to hold further referendums on abortion despite calls from the UN and the European Court of Justice. Yet in 2015, marriage equality was passed by a large majority with a high turnout. In 2018, the abortion proposal was passed with an even larger majority on a higher turnout, confounding many analysts who had predicted a narrow victory.

So what had changed in the Republic? Ireland of course was becoming more liberal, partly the result of a generational shift and partly as a result of widespread revulsion at cases of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. But there is another factor: Ireland’s new deliberative assemblies. Both referendums are notable for having their origins in these assemblies and for the extensive campaigns with widespread political and civil society involvement which accompanied them. These national citizen assemblies or constitutional conventions are made up of randomly selected citizens (in the case of the convention one-third are politicians). Experts on both sides give evidence and the members deliberate in small groups voting at the end of the session. In both cases, the attendees voted for a referendum on these issues and in favour of progressive change following deliberation on the evidence.

For many politicians, the initial advantage of stabling these assemblies may have been the passing of responsibility for a contentious issue to citizens. But the assemblies had other advantages. The idea is that deliberation in advance of a referendum can structurally undermine populist rhetoric, increase knowledge levels, and provide a closer match between values and vote choice. Specifically, it is argued that these assemblies can assuage the most common criticism associated with referendums: that they represent ‘the tyranny of the majority’, which is based on voter ignorance and the tendency to vote based on heuristics rather than evidence.

Indeed, we find in both referendums that voters who are familiar with the Convention or Assembly to vote differently from those who are not. This suggests that the establishment of assemblies in advance of the referendum has an impact on the deliberative nature of the referendum in the wider community. In both referendums there is a positive and statistically significant effect on the probability of voting Yes by those who felt they fully understood the issues. Further research to clarify the mechanisms and impact is currently being undertaken by the research team.

Prior to the establishment of these assemblies, information provision was left solely to the Referendum Commission – an independent body that explains the subject matter of referendum proposals, promotes public awareness of a referendum, and encourages the electorate to vote. However, the Referendum Commission cannot and does not provide any arguments on the substance of the proposal. Arguably as a result many referendums have fallen short of deliberative ideals with confusion and uncertainty amongst voters across many referendums.

Following the deliberative assemblies and substantial civil society involvement in the marriage equality and abortion referendums, close to 90% of voters felt they fully understood the issues. This compares with just 47% (admittedly just among No voters due to the poor data collected) in the Children’s Referendum just a few years earlier. Those who are more informed are more likely to vote, and more likely to vote Yes, thus significantly contributing to the referendum outcome.

There may also be a turnout impact. Turnout in the marriage referendum was 62.1%, a 20-year record in the history of Irish referendums. Abortion was even higher at 66.4% with reportedly high turnouts of younger voters. However, given we have to rely on an exit poll rather than on a referendum study we cannot be sure of the exact demographic make up of the vote.

The tentative answer then for referendums (in Ireland at least) is that information provision matters; experts matter; and deliberation matters as well. But there are fewer answers for abortion provision in Northern Ireland, where ‘laws breach human rights, and its people back change, but politicians remain resistant to change’. The DUP is vehemently pro-life and Theresa May, no doubt mindful that the DUP is crucial to propping up her government, has already insisted that the question is a matter for Northern Ireland’s own leaders. In addition, there is no constitutional barrier to abortion. Nonetheless, an advisory referendum preceded by a deliberative assembly may well lay the foundations for a change in the law.


About the Author

Jane Suiter is Associate Professor at the School of Communications at Dublin City University. She is part of the Voters, Parties and Elections research group with DCU, UCD and UCC which took part in the RTE/Universities Exit Poll.



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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