Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

Empty Bills: The Queen’s Speech was an odd contribution to solving the UK’s problems

Artemis Photiadou and Alice Park draw on various strands of research to argue that unless a Conservative manifesto is more radical and relevant than this Queen’s Speech, then a future Johnson government will fail to address fundamental issues, many of which have been caused by other Conservative policies.

Though the likelihood remains the Queen’s Speech will be voted down in the House of Commons – a course which may be avoided if the DUP and the 23 former Conservatives vote with the government – most of its content has already been written off as empty because of the government’s non-majority, while the opposition has dismissed the whole event as an attempt to misdirect attention. Nevertheless, the Conservatives continue to appeal to a large proportion of the electorate, they continue to top the polls, and may win an election in the near future. For this reason, the Queen’s Speech has been largely seen as the basis of a future Conservative manifesto.


The legislative agenda of this parliament will, as with the last one, be dominated by one subject: Brexit. Indeed, most other promises are contingent on how Brexit is delivered.

A number of significant bills that did not complete their passage through parliament before the end of the 2017–19 session will need to be re-introduced. As part of the legislative preparations for departure, a new Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill has been on the parliamentary agenda since 2017, and Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have consistently emphasised their determination to end freedom of movement and reform the immigration system.

The proposals include an end to freedom of movement, and introduction of a long-touted ‘points-based’ immigration scheme for EU and non-EU citizens alike after the transition period in 2021. As Heather Rolfe explains, this government has indicated a move away from Cameron and May’s ‘numbers game’ approach, and focuses instead on an immigration agenda based on encouraging only high-skilled migration. While the details remain vague, such a system often polls favourably with the public, who, according to focus groups, interpret it as a system that would ensure controls were enforced. However, the focus on high skills is generally of less concern. Both the public, and in particular employers, consider that it is not so much skills, but a system that responds to labour shortages that is key. Especially in sectors such as hospitality, construction, agriculture, and social care, reliance on migrant workers is not because Britons lack the training but because there are not enough of them. The absence of any detail in the Queen’s Speech, combined with the fact that a points-based system contradicts Johnson’s vision for an outward-looking post-Brexit UK, mean the policy remains symbolic, useful for confirming the government’s opposition to free movement.

Furthermore, ending freedom of movement  will have other consequences for overall migration flows, as Jonathan Thomas outlined, drawing from past policy interventions. Paradoxically, the end of freedom of movement for EU citizens, and the effect of the settled status scheme, could lead to a rise in irregular migration patterns, with knock-on effects for enforcement and public attitudes – far from the control that is sought and promised.

The NHS 

Healthcare remains a top public concern. Yet the main feature of the NHS section of the Speech is that it promises more money, with little else beyond that. This is a problem for the simple reason that it is unclear how and where NHS money is currently going. According to CHPI research, whereas officially NHS England spends about 7% of its total expenditure purchasing healthcare from the independent sector, new calculations put the figure closer to 26%. In short, with a flawed understanding of spending, any attempt to increase resources without controlling expenditure will be in vain.

Second, there appears to be no intention to hasten the growing trend towards privatisation, for example through strengthening the rules governing financial incentives in the sector. As the system currently stands, NHS consultants can – and often do – own shares and equipment in private hospitals. The result is the creation of an incentive towards private referrals and possibly over-treatment – given they receive fees whenever equipment they own is used – a prospect which is particularly problematic when seen together with the lack of transparency on NHS spending.

Similar problems exist with adult social care pledges. While the government plans to provide more funds to councils, they do not complement this with efforts to stabilise the care home market through regulation: even with more money made available, a number of care homes will continue being run by hedge funds and private equity investors. The extraction of rent and profit will therefore continue being the market’s top aim, and scandals like Four Seasons are almost destined to be repeated.

Mental health is similarly covered in broad terms, promising that ‘patient choice and autonomy will be improved’. One way of reading this tallies with pre-existing self-care approaches, part of a Conservative tendency towards behaviour change and short-term self-action, rather than medical intervention, despite evidence that the former is ineffective. A more effective way of beginning to tackle problems in mental health would be the reversal of what appears to be the strategic downgrading of jobs and working conditions, with many employees on short-term NHS contracts.

In light of fundamental issues remaining unaddressed, it is questionable how successful the smaller proposals – on laws to establish a health service safety investigations body and to make it simpler for NHS to manufacture and trial new medicines – could hope to be.


While the NHS is afforded two bills, crime, which is a lesser public concern, has seven. The government’s focus on this increasingly seems to be, as Thomas Guiney explained, an attempt to disassociate ‘the Conservative brand from its cornerstone’ austerity policies, ‘while maintaining a reputation for fiscal prudence’. Yet here again the austerity of the past decade is what goes to the root of the problem, not insufficient sentencing regimes. With poorer men between 17–34 being most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of serious violent crime, research suggests that the economic changes that ‘gradually rendered considerable numbers of the British working class economically obsolete’ have contributed to this state of affairs, together of course with cuts to policing. Without addressing the causal factors, the government’s new policies, such as the Foreign National Offenders Bill, combining this attempt to appear tough with an overt aversion to immigrants, are unlikely to tackle crime.

Fairness and protection for individuals and families

There is also an attempt to tackle domestic abuse, with the Domestic Abuse Bill being reintroduced, as had been agreed prior to the unlawful prorogation. This is generally perceived as a positive step towards tackling domestic abuse, not least because it defines it. But, as experts have warned, the government’s own policies in other areas actually facilitate some of the kinds of abuse that the bill seeks to prevent. Concerns pertain particularly to economic abuse, including cases where victims cannot afford to leave their abusive partner. Marilyn Hayward has pointed out how these situations become almost inevitable due to the way Universal Credit works, since couples can only nominate one bank account for the household benefit to be paid into. As it stands, therefore, the government gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Such cases clearly illustrate how intertwined issues of abuse, gender, class, and austerity are, with the above bill and the rest of the Queen’s Speech showing little intention to address the last three. On a similar point, despite the promise to bring much-needed oversight over pensions savings and ‘tackle irresponsible management of private pension schemes’, there will be no redress for the women who suffered from the change in the state pension age – of which they were unaware. Here again the persisting gender and class inequalities are evident: around 80% of women with low levels of education knew about the change compared to 92% of women with high levels of education; ‘those out of the labour market, ethnic minorities, and unmarried women were also less likely to be aware’.

Other legislative measures

One eye-catching, and largely unexpected new bill (until leaks appeared over the weekend), is a new electoral integrity bill. Its main proposal is to introduce a photographic ID requirement for all voters at polling stations for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain (it is already required for Northern Ireland voters, where you can obtain a free ID card) and for English local elections. This follows on from voter ID trials that have taken place in several areas during the 2018 and 2019 English council elections, part of  a package of reforms Sir Eric Pickles proposed in a 2016 report on electoral integrity.

However, the number of reported cases of electoral fraud from personation at the polling station are exceedingly low in the UK – just one case was prosecuted in 2017 –  and the available evidence suggests it is rare: the trials in 2018 and 2019 suggests the percentage of voters turned away, who did not subsequently return, was very low. Yet the effect for general elections is not necessarily the same as for lower-turnout local elections. The Electoral Commission has noted that as many as 3.5 million voters may not have photo ID, with ownership differing between socioeconomic groups, with citizens from ethnic minorities in particular potentially disadvantaged. So, there are considerable concerns that the negative impact of voter ID laws on restricting access to voting by those without ID outweigh any potential impact on countering electoral fraud, or improving trust in the system.

Another question is whether, given the low numbers of cases of voter personation, this is the right legislative priority for improving elections – and whether further piecemeal reform like this is the right approach at all. Earlier this year, the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee asked for evidence on reforming Electoral Law, noting that many rules dated back to the nineteenth century, and had been updated piecemeal, creating a fragmented and confusing set of laws. Proposals from the Law Commission in 2016 for systematic review and simplification had not been acted on. Much of the academic evidence the committee received reiterated this view that consolidation and simplification of fragmented law, particularly in the context of devolution, was a priority over voter ID, which would introduce further complexity. Comprehensive reform aimed at simplifying electoral law, tackling changes to electoral campaigns in the digital era, and improving the system of voter registration, were seen as more important.

Suggested measures that would improve voting in the UK, and be a better use of resources according to Toby James and Alistair Clark, include a single national electoral website. Unnecessary complication with electoral registration, and a lack of resources, were contributing factors to many EU citizens being unable to vote in 2019’s European Parliament elections. The legislation proposed in this Queen’s Speech includes other changes, including tightening the rules on postal vote collection, and requiring re-registration for postal votes every three years, improved access at polling stations for voters with disabilities, and introducing digital imprints for online campaign material. However, the disproportionate focus on voter ID overall could add another layer of administrative complication for little benefit, and distract from more important, systematic reform, as highlighted by the Law Commission and others since.

The environment

What may be seen as both a popular and positive inclusion is the three pages devoted to an Environment Bill, setting binding targets for reducing pollution, with the topic recently having reached its highest level of public concern on record. But the caveat that runs through the Queen’s Speech remains: even if it passes, and even if the bill itself passes, it is unlikely that this government will be in place long enough to be tested on it.

Empty bills

Put together, and examined against policy research in the relevant areas, the government’s intentions seem set to deal with peripheral issues. What is more, non-issues such as voter ID could be turned into real ones. A future Johnson government will need a more attractive and radical manifesto than this Queen’s Speech, if it is to meaningfully start solving the UK’s problems.


About the Authors

Artemis Photiadou is the Managing Editor of LSE British Politics and Policy and teaches in the LSE’s International History Department.



Alice Park is the Commissioning Editor the LSE British Politics and Policy blog and the Managing Editor of Democratic Audit.



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: UK Parliament, Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris (BY-NC 2.0).

The European Union is not a state: why the debate about the EU and democracy is misconceived

The more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, writes Pippa Catterall, the more it becomes judged by the normative expectations of how democratic states are. But it is as an international organisation that it should be judged.

No international organisation is ‘democratic’. Indeed, there is only one international organisation which even tries to be democratic, the one called the European Union. All international organisations increasingly have impacts behind borders, particularly those which – like the EU – deal primarily with trade, because of the way international trade has come to be dominated by regulations and standards. Only the EU has sought to give voice to those affected by such developments, in the form of a directly-elected parliament representative of the peoples it encompasses, rather than simply being beholden to its Member States. Yet this most democratic of international organisations is also the one which is most often traduced as ‘undemocratic’. Why?

The most obvious explanation is that it is not widely grasped that the EU is much more democratic than its analogues among international organisations. For instance, the irony of Leave voters calling the EU ‘undemocratic’ while wanting to operate under WTO rules instead, seems to be lost on them. The global protests which followed the founding of the WTO, not least in Seattle in 1999, demonstrated an appreciation then, among other things, of how deeply undemocratic the WTO was. It still is. Like virtually all international organisations, the WTO’s membership consists of legal persons, called states, rather than natural ones, actual human beings. The same holds true for those international consortia of trading states – such as Mercosur, ASEAN, the Cairns Group, and so on – which increasingly have become significant players in the diplomacy of world trade. The states which are members of these bodies may be mandated by their domestic parliaments on how they handle issues at the WTO and similar organisations, and they may be scrutinised on what they have agreed in those parliaments. However, if this is democracy it is an attenuated form.

The same observation could hold for all the other international organisations Leave voters seem quite happy for Britain to remain in. The UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, together with a host of other less well-known bodies, are all organisations which – at best – only allow states rather than peoples directly, to participate in their decision-making processes. To all of these bodies as well, Britain is a net contributor. That is not to say that there are not benefits to the UK from its membership of, for instance, the International Whaling Commission. However, neither the benefits nor the effects of British membership of the IWC will be apparent to the average Briton, if they are aware of it at all. They rightly do not perceive any discernible impacts on their lives of such membership, whereas they do think they are affected by Britain’s membership of the EU. So the second reason for the complaint that the EU is ‘undemocratic’ is the perception that it has imposed on people decisions that affect them and to which they have not consented.

To a large extent this perception reflects the peculiarities of an international organisation which tries to be democratic. Representation at the EU is both popular (through the parliament) and international (through the Member States). For the latter, there is a perennial incentive to blame the EU as an institution for decisions to which they have been party and usually supported, but which may be unpopular with sections of their domestic electorates. Britain is by no means the only Member State whose politicians have acted in this way. The democratisation of the EU through the gradual extension of the powers of the parliament has not prevented this behaviour by Member States. Indeed, as the intrusiveness of international trade and relations has required growing competences on the part of international bodies like the EU, so the incentives for Member States to play to the gallery of their national audiences has similarly increased.

In the process of acquiring these growing competences, the EU has come to acquire some, though only some, of the appurtenances of a state. This has become more apparent since the introduction of the Single Market, of which the Thatcher government were among the chief progenitors. The attempt to harmonise trade and related activities across all Member States involves the creation of top-level rules which apply as evenly as possible throughout. Such developments make the impact of the EU on citizens more apparent than with other international organisations. Yet, because it remains fundamentally an international organisation, it does not have a ‘government’ which can be voted out by the disgruntled. Its parliament makes laws and holds confirmation hearings on appointees, but those appointees are placed there by horse-trading between the Member States, rather than directly.

In that sense, the EU’s organisation falls someway between that of an international organisation (which few people expect to be democratic), and that of a state. However, the more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, the more it has become judged by the normative expectations of how democratic the former rather than the latter are. For those who see states as bodies where democratic accountability involves throwing out governments (something that cannot directly happen at EU level), the absence of such mechanisms can easily seem to be a democratic deficit.

Yet the EU is not a state, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Nor does it have the operational functionality of a state, which within the EU is delivered through its contracting parties, the Member States. The temptation to measure its democratic procedures by the standards according to which its Member States are judged – even though not all of them would pass – is understandable but misconceived. In origins and still in most of its characteristics, the EU is an international organisation. As such it provides benefits for those who live in its Member States through harmonising trade and exchange across their territories. Uniquely for an international organisation, it has a directly-elected parliament in which the rules governing those processes can be proposed, scrutinised and amended. Among the gallery of its peers – that is, other international organisations – it is a singular example of an attempt to democratise the processes which shape our globalised world. It is, of course, not without its flaws. But it is as an international organisation, rather than as a state, that those flaws should be judged. However, that will not stop its detractors misleadingly claiming that it is ‘undemocratic’.


About the Author

Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster.




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).

Austerity and the gender-age gap in the 2015 and 2017 general elections

Anna Sanders and Rosalind Shorrocks examine the impact of austerity on vote choice in the last two general elections. They find that younger women were particularly anti-austerity and thus less supportive of the Conservative Party. However, the same was not true for older women, who were protected by the Coalition’s policies on pensions and were more similar to men in their assessment of their economic situation.

The gendered impact of austerity has been widely documented. The Women’s Budget Group estimates that, between 2010 and 2020, 86% of austerity cuts will have come from women’s pockets. This is largely because women are more reliant on state services, welfare payments, and they are more likely to work in the public sector. Yet we know relatively little about whether and how these policies have affected women’s vote choice in recent elections.

In our latest article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, we explore whether austerity policies led to gender differences in voting behaviour in Britain. In doing so, we use the British Election Study’s face-to-face post-election surveys to examine vote choice at the 2015 and 2017 British general elections.

We find that in both 2015 and 2017, women were more likely than men to say that their living costs, household financial situation, the general economic situation, and the NHS had got or would get worse. Given the disproportionate impact of austerity on women, women’s economic/financial pessimism is perhaps not too surprising.

Yet the context of austerity suggests that economic/financial attitudes will differ not only by gender, but by life-stage. Women’s greater reliance on benefits and tax credits has meant that austerity measures from 2010 disproportionately affected women of a working and childbearing age – particularly BME women. Such measures included the abolition of child trust funds, the tapering of child benefit, and cuts to the ‘baby’ element of child tax credits. Meanwhile, thanks to policies implemented by successive Coalition and Conservative governments, older women have been somewhat protected from the harshest impacts of austerity. This was seen especially with the Coalition’s ‘triple lock’ on pensions, which was linked with a significant rise in the basic state pension relative to earnings. Between 2010 and 2016, the basic state pension – upon which women are more reliant as a source of income – increased by 22.2%, compared to a growth in earnings of 7.6% and a growth in prices of 12.3%.

These gender-age differences are reflected in economic and financial attitudes. Table 1 shows that women under 35 were consistently more likely than men their age or older women to think that their financial situation and the general economic situation had or would get worse. There is little gender difference at the older ages, with older women (65+) being no more pessimistic than older men.

Table 2 shows that by 2017, economic/financial pessimism had increased amongst all groups. Despite this growing pessimism, younger women under the age of 35 are still the most pessimistic, being much more pessimistic than men of the same age. Strikingly, in 2017 younger women were 23 percentage points more likely than younger men to say that the economic situation would get worse over the next 12 months.

But do these economic and financial attitudes translate into gender-age differences in vote choice? We start by looking at how men and women voted in 2015 and 2017. Looking at Figures 1 and 2, we can see that younger women were more likely to vote Labour and less likely to vote Conservative than younger men at both elections. Younger women were also more supportive of Labour and less supportive of the Conservatives than older women. In 2017, gender differences amongst older age groups are smaller than in 2015, likely as a result of the collapse of UKIP, who older men were more likely to support.

Once we take younger women’s economic/financial pessimism into account, we show that they are no different to men in their vote choice. This is the case in both 2015 and 2017. This suggests that at both elections, younger women’s financial and economic pessimism was associated with their greater likelihood of voting Labour and reduced likelihood of voting Conservative. Notably, gender differences still remain at the older ages – even after taking economic/financial pessimism into account. Women over 65 are still more supportive than their male counterparts of the Conservatives, and accounting for economic/financial attitudes makes very little difference to their Conservative support.

Additionally, we find that younger women’s economic/financial pessimism contributed to age differences in vote choice between women. After we take younger women’s economic/financial pessimism into account, younger women are much more similar to older women in their vote choice in 2015.

In the context of austerity, Labour’s policies in both 2015 and 2017 would have been particularly attractive to women of a childbearing and working age. Many of these policies pledged to dismantle austerity measures that had been implemented by the previous Coalition and Conservative governments. These included pledges to abolish the under-occupancy penalty (otherwise known as the ‘bedroom tax’), reform Universal Credit, end the two-child policy on child tax credits and the ‘rape clause’, and reverse closures in Sure Start centres. These pledges likely appealed to younger women in particular, given their greater reliance on these payments and services. Meanwhile, Conservative pledges – especially in 2015 – likely appealed to older women voters in particular. These pledges included promises to retain the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, maintain universal pensioner benefits and pension flexibilities, which likely exacerbated the age differences among women that we find in 2015.

With the prospect of an early general election looming, it is clear that challenges lie ahead for both Labour and the Conservatives. For Labour, the party will need to consider how to reach out to older voters – particularly older women – with whom they have fared badly in past elections. While Labour did pledge to protect a range of pension-age benefits in 2017, some have raised concerns that such policies were not properly costed. Ensuring properly costed policies will provide a good starting point to ensure the party can reach out to older voters, who are already less likely to trust Labour with the economy.

For the Conservatives, the party will need to consider how to win back the votes of women, with whom they once had a lead. Continued austerity measures could have an impact on Conservative support not only among younger women, but among the party’s core base of older women as well. Despite the Chancellor’s promise of an ‘end to austerity’, there has been no mention of reversing the impact of austerity cuts already made. If the Conservatives are to restore their traditional lead with women voters, they must start by addressing their economic and financial concerns.

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

About the Author

Anna Sanders is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Manchester.




Rosalind Shorrocks is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester.




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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