I’ve made a few slight layout and editing changes to the blog, just to make it easier to access some of my old posts, particularly those I wrote as part of a series of posts. So, if you’re looking for my writing on any of these, you can now find links for them all on their own page to help guide you through the archive:

My 2006 walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End
The 2010 General Election
The 2012 Tour de France
Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism

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secondhand-politics-booksAs many of you are probably aware by now, I’m in the middle of doing an MA course in Politics at the University of Essex‘s Department of Government. One of the reasons I wanted to do the course is that after years of being involved in practical politics, I wanted to go back and look at the academic side of it once more, not least because there’ve been some dramatic changes in it since I finished my first degree twenty years ago.

One thing that I have discovered since returning to studying is that there’s a huge difference in the way people talk and think about politics inside and outside academia. There’s a huge amount of information, concepts and theories being propagated and discussed within academic politics that barely permeates the world of conventional politics.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in politics needs to be forced into a lecture theatre to have the full intricacies of it explained to them in gory detail, just in case someone on the doorstep wants to engage them in a debate about the differences between Burke and Mill. However, I do feel that there are plenty of people out there who like to discuss politics in more depth – whether they’re actively involved in it or not – but are missing out because there are interesting concepts within the field that aren’t widely known outside academia.

(I have a feeling that this may be something unique to politics as a field because there’s so little overlap between academics and media ‘experts’ in the field, though I could be wrong on that. This cartoon, however, is relevant to that debate.)

Of course, some of this is because a lot of the interesting academic work is locked away behind very expensive doors. For instance, in a post last week I talked about Katz and Mair’s theory of cartel parties, and if you want to read the paper that comes from you’ll have to subscribe to Party Politics. Or, I think discussions about voting in Britain would be much more informative if people had read books like Denver, Carman and Johns Elections and Voters in Britain but it’s £24 a copy and not commonly found in non-academic libraries. However, this same barrier applies in other fields too, but the information still gets out there because there are people who will report it, summarize it and popularize it.

Unfortunately in politics – and particularly British politics – that rarely happens. Occasionally a commentator will mention academic studies, but usually in the context of a quantitative study providing support for whatever their argument is that week but there’s rarely any deeper analysis going on. (Even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Peter Oborne is a rare exception) Our political commentary is rarely about deeper issues or helping people understand what’s going on and why, but more about short-term Westminster village gossip.

For instance, much political commentary is based on ideas from Downs’ Economic Theory Of Democracy (particularly that the only dimension of any importance is the left-right one) without acknowledging any of the debate, critiques, revisions and additions that theory has gone through over the years. There’s a whole field of ideas out there that’s not being included in the way politics is reported and talked about, which is perhaps another symptom of why it’s becoming closed off and of rapidly lessening interest to many people.

So, what I’m wondering is, in an attempt to counter this drought of information, would people be interested in an occasional (possibly very occasional, depending on the time it takes) series of posts on different areas of academic political studies and political science? I think it’d be interesting to bring some of these ideas out to try and broaden the political debate beyond who’s in and who’s out in any particular week, and it might inspire some interesting debate. If you would be interested, let me know, and also if there are any areas you want to know more about.

Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

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I’ve decided that from now on any policy I expose on this blog or elsewhere will have to have to have gone through a ‘people test’ first. This will determine what their effects will be on people, so we can be sure these policies won’t cause any harm to people. I’m not going to make any specific definition of who these people my test will apply to are, but rest assured that I am committed to supporting people despite not coming up with this gimmick vitally important test until now.

Yes, I’ve got the idea from David Cameron’s ‘family test’ that he’s promising to subject all new policy to, without actually specifying what definition of ‘family’ he’s using. I suspect he’s not applying Conrad Russell’s subjective definition – ‘those groups are families that believe that they are’ – but I also doubt he’d have the courage to stand up and say who he does and doesn’t include in his ‘family test’. It thus becomes more meaningless political twaddle, as he might as well be proposing a ‘people test’, given that he won’t (publicly, at least) exclude anyone from his definition of ‘family’. He’s blowing the dog whistle again, hoping people won’t notice that he wants some people to think he’s happy to screw over certain parts of the population if they don’t fit his definition of ‘family’.

The question is will anyone – a journalist today, an MP at PMQs when Parliament comes back from recess – be willing to put him on the spot and ask Cameron what he defines a family as, and who is not included in his ‘family test’?

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Who Stole the Four-Hour Workday? – How we lost our dreams of more leisure and less work.
America Is Not For Black People – “They — we — are inexplicably seen as a millions-strong army of potential killers, capable and cold enough that any single one could be a threat to a trained police officer in a bulletproof vest. There are reasons why white gun’s rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys. Guns aren’t for black people, either.”
This is what dysphoria feels like – An explanation that was enlightening for me, so I share it in the hope it may enlighten others.
Why Does Society Seem To Be Falling Apart, Even Though It’s Not? – “Every advance in technology allows us to do more with less, extending our reach further while allowing us to expend less energy*. Which means that the power that a deeply unpleasant person has to inflict emotional damage has also scaled up massively, and continues to do so.”
The Story of Class Struggle, America’s Most Popular Marxist Board Game – Not that there was much competition for the title.

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ‘embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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Officials count ballot papers in WitneyWriting on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Steven Ayres looks at where UKIP’s vote came from in the 2014 local elections, and what this might mean in next year’s general election.

It’s an interesting piece, but it brings me back a thought I’ve had recently with regard to UKIP’s chances next years and whether analysis is factoring in the effects of differential turnout and the motivation to vote of UKIP voters.

One assumption that we tend to make in projecting local election results forward to a general election is that the different turnout at the two elections can be ignored as a factor. We know that general elections have larger turnouts that local elections, but we assume that the voters who turn out at local elections are a proportional sample of the voters who’ll turn out at the general election. As an example, imagine a constituency with four parties where 20,000 people will vote at a general election, but only 10,000 of those will vote at the preceding local election. At that local election, we get the following result:

  • Party A: 4000 votes
  • Party B: 3000 votes
  • Party C: 2000 votes
  • Party D: 1000 votes
  • The tendency is to assume that the percentages of votes received in that election represent the share of opinion amongst the wider electorate and that thus amongst the general election electorate of 20,000 Party A will have 8,000 voters (40%), Party B will have 6000 voters (30%) etc. We assume that the 50% who will turn out for the local election is drawn equally from the parties – a Party A voter and a Party D general election voter both have a 50% probability of voting in the local election.

    The reason I’m writing this in relation to UKIP votes is that it seems to me that projections of what UKIP might do in 2015 assume that their voters turned out at the same rate in 2013 and 2014 as did supporters of the other parties. I’d need to go back to some of the polling from before May’s elections to confirm this, but my recollection is that it showed UKIP supporters were much more likely to intend to vote than those of other parties.

    To go back to the example, we assume it represents voter intention amongst the wider population, but what if each party’s supporters had a wildly different likelihood to vote at local elections? For example, if Party A’s supporters were 80% likely to vote at local elections, while Party D’s were only 20% likely, both could actually have 5,000 supporters amongst the general population. Extrapolating a general election result from a local one when the parties have had differing levels of turnout is not going to produce accurate forecasts.

    To return to the UKIP question, one thing I have noticed is that while they have had relatively high percentages in some elections, they’ve not gone beyond around x% of the total electorate. By my calculation, the share of the electorate UKIP have got in high-profile elections recently is:

  • Eastleigh by-election: 14.7%
  • Newark by-election: 13.7%
  • 2014 Euro election (East of England): 12.4%
  • 2014 Euro elections (East Midlands): 10.9%
  • 2014 Euro elections (national share): 9.4%
  • Rotherham by-election: 7.3%
  • Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election: 6.7%
  • South Shields by-election: 6.4%
  • My suspicion – and it’d take a lot of time with a lot of polling and election data and a stats package to explore that in more depth – is that UKIP’s peak support within the electorate is somewhere around 15%, but they are much more likely to turn out at all elections than voters for the other parties are. Thus, in elections with a lower turnout, their higher propensity to vote and our tendency to assume that those elections are a mirror of voters as a whole makes them look more of a threat in the general election than they will actually be. However, in a general election with turnouts of over 60%, it’s very hard for a party that can’t get more than 20% of the electorate to win a seat. That would require winning a seat with 33% of the vote or less, and while that’s possible, it’s very rare.

    UKIP’s dilemma for next year is that their best chance of winning seats comes if a) there’s a low overall turnout in a seat, allowing the higher motivation of their voters to be a factor and b) there are multiple parties competing for a seat, thus making it possible to win with a low share of the vote. However, seats with strong competition between multiple parties are unlikely to have a low turnout because of the amount of campaigning that’s done in them. It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

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    How did the First World War actually end? – Paul Mason explains some of the causes of history, and how our accounts of the war are often missing out the social and labour movements that were very important in it.
    The Fake Sheikh and me: Tulisa talks – I wouldn’t normally link to a showbiz story, even in the Guardian, but the fascinating details in this are the lengths Mazher Mahmood and the Sun were willing to go to for an entirely manufactured story.
    “Open Door Policy” – Andrew Hickey on the realities, rather than the tabloid headlines, of living with Britain’s immigration policy.
    Work less, live more, do better – Is working too many hours actually meaning we’re doing less? Written from the perspective of working as an academic, but much of the information is relevant to many fields.
    Two politics – Chris Dillow on the difference between politics-as-policy and politics-as-celebrity.

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    When David Cameron says


    Do you think he remembers this?

    But then, Boris doing something nasty, crude and thuggish, then trying to get out of it by doing the ‘lawks a mercy, silly Boris, ho ho!’ act is a perfect summation of his career.

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    One of the small highlights of the recent World Cup for me was the BBC showing the official FIFA World Cup films on BBC Two on weekend mornings. In the 1982 film – G’Ole! – there’s a moment near the end when the camera pans over the crowd for the final and shows a Colombia 1986 banner, the only time that tournament ever appeared on camera.

    Colombia had been selected to host the 1986 World Cup but withdrew from hosting later in 1982 because of a host of domestic and economic problems. In the words of President Betancur: “We have a lot of things to do here and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of Fifa and its members.” Colombia 1986 is the only time a country has not hosted the World Cup after being awarded it.

    Luckily for FIFA, there do still remain several countries willing to attend to their extravagances, and indeed will compete to provide more and more extravagances in order to get to host the World Cup. That’s why there was heated bidding for the rights to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and why some have cried foul after they were awarded to Russia and Qatar. Since they were awarded, there’s been constant criticism of the Qatar 2022 decision, and recent events in Ukraine have also made people question whether it’s right to host the 2018 tournament in Russia and Nick Clegg has called for it to be taken away from them.

    Unlike the complaints about Qatar, the arguments given for having the 2018 World Cup are almost entirely political, based on the recent actions of the Russian Government, though they tend to ignore that world sporting bodies are generally autocratic institutions themselves and don’t really respond to that sort of argument. Despite the fact it opens up a lot of other questions – should British clubs refuse to play in Russia in UEFA tournaments? If FIFA don’t change their minds, should the home nations boycott 2018? – it’s a legitimate thing to propose.

    However, if you want to scupper your entire campaign very quickly, what you shouldn’t do is this:

    Talking about the situation in Ukraine, Nick Clegg raised the question on whether Russia should host the World Cup in 2018:

    “He (Putin) can’t constantly push the patience of the international community beyond breaking point and still have the privilege and honour of receiving all the accolades in 2018 for being the host nation of the World Cup.”

    In light of Russia’s actions, one option could be to bring the World Cup to England instead.

    If you agree, sign this petition.

    We the undersigned call on England to host the 2018 World Cup instead of Russia.

    That’s currently on the Lib Dem website, and suddenly turns it from legitimate concerns about Russia to one of the countries beaten by Russia in the 2018 bidding trying to get revenge. It weakens the case against Russia hosting it by associating it with England getting the tournament instead and thus makes it into a contest of two countries, not weighing up the merits of one.

    The reason I brought up Colombia 1986 at the start of this post was because when the decision was made to not have the World Cup there, it wasn’t because another country had stepped forward and said ‘we’ll do it instead’. The decision to not host the tournament and the decision of the location of the replacement were separate, and if FIFA were to decide to take it from Russia, there’d surely be an open process (well, open by FIFA standards) to decide the replacement, as happened for 1986 (with Mexico selected over the USA and Canada). One could also look at the ongoing dispute over Qatar 2022, where the USA (probably the most likely location for it if it doesn’t happen in Qatar) are being very careful not to put themselves forward as the alternative, but instead are keeping the debate about whether it should be in Qatar at all.

    (I’d also question if England was able to host the tournament on such short notice, given the suggested new stadiums and expansions proposed in the original bid. If Russia were to lose it, and it was to stay within Europe, the most logical new host would likely be France, given the work they’re currently doing for Euro 2016.)

    This might just be an overenthusiastic staffer at Great George Street getting carried away and starting off a petition without thinking about it, but it’s a huge own goal. If you want to make the case against Russia, you should do that, and not confuse the issue by trying to fly an England flag at the same time.

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