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One of the benefits of being a student again is getting access to academic journals, which means I can see some of the latest research in political science before it gets chopped up, filtered and misrepresented by the press – if it’s ever covered at all. Instead, I get to read it, then chop it up, filter and misrepresent it to you here.

One new article published in Political Studies is ‘Not as Bad as We Feared or Even Worse Than We Imagined? Assessing and Explaining Conservative Party Members’ Views on Coalition‘ by Tim Bale and Paul Webb.

The main purpose of their research was to look at whether support for the coalition – and any potential future coalition – varied across the Conservative party, and whether those views changed depending on other factors such as their age or political views. Their conclusions on this subject were that the most important factors in support for the coalition, and for any potential future coalition, was dependent on ideological factors rather than demographic ones. As they put it:

In general, we found that demographics (apart perhaps from higher education) and activism do not appear to have much to do with members’ views on whether coalition was the right move in 2010. What matters more is ideology and leadership – more specifically whether members feel the leadership respects them, how close they feel ideologically to their leader, how well they feel David Cameron has performed as Prime Minister, and whether or not they like the policies his government has introduced

While this discovery – that there is a significant chunk of Conservative opinion that would prefer another coalition to returning to opposition – is interesting, what I want to concentrate on here is some of the data Bale and Webb have found out about the general views of Conservative members. These are the statistics they base the detailed work of their study on, but for the general audience they’re interesting in themselves. (The statistics were gathered by a YouGov survey of Conservative members)

The survey found that the average Tory member was 59 years old and more likely to be an ABC1 (83% of respondents) white (95.6%) male (68.9%) from London and the south east (56.8%). They also see themselves as right-wing (8.37 on a 1-10 left-right scale) and more right-wing than David Cameron (who they see as being at 7.02 on the same scale). Questions on left-right and liberal-authoritarian issues, found that they tended to be on the right economically and authoritarian socially, but “more culturally conservative than they are economically right-wing.”

On political issues, you probably won’t be surprised to find that they tend to support Conservative government policies and not support Liberal Democrat ones. In general, their support for or agreement with Conservative policies was 65.6% with 21% opposing or disagreeing. For Liberal Democrat government policies, those averages were 33.9% in favour and 39.3% against. The main outliers from those trends were limited support for university tuition fees (46% support), ring-fencing NHS spending (50%), cuts in defence spending (17%), not restricting workers from Romania and Bulgaria (23%), same-sex marriage (24%) and protecting the overseas aid budget (18%). The pupil premium – a Liberal Democrat policy – gets significantly more support (58%) than other Lib Dem ones.

To give an idea of the policies they do support, here are the percentages of support for other policies:

  • Reduced immigration from non-EU countries: 89.4%
  • The deficit-reduction programme: 96.2%
  • Cutting taxes for business: 85.1%
  • Free/academy schools: 76.4%
  • Cap on housing benefit: 93%
  • Public sector pay controls/freezes: 80.2%
  • Reorganisation of NHS: 78.5%
  • Keeping council tax rises below 2%: 89.3%
  • Reduction of top rate tax from 50% to 45%: 77.9%
  • You might notice that the question of EU membership isn’t in that list. That’s not because it wasn’t asked, but because the results are so interesting that I decided to deal with them separately. The respondents were asked their opinion on two subjects: whether they would support Britain remaining in the EU after membership was renegotiated (Cameron’s current policy) and whether they would support British withdrawal from the EU today.

    There’s a narrow majority in favour of continuing membership after renegotiation – 53.6& support it and 37.9% oppose it. On the question of whether Britain should withdraw from the EU today, though, their view is clear: 70.8% support it, and 20.4% oppose it. Just to make that clear: 71% of Conservative Party members think Britain should leave the EU. If you want to take away a single statistic to explain why David Cameron has a UKIP problem, this is it.

    The main thrust of this research is the coalition, and as saw at the start, it shows that the main dividing line in the Conservatives about whether they support the coalition or not is an ideological one, not one determined by demographics or how active in the party they are. The closer a member feels to the leadership position, the more likely they are to support the coalition. While that might sound somewhat obvious, the important finding is that it is a stronger factor in determining support for the coalition than any other.

    The members were also asked their opinion on their preferred option in 2010: 41% wanted a Conservative minority government, 33% thought the coalition was the best option and 24% would have gone for a second general election. (These are all hindsight figures, not necessarily what they were thinking at the time) That 33% tend to have more support for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy, position themselves slightly to the left of the party average (but still perceive themselves to be further right than David Cameron) and aren’t quite as Eurosceptic as the rest of the party, though a majority of them (54.1%) would still support EU withdrawal now.

    What this research gives us is a very interesting insight into the Conservative Party membership, and a sense that while there may be support for the coalition within the party, it’s only for a relationship of necessity, not a great meeting of minds and principles. However, it also shows that there is support within the party for the sort of red meat conservatism that’s being proposed at their conference this week. However, as much as the leadership might try and assuage the membership with policies, the membership’s view on the EU could still be a massive problem for them and a huge opportunity for UKIP to exploit.

    The research project was about the coalition and Conservative members’ views on that as it correlates to their background and beliefs, but what I’d love to see (if it’s possible from the data) is how those views on Europe and the EU break down across the membership. We can see that those who are more in favour of the coalition are less likely to support EU withdrawal, but how does that view break down in terms of age and party activity? It’d be interesting to see if activists are more likely to be in favour of withdrawal than armchair members or vice versa, given the implications that might have on the effect of UKIP defectors. Are they gaining those who do the work, or those who sit at home?

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    I’ve said before that the political system in this country is broken, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster of reform, it’s good to see that issues of how the British constitution works (or more accurately, doesn’t work) have gone mainstream after the Scottish referendum.

    I’ve long thought that there are huge problems with the way this country is run, regardless of who’s actually in power. I was involved in Charter 88 over two decades ago, and while there have been some tentative steps towards reform since then, we’ve never had a truly fundamental examination of the way this country is run. Instead, we’ve had piecemeal reform on top of piecemeal reform, leading to the mess we’ve got now, and all constrained by the central problem of British politics: that power is held to emanate from the centre and is only reluctantly given away to others.

    That’s the problem with the discussion on constitutional reform we’re having now: decisions are being made at the centre, ready to be imposed on the rest of us, and after years of inaction we’re being rushed towards half-baked solutions. Yet again, it’s a piecemeal solution to try and solve the problem in the short-term, with no consideration about long-term consequences. The last thing we need is yet another piecemeal solution. Yes, there are promises for further devolution to Scotland that have to be kept and made concrete quickly, but that doesn’t mean everything else has to be yoked to that same timetable.

    What we’ve also seen happen when any reform comes up is that it becomes a party-political football, as we’re already seeing with the current debate. Various competing visions of reform get proposed, none can get enough support to get passed through Parliament, and the status quo prevails. Or, as we saw with the AV referendum, one weak proposal does get through, then gets shot down and it’s then proclaimed that no change is necessary.

    Any process of constitutional change is inherently political, but that does not mean it has to be run through the current political system. The reason we’ve got to this position is because we’ve got a dysfunctional political system, and expecting that political system to come up with a rational and workable system that fixes itself is perhaps the definition of foolhardy optimism. People are running out of trust in the current system and aren’t expecting it to be able to come up with solutions. That existing bias is going to colour public perception against any new system, even if a miracle occurs and a good reforming idea comes out from the system for once.

    That’s why I think we need a constitutional convention to do this process in an entirely different way. We’e had decade after decade of changes being handed down from the top, sure in the knowledge that Westminster can decree the solution to everyone’s problems, and instead we need to let the people solve their own problems this time. A convention – drawing in people from all over the country and all walks of life – gives the chance to do that process differently, and finally to break the tradition that it’s all right for Parliament to set its own (and everyone else’s) rules.

    While I think it’s good that political leaders have been calling for a constitutional convention, the process can’t be run by or be part of the current political system. My fear would be that any convention that’s too closely run by the current system won’t be a genuine convention but not much more than a glorified consultation exercise, its entire remit set down by Parliament, and it wouldn’t be free to break out of it. What we need isn’t just tweaking the existing system, but starting anew to build a system from below that keeps power closer to the people, not just deciding that Westminster knows best for everyone. What we especially need is for any new system to have its own force behind it, in the same way as the Scottish Parliament rests on Scotland’s constitutional convention. Any Westminster-created system could face the same fate as other of the changes we’ve seen over the years – capable of being wiped out and rolled back by Parliament at a centralising whim.

    The other important lesson of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is that it was created outside of the system, not by it. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Government, but drew in support from across society in Scotland. That’s the model we should be adopting for a UK-wide constitutional convention, and instead of waiting for Parliament to give us one, we ned to be getting out there and making one happen.

    The question, then, is how do we do that? Do a few of us just get a room, a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and whatever else and commence arguing, hoping others will join in and make the whole thing snowball? Or do we need to build widespread support first, then kick it all off with a storm of involvement and publicity? I don’t know, and I’m not a mood for laying down how everyone else should do something, so what are your thoughts? Which way round does it need to be done, or should we just sit back and trust in Westminster and the system to get it right this time?

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    Verso_978_1_84467_324_7_Ruling_the_void_300_Site-6c16fc1a36f99a2f191ca0f19b6cb162I’ve been reading a couple of interesting books this week: Colin Crouch’s Post-democracy and the late Peter Mair’s final book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy.

    Both of them share a common theme: that our understanding of how politics works, including the nature of our democracy, is wrong. For Crouch, post-democracy represents a time when corporate interests now overwhelm those of a citizenry that is incapable (and perhaps unwilling) to rpresent itself as effectively. Mair’s thesis is set out quite succinctly on the first page: “The age of party democracy has passed.”

    The political systems of the 20th century developed around mass parties that served as intermediaries between the state and the people. However, across the past few decades and across almost all established democracies, the number of people who are members of or involved directly in political parties has dropped dramatically. In the 50s and 60s, almost 10% of the population of Britain was a member of a political party, but party membership has now dwindled so much that we’re almost at the point where it could round down to 0%.

    The problem we have is that because this decline has been gradual, in the short term everything has looked as though it’s perfectly normal and any decline can easily be turned around. For instance, in the first few years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour membership started going up significantly, after decades of steady decline. However, after a few years, the downward trend continued again, but even faster this time, soon reaching the point it was already for before Blair. (See the graph on page 4 of this report for lots of peaks in all parties that fail to mask the long term decline)

    The problem we have is because the breakdown has occurred so slowly, we’ve failed to notice that anything’s changed. Post-democracy is the end of a long process, not a sudden transformative change – we can’t point at one date or one event and say that all was fine before it and all was broken after it. What we have, though, is a system that has (in Mair’s words) been hollowed out and mass parties representing the whole population have been replaced by cartel parties that compete over a small patch of ground. We assume that people naturally identify with a party, when evidence suggests that is increasingly unlikely, and regarding a party as something that can automatically link the government with the people is becoming a weaker assumption every day.

    Neither Mair or Crouch have solutions to offer for this issue, but given that the diagnosis hasn’t been accepted widely, why would the remedy? I think both books are definitely worth reading for anyone involved or interested in British politics, just to get a radically different view of how things are and to ask what we need to do to make things work again in the future. The Scottish referendum has shown us that there’s a huge wave of discontent with the system and how it works, and I don’t think we can close our eyes to it and pretend it’s not happening, or that carrying on with politics as usual is going to fix it.

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    A few thoughts:

    1) We don’t need a Dangerous Devolution Act

    After decades of people talking about Britain needs to change, David Cameron appears to have put the accelerator right down, and in order to balance Scotland’s Devo Max England, Wales and Northern Ireland are going to get new powers at a lightning rate too. It’s the British system at it’s worst, with everyone running round like headless chickens to get something, anything done as quickly as possible in order to be seen to be doing something. As has been seen time and time again and the Dangerous Dogs Act is the exemplar of this speed-driven process – this just creates more trouble further down the line. We’ve taken years to get this far, we don’t need decisions now taken in days.

    2) We only need one process

    We had three separate petitions for a constitutional convention this morning, we’ve got Ed Miliband calling for one separately to David Cameron’s proposals and I’m sure other people are putting together their proposals and calls for action together right now. What we need is for all these people to come together and agree on one process for dealing with this, not hundreds of different competing ones that will amount to nothing. And it has to be an inclusive process, inviting people from across the political spectrum and outside of it to take part in it. Even if they choose not to, they have to have been given that opportunity to give it credibility.

    3) New people need to have control of what happens next

    Once the various people calling for change have got the ball rolling, they need to step back. This can’t just be a group of the usual suspects getting together to rubber stamp a few ideas floated down from Whitehall or Labour’s NEC which someone will then ram through Parliament. This has got to be a genuine process of the people, for the people and by the people, and the people not the politicos have to be the ones who run it and control it.

    4) We need new language for this process

    Yes, it’s a constitutional convention to talk about further devolution, but can’t we find some other words to describe it? If we genuinely want something new, then we have to be prepared to change the way we talk about it to get people involved, not just stick to the same old ways. People want change, and we need to ensure that this process delivers it with the widest involvement possible, and that change may need to involve us changing the language we talk about politics with.

    Just a few thoughts at the end of a day without much sleep, so they’re loose, unfocused and subject to change. We need to be moving on this now and making things happen before the opportunity for mass involvement fades and it becomes a conversation of the elites again.

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    One reason why getting more democracy and devolution is going to be a tough fight, illustrated in three tweets from the last few hours:


    That’s three different petitions for a constitutional convention from three sources you would expect to have had some contact with each other in recent times and so would have been able to co-ordinate their efforts. There’s lots of support out there for the idea of a constitutional convention and lots of people wanting to be involved in the discussion of how we get a better democracy. The problem is that at just the time there needs to be some co-ordination and people speaking with coherence on this, it’s all getting dissipated because those who should be co-ordinating are all off doing their own thing.

    We have a fantastic opportunity, possibly the best in my lifetime, for some genuine reform and better democracy across the UK, but we’re going to need to work together to achieve it, and focus it on one thing at a time, not multiple attempts to get the same thing in slightly different ways. Are we going to let it slip and end up with some classic British constitutional fudge dumped on us from Westminster instead?

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    While I’ve been talking about the Scottish independence referendum online over the last few weeks, I’ve been careful to try not to talk about how I would have voted, or to tell the people of Scotland how to vote. If you want to understand why there are such resentments at the way the UK is governed, the tendency of many English people to assume that no one can make a decision before they’ve weighed in and given their opinion is a good place to start looking.

    So, I’ve scheduled this post for a little after 10pm, when voting should have stopped and the only chance of me lecturing Scottish voters is if someone’s very bored stuck in a long queue to vote as the polls close. If you are that person, I hope you’re wait’s not too long, but be happy at the fact there’s a good chance you’ll appear in background footage on the news.

    The main problem for me in thinking about how I would have voted is that a lot of the discussion has centred around two competing nationalisms – Scottish and British – and if there’s anything guaranteed to exclude me from a debate, it’s a question of which imagined community you think you belong to most. Both sides have been equally obnoxious in their proclamations that their nationalism is the best, though the hyperbole prize is surely won by Fraser Nelson’s claim that the UK is “the greatest force for good that the world has ever known.”

    That leaves it to a decision based on practicalities, and I’m almost persuaded by the arguments of people like Charles Stross that an independent Scotland could be something new and different, a chance to start again in the early days of a better nation. (Though ‘break up the Westphalian system’ does sound like the slogan of the world’s most obscure Marxist fraction) However, the more I look, the more I see there’s nothing there behind the vision, and it’s far from the only vision of what an independent Scotland could be like. When Alex Salmond spends his time meeting regularly with Rupert Murdoch, admiring Vladimir Putin and getting massive donations from people like Brian Souter, I can’t help but wonder what the people with the power to shape it imagine an independent Scotland being like. For me, it’s not just the questions about the currency, but everything else about the new Scotland that hasn’t been answered that makes a Yes vote a jump into the dark, so my vote would have been a reluctant No.

    But, I’m glad I didn’t get a vote, because this is Scotland’s decision not mine. Hearing people who don’t live there demand their right to a say scares me in some way because it makes me wonder about their understanding and regard for consent in other situations. It’s only a massive sense of English privilege that gives people the feeling that someone else shouldn’t be making a decision without their input, and that they should somehow have a veto over someone else’s decision. The idea that people somehow defined as Scottish but not living in Scotland should have a vote seems odd to me as well, for where do you draw the line? Should I have had a say because my grandfather was born in Scotland (it’d be enough for FIFA, I believe)? Should it just be limited to people within the UK or could people like David McAllister have a say too? The governance and government of a country should be a civic matter, not an ethnic one, and once you start complicating things with nationalism, everything gets a lot more complex.

    Tonight, I’m going to sit back and watch the results come in and know whatever happens, it’s the people of Scotland who’ve decided. Quite what they’ve decided, we won’t know for a while – I think a Yes vote will lead to lots of negotiations and calls for another vote on the actual deal, while a No will lead to some people suddenly finding things much more important than devo max to talk about. Whatever the result, there’s a window of opportunity to talk about making a different and better government for a different and better UK, and we need to make sure they don’t close it.

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