» Britain ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Today’s trivia question: which British politician said this

“Every major statesman needs the wilderness years. Nelson Mandela had them and I suppose that’s my lot, too, so I’m ruling nothing out at this stage.”

You can find the answer here or in the tags to this post.

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David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

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The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.

Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.

846_bigThere’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.

In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.

At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.

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This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

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350x350.fitandcropIt’s been a while since I’ve done a review of anything here, but I wanted to spread the word about this production, in the hope that it might spur some of you into going to see it.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour are a company that have been producing live versions of 40s and 50s style radio broadcasts – complete with traditional sound effects produced on stage – since 2008. They’ve come together with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre to produce a version of Dracula that’s a fantastic piece of stage comedy.

We’re invited in as the studio audience to watch a BBC radio production of Dracula. The company’s lead performer, Mr Starkey (perhaps better known to my readers as Doctor Who‘s Strax) helps set the scene for us. Some of the regular repertory company’s finest performers will be presenting us with a dramatic presentation of Bran Stoker’s Dracula, and to add some verisimilitude to the performance a real-life Romanian aristocrat, Count Alucard, will be playing the part of Dracula. Meanwhile, outside the studio, Britain is about to be battered by violent storms accompanied by thunder and lightning, and a number of mysterious deaths have been occurring in the vicinity of Broadcasting House…

What follows is two stories in one: the adaptation of Dracula being performed with all the plum tones and ham acting one expects from early radio drama; and the events going on inside the studio as members of the company renew old feuds and start new flirtations, cues are missed, sound effects are generated, and Count Alucard’s behaviour becomes increasingly harder to explain as method acting.

The whole thing comes together to produce a wonderfully funny performance and the cast are all superb in their roles, bringing some perfect comic timing (including some wonderfully comedic pauses in the delivery) and interaction with the audience. My only complaint would be that there are so many different things happening on stage at various times it’s hard to be sure that you’re experiencing everything that’s going on – while your attention is focused on the performers at the main microphone, something else could be going on at the effects table at one side of the stage and with the piano player at the other. It’s all expertly put together, and the escalating level of farce is carefully managed to not overwhelm the story.

I’d definitely recommend going to see this if you can – it’s on at the Mercury until the 15th November (go here to book tickets and find out more) and I don’t know if it will have performances anywhere else afterwards, or if it will just be a little theatrical gem for us in the East to tell you all about.

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Welcome to Essex

Before entering the county, please update your list of things that are not allowed in Essex to include artwork by Banksy and green tarmac. Please note that the ban on electric light after midnight remains in place. Thank you for visiting.

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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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