bannerThere have been some very odd reactions to the announcement that the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign has now regenerated itself into a new organisation called Momentum. Some appear to think that because it starts with an M, it must be harking back to Militant while others appear to have decided that it’s clearly a front group for the Trotskyite takeover of the Labour Party. It’s a good example of another political irregular verb: I promote internal debate, you’re a factionalist, they’re creating a party within a party.

Aside from all the arguments about what an organisation that’s existed for about 48 hours will do in the future, I think it shows an interesting development in people’s perceptions of the Labour Party (and perhaps political parties more widely) and how party structures might develop in the future. Until recently, Labour had become what Katz and Mair call a ‘cartel party‘, an essentially technocratic organisation that reinforced the political system. However, the surge in its membership since the general election (especially during and after the leadership election) appears to be turning Labour back into a mass-membership party, though potentially unlike any we’ve seen before. Previous iterations of parties as mass-membership organisations developed over long periods of time with strong community structures that sustained and institutionalised that membership. This current surge is not just rapid, it comes into party structures that have been reduced and hollowed out over the years as the mass membership withered away.

What Labour reminds me of now more than anything is the major parties in American politics. One mistake Europeans often make in looking at US politics is to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are similar to our political parties, when their function is quite different. They work much more as empty shells, waiting to be filled at each election cycle with the candidate and their supporters, with the permanence of any version of the party – nationally and locally – dependent solely on electoral success. The candidate is more important than the party, and networks are just as likely to be built around individuals than they are around the party. The party becomes just a framework for candidate organisations to work in and populate, only giving it permanence after they’re successful and need it to remain in place for re-election.

This, I think, fits more with what people are expecting of political parties today and explains the need for organisations like Momentum. The old mass-membership structures were based around political parties as social organisations as much as they were political ones, but with so many other social opportunities available to fill people’s time, the desire now is much more for the political. Groups that will cut away all the rigmarole and bureaucracy of running a political party are much more likely to arise in order to allow people to engage solely with the politics and the campaigning side.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar organisations emerge around the Tories as well, especially in the wake of the EU referendum. it’s easy to see someone like Boris Johnson trying to draw together assorted Eurosceptics into a movement to support his bid for the leadership, perhaps with the same surprising result as happened with Labour. Conservative Party structures and membership have been hollowed out just as much as Labour’s (perhaps even more so), and those seeking to rely on insider campaigns for the leadership could find themselves in the same position as Burnham, Kendall and Cooper.

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qesb-logo-3-logogardenBack during April and May, I did a little bit of work helping Drs Edzia Carvalho and Kristi Winters on their Qualitative Election Study of Britain project, which was looking at people’s perceptions and attitudes towards the election campaign.

They’re now publishing some of the data they gathered from their work, in the form of transcripts of various of the focus groups that were conducted. They make interesting reading, as even though they’re individual testimony, they give an interesting account of how people outside the political bubble see and understand politics and should help to give anyone a bit of perspective on what ordinary members of the public were thinking during the election campaign. I’ve only had time to peruse them briefly so far, but there’s plenty in there of interest.

Click here to go to the main QESB site.


Amidst the blizzard of tasteful words hiding monstrous schemes that made up David Cameron’s speech yesterday, there was one part that felt out of place with the rest of the recent Tory rhetoric. When he was talking about schools, he said this:

So my next ambition is this: 500 new Free Schools, every school an academy…and yes – Local Authorities running schools a thing of the past.

(emphasis added) And yes, it got a round of applause from the audience, which is odd, as the rhetoric from the Tories the rest of the time has been proclaiming devolution and talking about how they’re handing power down from Whitehall. Yet here, Cameron is declaring – and the audience applauding – the end of any semblance of local control over education. As is already the case with most health services, the first democratically accountable person in the chain of management and control over your local school will be the Secretary of State for Education.

Sure, there are lots of efforts to make it look like they are accountable, but at every point that accountability is trumped by someone else holding the real power, who can ignore anything they don’t like. The pretence is that having choice gives people power, but how much of that power remains after the choice is made? Like democracy, real accountability has to be part of a ongoing process, not just a single event.

This, of course, is the usual modus operandi for the Tories. Big, bold claims about opening up services, providing choice, freedom and everything else, while actually instituting systems that take power further away from the people than it was before. There’s a huge illusionary trick being pulled off as Cameron and Osborne dazzle the crowd with language that sounds as though they’re giving away power when in reality they’re doing anything but. Under the guise of devolution, power is actually being pulled away from the people, insulated from any direct accountability and the possibility of any real local control.

Consider Osborne’s much-vaunted city regions. How will they be run? Through a board where almost all of the members are indirectly elected and the one that is (the regional mayor) won’t have any structures around them to provide checks and balances or to scrutinise them. Just as we’ve seen with PCCs, you’ll get to vote for someone once every four years and hope that they’re doing what you voted for during that time. Meanwhile, we’ve already been told that any decision to approve an increase in business rates will need to be approved by the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership. LEPs have already been given massive amounts of money to spend outside of any democratic control, and how long before the usual steady creep gives them even more unaccountable power over local decisions?

postdemocracyTo me, it feels like the institutions of post-democracy are being assembled around us, and the key part of post-democracy is that while democratic forms still exist for the public face of the system, they have little say over the operation of power within it. The rhetoric of democracy is being used to introduce systems that hollow out the practice of it, telling people that they are free while gradually removing any of the tools they may have used to exercise that freedom and make power accountable. That’s the prospect being laid out in front of us – no sudden change from one system to another, just a gradual whittling away of power – and if we’re going to confront it, then we need to get comfortable talking abour power.

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trollingSo, the Taxpayers’ Alliance have finally found the point at which they say something so outrageous that they actually have to apologise for it. There’s an even more shocking claim at the start of that report, however, when it refers to the TPA as a ‘think tank’, which future lexicographers may well come to regard as the point at which that term lost all meaning. Whereas a think tank used to conjure up images of dour and serious policy wonks lost in deep contemplation about the future of the country, now it appears to refer to anyone with an opinion and a non-personal website. (I’m still accepting donations to the Straw Man Institute, by the way)

Describing the TPA and their ilk as think tanks is a real misnomer, as those who work there are being paid to actively not think. There’s no pretence of objective investigation and enquiry going on, merely a process centred around mass-generation of Freedom of Information requests, the results of which are then splattered into a spreadsheet, attached to a press-release and hawked mercilessly around the lazier corners of the press. There’s no attempt to generate independent or original thought, they’re merely a conduit for providing PR to serve their donors’ needs by generating headlines favourable to their causes.

Their role is nothing more than trolling on a grand scale, derailing any attempt to have serious discussions about government, politics and society by shouting ‘but what about the rich people, eh?’ into any discussion. There is a role for genuine think tanks in political discussion, but that role is continually weakened by their association with what are nothing more than shills for whoever’s willing to pay them that week. When groups like the TPA get called ‘think tanks’ it denigrates and weakens the output of any organisation given that title, implying that they’re all nothing more than cheap PR flacks, eager to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

To try and solve this I recommend that any organisation that clearly doesn’t care about thinking should be referred to solely as a ‘troll tank’ (though some may perhaps be better referred to as ‘troll factories’ given how much their alumni crop up across the media). It’s a much better description of what they do and their role in debate, and might just lead to people understanding that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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To expand on an idea I had on Twitter earlier this evening, here’s a simple method for dealing with political donations by companies: The maximum amount any company can give in political donations should be linked to the amount of corporation tax it pays. This could be a straight one-to-one linkage or a ratio, but companies who pay no corporation tax wouldn’t be able to make donations.

Now, there is an argument – which I’m sympathetic to – that companies shouldn’t be making political donations at all, or if they do, that they should be approved by their shareholders but this works on a different idea. It would have two effects. First, no one could set up a dummy company to make donations – if a company’s not trading, it’s not paying tax so would be ruled out from making any donations.

Perhaps more importantly, any real company would actually have to be trading successfully and contributing to society through tax in order to have the right to have any financial influence on politics. Besides, any company not paying corporation tax is making no or very small profits and really should have much better things to invest in than trying to buy political influence. As for companies that don’t want to contribute to society here by shifting their profits and tax liabilities abroad, they’d be giving up their right to have any say in the political process here.

Sure, it’s not going to solve all the problems of political funding, but it’s something that would make it fairer and encourage companies to pay their taxes.

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indycoverWe probably shouldn’t be surprised at the news that the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office has declared that the ‘prosperity agenda’ is now more important than human rights in British foreign policy. We’re the country that hosts DSEI every year, after all, where it’s the weight of your wallet rather than your conscience that gets you attendance. Meanwhile, selling weapons to one of the world’s most repressive theocracies – a country actively encouraging wars in the Middle East – is worth more than a billion pounds a year, so we’re all somewhat aware that our supposedly ethical foreign policy is anything but.

It’s rare for someone – especially a higher-up in a department known for communicating through nuance – to be so blatant about admitting the truth, though. Our governments like to cling to the fig leaf that while we might be doing things that, when looked at from a certain angle, could appear to be somewhat bad, we’re doing them for entirely the right reasons and any negative side effects were regrettable but shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the useful process of engagement that these deals facilitated. The one restraint on the amorality of full-blown realpolitik was the need for it to be able to don a convincing human face afterwards to explain away its consequences.

But why should we be concerned with a little honesty about our foreign policy? It’s not as if Britain using military and diplomatic strength to secure dodgy trade deals is anything new, is it? Aren’t we just admitting the Augustinian nature – please make it ethical, just not yet – of our previous stances?

There are two problems with it. First, even if we never fulfilled our stated aims, I’d rather fail to reach a noble goal than not even attempt it and second, it shows just what contempt this government has for the concept of human rights. You can be sure that a civil servant wouldn’t be talking about their relative unimportance unless that was the signal being sent down from on high, but this government’s issue with human rights isn’t one of indifference, it’s active antipathy.

This is a government that’s talked about replacing international charters of rights with specifically British ones. The point of human rights is that they belong as of right to everyone, not just those who happen to be on a certain group of islands at a certain time, and replacing human rights with British rights abandons that, even before you consider that this is a government happy to strip people of citizenship and leave them stateless. Now, add to that the revelation that the Government considers the ‘prosperity agenda’ to be of much more importance than human rights, and you start to wonder just what their ‘British Bill of Rights’ might contain. If you can limit by geography and accident of birth, why not make everything conditional on not threatening anyone’s ‘prosperity’ too?

No, that would be entirely too ridiculous. It wouldn’t be anyone’s prosperity that would be protected, only those already doing well. After all, if trade is more important than human rights, maybe the only rights we’ll have will be the ones we can afford to buy? The quality of justice you receive is now determined by how much you’re able to pay for it, so the precedent’s there.

More and more, it feels like we’re living in the early days of a pariah nation. Worried yet?

(story and image via Barney Farmer on Twitter)


A window, which has been shown to actually work

A window, which has been shown to actually work

It’s become quite common for political pundits and online commentators to talk sagely about the “Overton Window” when they’re talking about public opinion. (Click here for a sampling of recent uses of it) It’s presented as an immutable law of political science – there’s a range of possible policies available on any given issue or set of issues, but only a certain amount (those within the Overton Window) are possible/politically deliverable at any given time. Thus, to make something politically possible that’s currently not, one must shift the window somehow.

There’s always a general vagueness about just how it works, but that the the Overton Window exists is taken as read by a lot of people, and I’m sure most people who cite it believe it’s an idea that’s been discussed by academics over many years and has been rigorously tested and proven to be correct. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Here’s a search for it with Google Scholar, which indexes millions of pieces of academic research and writing, which brings back no serious academic references to it. It does get mentioned in a few Glenn Beck books, some obscure libertarian pamphlets and in publications from the think tank it emerged from, but no serious academic attention has been paid to it.

Why is that? I’d propose that the most obvious explanation is that the Overton Window isn’t actually a theory, it’s just a vague assertion. See, for instance, this article about it (pdf) which starts from the assumption that it exists and goes from there. Any actual theory of political science has to be testable, and if the Overton Window was a theory it would come with a set of testable predictions about public opinion and how it shifts over time. It would also come with justification for some of the simplifying assumptions it appears to be based on, most notably that all the policy options for a certain issue can be placed on a straight line. None of that exists for the Overton Window, and none of its advocates appear to have put any effort into trying to prove it, preferring to assert its truth without testing.

I’ve written before about Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, and I think it provides an interesting counterexample to the Overton Window in that it’s a genuine theory which has been thoroughly tested and shown to make accurate predictions about how public opinion works. However, as it’s slightly more complex than ‘you can do some things, you can’t do others, but if you want to do the others then sizeable donations to our think tank might help make them possible’ it doesn’t get mentioned much by supposed experts on public opinion in the media.

This is a shame, because I think Zaller’s work on how elite opinion leads public opinion (in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion) is a much more useful concept than talk of windows. Zaller shows that when elites (politicians, media and other opinion formers) are generally agreed on an issue, public opinion follows suit. Public opinion on an issue only begins to shift when elite opinion begins to divide and differ. To use Zaller’s example (though there are many others in the wider literature), American opinion on the Vietnam War was mostly in favour of it until newspapers and politicians started raising questions about it, and then it began to fade. (That’s a bit of a simplification, but the key point is that public opinion tends to follow elite opinion, not vice versa) If there’s not an elite consensus, then public opinion will tend to cover a much wider spectrum.

Public opinion is a much more vague and nebulous thing than an idea like the Overton Window gives credit for. In truth, most people have what Converse called ‘nonattitudes’ to most issues: they’re capable of giving an opinion on something if asked, but that opinion is often completely random based on what they’ve seen and heard recently rather than a fixed and carefully considered outcome of rational thought. Trying to analyse something so amorphous using concepts that are fundamentally weak is almost a guarantee of misunderstanding what’s actually happening. Public opinion can be shifted much more quickly and much more widely than people think but the key to doing that is finding messages that reach people and become part of their considerations, not obsessing over the location of mythical windows.

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