Worth Reading 175: The end of Abraham

The medieval ‘New England’: a forgotten Anglo-Saxon colony on the north-eastern Black Sea coast – A fascinating piece of history: did post-Norman Conquest exiles from England end up establishing a Nova Anglia in the Crimea that lasted for at least two centuries?
Lib Dem runners up: Just how bad things are – In case you’d forgotten just how deep the hole is.
The case against Directly-Elected Executive Mayors – How the Government’s plans for devolution are undermining local democracy.
Clapping, as a cure for impotence – Philip Cowley on the SNP’s new role in Westminster.
Politicians, markets and the Which? magazine strata – Alex Marsh on politicians misunderstanding markets: “To fail to recognise that markets are social structures, and that the state has a fundamental role in shaping a successful market economy, is an analytical disaster.”

2015 General Election Day 27: Cordon sanitaire

This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.

2015 General Election Day 23: A swing to the Nostalgia Party

pg-14-hague-ride-paWe’ve had privatisations and the right to buy, but today the Tory campaign finally moved into the 90s with John Major warning us of the dangers of a Tory government with a small majority paralysed by its extremist backbenchers a Labour government working with the SNP. With any luck, the Tory nostalgia strategy will carry on moving forward through the years and the old Hague baseball caps will be pulled out of storage for one last moment in the spotlight.

Back in 2001, the Tory campaign was centred around ‘X Days To Save The Pound’, but I’m not quite sure what we’d be exhorted to save this time, aside from Cameron and Osborne’s political careers. ‘Save the Union’ would once have been a natural Tory rallying cry, but this time it seems that the Union be damned, a Tory victory is all that’s important no matter how much it might put the future of the country under threat. Here’s my question: let’s say you’re the Prime Minister and you’d actually quite like to get rid of Scotland, but you can’t say that in public or do anything that would too obviously give away your plan. What would you have done differently from what David Cameron has done since the morning of September 19th (the day after the referendum)?

Yet again, it seems that the democratic will of the British people is all-important, but only as long as they vote in the right way. I can remember the Major government, and the constant speculation over which MPs might rebel over what issue, and how the various concessions that were made to the right of the party slowly forced sensible and moderate Tories to jump ship and defect. But apparently that sort of pandering to nationalists who only cared about their pet issue was and would be perfectly all right, it’s only where they’re Scottish that they’re suddenly beyond the pale. I really don’t have much time for nationalism in any form outside sport but the absolute panic the SNP appear to be inciting in the British establishment is quite fun to watch.

Of course, if this election was being conducted using the sort of sane and sensible voting system you’d see elsewhere in Europe, we wouldn’t be having this problem. Yes, the SNP might be about to get a majority of the vote in Scotland, but that would only translate to a majority of seats, not a landslide that scours the ground clean of anything else. Also, we’d likely have two parties, neither of which looks like getting very far past having one-third of the electorate support it, accepting that neither of them had anything like the sort of mandate to govern alone. I have seen some discussion of just how silly our electoral system is becoming in an era that’s a long way from two-party politics, so there’s maybe a chance that common sense will dawn.

Anyway, if you need something to make you both smile and weep, here’s the latest tale of Grant Shapps being caught out by the internet. Smile as you read of his comedic exploits, then weep as you realise he’s considerably richer than you and MP for a safe seat, so this won’t affect his chances of re-election.

It has prompted one of the great press releases of the election, though:

Not likely to be creating any safe seats, today’s move down the list of parties standing in the election finds us at the National Health Action Party with twelve candidates standing around the country. Unlike most single issue parties, they probably won’t lose all their deposits as one of their candidates is Richard Taylor, formerly the independent MP for Wyre Forest, and one would expect that there’s some lingering support there for him given he got 16,170 votes there last time after two terms as MP. I don’t know if this will take him back to Parliament, but his 2001 win in Wyre Forest was pretty unexpected at the time as well – and one of the few interesting points in a very dull election night.

As you might expect, the party’s manifesto is very detailed on health issues with lots of plans for the NHS, and very general on others where they mainly call for everything to be fair. Aside from Taylor and his personal vote, I wouldn’t expect huge things from the party, as they only managed 1% of the vote in the one region they stood in for the European elections last year. European elections are ones where people tend to vote much more expressively than in others, and if only 1% of them then thought the NHAP were worth backing, I can’t see them making big breakthroughs this time.

Finally, today’s dive into Election Leaflets finds a non-party candidate who is very likely to be elected to the Commons – John Bercow, the Speaker. After the attempt to get him in the Commons failed, I did wonder if he might face some opposition from a suspiciously well-funded independent, but the Tories weren’t organised enough to arrange that so Buckingham is the only constituency in the country with just three candidates, and he’ll likely sail to victory over the Greens and UKIP.

2015 General Election Day 22: It depends what your definition of ‘local’ is

Question: what is the closest to a election that a party has released its manifesto? Because I’m pretty sure that outside of snap elections called at breakneck pace, the SNP choosing today to launch theirs must be one of the latest. Indeed, judging from some of the comments I’ve sen, it may be a real first in a party delivering its manifesto after votes had started being cast – some places had their postal ballots arrive at the weekend. That’s something that could raise an interesting discussion – what if you cast a postal vote for a party and then they surprised you by putting something in their manifesto that you fundamentally disagreed with? Is the answer that you should’ve waited, that they should’ve published earlier, or some combination of both?

With it being the SNP’s day in the spotlight, it’s a chance for London-based journalists to start revealing just how little they know, and Bill Turnbull got off to a fine start on BBC Breakfast this morning. Turnbull was interviewing a somewhat bemused Stewart Hosie (SNP Deputy Leader) about Trident, and seemed to be labouring under the impression that if there was a minority Labour government, the SNP would have some magical power of veto over them. It does sadly show how much Tory propaganda has sunk in that it didn’t occur to someone with years of journalistic experience that if Trident renewal was up for debate in the Commons, there’d have to be quite an odd situation going on for the SNP to be voting with the Tories to get rid of it.

It’s not just Turbull, though. All across the spectrum, political journalists and commentators – the elite experts who are meant to be explaining these things to us – are falling over themselves to tell us it’ll all be far too complex. Just as we saw in the run up to the last election, when the idea of a coalition and a hung Parliament was getting closer, it’s becoming clear just how hard it is for some of our media class to think outside the box. But then, this is a country where the comments of someone who may or may not be running for US President next year were ranked above any mention that Finland had an election yesterday, and even when Germany or France have elections, there’s no danger of Dimbleby being brought out to anchor all-night coverage of it, or armies of reporters travelling all over them to tell us what the race looks like from Dusseldorf or Lyons. Too much of our coverage is based on the idea that elections have to have winners and losers, and can’t be expressions of opinion. Maybe we’ll get a result this time that shakes that consensus a little more.

On a related note, I’ve noticed a similar consensus in reports looking ahead to the post-election period that seem to be assuming that Liberal Democrat MPs can be easily added to the Tory pile when considering the potential deals. Andrew George’s comments on this aren’t outside the party mainstream, and I know very few people – online or off – who’d be enthusiastic about a second coalition with the Tories. I’m sure there are some in the leadership who’d prefer it, but they’re going to have to convince the party to go along with it, which is going to be a significant issue at all the stages of agreement the leadership would need (Parliamentary party, Federal Executive and Conference). A lot depends on the final outcome of the election and how the coalition maths end up, but there are significant swathes of opinion in the party who’d prefer no coalition or one with Labour to carrying on with the Tories.

A very interesting discovery on Election Leaflets today, of a letter from Michael Fallon, flagging him up as Secretary of State for Defence to voters in Barrow and Furness playing up the threat of a Labour government ‘propped up by the SNP’ not renewing Trident. This is real ‘all politics is local’ territory as Barrow is where Vickers/BAE carry out the maintenance of Trident submarines (if you ever go to Barrow, that’s what the giant buildings looming over the town are for) and the only time it’s not been held by Labour since WW2 was in the 80s, when Labour were either either in favour of disarmament or seen as weak on keeping it. Labour have a decent majority there (over 5,000 in 2010), but worries about losing jobs at Vickers drove those losses in the 80s and could be just as strong today. Might be worth adding Barrow to the list of seats to keep an eye on for interesting results on election night.

“The democratic will of the British people”

2015_predicted_winnerSToday’s shock political news is that a member of a political party has said that party will vote against the Queen’s Speech of a party it generally disagrees with should it be in a position to do so. This should be something so routine it doesn’t even need to be mentioned, but apparently because the party talking about it is the SNP, this becomes a grand constitutional matter, not an issue of regular politics in the House of Commons.

Indeed, according to the Tories, this would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people” which is a bit rich coming from a party that feels it has a divine right to unfettered rule of the country despite not having received even forty percent of the vote at a general election for over two decades. That the same British people would, in these circumstances, not have given any party a majority in the Commons while returning sufficient SNP MPs to give them this power, would be completely irrelevant. For the Tories, the democratic will is only relevant if it gives them power through the random workings of our broken electoral system, and is to be ignored at all other times. We should be prepared for lots of people telling us what the democratic will of the people is over the next few months, most of which will likely not fit with what the people actually said in the election.

Of course, this is only a story because the SNP are involved as it seems that them doing almost anything that any other political party would do – including getting elected – is somehow an affront to the established order. Part of this is due to the belief that the No vote in the referendum should have reset the system back to the old status quo, and so they’re not following the script and disappearing back into obscurity, and so the SNP are seen as somehow illegitimate representatives, their MPs different to the others. The message appears to be that the establishment is very glad that Scotland decided to stay as part of the UK, but that they’re not allowed to use that membership to elect a party that will explicitly push for their interests, no matter how good its proved to be at doing that.

In this context, it appears that the “democratic will of the British people” only includes those British people who don’t vote for the SNP. The people of Scotland have chosen to remain as part of Britain, and they have just as much right to have their say as everyone else in the UK. Everyone’s democratic will gets to be expressed in the election and the Commons afterwards, not just the people who’ve voted the right way.

Some more on political party membership – how rare is a membership like the SNP’s?

snp_cards_and_coin_0A comment by Andrew Hickey got me thinking this morning about how the SNP’s surge in membership fits in a European context. In the post-referendum period, the party now reportedly has 80,000 or more members which makes it the third-largest UK party by membership, but also means its membership is about 2% of the total Scottish electorate. (As a comparison, to achieve that UK-wide, a party would need a membership of over 900,000)

Luckily, to place that into a European context, I don’t need to do a huge amount of work because someone else has already looked at party membership in general across Europe. Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke looked at the decline of party membership across Europe and their original paper not only includes the overall membership figures for each country, but breaks it down by party. By looking through their figures, I’ve found the following parties that all have around 2% or more of the electorate as members:

Austria: Peoples Party – OVP (700k members/11% of population) and Social Democratic Party – SPO (300k/5%)
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party (210k/3%)
Cyprus: Democratic Rally – DISY (40k/9%) and Democratic Party – DIKO (19k/4%)
Finland: Centre Party – KESK (192k/5%)
Greece: New Democracy (350k/4%) and PASOK (210k/2.5%)
Spain: People’s Party (725k/2%)

(Note that these figures are from around 2008, so don’t include new parties that might have reached the 2% milestone by now, or reflect any drop in members since they were obtained. I’d be very surprised if the Greek figures were still even vaguely accurate, for example. They also don’t include regional or national parties like the SNP like the Catalan nationalist parties or the Italian Lega Nord that might make an interesting comparison.)

What these figures do show is that the SNP’s relative size is definitely a rare feat in modern Europe. To have 2% of a population as members of a single political party is rare, even when there’s a general trend of higher party membership than there is in the UK. Most of the countries with a higher percentage achieve that by having membership scattered across several parties, with none reaching 2% or more of the electorate.

While the trend across Europe has been for a gradual decline in party membership, I do need to re-emphasise that these figures aren’t based on current data and so don’t reflect the appeal of new parties and movements. While I suspect the SNP’s tripling of membership post-referendum isn’t common, it would be interesting to see membership trends in other nationalist/regionalist/separatist groups since 2008, as well as the membership levels and trends of new political movements like Greece’s Syriza or Italy’s Five Star Movement. The interesting question is whether the downward trend in membership is set to continue inevitably or if it’s linked solely to the persistence of existing parties and can be reversed by introducing new ones to a political system.

Why do people join political parties? (And why don’t they do it now?)

Following on from my post about the SNP’s surge in membership, I thought it might be interesting to introduce some of the academic work on party membership. It’s an area that’s had some attention from academics, though hasn’t been studied to the same depth as other aspects of political behaviour. There are studies of what party members think, how much they do etc, but not much in the way of why people join political parties, or in terms of different models of party membership. There’s clearly different senses of what it means to be a member of a party across different countries, but also different expectations of what it might to be a party member even within the different parties of the UK. (One interesting effect of that SNP surge may be to see what happens if the expectations of new and existing members as to their roles clash)

People’s incentives for joining (as opposed to merely supporting) a political party are generally reckoned be for one of three reasons:

  • Purposive: Because they support the party’s aims and goals, and want to help them come about.
  • Social: Gaining friendships, other social opportunities and personal status from being a member of the party.
  • Material: Personal benefits that can come from being a member of the party, such as being a candidate/being elected. This can also involve opportunities for personal gain, business contacts and contracts etc.
  • This can help to explain why party membership has dropped so dramatically since it hit its modern peak in the 1950s. What we tend to forget is how much political party membership in that time was primarily driven by social considerations. If, for instance, one wanted to go and drink at the local Conservative, Liberal or Labour club, you had to be a member of the party. People would turn out to watch political speeches because there weren’t as many other options for entertainment of an evening. The members didn’t necessarily have any purposive reasons for being in the party – and they would likely not have been activists in our current understanding of party members – but they performed an important function in linking the party to wider society. This was the period of the politics of the mass party.

    The problem for modern parties, though, is that however much they try, those days aren’t coming back and in Katz and Mair’s term, the mass party has been replaced by the cartel party. This can be seen as a reaction to the end of the mass party era, or as a further cause of it with parties no longer seeing the need for a mass membership as they find other ways to connect with the electorate and wider society.

    The key question, though, is why anyone would join a political party in the modern age? The social benefits are not what they were, and unless someone wants to be an active member, most of the other benefits suffer from a free-rider problem – an individual membership will usually have very little effect on whether a party will achieve its goals, so why not do something else with your time and let others get on with achieving those goals?

    As we’ve seen, there have been some times when the downward trend in party membership has been reversed – and there is a general growth amongst some smaller parties – but those have ended with a reversion to the norm as new members drift away. The SNP’s membership surge might buck this trend, or the new members may find themselves with better things to do with their time when it comes to renew their membership, as has happened with other surges. Can a purely purposive appeal recreate something akin to a mass party, or does the social element of it need to be recreated to make it last?

    On party membership

    Screen-Shot-2013-09-18-at-12.16.19As if as a rejoinder to my post yesterday about the declining importance of political parties, there’s been a surge in membership for the pro-independence parties in Scotland since the referendum. The SNP are on course to become the third largest party in the UK in terms of members and according to one comment I saw the Scottish Greens have doubled their membership since Thursday.

    As I said, the general trend in membership in UK parties is downward, and previous large surges (Labour when Blair became leader, the Tories when Cameron became leader) have been minor upward bubbles that disappeared soon after, leaving the trend as it was before. It’s way too early to say if this is the case with the current Scottish surge, but what’s most fascinating is the scale of it.

    The SNP’s membership before this surge was around 25,000 which is approximately 0.5% of the population of Scotland. The interesting thing is that this was anomalous in the UK as a whole, where the largest membership was 0.3% for the Labour Party. Now, the SNP is on course to have 1% or more of the population of Scotland as members. As comparison, the last time a UK-wide party had a membership on this level was the Tories in the late 80s (Labour haven’t reached that level since the late 70s). It’s a return to an era of mass party membership, which could herald an interesting time in Scottish politics.

    Of course, the question is whether this sudden surge in party membership will last. It’s obviously been driven by the after-effects of the referendum, but will this remain as a salient and motivating factor next year? The presence of the Westminster election next year and the Holyrood election the year in 2016 may help in cementing the loyalty of the new members by giving them something to focus on.

    What’s also interesting to wonder is what effect this will have on the Scottish political system and the SNP itself. Can they use these motivated new members to win seats in 2015, and how will people who’ve cut their activist teeth in a referendum campaign deal with an electoral one? Also (and as has been pointed out, it’s a good problem to have), how will the party’s structures cope with the new membership? It’s not intentional entryism, but having a large number of people who’ve joined for one reason is surely going to lead to some interesting issues. The SNP is already relatively large by the current standards of UK political parties, and making it bigger makes things very interesting.

    There aren’t any conclusions to this at the moment, as we’re right in the middle of the event, but it’s definitely something of interest and worthy of note. Growth on this scale, in this short a time, is possibly unique in UK politics (previous surges didn’t have the internet – particularly social media – to facilitate them as much) and the long-term effects of it are going to be worth keeping a close eye on, as though we weren’t all paying attention to Scottish politics anyway.