Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The EU knowledge deficit was all too predictable before Brexit

John McCormick

Two years before the Brexit referendum, I wrote a piece for the Political Quarterly reflecting on its potential downfalls. My concerns were prompted by research showing that many people in Britain had declining faith in government and only a limited understanding of the European Union (EU).

The paper challenged a widely-held theory that voters can make up for their lack of familiarity with public issues by taking their cues from trusted sources. It suggested that there was a knowledge deficit at work that cast doubt on the wisdom of this one referendum in particular, and of national referendums in general.

Recent experience with referendums in other EU member states hinted – I suggested - at three possible outcomes in a British vote: that many voters would take part without independent and informed knowledge of the issues at stake, that many would thus be swayed by partisan elite opinion, and that many would make their choice on the basis of their views about domestic politics rather than their views about Europe.

Four years later, and two years after the Brexit referendum, how have these conclusions held up?

The concern about voters lacking knowledge derived from polling data which showed about half of Britons admitting that they did not understand how the EU worked. Ironically, the Brexit referendum campaign was to offer many of them an intensive lesson in EU matters; the EU was discussed in Britain with an intensity that had not been seen since at least the first referendum on membership of the European Community in 1975. But while they heard a great deal, were they carefully guided, or misled?

Regarding the second assertion that many people would allow themselves to be swayed by elite public opinion, there is no question that this is what happened. Many allowed themselves to be influenced by partisan media and political leaders. Much of what they heard from the Remain side was speculative in terms of what might happen in the event of Brexit, and much of what they heard from the Leave side was simply wrong. Symbolic of the misinformation was the now infamous red bus bearing an inflated claim about how much EU membership cost the UK, and making the unsustainable assertion that the savings could all go to the National Health Service.

As to whether British voters would make their choice on the basis of domestic political issues or on their views about Europe, it has been very clear since the Brexit vote that much of the support for leaving was based not on an informed criticism of the EU, but on resentment felt by about immigrants, political leaders, globalization, the economy, and political marginalization. In this sense, the EU was a handy and timely scapegoat.

No-one writing or speculating prior to the referendum had any idea just how serious would be the political and economic ramifications of leaving. Not only was it widely supposed that the vote would favour Remain, but when it favoured an exit, the disruption that came to British politics, the divisions revealed within British society, and the enormous difficulties of negotiating an acceptable exit agreement, were barely imaginable.

The Brexit referendum, I concluded in the paper, would be held ‘against the background of a disturbing combination of declining faith in national government and widespread uncertainty among British voters about the meaning of membership of the European Union’. With the result now in, and the problems created by that result still evolving, the dangers of declining public faith and limited voter knowledge have never been so clear.

John McCormick is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Image by Rock Cohen. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Remembering Tony King

Tony Wright

There is a table at the Tate Britain restaurant that the waiters there always referred to as ‘Professor King's table’. It is situated near the bar, a discreet distance from other tables, so that conversations would not be overheard.

This was where Tony King would have lunch with those politicians (and civil servants) who might have something interesting to tell him about current political developments and could be lured to make the short walk along Millbank from Westminster and Whitehall.

People liked to talk to Tony, not just because he was so amiable, but because of his undiminished curiosity about the business of politics and about those who engaged in it.

Tony King combined scholarship with a real-world grasp that few could match. This was evident both in his public activities and in his published work. His studies of legislatures and of career politicians changed the way in which issues were viewed and he was skilled at identifying emerging trends before anyone else. He analysed the failings of government, but always as a practical improver. He showed political scientists that it was possible to combine good scholarship with an ability to communicate.

When I chaired the Public Administration Select Committee, which I did for over a decade, I made sure that Tony King was a regular witness in our inquiries. This was because he could be relied upon to combine scholarly expertise with a real-world grasp that few could match.

For example, when there was a great fuss about the number of special advisers during the early Blair years and we duly inquired into the matter, along came Tony to say that numbers was not really the issue. If they were doing a good job then you might want to have more of them; and fewer if not. Besides, compared with most other countries, Britain was an outlier in its limited use of political appointments in the government machine.

Whatever Tony wrote about, it was the combination of scholarship with a feel for the practicalities of political life that always marked out his work. Its effect was often to change the way in which an issue was viewed, or to identify a trend before anyone else had spotted it.

His pioneering study of career politicians—’The rise of career politicians in Britain—and its consequences’ —anticipated the more recent interest in this whole issue. He was able to show, by meticulous examination of the historical record, that there had always been career politicians in Britain, including the most notable figures. In that sense they were not a new phenomenon. However, what was new was the virtual disappearance of the non-career politician from British politics, with the result that those engaged in politics had a diminished experience of life beyond. He had opened up an issue that gained powerful traction a generation later.

If we wanted better government, we should be concerned (amongst other things) with getting better politicians. And Tony King did want better government. Never cynical or detached, he was a practical improver who wanted politicians and governments to be as good as they could be.

This was evident in his broadcasting and journalism, but also in his writing. Tony was a natural communicator, eschewing academic narrowness and the impenetrable jargon that often accompanied it, someone who was prepared to tackle the big picture and to do so in a way that engaged the reader. Nowhere was this more evident than in his sparkling Hamlyn lectures in 2000, published as Does the United Kingdom Still Have a Constitution?, which was then extended into book form in The British Constitution.

It was this talent for writing in a way that could reach an audience beyond the academy that made him a natural choice for Penguin when they wanted someone to author Who Governs Britain? in their new series of Pelican Introductions. This was to be his last book, so it has to be regarded as his last word.

If he had a remedy to ‘the way we are governed now’, it was cultural rather than institutional. His most intense dislike was always the entrenched adversarialism of the British way of doing politics, noting that ‘there are probably few other countries in which party-political point-scoring is so incessant’. He lamented the fact that when you turned on the radio in the morning you knew at once if it was a politician who was talking.

His preferred alternative was what he described as ‘the Nordic style’, which involved agreeing where possible and disagreeing where necessary. He was too good a political scientist to be dewy-eyed about the Nordic (or any other) kind of politics, but he did think that a more consensual political style involving a search for agreement brought real policy advantages.

As this turned out to be his last word, it is something worth hanging on to. He thought government in Britain was still better than most, but wanted it to remedy its deficiencies and to up its game.

He also showed that it was possible to combine impeccable scholarship with an ability to speak to a wider public in an accessible and engaging way about issues that mattered. His best legacy would be for that ambition to be taken up by others.

That table at the Tate might no longer be occupied by the King, but it should inspire an army of academic followers.

Tony Wright is a former MP, now Professor of Government and Public Policy at UCL.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.
Image by Diamond Geezer.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

'I, Daniel Blake' poses important questions about the individual and the state

Nick O’Brien

It is not every day that a film about administrative justice wins a BAFTA. Ken Loach's success with I, Daniel Blake, a film in part about the protagonist's tragic encounters with the welfare-benefits system, breaks the mould.

Perhaps not surprisingly, on its release the film evoked starkly contrasting political reactions. For Jeremy Corbyn it was an apt portrayal of the “institutionalised barbarity” of the benefits system; Damien Green, then Work and Pensions Secretary, by contrast, thought it “monstrously unfair”.

I argue that I, Daniel Blake invites deep reflection on the relationship between the individual and the state, and, more particularly, on the role of administrative justice in restoring a re-imagined sense of citizenship.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user”

At the end of the film, the implication is that the tribunal might at last provide closure and thereby constitute a welcome counterweight to the arbitrary bureaucracy that has caused Daniel Blake to suffer.

As Blake's testimony daubed on the wall of the job centre proclaims:

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief. I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don't tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don't accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.”

It is clear enough, however, that Daniel Blake's manifesto is far from merely a cry for better ‘customer care’ that has arguably been the focus of much bureaucratic interaction. On the contrary, it should be read as a sustained plea for a re-imagined sense of ‘citizenship’, civic pride and dignity.
To meet such an ambition, administrative justice must be recognised as an overarching set of principles and values, rooted in a framework of human rights and with a reinvigorated public-sector ombud-institution at its centre.

How the administrative justice system can be repositioned as an agent of institutional reform

The active state, as recognised in the 1950s and 1960s, can hardly escape ‘the problem of bureaucracy’ altogether: retreat to pre-bureaucratic familial, religious and charitable provision is not a just alternative.
The humanisation of state bureaucracy and the restoration of trust remain, however, a realisable goal, and in the light of the administrative justice and human rights tragedy which is ‘Grenfell Tower’, one whose realisation is demonstrably critical.

Recent developments in administrative justice

If the high watermark of administrative justice as a system was the UK government's White Paper, 'Transforming Public Services: Complaints, Redress and Tribunals', published in 2004, and the subsequent establishment of a new integrated Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) in 2007, the swift abolition of the AJTC by the coalition government in 2012 signalled its rapid demise.

Since then the oversight function for administrative justice as a whole has rested less securely and less influentially with the Administrative Justice Forum convened by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Now, in 2017, that Forum has also been abandoned, with aspects of its role devolved to an emerging partnership between the MoJ and the campaigning body, JUSTICE.

Meanwhile, the UK Administrative Justice Institute (UKAJI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation and based at the University of Essex, has since 2014 partially, but valiantly, held the fort, operating as a successful focal point for related multi-disciplinary research. UKAJI proposes an ‘overriding set of principles and values’, with which the administrative justice system might achieve renewal and a certain measure of repositioning towards the ‘restoration of trust’, ‘dignity’ and human rights.

Yet UKAJI's funding by Nuffield and has now ceased and its home within Essex University is secured only until later this year. .

Reviving the ombudsman

What then might be some of the resources for a ‘repositioning’ exercise? How might a progressive agenda for administrative justice begin to take shape?

Part of the answer lies in repositioning at the heart of the administrative justice system the ombud-institution at its most ambitious and most progressive. Far from the Ombudsman falling prey to the advances of judicialisation, the ombud and its technique should more boldly inform the practice of administrative decision-making more generally, including by tribunals and courts.
There are four re-emphases that such reinstatement might encourage, including a renewed commitment to overarching values and principles, as advocated by UKAJI.
The re-emphases are, in turn, concerned with the need to promote a more deliberative and less adversarial process of fact-finding; to recover as goal the importance of institutional reform and shared public benefit, rather than narrowly individual dispute resolution; to advance remedies that are restorative not just compensatory; and finally, to take a second look at human rights as a source of positive democratic value, as much associated with egalitarian social rights entitlement as with individual libertarian protections.

Nick O’Brien is Hon. Research Fellow, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Three dangerous generalisations you could be making about populism

Daphne Halikiopoulou

Right-wing populist parties competed in most electoral contests that took place in Europe in 2017, often as main contenders for power.

Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) made it to the second round of the French Presidential election, obtaining a high 33.9 per cent of the vote; in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) increased its parliamentary seats by five, despite not making it to first place; the Alternative for Germany (AfD) received 12.6% of the vote, becoming the third largest party in Parliament; and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has entered a coalition government. These results come as the continuation of a trend fast emerging since the 2014 ‘earthquake’ European Parliament elections and the election of Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016.

These events have sparked talk of a ‘populist revolution’: a new and sweeping phenomenon, spanning across countries and continents. At its core is a focus on sovereignty, an anti-elite narrative and the espousal of anti-immigration policies resting on the principle of the national preference – or in other words, that access to the collective goods of the state should be confined to native groups.

Is cultural insecurity the cause?

Why is this happening? A dominant view is cultural insecurity. The rise of right-wing populism is best understood as the product of a cultural backlash, driven by those on the wrong end of a new transnational cleavage who feel that cosmopolitan elites have made gains at their expense. The strong predictive power of cultural concerns at the individual level is often used as evidence for this thesis.

While far right parties have indeed increased their electoral fortunes across Europe and the US, and cultural insecurity is one driver of their support, this explanation only tells half the story. It tends to overlook important variations across countries and across time, and is based on three false assumptions that we should revisit:

False assumption 1: Right-wing populism is a coherent and linear phenomenon

It is neither. First, while indeed immigration scepticism and an anti-elite rhetoric are common among these parties, much more divides them. Their degree of extremism, the extent to which they adopt violence, their relationship with fascism, their position on social issues and state intervention of the economy as well as their voting base are but few of the issues on which they diverge.

This is not simply a theoretical point. It has important practical implications. The Greek Golden Dawn (GD), whose members are currently undergoing trial for murder and which is openly extremist was elected on a different platform to parties such as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Dutch PVV that try to justify their exclusionary agendas on liberal values, presenting themselves as the authentic defenders of the nation's unique reputation for democracy, diversity and tolerance. The authoritarianism of Eastern European parties also differs fundamentally from this rhetoric.

A disclaimer: this is by no means to suggest that these parties actually espouse liberal ideals. It is to say, however, that the identification of supply-side patterns based on the ways in which these parties use nationalism, liberalism and extremism in their programmatic agendas is essential for our understanding of this phenomenon.

Second, niche parties which cut across traditional partisan alignments, such as those we term right-wing populist parties, have been contesting elections in Europe for the past 30 years, often successfully. Example include the FPÖ, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) and the PVV, as well as the FN, which made it to the second round of the French Presidential election in 2002.

Figure 1: Average Far Right Vote 1960-2015

Source: Armingeon, Klaus, Virginia Wenger, Fiona Wiedemeier, Christian Isler, Laura Knöpfel, David Weisstanner and Sarah Engler. 2017. Comparative Political Data Set 1960-2015.

A closer look at the 2014 European Parliament election results also shows some interesting variations with some parties actually experiencing a decline in their support between 2009-2014. And most importantly, some countries have not experienced this phenomenon at all: Ireland has no such party, and in Portugal and Spain the equivalent National Renovator Party (PNR) and National Democracy (DN) respectively, have remained marginalised.

Sometimes the negative cases can tell us more than the positive cases: what do voters with cultural grievances (surely they exist there too) vote for in these countries and why? The identification of patterns that include cases of decline or consistently low support points to the importance of parties, policies and institutions as mediating factors.

False assumption 2: Demand for populist parties is driving supply

This idea assumes that these parties are increasing their support because they are offering what ‘the people’ want. However, demand and supply dynamics are rarely one-directional. What happens at the institutional and party levels can also shape demand.

Right-wing populist parties have been successful in seizing the opportunities created by the party system in various ways. One way is their attempt to appear legitimate by distancing themselves from fascism and presenting themselves as defenders of democracy and toleration.

Another is their ability to ‘issue trespass’, i.e. to extend their focus beyond immigration to issues that they do not own, such as the economy, in order to address a broad range of insecurities.

Previous research has shown that the increasing salience of the economic issue in Greece following the crisis was accompanied by an increase in the salience for the issue in Golden Dawn manifestos. Indeed, while we are quick to dismiss economic explanations, many right-wing populist parties themselves focus on welfare in their attempt to capitalise on voters’ economic insecurities.

False assumption 3: The economic insecurity argument is wrong

It is argued that because economic indicators such as negative growth and unemployment do not correlate with populist right-wing party support, and low earners are not the biggest constituency for right-wing populism, economic insecurity cannot be a key driver of populism.

But why should economic insecurity only affect the worse-off? First, relative deprivation affects labour market outsiders and insiders in different ways. In order to assess the role of economic insecurity we should also look at the role of policies and protective institutions in mediating the insecurities not only of the lower but also of the middle classes.

Second, ‘cultural indicators’ such as immigration, are not exclusively cultural. There are reasons to expect the material aspects of immigration scepticism to still matter even within the context of a post-materialist cleavage as material interests continue to shape policy preferences and perceptions of competition with immigrants.

Negative attitudes towards immigration are likely to be associated with one’s position in the labour market. Social groups that have a higher degree of exposure to labour market competition are more likely to have an interest in limiting immigration. These may include – but are not confined to – the lower social strata: which social group will be affected depends on country, occupational source, employment sector and skill level.


To conclude, the success of right-wing populism cannot be explained by dangerous generalisations, both in terms of what this phenomenon is and what causes its support.

One important observation is that widespread popular discontent is not always translated into voting for populist parties. Understanding why not is our key to understanding how to contain right-wing populism – and this extends beyond culture to various dimensions of insecurity and the extent to which these are mediated by institutions, policies and party strategies.

Political parties can in many ways shape their own fortunes; and they have a better chance of doing this if their narratives are legitimated. Right-wing populist parties are becoming increasingly more able to permeate the mainstream ground and drive party competition. A good example is the suggestion that the only way for mainstream parties to compete with right-wing populists is to imitate them and adopt accommodative strategies.

Accommodating parties’ anti-immigrant positions is not new. Contrary to the view that mainstream parties have been ignoring immigration, research has shown that anti-immigrant parties have indeed had a contagion effect on other parties’ immigration policy positions since 1990. This applies to parties of both the right and the left and has led to an increase of nationalism across the party system. What is new is the extent to which this has intensified: the legitimation of accommodative strategies is making right-wing populist parties more effective in driving the policy agenda and setting the terms on which mainstream actors compete, making them even more dangerous.

While imitating right-wing populist parties’ immigration positions might deliver short-term electoral gains, it will be ineffective in addressing popular concerns in the long run. This is because scapegoating immigration does not address the broader popular concerns that are at the core of this multi-faceted backlash – concerns that are not just cultural, but are also driven by economic insecurity, inequality, lack of trust in institutions and perceptions of loss of social status.

Dr Daphne Halikiopoulou is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading.

Image by Eugene Kim. 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Westminster too: Addressing sexual harassment in politics

Mona Lena Krook

In October 2017, allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein inspired millions of women around the world to use the #MeToo hashtag to draw attention to widespread sexual harassment and assault around the world.

In Britain, female politicians, staff members, and journalists opened up about their own experiences, provoking the resignation and party suspension of a number of male Cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament.

This is not the first time that women have come forward about sexual harassment in British politics. Distinct from previous occasions, however, both major party leaders responded and, on 30 October, MPs weighed in as well, with Harriet Harman posing an Urgent Question to House of Commons Leader, Andrea Leadsom, asking for a statement about her plan to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament.

The rapidly developing nature of this scandal raises a number of questions. First, how did this issue get on the political agenda? Second, what features of politics might foster harassment and discourage reporting? Third, what solutions might be pursued to tackle this problem? And, fourth, what does it mean for democracy?

A worldwide awakening?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has long existed, but sexual harassment in politics has only newly been recognised as a phenomenon. That sexual harassment occurs in politics, however, has long been known.

Over the last ten years, sexual harassment allegations have led a number of high-level political officials to lose their positions worldwide.

These include Mbulelo Goniwe, chief whip for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa in 2006; Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, Liberal MPs in Canada in 2014, followed by a third Liberal MP, Darshan Kang, in 2017; Silvan Shalom, interior minister of Israel in 2015; and Denis Baupin, vice president of the French National Assembly in 2016.

In the wake of #MeToo, attention to this issue has begun to accelerate globally. In the United States, the issue became salient in October 2017 when more than 140 women in California politics started the #WeSaidEnough campaign to denounce widespread sexual harassment against (and by) lawmakers, aides, and lobbyists.

Sexual harassment as a systemic problem in politics

Sexual harassment is not an expression of sexual desire, but is motivated by a craving for power and status. Hostility to women, or negative attitudes toward gender equality, determine a person’s likelihood to engage in – and/or tolerate – sexual harassment. Emphasis on status means that other forms of inequality – like age, race, and disability – can exacerbate these dynamics. Consequently, sexual harassment should be understood as a systemic, cultural issue rather than one reducible to the problematic behaviours of particular individuals.

Politics has long been viewed as a quintessentially masculine space, creating a context ripe for sex-based harassment. Additionally, the lack of robust policies means that targets are less apt to report incidents and have their allegations taken seriously, leading to few or no sanctions against perpetrators.

Several structural features of employment at Westminster encourage under-reporting and impunity: staff are directly employed by MPs, and political journalists rely heavily on MPs for information to enable them to do their jobs. Victims thus lack the types of protections that they would have in any other workplace.

Interventions against sexual harassment 

Despite the few protections afforded to victims of sexual harassment in the political sphere, the representative nature of politics also means that it – more than any other arena – should be the focus of intervention. However, harassment does not only take place in Parliament, but also in local councils, inside parties, and online. A multifaceted response, therefore, is most appropriate.

At the parliamentary level, one message emerging clearly from the Urgent Question debate was the need for an independent body to receive and adjudicate claims. The existing parliamentary hotline offers quite a minimal infrastructure. An independent body, several MPs proposed, might include offering impartial legal advice.

A second suggestion, put forward by numerous MPs, involves provision of training on inappropriate behaviours. The new sexual harassment policy introduced in the Canadian parliament in 2014, for example, requires sexual harassment training for all MPs and staff.

Political parties also have an important role to play in the fight against sexual harassment. Although the Labour Party already instituted a Code of Conduct for MPs and party members prior to October 2017, women in the party continue to express concerns that the party's ‘new’ sexual harassment procedures do not go far enough in terms of transparency and training. The ‘integrity commission’ set up by the ANC in South Africa might provide one alternative model; in 2016, it ruled in favour of the twenty-one-year old complainant against one of its powerful provincial chairmen.

At the civil society level, finally, various networks have mobilised to raise awareness and give voice to those who have been sexually harassed. Most directly, women have taken power into their own hands by setting up anonymous reporting mechanisms for elected women, female party members, and parliamentary staff. Like the #WeSaidEnough campaign in California, women in the Labour Party set up the #LabourToo website to collecti testimonies and lobby party leaders to take these issues more seriously.

Why ignoring sexual harassment harms democracy

Sexual harassment, in politics as in other domains, has long been viewed as the cost of women’s incursion into the public sphere. Violence and harassment against women in politics is not simply a question of equality, however. It also poses serious threats to democracy.

Sexual harassment, for example, can render female politicians and staffers less effective in their jobs, taking time and emotional energy away from substantive policy work. Staff attrition as a result of harassment, in turn, can affect the political pipeline, as many staffers later run for political office themselves.

Finally, sexual harassment can reduce political transparency and accountability to the extent that female journalists are prevented from reporting on important stories, either because they must avoid certain politicians or are refused information for failing to play along.

Ignoring sexual harassment in politics thus has serious, and deleterious, consequences: it reinforces gender inequality, fosters a hostile work environment, and degrades democratic institutions.

Mona Lena Krook is Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow (2017-2019).

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the
Political Quarterly journal.

Image by Duncan C.