Friday, 30 December 2016

Progressive Dilemmas

Patrick Diamond

David Marquand’s influential work of the early 1990s, The Progressive Dilemma, was a landmark volume: Marquand’s book addressed the most profound, long-term challenges that confronted the liberal-left in the UK, identifying the central question of how to mobilise a ‘progressive’ anti-Conservative majority that would not only win elections, but sustain a radical government to enact progressive social reforms. Marquand developed his thesis at a particular moment in the early 1990s when Labour appeared to be on the brink of electoral recovery, but was unexpectedly defeated in the 1992 general election. The centre-left had already suffered three losses at the hands of Thatcher’s Conservative party. Labour had recovered its position under Neil Kinnock, but still lacked a plausible governing programme. Elsewhere on the centre-left, the SDP had imploded and the Liberal Democrats had made a hesitant beginning.

In electoral politics, Marquand defined the dilemma facing British progressives as the challenge posed by the existence of rival parties around which there had coalesced deep ‘tribal’ differences, with roots stretching back to the late nineteenth century. This fissure repeatedly split the centre-left vote; it was a critical factor in allowing the Conservatives to govern for 72 out of the last 100 years.

At the level of ideas, the progressive dilemma was that intellectuals were ambivalent about whether to co-operate with the Labour behemoth. Marquand contended that Labour needed the liberal-left intelligentsia to develop a credible governing programme; politically these intellectuals had nowhere else to go after the eclipse of the Liberal party. But many thinkers remained decidedly ambivalent about the Labour party, disliking its tribalism and sectarian culture; both Keynes and Beveridge refused to join Labour.

This deleterious situation for British progressives was exacerbated by various structural changes in the later decades of the twentieth century which also appeared to favour the Conservatives. These included the electoral effects of class de-alignment, the decline of manual labour, the erosion of the traditional labour movement, the massive expansion of suburban housing estates, and the associated cultural changes wrought by material affluence. In the 1950s and 1960s, the New Left alongside Labour’s revisionists had drawn attention to the party’s inability to face up to the consequences of sociological change, which undermined the established cultures and practices of British labourism. The relative prosperity which the Conservatives cultivated in the growing regions and sectors of the UK appeared to entrench their electoral dominance, adding to Labour’s ‘Southern Discomfort’ problem. In these circumstances, Marquand wondered, could the centre-left ever win again?

An affirmative answer was provided by ‘New’ Labour’s election victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005; but the crisis that emerged in their aftermath indicates that Marquand’s thesis is far from redundant. The irony of these victories was that the ‘progressive alliance’ that both Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown wanted to build in the mid-1990s was made much less politically imperative (for Labour) by the size of its 1997 majority. It may well be that this was a missed opportunity for political and social reform: to enact changes to the electoral system for Westminster and local government, to develop a more coherent approach to constitutional questions and European relationships, to embed environmental sustainability more deeply into public policy, and to uphold a ‘progressive internationalism’ that might have avoided the errors of pre-emptive war in Iraq.

The case for revisiting the Progressive Dilemma is that Marquand’s thematic concerns, and his highly influential historical thesis, continue to have considerable resonance: they are particularly striking in the context of the structural crisis facing the centre-left in the era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In key respects, the processes which Marquand discerned – chiefly the fracturing of the class identities associated with the industrial age – have become even more pronounced since the 1990s. And the centre-left now faces challenges which Marquand could not have foreseen, including the rise of forms of populism and nationalism that are threatening the very foundations of the British political system and state.

Our political culture has been deeply affected by the disillusionment generated by the experience of globalisation, the increasingly precarious nature of work, the impact of sharp reductions in local government and other areas of non-protected public spending, and disaffection with levels of immigration. There is a sense of anger and resentment associated with visible forms of inequality which the pre-Corbyn Labour establishment was slow to grasp. These shifts have led to the popularisation of new forms of protest and ‘identity’ politics including, most notably, the rise of nationalism in Scotland and, more recently, England. In the largest part of the UK, with over 84 per cent of the population, a significant process of national reawakening has been occurring over the last two decades. Notions of English national identity have come to acquire greater salience and meaning, especially for those living outside London and the metropolitan centres. Labour has clung grimly to the notion that ‘Britishness’ represents a progressive ‘non-national’ patriotism, and has disagreed internally about whether regional government or devolution to cities, and city-regions, represents the most effective way to address inequalities. The party’s unwillingness to engage with shifting patterns of national sentiment, most obviously in Scotland but also now in England, has left Labour out of touch with the most profound dynamics reshaping contemporary political life.

If the centre-left cannot amass a more pertinent response to the growing political cleavages of national identity, the risk is the Tories will dominate the electoral landscape, making the twenty-first century another Conservative century. Marquand’s (1991: 240) concluding words in The Progressive Dilemma are worth recalling:

"What is needed for anti-Conservative Britain…is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris."

As the liberal-left warily confronts the new dilemmas of identity politics and the populist insurgency, it will need all of these intellectual resources at its command. In such circumstances, Marquand is surely right that ‘such a marriage hardly needs official blessing’.

This blog is based on the introductory article to the Political Quarterly issue on ‘Progressive Dilemmas’ by Patrick Diamond, Michael Kenny and Roger Liddle.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Progressive Alliances

Ben Jackson

When the Conservative Party is strong and the Labour Party is weak, leading ornaments of the British left often turn their minds to the creation of a broader, multi-party progressive alliance that could be mobilised to remove the Conservatives from office. The 1930s, the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1950s, all bore witness to such efforts. It has been evident since the 2015 general election that we are once again likely to face a lengthy period of Conservative government opposed by an unpopular Labour alternative. While it is certainly possible that the challenge of delivering Britain’s exit from the European Union might bring down Theresa May’s government, there is no reason to think that the Labour Party would benefit from a subsequent general election. So we find ourselves returning to the tactical and strategic dilemmas that were familiar to the left in the past.

Could a broader progressive alliance among Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and perhaps even Scottish nationalists be constructed to oppose the Conservatives? This special issue of Political Quarterly, edited by Patrick Diamond, Michael Kenny and Roger Liddle, brings together some penetrating reflections on how such ‘progressivism’ should be understood and operationalised as a political project today. Of the many valuable points that emerge from this collection, one theme that deserves initial emphasis is that there are in fact several different possible forms that a progressive alliance could take.

First, a progressive alliance could cohere at an ideological level, in a set of shared political ideals and goals that reach across party boundaries and provide a framework for cross-party co-operation in their pursuit. This is in one sense the easiest form of progressive alliance to contemplate because it is chiefly intellectual rather than practical in character, and because there is already plenty of common ideological ground between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and even the SNP. A shared social democratic vision of a more egalitarian, pluralist and ecologically sustainable society already exists and should be further developed (1). But in another sense, if such a vision is to have a political cutting edge, then it must also make more divisive choices between alternative policy options. Scottish independence is one obvious place where it will prove difficult to knit the SNP into such an alliance. Britain’s future trading relations with the EU, and in particular freedom of movement of labour, looks likely to be another significant tension within any emergent progressive bloc. Even at an ideological level, substantial differences of opinion will need to be navigated and reconciled.

A second form of progressive alliance can emerge from the grassroots behaviour of the voters themselves. Tactical voting against the Conservatives – unendorsed by national party leaderships – was an under-rated aspect of the electoral decline of the Conservatives after 1992. Similarly, the availability of a progressive non-Labour Party was critical in siphoning off voters from the Conservatives who for cultural and social reasons would have been reluctant to cast their ballots for Labour. The strength of the Liberal Democrats, especially in the South-West and in affluent urban constituencies, played an important role in weakening the Conservatives’ parliamentary representation. As we saw in 2015, the unwinding of this tactical voting helped the Conservatives to an overall majority – and the rest is history. This tacit progressive alliance appeared to function relatively well without any formal organisation or national political leadership. Indeed, the formalisation of this tactical voting through explicit advice from national parties might actually repel some voters who would otherwise be happy to support non-Conservative parties. Would all of the Liberal Democrat voters in the South-West still have voted Liberal Democrat in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 if by doing so they were participating in vote trading with the Labour Party? At any rate, as the Richmond Park by-election showed, the issue of Europe has now created the space for the Liberal Democrats to make some electoral headway as the pro-European opposition to the Conservative Party. The tougher problem is in fact probably going to be the squeeze that Europe will now place on the Labour vote: whichever way Labour jumps on Europe, it will alienate some voters who would otherwise have supported it.

Third, a progressive alliance could be embodied in a coalition government, put into place after a general election in which political parties faced each other in a normal electoral competition. As the 2010-15 coalition government demonstrated, British political culture is uncomfortable with such arrangements, though they are commonplace in other political systems. Clearly, though, if a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government could be made to work, then a Labour-Liberal Democrat government would also be possible, although the Liberal Democrats will doubtless now be more cautious about presenting such a deal as anything but a transactional business arrangement. However, it seems unlikely that the parliamentary arithmetic will make such a government feasible, in part because of the continuing strength of the SNP. The SNP, fortified like the Liberal Democrats by the Europe referendum, will likely be the third party in the House of Commons for some time to come. The prospect of forming a government with their support will thus loom over any post-election coalition deal. The 2015 election campaign showed that the opportunistic sectionalism of the Conservative Party and its press allies will know no bounds when confronted by this possibility. But it is undeniable that the question of how to knit together a coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP is a daunting one and any government that emerged along those lines would be likely to be quite fragile (which is not to say that it wouldn’t be worth a try in certain circumstances in order to remove the Conservatives from power).

The fourth variant of a progressive alliance is the one that is most widely discussed, if only loosely and with little sense of the difficulties it entails. This is the idea that there should be explicit electoral pacts between the non-Conservative parties, perhaps with other parties standing aside for the best placed non-Conservative party in each constituency. This is very unlikely to ever happen in a systematic way, although in ad hoc individual cases it might prove to be a workable tool. Labour tribalism usually receives the blame for the failure of electoral pacts to take root and there is little doubt that a significant section of Labour opinion remains hostile to working with other parties. But even if we bracket Labour’s political culture for a moment, there is an important practical question to consider: would electoral pacts actually work as a tool for displacing the Conservatives? Isn’t there a danger – especially in the current political climate – that voters might perceive it as an attempt to rig the electoral marketplace by political elites (especially once the issue is framed in the media by noisy headlines in the right-wing press)? If tactical anti-Conservative voting was possible and effective between 1997 and 2010 (and in the Richmond Park by-election, albeit with the Greens officially standing aside), then perhaps electoral pacts might actually detract from more effective decentralised and organic efforts along these lines.

There is also a fifth possibility. All of these versions of a progressive alliance presume that Conservatives lie beyond the pale of such an arrangement. That is surely a correct assumption in normal political times. But the current fluidity of British politics renders much orthodox political thinking suspect. As James Stafford and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have argued, in the fraught months and years ahead it is only by forging some common ground with dissident Conservatives (and indeed the DUP) that Labour and the other progressive parties can hope to influence Britain’s exit from the EU in a positive and internationalist direction (2). A future dominated by nationalist protectionism will offer little space for the liberal and social democratic agenda that has usually been seen as the focus of a progressive alliance. For that reason, the priority has to be forming an alliance that might stave off the most dangerously nativist outcomes of Britain’s exit from the EU. The question is whether those who excoriate political tribalism in others are themselves willing to work with old opponents in pursuit of shared strategic objectives, even if that new-found ally turns out to be George Osborne rather than Caroline Lucas.


(1) For a useful discussion of these ideological affinities, see L. Nandy, C. Lucas and C. Bowers (eds.), The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics, London, Biteback, 2016.

(2) J. Stafford and F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘After 2016’, Renewal, vol. 24, no. 4, 2017, pp. 5-14.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Theresa May and the Unhappy Fate of the Takeover Prime Minister

Ben Worthy

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a General Election or win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by the second route rather than the first.  She joins, rather surprisingly, 11 other takeover Prime Ministers in the last 100 years.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office is, on average, relatively brief. UK Prime Ministers in the last 100 years on average have lasted just over five years, one maximum Parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for election winners. The longest takeover was John Major at seven years and the shortest premiership was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health). The problem is that those Prime Ministers generally regarded as having done something or made a difference are those who have been in power 6 years or more: longevity means achievement.

Prime Ministerial Tenure 1916-2016 (Years)
Prime Minister
Average tenure (years)
UK All
UK Election winners
UK Takeover

The experience of takeovers is also bumpy. The most recent 3 takeovers James Callaghan (1976-79), John Major (1990-1997) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010) are good examples of quite how bumpy it can be. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (The Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday) or political (Maastricht). Only one of them, John Major, won an election and it didn’t lead to a very happy premiership.

So why are they brief and often bumpy? The lesson for May is that takeovers inherit problems, unhappy parties and short mandates.

Takeovers inherit the problems that their predecessors leave for them. These can be economic, like the recession for John Major or the crash of 2007/8 for Gordon Brown, or socio-political, such as Callaghan’s Trade Union relations. David Cameron has gifted Theresa May the extremely difficult problem of negotiating Brexit, perhaps the most complex and perilous  task since Winston Churchill came to office (as a rather exceptional takeover) in May 1940 during the Second World War. The High Court judgement on Brexit looks set to make even more difficult and takes it further out of the Prime Minister’s hands.

Takeovers also often inherit unhappy parties. Callaghan, Major and Brown all battled to lead parties that were split and prone to rebellion. This meant U-turns and constant compromise, especially for Callaghan, who had a majority of 0 and Major, who had a rapidly dwindling 21 seat advantage. For Major and Brown party unhappiness led to mutiny. John Major had to call his infamous ‘put up or shut up’ leadership election in 1995 and Gordon Brown fought off 3 coups in 3 years.

May has a smaller majority than Major, with just 14 seats, a number that will magnify the influence of any unhappy MPs. This number has already dwindled from July 2016 by one due to Zac Goldsmith and another now by the resignation of Stephen Phillips. May’s backbenches now includes 11 former Ministers including ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Her party is also riven with a spectrum of opinion from hard-line and soft Leavers to Remainers. The key question is whether May’s opaque Brexit strategy, or lack of a strategy, can hold the party together or gives potential challengers like Boris Johnson ammunition and time to prepare.

Takeovers inherit mandates and are a little reluctant to call elections and often try, as Churchill put it, to ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. Like Gordon Brown before her, May faces the charge of not only being unelected by the populace but also of being ‘crowned’ unopposed by the party. If May were to call an early election it would make her the first in more than half a century not to hang on-if she won a larger majority she would be the first takeover to do so since MacMillan in 1959 .  May faces a slight harder task in ‘calling’ an election than her predecessors, as technically an election would need to meet the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, requiring a vote of no confidence or a supermajority. This can, however, be gotten round by pushing a ‘reset’ law through Parliament, though it may not be straightforward.

Takeovers face greater obstacles and fewer advantages than elected Prime Ministers: their time in office is often nasty, brutish and short. On average they have less time in power, less chance of winning elections and are generally rated as worse performing (though Major’s stock in rising post Brexit). May will need a large amount of skill, luck and support (and probably the safety of a general election victory) if she is to avoid the short unhappy fate of the takeover Prime Minister.

You can read the full article here.

Ben Worthy is a lecturer in Politics based at Birkbeck College. He is co-editor of the Measuring Leadership blog

Friday, 16 September 2016

Waiting for the new era of trade negotiations to begin

Deborah Mabbett

MPs are back from their summer holidays and demanding to know the government’s negotiating position on Brexit. Will the UK remain in the European single market? What special deal might be struck for the banking sector? The Prime Minister refuses to say, arguing that a successful negotiator does not reveal her hand. This response at least has the merit of acknowledging that the terms of Brexit have to be negotiated with counterparts who have their own preferences and constraints about a deal. Not acknowledged, however, is that the UK’s bargaining position is weak: the hand contains few cards of value. Once the clock is started, the UK faces the prospect in two years’ time of defaulting to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and bilateral agreements. This default position is dreadful for the UK, so a deal must be struck with EU partners.

Any agreement must satisfy conditions at two levels: other states have to sign up to it, and the public at home have to accept it. There is a well-known theory that a government going into negotiations under tight domestic constraints will get a better deal from its fellows than a government with a free domestic hand. This suggests that the UK government can firmly insist on restraints on free movement of people in its negotiations with the rest of the EU, as its hands are tied domestically. Other governments will have to give way if an agreement is to be reached.

Unfortunately, this logic is by no means impermeable. There are several strands to the negotiations. The UK has tied its hands on one: it is open to the counterparts to extract a high price on others. The highest price of all would be to exclude the UK from the European single market. Brexiteers have dismissed this prospect by pointing out that other countries want to trade with the UK, and so surely have reasons to strike deals. An often-repeated argument makes a virtue of the UK’s trade deficit: other countries sell more to the UK than the UK sells to them, and surely they want this situation to continue. For contemporary trade analysts, this mercantilist theory is bizarre, but it is so often repeated that it is worth taking seriously, at least for the purposes of this commentary.

Let’s start with the small kernel of truth in the argument. There are exporters in other countries for whom the UK is an important market, and they will lobby their governments to keep it that way. The UK market is very important to Irish exporters, although Ireland is hardly a powerhouse in the EU. German carmakers have also signalled their concerns, and they have a voice in Berlin. This might be helpful to the UK.

Sectoral interests are important in trade negotiations, but they do not add up like a trade balance. Indeed, the political weakness of domestic manufacturing has a detrimental effect on the UK’s bargaining position. If there was a significant domestic import-substituting industry that would benefit from protection, it would lobby for increased tariffs, and other countries might calculate that concessions needed to be made to fend off the threat. But there is no serious threat of large-scale tariff imposition by the UK. The fate of the steel industry tells us just how weakly domestic producers are placed. The Cameron government was a leading player in blocking a 2013 EU initiative to combat Chinese steel dumping, preferring instead to cultivate its relationship with China. 

In any case, industrial tariffs are so twentieth-century. Consider the case of the car industry. No UK car producer seriously proposes that the domestic industry would thrive behind tariff barriers. This sector, doing better than ever now in the UK, has grown with the advent of international value chains, whereby industries develop through their integration into world markets, not their separation from them. The trade economist Richard Baldwin has documented how, throughout the world, governments have recognised the redundancy of the ‘made here, sold there’ model of industrial trade.[1] Instead of trying to promote import-substituting industries with tariff protection, they have lowered tariffs to make themselves attractive bases in production networks. In the postwar years, the GATT was needed to begin the drive to lower tariffs through reciprocal agreements, but in recent years developing countries have joined the movement with unilateral reductions in tariffs on industrial trade.

Low tariffs on industrial trade are the easy part: the shallow waters of trade negotiations. All the action now is in so-called ‘deep’ agreements, which support integrated production networks by facilitating cross-border capital flows, protecting intellectual property rights, and enabling free trade in services and free movement of people. Deep agreements contain the problematic elements that progressive opponents of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have highlighted, such as protection for international investors against ‘expropriation’ by host governments and expansive interpretations of the coverage of intellectual property rights.

Deep agreements are also problematic for Brexiteers. The UK has a large deficit in goods trade but a surplus in services. It follows, on the Brexiteers’ own logic, that the UK’s trading partners will do well enough from a shallow deal; it is the UK that needs deep agreements to promote its services sector and facilitate the inward investment that finances the trade deficit. This introduces elements which are anathema to Brexiteers. Free trade in services and liberalised migration regimes have proved to be closely linked. Service providers are also in global value chains where ideal locations not only have low tariffs but also easy access to specialised workers, transferred in from around the world.

The EU’s single market is the leading instance in the world of a regional deep agreement. Others, like NAFTA, Mercosur in South America and the South African Customs Union, endeavour to emulate some of its features. The United States has sought to make deep agreements through ‘mega-regional’ agreements in the Atlantic (TTIP) and the Pacific (TPP). So far, China and India are not members, and the hopes of Brexiteers rest heavily on the ability of the UK to conclude bilateral deals with these countries. Compared with an EU-China or EU-India negotiating process, the UK can be fleet-footed, or so the optimists believe.

The Foreign Office has briefed that it is studying the first free trade deal with a developed country to be struck with China, negotiated by New Zealand in 2008. New Zealand has had to maintain high expertise in trade negotiations, as agriculture has remained immune to the global tendency to reduce trade barriers noted by Baldwin. The suggestion that New Zealand, along with Australia and Canada, might lend trade negotiators to the UK had a whiff of urban myth about it, but has been confirmed in an official press release.[2] There are lessons to be learned from the New Zealand experience. Mega-regional agreements are highly formalised and legalised, with judicial institutions for settling disputes and secretariats to coordinate multiple country positions. Bilateral agreements stay in the world of intergovernmental diplomacy. Deals are often delicate and risky. The mood can change on a whim, and there are no promises that transactions will always be above-board. This is the relationship that the UK government will exchange for the tedious regularity of the European single market, where legal processes have often been used to secure British interests. And it seeks to make this exchange at a point when China’s growth has slowed and its industry is burdened by overcapacity, greatly increasing the risk of dumping.       

Returning to the Brexiteers’ misguided optimism about the UK’s current account deficit one last time: a deficit has to be financed with a capital inflow. In a turnaround from the days of Empire when the savings of the middle classes flowed out to investments in the colonies, the UK is now a vassal state in its search for capital. George Osborne knew that money could be found in China, and put a huge effort into negotiating inward investment. The essence of investment negotiations is that the receiving country makes promises to investors about the safety of their funds in the face of future government policy changes: in other words, it concedes sovereignty to encourage investment. We know very little about the promises that have been made to China – the doors are closed more tightly than in any negotiations involving the EU. The delay of Hinkley Point raised hopes that May’s government would be brave enough to step back, but these have been dashed. Yes, our own government is in charge, but it has the sovereignty of a peripheral, not an imperial, power.


[1] Richard Baldwin, ‘The World Trade Organization and the future of multilateralism’ Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol 30, No 1, pp.95-116, Winter 2016. (Open access journal)

[2] ‘PM: UK should become the global leader in free trade,’ Prime Minister's Office, 4 Sept 2016. (

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Mr Cameron’s plan to teach English to Muslim women: lessons in policy implementation

Andrea Wigfield and Royce Turner


Andrea Wigfield
Greeted by a storm of controversy, the government announced earlier in the year that it would spend £20 million on a programme to teach Muslim women to speak English. The then Prime Minister said this would contribute to ‘building a more integrated, cohesive, one nation country where there's genuine opportunity for people’. Women on five-year spousal visas who failed an English test ‘...can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to stay’. Stoking the political flames even higher, Mr Cameron suggested a possible linkage between an inability to speak English and an enhanced susceptibility to extremist messages.

Royce Turner
Regardless of this political tempest, however, for a policy to have any chance of achieving its objectives, especially complex ones like promoting a cohesive society and ensuring opportunity for all, a policy has to be successfully implemented. The design of policies, and how they are actually implemented on the ground, are fundamental in determining whether or not any policy is successful and there are many lessons to learn both from academic research and from previous initiatives to engage Muslim


One of the key elements in implementing this policy successfully is to recognise the marginalised position of many Muslim women in Britain. A lack of English, alongside other cultural, social, and religious factors, mean that many Muslim women may not be reached by traditional approaches to policy. Of course, accomplishing successful engagement of people from a different culture will pose challenges. But two projects, both conducted by government agencies, provide pointers as to how successful engagement, and policy outcome, can be achieved.

Learning and Skills Council research

The first, a research project for the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), in which 1,112 Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were consulted, constituted one of the largest in-depth consultations ever undertaken on Muslim women’s attitudes towards paid employment, education, the barriers they face, and their aspirations. The women spoken to shared great similarity to the women the government is seeking to reach with its new language initiative. The majority spoke English, but the level of competence varied greatly, from those who were fluent to those who could speak only a few words. Quite a lot had never worked; many had little or no formal education.

Jobcentre Plus employability initiative

The second project was a Jobcentre Plus employment training initiative targeted at ethnic minority women facing multiple barriers to paid employment : poor English; caring responsibilities; objections from family, friends, community members. Very few had ever worked; confidence and self-esteem was very low. Yet the project surpassed all Jobcentre Plus targets: many participants applied for jobs, or other training, two of them actually entered employment.

Multiple barriers

What did the LSC and the Jobcentre Plus work show us? Firstly, the extent of the barriers that face many Muslim women. Lack of English was a major issue for many. A lack of language curtails engagement, interaction, employment. Another barrier is education, or lack of it. About 11 per cent had been educated to at least degree level. But these were far outnumbered by women who had little or no formal education and had not been to school at all, or who had been to school, and had gained qualifications, but who were not permitted to continue their education beyond a certain level. There are other cultural factors which impinge on any inkling of entering work. Peer pressure, for example, particularly affected older, first generation, migrant women, who came here up to forty years ago, who were sometimes viewed almost as outcasts if they took up a job.

Such cultural differences, and the isolation from the rest of society fostered by them, manifest themselves in a host of ways which make engagement with others outside their own community more difficult. In the Jobcentre Plus project, for example, some women were not sure when it was appropriate to shake hands, or when to look or smile at someone they did not know. This is why so much of that pioneering project focused on life planning, confidence building and, crucially, used mentors, drawn from the communities the women themselves belonged to, alongside delivering the ‘traditional’ job searching advice, on where and how to find a job.

Key Lessons for implementation

What are the lessons for policy implementation? How can this help us in relation to ensuring success for the new initiative to teach women English? The first important lesson is to make sure that there is pro-active recruitment. You can’t expect women who may have spent decades without any engagement to suddenly start volunteering to sign up. You have to go and find them; let them know what is going on, where. The second lesson is about maintaining attendance. Even if you’ve signed people up, you’ve got to keep them coming. Again, the lesson from the Jobcentre Plus project was that a pro-active approach was needed. The location of the training session is important too. The sessions need to be close to home, in ‘non-threatening’ places such as community group venues, to ensure that participants, who often lack confidence, feel comfortable and, through this, to maximise attendance. The Jobcentre Plus project recognised also the importance of a tailored, individualised approach to helping women. When people are at such a distance from employment, or in the case of the government’s new initiative, at such a distance from fluency in English and social engagement, they cannot be herded as one towards a learning destination.

Recognising the social context in which people live their lives, and responding to that in a supportive and appropriate way, is crucial if the opportunity to deliver what is potentially a hugely rewarding educational intervention is to be seized effectively. If it is, the beneficiaries could be manifold and will cross all communities.

The full article, Mr Cameron’s new language initiative for Muslim women: lessons in policy implementation, can be seen in the Political Quarterly, volume 87, number 3.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The forgotten Geordie revolt of 1977 – and its lessons for the UK today

By Iain McLean

Iain McLean
A long time ago I was a Labour councillor who inadvertently brought down the 1974-9 Labour government. The government could only have lasted a few weeks longer in any case, so I have no regrets. The story deserves retelling, because it has important lessons for today.

The Labour government elected in 1974 was the first to realise that it faced an existential threat in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 30% of the vote, but only 15% of the seats, in Scotland in October 1974. The Labour Party’s leaders had forgotten Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, who both started in politics as campaigners for Scottish home rule. After 1945, Labour became the party of the welfare state, understood to mean equal rights and standards everywhere in Britain, and accordingly hostile to devolution to Scotland or anywhere else. The 1974 election results changed this abruptly. Labour suddenly (re)discovered its enthusiasm for Scottish home rule.

But its plans were radically flawed. They offered an elected assembly for Scotland, and, as usual, for Wales as an afterthought. The assemblies were to be elected under first-past-the-post, which might have helped to ensure Labour’s hegemony. More important, they proposed no change at Westminster, nor in the arrangements for taxing and spending in Scotland and Wales. So, Scotland and Wales would retain their full-strength complement of MPs, slightly more than their population shares, and two assemblies with no obvious jobs except to protect their tax-and-spend arrangements, which were highly favourable to Scotland although not to Wales. Scotland received more public spending per head than its relative need warranted, for reasons that go back to 1888. Then it was (almost all) about Ireland. The Unionist government of Lord Salisbury wanted to ‘kill [Irish] Home rule with kindness’ and it guaranteed Ireland and Scotland a share of some tax revenue. This ‘Goschen proportion’ was 80:11:9 to England (with Wales: E&W), Scotland, and Ireland respectively. The Goschen proportion survived Irish independence in 1921. Every Secretary for Scotland could demand 11/80th of E&W spending of every social programme, as a floor not a ceiling. When an argument of remoteness or deprivation could be added, then Scotland would claim more than its Goschen proportion, even as its relative population declined to below 11 80ths of that of E&W.

Reliable public spending numbers were published in 1973 and 1977. They showed that public spending in Scotland was higher than in the poorer English regions, including the North of England, although income per head was lower in those regions. The newly formed Tyne & Wear county council took an interest. I was an elected member, and served as vice-chair, then chair, of its economic development committee. Together with the leader and chief executive of the council, I helped to organise a conference to draw attention to this disparity. We were denounced as the ‘No-men of England’ in a Scotsman splash by Neal Ascherson, the well-known Scots public intellectual. Tyne & Wear linked with the other newly-created metropolitan councils in the English conurbations and found an ally in Merseyside County Council, where the relativities were the same – poorer than Scotland but getting less per head in public expenditure. The two councils lobbied their Labour MPs to vote down the government’s flagship Scotland and Wales Bill. This they did, in February 1977. The bill limped on as separate bills for Scotland and Wales. Later backbench revolts, not due to Tyne & Wear or Merseyside, added the requirements, first for a referendum on the Assemblies, then for a threshold for a ‘Yes’ vote to become effective. In the ensuing referenda, the proposal for a Welsh Assembly was defeated. That for a Scottish Assembly was carried, but failed to reach the threshold.

The Conservatives and SNP called a vote of no-confidence in the Callaghan government, which lost by one vote, forcing (a few weeks early) the 1979 General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, and killed Scottish devolution for 18 years.

When we called the conference, we did not anticipate that train of events. But I do not apologise for it. A party that cares about post-tax incomes, as the Labour Party does, should ensure that similarly-situated citizens anywhere in the country get similar life chances. That was the original premise of the Welfare State, going back to 1909. As between Scotland and the north of England, it was not honoured in 1977. Unbeknownst to us, the Treasury was then introducing the ‘Barnett formula’ that was designed to reduce this disparity. It has, but only by a little.

The Scotland Act 1998 created the present Scottish Parliament. It has many admirable features, but it did not touch the issues that led to the Geordie revolt. The Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016, however, could provide the solution, and Scottish independence certainly would. The two Acts take steps to match, for the first time, the pleasure of spending with the pain of taxing, and put them both in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. Independence would of course mean full fiscal autonomy. Short of independence, any fiscal settlement must be fair to all four territories of the UK. At that level, Scotland and Northern Ireland do well; England and Wales do badly. Within England, the formulae for distribution are opaque and their relationship to need and tax capacity is obscure.

England is the hole in the UK devolution settlement. As it contains 85% of the UK’s population, the hole is bigger than the fabric. Whether or not Scotland becomes independent, the UK government will need to bring in a more robust regime for the governance of the regions of England, and to ensure that the tax-and-spend regime is both transparent and fair. The lessons of the Geordie revolt are with us yet.

You can read the full article here.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Beyond ‘secret deals’: rethinking devolution in England

John Tomaney

As the guard changes in Westminster and a new government seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, it is timely to review the state of the devolution debate. The Cameron/Osborne approach to devolution had a number of distinctive features. Chief among these was its fixation with the directly elected metro-mayor as the answer to urban governance problem. In the government’s diagnosis this model of governance addresses weaknesses in fragmented systems, improves democratic accountability and brings city-regions together round common economic development strategies. The government claimed,

The experience of London and other major international cities suggests that a directly elected mayor can cut through difficulties [of urban governance]. The government has therefore been clear that devolution of significant powers will rest on cities agreeing to rationalise governance and put in place a mayor to inspire confidence.[i]

John Tomaney
But there is limited evidence to support these claims about the impact of directly elected mayors on local economic growth and the improvement of local services. Many of the assertions made in the English debate rest on more or less persuasive anecdotes drawn principally from the US experience and the limited experience in London. Strong US mayors, with access to locally tax raised taxes, are seen as leading the renaissance of US cities.[ii] For instance, the economic resurgence of New York City is often attributed to the pro-business policies of ‘strong mayors’ such as Michael Bloomberg. Rather less attention, however, is devoted to counterfactuals. We might look at the case of Detroit, where ‘strong mayors’ have presided over a vicious circle of economic decline and municipal bankruptcy. A high degree of local self-finance, far from ensuring resilience, was arguably a causal factor in the precipitous decline of Detroit. The mayoral system is in crisis there.  In 2013, the sixty-fifth mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison after being convicted of a variety of corruption charges. The city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and the State of Michigan appointed an emergency manager to assume control of the council. Strong mayors can lead to hubris and overreach and be the antithesis of models of policy-making based on deliberation and increased accountability and scrutiny. Mayors have managed both the rapid recent growth of New York City and the catastrophic decline of Detroit. Isolating the influence of mayors among the many other factors at work in these cases is very difficult.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that the mayors have not presided over an era of democratic renewal. On the contrary, the US mayoral system has been associated with declining levels of electoral participation in the big cities. At the time that Robert F Wagner Jnr was elected as mayor of New York City in 1953, voter turnout was over 90 per cent. By the time Bill de Blasio was elected 109th mayor in 2013, voter turnout was less than 30 per cent. Similar rates of decline in voter turnout can be seen in cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago.[iii]

These declines in voter turnouts have occurred, moreover, in cities that are endowed with much more extensive local media than is the case in northern English cities. A key feature of the US mayoral model concerns how it facilitates close relationships between local political and business elites in ways which typically lack transparency and scrutiny and which underpin models of economic development that favour urban property interests. It is this aspect of the US model that seems to have had a particular influence in UK policy debates. For instance, at the 2015 Conservative party conference in Manchester, George Osborne proposed that where elected mayors had been created, they would have the power to add a (capped) infrastructure levy on business rates. There is considerable uncertainty about how both the devolution of business rates and the infrastructure levy would work in practice, but the government is clear that a levy can only be raised if a majority of ‘business members’ of the boards of Local Enterprise Partnerships agree. In effect, resources will only be allowed to be spent on infrastructure projects that are approved by a handful of ‘business leaders’. It might fairly be asked why the interests of a small number of appointed businesspeople should trump the mandate of an elected mayor. It might even be argued that this development represents a partial return of the franchise property qualification which was abolished by the Representation of the People Act in 1918.

The new devolution arrangements are not the product of wide public debate in the areas to be affected by them, but instead are the outcomes of ‘secret deals’ (‘City Deals’, ‘Devolution Deals’, etc.) between political and business elites at the national and local levels, exemplified in the case of Manchester.[iv] In essence, these deals are assembled locally from a menu of policies approved by HM Treasury. It stretches the imagination to see this approach as leading to meaningful democratic renewal. On the contrary, the model of devolution currently on offer is one designed to advance a narrowly defined set of business interests with very little democratic scrutiny. Arguably, it is this approach to politics that was rejected in the Brexit referendum.

Underpinning the new policy is a theory of economic development that fosters interurban competition and economic concentration, tolerates and indeed even celebrates high levels of socio-economic inequality, is comfortable with some groups and places being losers, and locks in enduring austerity, most especially in the places that have borne the brunt of public expenditure cuts to date. Innovation and entrepreneurialism in economic development is tolerated only within a highly restricted range of parameters. It is a form of devolution in which ‘business’ exercises a direct and indirect veto over the preferences of citizens. The emerging settlement is akin to the model of ‘post-democracy’, as elaborated by Colin Crouch, whereby formal mechanisms of accountability exist, but their practical role is increasingly limited and embodies the interest of a small elite.[v]

In a country as centralised as the UK, the case for devolution is strong in principle. But as the Cameron/Osborne era is put to rest, this might be an appropriate moment to the reconsider the narrow model that has been on offer to date.

You can read the full article here

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UCL. A longer version of this article is published by Political Quarterly. It is based on work supported by the award of the Sir Ernest Simon Visiting Professorship at Manchester Business School for 2015/6.

[i]               HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. Cm 9098. (Accessed June 30 2015).
[ii]               B. Barber (2013) If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven: Yale University Press.
[iii]              M. Maciag, ‘Voter turnout plummeting in local elections’, Governing, October 2014, (accessed June 30
[iv]              S. Jenkins, ‘The secret negotiations to restore Manchester to greatness’, The Guardian, 12 February 2015, (accessed 30 June2016); see also J. Tomaney and A. McCarthy, ‘The Manchester model’, Town and Country Planning, vol. 84, no. 5, 2015, pp. 233–6.
[v]              C. Crouch (2004) Post-democracy. Cambridge: Policy Press.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Why Donald Trump was Nominated by the Republicans

Alan Ware

Alan Ware
Donald Trump’s selection by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate is one of the most controversial nominations in American electoral history. In living memory only the National Convention’s choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 might conceivably rival it at the presidential level. Trump’s style, involving personal attacks on fellow candidates, not only alienated most of the Republican political elite but also exposed fissures in American society that all candidates are usually keen to ignore or attempt to discuss in banal terms. How could someone like Trump have ever become the nominee of a major party? The answer lies partly in the peculiarities of the Presidential candidate selection process and partly in fundamental developments affecting the Republican Party and the voting public at large. At the beginning of this century pre-primary televised debates between the candidates were introduced. They start months before the primaries, and they can de-stabilize the nomination process when there is not a clear front-runner. With many candidates seeking the nomination, and relatively few policy differences between them, a candidate has to achieve between only 20–25% of support in post-debate opinion polls to become the front runner when the primaries themselves begin. Trump achieved “momentum” in this way by making himself as distinct as possible – being outspoken and outrageous in his views and overtly rude to the others. This was a political style derived from behaviour on reality TV shows. From an initial narrow base of support Trump could build a winning campaign because he could portray himself “as the candidate to beat”.

All his rivals for the nomination believed for far too long that Trump could never be selected and therefore the last remaining alternative to Trump would inevitably become the nominee. For them the key to being selected was to remain in the race as long as their candidacy remained credible. This misjudgement meant that during the early stages of the primary campaign Trump benefitted from the persistence of a multi-candidate field. He could remain the leading candidate even though his supporters were then still only a minority of Republican voters. The longer that all but one other candidate remained in the race, the easier it was for Trump eventually to convert that minority base into a majority of Convention delegates.

Peculiarities of the candidate selection process helped Trump, but they probably would not have been enough by themselves. He was also able to exploit the fragility of the Republican Party’s electoral coalition. Until the 1970s its coalition was not as diverse as the Democrats’, and hence was usually more cohesive. It was the Democratic Party that tended to have major splits which periodically undermined its prospects in presidential elections. The re-introduction of moral issues and values into partisan politics – the Equal Rights amendment, abortion, and so on – transformed this. It was now the Republicans that had greater difficulty in keeping their broad coalition together. This becomes evident when looking at differences in the party’s success in presidential elections compared and in congressional elections. During the last 24 years the Party has controlled the White House for only one third of that period, whilst controlling both Houses of Congress for about two thirds of it. Winning the Presidency calls for unity in the national party, whereas seats in Congress can be won with idiosyncratic local strategies.

The context in which American politics is conducted has also changed massively, and this has made managing their electorates more difficult for both parties. The Democrats had to contend with vocal minority support for Bernie Sanders. Trump is just the current face of the Republican problem. Since the Republic’s birth, politics has been conducted against a background of long-term increases in the well-being of a majority of Americans. The “American Dream” remained plausible because most people could expect to be better off over their lifetimes than their parents. Economic depression – especially in the early 1890s and in the 1930s – destabilized politics, but normal politics could then resume within about a decade. Since the 1970s the real incomes of many Americans have not increased at all, even though there have been no depressions on the scale of those earlier. The benefits deriving from economic growth during the last four decades have been enjoyed primarily by the well-off. This chronic undermining of the “American Dream” is one of the factors contributing to anger among many sections of the voting population, anger that they direct towards political elites – among others. Unless there is a major redistribution of income and wealth in the future, and there is no evidence that this is occurring, then the political instability associated with the Trump candidacy might not be an isolated incident for the Republicans.

Donald Trump
Trump’s astonishing success in becoming the Republicans’ presidential candidate was partly caused by the dynamics of the contemporary nominating process which, under certain conditions, enable candidates with relatively low levels of initial support to triumph. But long term political and social changes also helped him. Over the past 40 years the Republican party has become a more diverse electoral coalition, and, when trying to capture the presidency, is now more difficult to manage than the Democrats’ coalition. In addition, during the same period anger among many people about the failing American economic dream has made politics more unstable for both Democrats and Republicans. In 2015–16 it was the Republican Party that was less able to control these emerging political forces.

You can read the full article 'Donald Trump's Hi-jacking of the Republican Party in Historical Perspective'  here.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

English Votes for English Laws

Ben Jackson

Bernard Crick
The Political Quarterly commentary published shortly before the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC was written by Bernard Crick. His summary of the political drama of the mid-1970s has an eerie familiarity:

"In wildest fantasy who could have foretold ten years ago that we were about to face a national referendum whether to stay in EEC or not on renegotiated terms which few people can understand any better than the original ones; a Cabinet that has had to agree to divide so that all can hold on to office, but which has already broadened the public disagreements into the whole field of basic economic policy; and, as if this were not enough, to have in preparation a bill for legislative devolution to Scotland and Wales which, if its political effect is misjudged … could lead to the unwanted dismemberment of the United Kingdom?" (1)

In view of the subsequent euro-sceptic presentation of the 1975 referendum as essentially about a free trade agreement, it is intriguing that Crick observed that the campaign’s economic debates about Europe had in fact largely been displaced by an argument about sovereignty. As he put it: ‘Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Wedgewood Benn have somehow tried to build this most elitist of concepts into the pantheon of socialist ideas’. Crick’s view was that ‘national sovereignty is surely, as Harold Laski argued, the very antithesis of socialism’: ‘If economic forms are more important than political, then they transcend particular states; and if there is to be more democracy and equality, independent power must be exercised by primary groups within the state.’(2)

Once the referendum was over, Crick even suggested in a subsequent Political Quarterly commentary that the victory of the ‘yes’ campaign showed the utility of referendums as a British constitutional innovation:

"Exceptional use of referendums could be a way of breaking out of deadlocks like the Scottish and Northern Ireland problems and present-day industrial relations, each of which have in common that the elected leaders are commonly more intransigent on key issues than the majorities who elect them." (3)

Few of Crick’s heirs on the intellectual wing of the British left will be as sanguine about referendums today. In the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, a discourse of national sovereignty – when yoked to the issue of immigration – prevailed, with momentous consequences. Yet the 2016 referendum result also shows that Crick was correct to see the concept of sovereignty in this context as a problematic one. Among the kaleidoscopic consequences of the ‘leave’ vote is that it has dealt the current form of the British state a wounding, perhaps even fatal, blow. The popular sovereignty that was asserted by the ‘leave’ campaign ultimately proved to be the sovereignty of the numerically larger English electorate, supported by Wales but not Scotland or Northern Ireland (in 1975 all four nations voted ‘yes’ to continued membership of the EEC). It is now an open question whether the Anglo-Scottish union, already in a rather delicate condition after the 2014 independence referendum, can survive the severe pressure that an English ‘leave’ vote has placed on it. Some left-wing commentators are too confident in their judgement that Scottish independence is now inevitable, since Scottish nationalists must still navigate their way through some difficult economic trade-offs, some of which will be exacerbated by the rest of the UK exiting from the EU. But if the last few months teach us anything it is surely that economic arguments are not necessarily electorally decisive when nationalism is on the march. There is no doubt that the result of the Europe referendum has made Scottish independence a live political issue once again and for good measure cut the ground from underneath the modest revival of Scottish Conservatism visible at this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Scottish nationalists are quite correct to point out that an important unionist argument in the 2014 independence referendum was that remaining within the United Kingdom offered Scotland certainty about its membership of the EU. Self-styled British unionists campaigning for ‘leave’ have rather casually taken that argument back without any apparent thought about the consequences.

The most sophisticated intellectual argument for the ‘leave’ camp made from the left during the referendum campaign was Richard Tuck’s case that British socialism could only prosper once again when able to use the democratic sovereignty of the House of Commons, freed from the shackles imposed by the European Union. As Tuck put it: ‘The British governing class in the late twentieth century threw away the most valuable institution it had inherited … a House of Commons that was not constrained by a constitution.’ (4) The restoration of the untrammelled power of the House of Commons, Tuck argued, was a precondition for any successful new left politics in Britain. Can we therefore now look forward to an ascendant post-EU left-wing politics in Britain directed from the commanding heights of the House of Commons? There are a number of reasons to think not, but for present purposes the most important is that the constitutional order Tuck harked back to – and which was used to decisive effect by the Labour Party in government after 1945 – has been rendered inoperable not by the EU but by largely desirable cultural and political shifts within Britain itself. One of the most significant changes in Britain since Labour’s high watermark after the Second World War is the heightened salience of the multi-national character of the British polity. Unlike in 1945, Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Irish Republic no longer lingers as a suppressed other on the margins of British policy-making but has rather been the subject of an explicit political bargain and a peace and reconciliation process. And unlike in 1945, the political cultures and voting patterns of Scotland and England are now divergent, with the Scottish Parliament offering a marked counterpoint to the House of Commons in Scottish national life. These distinctive national political cultures – starkly illuminated by the strong ‘remain’ votes in both Northern Ireland and Scotland – throw into doubt the workability of a unitary notion of British sovereignty embodied in the will of the House of Commons. A more pluralist approach to political power – in the tradition associated with Harold Laski and Bernard Crick – is now the only workable route to holding Britain together. But as a result of the ‘leave’ vote, centrifugal forces will inevitably assert themselves.

The SNP has been presented with a gift: from the point of view of party advantage, the situation is now win-win for Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon will only initiate a second referendum on Scottish independence if she thinks she can win it, but even if she does not in the end call one, the Scottish political dominance of the SNP will have been renewed. The next few years will offer the SNP ample opportunity to burnish its position as the party that speaks for Scotland against right-wing Westminster rule. Meanwhile the Scottish Conservative brand has been recontaminated by Johnson and Gove and the Scottish Labour Party will face an agonising and divisive internal debate about whether to prioritise the European or British Union. In Northern Ireland, much hinges on the precise nature of the deal eventually reached between the British government and the EU. But insofar as leading Conservatives have concluded that the message of the referendum is the need to constrain or even end European freedom of movement, then such a new approach to immigration will require a harder land border within Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement itself specifies that the EU serves as the umbrella under which British-Irish relations take place. It would on the whole be better not to have to discover whether revisiting these issues will unsettle the delicate equilibrium established by the Northern Irish peace process.

The purported defenders of the British Union, the Conservatives, have therefore unleashed forces that could plausibly lead to its dissolution. While a ‘remain’ vote would likely have exacerbated the split within the Conservatives over Europe, a ‘leave’ vote seems – at least for the moment – to have brought them back together in a posture of accepting the result of the referendum as binding. As the party closes ranks and coheres around a negotiating position that looks to be less amenable to continued British membership of the European single market than many commentators had initially expected, the lack of Conservative interest in Scotland and Northern Ireland is palpable. The Conservatives have in effect become an English sovereigntist party. Managing Britain’s exit from the European Union will provide an unforgiving test of how far it is now possible to reconcile such English sovereigntism with a viable multi-national British state.


[1] B. Crick, ‘Pandora’s Box, Sovereignty and the Referendum’, Political Quarterly, 46 (1975), p. 123.
[1] B. Crick, ‘Pandora’s Box, Sovereignty and the Referendum’, p. 125.
[1] B. Crick, ‘The Referendum That Was’, Political Quarterly, 46 (1975), p. 245.
[1] R. Tuck, ‘The Left Case for Brexit’, Dissent, 6 June 2016; (accessed 11 July 2016). 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Culture as Politics: Electoral Chaos and the Crisis of the Traditional Spanish Left

Duncan Wheeler

Duncan Wheeler
There will be a general election in Spain on 26 June, after six months of political uncertainty. Mariano Rajoy and his right-of-centre Partido Popular/Popular Party (PP) received more votes than any other political party at the last election held on 20 December 2015, but were significantly short of an absolute majority. A coalition with Ciudadanos,the most market-driven of the recent political start-ups,would not have provided a majority, and none of the other major political parties were willing to play ball with a leader who has behaved in a self-interested, corrupt and authoritarian manner since his election in 2011.

The Partido Socialista Obrero Español/Spanish Socialist Workers'Party (PSOE),under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez had the opportunity to form their own coalition, but negotiations were far from straightforward. Significantly more voters opted for the PSOE than Podemos, the new party to translate most effectively into political currency the discontent and energy of the ‘15-M movement’, a shorthand for Spain's anti-austerity movement(s) that references the occupation of major squares throughout Spain by the so-called ‘indignants’ or ‘indignados’ in May 2011. Podemos probably had more to gain from seeking a new election than they did from forming a government with the PSOE, one of the two parties who have alternated in power since 1982.

The writings on and by the new political parties frequently speak of ‘a second Transition’, a challenge to the ‘regime of 1978’, in reference to the Constitution that consecrated the Transition from dictatorship to a liberal monarchical democracy following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, and the investiture of his chosen successor, King Juan Carlos, as head of state. Podemos has mobilised support through socio-cultural resources at a time when the PSOE no longer galvanises the electorate either emotionally or culturally. The popular perception of the PSOE in government is far from glowing: the presidency of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004–11)—nicknamed Bambi for his doe-eyed naivety—is frequently blamed for failing to provide sufficient buffering against the oncoming economic recession, while the legacy of Felipe González's tenure (1982–96) is increasingly tarnished by revisionist accounts of Spain's ostensibly model Transition. This is the context in which I travelled to Madrid to conduct an interview on 21 January 2016 with Alfonso Guerra,the longest-serving MP (1977–2015) of the post-Franco dictatorship, who was instrumental in the drafting of the Constitution, and has come to represent the radical cultural face of the PSOE.

He and Felipe González established a loyal power-base as young men in their native Seville, a city of great fortunes located in Andalusia, one of the poorest areas of Europe. The future President's sphere of influence was among the workers, while Guerra's demographic consisted primarily of students and intellectuals who gathered at the Antonio Machado bookshop. Following Franco's death, the PSOE were not major players: the principal opposition to the dictatorship had been provided by the Communist Party. This proved to be advantageous, for they did not instil the same fear of either a return to the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) or a radical redistribution of wealth, while the absence of a venerated old guard allowed Guerra and González to be fast-tracked through the party ranks.
Guerra subscribed to the widespread belief among progressive intellectuals and artists of the Transition that culture was a privileged tool for democratisation. Over the course of our conversation, he claimed to regret having not followed a cultural as opposed to a political career. Irrespective of whether we accept this claim as genuine, it is clear that neither he nor the modern-day PSOE would have been so successful politically if it were not for his engagement with culture in a myriad of guises. Guerra coordinated all of the PSOE's election campaigns from 1977 to 1993, which proved influential in a number of Latin American countries and pre-dated New Labour's cocktail of progressive change and pop-cultural cringe by over a decade.

When I mentioned the increasingly vocal opponents to conventional narratives surrounding Spain's Transition, Guerra simply dismissed them as ignorant, unaware of what the country was like in the late 1970s, failing to take into account the limited room for manoeuvre. Compromises, in his view, had to be made across the political spectrum in order to secure some semblance of consensus. To illustrate his general point, he spoke of Guernica: it was first displayed in the Prado in the late 1970s, at a time when the artistic director of Madrid's major museum was a priest, and members of the Guardia Civil were called upon to defend Picasso's masterpiece from vandalism.

Pablo Iglesias rejects this narrative, and is equally if not more adept at marshalling culture as a means for political advancement. Podemos self-consciously position themselves not only in opposition to specific individuals and political parties, but also question the very foundations by which the major players in Spanish politics secured and retained their parliamentary power. Among the many unknowns thrown up by last December's election results is whether posterity will remember figures such as Guerra and González as the architects or the saboteurs of a bona fide democracy, examples of what (not) to do as a troubled nation looks ahead to an uncertain future.

Duncan Wheeler’s full account of his interview with Alfonso Guerra will be published in Political Quarterly (issue 87 3) and is online here now.