Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Where next for long-term care?

Deborah Mabbett

The Conservatives expected to win in 2017, and the manifesto was written accordingly. For the small team in Number 10, it was an opportunity to fix policies where there could be internal dissent and backsliding. The House of Lords observes a convention of not opposing policies that are based on clear manifesto commitments by the winning party, and May’s team evidently hoped that dissidents in the Commons could be subjected to a similar discipline. The manifesto was taken as an opportunity to reorient the party towards a new social and egalitarian vision of conservatism in which the instincts of middle England were identified and distinguished from the interests of the cosmopolitan elite.

Apart from the obvious problem of managing a party packed with representatives of the cosmopolitan enemy, the image of middle England was always vulnerable to deconstruction once policy details emerged. General and rhetorical appeals gave way to the calculus of interests, and therein lay a problem for long-term care policy in particular. Middle England may believe itself to be only ‘just about managing’, but it still enjoys or aspires to home ownership. But a goodly share of future long-term care finance will have to come out of housing equity, and the Prime Minister’s advisers took the plunge and said so. In a policy area riddled with complexity, their answer was crystalline in its simplicity: people should pay for their own care unless they could not afford to do so. Housing wealth, released if necessary by Deferred Payment Agreements, would count in what could be afforded, while the means-test threshold that delineates those who can afford care from those who cannot would be raised to £100,000.

Critics were quick to point out that this scheme offered no insurance against the lottery of long-term care costs for anyone but the worst off, for whom the £100,000 threshold provided protection. And long-term care costs really are a lottery: while many people will spend something on care in their old age, a crippling burden of high costs falls on about 10% of the elderly. It seems an ideal case for insurance, especially as the burden is genuinely difficult to predict. Wealth and education do not guard the privileged against dementia: the disease where the costs can be highest and most prolonged.

The argument that there should be insurance against very high costs, and that the state should provide it, was accepted in the Dilnot report. It proposed that there should be a cap on the amount anyone should have to pay towards their own care. The amount up to the cap can be thought of as an insurance ‘excess’. Economic theory (specifically, ‘Arrow’s theorem of the deductible’) suggests that it is efficient to have a certain amount of excess or self-insurance, although, somewhat confusingly, Dilnot thought that the private sector might provide insurance for the capped amount. Beyond that, the public sector would step in, effectively providing the ‘stop loss’ insurance. Thus the idea of a cap on the amount that anyone should have to spend on care became established, having received the imprimatur of economic expertise.

In 2015, the cap on care costs seemed to be a done deal: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos referred to it as if it was already in force, and Labour indicated that it supported the measure. Thus there was an outcry when the Conservatives did not include a cap in their 2017 proposals. But, as often happens when economic theorems are applied to public policy, the underlying arguments are far from straightforward. Dilnot proposed a cap but gave little guidance on the vexed question of how it should be set. A moment’s reflection tells us that setting the cap will always bring political torment. Set it low, and the state will have to meet the bulk of long-term care costs, which it is already failing to do, so the policy problem will not be solved. Set it high, and more and more people will find their wealth is not protected. Not only will the number of prospective beneficiaries of the cap fall, but also the beneficiary group has an undesirable feature: it consists of wealthy people. The higher the cap, the more it will be that only the wealthiest benefit from it.

In short, the cap is the policy instrument from hell. How did public policy on long-term care get into this predicament? We return to the Dilnot report on ‘Fairer care funding’ and its conception of ‘fairness’. Fairness, for Dilnot, meant finding a way to protect housing capital against care costs. Having to sell your home to pay for care, the report argued, was widely regarded by the public as unfair. The report gave no hint that there are vast inequalities in housing wealth; instead it claimed that ‘everyone’ faces a significant risk from care costs. This is patently untrue. Only those who have assets above the means-test threshold face a financial risk, and the scale of the risk increases with wealth. Estimates contained in the report showed that, if its proposals were adopted, the largest increases in public expenditure on care would accrue to those with the highest incomes, but this failed to ring alarm bells.

Dilnot also advanced a more prosaic defence of the cap, evaluated against the alternative of universal social insurance. Requiring a private contribution would restrain the cost to the public sector. Public schemes, Dilnot noted, tend to be, or become, underfunded. But the cap was really a limited gesture towards solving the problem of public underfunding. While dismissing a general insurance scheme, the Dilnot proposal envisaged the maintenance of public insurance beyond the cap. There was no discussion of the structure of this insurance: implicitly it was assumed that it would be the familiar British kind, whereby the premiums are collected through general taxation. This approach to insurance has many admirable features. Without the capped excess, it is the basis of the NHS: we pay in according to our income and use the services according to our needs. It is in a way a ‘double’ insurance, providing protection against health care costs and against having a low income. The Dilnot report is not to be faulted for planning on the continuation and augmentation of this insurance, but the report was silent on how that money might be found. That, apparently, was a problem for politicians to solve.

There is plenty of discussion in the report on how households could ensure that they could pay the capped amount: suitable private insurance products might be developed, or provision might be linked to pensions or savings plans. A private model was not seen as viable for the whole amount of care costs: private long-term care insurance has failed to get established anywhere. But insurance for a capped amount would be possible, as the cap would remove uncertainty about the potential cost of care. Thus Dilnot proposed a sort of ‘public-private partnership’ but, as so often with these wizard schemes, the government would have to find more money, and spend it on relatively wealthy recipients, in order to fulfil its role as partner.

In the face of Dilnot’s deafening silence about how to raise more public money, Labour and the Liberal Democrats ventured forth with their proposals. The Lib Dems proposed a 1p rise in income tax and the eventual introduction of a hypothecated health and care tax. In 2015, Labour proposed instead to create a new source of revenue, based on wealth rather than income, aiming particularly at those who have enjoyed large windfall capital gains from their home ownership. But this proposal came under intense criticism and was evidently deemed a vote loser, because in 2017 the party hedged its bets, keeping a wealth tax on the agenda but saying it would seek a cross-party consensus on how to raise the necessary revenue.

In proposing that a significant contribution to long-term care costs would have to come out of (a tax on) housing wealth, Labour tacitly challenged Dilnot’s peculiar definition of fairness, which is that housing wealth should be protected. Labour’s challenge is different to that posed by the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto proposal, which failed to address the problem that some unlucky people would lose the capital in their homes, and have nothing to pass on to their children. A wealth tax would mean that the risk would be pooled: everyone with housing wealth would pay something, and they would all have a little less to pass on to their children.

Given that Labour’s proposal for a wealth tax in 2015 fell heavily on its face, it seems to be time for a bit of lateral thinking. The party is right to insist that new sources of revenue need to be opened up: in particular, that some sort of charge on wealth is needed if public services are to be sustained without an undue burden on the working age generation. The problem with the care proposal in the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto was that it was a charge on an unlucky few, rather than a general levy on all those facing the risk of losing housing wealth. The solution to this problem is not to design the whole system of long-term care finance around the protection of housing wealth, as Dilnot did. The missing item in the Conservative manifesto was not the cap, but an insurance scheme for those who want to protect their equity in their homes.

The logic of housing equity insurance is quite simple. The main beneficiaries of the expansion of public long-term care provision are those with something to lose: the equity in their homes. Who do we want to tax to fund long-term care? Wealthy people: meaning, by and large, people with substantial equity in their homes. These dots can be joined up. If the problem with the Conservatives’ proposal was that unlucky people would lose their equity, the solution is to offer protection against that risk with housing equity insurance. Such a scheme is not difficult to devise, and it could have the useful feature that, since the insurance is of housing equity rather than care itself, those with more valuable houses to protect should pay a higher premium. The scheme can be voluntary: those who don’t believe in inherited wealth can reap a reward for their enlightened views.

No doubt this idea has snags that I have not thought of. But it has one great merit, which is to tackle the underlying politics of the long-term care debate. There are good arguments for turning to housing wealth to provide funding for care, but as the debate is currently structured, housing wealth seems untouchable. The cap has become firmly lodged in the policy debate even though it is fundamentally iniquitous. If the argument could be reframed, a solution is possible.

Some years ago, David Runciman dissected the politics of inheritance tax reduction in the US [1]. He pointed out that the wealthiest people, who would benefit the most, had proved skilful in finding frames and slogans which deceived the middle classes into thinking that their interests lay with the rich. Progressive politics has to learn to play this game too. ‘Tax breaks for rich murderers’ was Runciman’s suggestion for pushing back against the ‘death tax’. Unfortunately, some well-meaning people were suckered into talking about the ‘dementia tax’ at the last election, and these things are difficult to row back on. ‘Caps for rich home-owners’ does not have the same ring to it, but that is the policy we seem to be locked into now.


[1] Runciman, D (2005) 'Tax Breaks for Rich Murderers', London Review of Books Vol. 27 No. 11, 2 June.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Proscribing National Action: considering the impact of banning the British far-right group

Chris Allen

Chris Allen
Following the news that West Midlands Police have arrested five serving members of the British army on suspicion of being members of the proscribed neo-Nazi group National Action, we should consider the extent to which the British Government’s approach to banning extremist groups has been successful.

Over the past two decades, the British Government has adopted a range of different legislative and policy measures in trying to address extremism and radicalisation, one of which is proscription. While the majority of those banned have typically adhered to extreme Islamist ideologies, those adhering to extreme far-right ideologies have begun to increasingly concern politicians and others alike. In this respect, the arrests will be far from surprising for some.

Prior to proscription under the Terrorism Act 2000 in December 2016, little was known about National Action. While those such as Britain First and the English Defence League (EDL) had courted media attention and thereby public and political reach, National Action was growing in confidence and numbers. Most concerning, however, was that as Hope Not Hate noted, its supporters were becoming increasingly provocative, ever more erratic and wholly unpredictable to the extent that its greatest threat was physical rather than political. There were also very real concerns about the group’s link with Thomas Mair, the convicted murderer of the former Labour Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox. At his trial, he spoke only to say was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, a slogan that featured prominently on the group’s now defunct official website.

On the decision to proscribe, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said that National Action “is a racist, Antisemitic and homophobic organisation which stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology. It has absolutely no place in a Britain that works for everyone” before adding that it was “concerned in terrorism”. In doing so, it was the first time in British history that membership of a far-right group had been outlawed. Consequently, it became a criminal offence to be a member of the group, to invite support for it or help organise any meetings. Likewise also to wear clothing or insignia linked to the group or carry symbols. It would appear to be the former upon which the recent arrests have been made.

As before, little is known about National Action. Prior to proscription, it self-identified as Britain’s premier Nationalist Socialist street movement. Its founders – Alex Davies and Ben Raymond – were originally members of the youth wing of the now largely defunct British National Party (BNP). Having become acquainted via social media they agreed that a newly revitalised nationalist youth movement was now necessary in Britain. Recognising the need to be different and distinct from existing groups and movements, the two began to demarcate between ‘good’ forms of nationalism – including the British Democratic Party and Blood & Honour – and ‘bad’ – for instance, the BNP and EDL. From this process emerged the impetus for National Action. Publishing a manifesto in 2012, the group was formed the following year and quickly began to orchestrate direct action campaigns that largely targeted university campuses and mobilising supporters to demonstrate in city centres.

Its ideology was unequivocally traditionalist and sought to offer Britain’s youth an authentic interpretation of Nazism. In doing so it broke with a number of recent trends evident within the British far-right milieu. This would appear to have been a deliberate ploy, decrying other far-right and neo-Nazi groups as being cowards for being populist in preference to traditionalist. As such, National Action’s ideology was one that included overt expressions of ultra-nationalism, racism, Antisemitism, disablism, homophobia, anti-liberalism and anti-capitalism among others. In doing so, it routinely expressed both an admiration and glorification of Hitler and what it believed were the great achievements of the Third Reich. It argued that such was needed to ‘save’ Britain, ‘our’ race and ‘our’ generation. As part of this, it aspired to establishing a ‘white homeland’ in Britain.

It was clear that National Action knew that it was likely to be banned. As such, it used its now defunct website to deny that it was in any way extremist. Citing the legislation, it argued that an extremist organisation was required to use or encourage illegal violence or terrorism to achieve its goals. Countering this, the group asserted that it was instead radical rather than extreme, adding that to achieve its goal of establishing a white Britain it could only do so through state power and so it was – and always would be – fully complicit with the state’s institutions, including the police, army and intelligence services. While so, there was always an underpinning threat of violence in much of what National Action said and did. This was evident in how it regularly spoke about the need for its members to prepare for ‘self-defence’; likewise for them to undergo combat training. But most overt was its bold statement that as a group, it was “not afraid to swing the bat at the enemy”.

While banning was as unprecedented as it was unsurprising, a lack of clarity remains about the specific and long term impact of doing so; something that is given further emphasis in the wake of the recent arrests. Given these were intelligence-led, it would seem that the mere act of banning has not countered the group’s extremist ideology, stopped the group from functioning or prevented its members from being active. On one level this too is unsurprising in that many of the groups banned under the same legislation have continued to operate by instantly regrouping albeit with the mere adoption of a different name. That is how easy it is to circumnavigate the legislation. A good illustration of this is the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun which was banned in 2005. Between the initial ban in 2005 and 2014 when the last ban was imposed, the group, its members and its Islamist-inspired extreme ideology continued to function via groups named the Saved Sect, Call to Submission, Islam4UK, Islamic Path, London School of Sharia and Need4Khilafah. Given that it was recently claimed that affiliates to Al-Muhajiroun were linked with over half of all Islamist-inspired terror in the UK, the frailties and weaknesses of banning become apparent.

What would appear to be different here is that National Action and its members have apparently continued to use its name. At the moment, it is unclear why this might be so: could it be that the group were unconcerned with the ban or was it that they did not believe that they would be arrested? At this stage it would be wrong to speculate. Nonetheless, irrespective of whether the group and its members had chosen to continue to use the name its ideology would not have been destroyed on the basis of the ban alone. Also of grave concern is the prospect of National Action – and possibly other far-right and neo-Nazi groups – actively seeking to recruit servicemen to their rank and file. Again, while it would be wrong to speculate about this now it was alleged earlier this year that something similar was happening in the United States via the 4Chan website. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops.

You can read the full article here.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

UK International Development Policy post Brexit?

Simon Lightfoot, Emma Mawdsley and Balázs Szent-Iványi

Simon Lightfoot
Theresa May’s announcement prior to the election that the “0.7% commitment remains and will remain” has appeared to head off the likelihood that a future Conservative government will repeal the 2015 International Development Act in the next Parliament. This is the Act that legally requires the UK to spend 0.7% of its GNI on Official Development Assistance. Her statement ended speculation that the target was at risk. In his 2016 Autumn Statement the Chancellor Phillip Hammond had said that “We will keep our promise to the world’s poorest through our overseas aid budget….But as we look ahead to the next Parliament, we will need to ensure we tackle the challenges of rising longevity and fiscal sustainability. And so the government will review public spending priorities and other commitments for the next Parliament in light of the evolving fiscal position at the next Spending Review.

This appeared to suggest the law could be re-examined.

Emma Mawdsley
May’s statement has been interpreted by some as a brave move given that the 0.7% commitment, and the decision to ring fence the spending from austerity, is very unpopular within certain sections of the Conservative Party and the British media. Aid spending is an interesting element of government spending as it is money spent ‘beyond the water’s edge’. The Brexit decision emboldened these critics of UK aid, who believe they have the support of a majority of the British people to cut the aid budget, with this majority being made up of a similar demographic to those who voted Brexit, as noted in this report for the European Parliament.

Indeed the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said that commitment to the target requires “moral courage.” In the current election campaign, we saw aid pledges being used as counterpoint to spending pledges made by the political parties. For example, the plan by the Liberal Democrats to raise income tax by 1p to pay for the NHS was contrasted by journalists to their commitment to the 0.7% target, with the implication being cut aid to keep taxes low.

Balázs Szent-Iványi
However, the focus on the amount does not tell the whole story. The Prime Minister highlighted that “what we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way”. As DfID is one of the most transparent government departments we are able to get a good insight into how government priorities influence its work.

The 2015 Treasury Policy Paper “UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest” highlights the importance of national interest in aid spending.

Part of the national interest narrative is reflected in shifts in the ODA in the budget away from DfID to other departments, with a quarter of the aid budget (£3.5 billion) being spent outside DfID in 2016. We also see increased use of cross-government funds, such as the Prosperity Fund and Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Consequently we can identify an increased focus on security and the private sector,

While poverty reduction programmes and goals certainly remain important, much of the new energy and investment of the Conservative aid strategy has been in stimulating trade and private sector-led development. In a recent PQ paper, we argued that there is a clear narrative that Brexit will accelerate the trend to utilise aid to secure trade deals, given the need for the UK to re-focus its foreign and trade policy away from the EU.

There is also an option to increase the volume of aid devoted to business investment. This would fit with the proposal from DfID to increase the support the government can give to CDC, the UK development finance institution from £1.5bn to £6bn.

Given the amount of pressure the government faces to maintain 0.7 percent GNI aid spending, some changes in how that aid is used are inevitable. The focus on fragile states in the DfID strategy inevitably links development and security more closely. However, that does not mean security should replace poverty reduction as the focus of UK aid nor should aid include military spending. The changing nature of aid modalities towards technical assistance may mean that the private sector is best placed to provide the knowledge. However, that should not mean the private sector is always the best partner. Supporting refugees is important but diverting aid to fund the cost of hosting these refugees or reclassifying these costs as aid will weaken UK aid.

The 2017 Conservative Manifesto reinforced the view that what the UK classes as aid is likely to change post election. It states that whilst they will maintain the 0.7% commitment, they will work with like-minded countries to change the aid rules. The next line is telling; ‘If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target’.

Brexit puts increased focus on the UK’s ability to promote its soft power globally and DfID has considerable experience in the area. DfID is a well-respected government department both within the UK and internationally. DfID should therefore not be restricted in carrying out its core work, to reduce poverty, by growing pressure to act in the UK’s national interest. Clearly an aid policy which is supported by the British people and works for the UK is politically expedient but the UK has a proud record on aid and it is vital that nothing should negatively impact upon this record at this crucial time in British foreign policy.


Simon Lightfoot is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Leeds.

Emma Mawdsley is Reader in Human Geography and Fellow of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

Balázs Szent-Iványi is Lecturer in Politics & International Relations / Deputy Director Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University.

An earlier version of this blog was first published by the Policy Space.
You can read the full PQ article here.


Monday, 26 June 2017

The Politics of the Labour Manifesto

Ben Jackson

At the outset of the 2017 election campaign there seemed to be a good chance that the Labour Party would be broken – possibly irreparably – on the anvil of nationalism. After all, that was why Theresa May had called the election. Enormous credit is therefore due to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left for running an excellent campaign that capitalised on the abject weaknesses of the Conservatives and ultimately saved Labour from what many people – including me – thought would be a shattering historic defeat. After two years of bleak political news, the forces of conservatism in Britain have finally lost some ground. Much conventional wisdom now looks questionable as a result of the election, but I want to focus here on one point that raises some challenges for all parts of the Labour Party, including for Jeremy Corbyn and the left.

Corbyn himself said that Labour’s manifesto was the star of its campaign. It is widely agreed that the radical policies in the manifesto made a substantial impact on the election by offering a clear, positive vision of what a Labour government would do. Indeed, so successful was this vision that the Conservatives – whose positive political appeal for decades has been based on reducing direct taxes and handing out cut price houses – are now lamely accusing Labour of having bribed the voters. But what precisely did the Labour manifesto offer? Key measures in the manifesto included promises to increase income taxes on people earning over £80,000 a year; to introduce new workplace protections and rights; to bring energy, water, the Royal Mail and the railways back into public ownership; to invest in infrastructure; and to increase funding for public services, including for childcare, the NHS, and the abolition of university tuition fees. While there were some perfunctory gestures towards constitutional and democratic reform, and a more substantial but under-developed idea about promoting co-operative ownership structures, the heart of the manifesto was about strengthening the role of the state in reducing inequality and managing the economy.

One startling aspect of the success of this prospectus is that it essentially offered a fairly conventional social democratic politics of the sort that much of the professional elite and supporting intellectual network of the Labour Party has harboured grave doubts about since Labour left office in 2010 (and in some quarters even before then). Centre-left think tanks, commentators and academics have in recent years spent a lot of time worrying that ‘traditional’ social democracy required too much public spending or too great a role for the state, or lacked a patriotic rapport with Britishness and/or Englishness, or presented a deracinated metropolitan liberal perspective untethered to the parochial realities of working class life. While there was clearly something to these worries, some of this now looks overblown, in the sense that it underestimated both the volatility of the British political landscape and the strength of Labour’s traditional brand when given a sufficiently distinctive political focus. Although it would be foolish to feel certain about what will happen next, we can now see that the Conservative Party also faces fundamental challenges in holding together the electoral coalition constructed for it by Cameron and Osborne. In the wake of the European referendum, the Conservatives seem to have alienated a significant chunk of (predominantly younger) voters through their stance on Brexit while simultaneously repelling other voters through their policies on public services. As long as the Conservatives remain in government and have to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU, with all its attendant economic risks, then their voting coalition looks vulnerable to the sort of positioning Labour adopted during the 2017 campaign.

But it is paradoxical that the group in the Labour Party that actually had the courage to take a robust vision of social democracy to the country is one that has itself not been historically strongly attached to it. The stance of the Labour left has always been that social democracy is not enough. They have traditionally argued that a state-led welfare state lacks opportunities for popular participation and control, and that taxing and spending without democratising the ownership of capital will ultimately yield only limited gains. A fascinating aspect of the campaign is that it fell to Jeremy Corbyn to mount a potent defence of some of New Labour’s great achievements: high public spending on health and education; the Educational Maintenance Allowance; government investment in childcare and Sure Start; and a universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners. The crucial difference with New Labour was that, ever since the 1992 general election, Labour’s leaders have assumed that the party must be excruciatingly specific in its tax and spending commitments or it will face a fatal media and Conservative onslaught during the campaign. Although the 2017 manifesto proclaimed itself to be ‘fully costed’, the truth is that the tax and spending commitments of Labour in 2017 were not as focused and watertight as they had been at every general election since 1997. It is an interesting question as to why this was nowhere near as problematic for Labour as it might have been. One possibility is that it was simply another example of a dysfunctional and complacent Conservative campaign that failed to get to grips with its opponent. But another possibility – discussed by Helen Thompson in this issue – is that for the electorate economic credibility is beginning to mean something different in the context of an unprecedented period of monetary policy, in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, and as the grinding impact of public austerity hits home. For example, the existential challenge of how the British economy can succeed outside the EU may now simply be crowding out the more mundane debate on the deficit reduction timetable. In this environment a bold rather a minimalist economic and social policy package could therefore have greater electoral traction than in more cautious times.

Once the relief of the election result wears off, there will be a need for intellectual honesty rather than political posturing on all sides of Labour in order to work out how to build on 2017. Like the Conservatives, the Corbyn electoral coalition also looks vulnerable to fracture, particularly if Labour were to take office while Brexit negotiations are still underway. There is a lot to do, but Labour has already achieved what seemed impossible only a few months ago – not just avoiding a hopeless defeat but also putting the Conservatives in a severe, maybe even inescapable, political fix.


Note: An earlier version of this commentary appeared on the Renewal blog, 21 June 2017, and can be seen here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Explaining the resurgence of nationalism in politics

Colin Crouch

Theresa May’s claim that the Conservative party is the true representative of working people at the wrong end of society’s inequalities is surreal, but it does locate her within a distinct political tradition. Understanding that tradition is therefore vital to understanding where the United Kingdom might be heading under her leadership. Since she is just one of a number of similar politicians dotted around the advanced world at the present time, this is not just an issue confined to one country. There is Donald Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the People’s Party in Denmark.

May’s claim is surreal, because the Conservative Party continues to be primarily the party that represents wealthier people and opposes strongly redistributive taxation. May herself does not claim to be an egalitarian. She presents herself as the defender of ordinary working people, just managing families, those living in neglected regions, etc., without challenging the overall framework of inequality within which the problems of these variously categorized groups is defined. She also plans to use Brexit to achieve a ‘Singapore’ status for the UK. Singapore – apart from being barely democratic - is a tax haven that provides very little public social policy for its citizens. A similar stance is adopted by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP, like May, insists that it represents the ordinary working people who have been ignored and spurned by the elite. But it believes in lower taxation for the wealthy (and presumably therefore reduced social policy and public infrastructure spending), and (again like May) the revival of grammar schools, which notably reduce the educational chances of children from lower and middle-income families. Much the same can be said for Donald Trump. He speaks passionately about the neglected working class, who have suffered at the hands of an elite; but his policies include cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating the financial markets, the behaviour of the operators in which were among the main causes of the discontents of many US workers.

There is nothing new in conservative politicians arguing that lower- and middle-income people can thrive only if entrepreneurs, company directors and the rich in general are allowed to run ahead of the pack, creating wealth that will eventually trickle down to everyone else. But that appeal stresses a shared interest among elite and mass. What is distinctive about May, Trump, Le Pen and the rest is their rhetorical attacks on elites, which are nevertheless combined with a defence of authority and tradition.

The paradox is resolved by the nature of the sins for which elites are criticized: they are not attacked for being rich, but for allegedly siding with various kinds of foreigner – foreign countries, immigrants, ethnic minorities – against native, national working families. It is in fact only a certain kind of elite that is being attacked: the adjective ‘liberal’ is usually attached to the noun.

The stance of May (or Le Pen or Orbán) would be impossible without the European Union and immigrants being available to stand as the enemies, favoured by liberal elites, of native British (French, Hungarian) people. Mexicans, Moslems, the Chinese and Germans similarly enable Trump to reconcile his own contradictory position. Xenophobia is essential to the ability of this kind of politics to square the circle of its rhetorical support for both traditionalism and ‘ordinary working people’.

These politicians are distinctive, but they are not historically unique, and they do belong to a recognizable tradition, though it is one which, because of the tension within it, tends to be unstable, making only occasional visits to the political scene. Its last major appearance was as Nazism and fascism. These too combined appeals to traditionalism with criticism of elites, using an intense nationalism and the identification of foreign enemies and ethnic minorities to square the circle. This is not to argue that this political position is always fascist. Distinctive of Nazism and fascism was an official commitment to aggressive war and physical violence; accusations of fascism can only be launched at occupants of this political position when they move to such a stance. However, the association of xenophobia with fascism restrained mainstream right-wing politicians from exploiting it for decades after the Second World War.

Several developments have come together to change this and encourage conservative – and some social democratic and neoliberal – politicians to enter formerly forbidden territory. First is the collapse of true conservatism. Almost no-one defends traditionalism any more. Its religious base having almost disappeared (in Europe though not in the USA and Islamic lands), established conservative parties have become committed to change, both neoliberal economic change and social liberal changes in gender, sexuality and other areas of life. The class identities of industrial society that supported conservatism, liberalism and socialism alike have declined alongside industrialism itself. But tradition as defence of The Nation has acquired new prominence through the separate but related phenomena of globalization, immigration, waves of refugees and Islamic terrorism.

People with a strong interest in politics find it hard to understand that a large majority of their fellow citizens feels touched deeply by politics only when a social identity that is important to them has clear political implications. Class and religion used to provide such links, especially when they were the focus of struggles over inclusion and exclusion. If one knows one is a member of a class (or religion) that is being excluded from citizenship rights, or which is benefiting from privileges from which certain others are or could be excluded, then one knows whose side one is on in the major political struggles of the day. Nation and ethnicity provide further social identities of this kind. As class and religion decline, while globalization increases the salience of nation and ethnicity, these latter leap to a new, potent salience, reaching across classes. Can a commitment to liberal values and enjoyment of the benefits of multiculturalism rival them and provide them with a serious antagonist in the politics of the 21st century?

You can read Colin Crouch's article 'Neoliberalism, Nationalism and the Decline of Political Traditions' here.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The rise and fall of Martin Schulz

Jörg Michael Dostal

Sometimes the (ir-)relevance of ‘academic’ articles rises and falls before their ultimate publication. This is the case with my paper on German social democracy in the current edition of Political Quarterly, written in December of last year. Briefly, my main thesis is that a social democratic party turned neoliberal could not, cannot and will not win elections run under an electoral system of proportional representation – as is the case in Germany. My thesis is neither new nor in any way original. If you do everything you can to demobilize your (former) core voters, by adopting socio-economic policies that are directly opposed to their material interests – such as cutting taxes for high earners, removing social protection and shifting the tax base away from progressive to regressive taxes, as was all done during the red-green coalition government led by the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005 – you will simply destroy your political support base.

Since the Schröder years, half of former SPD voters – around 10 million people altogether – have drifted away. The probably largest group has opted out from the political process and no longer votes in elections (differences in electoral participation between residential areas with lower and higher socio-economic status are dramatically high in Germany). Other former SPD voters have turned to the CDU/CSU (why vote for the copy of a neoliberal party if you can vote for the original?), the Left Party or the right-wing populists of the AfD. Yet losing one’s traditional voters has not, in fact, meant that new centrist voters would have turned to the SPD to compensate for the losses – as Blairites used to claim. In electoral terms, the SPD has virtually nothing to show for its ‘modernization’ during the Schröder years. Since the German proportional electoral system allows voters a greater degree of choice when compared with British majority voting, the SPD cannot take its traditional voters for granted and must work hard to attract new ones. In earlier times, the core of the social democratic message used to be the commitment to ‘social justice’. Today, the SPD can no longer explain to voters from disadvantaged milieus why they should vote social democratic, and the party appears to stand for nothing much in particular.

In an oblique way, the SPD has recently tried addressing its poor electoral track record in the federal elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013. First, the SPD has engaged in a major shuffling of its leadership personnel. The former SPD foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier, has become the German president (a largely ceremonial role), and the former SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken Steinmeier’s position in the current grand coalition government in which the SPD acts as junior partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This prepared the stage for the re-entry of Martin Schulz, the former chairman of the European Parliament, into German domestic politics. On 24 January 2017, he was announced to be the candidate for chancellor of the SPD and, shortly afterwards, was also elected as the new SPD leader with the North Korean-style electoral support of 100 per cent of the party delegates.

To the surprise of most observers, including this writer, Schulz quickly gained political momentum: the SPD experienced the virtually first sustained upturn in opinion polls since the Schröder years and, at one point, Schulz matched Merkel’s popularity figures. This development became known as ‘Schulzmania’ in the media and on Twitter. It appeared to hand the SPD a real fighting chance to defeat Merkel in the polls in September 2017.

Why did ‘Schulzmania’ occur? From my point of view, candidate Schulz did something right: he appealed to what German sociologists usually describe as the ‘traditional employee milieus’ in German society (in his own words the ‘people who keep things moving’), and he clearly stated that it was unjust that people losing their jobs for reasons beyond their control also lose their rights in the German social security system after a single year of unemployment benefits. He suggested that people who had paid into the social insurance system all their life should be treated better, and that re-training of the unemployed for qualified jobs, rather than forcing them into poor quality employment, must be a right that the SPD should honour. In fact, his words had a very strong impact and there was a short-lived wave of enthusiasm welcoming the candidate as the saviour that the SPD had been waiting for all along.

As was to be expected, the counteroffensive of the mainstream media – mostly aligned with the conservatives – pushed the opposite story line. They suggested that the Schröder-SPD’s welfare retrenchment and deregulation of the labour market, mostly between 2003 and 2005, had been a ‘success’ and that Schulz was riding the dead horse of social justice. To quote two typical voices, one journalist suggested that ‘efforts to regain the insecure clientele at the margins of society are so last season. After three [SPD] defeats in regional elections, Martin Schulz wants to avoid more than ever to scare the centrist electorate with expensive initiatives’ (Spiegel, 20 May 2017). In the same spirit, an opinion pollster suggested that ‘it is the cardinal mistake of Schulz to put the topic of ‘justice’ so much at the centre of his campaign’ (Stern, 21 May 2017).

Yet if these observers could really be right, how could we possibly take account of ‘Schulzmania’ in the first place? The basic issue of whether or not labour market deregulation and welfare retrenchment count as a ‘success’ is of course determined by the politics of class: it certainly was highly successful from the point of view of employers and the well-off. Yet it was a major blow from the point of view of employees fearing for the security of their jobs and those depending on welfare state solidarity.

Overall, the SPD must make an effort to clarify its electoral message. Does the party continue to advocate for neoliberalism-lite, or is it going to demand major policy change in favour of the socially disadvantaged? Most opinion pollsters claim that ‘social justice’ is not a winning topic in the forthcoming election, suggesting that other issues such as the refugee crisis, domestic security, and health and pension policies are more significant. Yet opinion pollsters frame such issues too narrowly: each of the ‘other’ major issues has a strong social justice component. A weak and deregulated state is not going to be able to solve any of the problems facing the German public at present. Thus, Schulz would be well-advised to stay ‘on message’ and to avoid blurring his initial focus on social justice. The current (late May 2017) main SPD talking point – namely reorganizing health insurance by creating a more universal system – is too obscure and has already been around in SPD announcements for many years. It is certainly not a topic that is going to solve the SPD’s search for a clear programmatic message. Schulz must reassert his position or face a lengthy and painful decline as a candidate until election day on 22 September.

Let us be honest: even the best electoral strategy would in all likelihood not allow for a left-of-centre government in Germany later this year. The current age is not a social democratic one, and electoral failure on the part of the SPD is ultimately due to difficulties shared by all progressive parties in offering convincing alternatives to neoliberal retrenchment and austerity. The SPD, the Greens and the Left Party all struggle with their own particular mobilization problems in elections, and they have collectively failed to create a mood in favour of political change in Germany. Yet this does not change the fact that the SPD and candidate Schulz really must try harder to run an election campaign with a coherent message. This would at least allow re-gaining some of the lost electoral ground.

The full article 'The Crisis of German Social Democracy Revisited' is available here

Friday, 26 May 2017

Why Grammar Schools? Why Social Mobility?

The controversy about increasing admissions to Britain’s surviving grammar schools has re-opened old, half-forgotten, lines of political controversy. The result is that some issues, such as the negative impact of selective schools on others in their areas, attract considerable attention, while many do not. Among the latter are the questions of why, and when, selection in secondary education can be justified, and of the plausibility of the justification actually deployed by Theresa May’s government.

One defence of selective schooling is that a country’s pool of educated people is too small to sustain its future economy and state administration. Indeed, this was at the centre of the National Efficiency movement’s support for a major expansion in grammar schools (which began in 1907). The pool was then too small because many pupils in private schools were not well educated, and had little interest in training for careers where a high level of skill was required. This was a system in which personal connections were crucial to job recruitment, for the middle class as much as the working class, and many of the skills eventually needed were acquired during employment. National Efficiency advocates wanted to broaden access to secondary education to social classes beyond the more affluent middle class so as to fill this “skills” gap.

A century later nearly all private schools have to demonstrate to parents that their pupils obtain high academic credentials, because their children’s success in the labour market now depends on it. This massive transformation in the operation of private education since the mid-20th century has meant that, nationally, more than enough adolescents are educated to a sufficiently high standard to fill the most skilled jobs. Indeed, five years after they complete their degrees more than one third of current graduates are still not in jobs designated as requiring graduate entry. Thus, with the important exception of some specific sectors, there is no shortage of highly qualified entrants to the workforce. Moreover, while it is possible that these exceptions might conceivably be rectified by the creation of very specialized selective schools, increasing the overall number of grammar school places could not do so. The May justification for her policy is different therefore, being couched in terms of increasied social mobility. This is an implausible rationale that has attracted surprisingly little comment, despite its underpinning assumptions being largely spurious.

First, the scale of the proposed increase in grammar school places is so small that any impact on British social structure overall will be tiny. It is akin to claiming that economic inequality nationally can be reduced by the government establishing a lottery fund from which a few poorer people each month will be set up as millionaires.

Secondly, even if that expansion were much larger, disadvantaged primary school children would have to be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in selection processes for most to compete successfully for places, given the family and school advantages many middle-class children would have had beforehand. While May wants schools to ensure that some places do go to the disadvantaged, the whole history of selection in those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) where comprehensivization was not introduced 40 years ago has been of a strong association with social class. Obviously what middle class voters in those areas do not want is for their grammar schools to be given over primarily to the children of the disadvantaged; their aim is to reduce stress for themselves and their children in relation to the 11+ examination, by having more places available to them. They will surely get their way, and the class bias in grammar school selections will largely continue.

Thirdly, there is a widely held, but false, myth that for any position, providing you devise the right sort of selection procedures, you can always determine an approximate rank order among candidates, thereby ensuring the “best” are selected. In fact, even with adults, with vast amounts of information about them available, and with extensive testing, selection is imperfect. While it is relatively easy to determine competence – who does, and who does not, have the skills to be proficient in a particular activity – rank-ordering the competent is subject to considerable inaccuracy in all cases. That is, assessments of relative potential for future performance are always, and necessarily, highly imprecise. That situation is far worse when information is limited and when it is children being ranked for rationed places (at grammar schools). Among those children who do demonstrate competence, it is luck that will primarily determine which of them gets admitted and which rejected.

Finally, like most politicians, May invokes social mobility as if it were always a desirable social goal. It is not. Obviously, few today would advocate a society in which social advancement was impossible, and most argue that mobility during the last century has been socially beneficial. However, the expansion of the middle class then was the result primarily of changes in the labour market, with proportionately fewer non-skilled jobs and more skilled ones. Some of those born into working class families thus became middle class. Relative social peace was possible because there was much less downward mobility than upward mobility. If this earlier shift in the labour market does not continue this century, and there is strong evidence that it will not, then any upward mobility will be associated with corresponding downward movement. Too much of the latter can be at least as politically destabilizing as too little of the former, as Poujadism in 1950s France demonstrated.

For a leader portraying herself and her party as agents for political stability, May’s invocation of social mobility as a core objective is somewhat ironic therefore. While some mobility is always valuable, too much would almost certainly not be promoted by anyone supposedly intent on preserving the polity’s stability during the present century. While St Augustine supposedly exclaimed “Make me good, God, but not yet”, May is surely committed to the view: “Give me social mobility, but not too much”.

You can read Alan Ware's article 'Grammar Schools, a Policy of Social Mobility and Selection - Why' here.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

How the sovereign speaks: The changing language of parliamentary legislation

Matt Williams

At just seventy words, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is roughly half the length of an article abstract. But, in terms of impact, it is fair to say that few academics will achieve as much in so few words. The language used is plain, with short, unadorned sentences:

    ‘1(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
    (2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.’

The only language used whose meaning could be contested is the modal verb ‘may’. As in: ‘The Prime Minister may notify’. As it happens we know the Prime Minister will give notification before the end of March. But the law technically allows her to escape this commitment if gripped by a sudden change of heart. This is unlikely. But the modal verb ‘may’ is not always so innocuous. Section 28 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 swapped modal verbs in existing law:

   ‘(2) In subsection (1) for “must do all that they can to” substitute “may”…
    (4) Accordingly, in the heading of the section, for “Duty” substitute “Power”.’

As this legislation lays bare, switching must to may changes a duty to a power. And executive powers are the subject of public concern, parliamentary scrutiny and judicial review. Former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, came against the sharp end of ‘may’ when he was Home Secretary. It was in a lawsuit brought by the Fire Brigades Union. At issue was section 171 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988:

    ‘(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, this Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint and different days may be appointed in pursuance of this subsection for different provisions or different purposes of the same provision.’

Specifically, the Home Secretary had been empowered to create a compensation scheme for victims of violent crime. The problem is that he did not want to. An older non-statutory scheme of ex gratia payments to victims of violent assaults was preferred by the Home Secretary, who thereby chose to interpret ‘may’ as ‘may not’. The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords disagreed. Thereby pulling the court into public policy making. As per Lord Mustill (1):

‘To avoid a vacuum in which the citizen would be left without protection against a misuse of executive powers the courts have had no option but to occupy the dead ground in a manner, and in areas of public life, which could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.’

Misuse of executive power was, in this case, non-use of executive power. But one can imagine ‘may’ creating a variety of uncertainties as to the ‘whens?’, the ‘whys?’ and the ‘how fars?’ of power. Lord Mustill points to a fundamental change in British law when he argues the case would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. The change he alludes to has been so slow and subtle as to be barely perceptible. It is by taking a long view and using the latest machine reading technology that a pattern of linguistic change emerges. It will not be a surprise to readers that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is unusual. But then what is the usual use of language for the sovereign Parliament in the twenty-first century?

My new article in Political Quarterly shows that, besides an astonishing increase in the volume of legislation enacted, the language used increasingly relies on parts of speech that enable discretion and are adaptable to unforeseen circumstances. In terms of volume, having surveyed all 191,080 pages of legislation enacted between 1900 and 2015, a clear pattern emerges. Fewer laws are enacted of much greater length. Just 198 pages of legislation were enrolled in 1900, covering sixty-three separate Acts. In 2015, there were 2,428 pages of legislation enacted in thirty-seven Acts. The average statute was just three pages long in 1900, and sixty-six pages long in 2015. Of course, size is not everything, as the EU Act 2017 will no doubt demonstrate. But besides changes in scale, there have also been changes in language. In 2015, 18% of all sections enacted relied on the modal verb ‘may’, where in 1900 it was just 4%. And besides the verbs used, the sovereign in 2015 relied on significantly more adjectives and adverbs (62%) as compared to 1900 (30%). Adjectives such as ‘reasonable’, ‘vulnerable’ and even ‘conducive’ require interpretation. This interpretative necessity will typically favour the powerful. If, for example, an immigrant needs to prove that their deportation is not, in fact, ‘conducive to the public good’ (as per s. 3(5)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971) it will be their word against the Home Secretary’s.

And, finally, there has also been an extraordinary increase in the use of conditional conjunctions in parliamentary legislation (73% in 2015, up from 31% in 1900). Conjoining indeterminate conditions in law will also create latitude, again largely to the advantage of those able to fight for their preferred interpretations in court. The Equality Act 2010 demonstrates the potential elasticising effect of adjectives, adverbs and conditional conjunctions:

    ‘159(1) This section applies if a person reasonably thinks that –
    (a) persons who share a protected characteristic suffer a disadvantage connected to the                      characteristic, or
    (b) participation in an activity by persons who share a protected characteristic is disproportionately low.’

So the EU Act 2017 is highly unusual, in terms of its length, its use of language, and, of course, its content. Given one ambition of the Act is to retake sovereignty from the EU, it is timely to consider how sovereignty actually operates in the twenty-first century. What we see are not clear instructions handed down by a self-possessed sovereign, but indeterminate delegation to the government and private citizens. If Britain is to take back control, perhaps more attention is needed not only on what the sovereign may say, but how.

(1) R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union


You can read the full article 'The Grammar of Politics: A Brief History of Legislative Language in Britain' here.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Parliamentary sovereignty and Brexit

Deborah Mabbett

For many people, the first weeks of February were a dispiriting time. After the brief cheer of the Supreme Court’s decision, MPs bowed to pressure to accept the referendum as decisive and trooped into the ‘Ayes’ lobby to support the government’s authority to trigger Article 50. Albert Weale has brilliantly explained in this journal why this was a dereliction of the democratic duty of those who opposed Brexit. Evidently MPs saw it differently, but what exactly did they think they were doing?

In the absence of a written constitution, we rely on authoritative commentators to tell us what the rules are. Among those commentators, Vernon Bogdanor is currently enjoying ascendancy with his claim that there is a new convention governing the relationship between referendums and Parliament (1).  Parliament is sovereign, except over the range of its own powers. If it is considering giving up some of its powers, it should seek a public mandate through a referendum: the 1975 vote on EEC membership and the Scottish referendum in 2014 could be said to be governed by this principle. An instruction from the people to Parliament to take back powers is also binding, and the 2016 referendum gave that instruction. Parliament should have its say, but, Bogdanor suggests, what it should say is governed by the referendum result, and MPs know this.

Why should a referendum have this authority? One familiar argument is that representatives should act as delegates when there is a clear expression of voters’ preferences, which a referendum provides. A referendum is a vote on just one issue at a time, whereas a general election cannot give a clear verdict on any single issue. But the claim that the referendum result is a clear verdict is easily rebutted. For referendums to produce clear expressions of preferences, they would need to be designed carefully. Very often, a two stage procedure is required. For Brexit, a first vote could determine whether to start negotiations while a second would test the outcome of negotiations against the status quo. There are various practical objections to this process, but it seems to be the only way to ensure that referendums provide clear expressions of preferences.

Bogdanor recognises these issues, and he does not offer a general defence of policy-making by referendum. Rather, he proposes that there are some decisions so fundamental that Parliament cannot legitimately decide them: specifically, decisions to transfer powers to and from Parliament, either upwards to the EU or downwards to the devolved governments. It follows that referendums bind Parliament when they are votes on the constitutional order, as Parliament operates within the constitutional order.

But the ambiguity of the referendum result damages this argument irreparably. Somehow, the result had to be invested with meaning, beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’. At this point, the role of Parliament became its normal everyday role of rubber-stamping executive authority. In passing the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill unamended, the House of Commons bowed not to the will of the people but to the authority of the government to promote a particular approach to implementing the outcome of the referendum. The government has apparently decided on a ‘hard Brexit’. There is surely a majority in the House for a softer version, but MPs proved incapable of organising themselves to set the agenda and vote for that. The vote was not a temporary suspension of parliament’s authority in the face of a popular mandate, as Bogdanor has argued. Rather, it was the result of the same old political behaviour that has weakened Parliament for decades. MPs went along with party positions: they did not vote with the views of their constituents; nor did they vote in accordance with their own beliefs about the best policy for the country.

It was business as usual, except that Labour failed to perform the role of official opposition. We don’t know exactly why, but it seems likely that the leadership of the party took a position that was based on an assessment of the views of those who it sees as the party’s core voters, particularly in the North. That assessment has been challenged by John Curtice, who has shown that a clear majority of Labour voters supported Remain, not only in the South but also in the North (2).  Just because a majority in a Labour-held seat supported Leave, it does not follow that a majority of Labour voters in that seat were Leavers. Curtice’s analysis has in turn been challenged by Ian Warren (3),  who has argued that the voters who abandoned the party in 2010 and 2015 were mainly Leavers, so Labour has to pitch to Leave to get them back. Perhaps, but perhaps Labour should think about better representing its faithful Remain voters. It could even adopt a position of principle that does not succumb to the cries of the tabloid press, but that might be too much to ask.

This leaves the puzzle of why the government is apparently intent on propelling the UK towards the hardest form of Brexit, and why Conservative Remain MPs have allowed this. The most charitable interpretation is that the government’s position is a bargaining strategy. To have any hope of getting other EU members to agree to a special relationship, the UK has to make it appear credible that it will walk away without an agreement. This, incidentally, makes it vital that Parliament is not allowed to vote on the final deal or non-deal, as it would surely reject a non-deal, and EU partners know this. Whether the bargaining strategy will work or not, we will find out, but there is an uneasy sense that the UK is playing chicken with a juggernaut. It will be very difficult for the other twenty-seven to find the flexibility that the UK demands.

The constitutional issue that this raises concerns the government’s power to negotiate on behalf of the UK without parliamentary constraints. The judgments in the Miller case clarify this power. Even while the judges determinedly stated and restated the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, they all agreed on the existence of executive prerogative in the area of international relations. Prerogative powers, as the majority judgment puts it, relate to ‘important areas of governmental activity which .. are essential to the effective operation of the state’, including foreign affairs: diplomatic relations, the deployment of armed forces abroad, and the making of treaties.

The judgments in Miller turned on the question of whether this prerogative power could be invoked to end the UK’s membership of the EU. The majority held that the government could not invoke its authority over foreign affairs in dealing with the EU, as EU law has become part of domestic law. To treat EU membership as a matter of prerogative would be to assert prerogative powers to change domestic law, and that is untenable. Parliament makes the law, not the executive.

But here the legal position comes up against the realpolitik of negotiation, and it is surely this that meant there was no rebellion on the Conservative side, with the lonely exception of Ken Clarke. Conservative MPs with Remain constituencies followed the logic of power that has served their party well for a century: their government is leaving the EU and their task is to ensure that it has the bargaining power to do so on the best possible terms.

The real fallacy of Bogdanor’s argument is the implied claim that leaving the EU will restore the powers of the national parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty was a fiction before Britain joined the EU, and leaving will not change that. The national sovereignty that is being reclaimed by Brexit is not parliamentary sovereignty: it is executive authority. The vote was not about parliamentary power, but about the balance of power between a judiciary that is part of a supranational legal order on one hand, and the executive (and the legislature it dominates) on the other. The primary impact of leaving the EU will be to reduce the authority of the judiciary and and increase that of the executive.

The judges in the Miller case found that EU law is part of domestic law. This has important practical effects. A remarkable achievement of the EU is that it has replaced diplomacy and executive discretion in international relations with a system based on law. While this legal system is integrated by the supremacy of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, it is first and foremost a system based in domestic law, routinely accessible to businesses and citizens. The effect is that a UK-based business which finds itself excluded from trading or operating in another state can challenge the regulatory authority that is obstructing it in the courts of that state. The British government need not get involved; indeed, very often the higher echelons of government in the other state do not get involved either. They can leave the question to the relevant regulatory body, which wins some cases and loses others in its dealings with its own business community and citizens, and has the same relationship with those based abroad (provided they are in the EU).

In its Brexit plans, the government has been forthright in its determination to leave this system. Bringing an end to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice is the main subject of chapter 2 of the Brexit White Paper, ahead of controlling immigration (ch 5) and ensuring free trade (ch 8). In future, aggrieved citizens will have to turn to their consulates. Businesses that find their market access blocked by a regulatory agency will have to ask the UK government to take up their case, instead of being able to seek the protection of EU law in the courts of the country that has blocked them.

I remarked above that a charitable interpretation of the government’s strategy is that it is trying to secure a strong negotiating position. A less charitable interpretation is that senior members of the present government fundamentally reject an international system based on law. They prefer bargaining and diplomacy to the settlement of disputes by independent authorities. One explanation of this preference is that judicial settlement of international disputes has a tendency to spill over into areas of domestic law which have no apparent cross-border aspect. Indeed, it is arguable that the Court of Justice has done little to prevent this spillover, as it has over time given up the self-restraint that confined its decisions to matters with cross-border effects. Still, the hostility of the present government to judicial authority is striking. Courts are, apparently, all tarred with the brush of progressive liberalism. The Court of Justice has blotted its copybook with the British government with decisions upholding the rights of EU migrants to receive social security benefits. This is small beer financially and economically, compared with, say, the same Court’s decision that the City of London must have non-discriminatory access to the euro derivatives market, but the government seems unable to weigh up the gains and losses in a rational way.

Brexit will mean the replacement of law by diplomacy in economic relationships with the EU. Diplomacy is an area of prerogative power; leaving the EU will enlarge the domain of this power. We will not see international relations widely discussed and debated in Parliament: it is an area where secrecy prevails. The Supreme Court did its best to allow Parliament to have a say on Brexit, unequivocally rejecting the claim that the referendum result could be put into effect directly. Parliament’s capitulation shows us how referendums really work, and the distance from Bogdanor’s account is large. Referendums permit the expression of a general ‘will of the people’, but the people’s will is susceptible to interpretation, and it is the political executive that has seized the power to interpret. Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are squeezed between the general will and the strategic executive, between the moment (but only a moment) of democratic expression and the long-drawn-out process of closed door negotiations.


(1) Vernon Bogdanor ‘After the Referendum the People and not Parliament are Sovereign’ Financial Times, 9 December 2016.
(2) John Curtice, 'Is Labour’s Brexit dilemma being misunderstood? 'The UK in a Changing Europe, 17 February 2017
(3) Ian Warren, ‘Brief response to John Curtice’ 2 March 2017

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The populist surge and democracy in today’s Europe

Giorgos Katsambekis

If we believe top European officials like Herman van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as mainstream media, populism is now ‘the greatest danger’ for our democracies. Indeed, during the years of crisis and austerity there has been a significant rise of populist parties in Europe, with some of them winning elections and disturbing previously established hegemonies. In this sense, the populist challenge has a ‘real,’ concrete base, as populists of various orientations are gaining ground. Interestingly, this ‘populist surge’ has brought renewed intensity to the debate around the crisis of democracy itself and the capacity of existing institutions to express and empower citizens. If people are turning to populist challengers, who seem overly radical, or even ‘extremist,’ then something must be wrong with our democratic-representational systems. This, at least, seems to be a common suggestion on the lips of politicians, pundits and academics.

To be sure, populists are identified on both sides of the political spectrum. Starting from the right, the Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen poses as a viable contender of power in France, the Finns Party in Finland are participating in a coalition government, holding significant cabinet posts, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was only narrowly defeated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, while Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s hegemony in Hungary seems unchallenged.

At the same time we have witnessed a new surge, characterised by the emergence of populist parties that belong to the Left. The austerity-hit European South has been at the forefront of this new trend. Political parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain rode the waves of massive grassroots anti-austerity movements and significantly expanded their electoral support, with the former being already in power for two years and the latter consolidated as a major player in Spain’s political scene.

But is this trend something good or bad for democracy? And what are the prospects of populism from now on? To deal with such questions we have to start from defining populism. Drawing on the emerging consensus among academics that use discursive or ‘ideational’ approaches, we can sketch the main characteristics of the phenomenon.

First, populism entails the discursive construction of ‘the people’ as a collective subject. ‘The people’ are called upon as the only ones that can legitimise democratic decision making; as the key-subject of social change and radical subversion. The second characteristic of populism is its sharp antagonistic worldview: the representation of society as ultimately divided between ‘the people’ and the ‘establishment.’ Populists are placed on the side of ‘the people,’ pledging to serve the popular will and reinforce popular sovereignty, accountability and participation, against power holders and ‘oligarchs.’

This formal understanding of populism gives us a precise illustration of its political logic, but it does not tell us much regarding the content of populist politics. Indeed, populism’s contents may vary, depending on the ideology to which it is attached, as well as the socio-economic environment in which it develops. This explains the fact that we have historically witnessed many different forms of populist articulation: populisms that favoured statist economic programmes and others that were free-market oriented; populisms that emerged from the grassroots and populisms that were concentrated on charismatic leaders and top-down hierarchies; populisms that put forth demands for democratic expansion and social inclusion and populisms that defended authoritarian logics and social/ethnic exclusion.

Accordingly, the way in which populists speak about ‘the people,’ can vary significantly, as some consider the people to be a mono-ethnic community bound by relations of common culture, language or blood, while others see it as a political community, plural and heterogeneous, bound only by a sense of common fate and a shared set of values. Moreover, the way in which the antagonism with the ‘enemy’ is signified can also acquire different content: in some cases, an unresponsive ‘elite’ can be blamed for its economic injustices and corruption, or it can be castigated for opening the borders and allowing invading ‘others’ to ‘take over’ the country.

In this context, taking into account the vast heterogeneity of the phenomenon, I believe that it is wrong to denounce populism per se as a pathological and anti-democratic form of politics. In fact, it might be better to understand it as one way, among many others, to appeal to groups of people in order to mobilise them against named opponents, while offering some kind of incorporation.

Now, what we may call ‘populist incorporation’ can be exclusive and identitarian (‘you’re one of us, as long as we share the same ethnic origins’), or it can be inclusive and pluralist (‘you’re one of us regardless ethnicity, religion, etc., as long as we stand together against an oppressive elite’). Admittedly, this is a simplified version of possible articulations, based on the two broader trends that seem to crystallise in Europe. In any case, this function tells us something crucial regarding the conditions of emergence and probable success of populist projects.

And it is here that the notion of ‘crisis’ enters our discussion. Kenneth Roberts, for example, has linked populist ruptures to certain crises of representation. One of the scenarios that he describes is the situation where a political system is characterised by lack of responsiveness or accountability. In this case, while democratic institutions formally work, the rule of law is respected, liberties are secured and parties can freely compete in elections, citizens are left with a feeling of lacking alternatives or of not being heard; they thus do not feel included, incorporated.

This is due to the fact that mainstream parties that dominate the political scene have converged to such an extent that it does not really make a difference to vote for one or the other. And this seems to be the case today in many European countries. Moreover, citizens in Europe have often witnessed the imposition of policies sharply opposed to their mandate, due to external pressures and constraints. Take for example the Greek referendum of July 2015, where, despite the people’s clear decision to reject a new bailout deal premised on further austerity, such a deal was imposed on the Greek government under the threat of a complete economic collapse and international isolation.

In such a context, where citizen feel misrepresented or not represented at all, where there are serious doubts about the moral integrity of the political elite and the policies being implemented have little to do with the popular vote, populists can claim to better understand and express the frustrated people, against a political system that has become self-serving and alienated.

Hence, instead of trying to account for populism as a ‘threat,’ there might be a much more important lesson to draw from the success of populist parties and movements, and this has to do with the quality of representation itself; with the responsiveness of political actors and institutions.

This is particularly important in today’s Europe, where mainstream political forces seem to have lost their links with civil society, becoming increasingly attached to the administrational workings of the state; what Peter Mair has described as the ‘cartelisation’ of political parties, which has spread to the EU itself, making it a ‘protected sphere,’ unaware of people’s needs and grievances. In one way or another, populists are gaining ground against such ‘cartel’ systems around Europe, and they are doing so not only in cases where economic hardship has been severe, but also in cases where the economy has performed well and institutions are stable and efficient.

In the South, the populist Left has found a favourable environment to put forth demands against austerity, rising inequality and impoverishment, in favour of re-including the marginalised people. In the North, the populist Right has managed to attract voters that were frustrated with mainstream parties, channelling social anxieties through identity issues, stressing the need to return to strong nation-states that provide protection to ‘their own.’ It would be impossible for such parties to succeed, if a ‘gap of representation’ wasn’t there for them to fill.

To sum up, any discussion regarding populism in Europe cannot be productive if we don’t take into account the inherent ambiguity of the phenomenon: both threat and corrective, both fulfilling a democratising promise and susceptible to authoritarian turns. The a priori demonization of populism that ignores its specific content and message, is doomed to backfire, since along with dismissing the populist ‘devils,’ one risks dismissing ‘the people’ themselves, their worries, frustrations and grievances.

In this sense, mainstream parties ought to take seriously the demands of populists on the issues which they raise, from participatory democracy to transparency, and from wealth distribution and social protection to popular accountability. And they do not just have to take them into account, but they ought to respond to them with concrete policy proposals and with discourses that can aspire positive passions of hope among citizens that struggle in conditions of stagnation and impasse.

You can read the full article The Populist Surge in Post-Democratic Times: Theoretical and Political Challenges here.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The SNP's progressive dilemma

David Torrance

It was the former Labour politician David Marquand who identified what he called the ‘progressive dilemma’ in British politics, that is the reluctance of UK voters to support parties – usually Labour or the Liberals – whose broadly progressive values and policies they otherwise claim to support.

Superficially, the Scottish National Party (SNP) – currently approaching its tenth anniversary in devolved government – would appear to be an exception. Three times it has fought elections for the Scottish Parliament on a “progressive” platform, and three times it has emerged as the largest party, once with an overall majority.

On closer examination, however, the SNP is subject to exactly the same dynamic as its progressive counterparts on the UK stage. Indeed, as I argue in my essay for the most recent edition of Political Quarterly, when it comes to Scottish Nationalism there is in fact a twin dilemma: in order to achieve independence, the SNP has needed to win political power, and in order to achieve political power it has had to win elections, and orthodoxy dictated that winning those in Scotland involved offering voters a centre-left agenda.

But over the past five years it’s become increasingly clear that the SNP’s two goals, winning (and subsequently retaining) office and ultimately securing independence, are often in conflict. Indeed, two recent events illustrate the point, the devolved Scottish Government’s latest Budget and the publication of its “Brexit” paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe.

The first is significant – “historic” in Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s own word – because for the first time Holyrood will have (almost) complete control of income tax bands and rates north of the border. Now although the SNP has always subscribed to the low-tax orthodoxy of British politics, its rhetoric about “social justice” and “progressive” values have rather created the impression that, given the chance, it would be more redistributive.

But in the most recent Budget, all the Finance Secretary did was forego the Treasury’s planned threshold increase for the upper rate, which means middle earners in Scotland will end up paying a little more than those in the rest of the UK. On the 50p rate, however, the SNP had in the past supported its restoration, only now it uses George Osborne-like arguments about the dangers of fiscal flight.

The SNP is not stupid; it knows its electorate well, and it fully realizes that while Middle Scotland likes to think of itself as “progressive” and more left-wing (i.e. better) than Middle England, it’s not really prepared to translate that conceit into higher taxes. In other words, the secret of the SNP’s electoral success since 2007 has been a New Labour-like ability to articulate the desires of Middle Scotland and thus win political support.

Increasing taxes and welfare payments (now also within its gift) risks offending moderate voters and therefore not only diminishing the party’s grip on devolved government but also support for independence. In the run up to the last referendum, for example, the SNP went out of its way to moderate its message, suddenly becoming pro-NATO, stressing its support for the monarchy and promising that independence would not mean higher taxes or lower public spending.

And now Brexit has increased the chances of another independence referendum, the SNP remains in safety-first mode. The essence of the Scottish Government’s long-awaited Brexit paper, meanwhile, is also that of compromise. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is acutely aware that a large chunk of her own supporters voted Leave in June’s referendum, thus she now accepts that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is set to leave the European Union.

So instead her government’s paper argues that the UK and, failing that, Scotland, ought to remain part of the EU Single Market. With respect to Scotland, however, this goal is quixotic, for sub-state units (i.e. a devolved Scotland) are not eligible to join either the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association. And even if it were possible, it’d need the approval of all 27 EU Member States, which seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Spain.

There are also broader tensions. The SNP might depict the UK as innately regressive, prone to Conservative, reactionary governments, and the EU as generally progressive, in spite of its economic treatment of Ireland and Greece, but the point remains that the former’s fiscal transfers give the Scottish Government significant leeway to sustain universal benefits like free personal care and free university tuition, while Scotland – independent or not – would likely be a net contributor to the EU.

Those on the Nationalist left, however, comfort themselves with the belief that once independence has been achieved, the SNP will dispense with Blairite triangulation and govern according to properly progressive principles. That aspiration, however, rather betrays the reality that it hasn’t thus far. The party’s twin dilemma will continue until, and perhaps even beyond, another independence referendum.

You can read the full article here.