Monday, 26 February 2018

Universities, football academies, and Shakespeare: a further comment on Ware

Dennis A. Ahlburg

In Alan Ware’s latest defence of his views on higher education, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth), he claims that I have not addressed the heart of his argument – that a large minority of students do not land graduate jobs and that a large minority of student loan money will not be repaid.

In my initial comment on his views, I argued that jobs are changing so rapidly that an outdated classification of what constitutes a “graduate job” is not an appropriate measure of the impact of higher education. A more appropriate measure is earnings of those with a degree compared to those without it. Ware initially rejected that such a premium existed for most graduates. He seems to have shifted his position to this is true only for “a large minority”, now arguing that the standard measure of the university premium is “now irrelevant”.

He proposes a comparison between the bottom 25-30 per cent of graduates and the best qualified of 18 year olds who did not attend university (a comparison that is only known ex post). Ware believes that only this comparison can answer the question “is a substantial minority of graduates better or worse off in future years than contemporaries who did not go to university”. The answer to this question is available from the standard premium calculation. Ware’s rejection of decades of economic studies on the return to higher education is similar to Donald Trump calling anything he dislikes “fake news”. For Ware, it is “junk in, junk out.”

Estimates of the non-repayment of student loans depend on predictions of earnings over the next 30 years and so need to be handled with caution but certainly not rejected. But surely instead of decrying this as “social waste” one could think of the current system as one in which students fund 60-70 per cent of their education and the public funds the remainder instead of a system where the public funded 100 per cent.

Ware also displays an inconsistent attitude to the market: at times contempt, at other times admiration. For example, he says “the intellectual content of many masters courses is of little direct relevance to the employer.” It would be interesting to know which courses, as it’s unlikely that employers would pay for irrelevant skills.

Ware states that “there are many skills being taught at British higher education institutions today that could be supplied less expensively and in less time.” Again, it would be useful to know which these are, who could supply them, and on what evidence?

Ware’s statement that “firms’ recruitment is no longer based on identifying those seemingly proficient in the skills required” does not stand up against the fact that the Society for Human Resources Management estimates firms are spending between six and nine month’s salary to replace a salaried employee.

Ware embraces the market when he writes “one aspect of progressive reform is to permit universities to charge whatever fees they like “because low-prestige universities “would be bankrupt within a year”. But higher education is not that efficient a market. The National Audit Office concluded that “competition between providers to drive improvements in price and quality have yet to prove effective”. Education is an “experience good” that can only be fully evaluated years after “consumption”. 80 per cent of students are unaware of information on universities, 60 per cent lack the skill to make complex financial decisions, and only two per cent of students switch institutions – hardly an efficient market. The entry of for-profit institutions in the U.S. has led to higher prices and more student debt; an odd result for greater competition.

We do agree that “the financial value of a degree has become obscured”. As I noted previously there is information to make returns less obscure but much remains to be done. In terms of how to proceed, Ware wants to start at the top of the education ladder and I support starting where disadvantage begins.

What seems to drive Ware’s view is a model of higher education where, like football academies, the goal is to impart a “restricted range of human skills” that are employer-relevant and need to be cheaply and quickly pumped into the student. He rejects what he disparages as ”University Lite” because it adds “some form of theoretical or non-practical training”. Perhaps he means the cognitive skills and the “soft skills” of problem solving, critical thinking, and communication that are much in demand in the labour market. While a restricted range of skills may be appropriate for a football academy, they are not appropriate for a university.

Dennis A. Ahlburg is Distinguished Professor of Economics and former President, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, and Visiting Fellow, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, New College, University of Oxford.

Image by Daniel Zimmel. 

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

King’s vision of an overloaded government didn’t materialise – but is the alternative any better?

Michael Moran

Anthony King was, among other things, a public intellectual: that is, he could explain how the most rigorous and theoretical social science threw light on our political condition.

King published his deeply pessimistic research on government, ‘Overload: problems of governing in the 1970s’, in 1975. It was plainly drafted in the shadow of successive failures of British government: the fiascos of the Heath government's dying days and the catastrophes of its Labour successor.

The definition of an overloaded government

King’s descriptive account of an overloaded government can be reduced to three propositions. First, ‘the business of government has become more difficult.’ A symptom of this is the proliferation of failed policies, some large, some small.

Second, "the range of matters for which British governments hold themselves responsible—and for which they believe that the electorate may hold them responsible—has increased greatly over the past ten or twenty years … and is still increasing at a rapid rate.’

Finally, the account is tied explicitly to the language of overload: ‘just as the range of responsibilities of governments has increased, so, to a large extent independently, their capacity to exercise their responsibilities has declined. The reach of British government exceeds its grasp.’

King summarised the situation as follows: “Once upon a time … man looked to God to order the world. Then he looked to the market. Now he looks to government”.

Problems arose, King argued, from an engrained feature of modern industrial societies: organised social complexity: rising social complexity means that we are all—not just governments—increasingly dependent on others to carry out our everyday social functions; and the recognition that these dependency relations are ubiquitous means that groups—like trade unions—that are central to the struggle over expectations, have strong incentives to withhold compliance from those dependent on them.

All this, he believed, had led Britain to become harder to govern. A comparison of the fate of the miners in two great industrial disputes, 1926 and 1974, is used to illustrate the point. King argued that dependency relations are not likely to become less frequent in the future; rather the reverse. Acts of non-compliance were likewise unlikely to become less frequent.

How far were those pessimistic expectations realised?

Many of King's pessimistic expectations have not been realised, but viewing this work from a vantage point of more than forty years can tell us important things about our present political condition.

While I show below that government in the 1980s and 1990s did indeed turn off the expectations tap in ways that King failed to foresee, the very methods used to turn off the tap actually created fresh expectations and fresh ambitions on the part of government. In particular, the quarter century following the publication of the original ‘Overload’ paper saw the rise of a new regulatory state in Britain.

If we compare the United Kingdom now with the picture offered by King in 1975, we see four particularly important changes in the conditions that lay at the root of overload.
First, a large part of the problem diagnosed by King lay in the nationalised industries.

Particularly under the second Thatcher administration, the British state implemented the most ambitious privatisation programme of any large capitalist economy. After it, to adapt King's aphorism, men looked once again to the market rather than to the state.

Second, the state also went a long way to putting a cap on the expectations problem. It successfully withdrew from areas where it had been long assumed that it would supply goods and services. The case of public housing is the most striking. Under the Thatcher government's ‘right to buy’ scheme about 1.5 million dwellings were transferred from public to private ownership. In the process, what had once been a highly sensitive issue of public sector rents was transformed into an issue to do with financial markets.

That brings us to the third change that helped confound King's pessimism. In the years after 1975, the United Kingdom created a new regime of governance, one that insulated the state from the competitive pressures of electoral democracy. mportant domains of policy—such as the regulation of competition—shifted to non-majoritarian bodies like the Brussels Commission. The rise of the independent regulators for the newly privatised utilities within the UK was also a sign of that change. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough occurred under the first Blair government in 1997, with their new regime for the management of short-term interest rate policy, which invested control in an independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.

The new system of rule was not itself invulnerable to popular challenge—something very clear in the populist revolt that was Brexit. But it did for several decades solve King's problem of how to manage popular expectations.

Fourth and finally, the long tenure of the Conservative governments after 1979 enabled the state to solve one of the key difficulties which King had identified in 1975: the capacity of organised trade unionism to exploit the dependency intrinsic to social complexity by withholding cooperation.

New difficulties

The adaptations to the overload King identified in this paper in turn created new difficulties. These new difficulties lie at the root of the analysis in his last major study, The Blunders of our Governments, originally published in 2013 with Ivor Crewe.

Many of the most spectacular examples come from the world of privatisation and outsourcing, like Capita (one of the great corporate giants of outsourcing) and Individual Learning Accounts; the fiasco of support for single mothers and the Child Support Agency.

More about this can be read in my full article for the Political Quarterly.

Michael Moran is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of Manchester.

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

Image by Tambako the Jaguar. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Brexit taught us that facts still matter in the post-truth age

Jess Garland

Culture matters in politics. But so does information: something that is more possible to influence.

‘Cultural identity and political disposition’ are two factors that were significant in voters’ choices in the EU referendum, over and above the facts, according to Michael Cunningham’s 2016 article in The Political Quarterly. Cunningham claims that more and better quality information would not have improved the EU referendum, arguing that the Electoral Reform Society’s report on the vote, ‘It’s Good To Talk’, puts too much emphasis on facts, objectivity and evidence – and underestimates the role of emotion, ideology and identity.

While it may be the case that an independent information source and powers to intervene on misinformation would not have ‘transformed’ the referendum as Cunningham argues, this is not a reason to sidestep the responsibility of providing voters with the basic tools to make informed choices. Unless we believe we live in a fully post-truth age, the facts do matter.

Better public information

Identity and emotion of course played an important part in the referendum. But it is the provision of information, and the rules around such provision, that are regulated by law – and which need serious attention if referendums are to continue to be a feature of our democracy. These are the factors that are controllable and which can be improved.

With two UK-wide referendums in the last seven years, we now have a greater understanding of their operation in a UK context and how well our current regulations provide for a free and transparent contest and support well-informed political discussion.

Campaigning has changed dramatically in recent years, not least in the growth of online campaign activity. Yet the rules which regulate campaigning, both in elections and referendums, now look out of step with how political campaigns are being funded and fought. Bringing regulations up to date is essential if we are to ensure our democratic principles are upheld.

In ‘It’s Good to Talk’ we call for better public information, provided by a single trusted authority, and also better pre-legislative scrutiny, a minimum six-month regulated campaign period, and other technical improvements.

Making facts more meaningful

We would agree, as Cunningham argues, that for many voters, the details of the functioning of the EU would have played only a small role in their decision to vote leave or remain. However, information doesn’t have to play a marginal role – and there are ways of making the facts more relevant and meaningful for voters.

The call for better information in ‘It’s Good To Talk’ sits within a number of recommendations that go beyond the provision of information and which seek to improve democratic debate. We call for greater use of deliberative discussion around referendums – because we have seen the powerful role that genuinely informed discussion can have in shaping people’s choices.

Our recommendations set out suggestions for how to bring citizens into the debate and create a space where both identity and information have a role. Using deliberative discussion to inform the debate – as set out in ‘It’s Good to Talk’ – has now been piloted in the Citizens’ Assemblies on Brexit project. In situations like the EU referendum, where facts are contested and cultural understandings are important, this deliberative forum is exactly the sort of place where complex and difficult decisions can be debated and discussed, and where the accuracy of information is monitored and agreed by both sides of the campaign to avoid it being dismissed as biased.

Fairer campaigning

We are experiencing a rapidly changing and increasingly online political world which, as we have previously noted, is now something of a digital wild west when it comes to campaign activity. We cannot sit back and observe these changes without trying to find a way to work through them.

‘Identity, disposition and culture’ are important drivers of political decision making, but it is the job of lawmakers and those who enforce the rules to ensure that our political contests meet the highest standards of fairness. The regulation of campaigning and the provision of information is part of that responsibility.

To mark the centenary of women’s suffrage the Prime Minister recently announced a consultation on changes in electoral law that would make it an offence to intimidate candidates and campaigners and to protect those who stand for election. It shows there is a recognition that electoral law has not caught up with changing technology.

There are many steps that can be taken to improve our democracy. So for as long as political campaigns continue to evolve, finding innovative solutions and frameworks to ensure fairness will be vital – indeed, just as vital as recognising the role of culture and identity.

Jess Garland is Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society. 

Image by Chip Griffin.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The EU knowledge deficit was all too predictable before Brexit

John McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Rock Cohen. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Remembering Tony King

Tony Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

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

Nick O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent developments in administrative justice

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

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

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

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

Reviving the ombudsman

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 February 2018

Three dangerous generalisations you could be making about populism

Daphne Halikiopoulou

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

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

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

Is cultural insecurity the cause?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Average Far Right Vote 1960-2015

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

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

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

False assumption 2: Demand for populist parties is driving supply

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

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

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

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

False assumption 3: The economic insecurity argument is wrong

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Eugene Kim.