Friday, 30 March 2018

Catalonia and the ongoing struggle for independence: An explainer

Nora Räthzel

Since the December 2017 elections, it seems as though political developments in Catalonia take new twists several times a day. However, coverage in international newspapers has become relatively thin on the ground.

With such high stakes for the future of Catalonia, this article is an attempt to summarise the essential issues. I give an overview of the national question, the ‘legitimacy’ of a new Catalonian government, recent controversies, and the wider impact on politics in the region. For an account of the historical background of the conflict and portrayals of the Catalan parties please consult my previous article.

The national question

The conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state is often portrayed as egocentric Catalonian nationalism against an inclusive nation-state. However, the governing PP (Partido Popular, the heir of Franco’s party) aims to preserve a sense of national unity based on a revival of what they see as Spanish greatness.

Given that the extreme right in Europe (and worldwide) has managed to galvanise significant support around exclusionary, racist nationalisms, it is interesting that the Catalan movement for independence has created a hegemonic concept of the nation that features social rights (e.g. a minimum income not below 60 per cent of the median, tax relief on low pensions, and equal pay for women and men), equality, and inclusiveness (e.g. an open door for refugees).

However, public discourse and official documents are one thing and everyday practices are another. Discrimination against those who are not seen as Catalan occurs in daily life because the political spectrum of those in favour of independence is broad and not everybody acts according to the principles laid out in documents – even if they agree with them.

What constitutes a ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government?

The December elections were not ‘normal’, since they were held by the central government, which currently rules Catalonia based on Article 155 of the constitution. This decrees that a regional government can be ousted by the central government if it violates the constitution. Since the Spanish High Court had declared the referendum for independence held by the Catalonian government in October unconstitutional, the central government used this as an argument for applying Article 155. It will remain in force until there is a new ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government.

But what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government is the key battle currently being fought between the Spanish state, the non–independence Catalonian parties, and the independentistas.

For the Spanish state, a legitimate government is one that does not include any of the politicians who have been accused of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds, which includes all members of the previous government and the leaders of civil society organisations and parties, which helped to organise the referendum.

The court argues that imprisonment is necessary to prevent the accused of repeating their ‘illegal’ activities. According to polls from January 2018, 80.5 per cent of the Catalan population rejects the incarceration of these politicians, even though the same poll showed only 33.6 per cent in favour of an independent Catalan nation–state.

For the independentistas, a legitimate government is one that reinstates the legitimacy of the previous government, since they perceive the application of Article 155 as illegal. As they won the majority of the parliamentary seats (though not of the votes) they have the right to nominate the presidential candidate then to be elected by parliament. Consequently, they aimed to nominate Puigdemont, who had fled to Brussels. The idea was that he could be elected and govern via Skype – an idea that has been rejected by both the High Court and lawyers of the Catalan parliament.

Is the High Court truly objective?

The ERC (the Esquerra Republicana Catalana, or the Left Republicans of Catalonia, an independence party dating from 1931) declared they wanted an ‘effective’ government but needed to negotiate an agreement with the larger JxCat (Junts per Catalunya, or Together for Catalonia, a party formed by Puigdemont merging his PdCat (Partit democrata Catala, a conservative party, supporting independence only recently) with independentistas from social movements. Two months were spent debating how legitimacy and efficacy could be reconciled.

The most prominent idea was to create a new body, a Catalonian Council residing in Brussels of which Puigdemont would become president. Simultaneously, the Catalan parliament would elect a viable president, who would, according to JxCat, execute the orders coming from the Council and its president. ERC disagreed, arguing that the Council and Puigdemont’s presidency could only be symbolic.

Finally, on 1 March Puigdemont temporarily withdrew his candidacy and suggested that Jordi Sanchez, leader of the parliamentary group JxCat, be his replacement. However, the High Court did not permit Sanchez to be released from prison to attend parliament for an election. The independentistas see this as a violation of human rights and the objectivity of the judge is in serious doubt.

No solution in sight

The court and the central government’s aim to incapacitate the elected independentistas serves to reinforce the impasse because it weakens the position of the ‘pragmatics’ who want a viable government. The events of the past few days exemplify this. On 22 March a third presidential candidate, Turull, neither in prison nor exile, was meant to be elected. Since the three independence parties had reached an agreement his election seemed eminent. But in the last minute the CUP abstained, and the election failed.

Immediately afterwards, Turull was jailed together with four other former government members. Not only the independentistas but also the left parties not in favour of independence, the Catalan socialists and CatECP) (‘Catlunya en Comú Podem’, ‘Catalonia in common we can’, formed through an alliance between Catalunya en Comú, a party emerging from a social movement against evictions, and the Catalan branch of Podemos, representing the social movements of 2011), were shocked. They called for a transversal government to defend the rights of Catalan politicians and citizens. Some independentistas agreed that it was time for all democratic parties to come together, and meetings were scheduled. For a short moment it seemed as if the impasse was broken and a viable government could be formed, even one with an agenda broader than a route to independence.

But then Puigdemont was detained in Germany following the renewal of an international arrest warrant by the Spanish court. Almost immediately CUP, JxCat, and ERC joined forces again and with their votes the Catalan parliament has now (28 March) demanded not only to ‘free the political prisoners’ but also to confirm that Puigdemont, Sanchez and Turull have the right to be elected as president of Catalonia. This is a symbolic act that will not have any consequences in terms of forming a new government.

The clock is ticking. After the first attempt to elect a president the constitution leaves only two more months to form a government, otherwise new elections are mandatory.


Even Catalans supporting independence are increasingly frustrated with their parties. Polls showed a fall in support for JxCat especially, seen as the main culprit for the impasse. But after the latest move of the High Court the mood has changed again. Tens of thousands have demonstrated against the detention of Puigdemont and other politicians. For the first time, some demonstrations have become violent. This indicates a new quality of the conflict in which the voices calling for negotiations and a peaceful struggle for an independent republic might become outnumbered.

What is more, the last four years an independence-focused government has pushed all other issues from the agenda. While equality and social justice rank high on the independence programme, no measures to put them into practice have been taken.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona and co-founder of Catalunya en Comú, has been able to introduce measures helping those in need of social support. But because she is against independence (while being outspoken against Spanish oppression), the independentistas on the left (CUP and ERC) increasingly refused to support her. Simultaneously, her party decided she must end her coalition with the socialist party because they approved Article 155.

Thus, there are precious few voices in politics now who maintain that solving the social problems the country is facing should come as top priority. The national question has unified political actors, which have nothing else in common and divided those, who would be able to realise a common political agenda. Paralysis and emotionally charged divisiveness are transforming a progressive region into a space of mutual hatred, unable to act on what they define as their goal: social justice, equality, and inclusiveness.

Nora Räthzel is a Senior Professor at the Department of Sociology, Umeå University. She lives in Catalonia. 

Image by Fotomovimiento. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

What could Irish abortion law look like after the May referendum?

Máiréad Enright and Fiona de Londras

At the end of May, the Irish people will vote in a referendum which will ask whether they want to remove the 8th Amendment from the constitution. But the question of how the law might be developed in ways that will properly respect the rights of pregnant people has received less attention.

The 8th Amendment is the constitutional provision which prohibits access to abortion except as a last resort to save the life of a pregnant woman. Successive courts have interpreted it restrictively. So, women who have been raped; whose foetuses have been diagnosed with a fatal anomaly; whose physical or mental health is at risk because of the pregnancy or who simply cannot remain pregnant, cannot legally have an abortion in Ireland. Instead they travel abroad for the procedure or, increasingly, use online telemedicine services such as Women on Web, to obtain abortion pills. The Together for Yes campaign is advocating a vote for repeal so that women in Ireland who need to end pregnancies can access abortion care in their home country.

We cannot say for certain what Irish abortion legislation will look like after a successful referendum, as a referendum does not oblige the government to pass any particular law.

However, the government has indicated that it will draft a statute allowing women to access abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy without the need to prove any specific grounds. Women who have been raped will, it is hoped, feel able to access abortion within this 12 week ‘protected period’; there will be no adversarial inquiry into the circumstances of conception. After 12 weeks, it will be more difficult to access an abortion; a woman will need to satisfy two doctors that her life or health is at risk, or that her foetus has been diagnosed with a fatal anomaly so that it is likely to die before or during birth. These proposals are the product of long deliberation - first in a Citizens’ Assembly held last year, chaired by retired judge Mary Laffoy, and then in an All-Party parliamentary committee. At both the Assembly and the Committee, participants heard from women who had had abortions, as well as from legal, medical and policy experts.

The legislative proposals are imperfect. In particular, it may be that the 12 week ‘protected period’ is insufficient to assist women who for reasons of health, youth, vulnerability or economic exclusion are unable to access care in time.

Some aspects of the proposed legislation bear the marks of government’s refusal to fully engage with difficult issues. So, for example, the omission of a ‘disability ground’ is consistent with international human rights law, but the proposed legislation says nothing to the needs of families who have received a diagnosis of severe, but non-life-threatening foetal impairment.

The proposal that women should have to endure a three-day mandatory waiting period suggests an ongoing discomfort with women’s decision-making, and could also delay rural women’s access to care. The omission of a socio-economic ground for termination excludes women whose economic status is precarious; what will the new legislation do for a woman suddenly bereaved, or made homeless?

There are also real concerns about how any new legislation will operate, given that the Irish medical profession have laboured under the 8th Amendment and its central foetocentric assumptions for thirty-five years. Will repeal of the Amendment, on its own, dismantle the medical cultures that detained the suicidal Miss Y until her pregnancy reached viability; that sustained Ms P’s pregnant but brain-dead body on life-support against her family’s wishes in the interests of her foetus; that denied Savita Halappanavar treatment because her foetus still had a heartbeat.

At the same time, there is an acknowledgment that legislation can always be reformed. The constitution, on the other hand, is an implacable obstacle to any transformation of Ireland’s reproductive rights law. And so a successful referendum would represent real progress.

Irish campaigners are not struggling for any guaranteed legal outcome, but for the possibility to determine the shape of Ireland’s abortion laws for themselves. Their demands will be the standard against which any legislation is measured, articulated by the Together for Yes campaign as demands for compassionate care; at home, in private, free of stigma.

But they are also, the campaign notes, demands for change. The referendum comes at a time when Irish people are acutely conscious of the state’s past oppression of child-bearing women; in the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes, and in the maternity wards where operations like symphysiotomy were developed. Those voting to repeal the 8th Amendment are voting to make a visible political break with that past, to enable a new kind of legal response to Ireland’s pregnant women.

Máiréad Enright is Senior Lecturer in Law at Birmingham Law School and a founder of Lawyers for Choice, Ireland.

Fiona de Londras is Professor of Global Legal Studies at Birmingham Law School.

Image by UggboyUggGirl

Friday, 16 March 2018

Why the collapse of Carillion is a governmental failure

Deborah Mabbett

The collapse of Carillion has brought the usual suspects into the spotlight. Senior executives prospered on over-generous pay packets. Shareholders did not ask awkward questions as long as dividends were bouyant. Auditors did not raise issues about accounting methods that, with hindsight, inflated reported profits. Telltale weaknesses in the company’s cash position were ignored.

Alongside these familiar features, there are some surprises. Contrary to the established notion that the private sector extracts excessive profits from public contracts, it turns out that margins are very low, in the construction sector in particular. With just a 2-3 per cent margin of revenue over costs, providers are very vulnerable to cost overruns. Contracts are structured so that providers bear risk: there is little scope to return to the purchaser and renegotiate terms. The general principle that profitability should be proportionate to risk was apparently not honoured.

In the world of public-private financial dealing, there seem to be many examples where profits are made but risk is not borne; evidently there are also some cases where the opposite occurs. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that the government has been underpaying on some projects.

Who is to blame?

One way to manage risk is to diversify, and this is the strategy that Carillion embraced. It took on an unlikely array of activities from providing school meals to running prison estates to building hospitals and participating in the development of HS2. While Carillion remained primarily a construction company, its strategy of growth through acquisitions mimicked that of giant outsourcing conglomerates such as Serco and Capita. These companies have moved into areas where they have no apparent operating competence: their portfolios of activities have nothing in common except that the public sector is the counterpart or purchaser. Insofar as they have any specialised skills in their internal corporate employment, they are the skills of tendering for public sector contracts. The obvious problem with this strategy is that it foregoes the development of expertise in a sector in favour of the skills of bid-writing and financial jiggery pokery.

We can choose to blame the executives of these conglomerates for their drive for growth. But we can also blame the government for its insistence on putting out large scale contracts which place high risks on providers, knowing, as it must, that this will produce a sort of adverse selection among the bidding companies. Not only are large conglomerates more able to cope with the risks than smaller specialists, but also companies with a penchant for financial engineering are favoured over those which shelter and nurture complementary and specialised skills in their workforces. The UK construction sector is notoriously poor in maintaining and developing its skill base, and Carillion’s diversification strategy tells us something about the reasons why.

Reforming procurement

The government has to accept and develop an approach to contracting where it shifts less risk. This has major implications for contract management on the government side. Without so much risk-shifting, public procurers would have to monitor and negotiate over contracts in an ongoing way. Smaller contracts would allow more firms to bid, but smaller contracts mean more contracts for the procurer to manage. The public sector no longer employs the people who could undertake this management. The government has favoured risk-shifting at the same time as it has stripped its own base of skills and drastically depleted the number of civil servants available for these tasks. It has become dependent on the large private providers of public services in a very fundamental way, for management as well as for delivery. This dependence is indicated by the government’s continued willingness to contract with Carillion long after its financial difficulties became apparent.

Renationalisation may be the best option in some areas. At present, renationalisation occurs covertly and accidentally, as private providers fail and the government takes ownership and management of assets back under its control. But the overextension of outsourcing and excessive reduction in public sector employment implies that it is not reactionary or backward-looking to consider actively promoting further renationalisation of public service provision.

Rethinking the structure of procurement means rethinking the balance between hierarchical internal control and arms-length contracting. It means employing more people in the relevant parts of government, and not all on consultancy contracts – a practice which is itself a privatisation of expertise. It means retaining more residual control rights over the use of assets and the allocation of profits. Renationalisation need not look like 1945 all over again: it can be a selective process in which the private sector continues to provide services, but under different contractual models.

Not everything about outsourcing has been a disaster. Incremental and selective renationalisation should keep good practices where they have developed, such as the explicit costing of public service obligations and the monitoring of performance by separate regulatory bodies. Furthermore, some of the most objectionable features of outsourced provision can be addressed through contract terms - providers should operate under a ‘social licence’, including requirements to pay living wages and adopt fair practices in their own supply chains.

How not to do industrial policy

Mariana Mazzucato made a splash in 2013 with her account of the ‘entrepreneurial state’. Her cases were drawn from the US and she concentrated on the role of the government in promoting research and development: in effect bearing risk in a particularly risky form of investment. But her argument contains a more general point: that governments can organise their procurement in ways which allow companies to invest in specific skills and technological innovations, and these companies can become good employers and internationally competitive entities. The conditions are that the government brings funds, capacity and ambitions to its programme for public services: ambitions to improve the quality of services, promote sustainability and expand opportunities.

In the Industrial Strategy White Paper published by the government in November 2017, procurement is explicitly acknowledged as an instrument of industrial policy. Treasury data indicate that the government spends some 14 per cent of GDP on procurement, a scale which means that its procurement practices shape the economic fortunes of key sectors, particularly construction and transport.

But the government shows no sign of learning Mazzucato’s lessons about the entrepreneurial state. Nearly a decade of austerity has left us with a government with no ambitions, little willingness to commit its own financial resources, and a civil service stripped of capacity. The small story of Carillion is of a corporate failure; the larger story is of government failure and the profound depletion of the public sector.

Deborah Mabbett is Professor of Public Policy at Birkbeck, University of London.

This blog is adapted from Deborah Mabbett’s editorial commentary in The Political Quarterly journal, available soon.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

What experiments in Finland can tell us about basic income

Miska Simanainen and Olli Kangas

Public interest in Basic Income, or BI (known as Universal Basic Income in the UK), has increased significantly during the last few years. In addition to academic writings, there are new BI initiatives, intense debates on BI in political elections, and real-life BI experiments initiated around the world.
Although Basic Income’s success critically depends on how the model is implemented, debates on the subject tend to be abstract. Few advocates have explicitly considered questions of implementation. A more detailed analysis – as well as valuable lessons for implementation – can be found in BI field experiments in countries such as Finland.

Finland put basic income into practice

The Finnish government launched an experiment on BI in 2017. The main idea of the experiment is to find out how a BI affects the labour market behaviour of individuals. The tested model has fewer conditions and requirements for receiving basic social benefits than the current system, and it increases the monetary incentives for working.

The Finnish experiment follows the idea of a randomised controlled trial (RCT) where the causal effect of a policy is estimated by comparing two similar population groups. The only difference between the two groups is that one receives the BI and the other continues living under the current tax-benefit system.

The Finnish experiment is the result of a government-initiated research project and an intense preparation process. While the main objective of the experiment is the study of the policy outcomes, the preparation work also provides us with valuable information about developing a feasible model of a BI. During the design process, we learned many important lessons on conducting social experiments in general.

Here we will limit our discussion to four questions. We believe that they serve the often neglected, administrative analysis of BI. Different answers to our questions lead to different redistributive outcomes: some households end up winning, some end up losing. Therefore, the questions are political in nature.

1. Which population groups are eligible for basic income?

In Finland, all registered residents are insured for, for example, unemployment, disability, sickness and retirement. If we followed this principle, our BI model would cover a very large proportion of the population.

When thinking about the coverage, the designer must keep the main goal of a BI reform clearly in mind. Is the goal to increase the income security of certain, particularly vulnerable population groups (e.g. the homeless or the poor, immigrants, or those who are dependent on several social benefits at the same time)? Or is the main idea to replace (either totally or partially) the existing income transfer system for the whole population?

2. What happens to the existing social benefits?

Distributing a basic income to all beneficiaries on top of their current benefits would not be economically sustainable, so a BI would naturally replace some of the existing social benefits. Thus, the central question is: which benefit systems are we going to replace?

In the model tested in Finland, BI replaces the minimum level of benefits that the beneficiaries are entitled to by status (e.g., studying, unemployment, or sickness). Additional parts of basic benefits, earnings-related components, compensation for housing costs, and last resort social assistance remain intact to maintain the current level of social security.

3. What should the amount of basic income be?

The goal to replace existing benefits with a BI leads us to think about its level. If the level were set according to the lowest primary benefit (e.g., the study grant of €250 a month), we would still need all the other benefits to maintain the beneficiaries’ level of income.

Setting the level higher, for example, equal to the guarantee pension (€775 a month), makes studying and taking care of children at home economically more attractive than today. The designer should ask, whether this is the objective of a BI reform or not.

Problems of replacing the existing schemes lead us back to our first question: If we cannot define only one meaningful level of BI, should we then think about a model where the level is different for different population groups? On the other hand, this would increase the administrative burden of a BI system, because the beneficiaries’ changes of status would require following. As a result, we would lose the simplicity that BI promises.

4. How should we adjust income taxes with basic income?

An economically feasible BI system would also entail adjustments in income taxation. The obvious objective would be to keep the level of disposable income of middle-income groups more or less unchanged. In the Finnish basic income experiment, there was no need to find a solution to taxation, because the government excluded a tax reform from the experimental model.

Before the experiment, we analysed several cost-neutral BI models by running tax-benefit simulations. We learned that in a scheme where the tax rate on personal income is flat, the biggest losses would come to part-time workers who receive unemployment benefits (income-adjusted in-work benefits). This approach to find an economically feasible BI seems to produce outcomes that are contradictory to what is often expected from a BI policy.

Radical vs. incremental reform

Based on our simulations we conclude that, at least in the Finnish context, an introduction of a BI as such does not lead to any major improvements when it comes to the costs for the public economy, work incentives, or income distribution. The comparative advantage/disadvantage of a BI depends on the details of the model: At whom is the BI targeted? What is its level? What are the conditions to get it? How are additional benefits and taxes adjusted to the BI?

We could also choose a politically easier way without a system-wide BI reform. We could change the levels of the current basic security benefits, coordinate them more uniformly – possibly merge some of them – and adjust taxation to achieve the intended outcomes of income distribution and work incentives.

From models to experiments

Above, we discussed the choices in designing a BI scheme without any systematic consideration of their behavioural effects. Even if the income levels did not change as a result of the BI model, the behavioural outcomes might change the picture. Definitions and simulations do not tell how an unconditional BI affects the recipients’ behaviour. Does it activate people in job seeking? How much does a BI increase activities outside the labour force, such as studying, taking care of children at home, or participating in voluntary work? When the designers have defined the model, the next step is to start experimenting with it.

Miska Simanainen is Researcher at Kela (Social Insurance Institution of Finland)

Olli Kangas is Director of Government and Community Relations, and Professor at Kela

Image by Ilya Ginsberg

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

British Muslims are still being discriminated against at work. Here’s what we can do about it

Asma Mustafa

Equality of opportunity in the labour market is crucial for the economic and social integration of minorities, so we should be very concerned that British Muslims have the highest unemployment rates in the country.

In 2016 the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report on ‘Employment opportunities for Muslims in the UK’. The report compiled evidence from dozens of sources, including data from the Department of Work and Pensions highlighting that Muslim unemployment rates are 12.8 per cent compared to 5.4 per cent of wider population. The report found that 41 per cent are economically inactive, compared to 21.8 per cent of the general population.

On top of this, there is marked inequality of opportunity for British Muslims in the labour market. Research by the think tank DEMOS in 2015 uses ONS data to underline the discrepancy in occupational positions. They found that just six per cent of British Muslims are in ‘higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations’ such as doctors, barristers, chief executives and so on, compared to ten per cent of the British population.

They also found that only ten per cent of British Muslims (compared to 20 per cent of the wider population) are employed in the ‘lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations’.

Not only do employment opportunities, earning levels and occupational positions have an impact on household poverty levels, but they also play a role in long term social mobility for ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

British Muslims are more likely to live in poverty

Let me draw attention to the evidence underlined by Professor Anthony Heath and Professor Yaojun Li, that British Muslims are (after taking account of their ethnic background) more likely to be in poverty than are members of other religions or those with no religious affiliation.

Using data (70,594 respondents) from the UK Longitudinal Household Panel Study and the former British Household Panel Study (BHPS) they found that over 50 per cent of British Muslims experience household poverty, compared to 18 per cent (the national average).

Third generation Muslims are still being penalised

Worse, the labour market disadvantage is not diminishing in younger generations. The statistical analysis takes into consideration many personal factors, but crucially suggests that initial migration related dynamics such as language fluency or foreign qualifications are not explanations for the penalty faced by current British Muslims who are in their second and third generation.

The Social Mobility Commission (2016) also found that British Muslim women specifically are not achieving a ‘return on education’ that they anticipate when beginning their further education, thus they are finding it difficult to enter the workforce at the same point of entry and suitable level as colleagues and friends.

Discrimination is too easy an explanation

Altogether the evidence of marked religious and ethnic penalties in the labour market for British Muslims is highly concerning. Islamophobia could account for some things: the deselection of applicants due to ‘foreign sounding’ names, for example, and stereotyping could play a role in the side-lining of visibly Muslim candidates in job interviews. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report (mentioned earlier) documents workplace discrimination in Chapter five, following similar evidence in 2012 from the APPG on Race and Community. CV matching field experiments have also highlighted Islamophobia at job application point.

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that ‘discrimination’ is the sole explanation for the gap in employment between Muslims and wider society. Strategies are needed to understand the drivers of such trends. I believe there are other overlapping reasons for the penalties we are seeing.

The importance of social networks, for example, is important to acknowledge, especially for young people who live in ethnically concentrated or deprived areas of the UK. Wider, ‘bridging’ social ties are valuable for those seeking jobs, guidance in applications and also help raise awareness of training or graduate opportunities.

Traditional gender values or gendered obligations are also relevant. Though current generations of young Muslim women (and men) challenge cultural dichotomies of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners, there are still cultural limitations that are at play.

At times, British Muslim women are restricted from travelling long distances to work, shamed into earning less than the males in their family unit, or guided away from demanding academic study or careers (such as medicine, architecture or law) towards caring professions or jobs that are flexible, part-time or temporary.

The ‘Chill factor’

Finally, a related but distinctive explanation for the higher unemployment rates among British Muslims is known as the ‘Chill factor’. The ‘Chill factor’ describes industries or workplaces that Muslims perceive as racist or observed as hostile, or whose culture is seemingly antagonistic.

Negative perceptions of certain sectors may mean that Muslims are disinclined to apply or approach them for work. Examples include the police force, construction industry and the Armed Forces.

Second class citizens

The long-term impact of high unemployment and poverty is difficult to calculate. Aside from the expected negative impact on housing, health and welfare dependency, it could also have a bearing on inter-communal relations.

Frustrations over inequality and discrimination could lead young Muslims to see themselves as second-class citizens. Fewer opportunities in the labour market could provide space for grievances to grow, disenfranchisement in political representation to increase and community isolation to thrive – the very opposite of what we wish to see in an integrated society.

Possible solutions

The policy response should be multifaceted. First, more research is needed into the degree to which direct or indirect discrimination takes place at the point of job application. It would be helpful to have a series of British field experiments to determine whether there is discrimination and at what stages it occurs. This should be supplemented with survey research with both employers and young Muslims regarding barriers they find in applications and within the workplace. The results would help us understand whether certain industries (for example the police force) are actively attempting to diversify, but are facing the ‘chill factor’ from job seeking young Muslims.

Second, the government should encourage more employers and companies to use ‘name blind’ recruitment applications. After all, we have little use for names at the point of job application. This idea would allow for CVs and applications to be shortlisted based on merit, rather than any unconscious bias to take place.

Failing this, employers should be more proactive in shortlisting candidates from minority backgrounds. This does not negate the idea that the best candidate should be selected for a position, but offers employers the opportunity of considering candidates who are less likely to be shortlisted due to unconscious bias. It is equally important that companies carefully consider who they select on interview panels. Panel members reflecting (to some extent) our more diverse society could be helpful in providing further sense of equality of opportunity for applicants.

Finally, there is a real growing need for British Muslim role models in all career sectors. Although young Muslims are seeing more visible Muslims in the mainstream (as MPs, sports personalities and in the media), these career sectors are not reflective of the majority. We need to showcase Muslims who have achieved as engineers, teachers, architects and leaders of industry.

Forefront in my mind is the importance of inspiring young Muslims from deprived areas of the UK to challenge the circumstances they are in and see a world beyond limited choices and opportunities. Funding for programmes that work with young people are crucial in battling the prejudice by providing mentoring, role models and a space for development, hope and change.

Greater social equality is a responsibility for us all. Reducing labour market penalties faced by British Muslims could be realised if unemployment gaps closed; if British Muslims are represented across occupational groups and if employers were to ensure equality of opportunity at the point of recruitment for all applicants, regardless of background.

Asma Mustafa is the Salahuddin Abdul Jawad Research Fellow in the Study of Muslims in Britain, and is Senior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford

Image by the FCO

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Revisiting Tony King’s analysis shows just how much parliament has changed

Meg Russell and Philip Cowley

Parliaments are not monoliths. They are highly complex political organisations. Anthony King’s 1976 article ‘Modes of executive–legislative relations: Great Britain, France and West Germany’ was one of the first to point out the importance of the multiple relationships inside legislatures – including some relationships that are often hidden from view.

King argued that the most important of these in the British parliament was the ‘intraparty mode’: between the government and its own backbenchers. Others, such as the ‘non-party mode’ or ‘cross-party mode’, he judged to be weak at Westminster.

King's objective was to strip away the noise and present parliamentary dynamics as a set of stylised relationships between different actors. The fundamentals of this analysis have stood the test of time very well in the last 40 years, and the article remains a classic. But since it was published, a great deal has also changed.

King's view on executive–legislative relations in the UK

King's analysis of relations began with a simple diagram, which he used to demonstrate that there were three potentially significant modes the House of Commons. The most obvious and visible was the opposition mode (OFB + OBB → G), combining the opposition frontbench and backbench against the government. This was the classic form of Westminster parliamentary conflict, operating between the parties. As long as the government had a partisan Commons majority, however, this mode was unlikely to make much, if any, impact on Parliament's decisions.

The second possible configuration was the non-party mode (GBB + OBB → G), uniting government and opposition backbenchers. This described occasions when parliamentarians worked across party lines, for example in select committees. King was intrigued by this mode, but dismissive of its applicability in the UK.

This left the intra-party mode: the relationship between the government and its own backbenchers (GBB → G). King's central insight was that this—often less visible—relationship was in fact Westminster's most important. Governments found it harder to resist attacks from within their own ranks than from the opposition. King therefore concluded that “government backbenchers are the most important Members in the House”.

Though King’s insights were prescient, we argue in our recently-published article in the Political Quarterly that there are four key areas where parliamentary developments in the UK since 1976 require his conclusions to be reassessed.

1. A changed party system

Since King wrote his analysis the presence of a third party, and others too, has substantially increased in the House of Commons, Today, to ‘ignore the minor parties’, as he explicitly did, is not an option. The change has been most notable when a single party majority is lacking. During 2010–15 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition clearly introduced elements familiar from King's analysis of multi-party Germany. Post-2017 it is now the Northern Irish DUP upon which the government became dependent. In this respect, managing the House of Commons has become significantly more complex than it used to be.

2. The establishment of the select committee system

King presciently noted the potential of specialist committees to encourage members to ‘change their perception of their own roles’—ceasing to see themselves narrowly in party terms, but instead as parliamentarians. At his time of writing, this freedom was largely denied to British MPs.

However, the subsequent establishment of a system of departmental select committees – from 1979 onwards – has built bridges across party lines, enabled MPs to develop expertise in particular policy areas and networks among external specialist groups, increasing their confidence to challenge government decisions. This has strengthened King’s non-party mode.

3. Backbench dissent

Political parties in the House of Commons have also become significantly more challenging for leaders to manage and hold together. Backbench dissent has been increasing, both in frequency and importance, since 1970.

Many rebellions are relatively small, and often occur on trivial or minor issues, but they can on occasions be large and involve important policy matters. During the 2010–15 parliament, backbench dissent was a significant factor in determining government policy towards the EU, including being one of the drivers of the subsequent referendum.

Moreover, the threat of Commons defeat, and government moves to placate backbench critics, drive more major policy shifts than are visible through defeats. The intraparty mode has hence become more challenging.

4. More confident and party-balanced House of Lords

The House of Lords was King's blind spot. He gave no consideration to the second chamber whatsoever, as the Lords was then viewed as a fairly sleepy political institution.

The key change, to both the Lords’ composition and behaviour, came with the Labour government's reform of 1999. This ejected the great majority of hereditary peers, leaving a far more balanced chamber in which no party has a majority. Partly as a consequence, peers have come to feel more confident in challenging government policy. Alongside other changes, this has contributed to a much strengthened cross-party mode at Westminster.

As an unelected body, both convention and logic dictate that the Lords should respect the will of the elected House of Commons, and a Lords majority against the government is relatively powerless unless it can find support from a majority of MPs. Lords modes can thus only be assessed for their effectiveness once coupled with the Commons—where the intraparty mode remains key.

The most high-profile recent example demonstrating such dynamics occurred in autumn 2015 on the Conservative government's attempt to cut tax credits. A Lords defeat initially fiercely resisted by ministers went on to be quietly accepted as it was realised that many government backbench MPs agreed with the Lords. In today’s Parliament we must consider modes of executive-legislative relations on an explicitly bicameral basis.


Tony King's 1976 analysis of executive–legislative relations retains a core of wisdom and judgement that transfers to the present. But he captured the dynamics of the ‘old’ Westminster just as the system was on the cusp of change.

The widely-noted transformation of the party system in the 1970s, and the establishment of the House of Commons select committees, which boosted cross-party working, occurred just after he wrote. In subsequent years further procedural changes, coupled with the substantial membership reform in the House of Lords, changed things further.

King's central vision, and pioneering approach, was to appreciate that parliaments must be understood not as monoliths vis-à-vis executives, but as complex organisations comprising various interacting groups. But his analysis lamented Westminster’s relative weakness.

It is a shame that King himself never revised this important work; he might have been cheered by what he found.

Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL. Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

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

Image by UK Parliament.