Monday, 28 May 2018

How the Fixed-term Parliaments Act complicates Brexit

James Strong



With parliament, the Conservative Party and even the Cabinet deeply divided over what Brexit should involve, some backbench MPs have reportedly begun planning for an October general election. Absent a significant redistribution of parliamentary power, the May government might struggle to secure sufficient support for whatever version of Brexit it negotiates. Yet the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) of 2011 complicates things considerably. 

FTPA constrains the Royal Prerogative power to dissolve parliament and call a general election, conventionally exercised on the prime minister’s advice at a politically opportune juncture. As its name implies, FTPA fixes the period between general elections at five years. It allows snap elections in two circumstances: either two-thirds of all MPs agree to permit an early vote, or the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons.

The requirement to seek MPs’ approval before calling an early election makes the government less able to put controversial questions directly to the voters. When Theresa May announced the government’s decision to “call” the 2017 election, she overstated its power. Governments can no longer call elections. They can only ask the House of Commons to approve its own early dissolution, and must win supermajority support in order to go ahead.

Labour could have blocked the 2017 vote, and could block a 2018 repeat, without even having to oppose it actively. Since FTPA requires that two-thirds of MPs actively vote in favour of early dissolution, abstention would suffice.

Labour seems unlikely to oppose a further vote, given its better-than-expected performance against worse opinion poll figures in 2017, and voters’ apparent willingness to punish governments that trigger unnecessary elections. But it clearly could. So, too, could Conservative backbenchers, if enough of them disagreed with the government. May’s flexibility is limited.

FTPA’s no-confidence provisions, meanwhile, reduce the government’s ability to discipline backbench rebels. Before 2011, governments could identify controversial divisions as confidence votes. Defeat on such a “designated” confidence measure meant the government’s resignation and an early election. Government backbenchers considering rebellion faced a choice; swallow their doubts and support the government, or face the voters.

Ted Heath and John Major used designated confidence votes to corral recalcitrant Conservative MPs into supporting EEC accession and the Maastricht Treaty. Theresa May cannot follow suit. FTPA defines the precise wording a no-confidence vote must follow to permit parliament’s dissolution. May can threaten to resign if her MPs fail to support her over Brexit, but she cannot call an election if defeated. That makes rebellion inherently less risky, and explains why Eurosceptic backbenchers feel free to challenge the Prime Minister.

FTPA also introduces a fourteen-day cooling-off period after a government loses a no-confidence vote before an election can be called. A lot can happen in fourteen days. Backbench rebels can reverse course. Party leaders can change. New coalition and confidence agreements can be reached. Opposition parties can try to take over.

Conservative rebels (or the DUP) could use the fourteen day cooling-off period to play a high-stakes game of chicken with the Prime Minister. They could call a no-confidence vote, join with opposition parties to defeat the government, then offer May a choice: adopt their preferred policy approach; resign in favour of their preferred alternative leader; resign and hand power to an inevitably short-lived minority Labour government; or risk the verdict of the ballot box.

They alone would have the votes to avert a fresh election by supporting the government in a fresh confidence vote. Their price would be theirs to determine, and whether May chose to pay it would be entirely up to her.

May would have two defensive options in this scenario. She could offer the opposition something to side with her against the rebels. That might, for example, be a ‘soft’ version of Brexit acceptable to most Conservative and Labour MPs but anathema to hard-line Eurosceptics. This is Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nightmare scenario, the one he referred to in comparing May to Lord Peel, who passed the Corn Laws against his own party’s wishes by relying on opposition votes.

She could, alternatively, call the rebels’ bluff – refusing to budge and daring them to take their standoff to the voters. She could even threaten to ask the Queen to prorogue parliament immediately, making averting an election with a fresh confidence vote impossible. FTPA leaves the prorogation prerogative (sorry…) untouched.

Given the poor predictive record of recent opinion polls, and Labour’s better position now relative to April 2017, a snap election seems unlikely to deliver the resounding parliamentary majority May would need to force her Brexit plans through. Given her inability to coerce Eurosceptic rebels with a designated confidence motion, May’s most viable route to securing ratification of her final Brexit deal may be emulating Peel, ignoring the rebels and the DUP, passing Brexit with opposition support, then facing the fallout.

Dr James Strong is Lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. This post draws on his recent analysis of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in The Political Quarterly. 

Image by Dave Whelan. 

An existentialist perspective on tribal politics

Brendan Canavan



In international politics we are seeing a wave of tribalism. From an existentialist perspective, this reductive movement offers simplistic solutions, derogations of responsibility, and assertions of ego. Together these offer comforting but false distractions dangerous to the individual and to society. In order to move forward we need to take responsibility for how and who we represent ourselves, not hide ourselves amongst similar others.

Tribalism, referring to quasi-archaic values such as a local sense of identification, religiosity and group narcissism, is assertive in various forms worldwide. Strongmen have long used tribalism to propagate their rule. In contemporary international politics, our latest crop of autocratic figureheads are no different.

There are new plays on old themes, such as spirituality, or micro-nationalism. I’ve researched backpackers committing to photogenic self-discovery, where Buddhist stupas and beachside mojitos are equally important. Out shopping around my home region I see collections for ‘Yorkshire Cancer Research’, the county’s dedicated cancer charity; one of a swathe of nonsensically localised brands launched in the last few years to capitalise on the trend of reasserted identity.

Political authenticity in the age of tribalism


Tapping into this tendency, the authentic political leader is having a moment. Trump is the most visible example. But Duterte in the Philipines or Modi in India are equally outspoken heads of state who, though divisive, appeal to enough of their respective electorates to win elections. Their frequently aggressive and often vulgar political rhetoric is seen by many as refreshingly to the point. They espouse the emotional venting of populism, not the patient dialogue of pluralism. Meanwhile, the Momentum movement in the UK can also be seen as a tribe, albeit from a leftist perspective.

All of these tribal movements have in common a heightened sense of identity based on being either ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the group. By committing to a particular way of being in and seeing the world, this identity becomes inflexible. Presumably the cancer sufferers (never mind economies of scale) outside of Yorkshire are less important. Political authenticity in the contemporary sense seems to boil down to the ability to identify the outsider and to be united by a perceived sameness.

However, the answers tribalism offers are false. Russia is sclerotic because of rampant internal corruption not external conspiracy. It was the bureaucracy of the UK which was complicit in the Grenfell fire and Windrush immigration disasters, not that of Brussels. But such answers, to varying degrees of absurdity, are influential. Tribes have existed as long as humans have, but how to explain their re-assertiveness?

A comforting denial


Existentialism posits that what makes humans unique is their awareness of their mortality. Unlike other species, we know we are going to die. We live a life that is random, alienated, meaningless, and finite, and deep down we know this. This is a huge burden to bear, and in order to cope we immerse ourselves in distracting routines, myths, and socialising. Religions espouse an afterlife for example, directly assuaging, or attempting to, our knowledge of certain death.

Tribalism offers comforting denial. If you belong to a group you displace your mortality, for the tribe will live on after you have snuffed it. Scottish Nationalists and Catalans wrap themselves in the differences between themselves and their neighbours in order that, besides paying less tax, they are distinctive and special. Followers are part of a movement that has, so it claims, significance, direction, and longevity.

Being member of a group also massages one’s ego. In his famous essay ‘The Anti-Semite and the Jew’ Sartre outlines racism as a strategy individuals adopt to deny their own mediocrity. By identifying Jews as not belonging, the anti-Semite takes ownership of what is being denied to the other.

Lastly, in a group you derogate responsibility. Decisions are made collectively so the individual becomes subsumed into the crowd. I only have but a tiny piece of responsibility for any implications of decisions the group makes. If Britain leaving the EU turns out to be a disaster, I am merely amongst millions of others to take blame.

Beyond tribalism


Though such avoidance strategies might help us to temporarily forget our existential angst, they are ultimately unfulfilling. When we give up our burden of responsibility to others, we give up also our freedom. Instead, existentialism urges the individual to show bravery in facing up to difficult choices and take responsibility for own actions. It is only by doing this that each of us can pursue our own independent destiny and live authentically. We are not determined by our being, but by our actions. We have to accept our beginning and choose our end.

In stripping away treasured sources of identity, existentialism can seem nihilistic and offensive. But it is potentially a very egalitarian philosophy. Sartre believed that each of us is the lone author of our decisions. We are nothing else but that which we make of ourselves; the totality of our actions and nothing more.

All this is not to say that tribes are not important, and that suggest that the religious should be abandoning their faith or left wingers abandoning their political identity in order to embrace existentialism. However, it is to say that tribes are limited. Our political actions need to be owned. Be honest about political decisions. Take ownership of them. To rely on the tribe, and the spokespeople therein, to think and act for us, means giving up ourselves, our independence, and our humanity.

Brendan Canavan is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Huddersfield.

Image by Wiki Commons. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Christian extremists, Trump and the politics of Armageddon

Abby Day



The protests, related violence and killings that were sparked by the American embassy move to Jerusalem is unlikely to shift hard-line Christian opinion about Israel. For some, it may even be a welcome sign of a divine plan to end most life on earth. A nuclear war that threatens to annihilate almost everyone is a horrifying thought – unless you’re one of the chosen few who will survive the event and reunite with family, friends and God in eternal paradise.

It's not just Islamist extremists who want to take their places in a perfect afterlife: many Christians share the same aspirations. Some may even see themselves as God’s soldiers, fulfilling a prophecy outlined in their sacred scripture, the Bible’s book of Revelations. Yet the impact of evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity on American politics in the age of Donald Trump has not received enough attention from political scientists.

Christian extremists might be largely ignored by UK or European readers who think they represent a fringe movement of unhinged fundamentalists. However, in America the story is very different.

Some political scientists recognise that fundamentalist Christians are a significant section of the population. One of the most salient characteristics of fundamentalist Christians, also known as ‘evangelicals’ is their belief that the Bible is the literal word of God, something that a Gallup poll showed a quarter of Americans believe. The poll did also suggest that this proportion is shrinking, but Dr Ryan Burge, from Eastern Illinois University, found the proportion to be stable in his analysis of the General Social Survey, a highly-respected monitor of public opinion which has asked questions about Bible belief since 1984. isHi

The apocalyptic war forecast to occur at Armageddon, or ‘end times’, is at the core of Christianity. Those who take it most seriously are ‘dispensational pre-millennials’ – people who believe that certain events need to happen before Jesus returns to earth to rule. Those beliefs are held by many American evangelical Christians – not a minority church, but the biggest denomination in America. And Donald Trump won 81 per cent of the white Evangelical vote.

The connection between Christian Zionists and Israel
Many fundamentalist Christians are Zionists who believe Jews must return to Israel to rule. There are an estimated 40 million fundamentalist Christian Zionists in the United States, and Professor Paul Rogers, Bradford University, has claimed about one third of Americas’s 100 million Evangelicals support Christian Zionism.

American academic Donald Wagner writes widely about Christian Zionists who, with neo-conservatives, support hard-line Israeli politics. He has also charted how many American Christians consider that securing Israel for the Jewish people represents fulfilment of God’s plan. Indeed, Pew Research Centre found that 69 per cent of white Evangelicals believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people, and 59 per cent believe that Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.

Second, they believe that a worldwide conflagration at Armageddon will occur as a final battle between God and Satan. When (not if) God’s side wins, the prophecy stated in the Biblical book of Revelations can be fulfilled: the return to earth of Jesus and the lifting up to heaven of believing Christians.

In the main passages (Revelations 6-8) depicting the end of the world, major events happen: religious deception, war, famine, disease, persecution of Christians, earthquakes and other disasters, and finally, overwhelming devastation of the earth’s vegetation, rivers, and oceans. The last stages include partial darkening of sun, moon and stars, culminating with the sound of trumpets in a final clash between violent armies.

This may not be bad news for everyone: as one Christian website put it: ‘The end times mark not the end of the world, but the end of an age—and the beginning of a far better one’.

Trump’s inner circle
Most worryingly, those Evangelicals who take the Bible seriously include Donald Trump’s top team, who meet weekly under the supervision of biblical literalist Ralph Drollinger. When Trump isn’t available in person he gets a full summary and tweets his support.

Drollinger holds extreme conservative views, including being a climate change denier, who thinks homosexuality is a sin and opposes women’s roles in teaching, public office or ‘leading’ their families. He also unequivocally supports the right of Jews to reclaim Israel, and admonishes those who take a less literal, more interpretivist approach.

Granted, the influence of the Drollinger-led group needs to be seen in perspective. There are many other policy advisors that speak to and influence the President (including NSC, Department of Defence, State Department, and the CIA), which may have a constraining impact. However, that Drollinger does have some level of influence is beyond question.

Interpreting the exact detail of what is being said in Revelations may be the obsession of conspiracy theorists, and not all Evangelicals agree that the end is nigh. However, Trump’s fulfilment of an election promise (helping him secure the Evangelical vote) to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s contested capital city, Jerusalem, was widely praised by both his Christian advisors and clergy. Political scientist Professor Elizabeth Oldmixon points out that Evangelicals ‘are likely to support settlements in the West Bank, Israeli territorial expansion on both sides of the Jordan River, and support for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’.

That tight connection between Biblical literalists and American foreign policy is one political scientists may want to take more seriously. Meanwhile, if you ever see Trump saying or showing that he’s blowing his own horn, my advice is to duck.

Abby Day is Professor of Race, Faith & Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Image by Gugganij. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Dementia is forcing us to ask important questions about diversity and inclusiveness in our care system

Anya Ahmed and Chris Poyner


Dementia has been identified as the biggest health and social care challenge facing UK society, due to an ageing population. At the 2011 census, 16 per cent of the UK population were aged 65 and over and 14 per cent of which were aged 85 and over (the population group that is growing fastest).

As our understanding of the condition increases, so should our awareness of the different struggles faced by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people living with dementia, as well as issues surrounding visibility and social inclusion of people diagnosed with the condition.

BME people with dementia


Migration patterns from the 1950 and 1960s mean that the UK is now home to an ageing BME population and there are currently 25,000 people with dementia from BME communities in England and Wales. This figure is predicted to rise to 50,000 by 2026 and 172,000 by 2051.

However, there is little knowledge of the experiences of BME people with dementia, which in the UK includes people from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The National Dementia Strategy states that health and social care services should take account of BME dementia needs. However, service providers report challenges in including BME people, and there is evidence that people from BME backgrounds are currently being ‘failed’ by the system.

Additionally, among the UK’s BME population there are lower levels of awareness of dementia and high levels of stigma associated with the condition. And people from BME backgrounds are underrepresented in dementia services and access services later.

The knowledge gap


There remains very little knowledge and research on BME communities and dementia. It has been suggested that there is a need to gather more information and engage further with BME communities in, to fill gaps in knowledge about their service needs and successfully implement the National Dementia Strategy. However, our view is that if we listen to the least heard members of society and ensure that services are accessible and appropriate for them, then this improves the experience for everyone.

The Salford Institute for Dementia


The Salford Institute for Dementia (SID) was established in 2014. SIDs research focuses on the challenges faced by people living with dementia and their supporters and seeks to improve their lives in positive and meaningful ways.

A core theme of the institute is user involvement, which aims to facilitate the meaningful inclusion of people living with dementia in the various activities undertaken at SID. To ensure this, the Institute has a panel of ‘Dementia Associates’ that meet monthly at our purpose built, community driven Dementia Hub. Dementia associates work as ‘co-researchers’ on studies conducted by SID academics. This peer support group has the dual function of facilitating meaningful inclusion in research for people living with dementia, and directing the SID research agenda. This type of social citizenship provides opportunities for engagement in research, aiming to influence policy and practice.

At SID we are currently critically evaluating our user involvement and community peer support service programme. This includes our Dementia Associates Initiative, Music Café, and Gardening Club. Such services are currently under-researched and their impact on well-being and local dementia communities is unknown, so this information will increase our understanding of how we provide dementia specific services and how we access hard to reach demographics, such as those from BME groups.

Putting identity at the centre of improvements to services


To improve services and increase user involvement for people from all backgrounds, we need to focus on better flexibility, outreach services, awareness raising and the profiling of positive stories from people living with dementia themselves. Post-diagnostic support needs better funding, so that all those diagnosed are given support to access to service pathways, and are prevented from feeling isolated once the diagnosis has been given.

One method of implementing these objectives proposed was to incorporate 'positive-person identity work' into services, to challenge the loss of identity people have been found to feel as a result of their diagnosis. This would involve developing services that encourage new and positive forms of identity to be formed.

Well established examples include the work of the Scottish Dementia Working Group and the European Working Group of People with Dementia. These groups give people with dementia a public space to debate, discuss and critique the current discourse surrounding dementia in a wide range of forums, offering a level of control over the condition and a new identity as a ‘dementia rights campaigner’.

Through the public awareness work of groups such as the Scottish Dementia Working Group that are led by people with dementia themselves, the visibility and social inclusion of people living with dementia is increasing. This increase can only be a positive force in reducing the stigma around a diagnosis of dementia and encourage people with this diagnosis to become more involvement in their local communities.

The funding of more such services and groups, and the signposting of these groups at some point along the post-diagnosis pathway could have a wide influence on how people with dementia feel and are perceived, and therefore could lead to a plethora of positive well-being outcomes for people living with dementia.

Anya Ahmed is a Professor of Social Science and Head of Social Policy at the University of Salford. Anya is also the lead for the User Involvement and Service Improvement Research Theme at the Salford Institute for Dementia.

Chris Poyner is a Research Associate at the Salford Institute for Dementia and a PhD Candidate at the University of Stirling.
Image by Deji Okubadejo.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Become a politician: normal people need not apply

Peter Allen and David Cutts



People who run for political office are strange. That is, they are unlike most other people. The pertinent question from a democratic standpoint is whether this abnormality is bound up with a wider set of socioeconomic and characteristic differences between the politically ambitious and everybody else.

In other words, are the differences we can see of such a kind that we should we be worried about them?

Both popular and academic debate has expressed concern that the pool from which we elect our politicians contains sufficient diversity. Something we know little about in the British context is political ambition, a trait that is a necessary prerequisite to candidacy, but not a sufficient one in itself.

Data from the first systematic study of political ambition in Britain is drawn from an original online survey conducted by YouGov of just over 10,000 respondents in England, Scotland, and Wales and was collected in March and April 2017.

Overall, we found that an overwhelming majority of British people have never considered running for political office, with only 10 per cent responding that they had. Our data showed that a highly‐educated relatively young man from social grade ABC1 is more likely to be politically ambitious than any other kind of person. Other findings are summarised below.

The gender gap


There is a clear gender gap in political ambition, with British men more than twice as likely as British women to report having considered putting themselves forward as a candidate for political office, figures of 14 and 7 per cent, respectively.

Educational attainment


Turning to consider level of education, we find that individuals with high levels of education (primarily signalled by possession of a university degree) are roughly twice as likely as those with medium levels of education (generally completion of secondary education) to have considered running for political office, and over three times more likely than those with low levels of education (unfinished secondary education or lower).

The north–south divide


A key strand of the popular discussion around the British ‘political class’ focuses on its supposed London‐centrism or broader cosmopolitanism.

Our data permits some examination of this question. Respondents in the south of Britain, broadly defined to include the South West (12.2 per cent), South East (11.3 per cent), and London (11.1 per cent) being considerably more ambitious than respondents in the North East (7.9 per cent), North West (8.7 per cent), and Yorkshire and the Humber (9 per cent).

Political dynasties


A further element of the political class narrative described above, and also related to the notion that the political world is something of a closed shop, is the sense that political dynasties of parents, siblings, spouses, and children are disproportionately likely to produce candidates for office.

Our data showed that individuals whose parents were involved in political activities throughout their childhood express far greater interest in running for office than individuals whose parents were not involved at all.

The class divide


Social grade, a measure of occupational status often utilised in discussions of social class, also has a relationship with levels of political ambition. Individuals in higher social grades more likely to be ambitious than those in lower grades.

Slightly over 12 per cent of individuals from social grade ABC1 (including the upper, middle, and lower middle classes) reported having considered running for political office compared to just under 8 per cent of respondents classified in social grade C2DE (skilled working class, working class, and not working).

Ethnic minority groups


Owing to the relatively small sample size for various ethnic minority groups, we instead initially utilised a binary division between white (ethnic majority) and non‐white (ethnic minority) respondents. Although a crude distinction in many ways, the increased statistical power offered by this split would more easily permit the identification of an effect in either direction. 10.4 per cent of white respondents reported some political ambition compared to 9.9 per cent of non‐white respondents.

With the above caveat, alongside the roughly 10 per cent of white respondents expressing political ambitions of some kind, respondents of mixed ethnicity have slightly higher levels of ambition (around 13 per cent), while individuals with South Asian ethnic backgrounds have lower levels of ambition, with only 8 per cent considering putting themselves forward.

Levels of trust in politicians


Although public disaffection and disillusionment with politics, politicians, and political institutions is hardly new, we don't know precisely how it affects political ambition, although we err on the side of pessimism.

Generally, it seems that faith in politics and politicians is something of a prerequisite for expressing political ambition. Although this might sound like a truism, it should trouble those hoping for democratic outbursts in opposition to a seemingly perennially unpopular political class: from what we can tell, this is unlikely to occur.

We should not anticipate the collapse of our political institutions should political ambition become further concentrated in an even more limited group of citizens. This is unlikely. What we may expect, though, is an intensification of anti‐political feeling and a perceived growth in the distance separating those involved in political life from those who are not. For further discussion, including suggestions for what can be done, see our journal article.

Peter Allen is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath.

David Cutts is Professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham.


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

Monday, 14 May 2018

Freeloading tax avoiders are harming democracy itself

Richard Woodward



Is the UK ungovernable? After Brexit and an inconclusive 2017 general election, widespread disaffection of many UK citizens with politics, politicians and political institutions is frequently traced to the failure of the UK's political machinery to deliver on promises or to meet their expectations.

In the last decade, examples of this failure have been legion: the failure to deliver robust, balanced or inclusive economic growth; the failure to eliminate the budget deficit; the failure to meet homebuilding targets; the failure to control immigration; the failure to remedy the tribulations plaguing the National Health Service; the failure to address chronic underinvestment in infrastructure; and the failure adequately to equip, prepare and protect services personnel in and for combat zones.

This ongoing political turbulence has prompted a reprise of debates from the 1970s when many concluded the country was ungovernable due to ‘overloading’ – a growing mismatch between the electorate's expectations and the government’s capacity to fulfil them.

However, these accounts overlooked another phenomenon besieging UK governance during this period. This phenomenon was freeloading: the withering of government capacity deriving from people enjoying the benefits of citizenship without altogether contributing to the cost.

In the interim, these problems have become endemic – not least because of the unspoken but discernible policy of successive governments to turn the UK into a tax haven.

The rise of tax havens


As a tax haven, the UK permits rich individuals and corporations to profit handsomely from the public goods paid for out of general taxation, whilst simultaneously supplying them with subterfuges that allow them to curtail their UK tax liabilities. Irrespective of citizen demands, tax avoidance and evasion deprives the UK government of the revenue necessary to discharge its responsibilities. By worsening inequality, tax avoidance and evasion have also damaged the UK's democratic institutions.

Hardly a week now passes without some fresh revelation of tax avoidance committed by a prominent corporation or celebrity. Amazon, Barclays, Boots, Caffè Nero, Facebook, Google, Ikea, Starbucks, and Vodafone are amongst dozens of firms that have attracted censure for paying minimal UK corporation tax, despite sustaining extensive business activity in the country.

Incongruously, some of the most notorious perpetrators of tax avoidance are also amongst the most prodigious consumers of public goods and recipients of government gratuity. The most egregious examples come from the banking sector. As the taxpayer was writing a blank cheque to bail out the financial system, it was revealed that the big four high street banks were operating a network of 1,649 tax haven subsidiaries.

High‐profile scandals involving prominent individuals and corporations, plus the failure to clamp down on them have reinforced the perception that the UK's political system is geared towards the rich and the powerful at the expense of the marginalised majority.

Growing inequality


What currently has the moniker of austerity is simply the compounding of a forty year‐long programme to square the freeloading circle by moderating spending and levying taxes that disproportionately distress the poorer segments of society. During this time, the UK went from being one of the most equal OECD countries to one of the most unequal.

To quote the Association of Revenue and Customs, the union representing senior HMRC staff, ‘the country cannot afford this madness. The government is acting like an unhinged Robin Hood—taking from the poor and giving to the rich’.

The impact on democracy


Soaring inequality has brought into sharp relief the well‐documented tension between the egalitarian tendencies of democracy and the wealth (and hence, power) concentrating propensities of capitalism. Assisted by the Bretton Woods settlement, the UK's post‐war governments were able to legitimise capitalism and stabilise democracy through widely shared increases in real incomes.

Conversely, the subsequent economic polarisation has bred a perception that the UK's democracy is mutating into a plutocracy where a self‐serving elite receives special treatment and wields outsize influence on the political system at the expense of the marginalised majority.

The UK's ‘non‐domiciled’ residents are illustrative in this regard. ‘Non‐doms’ are UK residents whose permanent home or domicile is elsewhere. They are spared tax on foreign income unless it is remitted to the UK, free to enjoy their millions in exchange for a payment miniscule in comparison to prevailing income tax rates.

Most of the UK's 115,000 non‐doms are not intimately connected with politics. Amongst their ranks, however, are press barons and major donors to political parties. During the 2015 general election campaign, it was divulged that non‐doms had donated over £27 million to the three main political parties since the turn of the century.

Democratic governance requires that everyone has the opportunity for an equal say in collective decision making. This does not mean that everyone has equal sway, but the outcome ought to reflect the most persuasive argument around which people could be mobilised, rather than who has the most resources to set the political agenda.

The seriousness of this predicament was finally acknowledged in the aftermath of the global financial crisis whereupon a crackdown on tax avoidance was pledged as part of the strategy to taper the UK's yawning budget deficit. Like previous endeavours, however, the strength of the clampdown has been sapped by vested interests. The failures of this process are described in more detail in my article for the Political Quarterly journal.

Suffice to say that the supposed suppression of tax avoidance and evasion in the post‐crisis period has been little more than a façade behind which freeloaders can perpetuate their parasitic activities with almost complete immunity, with the standing of the UK's governing institutions damaged in the eyes of many citizens as a result.

Richard Woodward is Senior Lecturer in the School of Strategy and Leadership and Associate Member of the Centre for Financial and Corporate Integrity at Coventry University.

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

Image by Albo Borrero.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Don't be fooled by the Iraqi elections. They are far from a new beginning

Balsam Mustafa



On May 12, Iraqis vote in national elections, 15 years after the war that ended Saddam Hussein's regime, 13 years after the first post-Saddam nationwide vote, seven years, and almost four years after a devastating Islamic State (IS) offensive.

Some politicians and analysts are telling us that this ballot will be a turning point, that Iraqis will finally be on the path to political and economic stability. But is this really the belated "new beginning"?

National protests


The summer heatwave of 2015 accompanied by an abysmal supply of electricity sparked a series of protests in southern and central Iraqi cities. The protestors were ordinary people unaffiliated with any party who demanded reforms in the government and an end to endemic corruption.

The protests shook the political elites and could have been a turning point in the history of Iraq had it not been for the intervention of some powerful Islamic parties that hijacked the majority of the protests.

Only a few short-term and mediocre reform measures were taken by prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s government to absorb the anger of the protestors. The impeachment of some Iraqi officials by the parliament, including Khalid al Obeidi, minister of defence, a year later, was a selective measure by rival parties, rather than a real reform.

The semi-closure of IS’s file in Iraq with the announcement of the liberation of Iraqi lands did not end the problem of corruption. So far, there is no accountability for those responsible of the fall of Mosul and other Iraqi cities to IS. Beyond IS, this has become the norm in Iraq. No accountability, strong law, or fair judiciary exist in Iraqi institutions.

The same old faces, including those previously impeached, are frontrunners in this year’s parliamentary election. The rivalry among the running parties and their candidates reached its peak with the official launch of the electoral campaign mid- April. Every corner in the streets of Iraq was occupied with big billboards and posters of the candidates. Despite the crippled economy, the generosity of the campaigning activities has further exposed the corruption of these parties, raising questions about funding sources and their legitimacy.

Yet, due to the lack of transparency in the laws of The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), ironically formed of commissioners from the major Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties, candidates are enabled to conceal their funding sources without enacting any penalties on the violators. A partisan commission since its establishment, IHEC often faces fraud accusations by losing parties and also by voters.

A rigged system


The election in Iraq is, in fact, a deeply rigged system designed to reproduce the same political elites who have failed at all levels except when it comes to maintaining their power, positions, and self-interest.

Modifying the Sainte-Lague electoral method by raising its initial application of 1.0 to 1.7 has worked in favour of bigger parties. The voting system itself is made to consolidate the list or the bloc itself rather than individual candidates. The fragmentation of traditional major parties into different blocs does not mean anything when the majority of the candidates are the same faces re-cycled in a new list. The quota for women only adds to the problem when women are allocated seats regardless of their competence or elegibility. Of course, the participation of women in the political life is vital but this should be outside this quota system. Finally, smaller parties which include independent candidates who did not previously participate in the political process are are still hardly known to Iraqi people.

What adds insult to injury is the post-election alliances and bargains to form the government. The establishment of the Provisional Governing Council in 2005 left a lasting legacy of a quota system by which the prime minister has to be Shia, the president Kurd, and the parliament president Sunni. The choice of politicians to fulfil these position is always subject to regional and international intervention. This quota division is mirrored in all other positions in Iraqi institutions and offices, which are widely run by patronage and nepotism.

The growing disenchantment with this unfair electoral system, in particular, and with the political elites in general, has made many Iraqis reluctant to vote in May’s election. Hundreds, if not thousands of the displaced people, remain disenfranchised.

Although the majority of ordinary people in Iraq are dissatisfied with the corrupt elites, political parties still have circles of supporters who will vote for them along religious, sectarian, ethnic, or tribal grounds.

While resorting to ballot boxes will not yield a radical change, and neither would boycotting the election, for many, the latter is a protest act against the failure of the political process in Iraq. A low voter turnout with continuing demands to replace the electoral system can be a means to undermine the legitimacy of the election laws and the political elites.

Until then, the election in Iraq is evidence of a pseudo-democracy. For democracy itself cannot coexist with theocracy, tribes, and militias. It cannot exist in an environment where individual freedoms are not respected and embraced. It cannot exist when there are no strong civil society and institutions. After all, a house is built from its foundations and not the other way round. 

Balsam Mustafa is a doctoral researcher in Modern Languages (Translation) at the University of Birmingham.

Image by DVIDSHUB. 

Monday, 7 May 2018

Total prison reform will take political bravery, but it's our only option

Anita Dockley



It is often said that there are no votes in prisons. This, I think, is largely true. Crime and justice has not been a prominent issue during recent elections, but that does not mean that prisons are not political.

Overtly political decisions are made about how people are expected to behave, the rules that they should abide by and what happens when they don’t. Prison is now regarded as the central column of the criminal justice system and not the ultimate sanction available to courts. But surely prison should be a scarce resource?

Soaring incarceration rates in Britain


More than 25 years ago I started working in penal reform when the dark days of the Strangeways riots were seemingly behind us. There was muted optimism following the publication of the Woolf report heralding a more humane, decent and effective prison system.

But the optimism I felt at the time was short lived. The use of prison as a sanction has been on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the twentieth century, yet since the mid-1990s since it has more than doubled with 83,216 men, women and children in prison in mid-April 2018. We have more people in prison than any other state in Western Europe, with an incarceration rate twice as high as Germany.

In the early 1990s, the Home Secretary Michael Howard’s ‘prison works’ mantra was underpinned by Tony Blair, Labour’s shadow, whose rhetoric of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ has become famous. This is the point at which prison numbers begin to steeply climb.

The political rhetoric and the concomitant use of prison has been shown to mirror public outcry over high profile crimes, not least the murder of James Bulger. I fear that though they cannot be ignored, such events have been co-opted by the political classes to steer the nation on a punitive path that may actually be counterproductive.

New criminal offences


Successive governments have relied on the criminal justice system to deal with a whole panoply of issues. Criminal justice legislation – and increased criminalisation – has until recently has been a regular feature of the parliamentary timetable.

In the Howard League’s evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s Inquiry into the Prison Population 2022 we suggest that between May 2010 and May 2014, 1076 new criminal offences were created in England and Wales, approximately two-thirds of which carry possible custodial penalties.

There has also been an increase in the creation of Acts of Parliament which are law-and-order related. According to our estimates, a mere 11 law-and-order Acts were passed between 1980 and 1989, with another 11 passed between 1990 and 1999. 31 such Acts were then passed between 2000 and 2009, and so far since 2010 there have been 26.

Longer sentences


However, by far the biggest impact is due to the fact that sentences have become longer. Over the past ten years, average sentence lengths, imposed by sentencers, have increased by 24 per cent across the board. For certain offence types the rise in sentence lengths is particularly notable. For example: over the past ten years, average prison sentences for fraud offences have increased by 54 per cent; average prison sentences for miscellaneous crimes against society have increased by 45 per cent; average prison sentences for criminal damage and arson have increased by 118 per cent; and average prison sentences for robbery increased by 51 per cent.

There is an over-representation of young men in from BAME backgrounds in prison, and a preponderance of poor health including high levels of mental health needs and addiction.

A further contributing factor is the use of recall (when an offender has been released on licence or parole and they breach a condition of their release). Since 1995 the number of people in prison due to recall has increased by approximately 4,000 per cent, from about 150 people on any given day in June 1995 to 6,186 people on 30 September 2017.

This statistic is indicative of the greater number of people who now spend a period on licence since the last government’s transforming rehabilitation reforms whereby short sentence prisoners are now liable to a period on licence. But this is only part of the picture as research has shown that recall occurs not because a person has reoffended, but following an administrative breach for instance being late for an appointment or any behaviour that worries an offender manager.

Should prison incapacitate or rehabilitate?


In these circumstances can we rely on prisons not just to incapacitate but to rehabilitate people? The evidence of the recent past makes this assumption at best questionable. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, characterised prisons as being as in crisis and chaotic - indeed in recent months he has condemned the leadership at Liverpool prison and nationally, for its “abject failure” to provide a safe, decent and purposeful regime. While at Nottingham prison he triggered, for the first time, the Urgent Notification Protocol because the prison was “fundamentally unsafe.”

The Prisons Inspectorate is just one voice in an ever-louder chorus from Independent Monitoring Boards, charities and academics about the state of prisons. Prisons are dirty and decrepit. And they are full. The most severely overcrowded are Leeds, Wandsworth and Durham prisons each holding around 50 per cent more prisoners than they should safely hold.

Recent research by the Howard League showers that the number of officers fell by as much as 40 per cent when the prison budgets shrank. This means that there are fewer staff to unlock doors, take prisoners to work, education, training or exercise - so they have nothing to do, little purposeful activity and so it is not surprising that tensions will rise.

And violence does appear endemic. Incidents of assault and self-injury are at their highest levels since current recording practices began in 1978. If there is no purposeful activity, prisoners may well look to other ways to make the time pass more quickly; it comes as no surprise that there is evidence of increasing drug use in prison.

The public is not being well served by prisons. A crude measure of effectiveness is reoffending rates with 44 per cent of adults being reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59 per cent. The National Audit Office estimates that reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually.

Reduce the number of people in prisons


We cannot build our way out of this mess. Building more jails only causes problems to grow; it does not solve them. The most sensible way to tackle the problem is to reduce the number of people in prison instead. Why is it that other western European democracies do not lock up as many of their citizens? I do not see their communities characterised by endemic crime. And it is not just in Europe, in the US some 35 states cut their prison rates between 2008 and 2016 and reduced their crime rates.

This does not mean that we condone crime. It means we need to think differently and find solutions elsewhere. In Scotland, for instance, the focus is on investment in community sentences. And some of the best solutions are to be found in welfare and social policies like Surestart schemes and public health approaches to knife violence.

If prison has such poor outcomes, surely it is time to take a different approach? The public – whatever that amorphous word means – want to feel safe, so there needs to be clear political leadership rather than the current Justice Secretary merry-go-round. 

We need the kind of political leadership that supports people to be active citizens, and diverts them away from the criminal justice system. Politicians need to be brave and look away from prison as the answer.

Anita Dockley is Research Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform 

Image by Ethem Pekin

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

How British arms exports facilitate humanitarian disaster in Yemen

Anna Stavrianakis



About once a decade, an arms trade scandal punctures public consciousness and generates debate about British foreign policy, the state of domestic democracy, and accountability for political decisions. Since 2015, arms sales to Saudi Arabia have generated controversy because of their role in creating humanitarian catastrophe in the war in Yemen: thousands dead and displaced, politically imposed famine through aerial and naval blockades, and now a cholera epidemic.

The UK is formally committed to international humanitarian law (IHL), common EU export rules and, most recently, a UN treaty regulating the international arms trade, all of which forbid exports where they are at risk of misuse in serious IHL violations.

So how is it that the UK government continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen, despite these explicit commitments? ? And how is it that the High Court recently dismissed a case of judicial review, confirming that the government was ‘rationally entitled to conclude’ that arms exports pose no clear risk to IHL in Yemen?

A flexible interpretation of risk, reliance on secret information, and deference of the Court to the executive are to blame.

Taking the government to court


In February 2017, activists took the government to court in a case of judicial review. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) argued that the UK government is breaking its own laws governing arms exports by continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen.

CAAT's lawyers argued that the government has broken its legal obligation not to allow exports if there is a clear risk that weapons might be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

But the judges concluded in July that the government was ‘rationally entitled to conclude’ that the Saudi‐led coalition was not deliberately targeting civilians; and that Saudi Arabia respects and is committed to complying with IHL.The judges’ decision provides a stamp of approval to an arms export policy that has directly contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians in Yemen.

No clear risk?


During the judicial review hearing, the government claimed that it had additional, ‘sensitive’ information beyond that provided by CAAT, that meant that the risk of misuse was not a ‘clear’ risk; that any excessive civilian harm was a mistake and was being addressed by the Saudi‐led coalition, thereby mitigating the risk; and that it did not need to explain why CAAT's argument was wrong. The High Court accepted the government's claims, and concluded that the government was rationally entitled to conclude that there was no clear risk – and thus, that there was no need to suspend or cancel arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Overall, the judicial review judgment ended up confirming the legality of a policy and process in which the UK government claims not to know whether violations of IHL are taking place; evidence of past misuse is not deemed to pose a clear risk that future exports might be misused; and evidence of systematic attacks on civilians are explained away as mistakes. Rather than acting to prevent harm, a risk‐based framework for assessing arms transfers ends up facilitating exports. The importance of judgement and flexibility – practices intrinsic to risk assessment – makes the limits of policy negotiable rather than absolute.

How exactly has an ostensibly preventive policy of risk been mobilised – not only to justify rather than restrict exports, but also to ensure that the threshold of clear risk is not seen to have been breached?

Secret information


Improvements in transparency after previous arms export scandals have been undermined by the government’s reliance on secret information, which cannot be disclosed openly in court for ostensible national security reasons.

The judges in the judicial review hearing did not dispute the veracity of the evidence provided by CAAT; they acknowledged that CAAT's evidence was suggestive of serious IHL violations. However, they concluded that the government has more and better information, and that the open source evidence provided by CAAT is ‘only part of the picture’.

Secret information completed the picture, to the point where the judges felt able to decide that the government is legally entitled to conclude that there is no clear risk that weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia might be used in serious violations of the laws of war.

Deference of the High Court to the executive


The reliance on secret information was indicative of a broader trend illustrated by the hearing – the deference of the High Court to the executive. The judges accepted the government QC's advice that primacy should be accorded to the executive as the primary decision maker. They agreed that arms export decisions are ‘matters of judgment and policy’ and thus ‘primarily matters for the executive’.

Moreover, it remains unclear what contestation, if any, there has been from within the civil service of approvals of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began. Yet, licensing decisions have speeded up rather than slowed down, which seems odd given the increasing scale of information about potential violations of IHL, and suggests that political direction has been issued.

Denigrating the campaigners


In court, the implicit denigration of campaigners’ empirical, thematic and legal expertise was accompanied by the explicit, and factually incorrect, sidelining of their evidence on the grounds that NGOs ‘often have not visited and conducted investigations in Yemen, and are necessarily reliant on second‐hand information’.

Many of the NGOs and investigators cited in the hearing actually do visit Yemen and other warzones, conduct fieldwork, and take great care to triangulate their sources. Misrepresentations such as this must be particularly galling for NGOs and researchers whose work on other issues is mobilised by the government when it seeks to criticise others.

The response from CAAT has been to appeal the judgment; it remains to be seen how higher courts will treat their claim, if it is permitted. And it remains to be seen how the parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls will take up the baton of scrutinising government arms export policy with regard to Yemen, and how.

Anna Stavrianakis is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex.

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

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The NHS doesn't require reform – it needs a revolution

Kailash Chand and Allyson Pollock



On the 4th July, the National Health Service will celebrate its 70th birthday and there will be much fanfare and celebration. The NHS has been described as one of the greatest social achievements of the 20th century with its promise to care for the British people from cradle to grave. But all is not well.

Intense financial pressure


The NHS was established as a publicly funded, publicly provided and publicly accountable service but the systems and mechanisms which ensure health care for all are now being progressively dismantled and NHS funding is being reduced and diverted to private operators and their shareholders.

Despite a rising tax base – the population has increased by 2.5 million and is predicted to grow by 440,000 a year over the next ten years health care needs are not being met. This is because the government has taken a political decision to reduce NHS services so that those who can pay will pay and go privately.

The visible signs of reductions in funding and diversion of funds to private operators are the closures of hospitals, GP surgeries and community services and sales of NHS estate. NHS England has cancelled tens of ­thousands of hospital operations, much needed operations which in turn are creating the biggest backlog in the health service’s history. A&E services are in a near permanent state of crisis on a daily basis and on many days some hospitals report having no hospital beds available with bed occupancy levels over 100 per cent.

All the key indicators within the NHS worsened over the last few years, with waiting lists reaching 10-year highs. A shortage of doctors, nurses, beds and care packages for elderly patients means that black alerts, trolleys in corridors and dangerous safety levels for patients are at a peak. What was once confined to winter is now an all-year-round occurrence.

As financial and operational performances deteriorate any additional resources allocated to the NHS by the government are being used to bail out hospitals with large deficits and enormous annual PFI charges. Precious NHS resources are being squandered on management consultants, lawyers, accountancy firms, PFI contracts and commercial contracting. Commercial contracting creates waste and fragmentation of care and risks are passed from commissioner to provider to patient like a sinister game of pass the parcel.

Faced with large financial deficits NHS managers holed up in their offices and board rooms look at how they can use their new powers to generate private income – now that NHS foundation trust hospitals can generate up to half their income from private patients and other sources. At the same time Foundation Trusts are undertaking more privatisation and entering into joint ventures and creating companies to transfer staff.

Dismantling the NHS


The fear of the financial costs of ill health is rapidly returning. The principle of a universal healthcare system free at the point of use is broken. This government has ushered in a creeping reduction of universality, with the withdrawal of entitlements and demonisation of ill people, old people, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees alongside the incremental rationing of care, for example Windrush migrants and introduction of health care migrant charges. For 70 years people were treated on the basis of need not screened for their eligibility.

The government’s new plans for health care, which are being rapidly introduced and without proper public debate or parliamentary scrutiny, turn on new models of care are drawn from the US – the most expensive and unfair system in the world.

These new models labelled and relabelled ACOs, STPs, ICS, ICPs, MCPs PACs have one endpoint – the Accountable Care Organisation. The government plans to drum up billions of pounds and award giant contracts for at least ten years to private for profit providers.

The government calls this integration. The reality is that commercial contracting will involve transferring statutory decision making for planning and resource allocation to non statutory bodies. In this way risks and costs of care are shifted to patients are shifted to patients.

The NHS is being fragmented, undermined and decimated. There are no countries that provide universal healthcare on this basis. The legal basis for shifting commissioning functions to non-statutory bodies is currently being challenged in the court and the hearing of the judicial review will be heard on 23rd and 24th May, funded by the public.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 removed the duty on the Secretary of State to provide universal health care throughout England and ushered in market competition. It dismantles the NHS. Only parliament can restore what parliament has taken away and this needs legislation.

Reinstating the NHS in England


This is why it so important to support the NHS Bill which will be tabled as a private members Bill on 11th July by Eleanor Smith MP.  This Bill reinstates the NHS. It will reintegrate services within contiguous geographic area based statutory health bodies making them publicly accountable to local people and to parliament. It will reinstate the duty on the Sec of State to provide universal health care throughout England. It will restore the principles of fairness for all which has been the hallmark of the NHS. It will restore needs-based planning for geographic populations. It will abolish marketisation and commercial contracting. It will abolish the internal market and Foundation Trusts and centralises PFI debts making them the responsibility of the Treasury.

The intergenerational unfairness which has made individuals responsible for long-term care must be remedied and means testing and privatization of care ended. Mechanisms for public accountability must be renewed.

We should restore the founding principles of the NHS through national terms and conditions of service for doctors and all NHS staff. Above all, we must allow professional standards to thrive since these are the basis of public and patient trust.

In its 70th anniversary year, what the NHS requires is not reform but revolution – a quiet, collective revolution that brought the NHS into being in the first place.

Kailash Chand is honorary vice president of the British Medical Association (BMA) and has worked as a GP since 1983.

Allyson Pollock is an academic, public health doctor, and leading authority on PFI. 
Image by Alex Proimos