USS Pension Reform: On Prudence, Fairness and Trust

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


Recently proposals have been advanced for reform of the USS Pension which will have very considerable effects on both those who has been in the Final Salary Scheme and those who only been in the Career-Average Defined Benefits Scheme. Claims and counter-claims have flown about so it worth stepping back to review the position by recalling principles for guiding pension reform and looking at the current dispute in the light of these principles. There are three main kinds of principles involved here:

  1. Principle of prudence in guiding the evaluation of the assets and deficit of a pension fund, where this judgment will be informed by the kind of fund in question (for example, a one-firm fund or a fund supported by multiple corporations).
  2. Principles of prudent fairness in proposing reforms to the fund, where issues of fairness pertain particularly to the legitimate expectation of fund members and to the distribution of risks and benefits.
  3. Principle of trust in the communication of the fund evaluation and the rationale for, and consequences, of proposed reforms.

Let us take each in turn.

Prudence and the calculation of assets and deficit.

Guidance from the Pensions Regulator suggests that valuations should not be based on only worst-case assumptions in every issue as “an appropriate overall level of prudence in the technical provisions should be the paramount objective” of a valuation. But this is precisely what appears to have been done on calculating the USS fund deficit as a recent letter to the THE points out:

False assumptions of the USS

23 OCTOBER 2014

Last week, the Employers Pension Forum published “Proposed Changes to USS – Myths, Misconceptions and Misunderstandings”. The document contains misinformation and a mistake. We focus on the section “M7: The assumptions used to value the fund have been chosen to artificially create a large deficit”.

Having reviewed the assumptions given in the 2013 annual report, we believe, as statisticians and financial mathematicians, that each assumption is inadequately justified and that cumulatively they are unreasonably pessimistic and incoherent. The predicted salary increases assume a buoyant economy while investment returns assume a recession.

For example, the average annual rate of return on assets achieved by the Universities Superannuation Scheme over the past 10 years was about 7 per cent and over the past five years about 11 per cent. It is therefore difficult to understand the EPF’s assertion that “since 2011…the continuing global economic challenges…have had a detrimental impact on the value of USS’ assets”.

Meanwhile, members’ wages are assumed to grow by the retail price index plus 1 per cent (taken to be 4.4 per cent) plus incremental increases. Over the past 20 years the actual rate was about 2.7 per cent, with similar growth over the past 10 years. Post-2008 rates show negative real-pay growth. The age-related assumption is wage growth (1 per cent to 4 per cent) by progress up the salary scale: anecdotally this assumption leads to higher pay growth rates than the majority of academics have experienced over the past 10 or 20 years. As the fund’s actual experience was used to give a mean retirement age of 62 years at the last valuation, it seems odd that salary assumptions do not also reflect actual experience.

The assumptions on mortality appear to be unchanged from the 2011 valuation, yet the EPF archly advances the statement that “members of the USS are living longer so the pension scheme has to pay pensions in retirement for longer than planned” as a reason for deterioration in the fund’s position since 2011.

A reasonable change in any one of these assumptions would give a lower estimated deficit. The EPF states that although changing the assumptions in this instance could affect the size of the deficit, “it cannot change a deficit into a surplus”. It takes little mathematical knowledge to recognise that this statement is wrong.

In other words, the valuation is performed on the basis of various assumptions about likely future experience and each assumption is inadequately justified and that cumulatively they are unreasonably pessimistic.

This letter provides strong prima facie grounds for believing that the calculations involved do not respect the principle of prudence. This is reinforced by a much earlier pre-emptive counter to such reforms of the USS scheme by the pensions expert and LSE governor Ros Altman makes a number of additional points where the headlines are:

  • Universities Pension Scheme scaremongering is overdone.
  • Classic example of damage to pensions from QE
  • USS is not a closed scheme, so it is unfair to compare it with most other UK schemes
  • Its funding position is being well managed and it should not be panicked by exceptional interest rate environment.

Prudent fairness and proposals for reform

Consider the claim invoked in the current proposals is that combined (employer plus employee) contribution rates are projected to rise from 23.5% after the 2011 valuation to around 35% and this, USS claims, is “unaffordable”. It has long been a principle of actuarial valuations of pension funds that valuations should ensure gentle changes in funding rates. This large increase would represent a failure by the fund or its actuaries to observe that principle. There is a reason for the principle of gentle increases, namely, ensuring that the legitimate expectations of members of the pension scheme are not radically breached and this informs the more general principle of prudent fairness that is central here. Professor Mike Otsuka at the LSE has drawn my attention to a related case in which the salient principle is exhibited:

How to close a final salary scheme properly. It’s very simple:

“For all scheme members, any benefits built up in the final salary scheme [up until the date of closure] will be protected and remain in that scheme. When benefits are calculated at retirement, they will be linked to the member’s most recent pensionable earnings (but using the final salary scheme rules).”

That’s what the Teachers Pension Scheme did when they moved everyone in the post-92 higher education sector over from final salary to career average salary defined benefits.

Why did they do that? Because an Independent Commission said that the “Government must honour in full the pension promises that have been accrued by scheme members: their accrued rights. In doing so, the Commission recommends maintaining the final salary link for past service for current members.”

The principle of prudent fairness does not, however, simply concern the transition to a new scheme but also the character of the new scheme. Thus it is proposed that the new scheme would combine a Defined Benefit (DB) element and a Defined Contribution (DC) element with the switch from one to another happening at a given salary level. Yet, as a large scale Canadian study has comprehensively demonstrated (https://cpplc.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/db-vs-dc_plans_research-paper_online_20140924_rvsd1.pdf), DC schemes are much more inefficient than DB schemes and off-load greater levels of risk onto individuals. Dennis Leech at the University of Warwick has also stressed this point here (http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/files/dennisleech/uss_bham.pptx). Prudent fairness supports maintaining an efficient collective scheme in which risks and benefits are shared fairly among members – such as a Career-Average Defined Benefits Scheme.

Trust in the communication of the fund evaluation and the rationale for, and consequences, of proposed reforms

The final principle concerns how communication is carried out concerning the evaluation and the proposed changes. It is important that whose involved in the process need to be able to trust the communications that they receive if these communications purport to provide neutral and impartial information. On the evaluation side, it is apposite here to note an earlier letter to the THE by Professor Jane Hutton (also one of the signatories of the THE letter cited above):

The Employers Pension Forum published a Q&A purporting to explain the reasons for the proposed changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme with the date 11 August 2014. I read it in early September, and realised that the life expectancies given under question nine were completely implausible. I did not know whether this was incompetence or an attempt to mislead.

I wrote to the EPF on 9 September, raising questions about this. I have not received a reply. However, when accessed on 2 October, the Q&A had been changed to omit the incorrect life expectancies, but still bore the date 11 August 2014. There was no indication that the change had been made, and the conclusions drawn remained.

As the EPF Q&A claims to provide information, with the implication that the advice is impartial, it is more than disingenuous not to alert readers to the change. The balance of my opinion as to whether the inaccuracy arose from incompetence or dishonesty has altered.

If we turn to consider the issue of the rationale for the reforms, the most obvious concern is that no information is provided on what alternative possible reforms have been considered and why they have been rejected. This is a central element of the response by Oxford University to the consultation and their response is worth reading in full. Oxford’s response also draws attention to the limited timeframe that has been made available for this consultation – a point that is also salient to the issue of trust.

It appears then that members of the USS scheme have prima facie reasons to be mistrustful of the good faith in which the necessity of just these reforms is represented to them. To restore trust requires that the issues raised here are fully and properly addressed.

Reexamining the 2001 Argentine crisis and its aftermath

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


Ten days ago, the launching of a recently published book entitled Argentina Since the 2001 Crisis: Recovering the Past, Reclaiming the Future at the Institute of the Americas (University College of London) was a good opportunity to revisit the vicissitudes of contemporary politics in Argentina. The volume, edited by Cara Levey, Daniel Ozarow, and Christopher Wylde, gathers the contributions of a multidisciplinary international group of scholars to the analysis of the legacies of the 2001 crisis. In particular, the book explores the responses to the crisis in various dimensions: economic processes, domestic politics, social mobilization, and cultural practices. As invited discussant, I noted several contributions this book is making to our understanding of the implications of such dramatic events. Among other things, I highlighted the following points and encouraged further discussion and investigation.

Ana_IMG_3274I welcomed the introduction of the concept of “crisis intermezzo.” It might be a very helpful analytical concept in the Argentine case and probably other cases too. While transition is defined as “a process during which the previous act is terminated and replaced by a different one, (…) intermezzo is a bracketed act between two acts of the same piece” (p. 144). This conceptual contrast may broaden our historical perspective of what happened in Argentina. In the light of recent developments, it is evident that Argentines have started to anticipate, once again, a new crisis as if they have developed, through recurrent crises, a particular ability to do so and the aftermath of the crisis was just an intermezzo to catch their breath.

A number of things happened during the intermezzo, though. Several chapters in this volume give us tools to analyze both rebellion from below and reconstruction from above. The contributors ably illustrate how citizens mobilized driven by anger and hope, and how the state de-mobilize them and used the opportunity to give the Kirchners’ model its identity, narrative, and historical projection. I note that integrating the two process seems to be a pending task. Doing so might require exploring how crises and intermezzos have become naturalised throughout their cyclical recurrence and how Argentine politics (and Peronist politics in particular) have become the art of managing crisis or using intermezzos to re-invent the (now) dominant party.

With respect to the top-down part of that process, I note that there is an underlying theme in the book: the recasting of state power as post-neoliberalism promised to bring the state back in and mend the damage made by neoliberal policies. In my view, the return of the state seems to be an unfinished, inconsistent, and uneven process across geographies of the national territory and across policy areas; it has also been closely intertwined with the government’s significant efforts to re-write a narrative of the past, present and future of the country (and the role of the Kirchner family in it). This recurrent theme made me think that an emphasis on responses to the crisis might be insufficient. Most chapters, indeed, identify contradictions and tensions between national popular discourses and the policies and politics of dispossession. This suggests the need to elaborate not only on the responses but also on the non-responses, the issues that have been silenced, the mobilization that was de-mobilized, the dissent that was diluted or simply postponed. Doing so might help make sense of the paradox that the protesters’ slogan “que se vayan todos!” (they all must go!) faded in front of politicians’ resilience and resistance to leave and to implement necessary political reforms. Old and new factions continue struggling today as the time of election approaches, while popular discontent persists and focuses on recurrent problems (e.g., corruption, insecurity, inflation) and the component of hope contained in the 2001 protests has not been fulfilled yet.

The University as a Civic Community

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


Universities were founded as ‘civic corporations’ in the medieval sense (this sense of ‘incorporated bodies’ is most obviously exemplified by Guilds). This is why they have Royal Charters. This guild structure still persists in some professions such as architecture and medicine that are self-governing. Their rule is exercised over their membership (for example, both architects and doctors can be ‘struck off’) and over who can be a member (they control the qualification/certification process).

There are three crucial elements here for conceiving of the University:

  • It is to be conceived as a self-governing community;
  • It is a community oriented to the common good of its members;
  • Its standing as a corporation in the medieval sense is justified only to the extent to which acting for the common good of its members contributes to the public good.

In each of these respects, it is entirely distinct from a ‘private corporation’ in the modern sense. Why does this matter? And how should this inform how we see the University now?

It matters because universities today, struggling with the demands of marketized higher education and the increasing importance of commercial dimensions of their work, have too easily plumped for frameworks, vocabularies and values drawn from the realm of private business corporations – faute de mieux. Yet the ethos and grammar of the private corporation is both alien to, and at odds with, that of the public (or even private) university. So it is worthwhile to recall and explore a historical grounded alternative – what, then, does this alternative involve?

Consider, first, self-government. We need to distinguish two aspects of self-government here – the ‘legislative’ and ‘executive’ functions. The first point that arises from this is that Executive (the University Senior Management) are subordinate to the Legislature (the University Senate) in one crucial respect: although the ends or strategic goals of a university may be proposed by the Executive for the consideration of Senate, they are set by the membership of the university as civic participations in a self-governing community (via their representatives in Senate). The primary role of the university executive is to develop ways of realizing strategic goals compatible with maintaining the university as a self-governing community through policies, targets, etc. The second point is that the executive are accountable for their performance to the community which means that they report to the community and can be sanctioned by the community (via its representatives in Senate). In institutional terms, the legitimate authority of the Executive to issue commands, set targets, etc., derives from their role as agents of Senate who are accountable to Senate.

This picture is slightly complicated by the third feature, namely, that of ensuring the pursuit of the common good of the members of the University is also productive of the public good (the importance of this is illustrated by the history of guilds in which the common good of the membership could and sometimes did lead to practices that were definitely not directed at the public good). This is essentially the role of a body involving external members representing the Public (the Council of the University) – to make sure that the University is productive of the public good (for example by not being a liability for the public purse). The University as a civic corporation, represented for these purposes by the Vice-Chancellor, is thus accountable to Council as representatives of the Public. In this respect, the autonomy of the University, its capacity for self-government in the most general sense, can be limited by Council where this is deemed necessary or advisable for the public good or, put in modern parlance, for ensuring the University fulfills its mission.

(This double relation of the VC as, on the one hand, leading the Executive as servants of the civic community and as, on the other hand, representing the University in its accountability to Council can set up a tension that is liable to drive VC’s to seek greater power so that they can determine as executive that for which they are held responsible as representative.)

If we consider now the second element, namely, the common good of the membership, we need to address two dimensions. First, who is a member? Second, how is the common good to be worked out? The answer to the first is straightforward: every employee of the University from cleaner to professor, from first year student to communications director. It is, of course, the case that there are different kinds of membership in terms of the rights and duties that pertain to their different roles. It is also the case that their different functions have implications for the governance structures of the University, for example, one might adopt a consociational structure comprised of an Academic Senate that governs academic matters, a Professional Senate that governs professional matters and a Student Union that governs student matters encompassed within an overarching Senate in which all are represented. There can be significant debates on the best governance structures to adopt here but the really key point is that this is a civic community in which all are civic participants and should be able to conceive of, and experience themselves as, ‘citizens’ engaged in a cooperative venture directed at the common good and in the service of the public good.

This is, of course, just a sketch of an alternative way of conceiving of the University but it demonstrates that there is such an alternative and that it has significant implications for how we relate to one another as members of a corporate community. The problem that we currently face is that many academic and non-academic staff see themselves in this kind of way but that they are placed within management structures that act in ways drawn from the opposed conception of the modern private corporation and thus, advertently or not, exploit this fact in order to extract greater labour and thereby generate understandable cynicism and disillusionment with, and alienation from, the University. The ‘connected university’ needs to attend to the character of its internal connections.

The Polling Observatory Forecast #5: Conservatives fading away?

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


As explained in our inaugural election forecast, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.

Forecast 01-10-14

This month’s Polling Observatory reported largely stable electoral preferences during September, despite a turbulent month at the summit of politics.  The shares for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and especially the Conservatives declined slightly, the latter by 1.1%.  UKIP was the beneficiary, and gained 1.2%, almost exactly what the Conservatives lost.  The forecast based on these numbers yet again finds the two major parties locked in a statistical dead heat but with the Conservatives slipping back further, down 1.2% to 33.7%.  The gap between the parties widened a little less as our Labour forecast also fell slightly, and now stands at 2.5%.

The inability of the Conservatives to close the gap in voter preferences makes it less and less likely that they can overtake Labour.  Our forecast share for them has declined steadily because they are not making the gains in the polls history suggests they ought to be at this stage.  Time is running out for Cameron’s party, and unless they can produce a sustained recovery in their polling numbers our forecast will continue to decline.  However, it is worth remembering that swings in the polls are possible even very late in the day, and the gap between the top two remains narrow enough for our forecast to be a statistical dead heat.  All signs still point to a very close election.

Things are even worse for the Liberal Democrats, whose  forecast share drops again, by 0.4% to 8.7%.  Should the performance continue, there surely will be consequences for the share of the seats in Parliament as well, specifics of which we are planning to provide in our next (November) post.

In the meantime, we are keeping a close watch on the polls in the wake of the party conferences.  Is there a lasting Conservative bounce coming after Cameron’s speech highlighting tax cuts and further reductions in the size of the state? Or will this prove fleeting, as the news agenda moves on to NHS strikes, health scares and foreign entanglements? Only time and the data it reveals will tell.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Calling Russia’s Bluff: How to Analyse and Finalise the Conflict in Ukraine

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Take any analysis of the war in Ukraine and it is likely to be limited in the following one or two ways. Firstly, it will probably be heavily biased. Commentators often tend to unreflectively follow the official narrative of Washington and NATO, or completely buy into the Russian propaganda. Secondly, most analyses simplify what is a complex problem, looking for explanations exclusively at the international level (the enlargement of NATO) or within countries’ political systems (autocratic Russia). We need a more systematic approach.

In this contribution I borrow from the late American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. In his book Man, the State and War, he proposed to look for the causes of war at three different levels: individual, state and international. Aware of space limitations, I narrow down my analysis to the last two levels. Such framework, while seemingly less exciting than simplistic finger-pointing, may lead to more insightful conclusions and, in turn, better inform any recommendations we may suggest.

Ukraine in the international system

It is a truism to say that states have the ultimate authority in international relations. In contrast to domestic affairs, there is no international police or a court. Everything that exists in international relations is a result of agreements between sovereign states. This simple fact, however, does not mean that states must fight with each other. They can be friends or neutral towards one another. What did go wrong between Ukraine and Russia? There are two competing narratives which seek to explain the conflict at the level of the so-called international system. The first one has been most forcefully advanced by Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago in Foreign Affairs. We can call it a realist explanation.

In short, Mearsheimer argues that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. The West, and mainly the United States, has provoked Russia by pushing for the enlargement of NATO and constantly trying to extend the Western sphere of influence. While this strategy may have worked with relatively weak President Boris Yeltsin, it has met with inevitable resistance from President Vladimir Putin, whom Mearsheimer calls ‘first-class strategist’.

The second narrative comes from the capitals of many of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, some Western European countries, from NATO and from Washington. We can call it a liberalist narrative. In this interpretation, Russia is becoming increasingly delusional about restoring its position as the world superpower. This camp likes to remind Putin’s words about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. They point to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as evidence that Russia is increasingly dangerous and not to be trusted. Ukraine, for its part, should be supported in choosing its own future, preferably as a liberal democracy.

Both sides of this debate present enough empirical evidence to make their case. Ultimately, where one stands in this discussion depends on where one sits geographically and economically. Poland, for example, wants to have a stable, pro-Western democracy on its eastern border. Being a frontline EU and NATO country is not optimal for its security. Germany, France and Italy have a slightly different take; because of their location further away from the Russian borders and different historical experience, they feel more secure. Thus, they are more relaxed to focus on bilateral trade with Russia.

US policy seems to reflect the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Advisor to President Carter. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski calls for the strong American endorsement of the newly-independent CEE states. Russia’s intentions are hotly debated, but all the evidence suggests that Moscow will be persistent in preventing Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the EU.

Tell me your form of government, and I will tell you who you are

To explain the conflict at the level of the international system is different from looking for the causes of states’ behaviour in their domestic political systems. Unsurprisingly, commentators are similarly divided in how much emphasis they put on the characteristics of the main actors involved in the Ukrainian war, depending on their values and sympathies.

On the one hand, the liberalist camp draws on the old argument that liberal democracies are less prone to go to war with each other and to pose danger for their neighbours. This is why, in this narrative, Russia’s domestic political system is closely scrutinised. Interestingly, there is little disagreement between liberalists and realists that Russia, under President Putin, has become an autocratic state. Hardly anyone attempts to defend Russia as a democratic country.

While consolidating his power, Putin has practically eliminated any political opposition. He has also been consistent in limiting democratic freedoms in Russia. Admittedly, the majority of Russians do not appear to be concerned with this process, which is unsurprising considering the decades of Soviet social engineering. The problem is, according to external critiques, that increasingly autocratic Russia is a threat to its neighbours. Putin has created a socio-political system in which he can do what he wants abroad. In this context, it is understandable that many analyses intend to expose Putin’s intentions.

On the other hand, some realists, together with Marxist intellectuals and far-right parties in Europe, do not perceive Russian autocracy as a problem, at least not in relation to the war in Ukraine. Rather, they point their fingers at the American political system, which, so they say, is dominated by the neoconservative agenda. It is this neoconservative element in American foreign policy which drives this country to expand its spheres of influence around the world. This, inevitably, results in Washington interfering in other countries’ affairs. Russia is a victim in the Ukrainian conflict. It merely responds to the neo-onservative expansion of American alliances and spheres of influence. The closer ‘the West’ moves to the Russian borders, the more reaction we must expect from Putin.

Again, both sides have ample evidence to advance their case. Putin, without a question, has made Russia more autocratic. The Russian army did advance into Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels in the south-eastern parts of the country. The annexation of Crimea was illegal by any standards. Russia is putting a lot of pressure, including hardly concealed blackmail, to force Ukraine into its pet project of the Eurasian Customs Union.

To this, the opposite side will respond that American foreign policy is no better. They will remind about an unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was conducted under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, but in reality was driven by the neoconservative, expansionist agenda. They will also, as Mearsheimer did in his contribution, criticise the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inside Ukraine

Even when the discussion zooms in on the domestic situation in Ukraine, the arguments remain ideologically-driven and rather simplistic. On the one side, we hear that the people of Ukraine have chosen Europe through mass protests in Kiev, the so-called Euromaidan. On the other side, we hear that those people are fascists.

The truth is that many in Ukraine are tired and angry about the cancer of corruption and nepotism which eat up the country’s fragile institutions. They see how the CEE countries have transformed after the Cold War and want the same path for Ukraine. There are also large numbers of ethnic Russians and many Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern parts of the country, who believe their future is with Russia, preferably as part of the Russian Federation. This brings me to recommendations.

Recommendations

Based on this short analysis, I reject the idea advanced by John Mearsheimer to transform Ukraine into ‘a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia’. To be more specific, I don’t think it is a bad option for Ukraine, but I believe it is for Ukrainians to decide. If Ukrainians, in their majority, choose to join the Eurasian Customs Union, the West must respect that. Angela Merkel already hinted that she would have no problem with such an outcome. On the other hand, however, if Ukraine chooses to deepen its ties with, and eventually join the EU, Russia must respect that and stop terrorising Kiev.

The sceptics will be quick to point out that Ukraine is, and always will be ethnically and ideologically divided – thus, the buffer country idea. As a result, the outcome preferred in the south-eastern Donbas region will be rejected by the rest of Ukraine and vice-versa. Here comes my second recommendation: If Moscow wants Kiev to offer the Donbas region more autonomy, Kiev should call Russia’s bluff and do just that.

In fact, Kiev should allow the Donbas region as much autonomy as it wants, and preferably allow it to become fully independent. As a Ukrainian-American writer Alexander Motyl points out in Foreign Affairs, this would allow the rest of Ukraine to speed up the necessary reforms and tighten its relationship with the EU. It would also help to develop healthier relations with Russia, which would have no choice but to finally respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

[This article was also published in Diplomatist – India’s magazine on diplomacy and international affairs.]

Polling Observatory #41: Opinion stable for now, but election battle lines are being drawn

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This is the forty-first in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 01-10-14 anchor on average

This month’s Polling Observatory update comes after another tumultuous month in British politics – one that  began with the shock defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP; followed by the frantic conclusion to Scottish Independence referendum campaign, which saw the highest voter turnout seen in a post-war British election, and  immediately kicked off a new constitutional battle over ‘English votes for English laws’. After all this drama, party conference season was likely to feel anti-climatic and an anodyne Labour Party conference featuring tired activists and a flat leader’s speech delivered on this expectation. The fireworks soon began flying again, however, as Nigel Farage’s insurgents used their conference to declare war on Labour in Northern constituencies, and unveil a second Conservative defection right on the eve of the main governing party’s conference. Rumbling in the background through all this has been the steadily worsening Middle East crisis, leading to a recall of Parliament and a return of Britain to conflict in the region.  Summer silly season is definitely at an end.

Our latest report covers polling data up to October 1st – just prior to David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, which was widely heralded in the media for its promise of jam tomorrow (future tax cuts). We therefore miss any possible conference ‘bounce’ from the speech – hinted at by three polls, two in succession by YouGov and one by Lord Ashcroft – putting the Conservatives ahead. As ever, we would be cautious about over-interpreting sudden and large movements in the polls, not least as two other polls have shown Labour maintaining their lead – and the latest YouGov poll puts Labour back two points in front. We shall see next month whether Cameron’s supposed conference ‘bounce’ holds up once the news cycle has moved on.

The big movers in September were UKIP, who gained 1.2 points, rising to 15.2%, and the Conservatives, who fell 1.1 points, down to 30.1%. The defection of two Conservative MPs – Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – to UKIP may therefore have led some of their fellow partisans to make a similar switch. Victories for one or both of the defectors in their new party’s colours, and the positive media coverage that would doubtless follow UKIP’s first Parliamentary wins, could encourage further moves in the polling. With constituency polls for both Clacton and Rochester & Strood currently pointing towards UKIP victories, Nigel Farage’s rebels look set to keep up the pressure on the Conservatives over the next couple of months.

Despite a lacklustre conference, our estimates see Labour stable on 34.4%, with no change from last month. As a result, Labour have preserved their fragile poll lead for another precious month. Indeed, the lead as estimated just prior to the Conservative conference was the highest we have recorded for six months, though it remains within the narrow 3 to 5 point band that it has been stuck on for most of 2014. The Liberal Democrats still face a daunting electoral challenge, with their support down 0.3 points on 8.3%.

It will be interesting to see whether the apparent conference bounce for the Conservatives is sustained at all. It is worth remembering that an 8% swing over the course of just a matter of days implies that over two million people have adjusted their voting intention in response to a single speech The empirical evidence of post-conference bounces in the polls is weak, and there is very little chance of these lasting through to election day. Most of the effects of events on public opinion are gradual and slow-moving. In this respect, it may be the tone set by Cameron’s speech – with its focus on tax cuts for middle and higher income earners and further reductions in the size of the state – which may matter most. The speech draws clear battle lines over taxation and spending for the coming election, perhaps the clearest seen for twenty years, but may also imperil the Conservatives’ hard won reputation for fiscal responsibility, as shown by the criticism of the unfunded tax cut announcements by trusted sources.  So while we are sceptical that Cameron’s speech alone has changed many minds in the last few days, it could nonetheless usher in a new phase of public opinion dynamics as voters react to the newly drawn divides between the parties.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Embracing Impressionism—and Each Other?

diptic4

By John Boswell and Jack Corbett. John Boswell is Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton (@Boswell_JC). Jack Corbett is Research Fellow at Griffith University. You can find more posts by John here.


In an essay set to come out in Critical Policy Studies soon (read it here), we argue that the sort of research we practice—commonly dubbed ‘interpretive’ and famously pioneered by, among others, Soton’s own R.A.W. Rhodes—ought to fess up to, and in fact be proud of, its ‘impressionistic’ nature. The point is not to lob bombs at interpretivism from the outside as not matching up to orthodox standards of what constitutes ‘systematic’ research, but to critique it from within. We argue that in their determination to uphold the validity of interpretivism against the established orthodoxy, key pioneers of this approach have gone too far in clinging defiantly to the notion that such work is equally ‘systematic’. In contrast, many of us who practice interpretive research experience the opposite. To us, and many colleagues we’ve spoken with, doing interpretive research feels more like struggling to arrange a jumble of impressions than it resembles any systematic accretion of insights. As such, we reclaim the label ‘impressionistic’ not as something pejorative but as a more apt descriptor for doing and communicating interpretation. To do so, somewhat awkwardly for a couple of uncouth Antipodeans, we draw out an analogy to impressionist painters to show the affinities between this artistic movement and the interpretive move in politics and policy research.

So far, many readers of this blog will be thinking, so lunatic fringe – and we recognise that some may simply see this as a case of upstarts trying to outflank their interpretive forebears in terms of touchy-feeliness. But we will try and make a case here that the implications of our argument actually bring us closer to the mainstream of political and policy studies (something we have claimed more explicitly in another recent paper, here).

One – the war is over. While any such epistemological war was, it must be said, mainly in the heads of the minority interpretivists, consciously abandoning claims to ‘systemacity’ would signify an end over the battle for the one true way to gaining political insight. Just like impressionist painting, interpretive research could see itself as another way of doing research on politics—one that its practitioners find most interesting and appealing, and which is well equipped to provide unique insights into some things, but equally one that is poorly equipped to provide insights into other things. Importantly, then, impressionistic interpretive research is something that ought to be read, and done, in conjunction with other forms.

Two – we are (sort of) the same. In reflecting on the features we say make interpretive research ‘impressionistic’, we were struck by how many commonalities there are with colleagues’ experiences of actually compiling and analysing data in their more or less positivist research. A dynamic, fluid or unsettled research design; the search for a supportable claim to something novel or counter-intuitive; the selective accentuation of data which support such claims – these are all things that we have discussed at length with econometricians, political behaviouralists and others besides. More reflexive honesty about the impressionistic nature of our work opens up these unexpected affinities.

Three – we all benefit from sunlight. On the back of this last point, the key difference is that while there are widespread calls for more transparency in positivist research, few such calls are being made in interpretive research. Of course, there are some ethical and pragmatic barriers—not all data is openly available, either because it shouldn’t be or because it can’t be. But much more can often be done to open up interpretive research in this way, and allow the impressions of the researchers involved to be contested—we have one such pilot project in the works which we will later report on. For the moment, though, the point is this: impressionistic interpretivists could learn something from mainstream political scientists about making their work at least opaque, letting more sunlight in.