What can the UK learn from the aftermath of Quebec’s two independence referendums?

Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


No does not mean the Scottish Independence movement is dead

Quebec has had two independence referendums. The first was in 1980 when Quebec’s nationalist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was the provincial government for the first time. The “no” side won that vote 60% – 40%. Despite losing, the PQ won the next Provincial election, and the nationalist party has held power in Quebec for 15 of the 35 years since. The 1980 referendum consolidated the electoral base of the PQ. The SNP can look on the results of the referendum as evidence that a significant bloc of voters in Scotland support independence. The SNP can now count on this 45% of the electorate to be their political base for the foreseeable future. While we may not see another Scottish independence vote for 15 years, questions about Scottish nationalism will be central to both Scottish and Westminster politics for the foreseeable future. Even without another referendum on the horizon, the threat of a referendum in the future is likely to be a key political lever that the SNP can use to extract more political concessions from Westminster.

No votes result in constitutional changes

In the closing days of the 1980 Quebec referendum, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to reform the Canadian Constitution should the No side win. This promise, combined with the no vote, led to fifteen years of debate over constitutional reforms that culminated in the second, much closer Quebec referendum in 1995. In the intervening years Canada ratified the 1982 Constitution Act that significantly revamped the constitution. Two other major reform proposals – the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord – were both defeated in acrimonious political processes. After the 1995 referendum there were further constitutional changes brought about via devolution of powers from the Federal Government to Quebec, a reference question to the Canadian Supreme Court concerning the procedures for Quebec secession in the event of a no vote, and the controversial passage a the Clarity Act, designed to spell out the terms for any future Quebec referendum on independence. Independence referendums won by the “no” side do not mean a return to the status quo ante. In order for a referendum on independence to be held, a plurality of voters will have already elected a party favouring a referendum. This means that there is significant pressure on the central government to accede to some of the demands of the independence movement. The Scottish referendum is not the end of constitutional struggles in the UK. We can expect the referendum to mark the beginning of a period of debate over devolution and constitutional reform. Constitutional reform will be a major issue in the Parliamentary elections next year.

Asymmetrical devolution to Scotland will alienate other UK constituencies

The constitutional debates in Canada led to a series of political crises between the province of Quebec, the Canadian federal government, and the other provinces. Attempts to meet some of Quebec’s constitutional demands were immediately met by complaints from other Canadian provinces and leaders of Canada’s First Nations that these deals were unfairly favouring Quebeckers. Similarly in Britain, David Cameron’s speech after the referendum in which he put the issue of greater devolution to Scotland and the other nations in the UK on the agenda was immediately greeted by complaints from ring-wing politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that these plans for devolution were fundamentally unfair to the English.

The promises made by the Westminster political party leaders in their pre-referendum “Vow” have immediately revived the “English Question/West Lothian Question” on devolution of powers. Why should the Scottish MPs in Westminster be permitted to vote on bills that do not affect them because the relevant power has already been devolved to Holyrood? This issue will be the trickiest in any future constitutional changes in the UK. At the moment there are three possible answers to the “English Question”: 1) Excluding Westminster MPs from constituencies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales from voting on bills that only concern English constituents. 2) The creation of an English Parliament similar in power and scope to the other national assemblies 3) The creation of nine regional assemblies in England with powers similar in scope to the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these proposals has significant advantages and disadvantages. Any of them would be politically difficult to implement because of fierce opposition from entrenched interests. Failure to resolve the English Question is likely to provoke an English political backlash against Scotland. Yet using the English Question as an excuse for not devolving further political powers to Scotland will only make a future referendum on Scottish independence more likely.

Devolving Power to Scotland will make independence less likely in the long term

The final, and perhaps most significant lesson that the UK can take from Canada, is that Quebec is still in the confederation. This seemed extremely unlikely to most Canadians in 1995. Paradoxically, by devolving more power to Quebec in response to the demands of the nationalist movement, the Canadian government has made Quebec secession less likely. Why? Like the SNP, in between referendum campaigns, Quebec’s PQ has had to use its provincial powers to govern. By having greater autonomy to implement its preferred social, cultural, and economic policies at the provincial level, the PQ has been able to construct a social democratic polity that it had initially envisioned for its post-independence polity. As such, many Quebec voters feel that they have been able to achieve their vision for a distinct Quebec society without having to bear the risks that would go with independence. In addition, the longer that the PQ has been one of the major political parties in Quebec, the more experience Quebec voters have had with it as a governing party. And the more experience voters have with the PQ as a governing party, the more the electorate views the party as no different from other mainstream parties. This in turn makes it more difficult for PQ leadership to claim that Quebec’s problems would be solved if the PQ could govern a sovereign Quebec. A similar dynamic could play out in Scotland. Having held a referendum, voters in Scotland will now be evaluating the SNP on how well it governs. More devolution of powers to Scotland may appease the demands of many who voted yes for independence. It would also enable the SNP greater freedom to construct its vision of Scotland as a Nordic social democracy. The SNP may see this as a way to persuade voters about how successful an independent Scotland would be. However, many soft Scottish nationalists may decide that a more autonomous Scotland can have all of the benefits of an independent Scotland without taking any of the risks of an actual “yes” vote. Furthermore, the longer that the SNP is a governing party, the less it will be able to appeal to voters as an attractive alternative to politics as usual. The more the SNP appears to voters as just one political party among others, the less the Scottish electorate will see independence as offering an alternative to politics as usual.

Constitutional Wrangling after the Independence Referendum

By Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


(Cross-posted at The Conversation. This post first appeared with minor errors, which have been corrected. – Ed.)

The vote, in the end, was decisive, with the Better Together campaign winning with 55% of ballots cast. As a Glaswegian living in Southampton, I’ve watched from afar, saddened not to be in my home nation at this crucial juncture, while amazed at the remarkable political awakening that has taken place these last months. As the politicians have said repeatedly, the No outcome doesn’t mean a return to business as usual, and there are some key things we can take away from all this in terms of constitutional politics in the UK.

First, although the result was decisive, it was not an overwhelming majority. Consider that when this process began, the average support for Scottish independence typically ran at around 30-35% or thereabouts. The Yes campaign succeeded in drawing a significant number of people to their cause, and that is a massive achievement in such a short space of time, given the magnitude of the issue. In particular, the Yes campaign won the vote in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee City, the first two of which in particular are Labour Party heartlands that have borne the brunt of deindustrialization. Scottish Labour strategists looking ahead to the 2015 UK general election will already be wondering about the work they will have to do to maintain these strongholds, and whether those Labour voters who voted Yes will now be more willing to consider opting for the SNP next year. This is important, given how hard it is for any party to gain a Westminster majority.

Second, the Prime Minister has already committed to begin the process of devolving more power to Holyrood, and to exploring the structure of governance throughout the rest of the country, and has said that devolution across the UK will follow the same quick timetable, with a white paper due early next year. That will be a massive undertaking. If it happens, it will demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of the UK constitution, and its pragmatic malleability in the light of popular pressure for change. However, the unanswered question at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the English Question, and it has remained unanswered ever since devolution was rolled out in 1999 and the then Labour government’s plans for English regional devolution failed. The Conservative Party’s McKay Commission has interesting solutions to this question, but it’s far from clear that David Cameron will be able to convince his party to pursue change, because so much depends on the details of those changes, none of which have thus far been spelled out.

Third, this was an astonishing exercise in democratic participation. Turnout stands at a staggering 85%, and it’s clear that people have been engaged in this process who have not been involved in politics for a very long time, if ever. At a time when politicians are maligned, and traditional forms of political participation are in decline, what this referendum result shows is that people take part when they believe that the process will end in a meaningful outcome for their lives, and they are in control of that outcome. It remains to be seen whether the public will stay engaged throughout the months of political negotiation that lie ahead, now that the decision is back in the hands of the ‘political elite’. Crucially, the participation of 16-17 year olds in this referendum may now fuel demands for their inclusion in elections at other levels.

The months ahead will feature much constitutional wrangling and bargaining. Decisions about our constitutional future now lie, once more, in the hands of the professional political class. Those on both sides of the independence referendum debate must now wait to find out how their collective voices will be interpreted

After Scotland

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


The referendum on independence for Scotland has been celebrated as turning point political event which has engaged millions of voters in careful reflection and considered debate about the future of Scotland. Equally there are many who have seen a limited debate, full of bull and bluster and half-truths that gave an impression being stronger on symbolism than substance.

Most appear to agree that the political dynamic of change started in Scotland is likely to spread throughout the United Kingdom whether the final result is a yes or no. How could we ensure that the continuing debate grapples with real issues that should drive a governance debate for citizens living in a complex, post-industrial society, grappling with an uncertain future in a globalised world? Let me offer five principles to govern future discussion.

Local leadership

The first principle should be that citizens need to lead rather than political elites. The study of political reform reveals one hard lesson and that is if political elites drive the choices they tend to choose options that they calculate serve their interests. Governing arrangements, new voting procedures or even issues put to a referendum are determined primarily by calculations about whether their party or leadership will be the beneficiaries. For that reason reforms designed and delivered by political elites often end up disappointing  citizens as they fail to deliver the positive change wanted by the public.

Interdependence

The second principle is any governance solution in the twenty first century has to be multilevel in character. Interdependence is  a reality that cannot  be wished away and our lives are now more integrated with other citizens of the globe in social, economic and cultural terms. Exercising our democratic rights in that context is a more complex challenge than the democracy imagined by eighteenth and nineteenth thinkers. For a lot of the time the best that can be hoped for is influence rather than control but having influence is vital. We need an opportunity for our representatives to sway European and international decisions. But then we need capacity for decision at national but crucially at the local level. Too many tax-raising, policy and economic decisions are currently in the hands of a Westminster elite and if there is an unequivocal message from the Scottish referendum debate it is that such a situation is no longer acceptable or indeed effective as a form of governing.

Subsidiarity

That thought leads directly to the third principle: subsidiarity. Let’s not ask what we can devolve but rather ask what we need to centralise to either national or supranational levels. The arguments for greater localism are overwhelming. First and most important circumstances and needs are different in different localities and the capacity to make the right decisions to get the right economic, social and environmental policies depends on an ability to decide and act at various sub-national levels. Second if we are to regain trust and engagement in democratic political processes the local provides a more viable terrain than national or European level. There are fewer barriers to access facing citizens at the local level, more opportunities to mix social media and face-to-face discussion and greater prospects of sequencing direct democracy initiatives and deliberative forums alongside more traditional representative decision-making. Third when it comes to decisions about wicked long-term issues the local arena can be one where trade-offs can be delivered. When making decisions at sub-national level there is a greater capacity to give the benefit of the doubt to decision makers, thus providing more leeway to tackle difficult and complex issues.

Institutional variety

The fourth principle should be there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to institutional solutions. So if all we get is one person shouting the only answer is an English parliament and another calling for powerful city regions and another yelling devolution for Cornwall we should not be surprised. The socio-economic geography of the UK is complex and its governance requires units for decision-making to match. City regions may be a good fit in some but not all locations and we should be worried if the governing map that emerges after our national and local discussions is not very neat. A good solution is likely to be messy in institutional terms.

Democratic accountability

The fifth principle should be that all these governing options need to match the demands of democratic accountability. There are only complex answers to that issue that also ensure that minority rights and freedoms are protected but it a question that cannot be ducked.  Proponents of city regions for example appear to make their arguments largely on pragmatic grounds in terms of the economic dynamism or economies of scale that will be achieved. Managerial or technical arguments are not enough and any new governing solution has to answer the leading question of twenty first century citizens: how can we have may say and how can we hold decision-makers to account? That question was in the shadows for much of the Scottish independence debate but it needs to be brought to the fore in the future.

Yes campaign still has some way to go to steal it on the finish line

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 a Scottish independence special of our regular series of posts that reports on the state of support for the parties in Westminster 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 the polls are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the state of public opinion – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the campaign over Scottish independence draws to an acrimonious close, relative calm has returned to the polls after the shock waves caused by the YouGov poll for the Sunday Times earlier in the month, which showed Yes marginally ahead for the first time in many months.

As we explained last week, the method we apply to Westminster polling can also be used to estimate the underlying balance of opinion in Scotland. This involves pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Our approach takes a conservative view of sudden movements in the polls, in part because we produce weekly, rather than daily, estimates of public opinion. This could be seen as a weakness, as our estimates react more slowly to new information. It does, however, mitigate the influences of random noise in the polls and short-term bounces. Of course, there is a possibility that we will miss real last-minute movements in opinion.

Scottish without dk 16-09-14 (1)

Our data cover the period up to Tuesday 16th September. The last ten days of the campaign have seen public opinion stabilise – following a surge in support for the Yes camp over the previous month or so. This week’s estimates put No on 53.0% (up 0.6 points since our last report) and Yes on 47.0% (down 0.6 points). These results are consistent with the levelling-off in support we have seen in the polls.

At this late stage of the campaign, some are quick to talk about “herding” by pollsters, but there is no evidence that pollsters are tweaking their methodologies to avoid being at odds with their competitors. (There also is no evidence that they are not releasing results that are at odds with the polling consensus, the so-called “file-drawer effect” in scientific publishing.) A mundane explanation is rather more likely, that public opinion has settled — with smaller differentials in non-response rates among supporters on both sides — and that the polls are converging on the result. While the race is still close, No is the favourite with a clear lead.

We see the same stabilisation in voting intentions if we look at the trend for unadjusted responses below (undecided voters are not plotted on our graph). As we showed last week, No support has remained steady in the polls for some time, and movements in the headline figures appear to have largely been driven by Yes winning over “don’t knows”. With support for both Yes and No static in the last week or so, it may be that the pool of potential switchers has substantially diminished – and the campaigns are now fighting over scraps. While our estimates suggest 11.2% are still undecided, the recent upward trend in support for Yes presumably means that the remaining undecided voters are more evenly split between Yes and No. As it stands the Yes campaign still has some way to go to steal it on the finish line.

Scottish with dk 16-09-14 (1)

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that opinion in Scotland is divided. It remains possible that the polls might be wrong – with very high turnout and differential response rates (or the “shy Noes”) being potential confounding factors for pollsters. Indeed, past evidence suggests an underestimation of No support is somewhat more likely. What we know for sure is that once random noise is accounted for, the polls give a clear signal of who is ahead. Of course our approach is not without uncertainty. The measurement of “house effects” is based on differences between pollsters across the entire campaign, but it is possible that these have changed in the last few weeks as the electorate has become increasingly engaged. Most crucially, the confidence of our estimates assumes the polls are, on average, not systematically biased in favour of either Yes or No, which we cannot be sure is true. Despite every final poll pointing towards a No vote, the true balance of public opinion on Scottish independence could be different. A Yes vote might prompt the sort of inquiry among pollsters that followed the 1992 general election disaster (where polls put Labour well ahead right up to Election Day) – though the breakup of the United Kingdom might be a little more pressing than a debate over survey methodologies.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Parties and Anti-Politics

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

Let us admit immediately anti-politics is not easy to respond to or understand. It is now some five years since the expenses scandal broke unleashing an already building undercurrent of dissatisfaction to become a storm of contempt for the political class. Some of the confusion of the political class likely stems from the difficulty of pinpointing a single or direct cause of growing political disengagement and disenchantment. Instead, each of the political parties tends to see anti-politics in its own image, and through the lens of what it would like to believe rather than what it is. But the evidence we have suggests that from the perspective of citizens none of them has the solution to anti-politics in their grasp.

1) UKIP

In many respects, UKIP have the most straightforward relationship with anti-politics. The party has an intuitive grasp of the scale and intensity of public discontentment with the political class and the appeal of populist policies. This makes it highly effective in presenting itself as political outsiders disconnected from the Westminster bubble – and pulling off the tightrope act of appealing to right-wing Eurosceptic former Conservatives and traditional economically disadvantaged Labour supporters at the same time. It also helps them deflect criticism and media scrutiny, such as on the ill-discipline by local councillors and candidates, as snobbish and elitist bullying from the political establishment. UKIP’s empathy for anti-politics is superficial, however. While effective in channelling the sentiment of protest into votes at the ballot box, their style of politics and policy do not address the problems of political discontentment at its roots, and are likely to disappoint in the long-term. The UKIP project itself stems from a carefully media managed outsider image and populist rhetoric, dominated by the charismatic Nigel Farage, that has learned much from the spin operations of the Blair and Cameron teams. For UKIP, anti-politics is something to be exploited: they are more the symptom of anti-politics rather than offering a thick understanding or treatment for its causes.

2) Conservatives

The Conservatives hope that anti-politics will just go away when the good times return. A recent blog by Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, recounts the tale of a wargame organised in Westminster during the autumn of 2010 “to consider the likely dynamics of the next five years”. His contemporaneous notes of the exercise make for interesting reading in the likely scenarios identified for anti-politics sentiment among citizens. These reveal a troubling complacency, with the ideal future scenario identified by the ‘Cameroons’ in the room (as Cummings calls them) as being simply “anti-politics dies away”;  as if this widespread sentiment was a passing fad rather than a more entrenched mood requiring serious reflection and solutions. Part of this misplaced optimism might be put down to the ‘too-clever-by-half’ tendencies of their professionalised brand of politics, as well as cultural disconnect that gives limited understanding of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (unhelped by toxic stories that suggest a financial existence beyond the imagination of most voters; such as the recent retirement of a Conservative minister complaining his family was unable to manage on a six-figure income). This disconnect is fuelled through recruitment of a modern professional political class that looks and thinks little like its voters. The modern politician, and their army of special advisors, has been taught a number of ‘iron laws’ of politics that must be followed for electoral victory.

In some respects the teaching of politics must take some of the blame here, in its role in socialising aspiring politicians in the rational choice view of the world that individuals favour economic self-interest above all else. Subscription to aphorisms like ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has led to over-simplistic diagnoses of the problem, as well as a more general subscription to gimmick politics – giveaways to groups of target voters (a political art put as much to use by George Osborne as Gordon Brown). The recent Coastal Communities fund is one such example, with government subsidies targeted at prime UKIP territory without addressing the underlying causes of economic decline. The Conservative stance on immigration typifies the downward spiral created by strategic and presentational politics. Although a fruitful issue for hammering the Blair and Brown governments when it was in opposition, immigration is an issue that most voters will never trust the government to deliver on, but it keeps on trying. To keep ramping up the anti-migration rhetoric simply feeds anti-politics sentiment and cynicism (it is no coincidence that the only prominent figures to recently make the case for immigration are retired politicians – Tony Blair and Sir John Major – with no need to play the populist card to the tabloid audience). The Conservatives’ liking for news management is also evidenced in the short-term attention span of their responses to foreign policy issues – such as Russia and EU reform – where there is a rush to take rhetorical positions without much thought to the long-term consequences of symbolic politics. Cameron’s infamous EU veto in 2011 did nothing to undercut the rise of UKIP, and much like immigration arguably served to embolden them and feed a cynical public.

Anti-politics predate the economic crisis of the last few years and as such to imagine it will go away when the good times roll is naive.

3) Labour

Labour’s relationship with anti-politics is somewhat different. They have struggled to understand it when in government – perhaps focusing more on their own policy achievements in office than the emergence of political discontentment. Now in opposition Labour likes to pretend they are not part of it, such as Miliband’s recent speech lambasting presentational politics. “I’m not from central casting; I’m the one with bold ideas and deep thinking” is the plea from Labour’s leader. But does that get to the heart of the issue or represent a form of post-spin spin?

Labour are imprisoned by the necessities of political warfare and news management. Their response to anti-politics is muddled again because of the instinct for safe professional strategic politics that won’t scare voters off. There is good reason for this, with a media environment that is unsympathetic to the party or its leader. In many respects, Labour is the biggest puzzle of anti-politics, as this should be something it can deliver on better than anyone (and arguably should benefit the party most electorally given the demographic of the anti-politickers). However, it has struggled to offer a narrative that links anti-politics to a positive message that might offset the alienation that many voters feel due both to their experience of the democratic process and an economic existence which is increasingly precarious – with falling real wages, less secure employment, longer hours and immobility for those who can’t get on the employment or housing ladder early on in life. Labour’s failing on anti-politics is thus more about its inability to come up with imaginative and convincing solutions that address these problems.

Collectively, Labour want to get anti-politics, but have been unable to join the dots between aspects of their own modernisation project, which intentionally distanced them from the ‘left-behind’ (their traditional base, the shrinking working class part of the electorate whose experience is increasingly economically and culturally distant from the political class in Westminster), and the reason why many people feel disenfranchised from political representation. The Blairite project was hugely successful as an electoral strategy, but left many communities with few economic or political prospects – as the economic and political gravity of Britain shifted towards London under its watch (and has continued to move in that direction ever since).

4) Liberal Democrats

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

None of the main parties get anti-politics. Perhaps some of the truths of anti-politics remain too hard for those working at the coalface of politics to hear. In certain respects this is understandable, party activists and leaders have committed their lives to participating in politics and must find it hard to empathise with those who see no benefit or virtue in politics. The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. Each false dawn risks alienating the public further. There is little sense from the evidence about anti-politics that most citizens see the solution as them becoming more active, taking more decisions, sitting on more committees or taking part in referenda. There is some push for having more of say but the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.

Enhancing Rights and Equity in Health: What Difference Can South American Regional Diplomacy Make?

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


The United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation last Friday must be taken as an opportunity to reflect about the place and opportunities for regional organisations in the South to provide leadership and direction in support of the right to health, equity and alternative practices of global (health) governance.

Back in 2005, during the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, left-leaning Heads of State and anti-globalisation movements expressed their rejection to the US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and brought to a close its negotiations. At the same time, South American leaders sealed a new deal towards alternatives modalities of regional governance. The birth of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should be seen in this light. UNASUR crystallised as an ambitious integration project with renewed commitments on democratic principles, inclusion and human rights. Health in this context became a ‘locus for integration’ and a new framework to advance the right to health and legal paradigms linking citizenship and health.[1] To varying extents, UNASUR institutionalised regional theme-specific networks and country-based working groups to implement health projects, enabled spaces for knowledge exchange and regional strategies for medicine production and commercialisation, and helped coordinating common positions acting as a global player in the advocacy of health equity.

Nearly a decade after that meeting in Mar del Plata, has UNASUR diplomacy enhanced the right to health? Last June, at a speech for the 35th biannual conference for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), General Secretary, Alicia Bárcena stated, “cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean is at a turning point, as the region still needs aid, but is also able to provide aid.”[2] Indeed, better-resourced and more confident Latin American governments are not only recipients and providers of aid but also carving out new spaces in global health diplomacy. 

Regional health diplomacy: UNASUR as norm-entrepreneur?

Tackling germs, negotiating norms, and securing access to medicines are persistent challenges that disproportionally affect developing countries’ participation in global health governance. Furthermore, over the last two decades, the excessive focus on global pandemics and security in global health diplomacy, rendered peripheral diseases that usually strike the poor and vulnerable, creating situations of marginalisation and inequality across societies. In other words, what is ‘visible’ and ‘urgent’ – what defines risks and ‘high politics’ in health to use the language of International Relations – leads over what is ‘marginal’. Furthermore, who frames what and why depends on how actors, including government officials, non-governmental organisations (e.g. Medicins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, the Gates Foundations), institutions (e.g. World Health Organisation, World Bank, UNICEF, UNAIDS), public-private partnerships (e.g. GAVI), position and negotiate interests in global health governance.

Since 2010, UNASUR took up this glove acting as a corrective to the side-lining of rights on account of risk/security concerns in international health politics. One of the first positions taken by UNASUR at the WHO was concerning the impact intellectual property rights on access to medicines and the monopolist position of pharmaceutical companies on price setting and generics. Led by Ecuador and Argentina, UNASUR successfully advanced discussions on the role of the WHO in combating counterfeit medical products in partnership with the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), an agency led by Big Pharma and the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) and funded by developed countries engaged in intellectual property rights enforcement. Controversies focused on the legitimacy of IMPACT and its actions seen as led by technical rather than sanitary interests, unfairly restricting the marketing of generic products in the developing world. At the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010, UNASUR successfully proposed that an intergovernmental group replaced IMPACT to act on, and prevent, counterfeiting of medical products. This resolution was approved at the 65th World Health Assembly in May 2012. In the course of this meeting, UNASUR also lobbied for opening negotiations for a binding agreement on financial support and research enhancing to meet the needs of developing countries.

More recently, led by the Ecuadorian delegation, UNASUR presented to discussion at the WHO an action plan which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people with disabilities. This action plan was successfully taken up at the 67th session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, in May 2014, when the WHO’s 2014-2021 Disability Action Plan was approved.[3] This plan focuses on assisting regional WHO member countries with less-advanced disability and rehabilitation programs and will be carried out by the WHO in conjunction with regional organisations such as: Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Central American Integration System (SICA), Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and UNASUR. This is not a minor issue as in countries that bear a ‘double burden’ of epidemic communicable diseases and chronic non-transmissible diseases. Supporting these developments, the South American Institute of Health Governance, UNASUR’s health think-tank, provides policy-oriented research, fostering debate and capacity building for policy-makers and negotiators in light of the post-2015 Development Agenda.

The limits of a broker

The presence of UNASUR in this type of health diplomacy, and its coordinated efforts to redefine rules of participation and representation in the governing of global health, are indicative of a new rationale in regional integration and regional policy-making in Latin America. These actions create new spaces for policy coordination and collective action where regional institutions become an opportunity for practitioners, academics and policy makers to collaborate and network in support of better access to healthcare, services and policy-making. For negotiators, UNASUR structures practices to enhance leverage in international negotiations for better access to medicines and research and development funding, as well as better representation of developing countries in international health governance. For advocacy actors, UNASUR represents a new normative platform for claiming and advancing the right to health within the region while at the same time attempting to establish itself as a broker between national needs and global norms, a political pathway that differs from the position held by Latin America in the past.

The experience of UNASUR opens an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the ways regional organisations address rights-based concerns affecting ordinary people. It also teaches some important lessons while it highlights a troubling paradox. First, region should be seen as a space where politics and policy happens within a geographical space as much as trans-border actor with a unique capacity to rework and contest norms. Second, scholars interested in agenda setting in global politics, who often place attention to the dominance of powerful Northern-based actors, should address new corridors of diffusion and the agency of Southern regional arrangements as norm entrepreneurs advancing (human) rights. Researchers and practitioners interested in rights-based governance and development can’t afford to ignore Southern regional formation ambitions and their attempts rework global norms. Finally, innovative diplomatic intervention and South-South cooperation promoting rights, and the normative agency of regional organisation while must not be romanticised should neither be trivialised.

There however is a paradox at the heart of regional defense of equity. Normative claims about the morality of rights as an overarching approach to governance must not down-play politics. While UNASUR advocates health rights globally, regional frameworks pushing for reforms towards universal health systems are significantly filtered by quite conservative practices at the national level of politics. Translating normative principles into state action in support of better access to health care and medicines across Latin America remains uneven, affecting the bearers of (human) rights in different ways. This is reinforced by the absence of binding institutional mechanisms supporting fluent corridors of regional-national policy making.

Just as in Mar del Plata when the people (pueblos) buried the US-led FTAA ambitions, it is time to rethink not only whether a regional organisation such as UNASUR can itself become an entrepreneur advancing rights to health globally, but also how it can broker the right to, and universalisation of, health addressing the needs of economically and socially vulnerable populations through state action and reforms within the boundaries of member states.

[1] UNASUR Constitutional Treaty, at http://www.comunidadandina.org/unasur/tratado_constitutivo.htm, (3/3/2014)

[2] See http://periododesesiones.cepal.org/en/news/alicia-barcena-cooperation-region-turning-point (11/9/14)

[3] See http://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/4875-ecuador-pushes-for-greater-south-south-cooperation-and-stronger-public-disability-assistance-policies (8/9/2014)

Polling Observatory Scottish referendum special: who is ahead and how close is it?

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 a Scottish independence special of our regular series of posts that reports on the state of support for the parties in Westminster 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 the polls are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the state of public opinion – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In recent weeks the debate over Scottish independence has reached fever-pitch, and debate over some of the polls has been just as fierce. Most notably a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, published on September 7th, caused shock waves both North of the border and in Westminster when it showed Yes marginally ahead, the first lead for the “yes” campaign in many months.

As regular readers of the Polling Observatory will know, we tend to take a conservative view of sudden movements in public opinion. Most short-term shifts in the polls are nothing more than random noise. Indeed, a recent study shows that apparent swings in public opinion during campaigns are often not due to actual shifts in opinion, but instead result from differential response rates: in other words, supporters of side currently faring worse in the polls are less likely to respond when surveyed.

The method we apply to Westminster polling can also be used to look at the underlying balance of opinion in Scotland. We estimate current referendum sentiment by pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Because we have no fixed reference point for “true” public opinion (i.e. the accuracy of all the pollsters will only become known on the day of the vote), we make adjustments relative to the “average pollster”. This assumes that the polling industry as a whole will not be biased. This assumption could prove wrong, of course but we have no way of knowing what any biases might be. We can only draw on the historical record – and referendums are both very rare and very unusual political events, so this record must be interpreted with caution. That important caveat noted, it is worth highlighting that past evidence suggests an underestimation of No support is somewhat more likely.Scottish without dk 08-09-14 (1)

Our data cover the period up 6th September, including the YouGov poll that put the Yes camp in the lead for the first time (so does not include subsequent polls by Survation and YouGov that have the No camp back in the lead). Support for the Yes camp has surged in the last six weeks or so, leading some forecasts to put the chances at close to even, but the independence campaign still lagged in our estimates even after the YouGov poll. Subsequent polls, including one on September 11th by YouGov, have all shown No narrowly ahead, suggesting the 48%-52% margin we find here has not altered in the last few days. While the race has got considerably closer, the polling evidence still makes No the favourite.

The same pattern is repeated if we look at the trend for unadjusted responses below (undecided voters are not plotted on our graph), although here support for the Yes and No camps is even closer. There is some suggestion here that Yes has surged by winning over “don’t knows” rather than converting No supporters – Yes has risen by a good deal more than No has dropped. However, the current balance of opinion suggests that Yes will either have to win a large majority of the remaining undecided or convert some No votes to its camp in the final few days.

Scottish with dk 08-09-14 (1)

As mentioned above, our method also makes it possible to estimate the “house effect” for the survey responses for each polling company, relative to the Yes and No figures we would expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported share of responses for Yes, No and Don’t Knows is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate “accuracy”, since there is no final vote against which to benchmark the accuracy of the polls. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions – but the final vote is the only real test, and even that is imperfect. In the table below, we report all companies’ support for the Yes and No camps (and for don’t knows) relative to the median pollster.

Table: House effects of independence pollsters relative to median pollster

House Mode Yes No DK
YouGov Internet -0.5 4.6 -4.2
ICM Internet 0.5 -2.1 1.5
Panelbase Internet 4.4 -2.3 -1.9
Ipsos-MORI Telephone -0.6 6.5 -5.9
TNS-BRMB Face-to-face -5.6 -4.2 9.8
Survation Internet 1.5 -0.1 -1.0

Our estimates show substantial differences across polling houses. While YouGov (+4.6) and Ipsos-MORI (+6.5) tend to report higher responses for the No camp, Panelbase (+4.4) and Survation (+1.5) tend to show higher numbers for the Yes camp. Interestingly, TNS-BRMB, which is the only polling company to carry out face-to-face surveys about the referendum, report lower responses for both the Yes and No camps, and a much higher proportion of undecided voters.

With just over a week now until Scotland goes to the polls, and with the campaign raging on as big hitters on both sides of the border fight it out, there is still time for late movements in public opinion. A lot will also depend on the turnout – voter registration for the referendum is exceptionally high at over 97% – well above the 85% registration rates typically seen in other elections. Figuring out how these less politically engaged voters will behave, and how many will cast a ballot, is an unusual challenge for both pollsters and the campaigns themselves.

One thing we know for certain is that opinion is closely divided. We should therefore exercise even more caution when digesting the latest shift in the polls from Yes to No or No to Yes. Everyone engaged with this passionate debate will be keen to read their own preferences into every tremor of public opinion, which means now more than ever we must keep in mind than many of the small moves in coming days will be nothing more than the random fluctuations in patterns of response that are an inherent part of opinion polling. When the result is tight enough to be within the margin of error, polls showing Yes at 49% and 51% amount to the same thing – it’s “squeaky bum time”.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien