Polling Observatory campaign report #1: reading polling tea leaves in the shadow of the bonfire of the experts

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

It has been almost 18 months since the Polling Observatory’s last investigation of the Westminster polls, though the intervening period has seen dramatic political events – Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a change in Prime Minister, and much more besides.

The surprise result of the 2015 general election prompted much reflection on the reliability of polling methodologies – most notably in the report of the official inquiry into the pre-election polls – as did the outcome of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The vanquishing of the polls, and election forecasts, has added fuel to the bonfire of the experts. To populists, the unpredictability of voters may serve to further undercut the authority of elites.

While the events of 2015 and 2016 provided a valuable reminder that a dose of caution is needed when digesting the latest polls, they remain the best way of assessing relative shifts in public opinion.

As regular readers will know, we pool all the information that we have from current polling to estimate the underlying trend in public opinion, controlling for random noise in the polls. Our method controls for systematic differences between polling ‘houses’ – the propensity for some pollsters to produce estimates that are higher or lower on average for a particular party than other pollsters. While we can estimate how one pollster systematically differs from another, we have no way of assessing which is closer to the truth (i.e. whether the estimates are ‘biased’). This was where our election forecast came unstuck in 2015, as the final polls systematically over-estimated support for Labour and under-estimated support for the Conservatives.

Because most pollsters have made methodological adjustments since May 2015 – designed to address this over-estimation of Labour support – it is inappropriate to ‘anchor’ our estimates on their record at previous elections. Instead, we anchor our estimates on the average pollster. This means the results presented here are those of a hypothetical pollster that, on average, falls in the middle of the pack. It also means that while our method accounts for the uncertainty due to random fluctuation in the polls and for differences between polling houses, we cannot be sure that there is no systematic bias in the average polling house (i.e., the industry as a whole could be wrong once again).

Our latest analyses are based on polls up to April 18th, the day of the announcement of the general election to be held on June 8th. Since then, a number of polls have suggested an even larger Conservative lead – and it will be interesting to see if this is sustained in coming weeks of the campaign. The Polling Observatory’s headline figures currently put the Conservatives on 43%, far ahead of Labour on 25.7%. The Liberal Democrats at 10.5% have overtaken UKIP, at 9.8%, for the first time since December 2012. Meanwhile the Greens are lagging well behind at 4.3%.

UK 19-04-17 anchor on average

Our estimates also provide insights on the trends in support for the parties since May 2015. Under David Cameron, support for the Conservatives had been slipping, especially in early 2016. It was only immediately following the EU referendum vote, and around the time that Theresa May took over as PM, that they have enjoyed a sharp rise in support. In contrast, Labour’s support has steadily been declining since April 2016 – from around the start of the EU referendum campaign. This is well before ‘the coup’ that some have blamed for Labour’s poor polling. We find no evidence to support those claims here.

While UKIP support rose steadily in the year following the 2015 general election, it slumped after the Brexit vote and has continued to decline since. It is too soon to write off UKIP for good, but it is clear that the party faces an uncertain future, threatened by an emboldened Conservative Party plotting Britain’s course out of the EU. By contrast, Brexit has given a renewed purpose to the Liberal Democrats, whose support has steadily been increasing since June 2016 – though hardly at a dramatic rate. The largely static support for the Greens highlights that Britain’s ‘progressive’ parties face an uphill battle to win back voters.

The trends since Brexit specifically point towards two gradual shifts: UKIP voters switching to the now more pro-Brexit Conservatives (with the blue and purple lines mirroring each other quite closely above), and the Liberal Democrats slowly recovering, seemingly at the expense of Labour who are slowly declining. The parties that appear to have benefited from Brexit are those now seen as the natural issue ‘owners’ of Leave and Remain.

So the two mainstream parties with clear Brexit positions are rising in the polls, while the one without a clear position (Labour) is declining steadily.

During the election campaign we will provide updates on the state of support for the parties. We will also be undertaking analyses of what ‘the fundamentals’ – such as party leader ratings and the state of the economy – tell us about the likely election result. Our aim will be to provide an assessment of election forecasts generated using different methods and data. After the experience of 2015, where the polling miss threw many forecasts off, we believe that this approach of triangulation may bolster confidence in expectations about the likely result – and also illuminate how different modelling choices and assumptions matter.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Research Reflections from an Outsider, cum Insider, during Field work in Uganda

By Eunice Akullo (Phd Candidate, University of Southampton). 


eunice

(Visual art image by Rolands Tibirusya)

This article presents a narrative of my July and September 2016 data collection experience for research exploring the integration of children born in captivity in three sub-regions of Uganda. Following the end of the research, I was puzzled about my identity/position as a young, female researcher and decided to reflect upon the process. The narrative below provides an account of the research experience and explains the complex nature of my identity as crosscutting between insider and outsider. It also explains how gatekeepers were vital in accessing some of the respondents and in providing guidance on how to conduct the research.

The quotation below, captured in my diary, represents my thoughts after one of the weeks of the fieldwork. My PhD research explores the integration of children born in captivity to females abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Community members received me with pre-conceived expectations. I remember one elderly male voluntarily offering me advice as I embarked on my field travels. He advised me to mind what I said, what I wore and how I behaved among the fieldwork communities to avoid being misunderstood. I enjoyed dressing up in long skirts and long dresses, and interacting with participants according to culturally expected norms. Having grown up this way, not much was surprising though. What concerned me was the feedback. Some respondents appeared surprised by my gestures. Others clutched on to their high cultural standards! The idea that a number of highly educated women around here despised folks in their community also took me by surprise!

Captured thoughts such as these following a week of research activity, reflect more than simply a memory of my fieldwork experience. They allow me as a researcher, in hindsight, to consider the power relationships and unforeseen moments during fieldwork. These form part of what reflexivity involves.

There are various scholarly definitions of reflexivity. Some of the appropriate ones in my research context include; Mullings (1999), for whom reflexivity applies to data collection processes and power relationships during research. Feminists focus on “power distribution between the researcher and participants” (Finlay: 2002b). These relationships may position the researcher as either ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ (Mullings: 1999). An “outsider” denotes a person conducting fieldwork in a community they do not belong.

Furthermore, young female researchers may experience power relations working in both directions while doing research in an overtly patriarchal field context (Sultana; 2007:380). While institutional ethical clearances aim at minimising harm, the positionality of the researcher (gender, class and ethnicity) shapes the nature of investigation (Dwyer and Buckle: 2009).

I embarked on fieldwork after obtaining institutional ethics approval both at the University and in Uganda.  Semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and notes in a reflexive diary were sources of data. Gatekeeper role in research of this nature was very vital in enabling data collection from some key informants and the focus group participants. I discuss how my positionality (gender and social status) did not neatly fit within the dichotomy between ‘insider’ and ’outsider’. I concur with Etherington (2004) that reflexivity helps to bridge the gap between institutional ethics approval and the actual fieldwork.

My positionality: Insider? Outsider? Both?

Questions like, ‘why are you interested in this study?’ ‘Is this a topic of your choice or the University’s?’ ‘How will the children benefit?’ came up during data collection.

I was neither a complete ‘insider’ nor ‘outsider’, and if the concepts of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ were located on a continuum, I occupied a middle ground. Dwyer and Buckle (2009:60) refer to the middle ground as the hyphen position, one characterised by “paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence, as well as conjunction and disjunction”. As a tribes mate in one of the research areas, some participants considered me an ‘insider’. I was an ‘insider’ prior to the fieldwork, given that I had lived and worked in Uganda, and had over time gained knowledge of the culture and context.

My need for gatekeepers (folks I had made contact with during my professional experience) for data collection however started to affect my perception of how much of an ‘insider’ I was. I was researching among communities where I had not lived while growing up. Sometimes, I felt like an ‘outsider’ among communities where I could not speak/ understand the native language. Given that I was a researcher from a university abroad, respondents asked what the interest of the University was in such a topic. Explaining that abduction in my village indirectly affected me was helpful, yet I still did not pass for a complete ‘insider’ because I never lived there during war. The explanations were however important for building trust.

The influence of my positionality as a researcher

As a female, I met social and moral discussions surrounding females in leadership roles, within politics and academia. Conflicting opinions regarding how some women in politics and academia defied culturally expected norms is prevalent in Ugandan society.

Some of my peers expressed similar sentiments, and wondered which side of the debate I would fall after the PhD. Unknown to me, these kinds of social discourse shaped the ‘silent expectations’ some respondents had from me as an unmarried female researcher from a university in a developed country. A fact I discovered later. It became common before, during or after some interview sessions, to receive advice on the expected role of a woman in marriage, despite her career achievements. During such moments, I would listen to the advice, and find ways of steering the discussion back to the research. The various encounters with advice of this nature, more than ever, shaped my awareness of the impact that the socio-cultural construction of marriage and expected gender norms have on inter-personal interactions like research.

My helpful gatekeepers

My Gatekeepers with whom I had been in touch for about 6-12 months prior to fieldwork, helped build trust among research participants, mobilised for focus group discussions, and offered guidance on security measures to consider while conducting research on sensitive topics among communities recovering from war trauma. They offered advice on the necessary precautions and actions in light of my personal security and that of my participants.

Gatekeepers were helpful in recruiting participants for ‘seeded focus group’ discussions- the ‘seeded focus group’ approach previously used in HIV/AIDS research (Busza et al., 2009)[1], allows for the inclusion of the perspectives of vulnerable people. While recruiting participants, I requested them to ensure a few people related to, or living in homesteads with children born in captivity, participated. I did not know who the seed was during focus group discussions. The intention was to allow them to participate freely.

Taking stock of my fieldwork experience, I agree that reflexivity helps to explore “ethically important moments” in fieldwork and responses to the same (Guillemin and Gillam: 2004). However, since qualitative research is a subjective process, I recognise that another researcher conducting the same research would have a different experience of the fieldwork. However, some issues raised herein, may be relevant to researchers who adopt a ‘seeded focus group’ approach for a research on children born in captivity without being a ‘complete insider’. In addition, researchers involved in any socially, ethnically and politically sensitive research could find these insights useful.

Why Politics Still Matters

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


 

One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.

Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Other politicians offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.

If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In 2011–12, we asked some people in focus groups to indicate what words they associated with politics. The eight most popular grouping covered: deception, corruption, feather-nesting, self-serving, politicking, privileged, boring and incomprehensible. Not a terribly positive list, I think you would agree. We know that millions around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.

While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.

Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.

The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade.  It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.

In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.

Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662

 

 

Zika and the political battle of rights

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


 

In recent years there has been growing global awareness of the interplay between rights and social development. In 1997, in an attempt to mainstream human rights as a central feature of all UN programmes, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for a reorientation of the UN’s mission to reflect the realisation of human rights as the ultimate goal of the UN (UNDP 2005). Within this approach, the UNDP declared that human rights should not be regarded as the outcome of development but should rather be seen as the critical means to achieving it. With the signature of the Millennium Declaration and more recently the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) there has been a renewed focus on the links between global poverty and human rights in development. As a consequence, protecting and promoting rights, and creating opportunities for individuals and groups to access, enjoy and reproduce those rights have increasingly been furthered in transnational campaigns promoting broader civil liberties, the ‘right to development’ (Grugel and Piper 2009) and ‘human right to health’ (Oslo Declaration).

However, as Easterly (2009) argues ‘which rights are realised is a political battle’ contingent on a political and economic reality often determined by what is considered (national and internationally) visible and urgent. The response to the outbreak of the Zika in South and Central America is manifestation of that battle.

Zika and systemic injustices

In February 2016, South America became, for the first time, the epicentre of a Public Health Emergency of International Importance when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the Zika virus and its link to neurological disorders deserved global attention. After nine months Zika dropped from the international radar as the WHO declared it was no longer an international emergency. But the crisis is not over. The Zika outbreak that began in 2015 and has now spread across much of Central and South America has implications over the medium and long term on equity, health, education, gender and community relations. The challenges of managing the medium/long-term impact of outbreaks, as previously seen in the case of Ebola, are still poorly understood, and so are the prospects of safeguarding the right to health and the right to development in policies advanced by international and national health agencies addressing those amongst the most vulnerable.

The Zika virus, as with other insect-borne diseases such as Dengue and Chikungunya, is part and parcel of troubling inequities, amongst which health inequality is key, based on deprived living conditions. What raised international alarm in 2015 was the number of cases of microcephaly detected in countries affected by the Zika virus, particularly in Brazil. Microcephaly is a condition where babies are born with unusually small skulls. It is a developmental defect and is usually also associated with serious nervous system disorders – including deficiencies in mental functions and muscular weaknesses of varying degrees (WHO 2016). More than 1.5 million people in Brazil have been stricken with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and since the outbreak began in 2015, the country has logged around 4,000 confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly. This is alarming, particularly compared to 2014 when there were 147 cases.

Economically disadvantaged segments of the population are at higher risk of exposure to Zika, of being infected, and of their children of being born with microcephaly or other genetic conditions that require special care in the long term. The Zika crisis has also reinforced the socio-cultural expectations about the role of child-raising/caring that disproportionately fall on women, limiting even more opportunities to engage in education programmes or seek/obtain formal employment. Finally, promiscuity, lack of education and the simple fact that poor women might spend more time at home and thus are more exposed to dirty water, sewage, and mosquito breeding grounds than men, also means that women bear the burden of the prospect of infection. This drama typically unfolds in conditions where infrastructural deficiencies and lack of quality medical care and social services are the norm.

Consequently, poor women and their families are likely to be stigmatised as poor, as women, as sexually irresponsible, as families marked by disability. The Zika crisis is, in effect, a window that exposes systemic injustices related to poverty and marginalisation of poor women and children. It also a constitutive dimension of the ‘structural violence’ as global, regional and national responses to the Zika outbreak have disproportionately concentrated on prevention of infection and transmission which although necessary and urgent do not change the structural and related socio-cultural conditions that perpetuate injustice and inequality in these societies.

Which rights are right? 

The Zika crisis is not gender neutral and a focus on women is needed. Take Brazil, where there is a large proportion of single parent families, the majority of which are headed by women. These households are more likely to experience perpetual cycles of poverty as a result of the economic shock of disease. In addition, where children are born with potentially disabling impairments, they are often further isolated by limited support or social protection. The significant increase in the number of infants with microcephaly in the Northeast of Brazil which triggered of the WHO declaration of international emergency, highlights the centrality of the social determinants of health in the transmission chain, as well as issues such as the social division of care and debates on sexual and reproductive health.

During 2016, a roll out of official declarations put women at the centre: the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the WHO reinforced the importance of women’s human rights being central in the response to the Zika outbreak in many states (Gostin and Phelan 2016), while the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women to refrain from travelling to countries affected by the Zika virus. Most dramatically, health officials in El Salvador urged women not to get pregnant until 2018; Colombia called on women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months.

This particular response focusing on behaviour is problematic for at least three reasons. First, implementing vector control programmes in the poorest areas is particularly challenged by more structural issues of lacking infrastructure, running water and access to healthcare. And even if such operations are conducted, mosquitoes have previously shown their capacity to quickly resurface whenever there is inadequate funding or surveillance. Second, shifting responsibility to women’s behaviour delinks the disease from its social determinants and their rights; not least because most pregnancies amongst poor and vulnerable women in the region are unplanned. As Davies and Bennett (2016: 1046) note, responses tend to focus on the ‘immediate’ health-care problem, while the status of gendered inequality that underpins the prevailing unhealthy conditions is considered ‘beyond’ the capacity of public health interventions. Add to this prevailing high rates of sexual violence, elusive contraception, teen pregnancies and the lack of sexual education prevalent in Zika-affected countries. According to a study published by the Guttmacher Institute in 2014, as many as 56 per cent of pregnancies in Latin American and the Caribbean are unintended, either because of lack of access to contraceptives or because of associated forms of gender violence.

Third, reducing the problem in this way to a few modifiable behaviours ignores factors of social determinants of health and poverty. Responses to communicable diseases such as Zika, and before Ebola, have so far tended to focus overwhelmingly on short-term-vector control and surveillance (Gostin and Hodge 2016; Davies and Bennet 2016). Such responses may be effective in terms of disease containment, effectively masking the precarious social conditions in which they live, in which many rights remain merely notional.

A final issue raised by the Zika crisis is that of reproductive rights. In a region where birth control is limited and sexual violence is widespread, the debate on legalising abortion has gained prominence. Last February, the Obama administration put under Congressional consideration $1.8 billion in emergency funding to help prepare for and respond to the threat posed by the Zika virus. But abortion politics sterilised these discussions as Republican lawmakers leading a congressional hearing on the Zika outbreak made funding conditional on anti-abortion policies in recipient countries. And while Pope Francis hinted at softening the rigid stance of the Catholic Church on contraception because of the threat posed by the Zika virus, it is the region’s restrictive abortion laws that remain a critical problem. In most Latin American countries affected by Zika, abortion is illegal or can only take place in exceptional situations. In El Salvador, for instance, where more than 7,000 cases of Zika were reported between December 2015 and January 2016, abortions are illegal under any circumstances and miscarriages could even lead to homicide convictions if proven to be self-induced.

Advocacy groups in Brazil are increasingly presenting legal cases to the Supreme Court to legalise abortion and secure reproductive rights for women under the principles of the 1988 National Constitution that guarantees the right to health. But the challenges ahead are many, not least in what a human rights-based approach to health may mean in addressing the long-term consequences of Zika (and other such health crises).

To be clear, vector control actions are imperative, but policies and recommendations based on behaviour, control and prevention are not only not enough to address women’s marginalisation in society and the effect this has on their health, they may further exacerbate this problem in addressing the immediate health risk. More academic and policy debate is needed on the scale and nature of future needs (health, social, economic, educational, welfare) of vulnerable communities particularly women and children, and how to calculate them. Government awareness of this issue is still low in Central/South America and although regional, global and expert/practitioner networks might be able to provide support in the future (Riggirozzi 2015; Riggirozzi and Yeates 2015) both in defining the scale of need and in providing support to governments in developing policies to address them, their roles over the medium/long term require greater definition.

Governments in South and Central America are in urgent need of a multi-policy approach – and funding- if they are to put in place effective responses to mitigate long-term effects and not derail progress in terms of meeting the SDGs targets on gender, childhood, disability and inclusive growth. Vector control and compliance could be seen as first step. The right to health needs to be delivered with a view that development in general and the delivery of health in particular should be anchored in an understanding of the inequalities, discriminations and power relations that prevent many people having access to good healthcare systems, care provisions and education and a view that states have legal and ethical obligations under international law to ensure the best possible provision of services for all.

 

Pia is currently involved in a funded project on regional organisations and access to medicines in South America.

 

The Key to Modern Democratic Leadership

By John Boswell, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton.


 

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s announcement of his resignation at the beginning of this week has been met with surprise. An historically popular third-term leader is leaving politics on a high. The reaction over this side of the world has been one of bewildered admiration. How is this possible? What was he doing so right? What is this magical secret to success in contemporary democratic leadership? As a kiwi who has followed things closely from afar, and as a card-carrying deliberative democrat—committed more to the procedural fairness of democratic contestation than to substantive policy outcomes—this fawning is a little hard to take. A very effective leader Key has been, but the descriptor democratic is not one that fits. Specifically, three main strategies that have underpinned his National-led governments have been corrosive to established democratic conventions and practices:

1. Procedure is for wimps

Right from the outset the Key government were ‘relaxed’ about established conventions simply because they had the numbers in the House (despite NZ having a proportional system, the make-up of Parliament throughout has included tiny and mostly compliant coalition partners and supporters). An egregious example was the use of urgency in Parliament. New and manifestly un-urgent Bills in the early days especially were passed under urgency, curtailing debate and contestation, and preventing opportunity for Member’s Bills to be heard. The rituals of scrutiny and opposition were painted as nasty politicking, getting in the way of the government’s rightful mandate.

2. Governments get to control the communications environment

A change championed in particular by National’s media guru, chief strategist and all-round fixer Steven Joyce (the so-called Minister for Everything) has been to turn government agencies into cogs in an impressive political communications machine. Joyce’s own (admittedly large) Ministry, for instance, employs over 50 communications staff. That’s as many media experts as most newsrooms in the country.  These communications specialists—largely poached in fact from rapidly emptying newsrooms—seem to be employed chiefly for the purpose of not communicating, of stalling and misdirecting. I myself was rather miffed to be on the receiving end of one such run-around on a recent research trip back to NZ.  My experiences were by and large confirmed by the academics and media people I spoke to: from Key himself refusing to front for Morning Report or Campbell Live (the most critical interview rituals in NZ), to mundane operational agencies neglecting to engage with people like me, a culture of shutting-up-shop reigns.

3. The advantage of being in government is one to be used politically

The most fundamental and disturbing change has been the one uncovered by investigative journalist Nicky Hager in his book Dirty Politics: an investigation that links the PM’s office to a right-wing attack blogger. This is the below-the-line, dirty, Nixon-esque abuse of the powers and privileges of office to hurt rivals. The most notable tactic has been using Official Information Act requests to coordinate attacks on political rivals (by tipping of this blogger and then processing his requests at lightning speed) and stall genuine requests. Key has denied the former but actually openly admitted the latter.

Readers will be quick to point out that none of this is unique to the NZ context, recalling the playbooks of John Howard, Alistair Campbell, Karl Rove and beyond (after all, NZ is famously 20 years late to the party on everything). The dark arts have always been part and parcel of democratic politics. But a key part of the story here has been the context that has allowed these strategies to breed so much success, in particular the precipitous decline in media coverage of politics in NZ. There are now (according to my sources) more government communications people than journalists. What’s indisputable is that they are more experienced operators who can, in the words of one informant, ‘run rings around the cadets’. This is important because the fourth estate is in trouble everywhere, certainly in spirit even if it survives in body. NZ, with its small, deregulated, almost entirely private media market, represents the extreme edge of a broader and seemingly inexorable trend.

So what might be picked up and taken from the kiwi experience to the current travails of Brexit etc? Key’s government has of course not been populist in the mould of Farage or Trump—indeed Key has annoyed critics on the right for being far too committed to preserving the status quo. Instead I fear he has set the mould for something much less extreme but potentially more enduring, what might be called a popularist leader: a pleasantly bland PM that people (not me, you might have picked) want to have a beer with —one at home in the All Blacks changing room, bantering with shock jocks, posing for selfies—whose views on anything controversial are deliberately obscured, and whose governments’ actions afford little chance of scrutiny and are geared toward damaging enemies and furthering a personal political brand.

I, for one, much prefer it over here where people still hate their politicians.

Don’t be fooled, political scientists did see Brexit coming

 

By Matt Wood, University of Sheffield. This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association website.


 

This week the artist Grayson Perry took a swipe at political science in the annual PSA Awards, claiming the profession completely failed to foresee Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The notion that Brexit was a defeat for political science seems to have become a commonly accepted lesson from the vote on June 23rd this year. For some, this was because the quantitative polling methods that widely predicted a narrow win for Remain were wide of the mark. For others, it was because political science has avoided its professional and ethical duties in defending informed public debate.

In this blog I’m going to challenge this narrative. I’m going to offer some reasons why political scientists in fact did see Brexit coming, in the form of a deep and intractable crisis of legitimacy for the EU. The clickbait-style title of the blog is intended to be provocative. Evidently, most political scientists did not predict the specific outcome of the referendum vote. However, we have long diagnosed democratic weaknesses in the EU’s fuzzy and incoherent governance structures, noted how weak European identity is, and even argued for ‘taking back control’ ourselves. I think we need to reflect on our professional and emotive commitments as a result.

The Democratic Deficit

For decades political scientists have been warning that the European Union has faced a fundamental crisis of democratic legitimacy – what was termed the ‘democratic deficit’. In a widely cited article published ten years ago, Professors Simon Hix and Andreas Follesdal noted with some exhaustion that “The fate of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe after the French and Dutch referendums will no doubt prompt further volumes of academic books and articles on the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union (EU). The topic already receives huge attention”. They were right; the ‘democratic deficit’ debate goes back to some of the foundational debates about the EU in the academic ‘literature’. Big, influential scholars, for example Fritz Scharpf, Giandomenico Majone and Vivien Schmidt, have weighed in with ideas of how to alleviate the problem. Majone, one of the doyens of EU scholarship, has even very visibly changed his view on the EU, arguing in a recent book the Union now faces an existential crisis related to the Eurozone.

If anything, political science has moved beyond simplistic arguments that people would support the EU just because it is good for economic growth. In an animation released earlier in the year by the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, dedicated to translating academic research into practice, we highlighted the dangers posed by the democratic deficit to the European project. The media debate, though, was dominated by economists, global figureheads and business leaders who still thought economic arguments would be enough. Our video clearly wasn’t as well watched as we would have hoped! But even it had been, would anyone have noticed?

European identity

The second glaring issue political science got right before the referendum was the clear and consistent finding that British people (and Europeans more generally) simply do not feel European. Recent Eurobarometer findings show just how few citizens of Europe, and Britain especially, actually feel uniquely European, as well as their focus on key challenges like immigration. More broadly political scientists have criticized the notion of European identity, recently arguing for example: “European identity remains a ‘dry, institutional, symbolic conception’ … which has failed to reach the ‘hearts and the guts of the peoples of Europe’”. We’ve also uncovered how those who are most committed to the European project are liberally minded Erasmus students or business people who tend to travel regularly between European countries.

This does not strike me as putting our heads in the sand, or failing to see the ‘Brexistential crisis’ coming. It’s entirely consistent with what most commentators have been saying post-referendum. Perhaps if we’d written more blogs about this identity crisis, the public would have sat up and taken notice? Perhaps if we acted more like think tanks, political talking heads or Sun columnists, we would get more of a hearing?

There may be something to this, but the question though is if political scientists don’t write enough for public audiences, would anyone actually listen to us if we started writing more? Would they be any more likely to listen to us on the benefits of EU membership than, say, the Bank of England, Ryanair or the International Monetary Fund?

Taking back control

The last, perhaps more controversial point, is many prominent political scientists have been arguing in favour of themes used by the Leave campaign for quite some time now. While focused mainly around globalisation, a number of political scientists and political economists have been saying that communities, activists and governments should be challenging globalisation and transnational institutions. They’ve argued these institutions are disastrous, undemocratic and obscure. Politics, they argued, should be about having ‘control’; having collective agency, engaging in deliberation and promoting democratic choice. This is certainly what we think in the Anti-politics specialist group of the PSA. Some of us have been saying talk of ‘globalisation’ disincentivises public engagement and participation. Others have been making the broader argument that we shouldn’t accept the ‘neoliberal’ settlement as inevitable.

All these themes were used to devastating effect by the Leave campaign. They created political engagement in some areas of the country not seen since Tony Blair’s 1997 electoral victory. Put in a mischievous way, if political scientists had hoped for stimulating mass political engagement and challenging ‘anti-politics’, then they have, in many ways succeeded. They just haven’t succeeded in the way they would have hoped.

Critical Friends

Should we conclude Brexit has been a resounding success? Are we all eminently happy with a possible new world order of closed borders and economic uncertainty? Many political scientists would not wish to settle for that. What it does suggest, I think, is we need to look at our own emotive attachments, and whether we do our jobs properly as ‘critical friends’ of the institutions we study. If anything has been surprising, it has been how dismayed many of us claim to be about Brexit, given that political science has been highlighting the limitations of the EU, discontent with globalisation and so on for decades. Could it be, then, we need to reflect on our attachments and orientations as a discipline, rather than the specific ‘research findings’ and how they are ‘communicated’?

Perhaps our feelings of existential crisis have more to do with the funding and culture of universities themselves, than whether our actual research findings are ‘valid’? As the impact agenda has taken hold, we have grown closer to government, European bodies, think tanks, and other ‘elite’ organisations. While we should help out those organisations and fulfil our commitments as advisors and communicators, we should never forget academics need to have the role of ‘critical friends’ in helping these institutions out. That’s what distinguishes our profession. The idea is we take what the best evidence and theory tells us, not being afraid to point out the flaws in the system, as well as being honest about the limitations of our findings.

We are witnessing the crisis of a transnational system that, for all its faults, many political scientists feel an emotive connection to, often due to feelings of solidarity and liberal values of openness and tolerance. At the same time we understand the EU’s inherent weaknesses, the desire of local communities, beset by divisions and inequalities, to ‘take back control’. We understand how deeply undemocratic the project has been, and feel we must be critical.

This creates dilemmas. Many of us balk at the idea of supporting ‘elite’ institutions, but at the same time don’t wish to bias our research to movements campaigning to ‘take back control’ even if we believe there may be merits to this. If anything, maybe this dilemma means we put our heads in the sand about the momentous consequences of the referendum, rather than being short of explanations for why it happened.  Now more than ever, good evidence is needed to improve public policy responses to the great challenges of our time. Governments need political science more than ever. But we should be confident in being critical of mainstream media and public opinion, whether that is as electoral commentators, advisors to government, or wider public speakers.

The rise of the social sciences and what it can offer to policymakers

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


We are all in this together

The social sciences are more relevant than ever in helping solve the problems of public policy. You might think that there are neat lines to be drawn between science-based disciplines, the social sciences and the humanities (these are traditional ways of expressing divides within the University sector) but in practice those lines are often blurred. There is an overlap in areas of interest and a sharing in methods used.

When engineers move from the laboratory to the field and propose solutions to deal with water management and distribution in developing countries that involve the establishment of complex human institutional devices, are they doing science or social science? When a randomised control trial looks at behaviour in classrooms in the hands of educational studies researchers (normally classified as social scientists) rather than the trialling of a new medicine by medical researchers (usually classified as scientists) is it any less scientific? The distinctions between types of academic study are not without value but they can lead to a false sense of difference that is neither helpful nor justified.

In particular we see no great value in making claims that some subjects are ‘hard’ science – physics, chemistry, mathematics and medicines for example – while others are ‘soft’ science such as the social sciences that would include economics, sociology, political studies, human geography, social policy and range of other disciplines. The ‘hard’ sciences deliver useable knowledge and the ‘soft’ sciences offer mere informed speculation might be the claim that follows the distinction. But such a proposition does more harm than good and overlooks a crucial question for the policymaker and for that matter a citizen. The issue is not how academia draws up its dividing lines but rather about which types of research can contribute to the problems we confront: does the research tell me what we need to know? The core concern is not how you know but what you want to know. If knowledge is going to be useful it has to be knowledge about something we need to know about.

Our argument is that if anything the social sciences has become more relevant because what we as policy makers and citizens need to know more about is how to make human-influenced or human constructed systems work more effectively. There are relatively fewer purely natural systems and increasingly systems that are either human influenced or human dominated. The domain of human dominated systems is that of the social sciences without doubt, but so too to a degree is that of human-influenced systems. The argument is that the social sciences rather than being the poor cousin of the sciences of natural systems has rather an expanding empire.

What can social science deliver? Not laws but insights

But can it deliver? There are many reasons why evidence from social science does not influence policymakers or is ignored in citizen debates. Lack of clarity about what social science research can offer is one stumbling block that could explain why social science might struggle to establish itself. In the nineteenth century and in several periods in the twentieth century, some advocates of social science suggested that what was on offer was either a full-blown or embryonic ‘science of society’. The prospect of generating general laws – true for all time about human behaviour – has now faded but the sense that somehow social science has failed to live up to that unrealistic promise perhaps explains a sense among policymakers and citizens that social science has not delivered. After all no less a citizen than the United Kingdom’s Her Majesty the Queen did feel it necessary to ask after the financial crisis of 2007/8 during a visit to the London School of Economics why economists had not been able to predict it. To offer powerful spot predictions asked of social science something that it was not able to deliver. Indeed research tends to find complexities and variations in behaviour that make the quest for neat and frugal laws of social behaviour a mission impossible.

What social science can offer? It can provide empirical evidence but also conceptual apparatus to challenge and develop existing understandings of issues. Good research may deliver sometimes solutions but it also may often a better debate about potential decisions. That contribution can stretch beyond initial conceptualisation of policy options to the processes of implementation. Although we might have evidence that something works at some place and at one time policymaking stills needs evidence that it will work in other cases or more particularly in the case in hand.

The policy process is best supported by continuous acts of exploring, investigating and yes research. Social scientists, policy makers and citizens should be working alongside one another in these tasks. Problems are more likely to be tackled, subdued and ameliorated. They may go away in one form, only to reappear in another form, at a later time. Learning and discovery are therefore at the heart of good policymaking and its needs to be at the heart of the relationship between social science and policymaking. Discovery captures the sense of exploration, challenge, checking and rechecking that is required for effective policymaking in a complex world. It also engages with the sense that there are many unknowns in any policy decision and that a sense of open investigation is therefore essential.

Come on in. There are plenty of options

For those seeking to use the social sciences a good starting point it is helpful to recognise the breadth of the approaches and methods available. There are new forms of discovery just waiting to be found. We want you to be able to touch base with the latest best practice on the use of Systematic Reviews, Randomised Control Trials, the analysis of Big Data, design thinking, qualitative techniques for comparison using Boolean and fuzzy set logic, citizen social science, the use narrative from policy makers and citizens. Of course some of the methods that we refer to have been on the shelves for a number of decades but we now know better how that to apply the method across a range of policy arenas. Other methods are relatively more novel within social science but again they have been growing examples of their application in the context of policy making.

Our point is that good policy requires good social science and there is richness in methods of research that is not fully appreciated. Of course you also need to think about choosing the right method for the right policy challenge. You also need to be clear and not naïve about how evidence plays into the complexities of the policy process.


Note: These ideas and understandings are expanded further in our recently published book Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (eds) (2016) Evidence-based policymaking in the social sciences: Methods that matter. Bristol: Policy Press.