What are we electing? Thoughts on the Police & Crime Commissioner Elections

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

The overwhelming theme that emerged from the Police and Crime Commissioner elections held on 15 November is that you can never underestimate the power of government to take a decent enough idea and then successfully flush it down the toilet. Opinion was always divided on whether the Conservative’s policy on ‘democratising’ the scrutiny of the police services in England and Wales was a good one, but what is clear – and was clear throughout the process – is that if you want your policy to be successful, you have to pay attention to some key things.

First, don’t hold elections in November. It’s just a bad idea, and turnout suffers. No one really wants to have to venture out to vote when it’s dark. Or talk to canvassers and candidates in the dark either. That’s gruelling enough even in daylight.

Second, it helps if voters actually understand what you want them to vote for or against. It’s far from clear that people have fully appreciated what the new commissioners will do, what powers they will have, and what their relationship to police forces and chief constables will be. And that’s not to insinuate that voters are stupid (they’re not) – it’s a complex new role and there are many unanswered questions about it.  The reliance on web-based candidate information, in order to save money, has been to the detriment of those who don’t have internet access, particularly older people. And even those who did have internet access weren’t guaranteed to find the necessary information quickly anyway.

Third, and leading on from the last point, you need to make sure that candidates for your shiny new elected positions actually understand what would be required of them if they win at the polls. Anecdotal evidence from even the briefest of glances at candidate statements, and comments in hustings, suggests concerns about how some of them interpreted the role they were campaigning to fulfil. And even where there isn’t necessarily controversy, the repeated references made by many candidates to ‘community policing as a priority’ rendered this an empty concept. Despite candidate claims across the board regarding their experience and suitability, it’s not altogether clear that most of them actually did have the necessary expertise to carry out this incredibly sensitive and difficult role.

Fourth, a glance at the candidate lists indicates a remarkable number of party political has-beens and also-rans made it onto the ballot paper, which isn’t entirely surprising if you’re cynical, but which does prompt questions about the kinds of people this role needs to attract to be successful long term.

Finally, if you create a significant new elected position with meaningful powers and resources, then you need to stand by your plan. The government said surprisingly little about the importance of commissioners in the run-up, no doubt leading many to question just how much of a priority this is.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the democratic legitimacy that these commissioners were supposed to draw on in order to fulfil their roles may now be difficult to harness, and it remains to be seen how police chiefs will react to policing plans and budgets written by commissioners who hardly anyone voted for, particularly if those plans and budgets conflict with what chief constables think is right. The government has already said that turnout will increase next time around, and perhaps it will. But for now, low turnout may impact on the capacity for action of these commissioners in interesting ways that might be worth watching, if for all the wrong reasons.

Failure to bark: reflections on the US presidential election from Russell Bentley

By Dr Russell Bentley, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory

I have taken to calling the 2012 presidential election The Mitt That Didn’t Bark. This was a curious case, indeed. Perhaps not so curious if you placed all your faith in the New York Times’ Nate Silver and the magic of statistical probabilities. However, there are other things in which one can have reasonable belief and the very best pollsters are often recognised in hindsight. Who would have thought that Gallup, the venerable granddad of polling, would get it so wrong? And the Republican narrative about an unpopular incumbent and a failed first term had quite a lot of resonance, and probably a fair amount of traction. And, good heavens, the vast amounts of money spent! This was the first Citizens United presidential campaign and the sums are staggering. Billions? We now measure presidential campaigns in billions of dollars? Good thing America doesn’t need to be investing in infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and job growth. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is of lasting significance or just a blip on America’s seemingly relentless march towards trillion dollar elections. But, the point is, that money did not seem to decide this, the incumbent’s alleged unpopularity made no difference, the supposed failure of the first term did not overwhelm the president’s campaign, and the Mitt did not bark.

The Republican post-election narrative is yet to be finalised, but the first version to hit the airwaves is hardly surprising: the party chose the wrong candidate. Of course, that thought was bubbling just beneath the surface from the moment Romney clinched the nomination. We have to remind ourselves, however, that, even in retrospect, Romney was the only electable Republican candidate willing to stay in the race. The other half-baked characters who lasted just long enough to make us laugh, cry, and despair for the republic were not to be considered, even from the start. Never mind the moments of success that each enjoyed (anyone remember the Ames straw poll? Well, forget about it. The good people of Ames may not be taken so seriously again after plumping for Michele Bachmann and driving the appealing and electable Tim Pawlenty out of the race at a very early stage.). Romney looked like the only candidate for a party desperate to win back the White House. That almost no one in the party actually wanted him or liked him or, in fact, cared much for his political achievements are of minor relevance. Parties are election-winning machines and Romney was just a human resource for fulfilling that purpose. A second post-election narrative is also out there, but any reasonable person (which excludes all of the people promoting it) can see how hopeless it is. These unreasonable souls are saying that Obama either ran a dishonest and divisive campaign, or that he somehow bribed his supporters. Well, one doesn’t want to appear cynical, but even if either fork of this narrative were true, many venerated presidents owe their success to such things. However, neither fork is true, or not very true, and this narrative is sour grapes with an accusation of theft thrown in for good measure.

That Mitt, in the end, did not bark, is a puzzle, though. And here I end with a kind of indictment of Obama: he did not deserve this win. The Republican narrative called the first term a failure. Obama’s first term was a failure, but one of leadership; he did not capitalise on the opportunity he had when he entered office and he was quite effectively out-smarted by Congressional Republicans who did capitalise on his callow willingness to strive for bipartisan consensus. Even his supporters – especially those self-labelled progressives who expressed outrage at Obama’s expansion of Bush-era anti-terrorism programmes, but voted for him anyway – often seemed hard pressed to praise him in terms that were not simply an endorsement of the lesser evil. Obama seems to understand this. His victory speech was a shouty, gloves-off call out to the Republicans, warning them that the man who did not deserve his win was coming to get them. He may succeed. He is more determined and understands his opponent now. Also, he has a window of opportunity. The Republicans will be beating each other up and looking for a saviour possibly for a year, maybe longer. That is the window Obama has to earn his second term. He may have had the winning ground game (again) in 2012, but that only earns him the victory at the ballot box, not in the history books.

‘Politics in the Boardroom’ – recruitment of former politicians and civil servants to the City

In a study just published on Early View for Political StudiesSandra González-Bailon, Will Jennings and Martin Lodge examine the recruitment of former ministers and civil servants to the boards of FTSE-listed companies, specifically examining their network position and level of remuneration. Out of 7,500 directors of companies listed on the FTSE ‘All-Share’ index, it finds more than a hundred who at one point or another served in parliament or in British government. The research highlights the prevalence of officials from three premier departments (i.e. the Treasury, Foreign Office and the MoD). If anything, these findings understate the degree to which former politicians and civil servants take up corporate roles, given the potential for private earnings through consulting and other positions where public disclosure is not required.


C2G2 seminar on ‘The Olympics, risk and governance’


Today’s C2G2 seminar by Will Jennings considered some of the pressures of so-called ‘institutional isomorphism’ in Olympic governance, with the increasing influence of risk management, the role of measurement instruments such as impact assessments as a source of legitimacy, and the growth of a global network of Olympic consultocrats and  professional service firms who carry knowledge and experience from one Olympics to the next. The PowerPoint slides from today’s talk are here.

The role of the EU as an international climate actor – conference on November 21st

The failure of world leaders to reach agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in 2009 has further strengthened the need for a strong international climate change regime. This upcoming C2G2 conference explores the role of the EU as a leader in global climate politics, with presentations from leading academics, key policy makers and representatives from civil society organisations. It will be particularly valuable for postgraduate and early-career researchers.


The US Presidential Election: What does it mean? Have your say at the Debating Society’s Open Discussion Forum tonight

By Steven Anderson, Vice President of Debating Society. Third Year student in Politics & International Relations.

The Debating Society is holding an open discussion forum tonight on the US presidential election and its global impact. There will be an introductory talk by Dr Russell Bentley and Dr Will Jennings and then discussion will be opened to the floor.

As the once every four years US presidential election circus comes to a close, I detect a sense of anticlimax.The election of the leader of the free world is something in which we have a great vested interest but no actual say. It costs billions of dollars, provokes heated exchanges and gives newspaper columnists and politics students another chance to explain the intricacies of the US electoral system. It seems almost redundant to ask: what does this mean to us? Interestingly, a recent poll of 32 countries suggests that 42% of the world’s population believe they should have the chance to vote in the US Presidential election.

My experience is that most students in Southampton support Obama but have some dissatisfaction with his actual record. Certainly for the majority of people in Britain, it’s an easy choice between the two candidates in terms of social issues. However, there’s always some qualification or hesitation; whether it’s the economy, Obama’s use of drones or sheer dissatisfaction with the available options.

I should make a confession here: I was a speaker in last week’s debate on ‘This House Believes Romney is better than Obama’. As part of the opposition, my role was to tear into Mitt Romney’s record as a politician and as a businessman, as well as the idea that he could ever be leader of the free world. When I talk to people about debating in general, I sometimes detect a sense of frustration that the topic wasn’t fully explored. This is particularly the case for the US election because of the partisan nature of the discourse.

Thursday’s discussion forum is a great opportunity for you to have your say and find out what others think. The debate will be chaired and there will be some structure to the discussion. However, the emphasis is on what you want to discuss and the direction you want to take it. My view is that the best type of debate is when there is real engagement on the topic; when people are genuinely trying to respond to other speakers and their arguments. Personally, there’s a lot of things I can’t make my mind up about and I look forward to hearing what people have to say.

To me, something that encapsulates the wide ranging effects of the presidential election is the ‘Global Gag Rule’ or the ‘Mexico City Policy’. Since 1973, the election of a Republican president means that the US withdraws funding for any International Health Organisation that provides abortions or even discusses them as an option for family planning. This is just one issue, albeit one I consider to be incredibly important. It provides a reminder that the US is still the major power in the world today.

I hope you will participate in Thursday’s discussion forum. I am also looking forward to introduction with Dr Russell Bentley and Dr Will Jennings. There is a reception in Nuffield Bar at from 7pm and the discussion will start around 8pm. All the details are here.

I also want to take this opportunity to plug the Debating Society. We have weekly debates on a wide range of issues from current affairs and politics to science and debates about the University. Debates are held in Nuffield Lecture Theatre A on Thursdays. Additionally, coaching is at 6pm; we run different groups for all levels of confidence/experience. If you’re interesting in coming along or getting involved; all society events are posted on Facebook. If you would like to find out more, here is the URL.

In Defence of Political Science – research out in Political Quarterly

Professor Gerry Stoker of PAIR and C2G2 warns in an article just out in Political Quarterly of the importance of avoiding “the trap of ‘trained incapacity’”, repeating Bernard Crick’s warning that the increasing technological and methodological sophistication of political science would lead to disengagement from the practice of politics. Stoker offers a series of prescriptions in defence of politics: that political scientists should embrace relevance (while journalists and practitioners need to take its observations on board), that the disengagement of citizens with politics is a pressing problem in the twenty-first century, and that the ambition of political science should extend to the search for solutions.

Turning Politics Upside Down

To mark the launch of the Politics Upside Down, take a moment to read the mission statement of our blog:

Why do we study politics? Why should we even care about politics? Many of us study politics to learn about ourselves and learn about other people. Some people also study politics as they seek to change the world around them. Much of what we do is a constant process of learning and unlearning about how power is sought and exercised. This blog brings together the considered thoughts, vibrant opinions and razor-sharp analysis of people in and around the Division of Politics & International Relations (PAIR) and the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance (C2G2) at the University of Southampton. We also encourage guest posts from visiting speakers and others interested in participating in public debate. This blog is founded on an egalitarian philosophy, in presenting a platform for both students and staff to write about politics. We do not believe in a hierarchical division of knowledge that segregates research, teaching and learning, but rather that everyone in the department should be involved in debating political issues – be they contemporary or classical. Our editorial style draws on the Socratic method, in encouraging debate and contradiction of views as a means of better understanding questions or issues in politics, and promoting dialogue between people. The content of the blog will be geared around current events as well as age-old problems. If you would like to write for us, please contact the Editor, Dr Will Jennings. You can follow us on Twitter @sotonpolitics.

Debating Society Event on the Presidential Election – Thursday 8th

This Thursday (November 8th) the University of Southampton Debating Society, in conjunction with SUPA, is hosting an event to discuss the outcome of the U.S. Presidential Election. Russell Bentley and Will Jennings from Politics & International Relations will be discussing the campaign and what the results means for the US and the rest of the world. See more details here.

Date: Thursday, 8 November 2012.
Time: 20:00 until 21:30 in UTC.
Location: Nuffield Theatre, Lecture Theatre A (Building 06/1077)