Poverty isn’t just at Christmas

By Professor David Owen

In the last year, while the Government has pursued an economic austerity policy and propagated a rhetoric of ‘benefit scrounging’ and ‘undeserving poor’ (a very old rhetoric of the rich talking about the poor, as Mary Beard has reminded us – also listen here), the number of food banks in Britain has doubled to more than 3000.  In 2011-12 more than 130,000 people were helped by food banks, that number is rising rapidly (on the back of energy price increase that leave ever more people worrying about being able to pay their bills), with hundreds of volunteers spending part of their Christmas distributing food and trying to tackle the ‘hidden hungry’ who won’t accept free food because they feel stigmatised by the need for it. Meanwhile a report by the Resolution Foundation argues that millions of Britons face a ‘financial precipice’ in a time of stagnant wages and high household debt. Yet most of the government cuts have yet to bite.

One might hope that the citizens of the UK would support their poverty-stricken compatriots in this climate. After all, we no longer live a context in which the poor are silent and only the rich write the news. Articulate blogs such as ‘Diary of a Benefit Scrounger’ and ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ provide views from the sharp end. Yet the British Social Attitudes Survey reports that attitudes towards welfare recipients are hardening and only 28% of those asked wanted to see more spending on welfare – down from 35% at the beginning of the recession in 2008, and from 58% in 1991. In this respect, at least, the Coalition government seem to be in tune with popular opinion.

It is, no doubt, an excellent thing that many people will spend part of their Christmas helping the less fortunate – but poverty isn’t just at Christmas, and it is a problem likely to get considerably worse before it gets better.

If Santa was a registered voter….

By Dr Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics

A question that has been sadly neglected by political scientists is Santa Claus’ partisan sympathies. We know a little, however, about whether Santa is seen as being on the left or the right of the political spectrum, or whether he transcends the partisan divide. In a Zogby poll of 1,043 adults in the US, in December 2001, respondents were asked:

“In your opinion if Santa Claus was a registered voter, what political party would he most likely support?”.

Some 26% thought Santa would be a Democrat supporter (perhaps reflecting his ties to to social welfare), while just 15% thought Santa would be a Republican (keeping in mind Santa only brings presents for children have been good each year, suggesting a strict social conservatism behind his charitable facade). Far more, 43%, thought Sanda would be an independent, standing above the partisan rancour of politics (with some 16% unsure). We still don’t know, however, whether Santa’s schedule for this year includes a stop-off in Congress to solve the partisan impasse over the ‘fiscal cliff’, with hard-line elements of the Republican Party stubbornly refusing a compromise.

Santa has sadly not been immune to the growing polarization of US politics in recent years. In December 1998, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked a similar survey question “Do you think Santa Claus would be a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?”. In contrast, just 9% of people thought Santa would be a Democrat and 6% a Republican, with 62% suggesting he would be an independent. In just three years a quarter of the US public had taken a more polarized stance on poor Santa. It is only a matter of time before polarization occurs in judging who has been naughty and who has been nice.

UPDATE: A Public Policy Polling survey earlier this month asked “Do you think Santa Claus is a Democrat or a Republican?” This time 44% of the US public thought Santa is a Democrat and 28% a Republican, with 28% unsure. The polarization of Santa Claus continues… (or perhaps the public are more informed about Santa’s policy positions these days).

Happy Holidays from Politics|Upside|Down and Politics & International Relations at the University of Southampton.

No Longer Helpless: A Change of Policy Image the Guns Debate

A guest post by Bryan Jones, J.J. “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage. Also see Bryan’s interview about policy change with The Huffington Post.

In an interview last year, I suggested that gun control was a policy ripe for rapid change. I thought so at the time because the policy was firmly lodged in interest-group politics and one side had won so much its demands were devoid of any relationship to reality and common sense. As Patrick Egan shows, as gun laws were weakened at the state level and in federal law, the violent crime rate declined and gun ownership fell.  Acquiescence by the public, seemingly lack of harm in the policy, and a one-sided interest group contest all pointed to continued dominance of the gun lobby—if one uses standard approaches to prediction.

But breakdowns often occur when one side seems to have won the policy battle—in a sense by taking too much. By overextending, groups have to defend essentially indefensible policies.  It makes them more vulnerable, and that vulnerability may be traced by focusing on what Frank Baumgartner and I called a policy image—a summary of the general prevailing understanding of an issue’s basic character.  Simplified policy images stem from basic human psychology and the social phenomenon of contagion.  They can be very resilient, but they can also collapse quickly in the right circumstances.

That an issue rises in collective attention is important (and often that can be fleeting), but even more important is how the issue is characterized when it is raised.  Baumgartner, de Boef, and Boydstun demonstrate that support for the death penalty declined only when the prevailing policy image as discerned from careful analysis of press coverage shifted toward a frame focusing on executing innocent people.

Newtown has stimulated a likely change in the prevailing policy image governing how people think about the gun issue.  Previously the causal story circulating among the more attuned public and pushed by the gun lobby was this: the availability of guns had not affected the crime rate negatively and indeed may well have caused part of the general decline in the rate.

For mass killings, which have not declined and may have increased, a different story was told: people kill people and anyway, nothing can stop determined or mentally unbalanced people from obtaining guns and using them in horrific ways (apparently unless all other citizens are armed). Because government can’t ameliorate the problem, it should not intervene. These are events that happen, part of life, and they cannot and should not be addressed through policy.  Let’s call this the helpless frame. 

The conception that nothing can stop the slaughter may be breaking down. President Obama’s speech to the Newtown grieving directly addressed the helpless frame. The helpless frame is being challenged by the availability of guns frame, in which the simple availability of guns to dangerous people becomes the preferred explanation.

If the problem is reconceived, government solutions are within the pale. Just what policy solution might be attached to the problem is unclear, but the lowest hanging fruit (where the gun lobby’s policy victories have exceeded the bounds of common sense) include an assault weapons ban, a high-capacity magazine ban, and improved background check procedures for gun purchases. Both of these respond to the availability of guns frame in a manner consistent with common sense.

Sweet FA: a not entirely serious approach to predicting elections in Britain

By Dr Will Jennings

In the Ipsos MORI Alamanac for 2012Professor Roger Mortimore‘s ‘infallible method’ for predicting the outcome of British general elections on the basis of the previous season’s FA Cup final provides a bit of fun for watchers of British politics. It also makes a serious point about the dangers of ascribing “undue significance to patterns in past events when there is no reasonable excuse for assuming a causal link” (the old chestnut of correlation not equalling causation). Mortimore’s Sweet FA Prediction Model is as follows:

If the FA Cup holders at the time of the election are a team
who traditionally wear shirts in the Conservative colours of
blue or white, ignoring any black stripes, the Conservatives
win most seats at the election. On the other hand, if they play in Labour’s colours, red and/or yellow, Labour wins. (Ipsos-MORI Almanac 2012, p. 52).

Using this method (and with a bit of selective/liberal interpretation of the data), Mortimore’s Sweet FA model is able to correctly predict the outcome of 15 out of 17 post-war elections (and 4 out of 4 London Mayoral Elections).


Source: Ipsos-MORI Almanac 2012.

Election forecasting is not an exact science, and the Sweet FA model provides a nice reminder that successful predictions are not always based on a correct diagnosis of the underlying causal relationship. While forecasters like Nate Silver (and Paul the Octopus) can develop mythical status in offering highly accurate predictions of future events, these do not necessarily guarantee the prediction model will work in future, or that some outlier will lead to it being rejected further down the track.

What a difference a year makes… reflections on Cameron’s EU veto and the rise of UKIP as a force in British politics

By Dr Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics 

Exactly a year ago, the Polling Observatory team (Dr Rob Ford, Dr Mark Pickup and myself) were reporting ‘Christmas Cheer for Cameron‘ on our monthly poll update at NottsPolitics. Cameron’s veto of proposed treaty changes at the EU summit on 9th December 2011 appeared to have given a much needed boost to Conservative fortunes, which had fallen into the polling doldrums for most of the preceding year. The estimates put the gap between the Conservatives and Labour at around a point (37.6% versus 38.6% respectively), most respectable for a mid-term government in hard economic times. Move forward twelve months and the EU vote is not so much looking like clever politics, but a short-term move that has opened a Pandora’s Box on the right, both inside and outside the Conservative Party. Recent polls (from ComRes in The Independent and Populus in The Times (£)) have put UKIP at around 10%, while the Polling Observatory update at the start of December showed it steadily increasing its support.

The rise of UKIP is puzzling because Europe does not currently figure highly among the issues that the public consider to be the ‘most important’ facing the country in Ipsos-MORI’s monthly tracker. In November, just 2% of the public identified the issue as its most important concern. Nor is the issue of immigration (at 7%) at a high level compared to other points during the past decade (consistently being between 15% and 25% between 2003 and 2008). This is despite research showing the appeal of UKIP to voters who are hostile to immigration. The conditions therefore don’t appear to be that suited to the threat that UKIP now pose, though it offers a vehicle for voters disaffected with the other main parties.

The EU veto is now looking to be a flawed strategy for two reasons. Firstly, it appears to have done nothing to ease disquiet from Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party or to defuse the electoral threat of UKIP. Secondly, distancing the UK from the political troubles on mainland Europe, and blaming events and policy decisions in the Eurozone (such as the second bailout for Greece) for the continued stagnation of the British economy, has provided fuel for those who are disaffected with the political parties and the efficacy of the British political system more widely. Cameron’s apparent rejection of the Burkean trustee model of political representation in the veto (playing to popular opinion) has also, unintentionally, contributed to an environment in which populist rhetoric flourishes, feeding on the disaffection of voters with Brussels and Westminster alike.

Tragedy in Connecticut: what now for the 2nd amendment?

By Dr Russell Bentley, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory

The murders in a Connecticut school, the latest jaw-droppingly awful murders in the United States committed by someone who went berserk with a gun (berserk with clinical and calculated planning) are bringing out the set-piece discourses about gun control, both for and against. The terms are familiar and it is hardly necessary for either side of the debate to show up for rehearsals any more. They have their lines perfectly memorised and each party enters on cue. Even President Obama played his part, saying that we have seen too many tragedies like this and we need to take ‘meaningful’ action. These remarks were perfectly complemented by his press secretary, Jay Carney, saying to reporters that today is not the day to talk about gun control – presumably meaning that it would be grossly insensitive to appear to be politicking right after these atrocious acts have been committed, but succeeding only in showing the unavoidability of politicking about this issue, at this time, and, indeed, by these people. The ‘official’ gun lobby, in the form of the NRA, has been invisible in the immediate aftermath. The NRA Twitter feed has been silent, with not one single tweet on the @NRAnews feed on 14 December. The @NRA feed ended 13 December with a tweet that Florida is nearing one-million concealed weapon permit requests, which is a good news story from the NRA’s perspective. The gun lobby’s fellow travellers have not been silent, however. Mike Huckabee has blamed the murders on the lack of God in America’s public schools. Some, especially at-the-fringe characters, have said that protective firearms, carried, one assumes, by the school staff and not by the kindergarten children, would have ensured that the murderer was brought down before so many had died.

The problem about guns in America is the product of the famous ‘right to bear arms’ clause found in the 2nd amendment to the Constitution, as everyone knows. The District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) ruling by the Supreme Court settled what had seemed to be the nub of the issue regarding gun control. Does the Constitution limit the right to bear arms to the needs of a ‘well regulated militia’ or is there an absolute right to bear arms? If the former, gun ownership and possession become subject to regulation (the ‘well regulated’ phrase of the amendment). If the latter, well, the opposite: citizens have a right to acquire and privately keep firearms. The Heller decision confirmed a Constitutional guarantee that private citizens can own guns. The prior and ensuing debate about the case does however, miss the point, which is the 2nd amendment itself. Couching the discussion in terms of a right fundamentally controls how the debate can take place. It limits what can be said and, moreover, places that limit outside the control of political actors. The paradox is that the right is the creation of political actors who, through deliberation and argument, devised the 2nd amendment and submitted it to an electorate for ratification. The 2nd amendment is one of ten that the new states of the union were asked to ratify, confirming that the Constitution was a living and, therefore, changeable document from the moment of its unveiling to the citizens of the thirteen original states. It is time, therefore, for this sense of democratic control over the country’s fate to be re-enacted, specifically by repealing the 2nd amendment. This is not a call to abolish gun ownership. This is a call to abolish the rights discourse that disempowers democratically elected legislators and, indeed, those whom they represent. The interpretation of the 2nd amendment is not the problem; having to live within interpretations of the 2nd amendment is the problem. Do we want private citizens to own firearms? Initiate the public debate, involving the people and their representatives, about this issue and pass the appropriate laws. Do we want exceptions for various reasons? Again, initiate the public debate. Rights can act as protections against governmental invasion of the citizens’ lives, but when a right that was born out of political circumstances and argument takes on the mantle of inviolability, the democratic power to legislate for the common good is compromised. America needs to have a different kind of debate about guns and that can only occur when America ceases to place the question of gun ownership outside of democratic control.

Kamil Zwolski on the security-development nexus in EU policy

In a recent article published in Journal of European Public Policy, Dr Kamil Zwolski of Politics & International Relations argues that there are two important norms in European Union’s (EU) external policy which in fact may be in conflict. The EU aspires to become a truly comprehensive international security actor, coherently utilising the different kinds of instruments at its disposal. To this end, Lisbon Treaty reforms aim to equip EU policy with a stronger sense of strategic direction by bringing external assistance instruments of the EU under the guidance of the High Representative. However, pursuing the norm of a more holistic, strategic international security policy has arguably threatened a key norm which contributes to the EU’s normative identity, namely the apolitical character of its aid. Kamil’s article explores the friction between these two norms in the EU’s international policy, particularly in the context of the arrangements concerning the European External Action Service. Furthermore, he argues that the gradual move towards a more strategic deployment of the EU’s external assistance is inevitable, as it reflects the strategic principles defined by the EU in the last decade.