Argentine Politics Today

By Dr. Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations

There have been numerous discussion forums and articles published on Argentina’s performance and prospects in the last few months. Recently I participated in a closed workshop at UCL in which seasoned diplomats urged us -scholars- to tell them when, exactly, the underlying tensions in the Kirchners’ model would produce a terminal crisis. Nobody ventured to mention a date. Most probably, nobody imagined that, a few days later, the 30th anniversary of the return to democratic rule (on December 10, 2013) would be marked by strikes,  riots, 14 people dead, and images of the president celebrating and dancing with her supporters. For those of us who not only came of age with democratization but also have been writing about that transition and related issues, the celebration was sad. It made evident that thirty years have not been enough to move Argentina out of a perverse cycle of crises, let alone transcend a long-standing “reversal of development” process, as Carlos Waisman called it long time ago.

Myopic views and strategies prevail and transform each presidential election into a “re-foundational” opportunity. The legacy of each presidential term is read in terms of structural changes and ideological cleavages. Ironically, this past week’s reality offered a neat analogy. The structure of the 11 meter-high, pompous mausoleum where former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) is buried cracked. Responsibility for architectural problems is attributed to the construction company run by his friend and business partner who now faces charges for money laundering in relation to the presidential family’s embellishment, thus making the cracks in the foundation an allegory for the fate of the regime. The media has unveiled many of these scandals recently. Divisions among Peronist factions became most evident in primary and legislative elections (last August and October, respectively), kicking off a fierce competition to succeed Mrs. Kirchner in 2015 and highlighting civil society’s discontent with persistent problems like insecurity, inflation, bad public services, and corruption.  December OECD statistics on education standard revealed that Argentina has fallen in both the regional and global rankings.

While politicians preached about democracy, neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism, neopopulism, and so on (lately including, once again, “the return of the state”), old and new public issues are not addressed. The Kirchners, in particular, invested highly in symbolic and discursive tools to construct a new narrative. But Argentines worry about concrete problems and have just spent Christmas in a tense atmosphere. Prolonged power shortages in the midst of a heat wave hit several neighborhoods of the capital city, prompting more street protests. The outages are another sign that real change has not come. Who does not remember that power outages have been another recurrent feature of Argentine daily life for several decades, as gas shortages in the winter or urban flooding in Buenos Aires city? Although problems such as these tend to be accepted as part of normal life, state incapacity to deliver public goods is still unacceptable.

Most important, recent developments may be symptoms of deeper transformations that have gone largely unnoticed in the public debate, in part because different ideas (i.e., opposed to the official discourse) are deemed “destabilizing.” The government often invokes memories of a traumatic authoritarian past and the 2001debacle to dismiss criticisms. Thus, opinions about the most recent past (10 years under the Kirchners) have become highly polarized as the confrontational politics that characterizes the Kirchers’ style has tainted all public discourse, intellectual discussions, and social relations alike. On the one hand, scholars seem to find it difficult to provide objective and balanced analyses. More worrisome, there are few attempts to move the conversation beyond a simple list of achievements and shortcomings.

On the other hand, state role and capacities are increasingly compromised. Some old and new issues seem to undermine social cohesion and expectations. Latinobarometer surveys show that social confidence in state institutions has been constantly low over the last twenty years. Structural poverty, marginalization, and economic informality characterize the life of vast sectors of Argentine society, intensifying social polarization in a country where social mobility and relatively good education and health used to be accessible. Social groups’ language and actions during the recent riots showed unusual levels of aggression. Very few voices (notably, the church) have made the connection between social attitudes and state policies, however. Colleagues like Roberto Gargarella ably pointed out that such aggression was a mirror of state abuses and the impunity of political elites; Javier Auyero has extensively documented the links between poverty and violence suggesting that the state may be part of the problem. Many of us have analyzed the impact of instability on policymaking and the tensions among neopopulists’ social agendas, outdated and ineffective notions of state interventionism, and non-democratic politics. A few scholars are now studying a new threat: the links among drug traffickers, politicians, and police forces.

In sum, today’s crisis urges us to go beyond ideology and epic narratives and address the implications of deepening social and institutional decay. History shows that states have played crucial roles in molding development strategies in all regions of the world, but in the successful cases states have generated positive state-society synergies and created the conditions for stable, long-term positive expectations and commitments. The 30th anniversary of democratization in Argentina exhibited state incapacity to guarantee social order and citizens trapped in a perverse cycle of anticipating the next crisis.

Selling Citizenship

By Professor Chris Armstrong, Politics & International Relations

The government of Malta has recently caused controversy by putting citizenship on sale. Maltese nationality is available, no-further-strings-attached, to anyone willing to pay €650,000. And anyone who takes up the offer will then, immediately, also become a citizen of the European Union. This provokes strong reactions in many people. Many of us think citizenship should never be sold, and that even to contemplate doing this is to cheapen the relation between all citizens and their governments. For others, Malta’s move is a perfectly defensible and even pragmatic decision in a globalized world, and all it needs to be make sure of is that the price it gets is a good one.

For political scientists, and political theorists, the case is interesting insofar as it forces us to think hard about what citizenship really means, and what the core of the relationship between governed and governors actually consists in. A financial relationship? A communal bond? A mutual  decision to face the slings and arrows of fortune together? Or should obtaining citizenship be more like choosing health insurance?

A debate is taking place on this very issue at the EUDO Observatory on Citizenship. The noted scholar of citizenship transformations Ayelet Shachar has kicked off the debate by noting reasons we have to fear the sale of citizenship. I’ve contributed too, and the message I’ve tried to get across is a more nuanced one. I’ve attempted to argue two things. First, it is in fact surprisingly hard to argue that selling citizenship is always wrong. Realising this has interesting consequences, presumably, for the way we think about the citizenship-state relationship. Second, although selling citizenship looks like it will often or usually be wrong in practice, the reasons we have to be concerned about it do not really relate to selling citizenship itself. The rather brutal fact of selling citizenship, rather, draws our attention to a whole series of ways in which processes of awarding citizenship in the contemporary world are unfair. Those processes do a great deal, on a daily basis, to perpetuate inequality. Selling citizenship looks like an especially repugnant policy practice, from a moral point of view. But perhaps, when we are thinking about the (im)morality of citizenship attainment, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Naming, Shaming and Political Gaming

By George Emery, Undergraduate Student in Politics & International Relations 

A recent article by David Ignatius in the Washington Post revealed that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had disclosed the identities of a number of Iranians who had been in contact with the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MISIRI). This essentially was an act of betrayal of the agents of an ally to its ally’s enemy. In recent years the once-strong relationship between Israel and Turkey has become strained. The most striking indication of this was the 2010 clash between Israeli commandos and members of a flotilla heading to the Gaza Strip which left nine people dead. However even Mossad, no stranger to hostility, was surprised that an ally disclosed its contacts to a state that Israel may engage in direct conflict in the near-future. This case, and others outlined below, is part of a growing trend in International Relations for states to use often illicit and controversial tactics through their intelligence services for political gains. Ignatius calls these multi-dimensional spy wars, wars that are becoming more and more public.

Israel, and more specifically Mossad, is not just a victim of these spy wars. After a number of scientists working on the Iranian nuclear programme were wounded or killed in assassination attempts the blame was very much laid at their door. Five Iranian nuclear scientists and the head of the Iran’s ballistic missile program have been killed since 2007 with Mossad or affiliates of the agency the most widely suspected (and perhaps most plausible) perpetrator. The Iranians have (allegedly) sought revenge by using proxies, most notably the Lebanese political politico-social movement-cum-militant group Hezbollah. In 2012 a bus carrying mainly Israeli tourists was targeted by a suicide bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria. Five Israeli nationals and the Bulgarian bus driver were killed. The perpetrator had links to Hezbollah, which is heavily supported by Iran. A 2012 report by intelligence analysts for the New York Police Department (NYPD) claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or their proxies had been involved in nine plots against Israeli or Jewish targets around the world in 2012 alone.

So-called spy wars don’t always include direct violence. Similar to the case of the Turkish disclosure of Iranians working for Mossad to Iran, elements in the Pakistani administration and political apparatus have been accused of public naming of CIA station chiefs, often in response to US drone attacks. Last month the Pakistani political party Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which is led by former cricket star Imran Khan, published what it said was the name of the CIA’s chief operative in Islamabad demanding that he face murder charges over a drone strike that killed five people. This was not the first time this had occurred. In 2010 the then-station chief left the country after his name was revealed during a legal case involving another drone strike in which civilians were killed. A fictionalised version of this event was included in the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Some have blamed Pakistan’s powerful and autonomous Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for the 2010 disclosure and in doing so breaking the ‘unwritten rule’ of espionage.

All these cases suggest that political gaming through the use of intelligence did not end when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed. They are examples of an increasing trend of the spy world moving out of the shadows, albeit very reluctantly and often unintentionally. Mixed with the prominence of Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden files, intelligence-gathering and espionage may be an increasingly stark and visual aspect of politics and international relations.

Polling Observatory #31: No joy from the polls as festive season approaches

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

UK 04-12-13

Both of the largest parties have had something to crow about in November – the Conservatives have trumpeted growing statistical evidence of a recovery as vindication of their economic strategy, while Labour have received a shot in the arm from the surprisingly strong response to their proposals to freeze energy bills, which have pushed the government onto the back foot. Yet our most recent look at the polling evidence suggests that, despite all the shouting from their cheerleaders, neither party has yet received any meaningful boost in support as a result of these developments. Labour’s support has fallen to 37.5%, giving up much of the one point bounce we noted last month. Over the past six months or so commentators have claimed that Labour, among other things, is in crisis, is resurgent, is surging ahead, is slipping back and is melting away. Yet when the poll data is considered in the aggregate, there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months. The last significant shift in its support came in early spring, around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, when Labour lost 2 percentage points of support that they have failed to win back since. It is not clear if the Iron Lady’s demise really lead some voters to rethink their view of Labour, but it is as plausible a theory as any of the others floating around in the comment pages, and has the notable advantage of actually fitting the evidence.

What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives. This pattern continues this month – as the Tories fall by nearly a point, UKIP have rebounded by 0.6% to 11.9%. UKIP tend to do better when immigration is high on the agenda and when Nigel Farage is highly visible in the media. Both have been the case this month, with the proposal of new restrictive immigration reforms and escalating speculation about migration from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of restrictions on January 1st. Mr Farage has been a regular presence across the media spectrum, weighing in on both these issues, and his party seems to be benefitting in the polls once more. The European Parliament elections in May next year will likely produce a similar virtuous circle of rising poll ratings and increased media attention.

The main source of speculation regarding the Liberal Democrats continues to be whether their performance come election day will really be as awful as the polling suggests. The party lost nearly two-thirds of its 2010 support in the months after joining the government, and this month provides no respite. As in nearly every month since early 2011, the Lib Dems are treading water just under 10% – we have them at 8.0%, up 0.6% on last month.

None of the political leaders will enter the festive season with many reasons to be cheerful – aside from the knowledge that 2014 begins with everything still to play for.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Dissident Republicans: the ‘micro-groups’ who never went away and why they can no longer be ignored

By George Emery, Undergraduate Student in Politics & International Relations

On a freezing night in Belfast, businesses and homes are evacuated after a car-bomb is discovered near a police station. So far this is not necessarily a surprising description of events, but may be a little more surprising given that this was November 2013, not 1972. The perpetrators of this may have only been children when the ‘Troubles’ begun in 1969, or may not have even been born, but they are using similar tactics to the Provisional IRA, although they see themselves as the sole representative of ‘pure’ Irish Republicanism. Only yesterday (25th November) Northern Ireland’s chief constable Matt Baggott said there had been a recent “surge in dissident republican activity”. It always seems strange when the authorities refer to dissident attacks as being on the rise. One only has to visit the BBC News Northern Ireland page, or Henry McDonald’s terrific column on the Guardian webpage to see that dissident republican activity is a weekly (at least) news story. In the last  few weeks this figure has been even higher; on the 10th October the so-called ‘New IRA’ killed a 40 year old man in Belfast and earlier in October the dissidents were blamed for letter-bombs sent to Matt Baggott and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA: ‘they haven’t gone away you know’. This seems apt when referring to the warped offspring of the PIRA, the dissident groups.

The dissidents are no way near as dangerous and expert as the PIRA was at the height of its campaign. However it would be dangerous and naïve to underestimate them. The Continuity IRA (CIRA) who split from the Provisionals in 1986, killed a Catholic police officer in 2009, two days after another group, the Real IRA (RIRA) shot dead 2 British soldiers and wounded 4 others in a gun attack at Massareene barracks in Antrim. Yet another group Óglaigh na hÉireann (OnH) which translates in Gaelic to Soldiers of Ireland (which is also the name of the Irish Army in Gaelic), split from the RIRA in 2008 and are allegedly responsible for numerous attacks, including the murder of a prison officer, David Black, in a shooting on a motorway in 2012, the killing of a Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr in Omagh and the serious wounding of another Peadar Heffron, who sustained severe leg injuries. Both these last 2 attacks involved sophisticated under-car bombs, similar in composition to the PIRA, leading the authorities to warn that an experienced ex-PIRA bomb maker may have been recruited by the dissidents.

The situation is undoubtedly confused by the existence of so many groups, and the apparent crossover between them. For example OnH and the RIRA often claim responsibility for the same attacks, and a new organisation, allegedly composed of some disgruntled ex-PIRA members from Country Tyrone, calling itself Irish Republican Army (but referred to in the media, confusingly, as simply the New IRA) have claimed that they were responsible for the killing of David Black and the murder of Ronan Kerr. The PSNI and MI5 believe that the groups, while independent, are increasingly working together. Indeed the New IRA claim to be an amalgamation of RIRA, the aforementioned Country Tyrone ex-Provos and a vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD). If this is the case then the dissidents could pose a real danger. While the majority of their actions, while serious, have been confined Northern Ireland, one attack on the mainland would be a huge coup for any of the groups. It is important to remember that the RIRA attacked the headquarters of both MI6 and the BBC in separate attacks in 2001, using a RPG in the former case.

It seems to me that referring to dissident attacks as part of a ‘surge’ is curious. It is clear when researching such groups that their capability is restricted to being able to carry out a flurry (for want of a better word) of attacks each few months to show that they are, in effect, ‘still there’. This definitely should not diminish their threat. With the exception of the 7/7 attacks, dissidents have killed far more British citizens than any Islamist-inspired group or individuals. Indeed MI5 have said recently that they are spending almost as much time, resources and money focusing on these Irish groups as Al Qaeda and similar groups. We should not ignore the dissidents or oversimplify their claim by lazily calling them criminals with no support, as Sinn Fein have in the past. Yes it is a sign of the progress made that Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams frequently condemn dissident attacks, even the shooting of the soldiers in 2009, but we need to eventually begin dialogue with the dissidents. The peace process in 1998 occurred after years of talking between the UK and the PIRA, and although their actions must be unequivocally condemned, it serves no real purpose to continue to ignore the dissident groups. The dissidents are not without support, even if their supporters are few and far between, they cannot, and must not be ignored. The killing must stop; dialogue must replace kneecappings and car bombs, so Northern Ireland can finally move on.

Iran, Geneva, and Zarif on Twitter

By Rebekah Kulidzan, Undergraduate Student in International Relations

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted ‘We have reached an agreement.’ By this he meant the P5+1 and himself, in a meeting headed by EU’s Catherine Ashton, had come to an agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relaxed sanctions (worth nearly $7bn). Zarif agreed to capping uranium enrichment for power station use only, to refrain from installing new centrifuges and working on its heavy-water reactor near Arak. Over the coming months the six world powers will engage in even tougher talks to try and broker a long-term agreement that satisfies all parties.

A significant step towards tightened nuclear security? More than that. This is arguably yet another indicator that Rouhani’s administration is moving towards a never-seen-before, open Iran (‘open’ to be taken as lightly as possible). Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Western foreign ministers and heads of state (particularly in the USA) haven’t come close to this level of engagement with Iran. Zarif, a relatively modern thinker (and communicator; big Twitter user) has began a process once unthinkable to Western powers; a diplomatic agreement with The Islamic Republic that aims to bring positive results for both sides.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has stated recently that ”It was always going to be hard to arrive at a deal with Iran when the mistrust was so deep and had gone on for so long.” The agreement that came out at around 3am GMT provides a basis for growth in Western-Iranian relations. It allows the past to be remembered, but not to wholly frame the future. Rouhani’s administration (although scepticism will lie on both sides) has created a path for Iranian development in the eyes of the West, for less ‘Axis of Evil’ talk circa George W. Bush, and for a state that can be taken seriously by the outside world.

Over the coming months it will be interesting to see how these talks develop. Will there be a real future for Western-Iranian relations? I don’t know, but what I do know is that 24th November 2013 marks a historic step in the right direction for Iran. If taken seriously, and implemented properly, the Geneva talks represent the beginning of the end of the silent Cold War.

A Book Review of Sitrin’s Everyday Revolutions…

BOOK REVIEW: Marina A. Sitrin, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012), pp. xv + 256, £14.99; $24.95, pb.

By Pia Riggirozzi (forthcoming in Journal of Latin American Studies)

The crisis of 2001 in Argentina and the social protest that erupted with it was not simply a call to restore the capacity of the state to secure economic growth and development but more profoundly a redefinition of social citizenship. According to Sitrin, social mobilisation that emerged on the eve of 2001 must be seen as ‘politics in a different way’ (85). What is different, according to the author, is that expectations of social change became associated with alternative forms of organising protests through ‘horizontal’ collective action that escape traditional forms of control by the traditional parties, labour unions or the Peronist elite. These forms of collective action manifested in the Movement of the Unemployed, factory take-overs, neighbour assemblies, and street vendor movement, all rooted in local community activism and the practice of ‘direct democracy’ (8). It is a politics that not only refuses institutionalisation and hierarchical leadership but also imagines a new subjectivity. Sitrin explores how  new politics of social protests, demonstrations and resistance in post-crisis Argentina has  not been driven by concerted efforts to construct an effective political liaison with existing political parties or unionised groups, but rather by reclaiming ‘neighbourhoods and the workplace’. Sitrin explores, in an accomplished manner, how in the context of a profound political legitimacy crisis in Argentina, a new repertoire of social change and ‘social innovation’ emerged through the practice of solidarity, self-management and productive reorganisation.

The book offers a simple yet captivating narrative organised in eight chapters that cover three main defining features of post-crisis – and perhaps post-neoliberal – innovative models of social articulation: (i) horizontality, denoting a form of organisation that rejects traditional forms of political delegation and hierarchy structuring political parties and labour unions (ch. 3); (ii) affective politics, that is the imaginary or subjectivities framing new repertoires of social change, belonging and identity politics (ch.4); and (iii) autonomy, that is the capacity to reorganise and self-manage workplaces and engage with solidarity economies (ch. 5, 6). These concepts are applied to new forms of social activism that, at odds with historical forms of protest, not only called into question the morality of neoliberal democracy but were also moved by a desire to recover the work place and develop solidarity networks to provide services in the form of cooperatives and other communal ties. The breadth and scale of mobilisation, Sitrin argues, suggest an ambitious attempt to revitalise a different model of emancipatory politics where workers and neighbours challenge capital and the legitimacy of the state as the place for democracy and inclusion.

While this is a valuable contribution to the literature and the practice of social movements, democracy, and contentious politics outside state politics, the analysis over relies on actor-oriented and oral history-led explanations. This poses at least three fundamental concerns. The first concern relates to the transformative capacity of these movements. Horizontalism, as a category of analysis, captures ideas, subjectivities and affective politics embraced by new social movements in a context where the state, or traditional forms of political representation, offer no way out (p. 7-8). However, while the movements analysed have been highly significant creating new repertoires of contention and resistance in Argentina’s immediate post-crisis, it is not clear how transformative as a social project they can be in times of normalisation. Furthermore, the extent to which horizontalim can consolidate a ‘meta narrative’ or ‘master frame’, paraphrasing Snow and Benford (1988), of civic opposition and social change is left unexplored. These issues are of particularly significance and need to be thought in light of current changes in the political economy of post crisis as resource boom growth in Argentina, yet not only, has been highly consequential for contentious politics. A second concern relates to the relations between horizontal movements, contentious politics and the state. New horizontal forms of social contention can and have survived – the recovered factories is a case in point as described in the closing chapters of the book. But a theoretical speculation beyond politics of affection could have been offered to conceptualise how these movements relate to the state, beyond top-down forms of co-optation, which is the only politico-institutional dynamic considered in the book. Political and economic recovery after crisis means that horizontal movements are faced with the dilemma of how to adapt to changes in the political structures that seem to narrow the available potential of opportunities to preserve self-management and direct democracy. What explains political resilience in horizontal movements? Institutionalisation may require sacrificing a degree of spontaneity, a characteristic that initially brings esteem to horizontal groups. But nurturing a new, self-conscious (worker’s) identity within the larger labour movement is difficult to envisage. The analysis suggests that some movements are more susceptible than others to be absorbed by state ‘national-popular’ rhetoric and depoliticising tactics through the institutionalisation of workfare and social programmes, subsidies to state-sponsored cooperatives and to self-managing practices of workers in fábricas tomadas. But any inquisitive reader may wonder about synergies between internal characteristics of a movement and external political opportunities explaining pathways taken by horizontal movements vis-à-vis state politics beyond a false dichotomy between politics of state co-optation vs. horizontal groups autonomy. Finally, a deeper discussion about what horizontalism means in terms of post-crisis citizenship beyond the logic of individual cases is still pending. Horizontal social articulation denotes not only the complexities of a reawakened society and challenges of defining citizenship ‘from below’, but also, and more importantly, opens new questions about new models of social underpinnings of ‘citizenship from above’, or post-neoliberal corporatism, as inclusion is, essentially, a matter for the state.

Regardless of specific criticisms, this should in no way detract from its overall quality. This book is engaging and extremely informative of peoples’ ability to self-organise, socially and economically, in response to expectations of social change. It is timely for those interested in social movements, politics of dissent, social engagement and democracy across the globe. Its distinctive narrative is also a journey through social imaginaries and emotions.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res cropped

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

As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

CfP: The Theory and Practice of Security Governance

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

I am pleased to announce that ‘The Theory and Practice of Security Governance’ has been accepted as one of the workshops for the EISA European Workshops in International Studies to take place in Izmir (Turkey) in May 2014. I would therefore like to invite interested colleagues and PhD students to submit their proposals here.

The primary purpose of this workshop is to reflect on, and advance the theory of security governance in International Studies. Both inductive and deductive approaches are welcome, as long as empirical analysis is complemented by substantial conceptual and/or theoretical discussion. In particular, the workshop will aim to address a range of important questions concerning security governance, which are embedded in three theoretical traditions:

  1. Constitutive (ontological) theory: How can we conceptualise security governance? How does security governance differ across various geographical regions, different security risks and different levels of analysis?
  2. Causal theory: How to explain the differentiation of security governance structures?
  3. Normative theory: To what extent are security governance structures legitimate and accountable? Should transnational and international security institutions be held to the same standards of legitimacy and accountability as states? Should we consider security governance structures as a priori more effective and desirable than traditional inter-governmental cooperation?

These three modes of theorising will help to (A) unpack the concept of security governance in International Studies; (B) advance our understanding of the dynamics associated with this concept; and (C) address the key moral dilemmas.

Possible topics of papers include, but are not limited to:

  • security governance in Europe and other regions, including formal organisations (e.g. the EU, NATO, OSCE, UN, OAS, ASEAN, AU) and informal structures;
  • the role of regional/global organisations in providing security governance both internally and externally;
  • the contribution of the IR theory, as well as other social sciences (e.g. sociology, psychology, economy) to our understanding of security governance;
  • the relationship between security governance, security community and international regimes;
  • the contribution of empirical cases to our understanding of the possible security governance attributes, including: multiple centres of authority; public and private actors, formal and informal structures, norms and values;
  • the dynamics at the intersection of various levels of analysis: sub-state (e.g. private security companies), states and international organisations;
  • the nature and role of inter-governmental and transnational policy networks.

Understanding Parliament

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By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

In the current edition of Politics Review, the magazine for A-level Government and Politics, I have written an article exploring the UK Parliament in terms of what it does and how effectively it does it. The piece covers a number of important areas, many of which we hear about all the time in the news, even if somewhat tangentially. For example, it examines parliament’s representative role, how it communicates voter opinions and preferences to government, and the extent to which MPs effectively represent the diversity of UK society. It also explores parliament’s scrutiny role as a major check on what government does and as a crucial site of political accountability, particularly noting the expanding role of select committees in this regard. The article concludes that parliament is not a perfect institution – and can never be perfect – but that there is much still to be done to make it work better as a political institution, particularly in terms of its representative credentials and its capacity as a forum for rigorous executive scrutiny. A great deal of political energy is expended inside political institutions such as parliaments and, as such, it just makes good sense for us always to reflect on how they can better serve the public.