Postcard from San Francisco: Kamil Zwolski on the EU and non-proliferation

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics & International Relations

On Tuesday I will be in San Francisco to attend the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association. We have a great panel with Harald Müller, who is the Vice-President of the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, as a discussant. I will be presenting a paper on the EU’s role in non-proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, materials and know-how. CBRN pose very complex security risks and require long-term, transnational approach. My paper revisits the concept of international ‘actorness’ in order to examine the past, present and possible future role of the EU in preventing the proliferation of CBRN threat. Thus, in addition to evaluating past policies, my paper analyses the impact of the Lisbon Treaty reforms and the changing international security environment on the position of the EU as an aspiring global non-proliferation actor.

You can find my articles on the EU and CBRN threat in European Foreign Affairs Review and Perspectives on European Politics and Society.

Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 2: So how different are young people?

By Emily Rainsford (Politics & International Relations) 

If the first theme from the workshops at Royal Holloway was the diversity of kinds of ways that young people participate in and their wide understanding of citizenship and politics, the second theme is somewhat more critical. By recognising the diversity of ways of participation among young people the question arises whether this is something about young people as a social group and a generation, or something about young people growing up in this particular period. Andy Furlong, author of Young People and Social Change, made the argument that transition from child to adult that the period of youth represents has become more fragmented than before. Young people stay in education for longer, and either live at home or return home after university studies, the job market is more uncertain and leads to precarious jobs, all of which contribute to a delayed transition into adulthood. This combined with the alienation from formal politics that young people feel has, according to Furlong, led to new cleavages in terms of intergenerational conflict that could potentially be explosive. Erik Amnå took the idea of a generational or period effect further in his research where they are seeking to understand changes in young people’s political behaviour through conducting a longitudinal study on how young people’s behaviour and attitudes change over time. He argued that three assumptions are often made about the quantity, quality and development of political participation, where it is assumed to be monolithic, manifest and stable. Amnå also argued that we need to move beyond a simple understanding of political passivity: the initial results from this longitudinal study suggest that it can be fragmented (i.e. take different forms at different times), latent (i.e. not always manifest as an action, but as a potential) and develop over time. Understanding political behaviour as something that develops rather than something that is static and determined opens up for the importance of socialisation in this development. Ben Kisby and James Sloam addressed this in terms of what role education has in this process of fostering civic participation. They found that education determines participation to a larger extent than social background. Citizenship education is the third and final theme from the workshops that we will be reporting on separately.

Furlong and Amnå do however take an interesting perspective on the particularity of youth. Whilst many others focus on the change in attitudes or behaviour, both Furlong and Amnå focus more on the position young people have in society, and in particular the transitional nature of this position, and the consequences it may have on their political participation. As such this becomes something about what is particular about youth as a group in society rather than this particular generation of young people. This detail is important because first of all we see similar trends of political disenchantment and changing patterns of political participation that for example Bang highlights among adults, although the causes and solutions look different with proposals for more direct democracy for adults and citizenship education for young people. But secondly, even if this trend may have other causes or look different among young people, we have no data that can show us whether this is something about being young or something about being young in this period of time. As such, it seems like a more productive way forward is to focus on the position young people have in society, what opportunities they have for political participation and voice and what consequences this may have on policy that affects them.

Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 1: Trends in Europe and the UK.

By Emily Rainsford (Politics & International Relations) and Rebecca Ridley (School of Education)

A recent series of cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary workshops organised by Dr James Sloam of the Royal Holloway (University of London) and Centre for European Politics set out to discuss and challenge the alleged crisis of young people’s political participation and citizenship. The workshops were focused around three questions: How do young people participate politically? What makes young people participate politically? And who participates? The events took place throughout February and March 2013 in a small room in a corner of the Royal Holloway University’s Founder’s Building.

The first workshop was dedicated to a European perspective. Speakers at the workshop were drawn from across Europe and included Henrik BangErik Amnå, and Elvira Cicognani. The following workshops focused on the ‘crisis and transition’ of young people in British democracy and aimed to bring together academics and practitioners where speakers included Andy Furlong, David Kerr (Citizenship Foundation) Kierra Box (Community Matters), and Hugh Starky (Institute of Education). There were many important themes discussed throughout the workshop series. In a series of three blog posts published on Politics|Upside|Down, we will report on those that caught our attention.

Conceptualising engagement

A key theme in the debate on young people’s political participation is actually not whether young people participate, but how they participate. Henrik Bang started off this discussion at the first workshop by presenting his argument about the new types of citizens, the expert and everyday maker that have emerged due to a shift in the norms of engagement, particularly among young people, from a duty to participate to a will to make a difference. Because there is no room for this kind of engagement in formal politics, young people turn their attention elsewhere. This idea that young people are politically active, but in a different way was a central theme that ran through the workshops. Ben O’Loughlin looked at how this was expressed online and what new technologies do to the repertoires of action. James Sloam asked what consequences this might have on young people’s political voice and influence over policies that affect them. Matt Henn explored the differences between voters and non-voters and found that there was a strong aversion to politics amongst the non-voters, suggesting that abstention is not just apathy, but driven by strong negative feelings towards the political process. Peter Kraftl  presented research showing how young people live their everyday lives and use their communities, and highlighted the role they play in social integration. Peter Hopkins presented his and Liz Todd’s findings from the Occupy movement in Newcastle, a real world example of the alternative forms young people engage in. From a practitioners perspective Kierra Box from Community Matters pointed out that voluntary sector organisations work with a wide view of what the political is but the government has a much more narrow which again highlights the clashing values highlighted by Bang. From a slightly different perspective looking at a new but rather institutionalised form of participation, Mark Shepard presented data on the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) exploring whether they were representative, and what impact the participation had had on the members. The results showed that SYP was representative of the youth population and had positive effects both personally and professionally on its former members.

The wide range of research that was presented across the workshops highlights exactly how diverse the field of youth citizenship and politics is. It brings together ideas from politics, sociology, human geography, psychology and education to give a more holistic view of who, how and why young people participate politically. As such it is a stimulating, and challenging, field to work in that is gaining more recognition, not the least seen in the recent setting up of a PSA specialist group on Youth and Politics and it will be very interesting to follow the development of the field.

Reflections on World Water Day

By Dr Chris Armstrong, Politics & International Relations

Today, March 22nd, is World Water Day, in which a host of international agencies such as the United Nations attempt to raise awareness of the vital significance of – but also the many threats to – this precious resource. For those interested in natural resource justice, water occupies a very special place. Along with air, it is unquestionably necessary to any human existence. But whereas air raises relatively few issues – people are rarely deprived of air, although sometimes its poor quality impairs their health – across the world access to water is patchy at best. Many people – most commonly women – find accessing water every day time-consuming, expensive and in many cases dangerous.

Some communities – like the UK – consume huge amounts of water, and rarely even have cause to think about its ready availability (short of the occasional hosepipe ban!). On closer inspection, though, this is not because we have plenty of water within our borders. The UK actually has a massive ‘external water footprint’ – which means that more than two-thirds of the water used to produce the goods, services (and most importantly food) that we consume is actually used to produce those goods overseas. This makes us a major net importer of ‘virtual water’, indirectly consuming water from a series of countries across the world. We are deeply embedded in, and dependent upon, this global trade in ‘virtual water’ – although most of us have no idea of it.

Our deep involvement in the movement of virtual water across the globe, and the fact that water itself is not produced by anyone but in fact circulates through a global hydrological system which we all benefit from but over which we have little control, means that we ought to sit up and take notice of the costs associated with the virtual movement of water. We also should recognise the situation faced by those whose access to water is much less secure. Strikingly, people living in slums in the Philippines pay more for their water than do people in Britain. Belatedly, we are recognising that access to water and sanitation is a human right, and a basic one at that. So there is an urgent need to enhance the infrastructure needed to transport water cheaply and effectively to where people actually need it. And given that agriculture accounts for about 80% of global water usage, there is a further need to spread efficient technologies which would wean countries off environmentally unsustainable forms of irrigation.

The UN has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, highlighting the work that remains to be done. Individuals can give to charities such as WaterAid which share these twin projects of developing infrastructure and improving agricultural efficiency. They can try to educate themselves to consume less water-intensive products. But other opportunities could also be explored. Through the pioneering work of Wereld Waternet, every time a resident of Amsterdam runs their tap or fills their bath they pay a small surcharge ring-fenced for improving water infrastructure in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Suriname. On World Water Day, is it time to explore such ideas closer to home?

Regional social policy: cross-border social standards to reduce inequity and poverty — a C2G2/PAIR workshop

By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

Like all forms of governance, regionalism is a form of coordination across and between different policy areas. Regionalism is organised in different forms of institutional architecture that open different kinds of political engagement; and thus different types of activism. Despite a wide array of political economic projects of varying compositions, capabilities and aspirations, expectations of what regional governance can deliver have been evaluated primarily in terms of management, trade liberalisation and trade integration. It is not surprising then that despite a wealth of literature offering normative references to the capacity of regional frameworks to provide social development, this has largely remained a rhetorical aspect in the way regionalism has unfolded and has been studied. However, recent developments in regional formations across the globe are seeking social and political integration to address issues of poverty and inequality and ways to mitigate trans-border social harms.

Seeking to discuss social policy and development in relation to regional governance, a two-day workshop will be hosted by C2G2 at the University of Southampton, on March 25-26. The workshop will explore empirical linkages between regional integration, social policy and social development; and academic challenges bridging Comparative Regionalism, International Political Economy, and Social Policy. As part of the event, presenters and discussants from the academic, policy and advocacy fields in Latin America, Europe and Africa will participate in roundtables on the topics: ‘The links between regionalism and social development’ and ‘Regionalism, Human Development and Social Policy in South America, Africa and Europe’.

An Innovation in Governance Practise – Brazil

By Professor Gerry Stoker, Politics & International Relations and Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation & Governance.

From March 11-13 I was attending the inaugural Improving Public Administration conference in Brasilia as a guest of the Brazilian government. A complex range of topics were explored but my panel was focused on an innovation in governance practise that the Brazilians are famous for: public or what they call social participation. In the developing democratic practice of Brazil the strong social movement influence over many of its political actors has installed a commitment to widespread public consultation and engagement. The internationally famous example of democratic innovation that the Brazilians are known for is participatory budgeting or PB. Many academics from Europe and North America have lauded the success of this innovation, including Southampton’s former PAIR professor Graham Smith.

What was noteworthy about the conference was that the Brazilians seem to have a more critical attitude towards their progress than many of their admirers. PB and other democratic innovations in Brazil appear to run into a number of problems that once revealed have a familiar and plausible ring to those such as myself more used to researching in the so-called established democracies. The Brazilian concerns include that participation was dominated by and engaging to only a limited number of citizens in Brazil. There was concern about consultation fatigue. The issue of citizen apathy and its complex causes was raised. As was a fear that corruption in political decision-making and a general lack of buy-in by elected representatives into processes of social participation limited the impact of public engagement. There was a concern about powerful media forces distorting the process of political debate.

My contribution to the debate was to focus on research work that has provided a framework to audit the quality of public engagement. The framework- called C.L.E.A.R – goes on to offer solutions or remedies that might help. The framework was developed with colleagues Vivien Lowndes and Lawrence Pratchett and put into practice in the Council of Europe. Some elements of Australian governments have also used the framework and C.L.E.A.R was brought to the attention of the Brazilians by the Mark Evans Director of ANZSOG, Institute of Government at Canberra University. In my presentation I also discussed my recent research undertaken with the Hansard Society and Colin Hay at Sheffield and in particular its concern with understanding that people’s willingness to participate in politics is not fixed but can be significantly changed by the kind of politics on offer.

If the political system is set to become more open and accessible many citizens are willing to show more interest, especially younger citizens (see the BA blog). The work on how to trigger a wider engagement was of interest to many of the Brazilians who attended the conference.

There is so much to admire in Brazil. It has experienced sustained economic growth and the federal government looks set to deliver on its promise of getting all sections of the Brazilian population out of absolute poverty and runs an approval rating that would be the envy of most other governments around the world. But the most laudable quality that I experienced from Brazilians – in addition to their wonderful hospitality- was a real sense of wanting to keep on challenging themselves and improving. That orientation, rather than copying specific democratic innovations they have developed, may be the biggest lesson to be drawn from Brazil.

 

Open Access and the Finch Problem

By Professor David Owen, Politics & International Relations 

The Report of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (‘Finch Report’) ranks among the most idiotic public reports of recent times, unless, of course, your purpose is simply to transfer public money to private commercial corporations. Its primary recommendation is that open access should be achieved to a GOLD standard in which research is made immediately freely available worldwide in electronic format. The envisaged method is that authors pay Author Publishing Costs (APCs) of £1,200-£2,000 for journal articles and £12,000-£20,000 for books.

Apart from the sheer arrogance of the underlying assumption that academic publishing is only a matter for people already employed in universities, the report raises serious issues concerning the distribution of the power to determine whose research is published in which outlets since central funding from research councils is envisaged to amount only to 50% rising to 75% over the first five years. This is a potential nightmare not simply in terms of how funding for publication is to be distributed across disciplines but also its distribution across permanent staff – from senior to junior – and temporary staff as well as postgraduate students. The institutional incentives are for the criterion to be purely instrumental – driven by REF-returnable publications, and hence entail the marginalization of non-REFable members of the academic community, primarily temporary staff and postgraduate students.

What of the form of publication? Much of the focus of discussion of the Finch Report has been journals – for understandable reasons – and I’ll address journals shortly but it is worth focusing on monographs since these have been overshadowed in the debate thus far.

 

Monographs

The Finch report devotes only one of its 140 pages to the prospects for open access monographs. Yet monograph publishing remains immensely important – arguably as important as journal publishing in the humanities and equally important in many of the social sciences. There is certainly a real difficulty with existing models. In large part because library budgets are being eaten by up journal subscriptions, the average scholarly monograph sells only 200 – 300 copies, which is disappointing for both authors and publishers, but doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of demand for the research.

Current experimental models for widening access to scholarly books include the EU -funded Open Access Publishing in European Networks project and the AHRC and JISC collaborative project: OAPEN-UK, but they also includes initiatives made by publishers, both not-for-profit and commercial companies. A full list of publishers who engage in open access publishing (and their specific OA policies) can be found at the OAPEN site here. A potentially very significant current open access project is Knowledge Unlatched – a global consortium set up by Frances Pinter to develop the idea of collaborative underwriting of monographs by scholarly libraries.

The first point to note then is simply that the opportunity to publish an open access book without any charges already exists. There are several examples, notably Open Book Publishers and Monash University Press. Perhaps the most interesting because it offers a business model designed to be commercially sustainable under the new Open Access regime is the ‘tiered open access’ model operated by Bloomsbury Academic who produce print and eBook copies for sale while also, via Bloomsbury Open, making the basic html text available free online in a clean readable and printable version. Thus far, on an admittedly small sample, there appears to be no negative effect on book sales and perhaps mild enhancement with downloads of the html version of the 60 or so books published under Bloomsbury Open so far from about 110 countries. Appropriately enough, John D. Brewer’s The Public Value of the Social Sciences will shortly be published by Bloomsbury Open.

 

Journals

There are two major issues with the Finch Report concerning journals. The first, already mentioned, is that it just funnels more money to the major corporations in the journals market who have been inflating their prices for several years. This is not a sensible use of public funds. The second is that it threatens the income streams of learned societies and disciplinary associations who typically generate much of their income through journal subscriptions or member subscriptions in which receipt of journals is a key pricing factor. However, both of these problems can be dealt with while maintaining immediate open access (the goal of the GOLD model) without the use of APCs.

One plausible way of solving the problem posed by Finch is for UK universities and/or Research Councils collectively to fund a wide range of open access journals created and run by the learned societies and disciplinary associations in which university staff are encouraged to publish. Since the quality of a journal is a function of the quality of the work that it publishes, it need not take long for a journal to establish a strong reputation. If learned societies and disciplinary association are paid by the collective fund for doing this work and providing their ‘hallmark’ of quality assurance, this addresses the income stream problem that these societies and associations currently face. It is not only the case that such a system would work out rather cheaper for UK universities than the proposals of the Finch Report but also that academics are typically rather more willing to engage in the public good activities of editing journals and referring for journals if the benefits of this labour support their own societies and associations.

It is notable that such a model simply removes the power problems generated by the Finch report funding proposals and reincorporates temporary staff, postgraduates and academics not currently employed as well as non-academics into the relevant intellectual community. In shifting from a commercial to a civic model, immediate open access is preserved without the highly negative effects on the academic environment.

Am I being overly optimistic about this alternative to the Finch proposals concerning journals? Perhaps – but academics need to propose alternatives now before the idiocy prescribed by the Finch Report is foisted on us.

 

 

Malvinas/Falklands: a referendum to no end

By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

The population of the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas as they are called in Argentina, went to the polls in a referendum this week on whether to remain a British overseas territory. Predictably, 99.8 per cent of the voters chose to keep the status quo. Predictably, too, Argentina has declared that the Falklands referendum is invalid, not legitimate, and thus will keep using the multilateral fora to put political pressure on London and bilateral negotiations.

The referendum will not settle tensions between Buenos Aires and London over the islands any time soon, but it is significant from the perspective of the habitants of Malvinas/Falklands as it gives them voice and agency to express their aspiration. The referendum gave agency, visibility, to the inhabitants of the Falklands if not to conduct foreign policy, at least to decide on their fate. There are not two governments involved in a dispute for sovereignty any longer but three parties reclaiming rights. This makes the dispute more sensitive and the tension between the legal claims of sovereignty and the principle of self-determination more difficult to reconcile. To complicate matters, the referendum has no real effect from the perspective of international law as, unlike other cases of decolonisation, it was not called for nor supervised by the United Nations. It was a unilateral decision of the British government echoing the interests of the British inhabitants of the Islands but overlooking the UN call for dialogue between two sovereign states.

Now, the British manoeuvre is somehow puzzling. Why was the referendum called now and not before, given that the issue has been debated in the United Nations for nearly half a century? Some explanations point to three reasons at least: Firstly, Argentina has returned the Malvinas/Falklands issue back to the international agenda since the mid-2000s. The Kirchner administration advanced a high profile, reopening the case in the UN Decolonisation Committee. Secondly, South American solidarity goes beyond the mere position of principle to take concrete action. Buenos Aires has the backing of the majority of the continent as several Latin American governments have adopted pro-Argentina positions toward the islands. For example, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), of which all 12 South American nations are members, passed a resolution rejecting the referendum during a December 2012 summit in Peru. This rejection includes the regional power, Brazil, which has repeatedly stated its support for Argentina’s claim to the islands, and was seconded by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in January 2013. Thirdly, in the absence of negotiations over sovereignty Argentina announced it was breaking an agreement over oil and gas. In this context, the UK government can use the Yes vote to change the state of play reinforcing that any negotiation over sovereignty will have to include the presence of islanders, something that Argentina will be reluctant to accept. As a result, the stalemate is likely to continue, and undoubtedly will be fuelled by future tensions over exploitation of natural resources.

The Politics of FIFA

By Alex Dawson, Student in Politics & International Relations

The recent discussion on Politics|Upside|Down of an apparent association between FA Cup winners and general election winners may not have Everton and Manchester City fans swapping their replica shirts for those of their red-shirted neighbours, but it can be used to draw attention to the politics of football and arguably the most politically influential body in world football, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA. FIFA is the umbrella organisation that makes the rules and laws of the game as well as sets its wider mission and philosophy.

Set against the context of first year undergraduates’ introduction to political systems in Politics & International Relations in Southampton, FIFA’s governance of the world’s game can be measured against the characteristics of an authoritarian regime.

Firstly, is it fair to evaluate FIFA from a political perspective at all? FIFA has institutional structures and norms such as its judicial bodies, executive branch and select committees and loosely mirrors a federal setup. It also makes decisions that are binding and enforced. It is this binding and enforced reaction to decisions that are made that some argue is the most important characteristic of a political entity (Hague and Harrop 2010).

FIFA has elected its current president Sepp Blatter to four terms. When accepting his latest mandate in June 2011 Blatter said ‘’I am honoured to accept the 61st FIFA Congress’s mandate to serve as president during the 2011-2015 period’’ proof indeed that decisions are made that are binding and enforced. There is also the language used.’ Mandate, Congress, President, Serve.’ that supports the view that FIFA can be seen as a political body and provide a basis for the argument that FIFA ‘does’ politics. Economically, it has influence. FIFA’s income statement from 2003 reports revenues of over 700 million Swiss Francs (£490 million). The GDP of Guinea-Bissau who did not qualify for last month’s African Cup of Nations being held in South Africa was £615 million in 2011 (World Bank, accessed January 2013). These figures illustrate the extent to which the financial power of FIFA now outstrips that of the government a constituent association.

So, having suggested FIFA can be evaluated as a political system, it is possible to consider whether it shares any characteristics with authoritarian rule.

Sepp Blatter has held the office of president of FIFA since 1998. When Blatter finishes his current term he will have been in power for 17 years. His predecessor João Havelange served between 1974 and 1998, some 24 years. ‘Indefinite political tenure’ of the ruler or ruling authority is one of the defining characteristics of authoritarian regimes. While this length of tenure might reflect continuity and success in FIFA’s governance of football, it does suggest a form of leadership and authority that is highly stable and resistant to political challenge.

Blatter’s election in 2011 was marred by allegations of impropriety that made it hard to keep up with events (during his election in 2002 Blatter was also accused of corruption). In controversial circumstances, Blatter was elected unopposed after his opponent, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was charged with bribery (Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report 2011). In Non Democratic Regimes, Paul Brooker argues that single-candidate non-competitive elections are features of ‘mono dictatorships’. Blatter won election with votes cast by 186 of FIFA’s 208 member associations, with the remainder such as the FA abstaining (Guardian June 1 2011). With a limited ticket for voters, this is consistent with Linz’s (2000) argument that a lack of pluralism is the foremost and most distinctive sign of authoritarian rule. Further, the election took place despite the English FA having asked FIFA to postpone the election so that an alternative candidate could stand against Blatter. No importance was placed on a competitive election (Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report 2011).

Lastly, Blatter has a history of comments and actions that could be considered to be antiquated, and which strengthen the case for characterisation of his rule as authoritarian. Lawrence Britt argues that fascist regimes have the characteristics of being sexist, homophobic, racist and corrupt, and having fraudulent elections. At various points Blatter has provoked controversy with the suggestion that female players wear more revealing kit to attract people to the sport, his suggestion that gay men and women should suppress their sexual orientation during the World Cup in Qatar, and that racist abuse between players on the pitch (essentially racist abuse in the work place) can be settled with a handshake at the end of the game.

If we recognise FIFA as a political entity, there are some grounds, at least, to suggest it shares some characteristics with authoritarian rule. This is most apparent in the length of unchallenged rule of FIFA presidents and single candidate elections means the governance of the most watched sport in the world could be largely undemocratic.

Polling Observatory: Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP on the up, but Conservative support has fallen

By Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Cross-posted at @NottsPolitics.

Nott 03-03-13 low res cropped

This is the twenty-second 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 from the Eastleigh by-election, our latest polling estimates provide confirmation of the continued troubles of David Cameron and the Conservative Party, the continued rise of UKIP as a political force, and a slight revival in the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. As the months tick away, and this spring’s budget providing another ‘final chance’ for the government to deliver a game-changer, is it time to ask: is the 2015 election already lost?

Following the downgrade of the UK’s triple-A credit rating and a humiliating third place in Eastleigh, with an ill-disciplined and unhappy backbench (and the quiet murmur of leadership rumours), and with the government facing potentially more bad economic news on the horizon, it is no surprise that since the last Polling Observatory report on February 1st, Conservative support has fallen from 31.9% to 29.9%. This is one of the largest single month shifts we have recorded since the 2010 election. In contrast, Labour has further strengthened its position despite an underwhelming performance in Eastleigh (where party expectations were much lower), with an increase in support from 40.7% to 41.2%. This leaves Labour with a lead of 11.3% in the polls, continuing a run of double-digit leads which has persisted for almost twelve months and must start to cast doubt on popular wisdom that this is ‘soft’ support that will crumble as soon as an election is called.

Indeed, there is evidence that Labour’s reputation is recovering from when it was thrown out of office in 2010. Specifically, it has been steadily been polling around level with the Conservatives as the party best able to handle the economy in general, and has, in fact, been leading on taxation in most months since George Osborne’s calamitous omnishambles budget statement of March 2012 (see the YouGov issue tracker here). How is this even possible after the financial ‘mess’ that the last Labour government is so frequently accused of leaving the public finances in, and Labour’s struggle to develop a convincing economic narrative against the Coalition’s shock doctrine of austerity? Much of the reason is the simple fact that the debt crisis was the result of a global financial crisis only of limited making of the British government (with British voters typically being more pragmatic and nuanced than either their politicians or the media). Research by Ray Duch and Randy Stevenson has found that voters tend to punish governments less for poor economic performance in contexts that are more exposed to economic shocks from outside: in other words, voters can find it difficult to evaluate the competency of policy-makers in open globalised economies where external factors can influence macroeconomic outcomes. However, as economic waters have calmed across the Eurozone area it has become increasingly difficult for George Osborne and David Cameron to blame the excesses of southern European governments for the economic difficulties being endured at home. The label of ‘a recession made in Downing Street’ may be the most damaging for the Conservatives come the 2015 election, if the British economy does not pick up but things are improving on the continent.

Despite what has been a tumultuous month for the Liberal Democrats, a steady performance in Eastleigh, based on a strong ground campaign and popular local candidate, combined with a rise in support from 6.9% to 9.1% suggests their electoral fortunes for 2015 may not be quite as bleak as some have predicted.

Last, but not least, our estimates provide yet more evidence of the continued rise of UKIP, with its support increasing from 8.5% to 9.3%. Combined with the by-election result in Eastleigh pushing the Conservatives into third place, this points to the continued challenge to Cameron’s party: UKIP tends to attract older voters who perceive social and demographic change as threatening to their sense of British identity, voters who remain strongly concerned about immigration and have become deeply disaffected from the mainstream political elite. The rise of UKIP, and the roots of its support, needs to be put in the context of several decades of public policy. In recent times, governments have tended to favour the quickest path to economic growth above all other considerations, in particular focused on financial services and London. This economic imperative arguably was one of the factors behind Labour’s relaxing of migration policy after 1997, and its decision to allow unrestricted access to migrants from Eastern Europe in 2004. As a consequence, there has been a widening gap between the social and economic experiences of Britain’s cities – where economic growth has harnessed immigration and ethnic  diversity  is a well established and accepted part of social life – and experiences in suburban and rural “shire Britain”, which remain ethnically homogeneous and attached to  a nostalgic 1950s ideal – a world of leafy suburbs, small businesses, country pubs, village greens, strict classrooms, obsequious deference to authority, and the friendly local policeman. Nigel Farage is a man of this world, and has proved effective at harnessing anxieties about contemporary developments – immigration, diversity and Brussels – and marrying them to a sepia-toned vision of the “common sense” society of times past. Anxiety and nostalgia combined is a potent mix, particularly for older voters, who turn out in droves. We expect UKIP to continue to play a high profile, disruptive role on the political scene over the rest of this Parliament – particularly at the European Parliament elections next year.