Poster Session for @sotonpolitics Undergraduate Dissertation Projects

By Matt Ryan, Politics & International Relations

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The coolest but often most challenging piece of work for undergraduates is their final year dissertation – a 10000 word paper based on their own research , conducted under supervision of a member of academic staff. The hardest part of this process often comes at the beginning. Students need to find a research question and a method of answering that question that stands up to scrutiny. One of the most difficult challenges in research is taking the questions and hunches we have about what is going on ‘out there’ in the world and turning them into research proposals – that is focused, methodical approaches to understanding the conundrums of social and political phenomena. We start out like children in a sweet shop. We want to consume all the information we can get but this would take too long and if we just try to stuff our face the conclusion won’t be much to look at anyway! At Southampton from the beginning we work closely with students to guide their research and we have introduced numerous teaching innovations to our second year methods module that I convene with @jmrphy to help them along.

Academics regularly use posters as a medium to communicate their research at conferences. They are an extremely useful and undervalued tool – they force the researcher to think carefully about how their research should appeal to an audience that is not captive (it is easier to move past a poster than walk out of a presentation). They also discipline us to think about how research can be communicated and understood quickly and easily.  This year, developing a great idea first shared by @Alison_statham at DMU (see here), we asked 2nd year students to design a poster to communicate their research proposals. On Wednesday we held a special event where they presented their posters to their colleagues (students and us staff). There was a great buzz of excitement and a superb collegiate atmosphere with students and staff feeding back to one another on research plans. We were really impressed with our students work. We certainly found that students were inspired to be creative, adding a bit of personality to their research, but also they were a lot more focused in communicating logical approaches to social inquiry. It is always a great challenge even for experienced researchers to guide students through what can be a challenging process but a very rewarding one when we see the quality of their work.

Ukraine, Crimea, Russia and International Law’s (In)Capacity: invitation to a debate

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

The language of international law has dominated news coverage and commentary on recent events in Crimea. Most international lawyers have condemned Russia’s ‘unlawful’ use of force and its ‘illegal annexation’ of Crimea.

Reflecting on international legal reaction to recent events in Crimea and public perceptions of international law’s capacity to address such crises, academics from Southampton Law School and Southampton University’s Department of Politics and International Relations will debate the place of international law in the Crimean crisis and ask what it means to brand Russia’s action ‘illegal’. We hope you will join us, and join the debate.

The debate will be held on May 1st at 6pm in Building 46, Lecture Theatre A (Room 3.001).

You can register here.

Budgetary Politics in 2014 and beyond…

By Martin Lodge (London School of Economics) and Will Jennings (University of Southampton)

Cross-posted at the UK Political Studies Association blog.

Beyond the substantial shakeup of the pension system, increases in ISA allowances and the tax threshold, tax-free childcare, as well as reductions in beer, bingo, whisky duties, what else can be said about the recent budget?

Budgetary politics are inherently about politics and ‘the margin’: it is about creating specific winners and losers, as well as seeking to minimize the unintended electorally damaging effects. Chancellor George Osborne’s 2014 budget has been no different. The cap on welfare spending was one of those traps that governments like to lay for their opponents, the appeal to the ‘grey’ vote may please the most Conservative-leaning part of the electorate and the capping of the carbon price floor responds to calls from manufacturers. However, once the headlines regarding the immediate winners and losers are forgotten, the budget has long-term implications for executive politics and governance in the UK. In particular, it marks a further move towards postponing bad news and hard choices to future generations.

First of all, the announced changes to pension rules, allowing people to cash in their pension pots on retirement, makes an optimistic assumption about human behaviour, namely the ability to plan for the long-term (precisely the sort of  short-term bias pensions were designed to mitigate). Existing annuity arrangements may have been problematic, but it is not clear how much input the newly privatised Behavioural Insights Team had on this decision given uncertainties about how wisely people will behave when a lump sum becomes available to them. Will the state establish a default ‘choice architecture’ so as to guide behaviours? Or will it be required to step in for those who run out of money? Similarly, the extension of the Help to Buy Scheme ignores the risk of fuelling a house price bubble. These examples illustrate the sorts of unintended effects that budgetary politics can generate – and the potential clash between the long-standing world of distributive politics – handing out giveaways to swing and core voters – and the supposedly new world of nudging (‘evidence based’) behaviour. Furthermore, they also illustrate the usual optimism-bias in terms of estimating future level of tax receipts.

Secondly, the budget confirmed that tightening in public spending will continue long into the future. It offers benefits to certain parts of society today at the expense of further public spending cuts that will start to bite in the middle of the next parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that long-run public finances have been weakened, with permanent tax giveaways being paid for “by unspecified spending cuts and temporary increases in tax revenues”. This budget marks another episode in the attempts of the coalition government to redraw the boundaries of the state. It has drawn cover from the trend of hardening public opinion against redistribution and against government provision of a social safety net. However, whether a seismic redrawing of the state is possible, let alone desirable, in an age in which the population is ageing, the national infrastructure is creaking, the economy remains in need of structural and geographic rebalancing, and climate change likely to entail growing costs, is questionable.

Most of all, this latest budget reveals the defining fault line of contemporary politics. The politics of tax and spend continues to be a central and highly visible part of the toolbox of British government. The temptation to generate uncertainty over the stability of tax incentives (green taxes), to provide ‘good news’ in a pre-election year at the expense of future generations, and the disregard for long-term engagement with the challenges facing modern societies and states, has been reinforced by this highly political budget. This budget may have addressed some of the potholes of contemporary electioneering ahead of the 2015 general election, but it has not even started to address inherent, long-term problems faced by the state.

Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Department of Government & Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London School of Economics

Will Jennings is Reader in Politics and Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton

Polling Observatory #34: A voteless recovery so far but still time to turn the tide?

This is the thirty-fourth 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.

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On Wednesday, George Osborne will get up to deliver what is certain to be the sunniest Budget statement of his Treasury career. All the statistical indicators now point to a robust recovery – steady growth in GDP, falls in unemployment, and rising business and consumer confidence. The cloud on the horizon for Osborne and his Conservative colleagues is that there is, as yet, little evidence that the improving economic climate is improving the government’s political fortunes. With each passing month, the lack of any meaningful movement in the polls increases anxiety about a voteless recovery in 2015, with British voters unwilling to give the government any electoral reward for the much discussed “tough decisions” of the past few years. .

The story from February’s Polling Observatory estimates is much the same as in previous months. Once again, we can report that these suggest no dramatic changes in the status quo that has been in place since last autumn. We estimate Labour support this month at 37.0%, down 0.8% on January. The Conservatives come in at 32.1%, up 0.2% on last month. The overall gap has thus narrowed to under 5%, but both parties’ shares are broadly in line with previous estimates. There is not yet any evidence of sustained movement away from Labour or towards the Conservatives. We estimate UKIP support at 12.7%, up 0.9% on last month, and our highest estimate for the party since their peak after last May’s unexpected local election triumphs. The approaching European Parliament elections should provide a favourable environment for UKIP, so they may see further increases in support in the coming months. The Liberal Democrats have endured another poor month, and our estimates place them at 7.2%, the same as last month. Time will tell whether Nick Clegg’s new strategy of direct engagement with UKIP will help to reverse his party’s long polling slump.


There are, however, some green shoots of recovery in other polling. In YouGov’s regular tracking poll of government performance on the economy, the share saying the government handling the economy well now stands at 41%, up 16 percentage points on its low point in the summer of 2012, and the highest level seen since December 2010. The share rating the state of the economy as “bad” stands at 45% with the same pollster, which sounds pretty awful but is in fact the lowest figure recorded in this Parliament. For most of 2011 and 2012, between 70 and 80% of voters took a dim view of economic conditions. Finally, YouGov’s “feel-good factor” index – the balance of households expecting things to improve minus those who think things will get worse – now stands at -20. Once again, this sounds bad but we must factor in a general Eeyorish tendency in the British public – the last time the figure was this high was in the first half of 2010, when Labour staged a sustained rally in the polls in the run-up to the 2010 election. Other pollsters tell a similar story – Ipsos-MORI’s economic optimism index has shown a sustained run of strongly positive figures, the most positive since the beginning of New Labour’s government in 1997. Osborne can take additional comfort from his sobering experience in 2012 – when his “omnishambles” budget was followed by a sharp decline in Conservative poll ratings – while this was not the public reaction he was hoping for it did at least demonstrate that the budget is one of the rare political events with some capacity to move public opinion. With the public finances improving at last, he may hope to be able to offer enough goodies to voters to move the dial in the other direction this week.

While public opinion remains in a steady state, there are thus reasons for hope for government politicians: voters have noticed the improved economic climate, though they have yet to give the government any credit for it. The government can take further hope from polling history:  our analysis of historical polling trends, suggest that Labour still have plenty to worry about over the next 14 months. Our Polling Observatory forecast model, which analyses historical polling trends to project the current state of public opinion forward to election day, suggests the likeliest outcome currently is a modest recovery in the Conservatives’ poll share, sufficient to make the next election a statistical dead heat in vote shares. This outcome would likely still translate into a small Labour majority because of biases built into the electoral system, but this projection highlights the very real possibility of another hung parliament if  Labour cannot maintain its poll lead in the coming months. The evidence from past election campaigns suggests that there is currently still plenty of time for opinion to change, and the economic opinion data provides one strong reason to suggest that it may do so. Each month from here on in is crucial for the parties’ electoral fates: the link between current polling and subsequent election results becomes steadily closer with each passing month in the last year of a Parliament, making a 5 point lead harder and harder to overhaul. There is still time for the parties, and their leaders, to change their electoral fates, but it is starting to run out.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Making Academia A Bit More Relevant Requires Making ‘The Real World’ A Bit More Academic

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

I have been interested to watch debates unfolding in the US prompted by Nicholas Kristof’s piece in the New York Times some weeks ago. The responses (see for example a recent column by Cass Sunstein) give visibility to important questions about the relevance of academic work (in particular the social sciences).

Academics have gradually become more worried about the lack of policy prescription in top political science journals and the impact of their work more generally; so much so indeed that they have had academic debates about it in academic journals. Now you might think that is a bit facetious. The articles in the linked journal are, I think, quite accessible and you should dabble in them if you get a chance. And that takes me to my modest contribution to the debate. Making academia relevant is as much about allowing more and more so-called ‘real/ordinary people’ to dabble in the ways of the academic as it is about academics, when acting in their capacity as academics, going out into the so-called ‘real world’ looking for trouble.*

The most welcome responses to questions of academic impact and relevance have asked political scientists to communicate more accessibly and appreciate the ways that others understand the problems they are trying to solve. I can’t argue with that. And when we have done a lot of research and come up with some robust and interesting findings, it makes plenty of sense that we ought to tell as many people as possible. But my worry is all parties will still focus too much on communicating the political and not enough on communicating the science.

How do non-academics use academic research? There are two ways that academic researchers can come up with findings and solutions that are valuable to policy-makers, civil society actors, practitioners and citizens. One is to do a heap of robust research and come up with the answers to solutions that the end-user of the research already valued before the research was done. Most of us like research that confirms our worldview. The other is to come to answers to political problems in a way that end-user can appreciate. It is not always easy but social scientists could do a lot more to help those for whom a research finding is relevant and has an impact upon them understand the underlying logics, the methods, and the standards of evidence that make judgements worth listening to.

The real tragedy of social science is that we so often see not only fellow citizens but often those influencing decisions, making public arguments that involve unsystematic comparison; referring to inconsistent reference populations; failing to recognise the bias in the selection of examples (cases and samples) they use; misunderstanding measures; and being unable to recognise and distinguish premises and conclusions. I could go on. I began to appreciate social science in a whole new way only when it forced me to change my mind about what I thought I knew. I didn’t do that until I understood the science part. We have summarily failed to help many of our fellow citizens understand why research and its findings are useful other than as currency to justify one’s own prejudices.

Citizens and those acting with democratically established authority should prescribe policy and academics qua** citizens may engage in this. Academics when acting in their capacity as academics should err on the side of prescribing knowledge first and foremost. Academics may at times have good reasons for being cautious about making policy recommendations and they can engage their peers in abstract jargon-heavy dialogue if they like. However they have no excuse for not improving non-academics understanding of academia and failing to make sure those they engage with understand how they know what they claim to know.

*Note that I did not use the word qua here and it didn’t hurt me much. Qua is the Latin way of saying ‘when acting in the capacity’ of. Academics do like to use a lot of Latin and/or German when writing in English. 

**Note that I used the word qua here and that those of you who read the last footnote know what it means if you did not before. I hope it didn’t hurt you to look at a footnote. The point is sharing between academic and lay language is not that hard.

Where are all the women? Reflections on International Women’s Day

Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Saturday 8th March is International Women’s Day, and routinely an occasion for reflection on how much remains to be done in the fight for women’s equality. And while it’s true that the battle is, sadly, far from over, it’s helpful also to think of the achievements that have been made, if only to keep our spirits high. Which is why some recent polling on Hillary Clinton’s prospects should she choose to run for the US Presidency in 2016 offers a ray of light.

The USA Today/Pew Research Centre Poll indicates that Clinton is better liked and more respected than when she ran in 2008. This is good news on two fronts, irrespective of whether you support her as a candidate. First, that she is more respected can be attributed in large part to her time as Secretary of State, and is a notable indicator of how important it is for us to see women in strong leadership roles: the more women we see in leadership roles, the more we will acknowledge them for performing well, and the less unusual it will become to see women in those roles – a virtuous circle. Second, the news that Clinton is better liked is the real break through. Research consistently shows that women face a significant ‘likeability’ factor in the workplace and that men do not: in studies, people (both men and women) report liking women less when they are as strong leaders, but report no such negativity for men under the same conditions. This was regrettably exploited by Obama during the 2008 presidential elections when he declared Clinton to be ‘likeable enough,’ a barbed comment that simply would not have had the same resonance if applied to a male candidate.

This new polling indicates that respondents judge gender as a less important factor for Clinton than it was in 2008, and that the ‘likeability’ factor is far more muted. This may be good for Clinton, and for those who would like to see her elected president. But beyond this specific example, these numbers provide encouragement on the journey to increase female representation across all leadership positions in society. Perhaps one day, we will celebrate International Women’s Day, not by lamenting the absence of women from the key positions of decision-making, but by celebrating because there are so many.

Russian invasion of Ukraine: analysis from @sotonpolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

We asked some of our postgraduate students in PAIR to share their analysis of the worrying situation in Ukraine, in particular through the lenses of the International Relations theory. Here is what they say:

Charles Webb (MSc Global Politics): Over the past week or so Russian forces have been massing along the border with the Ukraine. Russian forces inside the Crimean peninsula have reportedly surrounded key Ukrainian military infrastructure. On the face of it this appears to be a blatant example of realpolitik. What the Russian Federation aims to achieve, and how, is questionable but what is actually interesting is the reminder of the fragile nature, and concept of, nationalism and ethnicity. The message from elites in the Russian administration is that this move is an attempt to protect “ethnic Russians” from Ukrainian ultra nationalists. Although both sides claim that this latest round of hostility has broken out due to the ousting of “pro-Russian” President Viktor Yanukovych this is just the latest in a long history of conflicts over territory and ethnicity. It is interesting to see the rise of chauvinist nationalism in both the Ukraine and Russia considering their long history of interconnected, and at times interdependent, coexistence. Russia and the Ukraine as we know them today are relatively new social constructs. This, so called, “crisis” is a reminder of the powerful, often irrational, and sometimes fatal, attraction of group identification termed nationalism.

Zhanarbek Janabayev (MSc Governance & Policy): Classic realist John Herz’s (1950) conception of the “security dilemma” seems appropriate in contemporary international relations. After the collapse of the Communist bloc and the dissolution of the USSR prevailed idealistic views were about the future peaceful harmonised world. They assumed the end of Russia’s domination and hegemony in post-Soviet realm. Idealists thought about the failure of the “security dilemma” and that this phenomenon is unnecessary anymore. But the recent events in Ukraine show that idealist’s expectations and predictions are utopian. Russia’s biased interpretation and misperception of Ukrainian democratic uprising against totalitarian and corrupted President Yanukovych caused serious tension between Russia and the West Alliance. Moscow escalates the situation and mistakenly considers the democratic movement as a threat to their national security (idea about possible expansion of the NATO to the East). Miscommunication, mistrust, suspicion, uncertainty and failure of diplomacy triggered Russia-Ukraine conflict. Moreover offensive realist President Putin chose aggressive imperialistic tactic of “first strike” (pre-emptive or preventive attack) and started occupation of Crimea and East part of independent Ukraine. Irrational, inadequate and illogical Russia’s foreign policy against international law might provoke the Ukrainian civil war, Russia-Ukraine war or even Third World War (involving Turkey, Poland, NATO).

John Ackom (MSc Citizenship & Democracy): The actions of the opposition/nationalists to occupy government buildings and streets/parts till the deposed presidents resigns can be explained in the light of realism which see international politics to be a constant struggle or competition in which it is not possible for all parties to benefit; one wins at the expense of the other (win-lose situation). Their decision to engage in dialogue mediated by the European Union, however, can be explained using idealism which thinks that progress is possible through cooperation and that international conflict needs concerted effort from the international community to resolve. Similarly, the Russian occupation of Crimea can be explained using idealism. The theory argues that humans are not by nature evil. Rather, it is the existence of evil institutions like military and ammunitions that provoke individuals and states alike to go to war. By this, the Russians would not have entered Crimea militarily but for their military might. The refusal of the Ukrainian military to surrender in Crimea together with the Russian invasion gives meaning to the realist prescriptions that loyalties of allies should never be assumed. Like Machiavelli, the parties seem to agree that ones national security should never be entrusted to any person (mercenaries).

What recent episodes of protest and violence in Venezuela tells the region

Pía Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics

For more than a decade Venezuela has been a focal point in the continental geopolitics. It was in Venezuela where, at the end of the 1990s, the fault lines of the neoliberal model spread opening new possibilities, in theory and practice, for post-neoliberal and socialist experiments across the region. And for more than a decade these experiments seemed to work. According to the World Bank (2014), despite falling growth rates, Latin America continues to successfully reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity. The proportion of the region’s 600 million people living in extreme poverty, defined as a daily income of less than US$2.50, was cut in half between 2003 and 2012 to 12.3 percent. Poverty reduction was accompanied by strong income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population. In the case of Venezuela, a total transformation of the country’s social, political and economic system meant policies leading to a 50 per cent reduction of poverty and a 65 per cent drop in extreme poverty, from the end of 1998 to the end of 2012.

While socially this is undisputable, Venezuela entered a dangerous path of protest/repression that for the last two weeks put its troubles in the spotlight. The way that politics settles in Venezuela will affect the future of the region. This is not an exaggeration. In many ways, the Bolivarian Revolution represented a structure of opportunity for many of the new regional processes such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or that of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC). Not to mention the Venezuelan–led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the project that also gathers Cuba, Dominica Republic, Antigua, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; or blocs such as Petrocaribe, of significant relevance for many Caribbean nations. Politically these blocs still have to take the lead and, at a minimum, pronounce themselves in relation to the crisis in democratic politics in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, just as we have seen in Brazil, Chile and Argentina in recent months, the practice of democratic citizenship in a ‘post-neoliberal’ era is far from consolidated. New episodes of social mobilisation are now effectively expressing unsettled citizenship in Venezuela. This case, perhaps where political contradictions have become more exposed and strained, acts as a reminder of the political malady of the Left: social polarisation and (class) contradictions affecting ‘post-neoliberal’ political experiences in the region. In Venezuela, the attitudes between hardcore opponents and hardcore supporters of the (Chavista) government are well entrenched, with structural and ideological roots that predate the Chávez era. High poverty and inequality due to the misdistribution of oil wealth in the decades prior to Chávez created conditions for a deep class divide.

Current protests in Venezuela reflect discontent with inflation, consumer product shortages and a high crime rate. The international media has reported this at large (see here, here and here), and perhaps more fundamentally, the political tension between president Maduro and opposition leaders. These are immediate motives. Yet, don’t be misled. Violent events in recent weeks speak of subjacent causes held by a deeply polarised society, split in half not because of partisan claims – although certainly elections have strengthened polarisation by institutionalising a zero-sum, winner-take-all political culture– but because of a social fracture amongst Venezuelans who identify only weakly with each (class-anchored) side.

With no elections scheduled for two years, the worst case scenario could be that violence escalates to a point of no return. On the contrary, political settlement will require dialogue and thus toning down the mutually exclusive claims of fascism by the government referring to the opposition, and of tyranny by the opposition speaking about the government.  President Maduro gave some indication of having understood this, calling for dialogue with some sectors of the opposition in search of that elusive and contingent balance so necessary to Venezuela and the rest of the region. Addressing political and social polarisation is key in Venezuela – yet not only- as conservative forces are emerging as a real challenge to current Leftist experiments. Ultimately, it is the very ability of democracy to combine new forces of transformation and resistance which is, once again, at stake in Latin America.