Who Are ‘the People’ in a People’s Constitutional Convention?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


This post is a contribution to a debate at openDemocracy initiated by Stuart White and followed by Alan Renwick’s discussion of institutional designs for such a convention. David Owen’s contribution focuses on the question of who should be included in the People for these purposes.

There are a lot of questions raised by the idea of a People’s Constitutional Convention for the UK. The most fundamental, however, is ‘who are the People?’ for this purpose.

In Stuart White’s initial post and Alan Renwick’s acute reflections on the form of such a convention, they adopt the intuitive response to this question: the People are the (adult) citizens of the UK, which we might imagine to be those who can vote in General Elections. The rationale for this view is straightforward: a constitution sets the terms of a political association; it specifies the basic legal form of citizens’ political relationships to one another. This is a good start but I think for these purposes we need to construe the People a bit more widely.

Consider first that not all UK citizens can vote in General Elections, for example, citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years or prisoners serving custodial sentences. Should they be able to participate? Well, notice first that a constitution applies to all citizens regardless of whether they are resident in the UK or not. Any changes to the constitution are binding on all citizens and change their relationships – so, for example, the result of a UK referendum on EU membership would be binding on all UK citizens whether or not they are resident in the UK, the EU or the wider world. Because a constitution sets the terms of their relationship, the People must include non-resident, as well as resident, citizens.[1]

If we turn to prisoners serving custodial sentences, we should note that even if we think that there may be both principled and pragmatic reasons for refusing voting rights in General Elections for some classes of those convicted of criminal offences, a constitutional convention is a different kind of event, one that stands in a much more intimate relationship to one’s standing as a citizen. The loss of voting rights in a General Election says that one is not a citizen in good standing; the loss of the right to participate in a constitutional convention says that one has no civic standing. So all citizens need to be included in terms of either having a vote for representatives or being in the population from which citizens selected by lot are chosen.

But a constitution doesn’t just set the terms on which citizens relate to one another, it also lays down the ground rules for:

  • What the public actors (aka the State) can and cannot legitimately do in relation to all those who live under its authority, that is, within its territorial jurisdiction.
  • What private actors (individual or corporate) can and cannot legitimately do to other persons in this territory.

Looked at from this angle, everyone who is a resident of (as opposed to a visitor to) the UK has an equally clear and vital interest in being protected from arbitrary exercises of public and private power. Indeed, given that immigrant non-citizens are typically much more exposed to exercises of arbitrary power by the State (perhaps most especially the kind of discretionary power with respect to immigrants currently lodged in the Home Office) and by private actors (perhaps most obviously unscrupulous employers), the case of the inclusion of non-citizen residents is overwhelming.[2] The People needs to encompass residents more generally, not just citizens.

What about non-resident non-citizens? This is a harder issue. It is fairly straightforward to see that this group should be able to make representations to a People’s Constitutional Convention since, in an increasingly interdependent world, their lives are likely to be shaped in part by our actions, but should they have representatives with the decision-making body? Some authors – Ian Shapiro and Robert Goodin, for example[3] – answer in the affirmative. What counts, on this view, is that your morally relevant interests are or may be affected. I am skeptical of this appeal to ‘the all affected interests principle’ as a criterion of democratic inclusion for the reason nicely put by Christopher McMahon:

The people who have a right, under democratic principles, to participate in a decision are not those who are affected by it but those whose actions are guided by it. That is, if the possession of [political] authority is a matter of having a right to direct the actions of some group, democracy is reflexive authority – the generation of authoritative directives by those who will be subject to them. The say in determining a decision that democracy confers is a say in determining what one will do or allow as a member of a group.

Citizens and residents are subject to the authority of the constitution, non-resident, non-citizens are not. This isn’t to say that there are not good moral and epistemic reasons to consult widely with outsiders, there surely are! It is just to say that they need not be included within the People. So non-resident non-citizens should be represented in some way, but probably should not have voting rights in a People’s Constitutional Convention.

Thus far I have treated the People in terms of existing adults, whether citizen or not, resident or not, but ‘the People’ denotes an intergenerational community that exists through time and the decisions, perhaps particularly constitutional decisions, that we make now will shape the world that future generations of UK inherit. If we think about children first as an existent future generation of adult citizens, it is clear first that they have important interests at stake and second that their lives, values and self-understandings as political agents will be significantly shaped by the constitutional character of the UK. Saying simply that they can change the constitution when they reach adulthood fails to acknowledge the fact that they have interests at stake now and that much of their political identity as citizens will already have been formed by then. For these reasons I think that the People needs to encompass the representation of children.

What of not yet existent future generations whom we can envisage only as an indeterminate abstract collective of the yet to be born? It is clear that they, like non-resident non-citizens, will be affected by our decisions – perhaps vitally in respect of whether we include significant environmental norms in any constitution – but should they be represented? In relevant ways, this case looks like the temporal equivalent of the spatial case of non-resident non-citizens and I am inclined to think that they should be treated in the same way, that is, as having rights to make representations to a People’s convention but not be represented within the decision-making People.

If this is cogent, the People for the purpose of a constitutional convention cannot be restricted simply to resident adult citizens. And this expansion of the People has implications for the design of a constitutional convention as well. In order to ensure that the relevant classes of persons are appropriately ‘present’, it is sensible to adopt a design that includes at least some element of structured random selection so that there are not only resident citizens present but also resident non-citizens and non-resident citizens as well as some element of inclusion of governmental representatives such as a Children’s Ombudsman. I therefore favour – in this respect at least – the approach used in Ireland’s recent convention, as discussed by Alan Renwick, as the best way forward for a People’s convention to accommodate an appropriately expansive understanding of the People.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see David Owen, ‘Transnational Citizenship and the Democratic State’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 14: 5, 2011, pages 641-663.

[2] For related observations on access to citizenship for residents, See David Owen (2013) ‘Citizenship and the marginalities of migrants’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16 (3): 26-343 & (2014) ‘Republicanism and the Constitution of Migrant Statuses’

17 (1): 90-110.

[3] Ian Shapiro The Moral Foundations of Politics (New Haven, Yale University Press) pp.219-20 as well as Robert Goodin ‘Enfranchising All Affected Interests, And Its Alternatives’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (1): 40-68.

Why being in government will cost the Tories in 2015. So far UKIP is picking up the spoils

Diptic

By Jane Green and Will Jennings. Jane Green is Professor of Political Science at University of Manchester (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Cross-posted at the APSA British Politics Group Blog.

It has been described as one of the most important unanswered questions in political science: why governments regularly and predictably lose popular support over their time in office. Such is the regularity of ‘costs of governing’ that it appears that governments are simply ‘passive observers’ of their diminishing support, leading to the suspicion that these trends may be almost wholly independent of the performance of a government in office.[1] The implication of costs of governing is stark: it seems to matter little what a government does in office, its decline in popular support is all but guaranteed. Here we consider the implications of costs of governing for the 2015 British general election and summarise our answer to the question of why governments experience these all-important governing costs.

The Implications of Governing Costs for 2015

The Conservatives began their period of government without a majority. What this means, of course, is that the party has to increase its popular support between 2010 and 2015 (and how that is translated into seats) to have a chance of winning a majority in 2015. David Cameron has to buck the ‘costs of governing’ trend if he is to win back support before 2015.

That isn’t looking likely. Vote intentions towards the Conservatives since June 2010 have followed the predictable pattern of governing costs that we identify in all countries for which regular polling data are available. The following two figures show (a) the decline in vote intention for the Conservatives since June 2010 (the average of all available polls for each month), and (b) the decline and curve that best fits the data for governing party support across 79 government lifecycles in 31 countries. The first figure plots vote intention for the Conservatives over the course of this parliament by month, the second plots vote intention over often much longer time periods by year.

(a) Conservative Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_CON

(b) Governing party vote intention (79 governing periods, 31 countries)

COG

The high level of support (or honeymoon) at the start of Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010, and the loss of support thereafter, is consistent with the trend we find exhibited in the largest collection of cross-national over-time poll data it is currently possible to analyse.

UKIP are the beneficiaries

What is striking to us is that the only pattern in the last four years which doesn’t entirely fit our conventional expectations is the following. Whereas we would usually expect the major party of opposition to be the beneficiary of declining trust and support for the government, it is UKIP rather than Labour that appears to be capitalising on the costs of governing for the Conservatives (the Liberal Democrats’ support collapsed early in the parliament and has been flat lining around 10% or less since). The following figures display (c) vote intentions for Labour between June 2010 and August 2014, and (d) vote intentions to UKIP in the same period (again taking the average of all polls in both cases). We can see that although Labour received a boost to its support in the first 2-3 years of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition – a pattern we would have predicted – it has steadily lost that support since 2013. UKIP, by contrast, has witnessed a significant gain in popular support over the same period.

(c) Labour Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_LAB

(d) UKIP vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_UKIP

A reading of recent British public opinion data may be interpreted simply that Conservative voters are moving over to UKIP due to UKIP’s policy and rhetorical appeal, and latterly Labour voters too. But looking at these data in the context of cross-national and over-time trends in costs of governing suggest something more profound may be happening. The Conservative Party should have been expected to lose its support. That support could have gone to the Lib Dems, to Labour, to UKIP or to being undecided. It is a signal of the distrust in mainstream politics that the predictable costs of governing have resulted in rewards to UKIP. Labour would have been the beneficiaries under usual expectations but on the face of public opinion alone, the trends point to UKIP as the classic party of opposition. This is in a context whereby the Liberal Democrats cannot pick up those opposition party spoils. The anti-politics mood in Britain may be fundamentally shifting the winners and losers of some of the most important and conventional trends we are aware of in political science.

The Conservative Party may experience an uptick in support as we near the 2015 election. The tendency of some incumbent parties to experience an uptick can be seen in the modest U-shape curve in Figure (b) above. But any uptick to the Conservatives won’t reverse the fundamental trends that we highlight above.

Explaining Costs of Governing

Costs of governing are surprisingly poorly understood, despite their prevalence and their profound implications. The reason for this has been an absence of data on public perceptions of party and government performance. Our recent paper for the annual conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group of the Political Studies Association sets out new explanations for the decline in governing party support using a unique data set we have collated on subjective performance evaluations of governing parties by British, American, Canadian, Australian and German voters. This draws on over 10,000 individual survey questions asked over as many as 65 years (a measure we call ‘macro-competence’). For more information see http://www.competence-politics.co.uk.

The first explanation for costs of governing concerns the initial honeymoon period; the high from which governing costs occur. We find that the early period of a new government is characterised by blame to the government’s predecessor; an effect that lasts around one typical election cycle (of 4-5 years). This means that Gordon Brown’s government will have been blamed for the first years of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with that effect unlikely to persist into and beyond 2015.

The second explanation concerns how blame accumulates to the incumbent government. As a government continues its period in office, blame begins to stick, and the effects of negative information stick more than positive information. As governments are seen as performing badly, we show that this has a significantly greater effect on vote intention than positive changes in perceived government performance or competence. This negative information accumulates over a government’s time in office. Mistakes, policy disasters and scandals remain in the minds of voters long after politicians have moved on. In our paper we reveal that the addition of a new negative change in governing party competence, and another new negative change, each has a unique effect. The final innovative theoretical (and evidence-based) expectation is that there is a saturation point in the effect of competence evaluations. Negative competence effects begin to weaken after ‘shocks’ accumulate above a certain level, as voters make up their mind that a government cannot be trusted – and their attitudes become fixed in stone. In the case of the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, our analysis explains how information about bad performance has been weighed more heavily than information about good, and how this information accumulates until the electorate no longer has trust in the government to deliver on its objectives. This is consistent with the gradual decline in Conservative Party support displayed above between June 2010 and August 2014. It is also notable that the costs of governing have happened for the Conservatives very quickly in relation to the amount of time they have actually served in office. The early ‘omni-shambles’ and the unpopularity of austerity measures may well have contributed to this, as well as their relatively low starting point at from May 2010.

[1] Here we paraphrase the observations of Stimson (1976) in his analysis of declines in presidential approval.

How Argentina’s Government Has Drawn New Energy from the Vulture Fund Crisis

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


Sovereign debt, crises and default have been regular features of the Argentine economy for years – but the latest debt crisis, involving the government and the so-called “vulture funds”, has thrown up new questions about the state’s capacity versus the ethics of capitalism.

Vulture funds are private creditors who deliberately took up cut-price Argentine bonds after the 2002 collapse, then refused to renegotiate their terms in 2005 and 2010 when the country entered a process of debt restructuring – all with the aim of eventually litigating against default and reaping exorbitant profits.

Accordingly, these creditors had been demanding the full value of the debt on which they had originally speculated. At the end of July this year, in the latest twist in its fiscal saga, Argentina was declared to be in default for the second time in 12 years.

Defaults are always economically damaging and politically destabilising, particularly in a context of inflation and growing political and social malaise. But the irony this year is that, unlike December 2001, today’s markets seem relatively untroubled by the event – and that rather than putting the government on the ropes, the current financial crisis is apparently shoring up the dominance of the Kirchnerist project.

imagesThe bad old days

The background to all this is Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001-2002, precipitated by what was then the biggest sovereign debt default in history.

Argentina was at a critical juncture; its public debt as a percentage of GDP reached 166%, the nation was facing abrupt pauperisation, road blocks, and factory takeovers; its leaders were struggling to preserve social cohesion. Two months after Argentina defaulted, the value of the peso dropped by more than a third.

Cross-class demands for more inclusive and responsive democracy screamed “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with all of them”), expressing the enormous gap that had opened up between government and society.

As the country’s whole political economic order collapsed, presidents came and went in quick succession – until a temporary parliament-led government under the Peronist former leader of Congress, Eduardo Duhalde, assumed some degree of institutional command. That administration eventually gave way to the elected government of Nestor Kirchner in May 2003.

Fixing it up

The challenges facing the new government were huge. A judicious devaluation of the peso in January 2002, however, led to a considerable expansion of exports, especially agro/industrial ones, greatly boosting state revenues. Systematic renegotiations of the terms of privatised companies and nationalisations followed suit. Negotiations also began with creditors of 152 different bonds series, issued under several jurisdictions.

In 2005 and 2010, a deal brought the country’s default to a successful close, with 93% of creditors accepting new bonds worth 30 cents on the dollar. The remaining 7% of “hold-out” creditors rejected the offer, demanding payment in full. The government also sought independence from the IMF, cancelling off the debt and creating an image of a sovereign state, with greater room for manoeuvre than was possible in the previous decades.

A more confident and better-resourced government was often accompanied by controversial forms of social and political incorporation. Like Menem in the 1990s, the administrations of Nestor Kirchner, followed by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, concentrated heavily on reinforcing executive authority, took timely yet bold initiatives and advanced controversial forms of government interventionism.

This strategy paid off by doing something to alleviate widespread poverty, inequality and exclusion. But whatever the social gains, the cost has been economic stress, distributional pressures and badly weakened political institutions.

Betting the farm

The political strength of the government has been tested to the extreme by two main forces: farmers and vulture funds.

In 2008, during a state decision to increase agro-export taxes to reflect fluctuating commodity prices, landowners and farm-based groups organised lock-outs, road blocks and the destruction of crops bound for market, until the export tax was settled.

To this day, conservative and reactionary rural factions play a massive and direct role in shaping policy, even while supporting the political opposition. In a flailing economy that has failed to diversify its industrial base and is highly dependent on the primary sector, this is not a minor concern.

Argentina is now stuck with recession, high inflation and, over the past year, the pressure of an unstable peso and the black market for dollars. All this, combined with the gloomy global environment, leaves the country increasingly dependent on foreign capital to maintain growth, employment and price stability.

Under pressure

Factions outside the government have increasingly joined forces in the renewed legal battle being waged on behalf of the vulture funds – and litigation from hold-out creditors, which has persisted for more than a decade, now carries the weight of the US Supreme Court, which in July upheld a decision ruling that Argentina is legally obliged to repay its American hold-out creditors in full.

This took a Kafkaesque turn when the Argentine government deposited the bondholders’ payment into US-based financial intermediaries, only to be blocked by US district judge, Thomas Griesa, alleging that payments could not be processed at all unless settled directly with the vulture funds. As a result, Argentina defaulted.

Legally, Judge Griesa’s sentence is widely believed to be impracticable: agreement with vultures means last-to-come-in creditors get the best deal, which would send Argentina into an economic tailspin based on an contorted interpretation of the legal principle of pari passu.pdf) (equal treatment of creditors).

So, full payment: politically unlikely and economically impossible. The government will need to weigh Argentine laws and citizens versus US laws and investors – a fiendish balancing act for a government that has invested all its political capital in opposing the vultures at all costs.

Paradox

The case against the vulture funds has had a huge impact on the economic agenda not just in Argentina, but also internationally: in early September, the United Nations General Assembly began work to establish a new international convention regulating the restructuring of sovereign debt.

Meanwhile, the political fallout of the crisis at home has paradoxically been largely to the benefit of term-limited president Cristina Kirchner, reasserting her centrality in politics just as she was losing her clout in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

The struggle against the hold-out creditors is being played out electorally through social mobilisation. This is just what happened in the 2008 conflict with the farmers; Cristina Kirchner’s strategy was to appeal to the urban working class. She pointed out farmers’ relative prosperity and stoked fears that popular social programmes would have to be eliminated if they got their way – even publicly calling them “greedy” and “coup-plotters”.

The Kirchner administration is now once again back on its old mettle, appealing to citizens with the slogan “Patria o Buitres” (“homeland or vultures”), a binary definition that suits her barnstorming rhetoric and mocks casino capitalism and those who support it. Her political opposition is back on the defensive – and her government perhaps reinvigorated – even as she grapples with the thorniest crisis of her tenure.

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. – Ed.]

What can the UK learn from the aftermath of Quebec’s two independence referendums?

Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


No does not mean the Scottish Independence movement is dead

Quebec has had two independence referendums. The first was in 1980 when Quebec’s nationalist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was the provincial government for the first time. The “no” side won that vote 60% – 40%. Despite losing, the PQ won the next Provincial election, and the nationalist party has held power in Quebec for 15 of the 35 years since. The 1980 referendum consolidated the electoral base of the PQ. The SNP can look on the results of the referendum as evidence that a significant bloc of voters in Scotland support independence. The SNP can now count on this 45% of the electorate to be their political base for the foreseeable future. While we may not see another Scottish independence vote for 15 years, questions about Scottish nationalism will be central to both Scottish and Westminster politics for the foreseeable future. Even without another referendum on the horizon, the threat of a referendum in the future is likely to be a key political lever that the SNP can use to extract more political concessions from Westminster.

No votes result in constitutional changes

In the closing days of the 1980 Quebec referendum, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to reform the Canadian Constitution should the No side win. This promise, combined with the no vote, led to fifteen years of debate over constitutional reforms that culminated in the second, much closer Quebec referendum in 1995. In the intervening years Canada ratified the 1982 Constitution Act that significantly revamped the constitution. Two other major reform proposals – the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord – were both defeated in acrimonious political processes. After the 1995 referendum there were further constitutional changes brought about via devolution of powers from the Federal Government to Quebec, a reference question to the Canadian Supreme Court concerning the procedures for Quebec secession in the event of a no vote, and the controversial passage a the Clarity Act, designed to spell out the terms for any future Quebec referendum on independence. Independence referendums won by the “no” side do not mean a return to the status quo ante. In order for a referendum on independence to be held, a plurality of voters will have already elected a party favouring a referendum. This means that there is significant pressure on the central government to accede to some of the demands of the independence movement. The Scottish referendum is not the end of constitutional struggles in the UK. We can expect the referendum to mark the beginning of a period of debate over devolution and constitutional reform. Constitutional reform will be a major issue in the Parliamentary elections next year.

Asymmetrical devolution to Scotland will alienate other UK constituencies

The constitutional debates in Canada led to a series of political crises between the province of Quebec, the Canadian federal government, and the other provinces. Attempts to meet some of Quebec’s constitutional demands were immediately met by complaints from other Canadian provinces and leaders of Canada’s First Nations that these deals were unfairly favouring Quebeckers. Similarly in Britain, David Cameron’s speech after the referendum in which he put the issue of greater devolution to Scotland and the other nations in the UK on the agenda was immediately greeted by complaints from ring-wing politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that these plans for devolution were fundamentally unfair to the English.

The promises made by the Westminster political party leaders in their pre-referendum “Vow” have immediately revived the “English Question/West Lothian Question” on devolution of powers. Why should the Scottish MPs in Westminster be permitted to vote on bills that do not affect them because the relevant power has already been devolved to Holyrood? This issue will be the trickiest in any future constitutional changes in the UK. At the moment there are three possible answers to the “English Question”: 1) Excluding Westminster MPs from constituencies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales from voting on bills that only concern English constituents. 2) The creation of an English Parliament similar in power and scope to the other national assemblies 3) The creation of nine regional assemblies in England with powers similar in scope to the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these proposals has significant advantages and disadvantages. Any of them would be politically difficult to implement because of fierce opposition from entrenched interests. Failure to resolve the English Question is likely to provoke an English political backlash against Scotland. Yet using the English Question as an excuse for not devolving further political powers to Scotland will only make a future referendum on Scottish independence more likely.

Devolving Power to Scotland will make independence less likely in the long term

The final, and perhaps most significant lesson that the UK can take from Canada, is that Quebec is still in the confederation. This seemed extremely unlikely to most Canadians in 1995. Paradoxically, by devolving more power to Quebec in response to the demands of the nationalist movement, the Canadian government has made Quebec secession less likely. Why? Like the SNP, in between referendum campaigns, Quebec’s PQ has had to use its provincial powers to govern. By having greater autonomy to implement its preferred social, cultural, and economic policies at the provincial level, the PQ has been able to construct a social democratic polity that it had initially envisioned for its post-independence polity. As such, many Quebec voters feel that they have been able to achieve their vision for a distinct Quebec society without having to bear the risks that would go with independence. In addition, the longer that the PQ has been one of the major political parties in Quebec, the more experience Quebec voters have had with it as a governing party. And the more experience voters have with the PQ as a governing party, the more the electorate views the party as no different from other mainstream parties. This in turn makes it more difficult for PQ leadership to claim that Quebec’s problems would be solved if the PQ could govern a sovereign Quebec. A similar dynamic could play out in Scotland. Having held a referendum, voters in Scotland will now be evaluating the SNP on how well it governs. More devolution of powers to Scotland may appease the demands of many who voted yes for independence. It would also enable the SNP greater freedom to construct its vision of Scotland as a Nordic social democracy. The SNP may see this as a way to persuade voters about how successful an independent Scotland would be. However, many soft Scottish nationalists may decide that a more autonomous Scotland can have all of the benefits of an independent Scotland without taking any of the risks of an actual “yes” vote. Furthermore, the longer that the SNP is a governing party, the less it will be able to appeal to voters as an attractive alternative to politics as usual. The more the SNP appears to voters as just one political party among others, the less the Scottish electorate will see independence as offering an alternative to politics as usual.

Constitutional Wrangling after the Independence Referendum

By Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


(Cross-posted at The Conversation. This post first appeared with minor errors, which have been corrected. – Ed.)

The vote, in the end, was decisive, with the Better Together campaign winning with 55% of ballots cast. As a Glaswegian living in Southampton, I’ve watched from afar, saddened not to be in my home nation at this crucial juncture, while amazed at the remarkable political awakening that has taken place these last months. As the politicians have said repeatedly, the No outcome doesn’t mean a return to business as usual, and there are some key things we can take away from all this in terms of constitutional politics in the UK.

First, although the result was decisive, it was not an overwhelming majority. Consider that when this process began, the average support for Scottish independence typically ran at around 30-35% or thereabouts. The Yes campaign succeeded in drawing a significant number of people to their cause, and that is a massive achievement in such a short space of time, given the magnitude of the issue. In particular, the Yes campaign won the vote in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee City, the first two of which in particular are Labour Party heartlands that have borne the brunt of deindustrialization. Scottish Labour strategists looking ahead to the 2015 UK general election will already be wondering about the work they will have to do to maintain these strongholds, and whether those Labour voters who voted Yes will now be more willing to consider opting for the SNP next year. This is important, given how hard it is for any party to gain a Westminster majority.

Second, the Prime Minister has already committed to begin the process of devolving more power to Holyrood, and to exploring the structure of governance throughout the rest of the country, and has said that devolution across the UK will follow the same quick timetable, with a white paper due early next year. That will be a massive undertaking. If it happens, it will demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of the UK constitution, and its pragmatic malleability in the light of popular pressure for change. However, the unanswered question at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the English Question, and it has remained unanswered ever since devolution was rolled out in 1999 and the then Labour government’s plans for English regional devolution failed. The Conservative Party’s McKay Commission has interesting solutions to this question, but it’s far from clear that David Cameron will be able to convince his party to pursue change, because so much depends on the details of those changes, none of which have thus far been spelled out.

Third, this was an astonishing exercise in democratic participation. Turnout stands at a staggering 85%, and it’s clear that people have been engaged in this process who have not been involved in politics for a very long time, if ever. At a time when politicians are maligned, and traditional forms of political participation are in decline, what this referendum result shows is that people take part when they believe that the process will end in a meaningful outcome for their lives, and they are in control of that outcome. It remains to be seen whether the public will stay engaged throughout the months of political negotiation that lie ahead, now that the decision is back in the hands of the ‘political elite’. Crucially, the participation of 16-17 year olds in this referendum may now fuel demands for their inclusion in elections at other levels.

The months ahead will feature much constitutional wrangling and bargaining. Decisions about our constitutional future now lie, once more, in the hands of the professional political class. Those on both sides of the independence referendum debate must now wait to find out how their collective voices will be interpreted

After Scotland

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


The referendum on independence for Scotland has been celebrated as turning point political event which has engaged millions of voters in careful reflection and considered debate about the future of Scotland. Equally there are many who have seen a limited debate, full of bull and bluster and half-truths that gave an impression being stronger on symbolism than substance.

Most appear to agree that the political dynamic of change started in Scotland is likely to spread throughout the United Kingdom whether the final result is a yes or no. How could we ensure that the continuing debate grapples with real issues that should drive a governance debate for citizens living in a complex, post-industrial society, grappling with an uncertain future in a globalised world? Let me offer five principles to govern future discussion.

Local leadership

The first principle should be that citizens need to lead rather than political elites. The study of political reform reveals one hard lesson and that is if political elites drive the choices they tend to choose options that they calculate serve their interests. Governing arrangements, new voting procedures or even issues put to a referendum are determined primarily by calculations about whether their party or leadership will be the beneficiaries. For that reason reforms designed and delivered by political elites often end up disappointing  citizens as they fail to deliver the positive change wanted by the public.

Interdependence

The second principle is any governance solution in the twenty first century has to be multilevel in character. Interdependence is  a reality that cannot  be wished away and our lives are now more integrated with other citizens of the globe in social, economic and cultural terms. Exercising our democratic rights in that context is a more complex challenge than the democracy imagined by eighteenth and nineteenth thinkers. For a lot of the time the best that can be hoped for is influence rather than control but having influence is vital. We need an opportunity for our representatives to sway European and international decisions. But then we need capacity for decision at national but crucially at the local level. Too many tax-raising, policy and economic decisions are currently in the hands of a Westminster elite and if there is an unequivocal message from the Scottish referendum debate it is that such a situation is no longer acceptable or indeed effective as a form of governing.

Subsidiarity

That thought leads directly to the third principle: subsidiarity. Let’s not ask what we can devolve but rather ask what we need to centralise to either national or supranational levels. The arguments for greater localism are overwhelming. First and most important circumstances and needs are different in different localities and the capacity to make the right decisions to get the right economic, social and environmental policies depends on an ability to decide and act at various sub-national levels. Second if we are to regain trust and engagement in democratic political processes the local provides a more viable terrain than national or European level. There are fewer barriers to access facing citizens at the local level, more opportunities to mix social media and face-to-face discussion and greater prospects of sequencing direct democracy initiatives and deliberative forums alongside more traditional representative decision-making. Third when it comes to decisions about wicked long-term issues the local arena can be one where trade-offs can be delivered. When making decisions at sub-national level there is a greater capacity to give the benefit of the doubt to decision makers, thus providing more leeway to tackle difficult and complex issues.

Institutional variety

The fourth principle should be there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to institutional solutions. So if all we get is one person shouting the only answer is an English parliament and another calling for powerful city regions and another yelling devolution for Cornwall we should not be surprised. The socio-economic geography of the UK is complex and its governance requires units for decision-making to match. City regions may be a good fit in some but not all locations and we should be worried if the governing map that emerges after our national and local discussions is not very neat. A good solution is likely to be messy in institutional terms.

Democratic accountability

The fifth principle should be that all these governing options need to match the demands of democratic accountability. There are only complex answers to that issue that also ensure that minority rights and freedoms are protected but it a question that cannot be ducked.  Proponents of city regions for example appear to make their arguments largely on pragmatic grounds in terms of the economic dynamism or economies of scale that will be achieved. Managerial or technical arguments are not enough and any new governing solution has to answer the leading question of twenty first century citizens: how can we have may say and how can we hold decision-makers to account? That question was in the shadows for much of the Scottish independence debate but it needs to be brought to the fore in the future.

Yes campaign still has some way to go to steal it on the finish line

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This is a Scottish independence special of our regular series of posts that reports on the state of support for the parties in Westminster 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 the polls are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the state of public opinion – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the campaign over Scottish independence draws to an acrimonious close, relative calm has returned to the polls after the shock waves caused by the YouGov poll for the Sunday Times earlier in the month, which showed Yes marginally ahead for the first time in many months.

As we explained last week, the method we apply to Westminster polling can also be used to estimate the underlying balance of opinion in Scotland. This involves pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Our approach takes a conservative view of sudden movements in the polls, in part because we produce weekly, rather than daily, estimates of public opinion. This could be seen as a weakness, as our estimates react more slowly to new information. It does, however, mitigate the influences of random noise in the polls and short-term bounces. Of course, there is a possibility that we will miss real last-minute movements in opinion.

Scottish without dk 16-09-14 (1)

Our data cover the period up to Tuesday 16th September. The last ten days of the campaign have seen public opinion stabilise – following a surge in support for the Yes camp over the previous month or so. This week’s estimates put No on 53.0% (up 0.6 points since our last report) and Yes on 47.0% (down 0.6 points). These results are consistent with the levelling-off in support we have seen in the polls.

At this late stage of the campaign, some are quick to talk about “herding” by pollsters, but there is no evidence that pollsters are tweaking their methodologies to avoid being at odds with their competitors. (There also is no evidence that they are not releasing results that are at odds with the polling consensus, the so-called “file-drawer effect” in scientific publishing.) A mundane explanation is rather more likely, that public opinion has settled — with smaller differentials in non-response rates among supporters on both sides — and that the polls are converging on the result. While the race is still close, No is the favourite with a clear lead.

We see the same stabilisation in voting intentions if we look at the trend for unadjusted responses below (undecided voters are not plotted on our graph). As we showed last week, No support has remained steady in the polls for some time, and movements in the headline figures appear to have largely been driven by Yes winning over “don’t knows”. With support for both Yes and No static in the last week or so, it may be that the pool of potential switchers has substantially diminished – and the campaigns are now fighting over scraps. While our estimates suggest 11.2% are still undecided, the recent upward trend in support for Yes presumably means that the remaining undecided voters are more evenly split between Yes and No. As it stands the Yes campaign still has some way to go to steal it on the finish line.

Scottish with dk 16-09-14 (1)

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that opinion in Scotland is divided. It remains possible that the polls might be wrong – with very high turnout and differential response rates (or the “shy Noes”) being potential confounding factors for pollsters. Indeed, past evidence suggests an underestimation of No support is somewhat more likely. What we know for sure is that once random noise is accounted for, the polls give a clear signal of who is ahead. Of course our approach is not without uncertainty. The measurement of “house effects” is based on differences between pollsters across the entire campaign, but it is possible that these have changed in the last few weeks as the electorate has become increasingly engaged. Most crucially, the confidence of our estimates assumes the polls are, on average, not systematically biased in favour of either Yes or No, which we cannot be sure is true. Despite every final poll pointing towards a No vote, the true balance of public opinion on Scottish independence could be different. A Yes vote might prompt the sort of inquiry among pollsters that followed the 1992 general election disaster (where polls put Labour well ahead right up to Election Day) – though the breakup of the United Kingdom might be a little more pressing than a debate over survey methodologies.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Parties and Anti-Politics

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

Let us admit immediately anti-politics is not easy to respond to or understand. It is now some five years since the expenses scandal broke unleashing an already building undercurrent of dissatisfaction to become a storm of contempt for the political class. Some of the confusion of the political class likely stems from the difficulty of pinpointing a single or direct cause of growing political disengagement and disenchantment. Instead, each of the political parties tends to see anti-politics in its own image, and through the lens of what it would like to believe rather than what it is. But the evidence we have suggests that from the perspective of citizens none of them has the solution to anti-politics in their grasp.

1) UKIP

In many respects, UKIP have the most straightforward relationship with anti-politics. The party has an intuitive grasp of the scale and intensity of public discontentment with the political class and the appeal of populist policies. This makes it highly effective in presenting itself as political outsiders disconnected from the Westminster bubble – and pulling off the tightrope act of appealing to right-wing Eurosceptic former Conservatives and traditional economically disadvantaged Labour supporters at the same time. It also helps them deflect criticism and media scrutiny, such as on the ill-discipline by local councillors and candidates, as snobbish and elitist bullying from the political establishment. UKIP’s empathy for anti-politics is superficial, however. While effective in channelling the sentiment of protest into votes at the ballot box, their style of politics and policy do not address the problems of political discontentment at its roots, and are likely to disappoint in the long-term. The UKIP project itself stems from a carefully media managed outsider image and populist rhetoric, dominated by the charismatic Nigel Farage, that has learned much from the spin operations of the Blair and Cameron teams. For UKIP, anti-politics is something to be exploited: they are more the symptom of anti-politics rather than offering a thick understanding or treatment for its causes.

2) Conservatives

The Conservatives hope that anti-politics will just go away when the good times return. A recent blog by Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, recounts the tale of a wargame organised in Westminster during the autumn of 2010 “to consider the likely dynamics of the next five years”. His contemporaneous notes of the exercise make for interesting reading in the likely scenarios identified for anti-politics sentiment among citizens. These reveal a troubling complacency, with the ideal future scenario identified by the ‘Cameroons’ in the room (as Cummings calls them) as being simply “anti-politics dies away”;  as if this widespread sentiment was a passing fad rather than a more entrenched mood requiring serious reflection and solutions. Part of this misplaced optimism might be put down to the ‘too-clever-by-half’ tendencies of their professionalised brand of politics, as well as cultural disconnect that gives limited understanding of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (unhelped by toxic stories that suggest a financial existence beyond the imagination of most voters; such as the recent retirement of a Conservative minister complaining his family was unable to manage on a six-figure income). This disconnect is fuelled through recruitment of a modern professional political class that looks and thinks little like its voters. The modern politician, and their army of special advisors, has been taught a number of ‘iron laws’ of politics that must be followed for electoral victory.

In some respects the teaching of politics must take some of the blame here, in its role in socialising aspiring politicians in the rational choice view of the world that individuals favour economic self-interest above all else. Subscription to aphorisms like ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has led to over-simplistic diagnoses of the problem, as well as a more general subscription to gimmick politics – giveaways to groups of target voters (a political art put as much to use by George Osborne as Gordon Brown). The recent Coastal Communities fund is one such example, with government subsidies targeted at prime UKIP territory without addressing the underlying causes of economic decline. The Conservative stance on immigration typifies the downward spiral created by strategic and presentational politics. Although a fruitful issue for hammering the Blair and Brown governments when it was in opposition, immigration is an issue that most voters will never trust the government to deliver on, but it keeps on trying. To keep ramping up the anti-migration rhetoric simply feeds anti-politics sentiment and cynicism (it is no coincidence that the only prominent figures to recently make the case for immigration are retired politicians – Tony Blair and Sir John Major – with no need to play the populist card to the tabloid audience). The Conservatives’ liking for news management is also evidenced in the short-term attention span of their responses to foreign policy issues – such as Russia and EU reform – where there is a rush to take rhetorical positions without much thought to the long-term consequences of symbolic politics. Cameron’s infamous EU veto in 2011 did nothing to undercut the rise of UKIP, and much like immigration arguably served to embolden them and feed a cynical public.

Anti-politics predate the economic crisis of the last few years and as such to imagine it will go away when the good times roll is naive.

3) Labour

Labour’s relationship with anti-politics is somewhat different. They have struggled to understand it when in government – perhaps focusing more on their own policy achievements in office than the emergence of political discontentment. Now in opposition Labour likes to pretend they are not part of it, such as Miliband’s recent speech lambasting presentational politics. “I’m not from central casting; I’m the one with bold ideas and deep thinking” is the plea from Labour’s leader. But does that get to the heart of the issue or represent a form of post-spin spin?

Labour are imprisoned by the necessities of political warfare and news management. Their response to anti-politics is muddled again because of the instinct for safe professional strategic politics that won’t scare voters off. There is good reason for this, with a media environment that is unsympathetic to the party or its leader. In many respects, Labour is the biggest puzzle of anti-politics, as this should be something it can deliver on better than anyone (and arguably should benefit the party most electorally given the demographic of the anti-politickers). However, it has struggled to offer a narrative that links anti-politics to a positive message that might offset the alienation that many voters feel due both to their experience of the democratic process and an economic existence which is increasingly precarious – with falling real wages, less secure employment, longer hours and immobility for those who can’t get on the employment or housing ladder early on in life. Labour’s failing on anti-politics is thus more about its inability to come up with imaginative and convincing solutions that address these problems.

Collectively, Labour want to get anti-politics, but have been unable to join the dots between aspects of their own modernisation project, which intentionally distanced them from the ‘left-behind’ (their traditional base, the shrinking working class part of the electorate whose experience is increasingly economically and culturally distant from the political class in Westminster), and the reason why many people feel disenfranchised from political representation. The Blairite project was hugely successful as an electoral strategy, but left many communities with few economic or political prospects – as the economic and political gravity of Britain shifted towards London under its watch (and has continued to move in that direction ever since).

4) Liberal Democrats

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

None of the main parties get anti-politics. Perhaps some of the truths of anti-politics remain too hard for those working at the coalface of politics to hear. In certain respects this is understandable, party activists and leaders have committed their lives to participating in politics and must find it hard to empathise with those who see no benefit or virtue in politics. The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. Each false dawn risks alienating the public further. There is little sense from the evidence about anti-politics that most citizens see the solution as them becoming more active, taking more decisions, sitting on more committees or taking part in referenda. There is some push for having more of say but the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.

Enhancing Rights and Equity in Health: What Difference Can South American Regional Diplomacy Make?

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


The United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation last Friday must be taken as an opportunity to reflect about the place and opportunities for regional organisations in the South to provide leadership and direction in support of the right to health, equity and alternative practices of global (health) governance.

Back in 2005, during the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, left-leaning Heads of State and anti-globalisation movements expressed their rejection to the US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and brought to a close its negotiations. At the same time, South American leaders sealed a new deal towards alternatives modalities of regional governance. The birth of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should be seen in this light. UNASUR crystallised as an ambitious integration project with renewed commitments on democratic principles, inclusion and human rights. Health in this context became a ‘locus for integration’ and a new framework to advance the right to health and legal paradigms linking citizenship and health.[1] To varying extents, UNASUR institutionalised regional theme-specific networks and country-based working groups to implement health projects, enabled spaces for knowledge exchange and regional strategies for medicine production and commercialisation, and helped coordinating common positions acting as a global player in the advocacy of health equity.

Nearly a decade after that meeting in Mar del Plata, has UNASUR diplomacy enhanced the right to health? Last June, at a speech for the 35th biannual conference for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), General Secretary, Alicia Bárcena stated, “cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean is at a turning point, as the region still needs aid, but is also able to provide aid.”[2] Indeed, better-resourced and more confident Latin American governments are not only recipients and providers of aid but also carving out new spaces in global health diplomacy. 

Regional health diplomacy: UNASUR as norm-entrepreneur?

Tackling germs, negotiating norms, and securing access to medicines are persistent challenges that disproportionally affect developing countries’ participation in global health governance. Furthermore, over the last two decades, the excessive focus on global pandemics and security in global health diplomacy, rendered peripheral diseases that usually strike the poor and vulnerable, creating situations of marginalisation and inequality across societies. In other words, what is ‘visible’ and ‘urgent’ – what defines risks and ‘high politics’ in health to use the language of International Relations – leads over what is ‘marginal’. Furthermore, who frames what and why depends on how actors, including government officials, non-governmental organisations (e.g. Medicins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, the Gates Foundations), institutions (e.g. World Health Organisation, World Bank, UNICEF, UNAIDS), public-private partnerships (e.g. GAVI), position and negotiate interests in global health governance.

Since 2010, UNASUR took up this glove acting as a corrective to the side-lining of rights on account of risk/security concerns in international health politics. One of the first positions taken by UNASUR at the WHO was concerning the impact intellectual property rights on access to medicines and the monopolist position of pharmaceutical companies on price setting and generics. Led by Ecuador and Argentina, UNASUR successfully advanced discussions on the role of the WHO in combating counterfeit medical products in partnership with the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), an agency led by Big Pharma and the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) and funded by developed countries engaged in intellectual property rights enforcement. Controversies focused on the legitimacy of IMPACT and its actions seen as led by technical rather than sanitary interests, unfairly restricting the marketing of generic products in the developing world. At the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010, UNASUR successfully proposed that an intergovernmental group replaced IMPACT to act on, and prevent, counterfeiting of medical products. This resolution was approved at the 65th World Health Assembly in May 2012. In the course of this meeting, UNASUR also lobbied for opening negotiations for a binding agreement on financial support and research enhancing to meet the needs of developing countries.

More recently, led by the Ecuadorian delegation, UNASUR presented to discussion at the WHO an action plan which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people with disabilities. This action plan was successfully taken up at the 67th session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, in May 2014, when the WHO’s 2014-2021 Disability Action Plan was approved.[3] This plan focuses on assisting regional WHO member countries with less-advanced disability and rehabilitation programs and will be carried out by the WHO in conjunction with regional organisations such as: Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Central American Integration System (SICA), Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and UNASUR. This is not a minor issue as in countries that bear a ‘double burden’ of epidemic communicable diseases and chronic non-transmissible diseases. Supporting these developments, the South American Institute of Health Governance, UNASUR’s health think-tank, provides policy-oriented research, fostering debate and capacity building for policy-makers and negotiators in light of the post-2015 Development Agenda.

The limits of a broker

The presence of UNASUR in this type of health diplomacy, and its coordinated efforts to redefine rules of participation and representation in the governing of global health, are indicative of a new rationale in regional integration and regional policy-making in Latin America. These actions create new spaces for policy coordination and collective action where regional institutions become an opportunity for practitioners, academics and policy makers to collaborate and network in support of better access to healthcare, services and policy-making. For negotiators, UNASUR structures practices to enhance leverage in international negotiations for better access to medicines and research and development funding, as well as better representation of developing countries in international health governance. For advocacy actors, UNASUR represents a new normative platform for claiming and advancing the right to health within the region while at the same time attempting to establish itself as a broker between national needs and global norms, a political pathway that differs from the position held by Latin America in the past.

The experience of UNASUR opens an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the ways regional organisations address rights-based concerns affecting ordinary people. It also teaches some important lessons while it highlights a troubling paradox. First, region should be seen as a space where politics and policy happens within a geographical space as much as trans-border actor with a unique capacity to rework and contest norms. Second, scholars interested in agenda setting in global politics, who often place attention to the dominance of powerful Northern-based actors, should address new corridors of diffusion and the agency of Southern regional arrangements as norm entrepreneurs advancing (human) rights. Researchers and practitioners interested in rights-based governance and development can’t afford to ignore Southern regional formation ambitions and their attempts rework global norms. Finally, innovative diplomatic intervention and South-South cooperation promoting rights, and the normative agency of regional organisation while must not be romanticised should neither be trivialised.

There however is a paradox at the heart of regional defense of equity. Normative claims about the morality of rights as an overarching approach to governance must not down-play politics. While UNASUR advocates health rights globally, regional frameworks pushing for reforms towards universal health systems are significantly filtered by quite conservative practices at the national level of politics. Translating normative principles into state action in support of better access to health care and medicines across Latin America remains uneven, affecting the bearers of (human) rights in different ways. This is reinforced by the absence of binding institutional mechanisms supporting fluent corridors of regional-national policy making.

Just as in Mar del Plata when the people (pueblos) buried the US-led FTAA ambitions, it is time to rethink not only whether a regional organisation such as UNASUR can itself become an entrepreneur advancing rights to health globally, but also how it can broker the right to, and universalisation of, health addressing the needs of economically and socially vulnerable populations through state action and reforms within the boundaries of member states.

[1] UNASUR Constitutional Treaty, at http://www.comunidadandina.org/unasur/tratado_constitutivo.htm, (3/3/2014)

[2] See http://periododesesiones.cepal.org/en/news/alicia-barcena-cooperation-region-turning-point (11/9/14)

[3] See http://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/4875-ecuador-pushes-for-greater-south-south-cooperation-and-stronger-public-disability-assistance-policies (8/9/2014)