Why the UK Needs Improved Caretaker Conventions Before the May 2015 General Election

By Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. Petra Schleiter is an Associate Professor and Valerie Belu a Masters Student, both at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Their work on the UK’s caretaker conventions has been published at doi:10.1093/pa/gsu027.

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, pending the completion of the coalition negotiations. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year and potentially protracted coalition negotiations. Yet, the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations, which gives rise to considerable risks.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support—between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government formation negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’.[1]

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’.[2] Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.


In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

1. Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011.

2. A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.

You can find the authors’ work on UK’s caretaker conventions here:

Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. forthcoming. “The Challenge of Periods of Caretaker Government in the UK.” Parliamentary Affairs, online first Dec 2014, doi:10.1093/pa/gsu027.

Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. 2014. “How to avoid the Squatter in Downing Street controversy: Improving the caretaker conventions before the 2015 General Election.” The Political Quarterly, 85(4): 454-461.

Hey, the West! Feeling Guilty about the War in Ukraine? That’s OK, Russian Propaganda is World’s Best!

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

Many in the West feel guilty about the war in Ukraine. They think it’s their fault. Well, not literally ‘their’, but the fault of their governments. They believe Russia is merely reacting to American expansive hegemony. Their view is reinforced by the American Realist thinkers, most notably Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Besides, there were some rumours of fascists in the Ukrainian government. And nobody likes fascists, right? I mean fascists in Ukraine. Fascists in many other countries, including Russia, the UK and other Western European countries are fine. And what is with this Ukrainian state anyway, I mean is that even a real state? There is Russian minority there, so there must be two sides to this story, right? That’s what we value about British public debate – there are two sides to every story.

Now, seriously. A Yale University historian Timothy Snyder sheds some light on the key reasons why Russian propaganda has been so effective in pushing its own narrative about the war it wages against the Ukrainian state.

“There are a lot of things that play here. The first is that everybody was surprised. People were surprised by Crimea and it was a shock to think that the whole European order could be destroyed – which is, in fact, what happened. One European state invading another European state was not something which was expected. Because it was surprising, people were legitimately confused for a while.

The second reason Russian propaganda worked very well is that Russian propaganda is not so much about convincing you of its truth, it’s about preventing you from acting quickly. The idea that what happened in Crimea was some kind of civil conflict or that those soldiers were not Russian soldiers – those were obvious lies. But while people in the West were processing them, the invasion and annexation were completed. And then once it was completed, people felt a little stupid how they have been fooled and then they didn’t really want to return to the whole issue.

The third reason why Russian propaganda works is that it is addressed directly to very sensitive points. The Russians understand us, I think, much better than we understand them. And that’s because they’re so much like us, like the Americans. They understand that we are vulnerable to certain things. One of the things that we are particularly vulnerable to is the idea that this is somehow all our fault. So the Russians will hit over and over again the idea that the Americans are responsible.

And this is confusing for the Americans, but for the Europeans it’s divisive, because many European will think: “Ok. Well, America is responsible. We don’t have to do anything. Maybe we should blame the Americans for the whole thing.”

The fourth reason why Russian propaganda tends to work is the way western journalism works. Western journalists generally think there are two sides to every story. If the Ukrainians are very bad in getting their side across, which they generally are, unfortunately, and the Russians are extremely good at their version, then the Russian version wins even if it’s much further away from reality. And so western journalists sometimes don’t realize how much they are being used.

And the final reason, although this is much weaker now that people went to Kiev, is that people were reporting on the events from Moscow or from far away. In general, journalists and anyone who goes to Kiev or Ukraine in general report extremely well. So really just going there is often enough.”

Emphases added.

Full interview available here.

The Impact of Anti-politics on the UK General Election 2015



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.

In a Public Policy @ Southampton briefing in Westminster today (slides here), Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker present evidence and analysis on the phenomenon of anti-politics and its likely impact on the 2015 General Election. The “anti-politics” phenomenon is complex but is reflected in negative attitudes towards mainstream politics and political parties among citizens.

A void has grown between politicians and citizens and we here present longitudinal survey evidence to support that claim. It’s fair to say politics has never been that popular among British citizens. In 1944, 36% thought politicians were mainly out to do the best for their country, in 2014 that figure had dropped to 10%.

That sense of disillusionment is impacting on the General Election in two main ways:

  1. It is driving support for UKIP. The odds of someone voting UKIP are three times higher if they express distrust in politicians. When you include political distrust in a range of models based on the popular and widely accepted Ford and Goodwin thesis, political distrust has the second biggest single effect of any variable – beaten only by wanting to leave the EU (i.e. distrust of politicians has bigger effects on likelihood to vote UKIP than demographic factors, concern about immigration and dislike for the main party leaders). In short our evidence suggests that UKIP support is more about disillusionment with politics than any great cultural gap or lost voters.
  2. It is distorting the choices open to citizens as politicians duck difficult issues given their sense of not being trusted and the marketing rules that dominate the practices of political elites. The policy menus on offer are being distorted by politicians’ perceptions of what is acceptable and unacceptable to say, and aimed at the people who are involved in formal (electoral) politics. Debates about the deficit, austerity and public spending at the core of the General Election are replete with distortions, half-truths and fail to give citizens a real sense of the choices they face.

Political disillusionment does not mean that  citizens have no faith in politics, the issue that citizens have is with the current practice of politics. Our 2013 survey evidence reveals that 63% still think that politicians in government can make a difference and 52% think that they have access to the technical know-how to do so. The problem is that the way that politics is done. Some 80% of citizens that that politicians are too short-termist and focused on chasing favourable headlines, while 72% think they are too self-seeking and beholden to rich and powerful interests.

When it comes to thinking about solutions it’s difficult to imagine that mainstream parties could lead the change but that is exactly what is required. The answer is not to move onto the territory of populist challengers but instead change the way that politics is offered and give citizens real choices. After the election we need citizens’ commissions to be set up so that cross-sections of the public can lead the reform process towards a better politics.

This research is funded under the ESRC research award ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ (Nick Clarke, Gerry Stoker, Will Jennings and Jonathan Moss). See further details here.

Prime Minister and Parliament: Constitutional Implications of a Hung Parliament in 2015

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.

The start of the New Year has sparked fevered debate about the forthcoming May 2015 UK general election, and what the likely outcome of that election will be. The polls still indicate that another hung parliament will be the result, and although experts were confidently predicting a hung parliament well before the 2010 election, this time around there’s a sense that we’re all more mentally prepared for a result that was until recently viewed as exceptional in British electoral politics. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 8 January 2015, the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell reflected on the coalition negotiations that followed in 2010, arguing that things ‘could be even messier’ this May, and that ‘it could take quite a lot longer next time to actually form a government.’ We should take this as the friendly warning that it was designed to be.

In 2010, it took four days for the parties to determine that there could be a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. During that time, when negotiations between these two seemed to be flagging, Labour began discussions to see whether it might form a so-called ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Liberal Democrats and assorted nationalists. Gordon Brown attracted some criticism for remaining in office as Prime Minister for as long as he did, even although this was the constitutionally correct thing to do, to avoid a scenario which embroiled the Queen entirely inappropriately in political matters. Only when it was clear that Brown could no long command the confidence of the House of Commons (the key precept on which Westminster parliamentary government is based), and that Cameron would have to be summoned to form a government in his place (either a coalition or a minority), did Brown meet with the Queen and offer his resignation.

During those four days of negotiation between the political parties, supported and aided by the civil service staff at the Cabinet Office, what we saw on television news was the very turning of the cogs of the British constitution. Previously, the visual cues following a UK general election in which the incumbent party had been defeated involved the outgoing Prime Minister being driven to Buckingham Palace in the ministerial Jaguar while the removal vans lined up around the back of No.10 Downing Street, followed by the triumphant winner following immediately in his or her wake to be invited by the Queen to form a government. The transfer of power, and the investing of governing authority in a Prime Minister, was swift, often brutally so. But in 2010 we were deprived of that speedy transfer of power, and as Gus O’Donnell indicated on the Today programme, the possible permutations that might emerge this coming May could preclude quick coalition negotiations. Depending on how the Conservatives fare, this could prompt debate about whether Cameron ought to remain as Prime Minister and for how long, particularly if the eventual government formed does not look likely to include his party in it.

For a long time, we assumed that there were no meaningful questions regarding what happens following general elections in this country. That is no longer the case. This summer will see the publication of an edited collection called Parliaments and Government Formation: Unpacking Investiture Rules (Oxford University Press), to which I’ve contributed a chapter on the UK, where I map out what it means to invest power in a Prime Minister in the UK political system, and how this process has the potential for considerable complexity in an environment of hung parliaments. If, as Gus O’Donnell has predicted, there are coalition negotiations this May, and they take even longer than they did in 2010, this may prompt broader reflection on the constitutional position of an incumbent Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of a general election. And, as has been the case so often in the recent history of UK constitutional politics, it may be the very process of constitutional change itself which prompts attention to what the rules should, in fact, be.

Haiti’s Revolutionary Past Missing from Post-Earthquake UK News Coverage

By Southampton Media Observatory (@SotonMediaObs).

Today marks the five year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people. The 7.0 magnitude quake struck close to the Haitian capital Port au Prince on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th January, 2010, triggering an unprecedented social disaster. Yet January also holds an older historical significance for the people of Haiti, with the celebration of their Independence on New Year’s Day. In 1804, Haiti freed itself from French colonial rule, ending slavery and becoming the only country in history to be born from a successful slave revolt. However, this unique history is one that is often forgotten and its significance is underplayed.

In fact, the principle reason why the death toll following the earthquake was so high was because of systemic problems within Haiti’s developmental path that are inextricably linked to its fight for independence. However, this relationship is for the most part ignored in UK media coverage. Out of 1363 articles in UK national newspapers in the year following the earthquake (13th January 2010 to 12th January 2011) featuring the keyword ‘Haiti’, only 63 made reference to Haiti’s struggle for independence (Table 1) and only 15 mentioned the indemnity Haiti was subsequently forced to pay to France (Table 2).

Whilst 335 of the 1363 articles mentioned the impoverished nature of Haiti, making it a key frame of reporting (Table 1), only 41 also included a historical reference, with only 24 of these explicitly linking this historical context to poverty in Haiti. (Table 1)

Therefore, despite the direct linkage between disaster scale and poverty, and the readiness to acknowledge Haiti’s poverty in news coverage, UK national newspapers rarely made the connection between the social conditions in which the earthquake struck and Haiti’s historical experience since independence.

This omission is important not only because it makes the explanatory framework of the social disaster incomplete but also because it has potentially negative implications towards public perceptions about Haiti. Indeed, this exclusion is a substantial issue: Paul Farmer (2006, 191-192) notes that Haiti’s “bad press” is problematic “because it obscures Haiti’s real problems, their causes and their possible cures”.

Table 1: Poverty Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles
Poverty 164 115
Poor 154 133
Poorest 153 137
Impoverished 58 55
Bankrupt 6 6
$2 (a day) 24 22
Western hemisphere 86 80
Unique Articles 335
History Mentions 41
Explicit Links 24

Table 2: Independence and Indemnity Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles   Key Word Mentions Articles
Indemnity 3 1 1804 35 34
Reparation(s) 16 10 (1st/oldest) Black Republic 23 19
Compensation 4 3 Slave Rebellion 5 5
Restitution 2 1 Slave Revolt 13 13
Pay for lost colony 1 1 Slave colony 2 2
1825 6 5 Revolt (against slavery) 1 1
1947 9 8 Overthrew (slavery) 4 4
Independence debt 3 1 Independence 39 30
Compensate 2 2 Louverture/L’Ouverture 10 7
Unique Articles 15 Unique Articles 63

In Haiti, a continued lack of development and investment has led to widespread poverty, which is predominantly the result of an extended historical sequence of external and internal exploitation by unaccountable elites, relating back to the country’s very origins as a sovereign state.

The success of Haiti’s slave revolt was deeply troubling for the European powers and the USA who had slave-based colonies and populations. They feared the “contagion of rebellion” spreading and saw Haiti as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order that needed to be actively countered. One dramatic consequence of this was the USA’s refusal to recognise Haiti’s independence, thus limiting its access to international markets. Haiti thereby found itself in an international context of isolation with aggressive moves against it that “aggravated its internal problems and precipitated its economic decline.” In 1825 a massive French armada set out to retake the country; the invasion was only averted by Haitian acceptance to pay a vast indemnity to compensate France for the loss of its slave colony and incomes. By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments for crippling loans borrowed to pay this indemnity. It was not paid off until 1947, which left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

The lack of historical context in UK national newspaper reporting on this key issue means that not only is a major part of the explanation of Haiti’s current plight missing from the narrative, but it also removes the crucial element of the role the world’s major powers have played in undermining Haiti’s development. This omission helps perpetuate an inaccurate public perception of the causes of Haiti’s social vulnerabilities that contributed to the exceedingly high death toll after the 2010 earthquake. This is problematic because an insufficient understanding of the causes inhibits the finding of successful, long-term solutions.

It’s Time to Divest, Before There’s Nothing Left to Burn

By Meg Sherman, a student of Modern History and Politics at University of Southampton.

Climate change has been hitting the political headlines with increasing frequency, and for anyone who accepts the foundational science it is usually an invitation to despair. Proposing yet more standards that shouldn’t be assented to, UKIP have predictably attacked EU targets to close most coal plants by 2020, and as public appetite for an eco-socialist agenda swells in surging support for the Greens and a dissident left, more insincere rhetoric about the environment from incumbents will inevitably be wheeled out as the general election’s motorcade rolls in to 2015.

But what is at stake?

Following the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, governments – some of the most conservative too – agreed in 2010 that a core temperature rise above two degrees is too much. Britain has signed this in to law already and states have provisionally agreed to return to Paris next year to oblige further measures to stop us going beyond that tipping point. Beyond it we will definitely be left dealing with catastrophic and extinction-level events, the human and economic cost and damage of which we can only estimate.

The onus of preventing this outcome is mostly on the fossil fuel market whose supply-side policies are one of the major culprits for current global warming levels. However, longstanding and continued investment in energies like oil, gas and coal remain virtually unquestioned by governments, who nevertheless have the power of regulation. At precisely the time we most need a sense of awareness and connect between policy-makers and the capital-markets cashing in on dirty energy, there is scant political will to call out the investment gamble. Perhaps it’s politically expedient for the current executive that people aren’t aware that their pensions are being used by the top 200 companies to gamble on yet more fossil fuel reserves and inflate the carbon bubble, that is, betting on the likelihood politicians will do nothing.

It will be impossible to meet the aim of keeping temperature rises below 2 degrees without escalating the movement to divest from fossil fuels. To the ends of raising awareness of the Higher Education sector’s complicity in a dangerous and corrupt market, student group Fossil Free published an open letter to Southampton University calling for a conscientious and responsible strategy of divestment like that hard-won in Glasgow.

We are sitting on the technology, capacity and expertise that can harness renewable sources of energy and organize society better by redistributing net wealth, but the insolence of a corrupt political class afraid to stand up to the market, it’s rapacious mode of consumption and disregard for planetary life may in the end destroy everything we’ve ever loved.

Open letter: http://southamptonfossilfree.wordpress.com/

‘Reinvigorating Democracy – learning from the past and looking to the future’: a public event on 8th January 2015

Both the City of Southampton and the Department of Politics and International Relations (PAIR) at the University of Southampton continue to mark their 50th anniversaries this year. 2015 will also celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. As calls for stronger democracy and constitutional change as well as dissatisfaction with politics continue to increase there is no better or more pressing time to discuss the state of democracy.  Southampton City Council and PAIR will be holding a public event on the evening of this Thursday 8th of January at Southampton City Council Chambers to discuss and debate the problems and prospects for democracy at local and national levels in the UK. The event will start at 5pm and will involve short talks from university lecturers, contributions from City Council and audience participation. We would encourage interested members of the public as well as members of the university to come along, listen and contribute their own knowledge and experience.


Prof Gerry Stoker is a frequent distinguished contributor in both national and international media. His expertise covers everything from democratic politics, local and regional governance, urban politics and public participation to public service reform.

Cllr Simon Letts has a rich experience of government in Southampton having first served on the City Council in 1991. He was appointed Leader of the Council in May 2013.

Prof Will Jennings’ expertise covers agenda-setting, public opinion, electoral behaviour, political parties, and the governance of mega-projects and mega-events. His research has made significant contributions to improvements in public policy-making.

Dr Matthew Ryan is an expert in new forms of citizen participation in politics through democratic innovations. He contributes to a number of national and international projects aimed at increasing and deepening public participation in politics.

Cllr Daniel Jeffrey is a successful PAIR graduate. He represents the Sholing Ward and is Cabinet Member for Education and Change.

The Mexican President’s Passing “Moment”

By Ana Carolina Aranda, Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.

Almost two years ago the international press claimed that Mexico was living through a special moment of reform and development (see http://econ.st/T2Woeg and http://nyti.ms/Xsvzlj). After the announcement of passing constitutional reforms, it seemed that Mexico was presenting to international actors an interesting model of development. It was called “The Mexican Moment.” For this moment, after many years, the capacity of the Mexican state was seen as positive by international opinion and the news media. However, today, the same international news media are claiming the end of this “magical” moment (see http://nyti.ms/1szud3L, http://fw.to/ex5GoNe and http://econ.st/1HJzrFd). Did Mexico really undergo a developmental miracle only to now find itself in crisis?

The crisis that the Mexican government is facing today is about an institutional and political crisis rather than the emergence of a focused problem on organized crime and drug dealing policy. First, there is a lack of acceptance by the Mexican government of well-established events and facts. There is a lack of recognition of human rights violations committed against the 43 missing students, as well as other crimes committed in recent years on behalf of Mexico’s war on drugs. Moreover, there is clear weakness in the Mexican rule of law and institutional responsiveness to the corruption embedded in the structure of the state. Secondly, the governments has not given the Mexican people a credible answer to the questions currently being posed. People are reacting to a collapse, a “perfect storm” in Mexican politics, due to the lack of transparency that for many years has been presented in the different presidential administrations.

The kidnapping of 43 Iguala students and the government’s response to this event do not constitute the most dramatic moment that Mexican politics has ever faced. Back in 1994, President Ernesto Zedillo confronted public opinion in one of the most histrionic moments in Mexican politics. However, what was the difference in response between these two administrations? Zedillo’s administration tackled the problem by being as accountable as possible. In fact, under Ernesto’s Zedillos administration, people said that they did not want to hear the president speaking on TV again, as every time he went live he needed to give some bad news. Apparently, the President took a strategy of attacking problems frontally, and this was welcomed by Mexican society. In contrast, the response to this crisis by Peña’s administrations has been less organized and quite unreliable. Their answers to this crisis have been full of contradictions.

The response to the Iguala event was a localization of the problem by the Federal Government. The authorities and institutions of the state of Guerrero were blamed for the disappearance of the students. However, Mexican society did not accept the localization of the problem and it was soon claimed that this was a human rights crime committed by the state at all levels. According to Mexico’s attorney general, the crime was committed by members of a local narco-gang and under the orders of the former mayor of the city. Students from the School of Ayotzinapa were about to protest in a public event held by the wife of the Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca. According to the authorities investigating this case, the officers and police (colluding with the organized crime and Abarca) were told to stop the students from interrupting a speech that was going to be delivered by Ms. Maria de Los Angeles Pineda (Abarca´s wife) on that day. The result of these orders are facts that we already know from the news: 43 students disappeared. However, to this day, none of these facts have been clearly explained. Therefore, a crisis of answerability is in the middle of the problem. Massive protests around the country have started. The protesters blame Peña’s administration and they question its legitimacy.

Local and international newspapers show thousands of people marching in the streets of Mexico. Additionally, through these events, in a moment of opportunity, new and old social protests have joined the street (see http://t.co/NKkgAbiEND). On the 20th of November, thousands of people were convened, mainly through social networks, to protest in different parts of the country and the world against Mexico’s government. However, what was supposed to be a largely peaceful march demanding the return of 43 missing students ended in violence in the capital city. Sadly, the news in Mexico and around the world reported what happened at the end of these demonstrations, showing pictures of violent events in the Zocalo area of Mexico City, but not reporting what happene some hours before when Mexican society organized themselves, walked all along Paseo de la Reforma (one of the main avenues in the city) claiming social, political and economic changes . Clearly, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful but angry. And, this non-conformity is well more than justified.

The popularity level of the president has sunk quite low. Coupled with Ayotzinapa events, some weeks ago Mexico’s President and First Lady Scandal over ‘White House’ mansion came to news, posing a crisis of Mexican government accountability. A house bought by the president’s wife from a state contractor, who was assigned millions of Mexican pesos when Peña was governor. The suspicion of a conflict of interest clouded even more the political situation in Mexico. Moreover, in addition to this scandal some other scandals from other cabinet officials are being opened. Recently, news confirmed that Luis Videgaray, the finance minister, bought a house from the same firm and government contractor, involved in president’s wife scandal. What is more, in both cases, the clearing of facts has not led to the accountability that would be required to convince the people that these situations are being dealt with truthfully and appropriately.

There is a feeling of moral resentment toward the way in which the government has been answering the crisis. In a couple of months, the events will start to lose potency. However, this administration has much work to do if it wishes to restore political and moral credibility. In the electoral year to come, to renew the position of Congress it will be necessary to answer all the questions that have been put to this administration’s credibility. The government’s partial solutions that have been delivered by the cabinet convince only a few. If Peña Nieto’s administration wants to make a transformation of Mexico and convince citizens about the reforms and the future progress of the country, then they must soon change their strategy of action. He must act quickly to re-establish his political credibility.

The presidency of controlled speeches has missed the entire challenge of these crises. Far from having a public response to all the problems presented so far, it ran out of credible answers as soon as this “perfect storm” started. Consequently, I see two potential actions which could help the administration weather this storm. First, the president needs to appear before the nation offering an apology and recognizing the errors committed. There is nothing more exciting than a person in power recognizing his own mortality. We saw it before under Nixon’s administration, and perhaps this recipe can work with Peña Nieto as well. Second, the president must make changes in his cabinet. He needs to remove those people directly involved in the scandals even after some of the facts have been clarified. Clearly and urgently, the president needs to eliminate the shadows that have blurred his administration and recover credibility from Mexican society. What do you think, is there another way for the administration to proceed?

Cuba, the US, and Post-Hegemonic Inter-American Relations

By Pia Riggirozzi and Diana Tussie. Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu) and Diana Tussie is Director of the Department of International Relations at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Argentina. You can find more posts by Pia here.

Normative and geopolitical conditions that for decades secured United States (US) and US-sponsored institutions’ influential position in Inter-American governance have changed. Since the early 2000s ideological polarisation and different approaches to hemispheric governance meant that new regional institutions are reclaiming the region and rebuilding Inter-American relations while forcing the Washington based Organisation of American States (OAS) to redefine its position. The challenge is not merely one of symbolic politics led by left-leaning presidents railing against US domination. US-Latin American relations face a profound change in the coordinates of regional power, diplomacy and cooperation.

For more than a decade now Latin American left-leaning governments have been reworking spaces and institutions that govern Inter-American affairs. Various efforts have been made to create organizations to act as alternatives to Washington-based institutions. The creation of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) in 2004 led by Venezuela and Cuba, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, including the 12 South American nations; or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), including all of the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, should be seen as manifestations in this direction. Both organisations exclude the US or Canada, and are another manifestation of increasingly diversified global engagement of Latin American and Caribbean countries with countries outside the region, particularly China, and growing diplomatic importance of alternative regional bodies fostering new compromises, institutions, funding mechanisms, policies and practices within the region in areas such as security, (political) rights, development, energy, infrastructure and security.

The re-politicisation of the Inter-American order governed at the margins of US power put pressure on Washington and Washington-led institutions, such as the OAS which from being a core institutional disciplinary mechanism is now fighting a place to remain relevant as new rules are being reasserted by CELAC and UNASUR. Diplomacy is being played at its highest stake. While the sixth Summit of the Americas, a process affiliated with the OAS, held in Colombia in April 2012, displayed U.S. divergence from the region in terms of policy toward Cuba and anti-drug strategy, the second CELAC Summit, celebrated last February in Havana, was attended by the OAS General Secretary, José Miguel Insulza.

And the OAS is losing grounds on signature issue-areas. UNASUR has effectively displaced the OAS as the preferred institution for conflict resolution and mediation in the region (Bolivia in 2008, Ecuador in 2010, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, and Venezuela in 2013) and is engaged in innovative forms of ‘niche diplomacy’ representing South America as a whole within the World Health Organisation and vis-à-vis international pharmaceutical corporations. CELAC for its part has entangled the US in a process of ‘unsociable sociability’ with Cuba as the latter hosted the most recent CELAC Summit, one attended by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and OAS Secretary-General, José Miguel Insulza. Cuba is also likely to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas, hosted by Panama, despite US Members of Congress opposition but a condition of other countries´ attendance. This is even more likely as US and Cuba entered a process of diplomatic rapprochement.

The importance of this diplomatic coexistence is to be understood as a recognition of Cuba as an integrated member of the Inter-American system, whether Washington en toute likes it or not. The space for new regional policies and a fresh balance of interests has become manifest, as we indicated when furthering the notion of ‘post-hegemonic regionalism’. Our argument then and now is that differences and disagreements are no longer just a question for “take it or leave it, my friend” but can be accommodated in more equitable ways than hard-line hegemonic diplomacy ever accepted.