Is British democracy facing a legitimacy crisis? It depends what you ask.

By Daniel Devine and Viktor Valgardsson

 

One of the biggest and most debated questions in political science is whether there is a legitimacy crisis. Seminal, widely-cited texts explore the causes and consequences of this apparent crisis, but there is still little agreement on whether there even is a crisis of legitimacy. [1]

 

Such a question should, on first blush, be relatively easy to answer: just collect the responses to surveys and graph the averages over time. And still, there is little agreement over whether there is any decline in perceived legitimacy. What if this is perfectly reasonable: what if the data are actually showing you different answers, despite using essentially the same survey items?

 

Perceptions of democratic legitimacy are usually measured through surveys, primarily using questions measuring items such as ‘satisfaction with democracy’ or ‘trust in parliament’. These ask the respondent, in various ways, to rate how satisfied they are with how democracy works in their country or how much they trust their country’s various political institutions, especially their parliament. Respondents are usually given either a binary or four/five-category response scales, such as ‘trust or do not trust’ or ‘very, fairly, not very, or not at all satisfied’. Almost all existing research on citizens’ attitudes towards their domestic system is measured like this.

 

In this post, we compare two highly respected, high quality, and regularly used surveys that use almost identical survey items to measure democratic satisfaction, a common indicator for democratic legitimacy. We show how the surveys show not only provide different absolute levels, but contradictory trends in democratic satisfaction in Britain. We also show how the likely source is a rather innocuous change in wording.

 

The surveys 

We use the British Election Study (BES) 1997-2017 and the Eurobarometer (EB) 1973-2017. The BES is fielded after every election, whilst the Eurobarometer is fielded every 6 months and within some ad hoc surveys (the ‘special Eurobarometers’). Each BES wave contains a sample size of approximately 3000, and the EB sample size is approximately 1000 per wave. Both surveys are restricted to England, Scotland and Wales.

 

Whilst the BES has six waves (years), coinciding with British general elections, the EB runs almost every year from 1973, excluding 1974, 1975, 1996 and 2008. Although there are often multiple waves in each year, we aggregate the responses according to year.

 

The survey items for democratic satisfaction are presented below and are very similar, particularly in the 1997 BES. Logically, these are identical survey questions and responses. Both the EB and BES are asking whether the respondent is satisfied with the way democracy works in Britain on a scale of 1-4. The main difference is that, in BES 2001-2017, the response is ‘a little/very dissatisfied’ rather than ‘not very/not at all’ satisfied.

 

Survey Question wording Response Categories
BES 1997 On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Britain? Are you … 1. Satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. not very satisfied;

4. or not at all satisfied?

BES 2001-2017 On the whole, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way that democracy works in this country? 1. Very satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. a little dissatisfied;

4. or very dissatisfied?

Eurobarometer 1973-2017 On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in Britain? 1. very satisfied;

2. fairly satisfied;

3. not very satisfied;

4. or not at all satisfied?

 

Is there a legitimacy crisis in Britain?

How do these look over time? For simplicity, we collapse them into binary indicators, where 1 equals ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied, and 0 equals dissatisfied/not very or not at all satisfied. The trends are the same with the original response categories. We then plot the percentage of respondents satisfied within a given year.

 

The two graphs lead to the opposite conclusion. If one were to rely on the BES data, one would indeed find a relatively slow, linear decline in democratic satisfaction. On the other hand, using the Eurobarometer data, one would conclude that there’s been the opposite trend: increasing satisfaction with the way democracy works in Britain.

Graph1

Graph2

It may, however, be misleading since the Eurobarometer is asked so regularly relative to the BES. So, we create mean averages for each year in line with the BES. Even in the year with an essentially identical question and identical response categories (1997), there is a 13-percentage point difference in the absolute levels of democratic satisfaction. This may be down to when the BES is asked – just after an election, and a particularly emphatic one in 1997. More worrying, however, is the continuing divergence in the trends.

 

Year Mean (BES) Mean (EB)
1997 0.74 0.61
2001 0.66 0.61
2005 0.7 0.62
2010 0.62 0.64
2015 0.58 0.65
2017 0.53 0.66

 

Of course, there are other potential measures for democratic legitimacy that we do not look at here and which could present clearer and more consistent pictures of levels and trends of legitimacy in Britain in recent decades (it seems, for instance, political trust shows a steady downward trend in both). However, satisfaction with democracy is a very commonly used measure of democratic support and legitimacy, and these stark discrepancies between reliable sources that survey nationally representative samples in the same country and across overlapping periods is a serious cause for concern. [2]

 

Question wording effects

What could this be down to? It’s well known how seemingly innocuous wording changes in surveys (either in the question or response scale) can drastically alter the responses. Given this, the slight discrepancy in questions might offer one reason for the different trends.

 

Fortunately, the British Election Study 2015 fielded both types of questions, with a self-completion questionnaire complementing the face-to-face interviewing. The self-completion questionnaire contains a question from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems survey which is identical to the Eurobarometer question used above, while the interview includes the original BES question. This provides the best opportunity to take a look at the potential discrepancy in question wording.

 

The table below provides a tabulation of the two questions, with the (rounded) percentages of respondents falling into the different cells. 40% of those who respond they are a ‘little dissatisfied’ in the BES version of the question answered ‘fairly satisfied’ in the Eurobarometer version. More alarmingly, a full 18% of those who say they are ‘very dissatisfied’ answered either fairly or very satisfied. This becomes starker if, as we do in the above graphs, make the variable binary. Approximately a third (34%) of those who are coded as dissatisfied in the BES version are indeed coded as satisfied in the Eurobarometer version of the question. Overall, whilst the correlation between the two is statistically significant, they are only correlated at 55% – lower than would be expected from questions that are intended to measure an identical attitude.

 

BES/CSES Very satisfied Fairly satisfied Not very satisfied Not at all satisfied
Very satisfied 45% 45% 6% 4%
Fairly satisfied 9% 73% 15% 2%
A little dissatisfied 2% 40% 43% 15%
Very dissatisfied 3% 15% 37% 45%

 

Whilst we can’t say for sure, these discrepancies appear to be more than large enough to explain the divergent trends between the two data sets – although can’t explain the large difference in 1997. The question nonetheless remains about why such similar questions, aimed at the same underlying attitude, get significantly different results.

 

What we do know, however, is that the answer to whether there a growing democratic legitimacy crisis in Britain depends on which data you are looking at. This post shows the importance of using multiple indicators and data sets in this type of research and highlights the caution with which we should interpret any findings using any particular measure of satisfaction with democracy.

 

[1]

Dalton, Russell J. Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Newton, Ken. “Trust and Political Disenchantment.” In Political Trust and Disenchantment with Politics: International Perspectives, edited by Christina Eder, Ingvill C. Mochmann, and Markus Quandt, 19–31. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Norris, Pippa. Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

 

[2]

Anderson, Christopher J, and Christine a Guillory. “Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy: A Cross-National Analysis of Consensus and Majoritarian Systems.” The American Political Science Review 91, no. 1 (1997): 66–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/2952259.

Grönlund, Kimmo, and Maija Setaïa. “Political Trust, Satisfaction and Voter Turnout.” Comparative European Politics 5 (2007): 400–422. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.cep.6110113.

Linde, Jonas, and Joakim Ekman. “Satisfaction with democracy: A note on a frequently used indicator in comparative politics.” European Journal of Political Research 42, no. 3 (May 2003): 391–408. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.00089.

Quaranta, Mario, and Sergio Martini. “Does the economy really matter for satisfaction with democracy? Longitudinal and cross-country evidence from the European Union.” Electoral Studies 42 (2016): 164–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2016.02.015.

 

Daniel Devine and Viktor Valgardsson are Ph.D. students at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton. Their doctoral research focuses on voting behaviour and public opinion in Europe.

 

 

Does the personalisation of politics have any benefits for democracy?

BY JACK CORBETT AND WOUTER VEENENDAAL

Democracy in the twenty-first century appears to have reached a fork in the road. On the one hand, over recent decades we have witnessed an explosion in the popularity of democratic norms and values around the globe to the extent that all but two countries label themselves as democracies, which if nothing else indicates how dominant this norm has become. On the other hand, particularly in those states where it is the long-established mode of political decision-making, citizens appear to be deeply disaffected with how democracy is practised. Even putting the election of Donald Trump and the recent Brexit referendum to one side, the long-term trend across Europe and America sees voter turnout declining, political parties struggling to retain members, and professional politicians increasingly despised or deemed untrustworthy. Outside these regions, in new or transitioning democracies, democratization scholars fear that progress has stalled, and that in the absence of strong structural bulwarks against authoritarian rule the triumphant march of democratization may have halted.
The tendency for politics to become dominated by the personalities of its leaders rather than ideology or policy programme is a key theme in this discussion. Most scholars argue it is a rising feature of political life that produces negative effects (see Poguntke & Webb 2005; McAllister 2007; Balmas et al. 2014). In particular, personalization is assumed to negatively affect political representation, because the limited relevance of political ideologies and platforms makes politicians less accountable to their voters. In this view, democracy has arrived at a significant fork in the road. And, worryingly, we don’t appear to know which way to go.

We have been fascinated by these themes because we study very small states (they have population of less than 1 million). As our forthcoming book Democracy in Small States: Persisting Against All Odds shows, personalism is and always has been ubiquitous in societies where citizens and politicians meet and engage with each other on a day-to-day basis. As a result, if personalization is global trend then we have a lot to learn about its effects, negative or otherwise, by studying the way politics works in micro cases. In particular, because small states are, statistically speaking, much more likely to be democratic than large states, personalisation may have unanticipated benefits for the resilience of democratic governance. To explain this resilience, one of the questions we sought to answer in the book is how does domestic politics actually work in small states? And, having established this, does it conform to the negative depiction of personalisation or does the statistical correlation between country size and democratization point to hidden benefits? We studied 39 small states with populations of less than 1 million to answer these questions, conducting over 250 interviews with elite actors in the process. Despite the incredible diversity of these states (they come from five world regions and vary in terms of all the standard variables political scientists use to compare democracies, including levels of economic growth, colonial legacy, institutional design, party system etc.), we found that the practice of politics is remarkably similar. Key characteristics include:
Strong connections between individual leaders and constituents. Rather than being mediated by party systems, in small states voters and politicians have considerable opportunities for direct, personal contact. This tendency is amplified by the overlapping private and professional roles that politicians undertake. Politicians are more than just legislators: they are family or clan members, friends, neighbours, or colleagues.
A limited private sphere. Contemporary democratic politics in large states is characterized by a distinction between public and private, with the institutions that define the former regulating conduct in the latter. In small states, the private sphere is dramatically reduced while the public sphere is expanded beyond the narrow confines of formal institutions. The result is a remarkably transparent political system but also one in which clear lines of accountability are blurred and concern with corruption is magnified.
The limited role of ideology and programmatic policy debate. Leaders are largely elected because of who they are rather than what they stand for. As a result, political contestation focuses on the qualities and characteristics of individual politicians rather than party manifestos. Indeed, a number of Pacific Island states, such as Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia, do not have political parties at all.
Strong political polarization. The absence of ideological difference should theoretically breed consensus but in fact, small state politics is often characterized by extreme polarization. Political competition between personalities is often fiercely antagonistic precisely because they have few ideological differences, and therefore politicians have to focus on personal disagreements to differentiate themselves. In combination with the limited role of parties, this also potentially creates political instability, as political alliances are regularly broken.
The ubiquity of patronage. In small states nobody is faceless. Relatives and friends stick together in more visible and unavoidable ways. This leads to political dynasties and various other types of collusion. It also means that politicians in small states typically experience considerable pressure from constituents, who are often the same relatives and friends, to personally provide material largesse. Failure to do so can lead to electoral defeat. Patronage in the public sector is also common in small states, and public sector appointments are often made on the basis of political loyalties.
The capacity to dominate all aspects of public life. An expanded public sphere and the absence of specialist roles create opportunities for individuals to dominate politics in a manner that is virtually impossible in large states. Pluralism is uncomfortable and dissent is often stifled while dependent constituents can be easily bought off.
Based on these similarities, we argue that hyper-personal politics has both the democracy-stimulating and repressive characteristics. For example, the familiarity between citizens and politicians is often regarded as democracy-enhancing, as it creates better opportunities for political representation and responsiveness. In addition, this closeness can foster political awareness, efficacy, and participation among citizens because political decisions often have a direct impact on their personal lives. Moreover, the close connections between citizens and politicians provide a formidable obstacle to executive domination, as their extensive social connections prevent politicians from resorting to full-blown oppression or violence.
But, it is clear that personalism simultaneously presents obstacles. The relative absence of ideology and the focus on political individuals undermines substantive representation. Patron–client linkages create social and economic dependency and unequal access to public resources and strong polarization and personality clashes can breed political instability and turmoil. Moreover, the opportunities for political leaders to accumulate untrammeled powers without the customary ‘checks and balances’ carries the risk of executive domination or dictatorial politics.
Hyper-personalism, it seems, provides mixed blessings for democratic governance, at least in small states. Certainly, not all of the six characteristics we identify are relevant for large states; the benefits of smallness both exacerbate and offset the consequences of personalism. In which case, the hyper-personal politics of small states might prove to be a better outcome than the combination of limited ideology, polarization, and leader dominance increasingly common to large and wealthy western democracies. Either way, these extreme cases highlight that hyper-personal democracy is both possible and yet very different to the experience of North America and much of Europe. The lesson is that rather than personalization precipitating a crisis of democracy, it presents as a crisis for a particular type of democratic politics common to a handful of large and rich states.

Jack Corbett is Professor of Politics at the University of Southampton.

Wouter Veenendaal is Assistant Professor at Leiden University.

A version of this article was originally published on the OUPblog. The original article is available at this link: https://blog.oup.com/2018/11/personalisation-of-politics-benefits-for-democracy/

New Book, Shaping Migration between Europe and Latin America: New Perspectives and Challenges, and Upcoming Book Launch on 16 Nov. 2018

A new book, edited by Ana Margheritis, is out. This volume is the result of an international conference organised by Ana at University of London in 2015, featuring top specialists from both regions. The book is entitled Shaping Migration between Europe and Latin America: New Perspectives and Challenges and offers an interdisciplinary and timely examination of changing international migration patterns between Latin America and Europe. It focuses on two world regions historically linked by human mobility and cultural exchange but now responding to significant demographic changes and new migration trends. It examines strategies pursued by state and non-state actors to address the political and policy implications of mobility, and asks to what extent is cross-regional migration effectively managed today, and how could it be improved? Essays provide an integrated and comparative view of the links between the two regions and highlight the formal and informal interstices through which migration journeys are negotiated and shaped.

Publication details and table of context can be found here: https://www.sas.ac.uk/publication/shaping-migration-between-europe-and-latin-america-new-perspectives-and-challenges-0.

The next book launch will take place at ILAS, University of London on 16 November 2018 (Room G12, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU).

State of democracy in Latin America

By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton

 

One of the striking features of Latin American democracy is that it is failing to connect representative institutions with citizens. There are clear indications of social polarisation and increasingly accepted practices of intolerance to dissent. According to Latin American Economic Outlook 2018 three out of four Latin Americans have a very low confidence in institutions and show little or no confidence in their national governments. Institutional mistrust is rising and risks deepening the disconnect between people and public institutions, undermining social cohesion and weakening the social contract.

According to a recent survey published by Intal/Latinbarometro, the most reliable institution in Latin America is the Church (65% confidence); followed in a comfortable second place by the Armed Forces, with 42% confidence; and the Police with 35%. Political parties ironically are the most disreputable institution (15% confidence). Even more disturbingly, asked about democracy as preferable to any other form of government, the level of support has dropped 8 poits from 2010 down to a slim majority of 53%. The percentage of those indifferent to political form grew from 16% to 25%. ‘Rule of law’ is not perceived as priority amongst the problems affecting social cohesion, although 80% think corruption is affecting the quality of democracy, a percentage that increased significantly since 2010. Finally only 18% of the respondents considered that the distribution of wealth is fair in their country.

Certainly, there can be little doubt but that the electoral compass in Latin America, and indeed in Western societies more broadly, is shifting to the Right at the time when the most central value of democracy, the tolerance of dissent, is subsiding.

For the past decade, as trust in institutions has declined around the globe, politics reveal a systematic and increasing deterioration, and in some cases de-consolidation, of democracies. Reconnecting public institutions and citizens is thus critical for a meaningful democracy able to serve as a step to greater inclusion and equality in society.

 

Democratic dissatisfaction and its manifestations

Since the UK referendum to exit (Brexit) the European Union (EU) in June 2016, and subsequent election of Donald Tump as President of the United States,   there was a plethora of questions related to the incentives and drawbacks of neoliberal democracy. Both events revitalised academic commentary on political disaffection, anti-politics alluding to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership and the failure of the political-economic project that seems to be cutting away, willfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Western societies (see Jennings et al 2016; Payne 2014). As societies, both the UK and the USA manifested some deeply disturbing moral, emotional and human issues of ‘national’ identity preceding any responsibility towards ‘others’, be those legal immigrants that contribute to economic activity and social life, or those ill-fated, dispossessed, irregular immigrants and asylum seekers who are simply trying to survive.

Focusing on Latin America, one place to start would be the rich debate about whether ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy, as a democratic project, is possible. The political-economic crisis in Latin America in the early 2000s led to calls for an end to neoliberal rollback, a new social contract negotiated and managed by a more active state, and the construction of a social consensus that was both respectful of economic growth and sensitive to urgent needs to address the legacy of poverty, invest in education, and create welfare. Policy makers in Latin America were ‘shaken up’ by unsustainable levels of inequalities, not just income inequality but cross-cutting gender and ethnic inequalities, and the political consequences that stem from them. Experiences of uneven development, exclusion and social injustices underpinned unbearable social costs caused by decades of market-led development and austerity.

As we have shown in Grugel and Riggirozzi (2018) so-called ‘post-neoliberal experiments’ have combined a pragmatic attempt by Leftist governments to refocus the direction and the purpose of democracy through state spending, increased taxation and management of exports with a project of enhancing citizenship through a new politics of cultural recognition in Bolivia and Ecuador and attempts to recreate the state-sponsored pact between business and labour in Argentina and Brazil. The extent to which post-neoliberalism as a political project delivered on these pledges is disputed though there were real achievements, particularly in terms of anti-poverty programmes, and creating new opportunities for human rights and activism. Yet post-neoliberalism failed to articulate a convincing and institutionalised alternative to the neoliberal model of market democracy. While the Left pioneered the generation of new resources for redistribution through tax it also failed to shift away from dependence from natural resources and agro business. How far they had real opportunities to do so is a matter for discussion. But their failure to this regard is linked to the disenchantment many civil society groups experienced with the Left. High (perhaps too high) expectations were not met, and traditional power assemblages that link agro-industrial elites with international business networks and in many cases the military found grounds to demonise the Left and reclaim governance.

 

Democratic failure might fail democracy

Politically, perhaps, the greatest disappointment has not been so much the fact that social conflict and political disagreements continued and even expanded under the Left– that is natural in democracy – but the fact that democracy in turn has failed to tolerate dissent accentuating the well known winner-takes-all dynamic.

Out of these failures and disappointments, fuelled by the distrust in public institutions, politics seems to be less about the value and meaning of democracy and more about ‘fighting the bad guy’, as far right, military Brazilian presidential forerunner, Jair Bolsonary, put it. The danger is that what bad as representations of ‘others’ has taken the form of anyone who is perceived as ‘draining national (economic) resources’, being quilombolas (descendants of communities of runaway slaves), women, the poor, indigenous people, migrants, scroungers who choose to live on benefits. The backlash has not only led to the decline of social democratic representation but, more seriously, the (re-)emergence of discriminatory narratives that poisoned the political climate; intolerance to the otherness of the other is undermining the social foundations of democracy.

As politics shifts right-wards, we need, as scholars and as citizens, to continue to explore places and repertoires of popular contention that may, once again, hold governments to account and lead social resistance to any attempt at the re-introduction of austerity and onslaught on civic freedoms.

Back in the 1980s in the early years of democratisation in Latin America, political scientists such as Norbert Lechner and Adam Przeworski asked whether it is possible to reach a cross-party or inter-societal consensus over some measure of social and economic redistribution or, whether on the contrary, an entrenchment of socio-economic privilege is the price that must be paid in Latin America for liberal democracy. Today the question remains all too sadly pertinent.

 

The Challenge of Ocean Justice

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.

 

This month, I begin work on a British Academy / Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship. The topic – Ocean Justice – could hardly be more timely. The world is increasingly coming to understand the many hugely important roles the ocean plays in sustaining life on earth. The ocean is, in many ways, the crucible of life in our world. Without an ocean, human life on our planet quite simply could not exist. Our world would be wholly inhospitable, for instance, were it not for the ocean’s role in cycling freshwater and oxygen, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, and regulating global temperature. Billions rely on protein from the ocean’s fish, and fully 12% of the world’s population rely on fishing and aquaculture for their subsistence. And the signs suggest that as time goes by, we will rely more on the oceans, rather than less.

But we are also coming to understand the myriad challenges the ocean faces, which could impair its ability to support life on our planet. Key examples include plastic pollution, the acidification caused by a warming planet, overfishing, pollution arising from shipping, and the environmental damage caused by accelerating extraction of minerals and petrochemicals from the seabed.

Improved understanding of these threats has encouraged a sense of urgency at the international level. The United Nations has made the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans one of its Sustainable Development Goals. It has also commissioned the first ever World Ocean Assessment – drawing on the example of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and in 2017 it organised the world’s first global Ocean Conference.

Though this increased attention is to be warmly welcomed, there is a good deal of work to do. The oceans are protected by a patchwork legal framework which regulates some activities but not others, and gives different levels of protection to different ocean zones. The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea is justly called a ‘Constitution for the Oceans.’ But it is also clear that it is at best a work in progress, in need of urgent revision if it is to meet key challenges of the future. Key issues – such as fishing on the High Seas, the establishment of vital marine reserves outside of any state’s jurisdiction, and the fair use of ocean biodiversity – will be the topic of heated debate in the coming years.

The contribution of political theorists to debates on the future of the oceans have, to date, been rather modest. During the seventeenth century, notable political theorists – including Hugo and Grotius John Locke – engaged with questions about the governance of the world’s oceans. But they assumed a paradigm of plenty rather than precarity, and could not foresee many of the challenges the ocean has come to face. It remains to be demonstrated what political theory can contribute to conceptualising, and hopefully resolving, some of these major global challenges. What would just and legitimate governance of the world’s ocean look like? During the next twelve months I will attempt to make my own contribution to addressing these vital debates. But it is clear that the political theory community more broadly must also shift its attention oceanwards.

Recommended summer reading for new @Sotonpolitics students (and anyone interested!)

Occasionally students contact us asking if there is any required reading prior to the start of their course, or if we could recommend some texts to help them prepare for their first year. Below is a list of books that members of PAIR staff have recommended for students to read during the summer before their first year. While we obviously do not expect you to read all of these books, reading one or two will be a good preparation for your degree and will give you a taste of the kinds of topics you will study on your course.

 

General Politics

On Democracy, by Dahl

Why Politics Matter, by Stoker

In Defence of Politics, by Crick

A Novel Approach to Politics, by Van Belle and Marsh

If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America, by Sopel

 

Public Policy

Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein

Agendas and Instability in American Politics, by Baumgartner and Jones

 

International Relations

Theories of International Politics and Zombies, by Drezner

States and Markets, by Strange

Activists beyond Borders, by Keck and Sikkink

 

Political Theory

Political Philosophy, by Swift

On Liberty, by Mill

The Prince, by Machiavelli

 

Research Methods

Thinking Statistically, by Bram

 

Political History

The Cold War: A New History, by Gaddis

Ill Fares the Land, by Judt

 

 

How ‘economic’ is opposition to migration?

By Anna Killick. Anna Killick is a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.


What does the election tell us about the Ford and Goodwin theory that the political system is changing to ‘a newer set of cleavages that are largely cultural rather than economic’ (Ford and Goodwin 2014:29)? They argued in ‘Revolt on the Right’ that the white working class, characterised as ‘left behind’, are increasingly relying on their authoritarian cultural values, deserting the Labour Party for UKIP. In this post I highlight research which challenges Ford and Goodwin by pointing to the continuing importance of economic issues to working class voters.

Ford and Goodwin argue that the increase in migration from 2004 led to greater opposition to migration. Since both Labour under Blair and the Conservatives under Cameron had moved to the centre to attract cosmopolitan liberal voters, and New Labour was perceived as doing less to help its traditional working class base than it had in the past, the two developments contributed to a rise in support for UKIP. Anti-migration sentiment was also instrumental in the Leave victory in the 2016 referendum. Survey evidence tracking anti-migration beliefs over time and the increased percentages perceiving migration as the most important issue in politics support their case. However, how Ford and Goodwin interpret the nature of the anti-migration beliefs may be over-simplistic.

They claim ‘in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, the strongest and most inflexible opposition to migration has come from voters who see it as a source or symbol of rapid social change (Ford and Goodwin 2017:5) [my italics]’.  It may be the case that a proportion of anti-migrant people, whether middle or working class, are so xenophobic or racist that their opposition to migration is deep-rooted and social and that such people are the backbone of UKIP support. But does this hold for the majority of people who say they are opposed to migration? Some survey evidence, such as for British Social Attitudes, always showed that opposition to migration was as much economic as it was cultural and, indeed, anti-migration sentiment dropped during the economic good times of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A neglected area in this debate is how working class people in particular define categories like ‘economic’. My interview-based research into public understanding of the economy, to be published next year, includes questions on what people believe about the economic effects of migration. The in-depth interviews of sixty Southampton residents show that people who oppose migration often do so as much for economic as cultural reasons. When I ask ‘what do you understand about the economic effects of migration?’ interviewees respond with arguments about migration driving wages down, increasing competition for jobs, leading to increased use of zero hours contracts and competing for scarce resources in the health service, housing and benefit sectors. They do not believe the usually nationally based economic research that migration has net benefits for the economy, but it is not clear whether the reason for their rejection of the national research is cultural racism or that the national research flies in the face of their local economic experiences.

Some aspects of understanding of the economic effects of migration can be illustrated by three extracts, all from interviews with working class women in their 50s and 60s. Linda, who lives on a low wage topped by benefits, believes migrants are attractive to employers looking to drive wages down:

it’s just that I think rich people take advantage of the poor people in ways of cheap labour you know… we don’t get the opportunity to have the jobs because we have to work for a proper wage to live and they don’t want anybody to do that, they want cheap [migrant] labour. The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor forever and I think it’s getting worse.

Beverley, aged 65 and having worked all her life as a telephonist and shop assistant, believes migration is exacerbating the acute shortage of social housing in the city : ‘the migration, they’re letting so many people in and there’s no place for us to live at the moment.’ Shelley, aged 50 and on disability benefit, echoed the comments of many people I interviewed that migrants should not be able to claim benefits: ‘there’s so many that come and claim benefits and claim benefits for the kids that are in their country as well. That’s got to do some damage economically really’.

Interview-based research allows us to engage more deeply with how people define problems. Much has been made of survey evidence indicating that in the EU referendum Leave voters tended to see ‘migration’ as the most important issue whilst Remain voters saw the ‘economy’ as most important. But understanding of what ‘economy’ covers is not necessarily shared across all social groups. For instance, middle class interviewees were three times more likely to use the term ‘economy’ in my interviews, indicating that it may be a more negative term for working class interviewees. Some of those who said ‘migration’ was the most important issue may have been using it as a ‘catch all’ phrase that encapsulates their concerns about employment and austerity. Whilst they did support UKIP and voted to Leave the EU, they may be open to a party such as Labour in 2017 which promises to address their economic grievances, even though it is by means other than controlling migration.

So we should be open to the possibility both that anti-migration feeling is more economic than cultural and that ‘economic stewardship’ rather than ‘cultural values’ is still the dominant cleavage in British politics.