Why Politics Still Matters

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


 

One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.

Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Other politicians offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.

If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In 2011–12, we asked some people in focus groups to indicate what words they associated with politics. The eight most popular grouping covered: deception, corruption, feather-nesting, self-serving, politicking, privileged, boring and incomprehensible. Not a terribly positive list, I think you would agree. We know that millions around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.

While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.

Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.

The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade.  It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.

In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.

Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662

 

 

The Left After Trump

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (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.


Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people. It is one that has delivered escalating inequality and stagnating or falling living standards for the majority, both in the US and Britain.

This is a rejection of a failed economic consensus and a governing elite that has been seen not to have listened. And the public anger that has propelled Donald Trump to office has been reflected in political upheavals across the world.

But some of Trump’s answers to the big questions facing America, and the divisive rhetoric around them, are clearly wrong.

I have no doubt, however, that the decency and common sense of the American people will prevail, and we send our solidarity to a nation of migrants, innovators and democrats.

After this latest global wake up call, the need for a real alternative to a failed economic and political system could not be clearer.

That alternative must be based on working together, social justice and economic renewal, rather than sowing fear and division. And the solutions we offer have to improve the lives of everyone, not pit one group of people against another.

Americans have made their choice. The urgent necessity is now for us all to work across continents to tackle our common global challenges: to secure peace, take action on climate change and deliver economic prosperity and justice.

This was the statement made by Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, in response to the Trump victory in the American presidential election. If progressives are to respond to Trump’s victory, Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and other democracies including Australia and parts of Asia the leader of one of Europe’s most successful and long-established social democratic parties might reasonably be expected to be on the right track. Unfortunately he is not. Corbyn falls down both in his diagnosis of what is happening and in the wooliness of his solutions.

Misunderstanding the problem

In terms of diagnosis the issue is that neither Trump nor Brexit – let alone other versions of right-wing populism – have built their electoral coalitions based on those left behind by economic change alone. They mobilise a bloc of disaffected working class voters and combine them with conservative supporters of from better-off households. Brexit won the day by combining traditional rural and suburban Conservative voters with more disaffected working class support in urban areas that have experienced economic decline over many decades. Trump won because he managed to peel away enough working class white voters while retaining the middle-class and rural Republican base. A classic pattern of support for right-wing populism follows the shape of a V-curve with most support coming from either end of the political spectrum: the relatively deprived and the relatively well-off.

Most of these voters do not reject the current economic system. Rather they want to be better placed within it. It is long-term employment and wage stagnation that is driving this economic discontent. Beyond that economic discontent how does right-wing populism pull together the two sides of its coalition? It gives people someone or something to blame for that sense of losing out. Populism relies to a great degree on the capacity of leaders to manipulate exasperation with social change, for example ‘by portraying “ordinary people” as the victim of an alliance between those at the bottom (needy immigrants and asylum seekers) and those at the top (the wealthy elite who aspire to even greater wealth and political clout)’. It adds issues of social identity, status and antagonism to the mix to create a distinctive politics of resentment.

There are three lessons to draw from this alternative diagnosis; none of which are central to Corbyn’s analysis. First there is no “unmistakable rejection” of the current economic system; although there anything that can be defined as the political establishment is given a kicking. Second unlocking the V-curve of support for right-wing populism is not a straightforward task because it mixes economic and social resentments. Arguing that we need an economy that works for all will be treated as the vacuous statement it is. In any case it will not cut through the wider sense of resentment against others. In politics there is no real or imagined nature to resentment there is just resentments and whether progressives like it or not they have to be addressed. Third, the only future for building an alternative winning electoral bloc is not simply to appeal to the left behind but to build a wide coalition of support drawn from those who are both winners and relatively speaking  losers from a complex dynamic of economic change. In short do not believe the rhetoric of right wing populists about standing for the left behind. Look at what they do to win.

Coming up with solutions

Here the challenge faced by progressives is that modern global capitalism is – as ever– creating a dynamic of winners and losers. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These centres are marked by their intellectual assets, cultural strength and the capacity of their infrastructure to attract people, ideas and skills. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Such places will be further advantaged by trends of robotisation and automation in the labour force, and a shift towards service and knowledge economies. At the same time, other towns, cities and regions are experiencing an outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, human and physical infrastructure decays. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity (reinforcing the cycle of decline) and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.

These developments are not temporary or transitional. The scale of change is such that the processes that are in operation go beyond cyclical explanations of growth and decline, since the entire system of production, distribution and consumption is being restructured, generating new divides that have an air of solidity. The situation is such that the position of cosmopolitan cities is self-reinforcing but not without challenges. While not all left behind cities, towns and rural areas can easily be dragged into the slipstream of dynamics of the creative economy by policy interventions.

We are only in the foothills of being able to grapple with the policy issues created by this dynamic of social and economic change. It would be better for progressives to accept that they are far from clear about what to do rather than mouth platitudes about social justice or argue that more investment in infrastructure, housing, education and training will do the trick. Some of these types of interventions have been tried yet they appear to only partially stem the tide of change. To argue for more of such interventions without reflecting on what should be done appears misguided. A display of humility from politicians and experts around the political establishment might encourage voters to listen to them again.

We need action both locally and globally. The importance of a local focus and a commitment to local power is that the right solutions for different areas are likely not to be the same. For cosmopolitan areas of growth the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those areas they can join the new economy as latecomers then a clear specification of the niche and focus of their ambition as well as targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training would be required. We may also have to accept that some areas will be forever left behind and develop a planning system capable of managing decline and embracing the potential of declining growth in terms of climate and lifestyle gains. Globally the challenge is how to sustain free trade while tackling its social and environmental impacts. This probably means revisiting the global architecture of regulation set up after the Second World War. There is no quick fix and it is important for progressives to be honest about that.

The final reason why progressives need to work hard on solutions in that those offered by right-wing populists will fail. Controlling immigration will not solve the problems of left behind places such as Rotherham, Yorkshire or Flint, Michigan. Leaving the EU will not save the NHS for Britain. Imagining a global economy where you trade freely and yet you impose barriers on others or where you can access markets without following rules agreed by all others does not make it a reality. The fallout from those failures will be massive but progressives should not assume they will be the automatic beneficiaries. Populists will be good at the blame game. The challenge for progressives is both to offer an accurate diagnosis of what is going on and work in depth on solutions to respond. Corybn’s statement should be a cause of concern, rather than hope.

The Failures of Political Science: Trump, Brexit and beyond…

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States of America, while in June Britain voted to leave the EU. Political science has widely failed to anticipate two of the defining events of our era, just as it failed to foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago (also on November 9th). Populism is everywhere now and has entered the mainstream. Few could dispute that political science has been somewhat blindsided, having been distracted by the scientific credentials of the discipline, and having itself become an elite technocratic enterprise detached from the everyday experiences and everyday politics of voters.

Donald Trump broke all the rules of the political science textbook of election campaigning. He lied. He did not release his tax returns. He insulted significant parts of the electorate. He attacked the media. He brazenly rode out scandal after scandal. He was not backed by party elites. He did not pivot. He was not endorsed by newspapers. He was not considered qualified for the job by voters. He faced a relatively popular incumbent and growing economy. The polls and poll aggregators predicted a comfortable Clinton win (many academic forecasts were rather more circumspect). Trump defied them all. A not dissimilar story could be told about the Brexit campaign. While some could rightly claim to have diagnosed the conditions leading to each victory, these were surprise events when they happened.

Our analysis did not stand up to the job, and this poses fundamental questions about the direction that the discipline has taken in recent decades and its abandonment of a more critical examination of the nature of politics. Political science has lately glorified big data, replication and high-tech computational methods. But what use are these if hegemonic theories and fashionable methods are ill-equipped for the task at hand?

At the same time, the role of the academic as pundit has increasingly pitched political scientists into the media limelight. While advancing public understanding of politics should unquestionably be a mission for the discipline, this creates pressure to hype findings, condense them into the confines of a tweet, or offer analysis to meet the demands of short-term news cycles rather than posing more critical questions about the nature of social and political change (or questioning the assumptions of our data and models), or even challenge the way in which politics is done and the media package it. This pressures researchers to favour punditry (making bold predictions about outcomes and basking in applause for their foresight) above deeper diagnosis of long-term trends. It also often makes them inseparable from the politics they seek to analyse.

Of course, political science has had much to say about the rise of populism across many advanced democracies, its causes and its consequences. We know a substantial amount about the nature of the U.S. political system and its (lack of) responsiveness to wider societal change, the rise of Euroscepticism, the increasing importance of values and identity in various political contexts, and the notion of ‘backsliding’ by countries on earlier commitments to liberal democracy. Beyond this, there is further scope for soul-searching. This should centre on the role of political science in a context in which it has become acceptable to endorse the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’.

One of these is the nature of knowledge production. Universities in their quest for global reputations have become ghettos for research communities whose international interactions are rarely interrupted by the inconvenient demands imposed by high fee-paying students (and have engaged little with local people living in communities on their peripheries). These networks are reinforced by advances in communication technologies – generating our very own academic filter bubbles. The move towards bifurcating academic careers into research and teaching silos will only increase this disconnection outside the discipline. This is not a context that is able to detect or fully understand societal changes.

Such trends have been further accentuated by the craze to create ‘public policy schools’ so as to inform global elites of students about policy experiences, global challenges and international networking. Such programmes have been attractive in financial terms to universities, they have proven to be a convenient vehicle to attract high profile donors, and they offer opportunities for students to mingle. Interestingly, the fashion of public policy schools arrived just as the attractions of private sector MBAs seem to be fading away. To be close to ‘practice’, the academic gain is access to the questions and concerns of key decision-makers who have a desire to learn about ‘what works’ without necessarily probing deeply into scholarly disputes. More broadly, critical questioning is unlikely to feature on such programmes given that learning outcomes are about enhancing ‘rationality’.

Executive-type teaching offers higher rewards and the possibility to avoid routine, intensive teaching duties. The quest for global leadership in the name of rational decision-making is likely to come at the price of dealing with concrete problems at the local level (losing the tacit knowledge that is crucial to understanding the challenges facing local societies and communities). These programmes, by their nature, are unable to cope with an environment that encourages post-factual argumentation.

More generally, this raises questions about the role of political science. For those believing in a pure version of ‘science’, the political science discipline is about ‘knowledge’ with little concern for the wider environment. This ignores a much more significant contribution that political science should play in promoting the normative foundations of liberal democracy. This is not to discourage critical analysis and commentary, but a renewed focus on the prerequisites for an open and tolerant society to conduct politics. This would require a much deeper engagement with society beyond one-off events such as open day events and school visits. This requires encouragement for universities to become part of the wider conversation about the importance of certain constitutional and democratic norms.

In other words, political science, if it wants to live in a liberal democracy and be in a position to work openly and freely, needs to return to a concern with protecting the very foundations of liberal democracy. Whether the short term career incentives of academics and the wider environment of populist politics and campaigning media will be receptive to this necessity is questionable. However, the question of what kind of societies political scientists want to inhabit is of fundamental importance: do they want to live in cut-off ghettos of the like-minded, obsessed by sectarian ‘top three’ journal rankings, or do they want to promote and support the conditions for an open society, one that makes science possible in the first place?

The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


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One hundred years since the battle to end all battles at the Somme, the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU offers a stark reminder of the court politics of a different era. Once again the officer class has sent the ‘tommies’ over the top with little thought for what lies ahead. The ‘sun-lit meadows beyond’ that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke of seem distant at best. Whatever the long-term social and economic consequences of Brexit, the political ramifications of Brexit have displayed a terrifying decline in the political elite’s commitment to representative democracy and a breakdown of the norms and conduct of political debate.

New Politics and Labour

These dangerous times for representative or parliamentary democracy are most prominent in the two main political parties. Take the Labour Party and its leadership crisis. Here the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn suggest that a (non-binding) vote of non-confidence by parliamentary colleagues has no legitimacy. Legitimacy is seen to lie in the election of the party leader by a majority of party members. It is claimed that the future of politics lies in ‘movements’ rather than party organisation. This is no longer about party meetings or canvassing, and winning elections, but about expression of a political worldview and set of values. A disregard for the engagement of political parties in parliamentary processes has been at the heart of so-called militant tendencies on the left for a long time. For these elements, participation in representative democracy is seen as a sell-out to dominant (capitalist) interests. These elements have received a lease of life in the name of ‘new’ supposedly kinder politics. We are now at a place where there is a split between a party in parliament and a (proclaimed) movement outside parliament (though there is little evidence of how large that movement is, despite support for Corbyn in the leadership election last year). This is a dangerous sign for the future of representative government. After all, political parties are supposed to play a dual role – the first is to provide for responsiveness to the views of voters, and the second is to participate in responsible government (and opposition). Suggesting that legitimacy for party leaders lies in a movement undermine the crucial role that political parties play in government. This is politics by an elite that looks different from the Bullingdon boys, but is still an elite nonetheless.

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

The leadership battles in the Conservative Party currently resemble the courtier-intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Whatever the twists and turns of the contest, the preceding events of the referendum campaign point to an important decline in the understandings of representative democracy by party leaders. One of the distinguishing (and problematic) features of the Westminster system was its lack of formal checks and balances. The ‘elective dictatorship’ was held in check by ‘responsible’ club government – social ties and conventions were to ensure appropriate behaviour in government. As many have argued, ‘club government’ has been in fatal decline since the days of Margaret Thatcher, given hyper-innovations, such as liberalisation and internationalisation. The last ‘club’, united by a shared school and university background, appears to be the world of British politics. This, as Michael Moran has argued, sets up the stage for tragic failure: a world in which internationalisation and regulation have constrained the levers of the political elite. In turn, this raises the incentive to engage in spectacles and posturing, whether these include grand events such as the Olympics, building projects such as airports, or battle-bus style campaigning to rage against the ‘loss of control’. The consequences of these spectacles are unlikely to come cheap, if only in terms of taxpayer expense. Not least, the prevalence of stage-managed events is itself a source of public cynicism about politics being contrived and out of touch with ordinary folk.

Populism and Illusions of Governing

More fundamentally, offering the spectacle of regaining ‘control’ plays straight into the hands of those politicians with outright disdain for political institutions. Appeal to ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ people offer a rhetoric that divides any population into, on the one hand, those who are ‘deserving’ with common sense and the undeserving feckless and undeserving ‘elites’ on the other. This then leads to the rather bizarre spectacle of elite, career politicians campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-London ticket (a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the US since at least Jimmy Carter). In doing so, they further undermine the role of parties in contributing to responsible government and opposition.

The same holds for the SNP. Here, the vote of a UK-wide referendum has been reinterpreted as a vote of a separate country that stands apart from the rest of the UK. Political opportunism has to be always seen as part of the (legitimate) political game, but it dangerously conflates one issue (the UK’s relationship to the EU) with another (the future relationship of different ‘nations’ in the British Isles).

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs. That is not the kind of world that fits easily into the legacy-seeking worldview of the debating rooms of the Oxford Union.

An International Phenomenon?

The recent developments in British politics may appear a peculiarly national malaise. They are however consistent with much wider international trends. One such trend is growing bifurcation among electorates between cosmopolitan and provincial places, as one of us has highlighted in work with Gerry Stoker. Another is the dominance of constraining policy frameworks in order to attract international private investment. The latter has reduced discretionary scope for doing politics as governments have lost control over much of their policy agenda, in areas such as taxation and migration. The former encourages divide and rule style of politics that sits uneasily with the myriad ways of parliamentary government and decision-making in international organisations. Pledging that ‘one can have one’s cake and eat it too’ and not be laughed out of the court of popular opinion suggests that politics is treated as student union-type entertainment, and worse. After all, it is not the jester that speaks truth to power that is being feted, but the jester for jester’s sake.

We do not have a rose-tinted view about the pragmatic functioning of parliamentary democracy, in Westminster or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explicit disdain for responsible government through representative democracy by engaging in political games and posturing without compromise might at first sight appear attractive. It unfortunately resonates more closely to the politics of Weimar than the traditional views of Westminster. This disdain might make for catchy tweets and photo-ops, but it will do nothing in the long-term for the legitimacy of political institutions. In fact, it reduces the actual ability to solve policy problems, and ultimately it will foment the public mood of disillusionment.

Negativity Towards Politics: A By-Product of a Failure in Moral Accounting?

By Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Jonathan Moss is Senior Research Assistant for Geography at the University of Southampton, Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton, 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). Their project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ is funded by the ESRC.


Many politicians believe that their world is one of high accountability; after all they put themselves up for election and can find themselves unceremoniously dumped by voters. Also on a daily basis their actions and words are the focus of attention in traditional and new media. So why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics and far from appreciative of their politicians?

Here are some quotations from responses to a Mass Observation directive sent out in 2014 – as part of our ESRC research project – asking its panel of volunteer diarists to comment on several leading British politicians.

David Cameron is characterised by mass observers as a ‘sleazeball’, ‘multimillionaire posh boy’ and ‘emotionally unknowable careerist’; he is also criticised for having ‘chubby cheeks’, or a ‘shiny buffed up face’.

Ed Miliband is described as ‘weird’, ‘feeble’, ‘too wet’ and a ‘dweeb’ or a ‘creep’; one respondent explains that ‘he is wiry and gangly and doesn’t exude honesty or truth’, another compares him to a ‘sixth form debating team captain promoted beyond his capabilities.’

George Osborne is ‘pompous’ and a ‘smirking public school bully’; if he wasn’t a politician ‘he would probably be a small time banker swindling old ladies out of their life savings’.

Nick Clegg is a ‘poodle’, a ‘bully’s sidekick’, he is ‘very slippery’ and ‘reneges on promises and plans’.

These comments are not just negative but caustically damning and also bitterly personal in their sense of betrayal. Why given that the politicians are plainly more formally accountable than many others in our society do they attract such a strong sense of moral and personal antagonism? One explanation might be the difference between the formal accountability of democracies and the moral accounting we use as citizens in our daily lives.

As George Lakoff‘s Moral Politics argues citizens draw on shared metaphors to understand and judge politics. There are, Lakoff argues, standard ways in which the idea of moral accounting can be delivered in human societies. To balance the moral books with respect to misdeeds you can engage in reciprocation ( look I know it was bad but look what you got out of it); restitution( look I know it was bad but I am sorry and I am showing it ) or retribution( look I know it was bad but I am paying for it now).We are energised by the idea of moral accounting: good actions must be repaid and bad punished. The moral books must be balanced and when they are not then a social system is in trouble. Politics is not exempt from this moral universe. The problem with today’s politics is a lack of moral accounting schemas that convince from the perspective of citizens.

This issue is amplified because politics is an activity inherently in need of a lot of moral redemption. Politics is not an activity that always shows the best side of the human character. Its leading players often engage in deception, subterfuge, dissembling, pork barrelling, currying favour and intrigue. Consequently, anyone who engages in politics, as Michael Walzer points out, faces the dilemma of dirty hands. To get things done requires a willingness to do the necessary to win the day.

As citizens and observers of politics we have for long understood this negative feature of politics. The idea that moral lapses are characteristic of those that engage in politics is commonplace, as literature and history has suggested over centuries. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression, House of Cards (based of course on the original British version, written by Michael Dobbs at the height of sleaze under the Major government) suggests it is possible for millions of television viewers to enjoy the brilliant Kevin Spacey doing his diabolical worst to get his way in an imaginary version of American politics. Indeed real politicians are often admired for their capacity to get things done and to do the necessary to win elections, legislative votes or other political battles.

The problem is as our research has shown none of the moral accounting options- reciprocation, restitution, and retribution- come easily to hand in today’s political system and as a result politicians struggle to assuage their culpability with us. The moral books are not balanced so formal answerability may be delivered but not moral accountability. The mechanisms of moral accounting fail to deliver for today’s politics and that in turn lies at the heart of the intensity of today’s political disillusionment.

Politics knows the value of reciprocation. Politics can be dodgy but if it delivers for you then maybe it’s OK.   The ends justify the means; and those that share in the spoils can be satisfied as Machiavelli argued. Partisan dealignment has made that solution more difficult to deliver in contemporary politics. In the 2015 British General Election around two thirds of voters supported losing candidates and a third of population failed to vote at all. The Conservatives won the support of just 25 per cent of registered voters. In the 1940s or 1950s over 9 in 10 of voters would have been backing either Labour or Conservative in closely fought high turnout contests and would be pleased with victory or satisfied with a well- fought campaign by the politicians that they identified with. Success for your party in the context of fragmenting voting patterns and the absurdities of a first -past- the- post electoral system has become a balm to sooth political misbehaviour with reduced impact. You can forgive the whoppers, wobbles and compromises if your party wins but only a few of us have that option.

Let us now focus on second form of moral accounting- restitution- where the politician visibly and clearly wrestles with their conscience; showing the strain that getting their hands dirty has put on them. Maybe politicians in the past had more chance of being imagined as engaging in such activities but today’s relentless 24 hour media coverage exaggerates the need for constant bullishness and spinning and seems to leave little space for introspection or thoughtful reflection from our politicians. It may be that politicians do mull over their misdeeds but there appears to be only limited opportunities for the public to observe that.

The third form of moral accounting involves politicians taking responsibility for their sins by doing penance and being punished. We can, as noted earlier, as voters remove politicians from their position but the after-life of the politician appears to have few downsides that we as citizens can easily observe. In the modern era many politicians appear to experience a post-political life boon- far removed from the idea of moral retribution- given the expansion of non-elected governance positions and lobby opportunities. There is clearly some evidence of a tough time being had by some but the focus of attention is in the modern form of politics is on its lucrative books deals, non-executive directorships , corporate consulting gigs, positions on quangos and well-rewarded lecture circuits. All these options appear to offer post- political career deserts only in the opposite direction to any punishment we might feel should be handed out.

We know in our hearts that politicians must behave badly to get the job done but we are made more uncomfortable with politics today because of our incapacity to see some form of moral judgement in play to temper that inevitability. Decreasing numbers of us think that politics delivers for us and are so enabled to judge that politicians achieved good even while doing bad things. The continuous campaign characteristic of modern politics means we cannot observe our political leaders feeling the pain or regretting of their misdeeds very often. And post- career rewards rather than penance appear to have become the norm for the modern politician. As citizens we know that politics cannot be wholly moral but we still think about it in moral terms.   We are cognitively inclined to judge and we need the books to balance but the standard mechanisms of moral accounting are considerably less effective today.

Remembering the 1945 General Election 70 Years Later

Diptic

Diptic

By Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Jonathan Moss is Senior Research Assistant for Geography at the University of Southampton, Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton, 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). Their project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ is funded by the ESRC.


This Sunday marks the 70th anniversary of the 1945 General Election. The election is widely understood as a significant turning point in modern British history. Labour won their first ever majority government and introduced a wide-ranging programme of social and economic reform, including the inception of NHS exactly three years later, and establishing the foundation of a political consensus that was sustained until the 1970s. Yet the meaning of the election has been contested by historians ever since.

For some, the 1945 election represented the beginning of a golden age for British politics. By comparison to the present period, turnout was high and support for the two main parties was high. It was estimated that 45 per cent of the public listened to election broadcasts on the radio and large numbers flocked to outdoor meetings to see politicians in the flesh (see Lawrence). Labour’s first parliamentary majority represented the highpoint of post-war enthusiasm and consensus for social democracy. The ‘people’s war’ produced a sense of national purpose and social reconciliation through events including conscription, evacuation, rationing and communal air-raid shelters. Labour’s victory was a consequence of greater public engagement and support for collectivism, planning and egalitarianism (see Field).

For others, the election has been remembered with greater enthusiasm than was present at the time. Politicians such as Hugh Gaitskell, Herbert Morrison and Harold MacMillan all remarked on the public’s lack of interest in the election. A 1944 Gallup poll showed 36 per cent of the population believed politicians placed their own interests ahead of country. Labour’s victory was the result of anti-Conservative feeling. The ‘spirit of 1945 was a myth’ and few people voted for Labour because they desired socialism or social democracy. Citizens supported the implementation of the 1942 Beveridge report out of individual self-interest and were indifferent to ambitious projects of social transformation. The majority of voters were disengaged from the political process and cynical about the motives of politicians (see Fielding).

Our current research project draws on survey/poll data and volunteer writing in the Mass Observation Archive to offer a new interpretation of this election from the perspective of ordinary people. It is important that we revisit the past to understand political attitudes in the present. Much has been written about the rise of anti-politics in recent years, which presumes a historical narrative that citizens have become increasingly disenchanted from politics, without understanding how citizens engaged with formal politics in the past. Crucially, we revisit 1945 not to answer questions about why Labour won that election, but to explain how citizens understood, imagined and evaluated politics in their everyday lives, and to identify how this has changed in the last 70 years.

Our early findings illustrate that citizens encountered politics and politicians in 1945 primarily by listening to long, uninterrupted speeches on the radio, and by attending local political meetings. These relatively unmediated forms of political interaction could expose politicians who lacked character or had little to say. They also provided an opportunity for politicians to impress with their oratory, authenticity and ability deal with rowdy crowds. Citizens judged politicians on their sincerity, charm, policies and programmes.

We also find that citizens commonly understood party politics as unnecessary. Politics involved ‘mud-slinging’ and ‘axe-grinding’, and was something to be avoided. Many did not want the election to take place and wished that coalition politics would continue after the war. Many expressed preference for independent candidates who demonstrated the ability to rise above the ‘petty squabbling’ of party politics.

So how should we remember the 1945 election today? Maybe this was not a golden period for democratic engagement in that negativity towards formal politics was certainly present. Politicians were frequently conceptualised as ‘gift-of-the–gabbers’ and ‘gas–bags’. Yet we should not mistake cynicism for apathy. Remembering the 1945 election, we should think about the everyday rituals of political interaction that permitted citizens to criticise, but also appreciate some politicians’ character and capacity to make effective collective decisions on their behalf. Returning to the present, we should consider how political interaction has changed over the last 70 years, and examine how this has influenced ordinary people’s decisions about participation in formal 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.

Reshaping the Politics of Contemporary Democracies: Cosmopolitan versus Shrinking Dynamics

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.


Originally posted at John Denham’s Optimistic Patriot blog.

In a recent pamphlet, Jeremy Cliffe argues that 21st Century politics will be shaped by the emergence of a cosmopolitan shift in demography. This phenomenon is led by the big cities that are attracting ever-more people, jobs and investment for their university-educated and ethnically diverse populations. We would argue that the advance of cosmopolitanism tells only half the story and that the dilemma for political parties is acute as Britain’s future lies on two divergent paths: one cosmopolitan and one shrinking. To add further complexity to this predicament, citizens in both types of area share a lack of faith in politics.

There is growing divide between global cosmopolitan cities and shrinking urban conurbations with the dynamic of global competition driving both developments. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Simultaneously, other towns, cities and entire regions are experiencing the outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite, and are largely ignored by policy-makers. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, and as successive governments have left them to fend for themselves. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.

These developments are not temporary or transitional. Globally connected urban areas are experiencing a sustained and self-reinforcing growth and shrinking cities are struggling to overcome the challenges of decline as part of a new capitalist order. The shrinking cities as new urban analysis suggests cannot easily be dragged into the slipstream of cosmopolitans by policy interventions. The forces that are driving rampant cosmopolitanism are also driving the gradual withering of shrinking conurbations.

What is also clear is that these trends are reshaping and fracturing politics in such a way that creates a major dilemma for all parties in the short- and longer-term: political attitudes and engagement are heading in opposed directions in the two types of area. A survey by Populus, commissioned by the Universities of Canberra and Southampton allows us to compare cosmopolitan areas to shrinking areas to explore these different forces. Using Mosaic geodemographic categories, the survey identified the fifty constituencies most closely resembling the profiles of Clacton and Cambridge respectively – places that previously have been characterised as harbingers of Britain’s very different futures. This approach allows us to explore differences in political attitudes and participation in cosmopolitan and shrinking settings. To illustrate these distinctive demographics of place, some 45% of respondents in cosmopolitan areas appear to have post-degree education (i.e. left full-time education at 24+) compared to 20% of those in shrinking areas. In shrinking locations, 32% of respondents consume tabloid newspapers or websites, whereas in cosmopolitan areas the figure is only 19%. But more importantly what are the differences in terms of political outlook and forms of politics that are being practiced?

These communities have very different attitudes on issues of Europe and immigration, as well as more broad views about social change, as Table 1 shows. Shrinking areas tend to be more negative about recent developments, expressing concern about both immigration and the EU. In this respect, cosmopolitans have a much more outward-looking perspective on forces and institutions of the global economy, whereas shrinkers are more resistant.

Table1

The populations of these places exhibit distinct views on important areas on social change, as shown in Table 2. Cosmopolitan areas tend to display much stronger support for more to be done to create equality across a range of social divides – ethnicity, gender and sexuality. This in part reflects the contrasting social contexts of these two sets of places, but also hints at the sorts of politics that they might produce.

Table2

More significantly, citizens in cosmopolitan and shrinking areas engage in politics in distinctive ways, as Table 3 demonstrates. There are strong similarities for participation in a range of traditional off-line methods, but some differences in political activity that takes place on-line. This suggests that the cosmopolitan/shrinking schism may be another venue for the digital divide.

Table3

Citizens in cosmopolitan and shrinking places tend to hold contrasting views about trends of social change and are developing their own repertoires of engagement. Despite this, both sets of citizens are very doubtful about the politics that is currently on offer. As Table 4 indicates, both share a lot of the same disaffection towards politics and politicians. Both groups think governments can make a difference but fear that politicians are too self-serving and short-termist. Both have little trust in politicians and feel that politicians don’t care about them, although that view is more strongly held marginally in shrinking areas.

Table4

What does this all mean for the future of politics. Given this diversity a centralised nationally oriented party structure – on both left and right – is going to increasingly struggle to cope with this divergent world. The challenges include: that recruitment and candidate selection becomes more complex and needs to be locally sensitive. Social media engagement might have more of a grip in cosmopolitan rather than shrinking locations so it is unlikely to become a universal tool in the immediate future. Above all it is difficult to present the same face to shrinking and cosmopolitan populations; and it is far from clear how any party can bridge that divide of economic change and social outlook that will only increase in intensity as their experiences diverge and become locked in a self-reinforcing cycle of economic growth or stagnation and civic culture.