The strange case of unpopular populism: Labour and Jeremy Corbyn

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra (Twitter).


Populism encapsulates the spirit of our times, we are told. So how has Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn managed to discover an unpopular version of populism? In the discussion that follows, I argue that Labour’s election campaign has adopted many of the defining features of populism without winning a lot of support. What lies behind this seeming paradox?

The standard formula of populists is to position their movement of ‘the people’ against the corrupt ruling elite or establishment. Labour’s campaign emphasises that it is on the side of the millions rather than the millionaires. In his first speech of the campaign Jeremy Corbyn set a clear populist tone:

Much of the media and establishment are saying this election is a foregone conclusion. They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win. They say I don’t play by the rules – their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game. They’re quite right, I don’t. And a Labour Government elected on June 8 won’t play by their rules…Of course those people don’t want us to win. Because when we win, it’s the people, not the powerful, who win”.

Labour’s manifesto is also populist in its main messages. There are proposals to spend more on education, health, social care, housing and so on with a clear indication that someone else – the rich and big business – will pay for it through extra taxes. There are commitments to renationalise core utilities notably where there are popular grievances against their performance. The essential claim is that the economy has been rigged for the rich and now it is time for change. As Corbyn puts it:

Don’t wake on up on 9 June to see celebrations from the tax cheats, the press barons, the greedy bankers, Philip Green, the Southern Rail directors and crooked financiers that take our wealth, who have got away with it because the party they own, the Conservative Party, has won”.

So, is the call to support Corbyn fighting for the many against a rigged system winning hearts and minds? Marginally, would appear to be the summary judgement. Labour has gained some support and may do better than some pundits predict. But with the collapse of UKIP support the Conservatives enjoy double figure leads over Labour in the polls – some as high as 20%. Bottom line, they are going to win the election easily. On the issues most important to voters, it appears that PM May is more trusted to deliver than Corbyn. There we have it: the odd spectacle of an unpopular populist. Why?

Is it that the media is blocking Corbyn from getting his message out? There can be little doubt that the Labour leader has little editorial support among the print media. But as his own supporters have been keen to assert this is a people’s movement using social media to spread its message. Moreover, the regulation of election coverage means that mainstream television and radio outlets have to give fair access to all candidates. There does appear to be plenty of interest in politics and in Corbyn as a candidate for PM. It seems unlikely that its media coverage that is distorting or blocking the message sufficiently to explain the lack of popular uptake.

Is it that divisions within the Labour Party means that Corbyn’s position is undermined? That Corbyn does not have support of most Labour MPs is evident but from the perspective of a popular movement it is the recruitment of activists and grassroots supporters that should provide the real momentum. Corbyn-supporting groups in the party have been vocal about their presence. The manifesto adopted by Labour and the campaign and its content all appear to be in the hands of Corbyn and his supporters. Not having the support of the New Labour establishment – and figures such as Tony Blair – could be seen as a plus for a populist, so it’s unlikely that it is divisions within the party that are undermining the cause with the public.

Another explanation might be that Corbyn’s Labour offers faux populism. Labour can afford to be radical and promise a lot because its knows it’s not going to have to deliver. The aim is to shore up support for the Corbynista project when it comes to the post-election aftermath of a Labour loss. This is cult politics rather than populist politics with the aim of creating a narrative of a heroic leader offering radical solutions, deserving another chance. That argument goes against the grain of the genuine belief that things can be turned around in Election 2017 among many Corbyn supporters and the fact the  message remains strongly populist whether or not  some in the Corbyn leadership see it in more strategic terms.

The solution to the paradox of an unpopular populism is more likely to rest on the finding that rules do apply in politics, even if Corbyn claims they do not. First even for a populist competence – or the perception of competence in the case of Donald Trump – matters. People have to believe you have the skill and will to deliver. Corbyn and his team appear to be both gaff-prone and lacking in any serious ideas about how to run anything. It may be that Corbyn sees himself as offering a form of facilitative or non-hierarchical leadership – I am here to empower others – but most of the public appear to judge him as a leader at worst as useless and at best as a dreamer. Theresa May has a net satisfaction score for her leadership of +19, while Jeremy Corbyn has score of –35.

The implication of the above explanation might be: do the same populist thing next time but with a leader with a wider appeal. However, it may be that it is also difficult to do populism within the confines of an established political party, such as Labour. The Labour Party in many parts of Britain was the party of power and in power, so it is difficult to project it as the new outsider. You might say that Donald Trump won the presidency but he did so by keeping a large part of the Republican Party’s core vote with targeted policies and using populist tactics and messaging to attract other voters, a strategy made slightly easier by the degree of polarisation that has developed in US politics over the last two decades. If being an established party is a constraint of the degree of populist stance that can work, then we are back to another old rule of politics. Parties win, including Labour, when given the UK electoral system they provide their core vote with something to support but reach out to others and in a way that shows they can make sensible compromises to deliver. The solution for a mainstream party then is not to offer populism as a cure to all ills, but rather to attempt to offer a realistic narrative about how to change the country for the better.

What Just Happened? Thoughts on the election

By Hal Wolman. Hal Wolman was the founding Director of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) and served in that capacity from 2000-2012. He is an emeritus professor in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University and a Research Professor in the George Washington Institute of Public Policy. Dr. Wolman is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.


Donald Trump won.

The election was very, very close.  The switch of a relatively few votes (less than 1% in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would have given the election to Clinton.  If that had happened there would have been a quite different narrative.  This was not a massive shift in voting behavior, but a shift on the margins.  That said, see first sentence above.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  But the correct response to that – besides saying that the Electoral College is an archaic institution – is, so what?  The election was fought under Electoral College rules, rules that both sides understood and which structured their behavior.  Had it been under the rules of a national popular vote, both candidates and their campaigns would have behaved much differently.  In particular, they would have spent a lot more of their time and resources in California, New York, and Texas, all essentially one-party very populous states which were non-competitive in electoral college terms and which were therefore largely ignored (except for fund raising).  In a national popular election one vote anywhere is as good as a vote anywhere else and the concept of “losing” a state would be meaningless.  Losing California by 1,000,000 votes rather than 1,000 has the same result in the Electoral College.  But it means you pick up 999,000 additional votes in a national popular vote election.  That means candidates would campaign where the most votes are.  And, under those circumstances it’s unclear who would have won.

So why did she lose?  Was it James Comey’s letter two weeks before the election?  Yes.  Was it Wikileaks constant drip of stolen emails?  Yes.  Was it third parties, particularly Jill Stein, but also Gary Johnson?  Yes.  Was it because she was just a bad candidate?  Yes.  Was it poor campaign strategy?  Yes.  Yes to all of these, because when an election is so close, anything that might have slightly pushed it in the direction of Trump could have made the difference.  But, the real culprit was…

Turnout.  Particularly among African-Americans, which was down substantially from 2008 and 2012 when Obama was running.  That’s not terribly surprising – high African-American turnout when the first African-American was running for President.  What’s surprising is that so called experts didn’t see African-American turnout dropping from these levels in 2016.  I suspect that, to the extent the polls got it wrong – and in the end the national polls didn’t get it very wrong – it was because they mis-estimated turnout among Democratic oriented groups.  (There is also some evidence that there were some people who said, out of concern that they would be harshly judged, that they intended to vote for Clinton when they really intended to vote for Trump.  Apparently a couple of polling firms conducted some telephone polls with a live interviewer and some through an automatic robotic type phone poll.  The latter consistently showed slightly more support for Trump, particularly among women.)  In addition the exit polls indicate that a slightly lower percentage of African-American who did go to the polls voted for Clinton than voted for Obama in 2012 and 2008 (again, not surprisingly).

Latino turnout did increase, but not as much as had been predicted.  And despite Trump’s focus on immigration, Mexican criminals, etc., Trump actually got a higher share of the Latino vote than did Romney in 2012!  Who knows why this happened?  (Although these exit poll results are contested.  See here.)

What about women?  Did the fact that the first woman ever to run for President help or hurt Hillary?  Don’t know, at least not yet.  There clearly was a shift of college-educated women from Republican to Democratic voting in 2016, which, since more educated women are likely to be more concerned with feminism (I think), is consistent with some advantage for Hillary as a result of her gender.  But it could also just as easily result from more highly-educated women being put off by the boorishness and grossness of Donald Trump.  Maybe some of each.

The clearest shift in voting behavior – and the one most commented on – is the shift among traditional working class Democrats, particularly in the industrial Midwestern and Middle-Atlantic states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania) from support of a Democratic candidate to support for Trump.  This has sometimes been portrayed as a rural vote, but it was clearly much more than that.  There simply aren’t enough people living in rural areas to make that much of a difference.  Instead it was people in smaller cities – think Scranton or Erie, PA, Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, Saginaw, Michigan, etc. – who were the switchers that mattered, and will matter in the future if the switch was permanent and not just one-off.

Why did this shift occur?  Given the tenor of the campaign, some have attributed it to racism.  Certainly the Trump campaign made it OK for racists and expressions of racism to be more publicly acceptable than they have been for a long time.  Nonetheless, I am not persuaded that racism was the main reason.  Remember, switch means that these are people who voted for an African-American for President in 2012 and 2008.  If they were willing to vote for an actual African-American then, why would racism explain a switch to Trump in 2016?  Maybe these are simply people to whom Trump had a special appeal in terms of a strong Macho (potentially authoritarian) candidate, much more so than a Romney or McCain did.  Working class authoritarianism is a well-documented phenomenon in the social sciences.

Maybe, as some have commented, it was a matter of working class whites as a group, a group experiencing the disappearance of traditional manufacturing jobs, higher rates of unemployment, and lower incomes, feeling left behind, disrespected, and their problems and issues ignored.  To get a sense of this, let’s take seriously the idea of trying to imagine – as we are frequently and rightfully told to do – what it’s like to be an African-American or a LGBT person, but this time let’s put  ourselves in the shoes of the white working class.  Is it possible that they might simply feel that “nobody – certainly not the political and economic elites – cares about me.”  They care about various minority groups, they care about gays, about immigrants, refugees, etc., but I’ve got problems too, and nobody seems to care.  I have no “identity” in a party that is characterized by identity group coalition politics (a coalition of victims as somebody has called it). They might even feel this way without being racist or homophobic (though some of them are certainly that as well).  Example: how does this sound to a member of the white working class?  The Black Lives Matter people say “Black Lives Matter.”  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and others respond at first by agreeing but then saying, “All Lives Matter.” They are shouted down until they toe the line and say simply “Black Lives Matter.”  Now, I know what the Black Lives Matter people were trying to do and what their concern was.  But think of how this sounds to white working class people, most of whom are not steeped in the history of white privilege or in the understanding of Black social movements.  It sounds pretty much like they are saying “people like me and our lives don’t matter.”  Not good.

What’s the effect going to be of a Trump presidency?  There goes the Supreme Court for a generation unless Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kennedy all manage to hang on for at least four more years.  In terms of policy, who knows?  I don’t believe Trump really has any true policy preferences.  The path of least resistance for him is to simply say, “I ran as a Republican, Paul Ryan is a Republican, he seems to have some strong feelings about policy, I guess I’ll run with that unless someone gives me a reason not to.   That wouldn’t be good, but in many ways it wouldn’t be awful.  As a country we’ve had Presidents with Paul Ryan type thinking before (e.g., Reagan) and we’ve survived it.  On the other hand, he may follow his own idiosyncratic path, which would mean in many cases war with Republicans in Congress as well as Democrats.  The real worry for everybody is in the foreign and military areas.  What’s he going to do when he finds out that Putin isn’t all that nice a guy after all and has insulted him by sending men in plain green uniforms into, say, Lithuania?  Threaten to drop a bomb on Moscow?  Actually drop a bomb on Moscow?  God save us all.

Did Brexit increase hate crimes? Probably, yes.*

By Dan Devine. Dan is a PhD student in Politics at Southampton. He specialises in comparative politics, political attitudes and quantitative methods (@DanJDevine, personal websiteAcademia.edu).


Tl;DR: Brexit probably caused an increase in hate crimes. I provide descriptive and statistical (linear regression and regression discontinuity) evidence for this claim, but the claim that there was a rise in reporting rather than hate crimes per is also plausible. It’s also positive to see that this is not a lasting effect (at least in the data), although there is still an upward trend in hate crime since 2013.


In the wake of Brexit – when the UK voted to leave the European Union – there was a flurry of activity in newspapers and across the internet reporting a rise in racial tensions and hate crimes. In the following weeks and months, this was widely reported in the Guardian (a lot), the BBCHuman Rights WatchSky NewsThe Telegraph, and I’m sure some others that I’ve missed. Nevertheless, some individuals and outlets (such as Spiked and ConservativeHome) remain extremely sceptical of the claim that the vote to leave the EU was behind a rise in hate crime – and indeed, call into question the validity of the numbers at all. 

As many outlets have picked up in the last week, the government have recently released the full figures of hate crime that cover the referendum and post-referendum months and days. This allows us a much closer look at what exactly was going on around that time (and gives me a chance to try out some new ideas at visualising data). Here, I take a look at these numbers, put them through some rough-and-ready statistical tests, and look at some other explanations of the findings. In general, though, the evidence is overwhelming that Brexit did cause a rise in hate crime. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that (at least according to the data) this does not seem to be a ‘lasting effect’, as The Independent reports.

What is hate crime?

Many of the biggest critiques of the data concern what is meant by ‘hate crime’. Hate crimes in general are defined as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. However, the data I use here is focused specifically on racially or religiously aggravated offences (from now, I will just call these hate crimes). This includes crimes such as: assault with or without injury, criminal damage, public fear or distress, and harassment. This also includes graffiti of a racist nature (presumably under the latter two categories), and attacks on asylum seekers or refugees (regardless of their race). 

This does mean that essentially, anyone can report something as a hate crime if they perceive it as such. In addition, it’s true that a majority of these cases go unsolved – about a quarter of offences are taken to court. I don’t want to get into the territory of disagreeing with the very definition of hate crimes (or how they’re reported) – but it’s worth being open about what is behind the analysis.

An increase in hate crime is descriptively clear

At first glance, it is clear that there was a rise in hate crime surrounding the Brexit referendum. The first graph below shows hate crimes by month since 2013. Although there is always a seasonal effect – hate crimes increase over summer – the sharp rise in June and July 2016 is startling, and the drop off in August is not particularly drastic (or at least as drastic as we would hope). From this longer-term perspective, the summer months of 2016 are outliers in the recent history of hate crime. It should be noted, however, that there is a clear upward trend in hate crime since 2013; the low point of 2016 is around the same as the high point of 2013. This upward trend should send a warning to those interested in social cohesion.

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It’s also possible, with the Home Office data, to have a more fine-grained analysis. The graph below presents daily data for the months of May, June, July and August. Once again, the dashed horizontal line indicates when the referendum took place. The interesting part of this is the sudden increase the day after the referendum, which persists for several days, peaking approximately a week after (more on this later).  There is, as in the monthly data, a slow decline to pre-referendum levels.

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From both of these graphs, it is clear that there was a peak in hate crime surrounding the referendum. But there is also a lot of variability, and some claim that this is not necessarily down to the referendum. In lieu of suitable data to test the competing claims, I wanted to look at this statistically as best I could.

And the differences are statistically significant

To do this, I took two approaches. I make no claim that these are conclusive. They are relatively back-of-the-envelope tests, but I think they are nonetheless strong evidence for the impact of Brexit on hate crimes (for those interested, details are at the end). The first tests how much variation can be explained by the referendum, and how many hate crimes can be attributed to Brexit. What the results indicate is that Brexit increased hate crimes by about 31 a day (if we use the daily data), or by 1600 a month (if we use the monthly data). Due to the few months following the referendum, I would say the daily data is more accurate. Importantly, the results indicate that Brexit explains about 35% of the crimes in the days following Brexit – which is a statistically and substantively significant amount.

But regressions are flawed for a range of reasons, especially when done like this. As is clear from above, hate crimes slowly decrease after the peak. In other words, June and July are huge outliers. So, as another check I carried out a regression discontinuity test (again, details at the end). This narrows the focus to the days surrounding the referendum, and essentially treats the referendum as an experiment: the day of the referendum and afterwards are those ‘treated’ with the experiment, whilst those before are the control group. In other words, there should be no real difference between June 21st and June 24th other than the referendum.

The results are the same. It is statistically significant. Moreover, in the ‘RD Plot’ at the end of the post, you can see how this relationship changes dramatically. Put another way: the days either side of the referendum are fundamentally different, and the only plausible explanation is the referendum. Indeed, this is what the regression discontinuity provides extremely strong evidence for.

But was there really an increase in hate crime?

The evidence in the data is extremely strong. However, there can be a few objections which are more theoretical. The first, and most important, is that the difference might be due to an increased awareness and therefore increased reporting (this is what the police claimed at the time). In other words, hate crimes did not increase, but the reporting of them did. This is certainly plausible.

In the days following the referendum, I find this hard to believe. Why would people be more likely to report hate crimes following a referendum? This did not happen after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, or Paris attacks, or other elections, or the start of the Palestine-Israel conflict – events which are more closely tied to the potential for hate crime. It only increased slightly even after the murder of Lee Rigby. The reverse is much more plausible: that hate crimes (remember, this includes damage to property and graffiti) ensued after the referendum. However, the peak of hate crimes occurred a week after the referendum. This is surely likely to be influenced by media coverage of the previous rises. Again, I think it is likely that there was indeed increased reporting of hate crimes, in response to national media coverage and the existence of more hate crime in general. In other words, I think it was a bit of both, with more hate crimes leading to coverage and more reporting (we must also remember that hate crimes are still hugely under-reported). 

Other claims I find less appealing. One might just say it is a coincidence. The statistical weight of evidence is, for me, far too strong for that. It is far less than a 1% chance that this was just a random increase which happened to occur at the exact time of the referendum. Other claims might argue about the definition of hate crime, how they are accounted for, and how few are brought to court. These are not the focus of this post – not because they’re not important, but because they can’t be drawn from the evidence here.

Brexit, hate crime and the future

A lot of coverage has argued that the atmosphere in the UK is increasingly toxic and intolerant. The data released only extends a few months after the referendum, so we cannot be sure of what’s actually happening. But from the existing data, I would conclude that the actual impact of Brexit on hate crimes was a short-lived one, and that the effect will decrease over time.

However, I would also suggest, on a more negative note, that all Brexit did was mobilise latent attitudes into behaviour. In other words, I do not think it changed attitudes that much, but acted as a catalyst to change those attitudes into actual actions – and hate crimes. This is in part evidenced by the general upward trend in hate crimes since 2013. For what it’s worth, going forward, the media and politicians need to be extremely careful not to stoke the flames of these attitudes. The referendum has shown that it does not necessarily take much to spark an increase in hate crimes. Other catalysts are possible. And it’s important that, when the next one comes, it is much harder to translate these beliefs into actions. 

*Probably = almost certainly

 


Statistical/methodological notes:

Summary

Graphics and tests were produced in the software package R, using data from the Home Office. The background design for the graphs was taken from code by Max Woolf

Summary statistics for the two data sets used (monthly and daily data):

Statistical Tests

Firstly, I ran a basic regression on both the daily and monthly data. This uses the referendum to ‘predict’ the variation in hate crimes after the referendum. The regressions were run using the variable ‘brexit’ as a binary predictor for the dependent variable ‘hate.crime’. Clearly for the monthly data, this is hugely unbalanced, so should be treated with a bucket load of caution. The daily data is more stable.

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The regression discontinuity used the day after the referendum as the cut off. This is because the referendum really would not have had an effect until the result. Nevertheless, it is centred around 0, the day of the referendum. It is statistically significant as well. Additional analysis by Professor Will Jennings, using a time series intervention model, confirmed the findings here. The debate about whether to use a time series or discontinuity approach continues…

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The R code used is as follows. You will need the theme function downloadable from here. If you’d like the data, please contact me (D.J.Devine@Soton.ac.uk)

setwd(“”) # set your working directory

hate <- read.csv(“day.hate.csv”) # read in the data
hate2 <- read.csv(“month.crimes.total.csv”)

install.packages(“rdrobust”) #install packages
library(“rdrobust”)
install.packages(“ggplot2”, dependencies = TRUE)
library(“ggplot2”)
library(“stargazer”)
library(“lubridate”)
library(“tseries”)
library(“scales”)
library(“grid”)
library(“RColorBrewer”)
install.packages(“extrafont”)
library(“extrafont”)
loadfonts() # note, loading the fonts package will take considerable time depending on the machine
pdf(“plot_garamond.pdf”, family=”Garamond”, width=4, height=4.5)

rdrobust(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1 ) # regression discontinuity
rdd_est <- rdrobust(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1 )
rdplot(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1)

stargazer(hate, type=”html”,
title = “Summary Statistics for Daily Data”)
stargazer(hate2, type=”html”,
title = “Summary Statistics for Monthly Data”) # summary statistics, output in HTML

linear.day <- lm(hate$hate.crime ~ hate$brexit) # regular regression on day
linear.month <- lm(hate2$hate.crime ~ hate2$brexit) #… and months
stargazer(linear.day, linear.month, type=”html”,
title = “The Effect of Brexit on Hate Crimes”,
column.labels = c(“Daily Crime”, “Monthly Crime”),
coviariate.labels=”Brexit”) # table of the regression

month.crime.plot <- ggplot(data=hate2, aes(x=id, y=hate.crime)) +
fte_theme() +
geom_line(color=”#c0392b”, size=1.45, alpha=0.75) +
geom_vline(xintercept=42, linetype = “longdash”, color = “gray47″, alpha = 0.7) +
geom_text(aes(x=42, label=”Referendum”, y=2300), colour=”gray36″, size=8, family=”Garamond”)+
ggtitle(“Hate Crimes in England and Wales, 2013-2016”) +
scale_x_continuous(breaks=c(6,12,18,24,30,36,42),
labels=c(“June 2013”, “Dec 2013”, “June 2014”, “Dec 2014”, “June 2015”, “Dec 2015”, “June 2016”)) +
labs(y= “# Hate Crimes”, x=”Date”) +
theme(plot.title = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, hjust=0, size = 25, margin=margin(0,0,20,0))) +
theme(axis.title.x = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(20,0,0,0))) +
theme(axis.title.y = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(0,20,0,0))) +
geom_hline(yintercept=2000, size=0.4, color=”black”) # monthly graph

day.crime.plot <- ggplot(data=hate, aes(x=id, y=hate.crime)) +
fte_theme() +
geom_line(color=”#c0392b”, size=1.45, alpha=0.75) +
geom_vline(xintercept=54, linetype = “longdash”, color = “gray47″, alpha = 0.7) +
geom_text(aes(x=54, label=”Referendum”, y=85), colour=”gray36″, size=8, family=”Garamond”) +
ggtitle(“Hate Crimes in England and Wales, May-August 2016”) +
scale_y_continuous(limits=c(75,220)) +
scale_x_continuous(breaks=seq(14,123, by=14),
labels=c(“14 May”, “28 May”, “11 June”, “25 June”, “9 July”, “23 July”, “6 August”, “20 August”)) +
labs(y= “# Hate Crimes”, x=”Date”) +
theme(plot.title = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, hjust=0, size = 25, margin=margin(0,0,20,0))) +
theme(axis.title.x = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(20,0,0,0))) +
theme(axis.title.y = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(0,20,0,0))) +
geom_hline(yintercept=75, size=0.4, color=”black”) # daily graph


 

Can the Labour Party work again?

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


 

In The Discourses, the infamously astute republican thinker Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the strength and vitality of the Roman Republic compared to other republics lay in the fact that it successfully institutionalised the inevitable antagonism of the people and the nobles in such a way that each held the threat posed to the republic by the other in check and hence republican liberty was preserved. Mercilessly mocking the pieties of republican thinkers who imagined a harmonious transcendence of this antagonism, Machiavelli recognised that a sustainable balance of opposing forces could produce something stronger and more resilient than efforts at harmonious unity could realistically hope to achieve. Machiavelli’s insight is one that the Labour Party, in the midst of its current travails, would do well to remember since the history of the Labour Party is also one of antagonism between opposed forces. Simplifying somewhat we can see the current implosion as a recurrence of a tension that has structured the history of the Party from its inception between a Left that is focused on Labour as a transformative social movement and a Right that is focused on the acquisition of Parliamentary power (with plenty of folk in between). When the Labour Party has functioned at its best, the role of the Left has been to keep the Right honest, to block its tendency to surrender too much in its electoral pursuit of power, to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy, and the role of the Right has been to keep the Left focused on the point that principle is impotent in the absence of power, that sacrificing electoral success (or deluding yourself concerning the prospects of such success) for ideological reasons surrenders the field to an opponent who will not advance the interests of the people that the Labour Party is meant to serve. There are, though, relatively few points in its fractious recent history in which the organisation of the Labour Party has successfully institutionalized this antagonism, although it is vital to its ability to succeed as a political party.

Today it seems that the Labour Party is closer to a split than anytime since 1981. The Left with its Leader in place has responded to a rebellion of the vast majority of its MPs by reaching, once again, for its long established vocabulary of betrayal and plots, asserting its claim to represent the true flame of socialism and, at times, dismissing the importance of becoming the governing party. The Right draws on its long-practised appeal to electorability, to being a credible government in waiting, asserting its claim to represent those who will suffer once more if the field of government is effectively abandoned to Tory rule. Meanwhile Corbyn is holding firm and leadership challenges by Eagle and Smith are already on the table, while NEC decisions are surrounded in a penumbra of recrimination. There is almost no hope of compromise.

So let’s stand back from the field of internecine conflict and ask if an institutional change might help alter the terrain. Suppose, for example, the role of Leader of the Labour Party were divided into three roles. The Chair of the Party, elected by members, who has the role of re-building Labour as a social movement across the country. The Leader of the PLP, elected by the MPs, with the role of mounting effective parliamentary government and opposition. The General Secretary of the Party, elected by members and MPs (through an electoral college), who occupies the role of organising party campaigns and, with the other two leaders, working out its strategy. Such a structure would aim not to overcome but to balance the tensions between Left and Right – as Labour Party structures have generally tried to do – in order to realise the strength and vitality of the Labour movement in a parliamentary form.

How might this help the Labour Party in its current crisis? It is relatively easy to see Jeremy Corbyn’s real strengths coming to the fore in the role of Chair of the Party without being undermined by his real weaknesses. Similarly the General Secretary role is a natural fit for Tom Watson (and others like Stella Creasy). As for Leader of the PLP, well there are several plausible candidates other than those currently standing against Corbyn: Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Dan Jarvis would be among those uncluttered by the past. No doubt there are flaws in this proposal, it would be surprising if there were not, but my point in proposing it for consideration is to draw attention to the point that the problems bedevilling the Labour Party are not new and are not likely to be solved simply by changes of personnel. Rather it needs to think seriously about its organisation and how is structures the division of leadership responsibilities in order to use its internal antagonisms as a source of strength rather than weakness.

The Worst Week EVER for Politics?

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra (Twitter).


The last week of June 2016 was the worst week for politics of my lifetime. I was born in 1955 and some terrible political events have unfolded since then but never before have all the vices of our politicians and our political system been so blatantly on display.

First we saw in the EU referendum campaign the most unashamed dishonesty in argument from both sides and then an incredible acceptance of that dishonesty in the aftermath of that result. Many politicians have a different approach to truthfulness from the rest of us with a view that telling lies is fine as long as it’s about winning an argument. Moreover they then compound the errors of the campaign with a new set of lies about how the message from the British public is clear so that they can claim the mandate is whatever they want it to be. Can we really be that sure what citizens meant to say when they voted? It’s the casual nature of this fraudulent posturing that is breath-taking.

Second, politicians appear to be resolutely committed to making promises that they know they cannot keep. This behaviour was a key feature of the EU campaign and it had continued in its aftermath. You cannot have both national control of immigration and economic regulation and full access to European markets. You cannot spend money twice. If any public funds are saved from leaving the EU they cannot be stretched to save the NHS, give us tax cuts and be spent on a myriad of other things. You cannot deliver economic development to “left behind” parts of Britain through speeches or even legislation. At best you can work up several policy tools — and back them with sustained finance over decades — that may stand some chance of success against the forces of global capitalism. They are no quick fixes to the uneven and unequal economic geography of Britain.

Third, politicians have displayed and continue to demonstrate astounding short-termism. To call a referendum to fix a row in your party or to campaign for an exit from the EU without any clear plan of how to do it was staggeringly irresponsible. The Conservatives may blame Corbyn for his weak campaigning, but the referendum and the campaign was born of politics learned on the playing fields of Eton and the oak-panelled halls of the Oxford Union. Their approach appears to have all the hallmarks of the casual and cavalier attitudes bred in our elite. Politicians are now focused on positioning themselves in the aftermath of the EU result and offered next to nothing in terms of longer-term vision or practicalities.

Fourth, and connected to the above, politicians have really outdone themselves in their commitment to being self-serving. Neither the national interest, nor even their party’s interest in many cases, appears to have figured in their thinking; just plain and simple personal ambition and ego. Corbyn and McDonnell join Gove and Johnson in getting top marks for their truly self-serving displays. But there are many other contenders.

Fifth, we have been assaulted by a series of stupid cults of celebrity and personality that have led followers to the abandonment of evidence and reasoned judgement. We have had Farage the pint-loving Dad’s Army sergeant with his loud-mouth version of “They don’t like it up them those Europeans”. We have had Boris the polymath and wit who turns out to be a total wally? We have had Corbyn the Messiah whose initials might be J.C but in reality is an out of his depth, old-style sectarian politico.

Sixth, the clumsiness and limitations of our simplistic majoritarian way of thinking about politics has been horribly exposed. We are told that Leave won plain and simple. Whereas what I see is a country terribly divided and that continues to be run by a government voted for by only a quarter of eligible electors. You might argue that being able to kick the government out if it fails gives a crude accountability to our system. But where is that after a referendum result? If Brexit proves to be a disaster do we ask all those who voted to Leave, well to leave or never vote again? What’s the seventh vice? After all, sins are supposed to present themselves in seven deadly forms. The last vice I am going to reserve for us as citizens rather than the politicians. It’s the vice of fatalism. I confess to be suffering from it. Everything I have just argued about the state of our politics would indicate that giving up on it would be a reasonable response. But I want to end with an attempt to break from the path of sin.

Insert here please your favourite cliché — such as the darkest hour comes before the dawn and then move from despair to a commitment to helping bring about change. Abandon the social media comfort zone where you tweet, Facebook and share your views with those who think exactly like you and go and join a political party or political movement. Although of course still use social media to promote this blog!  Remember that change in democracies comes about through mutual adjustment. We don’t need to like each other or even understand each other but simply hold that every citizen needs their interests addressed, even if their concerns can only be met partially. We need a politics of learning, trial-and-error rather than a politics of “I know” given the overwhelming uncertainties facing us. We need multiple small changes so that losers — and there will be many — can accept their position without abandoning democracy. We need new thinking and policies to make Britain a better place.

Politics done in this  inclusive but unflashy and restrained way might just help to restore our faith in its capacity to help rather than hinder. A week may be a long time in politics but this last week is going to take years of effort if we are to overhaul the flaws in our political system that it has revealed.

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.

Why Should We Care If Westminster Is Falling Down?

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


In these austere times, no one likes the idea of spending £3.5bn on refurbishing the Houses of Parliament, yet, according to an independent report, that is exactly what it would cost to save that grand old building from disintegrating into the River Thames – and even then the figure assumes that MPs and peers would move out of the place altogether for six years while the work takes place. The Grade-I listed building is not only sinking into the soft clay on which the city of London stands, it is also plagued with asbestos, riddled with antiquated cabling, and subject to regular water ingress. It is in such an advanced state of decrepitude that its repair cannot easily be avoided for much longer. When this news was announced in June 2015, the immediate attention related to the staggering costs of refurbishment. While the repair costs are obviously no small matter, there are also broader issues underpinning this controversy, one of which concerns the democratic importance of the site itself.

The Westminster parliament is an iconic building, symbolic of our national political life, and its image is indelibly associated with breaking news stories about politics. While we may debate the merits of refurbishing a building for its historical value, the Palace of Westminster is the central focus of the UK’s democratic political life, and this necessarily changes the terms of the discussion. The gothic magnificence of Westminster serves to elevate politics as a special sort of public activity, while also imbuing parliamentary politics with a degree of ritual mystification which distinguishes between insiders and outsiders in a way that may not always be democratically healthy. The place is called Hogwarts-on-Thames for good reason.

Parliament is a key public space through which public claims are made and signals are sent about who has the right to make political decisions, and it is also the space in which political performances are enacted (Parkinson 2012, 93). The parliamentary setting is a powerful cue for the legitimation of those political decisions, which is why it matters a great deal if the building from which those cues emanate is literally crumbling around the actors who inhabit it. Yet, as a site of fundamentally important democratic activity, parliament must not only be symbolically relevant for the public, but also practically accessible to them too. On this point, the Westminster parliament does not score highly, precisely because it is viewed as emblematic of an elite approach to politics which has long been resistant to public participation. For this reason, there have been calls to radically rethink the site by turning the Palace of Westminster into a museum and designing an entirely new parliament building that is fit for twenty-first century democratic politics.

Such a proposal is clearly radical, and those embedded in the rituals and myths of Westminster are unlikely to endorse it, even if the cost of refurbishing parliament presents an excellent opportunity to consider alternative options. But there is a significant risk in not thinking ambitiously and courageously about this. The 2009 MPs expenses scandal did serious and lasting damage to our political class, and the public are unlikely to respond warmly to the idea of billions being spent to preserve politicians’ archaic way of doing business, particularly at a time when public spending continues to be slashed in the wake of the Great Recession. We should therefore care very much that Westminster is falling down, not just because the costs of propping it back up again will be substantial, but because it also presents a unique opportunity to reimagine the physical space in which we conduct our parliamentary politics and through which we express our political dreams and aspirations. Politics should be about such lofty ambitions as these. This is a chance for us to think big and test the boundaries of our democratic possibilities. While this issue remains live, we ought to at least open up a debate about what we want from our parliament building and the extent to which patching up Westminster is sufficient to fulfil our democratic desires.


Parkinson, J.R. (2012) Democracy and Public Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

New PAIR Research Funding: Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament

Image: Parliamentary copyright

Dr Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of Politics, has recently won Nuffield Foundation funding for a one-year research project examining ‘Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament’. The project, which will begin in June 2015, is in collaboration with Dr Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Dr Phil Larkin (University of Canberra), and will examine the evidence sessions held by the House of Commons Liaison Committee with the Prime Minister, in order to analyse the scrutiny and accountability potential of these sessions. While Prime Minister’s Question Time gets a lot of media attention – and a lot of criticism – few are aware of these more low-profile accountability occasions through which the Prime Minister is asked very detailed questions about the government’s policies and decisions. The research will seek to illuminate this little understood area of parliamentary work.

The team will work closely with the parliamentary clerks and MPs involved with these evidence sessions, in order analyse their accountability contribution, and to provide recommendations for how this form of scrutiny might be improved. The project also involves national and international comparative work, to find similar examples of prime ministerial accountability in other political systems and to learn from them.

This is an exciting piece of research, which is positioned to make significant contributions to our understanding of both the limits and the possibilities of democratic accountability mechanisms. The Nuffield Foundation Open Door programme funds projects which scrutinise constitutional and legislative processes in order to identify opportunities for reform. For more details, see: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/government-and-constitution

National Voting Rights for Resident Non-Citizens: The Luxembourg Debate

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


On June 7th 2015, the people of Luxembourg will be voting in a referendum covering four separate questions:

  • Should teenagers aged 16 or over be given the active right to vote? (The active right means that they would be able to vote but not stand in elections.)
  • Should non-Luxembourg nationals be allowed to vote in national elections on the condition that they have lived in Luxembourg for at least ten years?
  • Should the state continue to pay salaries and pensions of priests, diocese staff or officials of other faith groups in Luxembourg?
  • Should government mandates be limited to a period of ten years?

Although all raise fascinating points for political theory and practice, it is the second – national voting rights for resident non-citizens – that raises the most challenging issues for contemporary states in contexts of migration and for EU member states in the context of the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by EU citizens. On the 20th-21st March I was privileged to be invited as an expert in a wide-ranging intellectual debate on this issue held in the Chambre des Députés du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg in which a group of historians, lawyers, sociologists and political scientists presented a range of perspectives on resident non-citizen suffrage to an audience of parliamentary representatives, activists, academics and students. Organized by Professor Philippe Poirier and his colleagues at the University of Luxembourg with the cooperation of the Luxembourg Parliament in order to enhance political debate, the event exemplified how academic research can inform, and be challenged by, the diversity of political perspectives that characterize a democratic state.

The question of resident non-citizen suffrage in national elections has real political significance for Luxembourg. About 45% of its residents are non-citizens (with about 85% of these being EU citizens). On the one hand, this looks like a serious democratic problem with almost half the population being denied national political representation in its legislative body. On the other hand, it is easy to see that the people of Luxembourg might reasonably be concerned that permitting national suffrage rights to resident non-citizens would undermine their ability to control their own political destiny.

One response to this dilemma is to make acquisition of nationality relatively straightforward and on the 1st January 2009 Luxembourg introduced new naturalization legislation that permitted dual/plural nationality and a double ius soli principle. This has had significant impact:

The number of valid demands for nationalisation quadrupled, going from 1065 in 2008 to 11770 for the period of the 1st January 2009 to the 31 December 2011. The Luxembourgish nationality was granted to 11736 persons, quasi 4000 per year. … By comparison, in 2008, only 1215 persons acquired the Luxembourg nationality. Furthermore, by double ius soli, 3414 persons of less than 18 years age, born in the Grand-Duchy of foreign parents of whom one was also born in Luxembourg, acquired Luxembourg nationality on the 1st January 2009. Following the assessment of the STATEC (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), from 2009 to 2011, approximately another 1000 children became Luxembourgers by double ius soli, and 2491 children were naturalised along with one of their parents. A total of about 18500 new Luxembourgers in three years, mainly because of the innovations introduced by the law of 2008.

However, as already noted, the number of resident non-citizens today is c.45% with c.85% being EU citizens. For Luxembourg, it seems a decision must be made.

The vote in Luxembourg is also, however, also significant for the EU. Currently the EU has a demos problem in that EU citizens who exercise their civil right of freedom of movement may find themselves disenfranchised at the national voting level in both their state(s) of nationality and their state of residence. This is a democratic wrong but it is one that the EU as an institution has no competence to resolve. There are several possible ways of resolving this problem. But given (a) that the institutional architecture of the EU is neither purely intergovernmental (which would support tying national voting rights to naturalization) or purely federal (which would support tying national voting rights to residence) and (b) that EU citizenship entitles EU citizens who move to other member states to be treated as de facto dual nationals for a wide range of purposes, one fitting way of addressing this problem would be for Member States to allow such Second Country Nationals to become ‘Resident Electors’ after a reasonable period of residence. A ‘Yes’ vote in Luxembourg’s referendum (although it would also encompass a small number of non-EU citizens) would provide an example to the EU of such a practice. A ‘No’ vote would push the agenda in the direction of either reciprocal arrangements between specific Member States or expatriate voting rights for Second Country Nationals or some combination of the two. Luxembourg’s decision thus has implications that are wider than its own national affairs – and it is also for this reason that the engagement of academics, citizens and politicians in the event organized by the University of Luxembourg in association with their Parliament was such a welcome endeavor.

Scandal Scrutiny and the Political Theatre of Parliament

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


At a time when each week seems to bring fresh revelations about some new scandal – be it from the world of politics, finance, business, entertainment, or whatever – we hear a lot about how it has never been more important to ‘uncover the truth’ and ‘get to the bottom of things’, so that ‘it can never happen again.’ House of Commons select committees have found themselves to be uniquely positioned in this growth industry of scandal scrutiny, and by exploiting this positioning they’ve succeeded in raising the profile of parliament as an important arena for political action. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has long been at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny, and has recently assumed even greater political saliency as a result of the strategic leadership of its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. PAC’s recent investigations into tax avoidance and evasion, and in particular Hodge’s grilling of senior HSBC figures, has drawn the criticism that Hodge is ‘abusive and bullying’ and presiding over ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation.’ These comments are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the notion that committee scrutiny is a ‘theatrical exercise’ is in fact hugely revealing of the institutional setting. Parliament is the nation’s pre-eminent ‘theatre of action’[i]. It’s the stage on which political actors enact a range of vital performances, from which they take cues from off-stage participants, and through which they signal important political messages to watching audiences. Describing parliamentary politics as ‘theatrical’ isn’t therefore particularly contemptuous, and the metaphor is incredibly useful in helping us to understand the behaviour and activity of MPs inside parliament.

This leads directly to the second point, which is that in pursuing this burgeoning market in scandal scrutiny, select committees would be negligent if they didn’t use all the resources at their disposal, including the ability to embarrass witnesses. For the most part, the only public scrutiny many of these witnesses will ever be exposed to is that visited upon them by parliamentary committees. Irrespective of what happens to those individuals or their institutions thereafter, it is fundamental to the operation of democracy that significant figures are at least seen to be challenged and questioned. Whether such challenging and questioning is the same as holding them to account is of course another matter. But the very public and highly visible process of scrutiny that is possible through parliamentary committees is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for ensuring the democratic health of our political system. The oxygen of publicity is, after all, a highly effective disinfectant. Parliamentary committees may not be in a position to resolve any of the scandals they investigate, but they are increasingly crucial agenda-setting actors, and their scrutiny actions can and do help determine how long an issue will remain on the media’s radar. What’s more, when committee members ask hard questions, and appear incredulous when witnesses answer those questions, they are merely channelling the behaviours expected of them by their similarly incredulous constituents.

Which leads to the final point: the role of the committee chair is of fundamental importance in understanding what action a committee will take on any given issue, which is why Margaret Hodge at PAC has drawn both criticism and applause. Leadership matters in select committees, and the chair is crucial in setting the tone of investigations and determining the vigour with which summoned witnesses are questioned. Hodge’s behaviour in the PAC chair has been described as ‘grandstanding’, but labelling an active and relentless chair in this way entirely misconceives the emerging strategic role of chairs and their increased willingness to exploit the parliamentary resources at their disposal, resources which would not otherwise be available to them as backbench MPs. The whole point of shifting in 2010 to a system of elected select committee chairs was to beef up the scrutiny capacity of the Commons and imbue chairs with greater authority and legitimacy to act. To then describe chairs as ‘grandstanding’ when they put those institutional resources to use is disingenuous.

So long as scandals continue to be uncovered, parliamentary committees will continue to position themselves on the political stage as wily inquisitors working on behalf of the exploited and the victimised, and active chairs will vigorously pursue witnesses so long as there is a political market for doing so. Ultimately, the very best actors will always learn how to maximise their use of the stage on which they perform so as to throw their voices to the darkest corners of the theatre. This truth is what makes the study of parliament and its committees so compelling.

The author acknowledges the support of ESRC research funding (RES-061-25-0391).

[i] Uhr, J. and J. Wanna, 2000, ‘The future roles of parliament’ in M. Keating, J. Wanna, and P. Weller (eds.) Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.