PAIR 50th Anniversary Lecture (Tonight, 6pm): ‘Sovereignty of the People? Public Opinion and Constitutional Change in Britain’

By Rosie Campbell, Reader in Politics, Birkbeck University of London.

Wednesday 11th February 6-7.30pm (02 / 1089, followed by wine reception).

Abstract: In this presentation I will explore how the public understands political representation using illustrative examples from surveys of public opinion. Contemporary elite and academic discourse often problematizes the descriptive and substantive representation of citizens through the lens of gender and ethnicity. For example, there are multiple surveys that have evaluated whether there is a public appetite for measures to improve the descriptive representation of women. However, there is also a resurgent interest in social class and regional/local identities that provides a further challenge to the current political class’s claims to be ‘representatives’ of the people. How the sovereignty of the people should be expressed through the collective voice of MPs in parliament has been contested at least since Burke made his famous speech to the Electors at Bristol; MPs must negotiate where to situate themselves between the two poles of political representation (centre and periphery) and choose to act as either delegates or trustees. These issues are increasingly salient in the context of a fragmenting party system where there is mounting pressure on MPs to perform their representative role by focusing more of their attention on the interests of their constituency. I will use surveys of public opinion to explore how these tensions are ‘voiced’ by the people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increasing Vulnerability

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

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

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The British Crisis and the ‘End of Neoliberalism’

By Pia Riggirozzi and Jean Grugel. Pia Riggirozzi is Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton ( and Jean Grugel is Professor of International Development at University of Sheffield. You can find more posts by Pia here.

There are many useful lessons to be learnt from the Latin American debate about ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy.

The crisis in British politics, from the slow, partial and uneven economic recovery to the exhaustion of the Westminster model in the wake of the Scottish referendum, is in the news. Academic commentary following the financial crisis in 2007-8 has focused on political disaffection, anti-politics and the disintegration of apparently established political allegiances and the emergence of new protest parties.  But, in order to understand fully the crisis in British politics, we need to put it into a global context.  Observers of British politics would benefit from looking outwards, and reflecting on experiences elsewhere.

Tony Payne’s recent SPERI blog sets out an argument that traditional patterns of governance in Britain are collapsing due to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership and, more profoundly, a political-economic project that not only fails most families but seems to be cutting away, wilfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Britain.

Payne asks why it is so difficult for British leaders to manage the structural changes reshaping Britain and wonders whether we are in the midst of a political economy that could, as he boldly puts it, lead to ‘the unravelling of neoliberalism’: the Right is failing to impose an economic model based on rising inequality and the Left unable or unwilling to refashion a social contract of ‘caring capitalism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’.

We agree with Tony Payne that the British political debate urgently needs to go beyond narrow discussion of partisan politics and short-term election strategies to embrace a more profound engagement with political economy.  But, as already indicated, we also suggest that there is much to be learned about the British crisis by putting it in the context of what has happened elsewhere or, put differently, by looking at it through the lens of a genuinely global political economic analysis.  What this might reveal are interesting and unexpected points of comparison with the politics and the economics of middle-income countries in the global South, where demands for better management of neoliberalism and calls for a ‘more intelligent state’, as the late President of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, put it, are the stuff of everyday political debate.

One place to start would be the rich debate in and on Latin America about whether a ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy is possible.  The political-economic crisis in Latin America in the early 2000s led to calls for an end to neoliberal rollback, a new social contract negotiated and managed by a more active state, and the construction of a social consensus that was both respectful of economic growth and sensitive to urgent need to address the poverty legacy, invest in education and create welfare.  As we have ourselves shown, so-called ‘post-neoliberal experiments’ have combined a pragmatic attempt to refocus the direction and the purpose of the economy through state spending, increased taxation and management of exports with a project of enhancing citizenship through a new politics of cultural recognition in Bolivia and Ecuador and attempts to recreate the state-sponsored pact between business and labour in Argentina and Brazil.

Of course, post-neoliberal governance in Latin America is not problem-free.  Inadequate state capacity, the scale of inequality, personalist political leadership and a worrying lack of institutionalisation of reform – plus the threat of external discipline from creditors – all undermine some of the early gains achieved by new left governments.  But, despite their problems, and in the face of often profound criticism from international organisations, ‘post-neoliberal’ governments have proved remarkably durable at the polls, as the recent re-elections of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia and the support for the re-election of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay show.

What’s more, these governments draw support not only from the rural and urban poor but also from the middle classes.  Indeed, the key to understanding calls for an end to a governance model subject entirely to the uncertainties of the global economy in Latin America has been the impact of unregulated markets on private and public sector middle-income groups.  Put simply, the absence of a proper social pact able to balance private profitability with welfare and public investments in the 1980s and 1990s led to immiseration of the middle classes, most dramatically in Argentina where the ‘new poor’ were the motor of the 2001 protest movement and factory take-overs.

There is surely much to reflect on here for analysts of the current crisis in Britain and indeed in Europe more widely.  Despite the difficulties so many people face simply in getting by, set out clearly in the recent Resolution Foundation’s recent report on Low Pay, the political parties in Britain seem unable to take their concerns and needs seriously enough.  One of the lessons from Latin America is that political leaders need to fashion an alternative to neoliberalism as part of their offer to the electorate if they want to win.

So, to go back to Payne’s question: are we in a situation of electoral rebellion, crisis and rising inequality on a scale that could lead to the unravelling of neoliberalism in Britain?  Despite the evident problems, we are sceptical as to whether the current crisis is really the prelude to collapse. Markets are deeply embedded as mechanisms of implementation (even in universities, schools and hospitals); and there are scapegoats that are, worryingly, being forced to carry the blame – immigrants most notably.  British citizens may not yet be ready to turn fully on their political leaders.  In Latin America, the challenge to neoliberalism came from electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets but did so in the context of a global political economy that gave Latin American citizens some hope for the future.  Whilst Latin America is part of the ‘rising rest’, Britain, however, is struggling with relative decline.

These important similarities and differences help put the British crisis in context.  Our key point is that the debate Tony Payne has opened about the future of neoliberalism is to be welcomed and we call now for genuinely comparative and global consideration of what ‘post-neoliberal’ political economies might look like, in Britain and elsewhere, and what might be needed to bring them into existence.

Polling Observatory #42: Sharp drop in Labour support adds further confusion to the most chaotic election in living memory

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

This is the forty-second in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 01-11-14 anchor on average

In last month’s Polling Observatory we noted remarkable stability in the polls despite a hugely eventful political month. This month we find the opposite pattern. A relatively subdued political month has been accompanied by one of the largest shifts in opinion we have observed since the beginning of this parliament. Labour’s vote share, at 31.6%, is down 2.8 points in just a month, erasing nearly all of the fragile lead over the Conservatives that the party have been clinging to over the past six months. This plunge in support is among  the largest shifts in opinion we have recorded since 2010, and implies that about one in twelve Labour voters has drifted away from the party in the past few weeks. A significant part of this drop may be the result of the seismic shift in opinion north of the border, where support for the Scottish National Party has surged dramatically, threatening Labour’s long hegemony in Scottish Westminster polls and votes. The Conservatives, by contrast, have recovered some of the ground they lost last month, rising 0.6 points to 30.7%. The top two parties are now within just a single percentage point of each other, pointing to a tightening race with just six months to go to the general election.

Meanwhile UKIP have consolidated their large gain last month, and are stable on 15.2%. However, as the widening dashed lines around our latest UKIP estimate indicate, there is an unusually high degree of uncertainty about UKIP support at the moment. This reflects the substantial spread in UKIP support in the polls. Some pollsters are showing the party at 20% or higher, and indeed in the aftermath of the Clacton by-election one Survation poll reported UKIP as high as 25% (and another ComRes poll put them on 24% around the same period). In contrast, other pollsters have them stable in the mid-teens, for example with both Populus and YouGov often finding UKIP support in the 13% to 15% range.

As we have discussed previously, our method makes it possible to estimate the ‘house effect’ for each polling company for each party, relative to the vote intention figures we expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported vote intention for a given pollster is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate ‘accuracy’, since there is no election to benchmark the accuracy of the polls against. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions. In the table below we report the ‘bias’ towards or against each of the parties for all current polling companies. From this, it is quickly apparent that the largest range of house effects are found in the estimation of UKIP support, with Survation’s figures 4.3 points higher than the average pollster, followed by Opinium at 2.8 points higher and Lord Ashcroft at 2.1 points higher. In contrast, ICM put UKIP 2.6 points lower, ComRes (telephone) 2.5 points lower and Ipsos-MORI 1.8 points lower. As when we reported on this previously, the uncertainty seems to be associated with the method a pollster employs to field a survey. All the companies who poll by telephone (except Lord Ashcroft’s weekly poll) tend to give lower scores to UKIP. By contrast, three of the five companies which poll using internet panels give higher than average estimates for UKIP. The diversity of estimates indicates the continued uncertainty about the extent to which UKIP is reshaping the political landscape at the present time, where the lack of a clear precedent means that pollsters have little previous information to use to calibrate their estimates.

With the top two parties effectively tied, and the pollsters divided about the performance of the surging insurgents who may decide their fates, the outcome of the 2015 election has never been less certain.

House Mode Adjustment Prompt Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
ICM Telephone Past vote, likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.3 -0.8 2.7 -2.6
Ipsos-MORI Telephone Likelihood (certain) to vote Unprompted 0.5 0.3 0.5 -1.8
Lord Ashcroft Telephone Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.9 -0.6 -1.0 2.1
ComRes (1) Telephone Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.1 0.1 -2.5
ComRes (2) Internet Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.7 -1.0 1.8
YouGov Internet Newspaper readership, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.9 2.1 -1.3 -0.4
Opinium Internet Likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.8 -0.8 -2.2 2.8
Survation Internet Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted -1.7 -1.4 -0.3 4.3
Populus Internet Likelihood to vote, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 2.4 1.7 0.1 -2.1

Another polling sub-plot which emerged this past month has been the emergence of the Greens as yet another potent force in the fragmenting political landscape. A number of polls have put their support at 6% or 7%, a massive increase on their 2010 showing of less than 1% (though this is artificially deflated as the party stood candidates in less than 50% of constituencies), and close to or even above the struggling Liberal Democrats. We do not currently estimate support for the Greens, but will investigate adding them to our model if the current surge in support is sustained. Currently, we have the Lib Dems at 8.5%, up 0.3 points on last month. Although falling behind the Greens is symbolically bad for the party, and provides seasoned poll watchers with an exciting new story, the substantive impact of this new twist is likely to be limited. The Lib Dems’ fate still depends on how well they can hold on to votes in their traditional constituency strongholds.

Despite the sharp fall in their support this month, Labour still hold important structural advantages thanks to the biases in the electoral system, which mean their votes translate more effectively into seats. Lord Ashcroft has been doing the psephological community a huge service by systematically polling the individual marginal seats which will decide the result next year. Using this method, he has already identified enough prospective Labour gains to put the party ahead on seats next year, and he still has many more strong prospects to poll. However, as Lord Ashcroft’s himself wisely reminds us, polls are a snapshot not a prediction, and Labour’s leads in many key marginals look awfully fragile. The opposition remains, slightly, in front for one more month. But there are six more to go, and if just one of these looks like October, the contest will be thrown wide open.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

England’s Great Illusion (about the EU)

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

On Monday, 20 October, the outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso responded to English nationalists in a speech delivered at the Chatham House think tank in London. Here is the part of this speech directly countering some Europhobe arguments.

That is why I do not underestimate the very real concerns UK citizens are expressing about Europe. These merit a substantive response.

You don’t like the idea of a huge EU budget. I get that. By the way, it’s not – and with just 1% of Europe’s GDP we will need to fully use the agreed flexibility if we are pay our bills to those we are committed to invest in. Like Cambridge University for example, which consistently tops the tables for winning EU research funding.

But it’s a shame that the political debate here focuses only on absolute figures, when quality of spending is so much more important. This Commission has reformed the budget to focus on providing funding in countries and regions for the things that really matter – investment in research, in young people, in a more connected Europe.

You don’t want to be paying for armies of Eurocrats. I get that. We are cutting one in twenty staff across all EU institutions and agencies. The reforms we have introduced will save €2.7 billion by 2020 and €1.5 billion per year in the long run.

Personally I support the government’s aim to get more of Britain’s best and brightest to work in our institutions. The number of British officials is less than half of what it should be and falling quickly. Constant criticism and a pending existentialist debate do not make us the most attractive employer for young British graduates.

You don’t want Europe to meddle where it should not. I get that. Since 2004, the Commission has cut red tape worth €41 billion to European business. We have not interfered with the height of hairdressers’ heels, or the ergonomic design of office chairs.

We have scrapped legislation on bendy cucumbers – although the supermarkets were the first to complain. We have introduced evidence-based policy-making, consultation and impact assessment as the norm.

There are wide-spread concerns in the UK and elsewhere about abuse of free movement rights. I get that. Already in 2011, after constructive dialogue with the British Government, the Commission took forward changes to the way income support is dealt with under European social security rules. This benefit is now only due to those who have already worked and paid into the UK system. Since then we have undertaken concrete actions to support Member States as they apply the anti-abuse rules, for example on sham marriages.

I believe that any further changes to address some of the concerns raised should not put into question this basic right, which cannot be decoupled from other single market freedoms.

The Commission has always been ready to engage constructively in this discussion. But changes to these rules need all countries to agree.

And it is an illusion to believe that space for dialogue can be created if the tone and substance of the arguments you put forward question the very principle at stake and offend fellow Member States. It would be an historic mistake if on these issues Britain were to continue to alienate its natural allies in Central and Eastern Europe, when you were one of the strongest advocates for their accession.

[Emphases added]. Full speech available here.

The Polling Observatory Forecast #5: Conservatives fading away?

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

As explained in our inaugural election forecast, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.

Forecast 01-10-14

This month’s Polling Observatory reported largely stable electoral preferences during September, despite a turbulent month at the summit of politics.  The shares for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and especially the Conservatives declined slightly, the latter by 1.1%.  UKIP was the beneficiary, and gained 1.2%, almost exactly what the Conservatives lost.  The forecast based on these numbers yet again finds the two major parties locked in a statistical dead heat but with the Conservatives slipping back further, down 1.2% to 33.7%.  The gap between the parties widened a little less as our Labour forecast also fell slightly, and now stands at 2.5%.

The inability of the Conservatives to close the gap in voter preferences makes it less and less likely that they can overtake Labour.  Our forecast share for them has declined steadily because they are not making the gains in the polls history suggests they ought to be at this stage.  Time is running out for Cameron’s party, and unless they can produce a sustained recovery in their polling numbers our forecast will continue to decline.  However, it is worth remembering that swings in the polls are possible even very late in the day, and the gap between the top two remains narrow enough for our forecast to be a statistical dead heat.  All signs still point to a very close election.

Things are even worse for the Liberal Democrats, whose  forecast share drops again, by 0.4% to 8.7%.  Should the performance continue, there surely will be consequences for the share of the seats in Parliament as well, specifics of which we are planning to provide in our next (November) post.

In the meantime, we are keeping a close watch on the polls in the wake of the party conferences.  Is there a lasting Conservative bounce coming after Cameron’s speech highlighting tax cuts and further reductions in the size of the state? Or will this prove fleeting, as the news agenda moves on to NHS strikes, health scares and foreign entanglements? Only time and the data it reveals will tell.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #41: Opinion stable for now, but election battle lines are being drawn

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

This is the forty-first in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 01-10-14 anchor on average

This month’s Polling Observatory update comes after another tumultuous month in British politics – one that  began with the shock defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP; followed by the frantic conclusion to Scottish Independence referendum campaign, which saw the highest voter turnout seen in a post-war British election, and  immediately kicked off a new constitutional battle over ‘English votes for English laws’. After all this drama, party conference season was likely to feel anti-climatic and an anodyne Labour Party conference featuring tired activists and a flat leader’s speech delivered on this expectation. The fireworks soon began flying again, however, as Nigel Farage’s insurgents used their conference to declare war on Labour in Northern constituencies, and unveil a second Conservative defection right on the eve of the main governing party’s conference. Rumbling in the background through all this has been the steadily worsening Middle East crisis, leading to a recall of Parliament and a return of Britain to conflict in the region.  Summer silly season is definitely at an end.

Our latest report covers polling data up to October 1st – just prior to David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, which was widely heralded in the media for its promise of jam tomorrow (future tax cuts). We therefore miss any possible conference ‘bounce’ from the speech – hinted at by three polls, two in succession by YouGov and one by Lord Ashcroft – putting the Conservatives ahead. As ever, we would be cautious about over-interpreting sudden and large movements in the polls, not least as two other polls have shown Labour maintaining their lead – and the latest YouGov poll puts Labour back two points in front. We shall see next month whether Cameron’s supposed conference ‘bounce’ holds up once the news cycle has moved on.

The big movers in September were UKIP, who gained 1.2 points, rising to 15.2%, and the Conservatives, who fell 1.1 points, down to 30.1%. The defection of two Conservative MPs – Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – to UKIP may therefore have led some of their fellow partisans to make a similar switch. Victories for one or both of the defectors in their new party’s colours, and the positive media coverage that would doubtless follow UKIP’s first Parliamentary wins, could encourage further moves in the polling. With constituency polls for both Clacton and Rochester & Strood currently pointing towards UKIP victories, Nigel Farage’s rebels look set to keep up the pressure on the Conservatives over the next couple of months.

Despite a lacklustre conference, our estimates see Labour stable on 34.4%, with no change from last month. As a result, Labour have preserved their fragile poll lead for another precious month. Indeed, the lead as estimated just prior to the Conservative conference was the highest we have recorded for six months, though it remains within the narrow 3 to 5 point band that it has been stuck on for most of 2014. The Liberal Democrats still face a daunting electoral challenge, with their support down 0.3 points on 8.3%.

It will be interesting to see whether the apparent conference bounce for the Conservatives is sustained at all. It is worth remembering that an 8% swing over the course of just a matter of days implies that over two million people have adjusted their voting intention in response to a single speech The empirical evidence of post-conference bounces in the polls is weak, and there is very little chance of these lasting through to election day. Most of the effects of events on public opinion are gradual and slow-moving. In this respect, it may be the tone set by Cameron’s speech – with its focus on tax cuts for middle and higher income earners and further reductions in the size of the state – which may matter most. The speech draws clear battle lines over taxation and spending for the coming election, perhaps the clearest seen for twenty years, but may also imperil the Conservatives’ hard won reputation for fiscal responsibility, as shown by the criticism of the unfunded tax cut announcements by trusted sources.  So while we are sceptical that Cameron’s speech alone has changed many minds in the last few days, it could nonetheless usher in a new phase of public opinion dynamics as voters react to the newly drawn divides between the parties.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 (1): 90-110.

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

Book Review of “The Blunders of Our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

DipticBy Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (, Twitter). Read more posts by Will here.


This is an extended version of a book review that will be published in Political Studies Review in August 2015 (Volume 13, Issue 3), and will be available at the Wiley Online Library.

The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. London: Oneworld, 2013.

At a time when the modern state is faced with the pressures of austerity and a rising anti-politics sentiment among its citizens, The Blunders of our Governments takes on the important task of cataloguing and diagnosing the many policy failures of British government over several decades. In this, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe sketch out some of the details of twelve highly readable ‘horror stories’ of British public policy; with the cases including the poll tax, the ERM crisis, the Millennium Dome, the public private partnership for upgrading the London underground and the aborted identity cards scheme. Having done this, they reflect on some of the causes of the identified blunders and how they can be linked to defects of the British system of government, and to the cultures and practices that are prevalent in Whitehall and in Westminster. This is a noble effort and no doubt one that will attract the interest and attention of influential decision-makers in government. Its format makes it highly accessible for a popular audience, but means that it frustratingly fails to make any reference to the substantial amount of research that exists on policy disasters (and the litany of labels used to describe the occasions when things go wrong with policy). This means that a lot of what is already known about the dysfunctional pathologies of modern British government is overlooked, for example the excellent work of Moran (2003) on policy catastrophes and the regulatory state. Indeed, King and Crewe repeat many of the arguments made by Dunleavy (1995) about large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes being endemic to Britain’s political/administrative system, and even draw on some of the same cases. The lack of a clearly structured theoretical framework or method for policy analysis means that the set of explanations of policy blunders seems rather ad hoc and there is no attempt to integrate these in some sort of conclusion. Indeed, the book ends rather abruptly with a postscript on the Coalition government’s record on policy blunders.

That this is such an engaging account is in part because it is full of contradictions and unsolved puzzles. The authors repeatedly suggest that British government is blunder-prone (p. ix, xiv, 399), but concede they are unable to say whether it is more or less blundersome in either historical or comparative perspective (p. x). It is claimed that blunders are numerous (p. ix), but no systematic review of the evidence is presented to back this up – we simply have to take the word of these seasoned observers of British politics. Indeed, it is a little surprising that King and Crewe admit to selecting their twelve cases “… from a much longer list compiled from the suggestions of a large number of former ministers, senior officials and political commentators” (Crewe 2014, Political Insight). This would seem methodologically problematic given that in-group biases are one of the factors famously associated with policy disasters; such as in the seminal work of Janis (1972) on groupthink. Should we trust the judgement of the people who were at the scene of the crime as to what happened and who was to blame? This seems at risk of the ‘cultural disconnect’ that the authors warn about.

For a study of government blunders, there is a much greater focus on high politics – in the form of ministerial and departmental manoeuvrings – than the reasons why policies fail and how the choice of particular policy instruments matters. Accordingly, blunders are selected as ‘occasions on which ministers and officials failed to achieve their declared objectives’ (p. 6). This is a clear benchmark for identification of political blundering, but does not allow for a more critical and systematic evaluation of why things go wrong. Take the case of the Millennium Dome discussed in Chapter 8. This was an unmitigated political disaster for the Blair Government, with ministerial hubris playing some part. However, in terms of construction and delivery the Dome did not suffer the magnitude of cost overrun typically incurred in the management of mega-projects – rising just 4% from the forecast expenditure in its May 1997 budget (NAO 2002, p. 2). The financial difficulties of the Dome were instead due to over-optimistic expectations about revenue from commercial sponsors and ticket revenues – which left the government-owned company insolvent. Further, the confused governance of the Dome project can be traced to attempts to deliver millennium celebrations as a public-private partnership, before the Blair government even took office in the 1990s. This decision led to a protracted, disruptive and ultimately futile outsourcing process, with the private sector unwilling to take on the risks attached to the project, which Labour inherited in 1997. The Dome blunder can thus be attributed to a combination of path dependence (inheritance of the project from a previous government), flawed assumptions in the choice of policy instrument (i.e. co-delivery of the project with the private sector) and cognitive biases of decision-makers (over-confidence and commitment of the sunk cost fallacy once the project was underway). None of these conditions/pathologies are particularly unique to British government, however. King and Crewe’s choice of the term ‘blunder’ is appealing because it cultivates the image of naive ministers and civil servants making avoidable mistakes. However, it distracts from more fundamental questions about why the institutional structures of the state fail to prevent errors due to individual or collective decision-making. As Moran (2001, p. 415) argues, the sustained influence of blunders in high politics can be attributed to ‘incomplete penetration of the regulatory state’. This arguably provides a far more revealing and fundamental explanation of the Dome fiasco and other policy failures.

Similarly, many of the examples identified as cases of policy successes are open to challenge. King and Crewe cite the organisation of the London 2012 Olympics as a policy success (p. 21). While undoubtedly extremely popular and a triumph for the government in terms of operation of the sporting event, in policy and planning terms the Olympics was still error-prone across a range of criteria for evaluation: its cost exceeded the original forecasts by more than 200% (Jennings 2012), the army had to be drafted in to provide security after the contractor G4S failed to supply the agreed number of security guards, and the promised legacy of increased sports participation has not materialised. While a political success, the policy story was distinctly mixed. Similarly, government preparations for the swine flu epidemic of 2009 are cited as another example of success (p. 20). Subsequent scientific evidence has suggested, however, that that the vaccines were ultimately ineffective, leading the Daily Mail to exclaim “Ministers blew £650 MILLION on useless anti-flu drugs” (10 April 2014). One person’s policy blunder is another person’s success, a point which surely more should have been made of.

In some regards The Blunders of our Governments is in line with a healthy tradition of self-depreciating tendencies of the British ruling class, which has endured a crisis of self-confidence since the breakup of the British Empire and in successive decades of crises of the economy and political institutions. King and Crewe’s thesis is premised on the belief that governments screw up too much, and that this ailment is distinctly British in its origins. On the other hand, it perpetuates a dangerous in-group view of the ruling club – based on the stories told by key actors – without asking searching questions about the tools that government opts to use and broader trends in modes of delivery of public services for the modern state and why these do not avert policy blunders. Its lack of reference to comparative examples (such as the cost overruns and technical difficulties in constructing both Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Germany and Bibliothèque nationale de France) is similarly symptomatic of this insularity, and of the lack of systematic analysis of evidence to back up the far-reaching assertions offered. As an account written by insiders with connections to the political elite this book is highly revealing of an outlook of the challenges of governing, which is rather charming but at the same time disabling. It presents only a faux challenge to the political elite and will readily be embraced by them as it reflects their worldview. Nothing important is likely to change as a result of its diagnosis, which given its subject matter might be considered disappointing from the perspective of many citizens.


Crewe, Ivor. (2014). ‘Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010.’ Political Insight 5(1): 4-9.

Dunleavy, Patrick. (1995). ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record.’ Public Policy and Administration 10(2): 52-70.

Janis, Irving. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Jennings, Will. (2012). ‘Why Costs Over-Run: Risk, Optimism and Uncertainty in Budgeting for the London 2012 Olympics.’ Journal of Construction Management and Economics 30(6): 455-462.

Moran, Michael. (2001). ‘Not Steering but Drowning: Policy Catastrophes and the Regulatory State.’ The Political Quarterly 72(4): 414–427.

Moran, Michael. (2003). The British Regulatory State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

National Audit Office. (2002). Winding-up the New Millennium Experience Company Limited. London: The Stationery Office.