Why Politics Still Matters

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The rise of the social sciences and what it can offer to policymakers

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


We are all in this together

The social sciences are more relevant than ever in helping solve the problems of public policy. You might think that there are neat lines to be drawn between science-based disciplines, the social sciences and the humanities (these are traditional ways of expressing divides within the University sector) but in practice those lines are often blurred. There is an overlap in areas of interest and a sharing in methods used.

When engineers move from the laboratory to the field and propose solutions to deal with water management and distribution in developing countries that involve the establishment of complex human institutional devices, are they doing science or social science? When a randomised control trial looks at behaviour in classrooms in the hands of educational studies researchers (normally classified as social scientists) rather than the trialling of a new medicine by medical researchers (usually classified as scientists) is it any less scientific? The distinctions between types of academic study are not without value but they can lead to a false sense of difference that is neither helpful nor justified.

In particular we see no great value in making claims that some subjects are ‘hard’ science – physics, chemistry, mathematics and medicines for example – while others are ‘soft’ science such as the social sciences that would include economics, sociology, political studies, human geography, social policy and range of other disciplines. The ‘hard’ sciences deliver useable knowledge and the ‘soft’ sciences offer mere informed speculation might be the claim that follows the distinction. But such a proposition does more harm than good and overlooks a crucial question for the policymaker and for that matter a citizen. The issue is not how academia draws up its dividing lines but rather about which types of research can contribute to the problems we confront: does the research tell me what we need to know? The core concern is not how you know but what you want to know. If knowledge is going to be useful it has to be knowledge about something we need to know about.

Our argument is that if anything the social sciences has become more relevant because what we as policy makers and citizens need to know more about is how to make human-influenced or human constructed systems work more effectively. There are relatively fewer purely natural systems and increasingly systems that are either human influenced or human dominated. The domain of human dominated systems is that of the social sciences without doubt, but so too to a degree is that of human-influenced systems. The argument is that the social sciences rather than being the poor cousin of the sciences of natural systems has rather an expanding empire.

What can social science deliver? Not laws but insights

But can it deliver? There are many reasons why evidence from social science does not influence policymakers or is ignored in citizen debates. Lack of clarity about what social science research can offer is one stumbling block that could explain why social science might struggle to establish itself. In the nineteenth century and in several periods in the twentieth century, some advocates of social science suggested that what was on offer was either a full-blown or embryonic ‘science of society’. The prospect of generating general laws – true for all time about human behaviour – has now faded but the sense that somehow social science has failed to live up to that unrealistic promise perhaps explains a sense among policymakers and citizens that social science has not delivered. After all no less a citizen than the United Kingdom’s Her Majesty the Queen did feel it necessary to ask after the financial crisis of 2007/8 during a visit to the London School of Economics why economists had not been able to predict it. To offer powerful spot predictions asked of social science something that it was not able to deliver. Indeed research tends to find complexities and variations in behaviour that make the quest for neat and frugal laws of social behaviour a mission impossible.

What social science can offer? It can provide empirical evidence but also conceptual apparatus to challenge and develop existing understandings of issues. Good research may deliver sometimes solutions but it also may often a better debate about potential decisions. That contribution can stretch beyond initial conceptualisation of policy options to the processes of implementation. Although we might have evidence that something works at some place and at one time policymaking stills needs evidence that it will work in other cases or more particularly in the case in hand.

The policy process is best supported by continuous acts of exploring, investigating and yes research. Social scientists, policy makers and citizens should be working alongside one another in these tasks. Problems are more likely to be tackled, subdued and ameliorated. They may go away in one form, only to reappear in another form, at a later time. Learning and discovery are therefore at the heart of good policymaking and its needs to be at the heart of the relationship between social science and policymaking. Discovery captures the sense of exploration, challenge, checking and rechecking that is required for effective policymaking in a complex world. It also engages with the sense that there are many unknowns in any policy decision and that a sense of open investigation is therefore essential.

Come on in. There are plenty of options

For those seeking to use the social sciences a good starting point it is helpful to recognise the breadth of the approaches and methods available. There are new forms of discovery just waiting to be found. We want you to be able to touch base with the latest best practice on the use of Systematic Reviews, Randomised Control Trials, the analysis of Big Data, design thinking, qualitative techniques for comparison using Boolean and fuzzy set logic, citizen social science, the use narrative from policy makers and citizens. Of course some of the methods that we refer to have been on the shelves for a number of decades but we now know better how that to apply the method across a range of policy arenas. Other methods are relatively more novel within social science but again they have been growing examples of their application in the context of policy making.

Our point is that good policy requires good social science and there is richness in methods of research that is not fully appreciated. Of course you also need to think about choosing the right method for the right policy challenge. You also need to be clear and not naïve about how evidence plays into the complexities of the policy process.


Note: These ideas and understandings are expanded further in our recently published book Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (eds) (2016) Evidence-based policymaking in the social sciences: Methods that matter. Bristol: Policy Press.

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.

The Left After Trump

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misunderstanding the problem

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

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

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

Coming up with solutions

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

Remembering the 1945 General Election 70 Years Later

Diptic

Diptic

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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