Polling Observatory campaign report #4: Unexpected but not unusual twists and turns in the campaign polls

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

The general election is now just two days away, after a campaign that has defied pundits’ expectations of a walkover for Theresa May’s Conservatives, and seen both surprises and tragic events along the way. While the pollsters will likely deliver their final verdict on what voters are saying tomorrow, the Polling Observatory brings you its final roundup of the polls – as they stood up to Sunday night. We may yet see a late swing from the voters, as the choice between the parties becomes clearer in their minds. As such, our estimates remain ‘a snapshot, and not a prediction’.

In the main, there has been little change from the trends that we reported last week: the Conservatives retain a substantial lead in the polls, though are down from 44.5% to 43.8%, while Labour’s resurgence continues – now on 36.8%, up from 35.5% last week. Consequently, what was a 9-point gap (averaged across the pollsters) is now a 7-point gap. However, the change is within the error of most polls and there is considerable variation in the size of leads that pollsters are showing – in part due to the different turnout adjustments being applied. Based on the range of pollsters’ headline figures, the projected results include anything between a hung parliament and a Conservative landslide, hardly providing clarity on matters. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens continue to endure a miserable campaign. Current trends suggest that the big two parties will be more politically dominant in this election than at any time for a generation.

UK 04-06-17 anchor on average

The upturn in Labour’s support has led some to suggest this is the biggest shift in the polls during an election campaign since 1945. It is not entirely without precedent, though. In 2010, the surge in Liberal Democrat support following Nick Clegg’s highly effective performance on the first ever television debate – “Cleggmania” – was of similar scale to Labour’s gains in the polls in the 2017 election (around 10-points). That shift in the polls occurred over the course of just seven days, whereas during this campaign Labour’s poll numbers have risen steadily over a six week period. Some of the Liberal Democrats’ gains in the polls after the 2010 debate dissipated in the subsequent weeks of the campaign, and most of the remaining effects vanished by the time people voted. This is shown below, where the blue, red and yellow markers indicate the actual election result for each of the parties in 2010 – with the orange line notably ending well above the orange circle indicating the result. In contrast, the trends in party support during the 2017 campaign have been more gradual – with no sharp upticks or downticks for either the Conservatives or Labour. This may suggest there is less risk of pollsters’ overshooting in measuring the Labour surge, but only time will tell whether this is the case.

2010

2017

It is also possible to verify this claim historically based on the observed variance in all polls conducted over the campaign. For this, we use 574 polls conducted during the last thirty days of the campaign, for all elections between 1959 and 2017. The results are shown in the table below. What is striking from this analysis is that the variance of Labour’s poll numbers has been high by historical standards, but is still less volatile than the Liberal Democrats’ polling in 2010, 1983 or February 1974 or Labour’s polling in 2001 or 1983. The mean variance in the polls across the three parties is also not that much above the historical average (5.6 compared to 4.9). While 2017 has been a surprising and eventful campaign, it does not differ that much from past elections in terms of variability of the polls. Indeed, it is apparent from the table that the 2015 campaign was quite anomalous in the stability of the polls, which may be influencing our perceptions of how volatile polls can be during UK elections.

Variance in all polls  
Election Conservatives Labour Liberals/SDP/Liberal Democrats Mean N of polls
1959 3.70 2.89 1.85 2.81 10
1964 1.03 1.34 0.77 1.05 6
1966 0.78 1.32 0.28 0.79 6
1970 4.12 1.50 1.56 2.39 8
1974 (Feb) 4.98 7.07 13.94 8.67 12
1974 (Oct) 4.70 3.92 2.59 3.74 29
1979 11.69 5.73 5.49 7.64 24
1983 4.99 11.13 14.53 10.22 50
1987 2.16 4.31 5.00 3.82 32
1992 2.68 2.39 4.84 3.30 54
1997 4.19 8.80 5.43 6.14 39
2001 3.04 10.86 5.28 6.39 30
2005 4.28 3.17 1.91 3.12 58
2010 5.92 4.91 20.40 10.41 88
2015 2.10 2.29 1.08 1.82 82
2017 5.42 10.08 1.33 5.61 46

Much commentary already seems to be preparing for another polling miss after the experiences of 2015 and 2016. Certainly, with current polling showing Conservative leads ranging from 1% to 12% someone will be substantially wrong (and someone should be right). The lack of consensus in the polls provides an important reminder, though, that surveying the public on their voting intentions is a hard business at the best of times – and this task is made more difficult by the varied geographical picture that may well emerge on election night, with Labour well supported among younger, educated voters in cities and the Conservatives making gains in regions and towns where once ‘working class Tories’ of the 1980s are being drawn to the leadership of Theresa May in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. It is possible that Labour will end up with the highest vote share since 2005 or even 2001, but the lowest number of seats since 1935. In the British “first past the post” system, it is not just how many votes a party gets which counts, but where they are cast. The geography of Labour and Conservative support could be just as important as their overall popularity, but at present it is receiving much less attention.

 

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory campaign report #3: All changed, changed utterly

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

With just over a week to go until the general election, the campaign continues to take surprising twists and turns, not least the jaw-dropping projection of a hung parliament from YouGov for The Times.

When we first reported, shortly after the snap-election was called, the Conservatives held a commanding lead and Labour seemed to be meandering towards electoral oblivion. This remained the scenario at the start of May, though the scale of UKIP’s collapse in the polls was starting to become clear – with the Conservatives seemingly the main beneficiary. Just four weeks on, the change in Britain’s political landscape is remarkable – even if the likely outcome of the election (a decent sized Conservative majority at least) remains much the same. Labour has surged in the polls, now standing at 35.5% (up over eight points from 27.8%), while the Tories have fallen back from their initial bump after May called the election (at a still impressive 44.5%, down from the high of 45.6%). UKIP have continued to lose support at a rapid rate, with our estimates putting them at just 4.0% – less than a third of their vote in the 2015 general election just two years ago. The Liberal Democrats’ have also fallen back to just 7.8% (which would be below their catastrophic performance at the last election). Barring an even larger polling miss than occurred in May 2015, the political landscape of Britain looks like it will be redrawn in unexpected ways. There continue to be good reasons to be cautious about what the polls are currently telling us – due to the wide range of Conservative leads being shown by different polling houses and the possibility that Labour’s votes may stack up in seats in cities among younger and educated voters, where they tend to already hold large majorities, while falling away in marginal seats elsewhere.

 

UK 29-05-17 anchor on average

One of the features of our method is that it enables us 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 this will only be known on June 9th. 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. Indeed, in contrast to the 2015 election where there was convergence of the pollsters around the Conservative-Labour margin of zero, the most recent set of polls have shown Conservative leads ranging from as little as 5 points to as high as 14 points – outcomes that would have vastly different results in terms of a parliamentary majority for Theresa May.

In the table below we report the ‘house effects’ towards or against each of the parties for all polling companies who have recently conducted surveys. We, of course, estimate separate effects where the same company uses different modes (i.e. where Survation have fielded polls using both online and telephone surveys). We also (where possible) create ‘new’ polling houses where pollsters have implemented significant changes to their method and weighting procedures, though these are not always easy to date precisely. Nevertheless, the estimates give a picture of which pollsters tend to show higher numbers for which party, and thus are a handy guide for reading the latest polls with a dose of caution.

Our estimates reveal a range of house effects – and some interesting patterns too. It is first of all apparent that ComRes and ICM stand out as tending to report higher numbers for the Conservatives (+1.6 points and +1.4 points respectively) and lower numbers for Labour (-1.6 and -1.4 points). In contrast, ORB, Survation (online) and SurveyMonkey are at the other end of the spectrum — in tending to show support for the Conservatives lower and Labour higher than the industry average. Interestingly, Ipsos MORI and Panelbase show both parties higher – due mainly to their tendency to put UKIP much lower (in the case of Ipsos MORI this is a substantial 4.5 points).

House effects, by pollster

Pollster Mode Turnout filter Con Lab Lib Dems UKIP Green
YouGov Online Self-reported -0.3 (0.2) -1.0 (0.2) +0.9 (0.1) +0.4 (0.2) -0.6 (0.1)
ComRes Online Turnout model +1.6 (0.3) -1.6 (0.3) +1.3 (0.2) -0.6 (0.3) -0.3 (0.1)
Ipsos MORI Telephone Self-reported +1.2 (0.4) +2.0 (0.4) +1.5 (0.2) -4.5 (0.3) -0.3 (0.2)
Survation Online Self-reported -2.2 (0.5) +0.5 (0.5) +0.6 (0.3) +1.0 (0.4) -1.1 (0.2)
Survation Telephone Self-reported 0.0 (0.8) -0.4 (0.8) -0.3 (0.5) -0.9 (0.5) -0.3 (0.3)
Panelbase Online Self-reported +1.2 (0.7) +0.4 (0.7) -0.1 (0.4) -0.9 (0.5) -0.2 (0.3)
Kantar (TNS) Online Turnout model -0.6 (0.6) -3.2 (0.6) +1.4 (0.4) +0.7 (0.4) +1.5 (0.3)
ORB Online Self-reported -1.3 (0.6) +1.7 (0.6) -0.4 (0.4) +1.6 (0.4) +0.2 (0.2)
SurveyMonkey Online Unknown -0.8 (0.7) +0.9 (0.7) -1.9 (0.4) +1.1 (0.5) +1.6 (0.3)
Opinium Online Self-reported +0.1 (0.5) +0.7 (0.5) -0.5 (0.3) +0.4 (0.3) -0.5 (0.2)
ICM Online Turnout model +1.4 (0.3) -1.4 (0.2) +0.3 (0.2) +0.8 (0.2) +0.1 (0.1)

Pollsters have made many methodological changes since 2015, making it tricky to discern the causes of variation in these ‘house effects’. One notable feature of the methodology used by ComRes and ICM is the use of demographic turnout models to predict the propensity of individuals to vote. This has the consequence of down-weighting those respondents who have been less likely to vote in previous elections – giving rise to considerably lower Labour vote shares due to their current reliance on younger respondents and previous non-voters. In contrast, other firms such as Ipsos MORI and Opinium use self-reported likelihood to vote, giving rise to slightly higher vote shares for Labour. We will only know which of these adjustment procedures (if either) has been effective on June 9th, however.

While the Conservatives still hold a sizeable lead, the differences across pollsters could represent the difference between a huge working majority in parliament for Theresa May and an election that delivers few gains to the Conservatives contrary to all expectations.  Only time will tell who has got closest to the result.

 

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #GE2017 campaign report #2:

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

The Polling Observatory is now able to report on polling from the first fortnight of the election campaign. Our estimates show several notable changes on last time. Firstly, the Conservatives gained nearly three points after announcement of the general election but in the last week this gain has stalled – with their support now standing at around 46%. The big losers in the polls so far are UKIP – who have dropped several points in just the last two weeks (now at 7%). Indeed, their support has almost halved since mid-February, pointing to a bleak electoral outlook for the party. As we noted last time, UKIP’s collapse has closely mirrored the surge in Conservative support. Contrary to expectations, Labour has gained in the polls – with its support now standing at 28%, two points higher than in our last report. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have fallen back slightly, at 10% still only a couple of points higher than their disastrous performance in 2015.

So far, the polls tell a pretty clear and straightforward story: a towering Conservative lead over their main challengers Labour, the collapse of UKIP and marginal revival of the Liberal Democrats. Whether any surprises lie in wait for us in the next five weeks depends largely upon whether the early Conservative surge wears off at all and whether Corbyn’s Labour can muster further gains in support that would deny Theresa May the landslide that looks on the cards.

UK 01-05-17 anchor on average

 

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory campaign report #1: reading polling tea leaves in the shadow of the bonfire of the experts

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

It has been almost 18 months since the Polling Observatory’s last investigation of the Westminster polls, though the intervening period has seen dramatic political events – Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a change in Prime Minister, and much more besides.

The surprise result of the 2015 general election prompted much reflection on the reliability of polling methodologies – most notably in the report of the official inquiry into the pre-election polls – as did the outcome of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The vanquishing of the polls, and election forecasts, has added fuel to the bonfire of the experts. To populists, the unpredictability of voters may serve to further undercut the authority of elites.

While the events of 2015 and 2016 provided a valuable reminder that a dose of caution is needed when digesting the latest polls, they remain the best way of assessing relative shifts in public opinion.

As regular readers will know, we pool all the information that we have from current polling to estimate the underlying trend in public opinion, controlling for random noise in the polls. Our method controls for systematic differences between polling ‘houses’ – the propensity for some pollsters to produce estimates that are higher or lower on average for a particular party than other pollsters. While we can estimate how one pollster systematically differs from another, we have no way of assessing which is closer to the truth (i.e. whether the estimates are ‘biased’). This was where our election forecast came unstuck in 2015, as the final polls systematically over-estimated support for Labour and under-estimated support for the Conservatives.

Because most pollsters have made methodological adjustments since May 2015 – designed to address this over-estimation of Labour support – it is inappropriate to ‘anchor’ our estimates on their record at previous elections. Instead, we anchor our estimates on the average pollster. This means the results presented here are those of a hypothetical pollster that, on average, falls in the middle of the pack. It also means that while our method accounts for the uncertainty due to random fluctuation in the polls and for differences between polling houses, we cannot be sure that there is no systematic bias in the average polling house (i.e., the industry as a whole could be wrong once again).

Our latest analyses are based on polls up to April 18th, the day of the announcement of the general election to be held on June 8th. Since then, a number of polls have suggested an even larger Conservative lead – and it will be interesting to see if this is sustained in coming weeks of the campaign. The Polling Observatory’s headline figures currently put the Conservatives on 43%, far ahead of Labour on 25.7%. The Liberal Democrats at 10.5% have overtaken UKIP, at 9.8%, for the first time since December 2012. Meanwhile the Greens are lagging well behind at 4.3%.

UK 19-04-17 anchor on average

Our estimates also provide insights on the trends in support for the parties since May 2015. Under David Cameron, support for the Conservatives had been slipping, especially in early 2016. It was only immediately following the EU referendum vote, and around the time that Theresa May took over as PM, that they have enjoyed a sharp rise in support. In contrast, Labour’s support has steadily been declining since April 2016 – from around the start of the EU referendum campaign. This is well before ‘the coup’ that some have blamed for Labour’s poor polling. We find no evidence to support those claims here.

While UKIP support rose steadily in the year following the 2015 general election, it slumped after the Brexit vote and has continued to decline since. It is too soon to write off UKIP for good, but it is clear that the party faces an uncertain future, threatened by an emboldened Conservative Party plotting Britain’s course out of the EU. By contrast, Brexit has given a renewed purpose to the Liberal Democrats, whose support has steadily been increasing since June 2016 – though hardly at a dramatic rate. The largely static support for the Greens highlights that Britain’s ‘progressive’ parties face an uphill battle to win back voters.

The trends since Brexit specifically point towards two gradual shifts: UKIP voters switching to the now more pro-Brexit Conservatives (with the blue and purple lines mirroring each other quite closely above), and the Liberal Democrats slowly recovering, seemingly at the expense of Labour who are slowly declining. The parties that appear to have benefited from Brexit are those now seen as the natural issue ‘owners’ of Leave and Remain.

So the two mainstream parties with clear Brexit positions are rising in the polls, while the one without a clear position (Labour) is declining steadily.

During the election campaign we will provide updates on the state of support for the parties. We will also be undertaking analyses of what ‘the fundamentals’ – such as party leader ratings and the state of the economy – tell us about the likely election result. Our aim will be to provide an assessment of election forecasts generated using different methods and data. After the experience of 2015, where the polling miss threw many forecasts off, we believe that this approach of triangulation may bolster confidence in expectations about the likely result – and also illuminate how different modelling choices and assumptions matter.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

The Left After Trump

Diptic

Diptic

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misunderstanding the problem

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

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

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

Coming up with solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

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


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

New Politics and Labour

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

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

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

Populism and Illusions of Governing

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

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

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

An International Phenomenon?

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

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