Monday, 14 September 2020

Will the Lords block the internal market bill?

Will the House of Lords block the Government's controversial Internal Market Bill?   Meg Russell of UCL's Constitution Unit is the leading expert on the upper house and gives an authoritative view here: 

From what I hear, some on the right are getting ready to portray the Lords as an undemocratic body standing in the way of the will of the people.  

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Looking at elections at constituency level

The article I wrote for Political Quarterly with Sally Scarlett on the 2019 general election in two contrasting Warwickshire constituencies is available free to view for a month:

Warwick & Leamington was the seat of Sir Anthony Eden, but is now marginal Labour while Nuneaton has changed from safe Labour to safe Conservative.

A fine grained analysis at the constituency level can give insights in addition to those available from national studies.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Voters and parties have divergent values

This study of the social and economic values of MPs, party members and voters is clearly very important and will repay careful reading:

One key take home message is that the study shows the serious problems both parties have with the electorate, albeit not on the same issues.  Voters are more aligned with Labour on economic values and with the Conservatives on social values.

'The fact that Conservative MPs so strongly reject widespread perceptions of structural unfairness – far more strongly than grassroots Conservative Party members and activists – hints at the challenge the Johnson government will face if the shock of Covid-19 triggers public demand for economic redistribution and reform'

'The Conservative Party won in 2010 and 2015 by insisting on the need for austerity and cuts that chimed with the views of MPs, activists and members on the role of the state, and made sense to a lot of voters. If, however, a sense that "there is one law for the rich and one for the poor", and that ordinary people who have done nothing wrong are being let down by the government, begins to take hold, then the gap between Conservative Party people and voters as a whole could prove deeply problematic for the Johnson government.'

'On the other side of the fence, Labour’s struggles over Brexit between 2016 and 2019 were arguably symptomatic of a disconnect on a wider set of social values between its MPs, activists and members, on the one hand, and many of its potential voters, on the other.'

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

What is going on at the Spectator?

For a magazine with a circulation of 87,000, the Spectator (or the Sextator as some of its detractors call it) exerts an extraordinary influence.  I know the circulation is 87,000 because as a subscriber I received an e-mail from the chairman the other day saying they hoped to push it up to 100,000.

Boris Johnson was, of course, an editor of the Spectator.   Dominic Cummings worked for it and his wife, aristo Mary Wakefield, is currently deputy/commissioning editor.   Aeons ago it was a platform for the ultimate patrician Tory wet, Sir Ian Gilmour, who both owned and edited it.

Why do I subscribe to the Spectator?   One reason is that as it functions as a test bed for the ideas of what may loosely be called the 'libertarian right' and I want to find out what they are thinking.   At one time they seemed to be obsessed with wind farms and they still don't like renewable energy.

The preoccupation now is developing a new, harder line on China.   This is somewhat ironic given that the Spectator (natch) supported Brexit and if a 'global Britain' was to look credible it required a closer economic relationship with China after the model of George Osborne and David Cameron.  However, China has made a series of mistakes.

I also have to admit that the quality of some of the writing is very high and the coverage of the arts and books is first rate.  Apart from Private Eye, it is the subscription I most enjoy.   The Economist is authoritative, but quite heavy going and too wedded to a market and free trade solution to everything.  Farmers Weekly is an odd mixture of whingeing and obscure technical articles.  The Times Higher is now fortnightly and always devotes far too much space to Australia.

The reaction of the Spectator to the Dominic Cummings affair was quite baffling on the face of it.  It published an early critical article online and the latest issue contains a cry of pain from a guest columnist repudiating the Conservative Party.   No doubt the editor would say this just demonstrate its commitment to freedom of speech.   It also counteracts the rather misleading article that Mary Wakefield wrote describing the lockdown experience of herself and her husband, Dominic Cummings.

In any case there is plenty of pro-Cummings material and an editorial banging the libertarian drum on lockdown.   Whether or not it reaches its 100,000 target, the Spectator will continue to exert a considerable influence on the thinking of the Johnson Government.   I was going to say 'Conservative thinking', but this is not Tory thinking as I knew it.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

A good enough smokescreen?

I have hesitated about saying anything about the Dominic Cummings affair, but I did have to spend a half an hour on the radio yesterday filling dead air while I was waiting for him to appear.

My conclusion afterwards, in the measured tones necessary for a BBC station, was that I did not find his account 'convincing'. I had been expecting some kind of apology on the lines of 'I made poor decisions under pressure which I now regret.'

But he has probably bought some time at least.  Unnamed 'senior cabinet ministers' are gunning for him, however.

I don't want to get into the detail too much because I sense that the spin strategy is to load lots of details on so that everyone talks about that and avoids the big picture.   However, a few points follow. 

On the childcare issue, none of the questioning journalists seems to have latched on to the point that he does have relatives in London, and surely he must have some friends who could help in an emergency.

On the issue of harassment by protesters, could he not have had panic buttons installed or asked the police to investigate and perhaps provide regular patrols?  The Cabinet Office could surely have arranged that.
His wife is deputy editor of the Spectator.  I read her article when it was published and gained the clear impression that they had been in London.  Indeed, there is a specific reference in it to a 'London lockdown'.   I used the word 'smokescreen' to describe this yesterday.

Why couldn't a family member have collected his wife and child from the local hospital?  Were there really no taxis?

The account of the trip to Barnard Castle, despite Boris Johnson flourishing his newly acquired spectacles at last night's briefing, lacks conviction - particularly given the coincidence with his wife's birthday.

Boris did say that he would not give unconditional support to anyone which suggests that Cummins may go later.  As one writer in The Times points out today, they need each other because they both have contempt for conventional notions of accountability.   Rules to them are a bourgeois hindrance.

Having said that, I don't find the spectacle of the British public and media having one of its periodical fits of morality all that edifying, particularly when it takes the form of a self righteous Twitterstorm.

The media has been bigging up the dissident Conservative MPs who hardly amount to a major revolt.  Many of them are professional trouble makers or publicity seekers.   The sound of Sir Roger Gale taking the high moral ground on Radio 5 is not that inspiring.

Boris did seem to be floundering in response to the questions last night, although I would not like to have to deal with 'Death' Rigby whose question could be paraphrased as 'Are you an incompetent charlatan'?  The circumlocutions of Robert Peston can easily be brushed aside given the time it takes him to put his question.

Of course, the real issue here is the one rule for us, another for them.   My expectation is that elites tend to behave badly if they can.  Tax evasion anyone?  Gaming the bankruptcy rules?

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

What I learnt from cattle diseases about epidemiology

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.   Everyone is now an instant expert on viruses and I have kept my peace.  

However, I have been reflecting on what I learnt from participating in a Research Councils project (Governance of Livestock Diseases) on cattle diseases.   I had the privilege of working with Graham Medley, now at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an epidemiologist who is often quoted in the media on the pandemic and is involved in giving advice to government.   Any views that follow are, of course, mine alone.

Graham has agreed with me on twitter that there was value in the interdisciplinary approach we followed in the project which involved an epidemiologist, a veterinary specialist, a lawyer, an economist and political scientists.

One lesson I learnt is how difficult it is to eradicate a disease - in medicine smallpox is the only one to disappear entirely.   Civil servants in Britain thought they had eliminated bovine tuberculosis and even had a sherry party to celebrate.  Then it reappeared again in badgers in Gloucestershire.

The handling of bovine TB has in my view (and that of others) been characterised by a series of  policy failures by government about which I have written quite extensively in the literature.  It doesn't bode well for the ability of government to deal with a human pandemic.

That doesn't mean that all policy interventions fail.  The bovine diarrhoea virus may sound like nothing more than a case of cows with the runs, but not only does it affect production, it can also lead to the fatal mucosal disease.

The Scottish Government decided they wanted to eradicate BDV north of the border and consulted extensively.   I attended a very well run meeting in Edinburgh.  The policy has proceeded successfully and I was pleased to read in Farmers Weekly this week that it is entering the next stage of development.

It seems to me that the coronavirus will become endemic and as the WHO states is likely to be with us for four or five years.   Even if a vaccine can be found, I am sceptical about whether it will be available before eighteen months.   Policy needs to take these considerations into account and citizens need to reflect on them as well.

The Governance of Livestock diseases website is here:

Tuesday, 28 April 2020