Monday, 26 December 2016

Have we had enough of experts?

For me one of the most striking comments of this turbulent year was that by Michael Gove, 'The people of this country have had enough of experts.' Given the referendum outcome, and the election of President Trump, he was clearly on to something. We have entered an era of 'post factual' or 'post truth' politics.

New Labour formally celebrated the arrival of evidence-based policy-making in a white paper. A whole academic cottage industry grew up around this concept, including a specialised journal.

I always had a few reservations about this rather technocratic concept. It seemed to me that it did not allow much room for values, beliefs and, yes, ideology, which in my view are at the core of democratic politics.

To take an example from my research, how should one deploy fire service assets (stations, appliances)? At one time in the UK. we prioritised commercial and heritage property. Thus, I found in the National Archives elaborate plans for deploying appliances as quickly as possible to the various properties of the Duke of Devonshire. If one prioritised saving lives, resources would be used differently.

Evidence-based policy-making can also be difficult when the evidence is incomplete and contested and there is disagreement on the lessons to be drawn from it. Bovine Tb, one of the most intractable policy problems I have ever encountered, is the classic example from my work.

Having said that, some evidence is better than no evidence at all. However, it is no match for a resonating emotional narrative that may be completely false, e.g., the 'birther' accusations made against President Obama by Trump among others.

In its spoof Christmas adverts Private Eye asks, 'Need a plumber, but had enough of experts?' The answer is to be found in the Gove yellow pages that will bring a guaranteed non-expert to your door, scratching their head and saying 'I dunno, mate, sorry no idea.'

Monday, 19 December 2016

Preparing for Brexit

A very interesting report from the Institute for Government on how government is prepared, or rather not prepared, for Brexit: Preparation

The basic message is that all the cutbacks in staff, not least in Defra, have left government unable to cope with its normal tasks, as well as the complex challenges posed by Brexit.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Strictly Come Dancing star calls for curbs on Bank independence

Strictly Come Dancing star Ed Balls was the chief architect of UK central bank independence. Now, taking a break from learning the cha-cha-cha, he has called for the Bank of England's independence to be reined in.

The paper he has written two colleagues at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard makes a key distinction between operational and political independence. The former has brought benefits in terms of price stability, but the latter does not bring any such benefits, and there is a need for greater political accountability: Bank independence

It is argued that the assumption that the more independence given to a central bank the better no long holds.

Of course, there are limits to the Bank of England's independence. The Chancellor sets the inflation target and appoints the Governor and key personnel.

The paper from Balls is very much in line with the political wind with prime minister Theresa May making implicit criticisms of the Bank's monetary policy and Donald Trump's criticisms of the Federal Reserve.

The grant of operational independence to the Bank of England formed a central underpinning of academic depoliticisation narratives, but recent political developments favour repolitcisation.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Continental Partnership proposal

One interesting proposal for Britain's future relationship in a post-Brexit world has been the idea of a 'Continental Partnership' put forward by a group of six senior policy makers and scholars and published by the Brussels think tank Bruegel: Continental Partnership

They 'propose a new form of collaboration, a continental partnership. The UK will want to have some control over labour mobility, as well as leaving behind the EU’s supranational decision-making. The proposed continental partnership would consist in participating in goods, services, capital mobility and some temporary labour mobility as well as in a new system of inter-governmental decision making and enforcement of common rules to protect the homogeneity of the deeply integrated market. The UK would have a say on EU policies but ultimate formal authority would remain with the EU. This results in a Europe with an inner circle, the EU, with deep and political integration, and an outer circle with less integration.'

Britain would continue to pay into the EU budget which would allow it access to key areas of the single market. The blueprint would leave the UK free to impose quotas on EU workers, so addressing one of the key concerns of Brexiteers, but Britain would have to make major concessions in other areas. The acceptance of case law from the ECJ would be particularly difficult for Leave supporters to swallow.

However, the UK would have a voice on matters affecting its shared market with the EU which would go beyond the consultation currently offered to Switzerland and Norway.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

What does 'Brexit means Brexit' mean?

One month after the referendum, this article suggests that the mood in the country is similar to that after the Stuart restoration, an acceptance of what has happened. Meanwhile, it is necessary to deconstruct the statement: 'Brexit means Brexit': What does Brexit mean?

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Where and who is the median voter?

A younger Dave Cameron meets Worcester Woman. The real Worcester Woman was somewhat younger, in her mid-thirties, she worked part-time, had children and drove a Ford Mondeo.

In the course on Economics and Politics I taught for several years with my great colleague Ben Lockwood, we spent two weeks on the Downs theory of the median voter and the subsequent literature. As a shorthand, one might say that spatial models like that of Downs have lost popularity relative to valence models which lead to a greater emphasis on leadership competence, although a methodological problem is that spatial positioning may affect assessments of leaders.

Journalists have engaged in a search for the median voter. At one time it was the anonymous 'Worcester Woman', but in 2010 it was 'Motorway Man' with a specific voter in the constituency of Ed Balls being named. In 2015 the garland went to 'Cautious Cathy' from Nuneaton, a 35-year old mother.

A new study by Professor Paul Webb suggests that voters may be more to the left than we assumed: Left leaning

If I was teaching the module again next year, we would certainly look at this new evidence.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The arrival of Aston Villa Toryism?

Theresa May's joint chief of staff is Nick Timothy, an avid Aston Villa fan. Here, he draws lessons for politics from Villa's relegation: Lessons to be learned

Friday, 15 July 2016

Brexit does not mean an independent Scotland

As Theresa May heads to Scotland for her first visit as prime minister, this excellent blog article reminds us that Brexit may not lead to Scottish independence: Independence day?

Monday, 11 July 2016

Doing the decent thing

Andrea Leadsom did the right thing in standing down from the leadership contest. We can now proceed more quickly to a new prime minister being in office. There are certain formalities to be completed before Theresa May becomes party leader.

She will need to have a private conversation with David Cameron about a handover date. Sources suggest that Dave has been very chilled in recent days and I think that Sam Cam will be pleased to get her children out of the No.11 flat and the Downing Street security bubble.

David Cameron will then have to see the Queen to resign and she will then 'kiss hands' with Theresa May (not literally).

As Professor Robert Hazell of the UCL Constitution Unit has just made clear on Radio 5, the Cabinet manual states that if a prime minister resigns between elections, provided that his party has a majority in Parliament, that party decides who the successor should be.

People need to be reminded that this is not a presidential system and a party sustains a cabinet and prime minister. Even if Theresa wanted to call an early election, which I don't think she does, there is the obstacle of the five year Parliament act. On that see: Professor Lord Norton

The last thing the country needs now is another election.

It has now been announced that David Cameron will stand down on Wednesday. Theresa May will not need the more spacious No.11 flat or not immediately so the family can move out without undue haste or a Ken Clarke U-Haul van.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Hard Brexit and Soft Brexit

That is the real political choice now, argues this interesting article: The real choice

In the ballot of Conservative Party members, Theresa May would represent 'soft Brexit' and Andrea Leadsom 'hard Brexit'.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Brexit and the Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly were one of the first local authority areas to declare in the EU referendum and voted to Remain. The islands have benefitted from EU membership. They face a number of challenges, not least interruptions to air and boat services by bad weather.

The islands are governed by a unitary authority that is also responsible for water and sewerage. There are significant environmental challenges. The chair of the council has made an excellent statement on the consequences of Brexit: Amanda Martin

As a frequent visitor to the islands and a contributor to Radio Scilly and Scilly Now and Then can I say that they are an excellent holiday destination, particularly if you enjoy good beaches, scenery and walking. The sea food is excellent as well.

Monday, 4 July 2016

A new deal for all member states

Vivien Schmidt of Boston University urges the EU to offer a new deal to all member states, and not to treat Brexit as something that can be disregarded as exceptionalism: New deal

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Revd. Blair speaks out

By and large, the Private Eye spoofs of succeeding prime ministers have always been excellent. We started with Mrs Wilson's diary, then we had the Heathco cartoon. Mrs Wilson's diary came back; I don't remember anything from Callaghan, but then we had Dennis Thatcher's diary. After that it was 'The Secret Diary of John Major' based on Adrian Mole. That still makes an occasional appearance.

Then we had the diary of the Reverend Tony Blair which captured his preachy nature, with cameo appearances from Mr Prescott from the working men's club. I always thought Blair was smarmy and shallow which is why I voted 'None of the Above' in 1997.

More recently, we had the Coalition Academy and then the Cameron Free School, again very well done. The Cameron Free School will shortly close and I have suggested to Private Eye that if Mrs May becomes the next prime minister she could become the first female incumbent of St. Albion's, after all she is a vicar's daughter (and, in the nicest possible way, it shows).

Tony Blair stated in a television interview last night that we should not discount a second referendum on the EU because 'the public will can change'. More precisely, he said that we should keep our options open. Cynical individuals might unfairly suggest that this was an attempt to boost his standing ahead of the publication of the Chilcot Report later this week. It is being rumoured that Jeremy Corbyn intends to make a defamatory allegation against the Revd. Blair using the coverage of Parliamentary privilege and that is one reason he is hanging on as leader.

I know that in the past other, smaller countries have been asked to hold a second vote on EU issues after failing to get the right answer the first time round. However, this is a much more fundamental issue.

The referendum vote provided a clear majority, but not a large one. I don't think that the 48 per cent who voted 'Remain' should be expected to shut up, as some Leave campaigners appear to be arguing. Minorities have rights in democracies, particularly large ones. However, I do not think that the referendum can be re-run. Some argue that voters were misled by lies or misinformation, but there was exaggeration on both sides in an unedifying campaign.

Approval of the terms is a matter for Parliament in what is still in large part a parliamentary rather than a plebiscitary democracy.

The country has shown itself to be divided on lines of education, income, geography and age. The next prime minister needs to be a unifier and it has been argued that Theresa May is best placed to fill that role.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

An hour is a long time in politics

A brilliant cartoon, copyright Daily Telegraph

Harold Wilson once famously said that a week is a long time in politics. This week has shown us that an hour is a long time. On Thursday I was visiting friends in Devon, but we spent a lot of time hypnotically watching the BBC 24 Hour News to keep up with the latest sensational developments, while I dealt with live interview requests from French radio and calls from American journalists and even from Chile.

I have been following British politics since the late 1950s and this is the most astonishing period I can remember. As someone said (so much has been said by so many), no government, no opposition and no plan (for Brexit).

As of now it looks as if the race for the Conservative leadership is resolving itself into a contest between Theresa May as the favoured candidate and Andrea Leadsom as the representative of 'Leave'. In the extraordinary times in which we live, no one raises an eyebrow at a junior minister from one of the less major departments being seriously considered as a prime ministerial candidate. She is, of course, a Warwick politics graduate. Her biography is here: Biography

She was (initially at least) brought up by her mother as a single parent. Her biography implies that she did not politically active until after she graduated. I am still trying to track down someone who remembers her at Warwick.

When I was chair of the Political Studies Association many years ago, I recommended that at our annual awards ceremony we should give an award to Theresa May as a rising star. We duly made her Parliamentarian of the Year and she came along to accept the award (not everyone does, although to his credit Gordon Brown did).

We had a conversation and what I took away from that was this was a very intelligent, personable lady, confident in herself without being over bearing. A sort of Margaret Thatcher without the less pleasant bits. I am pleased that Conservative MPs I respect are backing her.

Interesting YouGov poll where the divergences are so big you can't put them down to polling errors. I have added up positives and negatives and disregarded the many don't knows (this is electorate wide):

  • Leadsom +32
  • May +28
  • Crabb -8
  • Fox -32
  • Gove -41!

As for the Labour Party, it is in total disarray. Jeremy Corbyn needs to do the decent thing and stand down, not because he is left wing, but because he is not up to the job.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Rock of Gibraltar

An interesting observation by John Curtice at a conference in London today. He noted that Gibraltar was likely to be the first place to declare in the UK referendum as it was one hour ahead of the UK. In a very tight contest, it could decide the result.

He noted that results would be declared by local authority area and the earliest results would be from smaller, rural authorities.

Monday, 6 June 2016

My case for remain

Globalisation is a reality, but its economic advance has not been matched by political structures to offset its worst effects. The European Union represents a new type of political structure which offers the potential to provide some measure of effective regulation. The point was well made by Rupert Murdoch. Asked why he was so opposed to the European Union, he said “That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

The Bank of England, the OECD, the IMF and the vast majority of economists say that the UK would be worse off if it left the European Union. Brexiters argue that we could easily negotiate a free trade deal with the EU that would give us access to the single market without having to abide by his rules. Perhaps they forget that while exports to Europe account for 12 per cent of our GDP, exports to the UK account for only three per cent on average for the other member states.

The remaining member states are not going to want to do us any favours for derailing the European project, nor are they going to want to offer a deal that will encourage other member states to exit.

Brexiters talk of the savings that would result from exit, working from a gross rather than a net figure and overlooking any decline in tax revenues resulting from a fall in growth or the fee that would have to be paid for access to the single market. It has been promised that this money could be spent on the NHS, on removing VAT from electricity and gas and maintaining subsidies. I have even heard a pro-Brexit MP say that it could be used for mending potholes, keeping libraries open and restoring bus services.

The European Union has played a leading role in developing environmental policy, not least in relation to climate change. Environmental standards in the UK are higher than they would have been in the absence of EU membership. Pollution is no respecter of national boundaries. It is far better dealt with by the EU than through a series of ad hoc agreements.

The study group I chaired for the Yorkshire Agricultural Society concluded that exit would not be beneficial either for UK agriculture or for the food processing industry which is one of our largest industries. Some farmers expect a bonfire of controls, but regulations are there for a reason: for example, we regulate pesticides because they are toxic substances. Relatively few regulations would disappear after Brexit.

We would face great complexities in renegotiating international trade deals after Brexit. The EU negotiates as a bloc that gives it considerable leverage in international trade negotiations. We do not have any trade diplomats experienced in this complex task.

The EU is far from perfect, but we need to continue to press for reform from inside. A UK outside the EU would be diminished in economic, political and cultural terms.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The 1966 general election

On Easter Monday, the BBC Parliament channel broadcast the entire coverage of the 1966 general election. With storm Kate raging outside, and making any outdoor activities unattractive, I watched most of the coverage.

David Butler said near the beginning of the broadcast that 'Britain is a uniform country.' Of course, he was particularly referring to the concept of swing which he was keen to defend throughout the broadcast.

What struck me about the vox pops with voters (not easy to do, as I know) was how many of them used the argument that Labour should be given a longer period in office with a larger majority to see what they could do. I was also struck by how many Conservative voters thought there was a real prospect of extensive nationalisation, for example of the banks. It was difficult to see the pragmatic Wilson ever doing that.

One American journalist who was interviewed said that if the country could produce political leaders of the calibre of Heath, Wilson and Grimond, the body politic must be in a healthy state. Could we say the same of today's leaders in either the UK or the United States?

Scottish Secretary and machine politician Willie Ross said that we were too politically mature to contemplate self-government for Scotland. However, David Butler did pick up on the growing Scottish Nationalist vote in the lowland belt.

In his press conference, Edward Heath was far more relaxed than I remember him, although he displayed his distracting habit of heaving his shoulders when laughing.