Sunday, 1 March 2015

Getting swept away: New Labour’s Immigration Policy

Erica Consterdine discusses Labour's immigration policy.

Campaign season is upon us, and as a result we see all parties desperately promoting their policy packages. For the Labour Party, arguably the most divisive policy issue, and the one in which they have some way to convince the public, is immigration. And with the saliency only rising, consistently polling as a top three voting issue, it is a matter which Labour will have to stop ducking.

Aside from the fact that the Conservatives ‘own’ the issue[1], the British public were not best pleased at the Labour government’s expansionary development of immigration policy, which culminated in 2.5 million foreign born workers added to the UK population. Miliband knows this, such a legacy has dogged their time in opposition, and as a result Miliband has consistently apologised for the ‘mistakes’ his predecessors made.

But this wouldn’t, or certainly shouldn’t, have come to a shock to Labour. In no Western European country can politicians expect to gain votes by favouring new immigration[2].  Consequently, those who have studied the relationship between parties and immigration policy outcomes have focused their attention on party strategy on the assumption that parties are above all vote-maximizers[3].

If we accept that ‘ideology is dead’, and that the art of politics is competency in ‘statecraft’, then the focus on party strategy, rather than ideology, is understandable. But with no electoral dividend to be gained, why did the Labour government pursue such an electorally risky policy? Whilst many argue that Labour’s managed migration agenda was a result of business lobbying, my research forthcoming in Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies based on over 50 elite interviews, found that Labour’s ideological reorientation, their uncompromising belief in globalisation and the way in which this changed the Party elites’ preferences, was the principle cause of such a radical policy change.

The Labour government that came to power with a landslide victory in 1997 was a very different beast from previous Labour governments. The Party had ideologically re-orientated to the centre ground, washed their hands of left-wing militant tendencies and shed protectionist policies in favour of embracing the apparently new globalised world Britain found itself in.

The ideological reorientation of the Party is critical to understanding why economic immigration policy changed, because of three contingent elements of Labour’s new found philosophy: the Party’s neoliberal economic programme, including counter-inflationary measures and labour market flexibility; and underpinning this programme, the Party’s diagnosis of the global political economy. This economistic reasoning was reinforced by Labour’s culturally cosmopolitan notion of citizenship and integration. Coupled with Labour’s historical values of openness and tolerance, an expansive immigration policy ‘made political sense’ (Interview with Jon Cruddas MP, 2011).

The critical objective of Labour’s economic policy was stability. To achieve this Labour focused their efforts on counter-inflationary measures, and in turn labour market flexibility. This was built on the notion that extra competition in the labour market would reduce inflationary pressures. And what better way to ensure labour market flexibility then to increase the supply of workers. In this sense Labour’s immigration policy was ‘part of the wider economic framework’ (Interview with Labour MP). 

Furthermore, Britain’s outdated and insular approach to migration was, so the argument went, entirely unsuited to the needs of a knowledge economy in a globalised world. The global race for talent was on. The mantra of attracting the ‘brightest and the best’ was synonymous with the rhetoric of competiveness used to legitimise Labour’s orthodox macroeconomic policy.

But fundamentally underpinning Labours’ economic programme, and indeed the inception of “New” Labour altogether, was an uncompromising belief in globalisation. Economic globalisation was presented as a non-negotiable, external constraint, an irreversible fact of life, and a natural development of capitalism, which could not be controlled by human agency. According to Blair the only ‘rational response’ to globalisation was ‘to manage it, prepare for it, and roll with it’, for ‘we adjust or we are swept away’. Faced with the allegedly uncontrollable exogenous constraint of globalisation, Labour claimed there is simply no alternative[4].

The diagnosis or strategic blurring of globalisation as both inevitable and desirable is the defining reason why immigration policy shifted under Labour. However, the Party did not necessarily explicitly make the link between the rhetoric of globalisation on the one hand, and expansive immigration policies on the other. Rather, the logical extension of an ideology which hinged on globalisation was so deeply entrenched that with immigration being ‘the human element of globalisation’[5], it was likewise assumed to be both inevitable and intrinsically positive by the leading faction of the Party. As a result, the expansive reforms became ‘an unquestioned policy by the early 2000s’ (Interview with former SpAd, 2012).

This economistic reasoning was reinforced by a secondary aspect of the Third Way, its cosmopolitan pluralism, which was part of New Labour’s wider project of fostering a progressive interpretation of British identity based on ideas of tolerance, openness and internationalism; ‘enlightened patriotism’ as Blair called it. For all these reasons, immigration policy mirrored New Labour ideology.

The potential electoral damage such decisions have imprinted on the Labour opposition is evident. In turn it’s tempting to apply a post hoc rationalization to Labour’s immigration policy, and assume that the government must have been responding to employers’ lobbying demands. Yet the ideas of the time should not, and cannot, be detached from policymaking. Such findings suggest that future analyses of public policy change should not just question whether parties matter but show how they matter. Indeed, if we are to truly understand the processes of policymaking there is no alternative. 

Erica Consterdine is a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex.

[1] Green, J. and Hobolt, S. 2008. ‘Owning the issue agenda: Party strategies and vote choices in British elections.’ Electoral Studies 27(3), pp. 460-476.
[2] Lahav, G. 1997. ‘Ideological and Party Constraints on Immigration Attitudes in Europe.’ Journal of Common Market Studies 35(3), pp. 377-406, page 382.
[3] Bale, T., Green-Pedersen, C., Krouwel, A., Luther, K.R. and Sitter, N. 2010. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them? Explaining social democratic responses to the            challenge from the populist radical right in Western Europe’ Political Studies           58(3), pp. 410-426.

[4] Watson, M. and Hay, C. 2003. ‘The discourse of globalisation and the logic of no alternative: rendering the contingent necessary in the political economy of New Labour.’ Policy and Politics 31(3), pp. 289-305.
[5] OECD. 2009. International migration: the human face of globalisation. Paris: OECD.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The 2015 Election MOOC

Victoria Honeyman from the Univeristy of Leeds discusses the MOOC and the 2015 general election.

Universities are increasingly keen to appeal to new audiences, in particularly allowing members of the public to experience the academic environment so many of us take for granted. Academics are increasingly being urged to write and appear in Massive Open On-line Courses or MOOCs. These can be single lectures, filmed and released on the internet, or can be much larger projects, taking place over several weeks.

Anticipating a closely fought general election in the UK, this seemed a perfect opportunity to create a MOOC, and that is exactly what we have done at the University of Leeds. My colleague, Professor Jocelyn Evans and I have written and presented a three-week course focusing on the key issues at this general election. While we hope this will be of great interest to many people, it is perhaps high school students majoring in Politics and Government who have most to gain from this type of resource for the election. We set out to help these students on the AS Level Politics and Government programme to apply what they learn in their classrooms to real-world electoral politics,encouraging their critical thinking and adding greater depth to their knowledge. By focusing on the curriculum of the three main examination boards, we were able to tailor an online course which would suit the needs of these students, while also being of interest to the wider public.

We begin by focusing on the state of the system in the UK, considering the case for British democracy being broken, where power now lies in our systems of governance, and how helpful the electoral system is in renewing the actors within these. In week two we move onto the parties and their leaders. We explore how parties try to reach out to the public and sell their message to the electorate and the key qualities which a leader needs to be successful. In week three we focus on the electoral campaign, the key issues, who will be the winners and losers, and some of the possible outcomes of a close election.

In addition to the lead educators, we have made sure to include contributions from a range of experts to help us explain the key issues. From the University of Leeds, we have spoken to, Professor Kevin Theakston on the importance of leadership, Dr David Seawright on political campaigning and Dr Stuart McAnulla about likely outcomes of the 2015 election. Outside of the University of Leeds we have been joined by a host of other academics, think-tankers and opinion pollsters. Professor John Curtice (Strathclyde) talks to us about the electoral system, Professor Jon Tonge (Liverpool) focuses on the political situation in Northern Ireland and Dr Rob Ford (Manchester) considers the impact of opinion polls on voting. Louise Martin from the BBC gives her views on the importance of UKIP and how well the main parties are likely to perform. Laurence Janta-Lipinski from YouGov explains how opinion polls are compiled and the impact they can have, while Jamie Bartlett from Demos focuses on social media and how parties are increasingly using it to connect with their electorate.

To keep the content accessible for a younger audience, the programme is split by week into several sections. Beginning with a short introductory section acting as a revision tool, we then move onto a short interactive quiz. For example, in week two viewers will be able to view several infamous campaign posters and, having decided whether the poster would have been a success or not, the poster and its impact are assessed by a campaign expert to show their strengths and weaknesses. After a series of multiple-choice questions to review learning, the viewer watches a short documentary-style piece from the lead educators, explaining in greater detail the issue, before watching two academics debate a key question within each topic.

The aim of the MOOC is not to simply parrot the existing AS syllabus. The aim is to create a course which is relevant and interesting to both AS level students and the general public. Rather than focusing purely on the theoretical basis of British politics, or the practicalities of our system, we have synthesised these two elements to create an interesting and exciting MOOC suitable for everyone. Bringing together a range of experts, who might otherwise only be accessible to a very limited audience in their home university or perhaps on specific media, has allowed us to create a unique set of programmes.  By insisting on an element of rigour in focusing on an election already beset by punditry, we go beyond the guesswork and cant to unpack the influential factors which are so often ignored by the public in general elections, the structural factors which ensure some stability even in a potentially watershed election such as this, and the unseen media tricks used to sell a party message to the public.

Launching on March 9, 2015 on the FutureLearn platform, those signed up for the MOOC will be able to take part in on-line discussions with other participants, and University of Leeds academics will be on-hand to guide and contribute to that discussion. In addition, each week there will be a live Q and A session with Jocelyn and I where we will attempt to answer students’ questions in the run-up to the General Election.

The MOOC is free to access and available to everyone, whether you are a UK AS Student, an academic or a member of the public anywhere in the world. Please join us as we explore the 2015 General Election and the parties’ push towards the electoral finish line.

Victoria Honeyman is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds where she researches British foreign policy. She is also the author of Richard Crossman: A Reforming Radical of the Labour Party and the forthcoming Conservative Party Foreign Policy from Major to Cameron (Palgrave).

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Liberal Democrats and the 2015 General Election

Timothy J. Oliver from the University of Hull discusses the Liberal Democrats and the 2015 general election.

With fewer than 100 days to go before the 2015 general election, the fortunes of Britain’s traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, seem to be fated to be stuck near an all-time low. The party has sunk to single digits in the polls, fighting for fourth place nationally with the Green Party[1]. Models designed to predict seat totals for the parties after May 7th regularly see the party losing around half of its 56 current seats[2], taking them back to seat numbers last seen in the 1992 general election, and being placed as the fourth largest party in the Commons, after the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Their leader, Nick Clegg, is facing a hard fought battle to hold onto his own seat against Labour, going by the poll conducted in November by Lord Ashcroft[3]. All in all, the future looks dim for the Liberal Democrats.

Of course, the party has been in dark places before. In the 1950s its predecessor, the Liberal Party, was reduced at one point to just 5 MPs and in the late 1980s the party faced a crisis in the aftermath of its merger with the Social Democrats, coming a distant fourth behind the Greens in the 1989 European elections[4]. Party members bear this scar, as well as those of more recent years, where the party has taken a battering in local, devolved and European elections, as proof that they cannot be done away with. Despite all these odds, they would say, the party is still fighting hard and has achieved things in its coalition government with the Tories that will win back voters as polling day approaches.
Certainly, their approach is not entirely without reason. Lord Ashcroft’s insightful individual constituency polling has shown that, in a number of seats where the Liberal Democrats are currently expected to lose, the margin between them and the expected victor is very close – around 3%[5]. Similarly, they may well have reason to hope that the rise of UKIP and the Greens will pull away enough Conservative and Labour voters to help them hold onto, or at least remain competitive in, a number of their seats. The local election seats that will be up for contest this May are those last elected in 2011, when the Liberal Democrats had a particularly torrid time; supporters may well be hoping to recapture much of the ground lost then, especially in areas where they have since had successes.

Then there is the question of both the next Parliament, and the next leader of the party. The party’s election message so far has focused on the benefits of the Liberal Democrats being included in another coalition government, as a moderating influence on either the Conservatives or Labour. This positioning, as more economically responsible than Labour and more socially responsible than the Conservatives, has been going on for some time.
It is interesting to note that the party has not been as forthright as others in terms of ruling in or out prospective coalition partners. This willingness to adapt to what may well be a new reality of British political life could serve the party well if it learns the lessons of the last coalition formation and others do not or poorly and if voters punish what may reasonably be perceived as a lack of principled, individual values.

As for who will lead the party in any such coalition talks and then into the next Parliament, the question remains open. If Nick Clegg does keep his Parliamentary seat in May, then he may well find himself under pressure, especially from Labour, to resign as leader before any deal can be done. Clearly, a leaderless party would find it harder to secure a better deal for itself in any talks, and given that they will likely be smaller in numbers, the Liberal Democrats may well have to rely on outside factors, such as a lack of preparedness on the part of other parties, to get space to keep their leader. Of course, if Clegg loses his seat in May, then it will be interesting to see who emerges from the party’s Byzantine internal power structures with the strongest grasp on leadership. The matter is complicated by the fact that the Deputy Leader of the party in the Commons, Sir Malcolm Bruce, will be standing down at this election, and that the man most likely assumed to run for leadership after Clegg stands down, Tim Farron, has no formal position beyond being foreign affairs spokesperson after he stood down as Party President at the end of 2014. In this scenario, the party looks very vulnerable indeed and potentially at risk of being unable to secure much of anything out of a coalition deal, short of a disproportionate share of the blame for future mistakes.

Of course, with the Liberal Democrats, there is a final factor to consider. The party has been traditionally very hard to anticipate electorally; it has often won in places it was meant to be a distant challenger, and failed to win where many commentators felt it would be a sure-fire challenger. This election will be dominated by swings in individual constituencies, rather than the uniform national swings of old. In this environment, the party’s avowed election strategy of fighting individual seats hard, rather than seeking a national swing, may prove to be more productive and so secure it a less wounding defeat than some are predicting. The uncertainty of the future for the Liberal Democrats is just one of the factors that are making British politics so interesting this year. Which of these factors will dominate is anyone’s guess; what’s clear is that their performance in the campaign and in May will have significant repercussions for the next Parliament, both inside and outside their ranks.

Timothy J Oliver is a doctoral candidate and a member of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull examining Britain as a Great Power.

[1], Who is ahead in the polls?, accessed 01/02/15,
[2], Can any party win a majority?, accessed 01/02/15,
[3], Sheffield Hallam, accessed 01/02/15,
[4] C. Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party: The Road Back to Power, p. 203, (Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
[5] See, for example, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Cambridge, Mid Dorset & North Poole, North Devon and Taunton Deane, Lord, Constituency Polls, accessed 01/02/15,

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The general election in the Heart of England

Wyn Grant, from the University of Warwick, discusses the forthcoming British general election.

Recently I did an interview for the BBC from Coleshill in the North Warwickshire constituency which, like the other Warwickshire constituencies, lies at the heart of England.   The Conservative majority in Coleshill is 54 and it is where the election night coverage for BBC West Midlands will come from.

So far we are seeing very little movement of voters across the country from Conservative to Labour so much will depend on movements to and from the minor parties (as well as the votes of first time voters and those who did not vote in 2010 but choose to do so in 2015).  How many left-leaning Liberal Democrats will switch to Labour or the Greens?   Will the ‘none of the above’ vote switch to UKIP?   How many votes will UKIP take from the Conservatives?   Will the Conservative ploy of talking up the Greens increase the number of votes they take from Labour?   Will the Scottish Nationalist surge continue until polling day and deprive Labour of a majority?

All of the Warwickshire seats are going to return Conservative or Labour MPs but, as elsewhere, much will depend on the votes drawn away from the main parties by the smaller parties.    The Financial Times recently described[1] North Warwickshire as ‘a seat that almost defines Middle England: a muddle of small towns and villages squeezed between Nuneaton ad the suburbs of Coventry and Birmingham – some of it pretty, most of it not.   The biggest place is the old mining town of Bedworth.’   Today a major employer is the BMW engine plant at Coleshill.

The incumbent Conservative MP, Dan Byles, is standing down, having found the life of a backbench MP rather dull compared with his former occupations of transatlantic rower and polar trekker.   The Labour MP for 18 years, Mike O’Brien, who held eight junior ministerial posts, is standing again.  In 2010 the BNP got 4.5 per cent of the vote and UKIP 2.8 per cent with the Lib Dems on 11.6 per cent.   Immigrants are rare, but that does not prevent an effective populist right appeal.   Unemployment is low and, like the West Midlands generally, has been falling rapidly.   Nevertheless, it would be a great surprise if Mike O’Brien, whom many local people think still is the MP, did not win back the seat.   Indeed, failure to do so would signal a bad night for Labour.

Labour would also hope to win the adjacent seat of Nuneaton which is target seat Number 38 with a Conservative majority of 2.069.   Vicky Fowler was adopted as the Labour candidate at the age of 22, shortly after graduating with a politics degree from Warwick University.  She went to school locally, but incumbent MP Marcus Jones has lived in the town all his life and was formerly leader of the local council.    UKIP did not stand here last time and the BNP got 6.3 per cent of the vote.   UKIP may well take away enough Conservative votes to lose them the seat.

In Rugby Mark Pawsey’s father was MP for the seat from 1983 and then for Rugby and Kenilworth which he lost in a shock result in 1997.   His majority of 6,000 should withstand the Labour challenge unless things go very badly for the Conservatives.   The two main parties took over 75 per cent of the vote in 2010 with the Liberal Democrats in third place with under 20 per cent of the vote.   Although containing Rugby School, the town has a strong manufacturing sector.

Warwick and Leamington was once known as the ‘Garden of Eden’ and Sir Anthony Eden used to process in an open topped car along streets dressed with bunting and thronged with cheering crowds when he visited the constituency.   The seat which the Countess of Warwick once attempted to take for Labour was held by them from 1997 to 2010 when former motor industry manager Chris White won it on a 8.8 per cent swing for the Conservatives.   A very moderate Conservative with an interest in overseas development, White has been an assiduous constituency MP and incumbency may be decisive.   His opposition to the HS2 train, which will run through the constituency, cost him any chance of preferment. The UKIP presence is not thought to be a strong one.

In neighbouring Kenilworth and Southam, Jeremy Wright has confined himself to criticising details of the HS2 route and was appointed attorney-general in the 2014 re-shuffle.   He won 53.6 per cent of the vote in 2010 and should have no difficulty in retaining the seat.  In Stratford upon Avon Nadhim Zahawi also has a strong grip on the seat for the Conservatives, despite some controversy over an expenses claim to heat the stables of his horse riding school.  Born in Baghdad, he was former chief executive and co-founder of internet polling firm YouGov.   Across the county as a whole, the two main parties still predominate, but it is in the more industrial north that will attract interest on election night.

Wyn Grant is a political scientist at the University of Warwick, and has published widely on the subject of political studies. He also held the Presidency of the Political Studies Association. 

[1] Matthew Engel, ‘Long and weary battle for a seat that defines Middle England’, Financial Times, 27 January 2015.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

94 Days to Go: Going On, and On, and On… the Ongoing UK General Election

Andrew S Crines discusses the general election campaign.

Virtually as the Christmas celebrations were over, the 2015 general election campaign started with little or no ceremony[1]. The campaign, at four months duration, will be one of the longest the electorate has been subjected to in living memory. Indeed, this will become something of an endurance test as the months of campaigning, misquotes, fiscal arguments, and general electioneering turns ever further forward towards the night of the results. During that time we will have the debates (which at the time of writing appear to be subjected to continual uncertainty over the format)[2], the party election broadcasts, and the door to door canvassing.

Of course, even that won’t be the end of it. Then we enter the period of coalition negotiations (unless, somehow, one of the two main parties pull off a miracle and secure a majority!) These negotiations will keep the pundits guessing on the composition of the new government, thereby prolonging the journey to power just that little bit more.

Given the importance of the formation of the first coalition, it is worth briefly considering any lessons from 2010 which may inform a more thorough negotiation process. The five days in May 2010 have hung like something of a shadow of critics of the Lib Dems in government, for i: naively believing the senior in the coalition suspended self interest in the name of honest government and ii: spreading themselves too thinly over the sheer vastness of the Whitehall establishment.[3] The negotiations led to the strange sight of Vince Cable pushing through higher tuition fees,[4] whilst their Tory coalition allies dominated the Treasury and the power it brings over the rest of the government.[5] These five days in May stamped an impression of the Lib Dems on the mind-set of the electorate[6] and, indeed, the character of their role in government for the next five years.

And here we are. Five years later, with an electorate more disillusioned than ever[7] at the political class. The Lib Dems have, to some extent become a face of that disillusionment. Their traditional/protest support base has fled to the Labour[8], leaving a rump of die hards who are the bones of the Lib Dems. But it is not just a tale of woe for the Lib Dems. By standing on the same platform with the Conservatives[9] prior to and during the recent Scottish Independence campaign, the Labour Party is facing a massive challenge by the SNP which could significantly affect the outcome of the election.[10] Granted, the SNP have indicated a supportive role for a Labour government in Westminster,[11] but it is not the position Labour would have expected to find themselves in having fought hard to save the Union.

Furthermore, the rise of UKIP has fascinated the pundits, but their chances of being a steady feature in any credible settlement at Westminster is undermined by its internal instability. UKIP prides itself on being ‘plain speaking’ and against the professionalised form of politics that has come to dominate.[12] But that has a price. It may not be appealing to their central representative claim, but the electorate has come to expect a political party to have a certain credible image. Stability is core to that, and in terms of policy, internal management, and even the dynamics of personnel, UKIP does not fit within this expectation of the electorate.[13] This will become clearer as the party is subjected to ongoing scrutiny. To put it simply, the Tories, Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, and Plaid have all professionalised their presentation for a reason – the electorate expects to be treated with respect. Indeed, the memory of 1983 still lingers over Labour, as does 1997 for the Tories. UKIP is a very young party in comparison and has much to learn in terms of party management and communication.

Thus, the general election will be a very turbulent battleground. It will expose the deficiencies in the established, nationalist, and fringe parties alike. We will, over the next four months, be exposed to the bitterness of politicking[14] in what is one of the most significant general elections in decades. The most unfortunate feature of this situation is the pre-existing and corrosive belief amongst the electorate that politicians are detached, petty, argumentative, and unprofessional.[15] This belief festered in the run up to the 2010 election, and following the decision of the ‘new, young’ party (defined by Clegg in opposition to ‘these two old parties’)[16] to enter government with one of the oldest parties, it has now become almost a solid feature of their mind set. There are some who rightly try to argue that politicians are hardworking,[17] but there are many who argue that politicians are amoral, weak, and not to be trusted.[18] Sadly these critics have the ear of the electorate. Thus, the election campaign is likely to leave a nasty taste in the electorate’s mouth after 8 May. That nasty taste will be cynical, unpleasant, and disrespectful. It is a very unfortunate position for a healthy democracy to be in. The question remains – how do we escape?

Andrew S Crines is a Research Fellow in Rhetoric and British Politics at the University of Leeds. He is also the co-editor of two forthcoming MUP volumes on oratory in Labour and Conservative Politics, and the publicity officer for the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group.

[1] BBC News, 2015 general election officially begins on Friday, 18 December 2014.
[2] The Guardian, David Cameron wants leaders’ debates held before election campaigning, 27 January 2015.
[3] The Guardian, Naïve Liberal Democrats have suffered a loss of identity, says Tim Farron, 9 September 2011.
[4] Liberal Democrat Voice, Vince Cable’s statement on tuition fees, 12 October 2010.
[5] Timothy Heppell, What do I have to do to get promoted? Tory MPs resent the reduced likelihood of reshuffles and promotions under coalition, March 7 2013.
[6] Stephen Tall, How did it come to this? The Lib Dems seven key election promises, 18 November 2014.
[7] Jamie Barlett, Russell Brand has a point about disillusionment with politics, but he is wrong when he says young people shouldn’t vote, 29 October 2013.
[8] Stephen Tall, Must read analysis from Peter Kellner on where the 5 million missing 2010 Lib Dem voters have gone, 11 February 2014.
[9] The SNP, Labour share a platform with party most of us hate, 27 May 2012.
[10] Libby Brooks, Poll shows SNP could win all by four Scottish seats in general election, 21 January 2015.
[11] Andrew Sparrow, Scots want Labour government dependent on SNP, says Sturgeon, 25 January 2015.
[12] Tim Wigmore, Why anti-establishment parties are here to stay, 21 November 2014.
[13] BBC Daily Politics, 27 January 2015.
[14] David Button, Things can only get bitter, 7 January 2015.
[15] Alex Proud, Why the public can’t stand today’s politicians, 22 April 2014.
[16] Andrew Grice, Nigel Morris, Tom Mendelsohn, Clegg smashes through two party system, 16 April 2010.
[17] Matthew Flinders, Defending Politics, OUP, 2012.
[18] Frankie Boyle, Have I Got News for You is everything that’s wrong, 26 November 2011.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Puzzle of Cameronism

Matthew Lakin discusses 'the puzzle of Cameronism' in our latest research note.

The prospect of the British General Election of 2015, the most unpredictable and uncertain in a political generation, is an appropriate juncture at which to assess the so-called puzzle of Cameronism. In other words, what have been the formative features of the political thinking of Cameron’s Conservatisms?

The first problem, perhaps most troubling, refers to Cameron’s presentation of his politics as ‘practical’, ‘non-ideological’ and ‘pragmatic’. He is a politician, as are the other Cameronites (i.e. George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Nick Boles), who eschew ideological attachments. This, rather troublingly, as been taken as self-evident by both academics and journalists. Cameron has been painted and presented as the pragmatic and masterful statesman supremely equipped to respond to event as they arise.

This troubling falsehood places an impediment to approaching this so-called problem of the puzzle of Cameronism. It is reflected, inter alia, by Rafael Behr’s recent article in The Guardian, in which he argues that the ‘tragic’ Cameron premiership will leave no ‘ideological trace’, and will ultimately remain a futile project preoccupied with ‘power without purpose’.[1] Behr repeats the well-worn and facile canard that Cameron ‘abhors ‘isms’’.

The second problem refers to the vague notion that Cameronism, even if it is admitted in its most weak and feeble formulation, is less ideologically-dominant than Thatcherism and New Labour. Instead, it is purportedly accounted for by being a mere ‘cypher’[2] for the broader neoliberal project, a continuation of the triangulatory fudge of Blairism, or merely a ‘delusion’. This notion of Cameronism as ideologically derivative and/or delusory discounts the possibility that it does have an analysable, distinctive, authentic and meaningful political map and contribution to the ideo-political environment in which it inhabits.

Therefore, the lazy assumption that Cameronism is non-existent or ideologically-anemic causes academics/journalists to look elsewhere, and instead look to Cameronism merely in terms of statecraft, governance, elections, foreign affairs and party membership. Serious ideological analysis of Cameronism has been sadly moribund.

Ideologies needn’t be dominant or especially clear. Ideologies, according to Michael Freeden, need to be ‘typical’, ‘imaginative’, ‘creative’, ‘influential’ and ‘communicable’. On that criteria, Cameronism is equally as deserving as any other purported political phenomenon of ideological analysis, enquiry and scrutiny. In order to solve the puzzle of Cameronism, one must at least regard the puzzle as a puzzle worth solving.

Cameronism is rooted, like all ideologies, in what Freeden identifies and calls its ‘idea-environment’: the constraints on the content and objectives of an ideology imposed on it by context. Cameronism evinces three discreet, but nevertheless overlapping and adaptable, political commitments: (1) a steadfast and determined commitment to reducing the size and scope of the central state; (2) a recognition that neo-liberal economics is a necessary but insufficient precondition for the delivery of wider Conservative aims; and (3)  a rediscovery and commitment to the renewal of civil society as an alternative to state intervention in response to the perceived failures of neo-liberalism.

The first strand of Cameronism, and the first strand in other post-Thatcher Conservatisms, is a commitment to ‘rolling back the state’. Indeed, the commitment to further retrenchments and reductions, in the scope and size of the state, has been a consistent commitment of British Conservatisms from Mrs Thatcher to Cameron. Indeed Mark Garnett argued that Cameronism would be determined and shaped by the ‘problem of path dependency’’, insofar as Cameron inherited, when becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005, three decades of broadly anti-statist attitudes.[3] Cameronism’s anti-statism has been consistent. During the Blameronite consensus, circa 2005-2007, Cameronism looked Right to decentralisation, deregulation and the promotion of commercial competitiveness where Blairism looked Left to social investment and state activism. Cameronism’s anti-statism was presented with ever more elaborate and byzantine decoration, which included allusions to ‘social responsibility’ and ‘the post-bureaucratic age’. In the passage from Blairite prosperity to Cameronite austerity, anti-statism and state retrenchment were presented more clearly in the tropes of ‘living within our means’, the need to ditch ‘big government’ and the promotion of 1930s-levels of public expenditure as a proportion of GDP. For Ben Kisby, Cameronism believes ‘that the state is bad and almost anything else - the free market, charities, volunteers - is better’.[4]

The distinctiveness of Cameronism resides in its particular ‘ideological experimentation’: the particularistic meaning it invests in the combination of political concepts it promotes. The second feature of Cameronism refers to its attitudes towards neo-liberalism. Stuart McAnulla convincingly argued that ‘neoliberal economics’ is ‘necessary’ but ‘insufficient’ in the mission of regenerating civil society.[5] It is however a core decontestation of market-state-civil society relations in Cameronism. Proto-Cameronites like Oliver Letwin and David Willetts have lamented that British Conservatisms, and the Conservative Party in turn, had become too economistic.[6] There are four distinct and identifiable areas of Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism: (1) Cameronism’s pitch to ensconce a new and more ‘moral capitalism’; (2) a rhetorical, albeit shallow, commitment to downward income redistribution, social justice and wealth inequality; (3) a more inclusive and positive attitude to public services; and (4) the evolution of a light industrial strategy with an adjacent emphasis on ‘full employment’. Attitudes towards neoliberal economics has been the most misunderstood aspect of Cameronism. This is understandable insofar as the preponderance of Tory-driven austerity in the ideological practices of Cameronism has overcast the subtle points of the insufficiency argument.

Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism was a by-product of Conservatism’s discovery that ‘economics is not enough’ and a ‘vibrant market economy’ is merely a ‘precondition’ for the third strand of Cameronism: the renewal, interest in, and celebration of, civil society.[7] The conceptual commitment to civil society, for a time signified by the Big Society, is essential and distinctive because: (1) civil society and its renewal are conceptualised as a better response to the problem of the insufficiency of neo-liberalism than state intervention, and (2) civil society pervades Cameronism as an ideological free-standing concept alongside the market as a mirror-image to the state. The locus classicus of Cameronism captures this point: ‘there is such thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’. In this ostensible repudiation of Thatcherism’s ostensible rejection of society, Cameronism wanted to be defined by the ‘social revolution’ of creating the Big Society.

Cameronism is a recognisable and distinctive member of the Conservative family. The commitment to reducing the central state has, increasingly, predominated over its earlier attempts to qualify neo-liberalism and reinvigorate civil society. It is, like all ideologies, a changing, evolving, mutable and transient ideology. If the Conservatives form the government after 7 May 2015, expect more change. However, it will likely follow the pattern of anti-statism, supplementing neo-liberalism with non-statist remedies, and promoting the civic middle.

Matthew Lakin teaches history and politics at Whitgift School having gained his Dphil from Oxford working with Michael Freeden.

[1] R. Behr. 2015. ‘Power without purpose: the tragic rule of David Cameron’, The Guardian, 6 January.
[2] See R. Seymour. 2010. The Meaning of David Cameron. London: 0-Books.
[3] M. Garnett. 2010. ‘Built on Sand? Ideology and Conservative Modernization under David Cameron’, In British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour, 117.
[4] B. Kisby. 2010. ‘The Big Society: Power to the People?’ Political Quarterly 81 (4): 485.
[5] S. McAnulla. 2012. ‘Liberal Conservatism: Ideological Coherence?’ In Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government, edited by T. Heppell and D. Seawright. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 167.
[6] D. Willetts. 1999. ‘Reviving Civic Conservatism’, In The Social Market and the State, edited by A. Kilmarnock. London: Social Market Foundation, 29; D. Willetts. 1998. ‘Conservative Renewal’, Political Quarterly 69 (2), 113; O. Letwin, ‘From economic revolution to social revolution’, In Is the Future Conservative? 73.
[7] D. G. Green. 1993. Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics. London: IEA, ix.