Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour's Saviour or Nemesis?

Bill Jones discusses the impact of Jeremy Corbyn upon the Labour's future.

Unable to command the required 35 nominations, it was only the kindness of several Labour MPs, (none of whom actually supported him), which enabled little known leftie, Jeremy Corbyn to limp over the line and post his leadership candidacy on June 15th. Since then developments have been sensational, phenomenal: Corbyn leap-frogging into the lead over the three more established candidates and addressing jubilant packed out rallies across the country.  This has delighted those of a leftish temperament but plunged centre right supporters into deepest gloom. What can we make of 'Corbynmania'?

It's not unusual for political parties when defeated  to argue that if they had been more true to their ideological roots, they would have fared better in the election and might even have won. We saw this in 1979 when Thatcher's victory led to the election, in a Bennite fever of enthusiasm, of Michael Foot as Labour leader; after 1997 we saw the Conservatives elect three rightwing leaders before finding David Cameron in 2005. In both cases the swing back to core ideology resulted in heavy defeats.

Would the election of Corbyn produce the same result? The case is strong. After 1945 Labour was riven by left-right factional disputes. Divided parties seldom prosper and the party was out of power for 13 years before Harold Wilson's cautious prospectus won a tiny majority in 1964. During the 1970s the left established the Benn - led Alternative Economic programme which triumphed internally after 1979 but was totally rejected in Thatcher's 1983 landslide win. Labour lost heavily again in 1987 and yet again in 1992.

New Labour', the creation of Blair, Brown and Mandelson marked a recognition that voters had turned away from Britain's road to socialism- nationalisation- and did not favour unlimited welfare spending. The new approach tacked strongly towards the market economy and ardently wooed business, especially the City. Public schoolboy Blair was the perfect person to reassure middle class voters that Labour was no longer beholden to its (in any case shrinking) working class, unionised core support.

The result was Labour's biggest ever landslide victory, one that seemed to vindicate the wholesale abandonment of all those 'Old Labour' shibboleths. During Labour's subsequent 13 years in power, left-right factionalism more or less ceased but defeat in 2010 initiated a rethink under Ed Miliband which eschewed the 'split the difference' approach of New Labour and shifted left on the assumption that voter opinion had done the same after the 2009 economic meltdown; 2015 revealed this assumption to be false.

Corbyn's critics argue that after rejection of a leftish (though none too clear) Miliband route in favour of a much more emphatic anti-austerity leftwing one which embraces: much more borrowing, higher taxes, an investment bank funded by 'a people's quantitative easing', the ending of university fees, a substantial extension of public ownership,  abolition of Trident and withdrawal from NATO, is tantamount in Alan Johnson's words to 'madness'. The Economist's columnist, Bagehot (8/8/2015), is not impressed by ideas 'which shore up the old status quo; of reinstatement over reinvention... he has the attention of many, otherwise disengaged from politics. These people surely deserve ideas responding to the convulsions -digitisation, automation, globalisation- through which they are living.'

Corbynites, for their part, argue that the party has never conftronted austerity policies head on and that the Blairite attempt to position Labour in the centre ground via 'austerity- lite' policies had proven fruitless: voters will always tend to prefer the 'real' i.e. Tory, thing. This attitude sweeps away New Labour  as a busted flush; a new approach is needed more in line with fundamental Labour values. Corbyn argues that UK voters, like supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, need to consider new approaches to end the unnecessary cutting of public expenditure and the consequent immiseration of millions of working people. Cutting expenditure will only shrink demand and lead to contraction and widespread hardship. They claim a focus on expanding the economy is long overdue and is supported by distinguished economists like Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

Given the dichotomy between Corbyn's position and that of his critics what are Labour's prospects if Corbyn, as it currently seems likely(William Hill makes him 1-5), actually wins? Clearly a return to schism in the party would occur. A number of leading figures have already declared their unwillingness to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet and, given he could not even raise 35 supporters among his fellow MPs, he would find himself in a very small minority. It seems the (somewhat surprising) influx of new members since 2015 is mostly youthful, unable to recall either the wilderness years of the 1980s or the electorally toxic nature of leftwing ideas. They have also warmed to Corbyn's style and personality.

He is not exactly an exciting politician but his views are in marked contrast to the crowded 'austerity lite' centre ground politicians, including his rivals, Burnham, Cooper and Kendal. His demeanour too is refreshingly different: transparently modest, low key, endlessly courteous, refusing to engage in the acrimonious political culture displayed so unpleasantly in weekly PMQs. In all these qualities Corbyn has something of Tony Benn about him, a champion of the left who must be spinning in his grave with envy that his moment has arrived just a year and a bit after his death.

But could he win? It depends on the short or the long term. In the current climate everything we have learnt about UK voters tells us Corbyn could not reverse the laws of political gravity. The Tories would be over the moon with delight if he became leader; Cameron, Osborne, Gove and the like, would hold up his ideas to ridicule and certain defeat in five years time; Labour could even join the Lib Dems as an irrelevant minority. However, my guess is that Corbyn's quiet, unflappable patience, would triumph over any bullying Cameron style at PMQs- that would certainly be worth the watching.

Looking to the long term Corbyn might have a half decent chance of converting Labour to his left-wing programme and then, just maybe a majority of voters too. But that would require, as it did in Greece and Spain, an economic  crisis far more acute than anything we have so far suffered. Older Labour voters might have to accept that they will see out their years within a virtual one party Tory ruled state with just a chance that Corbyn's heartening reinvigoration of youth and grassroots party members will lead to possible victory around 2030.         
Bill Jones has published widely on the subject of British Politics, and is the co-author (with Philip Norton) of Politics UK. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Who represents business?

Wyn Grant asks 'who represents business' in the context of the forthcoming EU referendum.

As the referendum on exit from the EU approaches, there is increasing controversy about who can speak as the representative voice of British business.   In his first address to the CBI since taking up his post, business secretary Sajid Javid rebuked the organisation for its enthusiasm for EU membership.   Robin Oxley, the campaign director of Business for Britain, the anti-EU lobby, has argued that groups like the CBI decide what members should think rather than letting opinion filter up.  

Table 1 provides some basic data on the main cross-sectoral business organisations in the UK.

1965 (from merger of three organisations)
Several thousand companies. 103 universities, 140 associations
£24.6m (2013)
Institute of Directors
37,000 individuals
British Chambers of Commerce
52 chambers of commerce
Federation of Small Businesses

What is striking is that the Institute of Directors has a larger budget and almost as many employees as the CBI, although probably a higher proportion of the CBI’s staff are engaged on policy work.   In the late 1960s, the CBI had around four hundred staff.   Its budget in the early 1970s was £2.4m[i]According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, this would be a broadly comparable to £22.3m today.  The shrinkage in staff numbers may largely represent support staff no longer needed given information technology.

The CBI has a rather complex structure, as it represents trade associations as well as companies and public sector bodies, but it is generally considered that big business is the most powerful influence on its policies.

The Institute of Directors gained influence under the Thatcher Government when the CBI was seen as too associated with no longer fashionable corporatist policies.   However, its membership has fallen from a peak of 55,000 in 2001.

The British Chambers of Commerce is the oldest of the organisations, but has the smallest staff and budget.  It seeks to maximise its influence by focusing on particular issues such as taxation.

The Blackpool-based Federation of Small Businesses has had a static membership since 2006 and represents just 4 per cent of the UK’s 5 million small businesses.   It has a reputation for organising older businesses in established industries led by mature white men, but 18 per cent of its member companies are owned by women only.

The Europhile Sir Mike Rake, who was a member of the advisory council of the pro-business lobby Business for New Europe, is being replaced as CBI president by Paul Dreschler from a family company in Liverpool.  It is thought that he will be better able to represent medium-sized businesses than the chairman of BT.     In January, Mr Drechsler was one of 55 business leaders who signed a letter to the Times which called for a “new relationship” with the EU, completion of the single market and for the “culture of red tape” to be quashed.

New CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn will need all the skills she acquired working in the media during her career to help the CBI deal with the challenges it will face in the run up to the EU referendum.

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.

[i] Wyn Grant and David Marsh (1977), The CBI,  London: Hodder and Stoughton, p. 37.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Labour Leadership Election

Robin Pettitt discusses the Labour leadership competition.

When a party is defeated it is naturally forced to consider why it was rejected by the voters. This can lead to some serious soul searching which can send the party down new paths in search for victory.

When a party leader steps down a party will obviously have to decide who should replace them. In choosing a new leader (democratically or otherwise) the party will have to decide whether to go with someone much like the outgoing leader, or with a leader suggesting a new direction.

When a party loses both an election and a leader at the same time it faces a time where new directions may truly be taken. This is the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in after its damp squib of a result in the May General Election and Ed Miliband’s subsequent departure as party leader. The party is now in the midst of a leadership election campaign which is also doubling up as a vehicle for some serious soul searching.

The four candidates on the leadership election ballot paper show the full range of the party’s potential responses to defeat. Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn represent the two extremes of the party. Liz Kendall wasted no time speaking out against what she saw as the failings of the Ed Miliband leadership. Kendall represents what one might call the Neo-New Labour wing of the party who views everything that happened after Tony Blair’s departure as a deviation from election winning common centrist sense. Corbyn on the other hand is part of the small and shrinking old style socialist left of the party. Corbyn and many of his supporters would be most comfortable with the party’s position as it was in the lead up to the 1983 election.

Whilst Kendall has significantly more support than Corbyn, neither are likely to get anywhere near the leadership. That means that the real contest is between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Andy Burnham is perceived as being the centre-left candidate in opposition to Kendall’s centre-right stance. His line is based on prosperity for everybody (which all candidates speak to so some degree), but without Kendall’s heavy focus on wealth creation and supply side solutions. It is probably fair to say that Burnham is the one to beat and seems to be the candidate who is placed closest to the middle of Labour’s bell curve.

Yvette Cooper seems to be presenting herself as the experienced ‘unity candidate’ – a leader who will not move to the left or the right, but who will seek to unite the party behind a message of, well, unity (details-to-follow-but-it-will-be-great). Labour will use a preferential voting system to elect the next leader which means that MPs, party members and affiliated union members will be asked to rank-order the candidates. This means that the second preferences of Kendall and Corbyn will likely determine the contest. The key question then is which of the two candidates can attract the most second preferences. It is possible that Cooper’s unity message will work to her advantage here.

However, in choosing any candidate for leader the party is faced with some severe challenges. The first challenge is that the reasons for Labour’s defeat are extremely complex. In other words, the party has to choose one of several answers to a question that is not at all clear. The candidates are obviously trying to push their particular version of what went wrong (which leads to them being the solution). However, these candidate driven answers to Labour’s problems are based on the personal ideological (in the broadest and, some might argue, most diluted sense of that term) positions of the candidates, rather than any firm evidence.

What is clear though is that Labour’s problems are severe. They were crushed by the SNP in Scotland. SNP offered Scottish voters a product which was both more left-wing and more specifically Scottish than Labour. Labour lost in England to a Conservative Party which was both more right-wing and more specifically English than Labour. And they lost support to UKIP which seemed to speak to a large section of voters which have felt ignored by the main parties’ relentless focus on swing voters in marginal constituencies. 

In other words, Labour was too right-wing for Scotland, too left-wing in large parts of England and too focussed on marginal seats in a political system which requires such focus to win. Trying to be Scottish and left-wing enough in Scotland; English and right-wing enough in large parts of England; and offer something to voters in Labour heartlands that they could previously take for granted, whilst also reaching out to swing voters is the challenge that faces the new leader. It seems clear that neither Corbyn nor Kendal have the requisite breadth of appeal necessary, and are thus out of the running. The open question then is which of Burnham and Cooper can bring together a leadership winning coalition. Whether either of them have the skill to face Labour’s serious challenges will only be answered at the ballot box in 2020.

Robin Pettitt is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Kingston University.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Six weeks of separation: The campaign rhetoric of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

Judi Atkins discusses the rhetoric of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election, within the context of the previous Coalition government.

How do the former partners in a coalition government defend their record and, at the same time, reassert their distinctive identities? This process begins months before the general election, of course, but it intensifies during the short campaign and requires considerable rhetorical skill – especially for the smaller party, whose influence and achievements are often less visible to the public.  

David Cameron’s campaign rhetoric centred on the choice between competence and chaos. Drawing on the Conservatives’ reputation for sound economic management, he argued that his government’s policies were ‘getting the country on the right track’. Cameron marshalled factual evidence to support this, claiming they had created two million jobs and halved the deficit while maintaining investment in the NHS. He also invoked the narrative of the ‘fiscal mess’ the government had inherited and expressed his eagerness to ‘finish the job that we’ve all started’. Here Cameron recalled the ‘we’re all in this together’ mantra, with its echoes of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, and so sought to unite the public behind his party in a shared mission. He thus projected an image of governing competence and strong leadership, while his acknowledgement that ‘it’s been a very difficult time’ implies that the sacrifices made to secure the recovery must not be allowed to go to waste.[1]   

Alongside this display of competence, Cameron fuelled fears of a minority Labour government held to ransom by the SNP. Again drawing on the deficit narrative, he warned of a ‘coalition of chaos’, with ‘the SNP acting as the chain to Labour’s wrecking ball, running right through our economic recovery’. Indeed, he continued, ‘it will be you who pays the price … with job losses, with massive tax rises, and an economy back on the brink of bankruptcy’.[2] The destruction metaphor heightened the emotional impact of Cameron’s words, and so enhanced the persuasive power of his claim that only a Conservative government would ensure the recovery continued. While the Party was criticised for a lacklustre campaign, the fusion of its economic narrative with the ‘politics of fear’ enabled it to confound expectations and win an overall majority.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emphasised their centrist credentials and their achievements in government. Thus, Nick Clegg expressed concern that the economic recovery would be threatened either by the Conservatives’ ‘ideological cuts’ or by Labour’s allegedly irresponsible borrowing, and argued that ‘we need to remain anchored in the centre ground so that we can finish the job of balancing the books, but do it fairly’.[3] To demonstrate the efficacy of this approach, he reminded the electorate that the Liberal Democrats had, for instance, raised the income tax threshold and introduced the Pupil Premium, and so had helped to ‘create a stronger economy and a fairer society’. Indeed, if given the opportunity to act as kingmaker in a subsequent coalition, the Liberal Democrats would ‘add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’.[4] Rather like the Wizard of Oz, Clegg’s party would give their potential partners the qualities they needed to govern well, but which they currently lacked.

Although the Liberal Democrats’ belief in fairness was at the forefront of their 2010 campaign, it was soon subordinated to the Conservatives’ deficit reduction strategy. In 2015 the Party revived this commitment in a bid to re-establish their distinctive identity, while appealing to their audience’s sense of justice. To this end, they prioritised deficit reduction on the ground that it is unfair to burden future generations with the debt, and sought to distance themselves from the Conservatives’ approach. In particular, Clegg criticised their proposed £12 billion reduction in welfare spending as ‘very unfair’, asking Cameron: ‘What are you going to do? Who are you going to hurt? Who’s going to bear the pain?’.[5] However, this attack failed to convince due to the Liberal Democrat leadership’s capitulation to the Conservatives’ austerity programme, while Clegg’s efforts to present himself as a principled politician sat uneasily with his U-turns on tuition fees and the ‘bedroom tax’. These apparent contradictions gravely undermined the Liberal Democrats’ credibility and were surely a key factor in their crushing defeat on 7 May.

Judi Atkins is Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University. She is author of Justifying New Labour Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and co-editor of Rhetoric in British Politics and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

This post is reproduced from UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign, edited by Daniel Jackson and Einar Thorsen and published by the Centre for Study of Journalism, Culture and Community at Bournemouth University, in partnership with the Political Studies Association.

Featuring 71 articles from 92 leading UK academics, this special publication captures the immediate thoughts, reflections and early research insights on the 2015 UK General Election from the cutting edge of media and politics research.

Published ten days after the election, these contributions are short and accessible. Authors provide authoritative analysis of the campaign, including research findings or new theoretical insights; to bring readers original ways of understanding the election. Contributions also bring a rich range of disciplinary influences, from political science to fan studies, journalism studies to advertising. See the Election Analysis website for more details.

[1] ITV (2015) The ITV Leaders’ Debate (UK General Election 2015), 2 April.
[2] Cameron, David (2015) Speech Launching Scottish Manifesto, 16 April.
[3] BBC (2015) Question Time – Election Leaders Special, 30 April.
[4] Clegg, Nick (2015) Speech Launching the Liberal Democrat Manifesto, 15 April.
[5] BBC (2015) Question Time – Election Leaders Special, 30 April.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Future for Labour

Kevin Hickson reflects on his experiences of contesting a safe Conservative seat as a Labour candidate.

On May 7th I contested the safe Conservative seat of East Yorkshire for the Labour Party.  This was my first entry into national politics having been a local councillor for two years previously.  Every seat is different and as such care must be taken in extrapolating wider lessons for the Labour Party as it begins the task of examining what went wrong and where it goes from here.

The result in East Yorkshire was mixed.  The main aim, in which I was successful, was in taking the Labour Party back into second place having slipped below the Liberal Democrats five years previously.  I also secured a modest increase in Labour's vote share.  As with all other candidates in the constituency and across the country I took the opinion polls as being more or less accurate.  This, of course, proved not to be the case.  I expected the Liberal Democrat vote to fall and most of that to come to me.  I suspect it did, but what was less predictable was the extent to which UKIP took votes from Labour - far more than they did from the Conservatives.  The Tory vote held firm, in fact increased slightly giving the incumbent over 50% of the vote.

Nationally, of course, Labour did badly.  Hit hard by the swing to the Scottish National Party in Scotland and to UKIP, and to a lesser extent the Greens, in England Labour's electoral strategy is now far more complicated than it was in the 1990s.

The Blairites were quick to criticise the leadership of Ed Miliband in the days immediately after the election defeat.  Never their choice for the leadership in 2010 they remained opposed to the direction in which he led the party and argued that they had been proven right after the election defeat.  Only by returning to the previously successful New Labour formula could Labour recover power.  Since then numerous leadership contenders have appeared to denounce Ed Miliband's leadership and offer to move the party back towards the 'aspirational' voters of Middle England they lost to the Conservatives. In the immediate context of the 2015 election defeat this argument appears enticing.  However, to move in that direction would be a mistake, for it assumes that the electoral context is the same or similar to what it was in the run up to 1997 and 2001.  It isn't.

The first reason for this is that there are clear left-wing alternatives to Labour across the country.  The reason why the SNP did so well is not because Labour was too left-wing, but that it was radical enough.  Equally the same argument can be made for how Labour should respond to Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  Moreover, although this may appear counterintuitive, it is also the most sensible way to respond to the challenge of UKIP.  Although a proportion of UKIP voters are undoubtedly right-wing, voting in the way they did because they switched from the BNP or the Tories, a large proportion were also from the 'left behind', those who felt that the Labour Party no longer spoke for them.

This is the dilemma that the next Labour leader faces.  I believe that Ed Miliband had the right instincts and that is why I voted for him to be Leader.  However, he struggled to present a clear alternative.  Offering the voters only slightly less austerity is not the way to enthuse them.  Refusing to offer a referendum on continued European Union membership was also a mistake for the pro-European argument must be put and allowed Labour's political opponents to say that Labour was contemptuous of the electorate.

So this isn't about moving left or right.  To the disillusioned working-class voters of towns such as Bridlington the terms left and right don't mean much anyway.  But it does mean that Labour has to offer a clear alternative perspective from the Conservatives offering a message of hope, and must do so in a style and language which resonates with the wider public that Labour now needs to appeal to.

Labour cannot win a majority next time unless it appeals to the voters who went from Labour to the SNP.  To become too English-centric at this time would be electorally disastrous.  To offer one message for Scotland and another for England (and perhaps another for Wales) would be opportunistic.  So the only viable strategy for Labour across Britain, borne out by my experiences in East Yorkshire, is to offer a bold message including endorsing an EU referendum, a clear policy on immigration, a defence of public services and an alternative approach to the economy.

Kevin Hickson is Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool and was Labour's Parliamentary candidate for East Yorkshire.  His opinions expressed in this article are very much his own!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

UK Foreign Policy

David Coates reflects on Where Now for the Anglo-Sphere? The Future of British Foreign Policy, a roundtable hosted by the Centre for British Politics, University of Hull.

UK foreign policy always strikes me as post-imperial, and weaker/more problematic for still being more ‘imperial’ than ‘post.’  You can see the legacy of empire in the frozen international architecture in which we still operate. The settlements made at the end of World War II still shape much of our world.  Though they actually marked the British Empire’s last hurrah, they still left UK sitting on every top table (UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO.) You can see the legacy of empire in the UK’s disproportionate military capacity – disproportionate, that is, relative to its current economic standing: even to the point of retaining the pretense of an independent nuclear deterrent. And you can see the legacy of empire there in attitudes governing the use of that military capacity – with a political class that still thinks it is legitimate to unilaterally alter other people’s political furniture while being horrified if anyone tries to rearrange ours; and with certain Prime Ministers at least still keen to “punch above their weight”.  Churchill, Thatcher, Blair:[1] each was willing to strut the world stage as though they were later incarnations of Lord Palmerstone.  But in international matters, it is invariably wrong to punch. Punching above our weight just makes us look foolish in the eyes of others. We look like America’s poodle (and whoever respects the dog?)  

For the last 70 years, the UK has effectively played second fiddle to US imperialism, anchored in the notion of a special relationship, and in gratitude for US help after 1939. UK prime ministers and foreign secretaries are always trying to be a bridge between Washington and Europe. That needs to end: there is no ‘special relationship’ from Washington’s end.  There is just ‘old Europe.’  It needs to end too because the US empire is currently in serious trouble, trouble that will only get worse. (US in trouble at home & abroad. The troubles are linked. It is vital for the US to scale back abroad, the better to regroup at home. It is not likely, however, to do so.)[2] Imperial decline will be complex and bloody for US, as it was for the UK after 1945 – bloody abroad, difficult at home. It is best for the UK to keep its distance

There is an on-going need to adjust the character & scale of UK foreign policy to match the UK’s current status as a moderately successful European economy & power.  There is a need to adjust to the re-emergence of a multipolar world. The UK cannot be an independent pole in that world. The UK needs to be a key force inside a pole that will count.  The task now is to strengthen the voice and influence of Europe as a global player; to maintain distance on the US when necessary; and to prioritize the defense & advocacy of EU values whenever possible. NATO without US requires a stronger German-French-British core.  Now is the time to build it. So it is vital to scale back military spending, and refocus it as part of a European military force. No Trident is required. It is vital to demilitarize the UK manufacturing sector, and rebuild UK prosperity as part of a revitalized European bloc that can act as a genuine beacon of freedom and social justice – as a better model than anything currently on offer in the United States itself. It is vital to treat UK imperial past as just that – past – and as something to apologize for rather than/as well as celebrate. It is vital to take a firm stance against – to both condemn and keep our distance from – unilateral action by any power on the global stage: be that power America, Russia, China, and certainly not the UK. And it is vital for the UK to put all its energies into resuscitating the capacity and legitimacy of international/multinational agencies, and to restoring the role of international law & international courts.

Move from Hard power to soft power.  Finally this. In the broadest sense, foreign policy based on soft power is likely to serve the UK better over time than policy based on military might alone. People abroad (in the English speaking world at least) give the UK enormous credit for a string of things that people living in the probably take entirely for granted, and don’t think about (or particularly value) at all – things that are strongly rooted here but sadly absence elsewhere – the quality of the BBC, the self-deprecating nature of British humor, the English acting corps and all those fine exported dramas, the deeply-rooted nature of social democratic values of fairness and tolerance, the Tory ones of noblesse-oblige: British political culture, that is, in its non-imperial sense. You don’t have to be hard and aggressive to win friends and influence people. The quiet authority of a politically-educated middle class is not to be under-estimated. It is not very glamorous, but it is hugely important in a world riven by ideological/religious tensions. I remain very proud of my British heritage: not because our predecessors once ruled the world – in spite of it, actually - but because I come from a country that still values education, still tolerates diversity, and still knows that spending 5 days on a single game of cricket is an entirely exciting thing to do. 

David Coates is holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American studies at Wake Forest University, and has published widely on British politics. 

[1] See David Coates & Joel Krieger (with Rhiannon Vickers), Blair’s War. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.
[2] On this, see David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament

Mark Bennister and Alix Kelso discuss Prime Miniserial Accountability to Parliament.

The relationship between parliament and the prime minister is likely to be a focus of much attention during the general election fallout. Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church) and Alix Kelso (Southampton) have been awarded research funding from the Nuffield Foundation to examine this relationship by analysing the prime minister’s appearances before the House of Commons Liaison Committee.[i]

Prime ministerial accountability
The post of prime minister is not formally accountable to parliament. The prime minister’s leadership role is founded neither in constitutional text nor parliamentary enactment, but is instead rooted in convention. The prime minister is therefore able to shape the rules as he or she sees fit. Consequently, the status of the prime minister within the chain of delegation and accountability is problematic. There is no Westminster equivalent of the Scottish ratification of the leader and cabinet (which would of course be most helpful after an inconclusive election), rather the prime minister remains in place only for as long as he or she maintains the confidence of the House of Commons. The prime minister decides how often, and when, to appear before parliament, and the degree of accountability is thus in his or her gift. This complex accountability relationship between the prime minister and parliament is inherently fluid. The prime minister has no department with formal accountability to parliament, and appears in the House largely by convention (answering parliamentary questions, making statements, making formal speeches and intervening in debates).

Liaison Committee evidence sessions
In the contemporary context of declining prime ministerial engagement with parliament, increasingly centralised power, and mediatised political leadership, one accountability reform has bucked the trend.[ii] Whilst public perceptions of prime ministerial accountability centre on Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), Liaison Committee sessions with the prime minister gain little recognition. In 2002 Tony Blair, after long resistance, agreed to appear twice a year before the Committee, which comprises the chairs of the House of Commons select committees, to answer questions on policy matters. This formal scrutiny function has now operated for thirteen years, questioning three prime ministers. The new forum generated some initial media attention before becoming an established part of parliamentary scrutiny machinery. The Committee has undergone a process of significant institutional learning as a result of its early experiences, and has narrowed the number of topics and the number of questioners, increased to three sessions a year, sharpening the scrutiny blade that it wields. Primarily, the sessions enable the prime minister to be challenged on the government’s record in a less partisan manner than weekly PMQs.[iii] Although some journalists mocked the sessions as ‘bore-a-thons’ without any ‘blood on the carpet’, that is in fact the key point: the sessions are generally informative exchanges on broad government strategy and contemporary issues, which provide for far more detailed prime ministerial justification of policy decision making. When canvassed the public found these sessions positive, but knew little about them.[iv]

Liaison Committee: Up to the job of scrutinising the PM?
These sessions with the prime minister therefore constitute important connective tissue between the executive and the legislature, but have thus far attracted little research attention. The departmental structure of the select committee system has meant that the prime minister traditionally refused to appear before them, and prior to 2002, successive prime ministers argued that secretaries of state and ministers were the appropriate government representatives to answer questions before select committees, and that the prime minister was sufficiently held to account through PMQs. But PMQs can swiftly be dismissed as an effective means of holding the prime minister to account. By contrast, the Liaison Committee sessions provide a different institutional forum. Located in a committee room away from the partisan battle of the chamber, the Liaison Committee sessions provide an institutional environment in which in-depth questioning can be pursued and, crucially, prime ministerial answers interrogated.

Analysis of the Liaison Committee is timely. The Committee is much cited by parliamentarians; the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, for instance recommended strengthening the Committee:

The Liaison Committee has the potential to be a very effective mechanism by which Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account. […]. The fewer the topics, and the questioners, the more in depth and serious the scrutiny will become - a welcome balance to the superficial nature of Prime Minister’s Questions.[v]

In many respects the Liaison Committee is ideally suited to conduct scrutiny of the prime minister. The chairs of the departmental select committees have, since 2010, been elected by the whole House of Commons, giving enhanced legitimacy and autonomy. Being able to draw on the prior policy knowledge of the chair of any of the relevant select committees can help to redress the resource asymmetries between parliament and the executive. It constitutes a considerable repository of parliamentary leadership capacity.

There is much that we just don’t know about this example of executive scrutiny, and our research project seeks to deliver useful insights. What are the goals of those participating in these scrutiny sessions, what do these goals tell us about the nature of parliamentary scrutiny, By combining detailed empirical analysis, interviews with participants, and comparative study, the project will add to our understanding of executive accountability, political leadership, and parliamentary development.

Dr Mark Bennister is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.
Mark tweets @MarkBennister

Dr Alix Kelso is Associate Professor in British Politics at Southampton University.
Alix tweets @DrAlixKelso

[ii] Bennister, M. and Heffernan, R. (2014), ‘The Limits to Prime Ministerial Autonomy: Cameron and the Constraints of Coalition’ Parliamentary Affairs, 68 (1) pp25-41.
[iii] Kelso, A. (2008), ‘Prime Minister and Parliament: Tony Blair’s evidence to the Liaison Committee, 2002-2007’, Paper to PSA Annual Conference, University of Swansea, 1-3 April 2008.
[iv] Hansard Society (2014) Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions, London: Hansard Society.
[v] HC 351, (2014), The Role and Powers of the Prime Minister, First Report of Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, London: TSO.