Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Political Interview Within the Context of the General Election

Andrew S Crines discusses the first major televised interviews of the UK general election.

After months of negotiation, waiting, and poker-faces between Number 10 and the broadcasters, the #BattleforNumber10 begun with an interview with Jeremy Paxman and studio discussion with the leaders of the two main parties, David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Before the debate even begun there was some speculation that Miliband going second would be problematic for the Labour leader, with the fear that the viewer may switch off before he even had an opportunity to start speaking. However, the benefits of this risk were greater than the potential costs as it afforded Miliband with an opportunity to see the kind of mauling Cameron would be subjected to, thereby enabling him to do some last minute extra preparation.

Cameron’s interview with Paxman was, despite the interviewer having well known Tory sympathies, rather savage. The Prime Minister likes to be in control, and here he was being asked about issues which he’d rather not have to address. Cameron’s rhetoric tends to highlight successes such as the (limited) economic recovery and making a stand against the EU. However, here Cameron was asked about Foodbanks, the NHS and the expected rise in VAT, which caused him to squirm in his seat. However, this was followed by the more mellow studio audience, whose style of questioning rarely made the Tory leader appear uncomfortable. Indeed, the softness of the audience questions enabled Cameron to regain control.

Then it was Miliband’s turn. This was an unknown given Miliband’s reputation for communication isn’t exactly based on a string of successful orations. However, here Miliband managed to deal with a harder style of questions from the audience in a competent and direct manner. Indeed, the moderator (Kay Burley) also interjected more, ensuring Miliband was given a tougher time than the Tory leader. His rhetorical authenticity was based on how he believed the Coalition government has made life in the UK less fair. Rising poverty, declining living standards, and the uncertainty created over the EU afforded Miliband with an opportunity to communicate his socially responsible and investment-led alternative. Yet the main feature would be the Paxman interview, which he navigated in an (unexpectedly) effective manner. Indeed, Paxman found himself unable to crack Miliband, even when he used the double-barrelled questions over his brother.

More generally, going into these discussions both candidates had their own agendas. For Cameron he wanted to demonstrate that competence over chaos would be the best strategy. It was rather an ironic line given the chaos of the attempted coup against John Bercow earlier in the day. For Miliband he wanted to show why he wanted to be Prime Minister. In this he was successful. He wants to be Prime Minister because he wants to make Britain a more socially just country.

Despite this, the interviews did reveal something broader which we now lack in British political discourses. The leaders – especially David Cameron – were simply taken aback by Paxman’s style of interview. Both were unprepared, although Cameron was the least capable when being interviewed. Put simply we no longer have leaders who are capable of defending their record and constructing a narrative without resorting to the comfort of superficial points.

Paradoxically, this is because we have drifted more towards the ‘shock-jock’ style of interview which is based on a caricature of Paxman’s style. Rather, the long interview as practiced by such old school commentators as Brian Walden and Robin Day (amongst others) is no longer fashionable in British politics because headlines, spin, and ‘the message’ has been condensed to the point where the long interview is not in the interest of either politician or broadcaster. However, the absence of the long interview means we end up with political elites who can’t handle a difficult question without appearing to flounder. In turn this makes them look inept, and feeds the general sense of cynicism about politicians.

To address this issue the long interview needs to become a feature of British political discourses again. This is because it will i: give politicians the chance to demonstrate they have a credible, thought out strategy and ii: enable broadcasters keep a stronger check on political elites as required by civil society. The superficiality of headlines and spin is a highly reductive form of political debate, and what these Cameron and Miliband interviews reveal is a political class that is incapable of engaging in a tougher political environment.

Indeed, in an ideal world I would love to see Nigel Farage subjected to an hour-long interview by someone with the analytical skills of Brian Walden, given it is about developing arguments. A long interview also deconstructs in a way that superficiality is simply incapable of doing, and it is something which would improve the quality of our democracy in which being ‘a NorthLondon geek’ would be an irrelevance. 

Andrew S Crines is a Research Fellow in Rhetoric and British Politics at the University of Leeds.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Purdah in British Politics

Wyn Grant from the University of Warwick discusses the role of purdah and the general election.

When I had a short period of secondment in the civil service, there happened to be some European Parliamentary elections that were imminent and I was surprised by the restrictiveness of the ‘purdah’ rules that were applied.   They have been in existence in one form or another since the beginning of the 20th century and are intended to prevent any statements or actions giving an advantage to candidates in the election campaign.   They also apply in local government elections.  Serious breaches can lead to prosecution for misconduct in public office.

The rules are intended to ensure a level playing field between the political parties.   However, the governing party necessarily has some advantages because the prime minister remains in office and becomes a focus of attention in the event of a national emergency such as a terrorist attack.    In such circumstances, he or she can be seen to act authoritatively and decisively.    Routine business requiring decisions in departments is handled by a duty minister, perhaps a minister in the Lords or one standing down from the Commons.

Purdah will start with the dissolution of Parliament which is scheduled for 30 March, although it may be brought forward.    It then remains in place until a new government is formed.   If the present state of the parties in the opinion polls persists, this may not be an easy matter and would not be concluded as quickly as it was in 2010.   Even if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in a position to form a new coalition, there would be the issue of the EU referendum to resolve, while as the Lib Dems would almost certainly have fewer seats, there would be difficult discussions about ministerial portfolios.   Nick Clegg, if re-elected, might want a department rather than the deputy prime minister post which has been seen to have breadth rather than depth.

Civil servants generally see the period of purdah as a chance to complete their preparations for any incoming administration.   Civil service holiday entitlements remain relatively generous and many of them may take a holiday during this period.

What is often not appreciated is that purdah also applies to politics academics, at least those in receipt of ESRC grants.   Many of us are in demand for media commentary much of the time, but the workload goes up in a pre-election period.    There have been complaints in the past that the rules are too restrictive and impinge academic freedom.[i]

This year’s guidance strongly advises against issuing press releases during the election period.   It is advised that they should be cleared by the ESRC press office.[ii]   Researchers asked to provide comment on the election should do so under their university affiliation and not attribute research to the ESRC, quite tricky if it is the basis of the researcher’s comments.   Any posts to websites and social media platforms which should be done with due care [which should be the case anyway given the risks of something going viral] and with due attention to the principles set out.   The ESRC realises that this guidance contradicts its usual position that ESRC research should always be attributed.

I would be surprised if similar rules or restrictions applied in the United States, but then the completion of a new administration takes far longer.   The rules might also be seen to be in breach of constitutional rights to freedom of speech.

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. 


Sunday, 15 March 2015

New Labour’s Australian legacy?

Rob Manwaring from Flinders University discusses the impact of New Labour upon the Australian Labor Party.

New Labour remains a seminal case in the renewal (or, for some betrayal) of social democratic politics.  The Blair-Brown governments remain distinctive for a range of reasons; not least it was far more electorally successful than any of its European counter-parts in the 2000s. Gerhard Schröder’s ‘neue mitte’ fluttered briefly (1998-2005), Romano Prodi’s Italian centre-left had an even briefer reign in office 1996-98, then 2006-08. The Swedish democrats were out of office for much of this time, and it took the French PS over a decade to find office after Lionel Jospin’s single term as Prime Minister (1997-2002). Perhaps the closest rival to New Labour was Wim Kok’s Dutch ‘polder model’ (1994-2002). Since the heyday of the ‘third way’ debates; there have been ongoing debates about reinventing and renewing the centre-left; and New Labour remains a central point in these debates.[1] 

At the time, New Labour were seen as finding a formula that could adapt neo-liberal settings for social democratic ends after the breakdown of the Keynesian post-war consensus. New Labour remains attractive for some, although the cloud of Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion, and Brown’s somewhat faltering leadership casts a cloud over its appeal. Ironically, New Labour has come back to return to one of first influences - The Australian Labor party (ALP).

When New Labour emerged, Giddens and others noted how the young modernizers, including key figures like Philip Gould looked and learnt from Bill Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’.[2] To the irritation of a number of Australian political scientists, scholars of New Labour were criticised for neglecting another of the earliest influences - the successful Hawke-Keating Labor governments (1983-1996).[3] The Hawke-Keating was remarkable in that it adopted a range of neo-liberal tenets – albeit with a strong social democratic bent – during the high watermark of the Thatcher and Reagan years. New Labour in its early days wanted to learn how the Australians had managed to ‘modernise’ and adapt.

Perhaps rather strangely, British and Australian Labour governments have rarely over-lapped. And, until the advent of New Labour, the two sister parties had very little policy cross-fertilisation or direct ‘lesson drawing’. After the fall of Paul Keating’s government in 1996, the ALP chewed through 4 leaders and had to wait 11 years until Kevin Rudd took office. From 2007-2010, the two parties were in office, and there was some contact between them. What was striking is that when New Labour was keen to learn from Australia, the ALP, in turn, came to try and learn from New Labour.

A series of New Labour figures, including former Health Minister Alan Milburn, Blair advisers, Geoff Mulgan and John McTernan and former head of Demos Tom Bentley were key figures in helping the ALP drawn lessons from the New Labour years.

What is perhaps less well-known, is that the Australian policy learning from New Labour began before Kevin Rudd became party leader, and started at the state-level in federal Australia. Despite the ALP’s 11 wilderness years at the national level, during the 2000s at one stage, the ALP held office in every state and territory government in Australia. Steve Bracks in Victoria, Geoff Gallop in Western Australia and Mike Rann in South Australia were keen students of New Labour. In South Australia, Blair invited Mike Rann to London to look at the innovative social exclusion unit; and Rann (and also Bracks) developed and adopted New Labour’s social inclusion agenda.[4]

When Rudd finally took office in 2007, he was quick to establish a new social democratic agenda, and the ALP were generally tracking relatively well until the GFC hit. Rudd borrowed at least two key social policies from New Labour (and the ALP state governments): The social inclusion agenda, and the ‘national compact’ for reconfiguring the relationship between the state and the ‘third sector’.[5] Both policies were attractive to the ALP for a range of reasons, not least ‘social inclusion’ at least had the promise of renewing the centre-left’s traditional egalitarian policy mission. The ‘Compact’ was also a useful attempt to create a political circuit breaker with wider civil society. The social inclusion agenda in both Britain and Australia has been widely criticised – mostly for its moralistic, centralising tendencies and a shift away from tackling structural economic inequalities. Some argue that Rudd and others were uncritical in adopting from New Labour – it was perhaps the only winning formula available.

Yet, after much internal turmoil, the ALP could only survive two terms in office, despite Rudd offering a New Labour style – ‘new way’. It remains unclear in both Australia, and more widely, if the New Labour model of renewal is dead; or whether there are still (positive) policy lessons to be learned.

Rob Manwaring is a lecturer in politics and public policy at Flinders University.

[1] A. Giddens, 1998, The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press).
[2] Stephen Driver and Luke Martell, 2000, ‘Left, right, and the Third Way’, Policy and Politics, vol. 28, no. 2, pp.147-161.
[3] See David O’Reilly, 2007, The New Progressive Dilemma: Australia and Tony Blair’s Legacy, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan; Andrew Scott, 2000, Running on Empty: ‘modernising’ the British and Australian labour parties, Sydney: Pluto Press.
[4] Rob Manwaring, 2014, The Search for Democratic Renewal: The Politics of Consultation in Britain and Australia, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
[5] Luke Buckmaster and Matthew Thomas, 2009, ‘Social Inclusion and social citizenship- towards a truly inclusive society’, Parliamentary Briefing Paper no.8, Canberra: Parliament of Australia.

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.