Using the source, evaluate the claim that general elections are decided more often by short-term factors than long-term factors. (30)

I put together this model answer using the following source:

Traditionally, voting behaviour has been relatively predictable, with voters identifying “strongly with a party” resulting in them “almost always” voting for it at a generally election. The strongest predictor of voting behaviour, historically, was social class. For example, in 1974, 56% of middle & upper class voters (ABC1) voted Conservative and 57% of DE voters (DE) voted Labour. Whilst this has broken down somewhat due to class and partisan dealingnment, it is still possible to predict voting behaviour by looking at social factors. For example, in the 2017 election age was a very strong predictor of voting behaviour, with 66% of 18-24 year olds voting Labour and 69% of those over 70 voting Conservative. This suggests that there are still strong long-term factors affecting voting behaviour, but, they are no longer based on class but on a generational divide between the old and the young. It is this long-term trend that best explains voting behaviour.

However, it is evident that general elections aren’t won or lost on the basis of those who have a strong partisan attachment to a particular party, but rather, by those who you would describe as floating voters. The source suggests that these voters are likely to be swayed by “valence issues” such as “the state of the economy”, which is strongly linked to the general competence of the government of the day. It seems clear that in 1979 a big reason why Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party were able to win, despite the relative unpopularity of Mrs Thatcher herself, was because James Callaghan’s Labour government had been discredited by their perceived incompetence in dealing with The Winter of Discontent in 1978, with many arguing that Callaghan would have won if he had called a snap election in the Autumn of 1978. Similarly, John Major’s government was discredited by Black Wednesday in 1992, when the UK crashed out of the ERM, damaging Major’s reputation and allowing Labour to maintain a double digit poll lead until their landslide election victory in 1997, under Tony Blair. Finally, it can be argued that Gordon Brown lost office largely due to the perception that he lost control of the public finances following the financial crisis in 2008. In all three cases, what mattered was the effect of short-term factors, which damaged the perception of the government, therefore these short-term factors are more important.

The perception of political parties can also matter, as voters adopt “long term views as to what they think a political party is like.” For example, after 18 years in office the Conservative Party were regarded as “the nasty party,” with voters remembering them as the party of the Poll Tax, the Miner’s Strike and “as the party of business and of the rich.” This perception can be very difficult to shake off as was seen in the 2001 general election, where the Labour Party produced a campaign poster with Mrs Thatcher’s hair on William Hague’s head, reminding voters that a vote for Hague’s Conservatives was a vote for a return to Thatcherism. Similarly, in 2005, the public perception of the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, was shaped by a comment by Ann Widecombe that there was “something of the night about him.” Similarly, the Labour Party struggled to escape the perception that a vote for Labour would be a vote for a return to the policies advocated in Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by The Sun newspaper, until Blair was able to successfully re-brand the party as ‘New Labour’ following the rewording of ‘Clause 4’ of the Labour Party constitution in 1994. Again, this demonstrates that longer term factors are bubbling under the surface when voters go to the polls and shape the outcome of elections to a much greater degree than what is happening in the short term.

However, “the media is important and can frequently change its view from one election to another”. Although “newspapers are mostly partisan” in their coverage, papers will shift allegiance from one election to another and it is argued that this can significantly impact the outcome of elections. For example, The Sun newspaper continued to back John Major’s Conservative Party in 1992 despite the fact that Labour were ahead in the polls and were therefore expected to win. On the day of the election their headline read “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person in Britain Please Turn out the Lights?” with a picture of Neil Kinnock’s head in a light bulb. After a shock election victory for John Major, The Sun claimed “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Similarly, in 1997, The Sun switched its support to Tony Blair and in 2010 to David Cameron. There is significant debate about whether the paper influenced public opinion or whether they followed public opinion, but it would be surprising if their endorsement had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the elections in question, suggesting short-term factors can have a significant impact. This is supported by the idea that “stories that occur during the final campaign that put party leaders in a bad light will have an effect.” An example of this is the ‘bigotgate’ disaster for Gordon Brown during the 2010 election, where he was recorded by a microphone, that he didn’t realise was switched on, calling the pension Gillian Duffy a ‘’bigoted women” after she has expressed concerns about immigration; an event that would have left a sour taste in the mouths of Labour’s traditional working class supporters.  Although seemingly trivial, in the age of social media and 24 hour news events like this dominate the news agenda and can have a significant effect on the campaign, reinforcing the view that short-term factors can have a significant impact.

Although long-term factors do matter, most of the critical election in the post-war period (1979, 1997, 2010) were heavily influenced by the competence of the government, caused by events that might be described as short-term factors. But these events shape a narrative that has a long-term impact on the perception of the party, which is what is really underlying the success or failure of parties at general elections.

To what extent do liberals support the principle of equality? (30)

Areas of agreement 

  • All liberals believe that human beings have equal rights by virtue of their shared rational capacity. This led Mary Wollstonecraft to argue for equal rights for women on premise that women were regarded as irrational creatures in her society due to the fact that they lacked a proper education. Mill makes a similar point in Subjugation of Women, arguing that a failure to give women equal rights was holding back one half of humanity, leading to a huge waste of human potential. Locke argues that we possess equal rights due to the fact that we possess these ‘natural rights’ in the state of nature. For example, we can justly acquire property by mixing our labour with land and can keep this land as long as we leave ‘as much and as good’ for other people. But, we need to state to protect our rights (life, liberty, property) in order that we can securely exercise them. 
  • All liberals believe that individuals ought to have equal opportunities irrespective of arbitrary characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity. This can be seen most prominently in the work of Betty Friedan, who argues that women ought to have equal opportunities in the workplace. It can also be seen in Rawls’ argument in his Theory of Justice, that we should think about what rules to apply to our society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, thereby forcing us to be difference blind and to guarantee a system of basic liberties for everyone. 

Areas of disagreement 

  • However, there is disagreement within liberalism about the implications of equality of opportunity. Classical liberals believe that a free-market economy guarantees equality of opportunity and that people ought to be rewarded differently for different levels of talent and ability, with those who work hard rising to the top of the social hierarchy in a survival of the fittest (Social Darwinism). They also see the resulting inequality as beneficial because it creates incentives that are needed for people to work hard and do well. What is earned is therefore a result of effort and is deserved. Taxation can therefore be seen as a form of theft (Nozick) as it robs the individual of what is legitimately theirs. By contrast, modern liberals argue that genuine equality of opportunity requires a level playing field that can only be provided by an enabling state providing welfare and education and engaging in a degree of redistributive taxation. Rawls’ argument is critical here as he argues that, from behind the veil of ignorance, we would chose a society whereby inequalities could only be justified if they benefited the least advantaged. Thus, modern liberals would argue that classical liberals are not committed to the principle of equality. 
  • The liberal commitment to equality has been challenged by socialists, who argue that their commitment to egalitarianism (equality) doesn’t go far enough because it fails to address the structural injustices generated by the capitalist system. They would see liberal attempts to promote meritocracy and equality of opportunity as failing to address the fundamental issue, which is deep rooted within the capitalist system. They therefore argue for equality of outcome rather than merely equality of opportunity and conclude that liberalisms commitment to equality is therefore, at best, limited. 

Conclusion

It’s clear that liberals are committed to equality of rights and equality of opportunity, but there is disagreement between liberals about what this commitment means, with modern liberals arguing that classical liberals do not go far enough in their commitment to bringing about a meritocratic society. However, the liberal commitment to equality is limited, which leads socialists to conclude that their commitment to egalitarianism is limited. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that whilst equality is an important principle for liberals it is not central to the ideology as it is for socialists. 

Essay plan: To what extent do liberals agree about the economy? (30)

Areas of agreement

  • In stark contrast with socialists, who advocate common ownership, liberals all support a capitalist system supported by a system of laws, which sets up and defends property rights. Locke argued that property rights were natural rights that we possess in the state of nature, but which need to be protected by the establishment of the state
  • Hayek and Smith argue that capitalism should be defended as the most efficient economic system, distributing goods, services and resources to where they are needed through the price mechanism. Capitalism creates incentives for people to work hard and do well and for firms to take risks by innovating and investing to get a return. By contrast, state planning doesn’t work because the world is too complex for governments to successfully plan, whereas the free market does the job automatically through the ‘invisible hand’ (Smith).
  • Liberals all argue that capitalism, individualism and freedom are intimately linked. Capitalism, and a system of stable property rights, fosters consumer choice within a free market and therefore maximises individual freedom. All liberals argue that individuals make better choices about their own lives that the state would on their behalf and so argue for a minimal role for the state in the economy.
  • All liberals believe in meritocracy. In contrast to traditional conservatives (who advocate a rigid hierarchy) and fundamentalist socialists (who advocate equality of outcome), liberals argue that individuals ought to be able to rise and fall in the social hierarchy according to their talent and ability and that justice is done when people receive what they are due by virtue of this effort.

Areas of disagreement

  • Whereas modern liberals (e.g. Rawls) argue for a large enabling state to create equality of opportunity and to foster positive freedom, classical and neo-classical liberals (e.g. Locke, Mill) argue for a minimal state as the state is seen by them as a necessary evil. For them, a large state would be a threat to our freedom as the state is a source of constraint. These differing views of the state will lead to radical disagreement about the economy, with modern liberals comfortable with a large public sector operating within a capitalist system, whereas classical and neo-classical liberals advocate a laissez-faire economy.
  • Liberals also disagree about the extent to which the government ought to intervene in the economy to level out the business cycle. Modern liberals support a Keynesian approach to economic crisis, with the government expanding demand during a recession in order to stimulate the economy. This is necessary, they argue, in order to replace demand from consumers and firms. Neo-classical liberals (e.g. Hayek) argue that this approach may actually make the problem worse. Intervention in the economy during a recession will stimulate an economic bubble which will eventually burst and is unnecessary as the market will automatically adjust if politicians leave things alone. Government intervention in the economy also risks individual freedom as the government encroaches into more and more areas of our lives – Hayek called this ‘The Road to Serfdom’.
  • Liberals disagree about what is required for there to be genuine equality of opportunity. For classical liberals it is enough for the state to simply get out of the way. This allows for the sort of individual self-striving advocated by thinkers such as Samuel Smiles. Thinkers like Herbert Spencer argued that society operates in accordance with Social Darwinism. Those with talent and ability rise to the top, those without fall to the bottom – and this is how it ought to be. As William Summer argues, ‘the drunkard in the gutter is where he ought to be.’ By contrast, modern liberals (e.g. Rawls) argue that society ought to be set up so that inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least advantaged. He justifies this by arguing that this is what we’d agree to from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. A hypothetical position in which we don’t know which position in society we will occupy – forcing us to think about the least advantaged amongst us.

Conclusion:

In contrast to other ideologies, there is a distinctive liberal view on the economy. They advocate a capitalist system with a state that enforces property rights. However, there is a huge disagreement about the role of the state in the economy, with modern liberals advocating a large ‘enabling’ state and classical liberals advocating a minimal night-watchman state. So, whilst they will defend capitalism against socialist critics and against conservatives who advocate rigid hierarchies, they will disagree with each other about how the role of the state within a capitalist economy.

Evaluate the claim that the UK should increase its use of referendums (30)

I put together this model answer using the following source:

Whilst referendums can provide a mandate for constitutional change, helping to entrench and legitimise major changes, this essay will argue that referendums should not be more widely used as they undermine the sovereignty of parliament and simplify complex issues.

The source suggest that the use of referendums could “erode the sovereignty of parliament.” As the UK is a representative democracy we “elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf” and, as such, referendums are theoretically advisory in the UK as parliament is the supreme law making body and so only parliament can legislate to enact the outcome of a referendum. If the outcome of a referendum conflicts with the will of parliament this threatens to undermine the sovereignty of parliament by substituting the will of the people for the reasoned view of parliament. The current parliamentary gridlock over the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement is a symptom of this conflict. Whilst parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 there is no majority for any deal as many MPs have the view that that any deal agreed will be worse for the UK than the deal we currently have as members of the EU. If parliament were truly sovereign MPs would not feel bound as mere delegates, but would feel free to exercise their own judgement, even if this conflicted with the outcome of the referendum. Except in rare cases (e.g. Ken Clarke) this is not what is occurring, suggesting that referendums do undermine the sovereignty of parliament and should therefore be used less or not at all.

However, it could be argued that, far from undermining parliamentary sovereignty, referendums “complement parliamentary democracy,” providing a “strong popular mandate” and preventing “governments from making deeply unpopular decisions”. Again, this can be seen in the case of the EU referendum, where the government’s failure to deliver Brexit was punished in the European elections with the Brexit Party topping the poll by winning 31.6% of the vote. Arguably, the referendum result sent a clear signal to politicians that their failure to deliver on the outcome off the referendum would be punished at the next election, putting pressure on politicians to enact the clearly expressed will of the people. This is what referendums are supposed to do and it can be argued that it isn’t the referendum, as such, that is undermining parliament but the inability of our political class to deliver on the outcome. The referendum of 1974 settled our relationship with Europe for a generation, helping to “entrench” the change and “safeguard [the outcome] against repeal”. It can be argued that referendums play a vital role in our constitution; providing a mandate for major change and settling controversial issues. Referendums should therefore be used more, not less.

However, many would argue that the referendum result doesn’t represent the settled view of the people but is, rather, a “snapshot of the public’s opinion at one point in time”. Whilst many argue that the electorate may have changed their minds, suggesting there is a case for a second referendum, others would argue that the volatility of public opinion is a good reason to leave important decisions to our elected representatives, which will be able to reach a mature and considered view. In any case, the EU referendum is a rare example of politicians offering a referendum in a situation where they think they might lose. As the government controls “the actual wording and language used in the question… [and] the timing of the vote” governments tend to only offer referendums on issues where they think they can win. The AV referendum on 2011 was a good example of this, because, despite the apparent appetite for constitutional change in light of the expenses scandal of 2009, AV didn’t represent a stark change from the status quo and so it always seemed unlikely the public would not vote for this change. In most cases, therefore, referendums can be seen as rubber stamping exercises, applying a democratic fig leaf to decisions the government have already taken. Therefore, referendums should be used less often or not at all.

However, the capacity for referendums to “engage the electorate in live political debates” is an important argument to consider. A referendum campaign creates a space for an open public debate, where voters become better informed about the issues giving an opportunity for people to actively engage in the political process. The liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill argued that open public debate serves an important educative function, enabling people to become better citizens. For example, in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 turnout was 84.59%, reflecting the high degree of political engagement amongst the people of Scotland, who became better informed as a result. This high level of engagement helped to “provide a strong mandate” on Scotland’s future in the union and should settle the question for the foreseeable future. Clearly, referendums can be very beneficial, suggesting that their greater use might improve democracy in the UK.

As our political class are “better informed than the general public” this suggests that the public might make a poor decision as they are ill-informed and are “too easily swayed by the media”. This can be seen in the EU referendum, where the leave campaign was supported by a majority of tabloid newspapers, many of which had criticised the EU for years on their front pages. A prominent example of this was the Daily Mail, which campaigned strongly for a leave vote whilst Paul Dacre was the editor, leading 66% of Mail readers to vote to leave compared to only 9% of Guardian readers. The claim that £350 million could be reclaimed from the EU to be spent on the NHS gained widespread traction during the campaign even though the claim was demonstrated to be false by fact-checking websites like FullFact.org. This suggests that the public can’t be trusted to reach a conclusion on an issue of this magnitude, especially when referendums have a tendency to “trivialise complex issues by oversimplifying them into a ‘yes’/’no’ vote’. Since the referendum it is clear that voters, politicians and pundits didn’t fully appreciate the trade-offs involved in leaving the EU and the difficulties that would be created by the Irish border. Complex decisions should be left to politicians, who have time to consider the issue in depth. Therefore, referendums should be used less.

However, although parliament is “given a popular mandate through regular free and fair elections,” it is clear that “parliament is not yet socially representative” of the rest of society, which undermines the view that parliament ought to make decisions on our behalf. Although parliament is becoming more representative, only 8% of MPs elected in 2017 were from BME backgrounds, only 32% were women and 29% went to private school. This poor descriptive representation undermines the legitimacy of parliament as it can’t claim to be “the microcosm that it should (and could) be”. If we really want to know what the public think, we should therefore follow the well-trodden path of our European neighbours and use referendums more often. After all, they “play an integral role in the democratic systems of several European countries including Switzerland, Italy and Belgium”.

It seems clear from the discussion that there is nothing inherently wrong-headed about the use of referendums, but the issue is more complex than whether we should be using them more or less. Clearly, there is a case for using them to legitimise major constitutional change, but they can cause more problems than they solve and so should be used with caution.

Essay plan: Evaluate the extent to which minor political parties in the UK have increased their influence on the established political parties. (30)

Arguments in favour of minor parties increasing their influence on established parties

  • Minor parties can win influence by winning elections and by securing representation and power in devolved bodies and in the European Parliament.
    • The Brexit Party won the 2019 European Election. This has put pressure on the Conservative Party to elect a candidate for the leadership (e.g. Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab) who is a leaver and who will put a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the table as the Conservatives are worried they’ll lose votes and seats to the Brexit Party at the next election if they don’t shift their position on Europe.
    • The SNP won a majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election & then went on the secure the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum & won all but 2 Scottish seats in the 2015 General Election. This was partly responsible for the devolution of further power to Scotland in the Scotland Act 2016.
  • They can gain influence as a significant 3rd party in coalition or by supporting a minority government
    • The DUP have significant influence over the government’s Brexit policy, as, without DUP votes they would lose a confidence motion in parliament. The DUP have also managed to extract £1 billion extra of Northern Ireland from the British government.
    • The Lib Dems entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and acting as a ‘moderating’ influence (e.g. pupil premiums, increasing the personal allowance).
    • A future Labour government is likely to have to rely on smaller parties to govern. Will the SNP ask for a 2nd independence referendum in return for support? Will the Lib Dems enter into coalition again?
  • They can gain influence by increasing their public support as evidenced by opinion polls and party membership.
    • UKIP experienced a significant increase in support in the run up to David Cameron’s decision to announce an in/out referendum on leaving the EU in January 2013. In fact, on the day of David Cameron’s announcement, UKIP were on 23% in one Survation poll. This put pressue on Cameron to announce a referendum as he was worried the party would lose votes to UKIP at the general election in 2015.
    • You can also talk about the Brexit Party’s polling here (see above).
    • You could argue that the Green Party have gained influence as a result of an increase in public support around environmental issues, largely driven by pressure group activity (e.g. Extinction Rebellion)

Evaluation of the claim that minor parties have increased their influence on established parties

  • FPTP limits their influence in the General Election
    • UKIP were prevented from breaking through in 2015 (3.9 million votes = 1 seat) & the SNP’s strong showing in 2015 has left them as a strong opposition party, but they remain a minor party.
    • Minor parties are described as minor for a reason. Only Labour and the Conservatives have won an election outright since the decline of the Liberal Party as a party of government in the inter-war years. This trend is not likely to change.
  • They can gain influence by propping up a minority government or by entering into coalition, but this relies on FPTP failing to deliver a majority government and this is usually rare in the UK system (the only examples are 1974, 2010 and 2017 since the war).
  • Polling can influence political parties, but many see it is a background noise that isn’t useful at predicting the outcome of election, diminishing its influence. ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010 didn’t lead to a significant increase in support for the Liberal Democrats and voters tend to revert to voting for major parties under FPTP at general elections, as FPTP promotes tactical voting. Therefore, polling doesn’t significantly influence major parties.

Conclusion:

There does seem to be evidence of increased support for the argument that minor political parties have increased their influence in recent years, with the Liberal Democrats and the DUP exerting significant influence as part of a coalition or ‘supply and confidence’ agreement. However, this is likely to be a short term phenomena. Post-war history suggests that major parties are predominant in the UK political system as they alone can win an election outright, leading to elective dictatorship.

A short assembly on democracy

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. In its purest form this means that all of the people would have the right to speak and vote on every issue that comes before the political community. The closest any society has come to living up to this ideal of democracy was Ancient Athens in the 6th century BC. This brief experiment with democracy involved all male adult citizens meeting and voting on every issue that came before the polis, with the government being selected by randomly drawing lots.  

But even this classical ideal of democracy is tainted by closer inspection. Of the 300,000 people living in Athens at the time only 30,000 were full citizens. Women were totally excluded from the political sphere and male citizens were free to participate in public life because their lifestyle was supported by a large population of slaves. Both Plato and Aristotle were deeply sceptical of the dangers of this pure form of democracy, warning that pure democracies are particularly prone to decay into tyrannies as the masses are too easily swayed by populist demagogues. A related danger is illuminated by the trial of Socrates, who was put on trial by the Athenian polis for corrupting the youth of Athens and was sentenced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. A death that echoes through the ages, reminding us of the danger of pure democracy. Majorities can and do make mistakes and the rule of the many can lead to its own form of tyranny. 

Aristotle wouldn’t have described the political system we have today as a democracy, because it represents a compromise between popular consent and the rule of an elite. In the UK, we elect a parliament to speak and vote on our behalf, with whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons forming a government in order to implement its policies. This ensures that there is always a filter between the will of the people and the laws that are made. When seen in this light, referendums always pose the risk of creating a conflict between a purer ideal of democracy – embodied in the will of the people – and the rule of competing elites in parliament. It is this conflict between competing conceptions of democracy that is at the heart of our current misgivings about democracy and it is also the reason why the language of ‘betrayal’ has gained currency, with many people feeling that their voices have not been listened to by those elected to represent us in parliament. 

Democracy has always been a radical idea. The idea that consent is the only legitimate justification for political authority challenged the absolute rule of monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and led to the emergence of popular movements for the extension of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, this struggle was initially led by the Chartists, who gathered 200 years ago in St Peter’s Field in Manchester at an event that is now described as the Peterloo Massacre, because, what began as a peaceful gathering of people demanding the right to vote ended with a cavalry charge that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more. In a climate in which the ideal of democracy is being challenged we must remember that our right to vote was not given freely, it emerged out of a popular struggle that goes at least as far back as the levellers in the middle of the 17th century. 

It is for this reason that we must defend the ideal of democracy, whilst recognising that it is imperfect. The chief virtue of representative democracy is that it allows us to exercise our right to hold governments to account. At least every five years we have the opportunity to remove and replace a government from office, secure in the knowledge that the outcome of the election will be respected and will lead to the rapid and peaceful transfer of power. As Tony Benn said of democracy, when democracy works well it results in a situation where “there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers.” Even when we don’t get the outcome we wanted we can continue to argue, debate and protest. And we can replace the government in five years’ time.  

We should remind ourselves this morning that voting is a duty that comes with being a citizen in a democracy, but, democracy doesn’t begin or end with placing an X in a box on election day. Although the classical ideal of democracy is flawed, the Ancient Greeks understood that politics ought to be something we involve ourselves in on a daily basis. Being a good citizen requires us to take an interest in the world around us, to speak truth to power, to protest, to get involved – in short – to actively engage in politics. There has rarely been a more important time to take this advice on board, so I hope that you do so.

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-up

In the news this week…

The European Election campaign we were never supposed to have kicked off in earnest this week, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats publishing their manifestos ahead of the vote next week. There was criticism from some over the crassness of the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan adopted by the Liberal Democrats, but Stephen Bush, writing in the New Statesman, argues that the move is a ‘stroke of genius’.

With polling showing a marked dip in support for the Conservative Party, and with little evident movement in the talks between the Conservatives and Labour, Theresa May is under increasing pressure from the Chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, to name her departure date. She will meet with him, and the rest of the 1922 executive, on Thursday in what promises to be a difficult meeting for the Prime Minister.

This is now officially the longest sitting of parliament since the English Civil War and yet there hasn’t been a division in the House of Commons for over a month, illustrating the extent to which the government is in office but not in power. As Theresa May clings to power, there are a whole host of figures queuing up to replace her. This week’s ‘Brexitcast‘ podcast takes a look at the Tory contenders to replace her.

In global politics…

  • As the trade war between the US and China continues the BBC analyses who is losing out as a result.

And…there are three excellent podcasts this week from the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’ podcast…

  • On the stand-off between the Trump Administration and Congress over the Attorney General’s refusal to publish the Mueller Report in full.
  • On $1 billion of losses revealed by Trump’s tax returns over a decade.
  • On the Trump administration’s stand-off with Iran over their nuclear programme.

Cartoon of the week

Is the outcome of elections largely driven by the state of the economy?

This excellent essay was written by one of my students in the Upper Sixth. It demonstrates how to write a good voting behaviour essay, using elections as case-studies. I awarded it full marks.

To assess the extent to which the outcome of elections is driven by the state of the economy, three different elections will be analysed: the 1979 election, the 1997 election, and the 2010 election. These three elections are good samples to use because in all three of these elections, the state of the economy was high on the agenda, and as such, its impact on the outcome of the elections can be easily analysed. This essay will conclude that the state of the economy affects the perception of the governing competency of the incumbent government, which is indeed the main factor determining the outcome of elections, and as such the outcome of elections is largely driven by the state of the economy.

               The 1979 election was dominated by the ‘Winter of Discontent’, during which Britain was paralysed by trade union strikes, and the economy was a decisive determining factor in the outcome of that election. Of course, other factors perhaps played into a role in partly determining the outcome of that election as well. Firstly, most of the media backed Thatcher; most importantly The Sun, whose owner Rupert Murdoch agreed with Thatcher’s stance on trade unionism. Combined with the slick campaigning, run by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, the Thatcher campaign was indeed very much media-savvy, presenting a two-pronged campaign both to popularise and humanise Thatcher, as encapsulated in her photo shoots doing everything from holding new-born calves and drinking tea, as well as to capitalise on the perception that James Callaghan was out of touch with the problems facing the British people, evident in the false headline alleging that he said ‘Crisis, What Crisis?’ after coming back from a diplomatic trip. Furthermore, Thatcher’s public relations was very much effective at downplaying the contrast in the experience of both leaders – for instance, in advising Thatcher not to participate in a debate with Callaghan. As such, it must be acknowledged that the Conservative campaign was reasonably effective at using the media.

However, even if it was reasonably effective, it was not effective enough to stop the narrowing of the gap between Thatcher and Callaghan over the campaign. More importantly, that Callaghan was the only politician in history to have held offices in the four Great Offices of the State, yet his reputation for economic management was lost because of the effective of the Winter of Discontent only shows how important the state of the economy really was, with the 1970s Britain being presented as a nation in heavy decline, paralysed by industrial unrest. Furthermore, the result of the election also backs this interpretation. Unprecedentedly, the Conservatives evenly split the vote of the skilled working class with Labour, with both gaining 41% of the C1 group, compared to the 1974 election, in which this group was twice as likely to vote Labour – it is this skilled working class that was most heavily affected by the industrial unrest. As such, whilst there may be an argument in favour of the Conservatives’ media campaign, it is difficult to argue that it won the election, considering that the lead narrowed over time, and instead the impact of the economy was decisive in this election in swinging the skilled working class vote in favour of Thatcher and negating the superior experience and reputation of Callaghan in relation to Thatcher as Labour had lost its reputation for economic management, resulting in the Conservatives winning 339 seats compared to Labour’s 269.

                Likewise, although Blair ran a very effective campaign and Major’s government suffered from negative non-economic events, such as a series of ‘sleaze’, the Black Wednesday was the turning point. Firstly, it may be argued that Blair ran an effective campaign. Like Thatcher and even more so, he was heavily media-focused, running a strict, disciplined campaign from the Millbank Media Centre, staffed by media tsars such as Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould, organising a ‘grid’ of upcoming events to present the government in the best possible light. His very specific policies, with the use of pledge cards, including highly specific, measurable targets such as getting 250,000 of under 25 into work or cutting class sizes and NHS waiting lists, also was highly unique and gave New Labour a new, stronger way to distance itself from Old Labour, not to mention Blair’s getting rid of Clause IV, which renounced Labour’s commitment to nationalisation of industries. On top of Labour’s effective campaigning, the Conservatives also suffered from non-economic misfortunes, not least a series of ‘sleaze’ which were allegations of financial corruption and sex scandals that made Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign a laughing stock. Finally, the media also backed Blair, most importantly The Sun’s switching of allegiance, putting in its headline ‘Give Change a Chance’. As such, a confluence of effective campaigning by Labour, Tory blunders, and the backing the media, put Labour in a very strong position.

Nevertheless, looking back at the polls, the impact of the economy was crystal-clear. After the surprise 1992 victory, the Conservative government lost its lead after the Black Wednesday, which saw Britain kicked out the ERM, triggering a recession, and never recovered. It seems that the Conservative government had lost its reputation for economic management, despite the fact that the economy has been recovering strongly since. This therefore highlights the point that it is not the economy per se, but the perception of the government’s economic competence (valence) that determines the result. As such, it can be very plausibly argued that any Labour leader would have won that election, and thus Labour winning 418 seats in 1997 can largely be put to the Conservatives’ tarnished reputation for economic management following the Black Wednesday.

                The 2010 campaign was dominated by the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. There are indeed counterpoints. Gordon Brown was seen as a dull and boring leader, alleged for cowardice after refusing to call an election in 2007 hence he was dubbed ‘Bottler Brown’. Cameron perhaps successfully detoxified the Conservative Party, with the change in logo and new slogans such as ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, so the label ‘the nasty party’ no longer stuck to the same extent. Furthermore, the Cameron campaign outspent Labour’s 4 to 1, and left-wing media, such as the Guardian refused to back Brown, leaving only The Daily Mirror and The Mirror backing Labour. The Sun portrayed Cameron as an Obama-esque figure, putting in its frontline ‘Our Only Hope’.

However, it is clear that Labour was going to lose due to the 2008 financial crisis. Brown’s media bungling may not have affected him that much – for instance, despite him calling Gillian Duffy ‘a bigoted woman’, Labour still held that constituency Rochdale. There was not much policy differentiation, as all of them agreed on the principle of austerity, only disagreeing on the extent. As such, it is also clear that Labour lost mainly due to the 2008 financial crisis happening, and had Labour called election in 2007, it likely would have won.

               To conclude, the outcome of elections is largely driven by the state of the economy. The 1979 campaign was dominated by the Winter of Discontent and the economic decline of Britain in the 1970s. The 1997 election result was almost predetermined after Black Wednesday in 1992. Likewise, the 2008 financial crisis lost New Labour its economic reputation and lost it the election.

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-Up

From The Times (30/04/19)

Labour divisions over Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn won over the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) this week after they agreed the following order of priority when it comes to Brexit:

  • Firstly, get the government to agree to Labour’s alternative Brexit plan
  • Secondly, trigger a General Election
  • Thirdly, fight for a 2nd referendum

This row exposed deep divisions in the Labour Party, with many Labour MPs, led by the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, calling for the party to come out clearly in favour of a second referendum in time to fight in the European elections on Thursday 23rd May. Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, argues that, by refusing to listen to the overwhelming majority of Labour members, Corbyn has exposed himself as a hypocrite. As Theresa May sets a one week deadline for cross-party talks to reach a conclusion, this may lead things to come to a head early next week.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion gained some ground this week, with a declaration from the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, that there is a ‘climate emergency’. The group also secured a meeting with Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, where they were able to discuss their demands. Writing in The Guardian this week, Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas and Laura Sandys called for a green new deal, echoing voices in the US Democratic Primary, who are also calling for bold policy in this area.

A “constitutional outrage”?

Despite the fact that Theresa May’s legislative agenda has stalled, Number 10 signalled that the government will not be proroguing parliament In order to bring forward a Queen’s Speech. This typically happens yearly, but there hasn’t been one for almost two years as this session of parliament was designed to get all of the Brexit legislation through in one session. Labour MP Chris Bryant described this decision as a “constitutional outrage”, because the Queen’s Speech is designed to ensure that the government has a majority in the House to pass its programme – something Theresa May is keen to avoid! There have only been 5 years since 1900 where there hasn’t been a Queen’s speech, so this is certainly an unusual situation.

Political Podcasts

In Political Thinking this week, Nick Robinson talks to Tony Blair’s former Communications Director and prominent People’s Vote campaigner, Alastair Campbell. Meanwhile, the Times Red Box podcast previews Thursday’s local elections with leading pollsters.

How significant a role does the Supreme Court play in the UK political system?

Compared with the Supreme Court in the United States – which has the power to strike down law passed by Congress and which has exercised its power to make striking legal changes – it seems obvious that the UK Supreme Court plays a less significant role in the UK political system. Having said this, the growing independence of the judiciary, their increased powers under the Human Rights Act and their expanded role in applying EU law mean that the UK Supreme Court has displayed an ability to stand up to the government when they’ve acted beyond their power (ultra vires) and when law has been passed that is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. Even given this, however, many have argued that the court has too little power because its decisions are easily overturned by parliament, an argument that will be strengthened when the UK leaves the EU as there will then cease to be any higher law in the UK judicial system.

The most obvious feature of the justices that make up the UK Supreme Court, especially when contrasted with their American peers, is their independence and neutrality, which allows them to exercise their power in a manner that is seen to be legitimate, thereby increasing their authority and power. Unlike in the US, where the appointment of judges is fundamentally a political process, UK Supreme Court Justices are appointed by an independent ad hoc committee of five senior judges, who make a recommendation to the Lord Chancellor. They are selected on the basis of their qualifications and experience and must have either already practised law at the highest level for 15 years or sat as a senior judge for 2 years in order to qualify for selection. This means that Supreme Court Justices have the intellectual capacity and the disposition to make judgements on the basis of the law rather than being swayed by prejudice or emotion. Furthermore, once selected, their pay is guaranteed to be paid out of the consolidated fund and they have security of tenure, which prevents politicians from interfering in the judicial branch by removing senior judges from their roles or by threatening to lower their pay in response to judgements that go against the government.

However, it must be pointed out that the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general is still drawn from an incredibly narrow social background, with only 1 in 20 judges coming from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds and less than a quarter being women. This suggests that their decisions may be biased, which may undermine the legitimacy of their judgements and so hinder the role of the judiciary in the UK political system. A possible case in point was the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which gave prenuptial agreements greater weight in divorce proceedings. In this case, the court split 8-1 in favour of the judgement, with the only dissenting justice being Lady Hale, who was the only female justice on the court at the time. She argued that prenuptial agreements tended to harm the interests of women, who were usually in a less powerful position when entering into a marriage. This case seems to suggest that the court doesn’t behave in an entirely neutral and independent manner, as the split in the court was a on gender lines, suggesting that the male justices may have lacked Lady Hale’s perspective as a woman, thus biasing their judgement.

However, even if one takes the above case as a counter-example, it is still the case that the neutrality and independence of the UK judiciary is a relative strength. This means that the Supreme Court’s decisions are seen to be legitimate, which gives the court more power to reach judgements that are seen as authoritative. The relative independence and neutrality of UK judges therefore enhances the power of the Supreme Court in the UK political system.

A second important development in the power of the court was the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998, which gave statutory force to the long established European Convention on Human Rights 1953. This empowered the court to issue declarations of incompatibility where legislation passed by parliament contravenes a provision set out in the Human Rights Act. A recent example of this was a 2018 case, where the court found that the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 discriminated against opposite-sex couples as the Act only allowed same-sex couples to have Civil Partnerships. In response, the Prime Minister announced that the government would legislate to allow heterosexual couples to have Civil Partnerships in the near future, thereby demonstrating the power of the court to force the government to bring legislation in line with the Human Rights Act.

It must be pointed out, however, that the government is under no legal obligation to comply with a declaration of incompatibility, a fact that undermines the court’s power in this area. Having said this, whilst it is, in theory, possible for the government to ignore a judgement of this nature, they would come under enormous political pressure to do so and ignoring the judgement of the court would be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the public. It is therefore highly unlikely that the government would ignore a judgement of this type in practise, which gives the court a lot of power to uphold and defend human rights. Therefore, the Human Rights Act, by allowing for a more activist judiciary, enhances the power of the Supreme Court in the UK political system.

Thridly, the UK Supreme Court has substantial power whilst we remain in the European Union because the Factortame Case 1990 established that EU law takes priority over UK law, which means that UK courts will not apply law that is in conflict with EU law, which has the effect of suspending UK law. Given the increased scope of EU law following the ratification of the Maasticht Treaty in 1992, this gives the Supreme Court a significant amount of power in areas of law where there is European Union jurisdiction.

However, it is still the case that the UK Parliament retains sovereignty over most areas of law and our exit from the European Union will restore sovereignty to parliament over all areas not devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will empower the UK Supreme Court in some senses, as cases will no longer be referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a decision. But, it will weaken the UK Supreme Court in a more significant sense because the UK will no longer be subject to higher law. This will mean that UK Supreme Court judgements will be more easily overturned by parliament. An example of this was the government’s response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that the government had acted beyond their power when they froze the assets of terrorist suspects. In response to the judgement, the government passed a temporary Act of Parliament, which retrospectively made their actions lawful. This demonstrates the extent to which parliamentary sovereignty trumps judicial activism in the UK political system, thereby demonstrating that our exit from the EU will further weaken the power of the court in the UK political system.

In conclusion, whilst the court does not have an expansive role in the UK political system it is still a vital check on the power of the government. However, the Supreme Court remains at the apex of the weakest of the three branches of government due to the fact that an executive with a majority in parliament can achieve much of what it wants to achieve, even in the event of judicial interference.