European elections guide: what’s actually on the ballot paper?

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Shutterstock

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Despite plans to go ahead with Brexit, the UK will now participate in elections to the European Parliament on May 23.

Voting in this election will take place across Europe between May 23 and May 26, with different countries holding votes on different days. The majority of member states vote on Sunday May 26.

Here is what you need to know about voting in the UK.

Voting in a region rather than a constituency

The way the country is carved up into voting areas is different to a general election. Rather than hundreds of constituencies, the UK is divided into 12 parts. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are represented as whole nations while England is divided up into nine regions.

European election voting areas. European Parliament

Different regions and nations get different numbers of seats. In England, for example, the North-West gets eight and the South-East gets ten. Scotland gets six. Wales gets four. Northern Ireland gets three.

What’s on the ballot paper

Since 1999, MEPs from the UK have been chosen using a closed list system (except in Northern Ireland). That means the ballot paper will show a list of parties in boxes. Within each party box there will be a list of candidates.

A 2014 ballot paper shows how candidates are listed. Shutterstock

In a region which gets three MEPs, parties will usually list three candidates, if ten, ten candidates. They can’t list more but would be allowed to list fewer. Independent candidates are also listed on the ballot paper separately.

But voters don’t pick and choose between individual MEP candidates. They get one vote and use it to choose one party, or one independent, marking the box with an X.

How the counting works

The way votes are counted in a European election is different to a general election too. A system called d’Hondt is used, which is meant to produce a broadly proportional allocation of seats.

The total number of votes for each party in each region are counted and then put in order. The party at the top gets seat number one. That is allocated to the candidate at the top of its list.

The winning party’s vote total is then halved and the whole list is looked at again. Whichever party is on top of this reordered list gets the next seat. That may well be the same party that won the first seat, if it has secured enough support, or it may be another party.

The party at the top of the second list (if it is a different party) then gets its vote total divided in half and the process is repeated. (If the same party has just won twice, the division is by three). This goes on until all the seats in the region are filled. Parties with less support may never reach the top and won’t win a seat. Chances vary depending on the size of the region.

How voting might work in a region electing four MEPs. Author provided

In Northern Ireland, the election is carried out by single transferable vote, a system in which voters do have more than one choice. Citizens are used to this as it is the method for local elections and the Northern Ireland Assembly. They show their preferences by voting 1,2,3 and so on. In an STV system there is no real chance of a “wasted vote”.

Moving down the list

So, why is there a list of candidates if you only get to vote for a party? It’s because when each party chooses its representatives, it puts them in priority order. The candidate at the top of the list is the one the party most wants to get elected.

Candidates on the lower rungs of the ladder have no realistic chance of being elected – I say this as someone who has previously been number nine of ten.

But if an MEP resigns or dies during their term in parliament, their place is filled by the next person down the list (rather than in a by-election). This has actually happened. When Diana Wallis, Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber resigned in 2012, she was replaced by Rebecca Taylor. For these purposes, defecting out of a party does not count as a vacancy.

How Brexit changes the game

Voters may feel the ballot papers for this election are longer than usual. That’s because they are. They feature several new parties, such as Change UK and the Brexit Party, as well as some other less familiar ones, such as The Yorkshire Party.

We are also seeing the rise of so-called “celebrity candidates” such as Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel Johnson for Change UK and former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe for the Brexit Party. But it’s worth remembering that these celebrity candidates are there to raise profile more than anything. Because the contest is between parties, no aspiring MEP can really call on a “personal vote”.

Of course the UK MEPs may not take their seats, or may take them only for a short period of time. Assuming the UK leaves the EU, some other countries are electing “shadow MEPs” who will effectively take up the empty seats in the parliament on the UK’s departure.

European elections in the UK are rarely about Europe. They are generally seen, by journalists, campaigners and public alike, as massive opinion polls. In fact I have seen some campaign leaflets in the past which fail to mention the parliament at all.

This time however, the elections are about Europe, although they are generally about decisions MEPs have no power to take. So a vote for the Brexit party, for example, won’t give its MEPs the power to speed up Brexit (the European Parliament can’t do this). However people vote though, will act as a signal to the UK government and House of Commons about what they think of the current state of play with Brexit.The Conversation

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

EU elections 2019: the story so far

In my third article about the Euro elections I’m focusing on the campaigns so far (here are parts one and two).

European elections are always tricky campaign-wise. The constituencies are in fact massive regions which makes it harder to mount an intensive campaign. They often come soon after other elections, which means activists are tired. And they tend to be a contest voters are not that interested in – what we politics academics call a second order election.

This time they are even harder because the last-minute decision to go to the polls means that selection and campaign planning was all a bit rushed.

So parties generally have fewer methods to use. I am going to look at what is being done and how it is working out.

1: The Freepost

In Parliamentary elections, the Royal Mail will deliver a leaflet free of charge for each candidate (in this case party list). This is a massive bonus in areas as big as Euro regions.

There are two types of ‘freepost’ delivery. They can be unaddressed, in which case one goes through every letterbox. Or they can be addressed, in which case a household might get a different one for each resident over a number of days.

The addresses come from the electoral roll, and contrary to some of the conspiracy theories on facebook (including by one award-winning journalist – tut, tut) this is perfectly legal and normal.

If you have a look at your freepost deliveries (they all say election communication on them somewhere) you can tell how organised the parties are and how much attention they are paying to the campaign. Unaddressed leaflets – basic level campaigning. Addressed leaflets – more organised and complicated. These parties are also likely to be targeting postal voters among others. No leaflets – no money or no energy.

2: The Media

There are rules about broadcast media being fair to parties. And, of course, there are Party Election Broadcasts.

But every party wants to find a way of making news.

Heidi Allen (of Change UK) challenged Nigel Farage (now of The Brexit Party) to a debate.

This was never likely to happen, but it was a useful story for Change when much of the talk around the elections is crowding them out.

If it had happened, it would also have been a high-risk strategy. Nick Clegg debated with Farage in 2014 after a similar challenge. And the result wasn’t entirely what he had hoped for.

3: The Ground War

It is fascinating to see the different approaches adopted by parties when it comes to the campaigning they can manage.  Of course, most parties do more than one thing, but these are the tendencies I have noticed to date, either from paying attention to my own region or from media coverage elsewhere.

The Brexit Party has gone for rallies and large public meetings. This was the previous Ukip tactic and clearly enables them to reach more likely supporters more quickly than walking around door-knocking.

Change UK has gone for handing out leaflets and talking to people at existing events, or places where people tend to congregate. Latest posts on activities show a focus on railway stations and local occasions. It remains to be seen how effective this is. In my experience commuters are not always keen to stop and talk about politics. It is however a useful tactic if numbers are small.

The Lib Dems have gone for leaflet delivery. This party has a network of activists well used to pounding the pavements with bits of paper. This has the advantage of achieving a lot of quick visibility and message repetition.

Labour have also been out on the doorsteps and using street stalls. It’ll be interesting to see how much leeway is given to local areas to ‘depart from the national script’.

As for Ukip and the Conservatives, I have seen nothing yet. The Conservatives are on record as saying they don’t want to spend money on these elections, so frankly I wouldn’t expect a ground operation to speak of.

4: Events, dear boy

It was Harold Macmillan who replied ‘events, dear boy’ when asked what would blow the Government off course. But in campaigns, events and how parties respond can make or break. And some events are carefully timed to have impact.

At the time of writing the Change UK lead candidate in Scotland has announced he will support the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems clearly were ready to publicise this and it’s worked well in supporting a Scottish manifesto launch earlier in the week.

The ‘defection’ doesn’t get David McDonald’s name off the ballot paper, but it does cause problems for Change. How the newer party responds will be worth looking at. (I am aiming to write about crisis communications in my next piece.)

And with just over a week to go there is scope for plenty more events, although it’s worth remembering that as most postal voters have by now had their ballot paper, part of polling day has already gone.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

EU election manifestos: unread, but still important

As polling day in the European elections (23 May)  gets nearer, I am writing a series of articles about the messages and communications techniques involved.  Today I am focusing on that staple of elections – the party manifesto.

Despite the, sometimes lengthy, arguments about phrasing and content, virtually no one actually reads manifestos.

No one, that is, apart from political journalists and lobby groups.

They might not be widely read but these documents are one of the key communication opportunities in an election. Why? Because there is a need for a slogan and message, and you can also show which of your party’s many, many policies are the ones that matter.

You can also show how good you are at anticipating and avoiding problems. Think back to 2017 and you’ll realise the Tories failed this challenge.

The whole “what’s going in the manifesto”? issue can also yield plenty of stories.

Manifesto launches tend to involve a press conference or photo opportunity of some sort, plus a massive mailing to journalists and opinion-formers.

So, what do we know about those manifestos already published?

First up is the Lib Dems.

No one can argue that this isn’t direct. The cover title Bollocks to Brexit is unambiguous about where the party stands. There has been some criticism of the language, Lib Dems usually being seen as nice but a bit vague. But here, if there is to be any chance of cut-through, Vince Cable’s team can’t allow any fuzzy language.

Labour’s manifesto is a bit more traditional. The cover, with the line, Transforming Britain and Europe, for the many not the few is followed by the traditionally expected foreword by the party leader.

It looks a bit stale compared to some of the productions by its rivals. But given the row about what to put in the document, including a lengthy NEC meeting and speculation about a shadow cabinet strop, maybe unremarkable and workmanlike is what is needed.

There’s been some reluctance from some parties to take part in these elections.  After all, they weren’t supposed to happen. The Green Party however makes it clear that it is ready for the fight. “We are full of excitement to be standing in these European Elections” is the very first line in a manifesto titled Right Now. For the Future”.

The Brexit Party at the time of writing does not have a manifesto. In fact, it’s reported that it has no intention of publishing one before these elections. While not producing this document does mean a loss of the associated media coverage, no one can claim that this party’s aims are not crystal clear.

Less clear are the aims of the Conservative Party, but we are not likely to see a manifesto from Theresa May’s team either.

Members are clearly reluctant to fight these elections and senior officials are saying there will be no manifesto per se. It is hard to think of a message which could be agreed for these elections the party doesn’t want.

At the time of writing, I can’t find a Change UK manifesto. On the one hand this is surprising as, unlike most of the others, they haven’t had to spend time on local election campaigning.

But on the other hand, do they need a lengthy document? After all the messages so far can be conveyed without publishing and new parties like this don’t have a back catalogue of policies to promote.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Parties launch for unexpected elections

Later this month we have an unusual, and potentially defining, political event.

In previous years, the five yearly European Elections have been low-key. Most parties have run campaigns about anything but Europe. Many voters haven’t bothered to turn out. Electoral regions have been too big for any real sense of a constituency link. And the results, rather than coming on a Thursday night and Friday morning after polling day, have waited till counts on a Sunday when only the very keen were paying attention.

But this time we have an election which wasn’t supposed to happen, and not one, but two new high-profile parties joining others on the ballot paper.

In the run up to the elections I’ll be looking at some of the communications issues surrounding the contest.

In this article I’m focusing on campaign launches.

It’s probably significant that, at the time of writing, the two parties with potentially much to fear from these elections (Labour and the Conservatives) haven’t held their launches. But we have heard from, among others, Change UK, the Brexit Party, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.

The style and content of those launches can tell us a lot about each party and its current state of health.

Time for Change (UK)?

Change UK, the party based on the breakaway of a group of MPs from the Labour and Conservative parties, is so new that its logo wasn’t registered in time to make it onto the ballot paper.

I suspect in an ideal world the party would have wanted a longer build up before actually contesting an election. But this late May event could not be ignored, given what the founders have already said about Europe and Brexit.

Change UK traveled to Bristol for an invited audience event which also highlighted some of the potential MEPs. Media coverage has pointed to ‘celebrity candidates’ such as former BBC man Gavin Esler and journalist (and Boris Johnson’s sister) Rachel Johnson.

Realistically what we have here are people famous in a particular media environment rather than more widely. But given the objective of getting coverage, and given that this was not a policy launch, it is easy to see why Change would want to point to particular recruits.

Change UK, in its previous Independent Group form, did manage significant positive media attention. But the challenge for a new party, once the initial excitement is over, is to find other ways of standing out.

For me, having seen far too many political launches, this one didn’t really tick the boxes.

What Change needs is something which clearly explains why they deserve support in an increasingly crowded political market. However, they made a wise choice in appointing the media friendly Heidi Allen as interim leader, which will help them look fresher for longer.

Lib Dems and the B-word

The Liberal Democrat event took place later in the same week. There are clear benefits to going first, but there are other benefits to avoiding news clashes, and the Lib Dems’ Friday launch meant less competition with other political stories.

What I found interesting here was the focus on women as speakers and a clear ‘Stop Brexit’ message. This message is also used by Change, by the Greens, and by some other parties, and one of the big questions of these elections is whether it will end up definitively attached to one more than others.

The Lib Dems, however, must be pleased that at last there is an election which is highly relevant to this particular message of theirs.

Back to Brexits

The Brexit Party, which sees Nigel Farage back in a leadership position, has a very clear message too in its name. It traveled to Coventry for a launch, early in the season, which saw some candidates announced, including Jacob Rees Mogg’s sister, and former Conservative candidate,  Annunziata.

The party slogan – ‘fighting back’ – and its clear arrow logo mean it is easy to brand any venue.

In media terms, Farage is usually box office so there was little need to add much to the launch.

What I found impressive was the series of mini launches which followed, with the announcement of star or significant candidates over several days.

While a high profile leader matters, organisers will know that other capable and high profile interviewees are needed to carry the media load. And in former Government  minister and more recently reality show participant, Anne Widdecombe, the Brexit party has certainly found one.

Ukip-ed

Of course, the last Euro election, 2014, was a massive success for Ukip.

That party has suffered since from splits, defections, rows and rapid changes of leader. It will be impossible for Ukip to repeat the previous success. The communications issue is how to position the team so that the Brexit party does not simply roll up all support.

Middlesbrough was the location for a launch event with the slogan ‘Tell them Again – Make Brexit Happen’.

The dilemma facing leader Gerard Batten is whether to talk about The Brexit Party or not.

He needs to distinguish Ukip, perhaps by pointing out differences, but he also doesn’t want to talk up Farage by raising perception of his significance.

He’s chosen, perhaps unavoidably, to criticize, with one statement telling us that the party is ‘a wholly owned subsidiary of one man’s ego’.

To be fair to Ukip, this launch also included plenty of material about policies and plans, but unsurprisingly it is the personal invective which breaks through.

Spoilt for Choice?

Voters can only choose one party in these elections, so  campaigners will need to find ways to stand out and be preferred. This is going to be tricky for those on the Stop Brexit side of things.

Launches and slogans matter, but they are only part of the package.

In future blogs I am going to look at other key comms issues, including those affecting the Conservatives and Labour as they attempt to position themselves on the grid. Is there even any room?

We will soon see.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Landlords will be forbidden from evicting tenants for no reason – but reform has only just begun

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No place like home. Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University and Kim McKee, University of Stirling

Change is coming. Soon, private tenants in England will have the security they need to call their rented house a home. The UK government has announced plans to abolish “no fault” Section 21 evictions in England, meaning that landlords will no longer be able to evict tenants without a legitimate reason.

Nearly one in five households in England live in the private rented sector. At present, no fault evictions cause significant insecurity for tenants, as well as negative impacts on mental health and well-being. So an end to Section 21 will have a real, positive impact on millions of households, preventing them from being uprooted at short notice. It could also help to prevent homelessness, since the biggest single cause is the ending of a tenancy in the private sector.

As waiting lists for social housing grow, the private rented sector is accommodating more vulnerable and low-income households, as well as growing numbers of families with children. Yet research shows that insecure tenancies aren’t the only challenge facing private tenants. Poor quality and unaffordable housing remain key concerns, right across the UK.

A state of disrepair

The latest government statistics show that one in four privately rented houses in England did not meet the government’s own standards for decent homes. This means that around 1.1m private renters are living in homes which contain dangerous hazards, are not in a reasonable state of repair, or lack suitable heating.

With Section 21 in place, tenants are vulnerable to “revenge evictions” if they complain about poor conditions in their homes. Citizens Advice found that tenants had a 46% chance of being served a Section 21 notice if they complained to the local council about their landlord.

Ending Section 21 should give tenants more confidence to speak out against dangers, without the threat of losing their home. But this will depend on whether councils have the funding needed to enforce standards and compel landlords to carry out repairs.

Historically, enforcement has been a postcode lottery and landlords are rarely prosecuted. In the context of austerity, where local councils have seen spending cuts of up to 40% since 2009/10, there’s little to indicate that more consistent enforcement will be possible.

Rent controls and reclamation

Tenants also face issues of affordability; particularly vulnerable, single parent families and low-income renters. This issue has worsened due to the housing benefit freeze, which has kept allowances at the same rate since 2016, while rents have continued to rise, meaning families are facing considerable hardships.




Read more:
Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms


Even with the reforms to Section 21, it would still be possible for landlords to take advantage of affordability issues, and unreasonably increase the rent to force tenants out of their home. Appropriate safeguards must be in place to stop this from happening.

Rent stabilisation measures – like those in place across much of Europe – are one solution. These measures, which can restrict when rent can be increased, or by how much, are even supported by nine out of ten landlords in England and Wales.

Berlin is well known for its rent controls. Shutterstock.

Reforms need to be introduced carefully, to minimise any unintended consequences. For example, landlords might become more risk averse, which could lead to greater discrimination against tenants who claim benefits. Or, they could decide to let their property on Airbnb instead.




Read more:
Airbnb and the short-term rental revolution – how English cities are suffering


So the government’s proposed reforms to the court process and Section 8 are vital, to give landlords confidence that they can reclaim possession of their property quickly, for legitimate reasons. This will help to ensure that good landlords have the support needed to continue letting out safe and secure homes.

Learning from Scotland

Clearly, ending Section 21 is only the first step on a long path of reforms needed to modernise the private rented sector. But English lawmakers can look to Scotland for a good example of how to tackle all the different challenges facing the private rented sector in a joined-up way.

There, all new private tenancies since December 2017 are “private residential tenancies”. They are open-ended, meaning the tenant can remain in the property as long as they wish, unless the landlord uses one of the 18 grounds for eviction, such as wishing to sell the property. When this happens, the amount of notice required varies depending on how long the tenant has lived there and the grounds for eviction used.

Rent increases are restricted to once a year, and can be referred to a “rent officer” to adjudicate. Local authorities can also apply to the Scottish government to limit rent increases in specific areas.

Private tenants can take complaints to the new housing tribunal for free, without needing a solicitor to represent them. It is designed to be less adversarial than the court process. Among its many powers, the tribunal can serve a Repairing Standard Enforcement Order on landlords, which specifies work the landlord must undertake to ensure the property meets the “repairing standard”.

Though these reforms are still in their infancy, and by no means perfect, they show how security of tenure is only one element of a modernised sector. Other parts of the UK would do well to learn from the different approaches, all while collecting evidence on what works, sharing experiences and supporting tenants and landlords to understand their new rights and responsibilities.

Ending the “no fault” ground for eviction is vital for tenants to be able to put down roots, feel settled and make their private rented property a home. But reform can’t stop there.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University and Kim McKee, Senior Lecturer, Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Theresa May’s failing hostile environment: immigration checks by landlords breach human rights

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The evidence is against her. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The “right-to-rent” scheme was a cornerstone of Theresa May’s hostile environment, which she put in place during her time as home secretary to curb illegal migration to the UK. Since 2016, the scheme has required landlords to check the status of their tenants by reviewing identification documents – a passport, for example. If landlords fail to comply, they can face fines of up to £3,000 or up to five years in prison.

This controversial policy has been criticised by campaigners, who are concerned that it could cause discrimination and prevent migrants, ethnic minorities and vulnerable people from finding a home in the private rental sector. Now, the UK’s high court has found that the scheme leads to discrimination against some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens breaches human rights.

In his verdict, handed down on March 1, 2019, Justice Spencer also blocked the roll-out of the policy across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, the government has the chance to appeal and this is probably not the end of court cases on this policy. But a growing body of research indicates that the policy is not only ineffective, but also could be harming UK citizens.

Mounting evidence

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association in 2017 found that landlords’ concerns over prosecution due to this policy caused them to discriminate even against legal migrants, with 42% of landlords saying that they were less likely to let to someone who did not have a British passport.

One year on, in further research for the RLA, my colleagues and I found that this had increased to 44% of landlords. This shows that there is still pressure on landlords to discriminate, for fear of prosecution if they get something wrong.

These findings are consistent with those of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). In mystery shopper exercises, the council found that British Black Minority Ethnic (BME) citizens without a passport were more likely to receive negative responses from landlords than those who could provide a passport.

But, the council also found that there was no racial discrimination between non-BME citizens and British BME citizens who could provide a passport, when they applied for tenancies. The JCWI argued that this proved the discrimination was due to the right to rent policy, rather than any underlying racism.

The UK government itself had found that 25% of landlords were unwilling to let to those without a British passport. All of this evidence underpinned the arguments which helped to decide the high court case, where Justice Spencer ruled that the right to rent scheme breaches the Human Rights Act because it causes landlords to discriminate when they otherwise would not have.

An ineffective policy

The case not only found that the policy was causing discrimination, the judge also said that the government had failed to demonstrate that the policy was effective at encouraging undocumented migrants to leave.

In 2018, the policy came under criticism from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. In his report, he criticised the Home Office for failing to evaluate and assess the impact of the scheme and concluded that the right to rent policy was failing “to demonstrate its worth”.

Major failures.
Willy Barton/Shutterstock.

In the government’s own impact assessment, it estimated that 830 civil penalty notices would be issued to landlords as a result of the right to rent policy each year.

But in our research for the RLA we found that, since 2016, there had been fewer than 700 reports to the Home Office by a landlord that their tenant did not have the right to rent, while the Home Office itself had only issued just over 400 civil penalty notices to landlords across England. So far, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the policy.




Read more:
‘Hostile environment’ in Britain hasn’t put off irregular immigrants – but it’s increased their suffering


Given that the scheme is estimated to cost £106m the low levels of enforcement by the Home Office raise serious questions about the scheme’s effectiveness.

Unintended consequences

The purpose of the policy was to create a “hostile environment” for those living in the UK without leave to remain, by preventing them from accessing the basic necessities for a normal life, such as a home. But government data shows that both voluntary and forced returns have fallen each year since 2015.

The evidence shows that this policy is causing discrimination and deep divisions in society, while actual enforcement by the government has been lacklustre. What’s more, the scheme is also likely to lead to further unintended consequences, which affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.

At the last census, 17% of the population were found not to have a passport. This means that some of the most vulnerable (such as those who are homeless) or those without documentation (such as the Windrush generation) who do actually have the right to rent, have been unfairly locked out of a home because of this policy.

The case has confirmed previous research findings that the hostile environment is causing deep divisions and discrimination across communities. If the UK is to reunite after Brexit and create a more inclusive society, the government must abandon this ineffective, discriminatory approach.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Developing the Independent Group’s brand

They say a week is a long time in politics but frankly it feels at the moment as if a day is a long time.

February’s drama has included eight Labour MPs leave the party to become part of the Independent Group, followed by three Conservatives doing the same. The political world has been awash with speculation about more names and those with long memories have been looking back to 1981 and the breakaway that led to the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

So now we have a group (not yet a party) with a website, some social media and lots of coverage.

The SDP had a relatively lengthy period of high profile semi adulatory attention.  Time spans are shorter these days as communications have speeded up, and the Independent Group may find the honeymoon period is more like a mini break.

As they approach the danger period of scrutiny and uncertainty, what do they need to do?

1 Get a leader: The SDP had a collective leadership for a while – the so called Gang of Four.  And the Green Party currently has a joint leadership.  Normally though parties need an identified single leader.  It helps provide an obvious person for the media.  And it helps avoid the sort of split stories when a collective leadership accidentally contradicts each other.

Of course it is easy for me to say this, but choosing a leader is not that easy.  The first issue  is who should choose?  The MPs on their own?  A wider supporter base?   The second issue is the need to be seen not to lean in either  a Labour or a Conservative direction.  And remember, we are dealing with MPs from two different traditions.

2 Think about the name: While the Independent Group is useful in the short term for making a Parliamentary point, in the long term it risks being confused with people who are just, well, independent.  As someone who sat through the rows about the Liberal Democrats and their name (at one point the name Democrats was being tried) I know this is not as easy as it sounds.  But it does need thought.

3 Decide whether you are a party or a movement: If you are a party you need to register, which in turn means having a name and a strapline and a logo.  To run candidates in elections with anything on the ballot other than the one word independent you need to register with the Electoral Commission.  Even the phrase The Independent Group wouldn’t be allowed.  This is why individuals who stand as independents for Mayoral positions often register a shell party in order to stand out a bit.  Try not to be tempted thought to answer journalists questions with detailed suggestions about party formation.  This non glamorous side of politics is littered with technical problems and you don’t want to end up suggesting the impossible.

4 Publish a few more basic policy themes: But don’t be tempted to write huge amounts of detail.  People want to get a sense of your general direction and perhaps some examples of your attitudes on current issues.  You don’t need the sort of policy heavy prospectus that some national parties have.

5 Think about post Brexit: So far you have made it clear that you want a second referendum or People’s Vote on Brexit.  This might not happen. We may leave at the end of March. You need to know what you will be saying if Brexit happens on the day Theresa May says it will.  A People’s Vote is only a short term policy.

6 Finally, work out what you will do if you disagree on a Parliamentary Vote: There may be times in the near future when your members want to vote different ways.  Will you try to enforce discipline (with all the old politics vibes this creates) or will you be more relaxed?  You can be sure that some parties will try to create situations which could cause split voting.  Whatever happens you need to know what you are saying about this.

Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms

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Shutterstock

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The controversial roll out of Universal Credit has been stalled. Under pressure from across the political spectrum, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has unveiled a “fresh approach”. Among the new measures, Rudd has announced that the government will launch a digital platform, which promises to streamline housing benefit payments to landlords, in cases where the tenant is having difficulty paying rent.

Though it sounds technical, there is much at stake: landlords wait much longer to receive such payments from the government under Universal Credit than they did under the previous system, which was administered by local authorities. And while they wait, tenants can slide further into arrears, leaving them prone to eviction – and possibly, homelessness.

If successful, the platform could benefit landlords, as well as tenants facing the prospect of eviction when they fall into rent arrears. Yet evidence suggests that the new platform cannot plaster over the deeper issues around housing affordability, which are causing benefits claimants to lose their homes.

Rising rent arrears

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association showed that over the past three years, more and more landlords have reported tenants on Universal Credit going into rent arrears. In 2016, 27% of landlords said their tenants on Universal Credit had gone into arrears. By 2018, this had more than doubled to 61% of landlords.

Before Universal Credit, housing benefit could be paid directly to landlords without delay, at the discretion of local authorities. But now, landlords must wait until a tenant has been in arrears for two months before they can apply to receive the housing benefit directly from the government to cover unpaid rent.

On average, it takes 9.3 weeks for landlords to receive the first payment. By that time, the tenant could owe up to four months worth of rent. At this point, the tenant is at significant risk of losing their home, as landlords can lawfully evict tenants with two months of rent arrears. This was borne out in our research: 77% of landlords in my study reported that the main reason for evicting tenants on Universal Credit was unpaid rent.

If the government’s new platform makes it quicker for landlords to receive a direct payment, it could reduce rent arrears, help to sustain tenancies and ultimately reduce homelessness. But our research also showed that there was a significant increase in rent arrears for tenants who claimed housing benefit, but were not on Universal Credit. This tells us that the roll out of Universal Credit isn’t the only thing which is causing hardship for private tenants.

Five year freeze

These problems can be traced back to 2013, when the government reformed how the housing benefit is calculated. Previously, each claimaint’s entitlement was worked out using Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, based on private market rents in the claimant’s local area.

But from 2013, the government capped how much the LHA rate could rise – first in line with inflation, and then to 1% each year. In 2016, Chancellor George Osborne froze LHA rates for four years. In effect, this means that the housing benefit has not kept up with rising rents for five years.

Recent research from Manchester Metropolitan University found that the LHA rates were a major factor in the increase in homelessness. Researchers found that tenants on benefits were more likely to lose their tenancy, and then have difficulties finding an affordable home to rent, due to the gap between housing benefit and the rent.

Can’t make ends meet. Shutterstock.

Analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has found that 90% of LHA rates across the country did not cover the cheapest rents and that some families face a shortfall of hundreds of pounds a month.

This is extremely worrying, especially as the latest figures from the government show that there are 1.2m housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. And statistics from the latest English Housing Survey show that 81% of claimants report that their benefits only cover part of their rent.

This means that nearly 1m low-income renters are now struggling with housing affordability, and being forced to make hard decisions about how they make up the shortfall created by the government’s housing benefit freeze.

Relieving the pressure

The “fresh approach” to Universal Credit may go some way to relieve pressure on households, by making it easier for landlords to claim rent directly from the government. But it will not address the underlying affordability issues caused by the benefit freeze.

Rudd has said that the benefit freeze should not continue past 2020 – but serious questions remain. For example, if the freeze is lifted, will the LHA rates be increased to current market rent levels? The CIH estimates that this would cost the government nearly £1.2 billion in housing benefit payments, placing further pressure on the Treasury.

Building more social housing – with rents linked to tenants’ income, rather than rising property and land values – would directly address the lack of affordable housing for society’s most vulnerable. A cross-party report from housing charity Shelter recently called for the government to build 3.1m new social homes by 2040 to this end, costing £214bn over 20 years.

One thing is certainly clear: without action to improve housing affordability and end the benefit freeze, the hardship faced by renting families, those just about managing, is likely to get worse.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Childhood obesity – personal responsibility or environmental curse?

Dr Rob Noonan, Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Children’s Physical Activity.

In England there’s a steep social gradient to childhood health including obesity, and this continues into adolescence. The social gradient in health is a strong reminder that inequality effects all children’s health albeit those at the very top. So, we should all care about inequality, even if only for our own self-interest. These socioeconomic health inequalities can be explained by the unequal distribution of economic and built environmental resources that we see across society which place the most socially disadvantaged children at greatest risk of unhealthy behaviours, including diet.

The environment is the driving force behind many lifestyle behaviours including healthy eating, but, in the UK and other developed countries, it’s often the individual that’s seen as the driving force. If you’re obese, it’s your fault. In the case of children, it’s their parents’ fault. This blaming and stigmatising culture, disregards and overlooks the very important role food affordability and food accessibility play in food selection and consumption.

Although it’s difficult to pin down the sole cause(s) of childhood obesity (and rising rates), what we do know, is that the food environment has changed greatly and has played its part. Coupled with the mass marketing and advertising of energy-dense processed food, there’s also been a significant upward shift in both the accessibility and affordability of these unhealthy foods. It’s these environmental factors coupled with a wider set of social and economic forces and systems which I see as significant contributing factors to changes in children’s dietary habits and health.

It’s well established that food pricing influences food choice, not least for the most socially disadvantaged. Since 2010, living costs in the UK have risen (i.e., food and fuel prices), wages have stagnated, and welfare benefits have been cut heavily. The consequence of these economic changes is that a majority of families have less money than they otherwise would have had. The reality is, when family budgets shrink, food choices shift to the cheaper but energy-dense options. Counter to public health goals (promoting healthy eating), foods containing high levels of fat and sugar cost less than nutritionally rich healthy options. For example, a Chicago Town pizza costs £1 and a pack of 4 pink lady apples is two and a half times the price. This healthy food pricing conundrum is of course more problematic for the most socially disadvantaged families in society. The families who have experienced job losses, been forced to take lower-paid work or have had their social welfare support cut. Surely, then childhood obesity is not just about personal responsibility?

Food accessibility is another key factor underpinning food choice. I say this because some communities, often the most socially disadvantaged, are poorly served by food stores selling fresh, healthy food. These communities are what’s known as ‘food deserts’. Families in these communities can be car-less and as such find it hard reaching supermarkets outside of the community. They’re often reliant on the high-priced corner shop that has virtually no fresh fruit and vegetables on offer but rather an abundance of processed energy-dense foods.

Liverpool is one of the most deprived parts of the country and has three of the country’s worst food deserts. The city has seen a 10% rise in the number of fast food outlets in the past few years. These fast food outlets are heavily concentrated in the most disadvantaged of communities. It’s been known for some time that there’s not a level playing field in terms of accessibility and pricing of healthy food. Little though has been done at a policy level to address these inequalities.

Traditionally, society has taken a treatment instead of a preventative approach to the childhood obesity problem. Indeed, for too long, the focus has been on behavioural interventions alone (i.e., focusing on education and personal responsibility) to tackle childhood obesity and reduce socioeconomic inequalities in childhood obesity. Behavioural interventions are seen as the go to, to tackle unhealthy lifestyle behaviours (physical inactivity, unhealthy eating) and poor childhood health, in this case, obesity. The problem with behavioural health interventions, is that they’re pretty much ineffective in the long-term and do little to tackle health inequities. That’s not to say that behavioural intervention strategies don’t have a role to play in childhood health promotion. They do. But, they’re limited when the policies and the social-environmental conditions that drive health behaviours are left untouched. Why treat children for obesity and then send them back to the living conditions that made them obese?

For me, a more effective approach to improving children’s health would be to address the structures and policies at the societal level that lead to families having differential exposure to health promoting environments. When the price of healthy foods match or undercut those of unhealthy foods, and when all communities have easy access to healthy food, only then, will it be realistic to expect a positive shift in children’s dietary habits and health. Change is heavily dependent on government policies matching and supporting public health priorities (in this case childhood obesity).

Why there will be no winners from the US-China trade war

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Shutterstock

Christopher Dent, Edge Hill University

The clock is ticking for China and the US to resolve their trade dispute. Some progress was made at the last round of talks (January 7-9) but negotiators must find a comprehensive agreement by March 2. If they fail, the US government plans to raise tariffs from 10% to 25% on US$200 billion of Chinese imports. This would have an enormous impact not just on US-China bilateral trade but also on many other countries due to global supply chain linkages.

The US president, Donald Trump, wishes to adjust the “terms of trade” between both countries, addressing what he alleges are China’s “unfair” trading practices. Many observers believe this is a battle not just about trade but also about economic and technological supremacy.

The Trump administration accuses China of stealing technology from American companies. It has also been critical of the Chinese government’s strategic plans to make the country a world leader in industry sectors such as aerospace, renewable energy, robotics and electric vehicles. The recent successful landing of a Chinese spacecraft on the Moon would have caused further consternation among Americans fearful of China’s new technological capacities.

The US says it wants China to become a free market economy and ditch its state management approach. Ironically, the credibility of America’s position on this matter is undermined by Trump’s own protectionist stance on trade, which itself constitutes significant state intervention in the marketplace.

Donald Trump advocates an ‘America First’ trade strategy. Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

But, despite their political and economic differences, the reality is that the US and China’s economies are deeply interconnected through various layers of commercial, financial and production links. The two are so entwined that they have been dubbed a symbiotic “Chimerica” economy.

Economic interdependence

US-China economic interdependence has to be carefully managed and many companies are critical of the Trump administration’s decision to raise tariffs. They rightly warn that aggressive US actions against China will ultimately harm American firms, workers and consumers. What’s more, the world’s two largest national economies lie at the core of an ever more integrated global economy. Any significant disruption to their relationship will have major ramifications for businesses worldwide.

From his actions and tweeted thinking to date, it appears that Trump is failing to acknowledge the extent of US-China economic interdependence, or is choosing to ignore it. While the US trade deficit of US$336 billion with China in 2017 is at some level a cause for concern, China recycles much of its surplus back through buying US government securities.

Taking the car industry as an example, we can reasonably assume that Trump wishes to see more cars made by Ford, General Motors and other American firms in the US, which get sold both at home and in foreign markets. Ideally, in Trump’s view, they would also be sourcing materials and parts from US-based companies, thus overall generating more jobs and prosperity for Americans. But this cannot be sustainably achieved through protectionist trade measures.

Global supply chains are interlinked. Corine van Kapel / Shutterstock.com

Trump’s adoption of a defensive economic nationalist position and a simplistic “imports bad, exports good” mindset chimes with a 19th-century view of the world economy. Then it was the norm for companies to organise production in one nation and simply export from it. Today, technological advances mean companies increasingly organise their production across nations, mainly for reasons of cost efficiency, making goods cheaper to buy and providing wider consumer choice. In many of the world’s major industries, it makes no economic sense today to do otherwise.

Competitive advantage

For companies, the ultimate arbiter of success is the consumer. The fundamental reason why the sales of American car manufacturers have fallen over the years – both at home and in export markets – is not due to “unfair” trade practices but because they lack competitiveness. The same logic applies to other industries.

Sales of foreign cars in Japan illustrates this. While the Japanese car market is hard for foreign firms to penetrate, Japan does not apply import tariffs in this sector. So both European and US firms face the same challenges in satisfying the discerning Japanese consumer.

From 2013 to 2016, Japan’s imports of US cars fell from 23,381 to 19,933, whereas imports of European vehicles increased from 239,090 to 251,155. If Trump wishes American car makers to expand production and exports, they need to produce more competitive and desirable products.

Sometimes, this is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in industries experiencing deep structural decline, such as the US steel sector. There are, of course, many other sectors where American firms have developed a competitive advantage over their foreign rivals, such as cinema and television shows, popular culture, financial services and university education.

Higher tariffs on US imports of goods from China and other countries will in most cases be passed on as higher prices to American consumers, raising inflation and, in turn, interest rates. One of the ironies of imposing import tariffs on goods from China is that a high volume of these will come from US companies such as Apple and Dell, which assemble their products cost competitively in China, then export them to US consumers. Trump calls for these firms to relocate their production back to the US, but comparatively much higher labour and other costs would lead to higher prices for consumers and inflation.

It is time for the US president to end his short-sighted and self-harming trade policies, and fully appreciate the inter-connected nature of the 21st-century global economy and society. The future health of the global economy depends on a good working partnership between the US and China. Both countries must quickly end this trade war and focus instead on establishing more harmonious relations – for all our sakes.The Conversation

Christopher Dent, Senior Lecturer in Economics and International Business, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.