The End of the 20th Century?

Professor Jo Crotty

Word THE END written on an old typewriter

Following the death of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and former General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, just a week before, it feels as if the 20th century has finally come to an end.

Like me, people may have been prompted by the former to watch (or in my case re-watch) The Crown. In so doing I was struck by these lines from Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (played by Jason Watkins) on his first audience with the Queen in 1964;

‘They had had enough of the mess those Conservatives left us… soaring land and house prices, race riots, sex scandals, large-scale unemployment, rejection from the EEC and an annual trade deficit of £800m.’

With a few tweaks, this felt like something Kier Starmer could have said at the recent Labour Party Conference.

The complex aftermath of a pandemic (1919 v 2020), Brexit (1964 v 2016), the resurgence of far-right leaders in Europe (1930s v 2020s), strikes (1984 V 2022), energy (1978 v 2022) and fuel crises (1973 v 2022), and of course a war in Europe, it all seems like history repeating.

So as we enter into a new academic year, we invite all EHU academics, GTA and Prof alike, to reflect on the ‘state of world’ – past, present, and future – as it pertains to your research through the ISR blog.

Of course, posts need not be linked to those outlined above: we are interested in any and all that bridge the gap between current events and your own area of enquiry. Posts may arise from reflection debates within the literature and/or data collection and analysis. They can also be linked to events showcasing your publications, research centres, networks and/or groups.

Whatever your motivation to write, the blog is a great way not only to showcase your research and raise your profile, but it also contributes to our wider research culture. You never know, they blog may even help you find someone working at EHU who has complimentary interests!

Please submit your post at any time via [email protected] If you are unsure how to write a blog, you can also watch this short training video. As always posts need to be ‘pithy yet apolitical’, be 500 words or less, and are edited before publication.

We look forward to receiving them!

Prof Jo Crotty is the Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility (ISR) at Edge Hill University.

So what Happens Now? Another Suitcase?

Paula Keaveney

The ambitious Conservative MP with leadership ambitions (and most do have these whatever they say) has to take a series of decisions quickly. Are they ready to fight a leadership contest? Can they get enough support to stand a chance? Is this the right time for them or are they best waiting for another chance?

Leadership contests come about in two ways. The first is the pre-announced contest giving potential entrants time to ponder. When Paddy Ashdown announced he would step down as Leader of the Liberal Democrats he established a timetable allowing thought. Some parties, such as the Green Party of England and Wales, also have regular scheduled contest slots.

The second however is the sudden contest, usually triggered by a resignation. This is an opportunity which appears and may not be at a time of anyone’s choosing; you either go for it or not. Boris Johnson himself understood this when he said, asked about if he would try to become leader, that this might be a question of whether “the ball comes loose from the scrum”.

So potential candidates in the Conservative Parliamentary Party have a very short time in which to make up their mind, to declare and to get nominations.

Of course for some the time is longer than it looks. Ambitious politicians often have part of their “campaign infrastructure” already sorted out. It might be a headquarters, it might be funding, it might be supporters ready to be named. Every candidate will need a website. Looking at who has bought which domain names can provide a clue.  In the pre-mobile days, Michael Portillo was seen to have had plenty of new telephone lines put into his putative HQ prior to any contest actually having been called. 

Before William Hague became leader, Conservative MPs were the only ones who had a say in the contest. The Hague reforms however broadened the electorate, with party members getting to vote. The MPs still have a crucial role – to nominate and then to take part in ballots to whittle the list of candidates down to a choice of two.  The last Conservative contest saw an initial group shrunk down to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Party activists, the ones committed enough to deliver the leaflets, knock on doors and turn up at events, can be more ideologically extreme than those at the top of the party. May’s law (of curvilinear disparity) sees the “elite” party people and the ordinary member or voter as being reasonably near the centre as far as that party goes, but the active and committed members being more to the right (or left depending on the party). This is certainly given as one reason for the choice of Iain Duncan Smith as leader by the Conservatives in 2001.  May’s law may not hold in every case, but it is certainly true that the membership won’t have had to deal with the compromises often needed at the top of politics.

So who is in the frame?

The short answer is that we don’t yet know the full list. My advice would be to look out for op-eds in the Telegraph and articles on Conservative Home and to see who already has a leadership contest Twitter handle.

Whoever takes over as leader, and Prime Minister, inherits a huge basket of problems. Two potential by elections which are very loseable. A deposed leader who may make “noises off”. A cost of living crisis which is not that easy to solve, the wounds of internecine conflict to heal, and a party Party Conference speech in the Autumn.

So perhaps some of those ambitious MPs will think it too much of a poisoned chalice and sit this one out.

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Double Defeat: is this (finally) the end of Boris Johnson?

Paula Keaveney

In Devon you put the jam on last – scone, then cream, then a big dollop of strawberry.  So last week’s by-election win in Tiverton and Honiton was the jam on top for the Liberal Democrats.

The victory in what has been a safe Conservative seat since it was created will send shivers down the spine of Tory MPs in similarly “safe” southern or rural seats.

And coupled with a decisive Labour victory taking back the Yorkshire seat of Wakefield, there is no good news for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Parliamentary by-elections are strange things. Usually caused by death or resignation, parties can’t always choose their battlegrounds. This means there have to be two battles. Campaigns fight to win the contest, but they fight the war of expectations too. This means that a loss can sometimes look like good news.  Spinners work hard to paint a picture of what a “good result” for their side would be.

There is however no good news here for the Conservatives. In Wakefield, Labour recaptured the seat more comfortably than many predicted. The Liberal Democrat victory in Devon also outperformed even the optimistic comments of Ed Davey and his team. Honiton and Tiverton has been Conservative since its creation – until today!

So what does this mean for our politics?

First, the health warning. By-elections by their very nature are not normal. When we know the Government won’t change, we may vote differently. We may not actually vote at all – turnouts are generally lower. Protest votes and key issues are magnified as activists flood areas which may not normally see much of a campaign. By-elections can “send a message” in a way that the hundreds of contests in a General Election can’t. Governments tend to do badly at the ballot box in the middle of their term.

So, we can’t say that these seats will not change hands again.

But, and the but is huge this time, for the Conservatives the scale of these defeats is significant. Two very different seats with different voting bases. Evidence of tactical anti-Tory voting which has the power to remove incumbents. And rather than an isolated incident, Tiverton and Honiton follows on from losses in other “safe” areas.  There is nothing like the prospect of defeat to sharpen the minds of MPs who want to change their party.  Boris Johnson survived the recent Vote of No Confidence but that won’t stop those who want him gone. The often-picturesque river Axe flows through Devon. I wonder how many Conservative MPs are now sharpening theirs?

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University.


The results (top two only shown):

Wakefield

  • Labour vote share 47.9 per cent
  • Conservative vote share 30 per cent

Labour Gain from Conservative

Tiverton and Honiton

  • Liberal Democrat vote share 52.9 per cent
  • Conservative vote share 38.6 per cent

Liberal Democrat Gain from Conservative

The War Against ‘Dis-information’: Romania Reacts to the Conflict in Ukraine

Dr Cristian Ciobanu & Dr Duncan Light

The war in Ukraine came as a big shock for Romanians who (like many Europeans) found the idea of a ‘traditional’ war involving tanks and bombs as unimaginable. In recent years, scepticism among Romanians about membership of the EU and NATO had been on the rise, but with the invasion of Ukraine the benefits of membership were suddenly obvious.  Opinion polls showed that the proportion of Romanians who felt their country was going in the right direction increased dramatically.  The Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (an ethnic Saxon from Transylvania) assured Romania that the country would not be drawn into the conflict and that no Romanian had any reason to be afraid.

A significant number of Ukrainians fled to Romania. Romanian society acted quickly and spontaneously with a common purpose (and a degree of organisation rarely seen before) to welcome and accommodate refugees. Romania was eager to demonstrate to the rest of the EU that it shared the commitment to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms.  The Romanian media reported with some pride the favourable coverage of Romania’s efforts in the Western European press.

Yet a week or so of a united approach to Ukraine was followed by a gradual breaking down of consensus and the emergence of a (dis)information war.  Alternative narratives started to circulate on social media asking why Romanians were helping a country which had ‘stolen’ territory from them (during World War Two as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), and discriminated against Romanian minorities in Ukraine. Critics of Romania’s approach also asked why resources were being diverted away from domestic poverty towards helping refugees.

In the second week of the war social media posts started to appeal to a latent anti-Westernism that has long characterised the Romanian far-right. Hence, Putin was presented as a hero fighting for faith, traditional values, and his country against globalists, neo-Nazis and Western liberalism. Such messages were well received by supporters of nationalist parties in Romania, but dismissed by the majority of the population. Opinion polls now show that far-right parties (electorally insignificant since EU accession, but recently in the ascendent) are losing support.

The disinformation war then turned to stoking up panic. Romanians were advised to stock up on iodine pills because a nuclear attack was imminent. Consequently, every pharmacy in the country sold out of iodine pills. Romanians were (mis)informed that all men aged 18-35 would be conscripted creating consternation among some young people. Predictions of a doubling of petrol prices saw panic buying at the pumps with people using any receptacle (even litter bins) that could be used to carry petrol.

Romanian society is currently divided between realists (who recognise that Romania’s membership of the EU and NATO mean that a direct Russian attack on the country is very unlikely) and the impressionable who are prepared to believe whatever they hear on social media or the fringe mainstream media.  Of course, none of this is unique to Romania. What the war shows us is the power of social media to stir up disinformation, but also the continuity with the existing divisions in Romania (concerning vaccinations and restrictions on social gatherings) stoked during the Covid pandemic.

Dr Cristian Ciobanu is an expert in geo-political interpretation at the University of Bucharest in Romania, and Dr Duncan Light is an expert in Romanian geographies at Bournemouth University, UK.

Crossing the Dnieper: The UK political response to Ukraine

Paula Keaveney

“I have never forgotten the sheer courage and determination of pro-democracy activists whom I met on the streets of Lviv in 1989 as they risked their lives to throw off the shackles and chains of the Soviet Union.” (Lord Alton, HL Deb 25 February 2022)

The last few days have seen debates in both the Commons and the Lords. But looking at the cast list, it is hard to argue that the Commons is the important Chamber. The roll call of those speaking in the “other place”, the Lords on 25th Feb, included a former Secretary General of NATO, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, and a former National Security Adviser.

Yet for all the good advice in debates, for all the calls to do more, Parliament’s power is limited.  Parliament can “send messages”, it can “speak for the nation”, but it can’t end the war and it can’t broker treaties. 

It is this contrast between strongly held policy views and relative powerlessness that makes these debates, and the party-political process around them, so fascinating.

What we see tested in the fog of a war debate, is leadership.  What we see tested in the reactions of party members and supporters is unity.

Johnson has had to curb his usual instinct to grandstand and deploy jokes. Starmer has had to crack down hard on some unhelpful internal comments on NATO; and Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, potentially walks a tightrope.

Let’s start with Blackford. The SNP used to be opposed to membership of NATO.  That opposition was overcome in a close conference vote in 2012 with some members leaving as a result.  There are voices on the independence side today arguing for a rethink. The SNP’s partners in Holyrood, the Scottish Green Party, are outspokenly anti-NATO.

Starmer has generally supported the government line, but has had to face down members of his own party on the issue, most recently getting MPs to remove their signatures from a Stop the War Statement and suspending the Young Labour Twitter feed.

And Johnson?  Is he conveying the sort of confidence needed for an international crisis – a crisis which after all might mean large scale refugee movements, a shortage of basic commodities, and a growth in tension along many borders?

It is a very odd situation indeed when relief from the media focus on wine and crisps and trivia quizzes comes in the form of an international crisis; but such is politics. The next few weeks will tell us whether the PM is a calm helmsman or a storm-tossed sailor.

As former NATO General Secretary, Lord Robertson told the Lords “…there is an old saying: in Russia, everything changes in 20 years and nothing changes in 200 years. It maybe gets to the heart of the recent crisis, when the unthinkable has become the inevitable”

It is wrestling with that “inevitable” that will tax our leaders.

Paula Keaveney is the Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

When is a Party not a Party?…and how should The Party respond?

Paula Keaveney

“The piglet has wriggled free many times before; but he is cornered in a cul-de-sac and the butchers are whetting their knives.”

If you want to get a sense of mood among Conservatives, the Conservative Home website – the source of this porcine image – is the place to go. 

Johnson’s butchers are encouraged by media outcry and public disgust; and that media outcry doesn’t appear to be peak volume – yet!

When the first Downing Street party stories appeared in the press it was clear that there would be other examples.  Whether the media has deliberately held some back (which incidentally does happen), or whether people are realising that they too have a story, the drum beat of one party after another is dangerous. The hang-over headache can only throb more strongly.

For a Conservative Prime Minister, the moment of danger is when s/he not only loses the support of MPs but that those MPs actually do something about it.  A vote of confidence in an incumbent leader is triggered when a proportion of MPs calls for one by writing to the Chair of the 1922 committee – effectively a shop steward for members of the Parliamentary party. 

In a confidence – or properly a no confidence – vote, all Conservatives in the Commons who have the party whip get a ballot.  The rules, although in the Conservative Party the 1922 committee can actually change the rules, say that a leader who wins the vote cannot be challenged again for a year.  We have a recent example of this in the vote on Theresa May.  If a leader loses the vote, we are in leadership election territory.

MPs can lose confidence for a number of reasons; but the overriding cause is a feeling that the leader is going to lose an election.  The evidence for this is gleaned from opinion polls, media coverage, feedback from constituents and by election results.  Feeling is often particularly strong on a Monday – i.e., today – when MPs return to Westminster after a constituency-based ear bashing.

But isn’t Johnson safe?  After all a parade of Cabinet ministers have made statements supporting him after his Prime Ministers Question time appearance and words of apology.  Some of these statements appear rather equivocal however and those preparing an attack may well prefer to keep their intentions under wraps for a short time.

Perhaps Johnson’s main advantage is the lack of consensus around a replacement.  Party managers will be keen at this stage to avoid a long, drawn-out contest. It’s possible, although not likely, that potential contestants could come to an arrangement (like the Blair/Brown Granita deal).  This need to narrow the field has caused some influential Conservative voices to find other ways forward.  Paul Goodman, writing on Conservative Home, has some suggestions.

What those of us who follow these political dramas are looking out for now is whether or not MPs who are not “usual suspects” put their head over the parapet and make their call for a confidence vote known.  Perhaps we’ll know today!

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer Politics at Edge Hill University and Convenor Political Studies Association Political Marketing Group.

Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

Keir Relief?

Paula Keaveney

©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor


After a massive build up and an election night involving a partial re-count, we have a result. Can Keir Starmer breathe again?

The Labour victory in the Batley and Spen by-election (winning by 323), a close result after a tense and at time acrimonious contest, is qualified good news for Labour leader Keir Starmer.  Losing the Labour seat, after the loss in Hartlepool and the poor performance in Chesham and Amersham, would have exacerbated the attacks on his leadership.  But those disappointed by Starmer will still point to a loss in vote share in a seat which, in previous years, would have been in the “easy hold” category.

Politics is often a game of expectation management and perception.  A set of figures can be read several ways, and spinners and commentators know that it is often the “first take” which runs the story.  And there is a lot to choose from.  There is share of the vote – for Labour this time it was 35 per cent.  There is change in share from previous contests.  And there is performance against expectations.

While this result may pause some of the anti-Starmer briefing and speculation within the party, it is clear that some see the narrowness of the result as being akin to a loss.  Most of us are asleep at the time morning results are declared.  But you can tell who has an agenda by the speed as well as the contents of what is said.  “This is Labour’s lowest-ever share of the vote in Batley and Spen. In 2019 they won 43%” is how one left wing anti Starmer website put it minutes after the declaration.

Most early commentators describe the result as providing breathing space for Starmer.  If winning is what matters, he has won.  And he can now have a happy photo opportunity in Yorkshire with the victor, Kim Leadbeater.  It is also clear that the spoiler campaign run by former MP George Galloway has not achieved its stated aim of causing a Labour loss.

But it is simply too early to say that attacks on Starmer won’t continue (albeit in a more behind-the-scenes way).  Labour activists will be cheered by their ability to defend a seat under considerable attack.  But questions will be asked.  Good campaigning is essential when margins are close.  But should the margin have ever got that close? And Labour face potential difficulties in future.  There are two MPs, elected in 2019 for Labour, with trials coming up this year, either of which could end up leading to a by-election.

Starmer however does have some advantages.  The political calendar in the UK means the Parliamentary recess is not that far off.  Autumn sees party conferences which, whether online or in person, give party leaders a chance to re-set, re- launch and re-enthuse.

But while Sir Keir ponders what the result means, the Conservative party needs to pause for thought too.  It used to be rare for sitting Prime Ministers to campaign in by-elections.  Boris Johnson however made a point of paying visits to West Yorkshire for this one.  And the Conservatives failed to manage expectations properly.  The narrative of “another hole in the red wall” was allowed to take hold and run in most media. 

The question remains as to whether by-elections are significant and how we should decipher the results.  I have written about this elsewhere on this site, but real political junkies love by-elections – so bring them on.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Poll Position

Paula Keaveney

When I worked for the BBC in Lancashire I remember one local election night when control of the council rested on the result of just one ward in Skelmersdale.  It was an anxious wait for the party leaders and showed how knife-edge some elections can be.

We could see a lot more of the knife-edge after today’s vote – the largest electoral contest since the 2019 general election. Delays to last year’s scheduled elections means that we now have election for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd, London Assembly, Mayoral, Police and Crime Commissioner, local council elections, and a Westminster by-election in Hartlepool.

The rapids of today –  polling day –  will be followed by a gentler stream however, as Covid-19 precautions means counts will take longer than usual. We all recall the days late night vamping on CNN as they counted the Presidential election votes in the USA last autumn.  So there will be no deluge of results for us to pore over tomorrow morning.

Despite this, most, if not all parties will be able to point to success somewhere.  This means spinners will be busy trying to frame their party’s success as the most meaningful.

So, where should we look, and what might these results mean?

In Hartlepool Labour is defending but polls show a significant Tory challenge.  While we might associate the town with Labour – Peter Mandelson having been one of its MPs – it is not rock solid. The Borough Council has seen losses to independents and others in recent years.  If the Tories win here it will be seen – by them at least – as vindication of their Covid-19 strategy and a welcome distraction from ‘apartment-gate’.

Scotland will be framed as a test of support for, or opposition to, independence. Can Alex Salmond’s new Alba party make a difference?

In the Welsh Senedd, the Labour administration retained control after the last election by forming a coalition with the lone Liberal Democrat.  The numbers in Wales are very tight and made more unpredictable with 16- and 17-year olds being able to vote for the first time. Labour losses would certainly open the door to different Coalition possibilities. If Labour were to be shut out of an arising coalition, this would be the first time since devolution that they were not in control of the Senedd.

When we come to Mayors, Sadiq Khan looks so far ahead in London that it must be a case of “nothing to see here”.  Elsewhere things become more interesting.  In the West Midlands, Conservative Andy Street is defending a narrow win last time. The Conservatives will be keen to hang on, but will face a tough challenge from Labour MP, Liam Byrne. 

And in Liverpool we will be able to see just how much a scandal affects an election.  Back in December the Labour Elected Mayor was arrested and, with others, was accused of bribery and witness intimidation. Since then there has been a damning report into the Council, with indications of corrupt practice.  Labour’s Mayoral Candidate this time is necessarily new, but long serving Councillors are also seeking re-election.  The opposition parties have gone into this contest with gusto. An independent candidate for the top job has also entered the list – and this might be the only chance for a Lib Dem victory with their candidate, veteran councillor Richard Kemp. 

And that Lancashire knife edge?  To win a majority, a party needs 43 seats.  The Conservatives currently hold 44, and so Lancashire could be worth watching again.

Let’s see what today, and the following day(s), bring.

Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Keir Exposure – Constructive Opposition a Year on?

Covid-19 Anniversary Blog

22/04/2020.. London, United Kingdom. First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus, with First Secretary of State Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP and the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. Picture by  Jessica Taylor © UK Parliament


“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”, writes US Political Consultant Frank Luntz in Words that Work.

For Labour leader Keir Starmer,  people are not hearing much.

All political leaders have to deal with the circumstances of their time.  Some are gifted with a series of own goals by the other side – remember the sleaze stories about John Major’s Government?  Others find themselves overshadowed by major events – remember, or maybe you don’t, Michael Foot during the Falklands War?

Since taking over as Labour leader during the earlier days of the pandemic, Starmer has struggled to get that magic factor – “cut through”.  He may do all the things opposition leaders do, such as Prime Minister’s Questions, major speeches, policy announcements, party events. But even when these get attention, they fade quickly from our minds.

Part of Keir Starmer’s problem is the need to tread a difficult line.  At a time of crisis people generally want the government to do well.  Too much attack dog can rebound on the attacker; and he did begin by saying he would take a constructive approach.

But opposition leaders need to find points of difference.  For a party to be a government in waiting there has to be something making the wait worthwhile.

Early 2021 saw an outbreak of media stories driven by what was obviously briefing by disaffected senior individuals. We read of worries about Starmer’s team, about his approach, about his lack of achievement. This came ahead of, and may in fact have played a part in, a speech trailed as carrying elements of a new Beveridge report.  The contents of the speech however, did not live up to its billing.

And here is one of the problems. When there is lot of noise, you either need to make more noise to cut through or wait for a sudden pause for breath. You need to be nimble and to apply plenty of hype and you need to surprise. And if what happens is less than expected, cutting through in future is even harder.

Starmer is aware that he needs to choose his moments. His refusal to call for the resignation of Matt Hancock over NHS procurement transparency is a good example. He knows such a call would go unanswered and could look opportunistic, even though calling for Cabinet resignations used to be a reflex action by opposition leaders.

In late February, writing in the Times newspaper, Hugo Rifkind asked “What is the point of Sir Keir Starmer?”  Rifkind felt there was not enough actual opposing going on.  He may have a point, but if the efforts of figures such as Neil Kinnock have taught us anything, it is that opposition is a long game, and you may end up substituted before the win.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 27th May 2020 by Paula which can be found here.

Who chooses – finding candidates for public office

This May sees a huge set of elections.  It will be the biggest national test of party popularity since the General Election.  Postponed local and mayoral elections from last year combine with scheduled contests to give us a psephologist’s dream.

Yet a row in Liverpool over who will be on the ballot paper for Labour has thrown light one aspect of the election contest, and caused questions about who chooses and when.

The story so far:

The Liverpool Labour Party had selected Mayor Joe Anderson as its candidate for the elections taking place in May.  Victorious in 2012, and re-elected four years later, he was due to defend his position.  However the December arrests of Anderson and others for offences including bribery and the later extension of police bail meant it was untenable for him to remain as candidate.  This meant the Labour Party needed to find a new standard bearer and quickly.  Applicants were whittled down to an all women shortlist of three.  Campaigns began.  Then the process was “paused”,  and after more interviews the list was effectively cancelled and a search for new applicants began.

These events and the row have thrown a spotlight on the topic of candidate selection.

Where there are elections, there must be candidates.  Where there are high profile elections for important jobs, it matters who those candidates are.  And political parties, having suffered embarrassment in the past, are always keen to make sure that candidates are going to be right for the jobs. 

The usual combination for candidate selection is qualification criteria, followed by screening, shortlisting, and some sort of local or members’ choice which may then be followed by official endorsement. 

It is when elections are imminent that some of these steps are shortened or dispensed with.

But this in turn can create resentment.  The average party member gets little say on anything.  The main decision he or she will make is over selecting a future MP, or Mayor or Councillor.  Take that away and tempers may flare.

Add in to the mix the fact that a selection is also a statement of ideological direction, and it is easy to see why some activists resist “interference from on high”.

On one level the Liverpool Labour Party selection story is about local problems.  But it throws a spotlight more generally on how we select people for public office.  In a party system, the choice of standard bearer is generally made by small groups of people.  Even a large party membership will be a tiny proportion of the population.  And how representative are they?  May’s law (May’s law of curvilinear disparity to be precise) argues that activist members of a political party tend to be more extreme than both the average voter and the “party elite” – those at the top.  This can mean that those choosing are both small in number and not particularly representative of the general voting public.  This “reality deficit” has led some to argue that selections should be thrown open to the wider population, with a few experiments in so called “open primaries” by the Conservative party.

Yet it is surely the party members and activists who care the most.  And how easy is it for a candidate if the foot-soldiers are not keen?

The Liverpool row is nowhere near the first about how candidates are selected.  There is a balance to be sought between the right person for the party and the right person for the job.  There is a judgement to be made about who should decide.

As democracy has developed in the UK we have seen conflict and (some) resolution over voting rights, over access to the system and over party discipline vs free thinking.  Perhaps how parties control our choices is the next area for change.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Biden, Trump and the Lessons of the Past

In recent weeks media commentators have dubbed the 2020 U.S. election ‘historic’. It’s understandable.

The campaign was fought in the midst of a global pandemic. By election day over 9.5 million Americans had contracted COVID-19 and more than 235,000 had died.

The contrasting responses of the candidates towards the epidemic, and their competing visions of the future, reflected deep, troubling, divisions in American society. The enmity between the two sides led to a voter turnout of more than 150 million. Win or lose, both candidates look set to receive more votes than any other presidential candidate in American history, surpassing the record of 69.4 million set by Barack Obama in 2008.

The high turnout and closely contested nature of the race means the outcome has remains in doubt. Given pending legal challenges it could be weeks, if not months, before the result is known.

It is an election unlike any other, and yet there are historical precedents for all the current circumstances.

Bitter rivalries are rooted in the American political tradition. In a 1796 letter to George Washington, the radical political thinker Tom Paine denounced the nation’s hallowed founder as ‘treacherous in private friendship and a hypocrite in public life’. The ‘world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate, or an imposter. Whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any’.  

Contested elections are also nothing new. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won 11 states with 41.4 per cent of the popular vote to 7 states and 30.9 per cent for John Quincy Adams. Unfortunately for Jackson he failed to secure a majority in the electoral college. Under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution the outcome of the election was decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. Viewed by some as a dangerous demagogue, Jackson lost 13 – 7.

Albeit impressive, the projected 67 per cent turnout of eligible voters in 2020 is eclipsed by the 81.2 per cent turnout of 1860. In that contest the United States was even more divided than it is today. The election of Abraham Lincoln plunged the nation into civil war.

There is even a precedent for a pandemic election. The 1920 campaign coincided with the final months of a global flu epidemic. Between 1918 and 1920 more than 100 million Americans were infected, including outgoing president Woodrow Wilson. Some 675,000 Americans died from the contagion.

It’s a sobering thought that whoever wins the 2020 election, if it takes place, the large crowds attending their inauguration on 20 January has all the potential to turn the day into a super-spreader COVID event. Notwithstanding Trump’s claims to the contrary, there is no guarantee that prior illness with the virus provides lasting immunity against re-infection. Given this he and Biden might do well to reflect on the fate of William Henry Harrison. Sworn in as President in March 1841, on a cold, wet, day in Washington DC, the 68-year old unwisely gave a two-hour inauguration address. Within days he developed a bad cold that turned into pneumonia and died a month after taking office.

Kevern Verney is Associate Dean Research and Professor in American History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And the winner is…

We may not know yet who will win the Presidential Election but, as Edge Hill programme leader for Politics Paula Keaveney, argues, some people have “won” already.

I am constantly amazed by the speed with which US commentators switch from the results of an election to the question of who will run next.  Sometimes there are just a few months.  Sometimes we don’t even get to the inauguration before the talking starts.

And this year there are likely to be more politicians than ever pondering what this month’s results mean for them and their ambitions.

If Trump wins, he can only serve one more term. There is a legal limit.  And if Biden wins, his suggestion of a single term Presidency becomes very relevant.

This means that, more than ever, the focus will switch almost immediately to what comes next.

Ambitious Republicans will be working out whether distancing from Trump or appearing to hug Trump close will help their prospects.

But it is within Democratic hearts that hope, and ambition is likely to beat most strongly.

The general wisdom is that it is better to be a challenger than follow an incumbent.  But electoral trends in the US have shown a strong incumbency factor when the party is in its first term.  In other words, it is easier for that party to win another four years.  Reasons for this vary but it is argued that voters tend to pin blame on previous administrations for the first few years.  A Biden Presidency then could run into economic difficulties but avoid economic blame.  This in turn means that being selected as the Democratic candidate to follow a President Biden is a very attractive prospect.

So, although we don’t have a winner yet, we do have winners.  These are individuals well positioned to make a run to become the next nominee.

Top of this list must be Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris.  Harris has achieved that key political combination of ability and luck.  The Senator from California’s run for the nomination ended early.  But timing is all.  And her selection by Biden has propelled her to national prominence in a way her primary rivals can only envy.  If Biden wins, and sticks to his one term idea, she will be front runner for the nomination.  If he loses, her profile and campaigning must give her the edge (as long as no blame for the loss attaches itself to her) Kamala Harris then is my winner of the night.

My runner up, another Democrat, is former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  Mayor Pete did well initially in the primaries but then stopped campaigning and endorsed Biden.  His media appearances as a Biden surrogate in recent weeks, including taking the fight to the usually hostile Fox News, have positioned him well for another run.

Politics never sleeps in the US.  It is always worth watching out for who is on manoeuvres.

Paula Keaveney is a senior lecturer in Politics.  US Politics is one of the subjects covered on Edge Hill University’s Politics degrees.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Some Thoughts on the Crisis of National Identity

Even in a small national state like our own, it would be more accurate to talk about identities rather than posit the notion of a single all-encompassing identity. This multiplicity of identities is formed by an interaction of class, region and culture. George Orwell’s comment that one rarely hears an educated accent north of Watford (The Road to Wigan Pier) brings together two of these elements as expressed by an Old-Etonian Southerner.

As a student I had the misfortune to work in the kitchen of a Pontin’s holiday camp. During a lull in the proceeding which we loosely referred to as ‘cooking’ two of my Liverpudlian colleagues improvised a banner and marched around singing The Sash My Father Wore, an Orange Order marching song. As an East Anglian this Protestant bigotry was entirely alien to my cultural identity, and yet we were all English.

Crises of identities are also nothing new, in the early part of the 20th century there was a belief among opinion formers, including Fabian socialists, that the ‘racial stock’ of the nation was in physical and mental decline. This sense of crisis was in part stimulated by the revelation, at the turn of the 19th century, that 40% of those volunteering for military service were medically unfit. Marie Stopes, the birth-control campaigner was, in part, motivated by a desire to control the excessive fertility of the lower orders.

In the 1980s Baroness Thatcher of Finchley, as she became, promoted the idea that the British were entrepreneurial, individualistic and, after the Falklands conflict, neo-imperialistic. The blighted areas of the old heavy industries did not feature in this presentation. Before Thatcher, Macmillan declared ‘You’ve never had it so good’ conjuring up a late 1950s narrative of consumerist prosperity. Harold Wilson attempted to create a narrative of modernity and youth, a Britain forged in ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. These centrally driven presentations of British identity were always only true for a limited number; the homeless depicted in Cathy Come Home (directed by Ken Loach, 1966) did not dwell amongst the shiny new possessions of consumerist prosperity.

What appears to have happened in our own time, a product of the polarisation over Brexit, is the failure to generate a single overarching notion of national identity. In the absence of a strong central narrative of identity political leaders have opted for Populism. The essence of this approach is not to give leadership, but to give expression to the anger and frustrations that exist within many communities. Populists do not lead, they follow, and they frame slogans that their target audiences can add a multitude of meanings to. ‘Take Back Control’ can mean whatever you want it to. So, as someone once asked: What is to be Done?  It does seem that this is a political issue. Clear political leadership is required by politicians who are not afraid to challenge bigotry and racism, who are not afraid to counter pose reason to the irrationality that seems to be growing around the world. Will it happen? Surely at some point, it must!

Dr Roger Spalding is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Where is the Balance – Democracy in the Lockdown

The arrival of CORVID 19 has changed our annual routines.  Every Spring we know to put the clocks forward, to expect events like the Grand National and the Cup Final and to expect the steady tramp of the political campaigners’ tread.  Because for politicians, May is polling day.  There is always an election somewhere in early May – except of course this year when the Government postponed a whole slew of elections to 2021.  Virus control measures, like social distancing and staying at home were seen as incompatible with public polling stations and crowded counts.

So here the balance was weighed, and after some delay, the Government decided that anti- virus action trumped democracy, or at least allowed democracy to wait a little.

The UK Government’s decision, and those in other places, raise questions about where the balance should be and can be.

One of those keenest for elections to continue this Spring was French President Emmanuel Macron.  France was due for a huge set of local elections.  More complicated than a UK polling day, these contests frequently involve a run-off round.  Citizens usually have to vote twice before any decision is made.  The first round took place despite the lock-down but the second round was then postponed.  Turnout was down with special precautions at polling stations around the country.

In the US we are in that part of the election cycle which sees a whole host of primary contests as part of the Presidential selection.  These are run by individual States or State parties, and we’ve seen many push their polling dates into June or move to absent voting – which usually means by post, except that is in Wisconsin where a bizarre stand- off led to court hearings and a row between the Governor and the State legislature.  At stake was whether and how to run polling day in early April and how to deal with postal votes.  The Republican legislature wanted the date and existing rules to stand.  The Democratic Governor wanted to postpone.  And this being America the judges got drawn in.   The result was few polling places,  slow moving queues of voters wearing facemasks, confusion over the postal vote deadline, and a lower than usual turnout.  One of the pictures of the year will be Jennifer Taff and her home made “This is Ridiculous” placard.   Wisconsin was choosing people for some other roles as well as the Presidential primary, but it is hard to see the urgency of any of them.

Another election to go ahead was the national contest in South Korea in mid-April in which the governing party was relected with in a landslide.  Turnout was up.  The election saw plenty of precautions though including voters’ temperatures being taken. Anyone suspected of being ill voted in a more secluded polling booth which was then sanitised.

In Poland the Governing Law and Justice party is determined that the Presidential election, due on May 10th, goes ahead.  This is not surprising as the party’s candidate, the incumbent Duda, is currently polling at more than 50 per cent with the closest challenger on 10.  Plans to carry on with the election have caused angry scenes in the Polish Parliament as first measures for some postal voting, and then measures for a completely postal vote were pushed through.   There are very real worries about whether, on such a tight timescale, everyone entitled to vote will get a correctly addressed ballot in time to take part.  But that’s not the only problem.  Coronavirus in Poland means public gatherings can’t happen.  And that in turn means parties can’t run their usual campaigns.  This has sparked critical comment at European level, with the Organisation of Cooperation and Security in Europe making a statement shortly after the Polish Parliament vote.  “Genuine elections require an authentic campaign in which voters can hear the programmes and opinions of all candidates in order to make a well-informed choice,” said [i]ODIHR Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. “The current limitations on public gatherings due to the pandemic make campaigning close to impossible. I am concerned that if the presidential election goes ahead under the current circumstances, it may fall short of a number of international standards.”

Approaches to whether or not people should be able to exercise their right to vote depend on the progress of the virus.  But they also depend on political factors.  They also raise the issue of the importance of elections in democracy and the perception of democracy.  It would be hard, having seen the turnouts in some English local elections, to argue that all citizens are losing out.  Most don’t bother to vote.  But those who were dissatisfied with their current representative or their current council administration have lost the chance to say so.  And maybe it is the loss of opportunity that matters, not the way it has been used in the past.  And of course elections focus minds when politicians are making decisions.

The advance of the virus has seen more governments and more administrations take more powers.  For the most part the public have not disagreed.  The crucial test will be how that power, or whether that power, is relinquished and how citizens get back their say and use it.

[i] The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is part of the OSCE.  Its responsibilities include organising Election Observation Missions.

Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.  She also takes part in Election Observation Missions.