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.