An Ethnographic Moral Dilemma?

The presence of injustice, marginalisation and social exclusion has always provided social science researchers with a rich terrain in which to critique society. This is especially true when research contributes to an emancipatory project for those who are subject to such injustice, marginalisation and/or social exclusion.

The ethnographic methodological approach is certainly no stranger to critiquing societal conditions with a view towards human emancipation and the eradication of injustice. However, and as with other approaches within social science research, ethnography can be fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. While most of the moral dilemmas that confront ethnographers tend to centre on researchers being witness to abuse or illegal activities, we also need to consider the moral dilemma of whether a researcher desires an injustice to occur in order take advantage of a research opportunity. This is the very type of dilemma that I – as a researcher – am facing.

Currently, I am in the process of conducting fieldwork in Atlanta, Georgia on undocumented persons who are migrating to the United States from Mexico. As part of the process of gaining access into Atlanta’s Latino community, I have recently applied to volunteer with the Athens-based Freedom University. Established by several academics from the University of Georgia (UGA) in the wake of Georgia’s draconian anti-immigration law, the University is striving to provide a university education to former UGA students who had been expelled due to their status as undocumented persons.

It now appears that my application with the Freedom University is on-hold, pending the disposition of SB 458, which is being considered by the Georgia state senate.  In brief, SB 458, will deny undocumented persons the opportunity to study at any of Georgia’s publicly-funded universities.  As someone who is researching the relationship between the presence of structural violence in a country like Mexico and its effects upon migration to the United States, SB 458 (which would affect mostly Latino students) typifies the kind of structural violence (e.g. the avoidable denial of life chances) encountered by their parents in their country of origin.

The structural violence in their countries of origin could quite possibly have resulted in the emigration of entire families to the United States.  Herein lies this researcher’s dilemma.

On the one hand, the passage of SB 458 would not only be personally abhorrent, its passage would no doubt result in a grave injustice perpetrated on students with precarious legal status, and exacerbate their social exclusion. With these distinct ramifications in mind and its concomitant affect upon the condition of social justice within the state of Georgia, it goes without saying that SB 458 should not be passed by the Georgia senate.

But, on the other hand, the passage of SB 458 and its companion bill, Georgia House Bill 59, would reinvigorate Freedom University’s raison d’être. Moreover, with a renewed relevance of the Freedom University, my application for a volunteer position with its possible access into the Latino community would be greatly enhanced.

Given this moral dilemma, I feel almost ghoulish; a bit like those who watch a F-1 race wishing to witness a crash; or a football fan hoping that a player gets a red card to give their team an advantage.

The ethnography literature does stress the importance of reflexivity; yet, this dilemma may not be resolved by reflexivity in and of itself. The fact that potential research opportunities could come at the expense of injustice is personally problematic.  However, some solace might be found in Michael Burawoy’s contention that participant observation studies of social movements locate them within their political and economic context (Burawoy 1998: 6).  If, in fact, SB 458 is approved by the Georgia senate and becomes law, the purpose of the Freedom University will thrive.

While it remains unclear as to whether the Freedom University accepts my application to work as a volunteer; what is clear is that, to the extent that the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the passage of SB 458 will most likely affect only 300 of the 318,000 students attending Georgia’s publicly funded universities, injustice will most likely rule the day.

Peter S. Cruttenden

Kony 2012: Oversimplification or Advertising Genius?

Below are two responses to the Kony2012 campaign. The first is from a member of staff, and the second is from one of our first year undergraduate students. Let us know what you think.

 

Oversimplification (Eddie Tembo)

I was first asked about the Kony2012 campaign during a seminar on Human Rights and Intervention. I confess: I did not know what my students were talking about. But I did go and check it out. I have a number of reservations about inferences made in the video, some of which have also appeared in the press.

Let’s be clear: the campaign is a marketing ploy. Therefore, it is unsurprising to find some factual inaccuracies. For example, when the video refers to a total of 30,000 child soldiers, it is not overly clear that it is referring to an estimated 30,000 child soldiers over the past quarter century. The current number of soldiers (children and adults) is actually approximately 400. Also, while the campaign implies that the LRA is primarily based in Uganda, it actually appears to be operating in neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The video seemingly misses these points.

An additional issue concerns the presence of U.S. military advisors in Uganda. Deployed last year, there is no threat to the presence of U.S. military advisors in Uganda. President Obama has had nothing but support for their presence. But I am a little confused as to why the video is focusing primarily on U.S. officials as opposed to the African Union (AU), or other heads of African states. The AU has much more sway in the region than the U.S. Furthermore, the transnational nature of the LRA (i.e. the fact they operate in multiple countries) means that an AU or UN force would be more appropriate for a pursuit that may end up crossing multiple borders.

I also have serious reservations regarding the charity, Invisible Children, which is running the campaign. Charity Navigator – an independent evaluator of U.S. charities – has not given Invisible Children a very good rating in a number of areas. This is particularly worrisome as they rate badly in areas related to accountability and transparency.

Last but not least, a sense of proportion is needed. The U.S. cannot intervene everywhere and at the same time. Priorities need to be made. Surely, today’s priority should be Syria? That is where the immediate danger to human life lies. If our focus is on Uganda, then let us remember: the LRA never operated across the whole of the country; the situation with the LRA is far more complicated than the video suggests; and we should also note that, today, far more people die in Uganda from viruses and diseases such as HIV.

 

Advertising Genius (Sam Deaner)

For me, the most interesting aspect of the Kony2012 campaign is not the charity, questions over intervention, but whether the campaign really CAN make a difference. If it can, then the implications are substantial.

I find the manner in which ‘fame’ can be subverted very interesting. It says a lot about our culture. For me, I find the hundreds of articles that are critical of the campaign fascinating but also self-defeating. Whether people rant on blogs, in newspapers or among their peers about how stupid or dangerous the campaign is, they now all know who Joseph Kony is and are helping make him famous. The campaign has beaten them, whether they like it or not. That is the genius aspect: Kony2012 has succeeded in making Kony famous, and no amount of criticism will change that.

Also, it is important that we do not focus only on Kony2012. Cynicism should not stop people from considering the bigger picture. If the campaign gains enough support, will governments across the West begin to see the benefit of intervening in similar issues? Will people more generally be mobilised in greater numbers to make their government take action on topics that lie outside of the core issue agenda? If so, this would not simply be regular lobbying: it would mark the rebirth of ‘power to the people’ politics.

That said, I am not denying that there remain problems with the campaign. I do not like the idea that America is going to ‘save the world’. Nor do I like the way that the campaign oversimplifies the situation in Uganda. But, more than anything, it is the public cynicism that I do not like. I do not think that wearing a bracelet, t-shirt or putting up a fancy poster will stop people like Kony. But I do think that the campaign and its attempt to raise awareness through social media could lead to far broader and positive change. This, in my view, is something that we should be excited about.

 

Sam Deaner – First Year Politics and International Relations Student

Eddie Tembo – Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Relations

Art and Revolution

In 1939 the Mexican artist Jesús Escobedo produced a work simply entitled ‘Las clases’ that captured in a single composition the history and imagery of the outcome of the Mexican Revolution. The artist was part of the Liga Pro-Cultura Alemana (whose membership included Hannes Meyer) that was engaged in incorporating the emerging geopolitical conflict of the period into a local context, aiming to combat the spread of fascism in Mexico and facilitate the dissemination of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ was soon incorporated into the political poster ‘Como combatir el fascismo’, advertising the labour leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano as a guest speaker at one of its conferences, with the aim of projecting to the public the unity of the various factions of the Mexican Revolution in the 1930s against reactionary threats. This specific example of socially committed artwork contains four figures standing equally side-by-side and arm-in-arm: the bourgeois, the soldier, the proletarian, and the campesino. The ordering in terms of importance and priority is, perhaps, significant. Equally, the inclusion of neither a female character, nor an indigenous member, in the group, is revealing in terms of assessing ‘Las clases’ as a representative image of Mexico’s post-revolutionary state and society. The significance of this artwork, however, as a window on the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico should not be underestimated.

Concurrent with Leon Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution [1924], ‘the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch’. In microcosm, then, Jesús Escobedo’s depiction of the post-revolutionary Mexican state captures what can be called the paradox of revolution: how conditions of social revolution and popular mobilisation, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), eventuated into new forms of authoritarian rule.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recognised similar situations as instances of what he termed passive revolution meaning processes of revolutionary rupture that become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist processes. Such social conditions, however, are not literally passive but are often violent transformations.

Is this process of revolution in Mexico, then, that paradoxical, especially for post-colonial states that might generally emerge within the context of geopolitical pressures and the uneven and combined expansion of capitalist development? For states in Latin America, commonly confronted with an impasse between contending social forces, or a lack of any established class hegemony, how are the social relations of capitalist development commonly set in train?

My new book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) starts of with this puzzle posed by the artwork of the poster to consider the historical and contemporary construction of the revolution and the modern state in Mexico. It provides a fresh analysis of the Mexican Revolution, the era of import substitution industrialisation, and neoliberal restructuring as well as exploring key processes in the contestation of the modern state, specifically through studies of ideology, democratisation, and spaces of resistance.

As a result, my book aims to show how the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico can be understood best as a form of passive revolution, referring to the ongoing class strategies that have shaped relations between state and civil society, within the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development. As such, my book aims to make an important interdisciplinary contribution to understanding processes of revolution within historical sociology by situating debates on state formation and Latin American studies within wider Marxist currents. In so doing, my contribution is to convincingly contend that passive revolution can become an empirical tool for radical political economy and historical sociological analysis. Significantly, the book also casts out an original argument useful to approaching passive revolutions elsewhere in alternative situations of state formation. Combining insights from across Marxist state debate and historical sociology, I develop an interpretive method in order to facilitate analysis of interrelated instances of passive revolution within world-historical processes, where the particulars of state formation are realised within the general features of capitalist modernity. The book therefore makes an appeal to wider concerns in Marxist historical sociology beyond its own detailed focus on modern state formation in Mexico.

In graphic form, Jesús Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ captures the amalgam of rupture and continuity stemming from the Mexican Revolution, those contradictions at the heart of the condition of passive revolution that unsurprisingly found expression in the art, literature, and architecture of modern Mexico. As the backbone of my book attests, new rounds of contemporary resistance have contested, and are continuing to contest, state power in Mexico. Ways out of the condition of passive revolution, by conceiving and putting into practice new spaces of class struggle, will be central to the course of future development and state formation in Mexico.

Adam David Morton

The Challenge of ‘Hacktivists’ for Political Science

The recent unmasking of the membership of LulzSec by the FBI and pronouncement of the organisation’s leader (Sabu) as a government informant has led to suggestions that LulzSec have been decapitated. Following an international policing operation, the arrest of Sabu (real name Hector Xavier Monsegur) alongside five other alleged co-conspirators has been reported as a significant counter-attack against hacktivism. The importance of this “decapitation” for the wider hacktivist movement has, however, been grossly over-stated by the media and, unsurprisingly, the FBI.

Quite simply, as Topiary (another LulzSec member) tweeted: you cannot arrest an idea.

Undoubtedly LulzSec, and other hacktivists, are ‘ideas’ not structured organisations that can be dispersed or decapitated. They have a potentially limitless membership and extremely fluid parameters of what does and does not fall under their ‘activities’. LulzSec could be immediately reformed with an entirely different membership. Moreover, intertwined hacktivist networks such as Anonymous continue to operate. Anonymous (from which LulzSec originally developed) is a radically decentralised political movement made up of disparate networks of individuals without an overarching organisational structure.

For political science, hacktivist networks present a significant challenge as existing conceptualisations of social movements and activism cannot be applied.  Anonymous pose a challenge to our understanding because they challenge (seemingly) relevant analytic paradigms, such as social movement theory, which assume the existence of a (more-or-less) continuous political programme. Anonymous lacks anything approaching this, other than being hedonistically ‘for the lulz’ – an exhortation to action for its intrinsic comedic properties. The movement – such as it is – lacks almost any degree of ‘holism’; there is essentially no central purpose shared between people who claim to be ‘members’, other than operating in a particular arena ‘for the lulz’.

Indeed, Anonymous exists almost completely without organisation; there are no requirements of membership, nor a list of members. Anonymous exists primarily online, and the actions of the movement are coordinated over the internet. However, Anonymous are not restricted to an online presence; the online coordination of Anonymous can and does lead to actions in the physical world. The objective of the actions of Anonymous as a movement is ‘formally’ described as ‘for the lulz’ (laughs).

Whilst pursuit of comedic outcomes may be the rubric of the movement, the substantive goals of their actions are often to support their conception of freedom. One set of members of Anonymous described their substantive concerns as:

[The] erosion of privacy and fair use, the spread of corporate feudalism, the abuse of power and the justifications of executives and leaders who believe themselves immune personally and financially for the actions they undertake in the name of corporations and public office.

The dynamics of Anonymous – its make-up, purposes and characteristics – could shift, at any time, to such an extent that the existing social movement model would no longer apply. In this sense, Anonymous is not a traditional social movement. Instead, Anonymous is a repository of discrete social movements which emerge in a way which cannot be adequately described by social movement theory.

The core ideas which drove LulzSec, and which remain embodied in Anonymous, can lead to the spontaneous formation of social movements. It is the idea, not specific members that matter. As such the arrests, while politically useful, mean very little.

Deirdre Duffy and Jonathan Rose
Postgraduates, @NottsPolitics

What Should Ed Miliband do?

With numerous voices questioning the ability of Ed Miliband to deliver Labour election success, two undergraduates enrolled in the ‘British Party Politics’ module offer their thoughts.

Three Problems Facing Red Ed

Being the leader of the Labour party against a Tory-led coalition government that is introducing vast cuts should be easy. But Ed Miliband has somehow managed to make the task very difficult.

One would have thought that being the leader of a centre-left party during a period of austerity would naturally draw support from across the electorate. Yet, according to a recent Ipsos-MORI poll, Miliband’s satisfaction ratings (30%) are lower than Cameron’s (40%) and only marginally higher than Clegg’s (28%). How can Miliband reverse his fortunes before the next election?

First, Miliband needs to get Labour supporters onside. According to another Ipsos-MORI poll, Ed’s current satisfaction rating among supporters of his own party is only 44%. To put this in perspective, Tony Blair’s ratings never fell this low, while Gordon Brown’s only sunk to this level during the height of the financial crisis. Importantly, Miliband’s ratings contrast sharply with those of Cameron, who is currently soaring among Conservative Party supporters at 79%. Miliband’s first priority should be to get the Labour faithful back on side. While he took the first step by attacking Cameron on his shambolic NHS reforms, such successes have been few and far between.

This leads us to his second problem: the absence of a clear vision. Cameron is clearly aware of this, for example reading out Alex Hilton’s post on Labour List during PMQs: “My problem is that you are not a leader. You are not articulating a vision or a destination, you’re not clearly identifying a course and no-one’s following you.” Nobody knows where Labour stands on cuts. Do they support the Tories as Miliband suggested in his interview with Andrew Marr, or are they opposed to them as his performances at PMQs would suggest? What is Labour’s alternative to the health reforms?  What exactly would they do to the banks? Ed needs to find a way to present Labour as a genuine and responsible alternative to the Tories. The NHS seems like the best place to start.

Third, Miliband needs to find a way to reinvent the New Labour brand, continuing the work of his predecessors while not associating himself with past Labour governments. The New Labour project was hugely popular, but after three terms in office it (inevitably?) ran out of steam. Meanwhile, reverting to ‘old’ Labour will only push the party back into the wilderness. Somehow, Ed needs to make the party his own. The idea of responsible capitalism was a good way forward, but he has failed to build on this. To become the next Prime Minister, Ed needs a lot more of this.

Thomas Wheatley – 2nd Year Undergraduate studying for a BA in Politics

 

Emphasise Policy, Not Image

At the 2010 general election, Labour appeared detached from its roots, narrowly avoiding humiliating defeat by drawing into its heartlands. Some argued that 13 years of ‘New Labour’ had rendered the divide between Labour and Conservatives meaningless. Against this backdrop, one reason why Ed Miliband was elected leader of Labour was because he seemed to offer a distinct shift away from the exhausted and outdated concept of New Labour.

Yet the direction in which Miliband is now leading the party remains unclear, which is raising doubts about his credibility to lead Labour to victory at the next general election.

In many ways, Ed has begun to make a stance by speaking out against the coalition and challenging the bankers’ bonus culture. Yet this is not enough. Ed must assert himself and become more robust in order to take on potentially challenging elements within his own party.

Labour leaders have often faced this challenge. For Kinnock, it was the Militants. For Blair, it was Leftist members and Clause IV. Though initially dividing the party, these moves ultimately helped Labour connect with a wider British public.

Ed faces a different battle: a Blairite rump that remains in the party and continues to cause mischief, whether expressed in rumours of leadership coups or insisting on financial rectitude. But ‘cautious Ed’ is yet to make even the faintest sound against these challengers.

There is no doubt that Ed is a staunch socialist. However, he appears to have merely assimilated himself in the party’s existing structures so as to avoid any upset. Kinnock and even more-so Blair grabbed Labour by its roots, downplayed its legacy of socialist and economic failure and led it down a definite route of modernisation in order to connect with a wider coalition of voters. Yet 18 months into his leadership, Ed is yet to express any coherent strategy. As a result, ambiguities remain. Is he a Labour unifier? A Labour moderniser? Or neither?

Unlike past leaders, Miliband recognises that a future Labour Government may have to significantly cut back on public expenditure and utilise resources more imaginatively. He also appears committed, has advocated that his leadership will evolve and is reluctant to allow a lack of strategy or parliamentary blunders to tarnish his determination.

This current stance resembles that of earlier leader John Smith (1992-4), whose legacy is not easy to identify given the Blair leadership that followed. Smith was a moderniser, but his premature death in 1994 cleared the way for Blair to completely overhaul the Labour Party. Like Ed, Smith was prudent and appeared fearful of unnecessary objections, both internally and publically. Smith’s fundamental opinion was that party modernisation is not a state-of-being, it must instead be a progressive movement mastered by the aid of time.

Many feel that the problem with Ed is simply that he lacks the ‘Blair-esque’ charisma needed to inspire the electorate, and this weakness has meant he lacks the resoluteness to assert his own ideological vision. But, arguably, the main reason that Ed was voted in was because of his disassociation from Blair and New Labour. Ed must not listen to the siren voice of Blairites and think that performance and perception is all. He has already tapped into the national mood on Murdoch and big business, and rightly argues that the substantive content of policy should preside over image. For Labour, there is no turning back and there is no other alternative.

Labour needs a new direction which Ed can deliver through a clear socialist policy agenda. He might not be instantly popular, but by remaining committed to his principles he can become an evolutionary Labour Leader with Prime-ministerial credentials.

 

Charlotte Butterick – 2nd Year Undergraduate on ‘British Party Politics’

Polling Observatory #12: Impact of the NHS Reforms?

This is the twelfth of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls.

By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it.

British politics in February has been dominated by debates over the Coalition government’s proposed NHS reforms, which have attracted furious opposition from many groups within the NHS. Such opposition was probably expected by Cameron and his health minister, Andrew Lansley. More surprising was the intervention by ConservativeHome.com editor Tim Montgomerie, who argued in a widely read editorial that an unpopular NHS bill could cost the Conservatives the next election. In his article, Montgomerie focuses on the long term impact of the reforms, but we may wonder if a month of media dominated by attacks on the proposed reforms have depressed support for the Coalition. Several commentators have pointed to shifts in individual polls to claim the Conservatives are being hurt by the NHS, but often such small shifts simply reflect random variation.

Our aggregate polling estimate brings together all the polling information, and provides a more reliable guide.

We find some limited evidence that the protracted debate is exacting a toll in polling. We estimate Conservative support at 37.2% at the end of February 2012, down 0.5 points from last month. The Liberal Democrats are also down, by 0.4 points to 8.2%.  However, these estimates place both parties pretty much back where they were in late autumn, so it is too soon to tell if this is the start of a decline in Coalition support rather than a reversion to a previous equilibrium. A plausible alternative story in the Conservative case is the waning of any polling “bump” from Cameron’s veto of the new EU treaty proposal in December. There is also no evidence of any gain for Labour from the past month’s events, in fact they are also down 0.6 points to 37.2%.

The main winners from February would thus seem to be minor parties or “none of the above”. We do not currently estimate minor parties’ vote shares, so we do not know which, if any, are currently gaining. In future months we will examine this issue is a consistent trend becomes apparent.

 

Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

Have French Twenty-Somethings Deserted Hollande?

Much has been made in recent days of Nicolas Sarkozy overtaking François Hollande for the first time in polling for the first round of the French presidentials. This symbolic croisement may or may not reflect a change in Sarkozy’s fortunes and the first step towards an historic electoral turnaround. It certainly reflects a trend to date found only in the IFOP polls, well within the margin of error and not replicated in the second round polls, which still all give Hollande a clear if reduced victory. This campaign key moment has overshadowed a potentially more interesting – and troubling – polling phenomenon overlooked by most of the press.

On 14 March, the French press reported that an IFOP poll of les primo-votants – first-time voters – put François Hollande way out in front, with 31% of vote intentions, followed by Marine Le Pen (23%) and Nicolas Sarkozy (21%). The same day, a CSA poll carried out amongst those in the 18-30 age category concluded that Hollande was out of step with the young electorate, managing only 18% of this group, against 26% for Le Pen and 25% for Sarkozy. On Monday evening, amongst 18-24 year olds, an ostensibly earlier IFOP poll had 27% for Hollande, 26% for Sarkozy and 16% for Le Pen.

 

 

IFOP, 14 March

(18-22 years old)

CSA, 12-13 March

(18-30 years old)

IFOP, 11-12 March

(18-24 years old)

Hollande

31

18

27

Sarkozy

21

25

26

Le Pen

23

26

16

 

First, a note on the respective methods, as reported by the polling institutes. The CSA poll was a national sample of 861 over-18s interviewed by telephone; the earlier IFOP poll a similar national sample, but about twice the size – 1638 respondents – carried out online. The IFOP poll reported on 14 March was from a restricted sample of 805 18-22 year olds, carried out both online and by telephone. First point of interest: according to the fiche technique, this had been carried out between 22 and 28 February – some three weeks prior to the other two polls. Reporting this lead of Hollande’s as ‘current’ was thus somewhat misleading on the part of the French press, none of which gave the dates of the survey.

Even so, a plunge of 13% in even three weeks is a remarkable drop for any candidate, especially given the interim poll by IFOP still placed Hollande at 27%, a mere two days before the CSA raz-de-marée. A possible conjecture would be that the differing age bands are responsible. IFOP’s first survey (the one reported second) looks only at those voters who were ineligible in the 2007 election. The second survey (reported first) extends this to 24 year olds, and the CSA sample includes a further six years – roughly, those voters who were in the 18-24 band in the 2007 election. On that basis, then, if samples are representative and we accept the IFOP figure of 27% as accurate within the bounds of expected error, the 25-30 age group needs to account by itself for most of a 9% swing against Hollande.

This in itself is staggering.

According to the Panel Electoral Français[1], in 2007 the youngest age group (18-24) split 22% for Nicolas Sarkozy, 31% for Ségolène Royal. A group which reflected a higher level of support for a Left-wing candidate five years before has now moved sufficiently away from that candidate to offset new voters to a point well below that of a Right-wing candidate noted at the time for his lack of support amongst the young. Looking at the 2010 French census data and assuming a stable proportion of 1 to 1 for 25-30 years olds and 18-24 year olds, if the 27% figure published by IFOP on 12 March is accurate, then the 25-30 year old group can only support Hollande at around 9% – between three and four times less than support for the less popular Royal in 2007.

This is way below even what a minor candidate like François Bayrou polled in 2002, let alone 2007, amongst the youngest age group.

Admittedly, the category banding introduces a year’s overlap on our calculations, margins of error will mean that the contrast is not as stark as this – a point which newspapers would do well to take into account when heralding the historic croisement – and given the much earlier date of the primo-votant IFOP poll, Hollande’s polling scores will certainly have fallen among some if not all age groups. Furthermore, as Anne Muxel has pointed out, the youngest voters in France apparently represent a new group of independent, non-partisan voters who, even by the standards of unstable first-time voters, are protean in their choice and their stability.

Nevertheless, for polls proclaiming to be representative, the sheer size of the disparities on display beggars belief, whatever the group dynamics of younger voters. Can a five-year gap really produce such a change in support for the mainstream Left, particularly in a period which has seen high levels of support for that candidate? Moreover, is it reasonable to believe an 18-point differential between two adjacent age-groups? However, as we have noted before, until French polling institutes are more open about their sampling and sample corrections, it is impossible to work out what is a true dynamic within the population and what is merely artefact. Fundamentally, is IFOP too high or CSA too low?

If polling institutes wish their data to be taken seriously, they must be willing to acknowledge and try to explain such disparities. In an interview with leJDD.fr after their infamous poll hypothesising Marine Le Pen’s absence from the first round, Frédéric Dabi, IFOP deputy-director, explained that “We are not here to provide a service or to create information. We are here to reflect the state of public opinion.” The reflections currently on offer are reminiscent of a hall of mirrors.

 

Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi, 500 Signatures



[1] Reported in P. Perrineau (ed). Le vote de rupture. Les élections présidentielle et législatives d’avril-juin 2007, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, p. 160.

Why We Need A Select Committee Public Appointment Veto

For the second time in Select Committee history, a Government Minister has ignored the rejection of a Committee of a public appointment candidate and continued to support their appointee. This is the impetus that should allow a veto of public appointments by all Select Committees.

The House of Commons departmental Select Committees have the obligation to scrutinise candidates put forward by Government ministers for public appointments. Through pre-appointment hearings, they ask prospective candidates for very influential positions, such as Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights as well as many others, question on their eligibility, experience and plans if given the role. All of this seems rather rudimentary work of a Select Committee. After almost all of these pre-appointment hearings, the Committee will endorse the candidate and there will not be any complaints. However, there is a large influence on the word ‘almost’ used in the last sentence.

As of last week, there have only been two occasions when the Select Committees in question have not endorsed the candidate put forward but on both occasions the Minister has continued to support their candidate. The first of these was in October 2009 when the Children, Schools and Families Committee refused to endorse Ed Balls candidate for Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, who stated ‘we would have liked to have seen determination to assert the independence of the role… and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular, by championing children’s rights’. The second of these came more recently when the Business, Innovations and Skills Committee rejected Vince Cable’s submission of Prof. Les Ebdon for the post of Chair of the Office for Fair Access, or the University tsar as some tabloids have referred to it. Despite this rejection, Prof. Ebdon will probably get the job, as Maggie Atkison did in 2009, because the Ministers have the final say on whether they do.

Why is this important? Well, it is not possible for Select Committees to scrutinise candidates effectively if they know that if they reject a candidate, the Minister in question will simply ignore their recommendation. The politically impartial body of Parliament resides in the Select Committees and they are scrutinising politically chosen appointees for politically influential positions. And yet the impartialness of the Select Committees has no guarantee that they will be listened too, because in 100% of occasions when they have rejected candidates in the past, the committee rulings have meant nothing.

In a case study written for the Parliament in the UK module offered by @NottsPolitics, I argued for the power of a veto over candidates should be given to Select Committees in order for them to effectively scrutinise candidates. The veto gives the final say to the Committee rather than the Minister who has an obligation to his party. The power of a veto is not a complete phenomenon. In fact it has already been given to one Select Committee, the Treasury Committee. George Osborne allowed the Committee the power to veto a very limited number of positions in the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. This has never been used, however.

There are many reasons why only one Committee having a veto power is potentially problematic. The main being that giving certain powers to a limited amount of Committees creates a hierarchy between them. The Treasury Committee can be seen a “more” powerful than the others, because it has the power of the veto. Those without it may be seen as less influential and therefore less significant.  Ideally, all Select Committees would have that power and be able to use it if and when it is necessary, ending the current hierarchy and ending the possibility for the ruling of Committee to be ignored by Government.

The debate could go on for pages and pages. However, this issue is one that could prove more problematic as more occurrences of this kind happen. If there are more times when a Select Committee does not endorse a recommendation for a public appointment and the Minister appoints the candidate anyway, the argument for the veto power will only get stronger. It may only have happened twice, but there is nothing stopping it from happening many more times. If the Select Committees are supposed to scrutinise, they should be given all the tools necessary in order to scrutinise effectively, without worrying that the Minister in charge will simply ignore their decisions.

 

Thomas Sherrington,

Module: Parliament and the UK

Third Year, Politics BA,

What have we learned since Breivik?

One month from now, the trial of Anders Behring Breivik will begin. Aside from sparking a vigorous debate in Norway over the mental state of Breivik, the case has also prompted an upsurge of interest in the underlying causes and perpetrators of right-wing extremist violence. In the UK, the events on July 22 2011 prompted a Home Affairs Committee on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation to devote greater attention to a form of extremism that, as the Committee noted, has often only been paid ‘lip service’ . Elsewhere in Europe, commentators and policy makers have paused to ask whether governments have established the right balance in their approach to tackling violent extremisms.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I contributed to various debates and workshops about the current ‘threat’ from right-wing extremist violence and terrorism. In fact, only one month prior to the attacks I had pointed to the growing significance of lone-wolf activism within the European extreme right, and warned of the potential for violence from within this movement (later elaborating on these thoughts in an interview with the Economist).

So, since Norway what have we learned about this particular form of violent extremism, and the accompanying evidence base? There are three pieces of work that I have been involved in since the attacks, and each speaks to this question.

First, as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, for much of the past ten years we have focused mainly on addressing the challenge from al-Qaeda or ‘AQ’-inspired terrorism. This has spawned a rapidly expanding academic literature that has mainly sought to identify the factors that ‘push and pull’ some citizens (though mainly those within settled Muslim communities) into a spiral of violent radicalization. Yet in stark contrast, while our own studies have shed light on electoral support for right-wing extremist political parties, such as the British National Party (BNP), there remains a distinct lack of systematic, comparative and longitudinal research on the causes and perpetrators of right-wing extremist violence and/or terrorism.

Second, the inadequacy of this evidence base became further apparent when I was asked by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) to write a report on the state of knowledge across Europe more widely. The findings were later presented to an audience of policy makers and academics. As I concluded, while any form of clandestine activity is notoriously difficult to study with any degree of accuracy, we know relatively little about the causes and drivers of this form of violent extremism. While the evidence points toward some tentative conclusions (for example that most perpetrators tend to be young men with low education levels and who often lack a broader ideological worldview), much of this work has largely failed to provide a convincing account as to why some citizens engage in this form of exclusionary behaviour (or why other citizens with a similar profile and set of grievances do not).

Furthermore, beyond speculation and popular debate, the reality is that we actually know very little about the relationship (if one even exists) between violent and non-violent forms of right-wing extremism. Several important questions remain unanswered: is there a continuous spectrum from one to the other? Do violent movements rely on nonviolent groups to ‘set the scene’ for their actions? Or, does the presence of radical right political parties in power divert support from violent movements? Are there practical connections between them? And how do new technologies impact on the operations of both?

Third, against this backdrop and in collaboration with Professor Jocelyn Evans at the University of Salford, we launched an exploratory study into the views of far right supporters toward violence and armed conflict. In essence, this marks the ‘first step’ into a corner of right-wing extremism that has remained in the dark for too long. Drawing on a survey of over 2,000 citizens, we were able for the first time to probe the views of a large sample of far right supporters toward the perceived necessity and inevitability of violence. We found significant numbers of self-identified BNP supporters in our sample considered preparing for conflict and engaging in armed conflict to be justifiable courses of action. Moreover, significant numbers appeared committed to the view that violence will be needed to defend their wider group from threats, and that violence between different ethnic, racial or religious groups in Britain is largely inevitable. The results received widespread attention, appearing in the Guardian, Spectator, Channel 4 and New Statesman.

Clearly, in research terms we have only begun to shed light on this oft-neglected challenge. Comparing these responses to a wider nationally representative sample is the next step, while further quantitative and qualitative work will explore these attitudes more closely. Moreover, the factors that might ‘trip’ some of these supporters into actual violence are yet to be investigated.

Nonetheless, since the attacks in Norway last July, there appears to have emerged a consensus that more needs to be known about right-wing extremist violence and terrorism, and so there have emerged important questions. Over the next six months, and as the actions and trial of Anders Breivik begin to slip from public memory, it will be up to social scientists to begin providing answers to these questions.

Matthew Goodwin