Immigration and Identity: An Open Letter to Labour

Over at Policy Network, Dr Matt Goodwin has written a letter to the Labour Party that speaks to the current debate about immigration and identity politics. The post follows a recent event at the think-tank, and forms part of its new project on ‘populism, extremism and the mainstream’ (co-funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust).

You can read the essay here.

Is David Cameron really as bad as Paul McCartney’s Wings?

As we all know, in his early days as Conservative leader David Cameron let it be known that he saw himself as the ‘heir to Blair’.

Cameron’s presentational style and approach to the media remains very Blair-like – although he seems to have gone from early (popular) Blair to late (‘when did he say he was stepping down?’) Blair remarkably quickly.

Inspired by that thought, on a dull Bank Holiday morning I Tweeted the above message. I posted the results on my personal blog.

Steven Fielding


Obama and the DREAMERs: A Desperate, but Possibly Humane Policy

On 15 June 2012, President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would take steps in order to “cease” deportations of undocumented young people that were brought to the United States by their undocumented parents from countries such as Mexico. Obama’s pronouncement would “protect” undocumented young people that arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday, are currently 31 years old or younger and have not committed a felony. Within the U.S. Latino community, these undocumented young people are referred to as “the DREAMERs,” since such undocumented persons were suppose to be the beneficiaries of the U.S. Dream Act.  In the light of the legislation’s various failures to pass through the U.S. Congress, the DREAMERs courageously press citizenship claims by declaring themselves as: “undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.”

With his recent pronouncement, Obama has been criticised from virtually every actor involved in the issue. His critics in the U.S. Congress have charged that he is “bypassing the Congress.”  While this critique is accurate, Obama has constantly bypassed the U.S. Congress regarding his policy toward drone strikes, to which Congress’ inaction to enforce the War Powers Resolution, makes them complicit in what has become a very dangerous policy.

His announcement has also been criticised by conservatives as “pandering to Hispanics,” whereby Republicans refer to his pronouncement as a desperate and cynical political move in order to galvanised the Latino vote for his re-election campaign. Once again, this may be a valid point; however, all politics in the countries with representative forms of government, involve pandering to one faction or another. For example, is it possible to speculate that the change in the U.K. Border Agency’s guidelines for the issuance of Tier 4 visas to international students that now require a monthly living maintenance of £800 (an increase of £200 from the previous monthly maintenance requirement of £600) as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s pandering to the growing anti-immigration sentiment within the U.K? Or can one claim that the anti-pubic sector policies of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker pander to the class project envisaged by Tea Party billionaire bankrollers like the Koch Brothers?  In short, there are very few, if any, political decisions that constitute a “win-win” situation for all actors.

Moreover, Obama’s pronouncement on the perceived cessation of deportations is very much consistent with the position taken by Marco Rubio, the U.S. Senator from Florida and Tea Party favourite, whose name has been touted as a possible running mate to presumptive Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. While Obama possibly out-maneuvered Romney, there is no doubt Obama is desperately attempting to regain a demographic constituency that he, over the course of his presidency, has alienated due to a record number of deportations of primarily Latinos, back to their country of origin. No matter how humane his pronouncement is, Obama has disingenuously benefited from the Republican Party’s anti-immigration discourse and policies, by challenging the more draconian aspects of these laws (for example, the racial profiling aspects of the Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and Utah state statutes),* while at the same time, deporting a record number of persons, including DREAMERs, back to their country of origin.  In the words of one Atlanta DREAMER activist, the Latino community is “tired of being played.”

To that end, the DREAMERs (via their posts on social media) are skeptical of Obama’s pronouncement.  They correctly argue that Obama has not actually issued an executive order ceasing deportations. In fact, irrespective of Obama’s announcement, deportations can continue. One group, the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA) have posted Facebook notices from other U.S. based undocumented youth organizations which caution that providing information to the U.S. government in order to secure work permits, could in fact, facilitate deportation proceedings.

For their part, the DREAMERs have the most to gain and certainly the most to lose in wake of Obama’s announcement.  Unlike their parents who do not raise citizenship claims, but struggle for the right to live and work in [the United States], (Munk, Schierup and Delgado Wise, 2012), such undocumented youth organise and agitate for nothing short of a path to citizenship as contemplated by the U.S. Dream Act.

Several members of GUYA that I have met and spoken with, have little or no recollection of México given they were brought to Georgia when they were small children. They have grown resentful, yet passionate about their being criminalised for decisions made for them by others while they were very young; and for which they had no control over. Like radical civil rights activists of the 1960s, such as SNCC, DREAMERs have mentioned to me that their “shame” has crystallized into a resolve to seek U.S. citizenship. They feel “American” in every sense of the word other than their formal legal status.

Furthermore, lost in the discussion in the wake of Obama’s announcement, was the fact that DREAMERs engaged in direct actions of resistance to protest deportations.  In the week prior to Obama’s 15 June remarks, no less than four of Obama’s campaign offices (Denver, Dearborn Michigan, Oakland and Atlanta) were occupied by DREAMER activists. In the Denver case, the undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic, staged a seven day occupation and hunger strike. The timing of these effective acts of resistance and Obama’s announcement cannot be overlooked nor dismissed.

While Obama’s perceived shift in deportations is certainly political, possibly cynical; yet, it is nonetheless a humane change in a policy which has, at best caused persistent fear in Latino communities throughout the U.S. and at worse, shattered families. With that said, the absence of courage demonstrated by Obama in not issuing an executive order to cease all deportations of eligible DREAMERs, has been met with skepticism and mistrust by the very people Obama contends he wants to aid.  And to show that skepticism and mistrust by undocumented Latino youth is warranted, within eight hours of Obama’s announcement, GUYA posted a notice on its Facebook page that the local police had constructed a road block on Buford Highway, the heart of Atlanta’s Latino community, in order to stop and detain anyone driving without a valid license. A situation that exacerbates the structural violence inherent in Atlanta’s poor public transportation system ultimately underpinned by metro Atlanta’s lack of will to improve it.

While the Congress contends that Obama bypassed them, at the end of the day, it seems that the local police in the Atlanta area have bypassed the President of the United States under the guise of enforcing U.S. immigration laws. The only true courage displayed in this turn of events has been exhibited by the most vulnerable.


*On 25 June, 2012, the U. S. Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision upheld the racial profiling provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070.


Peter S. Cruttenden

Defending not Defunding the Public University

Further and higher education in the UK is under attack. Neoliberal restructuring has reached colleges and universities across the country. University tuition fees have been increased by up to £9,000 per year and education has increasingly become a commodity to be purchased on the market. Not everyone has, however, accepted this outcome as Prof. Andreas Bieler and Dr. Adam David Morton argue.

On 15 June, 2012 lecturers from across the various disciplines and from locations throughout the UK met at the University of Nottingham in the workshop For a Public University, organised by the local UCU association and supported by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), the Centre for Research in Higher, Adult & Vocational Education (HAVE), and the International Political Economy Group (IPEG) to discuss how best to organise resistance and to debate alternatives.

The transformation of higher education in the UK is at full speed. The cuts in government funding and the simultaneous increase in tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year have dramatic implications. While universities emphasise the need to attract private finance, students are pushed towards courses with direct employment possibilities. At the same time, employers ask for closer co-operation with universities not only in relation to research but also in terms of the development of teaching curricula. The main focus is clear: education should be directed towards business interests in order to strengthen the UK economy.

One outcome is that higher education is increasingly commodified as universities exist in the shadow of the market, as Gillian Blease depicts in the accompanying illustration ‘Pencils’. The space for critical thinking about society has been eroded, substituting students’ ability-to-learn for consumers’ ability-to-pay. Academics have themselves become subject to the charge of irrelevance unless direct policy-impact is embraced. The critical theoretician is cast adrift as indolent and idle in the race to inform statesmen, to become prophets for science, to make profits for business.

Without collapsing into nostalgia for some non-existent ‘Golden Age’, the workshop was kick-started by two panels. The first was on Pedagogy and Knowledge with two joint presentations, from Sarah Amsler (Lincoln University) and Sara Motta (University of Nottingham) and Gurnam Singh (Coventry University) and Stephen Cowden (Coventry University). The second panel was on Restructuring and Marketisation with papers from Andy McGettigan (a freelance journalist on critical education) and Susan L. Robertson (Bristol University).

The devaluation and overwork of the academic was the focus in the joint paper by Sarah Amsler and Sara Motta but they set this within the context of the erasure of difference (race, gender, and class) within the neoliberal space of the university. Their stirring feminist critique revealed how ‘academic mothers’ and ‘academic others’ are excluded, made invisible, and marginalised in the spaces of today’s universities. Instead, they seek to rupture marketised education by aiming to bring the different experiences of joy, laughter, and play back into the classroom, as the posts on the Beautiful Transgressions blog site also reveal. The impoverishment of the student experience at the level of pedagogy was then the focus of Gurnam Singh and Stephen Cowden. Consumerist pedagogy has become increasingly dominant in recent years, which socialises students into treating knowledge as an expendable commodity with a shelf life. Instead, problem-posing education was advocated based on the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire in which students are pushed, challenged, and provoked. For Freire, critical pedagogy means that ‘the teacher is no longer the one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach’.

The world of university finance was exposed by Andy McGettigan in which new forms of capital were analysed that are underwriting and reshaping higher education. Specifically, an overview of bond issues by British universities was presented. Bonds are a form of borrowing for large capital projects (new buildings and infrastructure), fixed over periods as long as 50 years, on the basis of which the lender receives an annual interest payment, or coupon, and at the end the original sum is repaid.The University of Cambridge has been considering what would be the largest bond issue ever from an English University at £300 million and universities such as Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, York, and Lancaster have issued bonds to private investors. As McGettigan reports, one result is that Standard & Poor’s have provided Lancaster, Bristol, Nottingham, King’s College London, Sheffield and others with investment grade credit ratings. Another consequence is that the university sector may well be on the edge of a flood of this type of borrowing that on such a scale would come with clear strings attached.

Closing the morning session, Susan Robertson revealed three clear logics shaping higher education: (1) the logic of neoliberal globalisation that is bringing about changes in the constitutions of states across the world; (2) the logic of comparative competitiveness based on the supposed ‘first mover’ advantages of universities establishing, for example, branch campuses around the world; and (3) the logic of competitive comparison based on attachment to and obsession with world university rankings in league tables. As also revealed on her blog site GlobalHigherEd, Susan Robertson discussed mechanisms of power within these logics that include a temporal dimension (in terms of the frequency of rankings) and a scalar dimension (in terms of the heightened number of ranking exercises). Reclaiming the agenda therefore entails proposing more democratic and emancipatory reform of the university in the twenty-first century, as argued by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

The final panel – Contested Visions of the Public University – was then dedicated to discussing potential alternatives to commodified education. Joyce Canaan (Birmingham City University) pointed out that there are ways forward within universities as well as outside. There is still space, she asserted, to pursue a course of critical education in university settings, combining classroom activity with critical outside engagement. There is a clear need to resist fatalism, especially considering that we often push against open doors, when we try to engage students. This is no more the case than in Scotland, as Terry Brotherstone (President of UCU Scotland) indicated. Key social educational institutions had always been separate from England and it should be no surprise that universities played a strong role in the emphasis on democracy in Scotland from 2009 onwards. A recent report on governance and pay recommended ‘the abolition of bonuses for principals and an end to pay rises above average awards given to all staff . . . staff and students should be represented on remuneration committees and calls for an investigation into whether university leaders should be included in the rigid grading systems that determine the pay of most academics’ (see the Guardian17 February 2012). Once implemented in Scotland, English universities may find it difficult to resist similar calls for more accountability of Vice Chancellors and senior university management more generally.

Outside universities, Joyce Canaan pointed to a range of current initiatives including the Free University of Liverpool, the Tent City University of the Occupy London movement, as well as the Social Science Centre, Lincoln based on the co-operative model. Andreas Wittel (Nottingham Trent University) in his paper questioned whether Higher Education can ever become a true commons, since it would inevitably require ‘free’ academic labour, whether it is based largely on online resources or placed more locally, as in the above examples. Ultimately, workshop participants concluded, it will be important that struggle both inside and outside formal higher education institutions is waged in order to push back the drive for commodified education.

That these struggles are not new was made clear in the presentation by John Holford (University of Nottingham). There was already a struggle to open up universities to members of the working class during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries involving people such as Harold Laski. At that time, internal critics of universities discussed with external reformers, while others advocated the setting up of radical alternatives, separate from existing universities. Ultimately, it was these struggles that pushed for mass higher education, which made university education available as a public good to increasingly large parts of society.

There is no reason why such a movement could not succeed again.


Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton

Back of the Net!

Follow our particular coverage of the Euro 2012 tournament here.

‘You cannot compare football and politics’, said the Greek player Georgios Samaras the other day.  Still, we thought we’d give it a try.

For the last two weeks, we’ve been tweeting a series of Euro2012 tweets, mixing up football and politics.  How well were Euro countries doing against non-Euro countries?  Or constitutional monarchies against republics?  Which country had the largest Parliament?  Which games pitted unicameral against bicameral parliaments?

Most people got that it was a bit of fun, and we had lots of positive tweets back.  Every now and again someone took it all rather literally: ‘What difference will that make? It’s a football match’.  Well, thanks, we did kinda know that…

Anyone who’s read the brilliant Soccernomics, however, will know that some factors do matter.

Just as in Soccernomics, it was no surprise to discover that population size and GDP were both good predictors of a country’s footballing success.  Population size and points achieved in the first three matches – those of the group stages – correlated at 0.36; GDP and points correlated at 0.55. Or, for those who don’t like correlation coefficients, here’s another way to look at it: of the countries with a population of below 30 million, five are out, just three remain; of the countries with a population of above 30 million, five are in, just three are out.  Similarly, of the countries with GDP of above $1,000,000,000,000, five are still in, only one is out.  Of those with a lower GDP, just three are still in, seven are out.

Our other, more political, criteria proved less successful as predictors of success.  Despite initially struggling (it took five matches until a Euro Country beat a non-Euro one), by the time all the group games had been played, the Euro countries had managed 1.5 points per game (ppg), those outside 1.3 ppg.  And we found similarly small, or non-existent, differences when we compared constitutional monarchies (1.3 ppg) vs republics (1.4 ppg), or former communist countries with those from the West (1.4 ppg each) (we split Germany 50/50).

Countries with bicameral parliaments (1.5 ppg) marginally outperformed those with unicameral parliaments (1.3 ppg), although given that that bicameralism is a proxy for population size – larger countries being more likely to have bicameral parliaments – we expected a larger effect, if anything.  (Similarly, the size of a country’s Parliament – another proxy for population size – and its points in the group stages correlated at 0.49).  Former Imperial Powers (1.8 ppg), however, outperformed non-Imperial Powers (1.0 ppg).

The currently very fashionable spirit level thesis – crudely put, that things are better the more equal a country is – provided absolutely useless at predicting anything (a correlation between the Gini coefficient of income equality and points of just -0.08).  Praying doesn’t seem to help either: the correlation between a country’s belief in God and points in the group games was an even more feeble-0.03.  (For the record: Catholic countries:1.5 ppg; Protestant countries 1.3 ppg; Orthodox countries: 1.2 ppg).

Similarly, whilst tweets about the percentage of women in a country’s Parliament proved popular (when Ukraine played Sweden, for example, it pitted the country with largest percentage of female parliamentarians against the one with the lowest percentage) there was overall no relationship between the feminisation of a parliament and a country’s success at football (a correlation of just 0.06).  Ditto for variables like the country’s Transparency International Index (just -0.10), or its Freedom House Score (-0.02), or its Press Freedom Index Score (0.03).  You can be as corrupt as you like and it won’t make an impact on the football pitch.

And whilst there is something lovely about the fact that the country that spends the lowest percentage of GDP on defence (Ireland) was also the country that conceded most goals (the correlation between Goal Difference and GDP on defence was 0.30, or about as important as population size), we doubt very much any attempt to establish a Military Industrial Football Complex is going to work.

But here’s a thing.  There has been a relationship so far between a country’s age of consent and its success in the tournament so far.  The correlation between age of consent and points is -0.54, effectively the same strength of relationship as GDP, and negative, meaning that the lower a country’s age of consent, the better it has done.  Of the countries with ages of consent of 16 or 17, four are out, just two remain.  Of those with ages of 13 to 15, six remain, four are out. It’s obviously spurious (or at least we assume so?), but we’ve no idea what’s causing it.  Ideas below, please.

And so onto the next seven games… It is now an entirely EU affair, with all but two of the eight remaining countries also being in the Euro.  The first Quarter-Final pits a unicameral parliament against a bicameral one, an ex-communist country against one from the West, one of just two non-Euro countries against a Euro country, and the country with the (joint) highest belief in God of the 16 against the one with the lowest belief in God.  And, on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, none of that should matter at all…

Philip Cowley

N.B. You can now see all the Euro 2012 tweets on our Storify account.

Transcend the Electoral Conjuncture

As the grandees of the transnational capitalist class of the G20 prepared to meet in the municipality of Los Cabos in the Mexican state of Baja Califonia Sur to discuss global economic crisis, a rather different VIP came to address students, academics, and activists in Mexico. This was the figure of Camila Vallejo, Vice President of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (FECh) and also a member of the youth arm of the Communist Party of Chile, the Juventudes Comunistas de Chile (JJCC). Addressing audiences gathered at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) – Xochimilco and elsewhere in Mexico City, Camila Vallejo has provided a significant moment to reflect further on the struggles led by student movements in Chile, Mexico, and throughout Latin America, as also detailed on my personal blog site.

It should be recalled that across 2011 to 2012 massive student-led protests in Chile, dubbed the ‘Chilean Winter’ (in particular reference to the massive protests of August 2011), were conducted. These were based on the demand for a new framework for education in Chile. More direct state participation in secondary education was sought as well as an end to the existence of profit in higher education. As a result, Vallejo was catapulted to the centre stage of these protests in Chile that have ‘presided over the biggest citizen democracy movement since the days of opposition marches to General Augusto Pinochet a generation ago’, according to the Guardian. Yet the conditions of marketisation across higher and further education are just one example of the roll-out of neoliberalism throughout the world. In Chile, as The Economist details, student tuition fees account for 80 percent of spending on higher education; hence the ‘mass popular protest, and the huge public sympathy it aroused, took the centre-right [Renovación Nacional] government of Sebastián Piñera by surprise, leaving it floundering’. The aim of the Chilean students since has been to establish a broader movement drawing in regional protests across Latin America.

At the UAM Xochimilco meeting, Vallejo called for the unity of social movements across Latin America. ‘We claim our history’, she stated, ‘We are heirs to many other generations who fought for full democracy’, as reported in La Jornada. At subsequent public meetings, held at the Monument to the Revolution and the Zócalo in Mexico City, Vallejo also called on the YoSoy132 movement to ‘transcend the electoral conjuncture’ in Mexico as part of a wider social and political transformation. While the student protests in Mexico have provided an example of commitment and struggle for dignity, she affirmed, the fight will also be long and difficult.

In a text on the dialogue of movements, read out at the meeting convened at the Monument to the Revolution and authored by Pablo González Casanova – former rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the key emphasis was on how past emancipation movements have added to the student protests. The Chilean movement and those in Mexico, in González Casanova’s words, ‘form part of a worldwide movement that began in Mexico in 1994 with the Mayan peoples of the southeast, known as the Zapatistas, whose motto is precisely: “Freedom, Justice, Democracy”’.

Where does the call to arms to transcend the electoral conjuncture and build regional links across Latin America leave YoSoy132 in Mexico? The student movement may draw strength in the country from wider frustration with the drugs war, given that Mexico’s nascent ‘Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity’ has also signalled support for YoSoy132. The student movement itself has also posted a renewed statement in the form of its second online manifesto. The elections on July 1, 2012 will also have a big influence in shaping the conjuncture. There are additionally a number of satellite groups springing up worldwide, including in Chicago, San Francisco, and ‘WeAre132’ in the UK.

Although beyond the scope of detailed discussion here, the challenges ahead for YoSoy132 may well involve those confronting social movements more generally, as detailed in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico. These can be grasped as the need to navigate the extremes of ‘horizontalism’, or changing the world without taking state power, and strict ‘verticalism’, or capturing state power as a vehicle for political transformation. It would be misleading to characterise the former stress as a ‘no-power’ approach to social change just as much as it would be remiss to underestimate the tangible forms of collective action based on organisation-building. As the prominent activist-scholar Gustavo Esteva has noted in an essay ‘Another Perspective, Another Democracy’, autonomous movements’ struggles are not a counterweight to state power but an attempt to render the latter superfluous through ‘new reformulations of the nature of the state’.

¡La Lucha Sigue!

Adam David Morton

The anti-politics of The Thick of It

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over Armando Iannucci’s acceptance of an OBE. Alastair Campbell has accused Iannucci of hypocrisy because, despite his situation comedy The Thick of It mocking the Establishment, he has happily received an honour from the same source.

Campbell – generally regarded as the template for Malcolm Tucker, the sweary spin doctor in the series – has a score to settle. But I can see why Iannucci does not believe he has betrayed any principles: for The Thick of It suggests he is so loftily contemptuous of representative democracy as currently practiced, accepting an OBE has no political meaning: it’s all a joke. Campbell, in contrast, takes politics very seriously indeed.

I am writing a book on politics and fiction since the 1890s and so have some perspective on Iannucci’s series – which is one of a number of current political comedies that articulate a kind of anti-politics.

First broadcast in 2005, The Thick of It, like the 1980s Yes Minister – with which it has often been compared – is set in a fictional government department. Instead of Jim Hacker’s earlier Department for Administrative Affairs The Thick of It is located in the Department of Social Affairs. Instead of haughty civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Thick of It has Tucker, the Prime Minister’s belligerent enforcer to ensure that the representatives of the people are kept in line.

Both series focus on Westminster. Yet, while public choice theory provided Yes Minister with its weary-eyed explanation of how the people’s will was never translated into government policy, The Thick of It assumes a lofty, Olympian stance. Significantly, prior to making the series Iannucci claimed he had ‘become increasingly appalled by how the truth is quite unashamedly contorted in political debate’: The Thick of It is consequently about how politics distorts ‘truth’.

This means however that while Yes Minister had an implicit, solution to the problems it identified – taking power away from the politicians and civil servants – The Thick of It has no resolution to the predicament it outlines. To the question, ‘how can “truth” be told in politics?’ there is no answer. Politicians are instead repeatedly thrown into a fevered vortex where appearance and reality are hard to distinguish; there are ‘scandals’ which are no such thing while words and phrases come to mean their very opposite. If Anthony Jay’s 1980s mockery had a Thatcherite purpose, Iannucci’s is an end in itself as he invites the viewer to observe, God-like, the foibles of a sick democracy of which they are seemingly themselves not part and so not responsible.

Yes Minister often showed Hacker trying to implement a policy and coming up against various impediments – the most important of which was, of course, the entrenched civil service – but sometimes it allowed him to prevail. In contrast, politicians in The Thick of It spend their days fighting media-concocted pseudo-crises meaning that policy development and implementation hardly exist. The point of holding office is not to do anything except to keep the other lot out: policy is as a result something ministers come up with at the back of speeding cars to try and placate the media.

It is no wonder, then, that Iannucci sees no problem in accepting an OBE from the Establishment – for if The Thick of It is any measure of his attitude to politics, he does not take any of it seriously. While true satirists are meant to use their comedy to change the object of criticism, The Thick of It merely exudes a smug self-satisfaction: we are so much better than them, it sneers, those fools who we elect to govern on our behalf. The series consequently invites viewers to stand back and laugh at the shortcomings of everybody involved in politics – the politicians, spin doctors, journalists and even the public – rather like an entomologist might observe the behaviour of ants scrambling about in an ant hill.

There is an awkward question to be asked of the viewers here – one never posed by the series: how come they keep electing such liars? What does that say about them? Now, that is a topic worthy of a true satirist.

Steven Fielding


Polling Observatory #15: Levelling off at a lower altitude

This is the fifteenth 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.

In the previous two posts, we tracked the first decisive shift in public opinion since the collapse in Liberal Democrat support following the formation of the coalition. The Conservatives’ support fell sharply, while Labour advanced steadily. In just two months a double digit Labour lead opened up.

Another month has now passed since the spring shift against the Conservatives began, and opinion seems more stable. Our new estimate for the Conservatives puts them at 31.1%, up fractionally from the low of 30.8% a month ago. Cameron’s ship is no longer sinking, although it remains very low in the water. Conservative support in the past two months has been significantly lower than in any comparable period of the present Coalition government. The junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, continue to flat line in single digits, this month at 7.4%, down 0.8 points from last month. UKIP continue to notch up similar shares – we aim to begin tracking their polling performance next month.

While the Conservatives have stabilised, Labour have made a further advanced, pushing up 1.6% to 42.0%, a new record for the current government. If Ed Miliband was to achieve this share in a general election, he would beat Tony Blair’s performance in the 2001 and 2005 elections, and be within touching distance of the share (43.2%) achieved in the historic 1997 landslide. Given such polling numbers it is surprising that his leadership continues to face media criticism. This may perhaps reflect continued poor ratings of his leadership in the polls, although these have started to improve over the past two months, suggesting Miliband personally may benefit from comparison with a struggling Prime Minister

A further month of poor poll ratings suggests negativity about Cameron’s party is solidifying. It is now less likely that the shift in voting intentions represents a temporary blip in response to a string of bad news cycles, although these did continue at reduced volume over the month, and more likely that it reflects a more decisive shift in voters’ assessments of the Conservatives’ policies and their competence to govern. Of course, plenty of time remains before the parties will face the voters – assuming the Coalition holds together – but Cameron and his colleagues badly need something positive to offer the voters. At present, austerity and economic stagnation rumble on, taking a steadily increasing toll. Recent research by Professor Larry Bartels suggests that the fate of governing parties since 2008 has been closely tied to economic performance. Incumbent governments who fail to deliver on the economy get thrown out, regardless of their ideological direction. Bartels’ model suggests economic growth rates at close to zero, as seen over the first two years of Coalition government, would be likely to reduce Conservative support by 5-8 percentage points, most likely enough to see them back in opposition. His model has not, however, been tested much for parties which entered government after the crash, which is a small crumb of comfort for the Government.

But Britain’s continued economic weakness looks will clearly remain the primary source of Conservative anxiety moving forward, and a strong reason for making the awkward marriage of coalition work until more prosperous times arrive.


Robert Ford, Mark Pickup and Will Jennings


The Eurozone Crisis and Potential Future Scenarios

Neo-liberal restructuring in Europe has come up against its internal contradictions. It has reached its limits. Germany’s export strategy, based on cuts in wages and working conditions, cannot be replicated by everybody else. If one country has such a drastic surplus in trade, others must absorb these products. Even more severely, the Eurozone crisis has highlighted the unevenness of the European political economy. Super-profits reaped in core countries such as Germany were re-invested in state bonds of peripheral countries only in order to purchase yet more goods from the core. This circle could not go on forever and there is no potential solution from within neo-liberalism able to cope with this crisis (see Europe and the limits of neo-liberalism).

In this post, I will assess several potential future developments including an extended period of ‘muddling through’ based on increasingly authoritarian rule in the periphery, a right-wing xenophobic backlash as well as progressive responses moving us beyond neo-liberal restructuring.

While neo-liberalism has no solutions at its disposal to solve the current crisis of the Eurozone and sovereign debt, this does not imply that it will automatically collapse. On the contrary, a potentially rather lengthy period of continued muddling through is possible. The Fiscal Compact of the EU prescribing austerity across Europe is the key here. In countries in Europe’s core, this implies severe cuts to public services and a further restructuring of the state. The UK is a good example in this respect. The health service is cut back, restructured and partly privatised, higher education is increasingly commodified through the introduction of exorbitant fees of up to £9000 per year, disability entitlements are further restricted, the list could go on.

At the same time, the overall wealth available is still considerable. People will be pushed out of society with some from poorer backgrounds, for example, no longer able to access University education. In general, however, while inequality rises yet further, large parts of the population still live in good enough conditions to continue going along with the system. Hence, a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, pursuing many policies which the previous Labour government had actually initiated, is sufficient in the political arena to carry through the savage cut-backs. And when there is social unrest by those who are excluded from the benefits of the core, who in other words constitute a social periphery within the core, such as during the riots in the summer of 2011, then the police are at hand to ‘maintain order’ supported by judges, who hand out draconian punishment. Resistance movements to the cuts, as for example the Coalition of Resistance, find it difficult to mobilise more widely against budgetary restraint, often supported by slogans in the media such as ‘we are all in the same boat and have to contribute our bit’.

The situation differs, however, in the periphery of Europe. Here, cuts have been so severe that they have put many people to their existential limits. In Athens, soup kitchens are busy to provide meals on a daily basis to an increasing number of impoverished citizens. Here, a grand coalition of the centre-right party New Democracy and the centre-left party PASOK, which had dominated Greek politics for decades, was defeated in parliamentary elections on 6 May 2012. More and more police have had to be deployed on the street to maintain public order, technocratic government has replaced democracy (see ‘Who is in Charge? Democracy versus Technocracy’). In general, a move towards authoritarian neo-liberalism can be identified with the clear objective to secure the privileges of capital and the rich against workers and the poor.

And yet, it is also the periphery, where potential alternative developments are in the process of emerging. First, there is the clear risk of a move towards a nationalistic, xenophobic right. The success of the fascist, neo-nazi party Golden Dawn in Greece, which entered parliament with almost 7 per cent of the votes on 6 May, confirms this danger. Not all resistance against neo-liberal restructuring will automatically be progressive. On the other hand, progressive alternatives too may emerge in Europe’s periphery. Here, the question of whether Greece should leave the Euro or should stay and push for a re-arrangement of its set-up is secondary in my view.

What is more decisive is the push for solutions, which go beyond neo-liberal capitalism at the national as well as European level. As a primary precondition for a radical left alternative, the balance of power between capital and labour has to be shifted back towards labour. This requires first that all left groupings overcome their internal differences and join forces together with trade unions and other social movements. Second, control over the financial system has to be re-established including the nationalization of banks. As capital movements have outgrown national levels, it is the European level, where controls of the financial system have to be re-established. Third, public debt needs to be audited and to a large extent written off. Fourth, the redistribution of wealth from workers to capital has to be turned around through a general focus on increasing wages across the EU. Finally, tax evasion by large corporations must be tackled and so-called tax havens closed.

Such a progressive, radical left alternative will not emerge by itself, but only through struggle. And while the spark of this struggle may be lit in the periphery (see Uneven and combined development and the issue of resistance in the UK!), there can be no justification for us in the core to sit back and watch passively how developments unfold. Restructuring affects our workplaces and our societies too and it is here where we through active involvement in resistance can show our solidarity with the people in Greece.

Andreas Bieler

Labour and the fear of ‘equality’


I was invited by the Policy Network to respond to one of their latest publications, A Centre-Left Project for New Times, which maps out how European social democrats might respond to the current political situation.

I decided to focus on ‘equality’ – an issue that is supposed to differentiate the left from the right but which New Labour was afraid of embracing too warmly for fear of putting off key voters.

As a result, as you can see from the above graph, not much was done to reverse the massive increase in inequality that occurred under Margaret Thatcher. Here are my thoughts.

Steven Fielding