On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

Chamber of Commons

Why aren’t more people angry about women’s political under-representation? That was the core question posed by Joni Lovenduski in a recent article in Political Quarterly, reporting on a workshop on the subject. “Participants in the workshop”, Lovenduski noted, “wondered why the political under-representation of women in the United Kingdom is not treated as the public disgrace that it is”.

“Undoubtedly,” she went on, “there is continuing resistance to sex equality, but from whom? Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?” Lovenduski split opponents of increased female representation into eight categories (also discussed here):

1. The uninterested, who think it does not matter

2. The complacent, who believe women’s interests are well represented

3. The traditionalists, who believe that politics is about the representation of class

4. Diversity advocates, who argue that gender is only one of many identities

5. Anti-essentialists, who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women

6. The optimistic, who think it is just a matter of waiting

7. The dinosaurs, who think politics is best left to men

8. She argued these contribute to: the mistaken, those who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

Anyone who has read or thought a little about this subject will certainly recognise the validity of these various categories – although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that all of them oppose increases in women’s representation. Some do, but some are disinterested, others would support an increase in women’s representation but do not see it as a priority, and yet others support the end (more women) but not the means (such as quotas).

In research forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examine some of these issues, as part of a wider investigation into the politics of representation – and here I want to focus on argument 8. those who are mistaken. Lovenduski cites Nirmal Puwar’s concept of the ‘amplification of numbers’ from her book Space Invaders – the idea that when previously excluded groups begin to be present in politics their very novelty will lead to perceptions of their presence being exaggerated.

The survey I conducted looked explicitly at this, asking respondents to estimate the proportion of the House of Commons that came from a range of different groups – which, as well as women, included the disabled, those educated at Oxbridge, Muslims, and the elderly.

At the time the survey was conducted (2009), some 20% of MPs were female. Estimates of their presence, however, ranged from zero (from a not particularly perceptive respondent) to 91% (ditto). Some 4% of respondents got it spot on, with 31% under-estimating women’s presence and 65% over-estimating. Most respondents, then, did over-estimate women’s presence, but not by much: the (mean) average was 26%, relatively close to the actual figure, and a majority of respondents were within +/- 10 percentage points of the actual figure. There was almost no difference depending on the sex of the respondent (the mean for women was 26%, the mean for men was 25%).

Indeed, of the groups that the survey asked about, respondents were more accurate in their estimates of the number of women than they were any of the other groups. At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, for example, the public’s average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 Muslim MPs. The public similarly believed gay and lesbians to be nine times better represented than they actually were; the young to be sixteen times better represented than they were. It may once have been true that there were so few women in the Commons that people noticeably over-estimated their presence, and it certainly still holds for other groups, but it no longer holds for women.

More importantly, almost all respondents estimated a figure of below 50% for women MPs; just 4% estimated 50% or more, with 90% of respondents estimating 40% or lower. Whilst the survey did not ask people what proportion of the wider population belonged to each group, we can reasonably safely assume that most people will have noticed that men and women constitute roughly half of the wider population – and on that basis around 19 out of every 20 respondents believed women to be under-represented in the Commons in proportion to their presence in society.

(A side note for pedants: the fact that women in fact make up a narrow majority of the population does not alter this conclusion, both because it is moot whether the public know this – and it is their perception that matters here, not the reality – and because the figure of 4% would be the same whether we used 50 or 51% as our cut off).

This is, however, not to say that knowledge (or ignorance) has no effect. The survey also contained a question asking if people would like more or fewer women MPs, and as respondents’ estimates of women’s presence increases, so support for having more women in the Commons decreases. If we divide respondents into the categories famously devised by Drude Dahlerup, then those who thought parliament’s composition was uniform (that is, where women constituted just 0-15% of an institution) were overwhelmingly in favour of having more women MPs (68% of these respondents wanted more, as opposed to just 28% who wanted the numbers to stay the same, with a mere 3% who wanted fewer). That is a net score (More minus Same) of +40.  Of those who thought the Parliament ‘tilted’ (that is, where women make up between 15 and 40%), the net score was +12. But of those who thought that the Parliament was ‘balanced’ (40% or more) the net score had fallen to -14.

The public are then, broadly, logical in their responses: if they think there are relatively few women, they are more supporting of an increase in their numbers; if they think they are already present in numbers, they are less supportive of an increase.

This does not mean, however, that giving the public a more accurate understanding of the composition of the Commons would lead to more support for an increased number of women in politics – not least because the figure for the most accurate respondents (those who thought the Commons was ‘tilted’) was, at +12, exactly the same as the figure for all respondents. In other words, whilst improving the knowledge of those who (erroneously) think women are represented in large numbers might make them more supportive of increasing women’s presence, it would presumably have the opposite effect amongst those who currently significantly under-estimate the level of women’s political presence.

We can therefore safely reject the idea that opposition to, or ambivalence about, the scale of women’s representation is due to ignorance about their existing presence. As for the other seven explanations, well, they’re for another day…

Philip Cowley

Beveridge 70 Years On

On Tuesday I’ll be participating in Radio 4’s The State of Welfare. This marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services – better known as the Beveridge Report, something that is generally regarded as laying the foundations of the post-war welfare state.

The State of Welfare will take up most of Radio 4’s morning schedule and I’ll be helping kick if off by providing some context for the Report itself. For December 1942 was a very peculiar year. Britain had been at war for over three years and the Report was published just after victory at El Alamein, which marked, in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, ‘the end of the beginning’. The British people were starting to wonder what their country would be like after the conflict had ended, a conflict that saw them endure all kinds of unprecedented hardships. Would they return to the economic depression and insecurity of the 1930s?

Some on the left and centre-left, like the Liberal Beveridge saw this as their chance to put forward various schemes designed to reconstruct Britain and remake it into a more equal society in which there was social security for all. Others on the right, including Churchill and many others in his party and in industry too claimed the country would be ruined by the expense and the expansion of the state would destroy individual liberty and independence.

The outlines of this wartime debate about Beveridge would be familiar to us today as it raises many of the same issues. The context was however rather different. For the war had encouraged many to see the state in unprecedentedly positive terms – government intervention was after all helping Britain win the war. There was also a sense that Britons were all in it together, that the better off should make sure the poor did not fall below a minimum standard of living.

I have been invited to participate because of my work on politics during the Second World War, and some of my research is contained in this book and this articleThe State of Welfare web page also has a number of useful resources, including a recording of the programme.

Steven Fielding


What role does humanitarianism play in the world?

With complex humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters occurring with greater severity and frequency in various parts of the world, questions of humanitarianism – particularly how it should be conceived and practised – have become all the more relevant to our rapidly globalising world. In spite of conventional perspectives of humanitarianism as constituting a ‘universal’ value that transcends both time and context, there are diverse interpretations of this complex concept.

Arising from presentations and discussions at the workshop on Cultures of Humanitarianism: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific held at the Australian National University, this collection of essays co-edited by Dr Miwa Hirono explore and interrogate the universality of the concept of humanitarianism by examining approaches found in China, Japan and Indonesia.

The essays highlight issues of power, representation and agency that reflect the cultural, normative and political complexity of this dynamic region. Exploration of cultures of humanitarianism has only just begun. The issues and questions raised in these essays suggest directions for future research.

Making republicans weep

Queen Victoria

This Thursday I am delivering the John Campbell Annual Lecture for Republic.

During the early years of this century John Campbell helped build up Republic into the prominent and active campaigning group it is today, one whose aim is to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. The Annual Lecture is Republic’s tribute to his memory.

The theme of my lecture is the depiction of Queen Victoria on the big and small screen since Herbert Wilcox first produced Victoria the Great (1937). Something of what I am likely to say has been published here. Some of what I say will also appear in my forthcoming book A State of Play.

Most students of British politics don’t take the monarchy very seriously. They think its political powers are so limited, it has an insignificant role; some even think the institution provides some stability to our system. And it is true that the formal powers of the monarchy are heavily circumscribed – although currently Prince Charles’ behind-the-scenes attempts at lobbying have aroused controversy.

My own research suggests, however, that depictions of the monarchy on the screen up to and including Young Victoria (2009) shows how far it still exerts an insidious influence over the way in which audiences think of themselves politically. For the monarchy is presented as existing only to advance the people’s interest and often in conflict with shifty and self-serving Prime Ministers – in other words the only element within British democracy that truly cares for the people is the unelected part, the one not subject to popular sovereignty. Moreover, Victoria is by no means alone in being presented in such terms.  Most recently, The King’s Speech (2011) suggested that it was vital for George VI to overcome his stammer because the British needed his wartime broadcasts to inspire them to victory. Without his words, the film implies, the British might have given up.

Of course this is all nonsense; but it is powerful nonsense. It points to a deep popular discontent with representative democracy and also suggests the people’s lack of faith in their own political agency, given their dramatised dependence on the good will of  a hereditary monarchy. Hence, I have called my lecture ‘The Heart of a Heartless Political World’.

It’s enough to make a republican weep – for how are they to tackle such entrenched attitudes?  So I’ll be taking some hankies in case they’re needed.




Steven Fielding

It’s not just the economy, stupid!

President Barack Obama

President Obama has secured another four years in the Whitehouse and the hopes of the Republicans have been dashed. Like elections in most countries, this was not decided by foreign policy issues but largely by domestic concerns, such as the state of the American economy and the issue of jobs. A pole conducted by Pew in September 2012 of swing voters found that whilst 85% said that the economy was ‘very important’ to their voting preferences, only 45% were willing to say the same of foreign policy. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of foreign policy in the 2012 election as it played a role in three ways.

First, it gave Barack Obama the advantage enjoyed by all incumbent American presidents. As the ‘leader of the free world’ and America’s commander in chief, Obama benefited from the aura that surrounds the Presidency. Mitt Romney, cast in the role of challenger, had to struggle to make himself heard on international matters and to paint a coherent picture of his foreign policy priorities. This was made more difficult for him by his prior need to secure the Republican nomination. Amidst the polarised politics of the Tea Party movement, Romney had been forced to take a tough stance on issues such as America’s relations with Russia and China. Once he had obtained the nomination, he had to tack back towards the centre ground in order to appeal to a wider cross section of voters. This was exemplified in the third televised debate between Romney and Obama in Florida on October 22nd when he took notably more ‘dovish’ positions on overseas issues. This contributed to a sense that Romney was unclear about what he believed.

Second, foreign policy contributed to the wider perception that this was an election fought against a backcloth of American decline. Retrenchment in the US economy, anaemic rates of growth and a huge mountain of debt shaped the picture. This was reinforced by the foreign policy agenda. President Obama had decreed that US combat forces will be withdrawn fromAfghanistanby 2014 thereby leaving that country to face an uncertain future. Romney argued thatUSpolicy should be guided by military advice and not by a political timetable, but he did not demur from the essence of the policy. Similarly, on the issue of relations with China, both candidates spoke from the perspective of America’s vulnerability rather than its strength. Romney was more vociferous thatChinawas manipulating its currency and abusing intellectual property rights, but Obama pointed to unequal patterns of trade that left theUSat a disadvantage.

Thirdly, foreign policy issues helped to sharpen the differences between the positions of the two men. On issues such as American relations with Israel and Iran, there were important distinctions between them. Romney criticised what he saw as the Administration’s weakness towards alleged attempts by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. He charged Obama with failing to support Israel and positioned himself as sympathetic to Israel’s threat that it might attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama has been more circumspect and, whilst not ruling out the threat of force, he has argued that sanctions are having the desired effect of pressuring Tehran. Now that he has won re-election he has left the door open to finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue.

So whilst foreign policy issues did not determine the US presidential election, they played a part in both shaping the debate and distinguishing the candidates. Obama now has two years in which to act in foreign policy matters without the constraints of a President seeking re-election. After that, he will become the proverbial ‘lame duck’ and we will see once again a debate over the role of foreign policy in determining the next key holder of the White House.

Wyn Rees

Polling Observatory #19: British polling after the conference…and a look across the pond

This is the nineteenth in 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 random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

The conference season is now over for another year, and our latest polling estimate gives us a chance to gauge whether any of the main parties enjoyed a boost. The answer is a clear “no”: our estimates suggest that each party’s support was static through the conference season. Labour ended October on 41.9%, up 0.4% on their pre-conference position, the Conservatives continue to trail on 31.4%, down 0.3% while the Liberal Democrats fall slightly, down 0.6% to 7.9%. The overall political landscape remains much as it has since the Conservatives’ post budget “omnishambles” collapse in the spring. Nothing which has happened since has altered voters’ views, which is ominous for the Conservatives as it suggests the opinions of those who deserted the party earlier this year may have hardened against the government.

We have now introduced a fourth party, the UK Independence Party, to our estimates. UKIP have advanced steadily in the polls over this election cycle, although pollsters vary widely in their estimates of the party’s support, with internet pollsters tending to give them stronger results. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Our model takes the view that the pollsters’ performance in the 2010 are the best guide for current estimates, and ends up splitting the difference to some extent, assuming that some of the strongest UKIP pollsters are over-estimating the party, while some of the weakest are under-estimating it. Our overall estimate suggests a slow but steady advance for the Eurosceptics, from a low of about 1.5% in the summer of 2010 to 7.6% in our current estimates. There are few bumps in the shallow upward trend, except for a sharp uptick around the time of “omnishambles”, when UKIP support jumped from 5% to 7.5%. This would suggest that much of UKIP’s support is coming from disgruntled Conservatives, a view backed up by other work.

So this conference season, like the last, was a disappointment for parties and pundits, as despite gallons of ink spilt over speeches and strategies, the electorate was unmoved. The other big story of the past month was, of course, the Presidential election in the United States, where polling analysts found themselves unexpectedly caught in the partisan crossfire. After a strong first debate performance, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who had been trailing, closed much of the gap on President Barack Obama. Over the final three weeks of the campaign, many pundits (particularly on the right) declared that Romney had “momentum” and – based on “savvy”, “gut feeling” or “inside information” declared that he was overtaking the President and would win come election day. Polling analysts such as Simon Jackman at Huffington Post-pollster.com, Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium and most prominently Nate Silver of the New York Times’ fivethirtyeight blog poured scorn on this theory, pointing out that the polls had barely budged after their initial first debate shift and consistently pointed to a narrow victory for the President, eked out through strong performance in the crucial swing states. This lead to an extraordinary barrage of vehement, ill-informed attacks from journalists and commentators who felt that such polling analysis was wrong-headed, partisan, or no substitute for journalistic wiles. A few Brits even decided to join in, such as cultural historian Dr Tim Stanley, a man with no experience in polling analysis, who nonetheless felt amply qualified to dismiss polls and analysis which he deemed had devolved “from an objective gauge of the public mood to a propaganda tool: partisan and inaccurate”.

The unusual thing about this dispute is how easy it was to settle: the polls were either going to be right or not come election day. Tuesday’s election returns can therefore be declared a resounding victory for polls and polling analysts – who called every state successfully – and a resounding defeat for “gut feeling”, “insider information” and Dr Tim Stanley. We hope that Dr Stanley will at least consider a course in elementary statistics before venturing into polling commentary again.

We can draw a few lessons from this little controversy for British politics and polling. Firstly, poll averaging can be a very powerful tool, and an important counter-weight to journalistic narratives which are often constructed based on very little solid evidence. Many media commentators were convinced Mitt Romney had momentum, but the polling clearly said he did not. The polling was correct. Secondly, many journalists and commentators have a very sketchy understanding of polling and statistics in general, and regard it with suspicion, particularly when it doesn’t agree with their partisan or professional biases. Journalists wanted a fight to the finish, and Republican partisans wanted a Romney victory, so both groups dismissed evidence which did not agree with these preconceptions. Thirdly, thanks to the rise of the internet, polling data is freely and easily available to all and so interested and numerate citizens no longer have to accept the campaign narrative constructed by the media commentariat. They can download the data, draw their own conclusions, and write these up for the world to see. Several young Americans made a name for themselves doing just that, including The New Republic’s Nate Cohn and the Guardian’s Harry Enten.

So the 2012 US election was a “triumph of the nerds”. This is encouraging for the Polling Observatory team, as we look to apply similar methods of polling aggregation and analysis to clarify the political picture on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, we tried our hands at forecasting in Britain ahead of the 2010 election, producing a seat by seat prediction model which performed pretty well in the end,  getting the Conservative seat total exactly right and substantially outperforming a model constructed by Nate Silver, with whom we had an entertaining “nerdfight“. It is too early in the election cycle to begin producing forecasts for the 2015 election, but we feel that our polling analysis – and others such as the excellent UK Polling Report blog authored by Anthony Wells – still serves a valuable purpose, helping to separate the genuine shifts in the public mood from the random bumps and bounces produced by sampling error. As the election approaches, though, we will dust off our old forecasting model, spruce it up and put it to work figuring out how the next Parliament is likely to look. Watch this space.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Time to take the political representation of the disabled seriously








There are around ten million people with a disability in the UK but only a hand full in the House of Commons.

How do we change this? And more to the point, why should we care?

I looked at the issue for this week’s Sunday Politics (44 minutes in), arguing that the dire under-representation of people with disabilities matters on two grounds: symbolic and substantive.

From Phillips, with her work on the theory of representation, to Childs and her investigations into the policy impact of ‘Blair’s Babes’ , there’s been considerable research into the effects of getting more women and people from ethnic minorities into the political arena.

Disability, though, has gone overlooked.

There’s no justification for this. At around 18% of the UK population, ‘the disabled’ are a sizeable marginalised group. Similarly to women, their under-representation in the House of Commons needs tackling – and in fact many of the arguments used to make the case for better gender representation can be used to make the case for disability.

Basic fairness is reason enough. It is patently unfair for white, rich, able-bodied, men to monopolize the political system. Unless we’re to believe that having a disability means a person is less able to take part in the political process, multiple barriers are unfairly keeping disabled people out. Once let in, disabled MPs can ‘stand for’ disabled people in a symbolic sense – their mere presence providing role models for disabled citizens and legitimacy to what, without them, is an exclusionary, unjust political body.

Disabled people’s presence in politics is not only needed for just and fair descriptive representation though, but for their needs to be substantively represented. The idea is simple: disabled people have a distinctive set of perspectives and interests; disabled representatives share these; put disabled representatives in power and they will act on them.

This assumes neither that disabled and non-disabled citizens don’t have shared interests nor that disabled people, as a monolithic faction, don’t have complexities and difference within their group. Just as Phillips argues in The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity and Race  when it comes to women, the argument for a more representative governing body does not depend on establishing a unified interest of all disabled people; it depends, rather, on establishing a difference between the interests of the disabled and non-disabled.

People with disabilities do have unique interests, both in terms of the disability elements to mainstream policies and those specifically related to disability. Simply put, a person may be more inclined to care about cuts to disability welfare support if they have at one time in their life applied for a disability benefit.

Disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, have no formal qualifications or be unemployed than people without a disability.  Their needs are not currently being met. Who better to do so than disabled MPs?

As Phillips says, there’s something perverse about a democracy that accepts a responsibility for redressing disadvantage, but doesn’t see the disadvantaged as the appropriate people to carry it through.

Frances Ryan

Galileo: another triumph for the EU?









On 12 October 2012, two days before Felix Baumgartner’s free-fall jump from the stratosphere, and with considerably less publicity, a much more important event took place in space: two satellites of the ‘Galileo’ system were put into orbit.

Galileo is a global navigation satellite system (similar to the U.S. ‘GPS’ and the Russian ‘Glonass’) which is managed and funded by European Commission and European Space Agency. If the future of Galileo was initially uncertain (the business consortium meant to build the project collapsed in 2007) the first two satellites were finally put into orbit in 2011. The launch of two more satellites this October marks another watershed in the development of Galileo and, despite Europe’s gloomy economic outlook, it seems that the project will be fully operational by the end of the decade.

The rationale for the system lies in Europe’s desire to be independent of the United States. For GPS was originally a military system and Washington retains the option of shutting down its civilian application. If that happened Europe would be thrown into communications chaos.

The US consequently did not initially welcome the initiative when mooted in 2003, claiming it was an unnecessary duplication of effort. Behind this line of argument there was, however, the Americans’ fear that China (which had joined the Galileo project in its early stages but left afterwards) might use the system in a future conflict with Washington. The U.S. also raised concerns about a possible frequency overlap between Galileo and GPS. Such were their concerns, U.S. officials were quoted saying they would consider using ‘irreversible action’ against European satellites if used by Washington’s adversaries. During the same period, similar transatlantic tensions concerning issues like the Passenger Name Record agreements and Customs Security came to the fore.

Unable to put off the Europeans, Washington reconciled itself to the inevitability of Galileo and subsequently all the talk has been of exploiting possible mutual benefits and creating devices that can use both systems.

Indeed the US now seeks to exploit Galileo’s secure ‘public regulated service’ (PRS) signals  for both military and civilian purposes. While these talks are still in an early stage they mark an important step in transatlantic relations. They might stimulate the emergence of a wider transatlantic space-security community of experts bound with shared understandings. As more Galileo satellites come into orbit in the near future the saliency of cooperation in this area will certainly increase, to the benefit mainly of the private sector in both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps this is one part of the EU budget even some Conservative MPs might not want to cut?

Dimitrios Anagnostakis is a PhD student researching US-EU security relations.

Euro-phobia: Cameron’s chronic condition?






There’s nothing exceptional about large rebellions – or even Commons defeats – like that seen last night in the House of Commons.  Every Prime Minister since Edward Heath has been defeated in the Commons at least once, as a result of their own MPs defying the government.  The problem for the Conservative Party is the nature of the issue, and especially its persistency.  Rebellions on other issues come and go; legislation is passed, or falls, tempers calm, the poison drains.  But Europe is a chronic ailment to the Conservative body politic; there is always a summit, a treaty amendment, a budget, to cause the fever to return.

In this post for ConservativeHome, we identify the key facts about last night’s Conservative rebellion over the EU Budget.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart