Merry Christmas! We’ll see you in the new year


Image by Bob Peace

That’s it from Ballots & Bullets for 2012. It’s been a great year here on the blog.

We had updates from a number of elections, including the Tawain elections, guest posts on the French elections from Prof Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi of 500 Signatures, and posts on the Russian elections.

We’ve had posts from Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart on rebellious MPs, including their Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions.

And the Polling Observatory have been updating us with their monthly analysis of the political polls, which saw the appearance of UKIP for the first time: February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November, December. They also brought us the latest on public opinion following the UKIP, Lib Dem, Labour, and Conservative conferences.

We’ll be back in January with more posts on the latest elections, world events and polls. We’ll see you then!

Forget A Christmas Carol, Bleak House is the best Dickens for a cold winter’s night

Christmas market

In Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the king’s son Mamillius is asked what story he would like. He replies:

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

For me, Dickens is best for winter, so when I was asked to choose and defend my favourite book at the East Midlands Salon Balloon Debate, it had to be Dickens’ Bleak House.

The first word of Bleak House is ‘London’. Samuel Johnson said ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. I think the same goes for Dickens as a writer of London. Dickens immerses us in the novelty and mystery, the energy and misery of the nineteenth century city.

And having put us in London, Dickens immediately plunges us into the mud and fog surrounding Chancery and English law, the focus of his social satire in Bleak House. The mud is ‘accumulating at compound interest’, we are told, in keeping with the world’s leading capitalist city. The fog is ‘cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of [a] shivering little ’prentice boy’, while the gas light ‘has a haggard and unwilling look’. In Dickens’ London, the buildings and elements feel alive. So even before we enter Chancery and are introduced to the slow workings of the law, we already have a picture of the murkiness and mire of litigation.

Bleak House’s plot is framed around the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, an inheritance dispute. The case has lasted so long its original parties have died, and those who have inherited the case have grown old in turn. When the final judgement is pronounced there is nothing left of the original inheritance, dissipated on litigation fees. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is proverbial as a bad legal action and a cautionary tale against litigation taking over your life.

Bleak House is not just a satire of law, but of false morality, whether in the form of fashionable convention, religiosity or philanthropy divorced from personal concern and care for others.

Dickens’ social commentary is animated. His is a world full of right and wrong, heroes and villains. Where individual conscience and care for others matters. Dickens judges individuals’ actions and metes out justice without impunity. Villains get their just desserts, the fallen are redeemed, and the virtuous are rewarded. Dickens even sentences one villain – Krook – to spontaneous human combustion in a poetically and theatrically satisfying end.

So what of his characters? Who to choose? The ruthless Tulkinghorn? The sponger Harold Skimpole? The wasted Miss Flite, consumed by Jarndyce and Jarndyce? Sir Leicester Dedlock with his aristocratic gout?

Two of my favourite characters are the philanthropist Mrs Jellyby and the road-sweeper Jo.

Mrs Jellyby is a tyrannical egotistical philanthropist ‘who devotes herself entirely to the public… and is at present… devoted to the subject of Africa…’ Absorbed in her ‘telescopic philanthropy’, she is oblivious to the cares of those around her, and incapable of saving and looking after anybody, not even herself. As Dickens mischievously comments, ‘Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.’ Dickens’ satirical portrait of Mrs Jellyby questions the humanitarian character of her humanitarianism – questions that remain relevant to the international humanitarianism and global disaster management of our own day, as I explored in Global Disaster Management and Therapeutic Governance of Communities for a recent issue of Development Dialogue.

Dickens’ critique speaks to the concerns of many aid workers over the humanitarian sector becoming overly bureaucratic and losing a sense of personal compassion.

Unlike his Mrs Jellyby, Dickens cares about individuals in the mass, and wants to retrieve them from anonymity. This concern is shown in Dickens’ portrait of Jo, which demands that we care about the road-sweeper:

It must be a very strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets… To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere… To see the horses, dogs and cattle, go by me, and to know that in ignorance I belong to them, and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend!

Moreover, Jo’s road-sweeping has a moral and social redemptive dimension, metaphorically clearing away the murk and mire represented by Chancery.

In summary, Dickens’ interweaves his social satire of law and society into a plot of mystery, romance, comedy, and pathos, and above all, character.

Vanessa Pupavac

Image by David Dixon

A sneak peek inside the forthcoming issue of Parliamentary Affairs

Parliamentary AffairsParliamentary Affairs, which was established in 1948, is a peer-reviewed academic quarterly covering all aspects of government and political representation directly or indirectly connected with Parliament and parliamentary systems in Britain and throughout the world. 

It is co-edited by Professor Philip Cowley and Professor Jonathan Tonge and is published by Oxford University Press in partnership with the Hansard Society.

In the forthcoming issue Stephen R. Bates, Peter Kerr, Christopher Byrne and Liam Stanley analyse the opening sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) for the last five Prime Ministers in order to test a general perception that PMQs has become increasingly a focal point for shallow political point scoring rather than serious prime ministerial scrutiny.

Their data appear to confirm that PMQs has become both rowdier and increasingly dominated by the main party leaders.

It also indicates that Prime Ministers are increasingly expected to be able to respond to a wider range of questions, female MPs are as likely to ask helpful questions but less likely to ask unanswerable questions than male counterparts, and MPs are less likely to ask helpful questions and more likely to ask unanswerable questions the longer their parliamentary tenure.

More surprisingly perhaps, our findings also suggest that, at the beginning of their premierships at least, Thatcher and Brown appear the most accomplished in terms of the fullness of their answers, and Blair and Cameron the least accomplished.

You can read this paper online here.

30 minutes with John Bercow

John BercowJohn Bercow is possibly the most famous Speaker of the House of Commons in modern  history, and he’s not even half way through his self imposed nine year term. His shifting political positions, high profile confrontations, outspoken wife, short stature, verbose oratory, all make John Bercow a recognisable and easily caricatured figure.

I am currently researching the effect of Bercow’s reform agenda – which aims to empower backbenchers – on his relationship with frontbench MPs. Not the most exciting topic on first appearance, but I have found some interesting tales of parliamentary dissent, and found praise for the Speaker from unlikely sources, including the infamous Nadine Dorries. It is because of this research that Mark Stuart asked me to chair the Q&A session with John Bercow during the Parliament in the UK module’s recent trip to Westminster.

After sessions with Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House), Sir George Young (Chief Whip), Steve McCabe (former Labour whip), and Jack Straw (Former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House), I was excited to finally meet Bercow. It’s odd to meet someone you’re writing an essay on; the abstract suddenly becomes real. The first thing that struck me was that he isn’t as short as I thought, maybe because I am not tall myself, but I do think the enormity of the Speaker’s Chair adds to the “dwarf” caricature.

During the Q&A session Bercow displayed the passion, whit, and self-deprecation for which he is known. He answered questions on The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body in charge of MPs expenses, with a determined and zealous defence of MPs and the agency, whilst admitting there is still room for improvement. He diplomatically deflected a question on the convention that the three major parties do not contest the Speaker’s constituency by saying the decision lay with the House.

I questioned him on his high profile confrontations with MPs, such as former Government Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin and former Health Minister Simon Burns, who called Bercow a “sanctimonious little dwarf”. Bercow jovially repeated this line to the audience to a response of awkward laughter. He admitted he could have dealt with the situation involving McLoughlin better, and should have kept his temper, but maintains that he is not a “barer of grudges” and holds no ill will towards the two.

After my 30 minutes with John Bercow I think I will have to rewrite parts of my essay. I have come away with the impression that Bercow does want to uphold Parliamentary integrity, even if he is still prone to the occasional outburst, self-promotion, or longwinded speech.

Adam Charlton is a third year BA Politics student at the University of Nottingham.

Do the public even know what ‘statutory’ means?

Edmund Burke

Do we need statutory regulation of the press?  Perhaps the press should be regulated, but in a non-statutory way?  Or maybe we need statutory under-pinning of any regulation?  As the row about Lord Justice Leveson’s report has raged, I’ve wondered about another question: do the public even know what ‘statutory’ means? Let alone statutory under-pinning, which, as Matthew Parris noted, sounds like a type of corsetry. So, with the help of the polling company YouGov, I tested this. Read the unexpected results –  Poll: Statutory? of Statue Tories?

Philip Cowley

Image by Steven Christie

Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East

IAPS logo

The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is now an institutional columnist for the Global Policy Journal. The first in this series of posts comes from Dr Andrew Mumford who has written about the increasing amount of indirect assistance the West is giving to rebel movements in the ‘Arab Spring’. Stemming from research done for his forthcoming book Proxy Warfare (to be published by Polity in 2013), Andrew defines a proxy war as the indirect involvement in an existing conflict by a third party wishing to influence the strategic outcome. As such, he argues that we can see how the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, particularly in Syria, have been significantly shaped by such ‘arms-length’ intervention by Western nations, who have provided material and logistical help to the rebels. Such developments, Andrew explains, have a wider significance on the direction of diplomacy and conflict in the Middle East and reveal broader trends in the shifting nature of warfare.

You can read Andrew’s full article online:  ‘Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East’.

The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (IAPS) is the major centre of the University of Nottingham for research and postgraduate teaching on the Asia-Pacific. The Institute is a University-level research centre and currently affiliated with the School of Politics and International Relations. It brings together more than thirty full-time staff members, visiting scholars and students to foster Asian scholarship across disciplinary boundaries. The mission of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is to promote advanced research in the humanities and social sciences, support and co-ordinate postgraduate teaching and enhance understanding of Asia-Pacific across the University of Nottingham and in the broader community. The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies enjoys a generous bequest from the late Sir Stanley and Lady Nancy Tomlinson.

Dr Adam Morton is announced winner of the 2012 IPEG Book Prize

Renewal by Cemal Burak Tansel

Last week, I was absolutely delighted to learn that my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield) was the winner of the 2012 International Political Economy Group (IPEG) Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA). In recent years this has become a prestigious prize within and beyond debates in International Political Economy (IPE).

I would therefore like to extend my sincere thanks to the IPEG members that originally nominated the book and subsequently voted for it from the longlist through to the shortlist. That shortlist also included Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (Polity); Laura Horn, Regulating Corporate Governance in the European Union: Towards a Marketization of Corporate Control (Palgrave); and Greta Krippner, Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance (Harvard University Press).

Also, I want to express my gratitude to the international panel of judges that finally deliberated in awarding the prize to me, including Ian Bruff (Loughborough University, UK), Tore Fougner (Bilkent University, Turkey), Penny Griffin (University of New South Wales, Australia), Juliet Johnson (McGill University, Canada), Phoebe Moore-Carter (University of Salford, UK), and Andreas Nölke (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany).

So what does my book offer to readers in and beyond IPE?

Revolution and State in Modern Mexico

Significantly my argument proposes a new approach to understanding the formation of the post-revolutionary state in Mexico through the concept and condition of passive revolution as developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. A passive revolution can refer to various concrete historical instances in which aspects of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in a contradictory combination of both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations (see ‘What is this thing called passive revolution?’).

In a shift away from dominant interpretations, I consider the process of passive revolution and the modern Mexican state through a fresh analysis of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the era of import substitution industrialisation, and neoliberalism. Throughout, I make interdisciplinary links among geography, political economy, postcolonialism, and Latin American studies in order to provide a new framework for analysing the development of state power in Mexico.

I also explore key processes in the contestation of the modern state, specifically through studies of the role of intellectuals, democratisation and democratic transition, and spaces of resistance. All these themes, I argue, can only be fully understood through the lens of passive revolution, referring to the ongoing class strategies and struggles that have shaped relations between state and civil society, as well as the background conditions of uneven development in Mexico and Latin America. In so doing, I contend that both the structuring condition of uneven development and the class strategies and struggles of passive revolution in Mexico and Latin America can become radical tools for political economy analysis in and beyond the region.

In announcing the winner of the IPEG Book Prize, the judges’ report on the book states that:

Revolution and State in Modern Mexico constitutes perhaps the contribution on transitions to and experiences of capitalism in Mexico, and it will be of lasting significance beyond the empirical confines of the book – not least because of the growing interest in Latin American countries among IPE scholars. Moreover, through his utilisation of non-traditional literatures Morton is an excellent ambassador for IPE’s claim to be an open, innovative and forward-looking discipline. Finally, he makes broader contributions to widespread debates on uneven development plus also on Gramsci.

Previous awardees of the IPEG Book Prize include Graham Harrison (2006) for The World Bank and Africa: The Construction of Governance States; Donald MacKenzie (2007) for An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets; Matthew Paterson (2008) for Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy; William I. Robinson  (2009) for Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective; Penny Griffin (2010) for Gendering the World Bank: Neoliberalism and the Gendered Foundations of Global Governance; and Jamie Peck (2011) for Constructions of Neoliberal Reason.

I am now looking forward to advancing beyond the arguments in Revolution and State in Modern Mexico in my new research, not least by focusing on how specific spatial practices, for example in the form of state expressions of architecture such as the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico, also clearly contribute to the construction and reproduction of the modern state in conditions of passive revolution.

Adam Morton

The latest data on corruption around the world: déjà vu all over again?

The annual Transparency International (TI) evaluation of corruption across the world, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), was released on 5 December amidst much fanfare and media attention.  Interactive links on the TI website, designed to help interpret the findings, allowed reporters to explore the core question posed in the CPI brochure: ‘How does your country measure up?’.  In countries all over the world, these latest assessments of the extent of corruption have generated understandable interest in what are generally presented as new and noteworthy findings.

But what if we told you that we could have explained 97% of the variation between countries’ scores before the report was published? And that we could do the same for any year’s results months before they were published. Unfortunately, our ability to do this is not an indication of any psychic powers on our part (otherwise we’d have won the Euromillions by now).  Instead it’s because of a simple property of the CPI: it simply doesn’t change much at all – ever.

Below is a graph of countries’ scores in 2012 against their scores in 2011. The blue line moves up and down to follow the data points as they rise and fall, the red line is a straight ‘regression line’ showing a statistical predication of where the points would fall given the data, and the purple line shows where the points would be if all scores were exactly the same in each year. The lines are so close that these three different ways of looking at the relationships do not indicate any meaningful difference.  Put simply, we could have told you in 2011 essentially everything you would learn from the 2012 CPI.

CPI over time

Even if we take a longer-term view, going back to 2001, 89% of the variation between countries’ scores could have been predicted eleven years ago.  TI has always insisted that evolutionary changes in the methodology used to compile the index mean we should not seek to make comparisons across time – but it seems that such changes have only a minimal impact on the final outcomes. Whilst some may suggest that only country ranks (rather than scores) should be compared, this is clearly nonsensical when the number of countries included in the index changes from year-to-year. Thus, North Korea’s rank improved from 182nd in 2011 to 174th in 2012, despite still being joint bottom in the rankings.

The consistency in outcomes is in fact partly an effect of the methodology TI uses, in which scores for a single year feature information which is up to two years old.  Yet the resulting predictability is also a feature of the core underlying concept being measured – corruption perceptions. Perceptions can take a very long time to change. An area with a bad reputation may well keep the reputation long after the causes of that reputation have gone. As a case in point, the city of Nottingham still has a reputation as a high-crime city that has a problem with guns, despite the very significant reductions in crime seen over the last decade and the rarity of gun crime in the city.  By the same token, some countries which are seen as having a ‘corruption problem’ struggle to shake the label, no matter what they do.  Andersson and Heywood referred to this as a ‘corruption trap’ in their analysis, published in Political Studies, of how and why perceptions really do matter in a real-world sense.  They concluded:

One potential consequence of the prevailing orthodoxy on both measuring and fighting corruption is that those countries most affected may become caught in a vicious circle: as aid becomes increasingly conditional on the adoption of western-defined measures to combat corruption, so those countries with the least resources to implement ‘good governance’ stand to suffer most from the withdrawal of precisely the support they need to stand any realistic chance of tackling corruption.

So should we simply dismiss measurements of corruption that are based on perceptions?  Clearly not, as they do reflect the reality of what (some) people think, and it is important that we understand that.  Instead, what is more open to question is the manner in which they are used for political ends.

It is noteworthy that in 2011 another anti-corruption NGO, Global Integrity, decided to remove from their website the Global Integrity Index which, in a manner similar to the Corruption Perceptions Index, provided a country ranking.  Part of the reason, they said, was that it was:

[A] conscious attempt to reinforce a key belief that we have come to embrace after many years of carrying out this kind of fieldwork: indices rarely change things. Publishing an index is terrific for the publishing organization in that it drives media coverage, headlines, and controversy. We are all for that. They are very effective public relations tools. But a single number for a country stacked up against other countries has not proven, in our experience, to be a particularly effective policy making or advocacy tool. Country rankings are too blunt and generalized to be “actionable” and inform real debate and policy choices. Sure, they can put an issue on the table, but that’s about it.

Corruption, you might think, is an issue that hardly needs to be put on the table any more.  But if you want to know the results of the 2013 CPI, then just go to the website and have a look at the results for any previous year: they will be pretty much the same as next year’s.

Paul Heywood and Jonathan Rose

Polling Observatory #20: final look at the parties in 2012, Osborne’s standing and the ‘house effect’

Polling Observatory #20

This is the twentieth 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 Chancellor’s Autumn statement marks the midpoint of this parliament, delivered against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and with the tough medicine of austerity now prescribed until 2018 at least (with OBR’s poor track record in forecasting leaving doubts there too), well after the next election. But with conference season now a distant memory and winter upon us, has there been any real shift in the political weather?

In our latest estimates, Labour are at 41.4% (down 0.5% from last month) and the Conservatives at 30.6% (down 1.3%), meaning that the Labour lead has widened to almost 11% despite downward movement in support for both the main parties. The beneficiaries of this have been the Liberal Democrats at 8.5% (up 0.6%) and UKIP at 8.8% (up 1.1%), who have both gained support. Our polling data runs up to the start of this week, so does not capture any post-Leveson fallout for the Cameron government over its rejection of statutory underpinning of press regulation, or immediate reactions to the budget. Certainly things are not looking good for the main coalition partners, the Conservatives, who have hit an all-time low in our estimates.

The budget statement of April 2012 will go down in history as one of the most politically disastrous in history, leading it to be tagged the ‘omnishambles’ and severely damaging the reputation of the Chancellor and the government for competence as well as reinforcing the perception (deserved or not) of the Conservatives as the party of the rich. Support for the Conservatives has never recovered from this crash in April 2012. While the Autumn statement has received nothing like the bad press, there are few rabbits for the Chancellor to pull out of the hat in austere times. Significantly, Osborne continues to suffer from poor standing with the public. Depending on your choice of pollster, he has an ‘unfavourable’ rating of 58% (Ipsos-MORI, April 2012), 56% (ICM, August 2012) or 53% (Opinium, October 2012). These figures are high by historical standards, though do not quite reach the dissatisfaction rating of 70% reached by Norman Lamont (Gallup, March 1993) or Nigel Lawson’s 61% (Gallup, January 1989), each of whom were soon given the axe. They are not far off though. If Osborne is to avoid being a drag on Conservative support at the next election, he is going to have to reverse this state of affairs soon.

The continued rise of UKIP has attracted a great deal of discussion, not least with regard to the relative intolerance of its supporters (see articles by Rob Ford here and here). It has also stimulated debate over the methods pollsters use to survey vote intention for ‘other’ parties, discussed by Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation and Anthony Wells. Our method enables us to put a figure on the degree to which each pollsters’ estimates of UKIP support are above or below the underlying industry average. These are consistent with Anthony Wells’ findings, with the internet pollsters Survation (+3.0%), Opinium (+2.1%) and Angus Reid (+1.3%) reporting the highest share for UKIP on average, and the telephone pollsters TNS-BMRB (-1.1%), Ipsos-MORI (-1.4%), Populus (-1.5%) and ICM (-2.1%) reporting the lowest share. As UKIP seem to be a political force to reckon with, at least for the time being, the question of such polling ‘house effects’ (i.e. the systematic tendency for a polling firms to report higher or lower support for a particular party) is going to be increasingly important in assessing the state of support for the parties.

Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup


A student’s experience on Question Time

David Dimbleby










As a politics student I was enthused at the prospect of participating in an active discussion with leading political figures such as Harriet Harman MP and the animated Nigel Farage MEP, especially as it was to be held in my home constituency of Corby and East Northamptonshire. Therefore I applied for a Question Time ticket in the hope that I’d  also be able to apply any knowledge gained as a first year Politics  student at Nottingham.

On being told that I would be part of the audience (which in itself was an accomplishment as two of my friends had been declined) I was inspired by  the lofty ambition of interacting with the panel and asking colourful questions. However, the reality was rather different; at around 200 to 300 people the chances of my question being selected was always slim. On reflection I believe that most of the questions asked were clearer and more concise than my convoluted and long-winded attempt. In spite of this I thoroughly enjoyed being an audience member; the people of my local steel-producing, Glaswegian migrant town produced an entertaining and lively discussion with the panel. Many audience booed and cheered to such an extent it felt like I was sitting through a pantomime at times.

I had, earlier in the day informed my Politics seminar groups that I would appear on the programme and thus felt an obligation to try to actively engage by raising my hand to comment and interject in the conversation.  I did not want my friends watching at home to waste an hour looking out for me on the TV. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on my alternating moods of nervousness and intrigue, David Dimbleby declined to pick me out of the sea of hands. Maybe like many in the audience I should have abandoned  my self-restraint and blurted out my question during a period of silence.

The most poignant memory of my brief flirtation with fame came during the discussion on corporate tax evasion and the morality of multinationals. Starbucks’ name was mentioned. An impassioned member of the audience delivered an emotive rebuttal to the panel’s condemnation of the coffee chain. The man was a local Starbucks franchise holder, a small businessman trying to make ‘ends-meet’ and forced to witness the televised crucifixion of his business brand. I could not help but feel extremely sympathetic for him as the  panel degraded his business, only metres away.

Overall I thought the experience was very satisfying and would recommend Question Time to any social sciences student: choose your location carefully and you could be in for an emotive and fiery exchange.

Lewis Holdcroft is a first year History & Politics student.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.