Spot the difference: noticing the change that austerity is making to public services.

 

“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services.  Can this really be true?

For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services.  The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’.  From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings.  They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.

So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?

Firstly, it depends on your perspective.  Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.

Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability.  ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income.  Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’.  Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.

However, efficiencies are not the whole story.  There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services.  Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.

For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off.  There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap.  Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.

In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels.  This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes.  However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.

The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland.  In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.

Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity.  Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res croppedtytThis is the thirtieth 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.

 

As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory conference season update #1 – Liberal Democrats

This is the twenty-ninth 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.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Lib Dems

One of the polling bookies has put the Liberal Democrats at evens to poll over 14% with YouGov by end of the year. This is a bet that nobody would be advised to take. The last time that the Lib Dems polled 14% with YouGov was in September 2010. They have been flat-lining ever since. Our most recent estimates put the Liberal Democrats at 7.7%. This is down 0.7 points on their support at the end of last August, a dismal position which a strong conference season is unlikely to do much to improve.

In many ways, the electorate’s roller-coaster relationship with Nick Clegg – from the love-in of debate-fuelled Cleggmania to formation of the coalition, the tuition fees betrayal and other policy compromises in government – resembles the rise and fall of Tony Blair on fast forward. Blair’s decline from progressive hero to hate figure – from the flag-waving days of May 1997 to the mass demonstrations of 2003, was six years in the making. Clegg managed to alienate almost as many voters in just five months. There is no sign that these voters are near to returning, and the Liberal Democrats can only hope that their local/personal vote saves them.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest this is simply the cost of doing business in a coalition setting. The Lib Dem’s electoral success from the early 1990s was built on making a pitch to middle class, left of centre voters – unwilling or unable to vote Labour, but turned off by the “nasty” Conservative Party. More recently, since the 2000s, its gains have largely come by positioning it to the left of Labour on key issues – Iraq, Europe and the environment most notably. Indeed, in 2005 the Liberal Democrat’s election platform was to the left of Labour, and in 2010 it was largely level. It can hardly be any surprise, then, that this electoral coalition has been decimated by the steady flow of compromises fashioned with their right wing coalition partners.

There is perhaps too much emphasis among commentators, then, on the degree to which Labour’s hopes for 2015 are ‘heavily reliant on the continued disenchantment of former Liberal Democrats’. Many of these voters are most likely not lifelong Liberal Democrats, but Labour supporters who quit the Labour coalition during the Blair/Brown years, and have returned to the fold under the Coalition government – ending the twenty year experiment of a social democratic Liberal Party. As we can see from the Polling Observatory figures, many of the supporters who left did so immediately after the Coalition was formed, and many soon after. The Liberal Democrats’ bleeding was complete by the end of 2010, and they have not really moved in the polls since. It is not just that British voters are not particularly keen on coalition government. Those who joined the Liberal Democrats from the left were not keen on a centre-right Coalition from the outset. For the Liberal Democrats, the current pattern represents a return to the post-war level of support for the old Liberal Party. The resurgence of the Liberal Democrats as a third way in British politics had been built up by the efforts of Ashdown and Kennedy, only to be dismantled by the project of the orange book Liberals — most notably Clegg, Alexander and Laws. One prominent member of the party’s left wing – Sarah Teather, representing a poor, former safe Labour seat, has already announced her intention to quit at the 2015 election. It will be no surprise if, as 2015 approaches, more prominent left-of-centre Liberals join her, jumping ship before the impending electoral Tsunami hits. Complete electoral disaster may be spared, however, through the personal vote that individual MPs have managed to cultivate in their local constituencies – recent evidence suggests voters in Liberal Democrat seats like their MP better than those living in Labour or Conservative seats, and that such voters remain more willing to back a local Liberal Democrat than the national polling suggests.

Perhaps the only question that remains is this: will the Liberals have sufficient MPs in the next parliament to play kingmaker? Clegg would be better advised to stop manoeuvring the party in preparation for the next coalition and instead focus on finding a way to expand a support base that has been on life support for more than three years now.

Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

Why party conferences still matter

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The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

MPs and Twitter: which parties are tweeting?

Image by Shawn Campbell

Image by Shawn Campbell

For my final year dissertation I chose to look at what use MPs’ are making of social media. Focussing on their use of Twitter, I set out to answer two questions; which MPs are tweeting and what are they using it for? Something that emerged when carrying out the research was the differences between MPs from the three main parties.

Party Yes No N
Conservative 54.8 45.2 305
Labour 69.1 30.9 256
Liberal Democrat 75.4 24.6 57
Others 65.6 34.4 32

Who tweets? By party (% of total MPs)

As of January this year, 54.8% of Conservative MPs were tweeting. This is significantly less than the 69.1% of Labour MPs and 75.4% of Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives certainly look to be lagging behind the two other parties, but this difference in numbers is largely down to the number of tweeting frontbenchers.

The majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers do tweet, with over 80% of each party’s frontbenchers on Twitter. This is in contrast to the Conservative party, with only half of its frontbenchers using Twitter as of January this year. If there is one party that is behind in using Twitter it is the Conservatives, with proportionately less of their MPs on it and significantly fewer frontbenchers. It seems to be viewed with suspicion amongst the party’s leadership, with David Cameron once infamously claiming ‘too many tweets make a twat’ and reported attempts to restrict their MPs’ use of it. On Labour’s side, with 85.7% of their frontbenchers on Twitter this suggests more of an effort to get their frontbench to make the most of Twitter.

If they are making this effort, it hasn’t filtered through to their backbenchers. Whilst there is a large difference between the number of Labour and Conservative frontbenchers who tweet, there is little difference between the backbenchers with 56.3% of Labour backbenchers and 59.8% of Conservative backbenchers tweeting. With fewer MPs, proportionately there are more tweeting Liberal Democrat backbenchers at 71.8%. The Liberal Democrats are the only one of the three parties with a high proportion of both front and backbenchers tweeting, meaning overall they have the highest proportion of MPs on Twitter. Only 13 of their MPs do not tweet. Given their position as the third party, this is not massively surprising. Twitter is perhaps seen by them as a means to promote their party, whereas they might struggle for coverage in the media compared to the other two, larger parties.

In the run up to the 2005 general election a number of MPs set up blogs, and in 2010 they signed up to Twitter. They realised the benefits of blogging and tweeting for their campaigns, but as things stand the Conservatives lag behind in terms of their presence on Twitter (particularly amongst its ministers, being the only party with its backbenchers more likely to tweet than its frontbenchers). It will be interesting to see whether they feel the need to change this as we head towards 2015, or whether they will remain behind the other two parties.

James Donald recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics.

See also:
MPs and Twitter: who’s tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: what are MPs tweeting about?
MPs and Twitter: an infographic