Archive for the 'Politics' Category

3 critical steps we need to take to save democracy

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Henry Tam

Henry Tam, author of Time to save democracy: How to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, discusses the decline of democracy and the three critical steps that must be taken in order to save it.

“In the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa, there was a time when democracy seemed to be in the ascendant. But the new millennium has not brought good tidings, more the reverse.

George W. Bush played his part with his ill-conceived wars to make people recoil from any talk of ‘spreading democracy to the world’. On both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Third Way’ attempts to blur the left-right divide managed to consolidate one thing – the indifference of a third or more among those eligible to vote to stay away from the polling booth whenever there’s an election on. And then came Brexit and Trump in 2016 to demonstrate how ready millions of people were prepared to cast their vote irrespective of what the clearest evidence and expert analyses might say, so long as they could vent their frustration and anger at a few easy targets.

“We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government.”

We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government. But when the mere form of electoral selection is mistaken for the substance of an equitable system of control by the people, our political health is in trouble. Any superficial framework for vote-casting can all too easily be exploited by charlatans with wealthy backers. To save democracy from terminal decline, we must take action in three critical areas.

First, democracy has to take roots in a polity with a broad sense of togetherness. Neoliberal individualism and divisive tribalism in their respective ways attack civic solidarity, and blind people from recognising the need to prioritise their common good. But social polarisation is not inevitable. Governments around the world have used engagement techniques, familiarisation activities, and reconciliation processes to bring people with diverse backgrounds together to develop shared understanding and joint objectives. Rejecting both the ‘anti-political correctness’ brigades who celebrate discrimination as their heritage, and the ‘rights-override-all’ warriors who refuse to accept that rights can ever be diminished by wrong-doing[1], the state should stand firm on guaranteeing respect for all who respect their fellow citizens, and stamp out invidious attempts to stigmatise ‘others’. Furthermore, we should not weaken civic cohesion by giving public subsidies to schools that inculcate beliefs in the supremacy of their own faith, but instead strengthen it through teaching democratic consensus-building and the importance of pursuing the public interest.

Secondly, the rule of law must be backed by a collective system for distinguishing truth from falsehood. For too long, concessions have been made to the relativist notion that all claims are as valid as each other, thus giving succour to demagogues, extremists, and corporate propagandists to pretend what they say are inherently beyond criticism. And when their version of ‘reality’ is contradicted by objective evidence, they invoke the freedom of speech to keep spreading their lies in the hope that they can fool enough people enough of the time to win power. But no country refrains from setting and enforcing legal limits on irresponsible communication. Even those who declare there must never be any restriction step back when what is communicated involves, for example, words and images that encourage the targeted audience to commit atrocities in the name of some deity, consume what is above the accepted safety level, or promote paedophilia. In addition to applying the law against irresponsible communication consistently and rigorously, especially in relation to those are prone to lie to expand their economic and political influences, schools must be given the duty and corresponding resources to teach to a high standard the skills for objective reasoning, debunking misdirection, and evidential examination.

“…we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making.”

Last but not least, we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making. The unscrupulous among the rich and powerful use their resources to back candidates and policy proposals that favour them at the expense of everyone else. And money matters. For example, between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the US House of Representatives, over 80% of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won[2]. Spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68% of that money coming from just 0.26% of the population[3]. For many people, there is no point getting involved when the rich will ultimately have the last say. In the 2016 US presidential elections, 48% of those who had registered to vote did not actually cast a vote – that’s 95 million people who simply abstained.

Beyond restrictions on campaign donations and spending, other ways should be considered for reining in plutocratic influences. Many more public decisions should be delegated to deliberative forums structured to curtail opinion manipulation. A decent level of public service and basic income should be provided to protect people from being politically marginalised by socio-economic vulnerabilities. There should be better resourced and more transparent investigative agencies to hold both those holding and seeking political office to account for their actions. And to give all those who work in any organisation a real say over their pay differentials, more support should be given to the development of multi-stakeholder cooperatives that are far less likely to tolerate inequitable income gaps.

[1] Otherwise the ‘right to freedom’ would shield every criminal from punishment.

[2] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 11)

[3] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 2)

TTS_DEMOCRACY_FCTime to save democracy, by Henry Tam is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £15.99.

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Why the UCU strikes are bound to be insufficient to ensure equality

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Jan Deckers, Newcastle University

Jan Deckers, contributor to Justice and fairness in the city, talks about the UCU strikes, currently underway.

“Members of UCU, the University and College Union are on strike over a proposed change in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), or pension scheme. The crux of this proposal is a transition from a Defined Benefit to a Defined Contribution scheme, where it will be much less clear what benefits employees will receive when they retire. Whilst employers would reduce their contributions from 18% of salary before tax to just 12%, employees would shoulder greater individual risk due to individual (rather than collective) portfolios being gambled on the stock market.

We are all in this together, right? The fight over pensions essentially pits the hierarchies of higher education institutions against those who are lower on the echelons of power, as the executive heads of UK universities and colleges make up Universities UK, a charity that, amongst other things, negotiates pensions with USS. Whilst not all vice-chancellors and principals are united in the push for changes in said pension scheme, the rift suggests a worrying trend as salaries of senior academics have increasingly been criticised as unfair.

In my work I consider how salaries ought to be allocated within large organisations, and I have provided my own organisation, Newcastle University, as an example. I argue that decisions about what people’s salaries, and therefore also their work pensions (or deferred payments), ought to be are best made by starting from an egalitarian baseline. Any changes from this baseline must be justified by reference to a number of criteria. These include: controllable effort; duties in relation to unpaid work; health care needs; morally significant debts; and historic unfairness.

Let us take each of these factors in turn. It is important to start from an egalitarian baseline where every employee is paid the same amount for each hour worked as, in the absence of countervailing evidence, treating people equally demands that we assume that they work equally hard. In practice, however, people’s commitments vary, which is where controllable effort comes in. Whilst it may be unfair to discriminate against those who may be naturally or culturally predisposed to be less committed, it seems fair to reward those who voluntarily work harder. A pat on the back in the form of a bonus payment can incentivise hard workers to keep up the good work or to work even harder.

Where governments fail, employers should also compensate for employees’ varying duties in relation to morally important unpaid work, for example for the many hours of care work that is predominantly carried out by women. Their health care needs are as important as everyone else’s. This is why employers must more generally vary payments so that those with complex or expensive health care needs that are insufficiently addressed by governments and insurance schemes can afford the health care that they deserve. Payments must also consider morally significant debts, for example, those that some employees may have accumulated to qualify for their jobs. Finally, payments must also take into account historic unfairness. Yes, some who have been overpaid in the past may justifiably be paid less in the future.

“…without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.”

There is no evidence that careful consideration of these criteria has altered decision-making in large organisations, and a dearth of evidence that they have been discussed in the academic literature, in spite of this neglect resulting in significant negative health impacts. My fear, however, is that without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.

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Credit:  Flickr: Nick Efford (CC BY 2.0)

Many of my colleagues know that there is something rotten in the state, but one does not need to become a comrade to know that the occasional handouts, usually around Christmas time, to poorly paid staff are not quite sufficient to trigger significant change for the better. Unless current discussions regarding this pension scheme engage in serious discussion about these criteria, it is my concern that especially those who will be the worst off may come to rely even more on charity, rather than on fairness, from those who wield power over them.

It might be argued that the fair pay and pension scheme that I have sketched here is not fair either as it falls foul of what I call the ‘brain drain’ objection. A charity such as Universities UK might seek to justify a less egalitarian scheme by appealing to some notion of the greater good or the lesser evil. If a more egalitarian scheme was implemented, it might lead to people with big brains leaving higher education, resulting in a loss in economic power and an even greater deficit in the pension scheme than that envisaged by Universities UK, which is based on a rather dire prediction. Whilst the ‘brain drain’ objection must be taken seriously, it is rather ironic that this prediction suggests that there is little confidence in the future of higher education in the UK, at a time when the managers of various institutions have awarded themselves significant pay rises for their efforts to secure this future.

In all this, it must be emphasised that this lack of solidarity has a significant inter-generational component. However, not only younger academic colleagues stand to lose a lot. Now that many students in the UK have to pay tuition fees for which they enter into significant debt, these same students will lose out once again as they face the negative consequences of strike action, for example through class cancellations.

Justice and fairness in the city_for web [FC]

Justice and fairness in the city, edited by Simin Davoudi and Derek Bell was published in 2016 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99. Jan’s chapter from the book is available to read free here.

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Repealing the 8th: how new legislation on abortion should be designed

Fiona de Londras

Fiona de Londras

Mairead Enright

Mairead Enright

Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright – authors of ‘Repealing the 8th: Reforming Irish abortion law‘ – respond to the announcement of the Irish Cabinet of its intention to hold a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 in May 2018. The book, now publishing on Thursday this week, looks beyond the referendum to what might come next, presenting detailed proposals for new legislation.

Chapter 4 from the book – Accessing abortion care: principles for legislative design – is now available to download free on our website. 

In 1983 the Irish Constitution was amended by the insertion of Article 40.3.3, now known as ‘the 8th Amendment’. This provides that “the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

At first glance, the 8th Amendment may seem innocuous or merely aspirational. However, over time, this provision has led to a near-absolute prohibition on abortion in Irish law and serious infringement of pregnant people’s rights. Under the current law, abortion is only lawfully available in Ireland when a woman will almost certainly die without it, and even then multiple doctors usually have to agree that this is the case.

“More than three decades of activism have come together in a large, vocal, visible and highly effective campaign for political and legal reform.”

Now, though, there are signs of change. More than three decades of activism have come together in a large, vocal, visible and highly effective campaign for political and legal reform; for the removal of the 8th Amendment and introduction of a law that will enable women to exercise agency in pregnancy and ensure that, for those who want to avail of it, abortion care is available at home in Ireland.

On Monday, the Irish Cabinet announced its intention to hold a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 in May 2018. The People will be asked to delete this Article and to insert a provision that expressly says that provision may be made by law for the termination of pregnancy. The Taoiseach said that the referendum will present the People with a choice to enable the Irish parliament to legislate for abortion care at home, or to continue to export abortion to other jurisdictions and to put the lives of women in Ireland at risk.

The Cabinet will publish indicative legislation for a GP-led abortion service ‘on request’ up to 12 weeks, and more limited access to abortion in later pregnancy.

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After the referendum

In the book we look beyond the referendum, to what might come next once the 8th Amendment no longer absolves the Oireachtas of the responsibility to make law to provide for the needs of women in Ireland. We include detailed proposals for how new legislation on abortion might be designed, including draft legislation that gives effect to the proposals that appear to have received Cabinet support this week in a way that respects the rights of pregnant people in Ireland.

“…the rights of pregnant people can be developed in ways that truly respect and protect bodily integrity, privacy, and the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.”

In doing this, we argue that repeal of the 8th Amendment would create opportunities for the progressive interpretation of the Constitution, so that the rights of pregnant people—for so long narrowed down to a bare right to life said to be equal in stature to that of an unborn foetus—can be developed in ways that truly respect and protect bodily integrity, privacy, and the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment. This, we argue, would compel the Irish state to provide for lawful abortion, but would allow it to pursue the socially valuable objective of preserving foetal life provided in doing so it respects the constitutional rights of pregnant people.

This can be done by introducing law that makes abortion available without restriction as to reason up to at least the twelfth week. After that such a law might make lawful abortion available on broadly drawn health grounds so that pregnant people can truly determine the course of their own reproductive lives, and so that victims of sexual violence or those who have received unexpected foetal diagnoses will be able to be supported through a decision to an end a pregnancy, rather than forced through a punitive ‘qualification’ processes. This is what we are calling for now that the Referendum has been announced.

Like the Citizens’ Assembly and Joint Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Amendment, we draw distinctions between the availability of abortion after 12 weeks and after 24 weeks, with later abortion (after 12 weeks) being truly exceptional in law, just as it is in life. Illustrating the feasibility of such an approach, we include in the book draft legislation that gives effect to this approach. This makes our book essential reading for anyone involved in the campaign.

Our objective in writing this book was threefold. First, we wanted to make the constitutional arguments about the 8th Amendment clear and accessible and, in so doing, to show that from a legal perspective there is nothing unusually difficult about legislating for abortion and no reason why, uniquely among medical procedures, it should be regulated within the text of the Constitution. Second, we wanted to show how the Constitution itself could develop after repeal to reinvigorate the personal rights of pregnant people and to strike a balance between protecting these legal rights and pursuing the social objective of preserving foetal life through voluntary, consensual, and well-supported pregnancy. Finally, we wanted to show that, by drawing on experience in other countries and on international human rights law, and by committing to ensuring that pregnant people have sufficient certainty and support to make decisions about their own reproductive lives, a workable, reasonable, and rights-based law on access to abortion can be imagined and designed for Ireland.

Now, with the announcement of the Referendum on the 36th Amendment to the Constitution, we are a step closer to achieving some of these goals, but there is still much work to do. Given this week’s developments, Policy Press has brought forward the publication of the book to 1 February: please circulate information about it to anyone who is involved in the debates around the referendum.

 

Repealing the 8th: Reforming Irish abortion law‘ by Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright  is publishing on 1 February 2018 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Pre-order here for just £10.39.

It will be available Open Access under CC-BY licence.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Why does public sexual harassment matter?

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Fiona Vera-Gray

The announcement today that MPs are launching an inquiry into the public sexual harassment of women and girls is a welcome recognition that finally these experiences matter. Fiona Vera-Gray, author of The Right Amount of Panic, looks at how safety and freedom work together in women’s lives.

“Picture this: You’re on a bus and this guy in front of you turns around and starts talking. You think, it can’t be at me, so keep reading, and then he says, “Are you ok? I’m talking to you.” You’re polite, a little unsure, so respond, “Oh sorry I don’t know you.” And then it starts. He says, “I thought we could get to know each other. What’s your name? Have you got a boyfriend? Where have you been? What are you reading? Why are you being so rude? You think you’re better than me? Stuck up bitch.” He follows you when you get off at your stop. You make sure you stay on a main road. You lose him at a busy intersection when you cross the road just before a bus passes, leaving him stuck on the other side.

“Women and girls are routinely having to evaluate what the right amount of panic is, to direct their movements and actions in public space.”

This is just one example of what women have told me about their experiences of public sexual harassment. Parts of this will be familiar to many women in the UK and beyond, the intrusive questioning and interruption, the quick turn to insults and aggression. Women and girls are routinely having to evaluate what the right amount of panic is, to direct their movements and actions in public space. And though usually such encounters, and the work women do to manage them, are commonly dismissed as “all part of growing up”, it looks like the impact they have is about to be taken seriously.

The announcement today by the Women and Equalities Committee that they are launching an inquiry into the public sexual harassment of women and girls is a welcome recognition that finally these experiences matter.

Activists and organisations have been working for many years to try to raise awareness of the routine intrusions women and girls experience from men in public spaces. In the UK, the filmmaker Aleah Scott’s short film LDN GIRLS profiled the work of activist Kafayat Okanlawon, and groups such as Purple Drum, the young women’s project at Imkaan committed to archiving and amplifying the voices of black and minoritised ethnic women, have highlighted the importance of looking at racialised public sexual harassment, and the experiences of queer black and minoritised ethnic women.

I have been researching this since 2012, publishing the first full length study in the UK in 2016. I’ve also been working with young people on the issues, developing a set of Lesson Plans with Rape Crisis South London and Purple Drum that helps young people think through the differences between banter, harassment, and a compliment. What I have found is that far from the ways public sexual harassment is trivialised, it plays a significant role in limiting women’s freedom.

Women are habitually performing safety work, often without thinking. Habits such as restricting where they go, what they wear, choosing particular seats on public transport or certain routes home. The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive, a highly crafted way of evaluating what the right amount of panic is in any given situation.

“… crucial information can be missed when we ask broad questions about crime and safety.”

However, this ability to create a feeling of safety through changing their behaviour creates a problem: it means that crucial information can be missed when we ask broad questions about crime and safety. Questions such as “how safe do you feel?” or “how often have you experienced sexual harassment in public?” are unable to capture the work that women may be doing to feel safe, or the many times where this work has been successful and they have expertly avoided sexual harassment. We become unable to see the full impact of the sexual harassment of women in public because we’ve separated out safety from freedom and are only measuring the former. But in women’s lives, the two work together. The Women and Equalities Inquiry may finally give a space for this connection to be uncovered.

Over the past months, we have seen the ways that the #metoo movement has mobilised women across different sectors. It is not that women are finally speaking about their experiences of harassment – indeed many of the accounts include how disclosures were previously made to people with the power to make changes – it is that women are finally being heard. This movement has shown what happens when we take workplace sexual harassment seriously. The Inquiry over the next few months may at last do the same for our experiences in public.

9781447342298The Right Amount of Panic by Fiona Vera-Gray is publishing in July 2018 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Pre-order here for just £11.99.

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How to start dismantling white privilege in higher education

Racism is still alive and well in US and UK academia, writes Kalwant Bhopal, author of White privilege. She argues that to dismantle it, there is a need for radical action from universities, which must start by acknowledging the existence of institutional racism and white privilege.

Originally published by the LSE British Politics and Policy blog on 28th November 2017. 

Kalwant Bhopal

Despite many claims to the contrary, racism is alive and well and robustly shaping the educational experiences of black and minority ethnic students in the United Kingdom and the United States. The evidence that this is happening in schools, when accessing elite (and non-elite) universities and later when applying for better paid or higher status jobs is scrutinised in my new book, White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. I argue that in neoliberal contexts, policy-making ensures covert and overt forms of racism, and exclusion continues to operate at all levels in society in which white identities are privileged. The talk may be all about a ‘post-racial society’, but in reality the status quo remains unchallenged.

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism. At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors or occupy decision-making roles. The white space of the academy perpetuates and reinforces white middle class privilege; consequently our higher education continues to be dominated by a white elite. I have researched educational inequalities for 30 years and it often feels like we are going around in circles: the more things change, the more they stay the same. A radical shift is needed from universities to acknowledge their long-standing role in privileging whiteness and implement change that addresses the inequalities this has fostered.

Credits: pxhere (CC0 Public Domain).

Higher education must firstly acknowledge institutional racism and white privilege; a failure to acknowledge racism results in a failure to act upon it. Institutional frameworks to facilitate change at local and national levels include universities monitoring racist incidents, identifying measures to address racism, and action plans with specific outcomes. Such action plans need to be characterised by their ‘clarity’; they need to demonstrate a clear link between identifying a problem, providing solutions, and measuring outcomes. Additionally, they need the ‘clarity’ we might associate with being ‘out in the open’, in which racism is publically acknowledged and addressed. Such clarity would ensure that it is the outcome of change that is assessed, rather than the rhetoric of what should happen.

Secondly, universities should be held to account for their lack of representation of black and minority ethnic groups in senior decision-making roles through monitoring and reviewing their staff profiles on a regular basis. A greater visibility of black and minority ethnic staff is needed in senior decision-making roles so that there is a specific recognition and valuing of diversity in staff representation. Unconscious bias training should be mandatory for all staff: at the very least, this training should be a requirement for individuals who are involved in promotion and recruitment panels. Simple measures such as the introduction of name-blind job applications to avoid the ample evidence that non-Eurocentric names are disadvantaged in recruitment processes are easy to implement and immediately signal a willingness to tackle issues of diversity. To support black and minority ethnic staff to reach their full potential, all universities should be expected to provide formal mentoring and training to staff who wish to progress in their careers.

Thirdly, universities must address the racial makeup of their student bodies. Oxford University was recently accused of ‘social apartheid’ for not admitting a single Black British student in nearly one in three of its colleges. Too often institutions that fail to recruit Black British students talk about their commitment to diversity by highlighting the numbers of international students they have recruited. These are discourses that demonstrate a lack of clarity. The value of international students for universities is closely tied to their greater economic contribution compared to home students. When the playing field is level, when white home students and black home students are paying the same fees, it seems remarkable that diversity is suddenly not accounted for.

Universities must be held accountable for failing to admit a diverse body of home students. I suggest a quota system should be introduced for selective universities, as well as elite universities, such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group in particular. The persistent failures of these publically-funded universities to address their inability to recruit the brightest students if they have the ‘wrong’ skin colour is, in the language of civil servants and policy-makers, not delivering value for money. Measures such as outreach programmes targeting poor areas, underperforming schools and underrepresented schools; offering support packages to pupils to develop their university applications; training for interviews; bursaries and scholarships to Oxbridge, are in no way about lowering standards. They are simple, necessary steps to move towards an inclusive approach for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are not currently finding they have access to the same opportunities afforded their white, more wealthy, privately-schooled peers.

White privilege is awarded to those who are already privileged. This reinforces and perpetuates a system in which white elites are able to maintain and reinforce their position of power at all levels. Within a neoliberal context, policymaking is legitimised through a rhetoric that reinforces the benefits of neoliberalism as a universal value. I argue, however, that it reinforces whiteness and white privilege. It fails to acknowledge the role that race and inequality play in perpetuating advantage over disadvantage and that neoliberalism does not benefit all members of society equally.

Furthermore, to argue that the aftermath of the Macpherson report on institutional racism in the UK police has resulted in a post-racial society is utterly absurd (as I highlight with Martin Myers in a recent paper). Such discourses only serve to further marginalise black and minority ethnic communities. Racism exists at every level of society: it permeates our schools, our colleges and our universities. It is alive in all elements of society, our popular culture, our media and the social spaces that we occupy. We do not live in a post-racial society. What you look like – if you are black or from a minority ethnic group determines how you will be judged. Race acts as a marker of difference in a society poisoned by fear, insecurity, and instability. If we continue as we are, then whiteness and white privilege will continue to dominate in higher education institutions, with white groups doing whatever they can to protect and perpetuate their own positions of power.

 

White privilege by Kalwant Bhopal is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £10.39.

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Why the left loses: Explaining the decline of centre-left parties

Are centre-left parties across Europe facing a future of decline? Drawing on a new book, Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy argue that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. However, centre-left parties now face a number of major challenges, from the rise of new parties to the erosion of their traditional support bases, and only by addressing these challenges can their decline be halted.

Originally published by the LSE EUROPP blog on November 8th 2017. 

Rob Manwaring

Paul Kennedy

Is the centre-left in terminal decline? At present, the electoral fortunes of the main social democratic and labour parties are not healthy – following Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, a suite of elections has tended to see the main centre-left party lose out.

In Britain, despite the back-fire of Teresa May’s snap election, The Labour Party has now lost three straight elections, last winning in 2005. Elsewhere, 2017 was a mostly bleak year for the centre-left, with record defeats for the PvDA in the Netherlands, and a near destruction of the French PS under Benoît Hamon in the French elections. Yet again, Angela Merkel has bested the SPD in Germany, and the left also lost in Norway, despite a close race. It also remains out of office in Australia, Spain and Finland.

In other places, the centre-left might be in office, but either in minority government or in a fragile electoral setting (Denmark, Portugal, Italy). Of course, the trend is not uniform, and the recent election in New Zealand does demonstrate that the centre-left can win from seemingly difficult circumstances. Yet, since the highpoint of the late 1990s (at one point 15 of the then 17 EU member states were headed by the centre-left), the electoral returns have been poor, often with new populist challengers on the scene.

As co-editors of a new book, Why the left loses, with our colleagues we wanted to uncover what was behind the apparent decline in the left, and also add to the wider literature. Although the snapshot which we provide hardly paints a picture of a social democracy in rude health, we are united in our belief that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. As Sheri Berman states in her contribution, “The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy”.

Yet, social democracy has no divine right to exist; on the contrary, centre-left parties must be tireless in their efforts to convince electorates that they remain relevant to their day-to-day concerns, and it is little consolation that electorates don’t appear to care much for other political families either.

As the late Peter Mair chillingly observed in the opening lines of his posthumous Ruling the Void, “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

What’s driving this downward trajectory? Institutionally, many of the centre-left parties face a fragmenting party system with new and emergent challengers, (UKIP, Podemos, the Swedish Democrats, the AfD in Germany, etc). The centre-left then becomes squeezed from both left and right. Changing electoral sociology means that the major parties suffer from class and party de-alignment. In many cases, the changing economic structures have eroded traditional centre-left support, and the parties have been unable to build enough support from other groups.

And what of agency and leadership? In many cases, some of the recent crop of centre-left leaders have not been up to the task. Moreover, much of the longstanding literature on social democracy tends to downplay the role of leadership, but in a more personalised, social-media driven environment, effective leadership is harder to deliver.

Ideationally, we tend to find that the centre-left has not really moved on from the ‘third way’ formula of the 1990s and 2000s. Commonly associated with Anthony Giddens, the third way was an attempt to renew social democracy, but also critique ‘old’ social democracy and neo-liberalism. Since the third way heyday, the centre-left has struggled to find a new ideational formula. In the UK, Ed Miliband played with ideas of ‘predistribution’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘One Nation’ and so on. This ideational restlessness perhaps reflects the ongoing struggle for the centre-left to re-state its purpose in the 21st Century.

Until these wider issues are grappled with, the risk is that the centre-left will keep on losing.

About the authors:

Rob ManwaringFlinders University
Rob Manwaring is a senior lecturer at Flinders University, in South Australia. He researches into the areas of labour and social democratic politics, comparative politics, political parties, and democracy.

Paul KennedyUniversity Bath
Paul Kennedy is Lecturer in Spanish and European Studies at the University of Bath.

 

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The Tax Credits system needs fixing: addressing Universal Credit is not enough

Sam Royston, author of Broken benefits, argues that the government must reform the  flawed Tax Credits system before they can even begin to improve Universal Credit.

It is tempting to think that a “devastating picture of administrative chaos, computer errors and political misjudgements” in the social security system must be a reference to Universal Credit over the last few months. It well could be, but this is, in fact from George Osborne back in 2005 emphasising that problems with the Tax Credits system had become so serious he believed that there were serious questions over the future of the responsible Minister.

Many of the problems were to do with the way in which Tax Credits are calculated and paid. Whilst, as we shall see, many of the problems were addressed at the time, cuts to the benefits system mean that they have been rapidly re-emerging in recent years.

Why were Tax Credits such a mess when they were first introduced?

Tax Credits are an annual award – the total amount a claimant is entitled to is calculated for the whole year. However, people, and particularly those living on the lowest incomes, need to receive payments more frequently than once a year. For this reason, they are normally paid on a weekly or four weekly basis, based on an estimated entitlement for the whole of the year.

Since Tax Credits are means-tested, the claimant’s household earnings over the course of the year can affect the overall amount due – predicted annual entitlement is based on what the claimant thinks their income will be for the year.

“At the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.”

The difficulty arises at the end of the year, when the award amount is checked against the household’s actual income for the year. If the household’s income is lower than the estimate, then the award may have been underpaid and is topped up to the actual entitlement. If the household’s income is higher than the estimate, then this can result in the award being classed as overpaid and the government asking for some of the money back.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money – in 2004, at the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.

To reduce the likelihood of overpayments occurring, the Tax Credit system has a built in “buffer zone” (known as the “income disregard”) which means that a household’s income can rise by up to a given amount during a year without affecting their Tax Credit entitlement. In the mid 2000s, as a result of the amount of Tax Credits being overpaid, the government decided to increase the income disregard from £2,500 to £25,000. In effect this meant that if a claimant had been paid Tax Credits for a few months at the start of the year based on their previous year’s earnings of £10,000, and then changed job so that by the end of the year they had earned £35,000, their overall Tax Credit entitlement wouldn’t be affected.

Some overpayments are in fact impossible to avoid without a buffer zone – a household that has a low income for most of the year and then gets a sharp but unforeseeable increase in income may have already had more than their yearly entitlement before the rise in their income.

What’s gone wrong with welfare reform?

Despite this positive effect, following the 2010 election, the coalition government decided to reduce the size of the overpayments buffer zone – first from £25,000 to £10,000, and then to £5,000.

“They are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time.”

Astonishingly, the coalition government also decided to introduce the reverse of a buffer (an anti-buffer?) which disregarded falls in income of up to £2,500 from 2012. This means that when (for example) a worker sees their hours reduced so that they earn £2,500 less than they did the previous year, the earnings figure used to calculate Tax Credits is not immediately adjusted down. Instead they are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time when they are likely to be struggling.

As the income disregard has been reduced, overpayments (again, unsurprisingly) have increased. As large a proportion of Tax Credit claimants face overpayments than during the height of Tax Credit problems in 2005, with one in three claimants facing an overpaid award, and £1.6 billion of overpayments in 2015-16. This includes some exceptionally large overpayments – including around 50,000 families overpaid by more than £5,000.

Tax Credit awards overpaid as a proportion of total awards
2003/04 – 2015/16

awards-overpaid

In 2005 when these problems were first recognised, the then shadow (and later actual) Chancellor of the Exchequer called for the resignation of the Minister responsible. The response of the government was dramatic – not only did the Prime Minister apologise, but the large increase in the size of the income disregard was a direct response.

In 2015, when he himself was faced with a similar scale of problems within the system, the response of the Chancellor was to further reduce the level of the income disregard, back to the 2003-4 level of £2,500. We don’t yet know the impact that this will have on overpayments, but the Chancellor expects to save quarter of a billion pounds from this measure at its peak in 2018-19.

Giving credit where credit’s due

“It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system needs fixing.”

It is tempting to think of the Tax Credits system as a thing of the past, focussing instead on the profound mess which is being made of the introduction of Universal Credit. However, it is important to remember that more than 4 million families (with more than 7 million children), still rely on vital Tax Credits to make ends meet – and will do for the next few years at least.

Nor will these families escape their overpayments when they transfer over to Universal Credit – they will come with them and be automatically deducted from their Universal Credit entitlement.

It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system need fixing. For a Government which wants to improve the fairness and simplicity of the benefits system, removing vital income disregards which prevented families from falling into benefit debt is a move in entirely the wrong direction.

 

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


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