General Election results: Birkbeck comments

The shock of a hung parliament following what only a few weeks ago looked certain to be a landslide victory for the Conservative Party has made this election one of the most unpredictable in recent generations.

The election also saw a number of Birkbeck alumni elected or re-elected as Members of Parliament: congratulations to: Kemi Badenoch (Con, Saffron Walden), Kwasi Kwarteng (Con, Spelthorne), Gloria Di Piero (Lab, Ashfield), Lisa Nandy (Lab, Wigan), Lucia Berger (Lab, Liverpool Wavertree), John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes & Harlington), Tulip Siddiq (Lab, Hampstead and Kilburn) and Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, Kingston).

Since the election was announced six weeks ago, Birkbeck academics have been using their expertise to offer insightful analysis of the unfolding political developments.


The Queen’s Speech

“While there is no specific Higher Education legislation the Government are still committed to an Industrial Strategy of which skills and training are a component and they are further committed to creating Institutes for Technology at locations throughout England. Whether these will embrace FE and HE qualifications or delivery we don’t yet know. The Conservative manifesto had also committed to a review of Tertiary education funding. While this is unlikely to happen more due to parliamentary arithmetic legislation would not be required should it choose to undertake this review. Finally, the Queen’s Speech is not the only opportunity for a Government to bring forward new policy. It is almost certain there will have to be a Budget and many positive measures for Birkbeck eg: PG Loans have come about that way. Let’s watch this space!”

– Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor, Birkbeck


sarah-childsLet’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

With a record high number of women elected to Parliament, was the 2017 general election something to celebrate? Professor Sarah Childs (who will join Birkbeck’s Department of Politics from 1 September – pictured left), Meryl Kenny (University of Edinburgh) and Jessica Smith (Birkbeck PhD student) re-assess the recent result and consider what it means for women’s political representation.


almuth-mcdowallWhat can organizational psychology tells us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet, as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

 


ben-worthyWe need to talk about Jeremy: why I was wrong about the 2017 General Election

Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, examines why so many people underestimated the effectiveness of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign prior to the election.

Hung parliament

As it becomes clear that the most likely scenario following last week’s election is a minority Conservative government, with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, discusses what a hung parliament is – and how long it is likely to last.


Results day reaction

jason-edwardsDr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics :

“The election result reflects important and ongoing changes in British politics and society. First and foremost, it shows how far  the old ways of doing politics have declined. The vitriol against Labour and Corbyn expressed in the traditional right-wing press seem to have had little impact. Social media now seems to be of much greater importance in motivating people to vote, and in shaping who they vote for.

“One effect of this is that the electorate is much more informed and policy-focussed than usually thought. This can be seen in attitudes towards Brexit. The lazy belief that most people either want to remain in the EU on current terms or have a ‘hard’ Brexit has been exposed. There is no clear divide between remainers and Brexiteers and people’s attitudes are much more nuanced.

“Above all, and some might say encouragingly, the election shows the clear limits of populism. The Conservatives played the populist card fully in this election and paid the price for it. UKIP were demolished. Labour, despite some calls to transform itself into a leftist populist movement, and while undoubtedly playing on some populist tropes (‘for the many, not the few’), set out a relatively clear and detailed programme that, despite widespread doubts about Corbyn’s leadership, attracted large numbers of people.

“Some will despair at the messy outcome of the election, but it marks significant shifts in society that offer great opportunities for – as well as threats to – democratic renewal.”

ben-worthyDr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics:

“Theresa May’s premiership looks over almost before it has begun. So how did it happen? And how do Premierships unravel? Here are three rules that, if broken, can get a Prime Minister in severe trouble:

  1. Don’t take too many risks

Leaders need to take risks but they should be calculated. Eventually a leader will simply run out of luck. Though she styled herself as the careful and thoughtful Vicar’s daughter she was actually a terrible risk taker. May gambled on being able to negotiate Brexit in secret (and failed), gambled on article 50 not going through Parliament (ended up in the Courts and failed) and then decided on an election. In the election she then gambled on a UKIP vote, her own leadership abilities and a set of untested policies (all of which failed). The old adage is that successive Prime Ministers are successively vicars and bookies. Theresa May posed as vicar but punted like a (rather reckless) bookie.

  1. Don’t underestimate your opponents

May clearly believed she could beat her rival and capitalise on his unpopularity. She thought wrong. Corbyn has energised young voters and, unbelievably, also appears to have won over the over-65s, gaining a remarkable 40% of the vote. Corbyn’s campaign has somehow united Remainers and Leavers and young and old. It may be, as some have argued, that the non-stop Conservative and right-wing media barrage at Corbyn boomeranged straight back at them. After two years claiming the Marxist extremist Corbyn would have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the mighty’ the public just saw a reasonable, positive man promising more money for public services.

  1. Don’t overestimate yourself

Hubris is always lurking. May clearly somehow came to believe that she could carry an election based on herself, a kind of cult of personality built around her ‘strong and stable leadership’. The campaign ruthlessly exposed May’s many weaknesses and Michael Crick memorably said how ‘strong and stable’ had become  ‘weak and wobbly’. In the space of six brief weeks, as Paul Waugh put it ‘the cautious pragmatist allowed herself to be portrayed both as a Leave-loving zealot and a flip-flopper’.

So now Theresa May’s premiership is unravelling before our eyes. Whatever deal is done with the DUP May is in her end game. Any Prime Minister that has to announce they won’t resign is already in deep, deep trouble. She has few allies and has fallen out with her Chancellor and isolated herself from her party. Even if May survives and limps on, she is damaged, captured and will be portrayed as being controlled by others: hanging on by her constitutional responsibility rather than her authority. Theresa May broke the three rules and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

woodheadConsequences for Higher Education
Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor at Birkbeck:

“As the dust settles on what has been an extraordinary General Election campaign and result we ought to take time to see what this means for Education and Universities in particular. The ink hadn’t even dried on the Higher Education Act when the election was called and that Bill was as a result of a number of changes committed to in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It shows how long the political process can take.

At the start of the election campaign and the subsequent manifesto launches it was quite clear that Education along with Brexit and Social Care would become one of the key issues. Labour’s commitment to scrapping tuition fees and introducing grants was a bold policy (costed around £10bn) but was clearly designed to appeal to the under-25s. This is a demographic that rarely voted and felt, particularly after the EU Referendum that they were not being heard. Many seats where universities had residential accommodation saw surges in the electoral roll. Curiously when the Lib Dems tried the same policy in 2010 which secured them a record 57 seats but when in Coalition and compromises had to be made it was abandoned and support from students ebbed away. On top of scrapping fees Labour also offered a review into lifelong learning which would have been relevant to Birkbeck but little detail was given.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto went into some detail about research funding and restoring student grants again to appeal to its university heartlands of Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam and Bath however they were only successful in the latter of these seats. While the Lib Dems wanted to put Brexit at the heart of the election campaign it seems that the electorate didn’t have the same priorities.

Turning to the Conservative manifesto there is mention of a Tertiary Funding review, the creation of Institutes for Technology and the Industrial Strategy Green paper – all with a focus on Education and Skills. There is also a looming question as to whether there will be further restrictions on international students coming to the UK. Depending on the stability of the Government it will remain to be seen how many of these manifesto pledges can be implemented or whether we will in fact be in election mode so soon after this one…”


How people decide who to vote for

rosie-cPolitics Professor Rosie Campbell reported on how people actually decide how to vote for the BBC, noting that ‘more of us are changing our minds,’ citing the framing of campaigns by the media, as well as major national or international events (such as recent terror attacks), and emotional influence as likely to change the course of a vote.

 


Iconography in politics

Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature at Birkbeck discussed the iconography of hair of different politicians, and how it affects perceptions of the politician.


Theresa May – leaking leadership capital?

Shortly before the election, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister commented on the diminishing leadership capital of the Prime Minister, and how leadership can be measured.

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Soldiers aren’t being harangued by lawyers – it’s a myth designed to discredit the Human Rights Act

This article was written by Dr Frederick Cowell from Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on Left Foot Foward

Theresa May’s government is pushing a narrow, meaningless conception of human rights

theresa-may-3

There has been some controversy over the government’s plans to use the emergency powers provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to exempt British forces from lawsuits.

Despite the bullish selling of the proposals it is worth noting they can’t exempt soldiers from being responsible for torture or allow them to use the death penalty. In these cases the Human Rights Act (HRA) could still be used to bring claims against British forces and they could still be subject to war crimes prosecutions under the International Criminal Court Act.

But it’s the tone of this announcement and the context in which it takes place which makes it worrying for the protection of human rights.

As Dr Marko Milanovic notes, there is little evidence of an ‘industry’ of ‘vexatious litigation’ against the armed forces, which is the stated rational for these proposals.

Yet, it seemed to provide the warm up to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference where she promised to never again ‘allow left-wing human rights lawyers to harangue… our armed forces.’

Theresa May has been here before; in 2011 when she was Home Sectary she addressed the Conservative Party Conference claiming that there was an illegal migrant ‘who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.’

Except, she was making it up. Taken alongside the wider drip feed of negative stories about the HRA, many of which are based on misrepresentations of the law, this appears to be part of a process of ‘monstering’ the HRA, designed to create the political conditions for its repeal.

The repeal of the HRA and its replacement with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ has been Conservative Party Policy since 2006. In 2007 the then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron said that a British Bill of Rights could enhance the protection of rights by including rights not included in the ECHR, such as the right to a trial by jury.

Later this was quietly dropped with the emphasis on HRA repeal focusing on criminals using the right to family life to avoid deportation. In 2012 the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights concluded that the HRA shouldn’t be repealed but noted there were ‘perceived problems with the Human Rights Act… largely caused by a lack of public education’.

Ironically the escalation of anti-HRA rhetoric came precisely at the time when the UK Government achieved a major victory on reforming the European Court of Human Rights, with the 2012 Brighton Declaration, which led to a reduction in its backlog of cases. In 2014 the government were able to change immigration rules to make it much harder for criminals to use the right to a family life to resist deportation, again addressing a criticism often levelled at the HRA.

There is a split in the Conservative party between those who think a Bill of Rights should be framed narrowly, to amend the HRA, and those who think it should lead to UK withdraw from the ECHR, in a form of second Brexit. The current Justice Secretary has confirmed that it is still government policy to introduce a British Bill of Rights, although since winning the 2015 General Election this has been subject to a series of delays.

In her Conservative Party leadership campaign in July Theresa May stated that she would not campaign to leave the ECHR as there was no parliamentary majority for such a move. This leaves the door open to withdraw the ECHR at a later date which is considerably easier to do following withdrawal from the EU.

The contents of a British Bill of Rights is as of yet unknown however, the tone of announcements seem to indicate a strong focus on who shouldn’t have rights and where rights shouldn’t be applied.

The 2014 Conservative Party paper ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’ contain some indications, such as references to preventing human rights being used in ‘trivial’ cases, that there are moves to distinguish between undeserving and deserving rights holders in a future Bill of Rights.

Repeated criticism by many leading figures in the government of the HRA being used to challenge welfare policy or immigration decisions has been framed in language pointing to an undeserving rights holder. This is also accompanied by claims that certain groups needing to be protected from human rights law, or where human rights law is used by those charged or convicted of a crime that human rights law needs to focus on the victims of crime.

When the recent announcement on the liability of the armed forces is seen in this context, it reads like a trailer to a much narrower, and potentially more meaningless, conception of human rights being pushed by the current government.

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Reflections On Gay Marriage

This post was contributed by Daniel Monk, Reader in Law, in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

When the result of the House of Commons vote on gay marriage was announced I was surprised not so much by the result – 400 in favour/175 against – but by how moved I was by it.

Full Equality?

If enacted, gay marriage will not add any rights or benefits to those already provided for by the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The marriage rules relating to adultery and consummation (which never applied to civil partnerships) will still not apply to same sex marriage. And Christian gays and lesbians will be prevented from being married by the established Church of England (even if their local clergy wants to). So, while close, it is not full legal equality. And add to this the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron’s support of gay marriage has been seen by many political commentators as an attempt to prove himself to be a moderniser in the run up to the 2015 General Election, a more cautious reaction to the vote might have been in order.

Past injustices

But the reason why it moved me and many other gays and lesbians attests both to the symbolic significance of marriage and to law’s function, too often unacknowledged, as a vehicle for the expression of emotions. Oscar Wilde on being released from Reading Gaol in 1897 is recorded as saying, “Yes, we will win in the end; but the road will be long and red with monstrous martyrdoms”. The overwhelming support for gay marriage by the House of Commons is moving then, not primarily because of what it enables in the future, but because of the perspective it provides for viewing and remembering that long road. For many gay men alive now sex between men was illegal for a major part of their lives and lowering the age of consent to 16 (making it equal for gays and straights) was only achieved in 2000. As an undergraduate student in the 1980s not only was it potentially criminal for me to have any male partners but in family law I read about contemporary cases where lesbians were losing custody of their children simply on the basis of their sexuality. And at the same time the notorious Section 28 in 1986 outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. In this context the vote for gay marriage, in a bitter sweet way, is experienced as a form of reconciliatory justice, an implicit political acknowledgment and apology for the violence of the law in the past.

Why Marriage?

That marriage has been the vehicle for expressing a commitment to respecting gays and lesbians is not surprising. For those who see analogies between gay rights and the US Black Civil Rights movement, the right to marry (as opposed to entering a civil partnership) is comparable to the right to travel on non-segregated buses. Equal but different simply isn’t good enough. But marriage is a complex institution and its ‘true’ function has always been contested. Gay marriage is only one site of contemporary conflict. Other current debates concern the status of pre-nuptial agreements, the legal distinction between ‘forced’ and ‘arranged’ marriages, and extension of marriage-like rights to cohabitants (conjugal, coupled or otherwise). This broader context opens up the debate to principles other than formal legal equality and reveals alternatives to simply voting for or against gay marriage.

Alternatives

One alternative, which is adopted in many continental countries, is that ‘marriage’ is left totally to the authority of religious bodies and all legal consequences are removed from it, while at the same time opening up civil partnerships to both heterosexuals and non-conjugal relations. One benefit of this is that the rules relating to adultery and non-consummation would not apply to anyone, again a reform adopted in other jurisdictions. Of course this route would require the disestablishment of the Church of England and the separation of Church and State. (Section 3 of the gay marriage Bill refers to the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533; in family law the battle between Church and State goes back a long way!)

A second even bolder alternative would be to leave marriage to religious bodies and to simply dispense with the legal regulation of conjugal couple relationships altogether. This approach asks us to question not ‘why should gays be excluded from marriage’ but ‘why does the State regulate relationships’? This focus requires us to engage seriously with David Cameron’s claim that he supports gay marriage, ‘not despite being a Conservative but because I’m a Conservative’.

These are important questions for the future. But in looking back to the past and fittingly as Birkbeck for the time marks LGBT History Month, gay marriage is unquestionably cause for celebration.

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