Yes, the monuments should fall

This article was contributed by Dr Joel McKim, from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA

Writing in the 1930s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously noted that despite their attempted grandeur, there is nothing as invisible as a monument: “They are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” It’s difficult to reconcile Musil’s observation with what we’ve witnessed from afar over the past week – a nation seemingly ripping itself apart, a statue of Robert E. Lee situated at the centre of the conflict.  Michael Taussig has, more recently, suggested an important adjustment to Musil’s theory arguing that it’s not until a monument is destroyed (or is slated for removal) that it succeeds in drawing our attention. The monument, Taussig reminds us, is often the first symbolic target in times of struggle.  “With defacement,” he writes, “the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”

The confederate statues in America and the dilemma over what do with them became extremely visible this past week. It’s a discussion that has actually been taking place for some time now, with the removal in April and May of a number of monuments in New Orleans (including statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy) being a recent flashpoint. And there are of course many global and historical precedents to this debate, including the removal of racist and imperial icons in South Africa over the past several years and the precarious fate of Soviet-era statuary (see for example the excellent Disgraced Monuments, by our own Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis). Decisions over what to do with symbols of past shame or troubling history also extend to the realm of preservation. Germany and Austria have recently been debating whether several architectural sites connected to the history of National Socialism, including the Nuremberg rally ground and the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left to decay.

Apart from the abhorrent, but hopefully small faction who sees these symbols as worthy of veneration, another argument for keeping confederate monuments in place surfaces frequently from an apparently more benign viewpoint. We’ve all heard some variation of this position expressed over the past several days: “These monuments are an important reminder of our difficult and troubling history.” Or, “These statues help us to educate ourselves about what we have overcome.” Or, “If we destroy the past we will be doomed to repeat it.” While perhaps well meaning, I believe this line of argument is misguided in a number of ways. I think it’s fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of both the social dynamic and cultural history of monuments. Let me explain why.

Firstly, if monuments do have a significant educational purpose (and even this is questionable), it is certainly naïve to think this is the only mode by which they function. Rather than serving as references to the figure or event of the history they depict, public monuments communicate far more about the collective sentiments of our current period and the period in which they were erected. They express, in other words, rather than simply educate. The majority of confederate monuments, as New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us, were constructed not at the time of the civil war, but long afterwards during moments of resurgence in pro-confederate sentiment and white backlash against black civil rights, such as the Southern Redemption period. They were much less a marker of a tragic, but completed chapter in the nation’s history, than an expression of a renewed commitment to the cultural values of the losing side. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was completed in 1924 and reflects a period of intense KKK organizing in the area. That these monuments can still function today as rallying points for ethnic nationalists and white supremacists, rather than as neutral transmitters of a distant history, should be self-evident after this week’s events. Could whatever nominal educational value these monuments possess, ever justify the continued emboldening role they play for these groups, or the genuine pain and distress they cause to so many who are forced to encounter them in public space? Ask a member of the black community if they are in need of a statue of Robert E. Lee to teach them about the history and continued impact of slavery and discrimination in America.

The second reason I think anxieties of the “destruction of history” type are misguided is that they don’t adequately recognize the always provisional and malleable nature of monuments and memorials. Far from being permanent or stable markers of history, monuments are perpetually being altered, moved, re-interpreted and reconsidered. They are contentious and contingent objects. The memorial landscape is continually in a process of adaptation. As Kirk Savage claims in his insightful history of the National Mall in Washington, “The history of commemoration is . . . a history of change and transformation.” Even the Lincoln Memorial, the most monumental of American memory sites, is an example of adaptation according to Savage. Its adoption as a symbol for the black civil rights movement occurred despite, rather than because of its intended design – the planners deliberately downplayed Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s protest-oriented projections onto existing statues are another important example of how the struggle to determine a monument’s meaning may continue long after its construction. Some of the most powerful monuments and memorial proposals of the past few decades have incorporated an element of self-destruction or suspicion into their own form. From the Gerz’s monument against fascism that disappears into the earth, to Maya Lin’s deliberately non-monumental Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gates as a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In short, public monuments change; their lifespan is not and probably shouldn’t be infinite. We don’t owe them that. The debate and conflict surrounding the removal of confederate monuments is obviously a clear indication that America is also currently undergoing a process of significant change. While the events of the past week have been worrying and sickening, I am heartened by the number of courageous people committed to ensuring that this change is a move forward, rather than a regression.

Dr Joel McKim is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and the Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology. His book Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in a Post-9/11 New York is forthcoming in 2018 from Bloomsbury.

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Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the UK PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog

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What can organizational psychology tell 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.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK (23261468319)

By Chatham House (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It never fails to astonish me that much of what we have learned from applying the science of the mind to the context of work does not seem to have made much of an impact on the world of politics. Politicians, by definition, are leaders – so we should apply leadership theories to our assessments of their performance. Politicians’ day job is politics, but surely they need to bring the right knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) – things that we would measure in any other job to see if people are suited to what they do.

In 2007, Jo Silvester and Christina Dykes published a longitudinal study of prospective political candidates. The  researchers conducted a job analysis, which is the first step in organizational psychology for a range of activities including selection and training, to draw up a competency framework – what do politicians need to be good at? The resulting competencies (KSAs) looked very much like those we would expect to find in other organisational contexts, including ‘intellectual skills’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘leading and motivating’; the only politics-specific competency was the level of ‘political conviction’. Performance, as measured in this way, predicted political performance, but so did their critical thinking capacity as measured by psychometric tests. So what can we learn from this study? Political performance can be measured, and surely it should be transparent to both politicians, but also voters, what marks ‘good’ performance in this context. This study found no evidence for any gender differences either.

So how do Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fare when measured against aspects of this framework, based on what we have observed of their leadership during the general election campaign? I remain unconvinced that either displayed critical thinking capacities if we take the election manifesto of either party as a performance output. The conservative manifesto was ill judged, alienated core voters (the dementia tax….) and overall just did not convince enough people that the Tories were worth re-electing. The Labour manifesto scored higher on political conviction, but had almost no suggestions for how any changes might be funded, putting strategy before any references to feasibility of implementation.

What about each party leader’s capacity to lead and motivate? Corbyn and his party clearly succeeded in mobilising grass roots support and also mobilising the young electorate which had absented itself from the Brexit referendum.

‘Communication skills’ and ‘intellectual skills’ are another aspect of the model of political performance. Taking reactions to the recent terrorist attacks as an example, May failed to show any human reaction to what were two sets of tragic events in short sequence, at a time when the general public is in great need of reassurance and support. Corbyn, on the other hand, attributed the happenings as a reaction to the UK’s involvement in war in Muslim countries; not a correct inference, as neutral countries have also been subject to attacks.

In terms of leadership, Theresa May seemed uncertain during what political commentators unanimously refer to as a disastrous and misguided election campaign. Her chief aides have now resigned, which throws into question her judgment on which advisors to surround herself with. Good advisors and teams are crucial to any political role. Modern life is so fast-moving, complex and, as recent events have demonstrated, unpredictable that no one person can lead a party, let alone a country, on their own.

In organizational psychology terms, there is a substantial body of research which demonstrates that ‘shared leadership’ across teams and organisations leads to better performance and better outcomes all around. Yet, in politics as well as in corporate life, we tend to pin our hopes on the one person at the top. Surely the time has come to change this, and make political leadership a more balanced, fair and transparent process than is currently unfolding in front of our eyes.

I grew up in Germany, learning in English textbooks about the Anglosaxon culture, about the power of the voice of the people and the unique British democratic process. Yet, recently, I no longer feel so certain that the current political system is serving us well and reading the political press in my home country, it seems other voices in Europe agree.

The time seems to have come to rethink politics and democracy to instil fairer and more transparent processes to ensure that a) politicians are up to their job and b) voters can make informed decisions.

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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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Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

leadershipTheresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued:

“Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.”

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia

This article was written by Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics

george-orwell-bbc-1

George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a lowly member of the ruling party, rebelling against the totalitarian rule of Big Brother and The Party in Airstrip One (formerly England), part of the vast empire of Oceania. George Orwell’s novel shows with a terrifying clarity what a totalitarian regime looks like from the inside, with its propaganda, controlled hatred and perpetual war. The book was considered so realistic that when copies were sneaked illegally into the USSR, illicit readers presumed it was written by someone close to Stalin.

As others have pointed out, what makes it so powerful are the details that we all recognise. The dictatorship is all powerful yet the in the England of ‘Airstrip One’ sinks are still blocked, greasy canteens serve sloppy food and tower blocks smell of cabbage. When Winston Smith sleeps and dreams of freedom he wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Unlike the brilliant abstract novel We that inspired Orwell, this dystopia, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feels very close by (see Orwell’s review of We here).

The world in which Smith moves also feels scarily relevant. The leaders in Oceania control their people through targeted hatred and predict what they do before they do it. There are uncomfortable echoes of the dark side of a surveillance society and big data: they can even monitor you through your television. The book is also full of ‘political language’ that ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Double-think dominates a world where those in power can believe contradictory things simultaneously and bend reality at will. Opening up Orwell’s book today, Oceania’s propaganda slogan ‘ignorance is strength’ rings far too familiar for comfort.

Alongside the torture in Room 101 and the mind reading Thought Police, the truly terrifying feature of Winston’s world is the lack of objective truth. In Oceania it is impossible to establish something as a fact: what the Party says is true is the only truth. Winston Smith works in a Ministry constantly amending previous editions of newspapers, altering the past to control the future. Orwell’s fictional Oceania does what the truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century tried to do: create their own ‘moral universe’ insulated from reality. Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps in Nazi Germany were taunted by the guards with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’.

Orwell’s original title for the book was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Smith’s struggle to love and live in Oceania is a struggle to preserve his humanity. Despite its reputation as a vision of an alternative future, the dystopia of Oceania is as much a warning as a prophesy. Orwell’s book, written in beautiful clear prose, offers us a frightening glimpse of what life was like for many people (and still is like in many places). Is it completely bleak? Read the mysterious appendix on Newspeak that Orwell eccentrically insisted on keeping in, even for Reader’s Digest. It’s written in the past tense.

Listen to Jean Seaton, Ben Worthy and Caroline Edwards discuss 1984 at Birkbeck Arts Week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia’ on 17/5/2017 at 6pm. For tickets click here.

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Getting our Act together

After 700 amendments and some heated debates, the Higher Education and Research Bill finally became law last week. Birkbeck’s Policy Communications Officer, Fiona MacLeod, has followed its parliamentary progress from First Reading to last week’s ‘ping-pong’ between the two Houses of Parliament, and outlines what changes it will bring to the Higher Education sector.parliament
The Higher Education and Research Bill ended its lengthy passage through Parliament last week and is now law. With both Houses agreeing on the exact wording of the Bill, it received Royal Assent on Thursday 27 May with a flourish of Norman French – a declaration that ‘La Reyne le veult’ – to become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The ‘ping-pong’ process between Commons and Lords to agree a final version of the Bill began the day before, when MPs rejected earlier amendments made in the Lords and agreed a raft of new Government amendments in lieu. These final amendments were designed to achieve compromises acceptable to Peers and get the Bill passed speedily before Parliament’s formal dissolution this week ahead of the 8 June General Election.

The 2017 Act has been hailed as ‘the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years’ but getting it to this point involved more than 700 amendments and some major concessions from the Government.   So what key changes to UK higher education does the 2017 Act bring?

The Act establishes a new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and integrates the UK’s seven research councils into a new body called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Among its regulatory changes, the Act will make it easier for new higher education providers to gain degree awarding powers and university status, while the OfS will implement a new mechanism to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, already underway, known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and results of the initial TEF trial will be published in June.  The TEF will be used to set university tuition fees, but any differentiation of fees based on its controversial Olympic medal-style ratings will not happen until 2020/21. Until then, future increases in fee limits – in line with inflation – for universities participating in the TEF will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Act also requires an independent review of the TEF in 2018 which will look at how ratings are decided and what they should be called; whether the metrics used are appropriate; the TEF’s impact on institutions and indeed whether the TEF is in the public interest. This goes further than the earlier ‘lessons learned’ exercise offered by the Government. The review’s conclusions will be considered before the 2020 timeframe for fee differentiation based on TEF ratings. The Act ensures the TEF can’t be used to limit international student recruitment figures and will require institutions to publish specific data deemed ‘helpful’ for international students.

For Birkbeck, a major problem with the early draft of the Bill was its failure to reference part-time study and its importance for the country’s future skills needs. It also failed to recognise the particular needs of mature or part-time learners when outlining the future role of the OfS.  Working with MPs and Peers, including College President Baroness Bakewell and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, Birkbeck lobbied successfully to gain explicit recognition of part-time study in the Bill; the OfS will be required to promote choice in the way university courses are taught, including part-time study, distance learning and accelerated courses.

We’re also pleased that the Act will help make alternative methods of financing available to those unable to take out student loans, including for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.

The OfS will be responsible for quality and standards in the HE sector and will absorb the work of the Office for Fair Access.  Universities will be required to publish information about the fairness of their admissions as well as information that might be ‘helpful to international students’.

The Act also confirms that International students will continue to be included in the net migration target. Media reports suggesting that the Prime Minister was softening her stance on this in order to get the Bill passed proved to be inaccurate, and Peers reluctantly accepted the status quo.

Among other hotly debated aspects of the Bill, the Act confirms that University title, even those granted by Royal Charter, can be removed by Government.  But the Secretary of State will have to consult representative bodies of higher education providers and students when giving guidance to the OfS about its power to grant university title, and the OfS must consider this guidance before allowing a provider to call itself a university. There will be a full review to look at the shared features of a university – such as excellent teaching, sustained scholarship, learning infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

Similarly, the Bill was strengthened to provide better oversight of OfS’s powers to grant, revoke or vary degree awarding powers (DAP): the OfS will have to notify the Secretary of State when granting DAP to institutions which have not previously had a validation agreement with another higher education provider or OfS, and degree-awarding powers will be automatically reviewed following a merger or change of ownership.

Peers welcomed the many changes made to the Bill during its parliamentary progress and there was much mutual congratulation last week on the Government’s willingness to listen and the degree of cross-party collaboration in the Lords.

Lord Stevenson, Labour’s spokesman on higher education in the Lords, said the amended Bill would ‘improve collaboration within the sector… help reverse the decline in part-time students…assist mature students who wish to come back, and … pave the way for more work to be done on credit transfer and flexible courses’.  Let’s hope he’s right.

See the Parliamentary process of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 here and Read debates on all stages of the Act 2017 here

 

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Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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Social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion

This article was written by Dr Ben Gidley from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Prof David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck

It’s not unusual, when a major government report is published – not least on a contentious topic such as integration and cohesion – that the content of the report bears little relationship to how it is spun by ministers and reported in the media.

In the case of the report earlier this month of the Casey Review into Integration and Opportunity, sensationalist media reportage has amplified the elements of the report which demonise particular – mainly Muslim, migrant and Roma – communities already feeling under pressure in Brexit Britain, promoted a message that integration is somehow the solution to the problem of politically-correct multiculturalism, and highlighted the most gimmicky recommendations.

Civil society activists, academics and the liberal commentariat have understandably focused on the same problematic elements from a critical angle, while also highlighting the unevenness in the use of evidence in the report (heavy on official statistics, thinktank reports, attitudinal surveys and anecdote, light on the use of scholarly literature and in particular on qualitative research on how integration works in practice).

And so, once again, an excellent opportunity for a meaningful national debate on this important topic is slipping out of reach.

The Casey Review makes three major political interventions. The one that has been highlighted in the public debate so far is elaboration of integration as a panacea for the alleged failures of multiculturalism, with a focus on migrants’ and minorities’ responsibility to integrate and sign up to “British values”, tested, for example, through a heavy-handed integration oath on entry. In this sense, the report follows the orthodoxy embraced by New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments since the 9/11 attacks and milltown riots of 2001.

The other two interventions, however, have received less attention, and deserve more acknowledgement. First is the insistence that, while integration happens locally, it is not enough to devolve all responsibility to it for under-resourced and under-equipped local authorities and their civil society partners. What is needed is a national strategy and national guidance – and nationally ring-fenced funding.

Second, we cannot talk about integration without talking about what Casey generally refers to as inequality of opportunity – the structural iniquities which block the path to integration of some groups. Casey is admirably clear that discrimination and racism (intensified by irresponsible media), alongside class injustice, is one of the primary barriers to integration.

These are points we made in a 2014 report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, Integration, Disadvantage and Extremism, based on a thorough review of the evidence.

market-778851_1280There, we showed that many in Britain’s diverse population – including both minority ethnic and majority ethnic citizens – face a range of disadvantages, several of which are shared. These disadvantages give rise to both real and imagined grievances – whether about the war on terror or about rapid demographic change. We showed that social disadvantage and racial injustice, alienation and disempowerment, generate divisive social relations and political movements that feed on hate.

We concluded therefore that integration policy must be aligned with the realities of disadvantage: rather than tackle intolerance and extremism in isolation, the debate about achieving racial equality, social mobility and social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion.

By reviewing the evidence of what has worked at a local and national level, we concluded that the continued national abdication of responsibility for integration strategy is untenable. Crucially, a national strategy requires national guidelines for its implementation. It should set out detailed, concrete, substantive actions and a coherent methodology for measuring progress, based on robust data: such a “smart” approach is the only cost-effective approach to doing social policy in a time of austerity.

The urgency of these tasks has been amplified by the evidence presented in the Casey Review. But they will fail if the debate continues to be dominated by the shrill voices of panic and isolationism, if a rigorous analysis of disadvantage continues to be obscured by a mantra that equates the working class with whiteness and sees the white working class as some kind of ethnic group, and if the evidence required for smart interventions is dismissed in the Brexit age’s retreat from expertise.

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Trump trolls, Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement: The internet meets politics

This article was written by Andrea Ballatore, Lecturer in Geographic Information Science, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University. It was originally published on The Conversation

We blame the internet for a lot of things, and now the list has grown to include our politics. In a turbulent year marked by the U.K.‘s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, some have started to wonder to what extent the recent events have to do with the technology that most defines our age.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators accused Facebook of being indirectly responsible for his election. Specifically, they point to the role of social media in spreading virulent political propaganda and fake news. The internet has been increasingly presented as a possible cause for the post-truth culture that allegedly characterizes contemporary democracies.

These reactions are a reminder that new technologies often stimulate both hopes and fears about their impact on society and culture. The internet has been seen as both the harbinger of political participation and the main culprit for the decline of democracy. The network of networks is now more than a mere vehicle of political communication: It has become a powerful rhetorical symbol people are using to achieve political goals.

This is currently visible in Europe, where movements such as the Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement, which we have studied, build their political messages around the internet. To them, the internet is a catalyst for radical and democratic change that channels growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties.

Web utopias and dystopias

The emergence of political enthusiasm for the internet owes much to U.S. culture in the 1990s. Internet connectivity was spreading from universities and corporations to an increasingly large portion of the population. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore made the “Information Superhighway” a flagship concept. He linked the development of a high-speed digital telecommunication network to a new era of enlightened market democracy.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteer efforts to wire schools to the internet in 1997. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The enthusiasm for information technology and free-market economics spread from Silicon Valley and was dubbed Californian Ideology. It inspired a generation of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, politicians and activists in Silicon Valley and beyond. The 2000 dot-com crash only temporarily curbed the hype.

In the 2000s, the rise of sharing platforms and social media – often labeled as “Web 2.0” – supported the idea of a new era of increased participation of common citizens in the production of cultural content, software development and even political revolutions against authoritarian regimes.

The promise of the unrestrained flow of information also engendered deep fears. In 1990s, the web was already seen by critics as a vehicle for poor-quality information, hate speech and extreme pornography. We knew then that the Information Superhighway’s dark side was worryingly difficult to regulate.

Paradoxically, the promise of decentralization has resulted in few massive advertising empires like Facebook and Google, employing sophisticated mass surveillance techniques. Web-based companies like Uber and Airbnb bring new efficient services to millions of customers, but are also seen as potential monopolists that threaten local economies and squeeze profits out of impoverished communities.

The public’s views on digital media are rapidly shifting. In less than 10 years, the stories we tell about the internet have moved from praising its democratic potential to imagining it as a dangerous source of extreme politics, polarized echo chambers and a hive of misogynist and racist trolls.

Cyber-optimism in Europe

While cyber-utopian views have lost appeal in the U.S., the idea of the internet as a promise of radical reorganization of society has survived. In fact, it has become a defining element of political movements that thrive in Western Europe.

In Italy, an anti-establishment party know as the Five Star Movement became the second most-voted for party in Italy in the 2013 national elections. According to some polls, it might soon even win general elections in Italy.

The Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected as Rome’s first female and youngest mayor in June. AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci

In our research, we analyzed how the Italian Five Star Movement uses a mythical idea of the internet as a catalyst for its political message. In the party’s rhetoric, declining and corrupt mainstream parties are allied with newspapers and television. By contrast, the movement claims to harness the power of the web to “kill” old politics and bring about direct democracy, efficiency and transparency in governance.

Similarly in Iceland, the Pirate Party is now poised to lead a coalition government. Throughout the few last years, other Pirate Parties have emerged and have been at times quite successful in other European countries, including Germany and Sweden. While they differ in many ways from the Five Star Movement, their leaders also insist that the internet will help enable new forms of democratic participation. Their success was made possible by the powerful vision of a new direct democracy facilitated by online technologies.

A vision of change

Many politicians all over the world run campaigns on the promise of change, communicating a positive message to potential voters. The rise of forces such as the Five Star Movement and the Pirate Parties in Europe is an example of how the rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of the digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse.

In thinking about the impact of the internet in politics, we usually consider how social media, websites and other online resources are used as a vehicle of political communication. Yet, its impact as a symbol and a powerful narrative is equally strong.

The Conversation

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