Political Leaders are facing challenging times

conference imageI recently convened a Political Studies Association workshop on political leadership at the University of East Anglia.  Below, I reflect on some of the lessons learnt.

Political leaders are facing challenging times.

International financial austerity has had dramatic consequences for leaders around the world. Leaders have often had to campaign for (re)election and govern with significant public deficits, stagnant growth and public unrest. The rapid evolution of social media has affected the way in which leaders communicate to citizens, and how citizens communicate to each other about leaders. In many democracies electoral support and membership of the main political parties has been in long-term decline.

On 17th January UEA hosted the Annual Political Studies Association workshop to critically examine this topic.  The event brought together leading scholars disciplines as diverse as electoral studies, organisational psychology, elite theory, public administration, international relations and many more  to study this topic.

Professor Tim Bale was the keynote speaker. His address, published in the Guardian evaluated the performance of Ed Miliband as leader of the opposition and argued that despite some criticism Miliband had performed well as party leader.

The workshop the received papers which considered alternative frameworks for evaluating and thinking about political leadership.  These included papers on the concepts of statecraft, political capital and the personal characteristics that make for a good leader.  Among the papers, Jim Buller (University of York) and Toby James (UEA) outlined a framework for thinking about the nature of the context in which leaders find themselves.   Using this approach they suggested that Gordon Brown had initially performed very well in a very difficult context, but that his performance deteriorated very quickly after 2008.  Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Ben Worthy (Birkbeck University) introduced a framework for examining the political capital that leaders have.  Jo Silvester (City University of London) demonstrated how studies from organisational psychology can help to identify the characteristics of good leaders and Alan Finlayson (University of East Anglia) explained why we should look at the rituals and performance (in a theatrical sense) of leaders in leadership contexts.


Some panels in the afternoon focused on political leaders in Britain with assessments of dispatch-box opponents Ed Miliband and David Cameron.  Among these, Andrew Gamble (University of Cambridge) argued that the Coalition government’s policies of austerity might not be good economics, but was a politically astute strategy for the government.  Paul Whiteley (University of Essex) argued that the performance of leaders was very closely tied to the economy under the Labour governments.  But since the Coalition came to power, the relationship between the economy and political support has changed, with neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats gaining from a fairly rapid growth in economic optimism which has taken place since early 2013.  Ivor Gabor (City University of London) noted how the Daily Mail had tried ‘attack’ Ed Miliband by painting him as ‘Red Ed’ and attack his father, but that this ‘attack’ had not been successful.  Miliband’s oratoral style was also examined by Andrew Crines (University of Leeds) and his strategy of moving the party to the left questioned by Thomas Quinn (University of Essex).

Other panels considered political leadership at the local, European and international level; or the challenges facing leaders in France, Greece and elsewhere.  In the management of foreign policy John Gaffney (Aston University) noted that the poor judgement of Hollande Presidency in dealing with Syria and the Chemical Weapons Crisis of August-October 2013 and Kleanthis Kyriakidis and Petros Siousiouras (University of the Aegean) argued that the leadership of the West had more generally failed to manage the opportunity and challenges of the Arab Spring. Austerity, demands for new forms representation and changing institutional structures have posed challenges for leaders in Greece (Marina Prentoulis – University of East Anglia), Britain and Germany (Ekaterina Kolpinskaya (University of Nottingham), (Nicholas Wright (UEA)).  Changed institutional landscapes also pose new opportunities and challenges for leaders at the local level claimed Alex Marsh (University of Bristol) and European level claimed Hussein Kassim (University of East Anglia).

Some of the challenges that leaders face are new, some are very old.  But overall the workshop was very successful at bringing together scholarship from a variety of academic sub-disciplines to bring new perspectives to the field of leadership.  Select items will be published in the near future.  Some papers from the workshop are available here:  http://politicalleadership.org/events/uea-2014/.  If you want to know more about what was said, please see the Storify of tweets below.

Dr. Toby James is a Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of East Anglia.

This post was originally posted on the Eastminster blog 



A blueprint for fixing elections? The Presidential Commission on Election Administration publishes its report

The US Presidential Commission on Election Administration has today published its report on how long-running problems with American elections can be fixed.  It has claimed that:

problems that hinder the efficient administration of elections are both identifiable and solvable.

The whole report can be downloaded here

Here were my suggestions:  https://www.supportthevoter.gov/2013/10/24/what-the-presidential-commission-can-learn-from-the-united-kingdom-about-improving-elections/

Voter ID in Britain? A Note of Caution from Academic Research

New Research on Individual Electoral Registration - Policy ImplicationsVoter ID in Britain is being put forward to fix the problem of voter fraud.  Toby James claims that there is little evidence of widespread voter fraud.  Rather, research shows that voter identification requirements might restrict turnout unevenly across British society and is the policy option that is likely to be considered strategically by the main political parties.  

The Sunday Times has reported that the voter ID proposals are being considered by the government.  The Electoral Commission has been reviewing electoral fraud in Britain and will publish its report tomorrow.  According to The Sunday Times, it will propose that citizens should show identification such as their passport or driving licence to prove their identity at polling stations.

My research shows some evidence of declining confidence in the process of casting a vote.  Speaking to electoral administrators recently, many explained that citizens expect tight security procedures around the voting process.  We have passwords and verification processes for banking and other services.  It therefore surprises citizens that they can arrive without any form of identification (not even their polling card).  But is there actually any voter fraud? And what other effects might voter identification have?

Elite Statecraft and Election Administration considers the politics of election admnistration in the UK, USA and Ireland

Elite Statecraft and Election Administration considers the politics of election admnistration in the UK, USA and Ireland

Is there really evidence of electoral fraud?

There have been some cases of fraud in Britain, for sure.  Stuart Wilks-Heeg recently analysed the number of people found guilty of electoral malpractice in the UK.  The most famous case of electoral fraud was in 2004 when judge, presiding over the case declared that the ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic.’  This headline has been banded around again and again by journalists, academics and commentators.

However, it is very feasible that the problem of electoral fraud is of one smoke without fire.  Voter fraud is commonly claimed to be widespread in the US.  Systematic studies, however, show that voter fraud almost non-existent.  One study has suggested that as many people commit voter fraud, as think that they have been abducted by aliens.  No, really.

Is Voter ID voter suppression?

Requirements to produce passports and other forms of identification may sound reasonable enough, but they will have unintended (or perhaps intended?  See below) consequences.  They stop people voting.  Imagine this scenario.  You decide to vote on the way back from work.  But after a busy day you realise that you forgot your passport.  What do you do?  Head back home, collect your passport and then vote?  The answer for many citizens would be head home and stay there.  That extra time is the difference between voting and not voting.  Most studies do show that voter turnout is adversely affected by voter ID requirements.  It will be interesting to see whether such academic research will have been included in the Electoral Commission’s review.

A decline in turnout is unpalatable for democracy in Britain, especially given that so few of us vote already.  However, the problem is more than that.  Studies from the US show that some people are more likely to have the forms of ID that state governments require than others.  This means that introducing voter ID can introduce a systematic bias against particular groups.  In the US these groups are racial and ethnic minority groups, those on lower incomes or with lower education qualifications.  Is there a reason to think that a British system would have different results?

The Politics of Voter ID

There is an even bigger problem.  As my book shows,  those that support voter ID and do not support voter ID have a difference: a partisan difference.  There is a rich history of US politicians using burdensome administrative requirements to try to win elections. Close elections can be won, as much by demobilising your opposition supporters, as mobilising your own supporters.  Republican politicians have therefore admitted that voter ID has been a tactic to be deployed to win them power.  Analysts agree that attempts to introduce voter ID are  ‘highly partisan, strategic and racialized’.

As I show in my book, politicians in Britain have been slower to the game.  Electoral administration laws remained unchanged for much of the twentieth century.  However, New Labour began to think that there was some partisan advantage in making it easier for people to vote and therefore changed electoral law accordingly.  Some Labour politicians thought that the higher turnout that all-postal voting and similar schemes would bring, would give them an advantage since it would get their voters out.  It was also a more politically convenient approach to solving the ‘turnout problem’  than electoral system reform.  The Conservatives have pushed the opposite approach: tightening up on  ‘voter fraud’ by introducing individual registration, despite the risk that registration levels will decline.   Further research might be able to say whether it has been partisan advantage that has driven the Conservative approach as well.  However, we can expect the largest two parties to take risk adverse positions on this issue and consider their electoral interests very carefully.

Caution is Required 

In short, there are concerns about voter fraud.  But unless the Electoral Commission reveals evidence of widespread systematic fraud, we still do not know how significant this problem really is.  We can expect that voter ID could reduce turnout unevenly, and party positions on the policy issue will be electorally motivated.  We frankly need more research.  And if Voter ID is to be considered, it should be trialled before becoming widespread.

This was originally posted on the University of East Anglia’s Politics Blog.