Was Tony Blair a great prime minister?

Earlier in the summer, there was some speculation that Tony Blair may yet dramatically return as Prime Minister.

When asked by the Evening Standard whether he would want another term he said ‘sure’.

Some British Prime Ministers have returned to office after leaving power.  These include Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson.  Most recent leaders, as Kevin Theakston notes, tend to end up doing a variety of other things.

But was Tony Blair any good the first time around?

This is obviously a very controversial question.  For some he will be remembered as a ‘war monger’ because of his decision to invade Iraq; for others an apologist for Thatcherism, for dropping many of Labour’s left wing policies; for others the successful moderniser of the Labour party who presided over a successive years of economic prosperity and growth in Britain, and whose achievements also included peace in Northern Ireland.

There has been very little explicit scholarly work which has sort to evaluate Prime Ministerial performance.  This stands in great contrast to the the US where assessing American Presidents has span many pages.

Dr. Jim Buller (University of York) and I have just published a new article on how political scientists should assess British Prime Ministers.  Our method provides a framework for assessing whether they are successful at winning office and maintaining a sense of governing competence, particularly on the key issue of the economy.

The article considers the case of Tony Blair and argues that he was very successful at this.  His party won three full parliamentary terms in a row, a feat not achieved by any other Labour leadership clique. Moreover, it significantly altered the methods by which the party fought elections, reforms that remain in place to this day.

Similar points might be made about the criterion of governing competence. Not only did Blair and his colleagues re-establish Labour’s reputation in this area, but some of the policy changes put in place to fulfil this objective (particularly Bank of England independence) now have a lasting legacy.

Although Blair failed to devise a consistent and compelling narrative for New Labour, which had a significant impact on the climate of British politics, the party did win the political argument on important issues, such as greater expenditure on public services.

Party management was arguably Blair’s least strong suit in the sense that he was unable to prevent the splits between leader and rank and file that had plagued his successors. But overall, Blair’s leadership deserves a very high place in any future league table of British prime ministers.

It has to be said that a Blair return is some way off.  Ed Miliband has built up a lead in the polls and the questions about his leadership have retreated.  If he loses the next general election then he may not survive as party leader and we should expect a leadership contest, but there will be plenty of younger leadership candidates in the frame if that happens.  Unfortunately for Blair one poll has suggested that Labour support would drop (except in the South-East) if he was to become leader again.

So was Tony Blair a great Prime Minister?  Here are some of his most famous moments, to help you decide.


Election 2012 shows that problems with US election administration remain

Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States.  Thankfully, there is a winner with a significant margin meaning that there is not a repeat of 2000.  Twelve years ago the result was decided by the US Supreme Court after the controversy over ‘hanging chads’ and ‘butterfly ballots’ in Florida.

However, had the election been tighter, would this have been the case?

What is clear is that problems remain with the administration of elections in the US.  Across the country, lengthy queues formed at polling stations. An election official from the Marion County Election Board, Indianapolis, Indiana tweeted a picture (below) demonstrating the length of queues forming at one polling station.   Did voters patiently wait or vote, or did the queue deter them?  ‘[W]e did lose a few who didn’t want to wait’, admitted the election official.

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Queues form in Indianapolis, IN. Source: Marion County (IN) Election Board
Elsewhere, there was widespread confusion in Philadelphia.  Republicans had sought to introduce a voter ID law but a judge ruled that implementation should wait until after the Presidential election.  Widespread confusion ensued among voters and poll staff.  Was ID required or not (in fact, it was needed only for first time voters)?  There were reports that some poll workers and ‘election observers’ were deliberately asking for voter ID, even though it was not required.  One tweeter (below) posted a picture of these signs that they found and took down.
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Voter ID signs in PA
The US, often held up as a pillar of democracy, has a darker side to its elections.  Often these problems are a result of deliberate strategies of vote suppression.  Politicians and their agents perceive that they can gain electoral advantage from discouraging their opponents’ supporters to vote. Voter ID laws have been shown to be particularly ‘effective’ at reducing turnout among certain populations.  They are also a useful method for threatening voters at polling stations.

Another tactic is deliberately under-funding election boards.  The Marion County Election Board, referred to above, complained that they wanted more poll sites, but ‘Republicans had vetoed our resolution for more at each election since 2010’ (sic).  In Florida 2000, it was areas dominated by Democrat voters that saw the greatest queues form – areas which suffered from under-funding.  Republican politicians held the purse-strings.

Problems are not always caused deliberately.  They can stem from failures of electoral management.  Poor planning on behalf of electoral officials and a lack of training can lead to problems for the voters.  Some polling stations, including some in Ohio, ran out of ballot papers.  In Miami-Dade County, host to the problems in 2000, scanning machines broke down leaving voters to queue for hours. Further problems will problem emerge over the coming weeks.

There is an urgent need to understand how failures of electoral management can be avoided (or reduced).  They are not the reserve of newly democratising countries or electoral autocracies such as Russia.  They also take place in the US, and, as scenes from the 2010 general election demonstrated, the UK.  The UK Electoral Commission has developed some strategies for improving election administration which my research has suggested has had some positive effects.  However, academics and policy makers should work together to find ways to improve elections.  Efforts to suppress legitimate voters require rigorous scrutiny from the media and public.

Thankfully, the 2012 election appears to have been decided by the voters, not the administration of votes.  But things could have been very different.

NFK-NOP publish report on improving electoral registration

The UK Cabinet Office published a report last week on the attitudes of under-represented groups towards electoral registration and individual registration. 

It was written by the consumer marketing company NFK-NOP.

Legislation to change the way that UK citizens register to vote is working its way through Parliament.  Registration rates have been falling dramatically in the UK.

Some of the findings from their qualitative interviews do chime with some of the academic literature on electoral registration/voter participation (including my research on the experiences of electoral administrations). Notably:

  • Many citizens who are interested in politics don’t register because they lack the information or ‘triggers’ to do so (p.7-8)
  • Some decline in electoral registration may occur amongst those who are currently registered by other people (p.12).
  • There are concerns about use of national insurance numbers because of the prospects of identity fraud (p.13).
  • There is support for the idea of allowing registration when accessing other government services (p.13). 
  • Young people suggest smartphone apps should be available (p.13-4)

Overall, a strong theme is the need for information campaigns. This is a useful study, but there is still a need for further academic and policy research on electoral registration in Britain.  Information campaigns can only go so far and there is a need to make registration simple and to open multiple channels for voter registration.

See my earlier blog post here.

Update:  see criticism from the Electoral Reform Society of the report recommendations here: http://www.lgcplus.com/briefings/services/elections/personal-letters-key-to-voting-change/5047735.article

Cabinet Office 2012

Is online registration a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Online voter registration was in the news last week.

In the US state of Washington citizens will be able to register to vote via Facebook.  This will use a piece of software developed specially by Facebook and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, in Britain, it was reported that Harrow has become the first local authority to allow online re-registration for those already on the electoral register.

Many electoral administrators around the world may therefore be looking to online registration to solve problems with the cost of elections and low registration rates.  As the Electoral Reform Society tweeted: ‘[b]earing in mind the UK’s poor registration rates, is this the future?’.

A remedy for declining registration?

The development of online registration is especially important in Britain.  Here, the government’s legislation to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) will have its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday.  My research on the effects of IER (a copy is also available on my website) found that we should expected IER to reduce electoral registration rates.  We therefore need other ways to increase registration rates in Britain to offset this decline.

The UK government has always been in favour of online registration and it published the eagerly awaited implementation plan for IER last week included.

Online registration is a good thing though, yes?  I’ve said so before. The logic is that by opening up as many methods of registering to vote as possible, registration rates will rise.  Citizens are increasingly online and government services need to adapt accordingly.

However, there might be a catch.  Faced with budget cuts electoral administrators may use online registration as a replacement for other methods.  This seems to be Harrow’s thinking.  They have introduced it partly as a way of saving money.  Fortunately, they appear to be keeping the ‘old fashioned’ paper registration mechanisms too.

This line of thinking informed the government’s decision to not pay for campaign literature for candidates for the UK’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.  Instead, of paying for one free leaflet per candidate, there would be one website on which citizens could find out about who was standing, and what for.  This was quickly criticised for reinforcing digital divides and reducing electoral participation.

There is also this recent research paper by Elizabeth A. Bennion (Indiana University) and  David W. Nickerson (University of Notre-Dame) which suggests that online registration can make citizens less likely to register.  Citizens need regular reminders, they claim, in order to re-register online.

The devil is therefore in the detail.  Citizen’s experience of online registration therefore needs further research and its implementation in Washington, the UK and everywhere else should be carefully monitored.

Is UK electoral registration ‘improving’? If not, why not?

The UK Electoral Commission has just published a new report detailing the results of the performance standards for electoral registration officers.

This is an annual report.  The standards have been in place since 2008.  The standards arose in 2006 after there were concerns that not all local authorities were not doing everything that they could to promote electoral registration and run elections effectively.

The report details an improvement according to the standards.  Less and less electoral registration officers are now not meeting the benchmark standards. However, the report expresses concern that 58 electoral registration officers don’t meet standard 3 – house to house enquiries to complete the register.

A conference paper that I’ve written explains why some electoral registration officers consider it important to meet the standards, and others do not.  The paper will be presented at a workshop on electoral integrity in Madrid next month.  This is based on over 70 interviews with local election officials during 2011.  The research was funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation.

Electoral registration officers see it as important to meet the standard for a number of reasons, but key amongst these are the effects that not meeting the standard can have on their personal and organisational reputations.  Making the results of non-performance more widely known can act as a significant trigger for change.  Very often, the results of the standards go by unnoticed by the media and the public.

Many do not meet the standard.  The key reasons are that officials think that the standards won’t improve elections, that there were insufficient incentives to change practices, they had insufficient resources to do so, that meeting the standard was not possible or that there were strategic incentives in not meeting the standard at a given point in time.

Nonetheless, the presence of the standards has a number of effects on confidence in the electoral processes amongst elite actors, if not, the public.  They are an important way of improving election administration.

The Electoral Commission has warned that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, currently being considered by Parliament, may water down the requirements on local elections staff to meet the standards.  It states that officials must only do what is ‘reasonably practical’ rather than ‘all necessary steps’.  The Electoral Commission therefore proposes revising the Bill.  This research supports this claim.

There might be more scope, however, to include academic research and local elections staff in the devising of indicators for the future.  The Electoral Commission is likely to need to have a new set of performance indicators for electoral registration officers once individual electoral registration is introduced.

New Research on Individual Electoral Registration – Policy Implications

Most discussion was about the House of Lords reform following the Queen’s Speech last week.  However, the government also introduced the Electoral Registration And Administration Bill into Parliament.  Amongst other things, the bill intends to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) for elections in England, Wales and Scotland. 

At almost the same time, I am about to have an article that I have written on the likely effects of introducing individual registration published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.  You can download the article here

This research is built upon findings from an ongoing project funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation on election administration in the UK.  Earlier findings were presented to a House of Commons Select Committee in September last year. It is interesting to note that since then the government has already shifted its position on a number of policy positions from the proposals first introduced in June last year.  For example, the ‘opt-out’, whereby citizens could tick a box and not be included on the register appears to have been dropped. Nick Clegg hinted that this might happen in October last year.  The proposed Bill suggests that there will be now be a penalty for those who do not register. 

However, the article has a number of important policy implications and recommendations for the legislation and future practice of elections in the UK:

  1. Individual registration is likely to lead to a considerable decline in levels of registration, especially amongst the younger, elder and minority populations.  The government could consider therefore other new  schemes offset the anticipated decline.  These might include:
  • Online registration (this was always the plan, it seems, but it is important that it is taken forward….)
  • Allowing citizens to register to vote when accessing other government services such as obtaining a driving licence.   The majority of new registrants in America register to vote via this mechanism.  This could be an especially effective way of targeting younger citizens.
  • Providing penalties for those who do not register (which now appears to be on the cards…)
  1. Individual registration is a more resource intensive way of compiling the electoral register than household registration.  There may also be many unforeseen costs to local government at a time that they are faced with budget cuts.  Returning and registration officers may therefore make cuts in other services to allow for the introduction of individual registration.  Measures should be put in place to ensure sufficient long-term funding of elections.  This could involve ring-fencing new funding for election departments.
  2. The requirement for citizens to provide personal identifiers, such as a national insurance number, may confuse many voters.  The views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully monitored through survey research after the implementation of IER.
Changes to the way the electoral register is compiled does not always capture the public or media’s interest. But it has important implications for how many people vote, electoral fraud, whether people perceive electoral institutions to be fair and sometimes who wins elections.  There have been some excellent recent blog posts from the like of Ros Baston and others in recent weeks.  Let’s hope there remains continued public interest in this important, but easily forgotten, issue.