Monthly Archives: June 2014

What is the problem with the British political class?

It is now commonplace in Britain to bemoan the failings of the ‘political class’ or ‘professional politician’. A wide selection of broadcast, print and social media commentators argue that elected politicians in the UK are not representative of their constituents. Instead, they are part of a self-referential ‘political class’ which is increasingly distant from the real world and mistrusted by the public. Examples include:

Peter Oborne’s (2007) description of a ‘narrow, self-serving governing elite’.
Guido Fawkes (2009) allegation that ‘Disenchantment with politicians has never been higher, most think they are overpaid and dishonest’.
Andrew Neil’s 2011 documentary ‘Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain’ (; see Crone, 2011) and assertion (in BBC2’s Daily Politics 19.6.14 from 39 minutes) that ‘all MPs will end up looking and sounding the same’ if ‘hand picked by the party high command’.
Leo McKinstry’s (2014) assertion that ‘the political class inhabits its own bubble, utterly divorced from the lives of voters … too many professional politicians … have no experience of the real world. Precious few have backgrounds in the working class, the private sector or business. A vast number of MPs, particularly on the Labour and Liberal Democrat benches, are nothing more than ambitious careerists who worked in politics, pressure groups, think tanks, local government and the civil service before winning their seats’ (see also Martin, 2014).
Mason and Gani (2014): ‘About half of Labour’s candidates selected to fight in marginal seats at the next election have links to Westminster as former special advisers, party workers, researchers, lobbyists or MPs’.
Gimson (2014) reports on the attempts by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to exploit this perception and appeal to voters with an image of UKIP as part of ‘a huge popular uprising’ based partly on the backgrounds of its candidates (as ‘not career politicians’ – Kirkup, 2014) and its attitude to immigration (Lamont, 2014).
UKIP’s 2014 European Parliament election material, in particular, stressed its ability to represent an alternative to the ‘political class’, criticising other parties for having too many candidates with jobs related directly to politics, and having gone to similar schools and Oxford University – a commonly-used proxy to describe a political or ruling class drawn from the same narrow pool of recruitment.
Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, 2nd May 2014: We’ve just about had enough of a career class of politician … Look at the three so-called ‘big parties’ and look at their front benches. They are made up of people who go to the same handful of schools, they all go to Oxford, they all get a degree in PPE … then they all get a job as a researcher in a political office, they become Members of Parliament at 27 or 28, Cabinet ministers in their early 40s, and I put it to you that this country is now run by a bunch of college kids who have never done a proper day’s work in their lives.

Aaron Banks’ ambition to ‘drain the swamp’ of ‘lazy, ineffective or corrupt’ MPs.


The problem with trying to find some general conclusions, from these assertions, is that they could be conflating four different problems about MPs:

  1. their flawed characters
  2. their limited roots in local constituencies
  3. their inexperience of the real world because they don’t have ‘proper jobs’ before seeking election
  4. they do not reflect the social background of the voting population.

It is difficult to reconcile these four arguments to produce one strategy for political reform. Indeed, they can produce debates on important trade-offs, such as when all women short lists coordinated by a national party are criticised or rejected by local constituency offices and candidates. Instead, a legislature might produce plans to address corruption and MP behaviour (see Judge, 2013), leaving most issues regarding local and social background to political parties. Further, political parties differ markedly in their attitude, with Labour the most likely to seek ways to improve its representation of women, and the Conservatives more focused on avoiding ‘professional politicians’ and finding candidates who have ‘proved themselves’ outside politics (perhaps at the expense of local candidates – Childs and Cowley, 2011).

With Michael Keating and Alex Wilson, I am writing a paper that compares their experiences in different arenas – Westminster, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly – and in relation to three main indicators of representation (sex, occupation, education). Yet, this focus seems limited because it tends to consider each category separately. In this post, I briefly explore two examples of issues that could be addressed if we cross-reference these categories – bearing in mind that quantitative analysis is limited by the small numbers involved and the lack of detailed or comparable data in many cases (in fact, I am hoping that this sort of discussion piques enough colleague interest to prompt us, as a group, to get better data).

1. A narrower pool of recruitment?

The popular media argument, summed up in Nigel Farage’s speech, is that a political class contains a cadre of people with a set of characteristics: they attend private school, Oxbridge and their formative career is in an ‘instrumental’ occupation (defined below, in italics).

Consider two kinds of ‘politics facilitating’ posts. In the past, brokerage occupations were relatively conducive to political life. These are the jobs – including lawyers, teachers, and lecturers – providing general skills, such as articulacy, or advantages, such as a link to the local community, flexible hours or close proximity to Westminster. There has been a long-term rise in recruitment from instrumental occupations, which have a clearer link to politics and may be used as a stepping stone towards elected office. In this category, we would include these posts: political worker (such as someone who has worked for a party or MP); full-time trade union official; journalist, author, television or media worker; public relations; quango director or senior official; legislator in a different level of government (MEP, MSP, AM, etc.); full-time councillor or mayor; interest or professional group or think tank.

Such arguments largely conflate two different party experiences: the Conservatives who are more likely to have attended private schools and Oxbridge, and Labour MPs, more likely to have a formative career in an instrumental post. In the 2010-15 term, 29 (4.5%) of 650 MSPs meet the three criteria, including 18 Conservatives (4 women) and 8 Labour (2 women). The appearance of a trend is perhaps explained by the fact that many are (or were) senior members of the UK Government – David Cameron (PM), Nick Clegg (Deputy PM), George Osborne (Chancellor), Michael Gove (Education Secretary) and Chris Huhne (former Energy Secretary).

2. Trade-offs between All Women Shortlists (AWS), localism and class?

A second argument is that an attempt to redress the balance in one indicator of social background has unintended consequences on another. For example, Labour’s use of AWS has become connected to arguments about national control of local selection, with the potential to undermine the selection of local candidates, or to select party worthies, in instrumental occupations, at the expense of working class candidates or, at least, people with non-instrumental formative occupations. From the limited information we have, there appears to be little evidence to support concerns about localism. Labour’s MPs consistently have more ‘direct local constituency connections’ than the Westminster average – and far more than the Conservatives – and its record has improved since AWS. For example, in 1997, the beginning of the Blair era, Labour’s 57% marked a rise from 1945 (30.7%) and compared to 45% in Westminster and 9% of the Conservatives (Rush, 2001a: 204).

If we look at social background measures, for Labour’s new entrants in 2010, education suggests that women are less representative – private school 12.1%/ 2.9%; Oxbridge 24.2%/ 11.8%; any University 96.9%/ 76.5% – but instrumental occupation does not – 45.5%/ 61.8%. Within occupations, the proportion of women in the ‘political worker’ category is higher (27.3%/ 17.6%), but the absolute numbers are in single figures (note that I include all Labour 32 women MPs because 28 were selected using AWS and the remainder do not have markedly different backgrounds). This compares with the Conservatives, in which women are far less likely than men to have attended private school (25.0%/ 47.8%), more likely to have attended Oxbridge (30.6%/ 25.7%) and more likely to have an instrumental occupation (27.8%/ 21.2%). In Westminster overall, 6 women MPs (4.2%) and 23 men (4.5%) achieve the political class trifecta. Overall, there is no clear picture, and minimal evidence to suggest that the representation of women comes at the expense of other measures of social representativeness, even when AWS is used.

The ‘take home message’ is that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about the political class: as a problem, it is easy to exaggerate but difficult to define; there are many solutions, each party has its own solutions/ priorities; and, many solutions have the potential to undermine another. My impression is that parties are mostly worried (needlessly?) about the effects of AWS on other kinds of background. Yet, Conservative recruitment, which favours business success, seems to come at the expense of local candidates and women, while UKIP’s recent success in the European Parliament (combined with the Conservative showing) scuppered the otherwise remarkable progress towards a 50/50 women/ men split among UK MEPs. The ‘political class’ problem is not a general problem; it is an opportunity to pursue specific priorities.

Here are the papers on which this post draws:

Paul Cairney, Alex Wilson and Michael Keating (2015) “Solving the problem of social background in the UK ‘political class’: do parties do things differently in Westminster, devolved, and European elections?” British Politics (Early View) PDF

Peter Allen and Paul Cairney (2015) “What Do We Mean When We Talk about the ‘Political Class’?” Political Studies Review, Early View, DOI: 10.1111/1478-9302.12092 PDF

Also note some recent developments:


Filed under UK politics and policy

Devo-Max: Does it mean the maximum you WANT or the maximum you CAN HAVE?

Let me show you a very important distinction between two kinds of devo max:

  • the big one that people often seem to support, but can’t get; and
  • the smaller one that seems to be on offer, that people confuse with the big one they can’t get.

The big one that people often seem to want but can’t get

If you look at opinion polls on devo-max, the understanding is this:

Devo max This term has become short hand for the idea that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for nearly all of Scotland’s domestic affairs, including taxation and welfare benefits, while foreign affairs and defence would remain the responsibility of the UK government (What Scotland Thinks glossary). The BBC has reinforced this definition: ‘Devo-max, n.The devolving of all powers to Holyrood other than defence and foreign affairs‘. The Scotsman has plumped for ‘most powers short of defence and foreign affairs’.

Then, this is what people respond to in opinion polls:

  • ‘59% agree that the Scottish Parliament should become primarily responsible for taxation and welfare benefits, the two principal areas of domestic policy that are still reserved to Westminster’ (John Curtice 15.9.13)
  • Pensions might go up or down or stay the same if the ‘Scottish Parliament made all decisions for Scotland apart from defence and foreign affairs’
  • Maybe Scotland should leave the UK “If 75% vote for ‘full financial independence’

So, this is the maximum devolution that many/ most people seem to want.

The smaller one that seems to be on offer, that people confuse with the big one they can’t get

Yet, this is not on offer, partly because no party is offering it, and partly because they can’t offer it. Instead, some parties have begun to think about offering the maximum devolution you could expect to get if you stay in the UK and want a UK-wide economic policy framework. This kind of devo max is not about autonomy over economic policy as a whole. It is about devolving some more income tax, and maybe some other taxes, and maybe more of the social security system. And yet, what you read is that you are now being offered devo max:

This is ‘devo max’ only if ‘devo max’ means the maximum you can reasonably expect to get under devolution. It does not mean becoming responsible for ‘taxation and welfare benefits’.

So, the crap thing about the public and media discussion so far is that most people say they have heard of devo max in much the same way that they might respond to the question: ‘have you heard of that EU guy?’

Neil McGarvey and I wrote this (in Scottish Politics) when the discussion was more popular:

devomax Cairney McGarvey 2013 p241

See also



Filed under Scottish politics

Background on that West Lothian Question story

Guardian 29.6.14 Plan to restrict Scottish MPs voting rights at Westminster scrapped

Here is some background on that story. It’s too simple to say simply that people fear a Scottish backlash at the wrong time. There are lots of reasons to not want to put this high on your list of priorities (the same can be said for a reform of Barnett): Paul Cairney West Lothian Question 23.3.12

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Action on Sugar: Learning from Tobacco

In many ways, tobacco control has set the agenda for controls in other areas, such as (most notably) alcohol. We can see this by simply comparing recent calls for action on sugar in food with existing curbs on tobacco use, taking out the ones that are not comparable or might seem a step too far (at least for now, warns the IEA and DP). Here are the types of policy instruments for tobacco and I have put an asterisk next to the latest recommendations on food.

I. Regulation (through legislation or voluntary agreements)

  1. Bans or restrictions on advertising and promotion (e.g. to disassociate the product with physical activity).*
  2. Sales to children.
  3. Smoking and eating in public places (second-hand smoke).
  4. Modify and regulate ingredients, such as the levels of tar in cigarettes and the levels of sugar, salt and fat in food.*
  5. Customs enforcement on smuggling and counterfeit products.

II. Finance

  1. Taxation and other levies to discourage consumption of certain products.*
  2. Spending on directed health services, including cessation services.
  3. The reform of economic incentives, including agricultural incentives and tax expenditures on arts and sports sponsorship by companies.*
  4. Litigation against companies (more a US than UK practice).

III. Capacity building

  1. Funding for community development programs and organisations to combat use.

IV. Education

  1. Health warning labels on packaging.*
  2. Health education campaigns.*

V. Learning and information tools

  1. Legislative hearings* and executive reports (US) and reports by the Chief Medical Officer (UK).
  2. Funding scientific research on the harms of products.*

Donley Studlar and I tried to do something more extensive on tobacco alcohol in these tables – tobacco alcohol table 25.7.13 – before taking them out in the last cut of our forthcoming article (draft here Cairney Studlar Public health in the UK March 26 2014). See also:

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Filed under alcohol policy, Public health, public policy, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy

We are recruiting two lecturers in Politics at the University of Stirling.

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. One lectureship is in Political Economy and the other is Comparative European Politics. Our department currently has 6.3 permanent lecturers, and three of us are fairly new, so you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough to act collectively – to, for example, influence its research direction. 5.3 of those lecturers are men and I would be happy if the best candidates proved to be women. At the very least, I hope that the current set up does not put off women or ethnic minorities from applying – particularly since two new appointments in such a small group can shift the balance considerably.

Here is some generic advice, to give you the chance to focus on specific follow-up questions:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • I think you should keep the cover letter short (1 or 2 pages), if only to show an ability for concise writing. Also remember that we are likely to read over 100 applications.
  • Shortlisted candidates will almost certainly have a PhD and a promising publication record. ‘Promising’ is hard to define at this early stage of your career, but things like publication in recognisable journals (perhaps with a mix between single and co-authored) may stand out.
  • My preference is to focus on what people have already done, rather than what they promise to do over the next five years. I find those plans more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • Although research has a tendency to dominate University life, we take teaching very seriously. We plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback. You might think about how you would contribute in that context.
  • The presentation and interview will be on separate dates. So, although the interview date is the 17th July, note that we will ask you to make a presentation to divisional staff on the 16th (and, if you are not local, stay in the nice campus hotel).
  • Again, I recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The interview panel will be five people: me, the Head of Division of History and Politics, the Head of School of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another School. It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well.
  • ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should have a think about it in advance. I recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ school, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’) (see here – rough idea – for an idea of what you may be expected to teach). You might also check, for example, who you might develop links with beyond the division (such as the new Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or school (such as the School of Applied Social Science) – since this is likely to be a featured question too. Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks. Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – – and then phone or skype if you prefer. If appropriate, I can also use those questions to update this page.


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June 6, 2014 · 1:42 pm

One for the trainspotters

I’m giving evidence today on the topic of Scottish Parliament legislative reform:

Call for Evidence

Here is my written evidence. Never mind the words – marvel at how I kept it down to 2 pages:

Cairney paper to Standards on Legislation 3.6.14

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Complex policymaking systems: is order good and disorder bad?

Paul Cairney: The language of complexity allows us to pose a fundamental question about the way in which politics and policymaking works: how can we explain and evaluate the order and stability that appears to exist despite multi-level complexity? Imagine several layers of complex systems – the brains of individuals; the collection of people that make up policymaking systems; the wider social system – operating within constantly changing environments. In each case, the behaviour of each system often appears to be unstable and unpredictable: thoughts emerge from the brain, policy emerges from various parts of government, and behaviour emerges from society in ways that we struggle to understand and often seem impossible to predict.

Yet, despite this constant potential for instability and change, people often behave in quite predictable ways and produce regular patterns of behaviour when they interact. They produce simple rules of thumb to deal with complexity. They deal with an almost infinite amount of information, and ways in which to understand it, by relying on cognitive short cuts, to decide what information to process and how. These short cuts can include individual habits and social norms, many of which are difficult to change when they become established. People develop beliefs and groups of people often develop shared ways of thinking (which can involve the power to establish dominant ways of thinking and acting, to benefit some and often marginalise others). Governments operate in a comparable way, breaking their policy responsibilities into a series of departments and units, each of which has some potential to develop its own ‘standard operating procedures’, to decide where to seek information and how to process it to make decisions.

In that context, the study of policymaking is about identifying those rules, how stable they are, and how they might change. It is about identifying ‘institutions’, as the rules, norms, practices and relationships that help produce regular patterns, or a non-trivial degree, of individual and collective behaviour. Rules can be formal and widely understood, such as when enshrined in law or a constitution, or informal and only understood in particular organisations (Ostrom et al, 2014). Institutions at one level (e.g. constitutional) can also shape activity at another (e.g. legislation or regulation), establish the types of venue where policy decisions are made, and the rules that allow particular types of actors or ideas to enter the policy process (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014). Institutional change can be endogenous, such as when people within organisations understand problems differently in light of new information. It can be exogenous when, for example, a major event has an impact on the organisation (from a demographic change that shifts the remit of the organisation, to a change of government with a different approach). Or, it can be a mixture of both, when different organisations, with their own rules, interact to produce new forms of behaviour. This potential for long periods of stability punctuated by instability is ever present in complex policymaking systems (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993; 2009).

When we identify those rules, we can also consider how appropriate they are: if there is a benefit to stability (which may allow people to plan and specialise) or instability (when people are flexible and able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances); if institutions can produce cross-cutting aims and rules, or if they struggle to interact with each other in meaningful or productive ways. We might examine how people should behave in such systems, when they are faced with the need to balance a sense of expected order (such as in a Westminster system with allegedly concentrated levels of power in the executive and clear lines of accountability) with pragmatism (when policymakers know that they can only control behaviour and outcomes to a limited extent). We might also examine how policymaking systems interact with individuals and societies: does policy challenge regular patterns of thought or behaviour in society or simply reinforce social norms and inequalities?

Robert Geyer: through much of Western history (the 20th century in particular) order has been equated with being good and disorder bad. What complexity demonstrates is that the complex systems that we are, inhabit and surround us are always a mix of order and disorder. Flux, change, adaptation and adjustment are constant. Hence, order and disorder can never simply be good and bad. Complexity recognises this. However due to its recognition of uncertainty and emergent properties in complex systems, it cannot identify an optimum point of action/existence/justice. The best it can do is provide us with general boundaries of action that may lead to better, more positive outcomes. Good and bad depend on the mix!’

Paul discusses some of these themes in the following blog posts …

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

Complexity Theory and Policymaking

Complexity Theory in Thought and Practice

.. and in some articles

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

Cairney, P. (2012) ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’, Political Studies Review, 10, 346-58 email Paul for a copy)

See also Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram –

Geyer, R. (2012) ‘Can Complexity Move UK Policy beyond ‘Evidence-Based Policy Making’ and the ‘Audit Culture’? Applying a ‘Complexity Cascade’ to Education and Health Policy’, Political Studies, 60, 1, 20-43

Geyer, R. and Rihani, S. (2010) Complexity and Public Policy (London: Routledge)

Robert and Paul are also in the process of completing an edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy for Edward Elgar.


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The Scottish Conservative plans for tax are about as good as you can do under devolution, but that’s not saying much

The Scottish Conservatives have produced a fascinating report on the future of Scottish devolution after a ‘no’ to independence vote. The headline grabber is the recommendation that the UK devolves income tax to the Scottish Parliament, to further a commitment to ‘a greater degree of fiscal autonomy’.  My concern is that its aim will be shortened in most reports to describe ‘fiscal autonomy’ (see Under ‘Devo-Max’, ‘Fiscal Autonomy’ is an illusion). Yet, it is nothing of the sort.

Fiscal autonomy is about the power to make important choices about how to balance taxation: on income, employer contributions, as a contribution to social security, on sales (VAT), on corporations, on energy and pollution, and so on (in some cases, it is about using taxation to encourage or discourage behaviour – as with fags and booze). It is about working out how much to raise and from whom, and to combine that decision with how to provide social security. It is about the power to decide who pays and who benefits. So, if people say that this new power would give the Scottish Parliament something like 40% of its tax raising power (see here on the politics of such calculations), it would be misleading to think that it’s 40% of the power to decide who pays and who benefits.

Rather, it is one, disproportionately limited, tax. Crucially, it is a tax that gains disproportionate public and media attention: ‘Elections can be won or lost on the basis of what political parties say about income tax’ (p13). It has never been raised or lowered in the short history of Scottish devolution, and it is difficult to foresee a Scottish Government of any party (likely to be elected) changing it.

So, this report does not deliver the ‘strong Conservative principles of responsibility, transparency and accountability’. It would not affect Scottish Parliament accountability in any meaningful way. All the report does is demonstrate the Scottish Conservatives are going further than Scottish Labour, which is not very far at all. It’s a classic case of good politics, bad policy.

See also: Robert Peston Could Scotland compete on tax with Westminster?






Filed under Scottish politics