Discussions from undergarduate seminars 1: The world system after the cold war

Having the opportunity as a Doctoral Tutor at Sussex University provides me with the welcome opportunity to discuss and listen to the ideas of undergraduate students. I am currently leading seminars with two groups of 1 st year students in International Politics

The theme of the previous two weeks has been the Cold War and it’s aftermath. In this week’s seminar we discussed in particular the nature of polarity in the international system and the major works of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington.

When asked whether today’s international system could be best described as uni-polar, bi-polar or multi-polar, student opinion were divided. With the rise of China and a re-assertive Russia few though that America remains the predominant power in the world, despite its continued military and economic superiority, although some did point out the importance of America’s soft power/cultural influence which is often forgotten in mainstream international relations theory.

There was more support for the idea of a multi-polar system. With the aforementioned growing influence of China and Russia it is hard to make the case for a bi-polar model. Perhaps unsurprisingly the European Union was also highlighted by students as another viable “pole”. Should the EU overcome its current challenges and pursue greater integration in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal the case can certainly be made be made for it becoming a major foreign relations player in the future.

One could also look to a potential strengthening in Asia in the face of increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region although old rivalries, especially between Japan and South Korea, make the creation of an non-Chinese led Asian “pole” problematic in the future

Historically a multi-polar system ends in conflict (see World War 1 and 2) . There are too many actors to ensure stability. But there has never been a multi-polar system in a nuclear world. Many attribute the (debatable) “long peace” of the Cold War to the fact the cost of conflict between nuclear armed states would be so great as to make a war essentially unwinnable.. That may ultimately be the variable which ensures relative global security in a a new age of multi-polarity. All out war between any combination of potential polar leaders such as the United States, China, Russia, the EU or even rising economies such as India or Brazil remains unlikely while nuclear weapons remain a possible recourse. The Presidency of Donald Trump, the continued leadership of Vladimir Putin in Russia and an increasingly nationalistic China will put this theory to the test in the coming years

 

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How do young voters and the EU referendum

The date of the EU referendum in Britain has now been set after days of negotiation in Brussels. Opinion polling at this stage seems inconclusive, with the latest IPSOS Mori poll showing strong support for remaining the EU (at 54%) to a TNS poll conducted just a couple of days before showing a three point lead for the NO camp. The last referendum vote in 1975, confirming membership of the much more modest European Economic Community, was a resounding endorsement from the UK electorate for further European integration

The only real conclusion to be drawn from early polling is that there are still many voters on the fence and those that have picked a side could well be tempted to change their vote between now and June. Depending on turnout, the undecideds may be the decisive actors in the final result.

It is tempting to look at groups of people as being homogeneous but this rarely proves to be the case. In teaching first year politics students and asking them their views on both referendums as a concept and the Britain’s role in the EU in particular I have found that  there are a wide variety of differing viewpoints. One might assume that younger adults, especially those who are interested in or studying politics might favour more referendums. However from observing class discussions it appears that many young politics students a wary of greater direct democracy for two reasons. Firstly there is the issue of voter education. Do the majority of voters, who are usually only politically engaged during general elections, have the information t hand to make an informed decision. Secondly are not just another layer of bureaucracy, expensive and dealing with issues politicians are elected and paid to decide themselves?

I think these views perhaps represent the students’ own concerns about levels of political education within the UK in general. “I don’t really understand enough about it?” is a common refrain They care about the outcome but feel that they do not know enough about the issue to make an informed decision yet. Greater engagement results in a higher turnout and this may be a once in a generation chance to affect the future of the UK. It is hoped that when the day comes young voters, who will have to live with the consequences of any constitutional change within the UK the longest, will have had the desire and the opportunity to sufficiently educate themselves about the consequences of the EU referendum.

My PhD thesis – New Media and its effects on candidate independence at the constituency level: A comparison of the United Kingdom and Japan

The last 30 years has seen what many writers describe as a decline in the power and influence of political parties. Writers such as Duverger, Lipsett and Rokkan and Sartori saw parties as being deeply integrated at an individual level with the specific constituents or social cleavages they were founded to represent. However the need for larger parties to appeal to a broad range of voters and the professionalisation of political campaigning saw a shift in both party branding and organisation. Since the 1980’s there has been a growing emphasis on the party leader as the representative of the party brand, with many voters choosing which party to vote for based on the leaders image. This was reinforced by the fact that political campaigning became more expensive, meaning only the national party organisation was able to fully utilise new forms of mass-media communication such as television. The result has been the growing power of the party leader. This has coincided with a fall in grassroots support of political parties and growing voter apathy in established democracies. In short parties are seen as drifting away from the electorate whose interests they claim to represent.

The past twenty years has seen a revolution in technology and communication which has transformed the world. The Internet has become a tool used on a daily basis for over three billion people around the world. The effect of this on politics has become the subject of the growing body of literature over the past 15 years. The internet was initially seized upon by parties as a way to circumvent the independently controlled mass-media and get their message directly to voters. Since the middle of the last decade, most notably the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, the use of the internet has shifted from not only information provision but to campaign organisation. The internet provides parties and candidates with platforms for policy promotion, a way greater personalise/humanise candidates, an alternative way to organise grassroots support and to fundraise.

The aim of my thesis is to examine the effects that the Internet is having on political candidates at the constituency level. With the decline of party support and the growing expense of political campaigning it can be argued that there is a greater incentive for local candidates to appeal for the personal vote and not to rely on the party label to attract support. New Media, such as personal websites and social media accounts, give candidates the platform to run more independent and personalised campaigns. The study will look at candidates’ New Media use during elections – making a comparison between the UK (a party-centred campaign system) and Japan (a candidate centred campaign system). It is hoped that a comparison between candidates from two economically advanced democracies with very different traditions of campaigning will help to establish whether New Media is being used by candidates to pursue the personal vote, bringing them closer to their constituents and furthering their independence from the national party.

Sussex Conversations: General Election Debate

Last night the University of Sussex Alumni association held a fascinating Question Time style debate between representatives of the five biggest UK political parties. The event was held at the Royal Institute in London and moderated by the excellent Sarah Montague. Firstly much credit must go to each of the participants:

Kelly-Marie Blundell (Liberal Democrat)

Chris Brown (UKIP)

Peter Kyle (Labour)

Alexandra Peterson (Conservative)

Alexandra Phillips (Green)

 

I can’t imagine these debates are much fun for the participants but the opportunity to scrutinise politicians and party policies is an essential feature of democratic politics. I would like to make just a few personal observations concerning last night’s event.

 

The Greens and UKIP are not the polar opposites one would assume: Every A-level politics student should know that the ideological spectrum is circular rather than flat. Parties who tend to inhabit political extremes actually have a lot more in common than they think. The Green and UKIP representatives found themselves in agreement on more than one occasion last night, especially on the issue of housing. Of course fundamental outlooks remain very different but both parties like to describe themselves as “anti-establishment” and both will be hoping that their surge in the pols translates into a real change in British politics. Moreover both are striving to be more than one-issue parties and should be given consideration as such by the media and electorate alike.

 

Does foreign policy matter?: After a question from an audience member on threats to Britain’s security, it occurred to me that foreign policy has been almost ignored during this campaign. It certainly didn’t come up during the seven-leader debate. Naturally British elections are dominated by the economy and public services. This is fairly standard for any peacetime liberal democracy. However with operations in the Middle-East almost at an end, talk of Britain’s role in the world seems restrict to EU membership and Trident. Where are the conversations about Russia, or ISIS and what Britain’s role in the world will be in the future?

 

Party loyalty is still the factor: Candidates were given the opportunity to speak near the end of the debate about their personal preferences in forming a coalition after the election. None could give a concrete answer. Realistically the Labour party must know that their only hope to 10 Downing Street and a workable government is with support from the SNP, and most likely the Liberal Democrats as well. Likewise the Conservatives will need Lib Dem support once more. But candidates are keeping to the party line. When faced with the question “Who would you prefer to form a coalition with?” candidates, much like the parties they represent, are still hedging their bets.

 

What is a manifesto for?: With both major parties seemingly unable to secure a majority in the next election there will be a coalition or “supply-demand” agreement of some kind. This means that the policies which every party has lain out in their manifestos are all open to negotiation. The coalition deal making of the last few years is likely to be the norm for the next few years. Of course it is not unusual for parties to change or forget pledged promises when in Government but we can now be assured that when Party A pledges billions more for the NHS, their partners may have something to say about how much is spent and where it comes from.

 

For academics and political watchers this is an exciting time in politics. The potential end of the two-party system raises many issues which neither the academic community nor politicians themselves are able to predict the outcome to. It is especially welcome to see smaller parties now at the debate table.

 

The Sussex Conversations event is available to watch at: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/sussexconversations

GE2015 – “The social media election”: Some lessons from the Rochester and Strood by-election

Many pundits and researchers are calling the UK general election of 2015 the first “social media” election. My own Facebook page seems inundated by posts from the Prime Minister on an hourly basis.  Social media is both cheaper and easier to use than traditional forms of political campaigning and may offer parties a platform to communicate with the disaffected youth vote. In truth the jury is still out on just how effective new media is engaging a wide number of voters but it cannot be denied that this new platform for political communication has been enthusiastically embraced by political parties and candidates.

My own studies focus on the use of New Media by political candidates at the constituency level. With mainstream party popularity declining, falling grassroots membership and squeezed financial resources parties simply don’t have the ability to competitively fight every seat for which they stand. In a party-centred campaign system such as the UK this spells hard times for many candidates. New media, websites, blogs, social media etc. may provide candidates with an alternative source of grassroots organisation, financing and the chance to promote their own policies rather than tow the party line.

Last year’s by-election in Rochester and Strood by-election caught the attention of the national media thanks to its unusual circumstances. The sitting Conservative MP Mark Reckless dramatically announced his defection to the United Kingdom Independence Party at the party’s 2014 autumn conference and quickly triggered a by-election for that November. Reckless’ position was not considered as secure as that of Douglas Carswell who had also defected to UKIP and subsequently won a by-election the month prior. David Cameron vowed to “throw the kitchen sink” at Rochester and put the party machine fully behind the new Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst. A competitive race is always the most interesting to follow and my pilot study from the Rochester and Strood provided some interesting conclusions concerning the candidates’ use of new media:

Overall social media is a normaliser rather than an equalizer: The two main candidates, Mark Reckless and Kelly Tolhurst made extensive use of social media with both using Twitter and Facebook more often than the other main candidates. Candidates from Labour and the Green party, had little chance to win and put little effort into their social media campaigning. (Table of candidate social media output including tweets, retweets and Facebook posts from 10/11/2014 – 20/11/2014)

Candidate Party Number of updates Total Daily  average
Twitter Facebook    
Mark Reckless UKIP 98 8 106 9.63
Kelly Tolhurst Conservative 109 31 140 12.72
Naushabah Khan Labour 46 1 47 4.27
Clive Gregory Green 51 18 69 6.27

 

However the “challenger” views new media as more important than the incumbent: Kelly Tolhurst’s social media output over the ten day period before the election was considerably higher than that of the incumbent.  This supports the theory that new media appeals to candidates who lack the name recognition and resource advantages held by the incumbent and provides and alternative platform for their campaigning

Local issues = swing votes?: In an analysis of social media content, the Conservative, Labour and Green candidates all favoured talking about local issues such as local hospitals and proposed property development, over national party issues, which were favoured more by the incumbent.

The “challenger” uses their website to further self-reliance / independence: Of the four candidates featured in the study Kelly Tolhurst’s had the most features which would represent an attempt to cultivate a personal vote including a personal manifesto or opportunities for visitors to the site to volunteer while also featuring very little information on the national party.

By-elections are expected to be especially party-centred by the Rochester and Strood election showed most candidates were promoting more local policies and attempting to cultivate a personal vote rather than rely on the party label. It will be interesting to see if this also occurs during the upcoming general election.

The full paper on the Rochester and Strood by-election is available for download from both Researchgate and Academia.edu sites.