Tom Tugendhat: chairing the China Research Group and the Foreign Affairs Committee

Reposted from The UK in a Changing Europe blog.

Tom Tugendhat’s decision to chair the new Conservative Party China Research Group (CRG) alongside the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) inevitably raises questions. Will his new role affect his committee work? Will any effect be positive?

There are real grounds for concern. But the answer to both questions should be ‘yes’.

First, we should expect Tugendhat’s role to affect his committee work.

As Alexandra Kelso argues, committee chairs play significant leadership roles. They lead on selecting topics for inquiries, shape discussions during oral evidence sessions, and corral committee members from different political backgrounds toward consensus.

Tugendhat’s recent contributions to parliamentary debates suggest he does not intend to limit his comments on China to Conservative Party forums.

Indeed, there is already evidence of these views influencing the FAC’s agenda. Last year it published a critical report recommending the government adopt a more cautious approach to China. Many of the points raised prefigured CRG claims.

The FAC’s current inquiry, meanwhile, considers foreign asset-stripping of UK technology firms. CRG Secretary Neil O’Brien has explicitly attributed this practice to China, in explaining his own involvement with the group.

Second, we should expect Tugendhat’s role to underline his, and so the FAC’s, independence from government.

This was a key goal of the Wright Committee’s recommendation that committee chairs should be elected. But as Mark Goodwin, Stephen Bates and Steve McKay have found, many committee chairs still come from or go on to frontbench roles.

Current examples of recent front-benchers now leading committees include ex-shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper (Home Affairs), ex-shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn (Brexit) and ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Health).

This raises the prospect, as Goodwin et al. memorably put it, that the positions will become ‘a kind of Europa League place for those with no immediate frontbench prospects’.

In launching the CRG, Tugendhat is taking a different path – as a specialist policy advocate, not a party loyalist or a minister-in-waiting.

Third, Tugendhat’s interest in China policy might lead him to push for greater powers for the FAC.

Lucinda Maer notes that the Wright Committee encouraged committee members to expand their remit further. Tugendhat has indeed already started lobbying for the power to inquire into matters beyond the FCO’s departmental responsibilities.

Fourth, Tugendhat’s involvement in the CRG potentially opens the door for the FAC to engage and persuade a wider network of Conservative back-benchers.

This might, in turn, make it more influential within the governing party.

As research by Meghan Benton and Meg Russell shows, Select Committees succeed by influencing other MPs as much as by making recommendations to government.

For now, the CRG is small. Its website names eight MPs as founding members, including former David Cameron advisor Laura Trott and new ‘red wall’ MP Dehenna Davison.

Crucially, however, its members come from different parts of the party. As Sebastian Payne points out, while Cameron courted Xi Jinping in Oxfordshire, voters in Bishop Auckland felt vulnerable to Chinese competition.

The risk of an internal split is clearly there, a point underlined by the recent rebellion against the Johnson government over Huawei.

As James Forsyth suggests, however, the CRG’s formation may yet mean that ‘hawkishness on China is going to be one of the issues that binds together the new Tory electoral coalition’. If Tugendhat plays a leading role in this development, it potentially makes the FAC look more relevant to government back-benchers.

Fifth, the appointment of campaigning committee chairs may be inevitable.

As Maer also notes, the fact that committee chairs are now elected by MPs ‘has rewarded those with campaigning platforms and reforming proposals’.

Such MPs are interested in the policy areas their committees cover. They have strong views that contrast with government policy. They know their stuff.

Finally, however, there clearly is a risk associated with Tugendhat’s taking on the CRG role.

If other MPs come to see the FAC as merely the outgrowth of a Conservative Party faction, its wider influence will decline. It might also become harder to get consensus among committee members.

That risk is very real, as the Brexit Committee’s experience in the last Parliament laid bare. Yet it should also be manageable.

What matters now is Tugendhat’s individual skill as a committee chair. To what extent can he influence the FAC’s agenda without alienating his committee colleagues? Can he draw a line between asserting a forthright position through the CRG, and working more cautiously through the FAC?

So there are grounds for concern. But Tugendhat’s role in the CRG need not be a conflict of interest with his FAC position. And it could turn out to be positive for the FAC if it raises its independence, power and influence.

What happens next depends, as is often the case with Select Committees, on the personal skills of the individuals involved.

How representative are UK elections?

It’s often said that UK general election results fail to represent the electorate accurately. There’s some truth to this.

The UK’s First Past the Post (or Single Member Plurality, if we’re being comparative political scientists about it) electoral system distributes parliamentary seats to parties based not on the share of the vote they win in the country as a whole, but whether they come first in any of 650 separate constituencies. This rewards larger parties, and those with more concentrated vote shares, over smaller, more diffuse parties. To put it into context, at the 2015 general election the SNP won 8.62% of the seats in the House of Commons with 4.7% of the national vote, while UKIP won 0.15% of the seats on 12.9% of the vote. 2015 was a bad year for the Lib Dems anyway, but they, too, usually lose out similarly.

The advantage of this system is supposed to be that it makes forming stable single-party majority governments easier. That, in turn, promotes what is known as ‘responsible’ government. Voters can choose a party confident in the knowledge that, if it wins, it will probably be able to get its manifesto commitments through parliament. If, at the next election, they judge that it has failed, they can relatively easily vote it out. Under FPTP, voters choose a government. Under more proportional systems, they choose a parliament – and parliament chooses a government. What the government actually does in a more proportional system will likely reflect post-election elite bargaining as much as voter choice.

At the same time, however, FPTP allows parties to gain absolute power (and in the UK’s ‘elective dictatorship’, with its doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, it usually is absolute power) despite only winning a minority of the votes cast. As figure 1 shows, no government elected since 1945 has won a majority of the votes cast, yet all but three have won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. On two occasions – the Conservatives in 1951, and Labour in February 1974, the party that came second in terms of vote share won more seats and wound up forming the government.

Figure 1

Over time, the share of the vote needed for a majority has fallen, as voters have shifted allegiances away from the two largest parties. As figure 2 illustrates, the Conservatives won 49.7% of the vote in 1955, and a majority of 60. Labour won 35.2% of the vote in 2005, and a majority of 66. In 1951, the Conservatives gained 1.07% of the seats in the House of Commons for every 1% of the vote they won. In 2005 Labour gained 1.57% of the seats for every 1% of the vote. The exaggerative bias of the system has worsened.

Figure 2

 

As figure 3 shows, in 1951, 96.8% of voters voted either Labour or Conservative. In 2010 just 65.1% did so. To put it another way, nearly 97% of voters in 1951 voted for either the outgoing Labour government or the incoming Conservative government. In 2010, 35% of voters chose a party that had not been in power in the postwar era.

Figure 3

Ailsa Henderson has shown that voters are generally satisfied with the electoral system provided their preferred party wins power at a national level at least some of the time – but that they start to lose faith in the fairness of the system if their side never gets to win. What Figure 3 shows is that, since the 1950s, the proportion of voters whose side never wins has gradually risen. That partially explains the legitimacy crisis facing parliament in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. As Rob Saunders has put it, “When four million people vote UKIP, as in 2015, and are rewarded with a solitary MP, we should not be surprised if they view parliament as something done to them by an external elite”.

One reason why most pollsters failed to predict the Brexit vote was that a large number of people who did not vote in general elections turned out for the referendum. Those people disproportionately voted Leave. As figure 4 shows, turnout has fallen in line with the share of votes going to Labour and the Conservatives. In 1950, 84% of eligible voters actually voted. In 2001, just 60% did so. As Oliver Heath argues, the decline in turnout arose especially among working-class voters, as Labour shifted toward the middle class under Tony Blair: “the class divide in participation has become greater than the class divide in vote”

Figure 4

If we then look at the interaction between declining turnout and partisan dealignment – the increasing willingness of voters to switch parties between elections, and to vote for parties other than the two largest – the picture becomes even more bleak.

Figure 5

As figure 5 shows, the share of possible votes won by the two largest parties has plummeted from well above 50% – 80% of all eligible voters in 1951 voted either Labour or Conservative – to below 50%, with a particular nadir in 2005. Just 41.5% of eligible voters voted either Labour or Conservative in that year. Out of everyone eligible to vote in 2005, nearly 60% did not vote for one of the two parties that had wielded absolute power in the UK since 1945. Given Henderson’s findings about faith in democracy, that looks like a problem. Given Heath’s findings about the differential decline in faith in voting among working class voters, it looks like an especially acute one. While it isn’t true that working class voters determined the Brexit result – there aren’t enough of them left to win a majority on their own, and in fact most Brexit voters were comfortable, middle class, English conservatives – working class resentment at a political system that appeared to be failing to represent them clearly is part of the story.

How does all of this play out at a constituency level? In a multi-party system, you don’t need to win a majority of votes in your local area to get elected to parliament. You just need to win more votes than any other candidate. I wondered how many MPs were actually elected despite a majority of voters in their constituency voting for someone else – an important question in light of current debates around the merits of tactical voting.

I found, as table 1 shows, that some 26.8% of MPs elected in the 2017 election won less than 50% of the vote in their constituency. That was actually lower than I expected. It reflected the shift back to big-party voting that characterized the 2017 election, with Labour and the Conservatives winning 82% of the vote between them. It also reflected the relative concentration of their votes. Smaller parties, generally, were more likely to win seats despite winning less than 50% of the local vote – this was true of all 35 of the SNP’s seats, for example – generally because they had to beat both Labour and the Conservatives in order to win.

MPs elected on: <50% of vote
n %
All MPs 650 174 26.8%
Con 317 74 23.3%
DUP 10 5 50.0%
Green 1 0 0.0%
Ind 1 1 100.0%
Lab 262 40 15.3%
LD 12 11 91.7%
PC 4 4 100.0%
SF 7 4 57.1%
SNP 35 35 100.0%
Spk 1 0 0.0%

Table 1

26.8% doesn’t sound too bad. That means that 73.2% of MPs won more than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency, giving them the right to claim to speak for the majority of local people. I looked these figures up after claiming in a lecture that less than 50% of MPs won more than 50% of the vote, and had to correct myself.

The picture looks different, however, if we again factor in turnout. Once we consider the share of available votes won by each MP, rather than just the share of votes cast, the number of MPs able to claim they speak for a majority of their constituents falls precipitously. As table 2 shows, just 27 MPs – 24 Labour, 2 Conservatives, and the Speaker – won more than 50% of the available votes. 95.8% of MPs won office despite a majority of eligible voters in their constituency either not voting, or voting for someone else.

MPs elected on: <50% of vote <50% of constituents
n % n %
All MPs 650 174 26.8% 623 95.8%
Con 317 74 23.3% 315 99.4%
DUP 10 5 50.0% 10 100.0%
Green 1 0 0.0% 1 100.0%
Ind 1 1 100.0% 1 100.0%
Lab 262 40 15.3% 238 90.8%
LD 12 11 91.7% 12 100.0%
PC 4 4 100.0% 4 100.0%
SF 7 4 57.1% 7 100.0%
SNP 35 35 100.0% 35 100.0%
Spk 1 0 0.0% 0 0.0%

Table 2

These figures further underline the problems with the UK’s electoral system. Most MPs win office with the support of a minority of eligible voters in their local area. Most governments win absolute power with the support of a minority of actual voters, and an even smaller minority of eligible voters, in the country. People lose faith in democracy when it seems to be incapable of representing their views adequately. That is clearly happening in the UK, now.

Quick war powers digest

Putting all my writing on parliamentary war powers in one place:

Action or inaction? What are May’s political options? Times Red Box, 12 April 2018: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/james-strong-action-or-inaction-what-are-may-s-political-options-pb87brl8f 

Parliamentary war powers: The pros and cons, PSA Political Insight, 12 April 2018: https://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog/parliamentary-war-powers-pros-and-cons

Key point: May’s best option in terms of domestic politics is to offer the US logistical and intelligence support, avoiding the need either to bypass parliament or to risk losing a vote. If she wants to do more than that, she’ll have to take significant political risks.

The war powers of the British parliament: What has been established, and what remains unclear? British Journal of Politics and International Relations, February 2018: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1369148117745767 (non-paywalled pre-publication version here: https://drjamesstrong.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/strong-war-powers-update-rev-final-as-submitted.pdf)

Key point: Parliament has no legal war powers, but most MPs expect a say over future military combat operations. Future governments will face two related choices – do they think they can afford to bypass MPs, and do they think they can win a vote? What they do will depend on how they answer these questions (we’re in scenario 4 right now):

30629364_10102467952355859_3625015383519395840_o

Interpreting the Syria vote: Parliament and British foreign policy, International Affairs, September 2015: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-2346.12401

Key point: The Cameron government’s defeat over Syria said more about party politics than it did about military strategy. Had Cameron successfully done a deal with Ed Miliband, the 2013 Syria vote could have been won.

Why parliament now decides on war: Tracing the growth of the parliamentary prerogative through Syria, Libya and Iraq, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, June 2014: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-856X.12055

Key point: Cumulative precedents set in parliamentary votes on Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2013 established a convention that MPs should have the chance to veto military combat deployments.

Theresa May’s options for military action in Syria

Tornado-jets
UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

The prospect of UK military action against the Assad regime has returned to newspaper front pages. In light of parliament’s 2013 decision to block similar strikes, some Conservative MPs have argued that the Prime Minister should avoid a House of Commons vote, and rely on her authority under the Royal Prerogative to order British involvement. In this short post, I consider the different options available to May from a domestic politics perspective. I don’t touch on the strategic and legal difficulties with intervention against the Assad regime, but suffice to say these are considerable and largely unchanged since 2013.

Bypassing MPs is certainly an option, but it is not a straightforward one. A tentative convention has developed since MPs authorized the Iraq War in 2003 that parliament should sign off on the use of military force. It is recognized in the Cabinet Manual and has been endorsed by May’s own spokesman since she entered Downing Street. Many MPs do not even realize that their involvement in decisions on military action in Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (which they vetoed), Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015 derived from convention rather than law. Ignoring them would have political costs. May should not take this path without accepting that it might further undermine her shaky position in parliament, and without being willing to risk consequences up to and including a motion of no confidence.

Asking MPs for prior approval before joining US-led strikes also looks like a problematic option. It would be consistent with the War Powers Convention. But it seems highly likely that the government would struggle to win, just as David Cameron did in 2013. The government lacks an overall majority. While the DUP has supported military action in the past, it is not bound by the terms of its confidence-and-supply arrangement to support it in future. Its MPs have consistently argued that any use of force must be focused on upholding the national interest, and there is no direct British national interest at stake in Syria, at least as far as the Assad regime is concerned. The main opposition parties – Labour and the SNP – are likely to oppose further intervention in Syria. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a strong track record of voting against military action – he was, for example, one of just thirteen MPs who opposed intervention in Libya. Though Labour split over action against Da’esh in 2015, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn leading 60+ Labour MPs in supporting the government, the party looks more united now and the moral case for action is weaker.

May could order the use of force, then seek retrospective approval from MPs. David Cameron did this over Libya in 2011 and in authorizing a UAV strike on Syria in 2015. MPs do not, as a rule, like it when governments take this route. Cameron argued it was sometimes necessary, in light of an imminent threat to national security or humanitarian disaster, to act first and ask permission later. It is difficult to see how May could claim either exception to join US strikes against Assad. British national security is not directly threatened, and the humanitarian situation has largely remained unchanged for seven years.

May could, finally, restrict British participation in action against Assad to non-combat roles, such as providing surveillance and logistical support to its US and French allies, or by deploying Special Forces. Neither non-combat actions nor Special Forces operations presently fall under the War Powers Convention, meaning May retains discretion to act as she sees fit. Opponents of further engagement in Syria might, however, push back against this – they managed to prevent the Cameron government offering military support to opposition groups, for example, and one of the benefits of having a War Powers Convention instead of a War Powers Act is that MPs can demand more power over situations they particularly care about.

In sum, therefore, the May government’s best political option is probably not to join direct military action in Syria. Instead, it should offer its allies indirect support, perhaps including the use of Special Forces for reconnaissance purposes. That would enable it to demonstrate a degree of usefulness at a difficult diplomatic moment, without risking either holding, or visibly bypassing, a parliamentary vote.

I discuss these arguments in more detail in my recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (£).

Medium Brexit

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Perhaps I’ve read too much Tony Blair, and absorbed the idea that there’s always a ‘third way’ somewhere. I think there is a form of Brexit that gives both Leavers and Remainers something that they want. I call it Medium Brexit.

Medium Brexit might also be called ‘hard in theory, soft in practice’ Brexit, but that’s a bit wordy. It involves all the trappings of hard Brexit – leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, removing the UK from ECJ jurisdiction and ending free movement of people into the UK from the (rest of the) EU.

At the same time, it also involves using the UK’s new-found independence judiciously. Having the right to ban all EU citizens from coming to work in the UK, but using it sensibly. Having the right to deviate substantially from EU regulations, but doing so only where it truly offers benefits that outweigh the costs – including the costs of increased barriers to entry to the EU market, and the costs of establishing a hard border on the island of Ireland. No longer being subject to ECJ oversight, but retaining existing jurisprudence and giving the Supreme Court the right to draw on ECJ judgements in determining its own stance.

Medium Brexit gives the Leavers much of what they want. Not necessarily a dramatic change in policy, but a repatriation of previously pooled sovereignty. Parliament would have the right to copy or to ignore new EU regulations. The Courts would have the right to emulate or set aside ECJ decisions. Ministers would have the right to admit or to exclude EU workers, to direct them towards sectors with specific needs – like agriculture, science, finance and healthcare – and to deny them whatever benefits they choose, but would not be obliged to do anything unless they thought it best for the British economy and for British society.

Medium Brexit also offers Remainers some of what they want. In particular, it leaves considerable room for regulatory alignment with the EU, avoiding a race to the bottom in areas like workers’ rights and environmental protections, and allowing European co-operation in areas currently working well, like financial and medical regulation. It would allow for movement between the UK and the EU – not unfettered movement, but not the travel bans and mass deportations of some nightmare scenarios. It would minimize – again, not necessarily eliminate, but perhaps reduce to a tolerable level – the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Theresa May’s biggest mistake was treating the question of what Brexit should mean as one she should answer alone. She should have consulted, openly, widely and for as long as it took to thrash out a compromise vision. Had she done so, we might have wound up with something that looks like Medium Brexit. Hard in terms of sovereignty, soft in terms of divergence. Not perfect, by anyone’s criteria. But perhaps acceptable to a majority – unlike anything May has come up with alone.

The ballad of Theresa Mayhem

Theresa May’s great gamble failed. She hasn’t resigned yet, but she will. Her credibility is shot. Her majority is gone. Though the Conservatives can probably form a government with support from the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, it will be weak and wobbly at best, not the ‘strong and stable government’ May promised. Even if she tries to stay in power, her party will probably get rid of her. Who comes next is unclear. Whatever the outcome, we can expect another election before the end of the year – and when that happens, all bets are off.

This was May’s election, and her defeat. She asked the electorate for a personal blank cheque – for Brexit, and whatever other challenges are to come. They refused. Jeremy Corbyn fought a far better campaign – a more interesting manifesto, with more carefully thought-out policies, smarter media work (!), and a more inspiring message. One of several reasons for the wide variation in pre-election opinion polls was that different pollsters used different approaches to estimate likely turnout. It looks like those (e.g. YouGov) who assumed respondents who promised to turn out and vote actually would got closer to the result than those who assumed past trends would continue this time around. In other words, it looks like more young people voted this time – though we’ll find out more in time.

So what does this all mean? What happens next? To begin with, Theresa May stays Prime Minister, at least until her party colleagues replace her. With DUP support she’ll be able to get her core policies through parliament, just. But something will have to change. To begin with, it is difficult to see how the government can credibly begin Brexit negotiations in 11 days’ time. May’s plan was to secure a personal mandate and a parliamentary cushion to allow her to cut whatever deal she saw fit. She failed. Given the choice, the electorate refused to endorse her proposal for ‘hard Brexit’. As I said in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum last year, there is no majority in the country for any possible version of Brexit. Nor is there a majority for simply accepting whatever Theresa thinks is best.

Jeremy Corbyn will also stay on as Labour leader. He’s proven that you don’t need to be slick to inspire voters (especially the young). He’s also demonstrated that there is appetite in the country for more left-wing policies. I expect many of the MPs who have rebelled against his leadership to rally, but I still doubt he’s an election-winner.

That final point worth noting is that the nature of this hung parliament makes a further election later this year highly likely. The government will struggle to get anything done. And when that happens, all bets are off. If it’s Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no telling what will happen. After all, we’ve just had another demonstration of the challenge of conducting accurate UK opinion polls. Constituency results deviated even more wildly from the national swing. The Conservatives took seats in Scotland and lost them in England, reversing the recent trend. More people voted for either Labour or the Conservatives than have done so for several elections. All this makes knowing what will happen at the second 2017 election that much harder. I’ll make only one prediction. Mayhem will follow.

2017 Election Digest

I spent hours trying to write my take on tomorrow’s election, but I haven’t really been following it that closely and I felt I was just rambling nonsensically. I think the Conservatives will win, with an increased majority. I think it is unlikely but not impossible that either Labour will win or that the Conservatives will win by a landslide. I quite hope Ed Davey re-takes my home constituency of Kingston and Surbiton for the Liberal Democrats. I’m conscious that there is a lot of uncertainty and that the range of possible outcomes is very wide. So I decided simply to put together a reading list of links for anyone looking to enlighten themselves.

To begin with, if you have literally no idea what’s going on you might want to try the BBC general election FAQ page – which begins with the question “what is a general election?”. You can also use this page to find out which constituency you live in and who your local candidates are:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39631768

You can get more detail here:

http://democraticdashboard.com

You can then find a breakdown of where the parties stand on the key issues here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39955886

This page provides an overview of opinion polls showing how people intended to vote at different stages in the build-up to the election:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39856354

You can get more detail here:

http://ukpollingreport.co.uk

And there’s a model showing how this might translate into seats in parliament by Dr Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia here:

http://electionforecast.co.uk

Lord Ashcroft’s version, which is based on constituency-level polling, comes to similar conclusions:

http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2017/06/ashcroft-model-update-potential-majorities-seat-seat-estimates/#more-15313

This post, by polling expert Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, talks about why the polls are so confusing:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40167578

This post, by famed American poll aggregator Nate Silver (someone who looks at all the different polls and weights them depending on how reliable the same polling company has been in the past), explains the uncertainty that still surrounds the vote despite the number of polls taken:

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/are-the-u-k-polls-skewed/

As does this earlier post:

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-u-k-snap-election-is-riskier-than-it-seems/

This post, from BBC Newsnight Policy Editor Chris Cook, tries something different. It looks at where the main parties have sent their leaders to campaign, and uses this to estimate how well they think they are doing:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40176539

There’s a bunch of other stuff out there, but this is already more than most people will read. So I’ll wrap up with two final links.

This page tells you who to vote for in your local area to vote against the Conservatives:

https://www.tactical2017.com

This video sums up the election campaign quite well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7iUYWMD77w