Hard Evidence: this is the Age of Dissent – and there’s much more to come

David Bailey is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham and provides a fascinating insight into how the nature of protest has changed.

The year 2011 is widely viewed as the peak of protest and dissent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity agenda that followed it. It was the year of the Arab Spring, Occupy, UK Uncut, indignados, urban riots and anti-austerity and tuition fee protests – and in which Time magazine famously named “The Protester” as its person of the year.

Yet in the UK, protests continue to occur at a rate rarely seen prior to the global economic crisis in 2008. Indeed, 2015 seems to have confirmed the suggestion, made at the beginning of the year, that 2011 was “really only just the beginning”.

In fact, we appear to be facing a longer-term age of contestation, perhaps prompted by the experience of low growth, and the hardening of attitudes by mainstream politicians despite growing popular demands.

Raising the protest banner

As part of a research project looking at protest events in the post-2008 context, I have recorded a catalogue of UK-based protest events reported in major British national newspapers, spanning back to the late 1970s. And it suggests that 2015 actually had the highest level of visible dissent in the UK since before the 1980s.

In updating the dataset of protest events, and building on earlier estimates made on the basis of data covering the period up until 2012, we can see that the frequency of protests peaked in 2010-2011 and subsided slightly in 2012 – perhaps as a result of despondency after some of the big anti-austerity movements, such as the tuition fee protests, were ignored and/or heavily repressed. But from 2013 onwards dissent has returned to levels witnessed during earlier stages of the anti-austerity movement, and continued to rise through to a new high in 2015.

Average number of protest events per year, 1980s-2015.

We can also use this dataset to assess changes to the types of protester involved. As the figure below shows, dissent in the 1980s was overwhelmingly conducted by workers and organised labour. In contrast, the protests during the heyday of the anti-austerity protests in 2010-11 were conducted predominantly by three main groups: workers, students, and those anti-cuts activists identifying explicitly with the anti-austerity movement, such as UK Uncut.

What was noteworthy about the dissent and protest which took place in 2015, however, was its considerably more pluralist nature which involved seven key groups of protesters dominating protest politics. While workers and environmentalists conducted around one-third of all protest events in 2015, another five groups – housing activists, students, pro-minority groups (including those supporting refugees and asylum seekers), anti-cuts activists and right-wing groups – each contributed between 6% and 10% of the total protest activity for the year.

Share of protest events, by protester type.

We can also use the catalogue of protest events to identify changing patterns of protest. Thus, the figure below shows trends for the seven most popular forms of dissent between the 1980s and 2015. In the 1980s, strikes and wildcat strikes made up 50 per cent of protest events, a figure which shrank to 17.5 per cent in 2010-11 and remained at around that level in 2015 (22%).

The big change in 2015, however, was the rise in the “other” category – that is, protest events that did not fit within the most common forms of protest. This was largely explained by the relatively large number of “stunts” carried out by protesters in 2015 – reflecting growing innovation among contemporary protesters (itself possibly explained by the increased need to stand out in order to attract media and public attention).

Climate protestors take to the streets of London.
Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

This includes the baring of the bottoms of the 12 Reclaim the Power protesters outside the Department of Energy and Climate Change, adopting the slogan, “wind not gas!” at the beginning of June. It also included Vivienne Westwood’s driving a tank to David Cameron’s home to protest against fracking in September and the public discarding of medals by veteran soldiers protesting against the government’s decision to begin the bombing of Syria in December.

Share of protest events, by form of protest.

So what’s the gripe?

Given that 2015 had the highest frequency of reported protest events in the UK since the 1970s, we might also identify what these protests were about.

In terms of strike actions, the transport sector witnessed some of the biggest strikes, with Unite overseeing strike action by bus drivers in a dispute with London bus companies over the standardisation of pay, and RMT tube workers taking strike action over the introduction of all-night tube services.

2015 also saw the beginning of a novel form of quasi-strike action by solicitors and barristers in their move to cease taking on new cases in protest at the government’s cuts to legal aid. There was also an escalation of the dispute led by PCS union members at the National Gallery over privatisation, leading to an all-out strike which began in August and which was only resolved in October after negotiations led to a deal on pay and conditions, as well as the reinstatement of one of the sacked trade union reps involved in the dispute.

The housing crisis also prompted a large increase in 2015 of housing-related protests, including the occupation of Sweets Way Estate in March, the occupation in April by members of the Focus E15 housing campaign group of a flat from which resident Jasmin Stone had earlier been evicted and the occupation of empty properties by groups such as Manchester Angels and Camden Mothership protesting against homelessness (as well as trying to find opportunities for housing).

Anonymous wants it’s say.
Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Some of the biggest demonstrations of the year continued to focus on the government’s austerity measures, including the 100,000 attendees at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in June and 50,000 people protesting outside the Conservative Party Conference in October. September also saw 30,000 demonstrators calling for the government to do more to help refugees, and in November 50,000 environmentalists demonstrated in support of stronger government action to be agreed at the Paris summit.

But did it change the world?

Finally, while some commentators have begun (again) to proclaim the futility of protest, some important concessions were also won as a result of the 2015 protests, confirming recent research which suggests that only direct action protest consistently produces desired results in times of stagnant economic growth.

Sports Direct recently agreed to pay all staff above the national minimum wage, following protests which included Unite members dressing up as Dickensian workers to protest the pay and conditions suffered by employees of the company outside its AGM.

The tube workers’ strike resulted in the apparently indefinite delay of the implementation of all-night opening.

After more than 60,000 people signed a petition in February against what was perceived to be an attempt to charge for the right to protest, the Metropolitan police backed down in its attempt to make two organisations – Campaign Against Climate Change and the Million Women Rise campaign – pay the policing costs necessary for them to be able to hold demonstrations.

Direct action protests by milk farmers also resulted in a number of concessions from supermarkets, including Asda agreeing to a minimum payment per litre for milk. And the students staging a rent strike at UCL won nearly £100,000 in compensation – or £1,368 per head – following a successful campaign against the university which also led to it backing down over its threat to prevent students from graduating unless they ended the strike.

While the frequency of reported protest events in the UK rose in 2015 to its highest level since the end of the 1970s, 2016 looks set to bring still more discord. The ongoing housing crisis, the industrial dispute over junior doctor’s contracts, and the apparent willingness of Jeremy Corbyn to use his position as Labour Party leader to fuel further mobilisation and dissent (for instance, by recently attending the passenger protest against rising rail prices), suggest that 2016 will be a year in which protests, in the ongoing context of prolonged economic stagnation, continue to gather pace.

This article was originally published on The Conversation on 11th January 2016.

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Jakarta Attacks: Is Islamic State’s Presence in South-East Asia Overstated?

In this article Scott Edwards, a Doctoral Researcher and part of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, explores the perceived rise of Islamic State in Indonesia and South-East Asia more broadly.

A series of deadly suicide bombings and shootings in Jakarta have killed at least seven people, and been claimed by Islamic State (IS).

At first glance, this seems to confirm that long-held worries of a full-blown IS campaign in South-East Asia were well-founded – but viewed in context, the picture looks rather different.

IS is undeniably active to some extent in Indonesia and South-East Asia more broadly, and it is known to have recruited fighters from the region. It was recently reported that two suicide bombers who mounted attacks in Syria and Iraq were from Malaysia. South-East Asia has an enormous Muslim population, and its states have long had trouble with separatist or terrorist Islamist organisations such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf. That makes the prospect of a domestic struggle with IS in Indonesia all the more alarming.

Efforts to head it off are well underway. Malaysian police recently confirmed the authenticity of a leaked memo warning of imminent suicide attacks in Kuala Lumpur, while Indonesian police reported arrests of potential IS-linked militants planning to attack Jakarta around the new year celebrations.

The police and world media alike have already speculated that these attacks may be in some way connected to that same intelligence.

Other countries in the region are concerned too. The Australian Attorney General ominously announced that IS is planning to establish a “distant caliphate” in South-East Asia, which clearly would be a disaster.

Ominous signs

This fear is fed by worries that young Indonesians are being radicalised and recruited by IS, especially through social media, where certain Malaysians and Indonesians fighting in Syria have won large followings.

The number of Indonesian fighters estimated to have joined IS in Syria is between 500 and 700; Malaysia follows with roughly 200, with an additional 120 arrested before they made it to Syria.

Elsewhere, Thailand is host to a separatist Islamic insurgency in its southern provinces, and recent IS videos have emerged subtitled in Thai. In the Philippines, existing separatist groups such as Abu Sayyaf are increasingly being linked to IS.

Jokowi at the scene of a bomb blast.
Reuters/Antara Photo Agency

To try and assuage his people’s worries, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), has called for more resources to be dedicated to the issue of returning Indonesian fighters and agreed to regulation allowing for passports to be revoked. He has asked the military to be diligent against attacks, and it has planned exercises in areas with groups potentially linked to IS. He’s also been pushing a “soft approach”, focusing on how cultural and religious approaches should be used, and poverty tackled, to reduce radicalisation.

These efforts are all sensible enough – but if we only stop to take stock, it actually seems as if IS’s presence in Indonesia and South-East Asia may have been somewhat exaggerated.

Reality check

First of all, there is no sign that this is a mass insurgency waiting to explode. An estimated 500 to 700 fighters sounds like a lot as a raw number, but relative to the Indonesian Muslim population of roughly 200m people, it’s vanishingly small.

While IS has now apparently claimed responsibility for the latest attack, the attack seems to be on a smaller scale than anticipated. IS still seems to have a relatively small impact on the region, and seems to present only a minor threat.

This all recalls the heyday of al-Qaeda, when much ink was spilled over South-East Asia potentially becoming another major front in the war on terror – something which never came to pass.

As Edward Delman has pointed out, Indonesia’s social and political cultures have plenty of capacity to fight back. He points in particular to Nahdlatul Ulama, a large organisation that spreads ideas of compassion – an important bulwark against radicalisation. And as a Muslim majority democratic country, Indonesia has the opportunity to make political space for people to vent their dissatisfaction. Even when ideas are relatively extreme, they can still be discussed and discredited within the normal political framework.

This isn’t to suggest that complacency is acceptable, and that extends to security measures across Indonesia and South-East Asia as a whole. But the gap between fear and reality is not to be dismissed either. We should avoid assuming the worst about the region just because it is host to large, Muslim-majority countries – or dismissing those countries’ ability to fight violent radicalism themselves.

This article was originally published on The Conversation on 14th January 2016

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Neoliberalism and its Forgotten Alternative

Criticisms of neoliberalism are proliferating, not just within the political and academic left, but within mainstream public opinion as well. Everywhere, people are beginning to seriously doubt whether markets will be able to produce another extended period of sustained growth, or whether they will solve the world’s current problems or merely exacerbate them. Liberal economists are pointing to the increasing inequality caused by 30 years of neoliberalism in the west.

This analysis of rising inequality has been built upon by other critics of neoliberalism who examine the social effects of this inequality, beginning with Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, a path-breaking and hugely popular book that has led to more important work in this area, with research focusing in on inequality’s mental and even physical health effects.

Aside from inequality, other critics have focused on how neoliberalism is incapable of solving the problem of climate change. Naomi Klein has, for a long time, pointed to how climate change intensified with the deregulation of markets in the 1970s – for many people the beginning point of the rise of neoliberal hegemony in the west. Today there is an intensifying debate over the idea of ‘natural capital’, which some critics see as an absurd move by neoliberal policy makers to apply the logic of the market to a problem that has, as Klein argues, only made the problem worse in the first place.

In what George Monbiot has referred to as the “the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it”, the natural ‘commons’ is turned into a potential new source of value which can be speculated on by investors. This form of speculation, of course, is what led to the 2008 financial crisis, with risk on sub-prime mortgages hedged into more and more complex ‘derivatives’, eventually bringing the whole intertwined financial world to its knees as the housing bubble burst.

As Monbiot and others have correctly pointed out, the move to financialise natural resources is not intended to save the world, but to create another source of capital accumulation and thus save an increasingly desperate capitalist system.

The problem is that, despite growing dissatisfaction and criticism of neoliberalism, we don’t seem to be able to shift this socio-economic structure in favour of a better one, or even just to a return to a more Keynesian inspired alternative. We seem to be stuck in what Mark Fisher has called a state of ‘capitalist realism’, somehow, despite our apparent knowledge, coming to accept in practice Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no alternative’, or Francis Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the ‘end of history’.

However, this inability to deal with contemporary neoliberalism in practice is not due to the victory of capitalism, but comes from an under-estimation of how far neoliberalism is a long-term, and very successful, political project with a coherent and shared ‘world-view’. This world-view has its origins in a crisis of liberalism in the 1930s, as it faced what it saw as the return of authoritarianism, or ‘arbitrary rule’.

Neoliberalism was an attempt by influential German economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and social theorists, such as Max Weber and Walter Lippmann (in the US) to rescue and reformulate liberalism in theory, a theory that had itself originated historically (in the 17th and 18th centuries) as a critique of the arbitrary power of church and state. According to these theorists, liberalism had become incapable of dealing with what they saw as the contemporary manifestation of arbitrary rule in fascist Germany and Italy and communist Russia.

In an extraordinary book, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Philip Mirowski and other scholars describe how early neoliberal theorists and sympathisers came together in 1947 to form an exclusive, secretive and powerful club called the Mont Pèlerin Society. This was the beginning of ‘a transnational movement’ which accepted right from the beginning that undermining what they saw as the evils of economic planning would take a long time, lots of effort and careful coordination. As Mirowski points out in his conclusion, neoliberalism was never a conspiracy, but rather an “intricately structured long-term philosophical and political project”.

Contrary to popular belief and some academic opinion, ‘neoliberalism’ is not just a dirty word invented by left-wingers resenting the ‘victory’ of capitalism in the western world, but a term self-consciously chosen by what Mirowski and others refer to as the international ‘thought collective’ arising out of the Mont Pèlerin Society. This neoliberal thought collective bade their time, connecting and combining “key spheres and institutions – academia, the media, politics and business”, creating a new knowledge apparatus for the dissemination of propaganda, the “neoliberal partisan think-tank”, and eventually finding power through the victories of the political right in the 1970s, Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US.

To understand the true origins of neoliberalism, and therefore be able to rescue a convincing alternative, however, we must return to the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was very much influenced by the emerging critique of economic planning that was beginning to appear in the 1920s, especially in the work of Ludwig von Mises, Boris Brutskus and Friedrich Hayek, reaching its high-point just before the outbreak of World War II. But before engaging with this critique explicitly in The Good Society, Lippmann had been mounting a devastating attack on what he considered to be the naivety of liberal democracy in two major works, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public.

In these books, Lippmann argued that at the heart of liberal democratic theory lies a fiction, that of the “sovereign and omnicompetent citizen”, which in turn leads democrats to rely uncritically on a myth of an active and responsible public, which is supposed to guarantee freedom against arbitrary rule. This myth, however, allows agents with special interests, such as the media, controlled by advertising, and the government, controlled by individuals with a desire to maintain power, to pretend that they are acting in the so-called ‘public interest’. Realising, with Lippmann, that the public does not spring up ‘spontaneously’ with free speech, these agents create and manipulate public opinion in order to achieve their own ends.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann still held out hope for social science as a mediating “machinery of knowledge” to provide the truth to both decision makers and the public, a truth which the media is structurally just not able to provide (due to what might be called ‘market failure’, as people don’t want to pay for the apparatus necessary for truth, and the sociological constraints of having to report the news quickly and efficiently). But by the time he wrote The Phantom Public, Lippmann had given way to a full blown pessimism regarding the capabilities of average citizens.

In a tirade of insults that runs through the book, the average member of the public is conceived “in the lowest terms”. According to Lippmann they “will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive”, and must be assumed as “inexpert”, “intermittent”, “slow to be aroused”, “quickly diverted” and “interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict”. Gone is the faith in science and expertise, with Lippmann’s universal scepticism forcing him to “throw the baby out with the bath water”. He writes: “Modern society is not visible to anybody, nor intelligible continuously and as a whole”.

Mirowski and others have shown that Lippmann had a huge influence on the early foundations of neoliberalism. Upon reading The Good Society, enthusiastic future neoliberals organised a conference in Paris in 1938, called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, which served as a precursor and inspiration for the Mont Pèlerin Society. The Good Society anticipated many of the key ideas of the emerging neoliberal world-view: the need to reinvent liberalism, to somehow create the conditions for the market to flourish and to prevent arbitrary rule and authoritarianism, and most importantly, to restrict democratic involvement in decision making and to replace the expectation of positive freedom with a completely negative ideal of the individual as an emancipated entrepreneur and/or consumer.

But what linked the attack in The Good Society on economic planning to Lippmann’s earlier work on democracy, and also to the work of key neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, was the epistemological rationalisation of both the market as answer to everything and of the restriction of democracy. Both Lippmann and Hayek worked with the assumption that no individual could know society as a whole, and therefore no individual, or even a group of individuals, can have access to the information required to make economic planning work, or to rule society in the name of the ‘collective will’. The only rational way to run society, therefore, was through the ‘natural logic’ of the market.

However, the whole epistemological critique of planning and the public in Lippmann and Hayek rested on the assumption that knowledge is asocial. For ‘democratic realists’ and neoliberals alike, reality is something that the individual achieves by accurately representing, or forming a true picture in the mind of the outside world. In this case, of course, the individual has limited access to knowledge, no matter how well educated or intelligent we are. But Lippmann’s earlier work, and his public debate with John Dewey throughout the 1920s and 30s, point to an alternative view, submerged in the subsequent war between capitalism and communism.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that we see and understand the world primarily through ‘stereotypes’, the habits and customs of thought that guide our actions without realising, which he used to discredit ‘public opinion’. Dewey agreed with Lippmann that an individual’s capacity for knowledge was limited, and that many actions are guided by habit. But Dewey also believed that these habits could be made intelligent through reflection upon the consequences of our actions, and through this process we could develop ‘foresight’ which would in turn further develop the intelligence of our intuition.

Dewey drew a far more positive conclusion than Lippmann: habits can be an incredible source of power and knowledge if we are only willing to work on ourselves.

These stereotypes and habits also give us access to social knowledge, as subconsciously we must have a deep understanding of how society works in order to act. We human beings are so much more intelligent than neoliberals give us credit for; the brain processes huge amounts of information every second, most of which we are not aware of. According to Dewey, we have access to this submerged substratum of information, or ‘qualitative’ thought, through reflection; if we look deeply into our experience, we can make the connections which turn bare facts into truth, or for Dewey, into wisdom.

All our knowledge is social, everything we know is in some way derived from the shared understandings, customs and collective experience which we have come to refer to as ‘culture’. This means that everything around us is a source of exploration and knowledge. Life itself is a learning process and the world is a classroom. This is what Dewey meant when he talked about ‘democracy as a way of life’.

As Josiah Ober has observed, looking at the success of ancient Athens, democracy is a powerful way of harnessing “dispersed knowledge through the free choice of many people”. What Lippmann and Hayek fail to see, due to their attachment to extreme individualism, is that by tapping into the social nature of knowledge through collaborative reflection, the limitations imposed on us by our individual perspectives can be overcome. And democracy, in the positive Deweyan sense, is the most effective way of putting these perspectives to work.

Ironically, neoliberalism points to the way forward. The history of neoliberalism has taught us two things: firstly that no matter how unpopular an idea is at the time (and to say that neoliberalism was ‘leaning against the wind’ during the Great Depression of the 1930s is, to use Mirowski et al’s words, an understatement), with enough hard work, determination and above all, organisation, today’s outlier can become tomorrow’s hegemonic world-view. Secondly, the public, like the perfect market, does not just spontaneously appear with negative freedom. We can try to engage people in collaborative social inquiry, try to develop their awareness of the conditions that limit participation, to deepen our collective understanding of social and political processes and therefore increase the public’s potential for self-rule.

However, without creating the material and social conditions for participation, these efforts at condescension will be rightly met with scorn. Sociologists and social scientists need to be a part of an active process of giving back social inquiry to the public, emancipating this deeply human and social activity first and foremost from the elitism, specialisation and instrumentalism of academia. We may need to reduce the working week even further to enable people to have time for community activities and public research. We certainly need to prevent education from being turned towards a class-based, narrowly vocational process of training people to be profit-making machines.

We haven’t got all the answers yet. But if we have an idea whose time has come, as the neoliberal ‘thought-collective’ have shown, we can perhaps win the battle in the end, and work it out as we go along.


David Ridley is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy on 8th January 2016.

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#Gymlife: does Instagram’s fitness trend have the potential to negatively impact female body image?

In this post Milly Morris examines #Gymlife and whether all the self-infatuation on Instagram help to reinforce stereotypes of the perfect female form.

I watch the two women from the treadmill as they stand in front of the large mirror at my local gym. They take it in turns to pose whilst the other takes their picture; holding weights, lunging and squatting. They complete their impromptu photoshoot with the money shot; the mirror “selfie.” As I stagger past them, profusely sweaty and embarrassed by my oversized “Miami Heat” t-shirt, they huddle over the phone to debate appropriate filters and hashtags for one another’s Instagram account. Many would not find this unusual; Instagram’s ability to crop life’s mundane experiences into a neat little square and lace in a bohemian glow have caused it to become a part of many women’s every-day life. According to a survey conducted by Appdata, 65% of Instagram’s 150 million users are female.

Anyone who has Instagram will recognise the images integral to its “health and fitness” trend: tightly toned women flexing in a gym mirror, eating avocado on wholegrain toast or sipping brightly coloured smoothies. Instagram celebrities, such as Jen Selter, Emily Skye, Lyzabeth Lopez and Rachel Brathen are famous for such “fitness-orientated” selfies aimed to inspire women into living a healthy lifestyle. These women generate thousands of followers and are referred to as Insta-famous. Selter, for example, is particularly famous for her buttocks; often uploading images of her squatting in the gym. Likewise, Rachel Brathen’s Instagram fame is based upon “beautiful yoga selfies.” Her profile has 1.4 million followers and is strewn with flawless images of her stretching in exotic locations accompanied by poetic “feel-good” captions.

It seems that the women I saw taking pictures in the gym, along with many others, attempt to emulate this trend set by the Insta-famous. Similar to the male trend of “gains”, if you type the phrases “gymselfie” or “gymlife” into the Instagram search bar, a plethora of images of women sharing their healthy lifestyle will flood the screen.

And what’s wrong with this? It can be argued that we should celebrate these women who are healthy and seemingly confident in their appearance amidst an apparent “obesity crisis.” Surely, showcasing women’s fitness acts as a symbol of female empowerment?

Yet there is more to these images than a demonstration of health and female strength. The women’s poses are purposely sexual and all mirror the perfectly-groomed models in magazines, rather than the sweaty and dishevelled post-gym appearance of the average woman.

Feminists such as Wolf, Gill and Orbach argue that a beauty myth pervades the traditional media and wider society. This myth teaches women from birth that to be valued they must be tall, thin and white. The negative impact that the traditional media’s representation of beauty has had upon women has been well documented. For example, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites cultural influences as a contributing factor into why women are much more likely than men to develop an eating disorder.

One only needs to cast their eyes across the covers of magazines to see this archetypical notion of beauty within models and actresses, displayed and presented as a “superior breed” of female. In contrast to women within the traditional media, Insta-famous women reflect the sentiment of meritocracy; they have become famous online by documenting their “hard work” at the gym via social media. Selter often accompanies her daily uploads with motivational messages, implying that her followers can look like her if they simply try hard enough. For example, one comment stated:

“Every day that you push yourself you are one day closer to your goals. The body achieves what the mind believes”

The comments on the image reflect this sentiment, referring to Selter as “ultimate goals” and “perfection.” In this sense, the beauty ideal is portrayed as attainable rather than something which is reserved for models and actresses who have won a genetic lottery. Consequently, does this have the potential to intensify internalized feelings of shame, guilt and disgust for women who do not reach this goal? Recent research demonstrates a significant rise in women reportedly feeling “unhappy” and “disgusted” by their appearance. Thus, it is important to consider that such Instagram trends are intensifying existing messages perpetuated by the traditional media: to be successful, happy and desirable as a woman involves two key ingredients – to be slim and beautiful.

This may be why the two women at the gym felt it necessary to document their fitness regime; to prove to an online audience that they are striving for an Insta-famous body. It is easy to dismiss this behaviour as self-absorbed and narcissistic. However, this ignores the obsessive documentation of self which has become normalised by social media. Thus, in an age where we seemingly live by the rule of “pictures or it didn’t happen”, it is worrying that women seek validation from an invisible crowd from their attempt to achieve “perfection.”

I must clarify – I believe that an individual’s health is important to leading a happy lifestyle. Yet, these women are not solely promoting this message. Jen Selter, Lyzabeth Lopez and other Insta-famous women market their bodies to an online audience who do not admire them for their fitness levels, but for reaching the pinnacle of feminine beauty.

Overall, it is essential that we discuss the trend of health and fitness on Instagram which is arguably becoming an integral part of many young women’s lives. As discussed, the traditional media bombards women with an idealistic standard of beauty in magazines, TV shows, billboards and films. However, in the digital age, there is no respite from the constant stream of images and clips uploaded to social media. In this sense, Insta-famous fitness models have the potential to intensify feelings of body-shame by ensuring that reminders of the “perfect” female are constantly accessible via the touch of a screen.


Milly Morris is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on Feminist Academics on 17th December 2015.


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Do select committees deserve ‘universal praise’?

In this post, Dr Stephen Bates and Dr Mark Goodwin argue that a more rounded evaluation of Select Committees is needed to assess whether they deserve ‘universal praise’.

By Stephen Bates and Mark Goodwin

Rupert Murdoch being attacked with a custard pie. Michael Gove alleging a ‘Trot conspiracy’ in English schools. The vice president of Google being informed that ‘you do evil’. Three highlights of the last Parliament, all of which took place within hearings of House of Commons select committees. These cross-party groups of MPs have become an important site for the exercise of Parliament’s scrutiny function and have been regarded by some as arguably the most significant and successful recent innovation in the relationship between the UK government and its legislature. While these committees have limited legislative powers when viewed in comparison with committees in other parliaments, they have received ‘universal praise’ – according to the Wright Committee on Reform of the House – from media, academic analyses and from parliamentarians themselves. Since undergoing significant reform in 2010, select committees have gained a higher profile (see research on media coverage by Dunleavy or Kubala (2011)) and, many claim, have become even more assertive and effective. For example, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, recently claimed that the 2010 reforms have made Select Committees ‘pivotal players in politics’.

On what basis is such ‘universal praise’ made? Perhaps not on as reliable or comprehensive an evidence base as one might wish. Important research in this area does, of course, exist. For example, the work of Meghan Benton and Meg Russell (2013) and of Andrew Hindmoor, Phil Larkin and Andrew Kennon (2009) tracks the influence of select committee reports on legislative proposals brought forward by government. Yet, while these studies are extremely useful in evaluating some of the work of Select Committees, they cannot provide a complete picture since select committees are not solely, or even primarily, legislative committees. For example, much of the praise enjoyed by select committees is related to their investigative work, as for example, with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into phone hacking, or the Public Accounts Committee’s work on tax avoidance by transnational corporations. Indeed, since 2002 and under an overall aim of holding “Ministers and Departments to account for their policy and decision-making and to support the House in its control of the supply of public money and scrutiny of legislation”, departmental select committees have operated with a series of core tasks – revised in 2013 and currently ten in number: scrutiny of (1) departmental strategy; (2) departmental policy; (3) departmental expenditure and performance; (4) draft bills; (5) post-legislative processes and outcomes; (6) draft EU legislation and EU documents; (7) departmental appointments; (8) assisting the House in the consideration of Bills and Statutory Instruments; (9) supporting the House by informing debate through reports; and (10) engaging with the public. To these tasks can be added those of the ‘domestic’ or ‘administrative’ select committees, such as the Procedure and Backbench Business Committees, concerning the organisation and running of the House, as well as perhaps informal tasks related to, for example, providing a training ground for MPs destined for the (shadow) cabinet. Hindmoor et. al. also talk of five potential targets for select committee influence: government, Parliament, political parties, the media, and interest groups – to which can perhaps be added a sixth: the general public. Taken together, these tasks and targets produce a fairly complex matrix by which to identify and measure different indicators of select committee performance.

A more rounded evaluation of select committees in general and of the impact of the 2010 reforms in particular, then, requires empirical evidence across a wide range of areas. It is to this purpose that our Select Committee Data Archive Project (1979-present), part funded by the British Academy, is directed. Drawing on Sessional Returns and other parliamentary documents, as well as existing datasets on MPs’ backgrounds and parliamentary careers, we are collecting and analysing information on select committee membership, activity and outputs in order to provide evidence that can help to evaluate some of the different facets of select committee performance or, where this is not possible from the data collected, to point towards where and how we might be able to find such evidence. This should hopefully put us in a better position to decide whether praise for the different aspects of select committee work is deserved or otherwise.

Dr Stephen Bates is lecturer in political science at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. His main research is at the intersection of British politics, governance research, and political sociology.


 Dr Mark Goodwin is post-doctoral fellow in public policy at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. His main research interests are in contemporary British politics and public policy, especially schools policy in England.


First Published on Political Studies Association Parliamenta and Legislatures Specialist Group site on 21st May 2015

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Why the zero-carbon homes policy hasn’t gone to plan

In this post, Max Lempriere, PhD Researcher at The Department of Political Science and International Studies discusses why the zero-carbon home policy has not gone to plan.

Is this zero-carbon? No one really knows. Yui Mok/PA

One of the UK’s flagship sustainability policies is in big trouble. Less than a year from now, the theory goes, all new homes will be “zero-carbon”. The reality is rather different. Economic meltdown, a housing crisis, pressure from developers and poorly designed legislation have all combined to leave the country way behind schedule.

The policy dates back to 2006, when the Labour administration introduced stringent sustainability legislation. All new homes, they said, would be “zero-carbon” by 2016. The provision of solar panels (and other renewable energy technologies) and better energy efficiency would balance out emissions from heating, lighting and use of appliances leaving net emissions at zero.

To achieve this, building regulations were to be progressively tightened in the run up to 2016 and a Zero Carbon Hub would be formed to knock together the heads of house builders, NGOs and bureaucrats.

At the time this target was hailed as world leading and on some level the policy has been a success. By December 2014 some 33,000 homes had been built to sustainable standards, according to one measure. However, we need to look at the bigger picture.

Fast forward a decade or so and under the Conservative-led coalition government the agenda has spluttered from problem to problem. The reforms to building regulations have been delayed and are not achieving the kinds of levels envisaged. The latest were introduced a year late and only achieved a 33% improvement in energy performance, against a promised 44%. This leaves a big gap between where we are now and the next iteration, which is supposed to achieve “zero-carbon”.

What actually is a zero-carbon home?

More worryingly, despite six years of negotiations it still isn’t clear how “zero-carbon” will be defined. What we do know is that zero-carbon is likely to be anything but.

The definition of emissions, for example, was weakened in the 2011 budget. It now includes emissions from heating and lighting but it wont include those from “unregulated energy” – that is, energy used by appliances within the home.

High hopes for zero-carbon, back in 2006. Steve Parsons/PA

Emission reductions won’t even have to be achieved in the house itself. “Allowable solutions” have been introduced instead, a level of emissions above which developers can pay into a fund for low-carbon infrastructure to be built elsewhere as a way to “off-set” carbon.

Precisely at what level these allowable solutions will kick in is not clear, nor how the fund will work in reality. What is clear is that developments of fewer than ten houses (which comprise the vast majority of house-building) will be exempt from allowable solutions. Tellingly, the WWF left the Zero-Carbon Hub in protest against what it saw as a “watering down” of policy.

With so many details still to be decided, it is unsurprising that there is little confidence that the 2016 target will be met.

Zero-carbon comes at a price

This is not necessarily the coalition’s fault however. In many ways it is the result of inherent contradictions within the policy. The underlying rhetoric has been that technology – solar panels, heat pumps, insulation and so on – will do all of the hard work and consumers need not worry themselves about how they engage with and run their homes.

But who pays for this technology? Government figures show that complying with the 2010 sustainable building regulations meant a 5% increase in real production costs compared to 2006. Complying with 2013 regulations would see that figure rise to 9%. Want to build to the strictest zero-carbon standards? That’s a 50% increase.

Labour never adequately addressed the question of “who pays”, sowing the seeds for today’s problems. More often than not it has been housing developers who have had to shoulder the costs because there has never been a significant enough “price premium” attached to sustainable homes.

These costs would come down as technologies and expertise became more widespread, but the 2008 credit crisis and the increased politicisation of housing affordability and supply changed things. These sustainability requirements had the potential to hinder the construction of new housing, so developers were vocal in their opposition.

The coalition has been more sympathetic to developers than other parties may have been. Yet in many ways these policy reforms were inevitable. While it would be nice to say that the government should force increased costs on builders, the reality is very different as the government must consider whether environmental policy will jeopardise housing supply. In the midst of a financial crisis, the industry couldn’t afford the costs associated with the initial zero-carbon proposals.

In many ways this watering down could have been avoided if the initial policy had more of a focus on giving home owners an incentive to be greener. The challenge for the next administration is finding a way to encourage developers to build the homes we desperately need while sharing sustainability demands between both buyers and builders. We need homes, but we owe it to future generations to make them green

First Published on The Conversation 15th April 2015


Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include central-local governance arrangements, local government innovation and the politics of environmental governance.

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The West Midlands – a bellwether for the election?

Cherry Bio PhotoIn this post, Cherry Miller discusses the key battleground seats and issues in the West Midlands. The original version of this post was published as part of the General Election 2015 series on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 14th April 2015

It would seem churlish for any contributor in this series not to stake a claim for their region as the bellwether region of the UK. In the 2010 General Election, the West Midlands played a pivotal role in denying the outgoing Labour government a majority and there are at least 10 ‘marginal’ seats up for grabs this time around. The region is dominated by a two way pull between Conservatives and Labour and in 2010 there was an above average negative swing towards the Conservatives who now hold the majority of seats in the region. The West Midlands region includes Birmingham, Coventry, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The West Midlands does not resemble fertile territory for the Liberal Democrats who will largely be leading defensive campaigns in Birmingham Yardley and Solihull. There are 59 parliamentary constituencies in the West Midlands. Currently the Conservatives hold 33, Labour 24, and the Liberal Democrats hold 2. For the first time, the Green Party will contest all seats in the 2015 Election.



Public Services- The attribution of political responsibility for the pressure on public services by councils responding to financial challenge will be contingent upon voting intentions. An illustrative example is Birmingham City Council who has reduced opening hours at the Library of Birmingham and has introduced an unpopular annual charge for the collection of garden waste. Policing is also a significant local issue in the West Midlands and the Labour Party announced an £800m pledge to protect police numbers nationally and to abolish PCCs. The region is also home to Stafford hospital and the NHS will feature strongly in party campaigns across the political divide. Welfare changes such as the removal of the spare room subsidy has generated much controversy in the region.

Jobs, Skills and Growth- The region has the second highest rate of unemployment in the country which comprises 6.5% of the economically active population[1] and the third highest number of young people not in employment, education or training[2]. The region has a large manufacturing base that comprises a sizeable 11.3% proportion of total employment[3] and the coalition will defend its record on apprenticeship creation. The Conservatives will seek to retain a narrative on the economy, especially in the more prosperous rural constituencies however wages in the metropolitan conurbation area have decreased by 11.2% between 2010 and 2014. The perceived impact of immigration upon wages at the lower end of labour market will be a considerable issue in some constituencies. HS2 has divided opinion in the region. Some have been concerned about being on the route and the costs, whilst land has recently been freed up after protest from MPs at Washwood Heath to create more jobs than had been originally promised under the HS2 depot.

Devolution- Both national parties have been making overtures to the region about devolution such as Lord Hestletine speaking to the Birmingham Post. However, this would require a combined authority and Solihull and Coventry are currently reticent. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have suggested that they would devolve £30 billion centralised spending to the regions and would have 9 regional ministries.



Birmingham Northfield (2,782) Numerical ordering would put leafy Birmingham Edgbaston (majority 1,274) before Birmingham Northfield (2,782) in terms of marginal seats. Yet a leaked non-target list from CCHQ suggests that this is not a target seat. However, the veracity of this list may be questionable because of the inclusion of seats such as Cannock Chase and Dudley South. Nevertheless, Edgbaston constituency has the independently minded constituency MP Gisela Stuart who has a strong personal following and has a history of defying national swings.

Instead the Conservative Party are channelling central resources into Birmingham Northfield, a largely white working class constituency and part of their 40/40 campaign. The seat has shown resilience in the closure of MG Rover at Longbridge in 2005. The campaign being fought by Labour is based upon Richard Burden’s track record as a locally focused MP and the work in supporting many Rover workers back into employment and training. Electoral calculus gives  Labour a 78% chance of victory. It will be interesting to see where the 6550 Lib Dem votes go, if anywhere.

Newcastle- Under- Lyme (Lab 1552) This seat has been Labour since 1922 when Josiah Wedgwood joined the party but Paul Farrelly’s majority in 2010 was significantly reduced when UKIP picked up 8% of the share of the vote and the Conservatives increased their share by 9.4%. The Conservative PPC Farrelly is against is Tony Cox, a local engineer. Electoral Calculus suggests a 71% chance of Labour holding the seat.

Solihull (Lib Dem 175) Liberal Democrat Lorely Burt is familiar with fighting slim majorities after winning Solihull from the Tories after 60 years of rule in 2005 with a 279 majority. The seat is affluent and is home to Jaguar Land Rover. It has the highest rates of owner-occupier in the country and has a well above average turnout (70.8%). The Green PPC is a defector from the Lib Dems. The Greens have won seats on Solihull council and are the second largest party. Electoral Calculus predicts a 71% chance of a Conservative gain and 15% Lib Dem hold.

Telford (Lab 981) David Wright (Lab) has been the MP since 2001 and will face PPC Lucy Allan. The seat has been receiving regular visits from Senior Conservatives who seem to be buoyant about the win and it remains the only Labour stronghold in the county. There is a growing IT sector in the constituency and major employers include CapGemini, EDS and Fujitsu. Electoral calculus predicts a Labour hold with 42% of the vote. Lord Ashcroft predicts a Labour hold with a 7% swing from Conservative to Labour.

Walsall North (Lab 990) David Winnick, MP since 1979, will be defending the seat against Douglas Hansen-Luke (Con). Electoral calculus predicts a safe Labour win with 40.7% of the vote. Lord Ashcroft’s poll from May 2014 (at the time of the European and Local elections), showed that Labour had 37% support from respondents and UKIP had 30%.


Birmingham Yardley (Lib Dem 3002) John Hemming who replaced Estelle Morris as MP in 2005 will face PPC Councillor Jess Phillips (Lab). Lord Ashcroft’s pollfrom November 2014 suggests that the gap is closing between Phillips and Hemming and Electoral Calculus predicts a Labour victory. Phillips’ campaign has great momentum. She has been animating local students with enviable energy but the wards of Acocks Green, Sheldon, Stetchford and North Yardley and South Yardley wards still have considerable Lib Dem support and so Hemming who has an incumbency advantage may just edge ahead.

Cannock Chase (Con 3195) Created in 1997, Cannock Chase constituency isDr Tony Wright’s old stomping ground. The seat went Conservative in 2010 with a 14% swing, the highest pro-Conservative swing in the country. Outgoing MP Aiden Burley is stepping down after organising a controversial Nazi stag-party and left the constituency with a contentious valedictory speech. Electoral Calculus predicts a Labour gain with a 50% chance but DrMatthew Goodwin and Dr Robert Ford have placed Cannock Chase in the top ten UKIP friendly seats . UKIP are the main Opposition on Cannock Chase Council. Deputy UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall suggested that UKIP would be going ‘hell for leather’ for the seat. Lord Ashcroft’s poll from October 2014 suggest that 32% and 30% Labour and UKIP respectfully.

Dudley South (Con 3856) Chris Kelly (Con) a former researcher for Michael Howard, is stepping down and local councillor Mike Green is standing in to defend a Conservative majority. UKIP may split the Conservative vote since received more than 8% of the share of the vote in 2010. Electoral calculus whose forecasts has been quite favourable to Labour, predicts a Conservative hold within the seat with 38.1% of the vote compared to Labour’s predicted 35.7% share.

Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Con 2023) James Morris (Con) is up against Stephanie Peacock (Lab). This seat will be won on a knife edge by either party. Lord Ashcroft’spoll for March 2015 suggests Labour 39% support and Conservatives 37% support. Electoral calculus predicts a labour gain only with a 55% chance though.

North Warwickshire (Con 54) North Warwickshire is Labour’s top target seat in the region.The Conservatives are defending a paper thin majority, the smallest majority in Britain in a seat that was Frances Maude’s in the 1980s. The outgoing MP, Dan Byles is stepping down so the Conservatives will lose an incumbent advantage. Mike O’Brian (Lab MP from 1992-2010) is standing again against Craig Tracey (Con) and William Cash (UKIP), the son of Eurosceptic Conservative MP Bill Cash. Electoral calculuspredicts a Labour gain with 64% chance of winning. Lord Ashcroft’s poll suggests that Labour have a comfortable 41% support but UKIP’s support has increased to 22%.

Nuneaton (Con 2069) Marcus Jones (Con) faces Vicky Fowler (Lab). Electoral calculus predicts a Labour gain with 40% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 36.4%. Lord Ashcroft’s poll from March 2015 finds a 5% swing from Conservatives to Labour.

Warwick and Leamington (Con 3856) Victory in Warwick and Leamington comprised a ‘Portillo moment’ by Labour in 1997 ending 67 years of Conservative hold. Electoral calculus predicts a Labour win, whereasLord Ashcroft predicts a moderate Conservative win against Labour PPC Lynette Kelly.

Wolverhampton South West (Con 691) Paul Uppal, defending the same majority as Enoch Powell’s in 1950 faces the previous Labour MP Rob Marris. The inner city wards of Wolverhampton South West favour Labour the Conservatives rely on their core vote in Tettenal, Wittick and Tettenal Regis. Electoral calculuspredicts a Labour win with 63% chance.

Worcester (Con 2982) This seat has huge resonance for Labour. It has graced British Politics with the awkward essentialism of the ‘Worcester woman’. Labour had never represented the seat until 1997.Electoral calculus predicts a Labour gain, but Lord Ashcroft’s poll from March 2015 suggests that the Conservatives may hold the seat.


Dudley North (Lab 649) The seat was created in 1997 and has always been Labour but in 2010 Ian Austin held a reduced majority with UKIP polling 9% of the vote. Unemployment is significantly above national average in this constituency. Austin faces Bill Etheridge the local MEP. Austin is widely respected and has been shoring up his vote by being vocal about concerns about the EU in Parliament. Lord Ashcroft’s pollputs Labour and UKIP almost neck and neck with 37 and 34 respectively but an Election calculus poll puts Labour with 67% chance of winning. This was a seat central to the Conservative’s 40/40 campaign until Conservative PPC Afzal Amin became embroiled in controversial discussion with the EDL.


The Labour Party is leading a more offensive campaign in this region. Electoral calculus polling has produced favourable outcomes for Labour and if such polling stands, they are set to regain North Warwickshire, Halesowen and Rowley Regis and Wolverhampton South West amongst other seats, but Labour will have to work hard to defend precarious majorities in their own seats. Furthermore, to bear fruit nationally I agree with Waller[4], that, Labour will need to extend a broader appeal beyond the Birmingham conurbation to non-traditional seats such as Worcester and Warwick and Leamington: game-changers that sent a Labour government in 1997 but went Conservative in 2010.

Labour should heed the message from the local election results in 2014 that indicated that UKIP were not just a threat to the Conservatives. The May 2014 European Election results increased the UKIP MEPs in the region from 2/7 in 2009 to 3/7 and received 31.49% of the vote. It is uncertain how far the UKIP momentum will keep going and whether their buoyancy in the locals was because they coincided with the European elections. My hunch is that the West Midlands could be Labour’s fight for the taking but it will be an incredible uphill struggle.


[1] Harari, D Unemployment: Regional, House of Commons Library Standard note: SN02798 18th March 2015

[2] Mirza-Davies J NEET: Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training, House of Commons Library Standard note: SN/EP/06705, 26th February 2015

[3]Rhodes, C Manufacturing: Statistics and Policy, House of Commons Library Standard note: SN/EP/1942, 13th Nov 2014

[4] Waller, R (2015): ‘The West Midlands Region’ in Dale I, Callus G, Hamilton D and R Waller (eds), The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election, London: Biteback Publishing

Electoral Calculus predictions correct as of 11th April 2015

About the Authors

Cherry Bio PhotoCherry Miller is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her research looks into the performance of gender in the UK Parliament. Her Twitter handle is @cherrymmiller and email address cxm791@bham.ac.uk

For further forecasts of the 2015 General Election see ElectionForecast.co.uk

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