Opinion: 3 days on Rebels and Radicals – a review of the Political Studies Association Conference

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This year’s annual conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA) was held in Manchester, with the theme of Rebels and Radicals. For three days last week, PSA members attended panels, caught up with colleagues and drained the city’s bars. The conference, as ever, as is a fantastic place to take stock of evolving research and teaching practice across the discipline, meeting up with fellow academics at all stages of their careers to swap ideas and catch up.

As last year, though, this hotbed of thought on politics, much of it on British politics, was without meaningful attendance from the practitioners of the subject. It would be nice, one year, to turn up to the PSA to find a troupe of elected officials and their staff going to panels, listening to the research and going away to work what we do into what they do. However, there was an excellent turn out of sixth formers to the conference on the last day, populating panels and asking questions. As much as the dearth of practitioners was disappointing, this was encouraging.

My last day was filled with papers on the Conservative Party. In one panel, there were papers on the rise of the New New Right in the Conservative Party, compassionate conservatism and a look at the current factional lines in the party. The New New Right are a group of Tories who seek to press the party to change the whole political consensus in the UK. They are centred around the authors of Britannia Unchained, and include many members of the 2010 intake. The same intake are overwhelmingly the source of social liberalism in the party; it is they who seek to overturn the control of long-established Tory MPs as a way of pushing it towards a more radical course. If we are in coalition with them, we should seek to understand the trajectory of the party better, in order to get more from the Coalition for the country, as well as ourselves.

On the subject of radicalism, though, there was plenty of time to talk about the UK’s own recent group of Rebels and Radicals – UKIP. In particular, a panel with a paper by Dr Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham, author of “Revolt on the Right”, who discussed where UKIP voters come from. White working men over 65, who are Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and hostile to the current politics are the exemplar of this group; and they are generally ex-Labour voters. The panel also saw excellent papers on the organisational structure of UKIP – there isn’t much of one, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped them yet – and the reaction of the Conservatives to the rise of UKIP. In short, UKIP is more complex than we want to admit, and it is more of a challenge to Labour than our current calculations may have allowed.

In short, it was an excellent conference. I have come away, as ever, full of ideas and learning; equally disappointed with the lack of interest from practitioners and happy to see so many sixth formers show an interest in what we do. I hope next year, rumoured to be in Sheffield, will see a turn around in interest from those who practice what we study

* Tim Oliver is a party member in Leeds, who has recently submitted a PhD on British foreign policy at the University of Hull.

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  • I expect I come under your definition of a “practitioner” in politics as I have worked for the Lib Dems in some capacity for several years, serve as a councillor and hold a couple of party offices (I must get a life sometime). I also work in Manchester. However I wasn’t aware the PSA Conference even existed.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Apr '14 - 2:06pm

    Social Liberal in this context means in opposition to Social Conservatism including hostility to gay rights and abortion, rather than any sympathy for social justice and greater equality in the tradition of David Lloyd George.
    Well we have gay rights and abortion is unlikely to return. The best that Social Conservatives might hope for is a reduction in the period in which abortion can legally take place.
    So the obvious question that I have is what possible use could a future Lib Dem Tory Coalition be? Even now I do not see anything to look forward to for the remaining year of this government. Gay marriage was worth having, but now that is done and dusted now what?
    The Tory party has been radical ever since Maragret Thatcher became prime minister and most of that radicalism has harmed the country. We have top down authoritarian management of companies, we have government ministers running education, we have perverse incentives ruining our NHS, a welfare state no longer capable of protecting the vulnerable from destitution, I just hope that someone can reverse this radicalism in the future, but I am not confident that anyone will.

  • Hi Tim, I wasn’t aware of this conference, if its up north next year I’ll definitely try to attend, sounds fascinating

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