Political Studies Association Conference Report: from Cameron to Galloway

The annual conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA) offers the discipline a chance to get together, share ideas and support the publicans of a particular city for a few days. This year, it was hosted by the city of Cardiff, the last of a four-year tour of the capitals of the UK. As a young PhD student, these conferences offer me a chance to not only meet and get merry with more senior academics; they also let you see how the discipline is evolving through panels and papers, as well as more informal sessions.

What is always disappointing about these conferences is the detachment from the policy makers; the elected officials who make much of politics go. Apart from a visit from a single Labour MP and a Labour peer, I didn’t spy any others there. This is a big problem for politics; here is a building full for three days of people discussing politics, and the practitioners were notable by their absence. It’s not like we don’t talk about the same things. For example, there was an excellent paper on how David Cameron never had an electoral problem with women (pdf) worth writing about in the first place; and indeed, remains an asset to his party to almost twice as many voters as those who think him an impediment.

The theme of the conference was “is the party over?” and a great many attendees that I spoke to seem to believe that political parties are themselves generating many of the problems they are facing. Experienced commentators lamented the decline of the great narrative joining together policies, making it feel like technocrats bouncing from one hot topic to another, without anything pulling together their answer to each problem. Voters may not talk about ideology, but they do notice when parties adopt an ad-hoc approach to the question of what kind of Britain they want to build.

This segways nicely into the papers given on the panel on the Liberal Democrats at the conference. In particular, Adam Evans’ paper on the future of the Welsh and Scottish Liberal Democrats (pdf) offers some refreshingly hard reading for the party. Adam points to the causes of decline being much longer term for these two wings of the party, predating the Coalition and so stripping away the comforting narrative that, once it falls apart in 2015, they can just go back to winning. In countries where there are already two centre-left parties, the Liberal Democrats need to hammer out an identity that doesn’t hinge on already crowded bit of the political spectrum, if they are to go beyond just surviving.

Dr Emily Robinson’s paper on the history of the word “progressive” (pdf) was also fascinating. Her historical research showed that the word has long been readily appropriated by politicians of all stripes, and voters don’t automatically associate it with any one bit of the political spectrum; or indeed with politics at all. A poll commissioned from YouGov for her research project showed, for instance, that as many people thought Jeremy Clarkson was progressive as George Galloway. Dr Kirkup’s paper on the Lib-Lab negotiations, though not on the website, offered up interesting insights on the negotiations between Steel and Callaghan in 1977; how Steel could have gotten more in terms of electoral reform, but had his eye on a longer game than Callaghan. Cynthia Bower’s project into the future of electoral reform and the party will, I think, change once the results of the consultation on constitutional reform become known. All the same, it was refreshing to hear that our enthusiasm transcends borders and interests even French academics.

All in all, it was an excellent few days spent learning, meeting and drinking; an experience I hope more Liberal Democrats, at all levels, take advantage of in future if they can.

* 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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  • jamessandbach 1st Apr '13 - 11:26pm

    It’s slightly tragic that your piece had had no engagement; the Party has cut itself of from any serious analysis of politics – and that partly accounts for our current predicament. There’s also a culture of anti-intellectualism that’s growing in the party which despises informed commentary from political scientists.

  • Thanks for your post. Agree with your points and James Sandbach. The paper on the Welsh and Scottish LD parties is a must read, and paints a very worrying picture.

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