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Who enters politics and why? On the psychology of British politicians – British Politics and Policy at LSE

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James Weinberg introduces his new book on the personality characteristics of British politicians. He provides a timely psychological analysis of those who pursue political careers and how they represent their constituents once elected.

[Parliament] is a wonderful place, filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the national interest[…] We degrade this Parliament at our peril.

It does not require any great grasp of contemporary polling and public opinion in the UK to recognise that this proclamation, expressed by John Bercow upon his retirement from public office, fails to capture the public mood about our political representatives. Conversely, scholars interested in the public’s intuitive thinking about politicians have revealed an overwhelmingly negative vernacular about ‘craven’ elites who are ‘self-interested’, ‘self-regarding’, ‘unprincipled’, and ‘ambitious’. The contrast between these emic and etic perspectives of politicians is, then, a conundrum.

It is also a puzzle with practical significance. On one hand, survey data continue to reveal remarkable levels of public distrust, political apathy, political inefficacy and democratic despondency that crystallize around popular judgments about those who actually govern. On the other hand, democratic elections in the UK and elsewhere decide ‘who’ has power in the political system, but not that specific commitment that allows it to persist (what Montesquieu regarded as the ‘nature’ and ‘principle’ of government). For those of us who have been concerned by the degenerative slide to ‘mainstream populism’ seen in western democracies and the dog-whistle politics of those making representative claims that undermine democratic values (invocations about immigrants or EU bureaucrats during the 2016 referendum campaign in the UK being a case in point), there is an academic imperative to understand the motivations and machinations of those who formally represent and thus make representative claims in that capacity.

It is in this context that my new book, Who Enters Politics and Why?, explores original data on the personalities of British politicians, specifically the Basic Human Values of 168 MPs, in order to draw unique insights about those who choose a political career, how they represent ‘us’ once they get there, and whether public antipathy towards politicians is justified. Combined with survey data from hundreds of elected local councillors and unsuccessful election candidates, as well as in-depth interviews with current and former MPs who have held some of the highest political offices, these analyses help me to cast light on the question: do we get the ‘wrong’ politicians?

Highlight #1: Political ambition and candidate emergence

The central argument underpinning one of the chapters is that rational choice explanations of political ambition, pioneered by Joseph Schlesinger, have long overlooked the potentially powerful influence of unobservable individual differences on citizens’ political aspirations (or lack thereof). Put simply, it is wrong to assume that we would all be equally desirous of running for office should the right opportunity structures present themselves.

Combining elite data with surveys administered to the British public by the 8th wave of the European Social Survey, I find that democratic politics is a profession few ‘ordinary’ people care to enter. At an aggregate level, British politicians – and those who stand for office but fail to get elected – are more motivated by equality, social justice and caring for others (Self-Transcendence values), and more autonomous and open-minded (Openness values), than the comparatively small-c conservative population they govern (who are otherwise more motivated by Conformity, Tradition and Security values). However, these comparisons also indicate that politicos generally, and MPs in particular, are more driven than the public to control resources and be in charge of others (Power values), and that these differences in Self-Enhancement values are exaggerated among those MPs who rise to the frontbench. Multivariate analyses demonstrate that personality characteristics like basic values can explain as much or more variance in political ambition and candidate emergence than other well-researched demographic and socio-economic variables such as gender, age, education and prior occupation.

Highlight #2: Partisanship and psychological congruence

I also look at the interaction between partisanship and basic values to answer three important and interrelated questions. Firstly, do politicians share the value priorities (and thus motivational goals) of those citizens who vote for them and, ultimately, trust them with their democratic sovereignty? Secondly, if politicians really are ‘all the same’, does this accusation extend to the psychology of elites who self-identify within the same or different political blocs? And thirdly, do we have a parliament of representatives who are sufficiently different from their partisan competitors to ensure adequate and pluralistic contestation about the ‘common good’ and what good government should look like?

In exploring these lines of inquiry, various analyses show (a) partisanship and basic values share a strong relationship at all levels, (b) partisan elites are much more polarised in their basic values than partisans in the public, and (c) psychological congruence between MPs and voters occurs to a much greater extent on the Right of British politics than the Left. For example, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs and voters score higher for Self-Transcendence values than their Conservative colleagues. In many ways, these results reflect the ideological foundations of the UK’s centre-left parties and, in particular, their strong advocacy of social welfare ideals. By contrast, Conservative MPs and voters score higher for Conservation values (Conformity, Tradition and Security), again in line with the party’s historic ideological roots in social and economic hierarchy. Yet when comparing the basic values of MPs with partisan voters from multiple UK elections, voters for parties on the Left of British politics (primarily Labour) are more psychologically akin to out-partisans on the Right, and elected politicians on the Right (primarily Conservative), than those politicians on the Left that they actually elect.

These findings add nuance to mainstream theories of instrumental and expressive partisanship in which voters are either seen as Athenian democrats weighing evidence or alternatively as heuristic-driven motivated reasoners. I argue that these analytical frames hide a more nuanced story of ‘psychological sorting’ that has implications, on one hand, for why and how elite partisans (otherwise competitors for votes and promotions) cooperate to achieve common goals and, on the other hand, for the importance of psychological congruency between leaders and followers in democratic politics. On the latter point, these findings help to make sense of the successes and failures of the Labour Party in recent decades.

Highlight #3: Real and ideal politicians

Stepping back to examine that state of political consumption, I also look at the existence of an unhealthy premium on the individual in contemporary democratic politics. This exists both in terms of the ways representatives understand and execute their professional function and how/why voters become disillusioned regardless of their political choices. Specifically, I seek to understand the extent to which personality characteristics such as basic values may improve our grasp of the dynamics in contemporary anti-politics when they characterize the choice set (that is, what voters see and select) rather than simply the participants (that is, politicians/ candidates’ self-report data that are also covered in the book).

To achieve this, I test a number of hypothetical assumptions grounded in existing studies of the personalisation of politics and the media through a conjoint experiment of voting preferences. Put simply, I asked a representative sample of the British public to choose between randomly populated hypothetical profiles of politicians in an election scenario. These profiles comprise images and text, including adapted survey items for basic values re-written in the first person. The resultant data show that in experimental scenarios where voters do not know the partisanship of a candidate, personality outweighs other political and socioeconomic variables as a voting heuristic. Compared with data from 168 real MPs, these results also indicate that at the aggregate level there is less of a disjuncture than assumed between the personalities the public want in national politics and the personalities they get.

In evaluating these findings, I show firstly that the voting public does indeed have preferences for certain personality characteristics in politics and that these matter at the (hypothetical) ballot box. The implications for party selectorates, campaigners, and political advertising are myriad. Secondly, there appears to be a ‘perception gap’ in contemporary democratic politics. If voters are able to express clear psychological preferences for candidates in experimental scenarios, and these are at the same time reflective of real MPs, then we must ask why an extant literature in anti-politics routinely finds public disapprobation for the personal qualities of MPs.

Conclusion

Far from acting as an apologist for politicians, I argue that it is both fair and democratically necessary to remember that they are neither an homogenised group of saints nor sinners. Insofar as my book adds nuance and colour to an otherwise black and white discourse about the probity of those who seek political office, I hope that it stimulates more rigorous research in political science and more responsible rhetoric in political communication.

In addition to the highlights presented here, the book also engages theoretically and empirically with important questions about the psychological aspects of substantive and descriptive representation, political careerism, and legislative behaviour. As such, the book should be of interest to academic audiences engaged in the fields of political psychology, political leadership and political behaviour as well as audiences beyond academe who are either cynically or optimistically enthused by the current state of representative politics.

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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash.

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Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.

Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.

But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.

“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.

“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”

The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.

“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.

Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.

The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.

Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.

Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.

“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.

Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.

“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”

The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.

Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.

Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)

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U.S. senator slams Apple, Amazon, Nike, for enabling forced labor in China

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U.S. senator

A U.S. senator on Thursday slammed American companies, including Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc and Nike Inc, for turning a blind eye to allegations of forced labor in China, arguing they were making American consumers complicit in Beijing’s repressive policies.

Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said many U.S. companies had not woken up to the fact that they were “profiting” from the Chinese government’s abuses.

“For far too long companies like Nike and Apple and Amazon and Coca-Cola were using forced labor. They were benefiting from forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that were suspected of using forced labor,” Rubio said. “These companies, sadly, were making all of us complicit in these crimes.”

Senator Ed Markey, who led the hearing with fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, said a number of U.S. technology companies had profited from the Chinese government’s “authoritarian surveillance industry,” and that many of their products “are being used in Xinjiang right now.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific said in 2019 it would stop selling genetic sequencing equipment into Xinjiang after rights groups and media documented how authorities there were building a DNA database for Uyghurs. But critics say the move didn’t go far enough.

“All evidence is that they continue to provide these products which enabled these human rights abuses,” Rubio said of Thermo Fisher, noting that he had written the Massachusetts-based company repeatedly about the matter.

“Whenever we receive proof of forced labor, we take action and suspend privileges to sell,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Coca-Cola declined to comment. The other companies mentioned did not respond immediately to Reuters’ questions.

U.S. lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation that would ban imports of goods made in Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor.

Rights groups, researchers, former residents and some western lawmakers say Xinjiang authorities have facilitated forced labor by arbitrarily detaining around a million Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in a network of camps since 2016.

The United States government and parliaments in countries, including Britain and Canada, have described China’s policies toward Uyghurs as genocide. China denies abuses, saying the camps are for vocational training and to counter religious extremism.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told the Senate panel that Beijing’s “extreme repression and surveillance” made human rights due diligence for companies impossible.

“Inspectors cannot visit facilities unannounced or speak to workers without fear of reprisal. Some companies seem unwilling or unable to ascertain precise information about their own supply chains,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Michael Martina, Richa Naidu, Aishwarya Venugopal and Jeffrey Dastin; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Health

Biden’s vaccine pledge ups pressure on rich countries to give more

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The United States on Thursday raised the pressure on other Group of Seven leaders to share their vaccine hoards to bring an end to the pandemic by pledging to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest countries.

The largest ever vaccine donation by a single country will cost the United States $3.5 billion but Washington expects no quid pro quo or favours for the gift, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden‘s move, on the eve of a summit of the world’s richest democracies, is likely to prompt other leaders to stump up more vaccines, though even vast numbers of vaccines would still not be enough to inoculate all of the world’s poor.

G7 leaders want to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 to try to halt the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.9 million people and devastated the global economy.

A senior Biden administration official described the gesture as a “major step forward that will supercharge the global effort” with the aim of “bringing hope to every corner of the world.” “We really want to underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives,” the official said, adding that Washington was not seeking favours in exchange for the doses.

Vaccination efforts so far are heavily correlated with wealth: the United States, Europe, Israel and Bahrain are far ahead of other countries. A total of 2.2 billion people have been vaccinated so far out of a world population of nearly 8 billion, based on Johns Hopkins University data.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. with the vaccines, delivering 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022.

The shots, which will be produced at Pfizer’s U.S. sites, will be supplied at a not-for-profit price.

“Our partnership with the U.S. government will help bring hundreds of millions of doses of our vaccine to the poorest countries around the world as quickly as possible,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam called for more to be done to increase global production of vaccines.

“Surely, these 500 million vaccine doses are welcome as they will help more than 250 million people, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need across the world,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead.

“We need a transformation toward more distributed vaccine manufacturing so that qualified producers worldwide can produce billions more low-cost doses on their own terms, without intellectual property constraints,” he said in a statement.

Another issue, especially in some poor countries, is the infrastructure for transporting the vaccines which often have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Biden has also backed calls for a waiver of some vaccine intellectual property rights but there is no international consensus yet on how to proceed.

The new vaccine donations come on top of 80 million doses Washington has already pledged to donate by the end of June. There is also $2 billion in funding earmarked for the COVAX programme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the White House said.

GAVI and the WHO welcomed the initiative.

Washington is also taking steps to support local production of COVID-19 vaccines in other countries, including through its Quad initiative with Japan, India and Australia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in St. Ives, England, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Caroline Copley in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Keith Weir;Editing by Leslie Adler, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Giles Elgood and Jane Merriman)

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