Category Archives: Faculty post

A post from a member of the MPP faculty

Public opinion and constitutional rights protection in the United Kingdom – a retreat from Strasbourg?

Dr. Kundai Sithole, Research Associate, POLIS

With the United Kingdom Independence Party’s successful inroads into the British political establishment at the European elections earlier this year, the question of ‘Europe’ remains high on the political agenda. The Conservative Party agenda, that is. UK membership of the European Union has for decades been a bane for many Conservative elites and voters. The European Court of Human Rights’ recent judicial reviews – or ‘mission creep’ to some – have amplified calls for UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention, ECHR). In light of the forthcoming general election, Conservative leader and current Prime Minister David Cameron has organised his troops. The heavy artillery in the Conservative Party’s pro-Strasbourg brigade – Dominic Grieve, Kenneth Clark and William Hague – were recently shuffled into the background. In the foreground now remain Theresa May and Chris Grayling, whose thinly disguised contempt for Strasbourg is likely to result in proposals to re-think the Convention regime as a source of constitutional rights protection in the UK. Alongside Council of Europe membership and the European Court of Human Rights’ qualified judicial review is the matter of the Human Rights Act 1998. Enacted in 1998 under New Labour, this Act of Parliament incorporated the ECHR into British law, and the enshrined European guarantees became justiciable in British courts. Whilst expediting domestic incorporation of the Convention guarantees into British laws, enacting the Human Rights Act was – at the time – considered less politically controversial and less complicated that to elaborate Britain’s own domestic ‘Bill of Rights’.

Public opinion on Strasbourg and constitutional rights protection in the United Kingdom

The results of a recent project on public perception of constitutional authority conducted here at POLIS Cambridge revealed some interesting findings as to public attitudes to UK membership of the European Convention.[1] Forty-four percent compared to 39% preferred British withdrawal from the ECHR. Should the UK leave the Convention, only 20% considered existing laws to be sufficient in protecting individual rights. Sixty-three percent thought it necessary for the UK to ‘pass legislation creating a British Bill of Rights’. Those who supported British withdrawal from the ECHR were then asked to consider whether enjoyment of any new human rights guarantees should be qualified by such factors as an individual’s citizenship status, prison record, or knowledge of British democracy. Only 37% thought new legislation should protect the rights of ‘citizens of other countries currently living Britain’. Opinion among those who supported withdrawal from the ECHR was also less favourable to the enjoyment of rights under any new legislation by those with a prison record. Only 29% approved legal protection for those ‘people who are no longer in prison but have been jailed for serious crimes in the past’. Support for the rights of ‘prisoners serving sentences for serious crimes’ was registered at only 18%. Twenty-seven percent were in favour of legal protection for ‘prisoners serving sentences of LESS than 12 months’. Reflective of the current debate on British values, only 31% considered that ‘people who fail a basic test of literacy and knowledge about British democracy’ should have their rights protected under a ‘Bill of Rights’. Significantly, 28% were not in favour of those with a record of incarceration, those without British citizenship, nor those without basic literacy or knowledge of British democracy enjoying rights under any new British legislation.

A breakdown of these results by party affiliation as evidenced by the voting pattern at the 2010 General revealed the following trends shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1 Individual rights and political affiliation


Voting pattern at the 2010 General Election








Liberal Democrat


United Kingdom membership of the European Convention on Human Rights
Britain should withdraw 68 33 30
Britain should retain membership 21 52 54
Don’t know 11 15         16
Totals 100.0 100.0 100.0
Enactment of a ‘British Bill of Rights’ should Britain withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights
No, existing laws are enough 26 16 15
Yes, legislation should be passed to enact a ‘British Bill of Rights’ 63 69 72
Don’t know 11 15 13
Totals 100.0 100.0 100.0
Which, if any, of these groups should be protected under a ‘British Bill of Rights’?
Citizens of other countries currently living in Britain 28 35 43
Foreign tourists or travellers currently visiting Britain 29 33 42
People who fail a basic test of literacy or knowledge about British democracy 22 31 35
People who are no longer in prison but have been jailed for serious crimes in the past 21 29 34
Prisoners serving sentences of LESS than 12 months 18 28 32
Prisoners serving sentences for serious crimes 9 18 24
None of the above 42 27 19
Don’t know 16 21 27


A third of those who voted Liberal Democrat and Labour in 2010 supported British withdrawal from the ECHR. Just over half of Liberal Democrat and Labour voters favoured continued membership of the ECHR as a source of constitutional rights protection in the UK. Such Labour and Liberal Democrat support for continued ECHR membership contrasts starkly with the Conservative Party voters’ overwhelming preference for British withdrawal – 68%. Only 21% of those who voted Conservative preferred the UK to retain its ECHR membership. Similarly, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters displayed the greatest support for new legislation to create a ‘British Bill of Rights’ should the UK decide to withdraw from the ECHR – 69% and 72% respectively. Whilst equally supportive, only 63% of Conservative voters supported enactment of such legislation. That those who supported the Conservative Party tended to be more authoritarian than liberal was evidenced in public opinion as to who should enjoy the rights and freedoms that might be included under a ‘British Bill of Rights’ if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR. Conservative voters displayed the greatest support for qualifying the enjoyment of rights under any new legislation based on an individual’s citizenship status, literacy levels and knowledge about British democracy, and record of incarceration. Public attitudes towards individual rights as illustrated by voter preference in 2010 placed Labour on the ideological middle ground. Liberal Democrat voters’ support for unqualified enjoyment of such rights was generally four to nine percentage points higher than Labour, and 13 to 23 percentage points higher than the Conservatives.


Two major issues have come to dominate elite and public perception as to the protection of individual rights in 21st century Britain – the Human Rights Act 1998 and the fight against international terrorism. Terrorist activity in London, Mumbai, New York and elsewhere alerted elite and popular opinion to new international security concerns, at the same time as new legislative measures brought into relief the need to balance human rights considerations with the need to secure the realm against internal and external threats. This need for security against terror was not new to the UK, for England and Northern Ireland had suffered similar attacks by dissident Irish republican groups since the late 1960s leading to the suspension of autonomous rule in Northern Ireland between 1972 and 2007. Dissident activity on British soil had resulted in fairly comprehensive counter terrorism measures. Although some cases related to the Troubles had been presented before the Convention mechanisms in Strasbourg,[2] questions as to the rights of terrorist suspects had largely remained a national matter with little external influence from either the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights. However, the heightened international security threat that followed 9/11 resulted in claims by the UK government for additional counter-terrorism measures, and greater authority in such matters as the detention or expulsion of those involved or suspected to be involved in terrorist activities in the UK and/or abroad. Although residual liberty remains protected under the common law, it is against the guarantees of the Human Rights Act 1998 – and, if necessary, the ECHR in Strasbourg – that the impact of counter-terrorism measures on individual liberty is to be adjudged. That said, attempts to balance national security considerations with the need to uphold positive ECHR rights has led to the perception among some that European legislation and qualified judicial review is an impediment to the UK government’s ability to secure the realm. Labour’s centre-left economic programme might well explain why its voters support withdrawal from the ECHR as a source of constitutional rights protection in the UK. However, Conservative preoccupation with the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament, and with foreign judges lacking democratic accountability in the UK largely prevails in the British psyche. Overall, the public in Britain appear to consider existing European guarantees as providing legislative cloaks behind which foreign criminals may evade extradition from the UK. Whilst public opinion might be more or less divided in its support for UK withdrawal from the ECHR and its European Court of Human Rights, the desire to end membership does not necessarily mean the population in Britain object to the need for constitutional measures aimed at protecting individual rights. It seems only domestic guarantees will do.

[1] YouGov-Cambridge poll of 17-18 August 2014, commissioned especially for this POLIS Cambridge study into popular perception of constitutional authority in the United Kingdom. The author would like to thank the Le Roux Trust for its support.

[2] See for example, Ireland v United Kingdom 18 January 1978, Series A no. 25.

Understanding the political context

David Howarth, Director MPP

One of the qualities policy-makers are often said to need is an understanding of the political context in which they work. But there are many barriers in the way of that  understanding, from the institutional, for example where the concept of civil service neutrality filters out those with political experience from senior roles, to the imaginative, for example where politically partisan decision-makers find it very difficult to see politics from anyone else’s point of view.

One way of helping both official and political policy-makers better to understand the political context in which they work is to construct for them pictures of the political world from the perspective of different political actors.  A suitable starting point is the question of which kinds of voters politicians might have in mind when they make decisions. While electoral politics is far from the whole of politics, in democracies it understandably looms very large.  As an illustration of how this might be done, I have taken data from the first wave of the 2015 British Election Study to construct some simple maps of how politicians from different British parties might experience the electorate.

The method is very straightforward. For simplicity, we confine ourselves to the top two issues mentioned by voters in the study itself, namely the economy and immigration. We then take an attitudinal question on each of those issues (a more complex method would be to construct scales, but, it turns out that using different questions makes not much difference), cross-tabulate the results and present them using a 3-D surface diagram to show the number of voters in each cell. We then filter the data to show each party’s potential voters, as defined by a question that asked each respondent to declare, on a scale of zero to ten, the chance of their ever voting for each of the parties and for each party in turn confining ourselves to those who gave a score of six or more. The resulting diagrams show the shape of each party’s potential electorate on the two most important issues of the day.

Of course we cannot say whether individual politicians in each party will have fully grasped the shape of the electorate they face, but political activity itself – canvassing voters, talking to constituents who ask for help, reading opinion polls, looking at election results – tends over time to reveal to politicians what their own supporters and potential supporters think. Another limitation is that an individual politician’s view will often relate to a particular place and will build up slowly, so that it might not be accurate for other places and might, if the electorate has changed its view in a significant way, be out of date. Nevertheless the overall situation of a party should better predict the viewpoints of individual politicians than assuming that politicians have no information at all about their electorates or only know about the electorate as a whole. Another caveat is that politicians might vary in how much they care about what the electorate thinks, either because their personal circumstances might differ (those about to retire tend to be more forthright) or because some are more optimistic than others about their ability to influence public opinion. But in the medium term a democratic politician who ignores electoral opinion is likely to have limited influence on public policy.

So what are the results? The two questions used were: (on a scale of one to five) how much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off’; and (on a scale of one to seven) do you think that immigration undermines or enriches Britain’s cultural life? (The cultural question on immigration was chosen because questions about the economic benefits of immigration might confuse the two dimensions).

The electorate as a whole looks like this:


There are two distinct peaks: a group that is strongly in favour of redistribution and very hostile to immigration and group that is moderately in favour of redistribution and neutral or moderately welcoming of immigration. Further analysis of those peaks seems to indicate that the first peak attracts older, lower income and less well educated voters, the second younger, higher income and better educated voters.

Probable Conservative voters, however, look like this:


The potential Conservative vote peaks where one might expect, on the anti-immigration economic centre right, but the Conservatives have a wide appeal to the centre ground on both dimensions, an appeal not shared by the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose electorate looks like this:


UKIP voters are much more concentrated at the anti-immigration side of the map than Conservatives, but are also much broader than Conservatives in their views on redistribution, ranging from the centre right to the far left. In the struggle for votes between the two parties, UKIP has a big advantage that it has little to lose by expressing anti-immigration views, whereas the Conservatives risk alienating a sizeable group of moderate voters. The Conservatives have a far better defined target group of voters in terms of economic views – the centre and the centre right in conventional terms – whereas UKIP’s best strategy is probably to avoid all discussion of economic policy since any degree of specificity is likely to lose them more voters than it gains.

Perhaps the most interesting map is that faced by the Labour Party:


What is striking about Labour’s map is that it looks rather like the electorate as a whole. It has a peak on the anti-immigration strongly pro-redistribution far left and another at the moderately pro-immigration and redistribution centre-left. But what looks like a strength presents a very deep problem for Labour politicians. The immigration issue is deeply divisive not only for the country but also for Labour’s own potential voters. Pleasing both groups is a very difficult task and might lead Labour politicians into seemingly incoherent positions. The fact that the two peaks attract different social groups, with much of Labour’s traditional working class support being attracted to the first peak, makes the situation even more painful for Labour given its history and self-image as a party of and for the working class. Another possible strategy for Labour is the precise opposite of that of UKIP, namely to unify their voters by emphasising broadly leftist economic policies while saying as little as possible about immigration. That indeed appears to have been Labour’s approach until quite recently. Its flaw was that it left Labour very vulnerable to UKIP, a flaw that could be ignored while UKIP was a small fringe party obsessed with Europe and Thatcherite economics. That situation has now changed and Labour faces some very difficult decisions.

The map facing the Scottish National Party is an extreme version of that facing the Labour Party. It has high peaks at both the far pro- and anti-immigration corners of the strongly in favour of redistribution category:


The SNP can outflank Labour on the left on economic issues and keep its vote largely together but it is even more divided on immigration than Labour. Perhaps the election of a UKIP member of the European Parliament from Scotland in 2014 was not as surprising as it seemed.

Finally, here is the picture for the Liberal Democrats:


The Liberal Democrats’ potential vote centres on the moderately pro-immigration economically centre-left peak. The Liberal Democrats are in direct competition with Labour for those voters, but do not face Labour’s problem of needing also to satisfy a very strongly anti-immigration group of voters. Despite this strategic advantage the Liberal Democrats have evidently lost very large numbers of liberal-minded centre-left voters to Labour (and to the Greens) since the formation of the coalition in 2010. They have also lost (to Labour and UKIP) the modest first peak vote they attracted in 2010. Perhaps for ideological reasons and perhaps as a result of being routed by Labour and the Greens on the party’s own ground, the Liberal Democrat leadership seems to have toyed with the idea of moving away from the liberal centre-left peak either towards the centre (where the Conservatives are surprisingly strong) or towards the so-called ‘authentic liberal’ corner at the bottom right of the map. The problem with both of those strategies, and especially the latter, is that the number of potential Liberal Democrat voters, already much diminished, declines rapidly as one moves in either of those directions.

Looking at all four maps together, the political world as British politicians face it should be clearer. The battle between Labour and the Conservatives looks like a conventional one between the economic centre-left and the economic centre-right, but both parties have strong reasons for not wanting the agenda to shift away from economic issues to immigration even though immigration is what many of the voters want politics to be about. Unfortunately for both parties, UKIP has every incentive to talk about immigration and to ignore economic issues, or to redefine economic issues in terms of immigration. Of the two main parties, the Conservatives seem to be in the stronger position to react to UKIP’s challenge, since although both they and Labour risk losing voters if the debate shifts on to immigration, Labour’s vote is more bifurcated and the losses look greater whichever way it turns. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats’ great weakness means that Labour, at least currently, no longer faces a war on two fronts leaving it relatively free to move in the direction of its first peak voters.

Warming back up

It is amazing how quickly the first year of the Cambridge MPP has gone – our first cohort has moved on and are taking on policy challenges around the world. Now we face the challenge of our second year, hopefully not suffering from the “difficult second album” syndrome. This post is a brief reflection on our first year and our hopes for the second cohort of the Cambridge MPP.

The first thing to say is that our first cohort of students was great – a mix of countries, backgrounds and approaches to public policy. The class were outspoken, as we would want them to be, committed to their work and most importantly eager to have an impact on their policy area of interest. As well as working hard on their papers and placements, these students provided great feedback on our programme structure, content and approach, helping us to co-evolve the MPP and strengthen it considerably for our second year. Our thanks to our first cohort, we really appreciate their energy and commitment.

The second thing that struck us through the year was the diversity of issues that our students were dealing with. As part of the MPP our students have the opportunity to write two independent papers on policy issues of interest to them. We had everything from international security, to homelessness, and on to big data in social policy and the role of business in providing public goods. It is incredibly engaging to see the variety of issues our students grapple with on the course and we expect will continue to work on through their careers.

Finally for myself as the deputy director of the course and lecturer for a number of modules the overriding impression is one of energy and challenge. Our students come with experience, high expectations and a desire to really get into their policy areas. This kind of teaching and mentoring is very challenging but really rewarding. We as module leaders learn enormously through our students and I hope that we will be able to work with our alumni to support them personally and professionally as they develop their careers.

So overall, a fast, dense, exciting and challenging first year for us on the Cambridge MPP. Here’s hoping that our second year is as exciting for us and for our new cohort of students.