Religion and Conflict: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Crusade Against Neoliberalism….

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seems to be firmly against corporate greed and Tory neoliberal policies which allow Corporations the freedom to exploit workers.

religion social change archbishop.png

His explicitly political stance against mainstream political and economic institutions seems to be a good example of a religious leader getting involved in political conflict.

At the Trade’s Union conference Just last week Welby described zero hours contracts as ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’ and accused Amazon of avoiding tax and ‘leaching’ off the public.

The Archbishop seems to be firmly in the ‘Jeremy Corbyn camp’: he has been speaking out against Tory austerity policies since he took up office in 2013. He has consistently criticized modern capitalism and tory welfare cuts; and has previously stated that he wanted to see the payday loan company Wonga put out of business (so at least he’s got something to be happy about!).

Welby probably has a lot of direct experience to draw on: all over the country Church of England churches have been setting up food banks and acting as night shelters for the homeless, effectively playing a role in filling the Tory’s welfare gap.

Relevance to A-level sociology…

This seems to be a great example of a major religious leader standing up for the poor, in the tradition of Liberation Theology.

Potentially this is religion acting as a source of conflict… here Welby is railing explicitly against mainstream political and economic institutions.

This is most definitely NOT an example of religion acting as a conservative force: this is a religious leader demanding radical change.

Final thoughts…. 

There is possibly an element of hypocrisy to Welby’s views: The Church of England itself has shares in Amazon, and even uses zero hours contracts.

This further suggests that Welby’s views might be out of step with the rest of the Church of England. Maybe the views of this one individual are genuine, but maybe he actually has any real power to really bring about any kind of far reaching, radical social change?

 

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Nudge Politics: a sociological analysis

‘nudge politics’ involves governments implementing small social policy measures to help people make the ‘right decisions’. This post considers some of the pros and cons of this type of social policy agenda.

It’s been 10 years since economist Richer Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Hapiness‘.

Nudge book.jpgThe idea behind ‘Nudge’ was that by exploiting traits of ‘human nature’ such as our tendencies to put of making decisions, or to give into peer pressure, it was possible to ‘nudge’ people into making certain decisions.

10 years on, it seems that government all over the world have applied ‘nudge theory’ to achieve their desired outcome. They have managed to implement some relatively ‘small scale’ social policies and make huge savings at little cost to the public purse.

In the U.K. for example, David Cameron set up the Behavourial Insights Team (or Nudge Unit) which seems to have had some remarkable successes. For example:

  • Reminder letters telling people that most of their neighbours have already paid their taxes have boosted tax receipts. This was designed to appeal to the ‘heard instinct’.
  • The unit boosted tax returns from the top 1% (those owing more than £30K) from 39% to 47%. To do so they changed their punitive letter to one reminding them of the good paying taxes can do.
  • Sending encouraging text messages to pupils resitting GCSEs has boosted exam results. This appeals to the well-recognised fact that people respond better to praise.
  • Sending text messages to jobseekers reminding them of job interviews signed off with ‘good luck’ has reduced the number of missed interviews.

As with so many public-policy initiatives these days, the Behavourial Insights Team is set up as a private venture, and it now makes its money selling its ‘nudge policy’ ideas to government departments around the world.

The Limitations of Nudge Politics 

Methodologically speaking there are a at least three fairly standard problems:

Firstly, the UK’s nudge unit hasn’t been in place long enough to establish whether these are long-term, ’embedded success’.

Secondly, we don’t really know why ‘nudge actions’ work. The data suggests a correlation between small changes in how letters are worded and so on and behaviour, but we don’t really know the ‘why’ of what’s going on.

Thirdly, I’m fairly sure there aren’t that many controlled trials out there which have been done to really verify the success of some of these policies.

Theoretically there are also quite a few problems:

The book and the ‘team’ above both talk in terms of ‘nudging’ people into making the ‘right decisions’… but who decides what is right? This theory ignores questions of power.

It also could be used towards very negative ends… in fact I think we’ve already seen that with the whole Brexit and Trump votes….. I’m sure those campaigns used nudge theory to manipulate people’s voting outcomes. It doesn’t take a massive swing to alter political outcomes today after all!

Finally, I cannot see how you are going to be able to ‘nudge’ people into making drastic changes to save the planet for example: I can’t imagine the government changing the message on its next round of car tax renewal letters to include messages such as: ‘have you ever thought about giving up the car and just walking everywhere instead? If you did so, the planet might stand a chance of surviving!’.

Final thoughts: the age of the ‘nudge’?

I think this book and this type of ‘steering politics’ are very reflective of the age we live in. (The whole theory is kind of like a micro-version of Anthony Giddens’ ‘steering the juggernaut’ theory.) This is policy-set very much favoured to career politicians and bureaucrats who would rather focus on ‘pragmatic politics’. It’s kind of like what realism is to Marxism in criminology theory: not interested in the ‘big questions’.

I just cannot see how this kind of politics is going to help us move towards making the kind of drastic social changes that are probably going to be required to tackle the biggest problems of our times: global warming, militarism, inequality, refugees for example.

Relevance to A-level sociology

The most obvious relevance is to the social policy aspect of the theory and methods specification.

Find out more…

Image sources 

Nudge book cover

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain. 

Why Do Voting Opinion Polls Get it Wrong So Often?

Surveys which ask how people intend to vote in major elections seem to get it wrong more often than not, but why is this?

Taking the averages of all nine first and then final polls for the UK general election 2017, the predictions for the Conservatives show them down from 46% to 44%; and Labour up from 26% to 36%.

voting intention 2017 general election

The actual vote share following the result of the general election shows the Conservatives at 42% and Labour at 40% share of the vote.

2017 election result share of vote UK

Writing in The Guardian, David Lipsey notes that ‘The polls’ results in British general elections recently have not been impressive. They were rightish (in the sense of picking the right winner) in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. They were catastrophically wrong in 1992 and 2015. As they would pick the right winner by chance one time in two, an actual success rate of 67%, against success by pin of 50%, is not impressive.’

So why do the pollsters get it wrong so often?

Firstly, there is a plus or minus 2 or 3% statistical margin of error in a poll – so if a poll shows the Tories on 40% and Labour on 34%, this could mean that the real situation is Tory 43%, Labour 31% – a 12 point lead. Or it could mean both Tory and Labour are on 37%, neck and neck.

This is demonstrated by these handy diagrams from YouGov’s polling data on voting intentions during the run up to the 2017 UK general election…

Voting Intention 2017 Election 

Statistics Margin Error.png

Seat estimates 2017 General Election

Seat Estimates

Based on the above, taking into account margin for error, it is impossible to predict who would have won a higher proportion of the votes and more seats out of Labour and the Tories.

Secondly, the pollsters have no way of knowing whether they are interviewing a representative sample.

When approached by a pollster most voters refuse to answer and the pollster has very little idea whether these non-respondents are or are not differently inclined from those who do respond. In the trade, this is referred to as polling’s “dirty little secret”.

Thirdly, the link between demographic data and voting patterns is less clear today – it used to be possible to triangulate polling data with demographic data from previous election results, but voter de-alignment now means that such data is now less reliable as a source of triangulating the opinion polls survey data, meaning pollsters are more in the dark than ever.

Fourthly, a whole load of other factors affected people’s actual voting behaviour in this 2017 election and maybe the polls  failed to capture this?

David Cowley from the BBC notes that…. ‘it seems that whether people voted Leave or Remain in 2016’s European referendum played a significant part in whether they voted Conservative or Labour this time…. Did the 2017 campaign polls factor this sufficiently into the modelling of their data? If younger voters came out in bigger numbers, were the polls equipped to capture this, when all experience for many years has shown this age group recording the lowest turnout?’

So it would seem that voting-intention surveys have always had limited validity, and that, if anything, this validity problem is getting worse…. after years of over-estimating the number of Labour votes, they’ve now swung right back the other way to underestimating the popularity of Labour.

Having said that these polls are not entirely useless, they did still manage to predict that the Tories would win more votes and seats than Labour, but they just got the difference between them oh so very wrong.

The problem of obtaining representative samples (these days)

According to The Week (July 2017) – the main problem with polling these days is that finding representative samples is getting harder… When Gallup was polling, the response rate was 90%, in 2015, ICM had to call up 30 000 numbers just to get 2000 responses. And those who do respond are often too politically engaged to be representative.

 

Why Did Labour Gain Seats in the 2017 General Election?

In the recent June 2017 General Election, Labour won more votes than it did in 2001, 2005, 2010 or 2015, proving almost all the forecasts and commentators wrong.According to this Guardian article there are three main reasons for this…

It motivated young people to get out and vote.

A lot’s been made of the historically high turnout by 18-24 year olds…. It looks like in key constituencies – from Harrow West to Canterbury (a seat that has been Conservative since 1918) – the youth vote was vital. Labour showed it cared about young people by promising to scrap tuition fees, an essential move to stop the marketisation of higher education, and it proposed a house-building programme that would mean many more could get on the property ladder.

This is in stark contrast to the two other major parties – the Lib Dems in 2010 under Nick Clegg lied to them, and the Conservatives have attacked them – cutting housing benefits for 18- to 21-year-olds, excluding under-25s from the minimum wage rise and slashing the education maintenance allowance. At this election, Theresa May offered nothing to young people in her manifesto. Their message was: put up with your lot. Under the Tories, young people have been taken for granted and sneered at as too lazy to vote.

The NUS reported a 72% turnout by young people, and there is a definite thread in the media attributing the swing towards Labour as down to this.

However, this is contested by Jack Sommors in this article who suggests that it was middle-aged people who swung the election result away from the Tories.

‘Lord Ashcroft’s final poll, which interviewed 14,000 people from Wednesday to Friday last week, found people aged 35 to 44 swung to Labour – 50% voted for them while just 30% voted for the Tories. This is compared to 36% of them voting Labour and 26% backing the Tories just two years ago’.

A further two reasons which might explain the swing, let’s say among the younger half of the voting population, rather than just the very youngest are:

Labour offered localised politics, not a marketing approach

Labour rejected the marketing approach to politics in favour of a strong, localised grassroots campaign… this was not simply an election May lost; it was one in which Corbyn’s Labour triumphed. Labour proposed collectivism over individualism and a politics that people could be part of.

Labour offered a genuine alternative to neoliberalism…

Labour offered a positive agenda to an electorate that’s been told its only choice is to swallow the bitter pill of neoliberalism – offering a decisive alternative to Tory austerity in the shape of a manifesto packed with policies directly challenging what has become the economic status quo in the UK. Labour no longer accepted the Tory agenda of cuts (a form of economics long ago abandoned in the US and across Europe): it offered investment in public services, pledged not to raise taxes for 95% of the population, talked about a shift to a more peaceful foreign policy, promised to take our rail, water and energy industries out of shareholders’ hands and rebalance power in the UK.

So how is this relevant to A-level Sociology…?

  • In terms of values…It seems to show a widespread rejection of neoliberal ideas among the youth, and possibly evidence that neoliberal policies really have damaged most people’s young people’s (and working class people’s) life chances, and this result is a rejection of this.
  • In terms of the media… It’s a reminder that the mainstream media doesn’t reflect public opinion accurately- just a thin sliver of the right wing elite. It also suggests that the mainstream media is losing its power to shape public opinion and behavior, given the negative portrayals of Corbyn in the mainstream. .

Value-Freedom and explaining election results…

The above article is written with a clearly left-leaning bias. Students may like to reflect on whether it’s actually possible to explain the dramatic voter swing towards Labour objectively, and how you might go about getting valid and representative data on why people voted like they did, given that there are so many possible variables feeding into the outcome of this election?!

Sources

Young people voted because labour didn’t sneer at them. It’s that simple

General Election 2017: Young turn out ‘remarkable’