Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015

– RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015: Geographies of Politics and Anti-Politics

University of Exeter, Friday 4 September 2015

Session Abstract

These are interesting times for Politics with a capital P. In the UK, voter turnout is in decline, with a notable exception being the Scottish independence referendum. Membership of political parties is in decline, with notable exceptions being the SNP, UKIP, and the Green Party. Trust in politicians is in decline, almost without exception. Topics of public debate include whether Britain should remain in Europe, whether Britain can remain in Europe and control policy areas like immigration, the rise of UKIP, whether Scotland should remain in the UK, the rise of the SNP, further devolution to Scotland, devolution to England’s northern cities, the relative merits of coalitions and other forms of government, and whether people should bother voting at all. At least some of these developments and issues are mirrored beyond the UK – especially in other western European countries and the USA.

This session focuses on the spatial components of these developments in formal Politics. Does political disengagement, alienation, and support for third parties or anti-political parties like UKIP vary across the UK? How does the experience of the UK compare to the experiences of other countries? What are the roles of globalisation, Europeanisation, and the nationalisation of political campaigning in these developments? What explains talk at the moment of ‘Westminster Politics’ and ‘out-of-touch metropolitan elites’?

Topics we hope the papers might cover include: definitions of Politics and anti-Politics; the relationship between formal Politics and informal politics (i.e. new social movements, transnational political networks, internet activism etc.); temporal and spatial patterns of citizen-engagement with formal Politics; the roles of globalisation and Europeanisation in explaining these patterns; the roles of privatisation and depoliticisation in explaining these patterns; the roles of media coverage and the nationalisation of political campaigning in explaining these patterns; independence and devolution in the UK; the changing party system; and discourses of Westminster, London, and the rest.


Popular understandings of politics in Britain, 1945-2014
Nick Clarke (University of Southampton, UK)
Will Jennings (University of Southampton, UK)
Jonathan Moss (University of Southampton, UK)
Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton, UK)

This paper reports initial findings from a project on ‘Popular understandings of politics in Britain, 1937-2014’. The context for the project is alienation and withdrawal from formal politics in many countries at the present time. In Britain, election turnout, party membership, and trust in politicians are all declining. Missing from research to date on this topic are the voices of citizens, in which can be found their shifting understandings, expectations, and judgements regarding politics and politicians. The overall aim of the study is to understand better what and how British citizens have thought about formal politics since the late 1930s (when relevant datasets begin). Two main pieces of work make up the research. First, a contextual review of existing quantitative data helps to establish broad trends, fluctuations, and cycles of public opinion regarding formal politics. Sources consulted include survey results from Gallup, National Opinion Polls, and Ipsos-MORI. Second, qualitative data from the Mass Observation Archive help to establish shared understandings of politics in British society at particular historical moments. The paper outlines the research project and reports initial findings, with a particular focus on qualitative data from the Mass Observation Archive, and a particular interest in geographical processes including the nationalisation of political campaigning, the globalisation and Europeanisation of political power, and the spatialisation of the UK into Westminster/London and the rest.

The changing geography of Britain’s party system: From three two-party systems to…
Ron Johnston (University of Bristol, UK)
Charles Pattie (The University of Sheffield, UK)

This paper will consider the results of the 2015 General Election and will update the paper published by the authors in The Geographical Journal after the 2010 General Election. In that paper, the authors showed that Britain is dominated by three separate two-party systems because of the geographies of support for the three largest parties.

Exploring the political participation of a new electorate: The case of Polish migrants in Northern Ireland
Jenny McCurry (Queen Mary University of London, UK)

My paper will present emerging findings from recent fieldwork on the political participation of Polish migrants in Northern Ireland. It will explore the ways and the extent to which Polish migrants engage with UK and local politics and how their experiences of politics in Poland may influence their participation in Northern Ireland. It will also aim to consider the impact which factors such as the rise of UKIP, portrayals of migrants in the press, the possibility of a UK exit from the EU, and an increase in racist attacks closer to home, may have on their participation in formal politics.

From “Out of Apathy” to the “post-political”: The spatial practices of politicization and de-politicization
David Featherstone (University of Glasgow, UK)

1960 saw the publication of the book Out of Apathy in which leading figures of the ‘first New Left’, including Stuart Hall and E.P.Thompson, sought to engage with a conjuncture they saw as defined by apathy and de-politicization. The resonances between this text and some of the key tenets of the post-political debate, as defined by figures such as Chantal Mouffe, Erik Swyngedouw and Slavoj Žižek are striking. The political implications drawn, however, are rather different. Thus EP Thompson’s contributions gives a strong sense of the generative character of political antagonisms, and the emergence of such antagonisms in different fields of social and political life (Thompson, 1960). Their political prognosis also benefited from articulations with actually existing forms of contestation such as the Aldermaston marches and the, albeit short-lived, life of the New Left as a movement which had significant popular support (Kenny, 1995). This paper does not invoke Out of Apathy to suggest that nothing has changed, but rather to suggest a need to think in broader terms about the spatial dynamics of politicization and de-politicisation than the dominant terms of debate associated with the post-political literature allows. The paper uses a discussion of recent attempts to politicize the ‘crisis’ to demonstrate the importance of such spatial practices of politicization and de-politicisation and also to emphasise the need to critically engage with the terms on which politicization is conducted.

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