Tuesday 18 May 2010

Save our Revolts! Why the ESRC should rethink

UPDATE {Wed}: There has been a lot of support for this call, including an excellent Guardian editorial in Wednesday's paper.

His revolts.co.uk is so authoritative that even the whips use it ... It is surely important that someone explains this sort of thing to the press and public. Other sites log the quantity of rebellions, but only Cowley's assesses their qualitative significance. That expert dimension is urgently needed in navigating the uncharted waters of coalition. The Economic and Social Research Council, however, beg to differ, and have cut off the funding. Despite a dedicated pot for "demonstrating impact", they have turned Cowley down while bankrolling obscure if worthy inquiries into stochastic dominance and God knows what else. You have to ask what part of "impact" they don't understand.

Philip Cowley has explained the background on the Revolts website.


As the new Parliament sits for the first time, it will be fascinating to see how the first peacetime Coalition for 70 years changes politics in this hung Parliament.

That makes it all the more regrettable and incomprehensible that the most important academic project and resource on Parliamentary behaviour and voting won't be around to study and report on it to the rest of us. Phillip Cowley and Mark Stuart's Revolts project has wrapped up after its bid for continued funding from the ESRC to study the new Parliament was rejected.

The Revolts project research has rightly been hailed by just about every serious commentator on British politics as a unique and invaluable resource - both in doing exactly what academic politics should be doing, and communicating it enormously effectively in a way that shapes and informs political, academic, media and public discussion of politics.

As BBC political editor Nick Robinson puts it

Revolts is the first place I - and many journalists I respect - turn to for authoritative analysis, historical comparisons, and accurate predictions of parliamentary revolts and rebellions. This is academic political research doing exactly what it should do – helping to inform the political debate - and in real time not years after it matters.

"Where would we be without it?", asked his Channel 4 counterpart Gary Gibbon.

Well, here we are. There will now be enormous amounts of commentary and anecdote on the difference that the Coalition has made: it will just be much more difficult to know which claims are right and wrong. Cowley's own view, set out in the 2008 Hansard Society study of what a hung Parliament would mean is that a minority government in a hung Parliament increases backbench influence, a Coalition probably restricts it.

This blog's use of the research to link academic findings to public debate is very typical of why many people think the research indispensable. It simply wouldn't be possible to make up-to-date and evidence-based points on why the conventional wisdom about our supine Parliament is so often based on myths and distortions about a non-existent Golden Age; or to look at the impact of party balance on free votes like abortion without this research.

I noted it as one of the best examples of the type of impact the academy should seek to emulate when speaking alongside David Willetts and Tony Wright at an ESRC event on the public impact and relevance of the social sciences earlier this year.

From the outside, one can't comment in any detail on the decision to cease funding of this major study into what happens in the Commons - but there is certainly no sign of any adequate substitute for the research. (There is excellent and indispensable ESRC supported research on the Lords led by Meg Russell at the Constitution Unit, which is happily ongoing). All I can say is that it looks entirely incomprehensible to those who hear so much from the ESRC about how much it is doing to value the impact and relevance of academic research.

So I feel we need an ESRC rethink - or another funder to step into the vacuum - or our knowledge and understanding of politics and public life will be much weaker.

I hope that others who have used the research agree will also make the point about why academic study and communication about what happens in Parliament is so valuable for understanding contemporary politics.

And I would be interested in any ideas about how and where further advocacy of the need for this or a similar project to study this unique Parliament could usefully be aimed.