Monthly Archives: April 2015

How Do Our Politicians Represent Us

Finding information about the backgrounds of parliamentary candidates is not the simplest of tasks. Luckily, research on this sort of rare data has already been made. In this text, Veera Voutilainen returns to the theme of the Institute’s discussion event of 9 April in the Finnish Parliament, and draws together work comparing socio-demographic data of MPs from the UK and Finland.

Only a couple of weeks apart from the UK’s upcoming election of 7 May, Finland held general elections, too. On Sunday 19 April Finns made their way to the polling stations, and voted the Centre Party – known for its conservative values – to victory. The eurosceptic, anti-immigration Finns Party – formerly known as the True Finns – got placed second.

This Spring really makes us think about whether we should all be interested in knowing more about people who represent us – and why. Dr Jennifer Hudson, researcher in political behaviour, points out that the question brings us back to some of our very fundamental rights.

“I think it’s a basic question of democracy that you know who the people standing for parliamentary representatives might be”, she says.

Hudson is currently working on an ambitious joint project between Birkbeck, University of London and University College London, along with her colleague Dr Rosie Campbell. Their team has investigated biographical, socio-demographic and electoral data on candidates and MPs over an extensive period of time: from 1945 to 2015. The aim of the project is to open a wide amount of data for anyone to explore.

Sadly, there’s nothing new about the growth in lack of trust and disengagement among citizens around politics: according to Hudson, a feeling of alienation of an average person from the political class has overshadowed British politics for the last 25 years. But what if people knew more about the ones who wish to represent them?

Increasing diversity

“I think what’s important is having increased diversity – in terms of what it signals to the electors”, Hudson says. Indeed, the collected socio-demographic data exploring age, gender and ethnic background does show increasing diversity among the candidates in the British general elections.

“We’re starting from a much higher base in terms of the candidates available that come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds,” she says. “There’s some real differences across the parties: Conservatives have selected 14 percent candidates from BME backgrounds. That’s a real effort from the party to widen its diversity in terms of the candidates.”

What comes to diversity in terms of gender equality, 2015 gives women better chances to find candidates they can relate to.

“Historically parties would select women candidates and minority ethnic candidates, but they wouldn’t be given any kind of possibility of being won. What we see this year is that Labour Party has put more than half of their women on winnable seats,” Hudson tells.

Winnable seat means an electoral district, where a certain party knows it will win. In the British electoral system, the parliament consists of 650 electoral districts. From every district, only one candidate who gets the highest amount of votes can reach the parliament. Therefore, the parties tend to nominate their top candidates in such electoral districts, where it’s known they will get voted.

How electoral systems treat women differently

Hudson’s and Campbell’s project shows just under 30 % of all the candidates in British general elections this Spring are female. Differences between parties, however, are significant: While 37 % of the Green party’s candidates are female, the real outlier is the euro-sceptic Independence party Ukip with a narrow 13 % share of female candidates. Although, these numbers do not tell everything:

“The party that is really streets ahead is the Labour Party, if you look at the seats that are likely to be won,” Rosie Campbell points out.

She refers to the all women shortlists (AWS) that Labour has used since 1990s. “A controversial but effective way to improve women’s representation in politics,” as Campbell puts it. The majority of British people consider all women shortlists anti-democratic. Of course, it would be nice if they weren’t needed. But by far the gender quota does seem to work.

Overall, women have a more realistic chances to access parliament than before. Hudson refers to a significant increase in winnable seats for women this year – considering the very low baseline.

“On the other side, even if we do come away with 30 % women MPs, a lot of the talk in the UK will be about how that is a significant achievement – how we’ve made quite a lot of progress. The danger is how women are 53 % of the population, and so we’re still some way off really getting to kind of gender balance in the parliament. ”

In comparison to Finland, female candidates in the UK have had less possibilities to access the parliament, as they do not have the same kind of an open party list system as Finland does. According to Dr Erkka Railo, researcher with the Centre for Parliamentary Studies in Turku, the electoral system has a significant impact on what kind of candidates become elected.

“In the UK the electoral system influences in how women become clearly under-represented”, he says. “But then in Finland, the candidate’s personal election budget seems to have more impact: the wealthiest candidates tend to become elected, which influences the overall formation of the parliament.”

Significant changes overtime

Railo points out that the educational level of the Finnish candidates has risen significantly since the Second World War – as well as the share of women. Nevertheless, the MP’s do not look very much like the people they represent: the share of members representing the age group between 40-60 is clearly over-represented. In addition to that, a Finnish MP is usually about four times wealthier than an average Finn.

As in the UK, parliamentary groups in Finland differ from each other in terms of gender structure, education as well as income level. Railo compresses some of the major differences:

“The Green Party has the most highly educated MPs, the Finns party the lowest. The Finns party had the lowest female representation – while Social Democrats and Swedish People’s Party had most women. The income level was lowest at the Finns party, Left Alliance, Green Party and Christian Democrats. The wealthiest candidates came from the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party.

In the UK, things are getting exciting. Maybe 7 May will bring more people chances to find someone from the parliament who they could actually have more in common with.

Rosie Campbell, Jennifer Hudson and Erkka Railo met in Helsinki in an open discussion event organized by the Institute on 9 April. The event was part of the Finnish Institute’s Society programme, directed by Antti Halonen.

Follow Jennifer Hudson’s and Rosie Campbell’s UK Parliamentary Candidates project here.

The writer of this text is the Institute’s new communications intern.

The Talk About Work and What It Really Means



In the blog this week: The Institute is working on “Jobs for the Boys”, which studies the transformations of work. In connection to this and the upcoming elections, Elisabeth Wide examines the work politics of the British Conservative party in the UK and the Finnish National Coalition party.

The National Coalition party (NCP) in Finland and the Conservative party in the United Kingdom have many things in common. Not only are they both lead by white men, they are also political parties characterised by a mishmash of right-wing conservative and liberal politics and a claim to represent the working people. In their shared rhetoric, the worker who creates value for companies paradoxically becomes a burden for the employer.

Both the UK and Finland are heading for general elections this spring, the UK on 7 May and Finland on Sunday 19 April. The Conservatives and the NCP are currently the biggest parties in their respective governments. Both moderate political parties also face a threat to their positions of parliamentary power. According to recent polls, the support for both parties is wavering.
In the rundown to the elections, the two parties appear to have chosen work as a common theme to appeal to voters. This week the Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative party tweeted that his party is “the real party of working people in our country today”. The Conservatives also released their manifesto on Tuesday 14 April, placing a strong emphasis on work. In the NCP’s election campaign, the party puts “work on the frontline” and wants to “set Finland in motion through work”.
Work and Poverty
Work is an important part of everyone’s life. It is indeed an urgent matter to improve the situation of workers in Finland and the UK, since there are many hardworking poor people in both countries. At the moment, there are almost 700 000 people in the UK with zero-hour contracts as their main job. If you count workers who have more than one zero-hour contract, the number rises to 1.8m. In Finland the equivalent number is 83 000 people. Zero-hour contracts are criticized for failing to provide economic security for workers, leaving them in a precarious position.
There are evidence pointing to the increase in the number of working people living in poverty both in London and Helsinki. In London 12.9 % of full-time workers and 48.8 % of part time workers still earn less than the London living wage, currently set at £9.15 per hour. The national minimum wage is only £6.50, insufficient to meet the high living costs of the capital. In Helsinki the number of people in employment depending on social welfare in order to survive is increasing.
Emotions and Equal Opportunities
The Conservatives proclaims that they will “fight for equal opportunity”, a sentence very similar to the NCP’s strive to “create a country of equal opportunities”. Both parties wish to do this through work. Both make emotional claims for the hard working individual, stating that work should be rewarded more.
However the claim to focus on work and represent the working people is only rhetoric. In their manifests, the two parties approach work as something solely positive for individual workers, and as a problematic, bureaucracy-driven matter for businesses. The NCP in Finland defines work as a way to achieve self-fulfilment for the individual. The British Conservatives talk about work as a way for an individual to achieve a good life. And their policy suggestion reflect this, ignoring how work-related changes will affect individual employers.
Actual Policy Suggestions on Work and Taxation
The NCP aims to increase the amount of flexible working hours and employment contracts. The party also wishes to offer “more possibilities for workers to agree on working conditions and salaries in the working place”. This is a very radical proposal, since it would not only increase income inequalities among workers, but also most likely decrease the salaries of workers. Furthermore, the party would encourage businesses to employ more people by making the initial probation period longer. This policy would also increase uncertainty for workers.
In the UK unemployment is down to 6 %, which the Conservatives often refer to as a success story. The problem lies not in the quantity but in the quality of jobs. According to London-based think tank New Economics Foundation, most of the jobs created in Britain during the last decade have been precarious low-paid jobs. The think tank lists social care and retail as examples of two big sectors that are growing, but that offer the lowest pay.
The Conservatives claim to aid these workers by raising the Personal Tax Free Allowance up to the level of the minimum wage for people working 30 hours. The Centre for Labour and Social Studies reports that most minimum wage workers already pay no income tax and are instead affected by a higher VAT tax. This is a tax that both the Conservatives and the NCP wish to increase. The NCP aims at reducing income taxation for all income groups, while raising VAT. This non-progressive tax will hit poor people the hardest. Furthermore, both parties propose cuts to benefit allowances for unemployed people seeking work.

 

 

 

Even though the Conservatives might be more straight-forward in their rhetoric articulation than the NCP, ultimately both have the same goal; to improve working life by making it easier for businesses to employ and discharge people. By not confronting the decreasing quality of work nor the increasing amounts of low-paid flexible employment contracts, it becomes evident that the parties interest lies in making working life more flexible from the point of view of the employer, not the worker.

 

 

 

 

Elisabeth Wide is an intern at the Society Programme at the Finnish Institute in London. She studies Sociology at the University of Helsinki. Her interests include feminism, the economy and creating an equal working life for all.

Art-work or Art-object? A phenomenological introduction


In the blog this week: The Institute will publish a series of articles on contemporary art and philosophy in conjunction with the Talk Art/Talk Society events. The first blog post is written by Valter Holmström and deals with one of the main currents of philosophy of art in the 20th century –  phenomenology – and the transformative power of art. 


“By the opening of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their distance and proximity, their breadth and their limits.” – Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art, 1950.


When venturing into the dense conceptual forest of contemporary art it is easy to get lost. The multitude of art theories, avant-garde art pieces, eccentric artists and confused public discourse makes for a strange foreign ground where the traveler is lost with no clear guiding coordinates. To create a framework of understanding – to grasp contemporary art in the form of thought – we turn to philosophy. Not necessarily to reduce the complexity of art to a few intelligible principles, but rather to sketch at least one way to navigate the contemporary art field.

In the Finnish Institute’s recent Talk Art/Talk Society event, artist Hans Rosenström and critic/curator James Putnam discussed various forms of visibility for contemporary art. Regarding the question whether art should be actively marketing itself for a wider audience Rosenström quipped “at what point does a work of art become an object for the market?”– a question that can be read in a phenomenological way, and a good starting point for elucidating some philosophical interpretations of art: the difference between art-work and art-object.
The distinction I’m referring to is one made by Martin Heidegger.  And whereas it might be pretentious to go into the complexities of Heidegger’s phenomenology in a short blog post, a simple grazing of the surface might give us a sketch of some concepts that can shed light on contemporary art. Suffice it to say that phenomenology is the philosophical study of consciousness and experience, and in that sense it’s often a natural ally to art and aesthetics.[1]
The distinction between art-work and art-object is one made by Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art (1950). One of the many things Heidegger was objecting to in this essay was the view of art as an object isolated from the viewing subject. We come to expect art to personally enrich us – we go to a museum and observe an art piece and walk home with a sense of fulfilment. Maybe we talk about it with our peers. But this attitude is restrictive in many ways and fails to grasp the true transformative power of art, or the crucial role art plays in a community.
The problem with this “aesthetic approach” to art, Heidegger suggested, is that it isolated the art and the viewer from each other. In fact, in our everyday experience, the line between art and subject is blurry. Modern thought is generally haunted by a shadow of dualism, of an object-subject distinction, which gives us a warped view of the world. And Heidegger blurred the lines. Art, for instance, is transformative; it does not leave its subject(s) intact.[2]

Artwork from the ceiling of the Tomb of the Diver in a temple at Paestum. 
Photo by Michael Johanning 2001.

Rather, both art and viewer are immersed in a historical community – what Heidegger calls a specific “world” – where they both play a dynamic part. It is in this context where the art-work does its work. It is an active part of this world, it creates, entangles, brings together different forms of intelligibility, values, existential attitudes, traditions – aspects which constitutes our experience of reality. Heidegger used an ancient Greek temple at Paestum as an example of a great artwork: it connects a community, shapes attitudes towards life and death, of what matters and what doesn’t. Art is not confined to some leisurely activity like going to the museum, it is not an object to be merely passively pondered.
The role of art in our historical situation, Heidegger continues, is also to bring forth the tensions immanent in our understanding of our world. Not only is art a crucial part of world creation, modern art also open ups worlds, makes us aware of the fundamental openness of world-making – how our reality is neither eternal nor objective, but always creatively constructed by human communities.

Nocturnal festivity by Paul Klee, 1921. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Art objectified, whether by a market logic or as bourgeois cultural capital denies art its world-opening, its world-making and world-transforming role. In stead it becomes part of the subject’s – this mythical creature’s – strive to self-growth, a perspective Heidegger viewed as insufficient if we want to really grasp our existence as human beings.
But there are many other ways of encountering art, and this is only one glimpse of one way of viewing it. Indeed, if contemporary art is a dense forest, so is contemporary thought. And there are different paths through both, interspersed with light.

[1] Although, of course, not in every instance.
[2]And indeed, “the subject” probably does not even exist as a fixed entity to begin with.
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