Working in Politics and International Relations at Aston University

Our department at Aston University is thrilled to be recruiting up to four posts (one at Chair level, up to three at Lecturer / Senior Lecturer level), and this blog is intended to provide a bit of informal advice to prospective applicants, especially for the lecturership positions (though it may be useful background for those in a senior lecturership or professorial role), about what we do, who we are, and the sort of things we will be looking for.

First – a bit about our team. We are a medium-sized department, with 13.2 current staff (12 are full-time, two are part-time), excluding one colleague who heads our School, and another who is currently on sabbatical at the Foreign Office. Of those 14 staff, six are men, eight are women, and we are a diverse group in terms of our national backgrounds (with nationals of eight different countries!) though we would welcome greater ethnic diversity in our department. Several colleagues have young families, and all live either in Birmingham or within a sensible commuting distance. We encourage a diverse workforce including representation of staff with disabilities and will provide support and reasonable adjustments as needed. Aston is a ‘two ticks’ employer, which means that it has committed to offering an interview to all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria for a vacancy.

Second – a bit about our students. Our student body is very diverse (as is the West Midlands region, in which we are based): at the undergraduate level, we attract a good range of students, both on our Single Honours course (Politics and International Relations) and in our joint honours courses (such as Politics and Economics, International Relations and Business, and International Relations and Modern Languages). These students are overwhelmingly from the state sector, and have scored highly in their A-levels. We strongly encourage them to undertake a work or study placement, either in the UK or abroad, in their penultimate year, and find this makes a real difference to their employability, which is very important to us at Aston. Our students seem to respond well to this, with satisfaction at 94% in last year’s National Student Survey. At postgraduate level, we have a good mix of students, and many come from continental Europe, often as part of our joint and double degrees with Rennes, Lille, and Bamberg (with a new programme with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow coming on stream soon).

Third – a bit about working here. We are all active researchers, but our areas of specialism vary widely, as you will see from our staff profiles. Our standards are high – at the last REF, we entered under the “umbrella” of the Aston Centre for Europe in the Area Studies section, and were ranked the highest in this field outside London. But it is important to remember that ACE, and our department, are “ecumenical”, and that we are not exclusively interested in European Studies. For instance, our students often tell us they would like to learn more about the Politics of the Middle East, or the Politics of any of the “BRIC” nations; the truth is we are open to applications from any interesting sub-field of Politics and International Relations. We have recently re-established a departmental seminar where a colleague presents “work in progress” and discusses it in a supportive environment. We are encouraged to bid for external funding from a variety of sources (and have had success from sources like the European Commission, Leverhulme, the German Academic Exchange Service and the ESRC in recent years), and comment on each other’s bids to give them the best chance of success.

We are also passionate teachers – staff regularly observe each other’s teaching, several colleagues have won prizes in this area, and we often compare notes on ways of teaching and keeping students engaged (for instance, students may do “simulations”, policy reports, role plays, group assignments and produce films as part of their courses). We take our MA students on an annual study visit to Brussels, and have also had regular study visits to London. There is no “typical” teaching load, but a colleague might expect to teach courses for around six hours per week during team time, to a mixture of larger and smaller groups, and in addition offer four hours a week of office hours, as well as time for dissertation supervision and meeting with personal tutees. Every member of staff is entitled to a “research day” each week, including during term time, when they would not be expected to teach or be at meetings.

We are all strong believers in keeping our discipline relevant to everyday life. So we hold regular lunchtime seminars for students and staff on current affairs, we recently held an event with the Parliamentary Outreach Service on Parliament and BAME communities, and our team often write blogs aimed at an audience beyond academia. We also regularly engage with policy-makers, holding events in London and Brussels where we can discuss our ongoing research with practitioners, and feed into and shape policy discussions. For us, “impact” is about a lot more than ticking a box for external evaluation of universities!

If you are interested in applying (especially for the lecturership positions), here are some things to consider:

– The key document in shortlisting will be your answers to the questions online application form (which will be scored according to whether you have met our criteria), as well as your CV. Make sure you look carefully at our person specification before applying.
– We are likely to read well over 100 applications, and for that reason we need candidates to have a completed Ph.D., and evidence of “successful research publication”. This will probably involve having published, or at least advanced plans for, a book, and also some articles in peer reviewed journals, and far more weight will be given to publications which are published or accepted for publication than which have not yet been accepted. Expectations clearly depend on how long you have been in the profession, and career breaks would be taken into account.
– Remember that we all regard our teaching as really important, as well as our research, and think about how you would ensure Aston students are really engaged in and excited about what they are learning.
– When thinking about income generation, by all means include good ideas for research grants (including those with collaborators outside Aston), but also think about whether there might be any new incomes streams you could develop for the department or ACE.
– We will involve the whole department in recruitment, as shortlisted applicants will give a presentation to us on the first day, and then there will be an interview on the second day with a group of colleagues (most probably myself, Prof. Green, Prof. Gaffney, Dr. Obradovic-Wochnik, and Prof. Urszula Clark from the English Language group). In both these settings, you would want to show how you can get your message across clearly and succinctly, how you would engage students and colleagues, and how you would see yourself fitting in with our department (and possibly the Aston Centre for Europe). Normally the first question will be about why you want to work at Aston, so you’d want to give this some serious thought in advance. Since we pride ourselves on our practical, relevant research you can expect to be asked about this.

If you have any questions, please drop me a line at e.turner(at), and we can catch up on the telephone or Skype if necessary afterwards.

Europe’s industries will lead in in sustainability and decarbonisation, or not at all

By Professor David Bailey, Co-Director, ACE and Professor Karl Aiginger, Director of Economics and Vienna University

Industrial policy is back on the political agenda. It was bubbles in non-manufacturing sectors which fuelled the financial crisis, and the economic recovery proves more difficult in countries with a weaker manufacturing sector. The manufacturing sector itself is subject to rapid change, thanks to technological developments and the growing importance of services that become an integral part of the production process.

Global business leaders gathered in Davos last month to discuss the advent of the “fourth industrial revolution”. When factories dismantled their steam engines in the late 19th century to make way for electricity and conveyor belts, these innovations opened the way for mass production. Today, a similar leap seems possible, as companies move from the use of computers and robots into the era of advanced manufacturing, where intelligent machines self-optimise in networks.

Hopes are that an industrial renaissance can bring jobs and growth back to Europe. Others warn that Europe will not be able to compete under the pressures of globalisation without undermining our welfare institutions.

The truth is that Europe has a choice to make in the face of global competition. It can opt for a “low road” strategy which emphasises cost reductions, lower taxes, and reduced social and ecological standards. This would lead into a downward spiral. Alternatively, it can put forward a bold strategy to compete based on research, skills, ecological ambition, excellent institutions and an employment policy which empowers people. This is the high road.

High-road competitiveness is not about disregarding realities of the world economy. It stands in contradiction to old policy recipes of protecting national champions and prolonging the life of non-viable industries. Europe’s future industrial policy should facilitate the long-run transition, not decelerate structural change. It must promote competition and be driven by a wider vision, which goes beyond mere GDP growth and includes the social and ecological goals of society.

To carve out a competitive advantage for the future, Europe must anticipate the potential of advanced manufacturing for clean, efficient and high-quality production. Sustainability and ambitious socio-ecological standards must be at the centre of our industrial policy. At the same time, we need to significantly boost investments in research, innovation and up-skilling. If carried out decisively, this double strategy can bolster Europe’s technological leadership and lay the basis of future economic success.

The European Union has taken promising steps and shown political courage in its climate change policies and the fight against environmental degradation and has embraced the concept of the “green economy” as a potential engine for job creation and economic dynamism. It now needs to take the next step and invest in assuming technological leadership at the intersection of advanced manufacturing with decarbonisation and resource efficiency.

High road competitiveness challenges vested interests in the manufacturing sector. It goes against the grain of some industries which argue in favour of cost reductions and against ambitious policies. Thirty-four leading European economic institutes have examined this question over the past four years. Our research shows that the socio-economic benefits of a high-road strategy would offset any increased production costs in the manufacturing sector and offer a valuable dividend for society: global competitiveness that supports welfare, wealth and work in Europe.

Professor Karl Aiginger: Director of Economics at Vienna University, Coordinator of the pan-European Research Project “Welfare, Wealth and Work – a new growth path for Europe.”  

Professor David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at the Aston Business School and Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University

Too little, but it’s not too late

David Cameron’s new deal on Britain’s relationship with the EU falls wide of the mark; but there is still time to showcase a meatier deal ahead of a June referendum

*This piece was originally published on the “political insight” blog of the Political Studies Association (PSA)

Was anyone convinced by it? A shirt-sleeved Dave, on the shop floor at (German) engineering giant Siemens in Chippenham, arguing passionately that this, his hard-won deal, had fundamentally improved the terms of Britain’s relationship with the European Union? Would he now choose to lead Britain into this kind of an EU if we weren’t already members? Hell, yes! Dave believed it, though clearly the passion of his convictions massively outweighs the detail of what he has delivered.
There has been little (if any) unequivocal support for Dave’s viewpoint that these are “good terms” for the UK. They’re a step towards what the Tory eurosceptics will want, and they have allowed some of the key figures that will lead public opinion in the pre-referendum debate to mark his card in public with a “good, but could do better” grade (Theresa May, Boris Johnson). This leaves open the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Dave can build on these modest, initial successes in meeting his own self-imposed targets, and bring back a bigger, juicier “killer” amendment, say on immigration levels, crime or terrorism prevention – the stuff that average voters do really care about.
Few observers expected even half the proposals which Tusk put forward this week. So in spite of all of the grand posturing in Europe’s capitals over the “discrimination” that these amends will usher in, Dave’s Deal could ultimately suggest that a more radical turning point in Europe’s history has been reached. If approved at the summit later this month, Cameron’s “success” could just mark the beginning of a new era in European integration. What is striking perhaps in the terms of the proposed new deal for Britain is that it does, for the first time, deviate from some of the fundamental principles on which the European Union has been established. No more “ever closer union”. Different rules for different “types” of workers in the EU’s single market, long seen as the EU’s core success story and one where the UK is and has been keenest to play a leading role. A “red card” system whereby national parliaments can exert greater authority over Brussels edicts.
A generation ago, when the UK, under John Major’s leadership, negotiated significant “opt outs” from the Maastricht Treaties, European fundamentalists were enraged at the notion of a “multi-speed Europe” or a “Europe a la Carte” which this would usher in. But these variable solutions are the reality of what we live with in today’s European Union. A Eurozone that leads, but does not dominate, in the Single Market. A Schengen area that covers some, but not all, of the EU’s territory. National opt outs on citizenship and justice issues.
Tusk’s letter is in many ways simply an acknowledgement that the durability of the European integration project is reliant on political leaders finding flexible solutions that will allow the main features of a European Union to progress, whilst accommodating the need for national politics to respond to national priorities. Europe’s challenges today are very different to those of the Europe of 1957; the “all or nothing” integrationist vision of a Jean Monnet or a Robert Schuman simply does not sell to an increasingly sceptical electorate. Most European leaders, facing their own electoral challenges from the sceptics, will recognise the need for Tusk to cut Dave a deal. Who knows if, or more likely when, they’ll need to deliver their own compromises on EU membership to quell national uncertainties. Rather than the abstract, though historically-grounded “grand projet” of an ever closer union, what Europe’s publics want today is an ever more pragmatic arrangement between EU nations, which can deliver long-term sustainable growth. It really is that simple.
So this all suggests that the time is right for David Cameron to push harder on a more robust arrangement with the EU that builds on these initial proposals, but offers more to a national public clamouring for a “big” deal. It may have been too little for team BoJo, but it’s not too late to get more.

Cologne and the ‘sexism of the other’: Why tougher migration policies won’t solve sexual abuse

By Anne Jenichen

This blogpost was originally published on EUROPP Blog, on the 15th of January 2016. For the original, please visit:

On new year’s eve, large groups of men – alleged to be of Northern African provenience – harassed women and stole cell phones and other valuables around the Central Station in Cologne. The incidents were not confined to one place, as similar episodes were reported across other German cities and in a few other European countries.

Cologne’s police forces received more than 500 complaints of sexual assault and theft for that night. The police department of North Rhine-Westphalia appointed a taskforce to clarify the circumstances. Most of the suspects arrested so far, with a few exceptions, do not hold German passports, and some entered Germany as refugees. The last aspect produced the largest public outcry.

Meanwhile, the unfolding debate has taken on a life of its own. It is still not really clear how many perpetrators were involved, how many of them were refugees and from which regions, whether the acts of sexual harassment were a diversionary tactic to facilitate theft or whether it was an aim in itself, and how exactly the mobs organised themselves.

But for many, the judgement already seems to be clear: admitting refugees to the country entails increased crime, particularly against women. Saving ‘white women’ from ‘brown men’ is an age-old racist theme which surfaces again and again in this debate, clearly illustrating the intersection of sexism and racism. An especially crude expression of this was the title of the German weekly ‘Focus’ (“Frauen klagen an”, i.e. “Women complain” which could also mean “Women file lawsuits”), showing a naked white woman with black hands painted all over her body.

Most of the debate, therefore, has not been over the incident itself, but on Germany’s refugee policy. German politicians from the governing parties have discussed tightening German asylum law, even though legal measures to deal with criminal asylum seekers are already in place. Fortunately, there have also been moderate voices expressing unease about the racialisation of the debate, albeit these are much less audible than those calling for stricter action against criminal asylum seekers and the restriction of immigration.

Suggestions include the lowering of hurdles against the deportation of criminal refugees (from a now one-year sentence to suspended sentences, for example, for theft), residential obligations for asylum seekers and recognised refugees to prevent their concentration in big cities, as well as caps on the number of refugees that can be permitted per year (regardless of the circumstances of individuals arriving once such a ‘cap’ has been reached).

The incident in Cologne thus inflamed a debate that has been rumbling on for some time. The incident and the sexualised violence it entailed have been used to justify tougher German asylum laws. Foreign politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Polish head of government Beata Szydlo and US presidential candidate Donald Trump, have picked on the debate as well, using the case as confirmation of their warnings against ‘open borders’ and the intake of large numbers of refugees.

Right-wing extremists have not failed to make use of the xenophobic undertones of the debate to provide legitimation of their world views. A mob of right-wing extremists arranged to meet via social media for manhunts to protect ‘their’ women against non-Germans in the aftermath of the Cologne incident. That this did not spark a similarly heated public discussion on the perils of xenophobic violence is simply deplorable.

The victims and the acts of sexualised violence have by now faded into the background. The debate almost exclusively focuses on the potential perpetrators and their ethnic background; with some exceptions, such as the Twitter campaign #ausnahmslos (“noexcuses”), which, under the header “Against sexualised violence and racism. Always. Anywhere”, calls for closing the protection gaps in German criminal law on sexual assault and rape, and for support for the victims of the Cologne incident.

But tougher immigration and asylum legislation won’t solve the problem of sexual assault. Sexual harassment and sexualised violence are worldwide problems. Prevalence estimates of non-partner sexual violence by the World Health Organization, for instance, suggest higher numbers in western Europe than in North Africa and the Middle East. So much for ‘Arab culture’; a popular reference in the German debate for explaining the alleged connection between refugees from Arab countries and sexualised violence in public places. The prevalence of intimate partner violence, which usually takes place in private, is estimated as being higher for North Africa and the Middle East than in western Europe, but domestic violence is seldom a topic that lends itself to public outrage.

Sexual harassment takes place particularly where perpetrators expect impunity due to strong dependencies and power inequalities, such as in the workplace, or due to the anonymity of empty streets or large crowds. Each year, for example, there are several cases of attempted and actual rape, and numerous cases of sexual harassment, at the ‘Oktoberfest’ in Munich (the biggest beer festival in the world) and during the carnival in Cologne, even though the real numbers, particularly of those cases which go unreported, are contested. Public outcries in those cases, though, never materialise.

The incidents in Cologne and other German cities were utterly unacceptable. These cases need to be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators punished, irrespective of their background. A serious and honest debate on both integration and violence against women is also absolutely necessary. But racialising the issue of sexual violence will not solve anything: neither in the case of integrating refugees nor with regard to the protection of women.

100 days of Jeremy Corbyn: Let Corbyn be Corbyn

By John Gaffney

This blog post was originally published on the Staggers Blog on the 21st of December 2016.

The Labour leader must recover the tricks he used to win the job in the first place if he is to take Downing Street.

The debates surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s first hundred days have been predictable, unending, repetitive, and unhelpful: no experience of leadership or governance, too leftwing, unrealistic (but right about Iraq and Northern Ireland, his defenders say), old-fashioned (while revolutionising social media, his defenders say; his detractors, that his election has unleashed a very unsocial media); the mainstream media has been often outrageously biased. True. Many Labour MPs have tried to undermine his authority. True. He has an overwhelming legitimacy as leader. True. And the Labour Party is in one hell of a mess. True. It is the general view that there are three potential scenarios (all awful): ongoing and escalating internal party strife; a leadership challenge of some kind; or a break-away by sufficient numbers of the members, councillors, MPs and so on, to set up an alternative movement. The sad context of all three of these is public indifference. If the party and its leadership could ‘imagine’ itself as a performed narrative whose symbolic and rhetorical aspects have consequential effects, there may – just – be a fourth possible scenario. Deselecting recalcitrant MPs may have a justification in logic. Talking about it now is rhetorically catastrophic. Responding to the “grassroots” may be laudable. Using it as a threat rather than a need is equally so. Corbyn’s democratic legitimacy is unquestionable. Rousseau’s ‘General Will’, however, confers legitimacy but not authority. Only a leadership and party narrative do that. Listening to “the membership” is right but is largely an illusion. Mass politics is never really mass politics; what is is the notion and performance of such politics at the leadership level (e.g. Corbyn and PMQs). But there is really no such thing as direct democracy, even in the Agora. What there is is rhetoric and performance. This is in fact how Corbyn won in the first place; sincere, modest, thoughtful, quietly eloquent, and actually saying something as opposed to the narrative desert of his opponents. It all started going downhill on election day when he went and sang the Red Flag with Billy Bragg; and the problem now is that his main and now very vocal supporters (during the leadership campaign his was often a lone voice) all sound – and make him sound – as if he is going to bring back the GLC at best, transform the party into the SWP at worst. This is not his intention – nor indeed the intention of the vast majority of those who voted for him, but that – exacerbated by his public loyalty to old allegiances – is what it sounds like. The exemplary demonstration that this is all about rhetoric, performance, and leadership image was Jeremy Corbyn’s being upstaged not by David Cameron but by Hilary Benn. Not only, moreover, was Benn’s “We must now confront this evil” speech (as well as the demonstrable irony of his resemblance to Corbyn’s hero, Hilary’s father) of 3 December passionate (as Corbyn had been during the leadership campaign), it blended a range of narratives in the left’s rhetoric. Benn’s speech was structured and argued in such a way as to make it impossible to depict him as a Tory stooge. Corbyn, against intervention in Syria, could have done the same, but simply sounded like the spokesperson for the Stop the War Campaign. Visually too Benn’s speech was a car crash for Corbyn who several times peered around from behind Benn, clearly not listening to the speech, as if trying to identify someone on the benches opposite. A Rowan Atkinson sketch, comically and symbolically rounded off by not having made sure that Benn had somewhere to sit back down so that Benn nearly sat on Corbyn who hurriedly had to budge up. And by the time Benn had sat down he looked like not just the leader of the Labour Party but like a future Prime Minister.

Today’s narrative dearth started long before today, and in fact is one of the reasons for Corbyn’s thumping victory in September. It was clear that by 2015 the Blairite narrative was gone. Before that, Ed Miliband began a blending of a range of narrative sources: G.D.H. Cole, Attlee, One Nation, and some German SPD approaches, and so on, but ended up with just the ‘retail offer’. Rhetoric, like nature, abhors a vacuum; Corbynism filled it. But, as we saw with Hilary Benn, Labour rhetoric must blend its narrative or ideational strains to be successful. All the heroes of the democratic left have done this: Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, Harold Wilson, Willy Brandt, François Mitterrand, early Tony Blair – and each in highly eloquent and personalised performances – the “it isn’t about personality but about policy” line is a rhetorical device, as its author, Tony Benn, knew all too well. And as regards blending narratives, the ones who do not (e.g. Gaitskell – apart from his two major speeches where he did) drive the party into uproar and disarray.

Leadership politics is not a power struggle but an art. And it involves artifice. As regards the UK Labour Party, as we all know, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there; but there is arguably a fourth scenario beyond the received three mentioned above, and one that involves choreography, that is to say a choreography of ideas, rhetoric, and leadership comportment that might enable the Labour Party to “dance” its way away from the edge of the cliff to the broad sunny uplands of success. So, a few ideas for Jeremy Corbyn:

What in the GLC was good? Link it up with what the successful councils of today are doing – Newham, Hackney, for example, and make it into a “story”; give discursive space to ‘The Grassroots’ but give ownership of it to someone who is not a close supporter – a grassroots advocate (Stella Creasy?) – and ask them to be its champion, so no one can use it as rhetorical device against you; get all rhetorically/morally difficult issues off the agenda, for example, let the SNP do all the heavy lifting on Trident and, as with everything, wait until rhetorical advantage emerges on any contentious issue. The party has no true influence unless it is in power – idem Syria. The Conservatives will set rhetorical traps endlessly. There is no need to fall into every one of them. Develop this blended, personally performed rhetoric now and stick to it until 2020.

Appear to be both the Corbyn who was elected, but also a new person – the Prince Hal myth of the demands of kingship is a very profound one, and will allow a leader to create a new reconciled narrative, a new persona, and leadership as a transcendence, so that the inevitable cries of “betrayal” can’t hit their mark.

Enfold the dilemma that the MPs are trying to resolve, even though some of them are abusing it to undermine your leadership. MPs represent their constituents as well as their parties. This tension has been here since forever, particularly in left parties. Address it instead of allowing it to be used as a form of intimidation, so that your MPs are seduced by your magnanimity.

And smile – like you used to in the leadership campaign. Otherwise, it’s curtains.

French politics after the Paris attacks: polarised and deeply personal

By John Gaffney

This post was originally published on the EUROPP Blog (

France will hold regional elections on 6 and 13 December, which are expected to be dominated by the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November. John Gaffney writes that the split between left-wing and right-wing parties in the aftermath of the attacks has been much more profound than following the previous attacks in Paris in January. He also argues that any upturn in President Hollande’s approval ratings are likely to reflect broader attitudes toward the role of the President during a crisis, rather than support for the specific actions Hollande has undertaken.

The French security services are highly regarded throughout the world; and evidence of their excellence is how quickly the identities of the Paris attackers and their whereabouts were established. All the more shocking therefore, that not only were so many lives lost and such havoc wrought, and this by well-trained coordinated units (who knew they were all destined to die rather than surrender), armed with sophisticated weapons in a highly complex operation, the planning and execution of the momentous events went completely under the radar. It seems to be the case too that these commando units were able to travel to and from Syria and around Europe with impunity.

Several of the elements of the Paris attacks on 13 November are new developments: the scale of the killing – 130 dead, 350 injured, 80 critically – the training of the attackers, and the use of suicide belts. Earlier recent attackers such as Mohamed Mérah, and the Kouachi brothers were not trying to die, they were trying to escape. Also the targets of the 13 November attacks were not Jews, satirists, off-duty soldiers, or unarmed policewomen, but everyone.

If there was an identifiable category it was the young. The overwhelming majority of the victims were – like the attackers – young people. Another arguably new development was that the attackers were not just trying to kill people but to terrorise a nation. The casualties were real, but the targets were symbolic: places illustrative of the West’s ‘decadence’ such as cafés, sports stadiums (with two targets, France and Germany, as well as the French President at the Stade de France), music and dancing at the Bataclan, the joie de vivre targets of western decadence.

One sad irony is that, far from the joie de vivre, Paris has been a pretty miserable place for some time and certainly since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. All year there has been a sense of almost permanent anxiety throughout the country, and particularly in Paris. The 13 November attacks have taken this anxiety to new heights, or depths, of collective anguish. There has been a series of political, military, diplomatic and other responses to the massacres, but the most consequential is a national anxiety, fear, and suppressed panic of clinical and durable proportions.

There has also been a series of practical responses. A three-month state of emergency is the first (house arrests, increased search powers, electronic tagging, banning certain groups). At the European level, it is clear that security agencies will work together much more in the future. This has public approval but involves an element of disbelief that this was not already happening. At the European level, too, the ease with which the attackers moved around has re-ignited the border issue of whether Schengen works (it does not); all this adding value to the right and extreme right discourse about national security, particularly the Front National who want national borders reasserted.

This is no longer seen as unthinkable. And if this were to happen across the EU, the EU itself would be in question. President Hollande also announced the creation of 5,000 more jobs in the police and gendarmerie, 2,500 more in the legal system, and a halt in reductions of personnel in the armed forces (3,000 per year had been planned over the next three years).

France is in serious economic difficulty as it is. Where even a fraction of the costs of these measures will come from is unknown. At the military level, attacks on Islamic State in Syria by the French Air Force have escalated considerably since 13 November. At the diplomatic level, the sudden cooperation with Russia and now Iran has meant France making Assad’s stepping down a condition of cooperation highly problematic.

All of these issues are important and consequential. But the emotional and psychological consequences remain the most problematic and difficult to analyse. And the anxiety of the population felt most acutely is that of the ‘Muslim’ population itself. An irony and an issue of tactical significance here: this community is the largest in Europe, almost twice the UK figure. The irony is that France’s Muslims are arguably the most integrated in Europe. They number about 5 or 6 million (the numbers are not clear; in this secular republic there are only ‘citizens’). The overwhelming majority are of North African origin (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), and about one third of them are practising (many of these only observing Ramadan, for example).

The ‘tactic’ was and is to ‘cleave’ this relatively integrated population; and attacks upon this part of the population rise dramatically in periods such as this, as does the divisive volume of Front National rhetoric. The few from this population that are ‘radicalised’ are usually disaffected youths from France’s often god-awful, soul-destroying outer suburbs where unemployment is in places total and opportunities non-existent. The education system in these places – like everything else – is seriously deficient (despite some heroic efforts); and, in places, even the police won’t go.

Another irony and a mystery. The irony is that these (usually) young men are not religious, are more often than not from socially difficult backgrounds, and are often involved in petty criminality and ‘bad company’. The mystery is the speed and intensity of their radicalisation with its devastating consequences. In France, as elsewhere, this is now the focus of intense research. The rhetoric and persuasion of the radicalisers clearly plays a major role, but so too does alienation and undiagnosed psychosis.

French politics after the attacks

One of the political consequences of the government’s recent measures is that they are not seen as a kind of ‘triangulation’ (stealing the right’s policies) but a sense that these measures were something Hollande and the government should have done before. In spite of their complexity, the ‘ease’ with which these attacks were successfully carried out raises real anxieties about the government’s grip on the situation.

It is difficult for criticisms in this area given the public’s general uncertainty of the real processes going on and because of the desire, at least, for national unity (despite the French always banging on about fraternity or solidarity, they are not very good at it). But the Left-Right split after the 13 November attacks is much more profound and vocal than after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in January.

There are two inter-related phenomena which characterise the reaction to the attacks and, although not exclusively French, have real resonance in French politics and society. The first involves the personalisation of politics. As is always the case with, for example, the tabloid press in the UK, inordinate emphasis was placed upon the character, origins (and until he was killed, whereabouts) of the assumed ‘mastermind’ of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, rather than upon the underlying issues and upon understanding why the attacks happened.

This is reflected in the personalisation of politics overall which is acute in France, and is a complicating factor in the overall situation. François Hollande has used conflict situations (Mali, Centre-Afrique, Charlie Hebdo among others) to raise his own (very low) standing with the French. For a whole series of reasons, in particular a stagnating economy and high unemployment, he is France’s most unpopular President ever. Declaring on 14 November that France was ‘at war’ reflected accurately in part a new reality, but also a political, rhetorical assumption of the mantle of a war leader.

In all of his declarations since the attacks, the presentation of himself as the protagonist in this ‘story’ has been inordinate: overuse of the first person pronoun, constant reference to himself as the originator of all decisions – emergency, policy-related, military, diplomatic decisions, the immediate assertion that France – reflecting his state of mind – would be merciless (‘impitoyable’), the representation of himself as not only the central domestic but also international actor – the mediator between Putin and Obama (when the real actors here are Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry), and so on.

Hollande is aware that in the aftermath of all the conflicts/attacks since his election in 2012 his popularity ratings have risen. Recent polls also indicate a near 100 per cent public agreement with the security and diplomatic measures and initiatives being taken. All of this personal performance – and the misinterpretation of its significance by the actors involved – becomes part of the overall political process and leads to mistakes and misperceptions. This was very apparent in Hollande’s depiction of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of 2013 as being a direct conflict between himself and Assad. Its purpose was to enhance the standing of the French President. It actually had the opposite effect, but also interfered significantly with France’s room for diplomatic manoeuvre in the two years that followed.

To assume, moreover, that a rise in popularity is related to action rather than function is also a mistake. The French presidency is a modern expression of the medieval idea of the King’s Two Bodies, one sacred, anointed, one profane, real. The French President is the personalised expression of France itself and therefore, in times of crisis, national unity. It is not him but his ‘embodiment’ of the office that is being rallied to.

The second observation relates to the media and its relation to politics – gestured towards by the constant pictures of and reports on Abdelhamid Abaaoud – and the visual and narrative nature of politics today. It is almost like a new form of politics. Now with the iPhone, things don’t exist unless they are videoed, professionally or otherwise. Islamic State is, of course, a macabre past master in this dark art; but all ‘events’ are now portrayed in this way (and minute by minute). In the case of the Paris attacks, paradoxically, it probably saved lives.

The attack on the Bataclan Theatre was staged as part of an enduring drama which would heighten the sense of anticipation and anguish. The immediate massacre of everyone would have ‘resolved’ the drama. For the perpetrators, the drama of atrocity is more important than the atrocity itself. More than this, these are dramas, ‘stories’ in both a real and constructed sense. The media worldwide now does this with all incidents of this kind; but again, in France, because of the way the protagonists are characterised, events such as these are narrated by the media like chivalric tales with a deep structure of villainy, heroism, trials and deliverance.

What Paris endured on 13 November 2015 was a drama, a tragedy in fact, in both senses: on the one hand something heartbreaking and on the other an ‘act’ performed by all the actors involved; the attackers, the victims, the politicians, and the media; and with the world as an audience.

Understanding the French Presidency

By John Gaffney

This post was originally published on and is drawn from the Introduction to John Gaffney (2015) France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (London: Palgrave).

France is back in the news again and, as in January 2015, for deadly terrorist attacks, this time staggeringly more deadly; November 13: 130 dead, 350 wounded 80 of whom seriously. The French presidency was not the cause of these attacks, but it is central to the overall political process, and in particular its inadequacies. The presidency and the regime lie at the heart of France’s ills. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012, economic growth has been non-existent, unemployment has risen unrelentingly, along with the popularity of the far right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen. My recent book* identifies, chronicles and analyses this ‘dysfunctional’ presidential republic. I analyse what the first half of the five-year term tells us about the nature of the Fifth Republic, and the way in which François Hollande failed to understand the ‘performative requirements’ of the Republic, in particular the notions of time, character, and what I call ‘sequencing the self’. From a theoretical point of view I am concerned with the appraisal of the political performance of an individual and his entourage within a particular configuration of institutions and expectations. By 2015, in many polls up to 86% of respondents had a very negative view of Hollande. In my book, it is unavoidable being critical of Hollande himself and his team. My analysis is not, however, concerned with his real character except in as much as it informs us about his ‘performative character’, and his persona; it is the relationship of this to the configuration of institutions and to public opinion that is the central focus of my study. My focus is the presidency and its historical, cultural, and institutional conditions of performance. Paradoxically, I am equally concerned with presidential politics at the daily political level, because this is where the presidency as a perceived and symbolic institution and one that is ‘active’ in political life actually ‘performs’. The ‘trivial’, the incidental, the apparently unimportant, and the ‘trivial unexpected’ in French politics are now in a systematic (and yet chaotic) relationship to ‘real politics’, to the point where the trivial has become unpredictable in its effects and has major political consequences. The Hollande presidency is an acute illustration of the dysfunction of the presidency in the Fifth Republic. Functionally, actions, reactions, and responses all take place within a symbolic or ideational framework, in large part related to how the Fifth Republic is perceived, and has been historically perceived, ‘imagined’ and ‘constructed’ since 1958. I concentrate on how the republic functions and acts symbolically, how it ‘enacts itself’. I identify the range of historical and cultural reasons why the Fifth Republic is one in which ‘symbolic politics’ and its related myths, leadership image, discourse, rhetoric, and the President as the ‘embodiment’ of politics, have taken on inordinate political significance. The strongest myth is that of the recours, or return of the ‘saviour’, a feature of French politics for two centuries but given an institutional platform by the Fifth Republic, and used by all leadership contenders, even if they have already ‘returned’, i.e. are in office.

From the practical point of view, I ask a series of ‘normal’ political questions about Hollande’s presidency and his government/s: Why were they so unpopular? How do we account for the rise of all the negative indices of the regime barely four months into office? How do we account for the extremes, the surges of opinion, such as the widespread Manif pour tous or Bonnets rougesprotests in 2013? More widely, how do we account for the general, we might venture almost clinical, depression of the whole population (and this before the attacks of January and November 2015 which terrified the nation), the political demobilisation of the electorate, and a growing disdain for politics throughout the years of Hollande’s presidency? Was all of this inevitable? What should Hollande have been doing? What should he have not been doing? And an even wider question: how do we understand this profusion of surface phenomena in terms of deeper structures and processes? Gestures and actions at a daily level ‘betray’, ‘reveal’ the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic. We can characterise, for example, the storm of trivial activity through the spring, summer and autumn of 2013 of gestures, initiatives, actions, interventions, short holidays, media saturation of presidential and prime ministerial ‘déplacements’ during July and August 2013 as surface expressions of a kind of neurotic attempt to ‘cope with’ the barely understood exigencies of the republic. These gestures were not unconscious but, beyond the grasp of their authors, they demonstrate, perform even, the dilemmas of the Fifth Republic, in particular the highly problematic nature of the presidency. The most dramatic – debilitating for subsequent negotiations in November 2015, and humiliating for Hollande in 2013 – was his making the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August-September 2013 a personalised clash between himself and President Assad, then his complete marginalisation when Presidents Obama and Putin defused the situation in September 2013.

De Gaulle created a very singular republic based inordinately upon 1) the role of the persona of the President, the role of discourse and of personal image and gesture, and the ‘character’ of the President; and 2) the constructed, ‘imagined’ relationship between the President and people on the one hand, and the President and ‘France’ on the other. These two facets of the new republic in 1958 had a dramatic and complex effect upon the nature of political competition, the influence of the political culture (later the role of the celebrity culture), the role of the symbolic, and the role and configuration of the institutions, in particular, the presidency. In the Hollande presidency there has been a series of such fundamental and on-going miscalculations that they raise the question of whether the political actors understand the republic. Simple things like an appropriate way to ‘be’ the President – how to talk, not constantly to joke, control the public comportment of his (now former) partner, and so on – betrayed a lack of sensitivity to both the exigencies of the office and the nature of the republic. After every interview, announcement, and press conference in his first two years, Hollande’s popularity fell significantly. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015 virtually no gesture, speech or action had traction on opinion. At times, indifference seemed even to replace hostility, as if the President had become an irrelevance, as if he barely existed. And tiny increases in popularity after crises like January and November 2015 were less the result of Hollande’s actions but because the office embodies national unity.

Not that Sarkozy had understood things much better. Sarkozy’s style might or might not have been appropriate, but Hollande’s own was in large part based upon his being simply the negation of Sarkozy, operationally, stylistically, politically, and – which would come to be highly problematic – ethically. Hollande had faced only half the issue (i.e. what unwanted features Nicolas Sarkozy had brought to the republic); what was not developed was an understanding of what he was going to replace them with and why, and how.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s fate as respected new President in 2007 was seen as being sealed the night of his victory by an ostentatious celebration meal in the Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s. Very badly received by the media and the public, this perceived, somewhat common, ‘bling’ expression of conspicuous consumption and celebration inserted fragility into his presidential status, and then a relentless decline in the new President’s popularity. This was the first time in the Fifth Republic such an ‘event’ had had such a crystallising effect. Hollande’s going off on holiday (almost immediately after election, and while unemployment burned) in July-August 2012 was his equivalent to Sarkozy’s defining miscalculation. Each of these events tells us a great deal about the ‘nature’ of this republic today: a single trivial act, given oxygen, as it were, by the media and opinion, can throw a presidency out of kilter. In some respects, this is a new and normative feature of governance or mal-governance in France. In another respect, it is not new at all, or is rather the singular new expression of a fundamental feature as old as the Fifth Republic, namely, the dramatically consequent phenomenon of personal popularity, or more accurately in these cases, unpopularity, themselves the product of a complex ‘imagined’ relationship between President and public. Charles de Gaulle brought to the Fifth Republic a very volatile emotional political relationship. Today, de Gaulle approaches sainthood in the public memory, but that was not the lived reality. Although the volatility of the relationship was displayed by him as appeasing of conflict, he was viscerally liked and disliked (one might venture to say loved and hated, admired and feared) in almost equal and varying measure; and this relationship saw his ultimate undoing in 1969 (and, ironically, established the conditions for the perenniality of both the republic itself and his mythical status). Beyond popularity, moreover, was the question of political and emotional need, what was ‘required’ of the presidency and how this fitted into the rapidly established parameters of the new republic between 1958 and 1962. De Gaulle responded to this need by developing all the dramatic aspects of his character, lending to the new French republic the ‘character’ of its new President: grand, visionary, imperial – in manner if not always in policies – interventionist, dramatic, in a phrase, larger than life. And presidential character was in a relationship to public approval – hence the triumphs of 1958 and 1962 but also defeat such as 1969. The same was less true of Pompidou, who acted as a kind of dramatic relief from such imperium (besides, any attempt to ‘follow de Gaulle’, as it were, would have looked farcical); but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s presidencies each displayed enormous swings in ratings of popularity-unpopularity in the polls. All of this suggests an emotional volatility between the public and the Presidents. With the celebrity culture from the 2000s onwards, a new feature does not simply emerge in France but mergeswith this deeper structural phenomenon of the Fifth Republic, changing the problematic ‘intimacy’ in leader-public relations: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande seemed to understand this aspect of the regime, the emotional intensity and complexity of an, albeit ‘imagined’, relationship, and the fact that with the new celebrity politics the President would be in the public eye on a daily basis.

John Gaffney is a political commentator and author, and currently Professor of Politics at Aston University. Specialising in UK and French politics and the discourse of leadership, he regularly contributes to TV and print media. In July 2012, he was awarded £77,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two year study of UK political leadership. His latest book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (Palgrave, 2015), is out now. His 2012 book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (Palgrave), is out in paperback.

Skype Families – Making Children’s Voices Heard

By Amanda Beattie, originally published in BritCits on the 27th November 2015.

It appears that there is an emerging hierarchy in the discussions of children’s rights in the UK. While family law, and its associated institutions, puts the wellbeing of the child at the heart of its negotiations, migration legislation does not. Children in the UK whose families are subject to immigration controls, owing to their mixed citizenship heritage, lack a voice.

In September 2015 the Children’s Commissioner in the United Kingdom released Skype Families. This document reflects on the 160 page report, Family Friendly?[2] it commissioned looking into the wellbeing of UK children affected by the 2012 amendments to Family Immigration rules. The document provided clear evidence of how the separation of children from at least one parent is detrimental to their wellbeing.

The report indicates that since 2012 an estimated 15,000 children have been separated from their parents because they do not meet the income requirements of family migration requirements. This separation, they show, is in direct contravention to the duty of care that the state owes to its child citizens. States are charged with protecting children in Article Three of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Section one clearly states that:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interest of the child shall be primary consideration.[3]

The evidence within the report suggest, according to John Vine (the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration) that since the new income requirements came into effect in 2013, only one decision maker in approximately 60 cases, heeded this call.

This, I believe, is deeply troubling; but, what is more troubling, is that there is, within the UK judiciary, an acknowledged need to keep children with their parents. I point to the recently decided case of a child, both of whose parents live within the UK, but whose mother wanted to move to Hong Kong with her son. This would remove him from daily contact with his father. The Judge, Mr. Justice Wood, denies the mother permission to leave, after her legal representation suggested the use of modern technologies would supplant daily contact between the father and son. Justice Wood suggests;

The disadvantages of Skype – as any user will know – are all too often the lack of clarity of image, the sound delay even if short, and, as counsel colourfully notes in her closing submissions, ‘you can’t hug Skype’.

He continues:

This is a case where a father, despite obstacles, has built up a very good and profound attachment to his son. The mother’s proposals to relocate – even if her proposals for visits, telephone calls and Skype calls are carried out – in practice do not make up for these losses.[4]

Within this decision there is evidence of the child’s best interest being taken into account. Justice Wood suggests, in his decision, that both the child and the father would suffer is they were not in the same geographic location.

What I wonder is why in this case? If it is so clear that such technologies do not suffice to maintain family relations long distance, why do we force other separated families to rely on such technologies to build family bonds, especially when they are not always readily available.

In another publication, Love Letters to the Home Office, the inability of Skype to enhance family relations is rendered poignantly and despairingly. One father recounts what it is to live in the UK while his wife and two children live in Peru.

We wanted to bring our children up experiencing both of our cultures, but I had no choice but to leave Peru in July 2013 because of financial difficulties.

I talk to Vanessa daily, but Skype is a luxury only available in the city centre, which means I rarely see my children. Sometimes, when I do, Olenka is indifferent, not wanting to talk. Other times, she’s excited, saying ‘Hola, Papi, vamos al parquet?’ those are the times that fill my heart with joy.

We have cried often, in despair for our future. We have cried over not sharing those magical moments that will never return. Moments gone forever. Moments like my children’s first days at school.[5]

The overwhelmingly clear differences in these two cases seems to be geographical and institutional. The Judge decided to keep a child in the UK where his two parents both already reside, even though the mother grew up in Hong Kong. This decision, most notably, was made in family court. For families who live across international boundaries they must rely on immigration tribunals to make their case. Within these institutional channels, the wellbeing of the child seems to play an insignificant role, even though the harm of separation is (potentially) the same.

As I reflect on these two experiences I am reminded of the writings of Onora O’Neill.[6] She has published on the idea of children and rights and wonders if rights are the best way to protect children. She reminds us that rights, for those who lack a voice, must be interpreted by those who have one. Children’s rights are caught up in hierarchies of power that may, from time to time, forget who they ought to help.

The 2012 family migration amendments were supposedly brought in to lessen the number of migrant families who rely on welfare and social support. As Skype Families makes clear, this has not been its result. The voice of the child, within the migrant struggles in the UK, is one that is over-looked while the voice of the child is contradictorily heard in family courts.

We must ensure that until such a time that the family migration rules, and in particular the income requirement, are rescinded the voice of the children in mixed citizenship families is heard loud and clear and that there are no hierarchies emerging within the protection of a child’s best interest.

[4] Re R (A Child: Relocation) [2015] EWHC 456 (Fam)
[5] Love Letters to the Home Office. (2014) Love letters to the home office, Consilience Media.
[6] O’Neill, O. (1988). Children’s rights and children’s lives. Ethics, 445-463.

The UK Auto Industry and the EU

By Professor David Bailey, Co-Director, Aston Centre for Europe

The UK government likes to boast that the UK’s auto industry is undergoing something of a revival, in assembly terms at least. Indeed the UK’s auto sector has experienced investment on an unprecedented scale of late. This has come on the back of a major upturn in auto assembly in the UK – up by over 50% from a low point of around a million cars in 2009 – combined with changes in economic fundamentals which are encouraging firms to build more cars here and to source more components locally.

Remarkably, over £8bn has been invested by major auto assemblers over the last 3 years. It’s hoped that the industry will – by 2020 – overtake its historical peak level of output of 1.92 million cars (a record set back in 1972).

At the same time, the UK government will hold an ‘In-Out’ EU referendum at some point over the next few years.

The impact of EU membership on the UK’s auto industry was explored in a recent UK in a Changing Europe event organised by the Aston Centre for Europe (ACE) and the Aston Business School. Participants heard a mix of views, with arguments in favour of continued EU membership, and also of exit.

Those in favour of continued membership of a reformed EU, including Mike Hawes of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), John Leech of KPMG and Tony Burke of UNITE the union (@TonyBurke2010)

Mike Hawes, CEO of the SMMT addresses the audience at the Aston Centre for Europe event
Mike Hawes, CEO of the SMMT addresses the audience at the Aston Centre for Europe event

pointed to what they see as significant benefits for the UK’s auto industry from staying in the EU, particularly in relation to investment, growth and job creation (all the things that the UK’s auto industry has been enjoying of late).

Other voices, notably Alex Story from Business for Britain (@alexpstory), and automotive journalist Neil Winton, argued that the UK auto industry would do continue to do well outside the EU.

The pro-EU membership argument stresses that EU membership boosts both the attractiveness of the UK as a place to invest, and the competitiveness of the domestic automotive industry. Not surprisingly, it notes that access to the Single Market is fundamental to UK auto manufacturing, thereby supporting sales and facilitating supply chain growth.

Those pro Brexit, like Neil Winton, argue that if Britain left the EU “it would quickly (within hours?) negotiate a free trade deal with little difference to the current arrangements”.

That’s probably correct; a trade deal with Europe would probably indeed be done. But a second, more powerful argument centres on regulations and standards. Those in favour of continued membership highlight that the UK needs a powerful voice at the EU level to make sure that the specific needs of the UK’s auto industry are considered.

Over 50% of UK auto exports go to the EU, so even if the UK were to leave and maintain access to the Single Market, producers in the UK would still have to meet European regulations so as to sell into Europe.

That would mean having to anyway follow European regulations rather than helping to shape them, which might mean German of French firms shaping them for their own benefit.

At the moment, it’s argued that UK-based niche firms like Bentley, Aston Martin andJaguar Land Rover can benefit from the British government having a seat at the table when regulations are thrashed out that impact on the industry. They would lose that voice if the UK was no longer a member.

On that, the UK’s auto industry has actually benefited from the government managing to soften tough EU carbon emission regulations for its smaller niche manufacturers.

Again, the pro-Brexiters like Neil Winton are sceptical of this argument, pointing to how the likes of BMW and Mercedes are “hugely successful in the US and China, with no say in the politics at all” (although it should be noted that China has tended to follow the EU’s own ‘euro’ standards on engines over time).

Those supportive of the EU membership point to EU bargaining power in trade negotiations being critical to improving access to international growth markets, thus helping major exporters such as Jaguar Land Rover, and in ensuring mutual recognition of standards.

Pro-Brexiteers argue that the UK acting alone could anyway more quickly cut its own trade deals with other countries than an EU that has to please 28 countries. That’s probably the case but some critical issues would remain on ensuring mutual recognition and greater regulatory convergence across technical standards and approvals procedures (the SMMT cites CEPR work suggesting that transatlantic auto regulatory divergences are equivalent to a tariff of 26%).

It was interesting that at the Aston event new technological opportunities and challenges around autonomous cars and data protection were highlighted in the European context by discussants, both in terms of standard setting for new technologies and in maintaining access to research networks developing such technologies.

Professor David Bailey chairs a discussion with Stuart Young of Wragge, Lawrence, Graham and Co., along with Richard Burden MP and auto journalist Neil Winton
Professor David Bailey chairs a discussion with Stuart Young of Wragge, Lawrence, Graham and Co., along with Richard Burden MP and auto journalist Neil Winton

The latter point relates to some other arguments for remaining in the EU, such as on ensuring access to EU funding and research networks that has supported R&D and innovation at businesses and universities in the UK, and the free movement of labour which enables UK-based firms to combine domestic and international talent (which was seen as especially important by some at the event given skills shortages in the UK industry).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the EU can’t be improved, such as through the simplification of regulations and reducing complexities for firms operating in the EU, something that those in favour of continued membership were keen to stress.

Overall, the debate on the importance of EU membership for the UK auto industry boils down to two views. On the one hand is a view that Brexit is compatible with retaining a strong auto industry, as trade deals would anyway be cut with Europe and other countries.

In contrast is the view of the SMMT that “being part of a strong Europe is critical for future success” in particular by being able to shape regulations in Europe and ensuring mutual recognition of standards in wider trade deals.

While the Aston event focused on the UK car industry, the issues it raised – in terms of the single market, influencing regulation, trade, access to funding and networks for innovation, and the free movement of labour – will no doubt be relevant for other sectors in the UK economy as the in/out debate gathers pace.

* This article was previously published in the Birmingham Post 

*Aston Centre for Europe would like to thank the ESRC’s “UK in Changing Europe” initiative (@UKandEU) for supporting this event

Why is Jeremy Corbyn stealing the show? Because he’s the only Labour candidate saying anything at all

Tom Lehrer, the American satirical lyricist, sang of the Spanish republican struggle against Franco: “He may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs”.

Jeremy Corbyn seems to have all the good songs and is winning too. I say “seems” as the polls are always wrong, and yet, with the exception of Yvette Cooper, we go on believing every single one of them. And that belief has dramatic political effects. Whatever the truth, Corbyn is turning the contest to become the next leader of the Labour party upside down.

The election was already in terrible disarray, even before the polling caused such a stir. There was uproar in the party and confusion between the candidates over George Osborne’s benefit cuts, refracted equally confusedly through Harriet Harman, the acting leader.

None of the three mainstream candidates for the job – Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – is really proposing anything, only reacting. And as regards their own leadership status, all took a falsely modest position when asked who they might have in their shadow cabinet in the event of a win, each refusing to answer the question. Then Cooper and Kendall said they would not serve under Corbyn if they lost, and Burnham said he might.

Corbyn’s rivals have made it clear that they can already picture him at the dispatch box. All they are doing is enhancing his leadership status and diminishing their own even further. And he is already naming his cabinet – Ed Miliband will have the energy portfolio!

So what began as a spectacularly ill-judged scramble for Ed’s fallen crown (and reliable rumour has it they were manoeuvring even before it slid from his head) has now become a mission to stop the “Syriza-Podemos candidate”. No Pasaran.

The standoff is playing out across a series of television debates (that everyone is now watching). These started off with the three front runners patronising the radical warhorse from the 1960s but now he is riding a rhetorical coach and horses through their platitudes.

How did this happen? Let us get one thing clear; it has absolutely nothing to do with being left wing or right wing. Corbyn is making such a strong media showing because of his style and language. And the others are coming across as mediocre because of theirs.

They have the rhetorically disadvantaged position (which they themselves chose) of talking about nothing in particular. Did we overspend in the last Labour government? Yes we did (Burnham). No we didn’t (Cooper). This was when much of Labour’s post-May 2015 recruits were seven or eight years old.

What is Corbyn talking about? Everything. More importantly, he embodies a wide and deep tradition in the UK left that we can all recognise and engage with. And, more importantly still, he does it with elegance, conviction, modesty and intellectual coherence.

The mainstream candidates are all extremely clever, but what do they embody? What image of them do we retain after a performance? What have they told us about themselves as a political persona and potential leader?

We know that Kendall urges realism, but we don’t really know what that means apart from not what Ed was doing. You can’t “see” realism.

As regards Cooper, the media snapped up remarks from one of her supporters about being a working mother and (almost) turned it into a spat between the two woman candidates. This sexist trivia gets media mileage because none of the mainstream candidates embodies a vision of a Labour Britain.

Burnham is apparently true Labour because he has a Northern accent – his flat As are getting flatter by the week. At weekends he goes back to where he was brought up and still meets up with the people he used to play football with.

This is dire stuff. Corbyn wants to talk about all the things that make people want to vote Labour or not, or join Labour or not, or consider joining Labour, and so on.

He is giving us all a lesson in politics: you have to represent something, you have to embody a political view or tradition, and you have to perform it to rhetorical effect. And you have to be – or at least seem to be – authentic and sincere while you do it.

All four of the candidates are all of these things. Corbyn is just doing it much better than the others. The poll may indeed be wrong, but he is doing everything right. I suspect Corbyn’s bedtime reading is not Marx’s Grundrisse but Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.