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Podcast Blog

Podcast blog #1

by Barry Colfer

Most countries in the world hold some form of elections to vote public representatives into office. These representatives become responsible for the passage of laws, and for the governing a given jurisdiction, and (at least in theory) are accountable to their electorates.  This doesn’t happen everywhere, and the extent to which elections are said to be free, open, and transparent varies widely. Levels of participation, access to public funding for candidates, and the extent and nature of the powers exercised by legislatures once they are elected also vary, sometimes dramatically.  

The mechanics of how elections are called, prepared, and executed are a consequence of the history, geography, social norms and institutions of a place. They are an essential part of a country’s traditions, identity and constitutional order, and have an enormous impact on people’s lives.

Different systems, different outcomes?

Duly elected legislatures and heads of state and government are often regarded as, at least to some degree, equivalent. This is true for example to the extent that they can be afforded some of the same rights and privileges by the international community. But take a minute to think about the impact that the nature of the electoral system has on electoral outcomes.

Bear with me for a minute while I try to explain what I mean. Some legislatures are formed of one chamber of deputies, described as a unicameral system of government, seen for example in: Denmark, Greece, Iran, Ivory Coast, New Zealand, Venezuela, Turkey and North Korea. Others are formed of two chambers, described as a bicameral system, seen for example in: Australia, Germany, Malaysia, the UK, South Africa, and the United States. Does it make any difference that there are more than one group of people scrutinising what governments do, and what legislation can be passed? Also, does the amount of people represented by any individual legislator, which differs widely between (and within) countries, have any consequences?

Some systems are presidential, some are semi-presidential, some are parliamentary republics, some are mixed republican systems. Sometimes there is a monarch, most of the times there is not, and the degree to which monarchs can be active in political life also varies from country to country. Some states are under one-party rule, some are federal, some are ruled by military junta, and some are theocracies. What impact do these differences have on what it’s like to live, work, pay taxes, and die in a given country?

Aside from any of this, the ways that legislatures are actually elected also vary significantly. Elections can take place through proportional, semi-proportional, or majoritarian systems. Candidates can be elected in a simple first past the post system, as in the UK, or by proportional representation with a single transferable vote as in Ireland. There may be a closed list system that affords an important role to political parties for ranking the candidates as in Spain and in European Parliament elections, or an open list system where voters can rank candidates as in Belgium, or a mixture of the two as in Germany. Constituencies can range in size from one, as in the UK, to half a dozen or more, as in Estonia. Candidates can be nominated to run for election by a party, by themselves, or by primary votes and caucuses as in the United States, and sometimes there can be special provisions for female candidates, as in Uganda. Elections can have a single round as in Sweden and Canada, or candidates may have to slug it out in two, as in Peru, France and Haiti. In some countries, extra seats can be given to the party that comes first, for example with the coveted 50-seat bonus in Greece for the party who comes first.

Are you still with me? This short post serves to shed light on the fact that what are referred to as ‘elections’ throughout the world differ enormously, both in terms of process, and inevitably, in terms of outcomes. These differences are the result of a great many historical, social, political and other factors. The extent to which such differences have any material or measurable impact on how elected representatives behave, and what life is like for the citizenry is hotly debated.  

Why do (some) people find elections so interesting?

Perhaps it is the peculiarities, compromises and anomalies that are contained in different electoral systems, and what it says about a particular place and

people that make elections so interesting to so many people. Perhaps it is the drama and excitement, or the personal charisma, strengths and weaknesses of the candidates that grab people’s attention. Perhaps it is because elections are the clearest expression of democratic will, and the most direct way that citizens can influence how the limited resources available to governments are gathered and used. Probably it is a combination of these and a great many other factors that explain why elections are so fascinating and exciting (to some of us at least).

Over the coming weeks, this blog will present and interrogate some of these issues, and will attempt to explain why seeking to understand them is so important.

Tune in

Over the course of 2016 voters in more than 50 countries, from Afghanistan (15th October) to Zambia (on 20th September) will go to the polls. These elections will determine the domestic and international policies of the world's governments. They will define how matters of education, health, social protection, defense, security, and the myriad other challenges that matter to people will be tackled or ignored. They will determine who will go to war, how, or if, Carbon emissions and climate change can be tackled, how intelligence and personal information can be shared between states, and how the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East will be handled. It is easy to see why elections matter.

Each Wednesday, tune in to hear Professor David Runciman and his panel of experts debate and discuss some of these important issues, and some of the major themes facing the voters, candidates, and elected representatives.

Catch up with the first series of ‘ELECTION’ for a full-blooded and in-depth analysis of the build up and aftermath of the 2015 UK general election. 

Podcast blog #2

by Lizzie Presser

“Sarah Palin Saves Feminism,” writes Maureen Dowd in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times this week. And not because Palin is championing feminism, Dowd writes, but because Palin’s endorsement of Trump proved so unbearably embarrassing that no one in their right mind could ever say she reflected on women on the whole. “It’s all on her. Can I get a hallelujah?” Dowd quips. 

In the days following Palin's endorsement speech, responses like Dowd's sprung up across the Internet. But just as Hillary Clinton is helping feminism make a major foray into American politics, particularly among Democrats, the left-wing media’s response to Palin reveals how uneven this new feminist political rhetoric really is. 

In 2008, Hillary hardly mentioned her gender, famously said she wasn’t “running as a woman,” and even lost the support of NARAL Pro-Choice America to Barack Obama. But this election season, Hillary Clinton has brought feminism and gender-centred policies under the spotlight. Clinton recently said she was ‘absolutely’ a feminist, and she has pushed much harder this time around on reproductive rights, affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and other policies focused on women’s rights and economic mobility. 

Hillary’s strengthened stance on women’s issues may indicate how the culture around feminism is changing in the US, but the excitement around Hillary as a feminist also helps to shape the political discourse around women and sexism – to a degree. Less talk about Hillary’s trouser suits, more talk about the seriousness of her politics. The media is even nudging Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders on his feminist discourse, holding him to account for hints of sexist rhetoric.  

Which is all to say: It feels like an exciting time to be a feminist in America. 

But Dowd’s Op-Ed, among other leftist critiques of Palin’s endorsement speech last week, reveals the cracks in the veneer. “Ordinarily it’s dicey to focus on what a woman in politics is wearing,” Dowd writes, “But again, Palin has freed us up.” Dowd goes on to mock Palin’s “gaudy and rogue cardigan,” as if we should care about Palin’s choice of outerwear. Even a left wing, female columnist arguing that Palin “isn’t a blot on the female copybook” has stooped to the same kind of critique that so often pushes women to the sidelines. 

Dowd wasn’t alone. Robin Givhan spent half of her column in the Washington Post lambasting Sarah Palin’s sweater – or what she calls a “bedazzled choir robe.” Colbert mocked her high-pitch voice and sing-songy rhetoric. On Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey ended her impersonation of Palin’s endorsement speech by saying: “I’m just here because he promised me a spot in his cabinet. And I belong in the cabinet because I’m full of spice and I got a great rack.” Why the boob joke, Tina? 

Palin’s speech wasn’t exactly traditional. I think it’s safe to say that it was, all in all, pretty bizarre. But it’s confusing to watch a leftist media establishment that proclaims to take feminism seriously rip it to shreds with overtly gendered critiques. The speech raises a host of far more interesting – and far less sexist – areas for analysis. What style of speech is working to engage the far right? Why, exactly, are these anti-establishment sentiments in the GOP blaring so loudly now? How do Trump supporters square his sexism with Palin’s trailblazing for women in politics? 

Instead, the response to her speech raises another question altogether. When will gender equality be so passé that women’s clothes, figure and pitch of voice cease to be topics for conversation in politics? Feminism may be having a moment this election, but let’s hope the effects aren’t quite so short-lived. 


Podcast blog #3

By Catherine Carr

There’s something a little bit thrilling about making a podcast. All you need is an idea and a small amount of technical knowhow and you’re ready to go. It’s a stripped-back production process which feels both refreshing and sometimes slightly unnerving in its simplicity. 

The idea for the Cambridge politics podcast: ‘ELECTION’, came from the University’s Department of POLIS, which wanted to use outreach cash in an innovative way. Led by David Runciman, it wanted to make a podcast in the run up to last year’s General Election –inviting listeners to eavesdrop on the kinds of political conversations colleagues enjoy having anyway. This is good news for people who are interested in politics but can’t always trawl the net to find the good stuff/ filter out the crazies/ haven’t got regular access to Cambridge politics seminars..

(An aside on podcasting more generally: While American behemoth ‘Serial’ may have created the first blockbuster podcast, the truth is that this kind of radio naturally lends itself to creating content for slightly more specialist audiences. That is not to say that podcasts like ‘ELECTION’ should satisfy itself with tiny download figures – in the past it’s had a very respectable following – and we are sure Season 2 will be well received. Rather, the audience for something like this will tend to be self-selecting; already in the market for some meaty political analysis. Podcasts therefore need little diluting, few ‘comings ups’ and no requests for fickle station surfers to ‘stay-tuned’. They can also afford to be thoughtful and err on the long side, should the subject require.)

The format for ELECTION is simple: a panel of experts drawn from the department offers analysis on recent political events and a headline interview brings the audience the kind of long and detailed conversation so lacking in many political programmes. The production is just as straightforward, really. Each Wednesday morning, four heavy microphones are plugged into a recorder and (once the coffee has been drunk), the show is on the road.  The longer interviews are recorded separately, as are the vox pops on the streets. It’s all cut together on a laptop before being Dropboxed to someone to fine tune the edits and add the music.

The technical knowhow I mentioned, has come from a variety of sources – including Naked Scientist Hannah Critchlow who produced Season 1 and Barney Brown from the Communications team at the University, who has extensive experience in audio production. Season 2 has been pretty plain sailing thanks to them.  The podcast also has to be shovelled out across the interweb on Soundcloud and iTunes, as well as onto the University’s own server, which is Cedric Bousquet’s domain in the Communications office, supported by Helen Williams at POLIS.

But there is something else which helps to make a project like this happen - and that’s enthusiasm. The University has been enthusiastic to support the project and the Department has been just as keen to share their enthusiasm for the subject so widely, using the podcast. Volunteers – journalist Lizzie Presser and PhD student Barry Colfer also add their energy to the mix, bringing recording and editing skills, ideas, blogs and contacts. Finally (without setting the Pollyanna-o-meter into overdrive) it’s wonderful when the audience respond with their own enthusiasm. Just this week ‘ELECTION’ visited the Jack Hunt School in Peterborough, where pupils have been so inspired by the podcast that they set up their own politics club.

Subscribe here to ELECTION on iTUNES – and don’t forget to share!

Podcast blog #4 

by Helen Thompson

Nothing captures Bernie Sanders as well as his one-minute, voiceless ad set to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’. The part-pop, part-folk duo’s elegiac song was first released on 3 April 1968, the year swathes of young Americans thought they could bring America back from Vietnam and turn the country back to the dream of domestic justice, the day before Martin Luther King was murdered. Measured in years, Sanders is a little too old to have been young in 1968, but the struggles of that year were the political moment that formed him.

For the dreamers, 1968 ended in bitter disappointment. After King’s murder came Robert Kennedy’s. The kids who had cleaned up for Eugene McCarthy were tear gassed in the streets of Chicago by Mayor Daley’s police as the party bosses inside the Democratic convention stitched up the nomination for vice-President Hubert Humphrey who had not deigned to participate in a single primary. When the autumn came, Richard Nixon mobilised a ‘silent majority’ to win the White House on the promise of restoring order, and America settled back to its old politics and the ongoing business of war.

For Sanders though 1968 was a hope not yet realised, not an illusion smashed. Five decades later he thinks that a new generation can come with him and together they will once again look for America. The ad skips from the first verse of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, when the two lovers heading east on the greyhound bus marry their fortunes together, to the last rousing, near patriotic chorus. All the sadness, the aching for a lost innocence dissipated somewhere in the open fields between Pittsburgh and the New Jersey turnpike, is gone. Time has taken nothing away from Sanders’ America, and he will only remember the spring, never what came next.



Podcast blog #5

by Barry Colfer

Over the past 5 years, Ireland has experienced a deep recession, soaring unemployment and mass migration. The crisis emerged in the context of the economy contracting by 12.4%, and with a fall in tax receipts of 33% between 2007-2010. This was precipitated by the bursting of a housing bubble, the collapse of the construction industry in which 1 in 9 people were employed, and a severe liquidity crisis in the banking sector.

Following a decision by the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition government to guarantee the liabilities of the country’s six main financial institutions in 2008, the country was driven to the brink of bankruptcy. In November 2010, Ireland followed Greece to become the second Eurozone member to seek financial assistance from the EU/ECB/IMF Troika, agreeing to a four-year €67.5 billion rescue package. In December 2013 Ireland became the first bailed-out economy to emerge from its rescue programme, and has since been heralded as something of a ‘poster boy’ for austerity, as the OECD recorded growth in Irish GDP of 5.6% in 2015, and predict a rate of 4.1% for 2016.

The general election of February 26th 2016

On February 26th, following the shortest election campaign in history, voters in Ireland will take to the polls in the first general election since 2011.

In 2011 the incumbent Fianna Fáil and Green parties were routed. Fianna Fáil, having held office for more than 60 of the previous 90 years, and seen by many as the natural party of government, was swept from power. The smaller Green Party lost all of their six seats. It was not clear whether the Fianna Fáil party would survive.

In 2016, the outgoing coalition of the larger centre-right Fine Gael and the smaller centre-left Labour party entered government with the biggest majority of any government in history with a combined haul of 113 of the 166 available seats. The coalition has governed for five years during what has been by Irish standards, the most significant economic, social and fiscal crisis the country has ever experienced.

The parties

With less than a week left to polling, the Irish Times poll of polls estimated support for Fine Gael at 28.5%, Labour at 7.5%, Fianna Fáil at 19%, Sinn Féin (centre-left) 19.5% and Independent and smaller parties at 23.5%. These numbers anticipate a Fine Gael victory, but when combined with the predicted losses for Labour, the coalition will likely fall short of a majority, leaving open the question of who Fine Gael will govern with.

Despite a late rally by Fianna Fáil, whose leader has received the same support for being Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) as the incumbent Enda Kenny at 24%, it looks almost definite that Kenny will be returned as Taoiseach. Should Kenny be successful in forming a new government, he will become the first Fine Gael leader to bring his party to successive election victories.

As for the Labour party, the 19% they received in 2011 was unprecedented, and nearly double their typical share of the vote. While their supporters will be disappointed with their recent polling results, it is closer to their natural historic position of around 10%. One of the really curious things of this election is the fact that no party, including Labour, have capitalised on the victory of the ‘yes’ campaign in the marriage equality referendum in 2011 in May 2015, which was a Labour party initiative, and which was passed by more than 62%.

Key developments

Arguably the two most significant developments in this election are the emergence of a ‘4th big party’ in the form of Sinn Féin, and the rise in support for independents and smaller parties.

Support for Sinn Féin has surged from 9.9% in 2011 to as high as 19.5% in recent opinion polls, with support for the party dipping to around 15% as polling approaches. While throughout Europe the crisis years have seen the emergence of radical, populist, anti-establishment, and Euro-sceptic challenger parties, no such group has emerged in Ireland. Sinn Féin, having been founded in 1905, is the oldest party in Ireland and is unlike the newer challenger parties such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, given its heritage and longevity. It is clear furthermore that while Sinn Féin’s star has been rising over the crisis years, it is unlikely that it will participate in government after this election, as each of the mainstream parties have claimed that they will not govern with the party, given its roots in the armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, in the election campaign Sinn Féin have come under pressure to address its previous vocal support for the Greek Syriza government and other left-wing, anti-austerity movements, who are widely perceived as having failed to achieve the concessions they claimed they would win through brinksmanship and resistance at EU level, but the details of any such debate have been lost in the noise of the campaign.

The rise in support for ‘Independents and others’ is arguably the other most notable development in this election.  Given Ireland’s proportional voting system and its multi-seat constituencies, with no threshold for entering parliament, independents and smaller parties have long been a feature of national politics. However, polls suggest that this election may see a dramatic rise in this group, from 14 elected in 2011, to as many as 35 after Friday’s poll. This is explained in part by the emergence of the Social Democrats (centre-left) as a breakaway from Labour, and Renua (conservative), as a breakaway from Fine Gael. While these smaller parties and independents will be too few in number to govern alone, they may be called upon to bring a potential coalition over the line, as has happened in the past.

Potential outcomes

The coalition parties of Fine Gael and Labour have hoped that their cooperation with the Troika, and their fiscally responsibility would pay off. The Fine Gael slogan of ‘keep the recovery going’ may turn out to be either the best or the worst political device in history, as the parties race towards the finish line. Labour, having over-promised in the run up to the previous election, will lose seats, but it is not yet clear how many.

Fianna Fáil, despite still being tainted by their association with the economic crash, the bank bailout, and the EU/ECB/IMF rescue package, are benefiting from a strong performance from their leader, but they remain at around half of the support they enjoyed for most of the last century.

Sinn Féin are reaping the benefit of a long and patient campaign of developing and putting down roots in communities, having entered Dáil Éireann with a single deputy in 1997. Unlike in Westminster, Sinn Féin take their seats in the Dáil and participate fully in parliamentary proceedings. The party has successfully tapped into an anti-establishment, disenfranchised constituency, who feel they have not felt the benefits of any recovery. However the party would need to defy political gravity to enter into government, as each major party has ruled out the prospect, for this election at least.

While smaller parties have long been a feature of Irish politics, their role in this election more than any in living memory may prove to be crucial. The likes of the leftist Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, Renua, and a new quasi-party ‘the Independent Alliance’ will more than likely share thirty or more seats between them, and will make for if nothing else, yet more colourful and diverse opposition benches.



Speculation is growing about the prospect of the formation of a Fine-Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition, which until even very recently was regarded as unthinkable. These parties, the heirs of two sides of a bitter Civil War fought almost a century ago, have repeatedly, sometimes vociferously ruled this out. However, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which began the process that would ultimately lead to Irish independence, and seen by many as the seminal event in Irish social and political history, may provide the historical justification for ending one of the great taboos in Irish (and European) politics. Failing this, Ireland may be entering a period of unprecedented political instability following this election.

Either way, it is clear that Ireland is experiencing a realignment of its political system, with the breakdown of the dominance of the two big ‘Civil War parties’ of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the traditional ‘third party’ of Labour, and the emergence of a Sinn Féin party rapidly growing in support, and the rise of a number of smaller parties and independents.

Podcast blog #6

Minnesota: It’s a Heckuva State

by Aaron Rapport

You may remember Jesse “The Body” Ventura as a former pro wrestler and co-star of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 sci-fi classic “Predator”. When I was 18 I voted for Ventura to be governor of Minnesota.  And he won.  This was not the only time my home state has been a political oddball.  Remember that Minnesotans’ ancestors arrived in a tundra so cold your eyelids froze together if you blinked too slowly and thought to themselves, “I’m home.”  Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that we often exhibit political tastes that don’t fit in with the rest of the country.  In 1984 we were the only state to vote for Minnesota-native Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan.  This is like being the only one in school whose mom packs raisins in your lunch for dessert—it may seem sensible, but all the other kids are going to point and laugh whilst eating their Crunchie bars.  Before being elected in 1990, former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was a largely unknown college professor who campaigned in a Magic Green School Bus that probably still had a lot of gum underneath its seats.  He was the only candidate to defeat a sitting US senator that year.  Minnesota’s Democratic- Farmer-Labor Party is one of only two state parties that uses a different name than the national Democratic Party, the other being North Dakota’s Democratic Judean People’s Front (ed.: I think it’s the People’s Front of Judea).  We’re also the only state so far where Donald Trump has finished worse than second in a primary or caucus.  My editor is telling me that Trump also finished third in Wyoming, but I think that’s technically a territory (ed.: Cambridge doesn’t actually let you teach students, do they?).  The point is, if you want to gauge the mood of the American electorate, don’t look at Minnesota.  To get a sense of what voters in Scandinavian countries are thinking, however, Minnesota’s many Gustafsons and Jorgensens may act as a guide.