The Labour Party is Losing the Centre


The graph above shows the level of electoral support for British political parties by ideological self-positioning, based on wave 10 of the British Electoral Study (data collected in November and December 2016). I have left out people who refuse to place themselves. The curve obviously declines as you go right for Labour, and increases for the Conservatives (with a decline on the far right as UKIP goes up). What is the most interesting is the slope of the two main parties: electoral support for Labour declines faster as you go right, and the Conservatives rise earlier, meaning that the Conservative are stronger on the center ground. The Conservatives do much better than Labour among people who consider themselves in the very middle of the political spectrum (that is, choose a 5 out of 10). 27% of voters in this category intend to vote Conservative, against only 18% who plan to vote for Labour. As the histogram below shows, this is the largest category of voters in the electorate, among those who are willing to place themselves (23% don’t). The sample is 30’319.


The Big European Political Party Network

Party Network

A new European Parliament has been sworn in on July 1st, with a greater number of populist Eurosceptic MEPs than ever before. Out of the 751 seats in the European Parliament, 48 are now held by the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, uniting essentially Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle, while 52 are held by non-affiliated parties such as the French Front national, the Dutch PVV or the Austrian FPÖ. After the success of UKIP or the Front National, many media outlets have mentioned earthquakes, landslides and other geological metaphors to describe changing power relationships that would allegedly change the face of Europe. However, in a political system where alliances and cooperation across political parties at different levels are fundamental, the eurosceptic populist right remains badly connected and deprived of access to power.

In the picture above, I have represented the European political system as a network of political parties connected to each other both transnationally and domestically (high version here). The nodes in the network represent all political parties that obtained seats in the EP in the last European elections, and their size is proportional to their number of seats. Transnationally, they are connected via their membership in the European political party groups. These groups broadly correspond to the traditional party families: the Social-Democrats (Alliance of Social Democrats and Progressives: Labour, German SPD, Italian Democratic party), the centre-right (European People’s Party: the German CDU, the Spanish PP, the French UMP, Forza Italia), the Liberals (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe: Libdems), the Greens, the Radical Left (United Left: Syriza, Podemos), the Conservatives, and Europe of Freedom and Democracy (UKIP and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle).

Many of these parties that cooperate transnationally with like-minded parties are also engaged in government coalitions with other parties at the domestic level. For instance, the German SPD, who is a member of the social-democratic political group, is in a coalition with the CDU, who is a member of the European people’s party. The British Conservatives, who belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists, are in a domestic coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Knowing who is connected with whom is interesting because it can play a role in coordinating domestic and European policies. In the case of the CDU and SPD, the fact that two of the largest parties in the European Parliament are in a coalition together at the domestic level can provide a strong action power to promote policies.

Unsurprisingly, social-democrats and the European People’s party are well connected via a number of domestic government coalitions. Such “red-grey” coalitions are in place in Romania, Germany, Austria, Greece and Italy. What is perhaps more surprising is the prevalence of liberal/social democratic coalitions, making the Liberals a well-connected party family in spite of their relative electoral weakness. Such coalitions are in place in the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and Bulgaria. In fact, network measures of centrality indicate that Liberals parties are even better connected than the Social Democrats. This is essentially due to the fact that the size of these parties doesn’t allow them to govern alone at the domestic level, and they are therefore forced to coalesce with other parties to be in power, increasing their connectedness. Finally, grand coalitions uniting social-Democrats, Liberals and the centre-right, sometimes with other parties, are in place in Finland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic. Coalitions between centre-right and liberals are rather rare, and only observable in Sweden. Compared to the days of red-green coalitions in Germany, Green parties appear as weakly connected, with members taking part in coalitions only in Luxembourg and Finland. The British Conservatives, by deciding to leave the EPP in 2009, have given up on substantial connections in the sense that their partners in the ECR are mostly small and badly connected, with the exception of their Polish (they are not small) and Latvian (they take part in government) partners.

Moving to the Eurosceptic right, in spite of their electoral success, these parties appear clearly isolated, with no link to any coalition government at the moment. This is true both for the parties that failed to form a political group of their own (Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders did not manage to find partners in a sufficient number of countries), but also for UKIP, whose partners in the “Freedom and direct Democracy” group are not connected to any relevant party in power. This is also true for the radical left group, in the upper right corner. Hence, in the absence of the connections and access to power that the mainstream parties possess, the “earthquake” that the media has been talking about is very unlikely to happen.

A version of this post was published on the European Politics and Policy blog.

A succinct political economy of the UEFA Champions’ League

The final of the UEFA Champions that will take place in Lisbon on May 24th is remarkable for a number of reasons: it will oppose two teams not only from the same country, but from the same city (Real and Atletico Madrid), none of which actually won the Spanish Liga last year (FC Barcelona did). Such a final would have been impossible in the 1980s and early 1990s, when only the winner of each national league was allowed to take part in the most prestigious European club competition. In 1986, Steaua Bucarest won the European Champions Clubs’ Cup, as it was called then (against Barcelona, on penalties), and in 1991, the Red Star Belgrade won against Marseille, again on penalties. Nowadays, it would be difficult to imagine Red Star or Steaua winning the competition, partly because it has become much more difficult for the champions of low-ranked national leagues such as Romania or Yugoslavia to actually make it to the group stage.

This year, Steaua Bucarest had to go through two qualifying stages to make it to the pool stage; the Romanian league is granted one representative, providing it makes it through the qualifying rounds. By contrast, up to 4 teams of the best – and richest – national leagues (England, Spain, Germany) can take part in the Champions League, and they will have up to 5 or 6 clubs as from 2015. In total, up to 7 clubs from each of these countries currently take part in Continental competitions, Europa league included. It is true that if the share of the cake of rich countries has expanded, the size of the cake has also increased with the multiplication of participants in the competition (from 16 teams in the group stage in 1996 to 32 teams in 2013). However, what we have witnessed over the last 20 years is a considerable movement of concentration where the richest clubs are almost guaranteed a spot in the Champions League and its huge TV revenues, while the league winners of smaller football nations have to go through a number of hurdles to access it. How can we explain this evolution?

Until 1992, the European Champion Clubs’ Cup was a straight knockout competition where only the champion of each national league, and possibly the winner of the previous competition, were allowed to enter. Straight knockout entails a great degree of risk for bigger clubs, as they are not sheltered from a bad game, or an elimination on penalties. However, the financial stakes back then were not as high as they are now because of two big limits on revenues. First, the number of bidders for TV rights was smaller and essentially limited to public TV broadcasters; the number of private TV channels was nowhere near what we see today. Second, the market for football players was subjected to the equivalent of massive import quotas, as clubs were not allowed to field more than three foreign players in their team. For European competitions, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish players playing in English teams were even considered as foreigners and therefore included in the quota of foreign players. Hence, the demand for players was smaller because only few foreign players could actually employed, and salaries were also much lower. Besides, the bargaining power of players was also limited and the balance tipped towards their employers, since they needed the agreement of their club to leave, providing a transfer fee even if their contract was ended. This would change dramatically with the Bosman ruling, which completely transformed the face of European football.

How the Bosman ruling changed European football

Jean Marc Bosman was a Belgian player whose contract with Belgian club RC Liege had expired in 1990, and wanted to move to the French side FC Dunkirk. However, Dunkirk refused to pay the transfer fee asked by Liege, and Bosman was left unemployed. Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 1996 that the restrictions on the number of foreign players in European football clubs contravened to the principle of free movement of workers in the European Union, and that the payment of transfer fees when players’ contracts had expired was illegal.

The implications of this ruling have been massive. First, the best – and richest – clubs now had access to all the best European players, contributing to a massive take-off in the attractiveness and revenues or the best football leagues – England being the prominent case – but also to a massive concentration of talent in a few very rich leagues. The best players in each European league could now move freely to the richest leagues in pursuit of higher salaries. While a team like Ajax Amsterdam was able to win the Champions league in 1995 and reach the final in 1996 with a pool of almost exclusively home-bred players (Davids, Kluivert, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Overmars and others), after Bosman it has become increasingly difficult for a team like this to retain its excellent young players for long in the face of the much higher salaries that British or Spanish clubs are ready to pay for them.

Before Bosman, the demand for young foreign players was limited because clubs couldn’t make them all play anyway. Nowadays, teams such as Chelsea or Arsenal regularly field teams with no or very few British players, and regularly recruit very young foreign players even before they have played for the professional clubs that have formed them. The increase in demand for foreign players contributed to the skyrocketing salaries of the best players, as the demand was no longer limited by quotas. Moreover, the scrapping of out-of-contract transfer fees gave more power to players and their agents to negotiate higher salaries and sign-in fees, agents taking a cut in ever bigger deals. Before Bosman, players could not threaten their employer to leave at the end of their contract; after Bosman, players could ask higher salaries in order to stay. In 1996, the world’s biggest transfer was Alan Shearer’s 15 million GBP move from Blackburn to Newcastle. In 2013, Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham to Real Madrid for nearly six times that amount (86 million GBP).

With the increasing attractiveness of the bigger leagues able to recruit the best players and the multiplication of private TV channels competing for TV rights, there was a lot more money to be made in the football business than in the past, but also much bigger salaries to be paid to star players. In 2013, Premier League clubs paid 1.6bn GBP in players’ wages, while the TV rights of the Champions League for Britain were acquired for 1bn GBP by BT sports, a branch of the privatised former telephone monopoly, thereby outbidding Sky and ITV. From the late 1990s, the Champions League was to become the most lucrative European competition precisely because it would be the place where all the best clubs from the richest leagues would play against each other, and therefore where the most expensive TV rights could be sold. Now, restricting access to the competition to only one club per country meant a severe loss of potential revenue for many of the big clubs in Spain, England, Italy or Germany, especially since they needed these revenues to pay the skyrocketing salaries of star players. Hence, they needed to guarantee their steady participation in the CL bonanza.

In order to defend their interests, the richest clubs formed the “G14” in 2000, a lobby group whose aim was to put pressure on the UEFA and FIFA on behalf of the big clubs, for instance by forcing them to pay the salaries of their players while playing for international competitions such as the World Cup or the Euro. In this context, the G14 also wanted better guarantees to participate in the lucrative Champions League. A major lever of blackmail was the threat to form its own closed international competition gathering all the major clubs, as outlined in a policy document leaked in 2006. Such a model is already practiced in European Basketball: the “Turkish Airlines© Euroleague Basketball”, for instance, the basketball equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, works with a system of licenses where 13 rich teams are guaranteed to take part in the league more or less independently of their national performance, a bit like the US system of franchises in the NBA or NFL. Basically, the Euroleague model is what the richest football clubs threatened to do in order to guarantee their TV revenues: if they weren’t granted more spots in the Champions League, they would go and form their own European League where Barcelona, Real, Manchester, AC Milan or Arsenal would play against each other, deserting official UEFA competitions and basically emptying them from their interest.

To use a concept by the economist Albert Hirschman, they used their power to “exit” in order to increase their “voice” within European football competitions. Eventually, the G14 disbanded in 2008 and accepted to abandon its court cases against UEFA, but only after significant concessions were granted as to the influence of the big clubs in the running of football competitions (e.g more Champions League spots), and the creation of an official body within UEFA for clubs’ interests, the European Clubs Association gathering about 200 members. However, tensions about revenues are still present. In 2007, UEFA president Michel Platini, championing an agenda of democratisation of the competition, changed the rules again so as to allow better chances for winners of lower associations, who would be competing against each other for five spots in the pool stage instead of playing against runners-up from the big leagues. As could be expected, big clubs whose chances to access the TV revenues were not amused. In 2011, the “exit” threat to create an alternative competition of the biggest clubs was revived. The 10 bigger clubs argued that they would no longer be committed to take part in UEFA competitions after 2014, and would be free to set up their own competition in which they could manage the revenues and TV rights themselves without UEFA. A board member of ECA was explicit about it:

“The fact that Bayern Munich, who have always been close to the institutions, are being so vocal and loud about the situation is a clear sign we’re very close to breaking point. We have a memorandum of understanding with Uefa that expires in 2014. After that time we can no longer be forced to respect FIFA statutes or UEFA regulations. And we won’t be obliged to compete in their competitions.” When asked what that would mean for clubs’ finances if they were to withdraw from the Champions League, which generates tens of millions of pounds a year for his organisation’s richest and most influential members, the ECA board member responded: “Don’t be naive. Don’t think there would be no alternative competition.”

Now, a compromise could be found in the new memorandum of understanding between the UEFA and ECA which runs until 2018, but beyond that, the creation of a closed European super league may become a reality, as acknowledged by Istanbul’s Galatasaray Chairman in October 2013. So far, threats of exit by the richest clubs have contributed to increase their power within the UEFA and increase their representation in the competition. In the long term, however, an actual exit and the creation of a closed European super-rich, super-league may enable them to manage their own revenues. In the even longer term, and since the multiplication of games per season has been a major concern for clubs, one could even imagine the disappearance of national leagues, or national leagues devoid of the best teams, who could play a season-long championship against the best teams from other countries. In the future, it could not only be near- impossible for teams such as Steaua Bucarest or Red Star Belgrade to win the Champions league, but plain impossible because they wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the first place.


The Economic Dilemma of UKIP

Let us take a short trip Back to the Future. Step into The Doc’s DeLorean modified time Machine, fasten your seat belt, greet Marty McFly in the back seat, and set the destination to 2016 Britain. We accelerate to 88 miles per hour, and after a loud “bang”, it only takes a few seconds to land after the next general election. There are no flying skateboards, the weather is still miserable and the Royal Family is still reigning, but we have a new government. Just like in the last 2010 election, none of the two big parties managed to gain a majority in the Commons. Due to poor electoral strategies, Labour did not profit from David Cameron’s failures in government, and the Tories have come out of the elections once again with the biggest number of seats. However, their former allies, the Liberal Democrats, have suffered a severe electoral setback, and no longer have enough seats to secure a majority. Instead, the Tories have chosen to form a coalition with the party that made a true electoral breakthrough: Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. What kind of policies can we expect  from such a coalition, and would it be viable politically? Would UKIP and the Conservatives agree on issues such as welfare, pensions, taxation and social benefits?

In many ways, a Tory-UKIP coalition in the future is not completely science-fiction. UKIP – as well as a number of other Eurosceptic, anti-immigration parties throughout Europe – is  bound to make considerable advances in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. A poll conducted in January by the Independent on Sunday revealed that UKIP was the most favourably regarded party in Britain with 27% of favourable opinions, even if voting intentions still placed Labour and the Conservatives ahead. However, UKIP seems indeed to have overtaken the Liberal Democrats as the main alternative to the big two parties: Labour was first with 35%, the Tories were at 30%, UKIP was at 19% and the Libdems at 8%[1]. While European elections are often considered as “second-order” events where voters are more likely to sanction governments and bigger parties because they are presumably less important, EP elections still showcase the strength of the different political forces that will matter for future national elections. In Britain, UKIP is a serious electoral contender, and its impact on government policies can already be felt. The government’s tougher line about immigration control, or the promise to hold an “in-out” referendum about the European Union are without doubt targeted at voters tempted by Nigel Farage’s party. Some Tory politicians have already evoked potential alliances between the Conservative Party and UKIP[2]. Hence, such a coalition cannot be ruled out in the future, even if the first-past-the-post system obviously constitutes a severe hurdle for parties outside the Labour/Conservative duopoly. In first-past the post, what matters is not only how many voters parties have, but also how they are distributed geographically, and UKIP still seems to be lacking as to this second criterion.

UKIP as a Working-Class Party

Besides institutional barriers to acces constituted by the electoral system, UKIP and the Conservatives would need to reconcile the preferences of their respective electorates. If this does not look like a huge problem when it comes to issues such as immigration control and relationships with the European Union, it would certainly be more problematic when it comes to public spending, welfare, pensions, taxes and the like. This is essentially because UKIP and Conservative voters tend to have different socio-economic profiles, different interests and different preferences.

On the one hand, recent research has shown that UKIP has the most working class electorate of all British parties[3]. For some time, many believed that the typical UKIP voter was the disgruntled anti-EU middle-class Tory in the South-East. However, it appears that the UKIP electorate is in fact similar to that of other populist radical-right parties in Western Europe: working class, “pale, male and stale”. The core electorate of UKIP is constiotuted by blue-collar workers, predominantly male, older, with low formal education levels, who feel threated by immigration and economic change, and loathe a political class composed of what they perceive – no without reason – as a bunch of posh, privately educated middle-class Oxbridge graduates. Sociologically, UKIP voters would have been the social groups which used to vote Labour in the 1960s and 1970s, but have been forgotten by New Labour in its drive to appeal to urban middle classes. This pehenomenon is by no means a British exception: in countries such as France, Belgium or Austria, the populist radical right is now the most popular party family amongst the native working class – after abstention – while left wing parties essentially source their voters in the new middles classses (teachers, public sector workers, healthcare workers and professionals). After Tony Blair’s drive to the right, managers are now as likely to vote for Labour than for the Conservatives, and the days of old Labour seem long gone.

Interestingly, the preferences of UKIP voters in terms of economic policies also tend to be more left-wing, even if they intend to vote for a party often considered on the far-right. Research on the US also shows that supporters of the Tea Party, which can be considered as the equivalent of UKIP, also often rely on federal welfare programs while supporting a party that wants to scrap them. Hence, there is often a wide gap between the preferences of the voters and the agenda of the party elites in these domains. A recent Yougov poll showed that 73% and 78% of UKIP voters supported the nationalisation of railway and energy companies respectively[4]. Corresponding figures were twice 52% for Conservative voters, and 79 and 82% for Labour voters. Hence, UKIP voters tend to be closer to Labour voters when it comes to socio-economic issues and state intervention in the economy, while Conservative voters prefer market-based solutions, a smaller state and lower taxes.

Accordingly, austerity policies and cuts in public spending pushed by the Conservative party can be thought to hurt the UKIP electoral base, as lower-educated working-class people also rely to a larger extent on public services than higher incomes who can purchase services privately. A conservative-UKIP coalition would inevitably run into this kind of dilemma, and UKIP is conscious of this. At first, its electoral manifesto promised both lower taxes for all and more spending, for instance by scrapping the bedroom tax[5], or establishing a 31% flat tax rate for all.[6]This is is feasible in opposition, but more problematic when a party accesses government and needs to fulfill its irrealistic promises.Eventually, however, UKIP ended up disowning its whole 2010 party manifesto until after the EP elections, claiming that all its policies were now “under review”.[7] It has been shown that populist right-wing parties such as UKIP are particularly prone to “blur” their positions on economic issues in order to solve these dilemmas.[8]

Betraying Voters, or Betraying other Parties?

In a forthcoming article in the European Political Science Review[9], I show that once these parties take part in government coalitions, however, blurring their position becomes more difficult, and they need to make a choice between office and votes when it comes to socio-economic policies. On the one hand, as argued above, they appeal to a large segment of working-class voters who are supportive of state intervention, and obviously those from which they benefit directly. This includes traditional social security schemes such as old-age pensions. On the other hand, in Western Europe – things are a bit different in Central and Eastern Europe –  these parties have only been able to form government coalitions with Conservative or Liberal parties who are more likely to retrench these very same welfare programmes, and who can even be rewarded electorally for cutting public spending. If populist right-wing parties choose office and want to maximise their coalition potential, they may support retrenchment measures in exchange of concessions about immigration control, but at the cost of betraying their working-class electorate and facing substantial electoral losses at the next elections when cuts in public spending bite in. If they choose votes and seek to protect their electorate from retrenchment, they jeopardise their participation in government by betraying their coalition partners, who often cooperate with them precisely in order to pass austerity measures with little opposition. For this analysis, I have carried out fieldwork in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, three countries where the radical right took part in government at some point in time, and where pension reforms were put on the agenda. In all three countries, the tensions between office and votes outlined above were visible, and can serve as interesting signposts for the problems a Conservative/UKIP coalition might face.

In Austria, the Conservative ÖVP chose to form a coalition with the radical right FPÖ in 2000 as a way to curtail the left and trade unions, and push retrenchment reforms that had been impossible to carry out with the social-democrats in government. Accordingly, the FPÖ went for office and basically subscribed to the retrenchment agenda of its coalition partner in exchange of a tightening of immigration rules. While reforming welfare had proved extremely difficult in the past, this allowed for a number of swift welfare reforms to cut public spending, notably by increasing the age of retirement. The problem was that these reforms soon led to a revolt within the FPÖ, precisely because they were hurting the very electoral base of the party, which just like UKIP, was composed of blue-collar, older and male workers. A number of internal dissensions led to the creation of a splinter party, the BZÖ, and Jörg Haider, the party leader, heavily criticised its own ministers for hurting the “small people” the party was claiming to represent. In the end, the Conservatives of the ÖVP chose to drop the FPÖ and get back to form a coalition with the social-democrats, whom they considered more reliable.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) similarly committed to support a minority coalition formed by the Liberals and the Christian Democrats in 2010. In the run-up to the elections, Wilders had said that he would do everything he could to keep the retirement age at 65 for “Henk and Ingrid”, the typical hard-working, “squeezed middle” Dutch voters that he sought to appeal to. Accordingly he had said that the retirement age at 65 was a “breaking point” in any coalition negotiation with other parties. One day after his party obtained its best election result ever, however, Wilders said that the retirement age was “no longer a breaking point”, and agreed to support a coalition government between the Christian Democrats and Liberals determined to pursue a harsh austerity agenda, with some concessions regarding immigration and healthcare. However, unwilling to betray explicitly an election promise, the PVV systematically refused to support any attempt to increase the retirement age, forcing the government to seek support from smaller parties. Eventually, after the Netherlands entered a recession in 2012 and was forced to carry out even harsher spending cuts, Wilders pulled out of the government, arguing that he could not support austerity measures that would hurt “Henk and Ingrid”.

Finally, in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) consistently pushed for retrenchment in welfare programmes as a way to fight “abusers” of social assistance taking advantage of “honest taxpayers’s money”. The SVP notably also pushed for an increase in the age of retirement  without any compensation in an alliance with the Liberals and Christian democrats against social democrats and trade unions. In this sense, the Swiss radical right diverged slightly from parties in other countries by adopting a clearly more neoliberal profile, similarly to UKIP when it doesn’t seek to “blur” or conceal its socio-economic positions. However, in Switzerland as well, the contradictions between office and votes were also visible, as its electoral base is also constituted by large working-class segments. Hence, in the referendum votes called by trade unions and the left to challenge these reforms, a majority of the electorate of the Swiss People’s Party disavowed the party elites by refusing an increase in the age of retirement. Conscious of these internal contradictions, the party subsequently contributed to torpedo another reform where its internal conflicts between a neoliberal elite and protectionist voters would come out once again, this time in the run-up to a new election. This was another strategy to blur and conceal the contradictions of its economic agenda.

In general, parties such as UKIP which build their entire electoral profile on an anti-establishment agenda have a hard time being in government, at the very core of the establishment. The interesting thing about their economic impact is that they do not emphasise economic issues as their prime area of competence, and voters do not vote for them primarily because of their economic positions. However, this is precisely what makes them expedient allies for Conservative parties, since they may be more willing to subscribe to austerity in exchange of a tightening in their domains of predilection (iimigrationa nd law and order), hoping that their own voters won’t see how austerity affects their own interests. Oftentimes, however, these calculations tend to be marked by overconfidence, and to bite them back at election time.

Another version of this paper will be published in Dialogue, the magazine of KCL’s Politics Society.

A Modest Proposal for More Efficient Networking at Conferences


It’s that time of year again: conference season. Great opportunities for academic exchange in different guises: presenting your work and hearing about the work of others, but also multiple venues for socialising, schmoozing and networking. Making the right connections may help you get that publication out, obtain that next job, and open the doors of success, glory and wealth.

For young and ambitious academics eager to distribute their stack of business cards, however, networking is not such a straightforward task: identifying targets for socialising can be tricky. Time is limited, and the aspect of people cannot be taken as a proxy for their value and usefulness, so it is difficult to make rational decisions. You may spend too much time talking to people working at no-name universities or even worse, PhD students, while missing out on the editor of some prominent journal specialising in non-parametric methods. It is easy to identify unsuccessful social interactions ex post when people regularly browse their surroundings while talking to a particular person, looking for an opportunity to escape. The main problem is that interacting with actual human beings is a much more messy business than the safe, precise, clean and predicable environment of statistical analysis. In the comfortable zone surrounding your computer, everything can be measured, quantified and ordered in a limited number of variables.

Now there is no reason why the safety in numbers that many political scientists find in front of their computers could not be extended to social interactions at conferences. A fairly straightforward way to reduce this uncertainty would be to attribute a score – corresponding for instance to people’s H-index – that conference participants would display on a giant shield. This would signal whether it is worth socialising with them or not. For a more technological solution, participants could also display a barcode on their foreheads that special readers could link to their Google scholar profile; one could also imagine a detector that would beep at closer intervals upon approaching a prominent political scientists, like a Geiger counter. Technology opens endless possibilities.

My favourite low-tech solution would be to physically signal the status of participants by specific pieces of clothing such as hats. Academics with lots of publications would wear giants hats. Their size would be proportional to their status. Different disciplines could also be signalled by different colour codes: green for international relations, red for comparative politics, and so on. The problem with this system is that prominent but very short academics would probably be laughed at, and therefore fail to receive the respect that their status deserves. In order to solve this problem, we could also use stilts instead of hats, so that really big shots would gravitate high above everybody else, closer to the stars.