Thursday, 14 December 2017

What would a Corbyn government actually be like?


All through this tumultuous political year, there’s been something strangely absent from the narrative: a clear picture of what a change of government might actually mean. What would a Labour government really do in practice and feel like? What challenges would it face? How likely is what we know of its programme to succeed? There are lots of reasons for this oversight. For one thing, a government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (above) looked very, very unlikely until the sudden Labour surge between mid-May and early June. For another, the whole Brexit imbroglio has distracted attention from the normal story of blue-versus-red political competition. Last and perhaps most importantly, the whole ‘Corbyn phenomenon’ looks much more like a populist single issue campaign of remarkable passion and energy than a traditional government-in-waiting.

So in this blog, we’re going to have a look at what a Corbyn government would actually be like. There’ll be no attempt to construct a point-by-point account of some future history. What’s to come is far too uncertain (and contains way too many moving parts) for that. What we’ll be doing instead is building up a picture of the main elements that will decide the course of a new Labour administration. What we don’t know has rather the upper hand over what we do know. But we can speculate, an important enough process regarding any Opposition’s intent and prospects, but critically now when Labour is on the edge of power – just a handful of seats away from being able to govern as a minority.

So what are the main elements of chance and choice involved? Let’s take a look, in no particular order, at the likely results of a future General Election; then, the potential reactions among the Corbyn movement as Labour turns its agenda into concrete actions; thirdly, at the economy and the leeway it will give any left-wing government; and then fourth and last, the intentions of the small clique at the heart of Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party. We won’t be able to settle on exact conclusions, but perhaps the veil of ignorance will be parted a little: unknown unknowns will be turned into known unknowns, and light thrown on the main constraints and room for manoeuvre.

Labour’s Parliament. One major element will be whether Labour can forge a governing majority. Despite their better-than-expected result back in June, Labour are still a very long way from governing outright. With 262 Members of Parliament, they are still 64 seats (and a 3.6 per cent swing from all other parties) away from governing with an absolute majority: they probably still require another sixty MPs (and a 3.4 per cent swing) to govern with a working majority, enjoying a lead of one over all other parties given that the Sinn Fein Members from Northern Ireland do not take their seats. Just a couple of polls taken since June have suggested that Labour are strong enough to get to that finishing line.

Now we mustn’t suggest that their relatively watery lead on average means that they cannot make it to 326 MPs. Labour managed to leap from about 26 per cent at the start of the last election campaign to 41 percent by the time all the votes were counted. But it’s still a tall order. They’ve squeezed out a lot of the votes that were the easiest to seize upon: Greens and left-leaning Liberal Democrats have already flocked to them, along with younger moderate Remainers in South and South-West England. Remember that polls now assume that 2017’s relatively unusual turnout will hold next time, too, especially among young people: longer-term experience suggests that it might not.

So it might be that Labour has to rely on the Scottish National Party to govern. Given the latest polling in Scotland, it seems unlikely that they will be able to win enough seats from the SNP to end their reliance on them if they can’t push over a lot of seats in England. In that circumstance, Mr Corbyn will be faced with lots of problems. He will probably have to do some sort of deal with the SNP, especially if he is a long way from a majority – at about the 280 or 290 seats that current polling averages put him at. The SNP might well want more money for Scotland, a demand that might do a lot of damage to Labour’s reputation in England – especially if the bill comes to a much higher figure than the £1bn that Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to disburse to Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionists back in the summer.

There might also have to be a second Scottish independence referendum, in which Mr Corbyn’s obvious ambivalence on that issue might do nearly as much harm to his political standing and reputation as his disastrous campaign in the 2016 European Union referendum. Even given SNP support, Labour might find it hard to govern on the home front, given English Votes for English Laws – the process by which House of Commons committee votes on English issues are limited to England’s MPs. Labour probably tell themselves that they can just put down law after law and dare the SNP to vote them down. In reality, since the SNP rely for a key part of their electoral coalition on the idea that there may never be another successful Labour government at Westminster – and that the SNP therefore have to ‘stand up for Scotland’ alone – that party’s MPs will be looking from day one for an excuse to bring Labour down. These are clearly grave dangers here for any future Labour government.

Activist opinions. One startlingly underwritten element of Labour’s recent story is its waning enthusiasm for redistribution. There are no two ways about it: on lots of measures, inequality is likely to be higher after one term of Labour than before. Very few of the party’s proposed measures will do anything to reduce income inequality. Abolishing tuition fees will increase it. Cancelling or restructuring student debt, which Labour has dropped broad hints about, will have the same effect. So will accepting the Conservatives’ welfare cap and Universal Credit changes – 'reforms' to which Labour is committed.

So will rail nationalisation, in all likelihood, since increasing investment (and perhaps reducing fares) on the railways will inevitably favour those commuters in the South East of England who mainly use trains – as well as creating a standing political economy incentive to ratchet up government spending on a mode of transport disproportionately utilised by rich people. Hard or fixed rent controls? Likely to increase inequality as landlords flee the sector. Opposing any sort of equity release from states to fund social care? The same, at least when compared to the Conservatives’ hastily-abandoned plans for a so-called ‘dementia tax’. And so on. If you throw in Brexit – likely to increase disparities between Britain’s richer and poorer regions – what limited egalitarian measures Labour is promising (for instance a minimum wage higher than that planned by the Conservatives) will be like throwing pebbles at a bulldozer.

Regional Investment Banks? Well, that’s not necessarily a bad concept – though they are massively overhyped. But investing more in each region might actually widen the gap between rich and poor. We don’t know much about the criteria for Labour’s new policy infrastructure on this front, but suffice to say that if you invest more in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, you might find that the surrounding towns and villages – where most of the deeper poverty is actually happening – will get worse. Meanwhile, some of Labour’s actually good ideas take effect for many years. More spending on early years education is to be welcomed with as much praise as we can muster. But, of course, the effects will take more than a decade to become apparent.

What will happen when Labour activists look at an economy and society that is quite a lot more unequal after five years of Mr Corbyn? What will they do? Well, probably nothing – firstly because he has entirely naturally and understandably reshaped the party in his own image, and secondly because a one-term government can be cut quite a lot of slack on the way to bigger objectives. Remember that the Thatcher Government had not achieved very much at all by the time of its re-election in 1983. Most of its really long-lasting reforms were still to come. Recall that the Blair government hadn’t changed much in the public sector by the time of the 2001 General Election, having focused instead on constitutional reform and the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. Having trended very slightly downwards for many years (though a lot depends on how you count these things), the admittedly crude and problematical Gini coefficient measuring income inequality will go up under Labour. Its members will give their leaders more time. Voters as a whole might not – which brings us to the national economy.

Economic uncertainty. One big and important story will be provided by the economic backdrop. If Britain’s poor productivity and therefore growth picks up a little, or even if growth continues to chug along at a low-but-sustainable level, there might not be too much to say on this front. Socialism in one country will be easier to deliver. Mr Corbyn will turn up and beam beneficently at lots of new schools, hospitals and rail stations, and what popularity he attracts will hold up or even increase as older and more Jeremy-sceptical Britons say to themselves ‘well, this isn’t so bad’. But if the economy goes south, things will be much grittier – especially in relation to the public spending pledges that now seem to be Labour’s raison d’etre.

Despite many partisan assertions to the contrary, Labour’s manifesto was almost entirely uncosted. Oh, of course, they said it was ‘costed’, but their maths basically amounted to rocking up at Tesco’s and trying to buy a month’s shopping with just a single twenty pound note. Their numbers were and are totally unrealistic. The money they promise to raise only from big companies and richer Britons just is not there. If growth continues, well, that might not prove too much of a problem. They can raise Corporation Tax even higher than they said they would. They can rein back on some of their spending pledges, while making sure that they do give effect to some of their highly-legible signature plans such as the abolition of university tuition fees. They can (whisper it) run the score up using some of those stealth taxes familiar from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s time in office, for instance freezing allowances and allowing silent income tax rises to take some of the strain.

But if the British economy is only crawling forward, if Brexit really slows growth (and it’s at least quite likely that it will), or if Labour come to power in the wake of a disorderly Brexit, then things will be much harder. If they’re also hit by a 'normal' recession, for which we are more than overdue, things will be more difficult still. Note here that there is also the danger of a withdrawal of foreign investment and spending as companies take fright at the election of an apparently radical leftist administration. That’s not vastly likely, as we’ve already had quite a big sterling devaluation and withdrawal of funds after Brexit – for obvious reasons. But it is certainly possible, as Labour’s own wargaming for just this eventuality reveals. Then, things could get very tough indeed. Slamming on capital controls to stem the outflow, at the same time as trying to withstand a damaging Brexit slowdown or navigating a garden-variety recession could mean that austerity budgeting will have to be intensified, not reversed. There’s precedent for that, as when the left-wing Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps made every pip squeak in the late 1940s. But what on earth will happen if then-Chancellor John McDonnell – John McDonnell, of all people – starts slashing public sector pay? Your guess is as good as ours.

What do Labour want? Fourth and last, we come to the vexed question of what it is that Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell actually want. Labour’s militantly reasonable manifesto from 2017 is one thing. The history and values of their advisers – Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, Andrew Fisher – is quite another. Those advisers have spent their lives arguing and writing in direct opposition to the entire thrust of Labour’s post-war history. Mr Murray, for instance, was a member of the Communist Party (and North Korea enthusiast) until very recently. They possess as their highest lodestar an opposition to the United States of America and all its works, including the rules-based economic trade and payments system the US and its allies have built since the early 1990s. Their sympathy for America’s opponents, wherever they may be and whatever they think, somehow manages to be both Putinist and Trumpian in equal measure – if that truly is the contradiction that it at first appears.

So Labour went into the last General Election arguing that the UK government should replace the Trident nuclear weapons system; retain its key role within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; refuse to raise income tax except for the very wealthiest citizens; and only to nationalise utilities that used to be publicly owned. So far, so good. But what we don’t know is if Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell do wish only to reverse some of the Thatcherism’s wilder instincts in this manner, or whether these proposals are a mere transitionary programme towards a much more radical agenda.

What if Prime Minister Corbyn simply took Trident off station, or ordered the removal of the nuclear submarine’s missiles? He must be desperate to get that chance: and it seems deeply unlikely that his Cabinet could stop him. The concerning precedent set by the fact he ignored the resignation of nearly his entire team in 2016 shows that he would not care in the slightest were there to be a rash of Ministerial resignations. What if this NATO-sceptical Prime Minister refused to go to the military aid of a NATO state under attack that was pleading for assistance? What if Brexit meant much higher middle class tax rates to pay for the end of public sector pay restraint? What if second-term proposals encompassed a much deeper drive towards co-operatisation of the economy, or ‘differential compensation’ (as already rumoured) for another big bite at nationalisation – code for paying shareholders out on the basis of Ministers’ moral judgement of their past behaviour? What if pushing forward government control of the economy ended up meaning reducing (or ending) the Bank of England’s role in monetary and regulatory policy? What if the British economy can only be restructured behind a wall of capital controls? The answer is that we simply don’t know. Britain might become a very different place indeed, though if more than one of these policy changes really were to transpire, a Labour split would become much more likely. Perhaps by that point it wouldn’t really matter.

There we must leave it, with the observation that there is much more about a Corbyn Labour government that we don’t know than that which we do. We just don’t know whether Labour can fight its way to a durable overall majority, massively boosting Mr Corbyn’s power and removing any Labour reliance on the SNP. We’re not sure how Labour members will react as the gap between rich and poor rises, following a decade or two of overall stability (or slight falls) in income inequality. It’s unclear how Labour would react to economic problems, whether those turn out to be just squalls or develop into real storms. And perhaps most profoundly at all, it’s opaque as to how far the Labour leadership team want to push things. Do they just want Britain to look rather more like Denmark and Sweden, or do they want to break with every actually-existing international model and sprint towards that left-socialism that Syriza imagined but could not deliver in Greece?

We end the year knowing a lot less than we thought we did when we entered it. Perhaps that realisation is a good thing. But the potential shape of the Labour government that does now look more likely than not – its challenges, its choices – is hopefully a little bit clearer after the last few paragraphs. Its politics are still there to be shaped: by General Election voters, by party members inside the policymaking machinery, in little and large economic decisions alike, by the public’s reaction when Labour’s true values are revealed. As ever, most of what happens next is up to you.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is now likely to win the next election


It will not have escaped your notice that this blog spent some time during the 2015-17 Parliament predicting electoral disaster for the British Labour Party. That didn’t happen, for reasons we’ve attempted to lay out here (and trailed here), but that’s not going to stop us peering forward into the near future. That’s, for one thing, a natural and necessary part of all collective life, so as to winnow out the consequences of choices and trends evident now. But even more than that, it's important to say that prediction doesn’t necessarily seek to get everything right: it searches for truth through falsification, validation and those precious errors that actually tell us something.

So where are we going at this moment? Well, unless something really big changes soon, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (above) is now rather more likely than not to become Prime Minister within the next few years. What follows will be a sketch of six key reasons why we are now moving our outlook towards what American election forecasters would sum up as a move to labelling the race ‘lean Labour’, though they are by no means exhaustive.

One. Polling. Though there are plenty of people willing to tell you about how rubbish polls were at June’s General Election, they did better than punditry and rumour, which is all we’d have if we didn’t have any polls at all. They also got a bit closer to the aggregate result than in 2015, really missing the target ‘only’ in terms of the Labour score. Even then, commentary failed much more than polls: just as with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, most poll interpreters couldn’t even process the evidence of their own eyes. By the time election day had rolled around, even a crude polling average told you that Labour were within an average error, and not far outside even the statistical margin of error, of forcing the Hung Parliament that they managed. Don’t get us started on this one. Anyway, just using a crude average now, Labour lead by one or two percentage points. That’s more than enough, if that was indeed the result, to take power – even if that’s as a minority government in quite a weak position. The first reason to say that Labour might well win is exactly the reason we came to that conclusion by the end of this year’s campaign: the numbers say that it is so. Past prejudice shouldn’t get in the way of that.

Two. Tory infighting. It won’t have escaped your notice that the Conservative Party seems to be having some sort of complex psychic meltdown. Clear, dynamic government seems to have simply stopped, and when that happens, all the ordnance that might miss you just lands right amidships. At the moment, the fires are threatening the weapons store, and the whole ship might just blow up in front of us. It’s not the number of scandals and disasters that is so notable. It’s the role that factionalism play in them. The now-ex Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, seems to have been done in by his Cabinet ‘colleague’, Andrea Leadsom. Michael Gove seems to be making the Government’s travails over the Iranian imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe even worse than it might be by defending his fellow Brexiteer, that scheming-but-useless charlatan otherwise known as ‘Foreign Secretary’ Boris Johnson. The downfall of now ex-International Development Secretary Priti Patel was in part due to her bizarre pursuit of an independent foreign policy, conducted perhaps in the hope that she would one day be Prime Minister. Well, let us hope that she won’t be. There are two major themes in all of this. First, it illustrates the weakness of the Prime Minister, confirming all our worst fears since a Hung Parliament began to hove into view during early June. And secondly, it shows the divisive power of Brexit, the single most complex set of policy dilemmas faced by any government since 1945. Which brings us to…

Three. Brexit. Brexit is now the gravity well sucking in everything in the British public policy sphere. It. Is. Everything. Nothing much will happen outside of the Brexit sphere for at least the next four years, and perhaps for at least the next six or seven. This will have several consequences. For one thing, the Conservatives will have no time or energy to renew themselves in office. That’s always hard, and Ministers in the end just end up tired out, as Labour were in 1950-51 or the Conservatives became in 1996-97. Although any organic image here is more analogy than analysis, there is a sense in which governments just reach their natural end. By 2022, the Conservatives will have been in office for twelve years. Only once since the Second World War has such a task been carried off (in 1992). Given that they’ve got to manage Brexit, that seems even less likely than those numbers suggest. Also important here is the very real split that the Prime Minister has always papered over – until now – between really hard-core Brexiteers and more pragmatic Tories. If the UK at least stayed in the Customs Union, the problem of any ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland would go away, as would the nightmare of re-setting all of Britain’s trade arrangements with the world beyond the EU. If she stayed in the Single Market, or at least mimicked it very closely, any danger of increased regulatory and other non-tariff barriers to trade would be avoided as well. But enough of Theresa May’s backbenchers are theologically attached to Brexit-at-any-costs that they might well split the party over any deal that she brings back. Labour MPs will make up the gap, no doubt, as Whigs and Liberals did when they came to the aid of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1846. But that will leave the Conservatives more divided than ever, and right-wing Tories hopping mad with rage. They managed to blow up John Major’s premiership in the mid-1990s. They might well be about to do it again.

Four. The economy. Another under-written element of the Conservatives’ 2017 debacle was the fact that real wages were falling by the time voters got to the polls. In 2015, incomes were rising strongly, helping to explain David Cameron’s surprise majority. The economy isn’t everything on polling day, but it is something, and something important. The next few years look likely to be pretty gritty. Real wages will probably stop falling so sharply over the next couple of years, as the wave of inflation kicked off by sterling’s Brexit devaluation passes out of the system. But interest rates are now likely headed on a very slow, but steady, route upwards. Britain’s productivity performance is so bad that there is a fixed upper band on wage rises, which cannot really be anything – overall – but mediocre-to-weak. In real terms, they might just stagnate. And a load of welfare cuts are about to hit the low paid, slashing benefits under an arbitrary cut and squeezing working tax credits. That will lower wages at the lower end of the scale, where the Conservatives actually did okay at the General Election. All the while, post-Brexit growth is likely to be slow and stuttering, even if we are not hit by another recession – for which, by all post-war standards, we are more than overdue after more than a decade of slow but persistent growth. The economy isn’t going to save the Government, as it did Mrs Thatcher’s administration in 1983 and 1987. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Five. Labour campaigning. All the – shall we say – Momentum is with Labour right now. They have the fired-up activists. They have the glint of righteousness in their eyes. They have the socially just cause, from the tragedy at Grenfell Tower to Boris Johnson’s appalling blunder over Iran. But it’s more than that. They are just better at campaigning. It’s not the mass membership, though that can’t hurt – financially, if nothing else. It’s the sheer sophistication, scale and persistence of their methods, especially on Twitter and Facebook. Some extraordinary stats came out of the 2017 campaign, but perhaps most shocking of all was that more than half of the Facebook users in some key seats had been reached by the Labour social media team. If we take a look at (say) the Tory Instagram game versus Labour’s Snapchat, the latter is miles, miles and miles again ahead of the former. That helps to explain the age gap yawning in our policies, of course. But it also suggests that campaign-phase Labour might be able to get even more traction than it is at the moment. The Conservatives entered the 2015 campaign more than twenty points ahead. If they go into the next neck-and-neck, the new networked methods championed by Labour's younger and enthusiastic activists might carry all before them.

Six. The Trump-gasm. The President of the United States is – how shall we put this? – not the most popular person in the world. His US ratings are terrible for a President at this stage in the cycle, and in Europe his numbers basically approximate those enjoyed by smallpox. Theresa May has felt the need to hug him close in the past, because she needs some sort of US trade deal (and American help elsewhere) if Britain’s diplomatic position isn’t to cave in entirely. But if he manages to clinch a state visit to the UK, or if his awful numbers decline still further, he’ll stink up the British government by association. If there is one fixed point in Mr Corbyn’s intellectual firmament, it is dislike of America and all its works. It is his luck – alongside all the other stars lining up for him – that he is Leader of the Opposition at a moment when most British people agree with him. When ‘America’ meant Barack Obama, many Britons regarded it with at least curious affection: now its public face is orange with rage, they regard its politics at least with horror. Any new crisis in which the UK seeks to line up with Trump’s America – in East Asia, perhaps, or the Middle East – will erode further the Government’s room for manoeuvre. It doesn’t matter who you are: you can’t poke the President of the United States in the eye too much if you want to get things done. For now at least, Mr Corbyn can. That will help him.

Let’s be clear here: this isn’t much of a cause for celebration, at least on this blog. Corbynism has a positive face, which is its opposition to the cruel and deeply unnecessary public sector austerity of our times - likely to get worse, by the way, before it gets better. But it has another, much darker mode, since it also embraces a toxic 'new politics' of paranoia, denialism, conspiracy theorising, ‘context’-mongering, Trumpian gaslighting, overly-partisan shouting-from-the-rooftops, borderline and not-so-borderline racism, social media hatefests, fantasy economics and private school play acting. Its progress in this age without truth is instructive in that, like the rest of our politics, it’s not clear whether this paroxysm is a symptom of extreme immaturity in what is new, or the advanced dotage of the old order. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

Still, the victory of what for want of a better word we might here call a ‘phenomenon’ now seems fairly likely. Not very likely, mind you. Not overwhelmingly likely. Quite likely. A sort of ‘more than evens' likely. That long list above looks over-specified and over-determined now that we stand back and look at it, and each point could well fall apart quite quickly if things change. The Conservatives will probably get a new leader before they face the voters again. A new President may well replace Trump in 2020. The economy might speed up as it rides in the slipstream of world recovery. It’s not as if we haven’t seen everything change like lightning in the recent past, is it?

Not only do we have to get used to marginal thinking, rather than just calling things as the black and white that only newspaper critics seem to see: we must also realise that almost nothing now turns out like we think it will. America’s leader in the political stats field, Nate Silver, has a new rule in this respect: the commentariat's conventional wisdom will always be wrong. It’s suspicious that now everyone reckons Corbyn will win. It smells of over-correction, and the buyers’ remorse of loads of people who like to think of themselves as pretty clever, but feel Mrs May has just made them look very stupid. The herd now says Corbyn. The herd could be wrong. Keep that in mind.

All of this goes against all our own initial instincts, too – representing nearly as concerning a development as Brexit itself, or that extreme phase of Blue-Red Mayism that sought to ‘Crush the Saboteurs’. These twin populist appeals are actually just two faces of the same incoherence: that especially nasty affectation that treats rageful emotion as an end points that everyone knows is no answer at all. But as to one side’s victory over the other: well, when the facts change, we change our minds. What do you do?

Next time, in our December blog, we’ll examine what might become of the Corbyn government projected here. What will it seek to do? What will be the effects? What are the risks and opportunities? That might be getting ahead of ourselves, it’s true, but as an exercise in future history it should be useful. Laying out such a government’s choices, and their likely effects, should show the possibilities and limits before Westminster and Whitehall as we move forward into the uncertain world of post-Brexit governance. Hope to see you there! 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

General Election 2022: the open battlefield


So. Let’s pick up the threads then, shall we? Not because we really want to, or because measuring the height of Britain’s present tsunami of political untruth and incompetence gives us much pleasure. But because what is there to do, if you’re a contemporary historian or political scientist, but to map and measure the precise depth of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into? So, with something of a heavy heart, let’s start this year’s efforts with a little underarm bowling: after the unexpectedly close result of this year’s UK General Election (above), how does the electoral landscape lie?

Here’s the headline: it’s really, really open. Next time is likely to look much more like a war of manoeuvre than a grit-your-teeth battle in the trenches. There are more seats with tiny majorities than there have been for many, many years. Not only that: under the surface, the composition of the two major parties’ coalitions is changing quite rapidly, shifting on the basis of age, social attitudes and cultural change reflected in, not just caused by, the great Brexit crisis that is still breaking upon us. There are quite a few Labour seats that are gradually going blue, and many, many Conservative MPs should be looking over their shoulders at an opposite and (at the moment) even greater red tide.

In an age without much in the way of clear-cut class profiles, how you vote seems less and less related to your wealth and work. Those categories are outdated, in any case. Who’s to say, for instance, that a precariously-employed computer coder is any more or less part of that sloppily-conceptualised and now hard-to-define group 'the working class' than a self-employed carpenter or plumber? Many blue collar workers outside of South-East England will have much, much higher disposable incomes than young and apparently thriving professionals in London. Whose thinking is really, really ‘Labour’? The seventy-year-old ex-factory worker in Lincolnshire who owns his own house outright, or the thirty-year-old graduate mortgage broker renting out a tiny room in South-East London? Who’s got more, well, capital? Who’s more likely to look upon the status quo with some favour? The question answers itself – one area among quite a few where the Corbynites have a point.

It's all eerily reminiscent of the politics of the United States, which has similarly shifted over the past two or three decades from economically-motivated voting to values-based political choice. Once, that big splash of red that Donald Trump slapped all over the Upper Midwest would have been pretty unthinkable outside a really huge wave year like 1984. Lose Wisconsin? Michigan? Pennsylvania? They hadn’t been prised out of Democrats’ hands in presidential elections since the 1980s. But wrestled away they still were in 2016, partly because of… you guessed it, older white voters who had become very, very unhappy with immigration in particular, and cultural change in general. On the other side, one day pretty soon growing suburban (and highly-educated) white enclaves in the South are going to unite successfully with African-Americans and Latino voters in Georgia, Arizona and even Texas to form a powerful new element in American politics. They’re going to push those states strongly towards the the Democratic column.

It’s all going to look the same in Britain, if we keep going down this path. If liberal, cosmopolitan, younger Remainers continue to pour both out of London and into the Labour camp, while more conservative, more nationalistic, older Leavers bring the shutters down in the towns and villages of Middle England, much of England's non-metropolitan North might keep on going blue, while the towns and cities in a great big circle around the nation’s capital get redder and redder. In this respect the openness of the electoral battlefield right now might only be a passing fizzle: one day both Reading seats could be rock-hard Labour, while Ashfield goes true-blue Conservative.

By way of example, let’s zoom in and take a look at one cluster of working class Labour seats that used to have really big majorities: Don Valley’s Caroline Flint saw a swing of nearly five per cent against her last time, and it was a similar story in nearby Bassetlaw (4.3 per cent), Chesterfield (4.9 per cent), Rother Valley (6.3 per cent) and Bolsover (7.7 per cent). The contrast with Sheffield Central, just a few miles away, is striking: here there was a 7.1 per cent swing to Labour, not to the Conservatives. Many mid-sized towns with relatively high numbers of left-behind voters and older people are trending towards the Conservatives; anywhere where there are cities full of younger people, students and thirtysomethings, Labour is growing like topsy.

In a strange way, polarisation around age and social attitudes, as opposed to social class, is making the electoral playing field flatter. Older (or younger), and socially conservative (or liberal) voters are less tightly clustered together than working-class or wealthier Britons. Combine that with the near-irrelevance of the Liberal Democrats in some areas, and you have a First Past the Post 'balance' that looks like a Buckaroo pony made of Jenga.

So just a one per cent swing to Labour will see them capture twenty-one more seats. That would almost certainly put them in office (though perhaps not in power) given that thirteen of those gains would be from the Conservatives: they and their Democratic Unionist allies would then represent ‘only’ 315 seats, not quite enough to cling to No. 10. But a mere one per cent swing to the Conservatives will on the other hand net them nineteen seats, fifteen of them Labour, and gift them an overall majority of 22 – easily enough to govern for another five years, especially with DUP support. So there are 41 seats on a truly thin knife-edge.

There’s an even more precarious electoral balance when you consider that there are another twenty six seats – nine under attack from the Conservatives, and seventeen by Labour – within the range of change given just another one per cent swing. So the two main parties are looking at a grand total of 67 seats precariously placed just a two per cent swing away from them. By way of contrast, there were only 33 such seats leading up to the 2017 election. Some of these (eight within the one per cent range) are in Scotland, partly because Scottish seats are quite small, with a rather low 2017 turnout, but also because some of them are a four-way fight where the gap between first and second is partly governed by the distance between second and third, or even third and fourth. But most of these constituencies are in England. Right now, we wouldn’t want to say what would happen to many of them. Just a tiny move, in one direction or the other, could change everything.

Some very crude targets do, however, emerge from this analysis. There were pretty massive swings to Labour in Chipping Barnet last time, taking the London Labour effect right out into the suburbs. Labour did extraordinarily well in Norwich North, too, as the whole of that city gradually turns red. It must be pretty likely that those seats will go Labour next time. On the other hand, the Conservatives should be taking aim at the (aforementioned) Ashfield as well as Bishop Auckland, where they made up absolutely miles on the red team last time, getting very close to previously hard-to-see gains in those supposedly ‘Labour’ parts of Nottinghamshire and County Durham.

In the short-term, these trends probably favour Labour. They’ve got some really massive majorities to fall back on in the ex-industrial, low-income heartland seats where this effect is geared at its highest. The Conservatives didn't get very far in many areas (parts of Wales, for instance) that could well be described in just that way, though polls taken before their campaign fell apart suggested that they would. The extra Brexit rocket fuel enjoyed by Conservatives in these areas might fade if leaving the European Union goes really wrong: many Leavers were not habitual voters anyway, and the failure of many of them to turn up again in 2017 really hurt the Conservative cause. Labour’s newly-socialist image might give them some extra margin for error here, at least until the reality of Labour’s programme in government is revealed as basically lots more spending on universalist welfare programmes popular with those southern middle-class voters who found them so alluring last time.

And, of course, there’s the point that Labour’s polling position has continued to get a little bit better since the election – at least relative to the Conservatives. The Tories' apparent obsession with Brexit isn't going to help them win back those open, internationalist, relaxed under-50s with whom Labour seems fairly popular. More tactically, Labour's also got lots of new, and usually local, MPs in place in their own marginals, while most of the Conservatives on this chessboard are longer-serving Parliamentarians who won’t be boosted by voters’ new familiarity with second-timers. In that situation, you’d expect the two massive heavy dancers of British politics to pass each other at different speeds. Labour, simply put, has a bit of momentum. Yes, they’ll do relatively badly in some older manufacturing towns and mining areas, but that won’t matter as the rising tide lifts all their boats (or, in this painfully extended metaphor) prevents them listing too dangerously.

Next time, we’re going to look at all the reasons why a Corbyn government, or at least a Corbyn-led government, now looks rather likely. It’s certainly in way below a 50/50 shot right this minute. Look a little closer at the polling data, and for instance ICM’s most recent cross-breaks (opens as PDF) do indeed show Labour piling up votes in its new marginals, while the Conservatives fall back a little in seats where they have very, very little margin of safety. And London’s demographics will continue to scatter Labour voters far and wide until large numbers of houses-for-rent get built there (so: forever).

Such trends won’t last for all time. Yes, cities such as Bristol and Exeter are probably lost to the Conservatives for a long time to come. Their denizens’ entire outlook on life, including their social mores, are just too far distant from an ageing and distrustful Conservative selectorate’s core principles, barring some sudden eruption like a Ruth Davidson leadership. But elsewhere? Before long, the slow remorseless crawl that’s been so noticeable over the last decade or so could well just keep on going. Working class Britons, particularly those angry or sceptical about immigration, increasingly look to the Right: social liberals, as well as graduates and professionals, are more and more attracted to the Left. Lots and lots of the likely Labour gains at the 2022 General Election would be vulnerable to a quick snapping-back of stretched ideological sinew. Look across southern England: the Swindon and Southampton seats, which we’re picking here pretty much at random, could well be the subject of a complex demographic tug-of-war for years to come. This battlefield could be very, very open for a decade or more.

For now, the main message is this: get ready for some apparently ‘strange’ results next time. That chequerboard of 67 very marginal seats? It could look like splatter from a Jackson Pollock paintbrush come 2022. Labour’s going to grab the imagination of some really quite wealthy places full of young people, social liberals and graduates. All things being equal, and assuming that their recent collective panic doesn’t gain a real hold, the Conservatives could well continue to make progress amidst all those many Britons who don’t much care for the new urban renaissance. You might well sit there on election night saying ‘What’s going on? Truro and Falmouth has gone Labour and loads of South Yorkshire’s going Conservative’. If you’ve read and pondered all of the above, you’ll be forewarned – and forearmed.

Please note: given present workloads, ‘Public Policy and the Past’ will appear only monthly during the academic year 2017/18. Hopefully, we can go back to writing a little bit more frequently in 2018/19, and heaven knows there’ll probably be enough to write about. We’ll try to write at a little bit more length than in recent years, trying to get our teeth into some really big issues at greater length. No guarantees on that front, though, unfortunately. In the meantime, let’s just hope we don’t have a referendum or an election for twelve months, eh? It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

That's your lot...


...for the academic year 2016/17. Well, it's not been really been a pleasure, to be honest, what with one thing and another. But never fear: we'll be back in the autumn, and there'll be plenty to say. And hopefully no election. Really, please, no election. It's not much to ask, but please let us off just this once. In the meantime: remember, there's always sense in the numbers. It's just knowing how to find it that's the problem. Until next time, adieu. 

The age of extremes?


Just to finish up on our General Election coverage, one thing that was very noticeable about the whole thing was the return of two-party politics. Two massive narratives collided, like two great space liners crunching up against one another in a science fiction film. Brexit and the asperity of self-restraint against big-spending and universal public services: that's quite the contrast of narratives, and one in fact that the public seemed to like, because 83 per cent of them voted Conservative or Labour. All the textbooks saying that we were headed for a multi-party system, an age of coalitions, perhaps proportional representation? Well, we weren't - or at least, not yet.

Let's take a look around the parties that were put in the shade by the Conservative Godzilla and the Labour Megalon. First, the Liberal Democrats. They had high hopes, going into this campaign, that they might make a good number of gains. All the talk at the start was that they were the main threat to the Conservatives' majority. Perhaps they'd steal back quite a few of those 27 losses they'd made to the Conservatives in 2015. Maybe being 'the party of Remain' would fire them up. It seemed for a moment like the famed #libdemfightback of online yore could be on. After all, even at a very conservative estimate, perhaps one-fifth or one-quarter of the public really don't like Brexit. But the Lib Dems didn't get very far at all. They put on just three seats, overall, on the nine that they had at the end of the last Parliament - and there was a very high turnover involved there, because they lost Richmond Park and Southport to the Conservatives, and Leeds North West and Sheffield Hallam to Labour.

The Lib Dems were in a bind. Remainers seemed to flock to Labour, fixing on just about the only national remedy they could find for a really hard and fast Brexit - even though Labour in this respect is not that much better than the Conservatives. On the other hand, they faced what the political scientist Matthew Goodwin called a 'blue wall' (£) in their old South West heartlands: defecting Ukippers meant that the Conservatives just had huge numbers of Eurosceptical voters to draw on, who objected to the Liberal Democrats open, liberal, cosmopolitan message. So although they had a good go at taking St Ives, elsewhere in Cornwall (for instance) it was Labour that surged, not the Liberal Democrats. Across the rest of their battlefield, they often went backwards in seats they used to hold: in Torbay, in Chippenham, and many others. Strange days indeed. So they've lost another leader as Tim Farron (above) departs the stage, they face a leadership election, and to be fair it's hard to see how they can return to being a national party any time soon. Take a look at their target seats. Four look well within range, but then after two more (the aforementioned Hallam, and upscale Cheltenham) their path gets really, really rocky. If they want to return to their halcyon days of 2010 (though that is, admittedly, a high bar) they would need to make 45 gains and take Woking on a swing of 18%. We're not saying that can't happen - these days, everything seems up for grabs - but the world of Lib Demmery is a lot drabber and colder today than it might have been.

Elsewhere, the Scottish National Party seems to be experiencing a recessional. It's hard to tell where and then this will stop, because they've never done this well before and there aren't many yardsticks by which to judge all this. The context wasn't great for them. The idea of a second independence referendum seems anathema to most Scots just at this moment, though holding another plebiscite somewhere down the line is by no means an unpopular idea. The 'Yes' vote, though generally holding up, also gives the impression of fading a little overall, though individual polls will bounce around. The 2017 General Election also saw the SNP rather crowded out of relevance as the battle between Mayery and Corbynism raged. So they suffered. They lost their ex-leader, their Westminster leader, and overall saw 21 of their seats fall to the Conservatives, Labour and even the Liberal Democrats. Now to some extent this was just reversion to the mean. The SNP still won the majority of Scottish seats, and they could hardly have been expected to replicate the extraordinary success of 2015, when they returned 56 MPs. But there are deeper problems here for the SNP. Support for independence just isn't growing. Indeed, it might be slipping a bit. The state of Scottish public services also seems to be rising up to the political agenda, and it might not matter all that much that the SNP government in Edinburgh are not entirely masters of their own budgetary fate: you're in government and people don't like what they're getting, they'll punish you.

The Conservatives' leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, is pretty popular and - like it or loathe it - encapsulates an alternative Conservative vision to the rather unpleasant and now uncertain government in Westminster. Labour seems to be recovering a little bit of self-confidence too, though these are very much baby steps given the party's fall from grace in recent years. Overall, indeed, the SNP were lucky this time. They could have lost a lot more seats. There are fifteen more within about two thousand votes or so of the other parties. Losing those would have meant the SNP held 'only' 20 of the 59 Scottish seats. The Conservatives, in particular, are now breathing down the SNP's collective neck across the Highlands and Islands (in Perth and North Perthshire, for instance). This one could go either way. There's no sense of anything inevitable or structural about the SNP's electoral decline. But their days of total dominance seem past - for now.

The Greens seem to have hollowed themselves out for the sake of the nation this time. They stood down in about 22 seats (including marginal Ilford North), helping Labour - but then saw lots of seats that they might have had a go at (including Bristol West and the Isle of Wight) get further away from them. They just got totally eviscerated by Corbynism's appeal to their idealistic and left-wing voters: their altruism in trying to restrict a Conservative landslide to a mere victory, as it seemed at the time, made them even less relevant when that victory gradually receded beyond the horizon. And the United Kingdom Independence Party, well... what to say about UKIP? Their leader was laughed at in debate - before resigning after the vote. Their vote collapsed. They lost the majority of their deposits, when they had only forfeited 80 in 2015. Their party organisation is reportedly falling apart as the whole apparatus collapses back into a now-natural Conservative home for many of its ideas. It is hard to see them continuing, in any way, shape or form, as a real force - unless a 'soft Brexit' deal revives their fortunes. Even then, their credibility and the whole point of them seems to have been erased. If nothing big changes, they're yesterday's party.

Orange, green, purple: they are all draining out of the landscape as the two big giants fight it out, while in Scotland the gold tide of the SNP has abated and fallen back. Two party politics appears back with a vengeance - but with one massive caveat. Both of these huge new coalitions are very fragile. If Prime Minister Theresa May falls, and a new leader makes a break for (effectively) associate EU membership, lots of the Conservatives' new blue-collar and working-class adherents may break away. Alternatively, if Labour votes for a hard Brexit package that makes no concessions whatsoever on the Customs Union or Single Market, lots of young Remainers are going to react with fury (recall their anger when Labour merely voted to trigger Article 50). Yes, right now it looks like we might be heading back to the 1950s. But politics is speeding up. Don't be surprised if the kaleidoscope shifts again.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Learning from the General Election


So… about that General Election, then. It didn’t quite work out as most people thought, and it certainly didn’t go down the way Prime Minister Theresa May (above) hoped it might. When we started, a huge Conservative landslide looked on the cards. By the time it was all finished, the Conservatives had lost their majority, their momentum – and a lot of their self-confidence. We hold no brief for Mrs May, of course, a Prime Minister who it is hard to define amidst the cloud of wordy vagueness and nasty devils-in-the-detail her team have always put out in lieu of a coherent programme. But this was against our expectations – and forecasts – too. So we have to take a look at how reality caught up with our projections.

Our main working assumption was that British voters would never warm to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. We didn’t just come up with this idea off the top of our heads. That’s what the evidence said. He is the only British political leader to have never had a positive rating. His polling numbers started bad, worked their way down to appalling, and then disappeared through a trapdoor. So did Labour’s. Actual elections were, if anything, even worse for Labour. The 2016 locals, which were Labour’s worst in Opposition for thirty years. The 2017 local and mayoral votes, which were so bad that Labour supporters all feared that the party could be wiped out in short order. The by-elections – Witney, Richmond, Sleaford – in which Labour could record only pitiful scores. And most of all, Copeland, the worst by-election for an Opposition on some measures for over a century.

All the evidence pointed in one direction. We reported it. We explained what it meant: that Labour was dicing with a terrible defeat. So on one level there will be absolutely no eating of humble pie here whatsoever. Let others eat the crow. If anything, we were repeatedly far too bullish about Labour’s prospects. We thought that they could not possibly come third in the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament. They did. We thought that Mr Corbyn’s Labour could not conceivably lose Copeland. They lost it. We weren’t convinced that they would lose hundreds of councillors last May. They lost over 300. Our main regret? We didn’t shout louder, longer and more persistently about how badly Labour were doing. We failed to keep up with the shocking scale, scope and speed of their political implosion, a chain reaction which continued unabated until about a month before polling day.

There is all the difference in the world between regretting that your forecasts weren’t borne out, and apologising for them. The latter implies bad faith, deliberate misinterpretation, statistical cherrypicking. But there was none of that. We hunted high and low for evidence that we were wrong – something that we admitted was quite possible. We looked atlocal by-elections: a persistent swing against Labour. At opinion polls: historically, a Labour Opposition’s worst ever. At Liberal Democrat performance: rising, inevitably, after their victory in Richmond. We listened to rumour. We read about Labour’s own canvassing and its private analysis. It was all like a searchlight in the sky, and it was shining on a sign saying: Labour’s in dire trouble here.

The worst case scenario did not transpire. Labour went forward, by 30 seats and nearly ten per cent in their share of the vote. We are indeed very sorry that all the evidence proved to be worthless as a pointer to the final result. But apologies are not the point. Anyone can write ‘I was wrong’ – before writing a load more columns full of confident predictions. The really necessary thrust is explanation. Why did nearly every single piece of data that came in for eighteen months not accord with the final result when it was revealed by the exit poll a week ago? This blog will attempt to pick out a few reasons, in no particular order, as our contribution to that debate.

One last point, though, before we dive in: this analysis should be made to work in two directions. That is to say, Mr Corbyn’s supporters also have to take a good, hard look at themselves and ask: why didn’t we win? Why are we still 64 seats from an overall majority, and 60 MPs from a working majority? What parts of our analysis were wrong, or came up short of right enough – the comeback in Scotland (where Labour picked up six new MPs), young people’s renewed enthusiasm for politics, their attempt to attract ‘traditional’ Labour voters back from UKIP? Because although some of this does seem to have happened last week, it wasn’t enough to put Labour in power – always and forever the only hallmark of actual success. Labour actually seems to have gone backwards among working class voters, at least relative to the Conservatives, who did well with this part of the electorate. A bit of humility is always a good thing. Everyone should join in.

Anyway, here’s our six reasons why Labour outperformed our expectations at this election. They’re in no particular order, except perhaps the first one, and they also end with a lesson. Everyone needs lessons. Learning is better than apologising.

Punching voters in the face. The single most important fact about this election is that the Conservative campaign was dire. In fact, it wasn’t just dire: it was so bad that it amounted to professional negligence. Every day you watched and wondered whether Mrs May was a Corbynite sleeper agent. Not a single outside consultant should get paid for this one if Conservative HQ can avoid it. The whole thing was a total stinker. First the Conservatives emphasised Mrs May’s own rather dour character as a national leader. Fair enough. She was pretty popular. But then they blew up the whole thing on the launchpad by announcing plans for elderly social care that their core voters hated, and which forced her into a humiliating u-turn that she said changed nothing. Voters don’t like being taken for fools. They already suspected that the snap election was designed just to crush Labour (it was). Now they were being asked to view this fiasco as ‘strong and stable leadership’. The bonds of loyalty and admiration snapped, over just a few days. Take a look at YouGov’s famous (and vindicated)seat-by-seat model if you don’t believe us. Before the manifesto: a goodly-sized Conservative majority. Afterwards: a Hung Parliament. In some ways, that’s the whole story, right there. Conservatives, of all people, came sniffing round the value of older voters’ houses – just about the worst possible thing you can do in a country that has no religion but house prices. Voters didn’t like it. So the Tories junked the whole thing and said they never meant it – without saying what they’d put in their place. Funnily enough, you don’t win many elections poking voters in the eye with a stick, and then telling them you might do it again – at the price of promising that you might not gouge their other eye out quite so hard.

Campaigner Corbyn. We could just leave it there, with a defiant raspberry to Corbynite critics. But that would be entirely disingenuous. It would not truly examine what has gone on, nor reflect on what we have got wrong. What we didn’t see, or overlooked because of our prior assumptions. Here’s the next element in this astonishing turnaround: Jeremy Corbyn is a very good campaigner. Not amazing, but impressive. He knows how to seem accessible, avuncular, cheery, on the crest of a wave. He knows how to address the crowds, in his own inimitable style. He looks for all the world like a man of principle, a beacon of authenticity in a complicated world just full of people who’ll play you false. He makes every other public figure – Andy Burnham, Owen Smith, Theresa May – seem like just what they are: politicians, worried about saying the wrong thing in case they contradict one of their colleagues… or themselves. Yes, Mr Corbyn is a man of principle all right: an anti-poverty campaigner content to leave the working poor suffering under their welfare cap while he bails out high-income graduates; a career politician who was against NATO before he was for it; a man whose electoral gains were powered by Remainers, voters whose cause he deliberately betrayed in 2016; a human rights paragon who refuses to single out Presidents Putin or Assad for criticism; an 'unspun' leader whose advisors grope for a form of hyper-spun wordery about protecting everyone when he comes under pressure about national security; a leader, in short, who serves up a main course of humbug with a side-order of slightly sinister historical revisionism. We’re not going to let up on his actual views, by the way: once you see the trick involved, like one of those pictures that’s a vase and also two faces, it’s hard to unsee it. But one thing’s for sure: all those rallies? They looked like gold on television. They worked. Mr Corbyn is easy in his skin, and growing in confidence. He looks and speaks like a human being. Mrs May doesn’t. Therein lies another part of the tale.

No-one watches the qualifying rounds. You don’t need us to tell you that Labour’s been in a state for nearly two years. As farce followed drama, and imbroglio built on embarrassment, it just got worse and worse. Who can forget the constant Shadow Cabinet reshuffles that never were, and sometimes never even ended? The PR disasters, the gaffes and the u-turns? The resignations, the confusion, the rows over anti-semitism, the suspensions, the lists of friends and enemies left in the bar? Oh yes, it was all there. But here’s the thing: no-one was really watching. Your common-or-garden political obsessive (that’s you we’re talking about) watched the whole thing, and every day shook their head while saying ‘they’ll never, ever come back from all this’. Most normal people? They didn’t really care. They got the overall impression that Mr Corbyn and his party were quarrelling and incompetent, but that was about it. By the time they started paying attention, Labour’s top team had been left to it by MPs who thought they could safely trust them to mess it all up. They looked a bit more united. And Mr Corbyn had cut his hair, bought a new suit and honed his debating technique. Voters took a whole new look at Labour and its leader – and they quite liked what they saw. Most importantly, they had gained the impression that Mr Corbyn would come in, trip over his shoelaces and then smash his head on the stage. When he came over as quite interesting – musing over any issue you cared to explore with him, with a dash of humour and self-awareness – they thought ‘this guy’s not so bad’. Yes, it was a low bar. But he cleared it. As Mrs May’s numbers crashed, his rose and rose, until the two lines met in the middle and then passed each other. He’d neutralised his leadership problem: the Conservatives had helped him reduce the problem’s previously-gargantuan size, but he’d shrunk it down himself too.

The big bazooka. On top of all that, Labour came out with a manifesto that most people liked. Nationalising the railways? Popular. Abolishing tuition fees? Also popular. Keeping free school meals for infants? You’ve guessed it – popular. Social care for the elderly? Don’t worry, Labour’s got it covered. Just ask yourself this: if you were a middle aged couple with two children who wanted to go to university, and you were worried about two sets of elderly parents who might need nursing help at home, why would you not vote Labour? What we’re talking about here is the Government handing over £50,000 in free university fees, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds of the capital gain built up in parents' houses. From this point of view, it’s astonishing that every single middle income person in the country didn’t queue up outside Labour HQ asking to be granted four or five votes. Labour should have got 80% of the vote. Amidst all the talk of young people and students coming out to vote in unprecedented numbers, what is being missed is the massive movement of thirtysomethings over to Labour – a trend that was especially pronounced amongst women, who of course often have to do all the work of caring for elderly relatives if no-one wants to pay for it. Young people’s turnout was up, but not to the extent that rumour made it: and there are nowhere near enough young people to win it for anybody, even if they all voted. The middle aged and the middle incomed did it for Labour, and they did it because Labour was brave enough to take a punt on middle class universalism. All kudos to them: they spotted the gap in the market and they ran with it. Labour: it’s better than being poked in the eye with a stick.

A menu without choices. For Labour’s voters to finally desert the party, they had to have somewhere to go. For a few moments over the winter, that looked like just such challengers were getting their boxing gloves sorted out. The Liberal Democrats thought that they could ride a wave of pro-Europeanism, gobbling up loads of angry Remainers from among Labour ranks. The United Kingdom Independence Party thought they could take chunks out of the Labour vote from its other flank, peeling off socially conservative Leavers in traditional Labour constituencies across Wales, the Midlands and Northern England. Well, now we know that those plans have ended in failure. The Liberal Democrats edged up for a while after their triumph in Richmond Park back in December: it did look for a moment like they could bring over liberal and cosmopolitan social liberals to their banner. Then? It all went wrong. They did poorly in this year’s local elections, as the blue tide of Conservatism carried all before it. Their momentum stalled. They started to look irrelevant, and then at the crucial moment their (now ex-) leader Tim Farron got embroiled in endless questions over his personal moral views. He regained his composure later in the campaign, even landing some blows of his own, but the Liberal Democrats never felt the wind at their backs again. Remain voters looked at them and said to themselves: could they really help us slow or stop Brexit? Once the answer was no, any sort of general breakthrough was beyond them. As for UKIP, well, two words: Paul Nuttall. Labour skewered him at the Stoke Central byelection in February – even more than he managed to skewer himself, which is saying something. UKIP never proved they had any sort of point beyond Brexit. Their vote collapsed as soon as Mrs May emerged as the champion of a tough approach to leaving the EU, and they never came back. Labour voters gradually and reluctantly coalesced around their ‘home’ party, providing a sound, solid basis for the later Labour surge on the back of both Lib Dem Remainers and Ukippy Leavers. Dislike the Tories? There didn’t seem to be any alternative but Labour.

Mind your language. What all the above says is: everything depends. We thought Labour doomed to terrible defeat, and almost every single day brought data that backed up just that case. But then Mr Corbyn decided to put in a late effort, making a deep if sudden impression on voters who had absorbed only the vague concept that he was a bit rubbish. His team went for broke with some really, really big spending pledges. And if Labour was going to get hammered, it needed opponents to perform the beating. The Conservatives’ campaign disappeared down a rabbithole. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP never even got that far. That reveals an important constant that we should have taken more care over: context is all. The closed nature of the language we originally used to describe the likelihood of Labour’s retreat is striking in this respect.  We said in September 2015 that ‘Labour under Corbyn will be lucky to drag its boats off the electoral beaches in a Dunkirk-style electoral disaster’. They’d probably return only 180 to 200 MPs, we said. Well, if that language had been more sensitive, more contingent, more focused on the ifs and whats and maybes, that would have been a perfectly respectable judgement. But you need to build in a sense of possibility, to say things like ‘unless the Conservatives collapse in division, or there’s a huge recession’, or some other qualifying clause that sounds like a cop-out, but only reflects uncertainty. Advice to self: next time, make sure you say that it is most likely to go down like this, that and the other, but that there are clear and discrete situations – that we can specify and imagine – in which the course of events might go off in a different direction. Historians should understand the nature of politics, as against the structural factors beloved of some other disciplines. We lost sight of some of that. The last few weeks have changed the end result, despite the very strong likelihood even at the start of the campaign that Labour was going to get an awful mauling. There’s a lesson there.

These are just a few random jottings towards a more fully worked-out version of the story. Views will evolve. We’ll cover some more factors – falling wages, declining house prices, the role of social media – next week. But the gap between forecast and endpoint is fascinating. It tells us a lot about how modern campaigns might now work, confounding our expectations about mid-term performance and eventual vote share. Figuring out how to reassess everything now will be an absorbing task. It’s more important than blame, apology or positioning. It should also be, well, great fun.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Brexit storm clouds gather once more


As this General Election draws to a close, there’s a palpable sense of relief settling across the whole country. Everyone’s exhausted. We’ve been put through the Scottish independence referendum in the autumn of 2014, the General Election of 2015, the EU referendum in 2016 and now we’ve been pushed into this offputting mudbath. Everyone needs a holiday. There is, unfortunately, the prospect that they might not get one.

As the polls narrow, and Labour unexpectedly outperform their 2010 and 2015 scores in those polls, the prospect of a Hung Parliament is growing. It’s just a nasty black cloud on the horizon for now – it’s not the most likely outcome – but it could well happen. If some of the closer polls are right, Prime Minister Theresa May (above) will lose her majority on Thursday night. She’ll then have to live hand-to-mouth, relying perhaps on any Liberal Democrats that remain, and on eight to ten Ulster Unionists, if she wants to get any legislation through. There’s a smaller – but non-negligible – chance that Jeremy Corbyn might be able to cobble together a five- or six-party alliance to shut the Conservatives out of Downing Street, before attempting to head a new government himself.

Either path is fraught with danger if we’re interested in good public policy. As other issues have inevitably crowded in on this election, they’ve blotted out the only thing that is going to happen in the next Parliament. That’s: negotiations setting up the interim arrangement to cover us through the first phase of Brexit; legislation preparing the way for that moment; further talks towards a final deal; and domestic regulation and law-making designed to give legal effect to our disentanglement from our forty-plus years of union with our neighbours. If you really care about the National Health Service, schools, the labour market, immigration, productivity – all the bread and butter issues – how we handle Brexit is by far the most important element. Many voters seem to think that it’s a done deal – a fait accompli they can bank and move on. They’re going to get a nasty surprise if no-one can string together a stable government after this week.

A Hung Parliament would make managing Brexit almost impossible. First, any government will need to get what they call a Great Repeal Bill through, in order to bring European Law onto the British statute book, while enabling Ministers to change elements of this body of law via statutory orders – the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ that will prove controversial in and of themselves. It’s hard to see how Ministers will bring down the guillotine on debate without a majority, and harder still to envisage them bringing the whole thing through committee. That will leave the legal basis of European regulation when we leave highly, highly uncertain – and open up the whole process to capture by a few enraged Eurosceptical backbenchers.

Then, any set of Ministers will have to get the final settlement – perhaps involving the payment of tens of billions of Euros just toget out – through the House of Commons. No Conservative Prime Minister will bring such a deal before the Commons if they have no majority. It won’t get through. They would have to rely on Labour MPs (if such co-operation was offered). They would split the party asunder, as they did over the Corn Laws in the 1840s or over Tariff Reform at the turn of the century. They won’t do it.

Reluctant as Ministers – of any party – would be to return to the polls (let alone the public), another General Election would become highly likely. That in itself would take more valuable time off the Article 50 clock that is already counting down to March 2019 – and perhaps just end in another confused and unpleasant political scuffle. Or, alternatively, if no majority can be found for the details of the Repeal Bill and the settlement, Conservatives Ministers will just shrug and crash us out of everything. If there is no majority forthcoming on Thursday, a chaotic or ultra-Brexit becomes all that much more likely.

That’s also the case if Labour manage to scrape home with the help of the Scottish National Party, Northern Ireland’s SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the (likely) one Green MP. The SNP want Britain to stay in the Single Market (or, at the least, for Scotland to do so). That is at odds with Labour’s commitment to end the free movement of people. It’s hard to see how such a grouping could hold together for very long, even if Mr Corbyn had the managerial and Parliamentary skills to lead it - none of which he showed as Leader of the Opposition. He would no doubt prefer to serve as a figurehead, as his trumpeting of Labour’s Brexit ‘team’ has shown. He would find that there is no hiding place for a Prime Minister. He will have to stitch things up between the SNP and Labour when their MPs fall out – as fall out, constantly, they will. It will be Mr Corbyn as PM that does the last-minute deal with Angela Merkel – if there is one. His passionate desire to change Britain on the home front won’t and can't last in those circumstances, because it’s contrary to what we used to call, well... reality.

One of the most cynical of Labour’s evasions in this campaign is the fact that the party has tried to avoid all this. Water and energy nationalisation? A National Education Service? A massive infrastructure effort? A new Higher Education Bill to replace the whole structure of fees and regulation? None of it is going to happen, especially given English Votes for English Laws (the SNP MPs would be barred from voting on 'domestic' English and Welsh legislation). The civil service is critically understaffed and desperate for help with Brexit as it is. There is no capacity to do anything that Labour is talking about. They’ll be lucky to get time to feed El Gato the cat. Those young people moving from the Liberal Democrats to Labour, hoping to derail a Conservative Hard Brexit (or even stymie the whole process), and hoping to see a deep and wide attack on inequality, will be bitterly disappointed. Again. One wonders how long any society can go on, year after year after year, ignoring what young people think in the interests of the old.

It’s easy to sympathise with the electorate. Two pitiful and dishonest manifestos have been backed up only by some of the most disingenuous campaigning that the United Kingdom has ever seen. Take the issue of security, first among many perhaps while the UK is under constant terrorist attack. The Prime Minister comes out and talks at the lectern in Downing Street, firing off some policy proposals while pretending that she is not campaigning, and indeed while partisan events were supposed to have been suspended for the day. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition tries to pretend as if he is some trusted guardian of public safety, rather than a maverick outsider who’s voted against pretty much every anti-terrorist measure he’s ever considered – puzzling over a form of mere words that will ward off questions about defence until after Thursday. This after giving a long, and to be fair thoughtful, speech in which he said there were loads of reasons for the rise of Islamist extremism (true) before launching off on his pet thesis: that it’s mainly the fault of Western foreign policy (untrue). There’s a word for the way these two people have behaved over our terror laws and foreign policy: it’s a disgrace.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn look pretty similar through this frame: two fireworks that shot off into the sky before falling to earth like a stick in the park. Dear reader: unfortunately, you’re the dog running off to pick one of them up. Sorry about that.

But that’s no excuse to look away from the dangers of saying ‘a plague on all your houses’, and denying all of them a way of triangulating our way out of the EU that doesn’t leave us much, much poorer. That way lies political paralysis, and then a disorderly and discrediting retreat from the European alliances that we still retain. It’s been a dispiriting election. What follows, if we do fall into Hung Parliament purgatory, may well be even worse.