Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The odd tale of Labour's rising poll numbers

Britain's local elections were pretty much a triumph for the Conservatives, as we outlined last week. And the party looks more than on course to win the General Election on 8 June with a substantially larger majority. But relatively unnoticed, and against expectations, the main Opposition Labour Party's numbers have begun to creep up - and by quite a lot. From their pitiful position in the mid-20s, and after a year in which they'd crept downwards in the polls almost every single week, there's been a sudden reversal of lots of those losses. Now you might very crudely say that the party sits on about 30 per cent in the polls - a big and meaningful improvement. What's behind this rather better news for the red team? Let's take a look.

Let Corbyn be Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn was an abysmal Leader of the Opposition. He only escapes the moniker 'worst since 1945' via the sheer existence of Iain Duncan Smith, a man so unsuited to winning over actual voters that Michael Howard seemed like a ray of sunshine. Lethargic, laggardly and frankly uninterested in Parliament, Mr Corbyn's leadership style meant he couldn't even stock a Labour Front Bench with people willing to work with him, let alone take on the Government. But freed from the constraints of boring old stuff like meetings, agendas, briefings and numbers, he looks much better. He likes campaigning. He clearly enjoys it. The small- to medium-sized slice of the country that likes his brand of socialism warm to him. They buoy him up. His confidence grows, and so he gives better speeches. Standing on the stump shouting about 'evil Tories', and surrounded by adoring crowds (above), he looks better on TV too. There's a little bit of enthusiasm and excitement to the images coming out of Labour - along with some very popular policies (and savvy media tricks) that have garnered the party really good headlines for day after day after day. All of which means that Mr Corbyn's numbers have begun to improve as he gets a tick from voters thinking 'at least he seems passionate. At least he seems to believe what he says'. Most voters haven't paid all that much attention to him before. Now they take their first looks, they think 'he's not quite as bad as people say'. Let's not get carried away. His polling is still dire. But he's climbed out of a polling dungeon and made it to a set of dingy underground library stacks. Next stop: the basement.

Campaigning in prose. You can contrast this fly-by-night style with that of the Prime Minister. Whisper it softly (and we've noted this before), but Theresa May is a terrible campaigner. Stiff, starchy, heavy on her feet, ill-at-ease with people, it's actually hard not to feel a little bit sorry for her personally - thrust into a campaigning environment in which she is obviously no natural. She appears only in empty factories, in front of Conservative activists, meeting local businesspeople, all the while trying to keep a grimace from her face. Eating chips? Going to a market? Talking to real people? She looks like she's never done any of it before in her whole life. Added to this are some vote-shedding blunders. Now Mrs May has votes a-plenty. She can probably afford to lose five points, let alone worry about Labour adding that amount, before she even needs to shift out of neutral. But remember two things about the British electorate. One: it's quite old, and getting older very rapidly. Two: Brits are on the whole a breed of animal-lovers. Refusing to commit to the triple lock on raising state pensions (by the greater of inflation, wages or 2.5%), and talking about bringing back fox hunting, amount to basically throwing some votes away because you know you can get away with it. But they won't attract many more Labour switchers, that's for sure.

Labour returnees. Our overwhelming impression of this election is that this country is chock full of Labour waverers - people who say 'well, I'm normally Labour, but I don't like Jeremy'. That has been confirmed to us anecdotally, from canvassing rumours, and in focus groups. It's just a standing fact. There's nothing Labour can do about that now: but what's helping them is Labour leaners returning 'home' now that there's a forced choice between 'Labour' (not 'Corbyn') and 'the Tories'. Labour's roots in England and Wales go very, very deep. It is the party of the National Health Service, public sector workers, The Guardian, The Mirror, the trade unions, the universities, teachers, social workers, liberals, socialists and more. And right now, they have nowhere else to go - especially as the Liberal Democrats' campaign seems oddly stalled (we'll come to them in another post). So they're reluctantly shuffling back into the red column. At the nadir of Labour's fortunes, when they polled just 23% in a YouGov poll on 12-13 April, just 68 per cent of Labour's 2015 voters were sticking with them. On the latest count, that's up to 80 per cent. In some ways, that's all you need to know. A good 30 per cent or so of the electorate might still just 'be' Labour, rather than choosing Labour - a remarkable achievement, when you come to think about it. It's not enough to win an election, sure, but it's still a big slice of the British people. Even Jeremy Corbyn couldn't alienate them. One wonders what would.

The return of two-party politics. Mr Corbyn and Mrs May are polarising figures, in a way, not so much in Mrs May's case because of her (almost entirely nugatory) political personality, but because of her apparent determination to lead a Hard Brexit government. Mr Corbyn enthuses young people, students and some disaffected middle class professionals - but almost no-one else. Still, you know (or think you know) what they stand for. In a complex age made all the more confusing by a blizzard of information on social media, they have 'cut through' - for good or ill. Their opponents seem paralysed. The United Kingdom Independence Party are completely eclipsed by the Conservatives' new ownership of all that UKIP used to stand for. The Liberal Democrats attempt to stand as 'the party of Europe', although pretty much all that was open to them as definition and campaign tool, seems to be failing because most Britons accept their fate outside the European Union with some equanimity. UKIP is losing vote share hand over fist, while the Lib Dems have (less noticeably) lost a couple of points. And although a lot of that UKIP vote is boosting the Conservatives, a slice of it will go back from whence it came - the Labour Party - as some of the council results from a couple of weeks back suggest. Labour is not only being boosted by its returnees: it's probably put on two per cent or so from UKIP and Lib Dem defectors.

Let's not over-egg the pudding here. Right now, Labour looks likely to lose about sixty to around eighty seats. All of this looks very much like the 1987 campaign, when a very weak and divided Labour Party surprised everyone with an energetic campaign that, for just a moment and in a trick of the light, even looked like it might carry the day. A mix of Labour returnees and UKIP-Lib Dem switchers is likely, geographically, to see the Labour vote hemmed into the party's heartlands and cities. They might lose even more seats than looks possible right now if that does indeed turn out to be the case, or those soft Labour voters do indeed decide to stay at home (note that in a way this would not be 'polling error' as such, but just Labour voters failing to turn up on the day... yet again).

Labour could lose scores of MPs even if they match their 2015 vote share of 31.2 per cent. And this little bump might be for nothing. It might peter out. The Conservatives are riding so, so high that just a bit of backsliding between now and 8 June, Labour waverers not making it to the booths, or some good old-fashioned sampling error could still turn a very, very bad defeat into a catastrophe. But Labour are definitely rising in the polls. We're not quite sure about the exact admixture of reasons. That's what makes the whole thing so fascinating.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Reeling from the Blue-Nami

So. Britain's local elections. We marked your card last week with many of the crunch results to look out for. Now we can go through them, ticking off the points on the sliderule as we use our key contests as a way of measuring the state of the parties.

What did we say last week? Well, we advised you to keep a look out for the new Metro Mayor contests in the West of England and the West Midlands - the first a three-way contest between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and the second a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. Then we said: can Labour keep control in Derbyshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Nottinghamshire? Can the Lib Dems seize Somerset and Devon? In Wales, could Labour keep control of Cardiff and Swansea in South Wales? And lastly, in Scotland, how big was the Conservative move forward likely to be? Could they win scores of councillors, especially in places that they might aim to win in June's General Election?

The answers are as follows: the Conservatives, astonishingly, beat these tests in almost every single case, with one significant exception that we'll come to in a moment. They won both those Metro Mayor contests. Only just, to be fair, but they did it. Since we said last week that even getting close in the West Midlands would be a sign of a quite frightening Labour retreat, we're going to have to stick to our guns: they are in big, big trouble. Note, if you will, that Labour failed to get enough preferences in the final round from other parties to close up the gap between them and the Conservatives from first choices. Although the Supplementary Vote is a confusing system that makes voters guess who will get into the runoff, that still shows that the party is becoming pretty toxic. Does anyone really think that Liberal Democrat voters will look favourably on co-operation with this particular brand of Labour Party? You need to get out more if you do.

The English local elections were, if anything, more worrying for both Labour and the Lib Dems. Those council contests we said Labour had to keep their noses ahead in? They got kicked around in every single one. Northumberland: leapfrogged. Nottinghamshire: supplanted. Lancashire: beaten. Cumbria: the same. Derbyshire: from outright control to Opposition. And so on. Basically, they got hammered. Things seem nearly as bad for the Lib Dems, despite months and months of local byelection gains that now seem like they were caused by care, attention and activism rather than a genuine groundswell of sentiment towards the party. The Liberal Democrat vote did go up from the last time these seats were fought in 2013, it's true: but it often rose in the wrong places, away from the wards and councils they used to be able to target - in the South West, for instance. They did poorly even in Bath; they failed to get very far in Cornwall; they stalled in Somerset. You get the picture. They ought to be getting more and more concerned. What is happening is that their advance is being outstripped by the Conservatives' moves forward, powered as they are by voters fleeing the United Kingdom Independence Party in their droves. As and when UKIP collapses altogether (and they got almost entirely wiped out in these elections), this will get worse and not better.

In Wales, Labour showed a bit of fight. It was pretty much the only place where they did, so it was noticeable. Labour Wales is in intensive care, but it's not quite dead yet. In line with much polling evidence showing some of their core vote firming up as we approach the forced-choice moment of a General Election, and with all the data we have showing them doing better in cities than in towns and villages, they did okay in Swansea (above), Newport and Cardiff, unexpectedly holding most of their territory against what had seemed like a concerted Conservative challenge. They are helped by the continuing weakness of the Liberal Democrats, here as in England; and by Plaid Cymru's continued inability to stage any sort of breakthrough. It's also hard to tell whether the large contingent of Independents in Welsh local government (who did very well) are concealing an 'anyone but Labour' vote in June. If they are, then the Conservatives will perform as well as the polling continues to suggest, perhaps powering them to a historic seats victory here in June. These results suggest that some of their really ambitious targets - Newport East, Cardiff West, Cardiff South - might lie just outside their grasp as the Conservative vote surges outside of urban South Wales. But then again, the electorate in June will look very different. Labour got away with it this time in Wales, just as they did in the 2016 Assembly election. Sooner or later, the dam might break.

Scottish voters were treated to a strange sight: like an aligning of some far-distant stars or a solar eclipse, the Conservative advance here took no-one by surprise, but was still a startling and jarring novelty worth taking a precise bearing on. No-one should get too carried away about all this: getting a quarter of the vote just takes the Scottish Tories back to the kind of position they expected to sit at during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before their total wipeout in 1997. But gaining 12 per cent since the last time these wards were up for grabs (in 2012) means that they are definitely getting somewhere, especially as the Scottish National Party appeared to undershoot its local government performance over the last two years. Just as we see in the Scottish opinion polls, the utter hegemony of the SNP high tide appears to have passed. It might come back again. Their vote might stick where it is. But for now, Scots Conservatives have cornered the market in aggressive, assertive Unionism, and it's working. Take a look at where they could win seats: in South Aberdeenshire, in the Borders, in Perthshire, and in Moray (that last one's a bit of a stretch). They did well in just those places. Their vote is not only going up: it's quite concentrated, the key to success to elections held under First Past the Post. Talk of twelve or even fifteen gains in June seems absurd - akin to the athletic boasting of an out-of-condition middle-aged man who's just started going to the gym again. But they're going to win a few seats. That'll boost Theresa May's unquestioned supremacy even further.

Your basic takeaway might be this: the Conservatives are, for now, carrying all before them. The Tory tanks are just steamrollering everyone, everywhere. Though the SNP is for now resisting the tide, even their defences are clearly weakening. The great Labour Party of the twentieth century is threatening to come apart entirely. The Liberal Democrats are just too weak and too small to get much lift-off. UKIP are dying. In that vacuum, the reassuring and soporific figure of Mrs May only has to stand still to win almost every race by a mile. Before Thursday, we thought we knew all this. Now we do know. It's going to take a huge change between now and the next polling day to alter any of this. Maybe the expenses scandal will blow up and taint the Conservative campaign. Maybe something else will intervene. But if nothing changes between now and 8 June, a massive great blue combine harvester is going to shred its way through the political landscape. Don't be surprised at the barren, exhausted soil it leaves behind.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

What should we look out for on Super Thursday?

So it was nice to have a holiday from blogging over Easter. We were looking forward to a nice quiet summer looking at some wonky-but-vital public policy questions. Has anything important been announced while we've been gone? Oh.

Well, despite the descending pall of despair prompted by yet another vote, we're going to try to keep our heads and stay on target - providing you with a bit of a handy guide as to what to expect while looking through the mind-bending seventies lava lamp that the next few weeks will at times resemble. Remember: numbers are your pal. The trend is your friend. Reason still applies. As the heat rises, just take a step back and ask: beyond the red mist, where have we got to really? How much have things really changed? The answer usually being: not far from where we started. And: not that much, really.

So it is with this Thursday's local elections across the United Kingdom. Most of the country is going to the polls, mostly to elect their local councillors, but also to pick a rash of inelegantly-titled but quite important Metro Mayors in some big cities. Those contests are important in their own right, of course, for local social services, elderly care, transport and planning: but they also tell us a great deal about the state of the parties. Every year since 2011, we've tried to give you a bit of an insight into what all this means. Then, it meant that Ed Miliband probably wasn't going to make it to No. 10. We were right. In 2012, the Liberal Democrats took the full brunt of public anger about coalition cuts: we predicted that they would one day have to meet in a shoebox. That wasn't too shoddy a prediction either. Last year, we thought that Labour would do quite poorly, failing to gain any purchase pretty much anywhere outside London. And so it proved - though they did better than some doomsayers believed they might.

This year? We're not going to try a prediction. There's no point. No doubt Labour will do fairly badly (though not quite catastrophically), the United Kingdom Independence Party will crash and burn compared to their 2013 high water mark, and the Conservatives will make gains. In Scotland, and despite some recent signs that enthusiasm for them has come slightly off the boil, the Scottish National Party will complete their demolition job on Labour, ending their control of major cities such as Glasgow - a major news story in its own right. So far, so simple. The only issue in doubt? It's by no means so clear how well the Liberal Democrats will do, because their recent run of great local by-election results makes them look great at this level - an impression undermined by their failure to get much of an upward lift in the national polling at all. But we'll know fairly soon. Friday will reveal all. 

It's probably more useful to help you with a clearing-house of what to look for as indicators of success and failure. As the cascade of numbers then rolls in, you'll have a rough-and-ready way of making your own mind up about victors and vanquished.

In England, if local byelections were our guide, election gurus Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher reckon that the Liberal Democrats will do well, but Labour will do very poorly: the former party might pick up just under 100 gains, while the latter lose perhaps 75 councillors - predictions that have been revised up (for the Lib Dems) and down (for Labour) in recent weeks as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have continued to surge in local byelections. The Lib Dems have ambitions to win majority control in Cornwall, and to wrest Somerset and Devon back from Conservative control. But for Labour as the formal and major party of Opposition to be losing seats while it's still some way below its councillor strength even when in government is some mean feat of underachievement, and points to a very poor result in June. Bear in mind also that the Rallings and Thrasher figures aren't particularly up-to-date, as there haven't been many local byelections for a few weeks: if the polls are to believed, things could be much worse for Labour given the deficit that now yawns between them and their main rivals. They could in theory lose more than 300 councillors. Even the Lib Dems would be hit by a surge in support for Theresa May, losing a handful of wards as the Conservatives carry all before them. This will be an interesting test. If Labour doesn't lose any councillors, or even gains a few on the back of UKIP's decline, then people will start talking as if it could hold on to many more marginals than predicted come the June General Election. In terms of councils, can Labour hold on to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, even as they probably lose overall control there? Can they stay in power (albeit in coalition) in Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumbria? Given that these are England's mainly-blue counties, Labour doesn't have all that much to defend - but can they keep their county councillor count above that of the Lib Dems? We'll soon know.

In terms of the English Metro Mayors, there are only really two that tell us all that much: the West of England contest, probably a three-way battle between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour; and the West Midlands match-up between the Conservatives and Labour (above). The Peterborough and Cambridge election is overwhelmingly likely to end in a Conservative victory, while Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley will almost certainly stay Labour. It's almost impossible to divine who'll come out on top in the West Midlands (just possibly Labour), while in Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire we'd mark your card for the Liberal Democrats and their ex-MP Stephen Williams, though that's quite frankly a complete guess based on local support for Remain at the EU Referendum, as well a dash or two of anecdote as well as Mr Williams' personal face recognition. One thing's for sure: if Labour even comes close to losing the West Midlands, given the 9.4 per cent lead it enjoyed there at the 2015 General Election, it's going to get hammered at the national polls in June. If they do actually lose their grip on this region, it portends a truly historic defeat (eight of its first fifty defences are in the West Midlands). And if the Lib Dems can get close to capturing the West of England Mayoralty, they have a real shot at taking back local marginals such as Thornbury and Yate and Bath. 

In Scotland, the SNP will continue its long march through Labour's old citadels. The last time these councils were fought over, in 2012, Labour still felt as if Scotland was its own domain or back yard in some way. Well, they don't feel like that now, that's for sure. Labour only lost out to the SNP by less than a single percentage point back in 2012, at a time when they were running some way ahead of their Nationalist rivals in General Election polling. Now, reduced to a pitiful remnant of their former selves and desperately fighting to hold on to their single Scottish MP in Edinburgh South, Labour can thank their lucky stars that they will be sheltered by the proportional voting system Scotland uses to elect local authorities. If they weren't, they might get wiped off the map altogether, Except them to get an almighty walloping anyway, despite their PR umbrella. The main interest here will be: is the apparent Conservative surge in Scotland, heralded by forecasts of anything between three and eleven gains in June, really going to see the Scottish Conservatives splash a whole load of blue back onto the map? Look here not just for how high their vote goes - can it get into the mid- to high-20s? - but also how concentrated it is, from South Aberdeenshire to Dumfries and Galloway. If they do really well in elections to those councils, and perhaps in Angus and Moray as well, they really could be heading for a breakthrough night on 8 June.

Last but by no means least, in Wales it does look as if Labour will lose lots of councillors. They did really well here in 2012, picking up 235 councillors and eight councils. So they're likely to drop back, especially as the latest polling coming out of Wales saw Labour on course for a historic kicking in June. Can it really be true that Welsh Labour will end up ten points behind the Conservatives come the General Election? And that the Conservatives will actually win the most seats in Wales, for the first time since the nineteenth century? Well, Thursday will give us some indication. The only poll we have of the local, as opposed to the Westminster, contest here shows Labour a couple of points ahead of the Conservatives, and therefore likely to hold on in some of the places that they might lose in June (but down from a 20-point lead in 2012). So if there's a narrow Labour lead, bearing out results from the same data used to construct the recent shock YouGov poll on Westminster voting intention, it does seem likely that the Conservatives will make deep inroads here come the general poll. Look for results coming out of Cardiff, Delyn and Alyn and Deeside if you want a rough-and-ready guide to how some of Labour's at-risk Welsh marginals might perform five weeks from now.

Overall, by this Friday evening we'll get at least some sharper - but still fuzzy - sense of the overall state of the parties. The coldest of cold takes will be this: 'ah, well, this and this doesn't match the polls, so they must be wrong'. Keep in mind that these are local elections. Lots of independents are standing. Loads of local issues are in play. Some voters will vote tactically when they look at the shape of their own council, and in ways that they might not when choosing a Prime Minister. In 1983 and 1987, for instance, the Conservatives ended the night on a projected national share of the vote 'only' three per cent and six per cent ahead of Labour. In General Elections just a month or so later, they ended up sixteen and eleven points ahead - a dichotomy that looks likely to remain in place this time. So if the Conservatives lead at all when you see academics discussing the national vote share - even by just a few points - then the opposition parties could still be in deep trouble. As Mike Smithson over at politicalbetting.com has pointed out, this time voters know that there's about to be a General Election (they didn't in 1983 and 1987), and so national preferences will indeed shape these contests more than most. But the qualitative signs above - rather than the raw numbers - should still give you a good impression of who's hot (and who's not) as we gear up for the national contest that's now upon us.

Lucky old us, eh?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Well, that's a wrap...

...until after Easter. This blogger is off to talk about British history, British politics and Brexit away from these shores. But never fear: we'll be back. Look for the next post here on Tuesday 2 May, when we'll be previewing the local and mayoral elections taking place that week.

Until then - just you look after yourselves, won't you?

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What lies ahead for England's universities?

Away from the storm and tempest of British national politics at the moment, the Government's Higher Education Bill has been struggling through both Houses of Parliament. That's been made all the more difficult because of Brexit, firstly because the Government don't have much time to think about anything else but its search for understanding and trade deals from Brussels to Washington; but also because the official Opposition are still trying to get themselves together after the traumas of the last eighteen months.

It's had a rough passage, at least in the Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, and there's a bit more of a spirit of fight on the Opposition benches. Their Lordships have in particular been very unkeen on the idea of linking the new Teaching Excellence Framework (the TEF) with raising university fees in line with inflation. Not only has the integrity of that process been giving a good elegant kicking in speech after speech, but the whole concept of linking indices of 'quality' with what Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can charge has come under sustained fire. What do these metrics mean, goes the argument? Should they really be linked to the very hard-to-capture idea of 'quality'? The different amounts that varied concepts of the 'good' course really cost? Different priorities for students at different stages, in different parts of the country, asking for different types of tuition given the emphasis on 'choice' that the Government is in the end trying to promote?

Their Lordships have a point. Many of the TEF metrics are well-designed and rigorous. But many of them - particularly the idea that post-education employment and salaries will be included - simply are not. Not only that, but the whole idea of poking a big stick around the sector rests on an offensive and deeply inaccurate picture encouraged by Ministers. This is the idea that much of the teaching in HE is poorly designed and sloppily delivered: cut and paste jobs from year to year, without innovation or deep rethinking. Not only is this entirely unproven: its emphasis on academic 'inertia', and the fight against it (carrying with it echoes of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's faux-populist campaigns on behalf of patients) is out of the ark. No-one who's actually been in a university these past two decades really thinks that they're something out of Brideshead Revisited, full of yellowing lecture notes and eccentric dons. No doubt there are a few holdouts, but we haven't seen any. It's Ministers themselves, with their bloviating over-emphasis on the Research Excellence Framework and its link to research funding, that have encouraged academics to peer away from the seminar room, and not lecturers themselves.

The real difficulty with the TEF is the emphasis on control, rather than the true liberty of new thinking and innovation: in this respect its innate complexity and hard-to-grasp innards may well make teaching worse, and not better. The problem is actually that we don't know where the bad soft spots are. But someone's job will be to find out and play that game: meaning that labelling teaching, rather than actual teaching, will zoom up the agenda. This is also, by the way, the reason why universities won't be allowed to charge vastly higher fees, however large the likely Conservative landslide at the next General Election: and why Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the like won't be allowed to go private: it would remove Ministers' powers to tinker, meddle and fiddle to their hearts' content.

Still, larger changes lie under the bonnet. The lifting of the cap in detail on student numbers four years ago means that universities are now engaged in a pile-them-all-in fight for student numbers on an unprecedented scale, especially as the falling birth rate around the turn of the century is right now pushing student numbers to new lows. That is creating universities' very own 'squeezed middle': strong but not overwhelmingly prestigious provincial universities that are losing out in recruitment as some Russell Group players massage down the real grades they will accept for entry, and who now look likely to be challenged by private providers after the Higher Education Bill reduces barriers to entering the sector. These institutions will have to specialise more, work more regionally and locally, build up their profiles on where they are good, and if we are honest perhaps cut back sectors where they are finding it harder. It'll be tough in the middle. Eventually, the rising birth rate from about the early 2000s onwards will mean that there are more than enough students to go around, and indeed as in the 1960s planners will again have to scramble to keep up - one good reason to keep whole fields and departments open now rather than pay all the startup costs when they have to be re-opened in ten years' time. But perhaps that would too rational for Westminster and Whitehall at the moment.

So the truth about what lies ahead is probably a little bit bland: rather more of the same, but speeded up. There's little doubt that the TEF will now indeed start to play a key role in university life, becoming ever more bureaucratised and unpopular in the HE sector itself even while it never gets particularly highly-regarded among applicants and parents; but the link with fees won't be that important, especially if inflation does remain relatively and historically low over the medium term. There seems little chance of any government in sight dramatically lifting the fees ceiling, which means that the direct cash incentives for doing 'better' on that imperfect metric will always be fairly low. So fees will gently rise, while some prestigious universities will be made to look foolish, because their view of themselves won't be matched by their lowly position in the TEF league tables.

Elsewhere, the 'squeezed middle' won't struggle so much as specialise, withdrawing from an all-in competition with the big battalions and settling for a more bespoke middleweight role, challenged in that ambition by some (but only some) new providers who will come in from the private sector and beef up numbers in specific areas such as law and publishing. And all the while, a great big wave of new students are waiting in the wings, building up from the trough of the next year or two and cresting impressively about 2030. It's not actually a very dramatic picture. But years of strain, slog and restraint lie ahead before all those new students ride to the rescue in the mid- to late-2020s. English universities will just have to tighten their belts and wait for the cavalry.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

No, Labour was not neck and neck with the Tories before the 'coup'

All political tribes live by myths and legends. Labour always talks about how Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. The Conservatives put up paintings of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. There are probably few depths of bathetic silliness that such conjuring tricks cannot case in a warm glow. No doubt one day, Brexiteers will thrill around camp fires to the Tale of Two-Faced Boris and How He Slew His Friend. Or Gove the Brave, and How He Slew His Friend. Anyway, we digress.

The point is that it's perfectly natural for political movements, parties, even fragments of both or either, to tell themselves stories. They gee up the faithful. They encourage the doubters. Problems only really emerge when this process is either deliberately hothoused, like tulips in winter, by leaders who should know better. Or when those tales prevent the group seeing themselves, even for a moment, as they truly are or as others see them. Gods are fine. False gods? Not so much.

So it is with one of the most pernicious political myths of our time: that the UK Labour Party was 'neck-and-neck' with the Conservative Party (or might even have occasionally edged into the lead) in opinion polls running up to last year's European Union referendum. That there was then a deliberate 'coup' mounted by Labour MPs which so damaged Labour that the progress it was making - its emerging parity with the Government - was wiped out by a string of Shadow Cabinet and Front Bench resignations, a long leadership contest and a lot of bad, bad political blood. You can read this line as pushed by Left-wing pressure group Momentum here. You can read the reported remarks of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the matter here. Here's a good example of a left-wing blog (from last year) saying the same thing. Here's Paul Mason from last summer, saying that Labour and the Conservatives were 'neck and neck' then.

There's one main glaring problem with this view: it isn't true. Labour was certainly never ahead, and the most respected experts in the field have baldly judged that '[the] frequent claims that Labour were equal to (or even ahead of) the Tories before Labour’s leadership troubles erupted... [are] disingenuous... at best, and seem... to rest wholly upon cherry-picking individual polls'.

Now let's leave aside the vexed question of the word 'coup' here. Probably there were some elements of a 'coup' about the whole thing. Quite a lot of Labour MPs had been waiting for some way to overturn the party's new-old dispensation, and in the immediate aftermath of the Remain campaign's failure thought they had found it. But the 'riot of despair' that overtook the Parliamentary Labour Party had so, so many more elements to it, reaching all the way from the Leftest of the Soft Left to the hardest of Blairites, that 'coup' is a vastly inadequate and misleading term for it. Maybe we'll write about that at more length someday.

Let's focus instead on the polling numbers, and the logic behind them. First, take a look at the chart above. This is all the polling from the calendar year 2016, showing the main two parties' ratings on a six-poll rolling average. The first thing we see? The Labour line never touched the Conservative line. They were not 'neck-and-neck'. The reason we use the average from many polls is that polls are subject to so-called 'normal' error: if two parties were truly about as popular as one another, you would expect quite a few showing the red team three points ahead, and about the same number showing the blue team three points up, as well as quite a few in between and many others showing a dead heat. Did we ever, ever see that? No, we did not.

There were only ever three polls that showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives. These were all reported by the polling company YouGov, on 17 March, 12 April and 26 April. They showed Labour ahead by one point, and then twice by three points. There was one more poll that showed the two parties dead level, carried out by Survation for The Mail on Sunday and published on 25 June. That's it. All the other polls, for the whole of the first half of the year leading up to Hilary Benn's sacking in the early hours of 26 June, showed Labour behind. That's simply not the pattern you'd see if parties were truly 'neck-and-neck'. Case closed.

Case-even-more-closed, point one: Labour's slide did not begin on 26 June. Rather, it had begun more than two and a half months earlier. Labour's poll rating 'peaked' at an average of 33.7% on 1 April: it had already fallen to 31.2% by 26 June. The smallest average Conservative lead was one per cent, registered on 12 April: this had already opened up slightly, to 2.7%, by the time the Shadow Cabinet began to disintegrate in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Not only that, but this was but one more passage in Labour's medium-term collapse, having peaked at nearly 43% in the immediate wake of George Osborne's catastrophic 'Omnishambles Budget' during the spring of 2012. Their average now? About 27%, on a glidepath that hasn't seen great big dramatic falls in support, but a slow, gradual, painful retreat that suggests structural, not directly political (and certainly not high political) causes.

Cause-even-more-closed, point two: yes, Labour did get quite near to the Conservatives in the spring (not the summer) of 2016. But that was not due to any great surge in enthusiasm for socialism, Parliamentary or otherwise. The reason we've just put the word 'peaked' in quotation marks is that 33.7% was an absolutely pathetic rating for Britain's main Opposition, as we noted at the time. Such a polling number always suggested, on a historical basis and using the very best numbers we could scratch up, a pretty bad defeat. That closer gap that we see from late March to late June 2016? That looks rather like a quick Conservative tumble from around 38% on the eve of Mr Osborne's 2016 Budget (delivered on 16 March) to 33.5% at the moment of the Brexit vote. It looks, in that context, less like a surge in Labour's support, which went up by less than two points between the period immediately preceding the Budget to its molehill-like 'peak' on 1 April.

None of which should be a surprise. Because what had happened in the interim? Oh, just the matter of the most popular Conservative politician in the country coming out against the Conservative Prime Minister's flagship policy on Europe. And the Chancellor's Budget cutting benefits for disabled people, causing the Work and Pensions Secretary to resign. And the Conservative Party (including the Cabinet itself) tearing itself apart over Brexit. Oh, and the Prime Minister admitting that he'd used a tax haven for a family inheritance. That's all. And the Conservatives, by the way, still couldn't throw away their polling lead.

So those posts on Facebook that you see, saying that 'if only it hadn't been for the coup, we'd have been okay'? Those Twitter eggs that pop up telling you that Labour were toe-to-toe with the Tories in the spring of 2016? They are reflecting densely-woven webs of spin shot out by long-serving politicians who should know better, and they are telling not stories but fairytales - all the better not to see themselves with. Actual history, written by actual historians, says something very different.

Yes, we're wasting our breath - we usually are - but Labour was not, ever, 'neck-and-neck with the Tories before the coup'. If anyone says they were, you can link to this page. You can paste up this blogpost. You can quote these figures. You can send them to us. Don't mention it. It's a public service.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

British social democracy in crisis

Most politics commentary is impoverished in two ways. It is geographically parochial and temporally anachronistic. It can see neither the big view nor the long view. It is obsessed with the latest rivalries, the newest personalities, the most novel ups and downs. So the Labour Party's deep travails focus on the struggle between its MPs and leader. On the latest reshufflings within constituency parties or in the National Executive Committee. Whatever today's latest bit of shouting involves.

But zoom back, and Labour is actually in the grip of an acute crisis within social democracy itself. And these apparently-insoluble dilemmas are not happening in Britain alone. The Greek Socialists were wiped out by that country's financial crisis. The Dutch Labour Party took a tremendous beating last week. The French Socialists are about to lose the presidency, either to a charismatic centrist or to the far right. At its base, social democratic coalitions have always tried to reach out to everyone (above) - professional people, working people, the young, the old, men and women, all nations within a state - because social progress is thought to benefit everyone. More recently, this has increasingly come to mean finding the glue that will stick the instincts of liberal urban dwellers to more socially conservative voters in small and medium-sized towns. For a number of reasons - large-scale immigration, rapid cultural change, a yawning age gap in the attitudes of the generations, stagnating wages, you name it - those links are coming apart.  It may not be possible to hold them together for much longer.

That's just the start of British social democracy's many crises. The Scottish National Party has routed it in its historic fastnesses of urban Scotland. The English nationalism encoded within the United Kingdom Independence Party has tempted away many voters in England's provinces. The rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is another challenge that the entire British state - and its generally redistributive alliance of four unlikely economic partners - is struggling to meet. Okay, the Welsh Nationalists of Plaid Cymru have made but little progress recently (opens as PDF), but Wales is the only part of the UK where political nationalism seems still relatively weak. If it does not serve as a lobby for the poorest parts of the UK - Northern Ireland, say, South Wales, or the Eastern fringes of Glasgow - it is far from clear that Labour has any mission anyway. Want to see how a Labour Party does when all politics is a struggle within and between different visions of 'the nation'? Look no further than the Republic of Ireland, where it has only ever come third.

Labour is also faced with a terrible, tragic dilemma over Brexit, not so much because Labour constituencies were particularly divided between Remain and Leave (Conservative seats were nearly as split), but because so many of the voters Labour has now were Remain, and so many they need in the future were for Leave. Last but not least, Labour has essentially evolved into two parties, which seem to know as little of one another as if they are two nations. The first, made up of long-standing members who joined before 2015, are loyal to a certain idea of the party as a receptacle for progressive, reforming, legislative hopes for incremental change. They want to make the country better gradually. The second, constituted mostly of more recent members, hopes to totally remake at least the party - and, perhaps in some hopeful future, Britain itself - in the heat of a charismatic tilt at social justice at home and peace abroad. They should probably split. They can't, because the electoral system means that they would both suffer more than if they stay together. So both sides have to tolerate a flatshare from hell. There really does now seem little to bind them together. The great trade unions, and in particular the mega-union Unite, would once have formed one bridge across which ideas could cross: but with Unite in the hands of one side of Labour's ongoing civil war, that now seems impossible.

Keep in mind that parties die. Remember that Britain entered the twentieth century with a great, radical, reforming and established party to the left of its centre: the Liberal Party that had done so much to forge Britain's route to modernity itself. It renewed itself during a 'New' Liberal phase of novel ideas about social reform in the run-up to holding power between 1905 and 1916. It struggled to reconcile the competing claims of Irish nationalism and English conservatism. It puzzled over Scottish land reform and the future of the Welsh church. These constitutional issues in turn drained its energies from facing the economic and social questions: forces quietly starting to break up the base of its support among both suburban householders and the urban working classes.

There are troubling echoes there for the way in which 'New' Labour in Opposition and in power found itself increasingly uncertain about the correct balance of forces within the political system, and how its record in power gradually came to seem inimical to sustaining a united, widely appealing programme. It did take the First World War to really sweep the Liberals away, for they had done creditably up until then at combining social reform with rearmament, and economic change with constitutional reform. Reconciling personal liberty with the needs of the state during the age of total war proved to be beyond them. Complex as Brexit will be, the state faces nothing like the challenge of 1914 now.

In a way, though, that's not the point. The lesson is: events can just conspire against you. The atmosphere can change. Sometimes, the work you've done - the work any group or party was designed to do - is over. At the risk of over-determining, any movement can surmount one or two crises. But there's just too many coming at Labour, from too many directions, to see this as anything other than a perfect storm that will leave it out of power for a very, very long time, if not crippled on a semi-permanent basis.

Okay, you could try to speak in a new way (for Labour) - in the language real people use every day, rather than the cod-outraged sub-Marxian jargon than the party's press office uses these days, full of 'revolving doors', 'elites' and 'establishments' that properly reside in the 1960s and 1970s, if they ever existed at all. You might be able to find an answer to the rise of the United Kingdom's many nationalisms by splitting into say, English, Welsh and Scottish Labours - and having your own policies in each jurisdiction. You could meet the challenge of Brexit by moving more strongly in one direction, just as the Conservatives have - though that would need a touch more discipline and self-awareness than all wings of the Labour Party have been demonstrating in recent months. Maybe you could broker a deal between the Soft Left and the Old Right, excluding Blairite and Momentumite extremes from policy-making and administration. Perhaps you could really, really clamp down on the abuse and fury that rains down on even the meekest on social media - all the better to start looking outwards, rather than at the party's own navel.

But at the moment Labour is in more lines of fire than you'd find in a Tarantino film. It's trying and failing to deal with triumphant nationalism, the overarching crisis of Brexit, the increasing gap between social democrats and the blue-collar working people they've always relied on, cities and exurbs that are drifting apart, the bitter and probably irrevocable split in the party between the 40% of more long-standing members and the 60% who've just arrived (or come back), the development of tight-knit but cramped social media communities who are impervious to news or views from outside their own moral universe.

It's too much. It can't be done. We've looked at the data many times (and we'll be taking another in-depth look again next month). That's bad enough. But when you take a really cold look at the structural, intellectual and political elements - when analysis is pressed into use, to explain the report of mere numbers - the picture looks even darker. The situation for reformist social democracy - the rock on which the Labour Party historically stands - is bleaker than it has been at any point since the Second World War. Parties mostly shy away from the brink. They usually find some way to come back. It took just seven years for the Conservatives to recover from the chaos engulfing them under Iain Duncan Smith. But as the 'New' Liberal example shows, sometimes political parties are pitched into extinction. Labour is hesitating between the two options. Its many crises do not make for optimism.