Monday, 5 December 2016

Richmond Park: Liberal Democrat fightback?


So: what does the Richmond Park byelection mean? How best to place it in context, speculate about its likely effects? The first and most important thing to say is: it means absolutely nothing. Voters love a chance to aim a kick at governments they have absolutely no intention of supplanting. The ex-Conservative MP who lost his seat, Zac Goldsmith, has failed to cover himself in glory over the last year, and was an easy target for some pretty angry fairly small 'l'-liberal and pro-EU voters disappointed when Mr Goldsmith appeared to go all-out to trash his previously-independent image.

The history books are also full of Liberal Democrat byelection gains, sometimes on huge swings, that went back to their previous allegiance come the subsequent General Election (think Christchurch in 1993 and 1997). Last and by no means least, if you take a look at successful Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives since their historic triumph at Orpington in 1962 (above), you will see that the result in Richmond Park is perfectly normal and indeed average for this sort of thing. There are eleven Liberal Democrat gains on a swing smaller than this one, and nine larger. Small byelection gain: no-one hurt (except Mr Goldsmith).

Even so, and as usual on this blog, we think it likely that are some lessons to be teased out here. The first thing to say is that the Liberal Democrats are likely to get something of a polling boost from Richmond Park. Third parties - indeed, at the moment fourth parties in the Commons - desperately need attention. They need publicity, that oxygen of political life, to get onto the public's radar. Well, they managed that this week, just as the new Social Democratic Party secured vital wins in 1981 at Crosby and in 1982 at Glasgow Hillhead. Without byelections, the SDP might never have achieved the political afterburners and the stratospheric poll ratings that they did manage: the Liberal Democrats have to hope for the same effect now. 

Our analysis of polling boosts following such byelections - Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives - should offer the party a little bit of hope. Since 1962, the average boost in the polls provided by these wins has been 3.2 points one month afterwards, 2.3 two months afterwards, and 1.9 three months later. Given that the Liberal Democrats are currently languishing at about eight per cent in the national polls, that might see them break into double figures and rival the United Kingdom Independence Party for third place in the polls: not much, perhaps, but something. The effect will fade a little as the New Year goes on, but the added attention - and the boost to confidence - gained in Richmond Park is probably worth having.

The more important point to note here is that this result might give the Liberal Democrats a little bit of a guidebook on where to focus their very limited resources. Richmond Park is one of the most affluent seats in the country, full of established richer families and young professionals. It is also very, very pro-European, and was the twenty-eighth most Remain constituency in the country at this year's European Union referendum. Only 28% of inhabitants voted Leave (you can download all the data here). So here's the thing: the Liberal Democrats now know that they can get some sort of purchase back in the political arena if they focus on wealthier, pro-European areas with Conservative MPs. 

It's important to stress that public opinion on this question doesn't seem to have moved much since the referendum, though there have been a couple of polls putting Remain ahead again. And voters hardly gave Sarah Olney, Richmond Park's new MP, a ringing pro-European endorsement given the fact that everyone's vote fell. Remain voters were probably just that bit more motivated to turn out (on a very cold day) and give the Government a bloody nose. But that's the point: differential turnout is as good as anything else in winning seats, and the Liberal Democrats can also squeeze the Labour vote (as they did in Richmond Park), then so much the better.

There are probably only a few seats where all this holds. We've taken a look at the top forty Liberal Democrat targets currently held by the Conservatives and 'scored' them in a very crude manner - just adding together the Conservative majority and the Leave vote back in June. We do know that this risks adding apples up with pears, with two scores reported along very different ranges, but bear with us. The lower the score, the more vulnerable these seats are to the pro-European Liberal Democrats if this issue continues to dominate British politics (it probably will, by the way). 

The results? Well, if we were making Liberal Democrat strategy, our top ten targets would be: Twickenham; Bath; Kingston and Surbiton; Lewes; Cheadle; Oxford West; Cheltenham; Berwick; Thornbury and Yate; and Sutton and Cheam. The three Conservative MPs in these seats who voted Leave might be well advised to start mending fences with some of their Remainer constituents, or they might be looking for a job after the next election. So Maria Caulfield in Lewes, Anne-Marie Trevelyan in Berwick and Paul Scully in Sutton and Cheam better not get all that comfortable in their House of Commons offices just yet. Conservative Leave MPs in the next ten seats on this measure - Derek Thomas in St Ives, Will Quince in Colchester, and maybe Christopher Davies in Brecon and Radnor - are also probably feeling a little bit less than secure in their jobs this week. 

There's a wider point here, as well. The Liberal Democrats now have a chance to get into full cry about an issue they feel passionately about. They get to pass the authenticity test. They must now shout, over and over and over again, about how pro-European they are. It doesn't matter how sick they get of it. Remember 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'? You have to repeat a sound bite every day for years if you want it to gain traction, especially if you're as small and now as starved of media attention as the yellow team now are. Because they have a precious opportunity to corral the 22% or so of voters who actively want a new referendum - Britons who are very, very upset about the result of the EU referendum, and who would like to reverse it if they could. Public opinion may not have changed much, but it is pretty divided. 21% of the voters are more than happy to keep free movement if that's the price of free trade with the EU; 28% would 'probably' go along with it. That's half the country open to a very soft Brexit indeed - many, many more people than currently say they will vote for Tim Farron's party. 

Is this defying democracy? Not really. Leave campaigners wouldn't have given up if they'd lost the referendum. Parties don't just disband themselves if they lose a General Election. And most importantly, that sort of theoretical question doesn't matter. The Liberal Democrats now have a cause. They have cut-through, even among tepid Remain voters and agnostic Leave supporters who will see a party that at least believes what it says - and says it clearly. Labour is tragically divided, and in a terrible dilemma, over Brexit - torn between Leave-leaning northern towns and Remain-focused southern cities: its response to this crisis has been tepid at best, and incoherent at worst. Polls now show that the Liberal Democrats could even rival or overtake Labour if they are the party of 'Remain', and Labour is in favour of Brexit. Although we'd take such projections with a pinch of salt, they should clearly spy an opportunity here.

It's no surprise, from this angle, that there does seem to be some stirring in the Liberal Democrats' part of the political woods. It isn't much, yet, but it does amount to signs of life. Their national poll rating may remain in the doldrums, but where they have activists and enthusiasm, they are beginning to show up and spring back from their disastrous performance at the 2015 General Election. They have now made 21 local byelection gains since the last major round of such elections back in May: they made another on the same night as their success in Richmond Park.

So the Liberal Democrats now know the ten to twenty seats where they should focus their energies. They know their issue. They have a cause. The ball is at their feet. It might only be a tennis ball, but hey, this is all looking a lot better than they could have hoped for last year. They might be able to get back to where they were before 1997, returning something up to twenty MPs. It's a start. Can they seize the moment? Well, time will tell. Time's funny like that.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Labour is moving rightwards, not leftwards


The chaos and dissent so obvious within the UK Labour Party since its 2015 General Election defeat has helped to cover up its actual dearth of policies. It is by no means incumbent on any Opposition to put forward a fully-worked-out roster of actual plans, especially at this relatively early stage of a Parliamentary term. But so far little more than ‘anti-austerity’ rhetoric has emanated from the Party since its leadership upheavals in the summers of 2015 and 2016. Even more intriguingly, what details we are now getting suggest that Labour is merely drifting in policy terms, or even moving rightwards since end of Ed Miliband’s leadership. It is certainly not on the kind of left-wing trajectory that many members and supporters perhaps imagined when they signed up for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Labour’s sober demeanour is most obvious in the economics field. For one thing, Labour’s current overall posture on public spending might now be quite similar to Theresa May’s. John McDonnell (above), the Shadow Chancellor, has since March been committed to reducing the current deficit to zero over a five-year planning horizon. But given that Chancellor Philip Hammond has just announced that he is significantly loosening budgetary policy, and that the Conservatives seek to reduce the overall deficit to zero only at some unspecified point over the next Parliament, that may not in practice give Labour much more room than Mr Hammond when it comes to spending on health, education, welfare and the like. Here the Conservatives’ new post-Brexit realism has closed up much of what difference there was between the parties, a situation that could potentially get even worse for Labour. The Government’s plans are now extremely vague, lowering the political costs of further electorally-motivated changes in the future. If Mrs May and Mr Hammond decide to drop even this new pledge – and the Conservatives in office have torn up all the others – Labour could be left high and dry, committed to spending much less than the government, since they might not then have the political capital or time to row back on their own deeply confused and conflicted promise to be quite so prudent.

It is true that Labour promise to ‘carve out’ or exclude spending on capital investment from this rule. That might allow a Labour government a bit more leeway than the Conservatives on day-to-day spending if Labour did exclude such outlays from fixed expenditure limits: total government capital spending was predicted in last week's Autumn Statement to run at over £100bn in gross terms by the start of the next Parliament in 2020/21. If you leave that amount out of your balanced books entirely, you've got serious money to blow on the current side. But the amount available in practice is actually much lower. Mr Hammond has loosened budgetary policy to the extent where the net current projected surplus to help pay for all that capital investment in 2020/21 will 'only' be about £33bn. Since Labour's declared aim is balance on current spending, that's what they'd actually have to play with in year one.

It's also important that the Chancellor's new target is now a lot less ambitious than previously: he aims only to reduce the total deficit to 2% of GDP by that point. That might make available an extra £27bn over and above his existing plans, which at the moment tot up to a deficit of about 1% of GDP. That potentially reduces Mr McDonnell's generosity at the start of a Labour government to the gap between £33bn and £27bn: if the Conservatives do throw all of that war chest at winning a General Election, he'll only have a few extra billion to spend. That'll be nice to have, but it will not represent much of a shift that will be felt on the ground. It would then take some time for any difference to open up in practice rather than in theory, given both the longer post-Brexit timeframe the Government is now allowing to get to overall balance - and just how difficult and slow infrastructure spending usually proves to assemble.

Despite claims to the contrary by some Labour advisers, Mr McDonnell’s fiscal responsibility rule is not dissimilar to the platform Labour adopted under Mr Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. Labour do propose some technical changes that would ease spending constraints. There will, most importantly, be a 'zero bound knockout' rule that will suspend these budgetary targets if the Bank of England thinks that monetary policy can take no more of the strain involved in stimulating demand. Increasing the expected returns to investment might also justify more capital spending by boosting its projected returns. But the difference these changes would make to those cruelest and most deeply-felt cuts to the current budget – for instance, to local authority social care budgets – might prove low indeed during the first few years of any Labour government.

One could multiply these examples in most policy fields. The Government at the moment seems reluctant to guarantee the standing ‘triple lock’ on pensions increases, under which the basic state pension increases by the greater of price rises, wage increases or 2.5% every year. Mr McDonnell has now said that Labour definitely will commit to such a policy. Given the enormous progress made in reducing pensioner poverty over the past two decades, and the fact that older Britons are now one of the better-off groups in the population, using scarce resources to help richer citizens without any means testing seems like a bizarrely retrograde version of the Labour left's supposed redistributive politics. The same very odd logic holds when you look at tax policy, since the Shadow Chancellor has just agreed to back a large upwards shift in how much workers can earn before they are charged the higher 40% rate of income tax – another regressive measure, cutting taxes for the top 15% of earners, that Labour under Mr Miliband would probably have rejected.

Labour’s newly-regressive present stance can be seen in its depressingly hard-line attitude to state surveillance, since the Opposition just inexplicably waved through the new Investigatory Powers Bill – one of the most extensive extensions of government spying powers ever seen in the developed world. It is also clear in the party’s new attitude to Brexit: Labour members have been urged by Mr McDonnell, no doubt happy to see the repeal in Britain of European competition laws that rule out selective industrial assistance, to embrace what he portrays as Brexit's enormous and exciting opportunities. Labour’s conservatism now even seems to extend to a desperate search for a new and more conservative stance on immigration, since its spokespeople now seem to imagine local trade union bargaining on wages and working conditions as a way of reducing Britain’s attractiveness to migrants – yet another version of Mr Miliband’s face-both-ways emphasis on Minimum Wage enforcement and action on people smuggling during the 2015 election.

Why has Labour seemed to become if anything more timid, more conservative, under Mr Corbyn? There would seem to be four plausible explanations. There is, firstly, perhaps just the desperation that comes from looking at Labour’s dire poll ratings. They are further behind than any Labour Opposition has ever been at this stage of a Parliament, and they are performing much worse than they did even during the mid-1980s. May’s local and devolved elections, and council by-elections held up and down the country every Thursday, paint a similar – though perhaps not quite so bleak – picture. It may be that Labour’s employment of a new polling agency, BMG, has led to a sense of realism and pragmatism within the party’s General Election planning machinery. It is quite likely that they are just scrambling to get back to where they were in the last days of the Miliband interregnum.

The second potential cause of Labour’s new conservatism is the party’s sheer want of front-bench talent. Mr McDonnell, for instance, has little economic experience, has never been much of a diplomat, and has never served in front-rank politics before. Sometimes that sheer lack of practise gives him away, just as it did during the first days of his Shadow Chancellorship – when he signed up to George Osborne’s fiscal targets before being forced to back away from that commitment by howls of anger from within the Labour Party. He may simply not know that his macroeconomic policy looks rather like that adopted by Mr Miliband and Mr Balls, and is not all that immediately different from that offered by the Conservatives. He may not grasp that defending the pensions triple lock is basically a promise to fire off taxpayers’ money supporting inequality.

Another reason for Labour’s rightwards drift may originate within the Party’s ongoing – but now quieter – civil war. Mr Corbyn’s and Mr McDonnell’s enemies, having been frustrated in their post-Brexit head-on assault on the leadership, have now carried their resistance underground. Many Labour MPs are simply waiting, as they see it, for the new leadership team to implode under the weight of its lack of ability and the inevitable factionalism that will emerge on the Labour left. There are hints, much denied, of an ‘anaconda strategy’, gradually squeezing the life out of the Corbyn experiment by refusing to help in its painful day-to-day struggles. Within the party’s bureaucracy, the idea seems to have taken hold that Mr Corbyn may be unsackable – for now – but that Mr McDonnell certainly can and should be prevented from winning the leadership after Labour's likely General Election defeat. So the Leader and Shadow Chancellor are simply being left to get on with things, in the expectation that they will fail to carve out any new political space at all.

Fourth and last – though perhaps most disturbingly – is the dawning realisation among some Labour activists that this small-‘c’ conservatism is exactly what Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell want and represent. It is not a bug or a glitch. It is a key part of their programme itself. As inheritors of Tony Benn’s alternative economic strategies from the 1970s and 1980s, it might just be that this old-new Labour leadership prefers to adopt a cramped, shuttered attitude in an age when ‘open’ and ‘closed’ are more apposite descriptors for our politics than ‘left’ and right’. Narrow, nationalist, illiberal and autarkic, to this way of thinking a retreat from the EU, non-Keynesian economics that aim to change the structure of the economy more than the level of demand, increased reliance on interventionist policies at home, and a stronger state, are all more than congenial to a Labour Party that is trying to slough off its European social democratic clothes forever.

Much will depend on whether Labour’s rightwards course is being caused by electoral tactics, incompetence, internal politicking or an entirely new Labour ethos of nationalistic populism. The identity of the Labour Party is involved, to be sure, but also the future of the Westminster two-party system. The dangers Labour face cannot be overstated. Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell have allowed the impression to gain a hold, for more than a year, that they represent a decisively left-wing alternative to Conservative rule, principled as Labour politicians have seldom been in their opposition to austerity. Their poll ratings, and especially the numbers reflecting which main party is most trusted on the economy, have fallen accordingly. But now they risk giving even up their reputation even for intellectual probity – for ‘saying what they think’.

Just as the Conservatives risk much if their new Eurosceptical image turns out to be false or misleading, so in this way Labour could alienate its last bastions of support: public sector workers, older left-leaning voters now prepared to take a fresh look at Labour after what they perceived as the ideological betrayals of the Blair years, pro-Europeans, students, cosmopolitan urbanites and younger – but economically increasingly marginalised – middle-class professionals. British politics is in near-unprecedented flux. During this of all times, Labour seems determined to flirt with its own extinction as a national party of government at Westminster. Strange days indeed.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Labour could be staring at a historic defeat


History matters in elections. In this year’s US Presidential contest, political science models based on past relationships – involving, for instance, incumbent popularity or economic growth – did better than short-term modelling based on opinion polls. Most such models predicted a very close race, which could go either way, and in some notable instances predicted a Trump victory. Local election results from the 2010-15 Parliament were the clue that allowed forecaster Matt Singh to predict that opinion polls were failing to pick up the true levels of party support running up to the UK’s 2015 General Election.

So if we want to look ahead to the next General Election, and for all opinion polling’s recent problems, it is probably still useful to look at where we are now in UK polling. It should be quite a simple job to look at present levels of support for Labour in Opposition, and the Conservatives in government, and to project what will happen next based on past experience. 

We've done this before, of course, and this is but the latest installment of a long-running series tracking Labour's chances, on the lines of historic trendlines, all the way to the next election - whenever it comes. We've had a go at these sums on three separate occasions - last November, then again in January, and for a third time in April. It's fair to say that none of it was particularly good news for Labour. In November we thought that they would win between 26% and 29% at the next election. In January those figures stood at 25% to 28%. In April, the average had improved a little - to 27% - but that pitiful number wasn't much to set Labour hearts aflame with hope. Perhaps nothing can, these days.

So - let's go again, to test how the main Opposition party's poll ratings are tracking past performance. Let’s start with the deficit between Labour’s numbers and those of the Conservatives. Right now, if we take each pollster in the field’s last results at an average, Labour is a long, long way behind – thirteen per cent or so. They have never before been so far behind while in Opposition at this stage of a Parliament, about nineteenth months following the previous General Election. The nearest they have come is the eight points by which Neil Kinnock’s Labour lagged the triumphant Thatcherite Conservative Party in December 1988. Oppositions have more often actually led the Government in the polls at this point: even in 1980, with Labour deeply divided, Michael Foot in his very early days as leader was able to enjoy an eleven-point lead over a very unpopular government struggling with high inflation and unemployment.

An even worse picture emerges when we look at what might happen between now and the next election. At no time in the modern era, if we take that as meaning the period since 1970, has Labour in Opposition gone up in the polls from this point (see above). They basically stood still between 1993 and 1997, as a youthful and popular Tony Blair managed to keep their ratings very high all the way through to an election: between October 1993 and May 1997 Labour’s polling score fell only by 0.4%. But they have more usually fallen quite a long way. The unwanted record for such a decline is held by Michael Foot’s Labour between 1980 and 1983 as the party split and threatened to break up altogether. In less than three years, Labour’s polling score fell by a huge 19.6%. In fact, the party has on average while in Opposition lost 7.2% from this point in the Parliament. Since the party now stands at 29%, that would imply a score of 21.8% at the next election.

It is possible to put a rather more positive gloss on these apocalyptic numbers. Labour at each General Election has been historically overestimated by polls – by perhaps 1.5%, or a little more. If pollsters’ new post-2015 methods have eliminated this polling error (a very generous assumption, but one which might prove sustainable), then 1.5% or even more of the expected polling ‘fall’ from this point to the next election has already been eliminated as an artefact of the polls alone. So given the extent of pollsters’ post-2015 reassessments Labour might actually hope to receive 23.3%, or even slightly more. Let’s avoid the perils of false specificity on as generous a basis as we can muster, and round this number up to 24%.

Realise this: Labour's rating is therefore failing to track even their pathetic polling performance over the winter, when on this exact basis the party might aspire - at best - to touch between 26.5% and 27.5%. Its numbers are still sagging, still dropping away from historic norms. It's like a slow puncture rather than a blow-out.

What, though, of the Conservative Government’s likely score? Well, at the moment they stand on average at 42%. The honeymoon effect of a new Prime Minister is probably still affecting this rating, although we should also bear in mind that the Conservatives still probably have a lot of scope to soak up UKIP voters if that party does implode in the way that certainly seems possible. In any case, the evidence since 1970 is that the Conservatives’ vote share at the next General Election might be a little higher than it is polling at the moment – by an average of 1.8% or so. Let’s again not be too precise, and call the gain 2%. That would see Theresa May’s party attracting 44% at the polls

The last stage of this analysis is to look at how these very rough figures might translate to numbers in the House of Commons. A result which saw Labour gain 24%, and the Conservatives 44%, would mean on old boundaries a Conservative overall majority of around 150, with Labour down on about 160 seats. On the new boundaries likely to come into force late in 2018, these shares of the popular vote would again give the Conservatives an absolute majority of perhaps 150 in a smaller 600-seat Commons, with only something like 150 Labour MPs returned. That would be the party’s worse showing since 1931

If Labour do indeed receive a score down in the lower- to mid-20s, and the Conservatives something over 40%, the next General Election will see Labour very badly, indeed historically, savaged: it is possible that the party will suffer a ringing, enduring defeat that will be hard to recover from in any near or foreseeable future. It should be stressed that this is a very crude way of looking at these numbers. Labour will probably do better in urban seats, and particularly in London, than this raw data suggests. And in these surprising political times, during which so little seems solid, Labour might somehow be able to escape the fate that its previous experiences suggest is likely. But right now, the historical auguries are very, very ominous indeed.

Note: an earlier version of this blog first appeared on The New Statesman Staggers Blog on Monday 21 November, under the title 'This is the Moment When Labour's Polling Gets a Lot, Lot Worse'.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Stop saying that Trumpism is about economics


The election of Donald Trump to serve as President of the United States (above) came as a shock to many people (though not, of course, if you've been refreshing this page). The reaction to that shock in Europe, including the UK, has been some pretty justified concern, and even fear, as to what President-Elect Trump will do with all that power. Will he undermine NATO, plunge us into trade wars with China, and use his bully pulpit to poison race relations across the Western world? Or will things turn out a bit calmer than it seems right now? Possibly a bit of both, though as you'd imagine we tend towards the former interpretation.

In any case, the next and inevitable line of the reaction was the immediate analysis - that natural and understandable stage of contemporary history which sees people asking 'how on Earth did that just happen?' On the Left, one big answer became: this is a judgement on globalisation, on elite economics, on rising inequality, and on the disappearance of good, highly-prized blue collar jobs. Given that Hillary Clinton lost this election in just three rustbelt states plagued with manufacturing decline - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - there is prima facie some evidence for this. Mr Trump's constant inveighing against trade deals that have 'cost America jobs' (they probably haven't), as well as the thinly-veiled antisemitism of his attacks on 'global elites', will undoubtedly have gained him votes here. There was a swing towards the Republicans, and away from the Democrats, among lower-income voters. There's something there. It's important.

This is not, however, the whole story - or even, in our view, the main part of it. Elections are above all complex things - a meeting-place and a storehouse of narratives, interests, loyalties, identities and clashing conceptions of individual and state that cannot possibly be contained in a vessel marked 'economic decline' or 'economic anxiety'. And so it was with this election - one fought as much between the urban and the rural, and coalitions of imagined 'future' and 'past', ascendance and restoration, as it was between the economics of success and failure.

First things first: say what you like about all this, but Hillary won the popular vote. Following on from an administration which helped to create jobs at a not-inconsiderable pace - and had just got to the stage of raising wages from their pre-crisis baseline. Secretary Clinton is probably going to win the whole thing by two percentage points, or even more. Having already run past Mitt Romney's vote total, she's surging on to rack up the highest number of actual votes anyone not named 'Barack Obama' has ever won. Not much of an economic revolt there, at least overall, and especially in states where people of colour - the group by far worst hit by the Great Recession - live in great numbers. Secretary Clinton made Georgia and Arizona quite competitive, those states taking their next steps towards the Democrats' blue column, and even pushed forward quite a long way in deeply-red Texas. Where is our economic analysis when it cannot make sense of the fact that admittedly-suspect opinion polling tells us that Hillary won voters asked specifically about the economy, when she still captured the majority of the most disadvantaged Americans, when those hurt most grievously by inequality mostly voted for her in the same proportion as they did for President Obama? Yes, it does seem as if African-American and Hispanic turnout did fall, but here again there's but little analysis - for instance in vital North Carolina and Wisconsin - of the role that new Republican-inspired voter identification laws played in that process.

Next: there is an absolute stack of social science evidence that shows that the propensity to vote for the new wave of Right-populism is correlated, not so much to income and economic class, but to the extent to which voters hold authoritarian views themselves, and to feelings of cultural isolation among older, whiter, less educated male voters. It's as simple as that. Reacting to a feeling of cultural threat, surrounded on all sides by what appears to be a whirlwind of change, many older white men - in Britain as well as in the US - will seize on conjoined visions of the nostalgic and the radical. Nostalgic, because the noise given off about race, sexuality, gender and crime take them back to an imagined and settled past; radical, because they feel in their hearts that, so vast are the upheavals, huge steps will be needed to get there. We've got data coming out of our ears about a declining sense of white privilege and white authority, hostility to immigration, dislike of multiculturalism, and the backlash that this election - in part, and only in part - represents. Apparently it's all about jobs, though.

Thirdly: economic analyses of elections in the United States seem to give nothing but a passing nod to the peculiarities of American culture. Only rarely do we get a bottom-up analysis of events seen from the grassroots, witnessed from that semi-fictitious Main Street of Middle America that is such a powerful draw precisely because it almost always exists only in idealised (or, sometimes, dystopian) fiction. Where are our European annalists who've been in and out of the bars and backstreets of North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa - all states carried by President Obama, but lost by Secretary Clinton? Where are the writers who understand the appeal of the American Hero, alone, unsupported by class and party, riding out of the sunrise to save the day - assuredly one more element in the rise of Mr Trump, an independent insurgent who has seized control of a whole party? Where is the understanding about exactly why the Big Beneficent Plutocrat might be preferred to the Narrow, Mean Professional? You'd think that all those years of cultural studies and the linguistic turn would have engendered at least some awareness of the American mythos. Mrs Clinton failed to evoke hope, change, a better future - those key elements of that cliched, but imaginatively very real, American Dream that President Obama understood so well, but could not in the end use to help his party. She failed to outline, clearly enough, what her America would be like. She wasn't crystal clear, with just a few key lines. So she lost. Supposedly everything is about manufacturing, though.

Further: wealthier Americans continued their adherence to the Republican Party, despite a bit of weakening here and there where suburbanites and highly-educated citizens decided that they just could not face voting for a candidate as grotesque and unqualified as Mr Trump. Party trumps everything else, apparently - especially with at least one, and perhaps one or two other, seats on the Supreme Court at stake. It is worth exploring the other side of an economic case that does have a little merit: an upper-middle class and a wealthy, older citizenry that is so sated by superabundance, so secure, crudely in fact so rich and so ripe for autocracy, that they think that the Republic will always stand, that capitalism will always serve their interests, that chaos can't ever come to their door. Well, if this experiment in demagoguery goes wrong, they are about to find out just how wrong they are, aren't they?

Fifth: has everyone forgotten the culture wars? Mr Trump makes great play of being a values-neutral and ideologically-light businessman, up for any deal, so long as it works - a good display of a very cynical and regressive ideology in itself, in fact, though we'll let that pass for now. But the election just past was in fact the culture wars election par excellence, pitting a woman against a man, the coasts against the interior, the rust belt against the sunbelt, old industries versus new industries, the universities against the workers, the country against the city. This, for one thing, fired up hidden sexism everywhere - which that inconvenient thing, actual evidence, shows can be even more successful in that high-energy, high-emotion setting Mr Trump and his team deliberately engendered. More quantifiably, a huge category of 'missing whites', who gave 2008 and 2012 a miss both because President Obama was so impressive, and in the former case because his election seemed so likely, showed up in the Upper Midwest - just as they had in the 2014 mid-terms, the last time we saw a US polling miss on this scale. Much more research is required here. Are these older, less educated, less regular voters really likely to be those angry factory workers so exercised that their jobs have, or might be about, to move to Mexico? Or are they likely to be fired up by what they often say they are - Washington 'corruption' and gridlock, the right to bear arms, abortion, resentment at the cultural cringe they feel forced to wear? We'll take a wager on the latter, thank you very much.

Sixth and last: what about the campaign? To shove everything into the file marked 'economics' leaves out almost everything we know about recent contests, in which many more votes are decided late on, and in which very busy low-information voters have to make decisions in a fog of fake news and from within social media filter bubbles that are draining the very heart out of our democracies. In case you hadn't noticed, one widely-spread set of stories on Facebook were the stolen Wikileaks emails out of the Clinton campaign, which although they were for the most part stultifyingly boring, helped to paint Secretary Clinton as a consummate and scheming 'insider' - that worst of all insults if you're looking at this from (for instance) the Florida Panhandle and you feel Washington has forgotten all about your views and your morals.

Then, to cap it all off, the FBI said that they were looking into Clinton's own emails - opening up all the old wounds about corruption, cover-ups, evasion and possible criminality which have dogged both Clintons since the early 1990s. It was just too much to shrug off when Mr Trump was already well within striking distance. Although all the evidence is not in (and might never be in), it probably dragged her down just a tiny bit at the end. If we were writing the history right now? The razor-thin margin of Mr Trump's victory in the key three states would be more than explained by Director Comey's letter. And if Hillary had narrowly pulled through, with just fifty or sixty thousand votes swinging it the other way, everyone would be saying 'oh, it was the demographics, it was rising wages, it was the jobs miracle of the Obama years that won it'. The narrative can be spun on a sixpence. Don't let anyone do that. The Russian government that helps to sponsor Wikileaks, and the FBI that blew up a big story about what it then admitted was nothing, played a key role here. Focus on the economics? You miss the whole trick.

So here's what the economic interpretation misses: the economics of success as well as failure; the psychological and emotional drivers of Right-populism; the whole context of American history and culture; the actual structure of the Republican vote; culture and gender's role in the whole debacle; and campaigning politics themselves. So pretty much everything, really.

What is most galling about all this is that the crude economic interpretation that UK Labour and some of its allies appear to be indulging in takes away the electorate's dignity of choice - the voters' autonomy, self-possession, individual definition, personal beliefs. Yet again, this is the Left saying: 'you must have been desperate to do that'. 'You must be raging against something'. 'You must be victims'. 'What were you thinking?', they say, in the same slick metropolitan tones that lost them all those votes in the first place - leaving an implicit sneer and disqualification in the air that will do just as much to normalise and validate Mr Trump as will all those conservatives who choose to serve in his administration. Highly-educated Left-leaning politicians and activists, who for many years have increasingly possessed degrees and lived in cities, don't get illiberalism. They never will. So they say it has to be all about fear, loss and self-interest. Perhaps it's not. Perhaps it's because you don't talk like anyone who most people have ever heard in person. Ever considered that?

So there you have it. It is abundantly evident that the European Left cannot cope with complexity, nuance, change, uncertainty. It is even clearer that it is being consumed by a peculiar type of cod-political and sub-Marxist economic determinism that most good A-Level students would rule out of their essays on the 1848 or 1917 Revolutions. It's so cramped, the 'white economic anxiety' headline. So limited. So impoverished. The Left won't listen, and they can't hear, and they fail to see. And then they lose: over, and over, and over again.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Can Labour pull together?


The UK Labour Party's current trials and tribulations have at their heart - indeed, perhaps may always have had at their core - a tension between 'utopian' and 'authoritarian' politics - between the world that might ideally be, and the messy process of forcing our way there. These do seem to now lie at the heart of the new Labour project. For those two elements in Jeremy Corbyn's appeal as Labour leader (above) have up until now been yoked together in a potent mix. There are signs that the abatement – for the present – of loud internal dissent will allow them to come into the open.

Corbynism undoubtedly appeals to newer Labour members and supporters, many of them older returnees who had become disillusioned during the Blair and Brown years which they perceived to be full of fatal compromises with a conservative (and Conservative) ‘establishment’. Its public agenda is at least a clear one, and has many points of contact with Soft Left Milibandism or even the social democracy of Labour’s centre. No foreign wars in co-operation with American power, or at least not without explicit United Nations agreement and a wide basis of international support; the reversal of public sector austerity; a stronger government, with higher tax rates on business, executing more active industrial and budgetary strategies that also rely on higher borrowing – and a reshaping of the economy, rather than just fighting the ‘symptoms’ of poverty tackled by tax credits and higher welfare spending.

This strategy - let's term it relatively 'utopian' - has two huge advantages over the apparently uncertain and exhausted centrist strategy pursued during the New Labour years between 1994 and 2010. The first is that it incorporates the outburst of Left populism so obvious elsewhere across Europe within the Labour Party, rather than leading to a rival party setting up on Labour’s left – the role the Green Party seemed to be playing in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. The evidence from local by-elections this year is clear: where there are Green votes in urban areas to pick up, Labour is now well-situated to draw on them as a new reservoir of support. The second point is that the strategy has led to a much, much larger party, now numbering around 600,000 members – about triple the number it was able to mobilise before the 2015 General Election. There seems little doubt that such resources of human ambition and hope might prove a formidable weapon in any political attacks on the sitting government. Labour has, indeed, already tried out such campaigning methods – holding a ‘national day of action’ in September against Theresa May’s grammar school proposals.

Yet at the same time many of the other elements in the Corbyn project militate against the more kaleidoscopic, community-orientated and populist elements in this programme. Here is where the ‘authoritarian’ elements of the analysis come in. Most of Corbyn’s popularity comes from the sense that he backs the new and pluralist Left that has emerged across the country to protest against austerity. But the politics of the 1970s, from which Mr Corbyn finds it hard to escape, are much more centralising and controlling than at first appears.

The leader’s office apparently shows little interest in a united ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP – a matter of faith among many of Corbyn’s younger and more idealistic followers. A number of his own supporters wrote an open letter to the Labour leader protesting against his recent appearance on a Stand Up to Racism platform with members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, a far-left grouping with a troubled history that has made it anathema across most of the British Left. The campaigning group Momentum, so vital when installing and defending Mr Corbyn's leadership over the last two years, looks to be struggling to solve the contradictions between members stressing either its representative or its participatory nature. Just as seriously, Corbyn’s personal defects as a leader – and especially his controversial past, as well as his own style and image – are clearly giving elements of his hard core support pause for thought. Paul Mason, the campaigning journalist, was taped accepting just this case in a recording leaked to The Sun newspaper.

The contrast between words and deeds can again be seen in Corbyn’s attempts to bend Labour’s National Executive Committee and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to his own demands. Given the struggle for power within Labour, such an effort is perhaps understandable, even unavoidable; but he risks replacing representative democracy, across the NEC and PLP, with a type of plebiscitary democracy based on his ‘mandate’ from members that such structures are deliberately designed to mitigate and dilute. It is no accident in this respect that the first serious signs of dissent about his leadership are being seen in the trade union movement, deeply worried about its own voting rights and voice within the wider Labour family. This is one reason why renewing Trident looks set to remain party policy, even while Mr Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament complain as loudly as they can about this u-turn.

For now, at least, these tensions can be managed. But they are unlikely to go away. All the evidence we have from local elections, by-elections and polling points to the fact that Labour face a terrible defeat at the next General Election. When real wages are likely to decline following sterling’s steep depreciation, and the Government is likely to tie itself in knots over Brexit, this is a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. At the same time, boundary reforms are likely to throw up a small but significant number of chances for local activists to prevent the re-election of Labour MPs who have vocally opposed their leader. The bitterness these local fights will evoke might be difficult to contain, and some Labour MPs may decide they have nothing to lose by sitting as independents or fighting by-elections in the last two years of this Parliament. A formal split seems highly unlikely, given the MPs’ cultural loyalty to Labour as well as the electoral catastrophe that would probably befall both halves of the party after any split. But a prolonged cold war between MPs and leadership, which in the end leads to splintering and incoherence rather than split, is quite likely, and perhaps even probable.

In this situation, the non-Corbynite parts of the Labour Party must deeply rethink their strategy. They have a huge opportunity to reach out to their own party’s Left as it becomes increasingly disillusioned with Corbyn over the next year or two. They have hitherto developed the tactic of speaking out when they want, on the subjects they want – all the better to at least affect public policy in some ways while the leadership team fumbles. Now they might draw these threads together, to show what a new agenda would look like if it was to appeal to the whole non-Corbynite party, from Soft Left to Old Right and through to the social democrats of the ex-Blairite centre.

Their list of priorities might include, though not be limited to: massive, cascading devolution throughout England, as well as to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; the development of new sectors of the economy through regional and local co-operatives and ‘New Deals’ fostered by rolling programmes of inclusive devolution; and productivity-raising projects in both physical and human capital that long-term borrowing by cities and the UK’s devolved administrations might unlock.

Now the labels ‘Blairite’ and ‘Brownite’ are obsolete, Labour’s non-Corbynite MPs – and members – have a duty at least to try to make such an agenda work. It might be that Labour is now too far gone for all this: that globalisation, the changing economy and the political strains of large-scale immigration have smashed for the foreseeable future the alliance of metropolitan liberals and blue-collar workers that any social democratic party must assume. But political parties can come back from the wilderness very quickly, as the majority seized by the Canadian Liberals last year demonstrates. The years immediately ahead look very bleak for Labour right now, but if the more pluralist strands among its new support can somehow make common cause with its long-standing activist base, there might at least be hope of mitigating the long-term damage.

Note: a previous version of this blog first appeared as part of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Group's website on 3 November. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

British lessons for the American election?


Many British observers looking on at the US Presidential election have started to feel hairs standing up on their necks. A front-runner most people think is now the inevitable winner? An establishment choice that it seems inconceivable won't make it over the line somehow? Polling that mostly points in one direction, but which seems more divided and confused than ever before? No-one who's had to suffer both through the 2015 UK General Election, which so many people thought would bring Labour leader Ed Miliband to power, and the 2016 European referendum, which most voters thought 'Remain' would win, can fail to see the parallels with Britain's recent travails. Liberals, progressives, radicals, internationalists: they all thought that they were at or over the line. They discovered that the country they lived in wasn't quite what they thought it was. Might the same thing happen now, with Hillary Clinton (above) the victim of a similar polling failure?

The parallels actually don't fit very well. There are four reasons why, and each of them is important in giving greater statistical clarity to the present US election, as well as thinking about the British contests just gone. Let's have a look at them, in no particular order:

1. The British polls weren't actually all that wrong. 

Remember that the 2015 General Election looked very tight, giving off a nip-and-tuck, neck-and-neck quality all the way through... If you trusted the polls. That meant that a far-from-massive miss turned a projected Hung Parliament in which Labour might have sought to form a government into a small Conservative majority - a polling miss of about 6.5% if we add up the inaccuracy on the Labour and Conservative scores. Polls got slightly closer in the EU referendum, with statistical averages on the eve of the results registering an exactly-equal deadlock to a Remain lead of four points (Leave, of course, won by 3.8%). In fact, if we just average the last poll from each company in the field, we get a Remain lead of 2.5% - and a total polling error, from polling lead to final numbers, of 6.3%. Note here, though, that UK election polls don't actually have that fantastic a record when compared to their US cousins. British polls usually overstated the government by a long way in the 1980s, and then again under New Labour: there was a five-point overall miss in 2001, for instance. The Americans, as we shall see in a moment, have always done rather better. And they haven't been disgraced in any of the last few contests - even very tight ones such as 2000 and 2004. So we can't even be that confident that our actually rather narrow range of error can be read across to the new contest on the other side of the Atlantic.

Then there are differences in the detail. The Brexit vote continuously threw up a so-called 'mode effect': online polls seemed to show Leave narrowly ahead, while some phone pollsters showed a large Remain lead. There's not such a large difference in the current Presidential election: YouGov's online panel, indeed, is returning a fairly constant four-point lead for the Democrats' candidate, which is right in the average range that we'd expect from all polling. The two cases are very dissimilar, and even a May 2015-style error in the US might not allow Mr Trump to prevail. US pollsters are savvy, experienced and multifarious. At the time of writing, Mrs Clinton leads on average by between three and seven per cent. It will be a large and unusual polling miss - even by British standards - to overwhelm that lead. But beware: that's exactly what we got in 2015 and 2016. And the British polls had been getting more accurate, in 2005 and 2010 not ending up all that far off if we look at the overall average. Then look what happened. The miss can come out of the blue. It could be there, but it will have to be pretty big.

2. The USA just has a lot more, and more accurate, polling. 

It's true that British General Elections bring in a lot of numbers. But American elections throw up a lot more information - many thousands of polls at state as well as national level which just about confirm the national picture we've got of a not-particularly-large, but for now stable, Clinton lead. And it's usually right. Take figures from the venerable Gallup Organisation, which has now stopped horse-race polling after a chastening polling miss in 2012 (the two-party result was a total of five points different from their final poll). If we look back to 1980, their final numbers were never more than 6.8% away from the actual outcome - and were as near as 0.2% in 1984. Polling averages since 1968 have usually predicted the final scores within a range from exact accuracy to a four point miss. In 2012 the polls were on average 3.2% away from the actual election numbers.

We also cannot emphasise enough the sheer amount of lower-level polling conducted among the individual states that make up the US. Yes, polling of individual Westminster seats got a terrible reputation because of their apparent 'miss' in 2015 - but bear in mind that this was an unusual experiment, funded by the Conservative peer and philanthropist Lord Ashcroft, and which usually made its most egregious misses highlighting the wrong question in Liberal Democrat seats - namely, 'would you vote for your local MP', rather than 'would you vote Liberal Democrat'? More general regional polls, for instance of the Liberal Democrats' apparent stronghold in the South-West of England, got things spot on. State polls in the US, on the other hand, are telling us a story that is intuitively understandable: Donald Trump is doing better than Mitt Romney among blue-collar white voters in the Upper Midwest, while Secretary Clinton is doing better than President Obama in the South with Latino voters and college-educated whites who detest Mr Trump's plunge into Know Nothing politics. That doesn't mean the picture's right. But it is an important confirmation of the national numbers from experienced pollsters who've mostly done all this before. We didn't see much of that in Britain.

3. Drawing in new voters probably won't help Donald Trump. 

It's actually a mistake - one which we shared at the time - to think that the British polling misses are to do with 'shy' anyone. In 2015, there was a large framing error which brought too many politically-aware young people into the numbers; in 2016, there was a large turnout of unlikely and unusual voters who thought that at last someone might listen to them about immigration, border control and national sovereignty. So Republicans hoping for a 'shy Trump' effect, under which Americans too embarrassed to tell anyone they are voting Trump nonetheless pull the lever for him in the secrecy of the polling booth, might be waiting a long time for their surprise. Mr Trump didn't manage this in the primary season: indeed, his voters were actually a bit better off than the other Republican candidates' were. He actually underperformed his polls (on average). And there's no evidence at all that he's pulling in new voters or new registrations. Indeed, British readers should in this respect remember that, as we draw more people into the American electorate, it's likely to become more Democratic as poorer voters get pulled into the sample. There's not all that much data to say that such people are more likely to favour Donald Trump.

4. The early vote doesn't look the same. 

It's illegal to snoop around the early postal voting in Britain, and it's still more frowned on to report its content. But there's not much that the election authorities can do - beyond threatening prosecution - to stop albeit-vague news of how it's going leaking out. In 2015, Labour officials knew pretty early on that the swing that they needed wasn't happening. In 2016, Labour MPs in particular - and especially those with seats in the North of England - thought that the contest was over pretty much before it began, as they picked up talk of a huge Leave vote from their constituents that even a last-minute switch back to Remain couldn't make up for. Things in the US right now don't sound anything like that, and in fact those who know think that on balance things look pretty good for Mrs Clinton. They look particularly good in Nevada, not-too-bad in North Carolina (a state without which it will be very, very difficult for Mr Trump to win overall) and close in Florida - though not so hot for the Democrats in Iowa, a state in which Secretary Clinton has struggled all year.

It's not all good news for Mr Trumps's opponents. African-American enthusiasm appears to be down. There's a large and unpredictable rise in unaffiliated, non-partisan early voting in some places, though as these Americans in some key places lean Democratic and are often pretty young, that might just confirm the overall picture. In general, if you'd offered Team Clinton those impressions a few months ago, they would gladly have accepted them. Now it's possible that the unlikely and marginal voters Mr Trump is depending on will turn up in person on the day, but it's not as likely as the 100% certitude that these early Democratic votes have already been banked.

The British and American cases don't look alike, really. The political context is different. The closest parallel we can offer is if the Brexit campaign had been led by Nigel Farage, UKIP's not-very-popular leader, and if Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had stayed loyal to Prime Minister David Cameron and not lent their backing to Leave. Almost certainly, Leave would have lost, tarnished by the United Kingdom Independence Party's perceived extremism and beyond-the-pale dog whistling on immigration. Without Mr Johnson, inexplicably one of the most popular politicians anywhere, and without Mr Gove, the Leavers would have backed both personal appeal and apparent intellectual weight. They would have ended up pretty much where Mr Trump is now - without, perhaps, being weighed down by the fact Mr Trump is for most of the electorate a deeply feared and loathed narcissist, fantasist, sociopath and misogynist.

Even so, the dissimilarity between the British and American cases should certainly not give anyone confidence that Secretary Clinton is sure to win, even if she goes into polling day four or five or so points ahead (given her ongoing email drama, she probably won't anyway). Polling is getting harder. Let's look at a couple of recent examples. Last year's Israeli election was a notable polling miss. The ruling Likud Party was supposed to win a number of Knesset seats in the low 20s. They actually got 30. The rival Zionist Union was thought likely to win a number of seats in the mid-20s, which they just about got to in the end (they won 24): but Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud's leader, had managed to draw in harder-line nationalist voters from other right-wing parties.

Here's another example: the Icelandic election we've just had gave us an 8.6% gross polling miss for the two main parties going into the election. The centre-right Independence Party's last all-pollster average stood at 25.4% going into polling day: they actually got 29% of the vote. The rival Pirate Party had a polling average of 19.5%: they actually got 14.5%, and came third. Now, none of those countries look much like the United States. Israel bans polls for the last five days before an election, which makes it very difficult indeed to pick up any last-minute shift. Iceland is a tiny country going through enormous political changes emanating from its recent crisis. But the lesson is the same: these days, if things look close, you can't definitely trust the polls.

This American election doesn't look all that much like the British General Election of 2015 or the Brexit vote. US polling is more reliable, more resilient, more voluminous. The politics of Clinton-versus-Trump looks very different from the two most recent UK contests. The likely electorate, and the dynamics of change, don't look all that similar. But is there room for a great polling miss? Yes. What we've discussed here is the effect of known unknowns from the recent British past: a framing error (like 2015) and a big expansion of the electorate that helps the more conservative side (like 2016). Neither look vastly likely. There's not that much evidence to say that the two cases are alike. The British experience says that we'll need to be hit by something we haven't yet thought of. But that doesn't mean that Democrats should rest easy, as the Israeli and Icelandic examples demonstrate. The US hasn't seen a polling disaster like that presently needed by Mr Trump since the 1980 Presidential contest between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. But perhaps there's an unknown unknown lurking out there, that we haven't thought of. Or perhaps Mr Trump will just overtake Secretary Clinton in the polls as well as in the actual voting booths. Both possible. American and especially European liberals have long taken a Trump victory to be impossible just because it is rather unlikely - and because they find it impossible to understand many of the moral impulses, and much of the language, of people who like Mr Trump.

So: a Trump Presidency is not impossible. It is, in fact, an entirely credible next step from here. We're within the spectrum of recent international polling error, and within the range of British misses - though in the latter case, only just about. Polling is more difficult than it used to be. Right now the betting markets and Nate Silver's 538 give you roughly a 23-24% chance of a Trump victory. That's about the same likelihood, as you stand with a coin in your hand, of turning up a heads twice in a row. It's not exactly a comforting thought, is it?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Is western-style democracy in trouble?


Democracy doesn't always look all that much fun at the moment, does it? You put up a few mild opinions, you get back some alt-left or alt-right links from The Canary or Breitbart full of plot twists and ways of speaking that you'd never heard before you stumbled into that particular echo chamber. You post a link on Twitter. An anonymous egg of a profile pops up to call you a 'traitor' or a 'disgrace'. It's enough to make most middle-of-the-road citizens, without much to lose from the online shouting match, just give up on the effort to engage altogether.

There's also much worse out there - more structural signs of deep dysfunction that ought to be giving us all even more concern than the social media filtering bubbles to which the symptoms of decline are linked. The amount of rage directed at journalists, either asked to 'name their sources' (when doing just that might endanger sources, or indeed the ability to get a story out at all), or verbally abused, or continuously menaced in some very dark and bleak scenarios indeed. There's the number of people on the Left who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the deeds of the Assad regime and their Russian allies in Aleppo. There's Right-wingers who are happy to use Wikileaks to damage Hilary Clinton's presidential bid in the US, despite the fact that their source is so obviously now an arm of Russian power. All just to prove a point: to win a poisonous game of ins-and-outs, party-versus-party, that matters much less, in the long run, than just holding together as societies and polities.

Western societies are becoming very divided. It would be easy and cheap to say that this is linked to income inequality and increasing economic polarisation, though there's clearly something much more general happening than this. Our splintering - and fury - appear to be affecting countries that indeed have seen a huge recent surge in inequality (the United States), and those that have not, at least since the 1980s (the United Kingdom). Yes, one key to the Brexit vote in the UK was the poor services and bleak economic state of much of non-metropolitan England and Wales. But it wasn't the only reason, as votes from quite wealthy areas which nonetheless feel culturally alienated from metropolitan internationalism (North Surrey, Kent) demonstrate all too well.

It's partly the flows of hate that can coarse through the body politic via Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, 'I read it on Facebook' might one day be seen as the five words that became the epitaph of civilised, reasoned argument. All that allows stories that might not be quite what they seem to take wing very quickly. It allows parties to be taken over by small minorities of the population - as micro-level organisation and the ownership of mailing lists become political gold. The flow of unfiltered information is altering the very nature of democracy itself.

But it's deeper than that, too. Education is emerging as one of the key dividing lines in modern politics. It was there in the Brexit campaign. It's there now, perhaps even more clearly, in the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump (above). It basically pits one entire world-view - outward looking, conceptual, liberal, confident, socially tolerant - against another: autarkic, concrete, conservative, fearful, concerned. As change speeds up, rather than slows down, this seems likely to become an ever-deeper trench dug across the national landscape.

There's so much more to this - the subject of a series of blogs, perhaps, rather than a once-and-for-all entry - but polarisation is wherever you look. It's there in the urban-versus-rural divide we saw in the EU independence referendum, and once again we can see it laid bare in the present US Presidential election. What will it be: bikes and metro? Or: cars and buses? Coffee shops, or cafes? Parks, or gardens? Low-carb, and low-carbon, or high-fat, and big wheels? All of that seems much more important than the traditional story woven around tax and spending. It's all about ways of thinking, seeing and speaking - not about policy, objective winners and losers, or set off-the-peg ideologies. That's why it seems so bewildering to many insiders. That's why it all changes so quickly. That's why we don't seem to have as many collective reference points or shared ground anymore. That's what's behind the age of political fury.

Still, as any historian should tell you, democracy's run into trouble before. Economic populism and protection swept the world in the late nineteenth century. It was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to talk about the aridity of British politics, frozen into two huge blocs of social class alone, and thus unable to adapt to the modern world. Between the wars, as economic crisis after economic crisis smashed into one another, there was much talk in Western Europe and North America of 'expert government', autocracy and scientific management - all in the place of what Parliament and Congress had been wont to do. Across most of the fascist and communist world, there was much cod-philosophical and pseudo-religious talk about the end of history - as organic, determined, historically-validated and above all inevitable rules replaced the merely bourgeois periodic choice of different faces to run the status quo. By June 1940, those self-destructive ideologies had basically carried all before them. That was a far greater crisis than that we face now.

That example actually tells us a lot about human agency. Faced with Depression and fascism, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were able to fuse very different personal views into new politics: on the part of the first, a New Deal economics that brought hope and a sense of national purpose, whatever its controversial contribution to actual recovery; and for Churchill, a mystical romantic patriotism that drew on Britons' deep sense of national mission and exceptionalism.

Democracy's ever-adaptive synapses may perform the same function again, without the need for such a crisis to speed up the process of adjustment. Somewhere, there's probably a programmer with a good alternative to the social media algorithms that point us in the main to opinions we're already going to like. One day, Putinism's appeal to Left and Right will be seen as the tawdry opportunism it really is. The ranks of American Republicans probably contain a socially liberal Justin Trudeau type, who will march his or her party back towards Reaganesque optimism and the sunny uplands of the world as it is, not as it seems in the fevered imagination of alt-right conspiracies. British Labour will one day find new ideas, fusing together social justice and economic efficiency as did the New Liberals when they read Hobson and Hobhouse, or when Harold Wilson began to promote the application of science and technology as the way to a better society. And so on.

So, yes, 'western' democracy is labouring low indeed in the water - for now. Its challengers, both internal and external, are strong, confident, loud and well-organised. They have the wind at their backs. But representative democracy, the rule of law and the liberal public sphere have met and surmounted much greater challenges. It would be very, very foolish indeed to bet against them doing so again.