Thursday, 11 July 2019

It's all over... for now


So that's it. It's a wrap for the academic year 2018/19. It's been another pathetic and embarrassing year for British politics, with the fall of one Prime Minister and the rise of another who makes Captain Caveman look like Socrates. With the Government in chaos, and the official Opposition a disgusting rabble, there isn't much to cheer about. But what there is, while you're here, is the summer - with plenty of opportunities, whatever your fitness and abilities, to get out into Britain and beyond. Enjoy, recharge, and we'll see you back here in September. Then, the long crisis will resume, with potentially one or two more General Elections, and one, two or more referendums. You lucky people. Be well, be kind, and remember: we have more in common than that which divides us.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Advance, Britannia!


It’s hard to maintain any optimism about British politics these days. The structural faultlines look too great to be surmounted. Something’s going to have to give – probably in the midst of the hugeconstitutional crisis we look to be heading into this autumn. One or more General Elections, another referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, another Scottish independence referendum, a border poll in Northern Ireland – they are all set to divide us in the years to come. Instead of getting on with maybe making schools and hospitals better, Parliament will be tearing itself to pieces over the constitution, just as it did for instance in the 1880s. It’s depressing stuff. Where once Prime Minister Winston Churchill bellowed ‘advance,Britannia!’ at the moment of victory in 1945, our leaders now squeak out a litany of retreats from the obscurity to which history will surely condemn them. 

But look out beyond the politics, and the country is not actually on fire. That’s something important to remember when writing about the apparent state of crisis in Westminster and Whitehall. Yes, growth is slowing, but it’s still there. True, wage growth is only now taking us back to those halcyon days of 2007 and 2008 when we thought that the economy might expand forever – but there is wage growth. Yes, we face a climate emergency. But the United Kingdom is doing its bit. It’s on target to meet its Copenhagen commitments in the short-term, and it might be able to hit its targets in the medium- to long-term as well. Indeed, the Government has just legislated to take us to net zero carbon by 2050. The planet is in trouble, but the UK is at least trying to do something about it.

We can in fact look back at lots of crises that seems just as bad, at the time, if not worse. The summer of 1940 was an immeasurably more acute crisis – not that it’s much relief not to see your armed forces in full retreat from fascists who want to crush your way of life. Narrowing in a bit more to the comparable disasters of the post-war age, the Suez Crisis of1956 was an unmitigated catastrophe that saw Britain’s diplomatic position completely obliterated in just a few short weeks – and which claimed the lives of 16 British servicemen. The country often seemed on the brink of ungovernability in 1972-73, especially given the chronic breakdown of civil order in Northern Ireland. In 1976, the countries was forced into painful austerity by the International Monetary Fund, while in 1981-82 Britain’s cities went up in flames as unemployment and poverty soared.

Our present crisis is in most respects nowhere near as acute as it seemed during those previous disasters. Employment growth is strong, indeed puzzlingly so, and it’s concentrated in full-time permanent jobs. Inflation is very low, though it’s crept up a little as the pound has been hit by Brexit uncertainty. Mortgage and interest rates remain in their historic troughs. Things are very, very hard indeed if you rely on any element of Britain’s fraying welfare state, and public services (particularly those run by local councils) are beginning to run into the sands. But for most people, in most places, things are just about okay. They go on living their lives, their rich, dense, detailed, multi-hued, familial, variegated, fascinating, comforting, challenging, infuriating lives – just as they did during the Depression or during the post-war boom. Life goes on, and seems to have been getting better, at least in so far as long term trends in self-reported happiness can tell us anything. 

Consider the latest instalment of that magisterial text of post-war social history, 63 Up. Ever since 1964, and for the most part helmed by filmmaker Michael Apted, these documentaries have heralded the ups, downs, sideways and diagonals of normal people from all walks of life. And what have they been doing? Getting on with things, that’s what. You can watch one ofthe first episodes here (it aired as 7-Up), and ITV has recently shown the latest in the serial. If you want our advice, you should go and watch these right now, and maybe catch up with the rest of the series, but the point we’re trying to make will hopefully stand whether you’ve seen these programmes or not.

There’s cabbie Tony, doing okay for himself; Nick, who became an academic in the United States, but who is now very, very ill; Bruce, who used to teach in some pretty difficult schools, but who latterly moved into the independent sector; Lynn, who held onto her job as a children’s librarian through change after change at the council, who’s sadly now died; Paul, long troubled by being brought up in a children’s home, and who’s since moved to Australia; John the barrister, now doing good works in Bulgaria, his mother’s native country; and the star of the show, Neil (above), once homeless in the Highlands, but now serving as a lay preacher and a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in Cumbria. 

They might not have been splitting the atom. They may not have been storming the beaches on D-Day. They haven’t been living a glamorous high life with the elite, like John Maynard Keynes, choosing to spend his health on what he saw as his mission to save the British economy. None of them have won a gold medal. It’s not been that kind of heroism. But they have been living heroic lives nonetheless: teaching kids from tough backgrounds, taking the mobile library out, raising money for orphans in Eastern Europe, serving the community as councillors, coming to terms with their own struggles with the past and the present, building new lives in new nations, bringing up their children. It is here, and not in what passes for the directing mind of the political nation, where true leadership lies.

We may well all have been let down by those fraudulent pipsqueaks who have the temerity even to use the word ‘leader’ in the face of such citizens. But their endeavours continue to inspire, even all these years after 1964 –  that year of Labour’s re-election among hopeful talk of the ‘white heat’ in which the country would be reforged. Our ‘leaders’ are in retreat. But Britannia? Well, Britannia advances.

Running the sliderule over 'Land for the many'


Given that Labour now looks fairly likely to be in power in the near future, it’s important to look at some of the Party’s policy pronouncements – such as the recent report on land policy written for Labour by environmentalist and campaigner George Monbiot. You can read the whole thing here if you want (opens in PDF). Constraints of time and space mean that today we’ll look really at the impact on the housing market, though the whole thing is worth a read.

Some of the recommendations are strong ones, and no-one should be in any doubt that the land and housing market is clearly malfunctioning: at a time when housing capital costs in many cities are many multiples even of joint incomes, and when rents have been increasing far more quickly than earnings. There should be little controversy, for instance, about the proposals in Land for the Many which would improve disclosure and transparency. Chapter Two of the Report contains welcome ideas for reducing Britain’s reputation as a haven for dirty money.  

Overall, there is also a very strong case for moving our taxation structure relatively away from income and towards wealth – often inherited wealth such as land. In general, the proposals here would indeed mean more tax on the intergenerational movement of that money, more progressive taxes on property, and more of the profits of land ownership and landlordism being returned to the community that has mandated the planning system in the first place (and therefore produced a lot of that wealth in the first place). So far, so interesting.

Many elements here, however, do give us something more than pause. Too many are based on a misreading of recent developments and policy, some seem unrealistic on the timeframe suggested, and quite a lot of them do not fit together at all well - together, a doleful list of what can go wrong with today's (and yesterday's) simplistic policymaking. Let us take these three elements in turn.

There are to begin with some disputable minor to mid-range points about how we got here, which would not detain us too much were they not instructive about the Report’s wider problems. Land for the Many for instance says at one and the same time (in chapter four) that ‘the balance of demand and supply in the land and housing markets is not determined only by the ratio between the number of houses and the number of households seeking somewhere to live’, but also on the very same page that wider trends ‘have pushed demand for houses, and therefore residential land values, to unprecedented heights’. The extent of the role played by supply-and-demand factors as against ‘financialization’ (land property attracting value as a speculative asset) should surely be quantified somewhere, and at the moment the whole picture is left very vague indeed.

In the same chapter there’s a frankly mystifying reference to ‘the lowering of the Bank of England base rate’ in ‘the 1980s and 1990s’, a reference which is later pared back so that it refers only to the period after 1992. This will come as a surprise to all those who were hit by sky-high interest rates not once by twice during the 1980s, and who faced rates that were pretty high by historic standards for many years thereafter. Interest rates have been ultra-low since the crash of 2007-2008, but that has definitively not been the period when landlords piled into the market – for obvious reasons. 

This might be thought of as nit-picking, but arguments that slide around like this are instructive of an intellectual case that is not particularly sure of itself. Is supply and demand - and especially Britain's very restrictive planning system - an important part of price rises, or not? Is the level of real interest rates and the shape of the credit market – which has ebbed and flowed, rather than simply surging, in the recent past – a key determinant in creating an asset price bubble in land? If the picture is mixed, to what extent is it mixed? The more important that first set of causes is, the more we just build more houses; the more emphasis we place on the second, the more there is at least a case for increased regulation.

This slippery focus on the recent past is a feature in some of the other areas under discussion. We are told there has been a ‘frenzy’ of buy-to-let landlordism preventing first-time buyers entering the market – which is undoubtedly true over the longer term, but is hardly the case since the crash, and under successive governments which have actually made landlordism less and less financially attractive. The increase in Buy-to-Let mortgaging is revealingly given via figures from the period 2000-2007, at the height of that boom: but the stock owned by private landlords overall on a rather different timescale, from 2002 to 2015. It is deeply open to doubt whether Buy-to-Let has played the role in inflating house prices that this Report says it has.

We could go on. The Report perfectly reasonably notes just how much more of their income renters are paying for their housing than are mortgaged owner-occupiers, without breaking out the extent to which this is due to owner-occupiers being rather older and better paid than the renters (and the difference being not so much due to the housing market). It quite rightly demonstrates that there has been a rise in empty bedrooms even while house prices have continued to rise, without mentioning that one reason for that is older Britons not wanting to move once their children have left home (opens as PDF). Speaking blandly about the tax structure encouraging turnover is all very well, but what it means from this angle is encouraging voters to sell their houses – people who have chosen not to do so as things stand. Our major concern is that Land for the Many is more interested in getting to its recommendations than in accepting that the situation is complex and multi-dimensional.

It’s when we get to the recommendations that the concerns deepen. The Report recommends a big increase in social housing provision, which is right and welcome. But there are over a million people on the waiting list right now, and annual housing starts in England that number only about 160,000. Lifting the numbers to anything like what we need to meet demand even now, let alone get ahead of ourselves, will be a long haul indeed. The building industry is over-stretched as it is, especially on the employment side, and productivity increases are hard to come by and slow to emerge – as Labour discovered when it tried big reforms and a huge building drive in the second half of the 1960s.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Land for the Many also recommends rent controls at background inflation levels within the period of any contract, while no-fault evictions should be outlawed for the first three years of any tenancy. That’s better than ideas Labour has previously toyed with, such as lifetime tenancies which would not allow the owner out of any contract even if getting into financial trouble and which would have extended the same rent control over twenty or thirty years. The proposals floated here might move us towards a workable compromise between giving tenants more security and landlords some incentive to stay in the game.

Other features do not, however, fit with this search for a new balance. The Report also proposes a new property tax to replace Council Tax, which would be paid by landlords and not tenants. Extra bands and therefore more progressivity are projected, which is all to the good, but Land for the Many is unattractively opaque about whether this will come in during or after the new three-year tenancies are established. If after, landlords are likely to be exposed to a big new tax at a time when they cannot pass on any of that cost. That’s great for the tenants. But is there really going to be even any capital profit left after that, let alone current incentive? Especially as Labour is here also urged to increase the Capital Gains Tax charged on these dwellings - potentially doubling its rate for Higher Rate income tax payers.

This might sound like the smallest violin time beloved of special pleaders, but it’s not our intention at all to stick up for landlords, rather for the health of a dense, sensitive, interrelated and above all mixed economy of housing – especially during any transition period. As the new tenancy, rent control and tax laws approach, landlords are simply going to dump the lot – especially if they are expected to swallow whole the new Property Tax during the rent control and secured tenancy periods, and if CGT really is pushed up at the same time. Such a landlords’ strike would be analogous, by the way, to the housebuilders’ strike that scuppered Labour’s last attempt, in the late 1960s, to reform the way in which housing land was priced.

Where will all those (ex-) tenants go? Well, some of them will buy. Land for the Many also proposes abolishing Stamp Duty for owner occupiers, which will make that easier, and no doubt house prices will be ‘stabilised’ (for which read: shoved downwards) if these ideas are handled badly. All well and good for them. But lower income tenants, who still cannot buy, will hardly be housed by councils or Housing Associations which are in no position right now (or soon) to suddenly ramp up their output. More than likely, lower income tenants will be pushed to the margins of a private rented sector that British policymakers of all parties tried to revive for fifty years, and which these proposals could (if handled clumsily) eviscerate.

The Common Ground Trust that forms the basis of the Report’s fourth chapter fails to convince as a real way to underpin house prices if landlords did exit the market very rapidly. The idea here is a separation between the value of housing land and bricks and mortar, for those who wished to allow for such a split. The former would be owned by a government-funded Trust that would allow new buyers to simply purchase the physical dwelling. This seems of doubtful utility, especially in the short run. Rather tellingly, no really precise mechanism is proposed as to who would qualify, beyond the extremely bland ‘membership of the Trust would be most obviously attractive for people who want to enjoy a form of home ownership’. Nor are we told how the initial land purchase from the for-profit or private sector seller would work, or how much the plan would cost overall.

In terms of any immediate downwards house price adjustment, this completely underestimates the tendency of our ‘animal spirits’ to overshoot and undershoot imagined values very quickly – so much so that seeking to manage a rapid change in prices with a structural reform will likely end in failure. And it sounds rather too much for comfort like the Labour Land Commission that failed to get off the ground in the 1960s – though the latter, it is true, focused on lowering land costs for builders, not directly for owner-occupiers.

This also doesn’t really get round the distributional problem. House price increases will slow. Absolute values may fall. Given these proposals, owner-occupation will get cheaper because a non-profit, subsidised by the Government, might own the land. That will be great for lower middle-income Britons. But that will still all be beyond the range of the poorest renters, who will live in a shrinking and poorly-resourced sector.  What Labour will have done, as across whole areas of its programme, will have been to redistribute upwards: to finance middle income Britons as the expense of less wealthy ones. More rail subsidies, abolishing tuition fees, free NHS parking for those with cars while the poorest Britons take buses, and so on.

Yes, the very wealthiest will pay more, via more increased taxes on gifts throughout their lifetimes (effectively increasing inheritance taxes), a new and more progressive, Property Tax levied on landlords, higher CGT and the like. But much of that squeeze would take a long time (in contrast to the sharp shock it might administer to the private rented sector). It would also be cold comfort to people who, for whatever reason, want to rent and not to buy.

We can do better than this, quantifying if possible much more closely the extent to which rising land prices are about shortage of supply rather than an influx of capital. Proceeding much more sensitively into reform of the private rented market, providing support to tenants via reversing many of the Housing Benefit cuts of recent years and giving us all breathing space before more social housing can come on stream – because Land for the Many looks more like a plan for a world in which we’ve built half a million new council houses, not one where local authorities are on their knees. And we do still need planning reform as part of the package. Building more houses, and therefore releasing more housing land, exactly where we need them. Since critics of the supply model have a point when they say that ‘build more’ is a hazy nostrum rather than a plan, that means many more dwellings at high density, in the South East, near train stations and bus routes.

At the moment, these proposals are a mixed bag, the hallmark of which are good intentions and strong ideas about transparency, but which have been blended together with a high level of historical, temporal, analytical and geographical confusion, and a naivete about delivery. Looking at these ideas in the round, it’s impossible not to feel deep, deep foreboding about their real effect. Which is a shame – not least for those Britons crying out for better housing.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

It's all coming up roses for Jeremy Corbyn


With British politics in chaos, it’s hard sometimes to step back and divine the big winner. Everything seems in flux. The narrative (and the polls) could shift tomorrow. Yet another crisis could intervene and change the frame. Scandals could break. Brexit might be resolved – though it is much more likely that it will not be. But overall, it is hard to resist the temptation that the big winner in all the heat and light is… Jeremy Corbyn (above).

‘What’, you might splutter, ‘one of the most unpopular people, let alone politicians, to ever walk the planet?’ The man who’s taken Labour today into third place in one YouGov poll published today, leading a party regularly flirting with fourth place in opinion surveys and which recently suffered its worst ever national result? You might well raise an eyebrow at this particular (and counter-intuitive) Hot Take. But hear us out. It can’t hurt.

There are three main reasons why Mr Corbyn should be laughing right now. He has achieved almost complete mastery over the Labour Party machine. His main opponents, Britain’s governing Conservative Party, are in a complete mess, faced with a challenge from the Right that seems like an existential threat to their existence. And the last reason? Well, those self-same Conservatives are about to put Boris Johnson into Downing Street – a man who is more divisive, and probably has a much shorter shelf life, than a jar of marmite.

In control of the Party. Rarely can a Labour leader ever have established such complete control over the machine. It’s hard to say whether Tony Blair ever achieved such total mastery, though of course the two cases are not comparable. Mr Blair was winning elections, riding high in the polls and actually doing things at his peak between (say) 1996 and 2001. Mr Corbyn has lost pretty much every election he’s fought. But even so, it’s the latter figure who seems to rule unchallenged. It’s been an absolutely admirable, if cynical, march through the institutions, as one would expect from a cadre of Straight Left enthusiasts and trade union apparatchiks. Their talk of member-led policy was a good and effective smokescreen for a while, though now that even Corbynism’s bodged-up ‘social movement’ Momentum seems to be giving up on internal democracy, the mask has slipped.

Bit by bit, they have rightly put in their own people – Jennie Formby as General Secretary, Karie Murphy in charge of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, Laura Murray as Head of Complaints. Not only that, but they got the ‘JC9’ elected to the Party’s National Executive Committee, ensuring that a single line or case came out of each meeting, and that their friends could do as they pleased without fear of discipline. Veteran Left-wingers such as Ann Black, as judicious as she was fair in her reporting, were replaced by advocates of The Revolution. The most critical MPs have now deselected themselves by retiring from politics, declining to run again, resigning the Whip, and joining Change UK or the Liberal Democrats. Most social democratic members have walked away. Win or lose, office or Opposition, the Left own the Labour Party for a decade or more to come. That’s a big win.

Likely to govern. Whenever the next General Election comes – and right now the assumption in Westminster and Whitehall is that it will be upon us this autumn or next spring – Labour is the most likely to be the largest Party in the House of Commons. Regular readers will know that this blog has made this argument since at least the autumn of 2017, and we see no reason at all to change our mind. Labour is indeed about as popular as rotting roadkill in your fridge. Its polling scores are mind-numbingly bad. Only Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Foot have ever been as unpopular as Mr Corbyn. But that doesn’t really matter – because the Conservatives’ support has collapsed even faster, and even further, than has Labour’s. Remember: in the event that there isn’t an electoral cataclysm that makes the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats the biggest Party, all that matters is the two-Party swing between Labour and the Tories. At the moment, it’s towards Labour. Ergo, they govern.

Remember also that Labour don’t have to win outright. Indeed, this seems very unlikely indeed right now. They only have to reduce the Conservative, Brexit Party and Democratic Unionist ranks in the Commons to less than around or about 322 MPs. There is no way on this planet that the Scottish National Party or the Liberal Democrats will support the Conservatives continuing in office. So as long as Labour plus SNP plus Liberal Democrat plus Plaid Cymru plus Green adds up to 322, Mr Corbyn will go and live in Downing Street. Right now, almost all the pollsters – Opinium, for instance, and Survation, the last two elections’ most accurate pollster – think that this will indeed be the case. So Labour wins. That’s not just a case we’d make from the overall numbers, by the way. Labour has the best ground game. It knows where its voters are, as the Peterborough by-election demonstrated. In a world where lots of seats are going to be won by very tight margins and in three-, four- or even five-way fights, that might matter most of all.

Faced by the worst-best opponent. The single most stupid thing the Conservatives could do would be to elect Boris Johnson as their leader. He unites all non-Conservatives in the entire country against the Tories – and back behind Labour. Imagine a General Election fought by the figurehead of the Leave campaign. All Remainers will want to get their revenge. And the only, single, or at least by far the most likely way of turfing him out of Downing Street? Voting Labour – as, indeed, voters in Mr Johnson’s own by-no-means-safe Uxbridge seat will be invited to do. The atmosphere of energy, tension – even danger – will help the Corbynites no end. Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn are symbiotic beings. They thrive on each others’ blatant disregard for the reality-based community. What boosts ‘Boris’ causes ‘Jeremy’ to grow in the mind too.

Mr Johnson is not the man who Londoners elected as their Mayor in 2008. Then, he posed as a socially-liberal Tory that you could do business with. Now, his record of appalling racist statements, untruths, recklessness, under-prepared busking nonsense and frankly extremism has caught up with him among that half of the country that is easily labelled Remainia, but actually has far deeper roots as the outward-looking and cosmopolitan party of the country that likes to think of itself as open-minded. Reader, they absolutely loathe him, as you'll see if you click on the detailed data here. He can’t introduce himself as someone new, because to be honest he’s past his best and looking increasing shopworn – like a deflated and faded Paddington Bear. He disrupts no narrative. He finds few voters that the Conservatives haven’t discovered already. Voters might have given a Sajid Javid or a Penny Mordaunt a little bit of space and time to set out their stall. They will rightly give Mr Johnson under one tenth of one second.

Mr Corbyn often looks like a busted flush. Labour membership is falling. His own ratings are not so much in the gutter as the culvert underneath it. Labour is in rapid retreat electorally, especially in Scotland and – it seems – Wales. He is twisting and turning on the main issue of the day, to no-one’s satisfaction and everyone’s irritation. And yet he controls the Labour Party lock, stock and barrel. He is still in our view pretty likely to become Prime Minister. And his ideas have a good chance of becoming hegemonic at a time when the Conservative Party is imploding.

It’s when he gets into power that his real problems will start. Firstly: power will ebb away from him. It won’t only be the SNP and the Liberal Democrats that will have a major say over legislation. Labour MPs, powerless at the moment, will have a veto over every single law their leader wants to pass. Secondly: the leadership team’s analysis of how power works is wrong. As befits the institutional and deterministic way of seeing the world popular in the leader’s office, they think that seizing the commanding heights of the state will allow them to transform the country. Well, not for nothing have political scientists long seen capturing the core executive as wearing a ‘hollow crown’. It isn’t just that the levers aren’t connected to anything: it’s that those levers don’t even exist any more.

Three: all policies are choices, and Labour will have to start to make some. If they abolish university fees, who will get the places under any new numbers cap – the Russell Group or the others? If they want to accelerate housebuilding, where on earth will the building labour come from? Where will the houses go? If Ministers want to subsidise rail travel, do they help workers in the rush hour or relatively lower-income older travellers in the daytime?

If they bring in new types of land tenure for first time property buyers, will those owners be able to take those subsidised advantages with them? Do they allow the SNP another Scottish independence referendum? Will the Bank of England be directed to alter credit policy by region, or to accelerate ‘Green’ investment, and how? All the vague, opaque, contradictory things they have said will come home to roost. Everything in Mr Corbyn’s allotment is coming up roses – for now. But the flowers look pretty likely to be blighted things indeed.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

British politics is now full of challengers


This blog has already been very clear about the struggles of the Big Two political parties in Great Britain. They are in a deep hole, and they show every sign of continuing their dig. Two challenger parties – one old, one young – in the shape of the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party seem to sit more naturally across the great divides in our politics today. And they’re full of verve and a sense of momentum, while the blue and red teams trudge glumly around in search of eye-catching and popular ideas.

But what about the insurgents fighting to get in from outside this new and unfamiliar four-party system? Because one of the things that was so noticeable about the recent local and European elections was the rise of the Greens and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, the continued success of the Scottish National Party, and the success of Independents and localists everywhere – while another new grouping, Change UK, seems so far to have comprehensively failed to get off the ground?

Today, on day two of our week-long blogging marathon, we’re going to take a look at a political system that isn’t so much bifurcating between Leave and Remain as crumbling in all directions – with concerns about the environment, transport and housing apparently sitting across the traditional divide of Right and Left just as strongly as Brexit does. Because as the Big Two crumble, it’s not just the New Two that are pushing them around: it’s the little battalions and the sharpshooters too.

The Green surge. We’ve been here before, of course, since over the winter of 2014-15 and leading up to the 2015 General Election the Green Party seemed to be going places – only to disappoint as the date of the polls actually approached. They actually hit 10 or 11 per cent in two polls conducted in January 2015, conducted by YouGov and Lord Ashcroft respectively. But now there seems to be a more sustained upwards drift, reflecting a second and more voluminous inrush of the green tide. The Extinction Rebellion movement, and the publicity surrounding Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg, have become a cause celebre among voters who might once have been attracted to Cleggmania and Corbynism: increasing evidence of the warming planet is causing voters widespread unease.

Added to a great deal of local organising, on the model that the Liberal Democrats once used to come back from the brink of extinction in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the Greens have a great chance to establish themselves as a permanent player in a multi-party system. Don’t believe us? Well, they put on 194 councillors in early May, and they won 12.1 per cent of the vote (and seven MEPs) at the European elections – coming in just two percentage points behind Labour. The Britain Elects poll tracker now has them on average at 5.4 per cent for a Westminster election, only a little behind their placing during the party’s much-heralded ‘surge’ last time. It will be very, very hard for them to win any more Parliamentary seats, partly because Labour is standing in their way in areas that are demographically and ideologically fertile for the Greens: but it does not seem totally impossible in the medium term.

The nationalist challenge. Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties also had much to cheer. Given constraints of time and space, we’re going to treat their fortunes together here, though we do know that these two countries are very, very different. Plaid Cymru first, because their advance seems the most stunning. They beat Labour across Wales in the European elections for the first time ever, and they didn’t just squeeze out what was once thought of as Wales’ dominant party: they beat them by 19.6 per cent to 15.3 per cent, a swing of over nine per cent since the last such election. Recent opinion polling in Wales, which suggests that Plaid is indeed benefiting from increasing support, confirm the picture. As with the Greens, Plaid will struggle to win many more Westminster seats – maybe only two or three look remotely within reach – but these days, we wouldn’t rule it out.

The SNP’s remarkable run of success continued, with extraordinarily good results for a party which is now twelve years into government at Holyrood. The only real way to put this is to say that theyutterly crushed Scottish Labour in the European vote, since Labour’s vote share collapsed and who nearly came sixth in a country they used to govern without question – as they have done Wales up until very recently. Labour lost its last MEP in Scotland, while the Conservatives also went markedly backwards. Opinion polling (opens as PDF) continues to indicate that both the UK’s ‘main’ parties are going to get a beating in Scotland next time around, with Labour perhaps retreating back to the single seat it won in Edinburgh South in 2015 and the Tories ending up with only two to four Scots MPs. They’ve both played right into the SNP’s hands in so many ways. SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (above) probably cannot believe her luck.

The independent insurgency. One line of the local government results that really made many people sit up and notice was the one said ‘Others – Gains’. Because all round the country, particularist parties of local people who liked to style themselves ‘independent’ of any party won ward after ward after ward. In fact, they made 660 gains – nearly as many as the 705 net pickups that the Liberal Democrats managed. In three districts, for instance Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, the Independents now have overall control. Now, these groups are necessarily drawn from all sorts of people, and seem to represent almost all of the points on the ideological spectrum. Many of them seem to be civic-minded individuals who have taken up the baton of the 2011 Localism Act and run small parish councils, before (as now) trading up into the much bigger world of district elections.

Some Independent groups seemed to be angry about new housing schemes; others were committed to breaking the hold of long-serving councillors who seemed to have become complacent and presumptuous in a world of First Past the Post elections in which they always won their wards. But it’s not just disaffection with Westminster that we’re seeing: the phenomenon seems wider and deeper than that, and to reflect something of a wish to, shall we say, take back more control locally. In many parts of the country, information about for instance the use and survival of bus routes is very controversial, but not freely available; new housing plans are absolutely huge in scale and ambition, but very vague and not really presented in a useable manner; central government funding cuts have often asked local people to step in and fill the void.   

How should we expect this all to turn out when we next go to the polls? Not just some Brexit Party MPs (if that issue remains unresolved), and more – potentially many more – Liberal Democrats. But also ever-sharper challenges to the four parties who now seem to be rotating around the low 20s or high teens in the polls. A lower vote share for the Conservatives and Labour. More wins for the SNP. Probably an increased number of MPs from Plaid Cymru. And a higher vote share, if not any more MPs, for the Greens. And all the time, as the success of Independents and localists demonstrates, a burgeoning sense that this time, the centralised two-party system really is under the most existential threat it has ever faced. This chaotic Parliament may not be the last.

Monday, 24 June 2019

What is the meaning of the Peterborough by-election?


This week, to mark the end of the academic year and therefore Public Policy and the Past’s annual summer hibernation, we thought we’d do something different. So steel yourself for a full week of blogging – each at only half the length we normally attempt, running to only a thousand rather than two thousand words, but hopefully illuminating nonetheless.

It’s been an absolutely terrible year for British politics, which appears now to be in vertiginous decline. Its ranks are dissolving into nothing more than a chaotic rabble. That’s a paradox, because the nation as a whole really does not seem to be exhibiting the same deep amber or red warning signals. So it’s time to take stock. Why does the organised party system in the United Kingdom look to be under such threat? Is the threat real? What are the deeper roots of the crisis, if indeed there are any.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how the traditionally ‘smaller’ British parties are doing, having cast our eye last month over what May’s local and European elections told us about the Conservatives, Labour and the apparently resurgent Liberal Democrats. Then on Wednesday, we’ll examine the likely balance of forces if there is a General Election this year – specifically, the very strange prospect of a Labour government being elected even as its popularity falls off a cliff.

On Thursday, this blog will examine Labour’s recent report on land policy, all the more pressing since they appear to be on the verge of power. We’ll round it all off on Friday with a survey of recent public policy successes, not just to end the year on a slightly more optimistic note, but to highlight again the odd sensation of watching politicians struggle so tragi-comically while the country at large keeps its act together. 

First, and today: what does the recent Peterborough by-election tell us about the parties’ relative standings? Labour’s narrow victory has launched all sorts of not-so-hot takes, usually from partisans whose utterly naked self-interest and boring tribalism make their one-eyed claims all the harder to take. One small part of the kingdom has been to the polls yet again – and with the voter recall of Chris Davies, the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, another seat will be up soon too. Can a by-election tell us anything about national standings?

Peterborough might just tell us nothing at all. On one level, it’s important to note that all the hot takery in the world might mean… zilch. We once thought that the Conservatives’ February 2017 victory in Copeland showed that the Tories were on the march, likely to seize Labour seats deep into red territory. Well, it didn’t work out like that, did it?

Let’s go further back, too. Eastleigh in 2013 told the Liberal Democrats that they might be able to hang on to quite a few seats, despite the deep unpopularity of their coalition with the Conservatives among many of their voters. That turned out to be, well, optimistic. Labour’s narrow hold of Darlington in 1983 convinced the party to keep Michael Foot. He then led that party to electoral catastrophe just three months later. Keep in mind that single data points do not make for a conclusive equation.

The by-election told us that the polls are right. One intriguing and comforting point that leaps out from the Peterborough result is that it to some extent confirms the national polling picture. The Brexit Party have hit the low- to mid-20s in many of those surveys: here they got 29 per cent. That party just failed to grab the seat from Labour. It’s not listed as a Brexit Party gain on what is perhaps still the most famous seat predictor, Electoral Calculus – even though that site projects nearly 200 Brexit Party gains.

The polls are also telling us that support for the Conservatives and Labour alike is falling like a stone. That’s exactly what happened in Peterborough. Labour’s vote fell by 17.2 per cent (the fifth worst byelection vote fall for that party in forty years), while the Conservative vote went down by 25.5 per cent. So, very roughly speaking and in the real world where British political polling has a mediocre record, pollsters should be cheered: they don’t seem to be doing too badly.

This win told us that although Labour are suffering, the Conservatives are in an even deeper hole. Labour’s candidate Lisa Forbes (above) got returned to Parliament not because she was particularly popular, but because her party’s vote share fell less than did the Conservatives’. Put very crudely, Labour were more successful in staunching their bleeding to the Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives were to the Brexit Party. Had just a few more Labour voters decided to give the revived and Remain-focused Liberal Democrats a chance, Labour would have lost this seat. And that tells us exactly what the European elections did: Labour’s coalition is falling to bits, but the Conservatives’ alliance with the voters could be completely disintegrating.

The vote totals hinted that there is still life in the ‘old’ parties. Some voting surveys are suggesting that Labour and the Conservatives have shed half their vote since the last General Election. That isn’t quite what we saw here, since although the Tories’ vote did crater on that scale, Labour’s didn’t. Labour seems still to be holding on among minority communities and in diverse areas, a fact that caught our eye too in the European election results. That fact caused quite a lot of unpleasant racist dog whistling from the Brexit Party immediately after this byelection, and a not-so-whispered campaign against the legitimacy of this election focusing on the postal vote. Far be it for us to suggest that Nigel Farage and his supporters would do better to have a think about why non-white Britons loathe them so much.

Meanwhile, one of the main reasons the Brexit Party did not win this seat was that even though it clearly became a two-horse race, the Conservative vote actually held up better than expected against a classic protest vote ‘squeeze’. Mr Farage simply couldn’t persuade enough Conservatives to back his new upstart party – which ended up at about the same nearly-nearly threshold that United Kingdom Independence Party used to bang its head right up against. Close, but no cigar.

So Peterborough confirms lots of things that have been more and more obvious in recent months. It’s only one result, but it makes the polls look as if they are in the right ball park. It demonstrates that the Big Two of red and blue are astonishingly unpopular given that they are supposed to be the main and traditional homes for left- and right-leaning voters. But they are still just about able to block the advance of new entrants such as the Brexit Party. They have the data. They know where their voters are. They have money and machinery. But their dominance is creaking and cracking alarmingly, and they know it. For the rest of the week, we’ll try to suggest why that might be – and why it matters.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Britain's electoral upheaval might be just beginning


For the United Kingdom, May has been a month of not one but two elections – one in England and Northern Ireland for local councils, and two across the whole UK for the European Parliament. We’ve been leaping for joy here, of course, as the data has flooded in and each numerical lightning strike has lit up the landscape a little more plainly. But the tsunami of results may have left the (shall we say) less obsessive a bit… overfaced. As we come up for air after this month of numbers, what do the local and European elections tell us about the state of the parties? Enough of council by-elections, opinion polls and party rumour: here’s some real ballot boxes to break open. Do try to restrain yourselves. 

The Conservative Party is on a precipice. First and foremost, what these results tell us is that the governing Conservatives’ prospects are hanging by a thread. They are under attack from two sides. First, in the local elections, they got absolutely shredded in England – particularly Southern England – wherever there were wealthier ex-Tory Remainers. And then, in the Euro-elections, they got battered by absolutely everybody, including frustrated Brexiteers who defected en masse to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. To be fair, the Conservatives’ share of the vote in early May (at perhaps something between 28 and 31 per cent) was not too bad by historical standards. Many governments have done much worse than that. Labour fell below that national share of the vote in all the local elections held its entire third term in office, gaining only between 22 per cent and 26 per cent in local elections between 2006 and 2009 (opens as PDF). And the Tories at least managed to match Labour’s similarly poor performance (more of which later). So they weren’t exactly wiped off the map.

But the results were particularly bad for them geographically, helping to explain why they lost quite so many councillors (over 1,300) when if you’d asked us on polling day, we’d have said they would maybe lose 800 or a few more. Let’s take you to deep England, to the Vale of White Horse in South Oxfordshire, where the Tories got sand kicked in their faces by the resurgent Liberal Democrats; to East Cambridgeshire, where they also went backwards; to Mid Suffolk, where they lost overall control; to Chelmsford (where the Liberal Democrats got pretty close in 2010, before tumbling backwards at the end of the Coalition years), which saw the Tories wiped out in the city itself; and so on. Wherever there were commuters, graduates, people moving out of London, relatively high income strivers, the Tories got whacked. In a First Past the Post system that loses you a lot of councillors, just as it loses you lots of MPs once one particular slice of people turn on you. It’s for just this reason that the Tories should start to worry just a little about even apparently safe seats like Ed Vaizey’s Wantage (in Vale of White Horse) and even wealthy Guildford in Surrey.

Dazed by their misfortune in the face of their gold enemy in the shape of the Remainery Liberal Democrats, the Tories then got slammed in the back by the massed turquoise forces of Leavedom, in the shape of the Brexit Party. They managed to come fifth in the elections to the European Parliament, and to garner only nine per cent of the vote. The conventional thing to say here is that this is ‘the Conservative Party’s worst result since 1832’, but actually it’s much worse than that: this is their worst result by far since the dawn of universal suffrage and the emergence of the modern party system. They got beaten everywhere, and they failed to win a single council area, but their grip on Remain Britain (which the locals showed was at best tenuous) was completely broken. Their vote share was particularly pathetic in areas that voted more than 60% Remain. Take a look at London, which they ran under Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty until 2016 (and where Zac Goldsmith managed to get 35 per cent of the first round of voting even then). Last Thursday, they managed… 7.9 per cent. The Tories are in crisis in Brexitland, but they are struggling for bare survival in Remainia.

Labour are in deep trouble too. What, then, of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition? The last time the Conservatives posted local election results like these, Tony Blair was carrying all before him and Labour were getting vote shares in the 40s. Well, not so much this time. Via some unpleasant alchemy the chemistry of which is in part opaque, voters’ distaste for the Government seems to be rubbing off on the alternative government too. The Tories may have performed catastrophically, but Labour has performed appallingly. There is a mood of ‘plague on both your houses’ running in the country, and an angry undertow of frustration about politics-as-usual. Labour has been trying to ride that tiger, with Trumpian rhetoric and quicksilver misdirection: this time, they ended up inside the animal they sought to tame.

Labour’s local election performance was in many ways the mirror image of the Conservatives’, and indeed they attracted the same pretty low share of the vote. In what you once might have called their ‘heartlands’, particularly the North East of England, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour offer went down not so much like a lead balloon but an entire Zeppelin made of concrete. They lost and they lost and they lost, which since early results were clustered there shaped the early narrative on a night where they did not quite so badly in more urban, liberal, Remainery parts of the country (they held off a strong attempted Liberal Democrat challenge in Cambridge, for instance). Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland: Labour lost control of all of them. Since they too are plunging in the opinion polls, and their leader is probably the least popular Opposition chief ever, that ought perhaps to be not so surprising: but it’s still a little bit of a shock when we’re used to one of the Big Two being up when the other is down. There are historical precedents, as when both Ted Heath as Conservative Prime Minister and Harold Wilson as Labour leader were deeply unpopular in 1972-74, and when Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were also phenomenally disliked in 1981; but it still seems strange to see both red and blue teams in the toilet at the same time.

If Labour’s fortresses seemed to crumble at the beginning of May, their remaining citadels got positively dynamited in the European elections at the end of the month. Very crudely, their traditional and perhaps more conservative voters turned their backs on the party in the local elections: then their new, younger, city-dwelling and cosmopolitan backers kicked them when they were down. Labour has been tip-toeing along a very fine line in recent years, trying to attract new supporters as they shed them in seats they’ve held for decades. For every Stoke-on-Trent South there must be a Canterbury, for every Mansfield a Kensington, and so on. This time, they fell off that tightrope. They got buried in North London, losing Islington, Camden and Haringey to the Liberal Democrats. They got annihilated in Bristol, where they managed to come fourth in a city where they hold all four Parliamentary seats. They somehow managed to come third in the City of Oxford, where there was a 23 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats. That’s right: 23 per cent. Yes, it was a fairly low turnout compared to a General Election, and yes, perhaps lots of those voters were committed Euro-partisans on one side or the other. But Labour, like the Tories, did worse than it has ever, ever done before – without even including their risible fifth in Scotland, where Scottish Labour increasingly looks like an irrelevance.

The Liberal Democrats are back in the big time. The big winners on both nights? Step forward, the orange team led by Vince Cable (above), who are now firmly installed back in the mainstream of British politics. It’s an extraordinary turnaround. Just a few months ago, perhaps only a few weeks back, we were still scratching our heads, saying ‘why aren’t the Liberal Democrats doing better?’ Turns out they just needed the right circumstances, the right campaign theme, and the right electoral battleground. They’ve never done as well in terms of gaining councillors as they did in the local elections (though their actual projected share of the vote was a relatively modest 17 to 18 per cent). And they’ve never done as well as they did in the European elections, where they managed to attract 20 per cent of the vote. It’s also important to note that their opinion poll ratings are also beginning to shoot up now, into at least the mid-teens. In part, but only in part, this is explicable as the Revenge of the Remainers: high-income, highly-educated voters who are unused to not getting their own way, and are pretty angry about it, choosing to use the Lib Dems as their vehicle of discontent.

But there does seem to be more to the centre party’s success than that. There are Remainers everywhere, of course (something lost in the deeply stupid discourse of ‘Leave seats’ and ‘Remain seats’). But the Liberal Democrats’ success in England’s North East and North West in early May, as well as their frankly stunning march forward into deep blue areas in Southern England, shows that they’re doing something right in general rather than just in detail. It's true that most voters don't turn up at these contests: but the Liberal Democrats were able to attract 'their' voters to the polls even as others struggled to do so, which must be worth something. Take a look for instance at Hertfordshire, an area of commuter-heavy Metroland where the party has been strong in the past. There the Lib Dems managed to pick up 36 councillors across six councils, catapulting themselves for instance into first place in St Albans – a Westminster seat they have hopes of winning, and indeed should win if they are to make the kind of advances that the last month suggest (it’s the party’s eleventh target overall, and their seventh potential gain now held by the Conservatives). Above all, it seemed to us that the party looked professional, deploying good-looking branding, insurgent phrases, eye-catching podiums, excited-looking candidates. Perhaps that’s a little thing, and the actual shape of the playing field was the main element here. But it can’t have hurt.

In the European elections, the Liberal Democrats managed to push Labour back into third, and by quite some way (outstripping them by more than seven percentage points). They won London. They picked up 15 Members of the European Parliament to add to their solitary one last time. Their storming performance justified the confidence of pollsters who pushed them right up, mainly on the basis of their sampling techniques rather than turnout assumptions – which may be an optimistic sign for the yellow team as we move forward towards the General Election. They seem to have been comprehensively de-toxified, not via a slow, drip-by-drip purging, but in a single dose of principle. Other parties should take note: if you say what you mean and mean what you say, people listen. It’s not just in St Albans where the Lib Dems have target Parliamentary seats in which they did well. They succeeded in both the council and European elections in North Devon, overlapping with their seventh target seat. And Remainer-heavy Richmond Park and Cheltenham should be fairly easy gains for them in the next General Election, since they got more than half the vote in the former (opens as PDF) and easily topped the poll in the latter - pushing the Conservatives back into fourth. Basically, the Lib Dems are back. In terms of Westminster seats, they face an intimidating blue wall of huge Conservative majorities, but they must surely be hoping for at least a modest haul of new MPs next time.

The fixed points of reference have all gone. There’s so much more to say. Change UK did not manage to get off the ground, and they face an uncertain future in which they will probably seek to strike an electoral deal with the Liberal Democrats – which is probably what they should have done all along. The Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru had fantastic nights, Plaid in particular exultant because they beat Labour in Wales for the first time ever. What about the Greens, who rode a wave of environmental concern across Europe to post really strong results in both the locals and the European elections? What about the huge numbers of Independents and Ratepayers elected in the local elections? What’s happening in Northern Ireland, where two out of three MEPs are now from parties in favour of both Remain and of the backstop that Tories hate so much? Analysis of these trends will have to wait until next month.

That brings us to our last point: the Big Two might be in crisis, but the new and not-so-improved Big Four when we include Brexit and the Lib Dems are also surrounded by insurgent forces – Nationalist, Green, Localist. The system is in unprecedented flux, and in a First Past the Post system (containing a large number of super-marginals) that means that a huge range of General Election outcomes are in play. Just a medium-sized leakage of left-wing voters out of Labour could cripple the party. Alternatively, just a 10-15 per cent vote share for the Brexit Party could put Mr Corbyn in Downing Street with something approaching a majority.

The public no longer want to be labelled Red or Blue – who can blame them? – but given Britain’s lop-sided electoral system it’s still very likely they’ll have to accept a Red or Blue government. Combined with the laughable and undeliverable pledges both teams now seem to issue on a daily basis, voters' sense of frustration and alienation as people are expected to live on as Little Labourites and Toryites is only going to grow – eventually, perhaps, blowing the lid off the system entirely. It’s not just the steps in front of us that are shrouded in fog, but the road ahead and the horizon too.