Monday, 16 January 2017

Where do the UK parties stand now?


So, it’s the New Year, and there’s a long, long list of things to get through. There’ll be the French and German elections, the onset of the Trump administration in the US, and policy questions galore. Will the UK be able to disentangle itself from the European Union without a great deal of economic pain and wasted bureaucratic energy? Will Russia be happy to trade a more muscular American foreign policy for a more semi-detached stance from Uncle Sam in Europe? Will rising interest rates slow growth? How long can China continue to fuel the world economy? All these questions will be to the fore in 2017. For now, let’s kick off the year with a review of where British politics stands right now, shall we? We can take each party in turn if you’d like.

The Conservatives. The Conservative government led by Theresa May (above) is in a strange position. On the face of it, ahead of them lies a grim, grey task: managing Britain’s exit from the EU. It’s uncontroversial to say that this is the greatest task the British state has had to tackle since 1945. It won’t be complete for many, many years, despite the likeliest exit date in formal terms still being the spring of 2019. European law could take decades to wash out of the British statute book; the country’s trade will only slowly adjust itself to the new realities; the UK will probably want to avail itself of many EU institutions, such as policing and student exchange, on an indefinite basis. At the same time, some Conservatives are beginning to fret that Mrs May’s undoubted popularity masks a fundamental lack of grip and decisiveness. This might arise just from the inevitable hesitation involved in the heavyweight decisions that face the Prime Minister. But if might also be that her popularity is built on sand. She is not much of a public speaker, isn’t very quick on her feet, and is said to be a control freak of an administrator. Mrs May seems to shift about in a very cramped manner, inching two inches to the left, and then one to the right, before starting all over again. She hasn't moved very far from the spot since becoming Prime Minister. It's not particularly inspiring, to say the least, and there doesn't seem to be much of a guiding philosophy behind it all. All that bodes very ill for a national leader who will have to manage years of hard negotiations in Brussels, all the while trying to bind the wounds of a country that has become very divided over the European question. Conservatives seem united for now, but can they really hold together harmoniously as Britain leaves not only the Single Market, but – it appears – the EU’s Customs Union as well? We seriously doubt it. Their real salvation is their lack of opposition, which neatly brings us to the state of the other parties.

Labour. You come to this site for a historian’s insight into public policy questions, don’t you? Well, here’s one: the Labour Party is in by far its most serious crisis since 1931. It will probably survive as an institution, but its future as a party that seeks to govern on its own at Westminster is now clearly in doubt. Labour is being buffeted by so many crises, all at one and the same time, that it’s hard to count them up. It faces a very long-term decline of its relevance to a populace that increasingly experiences work as a series of overlapping, fragmented, kaleidoscopic, even chaotic tasks. Its blue-collar ethos, its union backers, the settled communities that might once turn out to vote for the party en masse: these are becoming a thing of the past. On top of those long-term trends, large-scale immigration and a reputation for financial profligacy have both helped to loosen solidaristic bonds of loyalty and fellow-feeling among an electorate now less disposed to vote for measures that might help incomers. Added to that, Labour have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader who is clearly just not cut out for the role, and who the public have mainly taken against. The week just gone, which was supposed to involve a New Year 'relaunch' of Mr Corbyn's 'brand', ran like an episode of 1970s Doctor Who: its terrible acting, frenetic plotline and mock gravitas came with an atmosphere of affected and unconvincing semi-comic seriousness that made you want to hide behind the sofa. Then, to add to that, Labour is now afflicted by ‘Brexit and Trump’, those poorly-realised twins of impossible choices and foreign policy dilemmas. Labour is being transformed into an anti-austerity party obsessed with the domestic sphere at a moment when almost all attention will be focused on foreign policy: on whether to reinforce NATO and rearm if the Trump administration looks likely to abandon Eastern Europe, and on the means by which the UK leaves the EU. That latter issue looks likely to tear Labour’s two remaining electorates apart, since working-class northern English towns and the Welsh valleys share almost nothing on this one with liberal big-city urbanites. Labour is being hit by a serious of storms that add up to a tsunami. It seems unlikely to hold power on its own again for many, many years.

The United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, faces what seems like an insuperable challenge. If the Conservatives have problems, and Labour is in a really dreadful state, then UKIP isn’t far behind. Having lost its very raison d’etre when Britain voted to leave the EU, it has been undermined from within by the kind of vicious infighting that will happen when a party loses both its compass and arguments in one fell swoop. Mr Nuttall has made a big noise about ‘replacing Labour’ in its northern strongholds, which is undoubtedly the right call given just how weak Labour is becoming: but it would have been much easier to assault some of those huge Labour majorities if UKIP had lost the referendum. They needed a sense of grievance, a cause, a justification for their politics of anger: instead, Mrs May’s insistence on a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ is likely to steal lots of their voters, much to Labour’s disadvantage in marginals where they face a Conservative challenge. Their record in council by-elections over the last year has been terrible, and they’ve got nowhere fast in Parliamentary by-elections such as those held at Sleaford. Their poll ratings, although hovering at about where they ended up in the 2015 General Election, are nothing to write home about. They’re going to lose all their Members of the European Parliament when Britain pulls out of it in 2019, and unless they start winning actual elections soon – at Copeland, Stoke Central or Leigh, all Labour seats that should be in their sights – no-one is going to take them that seriously as a threat under First Past the Post. Mrs May seems to have shot their fox.

The Liberal Democrats. Now the yellow team look quite a lot healthier than UKIP, despite still wallowing rather lower than them in the polls after their disastrous showing at the last General Election. This is mainly because, unlike UKIP, they have a grievance to exploit, and can pose as the champions of the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to stay in the EU. In this age of political rage, where shouting at all and sundry on Twitter can stand in for actually engaging everyone’s brains, that matters a lot. They did well in the Richmond Park by-election, of course, and they’ve been running the board on almost everyone else in local council by-elections. We tend to think that the latter phenomenon is in part due to fired-up activists turning out angry Remain voters, often in areas where the Liberal Democrats were previously strong. Their national opinion polls have gone up a bit, but not very much – perhaps a couple of points since the autumn, an increase well in line with previous boosts the party has received after its many by-election triumphs since the Second World War. Even so, that all-Britain rating probably won’t matter very much when we come to a General Election. The Lib Dems will have to focus all their fire on perhaps twenty seats that they think they can realistically win. With the higher profile that being ‘the party of Remain’ lends, with some fire in their bellies, a bit of luck and some Brexit blunders from the government, they can make headway. Their leader, Tim Farron - not, shall we say, a man hitherto overtroubled by the hallmarks of leadership - will be hailed as a liberal hero if he doubles his party’s seat tally, an entirely possible scenario that looked barely even conceivable just a year ago.

That’s the survey done. In a 2017 that’s likely to be pretty bleak, Britain’s political parties don’t have a vast amount to look forward to. Labour is fading away like a wall of bold colours facing a sunny window. UKIP faces an existential crisis scarcely concealed by the party’s bluster. The Conservatives will probably govern for the next decade, but it might be a loveless and grinding affair. The Liberal Democrats feel like the sky’s the limit only because they’ve spent the years since 2010 locked in an electoral dungeon. Hey, you come here for the historical insights, not the cheer.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Goodbye - for now


Well, we tried. We tried to warn you that Brexit was far, far more likely than people said. We tried to wave the flag about the unknown-but-mounting likelihood of a new age of rage and danger. It wasn't enough. In a year when analytical approaches, data-driven techniques, the art of using evidence and even reason itself were in retreat throughout, we tried to hold tight to just those methods. It didn't always work. But we hope you were informed, enlightened, and perhaps even sometimes moved by what you read here. We'll be back on Monday 16 January, to track the French and German elections, ongoing Brexit negotiations, Labour's gloomy travails, and the first days of the Age of Trump. Don't you dare miss it. But in the meantime - look after yourselves, and enjoy your holidays.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Welcome to the age of the gangsters


Now you know all about Donald Trump (above) by now. He says that he could shoot someone down in the street, and he'd still be popular. He says he might not respect election results. He flirts with torture. He threatens to jail his main opponent (before saying he won't). He singles out individual journalists and trade union leaders for verbal harangues, both on social media and in person. He calls on the Russian state to hack rival politicians. He praises the autocracy of Vladimir Putin. He tries to cave in the businesses of companies - from Boeing to Vanity Fair - who happen to disagree with him. He cajoles. He wheedles. He shouts. He bellows. He stamps his feet.

There's a good word for this, and before you say, it isn't fascism: it's gangsterism. Mr Trump lacks the private militia, the uniform-wearing - and if everyone's really honest, the will to total power - that gets you a really paid-up season ticket to the fascist club. He's not interested in ideology, particularly - though as mid-twentieth century fascists' grip on ideological consistency was often deliberately slippery, that difference on its own doesn't matter all that much. So. He is a bully, a narcissist and a sociopath, but reality seems a bit more prosaic than all the epithet-slinging that Democrats will (understandably) subject him to. The President-Elect is an almost perfect reflection of and vessel for the fury of older white men in the Rustbelt. He feeds off the power of that anger all the time: and as such, he often just indulges himself in an endless stompabout designed to stoking both his ego and the self-image of his voters. He must be the outsider pitched against the know-it-all insiders. He has no choice. History has veered off, somehow, into burn-it-all down biker gang nihilism, and if striking a pose that looks very much like a fist with a wig on top isn't to your taste, you'd best look away now.

While Mr Trumps stamps around as deafeningly as possible, it just so happens that both himself and his nearest and dearest will become just as rich as they possibly can. His daughter sat in on his first summit with the Japanese, all the better to assist with her business interests in that country. Mr Trump's hotel in Argentina suddenly got clearance when he was elected (though any outright collusion has been denied). He has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conflicts of interest all over the globe - including, reportedly, in Taiwan, site of his first confrontation with Beijing. He's not going to put all his investments in a blind trust, whatever anyone says. Perhaps he'll do very tidily out of the wall-and-fence on the Mexican border. No doubt his Cabinet of billionaires will profit very nicely out of the likely economic boom of the next two or three years, as Mr Trump smashes through all the deficit limits and budget caps that Republicans used to say they cared about.

Now, we'll grant you that this is leagues less sinister than Mussolini's take-over in Italy (for instance), but it's still not great. Most dangerously, it's a recipe for confrontation between the USA and Russia that could boil over in all sorts of frightening ways. Bear in mind that most wars are caused by miscalculation about the extent to which rivals and opponents will fight to protect their interests. The first Iraq War of 1990-91 began when a US official erroneously gave Saddam Hussein the impression that the Americans might not protect Kuwaiti independence, for instance. Mr Trump has already given out by far the most dangerous signals of his short time in public life: that he is not altogether keen on NATO, and that he might not defend NATO states (such as Russia's Baltic neighbours) if they don't pay their way. John Kennedy said of the Soviet leadership in his inauguration that the US 'dare not tempt them with weakness'. That's exactly what Mr Trump has done already. He's sown the seeds of future miscalculation, and bigly. No doubt the Russian cyber-attacks, misinformation and nativist propaganda are already lined up ready to go.

When and if Mr Putin betrays The Donald - over Iran, perhaps, or over the Baltic States, or by continuing to meddle in American domestic politics - Mr Trump necessarily has to take him on with the same blowhard red-faced rantathon that he's indulged himself in so far - shouting at China, for instance, over the seizure of a not-particularly-significant US naval probe. So the bromance will fade rather quickly. The White House's new inhabitant knows, for one thing, that he has to keep the rage up. That's how he continues to signal to his core electorate that he's battling for them. That they're not small. That the type of language that they recognise and admire is being sent out to do their work in the world. That 'the system' is still being attacked - in whatever new way lies to hand. That America's status, and by extension the status of everyone in America who feels threatened by globalisation and interdependence, is being puffed up by talking about the great big stick they've got ready if they're really forced to use it.

The second reason why an era of eyeballing is likely is that Mr Trump no doubt recognises his mirror image when he sees it. Where have we seen this before, this concentration of power in the hands of one bully-boy leader prepared to talk over the heads of 'the political classes'? This interest in personal and familial enrichment, this decadent life of gold elevators and big plush hotels? This constant demonisation of the many apparently sinister non-national and non-nationalist forces of opposition who threaten 'the people', backed by the unnamed and unnatural forces of global banking and finance? That's right - in the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, among the ruins of which a lot of extremely unscrupulous people became very, very rich. Richard Nixon was paranoid without much cause. Mr Trump can see a very good reason to be paranoid in the reflection cast back at him by Mr Putin and his increasingly-impressive cast of mini-mes and yes-men across both Europe and the world. 'What would I do in his position?', Mr Trump will ask himself. That's right: threaten, negotiate in bad faith, and then throw any agreement in the bin as soon as its usefulness has expired.

That'll tip everything into a new cold war defined not by staring at each other in Berlin, but by shouting at each other over the internet. Because what will inevitably happen if you pitch a comedy wrestling fanatic with a serious inferiority complex up against a top-off, horse-riding, judo-loving, bear-wresting ex-KGB tough guy? Probably this: a jaw-jutting, musk-spewing, arm-wrestling struggle. That's the third reason we're heading for confrontation between East and West, whatever the warm words that you'll hear for now: the sheer machismo of the new world disorder, not so much a howl of rage against modernity as a grunt of image-building weightlifting effort for the watching masses. It's not going to be pretty - like watching not one but two past-their-best John Waynes strutting around the international system as if they own the place. The fact that, yes, they do actually own the landscape makes things even worse.

International diplomacy has always been a grey world. Real people have always got crushed beneath its wheels. But the next four (and quite possibly the next eight) years are going to be marked by a kind of hyper-'realism' that is no realism at all given how much a transactional politics this stark raises the risk of outright confrontation. Consider these questions: will an apparent pass to do what they like in Syria mean that the Russians will cut their Iranian allies loose, allowing harsher American economic or even military action against Tehran? Will any American soft-pedaling on the defence of Eastern Europe get the Americans the reward of a harsher Russian line on China in the Pacific? Will the two powers want to team up and stifle internet neutrality and free speech itself? Will Washington's sudden silence on human rights and anti-Russian sanctions win them some juicy Eurasian business contracts? Those are deals for high stakes indeed, and they could easily come apart at any time. If they were ever going to work, they would involve both men learning to walk a diplomatic tightrope. Any such agreements would also depend on the two Presidents understanding the role of empathy and trust, lest immediate defection from any one of those deals become too tempting. Their past actions demonstrate no aptitude for this whatsoever. Betrayal, mistrust and the increasingly-fervid swamp politics of national self-interest are far more likely.

So - welcome to the age of the gangsters. It's going to be yuge. And yugely dangerous.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Beyond the polls - Labour's byelection performance


So now, as we get close to the year's end, let's have one more look at the UK Labour Party's electoral performance, shall we? As you're aware, we've been tracking this in opinion polls throughout 2016, and on that measure there were some stirrings of life back in the spring, which faded over the summer and seem now to have dropped away precipitously - all fine gradations of unpopularity at a time when Labour has been lagging further behind than at any previous period it has spent in Opposition since 1945. Be that as it may, you're probably thinking 'polls, schmolls' and getting ready to say that they hardly seem all that accurate any more. There's a bit of truth to that assertion - polling is indeed getting harder - though we feel duty bound to point out that most polling still seems to be somewhere near the mark. National polling in last month's US Presidential election, for instance, was pretty much spot on, whatever the polling miss in relatively sparsely-surveyed Michigan and Wisconsin.

Well, there's another test for you - actual votes in actual ballot boxes, as the Liberal Democrats always used to say. And we don't just mean the May local and devolved elections, which went pretty badly for Labour everywhere outside London (and catastrophically in Scotland, where they fell to third place). There are actually local elections up and down the country almost every Thursday night, and occasionally there's an exotic Monday or Tuesday poll as well. What does the data on those reveal? Well, as you can see from the percentage numbers in Labour-versus-Conservative results (above), overall there's rather an even-steven feel to all this. If we take the 164 contests for which we can compare Labour and Conservative performance since the last Parliament - excluding, for instance, all those wards where one of those parties did not stand last time, or failed to put up a candidate on this occasion - there hasn't been a vast amount of swing in 2016. In fact, it's probably around only 0.5%, though the direction of travel is from Labour to the Conservatives - hardly an encouraging result for a party supposed to form the official Opposition, and facing an austerity government in its seventh year.

The swing towards the Conservatives has been gathering a bit of pace of late, too, as November and December appear to have been particularly bad months for Labour. That may be because there are problems with getting the party's vote out during the dark winter months. Turnout is very low, as it usually is at this time of year - particularly so in some Labour wards such as one in Lancaster covering the University, which turned in a seven per cent turnout last week. Yes, that's right, seven per cent. Overall, there was a three per cent and a 2.4% swing from Labour to the Conservatives in November and December, while those two big Labour data bars in April and May represent only a tiny number of contests - three and four, respectively. In sum, it's fair to say that on this front things have been pretty dismal for Labour, okay for the Conservatives (as they're the sitting government), but pretty good for the Liberal Democrats, who've gained a net total of 21 seats since May alone. So well done to them.

Coming back to Labour's performance, all this looks even less encouraging if we journey back to 2011 using Liberal Democrat data on contests from that year. We haven't been able to source perfect numbers on 2011, by the way, and we think that our series is a bit incomplete, so please do get in touch if you've got what you think is a complete dataset. But in any case, the orders of magnitude are clear: there was probably about a 5% swing from the Conservatives to Labour that year, over the same period in the last Parliament. That Parliament, need we remind you, ended in a very bad Labour defeat. So without looking at the opinion polls at all, we can easily see that Labour's performance is quite a lot weaker than it was in 2011, presaging perhaps a worse defeat in 2020 than the party experienced in 2015. They're doing better in London, by the way - there's a swing to Labour there of about two per cent - but given what we know about the urban nature of their remaining support and the results of the Mayoral election in London, that's not much of a surprise either.

This all fits with Labour's performance in Parliamentary by-elections held during 2016. That wasn't again too disastrous earlier in the year, with solid defences in Sheffield, Ogmore and Tooting. But recent performances have been very poor indeed, as Labour was squeezed into losing its deposit in Richmond Park and then humiliatingly pushed into fourth place in Sleaford. The first can be written off as the classic effect whereby a third party is pushed way down by tactical voting and a desire to kick the government where it hurts: the second was to be honest astonishingly bad, another indicator that Labour seems to be losing touch with whole swathes of the country. Sleaford was the strongest Conservative byelection defence since the early 1980s - more than thirty years ago.

The whole picture again looks even worse when we compare Labour's numbers to those from 2011. They had some really quite creditable performances that year, with for instance Debbie Abrahams elected in Oldham East and Saddleworth with a ten per cent increase in her party's share of the vote. Dan Jarvis won Barnsley Central with a 13.5% increase in Labour's vote there, and a 13.3% swing from the Liberal Democrats. And so on. This year? Not so hot. There was a bit of movement towards Labour in Sheffield Brightside back in May, but there was a slight swing against them in Ogmore, and the less said about Sleaford, the better. Yet again, only in London - in the Tooting contest triggered by Sadiq Khan's election as Mayor - did Labour turn in anything like the performance you might expect from the main Opposition party. If we exclude the Witney and Richmond Park byelections this year as not really comparable to the five 2011 contests, all of which saw Labour start in first place - and that's a very favourable assumption for the red side - then the same picture emerges as for local byelections. The average swing towards Labour, and away from their main rivals, in these votes was 5.3% during 2011; this year it's 2.5%. They're just not hitting even the 'heights' they reached under Ed Miliband.

Opinion polling tells us that Labour are way behind, at a time in the electoral cycle when they were a little bit ahead in late 2011. That's bad enough. But you don't need to listen to pollsters. The local contests held every Thursday night tell us the same thing, if perhaps in less stark terms. Parliamentary byelections confirm the picture. The difference between 2011 and 2016 doesn't look as bad when you look at these real votes as it does when you look at the polls, but there might be good reasons for that. For one thing, we've been looking here over a whole year - including a period in the spring when Labour's polling didn't look quite so miserable as it did both before and after that brief (and very limited) recovery. And for another, the government of the whole UK is not on the line in these local contests. The story from the ballot box looks, at the very least, compatible with the pollsters' numbers.

You don't require opinion polls to tell you that Labour's popularity in this Parliament stands some way below its scores during the last. The question then becomes: is anyone listening?

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 (percentage) 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 targets would be the following nine seats: Twickenham; Bath; Kingston and Surbiton; Lewes; Cheadle; Oxford West; Cheltenham; Thornbury and Yate; and Sutton and Cheam. The two 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 and Paul Scully in Sutton and Cheam better not get all that comfortable in their House of Commons offices just yet. Some Conservative Leave MPs in the next five seats on this measure - Derek Thomas in St Ives, Will Quince in Colchester, and maybe Christopher Davies in Brecon and Radnor - should also probably feel quite a bit less 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 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'.