Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A historian looks at 2015

So in this last blog of 2014, it's time to look forward and speculate about what 2015 might bring us. And the answer? Massive instability. We've got used to this a little, from the oil price through the chaos associated with the Euro to the collapse of Syria. But it's likely to speed up again in the year to come, especially in Britain. Let's look at a few straws in the wind:

A chaotic UK General Election. Now we're supposed to be qualified to tell you what's going to happen here. But we can't. Right now, things look very close in terms of seats between Labour and the Conservatives. Both are wallowing so low in public esteem that it looks as if they could both lose the election with around 280-290 seats. But the story isn't as simple as the straightforward decline of 'two-party politics' (if there ever was such a thing). It's true that the links of party - of union, social club, town, branch, sports team - are less powerful than they were. But actually, the 2015 results are likely to see a small uptick in the combined numbers of the Conservatives and Labour, due to the near-demise of the Liberal Democrats. And our present impasse owes as much to the unpopularity of all three party leaders (above) (Latest figures: -11% for David Cameron, -28% for Ed Miliband and -48% for Nick Clegg) as it does to long-term social and intellectual changes. Consider this, too: it's not so much that the parties are disintegrating, but that they're pulling up the drawbridges on their fortresses. Labour is very weak in the South of England; the Conservatives are almost non-existent north of Birmingham. It's the Conservatives' uncertain 2010 advance into the North of England that is most likely to be reversed this May: this will make things worse. Our politics is regionalising: the United Kingdom Independence Party may well win seats in the East of England where they are strong, the Scottish National Party will probably win between 25 and 35 seats in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats might cling on where they face the Conservatives in the South and West of England and the rural North. It's that which makes this one so close to call. For now, file under 'don't know', with a slight lean towards a weak and unstable Conservative plurality given Labour's implosion in Scotland. Which brings us to...

Further calls for Scottish independence. Last week we said that Jim Murphy, Labour's new leader in Scotland, was probably the most important political figure in the UK. If he could do something - anything - to reverse Labour's catastrophic slide in the polls there, then Labour might well win the UK General Election. If he can't, they won't. It's that simple. And the early results are not encouraging for Mr Murphy. Both specific polls, detailed questions about his leadership and the cross-breaks from UK-wide polls show very little movement towards Labour at all, albeit at a time when the SNP's numbers have stopped going up. Polls also show that a second referendum would be a lot closer than the first. Now Canadian experience in Quebec tells us that you have to start a long way out in front if you're 'yes' and you want to win such a contest, so the UK is probably safe for a while yet. And there a lot of uncertain 'No' voters out there who might or might not vote on an anti-SNP ticket in May. But that's a very, very thin straw to clutch at if you oppose the separatists. If the SNP were to win a majority of the seats in Scotland in May (quite likely right now), and then to have an overall majority at Holyrood after 2016, they might well call for a second referendum in 2017 or 2018. Whether they get one will depend on the constellation of forces at Westminster - and Scottish public opinion - at the time.

European populists on the march. The UK isn't the only place to harbour the rise of new parties. Podemos is riding high in Spain, where two-party politics is similarly on the slide. Syriza is doing well in Greece, if perhaps a little less well than a couple of months ago. Sinn Fein in Ireland is held back by scandal and a whole truckload of historical baggage, but is still convincing a fifth of the Irish Republic's citizens to say that they'd vote for the party, and might be able to force its way into government before long. And what they all have in common is simple: the appeal of the 'outsider', the insurgent, the radically new, the eschatological desire for a 'new dawn' or a 'fresh start'. UKIP and the SNP have the same advantage, of course - one reason why they're doing so well. And they also have neatly-tailored answers to the very complex challenges of austerity. Either they deny the existence of our massive debt challenge and threaten to repudiate joint liabilities (the SNP), or they blame it all on 'Europe', 'foreigners' and 'immigrants' (UKIP). Either approach represents a silly post-truth politics, and Europe's insurgent far Left would also find themselves in a more complex world than they think were they ever to default, devalue and try to reflate. But we'll leave those dilemmas for another day.

So there we have it. A chaotic election. A geographically splintered politics. A continuing debate over the very existence of the UK. Mounting success and popularity at the populist edges of European politics, threatening continued austerity and perhaps the Euro itself.

And that's it from 2014. 2015 is likely to be a year of unparalleled confusion in the British political scene. You know what? We can't wait.

Until then, Happy New Year!

Monday, 22 December 2014

The indecisive autumn

Back in September, we wrote that we were facing a decisive autumn. The Scottish independence referendum, the daily countdown to the looming General Election, the suspicion that the identity of the likely winner would be clearer soon and the fact that we'd then know whether there was likely to be a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union all meant that it looked as if Britain was facing a critical breakpoint in its national life.

It didn't work out like that.

Scots rejected the idea of independence by a fairly decisive margin - more than ten percentage points - and yet it's the Scottish National Party that soars in the polls, not the victorious 'unionist' parties. Labour in particular is struggling to hold on to even a majority of its 41 Parliamentary seats in Scotland, and there is a chance (albeit only a chance as yet) of an SNP landslide that might wipe every other party off the Scottish electoral map. There are lots of reasons for this - the general anti-politics and anti-'Westminster' mood in the country, the honeymoon appeal of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's new leader, Labour's turmoil after being called a 'branch office' of the London party by its outgoing Scottish leader, the SNP's ability as a national party to face both leftwards (promising better state childcare) and rightwards (urging a corporation tax cut). But that doesn't matter for now. What does is that the surge of support for the Nationalists means that even if Scottish independence is not exactly back on the agenda, the idea is certainly hovering in the ether, waiting for a chance to rematerialise in more concrete form.
The tanking oil price and Scotland's ageing population means that the economic case for independence - the crucial window of opportunity the SNP and its new leader admits they failed to convince people about - is pretty much over and shut, at least in terms of the higher public spending for which 'yes' activists thirst, and probably in any scenario. That'll cause Scottish and UK politicians innumerable headaches in the years to come, for the SNP may well now stop short of calling for outright independence (completely fairly, given the referendum outcome) and start taking part in UK governments and Westminster Parliamentary votes on English-only matters, as Alex Salmond has suggested. It's an evolutionary step, but one that may inflame English national feeling in unpredictable ways. Anyway. Nothing about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been settled by a clear 'no'. Who would have thought it?

And as for the General Election, now just a bit over four months away, the SNP's remarkable polling breakthroughs have made its likely outcome even more messy. Labour might just, just - by a hair on its nose - be more likely to be the biggest party in the aftermath. Without the SNP challenge, that would now be quite likely. But no viable Parliament is likely to emerge from the rubble of the Big Three's fall in public esteem, and we may well be back at the polls within a year. That's certainly what the Conservatives think, and they're busy raising money for a second contest. Stop shuddering and covering your face with your hands with dread at the prospect. It won't be that bad.

All of which means that we might have a referendum on the UK's EU membership in 2017. Or (since only the Conservatives are committed to that prospect) we might not. And, given the volatile state of public opinion on the matter, we might then vote to leave, or we might not. Most polls show that the British would stay, they've moved recently in that direction - and in the still-possible event that Prime Minister David Cameron has led a successful renegotiation and recommended staying in, there's almost no doubt that we would. In fact, perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen to Britain-in-Europe is a weak Miliband administration menaced by UKIP in its northern electoral fastnesses, which then collapses and lets in a very Eurosceptical Conservative Party led by Theresa May or (please, please let us find a way to avoid this unthinkable prospect) Boris Johnson.

So we were wrong. Now, stop it with the intake of breath there. We know that you don't read that much here. But we thought that the Scottish independence referendum, the post-party conference polls and what they told us about a likely EU referendum would make everything clear by now.

One more, with feeling: they didn't. Everything's still just about as clear as mud. Scotland might become an independent state in the next few years. It's more likely that it won't, but you never know. If you know who's going to win the next General Election, we advise you to get down the bookmakers, because no-one else does. And Britain's membership of the EU? Your guess is good as ours. And really, as a historian, such uncertainty should have been obvious and predictable all along. Nothing falls in neat boxes, follows clear lines or proceeds in order. It's all mess, chaos, contingency - and a new set of challenges invited by the resolution of the last. Just another way in which the study of academic History can be brought to bear on the study of how public policy both does and might work.

And with that, well, that's nearly it for 2014. We'll be back tomorrow with a list of what to look out for in 2015, and then it's 'good-bye' for the holiday season. After an exhausting year of public policy chaos, in some ways the break can't come too soon.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

And the most important UK party leader is...

...Undoubtedly Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party (above). And, if things fall a certain way in May, perhaps Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party leader in Westminster.

Why? Because we're shaping up for a really, realy tight election. It's hard to see where we are right now nationally: ICM, usually the most accurate of our telephone pollsters, give Labour a 5% lead, though Ipsos-Mori give the Conservatives a three-point advantage. The latest round of Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft's polling is out today, and we've got to the 'bite point' where the Conservatives seem to be able to defend English marginal seats against their Labour challengers. Well, we've got there at Conservative majorities of between 7% and 8% - in Warwick and Leamington, for instance, which it looks like the Conservatives will be able to hang on to, though not so much in London seats such as Ealing Central and Acton. That would probably put Ed Miliband, Labour's UK leader, in Downing Street as the leader of the single largest party, though only just. Ealing is 56th on the party's target list, so Labour might be around the 300 seat mark if they do take it, but miss out on a few supposedly 'easier' gains. All things being equal.

Except that they're not equal. Because Labour seem to be doing rather better in English marginal seats than they are in what one might once have called their 'heartlands' - Wales, where Labour's performance this year has been underwhelming to say the least, and Scotland. That's possibly and in part because the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are stealing ex-Conservative votes across middle England more than they are Labour's (though they seem to be biting chunks out of Labour's support in the north of England as well).

Labour faces by far its most formidable challenge in Scotland, from a rejuvenated Scottish National Party that is building on the back of its grass-roots recruiting and activism during the Scottish independence referendum. Right now, its membership nudging 100,000 (far more than the UK-wide Lib Dems, for instance), the SNP senses a historic opportunity to win the most seats in Scotland (i.e., more than thirty) and to declare themselves representatives of Scotland as a whole at Westminster. The data is again not completely clear, but right now the massive SNP surge in the polls would suggest an unprecedented number of gains for them: of 40 or even more Parliamentary seats. That still seems unlikely in practice, partly because a lot of the Labour majorities they face are so large, but they've done it before in elections to the Edinburgh Parliament, so they can (at least in theory) do it again.

That's where Mr Murphy comes in. He's tough, experienced, unafraid of a fight - and very, very ambitious. He's a plausible and outspoken leader who's in a good position to unite pro-union forces around a centrist Labour Party that still talks about social justice. He's a bit right-wing for many Labour activists in Scotland, and for many of the left-leaning commentariat there, though that never hurt Tony Blair in England (or in Scotland, come to that). And he's going to have to be on his game, and more. The data tells us only that the race to be largest party is still a toss-up. Every single seat might count. If Labour loses 20 to 30 of its Scottish MPs, it has absolutely no opportunity whatsoever - a close-to-zero chance - of getting over the threshold to Downing Street. The Conservatives will be the largest party, and they'll go occupying the great offices of state, albeit in a badly wounded, last-man-standing kind of way.

That's where Mr Dodds comes in. For the Conservatives have been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar wooing of his Democratic Unionists over the past year or so. They know that even their own numbers, plus those of a severely-depleted Liberal Democrat grouping, might well not now add up to the effective majority post of 323 - let alone the 326 needed for an overall majority were Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein MPs to take up their seats, or the 330 or so one might want to be confident about actually governing for any length of time. They'll need the eight or so DUP MPs then, won't they?

Forget about David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The most important party leaders of 2015 are those who the people of England probably never give a thought to, even if they've heard of them.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Britain's housing emergency: fighting back will mean warlike measures

Britain is in the throes of a housing emergency. Everyone knows it, in their bones. It's when the stories about London garages and the Greek islands you could buy with the proceeds from your Notting Hill flat begin to appear that the dark clouds truly start building up on the horizon. They're there again. You just need to know where to look. And this time, with the banking system still in convalescence and real wages stagnating, those storm clouds look black indeed.

You might be young and unable to buy a house. Or stuffed in a tiny little box of a flat when you would like a house for your two young children. Or, alternatively, you might be middle-aged and fairly comfortably off, thank you very much. In which case, we could ask you this: if you live south of Birmingham, where exactly are your children going to live? And your carers, when you grow too old and infirm, as you near the ripe old age of 90 or 100, to look after yourself? If you imagine that they're going to live on an average wages south of £30,000 a year, when a nice house in (say) Bristol might cost £300,000, then, reader, you've got another think coming.

Britain doesn't build enough houses. Nowhere near enough. We need about 250,000 more dwellings every year just to keep up with household formation and population growth. We build a laughable 100,000 to 125,000. You don't need to know anything else. That's the story in two numbers - a tragedy that is making homeowners very rich indeed, as prices soar, and leaving everyone else locked out of the whole game as the number of homeowners gently falls and falls.

We're not going to get anywhere with this problem unless we start treating it like a wartime emergency. Forget today's Prime Ministerial announcement of more help for the under-40s. That's just pouring more petrol on the fire: something that's in many essentials been announced before, and another policy (like Help to Buy) that will have historians scratching their heads for decades to come at Ministers mendacity and self-delusion. Forget sweetners like better access to mortgages, or easier terms. Interest rates only go one way from here - upwards - and unless we build more, that will either cause a massive housing crash or push even more young people out of the market. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Londoners remain in expensive temporary accommodation, looking to build up their points so that one day, one day, they might be able to move into a really small flat. Camden has maybe 25,000 people on its housing list. It pushes maybe 20 flats a week up onto its website for rent. We can't go on like this.

Now Britain doesn't have an entirely happy history of state-driven (but privately-executed) housing drives. The Attlee govenrment's promises turned to dust amidst austerity and a dollar shortage. The Wilson government's 500,000-homes-a-year target had to be abandoned as it overheated the economy. But Harold Macmillan's record as Minister of Housing in the early 1950s (above), when he bent every lever of state and business power to the end of reaching a 300,000 per annum homes target, is a good example of what might and can be done. If the will existed to face down land-banking developers, local 'not in my back yard' conservatives and the vested interests of homeowners afloat on the increasing value of their main asset. Macmillan's methods were simple: ramp up building in every sector. More council houses, funded by borrowing and central government subsidy. More New Towns. More road building and land drainage. More improvement. Grants for better amenities and home expansion. And so on.

The truth is that we need to do all these things, and more. Probably much more. We might have to build on defence land, school fields, in shops and derelict commercial and industrial sites that the owners aren't using. In wedges on the Green Belt. Everywhere. Now. Today. Our housing disaster area requires big thinking, of the type that Public Policy and the Past has recommended again and again. Governments must declare large parts of southern England emergency areas: both green and brown-field sites should be fast-tracked immediately for the construction of brand new towns linked to older transport links via whole new 'light and fast' public transport grids.

Developers would be told: meet these transport, water and electricity standards, and then you can go for your lives. If they won't do it, then the state must - reviving a New Town tradition that has for too long fallen into abeyance, only recently being resurrected in (very shadowy) form via the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's controversial threat to direct targeted housebuilding schemes from Downing Street.

Building a few houses at Ebbesfleet and Bicester just won't meet the case. It's a pathetic, pitifully inadequate, indeed embarrasingly lightweight response to a clear and present danger to our entire prosperity and social structure. Less than 30,000 houses, which is all that those two developments will deliver? About six weeks of our housing requirements. Think of it like that and you begin to perceive the true scale of our predicament. If you don't like the changes required to get us out of this, you can go and tell all those families in inner London bed and breakfasts that you've just stamped all over their children's futures. Good luck with that.

Such radical measures might sometimes be hard to take. They would fundamentally change the shape and feel of southern England. They would make it feel more like the built-up and more crowded Netherlands. But you know what? There is now no alternative if British society is to hold together at all. It's that simple.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Out of office...

Well, after the storm of traffic (and Twitter controversy) of the last few days, that's it until Monday 15 December. We'll be back all that week to comment on what we've learned about history and public policy this year, and what we might find out next year. So do click back then.

Until then: thanks for visiting, and thanks for driving up the site traffic each and every month.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Scottish independence: a country's brush with disaster

One of the reasons Scots voted so decisively against independence back in September was that the economic case for separation just had not been made convincingly. Indeed, the economic part of the Scottish National Party's prospectus appeared to have been written in the sand, washed away not only by the tides but pretty much by every puddle that lapped over it.

Anyway, that debate's all over now, isn't it? Except that it's important to say that the economic outlook for an independent Scotland has been getting worse almost every single day since the referendum. As the SNP's membership and poll ratngs continue to surge, as the party looks forward to making lots of gains at Labour's expense in the May 2015 General Election, and Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's new First Minister enjoys something of a honeymoon period, this reality will soon intrude into Scottish and British national life.

The oil price has been falling. Not just falling, but caving in - down from the Scottish Government's White Paper estimates of over $100 a barrel (the very lowest they would project over the summer was $99) to something more like $70 (or even lower) today. Despite Scottish Ministers' rather desperate-sounding claims to the contrary, no-one really believes that the price will rise much beyond $80 in the next year or so. Indeed, as Scotland's oil and gas reserves run down over the next twenty to thirty years, it's possible that even the next ten years' relatively strong production (against a weak medium-term backdrop) will only bring in small change compared to what the Edinburgh administration hoped and believed. As the rouble falls, and US shale gas production ramps up, who wants to buy expensive energy from the North Sea? No-one, that's who.

Now we did actually say this during the independence referendum, but we'll leave that to one side for now.

During the independence referendum campaign, the Scottish government argued that there could only be a £100m drop in oil revenue flowing to the government over the next five years. Its most optimistic projections were for a rise of over £2bn. That's all fantasy now. Scotland's government brings in about £7bn from oil every year. A fall of 36% in the oil price means that it'd be £2.5bn down from where it thought it might be. That's something like an 8.3% fall in the Scottish Government's total budget - the equivalent of losing the whole of that administration's education spending, or almost all of the Holyrood Parliament's infrastructure expenditure. No developed country could take such a shock without massive tax rises or a prolonged recession. Case closed.

The result? An independent Scotland, at this oil price, would be a very austere place indeed. Most of those different and distinctive (and welcome) parts of Scottish national life that the mostly left-leaning Yes campaign prize as uniquely their own would have to go. The council tax freeze. Free tuition fees (cost over three years: £1bn). Elderly care that's free at the point of use. The lot - even without accounting for the larger currency fund that would have to be built up to defend an independent Scotland's currency in such circumstances. If oil prices rise, great. They are very volatile, and they might. Then there can be a bit of an oil fund. There can be quite high levels of spending, on the Nordic model.

But make no mistake: Scots, especially poorer and more vulnerable Scots, would have been badly burned had they voted 'yes' in September. This petro-economy just has to be more diverse if it's to have both political independence and high levels of public spending. That could happen, and it's a valuable, achievable goal in and of itself. But at the moment an independent Scotland would have neither prosperity nor egalité.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Hope and despair in British government

It's easy to get depressed about British politics and policy right now - on this blog, too, though probably no more and no less than anywhere else. The big parties are locked in a tug-of-war about who is most unpopular, and who can hold on to their 'core' voters, as if grown-up adults belonged to them. Various shades of charlatan circle and laugh to themselves, offering their easy solutions - Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway, Russell Brand, Nigel Farage, that means you.

But as Steve Richards of The Independent points out today, that won't always be the case. A popular leader will emerge. A more coherent coalition will come together. Things will flow downhill again.

And British government - even this unhappy administration - still have their wins and their gains. Pensioner poverty is now at an all-time low, by the way, and the link between pensions and real wages stands to make that income stream much more secure for decades to come. The coalition has (extremely slowly imperfectly) managed to greatly reduce the evils of child detention among asylum-seekers and immigrants. The economy is growing, quite quickly - no thanks to the present administration, of course, but there you go. Even real wages are looking up, albeit in an extremely watery and anaemic manner - and mainly for those in secure employment, rather than the growing bands of the self-employed and the tenuously contracted. And hey, the Wales Coast Path is now open to all. Get out there, walkers.

These might seem like small gains. But they're part of a pattern. Most of us are richer, wealthier, more secure and more comfortable than ever before. Britain is, for the most part, cleanly and expertly governed - well, it is when you compare it to some of the other states, even in the European Union. And as we've noted here before, we stand on the apex of a half-century of gains. National Parks (above). A national minimum wage. Long-distance national trails. The right to roam. Children's Commissioners. The peace process in Northern Ireland. The engaging, peaceful, deeply democratic referendum on Scottish independence. The Channel Tunnel. Regeneration in Cardiff Bay. A new and better era for our mainline train stations (though don't look at many of the more neglected ones). Clean air, cleaner rivers and Blue Flag beaches. Civil partnerships. Gay marriage. The 2012 Olympics.

Much has been done. Much is being done. More has to be done. But especially at dark moments like the present, it's important to remember that even scholars of government failure, such as Anthony King and Ivor Crewe in their recent The Blunders of our Governments, remind us that focusing on failure and difficulty is a trap and a snare in public policy analysis:
The governance of the United Kingdom itself has been a substantial success over the past hundred years and more. Britain's governing arrangements have shown themselves to be free, democratic, legitimate, stable, non-violent, remarkably free of corruption and by-and-large effective. Taxes are collected and public services provided. The British political system is far from being the worst in the liberal democratic world. It is certainly not about to collapse.
Faint praise, perhaps, but praise nonetheless. Perhaps Winston Churchill put it best after all: never despair.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Despair is the only logical reaction to British politics right now

Imagine you live in a country that has such an ingrained problem with social class that a single photograph can set off a bitter debate about where we all stand. Or that you are the citizen of a state with a political elite that is so fevered, and so obsessed with day-to-day media management, that soon reactions to that story then became more important than any revealing delve into the putrid politics of who is better than who.

Except that you don't have to imagine those unpleasantries if you're British, because that's what just happened. In a keystone cops-style debacle of farcical dark humour, a photo of a house flying the English flag (above) set off a great tirade about who we are and where we're going. When Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted what, on the surface, was just a picture of a house with a van at the front, she lost her job because she was perceived to be a snob, rudely emphasising just how different the inhabitants were from her own lofty vantage point.

That was a bit unfair, to be honest (though the tweet was clearly very ill-judged), though what we're closely interested in here is this: the whole sad affair just said so much about class, power, politics and presumption that there'll have to be a PhD on all this one day. You can just imagine it: 'Discoures of representation in the Rochester and Strood by-election, 2014'. You'd need a great long lecture to explain it all to a non-Brit. And a set of prompt cards. And maybe a Powerpoint presentation.

And what it said was mainly depressing. We still judge each other by car, house, accent, haircut, neighbourhood and job. Long ago, George Orwell said that England (and he meant England) was one of the most snobbish places in the world. One Englishman only had to open his mouth to start talking, and some others would hate him. For a few years of affluent post-war wage rises which saw normal-sounding people appear on radio and TV, all that looked like it might shrivel. 'Embourgeoisement', by which working people stopped thinking in class terms and everyone became middle class, was supposed to take hold; we'd all sound and look pretty much the same, the theory went, despite our different habits and ambitions. Except that we don't. Class came back with a vengeance in the 1980s and 1990s, and now it's entrenched very deeply in the power of a network of public schools, 'top' universities (not, by any means, limited to Oxford and Cambridge alone), free internships, huge accountancy firms, law chambers - and political parties. Emily Thornberry's chief mistake was to step on a land mine that everyone else spends their days warily tiptoeing around.

It's a depressing time for British politics and public life. The Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archibishop of Canterbury all went to a single, particular and elite school. A Mayor, by the way, who has just penned one of the most eye-watering and embarrassing books about Winston Churchill that has ever hit the shelves - a travesty of a history that is fit only for the remainders pile, made worse only by the obvious implication that Boris Johnson sees himself as a new Churchill. Well, he wouldn't have been fit to comb the hair of the man who had to tie Winston's shows. A History of the English Speaking Peoples his latest journalistic effort is not, and the spectacle of Mr Johnson lambasting Labour for elitist views - when he is and has always been one of the most privileged people in the country - is simply grotesque.

Elsewhere in our unfair system of ranks and orders, the Government itself seems determined to bring shame on itself via welfare 'reforms' that equate at best to stupid vandalism, and at worst to criminal negligence that may well require police investigation in due course. All to tar anyone needing help with a brush labelled 'malingerer'. Anyone who has any contact at all with the benefits system knows that its officials are now busy frightening vulnerable people and taking unacceptable risks with their health. Have all the protests made a difference? Well, not so much.

Instead the Conservatives focused on an imaginary threat to house prices when they tried to put off Rochester and Strood voters thinking of turning to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. Without much of anything to believe in any more, it is little wonder that house prices have become Britons' main household god and snooze-inducing talking point, but 'vote for us or your house prices will fall' is a new low amidst naked appeals to self-interest. And what else did the Conservatives' electoral gurus come up with? Well, that Mark Reckless, the new UKIP MP who until a few weeks ago sat as a Conservative, went to Oxford University. Well, gasp. What a crime.

They're faced by an Opposition with a press team that manages to make almost every difficulty much, more worse than it might have been - including this one. That can't even get its apostrophes in the right place when it writes an article for Labour's leader (have a look at this less-than-impressive effort). Whose leader just took a battering from a pop star over one of his key tax policies.

Here's a word that describes how anyone sane would react to all this: despair. Just despair.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The deepest cuts are yet to come

Britain has now experienced nearly five years of austerity. This blog has always opposed that experiment as likely to delay the recovery (which it did), as being impossible to deliver in the time-frame announced (also true) and being unlikely to reduce the UK's debt stock any time soon in any case (tick number three).

Some of the initial cuts you might have thought of as nice-but-not-essential. Baby bonds. The long-distance round-Britain coastal footpath. And so on. But getting rid of that sort of stuff only saved you a few quid in the grand scheme of things - while probably storing up problems for the future (in those cases, even more hard-up young people and even more problems getting citizens out and about).

And the knife has long since passed through the fat and the muscle. It's touching on the bone. In the next Parliament, it will sever straight through it and just keep on going. A combination of the darkening world economy, an increasingly-puzzling gap between job growth and tax receipts, and the fact that we're actually going backwards on the deficit as we approach an election, mean that the slashing is going to get worse until the 2020s. The Coalition Government announced in 2010 that it would reduce the structural (non-cyclical) deficit to zero and have the debt stock falling by the end of this Parliament in order to protect the UK's credit rating. When that particular (and laughable) 'long-term economic plan' fell apart in 2011-12, they announced that they were smoothing out their public spending reductions so that they lasted until nearly the end of the 2015-20 Parliament. So that's where we sit now - taking a deep breath until we learn how to save the rest of the money.

The much-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that the amount required to get to where Conservatives want to go amounts to £47bn. Let's put that in perspective, shall we? The total savings add up to something around 6.5% of total public spending. That's more than the whole Defence budget. It's more than half of the entire Education budget. It's more than double the Transport budget. If we say that we are going to continue to protect the National Health Service, and the schools and frontline defence equipment budgets, as well as overseas aid, that means that we have to find all that from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. Where's it all going to come from?

Well, the DWP's chaotic and embarrassing 'reforms' are well in train now, and they keep on costing more and more. There's unlikely to be too many savings from that quarter. So here's some numbers for you: the entire research budget within BIS amounts to £4.6bn. You could get rid of the whole lot. Or you could make student loans and grants much less generous, perhaps abolishing maintenance help altogether, making the terms more onerous (perhaps hiking interest rates to market levels) and making universities themselves pick up some of the tab for raising those loans. That might save you £10bn in total. You could cut £5bn-£10bn more from already-strained local government budgets, perhaps pushing elderly care provision onto the NHS - though politicians would have to be prepared to endure scandal after scandal as elderly folk died in their beds at home. You could postpone the Royal Air Force's big forthcoming procurement splurge, massively reduce staff costs by reducing the Army to a small ready-reaction force, and/ or mothball one of the soon-available pair of aircraft carriers (which cost £17.4bn overall). You could abolish legal aid altogether, though that would raise only a trifling £2bn. At the very time when Higher Education and university research are becoming more and important in training the workforce; when the numbers of vulnerable older Britons is exploding; when our defence is reliant on the the projection of small-scale but meaningful and biting power via an (already threadbare) airborne force; when the legal system is struggling to cope with sweeping up the mess left by austerity itself - that's when you'll whip the rug away. Well, excellent.

And the really daunting thing? It looks right now as if any government that emerges in the House of Commons after a fragmented, confused scuffle of a General Election is unlikely to have much of a majority even in a two- or three-party coalition. Whoever is Chancellor after May - and it's likely to be George Osborne (above) for the foreseeable future and beyond - will have a very small (if any) majority, and will be hounded by an insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party, as well as his or her backbenchers. Think that No. 11 Downing Street will be able to plan a neat and tidy path down this particular blind alley? No, me neither.

The public are perhaps now predisposed to think that the worst is over. They certainly think that it should be. The economy is growing quite quickly. No politician is really talking about the reality that lies ahead. The Government, indeed, is dangling the prospect of further (completely fantastical and unrealistic) tax cuts in front of the electorate. But the truth is this: the worst isn't over. The most painful cuts are all still to come.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Time for straight-talking with the voters

Consider what you'd hear - or what you think you'd hear - in the saloon bar of most British pubs if the talk turned to politics. Hatred of the Europe Union (EU)? Opposition to 'more and more' immigration? Well, maybe - at least if you frequent the same hostelries as Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's anti-European (and anti-immigration) United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP (above).

There's no doubt that he has struck a chord. UKIP will probably win this week's Rochester and Strood by-election at a canter, following the defection of that constituency's Conservative MP to the newer right-wing outfit. And there's no doubt that immigration has been climbing as a matter of public concern - hitting the top of Ipsos-Moris's long-running 'issues index' for some time now. An influx of Eastern Europeans since the early 2000s has, in consequence, leached away a lot of the support for the EU.

But we're going to go out on a limb here: economic and political reality means that there is no alternative. Now we know that you've heard that grating certainty before in the mouth of Mrs Thatcher, but hear us out here. Start with this. The UK cannot afford to live outside of the EU's Common External Tariff barrier, the source or destination of about half her exports and imports. Any attempt to do so would be economic suicide: no doubt separate agreements could be reached with many of those countries (and with - for instance - the USA and China), but it's by no means clear that Whitehall has the intellectual and adminstrative firepower for that without even taking into account the UK's poorer bargaining position in any such set of renegotiations. Try to manage 27 new treaties, along with a host of others regulating trade with the rest of the world? Are you crazy? So let's accept that and move on. If we did leave the EU and try to negotiate a place in that club as a member of the European Economic Area (like Norway and Switzerland), we'd have to accept the 'free movement of people' to work here anyway. Without any say whatsoever about the conditions or the circumstances in the countries from where EU immigrants originate. What sort of victory would that be?

Insisting on a bit of reality in public policymaking does not mean that it is necessary to believe that 'elites' should just 'ignore' the people. Because the British people know in their hearts that the choice between 'Europe' and 'the world' is a false one, and that the idea that we can simply pull up the drawbridge and say goodbye to the better, brighter new world of porous borders is a fantasy. It'd be easy to look down on the voters - and Matthew Parris recently got himself into trouble after a surprisingly nasty piece of work on the UKIP-voting residents of Clacton - if they always agreed with UKIP. If they really were a bunch of bigots. If the crude certainties of some of UKIP's more swivel-eyed adherents were all there is to it.

Here's a newsflash: the people aren't so stupid as all that.

The political circumstances in which we find ourselves today - the last, long, loud cry of anger about a more open, cosmopolitan and liberal Britain - are unlikely to last. All three 'main' party leaders will rarely be so detested. All three 'major' parties will not always be so tainted by failure. New solutions will arrive. Novel concepts will arise. No doubt things looked bleak in 1929-31. Then Keynesianism, US corporatism and a huge investment boom injected capitalism with a great big dose of steriods, and everyone in the West got a lot, lot richer for a long, long time.

Britons aren't all that convinced by UKIP's remedies even at our present low political ebb. Recent polls have in fact shown rising and record majorities in favour of staying in the EU: there is little doubt that, if the Prime Minister recommends staying in after a renegotiation, then in the UK will most definitely stay. Young people, graduates and urban dwellers - in short, Britons of the future - are actually severely relaxed about immigration. Open racism is relatively rare in today's Britain - or, at least, not nearly as widespread as it is in countries such as France, Spain and Italy. The population as a whole is becoming surprisingly laid-back about even very radical measures to tackle racial discrimination, backing for instance the idea of positive discrimination if necessary to boost the chances of non-white Britons.

It's easy to absorb big old political myths. They're zombie facts, lumbering around the imaginative landscape, cluttering up the place, smacking into the furniture, and generally getting in the way. Scottish nationalists want you to believe that young people are part of an 'inevitable' tidal wave in favour or independence that can only flow in one direction - except that Scots have been gradually feeling more 'British' recently, that a majority still just about do in one way or another, and that we have some evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds voted 'no' in the recent independence referendum. This set of bedtime fantasies is wrong as well, by the way.

So this blog's conclusion? Straight talking about the reality of our situation - like it or lump it - would go down better with the electorate than just pandering to UKIP. Because that political insurgency's prejudices and preconceptions aren't shared by most people anyway.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The day Labour truly began to fear its fate

Yesterday was the day that the UK Labour Party really began to feel that it might lose the next General Election. It had always known that, of course - with a relatively unpopular leader, the public mainly still blaming Labour for recession and austerity, and with not all that much cash to fight an election campaign, its chances of coming out with an overall majority were always fairly slim.

But now the party can actually viscerally, emotionally, truly, madly and deeply touch the great danger it is in. Labour's recent polling numbers are dire. It has now touched 29 per cent - the same score as in its disastrous 2010 election showing - in three separate polls. The detail in the latest, from Ipsos-Mori, is devastating. Not every poll is full of doom and gloom, and it's important to look at all of them rather than just the ones that make a big impression on our emotions and our senses: Labour's lead in the daily YouGov series, for instance, has actually gone up to a whole three per cent this week. But even saying that, the electorate have clearly concluded that they are not impressed by Ed Miliband (above) and although that judgement is rather unfair, there now seems little that Labour can do about that except make a virtue of his toughness and continuing stickability. That's what he attempted to do today in quite a good speech (since you ask), actually - though most of the voters will either never hear those words, or will have stopped really listening some time ago.

What should really make Labour MPs worry about the situation that's now unfolding is some of the economic data that we've been getting. On the same day as the Ipsos-Mori data should have made them choke on their dinners, word came in that average earnings were finally outstripping the rise in prices. After the worst fall in real wages since the late nineteenth century - the squeeze on bottom, middle and top that Mr Miliband has made such hay with - last month was only the second in this Parliament when pay went up year-on-year. What that means is that even the bread and butter agenda that Labour has quite rightly been pushing - for controls on energy prices and predatory banks - will now begin to have much more resonance.

It was a tiny little rise, of 0.1 per cent, but it matters a lot in terms of the election narrative. Private sector pay rises were a bit better, and since very low inflation is probably going to be with us for some time to come, it does now look as if pay packets will be just a little bit bigger going into the election. That might explain why there was a hint about renewed economic optimism in the Ipsos-Mori data: why 42% now think things will get better over the next year, against only 23% who think they'll get worse.

Put that together with Labour's ever-worsening situation in Scotland - Ipsos-Mori actually had the Scottish National Party touching 60% of the Scottish vote in its sub-sample from that country - and overall net seat losses are now possible. No wonder Alec Salmond, the SNP's now ex-leader and outgoing First Minister of Scotland, is so chipper. He lost the referendum campaign by quite some margin, but Labour's rudderless post-referendum turning in on itself has gifted him the after game. It's possible that the SNP will now win between 30 and 35 seats in the General Election, making itself the third party in the UK Parliament and possibly making the House of Commons completely unmanageable if they refuse to enter into a coalition with anyone.

It'll be tight. The best modelling we have suggests that Labour might still be the biggest party. But deep in their souls, the party has begun to fear going backwards and not pushing forwards come May 2015. That's what's behind the vicious and ruthless attack on Labour's less-than-popular leader. The blood in the water is attracting the sharks: Labour's rivals and enemies can smell their weakness and their uncertainty.

Friday, 7 November 2014

'Skewed' American polls: part two

Back in 2012, we made quite a big thing of slaughtering poll charlatans during the US Presidential election of that year. Back then, you'll remember, Republicans of all stripes argued that the polls must be wrong - chiefly because they were 'oversampling' Democrats. If the electorate looked more like that of 2010's midterm Congressional elections, they argued, Mitt Romney would be elected President. They were right about that. But they weren't right - and they were very, very unlikely to have ever been right - about what they thought was the 'right' shape of the electorate. In fact, young people, urban dwellers and African Americans turned up in their droves to vote for President Obama, and he was re-elected rather handily in the end. The fog of battle cleared. The flag of reality still fluttered in the breeze, albeit looking a little bit tattered and shot up.

This blog lambasted them for wishful thinking, rather than use of the actual data that always showed that the Obama coalition's key demographics were indeed likely to turn up at the polls. They might not have been as enthused as they had been in 2008 (four years of governing will do that to any party), but they still thought 'their' man much better than the alternative.

But now the boot's on the other foot. Democrats argued this year that they'd be able to turn out the same people to hold on the Senate. They said that the polls were overestimating Republican strength by insisting on over-tight voter screens that let through only those absolutely certain to vote.

They were wrong, nearly as wrong as the 'skewed polls' advocates of 2012 - something we wanted to register before the moment passed. It won't have escaped your notice that this effort - including the multi-million dollar Bannock Street Project - was a total failure. Even in relatively unheralded and unnoticed Virginia, where a popular and apparently centrist ex-Governor was expected to coast to re-election, Democrats were left clinging to a Senate seat by the tips of their fingernails. Elsewhere, Senators in North Carolina, Alaska and Colorado - all reasonably personable sitting Senators who had done nothing particularly crazy - narrowly lost in their bids for re-election.

Now this year's Democratic doubts about the polls was not couched in the same full-on rhetoric of media-hating fury that the Republicans managed to get themselves into during 2012. It was phrased in the tone of 'things might be rather different on the day', 'the polls might be wrong', and the like - rather than headlines about a 'left-wing media' that was deliberately misleading people.

Still. It's important to say that campaigns that are on the defensive - that are basically praying to hold on, rather than confidently filling the airwaves and the streets with confidence - indulge in a kind of false consciousness or epistemic denial. Republicans didn't want to see what was staring them in the face during 2012. Democrats didn't want to see their likely fate in 2014, a drubbing that almost all statistically-aware experts projected within a seat or two in the Senate. Their voters didn't turn up, while Republicans did. Even where they won, it is possible that their core constituency didn't turn out because they felt that 'their' candidate was so far ahead - while wavering voters thought 'I'll go for that new guy, because it might shake up the incumbent'.

Today's losers are still indulging in some of this groupthink, and it's inevitable. Not many people truly want to look at the reasons why people don't like them. In the Republicans case, it was because they were seen as hostile to ordinary and to new Americans. For the Democrats, falling wages and a lack of leadership made them seem as if they had no strong and determined answers to America's problems - certainly in contrast to the iron-hard (and deeply misleading) certainties of their more conservative opponents. So they have turned instead to questioning the numbers. To saying that reality is not as it is. To ignoring that the world is deeply, truly in flux, and that the bias of this year might be the equal and opposite bias of next year - not seeing that the polls that overestimate Republicans in a presidential year won't do that when the electorate is relatively white, rural and old. More and more entrenched in 'their' areas and among 'their' people, hiding in increasingly-gerrymandered red and blue fortresses, that's a psychological bias that's only going to get worse.

It's hard to step back and see yourself as others do. It's difficult to accept that nothing at all is fixed - in political life, least of all. And that's true whichever side of the aisle you sit on.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Victory lessons for American Republicans

It's hard to think of a word for the treatment that voters just doled out to US Democrats. A kicking? A battering? A marmalising? Well, why don't we just settle for a good old fashion shoeing while we're at it? Republicans' rather wider-than-expected margin of victory in the Senate, their large majority in the House of Representatives, and their success in seizing Governors' mansions must all fill American liberals' veins with ice.

That's as it should be. Democrats will talk a lot about mid-term turnout, and it's true that 'their' voters - young people, African Americans - don't turn out in the numbers that they do in Presidential election years. They'll talk about 'the map', and of course they were defending seats in highly Republican states (think of Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, West Virginia, Montana) that they had won on the day of President Obama's first election. They'll say that this always happens to the party of a second term incumbent President, especially one with such poor approval ratings (President Obama's numbers now hover somewhere not far above George W. Bush's at the same point during his time in the White House).

All that's true, and important in any final analysis. But those are also a set of easily-digestible and believable myths, and Democrats would be doing themselves a disserive if they didn't take a good old look at themselves and wonder where it all went so wrong. They lost in 'purple', competitive states such as North Carolina and (increasingly liberal) Colorado. They lost with good candidates (like Alison Grimes in Kentucky). They lost against appallingly poor opponents - even managing to hand Rick Scott another term as the Governor of Florida. They lost seats in the House all the way across the country. Turnout? The map? Second term blues? Pah.

The lesson the Democrats should take is twofold. First: it's always a mistake to stray too far from voters' own views. Remember 2006 and 2008. Democrats won the Senate. Big. Then they won the Presidency. Easily. There was huge noise about an 'emerging Democratic majority' - which that party allowed to go to its head. President Obama then bet the house on health care reform, allowing his stimulus to get whittled down as he spent his energies in a long bout of trench warfare over health insurance - a (mostly) admirable and overdue measure, but one which most voters ranked below salvaging the economy. Then 'Obamacare' got bogged down in procedural niceties and technical disasters, and the President had to admit that it might mean changing your existing cover (something he had said would never happen). Voters were - how shall we put this? - not impressed. It has thereafter been difficult, to say the least, to recover even an impression of the President's previously heady levels of intellectual and political authority.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, must learn those lessons. He must keep his troops together, exert discipline and try to get some legislation passed that the President can actually sign. Massive oil pipelines? Check. Immigration reform? Definitely. More infrastructure works? Maybe. Tax simplification and harmonisation? Sure. The alternative should be horrible enough to concentrate Republican minds. Focus on social and moral issues, try to turn every question into an opportunity to hold an inquiry into the White House, talk about impeaching the President and jostle with each other for who is going to be the party's standard bearer in 2016 - well, that'll see the Democrats back in control in just 730 days.

And the second lesson? That there's a crisis of American jobs and wages - similar to that engulfing the whole developed world - that needs addressing somehow. We don't know what the answers are, by the way, though we'll have a stab at that another time. Median household incomes have not risen for years. The average household doesn't feel any richer than it did at the end of the Clinton years. Good, permanent jobs are hard to get. The American promise - that you would always be better off than your parents, if you knuckled down and worked hard - has withered. That's why voters are so angry with 'Washington' overall, and it explains why Republicans have been talking about previously 'left wing' themes - jobs, wages, even inequality. To some extent that's because they've learned their lessons from previous cycles, when (shall we say) 'exotic' candidates cost them seats. But it's also down to just sheer voter rage and confusion. 

The new Senate will have to work hard, compromise and address the question of living standards. If it doesn't, there'll be another along in just twenty four months.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Is Labour in danger of a catastrophic meltdown in May?

It's been a grim couple of weeks for the UK Labour Party. It's begun to dawn on its members that their scores are actually deflating at quite a pace in the opinion polls, that their leader is now perhaps fatally politically damaged, and that some of the fiefdoms they've come to think of as 'theirs' for many decades are under mighty assault.

They're not helped by an apparent crisis of leadership. Their leader, Ed Miliband (above), now has approval ratings even lower than Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg - an almost impossible feat that Mr Miliband has somehow managed via a mix of dreadful, embarrassing non-photo-opportunities, a really, really poor conference speech and a tin ear for some of the more radical ideas coming out of his own policy review. The last few days have just been awful for Labour's leader. His apparent ill-at-easeness while giving money to a beggar, and his donning of a Fawcett Society t-shirt that seems to have been made by women working in the worst type of sweatshop, are just the latest in a long run of media disasters that have left the public just saying: 'you're not up to being Prime Minister'. That seems more than a little unfair, given Mr Miliband's intellectual abilities and episodic bravery - not least in taking on the press over 'phone hacking. But you know what? Life isn't fair.

For a long time Labourites thought that defecting left-of-centre Liberal Democrats meant that they just had to move forward in the next General Election - except that, on closer inspection, we now see more clearly that some Liberal Democrat voters have throughout this Parliament been peeling off to the Conservatives, the increasingly-formidable Green Party, and even (in quite large numbers) to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, a new and surer receptable for some angry 'anti-politics' votes than a party of (coalition) govenrment could ever be.

Nerves are jangling even inside Labour's 'core' fortresses. The recent Heywood and Middleton by-election saw how close Ukip could run Labour where there are lots of disillusioned white working-class voters fed up with being taken for granted. Though Ukip might not take more than two or three seats directly off Ed Miliband's party, that might not matter were they to deprive Labour of lots of swing voters - ex-Liberal Democrats, previous non-voters, 'soft' Labourites - in English marginals.

In Scotland, Labour is facing a life-or-death struggle against a Scottish National Party that seems poised to seize many of their seats in May. If the SNP really can win a majority of the votes and seats in a Westminster contest, then they might be in a position to hold the balance of power in London and insist on another referendum. It's just possible (though still perhaps less than likely) that they might then win that contest, perhaps their last chance to do so before Scotland's oil begins to run out for good: a nightmare that Mr Miliband, so recently on the winning side in September's independence referendum, must have thought had gone away. Here the Labour leader must rely on Jim Murphy, so recently a bitter enemy at Westminster, to ride to his rescue as the party's new leader north of the border: insightful, tough, confident, experienced and above all a political street fighter, only Mr Murphy can mix it in the inevitable punch-up with an increasingly-confident Nationalist leadership. If he loses the present leadership contest, Labour will finally have taken leave of its political senses, and (although recent doomsday scenarios are unlikely) it may well end up with no more than (say) 25 Scottish MPs. Losing 16 seats in your own heartlands - and remember that Labour won 41 back in 2010 - is not a good start to any election night. To say the least.

Put it all together, and there is no doubt: though this is not the most likely outcome next May, there is some danger that Labour will be shoved backwards, and quite a way too - perhaps pushing the party closer to 220 or 230 seats than the 258 they hold now. It will then be facing an existential struggle for survival, against both Ukip in the north of England and the SNP in Scotland. After so many years leading in the opinion polls, and so many months believing that they could somehow stagger over the winning line without ever really enthusing the whole country, that would be a bitter psychological blow. Like the Liberals in the 1920s, the party may struggle to recover.

As we say: this is not the most probable scenario. But it is now something that could happen, and it's a sobering thought that shows just how quickly politics can change.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Is General Election victory really in Labour's own internests?

As the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) surge continues, and Labour's number's continue to fade away like morning mist, the two 'main' Westminster parties do now seem to be running neck-and-neck in the race to Downing Street. Actually, our present governors are better placed to go for another five years: there are a lot more ex-Conservative voters in that UKIP pile than there are in Labour's, so any reversal in UKIP's fortunes will help Prime Minister David Cameron's re-election bid much more than it will assist Ed Miliband's (above) quest for No. 10. Thest best statistical models we have show that there is rather more likelihood of a Conservative-led administration continuing after May than there is a Labour-dominated one taking office. Labour's latest disappointing numbers, reported at the start of this week, will only reinforce that impression. That's no surprise to readers of Public Policy and the Past, of course, who have long known that a Labour victory is less likely than the traditional commentariat would have you believe. But you know what? This might be Labour's great escape. This might be a good election to lose.

Now you could have said this about almost every General Election since 1945. Had the Conservatives won that time, they would have run into a massive power crisis and a dollar convertibility disaster. Had they won in 1974, they would have faced asking the International Monetary Fund in to help out. Only the elections of 1951 and 1997 look good ones to win, given the sunny economic conditions that then prevailed and the subsequent eras' advances towards some - and only some - of the sunlit uplands of prosperity.

But there do seem to be specific reasons to be doubtful, this time, whether victory really is in Labour's own interests. Everywhere you look, the party faces a plausible enemy - to a far greater extent than Mr Cameron's Conservatives, who would in Opposition be able to regroup around a right-wing leadership and outflank some of UKIP's wilder promises. Labour faces what looks like an existential threat from the Scottish National Party north of Berwick and Carlisle. Its blue-collar fortresses in the north of England are clearly vulnerable to UKIP. It might be pushed out of the South of England entirely by a combination of the Conservatives, a rejuvenated set of Liberal Democrats freed from the burdens of office, and Greens appealing to left-leaning city dwellers. It simply does not have the resources to fight on all those fronts at once. By-election and council defeats would very quickly leave it clinging to office, shorn of confidence as well as authority. The Callaghan administration of 1976-79 is a good example, if you want to look back.

Any Miliband government will very likely be a minority administration (just as Jim Callaghan's was), perhaps reliant on Social Democratic and Labour MPs from Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru and the acquiescence of the Lib Dems for the oxygen of Parliamentary survival. Could it really slow down all the cuts, lift wages and reform benefits in a way likely to bring it up from the low 30s - where it now seems permanently stuck? With this inheritance? With this less-than-popular leadership? Probably not. Not with the massive debt stock that has recently started growing again, rather than shrinking. Not while the Eurozone crisis looks like rumbling on for many more years, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian growth seems to be slowing down, and the international banking system still seems so vulnerable to the slightest knock.

It's a doleful spectace, really, not just because of the present administration's a disasterthon in so many areas (Universal Credit? Work Capability? Defence cuts? Courts 'reform'? Tuition fees? The badger cull? Can any government really be re-elected on the back of such a trail of error?) But most of all because the Conservative Party has done nothing that it said it would. In Opposition, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to be a more caring type of Conservative than British voters had got used to for so many years, letting 'sunshine win the day'. He also promised to lead 'the greenest government in history'. And yet food banks have become an alarmingly integral part of welfare policy as Work and Pensions officials increasingly sanction individuals failing to meet each and every target and deadline they're given. And under pressure from local activists, Mr Cameron's Communities Secretary is increasingly vetoing every onshore wind farm that he can get his hands on - even as the public show in every opinion poll that's every been conducted that they're in favour of them, and threat of power outages and blackouts grows and grows. The Conservatives' flight rightwards, under the pressure of the UKIP challenge, has been a rapid cavalcade to behold. A big cloud of political dust has been left in the air as they've ceded the centre ground. If Labour were a better Opposition, they'd be doomed.

So Labour can be patient, and continue to rebuild. Sooner or later this version of the Conservative brand will collapse under its own weight of contradiction, rather like the George W. Bush edition of Compassionate Conservatism 1.0 did in the Senate elections of 2006. President Bush had promised to govern from the centre. He didn't, in case you hadn't noticed. And at the end of six years of what they hadn't voted for, American voters took their revenge in the Senate elections of that year, handing an enormous battering to the younger President Bush's Republicans. Control of the Senate was knocked out of their hands, perhaps until they gain it back (on a temporary basis) next week. Eight years in the wilderness is a long time. If the Conservatives go on like this, they'll do further permanent damage to a brand that is already toxic to the majority of voters. They'll be left out in the cold, too. Eventually.

Labour might be better off waiting until that decisive moment when the dam breaks. Winning power back in the spring of 2015 just looks like a dangerous gamble with the party's very existence.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Britain's narrow elite

The recent controversy about Fiona Woolf's (above) appointment as the head of the UK's historical child abuse inquiry is extremely revealing about just how we're governed. For she didn't think to mention, until it was too late, that she had social links to Leon Brittan, Home Secretary when a lot of these allegations first surfaced. Many of the victims involved feel very upset indeed - as if they have been misled and cheated by an 'establishment' that little cares about what they think.

Mrs Woolf is a tough, experienced, respected lawyer who will no doubt do a good job at hearing and weighing up all the evidence. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on her part whatsoever, and indeed the witch-hunt against her is hardly the stuff of good governance in itself. But the fact that no-one even thought that her social connections to people already mentioned as linked to all those scandals might be a problem - the fact that the routine minglings and gatherings of the great and the good are seen as entirely natural and understandable in a certain kind of light - is just another good indication of how narrowly governed we are.

This idea of an 'establishment' is hardly new. Public inquiries and Royal Commissions have always been appointed from amidst the ranks of the great and the good. Lady Plowden was reputedly asked to look into the future of primary schools during the 1960s after sitting next to Education Secretary Edward Boyle at a dinner party. There are so many of these dinner parties when you're well-heeled, aren't there? It's a wonder that our governors ever manage to do any work.

Anyway, back to that 'establishment'. It's heavily interconnected, highly intermarried, starkly different from the rest of the population - and very, very small. Just a few thousand people constitute the movers and shakers of the British policy-making community across Whitehall, in management consultancy and accountancy firms, inside some big corporations, among the staffs of large banks (and their regulators) and across the law and the top 'old' professions. Many of them went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities (over a quarter of our MPs did so), and to private schools (just over a third of the same group). Many of the parties' front bench spokesmen and women studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford - a general degree in governing, perhaps, but also one delivered by a small coterie of academics in and of itself. It's a qualification that also validates quick thinking, clever briefing, rapid drafting and the speedy collation of arguments - just right for a civil servant, or a politician in a hole. But not very likely to produce original thinking. Or - just perhaps - an empathetic sense of your decisions' impact and images out beyond the groupthink of an administrative cadre the boundaries of which are just far, far too selectively drawn. We should point out that Mrs Woolf herself went took her undergraduate degree at less-glamorous Keele, but the point about her appointment and Whitehall's reaction to the subsequent criticism still holds.

Now this is not an organised group in any real sense of the word, still less an ordered conspiracy that owes its power to the (undoubtedly powerful) naked greed of the City of London or such clapped-out ex-constitutional powerhouses as monarchy or aristocracy. Owen Jones' recent (and much argued-over) book, The Establishment, probably overplays that part of its influence and its meaning. It's not a system that's keeping a single party in power. Far from it. Both the Conservatives and Labour are to some extent tight-knit groupings of clans - networks of friendship and connection - rather than the like-minded: for every Conservative who went to Eton, there are many, many Labour officials who met each other at Oxford. One can't move among the memoirs of New Labour's days in power (spin doctor Damian McBride's fascinating Power Trip, for instance) without reading 'so and did their degree with this person', or 'this staffer went to this college with this civil servant'. The like-minded will always flock together. And in some ways such people represent where Britain is going - socially liberal, well-travelled, relaxed about cultural transfer and migration, confident, IT savvy and able to keep what Peter Hennessy has termed the 'hidden wiring' of the UK constitution on the road. To mix our metaphors.

But this is also a self-reinforcing, self-referential, overlapping set of over-confident, over-propertied cliques that has now become dangerously distant from great big tracts of what one might call 'real', gritty, workaday Britain - the east coast towns where the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are enjoying such success, among those young, educated urban workers struggling for make ends meet to whom the Greens are currently appealing, or with those ex-Labour voters in the central belt of Scotland who feel that no party has done them any favours for decades. Wages have now pretty much fallen every single year since the beginning of the financial crisis. The intermarried and the intereducated might be acceptable as your leaders in the good times. But what if incomes continue to decline for another two years? Five? Ten? The anger of the average voter will go on mounting.

That's why charlatans such as the Scottish independence campaigner Tommy Sheridan, the Respect MP George Galloway and even the entertainer-turned-moral-philosopher Russell Brand can attract support. It's why the Scottish National Party and UKIP are enjoying such success.

Because what they can both witheringly call 'Westminster' now represents more of a governing outlook and a set of shared prejudices, than a site of contestation across class and ideological lines. The three biggest parties are now more gathering points of graduate governors than they are vehicles for the expression of class, geographical or ideological views. Yes, they live in the policy-making world of marginal and hard choices (unlike Brand or UKIP), but also have more in common with each other than they do with the people that they are supposed to govern.

And that's a real problem.