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.