Sunday, 31 May 2015

An absurdity of a Queen's Speech

While we were away, the new government's Queen's Speech emerged - bloated with measures that turned it into a bit of a fiasco, causing public policy experts everywhere to hang their heads with shame. Or with foreboding.

Well, where to start? With the Government's evident retreat from the idea of a full-on repeal of the Human Rights Act. This was just never a runner. Get over objections in Scotland, and the legal requirement to keep it in Northern Ireland, and you'd be left with the great big hole where your constitutional settlement used to be. With no-one to write it anew but Michael Gove and Dominic Raab - clever, but not truly academically able or wise, Ministers who could start a fight in an empty room. And then? Oh, in an attempt to limit judicial activism and judges' 'intervention' in economic and social matters, or over-interpretation of the law, Ministers will try to block courts' ability to take European human rights law into  account - causing them, in all probability, to look more closely at American practice, which is far more interventionist. Brilliant.

Then there is the vexed question of legal highs. All sorts of chemicals have been used for years among young people who want a thrill. And many of them are dangerous. The Home Office has been forced to pass Order after Order banning slightly new products for years, and it's got tired of the effort. Fair enough. But the Queen's Speech presages just banning everything that the Home Secretary happens to say is a legal high - a concept so alien and contrary to the way that normal laws work that it will have to contain special clauses to make clear that alcohol, coffee and tobacco are 'legal' highs (as well as including a 'guilty until proven innocent' clause). How did we get to the place where we have to legislate to keep coffee legal? How did we get so stampeded and so fearful of our own youngfolk that we splattered them with endless meaningless laws that will probably just bring forth a load of new ways to dodge them? No, we don't know either.

And legislating to stop the Government doing something (in this case passing a Bill to prevent certain types of tax rise) - an Act which they themselves could then repeal, and which doesn't stop them changing reliefs and the like anyway? Do us a favour. We have not all come down with the latest rain shower. Nothing could demonstrate Ministers' true view of Parliament - about which they raise a hue and cry every time a power passes to the European Union - than this utter waste of that august institution's precious time.

And what about the snooper's charter? We've got long form with this one, because it's yet another dud, but it's worth recording just why: not because the Government might want internet or mobile phone companies to keep your data for longer (expensive, but in principle just about okay), but because it involves a direct attack on the concept and practice of encryption - necessary to make every economic and banking system going through London actually work. Right about now, gloomy civil servants are scratching their heads trying to get around that one. They can't, and they won't.

Lastly, there's housing. We've dealt with the disastrous implications of the Government's smash-and-grab raid on housing associations before: a gift to those who are already in them, further accentuating and emphasising the merry-go-round or pass-the-parcel character of British capitalism rather than oh, we don't know, maybe working or saving. But here's a couple of extra nasty little barbs for you: firstly, that 18- to 21-year olds are going to have their 'automatic right' to Housing Benefit removed (the existence of such a right is a bit of a myth anyway, but there you are). Except that many thousands of young people will then be released onto the streets from local authority care with absolutely no support - a 'loophole' the Government has said it will address with absolutely no detail - or, apparently, care - for how it'll do that. Will some people just get dumped, leading to a human outcry and more and more complex regulations on who can claim, as well as on how to claim? You bet. We'll leave out of account the Government's other bright idea - to make tenancies automatically fall if they are entered into with illegal immigrants, because it's so ridiculous, and so contrary to both common and statute law, that it will just die quietly anyway.

There are some good measures in here. More devolution for Scotland, putting that country in control of just under 40% of its own tax revenue. Better support for child care - though where the Government is going to get the money, while slashing away merrily elsewhere, your guess is as good as ours.

But in general the impression cannot be shirked: this is a deeply un-conservative, un-Conservative and especially un-Tory set of measures, designed to push forward the interfering hands of the state into every facet of national life. Human rights? Well, you've got as many as Ministers tell you that you have. Housing co-operatives? We'll seize those and make them unworkable. Contractual relations between landlords and tenants? That's for the state to decide on, pal. Privacy? We'll shred that, thank you very much.

The worst thing about it all is that the UK government is inching forward into quagmires and quicksands that it cannot possibly understand, let alone manage. Any 'English' Human Rights Act adopted in that country only (so as to get round problems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) will lead to years of wrangling and work for lawyers, as well as hastening the break-up of the Union itself. Well, would you want to decide on a worker's rights when he or she lives in England, but works for an Edinburgh-domiciled company in the Scottish borders, while travelling across Northern Ireland and Wales for that very job? No? Thought not. The housing association right-to-buy will eviscerate the little battalions of the third sector upon which all true conservatives should place their hopes. Messing with encryption will make British companies less competitive and less alluring to foreign investors. Take your pick.

It's not necessarily that we oppose all this ideologically. That might not matter all that much in the grand sweep of history, for laws can be reversed. Opinions can change. Perhaps measures taken today will turn out to have better-than-expected consequences, or perhaps we'll come to accept them and view them as desirable or inevitable. So a modicum of assistance should always attend any government's legislative programme, especially one with a recent mandate from the voters.

This jumble of odds and ends is worse than that, and so bad that even a fair wind will be denied it. It's not that the policies are wrong - though many are. Nor that they are particularly nasty - though some are. No. The real problem with this Queen's Speech is that much of it is simply absurd, a laughable simulacrum of a legislative programme that bears no resemblance to reality at all. It is as far from good public policy - and wise, deliberative governance - as a microwaved ready meal is from a Michelin star. It's all been written by our new-old governors, who of course have a long history of this sort of thing, but are now so far from the light of truly evidential thinking and good empirical sense that they no longer even know how to turn back.

Which is a shame, when you really come to think about it.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Well, that's it...

...for now. After seven weeks in a six days a week, twelve hours a day workathon (including trips to Belfast, Bangor, Exeter, London and Oslo), it's time for some R&R.

But never fear: we'll be back bright and early on the morning of Monday 1 June to bring you statistical, quantified, data-driven, historical and factual reports from the heart of the reality-based community.

Go easy on yourselves until then, won't you?

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Hurrah for the nihilists

You know what? we've been getting it all wrong for many, many years. Every since Public Policy and the Past fired up at the start of the last Parliament, five years ago this October, we've been analysing public policy based on data, statistics, quantification, a dash of scientific validity and falsification, debate, cut-and-thrust - and a little bit of rhetoric here and there.

But all of that rather missed the point. For UK public policy is not in the hands of people who think it should be objectively effective at all. It'd be nice for them and us if it was, of course, but that's not it's main point.

No. Each issue and every initiative exists only to create a shadowy-but-cumulative and persuasive impression in the minds of voters, and to drive a wedge between the governing Conservatives and their opponents. And specifically, to spread fear and panic about the enemies of Englishness, sound money and the rule of law.

Here's the main example. We thought that Prime Minister David Cameron's (above) rhetoric on 'English votes for English laws' after the Scottish referendum was a mistake, and one that put the Union at risk. It wasn't. It was designed to address English concerns (since almost all House of Commons seats are in England anyway), undermine Labour in Scotland and create a useful Scottish enemy in the shape of the Scottish National Party's epoch-making surge - all the better to scare English voters with. It worked a treat in the short campaign, too, especially in Liberal Democrat seats, completely blindsiding the London media class and Opposition strategists - as Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby intended throughout that it should.

Once you see the shape of the technique, you can see it everywhere. We 'experts' thought that the continuing debacle of English student fees (most of which the taxpayer will never see again) was an error. It wasn't. It was specifically crafted to create the idea that the Government was 'saving' money and that Labour (committed to reducing student fees) would blow it all. The reverse of the actual figures, of course, but hey - why let some numbers stand in your way?

We divined a crucial flaw in the erstwhile Coalition's macroeconomic strategy, for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in alliance cut capital spending too quickly in 2010-12, before realising their error and ramping up the idea of a 'northern powerhouse' centred around Manchester. That definitely held back growth in the early part of the last Parliament, but it was designed to, so that growth and real wages - and consumer confidence - would sprint ahead just at the right moment in the new fixed term Parliamentary regime, namely in 2014-15. That strategy worked as well.

So now? The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary talk big about 'cracking down' on the wages of illegal immigrants, all the while trying to ignore the fact that their policy of limiting immigration has fallen rapidly to bits. They can't ignore the reality that a modern economy, especially one which is growing quite quickly but has an appalling record on labour productivity, cannot survive without a large-scale influx of foreigners. So they basically focus on one element of the problem which probably will not make a blind bit of difference - while suggesting that they are 'getting tough' and 'being serious'.

Then they threaten the UK's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, while they must know that there is very little chance of disassembling the whole edifice. Even if they could get round objections in Edinburgh and Belfast (they can't), English law has been changed so fundamentally by the Convention that repealing the Human Rights Act and changing our relationship to the Convention will probably make very little difference anyway. But think politically, not rationally and factually. This makes it look like Ministers are 'rolling up their sleeves' on Europe, 'renegotiating' Britain's treaties, and the like. They're not, and they're not going to, but it looks like they are.

The result? A doleful landscape of anti-outsider rhetoric, dodgy out-of-control landlords, empty pension pots, heavily indebted young people, ill-resourced public services and four nations at each others' throats... all of which spreads despair, mistrust and hatred, all the better for the Crosbys of this world to feed on in their turn.

It's just nihilism. Whenever you see a Minister stand up and make a speech, whenever you hear about a new so-called 'solution' or 'initiative', you should see it in the following light: how is the dog whistle of the language designed to appeal to low-informational swing voters in English marginal seats? And how is this designed to make the Conservatives' enemies look bad?

For that's what we've got to: a kind of Disraeli-and-Macmillan-plus, allying those two Conservative leaders' natural chameleon qualities and mordant cynicism with the more modern techniques of focus grouping, big data and telemarketing. 'Dishing the Whigs' and 'stealing Labour's clothes', as Disraeli and Macmillan set out to do, still involved trying to make the United Kingdom a better and more prosperous place. This, now, is all just hollow posturing - a policy that tacitly admits how broken the Conservative brand is by tainting all around it in colours of cynicism and hatred. They've become a political black hole, sucking in and destroying everything they touch just to stay alive.

But that's modern politics for you. And why? Because it works.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

UK politics has just been put into the deep freeze

At precisely 10pm on Thursday 7th May, Labour people looked up at the sky, like uncomprehending dinosaurs, seeing for the first time that great big light in the heavens that had been there all the time. The resulting explosion was a mighty one, casting fear and alarm all about it. But only slowly have those gathered around that watering hole begun to realise that it was an electoral meteorite that might spell their extinction.

Let us explain.

It's not really that the Conservatives moved forwards in many of their ex-marginals, leaving Labour with an enormous electoral mountain to climb just to be the largest party next time. That's bad enough: seats that were Labour just a few years ago now have enormous majorities, with Harlow, for instance, moving from a Labour majority of 97 in 2005 to a 8,350 majority for the Conservatives now. Throw in boundary reform, and an overall Labour majority would probably need an absolutely huge swing in 2020 - beyond even what Tony Blair achieved in 1997. Oh yes, that's bad all right. But what's even worse is why that happened: firstly, Labour's lack of credibility on the economy and leadership, and secondly, the Scottish National Party landslide in Scotland. The first can be addressed via a new team and some new ideas, in the usual way: but the second is probably now a semi-permanent feature of the political landscape, with implications far beyond Scotland itself.

We have to be careful here. The aftermath of the 1992 General Election, which this one so closely resembles, was characterised by all sorts of academic analyses that said that Labour could never win again. Labour's Last Chance? was one of the key titles, and the general feeling was that Labour could never appeal to such a middle-class, individualistic, ambitious, aspirational society again. The result? A Blairite landslide. Shows you what we experts know.

But the political, as opposed to social and structural, reasons for Labour's defeat are even worse this time. For Labour is now squeezed in between its two most profound enemies, in the shape of the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England and Wales. It is hard to see how it can escape the vice in the near term, for the SNP's gargantuan majorities are probably going nowhere. That means no Labour overall majority in prospect for a long time to come: that also means that the 'danger' of a weak minority administration dependent on the 'rainbow' of the wider left will stay in English voters' minds for at least the next Parliament, and probably the one after that too.

Make no mistake: the fusion of 'weakness', 'minority' and 'foreign domination' was easily the most powerful one on the doorstep, far more plausible as an electoral amalgam than if Labour had been closing in on a majority. It worked. Fear, you see, can be stronger than hope. And that tactic can now be pressed into use again and again, until indeed it becomes a full-on strategy rather than a rather desperate expedient. For whenever the Conservatives face opposition or problems in England and Wales, they can wheel out a conveniently tartan-clad stage army that has the advantage of seeming alien, frightening, newsworthy... and, in reality, almost entirely fictitious. Every time the SNP (or indeed any Scots) object to, or oppose, a policy, that gurgling sound you'll hear will be Labour and Liberal Democrat votes pouring down the Conservative drain in England.

It's a stroke of electoral genius, hit upon perhaps by chance, but now absolutely clear in the pristine light of post-election day. Why do you think that the Human Rights Act is first in the Government's sights? Because the Scottish Parliament has a semi-veto over its abolition, that's why - and each and every row with Holyrood (especially became it emanates from the SNP's more-than-justified pro-Europeanism) is electoral gold in English marginals. Every time the SNP raise a question, threaten an informal referendum of their own, every time they challenge Parliamentary etiquette, every time they (rightly) fight one of this government's mad Bills, every time they post on social media, one more English voter will recoil. And the divided British Isles will slide further away from meaningful political and social change. Paradoxes of governance? We got 'em aplenty now.

No good will come of it. In the end, the general Scotophilia of the English, who generally understand their northern neighbours only through the prism of childhood holidays, may well congeal into something much, much harder. Deep and widespread anti-Scottish feeling, even overt hostility and racism directed towards those with Scots accents, cannot be ruled out. Unless this course is somehow changed, the Union will eventually break up - with incalculable consequences in Belfast and Cardiff, those oft-forgotten capitals with little voice in the poisonous drama to come. It won't happen soon. The Scottish Government is more than well aware that even its much-trumpeted policy of Full Fiscal Autonomy, well short of independence, is political suicide at this oil price - even if its complexities can be decoded at all. A second contest over independence must be some way down Edinburgh's list of desired outcomes, for it would be simply impossible to write a White Paper with £10bn of yearly cuts (nearly a sixth of all Scottish public spending) at its heart. And Prime Minister David Cameron will be in no mood to let his convenient enemies go anywhere until after 2020. The power to call a referendum having lapsed back to Westminster, the Prime Minister will just the SNP fume and rage about its inability to fix a date for a second plebiscite - knowing, all the while, that every time they make a demand, even a request, one more English voter plumps for him and his party.

After 2020 the whole exercise will have served its purpose, having already caused English voters to think that any reform at all involves 'foreign' tricks, giving them someone to resent, projecting outwards the blame for all the bruises caused by an increasingly-harsh economic environment. The Conservatives' boundary reforms, trade union funding changes, university research cuts and charity campaigning bans will all be well entrenched. The Conservatives won't need the Scots any more. They might be allowed to leave.

Until then, a kind of electoral permafrost has descended, with the usual and natural channels of change and renewal across the Kingdom frozen by two twin nationalisms - one of the apparently social democratic left, and one of the nativist English right. It will not be lifted easily or quickly. Labour will have to change fundamentally - change utterly, change today, change everything - if it is to do anything about it. That is probably the work of two Parliaments, not one: and if there's any backsliding, any association with the party's era of defeat, any complacency at all, they might as well not bother.

It is a beautifully warm and bright spring in Britain. But the consequent feeling of optimism and renewal cannot now carry across into the communal lives of the United Kingdom's peoples. For in UK politics, the changing of the seasons lies in the past: nothing lies ahead but a long, cold, dark and frigid winter.

Monday, 11 May 2015

So what actually did happen last Thursday?

No-one likes getting it wrong, least of all this blogger. So although we called the UK General Election right in terms of the winner, who would win the most votes and most seats, and the Scottish National Party landslide, a Conservative overall majority was just outside the bell curve of our possible results.

We apologise for this error. But when the basic data's wrong, what can you do?

Pick up on warnings, that's what. Of which there were plenty. Engage our political, historical, qualitative analysis - and our human antennae, not just our statistical training. The storm of numbers helped distract us from our gut instinct, which always had Ed Miliband - student politics, EdStone and all - completely and utterly failing the blink test of all true leadership. This involves asking: do you think, in your heart of hearts, that this is the team you want to lead you and the country for five years?

Well, no.

So now it's time to assemble some initial reflections - to analyse, to dissect and to understand. What else are academics for? This will involve a lot of hard work and heartsearching over the next year or so leading up to the Scottish, Welsh and London elections due in 2016, but a basic picture is beginning to emerge. What we can do for now is compare and contrast the warnings we should have heeded about the reliability of opinion polling with some of what we do know about the actual results.

In this vein, we offer you five reasons for the unexpectedly easy Conservative victory.

1. The SNP. This was the main near-term tactical triumph of the Conservatives' campaign. Those of us who've had our ear to the ground in England heard it all the time in person, and we quote: 'I can't stand that woman [SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon]. She's a new Mrs Thatcher'; 'the Scots are going to come and nick all our money'; 'I don't want to be talked down to by a load of Marxists'; 'why should we dance to their tune?'; 'if they hate us so much, why didn't they just leave when they had the chance?' It was the issue that cut through on the doorstep and ran right through the qualitative data as if it were a stick of seaside rock, the issue that made it through to the noise from the London news debate to ordinary people. It worked a treat, channelling the dark energy of Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby's fears and hatreds to a tee. He's done it before in Australia, of course, lambasting and demonising imaginary refugees who were supposed to have thrown their children into the sea, and helping the Conservatives towards respectability in 2005 with his 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' sloganeering. This time, imaginary hordes of thieving Scots played the same role. It was a stroke of nasty, manipulative, cynical and grotesque... genius. Labour's amateur hour herbivores didn't have a clue what hit them.

Strangely - and full marks again to Crosby for noticing this - this message worked best in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals, frightening off middle-of-the-road English voters who were scared of the SNP dictating its own terms to a Labour government. The Liberal Democrats' complete and utter humiliation was the key to the Conservative majority. If Mr Cameron's party had only picked up the expected ten to fifteen Liberal Democrat seats, there'd now probably only be a minority government. What they did - and it appears that eviscerating their 'colleagues' was always part of the plan, even back in 2010 - was say to Liberal Democrat voters: 'you don't have the luxury of this choice, you have to save the country from the madness of the Celtic Fringe'. So they talked about the SNP in Cornwall and Somerset, about as far from the epicentre of Glasgow's electoral earthquake as you can get and still be in the British Isles. Disgraceful stuff, and a totally false prospectus: but also very, very effective.

2. Shy Tories. Hats off to the Number Cruncher Politics blog on this one, who saw it all with such clarity that we'll have its URL on permanent auto-update next time. This answer to our many conundrums reminds us of the Scottish independence referendum, which the polls also had neck-and-neck in the week before polling. 'No' won by 10.6%. That contest was decided by the 'shy noes' - people who would never consider putting a poster up in their window, but were determined to thwart the ambitions of what they saw as 'radical Glasgow'. The same types turned up last week to thwart the prospect of what to seemed to them like an unacceptably left-wing government that threatened to undermine the very bases of economic recovery: budgetary retrenchment, welfare reform and political stability. Remember, here, that many voters find it difficult to admit even to themselves, and to their close kith and kin, that they are going to vote Conservative: each voter is at war within themselves, and may not actually be dissembling when they refuse to answer pollsters' questions (or act differently to their expressed intention).

One very noticeable feature in this election was that many marginals in Middle England moved away from Labour, even as that party did a little better in England's North West and in London (hello, Lancaster and Ealing Central). Middle class families who'd always voted Labour simply switched to the Conservatives to avoid a left-wing combination of Mr Miliband's party and the SNP. These people probably considered voting Labour, or thought that they probably would, but swerved away in the last few weeks. There is a hint of late swing in a few pieces of the data - for instance, Lord Ashcroft's on-the-day poll (opens as PDF) which saw the Conservatives leading by four points, a gain from the tie that he had reported just before the voting. But that's not the main, or even a big, reason why the polls got it all so wrong. Most of us knew the shy Tories were in there, and we could easily read off the errors that polls had made in the European and by-elections over the past couple of years: but this was beyond even those (three to five per cent) errors. We thought that a bigger electorate would mean that the mistakes were ironed out. We were wrong, because the 'shy Tories' weren't just dyed-in-the-wool Conservative voters who didn't want to admit their choice to us: they were often 'Labour people' who were going over en masse to the Conservatives. That alone should chill Labour hearts over the ten to fifteen years of Opposition that they may well now endure.

3. Pollsters' herding. Pollsters knew that they faced an enormous challenge this time. They were looking at a more fluid electorate, and a more regionalised, as well as socially fragmented, battleground. How to construct the samples? How to weight them by demographics, and past voting choice? It was a nightmare - and one that caught up with them on election night, when Labour's vote appeared to splinter all over the place - to the SNP, the Greens, to Plaid Cymru, and even to the Conservatives. Actually, it's becoming clear that Labour was always behind given the composition of the likely electorate. The resilience of a party's vote, and how many of their apparent supporters will actually turn up, is a very hard thing to measure, as ComRes research pointed out in the run-up to the poll. Basically, and very provisionally, we suspect that had young people voted in the same numbers that older people did, Labour's vote would have held up much better. They didn't, they don't usually, and they're unlikely to in the future. Get used to it. But many of them said that they would, and turnout levels as projected from polls were much higher than than they turned out to be in reality.

Slightly more worrying is the polling industry's tendency to huddle together for fear of getting it 'wrong' on the day. Labour pushed forward, not backwards, in the polling data from the campaign's last couple of days: a phenomenon that fooled many of us into thinking that the debacle wouldn't be as bad as 1992. Well, that was all a statistical artefact, created by pollsters tacking to the centre. There's plenty of academic evidence of herding, and it's intuitively understandable that no pollster wants to get too out of line. They're commercial organisations: drop a big howler, and you're likely to look silly and lose work. It's as simple as that. One pollster, Survation, has even bravely come out and admitted that it suppressed a voting survey that got the eventual result pretty much bang on - because it 'looked wrong'. This, to be fair to them, is not just a matter of commercial necessity. It's a classic example of 'anchoring' in action, reflecting the process by which human beings try not to stand out from the crowd, and find it difficult to shrug off conventional thinking and social norms. Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck? How exciting, everyone's saying it. I'll just put these contrary results to one side, then. Understandable: but deeply problematical, given how the polls shaped and then decided this election.

4. Labour's fundamentals. Let's be frank here. Labour's reputation on the economy was shattered in 2010, and has never recovered. That's the true reason why the fear of a government that would be both 'weak' and 'left-wing', partly because it was backed by the SNP, could gain such a quick strangehold on the public imagination. It was voters' underlying scratch-they-couldn't-itch all the time. This wasn't a foregone conclusion: Labour did not wallow quite so low in the water between the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007 and the last-but-one General Election. Britain's relatively rapid recovery in 2009 and 2010, partly achieved via the Keynesian policies and international activism of Messrs Brown and Darling, didn't seem to go down too badly among the public. Years of small public sector deficits (and a few of surplus), attended by falling debt-to-GDP ratios, meant that the Government had a bit of elbow room to tackle the crisis head-on. What really hammered Labour here was the way the debate was framed in 2010 - 'there's no money left' memo and all - once the coalition was able to say 'we're clearing up the mess of Labour's overspending'. Total nonsense, of course: but put together with Labour's leadership problems, this caused many voters to continually blame Labour for their hardships and struggles: a kind of 'shadow incumbency' that the party never really freed itself from.

Another problem Labour clearly had - and this was the mainstay of our initial reaction to the result - is cultural. They are 'too London', too metropolitan, too elitist. Many voters probably think Mr Miliband went to a private school, just like Mr Cameron (he didn't). Labour's leadership speaks in incomprehensible jargon, far from the depressed and left behind places where UKIP thrived. You know what? We thought, from all our data - every single spreadsheet and time series - that UKIP took the largest number of its votes from the Conservatives. In the end, on the day, they didn't. They swallowed up hundreds of thousands of traditional working class Labour voters, costing the party those marginal seats that even the relatively puny swing to Labour should have seen them gaining. That was the main difference between a Hung Parliament and a Conservative majority. And until Labour finds a language in which to speak to older, angrier, less well-educated white voters, it will continue to fail among these struggling socio-economic groups.

5. Dislike of coalitions. Coalitions are little understood among the public, and very few of them can offer a definition of what they are - or even how they work. Most are hostile to the very idea, and the whole Conservative-Liberal Democrat hookup in 2010 happened only via the chance of Gordon Brown being so unpopular, and so far behind, that many voters thought they could take the 'risk' of the Liberal Democrats and still get a new government. So it proved. But they were not converted to the idea of parties governing together. The stable coalition that Mr Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg had managed might be all right - but the experiment was on probation, and the messy compromises and constant drum-beat of accommodation was tiresome, even on the relatively harmonious terms that the parties managed between 2010 and 2015.

The very fact that the race appeared to be neck-and-neck for so long made most Britons pause in the ballot box and say: 'do I really want a minority Labour administration backed up by the SNP and the Welsh and Northern Irish Nationalists?' The only answer to that was no: that seemed like an even more unstable and chaotic mixture than that the country had 'enjoyed' for five years. So voters acted accordingly, offering Mr Cameron the one single tiny path that he could ever have found to even the very small majority he enjoys today. We always like here to see elections as the effecting of the will and wisdom of the crowd. This time, we can sum it up like this: 'chaos or competence'. Which, funnily enough, was precisely one of the Conservatives' main election slogans.

All of this has come as some shock to your average cafe-dwelling leftist. They thought that a new world was coming into being: a multi-party continental fantasyland, in which parties would have to work together, in which voters would choose based on a buffet of different policy options, in which a 'left alliance' of all anti-Conservative parties could seize power, enact voting reform and generally make the world a softer, greener, more pluralistic place.

It wasn't. The two biggest parties' vote did not fall: it rose. The United Kingdom Independence Party won exactly one seat - exactly the same as the Greens. The SNP are now irrelevant to the ruthless and effective deployment of power at Westminster, having played just precisely that role that Mr Cameron allocated them in his own drama. He will now discard and ignore them for five years. The Conservatives are now firmly in the box seat: they will repeal the Human Rights Act, enact boundary reform, bring in their absurd 'English votes for English laws' scheme, stuff further (and ruinous) financial financial devolution down the throats of Cardiff and Edinburgh, silence the trade unions, and generally rule the roost for some time to come.

Until, that is, Labour wakes up from its university city dreaming, and starts to represent that deep England that took such fright at the SNP.

We advise you not to hold your breath.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Labour were always coming to this terrible place

Right, now that the UK General Election is out of the way, we can say what we really think, rather than just darkly hint at our true opinions.

This election was lost from the moment Labour elected Ed Miliband (above) as its leader.

And it has been an unmitigated disaster for the UK Labour Party. No explanations about differential vote share, no heralding of unlikely gains, no blaming the Liberal Democrats, can hide it. Labour has been wiped out in its Scottish heartlands, gone backwards in Wales, failed to make any progress at all in England. It now faces an existential crisis, hemmed in by the Greens to the Left, threatened by the United Kingdom Independence Party for primacy among white working class voters and fatally undermined by the Scottish Nationalists north of the Tweed.

Now it's important not to get too overwrought about this, though we're going to have a go in a minute. Bear with us and, never fear, there'll be some heated rhetoric. Anyway. Labour has lost before. It was reduced to a rump when its leader joined a National Government in 1931. It was hammered in 1959, when the Conservatives increased their majority for the second time in a row. It was routed in 1983 by a triumphant Mrs Thatcher. Each time, the party got up off the floor, dusted itself down, and eventually came back to power.

There aren't many Clement Attlees, Harold Wilsons or Tony Blairs on the scene these days, but you never know - Labour could strike it lucky, one of the key gifts of timing and personnel that's one of the strange, unacknowledged alchemies of representative politics. All the sociological and cod-structural philosophising in the world means nothing compared to just having a credible leader, a trusted economic plan and a plausible front bench team. Academics who wrote Must Labour Lose? in 1960 thought that Labour was too 'working class', too 'old fashioned', too 'stuck in its ways', and wedded to the union link, to win any more contests with the Conservatives. They were soon witnessing one of the party's modernising heydays under Wilson, winning a bare majority just four years later - and a landslide victory in 1966. It's all in the credibility.

Unfortunately, this time Labour didn't have any. If we look at any measure of 'best Prime Minister' or 'most competent on the economy', Labour's Ed Miliband-Ed Balls combo has trailed David Cameron and George Osborne throughout most of this Parliament. And has any Opposition ever won an election trailing on both those measures? No, you bet your house it hasn't.

The most painful thing is that this has just been so, so obvious from the start. The Historian happened to be at an (unglamorous) academic conference when news came through of the younger Miliband's election as leader of the Labour Party - all the way back in 2010. His reaction? To smash his head into the chair in front of him and say 'well, that's ten years in the wilderness, then'. A Labour leader elected by a potentially unconstitutional cabal of unions, breaking their own rules on what they included with the ballot papers, and organised by Brownite apparatchik Charlie Whelan, foisted Ed on Labour - and the party was then too nice and too loyal to push him out.

And lo, the years in the wilderness shall come to pass.

Why? Because Ed's message was totally, utterly and completely wrong from the start. Not in terms of those old Labour bugbears, Left and Right, but in terms of applicability, believability, empathy and language. At a time when voters feel very distanced from 'the Westminster establishment' (whatever that is), he spoke of 'predistribution', of 'the squeezed middle', of 'the cost of living crisis'. Not of actual people's actual lives, in their own words and language. No. Just some pretty phrases.

Basically, Ed Miliband is a representative of one type of governing class mentality - academic, university-based leftists who live in cosmopolitan towns and cities and read The Guardian. Which is pretty much the only type of area where they made any progress yesterday. It wasn't him and his manner, his nasal delivery, his slight gawkiness and awkwardness. Voters don't care about that sort of stuff if you've got a good message. No. It was the idea that you can win from the Kinnockite Left by calling for higher income and property taxes, while at one and the same time posing as a 'Blue Labour' outfit that wants to limit immigration, clamp down on welfare and boost defence spending. It didn't and doesn't make any sense: it's the sort of clever-clever Janus-faced debating society stuff that a professional, a Peter Mandelson or an Alistair Campbell, would just obliterate before it got off the drawing board. Talking about equality and redistribution isn't necessarily bad for your electoral health, in and of itself: but it needs to be couched in language that strikes a chord with voters.

As it was, Labour could never sell such a pudding to run-of-the-mill marginal waverers. It was left desperately trying to suck in non-voters and never-were voters in the last days of the campaign, which may have succeeded in pumping up their opinion poll figures, but was never going to be a success on the ground. We all sensed it, and Labour HQ knew it most of all.

Ed never grasped the fundamental immaturity of this attempt to be all things to all people - and the need to speak about this country's undoubted economic unfairness in everyday terms and stark language rather than deploying words straight out of an economics textbook. He was still at it today, in stark contrast to the light and shade of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg's frank and multilayered plea for liberalism's continued relevance. Mr Miliband basically stood there and said that his strategy was the right one even as he resigned in total defeat. Well, no, actually, it wasn't. Because the voters didn't agree, and they're the boss.

Substance: fail. Language: fail.

You could have read it all here. In 2011 we said that Labour should be further ahead in the polls. We noted bitterly how badly Labour did in the 2011 Scottish, Welsh and local elections. In 2013 we ruled out the possibility of Labour winning an outright majority, in 2014 started to worry that Labour might do even worse than 2010 and that Labour was in sight of a catastrophic meltdown, concluding at last that the Conservatives were going to be the largest party and that Labour would lose the election.

We could claim credit, but you'd have had to be incapable of political sense on almost every level not to see what was coming. Not the scale, no: that is a surprise. But Labour losing? That fate was sealed all the way back in 2010, when the fundamentals of a vacillating, incoherent, indecisive and above all academic rather than visceral, emotional and vividly appealing approach were set in stone.

So, toytown Labour, with all your politics dons and theorists and pontification: take your self-indulgence, and indulge it somewhere else.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

How will economic historians judge this UK government?

So, now that this Parliament is over, how will economic historians judge the Government's policies?

Well, if we're any judge here, pretty harshly. The Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition went all out to shape economic policy around a political falsehood - that Britain was 'on the verge of bankruptcy', that 'there was no money left', and that Labour had 'overspent'. So they spent the first two years of their tenure making all the wrong noises if they wanted the economy to recover - exactly the same mistake (if you want a non-partisan viewpoint) that Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and George Brown made when they arrived in Downing Street during October 1964, duly proceeding to shout about how bad Britain's trade balance was to paint the Conservatives as a bunch of incompetents - and in so doing making things worse.

Don't get us wrong. Clearly spending reductions were required. But the Coalition set off like a rocket, trying to get the UK into total budgetary balance in one Parliament. This was never going to happen. It was a total fantasy that did a great deal of damage to the UK's financial reputation. And all for what? To preserve the country's triple-A credit rating, which we lost anyway. Then, in 2012/13, seeing how disastrously things were going, Chancellor George Osborne (above) performed one of the most skilful and successful U-turns of all - going straight back to Labour's plans for the Parliament of 2010-15, while claiming that they had been his 'Plan A' all along. Well, they weren't. He fell back on Plan B, as his increasingly monotonous and unconvincing repetition-by-rote of this particular intellectual fraud make quite clear. It was only then that the economy started to grow - proving that the critics of 'cuts' had been right all along.

And the worse thing about all that? Before Mr Osborne discovered his recent zeal for big infrastructure projects (High Speed Rail 2, for instance), and before he started talking about Manchester as a 'Northern Powerhouse' all the time, the main thing that the Coalition cut in the first half of its tenure was infrastructure spending - at least proportionately. At a time of historically low interest rates, when demand was sagging and Britain was crying out for some replacement work on its creaking roads and rail network, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats actually cut physical investment. Well, super work.

The emerging consensus about the Conservatives' last long period in office is that some of the micro-economic reforms effected were necessary and productive - but that macro-economic policy was often mad, bad and dangerous to be near (in 1980-82 and 1988-92, for instance). This time things are rather similar. There have been some interesting (but expensive and complicated) initiatives to try to lever foreign direct investment into UK research and development clusters, to match dynamic developing countries' desire to find places to invest with the UK's dire need for spending, and at least to ringfence the science and research budget at a time of great budgetary stringency.

It's in most ways a miserable performance, with employment buoyed up by absolutely miserable labour productivity that means that Britons are stuck doing jobs they would rather not. What a story, eh? Unemployment fell, because everyone had to work the coffee machines that continentals can work on their own.

There are some points of light, and the Chancellor must get at least some marks for reversing engines when he was clearly taking the economy off a cliff. But it's thin stuff to set against two years of wasted efforts - and a host of micro-economic mistakes that can only be put down to crude populism at best, and sheer nihilism at worst. University tuition fees that'll cost more than leaving well alone would have done. Getting in private contractors to run large chunks of the welfare system - including a Work Programme that didn't work, a Universal Credit that crashed and burned and a Work Capability Assessment that seemed to spend more money re-running tests and punishing people than actually helping people find meaningful work.

What would we give this government? Three or four out of ten - a generous mark that shows just how soft we've become in our old age.

But you know what? It'll probably be just about enough to carry on in government after next Thursday. The line about 'cuts' being 'necessary', pressed home by an obedient press, worked - as Labour leader Ed Miliband's grilling on the BBC's Question Time last week demonstrated all too well. Labour will probably have to regroup in Opposition, around a new leader, having lost most of its seats in a previous heartland - Scotland. The only consolation will be that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, won't have much of a mandate (or a majority) either, even if he can rely on the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionists to back him in a confidence vote.

No-one ever said that life was fair.