Sunday, 29 November 2015

The UK economy: don't think the pain is all over

'With one bound, he was free': doubtless this is the way that George Osborne would like his recent Autumn Statement to be remembered. Taking advantage of some interest rate changes, some inflation rate rejigging and quite a lot of tax rises, the Chancellor (above) was able to say he was completely abolishing the Tax Credit changes that had always seemed so out-of-step with just about everything the Conservatives said about rewarding work. He was able to slow down quite a lot of the austerity that he had always threatened (or promised), and basically make everyone just a little bit less gloomy about the prospects for public services over the next few years. He cancelled any plans to cut police spending. He made sure he protected research spending in real terms for the rest of this Parliament (quite important if you, ahem, work in a university). And so on.

So there were all sorts of headlines along the lines of 'the end of austerity' and the like, as if all the bad times were behind us. No-one should be quite so foolhardy or so quick to accept the Government's line. All Budgets, and all financial packages, have a habit of coming unstuck a little way down the line, as some of the losers begin to speak up alongside the winners. And very few announcements from this most political of Chancellors can be taken exactly on trust.

So it's true that the spending pattern now looks a bit flatter. It looked ridiculous before the General Election, like a hockey stick with a whopping great load of front-loaded cuts at the start of this Parliament, and then some hefty spending increases at the end, when Mr Osborne will want to be pleasing voters rather than poking them in the eye. It looked a little bit more sensible after his post-election summer Budget. Now it looks even better, with basically flat cash spending by the end of the Parliament and only a much shallower dip in the middle.

So far, so good? Job done? Well, not really. For the pain is still going to be very, well, painful. We can't feel too sorry for buy-to-let landlords (who will be subject to higher stamp duty on their property purchases), since there's probably quite a lot of slack in a sector that could do with having some of the energy and heat taken out of it. Though Mr Osborne's repeated tax raids on the top ten per cent of earners are an interesting phenomenon, considering he is a Conservative Chancellor after all, that subject will have to wait for another day. Nor should raising an Apprenticeship Levy (basically another tax on companies) be necessarily unwelcome, since there's no reason why all those costs should necessarily rest with the Exchequer.

The real problem hits us once we look at what's still got to happen for Mr Osborne's targets to be met. He's left himself very little wriggle room, because he's basically banked much of the extra cash that the Office for Budget Responsibility told him he had left over. Understandable, though he should never have got himself into the stupid bind of cutting Tax Credits anyway - a deeply self-destructive penalty for Britons trying to move off welfare into work, as this administration is always hectoring people to do.

Still, some of the assumptions made about spending in the Autumn Statement look frankly incredible. Is the National Health Service really going to cope while having its funding fall every single year (as a share of the national economy), when on that measure it has only ever known increases? Can it really meet the so-called 'efficiency savings' that Mr Osborne has ordered, when it's been coming up with those for over half a decade already? We doubt it. Will people in the low- to middle-income brackets be able to buy anywhere to live when 'social housing' has basically been shrunk to the idea of subsiding expensive housing, and by only a very little? Probably not. Should students' loan interest rates really have been changed after they had entered into what looks very much like a contract with Her Majesty's Government? Any sensible economist or public policy analyst should be opposed to such post hoc changes as well, for they destabilise and undermine trust in the direction of any and all such policies that the British Government may announce in future.

And when we come to those low-paid workers that Mr Osborne says he is so keen to help out, don't think that the pain is over for them either. Tax credits cuts have been cancelled, but Universal Credit changes will cause nearly as much hardship - to similar groups of people - when they come into effect later in the Parliament. Now, the effect will be mitigated by the fact that wages will have risen by then, and that the Government's so-called National Living Wage will be due; and only new, rather than existing, claimants, will be hit. And no-one believes that Universal Credit will ever really work as Whitehall says it will, barring a few showoff examples. Mr Osborne can also afford to wait and see how the economy goes before turning his attention to Universal Credit, when he will probably reduce or even cancel the whole idea of his £12bn 'welfare savings'. Even so, the distributional changes by the end of this Parliament are not all that different to what they looked like before the Chancellor stood up and made his Autumn Statement - yet another smoke and mirrors act that should have seen him humiliated, were the official Opposition Labour Party anything other than a joke at the moment. An Opposition that's still to get its act together on a proper long-form press release on the Statement, by the way.

In any case, you'll have seen lots of headlines implying that we should all run out and dance in the streets. That economic summer is round the corner. Well, no. The cuts now look rather more like those that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls contemplated (they still go rather deeper). But if you're a student running up large debts, if you need the NHS, and still more if you rely on local government services that will will now have to shrink very rapidly (partly because the Government can turn the blame on them when people complain), things are still going to be very, very, very grim.

The depth of our economic winter is relaxing its grip - a little. Spring is still some way off.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Syria: no easy answers

The world is full of armchair generals and rent-a-quotes, and this is never more clearly proved than in debates over peace and war. Just do this easy thing, they say; that'll put things to rights. Press this big red button. Or, alternatively: don't do anything. That's the way - when did intervening in foreign countries ever solve anything? Bomb. Don't bomb. Blow stuff up. Talk. Oh yes, it's all so simple, isn't it? Well, excuse us if we don't think that a load of journalists and politicians make up much of a Royal United Services Institute seminar, but they don't. Most of them don't know what they're talking about, won't own up to their lack of expertise, and just use the whole thing as a way to settle partisan scores or shout out about a load of stuff you knew they thought anyway.

They're all fakes. No-one's sure what will work in Syria, and if anyone tells you that they are, you should put your fingers in your ears and shout 'la, la, la' rather than listening to them.

Regular readers will know that this blog was rather sceptical about the case for bombing Syria when this question last came up (in a very different context) during August 2013. Well, we said: what's the case for it? Can we get a timeframe, a set of objectives, a sense of the political track that will be pursued alongside the bombs, an impression of the type of targets we're going to strike out at? Only then can any responsible legislature make such a decision. We were prepared to look at the case, and often since then have often stopped to think: 'did we make a horrible mistake? Should the UK have intervened against President Assad two years ago, before some of these horrors unfolded?' We'll never know for sure, but to be perfectly honest, a few cruise missiles and bombs at that point might not have made much difference, and might have caused the Syrian state to collapse even more completely than it did later on. Look at the fate of post-intervention Libya, for instance. But maybe we're wrong. Maybe sending a political signal then would have restrained the Assad regime, forced it to the negotiating table, reduced the scale and scope of the chaos that has allowed ISIS to grow and thrive. Who knows?

And it's that sense of indeterminacy, of we're-not-sure, that should be your marker in the coming days. MPs who sit down and listen to the case in the House of Commons, without histrionics and shouting, are your friends here. Not the certain bombers and the certain refusers. The thinkers. The doubters. The listeners. They're earning their keep as your representatives.

Because there are good points to be made on both sides of the debate. There is absolutely no doubt that the case for intervention has strengthened since 2013, that it is still strengthening, and that our alliances and treaties - agreements that have kept us (mostly) safe since 1945 - may require military action. The new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Syria calls for states to act together to 'eradicate' the safe havens that Syria represents for ISIS. If France invokes Article Five of the NATO Treaty, there seems little doubt but that the UK would be legally required to go to her aid. And the threat that has emerged is nothing like that presented by jihadi fighters in the past. Groups such as al-Qaeda lived in something resembling the modern world. They had political demands. They had objectives. They wanted things. ISIS has made more than clear, over and over again, that they want nothing but a millennial round of destruction that brings the world down on their own heads, all the better to meet their eschatological ends. They're probably about to get their wish.

Nor is it the case, despite the disgusting and disgraceful reaction of the increasingly unacceptable, beyond-the-pale Stop the War campaign, that something called 'the West' has 'brought retribution on itself'. Such vile victim-blaming and falsehood is totally ahistorical, and it ignores the chronology, the geography and the geopolitical realities. ISIS isn't obsessed with hitting NATO and the US: that's a sideshow. They're focused - for now - on killing everyone else. Yazidis. Secularists. Christians. Socialists. Druze. They're not motivated by the Iraq War. No-one attacked most of them from the skies before they revved up their murderous campaign. Attacks like Paris (above) are a by-product of their suicidal war on the world, and thinking anything else is just a load of self-hating and Western-centric self-obsession. No. We're looking at a much wider game here. Everyone has played a role in bringing Syria to its knees, allowing what is basically an obsessive death cult to flourish there. The Saudi money that helped to build up their extremist ideology. The Iranian militias that have helped to devastate the country. The Russian bombs that have followed. The US and British states' error in first invading Iraq, and then allowing it to fall apart on their watch - creating yet another part of the power vacuum into which ISIS have inserted themselves.

All that said, there's a respectable case to be made for holding one's hand. No-one expects to find backing for Jeremy Corbyn's increasingly doomed and embarrassing leadership of the Labour Party here. It's pretty much all over now, and all that remains is to clear up the wreckage. But he does have a few good points to make on this one (while twisting and turning all the while to avoid the awful moment of reckoning when he has to make up his mind on whether to offer Labour MPs a free vote or not). Although Western intervention hasn't 'caused' atrocities like Paris, it doesn't seem to have done all that much to deter them, either. Political strategies are just as vital as military ones, as Tony Blair's ex-Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, has just pointed out (though of course this isn't an 'either'/ 'or' question). And as we said back in 2013, lobbing a few more bombs into an unstable mix of civil war, outsider opportunism and the vastly complex chess board of the Middle East might well not do much for anyone. Without a multi-dimensional diplomatic effort to try engagement on some level with Iran and Russia - and ground forces on which we can rely - just bombing some Syrian oil refineries and ISIS supply routes runs the risk of just 'doing something' for doing something's sake.

The truth is this, however much no-one wants to hear it: there are no easy roads before us in Syria, or anywhere else in the region for that matter.

In a political world more and more defined by 140 characters, full of shouting, clamour and rage, the Syria vote is an opportunity to meet together as a country and plot our course: to listen. Truly listen.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The new nationalisation of Britain

'Neo-liberalism' is a vastly overused term these days. In the hands of experts such as David Harvey, Mike Davis and Will Davies, it means something sophisticated: a combination of economic, cultural and social analysis that starts to help us make sense of our ever-shifting, restless, boundless, urgent, insurgent world. Far too often, it's just a set of boo words, to denote the 'free market', the 'globalised economy', the 'rise of inequality' or some other phenomenon that the writer happens not to like (and probably doesn't exist anyway, at least in the simplistic forms this sort of stuff appears). So in popular journalism and commentary? Totally useless, and worthy of ignoring every and each type it appears.

But it's still a useful term when used sensitively, applied to the strange hybrid forms of governance to which we are now subject. What it denotes in our political now is a strange type of not-quite-here and not-quite there administration, not quite public, not really private, and complicated beyond measure. Take a look at the railways. Does anyone really know who's responsible for everything? Well, no - not really, a cost and a burden on the passenger and taxpayer alike.

And that question of administration is a clue to what we see as one of neo-liberalism's neglected intellectual and practical roots. For it's a question of administration. If you want to impose all those things that Ministers since the 1980s have called 'markets', you need controls: powers to enforce those structures and concepts that are supposed to be natural, accepted, integral to what it is to be a citizen and a person - but, of course, are actually immediate, contemporary, shifting, historical. But those powers, collected at the centre, often just collapse in on themselves - too variegated, complex and burdensome to be executed by just a single Ministry, however full of clever civil servants it may be. Then Whitehall and Westminster start to clutch at all or any mechanisms that they can to get a hold on what is happening, let alone what could be made to happen. They're multi-layered, variegated, splattered in all directions, often on an ad hoc basis - and usually fail to wrest back control at the centre, rather just blurring the whole situation until it looks like a grey dog in a rainy fog. It's for this reason that political scientists have increasingly spoken of the 'hollow crown' of the Premiership and Cabinet, with all the formal power that comes with the pomp and ceremony of the British state - but with little of its past reach, bite and force, even within the UK's own borders.

Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Act, which fundamentally recast the National Health Service during the last Parliament, is a good case in point. It was supposed to explode the NHS into many Commissioning Groups and 'providers', whether private or public; after a messy and long-winded series of compromises, it actually ended up spinning a spiders' web of regulators, agencies, commissioners, authorities and mechanisms that it is almost incomprehensible even to those who are supposed to understand it. Ministers' recent swaggering behaviour towards Housing Associations, forcing them into a right to buy 'deal' that will basically nationalise them while making it harder for and harder for such associations to break even and build more houses, is another series of egregious errors unfolding in slow motion.

Universities are another good example of what we mean, and of course we here at Public Policy and the Past have close experience here. Ministers have long wanted to impose a hierarchical series of prices on the sector, all the better to signal to parents what is 'best' and most 'admirable' in British Higher Education. They were thwarted in the last Parliament, when almost all universities decided to charge the £9,000 maximum that was supposed to be available to them in 'exceptional' circumstances. So now they're back for a second bite at the cherry, setting up an absurdist and to be honest rather laughable mechanism called the Teaching Excellence Framework. This involves setting up a whole load of metrics, peer reviews and indicators to create four levels of fees - not the last of the increased control-in-depth on which the Government will insist for, well, less and less (and less) money.

It's the process which Andrew Marr tried to sum up, all those years ago back in the 1990s, with his book Ruling Britannia: the apparent retreat of the state, matched only by the rolling forward of every type of unaccountable, uncontrollable quango, 'mission group', 'policy tsar', think tank, 'task force' and third sector contractor (Kids' Company is a good example) that you care to count. The Greater London Council was abolished by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, since it displayed rather too much independence of mind for the Conservatives; it was replaced by a series of borough-by-borough quangos that did the same work, without any of the same tiresome democratic representation. Nationalised industries were sold off, but had to be controlled by new regulators that had more power than the Ministers whose work they had supposedly replaced (since Ministers had often been forced to accept what the boards of publicly-owned corporations had told them). The Scottish and Welsh Offices were enormously powerful in those two countries, ruled even at a time of increased personal 'liberty' by Secretaries of States who had powers akin to Irish Lord Lieutenants in the nineteenth century. And so on.

That's why public services look, structurally at least, something like the production systems of the Perestroika-era Soviet Union: full of 'choice' that isn't really choice, and consumerism within the limits of what government will allow; but also marked by a really chaotic sense that no-one is really in command of the situation. It's the worst of both worlds, and it can't last. One day the NHS deficits that we see piling up will burst their bounds. More than just one or two hospitals might well go into financial administration. One day a really big university will go belly-up, in a welter of recrimination and finger-pointing (not least among its staff). One day a local authority will collapse under the weight of financial stringency on the one hand, and the massive and growing burdens of social care in a rapidly ageing society on the other.

The reason? Something that post-war history and politics could never have prepared us for. Something paradoxical, that's there because of a string of ideological u-turns and z-turns, a series of unplanned and unexpected contradictions, that occurred when central government's plans to construct 'markets' smashed into reality as experienced and governed on the ground, and became quasi-prices, semi-controls and bounded 'choices'. This does seem very strange, though not perhaps new in a world where the state is always compromised and compromising: in which the Conservative Party, supposedly the party of the organic constitution, the smaller state, the market, the businessman and the cautious stewardship of public administration, has engaged on a binge feat of controls, directions, power-grabs and diktats that would make a commissar weep. And all for what? To bring local government to heel, to push the envelope on what is public and what is private, to roll forward the frontiers of the state, and to complicate every line of responsibility of management until it looks like a tin of spaghetti.

Neo-liberalism: the service of those collapsing internal contradictions of markets that have been pushed too far: that never have been, never will be and never can be. A confused, kaleidoscopic and contradictory set of overlapping dilemmas that look nothing like the conspiracy theories of the Left, but nothing out of the fundamentally ahistorical imagination of the Right either. A strangely utopian state of affairs in which frictionless, costless, easy administration guides the people to their choices. The process by which the Conservative Party is eating itself, bit by bit - only matched, and perhaps facilitated, by the Labour Party's even faster, more radical and more obvious process of disintegration. One more game that seems as if it will never end: the chasing of a tail of perfection.

The bottom line? We live in an era clearly characterised by the nationalisation of authority, without raw power itself being available actually to forward the public good. Everyone in Whitehall and Westminster knows this, and experiences it every day. It'd just be nice if Ministers weren't quite so disingenuous about the true nature of their ideas and choices.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

English higher education: another turn of the screw

We're returning this week to the long-vexed subject of English Higher Education, for which we make no apologies, because we've just witnessed the publication of the Government's long-awaited (or feared) Green Paper on the subject. It's got to be tackled as soon as we're able, because it is full of huge changes and even-bigger implications. It's entitled Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, and you can download the whole thing here if you are really so minded.

The plans therein promise yet another upheaval for England's universities - as if they haven't seen enough of that already. Here we'll save you the bother of ploughing through all that dense exposition, announce the headlines, and then try to unpackage just how bad some of the new ideas really are. They're here: universities will be allowed to charge more if they meet certain centrally-determined indicators of teaching 'quality'. There'll be many different levels of fee increases, running perhaps from 2018, and the Government will decide every year what they'll be and how they'll be set. 

Which is about the worst, more depressing sentence we've had to write since, well, 'these student fees won't even pay for themselves', all the way back in 2011, or perhaps 'British politics is now stuck in a permanent winter', back in May, or indeed 'tax credit cuts are a deeply un-Conservative series of punishments meted out to the working poor', which we wrote in July. Maybe someone will listen to us this time, eh? Well, no, probably not, but we might as well go on writing for the sake of it anyway.

This is indeed a depressing turn of events, for we had thought that a little bit of sense and stability had broken out inside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson (above), seemed like a relatively sensible and centrist Conservative; he appeared competent; he didn't seem to have the temperament for yet another revolution, on top of all the others. Universities do need more money. They've had no funding increase for teaching at all for nearly an entire Parliament. Plans emerged over the summer as to how that'd be managed. There'd be some teaching audit - definitely necessary when you're spending public money, even when most of it is lent in the first instance to students - and then, if universities met some fairly clear standards, they'd be allowed to raise fees along with inflation. So far, so straightforward.

But Mr Johnson couldn't resist it. He couldn't keep his hands off the tiller. The desire to tinker, to play around, to impose more targets and limits and numbers and data and signposts and gateposts and hurdles. He just couldn't help himself. He couldn't restrain his officials. He couldn't stop the Treasury pursuing its constant war for control and quantification and datafication. And - in the end - he couldn't un-imagine the total fiction of a utopian world of knowledge... a realm, of course, in which everything is counted, but nothing can actually be valued. So we've ended up in a place - even worse from our public policy viewpoint - where nothing makes sense even in its own terms

Anyway. Deep breaths. What has Mr Johnson actually announced? Instead of one set of fee rises after one type or round of assessment, we're going to get an unspecified number of levels of possible fee rises, permissible via Ministerial fiat when and if (eventually) four different levels of teaching 'quality' are met in a Teaching Excellence Framework. We despair. Some of the metrics used have nothing to do with teaching - the career destination of leavers, say - and many are labeling or badge-wearing exercises to do with how many qualifications staff have, how much is 'spent' per student (try working that one out on a consistent basis), how grades are provided, and so on. And on top? A load of meaningless guff about ‘compelling evidence of excellence’ to get the highest accreditation level. All assessed by expert panels and an independent Office for Students, to be sure, but with the main winners and losers then probably laid out by the Government's own bean-counters in Whitehall, who will then decide how to pay out on the basis of the TEF. Oh, and universities will have to pay for the privilege of buying into this system themselves, rather than having it paid for directly by the Government. It's pathetic. If an undergraduate handed this in, it'd get a low mark indeed.

The main problem here is not so much the marketisation - that pass was sold long ago, and the language of consumerisation and 'choice', encouraging universities to compete for as many students as they want, has been with us for some time. That's not new - and, if you are a free-market Conservative, that might be a way of increases the resources poured into, and the attention focused on, teaching rather than research, administration, engagement and outreach. We're deeply sceptical about these discourses, because if you treat academics who felt - once - as if they had a vocation to enter their profession and push forward their disciplines, and then subject them to the same cut-throat pressures and tiny little time-horizons that they could have worked within without a PhD (and for quite a bit more money), they're not exactly to do their best work. The UK has pretty much the best record for research in the world, on a per capita basis. Students still flock to come here. If you ask us, there isn't all that much that's broken in this picture. Unless, of course, you want to talk about 'freedom' while curtailing just about all of it that you can see.

No, the problem is the complexity - and the deeply un-Conservative idea that how universities behave should be further nationalised until everything looks like an M.C. Escher diagram that no-one can even understand. We're not joking, by the way - take a look at this drawing that attempts to sum up the new structure. Any the wiser? No? Well, to be honest, no-one else really is either - a scary thought if you really stop and think about it for a moment.

We've called this 'perestroika Britain' when we've written about this before: the process by which Ministers want to have their cake and eat it, setting up 'markets' that can only do what they want, taking more and more new powers to ensure that the pseudo-competition and shadow price incentives that they deploy function exactly as expected. They want the 'rigour' that they perceive in the private sector (not that Britain's is particularly rigorous, but still), but dare not suffer the apparent chaos, instability and unpopularity that unleashing actual freedom might involve - including any truly positive freedom, to perform, act, speak and innovate beyond the bounds of any civil servants' hastily-sketched imagination right now. As the bounds of what British Ministers actually control shrink to (basically) England's hospitals, schools and - what's left of - the civic infrastructure, those much-maligned little battalions of the state come in for more and more micro-management. As they do when Ministers bully universities about visa decisions, to take another example. There are many more we could pick. It's almost as if politicians have nothing better to do.

What will three or four layers of assessment and fees actually mean in practice? Well, they'll mean that universities spend an inordinate amount of time gaming out exactly where to put their investment to navigate the hoops they'll be asked to leap through. Tens of thousands of academic hours will be spent pushing a little bit of money here and there. And for what? Well, if inflation is one per cent (far above where it stands today), a Level Four award that might allow a university to charge one per cent more, rather than (say) the 0.75 per cent allowable under a Level Three award. 0.25% of many thousands of £9,000-plus fee bundles could be quite a bit of money - though possibly not worth nearly as much as all the effort and spending put in to get that money in the first place. And if inflation is zero, as it is now? Well, there'd be no point bothering, except to get the prestige that schools want when they can put a banner saying 'OFSTED Excellent' on their playing field railings. Not that that's likely to change the generations of prejudice and social networking that go into defining which are the 'best' universities anyway. While, perhaps, encouraging the process by which everyone starts to forget or ignore what makes a university great in the first place: the fact that it is full of people dedicated, with love, feeling and emotion, to the idea of learning in and of itself. And if inflation suddenly surged upwards? Does anyone seriously think that Ministers would allow five, ten, fifteen, twenty per cent fee rises in one year, as they might have had to do in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? No, of course not.

So what we'll see can be summarised this: huge of time, energy, emotion and bureaucratic paper-shuffling in the pursuit of really quite small amounts of cash. And then, if large amounts of cash do suddenly appear on the horizon, a hastily-assembled series of retreats and limits designed to stem the flow of any money that there might be.

Shorter headline? More complexity, more work, more demands, more bureaucracy. Or we could just put it this way: more laughable absurdity.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

What are the boundaries and limits of Labour's 2020 performance?

You know what we say, when everyone says that this blog is overly gloomy? We say: it's not us, it's the numbers. It's not what we think. It's the reality. And our recent scepticism about the UK Labour Party's electoral prospects is just the same. Take a look at the two charts above (click on them to expand your view): such figures can and should be the first port of call for every historically-informed and data-capable commentator. We've assembled these from Mark Pack's invaluable opinion polls database of all the figures he's been able to get his hands on for the years since 1945. And what they show is not pleasant reading if you think that pluralist, competitive political systems are vital for good governance and a healthy democracy.

Let's start with the first chart. This shows the polling distance that separated Labour from the Conservatives each time the former party found itself in Opposition since 1970, and after six months had in each case passed since the previous election (as it has now). This doesn't actually look all that bad for Labour right now. Sure, they're an average of 6.2 per cent behind when we average out all of October's polls, but they were about the same distance behind late in 1983 too, after Mrs Thatcher's post-Falklands War landslide, and they were an enormous 13.4 per cent back late in 1987, when Thatcher's Conservatives were in the purple of their pomp - enjoying a huge economic boom, and basking in the glory of a third successive victory.

So Labour has been here before. That shouldn't, however, be entirely comforting if you are a Labour supporter, for right now they're registering polling numbers for this stage of Opposition that are worse than all but two periods in our entire recent history. Also, and of course, the party went on to lose the two elections that followed those low scores. Only where they already led by now have Labour, in modern times, ever emerged from a Parliament to win, and they even managed to lose once out of the three occasions on which they were ahead (in 1979, after which they went on to be buried while led by Michael Foot in 1983). Yes, we'll let that sink in for a moment. The fact that Labour is behind is already a red signal that they are probably about to lose again.

It gets worse. Now move on to the second chart. This examines the fall in Labour's rating from this point onwards, on every occasion they've been in Opposition. This picture isn't very pretty either. Only once, in every example we've got to look at, have they moved forward at all from the numbers they were posting six months after a General Election. And that was when they were led by Tony Blair, at the height of his remarkable popularity, and faced by an obviously flagging (and very badly divided) Conservative government that just seemed to be running out of time.

The average fall, from this point to an election four or five years hence? About 6.1 per cent - which would put Labour in 2020 right back on about 25.7 per cent, or 190 seats on the current boundaries of our 650-seat House of Commons, and winning only 170 out of 600 if the Conservatives' boundary and voting reforms go through (you can play around with election simulators such as that built by YouGov's Anthony Wells here). Think we're being too gloomy? Well, we could have included every Parliament since 1970, including those during which Labour were in government, and then the average fall from this equivalent point in time is 8.4 per cent, pushing Labour right down to a 23.4 per cent share of the vote. Then they'd win only about 170 seats on the current boundaries - or an eye-watering, epochal, shattering 145 seats on the new lines. Throughout we've held the Conservatives in our projections at a fairly realistic 40 per cent (a very, well, conservative assumption if Labour does plumb these depths). We could have made some even more fearful assumptions. You get the picture.

Now, we do know that there are all sorts of problems with these numbers. We're comparing apples with pears. Polls have undergone a number of transformations and methodological changes throughout the period under review, not least after the 1992 polling debacle which saw pollsters begin to adjust for a 'spiral of silence' in which 'shy Tories' refuse to admit their real loyalties. A lot of what is apparently a 'fall' in Labour ratings between year one and the final year of each Parliament may well have been polling error, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The polls overstated Labour in 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2015 (though not in 2010). Labour has been historically overestimated, between final polls and General Election results, by about three per cent. So the 'decline' to each result was probably less than it appears. If pollsters have now ceased to overstate Labour (if, for instance, ComRes' new and very tight voter screen is producing the 'right' results), then there'll be less decline running up to 2020. Maybe Labour will hold the line about three points above our historically-based projections here - and secure between 26.4 and 28.7 per cent of the vote. Actually, that looks a bit more realistic, doesn't it? The major problem with that less catastrophic guess, though, is as follows: it still involves wining only something like 170 to 190 seats on the new boundaries.

There are 232 Labour MPs right now. If these numbers are anything like right, somewhere between 42 and 87 of them could be losing their jobs in 2020.

Well, that's it. These are all the indicators we've got. And they say this: if history and data are any guide at all, Labour can hope, at best, only to escape from the next General Election having merely been badly defeated. But if the party is unlucky, or things go very badly for them, at one extreme of established precedent they could be facing a historic rout that will reduce them to being the party only of English and Welsh inner cities and radical university towns. At one end of the data's limits, Labour will have ceased to be a truly national party.

Don't blame us. That's what recent history suggests. This is what the numbers say: cold, clear, inescapable, and there for all to see.