Sunday, 20 December 2015

That's it for 2015!

It's been a long, tiring, draining, surprising and - yes - emotional 2015. Now it's nearly over, we thought we'd pick out three themes that have defined 2015 for us, and which might allow us to sum up everything that we've said over the last year. Let's pick them out from the three areas we've covered the most - Western politics (and specifically European politics) overall, the travails of the UK Labour Party, and the various politically self-interested bodge jobs that the present Conservative administration in London likes to call 'policy'.

The centre is just about holding - for now. Everywhere you look, Europe's political system is being bent and buckled by the challenges of a new and radical populism. At the time of writing, it looks likely like the Left-wing Podemos grouping, and to a lesser extent the more centrist and reformist Citizens' Party, are trampling down the decades-long dominance of the two main parties in Spain. But one of the main two parties - the People's Party, or the Socialists - will still head up the Government in Madrid, posing perhaps insurmountable problems for any junior coalition partner that has to give up the purity of saying for the dirty business of actually doing. Europe's elites are just - just - managing to keep the show on the road. The French National Front may well have attained its highest-ever share of the vote in this year's French regional polls, but the party was stopped in its tracks by more centrist voters of both Left- and Right-wing variants, who objected to the idea of the FN actually running their lives and services. The Danish People's Party may well have come second in Denmark, a country that gives every indication of veering Rightwards very quickly, but more moderate conservatives are still in control. The United Kingdom Independence Party might have got over twelve per cent of the vote in Britain's General Election, but they managed to gain (or hold) on one actual Parliamentary seat. That's where we are now. But can Europe's politicians hold back the insurgencies of Left and Right? Can they get a little bit more economic growth going, push youth unemployment down, get a handle on immigration and the morbid psycho-social fears that seem to grip many electorates? Maybe they can. But time now seems short. The system is being bent, warped and tested. This part of the story is not finished yet.

Britain's Labour Party is in deep, deep trouble. Labour entered this year thinking that it might soon seize power. It leaves 2015 knowing, deep down in everyone's hearts, that it is further from power now than at any time since 1983 - and perhaps even since 1935. It is becoming clearer with each passing day that Labour's new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, probably will last through most of this Parliament, and may well contest the next General Election - meaning that it is likely to be as one-sided as you can possibly imagine. It is very likely that Labour will be not just beaten, but humiliated. And why? Because his enemies within Labour have run out of ideas. Yes, it's fine - and indeed necessary - to talk about 'electability'. But you have to have something else - some slate of ideas, a charismatic leader, some exciting philosophy or concepts. 'New' Labour became exhausted in office (following some of the most far-reaching and Left-wing achievements ever piloted through the House of Commons), and then tainted by the disasters of the Iraq War and its aftermath. Those who like to see themselves as inhabiting or fighting from the 'radical centre' of British politics have never recovered. Every time there is a fight between Mr Corbyn and his MPs, Mr Corbyn will win - because all the new members he has attracted (and all of those more long-standing members who have left) mean that Labour's grassroots are now utterly convinced by his Leftwards tilt. That means almost certain disaster at the ballot box, even if Labour's ratings have not quite collapsed off a cliff just yet. It is rare indeed for any Opposition to be so far behind at this stage in a Parliament; it is even rarer for a new political leader to have no opinion poll bounce whatsoever to talk of (indeed, rather the opposite has been the case for Mr Corbyn). The electorate now need a telescope to see Labour at all, for all the thought they give what used to be a national party that aimed to form a government. It no longer does, and probably will not for some years to come.

British public policy is in some ways even worse. Labour's dire problems mean one thing is very clear: there is now no credible Opposition. This will make the governance of the United Kingdom even worse, but it won't be the main reason why it's so bad. The key explanation for poor policy-making, in those areas where it's poor, is that Ministers are not always or primarily interested in solutions that work. That's a bonus and an aim, of course, but our governors are also interested in destroying the alternatives to continuous Conservative administration. Indeed, it is gradually becoming clear that this may have been the point of 'the cuts' in the first place: to drive Labour's ideological core and supporters so wild with anger and frustration that they retreated into the rageful (but somehow familiar and comforting) white-hot core of their own moral indignation. All the easier, then, to cancel many (though not all) of the cuts and just say 'well, they've done their work now, Labour is basically a laughing stock, so let's lessen the pain'. Cynical - but effective if you understand that some Conservative Ministers are basically nihilists engaged in a long and close-quarters destruction of their enemies. Why else have the Conservatives cut the Short Money that Opposition parties rely on? Brought in Individual Electoral Registration for the new boundaries that will help them anyway? Inaugurated a 'Gagging Bill' to silence charities, and trade union 'reform' that'll cut Labour's funding? For one reason and one reason alone: to make sure that our new-old rulers stay exactly where they are. Labour's done everything it can to help them, of course, but that's their own fault. It's clear to see, meanwhile, exactly those groups who will suffer: everyone who needs social housing, while the Conservatives subvert the Housing Association movement in the name of 'right to buy' schemes that will make these small battalions of laudable charity even less viable; everyone who is going without food because of the Bedroom Tax; everyone who is being cruelly and shabbily sanctioned by benefits officials who have to look over their shoulders all the time; everyone who's young and would like a bit of a chance to educate themselves, rather than a load of broken promises about student loans' interest rates and a definition of 'teaching quality' that is only harmful and painful in its lack of range and ambition. They're all going to get hammered for years to come. That can't be averted now. Sorry, but them's the facts.

Well, before we get too bleak, that's it for now. We'll be back around or about Monday 11 January. On the agenda then? Quite possibly a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the European Union - potentially an epochal struggle which will define what it means to be British for decades to come. An American Presidential election which will almost certainly pit Hillary Clinton against some unfortunate picked from the increasingly-strident, shrill and uncompromising Republican fold. And Mega Thursday, as not too many people are calling it (yet)  - that first Thursday in May date with the electors of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, English local councils, the London Assembly and Mayoralty, Bristol's Mayoralty and Police Commissioners in England and Wales. After that, we'll have a lot more data about the likely popularity (or unpopularity) of Jeremy Corbyn's new-look Labour Party, and the potential lower and upper bands of its performance in the General Election of 2020. Remember: no Opposition has ever come from behind in any of these local and devolved contests and then won a General Election.

Whatever the results, we'll be there - using data, statistics, reason, history and above all transparent, open, falsifiable arguments to try to divine what's really going on. We hope you'll join us.

Until then - Happy Holidays!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The UK is becoming a series of one-party states

As we approach the end of 2015, it's time to look back and take stock of what this year's British politics might mean in the longer term. You don't look to a historian's site on public policy for much else, do you? But we're afraid, naturally and as ever, that we can offer you little Christmas cheer - for Britain's politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year. We are probably in for a long old haul, now, of the Conservatives winning in England (and therefore at Westminster); of the Scottish National Party (SNP) governing in Edinburgh; and of Labour administrations ruling over Wales. Change on any of those fronts appears a long, long way off. Better just to knuckle down and get on with whatever else you're doing, and wait perhaps for the Parliament of 2020-25; or to put your energies into the non-electoral politics - of the environment, devolution, Europe or whatever - that might provide some movement in the years to come.

Why? Because the forces that oppose those outcomes are still weak, and are almost certainly getting weaker. We've long noted that Britain is becoming more and more politically divided, and that whole regions have almost no Labour (or, in fewer cases, Conservative) Members of Parliament at all. Look at the whole of South-West England (above, from the great website UK-Elect), and you'll see just four Labour holdouts against the blue tide - three of them in Bristol, and one in Exeter. Everywhere else, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (and the failure of the United Kingdom Independence Party challenge) has left Conservative MPs sitting on some really, really hefty majorities. It's not often realised, though, on just what a scale this winnowing out has occurred. Remember the Tony Blair Labour landslide of 1997? Well, that involved a swing of about ten per cent from the Conservatives to Labour. If that happened again - even a political earthquake on the same Richter scale as New Labour - and Labour still got nowhere in Scotland, they would take 92 Conservative seats and the Labour benches would add up to 324. But that would give them a working majority of just three. So instead of the Blair landslide majority of 177, they'd be on a knife edge and having to turn to the Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party for help all the time.

That's the scale of Labour's challenge - the size of which far too few people in the party realise, even now, and which will only get worse after boundary reforms conducted on an Individual Voter Registration list. Right now, we reckon that Labour may not win a whole lot more than 130 or 140 seats in England on the 'reformed' boundaries, if they go on as they are. They just seem to have no idea what might be about to hit them.

And take Scotland and Wales. There is absolutely no sign whatsoever that Labour is getting anywhere at all in terms of next May's Scottish Parliamentary election, and there is some speculation (still overheated, in our view) that they may even come third, behind the Conservatives. In Wales, too, Labour may be slipping back on the last Welsh elections results in 2011. Indeed, the latest projections based on the polls would lead us to suspect that Labour will lose many of its representatives in the Scottish Parliament - perhaps all of their constituency members. That'll leave the present Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh even more well-entrenched than ever, commanding an even more impregnable majority. There is unlikely to be any change in Cardiff Bay, either, even if Labour dives down even to 23 or 24 Members of the Assembly (still, it seems, very unlikely). That's because there is very, very little prospect at all of a deal between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, the Conservatives and UKIP to oust Labour (and there might be only one Liberal Democrat left sitting in Cardiff Bay, or even none at all).

Wherever you care to look, the idea of a change of government across Britain is looking more and more remote. Conservative, SNP and (in Wales) Labour governments may be with us for a long time to come.

Now we know that things can change quite quickly. Get a young, good-looking, charismatic leader with a nationally appealing message, and there's no end to what you can do. Ask Justin Trudeau in Canada. These things aren't set in stone. And who could possibly have said, at the opening of the year, that there would be such an enormous SNP landslide in May's General Election? That there would be a Conservative overall majority at Westminster? That Jeremy Corbyn would be elected Leader of the Labour Party? Not us. If pushed to it, we would have said that the SNP would return maybe between thirty and forty of Scotland's MPs, not almost all of them; that the Conservatives would be able to go on governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and that (most probably) a Soft Left figure such as Andy Burnham would be elected to lead Labour were they to be rejected at the ballot box. None of that happened. We were nearer than most, but still not right at the mark. We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence - facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.

Even so, the scale of Labour's likely defeat in England next time (at least, after Oldham West, in all the key marginals that actually decides who governs), the scale and scope of Scottish National dominance in Scotland, bestriding the entire intellectual and moral landscape as they do, and the depth of the political challenges facing Labour's opponents in Wales, mean that we would still advise you not to look for any big upheavals any time soon.

That's bad for pluralism, bad for anyone who wants to see much change in Britain over the next ten to twenty years, but most of all (and worst of all) that's bad for good governance itself - which requires a dynamic, thriving and above all plausible alternative government-in-waiting to be on hand at all times, in case the people decide to throw their governors out. Right now, there's absolutely no sign of that in England, Scotland or Wales. All the peoples of Great Britain are the poorer for it. Think that blunders like the tax credits debacle, the Forth Bridge balls-up and the continuing scandal that is Universal Credit would happen if there was a real game on? Well, they might: but they would occur less often, and probably be less disastrous.

The ultimate irony? It may only be in Northern Ireland, forced by the logic of the peace process and the divisions of the past into compulsory power-sharing, where pluralist politics may still survive - in a land where the Ulster Unionist Party once ruled, pretty much without contest, for decade after decade. That example tells us, once more, that all this will pass. Soon, in historical terms, the warm waters of political change will melt the ice once more. History will flow again. But at the moment - and for some years to come - the efficacy and even to some extent the legitimacy of Britain's electoral party politics may now be in deep trouble, because there's absolutely no alternative to the present dispensation on any horizon at all. Back in May, we declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Oldham West: the reality

Labour's comfortable hold of Oldham West on Thursday was a bit of a surprise to most of the commentariat. Everyone - almost every single person - that had been on the campaign trail thought that the contest would be much tighter than it was. There seemed little risk that Labour would actually lose the seat (except at a few particularly gruesome moments in the campaign): UKIP hadn't carried the Oldham area even at the moment of its greatest success to date, the 2014 European Parliament elections. But many observers did detect a mood of anti-Labour (and especially anti-Jeremy Corbyn) feeling in the area. Enough, perhaps, to cut Labour's majority to a consensus figure of around 1,000-2,000 on a very low turnout. The present writer thought that Labour would hold by 3,000 to 4,000 on a 35% turnout. Reader, we are not perfect. Actually, Labour ended up moving forward a little bit on the May General Election, and ended up with a majority of 11,000 on a 40% turnout (perhaps around 4,500 on the turnout figure we'd imagined). So red faces - or perhaps red rosettes - for the 'experts' again? 

Well, maybe. But that's not a particularly useful way to think of poor observations or forecast misses. In fact, they're great. Because they tell us where we went wrong. They allow us to learn. And to expose our workings, for others to learn. So that we can see more clearly where we've been going wrong elsewhere. If we have.

That's especially so when this contest has been followed by a load of 'reassessments' of Mr Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, which as regular readers will know this blog thinks of as not only wrong in principle, but also a type of uniquely dangerous electoral anthrax of a type that might damage Labour's standing for a decade or more. Apparently things are a lot better than they looked, all of a sudden. So what's really going on? Are there crumbs of comfort here for Labour, even during its present reign as some sort of absurdist advert for hiring more Public Relations people who might actually know what they are doing?

Well, we think that there are three main lessons to take from most commentators' misreading of this by-election, thereby hopefully adding marginally to the slew of post-mortems. The first point to make is that this is quite close to what we should always have expected given present polling and the evidence that's come in from local by-elections. A small-ish United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to Labour swing, in a safe Labour seat, is entirely unsurprising and normal when the polls have seen Labour basically slip back a little bit since May, while evidence mounts all around that they may be doing a little better in their 'heartland' areas - at the same time as UKIP also seem to be pretty much treading water (note that their vote also went up a touch). This is a confirmation of and a proof about the use of opinion polling, not some sort of wake-up call for forecasters. There's nothing here to cut across the picture we see in the national numbers: that Labour is a long way behind the Conservatives, that they are falling ever-further behind, and that they are now about eight or nine percentage points or so shy of their position relative to their main opponents at the same time in the last Parliament. It's a grim picture if you're on the British Left. If repeated in any linear way, by the way, that decline could see Labour down in the low twenties as a 2020 share of the vote, and returning only about 130 or 140 MPs in a post-boundary reforms 600-seat House of Commons. So there's that.

The second thing Oldham West tells us is that not everyone is obsessed with what goes on at Westminster, and indeed this effect may have become more pronounced after the Iraq War and the expenses scandal undermined faith in politicians. How else do the Scottish National Party and UKIP make hay out of the perceived evils of the 'old' parties in London, that host of 'Westmonster' and 'the establishment'? The wise people of Oldham West seem to have been more than impressed with the young, fluent and patently honest Jim McMahon (above), their local candidate who's been busying himself bringing jobs and regeneration to the town. You know, little things like a payslip and a coffee shop. Normal stuff. Stuff that actually matters to real people. Not Jeremy Corbyn, a faraway political figure many Oldham residents professed never to have heard of anyway. Not Hilary's Benn speech in the Syria debate. Not the endless permutations of Shadow Cabinet procedure. Not the fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party basically can't stand the sight of its own leader. No. Voters have come to despise politicians, and Mr McMahon doesn't look or sound like a robot out of central casting. His activists went out and fought for him with a real passion that he was the right man for the job (as he was), and they had a local story to tell. So Labour won. That's not a Left-wing or a Right-wing point. It's just a fact when Britons are so disillusioned with rulers who seem to know nothing at all about everyday life. 

The third and last lesson - and we cannot stress this enough - is not that Labour and its new leader don't have enormous, perhaps insurmountable, problems in trying to communicate with the wider electorate. Every single other data point that we've seen since the summer says something diametrically opposed to this newly-fashionable wisdom of the past 24 hours - and before you say 'well, the opinion polls are always wrong', that includes loads and loads of local by-elections which, although held on low turnouts themselves, have been pretty clear about what's happening. Labour is in a deep hole, and it seems likely to keep on digging. Where there are a high number of Green votes up for grabs, or where there are lots of liberal metropolitan and urban voters, Labour has and will do quite well - especially in London (on this basis, we think Sadiq Khan should just about be favourite for next year's London Mayoralty elections). But everywhere else, they are going backwards. On Thursday night, unheralded amidst the Oldham West drama, they demonstrated once more that they have lost quite a lot of votes since May in Guildford in Surrey, Meole in Shropshire (on their 2013 return), and Belvoir in Lincolnshire, while moving forward in their rock-solid London fortress of Newham. Have a look through yourselves, if you like: pretty much every Thursday night throws up the same pattern. Labour are going backwards, and General Election prediction sites right now think that they'd lose about 20 seats if there was an election tomorrow.

Think of it like this. Drawing a straight line between our polls now and 2020 paints about as dark a picture as any politician could even bear to look at. As does just about all the other data that's come in. But the path downwards for Labour - that gap between their performance now and in 2015, carried forward to the next election - is probably curved, and not linear: that is to say, as you squeeze the Labour vote more and more, resistance to further falls will become fiercer and fiercer as voters cleave to their traditional 'Labour' identity. So although they might get only 23% if the polls move as they did in the last Parliament, that won't happen. In places such as Oldham, where many people for generations have been Labour rather than voting Labour, many people will stick with the party through thick and thin. In that situation, UKIP's appallingly amateurish and (let's face it) quite nasty politics of identity will not get them as far in Northern England as the Conservatives' more emollient message will get them in the target-rich English Midlands. That's an especially strong finding since it seems that voters shy away from UKIP the more they close in on winning a seat: voters don't like the idea of being represented by people they perceive to be a bunch of extremists. What a surprise. Oldham West has begun to put a floor under our perceptions of Labour's retreat in its northern fastnesses: UKIP are probably not going to take lots of Labour seats in a sudden SNP-style onslaught. They might pick off a few, but that may well now be the limit of their advance. UKIP will harm Labour in Labour-Conservative marginals by peeling away some of Labour's natural support. But 'breaking through' themselves? It seems less likely now. By getting it a bit wrong in Oldham West, that's what we've learned. That's what we can take away. Labour still has life in it, whatever ludicrous trap its leadership next falls into or however much its MPs row - with each other.

But nor was the result particularly encouraging when we look at the annals of by-elections gone by. Let's give you some historical numbers here, since that what we're really for. Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith met the voters for the first time in the Uxbridge and Ipswich by-elections of 1997 and 2001. In Uxbridge, in a seat the Conservatives already held with a large majority, they moved foward quite a lot, by... well, 7.6 per cent actually, an uncannily similar figure to Labour's 7.3 per cent upwards push in Oldham. There was a more-than-respectable 5.1 per cent swing to Mr Hague's party, during Tony Blair's electoral honeymoon, in an area where they must have thought they'd already maxed out their vote. In Ipswich, although the Conservative vote went down, Labour's fell further as the Liberal Democrats' rose, and there was a modest three per cent swing to the Conservatives - slightly larger, in fact, than the swing to Labour on Thursday night in Oldham. You don't need us to tell you the rest of the story: Mr Hague went on to be humiliated in the General Election of 2001, while Mr Duncan Smith was such a poor leader that the Conservatives turned in desperation to Michael Howard to reverse their members' choice. Michael. Howard. These two leaders' first by-election tests had demonstrated nothing at all about the disastrous lurch away from the electorate that their party was indulging in at the time.

Oldham West was such a good result for Labour, though an imperfect omen, because it showed that their machine can still get the vote out, and it took some (though only some) of the sting out of the 'Corbyn is toxic' argument. Note, however, that this was an example of the whole party as it is now constituted hanging together, with Labour's Right and Centre flooding in to help Mr McMahon - a notable ally of theirs, and a likely future Shadow Cabinet Minister or even leader - alongside Leftist types from Mr Corbyn's Momentum 'movement'. Everyone in Labour had something to gain here: the Right and Centre a new banner-bearer, and the Left a chance to take some of the heat off Mr Corbyn. Think that Labour will play nicely like this again, in different circumstances? If you do, you're a kinder person than most politicians, though maybe not most activists.

Let's take you back to Public Policy and the Past in 2011, and our comments on the Barnsley Central by-election. Then, as now, an unconvincing Labour leader met an electorate who seemed less than convinced about his credentials, and then as now UKIP tried to dent Labour's traditional hold on the town. The result was the same: a comfortable Labour hold. But our caution then proved prophetic, building up we hope some sort of capital for what we're saying now:
Labour will hardly be punching the air this morning. In a solid working class northern town, they beat a neo-liberal government cutting services on a low turnout. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In fact, the danger for Labour is that they retreat further into the comfort zone that the election of Ed Milliband as their leader perhaps suggested. Everything we know about the polling suggests that Labour's lead is rather small, reactive and soft - that it is made up of people defecting from the Lib Dems, yes, but also from 'don't know' or 'don't usually vote'. Unless Labour's really careful, all that will melt away again if and when the economy recovers... There is absolutely no doubt that the public want the deficit addressed, and that, rightly or wrongly, they think the last government overspent and overborrowed. Labour has to change that perception, or more likely, change the question and the subject. By-elections don't force you to do that. General elections do. So what does Barnsley tell us? Not much.
Replace the word 'Barnsley' with 'Oldham', and 'Ed Miliband' with 'Jeremy Corbyn', and everything we said then still holds pretty well today. Except that Ed Miliband did better than Mr Corbyn in his first few by-elections in charge - an early sign of progress that later turned very, very sour. The words 'Labour lead' are a bit of a period piece, though, and at the moment we're unlikely to see them written down anywhere for quite a while.

Our three takeaways from Oldham West? One: the national polling, when looked at in conjunction with local councils results, might now be giving us a fairly accurate picture of the situation. Two: Labour won here with a really good candidate, and by flooding the constituency with activists from all wings of the party who could get Labour's vote out - something that they are likely to be unable, or unwilling, to do in the nationwide elections of next May. Or in a General Election.

And third? This by-election may take the heat off Mr Corbyn for a while, but in and of itself - and beyond confirming some of our overall numbers - it tells us about the sum total of zero about the great contests to come. Oldham West indicates to us that Labour isn't going to entirely evaporate: their retreat will be fought all the way. The downward curve of the party's steep helter-skelter may become more kindly as its nears its bottom. Labour is fighting a kind of political Battle of El Alamein: a fading empire with enough strength remaining to ward off attacks on its rivals' flanks, but no longer possessing the power to go on the offensive.

We leave you with this thought. Are by-elections good indicators of the national future? Well, if you want to really know, you can ask Prime Ministers Hague, Duncan Smith and Miliband.