Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #1: you can't have your cake and eat it

So it's time, now, to turn to the question that will dominate British public life for the next twelve weeks or so: should this country leave the European Union?

The answer is simple: no. And for the next three months we're going to be looking, semi-regularly, at the reasons why that is such a bad idea. A catastrophic idea, in fact - a concept so harmful and so fallacious that it amounts to voting to chop off your own arm. With a spoon.

The first, and perhaps most important, reason is this: you can't have your cake and eat it. Now, we know that the utter fraud and mendacious self-publicist that is 'Boris Johnson' has said that you can even while remaining in the EU, and he was certainly in favour of just that having and eating until a few weeks ago. But you can't if you leave. You can't. What do mean by this? Again, simple: you can't have all the advantages of being in the EU without being a member. You can't be in the Single Market without paying for it, voting for it, fighting for it, agreeing to its rules, accepting its disciplines. You might just as well pitch up at a party empty-handed, drink all the booze, refuse to make a contribution, and then cut up rough about being asked to leave. Never. Going. To. Happen.

We know this, because what the British have always wanted is a free trade area without a Common External Tariff (we'll get to the technicalities in a minute) - a 'hard core' of the EU's full members, surrounded by a 'soft' outer core of associates who are perhaps not so keen on the Ever Closer Union so memorably evoked by the EU's founding treaties. That's why we've been down all these byways so many times before. That's why UK Ministers tried to build a wide free trade area around the emergent EEC in 1956-59, in the UK's so-called 'Plan G' that eventually turned into the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). The reaction? France and West Germany blocked the idea, for the exact reason that Britain will never get Single Market access from the outside: that it would punch a massive hole in the Single Market's protective tax-and-duty rules on behalf of a outward-looking and open trading nation, thus negating the whole point of building a Single Market in the first place. If everything that Britain bought and sold in the world could then just pour in and out of the EU itself, the very idea of a Single Market operating under one set of rules would turn to dust.

Let's turn to theory. A Single Market is not just a free trade area. It is a market of rules - rules on (say) product safety and testing, labeling, the language of commercial guidance and rules, on hiring and firing, outsourcing and contracting, financial transfers and the treatment of agricultural livestock, vehicle emissions and energy use... One could go on forever, which is why many EU rules do seem to. The UK has until now accepted these, especially in the Single European Act that Mrs Thatcher accepted in 1986, because it is by far and away the power that gets the most out of all this. Because it exports a great deal of services, and partly people (including expert people), the large corpus of already-existing European rules vastly reduce the non-tariff barriers to trade that could be raised to UK goods if we were not in the EU.

And don't give us all that stuff about World Trade Organisation rules forbidding new tariffs. They don't apply to services, for a start - a relatively small (but still very important) part of our export sector. Don't raise with us all that nonsense about how the EU relies on the UK as its biggest market and will have to do a really good deal with us if we do leave. Yes, the UK is its biggest single market, but in an entirely asymmetric manner: put simply, the share of UK trade with the remaining EU countries taken individually is far, far higher than theirs with the UK. Any trade deal with the EU if we left, and did not then just apply to semi-remain on an EFTA-style basis, would be a tough, tough old slog for just this reason. It's clear: we need them much more than they need us. French farmers and Frankfurt bankers would have absolutely no incentive to help us: indeed, as their lowest-cost and most skilful competitors, Britain's employers would risk being shut out of the markets that matter the most. All that guff that Boris began his Brexit 'campaign' with, about how we could emulate Canada and do our own deal with Europe? He's just dropped it all, having a little bit of a giggle about it on the way, because it would take many years (like Canada's deal) and - again - wouldn't cover services. Our experience in the late 1950s, which prompted the UK after all to try to enter the then-EEC, shows us that a total go-it-alone is exactly where this would land us: on the outside looking in. What a truly distasteful fake he really is.

By far the most likely outcome of a Brexit would be Britain continuing as a member of the European Economic Area - EFTA's successor organisation. If we left entirely and tried to negotiate a free trade deal, after the two years it would take to expel the UK under Article 50 of the Nice Treaty we'd face many years trying to bargain down the four per cent or so tariffs we might expect on our physical manufactured goods, let alone all those non-tariff barriers to trade that could go up: all a very difficult ask given that defence of the Common External Tariff and the Single Market is the sine qua non of 'Europe' existing at all. Nor should anyone be confident that, given the complexities, Whitehall and Westminster would even be capable of coming out - especially as they struggled with the Prime Minister's likely resignation, a new-old government, a likely sharp recession, a possible snap General Election and the build-up to a second Scottish independence referendum.

So we'd almost certainly be left going for the deal Norway has, in which they have to accept the majority of EU rules and have to pay over 80% of the requisite budget contributions, but have absolutely no say whatsoever over those rules. Or the Swiss deal, which sees them paying about 40% per person of what the UK pays in, but doesn't give them any services access to the Single Market at all. Oh, and it would still very likely involve the free movement of EU citizens to work and live in the UK: Norway, for instance, is even an 'associated' member of the Schengen free movement area (as the UK is not, and will never have to be - unless we open up everything to yet another 'renegotiation'). Anyone here want to pay billions to have no seat at the table, and have a load of rules that are against the UK's interests imposed on us? No? Thought not. Even on this least disruptive and best-case scenario, the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance reckons that the effects of trade diversion would be such that every single household in the land would be £850 a year worse off in the early years of a Brexit.

So: vote for Brexit, if you wish. But you will be choosing to make everyone in the UK significantly poorer, with less say over our economic future than we have now. You will be voting for not having your cake, and not being able to eat it. That's not a prospectus we can back. Neither should you.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

What on earth is happening to John McDonnell?

Politics is dizzying sometimes. Let's leave aside for a moment the Great Implosion of Chancellor George Osborne's latest Budget, which would be darkly funny if it were not so serious. We'll get to that. Let's look across the aisle to those who are opposing him. No sooner have you got used to the fact that a man who cites Lenin and Trotsky as his greatest inspirations is actually the Shadow Chancellor - is actually the Shadow Chancellor! - than he surprises you with a load of counter-intuitive statements. John McDonnell's speech on Labour's 'new' fiscal rules (above) looks, on the surface, like just such a moment: the exact second when the penny dropped, with Labour MPs no less than everyone else, that their new masters were rather like the old ones. Only with berets and megaphones.

This because Mr McDonnell's speech, on the surface, appeared to say that Labour was moving back to Gordon Brown's policies, of only borrowing to spend on capital infrastructure projects, and even to the Coalition's budget target of achieving the current spending balance involved in such a pledge over the Parliament. One was tempted to ask: what on earth was all the fuss about? All that stuff about 'austerity lite', 'Red Tories', 'taking the party back to its roots', even 'principle before power'? All just junked - for what? To convince swing voters and the City? We genuinely and deeply doubt that they will be impressed by Mr McDonnell, whatever he says, but it's incumbent on us to take a proper look at all this. Because, beneath the surface, there may well be interesting things going on here.

Start with this: some of the other parts of Labour's rules announced by Mr McDonnell are far superior to the 'fiscal mandate' that the present Chancellor, George Osborne, has set himself. Mr Osborne has boxed himself into reducing the deficit's share of GDP every single year, as well as running an absolute surplus (including capital) by 2019/20. Sorry, but these are utterly inflexible and unrealistic rules that don't bear any relation to the facts as they are. The United Kingdom is an open, liberal, service-orientated economy that is highly susceptible to changes in the world economy. Lay down rules as rigid as this, and eventually you're going to get a shock when things change very quickly. Then you'll have to break all your rules, gradually degrading the good name of HM Treasury and Her Majesty's Government as you do so. 

Last week's Budget saw Chancellor Osborne many billions of pounds down even on where he was last November, having to make this up with some more tax rises and spending cuts. Many of the tax rises' yields looked optimistic indeed; the budgetary path went back to looking like a completely unrealistic hockey stick, akin to the rhetorical ingenuity the Treasury demonstrated before Autumn Statement windfalls seemed to solve a lot of their problems at the back end of 2015: the overall budget goes zooming on up into surplus at the end of the Parliament. It's not going to happen. It won't happen. He'll just defer the whole thing. Again. It's an example of where you get to if you write a load of rules that are just far, far too tight for reality. 

And that's where Labour come in, saying that the deficit doesn't have to fall every year, only by the end of the Parliament, and that the zero point isn't all spending, but day-to-day outlays. It's a sensible, pragmatic, workaday solution to many of our problems, and it's got a longstanding and impeccable Keynesian rationale behind it. As the world economy turns down, Mr Osborne is taking more demand out of the system. That never ends well. It unites Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Chancellor in a way that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were never at one during the last Parliament. It will allow Labour in power (stop sniggering at the back there) to spend many billions more on investment, at a time of historically low interest rates, in a country that is crying out for better transport, more homes and new energy sources. It's a winner.

There is, alas, a flaw. And it's this: no-one will ever believe a single word Mr McDonnell ever says about policy. Not just because he is extremely selective in what he chooses to remember from history (a theme we will return to in subsequent blogs), though that's an important point. Nor is the main problem his absurd and bathetic wielding of the Little Red Book in the Chamber of the House of Commons, damaging as that was. That was just a symbol of his wider problem. But because it is now an ingrained and unimpeachable truth in the public imagination that Labour in power spent too much, borrowed too much and wasted too much. All quite untrue, of course: but any efforts to convince electors to the contrary were lost long ago, in the summer of 2010. There's no point raking back over the coals. 

Voters think, instinctively, that positives must beget positives: in this instance, that 'paying back the debt' must lead to growth. Not necessarily true when you're leaning into a macroeconomic headwind, but there you are. If they're to do anything about this, Labour probably has to wait until the Conservatives' own reputation for economic competence is shredded, as during the 1992 European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle; just telling voters that they will spend and borrow more, however correct, is unlikely to get them very far. 

The interesting-but-academic underpinning of some of Mr McDonnell's more speculative punts makes this problem worse. The actual text of his speech is slightly opaque on many of the more interesting theoretical and administrative elements involved, but we've been briefed that he will declare himself free of these rules if the Bank of England declares that it would cut interest rates to deal with weak growth, but cannot go further given how low they are already. This instead of waiting for growth to fall below one per cent, as in Mr Osborne's plans. At the moment, Mr McDonnell's trigger for his rules' suspension would indeed likely come before Mr Osborne's, given how low rates are: but if rates do rise at some point in this Parliament and the next (some way away yet), he may find that his rule is much more 'iron' and restrictive than those adopted by the Conservatives. Not only that, but Labour's 2015 Manifesto, so derided by Mr McDonnell's Twitter army of clicktivists for its 'Tory' leanings, was much less disciplined about public spending, only announcing there would get to a surplus on the current budget 'as soon as possible'.

The doorstep-unfriendly ideas in the background are another drawback. One of Mr McDonnell's representatives on earth, the economics journalist Paul Mason, has long been a great defender of Labour's new radical leaders. In recent times some of his writings seem to have become fantastically detached from reality altogether. But in defence of this particular speech, and on a subject where he does wield some expertise, he has summoned up some frankly hard-to-credit (or understand) rhetoric about times when 'fiscal and monetary policy become fused'. Sorry, but I thought that the Treasury had always understood that the two bleed into one another, and there are piles of files in the National Archives going back to the first creation of national accounts in the 1940s, through the Radcliffe Commission on the Working of the Monetary System and then on to the secondary banking crisis of the 1970s that prove just that. Mason also argues that, if Labour's extra investment raises the country's measured growth rate via tweaks to our methodology, apparently through the Keynesian multiplier effect rather than just increased efficiency, that will give the Chancellor more to spend on the current side. True: but given the rather small amount of government infrastructure spending when measured against the whole economy, not to say its complex and slow-to-mobilise nature, we doubt that'll make much difference in the near term and before the end of a future 2020-25 Parliament.

Dear Corbynites: it seems that you've been had, and for little productive reason. Because Mr McDonnell has spent a lifetime saying one thing, and now he says quite another (with some fiddly economics ornaments attached). The government and the Chancellor are very unpopular: only 21% of voters think that Mr Osborne would make 'the best Chancellor'. The Budget numbers look even worse than that. But the number for Mr McDonnell? A pitiful 11%. Eleven. Per. Cent.

The reason that politicians now pre-announce rules and regulations is that not many people trust them. 'Fiscal locks', along with all the other tiresome language of precommitment, are designed to stop politicians reneging on their promises. The obfuscatory nature of the theories that Mr McDonnell evokes but does not name, the press conference questions that he invites but will not take, and the sheer fact that he is after all John McDonnell makes these new rules an exercise in futility. That's a pity, because there's something that's at one and the same time sensible and intriguing trying to get out here. It's failing.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A hundred years of Harold Wilson

Last Friday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Harold Wilson (above), Britain's Labour Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970, and then again between 1974 and 1976. Such a date provides us with an opportunity to take stock, to look back and to ask: what did Wilson's Labour achieve, how did it do it, and what might we learn from Mr Wilson today?

The first thing to say is that his stock has been rising for two decades, ever since the 1992 publication of Ben Pimlott's magisterial and empathetic biography of the four-times Labour election winner. By taking a much more detailed look at his life and premierships, Pimlott was able to show that there was a consistent thread running through his life: holding the Labour Party together, and trying to hold the country together, often in tough times. Those are not low, indecent or pragmatic aims: they are at the heart of what it means to be a party leader in an adversarial system, and to try to get things done in a country that is often extremely conservative (with a small 'c'). If you have no tactical nous, no strategy to rout the other side, no commitment to the organisation and structures of your political tribe, what are you doing in politics in the first place?

But Harold's rising reputation owes more to just different ways of seeing the man. An important 1991 essay in the London Review of Books, by Oxford historian Ross McKibbin, gives us rather more perspective on the question. McKibbin here put forward two intertwined arguments that are often lost amidst the largely inaccurate folk memory of 'industrial chaos' and 'Winter of Discontent' with which even we professional historians cannot help conceptualising the end of the 1970s. The first point is that subsequent governments have helped to trash Britain's industrial base, balanced growth among her regions and nations, investment, training, overall social harmony and indeed the UK's good name in the world, But the more significant fact presented by McKibbin is that Britain's economy did pretty well in this period. Her productivity gains and her overall economic growth rate reached peaks in the 1960s that they were never to touch again; indeed, that last indicator in particular has looked pretty weak from almost exactly the day on which Harold left office.

So the last few years have burnished Harold's reputation. There were a number of reasons why his name fell so far into disrepute, so quickly, but most of them have inevitably faded with time, leaving a more substantial legislative and intellectual record than was clear during the 1960s and 1970s. By nature he sought a middle way, and he was as boxed in as any other leader. He refused to help the Americans in their ruinous war in Vietnam, despite a great deal of pressure being put on him to do so late in 1964; but he needed American financial support to support a very vulnerable pound. So he refrained from criticising US policy until 1966. But in the end his government was forced off the fixed dollar parity of sterling it had sworn to defend anyway, and had to renounce the effective end of Britain's worldwide defence and security policy anyway. So radical policies that would have been seen as enormously dangerous and Left-wing in 1964, and would have seen Harold lionised among the intelligentsia and on campuses across the land, were brought in through necessity anyway. It Harold Wilson's bad luck that he tried to compromise between traditional policies and more radical departures, and often ended up garnering popularity from supporters of neither.

All of it took a big toll on a man who thought it his duty to see much of the key paperwork himself. He ended up looking exhausted, quitting long before he had to and basically just saying 'I've had enough'. He used more diplomatic words, to the effect that he didn't want to rule out solutions he may have rejected in previous situations, when things may have been different. But that's what he meant.

Mr Wilson was often portrayed as a bit of a trickster, a twister, a tactician to whom the game was everything, and the principles of socialism perhaps much less. Of course, in these present days when everyone to the Right of Trotsky is apparently a 'Red Tory', he looks to many on the Left as if he was just another managerialist technocrat, bent on preserving capitalism by throwing a few bones to Britain's reformist but ultimately timid liberals. This is certainly the line that many took at the time, including that great campaigning Left-wing journalist Paul Foot. And then there were the endless compromises, inevitable in any long career of course, but apparently particularly so in Harold's. He was the Left-winger who resigned with Aneurin Bevan over National Health Service prescription charges, who then drifted to the Right when it seemed to suit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Here was the man who originally ran on a platform that was very sceptical about Britain's nuclear weapons, who then made sure that she kept them; here was the politician who challenged his own leader (Hugh Gaitskell) in 1960, ostensibly to defend the rights of Labour's Conference, but in the minds of many of his colleagues to put his own name up in lights. One could go on.

We're tempted to say: so what? Not only is it necessary and proper to change, tack, zig-zag and obfuscate in the face of change, but it may in fact be a moral endeavour to take those choices on one's self as the leader, rather than engaging in the eternal (but barren) purity of Opposition. Deciding is better than posing: governing more a matter of conscience than refusing to get one's own hands dirty on behalf of other people. Who would it serve to plough on regardless, unchanging, uncomprehending, unyielding? Certainly not Labour voters, who need a Labour government most of all - and who always preserved rather more affection for the man from Huddersfield than many of his more immediate colleagues.

Whose principles do not change over nearly four decades in public life, in any case? The challenges facing the Attlee administration, in which Mr Wilson served as President of the Board of Trade, were nothing like those at the end of his long time in Whitehall and Westminster: the decontrols he brought forward in the late 1940s, as the economy shifted from wartime rationing towards production for peace, might be just as justified as those building and land controls he brought in during the late 1960s, a time of incipient inflation and speculation. Harold was prepared to get up every day, roll up his sleeves and wrestle in the mud to push back evil by degrees - week after week, month after month, year after year winning political and ideological ground from which he could make the world a little bit more fair, more just and more equal. Few could have battled harder towards those ends.

What was in fact most remarkable about Harold Wilson was his sheer political virtuosity, the skill of a man who could be a Harold for any hour, a Mr Wilson for any occasion. There was Doctor Wilson, the family's trusted general practitioner; Uncle Harold, the friendly confidante; Inspiring Harold, calling us to embrace the 'white heat of the technological revolution'; Negotiator Harold, who thought that he could talk anyone round to anything (which, alas, in Northern Ireland he could not); Party Rulebook Harold, who thought and fought his way through Labour Conference time after time to keep the party headed towards power; and finally Gannex mac-and-pipe Harold, a man so thoroughly normal, so workaday, so through-and-through, well, British, that you identified with him, you liked him, you admired him and you would vote for him. Labour was lucky to have him. So was Britain - a land amassed with political unreason, now, but then led by an ex-academic who believed in reasoning, cajoling, thinking, speaking, convincing, befriending, and who was without the messianic fervour that we are now supposed to want from our aspiring Prime Ministers. Well, the Wilson version was better.

In the end, Harold knew which way the wind was blowing. He was ahead of his time. He knew that telecommunications and computerisation were about to reforge the world of work. He understood that the trade unions would have to brought within the frame of the law, even if his In Place of Strife proposals hit the buffers of trade union conservatism in the late 1960s. He saw the danger of social disintegration and inequality in an age of inflation. He moved to recognise, seize on and reshape all those trends, through a new Ministry of Technology, via new arbitration arrangements and productivity agreements, by increasing pensions and boosting low wages in his social contract with the unions. Many of these initiatives were in the end found wanting. But the alternative? Just giving up on comprehensive solutions, abandoning any attempt to square the circles of globalisation, price rises, labour discontent and efficiency? Just sweeping away many of the industries Mr Wilson was labouring to save as a 'solution' that basically any old Chancellor could have settled for? That didn't always work out very well in the 1980s, either.

Harold Wilson passed the first legislation to outlaw racial discrimination. He passed equal pay for women. He vastly increased the education budget, so that for the first time it overtook defence spending. There were massive pushes on council housing, road building, new universities. There was the Open University, Harold's own pet project and a life-changing higher education revolution for those who wanted to better themselves. The iniquitous 11+ exam that condemned so many to the inferior education of the Secondary Modern schools was abolished. The Wilson years saw the shadow of the death penalty lifted, and abortion law reformed. He set up the Department of the Environment and the standing Royal Commission on the Environment, recognising public concern and pressing need on that front. He kept the UK out of the war in Vietnam. He made the second and near-decisive push towards Europe, a bid never taken off the table, and then his negotiating skills and cunning kept us in when the Labour Left might have dragged us out. Pensions rose. Wages rose. Productivity rose; unemployment remained fairly low, by subsequent standards; growth stayed strong.

All of which means one thing: we owe Mr Wilson. We owe him a lot. Happy birthday, Harold.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

So just how left wing are Labour's members?

All the recent stories about Labour's new and expanded membership would have you believe that many Labourites are a load of far left entryists bent, at all costs, on shoving their party decisively away from the centre ground of politics - and towards widespread renationalisation, pacifism, neutralism and high taxes. If you listened to some people, the party is at risk of being taken over by highly organised extremists from the grassroots movement Momentum.

Well, allow us to be a bit sceptical for a moment, but that's completely unproven. Sure, many of them have voted for a very left-wing leader in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn (whose real views on a lots of issues would appall many of those who back him, were his straightforward and uncluttered opposition to the present government's policies of austerity not seen to trump any other considerations at the moment). And no doubt they are a special breed overall - for who really joins political parties in the first place? The recent flowering of passionate activism around Mr Corbyn is undeniable, if apparently limited to people who leant towards a socialistic outlook in the first place. He can bring out huge crowds on dark March evenings. He can make people break down in tears as they describe how he's their only hope to remake society on truly fair and equitable grounds. All the while sinking further and further in every opinion poll, to levels of favourability (or, let's face it, unfavourability) among the general public last seen when Michael Foot led the Labour Party. It's not an unusual dichotomy, though it is more than usually well developed in this case: citizens likely to join political parties - and still more those likely to organise and campaign on behalf of their favoured political grouping - are by definition very different from the background population.

But what we need here are comparators - ways of seeing Labour members' views in context and as against other views. Luckily, we have a lot of data on this - in part because we have a recent in-depth poll of Labour members and supporters commissioned by Ian Warren, recently one of Labour's data gurus but now busy acting as a sort of independent source of polling wisdom, helping all of us other researchers out with very kind data dumps covering British politics. And we also have previous academic studies of what Labour members used to think in the early 1990s and 2000s, in the shape of two excellent academic tomes on just this subject: Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley's Labour's Grass Roots: The Politics of Party Membership (1992), which surveyed members in 1989-90, and the same authors' New Labour's Grassroots: The Transformation of the Labour Party Membership (2002), which looked again at Labour supporters in 1997 and 1999. We can use the evidence there as a cross-check against what we see now - and compare Labour people's views then and now.

Let's have a look at some of that evidence from the Corbyn party. 68% don't agree with renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system (opens as PDF), while in the late 1990s that figure was 'only' 44% (at that point 45% of Labour's members agreed with keeping Trident, so the party was pretty evenly split). But in the 1990 data we can see that 72% of Labour people thought that 'Britain should have nothing to do with nuclear weapons' - a very, very similar number to that we see now, and in fact as you can see even a little bit lower. So on this measure, Labour have really just gone back to the relatively unilateralist views of the last days of Neil Kinnock as leader (above), at a point when he had only recently abandoned his own commitment to scrapping Britain's nuclear forces.

Take another example - the restrictive trade union laws that the Conservatives introduced while in office during the 1980s, and which New Labour in power only in part repealed. Labour members are way out of line with public opinion on this one, as you can see from that link above: 64% of them think that the trade unions should have more influence on British national life than they do today, as against 'only' 41% of Labour voters, and a much smaller 23% of all British voters. But when we look back at the situation in 1997, at the height of New Labour's electoral success, and on a rather different question, 74% of Labour members thought that there should be no more anti-trade union laws: a much lower 49% of voters thought the same. That's a narrower gap between the people and Labour supporters, but the gulf was already there. 74% of Labour's 1990 members disagreed with the proposition that 'it is better for Britain when trade unions have little power'. In 1999 that number was exactly the same - confirmation, albeit on a different question, that Labour people were always (as one would expect) much more sympathetic to the trade unions than most other people in the country.

Or how about this one? Only 23% of Labour's 2016 members and supporters agree with the statement that 'it is possible to achieve better public services such as health, education and the police by running them more efficiently, without spending more on them'. Again, they're way of out line with the voters - 57% of whom are happy to concur with this proposition. But if we scroll back to 1990, though again utilising a different question, 73% of that sample disagreed with cutting public spending, a figure that had admittedly dropped to 65% by 1997. We're not convinced that the more recent numbers represent a convulsion. The general public may have shifted rightwards a tiny bit on some issues, and Labour has certainly moved left since most of its members voted for David Miliband as leader in 2010. However, some more details found in Mr Warren's polling (opens as PDF) - that Mr Corbyn would be much less popular if he started to lose elections, and that his left-wing ally John McDonnell does not enjoy the same level of support - should give us pause before we conceptualise Labour as already that new ally of Syriza, Podemos and Die Linke that some around the leader want to build

This stuff matters. Labour members are very left-wing compared with the general public, on a whole host of issues. These numbers from YouGov and Ian Warren display that more than clearly. But actually, in some ways they're not as far away from the general public as many Conservative members - given their level of concern for the standard maintained by what's left of the welfare state, for instance, or their lack of obsession over the minutiae of the powers and competencies enjoyed by the European Union. 70 per cent of the Conservative Party's members have a positive view of Michael Gove - a figure way, way above that of the general public, as even Mr Gove himself would be the first to admit. They're not like your typical Briton. We knew that. What matters is the extent of their change, and the scale of their differences with the average voter.

Labour members are quite a lot more left-wing than they were in the 1990s. That should come as little surprise, actually, because there's little controversy over the fact that many of the incomers are actually older returning members - 'retreads', in Peter Mandelson's rather sniffy and unwise description of them - who are now coming back after a decade or two of sitting on their hands, furious over Labour's lack of socialist commitment, its multilateralism, its turn away from a planned economy, or perhaps the second Iraq War. But when we quantify that, using our history? They're perhaps not a million miles away from where they started on this great circular march, all those years ago in the late 1980s. Which tells us one more thing: they can walk themselves back towards the centre ground. And one day, they will.