Monday, 31 October 2016

British lessons for the American election?

Many British observers looking on at the US Presidential election have started to feel hairs standing up on their necks. A front-runner most people think is now the inevitable winner? An establishment choice that it seems inconceivable won't make it over the line somehow? Polling that mostly points in one direction, but which seems more divided and confused than ever before? No-one who's had to suffer both through the 2015 UK General Election, which so many people thought would bring Labour leader Ed Miliband to power, and the 2016 European referendum, which most voters thought 'Remain' would win, can fail to see the parallels with Britain's recent travails. Liberals, progressives, radicals, internationalists: they all thought that they were at or over the line. They discovered that the country they lived in wasn't quite what they thought it was. Might the same thing happen now, with Hillary Clinton (above) the victim of a similar polling failure?

The parallels actually don't fit very well. There are four reasons why, and each of them is important in giving greater statistical clarity to the present US election, as well as thinking about the British contests just gone. Let's have a look at them, in no particular order:

1. The British polls weren't actually all that wrong. 

Remember that the 2015 General Election looked very tight, giving off a nip-and-tuck, neck-and-neck quality all the way through... If you trusted the polls. That meant that a far-from-massive miss turned a projected Hung Parliament in which Labour might have sought to form a government into a small Conservative majority - a polling miss of about 6.5% if we add up the inaccuracy on the Labour and Conservative scores. Polls got slightly closer in the EU referendum, with statistical averages on the eve of the results registering an exactly-equal deadlock to a Remain lead of four points (Leave, of course, won by 3.8%). In fact, if we just average the last poll from each company in the field, we get a Remain lead of 2.5% - and a total polling error, from polling lead to final numbers, of 6.3%. Note here, though, that UK election polls don't actually have that fantastic a record when compared to their US cousins. British polls usually overstated the government by a long way in the 1980s, and then again under New Labour: there was a five-point overall miss in 2001, for instance. The Americans, as we shall see in a moment, have always done rather better. And they haven't been disgraced in any of the last few contests - even very tight ones such as 2000 and 2004. So we can't even be that confident that our actually rather narrow range of error can be read across to the new contest on the other side of the Atlantic.

Then there are differences in the detail. The Brexit vote continuously threw up a so-called 'mode effect': online polls seemed to show Leave narrowly ahead, while some phone pollsters showed a large Remain lead. There's not such a large difference in the current Presidential election: YouGov's online panel, indeed, is returning a fairly constant four-point lead for the Democrats' candidate, which is right in the average range that we'd expect from all polling. The two cases are very dissimilar, and even a May 2015-style error in the US might not allow Mr Trump to prevail. US pollsters are savvy, experienced and multifarious. At the time of writing, Mrs Clinton leads on average by between three and seven per cent. It will be a large and unusual polling miss - even by British standards - to overwhelm that lead. But beware: that's exactly what we got in 2015 and 2016. And the British polls had been getting more accurate, in 2005 and 2010 not ending up all that far off if we look at the overall average. Then look what happened. The miss can come out of the blue. It could be there, but it will have to be pretty big.

2. The USA just has a lot more, and more accurate, polling. 

It's true that British General Elections bring in a lot of numbers. But American elections throw up a lot more information - many thousands of polls at state as well as national level which just about confirm the national picture we've got of a not-particularly-large, but for now stable, Clinton lead. And it's usually right. Take figures from the venerable Gallup Organisation, which has now stopped horse-race polling after a chastening polling miss in 2012 (the two-party result was a total of five points different from their final poll). If we look back to 1980, their final numbers were never more than 6.8% away from the actual outcome - and were as near as 0.2% in 1984. Polling averages since 1968 have usually predicted the final scores within a range from exact accuracy to a four point miss. In 2012 the polls were on average 3.2% away from the actual election numbers.

We also cannot emphasise enough the sheer amount of lower-level polling conducted among the individual states that make up the US. Yes, polling of individual Westminster seats got a terrible reputation because of their apparent 'miss' in 2015 - but bear in mind that this was an unusual experiment, funded by the Conservative peer and philanthropist Lord Ashcroft, and which usually made its most egregious misses highlighting the wrong question in Liberal Democrat seats - namely, 'would you vote for your local MP', rather than 'would you vote Liberal Democrat'? More general regional polls, for instance of the Liberal Democrats' apparent stronghold in the South-West of England, got things spot on. State polls in the US, on the other hand, are telling us a story that is intuitively understandable: Donald Trump is doing better than Mitt Romney among blue-collar white voters in the Upper Midwest, while Secretary Clinton is doing better than President Obama in the South with Latino voters and college-educated whites who detest Mr Trump's plunge into Know Nothing politics. That doesn't mean the picture's right. But it is an important confirmation of the national numbers from experienced pollsters who've mostly done all this before. We didn't see much of that in Britain.

3. Drawing in new voters probably won't help Donald Trump. 

It's actually a mistake - one which we shared at the time - to think that the British polling misses are to do with 'shy' anyone. In 2015, there was a large framing error which brought too many politically-aware young people into the numbers; in 2016, there was a large turnout of unlikely and unusual voters who thought that at last someone might listen to them about immigration, border control and national sovereignty. So Republicans hoping for a 'shy Trump' effect, under which Americans too embarrassed to tell anyone they are voting Trump nonetheless pull the lever for him in the secrecy of the polling booth, might be waiting a long time for their surprise. Mr Trump didn't manage this in the primary season: indeed, his voters were actually a bit better off than the other Republican candidates' were. He actually underperformed his polls (on average). And there's no evidence at all that he's pulling in new voters or new registrations. Indeed, British readers should in this respect remember that, as we draw more people into the American electorate, it's likely to become more Democratic as poorer voters get pulled into the sample. There's not all that much data to say that such people are more likely to favour Donald Trump.

4. The early vote doesn't look the same. 

It's illegal to snoop around the early postal voting in Britain, and it's still more frowned on to report its content. But there's not much that the election authorities can do - beyond threatening prosecution - to stop albeit-vague news of how it's going leaking out. In 2015, Labour officials knew pretty early on that the swing that they needed wasn't happening. In 2016, Labour MPs in particular - and especially those with seats in the North of England - thought that the contest was over pretty much before it began, as they picked up talk of a huge Leave vote from their constituents that even a last-minute switch back to Remain couldn't make up for. Things in the US right now don't sound anything like that, and in fact those who know think that on balance things look pretty good for Mrs Clinton. They look particularly good in Nevada, not-too-bad in North Carolina (a state without which it will be very, very difficult for Mr Trump to win overall) and close in Florida - though not so hot for the Democrats in Iowa, a state in which Secretary Clinton has struggled all year.

It's not all good news for Mr Trumps's opponents. African-American enthusiasm appears to be down. There's a large and unpredictable rise in unaffiliated, non-partisan early voting in some places, though as these Americans in some key places lean Democratic and are often pretty young, that might just confirm the overall picture. In general, if you'd offered Team Clinton those impressions a few months ago, they would gladly have accepted them. Now it's possible that the unlikely and marginal voters Mr Trump is depending on will turn up in person on the day, but it's not as likely as the 100% certitude that these early Democratic votes have already been banked.

The British and American cases don't look alike, really. The political context is different. The closest parallel we can offer is if the Brexit campaign had been led by Nigel Farage, UKIP's not-very-popular leader, and if Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had stayed loyal to Prime Minister David Cameron and not lent their backing to Leave. Almost certainly, Leave would have lost, tarnished by the United Kingdom Independence Party's perceived extremism and beyond-the-pale dog whistling on immigration. Without Mr Johnson, inexplicably one of the most popular politicians anywhere, and without Mr Gove, the Leavers would have backed both personal appeal and apparent intellectual weight. They would have ended up pretty much where Mr Trump is now - without, perhaps, being weighed down by the fact Mr Trump is for most of the electorate a deeply feared and loathed narcissist, fantasist, sociopath and misogynist.

Even so, the dissimilarity between the British and American cases should certainly not give anyone confidence that Secretary Clinton is sure to win, even if she goes into polling day four or five or so points ahead (given her ongoing email drama, she probably won't anyway). Polling is getting harder. Let's look at a couple of recent examples. Last year's Israeli election was a notable polling miss. The ruling Likud Party was supposed to win a number of Knesset seats in the low 20s. They actually got 30. The rival Zionist Union was thought likely to win a number of seats in the mid-20s, which they just about got to in the end (they won 24): but Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud's leader, had managed to draw in harder-line nationalist voters from other right-wing parties.

Here's another example: the Icelandic election we've just had gave us an 8.6% gross polling miss for the two main parties going into the election. The centre-right Independence Party's last all-pollster average stood at 25.4% going into polling day: they actually got 29% of the vote. The rival Pirate Party had a polling average of 19.5%: they actually got 14.5%, and came third. Now, none of those countries look much like the United States. Israel bans polls for the last five days before an election, which makes it very difficult indeed to pick up any last-minute shift. Iceland is a tiny country going through enormous political changes emanating from its recent crisis. But the lesson is the same: these days, if things look close, you can't definitely trust the polls.

This American election doesn't look all that much like the British General Election of 2015 or the Brexit vote. US polling is more reliable, more resilient, more voluminous. The politics of Clinton-versus-Trump looks very different from the two most recent UK contests. The likely electorate, and the dynamics of change, don't look all that similar. But is there room for a great polling miss? Yes. What we've discussed here is the effect of known unknowns from the recent British past: a framing error (like 2015) and a big expansion of the electorate that helps the more conservative side (like 2016). Neither look vastly likely. There's not that much evidence to say that the two cases are alike. The British experience says that we'll need to be hit by something we haven't yet thought of. But that doesn't mean that Democrats should rest easy, as the Israeli and Icelandic examples demonstrate. The US hasn't seen a polling disaster like that presently needed by Mr Trump since the 1980 Presidential contest between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. But perhaps there's an unknown unknown lurking out there, that we haven't thought of. Or perhaps Mr Trump will just overtake Secretary Clinton in the polls as well as in the actual voting booths. Both possible. American and especially European liberals have long taken a Trump victory to be impossible just because it is rather unlikely - and because they find it impossible to understand many of the moral impulses, and much of the language, of people who like Mr Trump.

So: a Trump Presidency is not impossible. It is, in fact, an entirely credible next step from here. We're within the spectrum of recent international polling error, and within the range of British misses - though in the latter case, only just about. Polling is more difficult than it used to be. Right now the betting markets and Nate Silver's 538 give you roughly a 23-24% chance of a Trump victory. That's about the same likelihood, as you stand with a coin in your hand, of turning up a heads twice in a row. It's not exactly a comforting thought, is it?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Is western-style democracy in trouble?

Democracy doesn't always look all that much fun at the moment, does it? You put up a few mild opinions, you get back some alt-left or alt-right links from The Canary or Breitbart full of plot twists and ways of speaking that you'd never heard before you stumbled into that particular echo chamber. You post a link on Twitter. An anonymous egg of a profile pops up to call you a 'traitor' or a 'disgrace'. It's enough to make most middle-of-the-road citizens, without much to lose from the online shouting match, just give up on the effort to engage altogether.

There's also much worse out there - more structural signs of deep dysfunction that ought to be giving us all even more concern than the social media filtering bubbles to which the symptoms of decline are linked. The amount of rage directed at journalists, either asked to 'name their sources' (when doing just that might endanger sources, or indeed the ability to get a story out at all), or verbally abused, or continuously menaced in some very dark and bleak scenarios indeed. There's the number of people on the Left who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the deeds of the Assad regime and their Russian allies in Aleppo. There's Right-wingers who are happy to use Wikileaks to damage Hilary Clinton's presidential bid in the US, despite the fact that their source is so obviously now an arm of Russian power. All just to prove a point: to win a poisonous game of ins-and-outs, party-versus-party, that matters much less, in the long run, than just holding together as societies and polities.

Western societies are becoming very divided. It would be easy and cheap to say that this is linked to income inequality and increasing economic polarisation, though there's clearly something much more general happening than this. Our splintering - and fury - appear to be affecting countries that indeed have seen a huge recent surge in inequality (the United States), and those that have not, at least since the 1980s (the United Kingdom). Yes, one key to the Brexit vote in the UK was the poor services and bleak economic state of much of non-metropolitan England and Wales. But it wasn't the only reason, as votes from quite wealthy areas which nonetheless feel culturally alienated from metropolitan internationalism (North Surrey, Kent) demonstrate all too well.

It's partly the flows of hate that can coarse through the body politic via Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, 'I read it on Facebook' might one day be seen as the five words that became the epitaph of civilised, reasoned argument. All that allows stories that might not be quite what they seem to take wing very quickly. It allows parties to be taken over by small minorities of the population - as micro-level organisation and the ownership of mailing lists become political gold. The flow of unfiltered information is altering the very nature of democracy itself.

But it's deeper than that, too. Education is emerging as one of the key dividing lines in modern politics. It was there in the Brexit campaign. It's there now, perhaps even more clearly, in the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump (above). It basically pits one entire world-view - outward looking, conceptual, liberal, confident, socially tolerant - against another: autarkic, concrete, conservative, fearful, concerned. As change speeds up, rather than slows down, this seems likely to become an ever-deeper trench dug across the national landscape.

There's so much more to this - the subject of a series of blogs, perhaps, rather than a once-and-for-all entry - but polarisation is wherever you look. It's there in the urban-versus-rural divide we saw in the EU independence referendum, and once again we can see it laid bare in the present US Presidential election. What will it be: bikes and metro? Or: cars and buses? Coffee shops, or cafes? Parks, or gardens? Low-carb, and low-carbon, or high-fat, and big wheels? All of that seems much more important than the traditional story woven around tax and spending. It's all about ways of thinking, seeing and speaking - not about policy, objective winners and losers, or set off-the-peg ideologies. That's why it seems so bewildering to many insiders. That's why it all changes so quickly. That's why we don't seem to have as many collective reference points or shared ground anymore. That's what's behind the age of political fury.

Still, as any historian should tell you, democracy's run into trouble before. Economic populism and protection swept the world in the late nineteenth century. It was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to talk about the aridity of British politics, frozen into two huge blocs of social class alone, and thus unable to adapt to the modern world. Between the wars, as economic crisis after economic crisis smashed into one another, there was much talk in Western Europe and North America of 'expert government', autocracy and scientific management - all in the place of what Parliament and Congress had been wont to do. Across most of the fascist and communist world, there was much cod-philosophical and pseudo-religious talk about the end of history - as organic, determined, historically-validated and above all inevitable rules replaced the merely bourgeois periodic choice of different faces to run the status quo. By June 1940, those self-destructive ideologies had basically carried all before them. That was a far greater crisis than that we face now.

That example actually tells us a lot about human agency. Faced with Depression and fascism, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were able to fuse very different personal views into new politics: on the part of the first, a New Deal economics that brought hope and a sense of national purpose, whatever its controversial contribution to actual recovery; and for Churchill, a mystical romantic patriotism that drew on Britons' deep sense of national mission and exceptionalism.

Democracy's ever-adaptive synapses may perform the same function again, without the need for such a crisis to speed up the process of adjustment. Somewhere, there's probably a programmer with a good alternative to the social media algorithms that point us in the main to opinions we're already going to like. One day, Putinism's appeal to Left and Right will be seen as the tawdry opportunism it really is. The ranks of American Republicans probably contain a socially liberal Justin Trudeau type, who will march his or her party back towards Reaganesque optimism and the sunny uplands of the world as it is, not as it seems in the fevered imagination of alt-right conspiracies. British Labour will one day find new ideas, fusing together social justice and economic efficiency as did the New Liberals when they read Hobson and Hobhouse, or when Harold Wilson began to promote the application of science and technology as the way to a better society. And so on.

So, yes, 'western' democracy is labouring low indeed in the water - for now. Its challengers, both internal and external, are strong, confident, loud and well-organised. They have the wind at their backs. But representative democracy, the rule of law and the liberal public sphere have met and surmounted much greater challenges. It would be very, very foolish indeed to bet against them doing so again.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Brexit: an early audit

Now that some of the dust has settled on the British electorate's decision to leave the European Union - if only a little bit - we thought we'd take a look at how it's going. The answer? Not particularly well, though perhaps not quite as catastrophically as campaign rhetoric would have had it.

What did we say, back in the spring and early summer when we recommended a 'Remain' vote? Well, that Britain would not be able to negotiate a very good bespoke deal once it had shredded most of its influence in the European Commission and Council; that Russia would be further emboldened by the obvious division among NATO allies; that the British economy would be weaker, and its people poorer, for any decision to leave; and that the British state would creak and groan at the seams with the sheer effort of managing exit from the EU. How do those claims now look, four months on?

Can Britain have its cake and eat it? So - we said during the referendum campaign that many in Britain seemed to think that they could walk out and then still dictate terms. No-one can do that. Britain can't do that. And so it is proving. Now of course harsh words and confrontation are the order of the day when there's been an only semi-amicable divorce, but the European Commission and most of its member governments have made absolutely clear that there will be no Single Market membership without freedom of movement for people as well as goods and services. The UK government cannot possibly concede the latter, so important was immigration (and a desire to limit it) in the vote itself. So there will be no Single Market membership. Britain might continue in the Customs Union that covers actual physical goods. It might be able to 'carve out' specific sectors of the economy for special treatment. But the Single Market is gone. Now that's a blow of controversial size, but you can't pretend it's not a blow. Why would European leavers treat a defecting power with kid gloves, when that would only encourage demands from every other sceptical state in the Union? They won't. There'll be a tough negotiation that leaves Britain with worse access to the biggest free trade area in the world. And with no say over tens of thousands of rules that will govern its trade with that bloc. It's as simple as that.

The Russian challenge. We also said that Moscow would be further emboldened by this split among the Western allies. This is difficult to test, let alone to prove, but there's certainly been no let-up in the Russian push to undermine the moral and political will of the United States and its allies. They pour out propaganda on Russia Today. They speak to the Left and Right alternately when they think they have to, all the better to fire off a slick and easy anti-Americanism of every angle and every straightforward prejudice. They have influence over the higher echelons of the British Labour Party. They try to interfere in the American Presidential election. They pound the Syrian city of Aleppo to bits. And what does everyone else do? Well, nothing really - unless you count a harder and harsher semi-secret campaign of sanctions against Russia and its surrogates. As we've said before, there's no point spoiling for direct confrontation with Vladimir Putin's government. It could be counter-productive. Russia is still an adversary and a rival, not an enemy. But it has to be made abundantly clear that there is a line - somewhere. In the Baltics, perhaps, or in European financial and data security. If there's no line, we will tempt Mr Putin with our own weakness, so refreshingly (if depressingly) admitted last night by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Brexit just seems another minor, but meaningful, piece of evidence for that soft underbelly that Mr Putin spies. It wasn't a key moment. It wasn't even close to it. But it hasn't helped, has it?

A poorer Britain? Here it's important to distinguish between the merchants of doom - warning about a year-long recession, an economic ice age, the loss of more than £4,000 per household - and more realistic concerns about slower growth and more sluggish public finances. We said that the UK would be poorer if it left the EU. It probably will be, at least for a while. Growth next year will be slower than it would otherwise have been - perhaps halving the pace of progress we've experienced this year. That will drive up public sector debt and borrowing, perhaps not by the £60bn-plus that the Treasury still projects on its pre-referendum figures, but by quite a lot. One per cent of British GDP foregone? That adds up to maybe somewhere a bit shy of £19bn. Do that for a couple of years and take off the state's share of it, and you get £16bn more borrowing. Some way short of some of the worst-nightmare scenarios that would have blown the UK economy (and many family budgets) apart entirely of course, but enough to destroy a set of fiscal rules that were already under enormous strain. And that's before you add on the higher costs of government borrowing that are inevitable in such a confused environment. We're going to be poorer. Real wages are going to go down as sterling slides. The economy is going to grow more slowly. Public sector accounts are going to be gloomier. One day soon, as these things are measured, trend growth will resume. But it'll be tough getting there. People on low incomes will suffer the most as prices rise and welfare is squeezed. It's not going to be all that pretty, to be honest.

The incapable state. One of the biggest dangers we divined in Brexit was the fear that the British state would likely struggle to cope with its complexities. And so it is proving. The latest sign of this are the rumours of deep divides between the Treasury - worried about the economic effects of severing links with the Single Market altogether - and the government departments in charge of actually negotiating our way out. The Government also faces multiple legal cases, of unknown outcome. It faces potential obstruction from the Scottish and Northern Irish devolved administrations, which both have their own reasons for resisting Brexit in anything but the lightest form. It has almost no chance whatsoever of reaching a deal with the other 27 EU powers within the two years that Article 50 of the Nice Treaty stipulates for the UK to get out. All the while, the executive also faces a newly-assertive Parliament with a very small majority in the House of Commons, and while in a minority in the House of Lords. If it has to win a Parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50, there seems little doubt that it will get it. But when it tries to get its proposed Repeal Bill though both chambers, without a guillotine motion to bring debate to a speedy end? There are bound to be clauses where all its enemies unite, including many Conservatives with bruised egos who've just been sacked by Prime Minister Theresa May. The prospects for a full-scale breakup of the UK seem to be receding a little - against our predictions - for, just like everybody else, the Scottish government can read recent opinion polls that are at the moment gently trending away from independence. They must also regard the idea of a continuing UK outside the Single Market, while Scotland remains within the EU, with something close to outright horror given that a large majority of Scottish trade is with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate deal for Scotland within the UK, under which it can reach some trade deals itself and run its own immigration policy, seems more likely than a risky second referendum - for now. But if the Conservatives push this too far and too fast, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may be left with no choice but to go for a second referendum while Scotland can at least hope (however vainly) to inherit the UK's place in the EU. Whatever else we say here, some years of confused scuffling and recriminations probably lie ahead.

So that's it. When we first contemplated Brexit, we thought that if it happened Britain would be more isolated diplomatically, that Russia would get tougher, that the UK would be poorer and that governance would get worse. Now, don't get us wrong here. Russia would have been on the lookout for weakness whatever happened on 23 June. And things look worse than they might turn out. There will be a trade deal - eventually. It will probably involve tariff-free access to Britain's manufactured goods, though supply networks are so complex these days that 'rule of origin' snags when you're trying to work outside the Single Market will make that less of a concession than it might once have been. There will probably be some sort of agreement on the 'passporting' of invisible goods and services, so that the City of London remains competitive. No doubt the UK will still have to pay into the EU budget (as does Norway), though the contributions may be much less than they are at the moment. The dark noises coming out of Brussels and Whitehall at the moment are a necessary and natural part of the forthcoming negotiations.

It's not all doom and gloom. The United Kingdom's economy is strong. It will survive - though heaven help us if we're buffeted by another global economic downturn, like a merchant caravan hit by a storm in the desert far from water. With both budgetary and monetary policy nearly exhausted, and with the complexities and uncertainties of Brexit tying us up in knots, we're going to sitting ducks for quite a little while. Still, we will come out the other side, We're not forecasting - and we never projected - a complete disaster.

But any objective audit of Brexit so far demonstrates quite clearly that many of our warnings were bang on the money. But then, who wants experts? They know so little. Just so little.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Conservative philosophy: so now you know...

Last week we said that the Conservative Party and the country’s new leader, Theresa May (above) needed a clear direction as quick as they could get one. Well, it didn’t take long for Mrs May to show us exactly where she was going. And it wasn’t all that pretty.
Last week we said that our own hunch was that the new Conservative pitch would be all about ‘security’ – national security, of course, but also the perhaps-illusory security of tighter borders and much lower immigration, with a bit of a side order of Blue Labour-style contributory benefits and more generous welfare payments. All the better, perhaps, to appeal to voters who seem increasingly restive about the constant change and transformation they have come to associate, in many ways correctly, with economic globalization.

And to some extent, that’s what we got. The accusation that Labour no longer speaks for workers and the public sector was almost casually tossed out, and via measures such as places for workers on company boards, and a slower path to deficit reduction, the impression was given that the free market was no longer to be seen as the be-all and end-all of Conservative politics.

But the real thrust was about immigration. Now this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Brexit referendum was in many ways won and lost on the issue. It’s the most important issue in the country. It’s also the main preoccupation of the main group of voters up for grabs at the moment – older voters who’ve been plumping for the United Kingdom Independence Party, now riven by its own internal squabbles and scandals. What did the Conservatives have to say about this? Well, they basically admitted that they were willing to guide economic policy almost entirely by these lights. No more free movement of people, Mrs May intoned. No more knuckling under to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. What that means is that Britain will almost certainly no longer be a member of the European Single Market, and may (depending on how well or badly negotiations go) may not even have very good access to it.

Worse, though – much worse – was to come. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in her speech, floated the idea that companies' hiring practices should come under sceptical public scrutiny once they’d been forced to publish the number of foreigners that they employed. The whole absurd and vaguely sinister idea was soon dropped, but not without lingering in the air like the bad smell that it always was. There was also more on the terrible idea that landlords should check up on the nationality and immigration status of their tenants. And there was yet another putrid stinker of a concept: that students’ right of abode and work should depend on the quality of their course or institution. Who is going to decide on all that, and on what basis, we weren’t told. Measures more likely to turn away actual business, deter investment, real hard cash (at a time of enormous strain on sterling and on Britain’s balance of trade), and more likely to tie us up in knots just as we come to grips with the reality of Brexit? Well, they’d be hard to imagine. 

It wasn’t all immigration. Yes, they’ve said that there’ll be a bit kinder about Work Capability Assessments, and claimants with chronic conditions won’t have to go through rolling re-assessments. And there’ll be some more money for housing (though it will amount to only a drop in the ocean of true need). Mrs May also made clear in her second speech to the Conference that she thought that more interventionist economic policies may be necessary, while Chancellor Philip Hammond let it be known that the Government was thinking about a renewed emphasis on budgetary policy to go alongside the Bank of England’s monetary activism.

Some of that is all to the good. There’s nothing wrong with rowing back from policies that are widely seen to be either cruel (in the first case) and wise in a potential crisis (in the second). But a really worked-out rationale for a more active state, with aims and objectives for all to see? Rather than just the Jackson Pollock-esque chucking of some cash at more infrastructure projects, when Brexit volatility makes it imperative to underpin at least some domestic demand? That we didn’t see. What we got – what we got out of the Coalition after Chancellor Osborne’s tardy spending u-turn over 2012 and 2013 – was just some feints towards a real strategy. All the noise of economic security, to be sure: but without much of the reality.

So what we were really left with was the idea that immigration was always the real focus. That will probably push their poll ratings even higher than they are now, for a while. But this kind of shouty spray-it-all-around posturing might become a problem for Conservatives in the medium to long-term, because it gives the distinct impression that this is now a party that now wants the United Kingdom to turn in on itself – what we feared all along would be the price of a decision to leave the European Union, of course, but let’s leave that old argument for now. Of a Conference dominated by the concept of border security to the exclusion of anything else – of really good access to the Single Market, of inward investment, of attracting the workers and the skills that we are going to need as we age, of bringing the country together in the wake of a really divisive and bitter referendum campaign. Of a party that didn’t care if it was going to be seen as nasty and unpleasant all over again. As if all those years of modernization were little more than a Public Relations exercise.

The whole thing left quite a nasty taste in the mouth, if we’re being at all honest. The Conservative Party is the party of slum clearance under Benjamin Disraeli; of Keynesian economics under Stanley Baldwin; of council housing under Harold Macmillan; of Europeanism under Edward Heath; of gay marriage under David Cameron. Okay, that’s a very selective reading, but you get the picture. It cannot be, and it must never be, just the party of the Right if it’s also to pose as the party of the nation.

It’s true that Mrs May faces absolutely no opposition for now – except from a little bit of Single Markeering within her own government, and sterling’s role as the only real counter to her untrammeled power. But one day, the Conservative Party will face a renewed challenge. If all they’ve got to offer is an illiberal bunker mentality and a scattergun list of not-so-coded measures against immigration, they won’t be able to meet it. Before they meet again next year, Conservative activists and lawmakers have to get a more positive and coherent message. If they don’t, the voters will notice – and remember. One day, that will matter, quite a lot.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Where are the Conservatives actually going?

What is Conservatism actually for? The question is a pressing one, because as Conservative Party activists meet in Birmingham for their first Conference since Britain’s Brexit vote, it seems less than clear. No doubt the near-unprecedented political and strategic upheaval of the last year makes it hard to find your bearing. Let’s face it: none of the other main parties is doing a particularly good job of defining themselves at the moment either, the Liberal Democrats’ understandable (and canny) Europhilia aside. But there’s more to Conservatives’ vast lack of clarity to that. They have, in Theresa May (above), a new and relatively untested leader, and a new Cabinet; eleven years’ ‘decontamination’ and ‘modernisation’ seems to be under the microscope as never before; and, most of all, they seem to lack a guiding philosophy.

You’ll see what we mean when you look back at past Conservative leaders. Stanley Baldwin wanted to hold the country together during an economic and social crisis, partly by adopting some of the interventionist and proto-Keynesian the techniques that one might have associated with his opponents. Winston Churchill, of course, represented in himself a great moral endeavour – victory against fascism – that stood head and shoulders above all other aims. Harold Macmillan wanted to show that the Conservatives had adapted themselves to the welfare state and the mixed economy, and made sure that low unemployment and a huge housing drive backed up his words with deeds. Edward Heath tried to make Britain more corporate, more modern and more efficient – going into Europe being one of the main means by which that would be achieved. Margaret Thatcher also aimed at making Britain more competitive, though her chosen means were much harsher: the shock therapy of very high interest rates, public spending cuts and anti-trade union legislation. John Major thought that he could yoke that tough sense of economic priorities to a softer, kinder emphasis on the quality of public services, while David Cameron sought to rescue the Conservatives’ reputation for civic effort and social liberalism.

Now you can criticise all of those leaders (though Churchill’s image is probably a bit hard to dent). What you can’t do is say that you can’t locate them at all. Sometimes they were a little fuzzy. Macmillan in his brief stint as Chancellor didn’t say much that lived up to his Third Way anti-capitalist rhetoric from the 1930s. John Major was derailed by the great career-crunching issue of ‘Europe’ overall, and the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle of September 1992 in particular. David Cameron often gave the impression that he was making it all up as he went along. But the image, the point, the direction of travel? All fairly clear.

We haven’t got much of that from Mrs May yet. Yes, we’ve got the idea that Britain will have to face outwards to the world, rather than just Europe, clear in her first leader’s speech to the Conference yesterday. But this seems more like a matter of events’ imperatives. Brexit forces you to make those choices. Elsewhere? Well, a break with a decade or more’s emphasis on Academies as the main vehicle for improving the quality of England’s schools, and new emphasis on grammar schools that is probably as backward-looking as it is politically unwise. That doesn’t seem like much of a step towards a new political philosophy either – at least on its own.

It might all fit into a new vision of post-Brexit: one in which everything’s to look a lot more like an imagined 1950s. One that never did exist and never could exist, of course, but a fantastical past that exerts a powerful sway over many voters, especially older Baby Boomers and Ukippers perhaps now shopping around for a new political home. Consider Mrs May’s emphasis on more government surveillance of the internet and of mobile phones while she was Home Secretary. Take a look at her scepticism about the Hinkley Point nuclear power station deal with the French and the Chinese, held up on what seemed to be national security grounds. Behold her utmost clarity – that immigration should be controlled, that it should come down in terms of raw numbers, and that the level should stay down.

Then listen to her close associate and advisor, her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy, when he muses about a harder, tougher line on economic and national security. That might go together well with a renewed One Nation emphasis on a more active, moralising, solidaristic state that builds more infrastructure and is more relaxed than hitherto about welfare spending – but demands the price of a more moralistic, more intrusive, increasingly strident and bigger Conservative (and conservative) government in return. Yes, you’ll be more secure (at least in theory), in all sorts of ways: but you may not like the hard borders, constant checks, economic direction and scowl-to-the-world that all that safety involves.

In this respect it is perhaps apposite that the Conservatives are meeting in Birmingham, since Mr Timothy has written a book about Joseph Chamberlain, the great leader of that city who started his political life as a Radical before fighting for existence and integrity of the United Kingdom as a Liberal Unionist. And what did Chamberlain think? Well, that you had to do something for working people if you were really serious about defeating socialism. That Britain should be assertive on the world stage, with global ambitions. That the UK was a force for good across the world, not just in a European frame. Mrs May’s emphasis on people who are just about getting by, and her use of the long-abandoned words ‘working class’, are important here. So is her emphasis on Britain’s global destiny, summoned up by necessity as it is.

An agenda is just about struggling to emerge. It’s provincial, anti-metropolitan, conservative, sceptical, nationalistic, focused on continuity and security rather than Blairite change and disruption. It's Birmingham over London. It will probably be very popular. But it’s all very, very early days. An agenda isn’t a philosophy, and nor will such a skeletal sense of priorities survive the next five years’ emphasis on Brexit above pretty much all else. These ideas will need constant attention, continual nurturing, round-the-clock monitoring. Mr Timothy may be kept very busy.

No doubt Mrs May looks at the space where a Labour Opposition ought to be, and she says to herself: ‘I’ll just stroll back to No. 10. No-one will even notice there’s a contest’. And she’s probably right – this time. But it would be most unwise for the Conservatives to rely on the weakness of their opponents for ever and a day. Labour might get its house in order more quickly than most assume, as the Conservatives did between the destruction of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership and the election of David Cameron as their leader in 2005. They will – at some point – replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, either with a more voter-friendly figure from the Soft Left (a Sadiq Khan or a Lisa Nandy), or a Left-wing leader with a more compelling life story and bags more charisma (think Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner).

Whatever happens, Labour is not going to remain forever as weak as they are now. Even if Labour were to break up entirely – and that looks unlikely at the moment – something else will happen to fill the space. A new centrist party might emerge, threatening to detach some relatively Euro-friendly Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats might enjoy a renaissance. A crisis over Brexit or Scottish independence might split the Conservatives themselves. You get the picture.

If she aspires to govern successfully for a long time – and the opportunity is there – Mrs May needs a lodestar. A set of ideas, principles or even just plausible and targetable futures that she can steer by. Just doing your best won’t cut it. Competence isn’t everything (though it is something). Being a bit nicer on welfare won’t suffice. Conservative leaders with legacies meant something when they spoke. They were going somewhere. They had an idea where it was, however hazy. Our new regime doesn’t have that yet. It needs it – fast.