Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Labour could be staring at a historic defeat

History matters in elections. In this year’s US Presidential contest, political science models based on past relationships – involving, for instance, incumbent popularity or economic growth – did better than short-term modelling based on opinion polls. Most such models predicted a very close race, which could go either way, and in some notable instances predicted a Trump victory. Local election results from the 2010-15 Parliament were the clue that allowed forecaster Matt Singh to predict that opinion polls were failing to pick up the true levels of party support running up to the UK’s 2015 General Election.

So if we want to look ahead to the next General Election, and for all opinion polling’s recent problems, it is probably still useful to look at where we are now in UK polling. It should be quite a simple job to look at present levels of support for Labour in Opposition, and the Conservatives in government, and to project what will happen next based on past experience. 

We've done this before, of course, and this is but the latest installment of a long-running series tracking Labour's chances, on the lines of historic trendlines, all the way to the next election - whenever it comes. We've had a go at these sums on three separate occasions - last November, then again in January, and for a third time in April. It's fair to say that none of it was particularly good news for Labour. In November we thought that they would win between 26% and 29% at the next election. In January those figures stood at 25% to 28%. In April, the average had improved a little - to 27% - but that pitiful number wasn't much to set Labour hearts aflame with hope. Perhaps nothing can, these days.

So - let's go again, to test how the main Opposition party's poll ratings are tracking past performance. Let’s start with the deficit between Labour’s numbers and those of the Conservatives. Right now, if we take each pollster in the field’s last results at an average, Labour is a long, long way behind – thirteen per cent or so. They have never before been so far behind while in Opposition at this stage of a Parliament, about nineteenth months following the previous General Election. The nearest they have come is the eight points by which Neil Kinnock’s Labour lagged the triumphant Thatcherite Conservative Party in December 1988. Oppositions have more often actually led the Government in the polls at this point: even in 1980, with Labour deeply divided, Michael Foot in his very early days as leader was able to enjoy an eleven-point lead over a very unpopular government struggling with high inflation and unemployment.

An even worse picture emerges when we look at what might happen between now and the next election. At no time in the modern era, if we take that as meaning the period since 1970, has Labour in Opposition gone up in the polls from this point (see above). They basically stood still between 1993 and 1997, as a youthful and popular Tony Blair managed to keep their ratings very high all the way through to an election: between October 1993 and May 1997 Labour’s polling score fell only by 0.4%. But they have more usually fallen quite a long way. The unwanted record for such a decline is held by Michael Foot’s Labour between 1980 and 1983 as the party split and threatened to break up altogether. In less than three years, Labour’s polling score fell by a huge 19.6%. In fact, the party has on average while in Opposition lost 7.2% from this point in the Parliament. Since the party now stands at 29%, that would imply a score of 21.8% at the next election.

It is possible to put a rather more positive gloss on these apocalyptic numbers. Labour at each General Election has been historically overestimated by polls – by perhaps 1.5%, or a little more. If pollsters’ new post-2015 methods have eliminated this polling error (a very generous assumption, but one which might prove sustainable), then 1.5% or even more of the expected polling ‘fall’ from this point to the next election has already been eliminated as an artefact of the polls alone. So given the extent of pollsters’ post-2015 reassessments Labour might actually hope to receive 23.3%, or even slightly more. Let’s avoid the perils of false specificity on as generous a basis as we can muster, and round this number up to 24%.

Realise this: Labour's rating is therefore failing to track even their pathetic polling performance over the winter, when on this exact basis the party might aspire - at best - to touch between 26.5% and 27.5%. Its numbers are still sagging, still dropping away from historic norms. It's like a slow puncture rather than a blow-out.

What, though, of the Conservative Government’s likely score? Well, at the moment they stand on average at 42%. The honeymoon effect of a new Prime Minister is probably still affecting this rating, although we should also bear in mind that the Conservatives still probably have a lot of scope to soak up UKIP voters if that party does implode in the way that certainly seems possible. In any case, the evidence since 1970 is that the Conservatives’ vote share at the next General Election might be a little higher than it is polling at the moment – by an average of 1.8% or so. Let’s again not be too precise, and call the gain 2%. That would see Theresa May’s party attracting 44% at the polls

The last stage of this analysis is to look at how these very rough figures might translate to numbers in the House of Commons. A result which saw Labour gain 24%, and the Conservatives 44%, would mean on old boundaries a Conservative overall majority of around 150, with Labour down on about 160 seats. On the new boundaries likely to come into force late in 2018, these shares of the popular vote would again give the Conservatives an absolute majority of perhaps 150 in a smaller 600-seat Commons, with only something like 150 Labour MPs returned. That would be the party’s worse showing since 1931

If Labour do indeed receive a score down in the lower- to mid-20s, and the Conservatives something over 40%, the next General Election will see Labour very badly, indeed historically, savaged: it is possible that the party will suffer a ringing, enduring defeat that will be hard to recover from in any near or foreseeable future. It should be stressed that this is a very crude way of looking at these numbers. Labour will probably do better in urban seats, and particularly in London, than this raw data suggests. And in these surprising political times, during which so little seems solid, Labour might somehow be able to escape the fate that its previous experiences suggest is likely. But right now, the historical auguries are very, very ominous indeed.

Note: an earlier version of this blog first appeared on The New Statesman Staggers Blog on Monday 21 November, under the title 'This is the Moment When Labour's Polling Gets a Lot, Lot Worse'.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Stop saying that Trumpism is about economics

The election of Donald Trump to serve as President of the United States (above) came as a shock to many people (though not, of course, if you've been refreshing this page). The reaction to that shock in Europe, including the UK, has been some pretty justified concern, and even fear, as to what President-Elect Trump will do with all that power. Will he undermine NATO, plunge us into trade wars with China, and use his bully pulpit to poison race relations across the Western world? Or will things turn out a bit calmer than it seems right now? Possibly a bit of both, though as you'd imagine we tend towards the former interpretation.

In any case, the next and inevitable line of the reaction was the immediate analysis - that natural and understandable stage of contemporary history which sees people asking 'how on Earth did that just happen?' On the Left, one big answer became: this is a judgement on globalisation, on elite economics, on rising inequality, and on the disappearance of good, highly-prized blue collar jobs. Given that Hillary Clinton lost this election in just three rustbelt states plagued with manufacturing decline - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - there is prima facie some evidence for this. Mr Trump's constant inveighing against trade deals that have 'cost America jobs' (they probably haven't), as well as the thinly-veiled antisemitism of his attacks on 'global elites', will undoubtedly have gained him votes here. There was a swing towards the Republicans, and away from the Democrats, among lower-income voters. There's something there. It's important.

This is not, however, the whole story - or even, in our view, the main part of it. Elections are above all complex things - a meeting-place and a storehouse of narratives, interests, loyalties, identities and clashing conceptions of individual and state that cannot possibly be contained in a vessel marked 'economic decline' or 'economic anxiety'. And so it was with this election - one fought as much between the urban and the rural, and coalitions of imagined 'future' and 'past', ascendance and restoration, as it was between the economics of success and failure.

First things first: say what you like about all this, but Hillary won the popular vote. Following on from an administration which helped to create jobs at a not-inconsiderable pace - and had just got to the stage of raising wages from their pre-crisis baseline. Secretary Clinton is probably going to win the whole thing by two percentage points, or even more. Having already run past Mitt Romney's vote total, she's surging on to rack up the highest number of actual votes anyone not named 'Barack Obama' has ever won. Not much of an economic revolt there, at least overall, and especially in states where people of colour - the group by far worst hit by the Great Recession - live in great numbers. Secretary Clinton made Georgia and Arizona quite competitive, those states taking their next steps towards the Democrats' blue column, and even pushed forward quite a long way in deeply-red Texas. Where is our economic analysis when it cannot make sense of the fact that admittedly-suspect opinion polling tells us that Hillary won voters asked specifically about the economy, when she still captured the majority of the most disadvantaged Americans, when those hurt most grievously by inequality mostly voted for her in the same proportion as they did for President Obama? Yes, it does seem as if African-American and Hispanic turnout did fall, but here again there's but little analysis - for instance in vital North Carolina and Wisconsin - of the role that new Republican-inspired voter identification laws played in that process.

Next: there is an absolute stack of social science evidence that shows that the propensity to vote for the new wave of Right-populism is correlated, not so much to income and economic class, but to the extent to which voters hold authoritarian views themselves, and to feelings of cultural isolation among older, whiter, less educated male voters. It's as simple as that. Reacting to a feeling of cultural threat, surrounded on all sides by what appears to be a whirlwind of change, many older white men - in Britain as well as in the US - will seize on conjoined visions of the nostalgic and the radical. Nostalgic, because the noise given off about race, sexuality, gender and crime take them back to an imagined and settled past; radical, because they feel in their hearts that, so vast are the upheavals, huge steps will be needed to get there. We've got data coming out of our ears about a declining sense of white privilege and white authority, hostility to immigration, dislike of multiculturalism, and the backlash that this election - in part, and only in part - represents. Apparently it's all about jobs, though.

Thirdly: economic analyses of elections in the United States seem to give nothing but a passing nod to the peculiarities of American culture. Only rarely do we get a bottom-up analysis of events seen from the grassroots, witnessed from that semi-fictitious Main Street of Middle America that is such a powerful draw precisely because it almost always exists only in idealised (or, sometimes, dystopian) fiction. Where are our European annalists who've been in and out of the bars and backstreets of North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa - all states carried by President Obama, but lost by Secretary Clinton? Where are the writers who understand the appeal of the American Hero, alone, unsupported by class and party, riding out of the sunrise to save the day - assuredly one more element in the rise of Mr Trump, an independent insurgent who has seized control of a whole party? Where is the understanding about exactly why the Big Beneficent Plutocrat might be preferred to the Narrow, Mean Professional? You'd think that all those years of cultural studies and the linguistic turn would have engendered at least some awareness of the American mythos. Mrs Clinton failed to evoke hope, change, a better future - those key elements of that cliched, but imaginatively very real, American Dream that President Obama understood so well, but could not in the end use to help his party. She failed to outline, clearly enough, what her America would be like. She wasn't crystal clear, with just a few key lines. So she lost. Supposedly everything is about manufacturing, though.

Further: wealthier Americans continued their adherence to the Republican Party, despite a bit of weakening here and there where suburbanites and highly-educated citizens decided that they just could not face voting for a candidate as grotesque and unqualified as Mr Trump. Party trumps everything else, apparently - especially with at least one, and perhaps one or two other, seats on the Supreme Court at stake. It is worth exploring the other side of an economic case that does have a little merit: an upper-middle class and a wealthy, older citizenry that is so sated by superabundance, so secure, crudely in fact so rich and so ripe for autocracy, that they think that the Republic will always stand, that capitalism will always serve their interests, that chaos can't ever come to their door. Well, if this experiment in demagoguery goes wrong, they are about to find out just how wrong they are, aren't they?

Fifth: has everyone forgotten the culture wars? Mr Trump makes great play of being a values-neutral and ideologically-light businessman, up for any deal, so long as it works - a good display of a very cynical and regressive ideology in itself, in fact, though we'll let that pass for now. But the election just past was in fact the culture wars election par excellence, pitting a woman against a man, the coasts against the interior, the rust belt against the sunbelt, old industries versus new industries, the universities against the workers, the country against the city. This, for one thing, fired up hidden sexism everywhere - which that inconvenient thing, actual evidence, shows can be even more successful in that high-energy, high-emotion setting Mr Trump and his team deliberately engendered. More quantifiably, a huge category of 'missing whites', who gave 2008 and 2012 a miss both because President Obama was so impressive, and in the former case because his election seemed so likely, showed up in the Upper Midwest - just as they had in the 2014 mid-terms, the last time we saw a US polling miss on this scale. Much more research is required here. Are these older, less educated, less regular voters really likely to be those angry factory workers so exercised that their jobs have, or might be about, to move to Mexico? Or are they likely to be fired up by what they often say they are - Washington 'corruption' and gridlock, the right to bear arms, abortion, resentment at the cultural cringe they feel forced to wear? We'll take a wager on the latter, thank you very much.

Sixth and last: what about the campaign? To shove everything into the file marked 'economics' leaves out almost everything we know about recent contests, in which many more votes are decided late on, and in which very busy low-information voters have to make decisions in a fog of fake news and from within social media filter bubbles that are draining the very heart out of our democracies. In case you hadn't noticed, one widely-spread set of stories on Facebook were the stolen Wikileaks emails out of the Clinton campaign, which although they were for the most part stultifyingly boring, helped to paint Secretary Clinton as a consummate and scheming 'insider' - that worst of all insults if you're looking at this from (for instance) the Florida Panhandle and you feel Washington has forgotten all about your views and your morals.

Then, to cap it all off, the FBI said that they were looking into Clinton's own emails - opening up all the old wounds about corruption, cover-ups, evasion and possible criminality which have dogged both Clintons since the early 1990s. It was just too much to shrug off when Mr Trump was already well within striking distance. Although all the evidence is not in (and might never be in), it probably dragged her down just a tiny bit at the end. If we were writing the history right now? The razor-thin margin of Mr Trump's victory in the key three states would be more than explained by Director Comey's letter. And if Hillary had narrowly pulled through, with just fifty or sixty thousand votes swinging it the other way, everyone would be saying 'oh, it was the demographics, it was rising wages, it was the jobs miracle of the Obama years that won it'. The narrative can be spun on a sixpence. Don't let anyone do that. The Russian government that helps to sponsor Wikileaks, and the FBI that blew up a big story about what it then admitted was nothing, played a key role here. Focus on the economics? You miss the whole trick.

So here's what the economic interpretation misses: the economics of success as well as failure; the psychological and emotional drivers of Right-populism; the whole context of American history and culture; the actual structure of the Republican vote; culture and gender's role in the whole debacle; and campaigning politics themselves. So pretty much everything, really.

What is most galling about all this is that the crude economic interpretation that UK Labour and some of its allies appear to be indulging in takes away the electorate's dignity of choice - the voters' autonomy, self-possession, individual definition, personal beliefs. Yet again, this is the Left saying: 'you must have been desperate to do that'. 'You must be raging against something'. 'You must be victims'. 'What were you thinking?', they say, in the same slick metropolitan tones that lost them all those votes in the first place - leaving an implicit sneer and disqualification in the air that will do just as much to normalise and validate Mr Trump as will all those conservatives who choose to serve in his administration. Highly-educated Left-leaning politicians and activists, who for many years have increasingly possessed degrees and lived in cities, don't get illiberalism. They never will. So they say it has to be all about fear, loss and self-interest. Perhaps it's not. Perhaps it's because you don't talk like anyone who most people have ever heard in person. Ever considered that?

So there you have it. It is abundantly evident that the European Left cannot cope with complexity, nuance, change, uncertainty. It is even clearer that it is being consumed by a peculiar type of cod-political and sub-Marxist economic determinism that most good A-Level students would rule out of their essays on the 1848 or 1917 Revolutions. It's so cramped, the 'white economic anxiety' headline. So limited. So impoverished. The Left won't listen, and they can't hear, and they fail to see. And then they lose: over, and over, and over again.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Can Labour pull together?

The UK Labour Party's current trials and tribulations have at their heart - indeed, perhaps may always have had at their core - a tension between 'utopian' and 'authoritarian' politics - between the world that might ideally be, and the messy process of forcing our way there. These do seem to now lie at the heart of the new Labour project. For those two elements in Jeremy Corbyn's appeal as Labour leader (above) have up until now been yoked together in a potent mix. There are signs that the abatement – for the present – of loud internal dissent will allow them to come into the open.

Corbynism undoubtedly appeals to newer Labour members and supporters, many of them older returnees who had become disillusioned during the Blair and Brown years which they perceived to be full of fatal compromises with a conservative (and Conservative) ‘establishment’. Its public agenda is at least a clear one, and has many points of contact with Soft Left Milibandism or even the social democracy of Labour’s centre. No foreign wars in co-operation with American power, or at least not without explicit United Nations agreement and a wide basis of international support; the reversal of public sector austerity; a stronger government, with higher tax rates on business, executing more active industrial and budgetary strategies that also rely on higher borrowing – and a reshaping of the economy, rather than just fighting the ‘symptoms’ of poverty tackled by tax credits and higher welfare spending.

This strategy - let's term it relatively 'utopian' - has two huge advantages over the apparently uncertain and exhausted centrist strategy pursued during the New Labour years between 1994 and 2010. The first is that it incorporates the outburst of Left populism so obvious elsewhere across Europe within the Labour Party, rather than leading to a rival party setting up on Labour’s left – the role the Green Party seemed to be playing in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. The evidence from local by-elections this year is clear: where there are Green votes in urban areas to pick up, Labour is now well-situated to draw on them as a new reservoir of support. The second point is that the strategy has led to a much, much larger party, now numbering around 600,000 members – about triple the number it was able to mobilise before the 2015 General Election. There seems little doubt that such resources of human ambition and hope might prove a formidable weapon in any political attacks on the sitting government. Labour has, indeed, already tried out such campaigning methods – holding a ‘national day of action’ in September against Theresa May’s grammar school proposals.

Yet at the same time many of the other elements in the Corbyn project militate against the more kaleidoscopic, community-orientated and populist elements in this programme. Here is where the ‘authoritarian’ elements of the analysis come in. Most of Corbyn’s popularity comes from the sense that he backs the new and pluralist Left that has emerged across the country to protest against austerity. But the politics of the 1970s, from which Mr Corbyn finds it hard to escape, are much more centralising and controlling than at first appears.

The leader’s office apparently shows little interest in a united ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP – a matter of faith among many of Corbyn’s younger and more idealistic followers. A number of his own supporters wrote an open letter to the Labour leader protesting against his recent appearance on a Stand Up to Racism platform with members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, a far-left grouping with a troubled history that has made it anathema across most of the British Left. The campaigning group Momentum, so vital when installing and defending Mr Corbyn's leadership over the last two years, looks to be struggling to solve the contradictions between members stressing either its representative or its participatory nature. Just as seriously, Corbyn’s personal defects as a leader – and especially his controversial past, as well as his own style and image – are clearly giving elements of his hard core support pause for thought. Paul Mason, the campaigning journalist, was taped accepting just this case in a recording leaked to The Sun newspaper.

The contrast between words and deeds can again be seen in Corbyn’s attempts to bend Labour’s National Executive Committee and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to his own demands. Given the struggle for power within Labour, such an effort is perhaps understandable, even unavoidable; but he risks replacing representative democracy, across the NEC and PLP, with a type of plebiscitary democracy based on his ‘mandate’ from members that such structures are deliberately designed to mitigate and dilute. It is no accident in this respect that the first serious signs of dissent about his leadership are being seen in the trade union movement, deeply worried about its own voting rights and voice within the wider Labour family. This is one reason why renewing Trident looks set to remain party policy, even while Mr Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament complain as loudly as they can about this u-turn.

For now, at least, these tensions can be managed. But they are unlikely to go away. All the evidence we have from local elections, by-elections and polling points to the fact that Labour face a terrible defeat at the next General Election. When real wages are likely to decline following sterling’s steep depreciation, and the Government is likely to tie itself in knots over Brexit, this is a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. At the same time, boundary reforms are likely to throw up a small but significant number of chances for local activists to prevent the re-election of Labour MPs who have vocally opposed their leader. The bitterness these local fights will evoke might be difficult to contain, and some Labour MPs may decide they have nothing to lose by sitting as independents or fighting by-elections in the last two years of this Parliament. A formal split seems highly unlikely, given the MPs’ cultural loyalty to Labour as well as the electoral catastrophe that would probably befall both halves of the party after any split. But a prolonged cold war between MPs and leadership, which in the end leads to splintering and incoherence rather than split, is quite likely, and perhaps even probable.

In this situation, the non-Corbynite parts of the Labour Party must deeply rethink their strategy. They have a huge opportunity to reach out to their own party’s Left as it becomes increasingly disillusioned with Corbyn over the next year or two. They have hitherto developed the tactic of speaking out when they want, on the subjects they want – all the better to at least affect public policy in some ways while the leadership team fumbles. Now they might draw these threads together, to show what a new agenda would look like if it was to appeal to the whole non-Corbynite party, from Soft Left to Old Right and through to the social democrats of the ex-Blairite centre.

Their list of priorities might include, though not be limited to: massive, cascading devolution throughout England, as well as to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; the development of new sectors of the economy through regional and local co-operatives and ‘New Deals’ fostered by rolling programmes of inclusive devolution; and productivity-raising projects in both physical and human capital that long-term borrowing by cities and the UK’s devolved administrations might unlock.

Now the labels ‘Blairite’ and ‘Brownite’ are obsolete, Labour’s non-Corbynite MPs – and members – have a duty at least to try to make such an agenda work. It might be that Labour is now too far gone for all this: that globalisation, the changing economy and the political strains of large-scale immigration have smashed for the foreseeable future the alliance of metropolitan liberals and blue-collar workers that any social democratic party must assume. But political parties can come back from the wilderness very quickly, as the majority seized by the Canadian Liberals last year demonstrates. The years immediately ahead look very bleak for Labour right now, but if the more pluralist strands among its new support can somehow make common cause with its long-standing activist base, there might at least be hope of mitigating the long-term damage.

Note: a previous version of this blog first appeared as part of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Group's website on 3 November.