Thursday, 6 April 2017

Well, that's a wrap...

...until after Easter. This blogger is off to talk about British history, British politics and Brexit away from these shores. But never fear: we'll be back. Look for the next post here on Tuesday 2 May, when we'll be previewing the local and mayoral elections taking place that week.

Until then - just you look after yourselves, won't you?

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What lies ahead for England's universities?

Away from the storm and tempest of British national politics at the moment, the Government's Higher Education Bill has been struggling through both Houses of Parliament. That's been made all the more difficult because of Brexit, firstly because the Government don't have much time to think about anything else but its search for understanding and trade deals from Brussels to Washington; but also because the official Opposition are still trying to get themselves together after the traumas of the last eighteen months.

It's had a rough passage, at least in the Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, and there's a bit more of a spirit of fight on the Opposition benches. Their Lordships have in particular been very unkeen on the idea of linking the new Teaching Excellence Framework (the TEF) with raising university fees in line with inflation. Not only has the integrity of that process been giving a good elegant kicking in speech after speech, but the whole concept of linking indices of 'quality' with what Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can charge has come under sustained fire. What do these metrics mean, goes the argument? Should they really be linked to the very hard-to-capture idea of 'quality'? The different amounts that varied concepts of the 'good' course really cost? Different priorities for students at different stages, in different parts of the country, asking for different types of tuition given the emphasis on 'choice' that the Government is in the end trying to promote?

Their Lordships have a point. Many of the TEF metrics are well-designed and rigorous. But many of them - particularly the idea that post-education employment and salaries will be included - simply are not. Not only that, but the whole idea of poking a big stick around the sector rests on an offensive and deeply inaccurate picture encouraged by Ministers. This is the idea that much of the teaching in HE is poorly designed and sloppily delivered: cut and paste jobs from year to year, without innovation or deep rethinking. Not only is this entirely unproven: its emphasis on academic 'inertia', and the fight against it (carrying with it echoes of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's faux-populist campaigns on behalf of patients) is out of the ark. No-one who's actually been in a university these past two decades really thinks that they're something out of Brideshead Revisited, full of yellowing lecture notes and eccentric dons. No doubt there are a few holdouts, but we haven't seen any. It's Ministers themselves, with their bloviating over-emphasis on the Research Excellence Framework and its link to research funding, that have encouraged academics to peer away from the seminar room, and not lecturers themselves.

The real difficulty with the TEF is the emphasis on control, rather than the true liberty of new thinking and innovation: in this respect its innate complexity and hard-to-grasp innards may well make teaching worse, and not better. The problem is actually that we don't know where the bad soft spots are. But someone's job will be to find out and play that game: meaning that labelling teaching, rather than actual teaching, will zoom up the agenda. This is also, by the way, the reason why universities won't be allowed to charge vastly higher fees, however large the likely Conservative landslide at the next General Election: and why Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the like won't be allowed to go private: it would remove Ministers' powers to tinker, meddle and fiddle to their hearts' content.

Still, larger changes lie under the bonnet. The lifting of the cap in detail on student numbers four years ago means that universities are now engaged in a pile-them-all-in fight for student numbers on an unprecedented scale, especially as the falling birth rate around the turn of the century is right now pushing student numbers to new lows. That is creating universities' very own 'squeezed middle': strong but not overwhelmingly prestigious provincial universities that are losing out in recruitment as some Russell Group players massage down the real grades they will accept for entry, and who now look likely to be challenged by private providers after the Higher Education Bill reduces barriers to entering the sector. These institutions will have to specialise more, work more regionally and locally, build up their profiles on where they are good, and if we are honest perhaps cut back sectors where they are finding it harder. It'll be tough in the middle. Eventually, the rising birth rate from about the early 2000s onwards will mean that there are more than enough students to go around, and indeed as in the 1960s planners will again have to scramble to keep up - one good reason to keep whole fields and departments open now rather than pay all the startup costs when they have to be re-opened in ten years' time. But perhaps that would too rational for Westminster and Whitehall at the moment.

So the truth about what lies ahead is probably a little bit bland: rather more of the same, but speeded up. There's little doubt that the TEF will now indeed start to play a key role in university life, becoming ever more bureaucratised and unpopular in the HE sector itself even while it never gets particularly highly-regarded among applicants and parents; but the link with fees won't be that important, especially if inflation does remain relatively and historically low over the medium term. There seems little chance of any government in sight dramatically lifting the fees ceiling, which means that the direct cash incentives for doing 'better' on that imperfect metric will always be fairly low. So fees will gently rise, while some prestigious universities will be made to look foolish, because their view of themselves won't be matched by their lowly position in the TEF league tables.

Elsewhere, the 'squeezed middle' won't struggle so much as specialise, withdrawing from an all-in competition with the big battalions and settling for a more bespoke middleweight role, challenged in that ambition by some (but only some) new providers who will come in from the private sector and beef up numbers in specific areas such as law and publishing. And all the while, a great big wave of new students are waiting in the wings, building up from the trough of the next year or two and cresting impressively about 2030. It's not actually a very dramatic picture. But years of strain, slog and restraint lie ahead before all those new students ride to the rescue in the mid- to late-2020s. English universities will just have to tighten their belts and wait for the cavalry.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

No, Labour was not neck and neck with the Tories before the 'coup'

All political tribes live by myths and legends. Labour always talks about how Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. The Conservatives put up paintings of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. There are probably few depths of bathetic silliness that such conjuring tricks cannot case in a warm glow. No doubt one day, Brexiteers will thrill around camp fires to the Tale of Two-Faced Boris and How He Slew His Friend. Or Gove the Brave, and How He Slew His Friend. Anyway, we digress.

The point is that it's perfectly natural for political movements, parties, even fragments of both or either, to tell themselves stories. They gee up the faithful. They encourage the doubters. Problems only really emerge when this process is either deliberately hothoused, like tulips in winter, by leaders who should know better. Or when those tales prevent the group seeing themselves, even for a moment, as they truly are or as others see them. Gods are fine. False gods? Not so much.

So it is with one of the most pernicious political myths of our time: that the UK Labour Party was 'neck-and-neck' with the Conservative Party (or might even have occasionally edged into the lead) in opinion polls running up to last year's European Union referendum. That there was then a deliberate 'coup' mounted by Labour MPs which so damaged Labour that the progress it was making - its emerging parity with the Government - was wiped out by a string of Shadow Cabinet and Front Bench resignations, a long leadership contest and a lot of bad, bad political blood. You can read this line as pushed by Left-wing pressure group Momentum here. You can read the reported remarks of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the matter here. Here's a good example of a left-wing blog (from last year) saying the same thing. Here's Paul Mason from last summer, saying that Labour and the Conservatives were 'neck and neck' then.

There's one main glaring problem with this view: it isn't true. Labour was certainly never ahead, and the most respected experts in the field have baldly judged that '[the] frequent claims that Labour were equal to (or even ahead of) the Tories before Labour’s leadership troubles erupted... [are] disingenuous... at best, and seem... to rest wholly upon cherry-picking individual polls'.

Now let's leave aside the vexed question of the word 'coup' here. Probably there were some elements of a 'coup' about the whole thing. Quite a lot of Labour MPs had been waiting for some way to overturn the party's new-old dispensation, and in the immediate aftermath of the Remain campaign's failure thought they had found it. But the 'riot of despair' that overtook the Parliamentary Labour Party had so, so many more elements to it, reaching all the way from the Leftest of the Soft Left to the hardest of Blairites, that 'coup' is a vastly inadequate and misleading term for it. Maybe we'll write about that at more length someday.

Let's focus instead on the polling numbers, and the logic behind them. First, take a look at the chart above. This is all the polling from the calendar year 2016, showing the main two parties' ratings on a six-poll rolling average. The first thing we see? The Labour line never touched the Conservative line. They were not 'neck-and-neck'. The reason we use the average from many polls is that polls are subject to so-called 'normal' error: if two parties were truly about as popular as one another, you would expect quite a few showing the red team three points ahead, and about the same number showing the blue team three points up, as well as quite a few in between and many others showing a dead heat. Did we ever, ever see that? No, we did not.

There were only ever three polls that showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives. These were all reported by the polling company YouGov, on 17 March, 12 April and 26 April. They showed Labour ahead by one point, and then twice by three points. There was one more poll that showed the two parties dead level, carried out by Survation for The Mail on Sunday and published on 25 June. That's it. All the other polls, for the whole of the first half of the year leading up to Hilary Benn's sacking in the early hours of 26 June, showed Labour behind. That's simply not the pattern you'd see if parties were truly 'neck-and-neck'. Case closed.

Case-even-more-closed, point one: Labour's slide did not begin on 26 June. Rather, it had begun more than two and a half months earlier. Labour's poll rating 'peaked' at an average of 33.7% on 1 April: it had already fallen to 31.2% by 26 June. The smallest average Conservative lead was one per cent, registered on 12 April: this had already opened up slightly, to 2.7%, by the time the Shadow Cabinet began to disintegrate in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Not only that, but this was but one more passage in Labour's medium-term collapse, having peaked at nearly 43% in the immediate wake of George Osborne's catastrophic 'Omnishambles Budget' during the spring of 2012. Their average now? About 27%, on a glidepath that hasn't seen great big dramatic falls in support, but a slow, gradual, painful retreat that suggests structural, not directly political (and certainly not high political) causes.

Cause-even-more-closed, point two: yes, Labour did get quite near to the Conservatives in the spring (not the summer) of 2016. But that was not due to any great surge in enthusiasm for socialism, Parliamentary or otherwise. The reason we've just put the word 'peaked' in quotation marks is that 33.7% was an absolutely pathetic rating for Britain's main Opposition, as we noted at the time. Such a polling number always suggested, on a historical basis and using the very best numbers we could scratch up, a pretty bad defeat. That closer gap that we see from late March to late June 2016? That looks rather like a quick Conservative tumble from around 38% on the eve of Mr Osborne's 2016 Budget (delivered on 16 March) to 33.5% at the moment of the Brexit vote. It looks, in that context, less like a surge in Labour's support, which went up by less than two points between the period immediately preceding the Budget to its molehill-like 'peak' on 1 April.

None of which should be a surprise. Because what had happened in the interim? Oh, just the matter of the most popular Conservative politician in the country coming out against the Conservative Prime Minister's flagship policy on Europe. And the Chancellor's Budget cutting benefits for disabled people, causing the Work and Pensions Secretary to resign. And the Conservative Party (including the Cabinet itself) tearing itself apart over Brexit. Oh, and the Prime Minister admitting that he'd used a tax haven for a family inheritance. That's all. And the Conservatives, by the way, still couldn't throw away their polling lead.

So those posts on Facebook that you see, saying that 'if only it hadn't been for the coup, we'd have been okay'? Those Twitter eggs that pop up telling you that Labour were toe-to-toe with the Tories in the spring of 2016? They are reflecting densely-woven webs of spin shot out by long-serving politicians who should know better, and they are telling not stories but fairytales - all the better not to see themselves with. Actual history, written by actual historians, says something very different.

Yes, we're wasting our breath - we usually are - but Labour was not, ever, 'neck-and-neck with the Tories before the coup'. If anyone says they were, you can link to this page. You can paste up this blogpost. You can quote these figures. You can send them to us. Don't mention it. It's a public service.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

British social democracy in crisis

Most politics commentary is impoverished in two ways. It is geographically parochial and temporally anachronistic. It can see neither the big view nor the long view. It is obsessed with the latest rivalries, the newest personalities, the most novel ups and downs. So the Labour Party's deep travails focus on the struggle between its MPs and leader. On the latest reshufflings within constituency parties or in the National Executive Committee. Whatever today's latest bit of shouting involves.

But zoom back, and Labour is actually in the grip of an acute crisis within social democracy itself. And these apparently-insoluble dilemmas are not happening in Britain alone. The Greek Socialists were wiped out by that country's financial crisis. The Dutch Labour Party took a tremendous beating last week. The French Socialists are about to lose the presidency, either to a charismatic centrist or to the far right. At its base, social democratic coalitions have always tried to reach out to everyone (above) - professional people, working people, the young, the old, men and women, all nations within a state - because social progress is thought to benefit everyone. More recently, this has increasingly come to mean finding the glue that will stick the instincts of liberal urban dwellers to more socially conservative voters in small and medium-sized towns. For a number of reasons - large-scale immigration, rapid cultural change, a yawning age gap in the attitudes of the generations, stagnating wages, you name it - those links are coming apart.  It may not be possible to hold them together for much longer.

That's just the start of British social democracy's many crises. The Scottish National Party has routed it in its historic fastnesses of urban Scotland. The English nationalism encoded within the United Kingdom Independence Party has tempted away many voters in England's provinces. The rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is another challenge that the entire British state - and its generally redistributive alliance of four unlikely economic partners - is struggling to meet. Okay, the Welsh Nationalists of Plaid Cymru have made but little progress recently (opens as PDF), but Wales is the only part of the UK where political nationalism seems still relatively weak. If it does not serve as a lobby for the poorest parts of the UK - Northern Ireland, say, South Wales, or the Eastern fringes of Glasgow - it is far from clear that Labour has any mission anyway. Want to see how a Labour Party does when all politics is a struggle within and between different visions of 'the nation'? Look no further than the Republic of Ireland, where it has only ever come third.

Labour is also faced with a terrible, tragic dilemma over Brexit, not so much because Labour constituencies were particularly divided between Remain and Leave (Conservative seats were nearly as split), but because so many of the voters Labour has now were Remain, and so many they need in the future were for Leave. Last but not least, Labour has essentially evolved into two parties, which seem to know as little of one another as if they are two nations. The first, made up of long-standing members who joined before 2015, are loyal to a certain idea of the party as a receptacle for progressive, reforming, legislative hopes for incremental change. They want to make the country better gradually. The second, constituted mostly of more recent members, hopes to totally remake at least the party - and, perhaps in some hopeful future, Britain itself - in the heat of a charismatic tilt at social justice at home and peace abroad. They should probably split. They can't, because the electoral system means that they would both suffer more than if they stay together. So both sides have to tolerate a flatshare from hell. There really does now seem little to bind them together. The great trade unions, and in particular the mega-union Unite, would once have formed one bridge across which ideas could cross: but with Unite in the hands of one side of Labour's ongoing civil war, that now seems impossible.

Keep in mind that parties die. Remember that Britain entered the twentieth century with a great, radical, reforming and established party to the left of its centre: the Liberal Party that had done so much to forge Britain's route to modernity itself. It renewed itself during a 'New' Liberal phase of novel ideas about social reform in the run-up to holding power between 1905 and 1916. It struggled to reconcile the competing claims of Irish nationalism and English conservatism. It puzzled over Scottish land reform and the future of the Welsh church. These constitutional issues in turn drained its energies from facing the economic and social questions: forces quietly starting to break up the base of its support among both suburban householders and the urban working classes.

There are troubling echoes there for the way in which 'New' Labour in Opposition and in power found itself increasingly uncertain about the correct balance of forces within the political system, and how its record in power gradually came to seem inimical to sustaining a united, widely appealing programme. It did take the First World War to really sweep the Liberals away, for they had done creditably up until then at combining social reform with rearmament, and economic change with constitutional reform. Reconciling personal liberty with the needs of the state during the age of total war proved to be beyond them. Complex as Brexit will be, the state faces nothing like the challenge of 1914 now.

In a way, though, that's not the point. The lesson is: events can just conspire against you. The atmosphere can change. Sometimes, the work you've done - the work any group or party was designed to do - is over. At the risk of over-determining, any movement can surmount one or two crises. But there's just too many coming at Labour, from too many directions, to see this as anything other than a perfect storm that will leave it out of power for a very, very long time, if not crippled on a semi-permanent basis.

Okay, you could try to speak in a new way (for Labour) - in the language real people use every day, rather than the cod-outraged sub-Marxian jargon than the party's press office uses these days, full of 'revolving doors', 'elites' and 'establishments' that properly reside in the 1960s and 1970s, if they ever existed at all. You might be able to find an answer to the rise of the United Kingdom's many nationalisms by splitting into say, English, Welsh and Scottish Labours - and having your own policies in each jurisdiction. You could meet the challenge of Brexit by moving more strongly in one direction, just as the Conservatives have - though that would need a touch more discipline and self-awareness than all wings of the Labour Party have been demonstrating in recent months. Maybe you could broker a deal between the Soft Left and the Old Right, excluding Blairite and Momentumite extremes from policy-making and administration. Perhaps you could really, really clamp down on the abuse and fury that rains down on even the meekest on social media - all the better to start looking outwards, rather than at the party's own navel.

But at the moment Labour is in more lines of fire than you'd find in a Tarantino film. It's trying and failing to deal with triumphant nationalism, the overarching crisis of Brexit, the increasing gap between social democrats and the blue-collar working people they've always relied on, cities and exurbs that are drifting apart, the bitter and probably irrevocable split in the party between the 40% of more long-standing members and the 60% who've just arrived (or come back), the development of tight-knit but cramped social media communities who are impervious to news or views from outside their own moral universe.

It's too much. It can't be done. We've looked at the data many times (and we'll be taking another in-depth look again next month). That's bad enough. But when you take a really cold look at the structural, intellectual and political elements - when analysis is pressed into use, to explain the report of mere numbers - the picture looks even darker. The situation for reformist social democracy - the rock on which the Labour Party historically stands - is bleaker than it has been at any point since the Second World War. Parties mostly shy away from the brink. They usually find some way to come back. It took just seven years for the Conservatives to recover from the chaos engulfing them under Iain Duncan Smith. But as the 'New' Liberal example shows, sometimes political parties are pitched into extinction. Labour is hesitating between the two options. Its many crises do not make for optimism.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Silly history, childish policy

Anyone who really knows a subject winces when Ministers talk about it. Internet security? Here's a Snooper's Charter that will build up a great big database hackers can steal. Higher Education? Here's some really tight and stupid limits on the numbers of (fee paying) foreign students you can take. Oh, and by the way, here's some ridiculous metrics of teaching quality that'll never work, and don't tell you much about teaching anyway. Austerity? Told over and over and over again that this won't close the deficit on the timescale the Government pretends to believe it will, Ministers go on reducing current spending. Early on in their ill-fated drive towards a much smaller state, they even pruned back productive capital expenditure at a time of very low interest rates. And so on.

It's the same when professional historians look at what politicians say about the past. In fact, it's even worse, because Ministers when they blunder into this sphere don't have civil servants to advise or constrain them. They don't have a load of briefing notes, or binders full of reports, keeping them at least in the neighbourhood of the straight and narrow. They show off their preconceptions and prejudices, sometimes for good, but often demonstrating a very dispiriting lack of grip on reality itself.

The latest example of this is one of the most illuminating: Trade Secretary Liam Fox (above) and his apparent desire to forge the Commonwealth into a sort of nostalgic new-old trading bloc to replace the European Union. That all looks a bit desperate in policy terms, actually, and not only because it comes from Mr Fox, no stranger to less-than-edifying controversy and disgrace himself. For one thing, such a strategy would give Commonwealth nations such as Australia and India a gold-plated opportunity to run the board on the Brits if the UK does look likely to crash out of the EU without a deal. The amount of trade that Britain does with them already is also puny compared to links with its European neighbours. And many countries - particularly poorer Commonwealth nations - are not even that keen on what sceptical civil servants have apparently dubbed 'Empire 2.0'. Why should they help Britain sell them a load of cars in return for slightly better terms on Britain's commodity imports? There would seem to be no better way for them to worsen their terms of trade.

Mr Fox says that he doesn't use the term 'Empire 2.0', and nor does he want civil servants to use it. That would apparently belittle Britain's global role, rather than its post-Imperial identity. He has form in just this sphere, though, having tweeted in 2016 that 'the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history'. It's a statement that will lead almost all professional, responsible and reflective historians to scratch their heads and say: er, we're not sure that's quite right. For British Ministers to claim that they don't have anything that they might be embarrassed about, or which many people might choose to forget, is a frankly bizarre assertion.

Let's tread carefully. Condemning and judging, rather than understanding, risks the fatal historical error of anachronism. Your analysis is not going to get very far if you just say how terrible it all was. And Britain's Empire was a complicated thing - a huge, multifarious, many-faced enterprise that lasted hundreds of years. So it's important to go lightly here. No doubt it was better to be governed by the British than (for instance) the Belgians in the Congo. Of course British administrators and settlers became less rapacious as the idea of a 'liberal empire', preparing new states for independence, gained a hold in the twentieth century - though we still wouldn't have recommended getting in their way. During the 1950s, many Kenyans found to their cost just how nasty the sting that remained in the British tail could be - a dark and brutal story that was then covered up for many decades, until historians dragged it into the light.

The final acts of the British Empire also became apparently self-mitigating acts of abrogation and heroism in the British mindset - perhaps one reason why the British public still perceive the Empire-Commonwealth through a warm glow of nostalgia and regret for its passing. The 'Spitfire Summer', in which Britain 'stood alone', in the end seemed for many to wash off the guilt of Empire itself. John Maynard Keynes said famously that 'we saved ourselves, and we helped save the world'. There's a lot of truth to that. But it's also more than important to note that it was the British Empire that 'stood alone', not just the peoples of the United Kingdom. Caribbean airmen fighting in the skies above the South of England; Indian soldiers in North Africa; Australian infantrymen in Burma and at the fall of Singapore: they were taking the brunt of the disaster just as much as were the British themselves.

So was the British Empire really a free-trading group of complementary peoples? Is Britain really unique among Europeans because it 'does not need to bury its 20th century history'? No. No-one should be burying any history, least of all the British. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the ferocious attempt to suppress opposition in what became the Irish Free State, the catastrophic Partition of the British Indian Empire, the nuclear testing programme in Australia, the Suez debacle of 1956 - none of them covered anyone in glory, that's for sure. Each was by turns a toxic mix of the violent, the destructive, the negligent and the chaotic. Each speaks to Imperialism's deeply interwoven history of arrogance, greed and hatred.

There's a lot of wishful thinking about these days. According to Mrs Thatcher's biographer Charles Moore, Britain might now become a grounded semi-idyll rather like The Shire in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings - an honest place of attachment and belonging, where no doubt yeoman farmers labour manfully in the service of a rightful order. Melanie Phillips has brought her trademark historical insight to the party by claiming that Britain is a 'real' nation in a way that, say, the Republic of Ireland is not. We should have the courage to call this out for what it is: baloney. It's a comforting warm bath of half-facts and thinly-remembered pasts that never did exist and never could have existed.

It's not just an academic argument. Good history is essential to evidence-based public policy. Our view of the past tells us what we think of the present, and by extension the future. If we really start to believe that Britain once ruled over happy groups of merchant adventurers, a band of fellow-feeling settlers and subject peoples set on their way to liberty, we will make a grave blunder. We might, in terms of our broad preconceptions, start to forget the real suffering that the British have inflicted on the world - something to weigh alongside all the good that they have done, whenever and wherever we write about it all.

But there's also a more acute danger - a pressing one that's relevant to the Government's choices right now. That is to see the victors at Blenheim and Waterloo, the people who lived under first a Dutch and then a German monarchy, the land with French law and language, the people who defeated European fascism and framed the European Convention on Human Rights, as a power that has always engaged in Empire rather than the continent they must still call home. That has never been an adequate picture of British history. Today, more than ever, it should not be meekly accepted just because some amateur politicians and commentators want to use the past for their own ends.

Monday, 6 March 2017

More historical context on Stoke and Copeland

One thing we know about public numbers is that they have to be built up via art and artistry, as well as science. You don’t just go and capture them in the wild, like they’re some form of easily-displayed and gawp-inducing new specimen for the zoo. The next thing we know? Context is all. It’s the same in every field. How big is that exoplanet? What does that mean in comparison to the Earth? How big is the sun it’s orbiting? What might that mean for its atmosphere, the potential for water on the surface, the likelihood of life?

One context is historical. Okay, economic growth looks like it’s enough to keep unemployment low, but how fast or slow is it against the longer-term averages? The usual level of growth since the Great Disruption of 2007-2008? The mean scores since the Second World War? Only then can you know what you’re really looking at.

That’s why we look at election results (and opinion polls) in the same way. It’s all very well being quite some way ahead, as Labour were in the last Parliament, but what does that mean? We wasted our breath then pointing out that Labour had to rise quite a bit further before they looked likely to win a General Election, and we probably still are, but it’s worth a go. We’ll be returning to this theme in April, when we take our regular look at how the Government and the Opposition are doing when measured against the standards of the modern era (which roughly means since about 1970). But for now, it might help to take yet another look at the Copeland and Stoke Central byelections in a wider, longer – and statistically marginal, rather than binary – context.

Now, stop us if you’ve heard this before. We know that we looked last time at just how bad these two results were for a serving Opposition. There’s really been nothing like Copeland, especially, since on some measures the nineteenth century. You could fill a page with words like ‘appalling’, ‘disastrous’, ‘humiliating’ and ‘catastrophic’. That’d be about the measure of it. But that doesn’t seem all that helpful, to be honest. Anyone can write a faux-Biblical and mock-ominous paragraph of doom. Believe us: we have. But what is the exact scale and scope of Labour’s byelection performance, both in Stoke and Copeland, and more broadly over the past couple of years?

Here's where we can deploy at least some sense of statistical clarity. This time, and for the chart above, we’ve looked at various Oppositions’ byelection performances over the second and third calendar years of each Parliament. First, we’ve looked at the performance of those Oppositions that were later successful in winning power: Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1974-79, John Smith and Tony Blair’s Labour in 1992-97, and David Cameron’s Conservatives from 2005 to 2010. As a comparator, we’ve included the byelection performance of Ed Miliband’s Labour in 2010-15: an Opposition that appeared to be doing okay (but no better) in byelections at this point in the cycle, and was competitive in the opinion polls, but which ultimately fell short when it came to the crunch of a real General Election.

What do we find? Well, successful Oppositions should be hoping for big, big movements towards them. That’s not much of a surprise, but it’s nice to see it confirmed in the actual numbers. Both Heath and Thatcher, and Smith and Blair, were posting swings from the main governing party of over ten per cent – of 11.8% in the first case, and a spectacular 14.9% in the second. David Cameron was getting some sort of swing at the same stage of the electoral cycle we’re at now (approaching the halfway point), but it was much lower – at about 4%. It won’t escape your attention, either, that the scale of those swings bore quite a strong relationship to the subsequent full-scale election. Mrs Thatcher won a modest but workable majority in 1979; Tony Blair triumphed in 1997, gaining Labour’s biggest-ever majority in a remarkable landslide; David Cameron, who wasn’t doing quite so well at this stage in terms of Westminster byelections, had to settle for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At some point we’ll try to write a full-scale piece about the formal relationship between these numbers and General Election vote shares since 1945 (or encourage someone else to do it), but for now we can just say that the bigger the swing at this point, the more likely subsequent electoral success seems.

Clearly that doesn’t always hold. Ed Miliband was doing better in 2011-12 than Mr Cameron was in 2006-07. You can enter all sorts of caveats here. There were fewer byelections in 2006-07 than during 2011-12: there were just five such contests in the former period, compared to the twelve held during Mr Miliband's second and third years as Leader of the Opposition. Three out of those five battles took place on very unfertile ground for the Conservatives (Dunfermiline and West Fife, Blaenau Gwent and Sedgefield). Even so, we should note that there’s clearly only a rough and ready relationship between doing well in these elections, and then going on to form a government.

So these comparisons aren’t perfect, or always tightly predictive. However, and given Labour’s performance recently, what they are is very suggestive. Over 2016 and 2017, there have so far been eight Westminster byelections. and the Opposition has on average made no progress at all against the Government. Indeed, they have gone backwards: there has been a very small (0.65%) swing towards the Conservative Party. And things have got a lot worse since Britain voted to leave the European Union. The swing to the Conservatives is 3.9% since the summer of 2016, and an average of 4.35% in Copeland and Stoke. The evidence is that Labour’s performance in these byelections is steadily getting worse – just as its poll ratings have been slowing deflating since the April of 2016. But it was anaemic, and deeply concerning, long before that. The only place where Labour have even come close to matching what remember was only its average performance under Ed Miliband is Tooting in June 2016, where they achieved a swing of 7.25% towards them. Since we know from polling and last year’s Mayoral election that Labour’s support has not retreated in the capital to the extent it might have done elsewhere, that’s yet another confirmation of everything else we thought we knew from what data we have.

No Opposition in the modern age has taken power without getting quite a swing towards them in Westminster byelections held at this stage of the Parliament. No party has fully and without help replaced another in Downing Street with a move towards it that was below double digits. At the moment, the tide is flowing quickly in the other direction – just about as quickly, actually, as it was towards David Cameron in 2006-07. Don’t trust polls? Trust real votes. The picture is pitch black and still darkening for Prime Minister Theresa May’s opponents, and they know it.

Monday, 27 February 2017

What is the meaning of Copeland and Stoke?

Sometimes we get stuff wrong. Well, quite a lot of the time actually. But speculation - even inaccurate speculation - is part of how we learn. So it is with the UK Labour Party's loss of Copeland in Cumbria, and the swing against the party recorded in Stoke-on-Trent Central. We said that Labour probably wouldn't lose either seat. History was against such an outcome. The data said that serving governments just don't win by-elections against the official Opposition. They certainly don't in the seventh year of an austerity regime that has just spent months tearing itself apart over Brexit. You know what? Theresa May's Conservatives did it. They had a phenomenally good night, not only taking Copeland for the first time since the 1930s (above), but blunting the United Kingdom Independence Party's challenge in Stoke too. There shouldn't be any champagne left within a five-mile radius of Conservative Central Office. We said it couldn't happen. It did. Sorry.

It's time now, therefore, to turn to what those results mean. First, Labour's good news. UKIP probably aren't going to smash their way through Labour's heartlands in the same way that the Scottish National Party have done in Scotland. They had a pretty torrid time of it in Stoke, with their leader battered by a string of allegations that he had been, well... not entirely measured in everything he had said. Their vote went up only a tiny bit, in a seat which had voted heavily for Leave in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. Their vote fell in Copeland. They're not going to be taking many Labour seats any time soon. Their brand is just too toxic. The entire reason for choosing them on the ballot is rapidly diminishing as Mrs May steals all their ideas. Their pivot from seeking Conservative votes, to wooing Labour defectors, just seems too crude. Her Majesty's Opposition is going to be Labour's title for as far as the eye can see.

The really depressing thing for Labour comes when we look at why that is. It's because the Conservatives did so well. UKIP weren't able to persuade Conservatives to vote tactically for them in Stoke, where Labour's vote share was actually lower than in Copeland. The Conservatives outstripped their recent performances in both seats, confirming that they really are riding as high in the polls as it appears. In fact, given that the Copeland swing was bigger than that implied by polls (part of the reason we thought that Labour would probably cling on there), opinion polling might still be rather underrating them. 

It is very, very hard to get across just how unusual the Copeland gain is, and just how potentially frightening it is for Labour. Governments have increased their by-election vote share only seven times since 1970: two of those occasions rolled along last Thursday night. It was the first time the Government has seen its vote rise in two simultaneous by-elections since 1954. That Copeland result was the single biggest rise in a government's by-election vote since 1966. Yes, there have been government gains from the principal Opposition party since the Second World War. But Mitcham and Morden, in 1982, was really down to the split between Labour and the new Social Democratic Party, since the defeated incumbent had moved from the former to the latter. Yes, in 1953 Sunderland South went blue, but you could explain that by reference to a Liberal intervention where they had been no such Liberal candidate in 1951. There was Brighouse and Spenborough in 1960, but there the Conservatives hauled in a tiny majority that had amounted to only 47 votes in the 1959 General Election. As Matt Singh of the Number Cruncher Politics website points out, you have to go back to 1878 to see anything really comparable to this Labour debacle.

Now Copeland is a special place. The nuclear industry is critically important to its economy, and Trident is important in the south of the seat. No doubt that hurt a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, with decades of opposition to the nuclear industry and nuclear weapons behind him. But the really scary thing for Labour is not the industrial mix in Copeland. It's the class mix. It's quite a working-class seat, and the party that sees itself as standing up for those people's interests and ideas just lost it - badly. Working class voters have been drifting away from Labour since the early 2000s, of course, but the trend of disillusionment and disengagement now seems to be accelerating. Take a look at the very latest YouGov opinion poll (opens as PDF), and you'll see that the Conservatives lead Labour in the C2DE social class category by ten percentage points (38 per cent to 28 per cent). Labour are just nine points ahead of UKIP with these voters. They're filing out of the Labour tent. Gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, but steadily, lots of traditional Labourites are just switching off. The new model Labour Party always tried to claim that it might be able to win elections by raising turnout. That looks a distant, forlorn prospect right now. Reader, we're prepared to bet that turnout in (by then ex-) Labour areas will be low indeed by 2020.

What did we say, back in January? Well, this: if Labour did lose one, and especially both, of these seats 'they probably face a defeat that cannot even be described as a catastrophe. Such a result would be a sign of impending cataclysm: the opening of a political black hole from which there may be no escape'. Now that might be a bit overcooked, actually, especially given UKIP's complete failure to move forward on any front. But there is now at least the possibility, at one end of the bell curve, of an actual Labour meltdown. Mr Corbyn is in all likelihood going nowhere. He's entrenched as leader, and he can't be removed. He's ludicrously unpopular overall, and he's dragging down his party, though among better-off Britons Labour isn't doing quite as badly as it is amongst those aforementioned C2DEs, and it's at least holding out in London and some other big cities. Eyewitness accounts in Stoke back up the numbers: among young people and students, Corbyn-Labour is pretty popular. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of such voters to prevent a really thumping marmalisation in a General Election, and in the age of Individual Electoral Registration, all-expat voting and a rapidly ageing population, their significance is about to depreciate rather than increase.

This is not the likeliest outcome, by any means, but a 1931-style rout cannot now be ruled out. Flying blind with a comms team that seems able only to speak in a weird kind of pseudo-English fixated on 'bargain-basement tax havens' (whatever that means), and which spends its limited time on this earth threatening parents with their own children's death, is... sub-optimal. As they put up utter neophytes for trial by interview, and go on being 'directed' by a 'Shadow Cabinet' totally unmatched to the task before them, the risk of Labour's complete annihilation seems to grow by the day, if not by the hour. A General Election campaign might be fronted by Mr Corbyn losing his rag with reporters and John McDonnell shouting at imaginary plotters, backed up by amateur dilettantes unable to get even the most basic press release out in a timely fashion. If that does happen, the Conservatives could well end up with a 1930s-style clean sweep. Copeland is a warning: a clear siren of danger in the blue skies and the sharp air of February. All democrats - all citizens who believe in a viable multi-party system, in electoral competition, and in good governance - should listen. Heed the warning, before it's too late.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The National Health Service is going to need more money

All the attention recently has been on grand strategy. What's Donald Trump going to do with the American Presidency? Who's going to win the French Presidential election, and might a Le Pen victory break up the Euro and even the European Union? What's the future for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation? What should NATO's relationship with Russia look like? Where should Britain look for its trade partners now it's leaving the European Union? All critical questions - all worthy of the obsessive comment that they've attracted.

Little noticed amidst the great storm of populism's great disruption has been a mounting drumbeat of trouble in Britain's public services. They've been able to bear the brunt of public service spending restraint for a long time: partly because in the initial stages there are always some cuts to be found, partly because of the commitment and professional ingenuity of public sector workers, and partly because the Government slowed down the pace of cuts after 2012/13. But now the knife has passed through the muscle and - after a pause - is poised to hit the bone.

Take the National Health Service. There's scarcely anything that Britons as a whole agree about these days, but access to good modern health care, free at the point of use, is probably one of them. Here Theresa May's Conservative government, so popular overall for its approach to Europe - and the paucity of any alternative - is about to run into trouble. The NHS is being asked to save £22 billion over the next few years, and that just looks undeliverable. These 'efficiency savings' will involve in many parts of the country a radical transformation of hospital provision, which in some areas will be scaled back in ways that voters perhaps have not yet quite realized. The NHS has been rising up voters' lists of unprompted concerns for some time, and it's now started to leap right up to the top of citizens' concerns. It's the most-named as being one the most important issues in the latest Ipsos-Mori figures, and it's the second-most critical single issue after Brexit itself.

Why? Well, partly because it's all very well to say that you're going to reshape hospital services, get more efficient, and collect services together at one single hub. But when you come to look at what that means on the ground, it's going to be pretty unpopular. Mrs May is finding out about all that right now, as she tries (and fails) to defend the closure of local maternity services in Cumbria - much to the opposition of local people about to vote in the Copeland by-election. Then there's the question of what you're going to do once you close all those beds. If there was a consistent and ordered plan for social care, and for looking after elderly and vulnerable Britons, all this would make sense. But there isn't. The Government does not seem to have the merest clue what to do about the ageing population and its likely increasing need for care at home and in the community. There's nowhere near the resource in Britain's health system to cope now, let alone when hospitals try to push demand back onto local authorities who hardly now know which way to turn. Britain's recent winter health service beds crisis is just one more proof of this outstanding fact.

Take a look at the historical averages. Britain has actually spent rather little on health care since the Second World War, relying on a notoriously tight-fisted Exchequer for the money needed when other European countries had smaller, more multifarious legions of social insurance contributions to press into use. But, usually, inputs went up. Sometimes they went up fairly quickly, as in the 1960s between the Hospital Plan of 1961 to the spending cuts that followed devaluation and the economic crises of 1967-68. There was a bit more money at times during the Conservatives' long period in office between 1979 and 1997, notwithstanding the tough, painful, often inefficient 'savings' of the early 1980s and 1990s. Then there was a massive, massive splurge under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, bringing satisfaction with the NHS to record highs, and cancer treatment (among many other parts of the field) to an impressive and modern pitch that UK citizens probably thought they'd never see. Now? The Government is forecasting a pitiful, halting crawl forward into the next Parliament. It's not enough. It's never been enough before, and it certainly won't be in age of new technology, novel techniques and new drugs.

Whitehall and Westminster's spending plans simply won't be enough politically either, as the winter beds crisis partly caused by social care's incapacity and the Government's problems in Copeland demonstrate. Already the politically-damaging images have begun to turn up. People lying on trolleys in corridors. Babies sleeping on a couple of plastic chairs. At the moment, yes, the official Opposition is totally useless, and can barely get a press release out, let alone hold the Government to account on these great issues. If you think shouting 'evil Tories want to privatize the NHS' amounts to real opposition, you'll be surprised when there's a Conservative landslide. Very few people will now be surprised by that outcome, but it could change. Labour with a new leader, a new communications team, a more competent grip of language and style, could be a threat to the Government, even in 2020, and certainly in 2025. If the NHS is falling apart at the seams, just as it appeared to be in the mid-1990s, Labour can grasp that lifeline. It won't bring them back to power on its own, but it will grant them the oxygen they need to survive as a national party of government.

The NHS is going to need more cash. Chancellor Philip Hammond has a bit more money at the moment, given that the economy is a little bit stronger, post-Brexit, than some commentators believed it would be. He's going to have to spend some of his reported £12bn windfall. But that's just going to be a short-term fix. Unless British politicians as a whole can establish some sort of cross-party agreement that will last through many Parliaments - settling the vexed question of social care, building up some form of social backing for and emotional capital in more NHS spending - then that money will just be a sticking plaster.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The internet in the age of illiberalism

It will not have escaped your notice that the age of liberal globalisation, which began some time in the mid- to late-1970s, is now under attack from every angle. What seems to be happening is akin to Europe's shift away from popular and liberal nation-building, and towards nativist populism and protectionism, duringthe 1860s and 1870s. The phenomenon was a little delayed in the United States - but even the US got there in the end. Those developments were generally thought to be in retreat by the outbreak of the First World War, but at the time they created a whole new wave of customs barriers, bureaucracy, statism, spying, officiousness and national 'competition' at every level, from the scramble for colonies in Africa to the scrabble for state-led 'competitiveness' in terms of health and education: national health insurance, of course, proved alluring to governments worried about the vigour of their so-called racial 'stock' just as much as it appealed to socialists worrying about equality.

Economic globalisation has stalled or slowed, rather than gone backwards - so far. But what is really noticeable is the return of the state, not in the optimistic, expansive, join-the-dots, one-stop-shop guise of the 1990s, but in the paternalistic, meddling, micro-managing format imagined as a key part of Theresa May's premiership. Third Way approaches in the Blair-Jospin-Schroeder era were optimistic, and they possessed to some extent an eschatology - that sense of an ending that posited that governments were going somewhere and had an end point in mind. As befits Mrs May's Conservative (and Tory) roots, and to a lesser extent Angela Merkel's Christian Democracy, what we are looking at today is a less rosy (though still historically very recognisable) creed, a day-by-day, get-through-the-challenges pragmatism of intervention that would push meddling forward without end: a new sheltering of the mind, perhaps, but also, and more seriously, a creeping protectionism of the soul.

That's where western states' increasing authoritarianism and moral monitoring - emphasising especially electronic and online policing - come in. The internet, in its 1990s guise a ceaseless, restless and above all inevitable progenitor of worldwide progress, has become something to fear or circumscribe, perhaps to all our detriment and danger.

The UK Government's recent Investigatory Powers Act - and its Digital Economy Bill, currently coming to the end of its Parliamentary passage - are good cases in point. There's no doubt that law enforcement agencies have a tricky job balancing citizens' right to privacy with the state's duty of care. Nor that new social media technologies are emerging all the time, and that Britain's legislative superstructure had failed to keep up.

But consider the drawbacks of such legislation, of which there are many - disturbing in practice, as well as in principle. Bulk interception of your private data is now permissible whether or not you are suspected of anything at all. Bulk collection of your browsing data is mandated for twelve months - not in itself perhaps a catastrophic element of these laws, but a standing danger to personal security if hackers (especially foreign governments) take a keen interest in any individual or group. It won't just be the security services and the police having a good old root around your emails, by the way: the Department of Health, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Home Office can request access as well. Trust them to keep it all under lock and key? No, neither do we. The Government, and Internet Service Providers, are by the way deeply uncertain about how to do all this safely: given these concerns at the highest levels in Whitehall and industry, some alarm is probably warranted. It's hard to see, in the new intelligence landscape, how any of this is particularly wise from a national security point of view either. If you're reading this in the UK, other powers within the UK's long-established security network might well now have access to your data - including the USA. That is not, shall we say, an entirely encouraging thought in the present political environment.

The whole basis of bulk data interception and retention is also deeply contested: not only is the Investigatory Powers Act as finally enacted a bit of a mess, but the UK government's similar recent practice in this sphere has recently been ruled illegal anyway by the European Court of Justice. Now, yes, Britain is heading out of the European Union, but a new Great Repeal Bill is going to incorporate all that European statute in British law, so governments will find no escapes or short cuts that way for some years to come. Invasive, unwise, potentially unsafe, a potential threat to individual and national security: this is the character of a top-heavy state in the new age of conservative intervention.

The Digital Economy Bill that's currently before the House of Lords has the same inherent flaws, and the bureaucratic nightmare you might create if you pushed it to its logical conclusions is if anything even worse. There seems to be no limit to the state's ambition in this particularly baggy and poorly-drafted legislation: data can be thrown around Whitehall for the purposes of looking at citizens' 'contribution to society', or their 'health and wellbeing', whatever that all means. There's an apparently absurd and unworkable ambition in there to classify and censor every single video on the internet: yes, every single one. All very laudable on the surface of course, but as instructive as everything else that's going on at the moment about the nature of the stern and judgemental state we're in: proposals for 'migrant lists' assembled by employers, region-by-region immigration rules that would see migrants having to show their papers in different parts of the kingdom, global threats to web neutrality and non-proprietary systems that would see the whole online world slow down to a crawl.

As the liberal-global era appears to recede, and the contest between populist and conservative globalisation begins to remove its potential as a potential category of choice at all (while social democracy struggles even to gain a hearing), this sort of format might be one we just have to get used to. So the questions before public policy might no longer all be about economic intervention and resource redistribution, less about equality of outcome or opportunity, and more about the efficacy or otherwise of security versus liberty; state morality versus secularism; borders, policing, regulation and control against that fissiparous, ragged yet energetic spirit with which we've all lived since the late 1960s. It is a doleful prospect, displayed via different histories in - for instance - Hungarian and Polish politics revolving around just those axes. But that's where we've been before, and it might well be where we're heading now.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Short-term noise: long-term challenges

Sometimes it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball. As the news flak flies about, and event piles up on event, the idea that you can stand back, take a breath and have a think becomes more and more alien. Scrolling down your smartphone alerts, the longer-term trends are hard to keep a handle on. But everyone needs to do that. Beyond the Article 50 shenanigans in Parliament is the ultimate shape of a trade deal between the UK and her future partners and rivals; behind the French and German elections is the question of how Europe defends itself – economically as well as militarily – if the Americans will not; beneath the populist turn in electoral politics lurks a series of very nasty questions about our culture, our shared public space, our very definitions of state and nation. 

That’s why it’s handy to have a historian or two on tap. Not too many, mind: we hold no brief to advocate the mass production of history experts. But you just can’t grasp what’s really going on without a long-term perspective. That might come from disciplines far removed from academic History – from Sociology, Statistics, even theoretical Physics – but it has to come from somewhere if public policy is even to begin answering the really big questions in front of us. Here’s a few, in no particular order, to which we might start raising our eyes.

Why is our labour productivity so abysmal? The UK’s productivity per worker has not moved upwards much since the crisis of 2007-2008 (above, courtesy of the Office for National Statistics page on this topic). That’s not a phenomenon limited to Britain, and indeed even Germany has suffered a sharp slowdown on this indicator, but it is particularly acute in terms of the British workforce. Diagnosing the problem is critical to any roster of solutions. Why has it happened? We’d be tempted to pinpoint long-term sociological trends – the role of chance in spreading inheritance around the system, rather than investing in the skill and endeavor you require if you don’t have any money passed down to you. But so sudden is the change, and so obvious the axe-blow to productivity’s upward drive, that the reasons look more proximate, more precise. Is it the blow to confidence, or the ultra-low interest rates that superseded very low rates as a reaction to the developed world’s economic heart attack? Is investment too low? Is the UK hunkered down in its retail sector bubble, hiding from the chill-but-clear winds of competition? Is the labour market so full of eager young people working long hours waiting tables – performing roles that are notoriously hard to capture in terms of any rising efficiency - that the UK just can't innovate all that much, or even picture the rising tide if it is there? Are wages just too low, too squeezed, even as the quality of the UK workforce rises? It’s hard to tell, and while all this remains difficult to pin down, we’re not going to be able to do much about it.

How can we overcome the new culture of risk? It won’t have escaped your notice that older voters have apparently decided to burn down the entire world. Oh, Brexit’s risky is it? Who cares, let’s have a go anyway. Allowing people to raid their pensions pots might force them to fall back on the welfare system? Whatever: let’s see the cash. What’s that you say? Young people need houses? I’d rather see a field out of my kitchen window, thank you very much. Now, we know that’s a very crude caricature and we’re sorry about that (we’re not, really): but if this goes on, the myth of a generational war of old against young will gain an ever-greater hold on our public life, and make governing much harder. What if average London house prices overtop one million pounds? What if Britain crashes out of the EU without a good deal, there’s a recession, and youth unemployment soars? What if the National Health Service buckles under the pressure of an ageing population that needs more and more help, while their younger relatives are too far away – working two or three jobs at once – to assist? Then there’ll be a war of the generations, all right. So the question here becomes: how can older Britons – indeed, not-so-young citizens across the developed world – be encouraged to think more squarely about their grandchildren's interests? Can they be coaxed, or will they need to be forced, to buy extra insurance for their residential care? Will the Government honour its pledge to cap care charges, so that ageing Britons can take up any extra strain by buying tailored packages to pay for unexpected costs? Will taxes on land and property – overwhelmingly owned by older people – have to go up to take the strain? How can their enormous store of goodwill and knowledge be tapped, helping to relieve the resentment caused by being treated as one of society’s appendages? Again, these are questions, and not answers, but they are at least probably the right questions.

Can we recapture our daring? Many of our problems are indicators of decline – warning signals from a tiring, conflicted, petty and distracted society that is rapidly becoming relatively poorer in the face of developing societies’ deep and sustained challenge. The very values on which democracy depends – a shared frame of reference, accepting at least the good will of your opponents’ arguments, the idea of rational betterment and step-by-step reform – are wobbling, just a little. So the question here becomes: how can we coax our respective political tribes to emerge from their deeply-dug trenches, to engage with each other on the basis that they at least mean well, and that they at least share the same rules? One way to do this might be infrastructure spending, long hoped-for as a point of contact between Congressional Democrats and the new Trump administration in the US – at least before their relations were placed in the deep freeze given the uproar over the President’s use of Executive Orders. Here in Europe, the toxic admixture of single currency politics, essentially preventing peripheral economies devaluing their currencies at the same time as fiscal and structural remedies for their ills are ruled, is a roadblock on progress. But there’s no reason why the EU regional funds can’t be vastly increased, in an era of probably-rising but still very low interest rates; there’s no reason why the UK cannot increasingly tap China’s vast need for investment, and build anew - as the country did in the Victorian era. What we need is the political will to punch through: to ignore the Nimbies and the vested interests, just as this week’s UK Government White Paper on Housing so obviously failed to do. It’s more than possible. Whether it will actually happen is more doubtful.

That’s just three of the key dilemmas before us. We could go on and on. If the US will not upheld the Paris Treaty on climate change, will China take up the challenge? How quickly does China want to step up, lead the world and keep the peace – especially in the South China Sea? Will automation steal more jobs and make the culture wars even more acute? The world of leaders and plots and caucuses really pales into insignificance when compared to these big historical questions. Keep these issues in mind, when the detail of events comes up at you. They’re not background noise. They’re the symphony.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Prime Ministers fly too close to the sun

Prime Ministers usually ride high at least once. So it was on Friday night, when Theresa May (above) looked in general to have pulled off a tricky mission on her trip to Washington, DC. The new US President, Donald Trump, is deeply, deeply disliked in Europe: Mrs May had to get close enough to him to keep dreams of a decent trade deal alive (and the Western security alliance on the road), while not alienating her own voters. When she walked out of the White House - and misguided, unfortunate handholding aside - she looked like she'd managed it. Taken together with a forceful speech on the likely speech of Britain's exit from the European Union, and a well-received address to US Republicans that even contained some shade and nuance, most observers were thinking: is it skill, or just luck, that keeps her bandwagon on the road? Whatever it was or is, everyone could do with some.

But that was Friday. By Saturday night, the visit looked like a burning car, overturned in the rear-view mirror as everyone tried to get out the neighbourhood. News of President Trump's ill-conceived and deeply counter-productive asylum and immigration Executive Orders had broken, to widespread protests across both the US and UK. That was bad enough. But Mrs May's refusal to come out against them during her visit to Turkey made the impression that she was hand-in-glove with a dangerous right-wing demagogue stick to her like oil from the aforementioned car wreck. Basically, diplomatic victory had turned to political defeat in not much over 24 hours.

Now Mrs May will get away with this one, if she learns her lesson: not to get quite so close, physically, politically, imaginatively - to The Donald. She's going to have to get pretty close, now that Britain's going for a complete and clean break with the EU, but cosying up itself has got to be off the agenda. Otherwise, she's going to get burned by every single stupid stunt, nasty mendacity and straight-out, burn-the-world nihilism he comes out with during the next three years and ten months. 

Mrs May doesn't need to worry too much at the moment. The main Opposition Labour Party isn't up to a pillow fight right now. If there was any real action, they'd disappear in a cloud of their own making. They don't even look like they want any power, let alone think that they should have power. But one day there'll be an opposition worth the name, and she will have to concern herself with what the voters think. In the meantime, there's that more amorphous beast to deal with: Conservative MPs, the views of party members and the deep, slow-to-change feelings of Middle England that lie behind them. If she allows the impression to gain a hold that she is leaden-footed, slow to react, not decisive in a crisis, it's feeling there will slip remorselessly away from her. Then she'll really be in trouble.

None of this comes as much of a surprise to historians. Prime Ministers have always walked a tightrope between success and failure. The gap between them is often much thinner - and the time taken to descend from one to the other much shorter - than you would think. Anthony Eden, elected in a landslide victory of his own in 1955? Humiliated by the catastrophic Suez Crisis in 1956, and bundled out of office, shunted onto a good long 'holiday', early in 1957. Harold Macmillan, again triumphant at the polls in 1959? By 1963, he was so distressed and wrung out personally, and his stock has plummeted so quickly amidst recession and a failure to get into the European Economic Community, that he announced his resignation to a stunned Cabinet that would happily have soldiered on with him as its leader.

You could play this game with all of them. Harold Wilson, swooping down decisively on the crisis when the Torrey Canyon oil tanker smashed into the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall in the spring of 1967, never recovered from his devaluation of sterling the following November. After three years defending sterling's parity, when he tried to make a virtue of its new dollar value, it just did not ring true: nothing was ever quite the same again. Edward Heath, triumphant in finally getting Britain into the EEC, brought low by the oil crisis in February 1974; Jim Callaghan, who skilfully brought country and party through the IMF loan and pegged inflation back, dragged down by the Winter of Discontent; it gets to them all in the end. Margaret Thatcher thought she could buck that tide, of course, but her own intransigence over Europe and the Poll Tax did for her; even after John Major won the unlikeliest of come-from-behind victories in the General Election of 1992, he faced his own devaluation catastrophe just five months later. Tony Blair's Iraq, and Gordon Brown's election-that-never-was, well, you know about them.

David Cameron? Well, when he stood on that table cheering on the Liberal Democrats' drubbing in May 2015, he thought he had finally secured a Parliamentary majority. Little did he know that he had replaced one set of herbivorous and harmless housemates with much, much more dangerous enemies: extreme Eurosceptic nationalists who were determined to bring him down at any cost, a mission in which they proved successful. 

Mrs May should take heed: one day, one of these sentences will apply to her. Something out there - maybe Trumpism, maybe Brexit if it turns out to be an economic disaster, more likely something completely different - will bring her down. The seeds of that fall from the sun will probably be planted at a moment when she feels most successful - closest to the heat and warmth of power itself, in fact. A bit like she probably did last Friday.

Are there lessons from all this? Well, beyond the injunction to get done what you want to do, as fast as you possibly can, while you have power, there might not be that many elements that can be anything like codified. One important point is that you will probably make your most important mistake at the moment of your greatest success, partly because of overconfidence, partly because of events pressing around you, possibly because no-one will say 'no' to you. Watch for that. But probably the deepest lesson is this: your days in No. 10 are numbered. They are probably short. Behave as you would want to see yourself when you look back. Because you're going to be looking back at these decisions for an awfully long time. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Labour will probably hang on in Copeland and Stoke

Now 2017's up and running properly, two pending byelections now due in February will give us some indication of how British electoral politics is looking. Labour is defending two seats - semi-rural Copeland in Cumbria (above), mainly famous for the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, and the rather more urban Stoke Central in the potteries. So what's likely to happen?

Start here: nationally, Labour is in a mess. You knew this already, of course, but the party's cruel dilemma over how to approach the UK's exit from the European Union - no fault of Labour's leaders, in and of itself - has made things even worse than they might have been. Yesterday former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg rightly warned that Labour's vote could be drawn away in two directions, from the Right by the United Kingdom Independence Party, able to call for a rapid and ragged Brexit, and from the Left by the Liberal Democrats themselves, ready and willing to pose as the party of Remain. In two seats that voted heavily to Leave the EU, Labour's liberal (but confused) stance on immigration and its at-least nominal commitment to Remain will hurt them. Jeremy Corbyn's deep unpopularity will hurt them. Their gradual cultural estrangement from their own voters will hurt them. Their own divisions will hurt them. There is even panicked talk - almost certainly overdone, if it is not deliberate expectation-managing spin - that Labour might come fourth in Copeland. You get the picture.

So should we expect Labour to lose these seats? Not so fast. It's actually incredibly difficult for sitting governments to win seats from the official Opposition. Not unreasonably, voters like to give any administration a bit of a risk-free kick, just to keep them up-to-date on who's boss. Most seats' holders will usually have a reservoir of well-liked and hard-working party activists to draw on for candidates, while parties without such a rich history in any seat will have a much sparser bench of talent. The government down in London might face any sort of popularity-eating problem in the few days leading up to any poll - think of the recent National Health Service beds crisis - and that would hit their poll on the day.

Note in this respect that the Conservatives - Labour's main challengers in Copeland - are not riding all that high in the polls compared to their General Election victory just a couple of years ago. On average, they stand at about 40 per cent - so they're only two per cent or so up on 2015. Labour have fallen a little bit more than the Conservatives have risen: on a six-poll rolling average they're attracting about 27 per cent of the vote, down about four per cent since the last national vote. The swing implied? Just over three per cent. The swing needed for the Conservatives to gain Copeland is 3.23 per cent. Even if we just took the opinion polls at face value - and they are absolutely excellent for a government in its second term - they wouldn't quite make it. Nor is there much sign in local by-elections that the Conservatives are storming ahead in real voters. Over the whole of last year, there was a small move from Labour to the Conservatives, of less than one per cent - nowhere near enough to give the Conservatives a gain here. And with a massive nine per cent or so swing needed for the Conservatives to grab Stoke Central - a seat in which they would have to come from third to first - that doesn't seem all that likely either.

And UKIP? UKIP's record in traditional British elections is awful. They can win seats on regional lists in European elections, taking advantage of an election and a system that enormously favours them, but they have never won a Westminster seat where they weren't taking advantage of a sitting MP defecting to them - not even Eastleigh in 2013, at a time when the Liberal Democrats should have been sitting ducks. UKIP has been experiencing a collapse of its vote in recent council byelections (perhaps because it relies on voters who are less likely to actually turn out than other parties). And it's gone absolutely nowhere in previous Westminster byelections, either since the last General Election or the referendum. New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is standing in Stoke, and he may think that he's the answer to Labour (or ex-Labour) voters' prayers, but his ratings are very poor - even among those voters who have an opinion about him, since 'don't know' is easily the winner when pollsters ask people about him. At least he's turning up and putting his trousers where his mouth is, so to speak - unlike previous UKIP leader Nigel Farage, notoriously wary before he'd commit himself to likely defeat in byelections. But he's not likely to be as effective as many media boosters think he will be.

The history of these contests tells us a lot about how unlikely Labour losses are. The last time a governing party gained a seat was 1982 - at a time when Labour was even more split than it is now. And there have only been two such occasions in the last sixty years. Yes, Labour did lose a couple of contests (Bermondsey in 1983 and Greenwich in 1987) to the famous Liberal/ SDP byelection machine in the 1980s, but since the Liberal Democrats are very unlikely to win either of these seats, a Richmond Park-style shock seems even less likely than Conservative or UKIP victories. If we look at the data on all such contests since 1983, as polling expert Matt Singh does in this post about Copeland, you'd expect Labour's majority to increase, not decrease, even adjusting for present polling. Only using data from the recent Sleaford by-election - for a seat won in 2015 by the Conservatives and not Labour - can you make Copeland look competitive. If history holds - and we accept that we live in uncertain electoral times - these seats should stay Labour.

Nor does local intelligence from either Copeland or Stoke really speak to the kind of earthquake that Labour losses would require. The party is unpopular, sure: many of its traditional voters didn't like the Remain campaign much; in Copeland, it faces the additional headwind of Mr Corbyn's past opposition to nuclear power. But there are pluses for Labour too, not least local anger about the state of the local hospital in Copeland. Have we really heard the explosive detonation we'd expect if there were to be a total collapse of Labour support - have we felt the rushing drumbeat that will mark the moment the dam bursts? We don't think so.

Now perhaps all this doesn't matter all that much. With Donald Trump in the White House, likely to instigate a naval faceoff with China just as quickly as he can - and then to eyeball the Russians over Iran's nuclear programme - what happens in a couple of vacant British Parliamentary seats isn't really anyone's idea of the first order of business.

Nor are these byelections likely to change Labour's political trajectory. One gets the impression that Mr Corbyn could trail by twenty five points in the polls and lose hundreds of council seats in May - and he'd still be re-elected against any challenger. The results are also unlikely to matter much even in narrow electoral terms. If Labour hangs on to these seats, as we think they will, they probably still face a very severe drubbing in the next General Election. If they lose one (and especially both of them), as they still might, they probably face a defeat that cannot even be described as a catastrophe. Such a result would be a sign of impending cataclysm: the opening of a political black hole from which there may be no escape. But in a way: so what? European social democracy as a whole is in rapid retreat, and the speed of its recessional is not particularly important.

But the point remains that we will learn something from two Labour holds: that Labour's voters are not quite giving up the ghost just yet, and that although they dislike the party's leader and are happy to moan about him on the doorstep, the Conservatives and UKIP are seen as an unappealing alternative. And that tells us something else: that however bad things seem right now, Labour will probably still recover - one day.