Thursday, 16 November 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is now likely to win the next election

It will not have escaped your notice that this blog spent some time during the 2015-17 Parliament predicting electoral disaster for the British Labour Party. That didn’t happen, for reasons we’ve attempted to lay out here (and trailed here), but that’s not going to stop us peering forward into the near future. That’s, for one thing, a natural and necessary part of all collective life, so as to winnow out the consequences of choices and trends evident now. But even more than that, it's important to say that prediction doesn’t necessarily seek to get everything right: it searches for truth through falsification, validation and those precious errors that actually tell us something.

So where are we going at this moment? Well, unless something really big changes soon, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (above) is now rather more likely than not to become Prime Minister within the next few years. What follows will be a sketch of six key reasons why we are now moving our outlook towards what American election forecasters would sum up as a move to labelling the race ‘lean Labour’, though they are by no means exhaustive.

One. Polling. Though there are plenty of people willing to tell you about how rubbish polls were at June’s General Election, they did better than punditry and rumour, which is all we’d have if we didn’t have any polls at all. They also got a bit closer to the aggregate result than in 2015, really missing the target ‘only’ in terms of the Labour score. Even then, commentary failed much more than polls: just as with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, most poll interpreters couldn’t even process the evidence of their own eyes. By the time election day had rolled around, even a crude polling average told you that Labour were within an average error, and not far outside even the statistical margin of error, of forcing the Hung Parliament that they managed. Don’t get us started on this one. Anyway, just using a crude average now, Labour lead by one or two percentage points. That’s more than enough, if that was indeed the result, to take power – even if that’s as a minority government in quite a weak position. The first reason to say that Labour might well win is exactly the reason we came to that conclusion by the end of this year’s campaign: the numbers say that it is so. Past prejudice shouldn’t get in the way of that.

Two. Tory infighting. It won’t have escaped your notice that the Conservative Party seems to be having some sort of complex psychic meltdown. Clear, dynamic government seems to have simply stopped, and when that happens, all the ordnance that might miss you just lands right amidships. At the moment, the fires are threatening the weapons store, and the whole ship might just blow up in front of us. It’s not the number of scandals and disasters that is so notable. It’s the role that factionalism play in them. The now-ex Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, seems to have been done in by his Cabinet ‘colleague’, Andrea Leadsom. Michael Gove seems to be making the Government’s travails over the Iranian imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe even worse than it might be by defending his fellow Brexiteer, that scheming-but-useless charlatan otherwise known as ‘Foreign Secretary’ Boris Johnson. The downfall of now ex-International Development Secretary Priti Patel was in part due to her bizarre pursuit of an independent foreign policy, conducted perhaps in the hope that she would one day be Prime Minister. Well, let us hope that she won’t be. There are two major themes in all of this. First, it illustrates the weakness of the Prime Minister, confirming all our worst fears since a Hung Parliament began to hove into view during early June. And secondly, it shows the divisive power of Brexit, the single most complex set of policy dilemmas faced by any government since 1945. Which brings us to…

Three. Brexit. Brexit is now the gravity well sucking in everything in the British public policy sphere. It. Is. Everything. Nothing much will happen outside of Amazing Brexitworld for at least the next four years, and perhaps for at least the next six or seven. This will have several consequences. For one thing, the Conservatives will have no time or energy to renew themselves in office. That’s always hard, and Ministers in the end just end up tired out, as Labour were in 1950-51 or the Conservatives became in 1996-97. Although any organic image here is more analogy than analysis, there is a sense in which governments just reach their natural end. By 2022, the Conservatives will have been in office for twelve years. Only once since the Second World War has such a task been carried off (in 1992). Given that they’ve got to manage Brexit, that seems even less likely than those numbers suggest. Also important here is the very real split that the Prime Minister has always papered over – until now – between really hard-core Brexiteers and more pragmatic Tories. If the UK at least stayed in the Customs Union, the problem of any ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland would go away, as would the nightmare of re-setting all of Britain’s trade arrangements with the world beyond the EU. If she stayed in the Single Market, or at least mimicked it very closely, any danger of increased regulatory and other non-tariff barriers to trade would be avoided as well. But enough of Theresa May’s backbenchers are theologically attached to Brexit-at-any-costs that they might well split the party over any deal that she brings back. Labour MPs will make up the gap, no doubt, as Whigs and Liberals did when they came to the aid of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1846. But that will leave the Conservatives more divided than ever, and right-wing Tories hopping mad with rage. They managed to blow up John Major’s premiership in the mid-1990s. They might well be about to do it again.

Four. The economy. Another under-written element of the Conservatives’ 2017 debacle was the fact that real wages were falling by the time voters got to the polls. In 2015, incomes were rising strongly, helping to explain David Cameron’s surprise majority. The economy isn’t everything on polling day, but it is something, and something important. The next few years look likely to be pretty gritty. Real wages will probably stop falling so sharply over the next couple of years, as the wave of inflation kicked off by sterling’s Brexit devaluation passes out of the system. But interest rates are now likely headed on a very slow, but steady, route upwards. Britain’s productivity performance is so bad that there is a fixed upper band on wage rises, which cannot really be anything – overall – but mediocre-to-weak. In real terms, they might just stagnate. And a load of welfare cuts are about to hit the low paid, slashing benefits under an arbitrary cut and squeezing working tax credits. That will lower wages at the lower end of the scale, where the Conservatives actually did okay at the General Election. All the while, post-Brexit growth is likely to be slow and stuttering, even if we are not hit by another recession – for which, by all post-war standards, we are more than overdue after more than a decade of slow but persistent growth. The economy isn’t going to save the Government, as it did Mrs Thatcher’s administration in 1983 and 1987. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Five. Labour campaigning. All the – shall we say – Momentum is with Labour right now. They have the fired-up activists. They have the glint of righteousness in their eyes. They have the socially just cause, from the tragedy at Grenfell Tower to Boris Johnson’s appalling blunder over Iran. But it’s more than that. They are just better at campaigning. It’s not the mass membership, though that can’t hurt – financially, if nothing else. It’s the sheer sophistication, scale and persistence of their methods, especially on Twitter and Facebook. Some extraordinary stats came out of the 2017 campaign, but perhaps most shocking of all was that more than half of the Facebook users in some key seats had been reached by the Labour social media team. If we take a look at (say) the Tory Instagram game versus Labour’s Snapchat, the latter is miles, miles and miles again ahead of the former. That helps to explain the age gap yawning in our policies, of course. But it also suggests that campaign-phase Labour might be able to get even more traction than it is at the moment. The Conservatives entered the 2015 campaign more than twenty points ahead. If they go into the next neck-and-neck, the new networked methods championed by Labour's younger and enthusiastic activists might carry all before them.

Six. The Trump-gasm. The President of the United States is – how shall we put this? – not the most popular person in the world. His US ratings are terrible for a President at this stage in the cycle, and in Europe his numbers basically approximate those enjoyed by smallpox. Theresa May has felt the need to hug him close in the past, because she needs some sort of US trade deal (and American help elsewhere) if Britain’s diplomatic position isn’t to cave in entirely. But if he manages to clinch a state visit to the UK, or if his awful numbers decline still further, he’ll stink up the British government by association. If there is one fixed point in Mr Corbyn’s intellectual firmament, it is dislike of America and all its works. It is his luck – alongside all the other stars lining up for him – that he is Leader of the Opposition at a moment when most British people agree with him. When ‘America’ meant Barack Obama, many Britons regarded it with at least curious affection: now its public face is orange with rage, they regard its politics at least with horror. Any new crisis in which the UK seeks to line up with Trump’s America – in East Asia, perhaps, or the Middle East – will erode further the Government’s room for manoeuvre. It doesn’t matter who you are: you can’t poke the President of the United States in the eye too much if you want to get things done. For now at least, Mr Corbyn can. That will help him.

Let’s be clear here: this isn’t much of a cause for celebration, at least on this blog. Corbynism has a positive face, which is its opposition to the cruel and deeply unnecessary public sector austerity of our times - likely to get worse, by the way, before it gets better. But it has another, much darker mode, since it also embraces a toxic 'new politics' of paranoia, denialism, conspiracy theorising, ‘context’-mongering, Trumpian gaslighting, overly-partisan shouting-from-the-rooftops, borderline and not-so-borderline racism, social media hatefests, fantasy economics and private school play acting. Its progress in this age without truth is instructive in that, like the rest of our politics, it’s not clear whether this paroxysm is a symptom of extreme immaturity in what is new, or the advanced dotage of the old order. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

Still, the victory of what for want of a better word we might here call a ‘phenomenon’ now seems fairly likely. Not very likely, mind you. Not overwhelmingly likely. Quite likely. A sort of ‘more than evens' likely. That long list above looks over-specified and over-determined now that we stand back and look at it, and each point could well fall apart quite quickly if things change. The Conservatives will probably get a new leader before they face the voters again. A new President may well replace Trump in 2020. The economy might speed up as it rides in the slipstream of world recovery. It’s not as if we haven’t seen everything change like lightning in the recent past, is it?

Not only do we have to get used to marginal thinking, rather than just calling things as the black and white that only newspaper critics seem to see: we must also realise that almost nothing now turns out like we think it will. America’s leader in the political stats field, Nate Silver, has a new rule in this respect: the commentariat's conventional wisdom will always be wrong. It’s suspicious that now everyone reckons Corbyn will win. It smells of over-correction, and the buyers’ remorse of loads of people who like to think of themselves as pretty clever, but feel Mrs May has just made them look very stupid. The herd now says Corbyn. The herd could be wrong. Keep that in mind.

All of this goes against all our own initial instincts, too – representing nearly as concerning a development as Brexit itself, or that extreme phase of Blue-Red Mayism that sought to ‘Crush the Saboteurs’. These twin populist appeals are actually just two faces of the same incoherence: that especially nasty affectation that treats rageful emotion as an end points that everyone knows is no answer at all. But as to one side’s victory over the other: well, when the facts change, we change our minds. What do you do?

Next time, in our December blog, we’ll examine what might become of the Corbyn government projected here. What will it seek to do? What will be the effects? What are the risks and opportunities? That might be getting ahead of ourselves, it’s true, but as an exercise in future history it should be useful. Laying out such a government’s choices, and their likely effects, should show the possibilities and limits before Westminster and Whitehall as we move forward into the uncertain world of post-Brexit governance. Hope to see you there!