Sunday, 7 April 2019

Newport West in historical perspective


It probably won’t have escaped your notice, amidst all of the UK’s political chaos right now, that there’s just been a Westminster by-election for a seat in South Wales. Or, at least, you won’t have missed that if you’re the sort of person who reads this blog – in which case, read on, because this month we’ve got an absolutely bumper load of data for you on exactly how to judge last week’s electoral contest in Newport West. It was a fairly easy Labour hold for Labour's Ruth Jones (above), with a majority of nearly 2,000, and although Labour’s vote fell quite a long way, so did that of the Conservatives in second place. So: a dull night, then? Not so fast. Actually – and you’d expect to say this, but bear with it – if we look at Newport West in historical context, it tells us quite a lot.

How to see it? Well, we’ve crunched all the numbers on equivalent contests in the modern era – since 1979. We’ve taken a look at every byelection while the Conservatives were in office (between 1979 and 1997, and then again since 2010), in which the Tories and Labour started the race in first and second place. Just an arbitrary sample in a way, perhaps, but necessary to look at Labour’s performance while out of power, and to screen out all those byelections where either of the two big national parties were so far behind that relative moves in their vote share didn’t mean very much. It turns out that there have been 69 of these, so not just a tiny number, and two variables in particular seem of interest. First, how far did Labour’s vote share rise or fall in relation to the seat’s result in the previous General Election? And what was the two-party ‘swing’ between Labour and the Conservatives – that is, how much did Labour’s vote share fall or rise in comparison to the increase or decrease of the Tories’ score? All this just to gain a proper sense of how well or badly the two parties did in Newport last Thursday. Which we hope is a useful public service.

Now, as election guru Matt Singh from Number Cruncher Politics has pointed out, you would expect the main Opposition party to do well on these occasions, and for the governing party to do badly. Sending Ministers a message – usually a rude one – never goes out of fashion. So when we’re looking at these 69 byelections, it’s no surprise that almost all of them (57, to be precise) saw Labour gain on the Conservatives. And just under half (33, since you ask) saw Labour’s vote share at least stand still or increase – no mean feat when voters often think they can have a free swing in these contests, and vote for smaller parties to make a point rather than to form a government or ‘keep the other lot out’. So, in a straight fight with the Conservatives, Labour has usually done well in Parliamentary byelections.

They have even been doing well when we look at their performance since the Conservatives returned to office in 2010. You can see that from the chart you can see just below, and also from House of Commons reports on both the 2010-15 and 2015-17 Parliaments. Despite Labour’s many internal arguments and their unpopular leaders, only three of the Labour-versus-Tories byelections held since David Cameron entered Downing Street have seen Labour fall back against the Conservatives. In one of these, they experienced one true disaster – the loss of Copeland in Cumbria, which at the time appeared to herald near-apocalypse for the party at the ballot box. The other two examples weren't nearly so bad. In the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham in 2016, they started off miles behind and only just slipped behind UKIP and the Liberal Democrats; in Lewisham East in 2018, there was a Lib Dem surge from third in Remainery London that still gave Labour a huge majority of over 5,600. In every single one of the other contests, they won – and often handsomely, as at Corby in 2012. They took a classic marginal then on a good and chunky twelve per cent swing, and looked if not set fair for power then at least very competitive and credible.


What springs out immediately from the data is that no such positives were visible in Newport West. Take a look at the top twenty falls in the Labour vote visible in the table that follows. In all of our sample of 69 seats, Newport West saw the ninth biggest fall in the Labour vote. That’s, well, sub-optimal, and it’s an even worse finding when you look at some of the absolute drubbings in the list above the Newport contest. Bermondsey in 1983, when Labour’s candidate Peter Tatchell was subjected to a horrendous and very personal campaign of vilification in part based around his sexuality, and in the last stages of which Conservative voters defected en masse to the Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes, to defeat Mr Tatchell. The disaster of Mitcham and Morden in 1982, a byelection held at the height of the Falklands War which saw the Conservatives manage the very rare feat of taking a seat from the Opposition as a sitting government. Crosby in 1981, in the first flush of the Social Democratic Party’s first success and with one of its most popular leaders, Shirley Williams, seizing the seat from nowhere. Warrington that same year, where Roy Jenkins came within two thousand votes of unseating Labour. And so on. Byelection catastrophes to make any Labour person wake in the middle of the night – which are the only scores that are worse than the party’s vote share tumble last week.


The story is similar if we look at the two-party swing, as you can see from the next table: here we also have the ninth worst head-to-head performance. Some of the same candidates for ‘worst Labour byelection of the modern era’ beat Newport West to the tape, including the aforementioned Copeland in early 2017, held at a time when Labour looked about as popular as a stink bomb in a lift. And famous contests such as Glasgow Hillhead in 1982, when Jenkins as the SDP’s first leader finally made it back to a Parliament as he surged past both Labour and the Conservatives. Oh, and Beaconsfield, where a young Tony Blair was routed by both the Conservatives and pushed back into third by the Liberals – again, as at Mitcham and Morden, during the Falklands War. Quite a list of debacles, and Newport West only just lags behind them.


What about contests in Wales, if we take them as a separate and discrete list? Well among Welsh contests, as you can see from yet another table ranking their performance by share of the vote (below), this is the worst Labour have done in the modern era in terms of both the change in the Labour vote and two-party swing. There have been quite a lot of falls in the party’s vote share here, actually reflecting in part Labour’s dominant status in some of these seats (hello Neath, Islwyn and Pontypridd). When you basically have to weigh the Labour votes rather than count them, it’s easy to fall a bit from a high perch. But reflect also on some of the contests where Labour has done badly in the past: on the Gower in 1982, there was an SDP surge, while the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, did exceptionally well at Neath and Pontypridd in 1991 and 1989 respectively. Never has Labour done anything nearly this badly when the Tory vote held up, and indeed closed in on them a little.


So there we have it: the historical context of Newport West. We can argue about what it all means until we’re blue (or red) in the face, but you can’t argue with the numbers. This was a very poor performance by Labour. If we look only at Labour-versus-Conservative byelections, out of 69 straight fights it was the party’s ninth most dismal performance of the modern era in terms of both vote share and Labour-to-Conservative swing. Not much to write home about if you’re on the Left, really – and quite encouraging if you support the Conservatives, who despite being in almost complete chaos at Westminster are doing sort-of-okay in local council byelections as well.  

What seems to have happened this time is that there’s been a fracturing of the Labour and Conservative votes towards almost every other point on the electoral spectrum, with more liberally-minded and pro-European Remainers moving away from Labour towards Plaid, the Liberal Democrats and even the new Renew Party. Remember: even when seats are supposed to be for ‘Leave’, like Newport West, most of the Labour voters there were Remain in 2016. Given the movements of public opinion in general, there are also likely to be even more Remain now. Rather unsurprisingly, they don’t seem well-disposed towards Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s endless equivocations on the subject (or, to be honest, in general).

And Newport’s ex-Conservatives? They seem a bit friendlier towards the United Kingdom Independence Party than they were in 2016-18, a period during which the Conservatives’ leader, Theresa May, could however implausibly pose as the leader and sponsor of Leave as a whole. Now she’s had to bend to reality and compromise with the other 27 countries in the EU, her more Eurosceptical supporters are peeling away. The two main parties also seem to be tarred with the brush of the darkly comic imbroglio of Meaningful and Indicative Votes unfolding at Westminster. Frankly, they look ridiculous, and lots of voters are pretty angry about it.

This isn’t new. As this month’s blog has indicated again and again, byelections have often seen the big two’s dominance challenged. The Liberals and SDP threatened to tear up the whole rulebook in the early 1980s, and battered both the Conservatives and Labour at Glasgow Hillhead and Bermondsey. MPs defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP easily beat both the Tories and Labour in the late autumn of 2014, winning both Clacton and Rochester and Strood at a canter. So we’ve been here before, and we can use this backdrop as a comparator and guide to scale at least.

It’s not so clear that Newport West can serve as a signpost for the next General Election. As we noted after the Barnsley by-election all the way back in 2011, the way people vote in safe seats and in localised conflicts doesn’t necessarily map onto who they want to be Prime Minister. Oldham West in late 2015 indicated to many sceptical observers that Labour’s vote under Mr Corbyn was likely to hold up rather better than many experts thought – but Uxbridge in 1997, and Ipswich in 2001, proved to be false dawns for the Conservatives in Opposition. 

So what we’re not saying here is that Labour is going to do particularly well or badly at the next General Election. The indicators are mixed. The two main parties are pretty much neck-and-neck in the latest polls. Given the potential for party splits over Brexit, almost anything could happen on the national stage over the next few months. But what we are saying is that Newport West was a bad, bad night for Labour when you look at the historical context. Not really catastrophic like Bermondsey, Mitcham and Morden or Copeland, but pretty bad. A nasty flu, rather than pneumonia. But as we all know, if you don’t pay attention when there’s something wrong, it can get worse pretty quickly. Behind the celebrations in Newport West, Labour people must know that it was a very weak performance in which victory hid more than it revealed.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Why are England's universities in trouble?


Under the radar, and away from the benighted question of Brexit, Britain’s public sphere is in a terrible state. Hospital waiting lists that miss targets for years on end. Schools that can’t open five days a week. Councils selling off whatever property they can – and closing libraries, public toilets and youth centres faster than ever before. Hence, of course, the appeal of a more Left-wing politics these days – a perfectly appropriate response to a crisis in our shared space and common ownership.

The situation in England’s universities is no different. Away from the headlines – dominated of course by Britain’s disastrous and chaotic retreat from the European Union – England’s Higher Education Institutions are now struggling for cash. Many of them are now laying off staff, usually in a voluntary manner, but at some institutions in a widespread and sometimes desperate cull designed to save institutions from bankruptcy. At least one institution has had to be bailed out already. Rumours abound about the numbers who will get seriously into trouble if the situation gets any worse. It won’t just be a little handful, that’s for sure.

All of this has got drowned out for lots of reasons, not least the easy answers that are often rolled out when you raise this issue. ‘Well’, people say, ‘Vice-Chancellors shouldn’t pay themselves so much’. ‘Okay’, bystanders shout, ‘don’t build so many new shiny buildings then’. But although there are examples of bad behaviour and bad practice in both those spheres, that isn’t the real reason England’s universities are now struggling. This month, ‘Public Policy and the Past’ is going to take a look at the true causes of the cash crisis – a quiet but poisonous policy disaster in the making. And as ever, the answers are more surprising and revealing than the knee-jerk responses so popular on social media.

Demographics. For all the expansion of postgraduate taught and research student numbers, universities’ core business is still undergraduate teaching. But there’s a problem here. This academic year and next, the number of eighteen-year olds will reach historic lows that are far below long-term trends. There simply are not enough young people to go around – and since this government and the last have done their best to destroy the part-time and second-degree provision that used to play such a positive role across the board, that is acting as a structural drag on HEIs’ income. This situation won’t last. If the share of each cohort going to university stays the same, the rising birth rate from 2001 onwards will mean that the numbers of eighteen-year olds will rise steadily (and by over twenty per cent) in the decade after 2019/20. But universities have somehow got to bridge the gap between here and there. At the moment, shedding staff and ambitions, they’re at risk of destroying teaching provision and knowledge that will be desperately needed in the 2030s – one of the problems of the largely unplanned system we have built ourselves.

The free-for-all. One problem English universities now have is that they can’t plan ahead with any degree of certainty. Back when George Osborne was Chancellor, which yes, does feel like about a thousand years ago, he decided to take the cap-in-detail off student numbers entirely. The idea being that a ‘market’ could emerge, in which students could choose exactly where they wanted to go. Universities can now sign up as many students as they can manage. The predictable outcome: some universities went on an expansion drive to end all expansion drives, delving ‘down’ the traditional hierarchy for students if needs be. So a kind of malign Mexican Wave developed. The Russell Group kicked the middle-ranking institutions. They kicked down. Newer universities kicked new universities. New universities kicked themselves. But as the absolute numbers of young people declined, a huge amount of instability was injected into the system. Some ‘research’ universities which could rely on prestige from the past basically became teaching factories. Some ‘teaching’ universities began to specialise in profitable research, consultancy and spin-offs. No-one knew exactly how many students to expect every September. And some institutions got really nasty shocks when far fewer students actually turned up. University life took on more and more of the characteristics of merry-go-round or tombola, rather than the hallmarks of education.

The rising tide. University income got a welcome jump-start back in 2011. Tuition fees set by the incoming Coalition administration were supposed to usually stop at £6,000 per annum, only rising to £9,000 in certain circumstances. Well, of course universities set themselves immediately to jump all the barriers to charging that higher figure, and almost all of them did immediately apply the top price tag. So far, so good. But there was a problem. The quid pro quo of a one-off funding boost – replacing more than the Government was withdrawing in teaching grants – was first a total freeze on incrases, and then an inflation-based formula that in an age of subdued prices held back universities from raising their prices more than one or two per cent every year. But in a sector like education, where most costs are staff costs (or which are in a few fields related to scientific and technological change), inflation at the sharp end is actually much higher than the background number. So universities’ costs slowly approached the £9,000 per student fee over the last decade, then overall matched it, and have now overtopped it. Put simply, there simply is not enough money in the system.

The ageing professoriat. One of the reasons those costs move up higher than any increase in fees is the structure of the academic profession. Once you’re on a scale as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and the like, you get to move up one increment on the pay scale every year until you reach the top salary point for that role. And of course you then usually apply for promotion, and if you’ve been teaching, researching and publishing as you should, likely you’ll eventually get that promotion. What that means, and what that means especially in a world where there are fewer and fewer permanent entry level posts, is that the professoriat is expensive. Add to that the effects of vastly increased management surveillance and government pressure on performance indicators – meaning that staff increasingly meet the criteria for progression – and it’s an increasingly costly picture. You will probably have heard about last year’s university strike, caused by a complex mix of the pension scheme attempting to de-risk its investments and deeply questionable assumptions about yield and risk – but for now the upshot is that pensions, too, have become pricey. Add it all together, and universities basically now cost more to run than students are being asked to pay. The Government could easily make up that gap – for now – but the political drive is, shall we say, conspicuous by its absence.

The building boom. It won’t have escaped your notice that campuses look great these days – if you like a lot of glass and steel. Now this has mostly been a boon to Britain’s very competitive and very successful Higher Education sector. Vice Chancellors were usually right to rebuild. Campuses from the 1960s and 1970s were often, well, knackered: teaching needs and modes have changed; environmental standards have moved on, making energy-hungry teaching blocks seem like a throwback to the days of coal and lead; very low interest rates have meant that governing bodies can lock in cheap borrowing for capital. So far, so good. But the rush to build has also been rooted in the same helter-skelter hyper-competitive race for student numbers that is making finances so hard to plan. Prospective students and their parents are not the gullible consumers that many critics imagine: they are of course impressed, not so much by the buildings themselves, but by the care and investment in the future that they represent. Still, there’s little doubt that the sector has overshot. Very low interest rates won’t last forever; some institutions have borrowed too much, and not always on the most advantageous terms; some prestigious universities have imagined that their huge and rapid expansion can be maintained forever, in terms of the level if not of the increase. Basing their capital plans (and therefore their debt maintenance) on that model may turn out to be a huge error.

Bad policymaking. It will not have escaped your notice, on the top of all this, that the UK’s policymaking community has been making rather a hash of things of late. From Universal Credit to Chris Grayling’s train timetables, the capacity to react to Brexit and the need to update services, is just very low. It can’t be done at the same time as satisficing with a much smaller and less experienced state apparatus. Consider the situation from Vice Chancellors’ perspective. Will they be able to bid to the European Research Fund? Will they still have access to the Erasmus student programme that allows EU students to study across the continent? Will they still be able to attract the best and the brightest EU staff? Will the Government allow them to uncouple student visa numbers from their absurd overall immigration targets? The answer being: right now, who knows? So they will draw in their horns until the storm has passed – except, the way things are going, the storm may never pass. The Conservatives in government look ready to slash tuition fees and make universities absorb some of the cost – while preventing potential students from lower grades accessing the student loan system at all. Labour, for their part, want to abolish fees altogether. And if you think the Treasury will pay up for that, we’ve got a really nice bridge here we can sell you. On top of Britain’s longstanding research and development deficit, its ailing infrastructure, the anti-intellectualism that passes for much of our collective life, the path ahead looks more than steep and winding. It looks impassable.

Here, then, are the six real reasons why England’s universities are struggling. It’s not Vice-Chancellor’s pay and too many new buildings. It’s a matter of student numbers, impossible planning, rising costs and poor policymaking. All the signs are that things will continue to deteriorate – perhaps quite rapidly – before they get better. If they get better. The fantasymongers that pass for the two main parties are about to make it worse, just like they poison everything else they touch. The current rash of redundancies will assuredly snowball, and a small number of perhaps very high-profile universities which have expanded furthest and fastest will threaten to go completely belly-up. What will governments do then? In the case of redundancies, nothing, because those job losses will make the sector cheaper. In terms of actual threatened bankruptcies, though, things are trickier. Should central government bail the stragglers out, or let the unlucky victims fail before reconstructing them later? That will be the test for Whitehall and Westminster, who will yet again have set themselves a challenge that should never have arisen in the first place.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

UK polling: what's going on beneath the surface?


So one thing Polling Club would tell you, if there were such a thing, would be to look beyond the headline Voting Intention numbers that the hard-of-thinking throw around all the time. They’d also tell you not to talk about Polling Club, so it might exist after all, but that’s another story. Anyway. Since we took a perhaps ill-advised look at those very topline figures last time, this month we thought ‘Public Policy and the Past’ would take a look below the surface – at the numbers that might really determined who commands the House of Commons after the next election. Hopefully, it’s imminent, and thousands of numbers will soon pour across screens that for now remain sad and empty. So this is not a – shall we say – completely academic question.

The don’t knows – where are they now?

As you’ll also know if you were with us in January, one key to any election is the Don’t Knows, the Won’t Says and the Refused. Say one in five survey respondents tells you that they’re not sure who they’re going to vote for – even though they’ve clicked on the invite. Now imagine that they are not a balanced or normal sample of voters – that they all actually favour one ‘side’ or the other. That means that your nice clean 50/50 split from the poll might actually blow up into a lead of twenty points on polling day. We’ve actually got a good recent example of this, because in the lead up to the 2017 General Election a huge slice of ex-Labour voters had gone over to Don’t Know. And hey presto, by polling day most of them were back, boosting Labour’s score higher than even its surge in the polls guessed at.

Where are we at with this lot now? Well, the most recent evidence shows that they are now more likely to be voters who chose the Conservatives in the recent past, not Labourites disillusioned with the Party’s recent, well, troubles. Take the most recent Ipsos-Mori Political Monitor. Only five per cent of 2017 Labour voters are now completely unsure how they would vote. Only three per cent of ex-Conservatives say the same – though the numbers of ‘won’t vote’ pretty much even up the score of those who’ve shed supporters to ‘unsure’ or ‘won’t turn up’. In the last Survation poll, which returned a slight Labour lead, Conservative ‘not sures’ were 10.5 per cent to nine per cent. ComRes’ last poll showed that Don’t Know and Won’t Vote were tied at five per cent of their past supporters. And so on. One of the causes of what polling fail there was in 2017 came from citizens who weren’t sure which way they’d jump – who turned up to be Labour voters in disguise. That doesn’t seem to be holding this time.

Leaders… and the lack of them

Leadership ratings are usually a good indication of voting intention. When Neil Kinnock and John Major fought it out in 1992, one indication of how well the Conservatives were actually going to do was the Prime Minister’s leader on ‘best Prime Minister’. When David Cameron was more popular than Ed Miliband, the suspicion stuck that there was something ‘wrong’ with the headline voting figures. And so on. So we need to look at these numbers too, to test visceral reactions to the parties’ main personalities as figureheads and lightning rods. And what we find here is very interesting – that Theresa May is unpopular in a normal way, at about the level one would expect for a Prime Minister who’s now nearly three years in power, while Jeremy Corbyn is very, very, very unpopular – indeed spectacularly so, and probably more unpopular than he has ever been.

Let’s take a look at this historically. After a long period of slowly deflating, recent rows over Brexit and antisemitism appear to have done further damage to Mr Corbyn’s already-tarnished brand. Ipsos-Mori’s Political Monitor for January has just given him the highest Unfavourable rating that any Leader of the Opposition since 1977 has ever recorded – bar none – and the second-worse net result (of -55) after Michael Foot in August 1982. Now in a world of increasingly fluid political loyalties, it might not be particularly surprising that these scores are less ‘sticky’ as it were, but that’s still an absolutely dreadful result. Theresa May, on the other hand, has a net score of-25 (with 33 per cent satisfied). This is obviously pretty bad too: for comparison, Donald Trump given some rather different questions has an overall rating of -15 (itself the second-worst in history). But Mrs May’s rating is about the same as Gordon Brown’s and David Cameron’s at this point in their Premierships, and better than John Major’s numbers at that point. So it’s not particularly remarkable. Mr Corbyn’s favourables do now on the other hand appear to be at an all-time low, since they have also reached the same trough with YouGov. Those statistics might recover – they did, after all, surge very rapidly during the 2017 General Election campaign – but for now what we can say here is the Prime Minister is unpopular, and the Leader of the Opposition is very, very, very unpopular.

The extraordinary longevity of the Scottish National Party

One of the main battlefields next time will be Scotland. Which is one of the reasons why the next General is so unpredictable. Labour must make progress here to govern with an overall majority. The Conservatives must try to hang on to their impressive 2017 gains if they are to get anywhere near an absolute advantage in the House of Commons. At the moment? They’re both falling back - Labour slightly more than the Conservatives - in the face of a small but noticeable bump in support for the Scottish National Party. Partly we suspect because they have that vital political quality of clarity when they talk about Brexit, and partly because the Conservatives’ main star Ruth Davidson has been absent on maternity leave, the SNP have been clocking up some pretty impressive poll leaders – which is extraordinary when you think they have been in power in Edinburgh for over a decade. An average of the last two Scottish polls puts them on 38.5 per cent, up from the 36.9 per cent they gained last time. Labour has fallen back rather, from 27.1 per cent to 23.5 per cent.

This matters a lot. Seven out of Labour’s top twenty targets are held by the SNP, and all of them have majorities under 1,000 voters which will fall on a swing of less than one per cent. Right now, polling says the SNP will hold them all. Yes, Labour can govern without making a single gain in Scotland. But the more they win there, the less they will have to rely on and listen to SNP leader Nichola Sturgeon, and the less in government will they risk English voters’ ire by appearing to rest on Scottish voters and Scottish MPs. Looking at the other side of the equation, the Conservatives have eight seats vulnerable to the SNP on a swing of less than five per cent. These are much less vulnerable on the whole than Labour’s vulnerable Scottish outposts, but the small size of Scottish seats (and a fall in turnout between 2015 and 2017) means that we’re not talking very many actual votes here – perhaps three or four thousand at most. Lose just a few of those, or worse face SNP voters who stayed home in 2017 coming back to the polls, and the Tories could lose a scattering of absolutely vital seats. At the moment, the SNP has advanced enough to put all but one of Labour’s seats in danger, but not far enough to expose more than the Tories’ Stirling seat. None of this changes the size of likely Commons coalitions. But if the SNP push forward any more, the balance might start to change again as Conservative seats come within their range.

The unbearable lightness of council by-elections

Last but very much not least, we really should take a look at local council by-elections – contests that go on round the country week in, week out – and for the most part with very little fanfare. Sure, these are low-turnout affairs, they often throw up eccentric results, and in various parts of the country they are contested by local or regional parties that have very little chance of winning a Parliamentary seat. Last Thursday night, a Tower Hamlets-only party won a ward off Labour, while an excellent and surprising Labour win in deepest Buckinghamshire was rather marred by the fact that their candidate had been suspended from the Party before the polls had even opened. So you can’t put a vast store by these results. You can, however, use them as a broad-brush overall guide to exactly where the parties are. If one of them was absolutely tanking or surging, you would expect to see it show up here.

Except that’s not what we see at all. In fact, the overall stasis that we observe from the national Voting Intention headlines is borne out here too. There has been a small swing from the Conservatives to Labour since the 2017 General Election, though one that seems to have become a little less powerful over time (for now disregarding the small number of results we’ve had in 2019). The swing is a modest 2.3 per cent since the last General Election, and since the 2018 local elections it has been running at just under the two per cent mark. It’s not exactly a King’s ransom for the Opposition, especially when we note exactly when these wards were last fought. They were last up for election in the 2015-18 cycle, four local elections in which Labour certainly did not do very well. They lost the National Equivalent Share of the Vote in three out of the four, and only in one of them (2016) did they squeak ahead, that time by a single point – 33 per cent to 32 per cent. So this two per cent swing means that Labour might overall be on average there or there about with the Tory score – exactly what we would expect from the opinion polls. It’s not much of an insight, but as with ever confirming what you think you already know isn’t nothing.

Inner mechanics and outward appearance

So there we have it. Below the big-ticket numbers, there are a number of very interesting things that we can say about any upcoming General Election. What we know about the Don’t Knows tells us that they are not so maldistributed as they were in 2016 and 2017. Labour is unlikely to be able to draw on such a ready-made pool of sympathetic voters again. Another surge might happen, but it will need a different source this time. Leadership ratings are a bit trickier, because Mrs May has made clear that she will not fight any election held in the medium- to long-term. If there’s an election soon, though, her numbers will matter. And they’re really bad – though not so bad as Mr Corbyn’s, who is about as popular as video rental. Again, that might change, just like it did in 2017, though to come back from these lows twice might be a harder ask again. For now, amazingly, the Prime Minister has the edge.

In Scotland, Labour face a greater challenge than do the Conservatives, not that it will matter in terms of who will sit in Downing Street – the SNP could not possibly do any sort of deal with the Conservatives. Even so, what really matters there will be whether the Conservatives lose more than one or two seats. If they don’t, so much the better are their prospects of retaining power. Local by-elections tell us that we are probably are reading this all aright – that the two major parties in England and Wales do seem to be locked together in a macabre political struggle to bestride the realm of the unpopular. This time, the inner mechanics of what we know seem to confirm the words up in lights. It might not always be so: we’ll keep tracking the detailed churning of the data, and get right back to you if things change.

Update, 12 February: YouGov tells us more

No sooner had the blog above been posted, but pollsters over at YouGov published an update of results from their famous Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification model (or MRP for short). Now although this got things pretty much spot on at the last election, we shouldn’t deify MRP as anything more than an interesting new piece in the puzzle. But it is pretty much the closest thing we have to the state of the art right now, and it’s where most polling is going. Take an absolutely massive sample, and map it onto all sorts of turnout and demographic data, and you can much more accurately project a seat-by-seat analysis. And lo and behold, what YouGov have found is pretty much in the ballpark as all the straws in the wind above told us. The Conservatives do indeed have their noses in front, as their continuing hold over their 2017 voters, their leadership ratings and council byelection results have been indicating they might. Labour are as we suggested going backwards in Scotland, with five of their seven seats there in deep danger, and none of the Conservatives’ Scottish seats looking likely to fall to the SNP. So – it all fits. We’ve got a good (if blurry) picture. Whether that scene withstands the Brexit hurricane or an actual election campaign is another matter.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

What are the polls telling us about a snap election?


There is quite a lot of talk at the moment about the possibility of a snap election in the UK – of Prime Minister Theresa May trying to break the Parliamentary stalemate over Brexit by changing the composition of a Parliament that seems too confused about what it wants to make any decision at all. So this month, we thought we’d take a look at the polling and ask: what does it tell us about the standing of the parties right now?

First things first: overall Voting Intention numbers. If we take an average of each pollster in the field’s January report, we get vote totals that look rather like: Conservatives 38%, Labour 37.8%, Liberal Democrats 9.4%. So the Tories would be down 5.5% on their 2017 performance; Labour will have shed 3.2%; and the Liberal Democrats have advanced 1.8% since the last national contest: but the swing from Conservative to Labour over this Parliament would be only 1.15%: and that means the Government has actually made a very small amount of progress over the last twelve months. A year ago, those numbers actually reported a slender Labour advantage, rather than the tiny Conservative lead that we see now: Labour were on 41.5% as against the Conservatives 40.3% and the Liberal Democrats’ 7.3%.

So the ratings of both major parties have taken a hit over the last year, both drifting downwards a tad as the Liberal Democrats’ polling looks a couple of points healthier. But really, for a number of reasons, there’s even less to that change than meets the eye. You win seats under the First Past the Post, and how many votes you get regionally or nationally don’t come into it. Here, the picture has moved perhaps even more glacially than the overall numbers. So many seats are on a knife-edge that a really decisive break in one direction or the other would pile up the numbers in the Commons for whoever leads the charge; but at the moment, that just isn’t happening.

If we take those overall averages and also factor in sub-national polling from Scotland, Wales and London, in January 2018 we would have expected a House of Commons that looks rather like this: Conservatives, 293; Labour, 283; Scottish National Party, 37; Liberal Democrats, 14; Plaid Cymru, 4; Greens, 1. Right now, we’re looking at something more like Conservatives, 301; Labour, 268; Scottish National Party, 42; Liberal Democrats, 17; Plaid Cymru, 3; Greens, 1. So in a whole year of sound and fury, the Conservatives have moved forward by less than ten seats, while Labour have moved backwards a bit more, partly because of what looks like a deteriorating situation in Scotland: they’ve gone backwards in our virtual election by fifteen MPs, and forward on their unexpectedly good 2017 showing by just six seats.

That means even less when we look at what those numbers would mean in terms of forming a new government. In both situations, those seat totals add up to a Hung Parliament in which Labour would likely try to form a minority government relying on the support of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. The only difference is the security and stability delivered by a deal between those two parties. Labour plus SNP in January 2018 looked like 325 seats; just about enough on their own to govern for quite a while, with vote-by-vote support from the minor parties. Now that picture looks slightly less rosy for those two parties: they only add up to 310, not enough without the Liberal Democrats (and probably Plaid and some liberal Tories) to do anything much at all.

This is a strange kind of stasis. We appear to be living in a period when the parties might fracture, or even break up. Their discipline in the House of Commons seems almost shot. Frontbenchers on the Opposition side are even allowed to rebel against a three-line whip and keep their jobs. There has been a chemical weapons attack on British soil, killing a British citizen. Brexit is casting a pall over everything. Public services look increasingly threadbare, and in some cases (for instance if we look at homelessness and rough sleeping) appear to be failing altogether.

But the public are just not moving. The vote totals are stuck. It is our contention that voters are so fed up – a fact that you can see in almost all the qualitative and quantitative evidence – that they’ve got into a 'plague on all your houses' mindset, promising to vote for one team or the other just because they hate the alternative. With both parties retiring into their own increasingly bizarre and fantastical comfort zones, these wide but thin coalitions might last for quite a long time.

Ah, Labour partisans say – but look at what happened in the last election, where we surged from the mid-20s to more than 40% in just a couple of months. Once reporting restrictions are introduced to give due balance to the Opposition, and once Labour gets out in sunny rallies and canvassing with its huge membership, then these numbers will be transformed. There’s probably something in that case, too: strategically, the Conservatives have very little to the public except ‘delivering Brexit’, which is likely to consolidate their base without reaching out to any new voters. And Labour’s domestic policies – nationalisation, higher taxes on the rich, more public spending – are undoubtedly pretty popular.

It is however possible to doubt that any Labour gains during the campaign will be on anything like the scale that they managed last time. For one thing, there is just much less of the vote to bite into. The Liberal Democrats were polling higher than they are now at the start of the 2017 race, and the United Kingdom Independence Party have gone from polling in the teens then to mid-single figures now. For another, the number of don’t knows that were once Labour is far smaller than when Mrs May made her ill-fated break for it in 2017. As the Bristol University academic Paula Surridge explains here on her blog (using YouGov figures) there were many more ex-Labour undecideds from 2015 at the start of the 2017 campaign than there were uncertain Conservatives. That allowed Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to squeeze voters who preferred Labour, but who weren’t sure about him and his agenda, by urging to come home and ‘stop the Tories’. But that gap has now been reversed or closed altogether. There aren’t the don’t knows to make the same sort of progress.

Other pollsters confirm this picture. Take the first ComRes poll of the 2017 campaign: 11% of 2015 Labour voters said ‘don’t know’at that point, as against six per cent of Conservatives. The last ComRes poll we have in 2018 records 15% of Conservatives as uncertain, as against 13% of previous Labour supporters. Labour might indeed do quite well in a campaign. But they seem unlikely to jump upwards quite so vertiginously as they did in 2017.

What does this all mean in practice? Well, the exact polling numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt. For one thing, UK polling has a mediocre rather than a bullseye record of predicting General Election results even just before the poll, let alone months or even years before it happens. As US polling guru Nate Silver noted in 2017, the average error on UK polls fifty days out from a vote is exactly six points on the margin between either the two sides in a referendum or the first place and runner-up slots in a ‘normal’ election. That means that our tiny Conservative lead of 0.2% could actually end up meaning anything between a 6.2% lead and a 5.8% deficit on any polling day in March. Even poll numbers from the week before have a five-point error margin. The biggest miss from the week before is 9.5% (at the 1992 General Election). That means that it should not completely and utterly shock us if the Conservatives ended up either winning a snap election by 9.7% or losing by 9.5% - not much of a guide to anything, you might think.

Secondly, the whole country is entering the white-water phase of any political crisis, where the thrills and spills make you feel sick rather than excited: it’s perfectly possible that one or both main parties will splinter, with breakaway groups forming and recrimination spreading. There’s even potential for a really unplanned or disorderly Brexit, which will likely bring about more disruption and therefore political upheaval than any emergency since the miners’ strikes, the three-day week and the winter of discontent in the 1970s. It is likely that if we do crash out of the European Union, the Government will get much of the blame; but even that is unpredictable, were the Conservatives to be led into a snap election by a Eurosceptical leader who blamed everything on Eurocrats and foreigners.

Third and last, it’s important to note that everything we’ve written above is based on averages – the safest, but by no means foolproof, way of going about measuring any group of indicators churning so dynamically. And the polling differs. One pollster, YouGov, is showing a consistent Conservative lead – of five points at the last count. The others aren’t, and the last reports from pollsters Opinium and Kantar actually gave Labour three-point leads. Relying on YouGov alone would give us a House of Commons would look like: 331 Conservatives, 241 Labour, 37 SNP, 19 Liberal Democrat, 3 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green. The Tories would gain a small absolute majority that looked very much like David Cameron’s in 2015, though with a rather different geographical spread of where their seats actually were. But if we take YouGov out of the picture entirely, each party’s total of MPs would likely look much more like the average, with perhaps a handful of seats going over to Labour from Conservative.

Even so, the polling does tell us something, and that’s why it’s better than nothing – just as it told us a lot during the 2017 General Election campaign, during which both main campaigns whispered to anyone listening that they didn’t believe the surveys showing a Labour surge upwards. Well, the polls were right about that, and the canvassing data and human intelligence was wrong. So it might prove again. The polling tells us that the parties are running pretty much neck-and-neck, that the remarkable longevity of the SNP’s popularity in Scotland looks to be still holding up, and that Labour looks unlikely to make the same gains during the next campaign as it did during the last one. In short: any General Election would be a massive gamble for all concerned. Right in the middle of the bell curve of probability is a Hung Parliament that produces nothing very useful except the chaos that populists love so much: but at one end (with YouGov) the Conservatives win a majority, and at another (with Opinium or Kantar) Labour have enough MPs to govern, albeit without much comfort. That is the heat map of where we would land if there were a General Election tomorrow – which, of course, there won’t be.

Now, that level of precision (or lack of it) might be a poor return for all the work everyone is putting in. It isn’t a Rosetta Stone. But it isn’t nothing either. Such is the world of known knowns and known unknowns – and of statistical art and practice, rather than science. Experts, in this case pollsters, do know things: it’s just that they don’t know everything. They can map out the landing zone. The rest is up to you.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Five more days that made Corbynism inevitable



Despite all the alarms and excursions of recent months, if most of the recent opinion polls are right, Britain’s Labour Party are still heading for government. Yes, maybe they’ll be in a minority. Yes, maybe they’ll be reliant on the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats if they want to actually pass any legislation. Yes, Britain might be back at the polls (yet) again pretty quickly. But as Theresa May’s remarkable stickability shows, and James Callaghan showed before her as Prime Minister between 1976 and 1979, there’s a huge amount that even a minority government can do to cling on for much longer than you’d think.

That’s why we took a look, last month, at eight of the key dates that gave us ‘Corbynism’ – that strange amalgam of radical rhetoric, conservative ideas and new-old economic thinking that has captured the Left, if not yet convinced the country. Those ranged from the big things – the privatisation and financialisation of the economy – to the little things, including Labour MP Eric Joyce’s famous punch that led to Labour’s One Member One Vote revolution and ultimately Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour's leader. This month, we thought it would be interesting to go further, perhaps deeper, and look at some more of those structural or big picture reasons why Corbynism has been able to take off. Here are five more dates that have made Britain’s Left turn all but inevitable in some form.

The destruction of Allende’s Chile, 11 September 1973. The single most important thing about the Corbynite movement is its anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. That’s why the disastrous Second Gulf War gave it such succour, and why the election of Donald Trump helps it too. For the Labour Left, most things that pass in the world must be America’s fault, or the fault of ‘the West’ in general. Sometimes that’s true, of course. There’s certainly a lot of truth to that in the case of the military junta that overthrow Left-wing Salvador Allende’s Chilean government in 1973, toppled by a full-on military coup that led directly to the torture and murder of many thousands of Chileans. It's one huge driving force behind the Left's suspicion of America, and its admiration for South America's anti-capitalist Left.

Richard Nixon’s government in Washington was deeply implicated in the whole thing, fearing Soviet penetration of the Western Hemisphere, and to this day the coup is a standing warning and inspiration to the Left’s struggle everywhere. Mr Corbyn himself, who is now married to the Mexican Laura Alvarez, was married to a Chilean woman – Claudia Bracchitta – who was a refugee from the putsch, and with whom he campaigned for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s extradition to Spain for trial. You cannot understand Corbynism – its prior enthusiasm for the socialist experiment in Venezuela, its current alliance with South American populists such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales – without grasping the fundamental link between such world-historical events and the course of the domestic Left.

The invention of the World Wide Web, March 1989. There could be no Corbynism without the Web. It is there that his most fervent adherents gather, pushing video after video and meme after meme, organising campaigns, sharing Left and alt-Left stories, supporting each other on Facebook pages, and on the nastier fringes of the movement dishing out abuse to the insufficiently loyal. It was the Web that first allowed them to see how powerful the Left could become in 2015. It was the Web that helped them turn the tide during the 2016 leadership election and the 2017 General Election. It’s the Web that allows previously unheard-of activists to become media stars. The Canary, Skwawkbox, Novara Media – they are all creations of the online world that could not possibly have broken through without the aid of post-modern connectivity.

It’s here that you can read all about Newsnight putting that 'Russian' hat on Mr Corbyn. Or where you can see his mouth and words slowed down so that… well. Or that you can link Porton Down to the Salisbury chemical attack. Whatever takes your (flight of) fancy, really. When Tim Berners-Lee got frustrated at computers’ lack of a shared syntax from his CERN vantage-point in 1989, he saw the potential of the burgeoning Internet if only it could only allow all this IT to speak the same language. And lo, HyperText Markup Language was born. Little could he know that HTML would change the political world, as well as the scientific arena, absolutely and forever – for good or ill.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989. There’s no way Corbynism would have got anywhere under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Ex-spooks have come out to condemn the Jezziah. Faintly ludicrous accusations of Cold War complicity have been levelled at him. Post-War Britain was always on the lookout for infiltrators – often unsuccessfully, but at least with energy. That created an ‘us and them’ atmosphere that permeated everything. The idea that a movement so sympathetic to (say) the ex-Communist Die Linke in Germany could emerge within the Labour Party would have been anathema to its titanic Cold Warriors – men such as Ernie Bevin, Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan.

The end of that Cold War heralded by the opening of the Berlin Wall (above) initially seemed as if it would mean liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would rule the roost. It hasn’t worked out like that, of course, and the rebirth of history in its all nationalist, populist, racist, statist forms has surprised no-one with a History degree. What the removal of the Red Threat has actually done over the medium term is allow those who always saw themselves as equidistant between two Evil Empires to reposition themselves as social justice warriors primarily interested in domestic policy. Mr Corbyn’s entourage contains people happy to ‘contextualise’Stalin’s crimes and play down the deeds of those who oppose the hated American giant – whoever they are. You know what? Now that’s not a matter of pressing diplomatic concern, no-one really cares.

The election of Donald Trump, 8 November 2016. Now Donald Trump is not the Corbynites’ favourite politician, and that’s putting it mildly. But as it’s now a commonplace to note, both men share much, much more than they’d like to admit. Wildly unlikely candidate? Check. Chequered past? Check. Displacing a complacent party elite? Check. Social media rage? Check. Fervid advocates who will defend their man, whatever he’s done? Check. Black is white, and white is black? Check. But the link is actually more specific than a mere list of similarities from the same era. Since politics is about image, personality and mood as well as policy, it’s no surprise that you can draw plenty of unlikely dot-to-dots between apparent enemies. The interesting thing here is that Labour is actually basing its insurgency on Trump’s success. Cobrynite supremo Seumas Milne made that explicit when he started to beef up Labour’s media operation over the winter of 2016/17, and he got it bang on.

The techniques involved on both sides of the Atlantic are very similar. Attack, attack and attack again. Blame ‘the establishment’. Blame 'the media'. Say that everything is the fault of ‘the elites’. Offer simple solutions. Raise the stakes. Be certain. If you’re in trouble, throw off chaff and distractions – and deny the evidence of everyone’s eyes. Yes, maybe if you’re a policy purist, you’ll put your hand up at the back and say ‘erm, aren’t these employee share options just a tax the workers will never actually see?’ But by then, the kaleidoscopic news agenda of our current politics-on-acid will be haring off again, amidst a loud of shouting and screaming. Here’s what Trump knows: no-one has ever listened to people who know things. Now Labour know that too.

Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, 17 January 2017. There’s a good case to be made here for singling out the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 – for it was then that the European Union, as it became, surged off down the supranational route that the British disliked so much, threatening to split the Conservatives and ultimately helping to cause Brexit. But Mrs May’s speech outlining her ill-fated ‘red lines’ demonstrates, most of all, just how hard it is to keep the Conservative show on the road. The Conservatives are now really two parties: English Nationalist Eurosceptics who hark back to a closed world of cultural certainties, and British Liberals who stress openness, social change and free markets. Never the twain shall meet, and Mrs May attempted to stress the former while keeping the latter on board. That balancing act now looks very, very uncertain indeed.

What were the red lines that have now turned slightly pink? Well, Mrs May aimed to take Britain completely and forever out of European Court of Justice jurisdiction, and that’s potentially been blurred a bit. The entirety of the UK was also supposed to leave the Single Market, which if nothing happens on the Irish border question by 2021 (or 2023) won’t be achieved either – since Northern Ireland will retain those elements of the Single Market regulatory regime that are required to prevent any border with the Republic. In truth, the Prime Minister's not got a bad deal given that her overriding intention was to leave the European Economic Area and take back control of immigration policy. She’s probably got the only deal she was ever going to get, given the trade-offs involved. But even those compromises threaten to rip the Conservative Party apart, just as it was blown to bits over tariffs and trade policy in 1846 and 1903. Mrs May overbid and overclaimed, until what she did get looked mouselike: in return, her government might collapse, allowing Labour just to walk into Downing Street. Such are the wages of choice.

There is a risk of over-determination here. If you list too many causes, you end up suggesting that nothing else could ever have happened – that everything in the whole world led up to the triumph of the British Left. There were clearly lots of other moments when this could have gone completely differently. What if Mr Corbyn’s backbench opponents had really gone for broke and resigned the Whip en masse in the summer of 2016? What if Labour had never sharpened up their media operation between Christmas 2016 and Easter 2017? What if Theresa May had not decided to burn down her own election campaign? Well, then things would be different.

But they’re not different, and analysing why will occupy many historians for a long time to come. Britain is potentially about to be wrenched out of the course it’s been on since the mid-1970s. Most of the utilities are going to be nationalised. Large-scale private industry is going to be partially socialised via all sorts of binding agreements with workers, customers and partners. The Thatcherite strike laws are going to be torn up. A reborn Ministry of Labour is going to administer national pay bargaining. Tuition fees are going to be abolished, with unpredictable consequences for England’s already-struggling universities. Taxes are going to go up (though actually that just continues current trends). Capital and exchange controls might be needed. In terms of foreign policy, Britain is going to shift away from the Transatlantic alliance, and pivot Eastwards – towards Iran and Russia.

Some people will like those changes. Many people won’t. More likely, voters will like some of them but reject others. But whatever happens, and whichever side of each of those arguments you take, unpicking what has brought us to this point is a necessary and pressing task. That’s what the disciplines of History and Political Science exist to do, and the sort of task that blogs like this exist to make a start on. Britain’s national life is in a fix. Its politics sometimes look like more a tragic-comic joke than a serious attempt to unpick the problems before us. But that’s no reason, and this is no time, to stop hoping that we can understand what’s happening.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The eight days that gave us Corbynism


Regular readers of this blog will know that we now regard Labour’s victory at the next election as very likely – not overwhelmingly likely, and certainly not a done deal, but far north of fifty per cent if we’re talking probabilities. There are lots of reasons for this. For one thing, they’re so, so close to power that they can almost touch it. They need just a tiny swing of 0.5% to take the seven or so Conservative seats that would lock the Tories out of power and allow Labour to govern (albeit uncertainly) with the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Labour are also riding a wave of deep concern about disorganised capitalism and its unequal results. Nationalisation is popular, and profit not so much – a phenomenon we see again and again in the British Election Study data. When the Right have been in for a long time, the public swing Left, and vice versa. All of this has happened before, and all of this has happened again. And lastly, of course, the Government is preoccupied with, and increasingly exhausted by, Brexit – that great Schleswig-Holstein of a question that no-one can even understand any more, and which Labour has tricksily and artfully navigated better than anyone else.

For all these reasons, Labour is pretty likely to win the next election. They are not in themselves particularly popular, and Jeremy Corbyn as their leader certainly is not. But none of that really matters. If the Conservatives tear themselves apart, at a time when the public are tired of austerity, then Mr Corbyn will walk into No. 10 unopposed. That outcome looks more likely by the day. But these are proximate causes, located in the present or the very recent past. The extraordinary ascension of Corbynism, to the point where it looks likely to capture the commanding heights of the state, surely needs deeper and more profound explanations than these.

So for this month’s blog, we’re going to look at eight days that made Corbyn’s move into Downing Street so likely. We’ve done this before, when we looked at why Leave could win the Brexit referendum – two months before that happened. It’s hopefully a good way to lay bare the real forces – deep and shallow, long- and short-term, policy-wise and political – that have brought Britain to the verge of its first real Leftist government in the mould of Die Linke, Podemos or Syriza. Without further ado, here are the eight days that have put Jeremy Corbyn within a hair’s breadth of the Cabinet room.

4 February 1996. This was the day that the first privatised trains since the 1940s ran on Britain’s railways. Actually, the first 'train' was a bus, pootling along between Fishguard and Cardiff, but the first real train was the suburban South Western Trains service between Twickenham and Waterloo at just after five in the morning. But there was a problem with the whole design of British Rail’s privatisation: the divide between track and train, between Railtrack (as it was then) and the Train Operating Companies, fragmented the railway and lost it some of that coherence, engineering know-how and in-house organisation that had helped keep Britain’s railways going. Now in some ways the railways are a victim of their own (privatised) success: crowded, expensive and groaning under the weight of demand, they are pushing lots of regular commuters towards Corbynism. But that doesn't matter politically. When they fail and struggle and flounder, as they often do, passengers blame privatisation - forgetting, for a moment, that all the infrastructure is owned by the state. Rail nationalisation is one of Mr Corbyn's signature ideas, and it’s popular. This is the moment when Britain's political economy gradually, gradually began to go his way.

15 February 2003. The Iraq War was a defining moment in British politics. It provides meaning for so many people, across the spectrum of British politics: a coherent part of the narrative about how ‘little people’, outsiders, the principled, the unheard mainstream are never listened to. It is one key reason why New Labour in power was not able to cement its legacy, and why Tony Blair is still so unpopular. In February 2003, probably about one million people marched against that war: many also opposed the wider strategy of military intervention that had taken hold after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The Stop the War Coalition was the directing mind behind this demonstration, and it hated (and hates still) ‘centrists’ with a passion. They are one of the most important parts of the Corbyn coalition, and stood with him in the crucial first days of his leadership. Without the Second Iraq War, the infrastructure behind Mr Corbyn simply would not have existed.

5 May 2005. This was the moment at which Labour won its historic third term under Blair: but little noticed amidst all the toing-and-froing was that an obscure backbencher named Jeremy Corbyn had just been re-elected in Islington North. At this stage, of course, Mr Corbyn was little more than an irritant or a figure of fun at Westminster, having never been involved in a single mainstream cause in his life (beyond stirring up trouble for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and others). But Mr Corbyn had an unseen friend: no lesser figure than Prime Minister Blair, who at some point in the previous Parliament had rejected some local activists’ calls for Mr Corbyn to be de-selected. Until and even after the Iraq War, the Blair government attempted to build at least something of a broad church within Labour: Robin Cook, Clare Short and Michael Meacher were all relatively successful Ministers. The Corbynites will not make the same mistake Blair did, misled as he was by the mistaken assumption that his side of the party had won and could relax.

14 September 2007. As queues began to form outside high street branches of the bank Northern Rock, it became clear that something was very wrong with the financial system. Thousands of ordinary people were in a panic, racing to pull their savings out before Northern Rock collapsed altogether. Its tellers were overwhelmed, its phone lines jammed. The lender had ridden the wave of pumping more and more cash into an overheated property market, whoever you were and whatever you could afford: now that ponzi scheme of a model came crashing down. It was the first sign of the financial crash to come. Now the epicentre of that disaster was in New York, not London, and in the American, not the British, housing market: but the British had left themselves too exposed to the US markets, and the world economy threatened to go into a tailspin. Years of economic attrition lay ahead – and the Great Moderation, so beloved of the ‘centrists’ who stood in the Left’s way, was over. Corbynites always blame capitalism for most of the world’s ills: after this, they had a point.

12 May 2010. By this point, Britain’s Liberal Democrats had been on the rise for years. They had opposed the Iraq War. They had advanced a kind of more radical, and more Left-wing, Blairism. They had got increasingly popular, and increasingly vocal, able via targeting particular swing seats to grow and grow in the House of Commons. Now the quirks of Britain’s First Past the Post voting system put them in a kingmaker position. They chose to put the Conservatives, under David Cameron, into office. This turned out to be a huge mistake, and the lovely mood music they emitted in the Downing Street garden press conference held on this day in 2010 (abovewas an even worse blunder. Most of those radical voters who’d put their cross next to the Liberal Democrat choice thought they were voting for a radical party that could make Britain fairer, better, perhaps in some undefinable way newer: now they got the Tories back. The Liberal Democrats have never recovered, and there is now no rival to Labour on the Left, and no rival for pro-European Remain voters. That absence has helped Corbynism to first survive, and then thrive. 

22 February 2012. When the Labour MP Eric Joyce got drunk and got into a fight in the House of Commons, no-one really thought much of it. It’s not as if there’s never been a drunken disagreement in our politics before. This particular bust-up turned out to be one of the most important moments in modern British political history. Mr Joyce eventually had to give up his seat in Falkirk, but the jiggery-pokery being pulled there by the huge Unite union led to the then-Labour leader, Ed Miliband, suspending the process by which the local party picked its Parliamentary candidate. In future, trade unions were not to be allowed to pay the dues of people that it was signing up to play a role in Labour Party selections. The whole debacle put huge pressure on the link between the unions and the formal Party itself. Mr Miliband soon announced a clean break with the unions, so that Labour’s three-part electoral college was to be replaced by a One Member One Vote structure for all elections – including that of leader. That new system was to allow Mr Corbyn to be elected, as he never would have been had MPs had one-third of the say (and unions another third) over the choice.

23 June 2016. When Britain voted for Brexit, it looked as if that decision might sweep away Mr Corbyn just as it did Prime Minister David Cameron. Labour MPs and officials were furious that Mr Corbyn had basically done less than nothing to make the case for Remain – unless you count turning up at a handful of pretty pitiful photo opportunities as doing something. A political riot ensued, in which almost the whole of Labour’s top team resigned to try to force out their leader. That putsch failed, because the members continued to support him – in part of course because they had only just chosen him. But the Brexit vote secured for Labour that sense of chaos, thrill and opportunity that any new movement needs to gain a hearing: it played, and is playing, the role that the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent played for Mrs Thatcher when she said that Britain was broken. It is tearing apart the alliance of big business, liberal-minded small-‘c’ conservatives and self-consciously English patriots that allows the Conservatives to govern: justifying, all the while, New New Labour’s case that something is deeply wrong with British state and society.

22 May 2017. Theresa May’s social care u-turn was the defining moment of the 2017 General Election campaign. Her Conservatives trounced Labour in the local elections, held in early May. She enjoyed a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. Labour was a chaotic laughing stock that made a bin fire look organised. But then the Conservatives published their manifesto, and machine-gunned their own campaign. Its centrepiece was an entirely reasonable and justifiable policy – that you (or your estate) would keep more of your own money if you needed residential care in your old age. But there was a catch: the value of your house would be included in the assessment, and charged, if you needed care at home. Hitherto it had been left out of that account. Reminding people that they might need care, and still more that they are pretty soon going to get old and die, oh and by the way you’ll steal their house on the way, is pretty much up there with the most moronic decisions in all of political history. If we look at the best polling of that election, it was at about this time that the Tories’ hopes of a majority tanked, never to recover. Their majority – indeed, their landslide – was gone. Mr Corbyn looked like a winner, though actually Labour didn't even do all that well. He was well set on his march to power.

So there we have it. Labour is now likely to govern. You could always pick out other reasons for that, of course, but when a historian looks at this, they see a series of very deep-seated causes and some butterflies flapping their wings. In the ‘deep’ end: what if privatisation had never cut so deep into the British economy? What if the US banking system hadn’t got out of control? In the ‘medium’ category: what if the Iraq War had never happened? What if the Liberal Democrats had tried to keep Labour in power? What if voters had not chosen Brexit? What if the Conservatives had not launched and then unlaunched a manifesto that basically amounted to ‘we’ll take your mum’s house away’? And then the little things. What if Mr Blair had left Mr Corbyn to his fate in 2001-2005? What if Mr Joyce had not thrown his fists about? Well, just take away one or two of these, and Britain would not be on the brink of the most fundamental changes to her economic and social life since the early 1980s. But they did happen, and here we are. Whatever else it is, it’s quite a story.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Is the Labour Party institutionally racist?


Is the UK Labour party institutionally anti-Semitic? Almost unbelievably, that has become a real live matter of public debate over the last few months – a development that previous generations of Labour activists and members could scarcely have imagined. Once upon a time, Labour seemed like the natural choice for Britain’s Jewish community. Labour was of course a rallying-point for all Britain’s non-Anglicans, as the Conservatives represented Deep England’s Established Church; it was an anti-racist Party that welcomed all-comers; it was friendly towards Israel, or at least sympathetic to that country’s situation. Most (though by no means all) Jews thought of Labour as their home.

Not so today, after more than three years of mounting tension between Labour and the Jewish community. This year’s local elections showed that Jewish communities in (for instance) Barnet have had enough of Labour – and will boot out their councillors where they live in enough numbers to make that choice. What we know from opinion polling is that Labour’s vote has crashed to almost nothing among Jews – and that for instance 85% of them regard the Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as quite simply an anti-Semite. There are some dissenting voices, to be sure: but that’s the picture taken as a whole.  

Why has this happened? Well, let’s just take a look at the whole sorry farrago. To be honest, it’s exhausting just trying to give you a list, but here's an initial reckoning with these frankly astonishing events. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that a minority of Labour members and office-holders – a group of very hard-to-determine size, though perhaps it amounts to some thousands or tens of thousands – hold very worrying views about Jews. We’ve had councillor after councillor, officer after officer, member after member, repeating the same awful hate speech as if they think it's okay. Apparently ‘Zionists’ run the world’s press. Or the banks. Or the ‘deep state’. Or the whole international economy. Apparently they’ve organised themselves into a sinister cabal biased against the Left, determined to prevent real people taking a real leading role in public life. Apparently they’ve got money and they’re influencing our politics behind the scenes. Apparently some Jews have divided loyalties as between the UK and Israel. And so on. And on. This sort of thing has become such a constant drumbeat of low-level fear and loathing that it’s often forgotten amidst the shrapnel storm of Labour’s unending civil war – though it shouldn’t be.

Instead of listening and learning, the core group at the heard of Corbynite New Model Labour doubled down on their denials. They basically decided to go to ground with their hands over their ears, shouting ‘lah lah lah, can’t hear you’. Their allies on Labour’s National Executive Committee let plenty of people off. Members got slapped on the wrist. Deadlines slipped. People were recommended for ‘training’. A long-standing friend and ally of the leadership team was appointed to oversee this type of complaint. Labour’s new masters also encouraged the creation of a ‘Jewish’ group called Jewish Voice for Labour, which was a Jewish Voice only in the very dark sense that it showed just how little Labour thought of most of them. JVL then set about muddying the waters about who was who and what was what, which was always the whole point of them. Having watched Trump take advantage of the media’s liberal naivete and its false cult of ‘balance’, they made sure they got themselves on broadcast after broadcast – often facing off against Labour’s far, far more representative Jewish members, organised as they always have been in the Jewish Labour Movement. Pretty soon they were all over the airwaves – and busy talking nonsense at Labour Party Conference as well. A tiny groupsicle of activists had got themselves legitimised as one strand of Jewish Labour thought. That was lovely.

Things ramped up a great deal the moment ex-Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone took it upon himself to repeat a load of old far-Right nostrums about Hitler’s supposed support for a Jewish homeland. All a load of unpleasant nonsense of course – Ken has form in this respect – as any actual historian will tell you. But it was enough to light the touchpaper on the real crisis to come, as scandal followed blunder followed nightmare for what seemed like years. As soon as the whole thing blew up, some thousands of Labour members got onto Twitter and Facebook and started either agreeing with Ken (though about what, it was never one hundred per cent clear), or saying ‘it’s all a smear’, got up by… well, again, they never quite said.

Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union and in many ways Labour’s paymaster, said that all those Jews and academics getting worried about Labour’s behaviour were just playing some tired old ‘mood music’ to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. The chair of the Disputes Committee, the Party’s disciplinary clearing-house – herself installed after a rather nasty old battle inside Labour’s National Policy Forum - had to resign when she was found to have defended a Holocaust-denying councillor.  Labour carried on pretending that there were just a few cases of Jew-hating being reported, even while it was being reported that the Party’s compliance unit itself was (and is) close to collapse.

Then, things got even worse. Labour’s leader was caught shooting the breeze in a number of Facebook groups where anti-Semitic tropes were freely thrown around like confetti. Not a single word did he say about it all – before that membership was published. Then he was shown to have defended a clearly anti-Semitic mural. He dissembled about that for a few days, then issued a half-apology, then went silent, obviously hoping that the whole thing would go away. He was dragged out a few times to make some general and meaningless ‘anti-racist’ statements before being sent off once more on some speaking tours to make the same anti-austerity stump speech he always makes. It didn’t look good.

Then Labour published its new 'anti-Semitism code'. In a distasteful little move almost beyond parody, this downgraded four of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance examples of anti-Semitism from being actually racist to merely being bad. So you could now compare (say) Israelis to Nazis if you wanted to, or question British Jews’ loyalty to Britain, if you saw fit: just so long as you didn’t show ‘anti-Semitic intent’. Whatever that means. No consultation appeared to have taken place with Labour’s mainstream Jewish groups (nor did it when, faced with a storm of protest, the Party promised to consult yet one more time). Lots of Corbynites – including Jon Lansman, one of the leader’s more thoughtful backers – supported the new code for a little while, before it became clear that it was utterly indefensible. A huge hoo-ha followed, during which Labour promised to consult again (after which, unsurprisingly, it didn’t), and then basically gave in – though not without Mr Corbyn attempting, one last time, to append a deeply offensive new text to the IHRA’s examples.

Mr McCluskey, for his part, said that ‘Jewish groups’ wouldn’t 'take yes for an answer': that they were basically a load of difficult refuseniks who should get with the programme. Lately, he's been saying that Labour's only agreed to make changes to take the issue off the agenda. That was helpful. One of Labour’s NEC members, Peter Willsman, got taped ranting about all those Jews who apparently admire President Trump, declaring as part of his masterly oratory that he’d never seen anti-Semitism in the Party – despite sitting on a disciplinary committee that oversees oodles of it. He got voted back in by members just a few weeks later, by the way. Oh, and other NEC members – including the Party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby – sat and listened to that without much demur. She just rebuked Mr Willsman after the meeting. A fine state of affairs.

In the interim, Labour’s leader-slash-campaigner had been caught on video snidely remarking to some particular Jews as lacking a ‘British sense of irony’, despite having ‘lived here all their lives’ – a nasty little bit of upper-class presumption revealed for all to see. That was bad enough, but what followed was much worse: official Labour spokespeople actually tried to defend what everyone in the whole world could see was an impossible-to-excuse bit of racism. Yeah, it was ‘Zionists’ all right he was having a go at: though, of course, that reference to how long they’d been here gave the game away, despite his attempts to make amends on a Friday evening just before the start of Shabbat, or by cutting and pasting stuff he’d said before. The mask was torn away: yet Labour members went on fixing Twitter hashtags and Facebook likes to their defence of the indefensible.

That was in many ways the most worrying development of all – because the poison has entered the Left bloodstream more widely, via partisanship, a usually-healthy scepticism, and sheer failure to grasp the hard-to-believe scale of what’s really going on. Because all this will have long-term consequences. Mr Corbyn and his immediate coterie will be gone soon. Maybe they’ll be in Downing Street for a while on the way. Maybe not. But the Far Left lived through such a political ice age in the 1990s and early 2000s that there’s not that many of them, and they’re rather old: one day fairly soon, a Soft Left Labour leader, such as Emily Thornberry or Angela Rayner, will sit where Mr Corbyn sits, and will gradually move the party away from its more egregious and eccentric fears and hatreds. But the anchor that Labour’s leadership team is moving is shifting the Party further and further away from Britain’s Jewish community, just as it’s remaking Labour more generally as a closed, autarkic, resentful community of the conspiratorial and the suspicious-minded. 

You can see it in those local Constituency Labour Parties in which some activists are moving against Labour MPs who took a stand alongside Jewish community groups back in the spring – including motions that basically say ‘one can understand anti-semitism after the banking crisis’. You can see it on all those forums and Twitter feeds where people say ‘there is no anti-Semitism’ or ‘the Tories are worse’ or ‘what about Israel?’ In all those people who say ‘I’ll turn a blind eye to a bit of racism so long as we abolish tuition fees and nationalise the railways’. The hate has gone deep. It’s hard to see now how the breach can be mended. The gulf is just too wide.

So, to try to answer the question – is Labour institutionally anti-Semitic? Let’s be clear here. Even if it were, that would certainly not mean that most Labour members or elected representatives were closet racists. Most of them are lovely people – retired public sector workers, students, teachers, lecturers, trade unionists, radicals of all stripes originally attracted to a Party just trying to make the world a better place. It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of work to do in that respect. And many of these same members know that their party has a problem. A majority of them agree that it has – to a greater or lesser extent – and that number has been growing. It’s not a nest of vipers.

Still. Consider what the following chain of disaster and excuse sounds like. A group of people who have always experienced prejudice come forward with a long list of complaints against an old and established British institution. At first, that institution rejects their complaints. Then, it starts to take them on board, but does it badly, while denying they have a real problem. It’s all a few bad apples. You’ve got to understand the unique problems. You’ve got to realise that there’s a context here. Oh, and others are just as bad. Those in authority try to set up their own rules, in defiance of the community complaining about them. Then, the institution in question adopts a new code of practice that has been designed by others, but don’t quite take it to heart. Its leaders close their ears to the pain and hurt they and their followers are causing. It takes a policy disaster of unprecedented scale to force them onto the right path. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the Metropolitan Police and its antediluvian attitude towards young black Londoners between the 1950s and the early 1990s - before the Stephen Lawrence case and the Macpherson Inquiry forced them to at least start mending their ways. And just by the by, it’s exactly the path Labour has been treading recently, albeit in accelerated fashion.

Institutional racism is a very grave judgement. It’s one we’re reluctant to make. No-one thinks that Mr Corbyn or Mr Cluskey, whatever their other faults (and they are legion), go home at night and think ‘I hate those Jews’. That’s absurd. Be that as it may, they have given every indication that they are full of fear and loathing for one of Britain’s minority communities. They are full of innate preconceptions, as we all are in a way, but in a more exaggerated form. When they hear the word ‘Jew’, they also hear the word ‘Israel’, and engage all their hatred of that state’s oppression of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories – a state of affairs that British Jews certainly shouldn’t bear any responsibility for, in Labour or elsewhere. There's a word for that immediate association: that word is prejudice.

Somewhere in their consciousness, since they are economic determinists, they furthermore think that apparently wealthy and successful communities can’t be discriminated against, and that if all economic inequality were abolished, racism would disappear with it. They’re wrong about that, of course, as they are incorrect about so, so much else: but the idea exerts a powerful hold over them. And if you start saying that ‘the banks’ are an international problem, that the world economy is ‘rigged’ for ‘the elites’, rather than the many? Well, you’re not much more than a Trumpian hop, skip and a jump from the British Left’s traditional anti-Semitism, as obvious in the DNA of Edwardian New Liberalism as it is in the warp and weave of what has become of the 1960s New Left. They don’t suffer from the traditional race hatred of the boot-boy and the skinhead. They have a far more refined set of prejudices. If they truly examined them, talked about them, admitted they’d got it wrong, spoke to everyone, they could have avoided all this. But they won’t, and now they probably can’t.

Even so, ‘institutional racism’ would be a heavy conviction when Labour’s members are showing signs of waking up, when its governing body has just adopted a new code that might finally purge anti-Semitism from its ranks, when there are still plenty of activists, councillors and MPs fighting for a truly cathartic change such as that which the Macpherson Report wrought on the Met. It’s all very suggestive of a Party that is sick, but not quite yet succumbing to the fever. The case is not dismissed – not by a long way. But it is still a deeply problematical one.

Make no mistake, though: if Labour continues to turn a blind eye to the stream of hatred flowing through social media, goes on ignoring the need for a mea culpa right from the top (Mr Corbyn refused to say sorry in a recent BBC interview), keeps pushing back its self-imposed deadline for getting on top of even just the high-profile cases, revisits the IHRA definition with some weasel form of words once the new NEC takes office after Conference: then a verdict of guilty will be unavoidable. 

Labour has walked right out to the edge. Just a few more steps, and it will sink irrevocably into that rancid sewer so obvious to those of us who've been watching properly. It has stopped, rightly hesitant – for now. Whether it now turns around and begins to recover remains to be seen. The signs are not very hopeful. We shall see.