Labour polling: Tooth Decay, not Lego

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A couple of years ago, 29 plus 6 was a popular sum among those interested in Labour’s likely election performance.

It represented what some regarded as a ‘floor’ in Labour support, made up of the 29% of the electorate who voted Labour in 2010, with the 6 representing the roughly a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters who shifted to Labour after the Coalition was formed.

These seemed, according to most research, to be even more certain to vote Labour than former Labour voters.

Think of this electoral coalition as being, effectively, me and Sunny Hundal. The argument went that this coalition, while it would benefit from a little augmentation from Tory converts, the young, or previously disillusioned non-voters, represented a relatively solid base, from which Labour could reliably build.

Today, with Labour hovering in the low thirties with most pollsters, we don’t hear that argument much any more.

So what went wrong?

The first thing to point out is that the argument was not a stupid one. It remains right. 2010 Labour voters overwhelmingly still vote Labour. A significant proportion of 2010 LibDems will vote Labour at the next election.

It’s just that the ‘overwhelmingly’ and ‘significant’ are a bit smaller than they were.

The problem is that Labour people thought of these groups as robust lego blocks, when in fact they were more like a row of teeth, subject to gradual, almost imperceptible decay.

To demonstrate this, I’ve been tracking Labour’s polling internals with YouGov.  Let’s compare the first half of December 2012, close to Labour’s peak support, with the same period last year and the current polling.1

What do we see?

Most obviously, a decline in Labour share.  Over the last two years Labour share of the vote has fallen 9.1 points. Interestingly, Labour’s lead has only fallen 9.7 points, indicating almost no Tory revival.

 

What’s happened to 2010 Labour voters?

Basically, Labour are holding on to a few less of them.

Slightly more former Labour voters now say they won’t vote at all, but this may be margin of error stuff.

 

Of those that will vote, Labour’s retention rate has fallen from 91.8% to 78.6%.

 

Who has benefitted?

The Tory share of Labour voters has increased a little, but the big jump has been in support for others.

14.9% of 2010 Labour voters now say they’ll vote for someone other than the big three. About half of these say they’ll vote UKIP, the rest backing the SNP or Greens.

What about the ‘Red Liberals’?

There has also been a small, but tangible, decline in Labour’s support among 2010 LibDems. In 2012, Labour averaged 37.7% of 2010 LibDems who said they’d vote. Now that number is 31.9%. That’s still a big wedge, by anyone’s standard, but it is a decline.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, There is no difference in Labour’s decline by gender or age (all about 9 points down).

However, over the last two years Labour’s rate of decline has been much higher among C2DE voters than among ABC1 voters.

Resist the temptation to conclude that this represents a loss of the Labour ‘core vote’, however.

YouGov’s final poll in 2010 had Labour on 31% among C2DEs. That number is around 36% today. This suggests that the C2DE voters who joined and left Labour in the interim were perhaps not ‘core’ supporters!

Indeed, since the General Election Labour’s ABC1 and C2DE support has increased by approximately the same proportion. Labour’s C2DE boost in 2012 now appears a little ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.”

 

By region, there’s good news and bad news. Labour has barely lost any support in London since 2012. PPCs in the metropolis can afford a smile. London is now nearly Labour’s most ‘core’ region (Food for thought for the more anti-metropolitan elite Labour thinkers, there).

However, Scotland is a different story, now being the only area of the UK where Labour is currently performing worse than in the 2010 election. This is an unusual time in Scottish politics, and there is little certainty that current polling will predict next May accurately. That said, given Labour’s outstanding performance in Scotland in 2010 (42% of the vote and no seat losses) it is likely Labour will need to focus resources on defending seats in Scotland as well as attempting to gain them elsewhere.

 

To describe how Labour’s vote is performing, throw out any mental imagery of blocks of voters, whether ‘2010 Lib Dems’ or ‘Working Class Core voters’. That’s not how politics is working now.

What is happening instead is a gradual decay of the Labour vote in several directions. The row of teeth that makes up Labour’s coalition is each a little less lustrously enameled. The teeth haven’t fallen out, but there are gaps and subtle cavities. Sunny and I are still there, but we are more lonely than we were.

As a result, the 29 plus 6 formula that made Labour strategists smile has become a 27 plus 5 sum that should make them frown.

This is perhaps why Labour is finding a response to decline so difficult to set out. It is not a straightforward task. To secure one group more firmly (say to retain C2DE labour voters) endangers the least convinced of another group (perhaps ABC1 LibDem converts). To attempt to do better in the Midlands might put London noses out of joint.

In other words, Labour strategists have a thankless task, as the data does not point to a single, easy solution.

The advice is simply appeal to more people, of all sorts. (Oh, and do better in Scotland).

That is, perhaps not a problem an election planner can solve. It is a strategy and direction issue, not a tactics and execution one.

The Labour campaign team do have one crucial advantage to console themselves with though.

Their Tory rivals have an even less attractive set of numbers to digest.

 

  1. Health warning: The current period, being conference and by-election related may well be distorted. Still, as we edge closer to the election, there will be few politically fallow periods to compare []

A downward trend long known and a choice for Labour’s dreamers.

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Returning from a holiday after a small political earthquake is an intriguing experience.

People talk in hushed tones about the immense significance of the events you missed, while you struggle to notice any difference.

To summarise the astonishing events: A rebel Conservative MP has returned to the Commons as a rebel UKIP MP. The Government has performed badly in two by-elections. The opposition has lost a point or so in the polls, while the Conservatives continue to score in the low thirties. These are not earth shattering occurrences. Nor is the revelation that Ed Miliband’s poll ratings are less than stellar, while the government is unpopular.

Most astonishingly of all, it is confirmed there is a significant dissatisfaction with politics, for the simple reason politics is not delivering much in the way of rainbows and pots of gold.

As a result those who expect to have to deliver their promises shuffle embarrassedly and wonder if they can’t put a little steak in the gruel and trade hairshirts for rayon undercrackers, those promising to slap gruelslingers around the chops and garb all in silk raiments find an appreciative, if minority, audience.

Is any of this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. These are trends that have been going on for months. Some of us have been talking about Labour’s gradual, slow polling slippage for over a year, to general indifference. Same for various qualities of the top team.

If there has been any reaction, it’s been to say ‘ah, but Labour still leads‘ or ‘ah, but the 2010 Lib Dems‘ or ‘ah, but the Tories won’t improve their share of the vote’. It wasn’t complacency, exactly. But it was denial.

Heads up then. Things are probably going to get much more uncomfortable.

In the last thirty years, only one opposition has improved their poll ratings between the final conference season of the political cycle and the subsequent general election1.

In every other instance, the opposition has declined by between three and thirteen points.

I’d put my expectation on the low side of this, because when oppositions have declined by larger amounts, they have enjoyed larger starting poll shares than Labour does now – going from 49% to 35% in 1991-92 and from 52% to 44% in 19972. I don’t expect that sort of dip.

Absent a ‘Winter of Discontent’3, you’d expect Labour’s vote share to fall perhaps three to five points between now and the election, putting Labour somewhere between 29-33%. This is more or less in line with what Stephen Fishers’ election predictors suggest.

Look underneath the hood, and there are reasons enough to expect a seepage. Labour voter’s relatively low conviction we’d run the economy better, have a better leadership or deliver our promises all hint at a soft vote.

Now, maybe this won’t apply this time.

One reason it might not is that the biggest gainers in the last few months of the electoral cycle have often been a third party, whether alliance or Liberal Democrats. This time they’re in government.

Yes, Things might be different4.

But even if the race isn’t always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, Labour people need to steel themselves for such a pattern, because unless we outperform the historical trend, we’re heading to the low thirties with a bullet.

This is in large part due to an extended period of wishful thinking in which imaginary armies of non-voters, young voters and the disaffected were conjured from the vasty deep in order to provide 40% and a majority. It’s time to kill that pleasant fantasy off.

To achieve this victory, we assured ourselves that all we had to do this time was promise to do better at reducing inequalities, promising radical change, and outline how nasty the nasty Tories were.

Of course we’d said all this before, but this time, we’d really mean it, and by shedding the restrictions of our past failures to deliver our ambitions like a beautiful progressive butterfly, we’d inspire a whole new generation of voters to rally to the cause.

Unsurprisingly, a political strategy grounded in such pleasant daydreams has somewhat underperformed expectations.

Are we really surprised?

None of this means Labour is destined to remain in opposition. Two factors remain in Labour’s favour.

First, David Cameron has repeatedly fluffed the opportunity to remake the Conservative party as the moderate juggernaut it has the potential to be. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to. Perhaps he’s too afraid of the pleasant daydreams of the idiots in his own party and outside it to appeal to the rest of us.

Whatever the reason, he’s repeatedly failed to confront Tory imbecility, and that will cost him dearly.

In an alternate universe the Tory party did not reduce the top rate of tax, increased the minimum wage, and squeezed their friends a little tighter to give to the middle classes. In that world, the Tories are on 40 per cent and cruising. Thankfully, we don’t live in it.

Second, Labour has, at heart, a pretty intelligent policy programme.

Sure, it’s not the radical policy agenda we pretended we’d come up with until we did the sums and recoiled in horror.

It’s not transformative boldness. it won’t end inequality or rip up neo-liberalism. It’ll just do a bit more good for people who need it most, and put the little money we’ve got available in more of the right places, giving people a slightly better chance of a job, a decent home and a good education.

If we quit pretending that doing a little well is insignificant, and start realising it’s a huge deal and the most we’ve any right to expect a government can achieve, we might even convince people it’s worth changing government to get it.

In other words, we should stop worrying about the people who are impressed by promises of silk and steaks, and start worrying about those who don’t believe we can even deliver less gristle and more cotton.

For the rest, it is for the birds. We’re not going to transform capitalism. We’re not going to enact the most radical transfer of power in history, whatever that means. So please, let’s stop pretending. It might make us forget the important boring stuff we’ll really struggle to do.

But there’s one more thing.

To my dear friends in the soft left. This is your battle. You’ve been running things for four years now.

If you don’t like a moderate, gradualist, fiscally cautious programme, fine. No-one says you have to.

I’m not a centrist because I think we win that way, I’m a centrist because I think it’s the right thing to do with the resources we have and the limits we face. Winning is just a pleasant consequence of sounding convincing and realistic.

Just because I believe in the agenda I outline doesn’t mean you must. If you think it’s a sell out, or timid, or too much of a concession, you’ve every right to fight on the ground of your choosing.

That I think your approach is more idle dream than reality doesn’t make me right. If you think there’s a better way to win, go for it. It’s how you took control of the party, saying it was possible to be more ambitious, to dream bigger dreams. The party wanted to hear that.

No-one is stopping you pursue those dreams. So maybe you need to do what you promised back then. Bluntly, the only reason you haven’t done so is you privately suspect it just won’t work. Just like it didn’t under Gordon, just like it didn’t under Neil.

I agree. It won’t.

But you might need to learn that the hard way.

So if you’ve got a plan you prefer, go for it. Maybe I’m wrong and it works. You could get in with our current vote share. It is possible just about, and you’ll get a chance to implement your plans (subject to the agreement of Ian Lavery MP).

If it works, to the victor the spoils. You’ll run the party for a generation and get the chance to create the progressive social democratic model you crave.

If not, the route I suggest is waiting, but you’ll have to really believe in it.

No-one will be convinced by a reluctant, half-hearted, cavilling centrist. Just look at Cameron. You can’t drag yourself reluctantly to gradualism, because the constant temptation to go a just little further will undermine your message every time. Your darting eyes will betray you. You have to mean it.

So, the choice is yours. Just own it, whatever happens. This one is on you.

  1. That was the 2005 Tories, who endured a brief dip immediately after Labour’s 2004 conference and then returned to where they were that summer []
  2. Clearly, this may be to do with improved polling methodologies, as much as actual shifts []
  3. Though intriguingly, the 1979 Conservatives did not gain ground between Conference season and the Election. Rather, Labour lost significant support []
  4. Maybe UKIP voters will return to the Tories. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the Greens will surge. Certainly, I’d expect a lot of 2010 Lib Dems will stay with Labour, though that’s already included in our current score. There’s a decent chance their return reduces the pre-election desertion rate though []

Choose your own fantasy

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What a depressing conference season this has been. We’ve had the triumphant gurning idiocy of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, a somnolently downbeat Labour gathering and a Conservative party that has decided that their route to victory is to disengage the clutch of reality and to coast thereby to a land of milk and tax cuts.

Perhaps the Lib Dems will redeem it all, but we are talking about Nick Clegg.

Allowing the Lib Dems to curdle, alone and unlamented, for the moment, what we’ve seen so far is a triumph for a politics of fantasy.

UKIP, naturally enough, led this charge. For them, all Britain’s problems can be solved if you leave the EU, stop foreigners arriving, cut taxes, increase revenues, and generally treat governing Britain as performance art.

Perhaps it lies within the realm of possibility that a Britain that left the EU would suffer no economic dislocation, that a programme of massive tax cuts and deficit reduction is compatible, that all that prevents a return to economic greatness is those notoriously lazy and inefficient Poles, but if it is in the realm of possibility, it is loitering around near the bins, muttering to itself about having found a door to a magical nether-world if only the dark sprites hadn’t intervened, damn them.

Naturally the Conservatives, presented with this outlandish challenge, have decided not to confront it, but to co-opt it.

David Cameron all but said today ‘That Mr Farage, he wants what you want. I want that too, but my magical tax cut jelly beans are far more believable than his unreliable foreign legumes.  Swallow those, and you won’t end up rolling in fivers as you will with me, but instead find yourself in a Boschian nightmare presided over by those bizarrely malformed creatures, the Miliband and the Balls.”

Mind you, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s magical jelly beans do have some mind altering powers.

Listen to his own account of himself, and David Cameron is a straightforward,  long termist politician making a sustained argument for low taxes, personal responsibility and deficit reduction in a free market bounded by rules.

It is only when you rub your eyes and stare closely at his magic eye painting of a speech that it resolves into its true image: a series of unfunded tax cuts, promised several years down the line, after a period of literally incredible spending restraint, which would have, apparently, no negative impact at all on the prosperous, socially just, all in it together society the Prime Minister claims as his personal vision.

What’s more, in the Cameron picture of reality, the deficit is well under control, rather than stubbornly persistent, his future tax cuts have no implication for future public services and instead of almost no new homes being built, we are in fact of the cusp of a glorious expansion of home building in entirely uncontroversial locations.

You might choose to believe all this, but only in the same way you might choose to believe that a golden unicorn’s horn is about to snap off and repay your mortgage.

As for Labour, the leadership, and most notably Ed Balls, have embraced reality. However, it is a reality that is so unpleasant we prefer not to talk about it too much, for fear of upsetting our own sensitive dreamers. Labour would reduce the deficit, in the same vague way the government hope to do, but a little slower and with a little more taxation of the unpopular (I await the Cowell Windfall Tax with eagerness and joy).

However, this is deemed insufficiently dreamlike by the cheerleaders of the left, and so unpleasant medicine is rhetorically replaced by more pleasing flights of… optimistic social progress. The fabric of the economy will be restructured. New Homes will be built in vast quantities. Health and Social Care will be integrated, with little structural difficulty or tension. Neoliberalist hegemony will be overturned.

Except not quite. Because the actual promises are far more limited in scope: A tax rise on Tobacco and houses to pay for a limited number of extra NHS staff. An increase in private home building to a more or less non-recession level.  We’ll get repeal of one, actually pretty small, cutback on social housing. In the background of all this will be the grinding pressures of deficit reduction, putting pressure on every single spending department for almost the entirety of the next parliament.

Against that, Labour’s insistence on selling a pretty modest set of positive reforms in an unfriendly climate as a vast social revolution seems almost sweet in its naivete.

So UKIP have sold us baffling incoherence and called it plain-spoken honesty. The Conservatives have decided to offer the electorate just as implausible a pitch for the future but claim a greater credibility in the delivery of bottled moonshine, and while Labour has a plan, and a pretty tough, robust one, it barely dares to mention it to the electors, for fear of rending themselves by speaking so.

So pick which fantasy you find most pleasant, I guess. Britain free, reborn and proud, tax cuts for all, and social justice triumphant. They all have their pleasant points, as dreams go.

You may as well pick one, because the only thing you’ve not been sold this conference season is the reality of the next parliament.

Do ‘conference bounces’ exist?

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What is a ‘good conference’? I’ve been thinking a little about this since Labour conference, which received less than stellar reviews from the assembled journalists.

On one level, it’s an easy question to answer. A good conference is one that increases the number of punters who want to vote for you, and sustains that support for a reasonable period of time.

Unfortunately, there are relatively few examples of such a ‘good conference’.  The most recent is probably the 2007 Conservative conference, which put the kibosh on any Labour plans for a snap General Election – as an article by Andrew Hawkins of Comres points out, this generated a seven point ‘bounce’ that was sustained for at least a month.

More often though, ‘conference bounces’ are by definition, a short term phenomenon. Look at the monthly averages of YouGov polling and try to discern which party ‘won’ conference season in any of the last four years. It is a fool’s errand.

So are conference bounces real, or just an imposed narrative on random variation and already existing trends?

One advantage of recent years is the regular Yougov polling, which allows us to examine daily polls, and combine their results over time. So, let’s have a look at what happens to party support week by week during conference season.1

The first interesting thing is how little happens. If you compare the week before and the week after conference season since the last election, in not a single case has party share changed by more than a point.  Good conference or bad conference, great speech or disaster,  it doesn’t seem to have had an effect.

(Slightly annoying note: For some reason, Datawrapper doesn’t have 0.5 marks on their charts, instead rounding to the nearest whole number. So you see two 1’s on chart below. The first is actually 0.5, and so on.(

 

This can’t simply be a reflection of an unchanging electorate, by the way. Party vote shares between the years vary considerably. It’s just that the conference season itself barely shifts them at all.

 

So does conference season achieve nothing? No, because there is a shift during the conferences themselves. In each Conference week, the relevant party gets a small, but noticeable uptick compared to the week before.

 

You’ll probably notice that Labour’s 2013 conference stands out, with an increase their vote share by 4 points over the previous week.

However, even this is overstated. If you compare each party conference week with the week before the conference season began then Labour conference in 2013, still scored well: 2 points ahead of the base week2. However, the average increase for each party is again less than a single point.

 

Further, if Labour 2013 is the single example of a significant increase during conference week, even that rapidly deflated, and by the end of Conference season Labour were back where they began.  Labour in 2013 polled 0.2% less in the week after party conference season than in the week before it.

Overall, there is almost no change in polling averages between the week before and the week after conference season. If you stare hard, you might claim the Tories do slightly better, as they are the only party that has averaged a tiny increase in their vote share in the ‘post’ week compared to the base week.

However, I expect this is much more to do with being the last conference than anything to do with superior conference communication. So this year, with the Lib Dems last, they might get the benefit.

 

From this, I conclude two things.

First, Labour’s conference last week was not bad in polling terms. In Labour Conference week, Labour increased their share of the vote by 0.6 points, from 35.8 %to 36.4%. That’s more than in 2011 or 2012, but less than in 2010 or 2013. It’s more or less in line with this parliament’s average for all three parties. In other words, neither triumph nor disaster.

In terms of actual voters, Labour conference performed exactly as you’d expect it to, in that it did very little.

Second, it seems that overall, the ‘conference bounce’ is a pretty negligible factor in most years. If you want a best guess on where the polls will be in mid October, it is effectively – where they were in Mid-September. The rest of it is largely imposing narrative on Brownian motion.

Good job I’m on holiday from Thursday, then, eh?

 

 

 

  1. Methodological note: What I’ve done is take the YouGov polls for the week before, the three weeks of and the week after, conference season, and then compare them. I’ve taken each party’s conference week and compared it with both the immediately preceding week and the ‘base week’. I’ve also looked at the average polling for the week after conference season and compared it with the base week []
  2. I’d also point out that the run up to conference season had been very negative for Labour. The polling during conference may have simply been a return to the mean []

An English proposal

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We don’t yet know if  the devolution dash that followed the tightening of the Independence referendum polls  has done enough to prevent Scottish independence. At the same time, the prospect of a further extension of powers to a Scottish parliament, including greater tax raising powers and control over the structure of welfare benefits has raised, perhaps for the last time, the old West Lothian question.

I half suspect that resistance to devo-max among Westminster parties has more to do with England than with Scotland. The main benefit of leaving the devolution settlement in Scotland more or less as it was, is that it did not make it necessary to poke the inconsistencies and contradictions of that settlement with a sharp stick.

It’s superfluous to revisit the details of these inconsistencies. I’m more interested in why there’s such a reluctance.

It’s an English problem. The basic issues is that England entirely dominates the Union. It’s as if the United States was only New York State, West Virginia and Alaska. In such a situation it almost becomes nonsensical to allow New York to have its own policy setting bodies, as almost all the time it would get the President and Congress it voted for, and on devolved issues, the size and economic power of the largest state means any decision it made would have huge repercussions for the other states.

Imagine if an English parliament decide to cut income tax and corporation tax below that paid in Scotland, while temporarily increasing public spending above levels in Scotland. It would decimate the Scottish economy, without Scotland having any kind of say in the matter. The same is not true in reverse.  What if English public services became substantially worse than Scottish ones and we started seeing major population transfer?

So though it doesn’t make much constitutional sense, there’s a good political reason for England to show a little restraint. Exploiting England’s dominant position in the Union to create a ‘differentiated’ England without the consent of other nations would be destructive, and the cost of allowing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland an unequal voice over English services is usually relatively low.

Next, there is absolutely no English consensus on how to deal with devolution. So if Scotland gets more powers, for example, Yougov has 29% saying ‘English votes for English laws’ 26% for things staying the same as now, 21% with no opinion, and slivers of support for either regional assemblies or an English parliament.

For political parties too, every option for more ‘English’ power is problematic.

The Tories have good reason to distrust regions, as they’d likely lose the north for a generation, while the South-West, and South-East, which they’d probably win, would be unwieldy, unpopular and posses little great regional or political identity.

An English parliament or ‘English votes’ might seem more attractive to Tories, but the reality is that a division between ‘British’ and ‘English’ governments would be practically (and emotionally) difficult for such an English party. Imagine a Tory leader who was simultaneously in coalition in ‘England’ while in opposition in ‘Westminster’. Further, A ‘federal’ Tory party would be an odd creature indeed, – could there even be a separate ‘English’ leader without simmering division?

Equally, Labour would find an English parliament or ‘English votes’ regularly problematic for a ‘national’ government. English voters would be asked to elect a Labour Westminster government, but if there were ‘English votes’ that government might not ever be able to deliver their agenda.

British Federalisation for England is therefore more attractive in theory than in practice.

So it’s tempting to devolve power in other ways. Yet neither Labour or Conservatives have been able to convince local communities that they are enthusiastic about city mayors, police commissioners, school boards or so on. There are always more scemes (City Regions are the latest, and have their strengths – but what are City regions but rebranded Metropolitan County Councils, and they were hardly a devolution settlement)

So what can politics offer England, if we are to offering Scotland more power?

We need to find a new way to rub along nonsensically. One that doesn’t feel overly disruptive, but reflects the changing distribution of authority within the UK.

One option might be to worry less about constitutional coherence and more about shared national consent.

How about a UK Commons, as now, which forms the national government, accompanied by a largely elected English House of Lords, with the consent of both bodies needed for any English only policies proposed by the former? There could even by Scottish, Welsh and Irish Lords, nominated by their parliaments to consider ‘all UK’ legislation proposed by the Commons.

If the English Lords were elected by PR, there would rarely be a single party majority in England, and all potential British governments would be able to build alliances of consent for their English policies, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Irish voters would not have to fear a dominant England indifferent to their needs.

It’s messy of course, but the Union is messy. We shouldn’t be afraid of that, we should welcome it.

 

Trust, Politics and Pie Crusts

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On Monday the Liberal Democrats launched their pre-manifesto.

One little noticed part of the package was an attempt to outbid Labour on housebuilding. Now, I take a small interest in housing policy, so I was interested.

Labour is promising to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020. As of last week, the Liberal Democrats are promising 300,000, with a large part of this to be delivered by “Publishing a plan for at least ten new ‘Garden Cities’ in England, in areas where there is local support, providing tens of thousands of high quality new homes, with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport”

I had a few reactions to this promise. I had a bit of a laugh at the nakedness of the ‘big round number’ bidding war. Labour promise 200k? Let’s promise 300k!

I also admired the artful construction of the ratholes in the promise. There’s no date by which the 300,000 target is to be met. The only firm commitment is to ‘publish a plan’. Finally, I liked the candidate insurance – The new towns will only be built where there’s ‘local support’. That means no opponent can campaign against the concreting over of Bigggleswade-on-the-wold, and I guess a local Lib Dem could oppose a new Town if locals didn’t want it, like these guys did.

Oh, and I remembered when the Lib Dems opposed building new eco-towns.

In other words, I didn’t take the promise seriously.  I didn’t believe it.

My reaction to this promise can be summed up as follows: Yeah, right. Chinny. Reck. On.

I’m sure the Lib Dems would like to build more homes, but 300,000 at some indefinite point in the future, through a mechanism they don’t really commit to and were loudly opposed to in the past?

But this isn’t really a Lib Dem problem. Sure, I’m sceptical of them, but I would be, wouldn’t I? It’s a broader political problem.

Just because I don’t believe the Lib Dems have a hope in hell of really getting 300,000 homes a year built by that mechanism, doesn’t mean I’m more convinced by other targets, even Labour’s own.

The Lyons’ review looks like it has good stuff in it, don’t get me wrong, but so did the Barker review, and we didn’t even come close to delivering the 250,000 homes we promised back then1.

Today, a Populus poll for the Institute of Government revealed that only 15% of us believe political promises. I’m surprised it’s that high.

This means that the politics of promises is a strategic mistake.

Why get into a bidding war on targets, promises, and objectives when few believe you know how to deliver them?

It is entirely counter-productive – you promise things, yet despite people desiring the ends you promise, they remain unmoved.

You conclude you have been insufficiently motivating, so offer even people more (300,000 homes, not 200,000!). This makes you even more incredible, and your promise becomes even less meaningful.

Instead, we need a politics of trust. A focus on making the case that you do know how to achieve the goals you set out.

That might mean a bit of modesty, because whatever your politics the goals you know we can achieve are probably significantly smaller than the ones you would like to offer. On the left especially, this cuts against an ingrained self-image of radical boldness that regards such modesty as somehow a betrayal of values.

But if no-one believes your promises, what’s exactly is the point of a bold, brave promise?

After all, if you believed in bold promises, and you wanted more houses built, you’d vote Lib Dem now.

Are you?

I thought not.

  1. Now the housing shortage is apparently greater, we’re promising fewer homes than we used to and boasting of our bold radicalism in so doing. So we’re being more realistic, but refuse to accept the credit for this modesty because we want to sound like we’re attempting the near impossible. Politics is a funny old game []

This is England ’14

4 comments

I haven’t written on Scotland, because I’m not Scottish and I know little of Scottish politics, other than occasionally coming up against the fierce hatreds of the Scottish Labour party and the resultant regular fissures in machine politics.

I want the Union to be preserved, naturally, out of a vague sense of British identity and a more sharply defined dislike of political nationalism, its resultant populism and the inevitable economic and social adventurism that follows.

Still, I can’t imagine my voice is needed in Scotland’s debate on their future.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about England and the left.

One of the strangest elements of the referendum campaign has been the exposure of the nervous, fearful reaction among a broad spectrum of the British left over the meaning of an independent Scotland, not for Scotland, but for England.

We look at what England might be, and tremble.

The obvious sorties are from the wilder shores. George Monbiot, for example, believes that Union with England represents

“a political system that sustains one of the rich world’s highest levels of inequality and deprivation. This is a system in which all major parties are complicit, which offers no obvious exit from a model that privileges neoliberal economics over other aspirations. It treats the natural world, civic life, equality, public health and effective public services as dispensable luxuries, and the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor as non-negotiable.

Gosh, and I thought the SNP wanted to cut Corporation tax, that Alex Salmond was Rupert Murdoch’s closest friend in British politics and the First Minister has enlisted Donald Trump to his causes.

Owen Jones takes the argument a little further. For him, the problem is not merely national, but ideological.

Scotland has been oppressed by thirty years of Thatcherism and New Labour social democracy.  (So oppressed and alienated by New Labour was Scotland that in 2010, Labour’s share of the vote was 42%, a terrifying decline from, um, 45% in 1997 and still an increase on the 39% of 1992. False consciousness is a terrible thing).

Now, understandably they wish to flee this ideological charnel house for the early days of a better nation.

Jones claims, somewhat implausibly, that this is not only a Scottish desire, arguing that if Northern England was a nation, it too would seek to flee Westminster. As someone who worked on the North-East assembly referendum campaign a decade ago, this elicited rather a grim smile.

For this argument to work, you have to assume that somewhere vaguely in the South of England there exists a stable majority for the kind of politics Owen Jones despises, a majority that has for thirty years bound the rest of Britain to its harsh cruelties. It is this he seeks to overturn, though how his brand of neo-Bennism will achieve this end is not made entirely clear.

Nick Cohen too sees the Union as a restraint on the savagery of England, arguing that “English nationalism, a beast the union kept in its cage, will prowl the land after the Scottish vote“. Cohen doesn’t say what that Nationalism would be, beyond a constitutional reworking, but he and I agree that it would be ugly. Still though, if we are talking about an effulgence of ultra-nationalism, I can’t help comparing England with France, and rather favourably.

Even Phil Collins is at it, though he tempers his warnings with a sense that perhaps a Labour party recalibrated to win England might not be so terrible a prospect. Still, his picture of England alone is pretty grim.

Imagine if the Tories had won the 1964 general election and, from that platform, proceeded to win again in 1966. Liberal laws on censorship, abortion, divorce and homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment would all either not have happened or, more likely, be the crowning achievement of the Tory home secretary Quintin Hogg.1

The English left sings with little faith in Jerusalem. Closed minded on social issues, economically neo-liberal and hard-hearted on welfare and inequality, a beast to be contained.

Clearly, the left has an English problem2.

To an extent, I think this is founded on a certain false romanticism about non-Englishness.

For all English conservatism is decried, Britain’s politics on abortion and gay rights were far ahead of independent Ireland’s. (Was I really an adult when homosexuality was legalised there? Astonishing).

The horror of Ireland’s abortion policy is well-known, but I would also remind Phil Collins that the Sexual offences act 1967 applied only to England and Wales. It is not hard to grasp why the scope of this liberalisation was limited to Southern Britain, though we tend not to talk about it.

Indeed Homosexuality was not decriminalised in Scotland until the Thatcher government (Robin Cook playing a major role, though intriguingly the unlikely figure of Nicholas Fairbairn was an early supporter of Scottish gay rights. Sadly he seemed to have become more prejudiced with age).

Although criminal prosecutions largely stopped in 1971, the continuing illegality of homosexuality left gay men and women wide open to extortion and discrimination. No wonder then, as one history of Scottish Gay rights says, the Scottish LGB movement was hampered by “by emigration of lesbians and gay men to the freer atmosphere of London and other English cities“.

The same applies on Economics. If any establishment in Europe was in thrall to a low tax, boom and bust ‘neo-liberalism’, it was Dublin. So right-wing was Ireland, that George Osborne reproved laggardly social-democratic England with the Celts tiggerish successes.

Today, Alex Salmond wants lower business taxes, presumably so Scotland will become a sort of Delaware of the EU.

So perhaps some of the idealisation of Non-Englishness is projection, a righteous hunger for England to be better than it is, and a hopeful imagining of that possibility in other national alternatives.

I think this definition of English political identity is self-defeating. Do we insist that Englishness is bound up with closed mindedness, with prejudice, with a cold-hearted and cruel economic policy, or at least that Englishness is more bound up with these things than other nationalities? This seems neither true nor fair.

If England wants anything, it seems to be a sort of gradual, pottering, forward progress, with a large degree of concern for those left behind by economic and social dislocation, whether they be the residents of Clacton or Carlisle. I don’t always agree with this – I find it too anti-immigrant, too small-c Conservative, too willing to subsidise tradition at the expense of innovation (How I look longingly at Farming subsidies!), but it doesn’t strike me as the sort of ravening anti-progressive chill painted in the articles I quote above.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to me to be too awful a national identity, as such nonsense goes.

As a political project it certainly seems rather more attractive than the various degrees of nationalistic hubris that surround it. I can imagine an English Social Democracy, generally liberal, socially broad-minded, industrially and technologically innovative, internationalist (if cautious about sharing sovereignty), passionate about good public services and social mobility.

I can imagine it because we’ve had it many times before, not only from Labour governments but from Liberal and moderate Tory ones too, from Asquith to Macmillan. It’s been pretty good when we’ve let it be. Would that be such an awful aspect to present to the world?

Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, the whole British left will need to win in England. Even if Scotland goes alone, it will want a social-democratic partner, not a chiseling rival.

If we are to win England’s people to our cause, perhaps we should appreciate its virtues as often as we decry its many flaws, and realise that England is there to be won, so long as we’re not busy hating it?

  1. The ‘more likely’ is revealing. Collins is far too smart to think that the Conservative party would have been as unthinkingly prejudiced in the sixties and seventies as it was in the forties and fifties. I expect he’s also far too aware that the Labour party was subject to the same pressures, with some pretty hardline immigration policies []
  2. Not just the left though. Because if there’s one thing astonishing about these pictures of England, it’s how closely they’re replicated on the right. After all, what is Matthew Parris’s recent Clacton missive, but a reflection of left views of the lumpen English right. It is the “static caravans and holiday villages, and the people and places that for no fault of their own are not getting where a 21st-century Britain needs to be going” who create the monster the British left shrinks from.  Liberal Tories turn away for them, while Labour can’t understand why they flirt with populist nationalism not popular socialism. []

Shut up and take my money

2 comments

I want to pay for good writing. I really do. The problem is, no-one seems to have worked out how to do it. Luckily I have.

As Matthew Sinclair points out, for a standard punter to pay for their media is prohibitively expensive. We can all agree that journalists deserve paying for their labours, but if you chose to buy subscriptions to reasonable range of digital news media, you’re looking at an annual bill of almost one and a half thousand pounds.

That’s a lot. Worse, Matthew’s estimate is only his preferred news media – he’s paying for the Spectator, but not the New Statesman, for example. Want access to everything and you’re talking even more.

Even then, Matthew’s money doesn’t give him what he wants. Say there’s an interesting article in a foreign publication he rarely reads. He’s not going to pay for a subscription, but he can’t read it unless he does. Boo!

So what can we do?

One answer is to make everything free to view, and pay for content advertising. There are three problems with this. First, the’yre not generating enough income to keep writers and editors out of poverty. Second, as a result, adverts are increasingly awful and intrusive and finally and entirely relatedly, I now have adblock plus installed.

So some media have decided to go for paywalls – hard, soft or moated.

A hard paywall says you don’t get anything unless you buy the package. Problem with this is that you have to really like David Aaronovitch and Caitlin Moran to pay £26 a month to vault over the wall cash in hand to get at their opinionated goodies. (News stories too of course, but ragging on opinion writers is far more enjoyable).

A soft paywall gives you a few articles a month to read, the most articles you’re most excited by intended to lure you inside like the scantily clad woman at the door of a Soho clip joint. (Traumatic experience when Seventeen. £30 for a lemonade. Lost father’s scarf intended to make me appear adult). This solves the casual browsing problem. But there are issues here too. It’s trivially easy, but a bit annoying to get round such soft paywalls1. It’s also quite annoying because you forget. Is there a word for the moment of disappointment when you click on a link, only to be confronted by the dull shading out of a webpage that presages an pop-up inviting you to hand over money?

Then there’s the moat. You guard your core content like a lioness, but throw tasty morsels- blogs, gossip, hilarious gags to the populace, hoping the will beg for admission to the cultural nirvana that surely waits inside, if these are but the offcuts. Trouble is, no-one know what’s an offcut and what’s prime beef. Plus, these are journalists, notoriously shy and unambitious individuals. Won’t they put their best stuff in the offcuts, where more people will see them? The scoundrels!

There’s a final option too. Let’s just not pay people while we feast on the revenue streams they create!

To this I say: Fuck you Huffington Post. Fuck you everywhere and in every place. I will see your ‘business model’ dead, buried and pissed upon by writers with actual paychecks and royalties.

From this we conclude that this market is not working very well. It needs a bit of intervention.

Matthew, being a libertarian, free market kind of fellow, suggests a micropayments system. You pay a fee per article, with the payments system integrated into most media networks. It’s effectively an extension of what’s happening with e-books. I have some experience of this, because my partner makes her living this way now. I’ve seen how the e-book market has driven down the cost of books, while giving a much broader range of authors a steady income (and some, untold wealth).

It’s done this by absolutely shafting publishers. How would this work in news media? Who gets screwed: the curators and the quality controllers: The editors who challenge writers and the subs who tidy them up. My partner can choose whether to pay for a sub and an editor  who’ll pull her up on her mistakes. I’m not sure that choice is a good thing when you’re dealing with facts.

Consider another example: Today, I get nothing from this blog, and Polly Toynbee works for the Guardian. Fair enough.

Now imagine a market with deep micropayment integration. In this market, I might get a few thousand purchases a day, Polly a few hundred thousand. I’m over the moon, naturally, because I’m getting a hundred quid a day where before I’m getting nothing. Polly, on the other hand, might not be so happy. Sure, she’s still working for the Guardian, but she’s their biggest draw, she can see the money flow towards her articles: Where’s that money going? To pay for Seumas Bloody Milne’s odes to Stalin! Why shouldn’t she decamp to PollyandPals.com and keep that money for herself? Glenn Greenwald knows how it goes.

There’s another problem too. The Phillips/Young conundrum.  I don’t like Melanie Phillips much. I’m no fan of Toby Young’s politics. But I accept that as they toil, so should they reap, or whatever. But if I’m giving them 5p, I will hesitate at the door. Do I really want to read this? I will ask myself. This is bad, because I will gravitate only to views with which I agree. This is bad for me. It will also encourage ever more flagrant attention-seeking by writers. Just think of all those pennies flying towards the most extreme end of the opinion freak show. In the end, we will all be Snooki.

So, while I like the idea of paying for content more seamlessly, choosing individual articles feels too atomistic. It feels like a pre-broken market.

So how about a more social-democratic interventionist approach?

What did people do back in the day, when everything was made of paper, and paper was expensive? They formed Subscription Libraries! So why can’t we create something similar now?

Carl Gardner suggested something like this:

Here, publishers and even no-mark bloggers would get a fee from a central body – let’s call it Newsify. Newsify would guarantee its members unlimited access to all content. So once you were inside the wall, you’d get access to everything. Melanie Phillips, Seumas Milne, That American woman you keep meaning to read more often, Me, everyone.  The fee the publisher gets is correlated to their readership, obviously.

Now the interesting thing is that Spotify can put an independent album up next to a megastar on a major label. They give both 70% of their ad/subscription revenue. A self-produced indy might get a larger slice of the pie – no label to pay, but the major label might get a far bigger piw – marketing, A&R etc etc. THis is similar to kindle, too. A self published author can get a bigger slice of their ebook revenue, but Lee Child gets more readers. The same probably applies to news and opinion.

A blogger might get a larger share of a smaller revenue pot than a traditional ‘name’ columnist or journalist. However, it would still be the interest of Aaronovitch to stay at the Times – because they would invest in promoting him, would offer him a stability of income, and would edit and curate his work to a high standard. No shoddy bedroom production for David!

Would this make money for anyone? Spotify is losing money hand over fist. For Musicians, it can be a bad deal too. Spotify hands out less than a cent a stream. So you’d need more than a thousand listeners an hour to make any more than minimum wage2.  Translate that to articles read, and you can see the pot of gold might not be so good. At this blog I’d be generating between a tenner and twenty quid a day. On a good a day.  Still, I get nowt now, so I wouldn’t be unhappy.

But it’d surely reresent a massive increase in revenue over current models. You’re paying Toynbee and Aaronovitch and Moran and losing money now. Plus it’s not like any other model is working, right? May as well see if this one stands a chance of succeeding where all the others miserably failed.3

There’s one other benefit too. It’s a huge hidden pool of loveliness waiting for consumers to dive in. Archives. News media has the most fantastic long tail imaginable, and it pisses it right up against the wall, because Newspaper Editors are idiots trained to think only today’s news  matters to readers. What a news subscription library could really add value is by creating better links between content themes.

An example: I was reading the other day about this absorbing murder case. Now, it turns out, that over the intervening decades, all sorts of articles have been written, many brilliant. But are these links anywhere except google and wikipedia? Is anyone in media thinking that these articles are an asset?

To bring it to my own interests – Can I find a set of lovingly curated articles on British Social Housing in the Fifties as easily as I can find Jump blues playlists on Spotify? Can I balls. News organisations: You don’t even need to pay archivists to make the links- Put it all together, and pale wobblies like me will do it for love.

The core truth is that the news media business right now is making it harder, not easier for me to know stuff because they’re trying to find a way to make their business model work.

Make it easier for me to find stuff out, to learn new things, and make unexpected connections and I will bash you over the head with my eagerness to give you my money and you’ll have a business model that works without you quite understanding why.

So off you go. Make this thing happen. I just want a 1% of it, as commission.

 

 

 

 

  1. One day I shall convince my partner that I am using privacy windows and clearing my cookie cache to read the Telegraph, not hide my porn habit. Sad thing is, it’s true []
  2. I wonder if some enterprising musicians have their own music on all the time on spotify []
  3. OK, one problem. The sidebar of shame might make money. Maybe. £41 million in revenue isn’t that fantastic for a business that is piggybacking a lot of costs on the Print version. Still, you could put a branded sidebar on any subscription library content if you wanted to drive traffic to your other stories about the Kardashians []

The Stop the World Coalition

7 comments

The most dominant movement in British foreign policy is not either of the main parties, or any major campaigning group. It is the Stop the World coalition. This is a broad alliance, encompassing Andrew Murray, Lindsey German of the far left to to Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne of the heterodox right and points inbetween.

The stop the world coalition has broad appeal because it proceeds from a number of reasonable positions, a number of truths held to be self-evident.

First, that while tragedy and genocide are awful and regrettable, it is primarily the responsibility of someone else to offer a solution. This might be the actors themselves, other regional powers, the United Nations, or any other group you wish to identify.

It follows we should rely on such partnerships to resolve the crisis with a minimum of activity on our part. It may be that those partners have strategic interests or repressive behaviours that are entirely opposed to our objectives. However, they are better placed to act than we are without them.

From this it is concluded that we should restrict ourselves to pursuing policy aims that are entirely blameless (humanitarian aid, calling for talks, accepting a smattering of refugees and so on).

Finally, if neither international partnerships nor humanitarian support are proving effective in preventing terrible outcomes, we should oppose any military intervention. As Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition put it in the aftermath of the decision not to strike Assad last yearthere is hardly a problem in the Middle East (or elsewhere) that Anglo-US military intervention cannot make worse”.  (Murray believed, with many others, that a corner was turned in Western policy last year. He was right. We have since seen what lay on the other side.)

This scepticism is a reasonable challenge to any proposed military action, whether against genocide, chemical weapons use, or to protect a civilian population.

No such actions should be taken lightly and you would surely want to explore all alternatives, ensure a broad consensus, and have stable relationships with significant regional players before commiting to any warfare, with all its awful consequences.

You’d also want a high bar challenge for likely ‘success’, well-defined immediate objectives, and a clear understanding of the longer-term consequences of any action, in human lives most importantly, but also of time, money and ongoing commitment1.

The problem comes when this set of reasonable scepticisms becomes rigid opposition to all action. Instead of being an appropriate constraint against over-optimism and self-regard, this position becomes entirely negative, ruling out all options not described above as likely to lead to disaster.

Why is this problematic when the risks of any intervention are entirely real?

Because it envisions a world in which other actors do nothing. To be successful as policy it relies on a situation where the world has stopped, and  there are few or no negative consequences for inaction.

This is a crucial point, because you can only accept that ‘our intervention can only make things worse‘ if you do not account for the possible actions of others. The binary choice is not ‘the current situation‘ versus ‘the situation after western action‘ but ‘a range of future situations in which Western military action has been pursued‘ and ‘a future where they have not – and others have responded‘.

In that future we find the choices of others, whether the choice of Assad to use barrel bombs, Iran to supply him or ‘ISIS’ to terrorise Shi’a, Christian and Kurds. Those futures are not all within our control2.

If we look at Syria, there was, and remains, a strong case against Western Military intervention from the beginning of the rebellion. Perhaps the Assad regime would fall without our involvement. Perhaps a diplomatic peace could be reached. Supporting the FSA with airstrikes would have been very unlikely to get UN approval with Russia at the security council. Acting against Assad, especially if half-heartedly, might lengthen the war, giving him recourse to secure arms imports from states that would see his fall as a strategic defeat. Finally, if, as in Libya, we intervened and then left, we might see Syria become a quagmire from which we were absent. So we chose not to act.

However, even though we did not act, and so cannot have caused these possible negative outcomes, things still got very much worse. Those articles and published this time last year saying that the ‘rush to war’ had been halted ring hollow now.

They ring hollow because while we were passive Iran and Russia were willing to support Assad. They ring hollow because international inaction and (in all probability) regime collusion created the conditions in which ultra-extremist groups could prosper. They ring hollow because from Qatar to Iran, allies and opponents behaved in ways we had no control over.

They ring hollow because the world did not stop simply because we wished it to.

As a result even greater instability was created – one driven largely by actions of those – Russia, Iran, Assad, Hizbollah, Islamist extremists- over whom the ‘west’ had no control, and facilitated by the choices of actors (Maliki, Syrian rebels, and so on) whose options were affected by an absence of Western (really American) presence.3

This is why the Stop the World coalition has a problem.

It is not that it is wrong to oppose Western action. The starting tenets – a humility in foreign affairs,  an acceptance of the importance of partnership, a preference for peaceful means over military, a recognition of the limits of Western influence are all valuable qualities.

The problem is that it is wrong to assume Western action is the only significant wellspring of negative consequences.

By assuming a world in which the actions of others impact barely at all, they minimise the dangers and risks of inaction. Their policy invites not stillness, but a space into which others can, and will rush, creating further instability.

You end up with a policy agenda that is helpless in the face of profound challenges. All options are bad, and all choices are ruled out, and all you have is a repeated plea for others to behave in a way in which you would like them to behave..

Worse, you end up with a circle in which whatever imperfect choice is made becomes the sole cause of future misery. If it is only ‘our’ actions that appear significant, and things continue to get worse, then any choice made can be blamed for that worsening. The role of others becomes insignificant.

Contain Assad through sanctions and overflight- and be blamed for the death of innocent children and global radicalisation.

Do not constrain Assad – and be blamed for regional instability and collude in likely genocide, leading to global radicalisation.

Take military action to overthrow Assad  – and be responsible for all that flows from his fall, including global radicalisation.

Or let Syria turn into a grinder of souls, with all that entails.

We have seen each of those options played out before.

Why does such a position appeal? For some, I suspect it is a consequence of realpolitik – Here we find ‘realists’ who see it being of limited concern to us if a dictator slaughters his people so long as he does not bother us, or who hold that a policy of masterly inactivity will have few negative consequences at home, while the costs abroad are no great concern of ours.

For others, there seems to be a sense in which Liberal Democracy is the source of global injustice, not the best approximation of a remedy. This can either appeal to either left or right, creating a strange admiration for the likes of Putin or Ba’athist regimes from the Galloways and the Obornes, who see them standing up against very different oppressions, no matter who they themselves oppress.

However, this seems to me to be a minority. Most of those who are doubtful are doubtful for good reasons. The objections raised above to western actions are reasonable, coherent ones. Unfortunately, though, the world is not going to stop. Others are going to act whether we wish them too or not.

To go from the grand to the risible, it seems likely that at least some British Jihadi’s were influenced by Anjem Choudary. Anjem Choudary and his tiny band of extremists hated Britain and the west before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before September 11.

They would have hated us whatever we said, did or failed to do. They would have sought outrage after outrage. If we had not invaded Iraq, perhaps even now, some radicalised young Jihadi from Welling would be fighting outside Baghdad because the West had betrayed Islam by colluding in Saddam’s brutal post 9/11 oppression of Islamism.

Intervention is not always right. But because others will still intervene whatever the UK and the US does, dogmatic non-intervention contains its own contradiction. The Stop the World coalition is doomed to fail.

 

  1. I suspect a significant proportion of readers will be asking how this relates to Israel. Fair question. From my perspective, the prospect of outside intervention fails on a number of points. First, I doubt Hamas would welcome a ‘peacekeeping force’ that limited their ability to fire rockets at Israel. Without that commitment any such presence would become an unwelcome occupation force very rapidly. Second, there is a pretty clear diplomatic solution available right now, which both parties are engaged in. So in that case, the prospect of intervention falls on precisely the sorts of grounds outlined. As for issues like arms sales, blockades and so on, this relates directly to the main thrust of the article – it is reasonable to be concerned by arms export licenses, but a bit odd to be concerned about them while being indifferent to Hamas’s importing rockets and tunnel building materials from Iran []
  2. To draw an extreme analogy: The US withdraws our military presence from South Korea and North Korea launches an assault on Seoul. To judge the humanitarian consequences of any US response without considering what a North Korean takeover of the peninsula would mean is plainly ludicrous. However, if you accept ‘our intervention only makes things worse’ as a governing principle that would have to be your conclusion. The question that is sidestepped is ‘Worse than what, exactly?’ []
  3. ISIS apparently took Taqba military base from the Syrian Army last night, securing MANPADS and Missiles and even a fighter jet. These were all Russian imports intended to bolster Assad. Intervention happened without us []

A small Summer for politics

2 comments

Last week Danny Finkelstein said the following about this here blog.

This is a much appreciated compliment, and most kind of him. Inevitably, receiving such kind words coincided with a period in which I had almost nothing useful to say about British politics.

International politics, certainly. Gaza? Most definitely. Israel, naturally. ISIS, Syria, Iran and Iraq? I am only constrained by my awareness of ignorance. The domestic repercussions of tragic events elsewhere? These are issues of import.

Yet British politics? The very stuff I am supposed to know about, to care about, to be excited and thrilled by?

It palls. It bores. It seems irrelevant and childish and somewhat pathetic. Nine Months to go before a historic election and I was… lethargic.

Nor can I blame the politicians for this. They are doing their part.

They want me to know how significant a choice this election will be, how much difference it will make.

Both Labour and Tory summer campaigns are predicated on the significance of ‘the choice’ the electorate face next year. The Tories say a Labour government would destroy jobs by raising taxes, and wave a death tax at me over Labour paying for Social care, while wasting billions on welfare payments. In response, Labour promise tough action on Energy companies and limiting Rail fares, while as if in rebuttal to the Tory campaigns on health and jobs Liz Kendall makes considered speeches about the challenges facing the NHS and Social care and Chuka Umunna edits an entire well researched book about new Industrial policy and broadening growth.

Some of this is merely aggressive tackling, the political equivalent of a knowing, but not violent, foul on your opponents. The Tories are not going to ‘privatise the NHS’. Labour won’t introduce a death tax, or destroy job growth, while similarities are quietly downplayed1. Mostly though, these are real issues. The differences between the parties mean something important.

Unfortunately, they also feel incomplete. For all the significance of these issues, Their prominence in our political debate suggests that our politics finds it hard to offer a coherent, popular response to the three much larger problems the next government will be faced with, and so is attempting to turn significant, second order issues into far bigger divisions2.

The huge challenges are muted because they cause problems for both sides.

First, there’s the deficit. The Tories find it hard to talk about beyond the level of sloganeering. They proclaim “We’ve Cut the deficit” but neglect to add “Just nowhere near as far, or as fast as we thought we would” because that would involve admitting the persistence of the deficit means their projections for post-election budgets require laughably optimistic reductions in Welfare spending. They would like us to think this is a simple matter of cracking down on scroungers, but this money is in fact largely paid to precisely the sort of aspirational families they seek to represent. Labour on the other hand, is sharply aware that reducing such benefits would hurt hard-working families, but has little political will to promise to put up taxes or reduce departmental spending to make up the difference.

So both say little about the future. The forward projections are so ugly however, it is almost inevitable therefore that after the next election there will be some sort of fudge of these choices, with a tax increase, some welfare and departmental spending reductions, and a gentler glide path of deficit reduction.

The significant difference between the Parties will be about the precise make up of the fudge. This will be real, significant and make a difference to hundreds of thousands of families and jobs.

Unfortunately, we can only guess at how these decisions would be made, because the first party to admit it would have to make these particular tough choices would be absolutely slaughtered for so doing. So, we have to try and guess where the taxes would rise, and where the spending would fall and when we’d meet our deficit targets.3

Directly related to this vagueness is the believability of our positive promises. Since the constraints on the next government will be so tight, it is hard to imagine that in any particular area there will be a large surplus to be devoted to desirable ends. Whether that’s a tax cut for the low paid, or a huge increase in innovation and research spending, or funding to smooth the integration of Health and Social care, every promise elicits the sceptical reaction ‘So how will you pay for it’? In response, there is a tendency to identify waste to eliminate, or fat to be trimmed by localising, or future rewards to resolve current commitments.

Well, maybe. But it’s easier to say there’s wastage to save or promise returns to come than it is to find one or be certain of the other.

This means that even when politicians do make big, bold, promises, they seem rather presumptuous. A long-term economic plan? Higher wages? Lower Taxes? An NHS with neither rationing nor markets? A booming export led economy with top quality science and innovation? Houses being built as if it was the Thirties (or the fifties and sixties, if you prefer council flats to private houses). There’ll all desirable, but not easy to do with no new money.

Finally, then, there’s our foreign incoherence.  Whether Europe or the Middle East, our basic position seems always to be that we know how we would like the world to be, and to be clear that we are very much against it not being that way now, but to have no particular plan for moving from position A to position B.

The government may want a reformed Europe, and the opposition may be very keen on a diplomatic solution to Syria, but neither seems to willing to embrace a plan that might deliver either.

On Europe, to get reforms, we’d probably have to give something back, and that is off the table for much of the Conservative party. In the Middle East, making a deal with Iran and Syria on the one hand, or the Saudi’s and Egyptians on the other is unattractive in its brutal Realpolitik, because the consequences would be murderous, likely akin to Saddam’s post 1991 repression of Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions. Yet the obvious alternative, of taking action ourselves to support those who do request our alliance, whether the FSA or Kurdish, involves a risky commitment most in politics no longer wish to make for the sake of a problematic, imperfect shift in the Middle East.

So instead, we ineffectually call for peaceful resolutions, hoping that aid drops and handwringing will solve a problem they show no sign of stopping.

Three big issues then: The persistent deficit, the consequences of this for our services and spending, and the gap between our desires for the world and our ability to achieve the same.

Three issues on which opposition and government feel united in their desire to leave off the political battleground, to focus instead on rail caps and death taxes, personalities and slogans. Perhaps they’re right to do so.  After all, there’s not much political benefit to being the person saying that the next government will be a grind, not a Cockaigne.

However, while we take this approach, our politics will feel small and tentative and reactive, as it has throughout this summer.

  1. all parties find it easy, for example, to praise Transport infrastructure in general, and damnably hard to justify it in particular []
  2. There is one other huge issue, too, of course, Scottish independence, but other than occasional doe eyed entreaty to stay, and thinking up bizarre stunts like piles of stones and hand holding, there’s little the English political parties can do about this. Which I suppose underlines the smallness of our political debate, though I can’t imagine going on and on about it would have been much good to anyone []
  3. For example, we might assume that Labour would invest in capital budgets, not current spending, because this is implied by the no larger current deficit pledge. However, if the suspicion lurks that we do this by calling as much as we can as capital spending, then we really just take ourselves back to the same place. It’s a workaround, not an answer []