Putting the Boots in.

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As I grew up in Nottingham, I’m a big supporter of Boots. Raleigh bikes too. (I have mixed feelings about John Player).

So when it came down to backing Boots or the Labour party on the matter of business policy, there was only one side I was going to endorse.

May I quote the Chairman of Boots?

“When we build factories in which it is a joy to work, when we establish pension funds which relieve our workers of fears for their old age, when we reduce the number of working days in the week, or give long holidays with pay to our retail assistant, we are setting a standard which Governments in due time will be able to make universal.”

That’s John Boot, Chairman of Boots in 1938.  Couldn’t agree more. See, I’m totally pro-business.

Who are you trying to persuade?

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Winning elections is about two pretty simple things. You’re either trying to change a voter’s mind about you or, if they like you just fine already,  giving them a poke to get them off their arse and to the polling station.

The two major party campaigns are doing lots of voter-poking. Barely an hour goes by without a press release intended to remind voters that the other lot are rubbish and we better stop them do their rubbish things. The NHS is being privatised. The Economy could be wrecked. The Economy could be privatised. The NHS will be wrecked. So it goes.

Fair enough. It’s just that with both parties in the low thirties, I’m not sure why the ‘changing voters minds’ bit of winning elections is being neglected. Labour and Conservatives are now both polling what William Hague was scoring in early 2001. In January 2001, Mr Hague was scoring between thirty-one and thirty-four points. Let’s be even more unkind. Both major parties are scoring roughly what John Major was getting in January 1997. This is not very good.

Of course, these elections were very different to the ones we face this May. Yet there are lessons. Danny Finkelstein might correct me, but I suspect Tory strategists knew that persuading remaining Conservative supporters to vote was not enough to ensure victory. They needed to persuade some new people too. They just couldn’t do it (( They were stuck with either trying to persuade potential Labour voters that they were buying a Kinnock in a poke (1997) or describing what Labour policies in increasingly apocalyptic terms)).

Telling voters about the awfulness of the other lot is a form of persuasion, yes. You dissuade those open to voting for your opponent as well as poking your own supporters with the cattle-prod of fear.  It’s just a rather limited form of persuasion.

The relevant problem is if you’re both unpopular, you can’t be certain that persuading voters that your opponents are awful will help you. If you spend a very high proportion of your time denigrating your main opponents and they spend about the same amount of time attacking you, would a voter being foolish to conclude that  you are both wazzocks? (I imagine it being a bit like the end of the first Rocky movie. You’ve spent 15 rounds smashing each other, and both collapse at the end for a dodgy points outcome.)

Of course, if you have a strong support base of your own and a healthy lead, you don’t fear wazzockification, which is why the most effective political messages of this sort remind us of landslide victories (Tories in 1983, LBJ’s Daisy ad, Hague/Thatcher in 2001)1.

Whatever else we say about contemporary politics, no-one is campaigning from a position of strength. So why are parties trying to do so little to change voters minds, instead reminding voters of what they already know? The Tories tell us they care about economic growth. Labour politicians talk passionately about the values of the NHS. Whatever the merits of either case, this is absolutely confirming voters opinion of both parties. When you’re on thirty-two percent, shouldn’t you be aiming to change some minds? Even William Hague regularly tried to persuade us he was a different kind of Tory, until he got sick of people laughing at the notion.

The biggest reason neither party is trying to change minds is both parties are confused about which minds they want to change. In the wake of big party unpopularity and the scuttling of the traditional lifeboat of voter discontent, a flotilla of alternatives have arrived2.

The Tories can’t decide whether they want to hoover up UKIP voters or floating ex-New Labour voters. Labour wants to simultaneously hold on to ex-Lib Dems, stop a loss of working class voters to UKIP, persuade swing voters in Tory marginals, fight off the Greens and inspire young voters. For both, this leads to a pushmepullyou  political strategy, with strategists sending apparently contradictory messages to protect each flank, while assuring themselves with a lowest common denominator internally unifying message.

What this fretting over the growing fringe misses is that for all the differences in how voter discontent plays out as policy demands, growth on the edges of politics derives from some pretty similar insights about the big parties.

UKIP and swing Labour voters will agree that the Tories are out of touch, disinterested in the many, complacent about growth and too close to the wealthy and privileged. From UKIP, Green/LibDem, and swing Tory voters, you might hear that yes, Labour is more sympathetic to the many, but wants to spend money that isn’t there, knows what it is against, but not how to change things, and doesn’t know how it’ll make voters better off.

Further, there’s a broad consensus that both parties are narrow, bad at doing what they say they want to do, will break their promises, and are more concerned with securing narrow political advantage than in working together for the good of the country.

The parties should see these similarities in voter discontent as their main challenge in changing minds. Worse, by attacking each other rather than worrying about how they appear, the parties are underlining the very discontent that fuels defection. Mutually Assured Wazzockification.

With both parties now suffering Hague/Major levels of popularity, I’d want to be the party that puts effort into changing minds about both our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of politics as a whole, not defensively telling people the other lot are useless.

After all, people already agree that the other lot are shit. They just think we are too. Changing that last bit seems kind of important.

  1. The second problem is that your portrayal of the other lot has to match what they’re actually up to. It was no good for John Major to paint Tony Blair as a puppet of lurking leftist forces as Blair was able to demonstrate he was no such thing. Worse, the Tory message even helped Blair dramatise his own message – that Labour had changed. No good comes from giving your opponent the chance to prove you wrong []
  2. The change here isn’t big party unpopularity, by the way. It’s that the Lib Dems are not in a position to exploit it []

Is silence the price of loyalty?

5 comments

I am finding it harder and harder to write on politics as we approach the election.

This is because, believe it or not, I really want the Labour party to win the next General Election. You’d think a fierce hunger for a change of government would make it easier to write, but for me it’s the opposite.

The only thing required of a loyal party supporter during a General Election is to re-enforce the messages offered by their own party and to decry the stupidity, ignorance and boneheadedness of our opponents.

Any doubt, any internal questioning, any sympathy for the motives of political enemies becomes self-defeating. No point debating our own strategy or emphasis now, because the only value lies in punching the other lot in the face and not punching ourselves.

Journalists don’t face this problem, because they, rightly, avoid clear loyalties and have their own defined purpose. Either they are reporting, or they are employed to explain what politicians are doing. They have a reason, beyond securing votes, for what they do.

True, there are many columnists who come to politics with a partisan political agenda. These tend to resolve the problem of writing loyally about politics by either cheering louder for their own side and decrying opponents more full-throatedly, or by explaining why the political party they support is taking a particular approach, and why, even if that is flawed, the party is still worthy of support. The same is perhaps true of the new generation of political writers who came up through party-aligned websites.

Rather unfortunately for me, I have both clear loyalties and no real reason to write other than because I want to. No-one’s asking me to write about politics. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s entirely self-indulgent. There’s no need for me to ‘explain’ why X is doing Y, because doing so without any standing is to detract from the cause.

That leaves cheering my party on, which I can’t really do because while I really want a change of government,  I really don’t believe the way politics talks about itself, regardless of party. As elections get closer, the more I feel politics lies about itself and the less I feel able to amplify my own party’s signal.

That’s because if we change government in May, lots of things won’t change. Many things will be changed by events and people we have no control over. Some changes will happen that we do not expect, and we don’t know exactly what we’ll do about them, or what the right choice will be. If John Major had been re-elected in 1997, I expect we’d still have Amazon, and high-speed rail, and terror attacks by radical Islamic extremists. After all, France elected Chirac in 1995, and has all those things.

Despite all that unknowability, I do really want a change of government.

First, some specific things will change precisely because we change government, and even if they might appear small, these are incredibly important to very many people. I’m sometimes accused of believing in a politics of small differences. But small differences are a matter of perspective. If we build a few thousand more houses, or integrate health and social care in a better way, or have smarter immigration and welfare policies, those will be significant improvements for tens of thousands of people.

Second, in the next parliament many things could happen that I think, by and large, over the scheme of things, I would much rather have Labour politicians responding to than Conservative ones. In four years time, someone will come to the Minister for local government with a memo about social care budget distributions, and I would much rather that person be Labour than Conservative, even though I don’t know the choice they’ll face, who the minister will be, or the decision they’ll make. That’s a political leap of faith.

So I do really want change,  It’s just not the change I’m supposed to want.

Between elections, there’s no tension between being a rabid loyalist and someone who doesn’t really think everything will be massively improved by a change of government. Some things will be, and that’s more than enough.

The closer we get to an election though, the more I find it uncomfortable to write about politics, because electoral politics requires a pretence of certainty.

Our leaders have to state that everything they will do will be correct and worthwhile, even if that is literally an impossible thing for them to know.

They have to believe that they will deliver huge change, because how else do they make supporting them appear worthwhile? A politician dropping the stance that they’re always right and hugely significant is a politician inviting a punch in the face from someone less scrupulous.

Understanding their predicament, those of us who support political parties have to pretend their pretence is reasonable, because telling them to drop that protective stance is foolish and counterproductive.  Doubt the certainty of your own side or your own leaders, and you are undermining both them and the changes you do desire.

So if you’re writing purely for your own pleasure in politics, the closer to an election campaign you get, the more your choice becomes polarised to cheerleading, punching opponents or silence.

Others are better cheerleaders. I don’t see much value in punching, and silence is, after all, golden. So posting might be light, while I try to figure out a way to write about politics in a way that is both loyal and interesting. All suggestions welcome.

The cyclical theory of Labour

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One of my pet theories is that every quarter-century or so, the Labour party goes through a defining debate about the sort of party it should be. We’re overdue such a debate now.

The first of these defining rows was about whether a party of Labour was needed and if so, what form it should take. This began with the debate over the creation of the Labour representation committee in 1900 and was resolved with the formal creation of the Labour party in 1906, after a pact with the Liberals gave Labour MPs a significant parliamentary presence1

The second debate begins with the shattering failure of the MacDonald government.  From 1931 to 1935, Labour was led by Henderson and Lansbury, and while their radical energy was vital for the continued survival of the Labour party their tradition of political nonconformism tinged with pacifism was ultimately crushed by Union-led pragmatism and willingness to support a military build up and socialisation driven by a powerful central state.

The third debate came after the departure of Attlee in the late-fifties. The Bevanite rebellion predated the election of Gaitskell, of course, but the bitter debates over how the party should move forward was only fought to the (near literal) death after the old man and his authority left the scene.

Was Labour to be a truly socialist party, or a social-democratic one? This question led to a sustained Bevanite challenge to Gaitskell over issues like clause IV of the party and the extent of nationalisation, a debate only truly resolved after the death of both men. Gaitskell had, by 1963, established firm control of the party, but his death meant that a former Bevanite was able to steer a middle path between both forces, a course which was both electorally successful and ideologically inconsistent.

The last huge debate on the future of the Labour party came, not with New Labour, but in the mid-Eighties, when a genuinely radical alternative socialist ideology was put forward and ultimately defeated. That battle felt like one of life and death. It was resolved by victory of the diminished Social-Democratic wing of the party in supportive alliance with the more moderate section of those opposed to the previous Wilsonian pragmatism.

After that victory was won, the only open question was what compromises with the electorate was needed in order to secure victory. It took three elections and three leaders, but Labour finally found a satisfactory answer2. That led the way for a settled period of political direction that ended ideologically with the great recession and politically with the leadership of Gordon Brown.

What of today?

In many ways, the true achievement of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party has been to avoid such rupture and schism. While there has been an attempt to establish various ideological Milibandisms (Predistribution, One Nation, Fairness, Together and so on) and the leadership of the party has been consistent in it’s renewed focus on the evil of inequality, the real mark of the Labour movement has been the attempt to bury differences in order to secure victory. In the Kingdom of Ed M, the Liam shall lie down with the Len.

This has been a noble and worthy effort. I’m not one of those who regards unity as a negative. However, I can’t see it lasting beyond the next election.

If we win, the challenges of government will force open the debate on what sort of party we should be. because there will be little room for even the maintenance of public spending without either public service ‘reform’ or tax increases (and most likely both).

Under such pressures, those who call for greater and more radical redistribution will feel little duty to be loyal to an agenda that they regard as unsatisfactory, while those who support a course of moderated restraint and strategic investment will not wish to see significantly increased services spending, wage increases or higher tax. Finally of course, there is the question of what sort of majority a Labour government will have, and to what extent it will need to rely on outside support to govern, which will invite the question of which, if any, support to seek.

That debate will be painful, but the duty and power of government will make it much more straightforward than you might expect. Power will hand authority and leadership to one group, should they choose to use it to set political direction. Ultimately, the dissenters (of any sort) will be forced to submit or leave.

If we lose, we will need to decide, in opposition, what sort of party we seek to be.

The choices will be pretty clear: Do we want to continue with the Nordic-Germanic social democracy we’ve pursued over the last few years, do we want to embrace the radical alternative that has been sketched by some socialist figures in the broader Labour movement, or do we want to attempt to redefine the Labour party in an era when the nature of Labour itself is in flux, perhaps offering a prospectus that is at once fiscally cautious, reforming on social and gender politics but radical when it comes to structure of politics and the state itself?

The bad news for the Labour party is that such battles tend to be pretty agonising.

The good news it that we usually come up with a pretty settled answer, one that last for a good couple of decades.

  1. a warning there for advocates of a UKIP alliance on the right []
  2. Of course the sad death of John Smith, like that of Gaitskell, meant that there was always a hankering among some in the party for a victory left unwon []

The Popular Centre: Links and files

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My new Policy Network  pamphlet on rebuilding the popular centre is out: You can read my article for Progress summarising the argument here: Thank you so much for the kind reactions.

I’ll be writing more about the subject, but I’ve had a few requests for kindle/Instapaper versions alongside the PDF.

So here’s my best shot at meeting those demands. Hopefully they work…

Original PDF

Instapaper friendly version: (no footnotess)

Kindle MOBI file (no footnotes)

Why I’m against the Mansion Tax

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Yesterday, I suddenly realised why I don’t like the Mansion Tax. What was the reason for this revelation? It wasn’t Myleene Klaas’s glass of water, or a sudden conversion to David Cameron’s way of thinking. Nor am I thinking of making a bid for Mayor of London, and am worried that the burghers of Blackheath will oppose me.

No, the person who made me see the flaw in the mansion tax was Ed Miliband, and he did so because I agreed with him.

You see, Ed did something clever at Prime Minister’s Questions. He contrasted the Government’s support for the Bedroom Tax with their opposition to a Mansion Tax, asking David Cameron to “tell us why he is so in favour of the bedroom tax but so against the mansion tax“.

It is a neat rhetorical move, sharply contrasting the governments willingness to extract money from people in social housing with their opposition to even a modest charge on houses worth over £2 million.

Defending himself, Cameron did not talk about the Bedroom Tax. Instead he backed the Spare Room subsidy.

At this point I had my flash of self knowledge.

I have no problem with progressive property taxes. You’d have to be a supporter of the poll tax over Council Tax to be concerned by the principle of such taxation.

I have no problem with increasing the share of property tax paid by those in the most expensive houses. The top rate of council tax currently has 135,000 homes in England based on a valuation of £320,000 a quarter century ago. The government estimates that there are currently 55,000 houses now valued at above 2 million, so effectively the Mansion Tax would be a ‘Band I’ of Council Tax aimed at the top third or so of current Band H properties, albeit one collected and spent nationally.

I even like our proposed method of allowing deferred payment of such a tax, through a charge on a property as it’s a neat solution to the ‘little old lady’ problem of property taxation. Maybe we could even extend it to an offer made to pensioners struggling to pay council tax, as we do already for social care.

So what don’t I like about the Mansion tax?

I don’t like the name.

Contained within the concept of a mansion tax is the idea that ‘Mansions’ are deserving of special tax treatment.

This is problematic, first because in setting up the image of a ‘mansion’ as what you seek to tax, you are immediately vulnerable to the charge that what you are taxing is not, in fact, a mansion.  You will inevitably be taxing some people who are not bloated plutocrats, and their complaints will appear to have more validity if you don’t appear to mean them. I’m sure Ed Miliband doesn’t think of himself as living in a ‘Mansion’, and neither will many who will be asked to pay.  This is what Myleene Klaas was arguing, of course.

Worse, the conceptual idea of a Mansion Tax contains, like its rhetorical fellows the bedroom Tax and the Spare Room subsidy, a whiff of moral judgement. To talk of taxing mansions specifically is to hint that the desire to live in and own a mansion is somehow a negative. It’s the same rhetorical logic that lies behind luxury taxes and sumptuary laws. Talk about a tax in such a way, and you are, somehow, making a moral judgement of those you seek to extract money from. Getting the money should be more than enough. The judgement gains you little.

Plus, I’m not sure that this is a moral judgement all of us share. I would quite like to live in a mansion, and even though I never expect to own a pleasant villa in Tuscany, even a hint that such a longing is unworthy and despicable causes a prickle of irritation entirely unrelated to the value of prospective tax streams, especially when those proposing it already live in nicer houses than I do.

You may as well call the higher rate of income tax the ‘I’m alright jack tax’.

Polly Toynbee makes a good point in the Guardian today, defending such a property tax. She reminds us that one of the purposes of Taxation is to generate the maximum amount of goosefeather with the minimum of squawk.

So here’s my suggestion.

Keep the tax but ditch the name. Instead of a Mansion Tax, propose to introduce a Band N of council Tax, (the N standing for National, and also for NHS).

It’ll be oh so boring, and entirely unjudgemental of people who live in, or would like to live in Mansions, and a unflashy and grey as taxation is likely to be.

What’s more, it’ll sound not like a tax we’re eager to extract from all who aspire to nice houses, but a rather dull administrative adjustment to a current tax policy.

Maximum Feather. Minimum Squawk.

Of course, I’m far too late with this. The rhetoric is set. Which is why I’m not paid the big bucks, and most decidedly do not live in a mansion.

The limits of Hashtag Loyalty

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‘The coup that wasn’t’ had a dénouement as predictable as a Tory split on Europe. Less revolt than a fearful shiver, it was always going to end in a rallying round.

I avoided both shiver and rally. I missed the shiver because our current position is where I’ve expecting us to be for a while (bar Scotland). When the spasm struck, I saw no reality in it, so clocked off for the weekend, and wasn’t one of the thousands of Labour supporters who tweeted ‘We Back Ed’1.

As someone who is both a Labour loyalist and a polling pessimist, it’s not easy to respond to shivers of rebellion or hashtag loyalty. Neither are useful. I can’t pretend I think everything is rosy. Yet nor do I think regicide equals recovery2.

Hashtag loyalty is an easy but mistaken response to political problems. It devalues what is truly useful in party loyalty – a willingness to pool our political sovereignty to achieve something together – in exchange for uncritical endorsement of the Leader personally.

This masks real political choices, especially when the identity of the leader, is the least  important choice we face.

We shouldn’t confuse a choice over leadership with choice over a political project. One of the big problems with the Blair-Brown years is that loyalty to the man often eclipsed arguments over the political project. Blair’s praetorians saw the cult of personality as a very useful political tool and used it mercilessly. Still, it was at least reasonably clear what the cult stood for.

So I tend to find more fault with Brown, because when Gordon reached the apex it rapidly became clear that he had little by way of a meaningful political project and all the hints of values, winks at Compass lectures and nods at Fabian speeches soon dissolved into a mush that left Brown’s progressive supporters dismayed and the bruised ‘Blairites for Brown’ wondering what the long, brutal internal war they had just lost had been fought for.

So it is with Labour today. We mix up personal loyalty with loyalty to a project, and in so doing, lose sight of our real choices.

While I agree with Danny Finkelstein that Labour’s structure creates incentives that discourage effective conspiracy,  Labour’s main challenge is that we are trying to manage a series of gulfs in vision over what sort of party we are and seek to be.

This is not entirely separate from the question of leadership, because Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader marked a desire to bridge those gulfs as painlessly as possible. On this, Ed has delivered, better than anyone has any reason to expect.

Ed has, while naturally promoting close allies and pursuing his social democratic passions, carefully and skillfully navigated the shoals and eddies of Labour fissures – a nod to egalitarian radicalism here,  to public service reform and fiscal restraint there.

The unity of the Labour party over the last few years wasn’t accidental, it was a crucial part of Miliband’s appeal, of his political project, of what his offer to the Labour party was and is –  a love for what the Labour movement represents, a passion for our vague ‘radical values’, an interest in the traditional mission of social democracy and in binding the party together, rather than tearing it apart.

Can any part of the party, from Blairites to Campaign groupers claim to be entirely ignored, to not have their passions reflected somewhere in the party agenda? I don’t think so. Sure, some have felt the cold shoulder of indifference, but that has been more to do with who has been prepared to go along to get along than any particular ideological disenfranchisement.

Yet that loyalty to the idea of the party as a unified social democratic force contains its own contradiction. Unity for victory is only valuable if it is expected to win. In Labour’s current polling recessional, we have therefore seen a flowering of disloyalties.

Some don’t even see themselves as being disloyal – calling for expensive radicalism in policy, but quietude on personality.  Act as bravely as you speak, goes one cry. Yet to do that would destroy the leadership’s careful project of balancing the movement, electoral interests, and party unity. To ask Ed Miliband to commit electoral suicide by adopting an inauthentic tax raising radicalism is as disloyal as asking him to step aside. It is just a slower acting poison, not a knife to the guts3.

Others, like me, seek a policy agenda no less alien to that careful unifying project. No less divisive, no less risky.

The gamble the Labour party took with Ed Miliband was that we did not have to tear ourselves apart before recovering ground. In their different ways, the alternative choices would have led to the traditional internal fight in which it became clear who won and who lost.

What Ed Miliband offered was the hope this could be circumvented and a rapid return to government without an entire political reformation could be achieved.The gunfight has been avoided. That is the prize Miliband has given Labour. If it has proven incompatible with radical clarity, that is a feature, not a bug.

Replace Ed with any of his increasingly unlikely replacements, and the question that hangs in the air is not ‘would they look better eating a sandwich’ but what would they stand for?

If the answer is vague, it would end up in the same political result we face now, quality photo-ops or no.

If answer is not vague, it would be divisive. Which is why the party shrinks from it.

As much as the structures of the party, the dissension in the Party’s analysis of the future is Ed’s greatest political protection.

It is also a question the Labour party will have to answer soon, whether in office or out. If we lose, the debate will be inevitable. If we win, well if David Cameron teaches the Labour party anything, it is that skilful party management in opposition can rapidly become a divisive fracture in government.

Win or lose, the question for Labour isn’t about Ed’s political strategy. It’s about each of ours, about what kind of party, other than a united one, we want to be.

Hashtag loyalty is no answer to that challenge.

  1. Nor am I much moved by today’s poll. Turns out leftish talk of a progressive realignment wasn’t a new political paradigm, but old-fashioned complacency. This is surprising? []
  2. On top of that, Public frankness and private loyalty is the least valued combination in politics, while loud loyalty and private discontent has many adherents, most with their eyes on the main chance. Certain Politicians and activists, I am looking at you []
  3. The soft left of the Labour party, the natural Ed constituency, are currently disappointed because they feel their strategy has not been tried, and they fear they’ll get the blame anyway. The reason it hasn’t been tried by Ed Miliband is that is an obviously incoherent strategy based on wishful thinking and Ed Milband can see as well as anyone that it can’t be pushed further than he’s pushed it without imploding. This is not welcome news to the soft left, but there’s little point telling them. They’ll just have to keep being frustrated by the repeated inability of any leader to convert their vaunted ‘values’ into a workable political strategy, and then getting into a cycle of self-loathing and blame at being used by people who have a strategy rather than just values []

Alex Salmond is a big fat fibber- and how to reform politics.

7 comments

I was lying in bed on Sunday when the visage of Alex Salmond appeared to me. He was doing one of those tedious Sunday morning political shows, and was using the opportunity to be distinguished from a ray of sunshine by batting the Scottish Labour party lightly around the head.

Well, fair enough, you might think. If SNP high-ups were prevented from popping the Scottish Labour party squarely around the chops, the world would be a less happy place. The Scottish Labour party is to an SNP Leader as a Policeman’s helmet is to Bertie Wooster. For Alex to cause a slight discombobulation among the heirs of Keir Hardie is the natural order of things, and we should smile beatifically at his attempts.

No, it was not the political poke itself that roused my ire, but the basis on which the assault was launched. Salmond chose to abuse Scottish Labour for the heinous and unforgivable crime of working with other people to thwart the SNPs own political desires and achieve their own, namely forming an alliance with the Scottish Tory party.

Quoth he:  “The role, hand-in-glove, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative Party in the referendum campaign is not going to be either forgotten or forgiven for a generation in Scottish politics”

“Every single Labour personality who has been pictured in the referendum campaign in that pose… …will pay a heavy price for many years to come.”

And I thought to myself, Why Alex, you old rogue. You are fuller of it than a supersewer.

Notwithstanding Mr Salmond’s now legendarily loose definition of a ‘generation’, if any centre-left political movement in Britain has worked with the Conservative party in a matter of national import it is the SNP, and if there is any leader who has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to get his business through, it is The Rt Hon Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond.

Now we all know of the SNP voting to bring down a Labour government in 1979.

Beneficiary and grateful companion in the Lobby: Thatcher, M.

Well, we shall let that one slide. After all, That was 1979, and the SNP were soundly defeated by the Scottish Labour party for several elections afterwards. Perhaps Alex was merely reflecting on his own long years in the wilderness.

So let us fast forward to Salmond triumphant, now first Minister of Scotland in a minority administration, and at last able to put those wretched Tories in their place, which he did by winning their support in order to pass his budgets. Not just once. Not just twice. Not just three times but four times, the SNP did a deal, and stood hand in glove, shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to pass their budget, usually in the face of Labour opposition.

As Salmond said, the SNP were harshly punished for this Tory partnership, only gaining twenty-three seats in the subsequent elections.

Let the warning bell ring out: Working with the Tories is fatal for Scottish politicians.

Of course, it isn’t and of course, Alex Salmond knows he is talking the most profound bilge.

Because while Salmond the political strategist knows that he can always make Labour supporters squirm by waving a Tory ghoul on a stick for Halloween, Salmond the working politician knows that voter reward politicians who work together, get deals done, know how to move the ball forward and don’t get stuck too often in the enjoyable mire of throwing mud at each other rather than the boring business of trying to secure the compromises that might make a difference.

Besides, if you do a deal with the Tories again and again and again, you can always claim it’s in the national interest, and if your opponents do it, you can claim they’re craven sell-outs who don’t have a principled bone in their body.

If they’re stupid, they’ll be so afraid of the charge they won’t notice the smart move is to do what you do, not worry about what you say.

This reminds me of what politics needs to do to see off the populists more generally.

We need to show that politics, as a whole, by and large, and pleasant celebratory moments of helmet-toppling excepted, can work.

When did this government most demonstrate that? when it was saying things like ‘together, in the national interest’, not bickering over free school meals.

So it should be with political reform. Voters are right that politics is out of touch and isn’t working, not least because we let ourselves get stuck in our own party interests, we don’t see the good we could achieve together.

If we want to reform politics, we need to recognise that every party has legitimate worries, reasonable grievances. The Lib Dems and Greens are right that the electoral system unfairly excludes them, especially at the local level. The Conservatives are right that the West Lothian question is increasingly problematic. Labour is right that the devolution of power to cities and regions is long overdue, and change is needed if we’re to deliver the housing and economic strategies needed for a balanced recovery.

If we want to show voters that politics works, we might do a lot worse than come up with a political reform plan that meets all of those legitimate concerns, and so gives voters more power – a greater say in local councils that stop being one party states, a better answer to the imbalance between England and the other nations of the UK, and a more power for the cities and regions in how they’re governed.

Such a deal is possible. It would be a profound answer to the cynics and populist and grandstanders who say politics can’t work, can’t change, can’t settle differences in a sensible reasonable way.

Want to beat the populists? Then do what Alex salmond does, not worry about what he says. Work together, make deals. Find a way to move the ball.

Then, if you’re lucky, you might be punished in the terrible, awful way that Mr Salmond was punished for his partnership with old enemies.

Three bad ideas that are hurting Labour

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There are three bad ideas with a quiet traction over Labour party strategy.

Since the last election, they have made us complacent over our polling position and their persistent influence has led people in a position of power in the party to repeatedly argue Labour’s lead was more stable and solid than it really was.

Now, as that hopeful fiction is exposed, the same three ideas are leading people to draw the wrong conclusions about how to respond to Labour’s polling decline.

What are the three ideas?

They are: The core vote fallacy, the imaginary progressive consensus, and the forty per cent fantasy.

Each is dangerous for much the same reason.

If they were correct, then Labour would not need to appeal more broadly than it does  – there would be enough voters who agree with us as we stand. If that were the case, Labour’s political challenge would largely be to inspire these supportive voters to the polls.

Unfortunately for their proponents, each idea is heavily flawed.

This means offering voters even more of what existing supporters are presumed to like about Labour is unlikely to win us elections.

THE CORE VOTE FALLACY

The Core Vote fallacy comes in various forms. It is sometimes expressed as the ‘Missing Millions’, where the gap between the number of labour voters in 1997 and 2005 is seen as a  decline amongst core supporters. The error here should be blindingly obvious, given that taking Labour’s support in its first landslide victory for a generation as your ‘core vote’ seems an unusual baseline.

Look back a little longer, as the chart below does, and you see that even among social group DE, Labour’s ‘core vote’ is rather smaller than projected.

When it is argued that DE voters ‘sat out’ the 2010 election, what is less often mentioned is that the offer that got their highest support was decidedly not a ‘core vote’ strategy, and that even when the DE group was highly engaged – as it was in the Eighties, it did not follow that Labour won overwhelming shares of their votes.

To put it another way, many ‘core voters’ are in fact, attitudinally and electorally, swing voters.

Further, even if 2010 does represent a ‘Labour core vote’ (I don’t think it does, of which, more later) we are above that level now – all the data suggests that Labour has a higher share of C2, DE, Northern, Midlands, London and Welsh support than it did in 2010.

To conclude then, what is often described as the ‘core vote’ isn’t real, and even if it was, Labour is still above it, so trying to inspire it will gain us little.

The Core vote fallacy is dangerous, because its proponents generally make the following logical steps: If those who supported us in the past represent our core, they can be assumed to be motivated by the same issues as the (Labour supporting) author. Therefore, what is needed to inspire ‘core voters’ who are in danger of not supporting Labour are arguments that would appeal to the author. (Mark Ferguson makes this argument well here, with a list of policies that would please any GC, and which would come with a hefty price tag.)

The fallacy here is that the ‘core vote’ (if defined as anyone who says they will vote Labour) are motivated by the same political instincts as Labour activists. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.

Rather, the voters who are in greatest danger of leaving Labour are, whatever their social grouping, those Labour voters who tell pollsters that they have doubts over whether Labour is the best party on key issues like the economy, taxation, unemployment, leadership and whether Labour is capable of delivering its promises.

This seems to be around a quarter to a third of current Labour supporters depending on the measure.

THE IMAGINARY PROGRESSIVE CONSENSUS

The imaginary progressive consensus is one of the most powerful stupid ideas in politics.

I remember meeting with a senior Labour figure during the AV referendum. Said figure wanted to argue that if only we had adopted the Alternative Vote in the 1980s, we would have been spared Margaret Thatcher’s victories.

After a general discussion of how much better that happy result would have been, I piped up and pointed out that the data suggests that AV would have led to even bigger victories for the Conservative party in the 1980s, largely because far from there being a progressive consensus, SDP voters thought the Labour party had gone completely doolally and preferred even Mrs Thatcher’s Tories to Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock’s Labour.

After a brief pause, the meeting continued as if I had not spoken.

Unfortunately, the same applies today. There is no such thing as the progressive consensus, if what we mean by that is a consensus to the left of British politics.

The counter argument to this is usually to argue that there are a wide range of policies that are ‘left’ which command significant public support. (more money for NHS, schools, rail nationalisation etc), You can see some examples below, demonstrating how left-wing the British people are.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for a wide range of policies ‘on the right’ (Tax Cuts, Cutting immigration, Welfare restrictions, tougher punishments for criminals, cheaper petrol). You can see some of those below too.

From this we can conclude, not that the British people are  left-wing, but that if you ask them whether they would like something that will financially benefit them, or institute a tax, cap or charge that will hurt someone else, in general they will favour the idea. They are not so much left or right as reasonably self-interested. When you point out the costs and risks of various conflicting interests, things even up.

In that context the imaginary progressive consensus is dangerous because it allows its proponents to believe that the only reason they do not command broad support is because the electorate have somehow ended up in the wrong boxes, or that we have failed to make our argument well enough.

For the former, there is usually a good reason they’re in a different box, and for the latter, neglecting the costs and risks of a policy will often worry the voters you think you will inspire.

Of course, this doesn’t in any way imply there isn’t the possibility of a progressive majority in British politics. It is just that such an alliance would be broad, rather than narrow.

Leftish thinkers intrigued by the idea of a progressive consensus to the left of current political debate should perhaps ask themselves what a ‘Conservative Consensus’ would look like: would it stress Europe, immigration, being tough on crime and low taxes, all issues on which Conservative policies poll well, or would it present itself as compassionate, using the proceeds of economic growth to care for the weakest and most vulnerable as well as possible, given the need?

A similar process should apply to attempts to create a progressive consensus. Such a consensus is possible, but looks, sounds and behaves very differently to a wish-list of left-wing policies.

THE 40% FANTASY

The forty per cent fantasy is the most recent bad idea to damage the British left.

It was proposed by a friend of mine, Marcus Roberts, and briefly surmises  the following argument: Take those voters who voted Labour in 2010, add a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrats. Summon a million or so non-voters, and you have around forty per cent of the likely electorate, enough to win the next election.

It may seem a little unfair to attack an approach authored in the optimistic times of two years ago, when Labour was on over 40% in the polls and retaining that level of support did not seem as unlikely as it now appears. However, this approach needs to be killed off, because the argument being made in its defence today is not that it is a bad strategy, but that the current Labour leadership have executed it poorly.

No. It is a bad strategy.

Why is it a mistake? For the simple reason that in treating the electorate as blocks based on previous electoral behaviour, it ignored the texture of those blocks, and hence the possibility that they might decay.

To take the most extreme example, the approach took 2010 Lib dems, found research that indicated that most of them were firmly soft left, and assumed that all would be so inclined.

The issue here was not that many of 2010 Lib Dems who defected to Labour weren’t as described, but that little attention was paid to those who didn’t fit that approach – those who were primarily protest voters, or who worried about economic efficacy, those who were unimpressed by the Coalition, but not fully convinced by Labour.

The same applied to Labour 2010 voters. These were assumed to be committed Labour voters – after all, they had voted for Gordon Brown. Therefore the concerns of those who wondered if all such voters could be considered ‘core’ were dismissed.

As the strategy concluded “Combined with Labour’s core support, Lib Dem converts look set to take Labour to the mid-30s and likely largest party status“. Hmm.

With six months to go, Labour currently has roughly the same conversion rate of 2010 supporters as the UKIP decimated Conservative party, around three-quarters of those who voted Labour in 2010 and say they’ll vote in 2015. What’s more, Labour’s share of 2010 Lib-Dems has gradually fallen from the high thirties (of those voting) to around the 30% mark.

Again, this approach made the mistake of seeing voters past behaviours, and where they suited us, taking them for granted, while the doubts and vulnerabilities of our coalition were discounted to irrelevance.

INSTEAD, FOCUS ON OUR DOUBTERS

Appealing to the ‘Core vote’ with ‘core vote’ policies won’t work. There’s no progressive consensus. The 40% strategy is a mistaken fantasy.

The pleasant fantasies of the soft left electoral coalitions are dead. It’s time to read the last rites, and move on.

It was clear, even two years ago, that there were a significant number of Labour voters who harboured doubts about Labour’s economic efficacy, tax, employment, welfare, immigration, leadership.

And it is here Labour needs to look to win the next election.

If we look at those who say now that they will vote Labour,  63% say Labour is the best party on the Economy in General, and 49% say we are the best party on asylum on immigration ((The numbers are significantly better on traditionally Labour issues like Health, Education, Housing and welfare).  It is among those voters, and the 40% of Labour voters who don’t know who would make the best Prime Minister (The equivalent number is 3% for Conservative voters) that Labour’s election prospects rest.

If they stay with us, we will likely win.

We need to focus instead on those voters generally favourable to Labour, but who are doubtful of our economic proposals, attitudes to key issues, and our leader’s ability to deliver on our promises.

Address those doubts and Labour can win. Decide to stick with believing that the way to reassure the doubtful is to promise more and more unlikely things, and we’ll only increase their doubts, and increase their likelihood of deciding, the closer we get to election day, that it might be best to stay home.

Immigration Nation

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I am on the wrong side of public opinion on one of the major issues of the time.

I support the free movement of Labour across Europe, and am, in general, of the belief that immigration is not a great national evil to be opposed. This is, clearly,  not the popular centrist stance I usually find myself enjoying.

As a fellow who regards the business of winning votes as not irrelevant to the proper practice of politics, this poses a conundrum.

So here’s my pitch to voters who I know disagree with me1.

Yes. Immigration is an issue.

No, it’s not racist to be concerned by it.

Yes, we should talk about it, and work out what to do about it.

Back in the days of the British Empire, it used to be said that to be born British was to have won life’s lottery.

It doesn’t much feel like it, but that’s still true today.

Britain is one of the richest, longest lived, best educated, freest places in the world.

The sixty-five million of us who live here are envied, across Europe and around the world. That’s why some of the other seven billion people in the world want to come and live here.

It’s the same reason the Irish came a hundred years ago and the Commonwealth migrants came fifty years ago, why Jewish migrants fled the Nazis.

Britain was a place where all could find good jobs, better wages, a place to express their views freely. 

So in one sense, immigration is a good problem.  Don’t laugh.

If you’re a successful, growing economy in an open society, more people will want to arrive than to leave.

Australia has an immigration problem because it’s a country tens of thousands of people want to live in.

North Korea has the reverse problem.

I know where I’d rather be, which is why every year thirty or forty thousand British people emigrate to Australia, and none move to North Korea.

So we know immigration is good for migrants, and it’s a sign your country is doing better than most.

It also probably makes the country richer.

Migrants work hard, pay taxes and live cheaply. Because they tend to be younger and employed they tend to contribute financially through taxes more than they take out in benefits.

So immigration is a good thing – for migrants and their children – people like me, and quite a lot of us. It’s good for the country too.

But here’s the rub. 

None of that matters.  

Because none of those things makes immigration good for British people.

Truth is, there are clear ways immigration makes life more stressful, makes living here harder.

There’s greater pressure on housing. Where there are sudden increases in population there are pressures on schools, and doctors appointments and hospitals.

There’s cultural elements too – other languages being spoken, different ways of behaving. 

Now Government can – and should – do a better job of handling those pressures.

Of making sure school places are kept in line with children, of making sure public services don’t suffer because of new demands. Making sure you get a hospital appointment when you want it and that English is spoken in public services, that migrants understand British culture.

That’s government’s job. It’s what Government is for.

If government is doing it badly, kick them out and get a new one. Fair enough.

But that’s only half of it.

Because sure, Migration is good for tax revenue, and good for migrants, and a sign of a successful economy, and we should be able to handle the social pressures better. 

But that doesn’t make migration good for people here to begin with.

What if you want a job, but a migrant is taking it?

What if you’re in a job, but aren’t getting a pay rise because someone from Poland will work cheaper?

Why should you want the migrant there at all?

Why shouldn’t we just stop there? Stop all the problems before they begin?

Isn’t that what’s really letting you down?

If you’re straight out of college and are not getting a job because a migrant is taking it, yes, the government has let you down.

But not because the migrant is taking your job.

We’ve let you down because with all the money we spent on education, all the money we spend on training. All the vocational, educational, and social support we offer, you’re still not able to compete with a Bulgarian  learning English in his evenings.

Think about what that means. If that”s where we’re at, the failure isn’t about migrants. It’s that we’ve failed you far more completely.

That’s what we have to sort out.

If you’re in that situation, if you’ve not got the ability to compete with that Bulgarian, in the end you’re going to lose out to him whether he stays at home or moves to Britain.

Close the borders, and the factories will  find their way to Poland, to Bulgaria, to India and China. 

In the end, the job will move to where the best people are. So our job is to make sure we have the best people right here.

The basic truth is that the competition won’t go away. Not if you close your eyes, not if you shut the borders. 

It’ll always be there. You don’t get rid of it by closing the borders, you just hope it won’t affect you.

But it will. 

The people who tell you that we can just close the borders and save all the jobs for ourselves are telling you a lie. 

It’s a lie it’s easy to believe, because we don’t see the bright kids in Bangalore or Bucharest.

We don’t see their ambitions unless they actually come here, and make us uncomfortable.

So yes, we can close the borders. Keep out the Eastern European office workers and the Indian programmers.

We can do that.

But it won’t mean better jobs for you, or higher wages, or a safer society.

It’ll mean those things go to Bangalore or Bucharest instead. That’s the bit the anti-immigration people always leave out. 

In the end, the argument for allowing immigration is a selfish one.

We don’t allow migrants because it’s easy.  It isn’t easy. It causes problems – from housing, to schools, to culture.

It would be easy to avoid all those problems.

In the face of that, the truth is that we allow migrants because the easy thing is sometimes the stupid thing.

Sometimes you have to deal with hard problems to avoid facing a problem you can do nothing about.

If you want Lisbon, Bangalore and Nanjing to grow, believe the snake oil salesmen, stop migrants, and let the factories and opportunity and talent slowly flow elsewhere.

But If you want London, Birmingham and Newcastle to grow, allow some migrants, use the money they make to help us compete better, and tell your politicians to manage the consequences better or be sacked.

  1. THERE FOLLOWS A DIGRESSION.

    The other day  John Harris argued, àpropos this issue, that we should not dismiss concerns over immigration as bigotry.

    I thought that a tiresome charge, because there is a crucial difference between dismissing any concern about the social consequence of immigration as bigotry, when it is clearly not, and decrying the cynical exploitation of those concerns as unpleasant bigotry, when it plainly is.

    The difference is not hard to grasp, and to accept one concern as legitimate does not invalidate the exposure of unpleasant prejudice, or make it a tactical error to name such prejudice frankly.

    Still, where I agree with Harris is that immigration is no fringe issue for voters electoral preferences.

    It’s a big election losing deal.

    It is easy to get caught up in a debate that somehow avoids this.

    To further take Harris as an example, the internationalist in me wants to reply to his request metropolitan liberals consider whether  “free movement has been of most benefit to capital or Labour” by pointing out that he spent his preceding paragraphs describing the low wages immigrants from Eastern Europe have escaped. Presumably they were pleased to do so.

    To discuss whether Free movement is good or bad for workers, just imagine that the EU were reduced to the UK, and that successful, vibrant, expanding London was growing concerned by an influx of Scots, Northerners and others from low wage, low-cost regions. London residents would understandably resent the competition posed by such workers. They might even vote for a London Independence Party that promised no further migration would be permitted. 

    Would the people of Newcastle, Glasgow, or, say Frome, welcome a London that so limited their right to come and work in the metropolis, even if that objection is presented as an effort to protect them from the exploitation of Rachmanite landlords and sweatshop businessmen?

    I doubt it very much. No MP advocates restriction on the freedom of movement of their own constituents. 

    Unfortunately for me, Poles, and Latvians who benefit from free movement don’t vote, though perhaps their children will.

    My comparison was not an idle one. The history of Irish catholic immigration to British cities is almost exactly the sort of major population and culture shift we see today from Eastern Europe. And yes, Irish workers too were exploited

    Thankfully, it is now rare to hear objections to that past dislocation, even from the most home and hearth sort of Socialist. I cannot imagine Jon Cruddas enacting transitional limits on his own family. 

    In other words, the free movement of Labour between Ireland and Britain was good for capital, for Labour and for the culture of both peoples.

    Yet it also divided working people, and often that division was exploited and used for electoral advantage (Check out Disraeli on Irish migration)

    Which returns me to my problem. I might be able to enjoyably tweak the nose of a polemicist, but  how can I be electorally realistic and intellectually consistent? []