Death to the left-right-left pivot

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One of the most tiresome political tricks of all needs to be assassinated.

It is the left-right-left  pivot. It’s been used again and again, never works but is unaccountably popular

The LRLP works like this: You’re a left wing politician. You want to do nice progressive things. Unfortunately, you’ve grown to suspect that the electorate want you to do some horrid right wing things.

This is no good at all. What to do about it?

Aha‘, one of your advisers says. ‘The right wing things your voters want you to do are very bad. But if you rephrase how you talk about the left wing things you want to do, and show how they’ll address the problem, it will sound like you’re being right wing and those people will vote for you.

So you pivot from left to right rhetorically, and then back left again in policy terms, hoping to take the voters with you on your little journey

It’s an easy trick to pull.

Crime: Voters want tough punishment for criminals? Ah, you say, but the only way to really stop criminality is our rehabilitation revolution which won’t let anyone stay in a life of crime.

Education: Voters want discipline in schools? Ah, you say, but the only way to really enforce discipline in schools is to hire more teachers, so we’ll do that.

Immigration: Voters want less immigration? Ah, you say, but what’s really bad is that it drives down wages, so we’ll increase the minimum wage.

It’s an attractive trick, isn’t it? You get to do what you want, and you get to give the voters what they want too.

Except it doesn’t work.

If  you need the support of voters concerned by issues you disagree on, you can agree with them, try to change their minds, or persuade them that something else is more important. You can maybe do a combination of all three. What you can’t carry off is an attempt to convince them you’ll do what they want, when you really just want to explain why what you want will solve their problem.

Why can’t that work? Partly for the simple reason that however good your solution is, it wont be as as direct or as straightforward as the one the voters already have in their head. So you’ll sound hollow and unconvincing.

Mostly though, it doesn’t work because you’re not addressing their concerns, you’re trying to find away to talk about something else entirely, something you’re more comfortable with, whether the need for more teachers, the need for rehabilitation, or the need for higher wages.

These policies might be useful, but it sounds evasive because it is evasive, a sign you’re afraid of the issue, or the voter, or both.

The left-right-left pivot is particularly popular among leftish thinkers who are smart enough to realise that the electorate can be quite conservative sometimes, but are unwilling to cause offence among their political allies by suggesting that many of the voters demands are reasonable, and should be met, and even less willing to acknowledge that parts of these arguments should be confronted.

Rhetorically, it’s how you get yourself into a mess like ‘British Jobs for British workers’ You want a policy all about skills and apprenticeships, but you want to sound like you’re talking about sacking Poles.

To pick my earlier examples, it is both harder and more meaningful to argue the following:

Crime: Yes, criminals who commit violent, outrageous acts must be punished severely, both as a deterrent and a punishment. We’ll do that. But we won’t introduce the death penalty, or  because that is both brutal and ineffective.

Education: We’ll give teachers greater powers to enforce discipline in class, and allow detentions, suspensions and expulsions for disruptive behaviour. We’ll hold parents accountable for the behaviour of their children in school. But we won’t re-introduce corporal punishment, because that’s damaging to children.

Immigration: We’ll focus on deporting illegal asylum seekers1, and we’ll do a better job in encouraging integration among migrants, but it’d be a terrible mistake to block all migration, because we need skilled workers and access to other markets.

I hope you can see the strategic difference between the two approaches. One takes the electors concern, and tries to pivot back to an entirely different agenda, implying that the concern itself is somehow wrongheaded.

The other addresses the concern head on, accepts some of what is desired, and delineates why the rest is a bad idea.

The left-right-left pivot is one of the most regularly used and most frustratingly useless political devices around. It’s easy to fall into, because it’s so easy to convince yourself you’re sounding moderate while in fact proposing only things that will neither offend nor persuade, a political combination that is both dull and a waste of everyones time.

 

 

  1. Update: Chris Brooke points out I should have said ‘Failed’ not illegal. He is right. My error []

Euro elections: Strategy, not tactics.

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Well, who cares about the Euro elections, anyway?

Barely anyone, except the candidates, party workers, and pale obsessives like me, who divine auguries from the erratic flightpaths of political avians. “Ah,” we say, “the yellow bird has flown lower than ever before. This presages much laughter“.

While European Elections are about as useful in predicting the political future as birds on a Roman hilltop, being an augur still has its place. All elections have meanings, and they need to be considered.

So, what can we say?

First, any talk of Labour’s electoral floor can at last be consigned to history.

I’ve lost count of the times eager Labour people have told me that because of 2010 Lib Dems it was almost impossible that Labour score less than 29+6 at the next election.The 29 being the score we got last time, and the 6 being the bedraggled left refugees from Nick Clegg’s naifs crusade.

We just scored 25% in a national election, a little over a point ahead of the Conservatives.  If 35% was our floor, we’re in the cellar.

This should end forever the era of complacency about the likelihood of a Labour victory thanks to a progressive realignment and the split on the right, a complacency that was clear from some advisers public pronouncements and private briefings, whether in asserting the superiority of our ground game to claiming we were setting the political agenda even as our poll ratings declined.

If one good thing comes out of the campaign, it should be the death of that undeserved easy confidence. We are going to have to fight like hell to win, and not just fight, but change.

Second, don’t blame the election campaign. John Woodcock is right here. Whether it’s bacon butties or whether to put out leaflets attacking Farage, the campaign itself could only have made a marginal difference.

Three weeks ago, we were not heading for a landslide victory, and the campaign did not change that. The trends that have bought us this result have been clear for some eighteen months or more. Also, while it’s arrogant to claim our ground game was superior to the Tories as the data tells us voters in marginal got roughly the same contacts, that doesn’t mean the ground campaign wasn’t effective and well organised. It may have just been outspent.

Third, don’t rely on tactical solutions to strategic questions. Labour did well in London. So one temptation would be to say that all we need to do is replicate London’s campaigning in the rest of the country. Or to recruit an army of volunteers, or raise a few million more in campaign funds, or develop more sophisticated voter targeting and conversation mechanisms. All of these things will be useful, and are worthwhile in themselves, but their absence does not explain why we are level pegging with the Tories with a year to go.

What can we do positively?

Not panic about discontent for a start. Politics can work even in an age of scepticism and doubt. It can work by going with the grain of voters doubts about politics, not asserting that all that is required for solving our national problems is a change of party in government.

We should never lose confidence in politics to improve lives, but we should never assume that others agree, and we should modulate our claims accordingly.

One place to look is where a left wing party has overcome huge public scepticism, a disappointing election result, defeated a populist surge, and done so in a country obsessed by immigration fear, with a weak economy, facing cuts to services and distrustful of their political class.

I am talking of Italy, where Matteo Renzi just scored the 40% that Labour strategists and advisers have dreamt about for years, and done so on a higher turnout than any other country in Europe. This victory is as astonishing as his rise to power but has had barely a fraction of the attention Labour gave to the stumbling victory of President Hollande.

How has Renzi done it? Not by relying on a progressive consensus, but setting forward a plan that is at once optimistic and hardheaded, reformist and realistic, and designed to appeal to voters distrustful of both politics and the old italian left.

Renzi will fail eventually, as all politicians do. For now though, he shows that a centre left strategy can motivate, excite and inspire voters to the polls. Perhaps we can ask Alexander and Axelrod to visit the Palazzo Chigi?

After all, Renzi showed that overwhelming victory is possible a year after an embarrassing stumble, simply by adopting a better strategy. That is a lesson worth learning from, surely?

Immigration and England: A metropolitan liberal elitist writes…

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In which I write to the english voter, lovingly praised by sundry Labour MPs, Gurified peers, left wing journalists and others, who argue that liberal (or worse, neo-liberal) elitists don’t understand the true soul of England, or have betrayed the interests of the English working class, in favour of deracinated cosmopolitan elitism and so forth:

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot from my friends on the left who think you’ve been ignored.

They say we need to recognise your concerns, and acknowledge the legitimacy of what you’re worried about, and make sure we raise up some unsullied representatives of the English working classes to high office in order to give voice to your needs and wants and desires.

Well, sure, yes. In theory. But not in practise. You see, the reason that the established political parties don’t tend to implement what they imagine to be the authentic views of the English working class is because they also imagine said authentic working class political demands to be pretty much total bollocks.

What do they think you want? Politically, the agenda can be summarised like this: An end to immigration totally, or as near as dammit. To remove Britain from the European Union. To crack down on scroungers, and cheats, and unending praise  for the english worker whose word is his bond,  does a fair days work and expects only a fair days pay.

To which I say this. If they’re right, and the soul of Englishness is like this,  we have a problem, because that agenda is self-destructive. No amount of middle class cultural cringe, no apologia from elitists for their desire for coffee served with frothed milk will alter the basic problem that this agenda either won’t work, or will cause active harm.

Want to leave the EU, end immigration, and cut the welfare budget by half? Well, then the people who will suffer will be.. the English working class, who rely on foreign investment for jobs, get most working age benefits, and who rely more than anyone else on disability and state pensions.

End immigration, or cut it to purely high skilled workers? Well,  the only way we could do that is by leaving the EU. Right now, our immigration issue isn’t one of asylum seekers or economic migrants from developing countries. It’s workers from other EU states. Cut them off, and they would cut us off. Would that be a problem? Yes, because we need businesses to invest in the UK, and we need to access the EU market  to do that.

But let’s say the Anti-Europeans are right, and there would be no immediate economic cost to leaving the EU. Even if Nigel Farage negotiated the most incredible deal, and we could ban all EU migrants and still get free trade, it’d still be a terrible idea.

Why? Because those young Poles who work hard here aren’t going to go away if we don’t let them in.

They’ll just be working hard in Poland, or Germany, or France, or Holland. They’ll be making those economies stronger, paying taxes there, making businesses invest there. Sure, we’d be cohesive. But we’d be cohesively heading for the scrapheap.

The good jobs are going to go to the well-educated, the literate, the mobile, the skilled and adaptable, wherever they are. With them will go the good housing, the good schools, and the chance for future growth.

That’s where success will be. That’s how we’ll make life better.

If we’ve failed the English working class, it’s by the patronising attitude that they can’t or don’t seek these essential qualities, or that attaining them is somehow un-English or inauthentic.

You hear this in the political slogans that imply that all you want to do is ‘work hard and play by the rules’.

Stuff that. If we want to prosper, just working hard isn’t going to do it. We have to be smart, and get our kids to be smarter too.  Government can help with that, but it can’t wish away the need for it to happen.

If you’re concerned about immigration, you’re not bigots, and you’re not racists, but your children with have to compete with bright young kids from all over the world whatever governments do with borders.No-one can stop that, not a latte-sipping elitist or a beer swilling populist (Not craft beer, though. and it’s fine to like instant coffee in a mug. The iconography of class is complicated)

Want it in slogan form? Instead of trying to hide our children behind a wall, we have to build a platform for them to stand out. That’s harder in the short-term, but the only answer in the long terms

Some of my leftish friends don’t think you really want to stop immigration, or at least they don’t think it’s the wellspring of your discontent. They see these political demands as an expression of a sort of cultural neglect.

You want us to recognise the importance of ‘identity’ and ‘community’. Translated from pompous, this ends up meaning one of two things. Socially, it leads to a desire to wrap the country in an infinite Diamond Jubilee, with compulsory Morris Dancing and Union Jack tea towels.

You know what we do when we want to appeal to ‘England’, to show how in touch we are with the spirit of Englishness? We organise a fete, and invite the cameras to record politicians in some suburban street, feigning enthusiasm for coronation chicken.  The good politicians feign with shameless alacrity, the bad ones with a hunted, fearful look. The latter are at least honest.

Alternatively, it means giving more powers to local bodies to decide things. Said local bodies being more in touch and somehow authentic. But don’t get too excited, because if you want to, say, deny all local hospital and schools services to immigrants, that wouldn’t be allowed.

This analysis, I think, relies on a fundamental oddness. It creates a definition of authentic Englishness that is deeply fearful, and can’t be given its head because it’s outcrops are wrong and dangerous, but also demands cultural obeisance from the guilty privileged elite.

This defines a defensive, pessimistic and insecure social class, and then attempts to assuage it by bunting, English lessons, talk of our finest hour and endless meetings in parish halls. It ends up being the same thing, hammy praise to a fake Englishness, all chips and pearly queens and bullshit.

I think my friends are patronising the hell out of you. No created cultural identity will protect you. No local devolution will make your voice only a very little louder, mostly because most people barely bother to speak now. Yes, Immigrants can be taught English, but almost all of them want to anyway, precisely because that’s the way to succeed. The ones who don’t who can’t are the elderly and the home-based. They’re not your competition.

There’s one last component to how we’ll patronise you. We’ll tell you that not enough of the working class are insufficiently represented in our elites. That’s right.

But we’ll propose, instead of equipping more working class people with the tools to succeed, a sort of pickled industrial working class authenticity, where only if your grandparents were miners, or you left school as soon as you could, or you retain your accent, do you qualify as a true voice of the people, and a number of these should be given prominence in our national debate. Not enough to win a victory, of course, but enough to be placated on a narrow point, a sort of informal Miner’s bench in the House of Lords.

Naturally, the people writing this stuff don’t tend to desire such dead-end authenticity themselves. They make sure their kids get a good education, and they push like hell to get them into university and the professions, because they know that’s the ticket to success. They write for newspapers with their own coffee shops, and they support leaders whose idea of career development is a year at the Kennedy school of Government.

Look at our politicians and polemicists. Can you imagine any of them being delighted if their kids left school as soon as they could? Can you imagine them advising a daughter of a friend to stay in the same town for their entire career?  I want a society where every child gets the chances of a Toynbee, or a Miliband, or a Cameron, or a Johnson, or a Dromey, or a Benn.

The tragedy of the last half-century is that we paid so little respect to our citizens that we dared not be honest to them about what the decline of the industrial society meant for being working class.

We’ve offered to worship at the altar of a declining industrial working-classishness, instead of devoting enough resources, money and effort to giving our citizens the skills needed to succeed in a  post-manual labour world even our elites are a little afraid of.

The problem is not that there are too many latte-sipping elitists, but too few, and those there are so nervous and guilty about defending their gains they have little interest in sharing the spoils of what is, basically the ticket to a better,  easier, less laborious and drudge-filled life.

I want to end this.

I’m a social democrat. I believe in the ability of every citizen. I’m also a realist. I don’t believe that the state can protect you from everything bad and unknown and risky about a changing world. But I do believe we can prepare your children better than we have.

If you want an apology it should be for our failure to do that.

I’m sorry, not for immigration, but that we didn’t make British emigrants feared in Europe for their skills and inventiveness.

I’m sorry, not that Romanians are taking fruit picking jobs, but that any British citizens should want such jobs.

I’m sorry, not for not listening to ‘England’ but for pickling England in brine.

I’m sorry, not because there aren’t enough working class voices in parliament, but that we’ve not given enough working class children the chance to decide for themselves what a modern working class voice should sound like.

We can change that. But not by telling you that you don’t have to adapt to a changing world. We all will.

Today’s metropolitan elitists are the ones who got the chance to adapt most easily.

That’s what’s unfair. That’s what’s wrong.

Election night: What they didn’t say

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I always feel sorry for politicians given the job of commenting on election results as they come in. They have to be loyal, not throw their party leader or unpopular policies under the bus, while ensuring that their positivity bears at least a tangential relationship with reality.

As a result, they tend to resemble more or less advanced automata remotely controlled by the twitter feed of the party press office.

What the party representative says is designed to not cause trouble, while not sounding utterly stupid. This is rarely interesting. In the old days, this was done by pager, so at least they’d get the briefing first, but now most people watching the local election results at 2am get the party line direct from the same twitter feed the MP does, and are a bit bored of it by the time the shadow paperclips minister regurgitates it.

On the other hand, what they don’t say is very interesting.

This is because if things are really going well, your lines to take get proportionately stronger. Win 60% of the vote, gain a thousand council seats and see your new council leaders carried aloft by a grateful populace and you might suggest that this is a thumping endorsement of your visionary leader and their inspired strategy.

This means you can calibrate how well a party really thinks it is doing by the praise their spokespeople fail to utter.

What was missing last night?

UKIP: Little reference to their policies beyond immigration and a plague on all your houses politics. More importantly, little conviction about any chance of winning parliamentary seats.

LIB DEMS: No mention of electoral recovery, or of voters coming back, or of the political pay-off for years of hard choices becoming evident. This is because there wasn’t one, they’re not, and it isn’t.

TORIES: No mention of any electoral reward from voters for the recovery. This is because most people haven’t felt the recovery, so don’t reward the Tories for what they haven’t got.

LABOUR: The usual step for an opposition after successful local or European elections is to call for a General Election. I don’t think Labour have yet made such a clarion call. Nor have they argued that these results indicate increasing public desire for a Labour government. I wouldn’t presume to guess why.

I submit that what wasn’t said is a far better guide to the mood and expectations of the various parties than what they have said, which has mostly been the selective use of data to convince themselves (and potential in-party troublemakers) that things have gone well.

Stuff that works

1 comment

My articles and posts have been getting more and more verbose recently.

I don’t mind that this will repel many readers. My attitude is there’s only a few hundred people in the world who could possibly be interested in what I write.

Best to leave everyone else alone, I reckon, especially if they’ve got a short attention span.

However, I do accept Steve Van Riel’s argument that simple arguments work better politically.

So I’m taking a break from my 5,000 word opus on the centrist response to populism to state the argument in musical form.

Want to know what the political response to populism should be?

Have a listen to Guy Clark.

 

 

A good thing, guaranteed!

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I’ve been thinking a bit this week about Labour’s GP guarantee pledge, unveiled this week. I’ve been thinking about it because it’s a promise that I think is useful, would do a decent amount of good, seems reasonably well costed and thought through.

Yet hearing it made me, a dyed in the wool Labour supporter and believer in the power of politics to do good, roll my eyes.

In my mind, I imagine how the pledge came to be.  In no particular order, I picture a discussion with patients about what their main frustrations are: the answer coming back “delays in seeing my GP“.  A focus group, confirming this, and saying that solving it would be popular. A meeting, somewhere in Norman Shaw South, or Brewers’ Green, discussing the need for a strong offer on the NHS, something to show the difference between us and the Tories.  A researcher, discovering that patient complaints are rooted in a real increase in waiting times, a result of policy changes since the last government.  A discussion of possible solutions with various healthcare experts.  A search for funding sources and waste.  The pulling together of all these into a coherent, tidy package. The decision to make it a guarantee.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.  Far from it being the westminster bubble being out of touch, it’s what politics should be about.  Finding out what people’s problems are, trying to identify solutions, fixing the problem, making things better.

Why my muttering then?

Well, obviously, as an outsider, there’s a predisposition to grumpy malcontent.  I didn’t do it, so it must be wrong.  Let’s try to factor that in.  Let’s accept that fixing GP appointment times is exactly the right thing to focus on and that the hundred million identified to fund it is sufficient to the task.  I can believe that.  It seems like something important, and credible, and meaningful to a lot of people.  A hundred million is a lot of money.  I can believe that the application of money and a focus on performance targets will improve things significantly.

I think my problem starts with the guarantee.  We’re going to make sure everyone in England gets a GP appointment within 48 hours, and in 24 hours, if you need it.  That seems like quite a difficult promise to keep.  The NHS is massive.  A quick google tells me there were 340 million GP appointments last year.  That’s nine hundred thousand a day, nearly forty thousand an hour, ten a second.  Every second.  We will guarantee that every single one of those will happen in forty eight hours, or half that if it is needed sooner.

When you’re dealing with stuff on that scale, the natural human fuck up ratio is going to kick in, surely?  Let’s say that one time in every fifty thousand GP appointments, even with a perfectly functioning, well funded system, someone is just a bit crap at their job, and messes up  the booking.  That alone would lead to six thousand eight hundred broken promises every year, which when you think about it is absolutely tiny.  Unless it’s you, obviously.

As soon as that’s opened up, more doubts crowd in.  There’s my vague memory of NHS rows past.  I sort of remember GP appointment times being a huge issue before.  Yes, it was in 2005, when we had the row about GPs only allowing appointments in 48 hours so they could hit their targets.  That was back when we had the old 48 hour target, I discover.

I’m sure we won’t make that mistake again, but it makes me wonder how we’re going to monitor this guarantee.  It’s been hinted it’ll be contractual for GPs, but obviously some people will want appointments a week or a month out.  How will we tell the difference between them and people who’ve been fobbed off?  And another thing..

I’ll stop with the niggles.  The examples are not the point, my doubtful mindset is.  Even though I think the change would be a really good thing, my response to the promise is not ‘brilliant, I really want that‘ but ‘”gosh, that sounds complicated and expensive‘.  So I’m not as impressed as I might be, and instead of enthusiastically telling all my friends about the good a Labour government will do, I’m writing a nit-picky blog.

Hopi, you are a hypocrite, cried the ghost of pledge cards past

Here my past self catches up to me, and points out that I used to want lots of stuff like this on pledge cards.  “What are we supposed to offer the punters if you won’t let us even offer them something positive, understandable and reasonably deliverable“, he asks.  “Look, we even promised an extra hundred million to cut waiting times back in 1997“.

“Hold on” I reply to my bumptious (and somewhat fatter) past self “If a hundred million only treated an extra hundred thousand patients eighteen year ago and there’s 340,000,000 GP appointments..

Past me gets annoyed.  “You promised to stop niggling. That’s not the point, the promise is the point. What can we promise, you grey haired grouchy sod?

To which the answer is..  Well, I’ll come back to you on that. That’s a guarantee.  I promise.

The riddle of unpopular populism

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Since last Summer, the Labour party has made a number of policy announcements on issues of major concern to large chunks of the electorate. Capping energy prices, limiting rent increases, introducing a 10p starting rate of tax, building new homes, and so on have all formed part of an intellectually coherent political agenda, one neatly summarised by Rachel Reeves and Emma Reynolds in today’s Independent.

What’s more, each and every one of these policies has been popular. Whatever polling mechanic is used, there is broad support for this agenda, popular approval that is enthusiastically recounted shortly after each announcement in Labour leaning websites and magazines.

We are told, I think honestly, that these announcements score ‘off the charts’ in focus groups. As Jonathan Freedland said in September, the strategy is a populism of the left, and don’t be so damn sniffy, because there’s nothing wrong in politics with being popular.

When the Government struggles to respond to this popularity,  prominent leftish columnists declare that Labour has set the political agenda and there is a general presumption on the left that another step towards victory in 2015 has been taken.

As Polly Toynbee said back in December,

“Labour is some 7% to 8% ahead in the polls, and as I write today, making the weather on issues that matter most to people. What’s more, they are starting to shape what a future Labour government would do – on housing, jobs and wages that looks better than anything the Tories have, as yet, said about the future – except austerity and GDP growth that goes mainly to the top 20%.”

I have various disagreements with Polly Toynbee, but I think she correctly described both Labour’s strategy and our leading figures’ analysis of the party’s task in 2014. I think, by and large, that the party has delivered on the prospectus she set out.

Yet over the same time, Labour’s poll ratings have steadily declined.

According to YouGov, Labour was polling roughly 40% a year ago. Today, that figure is fluctuating between 35 and 37%. After a fairly dull debate, there is now pretty general agreement among poll watchers that this decline is a real thing, not merely random variation.

Nor have Labour’s image ratings improved. There has been no shift in the number of people who think Labour is on their side, or who think Labour’s heart is in the right place.

Number agreeing with statement for Labour:
May 2013
May 2014
The kind of society it wants is broadly the kind of society I want3027
Led by people of real ability1714
Able to take tough and unpopular decisiont1210
Seems to chop and change all the time2628

This raises an apparent contradiction.

If the ‘cost of living crisis’ is real, and Labour’s policies to address it are popular and well received, while the government struggles to respond in a coherent manner, what is going on?

Well, maybe it’s not that big a problem any more. Growth is returning and all that. Unfortunately the data doesn’t stack up for that. People are still feeling the pinch. The problem is still real. It’s just promising to fix it doesn’t seem to be shifting the polls in Labour’s favour.

If promising to cut the cost of living is not increasing Labour support, or even retaining existing voters, despite the overwhelming evidence each promise is popular, what does that imply for Labour’s plans to go back to the cost of living well again and again? Will promising to limit rail increases, or tackle expensive childcare, deliver better results?

One response is to ignore the trend. When ratings slip, someone usually provides a friendly journalist with a list of the reasons Labour will win, including the popularity of the most recent promise.  This gets written up, usually in the New Statesman, and everyone is re-assured (until the poll rating slips another point, in which case rinse and repeat)

Another response is to argue that the reason such popular pledges have not cut through is that they represent too limited an agenda. In this argument, while cheaper energy and lower rent rises are welcome, they need to make more of a difference to people. This usually finds its way into calls for greater boldness and radicalism from the party, whether in limiting executive pay, or increasing national insurance or the top rates of tax.

Politically, the argument here relies on a reservoir of unmotivated younger and working class voters, along with left leaning former Lib Dems, who need to be inspired to the polls. Well, it has the quality of clarity.

I want to suggest one other possibility. We are solving the wrong problem, politically.

Yes, the cost of living crisis is real. Yes, people would like to see petrol prices, and fuel bills, and rent, and mortgages, and shopping, cost less.

However, the challenge for the Labour party is not that people don’t think we would like to make life easier for them, but that they don’t trust us to do so. Bluntly, they think we, and most politicians, are a bit useless.

They have a point. If the crash taught people anything it is that self confident politicians are not in control of all things in the world, from the demand for housing to energy prices, to the movement of huge financial flows, so while it’s fine to point at things and say how expensive they are, how would making them cheaper actually work?

I think of this as the ‘fat man in a tie’ problem. Every time a bright young Labour spokesperson appears on the TV calling for things to be cheaper, they are followed by a sweaty chap in a suit from some trade body for the wealthy and terminally unpopular.

This greasy cowlick says something along the lines of ‘That all sounds very good, but would be a total disaster‘. As political cognoscenti, we see the sweaty greasy suit and our inspiring plain-speaking politician and think ‘score one to the red team‘.

Voters however, doubtful of our efficacy and our credibility, witnesses to a million broken political promises and fairly sure life will continue to be hard who-ever is in power, may conclude that the fat bloke might not be nice, but he could well know how the world works, as he has all the money.

This would imply that the more we tell people we will be able to make things easier and cheaper and better, the more unrealistic, worrying and unbelievable such pledges are. So a ‘bolder, broader’ approach would be unproductive.

Does that mean that a focus on the cost of living must be abandoned? No, it just means that the stress should be on the workability and credibility of the proposals. The ideal would be to leave that sweaty fat man being forced to agree that it could work.

After all, if your populism isn’t proving popular, the problem is probably in your believability.

Or, to put it as I did last yearFaffing on about prices is time that could be spent persuading people we won’t eff everything up‘.

Just a bit of fun: How UKIP might win Newark

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As we have a number of opinion polls detailing how people will vote in the European elections, and these show how the 2010 supporters of various parties would vote in the European elections later this month, it occurred to me that I could apply that to the Newark By-election and see what result it generated.

So that’s what I did. I took the 2010 Newark parliamentary election result for each party, subtracted from this the proportion of supporters from 2010 who now say they won’t vote, and then redistributed the remaining voters according to how 2010 voters from each party told YouGov they’d vote in the European elections. (I used this yougov poll and you can see my workings here, as I may have got them wrong.)

The results surprised me. This method produced the following result:

Conservative 12,632 (29.6%, down 24.3)

Labour 8,682 (20.4%, down 1.9)

Lib Dem 2940 (6.9%, down 13.1)

UKIP 15,604 (36.6%, up 32.8)

Green 2,801 (6.6% up 6.6) ((Note, The Greens didn’t stand a candidate in Newark in 2010, so this is purely based on euro-defectors))

An astonishing UKIP gain from Conservative, then!

How did the result come about?

Two reasons. The large rate of defection from Tory to UKIP (two-fifths of the Tory vote) explains the bulk of the UKIP surge, but the predicted victory relied on  the 3,500 Labour and Lib Dem defectors to UKIP the model suggested.

Of course, this relies on the assumption that the good people of Newark will treat a Westminster By-Election similarly to the residents of the whole country say they’ll vote in the European elections, which is by no means a reliable assumption. Just a bit of fun, as the man said.

To offer some comfort to the Tories then, it’s only fair to point out that this method predicts a very different result  if the electors of Newark chose to vote in the by-election as they say tell YouGov would in the next General Election.

Using the same process, but using the figures for a general election, you get:

Conservative 19,215 (45%, down 9.1)

Labour 11,499 (27%, up 4.2)

Lib Deb 3096 (7.3%, down 12.7)

UKIP 8588 (20.1%, up 16.2)

Green 1065 (2.5%, up 2.5)

I have no idea which model is more accurate. Probably they’re both terrible

However, it does occur to me that Nigel Farage may have made a significant error of judgement in not standing in the by-election. That such a pool of voters might exist for UKIP suggests his personal profile could have encouraged more voters to treat the Newark By-election as they do the Euros, rather than the General Election.

It could be that Farage’s decision makes the difference between a mild electoral tremor and an earthquake.

Labour and Rent: Demands and Supply.

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Ed Miliband today announced Labour’s policy on improving the private rented sector. It included three main planks: a shift to three year tenancies for tenants (with a probationary period, plus exceptions for Landlords who wish to sell the property and tenants who wish a shorter commitment), rent increases limited within tenancies by a preset formula, plus a ban on tenants being charged fees by letting agents.

As I’ve written about this sort of thing before, I’ve been hailed as making a good case against the new policy of my party

Oh, well! I suppose I better look at what the actual policy is, though, and see if I’m agin it.

The first thing to note about this policy is what it is not. It is not, as Grant Shapps ludicrously alleged, a policy of Venezualan style price fixing. There is a certain tendency in the Labour party to applaud any market reform as the greatest advance for socialism since the October revolution, perhaps because technocratic regulatory tinkering feels insufficiently brave and radical to our radical souls.

Equally, there is a tendency in the Conservative party to decry any Labour policy in the same terms, even when, as Emma Reynolds points out, the government itself supports creating longer tenancies. That point should remind us that both parties recognise that the rental market is not working well for everyone, and reform is widely acknowledged as needed.

The question of what reform to pursue is trickier.

As I’ve argued before, correctly diagnosing the problem is important.

The (imperfect) data we have suggests that rents are actually falling in real terms. Labour’s own press release suggest average rents have risen by 13% since 2010, which sounds a lot, until you realise that’s over four years. Last week, the ONS suggested private rents are increasing about one per cent a year.

For a lot of people that data is counter-intuitive. While there are valid questions about data sets, I suspect that some of the personal-data divergence is due to tenants who move regularly being most exposed to rent increases. Landlords have an incentive to keep existing tenants in situ, because vacancy reduces income, and you have to pay to let the property, so it’s quite possible that while mobile tenants in high demand areas are witnessing big increases, but there are other tenants whose rents are effectively falling year on year.

This may be wrong, but even if it is, a precise diagnosis of the problem should influence our assessment of proposed solutions.

If the scenario I sketch is correct, then limiting rent increases for existing tenants will only impact at the margins. Landlords are generally not raising rents on existing tenants now, so shouldn’t mind too much the prospect of not doing so in future.

Yet marginal doesn’t mean unimportant. The defining moments of our lives are lived in our experience of marginal cases, in the fine lines between success and failure.  Politics shouldn’t ever think change here is insignificant or unimportant.

So lets look at the margins.

On the positive side, such a control will prevent those rent hikes that do occur and might control rents in more high demand areas leading to less ‘hotspots’.

Then again under Labour’s plans, tenants could be evicted for breach of contract. If there were longer term tenancies but no price cap, Landlords could just jack up the rent until the tenant left.

With long term tenancies and a price cap, they could introduce very detailed contracts, and enforce them very tightly. Don’t clean your windows often enough? Out you go! However, this would offer tenants protection – it would be a hassle for Landlords to do this, so they would likely only do so if the potential rewards were great.

More negatively,  a cap on current rents could expose landlords to a sharp rise in interest rates, which if they were not able to pass on could lead them to being forced to sell at a bad moment for both them and their tenants.

However, if the rent rises allowed were large enough to anticipate shocks, then you’d probably be able to increase rents quite substantially anyway. this might lead some marginal landlords to decide it’s not worth the risk and sell rather than let their properties. Though I expect many would just fix their mortgage, and pass the higher cost on earlier in the tenancy.

As for the proposal to ban charges by letting agents, I think it’s a good idea, though probably not for the reasons most people do (often presented as ‘letting agents are horrible dicks who scalp at every turn’)

I like reducing fees because upfront charges are horribly lumpy, and as most of us don’t have a lot of spare cash, finding a deposit, rent, paying for moving costs and so on is a substantial burden. If you reduce extra costs like upfront charges, then while the cost will almost certainly be passed on in other ways, the burden will be far smoother over time. If lettings agencies increase their fees by five per cent, and landlords pass that on, you might see a one off increase in rents, but the cost of moving will be lower each time. For the young and mobile, that’s a gain. If our economy is pretty mobile, and we want workers to be too, then smoothing people’s costs is welcome.

Accepting that such charges will likely get passed should remind us that if profits are high then passing on of charges happens only when demand exceeds supply.

So ultimately, this is a problem of supply, not of demand, or even of regulation.

Labour recognises this and seek to build more housing, but as Shelter’s report points out today, building the level of new homes we need comes at a significant cost. I think they says an extra billion and a quarter a year. That’s not impossible money, but it has to come from somewhere, and to keep it that low requires some pretty nifty footwork.

Will Labour’s policy work?

Well, given I don’t see the surge in rental costs it’s intended to prevent, I’m not sure the rental problem is the one presented in the press releases.

Instead, I think it’s a sharper problem for a more specific group of young, mobile renters. Longer tenancies and better security are clearly welcome for many of these, and if the annual rent increase allowed is set right it shouldn’t have negative consequences for Landlords, or lead, except at the extremes to contractual fiddling to get tenants out.

It might also encourage the formation of larger, more professional landlords who can reduce their cost base and manage rate exposures without increasing rents.

However, it might lead to a problem if there is an interest rate shock, and there is the possibility it will reduce the pool of private landlords, especially at the lower end.

More importantly perhaps, the limited nature of these reforms, and the complexity of assessing their consequences should remind us is that however good your intentions, a problem of demand and supply can’t really be fixed by trying to regulate where the two curves should intersect. 

Far better for the state to intervene to impact where they do intersect.

That takes us back, as ever, to the need to build, and for the moment at least, to make sure we don’t do too much that might lead to landlords removing their properties from the rental market and selling them to those who can afford to buy now.

After all, the one short term problem we could really do without is a whole bunch of people who can’t afford to buy, and then discover there’s nowhere to rent. Ultimately, until will build, any regulatory solution is eventually going to hit that problem.

How to lose vote share without losing a single voter.

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Last week there was an excellent post by David Herdson over at PoliticalBetting considering the argument that 35% represents Labour’s new ‘core vote’.

It’s a well argued post, and while I disagree with the conclusion, his points are valid. I just think that the positives that David lays out are balanced by other risks.

My view is based on the data I’ve discussed before which suggests around a third of current Labour supporters aren’t convinced by the party on some key measures and that in all recent elections opposition vote share has declined in the final year before polling (yes, even Michael Howard and William Hague).

That means I don’t feel one can confidently speak of a firm floor to Labour support, even if you agree that 2010 LibDems provide a strong floorboard. The damp may set in elsewhere.

The relative importance of these difference elements are a matter of judgement, as is are the unknown factors – how the economy will perform, any unexpected events and so on. This is why I think there’s a good chance the election will turn on small differences. That meant one point in David’s post made me really think.

As he says

“Can Labour actually fall any further?  Bar a point or two at most, the only way the figures could decline further is if other parties start eating into those who voted Labour in 2010, or into the Yellow-to-Reds – or if people from either of those groups sit it out altogether.”

I want to focus on David’s ‘point or two‘.

It’s perfectly possible to see a party lose vote share without losing a single voter. For Labour, that could mean the difference between polling 35 and 37.

The reason is that the current rates of abstention are different for past voters of different parties.

Typically, 2010 Liberal Democrats are almost twice as likely as their Labour friends to say they currently Don’t know or Won’t Vote. Tory voters are also slightly more likely than Labour voters to say they currently don’t know how they’ll vote.

I’ve been taking the recent YouGov polls, and working out what happens if you assume 2010 LibDems and Tories decide to vote in the same proportion Labour voters do now ((Polling types: You will already have noticed that this is simply a crude version of past vote weighting. Indeed, if you assume people will return to their ‘old’ party, the big winners are the Lib Dems)).

This expands the total voter pool, and as a result, (assuming they don’t decide to vote Labour) the Labour share of vote drops by an average of one point. A Labour poll result of 38 typically becomes a headline share of 37, without a single Labour voter having changed their minds.

In some polls, this change knock up to two points off Labour’s headline vote share and lead1.

This probably won’t happen, but is a useful reminder that the flow between the voting and non-voting is going to be as significant to a close election as the flow between parties.

Further, doing the numbers meant I paid a lot more attention to the share of voters telling YouGov they don’t know or won’t vote. To me, this is surprisingly low, at only around a fifth of their respondents2. That would mark a huge turnout increase. If that isn’t the case, voters who decide to sit on their hands over the next year could be a crucial battle ground.

In other words, the choice whether to vote could easily be more important to deciding the next election than change minds between parties. That emphasises the role of field organisation, local organisers, voter mobilisation, quality data and voter profiling.

It also means understanding what your more doubtful and sceptical voters need to know to keep them on board, which is why these two charts niggle at me so much.

The need to focus on mobilisiation is especially true for Labour, as while you can see a pool of potential Tory ‘converts’ currently in the UKIP voters, it’s much harder to see where Labour’s next three or four points of poll share would come from among existing voters.

In other words, absent a shift in strategy, Labour task for the next year will be to hold on to what we’ve got.

 

 

 

  1. the maths is dull, but if anyone would like a copy of my spreadsheet, happy to share it []
  2. Perhaps this is one reason YG is a little more favourable on  Labour vote share than some other pollsters? []