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

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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? []

In which Tony Blair agrees with Stop the War…

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I’ve an article over at Progress about Tony Blair’s speech this morning on the threat of extremist Islam.

It’s a fairly long piece, so I want to let it stand for itself.

However, it does occur to me that in explicitly stating that regime change in Iran should not be a policy objective, in stating that Assad could retain power, and if the British media is correct, that we should be prepared to treat with Russia in areas of common interest, then Tony is, more or less, advocating the policy position advocated by Stop the War, and the various media adjuncts thereof.

Naturally, this is confusing for them, and so far, Blair’s critics have chosen to ignore his actual policy proposals in the Middle East.1. The Huffington post headline is even ‘Peace Envoy calls for war.. again‘. Except I can’t find any such call for any war in the speech.

I can’t imagine what the anti-war crowd makes of Blair calling for no outside led regime change in either Iran or Syria, and his explicit acceptance of an extended Assad regime, even if  policed by a no-fly zone. If this post by Mehdi Hasan is any guide, some will ignore entirely what Blair said about Syria and Iran. Perhaps it will cause some sort of short-circuit in others. Peter Oborne may explode to discover he agrees with Tony Blair about Assad.

It follows from his that those who have the best right to complain about Blair’s speech are the consistent liberal interventionists. If even Blair is not arguing for the overthrow of destructive, murderous regimes like this, who will make the case?

After all, this is a speech that is willing to treat with Iran’s executioners, with the Syrian tyrant and with the turgid militarist nationalism of Egypt, all in order to erode the position of religious extremists. This pragmatism is put at the service of containing the export of extremist radicalism, and of creating the space for pluralistic governments and movements to prosper. The pluralistic citizens of Iran and Syria are sacrificed to that cause.

This practicality is uncomfortable for idealist liberals like me, but it does at least represent a plan, rather than the wail of discouraged disgust at all the bad options we are currently stuck with.

For example, My fellow liberals are clearly finding it hard to answer what we should do about Egypt, if a plague on both Sisi and the Brothers is clearly a Pontius Pilate of a policy?

My take on it is that Blair is right that engagement with radical Islam is essential, and equally right that ignoring the problem will solve nothing. We’ve seen that in Syria, where non-intervention has encouraged radicalism more surely than direct intervention, and without any ability to limit its outrages. Yet intervention is clearly not an available option. If we are to be more than hand-wringers, we have choices to make.

However, endorsing Blair’s core analysis does not require support for his every expression of what that engagement should be in each case. So I am less tolerant of Egypt’s military than Blair, more willing to act to overthrow Assad and Iran and support hard pressed pluralists in both nations. More positively, I am heartened that at last, Western voices are willing to issue even coded critiques of Saudi  efforts to export extremism. I would like to go further there.

As for the willingness to work with Russia, I am less cynical than most, despite my strong distaste for Putin. Just because we oppose Russia strongly on Ukraine does not mean there can be no engagement elsewhere. Was Churchill no anti-communist because he was willing to join Stalin against Hitler?

Where these accommodations might rub is if we were asked to choose, between Putin’s support for Assad and his pressure on Ukraine. that would be a hard moral and political choice. At the moment, though we are losing both arguments, so even a Hobson’s choice might be an improvement.

In the end though, I suspect Blair’s speech will go some way to prove his case.

If tackling religious extremism is really a priority, there is no pure path forward, no route without cost. We don’t want to address that. The west has chosen to forego direct intervention in the Middle East as too high a cost. That is a choice.

Yet so far, we are also foregoing any other forms of engagement, pretending this is a policy, not an abnegation of responsibility. As a result, we see the disasters around us, and tell ourselves they are at least not our fault. That surely cannot last.

 

  1. Except in that those who oppose intervention in Ukraine, demand Western governments intervene against Egypt’s military, which would in effect throw them into Russia’s open arms []

Labour’s inevitable war of attrition, short version.

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My last post was quite long, so here’s an abbreviated version for the lazy and feckless among you. All polling suggests this is a large majority of the populace.

Most oppositions lose voters in the year before an election. Very, very few gain support, and the only one that has in recent history lost anyway. As Damon Runyon said the race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

That doesn’t mean Labour’s doomed, DOOMED, though. We’re in the ‘Events Zone’ because the unique factors in this election could easily be more significant in deciding the election than the historical trend.

So Labour’s strategy matters.

First, We shouldn’t worry about what we  can’t really influence (whether David Cameron can find a way to lure his Tory defectors back).

Second,  history suggests we’re rather unlikely to persuade new supporters to back us.

Third, this means holding on to the voters we’ve got already will really count.

Of the voters we’ve got now, about a third are unsure about our economic and other non-public services policies. About the same number are unsure about both the Party’s readiness for office and the Leadership.

They’re still voting Labour, but holding on to them will be essential to winning, and they’ll probably want some pretty concrete reasons that Labour will be better for them.

That points to a strategy of fighting for every one of our current voters, in a grinding war of attrition, while our opponents try to scare their rogue supporters into line and our doubters out of the voting booth.

Of course, we could try to be bold and make a major strategic advance into those voters who are sceptical about us. The problem with this is that being bold is likely to be expensive, which would put risk those who are wary of economic instability or taxes. On the other hand, a ‘boldness’ that appealed to the austere-minded would divide the party severely.

This is complicated by the fact that to win Labour needs to keep pretty much everyone who’s voting for us. When you’re on 35-39 per cent a year out, you can’t afford to alienate current supporters. The costs of boldness are much clearer than the potential rewards.

Precisely because Labour can’t afford to alienate existing supporters  it will find it harder to be riskily bold, and this dictates a strategy of defensiveness, even if everyone says it is the opposite (which they will, naturally).

Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair in opposition to a  Butler carrying a ming vase across a room with a slippery floor. So it is for Ed Miliband, except this time the vase been greased in lard, the floor is covered in ice, his shoes are made of marbles and some sod is aiming a catapult through the window.

Ah, but could Labour win new supporters this year with a big radical offer?

Well, everything is possible. If we have a policy that is practical enough to persuade Tory, UKIP or non-voters to change their minds, won’t alienate any existing supporters, and won’t motivate opponents, breach our spending plans, divide the party or appear unrealistic, then I suggest we deploy it sooner, rather than later.

However, the cynic in me suggests such transformative policies are rather rarer than articles calling for transformative policies. After all, for all the articles about the Energy price freeze changing the terms of the debate, we’re still roughly where we were last summer.

In summary, Douglas Alexander will be forced to adopt a strategy of defensive anti-attrition to secure existing supporters, while pretending we’re doing no such thing, telling our supporters how brave we’re being. This will be exposed if things go wrong, when people will demand more advance, ignoring the risks inherent in their favoured direction.

Oh, and if the Tories don’t get their act together, we could win anyway. But it’s best not o rely on the failure of your opponents.

 

Labour’s inevitable strategy: A war against attrition

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Douglas Alexander is getting a lot of advice about Labour’s General Election campaign. Some of this advice is of the ‘Chill, Bro, we’ve got this’ variety. Other advice amounts more to a “we’re doomed, doomed! DOOMED!” analysis.

Neither  helps Labour’s election co-ordinator very much, as they don’t give him a hint on how to maximise Labour’s result. Unless you subscribe to a Calvinist approach to elections then this is important (Pun very much intentional, and if you didn’t get it, I am clearly cleverer than you so don’t bother to dispute the rest of my argument).

How Douglas maximises the result is crucial for me, as I both recognise the downward historical trend most oppositions endure, but also believe that we’re firmly ‘The Events Zone‘, the polling range where events unique to this election will decide the actual result.

If you take a historical trend of how polls move in the year before an election, you’d expect a smallish Tory vote share lead come 2015, as Leo Baresi suggests. Some models have it higher, some lower, but the basic trend is clear.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the general trend might be overstated in this particular election.

These include (but are not limited to) the fact that polling has improved since past elections, that 2010 LibDems will behave differently to past switchers, that UKIP might well soak up a tranche of ‘right’ voters, no party leader has strong ratings, that we’re operating on pretty outdated boundaries, that it’s possible to win an election while behind on leadership or the economy and that this is a coalition, so normal single party recoveries don’t apply.

Any of these could have a major impact on vote and seat totals. So will how good we are at politics.

In other words, who-ever loses the next election, the fault lies in themselves, not in their stars.

So what can Douglas do about this?

Well, I’d rule out a big strategy shift. The party won’t change leader, and it’s not clear what alternative strategy is available to Ed Miliband’s team.

Trying to persuade soft Tory voters that Labour has changed to meet their concerns might have been an option three years ago, but it’s hard to know what Labour could say to them now that would be credible1

The same applies to economic policy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the recovery, whether it’s real or a bubble, whatever wages do, whether or not “it’ll never work” was not actually what we were saying, or whether the governments ‘success’ has simply been a delaying of the reckoning until after the election, the basic fact is that Labour decided three years ago that we did not electorally fear an economic recovery by 2015. No point in backing off that analysis now, it’d look fake.

In truth, Labour’s economic policy position is entirely sensible. Our weakness is not in our macro and fiscal policy, but our discomfort in spelling out what it would actually mean to deliver this ((The Tories are perfectly happy pretending that their fiscal targets and macro goals can be delivered by slashing welfare on ‘scroungers’. As we find it hard to say we too would be painful, we can’t talk about the greater agony the Tories would have to impose, and the risks this creates for the economy. Already we’re seeing the consequences of their approach - if in need of emergency growth, inflate the housing market)) .

Continental left leaders like Valls and  Renzi are showing a different path for the left, but I can’t see how the current Labour party could make a similar argument work without an election destroying row.

Just imagine the internal reaction if Ed Balls was to spell out further spending cuts in pensions, health and social care to fund a tax break for small business and low paid workers, while pushing for greater labour market flexibility!

If big strategy shifts  are pipe dreams, what can Labour do to win?

First, stop worrying about things we can’t control. Will UKIP voters ‘return’ to the Tories? Well, about a fifth of them rate the Tories as best on most issues, bar immigration and Europe, and it’s clear they don’t like Labour much.

If the Tories are smart, they’ll spend a lot of money on direct mail to those people, probably stressing immigration, Ed Miliband and Law and Order.

Labour can’t control that, so other than making the point about the Tories being elitist and out of touch, which chimes with pessimistic UKIP voters, there’s not much point  stressing about it.

Neither should Douglas worry about converting many new Labour voters.

Absent a major shift, that window has closed. How many oppositions have increased vote share in the last year of an election? Only the 1959 Labour opposition, and even then, only barely.

On the other hand, Douglas should worry a lot about Labour voters who might detach over the coming year. If Labour is going to win a majority we have to hold on to virtually every voter who backs us now.

I see two main groups of voters who might put that at risk.

The first are policy doubters: It’s pretty clear that around half of Labour voters don’t think the party is best on immigration and Europe, while  about a third don’t think it’s best on the economy and crime. Overwhelmingly, Labour voters do think Labour is best on public services.

Now, it’s important not to over-analyse this. These people are still saying they’d vote Labour even if they don’t think the party is best on a particular issue2

This suggests a watching brief: if immigration, law and order, and the economy begin to have more salience for Labour voters unenthusiastic about these Labour policy,  they could easily drift away. So what will keep them on board?

Next, there’s the significant group of Labour voters who appear unsure about the leader. However you ask, around a third of all Labour voters don’t express enthusiasm for Ed Miliband, while a very different picture emerges for David Cameron among Tory voters.

This isn’t just personal: the same likely applies for the party as a whole. 70% of Labour voters say the party is ready for government. (These people may also be policy doubters, of course, in which case I’d be really worried about their likelihood to vote.)

To be fair though, one of the reasons Cameron does well among Tory voters is that those who don’t rate him have already buggered off.

Cameron and Miliband’s ratings among their party’s 2010 supporters are closer than among current supporters.3 It’s just that the unhappy Tories aren’t actually Tories any more.

The risk is that Labour voters will do the same as these unimpressed Tories. So Labour either convinces them the leadership is strong, or convinces them something else matters more.

Current Labour supporters think Labour is clearly on their side, but a significant number doubt both our policy effectiveness and leadership credentials. If they start to believe we won’t do much good, but do represent a risk, their support could go. I imagine that is precisely the argument the Tories will make, to both wavering Labour and unhappy right-wing voters. “You might not like us much, but you’ve got to stop this lot“.

This drives my belief that Ed Miliband’s Labour party must convince people it can make practical changes to improve their lives, and wouldn’t risk an emerging recovery with macro irresponsibility.

This is why I get exercised about Labour’s love affair with big, transformative ambitious boldness.  I fear sceptical, doubtful Labour supporters will see in such boldness only an exponential chance of big, transformative fu…  screw ups, thus increasing their scepticism and doubt.

Finally, Douglas has one more problem.

A long battle against attrition, a street by street fight to hold onto Labour’s current supporters by telling them what’s in it for them might seem like a pretty dull approach, compared to a bold advance forward. It is. So people will start asking for more vision, more brio.

Yet any bold advance would expose Labour’s weaknesses: try to convince Tory voters that Labour has changed, and you risk a split in Labour’s unity without convincing the sceptical. Alternatively, communicating the radicalism of change might well make our existing supporters nervous, while uniting those against us.

So Bold advance gets ruled out, and grim attrition becomes inevitable.

This isn’t the strategy I’d choose. I’d prefer a Renzi or a Valls, like it or lump it approach. I’m a death or glory kind of guy.

But then I’m not Labour leader. I don’t have to keep both Jon Trickett and Jim Murphy happy, or balance Peter Mandelson and Len McCluskey.

So I don’t think Labour has a choice, really. This is how it’s going to be.

A gritty, hard defensive war against attrition.

  1. the core Milibandite electoral approach has been set out by Marcus Roberts and others: this basically involves taking the 2010 Labour vote, adding a large slice of 2010 LibDems, motivating non-voters and running an outstanding get out the vote operation. It’s argued that get to 40% that way, and the Tories can’t win, whatever they do.

    As a model it seems plausible, but as I’ve said to Marcus, the trouble with using big blocks to build yourself an electoral tide-break is that they’re made of individual grains of voters. A series of waves can dislodge a few voters from the edge of each block, and suddenly your impregnable electoral fortress looks like the mouth of a sugar addicted smoker, all gaps and stumps.

    Whatever I may think though, it seems this, more or less, is going to be the strategy []

  2. This is one reason I tend to be less concerned by immigration than most Labour poll watchers. It’s not that I don’t think we have a problem there, it’s that I believe it’s a problem with low salience. Only 34% of 2010 Labour voters think the party is best on immigration, while 47% of 2010 Tories say the Conservatives are. Yet far more of those who are unhappy have quit the Tories than Labour. I reckon it’s just not as important to Labour voters. []
  3. Miliband is behind by c30 points among current supporters, but he’s only c15-20 points behind among 2010 supporters []