Democracy now

I was surprised, midway through my local Labour Party AGM, to hear the name “Steven Fielding”. Could it be?

Yes, it could.

Point of information #1: I think the number I heard cited was 970. As of the 2019 local elections, the electorate of the ward stood at 10,452; if we carry on recruiting we’ll soon be up to one in 10 adult Chorlton residents. Plus 970 is actually higher than the number of votes received by the second-placed (Green) council candidate in 2019. We probably don’t need to bust a gut campaigning this year.

Point of information #2: the factions. Those subtle, subdued factions! (Very Chorlton – factions by Farrow & Ball.) I defer to Steven’s expertise here; my highest qualification in Politics is a Master’s, and my book is only incidentally about electoral politics and political parties. But it seems to me that there weren’t actually two factions visibly active on Monday night, just the one – and that its operations weren’t at all subtle, but rather overt.

Perhaps it comes down to definitions. Put it this way: here are statements on behalf of two groups of people, A and B, both of whom are members of the same party.

A: “We support the elected leader and thoroughly approve of the party’s current programme – and so do our allies who have been denied party membership!”

B: “We think the party’s policy is wrong and the leader needs to change direction – and so do our allies in other, rival political parties!”

Call me an old eccentric, but I’d always thought that the label of ‘faction’ applied properly to group B, but not to group A. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are involved in collective lobbying for the party to change (and may have other loyalties): that’s a faction. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are content with how the party is now and back it every time: that’s not a faction, that’s just some happy party members. Broadly speaking, I’d always thought that supporting the party’s policies and leadership was the one thing a party member can do which is definitely not ‘factionalism’. True, sometimes parties go into crisis – I might mention the Cultural Revolution, I might mention Comrade Delta – and under crisis conditions it might make sense to talk of a ‘leadership faction’. But the Labour Party certainly wasn’t in that kind of crisis at the time of the 2017 AGM; we’d just deprived the Tories of their majority, apart from anything else, and were averaging 42% in the polls. This is the AGM that Steven referred to in his second Tweet; it’s also the one where I stood for election as a CLP delegate and (as I wrote at the time) found myself in the absurd position of “effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto”. Running, in other words, against the locally dominant anti-leadership faction. (And didn’t get elected – a record I’ve maintained at both subsequent AGMs.)

Steven for his part was elected as a delegate this year – as his Tweet says – and good luck to him. I noticed that his personal statement led with his involvement in Another Europe Is Possible, a group whose Labour members surely ticked every group B box: an organised group, lobbying for a change to established party policy, on grounds of principle rather than pragmatism. (Whether that principle was correct, and whether it was important enough to override pragmatic considerations, are separate questions.) But the Remain cause has been big in our ward for a while – the incoming Chair is an enthusiast herself, according to her report from last year – so a reckoning with that particular faction of ideological purists may be a long time coming.

There was a report from last year from the incoming Chair…? Well spotted, imaginary reader. The incoming Chair could write a report because she had previously been a branch officer; the branch clearly didn’t think this was a problem, though. In fact, several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. Contested elections are a pain, of course, particularly when you’re using paper ballots (in a branch with nearly 1000 members, at that) – and who can blame officers who want to go on working with people they know, or else try their hand at a different role? Still, though; looked at from outside it might seem odd that, in a ward branch with a membership nudging four figures – the size of some entire CLPs – it’s only possible to find one person interested in any of the officer positions.

It might also seem odd – or at least logistically challenging – for a branch this big to hold an all-member AGM: what did they do, hire a sports hall or something? No need, imaginary reader, there was no need. We met in the same place as last year, and I think we were pretty much the same people as last year; we were certainly in very similar numbers to last year, viz. around 70. Which is very much not one in 10 Chorlton residents; it’s not even one in 10 of those 970 members.

Which also helps explain the uncontested elections. Seven days (the notice period required when calling a branch AGM) is not a very long time – and membership secretaries don’t hand out contact lists to anyone who might want to do a quick bit of phone-banking. This is all according to the rules, of course, but these ‘home team’ advantages (and others created by officers’ role in the AGM itself) mean that the likelihood of anyone disrupting the orderly self-perpetuation of the dominant faction is pretty slim. Back in 2017, those Corbynite hotheads might have thought they could change the world by publishing a slate (i.e. printing some names on a piece of paper), but these days everybody knows what’s what and acts accordingly. Groups that are out of power don’t bother putting up candidates for inevitable defeat; the group in power doesn’t bother mobilising its softer supporters; and the wider membership ignores the one email they’ve been sent, and stays away from what sounds like a tedious meeting. The result is a kind of political Sealed Knot, an annual reunion of the office-holders and their factional activists on one side and the diehards of the excluded group(s) on the other. They might as well take allegiances at the door, like ushers at a wedding, and declare the results straight away.

You could argue that all this is beside the point: the party has able and effective officers, many of whom have proved their effectiveness in previous years; we have three Labour councillors; our Labour MP was re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 52%; what’s the problem? True, the dominant political tenor of the branch has been out of tune with the leadership for the last few years, but that’s not a problem – we don’t go around suspending branches just because they disagree with the leader – and besides, it may not be the case for much longer, depending on whether Keir Starmer wins (and which of his supporters he betrays). And, let’s not forget, the local party has nearly 1000 members, and they don’t seem to mind; they certainly didn’t turn up to complain.

But this doesn’t represent a healthy democratic party. A hard-fought meeting at which you pull out all the procedural stops, pour your heart into your statements and end up defeated is depressing enough, God knows, but a meeting where almost nothing gets fought because there’s no point trying is ten times worse. And what kind of message do these conditions send to the membership – what kind of membership are we building, if members keep seeing the same names in the same posts, or else (for a change) the same names in different posts? Come to that, should we be concealing from members the fact that different people in the party – although we all support Labour – think different things about the best way to get a Labour government, or about what a Labour government should do when it is elected? Reading party mailings – and attending party meetings – I often get the impression that we’re concealing that knowledge from ourselves.

I’ve always believed that uncontested elections and musical-chairs rotation of posts were signs of a local party in decline – not of one that’s going from strength to strength, as ours apparently is. Perhaps the problem is precisely the apparent absence of factions – or rather, the impossibility of multiple factions arising when a single faction dominates for long enough. Perhaps what we’re seeing is how unchallenged factional dominance sows the seeds of decline. Depending how you define ‘faction’, of course.

Update The second Labour Party meeting this week saw Withington CLP’s leadership nominations go to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, neither of whom I voted (or will be voting) for. These nomination meetings are something of a formality now – with three of the four leadership and four of the five deputy leadership candidates already on the ballot – and Withington’s nomination doesn’t actually have any effect on the vote, unless there are members out there willing to vote for whoever an email from the local party tells them to, which I would hope isn’t the case. (Then again, some people at the meeting were seriously arguing that we should vote for Starmer on the grounds that our MP supported him, an argument which to my ears sounds not so much unpersuasive as downright weird – we elected him, he didn’t delegate us.)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter greatly in the scheme of things that Keir Starmer won the vote over Rebecca Long-Bailey – although I feel compelled to mention that the win was fairly narrow and depended on transfers from Lisa Nandy’s supporters (so much for “time for a woman leader”) – or that Angela Rayner walked it for deputy (with Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler in distant second and third places).

The candidates’ statements – and the speeches in favour of them from attendees – were interesting, though. I’m not going to say much about the deputy leadership contest, but I do want to say a word for Richard Burgon’s statement; some really interesting proposals, particularly to do with democratising the party, which make me think he’d be a good complement to either of the main leadership candidates. His cause wasn’t helped on the night by his partisans, though – one went big on his (symbolic and easily circumvented) “peace pledge” proposal, while another said that Burgon would help Long-Bailey stay true to the “Corbyn project” (a phrase not guaranteed to win over the doubters).

More generally, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of the three main candidates and those candidates’ statements. I tell a lie, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of Keir Starmer and Starmer’s own statement. Long-Bailey and Nandy’s statements, and the interventions in their favour, both followed quite similar lines, viz:

Long-Bailey: policy 1, policy 2, policy 3, democratise the party, political experience, personal experience, local woman

Nandy: rebuild the party, unite the party, towns and cities, new, different

Starmer, not so much; his statement was quite policy-heavy and included some fairly explicit commitments to maintain the course set by Corbyn (which I found – in fairly rapid succession – surprising, gratifying and suspicious).

But – perhaps needless to say – this was not what made Starmer appeal to the people advocating him; the speeches in his favour (and there were several) could be summed up as three parts “unite the party”, two of “electability” and one “experience in senior roles”. As in Chorlton branch, there seems to be an odd association, for many members, between “not being on the Left” and “(correctly) having no position at all”. Later in the evening, as people ran out of more specific things to say and tempers began to fray, we were treated to several interventions on the theme of “you can either have the perfect ideological position [said with contempt] and be in opposition forever, or you can try and win the next election”. This is objectionable in a number of ways – it rewrites the history of the 2010-17 elections, which you’d think we’d want to learn from, as well as being quite extraordinarily insulting to members who are on the Left and have worked rather hard to try and get Labour MPs elected (thanks all the same). But what really stands out is the blithe assumption that they, the speakers, don’t care about having “the perfect ideological position”; that they’re a non-Left non-ideological non-faction.

(Nobody really spoke for Emily Thornberry, incidentally. It’s genuinely surprised me the way that she’s effectively dropped off the ballot; on paper it’s hard to see what Keir Starmer’s got that she hasn’t (ho ho). At one point somebody had the impertinence to ask whether Starmer’s “electability” had something to do with him being a white man from London who looks good in a suit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual chorus of disapproval before.) 

The other interesting thing is how thinly attended the meeting was. This will sound like crazy talk to anyone who was there – we packed out a sizeable school hall, and the debate between loyalists and the anti-leadership faction was pretty lively. But consider: total attendance was in the region of 320. There are seven wards in the constituency and consequently seven party branches; one of them (as we’ve just seen) has a membership of 970. None of the others is that large or anywhere near, but total membership across the constituency must be around the 3000 mark. So: turnout at a meeting to decide, at least symbolically, who the constituency wants to see as the next leader of the party was approximately 10%. Which is 50% better than the 7% we managed on Monday night in Chorlton – but that’s a low bar.

The Labour Party’s half a million members are, still, a sleeping giant – even now, four years on from 2015. That’s an enormous, untapped asset; viewed less cynically, a membership that size has the potential to change the political culture of this country from the ground up, and at the very least to change the way that we think about political party membership. But if that’s going to happen, they’ll need to be mobilised, and mobilised politically – which means abandoning the pretence that everyone in the Labour Party thinks the same thing, or that all that any of us care about is electing good, hard-working Labour councillors and a good, hard-working Labour MP to represent all the good, hard-working local Labour voters. (Apart from anything else, how is that going to draw anyone in? Let’s face it, a diet of “re-elect Councillor X” and “what shall we ask the council to do about local issue Y?” is pretty thin gruel, even if you supplement it with events to mark key calendar dates.)

The trouble is that the keys to making that kind of mobilisation happen are, very often, in the hands of people who gained their current position in just the conditions of unchallenged factional dominance – with all its depoliticising and demobilising effects – which need to change.

 

What happened?

My MP has just asked me – and a few thousand other members of his CLP – what went wrong in December: what do we blame for Labour’s defeat?

Now, you don’t ask a ‘quantity’ question if you want a ‘quality’ answer; if you wanted to hear a measured argument weighing up multiple factors before coming to a judiciously qualified conclusion, you wouldn’t ask several thousand people at once. Presumably what our man is after is something to replace the row of dots in a statement like “Members have told me over and over again that…” or “What I’m hearing again and again is…”. So I don’t suppose my MP will be reading and considering my arguments very carefully, or (to be brutally honest) at all. But I wanted to get it straight in my head, so I thought it was worth doing for that alone. And hey, free blog post!

What do I blame for Labour’s defeat in 2019?

1. Brexit. Brexit has to be top of the list; it was always going to make winning in 2019 a long shot. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered very much exactly where Labour’s policy ended up – we were always going to lose x% to hard Brexit parties and y% to hard Remain parties, it was just a matter of which was bigger. Perhaps a more Brexit-friendly position would have saved some (net) votes and seats, but we can’t be sure – although I definitely don’t think that going any further towards Remain would have helped. What we do know is that the constant lobbying and nudging to shift Labour’s Brexit policy didn’t help at all – it made us look indecisive, made our policy look incoherent and exacerbated divisions within the leadership. In retrospect we should have set out a line quite early on and stuck to it – even if that line was ‘accept Brexit but blame the Tories’.

2. Populism. Brexit also exemplified a broader problem – the way that politics (“the art of the possible”, objectives and how to achieve them) has increasingly been supplanted by a kind of populist spectator mentality, in which people cheer on their side and don’t care what actually happens as long as the other side loses. Talking policy to an audience primed for slogans is a waste of breath – but how did we end up with an audience that wants slogans, and how do we get them to think about policy again?

3. Margaret Hodge. Or if that’s giving too much prominence to one person, I blame the lack of loyalty and discipline within the PLP more generally. Like him or loathe him, after 2016 there was no possibility of removing Corbyn as leader; anyone who continued to agitate against him, under those conditions, was only working for a Tory victory. But, as disgraceful as many MPs’ conduct was, they don’t bear all of the blame here; Corbyn’s lack of interest in party management came back to bite him, and us. The next leader must do better, which means learning (selectively) from New Labour. (A little Leninism goes a very long way, as Philip Gould once said.)

4. Online. Postal votes are one of the things killed us – I suspect that many of the people I spoke to on the doorstep, and thought I’d persuaded to consider voting Labour, had already voted Tory. I think the underlying lesson is that the Tories’ online operation – particularly targeting Facebook – is scarily good; we need to work on ours. (We also need to rethink what we think we’re doing – and in particular who we think we’re talking to – when we do online campaigning.)

5. The manifesto. The manifesto was a programme for a sweeping social-democratic transformation of the economy; we could never have done it all in one term. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the proposals themselves, but we should have been clearer about what we were proposing for the first term and what was more of an aspiration. Also – most importantly – we should have been working towards those policy announcements from 2017 onwards, not springing them on an unsuspecting electorate with a few weeks to go till the election.

6. There is no point 6. I’m not saying a word against Jeremy Corbyn – plenty of people will do that for me – but even if I did I wouldn’t put the leadership’s contribution to our defeat any higher than sixth in a field of six. Scapegoating Corbyn might be satisfying, but it’s a distraction – and won’t help us win next time.

Rethinking radicalisation – new paper

I’ve got a paper in the current (Winter 2019/20) issue of the (OA) Journal for Deradicalisation.

Here’s the abstract and (some) references:

Antagonism, Conflictuality and Resilience: A New Model of Societal Radicalisation

This paper proposes that, instead of framing radicalisation as a process undergone by individuals, society’s political sphere as a whole should be considered as a site of radicalisation: a social setting built on discourses which can themselves be characterised by their level(s) of ‘radicalism’. The radicalisation of individuals’ patterns of discursive action needs to be understood in the context of (changing) levels of societal radicalisation. Unless they also address this societal context, efforts to counter or forestall the radicalisation of individuals and groups can have only local and temporary success. Any counter-radicalisation intervention conducted purely on the basis of an individualised ‘contagion’ or ‘strain’ model will be unable to envision – let alone address – phenomena of societal radicalisation. Building on the literature on securitization, resilience and agonistic conflict, this paper offers a model of societal radicalisation and of the social and political conditions likely to foster this process. Societal radicalisation is seen in terms of the corrosion of agonistic politics and its replacement by antagonism; this is related to deficits in societal qualities of conflictuality and resilience, which are discussed. The radicalising drift from agonism to antagonism, when promoted at government level, is further related to the literature on securitisation. Lastly, one possible mechanism for societal radicalisation – ‘antagonistic amplification’ – is identified and directions for further work are suggested.

Key references

Bailey, G. and Edwards, P. (2017), “Rethinking ‘radicalisation’: Microradicalisations and reciprocal radicalisation as an intertwined process”. Journal for Deradicalisation 10.
della Porta, D. (2018), “Radicalisation: A Relational Perspective”. Annual Review of Political Science 21.
Demetriou, C. and Alimi, E. (2018), “Relational radicalization”. In: Dépelteau, F. (ed.) (2018), The Palgrave Handbook of Relational Sociology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Edwards, P. (2016), “Closure through resilience: the case of PREVENT”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 39(4).
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’: Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Malthaner, S. (2017), “Radicalization: The Evolution of an Analytical Paradigm”. European Journal of Sociology 58(3).
Mouffe, C. (2013), Agonistics. London: Verso.
Ruggiero, V. (2017), “The Radicalisation of Democracy: Conflict, Social Movements and Terrorism”. Critical Criminology 25(4).
Stephens, W. & Sieckelinck, S. (2019), “Being resilient to radicalisation in PVE policy: a critical examination”. Critical Studies on Terrorism.
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power In Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, C. (2005), “Terror as Strategy and Relational Process”. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46 (1–2).

The paper grew out of a suggestion by my colleague Gavin Bailey. “Radicalisation” in its conventional usage is a “black box” concept – an unknown process that must have happened before a violent attack takes place. As such it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify a process of radicalisation while it’s happening, which is obviously when it would be useful to identify it. In practice a precautionary logic tends to prevail, with the term being applied to behaviours which people think may be associated with political violence. This carries an obvious danger of excessive and discriminatory labelling; it’s tempting just to discard the concept altogether. But, even if we can’t reliably identify a specific series of changes and transitions which add up to Radicalisation with a capital R, might it not still be possible to say that something identifiable as “radicalisation” can be seen happening in people’s lives – taking place, in particular, every time somebody adopts a more intransigent, more antagonistic political framing? Gavin’s concept of “micro-radicalisations” got me thinking about what it was that was being radicalised – the person or the conflict? This in turn led me to the idea that a society’s political sphere can itself be radicalised, in the sense of losing conflictuality – the capacity to articulate and contain polarised social conflicts – and/or losing the resilience to deal with disruption. The more conflicts are excluded from the political sphere, the more disruptive the return of a repressed conflict will be; the lower a political sphere’s resilience, the more it will be weakened further by any disruption. As for what constitute conflictuality and resilience on the scale of a society’s political sphere – and what this ‘sphere’ thing is anyway – I’m afraid you’ll have to read the paper.

I’m quite pleased with the end result (particularly after the rewrites suggested by Reviewer 2; thanks also go to Phil), not least because it represents a return to the social movements literature where my academic career began; it’s nice to be citing Charles Tilly and writers influenced by him again (myself included!). The model I’ve ended up with is rather more austere than is the norm in that school – the people in it are considerably less important than the patterns of discursive action they reproduce – but I believe it’s valid; at least, I believe it’ll make an interesting bit of kit to think with.

As for operationalizing the key variables and testing the assumptions… that’s a whole other project, or two.

You can read the Journal for Deradicalisation here; my paper is here. Share and enjoy!

A house divided

1. Trailsign

You see it everywhere, out there in the middle of nowhere:
abandoned gas stations, forlorn handcrafted theme parks –
Rattlesnake World, Motel Dust, Cafe Despair…
And you ask yourself,
Why did anyone ever think to build that thing out here?
You look around and you don’t see anyone.
It’s trailsign, you say to yourself,
There’s been something broken pass through here.
– David Thomas, Jack and the General (Mirror Man Act One)

2. Afterwards

Will Hutton on Twitter, twenty minutes after the exit poll:

This needs to be said over, over and over. Corbyn and his coterie, aided and abetted by Momentum, have betrayed class, party, country and Europe. Political ineptitude on a grand scale, Yes, the heavens wept today. One day it can and must be different. But without them.

Dan Davies, an hour after the exit poll:

This also needs to be said: Corbyn’s unpopularity is very much caused by the constant red-on-red attacks on him, from people who (often in so many words) regard this election loss as acceptable collateral damage.

Dan’s TL from the 13th is also worth a look. (I can say that now – on the day I couldn’t bear to look at Twitter for more than five minutes at a time. At one point I started composing a Tweet and had to stop because I was trembling.)

(It’s been tough. I think I literally, physically wore myself out, canvassing in the run-up to the election – OK, it’s just walking up and down streets, but (a) you don’t usually do that for 2-3 hours at a time (b) it was bloody cold out there and (c) I was neither young nor fit to begin with. Then, of course, the result was a gut-punch like very few I’ve known; if I try to find a parallel I can only come up with deaths. A week on, I’m still coming to terms with it – also, still short of sleep and chronically anxious with occasional panic attacks, experiences which are also familiar from earlier encounters with grief. And I’ve got a cold, although that’s probably just a knock-on effect of the lost sleep. Hey ho. It’ll take time.)

3. Our friends in the North

Anyway, I think Dan made a very important point, and all credit to him for making it so early. It hasn’t got any less true – and the issue it identifies isn’t likely to go away, even when Corbyn does. The fact is, Labour have got a big, big problem. Here’s Polly Toynbee from earlier this year:

Labour. Needn’t. Worry. In its Northern heartlands, specifically, and about Brexit, specifically: Labour needn’t worry. Gee, thanks.

But don’t trust the headline, listen to the people!

“I voted on immigration, but they never said it would harm business. I see its effect already round here and I’d vote against Brexit now.”

“My mum’s really worried, working in an import-export business. [There are] loads of reasons I voted leave, but I wouldn’t now.”

And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers.

Mary Creagh, the local Labour MP, and the local People’s Vote campaigners, say they’ve found a marked change in the past two months. And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers. YouGov this month polled 5,000 Labour heartland voters in the north-east, north-west, Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside. Did these Labour voters back “a new public vote on whether Britain should leave on the deal negotiated or stay in the EU”? Three-quarters supported the idea, and 43% said that if Labour backed a vote they would feel greater affinity for the party. … Together with three other MPs, Creagh has written a thundering article in the Northern Echo and the Yorkshire Post … denying the southern caricature that “we northern Labour MPs live in constant fear of losing our seats” and “unless we repeat that mantra that leave means leave … we are all heading for the political scrapyard”.

That article claimed that opinion had shifted since 2016:

Yes, we all know Leavers who still want Brexit. But we also know Leavers who, now they know what Brexit will mean for their families, jobs and incomes, have changed their mind. We know people who are adamantly opposed to a People’s Vote. We know others who were opposed but who now see it as the only democratic way out of the mess we are in.

It was co-signed by Creagh, Anna Turley, Phil Wilson and Catherine McKinnell.

Now, in April nobody had any idea that… well, no. In April I, and many others, had been expecting an election imminently for several months already. But nobody knew for certain that there would be a General Election before the end of the year: the only election that was actually in the diary was the European election, and Labour went into that one promising a second referendum only if they couldn’t get their own Brexit deal. Toynbee writes scornfully of “Rebecca Long-Bailey’s dismally robotic repetition that Labour will only back a vote on ‘any bad Tory Brexit'”. (You remember how policy shifted over the year: from “get our deal or else keep all options open”, through “our deal or all options are open, including a second referendum”, to “our deal or a second referendum” and finally “our deal and a second referendum”. In April we were up to stage 3.) So it’s possible that, in April, Creagh and friends – and Toynbee – were right: it’s possible that Labour’s dreadful vote share in the Euros (14%) would have improved if the party had moved to an unambiguous commitment to a second referendum. We’ll never know. It’s also possible – although Toynbee doesn’t give this thought the time of day – that the party would have done better if more of its MPs had followed Rebecca Long-Bailey’s example, sticking to party policy rather than running their own freelance versions; but, again, we’ll never know.

In December, though – when Labour was unambiguously committed to a second referendum, and united around that policy – there can’t be much doubt that our Brexit position cost us dear. Ask anyone. Tell you what, ask Mary Creagh, Anna Turley, Phil Wilson and Catherine McKinnell, those four MPs from Labour’s “Northern heartlands” who weren’t heading for the political scrapyard and definitely weren’t living in constant fear of losing their seats. Here’s what happened when they defended the seats they’d held in 2017. The “Remain” and “Leave” columns total the vote shares for all parties and candidates with an unambiguous commitment either way.

Constituency Labour Remain Leave Result
Mary Creagh Wakefield -9.9% +1.9% +8.6% Lab LOSS
Catherine McKinnell Newcastle-upon-Tyne North -10% +6% +4.9% Lab HOLD
Phil Wilson Sedgefield -17.1% +3.6% +13.6% Lab LOSS
Anna Turley Redcar -18.1% -0.6% +18.6% Lab LOSS

4. Institutional learning

The results make grim reading – and particularly grim reading, you’d have thought, for anyone who had pushed for Labour to move closer to a Remain position. You’d have thought this would be the moment for a bit of quiet reflection, and – if not an outright mea culpa – for a rueful acknowledgment that the PV campaign and its supporters might actually have messed up a bit back there. You’d have thought.

Here’s Polly Toynbee:

Here’s Anna Turley:

And, what do you know, here’s Phil Wilson (in the Express, so no link).

“I know we talk about policies and empathy with the electorate – none of that’s important. The one thing, the one aspect of the Labour Party, in fact of any political party that wants to be in government, people take the most notice of is the leader. It does come back down to the leader.”

(Wilson also believes that Corbyn should have stepped down immediately in favour of an interim leader – “the likes of Margaret Hodge”. Well, it’s good to keep a sense of humour.)

Creagh for her part apparently lectured Jeremy Corbyn, to his face, for twenty minutes without stopping; this suggests that she’s got a bright future in Radio 4 panel games, if nothing else.

Essentially, it’s all about Corbyn with these people. Toynbee spreads her criticisms around, but on closer reading the main thing the rest of the party did wrong was failing to give Corbyn the boot. This is not so much for political reasons, you understand – although “Corbynism was electoral arsenic”, this goes along with the judgment that the manifesto was “essentially magnificent”, so I’m not sure where the -ism comes in. It’s just… Corbyn. At the end of the day it really does seem to be all about the man.

Credibility is everything and Corbyn lacked it like no other. Without credibility all was lost.

Turley for her part blames her defeat on just about everything apart from herself, but on Corbyn in particular:

The message on the doorstep in this election was clear: the party was out of touch, the leader was weak, and we weren’t a credible party of government. Our manifesto was not affordable, our party had become nasty. … There was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of “that man at the top”. They had sent us this message loud and clear in 2017; I was told frequently by my constituents to “go back down to London and get rid of him”.

(The reference to 2017 is odd, given that Labour’s vote share in Redcar went up in that election from 44% to 55%. But maybe that was all down to Anna Turley’s personal support, and maybe that had risen by a quarter since 2015 because of her secret personal mandate of going back down to London and getting rid of her party leader. There’s always a simple explanation.)

What about Brexit? Turley notes in passing that the election was called “just after the October Brexit deadline had been missed, when public frustration and confusion was at its peak” but doesn’t draw any conclusions from this about the wisdom of Labour going to the voters promising a second referendum. Indeed, it seems that she would have been advocating one even if it hadn’t been party policy:

since [the referendum], instead of strong leadership and a clear position, … we have had three years of U-turns, triangulation and dancing on pinheads. I have never been able to tell my constituents what Labour’s Brexit position truly was – only my own.

She also argues, at some length, that if Corbyn had done his job in the referendum campaign there wouldn’t have been any need for positioning on Brexit, as Leave wouldn’t have won in the first place – a singularly pointless three-year-old counterfactual, which Toynbee also takes out for a spin. Both columns are notable for saying nothing at all about Labour’s Brexit positioning in 2019; the word ‘referendum’ appears once in each of them, in both cases referring to 2016.

5. What’s Bin Did…

I’m not going to linger over the argument that Corbyn lost the EU referendum, except to say that anyone arguing in 2016 that the best way for Labour to rally its voters to one side in a referendum is to commit to that side wholeheartedly – to the point of making common cause with Liberal Democrats and Tories – ought to have remembered that this approach had been tried quite recently, with mixed results. (You could even argue that Labour was suckered by the Tories into supporting Remain in just the same way that we were suckered by the SNP into supporting No; certainly there were similar results in some erstwhile ‘heartland’ constituencies.) Equally, the argument that it was Corbyn and not Brexit who lost the 2019 election for Labour has an evidential mountain to climb. A YouGov poll asked people who’d stopped voting Labour over Corbyn what they particularly disliked about the man; about half of them cited his position on Brexit. There’s also the awkward fact that the Corbyn-haters who cost Turley, Creagh and Wilson their seats voted for a party whose only salient policy was “get Brexit done”, or else for one that was actually named after Brexit.

But these are side issues. What I want to draw attention to is the two distinct positions adopted by both Toynbee and Turley, and what changed between the two – and what didn’t. In April, when the leadership had not committed to a second referendum, the leadership was wrong and risked alienating natural Labour supporters and throwing away winnable votes. In December, after the leadership had committed to a second referendum, the leadership was wrong and had alienated natural Labour supporters and thrown away winnable votes – only not by committing to a second referendum, just by being awful in a variety of other ways. Attack the leader and demand policy change; when the leader changes policy, forget about that and attack the leader over something else.

I’m not (just) concerned about inconsistency or hypocrisy. What’s really interesting is that there’s a contradiction here; contradictions are always worth exploring. Put bluntly, Turley and Toynbee thought they were right and (presumably) still do – but they were wrong. There are two possibilities: either they were right about the vote-winning potential of a move towards Remain in April, but wrong in December; or they were wrong both times, in which case all that polling and vox pop evidence was wrong. Say something changed between April and December: well, what was it and how did it change – and why did it make such a big difference? Alternatively, if the surveys and vox pops weren’t telling us how people would actually vote, why not? What other factors were involved in people’s voting choices – and what lessons can we learn from the surveys being wrong? These are big questions – and the answers would be both interesting and useful. Neither Turley nor Toynbee even acknowledges that the questions exist, or that they’re caught in a contradiction – or that they’ve got anything wrong at any point. They don’t need to: they’ve got Corbyn to blame.

I could call this attitude factional or sectarian, but really it’s worse than that; there’s something deeply dysfunctional about it, almost broken. If we’re in a party which has policies, we want our party to learn when its policies fail; I can’t think of a worse approach to this kind of institutional learning than ignoring the failure completely in favour of attacking the leadership. Come to that, it’s hard to think of a worse way to try to improve your party’s policy in the first place than to couple your demands with an attack on the leadership – or a worse way to campaign for your party than to run as a one-person show, attacking your party’s leadership and endorsing your voters when they do likewise. The outlook which our Right Opposition’s actions evince is one that’s firmly wedded to – well, to attacking Jeremy Corbyn; more broadly, to wrecking, obstruction and righteous failure. They claim to want a reformed party and better policies – and I’m sure Turley at least claimed to want a Labour victory – but their actions can’t possibly have those results. POSIWID, and this applies even at the scale of those systems known as people: what you want is best assessed by what you actually try to achieve, not by what you claim to want. I’m happy to work with anyone else who’s committed, like me, to a Labour victory; during the election campaign I worked with, and on behalf of, a number of people whose political position was very different from mine. But anyone who believes themself to be committed to a Labour victory, and who devotes their efforts to attacking Labour’s leadership, disrupting the Labour party and driving down the Labour vote, is no ally of mine; in fact they’re a menace.

6. Which Was It?

Before we get on to apportioning blame, we need to at least look at the bigger question – did people turn away from Labour because they didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn or because they did want Brexit? Or both, or (conceivably) neither?

On Brexit, Labour had two major problems. The first was the complexity of party policy. I forget where I read this, but it’s been argued that the 2019 manifesto in general picked up from the 2017 manifesto as if those arguments had been securely won and could be built on – a bad mistake after two years of hostility from the media (and the Labour Right). Something similar’s true of our Brexit policy. The debates about the second referendum were endless and closely-argued – should the choices be a Tory deal and Remain, or a Labour deal and Remain, or a choice of two deals and Remain, or just the choice of two deals? But then, how could a Labour government commit itself to implementing a Tory deal? How about offering a No Deal option? If we did offer three (or more!) options, how would that affect the vote split? Should we use AV and count second preferences? (But how would that affect the vote split? Would it reduce the legitimacy of the result if it was decided on second or third choices?) In any case, how could we justify giving people the option of No Deal, given the damage it would do the country? And yet, how could we justify not including it, given that it seemed to be what a lot of people – misguidedly – wanted?

These arguments raged for a full three years, and the eventual conclusion – Labour deal or Remain – was, in all probability, the best possible compromise between the imperatives of avoiding unnecessary disasters, letting the incoming Labour government put its stamp on Brexit and giving people options of both Leave and Remain. The trouble was, the arguments had been taking place in a fairly small and self-enclosed milieu; hardly a word of them reached the public, least of all via the tabloid press. As far as the tabloids were concerned, the only questions about Brexit were how soon it could be Got Done, and who was to blame if it wasn’t. Labour’s policy was good, but it was out of tune with the simplified and decisionistic way that Brexit was being discussed. Perhaps it could have attracted voters, as those vox pops suggest, but it would have needed to be sold loud and clear, by a united party whose leadership wasn’t constantly looking over its shoulder – and even then it would have been tough for it to cut through. I wonder if we might have been better off, at least in electoral terms, just committing to leaving the EU and leaving it at that, justifying it (repeatedly and publicly) on the grounds that we believed in democracy and the referendum result had to be honoured.

All this wouldn’t have been so bad but for Labour’s second problem with Brexit. In terms of political positioning, what’s far more decisive than the detail of a party’s policies on X or Y is the choice of Xs and Ys that it sees as important enough to talk about. Labour in effect had two positions on Brexit: one was that Brexit was important and that we could sort it out within six months; the other was that Brexit wasn’t important, not when you could be talking about the NHS and nationalising the railways and free broadband and… I understand the desire to, in effect, change the subject and move the debate off the terrain of Brexit, but sadly the election was being fought on that terrain; downgrading Brexit – some of the time – simply made us look uncertain and inconsistent.

As for Corbyn, it won’t do to say that he was seen as an ‘extremist’, a scruffy radical with dodgy friends and a problem with the National Anthem; he was, of course, but all of that was in play in 2017, when it didn’t seem to do us any harm at all. Two elements were new, I think. Firstly, he was seen as an extremist in a new and more toxic way: he was viewed quite widely (and without any conceivable justification) as a fanatical bigot, a genuinely unpleasant and dangerous person on an individual level. Secondly, and just as importantly, he was seen as ineffectual: too indecisive to stick to one policy, too weak to put his stamp on the party. An echo of these framings stuck to the party: we were seen both as promising the wrong things and as unable to deliver.

This is how the monstering of Corbyn connects up with the wider atmosphere of cynicism about politics, and both connect up with Brexit: people didn’t warm to Labour or trust us to deliver on our promises; they suspected we would deliver nothing at all; and they specifically thought we wouldn’t deliver Brexit. (If Simon‘s right, a Labour government actually wouldn’t have delivered Brexit – Remain defectors, together with Remain and Leave opposition parties, would have ensured that Labour’s deal never got a majority. But, once again, we’ll never know.)

In short, Labour’s defeat can be ascribed – perhaps – to the following factors:

  1. The ‘second referendum’ policy was out of touch with how most people (and the tabloids) were talking about Brexit.
  2. Divisions in the Labour Party made it hard for the leadership to advocate the ‘second referendum’ policy straightforwardly and with commitment.
  3. Labour’s attempts to “change the subject” away from Brexit were ill-judged and unsuccessful.
  4. Corbyn was seen as an extremist in new and more toxic terms.
  5. Corbyn was seen as weak and indecisive.
  6. The Labour Party as a whole was seen as untrustworthy.

As you can see, “Brexit and Corbyn” doesn’t necessarily translate as “the leadership’s policy on Brexit and the fact that Corbyn was party leader”. In fact, I score that as one and a half out of six to the leadership (3 and half of 5). One and a half are down to the PV campaign specifically (1 and half of 2); the other three (4, 6 and half of 2 and 5) are down to the wrecking, blocking and slanders of the Right Opposition.

7. Something broken

A long time ago, riffing on an outburst by Europe’s only major populist leader (as he then was), I ranked common English obscenities on a scale of severity, according to the kind of situation that might prompt their use.

You’re in another town on business. On your way back to the station you pass a comic shop … your attention is drawn to something rare and valuable – an Amazing Fantasy 15, a set of all ten Luther Arkwrights … [Back at home] you think, never mind the expense, I’m buying it, and begin to make plans for a return trip to the town. At this point [a friend] mentions that he’s going to the town the following weekend. If you give him the money, will he make the purchase and bring it back to you? Of course he will! Nothing would be easier!

Now it’s a week later. Your friend’s let you down. You’re not very pleased with him.

If he got drunk the night before, overslept and never made the trip at all, he’s an arsehole.
If he went but completely forgot what he’d agreed to do and didn’t remember until you reminded him, he’s a prat.

And so on, all the way up to the (erstwhile) friend who deliberately spends the money on himself, then “openly admits it, refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong and tells you you shouldn’t be so uptight about it”. He merits a very bad word indeed.

Back (reluctantly) to our Right Opposition, whose actions and self-presentation – I’ve been arguing – go beyond political differences and into… something else. Put it this way: what would you call a friend who takes your money while complaining to you about his brother, insists on going to a different shop altogether so as to spite his brother in some complicated way, spends your money on completely the wrong thing and denies that he’s got anything to apologise for, because the whole thing was his brother’s fault? Looking down the list I made, there’s no imprecation that really quite fits – this guy is bent too far out of shape to qualify as a bastard or even a twat. All you can say is that he’s a danger to himself and others, and could probably use some time in therapy – and that you’d be better off having as little to do with him as possible.

But that’s what Labour is stuck with – on the Right of the parliamentary party and, especially, among the Left’s great and good and the liberal commentariat, the sphere permanently and unaccountably inhabited by Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen and Andrew Adonis and Peter Mandelson. The problem we have – speaking as a member of the Labour Party who supports its current leadership and policy directions – is that the party has a large, self-insulated and self-sustaining fringe, which is

  • not to be relied on for any kind of support or assistance
  • more strongly committed to the defeat of the Left than to the success of the party
  • (simultaneously) convinced that its own actions are consistently friendly, constructive and in the best interests of the party, and that the Left’s are the reverse
  • (and consequently) unresponsive to instruction, persuasion or reasoned argument from the party leadership, or from any other source outside itself

(The second of these in particular sounds fairly extreme, but really, Tony Blair spelled it out years ago – “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform – even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”)

This seems like a bit of a problem; in fact, it seems like a problem that will doom us to failure, and ensure permanent Tory dominance, for as long as we on the Left remain a significant presence in the party. (This, perhaps, is the real reason for Andrew Adonis’s call for Corbynism to be ‘eradicated’ from the party: the Right is just not going to be able to think straight until their obsession with defeating us has lifted, and – while they’re in the grip of that obsession – the only way they can imagine that happening is by carrying it out.) This wouldn’t say much for the party’s democratic structures.

But perhaps those structures are the answer – and perhaps my earlier formulation was the wrong way round: perhaps the Right Opposition is especially a problem in the parliamentary party. Imagine it wasn’t there – or rather, imagine it was there but kept its head down. Picture to yourself a Parliamentary Labour Party made up of 30% leftists, 40% vague pragmatists, 10% right-wing opportunists who think they’ve got a chance of promotion if they go with the flow and 20% principled right-wingers who are willing to keep shtum if they’re told firmly enough. (How unlike the home life of our own dear PLP!) Then suppose that the message gets out – by which I mean, not the message that a left-wing leadership and policy platform is what both the party and the country need (we’ve tried that one), but the message that it’s a good idea for one’s own career not to stir up trouble. Then suppose, finally, that Nick Cohen and Polly Toynbee have got hold of an absolutely brilliant story about the leadership – I do beg your pardon, I mean a deeply troubling story about the leadership which the public has a right to know. Mandelson’s on it, Ian Austin’s on it, John McTernan’s raring to go. There’s just one problem: no Labour MP is willing to go on the record, except to echo the leadership’s straight-bat rebuttal or else to politely disclaim all knowledge; not one of them. Would this story have legs, do you think? Would it run and run? Would the leader be repeatedly confronted in the news studios and called upon to clarify this story – a story with no better names attached to it than Peter Mandelson? I can’t see it.

There is something broken in the Labour Party; there are far too many courtiers without a court, people whose old routines don’t work and haven’t worked for years. Their default setting in the new period is to pretend that it isn’t happening, and to block and discredit the people who are trying to make it work – which is to say, the leadership of the party – while remaining convinced that they themselves are the constructive ones. So we end up in the absurd situation where the party’s name is dragged through the mud, helping turn a minority government into a solid Tory majority, by people who claim to be party loyalists and committed to a Labour victory – just not this Labour and not victory right now… It makes Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes look like pillars of political rectitude.

The left-wing transformation of the party led by Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t failed, but a Corbyn-led Labour Party has been defeated – partly because of tactical misjudgments, partly because of internal weaknesses, but very largely because people who spoke on behalf of the Labour Party were allowed to undermine the party in pursuit of their own self-serving obsessions, and faced no consequences for doing so.

This in turn reflects on one of Corbynism’s key internal weaknesses: a lack of interest in party discipline. It’s vital that the transformative project continues under the new leader – apart from anything else, where else are new ideas going to come from? – but not taking discipline seriously has already been a mistake we couldn’t afford. We mustn’t make it again.

Postscript

I’ve been arguing that, for a swathe of people – ranging from Polly Toynbee through Peter Mandelson to a number of MPs on the right of the party – a left-wing Labour Party leadership is simply wrong, unacceptable, impossible to compute; that their response to this is to prioritise attacking the Left over everything else; and that this is a deeply unhealthy and unhelpful attitude, not only because it relieves the Right of any responsibility for working for a Labour victory but – more importantly – because it gives them clean hands forever, free from any need to learn from experience.

For a remarkable example of this mentality, see the interview with the outgoing deputy leader of the Labour Party conducted recently for the Graun by Simon Hattenstone. It’s a master-class in evasion; his responses have an odd double-vision effect, seeming at once carefully worded and completely disconnected from anything else he says in the same interview.

  • Was he a successful deputy leader?
    • Well, he did what he could (Argument from High Standards).
  • But was he even trying to do the right thing?
    • He hopes so, he really does (Argument from Unknowable Inner Motivation).
  • But did he do what the leader wanted him to?
    • He doesn’t like being told what to do (Argument from Sturdy Independence).
  • How about when he openly disagreed with the leader?
    • He was entitled to do so at that time (Argument from Procedural Legality)
  • And when he criticised a policy the leader had adopted?
    • He’s a man with strong beliefs, not a yes-man (Argument from Freedom of Conscience)
  • And when he endorsed the MP challenging the leader for the leadership?
    • He could have gone much further than he did. (Argument from Blackmail)

At no point does Tom Watson (for it is he) take ownership of what he actually did with his tenure as Deputy Leader – undermine Jeremy Corbyn and lead an internal opposition to him, with results that were (eventually) entirely predictable. Actually, that’s not quite true: there is one point where Watson does, quite casually, take ownership of what he did (although the moment of clarity doesn’t last very long).

“We had just won the leader and deputy leader ballots, and we were in this room on our own, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘We’ve got our party back.’ … I remember thinking to myself, I’ve never really lost this party. We’re going to have a bit of fun here, Jeremy.”

Unfortunately, Hattenstone didn’t seize this opportunity and say something along the lines of

“And while you were having your bit of fun, over the next two years and in particular the two years after that, did you at any point think you might be making it more difficult for quite a few people out there to vote for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn? If that thought did cross your mind, why didn’t you act on it? If it didn’t cross your mind, how do you feel about that now?”

I wish he had done – but I doubt that the answer would have been very informative. Two axioms of the Right Opposition, after all, are “defeating the Left comes first” and “we’re acting in the best interests of the party”. From within that mindset, there’s nothing to apologise for (even now); nothing to explain; nothing to learn.

Reasons to be cheerful? Part 2

The polls seem to be settling down at around the 43% Conservative, 34% Labour mark – which are also the figures YouGov’s second MRP model came up with. On paper – or on Election Polling‘s swingometer – this means a Tory majority of 40.

Is there any reason to hope that the result won’t be that bad? Yes – as I said in the previous post, there are several. There’s the fact that four of the seven polls which completed fieldwork on the 11th showed a rise in the Labour vote share, while the other three had it static; opinion may still be moving Labour’s way. There’s also the fact that YouGov’s MRP model doesn’t give the Tories a majority of 40, but only of 26 – I’ll come back to this.

But let’s assume that the 43%/34% figures are the last word, and that they’re an accurate reading of what the pollsters set out to read. What then? Is there any reason to suppose that the actual percentages will be different? If so, how different?

First, remember that rush to register – 2.8 million new registrations, 1.8 million of them under 40. If this included a substantial element of new business, it may have put the demographics of the electorate out of whack with the age group split assumed by pollsters; add a million new punters to the lowest age group and half a million to the next one up, and a 35:40:25 split becomes 38:40:22. This alone, given the steep age gradient among Labour and Tory voters, would turn 43%/34% into 42%/35%.

Then there are turnout assumptions. YouGov revealed recently that they model turnout on the assumption that it will be much the same as it was in 2015; this assumption seems foolhardy. Assume that, instead of under-40s’ turnout rate being down at 60%, it’s 70% – which is still below the 80% characteristic of the middle age group, let alone the 90% of over-65s – and our 42%/35% becomes 41%/36%. (Crank it up all the way to 80% and we’d be looking at 40%/37%, but I won’t go there.)

Lastly, assume that Labour is going to work harder than the other parties at getting out its vote. Pollsters assume that the only people who are going to vote are those who express a certain likelihood or above – but what if one lot of voters has friendly people knocking on their doors on polling day, and another doesn’t? Add another 5% to Labour turnout (only) and our 41%/36% turns into 40%/36%.

40%/36% is still a Conservative victory in all but name – it’s a hung parliament with the Tories on 324 seats, needing only to come to a deal with the Lib Dems (or possibly even the DUP). At least, that’s how it looks on the Election Polling swingometer. But remember where we started: the YouGov MRP model gave the Tories substantially fewer seats than the headline vote share suggested. Presumably this is based on local factors: tactical voting (although I suspect this will be a wash, for reasons touched on by Dan) and – what’s likely to be more important – targeted campaigning in marginals, particularly by Labour. The difference that these factors appear to make, in YouGov’s eyes, is the rough equivalent of a 1% swing from the Tories to Labour, making 43%/34% look more like 42%/35%. And 40%/36%, presumably, would look more like 39%/37%.

Now, 39%/37% – or a 40%/36% in actual votes which looked like 39%/37% – would still make the Tories the largest single party, and still enable them to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. But it would enable all the other British parties combined to outvote the Tories, and that’s a start. Also, bear in mind that all this started from a 43%/34% vote split; if we started from ComRes’s 41%/36% split and applied the same factors, we’d end up with a 38%/38% tie, and one which looked more like 37%/39% in Labour’s favour in terms of seats. And that would give us a House of Commons in which Labour and the SNP could outvote all the other parties (the Lib Dems included).

In short, a Labour landslide isn’t on the cards, but things do look a bit more hopeful than they might seem.

We’ll know whether hope was in order before too long. Roll on 10 p.m. – but in the mean time let’s keep up the pressure.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Sunday 24th November
I confess, I was expecting the polls to have picked up by now. Labour’s share of voting intentions has been stuck in the 29%-30% zone for a week or more. It’s a lot better than where they started – and the weighted average is 30 rather than 29 – but it’s not election-winning territory, not by a long way.

Will the polls be wrong? Almost certainly. Wrong enough for the party on 30% of the polls to form the next government? Almost certainly not – if things don’t move quite a bit in the next seventeen days, it’ll be goodnight Vienna.

But do Labour need to be polling in the 40s to form the next government? Definitely not. On a uniform national swing, with adjustments made for Scotland and Wales, the Tories will not have a majority if they finish less than 4% ahead of Labour, as indeed they didn’t in 2017; it will also be difficult for the Tories to get a majority if their vote share falls below 37% (or below 39% if the Lib Dems do well). Labour could end up as the largest single party on as little as 36% of the vote, as long as the Tories’ vote was even lower. All of these scenarios seem a fair way off at the moment, but they’re considerably more achievable than putting Labour on 42% and the Tories on 30%.

Moreover, I think there are a number of factors at work in this election which will work to Labour’s advantage, and may well see a party polling in the mid-30s punching well above its weight. In no particular order:

The Brexit Party
Farage’s party has done the main thing it set out to do, which was to pump up the Kipper vote and then give the Tories a boost by handing it back to them. But that still leaves the small matter of candidates standing in nearly 300 seats, most (but not all) of which are held by Labour or the Lib Dems. What, we have to wonder, are they playing at? What can they realistically achieve? There must be some thought of harking back to the glory days of the 2015 election, when UKIP candidates took 10% or more of the vote in 400+ seats – but two-thirds of those seats were and are held by Conservatives, which by sheer arithmetic means that a good half of the seats where they’re standing in 2019 are very long shots indeed. (Interestingly, the Tory/Labour ratio is different with respect to the much smaller number of seats where UKIP got over 20% of the vote in 2015 – 39 Labour out of 69. It’s not entirely a myth, there are Labour seats out there with a good, solid chunk of far-Right voters (several of those seats had had substantial BNP votes in 2010); there just aren’t very many of them.)

Evidence of UKIP’s spoiler capacity in 2015 – and hence BXP’s spoiler potential in 2019 – is very limited. While there were 78 Conservative-won seats in 2015 where the majority was smaller than the UKIP vote, suggesting that UKIP may have stolen votes – and seats – from Labour, there were also 63 Labour seats where the same was true. If, rather than assume that the entire UKIP vote would otherwise have gone to the Tories – or, even less believably, to Labour – we assume that only 2/3 of UKIP voters would have been available, the numbers are even more evenly balanced. In 2015 there were 46 Conservative seats where the UKIP vote was 150% of the Conservative majority or more – and 45 Labour seats. If UKIP were equal-opportunity spoilers in 2015, all they did was hand one group of (what would otherwise have been) Tory seats to Labour and another, similarly-sized group of Labour seats to the Tories – and if they weren’t equal-opportunity spoilers, they hurt the Tories more than they did us. All of this, moreover, was on the basis of a rising tide of UKIP support, not a dying fall of BXP concessions and withdrawals, with polling numbers in the low single figures.

Of course, even if BXP are polling 3-5%, that effectively means they’re polling 6-10% in the seats where they’re standing. This time they won’t be an equal-opportunity spoiler; they will effectively lend votes to the Tories in Conservative seats, while still stealing votes from Labour in Labour seats. At least, that’s the theory. I wonder how effective this will be; I wonder what proportion of the voters attracted by slogans about Getting Brexit Done will have been drawn away from the Conservatives rather than from Labour, even in Labour seats. (Ware the ecological fallacy! Not every working-class voter in a Labour seat is a working-class Labour voter.) As for the Conservative no-show seats, I wonder how many natural Brexit Party voters will, in the absence of a Faragist candidate, go back to voting Conservative on the day – and how many will stay at home, meaning that the advantage BXP votes have given the Tories in the polls will melt away in the poll that matters.

At the end of the day, the Brexit Party benefits the Conservative Party most when it doesn’t stand, or campaign, at all. With the Tories on 42% and BXP on 5%, that effect is in the bag; now we move on to campaigning. BXP/UKIP in campaign mode don’t win anything and never have done; they’re wrecking parties, and naturally tend to do most damage to the Conservative Party (even stealing a couple of its MPs for a while). At worst, I think the effect of the Brexit Party on the actual result will be small; at best, it may actually be to Labour’s benefit.

The Liberal Democrats
A lot of people seem to have left Labour for the Liberal Democrats recently, for two main reasons as far as we can tell: clarity over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Now, there are two ways of quarrelling with that statement, only one of which I’m going to entertain: I’m not going to put any weight on suggestions that there’s no substance to these issues, that nobody seems to know what they actually don’t like about Corbyn or that Labour’s position on Brexit is actually clearer than the Lib Dems’. I could make a case for either of those, but there wouldn’t be much point; the fact is, those defections happened and for those ostensible reasons, around the time of the European election (which was also when the Brexit Party hit the big time). And, unlike the growth of the Brexit Party at the expense of the Tories, they haven’t yet been reversed.

Well, not entirely. Back in March the two main parties were each polling around 35%, with the Lib Dems and Greens on 15% between them; at the European election in May, the Conservatives and Labour were on 9% and 14% respectively, while the Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK took 35% of the vote between them. Today’s averages – Conservatives 42%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems plus Greens 18% – look a lot more like the first set of figures than the second; any argument that Labour, unlike the Tories, hasn’t made back the losses of the European election has to be qualified.

Nevertheless, we haven’t made those losses back as completely as the Tories have; a good 5% of voters do seem to have dumped Labour for the Lib Dems, and 5% of voters is a lot of voters. The question is what effect that will have. The short answer is, probably not very much of one; even if the Lib Dem vote isn’t squeezed any further (which is unlikely, as it has been inching downwards), 15% is well below the threshold at which the party – or any third party – can make serious gains.

As for what difference that extra 5% of ex-Labour voters will make, an awful lot will depend on where they are. I know personally quite a few people who are (a) rock-solid Remainers and (b) dubious at best about J. Corbyn Esq; they’re also members of the Labour Party, but never mind that now. More importantly, all those people live in a safe Labour seat. I wonder if the “internal opposition” mentality (as encouraged by e.g. Tom Watson) tends to flourish in safe Labour seats, where it’s possible to kick up about everything the leadership gets wrong without any risk of opening a flank on the Right – and, if so, whether the same can be said of those people who go the extra step of abandoning the party altogether. In short, I wonder if that extra 5% of Lib Dem voters, the ones who swung away from Labour at the Euros and then stuck, is actually an extra 10-15% in half or a third of the constituencies – specifically, the safe Labour seats. In all honesty there’s nothing to support this speculation; if it is the case, though, the effect will be that Lib Dem votes will count for even less at the election than usual (Labour would just take those seats with 45% of the vote instead of 55%).

Nature and arithmetic abhor a vacuum, so the knock-on effect of Lib Dem votes counting for less is that Labour (and Tory) votes would count for that bit more. Imagine 10% out of the Labour vote share shifting to the Lib Dems in 65 seats without affecting the result – that “winning on 45% instead of 55%” scenario repeated 65 times; imagine 5% in 130 seats, if that’s more believable. Either way, you’ve just dropped the Labour national vote share by 1%, without any decrease in the number of seats won. If it was going to take N% to win M seats, thanks to those defections to the Lib Dems it now only takes N-1%.

Who gets polled and who votes
The Graun reports that there are 56 seats where the number of potential first-time voters exceeds the winner’s majority in 2017 – and 28 where the number of voters aged below 35 is ten or more times the size of the 2017 majority. Thanks to the appalling state of electoral law at present, an estimated nine million potential voters are currently unregistered, but that number looks like being considerably smaller by the time registration closes at midnight on Tuesday.

Simply, we don’t really know what the demographic makeup of the electorate is going to be, although we do have reason to believe that it’s changed noticeably in the last few days; 670,000 people aged below 35 have registered to vote in the past week. Moreover, we don’t know what turnout is going to be like in particular groups – and, when political polarisation varies as much between age groups as it currently does, differential turnout can make a huge difference. All that polling organisations can do is make assumptions about the likely makeup of the electorate, assemble the most representative panel they can – a panel which is likely to be undersupplied with people aged below 35, let alone 25 – then weight the results to achieve representativeness, then weight them again to match turnout assumptions. And that’s a lot of assumptions – there’s many a slip between sample and result.

For many types of error you would expect different pollsters to err in different directions, so that their errors would cancel one another out, but in this case it wouldn’t be at all surprising if multiple companies made the same good-faith assumptions about the demographics of registration and turnout – nor would it be surprising if those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. And the likeliest effect of all these errors is an underestimation of the votes cast by younger people – who are much, much more likely to vote Labour.

The polls, notoriously, were wrong in 2017. Looking back at the data preserved at UK Polling Report, it turns out that they were wrong in a particular way: they clustered around figures of 44% for the Tories and 36% for Labour. In other words, they over-estimated the Tories by 2% – and underestimated Labour by 4%. There’s a chunk of salt to take the polls with. Of course, the polling companies carried out post-mortems – nobody wants to be wrong – and made changes, many of which (ironically) consisted of reversing adjustments they’d brought in to correct errors identified after the 2015 election. So maybe they’re on the money now. Or maybe the same thing’s going to happen again – or (perhaps most probably) something different is going to go wrong this time. Ci vedremo.

The ground war
If you go to the Website https://events.labour.org.uk you can find details of nearby canvassing sessions; all welcome! (I recommend it – you get to meet some interesting people and hear their stories, and it’s great exercise.) As I write it’s Sunday evening, and the Website lists 31 different events taking place tomorrow. (Which, as you may have worked out, is a weekday.) Labour has a lot of members, and we are doing a lot of canvassing. It’s a good thing to do. Where people have issues they feel strongly about, we can explain how Labour would help them; where people have negative preconceptions about the party or its leadership, we can offer alternative ways of looking at them; where people simply don’t want to know about ‘politics’, we can be there as a reminder that they have got a vote and they can use it.

Even a membership of half a million isn’t going to be able to knock on every door in the country, of course – but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not focusing on safe seats (with all due apologies to everyone currently stranded in safe Conservative seats) – and safe seats is what most seats are. Personally I don’t expect to be spending much time in Stretford & Urmston or Tatton, as nothing’s remotely likely to happen this time which would make those seats change hands. But there are marginals in the Manchester area, and I’m going to be flying the flag for Labour down their streets – listening to what the people have to say about disability assessments and Brexit and parking permits and academy schools and anti-semitism, nodding and smiling when they say they just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn, sympathising and agreeing where I can, arguing where I have to, and generally being the friendly face of Labour. (Two people this afternoon thanked me for stopping to talk; one said I was the first political campaigner who’d knocked on the door in “years and years”.) I’m going to be doing that, along with lots of other people, over a period of nearly three weeks. A lot of people in those marginals are going to end the campaign with a very different view of Labour from the one they began with – and, perhaps, a very different view of Labour from the national picture, which is to say the one that gets into the opinion polls. It certainly can’t hurt.

So there’s quite a lot going on that doesn’t make the polls. The makeup of the sample consulted in the polls may not reflect the makeup of the electorate, while the turnout assumptions applied to polling data may not be reflected by actual turnout patterns; indeed, for Labour, ensuring that turnout patterns are different is a standing challenge. If the Brexit Party polls 5-10% in Labour seats, those vote shares may well come out of the potential Tory vote and make those seats that much safer. If the Lib Dems poll 15%, that’s unlikely to win many seats, and a substantial element of the 15% may run into the sand in safe Labour seats. And, even if the national results suggest that the Tories ought to come out ahead, the work that Labour volunteers are doing in marginal seats may be enough to swing them, and swing the overall result, our way.

As a Labour Party member I’m hoping that all of this will be academic, as Labour will be polling two per cent ahead of the Tories by the 12th of December. But if that’s not the case, it may be that climbing a smaller mountain will be enough to get the job done. 30%? Nowhere near enough. 35%? You might be surprised. (After all, it was good enough for Tony Blair…)

Why we (don’t) troll

He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful.
– Father Merrin, The Exorcist

Reading Jonathan Freedland’s latest at the weekend, I felt – not for the first time – that I was being trolled. To take a single example, Freedland cites Jeremy Corbyn’s much-quoted sarcastic response to two Zionist hecklers and concludes from it that Corbyn “sees Jews as not quite ‘us'”. This is like trolling in that, once you’ve read a full account of that incident, it’s impossible to see how anyone could draw that conclusion from it in good faith – a more charitable explanation would also be more plausible and… but I’m not getting into that now. More to the point, it’s like trolling in that I was trolled: the urge to respond by spending half an hour or so outlining better explanations, sourcing fuller quotes, citing names and dates, finding other people’s comments on the same individuals, etc, etc, was genuinely hard to resist.

Why is this, though? What’s going on? When your position is being critiqued by someone who maintains that they’re acting out of the most decent and sensible political motives possible, and yet you feel as if you’re being trolled – that’s, what exactly? And why – on some issues – does it seem to happen so often?

Us…

Let’s start with rational thinking. Where politics is concerned, the trouble with thinking rationally is that it’s hard; downright impossible, really, on a day to day basis. Life constantly confronts you with the evidence that other people – perfectly decent, sensible people – don’t share some belief or commitment that you hold dear; they may even be strongly opposed to it. The truly rational way to deal with this situation would be to unpack your assumptions and – as far as you can manage – unpack theirs too, and keep going until you’ve found something you can agree on, a kind of ethical equivalent of the Highest Common Factor: OK, so we both believe that people should be enabled to flourish and their representatives should respond to their needs, and that‘s why you vote Liberal Democrat – and it’s also the reason why I’m a council communist!

But really, who’s got the time for that? Mostly people take one of two short-cuts. One is to say that you know what you know; on that basis, you know what you believe; you can argue for what you believe, but if other people strongly disagree, well, it’s their loss. This is a reasonably comfortable position in the sense of not involving you in any contradictions, but it can get lonely. In 1988 I remember a heated argument at work that began with the proposition that Michael Stone might be a Republican provocateur, and moved on to the proposition that the SAS execution of Savage, Farrell and McCann was legitimate. I argued against in both cases, and in both cases I had one ally; it wasn’t even the same person both times.

The other short-cut is to assimilate what you believe, as far as you can manage, to what the people around you believe. Let’s say that you’re strongly opposed to the death penalty and you’re surrounded by people who support it; you haven’t got the time or inclination to find out what underlying beliefs you hold in common, but you don’t want to take the first – lonely – short-cut either. The alternative short-cut is to stress that you’re against the death penalty in most cases, perhaps because most cases haven’t been proved beyond all possible appeal, or else because most offenders aren’t serious enough. But, sure, if it’s an open-and-shut case, if you’d caught Fred West in the act or something.. Most cases aren’t like that, though… Your new friend is meeting you halfway, too: It’s there in reserve, obviously it’s not for every murder case… And you can each nod sagely, both telling yourselves that the other person agrees with the important bit. Something similar can happen with less polarised differences of opinion; if you particularly hate Tory racism while your Thatcherite friend is furious about their poor economic stewardship, you can kind of agree you’re talking about more or less the same thing, if you don’t think about it too hard.

This short-cut has the opposite advantages and disadvantages to the first one: you get to have a bit of company, but in return you profess a belief that isn’t actually what you believe – not really, not quite. And this has costs. Professing a belief isn’t just flapping your mouth; contradiction is always uncomfortable, and “I believe in a united Ireland, but I agree that sometimes the IRA should be shot down like dogs” is a contradictory position. And if you’re not prepared to resolve the contradiction by extricating yourself from it – “you make some good points about the IRA, but actually I do believe in a united Ireland, so, um, bye for now” – you will want to make it more comfortable by finding something you can straighforwardly agree on.

The trouble is, unless you’re going to dig right down into your prior assumptions (and who’s got time for that?), you probably won’t find anything. You and your new friend the death penalty enthusiast can agree that the punishment should fit the crime, say, but that’s small beer. You won’t find anything, that is, unless you go for the negative. Those people who don’t think the punishment should fit the crime – what a bunch of idiots they are! Those people who don’t care about victims and their relatives getting justice, those people who think Peter Sutcliffe was misunderstood and Fred West should have been let off with a slap on the wrist… now we’re getting somewhere!

…and Them

This is where trolling comes in. Of course, most – if not all – liberal penal reformers do care about victims of crime, and so on. But if you want to make an enemy – or a target – out of liberal reformers, you aren’t going to be too scrupulous about sticking to what they actually believe. The worst that can happen is that you end up wrongly accusing them – and what would be so bad about that? Prod them persistently and unfairly enough, and they’ll get riled enough to lash out at you – and that will just confirm that they’re your enemy. What’s even better is if you mix a bit of truth with the more dubious claims; that way you can keep them busy for ages, extricating themselves, putting out clarifications and fending off your counter-attacks. If building solidarity with Al by demonstrating that you’re opposed to Bob is what you wanted in the first place, annoying Bob is a good way to do it and getting Bob annoyed with you is even better; really, there’s no down side.

In this scenario – and perhaps more generally – trolling starts with attack lines launched in bad faith, and those bad-faith attack lines are themselves grounded in an agreement made in bad faith. (Even pure nihilistic trolling, for the hell of it or as a spectator sport, is grounded in an agreement to say stuff that nobody actually believes; cf. Tepper (1997).) To turn it round the other way, a bad-faith agreement is conducive to shared bad-faith attack lines – much more than to shared positive statements – and those bad-faith attacks are themselves likely to turn into trolling, or something indistinguishable from trolling.

I’m suggesting, then, that when political argument turns troll-like it’s a sign of an underlying bad-faith agreement. When you’re being attacked in ways that are unrelenting, unreasonable, unfair and to all intents and purposes unrebuttable – when every concession is taken as an admission of something much worse, and every clarification provides material for a new attack – the chances are that you’re facing somebody whose own position is shaky: after all, if they had a solid and persuasive argument against you, you would have heard it by now. In particular, if you’ve got multiple attackers you can bet that they are, at most, an alliance of convenience: nothing solidifies an uneasy and imperfect agreement so well as an enemy you can all agree to hate.

A Complicated Game

What’s this got to do with Jonathan Freedland? What shaky position, what uneasy agreement might lie behind this Why I still can’t bring myself to vote for Corbyn attack piece? I think there’s a clue in one of the more alarming statistics quoted in the piece. According to a survey carried out by Survation – using as population the 750+ Jewish members of an existing Survation panel – 87% of British Jews regard Corbyn as an antisemite. 87% – seven out of eight. Freedland’s reaction to this hair-raising figure is to ask half-heartedly why British Jews might think this way, and reply with some familiar stories suggesting that Corbyn and the Jewish community aren’t of one mind on certain issues. But really, this won’t do. Freedland’s recourse to partial, tendentious and provocative presentations of his evidence – his descent into trolling, in other words – is eloquent evidence that it won’t, as it attests to the strain that his argument is under.

I’m not going to relitigate Freedland’s list of examples, although God knows it’s hard to resist (comic-book thinks bubble goes here: MUST… NOT… ENGAGE… AM BEING… TROLLED…) But here’s a thought-experiment: let’s play Spot The Antisemite. There’s a man standing in front of you; he’s either an anti-colonialist leftist who supports Palestinian independence because he hates colonialism, or a right-wing antisemite who supports Palestinian independence because he hates Jews. You are allowed one question. Unfortunately, you weren’t really listening when they told you the rules, so you just make conversation and ask the man what he’s been up to. He reels off a lot of rather boring stuff about international solidarity and union recognition and council candidates, then says that, actually, he’s just come from a very productive meeting with well-respected Palestinian leader comrade X, who had shown him his designs for a monument to comrade Y. Now, you happen to know that comrade Y was killed by Israeli security forces while attempting to hijack an El Al flight, and that comrade X – while undoubtedly a popular figure in his own community – has expressed some rather whiffy opinions about the Jewish role in world history. What’s your answer? Do you need another question?

The answer is, of course, Yes, you do. There is an obscure (but noisy) corner of the Left where antisemitism of the old Rothschild-conspiracist school has survived and even, sadly, thrived; you can talk a good game across a whole range of left-wing policy and still have a thing about Jews. So you haven’t heard anything to prove that our man’s not an antisemite – but you haven’t heard anything that proves he is, either. It would be nice if a continuing history of deprivation and defeat didn’t tend to breed irrational hatred (as well as the rational kind); it would be great if every leader of an oppressed community could stand in for Desmond Tutu, or Gandhi at a pinch; it would be terrific if everyone whose cause you supported also expressed views you agreed with and used methods you approved of (why, the cause would practically support itself!). But that’s not the way to bet. Nothing our man has said necessarily tells you anything other than that he supports the Palestinian cause – and you knew that going in.

None of Freedland’s examples – and none of the many, many others I’ve seen – say any more than that Corbyn has a long-established, non-Zionist position on Palestine; that he believes in making progress on Palestinian rights and the cause of a just peace, and to do so is willing to go to places and talk to people most British politicians avoid; and that his well-documented support for the Jewish community in Britain does not take precedence over the first two, or even (in his eyes) come into conflict with them. But it’s not surprising that Freedland can’t stand up the proposition that Corbyn is an antisemite; ultimately this isn’t a proposition or a belief, it’s just an attack.

Come Together

Read symptomatically – with an eye to its strains and gaps – Freedland’s piece is informative, but it tells us about Freedland, not about Corbyn. It tells us, or reminds us, that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important – for a range of reasons – to remove Corbyn and restore the pre-Corbynite status quo in the Labour party; and that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important to shift Labour (back) to a broadly friendly and pro-Zionist stance towards Israel. It also tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that neither of these argumentative positions is very strong. If there were good reasons for thinking that 2010-15 were glory years for Labour, in absolute terms or in comparison with 2015-19, you can be sure that we’d be hearing all about it, and not just about the reasons why Corbyn shouldn’t be the next PM. The arguments for more and stronger Zionism aren’t all that persuasive, either. While most of the great British public would certainly tell you that they didn’t want to see the state of Israel destroyed by force, the same is true of all but the most extreme and isolated fringes of the Palestinian solidarity movement. The real question is whether it would be more appropriate, starting from where we are now, for the British government to be a bit less Zionist and a bit less supportive of Israel, or a bit more so – and I don’t think, if we had that argument publicly, that Corbyn’s position would be the unpopular one.

Some overlapping personnel aside, these two positions don’t really have anything in common. But the partisans of the pro-Zionist position see anti-Zionism as verging on antisemitism at the best of times, while the anti-Corbyn partisans don’t really mind what mud they throw at him, and so “Corbyn is an antisemite” becomes their meeting-place and their slogan – and a stronger argument than either of their own. At least, it’s a strong argument until you notice that it’s not an argument at all; it’s just trolling.

But what about that 87%? The Jewish community itself can’t be trolling us. Admittedly, there are some oddities in that survey, deriving from the composition of the panel. Under-35s, in particular, are heavily under-represented and are consequently upweighted by a factor of 2.4. Particularly given that younger respondents were slightly more left-leaning than the other two groups, this suggests that a better sample might not have given such an extreme result. There wouldn’t be any major changes, though; if Survation had recruited a full cohort of under-35s and every one of the additional recruits had been a Corbynite, the overall figure would still be over 70%.

So there’s no getting away from the scale of Jewish disaffection with Corbyn; specifically, the extent to which British Jews appear genuinely to believe that Jeremy Corbyn hates Jews. This survey finding should have given Freedland more trouble than it did, seeing that he evidently doesn’t believe that Corbyn is an antisemite; at least, if he does, he hasn’t got any good evidence for it. Surely the only rational conclusion is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the Jewish community’s perceptions of Labour; the evidence that should support a view as widely-held as that just isn’t there.

I’ve been out on the doorstep recently, and it’s been very striking how few people had any criticisms of Corbyn. Don’t get me wrong, quite a few people said that they didn’t like him and that his leadership put them off voting for the party, but they didn’t have any actual criticisms – they couldn’t tell us why they didn’t like him (even, in one case, when asked directly). There’s just a vague sense of ‘extremism’; it doesn’t have anything to support it (apparently), but it still sticks to Corbyn. I wonder if, in large parts of the Jewish community, ‘antisemitism’ has stuck to him in a similar way; it’s not something that needs to be demonstrated, more something that needs to be disproved – or rather, something that can’t be disproved.

Ideas don’t just float around and stick to people of their own accord, of course, particularly when they’re ideas that attack somebody. I suggested earlier that commentators like Jonathan Freedland sit on the rickety bridge between committed Zionism and centrist Labourism (or underneath it, ho ho). Perhaps something similar is true here. The British Jewish community doesn’t (by and large) get pushed to the back of queues, or singled out and ethnically ‘othered’ in any way. Consciousness of this happy situation and of how historically unusual it is favours a certain social conservatism, an attachment to the maintenance of the status quo and the non-rocking of boats. (And, perhaps, outright capital-C conservatism; according to one survey 69% of British Jews supported the Conservatives in 2015, as against 37% of the population of Britain.) On the other hand, the community is also characterised – not universally but to a very high extent – by an accumulation of dreams and objectives, myth and realpolitik called Zionism (a pretty heterogeneous bundle in itself).

The two don’t really go together: love it or hate it, Zionism is a transformative project on an international scale, whereas the social conservatism of British society is, well, conservative, not to say British. Push one too far and the other inevitably suffers. How better to solder them together than for both sides to agree on what they don’t support: those scruffy subversive lefties, stirring up trouble here and in the Middle East – don’t you just hate them? And how better to attack them than to go for the big guns and accuse them of antisemitism. You hate him, after all – and he’s certainly making trouble for you – so he has to be an anti-semite really, doesn’t he?

Sort of. More or less.

Well, it’s close enough. It’ll get a reaction, anyway, and that’s the main thing.

Marginal notes – 2

The story so far:

I looked at the size of Labour’s majority over the Conservatives – or vice versa – in the most marginal Labour/Conservative battleground seats, in general elections over the last twenty-odd years, i.e. going back to 1997 and New Labour. … Labour’s offensive battleground seems to be very much the same terrain as the area it needs to defend. In both cases, we’re looking at former safe Labour seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015; and in both cases, in 2017 two-thirds of these seats saw either a Labour gain or a substantial cut in the Tory majority.

All but two of the 40 marginals I looked at in that post were held by Labour in 1997; 28 went to the Tories between 2005 and 2015, of which 13 were regained in 2017. Moreover, in all but three of the 40 the Labour relative vote share fell in both 2005 and 2010; in 21 of them it fell in 2005, 2010 and 2015, then rose in 2017.

If these results generalise beyond the marginals, then we can conclude that

  1. Labour has had some bad elections – some elections that really cried out for a thorough rethink of the party’s goals, branding, resources and personnel.
  2. 2010 was definitely one of them, and you wouldn’t call 2005 or 2015 examples of best practice. (“He won three elections!” Yes, about that third one…)
  3. 2017, on the other hand, definitely wasn’t one of them. If you forget about the internal party politics and look at the results through an entirely pragmatic, vote-maximising lens – or view them from Mars, through a telescope which registers party names and vote numbers but nothing else – what leaps out is that 2017 was an astonishingly good result by the standards of the previous three elections; a result so good, you could say that the party of the 2005-15 elections didn’t really deserve it. (But then, it wasn’t the party of the 2005-15 elections that did it.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We can draw those conclusions, if these results apply generally. Do they?

A bit of methodology. First, I got hold of constituency-level election results for UK general elections from 1997 to 2017. What I’m interested in is the Labour/Conservative relative vote shares, so I limited my scope to England. Then I eliminated all seats which – across that 20-year period – had ever been held by a third or fourth party, or an independent: goodbye to the Speaker, to Richard Taylor and George Galloway, to Caroline Lucas and to the Liberal Democrats.

So far so straightforward. The next step was more of a leap in the dark: matching constituencies between the 2015 and 2017 results or between 2001 and 2005 was easy enough, but what to do about the 2008 boundary review? In the end I took the quick-and-dirty approach (political scientists, look away now) of treating every constituency with the same name as the same constituency. (Although when I say ‘the same name’… The 2008 reviewers had an infuriating habit of switching names around to make them more logical – main piece of information first – so goodbye West Loamshire, hello Loamshire West! That made for a fun evening’s work.) In addition to name-matching, I matched manually in a few cases where a post-2008 constituency was identified with a pre-2008 one by (I did say to look away) the Wikipedia entry on the Boundary Commission. This isn’t ideal; I’m sure there are constituencies out there with the same name pre- and post-2008 and vastly different boundaries, just as I’m sure that I’ve missed some renamed seats with more or less the same boundaries. If I were doing this for anything more enduring (or rewarding) than a blog post, I would do it properly and assess each of the 500+ constituencies individually. But I’m not, so I haven’t.

I ended up with 421 constituencies – English constituencies in contention between Labour and the Conservatives – which can be categorised as follows:

  • 142 were held by the Conservatives at every election from 1997 to 2017
  • 157 were held by Labour at every election from 1997 to 2017
  • 119 were held by Labour in 1997 but lost to the Conservatives at one of the next five elections
    • of these, 29 were then regained by Labour (one in 2010, eight in 2015, 20 in 2017)
  • 2 (Canterbury and Kensington) were held by the Conservatives from 1997 to 2015 but lost to Labour in 2017
  • one (South Dorset) was won from the Conservatives in 2001 and lost again in 2010

Discarding the last two oddball categories gives us three similar-sized groups to analyse, across a series of six elections.

One final methodological note: the measure being used here is relative vote share, a phrase which here means “Labour vote % minus Conservative vote %”. Since my dataset excludes Lib Dem and minor-party seats, this is usually the same figure as the majority expressed as a percentage (or the majority multiplied by -1 for a Conservative seat). Usually, but not invariably: although none of these seats has ever gone to a third party, a number of them have had either the Lib Dems or UKIP in second place at some of these elections. If I was doing a professional job, I could have addressed this complication by adding a new dimension to the analysis, cutting down the dataset or a combination of both. As I’m not, I turned a blind eye and simply measured the Labour-Conservative difference in all cases.

Now for some charts. First, here are those 119 Labour losses, and when they were lost. In this chart – and most of the others – I’m adopting the convention of treating Labour gains from the Tories as positive numbers and Tory gains from Labour as negatives. A bit partisan, perhaps, but I am specifically looking at gains and losses as between those two parties, and this makes it easier to see what’s happening.

Labour seat gains and losses, 1997-2017

Every time I see this chart I think I’ve accidentally deleted the label on the 2010 ‘loss’ bar. Scroll down… oh, there it is. Basically 2001 saw a bit of slippage compared to 1997, and 2005 was a bad result – but 2010 was an appalling result. There was a bit of fightback in 2015 and a lot of fightback in 2017, but we’re still a long way short of where we were, thanks largely to those losses in 2005 and 2010 – substantial losses and huge losses, respectively.

The next series of charts shows loss and gain in relative vote share. The bars represent the numbers of seats in which Labour’s vote share relative to the Conservatives went up or down (by any amount) at each election. Since the total number of seats doesn’t change from one election to the next, the bars in each chart stay the same overall length, but with larger or smaller portions above the origin line.

All seats:

Just look at those first three blue bars. Up and down the country, Labour threw away vote share in 2001; then we did it again even more widely in 2005, and then again in 2010 – with the (cumulative) results we’ve just seen. Again, 2010 stands out as a disaster, with near-universal vote share losses and almost no increases, even after the reductions in vote share over the previous two elections. (Curiously, while there were 31 seats showing an increased vote share in each of the 2005 and 2010 elections, there’s only one where vote share increased in both 2005 and 2010 – and it’s a safe Tory seat where Labour was in third place both times.) But then things look up in 2015 (with 92 more seats with increased vote share than decreased), and even more so in 2017 (222 more)

Here’s the same data for the “Labour losses” group of seats – the 119 seats featured in the first chart, including those that were retaken by Labour.

There isn’t much to say here, except “here’s that trend again” – and perhaps “no wonder they were former Labour seats”. The 2015 recovery is (proportionately) weaker here, but the 2017 rally is just as strong.

Here are the safe Conservative seats.

This is quite interesting. Naively, I wouldn’t have expected very much variation in the Labour vote in safe Tory seats, what with them being… well, safe Tory seats. Far from it: there were quite a few seats where Labour saw losses in vote share between 2001 and 2010, and many more where Labour’s vote share increased in 2015; as for 2017, in that year there were Labour increases in getting on for 90% of Tory seats. These are all seats that were Tory in 1997 and have been Tory ever since, so I wouldn’t want to read too much into this, but it is a strong trend; it suggests that there may be a substantial suppressed Labour vote out there, released by Corbyn’s – and, to be fair, Ed Miliband’s – new direction(s) for the party. (Perhaps the trouble with trying to poach Conservative votes by moving Right is that you end up giving Conservative voters no particular reason to switch.) One, two, many Canterburys!

To complete the set, here are the safe Labour seats, where the trends are a bit different.

Oddly, 2010 isn’t the nadir now, but represents a bit of an improvement on 2005 in terms of the numbers of seats showing vote share gains and losses. Nor is 2017 the peak fightback year; that would be 2015. I don’t know if the post-Iraq tactical voting campaign – or the Lib Dems’ anti-war positioning – had a huge effect on the 2005 vote, but if they did these are the kind of seats where you’d expect to see it. As for 2015 and 2017, from this chart we can already see that there were 30-something safe Labour seats where vote share went up in 2015 – Ed Miliband, hurrah! – and went down in 2017 – Jeremy Corbyn, ugh! As with 2005, these are perhaps the kind of seats where issues and debates within Labour are most likely to make themselves felt (albeit without any immediate effect on the results).

To look at those trends in a bit more detail, here are a couple of charts which need a bit more of an introduction. As we’ve seen there’s an overall tendency for the Labour vote share to drop between 1997 and 2001, then again in 2005 and (mostly) in 2010, before going up in 2015 and (mostly) in 2017. But how many seats actually follow this pattern – down, down, down, up, up – and how many are exceptions? If there are exceptions, what pattern do they follow? Can we distinguish between Tory, Labour and ex-Labour seats, or do the same trends apply generally?

Following a qualitative comparative analysis approach, I translated vote share change into a letter – D for (Labour relative vote share) down, U for up – giving a string of Ds and Us for each seat based on that seat’s successive changes in relative vote share. Since there are six elections overall, each seat has five letters, corresponding to the vote share changes in 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017: DDDDD, DDDDU, DDDUD and so on. An ordered series of characters each of which can only take two values is just asking to be translated into binary digits, so that was the next step: DDDDD=0, DDDDU=1, DDDUD=2, and so on up to UUUUU=31. This meant that I could easily calculate frequency tables for the dataset and for each of the three main groups of seats, which in turn made it possible to visualise different patterns and their frequency.

And that’s what you see here, albeit in slightly cut-down form; for simplicity I left the 1997-2001 period out of these charts. The four letters you see here thus correspond to up/down vote share changes in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017.

I’ve singled out five patterns – DDDD, DDDU, DDUD, DDUU and DUUU – for the sole reason that these were the only ones which occurred in the data in significant numbers. You’ll notice the prevalence of Ds in the first two positions (loss of vote share in 2005 and 2010) and Us in the fourth (increased vote share in 2017). The way that this first chart is arranged, the first four blocks reading up from the origin – from dark red up to mid-blue – represent all the seats in which the Labour relative vote share went down in both 2005 and 2010. That is, 84% of them: five out of six.

Here’s the same data ordered differently:

In this version the first five blocks reading up from the bottom – i.e. the red blocks – represent all the seats in which Labour’s relative vote share went up in 2017. Which is to say, 72% of them – nearly three quarters. The first two red blocks represent the DDxU pattern, i.e. “down in 2005 and 2010, up in 2017”: 65% of the total, 69% of former Labour seats and 81% of Tory seats. The exception – and the reason why that total isn’t higher than 65% – is the “safe Labour” group, where this pattern only applies to 48% of seats.

The message of the data is pretty clear. While there is some variation between different seats – and regional variation can’t be ruled out (see below) – across England there are some fairly consistent trends. Where 2017 is concerned, the only realistic conclusion is “we’ve had a terrible election, but this wasn’t it” (apologies to Groucho Marx). 2017 was better than 2015 – and 2015 was better than 2010, in much the same sense that vitamin C is better for you than cyanide. We on the Left have a great deal to be proud of and nothing to apologise for – except, perhaps, letting the culprits for the 2010 disaster off the hook, and not moving against them harder and more decisively. (This isn’t sectarianism; this isn’t a quest for ideological purity. We want a party that can win back vote share and gain seats, like the party did in 2017 – not one that loses vote share everywhere and loses seats by the dozen, like the party did in 2005 and 2010.)

Some generalisations about the different categories of seats are also possible – and about Labour seats in particular. Reading from the bottom of the chart:

  • In the Tory and Ex-Labour groups around 40% of seats fit the DDDU pattern, compared to less than 5% of the Labour group
  • In the Tory and Labour groups around 40% of seats fit the DDUU pattern, compared to around 25% of the ex-Labour group
  • In the Labour group around 15% of seats fit the DUUU pattern, compared to less than 5% of the Tory and Ex-Labour groups
  • In the Labour group around 20% of seats fit the DDUD pattern, compared to around 5% of the Tory and Ex-Labour groups
  • In the ex-Labour group around 20% of seats fit the DDDD pattern, compared to around 5% of the Tory and Labour groups

Translated into English, Labour relative vote share in has gone up at some point in 95% of Tory and Labour safe seats in England, and 80% of ex-Labour seats. Around 40% of Labour and Tory seats, and 25% of ex-Labour seats, showed an increased Labour vote share in 2015 and 2017 (only); around 40% of Tory and ex-Labour seats showed an increased vote share in 2017 (only). Among the Labour seats, smaller groups of seats showed increases either in 2015 alone or in 2010 as well as 2015 and 2017.

In short, if we compare Labour seats to all other seats, as well as a lot of commonality there are some significant differences: there is

  • a sizeable group of Labour seats (and very few others) where 2015 was the only recent election with an increased Labour vote share
  • a very small number of Labour seats (but sizeable numbers of others) where 2017 was the only election with an increased vote share
  • a sizeable group of Labour seats (and very few others) where 2010, as well as 2015 and 2017, saw increased vote share

This tends to suggest that – while most of them are living in the same world as the rest of us – non-negligible numbers of Labour MPs are living in a world where Corbyn and the 2017 campaign didn’t deliver the goods; or a world where Miliband and the 2015 campaign did; or a world where the disastrous result of 2010 wasn’t actually all that bad. The effect that these perceptions are likely to have had on their view of the Corbyn leadership – and their retrospective view of life before Corbyn – doesn’t need to be spelt out. These MPs can – and often do – speak eloquently about their own experiences and the threat that Labour faces in their locality, but they are not reliable sources on Labour’s situation nationally.

There’s also a sizeable number of ex-Labour seats – and not very many others – where Labour’s relative vote share has gone down at every one of the last four elections; this suggests that the loss of the seat to the Tories was part of a long-term trend in those areas, and one which hasn’t yet been reversed. To be precise, this pattern applies to 6 seats held by the Tories throughout the period, 8 held by Labour and 24 which went Tory at some point between 2001 and 2017. This would be worth investigating. A quick scan of the 24 seats and their former MPs on Wikipedia gives few pointers, other than to remind me that the 1997 wave swept some truly awful placemen and -women into the Commons: some are noted only for their loyalty (to Tony Blair); others made headlines in the local press during the expenses scandal; one became head of a local NHS trust on leaving Parliament, having continued to practice as a GP throughout. (I guess time weighs heavy when your only responsibility is being an MP.)

Geographically, it may be worth noting that the 32 1997-Labour seats in this group include

  • 4 in the North East
  • 5 in east Yorkshire
  • 7 in the east Midlands, and
  • 6 in Staffordshire

All of which are, perhaps, areas where Labour MPs had grown accustomed to weighing the vote rather than counting it; where weak local parties made for soft targets for incoming Blairites; and where, after five or ten years of New Labour, there just didn’t seem to be that much of a reason to keep up the old habit of voting for the red rosette, whoever wore it. That’s speculation; all I can say is that if I were one of the MPs for the eight seats in this group where Labour hung on in 2017 – Ronnie Campbell, John Woodcock(!), Helen Goodman (seat inherited from Derek Foster), Paul Farrelly (heir to Llin and before her John Golding), Ian Lavery (heir to Denis Murphy), Catherine McKinnell (heir to Doug Henderson), Ruth Smeeth (heir to Joan Walley) or Gareth Snell (heir to Tristram Hunt and before him Mark Fisher) – I wouldn’t be placing the blame for my 2017 performance on things that have changed since 2015. There’s a downward trend in those constituencies which was clearly established long before that – and the great majority of Labour seats, along with the great majority of English constituencies generally, broke that trend in 2017, if they hadn’t already broken it in 2015. It’s not him, it’s you.

Marginal notes

We can be fairly sure that a general election is coming soon. (I’ve been saying that since last December, admittedly, but surely it can’t be much longer now.) With that in mind I’ve been thinking about marginals: the Tory seats that Labour needs to gain in order to form the next government, the Labour seats the party needs to hold in order not to cancel out its gains. Can we identify any patterns, or is Labour just going to be keeping multiple plates spinning – attracting the centrists while holding the loyalists, attracting Remainers while holding Leavers, and so on?

As a starting point, I looked at the size of Labour’s majority over the Conservatives – or vice versa – in the most marginal Labour/Conservative battleground seats, in general elections over the last twenty-odd years, i.e. going back to 1997 and New Labour. For the following chart I’ve used the Election Polling list of Conservative targets, and selected the first twenty constituencies where (a) Labour currently hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997. All figures are % shares of the vote; figures are rounded to the nearest whole % except for figures below 0.5, which are rounded up to 1. The ‘average’ marked with an X is the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections.

I expected to see three different patterns, split more or less evenly: safe Labour seats gradually going marginal due to changing demographics or incumbent complacency; vulnerable Tory seats going marginal and being narrowly taken by Labour; and permanent marginals, switching back and forth between the main parties. Here’s what I actually found (click to embiggen):

Reading from left to Right (with a couple of adjustments), we have:

  • one long-term Tory seat (Canterbury), which was marginal in 1997 and 2001 and safe in the next three elections; in 2017, Labour overturned a majority of 18.3%
  • 13 seats with two distinctive characteristics:
    • they were held by the Conservatives in 2015
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Stroud (4.7% in 1997, 9.1% in 2001) to Crewe and Nantwich (31.2% in 1997, 23.8% in 2001). (Bear in mind that these are the majorities, i.e. the difference between the Labour and Tory vote shares. Labour’s actual vote in Crewe and Nantwich, in 1997, was 58.2%.) After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 11 of the 13 went Tory in 2010, and eight of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Peterborough went to the Tories in 2005 and Derby North in 2015.)
  • six seats which had never gone to the Tories, but where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 (Labour’s majority in Bishop Auckland was 45.7% – higher than Labour’s vote share in 2010 or 2015)
    • Labour’s majority had dropped and carried on dropping at every subsequent election, including 2017; by 1% or so in Barrow & Furness and Newcastle-under-Lyme, but by over 10% in Dudley North and Ashfield

This was unexpected. Apparently Labour’s battleground, at least when it comes to defending home turf, consists almost entirely of former safe seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015. And, while it’s true that some of these seats saw another drop in the Labour majority in 2017, the large majority of them – 13 vs 6 – were actually taken back from the Tories in 2017, representing a substantial improvement in Labour’s majority (from negative to positive, apart from anything else).

I repeated the exercise using Election Polling‘s list of Labour targets, again selecting the first twenty constituencies where (a) the Tories hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997; again, X marks the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections. Again, I expected to a pretty even split between safe Tory seats gone marginal, former Labour seats where the Tories had squeaked in and permanent marginals. And here’s what I found:

Déjà vu, anyone?

What we seem to have here – again, reading roughly from left to right – is

  • two marginals (1997-2001), turned solid Tory seats (2005-15), turned marginal again in 2017
  • 12 seats with two distinctive characteristics
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Finchley & Golders Green (6.4% in 1997, 8.5% in 2001) to Southampton Itchen (26.4% in 1997, 27.1% in 2001). After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 10 of the 12 went Tory in 2010, and seven of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Preseli Pembrokeshire went to the Tories in 2005 and Southampton Itchen in 2015.)
    • they were marginal in 2017 but not in 2015, i.e. the Tory majority over Labour was substantially reduced
  • six seats where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 and 2001 (Labour’s 1997 majority in Mansfield was 43.3%)
    • between 2015 and 2017, Labour’s majority (or lack of one) had stayed the same (Bolton West, Telford, Thurrock) or dropped even further (Middlesbrough and Cleveland East, Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield)

Extraordinarily, Labour’s offensive battleground seems to be very much the same terrain as the area it needs to defend. In both cases, we’re looking at former safe Labour seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015; and in both cases, in 2017 two-thirds of these seats saw either a Labour gain or a substantial cut in the Tory majority in 2017.

Three conclusions. Firstly, the battleground seems to be the legacy of years of post-New Labour complacency: a decade and a half when some Labour MPs allowed themselves to think they had a job (and a fan base) for life, and didn’t see their support wearing away – or how insecurely it was founded – until it was too late. Secondly, something happened between 2015 and 2017 which – in the great majority of cases – stopped this process dead and reversed it. Look at Battersea, Ipswich, Colne Valley or Stockton South; look at Pendle, Preseli, Southampton Itchen. The Labour majority goes down, and down again; goes negative, and goes down again; and then there’s 2017. Town and country, north and south, it’s the same pattern. (Of course, any current Labour member could have told you precisely what’s happened in the last four years – how the mood’s changed among the membership and, apart from anything else, how much more campaigning is getting done these days – but it’s nice to see it’s had some effect.) Thirdly, there are places that this process hasn’t reached, or at least hadn’t reached by 2017 – places where the long erosion of Labour majorities continued in 2017, even to the point of tipping a couple of seats to the Tories – but they are the minority. Not that you’d know about it from the way that they’re covered in the press. Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme, Mansfield and Ashfield, these places have a story to tell – but it’s not the story of Labour heartlands turning against Corbynite radicalism (unless the radical rot had set in by 2010). Just as importantly, it’s not typical – it’s not the story of Labour’s battlefield seats more generally.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two groups of ‘battleground’ seats and highlight the two trends I’m talking about – the long slump from 1997 to 2015, the fightback in 2017 – here are all 40 together. Remember, these are Labour’s and the Conservatives’ most marginal seats, excluding only (a) seats which haven’t existed throughout the period since 1997 and (b) seats where a third party is or has been the main contender for the seat. (Which means that Scotland doesn’t get a look-in in this post; sorry about that, but it really is a different story.) For clarity I’ve stripped out the 2001, 2005 and 2010 results, to emphasise the contrasts between 1997 and 2015, and between 2015 and 2017. They’re arranged in a different order here: the X measures the difference between Labour’s 2015 and 2017 majorities over the Conservatives.

Now there are three groups:

  • seven seats in which Labour’s majority was halved or worse between 1997 and 2015, then fell substantially in 2017
    • Tory gains: Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South, Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East
    • Labour marginals: Ashfield, Dudley North, Bishop Auckland, Keighley
  • five seats where a large fall in Labour’s majority between 1997 and 2017 worsened only slightly in 2017 or was unchanged
  • 28 seats – all but two held by Labour in 1997 – where the long fall in Labour’s relative vote share was reversed in 2017

That’s an across-the-board trend (a steady falls in Labour’s relative vote share from 2001 to 2015) and a partial but very strong countervailing trend (a reversal of that fall in 2017, in 28 seats out of 40). Before looking at the numbers, I had no idea that either of these existed (although I could have guessed at the second one).

What this suggests is that we need a lot more reporting from places like Ipswich and Colne, High Peak and Lincoln, and a lot less focus on now rather over-exposed places like Mansfield and Ashfield – and, when we are thinking about places where the Labour vote failed to recover in 2017, a less sympathetic focus on the MP who had, in many cases, presided over the decline in local party support for years before Corbyn was elected leader. (And that goes for Chris Williamson (Derby North) as much as for John Woodcock (Barrow & Furness).) It also suggests that when the election comes, in a lot of places we’ll be pushing, if not at an open door, at a door that we’ve already given a good shove in 2017. The next election campaign may be more winnable than we’ve been allowing ourselves to think.

Brexit times

Thornberry said: “We’re all here [at conference]. I don’t see why we can’t make the decision now.” The frontbencher said she feared Labour risked losing 30% of its core vote to Lib Dems and the Greens “unless we are clear about where we stand on Europe”.  … Thornberry added: “I think that this conference should thrash it out.”

Agenda? Never mind the agenda! Thrash it out, people! Let’s get this sorted!

As it’s turned out, Conference has backed the NEC position, which means that it won’t be dropping all its existing business in order to thrash out the question of Brexit – not that it was ever going to do that. But wouldn’t it have been better if Thornberry’s warning (if not necessarily her advice) had been listened to? Doesn’t it put Labour in terrible danger to go into an election without a firm policy on Brexit? Can’t we just, well, sort it out – listen to the members, look at the polls and back Remain?

I don’t believe we can (which isn’t to say that this policy doesn’t put us in terrible danger – I’ll come back to that). Here are a couple of extracts from a blog post I wrote in January.

it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government … If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum.

If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. … Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

The problem with this position – which, I think, follows inexorably from the initial commitment not to revoke Article 50 without a further vote – is that it works for Labour in government much better than for Labour in opposition. Labour’s policy, as we know, involves negotiating a deal, then putting the deal to a public vote including an option to remain; the party’s position in that vote will be decided at a special conference, after an improvement on May’s deal has (or hasn’t) been negotiated. There are thus three key points in time:

  1. The election
  2. New negotiations with the EU27
  3. The referendum on whatever deal has been agreed in stage 2.

At stage 3 it’s quite possible that Labour’s position, as a party, will be that remaining in the EU is the best option. But Labour can’t commit to that position at stage 1 – let alone now (stage 0?) – for the simple reason that doing so would commit the Labour government to that position at stage 2, and a Labour government negotiating a deal while committed to Remain would look as if it was negotiating in bad faith. The party’s committed to Remain, you’ve just won the election – why bother going to Brussels to talk about a Brexit deal you don’t want? Why not just revoke? There is an answer to this question – having to do with the greater democratic legitimacy of 2016’s 52% vs a Westminster majority won on 40%(?) of the vote – but going down that road would create more problems than it would solve. (Does a majority support closing Eton, Mr Corbyn? OK, bad example…)

In short, if we’re serious about honouring the 2016 result rather than revoking Article 50 – which I think we should be, purely on democratic grounds – we have to go into the next election without a commitment to Remain. Which raises the question, can we win it on that basis? I’m honestly not sure. Something weird happened to the polls around the time of the European election. Normally, you’d expect a tranche of voters to desert each of the main parties for a more left- or right-wing alternative – Tories to UKIP or BXP, Labour to Greens – and then return home again at the next election. This has happened to some extent – the Greens were at 4% in February, 8% in June (and 12% at the Euro election) and are now back at 4% – but only to some extent. Moreover, normally you’d expect the Lib Dems to lose votes – relative to the previous General Election – along with the two main parties; this time round they put on votes. (Literally – a million more people voted Lib Dem in the 2019 Euro elections than did so at the 2017 General Election, despite the overall turnout being 15 million lower. That’s the kind of thing that usually only happens to the Greens.)

The big movements in the polls this year are (roughly) as follows. In March the Brexit Party was launched; by April it had taken 8% from the Tory share of voting intentions. During April and May, in the runup to the Euro elections, the Tories lost another 14% to BXP, while Labour lost 10% to the Lib Dems. Since July the Tories have taken that 14% back (but not the initial 8%); Labour’s voting intention share has remained static – as has the Lib Dems’. It looks as if the Lib Dems’ repositioning as the Party of Remain has rehabilitated them, to the point of giving them a permanent position looking over Labour’s shoulder; they’re currently polling 19% to Labour’s 23%.

Will it last? I must admit, I was expecting the Lib Dems’ Euro election surge to have melted away by now, in the same way that temporary boosts for the Greens and BXP have done, but in retrospect this was shortsighted: big swings to the Greens and UKIP/BXP at Euro elections are normal, but a big swing to the Lib Dems had never happened before. There seems little doubt that they are currently telling a fair old chunk of the people what they want to hear, at least in terms of rhetoric; in terms of policy, of course, Labour are now offering to let the people decide on Brexit, which is precisely what the Lib Dems have been demanding for the last three years. This in turn tells us that – for a fair old chunk of people – the rhetoric is important: at the moment at least, making the right – appropriately resolute and uncompromising – noises about stopping Brexit is more important than the details of policy.

Labour thus has four possible routes to winning back those voters who seem to have swung to the Lib Dems.

1. Get the policy right on Brexit
This is necessary in any case, but it probably won’t be sufficient. The power of an intelligent, ethical, properly worked-out policy shouldn’t be understated, though, particularly in a situation where Labour appears to be losing votes on its Guardian-reader flank. If Labour MPs can tell the public, repeatedly, what our Brexit policy is and why it’s correct, the contrast with the Lib Dems’ offering should be enough to win quite a few votes back. (This does entail Labour MPs not telling the public that they think our Brexit policy is wrong, though; something really needs to be done about that.)

2. Get the rhetoric right on Brexit
I don’t think this is a runner. Labour’s policy has come in for much unjustified criticism – it’s not ‘convoluted’ or ‘contradictory’, it just can’t be explained in three words. But, when the other two parties are going big and going crude, a policy with sub-clauses is never going to win the message war. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic; perhaps somebody’s about to come up with a catchy phrase to express the essence of Labour’s policy. But my current feeling is that this isn’t where Labour should be fighting.

Fortunately, the other two possibilities are considerably more hopeful.

3. Get the policy right on everything else
Some inspiring objectives and constructive medium-term policies are already starting to come out of the party; the 2019 Manifesto should be a good one. Labour can offer not only clarity but vision and innovation on… well, pretty much everything that isn’t Brexit. The more we manage to shift the conversation on to everything else a government can – and will need to – do, the more the Lib Dems’ weakness in depth will be put on show. Swinson’s personal involvement in austerity policies has already been raised; I suspect we’ll be hearing about this again, and in some detail.

4. Get the rhetoric right on everything else
I think we can definitely do that.

Labour’s Brexit policy is less simple than it could be, but this is an unfortunate consequence of the party taking democratic structures seriously and not being willing to risk alienating several million people. We need to head towards the next election talking about the party’s policy on Brexit – preferably in one voice – but also talking about everything else that’s on Labour’s agenda for government, and doing it in hopeful, creative and inspiring ways. That way we can retain our existing base, attract those who have drifted off since 2017 – whether to Farage or to the Lib Dems – and mobilise new voters and non-voters. It means bringing together a lot of different groups of people, but we should see that as Labour’s strength as well as a challenge. When we reach out – including reaching out to both sides of the Brexit divide – we win.

On the (non-)existence of international law [re-up]

[Updated and moved back to the top 13th August]

I’ve just finished the paper I’ve been working on for the last couple of months (or years, depending how you look at it). I think it’s pretty good, but it’s a bit of a departure, even from the last few things I’ve written (which are broadly about how best to approach political extremism under the rule of law). When you consider that I’m employed as a lecturer in Criminology, this paper is – well, ‘departure’ is scarcely the word. Any (constructive) suggestions as to what to do with it will be welcomed!

It’s also ratheralmost certainly far too long (23,000 words), so some surgery may be required. (Ironically, the sprawling beast I’m looking at now was originally planned as the first part of a two-part paper; in part two I was going to (and indeed eventually will) explore the implications of assuming that international law does exist, a question that I promise you is more theoretically fruitful than it sounds.)

I do think it’s pretty good, though. For info, it divides up as follows:

Introduction: 500 words
Austin and ‘positive morality’: 1000
Kelsen and ‘primitive law’: 1800
Hart and secondary rules: 2700
Realism and neo-realism in IR (Morgenthau and Waltz): 3600
Koskenniemi and the force of the dichotomy: 6200 (!)
Miéville and Pashukanis: 3600
Conclusion: 2700

Here’s the abstract:

New maps of denial: On the (non-)existence of international law

International law is unlike other areas of law in the regularity and confidence with which its existence is called into question. International law’s effective existence has been denied by scholars from multiple traditions, with different presuppositions about the existence conditions for a legal system; their convergence in challenging the existence of international law suggests that entrenched ideological rivals may share certain unexamined foundational assumptions.

This paper will review some of the main ways in which contemporary scholarship challenges the existence of international law, assessing the strength of the arguments advanced to support these challenges, the underlying assumptions of those arguments and the implications which follow from them. Prompted by Miéville (2004a), the paper will consider critiques of international law advanced by Austin, Kelsen, Hart, the Realist school of International Relations, Koskenniemi and Miéville himself. Respectively, these have denied (or have been cited as denying) that international law qualifies as law; that it is law in the same sense as municipal law; that it constitutes a legal system; that it exerts a determinant influence on nation states; that it can offer any coherent and non-contradictory guidance; and that it can be a force for emancipation and progress in the world.

In conclusion, the paper will identify the assumptions required in order to consider that international law does in fact exist – and exists as a coherent legal system with the potential to deliver emancipatory reforms – and the implications of doing so.

and the very end of the conclusion:

As a social achievement, international law is both imperfect and precarious; it is both law “in the making” (Lesser 2014: n.p.) and law which risks being unmade. International law’s relative lack of institutional underpinnings highlights the grounding of law in normative practice:

law ‘governs its own creation’, but not in the sense that the creation of law is made possible by higher legal rules: rather, the idea of law governs its own realization. Law, we may say, is the process of its own becoming.
(Simmonds 2007: 11),

International law must needs wear its normativity on its sleeve, in other words – and it is this, perhaps, which explains why it has proved so enduring a target of sceptical attacks, whether informed by legal positivism, foreign policy realism, deconstructionism or Marxism. The discourses and practices sustaining and reproducing international law are thoroughgoingly normative discourses and practices, impossible to fully understand or even demarcate without some adoption of a Hartian ‘internal point of view’. It is understandable that critics unwilling to buy into what they see as liberal illusions, and alert to the role played by international law in sustaining and ratifying an unjust global status quo, should decline to adopt that point of view – but the effect is to overstate the strength and coherence of the ideological underpinnings of the status quo, and to discard a potentially powerful set of normative resources for change.

and, to give you some idea what area I’m working in, the references:

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Swings and… swings

We’re not still going on about the European elections and what happened to the Labour vote, are we. That’s a statement, not a question, and actually I’m quite disappointed that we aren’t; as soon as minor-party voting intentions dropped below 20%, and the shouting about ‘four-party politics’ subsided, people seem to have lost interest in what happened. But, while we are clearly back in the world of two ‘main’ parties, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems do seem to have put quite a large dent in both the Tory and the Labour vote; it would be worth knowing whether this is likely to fade between now and, oh, say for example the end of October.

Fortunately, the Euro elections have been run before (who knew?) and – as I said in an earlier post – voters have shown a tendency to use the Euros to “send a message” before now. But what does this mean in practice? If we compared the Euro election vote with the previous General Election, we could establish that the Labour vote had dropped from 40% of a 69% turnout in 2017 to 14% of a 37% turnout in 2019, but what did that actually mean – particularly when Labour’s vote at the previous European election had been 24% of a 36% turnout, which was down from 35% of a 65% turnout in the previous General Election, which in turn was up from 15% of a 35% turnout at the Euro election before that? (Labour on 15% of the vote, eh? Dreadful! To be fair, Wikipedia says that Gordon Brown “faced calls for him to resign” after this result – but the linked news story shows that what he faced was calls to resign as Prime Minister, from the Leader of the Opposition. There doesn’t seem to have been any internal opposition to Brown – or if there was they kept their traps shut.)

Anyway, I tried for some time to work out the significance of 24% of 36% vs 40% of 69% vs 14% of 37% – or, failing that, to work out a way of representing the relevant figures in a readable chart so that I could see the significant bits – before it hit me that the only way to do it was to ditch the percentages and go back to the raw numbers. Which gives us these two little beauties. (Complete with titles. I’m spoiling you, I really am.)

Top Tip #1: look at the X axis – and in particular look at the origin. The Y axis is not centred at zero – for reasons which will be obvious when you look at the Y axis. Everything above zero is an increase in votes – or rather in millions of votes – as compared to the previous relevant election; everything below the line is a decrease, in millions of votes. The first big thing to take away from these charts is just how asymmetrical they both are. At all but one General Election from 1997 to 2017, around 15 million more people turned out to vote than had done at the previous European election; the exception is 2005, and even then the rise in turnout was over 10 million as compared to the previous year’s Euros. The negative difference between General Election turnout and turnout in the next European election varies more widely, but again mostly ranges between 10 and 15 million; the exception is the 1999 European election, where turnout was down 20 million on the General Election of 1997. (There’s a story there – or a sub-plot – about voters getting swept up in high-enthusiasm, high-turnout elections, and coming down to earth when they’re asked to vote again a couple of years later. (“What, another?”)) The main point here is that the story of the difference between a Euro election – any Euro election – and the previous General Election is not a story of swings and voter movements; it’s primarily a story of voters staying at home, or rather of who stays at home. Who stays at home, and who goes out muttering “voting? damn right I’m voting, this‘ll show ’em…”.

Top Tip #2: trend first, anomaly second. Is there a trend? We can’t understand what people are doing now without having some idea of what they were doing previously. Were voters behaving in a particular way for the run of Euro elections before 2019, and/or the run of General Elections before 2017? Fortunately in this case the trend is pretty clear; look at the columns for 2004, 2009 and 2014 in the first chart, and those for the General Elections in the following year – 2005, 2010 and 2015 – in the second chart. What do you see? In 2004, 2009 and 2014, between thirteen and seventeen million people who had voted for one of the three major parties in the previous General Election – four to seven million ex-Tory and ex-Labour voters and two to six million ex-Liberal Democrat voters – didn’t; while about four million people who hadn’t voted for the Greens or UKIP at the previous General Election, did (in a ratio of a million Greens to three million Kippers). Some people stayed loyal; a lot of people stayed at home; a minority of people cast a protest vote – and that minority was made significant by the low turnout. The chances are that most of the Euro Kippers had voted Tory rather than Labour or Lib Dem at the previous General Election – and that the opposite is true of the Euro Greens – but this is less important than the scale of these numbers: the main thing that happened at all those elections was abstention. Relative to the previous General Elections, the Tory vote fell by between half and two-thirds, Labour’s by between half and three-quarters and the Lib Dems’ by between half and five-sixths. For the most part this wasn’t a swing to anyone; the total combined Green and British nationalist vote at each of those European elections was, at most, half of the Tories’ vote at the previous General Election.

Now look at the second chart. Relative to the previous years’ Euro elections, in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the major parties are up thirteen to seventeen million votes. (Labour: up five to six million; Tories: up four to six million, and seven million in 2015; Lib Dems: up three to five million, and one million in 2015. That coalition was powerful stuff.) The Greens and British nationalists, on the other hand, are down a total of three and a half million in 2005 and 2010, and one million in 2015. Again, we can assume that these voters went back to their ‘home’ parties – and we can assume that the British nationalists probably went back to the Tories and the Greens probably didn’t – but, again, this is much less important than the change in turnout, which in each case was up by 10-15 million as compared with the previous European election. The swing away from UKIP and the Greens was far less important in determining those results than the swing away from the sofa.

So those are the trends. What about the last couple of elections? 2017, as you may remember, saw an unusual election campaign and an unusually high degree of polarisation between the two main parties. Relative to the 2014 European election, the Labour vote was up by nearly nine million and the Tories’ by nearly ten million, three or four million more than the increase in 2015. The Lib Dems, by contrast, only put on a million relative to 2014 – and, since I’ve measured both elections relative to 2014, this was effectively the same million that they’d put on in 2015 (in other words, the party’s vote was almost completely unchanged from the previous General Election; in fact it was down a bit). The Green and British nationalist votes fell by a total of five million relative to 2014 – but, again, the main swing was the swing away from not voting at all: overall turnout was up by nearly sixteen million. These were familiar changes, in other words, but on a larger scale than usual: compared to the 2014-15 vote changes, the rise in turnout, the rise in Tory and Labour votes and the decline in British nationalist votes were, respectively, 1.5 million greater (+11%), 2.3 million greater (+30%), 3.6 million greater (+67%) and 3.3 million greater (+330%). Presumably some Euro-election Kippers swung to Labour in 2017, but the numbers won’t have been huge. The main effects were turnout effects, as usual, but on a larger scale: the Tories were better than usual at getting out the vote, while Labour were a lot better than usual. Also, thanks to the EU Referendum seeming (temporarily) like old news, both parties did better than they had done in 2015 at calling roving Kippers home.

What happened in 2019? Those bars look pretty big, but I wonder if there’s less there than meets the eye. Over and over again, we’ve seen what are at first blush fairly huge movements of voters, between General Election and the following European election, followed at the subsequent General Election by an equally huge movement in the opposite direction; the burden of proof is surely on anyone maintaining that this time is different. So, this time, Labour and Tory vote shares – having gone up by 8.9 million and 9.8 million between 2014 and 2017 – are right back down again, dropping by 10.6 million and 12.1 million respectively; so too the British nationalist vote share, having gone down by 4.3 million between 2014 and 2017 – is up again, by 5.2 million. There’s a story, perhaps, in the ‘extra’ four million votes that the big parties lost, and the extra 0.9 million British nationalist votes; polarisation is increasing, even if it’s only at the margins. But it is at the margins – once again, there are some relatively small voter movements which have been made to look much bigger by the one big movement, the (usual) slump in turnout. (The Brexit Party topped the polls with 5.2 million votes; a party gaining that many votes would have been in a narrow third place at the General Elections of 1997 and 2001, and a firm fourth place in every other General  Election from 1983 to 2010.) There’s also a story in the results for the Lib Dems, who – for the first time ever – appear to have been seen as one of the ‘alternative’, ‘insurgent’ parties, and actually increased their vote as against the General Election; they put on a million votes as compared to 2017. But, just as the crash in votes for Labour and the Tories needs to be set against the unusually high votes for those two parties in 2017, the Lib Dems’ result needs to be set against their own crash in 2015 and their non-recovery in 2017: their total of 3.4 million votes, although higher than the party’s vote in those two General Elections, is lower than any other General Election that the party has ever contested. To find a General Election vote lower than 2017’s 2.4 million you need to go back to 1970, and even that represented a higher proportion of the (then) electorate than the 2017 result (5.4% vs 5.1%); in those terms Farron plumbed depths that the Liberals hadn’t seen since the 1950s and Jo Grimond’s leadership. All credit to the Lib Dems for their outstandingly clear – if opportunistic and misleading – positioning in the Euros; arguably they’ve reaped a deserved reward. But it’s also arguable that there’s only so low that the Lib Dem vote can go – Farron’s 2.4 million was lower than the party’s vote in four of the previous eight European elections. Really, after 2017 the only way was up – just as, for both the Tories and Labour, the only way was down.

What of the narratives? What of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy hitting the rocks and Farage moving in to pick up the survivors? What of Labour’s Brexit fence-sitting and the Lib Dems’ positioning as the party of Remain – what of the potential Remain Alliance, the Lib Dems and Greens piling up the votes while Labour’s vote plummeted? I think you’ll find it’s a bit less exciting than that. The 2019 results showed both Labour and the Tories doing a bit worse than might have been expected, the Brexit Party doing a bit better (at the expense of the Tories) and the Lib Dems doing substantially better (at the expense of both Labour and the Tories). But they’re not wildly out of line with earlier trends. Perhaps polarisation is increasing, but only at the margins: the main trend at this European election was abstention, just like it always is. Vote flows are a pain to model, but arithmetic is a limiting factor. The Labour and Tory votes were down (relative to 2017) by ten and twelve million respectively; the total votes for the Lib Dems plus the Greens, on one hand, and BXP plus UKIP and all the minor British nationalist parties, on the other, were 5.4 million and 5.8 million respectively.

What that means is that, in and of themselves, these figures don’t give any reason to believe that voters won’t be returning en masse to Labour and the Tories at the next high-turnout election – just as they did in 2005, 2010 and 2015, as well as 2017. In particular, if the next election follows the pattern of 2017, with a highly polarised campaign and a focus on getting out the vote – and why wouldn’t it? – we could easily see a similar bulge in the Labour vote. And if that’s followed by yet another slump – complete with the obligatory prophecies of doom and calls for Corbyn’s resignation – at the European elections in 2024, that’s a price I’d be prepared to pay.

John Gardner: two responses

Like many, I was deeply saddened to hear of the (early) death of the legal philosopher John Gardner. While I never knew him, I’ve found Gardner’s work consistently lucid, thoughtful and challenging.

Gardner’s work was – and is – thought-provoking in the truest sense: it makes you think. By way of evidence, here’s a blog post I originally wrote in January 2013, when a couple of lines in papers by Gardner had provoked thoughts that wouldn’t let me alone till I’d written them down. (The blog post is as far as they went, unfortunately. I emailed Gardner to let him know about it, but never heard back.)

I hadn’t known, until reading his death notice, that Gardner was ill; on a more trivial note, I hadn’t known that he was younger than me. (Truly, an infant prodigy!) I guess I’d better get some writing done.

Here’s the post from 2013.

1. Oh you shouldn’t do that

The opening paragraph of John Gardner’s 1996 paper ‘Discrimination as Injustice’ makes an interesting claim about torture – the wrongness of torture, in particular.

Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position. The word ‘relative’ is of the essence here. One may have reasons to alter someone’s position which do not make any essential reference to anyone else’s position. For example, the fact that a prisoner is being tortured is reason enough by itself to write letters of protest, with the aim of improving the prisoner’s treatment. Torture is inhumane. But isn’t torture also unjust? Doesn’t one also have a reason of justice to protest? Perhaps. As part of one’s protest, one might relate the position of the torture victim to the position of other people (other prisoners, people of different political views, the torturers themselves, the torture victim’s victims, the government, etc). In that case one may be trying to give a reason of justice for the torture to desist. It may buttress the reason of humanity. But of course it may also fail to do so. The authorities inflicting the torture may accurately reply, in some cases, that they are inflicting it with impeccable justice. Yet still, on grounds of its inhumanity, the torture should cease, and the protests should go on if it does not.

Gardner returned to this point more recently, in his 2011 paper ‘What is tort law for? Part 1. The place of corrective justice’.

Norms of justice are moral norms of a distinctive type. They are norms for tackling allocative moral questions, questions about who is to get how much of what. Some people think of all moral questions, or at least all moral questions relevant to politics and law, as allocative. But that is a mistake. As a rule, allocative questions are forced upon us only when people make competing claims to assignable goods. Many morally significant goods, including many relevant to politics and law, are either not competed for or not assignable. They include goods such as living in a peaceful world and not being tortured. … Of course it does not follow that there are no questions of justice that bear on the resort to torture or on the quest for a peaceful world. The point is only that many moral questions about the resort to torture and the quest for a peaceful world are not questions of justice. If, for example, we say of someone who was tortured by the secret police that her treatment was unjust, she might well say, if her moral sensitivity has been left intact, that this misses the point and marginalizes her grievance. She is not complaining that she was the wrong person to be picked out for torture, that she was a victim of some kind of misallocation by the secret police, that she of all people should not have been tortured. She is complaining that torture should not have been used at all, against anyone. Her complaint is one of barbarity, never mind any incidental injustices involved in it.

Torture is inhumane or barbaric – there are other words we could use, such as ‘degrading’ or ‘brutalising’; the core meaning has to do with attacking or invading another person’s humanity or personhood. Morally, it should stop, both universally and in any given case – but it is not, of itself, unjust. The moral question raised by torture isn’t a question of allocating it justly. One distribution of torture may be prima facie less just than another – the torture of randomly-stopped motorists would arouse more outrage than the torture of convicted rapists – but the less unjust distribution is not less immoral. A regime which reserved torture for people found guilty of heinous crimes would still be morally repugnant. Any torture – for anyone – is bad torture; in an absolute sense, any torture – for anyone – is as bad as any other torture.

Gardner sets torture alongside position-relative justice, and the freely competing subjects of law-governed society, to make a point about the limits of allocative justice. No distribution of torture (or of absolute poverty, polluted air, reduced life-expectancy, etc) is more just than any other. This is both because torture is not a good to be appropriately allocated and, more importantly, because the absence of torture is not an assignable good and hence not subject to constraints of scarcity. The question of who should be exposed to torture, instead of the current victim, doesn’t arise. There is no reason, in principle, why there should not be enough non-torture for everyone – and, here and now, it will always be better if our actions do not add any more people to those already suffering it.

But there’s a bit more going on here than that. There are any many ills whose absence is not an assignable good. To put it another way, there are any number of areas in which life could in principle be made better for everyone, or (to put it in less ambitious terms) where making life better for one person doesn’t require making it worse for another: health, clean air, peace, Pettit’s ‘dominion’ (a condition of resilient non-intererference’). Depriving someone of a non-assignable good is morally wrong, without necessarily being unjust. Allocative thinking in a negative form may well be involved in the infliction of such an ill: it may be motivated precisely by the desire to improve one’s own relative position at the expense of the victim. However, allocative questions do not have to be involved in their rectification: there is in principle no shortage of clean air, so the harm of air pollution is not rectified by ensuring that the air the company directors have to breathe is equally polluted.

Actions of this type are, by definition, characterised by a lack of respect for the equal entitlements of others and ourselves. Since they don’t profit the person carrying them out (also by definition), they tend to have a character of gratuitous or vindictive malice. The definition does not, however, imply that such acts are all inhumane or barbaric. If I jammed my neighbour’s TV reception so that they were unable to receive BBC 4, this would certainly be a maliciously cruel act, but it would be a stretch to classify it as barbarity. Indeed, much of what tends to fall under the heading of anti-social behaviour consists precisely of the deliberate or reckless deprivation of others of non-assignable goods – goods like the ability to sleep undisturbed by noise or to walk to the shops unperturbed by vandalism. Depriving others of non-assignable goods is a bad thing to do, and there is no situation in which we should not, morally, strive to do less of it – but it is not generally barbaric or inhumane.

Obviously torture makes a much better example for Gardner’s purposes than anti-social behaviour, both because it’s more extreme and because it’s commonly carried out by state authorities rather than by next-door neighbours. But I think the use of torture as an example also points to a different argument about justice and moral wrongs. Consider the first sentence quoted above: “Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position.” Norms of justice, Gardner argues in the second extract, are appropriate for tackling those questions which we face “when people make competing claims to assignable goods”. There’s a fundamental concept of personhood lurking here: a person, we can infer, is someone whose position (however defined) can be measured relative to the positions of other people; someone who can successfully claim assignable goods; someone whose self-interested claims can compete with those of other people; and someone whose disputes with other people can be adjudicated, and whose relative position can be altered, through the process of law, in other words by applying public norms using socially recognised procedures. And – at the risk of sewing a shirt onto a button – a law-governed society is a society composed of such individuals; and when we say ‘law’, we mean the kind of law through which such a society, and such individuals, can govern themselves. Clearly, the terms Gardner used would not work well in a feudally-ordered society, or a society run along religiously-validated caste lines, or the small-c communist society which was to follow the withering-away of the socialist state. We are talking about a society composed of formally equal individuals, differently endowed with personal resources, but each capable of making claims to assignable goods; entitled to expect that those claims will be respected; and entitled to attempt to vindicate them through the law.

We can see how this model of personhood relates to an allocative model of justice by looking at some scenarios. If my neighbour encroaches on my back garden, I may sue him and let the courts adjudicate our competing claims to the assignable good behind my house. If he takes our dispute personally and steals my property or assaults me, justice is involved in a different sense. Restitution will certainly be required, bringing allocative justice into play; however, my neighbour is also transgressing in a more serious way, improving his relative position by socially disallowed means. Theft and personal violence can be seen as ways of gaining an unfair advantage or nobbling the competition. (Gardner also suggests that criminal justice is allocative in the sense that it turns on the correct allocation of the status of criminal, which seems valid if rather ingenious.)

What about if my neighbour gets his revenge by a more indirect route, swearing at me in the street or disturbing my rest with loud music (or jamming my BBC 4 signal)? In such a case, given that the good in question is non-assignable, justice in Gardner’s terms may not be involved. Even so, the courts are likely to take the view that my entitlement to a non-assignable good has been needlessly infringed. (Not that this is a simple proposition, as we can see if we remember Hohfeld. If I am entitled to quiet nights – and why should I not be? there is, in principle, no shortage – does this mean that I hold a privilege as against all my neighbours, with a correlative duty on each of their parts not to disturb my rest? Can this be generalised, to cover mutual obligations among neighbours and entitlements to other forms of domestic tranquillity? I think this would be very problematic. Make these duty/privilege relationships unwaivable and everyone involved would be encumbered with a vast array of duties to abstain from potentially disturbing behaviours. Make them waivable, on the other hand, and the effect would be to destroy the universality apparently offered by the discourse of rights: all we would do would be to translate different individuals’ widely varying levels of entitlement and grievance into the language of waived and unwaived rights.)

Setting these broader considerations aside, the main point here is that deliberate deprivation of a non-assignable good can be grasped in terms of (allocative) justice, essentially by assimilating it to the ‘unfair advantage’ model associated with criminal justice. Indeed, we could rework the ‘unfair advantage’ model itself in terms of the deprivation of a non-assignable good. Laws criminalising physical violence, for instance, can be seen as protecting the non-assignable good of bodily integrity. In terms of acquisitive crime, if individuals A, B and C are all planning to bid for a valuable object at an auction, but are prevented from doing so when I steal it, what I have deprived them of is precisely the non-assignable good of a fair competition. A similar argument could be developed for the theft of an article on sale, or (less directly) of something in private possession. (We can see here, incidentally, how far removed the principles of allocative justice are from any redistributive model of social justice; in allocative terms, mere ownership of a resource at a given point cannot be unjust. Allocative justice and social justice must always be in tension, this side of the revolution.)

The principle here is that the autonomous, self-interested individuals on which our legal model is predicated need – and hence are entitled to – certain non-allocative goods if they are to play their competitive, law-governed part in society. One such good is the rule of law itself; others are bodily integrity and property rights. We can extend this model of entitlement – and hence of rights which can be vindicated in the courts and disputes which can be adjudicated according to law – to other non-assignable goods, including the good of eight hours’ sleep or an evening in front of BBC 4. In practice, many non-assignable goods are difficult to deal with in this way, as witness the vagaries of anti-social behaviour legislation: the baseline entitlement to a non-assignable good (such as peace and quiet), the level to which others are responsible for upholding that entitlement and the degree to which offending behaviour infringes it are often hard to establish. However, this is not to say that relationships between one person’s anti-social behaviour and another’s unmerited suffering can never be established; in practice they very often can. My neighbour is not going to be able to fly under the law’s radar by making sure that all he deprives me of is the non-assignable good of a good night’s sleep – any more than if it were the non-assignable good of an unbroken nose.

But what is my neighbour doing in the (mercifully, highly unlikely) case that he tortures me? Here, I think, a different relationship between justice and personhood obtains. If we think of bodily integrity as a non-assignable good (and certainly your good health does nothing to impair mine), then the victim of torture has been deprived of a non-assignable good, and may be unable to play a full part in society as a result – but, as stated, this is no less true of the victim of a random assault at pub closing time. We can say that torture is more likely to have traumatic effects, and this seems significant: certainly if we think of other experiences which are likely to produce trauma (rape, battlefield stress, partner abuse) the word ‘torture’ is never far away. Torture, then, is one of the things that inflict trauma, in a way that a beating in the pub car park generally isn’t. But why is this a significant distinction? The point, I think, is that torture is an attack on my personhood. Personal violence can often be understood in terms of enhancing the attacker’s relative position by depriving the victim of a non-assignable good, making it harder for that person to play a role in society. Pace Gardner, the immorality of torture is not grounded in its depriving the victim of a non-assignable good. Torture is not about enhancing the torturer’s position relative to the victim, even with respect to the non-assignable good of freedom from pain. Torture – and other forms of traumatic assault – can be seen as an attack, not on the victim’s capacity to function in society, but on the victim’s basic recognition as a person who might be entitled to any such capacity. More simply put, causing pain for no reason is not something one person does to another; torture thus situates the victim as less than a person. It’s interesting, in passing, that Mill characterised rape in very similar terms – “the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclination”. To commit rape, in this line of thinking, is not to deny someone the good of freedom from rape, but to deny her the status of a person entitled to freedom from rape (and entitled, as a second-order right, to live her life on the basis of an assumed freedom from rape).

I think Gardner’s distinction between the immorality of torture and the wrongs which can be understood in terms of allocative justice is valid and powerful, although not quite in the way that he uses it. What I think it points to is the ways in which people can be reduced to something below the status of personhood – through torture or brutalisation, but also through homelessness, institutionalisation or becoming a refugee – and the powerlessness of the language of justice to address these very basic, fundamental wrongs. If the law is about justice, and justice is defined in terms of the correct adjudication of competing claims among autonomous individuals, how can it address – how can it fail to overlook – those people who are shut out of the game entirely, by being denied the status of person in the first place? And if the law can’t be invoked, what can?

2. Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?

A bit more Gardner, from the 2011 paper on tort law. It’s quite a complicated thought, so the quote has to be on the long side:

Let’s allow … that tort law often helps to constitute the correctively just solution. What doesn’t follow is that tort law’s norm of corrective justice should not be evaluated as an instrument. On the contrary, to fulfill its morally constitutive role, tort law’s norm of corrective justice must be evaluated as an instrument. It must be evaluated as an instrument of improved conformity with the very moral norm that it helps to constitute. To see why, think about some other laws that are supposed to lend more determinacy to counterpart moral norms.

Quite apart from the law, for example, one has a moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously. The law attempts to make this obligation more determinate by, for example, setting up traffic lights, road markings, and speed limits. If the law does this with sound judgment, the proper application of the relevant moral norm is changed in the process. A manoeuvre that would not count as dangerous driving apart from the legal force of the lane markings at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel may well count as dangerous driving – and hence a breach of the moral norm forbidding dangerous driving – once the lane markings are in place. But this holds only if the law proceeds with sound judgment. It holds only if relying on the lane markings assists those who rely on them to avoid violating the original moral norm. If the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel has profoundly confusing lane markings, reliance on which only serves to make road accidents more likely, failing to observe the lane markings is not a legally constituted way of driving dangerously. It is not immoral under the ‘dangerous driving’ heading. That is because, if the lane markings are profoundly confusing, driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving.

The lesson of the case is simple. A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm, unless conformity with the legal norm would help to secure conformity with the moral norm of which the legal norm is supposed to be partly constitutive.

We start with the “moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously”. Laws – embodied in road markings – are put in place to support this moral norm. In doing so they also constitute it, make it “more determinate”: if road markings are being generally observed, failing to observe them may amount to driving dangerously in and of itself. However, road markings – and laws – may defeat their own purpose. If road markings are so confusing that attempting to rely on them would make the driver more dangerous to other road users rather than less, failing to observe them will not amount to driving dangerously. Similarly a law may instantiate a moral norm, but do so in such a “profoundly confusing” way that someone attempting to observe the law will be more likely to violate the norm. If this is the case, anyone committed to observing the norm will be best advised to disregard the law which purports to embody it. “A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm”: road markings put in place to help prevent dangerous driving may themselves define dangerous driving, but only if observing them actually leads to less dangerous driving.

Three relationships between moral norms and the law are envisaged here. In one, the law embodies and gives substance to a moral norm. In the second, the “proper application” of the norm is redefined by reference to the law, leading to a changed perception of the norm itself. The third is identical to the second, except that in this scenario the “proper application” of the norm has been redefined to the point where the law does not assist observation of the norm, and may even impede it.

There’s a problem here, relating to that word ‘instrumental’. It seems to me that there’s something inherently problematic in judging the success or effectiveness of laws in consequentialist terms – in terms of the outcomes which they produce or appear to produce. Firstly, assuming that the moral norm to which a law relates can be straightforwardly identified, there is the question of what should be counted as success. Bad road markings, in Gardner’s image, are those for which “driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving”. However, it is a commonplace of debates on sentencing that the criminal law can modify behaviour – both individually and at the level of society – in many different ways; what type(s) of behaviour modification should be counted as success is an open question. Is a law prohibiting practice X at its most effective if the incidence of X-ing is reduced to zero? Or is the effectiveness of the law to be judged by the appropriateness of the punishment dealt out to X-ers, or by the opportunity it gives the community to express their repugnance at X-ing, or by the degree to which it raises awareness of the plight of victims of X-ers? A case could be made out for any of these, not all of which can be reconciled easily or at all. Secondly, it’s not always clear that the moral norm underlying a law can in fact be readily identified, still less the body of moral norms underlying the law (or an area of the law, such as the criminal law or the law of tort). The point here is not that the law is necessarily obscure, but that it is necessarily multivocal: it’s always possible for different and competing claims to be made as to the underlying moral rationale of a law or laws. This in turn raises the question of who is to do the identifying – and whether what they identify can change over time. Suppose that an elected government, facing a long-term economic depression, declares that poverty is a higher priority than crime, and that the law should generally not be used to impoverish poor offenders further. Or suppose that an elected government, facing a rise in crime figures, declares that the chief menace facing the country today is lawless behaviour by immigrants, asylum seekers, Travellers and people of no fixed abode, and that wrongdoing by individuals with no stake in a local community should be treated more harshly. Would these programmatic announcements represent authoritative clarifications of the body of moral norms instantiated by the law, the criminal law in particular? Would we expect the judiciary to ‘read down’ legislation to ensure compliance with these policy stances? If not, why not?

As in the case of torture considered as deprivation of a non-assignable good, I think Gardner’s analogy here pulls in a different direction from his stated argument. Road markings modify behaviour in a distinctive way and in a distinctive context, neither of which maps easily onto the law in general. To drive a vehicle is to put others at risk and accept the risk imposed by others; driving safely rather than dangerously benefits both the driver in question and other road users, in a way which is true of few other ‘virtues’ in driving. In effect, driving safely is the solution to the key co-ordination problem posed by collective road use – and it is a simple, readily available and generally acknowledged solution. Moreover, road markings constitute the moral norm of driving safely in a peculiarly authoritative way, which is perhaps only possible because the norm itself is so generally agreed. Road markings do not typically take the form of recommendations or advice; even to call them instructions would understate the force they have in practice. Rather than advise (or instruct) a driver to make certain choices, road markings typically operate by excluding certain choices altogether: they do not influence behaviour so much as structure it. As such, road markings are not open to be technically observed or observed in spirit or ingeniously circumvented: they are observed or not. Both the moral norm underlying road markings and the criteria for their observance are self-evident, in a way that is seldom true of the law.

Are we committed to abandoning any ‘instrumental’ evaluation of the law, or of individual laws, by reference to their outcome? This conclusion would be unfortunate; not only would it necessitate abandoning Gardner’s insight on the reflexive relationship between laws and norms, it would make it impossible to say whether any law was making the world a better place. A narrower reading of Gardner’s analogy may provide a solution. The situation in which road markings are “profoundly confusing”, such that “reliance on [them] only serves to make road accidents more likely”, can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The implication could be that the road markings are so confusing that it is effectively impossible for any one driver to follow them. Alternatively, it could mean that the markings can be followed, but only at so great a cost in time and attention as to force the driver to disregard other road users, so that observing the markings made his or her driving more rather than less dangerous. Lastly, it could mean that the markings are confusing in the sense of allowing widely diverse readings; markings which could plausibly be followed in multiple different ways would not make any one person’s driving more dangerous, but would greatly increase the likelihood of accidents.

All these forms of confusion can be readily envisaged as flaws of badly-made laws or legal systems: the law so complex and confusing that it is impossible to observe; the law whose demands are so extensive as to make it hard to carry on the activity the law is intended to regulate; the law whose vague or contradictory wording causes more social conflicts than it resolves. Any one of these flaws will make a law less effective, either in guiding individual behaviour or in resolving co-ordination problems; as a result, the moral norm underlying the law will be less effectively constituted in social practice, or (at worst) not constituted at all. However, these are all formal flaws: the failure of the law to constitute a moral norm can be inferred from the failure of the law as law. The realisation of the moral norm underlying the law does not need to be measured as an outcome – indeed, it is probably better if this is not attempted, for the reasons given above.

What I draw from Gardner’s analogy, in short, is a restatement of the intimate connection between morality and the formal virtues of law. To say that a law or body of laws is coherent, comprehensible and followable is not simply to say that it is well-made. A well-made law is also one which is well suited to embody a moral norm – and, crucially, to refine and specify the proper application of the norm in social practice, playing “[a] partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm”. Whether or not the formal virtues of law have any moral content in themselves, I think this argument suggests that there is at least an irreducible affinity between law and morality.

Build A Better Yesterday

How could the film Yesterday have been improved? Over the fold, ten and a half possible improvements. Continue reading

Something happening here

But what it is, ain’t exactly clear…

The European elections sent a very clear message to both Labour and the Tories. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the message that politicians think they’ve been sent.

1. The Forward March of…?

Here’s a very scary chart.

I don’t need to tell you what those regions are, or what those colours stand for (the dark grey on the end = ‘others’). The cyan-faced Brexit beast stalks the land, polling in the high 30s, relegating the main political parties to second and third place, leaving the staunch Remainers of the Liberal Democrats in the dust… oh, wait.

Sorry, wrong figures. That’s what happened the last time the European elections were run, in 2014. These are the results from 2019. (The new pale grey column is Change UK, bless ’em).

As results go these are, obviously, even worse than the first lot, and it would be obtuse to say that there isn’t much difference between 2019 and 2014. But it’s important to recognise that there are an awful lot of similarities between 2019 and 2014 – in particular, of course, the toweringly strong performance of Brexit parties in every English region except London. (Note the phrasing; I’m specifically not saying “everywhere in England except London”. London’s unique in being a city-region; the Brexit party came second or third in a number of other cities, Manchester included, but none of those cities was big enough to determine the voting pattern of its respective region.)

To underline the point, here are the two charts together – 2019 then 2014. Methodological note: as well as the main Brexit party (UKIP in 2014, BXP in 2019), the cyan column includes all minor ‘Brexit’ parties and all far-Right parties – UKIP and English Democrats in 2019; An Independence From Europe, We Demand A Referendum Now and the BNP in 2014, plus a couple of other odds and sods. (I hesitated over including the far Right, but given that people are willing to bring Alternative für Deutschland and Rassemblement National under the “populist nationalist” banner these days, we can’t really have a fit of the vapours every time somebody lumps Liberty GB in with BXP.) For simplicity I’ll refer to all of these as “British nationalist” parties from now on.

So, 2019 was pretty bad – across the country, British nationalists got 34% of the vote (30.5% for BXP alone), with Labour on 14% and the Greens and Lib Dems on 31% between them. But 2014 wasn’t exactly brilliant; British nationalists got over 30% (28.5% for UKIP), pushing Labour and the Conservatives into second and third places with 24% and 23% respectively – and the Greens and Lib Dems got less than 14% between them.

(I say “across the country”; these are UK-wide vote shares. I’ve left the Scotland and Wales EU regions off these charts for simplicity, and because I don’t know a lot about what motivates a nationalist vote in those countries – and I’m damned if I know what motivates a British nationalist vote in those countries, although clearly something does.)

2. Turning It Off And Then On Again

Is this the new order, if you’ll pardon the expression? Is Farage’s hollow shell of a party just going to mobilise and keep on mobilising, to the point where the Tory Party finally splits and passes on its majoritarian bonus – the over-representation of the two leading parties in our electoral system – to BXP? Even if Labour does win the next election, is Corbyn going to be taking PMQs from Claire Fox and Annunziata Rees-Mogg? I don’t think things are quite that bad yet, if they ever will be. The Euro election results actually offer some reasons for cautious optimism, as well as some cause for alarm.

First off, remember 2014 – and remember what happened next. Here’s another chart, which should again be fairly self-explanatory.

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 15.31.08

The dates, of course, are those of the last five General Elections, and the last five European elections. I think it’s fair to say that there are some patterns. Look at what happens to the main party vote shares in 2004, 2009 and 2014, and look at how transient it is. Notice how in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the Labour vote bounces back to something close to the level of the previous general election. Look at the similarity between the combined Tory+nationalist votes in 2014 and 2015; for a more dramatic version of the same effect compare 2017 and 2019. (In 2004 and 2009, it could plausibly be argued that British nationalist parties were eating into Labour’s vote as much as – or even more than – the Tories’. But it didn’t last.) In 2017, Labour alone got a similar vote to the total for Labour, the LDs and the Greens combined at the Euro election of 2014 – and the combined Labour+LD+Green vote in 2019 is very nearly as high as it was in 2017, despite a rather different distribution between those parties.

As dramatic as the fluctuations are, the figures also tell a more important and less dramatic story: a story in which both Labour and the Tories can usually rely on around 30% of the vote; in which a period of highly polarised party-political campaigning can (temporarily?) drive both parties’ vote shares up to 40%; and in which a period of highly polarised campaigning not based on normal party politics can (temporarily) eat into both main parties’ votes. James Butler commented recently, “as Brexit increasingly defines the political conversation, both ends of Labour’s electoral coalition begin to fray”. I’d rephrase that by saying that if and when Brexit is allowed to define the political conversation, Labour’s electoral coalition does begin to fray; and if not, not. Look what happens to the Labour and Green votes in 2009 and 2010, and again in 2014 and 2015. Not allowing Brexit to dominate the conversation is a bigger ask in 2019 than it was in 2010 or 2015, admittedly – as witness the disappointing local election results – but there’s still a serious difference of degree between Euro and Westminster elections.

If it even is a difference of degree; there’s a strong – and familiar – argument that it’s a difference in kind. At general elections, people vote for the next government; at European elections, people (in this country at least) vote expressively, to “send a message”. And if you’re sending a message you’re sending it to somebody, unless your addressee is God or Father Christmas; implicitly or explicitly, you’re voting on the basis that your usual representatives will get the message and act on it, whereupon you can go back to voting for them. As, by and large, people do.

Digression on European elections in the UK. This tendency to use the Euros for “expressive” purposes is, of course, a problem; arguably it’s the problem, or at least a symptom of it. Consider: I’m a Remainer, who thinks that the 2016 referendum result was a disaster and actually going through with Brexit would be catastrophic; I believe in British membership of the EU and (by extension) British participation in EU institutions. I haven’t given up hope that we won’t leave at all, although I can’t see how we’re going to get to that conclusion just at the moment. More particularly, I’m a Labour voter, but I can’t see how Labour policy is going to stop Britain leaving the EU.

Now, why on earth would I vote Green or Lib Dem? Consider the evidence:

  1. I support the Labour Party. In general elections and council elections I vote Labour; I don’t vote Green, and I’d sell my granny before I’d vote Liberal Democrat. (I didn’t spell this last point out to begin with, but talk to a few Labour supporters and you’ll see.)
  2. I believe that the European Parliament, whatever its flaws, is an important institution which does valuable work.
  3. I hope and trust that the UK will remain a member of the EU for the next five years.
  4. Given the last two points, I believe that any MEP I help to elect will be doing significant work on my behalf for anything up to five years.
  5. I am concerned that Labour may not do enough to stop the UK leaving the EU.
  6. I intend to vote for the Green candidate.

How’s that for a shock twist? Even with point 5, points 1-3 just don’t support the conclusion: if you’re a Labour supporter and you believe in the EU, why wouldn’t you want Labour MEPs representing you? If we remain, you’ve got Labour MEPs for five years; if we leave, at least you’ve got Labour MEPs until then – and even if leaving is (in some undefined sense) Labour’s fault, Labour MEPs won’t be trying to advance the Brexit cause while they’re actually there. They’ll be trying to advance party policy – you know, the policies of the party you support, the one you always vote for in preference to the Greens and never mind the Lib Dems…

I suspect the weak link here is point 2. In this country, at least, we really don’t know what the European Parliament is or does – it’s seldom reported on at all, and almost never accurately and honestly – and it’s easy to assume that it doesn’t do very much, or that whatever it does isn’t very important. And if you make that assumption, then a vote in the Euros literally doesn’t matter: it’s not part of the democratic fabric in the way that Westminster and council elections are, it’s just this additional democratic… thing… that you can use if you want to, without any real consequences. From there it’s only a hop and a skip to an expressive vote, sending a message, standing up and being counted and the rest of it.

The inevitable result of all this is that people vote differently – and for different reasons – at the Euros compared to Westminster elections.

3. The Forward March of… the Liberal Democrats?

This in turn means that there’s no point comparing the 2019 Euro election figures with the 2017 general election, let alone extrapolating from those two data points to what might happen in the next general election. 2015 wasn’t identical to 2010, but it looked nothing at all like 2014; equally, 2014 looked nothing like 2010, but it looked quite a lot like 2009. For 2019, the real point of comparison is the 2014 Euro election.

When you do that, and plot gains and losses in vote share between 2014 and 2019, you get these two – final – charts.

These show the gains and losses between the elections of 2014 and 2019, in additive and proportional form. Taking London as an example, the first chart tells you that the Lib Dems put on 20% between the two elections, while Labour lost 12% and the Tories 14%. The second chart tells you, in effect, how serious these changes were: it tells you that the 2019 Lib Dem vote was 400% of the 2014 vote, while the Labour and Tory votes were around 75% and 35%, respectively, of their previous figures. In other words, the Lib Dems’ extra 20% – being a gain of 300% – was a much bigger deal than either of the major parties’ losses, while the Tory loss of 14% was much more serious than the Labour loss of 12%; despite being similar in absolute terms, the Tory loss represented 65% of their previous vote, but the Labour loss only represented 25% of theirs.

It’s this second chart that most vividly illustrates quite how bad the Tories’ result was this time, right across England. Tory losses are mostly between 10% and 20% in absolute terms. These are big losses, but it’s the proportional calculation that tells you just how big: in relative terms their losses range from 60% to 70% – around two thirds of their 2014 vote. As the second chart shows, these losses are consistently worse than Labour’s; even in the North East, where in absolute terms the Tories lost 11% of their vote share compared to 17% for Labour, in relative terms they lost more than 60% of their vote to Labour’s 45%. Outside the North East, Labour’s losses are in the 5%-15% range in absolute terms; in relative terms all Labour losses are in the 30-50% range (which is not a great range to be in, admittedly). The proportional chart also shows the Green Party’s gains clearly; 40% in London, 100% in the West Midlands and 50-80% everywhere else. As for the Lib Dems, London was an outlier, but we can see clearly that they had a really good election: gains of between 180% and 230% in six out of nine regions are not to be sneezed at.

4. Berkshire Diners’ Club Issues New Security Alert

The Brexit Party, of course, came from nowhere to top the polls, as its founder and sole proprietor has reminded us – albeit not to universal applause.

If we ignore the labelling and compare the votes for all British nationalist parties across the two elections – and that’s what I’ve been doing so far, so why would I stop now? – we see something interesting; which is to say, we don’t see very much. The aggregate nationalist vote is up across the country – even in London it’s up by 0.3%(!) – but there’s only one region – North East England – where the absolute increase is greater than 6%. Similarly, in seven regions out of nine the relative increase in the nationalist vote was in the 7-17% range; it was lower in London and higher – 29% – in North East England. Now, I am concerned about what’s happening up there – between BXP and UKIP 44.9% of people voted British nationalist in the North East, which is a great deal too high for comfort, even on a 33% turnout. But that’s the only region where this election suggests that BXP is making serious inroads – and even there the Lib Dems showed greater absolute gains (and much greater relative gains).

This in turn suggests two things. First, on the limits of the Brexit Party. I’m loth to underestimate Nigel Farage and his backers, and – to be scrupulously fair – annexing most of the UKIP vote and then adding some extra Tories (spoiler) is quite an achievement, even if it’s not quite the achievement he’s made it out to be. Whatever else you can say about UKIP, it is at least a party, with branches and members who can campaign for it, and that might have been expected to keep it afloat; you’d think that name recognition in the polling booth would favour the party, too, at least among people who’d voted for UKIP in the past. It wasn’t to be. Farage’s brutally simple message and his charismatic leadership style did the job, and UKIP’s loss of all but 3.2% of its 26.6% 2014 vote share became the Brexit Party’s gain – augmented by another 7% of voters.

Which brings me, by a roundabout route, to the point. The assumption that the voters in one election are the same people who voted in an election five years ago is obviously false – there’s demographic change, there are turnout differences, there are political factors which might encourage one group to vote and another to abstain. But, unless we have reliable knowledge of those things and their likely effects, we’re better off starting off by assuming a spherical cow than by building in assumptions that may be entirely out of whack with reality. So, as a starting point, let’s assume that The People turned out and voted one way in 2014, then turned out again in 2019 and voted differently.

Then the question is: assuming that 90% of the UKIP contingent of The People is available for the Brexit Party, who else is the new party drawing in? How’s the project of mobilising the 52% going? And it looks as if they may be hitting a natural ceiling – even if, at 30.5%, that ceiling is a bit more vaulty than we might like. Take 23.4% from the Kippers, add the 3% of the 2014 vote whose alternative British nationalist vehicles weren’t available this time – some of these may of course have gone to UKIP instead, in which case an even higher proportion of the old Kipper vote has gone to Farage – and you’re already approaching 26.5%. So far from rallying disgusted Tories and alienated Labour supporters, the Brexit Party only seems to have been able to attract a further 4% of unknown origin.

(I can’t write about this stuff for very long without needing to look at that clip again. “Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, Up Jenkins – up the lot of them!”)

5. With and Against the Flow

Now, putting the UKIP vote (and the BNP vote) in the bag is all well and good, but what the Brexit Party really needed was a net rise in the total British nationalist vote; what it needed to do – and promised it would do – was recruit new supporters from the Tories and Labour, who had supposedly betrayed their respective constituencies by foot-dragging over Brexit. Did they do it? You be the judge; here are some figures, for a change from all those charts.

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservative vote: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Total British nationalist vote: 34.1%, up from 30.3% (+3.8%)
2019 BXP vote: 30.5% = 23.4% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 4.1% (???)

Between them, the two main parties released 25% of the vote onto the market. The brand spanking new Brexit Party, with its cross-class appeal, its charismatic leader and its bracingly single-minded focus on the issue of the day, picked up 4.1% of them.

Once we realise we’re only looking at 4% of genuine ‘new business’ – which is to say, once we realise that BXP has only acquired a few more new voters than Change UK, even in a European election – the question of where they all came from is less pressing. (If we assume that (a) some BXP voters voted Labour in 2014 and (b) more BXP voters were ex-Tory than ex-Labour, the range of possibiilties runs from 16% of ex-Labour voters and 17% of ex-Tories (1.7% + 2.4%) to 1% of ex-Labour and 28% of ex-Tories (0.1% + 4%); it’ll be somewhere in there. Either way it’s not a whole lot of people.)

The real question is, where did all those votes go – the Tory votes especially. (And they must have gone somewhere – turnout was up compared to 2014.) Let’s assume that Labour’s contribution to the BXP 4.1% was small, and make up most of the increase from ex-Tories. Let’s also assume that the other ex-Labour voters went to Remain parties – the Greens, the Lib Dems, Change UK. And let’s revisit those figures.

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservatives: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Lib Dems: 19.6%, up from 6.6% (+13%)
Greens: 12.6%, up from 8.5% (+4.1%)
UKIP: 3.2%, down from 26.6% (-23.4%)
Change UK: 3.3%
Brexit Party: 30.5%

Maybe it was something like this:

BXP vote: 30.5% = 23.4% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 1% (ex-Labour) + 3.1% (ex-Con)
Change UK vote: 3.3% = 2.3% (ex-Labour) + 1% (ex-Con)
Lib Dem vote: 19.6% = 6.9% + 4% (ex-Labour) + 8.7% (ex-Con)
Green vote: 12.6% = 8.5% + 3% (ex-Labour) + 1.1% (ex-Con)
Labour vote: 13.7% = 24.5% – (1% (BXP) + 2.3% (ChUK) + 4% (Lib Dem) + 3% (Green)
Tory vote: 8.8% = 23.1% – (3.1% (BXP) + 1% (ChUK) + 8.7% (Lib Dem) + 1.1% (Green))

The figures don’t add up perfectly, but it seems reasonable to assume that the real flows were something quite like that, give or take a few extra minor parties and flows I haven’t modelled (away from the Greens and Lib Dems, for example). Apart from anything else, the small scale of a lot of the figures imposes limitations: it would be difficult to make the Tory contribution to the Greens or ChUK much larger, or their contribution to BXP or the Lib Dems much smaller.

If this is right, though, it has some quite startling implications. It means that Labour lost nine times as much of its 2014 vote to the Greens, Lib Dems and ChUK as they did to Farage: 9.3% vs 1% – or nearly 40% of the 2014 vote vs 5% of it. More importantly, these figures also suggest that the Tories are in a similar position, as they appear to have lost more than three times as much of their 2014 vote to Remain parties as they did to the Brexit Party: 10.8% to Remain parties vs 3.1% to BXP – more than 45% of the vote vs less than 15% of it. The Euro election results have a message for the Tories – and the message is, move back to Remain before it’s too late. (The message for Labour is not dissimilar.)

To conclude, three questions. First, how has this been missed? (To ask the same question another way, have I got this wrong?) Second, should we be worried for Labour? Third, should we be worried for the Tories?

Why has everyone compared vote flows with the previous general election – if they’ve looked at vote flows at all – and missed what I believe is the real story? I can think of three reasons. Firstly, the apparent vote flows as compared with the 2017 election are much – I mean, much – more dramatic. 40% Labour and 42% Tory, down to 14% and 9%? if voters were gearing up to behave like that at the next general election, it would be action stations all round. Nobody wants to be the bearer of the news that it’s probably a lot more complicated than that, and a lot less exciting, although of course we don’t know for sure.

Secondly and more philosophically, people – perhaps especially people in the news media – have a reluctance to look at the world sociologically; to see stuff people do as, well, just stuff people do. If somebody votes Labour in 2010 and UKIP in 2014, that may mean they were Labour but now are UKIP, or it may mean they’re using their vote differently on one occasion than another; the evidence of voting patterns across European and general elections strongly suggests the latter. And, of course, that person may not be either Labour or UKIP: they may be a diasporic Welsh nationalist or an anti-state anarchist; they may not have a strong sense of being anything politically.

Brief philosophical digression. Imagine there’s a society where, once a year, everyone goes to a central location, has some blood drawn, declares publicly that they are Labour or Tory (Remain or Leave, Protestant or Catholic, United or City…) and then signs the declaration, in public, in their own blood. In between those times, how much would all of a person’s other political behaviours matter – voting, talking about politics, associating with some people and not others – when it came to knowing, authoritatively, what they were? Would any of those behaviours tell us who that person was, politically? Of course they wouldn’t – that’s why we have the signing ceremony, everyone knows that; in between ceremonies, there could be all sorts of reasons why you might choose to do such and such a thing on such and such a day. Now, imagine the same society without the annual ritual, the public declaration and the signing in blood; imagine those things never existed. Voting, talking about politics, associating with some people and not others – does any of those behaviours tell us who a person is, politically?

(If you got a momentary sense of vertigo then, congratulations – and welcome aboard.)

The idea that what people are can be inferred from how they vote – or that we are anything, politically speaking – is subjectivist to the point of being impossible to verify; effectively it’s meaningless. What matters is what you do – and people do different things on different occasions. (One way of thinking about political commitment is that it consists of tying one’s future choices to the mast of a cause, so as to produce the effect that one is, by nature, committed to that cause.)

Thirdly and least dramatically, I suspect that somebody out there is in fact looking at 2014-2019 vote flows, but that they’re doing it properly – rather than bashing an Excel spreadsheet for a couple of evenings and then speculating a lot – and that takes time.

6. The Tories’ Latest Nightmare (Which Nobody’s Noticed)

Should we worry about Labour? Shorter answer: no; look at 2009 – much worse than this year (in terms of flows from Labour to UKIP), and Labour came back from that. Slightly longer answer: no, except for the North East: up there, for whatever reason(s), British nationalist politics seems to be becoming embedded – and making real encroachments on Labour – in a way that we don’t see in the rest of the country, not even the East coast of Rochester and Thurrock. But the results certainly don’t suggest there’s any more mileage for Labour in appealing to Leavers, at least when it comes to keeping the votes Labour’s already got. Ironically, while the results do suggest that the Brexit Party is a threat to the two main parties, this is mainly in the sense that their failure to oppose it effectively is driving voters to make a statement by lending their votes to a more unequivocally Remain-aligned party.

I’m not worried about the feasibility of Labour going Remain, in the sense of adopting remaining in the EU as a goal, while keeping most of its Brexit-leaning voters; a rueful concession that Brexit can’t be made to work after all has always been one of the most plausible end-points for Labour’s Brexit strategy. I am worried about the possibility of Labour going Remain, in the sense of deliberately trying to polarise around Remain:

Resisting Brexit is fighting Fascism – and it’s a “culture war” in which “appeals to class solidarity” are useless? This is reckless stuff. Labour aren’t in power yet; to win the next election the party will need both to maintain its existing coalition of support – including all those Labour voters who went for the Lib Dems and Greens last Thursday – and to build on it. And that’s going to mean appealing to people who didn’t vote Labour in 2017 – and did vote Leave in 2016. “We’re Remain, you’re a bunch of racists and we don’t care if you get the sack” doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to reach those people.

But these worries are nothing compared to the situation confronting the Tories. Perhaps because they’re looking at flows from 2017, perhaps because of the sheer scale of that 30.5% vote, the Tories individually and collectively seem convinced that their lost voters went to the Brexit Party last week – when in fact 3/4 of them went to the Lib Dems and Greens, because of the Brexit Party.

If the Tories continue to treat Farage as a threat that needs to be appeased – if they continue to act as if the Brexit Party stole 60% of their vote single-handed – the relatively few Tory voters who lent their vote to BXP for the Euros will come back to the fold, but they would have done anyway. The danger is that the voters who voted expressively by jumping ship for the Lib Dems – and, perhaps, the Greens and ChUK – will feel that their message hasn’t got across, and that their party isn’t the party for them any more. In other words, the Tories’ reaction to the Euro results could make them much more of a threat to the party than they would otherwise have been.

Oh well, the decomposition of the Conservative Party continues.

Update 1/6/19 Another thought about vote flows: I’ve said that more than three times as many 2014 Tory votes seem to have gone to Remain parties as to the Brexit Party (it looks as if nearly three times as many went to the Lib Dems alone), but what if it’s more complicated than that? What if BXP didn’t pick up all the 2014 UKIP voters who abandoned the party in 2019? In particular, what if some Kippers went Tory at the same time as some Tories – perhaps a lot of Tories – went Brexit? Might the Tories have lost as many votes to the Brexit Party as to Remain parties – or more votes, even?

Here are the figures, one more time:

2019 Labour vote: 13.7%, down from 24.5% (-10.8%)
Conservatives: 8.8%, down from 23.1% (-14.3%)
Lib Dems: 19.6%, up from 6.6% (+13%)
Greens: 12.6%, up from 8.5% (+4.1%)
UKIP: 3.2%, down from 26.6% (-23.4%)
Change UK: 3.3%
Brexit Party: 30.5%

Earlier, I assumed that 10.7% of the Tories’ lost votes had gone to Remain parties and 3.1% to BXP (for a total of 13.8%; that’s as close as I could get the numbers to adding up). Assume that 10.8% of voters voted Tory in 2014 and BXP in 2019, and that this effect was disguised by the ‘churn’ between UKIP and the Tories. Can we make the figures add up?

BXP vote: 30.5% = 15.7% (2014 UKIP) + 3% (2014 UKIP splinters/BNP/etc) + 1% (ex-Labour) + 10.8% (ex-Con)
Change UK vote: 3.3% = 2.3% (ex-Labour) + 1% (ex-Con)
Lib Dem vote: 19.6% = 6.9% + 4% (ex-Labour) + 8.7% (ex-Con)
Green vote: 12.6% = 8.5% + 3% (ex-Labour) + 1.1% (ex-Con)
Labour vote: 13.7% = 24.5% – (1% (BXP) + 2.3% (ChUK) + 4% (Lib Dem) + 3% (Green)
Tory vote: 8.8% = 23.1% – (10.8% (BXP) + 1% (ChUK) + 8.7% (Lib Dem) + 1.1% (Green)) + 7.5% (UKIP)
UKIP vote: 3.2% = 26.6% – (15.7% (BXP) + 7.5% (Con))

It’s possible, just about. Note, however, that I can only make it work by assuming that a third of the 2014 UKIP vote would now rather vote for Theresa May’s party than Nigel Farage’s, which seems like a very strong claim. Moreover, this is a bare 50:50 split between Tory-to-Remain and Tory-to-BXP flows, with the smallest possible majority for the latter (10.8% vs 10.7%). The very highest Tory-to-BXP flow the figures will support is 12.1%; any higher and you end up with the Tories losing more than 23.1% of the vote, which of course is impossible.

All this, admittedly, is on the basis of 8.7% of votes going from the Tories in 2014 to the Lib Dems in 2019, a figure which does seem high-ish. However, it’s hard to reduce: the difference would need to be made up out of the 2014-Labour vote – which in turn would necessitate adjustments to the Green and ChUK vote flows, and we’d end up with much the same figure for the total Tory-to-Remain vote flow, just distributed differently between the three Remain parties. The key point here is that the Labour vote is much less malleable than the Tories’; there’s very little scope for cross-cutting vote flows involving UKIP. I’m not saying that Labour voters at General Elections don’t vote UKIP/BXP at the Euros – clearly many do – but doubting that UKIP voters from the 2014 Euros would switch to Labour in 2019.

But then, I doubt that UKIP voters from the 2014 Euros would switch to the Tories in any large numbers. All told, it looks as if the figures tell a very simple story: compared to 2014, the Brexit Party made very little progress, and both Labour and the Tories lost sizeable tranches of votes to explicitly Remain parties – very sizeable indeed in the case of the Tories. Taking into account the established tendency for ‘expressive’ voting at Euro elections, and taking into account the low and (apparently) age-tapered turnout, I think we can reasonably say that these were pretty good results. (Apart from the North East.)

The only thing that’ll make you see sense

Pardon the long silence. It has long- as well as short-term reasons, which I may get into in another post – nothing alarming, just some ruminations about the Vocation of a Blogger. In the mean time, the short-term reasons have more or less lifted, so let’s crack on.

Here’s a couple of Tweets that you may have seen recently.

 

I’ve got a few thoughts about this, but first:

1. Background reading

A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. … Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.
– George Orwell, “England Your England” (1941)

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’
– P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1938)

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, [Roy] Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation … what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. … the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.
– me, this blog (2005)

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
– Phil Ochs (1966)

2. The unbearable lightness of being liberal

There’s something odd about the apparent straightforwardness and consistency of the position Hinsliff (among others) takes here; three things, to be precise. First, let’s unpack. That Tweet lists five forms of “INTIMIDATION/STUFF THAT COULD TURN UGLY”, although I’ve expanded the list to six.

  1. “milkshake-throwing”: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic, which has been used against politicians for as long as there have been politicians and tomatoes; causes victims inconvenience and makes them look ridiculous, while involving no or minimal physical contact; currently being used against extreme right-wingers Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage
  2. “rape ‘joke’-making”: deniable aggressive tactic, used by misogynists against women; evokes serious physical violence so as to cause fear and intimidation, in both the direct target and other women; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician
  3. “egging”[1]: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic (as above); may be responded to aggressively or with class (NB second approach appears more successful)
  4. “egging”[2]: smacking a politician in the head while holding an egg; aggressive physical contact, expressing anger by evoking a threat of serious physical violence; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician inside a mosque
  5. “threatening to pick up rifle”: deniable aggressive tactic, evoking serious physical violence so as to intimidate all political opponents; used by Farage
  6. “punching Nazis”: aggressive physical contact, expressing anger and aiming to interrupt and inconvenience extreme right-wingers in public spaces

It should be reasonably clear that two of these things are not like the others. 2, 4, 5 and 6 aren’t “stuff that could turn ugly”; they already are ugly. Punching people is bad, and polluting political debate by suggesting that you might resort to rape or murder if you can’t get your way – in jest, of course! – is, if anything, even worse. Hinsliff’s list doesn’t work, or else it works only by juxtaposition: throwing a milkshake at Farage, or an egg at Ed Miliband, qualifies as “stuff that could turn ugly” for no other reason than that it’s been put together with a lot of other “ugly” tactics.

Second point: setting aside the first, basically innocuous form of “egging”, this is a list of three things that are currently only done by the extreme Right, and two that are only done to them. The general point about civility in politics which those Tweets are aiming for would work much better if the Left – any part of the Left – could be charged with punching people in general, or even punching their political enemies in general. But the evidence won’t support that, so “punching Nazis” it had to be. The historical context Hinsliff clearly wants to rise above won’t go away: we’re left with a list of three reasons to oppose the rise of the extreme Right and two tactics for doing so, one of which doesn’t involve direct physical violence. You’d think this would be a reason to welcome the use of milkshakes rather than fists, not to deplore both of them equally.

Third point: why is it “not pick’n’mix”? Certainly I’d hope that any left-wing organisation would kick out anyone indulging himself in “rape jokes”, and I can’t see physically attacking people behind closed doors as a viable left-wing tactic – but since neither of these things has recently happened or seems likely to happen, the point is academic. Beyond that, though, the rationale for Hinsliff’s position is obscure – unless she’s urging honesty and consistency on the extreme Right, whose adoption of tactics 2, 4 and 5 makes them ill-suited to complain about 1 and 6. Aimed at the Left it seems like an odd sort of ultimatum – either concede that rape jokes are OK or disown everyone who assaults a Fascist – and I have to come back to the question, why? Where is this demand for consistency coming from, and who is likely to listen to it? I don’t have any trouble saying that I would rather bad things happened to my political enemies than to my allies, if they’re going to happen to anyone; I don’t think many people do.

Perhaps this argument only makes intuitive sense if you’re equally disengaged from both sides. That’s not a good place to be, though. These are dangerous times; the extreme Right is on the rise, in Britain and around the world, and it needs to be resisted by every appropriate means. (Vote Labour, by the way!) In an ideal world I wouldn’t want anyone hit with anything, but in practical terms I struggle to see the difference between Farage’s milkshake and Ed Miliband’s egg – other than that the milkshake was more effective in making its target look ridiculous, and sent the additional message of bracketing Farage with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as extreme Right-wingers. And, if an extreme Right-winger like Farage feels that he can’t show himself in public without hearing the Voice of the People saying, in effect,

Look at that frightful ass Farage swanking about! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

that doesn’t seem like a situation we should regret.

3. Don’t talk

Two inter-related arguments are often advanced against the use of physical force tactics, and have surfaced again since the Farage incident: we’re told that we shouldn’t provoke them, and that we should defeat them in debate.

Debate is great, of course, but only on two procedural conditions: that you have some kind of shared principles with your opponent, and that neither one of you is looking forward to the complete defeat and elimination of the other. If the first of these doesn’t apply, debate is pointless, as it can only (and invariably will) lead to the two sides restating their own principles at each other and/or trying to make each other look bad, using the ‘debate’ solely as a platform for appealing to the audience. (So many political debates in the media take precisely this form that it’s worth pausing here for a moment, to remind ourselves that (for example) “a fully-funded health service or a reliable NATO partner?” isn’t actually a debate – any more than “blue or large?” would be.) If the second condition doesn’t apply, debate is positively dangerous, as it gives credibility to those absolutist and anti-political goals, and gives that side space to rally support for them.

Fascism has the peculiar quality that much of its content is procedural; fascism is defined, in other words, not by the proposals it puts forward within the political arena but by its opposition to the political arena itself. Fascism isn’t alone in having a procedural payload – one element of the Thatcherite agenda was to reshape British democracy, greatly reducing the role of some stakeholders (trade unions, council tenants) and increasing that of others (shareholders, home-owners) – but the corrosive negativity of Fascism takes this element of politics to an extreme. As such, Fascists are quite impossible to “defeat in debate”; they share no principles with democratic opponents, have no commitment to a continuing political dialogue, and generally have no interest in debate, except as a platform to gain support. Moreover, since their position is primarily negative, exploiting debates as a platform is not hard: all it takes is aggression, tenacity and the ability to make their opponents look more ridiculous than they do. We don’t debate with Fascists; we don’t give their positions respectability; we don’t give them a platform. It’s worth noting that both Hinsliff’s examples of anti-Fascist violence are, precisely, aimed at denying extreme Right-wingers a public platform – and making them look ridiculous.

As for provocation, three thoughts. Firstly, in purely tactical terms a general caution against provocation makes no sense; sadly, we are long past the stage where a sleeping extreme-Right dragon might be roused by incautious Leftist aggression. If there is a case against provocation, it must be either a case-by-case assessment or a general ban on non-tactical grounds – but if those grounds aren’t based on absolute pacifism, I’m not sure what they would be based on. Secondly, it’s true that making life difficult for one’s opponents to speak in public is a provocation; you could also call it a challenge. The message it sends is, come back and do better, if you can; come back in big enough numbers that we won’t be able to stop you… if you can. (The other thing you could call it is a gamble.) What liberal observers don’t tend to factor in is that, despite their self-image, not every extreme-Right organisation has determined leaders and huge numbers of footsoldiers; if anything, it’s rather the exception to the rule. In most cases, the challenge – or provocation – will be quietly declined, leaving public spaces Fascist-free. Yes, it’s a gamble, but it can be argued, in some situations, that the benefit is high enough and the risk low enough to make it worth taking. Thirdly, and most importantly, provocation in this sense doesn’t seem to be how things work; there simply isn’t that much evidence of relatively peaceful extreme Right-wingers reacting to violent leftist provocation by taking up violence. Extreme right-wingers do react violently to provocation, it’s true, but what they consider provocation isn’t generally anything to do with violence. Carl Benjamin threatened a woman with rape in response to ‘feminism’; John Murphy assaulted Jeremy Corbyn in response to Parliament’s failure to enact Brexit; Darren Osborne drove his car into a group of Muslims in response to their being Muslims; Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox in response to her being an anti-racist Labour MP. The violence – the aggressive violence – is already there; it’s primarily on their side; and – returning to the first point – it has been for some time: the time to worry that the extreme Right might get violent in future is long gone.

My attitude to physical force tactics hasn’t changed since I wrote that blog post in 2005 – generally speaking, I’m agin ’em – but I can’t endorse the apparent consistency of Hinsliff’s position; if anything, I’d say that its consistency is what makes it lose any relevance. Consistency, or absolutism: essentially it’s a conflation of two different questions, Do you oppose the use of physical force in politics in principle? and Do you oppose the use of physical force in any political situation whatsoever? Answering Yes to the first one doesn’t mandate answering Yes to the second, unless you’re advocating absolute pacifism – which is a consistent position, to be fair, but only as long as it’s not sheltering behind the police and armed forces’ monopoly of force. If you’re happy sending in the police to drag protesters away and the army to put down riots, that’s not so much pacifism as passivity – or status quo bias.

Sure, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Says who?

1. Gedanken für das Experiment

Let me be the first to say that I’ve got absolutely nothing against Catalans. Although, of course, my saying that immediately creates precisely the suspicion I want to dispel. Really what I want to say is that there’s no reason why anyone should imagine that I’m anti-Catalan in the first place – although even saying that…

Start again. I don’t remember the Catalan influx, of course, but my parents told me some quite vivid stories. When what was euphemistically called ‘Unification’ finally absorbed Cataluña into Franco’s Spain – extinguishing a republic that had been approaching its third centenary – Britain was commendably quick to help. (To help the refugees, at least. The government in exile found that its relationship with our government rapidly went sour; for Britain to take a stand against the Generalissimo was not on anyone’s menu.) The Catalan nationality rapidly became Britain’s second largest minority community after the Irish, a position it has held ever since.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, particularly to begin with. A particularly unfortunate incident involved a Catalan man who drove through a red light, and who told the court in mitigation that he was colour-blind. If you’ve ever wondered where all those jokes that hinge on Catalans being colour-blind came from – and if they had any factual basis – there’s your answer. Catalan men were also thought to be effeminate, I’ve no idea why. And, of course, the Catalan language has often been the butt of what can loosely be called jokes, often from people who don’t consider themselves racist or anti-Catalan at all. (Yes, they use the letter X a lot, including at the beginning of words. Big deal. “Shall I get us some ksurros to go with the ksocolate?” Grow up.)

But in the last 30 years or so, anti-Catalan prejudice hasn’t really been an issue, by and large; by the 1970s British Catalans had suffered the ironic fate of all minority communities who are accepted by the majority, effectively disappearing from view. (If you ever have the misfortune to see an old episode of Love Thy Neighbour, keep an eye out for the couple who live next door to Jack Smethurst’s racist suburbanite, on the other side from Rudolph Walker: the characters are called Pau and Joana. In one episode they go up to London to celebrate Republic Day, but that’s about it.) You do occasionally hear suggestions that so-and-so’s Catalan name had held him or her back, but generally they’d be talking about somebody who’d got three-quarters of the way to the top instead of all the way – and usually the institution where they’d been held back was one that you’d expect to be unusually socially conservative (the Army, the Daily Express, the Conservative Party…) I’m not saying – it’s not my position to say – that everything was fine, but I think anti-Catalan racism was a long way down most people’s lists of pressing social issues, until very recently.

The other piece of background that needs to be filled in, of course, is Second Start. If you see a news item about the Catalan community, nowadays, the chances are it’ll mostly be about the Second Start Ministry of New Beginnings in Christ, to give the church its full name. It’s worth remembering that this association hasn’t always existed. It goes back to the successive waves of religious enthusiasm which briefly lit up the second and third generations of the Catalan community, and which led to some unlikely links being forged with the US evangelical Right. I don’t just mean Billy Graham, who played to a wide range of audiences (I saw him once myself); I’m talking about the likes of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart. They didn’t leave so much as a scratch on the surface of mainstream religion in Britain, but in the British Catalan community they were a sensation.

And that prepared the soil in which Second Start, in turn, would grow. The survey data is phenomenal: the church claims the allegiance of approximately 4% of non-Catalans in Britain – and 92% of Catalans. I’ll leave it to sociologists of religion to explain why a heterodox offshoot of the US Southern Baptist Convention could be just what the British Catalan community had been waiting for, but there’s little doubt that that’s what it has been. Everyone who is anyone in the Catalan community – including the Ambassador himself – is a member; listen to anyone who’s asked to speak representing British Catalans, and you’ll almost certainly hear someone representing Second Start. Listen to an anti-Catalan racist, on the other hand – and yes, there are still a few – and you’ll almost certainly hear attacks on Second Start, or at best a ludicrously distorted portrayal of the church.

Which is how I – a Catalan speaker with Catalan colleagues and friends, and a lifelong anti-racist – now find myself accused of anti-Catalanism; credibly accused, to judge from the number of people who do in fact believe the accusations. I’m a Catalanaphile, but I’m also a secular leftist; I know the history of the British Catalan minority, but I also know the history of the US evangelical right. It hasn’t always been pretty. (Look up some of those names.) I see the faith British Catalans have put in Second Start, and I see how little they’re getting back for it. I see the social and political conservatism preached from Second Start pulpits, and I wonder how it can be doing the British Catalan community any good. And I see the money (not to put too fine a point on it) flowing out of the British Catalan community into Second Start, and I see how little of it stays in Britain, let alone among the Catalans.

Let’s be frank: I hate Second Start; I think the church is a noxious influence on the Catalan community in Britain and always has been. I think the wave of criticism the church is now receiving is long overdue – and the idea that it’s all down to a resurgence in anti-Catalanism is absurd. If I attack Second Start – if I critique its politics or question its funding – this is in no way an attack on Catalans

…or is it? 92% of British Catalans are in Second Start, remember, along with hardly anyone else. What do journalists writing about the Catalan community write about? Second Start. What do representatives of the Catalan community see as a key British Catalan institution? Second Start. What’s been part of the cultural furniture for a generation of British Catalans, for all their lives? Second Start. And what do anti-Catalan racists attack? Second Start.

I, and others like me, can attack Second Start from the secular Left, and feel quite sure that we’re not making a racist attack on British Catalans. But a British Catalan – many, many British Catalans – can hear an attack on Second Start, even from the secular Left, and be entirely sure that it is a racist attack on British Catalans. And who are you going to believe? When it comes to recognising racism against British Catalans, who’s the authority?

2. What you is is what you are

Can you be mistaken about how you feel? No.

Can you be mistaken about how you feel about somebody else’s speech or conduct? For example, can you be mistaken about whether you’re offended or not? Again, no.

Can you be mistaken, if you’re a member of a minority, about whether somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority? No.

If the other person claims not to bear you any ill will, should you cease to be offended by what they said or did? No – “no offence” is the oldest get-out clause in the book, and probably the weakest.

The moral of all these questions is, what you feel is what you feel. If you’re offended, you’re offended.

Now: if you are offended by somebody’s speech or conduct, does that mean the speech or conduct is offensive? And, following close behind: if you’re a member of a minority, and somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority, does that mean that the speech or conduct is offensive to that minority?

This is where I think we need to start treading carefully. “I feel offended” and “this is offensive” seem to go together as naturally as “I feel hot” and “it is hot”, and perhaps they do – but the reason they go well together is that both pairs of statements are elliptical, omitting key pieces of information which can be assumed in any actual speech situation. “I feel hot”, if we took it at face value, would tell us that the speaker habitually feels hot, wherever and whenever. The meaning of the phrase is “I feel hot [in this room/bath/crowd/etc]”. Similarly, “it is hot” omits a key piece of information, even if we replace ‘it’ with the particular setting: who’s saying that the experience of being in this room/bath/crowd is hot, and where are they getting the information? In short, the grammatical inverse of “I feel hot [in this setting]” is “it is hot [to me]”. Similarly, we’re never just ‘offended’, and nor is anything absolutely, always-and-everywhere, read-it-off-the-dial ‘offensive’; the grammatical inverse of “I feel offended [by this]” is “this is offensive [to me]”. Now, you can hang your hat on that – what you feel is what you feel; what offends you, offends you; what’s offensive to you, is offensive to you, and other people should care about that. But generalising from “I feel offended” to “this is offensive”, without more, seems to me to be going too far.

Offence is something that people should care about; offence caused to members of a minority, in particular, is something that non-members of that minority should take very seriously. If someone tells me – and especially if a lot of people tell me – that they, as members of a minority, are offended by some statement of mine that I myself find unproblematic, it’s incumbent on me to take that seriously and consider what I’m saying carefully: it’s strong evidence that I may be mistaken. But it’s not conclusive evidence – and there may be evidence to the contrary.

As for what would constitute evidence to the contrary, consider part 1 of this post. In that world, how would we evaluate a vocal critic of Second Start? I’d say that someone who was highly critical of Second Start but had never previously shown any interest in evangelical religion, and who attacked an institution dear to Catalans and avoided socialising with Catalans, might well be motivated by anti-Catalan racism. Someone – like my narrator – who’s highly critical of both Second Start and other evangelical churches, and who attacks an institution dear to Catalans but has Catalan friends… probably not.

In this world… well, I’m not going to point any moral; I’ll leave that for yourself.

 

 

It could be you

In February 1974, my school held a mock general election, just for laughs. A friend of ours was into politics and told us he was standing for Democratic Labour; he told us all about this exciting new breakaway from the Labour Party and its (one) MP, Dick Taverne. It sounded great. He came second last in the school, with six votes. In October 1974 the school repeated the exercise; our friend didn’t bother this time, but a group calling itself the School Reform Party stood with a platform of actual demands on the school, on the basis that even winning a mock election would give them standing as the voice of the kids. They came second, unfortunately, and life went back to normal. (This isn’t relevant to the post, but it shows you what giving people the habit of democracy can do.)

Dick Taverne, Reg Prentice, David Owen… Chuka Umunna? Lately we’ve been hearing rumours of splits again; BBC Political Correspondent Ian Watson writes:

Some people close to the Labour leadership believe a breakaway is all but inevitable – but that it will be small.

Well, we were promised one resignation on Thursday night and we didn’t even get that; breakaways don’t get much smaller than zero.

But let’s assume – in the teeth of the evidence – that Chuka and friends are going to jump at some point. Watson points out that scattered and disorganised resignations of the whip are much more likely than a big breakout in the SDP mould. Commentators have got into the habit of talking about “pro-European dissenters” as if they were a coherent group, but as Watson points out there are actually four groups of Labour MPs here:

  1. Pro-Remain but on the Left; probably the largest single group. Not going to defect.
  2. Pro-Remain, raring to go, just waiting for a signal
  3. Pro-Remain but waiting till Corbyn has Brexit well and truly hung round his neck
  4. Anti-Corbyn, raring to go but (I hate to mention this) not actually pro-Remain as such

Imponderables include: how big each of these groups is; what kind of signal is going to satisfy group 2 (and who’s going to give it); how long group 3 are prepared to wait; and whether either 2 or 3 is prepared to work with group 4 (and, indeed, whether group 4 wants to work with those posh metropolitan gits). None of these groups – with the exception of group 1, which isn’t really in the game – seems to number in double figures. All in all it’s not a promising launchpad for a party capable of repeating the successes of the SDP – let alone a party capable of achieving a bit more than keeping the Tories in power for 15 years, wasting huge amounts of money and effort, then slinking back into the Labour Party and trying to claim credit for changes that had happened while they were away. (I’ll say many things about Peter Mandelson, few of them complimentary, but he never went near the SDP.)

There’s also the C-word: career. Perhaps our doughty centrists won’t be dissuaded by the thought that leaving the Labour Party that got you elected is the act of a cynical turncoat scumbag, but they should consider that it could be a very bad career move. Consider the evidence.

In 1948, Alfred Edwards and Ivor Thomas left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. Neither resigned to trigger a by-election. Both stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1950, and were defeated.

In 1961, Alan Brown left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. He did not resign and trigger a by-election. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1964, and was defeated. He later rejoined the Labour Party.

In 1968, Desmond Donnelly left the Labour Party to form a new party, the Democratic Party. He did not resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1970, and was defeated. He later joined the Conservatives.

In 1972, our mate Dick Taverne left the Labour Party to form the Democratic Labour Party. He resigned and triggered a by-election, which he won. In February 1974 he defended his seat for the Democratic Labour Party, and – perhaps surprisingly – won again. Unfortunately he lost the seat in October 1974.

In 1974, Christopher Mayhew left the Labour Party and joined the Liberals. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in October 1974, and was defeated.

In 1976, Jim Sillars and John Robertson left the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party. They didn’t resign their seats. Robertson didn’t stand at the next election in 1979; Sillars stood and was defeated. (He later joined the SNP, and was elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1988; he was defeated at the next election in 1992.)

Also in 1976, John Stonehouse – awaiting trial for fraud – left the Labour Party to join the English National Party. After being found guilty, he resigned as an MP but did not stand in the subsequent by-election.

In 1977, Reg Prentice left the Labour Party and joined the Conservatives. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1979, and was elected; he was re-elected in 1983.

And then there was the SDP. Two bits of anecdata seem relevant here. One is Steve Bell’s defecting Labour MP Ned Lagg. Bell, of course, had no sympathy for the SDP at all; Ned Lagg was a vain, complacent old soak, who’d got comfortable on the back benches and didn’t see why being deselected by a bunch of Trots should change anything – the voters loved him, didn’t they? Successive strips showed him doing the bare minimum of campaigning – little beyond driving around the constituency in a speaker van, “I’M NED LAGG, YOUR MP. VOTE FOR LAGG ON THURSDAY.” – until the catastrophe of election night. Rejected by “his” voters, Lagg got more and more drunk and more and more angry, eventually taking to the road in the speaker van: “I’M NED LAGG AND YER ALL A BUNCHA BASTAAARDS!!!!”

Of course, no resemblance was intended to any defecting Labour MP, and I’m sure none of the people I’m about to name would do any such thing. Although the story of [name redacted] and the trout is worth mentioning. It’s 1983, it’s election night, it’s 9.00, and in the SDP campaign office all is frenzied activity. In walks [ahem], previously the sitting Labour MP for the constituency, carrying something wrapped in newspaper. He goes into the kitchen and unwraps a large trout, which he proceeds to gut and prepare. It’s an hour before the polls close. One of the campaign volunteers plucks up the courage to go and ask him, politely, what the hell he’s doing: wouldn’t this be a good time to be double-checking the canvass returns and getting the last few votes out? The MP beams and says that it’s been a very long day, and he thought the volunteers would like something nice to eat. Apparently these are the thoughts that go through your head at 9.00 on election night, if you’re an MP in the kind of seat where they only need to weigh the votes. (He did win the election that night – by 100 votes.)

In 1981, Tom Bradley, Ronald Brown, Richard Crawshaw, George Cunningham, Tom Ellis, David Ginsburg, John Grant, John Horam, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Edward Lyons, Bryan Magee, Tom McNally, Bob Mitchell, Eric Ogden, Bill Rodgers, John Roper, Neville Sandelson, Jeffrey Thomas, Mike Thomas and James Wellbeloved left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were defeated.

Also in 1981, Bruce Douglas-Mann, James Dunn, Dickson Mabon and Michael O’Halloran left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. Douglas-Mann resigned his seat and triggered a by-election, at which he was defeated. Dunn, Mabon and O’Halloran did not resign. Dunn and Mabon did not stand at the 1983 election. O’Halloran was not selected as the SDP’s candidate in his old constituency, Islington North; objecting to this decision, he stood in 1983 as an Independent Labour candidate. He got 11% of the vote, coming in fourth behind Labour, the Conservatives and the SDP. The new Labour MP was Jeremy Corbyn, who has held the seat ever since.

Also in 1981, John Cartwright, Robert Maclennan, David Owen and Ian Wrigglesworth left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were re-elected. Wrigglesworth was defeated at the following election in 1987; Cartwright, Maclennan and Owen were re-elected. Following the 1988 merger of the SDP and the Liberals, the (continuing) SDP was wound up in 1990; Owen resigned from the Commons in 1992, while Cartwright – standing as an Independent Social Democrat – was defeated. Maclennan, now a Liberal Democrat, was re-elected in 1992 and 1997, before retiring from the Commons in 2001.

In 2001, Paul Marsden left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat. He re-joined the Labour Party shortly before the next next election in 2005, but didn’t stand for re-election.

In 2005 – shortly before that year’s general election – Brian Sedgemore left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat and didn’t stand for re-election.

That’s a total of 40 defectors from Labour, most of whom I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. (All male, for what that’s worth. Only two women MPs have voluntarily left one party for another (there’d be stronger female representation if we included expulsions and MPs sitting as independents); one (Emma Nicholson) defected from the Tories, and the other (Cynthia Mosley) is before our time-frame.) 37 of the 40 crossed the floor without triggering a by-election; one triggered a by-election but didn’t stand in it; and one of the two who did put his mandate to the test lost his seat for his pains. (I respect his principles, but otherwise I can only tell you one thing about Bruce Douglas-Mann: the Guardian by-election sketchwriter pointed out that his surname is an anagram of Glumsod-Nana.) Five of the remaining 39 retired at the next election; 28 were defeated; six were re-elected. Only four – Cartwright, Maclennan, Owen and Prentice – served in the Commons for ten years or more under their new party’s colours; and two of those careers were ended by the dissolution of that party, or what remained of it. David Owen hasn’t done badly out of politics overall – Christopher Mayhew and Bill Rodgers haven’t done too badly, come to that – but overall it’s really not a record of success.

The question for today’s potential defectors – John Mann? Neil Coyle? Angela Smith? – really is, do you feel lucky? Do you think you’d defy the odds? Do you think you’re the next David Owen or Bob Maclennan? Or is it more likely that you’d be the next Desmond Donnelly or Edward Lyons – or Michael O’Halloran? And yer all a buncha bastaaards…

But then – coming back to the ‘career’ question – political success isn’t the only form of success in politics. No fewer than 11 of the 40 people I’ve listed ended up in the House of Lords – Prentice for the Tories, Owen as an “independent social democrat”, Crawshaw, Horam, Maclennan, McNally, Mayhew, Rodgers, Roper, Taverne and Wrigglesworth for the Lib Dems – which must be four or five more than the same group would have achieved if they’d all stayed in the Labour Party. Thoughts about small ponds and big fish (sorry Ian) go here. And Lord Umunna does have a certain ring to it…

Don’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt

Here’s what I know about Seumas Milne. He’s probably an old tankie; he’s certainly gotsome of the reflexive anti-imperialist instincts which used to characterise tankies. Show him a foreign policy crisis and he’ll ask

  1. Is it the result of past Western intervention?
  2. Is it being promoted to justify current or future Western intervention?
  3. Is it being promoted to distract attention from other, more pressing examples of past or current Western intervention?

The anti-imperialist framing always comes first; if there is any element of the current crisis which fits that framing, that’s the element to focus on. If not… well, should we really be devoting our time and attention to crises our government has nothing to do with?

Back in the 1980s – when tankies were tankies – I did a lot of reading about Eastern Europe & was genuinely interested in the different trajectories towards liberalisation and “modernisation” being experimented in the different states: Hungary was trying out free markets and their dissidents seemed quite advanced in their thinking, but could we really trust either them or the government? the Polish unions were strong, of course, but was the democratic socialist current getting lost? might Yugoslav ‘self-management’ represent a genuine third way? Naturally I had very little time for those who maintained that imperialist encroachments on the USSR’s sphere of influence were the main issue here, what with the Soviet Union being a bulwark against Western imperialism.

But you didn’t have to have any sympathy with the Soviet Union to view the world in terms of Western imperialism. Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics quotes Noam Chomsky putting the case in fairly blunt terms:

I’ve been in 10,000 teach-ins in my life, I don’t know how many. Every one of them is about something happening somewhere else. I go to a teach-in on Central America, a teach-in on the Middle East, a teach-in on Vietnam. That’s all nonsense. Everything’s happening in Washington. It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world.

This way of thinking to me was heresy, and intellectual heresy at that: heresy against my faith in knowing more about stuff as a value in itself, as well as my conviction that the world wasn’t – couldn’t be – mono-causal as well as unipolar. I still held that view when Yugoslavia was torn apart by pan-Serb expansionism, ratified by the West; I still held that view when an illegal war was launched by NATO against Serbia and the bulk of the British Left rallied, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the side of Serbia. (I’ve no idea what Seumas Milne said about Kosovo, but I somehow doubt I’d agree with it.)

But Kosovo was a turning-point, as it was for a lot of people: Attila Hoare has said that he opposed the intervention at the time – supporting Workers’ Aid for Kosova instead – but came to the realisation that he’d been wrong. It was the other way for me: knowing the Serbian & Kosovar background, I detested the Serbian government, was repulsed by what they were trying to do and began by supporting the intervention – in principle. As the details of the intervention came out – how it was being conducted, its basis in law, the Rambouillet treaty, etc – it gradually dawned on me that I supported an intervention against the Serbian government, but not this one: this one was being carried out by the wrong people, using the wrong weaponry, against the wrong targets, with the wrong (lack of) legal basis and the wrong war aims. And, since the right intervention wasn’t available – the Workers’ Aid initiative was probably the closest thing – it turned out that I was opposed to the intervention, like everyone else. It was a learning experience.

The point of all this is that the mindset that sees the world through an anti-imperialist lens – and applies something like the checklist I set out earlier – has certain definite merits along with its flaws. The main one is that it’s not (very often) actually wrong: there are very few countries in which Britain (or the US) is interested, where Britain (or the US) hasn’t in the past stirred the pot pretty hard. Going anti-imperialist isn’t just a short-cut, saving you all those tedious ‘teach-in’s about different things going on in different countries; it will, generally, give you something you can work with. Which brings us to the second point: anti-imperialism is – almost by definition – relevant to domestic politics. People like me may genuinely want to know which Syrian tribal faction is historically associated with which strand of Islam, but people like me are academics. If you can point to a treaty, an arms deal, an investment vehicle – something that explains our government’s actions, and by the same token something that our government has leverage over – then you’re doing something politically relevant. It can also be argued, lastly, that anti-imperialist politics is excluded from the mainstream, so this angle is worth pursuing just to strengthen those voices. (However, this on its own is the weakest and most contentious of the three points – if you think it’s hard to get an anti-imperialist angle into the papers, just try getting a column out of “government policy overlooks complex but interesting history of region (again), says jaded academic”.)

Coming back to Seumas Milne: what all this tells us is that, to the extent that he’s retained the anti-imperialist instincts of his tankie youth, this

(a) doesn’t tell us anything about his current politics – other that he’s on the Left(!) – and

(b) isn’t actually wrong, particularly for someone whose day-job is being a political operative

Which brings us, finally, to the extraordinary hatchet-job recently printed in Private Eye (issue 1489). I’m going to extract sections from this and sort them into chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent.

The Communist Party opposed the Common Market not only because it was a bosses’ club but also because it would “consolidate the military power of the so-called Western Alliance against the Socialist countries”, as the party said in 1962 when then PM Harold Macmillan raised the prospect of British membership. European unity had to be opposed because it challenged the Soviet Union.

Seumas Milne was born in 1958. He was never a member of the Communist Party.

“We would withdraw from Nato and the EEC,” schoolboy Seumas wrote in his manifesto as the Maoist candidate in a mock-general election at Winchester College in 1974

Milne would have been 15 or 16 at this point.

The old Communist Party was anti-European. In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, it allied with Enoch Powell and the National Front to fight for a “no” vote.

What ‘Ratbiter’ omits to mention here is that the Labour Party also campaigned for a No vote (despite the Labour government advocating a Yes vote – it was messy, albeit highly democratic). Of course, none of this constituted being ‘allied with’ those elements of the Right that also advocated No.

In 1979 Milne became business manager of Straight Left, a secretive faction in the Communist and Labour parties.

Straight Left was the (unofficial) publication of a tankie faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain, some of whose members joined the Communist Party of Britain when it split; the faction also had sympathisers in the Labour Party. Milne was never a member of either of the Communist Parties. Something else our author omits to mention here is that Milne left Straight Left after two years to join the Economist, where he worked from 1981 until he joined the Guardian in 1984.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne transferred his loyalties from Soviet communism to the Russian gangster capitalism that succeeded it. In a 2014 Guardian piece he assured readers the Ukraine war was not Putin’s fault but that of the EU, whose “effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy”.

Quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Milne was motivated to take the job at Straight Left, back in 1981, by ideological sympathies – that he (like a surprising number of others on the Left in the 1980s) genuinely believed that the USSR was a socialist bloc and a force for peace. We’ve no evidence that he still held that belief at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989). Also, it’s both lazy and defamatory to convert an ideological belief into a (potentially treasonous) “loyalty” (“go back to Russia!”). Lastly, seeing the world – up to and including the war between Russia and Ukraine – through an anti-imperialist lens is simply what an anti-imperialist will tend to do; it’s not evidence of positive sympathies with whoever is targeted by the West, let alone of “loyalty” to Putin’s Russia. (If ever there was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence…!)

Rival Marxist factions understand Milne’s importance. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, a Trotskyist group, commented in 2017: “The Article 50 fiasco, and Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left.”

The AWL is a tiny group with a long and chequered history, characterised mainly by ruthless factionalism and sub-Spiked contrarianism. There are some good people in there, but it’s the last group you’d go to for a reliable opinion on other parts of the Left.

To those who understand the power struggles on the left, Milne’s dominance was assured when Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaigns chief, resigned in 2017 after clashing with Milne over Europe. Fletcher was a former aide to Ken Livingstone, and within days of his departure Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin published a thunderous piece rebuking Milne by declaring: “There is no socialist or even people’s Brexit.”

Simon Fletcher has been named in connection with another (even smaller) Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, which Livingstone has worked with. The main contributor to Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin is Tom O’Leary, who wrote the piece mentioned; it doesn’t mention Milne. Joining the dots is fine, but this is more drawing than dots.

Coming right up to date (possibly):

In conversations with journalists, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says Seumas is the greatest single obstacle to his attempts to shift Corbyn to a pro-European stance. The shadow Brexit secretary adds, with a despairing roll of his eyes, that Milne wants Britain to leave and form a global alliance of anti-American countries.

But Starmer doesn’t seem to have said any of this on the record, so who knows?

And on the basis of all this, ‘Ratbiter’ signs off by dubbing Milne

an unrepentant communist

Or rather, an unrepentant Putinite, presumably – keep up!

I hold no brief for Milne; I’m quite sure he’s an anti-imperialist of a fairly crude variety & strongly suspect he was a Stalinist in his younger days, neither of which endear him to me at all. (I would also agree that he’s not the ideal companion for Corbyn when Brexit’s on the table, and hope that Keir Starmer has also made this point.) But fairly crude anti-imperialism isn’t that big a handicap for someone in Milne’s current role, and – as far as his current beliefs are concerned – anything beyond that is speculation and smear.

“I’ve met Communists,” a Communist said to me once, “and – you know what? – none of them had two heads.” As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this is one that continues to be relevant. The fact that someone holds unusual or ‘extreme’ views doesn’t make them an alien being – a ruthless political operator, a treasonous subversive. The Left – they may not have much time for art galleries and medieval towns, but in most other ways they really are just like you and me.

Calm down

I don’t entirely disagree with Simon when he warns

Corbyn is currently creating the conditions in which a new [centrist, pro-Remain] party could enter, and survive for long enough to cost Labour the next election.

As he says,

When Brexit happens there will be a lot of bitterly disappointed people around questioning where to go from here. … Unfortunately Corbyn has done virtually nothing for members and voters that closely identify with Remain. Hopes have been kept alive by Keir Starmer and occasionally John McDonnell, but neither attended Corbyn’s recent talks with the Prime Minister. The overriding impression given by the leadership and its supporters is that they do not want to antagonise Labour Leavers, and Remainers have nowhere else to go

But I think that – as so often – there’s a huge risk of confusing the trends that are making the news in a small, contained, well-informed and hyper-reflective group with those that are making the running in the country. And this is the case even where that small group consists largely of people whose intelligence, wisdom and public spiritedness is unimpeachable, such as the Parliamentary Labour Party (quiet at the back there)

Simon again:

As the vote of no confidence by 80% of Labour MPs after the referendum result showed, Corbyn is at his most vulnerable over Brexit. The 2017 election result may have wiped memories of this painful period, but to say that it shows the vote of no confidence didn’t matter goes too far. Unfortunately Labour still lost in 2017, as their powerlessness over Brexit shows. How do we know that the perception that Labour MPs were deeply unhappy with their leader did not cost Labour in 2017 the crucial votes that prevented them forming a government?

The trouble with this argument is that it conflates one, relatively trivial kind of vulnerability (being unpopular with Labour MPs) with another more important kind (losing the public). Labour’s polling averages before and after the Brexit vote were as follows:

April 2016: 32.5%
May: 32%
June: 31.5%
July: 30.5%

It’s a slow decline, which continued for the rest of the year – and indeed until the following April. It’s a continuous trend with very little variation – it doesn’t seem to show any obvious reaction to any political event: not the vote of no confidence, not Argh!, not Owen Smith, not even the Brexit vote itself. It’s very much what you’d expect to see if the same influences were continuing to be applied to Labour’s support in much the same way – press hostility, BBC hostility and hostility from the party’s own MPs.

As for Labour’s – regrettable – failure to win the 2017 election, look at these figures:

1997: 13.5 million votes
2001: 10.7
2005: 9.6
2010: 8.6
2015: 9.3
2017: 12.9

Raw figures are affected by population growth over time and differential turnout between elections, so they can be misleading – although it certainly looks as if Corbyn got three and a half million more people to vote for him than Ed Miliband had managed a couple of years earlier. So here are the same figures as %s of votes cast:

1997: 43.1%
2001: 40.5%
2005: 35.4%
2010: 29%
2015: 30.3%
2017: 40.3%

And, for completeness, as %s of the electorate:

1997: 30.6%
2001: 23.9%
2005: 21.6%
2010: 18.8%
2015: 20%
2017: 27.8%

As I mentioned above, Labour support ebbed away throughout 2016; by April 2017 the party was averaging 26% in opinion polls. The election campaign took the party from those mid-20s lows to 40% of the votes cast, in the space of a month and a half: Corbyn’s first General Election, sprung on him (and us) three years ahead of time, saw Labour’s vote share at its highest level since 2001, and its share of the electorate at the highest level since 1997. To look at that campaign[1] and ask why it went so badly isn’t just ungracious, it’s downright perverse. Corbyn’s leadership, and the movement it mobilised, achieved a share of the vote – and a level of turnout – that was far beyond the party under Miliband, or Brown, or even Blair (after 1997, once the country had had a proper look at him). May was only saved – indeed, the Tories since 2010 have only been saved – by the collapse both of the discredited centre and of a far Right left beached by the achievement of its flagship policy. Those are certainly successes for the Tories – I’m reminded of how Italy’s Christian Democrats drew a galaxy of minor parties into their orbit, drained them of voters and ideas, and left them shadows of themselves. But in the nature of things, those successes are unrepeatable: the former Lib Dems and the ex-Kippers are both in the Tory vote bank now. The next round will be a more even contest. (Unless some ill-advised centrists choose this moment to sabotage the Labour Party, of course. Mutter mumble useful idiots of the Right mutter…)

If the new party pledges to fight for staying in both the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU, that will tempt Remain voters, because Labour only speak of a close relationship with the Single Market. There is a world of difference between being close and being in: ask any trading firm why. Staying in the Single Market requires Freedom of Movement, and this would allow the new party to attack Labour on immigration, where its recent actions have also made them vulnerable from the perspective of liberal Labour voters.

I agree that there’s a chink in Labour’s armour labelled “Single Market membership”. Exploiting that has two problems, though. One is that the various right-wing MPs and has-beens who are most likely to break away from Labour are more likely to play to the anti-immigration gallery than not. (The story in the Observer at the weekend cited ‘immigration’ as one of the ‘key issues’ on which they differ with Corbyn, but didn’t specify how.) Secondly, there are good political reason for Labour’s logic-chopping on the Single Market, painful as it is to follow sometimes. Rightly or wrongly, Single Market membership is widely seen as Brexit In Name Only, or even as a step towards not leaving the EU at all. Personally, I’d be delighted if that was how things worked out – but it will needs to be sold as the only possible way forward, advocated by a party unencumbered by Remain baggage. The ground still needs to be prepared: something else that polls tell us is that “repudiate the referendum result” is not a strong seller, and “hold a second referendum (so that we can get the right result this time)” doesn’t do much better.

What that means is that, if a centre party attacked Labour on this flank, it’d be pitching for the votes of two groups: Remain-sympathising Labour voters who are sufficiently well-informed to know what Single Market membership does and doesn’t mean; and Labour voters whose commitment to Remain is strong enough for them to be open to the idea of reversing the referendum altogether. Filter that through the reality of a majoritarian constituency-based electoral system, and you’re left with two subsets of those (already small) groups: those who have a candidate with a believable chance of getting elected (i.e. a centre-party-defecting MP whose personal popularity is credibly sufficient to get them re-elected against Labour opposition); and those who know that their vote will be wasted, while their withdrawal of support from Labour will tend to assist the re-election of May’s Tories – the party of Brexit itself – and who are willing to do it anyway. So that’s the “David Owen vote” and the “self-destructive fit of pique vote”. Good luck, as they say, with that. (Number of Labour MPs who joined the SDP in 1981: 28. Number re-elected in 1983: 4. Tory majority in 1983: 144 (up from 43).)

All of this will be academic if – as has been rumoured – Theresa May chucks in the towel and calls a June election, requesting an extension to Article 50 to allow the new government to get its feet under the table. This doesn’t seem terribly likely, admittedly, but that’s the rumour. Besides, I’ve thought for a long time that the government’s wildly irresponsible approach to Brexit could be explained on the assumption that May doesn’t intend to be in charge when it actually happens, any more than Cameron did; jumping out of the cab immediately before we go over the cliff would be very much in character.

But whatever happens and whenever the next election comes, the likelihood of a new centre party playing a major part in proceedings seems overstated – as is the vulnerability of the Labour Party to hardcore Remain attacks. I think the main thing we on the Left need to do at the moment is hold our nerve. Starmerism of the intellect, Corbynism of the will!

*A word which – as Simon himself has commented before now – is shorthand for ‘period of partial immunity from anti-Labour propaganda’.

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