Category Archives: Britain

Wakefield and the Red Wall

What does Labour’s victory in the Wakefield by-election tell us about “Red Wall” seats more generally, and about Labour’s prospects in the next General Election?

1. Where We’re Coming From

Drawing lessons for Labour from previous elections is horrifically difficult, for (at least) four reasons. The first is the fact that the whole field is bitterly contested, so that discussions are likely to be distorted by partisanship. There are some (among whom I’m sure I wouldn’t count you, dear reader) who turn a deaf ear to any attempt to identify positives about the Corbyn period, typically pointing out in a discussion-ending tone that Labour didn’t win in either 2017 or 2019, whereas we did win in 1997, 2001 and 2005. (Good to know. I’ll make a note.) On the other hand (secondly), 2017 shouldn’t be taken as a model, either: some elements of the 2017 campaign went well and could usefully be repeated, but other elements we could do without. Polarisation, for example. Opponents of Corbyn will sometimes say that the only reason Labour did so well in 2017 was that Theresa May’s Conservatives were so weak, but if anything the opposite is the case. The only reason Labour didn’t do even better (and, e.g., win) was that the Conservative result was so strong: in 2017 the Conservative Party got its highest vote share since 1987, and took more votes than Labour did in their landslide victory of 1997. So it was a big success for mobilisation of the Labour vote; another time we just need to work out how to get our voters to turn out and theirs to stay at home. Demobilisation of the other side seems more like a Blair-era achievement, but – thirdly – if the Corbyn period isn’t to be discounted, the Blair victories shouldn’t simply be celebrated. You’d think it’d be reasonably easy to draw lessons from the most recent period when Labour did win general elections – three in a row, I’m reliably informed – but examined in detail the New Labour electoral record is rather qualified, not to say flukey. If we want to improve on 2017’s “40% of the vote and a hung parliament”, saying that we should be pitching for 2005’s “35% and a majority of 66” isn’t very helpful. And that leads on to the fourth reason – but I’ll save that for later. (It’s a corker.)

Here, anyway, is how the last few elections look, UK-wide.

Dark blue: far Right; purple: UKIP/BXP; green: Green/independent Left. %s shown when 3% or above.

Red line: Lab – Con vote %, right-hand axis.

We can see some trends here.

2010: Labour vote drops by 6% in the wake of the 2008 crash; some of those votes go to UKIP, the far Right and the Lib Dems (“I agree with Nick”), but most go to the Tories. Hung Parliament leading to Tory/Lib Dem coalition.

2015: Lib Dem vote drops by 15% after the Coalition; Labour and Tories pick up some of their vote and the Greens pick up more, but by far the biggest beneficiary is UKIP. Given the lack of common ground between the Lib Dem and UKIP manifestos, it seems that quite a lot of people had been voting Lib Dem on general “sod the lot of ’em” principles. Either that or the Tories have gained the adherence of a lot of former Lib Dems, while losing an equally large number of their own voters to UKIP. In any case, the result is a Tory government.

2017: The previous election’s Green and – more dramatically – UKIP votes vanish like melting snow in a heavily polarised election. The Tories’ vote share rises by 5.5%; Labour’s share rises by 9.6%. Tory minority government.

2019: Almost 8% of that Labour increase disappears again, to the benefit of the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Brexit Party and the Tories. Between people who didn’t trust Labour to deliver a second referendum, people who didn’t trust Labour to deliver Brexit and people who thought that if they wished hard enough they could vote for a hung parliament, Labour’s vote got driven down in many different places, for many different reasons and entirely to the benefit of the Conservative Party. Tory government.

2. The Fall of the Not Actually A Wall Actually

So that’s the baseline. Were things different in the Red Wall, though?

Hmm. [FX: Grits teeth] Red Wall, is it? I find it hard to believe how firmly that term’s ensconced in the political lexicon, having being coined less than three years ago and repeatedly redefined since then. But it looks as if we’re stuck with it now. In practice it means a whole variety of things, but usually when people talk about the “Red Wall” they’re talking about long-term Labour seats that went to the Conservatives in 2019, generally in post-industrial or semi-rural areas, generally in England but north of Luton, and which are thought to have gone to the Tories for primarily ‘cultural’ reasons. Either that, or seats that Labour still hold but which qualify on the other criteria and might turn out to be vulnerable next time round – a decidedly malleable definition.

Even if we confine ourselves to seats Labour actually lost, though, there are problems. What do we mean by a “long-term” Labour seat – one that’s been Labour since 2010, say? (Twelve years is a long time for most people.) Should we look for continuous holds since 1997? Since 1983? Longer? And what do we do about constituencies whose boundaries have been redrawn in that time? (The longer we go back the more likely that is to have happened, making “long-term” Labour seats harder to identify than you might think.) As for seats “going to the Conservatives”, surely we want to focus on seats where there have been substantial changes in absolute and relative vote share, not just a change in who tops the list. A seat that’s 39% Labour and 38% Tory at one election and 38%/39% at the next has “gone to the Conservatives”, after all, but hardly anyone there has actually changed their mind. The picture’s even more complicated when a seat has a strong Nationalist presence, and show me a Scottish seat that hasn’t; even Plaid Cymru’s ~10% presence in Wales makes them a bit of a wild card. So for simplicity we really need to confine ourselves to England.

With all of this in mind, in an earlier post I looked at all Labour’s losses in England in 2019 and categorised them as

  1. big wins (Labour continuously since 1979, decisive win in 2019)
  2. narrow wins (Labour continuously since 1979, but not a decisive win in 2019)
  3. marginals (had changed hands at least twice since 1979)

I defined a “decisive win” as one where

the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more

I then took some averages of the three groups, which worked out like this:

  1 2 3 Diff 1 Diff 2
Lowest Labour vote %, 2019 24.4 39.3 36.9 12.5 2.4
Highest Labour vote %, 2019 39.8 44.5 46 4.7 1.5
Average Labour vote %, 2019 34.8 41.7 41.1 6.3 0.4
Biggest Tory majority in %, 2019 31.4 12.6 15.7 15.7 3.1
Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-19 24.9 15.7 18.1 6.8 2.4

Diff 1: difference between 1 and either 2 or 3, whichever is closer

Diff 2: difference between 2 and 3

Essentially there’s not a huge amount of difference between the ‘marginals’ and the ‘narrow wins’ (Diff 2), whereas they’re both quite distinct from the ‘big wins’ (Diff 1). Which makes sense: even in a seat that’s been held by one party for a long time, you can score a narrow win by putting on a few hundred votes and driving the other side’s vote down by 5-6%. That – like a marginal changing hands – is the kind of thing that happens in any good election campaign; and the Tories in 2019 had a very good election campaign.

The big wins, though, really are different. So that’s my first finding, in terms of the reality of the Red Wall: yes, there was a group of long-term Labour seats that fell to the Tories in 2019 by really big margins, with really big drops in the Labour vote. And yes, they were Up North, if you define that term loosely enough (Derby and Durham are both in the North, but you wouldn’t want to walk it). There were only about 16 of them, though, meaning that if Labour had held every one of them and lost all the other seats they lost, the Tories would still have gained a big majority.

(Wakefield wasn’t in this group, although arguably it’s on the borderline: the Labour vote in 2019 fell by 9.9% relative to 2017, and Mary Creagh’s losing vote share of 39.8% was higher than her winning share of 39.3% in 2010.)

The analysis of big Tory wins ended up overlapping with something I wrote some time ago, analysing trends in Labour vote share in General Elections since 2005 in Labour seats in England. Having heard some Labour MPs bemoaning Corbyn’s leadership as electoral poison, and having seen Labour surge pretty well everywhere in 2017, I wanted to know whether there was any truth to that negative perception even at a local level. Was there a substantial group of seats where Labour’s vote share, relative to the Tories, had actually fallen in 2017? (Clearly there were some, as we lost six seats (while gaining 36) – but a handful isn’t really enough to generalise from; weird things do happen in elections.)

I compared 186 English Labour seats (as of the 2017 election) across the last five elections. The metric was simple: if we compared this election’s comparative vote share – “Labour % – Tory %” – with the previous election, had it gone Up or Down? I identified 50 seats where comparative vote share had in fact gone down in 2017, in all of which it had also gone down in 2010. In 39 of the 50, relative vote share had gone up in 2015 (so Down, Up, Down or DUD); in the other 11, vote share had gone down at all three elections (=DDD).

Remember those “big wins”? On inspection, almost all of them fitted the DUD pattern, and the remainder were all DDD. So there genuinely was a group of long-term Labour seats – a minority, but a substantial minority; around one in five – where the election campaign led by Ed Miliband seemed to deliver the goods in a way that 2017 didn’t; where the end result of that amazing May of campaigning was a sitting MP holding on with a smaller majority. And a lot of those seats were vulnerable, given a hearty shove in 2019, to going Tory in a big way.

But how?

3. None Of The Above: The True Story

Here’s what happened in one of the “big win” seats, Don Valley. (More detail in this post.)

2010: Nationally, the Labour vote drops by 6%, about half of which goes to UKIP or the BNP; here, the drop is double that, and it all seems to go to anti-political candidates of the Right and far Right: UKIP, the BNP and the English Democrats.

2015: Nationally, a big drop in the Lib Dem vote and a rise in UKIP’s. Here, again, it’s the same but much more so: the Lib Dem vote doesn’t drop so much as collapse; Labour picks up some Lib Dem votes, but UKIP takes a big chunk from the Lib Dems as well as absorbing the far Right and taking some from the Tories, finishing in a close third place. (It’s possible, as suggested above, that there were two big vote flows rather than one – Lib Dem to Tory, Tory to UKIP – but in this seat the numbers involved make it doubtful: more than half of the people who voted Tory in 2010 would have had to switch to UKIP and be replaced by former Lib Dem voters.) The division of the Right vote leaves the Tories looking substantially weaker; if all you were focusing on was the comparison between the winning Labour vote and the Tory runner-up, it would look like a big improvement.

2017: Nationally, a big shift to two-party polarisation, with a substantial UKIP vote collapsing and Labour’s vote going up about twice as much as the Tories’. Here, the UKIP vote in 2015 was only a couple of points shy of the Tories’, and it disappears completely in 2017 – no candidate on the ballot paper. Labour’s vote goes up, but not twice as much as the Tories’ – it’s the other way around. Labour’s vote increases by nearly 7%, but its majority falls by nearly 10%.

2019: Nationally, Labour’s vote drops by 8% with compensatory gains by multiple different parties; here, the drop is closer to 18% and the main recipient of Labour votes is the Brexit Party – although it’s the Tories who take the seat.

A few conclusions, quoted from that earlier post.

  • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in this seat: 10-20% of the vote at every election since 2001
  • The Lib Dems profited from this, until they didn’t: joining the government was the kiss of death, and the Lib Dems have effectively been irrelevant (at least in this seat) since 2010
  • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in this seat as a repository for anti-political votes; the strength of the BNP and ED vote in 2010, and the extent to which UKIP built on this, is not to be underestimated
  • UKIP/BXP is strategically ambivalent, operating as a pure protest vote (2010, 2019), as a more respectable alternative to the far Right (2015) and as an ante-chamber to voting Conservative (2015, 2019?)
  • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse for Labour: Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and Corbyn’s image as an anti-system outsider both prevented the 2015 UKIP vote transferring to the Tories en masse
  • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP (Caroline Flint), as – with higher Labour and Tory votes – Labour won by a much narrower margin; this supported the narrative that a decline in Labour’s vote had continued or even accelerated under Corbyn (whereas in reality it had begun to be reversed)
  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

Wakefield? Here you go:

The angles are shallower but the shape of the line’s the same: Wakefield’s a DUD. It all looks very much the same, albeit on a smaller scale – Wakefield wasn’t a big loss in 2019, and it hadn’t ever really been weigh-the-vote territory before then (it was a bona fide marginal back in the 1980s, albeit one that the Tories never actually took). Still, the key indicators are all there. The drop in the Labour vote in 2010; the far Right presence (the BNP saved their deposit in 2010); the Lib Dem vote collapsing in 2015, with UKIP the main beneficiary (directly or indirectly); the uneven redistribution of the UKIP vote in 2017, leading to a larger absolute Labour vote share with a smaller majority; and then the hoovering up of disaffected Labour votes by the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, to the benefit of the Tories.

2010: disaffection with Labour, legitimation of anti-system parties. 2015: disaffection with the Lib Dems, rise of UKIP. 2017: collapse of UKIP, diversion of some anti-system votes to Labour under Corbyn, conversion of most anti-system votes to the Tories. Then in 2019 we’re back to disaffection with Labour and legitimation of anti-system parties, this time with some diversion of anti-system votes to the Tories under Boris Johnson (portrayed – absurdly but effectively – as an anti-system figure). It was blowing much harder in the Don Valley, but the same wind was blowing in Wakefield.

Some of these trends were operating nationally to a greater or lesser extent, admittedly. Labour’s vote share fell across the country between 2005 and 2010, having also fallen between 2001 and 2005; indeed, considering that turnout was lower across the board, Labour’s vote in 2010 was two million down on its level in 2001 – and that was nearly three million down on 1997. (And that epoch-making result was itself substantially below the 55%+ that Labour had been polling when the election was called. 55%!)

The key difference in this sub-group of seats was what happened in 2017, where the national trend was for Labour’s vote to increase substantially more than the Tories’ relative to 2015. The seats where the Tories picked up more votes than Labour in 2017 seem also to show some relative rather than absolute differences from the national trend: a bigger fall in the Labour vote between 2005 and 2010; a bigger rise in the far Right vote in 2010; a bigger fall (a more complete collapse) of the Lib Dem vote in 2015 and a bigger rise in the UKIP vote.

4. What’s Really Happening?

We’ve reached the point where we can identify the three key driving forces of the last election result for Labour. The first – which is arguably one of the key driving forces of the last twenty years of politics – looks back to those five million voters Labour lost between the two victories of 1997 and 2005, and all the people who thought like them. That’s a big bloc of actual and potential Labour voters shaken loose from the party. Over time many, perhaps most, will have got the habit of staying at home at election time, but many will have taken the opportunity in 2005, 10, 15 to cast an anti-system, “sod the lot of ’em” vote – for the Lib Dems, for the BNP, for UKIP. (The British public also had an opportunity to cast an anti-system vote in 2016, of course. How’s that working out?) Roll that bloc of voters forward to 2017 and 2019, and the only question is how many of those people will be open to Corbyn’s anti-establishment appeal, and how many will prefer their anti-system politics with a definite Right-wing stamp.

Which brings us to the “Red Wall” question – why did some Labour seats go particularly heavily for the Tories? – and here we see the second key factor at work in 2019: the greater strength, and legitimacy, of the far Right in some areas than others. This is a factor that feeds through from 2005 on, first in higher votes for far Right parties, then in substantially higher votes for UKIP – and then, in 2017, in blunting the edge of Corbyn’s “anti-establishment” appeal. Local factors will be involved here; I can’t put the blame on Tony Blair, as much as I’d like to. What I will say, though, is that the BNP got more than 8% of the vote in eight constituencies in 2005 and twelve in 2010, including five in both – and they were all Labour seats. If I ran the Labour Party, having a fascist party even retain its deposit in a Labour constituency would be grounds for deselection; it doesn’t exactly suggest an assertive local party. To be fair, Labour didn’t go on to lose all of those seats – just a little over half, eight out of the fifteen – so it’s not an exact science. Anyway, we couldn’t go around holding the threat of deselection over good socialists like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Margaret Hodge and checks notes Ian Austin, could we? That would never do.

Have I looked at the data? You bet I’ve looked at the data. Here’s “total far Right vote in 2010” vs “rise in UKIP vote between 2010 and 2015”, Labour constituencies only.

(I tried it without the zeroes; very little difference.) And here’s that rise in the UKIP vote, 2010-15, vs the total Labour vote in 2019.

I don’t bandy R-squared values around a lot, but those look pretty chunky to me.

(Interesting point for anyone else who wants to run some numbers: the relationship between the changes in Lib Dem and UKIP votes between 2010 and 2015 did not look like these charts. It’s actually a (very weak) direct relationship: a big drop in the Lib Dem vote makes a big rise in the UKIP vote slightly less likely – or rather, knowing that the Lib Dems did really badly in a seat makes it slightly less likely to be a seat where UKIP did really well. Three-way traffic, I guess, or something more complicated than that.)

Are those factors really relevant to 2019, though? 2019 wasn’t 2017, and Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-establishment appeal was wearing pretty thin by election night. Actually that just makes those two factors more effective: if you didn’t want your anti-system radicalism with a Glastonbury ribbon on top, you certainly weren’t going to want it wrapped in allegations of antisemitism. Which is to say, those two factors applied along with a third: an anti-Labour campaign of a scale, viciousness and shameless mendacity that I’ve never seen before in British politics (and I remember Bermondsey), much of it emanating from people Labour should have been able to count as supporters or allies. (Or, y’know, as members, officers, elected representatives – people like that.)

The significance of this last point, in the present context, is what it implies for Wakefield, and for all the other seats Labour lost which didn’t tick all of the ‘Red Wall’ criteria I’ve set out. Past voting figures suggest that Wakefield, like many other constituencies, didn’t have that big a deracinated ex-Labour bloc from the mid-2000s on, and nor did it have that big a far Right bloc later. So, while those first two factors operated to depress the scale of Labour’s vote gain in 2017 – and depress Labour’s majority – the effect wasn’t that big (Labour’s majority fell by 1.4%). What really made the difference was that third factor – which hopefully won’t be a factor at the next election. Even without the Tories conveniently falling apart as they did at the recent by-election, a relatively normal election campaign for Labour – without the relentless negative campaigning of 2019, other than from the Tories – should be enough to keep Wakefield in the fold, and win back quite a few of 2019’s other losses.

5. The Fourth Reason

So that’s nice. Whether that will be enough to win a general election, though, is another question, and it’s a question to which the answer is No. This brings us back to the fourth reason why it’s hard to draw lessons for Labour from past elections, as promised earlier: it’s a fact that everyone knows but that tends to be quietly ignored. The fact is that Labour, by and large, doesn’t win general elections. Eleven Labour governments have been formed after an election, the first being Ramsay MacDonald’s first government in 1923. Eleven in a century doesn’t sound that bad, even if five of the eleven only added up to seven years between them. But consider: three of the eleven were minority governments (1923, 1929, 1974/Feb), and another three had majorities of five of less (1950, 1964, 1974/Oct). Of the remaining five, three were second- or third-term governments (1966, 2001, 2005) – which is to say that Labour went into the election with all the advantages of an incumbent government. That only leaves two – and one of those, the 1945 landslide, saw several of the leading figures of the wartime coalition remaining in office (Churchill’s Deputy PM Clement Attlee not least), meaning that it too was effectively a second-term government.

So that’s one Labour government, with a workable majority, formed after an election won by the Labour Party in opposition: one out of eleven; one in a century; one, not to put too fine a point on it, ever. Mr Tony Blair, come on down! 1997 wasn’t just unusual for Labour, it was – literally – unique. It follows that when people talk about Labour winning the next election, they’re not talking about competence and putting the grownups in charge and getting back to business as usual – at least, they certainly shouldn’t be, because that’s not going to do it. And when they talk about 2017 as if the only salient fact about that election was that Labour didn’t form the next government – as if a solid majority over the Tories was there for the taking by any half-decent Labour leadership, so that any campaign that failed to win outright deserved only contempt – they’re talking “absolute tripe”, as Michael Foot and my father used (separately) to say. (Born the same year, those two. Inter-war slang, I guess.)

New Labour’s victory in 1997 had many parents. The property crash of 1992 dislodged many natural Conservative voters from their party; standing at 45% in mid-1992, the Tories’ polling average had dropped below 40% by the end of the year and below 30% by the end of 1993, only beginning to recover in the months before the election was called in 1997. This fed through into both vote-switching and abstention: the Tory vote was down 4.5 million in 1997 relative to 1992, while Labour’s vote only increased by two million. (Yes, ‘only’. We put on 3.5 million between 2015 and 2017.)

Labour was polling 15-20 points ahead of the Tories when John Smith died in 1994. A new-broom leadership was meat and drink to political commentators, who seemed equally dazzled by Tony Blair’s personal style and his bite-sized political philosophy. Taking no chances, Blair and Brown were in any case assiduous in getting the media (as well as the City) on side. Meanwhile the “cash for questions” scandal was undermining the credibility of the Conservative government even further, enabling political commentators to pick up and amplify popular disaffection from the Tory Party under the general heading of “sleaze”.

As for the other parties, the Lib Dems were tacitly operating as New Labour’s small-L liberal outriders, in the (forlorn) hope that their contribution to victory would be rewarded. (Don’t get fooled again, eh?) Scotland was in the bag before campaigning began: the SNP finished as the third largest party in Scotland in 1997, just as they had in 1992. On the Right, the Referendum Party stood 547 candidates and took 2.6% of the vote; UKIP (est. 1993) stood 193 candidates and got 0.3%. (The only UKIP candidate not to lose their deposit was a Mr N. Farage; wonder what happened to him.)

You get the idea. 1997 really was a perfect storm: a confluence of multiple wildly different factors, some of them not of Labour’s doing, some of them downright impossible to recreate now. (O my 20% Lib Dems and my 20% (in Scotland) SNP of yesteryear!) And 1997 is the only time Labour’s won a working majority from opposition. Not the biggest or the most enduring or the most elegantly arranged – the only one.

So when people talk about Labour winning the next election, they really aren’t talking about getting back to business as usual; what they’re talking about is replicating a single, bizarre and unparallelled combination of circumstances. Or else they’re thinking – or they need to start thinking – in terms of striking out in a new direction, and pulling together some other combination that might prove equally effective. (We could try populist rhetoric attached to radical policies, perhaps, with a likeable figurehead and a credible pitch to young people. Worth a shot.)

I get the impression that the current leadership team believes that a competent campaign and a halfway friendly press will win Wakefield and seats like it, but that they need to reposition Labour – as patriotic, fiscally responsible, tough on crime and so on – in order to get the true “Red Wall” seats back. They also seem to believe that once the Red Wall comes back, the country will come with it. I agree that Wakefield’s probably staying Labour next time out, and some – perhaps as many as half – of the “Red Wall” seats will probably come back. But Don Valley and seats like it are almost certainly gone; that damage has been done, a long time ago. And – more importantly – where the “Red Wall” goes, goes… nowhere else in particular. Neither of those two groups of seats are big enough, or typical enough, to mean that winning them would be enough to win the election.

What will? One thing we know is that we aren’t going to have another 1997 – the preconditions for it aren’t there. That in itself means that something fairly dramatic is going to be needed – something a great deal more dramatic than talking about tax cuts and waving the flag. Unfortunately, unless there’s a big change in the leadership or (less probably) in leadership style, Labour just isn’t going to have the kind of inspirational appeal that enables the party to make new inroads into Tory territory. (I mean, it’s not as if people were oh say for example spontaneously chanting Keir Starmer’s name, is it.)

Wakefield or no Wakefield, on a national level it all adds up to another loss. I’ve got a nasty feeling that the leadership’s already working on that basis, and that the next election will see Starmer, well, doing a Kinnock – putting a brave face on a few gains and arguing that the gains the party didn’t make just show that his work is not yet done.

If it does come to that, I just hope that some of the people who backed Starmer on the basis that Corbynism was a vote-loser will draw the right conclusions.

Doing a Kinnock

Keir Starmer’s enthusiasm for picking fights with the Left, together with his – and Labour’s – lacklustre performance over the last couple of years, has led to speculation about his role. Does he – and do the people who advise him – see him as the next Labour Prime Minister? Or is he occupying his position purely as an interim leader, someone who can do the necessary dirty work and then step aside in favour of a better candidate? Is he, in short, doing a Kinnock?

1. The first Kinnock…

Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1983, having been an MP for 13 years and a Shadow Minister for four. A member of the Tribune group, Kinnock was seen as “soft Left”; the right-winger Roy Hattersley was elected deputy leader alongside him, and both seemed genuinely happy to work together. In both these respects Kinnock’s leadership marked a break from the leadership of veteran Tribune leftist Michael Foot, under whom Labour had suffered internal divisions, the defection of the SDP and its most disastrous election defeat since the 1930s; the impression of a ‘new broom’ was heightened by Kinnock’s relative youth (he was 28 years younger than Foot).

Of course, to say that Labour had been riven by internal strife under Foot is also to say that the Left had been stronger – in the parliamentary party, in the membership and especially in the unions – than the Right was happy with; to say that Kinnock’s version of Tribune Group leftism displaced Foot’s is also to say that the centre-left defeated the Left; and to say that the election of Kinnock and Hattersley represented left-right reconcilation is also to say that it put the lid on any possibility of the Left making real progress in the party, even after the departure of some of the worst right-wing blowhards to the SDP and oblivion. The Left was not strong in the party in 1983, and Kinnock’s election did nothing to make it stronger – rather the reverse. If we judge politicians not by their stated political positions but by direction of travel – by the trends and tendencies that they assist and those they obstruct – then it’s pretty clear that Kinnock was always leading from the Right (or rather, leading towards the Right).

In any case, he didn’t waste much time making it clear where he stood. In 1984 – the year after he was elected – Kinnock took pains to dissociate himself from the striking miners, endorsing the principle of keeping the pits open but saying little about the strike itself other than to denounce “picket-line violence”. The following year, after the defeat of the strike, Kinnock devoted his speech to Labour Party Conference to attacking the Left both in the unions and in local councils, whose struggle against the Thatcher government’s rate-capping proposals was already crumbling. While Kinnock’s “grotesque chaos” line attacking the Militant-led Liverpool Council is remembered to this day, it’s also worth remembering that what was being described was a single, failed tactic in a struggle that was already being lost. It’s certainly true that a fight against injustices imposed by Conservative governments can be pursued beyond any hope of victory and using poorly-chosen tactics, but denouncing these errors hardly adds up to a political platform – particularly when the fight itself and the reasons for it are allowed to slip out of the frame. True to Kinnock’s character as an operator and a speechmaker, this was knockabout political theatre far more than it was analysis.

Considered as a message to the Labour movement, Kinnock’s attack on Liverpool Council was wholly negative and – bizarrely for an opposition party polling in the mid-30%s – defensive. The message was that the Labour Party’s sole aim was electing a Labour government; as such, the party was not a vehicle for extra-parliamentary action, whether in the unions or through local councils; and anyone who thought differently was not welcome in the party. That said, considered as a message to the commentariat and the political establishment – the gatekeepers of public opinion – it was a triumph, for precisely the same reasons: it signalled that the symbolic defeats of Arthur Scargill and Derek Hatton would be allowed to stand, that there would be no return to the militancy of the early 1980s (let alone the late 1970s), and that the Labour Party under Kinnock’s leadership could be trusted to manage British capitalism. In short, Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech set the seal on the message his 1983 election had sent, assuring his audience(s) that the implicit commitment to consign the Labour Left to history was one that he intended to put into effect.

He didn’t really get a chance to do so, of course. At the 1987 General Election, two years after that conference speech, Labour gained 26 seats and lost six; the Conservative majority was reduced, but only from 144 to 102. Even the 1992 election – widely thought to be in the bag for Labour after a year-long period of 10%+ poll leads – left the Conservatives in power, albeit with a majority of only 21. The trouble was, that period of strong poll leads had begun when Mrs Thatcher announced the poll tax in 1989, and ended when she was replaced as leader. John Major was, initially at least, a much more popular leader, who projected competence and normality without any offputting personality quirks or ideological baggage; Kinnock’s selling-points were no longer unique, in other words. In the event, Major’s popularity had a short shelf-life, declining rapidly after Black Wednesday in September 1992; the Tories were polling below 30% for the next four years, with Labour in the mid- to high 40%s under John Smith and passing 50% under Blair. But none of that was Kinnock’s doing.

2. The Kinnock Effect

Why is Kinnock – why is that speech – still a reference point? Come to that, why wasn’t Kinnock consigned to political oblivion after his first General Election defeat as leader, let alone his second?

Brief reply to imaginary centrist

Labour went into the 1987 election with the Tories 8% ahead in the polls; when the votes were counted the Tories were 11% ahead and had an overall majority of 102. Labour went into the 2017 election with the Tories 21% ahead in the polls; on the day, the Tories were 2% ahead and had a majority of -17. So no, I don’t think the two are comparable.

Ahem.

Kinnock’s success – at least, what’s now seen as his success – had two key elements. The first, easily forgotten now, is that he presented himself as being on the Left; he even had the receipts to prove it, as a fairly long-term member of the Tribune group of Labour MPs. As a commitment to the Left this shouldn’t be overstated; after 1981 there was no love lost between Tribunites and the “hard left” of the Campaign Group – and in any case Kinnock personally was always longer on rhetoric than on tangible commitments. Nevertheless, he did position himself as in some sense on the Left – and there’s no doubt that he played on this.

The second key factor in the Kinnock project was the state of the party, deeply divided – in Parliament as well as in the country – between Right and Left. Kinnock offered to address, even to mend, this division. The dynamic on which Kinnock was elected, with Hattersley (his runner-up in the leadership election) as deputy, was precisely “Left moving Right” – or, more specifically, “new reformed Left, abandoning old antagonisms and reaching out to the Right”. Old wounds would be healed and bridges built. It was actually quite inspiring, if you were relatively new to all this and didn’t have a suspicious nature; I very nearly joined the party at the time.

With a bit of historical distance, we can ask a couple of questions about this idea of a new reformed Left, reaching out to the Right in a spirit of brotherhood and unity. Firstly, why reach out to the Right – how many battalions have they got? If the country’s being brought to a halt by striking miners, demonstrations against rate-capping and Stop the City – all of which was going on, not to mention kicking off, in 1984-5 – the Labour Party certainly needs to do something, but “improving working relations between the Tribune Group and the Manifesto Group” doesn’t seem like it should be high on the list. Secondly and relatedly, if the “new reformed Left” is represented by the leadership, what happens to the rest of the Left – where do they go?

The 1985 conference speech answered that question loud and clear – which is why it is still celebrated on the Labour Right, and treated as if it had heralded imminent victory and not twelve more years in opposition. Essentially Kinnock offered to remake the Labour Left in the image of the Right – as a group of Labour MPs and other office-holders, who could be trusted to take their turn in charge of the Labour Party just as Labour could be trusted to take turns with the Conservatives in governing the country. Not only did he point the way for New Labour; by taking on the extra-parliamentary Left, both programmatically and personally, he paved the way, doing some of the heavy lifting for the greater leader who was to come. By cutting themselves loose from the Left, the membership, the unions and the party’s history, and above all by declaring that they were doing so in the name of Labour, New Labour followed where Kinnock had led – and succeeded where he failed.

3. (Not) Another Kinnock

How does Keir Starmer fit into this picture? With difficulty, it has to be said.

The appeal of a Kinnock-like narrative for the Starmer camp is obvious. Putting it into action, though, was tricky, for two reasons – in fact, precisely because of those two key factors.

In 2019/20 the party was certainly divided. The trouble was, nobody on the Right wanted to admit it, not least because the division had a strong ‘vertical’ component. With right-wing officeholders (and placeholders) jealously guarding their positions and crying Foul at any suggestion of greater accountability, people in positions of power in the party were much more likely to be anti-Corbyn than not – and a left-wing party divided between office-holders and rank-and-file members is not a good look.

So a variety of narratives grew up to explain what had happened to the party since 2015, mainly involving unrepresentative handfuls of thugs and Trots seizing control of party branches, just like the old days – and certainly not involving the existence of rival factions with equal legitimacy. The trouble was, this meant that Starmer couldn’t stand as “left reaching out to the right”; in these narratives there was no Left, just a gang of infiltrators who had somehow seized control of the party. By extension there was no Right – just the ordinary decent members of the party who cared more about electing a Labour government to deliver for our people than about having the correct ideological position (spit!).

What made this particularly difficult – attesting to the long-term damage caused by the anti-Corbyn campaign of 2015-19 – was the fact that Starmer still needed to run from the Left and appeal to the Left, while reaching out to the Right. (The second part of this was particularly important: in reality there were an awful lot of left-wing members out there, and everyone knew what happened when you didn’t try to appeal to them – look at Angela Eagle and Owen Smith; look at Jess Phillips.) The shape of the manoeuvre Starmer was aiming to carry out was unchanged; there just wasn’t a political vocabulary available for him to do it with.

The second problem the Starmer camp had was that, unlike Kinnock, their boy didn’t really have an image or a past to run against. Come to that, he didn’t really have any record as a politician – other than being Labour’s Mr Remain, known and trusted throughout the chancelleries of Europe, and for some reason they didn’t want to go big on that.

So the only way that Starmer could “do a Kinnock” was to, in effect, fake up a political hinterland – “I’m Left just like you! I always have been! Just in a slightly different and more moderate way, which is why you’ve never seen me around before!” Hence the ten pledges; hence the extraordinarily conciliatory campaign statement; hence the professions of friendship and solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn. Like Philip Gosse’s creationist explanation of fossils – yes, there were millions of years of history in the rocks, but that was because God had created the world looking as if it had a past – Keir Starmer the Leftist was created out of nothing for the purposes of the 2020 leadership election, and Keir Starmer’s leftist past was created with it.

Brief reply to imaginary leftist historian

OK, his leftist past wasn’t entirely created in 2020; I’ve heard good things about his radical early 30s, when he was a lawyer to radical campaigns, and I actually knew him slightly in his radical mid-20s, when he was a Pabloite. But the man’s pushing 60; there’s been precious little sign of that radical past lately, and there’s certainly no continuity with it.

4. Where are we now?

So if Starmer is doing a Kinnock it’s a very particular kind of Kinnock – a virtual Kinnock, a “fake news” Kinnock. Needless to say, it’s an approach that leaves the field littered with hostages to fortune.

Admittedly, left-wing reminders of Starmer’s ten pledges, his “hands up” to energy nationalisation and his reference to Corbyn as a friend haven’t made much of a dent in Starmer’s standing. But then, Starmer’s standing – as distinct from his election as party leader – isn’t dependent on the Left. It could be a different matter when the right-wing press decides to use that information – and use it they certainly could. It wouldn’t be beyond them to borrow the Left’s argument as it stands and use it as an attack on Starmer’s character – if this is what he’s willing to say to his friends, how can you believe what he says to you?

Alternatively, they could turn the Left’s argument on its head and ask, not whether Starmer was lying when he professed left-wing commitments, but whether we can trust Starmer not to revert to those commitments. This is potentially a really explosive line of attack; everything Starmer says now to differentiate himself from Corbyn could be undermined by those past statements. We can see here the importance of those two factors in Kinnock’s victory. On one hand, his Tribunite back story made it credible that someone could be on the Left and join with the Right in attacking the “hard Left”. On the other, the fact that divisions within the party could still be defined in terms of “left” and “right” – and not in terms of “ideological fanatic” and “pragmatic moderate”, or (grotesquely) “antisemite” and “anti-racist” – made it credible that someone could have been left-wing in the past and oppose the Left now. Neither of those escape routes is available to Starmer: if he’s publicly shown to have been a leftist in the past – nay, a Corbynite! – his story falls apart. Whether he’ll be allowed to lead Labour into a General Election, when he’ll surely face all that and more, seems highly dubious.

Will Starmer be judged a success on the “Kinnock” criterion on leaving his current post – will he have succeeded in both moving the party substantially to the Right and in re-energising it, making members believe the next election is winnable? (I’m not saying anything about the actual outcome of the next election; polling data suggests strongly that it was public reaction to Black Wednesday in 1992 that won it for Labour in 1997, and a conjuncture like that isn’t to be counted on – particularly seeing that economic incompetence no longer seems to be a problem for Tory governments.) Even on this restricted criterion, I’m not confident. Kinnock’s victory hadn’t been gained entirely by fair means – and the defeat of the miners certainly wasn’t – but the Right didn’t press home its advantage; the Left was sidelined and irrelevant within Labour, but largely retained its political legitimacy. A nominally left-wing leadership, drawing on the Right of the party as well as the centre-left, could afford to ignore them: the leadership was where the action was, after all.

None of this is true under Starmer. The Left remains a substantial presence within the party but is entirely deprived of political legitimacy; indeed, so incomplete was Corbyn’s victory, this was very largely the case even before Starmer came to power. (The well of political discourse was well and truly poisoned between 2015 and 2019.) Starmer’s leadership has taken steps to reduce the representation of the Left and deter left-wingers from staying in the party, but all this does is repress the problem, storing up trouble (or, depending on your vantage point, opportunities) for the future. (I mean, we’re still here. Not quite so many of us, and we’re not exactly happy, but we’re here.) On the other hand, “reformed Left” discourse and political renewal, even of the bland and half-hearted kind embodied by Kinnock’s “Meet the Challenge, Make the Change” policy review, is nowhere to be seen. But then, it’s hard to renew politically without drawing on different political positions – and it’s hard to do that if you’re committed to denying that there are any different political positions.

The blandness and vacuity of Starmer’s leadership – and Labour’s seeming inability to stretch its poll lead beyond 4-5%, even against the worst Tory government anyone has ever known – are telling signs of the sheer exhaustion of the Labour Right. (We were defeated, and we’re still knackered – but they won, and they’ve got nothing.) We can be pretty sure that Starmer is never going to be PM, but we can also be confident that he isn’t going to “do a Kinnock”, redefining the Left in his own image and leading Labour to a new home on the sunlit uplands of vaguely leftish neo-liberalism. This is partly because neither he nor the people around him have even that much to offer in terms of ideas – and partly because neither he nor the people around him are willing to acknowledge the existence of the Left, let alone redefine or claim to lead it.

A second Kinnock? Starmer will be lucky not to go down in history as a second Jo Swinson.

What happened in 2019 (in Bury South)?

This isn’t a question into which I’ve got any personal insight. I went out canvassing in several seats, and I couldn’t swear to you that Bury South wasn’t one of them; the name of the candidate doesn’t ring any bells, though, so I’m guessing not. So I don’t think Bury South was the place where a mock-furious resident jokingly threatened to come and batter us – or rather, as I quickly realised, a genuinely furious resident seriously threatened to come and batter us, and would have done if he hadn’t had to go back inside for his outdoor shoes. Nor was it the place where a hailstorm began, apparently centred on me personally, in the (long) two minutes between my ringing a doorbell and the door opening; or the place where someone who wasn’t even there explained patiently through his Ring device that my party leader was in fact a terrorist, in case I hadn’t realised; or the place where an Asian man and his partner told me that yes, they were definitely going to vote Labour, but told me very quietly and closed the door as quickly as they could.

Ah, the memories.

But no, I don’t remember Bury South. So this is based purely on publicly available data (viz. Wikipedia) and one or two weird tricks in Excel.

Click to embiggen, probably (WordPress has been very weird lately).

What’s going on here? These are the vote shares of the main parties (red, blue, orange), plus UKIP (purple), independent Right-wing parties and individuals (navy) and the Greens and independent Left-wingers (green). Rather than ordering them from Right to Left, I’ve grouped the two major parties and all the minor parties together (ordered Right to Left in both cases). The purple block includes the Brexit Party (2019) and the Referendum Party (1997); the orange block includes the SDP (1983 and 1987). The navy block includes Ivan Lewis (2019) – unfair, perhaps, but he certainly wasn’t standing as an independent Left-winger. Percentage shares are given every time a party gets 3% of the vote or more.

Although the vote shares of all parties add up to 100% in each column (check the first couple of columns if you don’t believe me), the overall height of the column is scaled to turnout. To put it another way, the total turnout can be read off on the left-hand Y axis from the height of the composite column; the (complementary) height of the translucent grey column represents the proportion of the electorate who didn’t vote (less than 20% in 1992, more than 40% in 2001).

The other wrinkle is the red line. This, measured against the right-hand Y axis, gives you the Labour percentage majority over the Conservatives at each election: positive every year from 1997 to 2017, negative 1983-92 and 2019. (Which is another reason why it would be fatuous to call this a “Red Wall” seat; when people talk about places that have been safe Labour seats time out of mind, they’re usually going back a bit further than 1997. “Nay, lass, it’s all Labour round here – has been since Euan Blair were a lad…”)

So what do we see? First, in 1987 and 1992, we see mobilisation of non-voters, primarily to the benefit of the Tories. Labour are coming back from the 1983 low, but – in this seat at least – they’re mainly coming back by reabsorbing the SDP vote and driving the Lib Dems back down to single figures.

1997 looks different, and the two elections after that look the same only more so. Turnout is down in 1997, and it looks as if it’s Tories who are staying at home (although a few of them have gone over to the Referendum Party). There’s also been a substantial shift from the Tories directly across to Labour, who now take the seat. Turnout is through the floor in 2001 and 2005, and again the Tory vote is hitting historic lows; the Lib Dem vote is recovering, however, apparently mainly by taking votes back from Labour.

Then there are 2010 and 2015. The Tory vote is recovering, but only slowly; the real action is in the ‘minor party’ section, which – in this seat as in several others – appears to have been (a) a repository for anti-system, ‘sod the lot of them’ votes and (b) a playground for the far Right (in this case, BNP and English Democrat as well as UKIP). The Lib Dem vote collapses in 2015, as it did in most places; the beneficiaries, in ascending order, are the Greens, Labour and UKIP.

Now look at 2017. Turnout’s up a bit, but what really leaps out is the level of two-party polarisation: even with a Kipper, a Lib Dem and a right-wing independent (listed in descending vote share order), Labour and the Tories together take almost 95% of the vote. Even in the three-party days the two parties’ share never reached 91% – and it had been below 80% at the three(!) previous elections. Voter mobilisation and massive polarisation, greatly to the benefit of Ivan Lewis MP (and was he grateful?).

2019, finally, was… 2019: turnout falls; the minor-party area takes 13% of the vote instead of 5%, as separate fringes of pro- and anti-Brexit voters make their respective points; the Tory vote increases a little while the Labour vote declines quite a lot; and Ivan Lewis himself standing in person isn’t really in the race but does attract 1,366 votes, in a seat taken by the Tories with a majority of 402.

What happened in Bury South, then, was that the New Labour years drove down political participation, demoralised Tory voters in particular, and created a relatively small but significant group of voters whose main motivation was to protest against what they saw as a rotten system. The Coalition, austerity and the collapse of the Lib Dem vote hardened this group’s opposition to politics as usual. In 2017 voter mobilisation and polarisation saw most of those voters going to the Tories, but a minority of them – together with the Green and some of the surviving Lib Dem vote – went to Corbyn, seeing him (correctly) as an outsider planning to shake things up. Finally, in 2019 – just as the bad name that four years of negative campaigning had hung on Labour finally began to cut through – the party’s Brexit positioning brought it into the realm of “politics as usual”; the minor-party vote duly revived, along with the (quietly continuing) revival of the Tory vote; and Christian Wakeford took the seat for the Tories by a margin of 0.8%.

To put it another way, what happened in 2019 was a small-scale replay of what had happened in 2015 – which in turn was only possible because of what had happened in 2001 and 2005 – together with the unwinding (after much persuasion) of what had happened in 2017. Add unfavourable background conditions (the debasement of the national debate, a cynically effective Tory campaign) and unpredictable local factors (Ivan Lewis MP (ret’d)) and you’ve got a Tory win.

How Labour win back similar seats I’m not sure, although one answer would lie in the mobilisation and polarisation exemplified by the impressive 2017 result. (And 2019 didn’t just happen, let’s not forget; a lot of people put a lot of work into reversing that result.) That said, 2017 nationally was also a record year for the Tory vote (highest vote share since Thatcher, more votes than Labour took in 1997); a rising tide floats all boats if you’re not careful, as the 1987 and ’92 results here demonstrate. The reverse strategy – depolarisation, demobilisation and generally driving down the vote – seems to have worked rather well in the Blair years, but I would urge anyone planning a repeat of that particular strategy to remember that New Labour began by exclusively driving down the Tory vote; the attack on Labour’s own vote came later, and began from a high base. Also, of course, the chart rather strongly suggests that 2001 and 2005 led (through the medium of a lot of grumpily apathetic ex-Tory voters) to 2010, 2015 and 2016, which is very much where we came in.

One other thing to stress about Bury South, finally, is that it was a close and a flukey result, as several of Labour’s 2019 losses were. None of the above would have mattered if one in six of Ivan Lewis’s voters in 2019 had stayed with Labour – or if one in 50 of Christian Wakeford’s had stayed at home.

On the bright side, Wakeford’s our comrade now, so none of it does matter! Isn’t democracy great?

 

 

There Is No Red Wall

As you’ve probably noticed, Labour is doing well in the polls at the moment. One polling result that got a lot of exposure recently was this one:

The pollsters – J L Partners – hail from Downing Street, no less; James Johnson was previously a SpAd to Theresa May and Rory Stewart.

What I found particularly interesting about this was the reference to “45 Red Wall seats” – the constituencies in which the polling had been carried out, presumably. Could this be a definitive answer to the old question, what is the Red Wall?

Well, (a) it’s not that old a question, and (b) yes it could, sort of – although this is, to my knowledge, the fourth distinct version of the “Red Wall”, so it could all change again. (Update 15th February: it turns out that this was actually the sixth version; see below for details.)

Let’s go back a bit. (NB Some overlap with my earlier series of posts, but at least this way it’s all in one place.)

Red Wall v0: to August 2019

The Red Wall as we know it is the creation of a right-wing think-tanker, an FT writer who previously worked for the Telegraph and the Spectator and an FT dataviz specialist, with additional contributions by Downing Street advisors. And the Red Wall is something we didn’t know – at all – until relatively recently. Up to the middle of August 2019 – less than four months before the election where the Red Wall would feature so prominently – the Red Wall as a political concept didn’t exist; the only people who talked about a Red Wall on a regular basis were Wales football supporters (not shown here).

And then there was

Red Wall v1 (August 2019)

In August 2019, James Kanagasooriam of right-wing think tank Onward identified four groups of seats where the Conservative Party tended to under-perform relative to what the demographics of the area would lead one to expect. One of the four was

a huge “red wall” stretching from N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster. When you talk about cultural barriers to voting Tory – this is where it is. This entire stretch shouldn’t be all Labour but is

This Tweet was accompanied by a map showing 46 constituencies. Removing one Lib Dem seat and a number of seats that had either changed hands multiple times or only been formed relatively recently – and where, either way, we can’t presume those “cultural barriers to voting Tory” applied – gave 39 seats. Here’s what happened to them in December 2019:

Five of the 39 went Conservative, one of them (Leigh, in paler blue) quite narrowly – and one of the remaining four was Bassetlaw (chequered), whose sitting MP had left the Labour Party and was actively campaigning against it at the time of the election. Cultural barriers one, demographics nil.

But the really odd thing about this, first version of the Red Wall, at least in retrospect, is how little traction it got: nobody really picked up on it at all.

Red Wall v2 (October 2019)

Not, that is, until the end of October, by which time the December election had already been called (and was less than six weeks away). It was then that Kanagasooriam – in the context of a report about something else entirely – revived the Red Wall; now it referred to

a belt of sixty seats in the North and Midlands which the Conservatives have never won. They include places like Wakefield, Great Grimsby and Penistone and Stockbridge. Termed elsewhere as the ‘Red Wall’ by the framework’s author James Kanagsooriam, it is made up of a mixture of constituencies which for demographic reasons have always been quite marginal but have consistently remained Labour; constituencies where the Conservatives significantly increased their vote share in 2017 but didn’t win; and a scattering of seats with five figure majorities but which could be become marginal because of voters’ strong pro-Brexit views.

This more expansively defined group was itself said to be one of three groups of seats which would be determinant of the election result, totalling 109 battleground seats – 60 ‘Red Wall’, 38 ‘Uniform National Swing’ and a cluster of eleven seats in Wales. It’s not clear which were seen as the Red Wall seats, though; while the JRF report listed all 109, it didn’t break them down into the three sub-groups. Sebastian Payne’s book Broken Heartlands does include a table supplied by Kanagasooriam and itemising the ‘Red Wall’ and ‘Uniform National Swing’ seats; however, the table only lists 43 ‘Red Wall’ seats, and several of those listed are not named in the JRF report. In search of a definitive list, I put the two lists together and took out any seat listed under ‘Uniform National Swing’ and anywhere south of the Midlands, then did a bit more tidying-up. It seemed to me that if we were going to talk about seats that the Conservatives have never won, “never” ought to mean something; strictly speaking a seat that was created in 2010 and won by the Tories in 2017 had never been won by the Tories up to that point, but it’s not the impression that word gives. So I removed any seat that had come into existence since 1983, and any seat that had been held by the Tories or Lib Dems at any time between 1983 and 2017.

At the end of all that I didn’t have a list of sixty seats, but I did have 45; and here they are. I give you the Red Wall, version 2, late October 2019. The dark blue seats (14 of them) are big Tory wins; the mid-blues (11) are narrow wins; the chequered area is Bassetlaw, whose sitting Labour MP was campaigning against the party by the time of the election; and the remaining 19 are bricks in the Red Wall that unsportingly stayed red.

It’s… not that much of a wall, really, is it? It’s an awfully long way from Birmingham Northfield to Blyth Valley – 230 miles, in fact – and neither of them has much in common with Blackpool South, Don Valley or Great Grimsby, or Workington for that matter. Apart from being (a) Labour seats up to 2017 and (b) Up North, that is.

Shortly afterwards it was decided – by Kanagasooriam, James Burn-Murdoch of the FT or both – that anything called a ‘wall’ really ought to look a bit like a continuous series of blocks leading from A to B. The FT duly publicised a third iteration of the Red Wall, which is partly a Lancashire/Yorkshire/Midlands slice out of the map above and partly… not. As you’re about to see.

Red Wall v3 (November 2019)

This is what the FT described as “a near-contiguous span of 50 Labour-held seats stretching from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales to Great Grimsby on the East Coast”. The 43 English seats shown on the FT‘s accompanying map are above, colour-coded according to what would happen in December. Again, grey chequers indicate a seat whose former Labour MP was campaigning against the party; again, deep blue is a big Tory win (9 constituencies), the mid-blue is a narrow win (7) and the red are Labour holds (15). The remaining 12, in the pale blue, are seats that went Tory in 2019 but hadn’t consistently been Labour since 1983 – and consequently didn’t feature in previous versions of the Red Wall. The point of the Red Wall rhetoric, let’s not forget, was that these were Labour strongholds which were now tumbling due to the waning of tribal loyalties. The mid-blue seats – many of which are constituencies where the Tories squeaked a win, as parties having a good election campaign often do – are already a poor fit with this model; the pale blue seats depart from it altogether. In this iteration, “Red Wall” didn’t mean much more than “Conservative targets north of the Wash and south of Morecambe Bay”.

Red Wall v4 (December 2019)

(Updated February 2022) Up till now I’ve somehow missed this morning-after Telegraph story – variously headlined “The 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories for the first time in decades” and “The 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories for the first time” tout court (as we’ll see, the latter is actually more accurate). The seats (22 in England, two in Wales) are listed in a table headed “Fall of the Labour wall”, so I think this listing deserves its place in the genealogy of the Red Wall.

22 wins, right enough; but they weren’t all big wins, they weren’t all seats that had been Labour for longer than a decade or so, and some of them were won with assistance from the former MP. Also, with the exception of Stoke-on-Trent (whose politics have been decidedly troubled for some time), these constituencies look less like “Labour heartlands” than rural and semi-rural seats where Labour supporters had been in the majority for historical reasons. (Which, to be fair, was more or less what James Kanagasooriam was getting at to begin with, even if he later helped bend the concept out of shape.)

Red Wall v5 (The Definitive Red Wall) (September 2021)

(Updated February 2022) It’s been brought to my attention that James Kanagasooriam has not only identified the seats making up the Red Wall but explained how they were selected, in an article in Political Insight co-written with Elizabeth Simon and modestly entitled “Red Wall: The Definitive Description”. All right! Let’s get some political science on this thing!

The Red Wall, in this telling, began with a demographic model predicting the level of the Conservative vote in a given constituency – factors such as deprivation (negatively correlated), higher education (also negatively correlated but less strongly) and the proportion of residents in managerial positions (positive correlation). Constituencies not held by the Tories in 2017 were assessed according to whether they had an anomalously low score on this model, as well as three other factors: a Conservative vote share over 25% in 2017, a swing of over 5% to the Conservatives between 2010[sic] and 2017, and a greater than 55% Leave vote.

70 of the 269 eligible seats hit all four criteria. This group was then winnowed down by excluding seats outside England (and perhaps making other unspecified “geographic exclusions”), as well as excluding seats “deemed too unlikely to switch allegiance”; this gave 28 seats. From the pool of constituencies meeting only three of four factors, another 11 were “designated part of the Red Wall through qualitative selection” (Kanagasooriam doesn’t mention how many were in this pool); finally, “a further three seats, which met two or less of the criteria, were also included based on geographical proximity to other Red Wall seats”.

The 42 included the Speaker’s seat of Chorley; excluding Chorley gives 41 seats, as follows.

That’s 30 out of 41, although only 13 of the 30 are big (dark blue) wins – and again, the East Midlands excepted you’d be looking at that map a long time before you thought you were looking at a ‘wall’ of any kind.

In the discussion section of the paper, Kanagasooriam suggests that his results would have been even better if he’d trusted the data more: none of the three seats that were added on “geographical” grounds (despite only ticking one or two boxes) went to the Tories in 2017, while two of those that hit all four marks but were excluded as “unlikely to switch allegiance” – Leigh and Redcar – did. It’s nice to see a researcher own up to fudging the data, but Kanagasooriam’s suggestion that an unfudged version would have been more accurate isn’t borne out by the data he presents.

The problem is that, as soon as any judgment calls were made on inclusion or exclusion, the whole sample was fudged (to put it euphemistically). What we really need to know is the content (and hence the hit-rate) of all the subsamples – the 28 constituencies that were judged to be ‘true’ Red Wall seats; the 42 that weren’t despite hitting all four marks; the 11 that qualified on three criteria and were added to the sample; the unknown number that qualified on three criteria and weren’t added to the sample; and, of course, the three erroneous ‘geographical’ choices. If all the judgment calls had been omitted, Leigh and Redcar would certainly have been on the list, but none of the 11 added at the third stage would have been. In any case, the list would have numbered 70 constituencies – which, given that the Tories only made 48 gains from Labour in the whole of England, would be bound to bring down the Red Wall’s hit rate and hence its predictive accuracy.

Red Wall v6 (the pollsters’ Red Wall) (January 2022 and doubtless earlier)

So far the December election result has seen the Tories win 5 out of 39 Red Wall seats, 26 out of 45, 28 out of 43, 22 out of, er, 22, and 30 out of 41. The changing meaning of the concept is clearly closing in on the actual result – although the big, eye-popping, “dude where’s my core vote?” victories account for 3 of the 39, 14 of the 45, 8 of the 43, 12 of the 22 and 13 of the 41. (Needless to say, there have been varying degrees of overlap between the 39, the 45, the 43 and the 41.)

You may well be wondering how it can be that opinion polling shows the Tories potentially losing all but three of their 45 Red Wall seats. The three they’re projected to hang on to are familiar enough – Dudley North, Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby, or one former deep blue seat and two chequered in defectors’ grey (interesting in itself) – but where had J L Partners found another 42 Conservative gains? Particularly since, as just noted, the Tories only made 48 gains from Labour in the whole of England (and one loss)…

Hold on to that thought. Here’s the pollsters’ Red Wall.

The list of 45 seats published by the pollsters includes one in Wales (Delyn) which I’m ignoring. The other 44 are shown here, with the usual colour coding. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Tories won all 44! Anyone wondering if there was perhaps a touch of the Texas Sharpshooter about one of the earlier versions can relax – that’s all this is. Red Wall = Tory gain, Tory gain = Red Wall, with a handful of exceptions – in fact the only Tory gains in England not forming part of the Red Wall are Kensington, Stroud, Ipswich and Peterborough, which presumably weren’t considered “Northern” enough. (Scare quotes used because Peterborough is actually on this map – by latitude it’s slightly North of Birmingham.)

The phrase “Red Wall” now means nothing more than “one of the seats the Tories won from Labour in 2019” – which is to say, it means nothing.

Postscript: Is there a real Red Wall?

No. No, there isn’t. Stop it now. Put the psephological buzz-phrase down.

What there is – and what is quite interesting – is a relatively small group of seats which had genuinely been Labour for a long time, and which genuinely went Tory in a big way in 2019. The ‘deep blue’ seats in all the above maps are defined as long-term Labour seats where the 2019 Tory majority was 5% or more and the Labour vote had fallen by 10% or more relative to 2017 and the Labour vote was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001. These three criteria do seem to identify a real phenomenon, setting these seats apart from the ‘mid-blue’ seats (long-term Labour seats won by the Tories in 2019 but where one or more of those factors don’t apply). The highest Labour vote in 2019 in a ‘deep blue’ seat was 39.8%; the lowest Labour vote in a ‘mid-blue’ seat was 39.3%.

On investigating the deep-blue seats more closely I found that almost all of them showed a similar pattern over the previous three elections, with Labour’s margin over the Tories going down in both 2010 and – most unusually – 2017. There are, in point of fact, only 50 Labour constituencies (of 232) where Labour’s margin fell in 2017 – anyone who looked at that election with a degree of objectivity would have to say that 2017 was a good result in lots of ways (as long as they can silence the nagging voice saying yeah but we didn’t win did we…).

Here are those 50 seats.

Key: as before, except that seats with defectors aren’t singled out any more. There’s also one seat – Scunthorpe – in deep purple; this was a ‘deep blue’ where Labour’s margin over the Tories didn’t go down between 2015 and 2017 (it went up by 0.05%).

What does this tell us, though? I think it tells us that, while substantial numbers of people in the East Midlands and the North East (and a couple of other areas) didn’t really feel the love for Corbyn, this only created the opportunity for a major (local) political upset when other factors were present. In a previous post I suggested that the distinctive characteristics of the ‘deep blue’ constituencies were the presence of an sizeable anti-system, “none of the above” protest vote, together with the legitimation of the far Right as a vehicle for protest votes. Both of these localised trends – established in those seats since the New Labour years – made it possible for substantial numbers of voters to switch from the Lib Dems to UKIP in 2015, and for the Conservatives to attract a majority of those voters in 2017. This led to a reduced Labour majority in those seats – and a lot of publicity for some of the affected MPs, who blamed the result on the new leader (although, ironically, under a more ‘establishment’ leader than Corbyn the minority of anti-system voters who returned to Labour might have been much smaller). In 2019, Labour’s Brexit positioning left it looking like the ‘establishment’ party, standing in the way of the Tories’ endorsement of the revolt of 2016; as a result it lost whatever ‘protest vote’ credibility it still had, and lost ground to both the Tories and the Brexit Party. The result, in those 17 constituencies, was a dramatic collapse in the Labour vote.

But note: in those 17 constituencies. The Tories made 47 net gains in England; if they’d made 30 in the entire country they would still have come out with a solid majority. The map immediately above tells us where in England Labour’s margin over the Tories fell – against the current – in 2017, whether or not the Tories won those seats two years later and if so, how well; the map above it tells us where in England the Tories won a Labour seat in 2019, and what kind of a win it was. There’s a lot of overlap, but there are also an awful lot of differences; and lots of the wins – enough wins to make an election victory – were narrow, chancy, unpredictable wins. (They still count, that’s the thing.)

What this whole exercise tells us is that the Red Wall is useful as a concept if you define it tightly enough, but that what it’s useful for is telling us why Labour lost some of the seats it did in 2019 and, perhaps, where similar factors might apply in future. What it definitely doesn’t tell us is “why Labour lost”; this is a small, untypical group of seats, meaning that any reorientation of the party based on the idea of “winning back the Red Wall” would be disastrous.

We can also see that, in practice, the concept of “Red Wall” has steadily converged on that of “Conservative target seat”, to the point where it’s now more or less synonymous with “Conservative gains from Labour in 2019 in England”. (It’s precisely synonymous with “Conservative gains from Labour in 2019 in England, north of 52.4 degrees N, with the exception of Peterborough”, but that’s not quite as snappy.)

Once more with feeling: there Is No Red Wall. If you mean “seats the Conservatives gained from Labour”, say “seats the Conservatives gained from Labour”. If you mean “longstanding Labour seats in the North and the Midlands that the Conservatives gained from Labour by unexpectedly large margins”, say that – but be aware that:

  1. The North is a very big place; it’s 140 miles from Manchester to Newcastle, 115 to Grimsby, 90 to Birmingham. What do you suppose all those places have in common? (Similar distances from London would get you to Southampton, Hereford and, well, Birmingham.)
  2. Our electoral system paints a constituency in the colour of the largest single sub-group of voters, no more and no less than that. If a 38%/42% split between Conservative and Labour at one election turns into 42%/38% at the next, the constituency has certainly gone to the Tories, but the Labour voters haven’t – or rather, only some of them have, and they’re not necessarily the most representative ones.
  3. The story of those longstanding… gained… unexpectedly large seats is an interesting one, but it doesn’t really tell us about anywhere else (e.g. The North, or even The East Midlands), or about anything else (e.g. the overall election result).
  4. Those places have their own political history, which you can dip a toe in by looking at previous election results. You may be surprised by what you see; you may not like what you see. (“Cultural conservatism” doesn’t just mean you aren’t a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race.)
  5. Not everyone who offers Labour bad news and hard truths is doing so because they want Labour to win. The party that doesn’t have any bad news to deal with – the party whose common sense is the other party’s hard truths – starts at an advantage.
  6. Generalising about Labour strategy on the basis of an imaginary version of the ‘Red Wall’, what it stands for and why it supposedly fell into the arms of the Tories (suit and tie, support our boys and God save the Queen) would be idiotic: basing strategy on fantasy can’t possibly work.
  7. Generalising about Labour strategy on the basis of an accurate understanding of the ‘deep blue’ seats, what voters there believe in and why they actually switched to the Tories would be cynical and unprincipled. And – again – it couldn’t possibly work, outside those seats; it wouldn’t even be a recipe for winning back the other 31 losses or holding Labour’s existing seats, let alone making the additional gains the party needs.

What Labour needs above all is to set its own direction, without looking over its collective shoulder at how policy X might play with demographic Y. A good start would be to stop listening to people offering to feed this habit – and to remember that those people aren’t always friends of the party.

What happened in 2019 (1)

What happened in 2019? This:

20172019+/-
Labour40%26232.1%202-7.9%-60
Conservative42.3%31743.6%365+1.3%+48
UKIP / Brexit Party1.8%02.1%0+0.3%0
Lib Dem / Green / independents9%1315.9%12+6.9%-1

Any further questions?

To unpack that a little: Labour’s vote fell by a fifth, but the Tory and UKIP/BXP vote rose only a little; the main beneficiaries in terms of votes were the minor centrist (and pro-Remain) parties. The sole beneficiary in terms of seats was the Conservative Party, for reasons which both were and weren’t predictable: that they would benefit was predictable because of the two-party bias imposed by our absurd electoral system, but as for how much they would benefit, have you looked at our absurd electoral system recently? Another table:

2010201520172019
Conservative36.1%30636.9%33042.3%31743.6%365
Labour29%25830.4%23240%26232.1%202

Labour’s 2019 vote share is significantly higher than 2010’s, for less than 80% of the seats. Or you could look at the Tories’ 2015 vote: in comparison, Labour got 8/9ths of the votes, for 3/5 of the seats. We can even see this disproportion happening from one election to the next: both Labour in 2015 and (more dramatically) the Tories in 2017 increased their vote share and lost seats. (“All hail, Theresa May, who shall lead the Conservative Party to win its highest vote share since Thatcher, with more votes than Labour took in 1997!” The witches were having a laugh that day.) Really, the system’s a lottery; it’s amazing we take it as seriously as we do.

But that is the system we’ve got, and those are the figures it produced. And, speaking of disproportions, there’s something about the scale of the Tories’ gains from Labour, compared to the much more modest increase in votes, which seems to cry out for explanation. One candidate explanation, as we’ve seen – albeit a hazy and impressionistic explanation, as we’ve also seen – is the ‘Red Wall’. Perhaps it wasn’t a Tory wave but a Labour collapse. Perhaps the youth-powered bien-pensant liberalism of today’s Labour Party had drifted so far from the ageing demographics and conservative culture of the party’s traditional support base that some of its northern strongholds were ready to drop into the Tories’ hands (always bearing in mind that the word ‘north’ covers everywhere from Coventry to Berwick-upon-Tweed).

Well, perhaps. The trouble with this explanation (as we’ve seen) is that it only explains about a third of Labour’s losses. But might it be useful anyway, applied not to the seats we actually lost but to near misses? A good question, and one that calls for a map.

The nationwide trend for Labour was a drop of 7.9%, with the Tory vote going up by 1.3%; this adds up to a deterioration in Labour’s relative vote share of 9.2%. The deep purple constituencies on this map are the big losses: the ones that Labour lost with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more, roughly twice the national change.

The pale purple are all other losses – barring a few further south – and, as you can see, they outnumber the deep purple handily. What’s more interesting are the red seats, which are all those seats that Labour held with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more – in other words, the seats where the same factors that were at work in the deep purple group are (perhaps) lurking, storing up trouble for future elections.

In short, if there is a Red Wall, this is the map to show it – and, if there is a Red Wall, it’s partly in south Yorkshire and Derbyshire, partly north of Durham. There’s no denying that this is an interesting map, and one that highlights some problem areas for Labour (that stretch running from Pontefract down to Bolsover in particular). But do those red and deep purple areas tell us anything about “Labour’s heartlands” in general – or about how the election was lost? I can’t see it.

The other end of the scale is interesting too – and for this one we’ll be venturing south of the Wash. Two maps:

On these two maps, the red and orange areas are Labour holds, the blue Tory holds. The pale blue and orange areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Conservatives fell in 2019 by less than 4.5% (i.e. less than half of the national average). The darker blue and deep red areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Tories actually rose in 2019 (including one where I went canvassing – which is pretty much the first evidence I’ve seen that any of the canvasses I was involved in had any positive effect).

What’s interesting about the red and orange seats is not so much where they are (Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Bristol, recent wins Canterbury and Portsmouth South and of course the capital) as how few there are of them; the Labour vote just fell away, by a lot, right across the country. Or at least, right across the country in Labour seats: check out the duck-egg blue South-East. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that you can walk from Lewes to Aylesbury without ever entering a Tory constituency where Labour’s relative vote share fell by more than 4.5%; not very much, probably. Still, those washes of pale blue are at the very least interesting, particularly considering how many of those same seats saw a rise in Labour’s relative share in 2017.

One last map. Was this a victory for the Conservatives? Clearly it was in terms of seats gained, but see above, absurd electoral system. In terms of a big rise in vote share… not so much.

The purple and blue areas are constituencies where the Tory vote rose by at least 5% relative to 2017. The purple areas are seats lost to the Conservatives, as usual; the blue areas are Labour holds. Pale blue and pale purple show a rise of 5-9.9% in the Tory vote, dark blue and dark purple a rise of 10% or more. The beige areas, finally, are constituencies where the Tory vote didn’t go up by as much as 5%, but Labour lost the seat to them anyway.

It’s striking, relative to the beige areas, how few Labour losses are purple, and how very few are deep purple. It’s also striking, relative to the map as a whole, just how few seats are either blue or purple. Despite the huge shifts in relative vote shares in some constituencies (shown on the first map), there were only a handful of constituencies where the Tory vote share rose significantly. Conversely (referring to the second and third maps) it was only in a minority of constituencies – and a small minority of Labour constituencies specifically – that Labour’s vote share didn’t show a significant fall.

Something big happened to Labour’s vote in 2019, and it happened right across the country – and it wasn’t a swing to the Tories, despite the Tories benefiting from it in a big way.

But what was it?

In search of the Red Wall (8)

THE STORY SO FAR: There is no “Red Wall”.

To be more precise, it’s not possible to identify any group of constituencies that fit all the criteria for the “Red Wall” as it’s usually described (large numbers of previously long-term and solid Labour seats which went Tory in 2019, clustered together, somewhere in the North of England). The Tories did win in some surprising places in 2019, with constituencies which had been Labour for twenty years or more suddenly showing a 10-20% drop in the Labour vote. Long-term patterns of voting in these constituencies suggest that a disaffected, “none of the above” voting bloc has played a significant part for some time, and that the Tories’ success in 2019 was largely due to the capture of this anti-political vote by the Brexit Party and (in a bizarre irony) by the Conservative Party itself.

Here (again) are the voting patterns for one of these constituencies, Don Valley in south Yorkshire.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on. A sizeable Liberal Democrat protest vote in 2005 is joined by far-Right protest voting in 2010, eating into Labour’s normally substantial majority. In 2015 the Lib Dems had been discredited by their participation in the Coalition. The benefits go in part to Labour; there is also a new repository for antipolitical voting in the form of UKIP, which in addition gains support from right-wing Tory voters. Polarisation returns in 2017, with the Tories capturing most – although not all – of the UKIP vote. This means that their position relative to Labour improves again, putting them in a good position to capitalise when the next wave of antipolitical protest voting – spearheaded by the rebadged Brexit Party – peels votes away from Labour in 2019.

Disaffected voters express their opposition to both the “old parties” by voting for the Lib Dems in 2005; for the Lib Dems, UKIP and the far Right in 2010; for UKIP in 2015; and for both the (Brexiteering) Tories and the (anti-system) Labour Party in 2017 (but mainly for the Tories). Consequently, Labour’s position relative to the Tories goes Down between 2005 and 2010, goes Up between 2010 and 2015 and finally goes Down again in 2017.

For completeness’ sake we can also consider what happened in Bishop Auckland:

Which is… pretty much the same, except that Labour didn’t noticeably benefit from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015 – either because the Lib Dem votes they gained were mostly matched by losses to UKIP, or because antipolitical Lib Dem votes transferred to UKIP direct – with the result that Labour lost ground with the rise of UKIP as well as with their decline. Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Down in 2010, Down in 2015 and Down in 2017.

We see these patterns – particularly the first one – in a lot of the seats Labour lost. It’s a plausible, coherent story, too – the two motors of the whole process are the alienation of a substantial body of voters from both main parties and the failure to completely delegitimate the far Right, and both of those conditions seem likely to have applied in any number of places (particularly places with longstanding Labour councils).

The question then is: do these conditions obtain more widely? They may be scattered around the country and they may not have decided the election in themselves, but are the “red wall” seats just the most visible part of a larger problem? Bluntly, are the seats Labour actually lost in 2019 the tip of the iceberg?

There isn’t much in the way of good news in this story – sitting as we are amid the wreckage of the 2019 election – but the answer to this question does at least qualify as interesting news. Here are the details for the 418 English constituencies which have existed with more or less the same boundaries since 1979, and which were held by the main two parties in 2017.

Reading from the top, the dark red bloc are ‘UU’ seats, those where Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Up in both 2015 and 2017; the paler red are ‘DU’ (Down in 2015, Up in 2017); the pale blues are UD (Up in 2015, Down in 2017); and the dark blue, DD (Down in both 2015 and 2017). I haven’t distinguished between UUU/DUU, UDU/DDU, UUD/DUD and UDD/DDD, partly for simplicity and partly because including that level of detail would make very little difference. (Labour’s position went Down in 2010 in 387 constituencies out of the 418; the UUU subset accounts for 29 of the remaining 31 and UDD and UDU for one each of the last two.)

What do we see? We see that, in 2017, Labour’s position improved in over 70% of Labour constituencies and nearly 80% of Tory seats. Labour seats were considerably more likely to show improvements under both Corbyn and Ed Miliband than Corbyn alone; in Tory seats, by contrast, over 40% – the largest single category – saw Labour’s position deteriorate under Miliband and then improve under Corbyn. If we’re measuring the popularity of party leaders on the basis of the ability to improve the party’s vote share, particularly outside its existing heartlands – an eccentric idea, perhaps, but let’s go with it – then Jeremy Corbyn, as of 2017, was far and away the most popular leader Labour had had since 1997. I don’t recall this point being made very often at the time.

More importantly for the current discussion, where are those DUDs and DDDs? They are there, but – as it turns out – they’re not all that numerous. 39 Labour seats, around 20% of the total, fitted the DUD template that we saw so many times in the previous post; the DDD model only fits another 11. Nor was the pattern any more representative of trends in Conservative seats. 320 out of 418 seats – more than three-quarters – saw Labour’s position improve in 2017, under Corbyn; in 203 of them – nearly half – there were improvements in 2015 as well. Pitching to the DUD seats – and the disaffected 15-20% of Right-leaning antipolitical voters who made them that way – is no way to either gain votes in most Tory seats or hang on to them in most Labour seats.

Time for another map or two, or four. Here’s the north and centre of England, showing Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share went down in 2017 (red for Labour, blue for Tory, keep up). There are fifty Labour seats in this category, about 45 of which you can see here.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s position improved in 2017 (slightly different red for Labour… you get the idea). There are 136 Labour seats in this category, of which you see about 65 here.

(Small squiggly constituencies, remember. There are twelve constituencies in the block running north-south from Doncaster to Bolsover, 40 in the east-west block from Birkenhead to Leeds.)

And here’s the south-east. Again, these are Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share fell in 2017.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats in the south-east where Labour’s position improved in 2017. (You may want to sit down.)

Small squiggly red constituencies, again – forty of them in London, another ten in Birmingham. As for the blue ones… well, that’s a bit striking, isn’t it? I’m not saying that Corbyn was building a platform for power in the heart of the Tory beast – in a lot of these cases what happened in 2017 was that Labour came third with 10% instead of 8%. But, as I said, if we measure success for a party leader in terms of putting on vote share for the party…

NEXT: So, what did happen in 2019 (and where did it happen)?

In search of the Red Wall (7)

THE STORY SO FAR: The “Red Wall” was defined, in October 2019, as “a near-contiguous span of 50 Labour-held seats stretching from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales to Great Grimsby on the East Coast”: Conservative target seats in the North West, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, in other words. In December 2019, the Conservatives did in fact make several gains in this belt of seats. Thanks in part to an earlier use of the “Red Wall” label – which had defined the Red Wall as a belt of Labour constituencies with demographics typical of Conservative seats – it has been widely assumed that “Red Wall” seats were solid Labour seats, and that the very culture and traditions that had made them Labour had somehow made them all the more vulnerable to the Conservatives. In reality, most Conservative gains – in the Red Wall and elsewhere – were either marginals without a long Labour history or were won narrowly and/or with a relatively small drop in the Labour vote; in other words, they were precisely the kind of gain we would expect a party to make in a good election campaign, without any need for a more elaborate explanation (and 2019 was, for the Conservatives, a very good election campaign).

So, was there ever a Red Wall?

Here, again, is a table summarising the characteristics of Labour’s losses in England in 2019. In ascending order, group 3 are relative marginals, which had changed hands at least twice since 1997; group 2 are long-term Labour seats, won narrowly in 2019; and group 1 are long-term Labour seats, won solidly (a Tory majority of 5% or more and a drop in the Labour vote of 10% or more relative to 2017 and a Labour vote lower than at any time since (and including) 2001).

Now groups 2 and 3 contain 31 seats, group 1 17; since the Tories went into the 2019 election nine seats short of a majority, groups 2 and 3 on their own would have sufficed for a solid parliamentary majority. Which in turn means that the factors which produced Tory victories in the seats in groups 2 and 3 are the only factors we need to consider, if we’re asking how the election was won.

I think that needed restating. But still… what did happen in group 1?

123
Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

That first column makes pretty horrific reading. There were seventeen Labour seats – Labour since 1997 or longer – where Labour got between 24.4% and 39.8% of the vote in 2019, the Labour vote having fallen by somewhere between 10% and 25%, and where the Tories took the seat by a majority of somewhere between 5% and 31.4%. These figures bear no resemblance to the figures in the second and third columns. There’s something going on here – something that needs explaining.

One final map. Here they are: here are all the Red Wallgroup 1 seats, from Workington to West Bromwich.

Seventeen seats: a single block of five seats, plus three pairs and six on their own. A wall it ain’t; James Kanagasooriam’s original intuition – that constituencies in the same region might have a shared set of cultural values, so that a shift in that culture could see several seats at once going to the Conservatives – only looks like being borne out in Derbyshire (and even there neighbouring constituencies – Doncaster, Chesterfield – seem to have remained immune).

Something happened in these constituencies, though, and something worth investigating – arguably all the more so given how widely separated they are. You would not think to look at them that Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bishop Auckland were sisters under the skin, or Don Valley and Dudley North. But perhaps there’s something going on out there.

Here are some election results, going back to 2005.

Here’s what happened in Don Valley.

In 2005 – the post-Iraq election – Labour held the seat easily, taking over half the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote. (As this was, by some way, the highest Liberal [Democrat] vote in the constituency since 1983, it’s reasonable to assume that the circumstances of 2005 had something to do with it – and the key circumstance at that election was surely Iraq.)

In 2010 – in the dying days of New Labour, post-Blair and mid-crash – the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right: UKIP (in purple) took 4% of the vote, the BNP and the English Democrats (in dark blue) another 9%. As a result, Labour’s lead over the Tories – the line overlaid on the chart – fell from above 20% to below 10%.

In 2015 – the post-Coalition, pre-Brexit election – the voters punished the incumbent government again: the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems, no longer appearing a principled alternative to the main two parties, saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was, again, on the far Right: UKIP ran the Tories a close third place. The rise in the Labour vote share and the fall in the Tories’ (to the benefit of UKIP) meant that Labour’s lead over the Tories rose again.

In 2017 – the election of maximum polarisation – the Labour and Tory candidates were the only ones that counted; the Lib Dems were squeezed further, and UKIP didn’t even stand. The Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly. As a result, while the Labour vote share rose again – to reach the levels of 2001 and 1997 – the Labour lead over the Tories fell again.

Lastly, in 2019 – the election we may as well just call The Disaster – the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level, while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (still in purple). As a result, of course, Labour lost the seat.

This is quite a simplistic reading of the data; doubtless there were cross-currents and three-way shifts going on as well, particularly in 2010 and 2015. But let’s assume that I’ve just described the main trends. If that’s the case, a few conclusions seem to follow.

  • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in this seat: 10-20% of the vote at every election since 2001
  • The Lib Dems profited from this, until they didn’t: joining the government was the kiss of death, and the Lib Dems have effectively been irrelevant (at least in this seat) since 2010
  • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in this seat as a repository for anti-political votes; the strength of the BNP and ED vote in 2010, and the extent to which UKIP built on this, is not to be underestimated
  • UKIP/BXP is strategically ambivalent, operating as a pure protest vote (2010, 2019), as a more respectable alternative to the far Right (2015) and as an ante-chamber to voting Conservative (2015, 2019(?))
  • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse for Labour: Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and Corbyn’s image as an anti-system outsider both prevented the 2015 UKIP vote transferring to the Tories en masse
  • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP (Caroline Flint), as Labour won by a much narrower margin; this supported the narrative that a decline in Labour’s vote had continued or even accelerated under Corbyn (whereas in reality it had begun to be reversed)
  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

So that’s Don Valley. One down, sixteen to go! Hope you’re sitting comfortably. Here’s what happened in Wolverhampton North East:

Well, that’s saved me some typing. There are a couple of differences with Don Valley: UKIP did stand in 2017, and the Brexit Party weren’t significant in 2019 – Labour lost a sliver each to the Lib Dems and BXP, and a substantial chunk to the Tories (whose vote rose substantially from 2017). So there’s one conclusion that needs modifying:

  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the pro-Brexit protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.
  • But otherwise it all looks pretty similar (check out the ‘Labour lead’ line). How about… let’s head up to the other end of the country and check out Workington (where men are men).

    This is getting spooky. How about Blackpool South?

    (Checks notes)… yep. (Note that the fash were already standing a candidate in 2005. We should have taken this stuff more seriously.)

    Great Grimsby?

    One more qualification: Labour took less than 50% of the vote in 2005. Still a pretty solid majority, though. Labour heartland innit.

    Dudley North (Ian Austin’s old seat)?

    That’s a 9.7% vote for the BNP in 2005; in the neighbouring constituency of West Bromwich West they got 9.9%. (If I ran the Labour Party, having a fascist party retain its deposit at an election in a Labour constituency would be grounds for deselection; it doesn’t exactly suggest an assertive local party.) Exactly the same trends as the others, though.

    How about that other odd couple I mentioned earlier, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-under-Lyme? Let’s take them both together.

    That’s different at least – in both of these seats, instead of rising in 2015, the Labour lead over the Tories falls at all three elections from 2010 to 2017. Does this suggest a different narrative or other conclusions?

    In 2005 Labour held the seat easily, taking over 40% of the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote.

    In 2010 the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right.

    In 2015 the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was UKIP.

    In 2017 the Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly.

    In 2019 the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level (or rose), while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (and/or the Tories).

    The big difference is 2015 (perhaps unsurprisingly); far from a drop in the Tory vote and a substantial rise in Labour’s, these two seats saw a rise in both main parties’ votes, with the Tories’ actually rising more than Labour’s. The overall picture is so similar, though – and the numbers involved (as we’ll see) so small – that I’m tempted to call local factors in aid. What do we call a local Labour Party that can’t make political capital out of five years of Liberal/Tory austerity, and/or can’t put boots on the ground at the subsequent election?

    Otherwise, the same conclusions seem to apply:

    • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in all of these seats
    • The Lib Dems profited from this until 2010, but have been irrelevant since then
    • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in these seats as a repository for anti-political votes
    • UKIP/BXP is ambivalent: a protest vote, an alternative to the far Right and an ante-chamber to the Tories
    • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse
    • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP, as Labour won by a much narrower margin

    Most importantly – and this would seem to apply to all the seats we’ve looked at –

    • What lost these seats in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015 UKIP protest voters to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP (and Conservative) protest vote, due to the ambiguities of Labour’s Brexit positioning and to the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

    So that’s it – that’s your Red Wall. We can call off the dogs: that’s where it went, that’s how it was lost.

    Oh, didn’t I say? It’s not just the eight(!) seats shown above; I’ve looked at voting patterns for all seventeen of the “deep purple”, “group 1” seats up above – which is to say, all the longterm Labour seats that Labour lost heavily in 2019. Twelve of them follow the first set of trends above, the “Dudley North” or “Don Valley” model; another four follow the “Bishop Auckland” pattern. (In the seventeenth – Scunthorpe – Labour’s lead over the Tories was (slightly) higher in 2017 than in 2015; that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence generally, but Scunthorpe’s the only “group 1” seat where it happened.)

    NEXT: Yes, but is this unusual? And does it matter?

    In search of the Red Wall (6)

    In the next post I’ll get into some analysis of what I’m going to be calling the real Red Wall – which is neither red nor a wall, but what else is new? Before that, a confession and a reality check.

    First, the confession: I’ve been avoiding saying very much about “the Red Wall” with the current connotations of that phrase. This hasn’t made the argument I want to develop any easier to articulate. However, when myths are abundant it’s important not to add to them – and it’s almost impossible to say anything about the “Red Wall” without at least perpetuating some myth or other. And myths about the way people think and behave are extraordinarily powerful: they tell people not only what to look for, but how to understand what they find.

    That’s not to say that what people look for and find isn’t real – it is; that’s the problem. It’s a standing joke on the Left that the rank-and-file workers quoted in the party press always turn out to have unusually clear and well-articulated views on the class struggle, but the joke only goes so far: perhaps “Jim Slack, rank-and-file member of the Fire Brigades Union” is better known to you and me as Jim Slack, local branch secretary of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party, but the guy still is a firefighter. Even if you picked a rank-and-file union member completely at random, you’d have some chance of picking a Uniquely Correct Trotskyist – and if you went out looking for an articulate and committed trade unionist, the odds would shorten quite dramatically. Whether Jim is a typical trade unionist is another question, but nobody asked that – we wanted a union member, we got a union member, and here’s what our union member said. (Apparently the perspectives of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party are, in fact, uniquely correct. Who knew?)

    The mainstream press, of course, does exactly the same thing, although they’re considerably more likely to go looking for devotees of Farage and Johnson than of Marx and Lenin. What you look for you will, with a bit of persistence, usually find; what you don’t look for, you almost certainly won’t. As I wrote shortly after the 2017 election,

    Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards … All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

    I’m sure there are people out there who fit the “Red Wall voter” template – by which I mean (he added reluctantly) socially-conservative voters, middle-aged or older, whose loyalty to Labour went back decades but was associated with attitudes and beliefs for which Labour no longer stood under Corbyn’s leadership (and perhaps still doesn’t under Starmer), as well as with a class identity which for them had grown less salient and/or meaningful, so that they could switch to voting Conservative en masse without any perceived transformation of their beliefs and values, turning Labour strongholds into safe Conservative seats as they went. I’m sure you can find people like that to talk to if you look. Whether those people are typical or representative of the people whose voting choices actually ensured that the Tories won the last election is another question. While we’re about it, we could also ask whether – even if there were, as a matter of fact, a number of big Tory victories in decades-old Labour strongholds – a comfortable Tory victory could have been delivered without any of them happening, and if so what this tells us about the election and its outcome more generally. We could even ask if the centre-left campaign to abandon Labour under Corbyn had any effect on the result (it would be odd if it had none at all).

    Or we could just carry on talking about the Red Wall. The big problem with the “Red Wall voter” story, and the reason why I’m reluctant to add to it, is the space that it occupies. Indeed, by now it’s more or less been accepted as a starting-point, so that any actual information about voter behaviour in 2019 fits into it as an extension or clarification (“so that’s what Red Wall voters really care about!”).

    Hence the need for a reality check.

    Before:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington

    After:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington – or any of the 68 seats south of Birmingham that Labour held or gained

    Blue for Tory holds, red for Labour, white for the Speaker, mustard for Tim Farron (remember him? he used to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats (remember them?)). Orange for Labour (re-)gains, shades of purple and grey for Tory gains: deep purple = a big win of a solid Labour seat, mauve = a narrow win of a solid Labour seat, lilac = a marginal, grey = a seat whose sitting MP helped things along by deserting the Labour Party.

    It’s bad, no question about it; those were very bad results, with far too many seats lost. But what kind of seats? Look at the purple seats and then compare them with the red ones, the seats where a plurality of voters stayed with Labour. Are we really saying that the semi-rural sprawl of Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland is Labour’s heartland, and small, densely-populated seats like South Shields and Jarrow aren’t? Are we saying that the Birmingham seats Labour held are somehow less “Labour” than the seats they lost in Wolverhampton and Dudley? Are we saying that Stoke-on-Trent was a Labour stronghold (although its MPs are now all Conservatives) and Hull wasn’t (although its MPs are all Labour)?

    Let’s look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    NEXT: we look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    In search of the Red Wall (5)

    In the next few posts I’m going to ask five questions about the “Red Wall”:

    1. which English seats did Labour lose in 2019?
    2. why did we lose them?
    3. which long-held English seats did Labour lose badly?
    4. and why did that happen?

    The third and fourth questions are about “Red Wall” seats – now entrenched in political discourse as northern, working-class, socially-conservative, Brexit-supporting Labour strongholds, that were held by Labour for generations but tumbled like polystyrene bricks before the Tories’ 2019 campaign bulldozer.

    There is a grain of truth in this cliché, but only a grain. The key fact about the “Red Wall” – the one thing everyone who refers to the Red Wall ought to realise – is that those seats are only a subset of Labour’s losses in 2019; plenty of other Labour constituencies also elected a Tory. Hence the fifth question, which is:

    • are the “Red Wall” seats typical of the seats Labour needs to win, and the seats we need to retain?

    This last question is crucial. If the answer is Yes, happy days – if we can identify what turned a sizeable number of Red Wall voters off Labour and reverse it, we can win the next election. If the answer is No, things are more difficult; it could be that we need to look elsewhere to reverse the majority of our losses and retain the seats we hold. Come to that, it could be that adopting positions that do play well with the missing Red Wall voters would cost us votes and seats elsewhere, either directly or by demobilising the activists who power Labour’s ground game.

    So let’s look at Labour’s losses more broadly. Labour lost 48 seats in England (along with six each in Scotland and Wales), and here they are. 38 were in Derbyshire and points north:

    The other ten were further south. (Look closely and you can even see Kensington – our only loss in the capital.)

    In line with the previous maps, I’ve divided these lost seats into three groups:

    1. big wins (Labour continuously since 1979, decisive win in 2019)
    2. narrow wins (Labour continuously since 1979, but not a decisive win in 2019)
    3. marginals (had changed hands at least twice since 1979)

    There aren’t any dark grey constituencies on this map; why dwell unnecessarily on the treachery of the renegades Austin, Lewis, Mann, Woodcock, Smith and Williamson? Those six constituencies have been treated as Labour seats and allocated to one of the three groups. (Penistone and Stocksbridge – the seat Angela Smith held under five different party labels before abandoning it in the vain hope of finding somewhere safer – doesn’t strictly belong on the list, as it was created in 2010; however, its main predecessor constituency, Barnsley West and Penistone, had been Labour since 1979.) As before, a “big win” is defined as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more; narrow wins are those that qualify on fewer than three of these criteria.

    If we look at these three groups collectively, this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what we find:

    123
    Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
    Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
    Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
    Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
    Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

    Group 2 and group 3 look remarkably similar. What’s more, losses along these lines don’t seem wildly surprising. An aggressive Tory campaign, with a Brexit Party assist, pushes the Labour vote down to the low 40%s or slightly below, enabling them to squeeze out a 5% or even 10% majority in a former Labour seat: it’s bad, but it seems like the kind of thing that could happen in any bad election campaign. And – returning to question 2, above – 2019 was a really bad election campaign. The party’s support had been softened up beforehand by sustained attacks on the leadership from the centre and centre-left, relieved only by a brief truce in 2017 (after it turned out that what they were offering was in fact quite popular). In 2019 Parliamentary stalemate over Brexit was parallelled by internal conflict over Labour’s position on the EU; meanwhile, exaggerated and politicised charges of antisemitism on the left of the party ran riot, to the point where a grotesque and libellous falsehood – the allegation that Corbyn was personally prejudiced against Jews – became common currency, a comedy punchline. The delegitimation of Corbyn and his party culminated in the New Statesman‘s sage eve-of-election advice that readers should do nothing that might risk putting Corbyn into Downing Street, but should instead vote “tactically” to deprive the Tories of a majority (Luciana Berger! Sarah Wollaston!). The mentality is a kind of cargo-cult imitation of tactical voting – you don’t vote tactically for a third party because it’s a credible challenger, you proclaim your vote for a third party is tactical and thereby make it credible. There was a lot of this about in 2019; the combined vote for the Lib Dems and Greens was 50% higher than 2017 (4.5 million from 3 million), for a grand total of one fewer MP. It’s hard to imagine that anyone genuinely, rationally thought it would work. Revisiting the NS article now, I see that it concludes by outlining an alternative “political dispensation”, then concedes that “[t]he election will not open the way for this alternative settlement”. Which is probably the closest thing to a mea culpa we’re ever going to get.

    Tactical non-co-operation from centre parties also ensured that the Labour Party’s great achievement of 2017 – depriving Theresa May of her majority – led to deadlock in Parliament rather than any constructive result; binding votes on an alternative to a hard Brexit were lost for the want of votes from the SNP and (absurdly) Change UK. This in turn played into an equally successful pre-election softening-up campaign from the Right, to the effect that Labour politicians were timewasting obstructionists, doing nothing for their MPs’ salaries but block the will of the people. (I heard this more than once when I was canvassing, in constituencies Labour went on to lose.)

    Pushing Labour’s vote down a few points and the Tories’ vote up by a similar amount was all that was needed to take quite a few constituencies. (And, please, let’s not forget that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45 – and not very much has changed when a constituency goes from 50/40 to 42/45.) The attacks I’ve described – peeling off a few % of furious Brexit believers on one side, a few % of earnest centre-leftists on the other – were quite enough to do all of that, particularly when combined with the absurdly permissive media environment in which the Tories were working. And groups 2 and 3 add up to 31 seats, which would have been enough to give the Tories a majority of 40 even if the whole of group 1 had stayed Labour.

    So, is there anything here to explain? Are there any lessons to draw on how to fight the next election? Apart, that is, from the ones we really ought to have drawn already:

    • Lesson for Labour Party representatives: Don’t systematically undermine the leader under whom you’re going to be fighting the next election (even if you think you might do well out of it longer-term). (Also, do question the motives of anyone outside the party who seems to want to help you undermine your leader. This rarely ends well.)
    • Lesson for the Left: Don’t entrust your political legitimacy to some of your most entrenched and unscrupulous enemies. Also, don’t duck difficult questions, and (relatedly) don’t respond to smears with platitudinous reminders that you are, after all, good people who believe in good things (which must mean that the people saying these nasty things are mistaken). Been tried. Doesn’t work.
    • Lesson for the centre-left: Don’t screw your eyes up tight and tell yourself that if you stick to your principles that’s all that matters – and you couldn’t live with yourself if you compromised – and besides it’s not impossible that Labour might lose and the Tories might lose as well (“very, very unlikely” isn’t the same as “impossible”, is it?) Get a grip. How do you think the Left has felt about voting Labour all this time?

    But the time for the second and third of these has probably gone, sadly. Which – on the positive side – should mean that the future is bright: we can stick to pretty much the same policy platform we had before, perhaps slimmed down and reorganised a bit, and – without a constant barrage of attacks from the centre-left, without a relentlessly hostile media environment, and without an unresolved Brexit hanging over us – the next election should be a breeze. Shouldn’t it?

    Ah, but. What about group 1?

    Next: yes, what about the Red Wall?

    In search of the Red Wall (4)

    The story so far: the Red Wall was originally defined (in August 2019) as a contiguous group of Labour seats, mostly in the Northwest of England, whose demographics suggest that they ‘should’ be Conservative. Nobody really went for this definition. It was redefined (in October) to include Labour seats in the Northwest and Yorkshire where the Conservative vote had increased and/or where there was a large majority for Brexit; nobody really went for this one either. A journalist writing in the Spectator then used the term to refer, more impressionistically, to a “block” of solid, long-term Labour seats in the Midlands and the North (some a hundred miles apart), which had somehow turned into winnable Conservative targets by virtue of the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. After that, things got a bit silly.

    “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere” – Charles Fort

    In November the Red Wall appeared in the FT. This article suggested that even the Spectator definition had been too restrictive: it refers to the “red wall” of Labour seats in working-class areas of the Midlands, Wales and the North of England. Red because Labour, a wall because… there are a lot of them, in some parts of the UK which aren’t on the Underground? (Cheap shot, I know, but when people talk about “the North” as if it were a single area (“Bolsover, Bishop Auckland and Ashfield”) it does look like metro-provincialism.)

    Then we got – as promised in the previous post – the proof. I once saw a review of a book on ley lines which noted that the book included several different maps, all with alignments of ancient sites duly marked, and concluded that the authors had provided definitive proof that it was possible to draw straight lines on maps. In a similar spirit, here – courtesy of Sebastian Payne and John Burn-Murdoch, the FT‘s indefatigable data guy – is The Red Wall: The Proof.

    They said it couldn’t be done… hang on, they said it shouldn’t be done.

    I can’t argue with that: if one measures a large enough ellipse on a map of Britain, it will contain a lot of different Labour constituencies. And – what actually is potentially interesting – we can see a few contiguous belts of Labour seats. Using the excellent (and free!) MapChart tool, I’ve reverse-engineered Burn-Murdoch’s graphic as follows:

    Not shown: Wales. I don’t know what went on in the Vale of Clwyd, but it’s highly unlikely to be the same thing that went on in Derbyshire, particularly if flags were involved in any way. Also not shown: Blackpool South, which was a Tory target (and is on this map) but didn’t fall within the Burn-Murdoch Ellipse.

    This doesn’t look a lot like James Kanagasooriam’s original Red Wall, for the simple reason that that was defined in terms of the underlying demographics of the constituencies involved; this is defined in terms of the seats being (a) held by Labour (b) quite close together and (c) er, that’s it. At best it’s a map of Conservative targets in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I want to stress this point before we go any further. Looking at the original Kanagasooriam map and then looking at the seats which actually went to the Tories, we know something we didn’t know before: those six seats had certain demographic characteristics, and it’s possible that in 2019 those characteristics outweighed the cultural and historical factors which had been keeping them Labour. (Although in the other 34 seats on the map – which stayed Labour – that plainly didn’t happen.)

    By contrast, if we look at this map, then look at the seats which went to the Tories, we know… that the Tories won some, perhaps many, of their target seats in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That’s all it really tells us.

    But let’s do it anyway.

    Red Wall crumbling, am I right or am I right? Andy Burnham, Dennis Skinner, Mary Creagh, your boys took a hell of a beating!

    Well, perhaps. (I’m not saying we didn’t lose all those seats – look at the government’s majority.) But let’s remind ourselves, again, of what we know about the Red Wall, in this iteration of it (which, sadly, is the one that’s stuck) – and what we don’t know. Do we know that these are all Labour seats with “Conservative” demographics? No, we don’t know that. Do we know that they are all socially conservative areas with big majorities for Brexit? No, we don’t. Alternatively, do we know that these are all seats that had been Labour “for generations” (K. Balls) before the Labour vote collapsed in 2019? No, we don’t. Do we know that the Labour vote hit an all-time low in all of these seats in 2019, or that the Tories won them all with a substantial majority? Also no.

    All we know about the purple seats is that they were Labour going into the election; the Tories won them; and they form a belt running across the country – most of it, nearly – at approximately the latitude of Southport. And that third fact, in itself, tells us nothing – let’s face it, everything has to happen somewhere.

    What if we were to distinguish between Labour seats that actually had been Labour for a while – since 1997, say – and those that had been Labour in 1997 but changed hands (twice) since then? Out of the remainder, we could also distinguish between big wins for the Tories and narrow wins, the kind of seat gains that happen in any election when the tide is running strongly in one party’s favour (as, I think we can all agree, it was for the Tories in 2019). Having looked at the data, I’m defining a “big win” as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more. Comparing these factors against the (losing) Labour share of the vote, I found that the lowest Labour vote of any constituency in the “narrow win” group (where at most two of these criteria are met) was 39.8% – all the rest had a Labour vote of 40% or above. Conversely, every constituency in the “big win” group (ticking all three boxes) had a Labour vote below 37%. (Some other “big win” seats, outside the Burn-Murdoch ellipse, had higher Labour votes than that, with one – Wolverhampton North East – hitting 39.8%; none reached 40%, though.) This suggested to me that I was on the right track: intuitively – and thinking back to the first post in this series – a seat where 40%+ of people still vote Labour is not one that’s “gone Conservative”.

    So here’s a revised map. The pale lilac constituencies are those Tory gains which had already changed hands twice in the previous twenty years; the mauve ones are the “narrow wins”; and the white one, as before, is the new Speaker. Lastly, the constituencies in dark grey are those Tory gains whose previous MPs, by the time of the election, had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it, in one case actually calling for a Conservative vote. I don’t know how much weight to give to this – it isn’t a factor one usually has to take into account – but it can’t have done Labour’s chances of holding those seats any good.

    This map looks a bit different from the one above. West of the Pennines – in fact, West of the Derbyshire Dales – Labour’s losses are almost exclusively seats that had been lost and regained by Labour within the last twenty years (Bury North, Burnley) or narrow wins by the Tories (Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyndburn; Bury South, in grey, is also in this group). Again, I’m not saying that Labour didn’t lose all of those seats, or that we haven’t got a mountain to climb next time round. I am saying that a world in which thirty Labour strongholds have suddenly turned into Tory strongholds (say) is a different world, and calls for different strategies, than one where this has only happened in ten Labour strongholds (but the Tories have squeaked a win in another ten, as well as re-taking ten Labour marginals).

    The idea of the Red Wall – as we’ve come to know it – makes a great story: Labour heartland voters, left stranded by the decline in heavy industry and the rise of social liberalism, abandon their decades-long loyalties to vote for the party of Britain and Brexit! But we need to deal with the problem we’ve got, not with a problem that would make more dramatic sense. I’m not saying there were no “Red Wall” seats (in the sense of that label that’s now accepted) in the 2019 election; on the contrary, some seats fit the profile very well. The question is how many there were, and how typical they were – both of the seats Labour lost and of the seats where Labour needs to campaign. The question is, to put it bluntly, whether the true “Red Wall” seats were Labour’s heartland at all – and, if not, whether basing party strategy and policy on the imperative of regaining those seats might do more harm than good.

    I’ll go into this in the next post. For now, here’s another map. Rather than being based on Tory targeting, this one shows all Labour seats in the region going into the 2017 election, including the ones we held. (Plus two – Birkenhead and Nottingham East – that we took back from squatters. Frank Field and Chris Leslie both stood in 2019, under their new colours; relative to 2017, when they held those seats for Labour, their votes dropped by 59.7% and 67.9% respectively. Cheers, guys, nice knowing you.)

    Yes, that Red Wall of Labour constituencies is certainly… well, it’s got some gaps in it now, so there’s that…

    Funny how it’s mostly the big square constituencies that go to the Tories while the small squiggly ones stay Labour, isn’t it?

    One last map: here (below) is London. One loss (courtesy of Tory defector Sam Gyimah and a really disgraceful campaign to portray a divisive third-place candidate as a unifying winner); one seat reclaimed from a squatter (Mike Gapes, whose vote dropped by a magnificent 68.5% compared to 2017); and one gain. (Since the gain is Putney, which hadn’t been Labour since 2005, this offers a partial and belated confirmation for James Kanagasooriam’s original analysis: he’d cited Putney as an example of the kind of seat that the Tories held despite its demographics suggesting it “ought to” be Labour.)

    There are also, of course, an awful lot of small squiggly red holds. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Conservative strategists, and Conservative-leaning commentators like Balls and Kanagasooriam, preferred to concentrate on the wide open spaces of the Northsouth Yorkshire and the East Midlands, and make out that the Tories were winning the seats that really matter. There are – or were – gains to be made up there, of course; there was a Tory majority for the taking, and by God they took it. But if you’re looking for a real Red Wall – if you’re looking for “traditional Labour seats” in “working-class areas”, and plenty of them – look at how, even now, you can go from the Fylde Coast to Saddleworth Moor without setting foot in a Tory constituency, or cross the whole of Greater London (either way, Heathrow to Dagenham or Barnet to Croydon).

    Despite what had happened in the true (and increasingly ironically named) “Red Wall” areas, and despite how disastrous the results were overall, Labour’s starting point after 2019 should have been (in the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax) “WE ATEN’T DEAD”. The big “Red Wall” losses – the purple constituencies – were serious, but they weren’t typical; by treating them as if they were, we ran the risk (at best) of losing momentum and having to run to catch up when people began to mobilise again, at worst of facing in the wrong direction and becoming irrelevant.

    PS On a side-note, I’ve referred a few times to former Labour MPs who stood against Labour in 2019. Here are all of them.

    Name2017 %2019 %
    As TIGAs LDAs Ind
    Luciana Berger79.531.9
    Frank Field76.917.2
    Mike Gapes75.87.3
    Roger Godsiff77.68.1
    Chris Leslie71.53.6
    Gavin Shuker62.49.2
    Angela Smith45.811
    Chuka Umunna68.530.7
    Chris Williamson48.51.4

    Chris Williamson’s performance must be some sort of record for former MPs standing in their own former constituency. Then again, it’s only a drop of 46.9%. In that respect, Roger Godsiff – the only MP actually to be deselected under the Corbyn leadership, trivia fans – leads the pack with a 69.5% plummet in his personal vote; the last two TIGers aren’t far behind, though. Which is worse, Mike Gapes dropping 68.5% of his vote, or Chris Leslie losing 67.9% and his deposit? Either way, those are quite the performances. Even in 1983 – the big shakeup which the ChUKers were surely hoping to emulate – the biggest comparable fall I could find was from 61.5% to 11% (Arthur Lewis, Newham North West). (Labour retook the seat comfortably; nice to see that some things don’t change.)

    On a side-note to the side-note, it’s rather striking that only one of the eight ex-Labour members of Change UK – Angela Smith – had received less than 50% of the vote at the previous election; indeed, only one other (Joan Ryan) had had less than 60%. The role of safe-seat complacency in decisions to defect – not to mention vanity and general Ned Lagg-ery – shouldn’t be understated.

    But we should probably get back to that Red Wall.

    In search of the Red Wall (3)

    The Red Wall, as we’ve seen, was first postulated by James Kanagasooriam in August 2019; he used the phrase to refer to a belt of Labour seats, from the Wirral to Derbyshire, which on demographic factors alone would have gone to the Tories. The Red Wall was a ‘wall’ for three reasons: because the constituencies it contained were geographically contiguous, making it feasible that the same cultural factors applied in multiple different seats; because those seats were Labour and had been for some time; and (crucially) because those demographic factors, more typical of Tory seats, made them more marginal than they looked. In short, quoting my previous post,

    It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    So, what happened next? What happened to the original Red Wall in the December election was – perhaps surprisingly – rather muted:

    Out of 40 seats we lost six and held 34 (the white area is the constituency of Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker). What’s more, the six included Bassetlaw and Penistone & Stocksbridge (both of whose MPs had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it) as well as Warrington South (so solid a brick in the red wall that it had been held by the Tories from 1983 to 1992, and again from 2010 to 2017).

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. What happened next in August – what happened in response to Kanagasooriam’s original thread? On Twitter, at least, nothing much; Matthew Goodwin (for it is he) retweeted Kanagasooriam, but otherwise it was pretty much tumbleweed.

    (Which is to say, there’s only one Tweet mentioning both Labour and a “red wall” from the day after Kanagasooriam’s Tweet to the end of October – and that one’s talking about football.)

    At the beginning of October the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released Every Voter Counts, a report on low-income voters and how to mobilise them written by Claire Ainsley (yes, that one) and Frank Sodeen. That included an acknowledgment to Kanagasooriam (in his day-job at Hanbury Strategy) and this side-note:

    This is all very odd. Kanagasooriam’s original, reasonably straightforward definition of the “red wall” – Labour-held, demographically Conservative-looking, geographically contiguous – has disappeared, in favour of three groups of seats. The first group looks a bit like the first two original criteria (but not the third – Grimsby is over seventy miles East of Wakefield); the other two groups – seats where the Tories put on a lot of votes in 2017 and seats that are solid Labour but very Brexit-y – are new. What’s particularly odd is that this new and improved Red Wall seems to bear no relation to the subject of the report (which never refers to it again). The report includes a list of all the seats where low-income voters outnumber the majority by which the seat was held or gained in 2017 – suggesting that a party that acted on this report would stand to make gains – but there’s very little overlap between the seats in this list and those shaded in red on that original map (and not just because that map only covered the Northwest of England). In any case, there’s no obvious correlation between a high proportion of low-income voters and a propensity to vote for the Conservative Party – or for Brexit (that latter point is made by the report itself).

    But the definition of “red wall” seats was starting to slip, and soon it would slip a lot further. Here’s Katy Balls writing in the 2nd November issue of the Spectator:

    Top tip: if you’re ever planning on touring the Red Wall, don’t go from Bolsover to Ashfield via Bishop Auckland. (Bolsover to Ashfield: 12 miles. Bolsover to Bishop Auckland: 115 miles. If you started from Bolsover and went twelve miles in the other direction from Ashfield, you’d be approaching Sheffield; 115 miles in the other direction from Bishop Auckland and you’d be in Luton.)

    The Red Wall stands for something different here, and something more like its current meaning: it means a block [sic] of solid, long-term Labour seats, in the Midlands and the North [also sic], which have been turned in to winnable Conservative targets by the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Kanagasooriam’s original analysis – informed by economic, demographic and geographical considerations – has been replaced by something almost completely impressionistic: they’re red because they’re Labour; they’re a wall because there’s loads of Labour seats up North, always have been; and they’re winnable now because… well, Brexit, innit. Up North. Plus Corbyn, everyone hates Corbyn – especially up North. There you go.

    Now, Labour did make a net loss of 47 seats in England to the Tories in December 2019, so something clearly happened. But the point is to explain what it was that happened – and I don’t think it can possibly have been that. Apart from anything else, more or less everyone did hate Corbyn, up and down the country – and there was certainly a majority of people in favour of getting Brexit done – so this analysis, if anything, fails to explain why the Tories didn’t make a lot more gains. We’re left to assume that there was (paradoxically) something particularly vulnerable about long-standing Labour seats, especially up North, and then to solve the riddle by plugging in what we think we already know about long-term Labour voters and/or the North. From which, of course, so much has grown.

    But that was just one article, and in the Spectator at that. Things got worse when the FT came on board.

    Next: the proof.

    In search of the Red Wall (2)

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    Stupid question, right? We all know about the Red Wall! On Twitter you can read that “Boris Johnson’s decision to slash aid to poorest countries was made to appeal to ‘Red Wall’ voters”; that “if [Starmer] exclusively panders to the Red Wall, to the point of excusing homophobia, his support could begin to wane in the party”, and “if [Labour] continue down the road of appeasing red wall voters they are heading for the wilderness”; and that “Labour needs to start talking about Brexit and come up with solutions, even if it pisses the Red Wall off” – although “if enough Remainers had continued to support Labour many red wall/midlands seats would still be Lab”. I only single those out because they were all written within the last hour – and they weren’t the only examples I could have chosen. Everyone knows what the Red Wall is (or was); everyone knows who Red Wall voters are, the issues that matter to them and the policies that appeal to them – at least, everyone knows the issues that get stressed and the policies that get adopted in order to appeal to Red Wall voters (which isn’t necessarily the same thing). You, dear reader, almost certainly know all about the Red Wall yourself.

    And if I set the controls of my handy Tardis for T minus 2 years and asked the April 2019 version of you for your take on the Red Wall, what would you have said? Would you have said that Change UK posed a threat to Labour’s Red Wall, for instance, particularly given that three of the eleven constituencies they squatted were right there in it (two ex-Labour, one ex-Tory)? I’m telling you now, dear reader, no. No, you wouldn’t have. I can say that with some confidence, because I’ve seen what people were saying about Labour and the Red Wall at the time, and it’s this:

    Absolutely nothing, in other words. Before the 14th of August 2019, precisely five Tweets include the phrase “red wall” and the word “Labour”. Two of them refer to actual walls and two to a metaphorical ‘wall’ of politicians. The last one looks more like the current usage, but it’s from 2011 and presumably isn’t connected.

    What changed on the 14th of August 2019? This:

    I won’t import the entire thread (the link should work if you want to read the whole thing). These excerpts should give you the idea.

    The ‘unders’ are constituencies where the results don’t fall according to the factors that seem to determine voting patterns most of the time – which is to say, group-based factors built on individual factors such as social class, level of education, type of employment and ethnicity. More specifically, they’re seats that haven’t gone Tory the way they would have done if those factors had determined the way people voted. And they’re not randomly dotted about the place; they’re clustered. Here’s one such cluster.

    (The other three groups were: Tory seats in the southwest which might be vulnerable to the Lib Dems; Tory seats held by first-time incumbents; and Labour seats in ex-mining areas, specifically south Wales and the North East. Only one seat in the whole of those two groups went to the Tories in 2019 – North-West Durham – so I won’t consider them for the time being.)

    Here’s the first – the original – map of the Red Wall. Just to hammer on this point one more time, what you’re looking at are Labour seats “where the UK Conservative Party has historically [sic], and still is, under-performing”; areas that “vote differently to how you would expect them to demographically”; an “entire stretch [that] shouldn’t be all Labour [on the basis of demographics] but is”.

    There are a couple of odd things about this map. One is that, despite the previous comment, these seats weren’t “all Labour”; the inverted-L-shaped seat halfway across is Cheadle, which not only isn’t but never has been Labour, and was presumably included on the basis of Tory underperformance. The other is that a seat not being shaded in red doesn’t mean it isn’t Labour – on the contrary, it means either that it isn’t Labour or that it’s solidly Labour, Labour by vote and by (typified) demographics.

    There’s your Red Wall, though; that’s what it originally meant. It’s a Wall because they’re contiguous or nearly, and it’s Red because they’re Labour and shouldn’t be. It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    Next: what happened next.

    In search of the Red Wall (1)

    The next few posts are going to include a lot of maps; specifically, constituency maps. By way of introduction and caveat, this post is about misreading constituency maps.

    Political commentators, particularly at the TV news end of the trade, routinely talk about constituencies being “won” and “lost”, or “going” Labour or Conservative. Constituency maps play into this way of thinking, of course. For example, here’s High Peak constituency:

    Here’s High Peak from 1997 to 2010, and again from 2017 to 2019:

    And here’s High Peak from 2010 to 2017, and again (oh noes!) from 2019 to the present:

    The message you get from those images is that everyone, the length and breadth of this large, irregularly shaped tract of land, was Labour during the first two time periods, and that everyone was a Tory in the second two. Or if not everyone, certainly an overwhelming majority – enough people to set the tone firmly and consistently, and to make it chancy to strike up a conversation for anyone who wasn’t on the right team. Some places are like that, admittedly – in the Liverpool Walton constituency in 2019, Labour took 84.7% of the vote – but it’s not the way to bet. In High Peak specifically, 45.4% of the vote went to the Tories in 2017, when Labour won; in 2019, when the Tories won, Labour took 44.8%. Considered as an area where people live, High Peak didn’t in any meaningful sense “go Conservative” in 2019; it wasn’t in any meaningful sense “Labour” from 2017 to 2019. (If the residents of a street between them own nine cats and ten dogs, and a family moves in with two cats, has the street “gone cat”?)

    What is meaningful, of course, is that this area on the map returns one MP to Parliament, elected by a simple plurality – and it elected a Labour MP in 2017 and a Tory in 2019. But I think we should resist the siren call of common sense for a bit longer. We – for values of “we” including political commentators – do tend to talk as if a constituency electing one MP rather than another amounts to a root-and-branch transformation. It’s shorthand at best, an error at worst, and either way it’s helped along by visual aids like constituency maps.

    I don’t think the underlying motivation is just convenience, either. Think of how it feels to win a vote in a meeting: it’s great when 70% or 80% of the room is with you, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction in winning a vote by the narrowest possible margin, right down to 50% plus one. You put the motion, we voted, the motion was carried – that’s the end of it! Let’s move on! This branch (now) supports Jeremy Corbyn/an all-out strike/free broadband, and there’s nothing the opponents of the motion can do about it. Doesn’t matter if the vote was won by a single vote, doesn’t matter if four people who would have voted the other way got to the meeting a minute late and were refused admission; the vote’s been taken, it’s done, and that’s our policy. Boom!

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t get a kick out of those times when we manage to stitch up the Right instead of getting stitched up by them – I’m not a complete spoilsport – let alone that we shouldn’t do it; “but today the struggle” and so forth. But I do think we should be aware of the bad faith involved – or, if this isn’t too meta, that we should be aware that we are aware of the bad faith involved. When we win by pulling strokes, we say we’ve won fair and square; when we focus (or are made to focus) on the strokes we’ve pulled, we say the other side does worse, and anyway it’s time to move on to the next battle. We do know what we’re doing, though – and we get a bit of a kick out of getting away from it.

    Which, getting back to my subject, is also how the “Labour Takes The North” / “Labour’s Strongholds Crumble” stories work, emotionally speaking. We know perfectly well that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45; and we know that an electoral system with plurality-based single-member constituencies offers democratic representation only to a minority of voters. We also know (or can find out very easily) that 20 of the 27 general elections since 1918 have given a single party a two- or three-figure majority of MPs, and that three-quarters of the twenty have produced a Conservative majority. All of this suggests that there’s something unsatisfactory about claiming that High Peak “went” Conservative in 2019 – particularly considering that the “defeated” Labour candidate took more votes than the winning candidate in any of the elections from 2001 to 2015. But no – those are the rules, the vote was won fair and square, that’s the end of it! Move on! There’s a sneaking satisfaction in the unfairness of the result, and in the perversity of insisting on treating it as fair and valid – not just for Tories (in this instance), but for anyone who’s got a professional or personal investment in this (freakishly antiquated, absurdly unrepresentative) electoral system.

    So don’t listen – or listen with a large pinch of salt – when you hear that the Tories are making inroads into Labour’s heartlands; or that they’re laying siege to Labour strongholds; or that the Red Wall is crumbling.

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

    A few thoughts on Labour’s abstention on the Overseas Operations Bill. (And a thought on initial caps, which is that I’m in favour – I’d read the Graun story twice looking for the title of the bill before I realised that the “overseas operations bill” they referred to was in fact the Overseas etc. I’m not a fan of this wrinkle in the Guardian style guide. Apart from anything else, there could in theory be any number of “overseas operations bill”s; there have certainly been any number of “terrorism bill”s, mostly not entitled Terrorism Bill. But anyway.)

    1. Good principles make good tactics

    I owe this point partly to noted ex-blogger Dan Davies, on the Twitters. Two things are true about the distinction between issues that fall under the heading of day-to-day political tactics and matters of firm political principle. One is that the gap between the two is obvious to all; it’s not a gap so much as a gulf – an unbridgeable, fathomless chasm. The other is that no two people agree on where it is. Everyone agrees that some things are up for grabs while others are beyond any possible debate – and most people agree most of the time on which side of the line most of those things are – but in any given discussion it’s possible that the person you’re talking to will think your unshakeable commitment ought to be treated as political small change, or vice versa. In practice, a lot of political argument is about making sure an issue is parked on the Principles shelf, out of reach of any possible argument, and stays there.

    It seems pretty clear that Labour was whipped to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill primarily so as to draw a line between Starmer’s “new management” and the Corbyn-era party, and incidentally between Starmer loyalists and the left-wing holdouts who broke the whip; certainly Starmer hasn’t been slow to use the split to this effect. (Given that this was a one-line whip – “Considered advisory, providing a guide to party policy on an issue” – the sacking of Nadia Whittome, for example, has to be seen as a deliberate choice.) In the light of the previous paragraph, though, the question isn’t whether shielding British soldiers from prosecution for war crimes is an issue of principle which should never be instrumentalised in this way. Clearly this can be argued either way, clearly it has been, and some guy with a blog isn’t going to settle the debate for the ages. The question is where you get to if you argue one side or the other, and which way you end up pointing.

    To put it a bit less cryptically, you can make a coherent argument that war crimes are among the things the Labour Party quite definitely opposes, and voting against a bill which would make them harder to prosecute is therefore the right thing to do. You can also make a coherent argument that, for the Labour Party in 2020, expressing opposition to war crimes is less important than expressing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn – or if that’s too blunt, that it’s less important than telling former Labour voters that one of their reasons for not voting for the party no longer applies, precisely because the party under Corbyn would have voted against this bill.

    Now, these are very different positions, and they express very different commitments – which is to say, they commit the party to different directions of travel. And, while we can take a guess at which one is more ‘principled’ and which more ‘opportunistic’, that doesn’t in itself tell us which one will work – in any sense of the word. There’s certainly no guarantee in politics that you’ll come out ahead by doing the principled thing, but there’s also no guarantee that you won’t. Raw tactical opportunism may pay off in the short term, but it’s liable to bring its own policy commitments with it – if only because people like to make sense of what they’re doing and fit it into a bigger framework – and you may end up committed to a course that you (or your supporters) can’t bring yourself to take. If you avoid that trap (“no, honest, I’m a pure opportunist!“), opportunism may land you with an incoherent bricolage of incompatible commitments. Some combination of these two outcomes accounts for what happened to Yvette Cooper’s career, and to a lesser extent Andy Burnham’s, after they did the smart, tactical thing and abstained on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015. (And we know what happened to the one candidate for leader who broke the whip and opposed.)

    The decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operation Bill may have been wrong in principle (I think it was); the decision, as well as the disciplinary actions taken since, was certainly petty and vindictive; and it may have been a tactical mistake.

    Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

    2. Not weak enough

    So far I’ve been talking about ‘tactical’ actions in general terms, but clearly not all tactical moves are alike. If there were a big vote coming up, in a hard-to-fix electorate like the party membership, it might make tactical sense to discredit the Left of the PLP (or engineer a situation where it discredits itself), and the leadership might judge that it was worth burning the odd principled commitment to achieve that.

    But that’s not what’s going on here; the NEC election isn’t till November, apart from anything else. With the exception of losing Leftists from three very junior payroll positions – an equivocal gain for the leadership, as the loss frees those MPs to speak out – nothing obvious was either gained or lost through the leadership’s tactical move. This was a particular kind of tactic; one defined in terms of image and credibility.

    Credibility can mean two things. To begin with, let’s take the more obvious meaning – let’s assume that being “credible”, for a political party, means being recognised as a legitimate political actor by other political actors. Making tactical moves, potentially at the expense of principled commitments, in the hope of restoring credibility (in this sense) has two closely-related problems. Both were amply visible in the Conservative Party’s response to the vote:

    Hashtag Same Old Labour; no change, no credibility gained. But that’s the thing about credibility: like respect, it isn’t granted automatically, it has to be earned. And the thing about earning respect from the Conservative Party is, what kind of idiot are you? To put it another way, if your problem is the school bully calling you names, you’ve actually got a bigger problem than that, which is that he’s the school bully and you can’t stop him calling you whatever he likes.

    So: the trouble with taking policy commitments off the Principle shelf, and treating them as expendable for tactical purposes, is that by doing so you are actually making a policy commitment, and one which may not sit well with other commitments – or voters – you want to retain. And the trouble with doing this for the sake of credibility (in this sense) is that your credibility is largely in the gift of your enemy.

    Which brings me to those two closely-related problems. The first problem with trading principles for credibility is that there’s no limit to what you may be asked to do, how far you may be asked to go, what existing principles and commitments you may be asked to burn – and this is (a) true in the abstract, (b) doubly true of the Conservative Party, which has never been renowned for playing fair and (c) have you seen the Conservative Party lately? I was reminded of this forcibly by some of the responses to the abstention the other night, to the effect of well, obviously this is something that the Left would want to oppose, that’s just why it’s an obvious trapthis, of a bill which is counter to Britain’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and has been criticised by the EHRC and Amnesty International.

    If the Tories want to make minimal adherence to international human rights law the bar that Labour has to limbo under, they will; that doesn’t mean that it’s smart politics to oblige them. Particularly not given the second problem I mentioned, which is, of course,

    that they have absolutely no obligation to grant us any credibility if and when we do pass their test, and every reason not to.

    3. Down your street again quite soon

    There is another way of looking at credibility, however. This has to do with cost: in the criminal underworld, or in situations where credibility can’t be externally verified more generally (the theory runs), a credible signal is one that carries a cost for the person sending it. If I spend money on a joint venture that I may not get back, or if I grass up an ally of mine so as to make your life easier, you’re more likely to believe that I genuinely want to work with you and that I’m not just looking to rip you off.

    Now, Nadia Whittome’s a rising star and someone we’re going to hear a lot more from, but I doubt that finding a new PPS will cost Jon Ashworth all that much, let alone Keir Starmer. What might make the signal Keir Starmer has just sent costly, though, is – ironically – what initially appeared as the whole reason for sending it: the fact that it will at best strengthen the Left both numerically and politically (where the Left is defined as “everyone who liked the look of Starmer’s ten pledges but is not intending to give him the benefit of the doubt forever”), and at worst alienate the Left from the party altogether. Bluntly, this will cost Starmer support within the party, and could end up costing Labour members and votes. (It’s not the first time I’ve reminded myself that, as a member, I’ve got a reason to hang on until the NEC election in November – but it is the first time that I’ve asked myself how many more times I’m going to have to tell myself that.)

    If we follow through the logic of the second section of this post, this just makes Starmer’s tactic look even more ridiculous: he’s deliberately risked throwing away a non-negligible chunk of votes and members, for the sake of gaining credibility by courting the approval of the Tory Party – an approach which has never worked and never will. But this second model of credibility creates a different possibility. Suppose that the potential loss of support – for Starmer personally and even for Labour – is the stake, the price Starmer is willing to pay to drive the message home; suppose that the message is not “look, we’re credible now (even the Tories say so)”, but a simple and straightforward “look, we’re not that any more”. This would also imply that the chosen terrain of international law and human rights (in the red corner, with the British Army in the blue) was just that, chosen; it wasn’t simply the test that the Tories happened to have set for Labour this week.

    But if we’re “not that any more”, what is ‘that’? And what are we instead?

    This?

    4. The Sound of Ideologies Clashing; Also, The Sound of Ideologies Harmonising, Interlocking, Overlapping, Merging, Splitting And Just Plain Co-Existing

    Here’s a thought: people have lots of different views about different things, which fit together in constellations of ideas and commitments; I’m talking about ideologies. Another thought: the natural habitat of ideologies is the social group; individuals see the world through ideologies, but we derive those ideologies from the groups of which we’re members, which (in most cases) existed before we joined them and will exist after we’ve moved on. Ideologies – existing in social groups rather than in people’s heads, remember – have their time; they develop, thrive and decline over time, and in particular settings. Two similar societies, separated by geography or history, may be characterised by similar ideologies, different ones or some of each. Also, it’s possible for one person to see the world – and to interpret the news, and to vote – according to multiple different ideologies, depending which seems the best fit to the situation and/or which is uppermost in their mind at a given time. Hence the sexist trade unionist; hence, for that matter, the picket-line-crossing Guardian-reading liberal.

    Political parties generate support and mobilise supporters by appealing to ideological commitments, encouraging people to see the world through one set of ideological lenses rather than another – and in so doing they strengthen those ideologies, making them seem more natural and normal. While “Corbynism” was never an ideology in its own right, when he became Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was strongly associated with a couple of ideologies which he’d upheld for thirty years as a backbencher: an ideology of human equality, of every person (anywhere in the world) mattering as much as any other; and an ideology of constructive empowerment, of mobilising people to make the world a better place. As Labour leader he found, probably to his surprise (certainly to mine), that appeals voiced in terms of these ideologies were actually quite popular, despite the mainstream media positioning them – and him – somewhere between Fidel Castro and Jim Jones. It didn’t hurt that, in 2017 at least, his outsider status let him appeal – consciously or not – to another ideology that’s flourished in Britain in the last decade: this combines short-term pessimism with an openness to big, dramatic changes, on the basis that, whatever we’ve got when the dust settles, it can’t be much worse than this.

    What happened in 2019 and why it happened is outside the scope of this (already fairly long) post. Suffice to say that Labour has a different leader now, and early hopes of ideological continuity have already been dashed – hopes that were initially encouraged, to be fair, by promises of ideological continuity, made in broad terms but made publicly and repeatedly for all that. But we ken the noo; we know now that the ideologies Starmer is articulating are definitely not those Corbyn championed (call them “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work”). Nor, for that matter has Starmer got any sympathy for the “Big Bang? Bring It On!” ideology which Corbyn tapped into (perhaps the only thing he shares with Boris Johnson, and certainly the only shred of justification for calling him a Brexiter).

    What does Starmer believe in? I’ve no idea, and I don’t really care. The important question is, what sets of beliefs is the Labour Party under Starmer giving voice to – what ideologies is it articulating, and thereby strengthening and normalising? It’s early days, but the image above contains a number of clues: the reference, not to the people of Britain, but to Britain as a country, elevated over all other countries; the specific reference to “growing old” as a concern that the audience might have; and, of course, the Butcher’s Apron for backdrop, a choice which ostensibly evokes the UK as a whole but actually suggests that the nation being championed is rather narrower than present-day Britain, or else some way in the past. Put that lot together and you have, I think, something close to the diametric opposite of the ideologies Labour upheld under Corbyn; it combines a sense that some people very definitely do matter more than others with a sense that something should be done for those people, as well as an appeal to how the world used to be. (Never mind when, exactly; the point is to look back. A national flag is only a forward-looking symbol when it’s being raised on Independence Day.)

    Is this a coherent ideology? We’ll see, but I think it just could be; I think a lot of the grudges being sedulously borne in our society can be brought together under a heading of “When’s Our Turn?” – yes to patriotism, tradition, the armed forces and support for pensioners (they’ve done their bit); no to internationalism, cultural innovation, human rights lawyers and hand-outs for scroungers (let them do some work for a change). And, if I’m right, that’s the direction Labour is heading.

    4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

    Let’s talk about radicalisation – by which I mean, let’s talk about grooming. If you want someone to do something that they find repugnant, the first thing you do is work on the repugnance, then bring them round from tolerance to approval and hence participation. A good way to do this is to surround the victim with people who will affirm that the repugnant act isn’t all that bad after all, and encourage them to think of it as normal. It’s differential association, really – the more people the victim associates with who affirm the normality of the act and the fewer who deny it, the sooner they too will affirm that it’s normal.

    But the key point about that model is not that somebody is manipulating the victim, nudging them over the jumps; the key point is that there are no jumps – no firebreaks, no step-changes. There’s just a continuum of behaviours, each of which has a lot in common with its neighbours. For a less emotive example, imagine a woman who’s had a particularly sheltered upbringing and has always objected to bad language, and who by a quirk of fate falls hopelessly in love with… a docker, let’s say. A sailor. A trooper. Somebody who swears a lot, anyway. Now, what happens as we go from stage one in this person’s habituation to bad language (“remain seated with hands clenched and eyes screwed shut, resisting the urge to flee the room”) to stages two (“remain seated, concealing shock and breathing normally as far as possible”) and three (“express disapproval and continue conversation”)? The key thing that happens, I would argue, is the passage of time. With time, the shock diminishes; the woman’s original, spontaneous responses cease to be triggered; and her own responses progressively frame the repugnant behaviour as a little less repugnant, a little more normal. Nobody is grooming this unfortunate woman, nobody is pushing her through barriers; there are no barriers. Once a direction of travel is set, one stage leads naturally to the next.

    And so it is with ideology. I said in the previous section that I don’t care what Keir Starmer believes in; more to the point, I don’t think he believes in anything, other than that a Labour government would be a good thing and that he knows just the boy to head it. But he is happy to work with ideologies; specifically, he’s happy to pitch to the people who the message quoted above resonates with, and happy to cut loose everyone who identifies more with the ideologies voiced by Corbyn.

    Which is where radicalisation comes in. Clearly, Starmer has already gone well beyond clenching his hands and screwing his eyes shut if anyone brings out the Union Flag. More schematically, we can distinguish between tolerating a discourse – allowing it to be used in one’s presence, or indeed in one’s political party’s communications; mimicking the discourse, borrowing its terms to jazz up one’s own arguments; using it, articulating one’s own arguments in those terms (modifying those arguments where necessary); and promoting it, centring it in one’s political practice.

    The journey from toleration, through mimicry, to usage and finally promotion is a journey of radicalisation. Passage from one stage to another is not automatic, but neither are there any barriers in its way; given habituation, the passage of time and the continuation of the stimuli that initially led to toleration, it will tend to happen. Moreover, given that ideologies are social productions and do not exist in any individual’s head, the radicalisation of discourse users also strengthens the ideology, making it seem more relevant and hence more powerful – more capable of describing the world and expressing users’ beliefs and desires.

    As far as the discourses of “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work” were concerned, Jeremy Corbyn was never in any danger of radicalisation, for the simple reason that he was already radical; he centred those discourses in his practice, and worked to affirm and strengthen them in society, quite openly and unapologetically. With regard to the discourse of “When’s Our Turn?”, however, I sense that Starmer – like Gordon Brown before him – has no particular commitment to it and is planning to use it instrumentally: mostly mimicry, perhaps a little use, definitely no promotion.

    We’ll see how successful he is in avoiding radicalisation. Early signs, it has to be said, aren’t good. Ideologies are not the kind of thing one can dabble in; if, as Labour leader, you say that you believe in making Britain the best country in the world, people will tend to believe you – and the people who believe in this kind of thing will tend to be confirmed in that belief, and identify Labour with it.

    Radicalisation doesn’t stand still, in other words; the process that has been begun under Starmer’s leadership could end up giving us a patriotic, nostalgic, troops-supporting, pensioner-friendly Labour Party. This would be a disaster for Britain – in itself, because of the alternative possibilities being squandered and because of the cultural and political movements which it would embolden. (And it almost certainly wouldn’t win a General Election. It might win back half the people who told me they weren’t voting Labour last winter, admittedly, but it would repel the other half – and we’d never find out, because it would also repel most of the people who do the canvassing.)

    Let’s hope that Starmer reverses course before the damage is done.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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

    %d bloggers like this: