Category Archives: Britain

Rats and children

More on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann’s work on ‘racial self-interest’, focusing mainly on Goodhart this time.

To judge from DG’s FT article and the report by EK that it draws on and promotes, EK has a Big Idea that he wants us all to adopt – partly because it would make it easier for him to win arguments, partly because adopting it would mean conceding an argument to him. The idea is, of course, racial self-interest – more precisely, the social reality of racial self-interest, and/or the desirability of social settings which do not exclude the reality of racial self-interest. (Or: the desirability of not compelling racists to pretend to be tolerant for the sake of social acceptability.) It’s a thoroughly bad idea and I’ve dealt with it here.

One of the reasons why the logic of that article in the FT was so contorted is that DG, while an enthusiastic promoter of EK’s Big Idea, has a separate and distinct Big Idea of his own. We’re talking now about population sub-groups within a multicultural society rather than races, and rights rather than interests. DG’s Big Idea is… well, something about group rights. On closer inspection, it turns out that it goes like this:

something something minority rights something majority rights, aha! something something answer me that if you can!

All facetiousness aside, it really is hard to get a coherent position on the subject out of DG’s writing. In his recent navel-gazing column for the FT, he reminisces about “tentatively dissent[ing] from the liberal consensus on immigration and multiculturalism” back in 2004, by advancing “what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common”; in the response that this essay received, he “met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time”. There he was, tentatively advancing an uncontroversial opinion, but the Left wouldn’t have it – they showed their true, intolerant colours! There’s a book to be written about victim mentality on the Right, and in particular this kind of ‘epiphany of leftist intolerance’ narrative (all I said was…). This is from a poster on Stormfront:

I first viewed that damned film in the 70’s, and thought at the time the song to be remarkably refreshing and uplifting (and the only redeeming quality of the film); unfortunately I shared this thought in the company of a Jew, upon leaving the theatre. Big mistake. I was not able to calm that guy down until I pointed to the origins of those attributed to the song’s composition and lyrics. That was my first indoctrination of the ongoing Jewish hatred for “all” non-Jewish German people and their heritage.

All I said was that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is the only good thing in Cabaret – these Jews are so intolerant!

Of course, DG’s ‘uncontroversial assumption’ is no such thing (at least, it makes freaks out of me, my family and most of my work colleagues – but more on that another time). And, of course, that was far from being the most controversial statement in that 2004 essay: it also suggested that the US’s low-tax, low-welfare, low-participation society was attributable to the size of the ethnic minority population and that Britain might be heading for an immigration-based ‘tipping point’, and proposed remedying this situation by instituting a British National Day, teaching schoolchildren about the British Empire and denying immigrants access to the welfare state until they “make the effort to become citizens”. (What was to become of Britain’s existing ethnic minorities – in this world where multiculturalism inexorably leads to resentment and alienation, electoral abstention and tax-dodging – was unclear; one would think that these proposals would leave them more alienated than ever. Perhaps the goal was for them all to become fully, culturally British – cricket test and all – and then there wouldn’t be any ethnic minorities any more. No man, no problem.) Far from ‘tentatively’ proposing that people are more friendly to people like them, DG’s 2004 essay proposed that British liberal democracy was doomed unless the government sharply limited immigration and strongly encouraged assimilation to a distinct British national culture – and that if such a culture didn’t already exist it should be created. On one hand, a mildly-worded observation about individual preferences; on the other, a demand for enforced ethno-cultural homogeneity.

I dwell on this because it’s very much how DG works: he puts forward political proposals that are deeply reactionary and often startlingly extreme, then backs them up with nothing more than vague conservative platitudes (all I said was that we’re all different… all I said was that family’s important…) This style of argument creates problems for DG’s opponents, but also for DG himself. The problem is that the platitudes alone will only take you so far. Thus in the FT, talking about his own intellectual evolution, DG says that he started out as a well-to-do, well-educated liberal, but came to identify with “more rooted, generally less well-educated people who … prioritise group attachments and security”; he knew how far he’d come (“one recent incident crystallized matters”) when “I was chatting to a group of friends in a bar, including a few people I didn’t know, and I said I could understand the discomfort that Nigel Farage had recently expressed about not hearing a single English-speaker on a train in London”. (Whereupon one of the people in the group walked out, and good for them.)

The question is, how do these things go together? The connection seems obvious to DG – too obvious to state, in fact – but what is it? Let’s say that you, a ‘rooted’ sort of person, are on a train – in England – and you find yourself surrounded by speakers of Polish, Spanish, Punjabi and Somali; does the fact that they’re not speaking English tell you that you’re among people who don’t “prioritise group attachments and security”? Of course not. (They may be tourists. They may have strong, sentimental attachments to the place they were born, and intend to go back there some day. They may feel rooted in the place they were born and the place where they live now. And, of course, the place they were born may actually be in England.) Looking at the question another way, what if the ‘group attachment’ that you prioritise actually includes people who don’t look or sound like you; what if the ‘home’ group where you feel you belong consists of Manchester City supporters, Joss Whedon fans, fellow Christians, the workers of the world? Farage’s discomfort might fit with the ‘group attachments’ model if he’d been complaining about a train carriage full of well-educated liberals demonstratively performing their rootlessness – talking loudly on their phones about doing breakfast in Zurich and moving their business to the Far East – but he clearly wasn’t. And all this is without even getting into the question of what conceivable harm it does you to share a train with people who think differently from you, if indeed they do.

So there’s at least one missing term here: on its own, “I have a valid attachment to my own group” won’t get you to “I have a valid objection to mixing with foreigners”. For a start, we need to go from (1) “I feel attached to people like me” to (2) “specifically, I feel attached to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then to (3) “my life is structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then (4) “it is valid, and not at all problematic, for my life to be structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”. But the crucial steps are the last two: (5) “everyone’s life should be structured by ties to people of a similar ethnic and cultural background” and (6) “this structuration is not a distant ideal but an realisable policy outcome, to be imposed through a combination of force and persuasion”. To put it more bluntly, you need to go from (1) “I like people like me” to (2) “I like White people”; then (3) “I only ever mix with White people” and (4) “I don’t see that this is a problem”; then (5) “down with race-mixing” and (6) “Blacks out”.

Of course, DG doesn’t say anything as coarse as this, and I’m sure he’d express himself horrified to find that his words had been interpreted in this way. I mean, all he said was… that people tend to like to stick to their own kind (2), and that there are people out there who live in the same place they were born and like it that way (a vicarious (3)), and that their worldview is “legitimate, and decent” (4). Oh, and this:

Newcomers can be absorbed into [liberal] societies, and can retain some of their own traditions, but unless a critical mass of them embrace the broad common norms of the society, the idea of the nation as a group of people with significant shared interests – the idea of a people – will fracture. Thus moderate nationalism is a positively benign force reinforcing common interests (and welfare states) against the disintegrating effects of affluence, individualism and diversity

They can come here if they’re going to live like us true Brits, but if they aren’t going to live like us they’ll threaten our national survival. And what do we do with threats to our national survival? We don’t let them in, clearly, and if they’re already here we throw them out. DG proposes ethno-cultural purity both as an ideal and as a policy programme. It’s not at all clear, just in passing, how the “broad common norms” of a liberal society turned into “moderate nationalism”; as Harry Hill would say, that surely is the Least Logically Justifiable ‘Thus’ Clause Of The Week.

But there’s a much bigger problem here: the age-old problem of getting from an Is to an Ought. Even if we grant DG’s assertion that there are lots of people out there who feel locally rooted and don’t have much capacity to uproot themselves, and his secondary argument (never quite spelt out) that those people tend to hold conservative and illiberal views, there’s no logical bridge from there to his conclusion that those views are correct – indeed, that the country as a whole should be governed along conservative and illiberal lines, privileging a White British national identity over all others. You can’t get from (4) to (5) without importing additional assumptions; you can’t really get from (3) to (4), come to that.

DG could – and, let’s be honest, probably will – skate right past this whole argument as if it wasn’t there. If he cares about logical consistency, though, there are only a couple of options. One is to fall back on a blank Rortyan post-Pragmatism, saying that (a) there are people who recognise themselves as White British and value White British interests, (b) he finds that he is one of those people and therefore (c) solidarity demands he say Hurrah for the White Brits; I don’t think he’d want to make an argument that seemed so ungrounded, though, or so partisan. The other is to find a middle term to plug in between (3) and (5), between observing the existence of a group characterised by ethnic exclusivity and justifying the imposition of ethnic exclusivity on society more widely.

And this, returning to my original subject, is where ‘minority rights’ come in. Thus:

An emotionally mature liberalism must also accept that white majorities, not just minorities, in western societies have ethnic attachments too and an interest in a degree of demographic stability — and it is not shameful or racist for people to feel uncomfortable if their neighbourhood changes too rapidly, whether from gentrification or ethnic change.

Or, more bluntly, in the earlier piece:

Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

And which rights might we be talking about here?

it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. … while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood.

If minority rights, then majority rights – and if minority rights “to maintain certain traditions and ways of life”, then majority rights to continue “setting the tone in the neighbourhood” through numerical dominance. The White British majority, rather than being a numerical abstraction derived by counting how many people ticked a box on a form, is now a community, an entity with a way of life and the right to maintain that way of life – and being an overwhelming majority is a key part of that way of life. (Perhaps the only part; DG shows very little interest in what anyone’s “traditions and ways of life” actually involve. I’m not sure he even knows about Morris dancing.) As such, our narrow-minded locally-rooted people aren’t just speaking for themselves (or being ventriloquised, by DG and EK, for themselves) – they’re the voice of a kind of class consciousness (or community consciousness), demanding that the British government recognise the rights of the White British community, just as it recognises the rights of minority communities. Just as minority communities have the right not to face direct discrimination, the White British community – historically overwhelmingly dominant – has the right to damn well remain overwhelmingly dominant, which among other things would mean not being bothered by people speaking foreign languages on the train. (Perhaps they could bring in separate coaches. More coaches for the White British, obviously.)

It’s neat, you’ve got to give him that. It’s also nonsense: to say that minority groups have rights is either flat wrong or very imprecise shorthand. I discussed this point with DG on Twitter, briefly. (Image below; the original tweet is here. There are some excellent replies.)

Sikh m/bike helmets, by jingo. The Motor Cycle Crash Helmets Act – which enacted the exemption for Sikhs – dates back to 1976; I’m old enough to remember the National Front trying to make capital out of it. (According to our local paper, NF activists were planning to go out on motorbikes with towels wrapped round their heads in protest. Stay classy, lads.) DG’s older than me, and it seems to have lodged in his memory too.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work for him in the way that he seems to think it does. Individuals have the right to the protection of valuable interests, but it’s the individuals who have both the interests and the rights. Certainly, individuals who are members of faith communities have a valuable interest in religious observance which isn’t shared by secular and atheist individuals, just as members of minority faith communities have an interest in religious freedom which isn’t shared by adherents of the established church. But it would be absurd to conclude from this that atheists have fewer rights than Anglicans, or Anglicans than Sikhs; in each case, the second group simply has different interests from the first, and/or interests in more need of legal protection. In fact there’s only one item on his list that I’d class as anything other than a protected individual interest – the right of religious courts to make rulings that individuals agree to treat as binding – and even that is at most an institutional capacity, a ‘power’ in Hohfeldian terms.

It’s thin, is what it is; it’s almost as thin as the arguments for ‘racial self-interest’. It’s a thin and logically incoherent set of attempted justifications for… well, for racism. I can’t see any other way of looking at it.

Next: these racists, where are they all flocking from?

You’ve got ventriloquists

My previous post is now approaching 3,000 reads; it’s now the best-read post in this blog’s history, passing the previous record-holder – which was (bizarrely) my annotated “There There, My Dear”.

I’m pleased with the impact the post has had and very pleased with its reception (I’ll write about some critical responses in another post), but since I wrote it I’ve felt that more was needed. The post was a line-by-line fisking of David Goodhart’s column, following the twists, feints and occasional leaps of the argument, so it wasn’t a very systematic presentation of my disagreement with his and Eric Kaufmann’s ideas. I hadn’t read the whole of EK’s report when I wrote it; I’ve now made good that omission, which in turn has prompted further reflections. Also, DG complained about the post’s facetiousness, which is fair enough; I was trying to raise a smile quite a lot of the time, if only to keep the anger at bay.

So this and the next couple of posts will be devoted to my considered, and reasonably straight-faced, thoughts on this whole ‘racial self-interest’ thing. First, let’s talk about the vexed issue of racism and how to define it. Here’s the OED definition, one more time:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

Needless to say, this isn’t the definition DG and EK prefer; on Twitter, DG ridiculed my reliance on ‘dictionary definitions’ – which is fairly rich coming from somebody who’d relied on a definition plucked out of the air. For DG the ‘normal definition’ of racism is “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”. EK, in the project report, quotes DG (it’s a small world) hypothesising “someone who identifies loosely with their own ethnic group … [and] wishes to live in an area where the group is predominant”; this person, however, “holds no negative views of other groups”, and as such we are invited to consider him or her not to be racist. EK for his part notes that different people do in fact define racism differently – although “most agree that someone who does not want to live next to a person of a different race is racist” – and offers to resolve the problem by coming up with a narrower, core definition on which we can all agree. In his words,

the central question concerns motivation. Do [people who want to reduce immigration] fear, hate or look down upon those of other ethnic backgrounds? If the answer is yes, they are racist by any definition of the term. Or is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are … seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group[?]

And in this case, again, we are invited to consider that these people are not racists.

Now, you’ll have noted the absence from the OED definition of any reference to fear, hatred or contempt, so central to both EK’s and DG’s version of the term (DG’s formulation in fact specifies irrational hatred, etc, implying that in some situations he might not even consider those negative emotions to rise to the level of racism). So how can this definition be valid? Let’s suppose that you are one of our putative non-racists, feeling no animus towards any other group but identifying with your own group, wishing to maximise its demographic advantage and preferring to live in an area where the group is predominant. Let’s suppose you live in a street with nineteen houses, ten of them (your own included) occupied by people who identify with the same ethnic group as you – White British, Bosnian Serb, Loyalist, Hutu, whatever it might be. Now suppose that one of those ten families moves out suddenly – trading up to the outer suburbs, relocating for a job in another town, whatever – and the house is bought by a family from the other group. They’re perfectly nice people – you’ve got nothing against them as individuals; the thought of hating or fearing them personally has never crossed your mind – but they’re not from your group, and that matters to you; you want to maximise your group’s demographic advantage, and to live in an area where your group predominates, and while their group has the majority in your street that isn’t possible. You hear on the grapevine that the location is really convenient for them, the house is the house of their dreams and they got a really good deal on it; you’re happy for them, really you are, but still.

Now suppose that your street is a gated community, and buying a house there isn’t just a matter of putting the money down: the residents’ committee have to agree on any newcomer. Or suppose that they’ve got the house fair and square, but you hear rumours that they’re not really happy there and they’re thinking of moving out – they hadn’t expected their new neighbours to throw so many loud parties. Decision time: if you’re going to act on your preference for a community numerically dominated by your group, your course of action is clear. You regretfully vote against the newcomers in the residents’ committee; you find the first excuse to throw the loudest and longest party you can manage. Let’s face it, the new family was never going to fit in – it’s a kindness, really, to let them find out sooner rather than later…

I respectfully put it to DG, EK and their co-thinkers that, from the point of view of the newcomers, it doesn’t make much difference whether you consciously hate them or not. There is very little difference between being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who genuinely hate you, and being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who just don’t want you around. In any case, hatred is as hatred does: if somebody denied you the house of your dreams just because they didn’t like the look of you, I think you could be excused for feeling that they did in fact hate and/or look down on you. In point of fact, if the history of ghettoisation and ethnic cleansing tells us anything, it’s that terrible things can be done by people who don’t consciously hate or fear anyone, but just think it’d be better all round if those people were somewhere out of sight.

It could be argued, conversely, that this is all a dreadful misrepresentation – when we talk about wanting to maximise demographic advantage we’re not actually talking about people who would do nasty things like veto new residents on racial grounds. But if we’re not talking about that, what on earth are we talking about? I may have a deep-seated yearning to surround myself with fans of Cannon and Ball (no ironists or timewasters please), but if I never act on it in any way it’s not of any interest to anyone. We’re surely talking about beliefs that people are prepared to act on – or that they genuinely want politicians to act on on their behalf. That being the case, the difference between being an ‘ethnic partisan’ and ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group’ is vanishingly small.

DG believes this is all a terrible mistake, tactically as well as normatively: “To describe as racist what many ordinary citizens regard as reasonable anxieties about rapid change is simply wrong, and a cause of great resentment”. EK: “Real racism exists and is dangerous. All the more reason to refine the term, using it precisely rather than permitting it to be stretched by political entrepreneurs”. Both seem to be backed up by a former Labour voter, quoted by US academic Justin Gest: “I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist.” Labelling people’s views as racist both alienates those people and makes them less sensitive to the actual danger of racism; instead, we should keep our definitional powder dry, abandoning the OED definition for the higher ground of a hatred-based definition. DG again: “The point is precisely to cordon off racism as far as possible into a place where everyone can recognise it and reject it, and then place linguistic and intellectual barriers between it and other forms of thought and behaviour that may involve race but are not racist”. Or rather, to relocate the linguistic and intellectual barriers which make racism taboo, putting some of the forms of thought and behaviour currently regarded as racism outside them.

There are two arguments here, both of them fairly confused. Whether ordinary citizens regard their views as ‘reasonable anxieties’ has no bearing on whether or not those views are in fact racist. (And let’s face it, most people have always regarded their own views as reasonable.) Calling their views racist may cause great resentment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (although it may call for a degree of tact). It certainly doesn’t mean that we should redefine racism so as not to offend anyone(!). DG argues both that racism has no intrinsic meaning (but that we should redefine it to exclude anything that ‘many ordinary citizens’ currently think), and that it has an intrinsic meaning which is much narrower than its current usage. EK for his part argues that the current definition has been deliberately stretched out of shape, apparently for partisan advantage, and that this over-extended definition tends to discredit the whole concept (although in that case it’s not clear where the partisan advantage is coming from).

But the whole argument’s moot, given that – as we’ve seen – there is no significant distinction between the broad and narrow definitions. To stop somebody getting what they want, not because it directly benefits you but because of who they are, is to treat that person hatefully and contemptuously. Whether you’re cackling evilly while you do it, or mentally reassuring yourself that you’re acting for the greater good, is not the deciding factor; in fact it’s a very trivial factor, of little interest to anyone but you.

As for the “anti-racists make it worse” argument, I think we should call its bluff – particularly bearing in mind that the “former Labour voter” quoted had subsequently transferred her loyalties to the BNP and then to UKIP, and that Gest also recorded her making comments such as

there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

Are people really being alienated by anti-racists insisting on labelling harmless traditional preferences and turns of phrase as ‘racist’? Or is it just a case of people expressing racist views, being told that those views are racist and being – or acting – mortally offended?

Next: ‘racial self-interest’ and how to ask a silly question.

Slipped on a little white lie

A recent piece in the broadsheet press has received quite a lot of attention – attention which I think it fully deserves, in much the same way that an infectious disease notification or a hurricane warning deserves attention. My initial impression was that it was extraordinarily bad in every respect, but on closer inspection it does some things very well indeed. All told, it’s an odd combination of superb rhetoric, tenuous logic and moral foulness.

The dividing line between liberals and conservatives in the US and the UK increasingly hinges on different definitions of racism.

The author takes it as axiomatic that racism is a bad thing: whatever it is that we call racism, that thing is bad, OK? So when he talks about ‘different definitions of racism’, what he’s actually referring to is different ways to draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. Just as treason doth never prosper, racism is never acceptable – because if we see anything that looks a bit racist but want to say it’s acceptable, we redefine it as not being racism.

What do you mean, “what do you mean, ‘we’?”? We do it; we label some things as acceptable that other people might call racism – it’s something everyone does. In fact two assumptions are being made here: (1) it’s possible to draw the line between acceptable-but-a-bit-racist-in-the-wrong-light and unacceptable-and-just-plain-racist in different ways, and (2) not only is it possible, but everybody does it – liberals do it just as much as conservatives, they just draw their line in a different place. (The British political scene is a bit more complicated than “liberals vs conservatives”, of course, but the author prefers to stick with a cast of two. Presumably this is because it’s a lot easier to say “you’re no better than them” if you’ve decided in advance exactly who ‘you’ and ‘they’ are.)

Anyway, that’s what you’ve absorbed – or what’s been smuggled past you – by the end of the first sentence. Let’s crack on.

Liberals attack President Trump’s proposal to erect a wall along the US border with Mexico, and his ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, as racist. Many on the right defend them as necessary protections.

The border wall and the travel ban: racist or necessary protections? Ooh, complicated. Or not. Simple question: when Donald Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, and when he said of Mexican immigrants “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, was this the language of (a) racism or (b) necessary protections? Second question: why in the world would we imagine that those two things are mutually exclusive? (You see what I mean about good rhetoric and bad logic.) Surely the measures are racist whether they’re taken to be necessary protections or not. If you’ve identified a nationality or a faith group as the source of problems and declared that the solution is to bar those people from the country en masse, it doesn’t really matter whether what you’re trying to achieve is the necessary protection of the people, the preservation of the national culture or the purity of our precious bodily fluids – your analysis of the problem, and the measures you’ve taken to tackle it, are themselves racist. So this really doesn’t work; it’s another example of the author’s apparent determination to unmoor our understanding of the term ‘racism’, and send it floating off who knows where.

A recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange found that 72 per cent of Clinton voters in November’s presidential election consider Trump’s proposed wall to be racist compared with just 4 per cent of Donald Trump voters. But when the views of white and non-white Americans are contrasted, the gap shrinks. So political partisanship, not race, determines whether the wall is seen as racist.

This article refers to a project involving two sets of studies. The second set, which we’ll come to later, was conducted by YouGov and had reasonably chunky sample sizes; more to the point, YouGov’s involvement suggests that some effort was made to make those samples representative (size isn’t everything). The 72% and 4% figures come from what the project report refers to as a ‘pilot’ study conducted via Amazon Mechanical Turk: a quick-and-dirty convenience sample – or a series of them – with multiple quoted sample sizes, ranging from 117 up to 192. There’s no word on sub-groups within those samples other than a note that “MTurk’s sample is skewed toward secular white liberals”. Now, the gap between (professed) White and Black respondents on this question wasn’t just smaller than the Republican/Democrat gap, it was a lot smaller; 45%/55% Y/N (White) plays 55%/45% (Black), as opposed to 4%/96% (Rep) vs 72%/28% (Dem). On its face this certainly seems to suggest that political partisanship, not race, is doing the heavy lifting.

UPDATE 5/3 It has been pointed out to me that the following section is based on a misinterpretation of the figures, which in turn made me treat them as being less reliable than they are. Apologies.

The trouble is, the lack of weighting for representativeness makes it impossible to make this kind of comparison between different cross-breaks – and this particular contrast is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, just as a matter of arithmetic. Moreover, if those two splits aren’t divisions of the same sample, we’ve got no way to know which of the two samples we can trust – and we’ve certainly got no good reason to trust both of them, which obviously we need if we’re going to compare one with the other.

Let’s not beat about the bush, the Mechanical Turk stats presented here are little better than junk; that London college should be concerned about having its name attached to them.

What I should have written was something more along the lines of

The contrast between the two is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, which calls into question the comparison between the two. That said, even from different samples, they could both be valid – however skewed your sample may be (and however small it is, to a point), if the cross-breaks are far enough from being evenly distributed you can be sure that something‘s going on. But that’s what we have p-values for – and, although most of the ‘political’ cross-breaks are statistically significant (the 4/96 vs 72/28 split is significant at p<0.001), almost all the ‘race’ cross-breaks fail to reach statistical significance, this one included. So the Mechanical Turk data does support the first sentence quoted above, but it’s not strong enough to support the second and third. The researcher has suggested that the absence of a significant ‘race’ effect in the sample in itself supports the hypothesis that the real effect is small or non-existent, but I don’t find this convincing; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, surely. But I’m not a quants person and will defer to the judgment of any third party who is.

There’s also a broader question about data and methodology. Throughout the project report – including the sections that rely on YouGov-sanctioned sampling – there are charts with multiple ‘n’ values, with no explanation of which applies to what, or of why it’s appropriate to plot those apples and these pears on the same Y-axis. The exclusive presentation of the results in chart form also rings alarm bells. Methodologically-sound projects can generate nonsense, and projects that keep their methods and raw data to themselves may produce good data, but that’s not the way to bet. I could say something similar about think tanks that are open and informative about their funders as compared to those that aren’t; Policy Exchange scored zero in Transparify‘s 2016 report (“Highly opaque; no relevant or up-to-date information”).

There’s another, more fundamental point here, which the third sentence casually gives away: according to this article (and, indeed, the project) there is such a thing as ‘race’, and it can in principle ‘determine’ our point of view with regard to racism. (If it didn’t exist or couldn’t affect our point of view, there wouldn’t be any point contrasting it with political partisanship; it wouldn’t take a study to establish that your political loyalties are more important than your shoe size or the colour of your aura.) For contemporary sociologists it’s axiomatic that ethnic divisions are socially constructed, the distinctive markers of ethnic division varying from time to time and society to society – skin colour, facial features, language, script, religion, dress, cultural practice – and having no correspondence to any identifiable physical or genetic reality. There are no races, plural; the only reality of ‘race’ is racism, the social practice of dividing Czech from Roma, English from Welsh, Sephardim from Mizrahim, Tutsi from Hutu and so on. UPDATE 6/3 For the avoidance of doubt, self-identification with a group is also a social practice which we experience subjectively as reality; someone may wake up in Streatham and feel entirely confident that he is Black, African, Nigerian, Ibo, Black British, British, English, a Londoner, a south Londoner, a Christian, a Pentecostalist or some combination of the above, just as in the 1980s somebody might wake up in Sarajevo confident in her identity as a Slav, a Yugoslavian, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Bosniak, a Muslim, a Sunni, a Communist, a speaker of Serbo-Croat or some combination of those. But I stand by the statement that the only reality of ‘race’ is racism: identities like these are plural, fluid and basically liberating rather than coercive, up to the point where one identity is set against another. At that point they become a lot less benign, and also – not coincidentally – a lot less plural and fluid: only a few years later our 1980s Sarajka would have been calling herself a Bosniak, a Bosnian Muslim, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a speaker of Bosnian and that’s it. ‘Race’ in this sense – an exhaustive and discrete set of categories in which everyone has their place – is the end-product of racism.

By contrast, the formulation used here suggests (if only in passing) that it is racism that is a floating signifier, tacked down in different places by different people, while the reality of race is – or may be – one of the reasons for those differing perspectives. We’re through the looking glass, and I don’t much like where we’re headed.

The argument is not just about physical or economic protection, but cultural protection too. Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist.

As we’ve already seen, physical or economic protection is a red herring: implementing apartheid and saying it’s your way to save the ozone layer doesn’t get you onto the environmentalists’ table. There’s no further discussion of what cultural protection might actually mean, so I think we can discard that too. No, what we’re talking about is the same thing we’ve been talking about all along: racism. And here we get to the meat of the article: some people regard preference for one’s own ethnic group as racism; other people, who regard it as common sense, don’t like being called racists. (That little grace-note or even your own nation is another red herring, incidentally; there’s no reference to nationality in the rest of the article.)

You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to get to the facts of the matter here – or, if not facts, strong and uncontroversial probabilities. You feel most comfortable with your partner and members of your family, all of whom are of the same ethnic group as you? Almost certainly not racist. You’d take your Mum’s shepherd’s pie over a lamb dupiaza any day? Probably not racist (although it may depend how often and how loudly you tell people about it). You wouldn’t want to have anyone regularly making lamb dupiaza in the house next door? Probably racist, unless you’ve got an onion allergy or something. You wouldn’t be happy if you saw an Asian couple looking at the house for sale down the road? Almost certainly racist. And finally: you don’t like seeing Asians moving in, but you regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist? Tough titty. Cuiusque stercum sibi bene olet; everyone regards their own prejudices as common sense, and nobody likes having their prejudices labelled as prejudices.

But that’s not the way this article is going. Rather, we’re being sold the proposition that, maybe, those conservatives are actually right; maybe, preference for your own ethnic group isn’t a form of racism. Huge if true.

The challenge here is to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics, or what Muslim-American writer Shadi Hamid terms white “racial self-interest”. The latter may be clannish and insular, but it is not the same as irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group — the normal definition of racism.

Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show: white racial self-interest. Sadly, the author neglects to cite a fuller definition of this crucial concept – the well-known fourteen-word definition formulated by David Lane, perhaps? In all seriousness, the overlap with the vocabulary of white supremacism is striking. To speak of interest, after all, requires that there is some entity that has interests: if we speak of white racial self-interest, in other words, we presuppose the existence of a white race. (Including, or excluding, Arabs? Sicilians? Roma? Jews? Slavs? Hours of fun.) The report on which this article is based doesn’t help greatly, defining ‘racial self-interest’ as ‘seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s] group’. Which, again, presupposes that each of us has a ‘racial’ group, and that maximising the advantage of that group as against others is rational in some way. Why would it be, though? If the argument is that increasing the size and power of my racial group is a good thing for the group as an entity, and that it’s rational for me to recognise this, then the argument is simply and straightforwardly racist. But if the argument is that bulking up my ‘racial’ group will benefit me individually, by making it easier for me to employ, marry and generally surround myself with people of my own ‘race’ – well, once again, why would that be a benefit? All roads lead back to racism.

The author suggests that we should only speak of racism where irrational hatred, fear or contempt are in evidence. This is a familiar move but a vacuous one. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as our contemporary understanding of racism started to develop, there was a brief rearguard action involving a distinction between ‘racialism’ and ‘racism’. ‘Racists’ were violent bigots motivated by irrational hatred, fear or contempt; ‘racialists’ (usually including the person speaking) didn’t bear non-Whites any ill will, they just didn’t want to have to live near them. It was self-deceiving, self-exculpating nonsense then and – under the name of ‘racial self-interest’ – it still is now. To see why, let’s look at some normal definitions. We’ll take clannish and insular first – those venial sins which may occasionally mar the otherwise rational face of ‘racial self-interest’, but which don’t have anything to do with irrational hatred, fear or contempt. The OED defines ‘clannish’ as ‘having the sympathies, prejudices, etc. of a clan’ and ‘insular’ as ‘narrow or prejudiced in feelings, ideas, or manners’. So the author is saying that ‘racial self-interest’ may dispose a person to prejudice but not to irrational hatred. Let’s see how the OED defines ‘prejudice’:

unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, a race, sex, or other class of people

In short, racism involves irrational hatred, fear or contempt, whereas ‘racial self-interest’ involves unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism. Much better. The only way of differentiating ‘racial self-interest’ from ‘racism’, even on the author’s own definition, would be to change course and maintain that the rational pursuit of racial self-interest never involves clannishness, insularity and prejudice in general – which would be interesting to watch, if nothing else.

But that’s only the author’s definition of ‘racism’. What does the OED say?

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

That’s the normal definition of racism, that’s the Oxford way, and that’s how you beat Capone. Well, maybe not. But it’s radiantly clear that ‘racism’, per the OED, includes ‘white racial self-interest’ in every last detail – including the implicit belief that there is such a thing as a white race, with identifiable characteristics, in the first place.

(Note to anyone who thinks this is overkill. Look, this isn’t rocket science; as I write I’ve got the OED open in another tab, and I’ve only gone to those lengths because I couldn’t get the browser widget to work. I’m not even using my academic credentials to log in. Got a public library card? You’ve got the OED. Want the normal definition of racism? It’ll take you two minutes, tops. Want to come up with an alternative definition that’s more convenient for your argument and call that ‘normal’ instead? Go ahead, but don’t think nobody will notice.)

(Note to anyone who appreciates that but still thinks it’s taking rather a long time to get through this column. You may have a point. I’ll try and speed up.)

The next bit is tricky, so watch closely.

The question of legitimate ethnic interest is complex. Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

They have justified this reluctance on two grounds. First, the white majority in the US and Europe is itself so diverse it makes little sense to talk of a culturally homogenous majority (though the same might be said for most minorities too).

Second, majorities have been so numerically dominant that their ways of life have felt threatened only in a few small pockets. The latter is clearly no longer the case, especially in the US where the non-Hispanic white population is now only a little over 60 per cent. In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority too.

As so often in bad syllogistic reasoning, the first premise is the one to watch. Multiculturalism certainly involves the belief that it’s generally a good thing for members of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life (if they want to), but whether it’s premised on the right to do so is more debatable. (Would such rights be absolute? Who would they be asserted by?) I see multiculturalism more in terms of a recognition that individuals who are members of a minority group have a strong and legitimate interest in maintaining the traditions (etc) of that group. In which case, those individual interests are being confused here with a right held by a group collectively. This point is important because of the next step: the proposal to extend such group rights to majorities.

The argument then proceeds with a perverted dexterity that would do any propagandist proud. Why don’t we (liberals) recognise the rights of the majority, or (more broadly) attend to the safeguarding of the majority’s traditions and ways of life? It’s actually not a hard question; the answer is “because it’s the majority and doesn’t need it”. Whatever you may have heard about unaccountable elites, we’re not in Norman England – the ruling class comes from the majority group, speaks its language and shares its culture (give or take). A maj-ority and a min-ority are not just two different kinds of ority, they have fundamentally different positions, needs, vulnerabilities – a superior and more powerful position in the case of the majority, and fewer needs and vulnerabilities.

The author is obviously aware of this objection and tries two routes around it. The first is to throw out another red herring: perhaps our real problem is that the White majority is too diverse to have a single body of traditions ways of life ect ect. (I don’t know who’s supposed to have said this.) If this were the case, though, it would only make White people more like members of ethnic minorities; not one majority but multiple minorities (and we know how much those liberals like minorities). The second approach takes on the argument that majorities don’t need protection more directly, pointing out that in the USA the White population is little more than one and a half times the size of all the other population groups put together, as long as you don’t count Hispanics as White. And if that’s not scary enough, remember that White British people are a minority in “several UK cities”. Again, we are being asked to bring the White majority within the ambit of our sympathy for ethnic minorities, by considering them as a minority.

(You may be surprised to hear that Whites are an ethnic minority in “several UK cities” – and so you should be. Part of the trick is using the phrase “White British”; the White British population is defined considerably more tightly than the non-Hispanic White population of the US, as it excludes people of Eastern European and Irish origin, among others. The other part of the trick is a creative interpretation of the words “several” and “cities”. Although the statement in question is backed with a link to a blog post, the post only lists one city (Leicester), two towns (Luton and Slough) and five London boroughs in which White British people account for less than half of the population. In Leicester, Luton and Slough the White British population accounts for 45%, 45% and 35% of the total respectively – a minority, although by far the largest single population group in all three cases. (It would also be true to say that the Conservatives received a minority of votes cast in 2015, and that more than half of the MPs elected received a minority of votes cast in their constituency.) In short, it would be true to say that White British people are a minority in a handful of UK towns, although it would be grossly misleading. Saying that they’re a minority in “several UK cities” is straightforwardly false.)

So here’s the argument: liberals believe in giving ethnic minorities the right to maintain their traditions, etc; the White majority is an ethnic minority, sort of, a bit, if you look at it a certain way; so surely liberals should support their rights. The syllogism is even more flawed than I realised – the major and minor premises are both dodgy – so the conclusion hasn’t really earned the right to be taken seriously. That said, at this point we only appear to be speculating about recognising the right (if it is a right) of the White majority (if there is such a thing) to maintain its own traditions and ways of life – the Sunday roast, Christmas trees, Preston Guild. And none of those things is under any kind of threat, so the whole argument seems to be academic. No harm done, or not yet.

When YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans whether it is racist or “just racial self-interest, which is not racist” for a white person to want less immigration to “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”, 73 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters but just 11 per cent of Donald Trump voters called this racist. In a companion survey of 1,600 Britons, 46 per cent of Remainers in last June’s EU referendum but only 3 per cent of Leavers agreed this was racist. When respondents were asked whether a Hispanic who wants more immigration to increase his or her group’s share was being racist or racially self-interested, only 18 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters called this racist. By contrast, 39 per cent of Donald Trump voters now saw this as racist.

Hey! A minute ago we were talking about preserving cultural traditions and ways of life and so forth – where’s that gone? All of a sudden the rights – or interests – we’re talking about aren’t to do with maintaining certain traditions and ways of life; they’re about numbers, and maintaining one’s own group’s share of the population. Is it racist (associated with irrational hatred and fear) to want one’s own group to have a larger share of the population? Or is it only racial self-interest, which ex hypothesi is not racist (although it is associated with unreasoned hostility and antagonism, but never mind that)? And what if the group in question is itself a minority – what then, eh?

This is truly dreadful stuff. The results of the survey are based on a distinction which makes no difference; moreover, it’s not a distinction which was surfaced by the participants, but one which the survey specifically and overtly prompted. There is no difference between ‘racism’ and ‘nice racism’, a.k.a. ‘racial self-interest’; to believe that there was a difference, one would have to believe that ‘racial self-interest’ was a valid concept, and that belief is in itself racist. This being the case, asking whether behaviour X is (a) ‘racism’ or (b) ‘racial self-interest’ is a bit like asking a rape defendant whether he (a) committed rape or (b) made a woman have sex with him against her will, although it was OK and it definitely wasn’t rape. ‘Racial self-interest’ is what you call racism if you approve of it; the author more or less said so at the top of the article. All we’re measuring is a differential propensity to euphemistic labelling.

The survey did measure that, though – and the results don’t point the way the article suggests they do. If we want to explain Clinton voters’ seeming reluctance to apply the label of racism to a hypothetical Hispanic’s desire for a larger population share, we can easily do so by evoking sympathy with the conditions that go along with being a member of an ethnic minority – conditions of powerlessness and discrimination. The idea that there is some sort of symmetry between this and Trump voters’ reluctance to call White majority racism by its name – and that having named this symmetry one can simply say “hey, political partisanship!” and walk away – is an insult to the intelligence. Both of these things may be temporising with racism, but one of these things is not like the other. The full report, to be fair, acknowledges the argument that Clinton voters may have good reasons – grounded in considerations of social justice and inclusion – for not wanting to label that hypothetical Hispanic as racist. It then ignores this argument and concludes that they’re just biased.

When Trump and Clinton voters were made to explain their reasoning, the gap on whether whites and Hispanics were being racist or racially self-interested closed markedly in the direction of racial self-interest. This points to a possible “third way” on immigration between whites and minorities, liberals and conservatives. As a new Policy Exchange paper argues, accepting that all groups, including whites, have legitimate cultural interests is the first step toward mutual understanding.

(Just to be clear (since this article isn’t), the recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange, the survey in which YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans to waste their time making meaningless distinctions and the new Policy Exchange paper referred to just now are one and the same project. Also, our author works at Policy Exchange. Small world.)

When nudged in the direction of applying euphemistic labelling more broadly, then, both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ were willing to do so. The full report, in fact, argues that it’s liberals rather than conservatives who have work to do here: ‘liberals’ are supposedly more biased than ‘conservatives’, because they’re more likely to be selective in condemning racism. The way to reduce bias, then, is for liberals as well as conservatives to hop aboard the ‘racial self-interest’ train. Brave new world! All we need to do is agree that it’s good and appropriate to think of oneself as the member of a race, and to believe that each race has the right to preserve itself by maintaining or expanding its population share. Then the members of different races can come together in mutual understanding – or else agree to stay apart in mutual understanding. That’s always worked before, right?

This, incidentally, is where the jaws of the traditions and ways of life trap start to close. We’ve conceded – haven’t we? – that minority groups have rights, in a happy fun multicultural stylee? And we’ve agreed that the White majority is, well, kind of a minority, sort of, in its own way, when you think about it? Well, what more fundamental right could a group have than the right to preserve itself – the right to assure its own existence and a future for its, you’re ahead of me.

Majority rights are uncharted territory for liberal democracies and it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. Hardly anyone wants to abolish anti-discrimination laws that ban majorities from favouring “their own”. But while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood. Labelling that feeling racist risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving white resentment.

You get the feeling the author feels he’s made his point now; he can afford to sit back and concede a few minor points. Yeah, sure, sometimes it actually is racism. Outright discrimination? No, no, nobody wants that – well, hardly anybody. Who’s going around thinking in explicitly ethnic terms? Nobody! Hardly anybody. Just a few people. Still, you know…

many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood

Sweet suffering Jesus on a pogo-stick, what in the name of Mosley is this? People feel a discomfort about no longer setting the tone? This stuff makes me weirdly nostalgic for the respectable racists of old – can you imagine what Michael Wharton or John Junor would have made of the prissy whiffling evasiveness of that sentence? Wharton could have got an entire column out of it. (He’d have ended up advocating something much worse, admittedly.)

But I shouldn’t mock; this column wasn’t just slung together, and we need to keep our wits about us. I said, a couple of paragraphs back, that the jaws of the “it’s just like multiculturalism!” trap were closing; this is where they slam shut – and where we get the payoff to all that equivocation about min-orities and maj-orities. We’ve conceded that minority groups have rights; we’ve conceded that the majority group also has rights – including the right to self-preservation. (This was never about culture, ways of life, traditions. It’s about people; it’s about numbers.) Well now: how can our majority group preserve itself, and preserve its identity as a majority group, if not by remaining the majority and continuing to do what a majority does? Our rhetorical conveyor belt is complete: you go in at one end believing it’s a good idea for Muslims to have time off for Eid, then you discover that this means you believe in group rights, which in turn means that you believe in racial self-interest and the right to pursue it, which means believing in rights for the White majority. Before you know what’s happening, you’ve come out at the other end unable to object to Whites maintaining their dominance and their ability to set the tone in the neighbourhood (a nice pale tone, presumably).

This is bad, bad stuff. Fortunately there’s not much more of it.

Minorities often have real grievances requiring group-specific policy solutions. White grievances are more subtle. For instance, lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy – this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus.

“We’ve lost a lot, haven’t we, over the years? Think of the community spirit we used to have. Immigrant communities seem to have kept much more of a sense of community – they’re more fortunate than us in many ways. Really, they’re quite privileged, aren’t they, compared to poorer White communities in particular…”


The liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism risks deepening western societies’ cultural divides.

Of course – couldn’t go a whole column without using some form of the phrase legitimate grievance. The blackmail logic underlying the “legitimate concerns” routine is showing through more clearly than usual: either we legitimise these grievances by taking them seriously, calling them rational, making out that they’re not really racism, or… well, cultural divides, innit. Could get nasty, know what I’m saying? Nice racially integrated society you’ve got here, shame if something were to happen to it.

And let’s not forget just what we’re being asked to legitimise. Bring me my OED of burning gold! (Or the one in a browser tab, if that’s more convenient.)

racism, n.

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

The belief that groups defined on racial or ethnic lines “represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being” – and hence that it’s appropriate to maximise one’s own group’s demographic advantageis racism. There’s literally nothing here to argue about. The entire tendency of this very well-written, very ingeniously argued column – and of the rather less impressive report on which it’s based – is to legitimise racism, normalise racism, promote racism. (Specifically, the argument advanced here most closely resembles the ‘ethno-pluralism’ of the French New Right; that said, the ‘racial self-interest’ that it celebrates is hard to tell apart from the fourteen-word catechism of white supremacism.)

This racist work has no place in academic or policy debate; it calls not for discussion but for denunciation.

Trust I can rely on

I stayed up for the result last Thursday night and toasted Gareth Snell with a year-old bottle of Orval. I still had some beer when the Copeland result came in, but if I knocked it back it was only so that I could get it over with and get to bed. It wasn’t surprising – both results were what the bookies had effectively been predicting – but the Copeland result was very disappointing.

But then, the Stoke-on-Trent result wasn’t that great. On the plus side, we sent Paul Nuttall homeward to think again (not that he’ll be welcome there); if the result has revealed the irrelevance of UKIP to a wider public, that will be something to celebrate. But Labour’s share of the vote went down – again. And, although the Lib Dems came back, and although the Kippers profited from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015, the Lib Dem revival seems to have been largely at the expense of Labour: the UKIP vote share actually increased. The fact is that we held on thanks to a divided opposition; if the Tories had done a Copeland and appropriated most of the UKIP vote, they could even have won.

So what’s going on here? Let’s look at some pictures. Continue reading


I went to Stoke-on-Trent yesterday, to lend a hand with canvassing. I got off to a bit of a bad – well, late – start, and didn’t get there till 12.15. I met a canvassing team on my way to the GMB office and would have tagged along with them straight away, except that they were knocking off for lunch. I might as well have gone to the pub with them; when I got to the office I was told that Jeremy Corbyn was due to speak at 1.00, so I’d be better off hanging on till then and look for some people to go out with afterwards. Not knowing anyone, and not being adept at striking up conversation with strangers, I decided to head back into town and grab something to eat. I found what I was looking for – a stall selling, and indeed making, oatcakes, which was doing a roaring trade. (I still can’t get over the fact that they make the oatcakes right there. Thought they came in packets…)

Back at the office, there still wasn’t anyone to talk to – well, there were lots of people, just nobody I felt comfortable talking to. This is where it would have been better to get there earlier, or for that matter to join the Spoons party. Security for the Corbyn session was tight – well, tight-ish. Was your name down? Failing that, did you have your party membership card? Failing that, did you have some form of photo ID, a post-1998 driving licence perhaps? Failing that (the guy with the clipboard was sighing audibly by this stage)… well, could you write down your name and address on this piece of paper? I could manage that, fortunately. Starting to feel like Harry Worth, I made my way through to the side room, where three rows of ten chairs had been set out – either pessimistically or because that was all the chairs they had, I’m not sure. There were already forty or fifty people there who’d had to stand, and more were coming in all the time; Phil reckons there were 150 in there by the time Jeremy Corbyn spoke, and I wouldn’t say he was wrong.

As for the speech, Corbyn made some good if fairly basic points, and sounded genuinely passionate – genuinely angry at times. It wasn’t a tough crowd, but he got us pretty well worked up; oratorically he wasn’t bad at all, apart from an odd habit of breaking up the slogan-talk with little patches of bureaucratese – “Britain deserves better! We can do better! And we will do better, as I indicated in my earlier comments on health and social care!” (It’s an Old Labour thing, I guess, going back to the kind of meetings where people would be equally impressed by the rhetoric and by your grasp of which composite was which.) Overall I was pretty impressed – with the speech and with the man – although I was disappointed that he didn’t so much as mention Brexit or the EU. “Real fight starts here”, as he said – and the message, explicitly or implicitly, was that it’s the same fight it always has been, for democratic socialism and the welfare state. I think this is profoundly mistaken; I hate to agree with Tony Blair, but I think he was right to link the two issues, given that the inevitable post-Brexit downturn will be the perfect justification for further privatisation and wrecking of public services. Gareth Snell – the candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central – is promising to deliver the best possible Brexit for the Potteries, but I’m afraid this is a bit like offering the best possible programme of compulsory redundancies. Or rather, almost exactly like.

Anyway, after the speech I hung around the main room while it cleared, intending to work my way to where the party workers were handing out clipboards and leaflets and throw myself on their mercy (er, sorry… Manchester… on my own… haven’t actually done this before… maybe if somebody could show me the ropes… sorry…). Fortunately this wasn’t necessary, as somebody was putting together a carload and I was able to volunteer to make up the numbers. To my surprise and alarm, nobody gave me any lines or talking points, or told me what to do in any way – other than telling me which door to knock and who was likely to be there – but it was fine; I picked up what there was to pick up pretty quickly.

We were a group of five, not counting Mike with the board. I’ve been out canvassing in a group of three before now, which is a large enough group to give you an enjoyable sense of getting through the route quickly. Five is even better – we smashed that route. Several times I finished an address, looked round and saw Mike a good hundred yards further down the road, giving out addresses to the lead members of the group; the stragglers would catch up, get our addresses… and repeat. It wasn’t a quick job – we went out at about 2.00 and didn’t get back till nearly four – but I think we canvassed that route about as quickly as it’s ever been canvassed. (For locals, it was Hartshill Road – numbers 100-500, give or take.)

Back at the office, I baled out rather than go out again, for no better reason than that I wanted to be home for tea. Yes, I’m a lightweight; never said I wasn’t. If I’d had any doubts on that point, incidentally, talking to some of my fellow volunteers would have dispelled them; our group of five included people from Watford and Berkshire, both of whom had come up for the day, and both of whom were still there when I left for my half-hour train journey back to Manchester. I spoke to more than one person who’d joined the party within the last eighteen months, including one 1980s member who’d rejoined (plenty of those in our ward branch, too). It’s worth emphasising: even after the Article 50 vote, even with a candidate who isn’t especially left-wing, the new recruits are still turning out and getting the work done.

What was it like? It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer variety of housing was mind-boggling. Finished that block of 90s redbrick flats? Take this semi-D set back from the road up a flight of 30+ steps, or these high Victorian Gothic mews houses (complete with iron-bound fake-medieval front doors with huge ring knockers), or that flat over a shop and accessible only by fire escape… Nobody in? Post a leaflet and move on (new pet hate: those furry hand-grabbers which appear to have been fitted to every letter slot in Stoke-on-Trent). I got more exercise yesterday afternoon than I have on a Saturday afternoon in quite a long time.

But that wasn’t the question, was it. What was the ‘doorstep experience’ like – what did people say? Well, mostly they didn’t say anything, because mostly they were out. The stockpile of talking points and instant rebuttals that I’d imagined us being given wasn’t needed; with one exception, the doorstep encounters were over in a matter of seconds. That exception was, ironically, the first door I knocked on: it was opened by an old woman who was only too happy to tell me about who she was and wasn’t thinking of voting for, and why. (Although even she didn’t mention Brexit; perhaps Corbyn’s approach is right after all.) Listening to her, I thought for a few mad moments that John Harris had a point. She’d always voted Labour, until recently; her father used to say that Labour was the party of the working man, and she’d always lived by that. But now – Jeremy Corbyn, well… Some friends of hers had been lifelong Conservatives, and they’d switched to UKIP, and they were very clever people – they’d gone UKIP because HS2 was going to go near their farm, and UKIP said they’d stop it. She didn’t support the Conservatives, though – she thought it was dreadful, what they’d done to the NHS; we never used to have these crises all the time. But UKIP had said they weren’t going to privatise the NHS, so… She liked Nigel Farage, too – thought he said some interesting things. She didn’t like Paul Nuttall, though – didn’t trust him, particularly with the Hillsborough story – so she thought maybe she wouldn’t vote for UKIP; maybe she wouldn’t vote at all. From there we somehow got on to Tristram Hunt; she didn’t like him at all, and (bizarrely) expressed some bitterness about the way he’d been ‘parachuted in’ in 2010. She wasn’t sure about the candidate this time round – was he married? Was he related to so-and-so Snell, that woman, what was her name…? (I know nothing about Gareth Snell’s personal life, and the only female Snell I can think of is Lynda, so I was no help there.) Then it was back to UKIP, and – perhaps inevitably – immigrants. Her take on immigration was, firstly, that there was far more traffic on her road than there ever used to be, and secondly that we shouldn’t be taking people in when we couldn’t look after our own; this in turn led to her fears that there wouldn’t be any adult social care for her when she needed it. I thought of pointing out that something like one in four of the people working in care homes in this country are EU citizens – so far from making it harder to provide, EU immigration is one of the things keeping adult social care afloat. But I wanted to get on – and it’s a complicated point to make, not to mention one which directly challenged her beliefs – so I let it slide. Besides, I was still boggling inwardly at the one about traffic.

It’s worth remembering that the over-75 former-Labour-voter demographic is small and atypical. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how many of them we lose – clearly it does – but that addressing the reasons why we lost them may not do us any good more widely. In any case, how would we address the ‘concerns’ expressed in the previous paragraph? “We shouldn’t take people in when we can’t look after our own” is a good, emotive talking point, but it’s based on a false premise – we can ‘look after our own’; we could do it with ease, if we had a government that wasn’t set on dismembering the welfare state. Yes, the NHS should be properly funded. Yes, adult social care should be properly funded and supported. All good Labour stuff – what were those overlooked and denigrated concerns, again? Just the traffic, really; that, and the sense that things have changed for the worse, and that ‘immigrants’ are something to do with it. There’s no logic there, unless it’s dream logic: that thing that worries you? how about we fix it by getting rid of those people you’re suspicious of? no, it’s not connected – well, maybe it is connected, who knows? – but even if it’s not connected it couldn’t hurt, could it? And, of course, this irrational fix – which is literally the stuff of nightmares, sating one kind of anxiety by hot-wiring it into another kind of resentment – is precisely what UKIP have been selling all these years, like the Tory right and the Fascist parties before them. UKIP have succeeded where their forebears failed, in surfacing that fearful, resentful dream logic and making it respectable. The idea that any given social problem was caused by “too many immigrants” was, literally, unspeakable for many years, but it was unspeakable not out of ‘political correctness’ but for good reasons: because the attitude it represents is not only hateful and divisive, but irrational and hence insatiable. Now it’s mainstream. I don’t know how – or if – Labour can put it back in its box, but I’m sure we need to work harder than we have done on holding the line against it. (I’m looking at you, Andy Burnham.)

I didn’t speak to many people on the doorstep, and apart from the woman I’ve been talking about very few of them raised any political concerns; only one, in fact, and that was a man who said he was voting Labour despite – not because – of the leader. Jeremy Corbyn, well… I hate to say it, but I think this is a problem for the party. I’ve been frustrated in the past by people’s unwillingness to say just what it is they don’t like about Corbyn, but I’m wondering now if that’s missing the point. The problem we’ve got now is that Corbyn’s stock has fallen so far that people don’t feel they need to object to anything specific: Corbyn just is a leader who you don’t take seriously. I’m not sure how we reverse that – or even if we can.

But if Corbyn’s leadership is a drag on the party, the effects don’t seem to be fatal – not in Stoke-on-Trent Central, anyway. I saw a number of Labour posters but no others, apart from posters for the Lib Dem candidate Zulfiqar Ali in the windows of a few businesses. I saw a few UKIP leaflets around the place; I think they’d done the same route before us. (The UKIP campaign’s current leaflet just says “We [heart] NHS” on one side; on the other it attacks Labour for accusing them of planning to privatise the NHS and says that UKIP would keep the NHS free at the point of use for British people (“it’s a national health service, not an international health service”). Very clever, very nasty.) As for the people I spoke to, there were three Labour intending voters (one critical of Corbyn); one Conservative; one ‘anyone but Labour’, balanced out by an ‘anyone but UKIP or the Conservatives’; one waverer who (as we’ve seen) had left UKIP for Labour but was wondering about either going back to Labour or abstaining; and two who said they weren’t going to vote. Generalised across the constituency as a whole, that would give vote shares of
Labour 45%-75%
Conservative 18%-25%
Lib Dem 0-18%
UKIP 0-18%
which would do me – although I suspect both the Kippers and the LDs will do a bit better than that. For Labour, I’m cautiously optimistic. For me, I’m glad I took the time out & would be happy to do it again (although, um, Thursday is actually a working day, and termtime, er…). Politics as in actually doing stuff with people – can’t beat it.


‘Twas the voice of the Wanderer, I heard her exclaim,
You have weaned me too soon, you must nurse me again
– Stevie Smith

I’ve been following the developing saga of Article 50 through a variety of sources – notably the UK Constitutional Law Association blog, Mark Elliott’s Public Law for Everyone, and the invaluable commentary on Twitter from Schona Jolly, Jo Maugham, Rupert Myers and others. (Exeter! Who’d have thought it?) For what it’s worth I’m inclined to think that Mark Elliott and Hayley Hooper‘s reading of the constitutional position is correct – that the UK’s EU membership is ultimately a matter of treaties concluded between governments, and that any individual rights arising from it were available to be applied from the moment membership was agreed, but were not (and could not be) applied until they had been brought into domestic law by Parliament. This being the case, if membership were to cease, the applicability of those rights would remain in law until such point as the European Communities Act was repealed, but it could have no effect, as the rights would no longer be available. To put it another way, any invocation of a right – or any other legal provision – which exists as a function of Britain’s membership of the EU must implicitly be conditional on EU membership subsisting at the time the invocation is made; to say otherwise would be to say that all EU-based legislation must be repealed before Britain could leave the EU, a proposition which (as far as I’m aware) nobody has advanced. This being the case, it must be possible for EU membership to cease and for EU-derived rights subsequently to be invoked (unsuccessfully, of course).

If the existence of EU-derived rights is no bar to leaving the EU by executive decision, neither is the principle of parliamentary democracy. It is true that the peculiar mechanism of Article 50 – with its inexorable two-year time limit – carries the risk of truncating Britain’s EU membership without any kind of Parliamentary agreement or even consultation, but this is only an idiosyncratic example of a much broader principle: it is governments, not Parliaments, that make treaties and dissolve treaties. Nor does the executive require Parliamentary approval for the making of treaties (as distinct from the enactment of those treaties’ effects into domestic law). Not only could the government have triggered Article 50 the morning after the referendum, as David Cameron originally suggested that his government would; in purely legal terms, Article 50 could have been triggered at any time, including before or even during the referendum campaign. This would certainly have been politically unwise, but it would have been within the competence of the executive; the “constitutional requirements” referred to in the text of Article 50 are undefined, and it would be decidedly courageous to argue that the British constitution requires respect for a specific referendum result. In this perspective, it could even be argued that the current appeal rests on a category error: the EU-derived rights which are at issue are not being disapplied in British law but extinguished at source, and there is – as a matter of constitutional principle – very little that Parliament can properly say about it. As a firm – not to say terrified – opponent of Brexit I don’t take any pleasure in this; nevertheless, it seems to me that this is where the law leads us. The current appeal, for me, is an eminently political case – and one which I strongly support on political grounds – but argued on legal grounds which are dismayingly weak. But we shall have to see what the SC makes of it. (I suspect that the interventions of the Scottish and NI governments may end up being a stronger part of the appellants’ case than their original argument.)

For now, here’s an argument that occurred to me recently, and which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else (although I admit I’m not quite up to date with the UKCLA blog); it suggests that, despite the constitutional argument advanced above, the primacy of Parliament may still have a role to play.

Consider the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011. (For anyone in need of a spare rabbit hole, my thoughts on AV are here, and some thoughts on why the referendum was lost are here and here. Note appearance of Matthew Elliott and Daniel Hannan.) It’s commonly acknowledged that the AV referendum, if passed, would have been legally binding in a way that the EU referendum wasn’t; while the European Union Referendum Act 2015 simply enabled the public to express a preference (which we were informally assured the government would subsequently implement), the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 actually legislated to introduce AV, with a conditional clause providing that, when the result of the referendum was known, the relevant provisions should either be brought into force or repealed by ministerial order. If the referendum had passed, AV would have been introduced by the executive, without any further parliamentary scrutiny: Parliament had voted (albeit with substantial opposition) for a referendum result to have the power to force the executive’s hand in this specific way.

But there is nothing in the 2011 Act which mandates that the ministerial order should be made immediately, or in any specific time frame; it would have been possible for the government to drag its feet, even to the point where it was (regrettably) no longer possible to introduce AV in time for the next general election. More to the point, nothing in the 2011 Act precluded a future repeal. Even if we assume that the referendum result would have bound the government of the day to implement AV – and to refrain from taking steps to repeal it – the result would have placed no such obligation on individual MPs; it would have been entirely possible for an MP (of any party) to introduce an Alternative Vote (Repeal) Bill, which could then go through the Commons on a simple majority vote. (Anyone who doesn’t think that electoral reforms can be made and then reversed hasn’t been paying attention to Italian politics.) The point here is the obverse of the principle with which I started. Governments make treaties, but Acts of Parliament are made by Parliament – and what Parliament makes, Parliament can unmake.

The constitutional significance of the use of a referendum, in this perspective, is very limited. The 2011 Act specified that a referendum should be held and that its result should determine whether the Act’s AV provisions were brought into force or repealed. The AV referendum itself was thus an event within a process fully specified, and circumscribed, by an Act of Parliament – an Act like any other, available to be amended or repealed by subsequent Acts. Certainly the referendum result was binding on the government, but it was binding in a very specific way, set out in detail within a Bill which was the subject of parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The referendum provisions did not determine the detailed wording of the Act, still less permit the executive to disregard it; they simply modified the procedure for implementing the Act to incorporate two alternative paths and an external ‘trigger’ event to determine the choice between them.

So there is nothing about the use of a referendum which changes the rules of the game, when it comes to legislation made in Parliament. Normally, a Bill is put before Parliament, debated and voted on, and – if not voted down – becomes an Act of Parliament and brings about changes to the law. All of this, including contested votes in Parliament, was true of the 2011 Act; the only difference was that when that Act changed the law, it did so subject to a choice between two possible changes (both specified in detail), that choice being determined by the result of a referendum. There was nothing in the whole process to challenge the primacy of Parliament: the British people chose, but they chose from two alternatives both of which had been minutely specified in advance, and both of which had gained the approval of Parliament.

But this is not the situation we’re currently facing. What about the situation where a referendum result is addressed, in effect, not to Parliament but to the executive – and where what is at issue is not domestic law but an international treaty? Before exploring this scenario, it’s worth recalling that the British system of democratic representation is parliamentary all the way down. When we talk of ‘the government’ taking action, we’re generally talking about action being taken by or on behalf of the Prime Minister – which is to say, the member of parliament who last formed a government, on the basis that she or he was best able to command a majority in the House of Commons. In countries with an elected Head of State, Presidents may have their own legitimacy and exert power in their own right, even to the point of being involved in government formation. It’s impossible to imagine Britain having a ‘non-party’ government – as Italy has done more than once – let alone such a government drawing substantial legitimacy from having been approved by the Queen. Government ministers – even the Prime Minister – are MPs like any other, and they can be held to account by their fellow MPs in Parliament. The executive is whatever remains when the domestic politics are stripped out: the Prime Minister and other key ministers acting on behalf of the country, plus the civil service supporting them. But ‘acting’ is the operative word: no Prime Minister ever ceases to be an MP and a member of a party, and the call of partisan politics can never be entirely silenced. (Winston Churchill, perhaps more than any other Prime Minister, encapsulates our contemporary idea of a Prime Minister acting on behalf of the country as a whole – but it was he who said, less than a month after VE Day, that a Labour government would inevitably bring in “some form of Gestapo”.)

It follows that, while referendums can make demands of the executive, they can only legitimately make a certain kind of demand – which is to say, demands with no possible ambiguity; demands specified to such a degree that nothing is required of ‘the government’ but to turn up and sign on the dotted line. As a rule of thumb, if the action being demanded could be carried out by a senior civil servant, then a demand is being made on the executive. It’s also worth remembering where these demands will have come from. In some countries – Italy again springs to mind – referendums have an independent democratic function and can be initiated at the grassroots level; once a certain level of support is reached, the referendum goes ahead with binding effect. (It makes the Number 10 ‘petitions’ site look a bit feeble.) In Britain, referendums must be backed by specific legislation, which – of course – emanates from Parliament. And if the legislation setting up a referendum is faulty, it’s up to Parliament to put it right.

So, there’s a difference between demands made to Parliament and demands made to the executive. As we saw earlier, if the executive signs up to the UN Convention On Undersized Oily Fish there is nothing, constitutionally, for Parliament to say about it. Equally, if a referendum on whether Britain should remain bound by the UN Convention On Undersized Oily Fish gave a majority for Leave, parliamentary debate wouldn’t come into it; the relevant junior minister or senior civil servant would just have to go and un-sign. But there’s also a difference between the executive and what we think of as ‘the government’. The government, in this sense, generally refers to the PM and Cabinet – a group of elected MPs. Constitutionally, however, MPs are just that – members of Parliament, who debate with and are held to account by their fellow members of Parliament. A demand to the executive which cannot be implemented by the executive – which has to be debated, developed, amended and refined by MPs before it can be actioned – is not a demand to the executive at all. It’s impossible to imagine a referendum on “leaving that treaty we signed on that Tuesday that time, you know, the one with the blue binding, or maybe dark green” – this wording would obviously leave far too much scope for government ministers to identify a treaty of their own choice, effectively frustrating the will of the people (or most of them) while purporting to honour it. But a referendum with precise and specific demands could be equally badly formed, if those demands couldn’t be implemented without political debate and extensive planning – say, “implement a flat rate of income tax and balance the budget”. In effect if not in form, this would also be a demand for ‘the government’, not for the executive: a demand, in other words, for MPs to work out how the stated demand could be met, consistent with other government commitments, and then to meet it. But if something is a matter for MPs and not for the executive, then it is a matter for Parliament. If Parliament is to be excluded, the demand needs to be phrased in a way that obviates the need for debate.

The point about the EU referendum is that it was a lot more like the ‘flat rate tax’ example than the ‘oily fish’ one. What distinguishes the result of the EU referendum from that of the AV referendum is not that the latter was legally binding and the former advisory; both bound the government to a course of action. (Although this binding should not be understood to be permanent; governments can and do change course, as we’ve seen – and, in any case, a government cannot bind its successors.) The key difference between the two is that the course of action to which the AV referendum bound the government was fully and precisely specified, leaving no more work for the legislature to do. The course of action to which the government was bound by the EU referendum is almost entirely unspecified. The referendum question, and in particular the 2015 Act, was badly drawn up – presumably because nobody responsible, the then Prime Minister included, imagined that ‘Leave’ would win. As such, the referendum was, almost literally, half-baked; it was released on the world in an unfinished state, and should go back to Parliament to be specified in the appropriate level of detail. This being impossible, it should be recognised that it is for Parliament to define ‘Brexit’, to plan out what will be involved in leaving the EU, and to publicise its benefits and costs.

At present, far from having its hands bound by the result, the government enjoys an unparallelled degree of freedom to define the result how it pleases, or not to define it at all – all the while refusing to grant Parliament any substantive oversight. Constitutionally, this is a monstrous power-grab – not by ‘the executive’ but by a group of MPs – and it should not be tolerated. Parliament needs to have a say on the referendum result, not because leaving the EU will mean that certain rights are forfeit, and not because the referendum was advisory, but simply because the referendum was a badly-formed question. It was posed in such a way that the implications of a ‘Leave’ victory, and the precise nature of a ‘Leave’ settlement, could only be worked out after the fact, in a political debate among MPs. But if such a debate is to happen – and it is happening already – then it must happen in Parliament, not between the Prime Minister and her trusties. We should not permit the ouster of Parliament.

Statues dressed in stars

A couple of quick thoughts, or irritations. Very different sources, but I think they’ll turn out to be connected; let’s find out.

First irritation: this piece from yesterday. Slightly edited quote:

Some believe the Richmond Park defeat could catapult [Labour] into an electoral crisis as the Lib Dems gain support in pro-Remain and historically Conservative areas, while Ukip gains confidence among working-class voters in Labour’s heartlands of the north and Midlands.

“We do have two different strong pulls. There are metropolitan seats, in London, Manchester and Leeds; they are strongly pro-EU. Then equally, there are dozens and dozens of seats which are working class, where many did not vote to remain. There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance the two,” [said] a senior Corbyn ally

None of these statements are obviously self-contradictory, but the combination is hard to make sense of. Are Manchester and Leeds not Labour heartlands in the North? Come to that, does Labour actually have heartlands in the Midlands? (Birmingham certainly isn’t a Labour city in the same way Manchester is, not to mention Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield…) Yes, there are dozens of constituencies which have a working-class majority and were majority Leave, but equally there are lots of majority Leave constituencies that are mainly middle-class; come to that, there are lots of working-class people who are rock-solid Tory, and there always have been (where else did the figure of Alf Garnett came from?).

FourFive different ways of dividing the country are uneasily superimposed in the passage I’ve quoted. There’s geography (rather hazily understood); there’s class; there’s Labour loyalty (solid, wavering, non-existent); there’s Leave vs Remain. Then there’s the fourthfifth layer, which has the weakest moorings in reality but the strongest in emotion: the anti-‘metropolitan’ leftist cultural cringe, which says that anything that happens (a) in London or (b) among people who read the Guardian is shallow, inauthentic and to be discounted. Put them all together and you get a horribly clear picture of the divided opposition to the Tories: divided between solid Labour heartland voters, who voted Leave because they’re working class and are just asking to be poached by UKIP, and shallow metropolitan socialists, who are likely to drift off to the Lib Dems because they’re middle-class Remainers with no Labour roots. It’s a clear picture, a simple picture and a picture that’s almost completely unreliable. Unfortunately it seems to be immune to counter-evidence – see e.g. Oldham West, just twelve months ago. (Working-class majority-Leave Labour heartland voters don’t drift off anywhere, but give Labour an increased majority? Naah, that would never happen.)

Viewed from the perspective of a (not very active) Labour Party member – and with Oldham W in the back of my mind – these prophecies of doom are reminiscent of those crime surveys where they ask people if they think crime is a major problem, then ask whether they think crime is a major problem in their area. This invariably results in much lower figures, as people effectively reality-check their opinions against what they’ve seen and heard (the local news included). Similarly, my own immediate reading of the threat of a Lib Dem/UKIP pincer movement was maybe in some places, but it’s never going to happen round here. Round here – in Manchester – the council recently went from 95-1 (Labour/defrocked independent ex-Labour) to 96-0, and then back to 95-1 (Labour/Lib Dem). At the last round of council elections, there were lots of council seats where the Lib Dems are in second place, but they were mostly really bad second places. And yes, there were lots of other council seats – in parts of Manchester with fewer Guardian readers – where the Kippers were in second place; but again, we’re mostly talking really bad second places. At those elections, the Lib Dems threw everything they had – including the former local MP – at two council seats, and won one of them. They’ve got a pretty good ground game, but their cadre is thin – too many young enthusiasts, not enough old hacks – and the number of members they can deploy isn’t great. Maybe they’ll make it two out of 96 next time round, or even three. I can’t see it happening myself (Labour didn’t let that one seat go easily; our runner-up got more votes than several of the winning candidates in other wards) – but even if they do pull it off, so what? Without an Alliance-style surge in membership and self-belief, the LDs are never going to be in a position to target and win more than a handful of seats on the City Council. As for the Kippers, the most they can say about last time – in a vote held a month and a half before the EU Referendum – is that there were three seats in which their candidate took nearly half as many votes as the winning (Labour) candidate. Even then – when their support in the polls was running a good 5% higher than it is now – they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses: their ground game is poor, their membership’s never amounted to a great deal and their cadre’s basically non-existent. (Such is Labour’s grip on Manchester, even former Tories joining UKIP aren’t likely to be former Tory councillors. There hasn’t been an elected Tory councillor in Manchester since 1995 – and the last time they won a seat from another party was 1988.)

Thinking about voting behaviour I get something of the same double vision as those crime survey respondents. Out there, in all those other places, I’m prepared to concede that people may think like Leavers or Remainers and vote for the Leave-iest or most Remainful candidate they can find. Round here, though, not so much. Round our way, it’s more a matter of organised political machines, or the lack of ditto; who’s organising the door-knocking, who’s getting the posters distributed, who’s going round one more time on the morning of the vote and then once more in the evening. It’s about getting the vote out, in other words; it’s about reminding people that there’s an election on, that there’s a candidate for our party standing, and that there are good reasons to support that candidate. It’s an exercise in organised capillary political communication, one-to-one interactions on a mass scale. And it’s something parties do; barring the odd Martin Bell or Richard Taylor candidacy, it’s something only parties do. Support for political parties is always going to wax and wane, but the speed at which those changes happen in a given area is inversely related to the strength of party support in that area – and that’s directly related to the health of the local party and the resources it can mobilise.

Ultimately, it’s about two different ways of thinking about politics. To the extent that the Labour vote consists of the people who have a personal investment in a particular set of policies and in the leader who puts them forward, the Labour vote is genuinely threatened by Brexit: if what you want is a leader who will campaign to overturn the referendum result – or a leader who will campaign to have it carried out – it’s not at all obvious that Jeremy Corbyn is the man for you. But, to the extent that the Labour vote is a function of the number of people in an area who would say that they ‘are’ Labour, on one hand, and the members and other resources available to the local party, on the other… maybe not. To the extent that we’re talking about organised party politics, that is, and not about some kind of vacuous narcissistic popularity contest (who’s the leader for me?).

Second irritation. I found out that Fidel had died through the medium of Twitter (him and David Bowie, now I come to think of it). I was on my way out, but I thought I’d take a moment to make my feelings on the matter clear.

If you want it at greater length, Corbyn’s tribute contains nothing I disagreed with. (Paul Staines & others made hay with “for all his flaws”, of course – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)

Some time later I read Owen Jones’s take; as with the piece I quoted at the start, this gave me the odd experience of not quite being able to disagree with any of the individual statements, but wanting to throw the whole thing across the room.

Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution.


Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home … sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there … is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

Yes, but I’m not sure that was exactly what I was…

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.”

Well, second biggest, after being massively outgunned by groups with an interest in those “purely market-based solutions” and the means to impose them. But yes, decades of Stalinism is the kind of thing that tends to give socialism a bad name. And decades of Stalinism plus some uncritical tweets – that ‘practically no-one in Cuba’ will read – is even worse, presumably.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

From the top: there’s a difference between defining what you want to achieve in the world and recognising something someone else has achieved. Socialism-the-thing-I-want-to-achieve certainly wouldn’t look a lot like Cuba, but we’re not talking about me or my ideals. If you’ve taken an offshore resort colony and turned it into a country with state ownership of industry, universal healthcare and universal education – and maintained it in the face of massive opposition and resource starvation – I’d say what you’ve achieved deserves to be called socialism and you deserve to be congratulated for it. It’s a form of socialism to which I’m personally bitterly opposed, but at the end of the day I’d rather be poor under a socialist tyranny than starving and illiterate under colonial tyranny. That – putting it in its most hostile terms – is the change Fidel made, and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it.

As for ‘uncritically praising Castro’s Cuba’, if this means ‘praising Castro’s Cuba and explicitly denying that any criticism is possible’, then fine, I’m agin it. In the present context, though, I suspect it meant something more along the lines of ‘praising Castro’s achievements on the occasion of his death, without also taking care to get some criticisms into the 140 characters’. In which case, I think Owen’s inviting me to take a purity test, and I frankly decline the invitation. When I – and others – responded to Castro’s death with tributes and expressions of solidarity, without pausing (in our 140 characters) to condemn press censorship and the harassment of political opponents, was it really likely that we either (a) didn’t know that Castro’s Cuba had carried out these things or (b) supported them? We can expect the Right to insinuate that (a) or more probably (b) must be true, but I think we can expect better from the Left – or, for that matter, from anyone prepared to use a bit of common sense. (If you know a prominent character to have done something awful and you meet a self-confessed supporter of that character, do you start by assuming that they approve of the awful thing? Think carefully. (Or think Cromwell.))

The final quote is just odd. Perhaps “championing Cuba in its current form” would resonate with the radical Left, perhaps not; I don’t know. (I don’t much care what the radical Left thinks, and I don’t intend to champion Cuba anyway.) But it’s the next part of the argument where Owen really goes wrong. We can’t possibly know what “the mass of the population” thinks; more to the point, we can’t be guided by what people already think. Politics isn’t about putting forward policies that match what people think; it’s about identifying what’s needed and campaigning for that. You certainly need to get a sense of what people are thinking, but only so that you know how much effort you’ll need to put in to get them to support what you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be in tune with the public mood, sometimes you’ll need to reframe your campaign in terms that connect with how people are thinking, sometimes your policies will just be downright unpopular. Sometimes you’ll be pushing at an open door (funding the NHS), sometimes the door will be closed so hard it’s not worth pushing (abolishing the monarchy). But you start with what you believe to be right, not with what you believe to be potentially popular; still less by doing what Owen’s actually proposing – ditching anything that looks as if it might be interpreted as being similar to something unpopular.

To put it another way: Owen, this isn’t about you. It’s not about the credibility of the British left, it’s not how the Labour Party can win back “the mass of the population”, and it’s not about making sure that the political stance of prominent Internet leftists is specified in sufficient detail to be beyond critique, at least to the satisfaction of those prominent Internet leftists themselves (it’s not as if the Right aren’t going to attack you anyway). What it’s about is paying tribute to somebody who made a big, positive difference in the world on the sad occasion of his death, and having the decency to reserve whatever else we could say about the guy to a later date.

Again, it comes back to two ways of looking at politics, I think. There’s a frame of reference within which the correct response to Fidel’s death, and the correct view of his achievements, is radiantly clear, and it’s the frame of reference that goes like this: OK, so which side are you on? Allende or Pinochet? The Sandinistas or the Contras? Apartheid or the ANC? (Not questions which the contemporary Right can answer without blushing, or so you’d have thought.) Then there’s a frame of reference that says that we – the Left – can’t be seen to be overlooking this, condoning that, failing to denounce the other, we must always be mindful of the need to maintain our principles on the one hand, without losing touch with the public on the other hand, and so we must move on from the old and discredited whatever it was, while not overlooking the and so on and so forth. To return to my first point, one of these sounds like it’s based in actual political struggles. The other sounds like it’s based in – well, vacuous narcissistic personality contests (where’s the Left for me?).

If Brexit tells us anything it’s that weightless decisions – individual decisions based on nothing more than mood, individual preference, popularity – are bad decisions. We need a lot more politics in this world – in the sense of people getting together and working for their goals, using existing machinery where necessary – and a lot less attitudinising and questing for the perfect platform.

Our country (4)

Part 4: Been kicking down so long it seems like up to me

I’ve been arguing that, over the last couple of decades, mechanisms of democratic accountability have been progressively and more or less systematically dismantled – and that this has fuelled a lot of disaffection from politics, some quiet and resigned, some loud and angry. This doesn’t explain why it’s specifically migration that has emerged as the main ‘screen’ issue, onto which other forms of anger and insecurity are projected; that’s what I want to get to in this post.

I’ve also been arguing that migration in and of itself is a non-problem. This isn’t saying that no problems can ever be caused by migration; I’m not saying that we should all embrace the free movement of labour and capital to the point of surrendering any attachment to the place where we live. I supported the Lindsey strikers – the odd dodgy slogan apart – because I thought they had a right to object to their jobs being, effectively, exported from under them. As I wrote here, just before the 2015 election (which now seems a very long time ago):

If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

I don’t believe that actual, identifiable problems caused by free movement of labour are what lies behind the wave of anti-migrant politics we’re living through now; apart from anything else, if they were, people would have identified them by now, and all these opinion pieces wouldn’t have had to be padded out with the ‘arguably’s and the ‘pace of change’ and the neighbourhoods ‘changed beyond recognition’. (Let me tell you about our high street, when we first moved here: Woolworth’s, Norton Barrie, Rumbelow’s. Even the Famous Army Stores has gone now. Changed beyond recognition, I’m telling you.)

I actually think it’s the other way round: we can explain the talk of competition for housing and pressure on services by referring to the unavowed, unnamed but powerful political force that lies behind it. I don’t just mean racism, either – although more and more, the universal indignation at being called racist does seem to go along with expressions of racist attitudes. (As an aside, the fact that being named as racist is now scandalous for almost everyone, and career-limiting for many, is probably a good thing, but it makes this discussion a lot harder to have in public spaces. The worst case scenario is that racism may manage to return to respectability by way of losing its name, like the fox that left its tail in the trap.)

It’s about hatred, or a certain kind of hatred. Like Richard, I don’t think we can ever really live without hatred, but I think his broader argument is only half right. Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure. It’s habit-forming. What Harris, Toynbee and the rest have been reporting back over the last couple of weeks is that if you tell people they shouldn’t kick down, they won’t want to listen. That’s not surprising – they’ve got all this anger, after all, and for weeks now the Leave campaign’s been encouraging them to let it out with a good old symbolic kick. But we can’t take our political bearings from the frustrated anger of people who haven’t worked out, or are afraid to find out, who’s really been wrecking their lives.

This combination of powerlessness and kicking down also explains a particularly weird feature of the referendum campaign: its unreal, spectacular quality. People – some people – have a lot invested in expressing how angry they feel, by saying No to the government and telling some immigrants to piss off. (Although not, we’ve heard more than once, the ones that are already here – you’re fine, it’s those others we’re worried about. Highly reassuring.) But beyond that, I don’t think Remain voters think anything much will change – certainly not for the worse. Precisely because democratic political mechanisms have been neutered or dismantled – and political debate has been reduced to a game of fixing the blame on the powerless hate figure of the week – it genuinely doesn’t occur to many people that voting Leave might have serious effects in the real world. People think it’s going to be all right – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the Leave campaign’s blithe ability to thumb its nose at ‘expert’ opinion, or for Lisa Mckenzie’s extraordinary statement that The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. (What, all of them?) Anyone who’s old enough to cast a vote – and especially anyone who’s ever known hardship – knows damn well that things can always get worse; the only way I can interpret this statement is that they’re convinced that a Remain win won’t have any negative effects. Because, hey, it’s just a vote – it’s just us saying No to the government and all these immigrants. It’s not as if voting changed anything! Besides, Boris, he’s a laugh, isn’t he?

This is the world we’re in. In another, better political settlement there would be a serious debate to be had about the possibilities for democratic reform which might be opened by ending – or renegotiating – Britain’s membership of the EU (although even in that world the economic arguments would weigh very heavily in favour of Remain). But we’re not in that world and we’re not having that debate; the debate we’re having is mostly about angry voters kicking down against imaginary eastern Europeans, and cynical members of the political elite encouraging them for their own benefit. And in that situation there’s only one thing to be done. As Ben Goldacre puts it, sometimes you have to take a break from useful productive work to stop idiots breaking things.

Postscript: War is war

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. I’d never met her – if I’m honest, I’m not convinced I’d even heard of her – but her death and the manner of her death… (I don’t know why nobody’s called it an assassination, incidentally; perhaps the thought is just too horrible.) I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. I was going to a folksong session on the Sunday night, and I spent a couple of hours looking for a song that would express how I felt; I couldn’t find anything angry enough, though. Something like a cross between Masters of War and Ford O’ Kabul River… At one point I seriously considered Bella Ciao – È questo il fiore del partigiano morto per la libertà!

It took me until the Sunday afternoon to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.) Saying these things – even thinking them consistently – may not be easy or straightforward, but I believe it’s the only way.

By the time you read this polls will probably be open. Please do the right thing.

Our country (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: according to opinion polls, 43% of the British people are currently intending to vote Leave, as against 44% intending to vote Remain. Labour supporters’ contribution to the Leave vote isn’t dominant, but it’s not negligible either – apparently Labour supporters currently split 64%/26% in favour of Remain. Some Labour voters may be voting against the EU on anti-capitalist grounds, but most of the Remain minority appear to have bought one or more of the myths currently floating around: that leaving the EU would lead to increased funding for the NHS, higher wages, more school places, lower rents, etc. On examination, most of these myths rest on hostility to immigrants and the – mistaken – belief that if EU migrants were prevented from coming to the UK there would be “more to go round”.

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

There’s a perfectly respectable justification for working-class racism and xenophobia: people know they’re having a hard time; they see (and are encouraged to see) new people coming in, competing for jobs and scarce resources; but they don’t see (and aren’t encouraged to see) that jobs and resources don’t have to be scarce; they don’t see ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘a cynical bunch of Tory chancers who care about nothing except extending their own stay in power’. (But before we go any further, let’s not forget that lots of people do see those things; ‘people’ up there doesn’t mean everyone who’s having a hard time. The middle-class Labour vote is pretty chunky, but it’s certainly not big enough to account for that 64% Remain vote.)

This model – the idea that people have genuine grievances, but they articulate them in terms of immigration – is quite widely accepted. The question is, of course, why immigration is the ‘screen’ issue of choice – and not, for instance, alcohol consumption or stray cats or the moral decline of the West. Perhaps what lies behind this question is what makes the argument rhetorically unstable; as we’ve seen, when used it tends to turn into the assertion that nobody should tell working-class people not to complain about immigration, which in turn decays into the assertion that working-class people have good reasons for complaining about immigration. It may be a non-problem (the logic seems to go), used to express real problems that can’t be articulated in their own right, but there must be some good reason why the non-problem of choice is immigration; what might that be? Perhaps it’s not such a non-problem after all? This unargued, half-thought-out logic lends itself to double-counting and equivocation, as in John Harris‘s suggestion – you can hardly call it a statement – that “[f]or many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with”. Walk us through that, John: is it the (actual, measurable) pressures on public services or the (nebulous, subjective) pace of change that’s causing the trouble? He’s not saying. And has it proved too much to cope with? Maybe, maybe not – but arguably it has, do you see?. He couldn’t be any shiftier if he was ‘adumbrating’.

It seems to me that the real reason why migration is the non-problem of choice is – well, there are two reasons. First, because politics has stopped working. The Situationists used to argue that politics only meant anything if it was part of your everyday life, by which they meant the revolutionary transformation of your everyday life. They had a lot of fun at the expense of ‘activists’ – people who take up a political cause as a hobby and turn it into a career – arguing that they were no more radical than any other hobbyist or middle-manager. I think this was half right. I think political activity – even a political career – can be a worthwhile way of making a difference to the world under capitalism; but I do think politics needs to have a footprint in everyday life if it’s to mean anything.

But this means levers. This means that when you vote for a councillor, an MP or an MEP you’re voting for someone who will try to make a difference, and who will have some power to do so. It means that if you’re a member of a political party, you’ll be able to vote on your party’s policies and its local representatives, and your vote will count. In terms of where we are now, it means giving policy-making powers back to the party conference, taking decision-making powers away from mayors and nominated ‘cabinets’ and back into the council chamber, giving councils responsibility for raising their own taxes as well as spending their own money – in short, it means rolling back a whole series of changes which began under Thatcher, accelerated under Blair and have continued under Cameron. Democratic mechanisms have been systematically broken in this country; if democracy means deciding how money is spent locally or what policies your local party candidate stands for, then democracy has largely ceased to exist. And that’s a problem for all of us – a functioning democracy is good for our social health – but most of all for the working class, particularly the most excluded and exploited parts of the class. They need the kind of change that can only be brought about through politics, and they’re now being told that they can’t vote for any change at all – it’s all being decided by somebody else, somewhere else, and it’s probably been decided already.

We urgently need to think about how we can roll these changes back; we need more democracy – more actual, functioning democratic mechanisms – not less. And, as this article points out, we need to make use of the mechanisms that are there; an elected mayor or an elected Police and Crime Commissioner might be less democratic than what it replaces, but you still get a vote; you don’t want to wake up the next morning and realise you haven’t played any part in achieving – or trying to prevent – the result.

Right now, though, it’s not surprising if some people are angry – and it’s not at all surprising if, given the chance to vote for something the Prime Minister doesn’t want, they seize it. But calling it a “working-class revolt”, as Harris does, is woefully misleading. The point isn’t just that this ‘revolt’ is led by some of the working class’s staunchest enemies, as Paul Mason reminds us. More importantly, it’s not actually a revolt. Putting a cross in a box, talking about it a bit on social media, maybe putting a poster in a window – this is participation in the democratic system working as usual, albeit in a weird one-off variant. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t any kind of rebellion – nothing is being taken back, nothing is being built, nothing is being changed. Nothing is even being demanded – there are no working-class demands in the Brexit movement, only working-class endorsements of nationalism, xenophobia and outright lies. I’m deeply dismayed by the failure of commentators like Harris, Toynbee and Mckenzie – or even Mason – to see this and challenge it, without equivocation.

But I said there were two reasons. What’s the second?

Our country (2)

Part 2: You may say I’m a dreamer (but please don’t)

I’ve never understood the idea of ‘idealism’ or being ‘idealistic’ (although I’ve been accused of it a few times). To me it seems axiomatic that we start – we all start – from strongly-held beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, and tend to interpret the world we encounter in the light of those beliefs. Attitudes that pass for ‘unidealistic’ – forms of pragmatism or cynicism – are generally grounded in beliefs in facts about human nature, and beliefs which the cynic holds just as strongly as any Quaker holds theirs. There is such a thing as being unrealistic – assimilating what you see to your mental map of what you expected to see – but it doesn’t necessarily go along with having high ideals: assuming that people are selfish, amoral and stupid may be just as far out of line with reality. (But underestimating people’s intelligence or moral probity doesn’t attract the label of ‘unrealistic’, somehow.)

In any case, being ‘realistic’ is a situational virtue: it’s a matter of partially suspending your prior assumptions, whatever they are, when assessing a particular situation. The problem with critiques of ‘idealism’ is that they implicitly suggest that ‘realism’ is an alternative: a set of ideas, a model of the world, which would be ‘real’. Stating it in those terms shows how incoherent the idea of ‘realism’ is. The map is not the territory, and (as Gregory Bateson didn’t quite say) it’s maps all the way down: when we compare a map with our better and more accurate knowledge of the territory, we’re really comparing a map with a better and more accurate map. A set of ideas can no more be ‘real’ than a statue can get up and walk away.

If ‘realism’ is an incoherent ideal(!), it’s also a seductive one: the nagging impossibility of a perfect map can make us conscious of the imperfections in the maps we use, making it easier to see around the edges of them in a given situation. Since this is more or less the definition of being ‘realistic’, the incoherence of the ideal of ‘realism’ doesn’t stop it being functional in practice. The problems start when we stop thinking of ‘realism’ as a regulatory ideal or an impossible dream, and start thinking of it as something we’ve actually got – or, what’s worse, something that somebody else has got. This is where the critiques of ‘idealism’ become corrosive: when one person’s ideas are declared superior to another person’s ideas, on the absurd grounds of being unimprovably ‘real’. When you’re the realistic one, the result is arrogance and (ironically) a fixation on filtering the world through your prior assumptions, without any attempt to suspend them. When you’re comparing your idealistic self unfavourably with somebody else’s realism, the result is even worse: self-abnegation and a fixation on filtering the world through somebody else’s prior assumptions, assumptions you don’t even hold.

‘Realism’ in this sense was one of New Labour’s great gifts to the Left. Of course, by the mid-90s anyone at all active on the Left would have been quite used to being told that their demands weren’t realistic and that politics was the ‘art of the possible’ – that’s just the language of Labour. But there were at least traces of genuine, situational ‘realism’ in those exchanges: it was true that a Labour government could only do so much, after all, and perhaps it genuinely never was the right time for an all-out strike. What was new about New Labour was the embrace of ‘realism’ across the board: the sense that Left ideals should be abandoned wholesale, because somebody else – starting with the leadership and their friends – had a better, more ‘real’ set of ideals. This kind of critique of left ‘idealism’ had been heard from outside the party for years, to the point of putting successive generations of Labour politicians on the back foot. Bringing it inside the party was devastating: the centre-Left rapidly collapsed into New Labour, largely because there wasn’t much holding it up. As I wrote in 1997:

Curiously, among [New Labour’s] true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism

What wasn’t so prominent in 1997 – it came to the fore in Blair’s second term – was the other side of the ‘realism’ coin. We should shelve our leftie ideals and think of what’s best for UK plc, the first-term argument ran (realism #1); we need to be successful in the real world, so we should take our lead from real-world success stories like Digby Jones and David Sainsbury. But – the second-term argument added – let us never forget where we came from, the roots of our party and the people we represent (realism #2): let’s not impose our values, our liberal middle-class values, on their authentic working-class values! Realism #2 drew power from the guilty conscience created by realism #1 – if you’re in the Labour party and you’re encouraged to be intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, you’ve got to feel that there’s been a wrong turning somewhere – but at best it only replaces one cringe with another. And at least the business community is organised and articulate; if you decide that you’re going to take your cue from what the British working class thinks, you’re more or less condemned to treating random vox pops as authoritative, with all the risks of priming and attitude-striking which that entails. (Unless you take the view that the trade unions are an organised and articulate representation of the British working class, but that’s crazy talk – at least, it’s ruled out by realism #1.)

What both these forms of ‘realism’ exhibit, ironically, is idealism in the older, philosophical sense of the word – the belief that ideas have an independent reality and exert a determining influence on society. From a materialist perspective, this just looks odd. Even if we thought that Digby Jones was a hero of British industry from whom we could all learn valuable lessons, it wouldn’t greatly matter what the man thinks – which of us actually knows, and can articulate, how they’ve succeeded in any particular way? What we could learn from would be what he’d done and how he’d done it. Still less should we take our lead, in deciding what’s wrong with the country and how to put it right, from what randomly selected working-class people think. We can find out what they need and what’s wrong with their lives – that’d be useful – but taking what they think as a touchstone of ‘realism’ (the genuine concerns of real British people) just seems like… well, a cringe.

I think, returning to our original sheep, it’s this twofold ‘realism’ cringe that’s at work in centre-left attitudes to racism. Yes, of course we’re all liberal anti-racists – but haven’t we learnt the hard way that sometimes we need to compromise our ideals in politics (realism #1)? And isn’t our liberalism a bit middle-class – shouldn’t we be letting our people tell us about the real problems they’re experiencing (realism #2)? Nothing expressed the double cringe better than Harriet Harman’s bizarre and repulsive 2015 proposal that Labour should listen to Tory voters and tailor its stance accordingly – hadn’t we just learnt the hard way that that was what our people thought we should do? (Yes, that was only last year – July, in fact. Seems like a long time ago somehow.)

Something similar is going on, I think, in those and many other articles about working-class racism. Blaming immigrants for everything might not be terribly liberal, the logic seems to run, but the people doing it are real working-class people, so this is real working-class thought – and how can we stand against that? I would argue, by contrast, that some maps are better than others, and racism and xenophobia are particularly bad ones; they obscure real differences and draw lines where no lines need to be (this isn’t very advanced stuff). As such, discovering that working-class people are prejudiced against incomers is on a par with discovering that they believe in astrology or don’t believe in vaccination. It’s a bad, dysfunctional belief: you work round it when you can; you challenge it when you must (which, admittedly, may be almost immediately); and, above all, you put forward better, more functional beliefs.

Being an old materialist, I don’t expect working-class people in a class society to have the best ideas or the most accurate picture of society. I believe them to have the most fundamental interests and goals – the liberation of the working class is the liberation of all, give or take 1% – but I don’t expect them to know how to realise them; it wouldn’t be a class society if the ideas of the ruling class weren’t hegemonic. The liberated working class, even the working class in struggle, isn’t going to think like the atomised, immiserated class of today. A Left that pays attention to the Gillian Duffys of this world isn’t a Left that’s listening to the working class – it’s a Left that’s lost its own beliefs and ideas, or thrown them away.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take note of the size of the Labour Leave vote, or the inroads UKIP have made into Labour support, or the rise of racist and xenophobic views among Labour voters – even if all of these things are smaller than they’re made out to be (I’ll come back to that, too). For all that it’s overstated, something has changed over the last decade, and not for the better.

Next: all these racists that are coming in, where are they flocking from?

Our country (1)

Some thoughts on the latter end of the referendum campaign, mostly composed before the assassination of Jo Cox. I’ll be breaking this up into parts; hopefully I’ll get them all out by Thursday!

Part 1: Why oh why? Seriously, why?

Here’s Lisa Mckenzie in last Wednesday’s Graun:

In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything. In the cafes, pubs, and nail bars in east London where I live and where I have been researching London working-class life for three years the talk is seldom about anything else … In east London it is about housing, schools and low wages. … In the mining towns of Nottinghamshire where I am from, the debate again is about Brexit, and even former striking miners are voting leave. The mining communities are also worried about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of the pubs and the grinding poverty that has returned to the north.

The talk about immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe. …  the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear.

She’s talked to some people where she lives in east London, and other people in her home town (not sure about the generalisation to “the mining towns” or “mining communities”, plural), and in both places a lot of people are favouring Leave. But they’re voting Leave because of insecurity at work, low wages, high rents and pub closures. This is pretty alarming in itself, and I’d expect a sociologist who respected her subjects at least to pause at this point and query whether leaving the EU is likely to solve any of those problems – particularly under the government that created most of them in the first place. Believing that it would doesn’t seem to make sense; the only way to make it make sense – rhetoric or no rhetoric – is to refer back to immigration. People think like this, not because they’re stupid or irrational, but because they’ve been told that immigration is the source of these problems, and that leaving the EU would put at stop to it. This is a problem, but it’s not the one that Mckenzie focuses on.

Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime.

Which effects would these be? Which actual effects of immigration on their lives are we talking about here? As distinct from the effects of high rents, low pay and an economic slowdown – all of which the government has the power to change, and none of which would be addressed by taking away European investment, European regulation or European immigration?

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say … Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening. For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change.

Anyone who genuinely believes that things can’t get any worse is rather seriously lacking in imagination, life experience or both; I’ll come back to that later. What I want to focus on here is the weird argumentative two-step we can see in the last couple of quotes. First we get the – correct – recognition that lots of people do have very real concerns, in the old-fashioned materialist sense of the word ‘real’: lots of people are living lives of immiseration, precarity and anxiety. Precarity and immiseration don’t make the news very often, but immigration does; immigration is a tangible and widely-articulated issue, and it gets loaded up with people’s wider anger about these conditions and desire for change. So far so good, but then we get step 1: from “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration (although they’re wrong)” to “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration – and you can’t tell them they’re wrong”. Why on earth not? You might not want to, you might find it difficult, but surely you should try? (If someone’s angry because their neighbour’s stolen their lawnmower, shouldn’t I tell them if I know it’s still in the shed?) From there, of course, it’s a hop and a skip to step 2 – “people are angry about immigration, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong, because what they’re angry about is immigration (and the effects of immigration on their lives)”. I don’t think Mckenzie even believes this – most of the article is arguing against it – but it is what she says; her argument seems to lead her there despite herself.

Exhibit B appeared, also in the Graun, a couple of days before Mckenzie’s article. Polly Toynbee (for it is she) watches Margaret Hodge MP meeting her east London constituents:

They like her, a well-respected, diligent MP, but they weren’t listening. She demolished the £350m myth, but they clung to it. She told them housing shortages were due to Tory sell-offs and failure to build but a young man protested that he was falling further down the waiting list, with immigrants put first. Barking’s long-time residents come first, she said, but she was not believed. …  Roused by anti-migrant leavers, will they ever revert to Labour? Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance. As high-status Ford jobs are swapped for low-paid warehouse work, indignation is diverted daily against migrants by the Mail, Sun, Sunday Times and the rest.

What’s going on in Barking? People are having a hard time and articulating it in terms of immigration, and relating that in turn to the EU: so far so familiar. But why assume that this is a permanent change of perspective and that these people are lost (to Labour) for good? (Do we even know that they have abandoned Labour, as distinct from disagreeing with party policy on this one issue? They turned out to meet Margaret Hodge, after all, and the rest of the meeting seems to have gone quite well.) What do we make of that passage about the primary school children – a ‘visible reminder’ of what? Just about anything could be an easy answer, after all – that’s what makes them easy. (Look, a pub! Ban alcohol and solve all our problems! Over there, a stray cat! Microchip cats and solve all our problems! And so on.) The sense seems to be ‘the presence of people who racists hate is a visible reminder of how racists hate them’ – to which those people might quite reasonably suggest that the racists should deal with it. As it goes, the ethnic makeup of Barking is something like 60% White (including 8% ‘White other’, i.e. European), 20% Black, 15% Asian and 5% mixed; if pupils at the school next door were (visibly) “almost all from ethnic minorities”, then you can bet that there’s at least one nearby primary school that’s almost all White.

There’s the same queasy not-saying-just-saying quality about that odd plaint about the neighbourhoods having “changed beyond recognition, without them being asked”: is that a problem or isn’t it? The non-White population of Barking has gone up by about 60,000 in the last 15 years, while the White population has gone down by about 40,000; that’s interesting (40,000 is a big drop) but does it matter? Never mind the easy answers and the indignation-diverting tabloids, is that in and of itself a problem that we should care about? And if it’s a problem, is it more of a problem than (for example) my neighbourhood having changed beyond recognition over the same period? (You can hardly buy anything on our high street any more – it’s all bars and charity shops. Used to have clothes shops, a draper and all sorts. There was a Rumbelow’s when we moved in, can you imagine…)

The entire argument is conducted in these vague thumbsucking tones, making it extraordinarily difficult to challenge or even unpick. There are, of course, practical difficulties in asking people whether they’re racists, but even recording a series of slammed doors and unconvincing denials would be more genuinely informative than this stuff (not saying that is how people think, but if they do think like that, well, who’s to say…). Not to mention the fact that the entire argument is at best irrelevant to the referendum debate: leaving the EU would either be neutral to Commonwealth immigration or accelerate it. The Leave-voting racists of Barking (if they exist) should be careful what they wish for.

If Leave wins, Polly argues, things could get nasty, precisely because the hopes some people are pinning on it wouldn’t be realised; fair point. Whereas if Remain wins:

If remain scrapes in, David Cameron may urge the other 27 EU members towards some brakes on migration. After our near-death experience, with France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen advancing, Poles and Hungarians screeching right and even worse threatened, some change looks necessary. Social democratic values, sharing within a community, both are threatened by an entirely open door.

Y’know, Mahatma Gandhi was asked once what he thought about Western civilisation… “Social democratic values” and “sharing within a community” – have they actually been tried in this country? Certainly not under this government or the one before – and New Labour wasn’t exactly a beacon of touchy-feely pinko liberalism either. Just like Lisa Mckenzie, Polly slips from “these people say they’re worried about immigration, but they’re wrong” to “…and who are we to tell them they’re wrong?”, and finishes up with “…and they’re not wrong”: open-door immigration is a threat.

Why? Why would anyone think this? (Spoiler: I’ve got some ideas, which I was going to put down here, but given how long this has got already it’ll have to be a separate post.) In terms of public services – what’s most often cited as a genuine issue in this area – immigration is likely to be neutral over the long term: if 100 people working and paying taxes can support public services for 100 people, the maths for 110 or 120 people should work out exactly the same. In the short term, immigration is likely to be a net positive, because those extra 10 or 20 people are disproportionately likely to be young, able-bodied and childless. If public services in any given area come under short-term strain, a responsible government should redirect public spending accordingly – just as they should in the case of massive internal migration or a localised baby boom. Equally, if recent immigrants are undercutting local workers by being paid below the minimum wage, the government should make sure that enforcement officers have sufficient resources to stop that happening – just as they should if anyone else is being underpaid.

I simply don’t see any genuine and intractable problem with immigration, and I’m puzzled – and worried – by the concerns that Mckenzie and Toynbee are expressing. What’s actually going on here?



On second places

Thinking about the elections the other week, and in particular the amount of noise that was made about the Tories taking ‘second place’ from Labour in Scotland. From a Manchester perspective, this chimed with the comments we’ve heard from Liberal Democrat sources about the City Council being a ‘one-party state’, on the basis that all 96 seats were occupied by Labour. (‘Were’ being the operative word; we now have one (1) Liberal Democrat councillor, former MP John Leech, who can thus consider himself the leader of the opposition (and probably does).) The implicit suggestion was that the local Lib Dems were snapping at Labour’s heels – or rather, that they would be, if only the electoral system allowed it – in much the same way that the Scottish Tories are supposedly on the SNP’s tail.

The problem with this kind of argument is that not all second places are equal. (Essentially, talking about ‘places’ in an election – instead of votes or shares of the vote – is converting an interval/ratio variable to an ordinal ranking; you inevitably lose information in the process.) Here are a couple of charts for you to compare and contrast.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.02

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.16

What’s going on there? Clearly we’ve got two different distributions, both normal-ish and with a right skew; one has nothing under the 10% mark and is truncated on the right (at 100%), the other has nothing over 80% and is truncated on the left (at zero). Whatever we’re measuring, there’s a lot less of it in the second chart.

What we’re measuring is opposition. Specifically, the first chart is based on the votes received by second-placed candidates, in English constituencies in the 2015 General Election, as a proportion of the winning candidate’s vote. So, for example, there were 35 seats (6.6% of the total of 533) at which the election was close enough for the second-placed candidate to receive 90% or more of the winning candidate’s vote – as against 17 (3.2%) where the vote was so one-sided that the runner-up got less than 20% of the winner’s vote.

As for the second chart, those are second places in the 32 council seats that were contested in Manchester this May. As you can see, there were no seats in which the runner-up came as close as 80% of the winner’s vote, let alone 90%; only two of the 32 exceeded 60%. Both of these, it’s worth stressing, are the product of a big campaigning push by the local Lib Dems at this election in particular; one seat they won, with Labour on 69% of the Lib Dem vote, while in the other the Lib Dems came second with 76% of the Labour vote. In none of the other 30 seats did the runner-up’s vote exceed 52% of the (Labour) winner’s. In 9 of the 32 seats – 28% of the total – the runner-up vote was 20% or less of the winner’s; the 20-30% range accounts for another nine.

Three points. Firstly, this is not a political earthquake waiting to happen, for anyone; those are some distant second places. Secondly, in a situation like this it doesn’t much matter who occupies second place. Another quick and dirty chart:

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 17.43.10

That’s number of seats vs winner’s share of the vote; it starts at 50%-60% because the lowest winning vote share is in that range. (To be precise, the Lib Dems got 52.6% in the one seat they won; in their other main target seat they pushed the Labour vote right down to 50.3%.) As you can see, the seats where Labour got as little as three-fifths of the vote are in the minority; the mean winning vote share is over 65%, and the median is just under. In a situation where, on average, Labour are getting two votes for every one cast for all the other parties put together, caring very much about who’s in second place demonstrates either wild optimism or innumeracy.

And a whole range of people are in second place. In this table of runners-up – screenshotted from Excel, because I couldn’t be bothered to sit here for ten minutes typing in <tr> and <td> tags – I’m going back to the ‘share of the winner’s vote’ metric. In other words, ‘51%’ in this table represents getting over 20% of the vote when Labour get 40%, or over 30% to Labour’s 60%; it’s really the bare minimum to have any kind of shot at ever actually winning the seat.

So, who are the runners-up, and how are they doing?

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 18.05.47

(Sums to 30, not 32; one seat was won by the LDs, as mentioned above, and in one other the runner-up was an Independent.)

That’s an awful lot of not a lot going on, particularly considering that two of the three Lib Dem runner-up scores in the rightmost column were 50.1% and 51.6% (of the Labour vote). Yes, there are Kipper runners-up – quite a few of them: ten to the Greens’ eight, and a couple of them not too far below 50% of the Labour vote – but really, there’s nothing here to worry about. What we’re looking at here isn’t the rise of UKIP – their single best vote share was 27.4%, in a seat where Labour took 59.4% – but the total collapse of the local Tories and the (more recent and more dramatic) near-total collapse of the Lib Dems. In some parts of the city, in fact, the collapse of the old opposition parties is all that’s happened. Look at that top left square: four seats where the Tories were in second place to Labour, with 10% or less of the vote. (It wasn’t for want of alternatives, either; five candidates stood in three of those four seats, six in the other.) In other parts, Greens have started work on replacing the left-liberal Lib Dem opposition voice, or Kippers on replacing the Tories. But they’re in for an awfully long haul, with no guarantee of any success at all – particularly now that the Lib Dems are starting to pick themselves up again.

And that’s the third point I wanted to make: there’s a big difference between getting 40-50% of the winning party’s vote and getting votes in the 70-80% range which put you properly in contention. And a large part of what makes the difference is party organisation: having party members willing to put posters in their windows, chip in to support party funds, let you know what local people are worried about and (not least) go out on the knocker, just to make sure everybody knows that there’s an election on and that your party’s standing. Another screenshot, this one from the Manchester Evening News local elections liveblog:

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 14.31.49

You need people, in short – and Manchester Labour’s got plenty of those, particularly since last September.

Two final thoughts, one about electoral systems and one about Scotland. Given that, in 31 wards out of 32, Labour took more than 50% of the vote – with a winning margin (the difference between Labour’s and the runner-up’s share of the vote) ranging between 12% and 74%(!) – you might think that proportional representation wouldn’t have a lot to offer. And you’d be half right, but only half. A strictly proportional allocation of the votes cast – say, a party list system electing to a single 32-seat constituency – would give 21 Labour seats (instead of 31), 4 Lib Dems (1), 2 Tories (0), 3 Greens (0) and 2 UKIP (0). Split the seats elected more or less in two and use an additional member system – as seen in the Scottish Parliament – and you get 21 Labour, 4 Lib Dems, 1 Tory, 4 Greens and 2 Kippers (but please don’t ask me to show my working). Multiply by three for the full council, and we have Labour occupying 63 seats out of 96 (instead of 95). I admit, it’s a bigger impact than I’d anticipated before I did the number-crunching. Whether it would make Manchester any less of a ‘one-party state’ is another question. Labour would effectively be faced with three separate opposition groups, numbering 12, 12, and 9 – all of which they could outvote, jointly or severally, till the cows came home.

The lesson for Scotland, meanwhile, is to look at the big picture and not get distracted by minutiae of electoral arithmetic. Whether the Tories or Labour are in second place in Scotland is about as significant as whether the Greens or UKIP have more second places in the Manchester council results – which is to say, not significant at all. Manchester is Labour, and the party has an army of people devoted to keeping it that way; any challenger has more than one mountain to climb. Since 2015, exactly the same things can be said of Scotland and the SNP. We can argue about who threw Labour Scotland away, and whether it can ever be restored in its old form, but the political reality is that it’s gone – and that it won’t be recreated easily or soon, by anyone. This, of course, has implications for how Labour goes into the next General Election campaign – but that’s a subject for another post.

TCM 7 – Why we fight

Some final thoughts on the Corbyn campaign and why I support it, based on a comment (my own!) on this interesting CT thread.

It hasn’t been much of a battle, this campaign; more like an unopposed run with hecklers. I suppose that’s easy to say now, but it’s been the case since quite early on; it’s as if we’re watching some bizarrely slanted TV debate, in which Corbyn is given five minutes to expound his policies followed by ten seconds from each of the other candidates, who can only blurt out a disapproving one-liner – “Ooh, no!” “Don’t think so!” “Don’t listen to him!” “I’ll tell you what he really thinks!” – before their mike gets cut. Of course, the other four candidates have had just as much time as Corbyn to set out their policies, and a much friendlier media environment – so it’s curious, to say no more than that, that the debate has been so limited, and the other candidates’ interventions so light on content.

For Corbyn sympathisers there’s been a lot of tutting and hooting to deal with, and it has been a bit trying. Two of the more irritating lines, from my perspective, have been the charges that Corbyn’s supporters have only just heard of him and that his policies are somehow reactionary, a throwback to the 1970s and 80s. I voted in the 1979 election, as it goes, and I’ve been aware of Corbyn for a good long time; I’ve always thought he was pretty much a good thing – very reliable on security & counter-terrorism issues – but a bit of a Campaign Group type, quiet, earnest variety (probably the best variety of CG type). As for going back to the 1970s, I think there’s a category error here, which we can see if we ask the question does everything always change for the better? Some things are worth going back to; come to that, some things are worth keeping as they are, rather than changing (or breaking) them in an endless quest for ‘modernity’ or ‘reform’. (Ask any teacher.)

So I was pleased he got on the ballot, in the spirit of flying the flag for the Labour Left; I didn’t think of him as the next Labour leader at that stage, and I very much doubt he did either. To begin with I was delighted at the way his campaign started to take off, but also surprised and, if I’m honest, slightly amused – poor old Jeremy, bet he wasn’t expecting this… I signed up, though, and bunged the Corbyn campaign a fiver when they asked; it seemed like a good idea to keep up the momentum.

Then something happened; it was called the welfare vote, together with Harman’s awful, craven line about listening to the British people. I think that was the biggest boost Corbyn could have asked for; it wasn’t just the fact that he was the only candidate willing to oppose a vicious and mean policy, but something deeper: a sense of if not now, when? Let’s not forget that the welfare bill rolls back New Labour policies – we’re not talking about collective ownership of the means of production here. So the decision to abstain, however clever it may have been in the world of parliamentary eleven-dimensional chess, was met with anger, incredulity and impatience: if Labour doesn’t oppose that, what’s it for?

And then there’s this vote that they’ve seen fit to give us. Well then. They want to know what we want? Now, they want to know what we want? Shall we tell them?

So that’s part of it: I support Corbyn because (a) I’m an old leftie anyway and more importantly (b) when it comes to pushing for Labour to move to the Left, I really feel the time for holding back has gone. Another really important element is (c) the reforms to the party, and the party’s policy-making structures, that Corbyn’s advocating (and will continue to advocate even if he loses): a party that makes policy from the membership up could do a lot to revitalise British political life, which could do with a bit of revitalising (see previous post, and earlier comments on the importance of turnout).

We’re now into a third stage: the stage where it actually looks as if Corbyn’s going to win. Can I see him as a party leader? Yes; I think he and Tom Watson, in particular, could make rather a good team. (I’ve seen John McTernan’s bizarre conspiracy theory – or rather, conspiracy proposal – involving the immediate defenestration of Corbyn followed by a “Watson interregnum”. I share John Prescott’s view of John McTernan.) Would Corbyn get crucified by the press? I guess so, but I have to say they’ve been remarkably forbearing up to now; it may be that they’re saving the good stuff till later, but I think it may just be that they’re not quite sure what to do with him. Would he have trouble with the parliamentary party? Indubitably – which is why I’m voting for Tom Watson. Could he win the next election? If the party doesn’t tear itself apart, and if the mobilisation continues, and if opposition – genuine opposition – becomes a way of life for the Labour Party, I wouldn’t rule it out (and neither would Kenneth Clarke). Even if Labour didn’t win under Corbyn in 2020, I don’t believe they could win under Burnham or Cooper – and I’d much rather they spent the next five years shifting the political spectrum to the Left than acquiescing in Osborne & co shifting it to the Right. As I say, I really think the time for holding back is gone.

I don’t know how far it’s going to go; I don’t know if Corbyn can become party leader, or if he’ll be allowed to stay party leader, or how well he’ll handle PMQs and Paxman, or how big a bomb the friends of Israel and hunters of anti-semitism are going to manage to put under him, or what state the party will be in by 2020, or anything. But I can see hope for Labour in one direction and nothing but decline and irrelevance in the other. I’m voting for hope.

TCM 6 – Just a parasol

One more quick thought before my last post on this subject.

I agree with Chris, up to a point.

Rather than being a technical matter of putting the right people into the right jobs, the leadership election has become a “battle on for the soul of our party” – which is the natural cost of having a winner-take-all election. … Despite New Labour’s belief that politicians should learn from business, the party is behaving in an utterly unbusinesslike way. This is because it has for years been in the grip of the ideology of leadership, a belief that all will be well if only the right leader can be found.

One of my rare moments of disenchantment with the leadership election came when I realised that we were all acting as if the leader of the party set the direction of the party: elect Kendall, get a right-wing party; elect Corbyn, get a left-wing party. But this way of looking at it is profoundly undemocratic – and an older Labour left would have seen this. The point is to build for a left-wing party within the party; that way, a left-wing leadership will be grounded in, and held to account by, a left-wing membership, which in turn will both revitalise and respond to the broader working class.

We are, of course, a very long way from making that a reality; not only is the level of struggle in society woefully low, but the structures within the party which could have made this a possibility have been systematically dismantled. (The media’s managerialist cult of leadership certainly made this easier, but we need to place the blame for this where it belongs: with New Labour and “Party into Power”. Those policy-making structures wouldn’t have transformed themselves – somebody did that to the party.) So far from being an autonomous presence in civil society, communicating policy directions to the leadership, the Labour Party is little more than a set of local fan clubs for the policy directions set by the leadership. But that’s a real loss, and one which can’t be remedied by parachuting in the right kind of leader.
So I was pleased to read this from John McDonnell a few weeks back, soon after John Prescott’s intervention in the campaign:

I share John Prescott’s view that everyone should just calm down and think seriously about the long-term future of the party and the people we seek to represent.

To reassure everyone that whatever the outcome of the leadership election we have a process for uniting the party, I am writing to propose a process to be adopted immediately following the election result that would ensure the fullest inclusion of everyone within the party in determining the party’s strategy for the coming period, its policy programme and its decision making processes. In this way nobody would feel excluded and everybody would have a democratic say.

This involves ensuring that the direction of the party rests firmly in the hands of our members. I propose that immediately following the leadership election the new leader announces that all the leadership candidates will be given the joint responsibility of organising a wide-ranging and detailed consultation on the party’s political strategy, policy programme and internal party decision-making processes.

For this process of party membership engagement at local CLP and regional levels to take place over a three month period culminating in a recall annual conference to take the final decisions on strategy, policy programme and democratic reform. In this way the future direction of the party will be placed firmly in the hands of its members and so that the party can come together to oppose the Tories and the clear political strategy they are embarking upon which is so damaging to so many people in this country.

Whoever wins the election – which is to say, even if Cooper or Burnham somehow manages to pull it back at this stage – I sincerely hope that this proposal or something very like it can be implemented. I’m sure the Right will cry foul – all this talk of including “everyone within the party”, it’s not going to give the focus groups what they want, is it? Nor is it entirely surprising to find that a veteran left-winger’s recommendations for promoting party unity resemble reforms previously advocated by the Left.

But, putting aside the labels and the name-calling, something like this is going to have to be done if Labour is going to be rebuilt as a party. And if the decade of rightward drift and ever-declining participation has taught us anything, it’s taught us that Labour needs to be rebuilt as a party. That way lies democratic policy-making; that way lies a party that genuinely represents its members and voters; that way lies a functioning party with unity of purpose. There is no other way but decline.



TCM 5: In another country, with another name

On the train the only person who said much was the writer, who would sometimes stare out of the window and make a cryptic remark for no apparent reason, though it was always aimed at me.

“Wee hard men!” he muttered as the train pulled out of Falkirk. “The curse of Scotland is these wee hard men. I used to blame the English for our mediocrity. I thought they had colonised us by sheer cunning. They aren’t very cunning. They’ve got more confidence and money than we have, so they can afford to lean back and smile while our own wee hard men hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”

Brian said wearily, “Leave Jock alone will you? He was one of us before the journalists and the police put their boots in.”
– Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine

If you’re thinking about Scotland at the moment, politically speaking, you have to be thinking about what happened at this year’s election – which is to say, what happened in the 2011 election, happened again at last year’s referendum and happened even more emphatically at this year’s election. Back in March – before the most dramatic confirmation his thesis could have had – Ken MacLeod put forward a startling analogy:

Scotland was never socialist, and Labour never ran a one-party state. But — all proportions guarded, all caveats made — the cliches to the contrary contain more than a grain of truth. … It’s belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what’s going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.

On one side, a generation of entitled hacks whose imaginations have grown to fit their office chairs; they have nothing to offer these young people demanding hope and change, except the bland assurance that this generation will eventually settle down and vote for them, just like the one before and the one before that. On the other, a turbulent, disorganised movement, the vehicle for diverse and contradictory hopes and dreams, united by nothing except the feeling that things have got to change – and the conviction that that’s all the unity they need. We know how this one plays out.

And Scotland was – with the wisdom of hindsight – peculiarly ripe for this kind of upheaval. Thinking about the kind of people likely to have voted Yes last year – and the even larger range of people who voted SNP this year – I found myself thinking of 1982 Janine, the quoted passage (for some reason) in particular. Who, in that amazing novel’s dramatis personae, wouldn’t vote SNP? The young Jock – the narrator’s 1950s younger self – is a working-class Scot who has learnt by experience that society is an unjust, exploitative racket and that Scottish society has the additional burden of the English squatting on top of the pile. The older Jock is a disillusioned Conservative voter – if society’s a racket, best get in with the people who are doing well out of it – who makes it a rule never to think about politics, the then-recent devolution referendum included, because if he does he’s liable to fly into a helpless rage. Consciously at least, he has no illusions about nationalism – in one beautiful scene he finds tears welling up when he’s watching football on TV and hears the crowd singing “Flower of Scotland”; despising his own weakness, he carefully tilts his head back so that the tears will not be shed, and holds the position until they have evaporated. (“Since the age of thirteen I have not shed a single tear,” he says elsewhere.)

It’s not just Jock. The young Jock’s lover Denny is working-class and poorly-educated; she wishes she knew geography so that she could tell whether it was better to donate to Korea or to give the money to her cousin who lives in a slum down the road. The middle-aged Jock’s lover Sontag is a socialist, feminist and “sexual missionary”: “I was Scotland, something frozen and dumb which she was going to liberate.” Jock’s wife Helen is the lower middle-class daughter of a tightly-wound small businessman: very respectable, very Scottish. ‘The writer’ of the quote at the top is a working-class Scot whose hatred for the English and belief in the potential of Scotland is undercut by resentment of the Scottish talent for self-destruction. Jock’s friend and hero Alan is a charming and witty mechanical genius who seems to have no interest in politics; we’ll come back to him. And then there’s that crowd at the football match, and everyone who’s sentimental enough to listen to “Flower of Scotland” and let the tears fall. Even the wee hard men themselves – well, I remember George Galloway advocating what he was pleased to call a “Naw” vote, but I think there are wee hard men enough on the Yes side.

The point isn’t that Alasdair Gray is a nationalist who was writing in the long, bitter aftermath of the devolution referendum, although this is true (“If we ran that race again we would win by a head and neck so we won’t be allowed to run it again,” thinks Jock). It’s certainly not to criticise Gray for writing variations on a single character – on the contrary, these characters have next to nothing in common, except that every one of them would have been a Scottish nationalist in 2014 and 2015. Socialist nationalist? Conservative nationalist? Sentimental nationalist? Embittered, misanthropic former nationalist? Disillusioned, self-hating former socialist nationalist? Welcome, welcome! Never mind all the qualifications now – just hop on board. Next stop, the bright unwritten national future!

As for the Leonardo-like Alan, he dies young in an accident. Jock muses that if he had lived “Scotland would now have an independent government … Alan would have worked on Scotland like a few ounces of yeast on many tons of malt, he would have fermented these arselickers and instruments, these stoical and hysterical losers into a sensible coherent people”. It turns out that Alan isn’t a Scottish nationalist: he is Scottish nationalism. It’s presented as a school of character: to be a nationalist is to stand on your own two feet, solve your own problems and face the future with confidence. Not to be a nationalist is to be servile or cowed – given the chance to stand up, why wouldn’t you? Again, I don’t think this is just about Alasdair Gray’s politics; I think this is how nationalism, or a political movement borne on nationalism (like the colour revolutions), can present itself to a lot of people at certain moments – and how Scottish nationalism presents itself to an awful lot of people right now.

What does all this have to do with the Corbyn campaign? Two things: arithmetic and an early warning. Firstly and most obviously, there are those forty seats that Labour lost last time; if we simply kissed Scotland goodbye we’d be left with the challenge of securing an overall majority, over the other English and Welsh parties and the SNP, on the basis of English and Welsh seats alone. John Curtice – he of the unbelievable exit poll – estimates that to do this Labour would need to have a lead of 12.5% over the Conservatives. I’m not saying that’s unachievable by definition – a lot can change in five years – but it would be nice to have a Plan B in case Labour’s recovery doesn’t quite scale those heights. The question then is, what approach is going to be best suited to winning support back from the SNP, given the tsunami-like wave of sentimentality, resentment, creativity and hope that they’re currently riding. Is it, for example, the approach exemplified by Jim Murphy? You’ll remember that Murphy insisted throughout the campaign that he would throw the election to the Tories sooner than co-operate with the SNP; not only that, he maintained that this was the right approach, and that even trying to form a Labour/SNP coalition would be unsportsmanlike and improper. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the bankruptcy of late Blairism – the hectoring insistence that only one route was correct, and that Labour and its supporters must rule out all others, was still there, but it was linked to no positive content at all.

Labour was particularly ill-advised in selecting Jim Murphy – beside him, Gordon Brown sounded like Tony Benn – but Murphy’s proprietary attitude to the Labour voters of Scotland, and his obdurate incomprehension of the nationalist wave, wasn’t untypical. But if Labour is to win back more than a couple of those 40 seats, the wagging finger of sensible, moderate Unionism isn’t going to cut it. I see no sign from any of the other three candidates that they have either the inclination or the ability to tap into a mood of transformative optimism North of the border – but, unless the nationalist wave subsides a lot quicker than currently seems likely, that is what Labour is going to have to do. The arithmetic is unforgiving: Labour’s path back to Downing St is going to have to pass through those 40 seats. Which means that, for anyone who genuinely cares about the electability of the Labour party, the next leader must be a sincere, no-nonsense Left candidate untainted by Blairism. What luck that there’s one standing!

There’s also the possibility – an interesting possibility, to say the least – that the SNP surge, together with the UKIP surge and the Green surge, was symptomatic of something larger: a new volatility in British politics, a new level of disenchantment with the old parties and the old political assumptions. Again, all of this may have drained quietly away by 2020, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Just as in Scotland, there’s an odd mixture of resentment, impatience and genuine hope abroad. A lot of people are starting to think that the old ways of doing politics are broken; that they don’t want to wait any longer to vote for something and someone they actually believe in; and that it might just work. Running a campaign like this within the Labour Party is perhaps asking for trouble – or it may just end up creating trouble for the party. I do wonder whether, in 2020, the SNP surge will seem less like a freak storm and more like the way politics normally works. Needless to say, if we are heading into choppy political waters, the very last people we want in charge of the Labour Party are veterans of a period when political loyalties were unchanging and political participation was in steady decline. Again, the case for Corbyn turns out to be practical – tactical, even – as well as ideological; he could be the best candidate for these times.

If you haven’t registered to vote by now, you’ve missed out. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series with some thoughts about the Corbyn campaign, now that the serious business is starting.

TCM 4 – This statement is unreliable

Apologies to anyone waiting for the Scottish post, but this came up on Twitter last night and I wanted to write it up properly.

Peter Jukes in the Indie:

Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to even suggest on Tuesday that Tony Blair could face war crimes trials for [Iraq] … Many argue, quite cogently, the Iraq invasion was “illegitimate” without a second UN Security Council vote. But to my knowledge this is not the same as being “illegal” in accordance with any war crimes convention in international law. (Kofi Annan indicated in 2004 it “it was not in conformity with the UN charter” but that is a very different thing.)

There’s a certain amount of double-talk going on here. Here’s Corbyn suggesting that Blair could face war crimes trials:

Asked on BBC Newsnight whether Blair should stand trial on war crimes charges, Corbyn said: “If he has committed a war crime, yes. Everybody who has committed a war crime should be.” … He said: “It was an illegal war. I am confident about that. Indeed Kofi Annan confirmed it was an illegal war and therefore [Tony Blair] has to explain to that. Is he going to be tried for it? I don’t know. Could he be tried for it? Possibly.”

And here’s Annan on illegality and non-conformity with the UN Charter:

In an interview … he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: “Yes, if you wish.” He then added unequivocally: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

It seems to me that the distinction between “illegitimacy” and illegality is a bit of a red herring, as is the insistence on talking in terms of “war crimes”. The jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court formally covers both jus in bello (under the heading of crimes against humanity) and jus ad bellum (the crime of aggression); however, the crime of aggression remains undefined and consequently can’t as yet be referred to the Court. Blair could conceivably be referred to the ICC for illegalities in the conduct of the Iraq invasion, although this seems highly unlikely for several reasons. What can’t happen, pending amendments to the Rome Charter, is an international prosecution for initiating the invasion. And this is what’s chiefly at issue when we’re talking about Corbyn’s position on Iraq: the legality of the invasion in international law is the question on which Corbyn is clearly and unequivocally on the other side of the argument from Tony Blair, Peter Goldsmith, Burnham, Cooper, Kendall et al.

In discussion on Twitter sparked by the Jukes article, Carl Gardner cited this 2010 post in which he came down on the side of the invasion being legal. It’s detailed, closely-argued and well worth reading (as Carl’s posts generally are), although I don’t agree with its conclusions (as I generally don’t). For the purposes of this post I want to focus on a minor point made in the course of Carl’s conclusion:

I agree with Lord Goldsmith’s advice of 7 March 2003, first that the safer course would be to seek a second resolution authorising force; the UK did that, of course, and failed; and second, that the “revival” argument, that further material breach by Iraq would revive the authorisation of force in UNSCR 678, is a reasonable one. I’d go further, in fact: I agree with what Lord Goldsmith seems to have concluded a few days later – that the “revival” theory is the better view, to be preferred to the alternative put forward by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, that resolution 1441 clearly required a further decision by the Security Council. She told the Chilcot Inquiry that the wording of resolution 1441 had this effect … that was what made the position different from 1998 [when the US and Britain bombed Iraq], when as I’ve said she had agreed with the revival theory (though she now thinks it was “strained” even then).

In any event, the fact that Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s change of approach since 1998 turns on a detailed construction of 1441 shows the question is not an easy or obviously one-sided one. The fact that two views are possible is enough, in my view, to reject wild, overblown and rhetorical claims that Tony Blair is a “war criminal”, for example.

Carl’s 2010 argument – the minor one at the end of this quote – and Peter Jukes’s argument about what Corbyn should and shouldn’t have said have something in common. As we can see, Corbyn didn’t claim that Blair should be seen as a war criminal – he didn’t take any position on that question at all. What he didn’t do, however, was rule it out: he included Blair among those people who could, in some imaginable real-world circumstances, be prosecuted for war crimes. I don’t think it’s over-reading to say that this – the non-dismissal or failure to exclude – is the ‘suggestion’ which Jukes and others find objectionable. Conversely, Carl in 2010 pointed out – correctly – that there is more than one view on the relationship between UN 678 and UN 1441, and between the pair of them and the Iraq invasion itself; he then argued that this plurality of views was sufficient to rule out the possibility of claiming that Blair was a war criminal. But surely this doesn’t follow: if there are multiple ways in which reasonable people can read the materials that determine whether the invasion was legal, presumably one of those views may be that it was illegal and should be prosecuted as soon as amendments to the Rome Charter make it possible. (At which point claims that Blair was a war criminal would be improper, but only because the matter was sub judice.)

What Carl’s post expresses here, it seems to me, is something similar to Jukes’s objection to Corbyn. The argument (on this point) is not that labelling Blair as a war criminal is incorrect, but that this view should not be held by anyone: this position should not be denied but excluded, dismissed, ruled out of consideration. And it should be excluded because it’s “wild” and “overblown”; it doesn’t have a place on the spectrum of valid and reasonably-held beliefs. Even Corbyn’s mild and measured comments, for Jukes, were a dangerous diversion from how politics should be conducted. It’s as if the expression of some beliefs is, in itself, hostile to all other beliefs – as if some beliefs could not be expressed within a debate but only by heckling.

What’s going on here? Let’s take a quick detour into the philosophy of language. (Don’t ask why I’ve been reading philosophy of language.)

In ordinary usage we tend to think that there’s no difference between making a statement S and making the quotative meta-statement “S is true”: the same information is conveyed by the two statements “There is snow on the ground.” and “If somebody says ‘there’s snow on the ground,’ they’re telling the truth.” But this leads us into some difficulties. Say that your friend Jo asks about your mutual friend Harry’s dog: is it well? You’d heard that Harry was getting a dog but don’t know anything about it; you want to change the subject, so you give what seems the most acceptable answer: “It’s fine, Harry’s dog is fine.” Later you discover that Harry had planned to get a dog but thought better of it and got a cat instead. So there is no dog.

Question: were you telling a lie when you asserted, on no evidence, that Harry’s dog was in good health? Logically speaking, you weren’t. Your assertion wasn’t true, but neither was it false: “Harry’s dog” doesn’t refer to anything in the world, so statements about it can’t be either true or false (since they can never be either proved true or falsified). (Compare “Noah’s Ark was painted in bright colours”.) “Harry’s dog is fine” is neither true nor false. But what if you’d thought Jo looked suspicious and added “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? That statement (or meta-statement) would have been false, because the original statement isn’t true (neither is it false). On the third hand, if instead of asserting truth you’d denied falsehood – “I’m not lying, Harry’s dog is fine” – that statement would have been true, for much the same reason.

We seem to have a paradox: we started from the position that (1) “Harry’s dog is fine”,  (2) “It’s true that Harry’s dog is fine” and (3) “It’s not false that Harry’s dog is fine” were logically identical, but we’ve identified conditions in which (3) is true and (2) false while – or because – (1) is neither true nor false.

One way to resolve it would be to look a bit more deeply into our ordinary-language understanding of the meanings involved. Why, after all, would anyone actually say “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? Perhaps, rather than being a meta-statement referring to the statement following it, the first clause is doing a separate job, asserting the trustworthiness of the speaker and the speech-act rather than the truthfulness of the statement: perhaps what this speaker is actually saying is “you can trust me to be telling the truth when I make the following statement”. In this case the paradox dissolves: under conditions where (1) is neither true nor false, the distinct statement (2) is false (because it’s asserting that the speaker is stating the truth when asserting (1)), while (3) is, rather sneakily and pedantically, true (because it’s asserting that the speaker isn’t stating a falsehood when asserting (1) – as indeed (s)he isn’t & can’t be, given that Harry’s dog doesn’t exist).

What’s all this got to do with Corbyn, Jukes, Gardner and Iraq? Carl’s post is a good starting-point. On the main point at issue – the legality of the invasion – he made four key assertions: that

  1. whether or not the invasion was legal depends on the text of two UN resolutions, the relationship between them and how these things are interpreted;
  2. there is room for different and conflicting interpretations;
  3. he personally endorsed an interpretation which concluded that the invasion was legal (“I agree with what Lord Goldsmith said was the legal justification for war”)
  4. “The invasion of Iraq was lawful”

To put it more schematically:

  1. There is an agreed set of facts on the basis of which statements can be made
  2. Both statement S and its negation not-S can be argued on the basis of those facts
  3. On the basis of those facts, I believe that S is preferable to not-S
  4. S.

I’m not criticising 2010-Carl for making the leap from the meta-statement at 3 to the statement at 4 – quite the reverse: I think this is an exemplary piece of unpacking. It’s reminiscent of what we do when we read a Supreme Court judgment: we see an uncontentious stock of facts and precedents construed in two or three different ways and an authoritative reading established partly by consensus and partly by majority vote. Once the decision is made, after multiple more or less plausible readings have been set out, the state of the law is what the SC majority concluded it to be: we proceed from “S and not-S are both arguable” to “S is preferred” and thence directly to S. And similarly with Carl’s assessment of the rival arguments about Iraq, his statement of his preferred alternative and his factual assertion that the invasion was lawful.

The question then is whether this is a game that only lawyers can play – or whether everyone, having made a factual assertion, is capable of clambering back down the ladder from 4 to 3 and back to 2. I think there’s a danger of a lack of charity in the assumption that we hold our beliefs lightly and on the basis of a preferred interpretation of agreed facts, whereas our opponents have positions that they maintain to the exclusion of all others. There’s also, perhaps, a danger of vanity in the assumption that we hold all our beliefs lightly. Related to this last point, I wonder if ‘unpacking’ is the right metaphor. If “S is true” is a different statement from S, presumably the same can be said of “I believe that S is true on grounds which I am prepared to justify logically”. However we arrive at our beliefs, “belief that S” once established is a distinct mental attitude – not an epiphenomenal aspect of a more fundamental “preference for the justificatory grounds for a belief that S“.

So I can’t agree with Carl: to say that Blair is a war criminal is not, in and of itself, to say that no other readings of the facts are possible or to deny that one has reached that opinion by selecting a preferred interpretation of the facts. A fortiori, Peter Jukes’s indignation at Corbyn’s mere failure to rebut the suggestion that Blair might be considered a war criminal is misplaced. (For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn handled the questioning rather well. If the Rome Charter is revised, Blair could be prosecuted by the ICC for waging aggressive war. I doubt we’ll ever see it, and if we do I would expect him to be found not guilty. But ‘possibly’ is about right.)

I think all this relates to a broader point about the Corbyn campaign. Let’s say that the spectrum of acceptable debate runs from position -3 (left of centre) to +3 (right of centre); if I assert position -5, those who hold +1 or +2 (or even -1 or -2) are less likely to argue with me than they are to dismiss my position and demand that I dismiss it too. And if, meanwhile, the centre has been shifting – so that today’s -5s are the -1s or +1s of twenty or thirty years ago – a calm and reasoned statement of -5 is liable to evoke a lot of suppressed demand in some quarters and rattle a lot of cages elsewhere. I think it’s largely because Corbyn’s campaign puts back into circulation positions that have simply been excluded – rather than being controverted or even challenged – that it’s causing such consternation on the Right and showing such power to mobilise on the Left.




TCM 3 – When the government falls

Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Obs, pushing the line that Labour is not one party but two:

Those with a vote in the contest who are still unsure which Labour party they should be backing have been provided with a clarifying test by Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Announcing the CWU’s endorsement of the MP for Islington North, Mr Ward declared that the union’s executive had acted on medical advice: “There is a virus within the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.” “The virus” being the Blairites.

Incidentally, this was not an off-the-cuff remark in an interview. It is the language used in the formal declaration made by the union so we must assume that the CWU weighed its words before deciding to compare the former Labour prime minister to a disease. If you think New Labour was the political equivalent of Ebola, then you probably belong in the Corbyn Labour party. If you think that three election victories and 13 years in power had something to commend them, you should probably be in the non-Corbyn Labour party.

This isn’t the Scottish post – I’m putting that off for a second time. This one is sparked by that reference to “three election victories and 13 years in power”. I thought it would be worth having a systematic look at the figures in the first post and drawing some conclusions about what actually happened at all those elections. For each election that led to a change of government, I’ll highlight what seem to have been the main causal factors; I’ll also flag up any elections where the government has fallen despite the government vote not having dropped, the opposition vote not having risen, or both.

At the 1950 election Labour hung on to power, but it was a close thing; relative to 1945 the Labour vote grew by 10% but the Tory vote grew by nearer 30%, helped by a substantial rise in turnout. The Tories were still some way short of an overall majority, though. The 1951 election saw another increase in the vote for the Conservative Party, this time by 12%, giving them 13.6 million votes compared to 12.1 million in 1950 (and 8.6 million in 1945); however, the vote for the governing Labour Party also rose, from 13.3 to 13.9 million votes. So what happened?

A conventional explanation is that the Labour Party didn’t win votes in the right places, “piling up majorities in safe seats” while those wily Tories targeted their efforts at winning winnable seats. However, there’s a much simpler explanation, which is that the Liberal Party was broke. The Liberals had had a dreadful election in 1950, losing 300 deposits; another general election a year later was the last thing they wanted. In 1951 the Tories made a net gain of 20 seats, based almost exclusively on 21 seats that went directly from Labour to the Tories. Almost all of these were two-way fights – and in almost all of those there had been a Liberal candidate at the previous election. While there was a small rise in abstentions, the Liberal vote broke disproportionately towards the Tories; the main effect of the absence of a Liberal candidate was to bolster the Tory vote. So there’s our first data-point:

1951 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY COLLAPSE; government vote UP

The Tories, bless their black hearts, hung on to power until 1964. In 1955 and 1959 the Tory vote gradually increased; the Liberal vote collapsed and then rebounded under the forward-looking leadership of Jo Grimond; and the Labour vote steadily declined. If we compare the election at which the Tories finally lost power with the previous one, however, the Labour vote was all but unchanged; in fact it had continued to fall, if only by 10,000. The big difference is a slump in the Conservative vote, offset by a rise in the Liberal vote; the two parties’ votes together dropped by 300,000 between the two elections, but the Tories’ vote alone fell by 1.7 million. The long period of Conservative domination had created the conditions for the Liberals to undermine a complacent government and differentiate themselves from an ineffectual opposition; Eric Lubbock’s 1962 by-election victory in Orpington, in particular, put wind in the Liberals’ sails. The result, ironically, was victory for a party whose vote had declined at every election since its defeat in 1951, and was now 1.7 million lower.

1964 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE; opposition vote DOWN

In 1966 Labour consolidated its position in government with an early election, in which it took votes from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 1970, however, the Conservatives won an election called tactically a year early, to the great surprise of the government and the opinion polls. The electorate had recently expanded with the enfranchisement of 18- to 20-year-olds; however, this does not appear to have affected the result, other than in a sudden increase in the number of non-voters. The government lost, the Opposition won; for once there isn’t a lot more to say.

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

In February 1974, the governing Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority owing to a combination of effects: a slight decline in the Conservative vote; an increase in the number of Labour MPs (despite a drop in the Labour vote); a near-tripling of the Liberal vote, eroding the votes of the two main parties and draining the pool of non-voters; and, not least, the decision of the Ulster Unionists not to take the Conservative whip (this alone would have stopped the Conservatives being the largest single party). The process whereby this combination of circumstances led to a minority Labour government was complex; what can be said, though, was that it had very little to do with voters preferring the Labour Party to the Tories. (In fact the Tories took more votes than Labour – and, compared to the previous election, both parties’ votes had declined.)

1974 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT; opposition vote DOWN

As 1966 had followed 1964, the minority government of February 1974 was followed by a fresh election in October; this was marked by a slump in turnout which hit the Tories and Liberals harder than the governing Labour party. 1979 is an interesting one, partly because (in retrospect) it was the end of British politics as we knew it, but mainly because the Tories’ victory had nothing to do with any change in the Labour vote. Compared to (October) 1974 Labour’s vote actually went up – Winter of Discontent, “crisis? what crisis?” and all. The figures suggest that Thatcher won by poaching votes from the Liberals and the SNP (1.5 million votes) and by mobilising non-voters and new voters (1.9 million votes). This isn’t too surprising when you think about it: Thatcher was a classic populist opposition leader – the politician who said things the others wouldn’t dare, who was going to teach the others a lesson, shake up the system, etc. In other words, she was the politician who people disillusioned with politics would vote for. And they did.

1979 Change of government due to OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MOBILISATION OF NON-VOTERS; government vote STATIC

In 1983 both main parties were affected by the advent of the SDP – Labour, for obvious reasons, more than the Tories. The SDP campaigned on ‘centrist’ policies: a series of posters portrayed the party as splitting the difference between Labour and Tory, or simply promising to maintain what was then the status quo instead of moving to the Right or Left. (One poster associated Labour with nationalisation and the Conservatives with privatisation; the SDP, by implication, would pursue neither. Taken literally, this would have meant keeping British Gas, British Telecommunications, British Coal and British Steel in the public sector, among much else.) There were some shibboleth issues, mainly in foreign and defence policy – maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent (pending multilateral nuclear disarmament) and ending any thought of withdrawing from the EEC or NATO – but in retrospect the SDP seems much less of a break with Labour’s past than New Labour would be. The new party’s positioning demanded sustained denunciations of Labour as excessively left-wing; whether there was enough of an ideological gulf between the two parties to justify this approach now looks rather dubious.

In any case, the new party’s 3.5 million votes coincide with a drop of 700,000 in the Tory vote and 3 million in the Labour vote. Blame for the low Labour vote is generally assigned to Michael Foot’s leadership and to the party’s left-wing manifesto. I think there’s some blame to spare for four former Cabinet ministers – including the best Home Secretary Labour ever had – who used extensive social and media connections to advertise their own rectitude and denounce the party which had enabled them to achieve anything, but that may just be me. It’s certainly hard to imagine that three million voters would have been sufficiently revolted by the state of the Labour Party to vote Liberal or abstain if the Gang of Four hadn’t left the party. (As it was, abstentions rose by 1.5 million; the euphoria of the SDP moment wasn’t for everyone.)

Over the next two elections some normality returned; the centre vote and the pool of non-voters were squeezed as both Labour and Tory votes rose. The Tory vote didn’t start falling until 1997, when John Major’s first full term limped to an end and another era began. How did Labour win? Like Thatcher, they squeezed some votes out of the Liberal (Democrat) area, but there the similarity ends. Unlike 1979, the governing party’s vote collapsed; also unlike 1979, the number of non-voters rose sharply. (Labour vote: up 1.9 million. Tory vote: down 4.5 million. Non-voters: up 3.3 million.) Yes, New Labour made the news and set the agenda – as the SDP did before – but in large parts of the country it looks as if what they really succeeded in doing was (in the immortal words of Willie Whitelaw) “stirring up apathy”.


2001 and 2005 were 1987 and 1992 in reverse: the Labour vote declined steadily (to levels below those of 1992 and 1987 respectively), but Labour won both elections handsomely. In 2005 I myself was one of those arguing that left-wingers shouldn’t vote Labour. Labour had been alienating its historic working-class base since 1997; the Left was more tenacious, but after Iraq a lot of us followed suit. That said, for me at least the advice not to vote Labour was explicitly on the basis that Labour wasn’t going to lose, whatever we did; the after-effects of the landslide of 1997 meant that the Tories still had a mountain to climb, even in 2005. But 1997 was a wasting asset. Like the Conservatives, Labour had a decade under the charismatic leader who had spearheaded their original victory, followed by a partial term under that leader’s successor; unlike the Conservatives, these were years of steadily diminishing electoral returns, culminating when Gordon Brown departed from John Major’s example by failing to win an election as leader in his own right.

2010 was in some ways an unremarkable election, repeating trends from the last election or two. Labour’s vote had been dropping; it dropped further. Abstentions had fallen in 2005; they fell again (although the level of non-voting was still extremely high). Votes for the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP had grown; all three grew again. The difference was that Labour no longer had enough of a cushion of votes to withstand these trends; the party duly lost its overall majority, ushering in a new age of coalition politics (we wish). In 2015, of course, things got complicated – and the government didn’t change – but that’s another story.


Seven election defeats isn’t much of a dataset, but let’s see if anything jumps out. The simple, seesaw pattern of vote change – more votes for the opposition party, fewer for the government – is involved in only three defeats, two of them of a Labour government (the third was the 1997 Labour victory). The Tory victory in 1979 rested on the strength of the opposition party, combined with voter mobilisation; Labour’s victory in 1964 rested on declining government support, even though the beneficiaries were the Liberals and not Labour. The other two changes of government – the Tories’ victory in 1951 and Labour’s in 1974 – rested mainly on minor-party effects.

Minor-party effects were involved in four results overall: a collapse benefiting the Tories; two resurgences, both benefiting Labour; and two realignments, one benefiting the Tories and one Labour. An increased opposition vote was a factor in three out of four Tory election victories, but only one out of the three Labour victories (1997). A declining government vote was a factor in four of the seven (two Tory, two Labour). There are some odd effects if we compare vote changes and election outcomes more broadly. Ten elections led to the Tories either taking or remaining in power; the Tory vote increased in all of these except 1983, when the Tory vote fell by 0.7 million. The other eight post-1945 elections led to Labour either taking or remaining in power; in as many of six of these, the Labour vote fell. Conversely, the Labour vote rose in five out of its ten defeats (1979 included); the Tories’ vote rose in only two of their eight defeats. Labour never seems to have won on the back of increased voter mobilisation, nor the Tories on the basis of demobilisation. The evidence generally suggests that the Tory vote is more solid than Labour’s and easier to mobilise; an uncomfortable number of those Labour wins look narrow or lucky. Moreover, despite the increase in the Labour vote between 1992 and 1997, this clearly isn’t a problem that New Labour fixed – or not without also driving down the Labour vote, with ultimately self-destructive consequences.

If Labour is going to win again, the party is going to have to repeat some of those tricks and learn some new ones. Specifically, I think they’ll need to learn to mobilise, if the next Labour victory isn’t going to be as chancy as 1964, as fragile as February 1974 or as unsustainable as 2005; that means having something to offer new voters and non-voters. Even if they don’t break with the low-mobilisation past – or rather, especially if they don’t – they’ll need three things: a strong centre, to chip away at the Tory base as in 1964 and 1974; a tired, discredited, and ineffectual government, as in 1964 and 1997, which means both making them look tired and discredited and making sure they are ineffectual; and strength in numbers, which means (among other things) Scotland.

Ah, Scotland…

TCM 2 – Here comes success

Before I get on to Scotland, here’s another way of looking at the figures in the last post.

Leader 1: +1,300,000, +670,000, -640,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 3: -10,000 (W), +890,000 (W), -890,000, -560,000 (W), -190,000 (W)
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 5: -3,070,000
Leader 6: +1,570,000, +1,530,000
Leader 7: n/a
Leader 8: +1,960,000 (W), -2,800,000 (W), -1,170,000 (W)
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 10: +740,000

Or to look at it another way:

Leader 6: +3,100,000
Leader 10: +740,000
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 1: -10,000
Leader 3: -760,000, 4 election wins
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 8: -2,010,000, 3 election wins
Leader 5: -3,070,000

Judged over their whole careers as leader, Labour’s three biggest vote-winners – in fact, their only vote-winners – are Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and James Callaghan, in descending order; the three biggest vote-losers are Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Michael Foot, whose stewardship of the party saw it lose one, two and three million votes respectively. (Honourable mention to Gordon Brown, in a close fourth place with a net loss of over 900,000 votes.) Tony Blair, like Harold Wilson before him, drove the party’s vote up and then drove it right down again. Wilson became leader after a 12.2 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 11.5 million votes (a post-war low), paving the way for the defeat of 1979; Blair took over after an 11.6 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 9.6 million votes (from a substantially larger electorate), making the defeat of 2010 all but inevitable. A lot of recent commentary has bracketed Ed Miliband with Michael Foot, as left-wing leaders who presided over humiliating defeats (never mind the fact that Foot’s defeat was brought about by leading members of his own party). But the answer to the quiz question “which Labour leader had the second largest loss of votes?” isn’t Ed Miliband.

You could say that this is beside the point; what matters is to win elections, and on that metric Harold Wilson (say) beats Ed Miliband 4-0, despite having lost Labour more votes than Miliband gained. In other words, we should praise Wilson – and praise Blair – for finding tactics that won the party elections, even if they also drove supporters away. The problem with this argument is threefold. Firstly and most obviously, it lets New Labour (and any remaining Wilson apologists) have their cake and eat it: attracting 1.9 million new votes in 1997 shows how popular Blairism was, but driving them all away (and then some) four years later doesn’t matter, since after all the election was won anyway. We can’t really have it both ways: if New Labour was popular, the figures say that its popularity very rapidly ebbed away. Secondly, however effective New Labour’s laser-like targeting of swing voters may have been, any strategy that alienates that many of the party’s own voters is by definition of very limited use. If the election in which Ed Miliband’s leadership gained Labour 700,000 votes did more damage to the party’s standing than Blair’s massive losses in 2001 and 2005, it’s because Blair had the luxury of being able to lose all those votes. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, “do what wins elections (even if it loses votes)” isn’t a strategy that a party can actually use. As we saw in the last post, apart from increased votes, “what wins elections” is mostly outside the winning party’s control: Labour’s election victories were created, to a large extent, by the parties led by Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and John Major. Of course, there are questions about making gains in the right places – better a narrow win over a Tory than a thumping majority in a safe seat. But, if we discount a pure swing-voter focus-group strategy – with its proven risk of alienating existing voters – what’s left is mostly technical questions of party organisation: any party, Left or Right, needs to target resources on winnable and vulnerable seats. (Of course, calling this a technical question isn’t to say that it’s insignificant. According to election post mortems several of the English seats Labour lost in 2015 could have been held with better organisation; if all seven had been held the Tories would have been three seats short of a majority. What might have been…)

Winning elections by hook or by crook is handy, but it makes more sense to judge success for a party – or party leader – in terms of numbers of votes; there are fewer factors involved, and a lot fewer factors outside the party’s control. And on that metric Ed Miliband really doesn’t look that bad – particularly if you bring Scotland in. Let’s suppose – as a lot of commentary does – that the SNP landslide was, in effect, just that: an unstoppable natural phenomenon, which couldn’t be predicted precisely but was bound to happen sooner or later. (I don’t think this is correct, but we’ll stick with it for the sake of argument.) Overall, the difference between Labour’s 2010 and 2015 performances (discounting by-elections) was a gain of 740,000 votes and a loss of 26 seats, but if we separate out the constituent nations of Great Britain the figures look a bit different.

Wales: +20,000 votes, 1 gain, 1 loss
Scotland: -330,000 votes, 40 losses
England: +1,050,000 votes, 21 gains, 7 losses

Labour put on over a million votes in England – in an election where the Green vote also increased by a million. (Some of the latter will have been former Lib Dems, but not all of them.) As you can see from the list above, this is a kind of increase in votes which Labour has only managed a handful of times since 1945 – once under Blair, once under Attlee and twice under Kinnock. Another interesting perspective shift is imagining what would have happened if somebody had kicked the crucial pebble ten years earlier, so that the landslide election was the one in 2005, not 2015. Take another 330,000 votes and 40 seats from Labour; suddenly Labour are nine seats short, and questions are being asked about Tony Blair’s ability to lose the party 1,500,000 votes, 87 seats and its majority.

That last part is a counter-factual – and, as it goes, I don’t think the SNP landslide was either inevitable or unpredictable, let alone that it could have happened as early as 2005. But the 2015 gain of a million votes in England is real. Doubtless much of this was a one-off gain from a minor-party squeeze – just as much of the vote loss in 1983 derived from a one-off minor-party surge – but the numbers do suggest that Ed Miliband’s leadership was doing something right, at least in England: something which should be built on rather than being repudiated. And there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Blairism is a proven vote-winning strategy. If anything it’s a proven vote-losing strategy, which also wins elections – but only if the party’s support is already strong enough to absorb the loss of votes.

Next: the Scottish play (and surprise everyone).

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Cap in hand (3)

The story so far: in the last three parliaments there were 80, 92 and 85 MPs who were neither Tory nor Labour; there looks like being a similar number in the next parliament, albeit differently constituted (more SNP, fewer Lib Dems). In the absence of a landslide somebody is going to have to ally with someone. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems are claiming that the party forming the next government should be the largest single party, and that doing otherwise would somehow lack stability or legitimacy. There is no historical or constitutional justification for this, and it looks as if they’re just saying it in the hope of giving the Coalition another five years, even if a Labour-led government could have a bigger majority and (consequently) be more stable.

That’s where we were up to last weekend. Then things got worse, with the outgoing Home Secretary’s extraordinary intervention in the Mail on Sunday. Now, the political stance of the Mail newspapers has never been what you could call impartial; ‘nuanced’ is another word that doesn’t spring to mind. But over the last couple of weeks they really have thrown caution to the winds; you could be forgiven for thinking they were being guest-edited by Chris Morris. ‘Red Ed’ is proposing “Stalinist” policies; a new hospital – in evil socialist Scotland – is “Nicola’s Death Star”. (To be fair, the ‘death star’ nickname is being used locally, on the basis that the building’s sort of star-shaped (it actually looks more like a Space Invader). But “new hospital: bad thing” genuinely is what the story is saying; ‘Fury-new-1bn-super-hospital-Glasgow‘ says the URL.) Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Daily Mail has put its name to the statement that immigration is “being totally ignored by the main parties”: “the subject that dare not speak its name … has been all but air-brushed from the election”. To the extent that this leader column says anything at all, it seems to be complaining that nobody is actually campaigning on a platform of sending the buggers back; Labour’s promise to clamp down on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour is dismissed as a sop to the party’s “union paymasters”, a comment which is headbangingly stupid, scarily authoritarian or both (don’t come in here with your pinko commie supply and demand, we want men in uniforms and we want ’em now).

So you don’t go to the Mail newspapers for a cool draught of disinterested rationality – not at the best of times, and certainly not now. But even by those standards Theresa May’s statement last Sunday was something else.

Mrs May told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales. Rightly, people in England would say, “hang on a minute, why are Scottish Nationalist MPs allowed to do that?”‘

Two separate claims are being confused here. I’m not sure if May would want to stand by both of them, or even if she was aware that they were separate claims. (Since ‘catgate‘ my opinion of our former Home Secretary hasn’t been high.) I’ll disentangle them anyway. First, the devolution question. So Mary Smith, MP for Moray, Forth and Orkney votes in Parliament to cut the police budget and spend more money on primary healthcare – or vice versa – despite not having any responsibility for those issues in her own constituency. Does this matter, and if so why? There is a genuine and longstanding question – the ‘West Lothian’ question – about the capacity of Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to vote, after devolution, on matters solely or mainly affecting England, but opinions differ as to how serious it is; May’s apparent belief that it is very serious indeed is not widely shared. The SNP isn’t an abstentionist party, and May isn’t suggesting that Smith wouldn’t turn up – quite the reverse. It seems reasonable to assume that when the voters of M, F and O elected Smith to the UK Parliament, they were voting for an MP who would represent their views for the UK as a whole and take part in Parliamentary discussions about the governance of the UK – including the governance of England.

In any case, if Smith was democratically elected, and if the MSPs for Moray, Forth and Orkney are also democratically elected, it would all come out in the wash: the same voters would vote for parties putting forward the same policies, whether they got to implement those policies within the constituency or not. If anything, of course, the Scottish Parliament is more democratically representative, being elected under PR. (The three main UK parties are currently projected to get 5 Scottish seats between them (out of 59), on 45% of the vote. Seats the three parties currently hold at Holyrood: 58 out of 129, or 45%.) This doesn’t affect the main point: there is no reason to imagine that the voters of Moray, Forth and Orkney would vote for positive, responsible policy agenda A when electing Mr Brown, MSP for Moray, Ms Wilson (Forth) and Mr Robertson (Orkney), and then vote for bad, dangerous policy agenda B when electing their Westminster MP (Ms Smith).

The only way this could possibly work would be if Smith, Brown, Wilson and Robertson were actually all advancing the same agenda – one that’s positive for Scotland but bad and dangerous for the UK. And, it turns out, this is actually what May is suggesting. The West Lothian question is a red herring; as the last sentence quoted above suggests, it’s only a problem if Scottish Nationalist MPs are voting in Westminster on matters affecting the rest of the UK. By implication, it would still be a problem in the absence of devolution: if serious ‘West Lothian’ issues are being raised by the stance of a political party – rather than the vagaries of individual MPs’ voting behaviour – then that party’s position must be bad for England as well as being good for Scotland. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be a bad influence at Westminster whether Scotland has a devolved assembly or not.

There’s an obvious problem here: once you’ve set up an electoral system, you’ve got to accept the results it gives you. If it’s possible and legal for the SNP to stand candidates, then it has to be possible for SNP MPs to be elected; if the people of Moray, Forth and Orkney have elected an SNP MP, they’re going to be represented by someone who votes in accordance with SNP policy. And this is not a problem: it’s how the system works, just as it worked – exactly as it worked – when the people of Maidenhead voted to elect a Tory. May doesn’t seem to accept this.

‘Miliband would be in government on the coat-tails of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. They would be calling the tune – people who don’t want the UK to exist and want to destroy our country. There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that.’

A Labour/SNP alliance would be “something people did not want to see [and] had not voted for”. That’s something you could say about a lot of post-election alliances; you could certainly say it about the 2010 alliance between the Conservatives and the party that won 23% of the vote opposing economic austerity and tuition fees. But this is much worse, because it’s the SNP: “people who don’t want the UK to exist “. “A lot of English people” would question a Labour/SNP alliance; it would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Again with the L-word! This talk of legitimacy is alarming: it suggests that we could run an election according to the rules, form a government according to the Cabinet Manual (pdf), and still end up with a government that wasn’t valid in some undefined way – or rather, with a powerful and vocal lobby denouncing the government as invalid. It’s astonishingly arrogant – who gave May, or Cameron, or Clegg the right to pronounce on whether an elected government should be allowed to exist? – and frankly dangerous: it’s the kind of thing that gets people talking seriously about coups.

It’s also, frankly, stupid. Let’s say we pass a ruling that a party demanding independence from the UK can’t be a vital part of a government of the UK – can’t supply the MPs necessary for a second party to get a majority (this seems to be what May wants, or at least the result she wants to bring about). Then what? What about three-  or four-party coalitions – should we debar the secessionists from those as well? Better had – otherwise one of the other parties might defect and leave them holding the balance of power after all. Similarly, of course, nationalists should be debarred from any kind of opposition alliance or understanding between parties – you never know when the wheel might turn and put the opposition in power, and we’d be back where we started. What about hung parliaments and votes of confidence – should we bar the nationalists from taking part? Otherwise their vote might be crucial to the survival of the government, which is just what we wanted to avoid. But then there are all the other votes which help a government survive, or undermine it if they are lost – can we afford to put the survival of the government’s prestige and reputation in the hands of the nationalists? And so on. The only way May’s logic will work is if we bar the nationalists from voting at all, or else from standing for Parliament in the first place – or if we excluded their nation from Parliament altogether. Perhaps the word isn’t ‘stupid’ after all; perhaps it’s just dangerous.

In part 4: what on earth are the Labour Party doing?

%d bloggers like this: