Category Archives: cheery thoughts

The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

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

1. Good principles make good tactics

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

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

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

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

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

Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

2. Not weak enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Down your street again quite soon

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

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

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

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

This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m no leader (2)

Time for a post-NEC-voting-reform, post-RLB-sacking, post-David-Evans update to my earlier post, in which I was – if not cautiously optimistic – at least just plain cautious about Keir Starmer’s leadership.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

which is going to dominate?

pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet.

pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other

Well, he hasn’t actually broken any of those pledges, so there’s that. But he’s avoided doing so by, essentially, avoiding saying anything at all. The people who backed him, though, have been well rewarded. Not looking good.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were … an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example.

How real – and how substantial – is the “soft Left”, and how strong is the Right? The answer to the second question can be gauged from the number of times “Labour” commented on education in the voice of Rachel Reeves, or Lucy Powell, or basically anyone but the inconveniently left-wing and independently-minded Shadow Education Minister. The answer to the first lies in the number of memorable and substantive statements you’ve heard from Starmer, Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds. The various Blairites, rentagobs and Blairite rentagobs who are currently paying their dues in the second line must fancy their chances; I would.

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). …

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions …

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.

  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.

  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

I’d file this one under “inconclusive but not hopeful”. There hasn’t been a lot of kicking-off, but Starmer certainly seems to be quite relaxed about (say) shadow ministers attacking Rebecca Long-Bailey for being close to the unions or Ed Miliband for being insufficiently business-friendly. Just do it anonymously, eh, there’s a good Wes.

Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy … On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

Two months on, I’d revise this paragraph in a couple of ways, both pessimistic. Starmer does have a strong motivation to stake out ideological territory distinct from New Labour; what I wonder now is whether he has the ability, either as an original thinker or purely in terms of there being any ideological territory to stake out (see above re: soft left). On the other hand, picking a fight with the Left qua Left may not be necessary; all Starmer needs to do is to delegitimise part of the Left, and then justify any action against the Left as a move against that particular element, which we’ve all agreed to be beyond the pale. And if this involves building up a rare and remediable failing on the Left into a sin that’s both widespread and unforgivable, with the inevitable consequences of false positives and malicious reporting, well, you can’t purge a party without breaking eggs.

Here are some more general Qs and As.

How do you think Keir Starmer is performing as leader of the opposition?

Dreadfully. Look at the state of the Tories, look what they’re doing to the country – under any other leader we’d be twenty points ahead!

In all seriousness, Keir Starmer is not performing as leader of the opposition – he’s offering the government no opposition at all, to the point of strenuously refusing to offer any alternative direction (on the pandemic, on Brexit… even on hospital parking charges). His strategy is transparently to pitch for Tory voters – as a competent leader who would deliver the government’s policies but do it properly – and gamble that the Left will have nowhere else to go.

The trouble is, as of 2020 Tory voters don’t seem to care much about competence; the government’s key policy – a hard Brexit – is one that’s basically impossible to “do properly”, except perhaps in the sense of damage limitation. And if people are voting in their millions for the Let’s Cut Our Own Hands Off! party, are you really going to win them over with a platform of Let’s Take Care To Sterilise The Blade?

So far, to judge from the solidity of the Tory lead in opinion polls, it’s very much not working; it looks as if all Starmer’s managed to do is bring back a lot of 2019 Lib Dem voters – and they could easily be replaced by equal or larger numbers of Labour deserters if the Lib Dems go for the gap in the market and pitch for the Left vote.

Do you feel that Starmer has made the Labour party more or less electable?

We don’t know, but there are good reasons to be sceptical. The narrowing of the Tories’ poll lead is a fact. It’s also a fact that Labour aren’t closing the gap – quite the reverse. Another inconvenient fact is that Labour had similar and better poll figures – and the Tories had similar and smaller leads – many times between 2015 and 2019; if our memory stretches back further than a year, we may recall that the previous leader’s critics treated the fact that Labour was trailing by 5-10% as evidence of how poorly the party was doing and how urgently it needed a change of leader.

In any case, talking about electability in 2020 is academic; electability is about what happens when an election is called. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went into the 2017 election campaign trailing by 20%, and finished it neck and neck with the Tories. Labour under Tony Blair went into the 1997 election campaign leading by 25%, and finished it leading by 10%. This suggests that what we need at the next election is either a barnstorming campaign that overturns all the conventional wisdom and breaks through the Tory hold on the media, or for the Tories to discredit themselves so thoroughly beforehand that Labour is already seen as a safe pair of hands, and consequently goes into the campaign (with its inevitable barrage of hostile media coverage) with a huge lead.

I see no sign that Starmer has any interest in the first of these, or that he has the capacity to make it happen. Presumably he’s banking on the second, but it hasn’t happened yet – and Starmer isn’t doing anything to help bring it about. If anything, he’s helping to maintain the credibility of the government. His unwillingness to make political capital out of two of the greatest self-inflicted national disasters in British history – the pandemic and a hard Brexit – is genuinely puzzling and raises the question of whether it’s the will that’s lacking or the ability.

Do you have any concerns?

Starmer’s campaign statement and his ten pledges explicitly pitched to the Left of the party and promised that the direction set by Jeremy Corbyn would be maintained. We’re now starting to see how much those words were worth.

Starmer and his entire front bench team seem to be determined to say as little as possible, and to avoid actually challenging the government at all costs. The one principled and independent-minded member of the team was sidelined and then sacked on basically sectarian grounds – the Steve Reed case suggests that what mattered was not taking a consistent stand against antisemitism but getting rid of a potential internal critic, while hanging the label of antisemitism on the Left. The worst of the Labour Right have been appointed to second-rank positions – ready for promotion when the Left has been driven out or beaten into submission, presumably; however junior or marginal they are on paper, the likes of Reeves and Streeting have been welcomed with open arms by the media outlets which never quite accepted the Corbyn leadership. Organisation is key, as both Blair and Corbyn knew. The appointment of old Blairite David Evans and the rigging – sorry, democratisation – of the members’ section of the NEC suggest how Starmer sees his leadership, and how seriously he takes the job of uprooting the Left.

My only consolation is the fact that Starmer quite clearly isn’t Tony Blair – he may have Blair’s ruthlessness but he’s got none of his charisma or his genuine originality – which suggests that his transformation of the party is doomed to fail. I just hope he doesn’t do too much damage to the party – or let the Tories to do too much damage to the country – in the mean time.

I’m no leader (1)

About two weeks ago I was mulling over a post about the prospects for Labour under Keir Starmer, and why there might still be room for some cautious optimism. Then the report on the handling of antisemitism in the party appeared, and watching the fallout from that kept me busy for, well, most of the next two weeks, as well as giving me some more food for thought about the party and where it’s heading.

But it’s a shame to let a good blog post go to waste, so here’s more or less what I was going to write.

We don’t know which way the party is going under Keir Starmer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that which way the party is going is still undecided. What will decide it will be the resolution of three tensions within the leadership; three opposed pairings which are currently more or less in balance, but won’t stay that way forever.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

I read Starmer’s campaign statement when I went to my CLP’s nomination meeting; I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely reassured. (Not reassured enough to vote for him – either then or in the vote that mattered – but enough to feel that a Starmer leadership wouldn’t actually be a disaster.) He committed himself to maintaining Corbyn’s transformation of Labour politics, both in general terms and with specifics. There were more specifics in his campaign pledges; I combed them for weaselly phrasing, and I did find a few examples (“support common ownership” of the utilities?), but overall it looked as if this was our guy. We knew he wasn’t our guy, of course – we knew the kind of people who were backing him – but still; all in all, as I say, it looked like a Starmer-led party would be solidly on the Left.

At the same time, we did know who was backing him – and we knew that quite a few of them were only on the Left in a “how dare you suggest that Labour has a right wing” sense. Indeed, one of the more startling parts of the antisemitism report was the revelation of quite how strong, in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is; apart from anything else, from what I’ve read it would appear that, until quite recently, the General Secretary’s office was run by people who thought that everyone left of Liz Kendall was a Trot.

The question then is, which is going to dominate? Viewed from one perspective, the answer’s simple: pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet. The trouble is, viewed from the opposite perspective the answer’s just as simple: pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other. And the possibility of a real regression – a rewind to 2015 or even 2010 – does exist; but it’s not the only possibility, and recognising it as a possibility doesn’t make it likely, let alone inevitable. There’s still room to be cautiously… well, there’s still room to be cautious.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

When Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was announced, a lot of us breathed a cautious sigh of relief: a “ministry without portfolio” for Reeves (who would have been a truly disastrous choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer, or for DWP for that matter), and no sign of Streeting, Phillips, Kendall, Kyle, Powell… Admittedly the ministries weren’t in the hands of the Left, either – with the exception of Long-Bailey at Education – but the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were – a few leftists, a few “soft Left” types and an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example. On paper this is true, but in practice the leadership has a lot of latitude in who gets appointed to a shadow ministerial post – the 2016 resignations (and their replacements) demonstrated that, if nothing else. A lot can change in a couple of years; Rebecca Long-Bailey was a very junior shadow minister until February 2017. There may not be many mute inglorious Keir Starmers on the back benches, but I dare say the PLP could rustle up another Nick Thomas-Symonds; and, you never know, Starmer may yet come under pressure to appoint from the Left. (And if he doesn’t, the Left needs to keep pushing until he does.)

Again, things could go very badly, but that doesn’t have to be the case; things could still go… less badly.

Lastly, the “junior Shadow Minister” question overlaps with the third unresolved tension:

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

One thing the leaked report appears to show is that the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). (And if the short-term result is a Tory government, well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or so they tell the eggs.) Tactically speaking, this sense of entitlement is a real strength for the Labour Right: it enables them to act and speak freely and with total self-confidence, however vacuous their policy recommendations and however destructive their actions.

However, when the leadership is held by a genuine centrist – and nobody has made a convincing case that Starmer is personally on the Right – this strength is also a weakness. When more than one tendency is represented within the leadership, “unity” can’t simply mean “we do what we like and the Left puts up with it”; it has to have some content that isn’t entirely factional, even if it’s only “the leadership does what it likes and everyone puts up with it”.

The question then is, how are the various Right-wing leakers, ego-trippers and coalition cosplayers going to take to being required to show a bit of restraint? My sense is, not very well. Some, to be fair, will be only too happy to repeat whatever line they hear from Starmer – and if it’s not particularly Left-wing or confrontational, so much the better – but some have a record of bigging themselves up whenever there’s a vowel in the month, and/or briefing against anyone to the Left of Bill Clinton. (Never underestimate just how right-wing parts of the Labour Right are.)

The usual suspects are keeping fairly quiet at the moment – something something Mantle of Ministerial Responsibility no doubt – but one wonders how long it can last. (Indeed, one bright spark appears already to be on manoeuvres. It’d be awful if the things he was advocating turned out not to be party policy, eh readers?)

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions (not two this time), namely:

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.
  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.
  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

1. would be very bad, but it would undermine Starmer’s claim to be above the factions, create an immediate opening for the Left and generally stir up the silt with a long stick; that being the case, I don’t think we can be sure that it’s more likely than 2. I’m not even sure that 3. can be ruled out altogether – or, if not, how bad it would be.

In short, it’s principles vs people all the way down, and it’s surprisingly hard to call. On one hand, incremental change is a real danger. Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy; see the (bizarre) shift from pandemic-related rent suspension to rent deferral, which only makes sense if you think that Labour should be standing up for landlords. On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

One possibility I haven’t considered, finally, is that all this stuff about the old Right and the undefined centre may turn out to be irrelevant: the territory Starmer stakes out may be an ideological terrain all of his own, an -ism to rival Corbyn and Blair. But there’s a reason why I don’t consider that.

ya know?
i’m no leader
i just can’t see myself following you…
and that’s not in a “heavy” way you

not you personally but…
you personally…
– doseone

Democracy now

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

Yes, it could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A house divided

1. Trailsign

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

2. Afterwards

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

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

Dan Davies, an hour after the exit poll:

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

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

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

3. Our friends in the North

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

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

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

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

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

And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers.

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

That article claimed that opinion had shifted since 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Institutional learning

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

Here’s Polly Toynbee:

Here’s Anna Turley:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What’s Bin Did…

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

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

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

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

6. Which Was It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Something broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something happening here

But what it is, ain’t exactly clear…

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

1. The Forward March of…?

Here’s a very scary chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Turning It Off And Then On Again

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 15.31.08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Forward March of… the Liberal Democrats?

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

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

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

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

4. Berkshire Diners’ Club Issues New Security Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. With and Against the Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well, the decomposition of the Conservative Party continues.

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

Here are the figures, one more time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calm down

I don’t entirely disagree with Simon when he warns

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

As he says,

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

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

Simon again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t start from here

A quick question about Brexit (what else?).

Keir Starmer, 27/3/2017:

The biggest danger currently facing British businesses, jobs and living standards is the chance of the Prime Minister exiting the EU without a deal. This is the worst of all possible outcomes … Failure to meet the tests I have set out today will of course affect how Labour votes in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should be under no illusion that Labour will not support a deal that fails to reflect core British values and the six tests I have set out today.

The six tests:

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” (D. Davis) as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Jeremy Corbyn, 6/12/2018:

This dreadful deal must be defeated … We are working with MPs and parties across the House of Commons not only to ensure it is rejected, but also to prevent any possibility of a no-deal outcome [emphasis added]. But its defeat cannot be taken for granted. In an effort to drag Tory MPs back onside, May is claiming that defeat for her deal means no deal or no Brexit, because there is no viable alternative. That is false. Labour’s alternative plan would unlock the negotiations for our future relationship with the EU …

A new, comprehensive customs union with the EU, with a British say in future trade deals, would strengthen our manufacturing sector and give us a solid base for industrial renewal … [and] remove the threat of different parts of the UK being subject to separate regulations. Second, a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade, and the freedom to rebuild our economy and expand our public services … makes far more sense than the prime minister’s dismal deal. Lastly, we want to see guarantees that existing EU rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections will become a benchmark to build on – not fall behind and undercut other countries at our people’s expense.

Starmer, 19/12/2018:

Even if the Government did choose to push ahead with a no deal [sic], I’m convinced that Parliament would stand in its way. The overwhelming majority of members in this House would not countenance a no-deal Brexit. … We have a Government that is now actively pursuing a policy that’s not supported by the Cabinet, not supported by Parliament and not supported by the country. It is reckless and irresponsible, it’s an indictment of a wasted year, even now I’d urge the Government to take no deal off the table and find a sensible way forward.

Corbyn, 21/12/2018:

I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.

Corbyn, 2/1/2019:

What we will do is vote against having no deal, we’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal; at that point she should go back to Brussels and say this is not acceptable to Britain and renegotiate a customs union

That’s the background. Here’s the question: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit?

To answer that question, we need to review what those commitments are. The Labour leadership has made it clear that they believe in honouring the referendum result: that it was correct to trigger Article 50 in response to the vote, and that the government shouldn’t unilaterally call a halt to the process. To be more precise, they don’t believe that pressuring the government to revoke the Article 50 notification would be an appropriate or correct political strategy. This isn’t actually controversial: the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum is accepted pretty much across the board – even the People’s Vote campaign is calling for a second vote (as the name implies), not for the first one to be overturned from above. So it’s odd that Labour’s insistence on not revoking Article 50 unilaterally, a position that hardly anybody is challenging, has been met with such dismay from the Remain camp, including those calling for a second vote – one of whose merits is precisely that it could supply the democratic legitimacy that a unilateral revocation of Article 50 would lack.

Nevertheless, dismay – or worse – has been the dominant tone. On the basis of this and little else, it’s been repeatedly alleged (argument 1) that there is no difference between Labour’s position on Brexit and the Tories’. When it became clear that Labour would vote against May’s deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, some assumed that this meant that Labour was in favour of leaving without a deal and speculated (argument 2) about the leadership’s covert attraction to ‘disaster socialism‘. When Labour’s leadership expressed equally firm opposition to May’s deal and leaving the EU without a deal, most centrist Remainers switched to criticising Labour on completely different grounds (argument 3): instead of sharing Tory policies and wanting to end the free movement of goods and people, or cynically wanting to crash the economy for socialism, Labour’s leadership were now supposed to be naive fools who didn’t really know what they wanted or what was achievable. Hence the curious insistence we’ve heard from many that May’s deal is the absolute last word, the only deal possible, the very best deal any British government could conceivably achieve – a judgment which sits oddly with the fact that Labour’s idea of a ‘good’ deal is radically different from Theresa May’s, and considerably less difficult for the existing structures of the EU to accommodate. Pressed on this point, centrists tend either to double down on the ‘naivety’ argument or switch to argument 1, maintaining – despite a dearth of supporting evidence – that ending freedom of movement is just as fundamental to Labour’s position on Brexit as it is to May’s. Subsequently, the centrist position has been complicated still further by those critics who have discovered (argument 4) that Labour’s leadership is actually demanding freedoms – on state aid, on ‘social dumping’ – which the UK has or could have as a member of the EU, meaning that Labour is unrealistically demanding the impossible while also absent-mindedly demanding things that are already available.

All this – like the dismayed reaction to Labour stating outright that they intend to honour the referendum result – is odd. Labour have been successively labelled as UKIP-lite Brexit enthusiasts, as Leninist coup plotters, as unworldly idealists demanding far too much and – now – as misinformed ideologues demanding far too little. These portrayals can’t all be accurate, and it doesn’t seem very likely that any of them are. Indeed, instead of reading these critiques as telling us something about Labour, we can ask what this scattershot approach tells us about the people criticising Labour. The people who claimed that Labour were intent on a clean break with the Single Market and customs union, or that Corbyn and McDonnell (usually in cahoots with Seumas Milne) were plotting to reap the whirlwind of a no-deal Brexit: has any of them expressed relief on discovering that Labour’s policy actually rules out both of these outcomes? If that’s happened, I haven’t seen it. Rather, the impression is that any Brexit-labelled stick will do: all right, so maybe Labour aren’t enabling Brexit out of commitment to cutting immigration, or as a cynical Leninist ploy; they’re enabling Brexit because they’ve got a wildly over-optimistic view of what’s possible outside the EU – or a wildly over-pessimistic view of what’s possible inside it – or possibly both – and anyway, whatever it is it’s just as bad. This in turn doesn’t do a lot to dispel the unworthy suspicion that centrist Remainers are less concerned with Brexit than with removing Corbyn and McDonnell.

Having said all of which, if Labour were enabling Brexit – for whatever reason – that would clearly be problematic, even if it would be an order of magnitude less important than the Conservative Party’s contribution to the process. (At the time of writing there are 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, in a House where an effective majority is 322 (650 MPs including the Speaker and 7 absent Sinn Fein MPs). So May’s government could be stopped in its tracks if six Conservative MPs voted with a united Opposition. If half the effort Remainers have devoted to bigging up “Tory rebels” was devoted to pressurising those people to actually rebel…!)

So: is Labour enabling Brexit? This brings us back to the question I posed earlier: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit? As we’ve seen, Labour is committed – on grounds of democratic principle – to letting the Brexit process run its course, rather than derailing it by unilateral executive action. Beyond that, Labour is committed

  • to apply Starmer’s six tests to any deal
  • to oppose any deal which fails those tests, and
  • to oppose leaving the EU without a deal

Corbyn’s (at first blush slightly alarming) talk of Theresa May going back to Brussels to “renegotiate a customs union” should be seen in this light: the only customs union which would be acceptable to Labour, in terms of the six tests, would be one which maintained EU labour law, made no distinction between Britain and Northern Ireland, and delivered (in a phrase which David Davis surely regrets coining) the “exact same benefits” that Britain currently enjoys within the EU. It is hard to imagine – on this point I agree with the centrist critics – that the EU27 would ever countenance such a relationship with a state that had left the EU; a ‘six tests’ Brexit is, surely, vanishingly unlikely. However, any other deal would be opposed by Labour, on the basis of its existing commitments. Leaving without a deal would also be opposed by the party, again on the basis of its existing commitments.

In short, Labour policy has developed to the point where Labour can simultaneously maintain that we should see Brexit through and set criteria which rule out any possible Brexit – all of this while making demands, in the name of Brexit, which can be met within the EU. Labour’s current commitments can be summed up as follows:

  1. Honour the referendum
  2. No to a no-deal exit
  3. No to any deal that fails the six tests
  4. The UK should push harder on state aid and on low-wage immigration than it currently does

This, frankly, does not add up to leaving the EU at all. The assumption that Labour are enabling Brexit only makes sense if we assume that they are going to abandon one or both of policies 2 and 3, while replacing #4 with some red-meat Lexitry. To misquote Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Why? Why would they do that now?

This post is partly about Labour’s Brexit policy and partly about how (if I’m right) it’s been misunderstood – which also means looking at why it’s been misunderstood. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Labour’s position has evolved in the way that its critics’ attacks on it would suggest – it’s not very plausible, given that the ‘six tests’ were set out in March 2017, but let’s go with it. Let’s suppose, in other words, that Labour’s position – or at least its public messaging – was originally “we want to leave so that we can make Britain great again”; that it then changed to “we want to leave, even though it will be bad for Britain, so that we can build socialism in the ruins”; and that it is now “we want to leave so that we can gain something that we already have, and we insist on leaving on terms equivalent to staying a member, so that leaving isn’t bad for Britain”. I can understand Remainers fulminating at the first two of these – I’d only debate the extent to which they were ever really a description of Labour policy. What I don’t understand is the way that people – in many cases, the same people – are fulminating at the third, which is Labour policy. Yes, of course it’s possible that Corbyn, Starmer, old uncle Barry Gardiner and all are idiots who don’t know what they’re doing – but if we assume that that isn’t the case, isn’t there another explanation? Doesn’t this look exactly like the kind of negotiating position you’d have if you were preparing to reverse course?

Looking at it from the other end of the process, it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government (and not a single-issue campaign – or a party of permanent opposition). Path-dependency plays a huge role. If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum. Heading towards March 29th denouncing the existing deal and demanding the impossible is probably as close to endorsing Remain as Labour – under any imaginable leader – can get, given the starting-point in 2016. (Which is to say, given that the Labour Party didn’t denounce the referendum and lead a campaign of abstention. I don’t recall anyone, in any party, taking that position, although I’d be fascinated to hear if anybody knows better.)

Why has there been so little acknowledgment of the last couple of points – and so much insistence that Corbyn is entirely free to make Labour policy, and is just doing a very bad job of it? It’s a question of empathy, I think, or the lack of it. I blame the atmosphere of permanent crisis that’s prevailed on the centre-left since September 2015 – a sense that we could get on with politics as usual, if only those people could be got out of the way. It’s been described as Corbyn Derangement Syndrome, and a surprising range of people have been affected by it. Empathetic understanding, of course, is the first casualty: why would you waste time asking yourself how the world looks from Corbyn’s desk, when all you can think about is how much you want him out of it? (Probably never at his desk, anyway. Probably out meeting Palestinians. Or down at his allotment)

Two final points. The idea that Labour in office would abandon policies which they have been developing since before the 2017 election, and which they are currently reiterating at every opportunity, seems to me like a strong claim requiring strong evidence. I don’t know why others find it so much more plausible; indeed, one reason for writing this post was to try and persuade at least some people to rethink that position. I wonder if one underlying assumption is that Labour’s ideologues are currently making policy in a vacuum, and will fold like a cheap suit as soon as they experience the reality of negotiating with the EU27. To anyone holding this assumption, I offer Keir Starmer’s comments from the 19th December debate quoted earlier:

I have had more conversations with people in Brussels than probably most people in this House about the question – the very important question – of what the position would be if the red lines that the Prime Minister laid down were different. The EU’s position in private is confidential. Its position in public has been repeated over and again. It has said that if the red lines had been different, a different negotiation could have happened.

“The EU’s position in private is confidential.” If that’s a bluff it’s a good one.

Lastly, the importance of what I’ve labelled policy position 1 – honouring the referendum – cannot, I think, be overstated. If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. A second referendum would in theory avoid this, but in practice I worry that intelligent and influential people would be working hard to create precisely this impression or something close to it, for instance by amplifying an association that’s already apparent between Remain and a comfortable middle class. Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

I may, of course, be wrong. Starmer may be bluffing; Barry Gardiner may not know what he’s talking about; Corbyn’s long-term scepticism about European integration may have hardened into an outright Lexit position, which (for reasons best known to himself) he is currently only expressing in terms compatible with EU membership. Let’s just hope that we get to find out.

PS You’ll either know why this is here or you won’t. If you don’t, play it and find out.

Rich as honey dew – 3

Things have moved on a bit since I started this series – but I have started, so I’d better crack on and finish.

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 3.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’m not going to relitigate the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-semitic; as you probably know if you’re reading this blog, I wrote quite a bit about that a few months ago. My starting point for this post, in fact, is that anti-Zionism is not anti-semitic; that one can oppose the policies, the interests, even the existence of the state of Israel while upholding the identity and interests of the Jewish people; and that, conversely, people who hold Jews in fear and contempt are quite capable of supporting Zionism, even doing so for anti-semitic reasons. (Extreme example: Morrissey, as far as one can tell, supports the state of Israel as a bulwark against Islam, while simultaneously denouncing kosher dietary regulations as barbaric.) Tell me your position on East Jerusalem and you’ve told me nothing about how you feel about Jewish identity, and vice versa; a secular assimilationist may be a Likud-sympathising hawk, a proudly observant Jew may be bitterly opposed to the entire Zionist project. (This isn’t news to anyone, surely.)

The question of Palestine is problematic, though, for two reasons. One is, at root, a question of numbers: although supporting the Israeli nation state certainly isn’t inherent to Judaism – or even British Judaism – it is the case that a large majority of British Jews are Zionists, at least in the sense that they identify with the Zionist project. (Which doesn’t mean identifying with the last few decades of Israel’s history, let alone with the current Israeli government; my sense is that the proportion of Likudniks and Revisionists in the British Jewish community is considerably lower than in Israel.) More to the point, while I can (and will) sit here saying that Zionism isn’t inherent to Jewish identity, that’s not the way it seems to many (or most) Zionist Jews; seen from the inside, supporting and identifying with Israel doesn’t have the quality of an optional extra or a lifestyle choice. This is a belief, and a loyalty, that matters deeply to those who hold it; challenging it or holding it cheap can feel like a deplorable lapse in taste at best, at worst an outright attack.

This in turn means that being an anti-Zionist Jew, as well as putting you in a numerical minority, is hard in itself; you will take a lot of flak from your own community, some of it animated by genuinely felt offence, some deployed in cynicism or contempt. Given the overriding need to develop a thick skin, it’s not surprising that some of those Jewish anti-Zionists – a minority of a minority of a minority – make a virtue of necessity; that, in Richard‘s words,

some people have cultivated a kind of gratuitous and performative political ‘toughness’, and defend this fragile ‘toughness’ as if it was the same thing as rigour and hard-headedness

In my experience, if you want to hear accusations of anti-semitism, collaborationism, outright Nazism flying – and then flying right back – there’s no better place to eavesdrop than an argument between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews; they really dish it out (on both sides). The point here isn’t that it’s OK when they say it; it’s deeply offensive and counter-productive whoever says it (although, to be fair, it is even worse when somebody from outside the community decides to pitch in). The point is that – going back a couple of steps – beliefs about Zionism are felt to be inherent to the believers’ identity as Jews, and everyone knows this. Consequently what gets attacked, on both sides, is neither a position on Zionism nor a Jewish identity, but something with elements of both:

“This Zionism which is inherent to your identity as a Jew – this is what I think of it!”

“Yeah? Wouldn’t you like to know what I think of this anti-Zionism that your so-called Jewish identity is built on?”

Think of the prefatory phrase As a Jew, used to link a Jewish identity to support for the BDS campaign, and by extension to challenge the assumption that Jews are Zionists; think of the contemptuous coinage “azzajew”, used (to his enduring discredit) by Norman Geras to delegitimate just that linkage. It’s about supporting or opposing the state of Israel, but it’s also about what it means to be a Jew.

The upshot is that anti-Zionism, in practice, has a nasty tendency to blur into wilfully causing offence to something many – or most – Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews. (And it’s also the case that Zionism, in practice, tends to give offence to something that a minority of Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews.) If you’re a Gentile and you get into the habit of using anti-Zionist attack lines, in the knowledge that they’re likely to cause offence, you shouldn’t be surprised if the question of anti-semitism starts to be raised – first and foremost by your political enemies, of course, but not only by them. This doesn’t mean that anti-Zionism is anti-semitic, or that it should be abandoned; on the contrary, I believe it’s correct and sorely needed. What it means is that we need to tread carefully and show some respect.

This is all the more important given that (my second point) anti-Zionism tends to bring you into contact, sooner or later, with people who are anti-semitic. Let’s start with Raed Salah. As you probably know, Raed Salah is a well-respected Palestinian politician who has been accused of – and, in effect, stood trial for – anti-semitic hate speech, including the ‘blood libel’; he is also someone with whom Jeremy Corbyn has, famously, taken tea. The British courts have pretty much found in favour of Salah; it’s been pointed out that the incriminating quotations are relatively few in number, and that some – perhaps most – of them only feature the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ in square brackets, which in turn suggests that there may be plausible alternative readings. Calling Salah an antisemite may be doing him an injustice. At this point I don’t want to rest my case on that line of argument, though. Rather, let’s suppose that Salah is in fact an anti-semite; that he does, in fact, hate(/fear/despise/etc) Jews. What does this tell us about Jeremy Corbyn, or his actions in meeting Salah?

I’ll give you a moment to reconsider your immediate answer to that one. While I’m waiting, here’s an interesting passage on anti-semitism by the academic Brian Klug.

our working definition of antisemitism, hostility towards Jews as Jews, is flawed. It should be amended to read: hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’. This might seem a minor, almost pedantic, difference but it totally alters the sense of the definition. That is to say, our working definition is not merely imprecise, it is positively misleading. It would be more accurate (if cumbersome) to define the word along these lines: a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are. … Thinking that Jews are really ‘Jews’ is precisely the core of antisemitism.

My grandmother wasn’t hostile to Asians as Asians; she had nothing against people who went to work, raised families and cooked recipes they’d got from their mothers. She did think that people who worshipped the wrong God were doomed to eternal damnation, but that category included many people who didn’t have brown skin – Catholics for a start. No, she was hostile to Asians as ‘Asians’ – smelly, unhygienic, violent, bestial people, figments of a racist imagination. Similarly, “hostility towards Jews as Jews”, without the scare-quotes (aptly named in this case), would mean hostility towards the category of people who abstain from pork, attend synagogue, see Jerusalem as a holy place, celebrate Passover and so forth. These are perfectly innocuous things to do: hostility to a group of people defined in that way would make no sense, even in the mind of a racist. So the core of anti-semitism is hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’ – or rather the conviction that Jews are, despite the surface appearances, ‘Jews’, with whatever attributes anti-semitism may load them. The left-wing anti-semite sees scheming, snobbish, hyper-intelligent lords of finance; the right-wing anti-semite sees scheming, low-minded sub-human subversives; the Nazi sees both. Either way – or both ways – it’s never Jews they see, always ‘Jews’.

There’s a difference, in other words, between hating a group in terms of a fantasised image of that group and hating a group on the basis of qualities that are actually characteristic of that group and its members. This is why hating women for the way they won’t stop talking is sexism, but hating men for the way they dominate conversations isn’t – one’s a fantasised hate-object, the other’s an accurate characterisation of the group. (The telltale sign is that the hatred is built in to the first image; men may just have a lot of interesting things to say, but the woman going on again, on again is always hateful, or risible at best.)

Where Jews are concerned, it may be argued that this is a distinction without a difference; hostility towards Jews, as Jews, can only be racist, whether the person expressing that hostility has a particular fantasised version of ‘Jews’ in mind or not. There is, however, one situation in which the scare-quotes or their absence would make a difference. As it happens, there was only one Jewish kid in our class at school, and he bullied me for half a year; he shoved me, he stole things from me, he mocked my inability to read Hebrew… he was quite the piece of work. Fortunately this didn’t last long and didn’t recur. Imagine it had, though, and imagine that it had started a lot earlier; imagine a Gentile kid who meets a total of, say, five Jewish people between the ages of 5 and 14, four of whom – quite coincidentally – had bullied him unmercifully. By the age of 14 that kid is going to have formed some pretty strong opinions about what Jews are like in general, firmly grounded in first-hand experience. We can tell him – and, over time, life will tell him – that his mental image of Jews-as-school-bullies is in effect an image of the ‘Jew’, not an accurate image of Jews in general. But until he’s acquired some evidence to the contrary he’ll be resistant to this message; it will be an accurate image as far as he’s concerned, for the simple reason that it is an accurate image of how Jews, in general, have interacted with him.

Of course, this is a wildly artificial example which doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about the ways in which actual non-Jewish people encounter Jews. At least, not in Britain. But picture yourself growing up and living as a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank or the blockaded Gaza Strip, or within Israel itself. Ask yourself how often, over the years, you would have encountered generosity or simple humanity from someone you knew to be a Jew – and how often you would have encountered the opposite, whether it was delivered with a mailed fist or an apologetic smile. Now ask your Palestinian alter-ego to sign up to the proposition that there simply is no reason to hate Jews as Jews; that anyone who feels hatred for Jews is making a fantasy hate-figure of imaginary ‘Jews’; that, if you say you hate Jews, you’re doing exactly the same thing that the Nazis did, and the Russian pogromists, and King Edward I who expelled the Jews from England. Do you think he or she is still listening?

Hating Jews, for some people, makes intuitive sense, for the simple reason that hateful acts have been committed (or defended, or condoned) by most or all of the Jews they have ever encountered. Extending this hatred to the Jewish people as a whole is still irrational – there is no rational reason to hate any human collectivity of that size and diversity – but it’s not the same kind of irrationality as the classic pogrom mentality; there’s a big difference between hating a group because you hate the things that powerful members of it have done, and hating a group because you think it’s evil and dangerous in itself, however powerless its members are . (The first kind of hatred is still irrational, is still anti-semitism, and can lead to the second kind. But they are different.)

Raed Salah is a Palestinian politician; he represents people whose land has been stolen (and continues to be stolen), whose rights have been ignored, who have been systematically denied justice, by a government which claims to represent the Jewish people. It would be hugely to Salah’s credit if he didn’t feel any hatred for Jews, or if he scrupulously refrained from generalising from those Jews he’d had contact with to Jews in general – we could rank him alongside Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, icons of an almost superhuman moral virtue. But it would also mark him out as far from normal in his responses to his and his people’s situation – and I don’t think we can reasonably insist that the Palestinian people choose their representatives exclusively from the ranks of secular saints. Simply put, Palestinians have good reasons for bearing a grudge against some Jews; it would be nice if they didn’t extend that hostility irrationally, but lots of Palestinians (like the rest of us) are liable to irrational thinking and generalisation from insufficient evidence.

This being the case, if we’re committed to bringing Palestinian politics and Palestinian politicians within the big tent of political legitimacy – which I think we should be – then somebody’s going to end up taking tea with anti-semites. To have looked this possibility in the face, and extended the hand of friendship to Salah anyway, is actually to Jeremy Corbyn’s credit – at least, I believe it will eventually be seen to have been to his credit. (Let’s hope we all live that long.) But it does impose a duty on Corbyn and people like him to demonstrate that they’re meeting Salah (or whoever) as representatives of the Palestinian people, not as ideological allies, and that they don’t endorse the anti-semitic views which have been attributed to them. And if they say – as well they may – that their opposition to anti-semitism is already being stated loud and clear, perhaps it needs to be stated even louder and clearer.

Until quite recently, these were niche arguments, which could rage in the activist undergrowth without having much effect on Labour as a party. But now, of course, Labour is led by an anti-Zionist (or, at the very least, a friend of Palestine), and anti-Zionist views are – finally – getting an airing in the mainstream of the party. Which means we’re making progress – but it also means we’re in unknown territory, and we need to tread carefully. Weaponised anti-Zionism – Zionism packaged in knowing and deliberate offence to felt Jewish identity – is probably good nasty fun for those who indulge in it, but ultimately it’s a pathology: a morbid reaction to the difficult conditions in which Jewish anti-Zionists have had to operate. In any case, it’s not a weapon that non-Jews should ever attempt to use. Similarly, some people may drift into anti-semitism as a morbid reaction to the conditions in which they have to live and work, and some of those people may nevertheless be worth engaging in dialogue; this is not to condone or excuse the anti-semitic element of their beliefs, which must be disowned and condemned. In short, if we oppose Zionism – as I believe we should – we must do so, clearly and equivocally, in a spirit of friendship with the Jewish people, as well as in solidarity with the victims of Zionism. The two are not incompatible; we should make sure we demonstrate that.

(Why is this a pessimistic post? Not because I believe that it’s impossible to keep anti-semitism out of anti-Zionism. I’m hopeful on that front: I think it’s entirely possible for people of good will to reach a position which is clearly opposed to (or at least critical of) Zionism while also being clearly and unequivocally opposed to anti-semitism. My pessimism concerns the prospects for bringing the Labour Party round to a position critical of Zionism; a lot more arguments are going to be had before we can make that happen, which almost certainly means that a lot more mud-slinging accusations of anti-semitism are going to fly. We’re going to need to be very clear about what we don’t believe, and also about what we do.)

 

 

 

 

Rich as honey dew – 1

I’d like to make a few points – mostly but not exclusively pessimistic – about the Left and anti-semitism; five of them, in fact. (This piece responds to Richard Seymour’s excellent piece on the subject, which you should read first. This one’s better, though – two more points!)

Here they are. (Update 25th April: links added to later posts in the series.)

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

Go.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous

I’ve been active on the left, off and on (more off than on, if I’m honest) since the late 1980s. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around with people on the Campaign Group area of the Labour left, and with the kind of Trots who were open-minded and smart enough to want to work with Labour people; nationalists, greens and anarchists, ditto. I haven’t had much to do with Communists of any variety, or with anyone to the Right of Robin Cook, say. But as for the Labour Left and the left-of-Labour Left – the scene that Jeremy Corbyn comes from – I’ve seen a bit of it.

Have I seen anyone excluded from a position, or lobbied against, or badmouthed in any way, because they were Jewish? No. Not ever; not once.

Have I worked with people – have people I trust and admire worked with people – who I knew to be Jewish, without their Jewishness ever being an issue? Dude, please. Have some of the people I trust and admire been Jewish themselves? Yes, of course. (And no, I don’t just mean Karl Marx.)

So: is the Left – specifically, the Left that Jeremy Corbyn came from and represents – a haven for antisemites? Apparently not. Do antisemitic attitudes go unchallenged? Only in the sense that there’s no need to challenge them, because they’re not there in the first place. At least, that’s my experience.

This is, apart from anything else, a peculiar situation: when we can seriously discuss the possibility that antisemitism is rife in the Labour Party, without anyone (on either side) feeling that whether or not Jewish party members are being discriminated against is a relevant consideration. To put it another way, it’s not the Left that portrayed Jon Lansman as a ‘puppeteer’ – it’s the Left that put him in his position of trust and authority.

Update 30/3/18 This point has been echoed from an unexpected quarter: the Jewish Labour Movement. Its two vice-chairs write:

Both of us have been involved in Labour Party, at the grassroots, in local government and as candidates for many years. As Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green at the last election and its GLA candidate in the upcoming London elections, respectively, neither of us has ever experienced any incidence of anti-Semitism from within the party.

Overall, though, this is – unfortunately – a pessimistic point. It’s clear that there is something wrong out there – something that needs to be rooted out, or swept out with an iron broom if you prefer. The fact that everyone knows it’s ridiculous to accuse Corbyn – or the Left in general – of antisemitism on a personal level doesn’t make the problem go away; it just makes it harder to deal with. This is partly because of the temptation of outright denial on the Left, but also partly because of the urge to double down on the Right. If you know deep down that your charge isn’t exactly, precisely true, the temptation will be to scrape around all the harder for almost-evidence to prove it almost true.

Which brings us to

  1. It’s taken on a life of its own

I like to Google, as Marc Bolan never said; when I see it alleged that X repeated the blood libel or Y denied the Holocaust, I like to find an earlier and closer source to check out what the person actually said. (I look for song lyrics sometimes, too.) I also follow a number of people I mostly disagree with on Twitter, for reasons that needn’t detain us now. Put the two together and I’m really quite staggeringly well-informed, for a sense of the word ‘well-informed’ that includes ‘confused and baffled’. Just today I’ve seen Alan Bull’s explanation for re-posting Holocaust denial (apparently he made it quite clear that he didn’t agree with it, in a comment, when he was challenged); I’ve also seen a call for Haringey Labour Party to be suspended – not for antisemitism or for condoning antisemitism, but for passing a motion saying that antisemitism was no more common in the Labour Party than anywhere else. (This was the position of the Community Security Trust just last year (PDF), but I guess we’ve moved on.)

On one hand, there are those who say that Bull should be allowed to run for his local council – and that attempts to deny the Holocaust are interesting and worth discussing on their merits; on the other, there are those who say that Christine Shawcroft should be suspended from the party forthwith, for objecting to Bull’s suspension before she’d even seen the material he posted. It’s not that there’s no middle ground between the two; on the face of it there’s plenty. It’s more that nobody seems interested in occupying it. Battle has been joined, and “where were you when A failed to condemn B for refusing to dissociate from C?” is the order of the day. And the kind of principled left position that appears to be called for – something on the lines of “Alan Bull’s out of here, Tony Greenstein needs to shut up and keep his head down, and now shall we get back to the local elections?” – isn’t really being called for at all; any pronouncement along those lines would be met with cries of “too little, too late” and assorted what-about-ery. Second pessimistic point: this is going to run and run.

The next one is more difficult, so let’s take a break. Part 2 tomorrow, hopefully.

But the week is over

A belated footnote to the ‘Czechoslovak spy’ nonsense. (You know the nonsense I mean. And if you don’t – say, if you’re reading this in 2019 or later – my advice would be not to bother looking it up. Oh, all right then (NB goes off the rails a bit towards the end).)

Some interesting polling has been conducted by YouGov and reported by Anthony Wells, suggesting that the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time:

most people pay very little attention to the day-to-day soap opera of politics. 40% of people said they had been completely unaware of the story until taking the survey, a further 31% said they had noticed it, but hadn’t really paid it any attention. That leaves less than a third who had actually taken it in. … Asked if they thought the allegations were true, the results were as you’d expect. … The only people who believed it were Conservatives. This is typical of such allegations: people view them through the prism of their existing political allegiances.  …

Finally, YouGov asked if the spy allegations and the way Jeremy Corbyn had responded to them had changed people’s opinions of Jeremy Corbyn at all. Only 8% of people said it had made them think more negatively about him (and they were mostly Tories to begin with). 6% said it made them think better of Corbyn (and they were mostly Labour voters to begin with). A hearty 64% said it made no difference at all.

Anthony also supplies the full set of figures. It’s not quite true that only Conservatives believed the allegations, but it was certainly only Tories who believed them in any numbers – 46% of the sample, vs 7% of Labour supporters, 15% of Lib Dems and (by my arithmetic) 19% of those who voted for another party, didn’t vote, didn’t remember how they last voted or preferred not to say.

The way this last group split is particularly interesting when we look at that final question: do people think worse of Corbyn as a result of the story? Again, the story is a bit more complicated than Anthony suggests. Overall, 8% of respondents thought worse of Corbyn in the wake of the story (6% thought better of him); 13% of Tories thought worse of him, 3% of Labour supporters and 6% of Lib Dems (as against 1%, 13% and 7% thinking better of him, respectively).

But thereby hangs a tale: how do you get from 13%, 3% and 6% of three subgroups to 8% overall? You could do it if the Tory subgroup was massively dominant, but obviously that wouldn’t be a good sample – and in fact YouGov’s figures show that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem subgroups make up 34.3%, 32.8% and 6.1% of the overall sample, respectively. (Geeky speculations about sampling follow; skip if not interested.)

I don’t know how these sub-sample sizes were arrived at, but I’m speculating that they’re based on electoral shares from 2017. The figures don’t show much correspondence with the 2017 vote shares of 42.4%, 40.3% and 7.4%, but if you take the total shares of the electorate which voted for the three main parties – 29.1%, 27.6% and 5.1% – and scale them up by 19%, the figures you get are almost exactly the YouGov subgroup sizes. Add the ‘other parties’ share of 7.1%, scaled up by the same factor, and the remainder is 18.4%. The figures suggest, in other words, that the YouGov subgroups are scaled on the basis of reducing the group representing the non-voting population from the actual figure of 31.2% to 18.4%, with the shares of parties people did vote for being scaled up accordingly. This could be justified on the basis of polling both likely voters and unlikely voters, while leaving a final 12.8% – representing those who just aren’t going to vote, ever – well alone. I have no evidence to support this, but the figures make it seem plausible. Certainly the abstention rate at British general elections (measured crudely as “100% minus turnout”) has never been as low as 12.8%; the twentieth-century record is 16.1% (1950), while the lowest rate recorded with the current (post-1970) franchise is 21.2% in February 1974.

Now, 13% of 34.3% gives you 4.5% of the total sample; add the few Labour and Lib Dem supporters who thought worse of Corbyn and you get 5.9% of the total. How do you get up to 8%? Only by including the ‘don’t know’/’didn’t vote’ group – and it turns out that they split less favourably to Corbyn than any other group apart from the Tories, with 4% thinking better of him and 8% thinking worse.

This brings us back to the question of effectiveness. If you’re running a smear campaign against the leader of the Opposition, it strikes me that what supporters of the governing party think is neither here nor there. Yes, 13% of Tory supporters thought (even) worse of Corbyn at the end of the week – but really, so what? The survey did offer separate options of “Think more negatively about Jeremy Corbyn” and “Makes no difference – I had a negative opinion about Jeremy Corbyn and still do”; in a perfect world this would have addressed precisely this problem, tacitly shepherding everyone who already hated the man towards the ‘no difference’ option. However, if you were the Mail reader who’d begun the week thinking Corbyn was an overgrown student politician with some nasty friends in Ireland and the Middle East, and ended it thinking he was all of those things and a potential traitor, it’s understandable that you would think that you now felt more negatively about him.

When it comes to assessing whether the campaign worked, though, those Tories are only going to get in the way. So let’s arbitrarily reassign 10% to the ‘makes no difference’ column, representing the solid Tories, leaving only 3% who, perhaps, were wavering towards Labour and responded to the story by wavering right back. This reduces the overall percentage of those who thought worse of Corbyn to 5% – a 5% which, however, includes 8% of the ‘other/don’t know/didn’t vote’ group. Nearly half of the people negatively influenced are in this group, in fact.

And perhaps that was the real battleground for this campaign: the ‘don’t know’s and non-voters. This would also explain the simplicity of the message and the endless, bludgeoning persistence of the attempts to get it across: a campaign aimed at people who take their politics from the Mail or the Sun can be positively agile and subtle, compared to a campaign aimed at people who don’t even do that. 46% of YouGov’s sample of this group (from my arithmetic) had a settled opinion of Corbyn which wasn’t affected by this campaign; of the remainder, 4% now think better of him and 8% worse, while 42% still don’t know one way or the other. To put it another way, this campaign was aimed at the 54% of non-voters whose opinion of Corbyn is either malleable or non-existent; it reached just over a fifth of those (12% out of 54%), making 8% less likely to support Corbyn (and making the other 4% more likely – so it goes).

Whether the campaign, judged in those terms, should be seen as a success or a failure is another question; certainly that end-of-week figure of 42% of non-voters still in the ‘don’t know’ camp doesn’t suggest a campaign that ‘cut through’. Still, 8% is 8% – if the two main parties had taken another 8% and 4% of the non-voting total in 2017, it could have made a real difference; it would have taken the Tory vote share up to 43.5%, not far short of what Thatcher’s Tories achieved in 1979. My instinct is that we shall need to be on guard for similar campaigns nearer the next election – really cynical attempts to exploit mass media platforms, not to get any particular worldview across but simply to inflame and polarise an audience of people who neither know nor care about politics, and poisoning the well of public discourse as collateral damage. We’ll also need to think about ways that Labour can counter them – which is going to mean thinking about ways to reach an audience which is, by definition, quite hard to reach. If I’m right, the fact that there was never anything to this story isn’t the point; the fact that nearly everyone involved – from Corbyn himself to the Czech secret service itself – laughed it off almost immediately isn’t the point. Even the subsequent outbreaks of not saying just saying among the centrist commentariat (“perhaps Corbyn as such wasn’t a spy as such, and in fact wasn’t ever a Communist as such, but all the same…“) – even they, and all their feebleness, aren’t the point.

If I’m right, they didn’t make it for us.

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

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?

Labour Needs Dan Jarvis

Of course they do (or rather we do). Dan’s young, keen and energetic; he’s got a brain on him; and he absolutely rocks the ex-Forces look, officers’ division. If you want polish, articulacy, self-possession and a certain air of natural authority, Dan’s the man – and, let’s face it, there are times when those things are an asset to any political party, Labour included. Labour needs people just like Dan – and since we’ve got Dan, we certainly need him.

And Dan also needs Labour, although I’m afraid he may not have realised this yet. Either that, or his undoubted intelligence doesn’t extend to reflecting critically on his own actions. I’m afraid the course he currently appears to be set on would prove disastrous to Labour – and hence to Dan Jarvis’s own career, although frankly that would be the least of my worries.

It’s a simple question, really: would it be quick, easy, straightforward or uncontentious to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party? From where I’m sitting the answer is No, four times over. Corbyn had a crushing victory in the leadership election, elected in the first round out of a field of four. Even if the vote had been restricted to full party members (which nobody had suggested it should be), Corbyn would have got 49.5% of the vote, and would have been elected on the second round if one twelfth of Liz Kendall’s votes had transferred to him. Since then, of course, the party membership has grown rather substantially, and it’s not Kendallistas who are flocking to join. Re-run the election tomorrow – or in June, or July, or whenever – and Corbyn wins. Find some way of keeping Corbyn off the ballot paper – or deposing him without an election – and prepare to see the party leadership in court, while watching an exodus of members. (It wouldn’t just be the new recruits leaving, either – Labour members like fair play, and we really don’t like the party rule book being ignored.) At best the entire exercise would be a waste of time, and a waste of effort which could be better spent on campaigning in the council elections, the London mayoral election and the EU referendum. At worst – who’s to say how acrimonious ‘Labour vs Labour’ could get, particularly when the press stuck their oar in? Who’s to say how damaging the loss of membership could be? A leadership campaign could be just the thing, if what you want is to kiss 2020 goodbye.

But I’m sure Dan Jarvis doesn’t want that – and, to be fair to him, he hasn’t actually said he’s making a bid for the leadership (although I’m not sure exactly why a backbench MP has “two political advisers, paid for by party donors”, or for that matter what the donors think they’re getting for their money). Let’s just say he’s setting out his vision, speaking openly as a principled political thinker. Just like Jess Phillips, and Hilary Benn, and Stella Creasy, and Rachel Reeves (so are they all, all principled political thinkers). What could be wrong with that? Nobody’s talking about party divisions on the doorsteps, are they? Nobody’s saying what’s wrong with Labour is that the leadership’s saying one thing and the backbenchers another – nobody’s saying they’d support Labour if only the party was united behind Corbyn.

Maybe not (although in my experience the doorstep conversation is a very poor way of gauging public opinion). But then, they wouldn’t, would they? So you’re an ordinary voter; you get your news from the TV and the papers (and probably not the Guardian). A new Labour leader is elected; he’s a complete unknown as far as mainstream media coverage goes, but they make up for lost time by burying him under an avalanche of hostility and outright abuse. When he does get a word in, he seems pleasant enough – if unprepossessing and a touch scruffy – but a lot of what he says sounds, well, odd; it’s not the kind of thing you’ve been used to hearing from Labour. If nice, smooth-talking, familiar-sounding people like Jess and Stella and Dan start getting airtime with criticisms of the leader, does this make you more likely to vote Labour (because at least some of the backbenchers are talking sense), or less likely (because it’s only the backbenchers who are talking sense, and even they think the actual leadership’s awful)?

Let’s be clear: the Labour Party has a leadership and a political direction: there is no vacuum to fill. For MPs to spend time and money telling the world about their own personal visions for the Labour Party is not an innocent expression of personal political commitment (like (say) attending a Stop the War rally); it’s an expression of opposition to the party’s existing leadership and direction. And this is damaging to the party – not because disunity in and of itself is damaging, but because people outside the party will, at best, conclude that the party leadership can’t be much good if they can’t even carry their own party with them. At worst, they’ll conclude that the party has the wrong leadership. Either way, anyone who wasn’t voting Labour before won’t be encouraged to start doing so – and anyone who wasn’t listening to Corbyn and taking him seriously certainly won’t start doing so. And, given that Corbyn is the leader, and given that his political positions are some way outside the pre-2015 mainstream, encouraging people to listen to Corbyn and take him seriously is the only way that Labour can win the support we need; undermine Corbyn and Labour’s stuck.

So Dan Jarvis’s current strategy – or, at least, what appears to be Dan Jarvis’s current strategy – doesn’t make sense. Is he campaigning for the leadership? If so, he’s either wasting everyone’s time on a sideshow which will have no effect at all, or (more probably) he’s going to damage Labour’s chances. Is he – not campaigning, but – setting out his vision, and so forth? If so, it’s not going to do any good – because he can’t replace the leadership; see previous point – and, while Corbyn is leader, setting out a position radically opposed to Corbyn’s will harm the party’s chances.

The only strategy within which Dan’s tactics do make sense – along with those of Phillips et al – is one that no MP has broached to my knowledge, although Peter Kellner and the odious John McTernan have both put forward different variants of it. It’s simple: split the party. Split the party, and there’s no need to fight Corbyn in a leadership election, or even necessarily to have a leadership election. Split the party, and it doesn’t matter what Labour party members think; most of them won’t go with you anyway, and good riddance. Split the party, and it doesn’t matter how much electoral damage you do to Corbyn’s Labour – the more the better, in fact. And, if you’re going to split the party, you need to know who’s with you, and you need to let them know you’re with them. Letting your dissent from the existing leadership ring out loud and clear makes perfect sense in this perspective – in fact, it’s virtually mandatory.

But if Dan and his friends (and those ‘party donors’) do split the party, what then? Does anyone imagine that they could call the new party ‘Labour’, or take Labour’s assets? Failing that, does anyone imagine that a new party could win a majority in 2020? (A majority together with the Lib Dems? A majority together with Labour?) The lessons from history aren’t that ancient – Dan Jarvis was a bit young for the SDP, but Peter Kellner sure as hell wasn’t. The Limehouse Declaration sent Labour into the wilderness for sixteen years, benefiting nobody but Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party; all the SDP ever got out of it was five MPs and a couple of dozen defectors. In fact, of the 28 MPs who defected to the SDP at its formation, 24 lost their seats at the next election, less than two years later. There’s a long and inglorious history of defections from Labour; it very rarely ends well for anyone. Is that how Dan sees himself – as a new Bob Mellish or the next Dick Taverne? Has he got a more substantial role model, like John Horam – Labour backbencher, SDP defector, Conservative junior minister? Or is he pitching for Bill Rodgers, or David Owen at a pinch? Does he have any idea how much damage those people did – or how little good they’ve done?

I don’t imagine Dan Jarvis will read this, but in the unlikely event that he did, this is the message I’d want him to get. Stop this now, Dan. Represent your constituents, listen to your local party, work with your colleagues, be a responsible MP – it’s a full-time job. If you carry on along the route you’re embarking on now you’ll end up out of the party, and heading straight for political oblivion – and, if enough people are misguided enough to join you, there’s a real risk you’ll take the Labour Party down with you. Turn back, Dan. Labour needs you, and you need Labour.

Update After posting this I discovered that it’s not just Dan who’s putting time and effort into this kind of barely-deniable fantasy-campaigning; ladies and gentlemen, here’s an alternative alternative Budget from Not The Shadow Chancellor! Seriously, you lot, cut it out.

 

PPS

I said all I had to say about the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election; it wasn’t complimentary. But that was five long years ago; tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, or at least political realities change with them. So I was hardly surprised to read that some people were canvassing a merger between the Liberal Democrats and Labour – the party the Lib Dems have spent the last five years denouncing, that is, as distinct from the party they worked with quite happily for four years and eleven months. Nor was I surprised to see Nick rejecting this idea as ridiculous, which indeed it is. What did surprise me was Nick’s seeming confidence that, rather than seek a merger, Lib Dems could work with Labour productively without a formal alliance – in very much the same way that they did circa 1997-2001 – and indeed that this was a viable strategy now. Nick’s post title sums it up nicely: “Merging Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be a bad idea, working together wouldn’t be”.

I left a long and rather angry comment, which on second reading turned out to be missing a bit of argumentative connective tissue: I knew what I was trying to say, but the combination of grumpiness and self-imposed brevity made the delivery a bit telegraphic. So here it is again, with some of the detail filled in. Quotes are from Nick’s post.

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories’ hands … Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

Personally I think you’ll have to sit through shouts of “after making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five, are you kidding?”. David Cameron’s first premiership, secure in its majority of 70, wouldn’t have happened if the Lib Dems hadn’t made it happen. While the Lib Dems may have reined the Tories in on some occasions, the inevitable effect of five years under a Tory Prime Minister was to detoxify the image of Conservatism and shift political common sense their way – look at the prevalence of deficit fetishism across the media, the BBC very much included. From a Labour supporter’s standpoint, the Lib Dems are carrying a great deal of baggage and have a lot of credibility to make up; they’re in the political wilderness now, and for the time being that’s just where they belong. Labour has a problematic relationship with its own past, for more or less any value of ‘past’; the Labour leadership contest is largely being fought out over the question of just how much of the past to repudiate and how emphatically. That’s pretty unattractive, but next to the (putative) Lib Dem strategy of simply handwaving the past away it’s a model of responsibility.

assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. … In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

A and B competing didn’t benefit C six weeks ago, as I remember. A turned out to be shrewd, unscrupulous and powerful, and took nearly half of B’s seats. It was B colluding with A that nearly destroyed them. In June 2010 I described the Lib Dems as a “shabby, unprincipled, Tory-tailing rabble”; the Lib Dems in government occasionally did something to reverse that opinion, but they did much more to confirm and entrench it. Come 2015 Labour voters were never going to vote for them (again). As for Tory voters (and Lib Dem voters in Tory marginals), I suspect that many of them felt there was no reason to vote Lib Dem any more. As the government kept reminding us, things seemed to be working out OK with a Tory Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Maybe this was down to the Lib Dems exerting a moderating influence in the margins and behind the scenes, but then again, maybe the Tories weren’t as bad as all that; they certainly weren’t so bad that the Lib Dems couldn’t work with them.

Will a major party alliance – formal or informal – always act to destroy the Lib Dems’ identity as a party? Could it be different for the Lib Dems if they allied with Labour? It’s true that the 1997 and 2001 elections worked out rather well for the Lib Dems, but that was a lot more than a tactical alliance. There’s a case for seeing the alliance between Ashdown and Blair as the culmination of the entire history of the post-Lloyd George Liberal Party. Certainly from the time of the first Liberal leader I can remember (Jeremy Thorpe, hélas), the party’s position was always somewhere between ‘leftish-with-qualifications’ and ‘equidistant, whatever that means’. (The genius of Charles Kennedy’s leadership was to position the party on the left of New Labour, as ‘Labourish-with-left-qualifications’. No wonder the knives were out for him.)

By comparison, the Orange Book swerve – which led ultimately to the Coalition – has no roots to speak of: the book itself was only published in 2004. Of course, it could be argued that, in looking leftwards again, the party was resuming its historic direction of march after an unfortunate deviation from course, but politics doesn’t really work that way – not for those of us with a memory longer than a couple of months. To reverse ferret at this stage and say “you know what? it turns out we were equidistant from the two main parties after all!” wouldn’t exactly carry conviction. In any case, the success of the Ashdown strategy for the Lib Dems – and the extent to which the party stayed out of a decaying orbit around the Labour Party – can be overstated. While informal co-operation among Labour and Lib Dem voters in 1997 did work out well for the Lib Dems, it worked out really quite stupendously well for Labour – so much so that they felt they could pretty much ignore the Lib Dems from then on (exhibit A: the Jenkins Commission).

I can’t see any good outcome for the Lib Dems at the moment: staying with the Tories would be suicidal, but looking to Labour would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way). The third option – ‘equidistant’ independence – is a lonely, powerless and potentially self-destructive place: the question ‘what’s this party for?’ would be heard around the land. But maybe that question needs asking.

The moral is that history matters (perhaps especially on the Left). And that duopolies are hard to break – perhaps particularly hard from the centre. (Even the SNP – who really are a centre party – didn’t actually campaign from the centre.)

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?

Dangerous decisions? (1)

On the face of it, the Supreme Court judgment in Moohan and the Divisional Court decision in the case of Unison (No.2), R (on the application of) v The Lord Chancellor don’t have a lot in common, other than both being delivered in the last couple of days. In one case, a prisoner challenged the legality of the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013, on the grounds that its exclusion of prisoners from voting in the referendum was counter both to Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and to the (putative) common law right to vote. In the other, the union Unison challenged the imposition of fees on would-be employment tribunal claimants, claiming that this denied any effective access to justice to many – or most – potential claimants, while also discriminating indirectly against some (poorer) groups. In both cases the decision went against the claimant.

I think they do have something in common, both in the way they were decided and in the reasons why they were brought. In this and the next couple of posts I’ll be explaining why I think both of these were bad – and dangerous – decisions. (Background and discussion: Mark Elliott on Moohan; Lauren Godfrey on Unison (No.2), R (on the application of) v The Lord Chancellor.)

Moohan first. The Supreme Court was divided in Moohan, but the majority drew a fairly straightforward distinction between the Scottish referendum and the ECHR’s

free elections [to be held] at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature

and thereby carried out one of the least lovable but, arguably, most important functions of the courts: telling claimants that, however good their case might seem, they can’t win it that way. (Lords Kerr and Wilson argued that the referendum was, potentially, the first stage in the formation of a new legislature and hence did in fact engage the people’s right to free expression in the choice of legislature. This seems like a stretch.)

Anyway, so far so uncontroversial – a disappointing outcome for believers in prisoners’ votes, but a reasonable one. The problems start, for me, with the subsidiary ‘common law’ argument. I’ll quote from the case report. Have patience; I’ve cut the quotes down as far as possible, but no further.

Lord Hodge:

I do not think that the common law has been developed so as to recognise a right of universal and equal suffrage from which any derogation must be provided for by law and must be proportionate. … for centuries the right to vote has been derived from statute. The UK Parliament through its legislation has controlled and controls the modalities of the expression of democracy. It is not appropriate for the courts to develop the common law in order to supplement or override the statutory rules which determine our democratic franchise. … [A] common law right of universal and equal suffrage … would contradict sections 2(1)(b) and 3(1) of the 1983 [Representation of the People] Act. … the appellants’ proposition has to be tested against the provisions of the 1983 Act. So tested, I am satisfied that there is no common law right of universal and equal suffrage

While the common law cannot extend the franchise beyond that provided by parliamentary legislation, I do not exclude the possibility that in the very unlikely event that a parliamentary majority abusively sought to entrench its power by a curtailment of the franchise or similar device, the common law, informed by principles of democracy and the rule of law and international norms, would be able to declare such legislation unlawful. The existence and extent of such a power is a matter of debate … But such a circumstance is very far removed from the present case, and there is no need to express any view on that question.

Lady Hale:

It would be wonderful if the common law had recognised a right of universal suffrage. But, as Lord Hodge has pointed out, it has never done so. The borough franchise depended upon royal charter. The “40 shilling freehold” county franchise appears to have been the creation of Parliament. Every subsequent expansion of the franchise, from the great Reform Act of 1832 onwards, has been the creation of Parliament. It makes no more sense to say that sentenced prisoners have a common law right to vote than it makes to say that women have a common law right to vote, which is clearly absurd.

Lord Kerr (who dissented from the majority decision):

The common law can certainly evolve alongside statutory developments without necessarily being entirely eclipsed by the latter. And democracy is a concept which the common law has sought to protect by the incremental development of a system of safeguarding fundamental rights. … It is therefore at least arguable that exclusion of all prisoners from the right to vote is incompatible with the common law. … I acknowledge, however, the force of the point made by Lord Hodge that, insofar as a claim to a common law right to vote conflicted with sections 2(1)(b) and 3(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, it could not succeed.

Lord Hodge’s argument is, surprisingly, both crude and incoherent. Crudity in legal argument isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes “you can’t do that” is all there is to say – but incoherence is more of a concern. The question at issue is whether a common law right can take precedence over a specific statutory provision. Hodge’s reply is that this can’t happen, because if it did the result would be… to give a common law right precedence over statute: “the appellants’ proposition has to be tested against the provisions of the 1983 Act”; “a common law right of universal and equal suffrage … would contradict sections 2(1)(b) and 3(1) of the 1983 Act”. You can’t do that, in other words, because that is a thing that you can’t do.

It’s a circular argument – and a tight circle at that – but that’s not to say that it’s invalid. The argument gets more difficult – and, I would say, incoherent – when Hodge argues that, while the common law cannot extend the franchise, it could if necessary prevent its curtailment. But if, for example, a Disenfranchisement (Females) Act had been passed into law (and it wouldn’t have much effect until it had), then to “declare such legislation unlawful” would be precisely to “extend the franchise beyond that provided by parliamentary legislation”: parliamentary legislation would have provided that women should not vote. Hodge could argue that the ‘curtailment’ argument referred specifically to drastic measures in resistance of a parliamentary coup, and make the distinction with the prisoners’ votes issue that way: nobody would argue that the clauses in the 1983 Act debarring prisoners from voting represent “a parliamentary majority abusively [seeking] to entrench its power by a curtailment of the franchise”. But then the question is back with Hodge: why should “the common law, informed by principles of democracy and the rule of law and international norms” not have a voice when less extreme encroachments on democracy are at issue? Hodge’s argument seems to be that the common law should be like King Arthur and lie sleeping until England’s hour of need; I don’t see how he justifies this assumption.

Lady Hale’s argument is more coherent, but coherence is bought at rather a high price. She argues that voting rights are, have always been and will always remain a creature of statute; this has the slightly alarming implication that (contra Hodge) there would in fact be no common law case against the Disenfranchisement (Females) Act. Faced with a conclusion like this, it’s worth asking where the argument went astray. It’s certainly true that there was no common law right of universal suffrage until universal suffrage had been established by statute; however, I don’t think this entitles us to conclude that there is now no such right. The assumption in Hale’s argument seems to be that the common law is some sort of pre-statutory substrate dating back to King John, by now very largely paved over by successive efforts to legislate and codify. Hodge’s argument suggests a very different way of thinking about the common law: as a body of shared and more or less clearly articulated assumptions; a framework in which to think about, and debate the limits of, socially-responsible law-making and interpretation of laws. As far as universal suffrage is concerned, in any case, the line between the arbitrary inventions of statutory enactment and the realignment of legislation with common law principle cannot be drawn as clearly as Hale would like. If 1832 and 1867 redefined the franchise, it could be argued that the franchise extensions of 1928 and 1969 represented reactive vindications of the principle of universal suffrage, in the light of changing understandings of the meaning of ‘universal’. Lady Hale’s argument suggests that there is no particular reason why the franchise was extended to all 18-year-olds in 1969, and not to (for example) only those 18-year-olds whose parents had at least one higher degree, or all 18-year-olds plus 17-year-olds whose surname began with a P. Common law principles articulating themselves through statutory enactment? Perhaps that would be a mystification, but Hodge’s model of “common law, informed by principles of democracy and the rule of law and international norms” seems relevant here. Certainly it would seem to fit the bill better than a kind of sawn-off positivism, which declares that all there is to say about (electoral) law is that it is what the executive happens to have declared to be law.

Lord Kerr’s argument, lastly, is more subtle than Lord Hodge’s but even less coherent. He acknowledges that the common law has developed pari passu with statute, and that it may represent a resource of principles by which to judge, and potentially disqualify, statute-made law. He even floats the possibility that the common law might judge the exclusion of prisoners from voting and find it wanting. His argument comes back to earth with a bump, however, with a qualified acknowledgment of Hodge’s argument, that a common law principle cannot overrule a statutory provision. And, of course, if that’s the case there’s no argument to be had here. (Except that Hodge himself acknowledged that it’s not invariably or necessarily the case…)

We’re used to legislation being ‘read down’ to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights; the provisions of the ECHR are treated, if not as a hard limit, certainly as a hard reference-point, any conflict with which needs to be managed down and (as a last resort) flagged up. What this means is that there is a stock of individual rights which (it is generally acknowledged) government action and statutory law-making are expected to respect, however imperfectly these rights may be vindicated in practice. This isn’t the only way to vindicate citizens’ rights against the law and government, and may not be the best; it involves a reliance on (on one hand) the text of the Convention and (on the other) the specialised jurisprudence of its professional interpreters, with the alternate risks of treating the text as holy writ and reading contemporary assumptions (not to mention contemporary debates and contemporary jargon) into it. Personally, I have a temperamental sympathy with the idea of deriving such rights and safeguards from common law; it chimes with my Fullerian views on the law as an inherently moral project. But Moohan, and these rather scrappy comments from three Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, suggest that this may be a utopian prospect.

The Court paid little attention to the current government’s entrenched opposition to giving prisoners the vote, and rightly so. The roadblock in the way of asserting common law rights is not political but statutory, even constitutional: the idea of statute law as bedrock runs through all three comments, and its effects are, if possible, even more conservative than outright deference to the executive would have been. The trouble is, common law rights would mean nothing unless they could be asserted against statute. Lord Hodge, to his credit, recognises that there may be situations in which common law rights must be asserted against constitutionally legal decisions, but he defers any such activist role for common law lawyers to a distant and catastrophic future – just as Lady Hale relocates the common law to a distant and almost pre-legal past. From this decision there seems little hope of the common law playing any sort of safeguarding role in the present tense, as ECHR jurisprudence currently does. Good job there’s no realistic prospect of Britain repudiating the ECHR, eh readers?

Update 21st December

One enterprising visitor yesterday found their way to a previous post on this topic (which I’d completely forgotten), The barren weeks. In that post, written in 2011, I quoted Lord Wilberforce’s dictum from 1982 – “under English law, a convicted prisoner, in spite of his imprisonment, retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication” and described this as a statement of ‘the common law position’. What I didn’t do in that post was to acknowledge that the vote was one of those rights which had been ‘expressly’ taken away: prisoners’ voting rights in England and Wales – always circumscribed – were removed in the Representation of the People Act 1969, and this ban was restated in the 1983 Act.

In the 2011 post I denounced the voting ban as running flatly counter to the position expressed by Wilberforce. This was hasty; a more attentive reading shows that Wilberforce’s statement is entirely compatible with prisoners being statutorily deprived of the vote – or any other identifiable right, for that matter. In fact, the apparent contradiction between Wilberforce’s statement and the relevant legislation demonstrates how accommodating the common law can be, and will tend to be. I asked yesterday whether common law could take the activist role envisaged by Lord Hodge in relatively normal conditions. Perhaps it’s also worth asking whether even a catastrophic governmental assault on the rule of law would rouse the common law from its complaisance – and whether we would recognise such an assault in time.

When strangers were welcome here

There’s a particular move in populist politics which I think of as the Death Spiral. (I was going to call it the Death Spiral of Hate, but – while indubitably more precise – that wording is probably cranking it up a bit too high for the first paragraph of a post.) It’s a bit like conjuring a folk devil and a bit like a political bidding war; it’s more contained and predictable than the folk devil phenomenon, though, and it’s unlike a bidding war in not needing a partner (although others can certainly join in).

It goes like this. First, somebody in government (or in friendly media) stokes up hatred against a particular group. Then the government responds to public concern – well, you’ve got to respond to public concern, haven’t you? – and takes action against the group. Here’s the twist: the action that the government takes doesn’t lead the hatred to subside; the angry mob doesn’t put down the pitchforks and douse the torches, satisfied that somebody’s finally listened to them and done something. The government’s action leaves the well of popular hatred very much undrained; it may even top it up. Because then, after all, the public can once again express its very real concerns – and that will give the government something to respond to (you’ve got to respond to real public concerns). Once started, the process can go round and round indefinitely: the government and its supporters sing an endless call-and-response of resentment and self-righteous severity, opposition parties are wrong-footed or forced to tag along, and everybody’s happy – except the poor sods who are getting interned, denied benefits, etc.

For example: five years ago Louise Casey – then working for the Labour government as a consultant on ‘community’ issues – argued that community sentences should be made both tougher and more visible. People carrying out unpaid work as part of a non-custodial sentence should do it out in public where people can see; to make sure people do see, they should wear those orange boiler-suits out of Misfits, or hi-viz jackets, or both. So people doing ‘Community Payback’ would become a familiar sight; instead of thinking of community sentences as a soft option, people would see the reality of ‘community punishment’ and think… well, what? Would they think, those kids picking up litter are really suffering – that looks just as bad as prison to me! It seems more likely that they would see people in orange boiler suits who weren’t working particularly hard (they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag) and think, I used to think community service was a soft option – now I’m sure!. Five years on, the perception of non-custodial sentences as a soft option certainly doesn’t seem to have gone away.

My son brought another example to my attention the other day. You know this proposal to deny benefits to immigrants until they’ve been here for three months? Won’t that make them more likely to take any job that’s going, even below the minimum wage, even working cash-in-hand? “Mmm, yeah,” I said. And won’t that… I caught up. “Won’t that create more competition with the very lowest-paid British workers, thereby creating even more resentment of immigrants and even more pressure to get tough on immigration, again? Yes, I think it will.”

Whatever else I could say about Louise Casey and David Cameron, I don’t think either of them is stupid; as PM, Cameron even has a kind of intellectual praetorian guard, responsible for making sure that his ideas are in working order (as well as for preserving him from contact with any ideas from the outside world). I think he knows what he’s doing (as did Casey); I think he’s identified an appetite that will grow with feeding, and he’s making sure it’s fed.

It’s sometimes argued that populism is directionless and reactive, subject to lurches in any number of directions; it’s sometimes even argued that populism can or should be used by the Left (“where’s the Nigel Farage of the Left?” and so forth). On this way of thinking, ‘Death Spiral’ effects emerge when populism just happens to lurch in the direction of giving an unpopular minority a kicking. They may be no more than an unfortunate side-effect of giving the people what they think they want, in other words. Ed Miliband’s intervention gives the lie to this argument and throws the Death Spiral into relief, by demonstrating that it’s not the only way to address people’s worries about immigration. While it doesn’t necessarily go as far as Mike would have liked (and certainly isn’t framed in his terms), Ed’s statement takes on those who attack economic immigration and effectively calls their bluff. After all, the problem of low-paid immigrants – to the extent that there is such a problem – is by definition a problem of employers choosing to (a) employ immigrants to the exclusion of native workers and, not unrelatedly (b) to pay immigrants less than native workers; constrain those choices (whether from above, as Ed prefers, or from below) and a material source of conflict between two groups of workers disappears. (Those two groups may still hate each other on the basis of free-floating prejudice, but those feelings tend to fade over time – at least, they do if they aren’t reinforced.) Marxists know that the important antagonisms start with material interests, and that that’s where the changes need to be made. And so does Ed.

Another group which is supposed to take a grown-up view of immigration are the economic liberals, and particularly the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic of right-libertarianism. Bryan Caplan certainly sets the right tone at the outset of his 2012 Cato Journal paper (PDF), arguing that there are no relevant differences between a Haitian being denied entry to the US and a US citizen going to Haiti on a relief mission and then being denied re-entry. (Oh, very well, a US citizen and all of his/her family went to Haiti to help out, and they were all denied re-entry. Happy now?) But we needn’t join Caplan in his helicopter to appreciate the force of his arguments against restrictions on immigration. Caplan addresses four arguments against free immigration, focusing on its effects on low-waged workers, welfare spending, cultural cohesion and the political sphere; he argues in each case that the costs may not be as high as they’re made out to be, and that any costs which are incurred can be mitigated at a lower overall cost than the cost currently imposed by restricting immigration. He concludes:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

There’s a lot to like about this paper (I’ve always considered myself a libertarian Marxist), but two aspects of Caplan’s argument gave me pause. One, exemplified by the passage quoted above, is the nonchalantly instrumental use made of some fairly sweeping restrictions on citizenship. It seems to me that to declare that any member of a defined category of individuals will be denied the vote – or denied welfare benefits, or taxed at a higher rate on equivalent income – is to institutionalise inequality, making members of that category significantly unequal to the majority in their enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship. In other words, Caplan is entertaining the possibility of addressing the lack of liberty involved in shutting people out from a given country by letting those people in as second-class citizens. (I don’t say Caplan is proposing doing so, as the main argument of his paper is that the disadvantages of free immigration are either non-existent or much less significant than we imagine. The second-class citizen solution is put forward as a subsidiary argument.)

I find this troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, if we’re talking in terms of nation states – as we plainly are if we’re talking about taxation and welfare benefits – I think it’s legitimate to treat the question of who is allowed to enter a country quite separately from the question of how people are treated within the country. Ultimately I’m for a world with no border controls and no borders, but ultimately I’m for a world with no wage labour. In the mean time, I think that making everybody within an arbitrary area on the map a full citizen, but making it difficult to enter that area, is a more equitable solution than making the border permeable but introducing gradations of citizenship within it. If that’s the only way to get to open borders, in other words, then I’m not so keen on open borders as I was. Secondly, I value citizenship as a good in itself, and I believe that universality (within a given political unit) is one of its key attributes; I’m unhappy with any solution (to any problem) which turns on instituting different categories of citizenship. (Needless to say, I’m opposed to this even – or especially – in cases where it is actually being done: I believe that people who don’t look for work should not be denied unemployment benefit, that visitors to the UK should not be made to pay for healthcare, that prisoners should not be deprived of the vote, and so on.) Thirdly, I wonder what the introduction of graduated citizenship for non-natives would do to citizenship as an experienced social category: would it accustom people to the idea of multiple citizenships, making it possible for further gradations to be introduced and for full citizenship to be restricted to a smaller group? Lastly, I’m particularly troubled by the thought of living in a country where second-class citizenship is imposed on a recognisable and unpopular minority – or, to put it another way, being ruled by a government which imposes second-class citizenship on such a minority. I wouldn’t like to live under a government like that for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t want to live under a government that closed the borders: in both cases, the government would be differentially imposing restrictions on people disliked by most of its voters. It seems to me that there’s a certain political tone-deafness about Caplan’s paper when he floats these proposals. Immigration restrictions might be enacted by an anti-immigrant government courting immigrant-hating voters, but the same would surely be true of restrictions on benefits or voting rights for immigrants. Even if they were enacted in the purest spirit of right-libertarianism, they would be received as blows against an unpopular minority – and those who welcomed them would soon grow hungry for more.

Secondly, there’s an odd passage in the section in which Caplan addresses the effects of free immigration on the political sphere. The worry here – more of a worry for right-libertarians than for me, or indeed most of us – is that immigrants might bring a ‘statist’ political culture with them and shift their host country’s political spectrum to the Left. After noting that there isn’t much evidence of this happening (for good or ill), Caplan moves on to the effect of ethnic diversity on social solidarity, as expressed in support for a redistributive state. He cites research to the effect that the relationship between the two is inverse – more diversity, less solidarity – and comments:

Social democrats may find this tension between diversity and solidarity disturbing. But libertarians should rejoice: increasing foreigners’ freedom of movement may indirectly increase natives’ freedom to decide who deserves their charity.

Ahem. We weren’t actually talking about charity as such in fact that’s rather the point. (Sorry, just had to say that.) Anyway, there’s more where that came from:

Immigrants are the ultimate out-group. Even today, Americans publicly complain about “immigrants” in language they would never use for blacks or gays. If the knowledge that foreigners attend “our” public schools and seek treatment in “our” hospitals does not undermine support for government spending on education and health care, nothing will.

OK… what just happened? Right-libertarians should support free immigration, not only despite widespread hatred of immigrants but, in part, because of it? The thinking seems to be that right-libertarians should welcome a proprietary, in-group-based attitude to public services, because the extension of those services to immigrants will undermine that attitude and hence discredit the public services themselves. Pride in public services is all to the good, as long as it comes into conflict with the reality of public provision and generates disillusion; and hatred of immigrants is all to the good, as long as its main effect is to undermine social solidarity. Unrestricted immigration may lead to the development of a society of endemic self-centredness and mistrust (by multiplying the objects of distrust and fear), but this in itself should be welcomed: a cohesive, high-trust society is a society where people tend to support public provision of services.

What Caplan is expressing, or – what’s the word? – adumbrating here is the logic of the Death Spiral. If you start pointing out how public money is being spent on the wrong services (and especially) for the wrong people, that won’t lead to a trimmed and rationalised set of public services which everyone can be happy with – it’ll lead to an endless whittling away of those services, as more and more occasions for outrage are unearthed. What’s interesting about Caplan’s argument is that the Death Spiral is set out quite openly and frankly: the more immigrants are seen to be using public services, the more pressure there will be to reduce those services – and the less tolerance there will be for immigrants using them.

The underlying logic of the Death Spiral is cynical and simple: there is an out-group, there are people who will be satisfied by seeing it get a kicking, and their satisfaction can be exploited – either for political support or to further a larger objective, as in Caplan’s argument. We’re dealing here with what John Rawls called “other-directed preferences”. Rawls argued that a just political order should give equal weight to all citizens’ preferences, but only their “self-directed” preferences: my desire to have the vote, a decent education and opportunities in life should be recognised, but not my desire to deprive you of those things – even if there were a lot of ‘me’s and only a few ‘you’s. I think it’s definitive of populism that it valorises, and orchestrates, other-directed preferences: populism isn’t always socially reactionary, but even the mildest, most herbivorous populism expresses preferences directed at politicians (generally binding and restricting their actions). With Marxism, other-directed preferences aren’t part of the package, the odd revenge fantasy about bankers excepted; in action, Marxism is all about universal needs and generalised empowerment to achieve them. As for right-Libertarianism, Caplan’s unconcern for universal citizenship and his willingness to turn his hand to a Death Spiral argument both make me wonder. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the whole tribe by the Randians, with their grim relish in the come-uppance of the second-handers. Maybe right-Libertarianism isn’t just about dismantling public services, replacing citizenship entitlements with a cash nexus, and be damned to anyone who happens to be dependent on public provision when it all comes down; maybe at its core it’s a genuinely universalisable creed, which can be grounded in my, your, his and her own preference for liberty in just the same way that Marxism can be grounded in our shared preference to eat. But I wonder.

%d bloggers like this: