Category Archives: cheery thoughts

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.



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.

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

They work so hard

After the party’s over, my friend,
There’ll be nothing you can put your finger on
Just a parasol…

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

Looks are deceptive

Mark Carrigan has an alarming post consisting of nothing more than comments on a Daily Telegraph story. Here are a few:

Most people prefer the company of others of their own race. Forced integration therefore causes tension and resentment. Race is an important element in individual and group identity, which means it is impossible to build a society in which race does not matter. People of different races build different societies. Blacks—wherever they are found in large numbers—establish communities with certain characteristics, and whites and others do the same.

Interesting argument, professor (it’s got a ‘therefore’ and everything).

What you are seeing, and what nobody is prepared to say in public, is that “diversity” and “pc” PCs has created no-go areas in London. Unless and until the Police cease to be the paramilitary wing of the thought crime ministray, and can nick people without worrying about being accused of racism, then this is only the beginning.

Indeed, the police should be able to nick people without fear or favour, whether they’re black or…

What winds me up is all the talk of “community”. What sort of “community” gets enraged when a policeman shoots an armed criminal who had already fired on police? Maybe we should be looking at least as closely at this community as we are at the police?


It could have been Brixton or Toxteth, or Miami, or Detroit, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Johannesburg, or anywhere where Labour’s favourite community rules the roost.

I think we’re getting the picture. To be fair, Labour aren’t entirely to blame…

The Tories have to accept that they are partly to blame. The fact that these colonists exist in our capital city cannot be solely blamed on the Left. The Tories have stood by while the violent 3rd World colonies have spread and grown.

…just mostly.

Black youths,black community leaders,black MP welcome to black London.Just another reminder of black labours immigration policies.

Shades of Python – Rastus Odinga Odinga has taken Wolverhampton Southwest, that’s Enoch Powell’s old constituency – an important gain there for Darkie Power. That David Lammy, why doesn’t he go back to where he came from? (Tottenham.)

But what is to be done?

You see these chippy small-time blacks every day in inner London – with their swagger, their hoodies, their ridiculous urban patois and their permanent scowl. They should all be put in work camps for re-education.

Work camps? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

We need a new Riot Act – basically, martial law. ”All looters will be shot on sight”. See how long the riots last then.

Oh. Maybe not.

The rioters are fortunate that, at present we do not have the sort of totalitarian government and police regimes other countries do have. The body count during an incident, series of incidents like last night’s would have been spectacular.

Wipe that drool off your chin, man!

To sum up, the problem is the blacks, and the solution is to shoot them as soon as they get out of line. And all of this needs saying, as often as possible, because it’s what nobody is prepared to say in public – nobody is prepared to tell it like it is, except a plucky band of fearless Daily Telegraph readers.

I’m not even going to look at the Daily Mail.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
– l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
– Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
– Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks

3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within’; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010’s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

The barren weeks, the amnesiac years

Apparently it will be two years before we find out what the Labour Party stands for in 2011 (or rather 2013). In the mean time, presumably, the Shadow Cabinet can just make it up as they go along – I mean, now that Blairism doesn’t work any more, what else could they do? It’s not as if they could learn anything from the history of the Labour Party before Blair. Or perhaps they’re just working on the basis of waiting for the government to announce something so that they can say “and we’re against that!”.

That’s certainly the kindest explanation for this appalling story.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote. Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition. Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain’s jails

As it happens, the ECHR isn’t demanding that all prisoners in British jails be given the vote; the court’s ruling allows for national governments to take a view on withdrawing the franchise from particular categories of prisoner. What it has demanded – with the force of law, or at least the force of severe diplomatic embarrassment – is that the blanket ban we’ve had since 1840 be replaced by some kind of detailed policy with some kind of justification. (I doubt that the ECHR would find Labour’s mean-spirited amendment satisfactory – it seems designed to target the category of “won’t be in very long, probably didn’t do anything too bad, and best of all there aren’t very many of them”. But committing the government to yet another position the ECHR won’t accept, thus booting the question into the long grass for another year or so, may well be the object of the exercise.)

Either way – whether this is a wrecking amendment or just a vindictive attempt to weaken the legislation – Labour seem determined to attack the Tories from the Right:

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition’s proposals. He said: “This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.”

The Tory manifesto promised to bring in mandatory custodial sentences for anyone found carrying a knife (yes, carrying). It’s an insanely draconian policy, which they can never seriously have intended to implement. As for the notion that victims will in some way be adversely affected by ‘their’ offender having the vote – how? why? If this is what victims of crime want, then victims of crime are wrong. Actually I doubt that victims of crime want any such thing; left to his own devices, I doubt that Sadiq Khan would come up with this stuff either. What we’re seeing here is (in Andrew Ashworth’s phrase) “victims in the service of severity” – and, what’s worse, severity adopted cynically, in the service of winning votes (from the kind of people who like the idea of prisoners suffering).

Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

“Disclosure”, by jingo. That would be the shock news that the European Court of Human Rights found against Britain’s blanket denial of the vote to prisoners in 2005, since which time precisely nothing has been done to bring Britain’s laws in line with its international obligations. If anything, the news is even older than that: the ECHR’s ruling is entirely in line with the common-law position, as expressed by Lord Wilberforce in 1982. Ruling on a case in which a prison governor claimed to have the right to read prisoners’ mail – essentially on the grounds that it was his house and his rules – Wilberforce found against the governor and stated:

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

“Expressly or by necessary implication”. Contra the repulsive Davies, this means that a prisoner no more forfeits his right to vote than he forfeits, say, his right to wear clothing in public or his right to speak without being spoken to – or, for that matter, his right to sanitation (yes, the fine old British tradition of slopping-out was found to constitute a breach of human rights law in 2004, and about time too). Certainly it is open to a judge when passing sentence to stipulate that conviction for a particular offence – or type of offence – should lead to forfeiture of the vote; it is even open to Parliament to legislate along those lines. But the blanket denial of the vote to prisoners is almost impossible to bring into concordance with Wilberforce’s statement.

And it’s straightforwardly impossible to reconcile with the ECHR’s 2005 judgment – which is where we came in. The last government’s effective refusal to legislate in line with the ECHR’s judgment, dragging its feet for all of five years, was shameful: it contrasts very unfavourably with the actions of the governments of Ireland and Cyprus, both of which introduced votes for prisoners in 2006. The coalition’s grudging acknowledgment of the reality of the situation is to be welcomed (grudgingly). For a Labour opposition (a Labour opposition, to misquote Neil Kinnock) to campaign against it, lining up with troglodytes like Davies, is really disgusting. It seems that Miliband and his circle are still doing politics the same old way: a nervy attention to the Sun and the Mail from day to day, combined with a kind of dogmatic ignorance of every liberal or socialist principle their party has ever stood for. Why, this is New Labour, nor are we out of it.

Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

Both night and morning

“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”

“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”

I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)

It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.

What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. Continue reading

Owing to my state of mind

Jamie is on the trail of derelict mental hospitals (not ‘asylums’, thanks all the same). I used to work at Cane Hill – well, I worked there for about six months in 1979, but it seemed a lot longer. Some of the pictures behind that link looked incredibly familiar, even with several years’ worth of dilapidation – looking at one of the corridor shots I was half expecting to see someone pushing a floor-buffer. As an unqualified Nursing Assistant I did shifts more or less wherever I was needed, so I saw just about everything: the psycho-geri wards (very quiet but quite a lot of dirty work); the short-term ward (for people who had only just come in and people who would soon be well enough to leave, although these weren’t always the same people); the locked ward (less scary than it sounds – largely because everyone was drugged up to the eyeballs – but not much less). I spent most of the time I was there on a long-term ward; it was about half-and-half schizophrenics and people who were just too institutionalised to function anywhere else, many of whom had originally been found on the streets.

It was a dreadful place, which institutionalised patients more or less as a matter of course, and in some cases confined them for decades; there was an old man on the ward who’d had a bit of a weird episode at the age of 16, in 1932, and been locked up ever since. It also put vulnerable people at the mercy of staff many of whom were both dedicated and competent, but not all of whom were either. The long-term ward was run on the basis of a flurry of activity in the morning (wash, shave, dress and feed 25 men), another at lunchtime and a third in the evening. Between those times, nothing happened – nothing at all. Once the morning rush was over, in particular, the charge nurse would take the opportunity to call for tea and biscuits, then tell me and the student nurses about his views on life at enormous length. One long-term patient died while I was there (although after I’d been moved away from that ward); apparently he fell on the steps up to the ward, hit his head and lay there all night undiscovered. He was an unusually florid schizophrenic – nothing they could give him would stop him having strange ideas and compulsions, which generally involved wandering around the hospital – and the door to the ward was often kept locked to stop him getting out, although this was officially an open ward. As I understand it was locked that night.

But I’m not totally convinced that hospitals like that were a bad thing. One of the drugs we used to administer to schizophrenics was fluphenazine, a.k.a. Modecate. It was a slow-release ‘depot’ injection, designed to keep the visions and compulsions damped down for a fortnight at a time, and as such was administered intra-muscularly; you’d draw a cross on one of the patient’s buttocks with an alcohol swab, take aim for the upper outer quadrant and away you went. (I never did this myself – being untrained, unqualified and terrified – although I was repeatedly urged to have a bash.) I asked one day what would happen if you were careless and jabbed them in the lower inner quadrant. You don’t want to do that, you could paralyse them, I was told. This all came back to me the other day, when I noticed packets of Modecate on the pharmacy shelves at our local Boots, presumably for people being cared for in the community to take away and self-administer. The idea of trusting schizophrenics to inject their own anti-psychotic medication, at just the time when the previous dose is wearing off, strikes me as a bit hopeful.

Tangentially, it’s things like this which make me wonder what on earth the Tories’ plans for public expenditure cuts are actually going to mean. The old institutions aren’t there to be cut any more: the erstwhile populations of Cane Hill – and the others – have already been tipped out into community care. Similarly, councils have already been forced to outsource what used to be in-house services, the profitable bits of the postal service have already been carved up by TNT and DHL, and Stagecoach have already eaten public transport. If (on top of all that) defence is going to be protected, it’s hard to see what’s left to cut. Perhaps in another thirty years we’ll be looking at slideshows of abandoned universities.

Now the grownups have gone

I’ve just signed the 38 Degrees petition on capital gains tax:

Dear George Osborne,

Please stick to your commitment in the coalition agreement by increasing Capital Gains Tax to rates similar to income tax by:

* making the top level of Capital Gains Tax the same as income tax
* reducing the level at which people have to start paying tax on money earned from investments like stocks and shares, and second homes

I’d urge everyone to do likewise, even though it goes against the grain to petition George Osborne for anything – shouldn’t there be structures for this kind of thing? isn’t petitioning a fundamentally pre-democratic mechanism, implying that the subjects are respectfully tugging the sleeve of their exalted ruler, there being no other legitimate way for them to express themselves? Or maybe it’s a post-democratic mechanism, I dunno. (File under ‘cheery thoughts’.)

Anyway, the petition comes with a comment box, and I was very tempted to add the line “Make the rich pay for the crisis”. Then I remembered the provenance of that particular slogan and left the box blank. There’s always the possibility – the depressing possibility – that whoever ends up looking at the petition would see my comment and think “huh, a tired old bit of sloganising from a Radio Tirana listener and fellow-traveller of the RCPB (M-L)!” Not to mention the even more depressing possibility that they wouldn’t.

I owe the Hoxhaites a debt of gratitude, as it happens. Back in 1983, waiting for a demo against anti-union laws to get started, I came quite close to being recruited by the Revolutionary Communist Party; a bored-looking girl with a crew-cut gave me a copy of the next step [sic] and explained how, er, I forget what exactly. I was quite impressed, anyway, and continued to be impressed by what I read in the paper. The RCP were in their phase of well-er-obviously ultra-logical not-quite-ultra-leftism at the time – not quite ultra-left, just enough to outflank everyone else except the anarchists (who don’t count, of course). So obviously the state of Israel must be destroyed, and obviously the IRA must be supported unconditionally, and obviously the union leaders (all of them) must be totally ignored in favour of really extra-vigorous rank-and-file stuff of some sort. This approach had the merit of simplicity, allied to an appealingly cool tone (in both senses of the word – tns really did look nice) and logic – lots and lots of logic. It was also considerably more revolutionary than you, unless you were an anarchist (but anarchists don’t count, of course).

Anyway, I was young, I was radical, I was single and unemployed – I was about as available for recruitment by a Trotskyist group as I’ve ever been, and I vaguely knew it. (My student days don’t count – I was at Cambridge and mostly avoided getting involved in any kind of organised politics out of sheer embarrassment. I didn’t know much about the revolution, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be made by Cambridge students.) So I was mulling over the RCP’s overtures later that day, when the demo finally got going. Being on my own, I’d decided to watch most of the march going by and tag on near the end. And who should pass by but a contingent of about eight middle-aged beardies, clustered quite closely around a large and elderly red banner, walking in step and raising a chant of – you guessed it – “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR THE CRISIS!” Not the snappiest slogan at the best of times, and being chanted by eight middle-aged blokes (who were passing by at quite a brisk pace) didn’t enhance its impact. The banner – one of those big square-ish ones in a frame – read “REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY OF BRITAIN (MARXIST-LENINIST)”.

Blimey, I thought – so that’s what they’re really like!

Update 4/7/10
In response to Kier in comments: OK, that’s not the whole truth. At first I was genuinely confused by the mismatch between the cool paper with the purple ink and the knot of earnest beardies – and I did momentarily think that the latter was the real face of the former. But I did work it out after a while, and the RCPB(M-L) didn’t put me off the RCP(no relation) for good; in fact I had a few contacts with them back in Manchester until they gave up trying to recruit me. (Which, I remember, they did with a very bad grace, with the strong implication that I’d been wasting their time.) I just think it’s interesting that, while my first impression of the RCP was positive, my second impression was that they were a tightly-knit group of dedicated activists declaiming peculiar-sounding slogans in apparent indifference to how they looked to the rest of the Left.

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. In fact, anyone capable of judging this government – and the Lib Dems’ role in making it possible – as positively as McEwan strikes me as having something important missing from their own political makeup. It’s a bit like hearing it seriously argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy, or that Mussolini did in fact make the trains run on time: you just know that you’re not going to agree with this person on anything. (Not that I’ve agreed with old Leftie McEwan for quite a while.) Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever.

This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as “deep tribal reasons”? Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: