Category Archives: England

What happened in 2019 (1)

What happened in 2019? This:

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

Any further questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what was it?

In search of the Red Wall (8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In search of the Red Wall (7)

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

So, was there ever a Red Wall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some election results, going back to 2005.

Here’s what happened in Don Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This is getting spooky. How about Blackpool South?

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

    Great Grimsby?

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

    Dudley North (Ian Austin’s old seat)?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Otherwise, the same conclusions seem to apply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In search of the Red Wall (6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hence the need for a reality check.

    Before:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington

    After:

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

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

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

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

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

    In search of the Red Wall (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ah, but. What about group 1?

    Next: yes, what about the Red Wall?

    In search of the Red Wall (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But let’s do it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But we should probably get back to that Red Wall.

    In search of the Red Wall (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next: the proof.

    In search of the Red Wall (2)

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next: what happened next.

    The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

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

    1. Good principles make good tactics

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

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

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

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

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

    Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

    2. Not weak enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. Down your street again quite soon

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

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

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

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

    This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Marginal notes – 2

    The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Labour seat gains and losses, 1997-2017

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

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

    All seats:

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

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

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

    Here are the safe Conservative seats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here’s the same data ordered differently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Something happening here

    But what it is, ain’t exactly clear…

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

    1. The Forward March of…?

    Here’s a very scary chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2. Turning It Off And Then On Again

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

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

    Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 15.31.08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. The Forward March of… the Liberal Democrats?

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

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

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

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

    4. Berkshire Diners’ Club Issues New Security Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5. With and Against the Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Maybe it was something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Oh well, the decomposition of the Conservative Party continues.

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

    Here are the figures, one more time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Tower

    You won’t find the following letter in the latest issue of the LRB, so I’m putting it up here instead.

    Campaigning discourse gains much of its force through devices like exaggeration, transposition and reversal – rhetorical techniques which in turn gain their force from their users’ (paradoxical) insistence that they are speaking the plain, unvarnished truth. We generally understand this without too much effort; when we are told that “meat is murder”, or that “abortion is murder”, we do not suppose that the protester advancing that proposition would be willing to bring a murder charge against an abortionist or an abattoir worker. Rather, we recognise that the term ‘murder’ is being used as a label for behaviours which – the protester believes – would in an ideal world be seen as tantamount to murder, with a view to propagating that belief.

    This is not a new discovery of mine. So I was surprised to find Andrew O’Hagan deliberating over whether Nick Paget-Brown and his deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen were, genuinely and literally, guilty of homicide, and treating the negative answer to that question as a significant finding. Taking the Grenfell campaigners at their word, and Nick and Rock at theirs, may seem even-handed, but it actually confronts two radically different discourses. One is polemical, inferring a pattern from public information and drawing conclusions which (necessarily) go beyond it and into speculation; the other is confessional, based on the introspection of private beliefs and motives for action. Information gained in the confessional mode may make the polemics look silly and mean-spirited, but it doesn’t disqualify them: one may be actuated by the highest of motives and still be involved in schemes that destroy lives. (Again, not a new discovery.)

    While O’Hagan acknowledges that “nice people can do terrible things”, at a more fundamental level he seems to work on the basis that the information he’s collecting is, simply, either correct or not – truth or bunk. This naturally inclines him to discount the “colourful and provocative” polemics and warm to the dedication and “self-sustaining decency” of Feilding-Mellen and Paget-Brown. But polemic calls for decoding, not debunking. The question of whether meat is in fact murder can be settled in two minutes (it’s not); whether there is a message behind that slogan that deserves taking seriously, and what the implications of taking it seriously would be, could occupy you for years. Information in the confessional mode, on the other hand, carries an undeniable emotional truth – but this can sit quite happily alongside self-serving and unreliable interpretations of matters of fact, giving them an unearned aura of ‘truthiness’.

    Unfortunately O’Hagan’s hermeneutic suspicion is reserved almost exclusively for the Grenfell campaigners – whose “damning and suggestive” arguments, combining “robust speculation” with a “fundamental assumption of guilt”, he apparently saw through so thoroughly that there was nothing left for him to tell us about. When it comes to Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, on the other hand, O’Hagan seems to take the view that they’re pretty straight guys – OK, they’re Tories, but nobody’s perfect – so there’s no call to go around trying to trip them up with trick questions.

    To call this a missed opportunity would be an understatement; it forecloses precisely the kind of investigation and analysis that this story needed. Here’s one small example of the kind of connection O’Hagan declined to make, drawn from the final text of The Tower:

    [Feilding-Mellen:] “A lot of those Brutalist postwar buildings are not fit for purpose, and our tenants were always telling us that. So I wanted either to improve them or build them again, with guaranteed housing for existing tenants, and with more affordable homes on the same sites.”

    [in Kensington and Chelsea] 78 per cent of affordable housing delivered between 2012 and 2015 was social housing, with hardly any ‘affordable rent’ homes delivered at all. … This apparent neglect of housing aimed at those on middle incomes, in favour of those most in need … is a historic problem that Feilding-Mellen was particularly anxious to redress

    On Wednesday, 14 June … Jon Snow interviewed Paget-Brown. ‘Can you guarantee that the poorer people who are moved out of here’ – Snow asked, pointing to the tower – ‘will not be replaced by rich people being built fancy new flats to replace it?’
    ‘Jon, I …’
    ‘Can you guarantee it?’
    ‘I really think that’s just an awful allegation and I’m not going to justify it with a response.’

    O’Hagan presents this interview as a textbook case of the degradation of journalism, Snow speaking from “a rush of personal conviction” and an “accuser’s zeal” instead of attending to “the essential dynamics of professional doubt”. But, allowances made for Snow’s – polemical – language, surely the assurance he demanded is precisely what Feilding-Mellen failed to give. “Affordable rent” is a term of art for rents pegged to 80% of the local average; the London-wide average “affordable rent”, as of 2015, was £167/week (or £720/month). (For comparison, the median income in Kensington and Chelsea is £27,500, for monthly take-home pay of around £1300.) Feilding-Mellen’s vision for towers like Grenfell (or their replacements) was, precisely, “affordable homes” for “those on middle incomes”, with existing tenants guaranteed “housing” but not guaranteed the housing that they had had before. Would this connection not have been worth drawing out? Might it not have thrown light on the broader context of the tragedy? At the very least, O’Hagan could have asked Feilding-Mellen to put the suspicion to rest, for the benefit of any readers who had nasty suspicious minds.

    O’Hagan seems determined to write a story without heroes and villains – or, failing that, one in which we are all (in a very real sense) the villain.

    But what if the cause of those deaths wasn’t a few conveniently posh people, but our whole culture and everybody in it, the culture that benefited some but not others, and supported cuts and deregulation everywhere? Not so comfortable now?

    Setting aside the bizarre and rather offensive idea that demanding justice for 72 avoidable deaths is a “comfortable” position, what on earth is this “whole culture and everybody in it”? If it means anything, this sentence seems to mean that we have all “supported cuts and deregulation everywhere”; we are scapegoating Kensington and Chelsea because of our own bad conscience – and perhaps out of sheer political opportunism:

    The same cladding is on hundreds of buildings in the UK, and the leaders of those councils, Labour as well as Tory, are presumably not being accused of detesting the poor for being in power when their managers installed it.

    Yes, a disaster like Grenfell could have happened in any one of a number of local authority areas, some of them with Labour councils; and yes, those councils are responsible for acceding in the culture of “cuts and deregulation everywhere”, and would have borne the blame for the disaster if it had happened on their patch. That, surely, is how accountability works, even in a “whole culture” that sweeps up the entire country in a mania for deregulation. Not that, in point of fact, it ever did. I stopped voting Labour in 1995, precisely because it had become clear that no opposition to “cuts and deregulation” – or to the workings of the free market generally – was to be expected from that quarter; I returned to the party, and became a member, twenty years later, with a view to helping the party return to its old position. I only mention this because I know how typical my experience is. Millions of people never did support cuts and deregulation; millions still don’t. If we’re apportioning guilt, the larger shares must go to those who did support the cuts; those who voted for them; those national politicians who imposed them on the country; and those local politicians who implemented them, however limited their information and however sincerely-felt their good intentions.

    I’m not surprised they didn’t publish it – it’s long, and who am I? I’ve got no connection with the case or the area. I thought it was worth writing, though, if only to articulate to myself just what a disappointing piece of work The Tower is. It read like a ‘character’ journalist claiming to be an investigative reporter, falling flat on his face and carrying on as if nothing had happened – less Duncan Campbell than Jon Ronson, and a young Jon Ronson at that. (Andrew O’Hagan is a better writer, and clearly did a lot more work on the story, than that characterisation would suggest. However, O’Hagan seems to have abandoned or pre-emptively censored most of the promising lines of investigation, greatly to the detriment of the final piece.)

    The letter in the current issue from Anna Minton goes over neighbouring ground and is well worth reading.

    A kind of solution

    You’ve probably seen this:

    I think it’s a work of genius, not least because of the way it anticipates an obvious objection from some of those hostile to its message – well, you may not be British, but I am, far back as you like… (Which indeed I could say myself, although there is a question mark over one of my great-grandfathers.) Anticipates and sidesteps it: you may indeed be British, son-of-British, son-of-British, etc, but every one of your glorious British ancestors almost certainly had to deal at some point with people who “moved in and unsettled the neighbours”. It’s true that there are quite long periods of English history when nobody was “moving in”, but all of them predate Queen Victoria – and who (apart from the Duke of Devonshire) has any sense of who ‘they’ were that far back? Overall, it’s a brilliant reframing of immigration, that fully earns its closing opposition of love and openness to fear and isolation. Good to have you with us, Jigsaw.

    You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

    The reaction to Professor Goodwin’s comment hasn’t been entirely positive; Ian Dunt (no pinko he) contrasted the reception given to people defending immigration (“they should maybe dial it down a bit”) and people attacking immigration (“we should understand their legitimate concerns”). Other commenters took the opportunity to attack the perceived tendency in British political academia – personified by Goodwin and Rob Ford – to put out a conceptual Welcome mat for the UKIP/Brexit mindset, by arguing that UKIP weren’t racist, or else that UKIP supporters weren’t racist, or that attacking UKIP as racist would be a bad idea. (Update: on Twitter, Ford has clarified that his position is the third of these (“attacking UKIP as racist may not be the most effective way to counter their appeal”), together with a heavily qualified version of the second: viz. that the majority of UKIP supporters aren’t (or weren’t) racist, although there were more racists among UKIP supporters than among supporters of most other parties.)

    I briefly got into this argument myself, asking – fairly pointedly – whether there was still a constituency of White working-class racists whose sensibilities we on the Left needed to be careful of. I wasn’t able to pursue the argument at length on Twitter – partly for time reasons, partly because, come on, it’s Twitter – so here’s what I was getting at.

    1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

    Goodwin and Ford are some of the more prominent intellectually respectable advocates of what I’ll call the “legitimate concerns” model: the model of British politics that says that anti-immigration attitudes run both wide and deep in Britain, particularly among White working-class voters, to the point where any frontal attempt to call (or root) them out would be disastrously counter-productive. As if to say, yes, these people have some dreadful attitudes, but what can you do? Confront them? Good heavens, you don’t want to do that I’ve seen Ulster Unionists written about in similar boys-will-be-boys tones, not to mention (going back a few years) Serbian nationalists. The “legitimate concerns” model was based, it seems to me, on the existence of what grew to seem like a fact of nature between 2004 and 2015: a substantial and consistent vote preference for UKIP, expressed at general elections and in opinion polls as well as at European Parliament elections, generally putting UKIP in a solid third place with 15%-25% of the vote. Now that we’re back to a world of two-party polarisation – with Labour and the Tories between them accounting for 80-85% of voting intentions, while UKIP are down at 4%-5% and fighting the Greens for fourth place – that model isn’t required and should, I believe, be abandoned.

    Note that I’m not saying that the model doesn’t work. If I said that model A (theirs) worked before the collapse of the UKIP vote but model B (mine) works now, I’d actually be disqualifying both models, theirs and mine. A lot of things have changed since 2016, but the very nature of reality itself isn’t one of them. Any model has to be capable of explaining the low as well as the high UKIP vote, and I’m sure that the “legitimate concerns” model – tweaked with a Brexit vote here and a ‘hostile environment’ there – can pass the test. (With May discredited, her party divided and the government patently foundering, why is the Tory vote so stubbornly high? Well, if you look at it this way…)

    It’s not that the model doesn’t work; lots of models work. What the model lost, when the great UKIP threat went up in smoke, wasn’t its correspondence with reality, but something more fundamental and easily overlooked: the reason for us to choose it in the first place. It was a good enough reason, in its time. The Rise of UKIP was a great story (in retrospect) and an alarming one (in prospect): a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand in 1997 (a <3% combined vote for UKIP and the Referendum Party); a European breakthrough in 2004, consolidated in 2009 and built on in 2014; recognition by the pollsters in 2012, with vote shares at 15% or above from 2014 to 2016; second places in Labour seats in 2015, with the threat of a major breakthrough next time round… It cried out for explanation, before it was too late – and, to be fair, if you want to explain the fact that large numbers of people have switched to a party with policies A and B, hypothesising that large numbers of people have a strong preference for policies A and B isn’t the most ridiculous idea.

    But something happened in 2017 that suggested that this phenomenon no longer needed explaining. (In fact it had started happening in 2015, in Oldham West.) Not to put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon that was crying out for an explanation isn’t there any more. People – some people – may still say Yes when they’re asked if they’re worried about immigration or political correctness or whatever, but the loss of a vehicle for those resentments makes them far less significant. How many people would have voted to re-criminalise homosexuality under Heath? to bring back the rope under Thatcher? to re-nationalise the railways under Blair? A fair chunk of people in each case; quite probably a majority of voters for the respective governing party. It didn’t matter, because there was no credible political subject constituted around demands like those, and consequently no electoral threat to the party in power. UKIP, and the respect with which UKIP was treated for so long, gave credibility to an unstable bundle of right-wing populist themes, ranging from vague nationalistic nostalgia to outright anti-Muslim racism; but that’s over now. It isn’t even correct to speak (as I did just now) of the loss of a vehicle for those resentments. UKIP’s right there, with a brand new badger-strangling leader; what’s happened is that it’s been abandoned by a large majority of its former supporters. And if those people don’t think it’s important to articulate their political identity in those terms, neither should we.

    In short, if what was happening between 2004 and 2015 looked quite a bit like the constitution of a new White British nationalist political subject, what’s happened since 2015… doesn’t. I can understand why you might have wanted to start from there, then, but I really don’t think you should want to have started from there, now.

    2. OK, so what has happened?

    Since 2015? Two things – and they’re things we all know about; this isn’t Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World here. On one hand, the Brexit vote gave UKIP and its supporters everything that they, ostensibly, wanted. Note that qualification: Article 50 in and of itself doesn’t get us to banning the hijab or teaching kids about Agincourt or allowing smoking in pubs or bringing back the old money, or whatever. But leaving the EU was what it was all supposed to be about – and leaving the EU we, apparently, are. And UKIP now stands revealed as a contradictory formation. On one hand, it clearly isn’t (wasn’t?) a single-issue party: look at all the imperial nostalgia, all the xenophobic scaremongering, all the authoritarian table-thumping, all the bad-faith ‘free speech’ nonsense (you can’t say that any more…). There are forward-looking liberal democracies outside the EU and reactionary authoritarian states within it: we could in theory leave and be like Norway, or remain and be like Hungary. (In theory we could even advocate Leave as socialists.) UKIP stood for many things; occasional eccentricities aside, those issues form an unstable but reasonably coherent ideological constellation, and the simple fact of the UK being or not being a member state of the EU is far from central to it. And yet, on the other hand, UKIP was a single-issue party – the clue’s in the name – and, for the large majority of its supporters, once that issue was achieved the party was of no further use. If UKIP’s policies formed a loose ideological bundle, leaving the EU was the string that held the bundle together. Take that away and even the true believers fall apart.

    The other key factor in the unravelling of UKIP has six syllables; three words, but the first one’s a small word. (Hint: begins with O.) Jeremy Corbyn has done something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and has certainly never been dreamt of in the last twenty years: he’s signalled the intention of making Labour a genuinely left-wing party and making the next Labour government a genuinely left-wing government, dedicated to advancing the interests of working people at the expense of those of business. As I’ve documented on this blog, a statement of intent from the leader’s office is nowhere near enough to transform the Labour Party – that’s going to be a long job – but, ironically, it is enough to transform the electoral spectrum. As of June 2017, you can divide 90% of the British public into three roughly equal-sized groups: a bit less than 30% who think Corbyn’s ambitions for Britain sound great and will vote Labour to help make them happen; a bit less than 30% who think they’re a very bad idea and will vote Tory to prevent them; and a bit more than 30% who really weren’t joking when they said they didn’t care about politics. The only hopes of setting, or framing, or even tilting the agenda, from outside the old two-party system, lie with the parties voted for by the other 10% of the population. But half of that 10% is made up of Lib Dems, and most of what’s left consists of voters for Northern Irish parties or Scottish or Welsh nationalists; UKIP are nowhere. They did score solid second places in both the Oldham and Stoke by-elections – in Stoke Central they even increased their vote – but of course that’s not what they were aiming for. They thought they could win, and they weren’t alone; lots of commentators – from John Harris to Stephen Bush – thought they had a chance. And, who knows, under David Miliband or Liz Kendall they might have had a chance. Under Corbyn, no.

    (On a side note, I genuinely had to stop and think for a moment to remember Liz Kendall’s name. That’s showbusiness!)

    3. OK, but what happened before that?

    Before 2015? What happened before 2015 can be told quite briefly. There are always ideologies – coherent bodies of ideas about how society works and how it should be organised – outside the bounded spectrum of permissible political views that we think of as the mainstream. If you’re a Green or an anarchist or a White supremacist or a Trotskyist or an Irish Republican or a Nozickian minarchist or an absolute pacifist or a small-r republican or a radical feminist or an anti-imperialist (to name but ten), you know that you’re unlikely ever to hear your spokespeople interviewed on Newsnight, or not without a lot of leading questions and interruptions. (And if eight of those unpalatably extreme viewpoints are broadly on the Left and only two on the Right, well, that just shows how clever Leftists are at coming up with new labels for themselves, doesn’t it – People’s Front of Judea, ho ho.)

    What happened in the late 1990s was that the spectrum of political legitimacy was redefined and narrowed – delegitimising some previously habitable territory on both left and right – by New Labour, which then proceeded to occupy the whole of the reduced spectrum it had staked out. The Tories were boxed in; their only choices were to occupy (what was now) an unpalatable ‘far Right’ area or fight New Labour on (what was now) its own turf. Small wonder that they couldn’t return to power until the weird, Mule-like conjunction of a global financial crisis, a Blair-alike Old Etonian leader and a 23% vote for the Lib Dems, cruelly outplaying Labour at the “culturally liberal apolitical centrism” game. (It’s easy to forget just how strong the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was. Six million people voted Lib Dem in 2010 – that’s a million more than voted for any party other than Labour and Conservative in 2017.)

    The other thing that happened in the late 1990s was the formation of James Goldsmith’s anti-EU vanity project, the Referendum Party. Insignificant as this was at the time, it marked the beginning of a period when the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour would come from a force determined to make its home in those disreputable ‘far Right’ badlands. Indeed, its location, off to the right of respectability, is one explanation for the ideological heterogeneity of UKIP: as David Cameron and Charles Kennedy competed with Blair on his chosen terrain of business-friendly social liberalism, UKIP was free to pick up all the rejected right-wing policies it could carry – and their supporters with them. Hence, too, the post-Brexit meltdown. It turns out that this wasn’t a whole new political identity, melding Islamophobia, British nationalism, social libertarianism and reactionary nostalgia within an overall anti-EU framework, as exciting as that might have been for political scientists. Rather, it was a loose alliance between believers in Islamophobia (and leaving the EU), British nationalism (and leaving the EU), smoking in pubs (and leaving the EU) and bringing back the old money (and leaving the EU), and the announcement that Britain was in fact leaving the EU took away the one thing that had been holding them all together.

    What this doesn’t explain is why it was the UKIP area that provided the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour, and not some other politically-excluded school of thought. We don’t have that many Nozickian minarchists or absolute pacifists, to be fair, but both the far Left and the Greens have been substantial presences on the British political spectrum for the last forty years. Why did the right-of-Conservative area acquire the cachet of ‘respectable rebels’ and attract the enduring fascination of political scientists, centre-left journalists and BBC Question Time – to the point where it seemed to acquire much more substance than it ever really had – while the left-of-Labour area remained out in the cold, branded and outcast forever like Edmund? Why – let me put this another way – was respectability bestowed on people openly advocating policies which would make nobody’s life any better but only fuel ignorance and hatred while causing misery on a large scale, when people calling for ecologically-sound public investment and mixed-economy social democracy were either ignored or treated like apologists for Pol Pot?

    I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that that is what happened: a phantasmal new political subject was conjured out of little more than the foul winds howling around the rightward extreme of the legitimate political spectrum, and given substance by a perverse determination to take it seriously, while studiously ignoring anything that might have been happening over at the leftward extreme. It worked for many years – too many – but now, I think, the game is up. Since the election, only two polls (out of 36) have put Labour below 40%; the average of the last ten has the Tories on 39.4% and Labour on 42%. Are the White working-class British nationalists going to come down from the hills and eat our lunch, as Labour’s middle-class liberal cosmopolitan bias costs it dear among its traditional supporters? To answer that question, it’s worth asking another: what would it look like if the answer was No? In such a world, might we see Labour with a solid lead over the Tories and UKIP in complete disarray, perhaps?

    Returning to Professor Goodwin and Jigsaw: what to do if potential Labour voters start voicing legitimate concerns focused on immigration? The answer’s the same as it ever was: first and foremost, find out what those concerns actually are (rule of thumb: if they are legitimate, they won’t be about immigration – and vice versa). Ask if they vote at elections and if they support Labour, and give them good reasons for doing both; if you think they’re being racist, tell them so and tell they why. Treat them as you would anyone else, in other words – as potential allies, to be challenged, persuaded and won over. The only reason to treat them – and their incorrect opinions – with any more deference than that was the suspicion that they were part of something much bigger. We’ve entertained that suspicion for far too long; there’s no reason to continue with it now.

    And I must agree

    I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

    But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

    1. The girl on the train

    First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

    2. The narrative voice(s)

    The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

    Here are our three narrators:

    My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

    No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

    I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

    As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

    All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

    3. The present tense

    As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

    Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

    ‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

    I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

    Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

    Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

    4. Women and men

    All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

    Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

    People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

    And then there’s

    5. The plot

    Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

    It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

    6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

    And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

    I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

    The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

    I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

    I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

    (Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

    The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

    But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

    7. Tales with a twist

    I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

    But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

    Woke up sucking a lemon

    Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

    Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

    I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

    There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

    The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

    Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

    What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

    In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

    In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

    As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

    Spitfires

    As you can see, I’ve changed the title of this blog (although not the URL). I’ve got a bad habit of picking titles and catchphrases which are resonant but gloomy – the title of my book is a classic example. “The gaping silence never starts to amaze” is a nice line (it’s from a fairly obscure song by the Nightingales) but I thought we could all do with something a bit more upbeat. “In a few words, explain what this site is about.” says the WordPress rubric; I think the new title and strapline are a bit more informative, too.

    The reference is to a song which a friend reminded me of (inadvertently as it turned out).

    I first heard this song at a local folk club about a year ago, and it’s grown on me since then. It seems like a good song for where we are now; where we’ve been since the 16th of June 2016, really.

    Spitfires (Chris Wood)
    Sometimes in our Kentish summer
    We still see Spitfires in the sky
    It’s the sound.

    We run outside to catch a glimpse
    As they go growling by
    It’s the sound…

    There goes another England:
    Sacrifice and derring do
    And a victory roll or two.

    From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl
    Upon the lathe
    It’s the sound…

    It’s ordinary men and women
    With an ordinary part to play.

    Theirs was a gritty England:
    “Workers’ Playtime” got them through
    And an oily rag or two.

    But sometimes I hear the story told
    In a voice that’s not my own
    It’s the sound…

    It’s a Land of Hope and Glory voice
    An Anglo klaxon overblown
    It’s the sound…

    Theirs is another England:
    It hides behind the red white and blue.
    Rule Britannia? No thankyou.

    Because when I hear them Merlin engines
    In the white days of July
    It’s the sound…

    They sing the song of how they hung a little Fascist out to dry.

    On second places

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

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

    Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.02

    Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.16

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

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

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

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

    Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 17.43.10

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

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

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

    Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 18.05.47

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

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

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

    Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 14.31.49

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

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

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

    Off a-mollocking

    Pardon the long silence. I’ve got a post planned and another started, but today I want to ask a trivial but urgent question: why adapt Jamaica Inn? Specifically, why would you adapt Jamaica Inn for TV if you’re completely out of sympathy with the book, or (more charitably) believe your audience will be completely out of sympathy with it?

    I’d never read any Daphne du Maurier (or wanted to), but I was a bit short of light reading when the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn loomed up in the schedules, so I read it over the weekend. It’s a good read, if not always a comfortable one. The first thing to say about it is that atmosphere is everything. From the first chapter the book sets up a very strong opposition between the determined but powerless virtue of the heroine Mary Yellan and the uncontrolled brutality of the huge, violent inn-keeper Joss Flynn; the sickening fear that Mary will be drawn into his power through no fault of her own, and will be broken by him, is set up even before the two have met. There’s a lot more in the book – the romantic fiction sub-plot revolving around the dominating and devil-may-care Jem (“I’ll … take you home to your aunt, but I’ll kiss you first, whether you like it or not”); the excursions into Mary Webb territory, with odd meditations on the pagan past and bursts of nature mysticism; the strange but apparently sympathetic figure of Francis Davey, albino intellectual vicar. But, like Davey’s paintings, it’s all coloured by a strange and compellingly doomy atmosphere, a sense of a virtuous and independent-minded heroine who is threatened with being destroyed and has no power to resist.

    To say that somebody could be ‘destroyed’ is obviously figurative – and there is a persistent, unspecific sense that something very bad is likely to happen to Mary. But Du Maurier does something rather clever at this point: she has Joss threaten Mary quite specifically, both with physical violence and with rape, and then tell her that he won’t be carrying out the threat. The reasons he gives for staying his hand vary – at one point it’s because she knows to keep her mouth shut about what goes on at the inn, at another it’s because he likes her independent spirit; obviously, this gives Mary a deeply mixed message. He underlines the point by having Mary work in the bar – which comes to life once a week, in a hellish vision of (male) violence and dissolution – and then telling her that he was the only thing keeping her safe: “Because you’re my niece they’ve left you alone, my dear, but if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” Joss has the delicacy of an abuser, working away to undermine his target’s independence and ensnare her in contradictions (he holds back because he respects her independence, but she’s only independent for as long as he holds back). He’s also a brute, in word and deed (“Now get out, and if you ever ask me a question again I’ll break every bone in your body”). He’s an extraordinary character, and not without a ghastly kind of pathos.

    Joss’s violence threatens to destroy Mary not only as a romantic heroine but as an independent person (“I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder”). The cowed, neurotic figure of Aunt Patience is an object lesson for Mary – this is what she could be reduced to. Patience also provides Mary with a reason to stay at Jamaica Inn until such time as she can get her away – although it’s not clear, to Mary or to us, how she could ever manage this. The threat to Mary’s independence and self-respect is all-pervading; even Jem, whose male power is depicted as alluring rather than threatening, talks of sex in terms of destroying Mary’s individuality: “Do they make you different from other women, then, down on Helford river? Stay here with me tonight, Mary, and we can find out. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, I’d take my oath on that.” Later in the book, when Mary narrowly escapes being raped and is bound and gagged by two different people, spending most of one crucial scene face down on a beach, the irruption of actual brutality doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s the breaking of a thundercloud which has been building up for two-thirds of the book.

    You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned smuggling – or the worse crimes of which Joss is also guilty, a darker secret lurking behind the relatively open secret of the wagons unloading at midnight. The smuggling is actually fairly incidental to the book: all that matters is that there’s something very bad going on at Jamaica Inn (something which everybody there can see but nobody must talk about), and behind that there’s something even worse (a dreadful secret, kept hidden behind a locked door). Joss is at the core of the book: first he’s set up as a monster of psychological abuse and physical brutality, then he’s depicted in his element, as the landlord of an inn which is only ever frequented by people equally grotesque. The smuggling is part manifestation of Joss’s monstrosity, part answer to the question “how does he make it pay?”.

    It’s a very powerful book, but – it’s worth saying – it’s also a very odd book. Until the denouement opens the plot out a bit, only six named characters appear, Mary apart – and five of them are out-and-out grotesques. (The exception is Squire Bassat, the magistrate and sole local representative of law and order, who is at once distant, ineffectual and threatening: when he visits the inn in Joss’s absence, Mary finds herself lying to him, her desire to protect Aunt Patience pushing her further into complicity with Joss.) It’s a vivid study of brutality – psychological as well as physical – and of a certain kind of abjection, both of which are very strongly gendered: throughout the book Mary dreams of buying her own farm and working it alone, “like a man”. One way of understanding the book is perhaps to see it as a fantastic, almost fairy-tale meditation on the conditions for women’s independence in a male-built world – much more of a real possibility when Du Maurier was writing in 1935 than in the book’s early-nineteenth-century setting, but still far from being a problem that had been solved.

    If you watched the first part of the BBC dramatisation last night, you won’t have seen very much of this at all. What you will have seen is this. (Italics = element not in the book.)

    After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan leaves behind her childhood sweetheart Ned and travels to Jamaica Inn. At the coach’s final stop before crossing the moor, she leaves the coach and bumps into Jem Flynn, a handsome young horse thief. The coachman refuses to take her to Jamaica Inn, so she asks around until she find somebody who will. At Jamaica Inn, her aunt and uncle are not expecting her. Joss Merlyn, her aunt’s husband, is a relatively small and nondescript man with a powerful physical presence. “Is she tame or does she bite?” he asks rhetorically; Mary bites him. Her Aunt Patience is a faded beauty with a spirited and independent nature, although she admits to being frightened of Joss. She is actively involved in Joss’s smuggling operation and justifies it to Mary; Mary disapproves of smuggling because her father was killed by smugglers. Serving at the bar, Mary hears one of Joss’s customers, a man called Zeb, sing a dirty song under his breath while following her around the room; the man tries to rape her and is prevented by Joss. Later, Mary sees Joss murder a man called Abe, an associate who is suspected of informing on him; Joss is reluctant to kill the man, but does so on the instructions of a third man, who is hiding in the store cupboard. The following day, Joss, Patience and some associates make a trip to the coast (in daylight) to retrieve some merchandise which has been thrown overboard; Mary goes along and takes an active part in the salvage operation, hauling on a rope at the head of a group of men. Mary goes to the nearest town and looks for a constable, but is dismayed to find that the local constable is Zeb, the man who had tried to rape her. She finds herself in the local church, where she meets the Reverend Francis Davey, who has a pleasant manner and an unremarkable appearance; he lives with his sister Hannah (their housekeeper, Beth, is the girlfriend of William, the man who had arranged for the merchandise to be thrown overboard). The vicar is called away to speak to a parishioner whose husband Abe had not come home the previous night. On the way home Mary runs into Jem, who rescues her from a bog when she blunders into it…

    Enough already. Really, it’s an adaptation in much the same sense that Fifty Shades is an adaptation of the Twilight books. The writer seems to have had a positive compulsion to change the book – altering everything from tiny details (Aunt Patience not having got Mary’s letter) to characters (spirited Patience, conscience-striken Joss, philanthropic Francis Davey). Entire scenes have been invented without regard to plausibility: it’s specifically stated in the book that smugglers don’t collect contraband mob-handed and in broad daylight; Mary, a Cornish native but a newcomer to Jamaica Inn, does have the sense not to wander into a bog but doesn’t know the way back to town. The adaptation even short-circuits a major plot point: the idea that Joss is taking orders from somebody else is floated a couple of times but never seems very believable; it is only confirmed that he had been taking orders when the identity of his boss is revealed, and (in the book) both revelations are equally shocking. (In the book, incidentally, Joss has sole responsibility for the murder; the victim is not a suspected informer but an unnamed man who wanted out of his partnership with Joss. Mary only has circumstantial evidence that the murder happened at all, and nobody else ever refers to it.)

    The result is a dramatisation with too much plot, too many characters and too little atmosphere – and a disastrously misjudged reading of the character of Mary. In the book, Mary’s passivity is key to both her virtue and her weakness -attributes which in turn are central to her character: she stays behind the bar, she refuses to have anything to do with anything illegal, and when she does venture out of the inn she’s forever getting picked up by a man in a coach and ending up where he wants to take her. Mary striding through a landscape of thinly-drawn but vaguely believeable characters – instead of a gallery of brutal and mostly nameless grotesques – is bad enough, but the real problem with this adaptation is that it has Mary striding anywhere. The book is all about a helpless but virtuous woman who can only dream of being independent, and the men who – brutally and subtly, viciously and sympathetically – arrange her life around her so that she can never achieve that dream. Lose that and you’ve basically lost the book.

    Update The second instalment was, if anything, even less faithful to the book: in the first quarter of an hour there was only one scene that came from the book at all (Mary confides in Francis Davey that bad things are happening at the inn), and even that was barely recognisable. Some of the set-piece scenes were there – Joss’s horrific account of wrecking, Mary’s meal with Jem, the trip to Launceston – but even here fidelity to the book was kept to a bare minimum. (“I thought you had a house,” said Mary to Jem as they sat outside his tent in the woods. You’re not the only one.) The revelation of the identity of the Big Bad, Joss’s unseen superior – a genuinely shocking moment in the book – was thrown away; a weirdly irrelevant sub-plot about Francis Davey running a soup-kitchen was bolted on, as well as a downright unbelievable sub-plot about Mary’s father having also been a smuggler. (Aunt Patience is Mary’s mother’s sister; Mary and her mother were from a completely different part of the county. The women in that family must just have had a thing for smugglers). Above all, the character of Mary rang false, over and over again – and in the same way. In the book, Mary didn’t respond to Joss’s confession with anger and defiance; she didn’t tell Jem to serve himself (in fact she cooked the meal herself, after sweeping up); she didn’t kiss Jem first; she didn’t agree to get a room with him; and she certainly didn’t dress in breeches for the trip to Launceston. (And when she was frocked up, it seems highly unlikely that she would have ridden astride.)

    I suppose I can understand somebody reading Jamaica Inn and finding Mary a bit wet and domesticated, but at the end of the day it’s what’s on the page – and with good reason. You can’t replace Mary with an Independent Woman without losing any claim to historical accuracy, or – more importantly – without doing violence to the entire structure of the book.

    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)

    If there’s a king in Heaven high

    Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

    1. Nobody knows who they were

    The other Sunday we went here:

    Sacrilege

    It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

    I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

    2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

    God is working His purpose out
    As year succeeds to year;
    God is working His purpose out,
    And the time is drawing near;
    Nearer and nearer draws the time,
    The time that shall surely be,
    When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
    As the waters cover the sea.

    I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

    When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
    As the waters cover the sea.

    Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

    The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

    If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

    From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

    As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

    To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

    3. And Christ receive thy soul

    The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

    That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

    JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
    Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
    JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
    AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
    JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
    AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
    JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
    AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
    JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
    AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
    JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
    AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
    JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite –
    AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
    JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
    AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
    JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

    The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

    And people aren’t the half of it.

    4. O’er heathen lands afar

    The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

    What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

    Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

    In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

    Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

    Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

    5. You’ll remember Mercury.

    As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

    The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

    We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

    Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

    Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

    6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

    Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

    Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

    There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

    Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

    There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

    Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

    Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

    The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

    Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

    We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

    7. Against principalities, against powers

    As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

    1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
    2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
    3. But GOTO 1.

    So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

    So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

    Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

    8. Everywhere all the time

    Every star shall sing a carol,
    Every creature high or low.
    Come and praise the King of Heaven
    By whatever name you know.

    God above, man below,
    Holy is the name I know.

    When the king of all creation,
    Had a cradle on the earth.
    Holy was the human body,
    Holy was the human birth.

    Who can tell what other cradle
    High above the Milky Way
    Still may rock the King of Heaven,
    On another Christmas day?

    Who can count how many crosses
    Still to come or long ago.
    Crucify the King of Heaven?
    Holy is the name I know.

    Who can tell what other body
    He will hallow for his own?
    I will praise the son of Mary,
    Brother of my blood and bone.

    Every star and every planet,
    Every creature high and low.
    Come and praise the King of Heaven,
    By whatever name you know.

    God above, man below,
    Holy is the name I know.

    “Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

    Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

    Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

    9. Sweetness follows

    A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

    Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

    Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

    Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

    Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

    On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

    10. The marvellous revealed

    I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

    The Folk Archive

    You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

    In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

    And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

    It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

    As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

    Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

    Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

    The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

    11. Careful now

    Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

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