Category Archives: history

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.

Swings and… swings

We’re not still going on about the European elections and what happened to the Labour vote, are we. That’s a statement, not a question, and actually I’m quite disappointed that we aren’t; as soon as minor-party voting intentions dropped below 20%, and the shouting about ‘four-party politics’ subsided, people seem to have lost interest in what happened. But, while we are clearly back in the world of two ‘main’ parties, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems do seem to have put quite a large dent in both the Tory and the Labour vote; it would be worth knowing whether this is likely to fade between now and, oh, say for example the end of October.

Fortunately, the Euro elections have been run before (who knew?) and – as I said in an earlier post – voters have shown a tendency to use the Euros to “send a message” before now. But what does this mean in practice? If we compared the Euro election vote with the previous General Election, we could establish that the Labour vote had dropped from 40% of a 69% turnout in 2017 to 14% of a 37% turnout in 2019, but what did that actually mean – particularly when Labour’s vote at the previous European election had been 24% of a 36% turnout, which was down from 35% of a 65% turnout in the previous General Election, which in turn was up from 15% of a 35% turnout at the Euro election before that? (Labour on 15% of the vote, eh? Dreadful! To be fair, Wikipedia says that Gordon Brown “faced calls for him to resign” after this result – but the linked news story shows that what he faced was calls to resign as Prime Minister, from the Leader of the Opposition. There doesn’t seem to have been any internal opposition to Brown – or if there was they kept their traps shut.)

Anyway, I tried for some time to work out the significance of 24% of 36% vs 40% of 69% vs 14% of 37% – or, failing that, to work out a way of representing the relevant figures in a readable chart so that I could see the significant bits – before it hit me that the only way to do it was to ditch the percentages and go back to the raw numbers. Which gives us these two little beauties. (Complete with titles. I’m spoiling you, I really am.)

Top Tip #1: look at the X axis – and in particular look at the origin. The Y axis is not centred at zero – for reasons which will be obvious when you look at the Y axis. Everything above zero is an increase in votes – or rather in millions of votes – as compared to the previous relevant election; everything below the line is a decrease, in millions of votes. The first big thing to take away from these charts is just how asymmetrical they both are. At all but one General Election from 1997 to 2017, around 15 million more people turned out to vote than had done at the previous European election; the exception is 2005, and even then the rise in turnout was over 10 million as compared to the previous year’s Euros. The negative difference between General Election turnout and turnout in the next European election varies more widely, but again mostly ranges between 10 and 15 million; the exception is the 1999 European election, where turnout was down 20 million on the General Election of 1997. (There’s a story there – or a sub-plot – about voters getting swept up in high-enthusiasm, high-turnout elections, and coming down to earth when they’re asked to vote again a couple of years later. (“What, another?”)) The main point here is that the story of the difference between a Euro election – any Euro election – and the previous General Election is not a story of swings and voter movements; it’s primarily a story of voters staying at home, or rather of who stays at home. Who stays at home, and who goes out muttering “voting? damn right I’m voting, this‘ll show ’em…”.

Top Tip #2: trend first, anomaly second. Is there a trend? We can’t understand what people are doing now without having some idea of what they were doing previously. Were voters behaving in a particular way for the run of Euro elections before 2019, and/or the run of General Elections before 2017? Fortunately in this case the trend is pretty clear; look at the columns for 2004, 2009 and 2014 in the first chart, and those for the General Elections in the following year – 2005, 2010 and 2015 – in the second chart. What do you see? In 2004, 2009 and 2014, between thirteen and seventeen million people who had voted for one of the three major parties in the previous General Election – four to seven million ex-Tory and ex-Labour voters and two to six million ex-Liberal Democrat voters – didn’t; while about four million people who hadn’t voted for the Greens or UKIP at the previous General Election, did (in a ratio of a million Greens to three million Kippers). Some people stayed loyal; a lot of people stayed at home; a minority of people cast a protest vote – and that minority was made significant by the low turnout. The chances are that most of the Euro Kippers had voted Tory rather than Labour or Lib Dem at the previous General Election – and that the opposite is true of the Euro Greens – but this is less important than the scale of these numbers: the main thing that happened at all those elections was abstention. Relative to the previous General Elections, the Tory vote fell by between half and two-thirds, Labour’s by between half and three-quarters and the Lib Dems’ by between half and five-sixths. For the most part this wasn’t a swing to anyone; the total combined Green and British nationalist vote at each of those European elections was, at most, half of the Tories’ vote at the previous General Election.

Now look at the second chart. Relative to the previous years’ Euro elections, in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the major parties are up thirteen to seventeen million votes. (Labour: up five to six million; Tories: up four to six million, and seven million in 2015; Lib Dems: up three to five million, and one million in 2015. That coalition was powerful stuff.) The Greens and British nationalists, on the other hand, are down a total of three and a half million in 2005 and 2010, and one million in 2015. Again, we can assume that these voters went back to their ‘home’ parties – and we can assume that the British nationalists probably went back to the Tories and the Greens probably didn’t – but, again, this is much less important than the change in turnout, which in each case was up by 10-15 million as compared with the previous European election. The swing away from UKIP and the Greens was far less important in determining those results than the swing away from the sofa.

So those are the trends. What about the last couple of elections? 2017, as you may remember, saw an unusual election campaign and an unusually high degree of polarisation between the two main parties. Relative to the 2014 European election, the Labour vote was up by nearly nine million and the Tories’ by nearly ten million, three or four million more than the increase in 2015. The Lib Dems, by contrast, only put on a million relative to 2014 – and, since I’ve measured both elections relative to 2014, this was effectively the same million that they’d put on in 2015 (in other words, the party’s vote was almost completely unchanged from the previous General Election; in fact it was down a bit). The Green and British nationalist votes fell by a total of five million relative to 2014 – but, again, the main swing was the swing away from not voting at all: overall turnout was up by nearly sixteen million. These were familiar changes, in other words, but on a larger scale than usual: compared to the 2014-15 vote changes, the rise in turnout, the rise in Tory and Labour votes and the decline in British nationalist votes were, respectively, 1.5 million greater (+11%), 2.3 million greater (+30%), 3.6 million greater (+67%) and 3.3 million greater (+330%). Presumably some Euro-election Kippers swung to Labour in 2017, but the numbers won’t have been huge. The main effects were turnout effects, as usual, but on a larger scale: the Tories were better than usual at getting out the vote, while Labour were a lot better than usual. Also, thanks to the EU Referendum seeming (temporarily) like old news, both parties did better than they had done in 2015 at calling roving Kippers home.

What happened in 2019? Those bars look pretty big, but I wonder if there’s less there than meets the eye. Over and over again, we’ve seen what are at first blush fairly huge movements of voters, between General Election and the following European election, followed at the subsequent General Election by an equally huge movement in the opposite direction; the burden of proof is surely on anyone maintaining that this time is different. So, this time, Labour and Tory vote shares – having gone up by 8.9 million and 9.8 million between 2014 and 2017 – are right back down again, dropping by 10.6 million and 12.1 million respectively; so too the British nationalist vote share, having gone down by 4.3 million between 2014 and 2017 – is up again, by 5.2 million. There’s a story, perhaps, in the ‘extra’ four million votes that the big parties lost, and the extra 0.9 million British nationalist votes; polarisation is increasing, even if it’s only at the margins. But it is at the margins – once again, there are some relatively small voter movements which have been made to look much bigger by the one big movement, the (usual) slump in turnout. (The Brexit Party topped the polls with 5.2 million votes; a party gaining that many votes would have been in a narrow third place at the General Elections of 1997 and 2001, and a firm fourth place in every other General  Election from 1983 to 2010.) There’s also a story in the results for the Lib Dems, who – for the first time ever – appear to have been seen as one of the ‘alternative’, ‘insurgent’ parties, and actually increased their vote as against the General Election; they put on a million votes as compared to 2017. But, just as the crash in votes for Labour and the Tories needs to be set against the unusually high votes for those two parties in 2017, the Lib Dems’ result needs to be set against their own crash in 2015 and their non-recovery in 2017: their total of 3.4 million votes, although higher than the party’s vote in those two General Elections, is lower than any other General Election that the party has ever contested. To find a General Election vote lower than 2017’s 2.4 million you need to go back to 1970, and even that represented a higher proportion of the (then) electorate than the 2017 result (5.4% vs 5.1%); in those terms Farron plumbed depths that the Liberals hadn’t seen since the 1950s and Jo Grimond’s leadership. All credit to the Lib Dems for their outstandingly clear – if opportunistic and misleading – positioning in the Euros; arguably they’ve reaped a deserved reward. But it’s also arguable that there’s only so low that the Lib Dem vote can go – Farron’s 2.4 million was lower than the party’s vote in four of the previous eight European elections. Really, after 2017 the only way was up – just as, for both the Tories and Labour, the only way was down.

What of the narratives? What of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy hitting the rocks and Farage moving in to pick up the survivors? What of Labour’s Brexit fence-sitting and the Lib Dems’ positioning as the party of Remain – what of the potential Remain Alliance, the Lib Dems and Greens piling up the votes while Labour’s vote plummeted? I think you’ll find it’s a bit less exciting than that. The 2019 results showed both Labour and the Tories doing a bit worse than might have been expected, the Brexit Party doing a bit better (at the expense of the Tories) and the Lib Dems doing substantially better (at the expense of both Labour and the Tories). But they’re not wildly out of line with earlier trends. Perhaps polarisation is increasing, but only at the margins: the main trend at this European election was abstention, just like it always is. Vote flows are a pain to model, but arithmetic is a limiting factor. The Labour and Tory votes were down (relative to 2017) by ten and twelve million respectively; the total votes for the Lib Dems plus the Greens, on one hand, and BXP plus UKIP and all the minor British nationalist parties, on the other, were 5.4 million and 5.8 million respectively.

What that means is that, in and of themselves, these figures don’t give any reason to believe that voters won’t be returning en masse to Labour and the Tories at the next high-turnout election – just as they did in 2005, 2010 and 2015, as well as 2017. In particular, if the next election follows the pattern of 2017, with a highly polarised campaign and a focus on getting out the vote – and why wouldn’t it? – we could easily see a similar bulge in the Labour vote. And if that’s followed by yet another slump – complete with the obligatory prophecies of doom and calls for Corbyn’s resignation – at the European elections in 2024, that’s a price I’d be prepared to pay.

It could be you

In February 1974, my school held a mock general election, just for laughs. A friend of ours was into politics and told us he was standing for Democratic Labour; he told us all about this exciting new breakaway from the Labour Party and its (one) MP, Dick Taverne. It sounded great. He came second last in the school, with six votes. In October 1974 the school repeated the exercise; our friend didn’t bother this time, but a group calling itself the School Reform Party stood with a platform of actual demands on the school, on the basis that even winning a mock election would give them standing as the voice of the kids. They came second, unfortunately, and life went back to normal. (This isn’t relevant to the post, but it shows you what giving people the habit of democracy can do.)

Dick Taverne, Reg Prentice, David Owen… Chuka Umunna? Lately we’ve been hearing rumours of splits again; BBC Political Correspondent Ian Watson writes:

Some people close to the Labour leadership believe a breakaway is all but inevitable – but that it will be small.

Well, we were promised one resignation on Thursday night and we didn’t even get that; breakaways don’t get much smaller than zero.

But let’s assume – in the teeth of the evidence – that Chuka and friends are going to jump at some point. Watson points out that scattered and disorganised resignations of the whip are much more likely than a big breakout in the SDP mould. Commentators have got into the habit of talking about “pro-European dissenters” as if they were a coherent group, but as Watson points out there are actually four groups of Labour MPs here:

  1. Pro-Remain but on the Left; probably the largest single group. Not going to defect.
  2. Pro-Remain, raring to go, just waiting for a signal
  3. Pro-Remain but waiting till Corbyn has Brexit well and truly hung round his neck
  4. Anti-Corbyn, raring to go but (I hate to mention this) not actually pro-Remain as such

Imponderables include: how big each of these groups is; what kind of signal is going to satisfy group 2 (and who’s going to give it); how long group 3 are prepared to wait; and whether either 2 or 3 is prepared to work with group 4 (and, indeed, whether group 4 wants to work with those posh metropolitan gits). None of these groups – with the exception of group 1, which isn’t really in the game – seems to number in double figures. All in all it’s not a promising launchpad for a party capable of repeating the successes of the SDP – let alone a party capable of achieving a bit more than keeping the Tories in power for 15 years, wasting huge amounts of money and effort, then slinking back into the Labour Party and trying to claim credit for changes that had happened while they were away. (I’ll say many things about Peter Mandelson, few of them complimentary, but he never went near the SDP.)

There’s also the C-word: career. Perhaps our doughty centrists won’t be dissuaded by the thought that leaving the Labour Party that got you elected is the act of a cynical turncoat scumbag, but they should consider that it could be a very bad career move. Consider the evidence.

In 1948, Alfred Edwards and Ivor Thomas left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. Neither resigned to trigger a by-election. Both stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1950, and were defeated.

In 1961, Alan Brown left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. He did not resign and trigger a by-election. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1964, and was defeated. He later rejoined the Labour Party.

In 1968, Desmond Donnelly left the Labour Party to form a new party, the Democratic Party. He did not resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1970, and was defeated. He later joined the Conservatives.

In 1972, our mate Dick Taverne left the Labour Party to form the Democratic Labour Party. He resigned and triggered a by-election, which he won. In February 1974 he defended his seat for the Democratic Labour Party, and – perhaps surprisingly – won again. Unfortunately he lost the seat in October 1974.

In 1974, Christopher Mayhew left the Labour Party and joined the Liberals. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in October 1974, and was defeated.

In 1976, Jim Sillars and John Robertson left the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party. They didn’t resign their seats. Robertson didn’t stand at the next election in 1979; Sillars stood and was defeated. (He later joined the SNP, and was elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1988; he was defeated at the next election in 1992.)

Also in 1976, John Stonehouse – awaiting trial for fraud – left the Labour Party to join the English National Party. After being found guilty, he resigned as an MP but did not stand in the subsequent by-election.

In 1977, Reg Prentice left the Labour Party and joined the Conservatives. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1979, and was elected; he was re-elected in 1983.

And then there was the SDP. Two bits of anecdata seem relevant here. One is Steve Bell’s defecting Labour MP Ned Lagg. Bell, of course, had no sympathy for the SDP at all; Ned Lagg was a vain, complacent old soak, who’d got comfortable on the back benches and didn’t see why being deselected by a bunch of Trots should change anything – the voters loved him, didn’t they? Successive strips showed him doing the bare minimum of campaigning – little beyond driving around the constituency in a speaker van, “I’M NED LAGG, YOUR MP. VOTE FOR LAGG ON THURSDAY.” – until the catastrophe of election night. Rejected by “his” voters, Lagg got more and more drunk and more and more angry, eventually taking to the road in the speaker van: “I’M NED LAGG AND YER ALL A BUNCHA BASTAAARDS!!!!”

Of course, no resemblance was intended to any defecting Labour MP, and I’m sure none of the people I’m about to name would do any such thing. Although the story of [name redacted] and the trout is worth mentioning. It’s 1983, it’s election night, it’s 9.00, and in the SDP campaign office all is frenzied activity. In walks [ahem], previously the sitting Labour MP for the constituency, carrying something wrapped in newspaper. He goes into the kitchen and unwraps a large trout, which he proceeds to gut and prepare. It’s an hour before the polls close. One of the campaign volunteers plucks up the courage to go and ask him, politely, what the hell he’s doing: wouldn’t this be a good time to be double-checking the canvass returns and getting the last few votes out? The MP beams and says that it’s been a very long day, and he thought the volunteers would like something nice to eat. Apparently these are the thoughts that go through your head at 9.00 on election night, if you’re an MP in the kind of seat where they only need to weigh the votes. (He did win the election that night – by 100 votes.)

In 1981, Tom Bradley, Ronald Brown, Richard Crawshaw, George Cunningham, Tom Ellis, David Ginsburg, John Grant, John Horam, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Edward Lyons, Bryan Magee, Tom McNally, Bob Mitchell, Eric Ogden, Bill Rodgers, John Roper, Neville Sandelson, Jeffrey Thomas, Mike Thomas and James Wellbeloved left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were defeated.

Also in 1981, Bruce Douglas-Mann, James Dunn, Dickson Mabon and Michael O’Halloran left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. Douglas-Mann resigned his seat and triggered a by-election, at which he was defeated. Dunn, Mabon and O’Halloran did not resign. Dunn and Mabon did not stand at the 1983 election. O’Halloran was not selected as the SDP’s candidate in his old constituency, Islington North; objecting to this decision, he stood in 1983 as an Independent Labour candidate. He got 11% of the vote, coming in fourth behind Labour, the Conservatives and the SDP. The new Labour MP was Jeremy Corbyn, who has held the seat ever since.

Also in 1981, John Cartwright, Robert Maclennan, David Owen and Ian Wrigglesworth left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were re-elected. Wrigglesworth was defeated at the following election in 1987; Cartwright, Maclennan and Owen were re-elected. Following the 1988 merger of the SDP and the Liberals, the (continuing) SDP was wound up in 1990; Owen resigned from the Commons in 1992, while Cartwright – standing as an Independent Social Democrat – was defeated. Maclennan, now a Liberal Democrat, was re-elected in 1992 and 1997, before retiring from the Commons in 2001.

In 2001, Paul Marsden left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat. He re-joined the Labour Party shortly before the next next election in 2005, but didn’t stand for re-election.

In 2005 – shortly before that year’s general election – Brian Sedgemore left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat and didn’t stand for re-election.

That’s a total of 40 defectors from Labour, most of whom I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. (All male, for what that’s worth. Only two women MPs have voluntarily left one party for another (there’d be stronger female representation if we included expulsions and MPs sitting as independents); one (Emma Nicholson) defected from the Tories, and the other (Cynthia Mosley) is before our time-frame.) 37 of the 40 crossed the floor without triggering a by-election; one triggered a by-election but didn’t stand in it; and one of the two who did put his mandate to the test lost his seat for his pains. (I respect his principles, but otherwise I can only tell you one thing about Bruce Douglas-Mann: the Guardian by-election sketchwriter pointed out that his surname is an anagram of Glumsod-Nana.) Five of the remaining 39 retired at the next election; 28 were defeated; six were re-elected. Only four – Cartwright, Maclennan, Owen and Prentice – served in the Commons for ten years or more under their new party’s colours; and two of those careers were ended by the dissolution of that party, or what remained of it. David Owen hasn’t done badly out of politics overall – Christopher Mayhew and Bill Rodgers haven’t done too badly, come to that – but overall it’s really not a record of success.

The question for today’s potential defectors – John Mann? Neil Coyle? Angela Smith? – really is, do you feel lucky? Do you think you’d defy the odds? Do you think you’re the next David Owen or Bob Maclennan? Or is it more likely that you’d be the next Desmond Donnelly or Edward Lyons – or Michael O’Halloran? And yer all a buncha bastaaards…

But then – coming back to the ‘career’ question – political success isn’t the only form of success in politics. No fewer than 11 of the 40 people I’ve listed ended up in the House of Lords – Prentice for the Tories, Owen as an “independent social democrat”, Crawshaw, Horam, Maclennan, McNally, Mayhew, Rodgers, Roper, Taverne and Wrigglesworth for the Lib Dems – which must be four or five more than the same group would have achieved if they’d all stayed in the Labour Party. Thoughts about small ponds and big fish (sorry Ian) go here. And Lord Umunna does have a certain ring to it…

Don’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt

Here’s what I know about Seumas Milne. He’s probably an old tankie; he’s certainly gotsome of the reflexive anti-imperialist instincts which used to characterise tankies. Show him a foreign policy crisis and he’ll ask

  1. Is it the result of past Western intervention?
  2. Is it being promoted to justify current or future Western intervention?
  3. Is it being promoted to distract attention from other, more pressing examples of past or current Western intervention?

The anti-imperialist framing always comes first; if there is any element of the current crisis which fits that framing, that’s the element to focus on. If not… well, should we really be devoting our time and attention to crises our government has nothing to do with?

Back in the 1980s – when tankies were tankies – I did a lot of reading about Eastern Europe & was genuinely interested in the different trajectories towards liberalisation and “modernisation” being experimented in the different states: Hungary was trying out free markets and their dissidents seemed quite advanced in their thinking, but could we really trust either them or the government? the Polish unions were strong, of course, but was the democratic socialist current getting lost? might Yugoslav ‘self-management’ represent a genuine third way? Naturally I had very little time for those who maintained that imperialist encroachments on the USSR’s sphere of influence were the main issue here, what with the Soviet Union being a bulwark against Western imperialism.

But you didn’t have to have any sympathy with the Soviet Union to view the world in terms of Western imperialism. Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics quotes Noam Chomsky putting the case in fairly blunt terms:

I’ve been in 10,000 teach-ins in my life, I don’t know how many. Every one of them is about something happening somewhere else. I go to a teach-in on Central America, a teach-in on the Middle East, a teach-in on Vietnam. That’s all nonsense. Everything’s happening in Washington. It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world.

This way of thinking to me was heresy, and intellectual heresy at that: heresy against my faith in knowing more about stuff as a value in itself, as well as my conviction that the world wasn’t – couldn’t be – mono-causal as well as unipolar. I still held that view when Yugoslavia was torn apart by pan-Serb expansionism, ratified by the West; I still held that view when an illegal war was launched by NATO against Serbia and the bulk of the British Left rallied, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the side of Serbia. (I’ve no idea what Seumas Milne said about Kosovo, but I somehow doubt I’d agree with it.)

But Kosovo was a turning-point, as it was for a lot of people: Attila Hoare has said that he opposed the intervention at the time – supporting Workers’ Aid for Kosova instead – but came to the realisation that he’d been wrong. It was the other way for me: knowing the Serbian & Kosovar background, I detested the Serbian government, was repulsed by what they were trying to do and began by supporting the intervention – in principle. As the details of the intervention came out – how it was being conducted, its basis in law, the Rambouillet treaty, etc – it gradually dawned on me that I supported an intervention against the Serbian government, but not this one: this one was being carried out by the wrong people, using the wrong weaponry, against the wrong targets, with the wrong (lack of) legal basis and the wrong war aims. And, since the right intervention wasn’t available – the Workers’ Aid initiative was probably the closest thing – it turned out that I was opposed to the intervention, like everyone else. It was a learning experience.

The point of all this is that the mindset that sees the world through an anti-imperialist lens – and applies something like the checklist I set out earlier – has certain definite merits along with its flaws. The main one is that it’s not (very often) actually wrong: there are very few countries in which Britain (or the US) is interested, where Britain (or the US) hasn’t in the past stirred the pot pretty hard. Going anti-imperialist isn’t just a short-cut, saving you all those tedious ‘teach-in’s about different things going on in different countries; it will, generally, give you something you can work with. Which brings us to the second point: anti-imperialism is – almost by definition – relevant to domestic politics. People like me may genuinely want to know which Syrian tribal faction is historically associated with which strand of Islam, but people like me are academics. If you can point to a treaty, an arms deal, an investment vehicle – something that explains our government’s actions, and by the same token something that our government has leverage over – then you’re doing something politically relevant. It can also be argued, lastly, that anti-imperialist politics is excluded from the mainstream, so this angle is worth pursuing just to strengthen those voices. (However, this on its own is the weakest and most contentious of the three points – if you think it’s hard to get an anti-imperialist angle into the papers, just try getting a column out of “government policy overlooks complex but interesting history of region (again), says jaded academic”.)

Coming back to Seumas Milne: what all this tells us is that, to the extent that he’s retained the anti-imperialist instincts of his tankie youth, this

(a) doesn’t tell us anything about his current politics – other that he’s on the Left(!) – and

(b) isn’t actually wrong, particularly for someone whose day-job is being a political operative

Which brings us, finally, to the extraordinary hatchet-job recently printed in Private Eye (issue 1489). I’m going to extract sections from this and sort them into chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent.

The Communist Party opposed the Common Market not only because it was a bosses’ club but also because it would “consolidate the military power of the so-called Western Alliance against the Socialist countries”, as the party said in 1962 when then PM Harold Macmillan raised the prospect of British membership. European unity had to be opposed because it challenged the Soviet Union.

Seumas Milne was born in 1958. He was never a member of the Communist Party.

“We would withdraw from Nato and the EEC,” schoolboy Seumas wrote in his manifesto as the Maoist candidate in a mock-general election at Winchester College in 1974

Milne would have been 15 or 16 at this point.

The old Communist Party was anti-European. In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, it allied with Enoch Powell and the National Front to fight for a “no” vote.

What ‘Ratbiter’ omits to mention here is that the Labour Party also campaigned for a No vote (despite the Labour government advocating a Yes vote – it was messy, albeit highly democratic). Of course, none of this constituted being ‘allied with’ those elements of the Right that also advocated No.

In 1979 Milne became business manager of Straight Left, a secretive faction in the Communist and Labour parties.

Straight Left was the (unofficial) publication of a tankie faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain, some of whose members joined the Communist Party of Britain when it split; the faction also had sympathisers in the Labour Party. Milne was never a member of either of the Communist Parties. Something else our author omits to mention here is that Milne left Straight Left after two years to join the Economist, where he worked from 1981 until he joined the Guardian in 1984.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne transferred his loyalties from Soviet communism to the Russian gangster capitalism that succeeded it. In a 2014 Guardian piece he assured readers the Ukraine war was not Putin’s fault but that of the EU, whose “effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy”.

Quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Milne was motivated to take the job at Straight Left, back in 1981, by ideological sympathies – that he (like a surprising number of others on the Left in the 1980s) genuinely believed that the USSR was a socialist bloc and a force for peace. We’ve no evidence that he still held that belief at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989). Also, it’s both lazy and defamatory to convert an ideological belief into a (potentially treasonous) “loyalty” (“go back to Russia!”). Lastly, seeing the world – up to and including the war between Russia and Ukraine – through an anti-imperialist lens is simply what an anti-imperialist will tend to do; it’s not evidence of positive sympathies with whoever is targeted by the West, let alone of “loyalty” to Putin’s Russia. (If ever there was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence…!)

Rival Marxist factions understand Milne’s importance. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, a Trotskyist group, commented in 2017: “The Article 50 fiasco, and Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left.”

The AWL is a tiny group with a long and chequered history, characterised mainly by ruthless factionalism and sub-Spiked contrarianism. There are some good people in there, but it’s the last group you’d go to for a reliable opinion on other parts of the Left.

To those who understand the power struggles on the left, Milne’s dominance was assured when Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaigns chief, resigned in 2017 after clashing with Milne over Europe. Fletcher was a former aide to Ken Livingstone, and within days of his departure Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin published a thunderous piece rebuking Milne by declaring: “There is no socialist or even people’s Brexit.”

Simon Fletcher has been named in connection with another (even smaller) Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, which Livingstone has worked with. The main contributor to Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin is Tom O’Leary, who wrote the piece mentioned; it doesn’t mention Milne. Joining the dots is fine, but this is more drawing than dots.

Coming right up to date (possibly):

In conversations with journalists, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says Seumas is the greatest single obstacle to his attempts to shift Corbyn to a pro-European stance. The shadow Brexit secretary adds, with a despairing roll of his eyes, that Milne wants Britain to leave and form a global alliance of anti-American countries.

But Starmer doesn’t seem to have said any of this on the record, so who knows?

And on the basis of all this, ‘Ratbiter’ signs off by dubbing Milne

an unrepentant communist

Or rather, an unrepentant Putinite, presumably – keep up!

I hold no brief for Milne; I’m quite sure he’s an anti-imperialist of a fairly crude variety & strongly suspect he was a Stalinist in his younger days, neither of which endear him to me at all. (I would also agree that he’s not the ideal companion for Corbyn when Brexit’s on the table, and hope that Keir Starmer has also made this point.) But fairly crude anti-imperialism isn’t that big a handicap for someone in Milne’s current role, and – as far as his current beliefs are concerned – anything beyond that is speculation and smear.

“I’ve met Communists,” a Communist said to me once, “and – you know what? – none of them had two heads.” As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this is one that continues to be relevant. The fact that someone holds unusual or ‘extreme’ views doesn’t make them an alien being – a ruthless political operator, a treasonous subversive. The Left – they may not have much time for art galleries and medieval towns, but in most other ways they really are just like you and me.

I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

Written on your face

“Looking back on life is such a retrospective thing,” Pete Shelley once wrote (although he probably doesn’t like to be reminded of it). Actually, an awful lot of life is a retrospective thing. We all live in the past to some extent; if you didn’t you’d have terrible trouble finding the stairs.

Popular music is one of the more retrospective things, if you’re old enough not to be discovering it for the first time (and if you’re reading this, what are the chances?). I’ve written about Robyn Hitchcock three times on this blog before now, if you set aside brief references in posts on nonsense verse, dreaming and death (2006, 2017). In 2005 I looked back on a 1993 gig, and how Robyn dealt with hecklers during the introduction to a song about watching his father dying; in 2008 I saw Robyn on TV and looked back at my memories of seeing him live, going back to 1979; in 2009 I mused about a recently-completed paper (which would never be published) and a dream about Barack Obama, while listening to a song from 2003 in which Robyn looked back on 1976.

This really ought to make me feel old, but in practice very few things do that. What it does make me feel is slightly dizzy – not so much “the past inside the present”, more the past inside the past, inside the past, inside the past, inside another past – and all of those pasts inside the present, for now. (Will I be looking back on this post in a year’s time – or ten years’ time – and writing, In 2018 I looked back on...? Let’s hope so.)

And it’s been a lifetime
And with you I celebrate my life

I didn’t feel old when I went to see Robyn Hitchcock the other month (I did later, when I had to run for the bus home, but that’s another story). I was a bit startled by how old everyone else was, though – the venue (“Club Academy”, which turned out to mean the basement of the Students’ Union(!)) seemed to be packed out with grey-haired men, with a scattering of grey-haired couples. There were a lot of more or less smart-looking older men, a smaller number of ageing rockers and folkies and a few people who looked as if life hadn’t been very kind to them; what there wasn’t, as far as I could see, was more than a handful of people under 40. I realised what was going on, and wondered if anyone else had been in the audience the first time I saw Robyn, a Soft Boys gig at the Hope and Anchor in 1979; I tried to edit our over-55 selves into my memory of that pub back room, but we looked very out of place. Noticing the number of people checking their phones, I automatically edited my mental image accordingly – black or beige plastic, rotary dials, wires trailing – but now it just looked silly.

It’s been a lifetime – my adult lifetime, anyway. I first saw the Soft Boys a few weeks before I went up to university and last saw them shortly before I graduated, by which time they were in the process of splitting; in between I saw them another three times, including one gig where a couple of friends of mine had talked themselves onto the very bottom of the bill, as an unofficial (and unpaid) support act. I’d been trying vaguely to get started as a singer, and persuaded them to let me take vocals on one of their songs – the fact that neither of them knew the lyrics was what swung it for me. (No, they couldn’t just look them up. It was 1980.) So it was that I made my performing debut, singing the Stranglers’ “Grip” with the (loosely-defined) band Shovel Robinson, supporting (a couple of other bands who genuinely were supporting) the Soft Boys. There’s glory for you.

The last time I saw the Soft Boys was in 1982, after Kimberley Rew had formally left the band; the other three started the gig without him, and he only joined them on stage for the last few numbers. I only mention this because one of Morris Windsor’s drum pedals malfunctioned mid-gig, leading to a hiatus in which little could be heard apart from intermittent shouts of “Kimberley!” from the back of the room; to this Robyn responded, “I love Kimberley dearly, but he can’t be used for hitting a drum”.

I don’t remember seeing Robyn after that until 1993 (Manchester Academy, with the Egyptians – Morris Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe).

The missing Avenger planes
Will never return to base
Don’t you wait up for them

How often have you boys said
“I ain’t gonna bump no more”?
We ain’t gonna bump no more

Over the subsequent 25 years (steady – touch of vertigo again) I’ve seen him another seven times – solo, with the Venus Three and with other combinations of musicians, including on one occasion Morris and Kimberley, of all people. But that 1993 gig still sticks in my mind: Respect material – still my favourite Hitchcock album – and played by the old gang, or 3/4s of it (supplemented by an additional guitarist). I’ve never seen staging like it, apart from anything else; rather than sit at the back behind a drumkit, Morris Windsor stood at the front of the stage alongside Robyn and Andy Metcalfe, behind a tiny and mostly electronic kit. (And a vocal mic, of course; three-part harmonies were always part of the deal.) The additional guitarist, whose name was Eric, was left to lurk at the back. At one point Robyn, Morris and Andy got into a semi-serious discussion of who’d worked with Robyn longer, who’d been there “at the start”; Robyn wound it up by saying, “Of course, Eric was there all along. Eric’s been there longer than any of us – it’s just that he’s only recently become… apparent.” The Yip Song was amazing (Morris’s ‘kit’ included a real snare), as was its intro; Robyn was on good introductory form generally. Other than that I mainly remember a couple of solo songs mid-set. Robyn did “I’ve got a message for you” and, seemingly irked by the number of people singing every single word back at him, went off-piste in the middle eight:

Though I’m not a piece of veal
Or a piece of beef
The way you sink your teeth in me
Is beyond belief!

I burst out laughing and clapped quite loudly – which Robyn responded to (I was standing right in front of him at the time) by going into an extended drunk-Elvis “Thankyou-ladeez-an-gennelmen-ah-thangyew-so-verr-verr-much” routine. So that was fun, not to mention a bit weird (“Ah felt like I was bein’ fitted with a new artificial arrrm…”).

In the same solo section, Robyn did “She doesn’t exist”, a song which (in 1993) I didn’t know but (at the age of 32) thought was quite pretty and rather sad. After the song I saw Robyn give his eyes a quick dab with a bar towel and thought, “that must really mean a lot to him”; it certainly didn’t mean anything to me. Twenty-five years later, at Club Academy, he did the song – again – as one of a few solo songs mid-set; as soon as I recognised it I thought, you utter bastard. Then stood there for three minutes with a wet face.

They didn’t do “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” the other night; I don’t remember if they did it that night in 1993, either, although it seems probable. I do know that Arthur Lee was another subject of which I was ignorant, back then. It was three years later that I met the friend who introduced me to the music of Arthur Lee and his psychedelic band Love. That in turn was seven years before she got to meet and hang out with Arthur Lee, which was three years before he died, which is twelve years ago now. The past inside… the past, inside the past, inside the present.

Meanwhile back at the Hope in 1979, Robyn’s switched to bass – a rather striking blue Danelectro ‘longhorn’ bass – and he and Andy are sharing the dense, skittery bassline of “Insanely Jealous”. On guitar, Kimberley is having fun experimenting with feedback and playing with the volume knobs – muting his guitar completely, hitting a chord and then fading it in or wa-wa-ing it in and out. And that’s just the accompaniment. When it’s time for his solo he goes… I wouldn’t say he goes crazy, exactly, not least because that would imply a strong contrast with how he was for the rest of the gig. It’s more that the solo lets him do what he does, only without reining himself in: when it’s time for his solo, he goes. He had – and for all I know still has – an extraordinary sound, reminiscent of Floyd-era Barrett and not really of much else; a kind of lucid, liquid howl. I remember that solo, the best part of 40 years on, and I remember Kimberley’s weird range of ‘psychedelic guitarist’ mannerisms – the gurning, the pouting, the chin-jutting, the Fab Four head-shaking… Kimberley always did have quite an impressive mop of hair, although the last time I saw it I didn’t immediately recognise it, or him (like Robyn, he seems to have more or less skipped ‘grey’ and gone straight for white).

And who is this, on stage with Robyn in 2018 at the rock and roll toilet that is Club Academy, rhythmically jutting his head and pouting, shaking a greying mop of hair as he gets stuck into the solo on “Insanely Jealous”? It’s Luther Russell, of course! Well, of course. And he’s pretty good; seems like a nice guy, too. He doesn’t quite have that sound, though (nobody does). More importantly, there’s never any danger that he’s going to pick the gig up and run off with it; never any question about who’s on stage with whom. It’s odd, though – while he’s no spring chicken himself, Luther would have been only just into secondary school when the Soft Boys broke up (not to mention being located on the wrong continental landmass). He must have watched a lot of videos – and I didn’t think there were any videos.

It was an odd gig; it mostly consisted of 1980s material, although Robyn was also promoting a limited 2011 album which has just had a full(er) release and – almost incidentally – a new album. The new album looks good, sounds excellent (some really nice, gnarly guitar sounds) and includes some of his best material in years; it’s even called Robyn Hitchcock, which might seem to suggest a push into a wider market. There weren’t any copies on sale at the gig, though, which may be why Robyn’s efforts to promote it were fairly perfunctory. That, and the difficulty of selling anything these days. “This is from the new album, which you can’t buy from us, although you can buy it… somewhere. But the music is available everywhere.” (On a side note, I ordered the CD direct from Yep Roc in the States. Postage was reasonable and HMRC didn’t make any trouble.)

Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God…
Mad Shelley’s letterbox is full of birthday cards

Alternatively, perhaps the passage of time has been weighing on Robyn’s mind as well. (Quick question: why would someone’s letterbox be full of birthday cards? Yes, that, obviously. But why else?) And perhaps Robyn’s opening remarks on reaching retirement age but still being on tour (he turned 65 in March) were more than just rueful banter. The past (“Insanely Jealous”), inside the past (“Chinese Bones”), inside the past (“Madonna of the Wasps”)… inside the past (“Sally was a Legend”), inside the past, (“Goodnight Oslo”), inside the present. You have been listening to: Robyn Hitchcock.

 

Rich as honey dew – supplemental

I agree with Jonathan Freedland, up to a point.

On the notion that antisemitism is being “weaponised” against the Labour leadership

Freedland’s argument on this point is odd. It starts well

It’s quite true that the issue has been picked up by those on the right with no love for Labour, or for Jews for that matter. It’s hard to take seriously the outrage of the Mail or Telegraph when both have reached for the antisemitic dog whistle in the recent past, attacking Ralph Miliband or George Soros using the familiar old codes.

but takes an odd swerve

you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge. As one who knows this community well, I can tell you: what’s motivating those Jews protesting about antisemitism in Labour is fear of antisemitism, no more and no less.

and then goes right off the rails.

This needs to be stressed because what lies beneath such a view is a notion that is itself antisemitic: that Jews do not act sincerely, but always with an ulterior motive or hidden agenda.

We might not like to think of Jewish people operating cynically and in bad faith, particularly on as important an issue as antisemitism – and there are certainly good reasons not to rush into such an accusation. But ruling it out altogether smacks of a rather patronising essentialism – as if it wasn’t possible for anyone who was Jewish to be a political operator. Which would be nice, but really, it ain’t necessarily so. As for the second point, certainly it would be antisemitic to say that Jews in general usually have a hidden agenda, but logically you can’t get from there to assuming antisemitism every time a particular Jewish person, or a particular Jewish group, is said to have a hidden agenda. Disprove “all Xs are Y” and you don’t make a dent on “some Xs are Y”, let alone “this particular X is Y”.

On the view, tweeted by the former minister Chris Mullin, that Jewish leaders were “ganging up on Corbyn” because of “criticism of Israel”

According to Freedland, this “falls apart on the facts”, inasmuch as the prompts for the current controversy had nothing to do with Israel but involved straightforwardly antisemitic themes and accusations. But this, again, fails on logic. If Jo goes over Nik’s performance of a task with a fine-toothed comb, it may mean that Jo cares deeply about the task, or it may just mean that Jo is gunning for Nik. And, of course, this pattern of behaviour is all the more credible when the reason why Jo has it in for Nik has some connection with what Nik’s been tasked with – as in the case of the supposed grounds for criticism of Corbyn (Israel) and the actual topic (antisemitism). Or is Freedland suggesting that Jewish leaders who oppose Corbyn’s stance on Israel don’t see the nation of Israel as having anything to do with the interests of the Jewish people? Huge if true.

On the view that a political party will always reflect wider society, that for as long as there are antisemites in the UK there will be antisemites in Labour

Freedland says that this won’t do, and I entirely agree; Labour and the Left need to take antisemitism more seriously and do much better.

For one thing, the left exists to change society, not simply to reflect its existing defects: it’s right to expect better of Labour than of other parties.

Yes, absolutely. Later in the piece, in fact, Freedland quotes a piece from the Morning Star which is a perfect example of the kind of disdain for the gains of liberalism (at least, this particular gain of liberalism) that I talked about in the previous post.

when you are homeless and your bed is a piece of cardboard, rows about alleged anti-semitism are not on your list of priorities for the day and night ahead. Staying alive, being warm, having food is.

When your family are housed in a one-room bed and breakfast and your children have nowhere to play, nowhere to do homework, nowhere to bring friends back to, anti-semitism accusations don’t figure much in your daily list of getting by.

When you are a carer on £64 per week, living a humdrum, relentless everyday routine of caring for a disabled person, attending to their needs and ignoring your own, a break and a holiday is more pressing than what people thought of a mural back in 2012.

It’s carefully worded – with her references to “alleged anti-semitism”, “anti-semitism accusations” and “what people thought of a mural”, at no point does the writer actually say that actual anti-semitism couldn’t be a problem for people experiencing poverty and hardship. But then, she only acknowledges in passing that there is such a thing as actual anti-semitism, or that the recrudescence of anti-semitism is something people might reasonably worry about. In any case, it’s an odd and stunted form of socialism that rejects liberal demands on the grounds that they operate too high up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (“Votes at 16? That’s not going to get many rough sleepers off the street!”)

On Labour, antisemitism and conspiracy theory

the antisemites exposed within Labour … have not wandered into the wrong party by mistake. They’re not BNP-types who misread the sign on the door. On the contrary, their racism is a warped deformation of their leftism.

Here, though, Freedland goes wrong (again). In assuming that there is some connection between antisemitism and some form of Leftism, he is necessarily assuming that antisemitism is more common on the Left than on the Right, or at least letting himself in for some very fancy footwork involving multiple forms of antisemitism and countervailing factors operating differentially on different parts of the political spectrum. The evidence says that antisemitism is no more common on the Left than on the centre or centre-right (and, as I said the other day, the fact that it’s no less common is quite bad enough to be going on with). That being the case, my old friend William of Ockham says that there’s no reason to assume multiple forms of antisemitism operating in different parts of the map, least of all when we also need to assume countervailing factors merrily (and quietly) epicycling away to offset some of them. Chances are, Labour antisemitism looks a lot like Liberal Democrat antisemitism or even Conservative antisemitism.

Remember, antisemitism differs from other racisms in its belief that Jews are the secret masters of the universe, pulling the strings that shape world events – and always for the sake of evil.

With respect, no; this is in no sense unique to antisemitism. Nils Christie wrote about an old woman he’d met who suffered from psychotic delusions; she believed she was regularly visited by the Devil and by smaller demons who tormented her. Lonely, shunned, living in poverty and continual distress, this woman was voiceless and powerless; and she was very lucky not to have lived 400 years ago, when she would have been seen as a witch by people who hung on her every word and lived in fear of her power. This weird psychological inversion – the projection of vast power and wealth onto people who are clearly poor and powerless – is at the heart of witchfinding as well as the pogrom. More generally, it’s a framing that recurs again and again, from Britain to Bosnia to Russia to Rwanda, when people turn against a minority that lives among them. In the pogromist mind, the fantasy of the victims’ power and the reality of their vulnerability are stitched together with the half-believed justification that the violence is pre-emptive: they need to strike now, while the victims are still weak, or it’ll be too late – the fantasised power will have become real. The pogrom mentality is an identifiable thing – but not all pogroms are directed against Jews.

Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

And, once again, we’re right off the rails, ending up with the weird and rather insulting suggestion that we should care about antisemitism because of what it says about where society’s going. I’m not an expert on the Nazis, but I do tend to think the Holocaust was the worst thing they did, in and of itself, rather than being an indicator of just how bad things were getting for subjects of Nazi rule in general. As for ‘conspiracy theory’, let me put in a word here for all those who believe that Lee Oswald was neither a leftist malcontent nor a lone gunman; that, while Harold Wilson may have been paranoid, elements of the British security state actually were out to get him; or for that matter, that there are such things as a “security state”, a “permanent government”, “deep politics” or an “international drugs/guns network” (particularly, in the last case, those who were writing about it before the Iran/Contra story blew (hi Robin, hi Steve)).

The trouble with conspiracy theories is the ‘theory’ element, not the ‘conspiracy’ – conspiracies are a perfectly normal (albeit illegitimate) organisational form, used throughout history by groups of people (pre-existing or ad hoc) who want to pursue common interests while minimising accountability. Conspiracy theories, by and large, are readings of episodes in contemporary history that give conspiratorial modes of organising greater prominence than usual, and they’re not inherently any less valid than any other type of theory. Deterministic conspiracy theories are bad because they’re deterministic; racist conspiracy theories are bad because they’re racist; conspiracy theories that assume everyone involved acts in perfect unity to achieve long-term goals which don’t benefit them directly are bad because they’re wildly implausible, and so on. Anyone who classes all conspiracy theories as deterministic, racist and/or implausible hasn’t thought very hard about the meaning of the word ‘conspiracy’ – or else they’ve tacitly redefined it to include one of those disqualifying characteristics.

This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, because conspiracy theory – properly understood – is a useful resource, a way of looking at the world that affords genuine insights. Secondly, because conspiracy theory is associated with unofficial and ‘alternative’ readings of history; by bracketing conspiracy theory with antisemitism, Freedland effectively (re-)draws the line between official and unofficial, mainstream and alternative, acceptable and ‘crank’, and loads the second term in each pair with all the opprobrium that antisemitism fully deserves. This, clearly, is not helpful – not least because (thirdly) there are good and bad ways of looking at history and current affairs, approaches worth following and approaches to avoid; and forswearing ‘conspiracy theory’ won’t reliably keep you among the good guys. “Yeah, well, Zionist lobby innit” is bad history and bad analysis, but it’s bad because it’s lazy and relies on othering, not because it’s a conspiracy theory: “yeah, well, Corbynites innit” is no better. “We think it’s worth noting that X met Y on [date], after which Y co-signed a letter with A, B and C” may have the form of a conspiracy theory, but it’s good analysis (or at least it may be).

In sum, antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness of it. But it is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies (whose Jewishness is no proof against political cynicism), and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed.

That said, we can also follow an example from Bertolt Brecht and run the same thoughts in the opposite order. Anti-semitism is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies, and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed. But antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness.

Rich as honey dew – 2

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 2.

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

“The buggers are legal now – what more are they after?”
– Tom Robinson, “Glad to be gay” (1978)

As we know, the Community Security Trust found last year that anti-semitism was no more common on the Left than in the centre or centre-Right. Good news on the face of it – at least, less-bad news than we might have feared – but Richard draws attention to a neglected, and troubling, corollary:

this also means the Left is not exempted from antisemitism. Indeed, the CST asserts – and this does not seem prima facie implausible – that if the Left is not more antisemitic than the political ‘centre-ground’, it is also not less antisemitic. We should think about what that means. Would we be dismayed to learn that people who identified with the Left were no less racist than the mean when it came to anti-black racism, or Islamophobia?

Are we – Labour and the Left – not precisely the people who stand for universal equality and against any form of discrimination? Do we not pride ourselves on taking the side of any despised, excluded or exploited minority – and beat ourselves up over failures to do so? Why are we not taking the lead in opposing antisemitism? What’s our blind spot about the Jews as a minority?

Let’s rewind to that word ‘exploited’. The core values of the socialist Left are to do with collective interests, not respect for individuals; it fights for class justice, not individual rights; it opposes exploitation, not inequality. The tradition that rests on equal rights for all and respect for individual flourishing is liberalism, not socialism. The two need each other, but they’re always in tension; a liberalism of individual rights is quite compatible with free competition between workers, including the freedom to undercut on wages and working conditions. (Employment rights? They’re your rights, so if you want to waive them in order to get that job it’s nobody’s business but yours.)

More to our current point, socialism – in and of itself – has more to say about some forms of systematic discrimination than others. Socialists are against exploitation per se (“More pay! Less work!”, the workerists used to say), and against super-exploitation in particular: opposition to misogyny (low pay and the “double burden”) and to the racism of “dirty jobs” (and low pay) are straightforwardly coherent socialist positions. Other forms of discrimination take a bit more working-out to fit within a socialist framework, but not much more: Islamophobia, homophobia, ableism can all be seen as strategies for dividing up the working class, carried out not by the bosses but by workers hoping to secure their position by rigging the competition between them. “Don’t want to wear the same uniform as the rest of us? Can’t get up the steps before the bell goes? Not got a girlfriend to introduce to the boss? Sorry, mate, not my problem!” What socialism says to those workers is to stop trying to scrape up a bit of individual advantage and recognise their class interest – a class which, of course, includes Muslim, gay and disabled workers.

Liberalism is very strong on discrimination as a thing in itself; socialism, less so. Liberalism says “she is your equal: if you classify her in any way that might make her less than equal to you, you are in the wrong”. Socialism says “she is a worker like you: if you try and gain individual advantage over her in any way, you’re scabbing on your class”. From this it follows that socialism doesn’t have a lot to say in situations where a discriminatory ideology exists but a pattern of discriminatory practice is not apparent. Forty years on from the 1970s – when so much consciousness first got raised – there is, still, a gender pay gap; disabled people still suffer widespread social exclusion; young Black and Asian men are, still, over-policed and under-achieving relative to their White peers: there’s obvious work to be done, on the front of opposition to exploitation.

The situation of Jews seems different, though (a Gentile writes, cautiously). This is certainly a country with a substantial past record of structural and cultural discrimination against Jews – remember David Salomons MP, remember the Aliens Acts, remember After Strange Gods, remember Cable Street… And the themes and tropes of anti-semitism are still lying around, as it were. The title for these posts is taken from the sentimental Lancashire folk song “A mon like thee”, which you’ll still hear occasionally in folk clubs, at least in a lightly bowdlerised version; in the original (which may date back to the 1910s or only to the ’60s) the narrator’s long-lost brother reveals himself to be “as rich as any Jew”.

All the same, a history of discrimination and the cultural relics of discrimination aren’t the same as a continuing reality of discrimination. Here and now, it’s not obvious to me in what way-

A READER: In what way Jews are discriminated against? It’s not obvious to you in what way Jews have anything to complain about? You can’t see any pattern of discriminatory practice in… oh, I don’t know… visibly Jewish people being attacked in the streets? cemeteries being vandalised? schools doubling their security patrols? (Does your kids’ school even have a security patrol, by the way?) I suppose all that’s OK because it’s not obvious to you that it’s going on. It’s pretty bloody obvious to us!

Good point, that reader. But I’m afraid I stand (cautiously) by my original point. You could say that racist attacks on Black and visibly Muslim individuals are warfare: our majority-white, nominally-Christian society is continually attacking those groups of people through exclusion and super-exploitation; outright violence is just the extreme end of the spectrum. (Radical feminists would say something similar about domestic violence and rape, and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.) Anti-semitic attacks are less like war and more like terrorism: they single out a group that isn’t being systematically excluded or exploited. Terrorism is fundamentally a communicative strategy, and the analogy holds good here. The message being communicated is we know what you are; they say you’re normal members of this society, but we know different – and now so do you.

In other words, the key message of antisemitic attacks – in a society where Jews have formal and practical equality – is a threat: the threat to change that situation, to revert to the old state of affairs in which Jews were systematically excluded and exploited. Rejecting this threat and upholding the equal citizenship Jews now have is a position we can, and should, get behind, but it’s not inherently a socialist position; it might even be seen as a distraction from the task of demanding equal citizenship for groups that are currently excluded and exploited. (Although, as Metatone points out in comments, this argument rests on somebody drawing a line between “excluded and exploited minority group” and “minority group but, meh”, and Socialism isn’t going to be able to do that in person. Rather, the line will be drawn by actual socialist groups, up to and including the Labour Party, or rather by the people controlling those groups and setting their agenda – which will tend to mean people who aren’t members of minority groups.) According to this argument, equal citizenship is a liberal achievement, and, valuable as they may be, preserving the gains of liberalism isn’t a socialist goal; which is to say, achieving it doesn’t take us further towards an end to exploitation.

At least, that’s a tenable argument, and one which might explain the asymmetry between Left positions on antisemitism and (say) Islamophobia. I don’t think it’s correct, though. This, unlike the previous two, is actually an optimistic point, because I think what we’ve got here is a blind spot that we can – and should – do some work on. If you’re familiar with the Hegelian dialectic, you’ll know that at each stage the opposition between two antithetical elements is resolved – not by splitting the difference or agreeing to differ, but – in a synthesis which represents the transcendence and supersession of both elements. Most importantly, the synthesis both preserves and negates the clashing elements. If we take this seriously as a model of historical progress, it would imply that the gains of liberal individualism will live on under socialism – will, in fact, be more fully and more adequately realised than they have been to date. But if this is to happen, those gains must first be made; liberal individualism, as well as materialist collectivism, must be realised as fully as possible if they are to be superseded by something better than either of them.

What I’m saying – if you’d rather have it without the teleology and the jargon – is that the Left cannot afford any complacency about the achievements of liberal individualism; still less can we afford to stop speaking the language of rights and respect altogether, on the basis that democratic socialism will float all boats. Equality of citizenship for Jews is an historic achievement of liberalism, to rank with free schooling or votes for women; we on the Left should understand that and appreciate it as such, and if there are any threats to it from any quarter we should be absolutely outraged.

As for recognising that and making it an emotional as well as an intellectual reality – well, there’s work to do. But at least we can see where the work needs to be done. An optimistic point, as I say.

Next up: Israel/Palestine (spoiler: not quite so optimistic).

 

 

But the week is over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a lion (4)

I was in my early twenties when I became a Zionist, or at least a strong Zionist sympathiser; I had a long conversation with a friend who’d just come back from a year on a moshav, I read Amos Oz’s In the land of Israel and that was it, I was sold. What I understood by Zionism was fairly bare-bones: I asked myself, did I think that Jews had a right to have some sort of permanent presence in what used to be Palestine? I had thought that ultimately the answer was No, but now I thought it was Yes; I had been anti-Zionist, now I was pro-Zionist.

Spoiler: it didn’t last very long. I dwell on these juvenile ruminations because they highlight something significant about Zionism: it has meant different things at different times, and may mean different things to different people. My new-found commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home didn’t in any way affect my opposition to racism: the Zionism I supported was a Zionism with equal rights for all, without discrimination in employment and housing, and certainly without anyone’s houses getting bulldozed. I hadn’t really stopped to think what such a Zionism might look like on the ground; perhaps something like the 1947 UN borders? For now, in any case, I thought that one could oppose arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, the occupation of the West Bank and so forth, while still maintaining a commitment to Zionism – just as long as Zionism was defined in these minimalistic, ultra-liberal terms; call it Zionism(L).

One good thing that came out of my Zionist(L) period was an awareness of the importance of symbols of Jewish identity, and of the symbolic importance of Zionism to a great many Jews; they’re very different things, but for a lot of people they have quite similar associations. This in turn means that anyone critiquing Zionism needs to take the utmost care to avoid any suggestion that they’re attacking Jewish identity more generally. These people failed this test resoundingly; it’s hard not to see this as a genuine example of an overlap between Left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Even if we agree that support for “Balfour” is one of the policies for which Theresa May should be denounced – and, while I sympathise with the logic, it’s not a ditch I’d personally choose to die in – the Star of David ‘earring’ added to the picture suggests that the problem is Judaism as well as Zionism, or else that there is no difference between the two. Either way, this isn’t acceptable.

But what’s going on here – how does this train of thought work? What’s going on when somebody feels genuine outrage at some reported crime committed by the IDF and vandalises a synagogue in protest? Or when somebody denounces the Jewish/Zionist lobby, or hints that the Jewish population of a country are a pro-Israeli Fifth Column? Alternatively, what’s going on when somebody praises the state of Israel – then tells Jews to go there and get out of his country?

What’s going on, in each of these cases, is that Jews in the Diaspora are being identified with the state of Israel, which is then constructed as an enemy (making Jews a proxy target) or as alien (making Jews also aliens). The question then is how these anti-Jewish attitudes relate to the emphatically pro-Jewish position we’ve just been discussing – the argument that, since Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is effectively a form of anti-semitism, and an attack on the Jews’ national home is an attack on all Jews. Surely this, too, identifies Jews in the Diaspora with the state of Israel, enlisting them in its support no matter what. (In the words of the World Jewish Congress, “Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s achievements over the last 60 years and support those who continue to build and defend Israel.”) This is a very dangerous route to go down. If an acquaintance tells me that he is a fan of the Miramax production company and its cinematic oeuvre, I’ll expect to hear positive things about the company’s successes and the business acumen of the Weinstein brothers – but I’ll also expect to hear some reflection on the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and if I don’t hear it I’ll feel quite entitled to ask him why not. These Montreal Jews, visiting an Israeli development project in Kenya, felt pride in Israel, having had “a taste of the country’s idealism, creativity, and commitment to tikkun olam [‘repairing the world’, making the world a better place]”. Would it also be reasonable to expect Jewish visitors to Gaza or the West Bank to feel shame in Israel? If you’re asserting a proprietary connection with a nation’s achievements, others may well feel that you should also take ownership of its crimes.

Zionism may thus clear a path for a certain kind of antisemitism, blaming Jews in general for the crimes of the state of Israel. Nor is this simply an opportunistic misidentification, a flag of convenience for pre-existing racism. It’s worth recalling that, historically, Zionism has had a very equivocal relationship with antisemitism. Herzl, working as a journalist, reported on the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and concluded:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism

The sentiment echoes the early Zionist Leon Pinsker, who wrote in 1882

Judeophobia … is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind … Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

The early Zionists took as their starting-point the idea that antisemitism was both universal and immutable; that the Jewish people could only be safe to live as Jews by establishing their own homeland and defending it against all comers. The corollary is that those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would not be safe to live as Jews; they would only ever be living among enemies, either concealing their identity or else relying on a tolerance that could be withdrawn at any time. If we think ourselves back to the period when Herzl and Pinsker were writing – the period of the First Aliyah, the very beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine – we can see that there’s a curious reversal being worked here. A newly-established colony, numbering a few tens of thousands and surrounded by sworn enemies, stands for security and permanence; millions of Jews, living among their neighbours for centuries, represent a precarious settlement that could collapse at any moment. The Holocaust gave this image a terrible credibility, clearly – but this story doesn’t begin or end in the 1940s. This way of looking at the world underlay Zionism in the 1890s, and it underlies Zionism now.

At a deep level, Zionism believes in a world where antisemitism is both universal and incurable, a world where Jews can only hope to live as Jews if they are in their own homeland. This belief is impossible to disprove, as pessimism tends to be: They may be treating you as equals now, but who’s to say what they’ll do next year? Do you know what they’re saying about you behind closed doors? (I remember a Jewish friend saying how, after 9/11, they’d increased security at his son’s school in Cheshire; people were “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, he told me, perfectly seriously.) The underlying message is that Jews don’t really belong here, wherever ‘here’ is: to deny the right of Jews to live as citizens in the Diaspora. This also tends to deny the validity of Diaspora Jewish experience, even to challenge the distinct identity of Diaspora Jews as Jews. Uri Avnery, who I quoted in the previous post, was born as Helmut Ostermann in inter-war Germany; his family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine after Hitler came to power, when he was nine years old. He took a Hebrew name as soon as he was legally able to do so. He commented in 2013:

The changing of names symbolized a basic ideological attitude. Zionism was based on a total negation of the Jewish Diaspora, its way of living, its traditions and expressions. … As a pupil in an elementary school in Palestine I was imbued with this contemptuous attitude. Everything “exilic” was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

The nationalism of the new state-to-be was seen as superseding the Jewish identity that had gone before – even the Jewish religion:

In my company in the Irgun underground, and later in the Israeli army, there was not a single kippah-wearing fighter … The prevalent doctrine was that religion had indeed played a useful role throughout the centuries in holding Jews together and enabling the survival of the Jewish people, but that now Hebrew nationalism had taken over that role, making religion redundant. Religion, it was felt, would soon die out. Everything good and healthy was Hebrew – the Hebrew community, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew kibbutzim, the “First Hebrew City” (Tel Aviv), the Hebrew underground military organizations, the future Hebrew state. Jewish were “exilic” things like religion, tradition and useless stuff like that.

The revelation of the true horror of the Holocaust – and the brutal and near-total destruction of that “exilic” Jewish world – complicated and qualified this world view, but it did not entirely disappear. There are stories of Holocaust survivors being greeted, on arrival in Israel, not with sympathy but with puzzled contempt: how could they have let that happen to them? Among people who had been born or brought up in Mandatory Palestine, quasi-racial epithets like ‘sheep’ and – more brutally – ‘soap’ were widely used. We see here that same reversal of perspective: a new and precarious colonial settlement is the secure home for the Jews and the centre of their new, healthy, Hebrew life; the Diaspora, global in scale and nearly 2,000 years old, is a passing experiment that was always doomed to fail, Himmler merely the inevitable return of Haman to finish the job.

The Zionist reversal of perspectives has led to an odd duality to the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora, with the latter regarded both with affection – as Israel’s extended family – and with antagonism and contempt. The difference between the two is the difference between seeing the Diaspora as Israel’s support network and seeing it as making its own claim to be the home(s) of the Jewish people, as it was throughout the centuries dividing the Fall of the Temple from the first Yishuv. The possibility that the Jews of the Diaspora are the Jewish people – the mainstream(s) of Jewish society and culture – is the possibility that Zionism cannot countenance. The result, ironically, is to make the position of Diaspora Jews less secure than it might have been, both by ‘officially’ devaluing their own culture and traditions and by associating Jewish people with the actually-existing state of Israel – an association which, as we’ve seen, can’t reasonably be confined to the good news about Israel. In Britain, the number of reported anti-semitic attacks rose during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Looking at this association, it’s easy to deplore the disgusting racism of attacks on visibly Jewish targets, just as it’s easy to understand the very widespread anger at the reported actions of the IDF. What’s missing from this bifurcated analysis is the crucial third element which bridges the two – the association between Israel and Jews in general. That association is weakened by assertions of Diaspora culture and identity, but it’s made firmer and stronger by every assertion that Jews (in general) support those who defend Israel, or that any attack on Zionism is an attack on all Jews.

Zionism today effectively means the state of Israel and its interests – particularly what it considers its security interests. This is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the more idiotic points made in response to Priti Patel’s ‘holiday’ was that nobody would have cared if she’d had a series of secret meetings in Belgium. To make the most obvious and banal points, Belgian society and politics are deeply divided and polarised, to the point where it was impossible to form a government for most of 2010 and 2011; if Patel had decided to wade in to Belgian politics on a freelance basis, that could be viewed very dimly indeed. In any case, any government minister who met a series of high-level foreign politicians without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister would be acting in an outrageously improper way, whether the nation in question was Israel, Belgium or San Marino.

More importantly, of course, Israel isn’t Belgium. Belgium wasn’t founded ex nihilo within living memory and doesn’t occupy large swathes of territory illegally; there is no Wikipedia page listing the countries that do and don’t recognise Belgium; equally, there’s no such organisation as “Conservative Friends of Belgium” (let alone an organisation with a paid staff and membership encompassing most of the Parliamentary Tory Party). Israel is different. Zionists don’t deny this, although sometimes acknowledging it bends their arguments into odd shapes. Consider this from the ADL:

Deeper bias against Israel and Jews may also be evident when Israel is held to a different standard than any other country in the world. Such an example is when critics of Israel question or deny Israel’s right to exist. No one questions France or China or Iran’s right to exist, simply because there is disagreement with their policies. Why then should it be acceptable for only the Jewish state’s legitimacy, or Jewish nationalism to be a subject for discussion? … A more complex manifestation is when critics of Israel advocate policies which would effectively lead to the demise of the Jewish character of the state – such as calls for a “one-state solution’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or demand the unqualified right of return for all Palestinian refugees. These measures potentially affect all Jews who have a religious, spiritual or nationalist connection to the Jewish homeland and would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Although some advocates may not appreciate the destructive consequences of these policies, these policies are anti-Jewish in their impact.

If you thought you might have reason to question or deny Israel’s right to exist – given that its existence in its current form, unlike those of France or China or Iran, is predicated on the continuing exclusion and disenfranchisement of millions of people – hard luck; the ADL are way ahead of you. The state of Israel is different – so different that reforming it, so as to make it more like all the others, would involve policies [that] are anti-Jewish in their impact. Demanding justice for the Palestinians is anti-semitic, even if you’re too naive to appreciate the destructive consequences yourself. If it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the Jews; if it’s not good for Israel – what are you, a Nazi?

Coming back to my starting point, Zionism(L) – a Zionism of liberal politics and equal rights, a Zionism that would look to making amends for the Nakba, never mind the 1967 occupations – does not exist as a political force (Avnery’s Gush Shalom is perhaps the closest thing to it). To favour Zionism now is to favour the territorial expansionism and anti-Arab racism of a series of Likudnik-led governments – an unapologetic form of Revisionist Zionism, made all the more brutal by the reality of entrenched and unchallenged power. To say that Stuart Polak and Priti Patel are Zionists is to say that they support Zionism in this, real-world, form – call it Zionism(R).

Perhaps Zionism(L) can be upheld without contradiction to one’s liberal and anti-racist principles – some would deny this, but I’m inclined to be generous to Zionism(L)’s adherents, not least because they include my former self. What is certain is that upholding Zionism(R) requires one of two things. One is to knowingly suspend all other principles in favour of whatever brings any immediate benefit to the state of Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel; the other is to operate in a state of denial, following unsustainable arguments into self-contradiction and confusion. The ADL text quoted above is a minor example of the latter style; the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter gives us confusion on a grand scale. In one way we should be grateful, I suppose; at least it’s better than the alternative.

 

 

 

Like a lion (2)

Let’s have a proper look at the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter about anti-Zionism. The first thing to say is that, while there is an argument there, there’s also an awful lot of confusion and rhetorical inflation. This may just be because Howard Jacobson – who seems to be the lead author – is a muddled thinker and a windy writer, but I think it also has something to do with the subject.

The trouble starts with the first introduction of anti-Zionism:

constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism

Either anti-Zionism is a genuine position being used opportunistically as a façade – a ‘cloak’ – for antisemitism (cf the Doctors’ Plot), or the name ‘anti-Zionism’ is a polite label for antisemitism (“so-called anti-Zionism”). Can’t be both; you can’t ‘cloak’ antisemitism in antisemitism-with-another-name. What anti-Zionism is, in the authors’ eyes, remains unclear.

demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state

But ‘Zionism’ (itself) isn’t equivalent to what follows the hyphen. In fact they’re three distinct, if related, things – a political ideology (Zionism), that ideology’s core belief (a Jewish homeland) and its concrete institutional expression (the state of Israel). This matters, because it’s possible to hold that core belief while also believing that the existing state of Israel is a monstrosity, or even that the historical development of Zionism has gone badly astray. Not to mention the fact that it’s possible to challenge and oppose Zionism – even to deny that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland – without demonising Zionism.

Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media … support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism

Despite its phrasing, this is three separate charges, not one – and they’re not all equally strong. Yes, the racist myths of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ live on – there are still people wibbling on about the Rothschilds and (God help us) the Protocols, some of whom believe themselves to be on the Left. Those myths, and those people, need to be challenged; this, though, doesn’t give a free pass to the actual lobbying efforts which are carried out by the Israeli state and its allies, some of which –  like most lobbying – go under the radar. (Anyone still maintaining that all talk of a “Zionist lobby” is Protocols-level antisemitism will have to explain who the Conservative Friends of Israel are and what they hope to achieve.)

I’m less sure about false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism. Zionism was conceived as a colonialist project, to be implemented by arrangement with the great powers of the day. Here’s Theodor Herzl, writing in 1896:

Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society [of Jews] will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine[sic]. … The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers … If His Majesty the Sultan [Abdul Hamid II] were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

In the event the Ottoman Empire[sic] didn’t survive World War I. Its spoils were divvied up between the French and British empires[also sic]; the latter, anticipating that it would have control of Palestine when the music stopped, declared in 1917 that His Majesty’s Government

view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and [would] use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country

(Shame about that ‘clear understanding’; really should have got it in writing.)

In any case, from 1896 to 1948 Zionism was, precisely, a colonialist project to be carried out on land held by imperialists. Even after 1948 – and especially after 1967 – Zionism continued to be a colonialist project, inasmuch as it was carried forward by the continual establishments of ‘settlements’ on land held by force. The idea that equating Zionism with ‘colonialism and imperialism’ is a slur – let alone that it’s straightforwardly ‘false’ – is quite bizarre; it’s a very surprising proposition for two historians to put their names to. I can only imagine that the underlying logic here is something like the Forward article which attempted to rehabilitate Christopher Columbus from charges that he “brought nothing but misfortune and suffering to the indigenous Americans”, by likening him to Herzl as “a visionary looking for a safe home for the Jewish people”. There’s colonialism and then there’s colonialism in a good cause – quite different.

As for the third point on the list – vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism – again, we need to be careful (a great deal more careful than the writers of the letter were, frankly). What are “vicious, fictitious parallels”? The argument seems to be that parallels between Israel and the Nazis can only be sustained by falsifying the evidence, and are only advanced with the intention of causing offence. I think this is mostly – but not entirely – unsustainable. Drawing an analogy between two things isn’t saying that they’re the same: to say that X is like Y in certain ways is also to say that it’s unlike Y in other ways. So, for instance, there’s a parallel between the Nazis setting up internment camps for political enemies in 1933 and the British interning their political enemies in South Africa (1900) and Northern Ireland (1971); there are also lots of differences between those situations. Still, interning people without due process is something the Nazis did, and that parallel may give us a reason to think twice about our own government doing it. Were the Israeli government’s actions in putting Gaza “on a diet” comparable to the Nazis’ starvation of the Polish ghettoes? There does seem to be a point of similarity; you may think that similarity is outweighed by so many dissimilarities as to be irrelevant, but I don’t think it can be ruled out of court.

The big dissimilarity, of course, is the Holocaust, which may be held to override and delegitimate any smaller parallels. In particular, if you hold the view (advanced by historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz) that the Nazis came to power already intent on the extermination of the Jews, then it’s clear that the Nazi regime was out on its own in the genocidal evil stakes, and almost no other government can be compared to it – not Stalin’s, not Mao’s, not the British in India and certainly not Israel. (I say ‘almost’ – there’s some evidence that the Khmer Rouge were planning genocide from the start.) But even this isn’t as solid a distinction as we might want it to be. The ‘functionalist’ school of historians – people like Christopher Browning – dispute the ‘intentionalism’ of Dawidowicz and others: the ‘functionalists’ argue that the Nazis came to power wanting to rule a Europe with no Jews, and that the Holocaust as we now know it developed out of a whole series of short-term expedients to bring this about. The Nazis on this reading were certainly never humanitarians – at best they were indifferent to whether Jews lived or died – but genocide was the means, not the end. What they wanted, at least from 1939 (arguably from 1933), was land, only without some of the people who lived on it. This reading clearly makes parallels with other regimes more available, and more troubling.

Of course, drawing any analogy between Israel and the Nazis is grossly offensive to Jews who support Israel – which is to say, the great majority of Jews – and for that reason I think non-Jews should avoid doing so; I’d even go so far as to say that for a non-Jew to publicly and deliberately use this parallel, despite the offence it is bound to cause, suggests an indifference to Jewish feelings which verges on antisemitism. That said, the offensiveness of the parallel isn’t news to anyone; in fact, it’s precisely why people use it – Jewish people very much included. My experience of arguments about Zionism conducted mostly among Jews is that Godwin’s Law is in full effect, in a fairly fast-acting form; Nazi parallels are freely thrown around on all sides, including sides that non-Jews might not even know about. (Amos Oz, in In the land of Israel, recalls seeing graffiti in an Orthodox area of Jerusalem likening the Labour Mayor to Hitler – Teddy Kollek, that is, not Ken Livingstone.) Invading and occupying land illegally? Just like a Nazi! Threatening the security of Israel and the survival of the Jewish people? Just what the Nazis wanted! Betraying the Jewish faith itself by worshipping the goyim naches of a nation-state? No better than the Nazis! And so on, to the point where it’s quite hard to believe that anyone involved is hearing this stuff for the first time, or taking genuine offence – least of all, incidentally, when the offensive conduct complained of seems to consist of quoting Himmler on the topic of Nazi racial policy. But this is of its nature an argument within the Jewish community. Speaking as a non-Jew, I’m happy to forswear comparisons between Israel and the Nazis myself, and leave them to it.

Back to Jacobson and friends:

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70.

The Jews have always been Zionist. Who knew?

In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds

Oh, wait. What we now call Zionism is the modern form of Zionism. So they’ve always been Zionist, only in different ways – and specifically not in the way that we know. So earlier forms of ‘Zionism’ weren’t actually what we now call Zionism. Only they were Zionism, because… um.

[Zionism’s] revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

Or was it that the Jews used to be Zionist, and then they weren’t, but now they are again?

As you can see, the confusion level ramps up at just the point where the argument becomes most tendentious. Certainly the idea of a Return – the idea of Zion – has been part of Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple, if not the Babylonian Captivity; but that’s very different from saying that Zionism has been. Zionism translated the idea of Zion into the language of political nationalism, and aimed to implement it (as we’ve seen) under the auspices of European imperialism; it couldn’t reasonably have arisen before the early nineteenth century, and in any case historically didn’t arise before the 1890s.

It’s also worth noting that, while Zionism certainly did flourish as a response to organised antisemitism, it was far from being the only response. While Dawidowicz’s own sympathies were with Zionism, her superb book The War Against the Jews shows very clearly that Zionists were a minority in occupied Poland (the European country with the largest Jewish population before the Holocaust and the greatest losses as a result of it, approaching three million). To be more precise, Dawidowicz’s account suggests that there were three main organised groups within the Polish Jewish community: Zionists, Orthodox Jews and the socialist Bund, which called for Jews to organise as Jews within their own nations. The Bund – which by this stage only existed in Poland – was all but wiped out by the Holocaust; this led to the tragic irony of its effective erasure from history, enabling contemporary Zionists to present their own political forebears as the authentic voice of the Jewish people.

We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise[sic] their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel.

As Robert Cohen points out, this is mealy-mouthed in the extreme. It’s not so much that Palestinian ‘suffering’ was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel, more that it was its direct and inevitable consequence. “How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? … the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action”. A supporter of present-day Israel expressing sympathy for Palestinian suffering can’t help looking a bit like the Walrus weeping for the oysters.

Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked.

Indeed, and quite the contrary – justice for one is justice for all; justice for the people of Palestine must necessarily mean justice for the people of Israel. Similarly, justice for the poor can only come through justice for the rich. To say that you’ve had justice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve received – or kept – what you wanted, though. But this doesn’t seem to be the idea of justice that the authors have in mind. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that people who have repeatedly seen their land confiscated, their leaders assassinated, their towns demolished and their children imprisoned nevertheless still owe something to the state that’s done all this, and that it’s only fair to keep them waiting for justice until they’ve delivered it. Again, it’s hard to identify with this position. If ‘position’ is the word.

Next: if it isn’t a position, what is it?

Cheers then mate

Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party.

What is the Labour Party? Fundamentally, it’s an institution. Institutions – local councils, charities, the BBC, the Museum of Science and Industry – have two key properties. First, they stand for something – corporate mission statements are a backhanded homage to the sense of ‘mission’ that a true institution always already has. Second, they perpetuate themselves: they keep themselves going, so that they can do the things they believe in. But, of course, institutions aren’t alive: everything they ‘do’ or ‘believe’ is mediated through people, specifically people occupying particular roles and sharing a particular institutional culture. What the British Museum believes is what the Director of the British Museum believes – and vice versa. There’s a certain way of criticising politicians that counterposes ‘idealism’ to ‘careerism’, but in reality they’re two sides of the same coin: the classic occupier of an institutional role is, precisely, a careerist idealist.

Any time an institution gets a new ‘leader’, that person will find that it already has an institutional culture and a good supply of people occupying institutional roles. This is all the more the case if the institution is articulated across multiple levels of authority and/or geographical locations. Changing an institution’s culture is a slow and laborious process; it’s one of the things that differentiates an institution from a business, or a Leninist party. The Labour Party is not a corporation (or even a university), and Jeremy Corbyn is not its CEO (or vice-chancellor): it was never going to be possible for Corbyn to wipe the slate and inaugurate Year Zero of Corbynite Labour. However much support Corbyn had, there were far too many people throughout the party who had careers or were building careers, occupied institutional roles or hoped to occupy them, on the basis of a culture and ideals very different from his. (And I stress ‘ideals’; these are all good Labour people that we’re talking about, let’s not forget.)

Just how slow and laborious it is to turn an institution around will depend on what the institution is like, in two respects. Any institution is more or less democratic; it either is or isn’t possible for pressure from below to cause a change of policy, a change of overall leadership, a change in the occupancy of a specific middle-ranking role. The more democratic an institution is, the more susceptible it is to sudden changes of direction; a democratic institution is more open to real social mobilisations, and more vulnerable to infiltration when no broader mobilisation is going on. At the same time, any institution is more or less bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is an inherently conservative tendency: it tends to keep the institution running in much the same way. A bureaucratic institution is better able to weather periods of low social mobilisation, but risks being left behind by periods of high mobilisation. Democratic institutions take new leaders straight from the street; established office-holders live with the awareness that they may be out of touch, and that the remedy may be for them to stand aside or be pushed aside. Bureaucratic institutions wear newcomers down slowly, turning this year’s spiky radical into next year’s smooth operator; newcomers live with the awareness that existing office-holders are doing a fine and principled job, and that they will just have to wait their turn. Democratic cultures tend to radicalism; bureaucracies tend to conservatism, and sometimes they tend pretty hard that way. When I first came to Manchester, the Labour council had a (left-wing) Labour opposition group, many of whose members were suspended from the party twice or three times. In 1984 the numbers shifted and the opposition group took over the council, which duly became a byword in the tabloids for anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid advocacy and for the municipal ‘loony left’ generally. The leader of the group was Graham Stringer. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, eh?

When Corbyn was elected leader, I was surprised by the failure of most of Labour’s MPs and power-holders to fall in behind the new boss. (I say ‘surprised’; ‘outraged’ would be another word, or ‘disgusted’.) This was naive of me; I should have realised that the change at the top was only the beginning of a process of democratic renewal in the party. Maybe I’m still naive, but what has continued to surprise and disappoint me is the strength of the bureaucratic resistance to that democratic renewal. When the rank outsider has won on the first ballot (and won again when challenged); when the party’s membership has grown and kept on growing; when the Labour general election vote has risen after everyone expected it to collapse – doesn’t that suggest to even the most sceptical observer that something’s going on out there? And might this not be a time to start working with the new leader and his supporters, rather than paying lip service to our numbers and our ‘energy’ and then fighting us for every office and every vote? Apparently not. It’s taken two years even to reorganise the National Executive Committee so that the leadership – and the membership – will have a fighting chance of getting their way, and that change won’t actually take effect for another year; it’s trench warfare all the way down. Which, incidentally, explains an awful lot of the negative stories about Corbyn. “Damaging Labour split”? People are organising against the leadership. “Labour in chaos”? People are organising against the leadership and talking to the press. “Corbyn misses crucial vote”? People are organising against the leader, and on this occasion they’ve managed to outmanoeuvre him. And so on.

And so it came to pass that, when my local branch held its annual election of officers and delegates to the constituency party, a number of delegates signalled their allegiances and intentions through key phrases in our personal statements: things like “I support Jeremy Corbyn” and “I support the party’s manifesto”. That’s the ludicrous position I personally found myself in – effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto. And so it was that, when the votes were counted, I and other ‘Corbynites’ got absolutely rinsed. Existing office-holders, as well as being protected by a variety of – doubtless entirely rulebook-compliant – procedural devices, were given the opportunity to assure the meeting that things were going swimmingly under the current management and that no kind of renewal was needed, or if it was that they were the best people to manage it; most of the votes went 55/45 or 60/40 in their favour; and the outsiders between them ended up with one officer (an uncontested position), and a total of four delegates out of 17. All of which isn’t going to make anyone lose sleep, or divert the local party from its present, comfortable course.

Corbyn stands for turning Labour into an active, outward-looking, campaigning party, and that’s one of the things that’s attracted all of those new members. Is that going to happen while local parties are managed by the same people who were managing them three years ago – people whose political culture and ideals are very different from Corbyn’s? It doesn’t seem likely. And if the local party was working with Momentum, agitating to get suspensions of good comrades reversed, holding political discussions, working to build the party in target seats and generally contributing to the renewal of the party nationally, would that be such a terrible thing? Terrible enough to make it worth organising to secure practically every post for a safe candidate? I really don’t understand the mentality here. I’m temperamentally rather conservative (I’m a folk singer, for goodness’ sake), so I can certainly see the appeal of not rocking the boat unnecessarily as a general principle. But there’s such a thing as moving with the times – and the times have been moving rather quickly since September 2015.

So, no – Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the leader of the Labour Party; at best he’s the leader in name only (LINO?). He is the leader of a movement whose membership is numerically dominant within the Labour Party, and which wants to transform the Labour Party. Unfortunately that movement, despite its numbers and its association with the elected leader, is currently being blocked by office-holders with an excessive attachment to the status quo and/or insufficient attachment to democratic principle. But I’m sure that won’t always be the case. Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party – yet.

Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

Turn up

I saw this chart recently on Twitter. (Despite the attributions given, I haven’t been able to find a better copy or an accompanying article – if anyone knows more…)

As you can see, it shows changing levels of turnout at thirteen General Elections – 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (x2), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 – broken down by age group. There are a couple of things I don’t like about it. Firstly, under-21s didn’t get the vote until 1970; the first two data points on that salmon-pink line aren’t 18-24s at all but (presumably) 21-24s. For internal consistency, we need to start in 1970. Secondly, at the other end of the chart there’s an uptick – or, in the case of 18-24s, a downtick – apparently referring to an election in 2016. Obviously, there wasn’t one. The figures may refer to the EU referendum, but if so they aren’t really comparing like with like; in any case they don’t appear to be correct (36% turnout in the 18-24 age range?).

So, if it were up to me, I’d start the series no earlier than 1970 and end it in 2015. But there’s a bigger problem, caused by those lines. The decision to plot a line against a continuous time-based X-axis, rather than represent the different elections as discrete events, shows how turnout can change when there are two elections close together (as there were in 1974). Apart from that, it doesn’t really gain you anything – and it creates a false impression that we’re looking at continuous change over time, i.e. that the turnout figures for 2005 and 2010 allow us to read off what the turnout would have been in 2007. So I’d go for clustered columns. Also, we are interested in how different groups have changed over time – it’s just not continuous change over time. So, rather than plot the values themselves (most of which cluster together, making for a cluttered chart), I’d plot the change for each group. A bit like this:

What you’re seeing there is the change in turnout for each group – and for the whole population (pale blue bar) – relative to 1970. (Zeroes are invisible – see 1979 and 1983.) Straight away you can see that it’s a chart of two halves: turnout in almost all groups grows or holds steady from February 1974 to 1992. Then turnout falls for under-45s in 1997, and falls across the board in 2001. The next three elections see some of those losses clawed back, but with further losses among under-25s in 2005 and 2015. By 2015 over-65 turnout is back to its 1970 level and 55-64 turnout is slightly up, but overall turnout is still down 12%.

You can see the election-to-election trends more clearly on this second chart. Percentage changes here are against the previous election.

This shows just what a landmark election 1997 was – in a bad way: turnout was down nearly 10% overall, and 15% or more among under-35s. Then look at 2001: turnout is down over 10%, with >20% declines in the younger age groups, relative to 1997. Then, in 2010, we see a huge rally of the two youngest age groups – up by a third and a fifth respectively – followed by a slump for those groups in 2015. (And I’m sure Nick Clegg is very sorry.)

What all this tells us is that there’s nothing constant or ‘given’ about young people not turning out to vote; in all six of the elections from 1974 to 1992, the 25-34 turnout showed a bigger increase from its 1970 level than over-65s’ did from its, and the same was true of the 18-24s in four out of the six. It also seems to show that something happened to British politics in the mid-90s that made it a lot less interesting to people – what could that be, eh? And it suggests that, if people in general are disengaging from electoral politics, young people in particular will really disengage. (Interesting to see that the one group where turnout actually increased between 1992 and 1997 is 55-64s. New Labour: the triumph of Dad Rock?)

In short: if Labour were running a managerial, trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing, we’re-in-charge-now, let’s-not-be-hasty, listen-to-your-father type of campaign – which is to say, the type that won them three elections in a row – I would be really worried now, about turnout in general and about young people’s turnout in particular. Needless to say, that’s not the campaign they’re running – and on that basis I’m not sure that past trends tell us anything at all. Except, perhaps, that there are an awful lot of relatively young non-voters out there, and a lot of them have not voted in the past for good reasons. Let’s see if we can persuade them otherwise this time. I think it could really make a difference.

Playing by the rules

I agree with a lot of what David Allen Green says here: the rules of the Labour Party aren’t clear enough to give a definitive answer to the question of whether, in the case of a challenge, the leader of the party should automatically be on the ballot; disagreement on the issue is legitimate and to be expected, even (or especially) among legal experts; the question is ultimately a political one and should be resolved through political, not legal means (“Law is not politics, and politics is not well served by people going to court to get political problems solved.”)

What I don’t agree with in David’s piece is the argument that the demands of fairness, as between all candidates or potential candidates, should govern the interpretation of the rules (“If any candidate is given any privilege or handicap then that must be for a good and express reason”). To explain why, it’s worth briefly reviewing the history of the rules in question. Labour adopted an ‘electoral college’ for leadership elections in 1981, replacing a system in which MPs elected the party leader. This in itself suggests a principle to be kept in mind:

1. Power to replace Labour Party leaders lay with the PLP until 1981, but since then has been held by the party as a whole. The rules are not designed to return this power to the PLP and should not be interpreted so as to have this effect.

Initially, contenders were required to be nominated by 5% of the PLP. This was raised to 20% in 1988 after Tony Benn challenged Neil Kinnock (supported, of course, by Corbyn). Consideration was given to a figure of 10%, but this was rejected on the grounds that it would still leave open the possibility of a well-organised challenge from the Campaign Group (of which Benn and Corbyn were members). The threshold of 20% was implemented to minimise challenges to an incumbent leader, and to prevent contenders from stirring up the party with unnecessary and divisive leadership election contests in general. It was so effective in doing so that, following Neil Kinnock’s resignation, there was the distinct prospect of John Smith proceeding to a ‘coronation’ unchallenged, none of his potential rivals being able to clear the 20% bar. While Bryan Gould did eventually make it onto the ballot, it was felt that the risk of an uncontested election following a vacancy at the top should be avoided, and the threshold for leadership elections when a vacancy exists was lowered in 1993 to 12.5% of the PLP. Conclusions from this:

2. The rules have been designed to minimise unnecessary and divisive leadership elections and to secure the position of incumbent leaders who might be faced with such challenges. (It would be absurd to interpret Kinnock’s rule change as an attempt to make it harder for the incumbent to seek re-election.)

3. The rules have been designed to promote electoral contests at a time when this is appropriate and constructive, i.e. when a vacancy has arisen.

In 1994, a vacancy having arisen due to the untimely death of John Smith, Tony Blair won election to the leadership of the party. Leadership challenges in Tony Blair’s first two terms were like Sherlock Holmes’s dog in the night-time: they’re interesting because there was no sign of them. Where there was no vacancy for leader, the procedure was that “nominations shall be sought each year prior to the annual session of party conference”. If a contender had received sufficient nominations, conference could then decide – by a simple majority vote – to hold an election (or, presumably, not to do so). Writing instructions in the passive voice is rarely a good idea; this rule, as written, gives the party’s ruling bodies responsibility for ‘seeking’ potential leadership challengers, and perhaps it’s not surprising that they didn’t look particularly hard. (The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy tabled an amendment in 2006 which specified that the General Secretary would seek nominations each year by sending nomination papers to each MP. It wasn’t adopted, possibly because it’s far too straightforward.) Looked at a certain way, this rule could even be thought to legitimise the more proactive approach taken by Gordon Brown in 2007, ‘seeking’ potential nominations in much the same sense that Torquemada sought potential heretics.

4. Expectation and established practice has been that the party’s leadership and governing bodies have control of the process.

Two final amendments, which I’ll take out of order. In 2014, the electoral college was transformed, removing the MPs’ section and introducing a section for ‘supporters’ (the now-infamous £3 voters), who it was hoped would go on to join the party in large numbers and help to revitalise it. (Shame that didn’t work out, eh?) As part of the package of rule-changes, the PLP thresholds were replaced by percentages of members of the PLP and the European PLP combined, and the 12.5% threshold for nominations in the case of a vacancy was replaced by a threshold of 15% . The other change to mention was made in 2010, when the words “nominations shall be sought” were replaced by “nominations may be sought by potential challengers”. My reading of this change is that it was intended as little more than a tidying-up exercise, bringing the rules in line with the reality (in which nominations would certainly not be ‘sought’ unless there was already a lot of pressure to do so). Some at the time saw things differently, it has to be said. Jon Lansman (for it is he) argued that the rule change “legitimizes and facilitates attempts by mavericks and malcontents to undermine the party leader”. “By placing the onus on ‘challengers’ and failing to provide any timetable, the NEC are risking a media frenzy every time 2 or 3 disgruntled MPs issue a challenge to any future Leader … Surely it would be preferable to routinely seek nominations from all MPs, constituency parties and affiliated organisations?”. I don’t think Lansman was prophesying Corbyn’s leadership here – I expect it took him by surprise just as much as the rest of us. What he was saying was that the rule change tended to promote a narrow focus on MPs alone, and that the broader party, including constituency parties, had a right to be heard. Perhaps there’s another principle here:

5. The Labour Party is not a unitary organisation but a combination of relatively autonomous parts with interests which can diverge and even conflict. Managing the party successfully must mean balancing these interests, and maintaining the mechanisms needed to do so.

So that’s the history, and here’s what we’ve ended up with.

i. In the case of a vacancy for leader or deputy leader, each nomination must be supported by 15 per cent of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

Our attention at the moment is on rule ii here – or rule 4.II.B.ii to give it its full name – and specifically on two words in the second sentence: any nomination. What does ‘any’ qualify – does it refer back to ‘nominations’ in the previous sentence (those sought by challengers)? Or does it have the natural-language meaning of ‘any nomination (of the kind that we’re talking about at the moment)’? There’s no obvious answer in the text itself, which leaves both interpretations open; we’ll call them the ‘Challengers Only’ and ‘All Nominations’ interpretations.

How do they fare against the history of the rules, and the principles I’ve drawn from them? Principle 1 suggests that power to replace the party leader should not be returned to MPs (without a rule change); to the extent that this also implies that MPs should not have the power to depose the party leader, this principle supports ‘Challengers Only’. Principle 2 plainly supports ‘Challengers Only’. Principle 3 supports ‘Challengers Only’ – if keeping challengers off the ballot is undesirable for party democracy, surely keeping the incumbent off the ballot is no better. Principle 4 is neutral, given that the party’s leadership and governing bodies are themselves in dispute. Principle 5, on the other hand, plainly supports ‘Challengers Only’, insofar as debarring a candidate whose support base is in the constituency parties would tilt the balance of the party towards outright PLP dominance. Of the five principles, three are strongly in favour of ‘Challengers Only’  – which is to say, in favour of Corbyn, as incumbent, not having to seek nominations – while one is weakly in favour and one neutral; none of them favours the alternative ‘All Nominations’ interpretation.

If my reading of the rules and their history is unpersuasive, consider some credible scenarios and how they would play out under the two interpretations.

The Secret Coup. A popular leader of the party faces entrenched opposition from a substantial but isolated minority of the party’s MPs. The minority faction MPs prepare for a leadership challenge, but do so informally and without making any public statement. Ten minutes before the deadline, on the last day when nominations are open, a leadership challenge is lodged, complete with the appropriate number of signatures. The party leader has had no knowledge that this was about to happen and is unable to submit his own nomination in time. What happens now?

The Botched Coup. An unpopular party leader faces a leadership challenge. The ‘All Nominations’ interpretation is generally regarded as correct, so the leader is forced to look for nominations; 20% proves to be just too high a threshold, and the incumbent leader is off the ballot. Unfortunately, the only challenger has been working from an old copy of the party rules, and has stopped collecting signatures after reaching 20% of the PLP; if the EPLP is taken into account as well, the challenger’s nominations also fall short. What happens now?

The Chaotic Coup. As with the previous scenario, we have an unpopular party facing a leadership challenge and unable to secure 20% of PLP/EPLP nominations. In this scenario, however, the leader’s critics have been unable to agree on a single candidate; five separate candidates insist on standing, each convinced that only (s)he can offer the party the leadership it needs. Everybody falls short of the 20% threshold. What happens now?

If we apply ‘Challengers Only’ the outcomes are straightforward. In the first case, there’s a leadership election, which the popular leader will predictably win; in the other two, the unpopular leader stays in office, at least until such time as the challengers get their act together. Not a problem; life goes on. If we apply ‘All Nominations’, though, the second and third scenarios leave the party without a leader; doubtless this could be managed, but surely this situation – and readings which could give rise to it – is better avoided. The first scenario is worse still: the ‘All Nominations’ reading allows an organised group of MPs to depose a popular leader without a vote being cast, while remaining entirely within the rules.

I take David’s point about fairness as between election candidates; formally, the incumbent in an election is one candidate among others. In practice, however, Labour Party leadership elections have always drawn a definite line between incumbents and challengers, treating the two very differently (the use of a different threshold for elections with no vacancy attests to this). When this is taken together with the importance of involving the party as a whole – a principle enshrined in the electoral college, but violated by any mechanism enabling MPs alone to depose a leader – and the desirability of avoiding perverse and chaotic outcomes, I think the arguments in favour of a ‘Challengers Only’ reading are overwhelming. I hope Labour’s NEC rules accordingly.

The Blind Boys of Albania

Now Mao Tse Tung was a very great man
And a very great man was he
He fought with his hands and he fought with a gun
And he built a proletarian democracy
Now Mao Tse Tung wrote a little red book
And he published it himself
They’re reading it still all round the world
In English, Dutch, Japanese and Welsh
You say what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, I say it might just brain you
And if you want to find out what I’m talking about
Take a tip from the Blind Boys of Albania

Lee Harvey Oswald took the rap
On the day John Kennedy died
Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald down
I don’t think anybody even cried
Harold Wilson fell to the KGB
When he let his standards slip
While Enver Hoxha kept the red flag flying
In the model proletarian dictatorship
You say you’re not a political animal, you don’t see what it could gain you
But you’ll reassess your ideological stance
When I’m down your street with the Blind Boys of Albania

PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Workers of all nations, do the bashkohuni dance!
PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Because if you don’t bashkohuni soon, you’ll never get a bashkohuni chance

Now Communism’s dead and buried
And capital’s doing just great
We’re friends with everyone around the world
Except for the ones that we love to hate
And poverty’s just a fashion statement
Everybody’s middle-class now
There’s a Lottery winner every day of the week
It could be you, it could be me, although I’m not sure how
So disregard this rant as the product of residual political mania
But check your windows and bolt your doors
Because they’re out there now – the Blind Boys of Albania.

Should have stayed in bed

critics were quick to point out that it may not have been wise to quote from a Communist leader who has been blamed for the famine that cost up to 45 million lives in China during the Great Leap Forward.

You can’t make a joke about Mao’s Little Red Book – Peter Popham, Independent

“[the Conservative Party] is still far from being one more heave from victory. It faces the Long March, not the Great Leap Forward.” – Bernard Ingham, 6/12/2006

“There is a new Cultural Revolution taking place in 21st century China” – Tony Blair, 9/10/2009

“We stand in desperate need of a cultural revolution. Let it start now.” – Ian Flintoff, 30/9/2010

“We may look back on today’s speech as the start of a return to sanity by Labour. As Mao said, every long march begins with a single step. But there is a long way to go and Mr Miliband ducked the chance to make a ‘great leap forward’.” – Tim Shipman (Daily Mail), 10/1/2012

“I think we need to examine, on a case-by-case basis, those powers that Westminster can devolve to the [Welsh] Assembly, rather than making some great leap forward”  – David Cameron, 29/3/2013

“Reuters carried an article by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He said that the reforms promise to bring another great leap forward in China’s dramatic ascent” – Chinese Embassy press release, 14/9/2013

“Britain has come so far, but the long march to an equal society isn’t over.” – David Cameron, 26/10/2015

“The last politicians that I quoted, who have inspired me, are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie – they’re the ones I tend to quote. But that’s my choice. I haven’t quoted a Communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future.” – Chuka Umunna

 

TCM 3 – When the government falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and DEMOBILISATION OF VOTERS

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

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

2010 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT

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

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

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

Ah, Scotland…

TCM 1 – The past is prologue

This is the first in a series of posts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the issues it raises.

The charge most commonly thrown at Corbyn from the Right is that Labour couldn’t possibly win in 2020 under his leadership. So I’m going to start by looking at how Labour’s won before, and at trends in voting at General Elections more generally. I’m going to argue that vote shifts in General Elections since 1945 can be modelled using a reasonably small set of effects:

1. Straight Vote Switch

2. Mobilisation Effects
2.1. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.3. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.5. General Demobilisation
(I haven’t got any examples of general mobilisation.)

3. Minor-Party Effects
3.1. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.2. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Opposition)
3.3. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Opposition)

4. Incumbency Effects
4.1. Consolidation In Office
4.2. Fightback In Opposition

1945-66

Disclaimers: I’m not a political scientist or a historian of the period (although I have lived through most of it); for the most part I’m going to be ignoring day-to-day or even month-to-month politics and discounting the two- or three-way shifts in loyalty which take place in reality. It’s a simplistic model, but I think we can make it talk.

Labour won the 1945 election with a majority of 146, gained from 12 million votes – just under 48% of the total votes cast, and more than the votes gained by the Tories and Liberals combined. (The thin green line you can just make out in the left-most column, incidentally, represents 300,000 votes cast for the Communist Party and the left-wing Common Wealth party – votes which elected two MPs and one, respectively.) The figure to focus on here is the 8.9 million non-voters (turnout was 72.8%). In 1950 the voting public made up a significantly larger proportion (83.9%) of a larger electorate. Labour picked up some of the increase, but the Tories picked up more; Labour won with an overall majority of five. This is the first pattern I want to highlight: (2.2) Selective Mobilisation. Mobilisation in this sense isn’t a matter of winning voters from one party to another, or even ‘getting the vote out’ in the door-knocking and lift-to-the-polls sense, but of motivating potential voters: making the political weather to the point where voting for a particular party seems sensible. The point is simply to persuade supporters to vote rather than not bothering; getting them to feel that turning out to vote is a good idea, even if it hadn’t seemed to be before. Given the increased size of the electorate it’s hard to be certain where the votes for any party came from, but the fact that abstentions fell by 3.4 million and the Tory vote rose by 2.5 million looks decidedly suggestive.

The second pattern I want to draw attention to makes its appearance in 1951, when the Attlee government ill-advisedly called an election in the hope of increasing its majority. Labour certainly increased its vote, winning the most votes the party had (and has) ever won, but the Tories increased theirs more and did so more effectively. The key mechanism here was the (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze. The 1.8 million votes shown here for Liberals includes 1.1 million votes for the ‘National Liberals’, a Tory-allied splinter dating back to Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government. The National Liberal vote went up slightly between 1950 and 1951, but the true Liberal vote plummeted from 2.6 million to 700,000. A third-party squeeze allowed the second party to achieve a gain of 22 seats – and a change of government – even while the Labour vote increased; Labour vote share in 1951 was 48.8%, even higher than it had been in 1945.

If we look at the next two elections – 1955 and 1959 – two patterns are discernible. One is (4.1) Consolidation In Office: over three successive elections the Tory vote grows, little by little, and the Labour vote declines. The other, particularly apparent in 1955, is (2.3) Selective Demobilisation, benefiting the party in office. The reverse of mobilisation, this – again – isn’t a matter of persuading opposition voters to switch parties, but simply demoralising them to the point where they stay at home. (I’m not saying that this was Tory party strategy – or even that anyone set out to achieve it; the main agents of Labour voter demoralisation may well have been the Labour Party. I’m just saying that the figures seem to suggest that it happened: electorate up by half a million or less, non-voters up by 2.1 million, Labour vote down by 1.5 million.) Patterns 3 and 4 are both essentially Labour/Tory phenomena in these years; the Liberal vote is unaffected, holding up between 1951 and 1955, then growing markedly in 1959 under the incoming leadership of Jo Grimond. (What looks like a collapse in 1955 is down to the almost total dissolution of the National Liberals into the Tory Party.)

The Tories’ reign came to an end in 1964, when the Labour vote leapt from 12.2 million to, er, 12.2 million; the national vote was actually 10,000 lower in 1964 than 1959. What had changed, however, was the Tory/Liberal share of the vote – or, to be more precise, the Tory/Liberal/non-voter share of voters. Here we see another pattern: the (3.2) Minor Party Surge, cracking the political pack-ice to the benefit of the main opposition party (in this case, Labour). Which in turn called an early election in 1966, pulling off a classic example of (4.1) Consolidation In Office by taking votes both from the Liberals and directly from the Tories.

What happened next?

1966-79

The size of the electorate jumped between 1966 and 1970, due to Wilson’s government giving 18-year-olds the vote. As you can see, Labour didn’t gain from this. In fact none of the patterns identified up to now really fits the way that Edward Heath’s Tory government came to power. Let’s just call it a (1) Straight Vote Switch – the simplest and (one might assume) most common way for an election to change things in a two-party system, appearing now for the first time in seven elections.

After the February 1974 election, Harold Wilson formed a minority government reliant on, among others, the Ulster Unionists, who had just broken with the Tories. What made it possible was, once again, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the opposition. (Thanks again, Liberals!) The October 1974 election was called in an attempt at (4.1) Consolidation In Office; unfortunately the Labour vote actually dropped. However, the Tory vote dropped by a lot more; Labour achieved the desired result – a parliamentary majority – through (2.3) Selective Demobilisation. (Labour’s majority was 3 – smaller than the majority which had prompted Attlee to call the 1951 election.) This was also the period of the SNP’s first surge, from 100,000 votes in 1966 to 300,000 in 1970, 600,000 in February 1974 and now 800,000. The devolution referendum in 1979, closely followed by Margaret Thatcher’s election, would put this into reverse.

As for Thatcher, what these figures suggest very strongly is that her victory in 1979 was almost entirely a question of (2.2) Selective Mobilisation, with a bit of (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze on the side. The Tories may have taken votes from the Liberals and the SNP, but there is no sign that they took any directly from Labour; the Labour vote actually went up compared to October 1974. (An alternative reading is that a Labour->Tory outflow was balanced by SNP->Labour and Liberal->Labour inflows. Either way, Labour didn’t get any less popular.) The main contributor to the massive increase in the Tory vote – from 10.5 million to 13.7 million – seems to have been a drop of nearly 2 million in the number of non-voters. The thin dark blue line you can make out near the top of the column, incidentally, is Britain’s first substantial far-Right vote: 200,000 votes for the National Front.

Bring on phase three:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 11.52.51

Research published recently has argued that the ‘Falklands Factor’ had very little effect on the Tories’ poll ratings, and had dissipated by the time of the election the following year. If anything accounted for Thatcher’s second victory, the paper argued, it was our old friend the economy, and people’s subjective perceptions that their prospects were improving. I’m happy to bid the Falklands farewell, but I’m not sure that the voting figures support the second argument. What leaps out is the huge success of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, who put on 3.5 million votes relative to the Liberals’ vote in 1979; Labour’s vote, meanwhile, fell by 3 million compared to four years earlier. The Tories’ vote actually fell, as did overall turnout (from 76% back down to the 73% of October 1974). In short, what we’re looking at here is a rare example of (3.1) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the incumbent.

The next couple of elections are interesting (to look back on; they were heartbreaking to live through). There’s (4.1) Consolidation In Office, with the Tory vote increasing at both elections; John Major’s 14.1 million is the highest vote ever obtained by any UK political party. But there’s also (4.2) Fightback In Opposition, with the Labour vote also increasing both times – and by substantially more. (The Tories’ share of the vote drops slightly over the period, from 42.4% to 41.9%. Labour’s share increases from 27.6% to 34.4%.) These increases are paid for by a combination of (2.1/2) Selective Mobilisation (benefiting both the leading parties – although Labour more than the Tories) and (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze (in Labour’s favour). Politics over the period was getting steadily more interesting – only 9.5 million non-voters in 1992, the lowest figure since February 1974 – and more polarised between the two main parties; and the balance between the two was steadily shifting towards Labour.

Then came 1997, which seemed to represent a triumphal culmination to the growth of Labour in opposition. Actually, as we can see, it reversed most of the trends which had been operating. The (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze continued to work for Labour, but it was accompanied by something that hadn’t been seen since 1970 – a large-scale (1) Straight Vote Switch – and another shift which hadn’t been seen at all since the War: (2.4) Selective Demobilisation of the incumbent party’s support. The increase in Labour’s vote (1.9 million) was huge; the drop in Tory support was more than twice as big. For those of us who remember this period, this both is and isn’t surprising. We can certainly remember the wheels coming off the Tory Party: John Major’s genius move, putting Thatcher’s transformation of the political landscape in the bank and fronting it with the appearance of reasoned moderation, stopped working more or less as soon as he had to start coming up with policies of his own. The sense that absolutely tons of people were voting Labour nowadays – and that hardly anyone was voting Tory any more – was certainly in the air that May. But look at that huge increase in non-voters – and look at the size of that dark blue stripe (100,000 UKIP votes and 800,000 for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party). The idea that Tony Blair’s success, right from the outset, might have depended in part on encouraging a lot of Labour’s opponents not to bother voting – and, perhaps, encouraging another slice of people to go right to the extreme and cast a harmless ‘expressive’ vote – is unpleasantly thought-provoking. All the more so in the light of what happened in phase four:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 11.53.02

Just look at 2001. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for the first time in a British post-war General Election, (2.5) General Demobilisation. The Greens’ vote had more than doubled and UKIP’s nearly quadrupled – although this didn’t make up for the loss of the Referendum Party – but all the major parties showed big declines in their vote as compared to 1997: the Lib Dems were down 10%, the Tories 12% and Labour 20%. Not only was Labour’s vote was below the level at which Kinnock had lost in 1992; it was below the number of votes gained by Callaghan’s Labour Party in 1979, despite the electorate having grown by nearly 10% over those 22 years. The number of non-voters was unprecedentedly high – for the first time ever, non-voters outnumbered voters for the winning party. Helped, perhaps, by the former more than the latter, Labour secured a second three-figure majority.

At the 2005 election things got still worse for Labour: general demobilisation was replaced by (2.2) Selective Mobilisation of both the other two parties, together with a (1) Straight Vote Switch away from Labour, for reasons that don’t need repeating here. The Lib Dems, who opposed the Iraq war, were the main beneficiary; they gained 1.2 million votes where Labour lost 1.1 million. (The number of non-voters also fell by a million in this period, however; it’s impossible to identify flows with any certainty from data at this level of generality.) There were also the early signs of an impending (3.2) Minor Party Surge from the Kippers. In 2010, epoch-making election though it was, nothing much actually changed. That is, exactly the same things happened as had happened in 2005: the number of non-voters fell; the Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP votes rose; and the Labour vote (already in 2005 the second lowest since the War) fell again. The only significant change was that, in this period, the Tories were more effective than the Lib Dems in re-mobilising their dormant vote (and, perhaps, attracting Labour voters); the two parties’ votes grew by 20% and 13% respectively between 2005 and 2010, as opposed to 5% and 25% between 2001 and 2005. Labour’s vote fell by 10% in both periods. If 2010 was the end of New Labour, then – judging purely in terms of electoral success – New Labour left the party in an appallingly bad state.

The 2015 election was the first since 1997 when the Labour Party’s vote actually increased relative to the previous General Election. So that’s a (4.2) Fightback In Opposition. Unfortunately for Labour it was accompanied by (4.1) Consolidation In Office, along with the bizarre and unprecedented combination of a (3.3) Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent) with a (3.1) Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent). To be precise, there were three separate minor party surges; while UKIP will certainly have cost the Tories votes, the other two hurt Labour far more. The non-Labour centre-Left wind is blowing far harder against Labour now than it ever did against New Labour (for reasons that may not be mysterious); if we assume that half of the increase in Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru votes in 2015 came from erstwhile Labour voters (a fairly conservative estimate), then Labour effectively needed to gain a million votes just to stand still. Labour actually put on 700,000 votes. For comparison, in 1997 – the only New Labour election which is comparable, as Labour lost votes in all the others – Labour’s vote was up by 1.9 million on the previous election; the Greens and the two nationalist parties between them were down by 100,000 votes. The dog that didn’t bark this year, at least as far as the overall figures can tell us, was mobilisation; a lot of people have got out of the habit of voting since 1997, and the 2015 vote wasn’t enough to get them back into it. Here again there may be a more complex picture if we drill down – mobilisation in Scotland, demobilisation in Lib Dem country? – but the overall picture is static.

So, what have we learnt?

Why Do Governments Fall?

That’s a very interesting question, which I’ll answer if I may by pointing out that nobody has any idea. But my simplistic model does suggest that, on the seven occasions when the government has changed hands since 1945, the following factors have been at work in vote changes:

1. Straight Vote Switch (1970, 1997 and 2010): voters for one party switch to another
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (1979 and 2010): ‘dormant’ voters for the main opposition party become more likely to vote
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (1997): voters for the incumbent become less likely to vote
3.2. Minor Party Surge (1964, 1974, 2010): a rise in support for a minor party cuts away the incumbent’s base
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (1951, 1979, 1997): the main opposition party poaches support from a minor party

However, most of these have also been a factor on one on the ten occasions when government hasn’t changed hands. The only ones which haven’t are

2.4. Selective Demobilisation
3.2. Minor Party Surge

Which seems to suggest that the best way to win an election is to join a different party. Politics is hard.

We can draw a few conclusions, though. Here are four.

1. Vote Switches Are Rare

In 17 elections (from 1950 to 2015), large-scale vote switching from party A to party B is only identifiable on four occasions – 1970, 1997, 2005 and 2010. One of those didn’t lead to a change of government; out of the other three, 1970 is the only case where large-scale vote-switching is the only identifiable factor.

2. Minor Parties Are Crucial

A minor party squeeze is identifiable in six of these elections – 1951, 1979, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2015; a minor party surge in five (1964, 1974, 1983, 2010 and 2015 again). Six of these ten elections led to a change of government.

3. Mobilisation Is Important

Selective mobilisation – which rests, not on getting the vote out, but on ‘making the weather’ in your party’s favour; doing the Gramscian thing and getting your ideas into the common sense of the age – seems to have been a factor in 1950, 1979, 1987, 1992, 2005 and 2010. Admittedly only two of those elections led to a change of government, but all the other four either laid the groundwork for a change of government or seemed to at the time (1997, as I’ve argued above, was as much a break with the earlier trend as a continuation). The story of demobilisation is more interesting. It’s at work in 1955, 1959 and October 1974, in each case helping consolidate a previous election victory. It’s turned against the incumbent in 1997, and effectively goes viral in 2001; the total number of non-voters never reached 12 million before 1997, and has never fallen below 15 million since 2001.

4. New Labour Was Weird

For Labour to win a landslide victory, on a wave of public euphoria, with promises to transform the entire political landscape, on the back of a substantial fall in turnout (from 77.7% to 71.6%) was, in retrospect, odd. Following this with a second landslide victory on the back of an even bigger decline in turnout was very odd indeed, particularly when Labour’s vote fell considerably more than any of the other parties’. And gaining a third victory – not a landslide this time, admittedly, but a very substantial majority – on an even smaller number of votes, when both overall turnout and the other major parties’ votes were starting to pick up; that was downright flukey. Neither Blair nor anyone else was going to ride that kind of luck to a fourth election victory. Perhaps 2010 was New Labour’s Best Before date.

Still, New Labour did make some enduring changes to British politics, and I fear that lower turnout may turn out to be one of them. In an odd way there may be some truth in the absurd story put about by some Labour people after the 1983 election – that people hadn’t bothered to vote because they were so happy with how things were going. Part of the positive message of New Labour was that there was a whole new approach to doing politics – an approach which didn’t have anything to do with class conflict (or any other kind of conflict), which promoted a combination of practitioner expertise and scientific management techniques, and which generally looked a lot like managerialism. It would be easy to take from that the message that politics wasn’t something ordinary people needed to worry about – the machine would go on working, in much the same way, whether we tried to get involved or not. The negative message of New Labour, on the other hand, was that this new way of doing politics was going to be the only game in town whether you liked it or not; if you weren’t going to be part of the solution, well, sod you. I think a lot of people – mostly but by no means exclusively on the Right – picked up on this and thought well, sod you then. And gave up on voting – either for good, or just until a “sod the lot of ’em” candidate came along.

Maybe managerialism on one side and disengagement on the other is the modern (post-modern?) condition; maybe weird is the new normal. Or maybe New Labour is over; maybe the belief that, underneath it all, the elitist managerial approach to politics was about something has gone for good. Maybe the only way to win elections on that basis is to be cynical, divisive, dishonest and lucky. In which case Labour is definitely going to need some new tricks for 2020.

Why The Post-War History Of Britain Shows That We Must Support My Politics

Can Labour win again? It’s going to be hard to win any kind of majority on the basis of simple vote-switching; the Labour vote is just too low – and the Tory vote is still well below its Thatcher-era highs, suggesting that 2015 Tory voters are likely to be relatively hard to detach. If we imagine the Labour vote going up by two million, entirely at the expense of the Tories – which is more than Labour achieved in 1997 – the resultant vote would put Labour on the level of 1992, a whisker ahead of 1979.

Labour needs to think much more strategically. Tory-to-Labour switches are nice to have, but what the party really needs is the reversal of the other main trends at work in 2010 and 2015. In other words, what’s needed is a (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge and (2.4) Selective Demobilisation. Firstly, Labour needs to win (back) votes from the SNP and (to a lesser extent) the Greens; if we can win votes back from UKIP as well, so much the better. Secondly, we need a strong Liberal Democrat Party – but one that’s strong against the Tories, as it was from 1997 to 2010. Thirdly, while I’m loath to discourage anyone from voting, it would help Labour a lot if people leaning towards the Tories were that much less likely to vote; if, when you said ‘Vote’, people tended to complete the sentence with ‘Labour’. At the last election the precise opposite seems to have been the case, with the effects that we know (on the polls as well as the result).

The question then is, what kind of party is going to be able to do those things and/or foster the conditions in which those things happen? Whose approach will be better at winning voters back from the Greens and the SNP – a Labourite hack who sees one lot as tree-huggers and the other as tartan Tories, or a principled socialist who sees them both as friendly rivals? Which approach will do less damage to Tim Farron’s crusade to retake the West Country – scrapping over the middle ground and denouncing the Lib Dems as soft on drugs and civil liberties, or seeing them as nice well-meaning halfway-house merchants and leaving them to it? What’s the best way to make voting Labour seem a sensible, normal part of everyday life – tell the workers you understand their resentments and hatreds, or talk to them about their working conditions?

I believe Labour’s going to have to move to the Left; anything else really is throwing the next election, if not the one after. (The fact that I have always believed that Labour should move to the Left is merely a happy coincidence.)

Next: we need to talk about Scotland.

Cap in hand (1)

As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.

So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.

(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.

Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).

What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.10.23

The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).

What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 20.23.09

The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.

This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)

The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?

(Some answers in part two.)

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