Category Archives: politics

I’m no leader (2)

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

1. The Pledges and the Backers

which is going to dominate?

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

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

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

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

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

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

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

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

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

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

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some more general Qs and As.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any concerns?

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

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

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

Would you take us to your leader?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

***

Petronius gave a shiver and shook his head like a wet dog. The R-jump itself was (thankfully) imperceptible, but the comedown afterwards never seemed to get any easier. Still, he’d arrived – or rather they had, if you considered a Basic Android Simulation of Intelligent Life to be a person (and if you didn’t, you should probably get yours upgraded).

Petronius’s own BASIL stood alongside him, expressionless and apparently quite unaffected by the R-jump. Time to get down to work.

“OK, Basil. Tell me about this civilisation. Why are we here?”

“Shall I answer the second question first? It might be quicker.”

Petronius sighed. They didn’t call these androids ‘basic’ for nothing. “Go on.”

“We’re here to consider some problems that have recently surfaced in the Triune Foundation. The Triune Foundation is one of the main – let’s say ‘governmental’, although the word is imprecise – organisations in this civilisation; it has held governmental power only briefly, however, the administration generally being steered by the Lilac League.”

“I’m sorry – the Lilac…?”

Basil shrugged. “They’re not important right now, except inasmuch as they keep winning and the Triune Foundation keeps losing. Don’t feel too sorry for them, though, the Trapezoid Bloc hardly ever wins at all.”

“When you say ‘win’… We’re talking about governmental organisations, aren’t we? Are you saying they also engage in some form of sport or competitive exercise, or a contest of ability or skill?”

Basil looked stern, insofar as his near-immobile synthetic facial features permitted. “You are expected to do some preparation beforehand.”

“You’re quite right, and I did see that bit. They run a regular contest whose outcome determines who gets to govern, and it’s decided partly on the basis of an assessment of ability to govern, but also partly on performance in various more or less stylised sub-contests presented to different sub-sections of the population in different media, and partly on simple popularity, which itself is assessed through an elaborate competitive procedure. It’s quite confusing, I had trouble getting my head round it.”

Basil inclined his head. “As you say. And, as I say, we are concerned here with the Triune Foundation, not with the sortition process of which you speak.”

“Except insofar as events within the Triune Foundation may have impacted upon the outcome of that process.”

“And I see that you have done… some preparation. Let’s proceed.”

Basil enabled data visualisation.

“Hold on, what are all all these?”

“Ah. I should have said, in this civilisation it’s still very much the norm to serialise one’s thoughts in alphabetic form. Hence…”

“Hence all… this. How very cumbersome.”

“And yet, evidentially…”

“I’m not sure I see the point you’re making. We could simply ask them, couldn’t we?’

Although Basil’s features didn’t move perceptibly, you would have sworn he had raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, it’s one of those civilisations. Very well, then. It may be just as well that they’ve gone to the trouble of putting their thoughts into numbers.”

“You’ll find it’s letters, mainly, but yes. Take this first example…”

“So, what we’re seeing here is that there’s a sortition process coming up, and one individual with responsibility for sortition-related and other forms of campaigning within the Triune Foundation writes: Let’s hope the Trapezoids can do it. I’m sorry, what?”

“The person in question appears to hope that the Trapezoids will win the sortition in question.”

“Thankyou, Basil, I had got that far. But the person in question is responsible for the Triune sortition campaign. You wouldn’t expect them to have any doubts about who to support.”

“Or to express those thoughts to Triune colleagues, on a Triune communication channel.”

“Good grief. Were they – all of them – actually working against their own Foundation? Why?”

“Firstly, not all of them, but quite a few – up to and including the then Grand Wazir. As to why… well, let’s look at the next piece of evidence. So, here’s somebody who enjoyed ridiculing the leadership…”

“The Triune leadership?”

“Yes, their own leadership – there’s going to be a lot of this, so I should get used to the idea; they enjoyed ridiculing the leadership and dismissed anyone who supported them as Mameluke seditionaries.”

“Mameluke… I did read about this, but I forget the details. But meaning very marginal to the Foundation and very bad?”

“Meaning a whole variety of things – but yes, in this context the main meaning was ‘very bad’.”

“And why do we care about this unpleasant and disloyal individual?”

“Mainly because they came under suspicion. Not from the leadership – from their colleagues; they were suspected of being a bit of a Mameluke on the quiet.”

Petronius pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked. The after-effects of the R-jump seemed to be lasting longer than usual.

“You mean to say, people in responsible positions at the Triune Foundation were so obsessed with the threat of these… Mameluke tendencies… that they ended up working against the leadership of their own Foundation – and even dismissed anyone who didn’t agree with them completely as a Mameluke in their own right? How did they ever get those positions of responsibility? How did they keep them? Were they just astonishingly good at their jobs?”

In reply, Basil highlighted another area of the visualisation. “Here we come to the question of anti-Khazar abuse.”

“Ah, now, I do remember the part about the Khazars. So at this stage our traitorous office-holders are dealing with… sorry, how many? In a foundation with half a million… surely there were more cases than that? And they’re taking… what? Why are they taking so long? And they haven’t got a process for tracking cases? None at all? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions.”

“All good ones,” Basil murmured.

“Ah, but weren’t these… Mamelukes, was it… weren’t they also supposed to have trouble with Khazars? Maybe the reason those people weren’t processing complaints was that the leadership were slowing them down.”

“Actually, no. The leadership appears to have washed their hands of some close allies and personal friends, if those people seemed to be getting close to using anti-Khazar language.”

“I’m confused now. The Foundation was dealing with them?”

“Ah, no. I said that the leadership washed their hands of them, not that they were promptly removed from the Foundation itself. This note here, for example, shows that one prominent individual’s case was allowed to drag on for over nine goloqs.”

Petronius pinched his nose again. “For over nine…?”

Basil cut across him. “For a very long time. Khazar groups were up in arms about it. And, since this person was politically and even personally close to the leadership, naturally people suspected that the leadership was responsible. But they weren’t; if anything they were pushing for expulsion.”

Petronius shook his head, but it didn’t seem to help. “Let me get this straight. People working within the Foundation, with responsibility for membership and discipline, believe that the leadership are all Mamelukes, and Mamelukes are all Khazar-haters. A friend of the leadership makes statements insulting to Khazars. The leadership cuts this person off, but the Mameluke-hunters – who are the ones with the power to kick them out of the Foundation – do nothing about it, for over nine…”

“Nine goloqs, yes.”

“Were they just very, very inefficient? What’s this one say – they had a very basic system for tracking complaints about members, which they then replaced it with another equally basic system, which they didn’t consistently use? Again, whyever not?”

“Very hard to say – not using a system doesn’t create much evidence. But it doesn’t seem to be a Khazar-related thing, if only because all sorts of complaints were being dealt with just as slowly and just as inefficiently. As far as we can see the only time these people really sprang into action was when there was a leader sortition, and a chance of party members deposing the leadership.”

“I suppose they would want to help that along,” Petronius said with a thin smile.

“It’s more that they hindered the people who wanted to vote for the leadership. Lots of Triune members suddenly discovered they were ex-members, or else that they’d been suspended for the length of the contest.”

“They used membership of the Triune Foundation as a political tool?”

“To be granted and withheld as they saw fit.” Now it was Basil’s face that wore a mirthless smile.

“Ah well. At least it didn’t work. Still, you’d think the leadership would have noticed what was going on; you’d think they’d complain about having people in charge of membership who were good at kicking out allies of the leadership and bad at kicking out actual Khazar-haters. I mean, assuming there were any actual Khazar-haters in the Foundation to begin with, and it wasn’t just part of the big Mameluke hunt…”

“Let me stop you there.” Basil looked stern. “If you think back to the pre-briefing, you’ll remember that anti-Khazar prejudice has deep historical roots in this civilisation; it takes many different forms and can be found in all the main governmental alliances, the Triune Foundation included.”

“OK, OK.” Petronius was chastened. “I just thought, seeing that so few of them were being expelled, perhaps there wasn’t enough…”

“Oh, there was plenty of evidence. After the Grand Wazir – well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anyway, to answer your question, the leadership were well aware that their membership and discipline specialists were kicking out far too many of the wrong people and far too few of the right ones – not least because some pro-Khazar activists made sure that they knew about it.”

“That’s where this Khazar4Evar individual comes in, is it?”

“Yes. Quite suddenly the membership people are being bombarded with hundreds of vague, half-formed accusations against people who may or may not have been in the Triune Foundation to begin with. And they deal with this in two ways.”

“Let me guess – number one is ‘very badly’?”

Basil nodded. “And number two is ‘by reporting that everything was fine’.”

“This all looks quite efficient, though. They’d had this many complaints from the Khazar4Evar account; they’d all been investigated; this many were against Foundation members, and investigation had led to this many expulsions. What’s wrong with that?”

Wordlessly, Basil highlighted another section of the visualisation.

None of it was true? And we know that none of it was true – the data was right there and they…” Petronius shook his head again. “They lied about it? Even though they were all in favour of getting rid of anti-Khazar activists, even though it had the potential to embarrass the leadership – which, as we know, they wanted to do?”

“I suppose visibly failing to deal with the anti-Khazar problem had the potential to be even more embarrassing to the leadership,” Basil said coldly. “Or they may not have thought that far ahead; they may just have been extraordinarily inefficient.”

“At anything other than kicking out allies of the leadership and other suspected… what is that word… Mamelukes.”

“Yes. The Foundation was a hard organisation to get kicked out of, if you weren’t an ally of the leadership. You could transmit anti-Khazar propaganda or various other forms of bigotry; you could even advocate joining the Lilac League. If you were reported once, it was an isolated occurrence; if you were reported twice or three times, your case had already been looked at so there was no need to do anything else.”

Petronius frowned. “This isn’t sectarianism, though – just rampant inefficiency; these people seem to have treated senior jobs in the Foundation as if they were sinecures requiring only that they turn up for work, and gone on acting that way even when there was vitally important work to be done.”

“Let’s not lose sight of the broader picture. It would be fair to say that these individuals  exhibited both sectarianism – in opposition to their own leadership – and rampant inefficiency. There is a happy ending of sorts, though: at this point here, there’s a new Grand Wazir, and almost all of the other people mentioned here resign. The disciplinary process becomes considerably more efficient as a result, as you can see here.”

Petronius looked at the figures. “A ninefold… no, a tenfold increase. No, wait. A factor of 25. In fact, in one sense it’s a factor of 45. It’s a big improvement, anyway.”

Basil nodded. “But there’s more. If you’ll just take in this audio-visual element…”

A little while later, Petronius shook his head again, more as a demonstration of his agitated state than because he hoped it might help. “Unwritten guidelines… leadership interfering… anti-Khazar sympathies… obstructing their investigations… This just isn’t true! It can’t be true.”

“As I say, this is one of those civilisations where veracity can’t always be relied on.”

“Clearly.” Petronius made to shake his head again but controlled himself. “Apart from anything else, if the leadership had the power to impose these ‘guidelines’ which supposedly slowed everything down so much, how could all of those leadership sympathisers have been excluded? And how could the process of dealing with the anti-Khazar element have got so much better when the leadership had a new Grand Wazir and new people in place? What they say here simply cannot be true. One can sympathise with them in a way – nobody likes being reminded of how inefficiently they’re working, least of all when they have ceased to support the goals of the organisation they’re working for. But this reaction is… excessive.”

“Some would call it a pack of lies.”

“I dare say they would, Basil, and how right they would be. So, remind me, what’s the remit of our investigation?”

“We’re to investigate the content of this data release.”

Petronius nodded. “Quite right too.”

“Also, the circumstances under which it came to be released. Oh, and we’ll be working with individuals nominated by the Foundation under its new leadership, specifically including one known supporter of the former Grand Wazir -“

“I’m sorry, the former Grand Wazir?”

“If I might finish – one supporter of the former Grand Wazir, and one individual who was actually a staff member in this period and whose name appears in the release.”

Petronius succumbed to temptation and shook his head, hard. “What is wrong with this Foundation?”

Basil shrugged. “I imagine we’re about to find out.”

 

 

 

 

I’m no leader (1)

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

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

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

1. The Pledges and the Backers

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

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

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

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

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

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

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

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

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

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not you personally but…
you personally…
– doseone

So, farewell then

1. Him

The first thing I want to say about Jeremy Corbyn is how much I admire him as a person, and how grateful I am to him. There was some adverse comment during the 2019 election campaign about his ‘tetchy’ and ‘sarcastic’ manner with hostile interviewers, but in the context it’s hard to blame him for that – the context being four and a half years of relentless aggression, harassment and bad faith, both from the media and from people who he could reasonably have expected to be on his side. A small example is the press pack we frequently saw on BBC News, camped out outside Corbyn’s house, ready to fire questions at him as he walked to his car. Corbyn never answered questions outside his house, and indeed had explained that this was his policy – and yet they carried on doing it, en masse, day after day and month after month, hoping that they could goad him into letting something slip. This isn’t reporting, it’s harassment – and the mere fact that Corbyn never lost his rag with them attests to a superhuman level of patience. (I would have snapped within a week.)

It’s been suggested recently that media hostility to Labour was predictable, so the way they stitched us up during (and before) the last election campaign actually reflects on Corbyn’s lack of a strategy to manage the media. Given the level of hostility Corbyn faced, this is a bit like saying that everyone knew what Harvey Weinstein was like, so any woman who got assaulted by him only had her lack of an Entitled Creep Management Strategy to blame. Only that particular entitled creep is in prison, and everyone believes his victims. (We used to believe victims of press harassment, come to think of it – wonder what changed.)

As well as for managing to be “Mr Zen”, I admire Corbyn for sticking to what he believed in – more than that, for the integrity he displayed; for getting the message across that not sticking to what he believed in wasn’t an option, wouldn’t even occur to him. To go into politics because you want to achieve X, Y and Z, to state frankly that you want to achieve those things and to answer every question from the point of view of someone who wants to achieve those things – it doesn’t sound like much, but the break it represents from Labour’s recent history can’t be overstated.

The managerial, clientelist ‘realism’ of the old Labour Right; the hesitant, defensive triangulations of the centre-left past and present; Blairism, with its toxic combination of charismatic populism and rightward-trimming calculation: all these different traditions shared one fundamental assumption, the pessimistic certainty that you can’t go Left. It’s a pessimistic assumption, and it’s also disabling: if you’re trying to run a party of the Left and you’re convinced that sooner or later you’re going to need to move Right, a degree of capitulation is built in (left-wing policy? they won’t have it in Mansfield), as well as a degree of dishonesty and even self-deception (right-wing policy? are you calling Labour policy right-wing?).

Corbyn’s leadership swept all of that away, for a time at least; he demonstrated that you can go Left, and – perhaps the single biggest attraction of Corbynism – that if you’re a Labour politician and you go Left, you can hold your head up: you don’t have to capitulate or lie about anything. The Labour Left has always prided itself on political principle; in Jeremy Corbyn we had a chance to see what a principled political leader might look like, and it looked pretty good. It looked like someone who wasn’t in love with his image or his historical mission, didn’t feel he had to meet anybody’s expectations, didn’t feel he had anything to apologise for and was comfortable in his own skin (literally and politically).

This is also why I’m, eternally, grateful to Jeremy Corbyn: not so much for what he did as for what he showed was possible. It’s always been possible to be on the Left in the Labour Party – the party has certain ideals and certain traditions, after all, and there’s nothing to actually stop you believing in them, if you want to. What hasn’t been possible, at least for as long as I can remember, is being on the Left and having any kind of prominence in the party. (Yes, I remember Michael Foot. I remember him running for the leadership on a pledge to stand above the factions and unite the party, and then backing the Falklands expedition and trying to bar Peter Tatchell from standing for Labour. At best, Foot led from slightly left of centre – and even that was enough to trigger the spectacular wrecking operation that was the SDP.)

Corbyn showed that it was perfectly possible for the Labour Party to have a left-wing leader, a left-wing leadership team and left-wing policies. This alone was a revelation. There are certain principles I believe in, and certain policies that are particularly strongly associated with those principles. With the exception of the 1995-2010 period, I’d always supported the Labour Party because of these commitments; this remained the case even while I was wearily aware that it was unlikely ever to offer the policies, and had a sneaking suspicion that its leadership was only paying lip service to the principles. Under Corbyn, suddenly none of this applied: the Labour Party actually shared the commitments that were the reason why I’d supported them all that time. Suddenly there was no cause to be jaded or suspicious: the principles were there, pure and simple, and there were the policies to back them.

That’s an experience that won’t be forgotten – especially since the resultant combination turned out to be rather popular: it turned out that a left-wing Labour Party could offer the country things it both needs and wants. Bear in mind, the 2017 election wasn’t just another loss, or even just a near miss, and it certainly wasn’t a case of a weak opposition fumbling a loss against an unpopular government (a bizarre and counterfactual story that still circulates on the Right of the party). Theresa May’s Conservatives took 42.3% of the vote – the highest Tory vote share since Thatcher’s second victory in 1983, and an increase of more than 5% as compared with 2015. We underestimate the extent to which the 2017 election actually went to plan, for the Tories; May called it to give her government a secure majority, and 42.3% of the vote – up from 36.9% – really ought to have done the trick. Instead, the Tories lost seats, and Labour deprived them of the slim majority they’d had. Although we were polling in the mid-20s when the election was called, on the night Labour took 40% of the vote – our highest vote share since Blair’s second victory in 2001 and an increase of 9% since 2015. Taking turnout into account, Labour took 14 votes for every 10 we’d got just two years earlier.

At the same time Labour transformed the political agenda: in two years we went from a country where the Labour leadership was endorsing austerity to one where the Tories felt the need to disown it. If Corbyn had been any other leader – or rather, if he’d been a leader from any other part of the party – the pundits would have been sitting at his feet asking how on earth he’d done it. But, of course, if they had asked the answer would have been “by consistently supporting democratic socialist principles and inviting other people to support them; by having beliefs and sticking to them, saying what I believe and only what I believe; by disregarding your assumptions and rejecting your calculations”.

2. Him and Us

Am I grateful to Jeremy Corbyn for making me believe in the Labour Party again, and for leading me (and a few hundred thousand others) to join? Well, yes and no. Being a member of a Labour Party branch in the last few years hasn’t always been the most rewarding experience, as I’ve documented on this blog from time to time. Corbyn’s election took place under peculiar, almost paradoxical circumstances – a left-winger became leader of a party whose internal democracy had largely been dismantled by the Right, thanks to the empowerment of individual members by reforms promoted by the Right. What this meant was that his victory was acutely uneven: substantial layers of the party were not only unaffected by it but resistant to it, to the point of continuing to treat the Left as a marginalised minority even while it was represented by their own leader. Attitudes like these ran deep, grounded as they were in that basic pessimism about the possibility of ever moving Left. Persuasion and dialogue were never going to make a dent in them; those groups could only be brought into line by action, either from above or from below – or, ideally, both.

Unfortunately the Left on the ground was a lot weaker than it appeared on paper – not least because many (most?) of the new recruits were relatively new to party politics, and unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of sitting through a meeting in a church hall for the sake of possibly getting some guy you don’t know elected to some position you don’t quite understand instead of some other guy you don’t know (who seems perfectly nice and is friends with all the local councillors). Perhaps we could, even so, have had a big push to deselect the Right – officers, councillors, MPs – or at least to deselect enough of them to let the others know who was boss; if so, we let the moment pass. As for action from above, again time was of the essence. We can now see that Corbyn wasted a lot of time trying to extend the hand of friendship to the Right in the PLP, and then had to waste a lot more time fending off the ridiculous Smith leadership challenge. By the time reselection of MPs was on the agenda, the conditions were all wrong – there was an election in the offing and the leadership was on the back foot once again. It would have been far better to move on day one – get reliable people in key positions (starting with the Whips’ Office) and let Momentum take responsibility for getting the unreliable ones replaced, or at least putting the fear of God in them. The Right of the party, and their friends in the media, would have thrown a fit – but really, what’s the worst that could have happened? Hostile profiles, recycling old smears and rumours? Accusations of sexism and racism? Resignations from the Shadow Cabinet? Resignations from the Labour Party? New centrist parties? How terrible that would have been, eh?

(Parenthetically, this is what “I welcome their hostility” means. It’s not “I welcome their opposition”; it doesn’t mean you’d rather have people opposing you than working with you – what would be the sense in that? It means that, if you know perfectly well that somebody’s opposed to your entire political project, you would prefer them to bring it on, and stop pretending they just want what’s best for everyone (which, let me check, why yes, it does involve your entire political project being defeated, good guess). And you’d prefer that partly as a matter of honesty, but mainly because you know it’s eventually going to come to that anyway: either your political project is going to go away (and it’s not), or there’s going to be conflict. At some level, hostility implies respect; you welcome them taking you seriously enough to recognise that you’re in their way. (If they really thought you were as laughable as they keep saying, why would they keep saying it?) This, in my experience, is one translation of the vexed phrase “soft Left” – the soft Left are “the Left who hate the hard Left but don’t want to make a big thing of it and would rather they just went away”. Give me hostility any day.)

I am one of those who voted for Tom Watson for deputy leader; he promised that he would support Corbyn, and forgot to add “like a rope supports a hanged man”. I still think that an alt-Tom Watson – a version of Tom Watson who could spell the word ‘loyalty’, say – could have made a great enforcer for Corbyn and supplied something his leadership sadly lacked. And this, I’m afraid, comes back to a weakness in Corbyn himself – at least, a quality in Corbyn which turned out to be a weakness in a leader of the Labour Party. It relates to his pure-and-simple advocacy of the causes he believed in, backed by the confidence that people who listened would join him in supporting them. While this was a huge strength in itself – if only, as I’ve said, because it made such a pleasant change from most other Labour politicians – it brought with it a blind spot with regard to people who weren’t going to listen to him, weren’t going to believe what he said, weren’t going to be persuaded. Perhaps this goes back to Corbyn’s “movement” background: if you’re campaigning for destitute asylum seekers or imprisoned trade unionists, you can’t afford to care about all the people who don’t support you, you just want to maximise the number of people who do. Whatever the reason, I think Corbyn’s attitude has always been “I tried, they didn’t listen, I’ll just keep trying”, or in other words “with you if possible, without you if necessary” – and a party leader’s attitude really needs to be “with you if possible, over your dead body if necessary”. Apart from anything else, the leader owes it to their followers to apply some pressure on backward elements in the party – there’s only so much we can do from below.

This relates to another weakness, which again is connected with Corbyn’s strengths as a communicator and campaigner. The confected scandal over antisemitism in the Labour Party had a real issue at its root, and an issue which Corbyn fumbled badly. The “IHRA” definition of antisemitism was developed as part of a long-running campaign to get anti-Zionism classified as anti-semitism, thereby delegitimising much anti-Israel activism. Moreover, it’s not strictly speaking a definition at all, but an open-ended list of behaviours which may constitute antisemitism; as such it’s peculiarly ill-suited to being used as a way of identifying behaviours – and individuals – which are antisemitic, as it’s guaranteed to be over-inclusive. (This point has been made by the definition’s author, Kenneth Stern.)

Facing demands to adopt the definition (and its examples), entire and unadapted, for internal disciplinary purposes, Labour politicians from Corbyn down could have set out some of this background and acknowledged that the leadership’s position on the state of Israel was more critical than that of any Labour leadership in memory, and that this was – sadly – likely to repel many Jewish voters. Instead they responded by reaffirming their heartfelt opposition to antisemitism, then by delaying and attempting to find some sort of compromise, and then by wholeheartedly caving in – a third stage which Keir Starmer is intending to prolong indefinitely, if we’re to believe the Observer (a very big ‘if’, admittedly).

The issue here is not that Corbyn has anything to retract or apologise for with respect to antisemitism – he doesn’t, a point which was conceded (in calmer times) by at least one of the people who were demanding retractions and apologies. (No, I don’t understand it either.) The issue is that, while “principle pure and simple” works well as a form of advocacy, once you get into argument it’s a one-shot strategy; if it doesn’t work, you’ve got nothing to back it up except trying it again. Corbyn didn’t just refuse to get into personalities (“they go low, we go high”); all too often, he refused to get into detail – and that left the space for his enemies to define the issues on which he was being challenged. Not once did we hear Corbyn acknowledge that he is a long-term friend of the Palestinian cause (a position which many people disagree with, particularly in the Jewish community, but which has nothing to do with antisemitism); or draw attention to the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism (which has to be understood if we are to promote justice in the Middle East while standing firm against Europe’s oldest racism); or even point out the fundamental problems with the IHRA “definition” (problems acknowledged, as we’ve seen, by the definition’s own author). Even Corbyn’s affirmations of support for the Jewish community in Britain weren’t backed up by any details – details which he could easily have supplied. Again, the pure-and-simple style of advocacy left the field open for people who were only too happy to fill in the details, to the disadvantage of the anti-imperialist Left – and it gave very little cover to those of us who came under attack.

Corbyn’s a campaigner; you’d never mistake him for a machine politician or for a policy wonk. In many ways that’s been a strength, but it comes with weaknesses. The way his leadership got trampled on by his own MPs, and the relentless negative campaigning that did so much to torpedo our campaign last winter, suggest that we need a bit more of the operator and a bit more of the geek from our next leadership team. (These aren’t necessarily qualities that one person has to embody, just as long as somebody covers them – and as long as the leadership works together. Angela Rayner, Hammer of the Centrists? Stranger things have happened.)

3. Us

What about us – what now for the Left in Labour? The prospects are fairly gloomy; apart from anything else, if we haven’t managed to take the party over by now, we aren’t likely to manage it under the new leader – particularly if (as seems likely) the new leader is Keir Starmer. It’s even possible that we’re all about to get expelled – or, more realistically, that they’ll expel enough of us that the rest of us feel honour bound to take the hump and leave. (I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s a real possibility.)

Assuming we have a future in the party, what can we learn from the last few years? Again, I think it’s a matter of strengths and weaknesses. At its best the Corbynite Left has looked a lot like a social movement: the enthusiasm, the good humour, the playful creativity and above all the sheer numbers; the sense that everything could be different now, in the line from Victor Jara I borrowed back at the start of it all, Porque ahora no estoy solo – porque ahora somos tantos! Diversity in unity and unity in diversity – and so many of us!

The trouble is, we weren’t – and aren’t – a social movement; we were and are a faction within a political party. This matters in two ways. First, organising within a political party requires organisation. We’ve had organisation, or rather we’ve had an organisation in the form of Momentum; what we haven’t had is any real articulation between the leadership’s strategy and what Momentum were pushing at any given time. I’m guessing the leadership adopted a hands-off approach to Momentum because of the bad press they would have incurred otherwise – and, again, this seems like a missed opportunity, if only because it’s hard to see how the press they got could have been much worse. In the absence of strategic steers from the top, Momentum has had to come up with its own strategy for party activists – and, as a group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, its focus has understandably been on securing Corbyn’s position within the party. The problem with that is that it tends to turn every issue into a meta-issue – “the NEC is divided, so we should push hard on issue X” – or a meta-meta-issue – “the Left gaining advantage at this point would provoke the Right, so we should hold off on issue Y”. Which is, ironically, the very opposite of the “principle pure and simple” approach that drew so many of us to Corbyn in the first place.

It’s tempting to recoil from this kind of organising into a dream of a pure ‘movement’, but I’m afraid we can’t take much comfort there either. It’s a question of scale. A Corbynite social movement would have been a movement linking up people doing, and campaigning for, the things we all believe in: people who were active in trade unions and legal advice centres and tenants’ unions and environmental campaigns and occupations and workers’ co-ops and direct action campaigns and food banks and women’s groups and solidarity campaigns and credit unions and, and, and… Labour meetings should have been down time by comparison – a chance to compare notes with fellow activists and co-ordinate bigger actions. It’s no answer to say that the background level of activism is too low, or the landscape of radical self-help isn’t there any more, or that all of this sounds like a throwback to the seventies – those things are all true, of course, but what that tells us is that we weren’t all that much of a social movement.

Arguably turning the groundswell of support for left-wing policies into a social movement – and refocusing Labour members’ attention on what there is to do locally – is a long job; arguably it was getting under way before the election with the work of the Community Organising Unit (although it’s saddening to realise that the unit was only launched in September 2018). But there’s also been a tendency – and I’m not innocent of it myself – to see the Left as a social movement within Labour, and to see working within the party as an end in itself. People only have so many evenings and weekends (or so I recall), and they may not want to spare very many of them, but I do feel that we can do better – and that we need to reorient. Work within the local party, if that’s possible; if not, work to take positions in your local party, if that’s realistic; but in any case, be a Labour member outside the party. Don’t wait for the ward secretary to organise the next round of door-knocking or litter-picking; put a Labour Party badge on your jacket and act on your beliefs, do something that needs doing. (This is a Note To Self, of course; I don’t assume it’s got any wider application.)

New times will call for new forms of organisation, bad new times especially; Momentum has a big part to play (as long as it isn’t proscribed), but it can’t be the whole answer. We are almost certainly going to need to fight to hold every inch we’ve taken within the party – but we can’t let that be our sole focus. What comes out of the strange, sometimes harrowing, sometimes wonderful period we’ve just lived through won’t live up to all the hopes we’ve held – but it won’t be a return to business as usual either. Led by Jeremy Corbyn, we have already changed British politics. We’ll keep on changing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy now

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

Yes, it could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What happened?

My MP has just asked me – and a few thousand other members of his CLP – what went wrong in December: what do we blame for Labour’s defeat?

Now, you don’t ask a ‘quantity’ question if you want a ‘quality’ answer; if you wanted to hear a measured argument weighing up multiple factors before coming to a judiciously qualified conclusion, you wouldn’t ask several thousand people at once. Presumably what our man is after is something to replace the row of dots in a statement like “Members have told me over and over again that…” or “What I’m hearing again and again is…”. So I don’t suppose my MP will be reading and considering my arguments very carefully, or (to be brutally honest) at all. But I wanted to get it straight in my head, so I thought it was worth doing for that alone. And hey, free blog post!

What do I blame for Labour’s defeat in 2019?

1. Brexit. Brexit has to be top of the list; it was always going to make winning in 2019 a long shot. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered very much exactly where Labour’s policy ended up – we were always going to lose x% to hard Brexit parties and y% to hard Remain parties, it was just a matter of which was bigger. Perhaps a more Brexit-friendly position would have saved some (net) votes and seats, but we can’t be sure – although I definitely don’t think that going any further towards Remain would have helped. What we do know is that the constant lobbying and nudging to shift Labour’s Brexit policy didn’t help at all – it made us look indecisive, made our policy look incoherent and exacerbated divisions within the leadership. In retrospect we should have set out a line quite early on and stuck to it – even if that line was ‘accept Brexit but blame the Tories’.

2. Populism. Brexit also exemplified a broader problem – the way that politics (“the art of the possible”, objectives and how to achieve them) has increasingly been supplanted by a kind of populist spectator mentality, in which people cheer on their side and don’t care what actually happens as long as the other side loses. Talking policy to an audience primed for slogans is a waste of breath – but how did we end up with an audience that wants slogans, and how do we get them to think about policy again?

3. Margaret Hodge. Or if that’s giving too much prominence to one person, I blame the lack of loyalty and discipline within the PLP more generally. Like him or loathe him, after 2016 there was no possibility of removing Corbyn as leader; anyone who continued to agitate against him, under those conditions, was only working for a Tory victory. But, as disgraceful as many MPs’ conduct was, they don’t bear all of the blame here; Corbyn’s lack of interest in party management came back to bite him, and us. The next leader must do better, which means learning (selectively) from New Labour. (A little Leninism goes a very long way, as Philip Gould once said.)

4. Online. Postal votes are one of the things killed us – I suspect that many of the people I spoke to on the doorstep, and thought I’d persuaded to consider voting Labour, had already voted Tory. I think the underlying lesson is that the Tories’ online operation – particularly targeting Facebook – is scarily good; we need to work on ours. (We also need to rethink what we think we’re doing – and in particular who we think we’re talking to – when we do online campaigning.)

5. The manifesto. The manifesto was a programme for a sweeping social-democratic transformation of the economy; we could never have done it all in one term. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the proposals themselves, but we should have been clearer about what we were proposing for the first term and what was more of an aspiration. Also – most importantly – we should have been working towards those policy announcements from 2017 onwards, not springing them on an unsuspecting electorate with a few weeks to go till the election.

6. There is no point 6. I’m not saying a word against Jeremy Corbyn – plenty of people will do that for me – but even if I did I wouldn’t put the leadership’s contribution to our defeat any higher than sixth in a field of six. Scapegoating Corbyn might be satisfying, but it’s a distraction – and won’t help us win next time.

Reasons to be cheerful? Part 2

The polls seem to be settling down at around the 43% Conservative, 34% Labour mark – which are also the figures YouGov’s second MRP model came up with. On paper – or on Election Polling‘s swingometer – this means a Tory majority of 40.

Is there any reason to hope that the result won’t be that bad? Yes – as I said in the previous post, there are several. There’s the fact that four of the seven polls which completed fieldwork on the 11th showed a rise in the Labour vote share, while the other three had it static; opinion may still be moving Labour’s way. There’s also the fact that YouGov’s MRP model doesn’t give the Tories a majority of 40, but only of 26 – I’ll come back to this.

But let’s assume that the 43%/34% figures are the last word, and that they’re an accurate reading of what the pollsters set out to read. What then? Is there any reason to suppose that the actual percentages will be different? If so, how different?

First, remember that rush to register – 2.8 million new registrations, 1.8 million of them under 40. If this included a substantial element of new business, it may have put the demographics of the electorate out of whack with the age group split assumed by pollsters; add a million new punters to the lowest age group and half a million to the next one up, and a 35:40:25 split becomes 38:40:22. This alone, given the steep age gradient among Labour and Tory voters, would turn 43%/34% into 42%/35%.

Then there are turnout assumptions. YouGov revealed recently that they model turnout on the assumption that it will be much the same as it was in 2015; this assumption seems foolhardy. Assume that, instead of under-40s’ turnout rate being down at 60%, it’s 70% – which is still below the 80% characteristic of the middle age group, let alone the 90% of over-65s – and our 42%/35% becomes 41%/36%. (Crank it up all the way to 80% and we’d be looking at 40%/37%, but I won’t go there.)

Lastly, assume that Labour is going to work harder than the other parties at getting out its vote. Pollsters assume that the only people who are going to vote are those who express a certain likelihood or above – but what if one lot of voters has friendly people knocking on their doors on polling day, and another doesn’t? Add another 5% to Labour turnout (only) and our 41%/36% turns into 40%/36%.

40%/36% is still a Conservative victory in all but name – it’s a hung parliament with the Tories on 324 seats, needing only to come to a deal with the Lib Dems (or possibly even the DUP). At least, that’s how it looks on the Election Polling swingometer. But remember where we started: the YouGov MRP model gave the Tories substantially fewer seats than the headline vote share suggested. Presumably this is based on local factors: tactical voting (although I suspect this will be a wash, for reasons touched on by Dan) and – what’s likely to be more important – targeted campaigning in marginals, particularly by Labour. The difference that these factors appear to make, in YouGov’s eyes, is the rough equivalent of a 1% swing from the Tories to Labour, making 43%/34% look more like 42%/35%. And 40%/36%, presumably, would look more like 39%/37%.

Now, 39%/37% – or a 40%/36% in actual votes which looked like 39%/37% – would still make the Tories the largest single party, and still enable them to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. But it would enable all the other British parties combined to outvote the Tories, and that’s a start. Also, bear in mind that all this started from a 43%/34% vote split; if we started from ComRes’s 41%/36% split and applied the same factors, we’d end up with a 38%/38% tie, and one which looked more like 37%/39% in Labour’s favour in terms of seats. And that would give us a House of Commons in which Labour and the SNP could outvote all the other parties (the Lib Dems included).

In short, a Labour landslide isn’t on the cards, but things do look a bit more hopeful than they might seem.

We’ll know whether hope was in order before too long. Roll on 10 p.m. – but in the mean time let’s keep up the pressure.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Sunday 24th November
I confess, I was expecting the polls to have picked up by now. Labour’s share of voting intentions has been stuck in the 29%-30% zone for a week or more. It’s a lot better than where they started – and the weighted average is 30 rather than 29 – but it’s not election-winning territory, not by a long way.

Will the polls be wrong? Almost certainly. Wrong enough for the party on 30% of the polls to form the next government? Almost certainly not – if things don’t move quite a bit in the next seventeen days, it’ll be goodnight Vienna.

But do Labour need to be polling in the 40s to form the next government? Definitely not. On a uniform national swing, with adjustments made for Scotland and Wales, the Tories will not have a majority if they finish less than 4% ahead of Labour, as indeed they didn’t in 2017; it will also be difficult for the Tories to get a majority if their vote share falls below 37% (or below 39% if the Lib Dems do well). Labour could end up as the largest single party on as little as 36% of the vote, as long as the Tories’ vote was even lower. All of these scenarios seem a fair way off at the moment, but they’re considerably more achievable than putting Labour on 42% and the Tories on 30%.

Moreover, I think there are a number of factors at work in this election which will work to Labour’s advantage, and may well see a party polling in the mid-30s punching well above its weight. In no particular order:

The Brexit Party
Farage’s party has done the main thing it set out to do, which was to pump up the Kipper vote and then give the Tories a boost by handing it back to them. But that still leaves the small matter of candidates standing in nearly 300 seats, most (but not all) of which are held by Labour or the Lib Dems. What, we have to wonder, are they playing at? What can they realistically achieve? There must be some thought of harking back to the glory days of the 2015 election, when UKIP candidates took 10% or more of the vote in 400+ seats – but two-thirds of those seats were and are held by Conservatives, which by sheer arithmetic means that a good half of the seats where they’re standing in 2019 are very long shots indeed. (Interestingly, the Tory/Labour ratio is different with respect to the much smaller number of seats where UKIP got over 20% of the vote in 2015 – 39 Labour out of 69. It’s not entirely a myth, there are Labour seats out there with a good, solid chunk of far-Right voters (several of those seats had had substantial BNP votes in 2010); there just aren’t very many of them.)

Evidence of UKIP’s spoiler capacity in 2015 – and hence BXP’s spoiler potential in 2019 – is very limited. While there were 78 Conservative-won seats in 2015 where the majority was smaller than the UKIP vote, suggesting that UKIP may have stolen votes – and seats – from Labour, there were also 63 Labour seats where the same was true. If, rather than assume that the entire UKIP vote would otherwise have gone to the Tories – or, even less believably, to Labour – we assume that only 2/3 of UKIP voters would have been available, the numbers are even more evenly balanced. In 2015 there were 46 Conservative seats where the UKIP vote was 150% of the Conservative majority or more – and 45 Labour seats. If UKIP were equal-opportunity spoilers in 2015, all they did was hand one group of (what would otherwise have been) Tory seats to Labour and another, similarly-sized group of Labour seats to the Tories – and if they weren’t equal-opportunity spoilers, they hurt the Tories more than they did us. All of this, moreover, was on the basis of a rising tide of UKIP support, not a dying fall of BXP concessions and withdrawals, with polling numbers in the low single figures.

Of course, even if BXP are polling 3-5%, that effectively means they’re polling 6-10% in the seats where they’re standing. This time they won’t be an equal-opportunity spoiler; they will effectively lend votes to the Tories in Conservative seats, while still stealing votes from Labour in Labour seats. At least, that’s the theory. I wonder how effective this will be; I wonder what proportion of the voters attracted by slogans about Getting Brexit Done will have been drawn away from the Conservatives rather than from Labour, even in Labour seats. (Ware the ecological fallacy! Not every working-class voter in a Labour seat is a working-class Labour voter.) As for the Conservative no-show seats, I wonder how many natural Brexit Party voters will, in the absence of a Faragist candidate, go back to voting Conservative on the day – and how many will stay at home, meaning that the advantage BXP votes have given the Tories in the polls will melt away in the poll that matters.

At the end of the day, the Brexit Party benefits the Conservative Party most when it doesn’t stand, or campaign, at all. With the Tories on 42% and BXP on 5%, that effect is in the bag; now we move on to campaigning. BXP/UKIP in campaign mode don’t win anything and never have done; they’re wrecking parties, and naturally tend to do most damage to the Conservative Party (even stealing a couple of its MPs for a while). At worst, I think the effect of the Brexit Party on the actual result will be small; at best, it may actually be to Labour’s benefit.

The Liberal Democrats
A lot of people seem to have left Labour for the Liberal Democrats recently, for two main reasons as far as we can tell: clarity over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Now, there are two ways of quarrelling with that statement, only one of which I’m going to entertain: I’m not going to put any weight on suggestions that there’s no substance to these issues, that nobody seems to know what they actually don’t like about Corbyn or that Labour’s position on Brexit is actually clearer than the Lib Dems’. I could make a case for either of those, but there wouldn’t be much point; the fact is, those defections happened and for those ostensible reasons, around the time of the European election (which was also when the Brexit Party hit the big time). And, unlike the growth of the Brexit Party at the expense of the Tories, they haven’t yet been reversed.

Well, not entirely. Back in March the two main parties were each polling around 35%, with the Lib Dems and Greens on 15% between them; at the European election in May, the Conservatives and Labour were on 9% and 14% respectively, while the Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK took 35% of the vote between them. Today’s averages – Conservatives 42%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems plus Greens 18% – look a lot more like the first set of figures than the second; any argument that Labour, unlike the Tories, hasn’t made back the losses of the European election has to be qualified.

Nevertheless, we haven’t made those losses back as completely as the Tories have; a good 5% of voters do seem to have dumped Labour for the Lib Dems, and 5% of voters is a lot of voters. The question is what effect that will have. The short answer is, probably not very much of one; even if the Lib Dem vote isn’t squeezed any further (which is unlikely, as it has been inching downwards), 15% is well below the threshold at which the party – or any third party – can make serious gains.

As for what difference that extra 5% of ex-Labour voters will make, an awful lot will depend on where they are. I know personally quite a few people who are (a) rock-solid Remainers and (b) dubious at best about J. Corbyn Esq; they’re also members of the Labour Party, but never mind that now. More importantly, all those people live in a safe Labour seat. I wonder if the “internal opposition” mentality (as encouraged by e.g. Tom Watson) tends to flourish in safe Labour seats, where it’s possible to kick up about everything the leadership gets wrong without any risk of opening a flank on the Right – and, if so, whether the same can be said of those people who go the extra step of abandoning the party altogether. In short, I wonder if that extra 5% of Lib Dem voters, the ones who swung away from Labour at the Euros and then stuck, is actually an extra 10-15% in half or a third of the constituencies – specifically, the safe Labour seats. In all honesty there’s nothing to support this speculation; if it is the case, though, the effect will be that Lib Dem votes will count for even less at the election than usual (Labour would just take those seats with 45% of the vote instead of 55%).

Nature and arithmetic abhor a vacuum, so the knock-on effect of Lib Dem votes counting for less is that Labour (and Tory) votes would count for that bit more. Imagine 10% out of the Labour vote share shifting to the Lib Dems in 65 seats without affecting the result – that “winning on 45% instead of 55%” scenario repeated 65 times; imagine 5% in 130 seats, if that’s more believable. Either way, you’ve just dropped the Labour national vote share by 1%, without any decrease in the number of seats won. If it was going to take N% to win M seats, thanks to those defections to the Lib Dems it now only takes N-1%.

Who gets polled and who votes
The Graun reports that there are 56 seats where the number of potential first-time voters exceeds the winner’s majority in 2017 – and 28 where the number of voters aged below 35 is ten or more times the size of the 2017 majority. Thanks to the appalling state of electoral law at present, an estimated nine million potential voters are currently unregistered, but that number looks like being considerably smaller by the time registration closes at midnight on Tuesday.

Simply, we don’t really know what the demographic makeup of the electorate is going to be, although we do have reason to believe that it’s changed noticeably in the last few days; 670,000 people aged below 35 have registered to vote in the past week. Moreover, we don’t know what turnout is going to be like in particular groups – and, when political polarisation varies as much between age groups as it currently does, differential turnout can make a huge difference. All that polling organisations can do is make assumptions about the likely makeup of the electorate, assemble the most representative panel they can – a panel which is likely to be undersupplied with people aged below 35, let alone 25 – then weight the results to achieve representativeness, then weight them again to match turnout assumptions. And that’s a lot of assumptions – there’s many a slip between sample and result.

For many types of error you would expect different pollsters to err in different directions, so that their errors would cancel one another out, but in this case it wouldn’t be at all surprising if multiple companies made the same good-faith assumptions about the demographics of registration and turnout – nor would it be surprising if those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. And the likeliest effect of all these errors is an underestimation of the votes cast by younger people – who are much, much more likely to vote Labour.

The polls, notoriously, were wrong in 2017. Looking back at the data preserved at UK Polling Report, it turns out that they were wrong in a particular way: they clustered around figures of 44% for the Tories and 36% for Labour. In other words, they over-estimated the Tories by 2% – and underestimated Labour by 4%. There’s a chunk of salt to take the polls with. Of course, the polling companies carried out post-mortems – nobody wants to be wrong – and made changes, many of which (ironically) consisted of reversing adjustments they’d brought in to correct errors identified after the 2015 election. So maybe they’re on the money now. Or maybe the same thing’s going to happen again – or (perhaps most probably) something different is going to go wrong this time. Ci vedremo.

The ground war
If you go to the Website https://events.labour.org.uk you can find details of nearby canvassing sessions; all welcome! (I recommend it – you get to meet some interesting people and hear their stories, and it’s great exercise.) As I write it’s Sunday evening, and the Website lists 31 different events taking place tomorrow. (Which, as you may have worked out, is a weekday.) Labour has a lot of members, and we are doing a lot of canvassing. It’s a good thing to do. Where people have issues they feel strongly about, we can explain how Labour would help them; where people have negative preconceptions about the party or its leadership, we can offer alternative ways of looking at them; where people simply don’t want to know about ‘politics’, we can be there as a reminder that they have got a vote and they can use it.

Even a membership of half a million isn’t going to be able to knock on every door in the country, of course – but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not focusing on safe seats (with all due apologies to everyone currently stranded in safe Conservative seats) – and safe seats is what most seats are. Personally I don’t expect to be spending much time in Stretford & Urmston or Tatton, as nothing’s remotely likely to happen this time which would make those seats change hands. But there are marginals in the Manchester area, and I’m going to be flying the flag for Labour down their streets – listening to what the people have to say about disability assessments and Brexit and parking permits and academy schools and anti-semitism, nodding and smiling when they say they just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn, sympathising and agreeing where I can, arguing where I have to, and generally being the friendly face of Labour. (Two people this afternoon thanked me for stopping to talk; one said I was the first political campaigner who’d knocked on the door in “years and years”.) I’m going to be doing that, along with lots of other people, over a period of nearly three weeks. A lot of people in those marginals are going to end the campaign with a very different view of Labour from the one they began with – and, perhaps, a very different view of Labour from the national picture, which is to say the one that gets into the opinion polls. It certainly can’t hurt.

So there’s quite a lot going on that doesn’t make the polls. The makeup of the sample consulted in the polls may not reflect the makeup of the electorate, while the turnout assumptions applied to polling data may not be reflected by actual turnout patterns; indeed, for Labour, ensuring that turnout patterns are different is a standing challenge. If the Brexit Party polls 5-10% in Labour seats, those vote shares may well come out of the potential Tory vote and make those seats that much safer. If the Lib Dems poll 15%, that’s unlikely to win many seats, and a substantial element of the 15% may run into the sand in safe Labour seats. And, even if the national results suggest that the Tories ought to come out ahead, the work that Labour volunteers are doing in marginal seats may be enough to swing them, and swing the overall result, our way.

As a Labour Party member I’m hoping that all of this will be academic, as Labour will be polling two per cent ahead of the Tories by the 12th of December. But if that’s not the case, it may be that climbing a smaller mountain will be enough to get the job done. 30%? Nowhere near enough. 35%? You might be surprised. (After all, it was good enough for Tony Blair…)

Why we (don’t) troll

He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful.
– Father Merrin, The Exorcist

Reading Jonathan Freedland’s latest at the weekend, I felt – not for the first time – that I was being trolled. To take a single example, Freedland cites Jeremy Corbyn’s much-quoted sarcastic response to two Zionist hecklers and concludes from it that Corbyn “sees Jews as not quite ‘us'”. This is like trolling in that, once you’ve read a full account of that incident, it’s impossible to see how anyone could draw that conclusion from it in good faith – a more charitable explanation would also be more plausible and… but I’m not getting into that now. More to the point, it’s like trolling in that I was trolled: the urge to respond by spending half an hour or so outlining better explanations, sourcing fuller quotes, citing names and dates, finding other people’s comments on the same individuals, etc, etc, was genuinely hard to resist.

Why is this, though? What’s going on? When your position is being critiqued by someone who maintains that they’re acting out of the most decent and sensible political motives possible, and yet you feel as if you’re being trolled – that’s, what exactly? And why – on some issues – does it seem to happen so often?

Us…

Let’s start with rational thinking. Where politics is concerned, the trouble with thinking rationally is that it’s hard; downright impossible, really, on a day to day basis. Life constantly confronts you with the evidence that other people – perfectly decent, sensible people – don’t share some belief or commitment that you hold dear; they may even be strongly opposed to it. The truly rational way to deal with this situation would be to unpack your assumptions and – as far as you can manage – unpack theirs too, and keep going until you’ve found something you can agree on, a kind of ethical equivalent of the Highest Common Factor: OK, so we both believe that people should be enabled to flourish and their representatives should respond to their needs, and that‘s why you vote Liberal Democrat – and it’s also the reason why I’m a council communist!

But really, who’s got the time for that? Mostly people take one of two short-cuts. One is to say that you know what you know; on that basis, you know what you believe; you can argue for what you believe, but if other people strongly disagree, well, it’s their loss. This is a reasonably comfortable position in the sense of not involving you in any contradictions, but it can get lonely. In 1988 I remember a heated argument at work that began with the proposition that Michael Stone might be a Republican provocateur, and moved on to the proposition that the SAS execution of Savage, Farrell and McCann was legitimate. I argued against in both cases, and in both cases I had one ally; it wasn’t even the same person both times.

The other short-cut is to assimilate what you believe, as far as you can manage, to what the people around you believe. Let’s say that you’re strongly opposed to the death penalty and you’re surrounded by people who support it; you haven’t got the time or inclination to find out what underlying beliefs you hold in common, but you don’t want to take the first – lonely – short-cut either. The alternative short-cut is to stress that you’re against the death penalty in most cases, perhaps because most cases haven’t been proved beyond all possible appeal, or else because most offenders aren’t serious enough. But, sure, if it’s an open-and-shut case, if you’d caught Fred West in the act or something.. Most cases aren’t like that, though… Your new friend is meeting you halfway, too: It’s there in reserve, obviously it’s not for every murder case… And you can each nod sagely, both telling yourselves that the other person agrees with the important bit. Something similar can happen with less polarised differences of opinion; if you particularly hate Tory racism while your Thatcherite friend is furious about their poor economic stewardship, you can kind of agree you’re talking about more or less the same thing, if you don’t think about it too hard.

This short-cut has the opposite advantages and disadvantages to the first one: you get to have a bit of company, but in return you profess a belief that isn’t actually what you believe – not really, not quite. And this has costs. Professing a belief isn’t just flapping your mouth; contradiction is always uncomfortable, and “I believe in a united Ireland, but I agree that sometimes the IRA should be shot down like dogs” is a contradictory position. And if you’re not prepared to resolve the contradiction by extricating yourself from it – “you make some good points about the IRA, but actually I do believe in a united Ireland, so, um, bye for now” – you will want to make it more comfortable by finding something you can straighforwardly agree on.

The trouble is, unless you’re going to dig right down into your prior assumptions (and who’s got time for that?), you probably won’t find anything. You and your new friend the death penalty enthusiast can agree that the punishment should fit the crime, say, but that’s small beer. You won’t find anything, that is, unless you go for the negative. Those people who don’t think the punishment should fit the crime – what a bunch of idiots they are! Those people who don’t care about victims and their relatives getting justice, those people who think Peter Sutcliffe was misunderstood and Fred West should have been let off with a slap on the wrist… now we’re getting somewhere!

…and Them

This is where trolling comes in. Of course, most – if not all – liberal penal reformers do care about victims of crime, and so on. But if you want to make an enemy – or a target – out of liberal reformers, you aren’t going to be too scrupulous about sticking to what they actually believe. The worst that can happen is that you end up wrongly accusing them – and what would be so bad about that? Prod them persistently and unfairly enough, and they’ll get riled enough to lash out at you – and that will just confirm that they’re your enemy. What’s even better is if you mix a bit of truth with the more dubious claims; that way you can keep them busy for ages, extricating themselves, putting out clarifications and fending off your counter-attacks. If building solidarity with Al by demonstrating that you’re opposed to Bob is what you wanted in the first place, annoying Bob is a good way to do it and getting Bob annoyed with you is even better; really, there’s no down side.

In this scenario – and perhaps more generally – trolling starts with attack lines launched in bad faith, and those bad-faith attack lines are themselves grounded in an agreement made in bad faith. (Even pure nihilistic trolling, for the hell of it or as a spectator sport, is grounded in an agreement to say stuff that nobody actually believes; cf. Tepper (1997).) To turn it round the other way, a bad-faith agreement is conducive to shared bad-faith attack lines – much more than to shared positive statements – and those bad-faith attacks are themselves likely to turn into trolling, or something indistinguishable from trolling.

I’m suggesting, then, that when political argument turns troll-like it’s a sign of an underlying bad-faith agreement. When you’re being attacked in ways that are unrelenting, unreasonable, unfair and to all intents and purposes unrebuttable – when every concession is taken as an admission of something much worse, and every clarification provides material for a new attack – the chances are that you’re facing somebody whose own position is shaky: after all, if they had a solid and persuasive argument against you, you would have heard it by now. In particular, if you’ve got multiple attackers you can bet that they are, at most, an alliance of convenience: nothing solidifies an uneasy and imperfect agreement so well as an enemy you can all agree to hate.

A Complicated Game

What’s this got to do with Jonathan Freedland? What shaky position, what uneasy agreement might lie behind this Why I still can’t bring myself to vote for Corbyn attack piece? I think there’s a clue in one of the more alarming statistics quoted in the piece. According to a survey carried out by Survation – using as population the 750+ Jewish members of an existing Survation panel – 87% of British Jews regard Corbyn as an antisemite. 87% – seven out of eight. Freedland’s reaction to this hair-raising figure is to ask half-heartedly why British Jews might think this way, and reply with some familiar stories suggesting that Corbyn and the Jewish community aren’t of one mind on certain issues. But really, this won’t do. Freedland’s recourse to partial, tendentious and provocative presentations of his evidence – his descent into trolling, in other words – is eloquent evidence that it won’t, as it attests to the strain that his argument is under.

I’m not going to relitigate Freedland’s list of examples, although God knows it’s hard to resist (comic-book thinks bubble goes here: MUST… NOT… ENGAGE… AM BEING… TROLLED…) But here’s a thought-experiment: let’s play Spot The Antisemite. There’s a man standing in front of you; he’s either an anti-colonialist leftist who supports Palestinian independence because he hates colonialism, or a right-wing antisemite who supports Palestinian independence because he hates Jews. You are allowed one question. Unfortunately, you weren’t really listening when they told you the rules, so you just make conversation and ask the man what he’s been up to. He reels off a lot of rather boring stuff about international solidarity and union recognition and council candidates, then says that, actually, he’s just come from a very productive meeting with well-respected Palestinian leader comrade X, who had shown him his designs for a monument to comrade Y. Now, you happen to know that comrade Y was killed by Israeli security forces while attempting to hijack an El Al flight, and that comrade X – while undoubtedly a popular figure in his own community – has expressed some rather whiffy opinions about the Jewish role in world history. What’s your answer? Do you need another question?

The answer is, of course, Yes, you do. There is an obscure (but noisy) corner of the Left where antisemitism of the old Rothschild-conspiracist school has survived and even, sadly, thrived; you can talk a good game across a whole range of left-wing policy and still have a thing about Jews. So you haven’t heard anything to prove that our man’s not an antisemite – but you haven’t heard anything that proves he is, either. It would be nice if a continuing history of deprivation and defeat didn’t tend to breed irrational hatred (as well as the rational kind); it would be great if every leader of an oppressed community could stand in for Desmond Tutu, or Gandhi at a pinch; it would be terrific if everyone whose cause you supported also expressed views you agreed with and used methods you approved of (why, the cause would practically support itself!). But that’s not the way to bet. Nothing our man has said necessarily tells you anything other than that he supports the Palestinian cause – and you knew that going in.

None of Freedland’s examples – and none of the many, many others I’ve seen – say any more than that Corbyn has a long-established, non-Zionist position on Palestine; that he believes in making progress on Palestinian rights and the cause of a just peace, and to do so is willing to go to places and talk to people most British politicians avoid; and that his well-documented support for the Jewish community in Britain does not take precedence over the first two, or even (in his eyes) come into conflict with them. But it’s not surprising that Freedland can’t stand up the proposition that Corbyn is an antisemite; ultimately this isn’t a proposition or a belief, it’s just an attack.

Come Together

Read symptomatically – with an eye to its strains and gaps – Freedland’s piece is informative, but it tells us about Freedland, not about Corbyn. It tells us, or reminds us, that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important – for a range of reasons – to remove Corbyn and restore the pre-Corbynite status quo in the Labour party; and that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important to shift Labour (back) to a broadly friendly and pro-Zionist stance towards Israel. It also tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that neither of these argumentative positions is very strong. If there were good reasons for thinking that 2010-15 were glory years for Labour, in absolute terms or in comparison with 2015-19, you can be sure that we’d be hearing all about it, and not just about the reasons why Corbyn shouldn’t be the next PM. The arguments for more and stronger Zionism aren’t all that persuasive, either. While most of the great British public would certainly tell you that they didn’t want to see the state of Israel destroyed by force, the same is true of all but the most extreme and isolated fringes of the Palestinian solidarity movement. The real question is whether it would be more appropriate, starting from where we are now, for the British government to be a bit less Zionist and a bit less supportive of Israel, or a bit more so – and I don’t think, if we had that argument publicly, that Corbyn’s position would be the unpopular one.

Some overlapping personnel aside, these two positions don’t really have anything in common. But the partisans of the pro-Zionist position see anti-Zionism as verging on antisemitism at the best of times, while the anti-Corbyn partisans don’t really mind what mud they throw at him, and so “Corbyn is an antisemite” becomes their meeting-place and their slogan – and a stronger argument than either of their own. At least, it’s a strong argument until you notice that it’s not an argument at all; it’s just trolling.

But what about that 87%? The Jewish community itself can’t be trolling us. Admittedly, there are some oddities in that survey, deriving from the composition of the panel. Under-35s, in particular, are heavily under-represented and are consequently upweighted by a factor of 2.4. Particularly given that younger respondents were slightly more left-leaning than the other two groups, this suggests that a better sample might not have given such an extreme result. There wouldn’t be any major changes, though; if Survation had recruited a full cohort of under-35s and every one of the additional recruits had been a Corbynite, the overall figure would still be over 70%.

So there’s no getting away from the scale of Jewish disaffection with Corbyn; specifically, the extent to which British Jews appear genuinely to believe that Jeremy Corbyn hates Jews. This survey finding should have given Freedland more trouble than it did, seeing that he evidently doesn’t believe that Corbyn is an antisemite; at least, if he does, he hasn’t got any good evidence for it. Surely the only rational conclusion is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the Jewish community’s perceptions of Labour; the evidence that should support a view as widely-held as that just isn’t there.

I’ve been out on the doorstep recently, and it’s been very striking how few people had any criticisms of Corbyn. Don’t get me wrong, quite a few people said that they didn’t like him and that his leadership put them off voting for the party, but they didn’t have any actual criticisms – they couldn’t tell us why they didn’t like him (even, in one case, when asked directly). There’s just a vague sense of ‘extremism’; it doesn’t have anything to support it (apparently), but it still sticks to Corbyn. I wonder if, in large parts of the Jewish community, ‘antisemitism’ has stuck to him in a similar way; it’s not something that needs to be demonstrated, more something that needs to be disproved – or rather, something that can’t be disproved.

Ideas don’t just float around and stick to people of their own accord, of course, particularly when they’re ideas that attack somebody. I suggested earlier that commentators like Jonathan Freedland sit on the rickety bridge between committed Zionism and centrist Labourism (or underneath it, ho ho). Perhaps something similar is true here. The British Jewish community doesn’t (by and large) get pushed to the back of queues, or singled out and ethnically ‘othered’ in any way. Consciousness of this happy situation and of how historically unusual it is favours a certain social conservatism, an attachment to the maintenance of the status quo and the non-rocking of boats. (And, perhaps, outright capital-C conservatism; according to one survey 69% of British Jews supported the Conservatives in 2015, as against 37% of the population of Britain.) On the other hand, the community is also characterised – not universally but to a very high extent – by an accumulation of dreams and objectives, myth and realpolitik called Zionism (a pretty heterogeneous bundle in itself).

The two don’t really go together: love it or hate it, Zionism is a transformative project on an international scale, whereas the social conservatism of British society is, well, conservative, not to say British. Push one too far and the other inevitably suffers. How better to solder them together than for both sides to agree on what they don’t support: those scruffy subversive lefties, stirring up trouble here and in the Middle East – don’t you just hate them? And how better to attack them than to go for the big guns and accuse them of antisemitism. You hate him, after all – and he’s certainly making trouble for you – so he has to be an anti-semite really, doesn’t he?

Sort of. More or less.

Well, it’s close enough. It’ll get a reaction, anyway, and that’s the main thing.

Marginal notes

We can be fairly sure that a general election is coming soon. (I’ve been saying that since last December, admittedly, but surely it can’t be much longer now.) With that in mind I’ve been thinking about marginals: the Tory seats that Labour needs to gain in order to form the next government, the Labour seats the party needs to hold in order not to cancel out its gains. Can we identify any patterns, or is Labour just going to be keeping multiple plates spinning – attracting the centrists while holding the loyalists, attracting Remainers while holding Leavers, and so on?

As a starting point, 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. For the following chart I’ve used the Election Polling list of Conservative targets, and selected the first twenty constituencies where (a) Labour currently hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997. All figures are % shares of the vote; figures are rounded to the nearest whole % except for figures below 0.5, which are rounded up to 1. The ‘average’ marked with an X is the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections.

I expected to see three different patterns, split more or less evenly: safe Labour seats gradually going marginal due to changing demographics or incumbent complacency; vulnerable Tory seats going marginal and being narrowly taken by Labour; and permanent marginals, switching back and forth between the main parties. Here’s what I actually found (click to embiggen):

Reading from left to Right (with a couple of adjustments), we have:

  • one long-term Tory seat (Canterbury), which was marginal in 1997 and 2001 and safe in the next three elections; in 2017, Labour overturned a majority of 18.3%
  • 13 seats with two distinctive characteristics:
    • they were held by the Conservatives in 2015
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Stroud (4.7% in 1997, 9.1% in 2001) to Crewe and Nantwich (31.2% in 1997, 23.8% in 2001). (Bear in mind that these are the majorities, i.e. the difference between the Labour and Tory vote shares. Labour’s actual vote in Crewe and Nantwich, in 1997, was 58.2%.) After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 11 of the 13 went Tory in 2010, and eight of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Peterborough went to the Tories in 2005 and Derby North in 2015.)
  • six seats which had never gone to the Tories, but where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 (Labour’s majority in Bishop Auckland was 45.7% – higher than Labour’s vote share in 2010 or 2015)
    • Labour’s majority had dropped and carried on dropping at every subsequent election, including 2017; by 1% or so in Barrow & Furness and Newcastle-under-Lyme, but by over 10% in Dudley North and Ashfield

This was unexpected. Apparently Labour’s battleground, at least when it comes to defending home turf, consists almost entirely of former safe seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015. And, while it’s true that some of these seats saw another drop in the Labour majority in 2017, the large majority of them – 13 vs 6 – were actually taken back from the Tories in 2017, representing a substantial improvement in Labour’s majority (from negative to positive, apart from anything else).

I repeated the exercise using Election Polling‘s list of Labour targets, again selecting the first twenty constituencies where (a) the Tories hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997; again, X marks the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections. Again, I expected to a pretty even split between safe Tory seats gone marginal, former Labour seats where the Tories had squeaked in and permanent marginals. And here’s what I found:

Déjà vu, anyone?

What we seem to have here – again, reading roughly from left to right – is

  • two marginals (1997-2001), turned solid Tory seats (2005-15), turned marginal again in 2017
  • 12 seats with two distinctive characteristics
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Finchley & Golders Green (6.4% in 1997, 8.5% in 2001) to Southampton Itchen (26.4% in 1997, 27.1% in 2001). After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 10 of the 12 went Tory in 2010, and seven of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Preseli Pembrokeshire went to the Tories in 2005 and Southampton Itchen in 2015.)
    • they were marginal in 2017 but not in 2015, i.e. the Tory majority over Labour was substantially reduced
  • six seats where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 and 2001 (Labour’s 1997 majority in Mansfield was 43.3%)
    • between 2015 and 2017, Labour’s majority (or lack of one) had stayed the same (Bolton West, Telford, Thurrock) or dropped even further (Middlesbrough and Cleveland East, Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield)

Extraordinarily, 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 in 2017.

Three conclusions. Firstly, the battleground seems to be the legacy of years of post-New Labour complacency: a decade and a half when some Labour MPs allowed themselves to think they had a job (and a fan base) for life, and didn’t see their support wearing away – or how insecurely it was founded – until it was too late. Secondly, something happened between 2015 and 2017 which – in the great majority of cases – stopped this process dead and reversed it. Look at Battersea, Ipswich, Colne Valley or Stockton South; look at Pendle, Preseli, Southampton Itchen. The Labour majority goes down, and down again; goes negative, and goes down again; and then there’s 2017. Town and country, north and south, it’s the same pattern. (Of course, any current Labour member could have told you precisely what’s happened in the last four years – how the mood’s changed among the membership and, apart from anything else, how much more campaigning is getting done these days – but it’s nice to see it’s had some effect.) Thirdly, there are places that this process hasn’t reached, or at least hadn’t reached by 2017 – places where the long erosion of Labour majorities continued in 2017, even to the point of tipping a couple of seats to the Tories – but they are the minority. Not that you’d know about it from the way that they’re covered in the press. Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme, Mansfield and Ashfield, these places have a story to tell – but it’s not the story of Labour heartlands turning against Corbynite radicalism (unless the radical rot had set in by 2010). Just as importantly, it’s not typical – it’s not the story of Labour’s battlefield seats more generally.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two groups of ‘battleground’ seats and highlight the two trends I’m talking about – the long slump from 1997 to 2015, the fightback in 2017 – here are all 40 together. Remember, these are Labour’s and the Conservatives’ most marginal seats, excluding only (a) seats which haven’t existed throughout the period since 1997 and (b) seats where a third party is or has been the main contender for the seat. (Which means that Scotland doesn’t get a look-in in this post; sorry about that, but it really is a different story.) For clarity I’ve stripped out the 2001, 2005 and 2010 results, to emphasise the contrasts between 1997 and 2015, and between 2015 and 2017. They’re arranged in a different order here: the X measures the difference between Labour’s 2015 and 2017 majorities over the Conservatives.

Now there are three groups:

  • seven seats in which Labour’s majority was halved or worse between 1997 and 2015, then fell substantially in 2017
    • Tory gains: Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South, Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East
    • Labour marginals: Ashfield, Dudley North, Bishop Auckland, Keighley
  • five seats where a large fall in Labour’s majority between 1997 and 2017 worsened only slightly in 2017 or was unchanged
  • 28 seats – all but two held by Labour in 1997 – where the long fall in Labour’s relative vote share was reversed in 2017

That’s an across-the-board trend (a steady falls in Labour’s relative vote share from 2001 to 2015) and a partial but very strong countervailing trend (a reversal of that fall in 2017, in 28 seats out of 40). Before looking at the numbers, I had no idea that either of these existed (although I could have guessed at the second one).

What this suggests is that we need a lot more reporting from places like Ipswich and Colne, High Peak and Lincoln, and a lot less focus on now rather over-exposed places like Mansfield and Ashfield – and, when we are thinking about places where the Labour vote failed to recover in 2017, a less sympathetic focus on the MP who had, in many cases, presided over the decline in local party support for years before Corbyn was elected leader. (And that goes for Chris Williamson (Derby North) as much as for John Woodcock (Barrow & Furness).) It also suggests that when the election comes, in a lot of places we’ll be pushing, if not at an open door, at a door that we’ve already given a good shove in 2017. The next election campaign may be more winnable than we’ve been allowing ourselves to think.

Something happening here

But what it is, ain’t exactly clear…

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

1. The Forward March of…?

Here’s a very scary chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Turning It Off And Then On Again

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 15.31.08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Forward March of… the Liberal Democrats?

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

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

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

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

4. Berkshire Diners’ Club Issues New Security Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. With and Against the Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well, the decomposition of the Conservative Party continues.

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

Here are the figures, one more time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Credo

Once more on Labour’s problems with anti-semitism and the “IHRA Definition”. Here are a few points – five, to be precise.

The first point may seem frivolous, but I think it’s worth making. It’s just that the situation we’re in is really quite odd. I’ve knocked around on the Left for quite a while now – I’ve been called out on strike after a show of hands, I was at the first Chesterfield conference, I’ve been to Greenham – and I can’t remember a massive public row about a definition before.

“Adopt the definition!”
– Well, this is an issue we take very seriously, and of course…
“Stop dodging the question! Adopt the definition! Adopt it!”
– I’m sure we can look at it, and… Yes, actually that definition seems fine. No problem.
And the illustrative examples!”
– And the…
You’ve got to adopt the examples as well! Honestly! Don’t try to pretend you didn’t know!”
– All right, but we’ll need to see if they need to be modified in the light of our…
“Modified? Modified? What do you think this is? Adopt the illustrative examples!”
– Clearly there’s a process that will need to be gone through, and…
“Right, that’s it. Adopt the illustrative examples! Now! Adopt them! Adopt them!”

The fact that the definition was explicitly labelled as a working definition, and that it was devised fifteen years ago by an organisation that no longer exists (and whose successor organisation didn’t adopt it) makes it all the odder to see the furious intensity with which Labour are being pressurised to adopt it entire, root and branch, omitting not one jot or illustrative tittle.

So that’s my first point: when people start acting oddly and making strange demands – and, viewed with any kind of analytical distance, making verbatim adoption of the EUMC “working definition” into an unconditional red line is a strange thing to do – I’m reluctant to jump to it and endorse those demands; not because they’re wrong, necessarily, just because they’re… odd.

Secondly, why the EUMC definition specifically? Let’s look at the definition; it won’t take long.

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The second sentence isn’t really part of the definition; it supplements it by identifying the targets of anti-semitism in practice – although, other than specifying Jewish religious and non-religious institutions, it only identifies them as “people and/or things”. The trouble is, the second part of the first sentence isn’t really part of the definition either, as it says how anti-semitism may be expressed. Nothing in the definition requires that hatred should be expressed towards Jews before anti-semitism can be said to exist. So we can lop off that clause as well – which leaves us with

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews

This is almost entirely uninformative, and the one thing it does specify is wrong – anti-semitism isn’t a perception of Jews, singular (even the Nazis had trouble explaining how it could be that Jews had bestial appetites and super-human cunning, or that they were behind Wall Street and Communism). The abiding impression is that the definition is there to introduce the “illustrative examples”, which will do the real work of sketching out the boundaries of a definition – labelling some behaviours as potentially anti-semitic and others, by omission, not. The definition itself basically says

So, antisemitism. What do we know?

The EUMC definition itself, then, isn’t an advance in clarity; if anything it’s a deliberate retreat from clarity. If it’s important to adopt it – and not to adopt an alternative definition such as the one put forward by Brian Klug, discussed in this post – we’ll have to look elsewhere for the reasons why.

We could look at those illustrative examples, for a start. Taken individually, to be fair, the examples are mostly uncontroversial. Actually, even the controversial ones are uncontroversial, as defenders of the definition have been at pains to point out. Applying double standards to the state of Israel “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-semitic; who could deny that?

But the question to ask of a definition is not what it says but what it doesn’t say, and/or what it makes it hard to say. I asked my father once why the Christian Creeds went to such lengths to nail down particular details of the faith, given that so many of the points they affirm are uncontroversial among believers, irrelevant to the Church’s everyday work, or in a few cases both. My father said that creeds aren’t aimed at the people who find them easy to say, but at all those people who can’t say them; every one of those stipulations is there to nail down a question that somebody, some time, wanted kept open, and to define the Church by excluding those people. Every public affirmation is also a denial, or a shibboleth: “I attest, in sight of you all, that I believe this – which in turn demonstrates that I am not one of them.”

To say that critics of Israel have nothing to fear – because, according to the definition, applying double standards to Israel isn’t necessarily anti-semitic (and why would they be applying double standards, anyway?) – is to miss the wood for the trees, or to grasp the definition on paper but overlook the work it’s doing. To put it another way, the question isn’t who would be found guilty by the definition but who would be put under suspicion by it – and the second group includes everyone who might be presented as applying double standards to Israel for anti-semitic reasons (presented, specifically, by their factional enemies).

This is the third point: the merits of the definition as a whole – and a fortiori the merits of individual clauses and examples – shouldn’t be taken in isolation from the project of which the definition is part. (Historical background here, here and here.) As an aside, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be a lot less squeamish about terms like “lobbying” and “behind the scenes”. From local party branches up to the Cabinet, lobbying – including “behind the scenes” lobbying – is how politics gets done; and politics is how democratic representation gets done. (Imperfectly, in other words.) Anyone who tells you that he organically represents a broad groundswell of public opinion (whereas you’re just a well-organised minority of activists) is lying; lying to himself, possibly, but lying, definitely.

If there had been goodwill and trust, Labour could have sat down with the Jewish community and ironed out any wrinkles, perhaps by adopting the IHRA’s definition in full and then adding a couple of caveats explicitly protecting free speech. The trouble is, there is no such trust, and Labour attempted no such thing. Instead it drew up its code of conduct itself, without consulting the organised Jewish community at all.

Jonathan Freedland‘s equivocation between “the Jewish community” and “the organised Jewish community” is symptomatic. What does “the Jewish community” think about Corbyn’s Labour Party? Generalising about what any group of 300,000 people think about anything would be a bold move, and it’s not hard to enumerate Jewish individuals and groups known to be strongly in favour of the Corbyn project. What does “the organised Jewish community” think? Ah, that’s an easier one.

The EUMC definition hasn’t floated down from the sky, or bubbled up from the collective unconscious of “the Jewish community” – and it isn’t just an acknowledgment that anti-semitism can take many forms. It’s a proposition that anti-semitism tends to take some forms and not others, which tends to put some areas of public discourse under suspicion, and not others. As such, it’s the product of a sustained effort to establish that proposition and embed it in the ‘common sense’ of organisational activity. I’m not qualified to comment on exactly why organisations such as the Board of Deputies have bought into the definition, and got behind the campaign to shame the Labour Party for not adopting it; in any case, that’s a secondary question. The important thing is to recognise that there is an organisational dimension here: organised groups of people pushing for the adoption of the EUMC definition (just as I and my comrades regularly push for our local Labour Party to adopt left-wing positions), and other organised groups getting on board with this effort for their own reasons (just as we occasionally get a motion through or a couple of delegates elected, because something about it or them has appealed to another faction).

As for the point about anti-semitism coming in “some forms and not others”, here are the topics covered by the eleven illustrative examples:

  1. Advocacy or justification of killing Jews
  2. Dehumanising stereotypes of Jews
  3. Accusations of Jewish responsibility for world events
  4. Holocaust denial
  5. Alleging that Jews (or Israel) exaggerate the Holocaust
  6. Accusing Jews of having greater loyalty to Israel than their own nations
  7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination
  8. Applying double standards to Israel
  9. Applying antisemitic stereotypes to Israel or Israelis
  10. Comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  11. Holding Jews responsible for actions of the state of Israel

Granted that all of these can be an expression of anti-semitism (many, many things can be an expression of anti-semitism), there’s still room to be concerned by the scope of the implicit definition mapped out by these examples. Four of the eleven – numbers 7-10 here – aren’t about Jews or Jewish identity as such, but about critiques of Israel and Zionism considered as proxy targets for unavowed anti-semitism; the seventh example in particular seems designed to outlaw outright opposition to Zionism and its presentation of the Jewish people as a nationality (an opposition which has been expressed by substantial currents within the international Jewish community, and still exists today). The eighth, ninth and tenth, for their part, would be entirely unproblematic if we could be confident that they would never be abused in faction fights by people committed to making pro-Zionist prevail over anti-Zionist positions. Considering that the entire context of this definition is exactly this kind of faction fighting, this amounts to saying that the illustrations give pro-Zionist activists additional weapons to use against their bitterest enemies in a political conflict which is currently raging, but that there won’t be any problems just as long as they consistently use them with integrity and self-restraint.

There’s nothing very problematic in the other seven examples, although the sixth would seem to make Theodor Herzl an anti-semite; Zionism as he proposed it meant precisely that the primary loyalty of Jews, wherever they found themselves, would be to the new National Home. What’s interesting, as always, is what’s not here. Not here, for example, is any suggestion that it might be anti-semitic to promote the interests of Israel at the expense of those of Jews in the Diaspora; or to denigrate the history and culture of the Diaspora in contrast to the new society of Israel; or to conflate Jewish identity with the nationalism of a militarised state, tied to western imperialism and entrenched in confrontation with the Muslim world; or to defile the holy name of Zion by identifying it with the goyim naches of a mere nationality. Every one of those positions is arguable; every one of them is held, and has historically been held, by non-negligible numbers of Jews. Perhaps a majority of Diaspora Jews are committed to Zionism (certainly a majority of Israeli Jews are) – but is a majority good enough for a question like this? Can you declare what does and doesn’t constitute Jew-hatred – can you identify which political quarter another Haman would or wouldn’t come from – by taking a vote?

In short, there are many ways of defining anti-semitism, or rather ways of defining areas where it’s likely to be found. There are some approaches to this question which put Zionism and the state of Israel under suspicion, and others which throw suspicion on opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel; what we’ve got with the EUMC definition is, very much, the latter.

But – fourth point – aren’t Labour handling this badly, irrespective of all this background? So the illustrative examples (and hence the overall definition) tilt Zionist; so what? Maybe that’s just because the Jewish community tilts Zionist. (Its representative bodies certainly do, most of them anyway.) What gave Labour the right to mess around with the definition anyway? Shouldn’t they be listening to the victims?

Taking the second question first, it’s frequently been argued that “the Jewish community” supports the adoption of the EUMC definition; that we generally believe that the victims of racism should be the ones to say when and where it exists (this is sometimes referred to as the “Macpherson principle”); and hence that Labour (and, presumably, everyone else) should adopt the EUMC definition, as failing to do so would be represent discrimination against the Jewish community relative to other ethnic minorities.

This looks persuasive, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. The Macpherson principle – dating back to the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – was that a ‘racist incident’ should be recorded by the police whenever an ‘incident’ was reported and anyone – not just the victim – alleged a racist motive. (An ‘incident’ is essentially anything that’s reported to the police but isn’t a crime.) It doesn’t say that the view of the individual victim on a specific incident should be taken as definitive – still less that we should privilege the views of an entire ethnic community on the topic of racist incidents in general. In point of fact, there is no comparable definition of (say) anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, devised by the respective community and generally accepted; failing to adopt the EUMC definition, far from representing discrimination against Jews, would put Jews in the same position as other minority groups. (There is a widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia; however, it was devised by the Runnymede Trust, not by the British Muslim community or any of its representative organisations.)

As for the Labour National Executive Committee’s amendments to the definition, once again the context is crucial. The context here is an organisation which is committed to taking anti-semitism seriously, to the point of suspending or expelling numerous activists. (Was that a hollow laugh I heard? How many anti-semites have the Tories expelled?) It follows that any definition Labour adopts won’t be ornamental; it has to be something that can be referred to and used. As we’ve seen, the EUMC definition is hopelessly vague (“a certain perception of Jews”); the only point at which it has any possible disciplinary bite is in the list of examples. These, however, are introduced with the rubric

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

So anti-semitism could, but doesn’t necessarily, take the form of applying double standards to Israel (for example); moreover, if double standards are being applied, that could be anti-semitism, but it isn’t necessarily. From a disciplinary standpoint this is singularly unhelpful; anyone who’s ever studied harassment (or the later Wittgenstein) knows that literally any individual action can form part of a specified pattern of behaviour. If people are going to face expulsion for antisemitic statements or activities, the definition needs to be a lot tighter than this; instead of “could … include, but are not limited to”, it needs to be couched in terms of the actions or statements which are likely to be evidence of anti-semitism. This in turn will mean the definition becoming narrower; higher levels of culpability necessarily apply to a narrower range of acts. This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the direction in which edits have been made.

In short, Labour has made a good-faith effort to engage with the EUMC definition and turn it into something usable for disciplinary purposes. While we may or may not agree with individual changes to the definition, specific problems with individual changes are the level at which the argument should be had; there is no sense in which Labour’s failure to endorse the definition precisely as it stands represents any kind of differential treatment or discrimination against the Jewish community.

Having said that, I can’t help feeling – fifth and final point – that engaging with the EUMC definition at all represents something of a missed opportunity. Do we know what racism is? Is there a canonical definition? The answers are Yes and No respectively, surely. Do we know what anti-semitism is? I tend to think we do; it’s a range of forms of hostility towards Jews, considering Jews as fundamentally and inherently different from non-Jews. To put it another way, it’s anti-Jewish racism. This is not a mystery.

Moreover, the EUMC definition doesn’t add to this rule-of-thumb definition or refine it. If anything it subtracts and makes it coarser, before supplying some of the missing detail in the form of those illustrative examples – a sort of ‘paint chart’ approach to definition. There’s a perception that examples like these make a disciplinary process more straightforward by removing excuses – excuses like “I’m not anti-semitic, I just think the Holocaust never happened” – but I think this is an illusion. Anyone who’s capable of saying “I’m not anti-semitic, I’m just concerned about the Jewish control of the media” is perfectly capable of saying “I know that conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media are anti-semitic, but the evidence I’ve seen makes me really concerned about media ownership and how it’s concentrated in a few hands”… and so on. Whether you’ve got a definition or not, if you’re going to offer those people any kind of procedural justice you’re going to need to have that conversation. (What if “Jewish control of the media” turns out to mean “I hate Rupert Murdoch, and my mate told me he’s Jewish”? Expel them anyway for being dim and credulous?)

The merit of having a formal definition (with illustrative examples) is, essentially, the same as the merit of having a creed – it doesn’t make the accusations any easier to prove, it just means that when you’re making accusations, the people you’re accusing are likely to be from groups A, B, C and D. (Or groups A, B, F and K, depending on the definition.)

The leadership is right to be reluctant to embrace this particular definition; in fact they’d be justified in not adopting it at all. Certainly the definition has nothing to do with the separate – and much more important – question of how seriously Labour take anti-semitism. I hope to see continued progress on that front; I hope to see the spurious and dangerous row over a definition blow itself out and be forgotten.

Updated 1st August; reference to “Alexander Herzl” corrected.

The Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

 

 

Out of the dark

Since the election, I’ve been wondering about what actually happened – how good a result was it really for Labour? and how bad a result for the Tories? Also, what about Mansfield? A certain kind of centre-left commentator has made hay out of Labour’s loss to the Tories of Mansfield and a few other seats (Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Stoke-on-Trent S and Walsall N); all of these, along with the by-election loss of Copeland, had been held by Labour for twenty years or more – considerably more in some cases. It’s all very well winning these places like Canterbury and Lincoln and Stroud, the thinking seems to run, but look what’s happening out there in the real Labour seats! Six losses plays 27 gains (in England), but look at the quality of those losses – if we can’t stem the drift of Labour’s core vote to the Tories, flukey wins in Sheffield Hallam and Kensington (majority: 0.03%) aren’t going to save us in the long run.

So what can we say about the 2017 result – and what is going on in places like Mansfield? I’ve been playing around with the figures, and (in the immortal words of Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins) I’ve got a theory. But first, let’s ask the real question about what happened in 2017, which is: what happened in 2015? What kind of status quo did that leave us with, and what kind of movement had there been to get us there?

Here goes. The dataset I’m working with consists of all seats in England that were held by either the Tories or Labour when the music stopped: every seat is either a hold (by Tory or Labour) or a gain (ditto). Here’s the overall picture for 2015, as compared with 2010:

X axis: change in the Tory share of the electorate since 2010; Y axis: change in the Labour share of the electorate. (These are not vote shares in the usual sense. I’ve done it this way because I’m interested in how changes in turnout affect the figures.)

Pink triangles: Labour holds; red squares: Labour gains; pale blue diamonds: Tory holds; blue squares: Tory gains.

All clear? As for the trendline, it’s for the Labour holds. I used a polynomial trendline because the curve makes it look like a better fit to the data; I’ve no idea whether there’s any mathematical justification for doing this with data like these.

A few things jump out at us from this chart. One is that 2015 was a substantially better election for the Tories than for Labour: the majority of seats fall in the range from -5% to +5% (Labour vote) and 0 to +5% (Tory vote). Another is that the different series occupy pretty much the same space. There’s some clustering – the seats where the Labour vote fell were mostly held or won by the Tories, and vice versa – but there’s also a lot of overlap: there are Labour holds where the Labour vote fell further than in any seat the Tories won. Oddly, almost all the Tory wins are seats where the Labour vote didn’t fall; they’re clustered in the 0 to +5%/o to +5% box. Labour wins are much more widely distributed. It’s also noticeable that a substantial minority of Labour seats – holds as well as wins – show a really large increase in the Labour vote, 10% and up.

But there’s no show without Punch, and there’s no telling the story of the 2015 election without UKIP. The following chart tells the same story about the same seats, but with the electoral shares for UKIP (and the BNP) added to the Tories for a single ‘Right’ share; I’ve also added the Greens’ share of the electorate to Labour’s. The result looks a bit different:

Now ‘Left’ votes are clustered in the 0 to +5% range, with smaller numbers in the +5% to +10% and +10% to +15% ranges – but ‘Right’ votes are almost entirely in the +5% to +10% range, with a scattering in the +10% to +15% range and above. It’s also noticeable that there are substantial numbers of Tory holds, and even wins, where the Left vote has risen by 5% and more. What we see here, I think, is the collapse of the Lib Dem vote – leading to increases in Left and Right votes – together with the UKIP surge, producing a substantial swing to the Right. This in turn leads both to Tory wins and to Tory holds, where UKIP put the lid on a rise in the Labour vote.

But it’s hard to say much more than that, from these data, about the seats that changed hands. Here are the Labour wins:

Labour won seats in 2015 with changes in the Left vote ranging from +4% to +24%, and in the Right vote from -7% to +8%; it’s hard to make out much of a pattern here, other than that it took a really substantial rise in the Left vote to counteract a rise in the Right vote. In the bottom right corner – Left vote +4%-+8%, Right vote +5%-+9% – the overlap is really substantial, with all four types of seat represented and some contradictory patterns: Chester gained by Labour (Left +5.5%, Right +6.3%); Lewes gained by the Tories (Left +6.5%, Right +5.3%).

Here are all the Tory gains:

Not many Tory gains are to the ‘northwest’ relative to a Labour gain, or above it on the trendline (i.e. showing a higher Left increase and a lower Right). But plenty of them are above a Labour hold, and every one of them is above at least one Tory hold. Two lessons for 2015: firstly, in terms of the swing to the Right, seats that the Tories could actually gain in 2015 looked very much like any other seat; secondly, there was a big swing to the Right. Another election fought by the same parties and on the same ideological battleground could have been very difficult for Labour.

So what happened this year? In terms of Labour and Tory, this happened:

A different box with different corners: still a substantial Tory increase (0-10%) but now the main Labour cluster lies between 5% and 10%. There’s a definite inverse relation between changes in the Labour and Tory votes, with falls in the Tory vote mostly corresponding to higher rises in the Labour vote and the lowest Labour rises corresponding to the higher Tory rises. There are only three seats in England where the Labour vote actually fell in 2017 – one Lib Dem gain (not shown here) and two Tory holds, Richmond Park and Waveney. The first of these was a Lib Dem target; in the second, the Labour vote fell between 2015 and 2017 by 0.5% of the electorate, or 268 votes.

But what about the Left-Right picture?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the collapse of UKIP. Or, to look at it in a more positive light, a swing to the Left. If the Tory vote was mostly clustered between 0 and +10% relative to 2015, the Right vote as a whole is almost entirely contained between 0 and -10%. Labour gains are mostly within the -3% to -6% (Right) and +5% to +10% (Left) bracket, suggesting a combination of a direct swing to the Left and greater mobilisation of Left voters. This impression is confirmed by the clustering of the Labour and Tory holds; intriguingly, Labour holds, as compared to Tory holds, tend to have a higher increase (or lower decrease) in the Right vote as well as, more predictably, the Left vote.

And the Tory gains? I’m coming to them. (That weird one over on the left of the chart – Left up 6.4%, Right down 7.7% – is Clacton, gained from UKIP.) Here are the Labour gains, or most of them; there’s also another anomaly, which I’ll come back to.

That trendline is (still) the trendline for Labour holds; it’s interesting how many Labour gains are bang on it, not to mention how many are below it (i.e. how many seats were gained from the Tories despite the Left performing worse than they tended to do in seats Labour held). If I were a Tory this chart would worry me quite a lot; not only are Labour gains interspersed among Tory holds – as Tory gains were among Labour holds in 2015 – but most of them are below the trendline. This suggests that more focused mobilisation next time could really pay off. Turnout was up generally as against 2015, but the increase in turnout was highest in seats Labour held – and lowest in seats the Tories held.

But of course none of this answers the question we began with, the question Labour absolutely must answer if it’s ever to form a governmentget centre-left commentators off its back: what was going on in Mansfield? This. This is what was going on:

The highest blue square is Southport – a Tory gain from the Lib Dems on a three-way split, and hence not really part of the story I’m telling here (apart from noting that Labour pushed the Lib Dems into third place, where in 2015 the Lib Dems held the seat and Labour were not only third, but less than 2% ahead of UKIP). Moving down, the next blue square you come to is Stoke-on-Trent South – Left +6.9%, Right +0.004%[sic]. UKIP didn’t put up a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent South, having got the votes of 12.2% of the electorate in 2015; the Tory electoral share rose by 12.2% and they fluked a win.

The other five seats – Mansfield, Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Walsall N and Copeland – are best defined by their relation to the ‘Labour hold’ trendline: they’re a long way below it. Looking at the details, Middlesbrough S had no UKIP candidate and a rise in the Tory vote which didn’t quite fill the gap, as witness the drop of 0.9% in the Right vote; the other four all saw a collapse in the UKIP vote together with a rise in the Tory vote which more than compensated for it. Meanwhile the combined Labour and Green vote also went up, but only by between 2% and 3%. This, more than anything, is what singles out those five seats: there was a nationwide trend for Labour-held seats – involving the Left vote rising by between 6% and 12% while the Right vote fell by anything up to 8% – and they’re way below it. These are the outliers; they’re the ones that haven’t performed the way they should have done. It would take some intellectual contortions to argue that it’s the five underperforming losses – rather than the 27 gains or the 200 holds – that are typical of Corbyn’s Labour or crucial to its future. It’s hard not to feel that a bit more mobilisation could have made all the difference – Derbyshire NE has the biggest Tory majority of the five, and 1500 more Labour votes would have made it a Labour hold; 600 would have done the job for Mansfield. A few more Labour votes and they’d have been back in the main cluster – which is to say, a few more Labour votes and they’d look like all the other Labour holds.

As for why these five seats under-performed, different constituencies will have different stories, but it is striking that two of the five – Copeland and Middlesbrough S – were represented in 2015 by MPs who left Parliament rather than fight an election under Corbyn’s leadership (Jamie Reed and Tom Blenkinsop respectively). Of the three MPs who did stand in 2017, David Winnick (Walsall N) had forecast electoral disaster if Corbyn remained leader, while Natascha Engel (Derbyshire NE) is on record as being a fan of Maurice Glasman. Alan Meale (Mansfield) has a radical past but does not appear to have placed his views on Corbyn on the record – although the notorious 2016 ‘league table‘ placed him in the ‘Core group negative’ column, with Ben Bradshaw and Gloria de Piero. (Another ‘Core group negative’ was Rob Flello of Stoke-on-Trent South, who publicly called on Corbyn to resign after the EU referendum.) Even if these MPs strained every sinew to get Labour returned in 2017 – as I’m quite prepared to believe that they did – their opposition to Corbyn’s leadership was no secret; and in our current, quasi-presidential political culture, that was bound to cost the party votes (if they don’t support him, why should I?).

It’s noticeable, finally, just how unusual an area those five seats are in. They’re in the -1% to +5% (Right), 0 to +3% (Left) box, along with only eight other seats: two Tory holds, five Labour holds… and one Labour win. (For completeness, the Labour holds are Ashfield, Leigh, Hull W, West Bromwich W and Bolsover. The last of these was singled out by John Mann MP in his own “Labour heartland” polemic; Mann’s own seat, Bassetlaw, is just outside the box, on Right -1.1%, Left +2.5%. The lesson Mann draws, incidentally, is that “[t]he Labour Party is nothing if it does not represent the aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas”, therefore Corbyn must condemn the IRA, endorse shoot-to-kill and drop his opposition to nuclear weapons. I guess the workers of Bolsover mainly aspire to shoot terrorists and bomb North Korea.)

I think the main lesson of this corner of the chart is that, when you’re in a four-party system with differential levels of mobilisation, and when you haven’t got the momentum of a good chunky electoral mobilisation campaign behind you, electoral politics in a plurality-based system can be very chancy indeed. Looking at the four rightmost seats on that chart and reading from left to right: Right +2.2%, Left +2.5% gets you Ashfield; Right +3.1%, Left +2.5% gets you Copeland (Tory gain (relative to 2015)); Right +3.3%, Left +2.2% gets you Thornbury and Yate (Tory hold); and Right +4.4%, Left +1% gets you Jared O’Mara MP. Sheffield Hallam was also a seat where Labour was under-performing relative to the national trend, presumably because nobody had prioritised it as a potential target; Labour’s vote rising just enough, and the Tories taking just enough of a bite out of the Lib Dem vote, gave us a Labour majority of 2000 and a new MP whom nobody had expected, himself included.

What happened in Sheffield Hallam? Nick Clegg lost it. What happened in Mansfield? Alan Meale lost it. The Labour vote on June 8th? 40%; up 9.6% on 2015. (To put it another way, 27.5% of the electorate voted Labour in 2017, the highest share of the electorate the party has achieved since 1997; the comparable figure for 2015 was 20.2% (up from 18.9% in 2010).) Who won that? We did; the Labour party united behind its elected leader did it. The mean level of Labour support over the twenty opinion polls conducted since the beginning of September? 41.9%. Will it go higher? Yes.

Correction – in an earlier draft I misidentified the MP for Copeland, who left Parliament for a job in the nuclear power industry and triggered a by-election rather than continue to serve his constituents under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, as John Mann rather than Jamie Reed. John Mann has been MP for Bassetlaw since 2001; he was re-elected in 2017 with 52.6% of the vote on a 66.5% turnout.

 

A kind of solution

You’ve probably seen this:

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

You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

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

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

1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

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

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

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

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

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

2. OK, so what has happened?

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

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

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

3. OK, but what happened before that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In another country

It’s now just over a year on from the assassination of Jo Cox. Since the election, the national mood seems utterly changed. For the first time since the murder, I’m beginning to lose the sense that it was a wake-up call to the worst and most carefully hidden corners of the English collective unconscious (look! somebody’s stood up to those people! somebody’s hit back!). At least, perhaps it wasn’t only that.

But the Pontyclun Van Hire attack reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet. So, in a different way, do the horrors of Grenfell Tower – the superhuman efforts of unpaid volunteers, and of an underfunded, overstretched fire service; the local council endeavouring to limit its liabilities to the inconvenient proles, if necessary by shipping them out of town;  the borderline-illegal pennypinching decisions that made the fire possible, apparently made by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation [sic], operating without adequate regulatory oversight. Something I wrote just after Jo Cox’s assassination – and just before the EU Referendum – seems relevant again:

Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure.

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. … I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. It took me [three days] to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

“Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity. As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.”

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

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

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

“As for Fascists … their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.” I wrote that line without much reflection – it just felt right. Conceptually, that is; it didn’t immediately feel like an accurate description of the world, either then or when the referendum result came in. Now, though, I wonder – not whether the Right is weak, but how deep (and wide) the weakness of the Right runs.

To Do (For Everyone)

  1. Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
  2. Get involved
  3. Learn some committee procedure

There’s going to be a lot to do.

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.

On second places

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.02

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.38.16

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 17.43.10

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 18.05.47

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 14.31.49

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

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

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

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