Category Archives: politics

TCM 7 – Why we fight

Some final thoughts on the Corbyn campaign and why I support it, based on a comment (my own!) on this interesting CT thread.

It hasn’t been much of a battle, this campaign; more like an unopposed run with hecklers. I suppose that’s easy to say now, but it’s been the case since quite early on; it’s as if we’re watching some bizarrely slanted TV debate, in which Corbyn is given five minutes to expound his policies followed by ten seconds from each of the other candidates, who can only blurt out a disapproving one-liner – “Ooh, no!” “Don’t think so!” “Don’t listen to him!” “I’ll tell you what he really thinks!” – before their mike gets cut. Of course, the other four candidates have had just as much time as Corbyn to set out their policies, and a much friendlier media environment – so it’s curious, to say no more than that, that the debate has been so limited, and the other candidates’ interventions so light on content.

For Corbyn sympathisers there’s been a lot of tutting and hooting to deal with, and it has been a bit trying. Two of the more irritating lines, from my perspective, have been the charges that Corbyn’s supporters have only just heard of him and that his policies are somehow reactionary, a throwback to the 1970s and 80s. I voted in the 1979 election, as it goes, and I’ve been aware of Corbyn for a good long time; I’ve always thought he was pretty much a good thing – very reliable on security & counter-terrorism issues – but a bit of a Campaign Group type, quiet, earnest variety (probably the best variety of CG type). As for going back to the 1970s, I think there’s a category error here, which we can see if we ask the question does everything always change for the better? Some things are worth going back to; come to that, some things are worth keeping as they are, rather than changing (or breaking) them in an endless quest for ‘modernity’ or ‘reform’. (Ask any teacher.)

So I was pleased he got on the ballot, in the spirit of flying the flag for the Labour Left; I didn’t think of him as the next Labour leader at that stage, and I very much doubt he did either. To begin with I was delighted at the way his campaign started to take off, but also surprised and, if I’m honest, slightly amused – poor old Jeremy, bet he wasn’t expecting this… I signed up, though, and bunged the Corbyn campaign a fiver when they asked; it seemed like a good idea to keep up the momentum.

Then something happened; it was called the welfare vote, together with Harman’s awful, craven line about listening to the British people. I think that was the biggest boost Corbyn could have asked for; it wasn’t just the fact that he was the only candidate willing to oppose a vicious and mean policy, but something deeper: a sense of if not now, when? Let’s not forget that the welfare bill rolls back New Labour policies – we’re not talking about collective ownership of the means of production here. So the decision to abstain, however clever it may have been in the world of parliamentary eleven-dimensional chess, was met with anger, incredulity and impatience: if Labour doesn’t oppose that, what’s it for?

And then there’s this vote that they’ve seen fit to give us. Well then. They want to know what we want? Now, they want to know what we want? Shall we tell them?

So that’s part of it: I support Corbyn because (a) I’m an old leftie anyway and more importantly (b) when it comes to pushing for Labour to move to the Left, I really feel the time for holding back has gone. Another really important element is (c) the reforms to the party, and the party’s policy-making structures, that Corbyn’s advocating (and will continue to advocate even if he loses): a party that makes policy from the membership up could do a lot to revitalise British political life, which could do with a bit of revitalising (see previous post, and earlier comments on the importance of turnout).

We’re now into a third stage: the stage where it actually looks as if Corbyn’s going to win. Can I see him as a party leader? Yes; I think he and Tom Watson, in particular, could make rather a good team. (I’ve seen John McTernan’s bizarre conspiracy theory – or rather, conspiracy proposal – involving the immediate defenestration of Corbyn followed by a “Watson interregnum”. I share John Prescott’s view of John McTernan.) Would Corbyn get crucified by the press? I guess so, but I have to say they’ve been remarkably forbearing up to now; it may be that they’re saving the good stuff till later, but I think it may just be that they’re not quite sure what to do with him. Would he have trouble with the parliamentary party? Indubitably – which is why I’m voting for Tom Watson. Could he win the next election? If the party doesn’t tear itself apart, and if the mobilisation continues, and if opposition – genuine opposition – becomes a way of life for the Labour Party, I wouldn’t rule it out (and neither would Kenneth Clarke). Even if Labour didn’t win under Corbyn in 2020, I don’t believe they could win under Burnham or Cooper – and I’d much rather they spent the next five years shifting the political spectrum to the Left than acquiescing in Osborne & co shifting it to the Right. As I say, I really think the time for holding back is gone.

I don’t know how far it’s going to go; I don’t know if Corbyn can become party leader, or if he’ll be allowed to stay party leader, or how well he’ll handle PMQs and Paxman, or how big a bomb the friends of Israel and hunters of anti-semitism are going to manage to put under him, or what state the party will be in by 2020, or anything. But I can see hope for Labour in one direction and nothing but decline and irrelevance in the other. I’m voting for hope.

TCM 6 – Just a parasol

One more quick thought before my last post on this subject.

I agree with Chris, up to a point.

Rather than being a technical matter of putting the right people into the right jobs, the leadership election has become a “battle on for the soul of our party” – which is the natural cost of having a winner-take-all election. … Despite New Labour’s belief that politicians should learn from business, the party is behaving in an utterly unbusinesslike way. This is because it has for years been in the grip of the ideology of leadership, a belief that all will be well if only the right leader can be found.

One of my rare moments of disenchantment with the leadership election came when I realised that we were all acting as if the leader of the party set the direction of the party: elect Kendall, get a right-wing party; elect Corbyn, get a left-wing party. But this way of looking at it is profoundly undemocratic – and an older Labour left would have seen this. The point is to build for a left-wing party within the party; that way, a left-wing leadership will be grounded in, and held to account by, a left-wing membership, which in turn will both revitalise and respond to the broader working class.

We are, of course, a very long way from making that a reality; not only is the level of struggle in society woefully low, but the structures within the party which could have made this a possibility have been systematically dismantled. (The media’s managerialist cult of leadership certainly made this easier, but we need to place the blame for this where it belongs: with New Labour and “Party into Power”. Those policy-making structures wouldn’t have transformed themselves – somebody did that to the party.) So far from being an autonomous presence in civil society, communicating policy directions to the leadership, the Labour Party is little more than a set of local fan clubs for the policy directions set by the leadership. But that’s a real loss, and one which can’t be remedied by parachuting in the right kind of leader.
So I was pleased to read this from John McDonnell a few weeks back, soon after John Prescott’s intervention in the campaign:

I share John Prescott’s view that everyone should just calm down and think seriously about the long-term future of the party and the people we seek to represent.

To reassure everyone that whatever the outcome of the leadership election we have a process for uniting the party, I am writing to propose a process to be adopted immediately following the election result that would ensure the fullest inclusion of everyone within the party in determining the party’s strategy for the coming period, its policy programme and its decision making processes. In this way nobody would feel excluded and everybody would have a democratic say.

This involves ensuring that the direction of the party rests firmly in the hands of our members. I propose that immediately following the leadership election the new leader announces that all the leadership candidates will be given the joint responsibility of organising a wide-ranging and detailed consultation on the party’s political strategy, policy programme and internal party decision-making processes.

For this process of party membership engagement at local CLP and regional levels to take place over a three month period culminating in a recall annual conference to take the final decisions on strategy, policy programme and democratic reform. In this way the future direction of the party will be placed firmly in the hands of its members and so that the party can come together to oppose the Tories and the clear political strategy they are embarking upon which is so damaging to so many people in this country.

Whoever wins the election – which is to say, even if Cooper or Burnham somehow manages to pull it back at this stage – I sincerely hope that this proposal or something very like it can be implemented. I’m sure the Right will cry foul – all this talk of including “everyone within the party”, it’s not going to give the focus groups what they want, is it? Nor is it entirely surprising to find that a veteran left-winger’s recommendations for promoting party unity resemble reforms previously advocated by the Left.

But, putting aside the labels and the name-calling, something like this is going to have to be done if Labour is going to be rebuilt as a party. And if the decade of rightward drift and ever-declining participation has taught us anything, it’s taught us that Labour needs to be rebuilt as a party. That way lies democratic policy-making; that way lies a party that genuinely represents its members and voters; that way lies a functioning party with unity of purpose. There is no other way but decline.



TCM 5: In another country, with another name

On the train the only person who said much was the writer, who would sometimes stare out of the window and make a cryptic remark for no apparent reason, though it was always aimed at me.

“Wee hard men!” he muttered as the train pulled out of Falkirk. “The curse of Scotland is these wee hard men. I used to blame the English for our mediocrity. I thought they had colonised us by sheer cunning. They aren’t very cunning. They’ve got more confidence and money than we have, so they can afford to lean back and smile while our own wee hard men hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”

Brian said wearily, “Leave Jock alone will you? He was one of us before the journalists and the police put their boots in.”
– Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine

If you’re thinking about Scotland at the moment, politically speaking, you have to be thinking about what happened at this year’s election – which is to say, what happened in the 2011 election, happened again at last year’s referendum and happened even more emphatically at this year’s election. Back in March – before the most dramatic confirmation his thesis could have had – Ken MacLeod put forward a startling analogy:

Scotland was never socialist, and Labour never ran a one-party state. But — all proportions guarded, all caveats made — the cliches to the contrary contain more than a grain of truth. … It’s belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what’s going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.

On one side, a generation of entitled hacks whose imaginations have grown to fit their office chairs; they have nothing to offer these young people demanding hope and change, except the bland assurance that this generation will eventually settle down and vote for them, just like the one before and the one before that. On the other, a turbulent, disorganised movement, the vehicle for diverse and contradictory hopes and dreams, united by nothing except the feeling that things have got to change – and the conviction that that’s all the unity they need. We know how this one plays out.

And Scotland was – with the wisdom of hindsight – peculiarly ripe for this kind of upheaval. Thinking about the kind of people likely to have voted Yes last year – and the even larger range of people who voted SNP this year – I found myself thinking of 1982 Janine, the quoted passage (for some reason) in particular. Who, in that amazing novel’s dramatis personae, wouldn’t vote SNP? The young Jock – the narrator’s 1950s younger self – is a working-class Scot who has learnt by experience that society is an unjust, exploitative racket and that Scottish society has the additional burden of the English squatting on top of the pile. The older Jock is a disillusioned Conservative voter – if society’s a racket, best get in with the people who are doing well out of it – who makes it a rule never to think about politics, the then-recent devolution referendum included, because if he does he’s liable to fly into a helpless rage. Consciously at least, he has no illusions about nationalism – in one beautiful scene he finds tears welling up when he’s watching football on TV and hears the crowd singing “Flower of Scotland”; despising his own weakness, he carefully tilts his head back so that the tears will not be shed, and holds the position until they have evaporated. (“Since the age of thirteen I have not shed a single tear,” he says elsewhere.)

It’s not just Jock. The young Jock’s lover Denny is working-class and poorly-educated; she wishes she knew geography so that she could tell whether it was better to donate to Korea or to give the money to her cousin who lives in a slum down the road. The middle-aged Jock’s lover Sontag is a socialist, feminist and “sexual missionary”: “I was Scotland, something frozen and dumb which she was going to liberate.” Jock’s wife Helen is the lower middle-class daughter of a tightly-wound small businessman: very respectable, very Scottish. ‘The writer’ of the quote at the top is a working-class Scot whose hatred for the English and belief in the potential of Scotland is undercut by resentment of the Scottish talent for self-destruction. Jock’s friend and hero Alan is a charming and witty mechanical genius who seems to have no interest in politics; we’ll come back to him. And then there’s that crowd at the football match, and everyone who’s sentimental enough to listen to “Flower of Scotland” and let the tears fall. Even the wee hard men themselves – well, I remember George Galloway advocating what he was pleased to call a “Naw” vote, but I think there are wee hard men enough on the Yes side.

The point isn’t that Alasdair Gray is a nationalist who was writing in the long, bitter aftermath of the devolution referendum, although this is true (“If we ran that race again we would win by a head and neck so we won’t be allowed to run it again,” thinks Jock). It’s certainly not to criticise Gray for writing variations on a single character – on the contrary, these characters have next to nothing in common, except that every one of them would have been a Scottish nationalist in 2014 and 2015. Socialist nationalist? Conservative nationalist? Sentimental nationalist? Embittered, misanthropic former nationalist? Disillusioned, self-hating former socialist nationalist? Welcome, welcome! Never mind all the qualifications now – just hop on board. Next stop, the bright unwritten national future!

As for the Leonardo-like Alan, he dies young in an accident. Jock muses that if he had lived “Scotland would now have an independent government … Alan would have worked on Scotland like a few ounces of yeast on many tons of malt, he would have fermented these arselickers and instruments, these stoical and hysterical losers into a sensible coherent people”. It turns out that Alan isn’t a Scottish nationalist: he is Scottish nationalism. It’s presented as a school of character: to be a nationalist is to stand on your own two feet, solve your own problems and face the future with confidence. Not to be a nationalist is to be servile or cowed – given the chance to stand up, why wouldn’t you? Again, I don’t think this is just about Alasdair Gray’s politics; I think this is how nationalism, or a political movement borne on nationalism (like the colour revolutions), can present itself to a lot of people at certain moments – and how Scottish nationalism presents itself to an awful lot of people right now.

What does all this have to do with the Corbyn campaign? Two things: arithmetic and an early warning. Firstly and most obviously, there are those forty seats that Labour lost last time; if we simply kissed Scotland goodbye we’d be left with the challenge of securing an overall majority, over the other English and Welsh parties and the SNP, on the basis of English and Welsh seats alone. John Curtice – he of the unbelievable exit poll – estimates that to do this Labour would need to have a lead of 12.5% over the Conservatives. I’m not saying that’s unachievable by definition – a lot can change in five years – but it would be nice to have a Plan B in case Labour’s recovery doesn’t quite scale those heights. The question then is, what approach is going to be best suited to winning support back from the SNP, given the tsunami-like wave of sentimentality, resentment, creativity and hope that they’re currently riding. Is it, for example, the approach exemplified by Jim Murphy? You’ll remember that Murphy insisted throughout the campaign that he would throw the election to the Tories sooner than co-operate with the SNP; not only that, he maintained that this was the right approach, and that even trying to form a Labour/SNP coalition would be unsportsmanlike and improper. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the bankruptcy of late Blairism – the hectoring insistence that only one route was correct, and that Labour and its supporters must rule out all others, was still there, but it was linked to no positive content at all.

Labour was particularly ill-advised in selecting Jim Murphy – beside him, Gordon Brown sounded like Tony Benn – but Murphy’s proprietary attitude to the Labour voters of Scotland, and his obdurate incomprehension of the nationalist wave, wasn’t untypical. But if Labour is to win back more than a couple of those 40 seats, the wagging finger of sensible, moderate Unionism isn’t going to cut it. I see no sign from any of the other three candidates that they have either the inclination or the ability to tap into a mood of transformative optimism North of the border – but, unless the nationalist wave subsides a lot quicker than currently seems likely, that is what Labour is going to have to do. The arithmetic is unforgiving: Labour’s path back to Downing St is going to have to pass through those 40 seats. Which means that, for anyone who genuinely cares about the electability of the Labour party, the next leader must be a sincere, no-nonsense Left candidate untainted by Blairism. What luck that there’s one standing!

There’s also the possibility – an interesting possibility, to say the least – that the SNP surge, together with the UKIP surge and the Green surge, was symptomatic of something larger: a new volatility in British politics, a new level of disenchantment with the old parties and the old political assumptions. Again, all of this may have drained quietly away by 2020, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Just as in Scotland, there’s an odd mixture of resentment, impatience and genuine hope abroad. A lot of people are starting to think that the old ways of doing politics are broken; that they don’t want to wait any longer to vote for something and someone they actually believe in; and that it might just work. Running a campaign like this within the Labour Party is perhaps asking for trouble – or it may just end up creating trouble for the party. I do wonder whether, in 2020, the SNP surge will seem less like a freak storm and more like the way politics normally works. Needless to say, if we are heading into choppy political waters, the very last people we want in charge of the Labour Party are veterans of a period when political loyalties were unchanging and political participation was in steady decline. Again, the case for Corbyn turns out to be practical – tactical, even – as well as ideological; he could be the best candidate for these times.

If you haven’t registered to vote by now, you’ve missed out. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series with some thoughts about the Corbyn campaign, now that the serious business is starting.

TCM 2 – Here comes success

Before I get on to Scotland, here’s another way of looking at the figures in the last post.

Leader 1: +1,300,000, +670,000, -640,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 3: -10,000 (W), +890,000 (W), -890,000, -560,000 (W), -190,000 (W)
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 5: -3,070,000
Leader 6: +1,570,000, +1,530,000
Leader 7: n/a
Leader 8: +1,960,000 (W), -2,800,000 (W), -1,170,000 (W)
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 10: +740,000

Or to look at it another way:

Leader 6: +3,100,000
Leader 10: +740,000
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 1: -10,000
Leader 3: -760,000, 4 election wins
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 8: -2,010,000, 3 election wins
Leader 5: -3,070,000

Judged over their whole careers as leader, Labour’s three biggest vote-winners – in fact, their only vote-winners – are Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and James Callaghan, in descending order; the three biggest vote-losers are Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Michael Foot, whose stewardship of the party saw it lose one, two and three million votes respectively. (Honourable mention to Gordon Brown, in a close fourth place with a net loss of over 900,000 votes.) Tony Blair, like Harold Wilson before him, drove the party’s vote up and then drove it right down again. Wilson became leader after a 12.2 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 11.5 million votes (a post-war low), paving the way for the defeat of 1979; Blair took over after an 11.6 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 9.6 million votes (from a substantially larger electorate), making the defeat of 2010 all but inevitable. A lot of recent commentary has bracketed Ed Miliband with Michael Foot, as left-wing leaders who presided over humiliating defeats (never mind the fact that Foot’s defeat was brought about by leading members of his own party). But the answer to the quiz question “which Labour leader had the second largest loss of votes?” isn’t Ed Miliband.

You could say that this is beside the point; what matters is to win elections, and on that metric Harold Wilson (say) beats Ed Miliband 4-0, despite having lost Labour more votes than Miliband gained. In other words, we should praise Wilson – and praise Blair – for finding tactics that won the party elections, even if they also drove supporters away. The problem with this argument is threefold. Firstly and most obviously, it lets New Labour (and any remaining Wilson apologists) have their cake and eat it: attracting 1.9 million new votes in 1997 shows how popular Blairism was, but driving them all away (and then some) four years later doesn’t matter, since after all the election was won anyway. We can’t really have it both ways: if New Labour was popular, the figures say that its popularity very rapidly ebbed away. Secondly, however effective New Labour’s laser-like targeting of swing voters may have been, any strategy that alienates that many of the party’s own voters is by definition of very limited use. If the election in which Ed Miliband’s leadership gained Labour 700,000 votes did more damage to the party’s standing than Blair’s massive losses in 2001 and 2005, it’s because Blair had the luxury of being able to lose all those votes. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, “do what wins elections (even if it loses votes)” isn’t a strategy that a party can actually use. As we saw in the last post, apart from increased votes, “what wins elections” is mostly outside the winning party’s control: Labour’s election victories were created, to a large extent, by the parties led by Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and John Major. Of course, there are questions about making gains in the right places – better a narrow win over a Tory than a thumping majority in a safe seat. But, if we discount a pure swing-voter focus-group strategy – with its proven risk of alienating existing voters – what’s left is mostly technical questions of party organisation: any party, Left or Right, needs to target resources on winnable and vulnerable seats. (Of course, calling this a technical question isn’t to say that it’s insignificant. According to election post mortems several of the English seats Labour lost in 2015 could have been held with better organisation; if all seven had been held the Tories would have been three seats short of a majority. What might have been…)

Winning elections by hook or by crook is handy, but it makes more sense to judge success for a party – or party leader – in terms of numbers of votes; there are fewer factors involved, and a lot fewer factors outside the party’s control. And on that metric Ed Miliband really doesn’t look that bad – particularly if you bring Scotland in. Let’s suppose – as a lot of commentary does – that the SNP landslide was, in effect, just that: an unstoppable natural phenomenon, which couldn’t be predicted precisely but was bound to happen sooner or later. (I don’t think this is correct, but we’ll stick with it for the sake of argument.) Overall, the difference between Labour’s 2010 and 2015 performances (discounting by-elections) was a gain of 740,000 votes and a loss of 26 seats, but if we separate out the constituent nations of Great Britain the figures look a bit different.

Wales: +20,000 votes, 1 gain, 1 loss
Scotland: -330,000 votes, 40 losses
England: +1,050,000 votes, 21 gains, 7 losses

Labour put on over a million votes in England – in an election where the Green vote also increased by a million. (Some of the latter will have been former Lib Dems, but not all of them.) As you can see from the list above, this is a kind of increase in votes which Labour has only managed a handful of times since 1945 – once under Blair, once under Attlee and twice under Kinnock. Another interesting perspective shift is imagining what would have happened if somebody had kicked the crucial pebble ten years earlier, so that the landslide election was the one in 2005, not 2015. Take another 330,000 votes and 40 seats from Labour; suddenly Labour are nine seats short, and questions are being asked about Tony Blair’s ability to lose the party 1,500,000 votes, 87 seats and its majority.

That last part is a counter-factual – and, as it goes, I don’t think the SNP landslide was either inevitable or unpredictable, let alone that it could have happened as early as 2005. But the 2015 gain of a million votes in England is real. Doubtless much of this was a one-off gain from a minor-party squeeze – just as much of the vote loss in 1983 derived from a one-off minor-party surge – but the numbers do suggest that Ed Miliband’s leadership was doing something right, at least in England: something which should be built on rather than being repudiated. And there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Blairism is a proven vote-winning strategy. If anything it’s a proven vote-losing strategy, which also wins elections – but only if the party’s support is already strong enough to absorb the loss of votes.

Next: the Scottish play (and surprise everyone).

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Cap in hand (2)

Initially, the Tories’ current campaign strategy – which centres on various forms of shroud-waving at the prospect of a Labour/SNP government – left me genuinely puzzled: even granted the premise (which clearly I don’t share), I couldn’t see any logic to it at all. “A Labour government would rely on SNP votes, therefore you should vote Tory”? How could that possibly work? The implicit comparison is between a Labour arrangement (of whatever sort) with the SNP and a Tory majority, but surely that’s a false choice. There isn’t anything magical about a Tory vote that makes it capable of bringing about a single-party government; the Tories, just as much as Labour, are going to be fishing for allies in the 80- to 90-strong ‘small parties’ group. And the attacks on a potential SNP lash-up remind us that, unlike Labour, the Tories have no hope of making allies of the majority of that group – if only because the majority of that group will almost certainly be SNP. The Tories will be able to call on any Kippers and Official Unionists, as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI); Labour will be able to talk to the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Green(s) and perhaps even Respect – as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI). Potential Tory allies (rough estimate): 30, giving a bare minimum of 296 Tory MPs for a (fragile) majority. Rough estimate of potential Labour allies: 80, giving a minimum Labour group size of 246. Most current forecasts have both parties on between 270 and 280 MPs. That would be fine for Labour – with the SNP on their side they might even be able to dispense with the Lib Dems – but it’s no good for the Tories: barring a massive revival of Lib Dem fortunes, 280 Tory MPs would not be able to form a government with any imaginable combination of allies.

The brute facts of current polling – including current polling in Scotland – are extremely unkind to the Tories, and this situation is unlikely to change unless they find and broadcast some positive reasons for voting Tory in short order. This being the case, at first I was baffled by the amount of time and energy they were devoting to pointing out, in effect, how well the SNP are doing and how unlikely it is that they’ll support the Tories after May 7th. As time’s gone on, though, the message has become more sophisticated. The initial message, focusing on how undesirable a Labour/SNP government would (supposedly) be, has been supplemented by three more: an argument that a Labour/SNP government would be, not merely undesirable, but inherently unstable and unworkable; an argument that the largest party (and/or the one with the largest popular vote) should get first go at forming a government; and – doubling down again – an argument that a Labour minority government sustained by the votes of the SNP would somehow be unconstitutional or illegitimate.

Nick Clegg – who on current form is surely destined for a Tory seat in the House of Lords – has spelt it out, speaking to the FT and the BBC . As well as “rul[ing] out any arrangements with the SNP” on political grounds, Clegg dismissed the SNP as essentially untrustworthy, arguing that a coalition dependent on the SNP for its majority would be “on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants”. Governmental stability seems to be a preoccupation for Clegg, but on closer inspection stability doesn’t seem to mean the numerically-guaranteed ability to win votes and pass laws. Rather, stability and instability seem to be intangible qualities deriving from the conditions under which the government was formed: a blessing (or curse) bestowed on a government in its cradle: “You cannot provide stability, you can’t take difficult decisions, if people are constantly questioning the birthright of a government”. We are told that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable”, which is nice of them. What this actually means, though, is something quite specific and potentially rather ominous.

“That means that, in a democracy, the party with the greatest mandate from the British people – even though they haven’t got a majority – seems to me, to us, to be the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first. They may not succeed, but they should surely be given a chance to succeed.”

Clegg would only talk to the second party if the largest party’s coalition-building efforts had failed. And woe betide any second party which stole a march on the Lib Dems and put together a parliamentary majority without waiting to hear from them. Even with Lib Dem involvement, Clegg suggests, a “coalition of the losers” could lack “legitimacy”; without them, presumably, legitimacy would be a lost cause. A second-placed Labour Party might be able to get the numbers, but it wouldn’t have the birthright.

This all deserves a bit of analysis. The comment about Alex Salmond pulling the plug is odd, to say the least. Any large minor party in a coalition (e.g. the Lib Dems, 2010-15) has precisely this power; the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes it less straightforward to use, but obviously this would apply to the hypothetical Labour/Lib Dem/SNP coalition as well as the actual Tory/Lib Dem one. What Clegg seems to be telling us here is that not all minor parties are like those rascally nationalists: once the Lib Dems have chosen their coalition partner, they will never defect. Which is nice, I suppose, although it doesn’t seem like terribly good politics. (Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. If we take into account Clegg’s reference to Labour’s “frothing bile” towards the Coalition – a line which goes back to 2010 – perhaps what he’s saying is simply that he has chosen his coalition partner, and will never defect.)

Secondly, is it in fact difficult to get things done when – or rather because – a government is seen as lacking legitimacy or having its ‘birthright’ challenged? Setting aside other sources of difficulty, such as a small majority or a divided governing party – which would make it hard to win votes whether the government’s birthright had been impugned or not – I can’t think of any examples. The outstanding example of a government having its creation called into question is surely the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and that controversy doesn’t seem to have had any long-term effects at all. Admittedly, the question was officially resolved in fairly short order, but many opponents of Bush didn’t think the book was closed; I remember seeing “Re-elect Gore” .sig quotes months afterwards. The effectiveness of the government doesn’t seem to have been impaired. If we get away from government as a whole and look at specific government policies, Thatcher and Heseltine mobilised millions of people against pit closures, which went ahead anyway; Blair mobilised millions against British involvement in the second Iraq war, to no effect. (Both Blair and Thatcher did eventually step down, but not for another four and five years respectively.) Conversely, if we think in terms of questioning the ‘birthright’ of an individual political leader, we need look no further than the MP for Doncaster North: the legitimacy of his election to lead the Labour Party has been weighed and re-weighed by the right-wing press, and found wanting every time. Not only is Ed Miliband still the leader of the Labour Party, he has the distinction of being the leader of the Labour Party who broke with the Murdoch press and halted a US-led drive to war with Syria – not the sign of somebody who “can’t take difficult decisions” for all the awkward questions people keep asking.

The idea that the SNP would have blackmail power over a minority government is an odd, sensationalist misrepresentation of the position any junior partner occupies in that situation, including the Lib Dems over the last five years; there’s no reason to believe an agreement with the SNP would be any more volatile than the Tories’ agreement with the Lib Dems, assuming of course that an equally binding agreement was reached. (If the larger party doesn’t offer the SNP an agreement, but challenges it to support a minority government, volatility is guaranteed – but that’s not the SNP’s doing.) The idea that the ‘birthright’ of a government needs to be unimpeachable if the government is to operate is even odder. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality at all: as long as the government can get things done, how it came into being doesn’t matter.

On inspection, Clegg’s idea of securing the birthright of the next government seems to boil down to the slightly more mundane idea that any minority government should be led by the largest single party: “the party with the greatest mandate from the British people” is “the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first”. Perhaps Clegg’s undertaking that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable” simply means that the Lib Dems will refuse to join any coalition not led by the largest single party – and will denounce any such coalition formed without them. I’m sure we’re all lucky to have such guardians of constitutional rectitude to hand. Or are we? This government has, unusually, published a manual documenting how the government works – the two houses of Parliament, the Cabinet, relations with the devolved governments, the works. What the Cabinet Manual says on this topic is

Prime Ministers hold office unless and until they resign. If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

it remains a matter for the Prime Minister, as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, to judge the appropriate time at which to resign, either from their individual position as Prime Minister or on behalf of the government. Recent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention.

An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government.

And, er, that’s it. As you can see, the ‘largest party goes first’ principle isn’t there; it’s a reasonable description of the Lib Dems’ behaviour in 2010, but nothing in constitutional principle made them do it. Nor will they be able to claim constitutional backing for such an approach this year. Interestingly enough, what we may call the Clegg Principle did appear in a draft of the Cabinet Manual, but it was removed in 2011 (Tristram Hunt, who is a historian and knows precedent-setting when he sees it, referred to this as a “Liberal Democrat attempt to change our constitutional procedures”). There are many ways to approach coalition formation: we could argue that the ‘formateur’, charged with pulling together a coalition of its allies, should be the party with the best chance of gaining an overall majority; or we could give the role to the party with the main responsibility for the previous government falling; or we could start by eliminating any parties whose vote has dropped since the previous election, then apply one of the other tests. Alternatively, perhaps the formateur should (as Clegg says) be the party with the ‘greatest mandate’, but this in turn could mean a number of things: the largest single party; the party with the highest vote; the party whose vote has risen the most in absolute terms; the party whose vote has risen the most in proportion to its previous vote… I very much doubt that’s an exhaustive list of approaches. The idea that a coalition is illegitimate if it’s not centred on the largest single party, or even that the largest party should always get the first go at forming a coalition, is “absurd” (in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, who knows this area fairly well).

In reality there is no reason why a government should not be formed excluding the largest single party, and in some cases this may be a very good idea: the second party may have the highest vote; its vote may have risen the most; and it will almost certainly have some responsibility for the situation in which the previous government is unable to carry on. Most importantly, it may have the best chance – or even the only chance – of gaining an overall majority. Most of these things look like being true of the Labour Party on May 8th, even if it doesn’t have the largest number of seats (although I hope it will). It may also be the case that Labour needs the Lib Dems’ support to achieve an overall majority (although I fervently hope it won’t). Even in that unfortunate situation, however, we can be fairly sure that the weight of the minor parties would be more or less unchanged. This in turn means that the Tories, even with more seats than Labour, would be a long way short of a parliamentary majority – and that it would be significantly easier to form a majority with the SNP than without them. For Nick Clegg to refuse Labour his party’s support in that context would be, at best, to usher in a ramshackle Tory/UKIP/DUP/Lib Dem alliance, which would struggle to agree any policies – let alone to get then through the Commons. A more likely result would be a Tory/Lib Dem minority government, permanently a couple of votes short of a majority, surviving from one vote to the next on temporary alliances and defections. To take that choice on the grounds that a Labour/SNP/PC/Green/Lib Dem majority government would be unstable is enough to make a cat laugh.

The Tories – and their allies – seem determined to stay in power after May 7th, majority or no majority; arguments to the effect that re-electing the Coalition would exemplify stability, legitimacy and adherence to constitutional principle are ringing increasingly hollow. Which, perhaps, is why the assault on the legitimacy of the next Labour government has taken a new and nastier turn, with the outright delegitimation of the SNP. But I’ll stop here and cover that in the next post.

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

When strangers were welcome here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

My sisters and I used to play word games on long car journeys. The one I remember best involved taking turns to make up a story: you’d pick up from where the last person left off, and (most importantly) you’d have to incorporate three words that they gave you. I remember our last ever round of the game: my sister, feeling that I was getting a bit too good at it, gave me the words “brouhaha”, “nugatory” and “persimmon”. I proved her right (after asking her to define ‘nugatory’) by telling a story that didn’t use any of those words once, until the closing line of dialogue (spoken by a bystander after the story was over):
“What a brouhaha over a nugatory persimmon!”

If you think this game sounds like fun, why not try it yourself? Here are some words to get you started:

best, bim, blan, chill, chom, gang, geck, grit, hild, hooks, quemp, shin, start, steck, thazz, tord, tox, ulf, vap, week

If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, how about these?

blank, blurst, day, dentist, fape, finger, jound, newt, phone, rusty, scribe, slide, snemp, spron, starling, strap, stroft, terg, trains, voo

Go on, what are you waiting for? Just pile them all in if you’re not sure – I’ve got my best blim blan, I’m going to chill with the chom gang… Sorry, I mean bim blan – not blim blan, that would just be silly. It would also be wrong.

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about – and who could blame you if you were – let Michael explain. Or rather, Michael’s contact in the Department for Education…

“I have been receiving some complaints concerning the excellent Phonics test which, thanks to me, all Year 1 children will be taking June.

“The test works like this: first of all the children read some real words. They’re not in sentences because that would be cheating. They’re just words on a page. Phonics words. What I mean by that is words that are regular. By regular I don’t mean small – like coffee cups. I mean that they are spelled like they are said. Unlike, er…’said’ which looks as if it should be said ‘sayed’. Which actually is the way some people say ‘said’. Look, this is really quite easy and obvious.

One of my younger sister’s alphabet books – Charlotte Hough’s My Aunt’s Alphabet, of which I was rather fond – had a vocabulary list at the back, with some words printed in red to warn you that they weren’t pronounced the way they looked. There was a problem with these red words, which I only spotted some years later, after moving to the North of England. “Grass”, for instance, was a red word, because to look at it you’d think it rhymed with “lass”, say, or “gas”. Which of course it doesn’t – that would be wrong. “Bush” was also a red word, because of that sneaky ‘u’ – you’d think that “bush” rhymed with “hush” or “lush”, whereas in fact… There’s no explanation of what makes the ‘u’ in “bush” (and “bull”) the wrong sort of ‘u’ – except in “bush” and “bull” (and “push” and “pull”, and so on); it just is. You don’t pronounce the B in “comb”, you don’t stress the first syllable of “abyss” and you don’t rhyme “hush” with “bush”. That would be wrong.

Er…where was I? Yes, the test. So, there’ll be words. Not sentences. Sentences complicate things because children start guessing words by where they are in the sentences. And by what the sentence means. And ‘meaning’ as we call it, really has very little to do with reading. Or words. Meaning gets in the way of reading. We need the children to read. Not mean.

Someone once tried to start a conversation with me while I was reading a book over lunch – I know, the nerve of it! – the book in question being Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters (a book-length interview with some people from the New Left Review, and actually rather interesting, in fact a lot more interesting than the job I was doing at the time, wasted I was there, wasted). “What are you reading?” I angled the cover towards her in an only partly deliberately annoying way. She faltered but pressed on. “Oh… I like politics…” I didn’t think quickly enough to reply “Really? I prefer letters”; it’s probably just as well. Actually I don’t much like letters; I do like words, but the idea of words divorced from meaning is an odd one, to say the least.

Now the test also has some other kinds of words. These aren’t words. They’re just words that look like words. Words like ‘blurg’. or ‘Skonk’. If you’re a reader, you’ll read those. If you’re not a reader you won’t. Now some people have said that some little children taking the test will think that if there’s a word they can read but doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to make it make sense. … So, a child who can read, might see ‘blurg’ and because it doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to turn it into a word that does….’blurt’ or ‘blurb’ or something. Then they’ll be wrong and score badly.

But the good news is that we’ve been listening to what teachers have been telling us about this. So do you know what we’re doing? We’ve hired an artist who imagines what a ‘blurg’ might look like and he draws a ‘blurg’. There it is on the page next to the word ‘blurg’. A bit like a Flannimal. Now isn’t that fun? Now the child looks at ‘blurg’ and says to him or herself…’Ho ho ho, that must be a blurg’. Problem solved.

This is the sort of thing we do at the Department for Education. We hire people to do pictures of blurgs.

Readers, he is not making this up. At the end of this school year, primary schools in England really are going to administer a reading test to Year 1 children consisting of 20 words and 20 made-up words, and the children will be marked on whether they say them correctly. And the made-up words – but not the real words – really are going to have little pictures next to them – pictures of smiley monsters. You can read all about it here. (SFW. Some smiley monsters.)

Apart from the bizarre detail of associating non-existent ‘words’ with smiley monsters, this scheme (and I use the word advisedly) has one rather major flaw. How do you pronounce ‘chom’? Is that ‘ch’ as in ‘Christian’ or as in ‘champagne’? What about ‘geck’ – GE without a U or an H in the way is a ‘soft’ G (as in “gem”), so presumably it’s ‘jeck’. Except that sometimes GE is ‘hard’ (as in “get”), so maybe it should be pronounced… er… ‘geck’… like it’s spelled… sort of. Then, what if some poor kid thinks the ‘geck’ smiley monster is in fact a gecko and misreads the ‘word’ accordingly?

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

Oh, go on then. How do you pronounce ‘jound’ – what’s the right pronunciation? Is it two separate vowel sounds run together (“Joe, under his rough exterior, was a kindly soul”) or separated by a glottal stop (“jo’und day stands tiptoe on the misty moun’ains, pet”)? OK, we don’t usually do those things in English – well, we don’t usually do those things in Standard English – well, I say we don’t usually… Well, anyway. Those pronunciations aren’t very likely to come up in English… er, standard English… er, the kind of English we… those pronunciations are wrong.

Some people might get different ideas about that tricky ‘ou’ digraph (a technical term for two letters together, from the Greek ‘di’ meaning two and ‘graph’ meaning letters together). So is ‘jound’ pronounced ‘jonned’ (using the ‘ou’ sound in ‘cough’), or ‘joaned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘though’) or ‘junned’ (like the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’), or for that matter ‘junned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘could’)? There’s a simple answer to this, which is No. No, it isn’t. Those pronunciations are wrong. You can easily see that they’re wrong, just by sounding out the letters, which is what you do when you learn to pronounce words. If you sound out ‘ou’ and then follow it with an ‘n’ you never get any of those sounds. Not in real words, anyway. Imaginary words could be different, but they aren’t. This one isn’t, anyway.

What you get when you sound out the ‘oun’ in ‘jound’ is… but look, I’ve given it away! You get the ‘ou’ sound in ‘sound’. So it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘sound’, and ‘pound’, and ’round’ and ‘around’ and ‘around’. (Those last two are the same word. Yes, I know you know. Just making sure you know I know. Poetic or something. Anyway.) It’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘found’ and ‘bound’ and ‘wound’. That’s the ‘wound’ that rhymes with ‘bound’, of course, not the ‘wound’ that doesn’t. In short, it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘wound’, but not – this is important – to rhyme with ‘wound’. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

I like ‘quemp’, though; it’s a nice word. I’d like to try to get that into a story. Not if I was a kid, obviously, because I’d probably lose marks, because it’s not a proper word.

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

If I wanted to draw up a plan to sabotage what remains of public faith in one generation, mandated prayer and psalms in school assemblies would be right at the top of my list.

And if I wanted to stamp out spontaneous, playful joy in language, a good way to do it would be to make six-year-olds learn words like ‘snemp’ and ‘thazz’ – complete with smiley monsters to encourage them – and then tell them never to use those words, only ever to use real words… words like “week” and “phone” and “dentist”.

Someone else will come along and move it

Ten reasons why the AV referendum was lost, courtesy of Tom Clark (via).

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

3. The Yes campaign said things that weren’t entirely true, and people didn’t believe them.

4. The No campaign told outright lies, but people did believe them, which isn’t fair.

5. The Electoral Commission said things about AV that were true, but made it seem unattractive. This was also unfair, because if you can’t say something nice about a voting system, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

6. People don’t like coalitions, and they thought AV would make coalition governments more likely (which it probably would).

7. People don’t like the Lib Dems, and the No campaign said that AV would put them in power permanently. (Which, again, it probably would, but that’s not the point.)

8. People don’t like David Cameron either, and the Yes campaign didn’t say that AV would keep him out of power. (Which it wouldn’t, necessarily, but it would have been a good thing to campaign on.)

9. People don’t prefer AV to the status quo.

10. People don’t want AV.

I’ve renumbered Clark’s points and edited them down a bit, but I think I’ve got the gist.

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

the alternative vote system itself posed particular problems. Infamously dismissed by Nick Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”, it is loved by no one, with most of the yes camp hankering for reform that links a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, something AV fails to deliver. Few Labourites, and no Lib Dems, regard AV as an end itself. It scarcely mattered that from the reformist point of view it is unambiguously better than the system we start out with. What did matter was that the reformists could not muster the energy to market something that they did not truly believe in.

Clark stops berating the stupid British public for rejecting a kind of platonic Plea For Electoral Reform, for just long enough to acknowledge that the form it took on the physical plane was a question about an electoral system that nobody actually wants – not Ed Miliband, not Nick Clegg, not Caroline Lucas, not Nigel Farage. (Although apparently Eddie Izzard does prefer AV to PR, and I suspect Stephen Fry may do as well.) This isn’t metropolitan elitism – just well-intentioned self-delusion.

Always been the same

Some thoughts on AV, mostly culled from the BBC’s Vote 2011 liveblog/twitterfeed/thing.

No to AV means PR is dead, say opponents of PR, who know how to make hay while the sun shines:

2050: No campaign director Matthew Elliott gets a massive cheer as he address supporters at the official count in London. He says the result is “emphatic” and will “settle the debate” on voting change for the “next generation”.

No to AV means PR is dead, say supporters of PR, who apparently don’t:

2130: New Statesman journalist George Eaton tweets: “Those who said “No to AV, Yes to PR” couldn’t look more foolish tonight. Electoral reform dead for a generation.”

1858: Labour’s Tessa Jowell, an AV supporter, says the issue is now closed and there should be no more talk of changing the voting system. The “chance has gone”, she tells Sky News.

You’re all thick, says Prof:

2115: Elections expert Prof John Curtice says the No campaign has apparently won the referendum by securing the support of older people, Conservatives and those who have not enjoyed a university education.

Steady on, say punters:

1920: David Pybus in Whitby writes: “I resent the implication that I’ve been swayed by a dirty No campaign or an inadequate Yes campaign. I haven’t listened to either of them as I had a view before the campaigns started – I voted No because I didn’t want a system introduced that allowed floating voters to have as many votes as there are candidates instead of casting one vote honestly for their preferred candidate”.

2036: Bashir Shah in Blackburn writes: “We were promised PR – we got sold down the river by Clegg and the Lib Dems with AV – a costly, unworkable system that would have caused more confusion and even less participation. The UK has answered in the only way it knew how and the only way it could – NO to AV and NO to the Lib Dems”

2136: Simon Reid in Slough, writes: “Dismayed at the condescending attitude of some Yes supporters. However the essence of democracy is the election of the most supported, not the least unsupported, and so I feel it was doomed to failure. PR would be a different matter, with a genuine alternative”

And it could all have been so different!

2112: It is scant consolation but Yes voters have prevailed in Oxford. There’s a certain irony here as their varsity rivals Cambridge were among only a handful of other areas to support change

Cambridge Yes vote: 54.3%. Oxford Yes vote: 54.1%. Seriously, there is no need to overthink this. Of the minority who bothered to vote, nearly 70% voted No. If seven people vote one way and three vote the other, it’s not generally the seven whose behaviour needs explaining – least of all by invoking their deficient education or creeping senility. The Yes camp scraped a majority in a handful of highly atypical urban districts (they don’t come much more atypical than Oxford and Cambridge), and even there the vote was hardly a thumping majority. (Manchester: 44.5% Yes. Even in Brighton the Yes vote got stuck below 50% – 49.9%, to be precise.)

All that’s just happened is that a big and unpredictable change was proposed, and it was rejected. It wasn’t an outstandingly good change (there were plenty of good arguments against it, and almost all of its main proponents had been in favour of something else a year ago); its effects weren’t explained very well; and the campaign in its favour was spectacularly bad. The entirely unsurprising result was that only 30% of the people bought it. (If we’re talking about campaigns, I have to admit that the No campaign was even worse, but they didn’t have to convince anyone; voting No just meant that you didn’t want the Yes campaign to win.)

A horrible Tory gloats horribly:

The idea that anyone would see Tony Robinson or Eddie Izzard as anything other than a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite was risible. The “Yes” campaign made no attempt to deploy any arguments, or any personnel, with appeal beyond a narrow slice of the soft Left – the one constituency whose support was guaranteed in any case.

The liberal Left was, with pleasing karma, undone by its own narcissism. “Yes” campaigners seemed genuinely not to understand that Caroline Lucas, Ed Miliband and Benjamin Zephaniah do not, among them, cover the entire political spectrum.

(Don’t tell me you didn’t just wince, hypocrite lecteur.)

Another Tory tells it like it is:

Most Liberal Democrats loathe being in coalition with the Conservatives – not least because they know they are now loathed in turn by the ex-Labour supporters who have been lending them their votes since the Iraq War. This is a divided and unhappy party which was never keen on AV in the first place and was neither inclined nor able to win over a sceptical public; any energy it had left was devoted to its traditional pursuits of bellyaching and character assassination. I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point, but there was a reason that the Yes to AV campaign turned so nasty, and that was because it was dominated by Liberal Democrats.

And the fat lady sings:

2015: Actor Stephen Fry tweets: “We AV yessers got our botties spanked. Hey ho. Such is democracy.”

A complicated game

Some thoughts on AV, mostly cut and pasted (it’s late) from comments on other people’s blogs.

First, the mechanics. AV is basically the Single Transferable Vote, but in a single-member constituency. STV gives a seat to every candidate who can muster a ‘quota’ of votes, where a quota is defined as (1/n+1)+1 vote, n being the number of seats in the constituency. In other words, in a three-member seat the three people who can each claim more than a 1/4 of the votes cast get elected (there can’t be more than 3, for obvious reasons.

Now, in AV there is by definition only one seat per constituency, so the quota is 1/2 of all votes cast plus one vote. So the maximum number of voters whose preferences can have no influence at all on the outcome is 50% minus one vote. This potentially leaves a lot of voters out in the cold.

Under the Simple Preference system we’ve got now, the ‘quota’ can only be guaranteed to be as high as 50% if there are only two candidates. In multi-party contests, the winning plurality may be arbitrarily small. Except, actually, not that arbitrarily small. In practice, approximately 10,000 MPs have been elected in the 17 General Elections held since 1945; out of those MPs, only 30 have had less than 33.3% of the vote (source: Wikipedia). Most of those were close to 1/3; the winning plurality has been below 30% 7 times – 1 SNP, 1 DUP, 2 Tory and 3 Lib Dem(!).

So the representation deficit that AV offers to put right is, at worst, the difference between an MP representing 33% of the voters and an MP representing 50% of the voters, with the gap generally being much smaller. And what’s the practical effect of assembling a 50% vote from first and lower preferences instead of going off first preferences? There are two possibilities, represented by these two scenarios.

Scenario 1:

33% vote Left, all with Centre as second preference (L1, C2)
18% vote C1, L2
13% vote Centre, with Right as second preference (C1, R2)
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote Neo-Nazi, with Right as second preference (N1, R2)

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 49% R, 51% L. Left candidate duly elected.

In this scenario 51% of voters are happy – the 33% of the voters who put the L candidate first plus the 18% who put them second; therefore only 49% of the voters are unhappy. Result. But the outcome would have been exactly the same under SP, the only difference being that those 18% of voters have had to explicitly state that they preferred L to R instead of just thinking it to themselves.

Scenario 2:

33% vote L1, C2
16% vote C1, L2
15% vote C1, R2
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote N1, R2

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 51% R, 49% L. Right candidate duly elected.

All that’s changed is the split within the Centre voters, and even that hasn’t changed by much (18/13 to 16/15 – the majority is still C/L rather than C/R). But because the split is slightly different, the happy (represented) 51% now consists of the 24% of the voters whose first preferences went to the Right party, together with the neo-Nazi voters and the minority of Centre voters who preferred Right to Left. It’s not at all clear to me that the fact that 27% of voters for smaller parties lean more to right than to left should be given enough weight to overturn the verdict expressed by first preferences. (According to this paper, in any case, the first scenario would apply most of the time: a full simulation based on survey data found that only 43 of 650 seats would have changed hands if the 2010 election had been held under AV.)

The problem with AV is the way that preferences are counted, and aren’t counted. Under STV, the surplus votes for any candidate who has met the quota are redistributed to second preference parties, in proportion to the overall split of second preferences. Under AV there are no surplus votes – elected is elected, and only one elected candidate is required – so second preferences are weighted differently according to what’s happened to the first preference vote. Some voters’ second preferences are decisive; others’ are never counted. And which party is in which category cannot be predicted. Another scenario:

35% vote Labour 1, Green 2
30% vote Tory 1, Lib Dem 2
14% vote Lib Dem 1, Tory 2
6% vote Lib Dem 1, Green 2
10% vote Green 1, Labour 2
5% vote BNP 1, Tory 2

BNP 1st prefs transfer to the Tories, Green 1st prefs transfer to Labour, some Lib Dem 1st prefs transfer to the Tories and others are wasted because the Green has already been eliminated.

Final score:
Labour 45% (35% 1st pref + 10% transfer from Green)
Tory 49% (30% 1st pref + 19% transfers from Lib Dem and BNP)
The Tory is therefore elected.

But look what happens if we add up the first and second preferences:

Labour: 35% (1) + 10% (2) = 45%
Tory: 30% (1) + 19% (2) = 49%
Lib Dem: 20% (1) + 30% (2) = 50%
Green: 10% (1) + 41% (2) = 51%
BNP: 5% (1) = 5%

On a simple addition of first and second preferences, the Green would actually come top. Even a weighted addition of preferences – what’s known as a Borda count – puts Labour ahead of the Tories, although the Lib Dems and Greens stay in third and fourth place. If those Labour second preferences shouldn’t be counted against their first preferences, why should the Lib Dems’? Big differences in the way votes are counted could rest on very small – and unforeseeable – differences in vote totals.

On the CT thread on AV, I have also argued that (a) AV favours, nay produces, bi-polar contests; (b) AV in Britain would chiefly benefit the third party, the Lib Dems; and (c) that I support PR, which would also benefit the Lib Dems. It looks as if at least one of these statements ought to be incorrect, but I think they’re all valid. The key is to focus on individual constituencies. Up and down the country, the Liberal Democrats consistently campaign on the position that “$X can’t win here”, X being the Tories in Labour seats and Labour in Tory seats. Their interest in three-party politics is strictly tactical; their ideal is to turn every constituency into a “two-horse race” (a phrase that appears in Lib Dem literature almost as often as those bar charts), one of them being the Lib Dems. AV is well suited to producing this result. More generally, AV’s preference-aggregating procedure, and the single-member constituencies which make it necessary, will tend to favour parties whose programmes are bland, opportunistic or both. A minority party with a consistent and distinctive programme will have less chance of getting an MP elected under AV than even under SP; AV structurally favours a smaller number of contenders aggregating a wider range of preferences. I am perhaps biased by my long-established tendency to vote for small left-wing parties: I tend to look at it from the standpoint of a minor party trying to get into the system, and it seems clear to me that the barriers to entry are higher under AV. Indeed, some advocates of AV number among its advantages the fact that it puts smaller parties in a position to exert pressure on larger parties without getting representation in their own right (the two contenders in Australia’s lower house each appear to have a slew of preference-trading satellites); others argue that AV would be a good thing because it would makes the major parties seek votes in the centre ground, making it less likely that they will be dominated by their extreme wings. (These things can’t both be true, but it’s interesting that neither of them has any role for smaller parties with independent representation.)

I also believe that getting AV would damage the movement for electoral reform worse than failing to get it: if AV passes, AV’s supporters and beneficiaries will be happy anyway, the supporters of FPTP will regroup to fight for single-member constituencies, and there’ll be no public appetite for messing around with the electoral system again. Anyone pushing for PR after AV had passed would be told, at best, that the system needed time to bed in before we thought about changing it again; at worst, we’d simply be told that we’d asked for electoral reform and we’d got electoral reform. In addition, I believe that the Coalition would be destabilised far more effectively by failing to get AV (and lighting a fuse under Nick Clegg) than by getting AV (and annoying Tory backwoodsmen, whose main role in life is to be sat on by their leadership); I also think that getting AV would be highly conducive to the perpetuation of a Lib Dem/Tory coalition after the next election. However, I accept that all these points are arguable.

So on balance, no, my position really isn’t one of “pretend that you have reasons other than ‘I hate Nick Clegg’ for your otherwise unjustifiable political position”. My position is one of supporting PR and opposing AV, because I think even our current system is preferable. That’s why I’ll be voting No, and I encourage anyone who thinks likewise to do the same.

What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often). Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast ‘old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens’. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ’em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

The world’s behind you

As I write it’s 9.30 a.m. and 614 of 650 seats have declared. The Conservatives have 290 of them. Taking into account the Speaker’s Buckingham constituency, this means that the possibility of David Cameron leading a majority government has just disappeared. Shouldn’t he make a speech at this point?

Last night’s extraordinary exit poll – giving the Tories 305 seats, Labour 255 and the Lib Dems only 62 – is starting to look more or less accurate, albeit a bit too generous to the Lib Dems; I’m guessing the final result will look more like 305:260:55 (with a couple more ‘Other’s than the poll reckoned for). Interesting times.

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

Know your constituency: Manchester Withington

Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)

2005 results:
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)

2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)

The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.

For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. Continue reading

Maybe things are different

Following another thread in another place, here are a couple of reviews of books about Silvio Berlusconi, currently Prime Minister of Italy for the third time. As you can see, these reviews predate the 2006 elections, won by a united Left under Prodi (perhaps not quite the gran tessitore Aldo Moro was, but certainly a tessitore to be reckoned with). Consequently they also predate the 2008 elections, lost by a divided Left under Veltroni (who was either stupid enough to believe his own publicity or naive enough to believe that Berlusconi would reward him for his moderation after the inevitable defeat).

If my book (see next post down) has any relevance to contemporary Italy, it’s that all this could have been avoided if the Communist Party hadn’t got stuck in a groove of principled centre-right ‘moderation’ – of defining themselves as The Left That Wants To Be Loved By The Right. Veltroni’s act of electoral suicide suggests that they still haven’t learnt the lesson of the 1970s.

Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, power and patrimony

Printed in Red Pepper, February 2005

In March 2001, a 128-page book was mailed to millions of Italian households. Titled Una storia italiana (“An Italian Story”), the book told the story of Silvio Berlusconi: a man from a poor background who had grown rich through hard work and loyalty to his friends, and who now wanted to serve his country. In May 2001, Cinderella went to the ball: Berlusconi became Prime Minister for the second time, leading a coalition which received nearly 50% of the vote. Berlusconi’s own party took nearly 30% – almost twice the vote of its nearest rival, the post-Communist Left Democrats.

Berlusconi faced several charges of corruption and fraud arising from his business career. His government acted promptly, passing laws which annulled some of Berlusconi’s court cases and obstructed others. Berlusconi still faces one charge of bribing a judge, but the court is likely to run out of time under the statute of limitation. Meanwhile, 90% of the television watched in Italy is broadcast either on the state RAI network – subject to heavy government pressure – or on Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels. In 1994 Italy’s supreme court ruled that Berlusconi’s share of terrestrial broadcasting was excessive and ordered one of his channels to transfer to satellite. In 2003, as the final deadline loomed, a decree overriding the ruling was signed by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s attitude to the Italian legal system is not so much cavalier as openly hostile. In the early 1990s Italy’s post-war ruling class disappeared under an avalanche of corruption trials. For Berlusconi, this judicial onslaught has a simple explanation: it was a Communist plot. Communists are behind his own trials; they have also occupied positions of power in RAI, the education system and the culture industry, from which they must now be extirpated. Some intellectuals now argue that the ‘First Republic’ of 1948-92 was characterised by a ‘cultural hegemony of the left’; more bluntly, Berlusconi proposes to rescue Italy from ‘fifty years of Communism’.

As well as being a leading writer of contemporary Italian history, Paul Ginsborg is active in the opposition to Berlusconi; he has criticised the ‘self referential’ politics of the Left Democrats, urging a new relationship with the forces of radical and ethical protest. This brief but valuable book shows a deep understanding of the Berlusconi phenomenon, pinpointing both his populism and his patrimonialism – an oddly feudal belief in loyalty, largesse and reciprocal favours, given greater scope by access to the assets of the Italian state. Ginsborg’s partisanship is unmistakable but does not cloud his judgment; if anything it has a positive effect, bringing the gravity of his charges against Berlusconi into sharp focus.

Unfortunately, Ginsborg says little about the background to Berlusconi’s apparent paranoia. Italy’s stagnant and corrupt political class, whose heir Berlusconi is, was rooted in a diffuse culture of illegality; for many Italians under the First Republic, giving and receiving bribes was a way of life. Opposition to this situation came largely from the Left, which built a thriving and influential sub-culture out of its exclusion from political power; left-wing judges, in particular, were staunch defenders of the Italian Constitution and of ethics in public life. The two coalitions which faced off in 2001 were an imperfect but genuine reflection of two conflicting cultures; one of them has won its most decisive victory in over forty years, and now intends to make it permanent. The Italian Left urgently needs to combine unity with radicalism and a renewed commitment to ethical politics; it’s a challenging combination, but this is a challenging conjuncture. In the British press, Berlusconi is too often presented as comical, ludicrous or merely contemptible. Ginsborg gives him his due, taking the threat that he presents entirely seriously.

David Lane, Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power

Printed in the Independent, 14/9/2004

Italy’s vocation for political turmoil is matched by the sluggishness of its courts: cases continue for months or years; charges are annulled to cut the backlog; sentences only take effect after appeal, by which time the original charge may have expired under the statute of limitations.

Under another system, the Italian prime minister might now be a convicted criminal. Silvio Berlusconi has been found guilty of corruption and false accounting (verdicts reversed on appeal) and illegally financing Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party (charge expired during appeal). A conviction for perjury was annulled. An associate was jailed for bribing a judge; another was convicted for extortion and faces charges of Mafia involvement.

For Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, this judicial onslaught is a Communist conspiracy to deprive the Italian people of their chosen leader. This allegation intimidates Berlusconi’s critics. Since Forza Italia and its allies came to power in May 2001, a more direct – and dangerous – approach has become available. A series of measures have been passed that hamper magistrates investigating false accounting, cases using Mafia informers, and those involving high-ranking politicians.

David Lane writes for The Economist, which Berlusconi sued for libel after it suggested he was unfit to lead Italy. Berlusconi’s Shadow is a withering indictment of crony capitalism, executive thuggery and government incompetence. For Lane, Berlusconi is a shrewd but amoral businessman who entered politics to safeguard his interests and is now out of his depth. This contrasts with the picture presented by writers such as Paul Ginsborg, for whom Berlusconi’s combination of anti-political populism and media power makes him a real threat to democracy.

The test will come in the 2006 elections. Italy’s governing coalition looks fragile; the ex-Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale are bizarrely emerging as standard-bearers of principled conservatism. But neither the strength of Forza Italia nor Berlusconi’s will to power should be underestimated. With the left in long-term disarray, and court cases still hanging over the prime minister, Italy faces several more years of political instability.

Some are workers, some are not

There was a curious piece in the ‘Work’ section of Saturday’s Guardian (I only read it for the problem page). It was headed

10 things we’ve learned so far

We send our reporters around the UK to see what happens in a downturn

but on inspection there were only three things that they’d learnt from their roving reporters; the other seven were single-paragraph makeweights. The three big investigative findings were

1. We innovate more
Kate Burt meets the start-ups who won’t be put off by a credit crunch.

2. We’re willing to lower our sights
Lydia Stockdale and Huma Quereshi interview workers who swallowed their pride to do a job they previously thought beneath them.


3. We don’t like ‘foreigners’ taking ‘our’ jobs
Hsiao-Hung Pai visits migrant Italian workers living on a barge in Grimsby.

OK. Now, I’ll admit to having taken a fairly optimistic view of the Lindsey strike from day one. I’m in favour of people being able to travel to look for work, but I’m even more in favour of people not having to travel any further than they want to. I don’t see anything inherently problematic in a workforce in location X objecting to being replaced by a workforce which the employer has bussed in (or shipped in) for the purpose; I certainly don’t think any such protest is inherently racist or xenophobic, as Pai’s scare-quotes rather strongly suggest. (“We don’t like the boss taking the jobs we were doing off us” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

But it can’t be denied that the strike did acquire some definite nationalist overtones, thanks not least to some of its supporters on the mainstream Left. So it was heartening to see the demands which (thanks to Socialist Party members) the strike committee adopted – demands which rather pointedly don’t frame the strike in nationalist terms.

• No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
• All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement
• Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members
• Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers
• All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
• Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – via interpreters – to give right of access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members

There have been different views on what the strike achieved. The Socialist Party remained upbeat:

the original contractor, Shaw, had been told that they had lost part of the work to an Italian company, IREM, who would bring in their own workforce from Italy and elsewhere to do the job. As a result, Shaw had told the shop stewards on the site that some of their members would be made redundant from 17 February to make way for the Italian workers.

What was crucial in this was not the fact that they were Italian or Portuguese but that they would not be part of the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI). Why? Because under the EU directives, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, employing those workers under NAECI conditions would be seen as a “restraint on trade” and therefore against the freedom of movement of labour and capital enshrined in the EU capitalist club’s rules and regulations.

It was clear that the IREM workers were not in a union, Italian or otherwise. Italian union confederation CGIL leader Sabrina Petrucci was quoted in the Morning Star on 6 February saying that IREM is a notorious non-union firm.

In a major breakthrough, part of the deal allows for the shop stewards to check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement. The Lindsey oil refinery is what is known as a ‘blue book’ site and all workers on it should be covered by the NAECI agreement. This means in practice that the union-organised workers will be working alongside the IREM-employed Italian workers and will be able to “audit” whether or not this is the case.

Unite’s statement is rather less gung-ho; but then, it wasn’t a union strike, and as such there must have been an element of relief when it was over. But even Derek Simpson stops short of trotting out the “British jobs for British workers” line again:

Unite joint general secretary, Derek Simpson said, “This is a good deal which establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers on British construction projects. We now expect other companies in the construction industry to level the playing field for UK workers. The workers involved in the unofficial strike can now get back to work.

“Lindsey is part of a much wider problem that will not go away just because the workers at Lindsey have voted to go back to work. There are still employers who are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on construction projects. No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job.”

Some on the left have pointed to what IREM told ACAS, suggesting that the strike was based on a misapprehension: supposedly IREM already were abiding by the provisions of the ‘blue book’ (even though they didn’t have to), and the only substantive difference in pay and conditions had to do with the timing of meal breaks. On the other hand, ACAS do concede that IREM couldn’t provide documentary evidence of what they were claiming; on those grounds alone, the role which the settlement grants to shop stewards is a step forward. I also think that, if it’s a choice between “hiring decisions made by corporate management” and “hiring decisions made by corporate management and local unionised workers”, anyone on the Left should prefer the latter in almost all circumstances.

In short, what the strike achieved was: to make the demands of local workers a factor in corporate decision-making; to ensure that all workers, whether locally-based or brought in temporarily, are employed on terms better than the minimum required by EU law; and to give the unions a role in policing this agreement. (The unions hadn’t done a lot to earn this – but then, the unions do tend to turn up in time to take the benefits of wildcat actions, even when they’ve been sitting on the sidelines all the way through. Oops, little bit of workerism, my name’s Toni Negri goodnight.) On a broader level, the strike also legitimised the idea of wildcat industrial action and demonstrated that anti-union legislation can be ignored if you’ve got the numbers. Basically, the job’s a good ‘un. But you wouldn’t know it from Hsiao-Hung Pai:

Francesco and Gianluca are two of the 100 Italians who arrived in late January on a four-month contract to work at the French oil giant, Total, at Lindsey oil refinery in Immingham. Francesco, in his late forties, has worked as a welder in Tunisia and Libya. Gianluca, in his thirties, has worked in Croatia and Germany. “This is my first time in the UK,” Francesco says, “and it is the first time in my 20 years of working abroad that I’ve experienced anti-foreign feelings.”

Their employment by Italian company Irem, for the building of a sulphurisation facility at Total, prompted a wave of nationwide wildcat strikes involving more than 6,000 workers on 20 construction sites – all angry that “foreign workers” are taking “British jobs”. The Unite union says the strikes are about challenging the Posted Workers Directive and ensuring service providers follow national agreements across the EU. And yet the unions have rallied behind the divisive slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, and alienated migrant workers in the process.

I think ‘divisive’ is a bit strong. ‘Potentially divisive’, fair enough, but it’s not an inherently divisive slogan: it’s perfectly possible to read that slogan as saying “people based here want to carry on working here (and we’re throwing Gordon Brown’s words back at him)”. Apart from anything else, I’m not aware of any evidence (and Pai doesn’t quote any) that migrant workers have been alienated; indeed, I know of some unionists who have gone to some lengths to try and stop this happening. More to the point, what’s with that ‘and yet’? There’s no dishonesty here, and not much in the way of contradiction. Yes, Unite – in the person of Mr Simpson – has ‘rallied behind’ that slogan, although (as we’ve seen) even he has backed away from it now. But the strike was about challenging the Posted Workers Directive; the worst you can charge Simpson with is inconsistency. Besides, Simpson and Unite weren’t even involved. The fact that the strike took place outside union structures, and that the strike committee itself disowned that slogan, would surely be worth mentioning in any reasonably complete account of the dispute.

Francesco says the real issue is about the system of subcontracting which isn’t specific to overseas firms and affects workers of all nationalities. “Irem pays differentiated wages to its workers,” he explains. “The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK. Ten of us welders are on €12 per hour but the 80 labourers are on €7 per hour. And the new 100 British workers [starting work following an agreement with the unions] will be on the same rate.” Gianluca looks at my interpreter friend. “I remember migrants in Italy, like Bulgarian workers … They earn less than half our rate, for doing the same skilled jobs. I asked myself, the Bulgarians are also specialists like us, why are they only earning €5? All [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights.”

Interesting information – although I don’t quite follow the bit about how a system in which The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK isn’t specific to overseas firms. More to the point, the demand that all [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights was exactly what the strike was about – and exactly what the victory of the strike achieved, albeit only in one location (so far – la lotta continua).

But instead of advocating equal conditions for all workers, British trade unions have bowed to nationalist pressure and fought for quotas for British workers. Picket line racist abuse was treated as acceptable. “I saw a Lindsey steward give out union jack flags to strikers here,” said local activist John Shemeld of the Staythorp power plant strike. “The leadership [of the strikes] is not racist, but they don’t challenge racism.”

This is extraordinarily misleading. First, as noted above, the strike took place outside any union structures; in this instance ‘British trade unions’ haven’t ‘fought’ for anything. Second, the strike committee fought for “equal conditions for all workers” and a one-off quota (not “quotas”) for locally-based (not “British”) workers; the two aren’t contradictory. (I suspect that the enforcement of equal conditions will make shipped-in labour less attractive anyway, but even if this weren’t the case I would see the quota as making British and Italian workers more rather than less equal.) Third, Pai doesn’t tell us anything about this “picket-line racist abuse” (what, when, how much); or who it “was treated as acceptable” by; or, for that matter, what the connection was between this abuse (whatever it was), its toleration (whoever did tolerate it) and that “nationalist pressure” (whatever that means). There certainly was “nationalist pressure” on the picket line, in the sense that the BNP turned up; the BNP turned up and they were told to clear off. Again, you wouldn’t learn this from Pai. There’s a general, woozy slippage between ‘racism’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘willingness to adopt patriotic imagery’ here, exemplified by that closing line from “local activist John Shemeld”. Shemeld seems to read tolerance of racism into the sight of a steward handing out Union Jacks – not ideal, certainly, but it’s worth noting that shop stewards couldn’t hand out anything with a union logo on, given that it was a wildcat strike.

In short, I think Hsiao-Hung Pai’s either got a very superficial understanding of the dispute or been misinformed. It’s great that she managed to talk to the Italian workers, but it’s a shame she didn’t speak to any of the local activists who were actually involved in the strike; I’m sure they could have helped her come up with something better. (I wouldn’t mind so much, only the other two articles were bobbins – especially 2. We’re willing to lower our sights. Apparently packing stuff in a warehouse doesn’t pay as well as being an investment banker, but you don’t have to get up so early. Or it might have been the other way round. Being a part-time lecturer in 2009 doesn’t pay as well as editing a magazine in 1998, I can tell you that, and you still have to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t go back, though – apart from anything else, that magazine doesn’t come out any more. But I digress.)


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